They may have the money, but we have the tools of technology

Text from my 89plus Marathon speech at the Serpentine gallery, 19/10/13

October 24, 2013

Usually I make things with computers. On the rare times I stand on a stage it’ll be to show my work, with slides and a pitch, but I don’t really have any work to show you this evening. I don’t have a TED style neatly packaged ‘idea worth spreading’. I’ve been asked to come and share some thoughts based on my experiences as a young practitioner in today’s world, which I got quite excited about. I’ve got opinions, I reckon. But I’m not used to just standing here and articulating thoughts. So I’ve written them all down.

Also as it’s based on my experiences, I need to talk about some context, which I’m afraid means I have to talk about myself for a bit. I hope you understand it’s important for this talk and not just my vanity.

So that’s all the apologising out of the way.

I went to a London comprehensive, called Woodbridge High School. OFSTED reports had it hovering around ‘average’ among similar schools. That’s about 60% of students getting 5 A-Cs at GCSE. Put frankly, the education was awful. I can list everything I learnt from the curriculum in my time there: a little bit about the war poets from a teacher who was quickly seduced into the private education sector, some cold war history, and that using your year 8 speech to speak out against homophobia gets you beaten up. I looked forward to being a grown up, being my own boss, and playing with the real world.

I was incredibly fortunate. At the age of 13, from my comfortable bedroom I began to tinker with computers. I got interested in a new technology called Ruby on Rails, an opinionated framework for making interactive websites, around which more intelligent and experienced people openly discussed and shared best practices and code. I learnt along with them, and within a couple of years, it turned out that knowledge was very profitable. Working as a programmer enabled me to drop out of my A levels, sidestep the recession, the generational debt and the joblessness being handed to all of my peers and was able to work in whatever industry or company intrigued me. By the time I was 23, I had worked in Business Continuity, the Music industry, Media, Advertising and Design. It was like industrial tourism: a never ending series of internships, except I was valued and got paid, sometimes very well.

You might think the BBC news website article narrative here charts how a boy in his twenties taught himself to code, left school and founded a dynamic startup. It could have been an iPhone app that sold a few million copies, an industry disrupting platform for whatever, or (if I was feeling fluffy and socially conscience) a social innovation startup, perhaps enabling homeless people to become just like me, a self-reliant self-starting entrepreneur!

All very tempting, but these saccharin narratives of geek boy done good carry a political message that I’m not comfortable with. People are incredibly excited in and outside of tech and in the mainstream media about specific aspects of the tech world. They are fascinated by profits, newness and the political issues of data protection and surveillance. But beyond this there is a severe lack of debate about how the tech community participates in our socio economic context. Because for all the excitement around the new powers of technology, the tech community became one of the most powerful practitioners of the neo liberal agenda, with only some of us noticing. If you look around the most hyped areas of the technology industry, at best you’ll see no mention of government, at worst an active interest in shrinking it. On the screen I’ve put together a super cut of a genre called ‘Design Fiction’. Typically, a creative agency somewhere gets a contract with a big technology company to show their future vision of the world, and how they fit in it. It’s like corporate sponsored science fiction. They are soulless worlds where healthy successful people go to work in empty offices, then go home to their shiny expansive but empty homes. Again, government isn’t mentioned.

But it’s not that I think all software developers are neo-liberals. In fact, it seems we’re working hard to not notice. A few months ago Bruce Sterling made a keynote address at NextWeb conference. It contained some harsh truths for the conference hall of eager entrepreneurs. I’ll quote a bit to give you an idea.

“In the startup world, you work hard and you move fast to make other people rich. Other people. You’re a small elite of very smart young people who are working hard for an even smaller elite of mostly baby boomer financiers. So they can buy national governments, shut the governments down, destroy the middle class and the nation state… That will be the judgement of history for your startup culture… It was a tacit allegiance between the hacker space favelas of the startups and offshored capital and tax avoidance money laundries. We’re all auto colonialised by the austerity”

There was basically no media coverage and the audience seemed to stare down at their phones, only laughing nervously at the most intense moments. On YouTube it’s currently only got 1,200 views, unlike these videos that get millions. This is the dominant narrative for the future. Why is this?

Many developers I speak to shy away from politics. They comfort themselves with ideas of our community being meritocratic, that the good guys will win out over partisan and agenda based politics because we are working towards a more logical, educated society. This is, of course, the same lie as the fully informed rational consumer of market liberalisation. They shrug when it’s pointed out that we’re nearly all white middle class men. The discussions around women in technology have only just started, and boy do they get defensive about it, and we haven’t even begun discussing class based privilege, so repellant is the idea of discussing something as political in our rational meritocratic nirvana. ‘Check your privilege’ is an idea that flies directly in the face of our self narratives of the underdog nerd proving himself with his intelligence and well meaning intentions.

Our generation is generally adverse to ideologies. I don’t have too much of a problem with this. I find that Ideologies often cause nothing but obstacles to those people who are actually getting things done. But as developers we are both close to the ground, and have real power. In his new short book “The new Kingmakers”, Stephen O’Grady very effectively makes the case that software developers are just that. It’s time we stopped making toys for quite rich people to make very rich people even richer.

So instead I’m currently working at the Ministry of Justice, and I’ve been encouraging everyone I know to join the public sector. Our numbers are growing. Currently, in the UK Cabinet Office, the Government Digital Service has one of the best digital teams in the country. And they’re succeeding. It started life as a tiny team in a disused floor of a government building in south London, building a prototype to prove that it could be done. The watching civil servants said ‘that’s nice work. but it’ll never go live’. They got funding to grow and build a beta, with real plans on replacing DirectGov. The watching civil servants said ‘that’s nice work. but it’ll never go live’. One year ago this week, DirectGov was turned off, and GOV.UK became the government’s home page. In April it won design of the year.

Alliance the next day. I got chatting with them about GOV.UK’s award. The amount of disgust expressed surprised me. In my sheltered world, I had never met anyone who had such a negative opinion. Intrigued, I spent the next half an hour trying to figure out why. I got a lot of emotions, but not a lot of sense. Words like “I don’t like it, I’m the customer so I’m right” were muttered, ignoring the huge amounts of user research, testing and iterative improvements that were made. They didn’t seem to care that it was proving we could save millions, if not billions of tax payers money.

I have a suspicion. I suspect that the idea of the public sector not only doing something well but better than most of the private sector offends them. Turns out the best way to piss off market libertarians is to make government work.

Sure, I hear moans from Silicon Roundabout that the government is sucking up all the best talent in London, but while they’re saying that, GOV.UK increased signups to the organ donations register by 10,000 every month with just a bit of clever A/B testing as a side project. I could be working on your socially network website that tries to convince parents that fruitshoot isn’t awful for their kids (I have actually done that), or I could be doing what I’m doing now, helping bring real change to the office of the public guardian so they can do their job better. They provide support for those caring for someone who has lost mental capacity, whilst checking that the carer isn’t abusing their position.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love the software developer community. I love being a part of it and I’m constantly excited about what we are doing. But I’m also frustrated. We seemed to have been coerced into working for a future that we didn’t sign up for. But hopefully, as anger amongst my generation grows at the world that has been handed to us, maybe more of us will realise that they may have the money, but we have the tools of technology.

Those are some thoughts. As I mentioned I don’t have a neatly packaged up conclusion for you, but I hope they have been interesting.

Thank you.

For more content you can see all of my posts, or read about me.


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