Tony Blair says politicians are hopelessly unprepared for the next Industrial Revolution

Tony Blair
Tony Blair
Image: REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
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Tony Blair is thinking about revolutions. The Industrial Revolution in particular weighs heavily on his mind. He sees the changes sparked by the steam engine more than two centuries ago as a preview for the digital transformation remaking our world. He also thinks about the political revolution of the 19th century. The strife that forged the modern nation-state is a taste of what’s to come if policymakers do not get ahead of the technological revolution.

The former British prime minister came to the US in March to visit Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and companies. After inhabiting 10 Downing Street for a decade, he says he wants to convince leaders in technology and politics to rewrite the social contract for the digital future. “There’s not a lot of help for [politicans] out there,” Blair said speaking to a group of Silicon Valley founders and executives hosted by the startup fund and accelerator Y Combinator. “If they’re not educated—what you’re ignorant about you fear, and what you fear, you want to shut down.”

Blair argues technological change is driving political extremism. In uncertain times, as technology rapidly undercuts old ways of living and working, pessimistic voters migrate to extremes. Demagogues exploit this by attacking institutions and summoning scapegoats. The antidote is arming policymakers with a positive narrative about technological change that they can understand. The inevitable transition caused by modern technology will be more sweeping, faster, and disruptive than the Industrial Revolution itself, Blair predicts, and lawmakers must sell this positive vision to the public in order to manage it.

“If you were thinking of this in a rational way, you would say the single most important thing governments should be concentrated on at the moment is preparing for this,” Blair says. “Most politicians want to do the right thing. It’s just that they have a very limited knowledge of how the world’s changing because they’re not in the world of change. They’re in the world of politics…The number of people that can actually talk about this sensibly and understand both worlds is very small.”

Blair founded the Institute for Global Change to structure these conversations between policymakers and lawmakers. He hopes this will inform politicians about the radical changes needed in public policy—efforts like assigning personal managers to deliver public services to every citizen and creating national Departments for Digital and Technology. The more he learns, he says, the more sweeping he’s convinced the change should be, and the more proactively companies must be to deal with them.

At the talk with startup founders and executives on March 11, Blair warned that tech companies’ economic clout wouldn’t save them from the backlash to technological change. Similar forces led to sweeping regulation during the Industrial Revolution: the creation of a social safety net, labor rights, workplace safety laws, and access to healthcare.

The industry ignores the harm it’s causing at its peril. The UK government argues tech giants have had a hand in undermining democratic elections, enabling misinformation, polluting civic discourse, and freezing out competitors in the digital economy (you can read the UK’s new “online harms” white paper for an exhaustive list). Yet most companies, Blair said, remain in a “defensive position” about their problems. “The combination of wealth, the power and access has blinded [tech leaders] to their essential vulnerability because they think are much more powerful than they are,” he said. “Policymakers are going to wake up one day.” If politicians fail to boldly rewrite the social contract for the post-industrial era,  he believes the political turmoil sweeping western democracies may come to seem tame.

Quartz sat down with Blair for a brief interview after the meeting. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Quartz: Since coming to Silicon Valley, has your strategy about what you want to do with the tech sector or how you want to communicate changed?

Blair: Yes. As I’ve learned how deep and fundamental the change is, I’ve realized that the answer to the question I’ve been asking—how does a sensible politics come back into play—is actually making sense of the technological revolution.

That is the answer to it. Whereas a few years back, and maybe even a couple of years back, I was still thinking you’ve got health policy, education policy, and then tech policy, now I think that this is a revolution that covers everything and we should move it to the center of the political debate.

You mentioned in one of your papers that the first politicians who master the technological revolution to shape public goodwill will basically control the next century. Why do you think that?

Because once you persuade people of what is obviously true—which is [technology] is going to change everything—if you can guide people to that future, you’re going be in a very powerful position.

Is anyone doing that right now?

I mean, funnily enough, Obama had bits of it with what he did on technology, which is very interesting actually. And then [French President] Emmanuel Macron also. But you’ve not yet gotten to the point where people say: “No, this is the question.” I still think it’s very hard for politicians to get their head around that.

Has any country struck the right balance between regulation and the free market in terms of oversight for Silicon Valley or tech in general?

No, because I don’t think we yet understand how to do the regulation properly. I’m sure that it should come about as a partnership between the technology sector and government. There’s a real risk of getting bad regulation if you end up with government not engaging with the technology sector, or the technology sector not engaging with government.

Are you confident that government can move fast enough? Democracies, historically, have been very slow on that front.

Yeah, that’s true. But I think if you put the ideas out there, if you start to give people a narrative framework around which to consider these things, it will.

My idea is that, in the end, you create public policy around this question. This is why I think the way to frame this in the 21st century is the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. Once you frame it in that way, then politicians understand. Everything’s got to be looked at anew. And then once you start developing the narrative and, putting out the policy on it, then I think you’ll find politicians running on how they utilize this.

Do you think the US and from UK can learn a lot from each on technology policy? And vice versa?

I think Europe and America should try and come together around technology policy because the key question will be what happens in China.

And we’re not there yet? 

No, we’re nowhere near there.

How much time do you think we have to make those changes?

We’re pretty late, so I think we need to get a move on.