To get things done, be "reasonably unreasonable"

John Graham-Cumming on how he got the UK government to apologize for its past treatment of Alan Turing.

Turing_Plaque.pngIn a recent interview, John Graham-Cumming (@jgrahamc), VP of engineering at Causata, Inc. and a speaker at OSCON 2011, said to change the world, it’s often necessary to act in a “reasonably unreasonable” manner — to go just enough against the norm to effectively rock the boat.

He knows what he’s talking about. In 2009, using a blend of new and old media tools and a bit of geek expertise, Graham-Cumming got the UK government to apologize for its treatment of mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing in the 1950s. Below he discusses the techniques that produced that apology.

Your OSCON session description says people need to be “reasonably unreasonable” to change the world. What does that mean?

JohnGraham_Cumming.jpgJohn Graham-Cumming: You have to be “unreasonable” to get things done. By that, I mean that you have to go against the norm. If you are reasonable and go in the direction of society, then you don’t contribute greatly. Just look at people like Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds. Stallman’s ideas were pretty “unreasonable” at a time when there was a large move to proprietary software. Torvalds was “unreasonable” in thinking that he could build his own kernel and in telling Tanenbaum where to go.

I say “reasonably” because you shouldn’t take being unreasonable so far that people don’t listen to you.

How did you apply that philosophy to your campaign to make the British Government apologize for the mistreatment of Alan Turing?

John Graham-Cumming: The important thing about the Turing campaign was that I felt that people were celebrating Turing without acknowledging the harm done to him by Britain’s laws at the time. I didn’t want people to be able to sweep this under the rug, so I decided to just tell everyone about what happened to him and ask for an apology from the UK government. That was pretty “unreasonable” in the sense that the UK government doesn’t apologize for much, and I thought they would ignore my request.

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What tools did you use in your Turing campaign?

John Graham-Cumming: Twitter was very effective at getting people to hear about the campaign, but it’s an echo chamber and builds pretty slowly. You tend to get the same circle of people mentioning an issue because they care about it, and it’s hard to get it to a large audience.

What really works is having a definitive source of information that people can point to on Twitter. So, when the BBC wrote about the Turing campaign on its website, Twitter was able to amplify that with thousands tweeting — and ultimately signing the petition. In some ways, what Twitter needs is a Wikipedia-style “[citation needed]” so that people take what’s written on it seriously.

Facebook also was helpful, but I think Twitter was much more effective.

I also appeared on countless radio programs, on TV, in print and anywhere else I could. I made myself the focus of the campaign initially, and then when celebrities started signing, I used them to get the media to talk about the campaign.

The important thing to realize with the media is that there needs to be a hook or peg onto which the story they are telling can be hung. So, initially there was some press about the campaign starting, and then I’d badger people in the press when there was a suitable hook — for example, when Richard Dawkins signed and publicly stated his support. You have to look for things to tell the press so they know what to write about.

What kind of code did you use in your campaign, and how did you use it?

John Graham-Cumming: I used a custom Perl script that downloaded the names of the signatories every hour, looked them up on Wikipedia and, using some simple techniques, figured out if they were celebrities of any kind. If they were, then I was sent an email by the script and would try to get in contact with the celebrity to see if I could use his or her name.

How do you translate technical and historical concepts into calls to action?

John Graham-Cumming: You just have to tell a human story. In the case of Turing, this was easy: he was clearly a genius, a war hero, and then he was prosecuted and he committed suicide.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Photo: Turing Plaque by Joseph Birr-Pixton, on Wikimedia Commons


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