The Republic is dying of Perfection.
Martha Stewart is going to jail because she wanted her investments to go perfectly. Mel Gibson’s vision of the perfect passion comforts those who believe that their lives can trace a perfect mythic arc if they only believe it strongly enough.
Worst of all, the government is in the grips of ideologues behaving like a motorcycle gang because they imagine a perfect world of compliant citizen droids driving SUVs to 12-hour work days while their children subdue infidels all over the globe. A perpetual campaign against the messiness of diversity is central to that perfect world.
Most people are not perfectionists. Many spent 2003 hacking code because they thought it might transform politics, and they were more right than wrong. They are the open source entrepreneurs of the governance tools space. Like all entrepreneurs, they are artists who create because they’re incapable of not creating. They will spin out a hundred disappointments for every blockbuster they produce and, like Linux for the desktop, the user experience will be frustrating to most users and especially for the neophytes who run campaigns. Like many entrepreneurs, they have no clue how they’ll turn their zeal into money.
Most greatness is unintentional. Adam Osbourne once wrote that the microcomputer revolution grew out of the closing of Nasa’s Apollo project. Those talented young engineers just knew there was some way they could keep doing what they liked to do, so they took the notion of an integrated circuit and ran with it. They had no grand scheme but they knew they could make a difference.
Did the Steves know they’d change computing forever? Did Henry Ford know he was inventing the assembly line? The list of accidental heroes is as long as the Great Books collection. Those we most admire from the comfort of perspective started with no clue about its ending. What they have that perfectionists lack is a hunch and no other way of behaving than creatively.
These hunter gatherers take what they find and fashion new futures out of raw materials others ignore. DARPA created the perfect indestructible network and accidentally connected bloggers in Iran to readers in Iowa. NeoCon excesses have shown us how fragile the American experiment really is and some of us have a hunch how to fix it but not a detailed plan.
We need to support the tinkerers who are cobbling together imperfect solutions to governance problems we didn’t know we had when Bush was just an improbable candidate. My suggestion from last time is what Ethan Zuckerman calls a Social SourceForge, providing a stamp of approval and great documentation for the least imperfect campaign software out there. I want to add money to the toolkit.
A Role for a Perfectionist Patron
Unfortunately, we’re all perfectionists when it comes to software usability. Campaign tools are built hastily, so they most need the enhancements that patient perfectionism adds to functioning code. If you made a project of cataloguing and describing the best of the imperfect campaign tools, you’d think of the most obvious ways to improve them.
If you were diligent, your descriptions would include the best possible illustrations of how to facilitate solutions which would otherwise frustrate those who most need them: things like interactive online guides and step-by-step implementation charts for novices, suitable for hanging on the wall at a storefront headquarters.
Your insights would inspire you to suggest improvements and your commitment and means would cause you to pay people to make the necessary improvements. You’d contribute those enhancements to the ecosystem and then go after the next most glaring omission. Much of what you’d sponsor would be to improve the user experience, since programmers are usually better at the drive train and wiring than the fit & finish.
You’d also think of a thousand ways to extend the state of the art, which you’d cajole volunteers to do if you could, and pay people to do if you had to. It would be the perfect synthesis of baling wire design and patient perfectionism.
Uncharacteristically for a perfectionist, you’d do this work fast, because it would all be worth it to add a single rational voice to government in 2004.
I’ve been blissfully off the grid in Mexico, reminding myself why the industrial world wants to subdue the rest of the place so people of color can bring you exotic drinks with little umbrellas.