February 17, 2004
Danny on the hacker ethic

In other news, Danny has written a great piece on the nature of hacking - the section on FaxYourMP sums up our ethos a treat... and I'd forgotten that Danny, Stef and I had orginally toyed with Doing Fun Stuff With MP's Pagers, until we realised it'd be hugely illegal!

A great hack takes all the existing rules - written and unwritten - and and sets up a new play which is so clearly representative of the consensus underlying the codified game that no-one can argue with it. It doesn't break the game, it extends it.


We crafted FYMP explicitly as a hack on the political system. It's aesthetics and techniques are drawn directly from the hacking tradition (in the sense of the Jargon File, not the sense of the computer cracker of course).
FaxYourMP provides something which some (by no means all, but some) MPs really don't want - a low-cost way of hassling your elected representative.

It's really hard to object to this, because the rules of the game state that MPs represent their constituents. Over time, other forces - party political and the media mainly - have bypassed those rules so that some MPs do very little constituent tending. This is a gaming that has been very hard to stop. Bad MPs have a lot of excellent techniques for avoiding their constituents. Some are just inaccessible. Some have a great excuse that they try to meet with their constituents, but those apathetic buggers simply refuse to turn up to the surgeries.

We knew that the inaccessibility excuse was just rubbish. If Mr Blair gave your MP a call, they'd be very accessible very quickly. Mr Blair isn't your MP's boss, by the stated rules of the game. You are.

We thought that these days, surgeries were a bit of an anachronism. You shouldn't have to wait until your MP breezes back to your hometown for a chat. It should be incumbent on MPs to improve contact with their voters, not hide behind old systems.

We also knew that all MPs had fax machines, because that's what the infrastructure of party organisation required. (Secrets of FYMP - our original, more radical plan, was to make it an SMS to pager gateway. Tony Benn describes Labour backbenchers as being "pager-controlled", and we thought - ooh, we want a bit of that.)

By setting up the fax gateway - a dirt cheap tech fix, we took those excuses away, and didn't provide any new ones. We tried to rig the forces that broke the MP/constituent link to work for us. When a fax machine doesn't work, it's not us that has to fix it. It's the whip's office, who need to keep in touch with their MP. When MPs don't reply to faxes, we don't do anything. We just alter the public statistics, which the press read and respond to.

But best of all, it's really hard for people to complain about our existence, because we're working within the rules of the game. In fact, people now think we're *part* of the rules of the game. A sizeable minority of people using FYMP think we're a government service, and get angry at us when they're MP doesn't reply.

So that's a hack. Great hacks flourish not in simple codified systems, but in complex social settings too. Part of the growth of hacker culture, the bedrock of the wider technical culture that has grown in the last decade, is realising that the complex aesthetics of hacking can be applied to other areas: social, political, philosophical.

Posted by tomski at February 17, 2004 04:49 AM | TrackBack
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