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James Smith

Building a better future out of code

The Activist Geek Philosophy

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So, first, let's have a stab at identifying the community I'm talking about - this in itself is a pretty hard problem. I guess I'm talking about "activist geeks", in a way. The sort of people who are involved in the work of MySociety, or Social Innovation Camp. The people who go along to events like geeKyoto, or perhaps Interesting. They are the people that go out and create innovative things that make the world better. I can't put any names on a list here, though there are some obvious ones of course, but you will probably know if this is your sort of community or not.

So having made a (very) vague stab at who I'm talking about, what are the core philosophies that come out of that? One caveat: obviously this is my own personal viewpoint, and implies absolutely nothing on behalf of those examples linked above. I could be completely wrong on all of this (though I'd invite comment). I think I am what would traditionally be called "left wing", so my please note that my views may be coloured by that.

Firstly, I think that while there are certain things that do unite the community, they often don't fit along traditional political lines. You cannot say that this community is left-wing for instance; there are certainly members of all political parties involved. We'll come back to some of the things that don't unite us later on, but let's find some common ground first.

Even though many of us share vast amounts of information on various social networks, we have a strong belief in privacy of personal data. Perhaps this is better phrased as belief in control of personal data. I can delete my social network accounts at any time, and can decide who can see them, so I remain in control (as long as I trust the site). On the other side, I will not be able to remove my record from the ID card database or decide who accesses it, so I am not in control of that. This is part of a more fundamental belief in universal human rights.
While personal information should be kept tightly controlled by its owner, information about (and generated by) government and public services should be fully transparent and open. The MP expenses scandal was an example of further erosion of trust in government because of an opaque system that was open to abuse. As they say (I think), sunlight is the best disinfectant. Government operations should be open to public scrutiny, and assets produced by that system (OS maps anyone?) should be freely available to the taxpayers who have paid for them.
I don't think we give a monkeys where someone is from, what their background is, or about their religion, sexuality, or favourite colour. It's just not relevant. The rest of you, get over it.
It always confuses me that a criticism of the left is that it wants to control people. Maybe that's true, in which case I need to recalibrate my open personal compass a little, but my belief is that the community is very much about freedom of the individual. There is a strong anti-authoritarian streak - none of us want to end up in a police state.
Social Conscience
However, the above freedom of the individual does not lead to blind self-interest. I believe that the community is not one of self-interested people with no care for others, but of a group of empowered individuals who actively engage in and make society better.
My final point is that the above lead to a community that is engaged with the world around them. We engage on issues of importance, such as my own personal focus, climate change, and they are interested in the way their society is governed. I believe that those qualities are fundamental for a functioning democracy, and we see that currently most of society does not measure up to that standard (a situation which we try to improve of course).

On the other hand, I seriously doubt we are all united on things like economics (I love that picture), the role of corporations, how to deal with climate change, foreign policy, and so on.

I'm sure there is more that can be said, but I will let it play out in the comments (if anyone wants to add to this). My final question is - if there is a central theme emerging, does that mean we should do something with it in these days when so many of the above viewpoints are rather missing from general society?



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