When is a spy-pen not a spy-pen? Don't expect a politician to know

Those in positions of power need to have a better grasp of new technology than anybody else. Unfortunately, experience shows the opposite is true.
Written by Jon Collins, Contributor
Calling a device such as the Livescribe a spy-pen suggests too many figures in authority are a step behind the rest of us when it comes to tech.

You've got to hand it to whoever decided to use 'spy-pen' to describe the device that led to the recent resignation of the chairman of a Scottish college.

The term has everything: popular relevance, gadget credibility and just that frisson of edgy uncertainty. Damn right, it suggests. Whoever's using one should either be saving the nation from evil tyrants or banged up.

The trouble is, the device at the centre of the controversy is no such thing. The Livescribe pen has been around for a good few years. Yes, it can act as a notes and audio-capture device, in conjunction with special sheets of paper. But calling it a spy-pen is tantamount to calling the average tablet device a spy-pad.

Kirk Ramsay, the chairman in question, stepped down after a row with Scottish education secretary Mike Russell, over a recorded conversation. "It's quite a clunky kind of thing — not the sort of thing you can use without folk knowing," Ramsay told The Scotsman. "I have had it for three and a half to four years — you can buy it on Amazon."

The episode is a good indicator of the attitude to technology displayed by our heads of government. Note that no information was leaked, or intended to be. Merely the use of such a device was enough for Ramsay to have to consider his position.

In the worst case, it suggests that Arthur C Clarke's tenet that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" holds true even for mainstream device use. While we no longer burn witches at the stake, it appears that practitioners of such magic should still be treated with the kind of distrust usually reserved for travellers and vagrants.

A more generous observer might consider such remarks in the context of the bumbling judge in the 1980s TV series Not The Nine O'Clock News: "Digital watch? What on earth is a digital watch?" he asked, before expressing similar incredulity at a series of innovations that would today only be found in a museum.

What's particularly disappointing is that the Livescribe is actually useful, particularly for those who need to sit through long-winded meetings, which sometimes ramble off the point. The audio function — which is not enabled by default — can be very handy when, weeks later, notes that meant something at the time cease to make sense.

Cutting onerous note-taking

Similar devices are being tested in various parts of UK health service, as a salve to the onerous note-taking nurses, midwives and other frontline staff are expected to incorporate into their already busy schedules.

As another example, consider how much easier it would be for police officers to upload their notes directly into the computer systems they now depend on. Less paperwork should mean better public services.

The question of privacy should not go unanswered — but let's think. Written notes are already admissible as evidence. The potential addition of audio recording should not be ignored but equally it should be a simple question of deciding whether it is acceptable case by case.

Whether such advice is then ignored is no different to how privacy questions are already treated with other devices. Audio does not create any new questions, nor does the form factor of a pen-shaped gadget.

People from a broad cross-section of the population are carrying around powerful recording devices these days, in the form of smartphones. The way things are going in a few years' time, such capabilities will be embedded in just about everything.

It is not simply that figures in authority should accept new technology without thinking. Rather, if they are to set the course of society, they should be one step ahead of the game.

Assumptions about future behaviour

It is a dangerous business to make assumptions about future conventions of behaviour which have no basis in the present. Even more dangerous is to believe no such changes are taking place, or that new behaviours should be stamped on like dealing with unruly schoolchildren.

Right now, our culture is evolving towards a state where our actions and behaviours are increasingly documented, both by individuals and collectives — sometimes state-sponsored. The debate is as important as any in recent times and no-one with any elected role can afford not to understand what a huge shift is taking place.

We're not even scratching the surface. With fixed and mobile broadband access being both costly and fragmented, the idea of real-time streaming — micro-broadcasting — is just a twinkle in the eye of innovation. But it will come, aided and abetted by a generation who does not know what life was like before its existence.

Those in power need to have a better grasp than anybody else about new technology. They can either make decisions that help guide the population in the right direction as such capabilities become entrenched, or they can preach form a position of ignorance even as society changes around them.

It is those who adopt this wilful ignorance who should consider their positions, not those they are failing to serve.

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