Johnson doesn’t really care about science and technology, but he loves a vanity project
In the age of elusive technology – the age of cryptocurrency, artificial intelligence, algorithms, and augmented reality – soon-to-be prime minister Boris Johnson brings to Downing Street an approach to innovation that is all about the visible.
Johnson seems profoundly uninterested in technology and science per se. According to his Hansard record he mentioned “technology” thrice over his whole career as an MP; he mentioned the word “internet” five times, all of them in relation to terrorism. He has dabbled in some climate change scepticism and, according to industry insiders, as the mayor of London between 2008 and 2016 he was conspicuously absent from the tech city’s engine room (which he helped to launch). But sure he can warm up to the new when that means getting some shiny toys. Johnson’s vision of the future inevitably boils down to engineering feats, to technological gimmicks, to the “fantastic infrastructure” he promised during the leadership debate.
On whether these projects are useful, or even feasible, Johnson’s past is chequered. When he was mayor, he promoted or oversaw a string of ambitious but whimsical projects. Take the Emirates Air Line, a cable car link that cost the public purse over £24 million, and whose weekly usage is in the low thousands. Or the Garden Bridge, Johnson’s project for a vegetation-covered pedestrian bridge across the Thames that ended up being cancelled, but still cost taxpayers £53 million. Or the doomed “Boris island” – a floating, six-runway airport Johnson dreamt of building in the Thames estuary, before it was ultimately shelved for its impracticality, cost, and environmental impact.
Focusing on the viability and convenience of Johnson’s ideas might be missing the point, though. What seems to matter to him is that something new and innovative is out there, ready to be stamped with his name. (In that, he’s similar to another wild-haired head of state.) It happened with “Boris Island”. It happened with the “Boris buses” – the much-criticised New Routemasters Johnson introduced in 2012. It happened with the “Boris bikes”, a misnomer – as the fairly successful scheme was designed under his predecessor Ken Livingstone – Johnson was happy to go along with. For Johnson, every new project is something to point at when discussing his imprint on the world.
But there are risks – risks that go beyond wasted money and empty cable cars – in aiming for stunts and landmarks rather than effective tools. Last year, the Information Commissioner’s Office issued an enforcement note against the Gangs Matrix, a tool used by the Metropolitan Police, supposedly able to identify gang members based on their past history, social media activity, friendship networks.
It did not work, and the ICO lambasted it for data breaches and discrimination against young black men (the Met has partially disputed the findings). The Gangs Matrix had first been introduced under Johnson, in 2012. The then-mayor felt that something had to be done following the 2011 London riots, and threw his weight behind the catchily named Gangs Matrix.
It was, again, technology as a grand gesture, whose specifics – i.e.: if it worked or not, if it was fair or unfair – were irrelevant. That attitude lives on, in a more analogue guise, in Johnson’s current backing for stop-and-search: most evidence suggests it won’t work against knife crime, and that a public health approach as the one that solved the violence epidemics in Glasgow would be far more effective. Yet, stop and search is visible.
How will that mindset serve Johnson in Number 10? Probably not very well. The proposition that Brexit could suddenly be sorted by building a bridge with France, or that the United Kingdom’s integrity might be maintained thanks to a new bridge linking Scotland and Northern Ireland – both of these were genuine Johnson’s proposals – bears all the hallmarks of another waste of time and money.
Johnson’s promise to do away with the Irish backstop, and to subsequently avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland by deploying “technology” most experts agree does not exist yet, will be another inevitable source of misery.
It will be more interesting, and possibly more troubling, to witness Johnson grapple with wider technological trends. Issues like information warfare, surveillance capitalism, or algorithmic discrimination are in constant flux and they happen out of sight, protected by “black boxes” or corporate trade secrets. They are invisible, ever-changing and tremendously complicated. Johnson’s one-off, eye-catching stunts just won’t do.