Technology should work for us, not rule us

Higher employment rates, less government spendings, lower taxes. A larger, stronger economy and a more comfortable life for everyone. More safety. All of these things are possible when technology takes up its proper place in society, and if the government enables that. Serving society, with goals set in advance and with clear expectations — not as an end in itself. But in order for that to work, technology will need to continue to be embraced by society and be trustworthy, and not be contaminated by governments committing mass espionage and using technology against their own innocent citizens.

When Hans Biesheuvel called me to ask me to join his shadow cabinet as Minister of Technology, I thought of all the wonderful things that technology enables. How much better and easier our lives have already become with the introduction of the mobile phone and of the internet. In the previous decades, that didn’t involve a Minister of Technology either, while their use — in moderation — has improved our quality of life and created many opportunities for innovative business.

Sore point
Unfortunately, within our government itself, technology is still a sore point: many governmental digitalisation projects result in less employment, not more. And while open platforms could be used, so the information generated by governmental organisations would be shared and made available to all the world, this often isn’t what happens. Furthermore, open standards, allowing any engineer and any company to join in with the development process, aren’t opted for often enough either; instead, there’s a single solution, delivered too late and exceeding its budget.

Think of the public transport chip card project, which cost 3 billion euros, or the Black Box — a tracking device in our cars — that never saw the light of say, but still cost 250 million euros. It’s becoming increasingly common for ICT to be regarded as an end in itself rather than as a means. It’s too expensive, and not rewarding enough. And that’s partly because we don’t really know in advance what to expect.

It’s probably not to be blamed on the technicians at work within and for the government; they do what’s asked of them. But there’s not enough of them, or they’re too much scattered around throughout the organisation, and don’t have enough influence. Or they’re called upon too late. Why not join forces?

That’s what was done last century. Did you know that the Dutch government used to have its own computer company during the previous century? The Rijkscentrale voor Mechanische Administratie (National Centre for Mechanical Administration), later known as the Rijkscomputercentrum (National Computer Centre) did so well at its job that it could be privatised in the nineties (and after being privatised, incidentally, it almost went out of business). But don’t we need that combined, centralised knowledge of technological developments very badly right now?

The government’s role
My next column will be on technology within governmental organisations, but also on the government’s role in society at large when it comes to technology: we need a fertile environment that rewards innovation. We need research and development budgets that are among the greatest in the world, creating more jobs. And to that end, we need easy and accessible (further) education for technical professions (and we need it available in more combinations: will the surgeons of the future be doctors specialised in technology, or engineers schooled in medicine — or maybe neither?). In the future we’ll need far more engineers, from all walks of life, with and without specialisations.

But will we still trust technology ten years from now? We use technology more and more often, more and more intensely, and more and more intimately. Meanwhile, (foreign) governments abuse technology more and more often to spy on citizens, and maybe even get their hands on corporate secrets. Do mobile phones and the internet mean more employment and lower expenses, or a spying device in every living room?

We can only fully exploit the possibilities of technology if we can continue to trust technology, and want to keep using it. And that’s what the government needs to see to.

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