05 October 2006

The chain saw massacres

Despite siren calls for politicians to have more experience of the "real world", it is an interesting fact that businessmen rarely make a successful transition to politics. When they fail, it is because they have little understanding of the nature of politics and the crucial differences between politics and business.

Oddly, it seems that the more successful they are at business, the less likely they are to become good politicians (although the converse is not true), which makes Eric Schmidt, chairman and chief executive of Google, a living embodiment of that principle.

Schmidt was in Britain this week, where he met Tony Blair and then spoke at the Conservative Party conference, sharing with us his ideas of how politics work in the age of the internet.

This we know because the Googler-in-chief was interviewed by the Financial Times, from which we learn that he believes that politicians have yet to wake up to the impact of the internet.

Frankly, you don't even have to be a chief executive of a local parish council to know that, nor indeed would it be worth Schmidt's to come all this way to tell us this next bit – especially as he has got it wrong:

"Many of the politicians don't actually understand the phenomenon of the internet very well," says the man. "It's partly because of their age... often what they learn about the internet they learn from their staffs and their children."

The age bit is totally off the wall. I know politicians in their 30s and 40s who are virtually computer illiterate and men and women in their 70s who are skilled and active internet users.

But Schmidt is totally right about them (politicians) not understanding the phenomenon. What, I suspect, he does not know is why they have such difficulty getting their heads round it.

Strangely, some of the reasons are very simple, amounting to arrogance and snobbery in equal measure. Amongst our élites (of all ages) is the conviction that the computer is an extension of the typewriter and thus only lesser mortals Рthe hired help Рshould actually operate them.

You would be amazed to find that even some relatively young men and women – who obviously had a level of computer skills in previous lives – change for the worse when they become paid politicians. In such elevated roles, they seem to take great pleasure from their status, delegating answering e-mails to their staffs, having them printed out so that they can read them.

Beyond the snobbery though, are other factors. These are people, says Schmidt, who are the "TV generation" of political leaders. They have learnt to "switch on" and perform in front of the cameras. Now, they are aware that the internet is important but, adds Mr Google, they had yet to grasp the technology's implications, not least in terms of the power it hands to voters.

Once again, Schmidt misses the point. He forecasts that, within five years, "truth predictor" software will "hold politicians to account". Voters will be able to check the probability that apparently factual statements by politicians were actually correct, using programmes that automatically compared claims with historic data.

But, the art of politics is as much in what you do not say, as in what you do. The most skilled practitioners – of which Blair is a supreme example – are able to say nothing at all but in such a manner as to make the listeners believe (or most of them) that they have made utterances of earth-shattering profundity.

As politicians compete with each other in degrees of vacuity, content becomes thinner and presentation takes precedence over everything else. And that is why the politicians can't get a grip on the internet. They think that a well presented web-site, with manicured messages in the manner of the press releases they send out, or even slick blogs, will do the trick.

What they fail to understand is the intimacy of the medium, that computers are not mere machines but portals into the hearts and minds of individuals – they are highly personal communication machines. With mass media, you can fake it, but you cannot fake communication on the internet - it will eventually show. That is why the Camoron-style blog can never succeed and why the corporate blogs, or "clogs" as I call them, will always fail.

In that sense, the internet is basically anarchic and anti-establishment. That is the basic reason why politicians will never be able to use it effectively. They are the establishment. It is like asking a fine art painter to wield a chain saw - and a good political blog is the intellectual equivalent of a chain saw.

Thus, Schmidt is probably right in predicting that the internet will affect the outcome of elections. But he thinks it will do so by "democratising access to human knowledge". In fact, its effect is to break up the monopoly of information provision, that cosy little cartel managed by the politicians and the media so that "we the people" have equal and sometimes better access to information than they do.

Cliché though it may be, Schmidt is right to remind us that information is power. Those who could grasp it as quickly as it was produced would be some of the greatest leaders of the future, he says. That I doubt Рthe medium is more of a king-maker. It puts "chain saws" in the hands of the individuals, with which they can do a great deal of damage.

That us where the power lies: any wannabe leaders will have to deal with those individuals if they are to avoid chain-saw massacres. And, for all their slick, clever little "clogs", they haven't even begun to work out how to do that.