One of the rules of the tech playbook is that you have to have a hero story. And that story has to begin with an origin myth.
The computer company started up in a garage, the social media site started in a dorm room, the medical testing company started by a college dropout – no detail is too small to be embellished, and no violin is too small to be played, to spin the mundane details of a project’s growth into a narrative to be emulated and admired.
Origin myths, in short, are a useful tale to tell when things are good. And they’re a useful diversion to deploy when things are bad.
Hold that thought for a minute.
Over the past six days, I’ve watched in horror as UK politicians across the political spectrum have reacted to the sickening murder of one of their own by extolling the virtues of the authoritarian Online Safety Bill. In doing so, they have spared no effort to point the fingers at American tech entrepreneurs, social media sites, and the internet in general as the root cause. From the floor of the Commons to the paywalled opinion pages of broadsheets, social media has been blamed for everything but wielding the knife.
There’s no doubt that social media and the internet have played a major role in what Gordon Brown called “our national coarseness.” But it hasn’t played the only role, not by any measure.
Nor, from what we know, did it have anything to do whatsoever with the murder of the MP last Friday.
Today, after PMQs, I finally sussed why our politicians are leaning so heavily into blaming the internet for last Friday’s murder, and into pushing for government control over public discourse on the internet as the only possible means of achieving justice and avenging the loss of their friend.
As usual, the truth was right in front of my face. I just didn’t see it.
The past five years of our national character have been defined by the UK, or at least its government, identifying itself as a victim state. Everyone has been out to get us. The European Union, the global elites, judges, the mainstream media, whoever else you might like to throw in there. Our national character has been defined by finger-pointing, blaming, and “othering”. Help, help, we’re being repressed.
But, as the sign in the cathedral says, “If you seek his monument, look around you.” The society we live in – today, at this moment – has been defined and shaped and controlled by the political party which has been in power for the past eleven and a half years. Social media – whose growth has happened to coincide with the Conservatives’ years in power – has provided the platforms (no pun intended) for the public to discuss, analyse, and react to the world which that party in power has built.
Social media is ugly because we live in a world which is ugly.
And there’s only so much finger pointing you can do, at others, when you’ve been running the show since 2010.
Or, in the past week’s case, escalating.
So if you, like me, have spent the past week watching politicians using the murder of an MP to advance an authoritarian Bill that would neither have prevented his death nor has anything to do with it, you need to understand what this government, and this party in power, are doing:
You see, contrary to what you believe you may have lived through over the past decade, our current era of history does not begin with David entering Downing Street, then handing over to Theresa in defeat, then handing over to Boris in defeat, by way of the reverberations from the financial crash, the Scottish independence referendum, the EU referendum, the departure from the European Union, and the global pandemic,
all of which they have mismanaged, catastrophically.
No, our current era of history apparently begins with social media. Our current era of history is apparently defined by social media. And our current era of history was apparently caused by social media.
Not by them, of course; not by their years in power; and not by the decisions they have made while holding it.
It couldn’t possibly be that way.
That is not the hero story they want to tell.
So they are doing what they have done for the past eleven years. They are pointing fingers, blaming others, casting us as a victim state, and demanding that we “take back control” from an external enemy.
Pointing fingers anywhere, and at anyone, but themselves.
That is the origin myth they have chosen to adopt.
Origin myths are a useful diversion to deploy when things are bad.
They learned that from tech.