I read this piece in the New York Times the other day and have read it two or three more times since then. It dives into the controversy around DARPA’s involvement in hacker space funding. But frankly, every time I come across this controversy, I’m baffled.
I usually associate this sort of government distrust with Tea Party-led Republicans. The left, and even many of us in the middle, generally have more faith in government institutions. We’re more likely to view government as a tool to implement the collective will of the people. Lots of us figure that government is necessary, or at least useful, to accomplish things that are too big or hairy for any other group of citizens to achieve (in fact, a careful reading of Hayek will show even he thought so – commence comment flame war in 3 ..2 ..1 …).
So, to summarize, the right dislikes big government and typically the left embraces it. At least, right up until the moment the military is involved. Then the right worships big government (largely at the temple of the History Channel) and the left despises it.
Of course, I don’t know anything about the politics of the people criticizing this DARPA funding, just that they are worried that defense money will be a corrupting influence on the maker movement. Which would imply that they think Defense Department values are corrupting. And they might be right to have some concerns. While the U.S. military services are probably the single most competent piece of our entire government, the defense industrial complex that equips them is pretty damned awful. It’s inefficient, spends more time on political than actual engineering, and is where most of the world’s bad suits go to get rumpled. And there is no doubt that money is a vector along which culture and values will readily travel, so I suppose it’s reasonable to fear that the maker movement could be changed by it.
But what everyone seems to be missing is that this isn’t a one-way process and the military, via DARPA, is essentially saying “we want to absorb not just your technology but the culture of openness by which you create it.” That’s an amazing opportunity and shouldn’t be ignored. The money is one vector, but the interactions, magical projects, and collaboration are another, perhaps more powerful vector, along which the values of the maker movement can be swabbed directly into one of the most influential elements of our society. This is opportunity!
O’Reilly is participating in the DARPA MENTOR program and Dale has already discussed our involvement at length. So I need to disclose it, but this post isn’t about that. This post is about the idea that the military has been a change agent in our society many times before. This is an opportunity to do it again and for makers to influence how it happens.
For quite a few years, I worked in the defense space and, frankly, took a lot of crap for it from my friends on the left coast. But I always felt that the military was an important part of American society regardless of whether you agreed with its purpose or actual use, and that the best way to counter its less desirable tendencies was to engage with it. So while I worked my day job I also spent those years aggressively advocating open source software, emergent and incremental software processes, and “permissionless programming” web platforms for the DoD. I thought that the military could benefit from all of these things, but I also explicitly felt that they were a vector along which the cultural attributes of openness, transparency, and experimentation would readily travel. Those open and emergent ideas were a culture virus and I intended to shed them everywhere I could.
If you’re a technologist, you know that the military has always pushed the envelope. Silicon Valley itself began with Stanford’s government partnership during the Second World War. The world’s first interactive computer was Whirlwind, a component piece of the massive air defense program SAGE. So, if your vision is to unleash a democratized third industrial revolution based on the maker model, this is your opportunity. If you can insert open culture and values into the defense establishment at the same time, even better.