On a difference between wonks and geeks…

03/01/2004

Here’s a suggested difference between geeks and policy wonks that might go some distance towards making the two groups get on with one another better. It is my contention that the two groups simply have radically different registers and types of interaction. Policy wonks – like all politically oriented people – are encouraged to think in terms of combative point-making. The most respected and well-thought through acts of Parliament being those that have been fought over the most. The most convincing politicians are the ones who have solid positions that they can stick with and defend. Political life is a combative life, with positions being tested and retested before they’re taken out into the world. In terms of doing things you want to know that the thing you’re going to do is the right thing before you get too far down the line, particularly when the consequences of getting things wrong are so potentially enormous.

The life of the creative geek community is very different. The atmosphere of an event like ETCon is not one of absolutist positions (or at least it is on occasion but it’s mostly frowned upon), but of gradual accretion, iteration and development. Particularly (but not exclusively) in those realms where development requires time but not a lot of capital investment, ideas are thrown out into the world to see if they’ll stand or fall. Those that succeed are iterated upon. Those that fail are either abandoned or taken further by other groups who will try to solve the errors and mistakes that surround them. In terms of making things, each new idea is expected to be flawed and clumsy and full of holes and everyone knows it and works from that point onwards. It’s the model of the technologist community as competitive craftspeople, and it operates on the assumption that whether something will be successful or unsuccessful / useful or useless is something that must be left up to how people interact with it and its take-up with a community. You make it the best you can, in the way you think is right, and let the world decide if you got it right…

I think this is the distinction that explains why there are so many disagreements between the groups. One group looks for immediate application where there may be only potential. One group sees possibility where there is no immediate practical benefit. And in talking to each group, you have to use a different register. There’s no point talking RDF to policy wonks, because they’ll see no application until you can show them something made with RDF that they consider actually politically useful. And there’s no point telling technologists that their creations are politically naive, because they’ll consider them works in progress, building from a position of naivety towards – in time – something legitimately useful and ground-breaking.

It’s a difficult job – understanding which register to use in which circumstance – but it’s an important one for those people who have to straddle disciplines. Because one way or another they’re going to have to work with geeks or wonks who will by necessity have a very different mind-set. Being aware of the distinction will not only create the possibility of legitimate discussion (and minimise the possibility of large cross-disciplinary enmities) but also inspire actual creativity to emerge between the disciplines…