So, I did indeed attend Tech Active yesterday. Key points of the discussion, held in the all-white but strangly ransacked looking premises of the Stanhope Centre, covered a wide range of problems related to political campaigning and technology. A curious crowd, made up of equal parts tech-hipster/German video artist types in painfully fashionable (but ugly) late 70s threads and pale, pudgy deep geeks in painfully unfashionable (but ugly) sweaters. The Random Reality blogger (see sidebar) was there, but I somehow failed to spot him.
Talking points: the crucial importance of technocratic as opposed to legislative organisations. Cory Doctorow made this point with regard to the World Intellectual Property Organisation, the OECD and ICAO. These standard-setting bodies have frequently been used to push through measures that are shot down by national democracies - if you can get it written into the international standard, then it will either be possible to present it as inevitable or slip it through in unglamourous regulations, a process described as "policy laundering". Another form of policy laundering is, of course, transferring it into another context. Typical of this are the measures that were attached to security or defence related legislation - one third of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, for example, deals with technology issues. Alternatively, technocratisation gets things off the main political agenda.
Gus Hosein of the LSE and Privacy International, who raised the ATCSA 2001 point above, criticised civil society organisations heavily on a variety of grounds - disunity, duplication, competition, self-seeking, inaction, national divides and the possibility of fake NGOs. (I referred to the post below concerning Russian attempts to recruit loyal NGOS.) There was a further issue concerning the divide between traditional campaigning groups, who tend to have the advantage of perspective, membership base and experience but are web-ignorant, and techie groups blind to real world issues. Doctorow produced an alternative to this critique in the twin problems of "nerd fatalism" (if they want to read my mail they'll do it anyway) and "nerd determinism" (our superior technology will eventually destroy them). Despite being opposite to each other, the effect is the same - inaction/apathy. Doctorow and Hosein agreed that a "rich ecosystem" of different tactics was needed to overcome these splits.
Hosein pointed out another form of context shifting or policy laundering with reference to the case of a schoolboy whose parents discovered he was to be fingerprinted to use the library, and to border control - either "Get them while they're young" or "Get them while they're foreign". I brought up the education cards plan I covered back in May, which still seems to evade much scrutiny. Conclusions, finally, were that everyone agreed that the internet is a force multiplier for traditional campaigning, however there was little consensus on whether or not it has any political role of its own.
All in all, it was a fascinating couple of hours. The people I promised links to will get them today.