Two tribes that need to talk

Technologists and politicians are cultures separated by mutual incomprehension. That's a luxury we can no longer afford
Written by Leader , Contributor

Google's chief executive, Eric Schmidt, says that techies should teach governments, and he's right. A long history of failed government IT projects, and now the news that iSoft may be taken over, shows that politicians seem to have little understanding of how to use IT effectively. Legislation seemingly based on a desire to control the Internet also indicates that politicians have little understanding of the benefit Net access can bring to society in general, despite the risks that go along with it. But then, Schmidt's bemused reception at the Tory party shows that technologists are at just as much a loss when it comes to knowing how to talk to governments.

Widespread use of the Internet may be a relatively new phenomenon; the lack of communication between technical and non-technical people isn't. Nearly 50 years ago the novelist and scientist CP Snow highlighted the lack of scientific understanding among men otherwise considered to be intelligent — but educated in classics or humanities. His "Two Cultures" lecture noted that to be unread in Shakespeare was considered uncultured, yet few people, particularly those making that assertion, understood even the basics of science. This breakdown hurts society, said Snow. It still does.

If we're to overcome this, both sides have to reach out to the other. Yes, government has to make more effort to understand technology and its impact on society, but the technology industry — that's us — has to be more outward-looking. We need to realise that not everyone regards our industry as being as important as we do, and to learn how the other half thinks. It's not just a matter of employing lobbyists, but learning how to talk to politicians — and how to listen. We'll get nowhere by shouting abuse from the sidelines.

The time is now. The old guard here and in America is about to change and with it will come one of those rare moments of openness.  It's a great opportunity to point out that failed IT projects cost us all money — if not more in the case of the NHS — and that society doesn't advance by having its access to information restricted. Challenge the politicians on their IT policies, but also be prepared to explain your own ideas. It's just possible they might listen, and that if we listen in return, we'll learn how to be even more effective in promoting the ideas our industry and our country needs.

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