Crystal ball

Technology has changed foreign policy forever, according to Gordon Brown. Speaking at a futurology conference in Oxford, the PM said that the widespread appeal of online resources means that policy is no longer in the hands of the political elite


Technology has changed foreign policy forever, according to Gordon Brown. Speaking as a surprise guest at a futurology conference in Oxford, TED Global (Technology, Entertainment and Design), the prime minister said that the widespread appeal of blogs and online communications resources such as Twitter means that policy is no longer solely in the hands of the political elite; there is now a ‘global society’, finding common ground across continents, disseminating information and putting pressure on governments in ways that have never been possible before.


Brown would know all about this, as it was the widespread use of mobile phone cameras and their ability to put unedited content online which revealed the effects of police activity at the G20 summit in London earlier this year. It’s unlikely that the engineers who developed these phones and their internet capabilities foresaw these sorts of effects, but it’s certainly a powerful tool, and Brown is probably right: the ability to reach a large number of people quickly is the sort of thing that changes the world.


The internet is also proving to be a powerful tool for other sorts of collaboration, particularly in engineering. As computers become faster at handling and processing large amounts of data, it has become almost routine for complex design information to be sent around the world for collaborative research and design programmes. A project team will now be larger and more distributed than ever before, and capable of drawing on more expertise; it’s this which is at the heart of new models of intellectual property management, such as open-source software and hardware development. These seem to accelerate development and encourage innovation in ways that haven’t been possible with the standard model of patent protection, and many companies, especially in the software and entertainment fields, are struggling to keep up with its implications.


It’s amazing that we’ve come to take this communication ability for granted so quickly; only ten years ago, this level of data exchange wouldn’t have been possible. And it’s very hard to predict where it’ll go. Gordon Brown said that it was likely to make the post-WW2 political institutions, such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, obsolete; global problems, such as climate change, can’t be handled through these bodies.


Communication has always changed the world; when information can get from place to place and person to person more quickly, then things tend to happen. Whatever you think of Gordon Brown’s political views and abilities, he’s right that the new communications technologies are changing society. Hopefully it’ll allow technologists and engineers to make their views known more easily to politicians; as Brown said, a community with a consensus view is hard to ignore.



Stuart Nathan
Special Projects Editor