Hackers in Government 3: Viewing Government as a Network

Continuing to differentiate between politicians and hackers, Nick Farr emphasizes the gap in terms of the discrepancy of network infrastructure perception.

Common Features of Computer Networks and Government Structure

Analogy in digital and governmental networks Another quick thing to sort of think about hackers and government: look at government as if it was a network system (see image). I’m hoping that in the discussion that will follow this people will start thinking of how government fundamentally looks like a network infrastructure.

You wouldn’t normally think about it, because network infrastructures tend to be very ordered, discreet, running on the same policies, and government is this big nebulous bureaucratic thing that doesn’t really follow any kind of apparent logic or understanding.

But in a fundamental way, I think they are the same thing and you can look at them as the same thing. You have server farms that provide services to a user base. Governments have agencies that provide services to a user base. Networks run on protocols, run in predictable manners. Even though they might not share any kind of logic that is apparent to people, government agencies provide services according to a set standard and a set protocol. It might not be published, it might not be open – you know, there aren’t man pages for government agencies, but even still there is a fundamental guiding logic order in administrative law to agencies in Western democracies.

On a network side you have predictable resource allocation, you have fixed bandwidth, you have fixed power, you have a fixed number of people that you can serve with your given environment. Agencies and government as a whole follows those same constraints that resources are allocated according to the budgets that are given to a lot of these agencies.

Even though we might not like to think of the Internet as a centralized structure, in the ways that the Internet has failed recently, we can see that certain core problems in central areas can impact the entire network. It’s the same thing with government: if you have a failure in one central organization, that failure can cascade across many different agencies in unpredictable ways.

Networks have interdependencies; government agencies have interdependencies; everything is linked together. Even though government agencies might like to think that they operate independently, they are still all interdependent. And when you have failures in small parts of government, those failures can cascade up, whether the consequences of those failures are seen right away or not incredibly immediate. And that’s one key difference between networks and governments. When a network is broken, you know it right away; when the government is broken, the failures of that brokenness can tend to take a while to get implemented over time.

Different Approaches to the Same Problems

Hackers would treat the governmental network differently So, let’s take that sort of magical assumption that I made going at here: “What if one day we woke up, and instead of politicians in charge we had hackers in charge?” The first thing that I think would change immediately that you’d notice in the morning papers is that hackers would be courageous and say: “Look, I’ve looked at the books here; I’ve looked at the way these agencies function: there’s waste, fraud, abuse, we’re carrying a lot more debt than our ability to service that debt, and here’s what we have to do to address those kind of debts.” Hackers should be unafraid to just put it out there. And as we’ve seen with debt crises, both here on the European side and in the United States, politicians keep kicking the can down the road. And I think hackers fundamentally don’t do that.

Another thing, regardless of what this current topic is or what the focus is: hackers like to study things. Hackers like to know and have answers to all of the questions that come up. And every little bit of knowledge that hackers discover spawns more questions. Hackers are good at consulting with other people around them; they’re good at knowing who knows what kinds of information, how to ask the right questions to get the information they need from those persons, and how to apply that information directly. I think, to be a hacker you have to have that little intrinsic understanding and ability to look at big complex things, not being intimidated by them; and study, and research, and look at things until you understand the way that those sorts of things work.

Another thing that hackers are really good at is having the imagination, after understanding these big technical systems, to propose creative solutions to them. We don’t see a lot of creative thinking in government; government does not encourage the kinds of people and the kinds of solutions that are completely revolutionary, that are completely out of the ordinary. People who work in government generally don’t have a big sense of imagination; they don’t have the courage to try things that are really off the wall, whereas all of the big products that we’ve seen coming out of the hacker community are really revolutionary solutions to things, coming from a sense of imagination that I think the larger population doesn’t have. Hackers are fundamentally more creative, more imaginative, and operate without the same kind of limits that I think non-hackers put on themselves.

Hackers know that there are things that don’t operate exactly according to plan.

When I was asked during an interview recently: “Define chaos,” I said: “Chaos is looking at the world without these sorts of limits, without thinking of the world as a very highly ordered, highly structured thing,” because the world is not a highly ordered, highly structured thing; it’s chaotic, it’s natural, it’s like nature, and we’ve created these large technical systems and economies that function in ways that we can’t control completely and that we can’t understand.

And I think hackers operate in that world of chaos; they know that there are things that don’t operate exactly according to plan. They know that there are fuzzy failures for sorts of things, and they know how to look at that and apply solutions and work in that environment. I think that sort of thinking is what we sorely lack in governments all over the world today. They are more interested in: “How do I patch the problem now? How do I apply more bad code, more bad laws on top of all the other bad laws?” They don’t think: “How can I get rid of all this cruft and create something that’s really good, that effectively utilizes resources, that is easy for people to understand?”

I think that if hackers came into government, they would look at code, they would look at tax laws, they would look at administrative law, and start saying: “That’s not right, we don’t need that, let’s get rid of it. We don’t need that, let’s get rid of it,” and get back to a system that functions as advertised, as it works, and have the courage to actually go ahead and do that.

The courage is something that I think politicians fundamentally lack. If politicians acted the way that hackers act – in the boardroom, in the cube farm, in businesses or in government – they wouldn’t have gotten to where they are, that governments in Western democracies operate in the way that encourages lies, that encourages deception, that encourages political expediency, that encourages kissing up to the person above you, not telling them the truth.

Read previous: Hackers in Government 2: Principal Differences Between Hackers and Politicians

Read next: Hackers in Government 4: Discretionary Spending That Produces No Value

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