Beware Boris

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street on September 26, 2019 in London, England. The Prime Minster faced MPs in the Commons and said the Supreme Court was wrong to block his suspension of parliament. Picture: CHRIS J RATCLIFFE / GETTY IMAGES

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street on September 26, 2019 in London, England. The Prime Minster faced MPs in the Commons and said the Supreme Court was wrong to block his suspension of parliament. Picture: CHRIS J RATCLIFFE / GETTY IMAGES

A polite hush fell among the assembled diplomats at the UN on Tuesday night as British prime minister Boris Johnson walked to the podium to deliver his inaugural address to the General Assembly.

It is difficult to convey the audacity of the speech that followed. Johnson ranged widely, reflecting on the transformative power of “great scientific revolutions of the past”: print, the steam engine, aviation, and atomic energy.

Such technological revolutions, Johnson argued, saw the creation of powerful new instruments, but ones over which human beings ultimately had control. The digital age, however, is different.

Johnson breathlessly issued a series of warnings: “Your front door will sweep wide the moment you approach, like some silent butler … Your mattress will monitor your nightmares; your fridge will beep for more cheese …”.

“Smart cities,” he blusterated, “will pullulate with sensors, all joined together by the internet of things. Bollards communing invisibly with lamp posts … so there is always a parking space for your electric car”. But technology, he warned, could also be used “to place citizens (under) relentless state surveillance”.

Will artificial intelligence take the form of robots washing and caring for an ageing population? Or do we instead face “pink-eyed terminators sent back from the future to cull the human race”? Will synthetic biology “restore our livers and our eyes with miracle regeneration of the tissues”? Or will it “bring terrifying limbless chickens to our tables?”

Habitually poker-faced diplomats struggled to suppress their laughter. Even the UK delegation chuckled quietly behind their hands. Foreign and commonwealth office mandarins did not write Johnson’s speech. Such master rhetoricians can glide smoothly over the institutionalised hypocrisies of Britain’s “democracy promoting” foreign policy. After all, the world’s second largest arms trader does 80% of its business with authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

This speech was instead penned by Johnson’s coterie of abrasive Downing Street advisers, who are preoccupied with a quite different and more immediate matter: an impending general election. We cannot take seriously Johnson’s claim to be befuddled about the rise of mass surveillance technologies. As recently as 2016, the UK parliament passed an Investigatory Powers Act that in effect legalised the illegal mass surveillance conducted by the British state over the previous two decades. It also enabled its expansion, essentially unchecked, into the future.

The prime minister’s superficially infantile, but carefully scripted, ramblings about the potential abuses of social media in democratic politics must also be understood in the context of the coming election. It was not by chance that Johnson observed: “You may keep secrets from your friends, from your parents, your children, your doctor — even your personal trainer — but it takes real effort to conceal your thoughts from Google.”

Johnson’s Downing Street advisers include acknowledged pioneers of the new dark arts of campaigning. This February, the House of Commons’ digital, culture, media and sport select committee produced an insightful report on “Disinformation and Fake News” that detailed the vulnerabilities of the UK’s electoral system to new campaign techniques.

Johnson’s senior-most political advisor is a guru of “microtargeting”. By mining “big data” sets assembled from our routine social media activities, it is now possible to build individual personality profiles together with groups of “hot button” issues for each voter. Campaigners can now target customized messages, through direct mailing and social media marketing, crafted around our individual preoccupations and prejudices.

The select committee noted that the UK’s electoral law is outdated, leaving the country vulnerable to the abuse of such techniques in campaigns. Moreover, the regulation of social media companies is woefully inadequate given their new capabilities.

The issue of how a campaign can legitimately be conducted is certain to become a campaign issue in itself. Johnson, true to type, will bluster, blather and lie. He will remind British citizens that he has been trying to figure out the convoluted significance of new technologies and of the digital age, but it’s all been far too complicated for him to understand.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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