Back catalogue – Open Policy

It’s ten years since I started writing pamphlets. It actually all started when I was at university and picked up a book in Blackwells called Life After Politics and realised that you could get across really interesting ideas in a few thousand words. Apparently:

In order to count as a pamphlet, UNESCO requires a publication (other than a periodical) to have “at least 5 but not more than 48 pages exclusive of the cover pages”

I thought it might be interesting to take a trip down memory lane and see what I was thinking about and whether any of them held water 5-10 years on. It’s also the 20th birthday of Demos this year which is where I wrote most of my stuff during the noughties.

The first pamphlet I wrote (in 2002) was called Open Policy (free to download here or £24 on Amazon!) when I was working at Forum for the Future. At the time I remember I was deep into learning about hacker culture and network theory and I’d come across the work of Jonah Peretti.

With the click of a mouse, the message was sent. Nike, sports clothing giant and symbol of personal freedom, had created a feature on their website allowing shoppers to customise shoes with words or slogans of their choice. On 5 January 2001, Jonah Peretti ordered a pair of shoes customised with the word ‘sweatshop’ and Nike refused to deliver. But the email conversation between Peretti and the Nike customer services department about why the company wouldn’t allow his request was stored on Peretti’s computer.

Peretti forwarded the email conversation to just twelve friends, but within hours thousands of people had seen the message. Within days the message had been posted on popular discussion sites like Slashdot.org and Plastic.com and was seen by tens of thousands of other internet users. Soon, Peretti was getting calls from journalists and TV producers asking him for interviews. NBC’s Today programme flew him to New York to appear live in front of millions of viewers. There was nothing Nike could do to put the genie back in the bottle. Once the message was out, there was no going back.

Reading back there were a whole series of ideas going on which I thought were connected. The first was hacktivism (the pamphlet was actually going to be called ‘Hacktivism’ until quite late on) which I thought was going to increase as uptake of technology continued. I was right there. What I didn’t predict was the growth of social media managers to manage it. In 2002 if you worked for an agency you built websites for people, now you manage their social media.

Then there were the values baked into the internet itself:

In designing a network of computers one needs to set rules by which computers can communicate with one another. The rules are informed by the values of those creating the rules, just as the laws passed by a government depend on the values of the individual politicians in that government.

The other theme was applying open source principles to decision making both in companies and in government, which is where the title came from.

The argument presented in this essay is that there is a need for a massive increase in transparency. Organisations should learn from the open source movement where sharing and openness leads to far greater innovation.

It’s an idea that Clay Shirky has talked about much more eloquently recently.

And then it all ends by getting a bit meta:

Reductionism isn’t limited to science. It has permeated government and business thinking for the entire twentieth century. Institutionally, we are struggling to adapt the hierarchies of the reductionist age to the challenges of the network society.Only now are policymakers beginning to sense that the complexity of society cannot be handled using command and control. Our reaction to complexity, whether we are dazzled in the headlights of unpredictability or thrive on the unlimited possibilities, is key to the survival of society. And if we are to thrive we will need new tools.

Reading it back isn’t completely embarrassing – there were a few interesting ideas in there even if it doesn’t quite hold together as a whole. The pamphlet didn’t really get any media coverage but it did get downloaded a lot. I think making publications free was a bit of a novelty at the time. It did also get me noticed by Tom Bentley who was Director of Demos at the time. And that’s where I wrote my next few pamphlets…