Hackers in Government 6: Questions and Answers

In the final part of the keynote, Nick Farr gets to provide answers to some relevant questions on the subject matter from the audience at SIGINT.

I suggest that we start a little bit of a discussion now, so I’m glad or take some questions.

Question: That all sounds extremely interesting; the only question I have is in what political system would you see that work, because in democracies we see all over the very same way politics work. For example, in Germany, the CCC is being consulted quite regularly by commissions before laws are enacted, only to find out that even if they make an extremely convincing point, the way it is redacted is complete bullshit. And it still gets voted, because the decision is not taken on the factual merits of the law, but on political dealings which take place elsewhere.

Answer: I think, fundamentally, any political system suffers that same problem, whether you have a parliamentary democracy or a one-party system. If people who are not interested in the truth are in power, they’re not going to listen to the people who are trying to tell them what they need to hear, and they’re not going to implement solutions based on that. You see this in Red China, you see this in the United States, you see this in the European Union.

And that’s the problem. I think politicians, regardless of whatever system they’re in, are experts in lies, deception, pacifying, whatever interest happened to be at bay, which is, I think, the core point here: hackers don’t play that game, fundamentally. Like I said, it’s a bit of the utopian solution, but I think the only way to really implement – and I’m not advocating violent revolution here – I’m pointing out the fact that we need more people who tell truth to power in whatever government we have.

And that’s the other part here: I’m not proposing that we kill all the politicians and replace them all with hackers; I don’t even think that would be a good solution. I think I just lost a security clearance there. I think politicians can’t be held more accountable as a rule, and unfortunately I don’t have a good quick fixer, easy solution; there are no real easy solutions. I’m just saying identifying the problem and saying that hackers are uniquely equipped to solve it.

Assumption: hackers tend to suck at democracy Question: Ok, so my comments kind of go in the same direction, because I fully agree with what you’re saying about creating good policies regarding complex systems; that’s something hackers probably can do a lot better than politicians right now. But I’ve got this theory, and I’m probably going to get flamed for that now, but I think that hackers generally suck at democracy. There are counterexamples to this, like Debian, but generally, first of all – we can’t explain things. I mean, my sister doesn’t know what I’m doing. So, this is a problem. If you want to get votes, or if you want to be elected, you have to be able to explain what you’re doing, and most hackers I know suck at that, at least when they’re talking to an audience with lesser technical knowledge. And if we kind of self arrange, if you look at how hacker projects are self-arranged power structures, it’s generally something pretty close to being either a very weird kind of committee, or even a dictatorship. This is based on knowledge, and it’s a good thing, it’s very efficient, it’s great stuff, and it’s really cool if you want to create a piece of software, but if you want to create social equality, I’m not so sure.

Answer: That’s a valid point; I sadly don’t have too much of a response to that other than to say that hackers, I think, fail at bureaucracy, but I don’t think hackers necessarily fail at leadership. I think that hackers have that leadership potential. And again, when hackers are attempting to explain incredibly technical systems, they’re looking at very discreet code, small things, and explaining where it gets from code to function, whereas governments, even though they are incredibly dense and complex technical systems, I think people are more familiar and more comfortable with understanding the role of what government does and what it doesn’t. People look at the news and they read: “Government did this”. They don’t read that open source project X created this new library, or something like that. At least the hackers that I’ve seen, that are incredibly technically competent, are good at explaining how government works, if only because people are more receptive to it and to hear that. But otherwise, I think that the main point that you were trying to make that hackers as a whole tend to have certain failure points at democracy is absolutely valid.

Question: Hi Nick! Thank you very much for the great talk! I do agree that we need more hackers in government, because I think we need different mindsets in government. But I’m afraid I also believe that this would not be enough, because beyond that we would have to change the political system, because the political system we are facing, democracy, is a highly hierarchical and highly corrupt system. And I’m afraid that hackers, even if they have a nice mindset that suits better for problem solution, would get frustrated in that system and they would get sucked in and corrupt. So, I don’t see a solution for that other than fighting corruption and trying to make the political system more open and transparent. What’s your point on that?

Answer: I guess my point to that is: regardless of whatever political structure you have, once you give any set of people any kind of power, the tendency to abuse it and the potential for that grows. It really doesn’t matter on this system that people will, if you give them power without checks, tend to abuse it. The thing that I see in the hacker community is that sort of bigheadedness and the corruption that comes with an increase in power is not tolerated in the hacker community.

I don’t believe as much in the change of system as the change of outlook. I believe in more truth, transparency, openness; and hackers advocate for that. And I think hackers are the least susceptible group of people to the kind of corruption that power creates.

And it’s really system-interdependent; it doesn’t really matter what political system you’re operating under. Anytime you create ways of compensating for things like that, people will find ways around them. The political system in the United States was designed to sort of eliminate and create checks and balances on power. But as we’ve seen over the past 200-something years, people have found lots of little nice and easy convenient ways to talk around that, and to sort of circumvent the system controls that were designed in there.

Hackers, I think, understand circumvention of system’s rules and know how to identify them and how to patch for them. And that’s a strong reason I think that hackers would be good in whatever government you have in there, as long as they continue to hold and check and keep each other accountable. Next question?

Question: I think it’s not that simple. You can say: “Let’s put all the hackers in the government,” but I think there are still some problems you cannot solve that way. I think it’s a very complex system.

Answer: No, it is a complex system and I was proposing some policy solutions that were driven by hackers, but, like I said, nothing is really that simple. At best I was just trying to illustrate the difference between the politician’s mindset and the hacker mindset, and that when it comes to government, I think, the hacker mindset is more appropriate.

I also think that hackers, as a general rule, tend to get disgusted with politics precisely because it’s such a diametrically opposite way of thinking about things and looking at systems. And if anything, the only solution that I have for that is to just give it some patience. Think of it as a system that is uncooperative, that you don’t understand.

It’s interesting that if you give a hacker a piece of code that is not functioning correctly, that they don’t really understand how it works, they will spend hours, days, weeks, years trying to understand, trying to work it out, fuzzing the code, figuring things out. If hackers had that same patience for government, which, even though it doesn’t appear to be as logical a system and is not as logical a system, can still be treated in the same way if you devote time and resources to understanding it and proposing it. I’m saying hackers should have more patience with government to try to keep it more accountable and open, but aside from that, yeah, there are no simple solutions to anything. There are problems that evade complexity of many different types.

Comment: Thanks a lot for your talk! Just because I think it’s completely unrealistic, it’s actually über-romantic, I would call it, but that’s ok for a keynote, I like that.

Answer: You’re a Marxist, you would say that…

Comment: No, I’m not a Marxist specifically, but I can talk about that. Ok, my basic statement would be that I know people in the hacker community who do not talk to other people just because they use a different operating system – talking about democracy in the hacker system. The interesting thing about the hacker system is that it works because it’s a system based on reputation, and people are doing stuff here because they want to show that they are good, that there’s competition going on. It’s an interesting way, but of course, there is the same kind of not, like, corruption, but the same thing that you complained about in the political system and with politicians, happens in the hacker system the same way, but at a completely different level, because there is no actual money around, there are different other ways.

The power structures in the hacker community work not so completely different than the structures in the political system, I would say. And if you see the discussion of the Pirate Party in Germany here, you can actually see what happens if people from the hacker community end up in politics, and they fuck up even worse than the Green party in certain elements of what they’re doing. Still, I’m looking forward to see what will happen in the future with the Pirate Party, because there is a certain amount of possibility that it might work, but let’s see.

Answer: The only thing I have to say to that, with the respect to the Pirate Party in Germany, is that they are hackers operating in a fundamentally different system; they are not at the point where they’re a minority party cutting deals or becoming part of some kind of other coalition. They’re very focused on what their agenda is. I think they’re ignoring a lot of other things and they don’t have a comprehensive platform; that they’re very focused on the issues that they are focused on. I don’t necessarily think that it’s a bad thing, and yes, at the same time hackers don’t have the intrinsic knowledge for operating in illogical political systems. I think a lot of the critiques I hear are absolutely correct, and I don’t have a response for them.

Read previous: Hackers in Government 5: Addressing the Economic and Climate Change Problems

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