Hackers and hacks – dangerous liaison, lost in translation or the odd couple?

It’s not an obvious union but like all the best ones, it could be a winner for both partners. As a long-time hack journalist I have  been a distant admirer of computer programmers – hackers, coders, geeks, call them what you will. Not so much for their coding skills, of which I am an enthusiastic if ignorant user, but more their mode of working and self governance.

I was first put on to it a few years ago by a computer programming friend, who pointed me towards  The Cathedral and the Bazaar. I’d talked to him about my ideas on democracy and journalism and that was his response.

The book  describes different software engineering methods, the top-down version of traditional, commercial software writers versus the bottom-up, free software approach. It sounds a bit techy but it’s not really.

The cathedral idea is one of building software within a constrained environment, the process overseen and controlled by a narrow elite that releases code as and when it wants. The bazaar model is the more chaotic, open-door approach involving code writing and sharing  over the internet, in full view of the public and with the possibility of intervention by anyone. The possibilities and creativity released by the bazaar approach makes it infinitely more exciting, fun and flushed with potential.

The metaphor has parallels both for journalism and for democracy. For the latter, what excites me is the comparison of old-style representative democracy versus the emergence of deliberative, participatory approaches to governance. Our traditional governance models are bust, certainly in the UK but also in the United States and elsewhere, we urgently need new ones. I think hackers can teach all of us some lessons on this, as journalists, citizens or both.

A session at the Mozilla Festival 2011 gathered hacks and hackers together to talk about their relationship problems, why they didn’t necessarily know they might love to be together and why perhaps they should. It was moderated by Rich Gordon – Medill School of Journalism – Northwestern University, whose passion is to bring the two sides together.

“The future of journalism is inextricably inter-twined with the future of technology,” he said. I totally agree.

VisionOntv, for whom I volunteered throughout the festival, have exactly that in mind with a follow-up event on November 14 in London, at a venue to be announced. Their plan is to draw together coders to work on some open video challenges they think would help replace the closed-source corporate media hold on our worlds.

If that doesn’t work, there is also Hacks/Hackers London: November Meetup.

Who knows what they might produce?

2 Comments

Filed under democracy, journalism

2 responses to “Hackers and hacks – dangerous liaison, lost in translation or the odd couple?

  1. Unfortunately, Eric ‘ESR’ Raymond is almost entirely full of shit and self promotion. That ‘book’ was really the peak of his self-promotion and part of the marketing campaign for his newly-coined ‘open source’ (not the intelligence kind) term. He’s an overtly political activist so everything he says must be filtered through a bullshit detector – and most of his writing just isn’t very good either. Personally I think he has nothing worthwhile to add and can be safely ignored entirely.

    Even his description of the software development process sounds flawed – the same guys work on free software (commercial or otherwise), open source software (commercial or otherwise), and proprietary software (commercial or otherwise). As a result there is not a great deal of difference in the development process employed by them on similarly sized projects at the same stage of their life-cycles. The difference is (perceived) at the managerial level, but that is of minor concern to the hackers themselves (again: this essay was marketing to management, not to developers).

    Even the sub-title (of the published book form) is rather disingenuous – there was nothing accidental about the free software ‘revolution’, it was a life-long project started in the early 80s. And it is really just an extension of the way scientific discoveries have been shared and progressed for centuries before that.

    Here is a comprehensive critique:
    http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/708/618
    and another interesting earlier piece by the same author:
    http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/696/606

    In my opinion the free software movement (of which i am a member) – which doesn’t shy away from it’s own political nature, and doesn’t make unfounded claims about the software quality it produces – will be critical going forward for free and open government of which journalism is also a critical part. Imaging not being able to vote, register your car, or be a fully informed citizen without first having to purchase software from one or two foreign companies? (or do your tax return: already a reality in Australia). Or unable to read AND share books of human knowledge (or entertainment) because they have been digitally handicapped? These are much more important issues than a supposedly superior development model which is the most ‘open source’ provides, and which is unverified at best.

  2. NotZed – thanks for taking the time to post this, I will certainly read the links you put up. Next time I post on this question, perhaps I’ll use a different reference to make my point or maybe make a different point altogether.

    I can see there are many layers to the coding debate, most of which as a non-coder I’ll never get. I have already been put right on my use of the open-source versus free nomenclature.

    I am however encouraged by the remarks you make about your (and I assume the free software movement’s) perspective on free and open government. That concept is what journalists should have tattooed on the backs of their hands, maybe on their inner eyeballs, to read every time they reach for the keyboard, microphone or whatever it is they use to report. Everything else is advertising.

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