Thoughts on a Geek Manifesto.

“If you ask for what you want, you might just get it”, but not quite how you expect.

Geek Manifesto is a detailed summary of the “awakening of the geeks” over the last few years. Covering libel, Science is Vital, going from the #Quacklash to the Nutt Case (congrats to SiV for the most positive name in the book), Mark gives a great recent history tour of science policy and politics.

For policy makers, the following may be true of science history:

Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up (unknown).

But, for the geeks, the following book quote is probably the critical one:

“They didn’t do this in quite the way that geeks had anticipated”

Mark makes good points, and he’s evolving the book in the talks he’s giving, but if party politics is a creature of ideology, “geeks” need to understand how to operate in that world. That the hints are at best oblique is a problem that needs to be solved for the book to reach the highly ambitious goals the community has set.

No2ID has recently learnt the hard way.

The coalition came in promising a new wave of civil liberties. 2 years in, that promise is looking a little more fleshed out than it was then, and that wasn’t quite what No2ID thought they’d won. The ID card database has gone; but No2ID are busier than ever (and less happy).

As Privacy International said at the recent Scrambling For Safety, “the names don’t matter”. The policy juggernaut rolls on, on a pretty similar trajectory to before, whoever is in charge.

The biggest omission from the book, that can be trivially corrected in a future edition, is an understanding that, what you think you want , what “they” think you ask for, and what you get, can be radically different things.

Unless someone in your community is permanently engaged, you will only find the difference between the first two when the third disappoints. That permanent engagement takes resources.

If you’ve ever heard an epidemiologist and a social scientist  talk about the same data from a different perspective (replacing disciplines as appropriate), they often fail to understand each other. There is a language barrier which often results in specialists using either different words to mean the same thing, or the same words to mean totally separate concepts.

But that gap is trivial compared to the difference between people who believe more in facts than winning and argument; and those who go the other way. This is a fundamental part of C.P. Snow’s divide, which, in this context, is science vs politics (a topic Bill Thompson & Ben Goldacre covered at OpenTech in 2009).

“Evidence Based Policy” means different things to different people, in part, depending on whether your base is evidence or politics in foundation. Fundamentally, a key differentiator between “the geeks” and others, is whether you care more about facts than being right.

Mark is right that policy evidence can get fixed; but the end of the book doesn’t seem to offer any practical recipe, idea, or guidance on doing so. That’s perfectly fine, but Manifestos generally do. It’s the doughnut, without the jam. In 5 years time, this book will be even more important than it is now.

However, to quote Clay Johnson, “it’s time to go all Lessig on the place”. Soon.

PS — to be clear, if you’re not sure about the book, I strongly suggest you go along to hear Mark speak, and ask your question. You’ll (probably) get a highly useful and insightful answer, but probably one that was missing from the book. But then, maybe the book wasn’t aimed at you.

May 2012
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