The battle of the egos

The local ECT Bill, European data retention rules, and the American Digital Millennium Copyright Act are all proof: the days of a benign technical dictatorship are over. Now the geeks, disillusioned after political defeat, need to counter-attack.
Read time 4min 30sec

There are a lot of disillusioned technical Internet types around SA these days. When the Electronic Communications and Transactions (ECT) Bill came up for discussion, they scoffed at government`s lack of technical ability and its rather slippery grasp on things such as database administration and the domain name system. They then sat back to watch the fun, confident that the superior technical abilities of their tribe would claim victory.

The best option is to co-opt the politicians into existing structures, where they can be watched and prevented from fiddling with the controls.

Phillip de Wet, news editor, ITWeb

Yesterday they breathed a sigh of relief that their utter defeat at the hands of the politicians had been slightly mitigated by a compromise, which does not quite leave the .za domain utterly controlled by the government.

The same thing has been happening with a regular monotony around the world. The American Digital Millennium Copyright Act with its restrictions on reverse engineering and "circumvention technology" is laughable. It is also law. And Europeans are still trying to figure out how those data retention rules got passed by the European Parliament.

Unless the geeks change their attitude, and their tactics, there will be a lot more of the same to come.

The geeks have become the ivory tower academics of our age. They know what the acronym TCP/IP stands for. They can tell the difference between a USB and a Firewire adaptor while blindfolded. They came close to inheriting the earth, financially, during the Internet boom times. Their knowledge, and the world`s seemingly insatiable appetite for it, has made them arrogant.

Their isolation from reality is partly due to this (perceived or real) superiority, partly because highly individualistic people are attracted to the field.

Not that the geeks aren`t aware of the dangers the changing landscape holds to them and their precious boxes and networks. In the last few years they have made the enormous concession of volunteering information, and trying to educate economic and political decision-makers, rather than waiting for these high flyers to come to them.

Of course they have not left behind the sneering superiority, so they either drown their victims in acronyms or skip the information completely and move right on to explaining what opinions the politicians should have and what action they should take.

The politicians

Now your average politician is probably the only known specie that has an ego larger than that of the common geek and is not particularly amenable to this approach. Their kind rule the world, whether openly or from the shadows, and their agendas are little concerned with the stability of the Internet domain name system or the security flaws inherent in Microsoft architecture.

Instead they deal in power, control, and the art of the triple bluff. We can be thankful that the geek and the politician have not clashed more often. In governments around the world, many are eyeing e-commerce tax revenues and the flow of encrypted information that cannot be monitored. Those that have not yet made their move soon will.

Their targets are not the de facto benign dictators like Mike Lawrie, who ran the .za domain as a technical tyrant simply because nobody else was interested. He did a damn fine job, and everybody knows it. But now that the Internet has matured and control of the zone file is suddenly important, he stands in the way. If he and his ilk refuse to move, the political apparatus will cheerfully grind them into dust.

Attack, deviously

In most cases the geeks are on the right side, logically at least. Their technical arguments could hold the day against the sinister socio-economic intentions of the politicos. All they need is a healthy dose of lobbying, a hint of strategy and some non-linear thinking.

The first short-term solution has already occurred to many. There is no use trying to exclude the government from control of the Internet or anything else. The best option is to co-opt the politicians into existing structures, where they can be watched and prevented from fiddling with the controls. Shockingly, this is possible because the ideas of the two sides are not actually as incompatible as the geeks may believe.

That needs to be followed up with lobbying. Political lobbying does not mean pointing out that global technical standards are not open to South African meddling. It means pointing out why the technical route is politically more beneficial to the individual politician involved. It means being slightly devious in playing various interests up against one another and presenting them with a compromise solution once deadlock is reached.

In a word, it means playing at politics. Which is why, in the long run, the geeks had better start genetically engineering a hybrid geek/politician. If the next generation of office bearers is to be sympathetic to their cause, they will have to train them from birth.

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