Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

No politics please, we're hackers, too busy to improve the world

If there is one thing that never ceases to amaze me it is that the hacker community tends to place itself outside and by their own perception above politics. This is evidenced in many ways including ‘safe spaces’ and moratoria on discussing anything political because it has no bearing on the more interesting bits of IT.

What bugs me about this is that anything you make or do has a political dimension, and that hackers, more than any other profession, create the tools and the means with which vast changes in the political landscape are effected. It’s as if arms dealers and manufacturers refuse to talk about war, the ultimate consequence of the tools they create in the environment where they will be used.

Both from an ethical viewpoint as well as from one related to personal responsibility this is simply wrong. The ability to influence with disproportional effect on the outcome of all kinds of political affairs compared to someone not active in IT, the ability to reach large numbers of people, the ability to pull on very long levers, far longer than you’d normally be able to achieve comes with some obligations.

Hackers, computer programmers and associated groups can not afford this Ostrich mentality, burying their head in the ground as to the consequences of their work as long as they can play with their shiny toys. Between ‘Wikileaks’ and ‘Cambridge Analytica’ it should be more than clear by now that computer programming as a trade has effects that are felt the world over, and that if you feel that you should be granted a safe, politics free space to discuss your trade then that probably should be limited to hobby programming only. As soon as you and your software hit the real world politics will rear its ugly head.

One of the best examples to me are the disconnect between Paul Graham’s (founder of Hacker News) tweet where he’s shocked there is a 16% chance of winning the presidency and the Hacker News Political Detox Week.

As if that was needed, HN has a tendency to try to squelch any political debate anyway.

Whether you’re working on some cool ad technology, a way for people to reach others with 140 character bursts of text, a way for people to connect to their class-mates, a way to make it easier for people to find information on the web or to collect all the news outlets of the world in one portal everything has a political dimension and sometimes that political dimension can overshadow all other aspects of the project. This translates into an obligation to engage the political angle of whatever it is that we collectively produce in order to minimize feelings of regret later on and to really help to make the world a better place, rather than just to pay lipservice to that concept.

You simply can not afford to stick your head in the ground and your fingers in your ears because you don’t like politics, if you’re not careful you may end up complaining about the end result of your own product. So if what just about every hacker is proud to claim is true (that they are ‘busy improving the world’) then you can’t afford to ignore politics any more than a manufacturer of weapons can afford to know nothing about armed conflict. Because whether you like it or not your work product will be used in ways you may not have thought about, and could even be used against you.

edit: predictably, this was posted to HN, equally predictably, it got flagged off the homepage by the Ostrich brigade because just talking about political responsibility is politics and we really can’t be exposed to that. The overvaluing of Silicon Valley Unicorns is still riding happily at #2.