I'm sorry, I haven't a clue

It doesn't take much Twitter stalking to confirm that the commercial open source community is deeply hacked off with the coalition government’s new negative attitutude to FOSS, SMEs and open standards in general. So what, you might say....


It doesn't take much Twitter stalking to confirm that the commercial open source community is deeply hacked off with the coalition government’s new negative attitutude to FOSS, SMEs and open standards in general.

So what, you might say. Isn't it just the same old story?

It’s interesting because noone seems to know what brought about such a volte face. There are clues, however. Recently, normally restrained Alex Brown of the British Standards Instutute, was driven to publicly describe the current goings on in Cabinet Office as ‘clueless fuckwittery’.

‘Cluelessness’ is the important word there. It seems to define the current zeitgeist. ‘Fuckwittery’ may too, but we don’t need to confuse the issue. I am hardly an open standards expert, but our experience from the world of education seems to dovetail quite nicely. See if you agree.

The government has just completed a review of education for the youngest age group of schoolchildren. In a document of a gargantuan one hundred pages, only a measly five lines mention the use of technology.

You need more?

An article in the e-gov Monitor witten by Intellect Technological Association (representing ICT for nearly a thousand UK companies) sets the scene. It says that UK ICT education is useless for business needs, and that kids have to be retrained. They also mention that GCSE ICT is in freefall in terms of numbers taking the exam (down >50%). Yes, UK ICT education is clueless too.

My own college is investing £2 million in an e-learning centre... but no-one (except presumaby those writing the cheques), has a clue what is to be housed there, aside from possibly computers and stuff.

Back to the e-gov report. Intellect go on to say that ICT in schools should be integrated into the curriculum, to improve diversity and relevance and that teachers if necessary should be trained to do so.

I’m sorry to pick on Intellect, but they perfectly illustrate the problem of ‘cluelessness’. I thought everyone knew that ICT in the classroom (i.e. not isolated in the computer lab) is a good thing, and that there has been a major effort for over a decade getting teachers to do just that.

Equally, I thought everyone knew that this enterprise is like drawing teeth, and that the ICT provision so incorporated is mostly drivel. I also thought everyone knew that teachers are being laid off, and training budgets are non-existent.

Intellect apparently know none of the above and so trot out vapid truisms, backed with no specific knowledge.

The question in general becomes, just how do 'Intellect-uals' become ‘clueless’ as soon as computers enter the mix?

Knowledge and reason

If you asked me question  about what software/hardware solution was best for your school or college, I could have a creditable stab at finding out what your needs are and propose a solution that would meet those needs and deliver value for money.

A background in school sysadmin work, ICT teaching and open source software enables me to evaluate the actual needs of the potential users. These attributes should be an asset to my client. But what if you have no specific knowledge, and I am biased?

Decisions made when you don’t really know what you are talking about are necessarily compromised. This is normal.

You have two options when forming an opinion. These are:

  1. Thematic reasoning
  2. Expert advice


Below is an simple illustration, so test yourself:

Which of the following sources of energy are most responsible for global warming: coal power, oil power, nuclear power, wind power and gas power?

Hopefully you have responded with the majority of other folk surveyed and put nuclear power at the top... oh you didn’t?

Why not, do you know something?

All of the above carry ‘labels’ or ‘signs’, the most important of which are ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Global warming carries a bad label. Of the power sources, nuclear power has the ‘baddest’ label.

With the best will in the world, without recourse to accurate knowledge you have two choices:

  1. Use thematic reasoning (nuclear power must cause global warning because they are both bad)
  2. Ask someone who does know... and whom you think you can trust.
At this point the process is open to all sorts of abuse. How do you know how to trust an advisor? They necessarily have an agenda of their own.

Our decisions about how to evaluate the trustworthiness of an advisor are based on reputation, another form of thematic reasoning by labels. The most powerful ‘good’ label is prior success. Just ask Bernard Maydoff or Bill Gates how infallible that makes them.

This is nothing new, of course, but what is new is....

I haven’t a clue

The past few years have witnessed vast failures in prevailing paradigms. No longer is the Celtic Tiger held up as an economic paragon, nor is the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ business model.

Experts with specialist knowledge have evidently got it very wrong.

So, in the UK, do we ‘cut’ or ‘stimulate’ the economy?

...haven’t a clue.

The series of public sector IT failures means that the experts, be they vendors or consultants, got it all very wrong. In education, ICT is regarded as ineffective and unsustainably expensive. BECTA, the experts, got it horribly wrong.

Where this is going is obvious. It is unreasonable for decision makers to be experts in all fields. But failed experts cannot be trusted. So now what?

Intelligent decision makers have to reach beyond thematic reasoning, but cannot trust the experts. It is too much to ask for the government to invest trust in a new wave of (say) open source experts. Their only virtue is that they are not failures... maybe merely through lack of opportunity.

The result is what we have now. Everyone is clueless.

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