I, Technology: When is a spy-pen not a spy-pen? Don’t expect a politician to know

You’ve got to hand it to whoever decided to use ‘spy-pen’ to describe the device that led to the recent resignation of the chairman of a Scottish college.

The term has everything: popular relevance, gadget credibility and just that frisson of edgy uncertainty. Damn right, it suggests. Whoever’s using one should either be saving the nation from evil tyrants or banged up.

The trouble is, the device at the centre of the controversy is no such thing. The Livescribe pen has been around for a good few years. Yes, it can act as a notes and audio-capture device, in conjunction with special sheets of paper. But calling it a spy-pen is tantamount to calling the average tablet device a spy-pad.

Kirk Ramsay, the chairman in question, stepped down after a row with Scottish education secretary Mike Russell, over a recorded conversation. “It’s quite a clunky kind of thing — not the sort of thing you can use without folk knowing,” Ramsay told The Scotsman. “I have had it for three and a half to four years — you can buy it on Amazon.”

The episode is a good indicator of the attitude to technology displayed by our heads of government. Note that no information was leaked, or intended to be. Merely the use of such a device was enough for Ramsay to have to consider his position.

In the worst case, it suggests that Arthur C Clarke’s tenet that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” holds true even for mainstream device use. While we no longer burn witches at the stake, it appears that practitioners of such magic should still be treated with the kind of distrust usually reserved for travellers and vagrants.

A more generous observer might consider such remarks in the context of the bumbling judge in the 1980s TV series Not The Nine O’Clock News: “Digital watch? What on earth is a digital watch?” he asked, before expressing similar incredulity at a series of innovations that would today only be found in a museum.

What’s particularly disappointing is that the Livescribe is actually useful, particularly for those who need to sit through long-winded meetings, which sometimes ramble off the point. The audio function — which is not enabled by default — can be very handy when, weeks later, notes that meant something at the time cease to make sense.

[Originally published on ZDNet]

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