Saturday 30 October 2010

The hacker ethic: or work as play

Nat Wei (yes, him again, sorry about this) posted a link on Twitter this morning to this report - P2P and Human Evolution. P2P for those not into downloading music illegally (I'm not but that's a different blog post), stands for Peer to Peer. In its first and thus technological meaning it's about sharing data between two nodes or multiple nodes on a network, where a node is you, instead of downloading data from a central server, like you do when you use iTunes. So, it's sharing data i.e. music, electronic books or software, between many people instead of putting it centrally and everyone downloading from that central point.

P2P in the context of this report, I think is a little different and more literal. It removes the technological aspect but the analogy stays the same. I.e. it is a map for society which removes centrality (is that even a word?) and instead replaces it with networks, relationships, reliance and support from us to other people like us. We support each other, person to person, and remove the need for central government to dictate how we will care for each other. It sounds like the removal of the nanny state so many complain about, yet the absence of disestablishment of legistlation is notable in its absence from this.

What really piqued my interest in this report was section 3.1.C.
I wrote about hacking a little bit ago. I tried to explain something of the ethos of a hacker, and what hacking means, that it is not about breaking the law, or obtaining access to things which are deemed by Authority to be off limits for a pre-ordained reason, but rather that it is a way of approaching life - all of it - and making the existing systems and processes which exist everywhere in daily life run more efficiently, fit together better, exist for a reason. Hackers do play with things, the things being the systems and processes. By getting inside either a technological or life process, seeing how it works, deconstructing it and laying it bare, an understanding of the intricacy is gained, mystery is removed and efficiency can be obtained. In other words - chuck the manual out of the window and play with something to see how it works and fits together (a note here - do not refer a geek of any kind to the manual. It's akin to suggesting their IQ is 60 points lower than it is).

Playing, in a lot of peoples minds, is what children do. The time for playing is past when you 'grow up'. There is no value in playing with something, only value in getting straight to the point and producing work as quickly as possible.

I'd like to argue with that, because I play. Lots of us do. I work damn hard but I play in the process of doing it. I play with technology - by pressing different buttons on coffee machines you can get lots of interesting frothy extra sugary combinations in your cup even if the button isn't labelled to tell you this is what happens - and I play with software and code and maps. I play with ideas. I sit in the office and argue the hell with some people who are lovely enough to put up with it, and in the process of playing about with ideas and concepts I come up with hard cold ideas which have had the fluff chipped off around the edges and which are actually something which can be implemented in the big wide world.

Big ideas don't happen in offices. Offices don't encourage thinking. I sit in front of my desk and I look at my screen and I feel guilty for reading my RSS feeds for research, or reading Twitter to catch others sparks which fuel my ideas, because it feels as if it's playing, not valuable, not quantifiable, and therefore not justifiable. But all my ideas, all the things we will be implementing in the near future, all of these things were not ideas I got from sitting at my desk at work. They came while walking to the shop at lunch. They came while smoking a cigarette (I'm on flexi, I knock 10 mins off every day for my two cigarettes I smoke during work time, back in your box), while riding my bike, while belaying my partner, while travelling home. Anywhere but at my desk.

Work is not for play. But in playing with things, testing things, discussing them, wrestling with them, yes I know pontificating about them, comes understanding, then quietness and then spirals of ideas coming from the understanding. Play has it's value. When we were children, we learnt about gravity and sticking molecules together using water to change their state so that the shape we created with those molecules would persist. We played in a sandpit. It had edges, that sandpit. Clearly defined edges over which the sand could not and did not leak. Inside the sandpit, we could be as messy as we liked, pouring water everywhere, creating havoc with bits of shiny plastics, creating waterfalls with bits of spinning plastic and yes, playing, but also yes, finding the edges, but also yes, gaining an understanding which we could take out of the sandpit and apply to life.

I do, as much as it is actually possible in an office in side a Council in Lancashire, have a little bit of a sandpit to play in, and as a result, the organisation gets the best from me. I don't claim for the hours I spend thinking outside of work because I enjoy the thinking - but also because there is a small part of me that frets that people wont understand when they see me sat around talking, that they wont understand the enormous value of that talking,discussing and argueing to me. So instead there is a trade. But I am allowed to think and ask questions and trade knowledge, I am allowed to wander outside my remit sometimes, I am allowed to play. In return, if I think of something I always share it, send emails and tweets at people who I think might like to know even if they can't do something with it right now, and everyone wins.

If we could all start doing that outside of work, if we could all sit in the sandpit and just allow ourselves to play a while without claiming for time, claiming for hours, claiming for money, claiming for brain power, then we could create magical ideas, chip the fluff off the edge of them and then go and inplement them.

I'm going to go implement something myself shortly. It's not my idea, it's someone elses, but the importance of doing as well as talking is not lost on me. But something I'd like to point out to Nat Wei is this. I can offer to teach as many people as want to listen all the tech knowledge I have, all the geek knowledge I have, all the digital and social media knowledge I have - but at the end of the day, I am entirely reliant on local facilities being nice enough to give me space for free to do it within and on the people coming to bring their own tea and coffee.

We need a tea and coffee fund. Sorry, but there it is.


  1. I think its better for people to bring their own tea and coffee. And their own knowledge to chuck into the sandpit.
    I have found when teaching people Anything I learn a lot too. I think that this is the crux of a big society. Everyone trades their thoughts and ideas, and from it great things grow.
    Unlike the top down big brother rules and tick boxes that have governed everything for so long, and designed our sandpits.
    We have to learn to share the toys, share the joys and deal with the problems. JFDI and not worry about the tickboxes, promotion, glory or anything, just do stuff for the fun of doing it.
    I don't know how big society can be measured, I don't think it needs to be. If one area can prove it works, the lessons learnt can be replicated. This is probably why there are beta areas.
    Keep your eyes on the Garden of Eden ...

  2. :O) I am learning the ways of jfdi - I've got homework this weekend.

    I tend to forget that things are two way trades. I've just assumed I will pass knowledge on and nothing will come out of it for me - I don't do things cos they come back though karma tends to take care of things eventually - but that's not why I want to pick it up and pass it on.

    Mostly I want to stop debacles like the Digital Economy Act _ever_ happening again by somehow ensuring that advisory systems are permanently in place with 'panels' of experts on call in specific areas for more detailed breakdowns and interpretation. Huge ideas, huge aspirations. Just so I never have to hear a man stand up in the House of Commons and refer to IP as Intellectual Property when he actually meant Internet Protocol.

    No one should be allowed to look that much of an idiot. The fault is not with the man.