April 25, 2014

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Slate: Just Say No to Politics

Slate, a smart online magazine that normally urges citizen involvement in politics, published today a commentary by Paul Boutin, urging citizens who happen to be geeks not to participate in the political process.

Boutin argues (as others have before) that geeks should stick to writing code – that freedom is a Simple Matter of Programming. This was true back when the law ignored technology. Now the danger is different. A ban on broad classes of technology, or on entire areas of development, cannot be programmed around.

Boutin’s argument is especially mystifying when it is applied – as it is by Boutin – to DARPA’s now-famous Total Information Awareness program. According to press accounts, this program would accumulate information about Americans’ commercial transactions, for wide-ranging analysis by law enforcement agencies If you don’t like this program, you can’t stop it by writing code.

It’s easy to make fun of clueless geeks’ pathetic attempts to exert political muscle, like the campaign for Rep. Coble’s libertarian-blogger opponent. It’s clear that we geeks can’t go toe-to-toe with their adversaries. But that isn’t to say that we should just resign themselves to whatever Washington dishes out. The right argument, presented in the right way, can still make a difference.

Boutin is right about one thing: political muscle isn’t the answer. Let’s face it, muscle has never been our strong suit. What we need is to do what we do best: to use our brains.

[Footnote for non-geeks: The phrase "Simple Matter of Programming" is an ironic geek in-joke that geeks like to use to refer to notoriously unsolvable problems. By analogy, the eradication of poverty is a "simple matter of economics," or achieving world peace is a "simple matter of international relations."]