Politics and the Geeks

Johann Botha

$Id: article.xml,v 1.0 2003/06/29 12:23:13 joe Exp $

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My view on why the Geeks need to learn the game of politics. Being a Geek and being a political junkie may not be mutually exclusive.

Geeks tend to forget the role politics plays in progress. What good is a technology if it is not adopted ?. Some ideas are so revolutionary that they are too early for their time. There is a window of time in which people are susceptible to a new idea. I think the real challenge is to find those ideas that fall into that window, spawn innovation and create technology that is adopted rapidly, to change the world.

Politics is the art of controlling your environment. I get the feeling a good understanding of what motivates people to change their environment is useful when trying to find these new ideas.

Just Push Them Too Far


The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

 --George Bernard Shaw

Most Geeks seek to avoid conflict. They choose the path of least resistance, they avoid the complexity of dealing with people, the unpredictability. They try to avoid politics.

I was told you cant escape politics, but I challenged that idea. I know, because I tried for a long time. I dont watch the news, in fact I dont watch any television and even though I worked for a news and media company for two years and the daily paper was delivered to my desk for free, I never read the newspaper. I like living on my little island, with a barricade all around. Clean and simple.

Something got me thinking why I try so hard to avoid politics. The answer is simple. I dont care. It's a waste of time. The big political waves dont affect my environment directly. There has been no major threats to the values and concepts and way of thinking I hold dear.

This changed recently. For me the reason was the South African ECT Bill, with a dash of the DMCA laws and some DRM issues on the side. Some of these laws so clearly suck you get the feeling IQ's just dropped suddenly.

I realised that the little niche of and island I live on is threatened by external forces. There are people out there that dont share my values and views and want to do things differently than I think they should be done.

Since the 1960's the Geeks have been building a network. The Internet. Yes, the Geeks built it. We have created standards. The standards evolved and improved. We have created operating systems and solved very complex problems logically, efficiently and elegantly. (ok, maybe not Sendmail and Bind)

My point is: we have refined the process of proposing and finding solutions so far, that on some days you tend to forget that we ever disagree. It's usually so simple to see the better solution because we share the same values. Logic. Efficiency. The Scientific Way. Trial and Error.

How can a thousand people distributed around the world build the world's most pure free operating system even though most of them have never met each other ?. We just agree I guess. Crazy as it might sound, this has become a weakness. The Geek culture does not breed political junkies.

What happens if people who dont share these values, who dont have a solid understanding of the technical issues and who are not a part of this community start to enforce their views on things that affect our environment ? The Geeks get pushed around. The Geeks get annoyed.

And that is the key. To get the Geeks interested in politics, you simply have to push them too far. They will react. Simple. How effective is that reaction, how do we organise and channel that response ? The Geeks need to make their voice heard.

Politics, like most things must be governed by a few simple rules. It can be deterministic, we can learn these rules, and that is what Geeks are good at, learning the rules and hacking new angles to manipulate these rules. We are fast learners, we have to adapt.

We have to adapt, because we are no longer alone in the Information and Communication Technology space. Governments want to regulate, shape and control it. It's no longer the wild west. ICT is becoming a common denominator in society. It is no longer just the realm of the Geeks. Everyone now depends on the networks we built.

If we want a say in the future of ICT we need to start thinking like politicians. We need some political Geeks.

The ECT Incident

Around June 2002 the Electronic Communications and Transactions Bill was submitted to the South African Parliament. We were a bit late in realising what implications this bill could have if it became law.

There was a nasty showing of teeth when the government simply took control if the .za domain name space, even though there had been a process underway to hand over control to a body called namespace.org.za. This little standoff grabbed all the media attention.

Part of the bill contained a section on 'critical databases', which was defined just vague enough so you could argue the government could name any database critical, walk in and control it... 1984 stuff.

There was an uber dumb section requiring all providers of cryptography to be registered for some silly fee. The logic seemed to have been that providers of cryptography products could somehow be forced to reverse the spell and simply decode information the government wanted to view. The fundamental problem here is that if a crypto provider could easily decode information encoded with their product.. they would not be in business. A concept simple enough for most people to understand.. but not the people writing the bill. In the history of dumb ideas...

Another interesting contradiction happened. The people writing the bill overlooked the fact that you cant just slap extra requirements onto software under the GNU Public License. Requiring people to register cryptographic software in South Africa is like forcing the GPL to jump through a hoop. The contradiction is that the South African government is claiming to support Open Source Software.. yet they are making laws and creating and environment where we cant use GPL software.


The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is its inefficiency. An efficient bureaucracy is the greatest threat to liberty.

 --Eugene McCarthy, Senator and Congressman

I think both the people writing the ECT bill and some of the geeks who stepped up to the plate to bat in this round were a bit over ambitious. Both made mistakes. Both looked bad.

We have a framework now. A framework to regulate the digital world. It's nice and vague. Vague enough to be very scary, yet vague enough that most people dont give it any thought.. I wonder if a single dummy registered as a crypto provider yet ? Sucker.

On the positive side. The issues are out there now, we have to talk about them. The geeks are learning new things. We are learning how to control our environment.