2004-02-12T17:30-0800 apres etech
Two weeks ago I mentioned - in passing - that it'd be a great idea to have an informal evening affair in San Francisco where people could braindump what they'd learnt at Emerging Technology and preview the sort of stuff that they'd see at CodeCon . There's more people who should see this stuff than just people who can scrape up the fare and ticket to go to San Diego.
Well, it's done. Rachel "Moonbase University' Chalmers , Marc "rotten.com " Powell and Karen "dorkbot sf " Marcelo magicked it through a flurry of emails. It's happening this Monday the 16th:
Post-Etech Decompression - Pre-CodeCon Quickening RX Gallery 132 Eddy Street @ Mason San Francisco, CA Monday 16th, 7pm-10pm Lightning talks, Old Skool Arcade Games, BYOB 5$ suggested donation no one turned away for lack of funds
The best bit of this ConCon may well mirror Etech: meeting new smart people between the official talks. Then again, the five minute lightning talks look to be great too. Here's who is set up to speak so far:
I'm not sure we'll have time for many more speakers, but if you'd like to talk about either Etech or CodeCon and you're near San Francisco, stick your name down on the Wiki. I'll try and get to you. I'm compering. I'm easily bribed.
When this started actually happening, I got a little bit guilty, as this is exactly the sort of spontaneous Bay Area event that I used to look very bitterly at when I lived in London. It was a mixture of irritation that San Francisco thought the whole world revolved around San Francisco, and envy that we couldn't do something like that in London.
Amusingly, when I got to SF, lots of people told me about how much more vibrant they thought the geek community was in Britain, and how they wished they could do the same kind of events as they'd seen talked about in the UK and Europe.
So, anyway, there were enough Brits at Etech to pull off another spin-off braindump, so now I'm pushing my luck and hand-waving them do the same thing in the UK for next Monday (the 23rd).
Here's the Wiki page where people are sorting out a venue. Go to it, my helpless puppets!
(No, I don't know why I'm calling it Etech and not Etcon now either.)2004-02-15T14:48-0800 hacking, gaming and politics
Will Davies has a very good post on the nature of gaming a system, the immunity of entrenched political systems to "hacks", and political differences between the US and the UK.
There's a lot here I agree with. But there are many places where my conclusions veer wildly in the opposite direction from Will's. The greatest of these is probably the subtlety of the term "hack", which has more delicate and deeper undertones than Will imputes.
Hacking is one of those words which people spend many long evenings arguing over. It's a word that a very diverse sub-culture has hung all its ethics and all its aesthetics upon. But it's not concept so broad as to be empty of any meaning. As the Jargon File (which is I think best described as a pretty successful, 16 megabyte definition of this one word) quotes Phil Agre in the chapter The Meaning of 'Hack':
The word hack doesn't really have 69 different meanings... In fact, hack has only one meaning, an extremely subtle and profound one which defies articulation. Which connotation is implied by a given use of the word depends in similarly profound ways on the context.
I think one of connotations has some application to Will's other points, and highlights our differences well.
Will says that "hack" means "simply means studying something in it's respective parts, to work out how it functions as whole". That's one aspect, but clearly there's a more active sense to the word too. Hacking security, hacking Python, hacking politics are all much more intrusive than mere analysis.
In fact, in some contexts, hacking sounds far more like the term Will explicitly contrasts with it: gaming.
Someone who hacks, say, a social network can be doing something very close to gaming a social network: they can play tricks, like creating Fakesters, or map it out and find correspondences which they can then exploit.
What's the difference between gaming a system and hacking a system? Neither break the explicit rules, both exploit them in unexpected ways.
The difference is that gaming generally breaks the game. A good hack extends the game.
People often say that what separates a hack, in its strong secondary sense of a practical joke, is its harmlessness. The canonicalMIT hacks were all brilliant, sneaky, unexpected and hurt no-one. Part of this harmlessness, I think, comes from the recognition that in a hack, you don't destroy the existing structures of the game you're playing (whether the game is protecting the fragile dome on Building 10, or the content of a lecture. Practical jokes can be controversial when not everyone agrees that they were harmless: a truly great hack is one where everyone can appreciate them, even those who are supposedly the victims.
How does this apply to Will's other points? Will is developing, I think, a set of connections between gaming and coding. That you can only game explicitly defined code, and that codifying something leaves you at risk of being gamed . And if you try and artificially model something that isn't following your rules, you could easily end up playing your own private game. So you're a Howard Dean supporter: you think you're creating a groundswell of support that will sweep you to power, when in fact you've just worked out a way of filling a pub full of people who think the same as you. You've made some new rules, but they're not the rules of the current game. You're just playing some other game that has no impact on the result.
I think this is a useful point of view. It's very hard to build any system that isn't easy to game: and its a clear sign that a model has failed to represent reality when the simulation can be gamed far more easily than the real world. Where I disagree is when Will says this:
However, politics already has code. It has laws, rules, winners, losers and points. You can already 'game' the political, by packing the Supreme Court or using ancient constitutional amendments to defend a (frankly corrupt) system of campaign finance. Building new political codes and rules without taking down the old ones (which is what Dean's campaign did) gets you precisely nowhere.
As a rule of thumb,you can: code the social (then game it), game the political, hack neither.
I'm not sure what definition Will is using for hack here, but I'd argue that hacking politics is the definitive non-revolutionary way of executing reform. A hack of politics is to fix the game, using its own existing, broken, rules of the game.
As with practical jokes, it sounds like the difference between gaming and hacking is in the eye of the beholder. A great hack, though, isn't like this. A great hack takes all the existing rules - written and unwritten - and and sets up a new play which is so clearly representative of the consensus underlying the codified game that no-one can argue with it. It doesn't break the game, it extends it.
Let me give the example of FaxYourMP - not just because I'm tangentially involved in it, but because Will gives it as an example of an effective piece of political social software.
We crafted FYMP explicitly as a hack on the political system. It's aesthetics and techniques are drawn directly from the hacking tradition (in the sense of the Jargon File, not the sense of the computer cracker of course).FaxYourMP provides something which some (by no means all, but some) MPs really don't want - a low-cost way of hassling your elected representative.
It's really hard to object to this, because the rules of the game state that MPs represent their constituents. Over time, other forces - party political and the media mainly - have bypassed those rules so that some MPs do very little constituent tending. This is a gaming that has been very hard to stop. Bad MPs have a lot of excellent techniques for avoiding their constituents. Some are just inaccessible. Some have a great excuse that they try to meet with their constituents, but those apathetic buggers simply refuse to turn up to the surgeries.
We knew that the inaccessibility excuse was just rubbish. If Mr Blair gave your MP a call, they'd be very accessible very quickly. Mr Blair isn't your MP's boss, by the stated rules of the game. You are.
We thought that these days, surgeries were a bit of an anachronism. You shouldn't have to wait until your MP breezes back to your hometown for a chat. It should be incumbent on MPs to improve contact with their voters, not hide behind old systems.
We also knew that all MPs had fax machines, because that's what the infrastructure of party organisation required. (Secrets of FYMP - our original, more radical plan, was to make it an SMS to pager gateway. Tony Benn describes Labour backbenchers as being "pager-controlled", and we thought - ooh, we want a bit of that.)
By setting up the fax gateway - a dirt cheap tech fix, we took those excuses away, and didn't provide any new ones. We tried to rig the forces that broke the MP/constituent link to work for us. When a fax machine doesn't work, it's not us that has to fix it. It's the whip's office, who need to keep in touch with their MP. When MPs don't reply to faxes, we don't do anything. We just alter the public statistics, which the press read and respond to.
But best of all, it's really hard for people to complain about our existence, because we're working within the rules of the game. In fact, people now think we're *part* of the rules of the game. A sizeable minority of people using FYMP think we're a government service, and get angry at us when they're MP doesn't reply.
So that's a hack. Great hacks flourish not in simple codified systems, but in complex social settings too. Part of the growth of hacker culture, the bedrock of the wider technical culture that has grown in the last decade, is realising that the complex aesthetics of hacking can be applied to other areas: social, political, philosophical.
As I say, this is possibly the point on which Will and I disagree, but it's important to work out whether we disagree because of a misunderstanding over what hacking means or more profoundly.
The other part of Will's analysis, which I really liked, is the difference between the UK and the US. I can bang on about this for weeks, and will, one day, I promise, but I'll keep it short here. Will claims that "here in the UK, voters are geographically, culturally and financially closer to the political system. As such, social software that works with the grain of representative democracy, rather than towards new imaginary democratic constitutions, seems a lot more attractive."
I agree with the conclusion, but not the causality. There's a great deal more tendency to talk of utopias and bright abstract promise in the US, but that's a long-standing cultural predilection that has little to do with the any contemporary alienation within the US political process.
And having spent time in both California (possibly the most alienated-from-DC place in the US right now) and the UK, I'd say that voters in both places are equally culturally and financially divorced from the heart of politics. Britain may be smaller, but that cuts both ways. Will, for instance, is writing from London, which would be like him commenting in the US on alienation from the comfort of his Washington offices. From the outside, Washington looks a corrupt and stinking place. But from what glimpses I've seen into the courtiers clustered around Westminster, the British body politic shows no sign of being any less marbled with green mould.
Both provide strong obstacles to real substantive useful change that would be - eventually - seen as a universal good. Both have deadlocks that require a great amount of creativity to unlock. I really do think that on both sides, hacks - small, culturally-precise, low scale chisel blows on some very subtle fracture lines- are the safest, perhaps only, way to change anything.