“A great wind is blowing, and that gives you either imagination or a headache.”
Catherine the Great of Russia
Opportunity and circumstance have conspired in my leaving as CEO of Mega and I intend to begin working with Kim Dotcom and the rest of the Internet Party team shortly.
The Internet, and more broadly technology, is causing big shifts in our economic, social, cultural, and environmental opportunities and challenges. Governance and politics are not immune from this big shift. The pace and impact of change can be slowed but not change itself. As a country, New Zealand can embrace and leverage technology-enabled change or try and fight it for as long as possible, such as the UK and USA tried with Red Flag laws in unsuccessfully holding back “horseless carriages”.
Like it or not, the relationship between the State and its people will change hugely and is already changing. Complexity arises from the impact and speed of change varying across the different roles people play simultaneously in relation to the State. These roles include being subjects of the State; service recipients; doing business with the government; holding the government to account; and voting.
The opportunity for New Zealand is to be a world leader in using the Internet to lead that change, to build a sense of excitement about our future.
At the same time, in the face of rapid technology change, societal changes happen glacially. Not all technology-led change is positive, some of it is still not clear or the final outcome uncertain. For example, read this article in The Economist on the impact of technological innovation on jobs, real wages, and inequality. The last point is particularly important as it is often overlooked- technological innovation not only perpetuates but amplifies societal divides.
The Internet and technology are tools and ways of thinking. They are not ideologies. It is up to us, whether by design or plodding along, to build a future for New Zealand we want. I believe the Internet Party can catalyse discussions about both the design itself as well as the need for a design in the first place. It’s not only what the State does but how.
The Internet Party
The Internet Party needs to get across the 5% party vote hurdle in the 2014 General Elections. This is doable. However, history shows that it isn’t going to be easy. History also has lessons on how it can be done.
The onus is on the party to show that it has staying power, great policies, great candidates, voter mobilisation capability, and can make a difference. Undoubtedly, there is both a need and the opportunity to reach out to people who are either completely disengaged with voting or hate politics. These people will ‘grow the pie’ of votes if they are motivated enough to feel that their participation is critical and worthwhile.
It’s not a youth vote alone. It’s also not a tech vote or protest alone. I like to see it as a hope and excitement vote, a vote for leaping forward by design. Derek Handley put forward three great reasons very well- The Vision Vacuum, Digital Democracy, and The Young & Indifferent.
The Internet Party is not a single issue party in the sense that the Internet is not just a technical or access issue- it impacts everything and everyone. The things that New Zealanders typically care about when voting can all benefit significantly from the Internet and technology. This includes the economy, jobs, health, education, and inequalities.
I sincerely hope that the Internet Party will lead to greater cross-party understanding and support for technology-enabled change. That it will lead to more consensus and good laws rather than more divisions. Not an easy goal but one that a party not led by left or right ideology should aspire to.
My role in the Internet Party
It will be on the management side but details still need to be worked out.
Five years of working for a central agency in government have taught me the virtues and benefits of openness, evidence-based policy making, and a systems approach. Experience with start-ups has emphasised speed, agility, and data. Working for big corporates included the big picture, strategy, and leadership. Extending Catherine the Great’s quote, all of this makes for either a vivid imagination or a dystopian headache.
For me, the process of making the Internet Party’s policies, in an inclusive and engaging manner, is as important as the policies themselves. I’m also comfortable with taking a concept to market and scaling it rapidly while staying true to the original vision.
What I’m clear about is that I’m not going to put my hand up to be a candidate for the party. This is a career hiatus rather than a career shift.
My initial perspective is to look at the Internet Party as a start-up and therefore my role will be to do whatever needs doing. Thankfully, resigning from Mega takes immediate effect so I can get started fairly quickly. Or, as Toby Manhire put it, help untangle the wrecking ball.
It’s a clean break from Mega and after a terrific first year, the company is in great hands for its own big leap forward in its second year.
Amongst the many influences on my decision to work with the Internet Party team, two stand out.
First, the brilliant talk by Cory Doctorow at 28c3 (video, transcript) where he looks at why politicians make bad laws about technology. The answer is not, as often stated, that they need to be “educated”. Politicians make good laws about things that they are not experts about all the time. So why do we have bad technology laws? Answer: IT confounds the heuristics (rules of thumb) they use, the Internet even more so.
Another way to look at it is that, at the broadest level, technology is only one part of a triangle. The other two are politics and business. All three need to be considered and work in harmony for effective change. Technologists know this, they know that technical solutions to essentially political or business problems don’t work. Yet, few technologists are willing to venture out and work on the two other sides of the change triangle.
It’s no coincidence that two of the best corporate leaps forward in New Zealand in recent times have been thanks to technologists- Rob Fyfe in Air New Zealand and Sir Ralph Norris in ASB Bank. Also consider the simple yet immensely powerful call from the late Professor Sir Paul Callaghan for New Zealand to be a country where talent wants to live.
Second, the experience with the GCSB and Telco Spying Bill last year. More specifically, the role played by the two people who had the balance of votes. What if the balance was held by a party that really understood technology and cared about business as well as human rights? What if that party understood that finding a needle in a haystack doesn’t require bigger haystacks?
While Guidar will be an interesting sideshow, I’ve got a hazy idea about what I’d like to do after the career hiatus is over but no firm plans yet. I’ll be keeping an eye out and welcome anyone getting in touch if they have ideas or opportunities, especially around tech start-ups.
But, I believe working with the Internet Party has to be done and the time for that is now. This conspiracy of opportunity and circumstance will add a third ‘IP’ in my life (after Internet Protocol and Intellectual Property).
The Internet Party team could make history or be relegated to a footnote. While working to make the former come true, as the Chinese proverb (curse) puts it, I suspect I’m going to be living in interesting times.
Best wishes to you all for your 2014!
Authorised by Alastair Thompson, 16 Tisdall Street, Wellington