Ignorance is no excuse
My father was not a patient man. He could summon up some compassion for those unfortunates who were stupider than himself. What he couldn't stand was ignorance, particularly willful ignorance. The kind of thing where someone boasts about how little they know.
That said, he also couldn't abide computers. "What can you do with a computer that you can't do with a paper and pencil?" he demanded to know when I told him I was buying a friend's TRS-80 Model III in 1981. He was not impressed when I suggested that it would enable me to make changes on page 3 of a 78-page manuscript without retyping the whole thing.
My father had a valid excuse for that particular bit of ignorance or lack of imagination. It was 1981, when most people had no clue about the future of the embryonic technology they were beginning to read about. And he was 75. But I bet if he'd made it past 1984 he'd have put some effort into understanding this technology that would soon begin changing the printing industry he worked in all his life.
While computers were new on the block, and their devotees were a relatively small cult of people who could be relatively easily spotted as "other", you could see the boast "I know nothing about computers" as a replay of high school. In American movies and TV shows that would be jocks and the in-crowd on one side, a small band of miserable, bullied nerds on the other. In the UK, where for reasons I've never understood it's considered more admirable to achieve excellence without ever being seen to work hard for it, the sociology plays out a little differently. I guess here the deterrent is less being "uncool" and more being seen as having done some work to understand these machines.
Here's the problem: the people who by and large populate the ranks of politicians and the civil service are the *other* people. Recent events such as the UK's Government Digital Service launch suggest that this is changing. Perhaps computers have gained respectability at the top level from the presence of MPs who can boast that they misspent their youth playing video games rather than, like the last generation's Ian Taylor, getting their knowledge the hard way, by sweating for it in the industry.
There are several consequences of all this. The most obvious and longstanding one is that too many politicians don't "get" the Net, which is how we get legislation like the DEA, SOPA, PIPA, and so on. The less obvious and bigger one is that we - the technology-minded, the early adopters, the educated users - write them off as too stupid to talk to. We call them "congresscritters" and deride their ignorance and venality in listening to lobbyists and special interest groups.
The problem, as Emily Badger writes for Miller-McCune as part of a review of Clay Johnson's latest book, is that if we don't talk to them how can we expect them to learn anything?
This sentiment is echoed in a lecture given recently at Rutgers by the distinguished computer scientist David Farber on the technical and political evolution of the Internet (MP3) (the slides are here (PDF)). Farber's done his time in Washington, DC, as chief technical advisor to the Federal Communications Commission and as a member of the Presidential Advisory Board on Information Technology. In that talk, Farber makes a number of interesting points about what comes next technically - it's unlikely, he says, that today's Internet Protocols will be able to cope with the terabyte networks on the horizon, and reengineering is going to be a very, very hard problem because of the way humans resist change - but the more relevant stuff for this column has to do with what he learned from his time in DC.
Very few people inside the Beltway understand technology, he says there, citing the Congressman who asked him seriously, "What is the Internet?" (Well, see, it's this series of tubes...) And so we get bad - that is, poorly grounded - decisions on technology issues.
Early in the Net's history, the libertarian fantasy was that we could get on just fine without their input, thank you very much. But as Farber says, politicians are not going to stop trying to govern the Internet. And, as he doesn't quite say, it's not like we can show them that we can run a perfect world without them. Look at the problems techies have invented: spam, the flaky software infrastructure on which critical services are based, and so on. "It's hard to be at the edge in DC," Farber concludes.
So, going back to Badger's review of Johnson: the point is it's up to us. Set aside your contempt and distrust. Whether we like politicians or not, they will always be with us. For 2012, adopt your MP, your Congressman, your Senator, your local councilor. Make it your job to help them understand the bills they're voting on. Show them tshat even if they don't understand the technology there's votes in those who do. It's time to stop thinking of their ignorance as solely *their* fault.