Hackers in Government 2: Principal Differences Between Hackers and Politicians

This entry reflects Nick Farr’s comparison of deceptively polite and mercantile politicians on the one hand, and straightforward hackers who are scrupulous about all the little details of a system on the other.

What makes hackers essentially different from politicians? To sort of illustrate the general idea of politics, I think politicians’ driving core assumption is: “How do I keep my job? How do I line up the people who vote for me, tell them one thing to make sure that they’ll continue to vote for me? And how do I tell the people who provide me money, the people who are my political patrons, how do I tell them another thing that will help them give me the patronage and support that I need to keep my job?”

This is very common; it’s not a radical thing to say that politicians are fundamentally more interested in keeping their job than anything else. The difference with that, and I see this with hackers that are working in the bureaucracy: their core driving interest is not keeping their job, but fixing this broken system.

And sort of moving on from that, politicians are really experts at twisting words and twisting the truth and creating nice-sounding things that talk completely around the problem, whereas hackers are unafraid to tell management, unafraid to tell their customers, unafraid to tell anybody exactly what they think in absolutely no uncertain terms. And that, I think, is one really big fundamental difference, that if you replaced politicians with hackers, and hackers had a view and outline of what’s going on, they wouldn’t be afraid to say exactly how it is in very impolite terms.

Just to take a quick step back: how many people in the audience right now would describe themselves as a hacker, if I were to ask you: “Are you a hacker: yes or no?” How many people would say they are a hacker? Ok, on that note, how many people in this room have told somebody about them in a workplace situation or in a political situation what the truth exactly was, in, perhaps, a manner that was not so polite?

Hackers fundamentally have the courage to say in no uncertain terms what the problem is and how to fix it.

The shocking thing is that I had more hands raised in answer to that question than the hacker question. But that’s exactly what I’m getting at: politicians don’t do that. They don’t have the courage to do that, and I think hackers fundamentally have the courage to say in no uncertain terms what the problem is, how to fix it, regardless of whether or not that’s politically expedient. And most of the time it’s not politically expedient, otherwise politicians would tell the truth.

Politicians are prone to be influenced by the big players of the economy The other thing is, politicians are easily influenced by powerful interests. Really, when you look at political systems in modern Western democracies, the politicians are sort of stuck in the middle between the people that vote for them and the people that support them. And I think it’s very rare to find politicians who honestly have the courage of their convictions to address the people who are on both sides of them, whereas, as the quick straw poll that I just took here says, hackers are unafraid of telling people on either side what exactly the problem is, and that hackers, as a general rule, carry the convictions of their beliefs much more readily than, I think, other classes of the population; that when hackers honestly believe that something is one way, they’re unafraid to tell people what that way is.

And I think hackers, even though they might not have the reputation for doing so, are very good at cutting at the core of the problem and saying in very simple terms to people what exactly that is.

That’s another key thing about politicians: I don’t think politicians are very interested in looking at and understanding complex systems. They’re interested in taking little bits and pieces here and there and implementing those things in a small-little-bits-and-pieces way without really understanding what their changes could do and what the impacts of those changes might be, and what the impacts of those policy recommendations are or are not. Garbage comes in from bureaucrats who are trying to cut things down to make things simple and easy to understand, and lobbyists who are trying to get to one particular point of view or something like that across. And, of course, garbage comes in – garbage goes out.

I don’t think politicians are very interested in looking at and understanding complex systems.

Hackers, and I’ve noticed this in government and working professionally, will spend a lot of time looking at very technical details and trying to understand exactly how these systems work, looking at all the different things that go in and all the different things that might come out; playing all the different scenarios, looking at how all these things interoperate, and then arriving at a very good, almost intrinsic nature and idea of how all these things interrelate, and being able to make really good policy recommendations on those sorts of things, regardless of whether it’s code, regardless of whether it’s finances, regardless of whether it’s ways that the Internet operates.

Hackers are very good at understanding the entire picture and quickly relating their part of it and what power they have to do it, and what the consequences of those things are, and testing the consequences. I guess, as a quick aside, hackers have test environments where they can apply the certain theories and get it to the point where they work.

Government might not have the luxury of having a test environment, but maybe if we had hackers involved in politics, they would be more comfortable and more willing to take small segments of systems, run a lot of those policy changes, see what the impacts of those are, collect good data, and then make better policy recommendations across the whole system, based on what they find in their test environments.

Politicians fundamentally don’t know what a test environment is, and I guess we can see that now with a lot of the crises that just keep happening over and over again. I think hackers should be less prone to making those same mistakes than politicians are.

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Read next: Hackers in Government 3: Viewing Government as a Network

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