Hackers and hacks – dangerous liaison, lost in translation or the odd couple?

It’s not an obvious union but like all the best ones, it could be a winner for both partners. As a long-time hack journalist I have  been a distant admirer of computer programmers – hackers, coders, geeks, call them what you will. Not so much for their coding skills, of which I am an enthusiastic if ignorant user, but more their mode of working and self governance.

I was first put on to it a few years ago by a computer programming friend, who pointed me towards  The Cathedral and the Bazaar. I’d talked to him about my ideas on democracy and journalism and that was his response.

The book  describes different software engineering methods, the top-down version of traditional, commercial software writers versus the bottom-up, free software approach. It sounds a bit techy but it’s not really.

The cathedral idea is one of building software within a constrained environment, the process overseen and controlled by a narrow elite that releases code as and when it wants. The bazaar model is the more chaotic, open-door approach involving code writing and sharing  over the internet, in full view of the public and with the possibility of intervention by anyone. The possibilities and creativity released by the bazaar approach makes it infinitely more exciting, fun and flushed with potential.

The metaphor has parallels both for journalism and for democracy. For the latter, what excites me is the comparison of old-style representative democracy versus the emergence of deliberative, participatory approaches to governance. Our traditional governance models are bust, certainly in the UK but also in the United States and elsewhere, we urgently need new ones. I think hackers can teach all of us some lessons on this, as journalists, citizens or both.

A session at the Mozilla Festival 2011 gathered hacks and hackers together to talk about their relationship problems, why they didn’t necessarily know they might love to be together and why perhaps they should. It was moderated by Rich Gordon – Medill School of Journalism – Northwestern University, whose passion is to bring the two sides together.

“The future of journalism is inextricably inter-twined with the future of technology,” he said. I totally agree.

VisionOntv, for whom I volunteered throughout the festival, have exactly that in mind with a follow-up event on November 14 in London, at a venue to be announced. Their plan is to draw together coders to work on some open video challenges they think would help replace the closed-source corporate media hold on our worlds.

If that doesn’t work, there is also Hacks/Hackers London: November Meetup.

Who knows what they might produce?