Doublethink and Zen

<originally a Dutch Webwereld column>

Doublethink is a concept that was introduced by George Orwell in his famous novel ‘1984 ‘. It is a mental mechanism that allows people to believe sincerely and simultaneously two completely opposing ideas without a problem.

In the ten years that I have been involved with open source and open standards in the Dutch public sector, I have encountered many double thinkers. So for years I have endured “experts” and insiders patiently explaining that the migration to open source desktops within that community would be impossible, because civil servants could not work with other platforms. Asking non-techies to use anything but the Windows + Office desktop they were taught at Dutch schools would lead to disaster. It Just Could Not Happen.

The certainty with which this (to this day) is  mouthed as an aphorism everywhere has always amazed me. Previously, the Netherlands had migrated from WP5.2 in DOS to Windows Word 6, yet the Earth kept turning, children went to school and there was water from the tap.

Multiple migrations, mostly outside the Netherlands, have also demonstrated that ordinary users can do their work well with alternative platforms, provided they are given some training and support (something, indeed, that is perfectly normal when migrating to new releases of the usual proprietary systems).

The same people who for years have claimed with great certainty that "It Just Could Not Happen” have been busily rolling out iPads to the many managers and directors, who for many and varied reasons discover they need one. Apparently the adoption of an entirely different platform with a totally different interface is not as problematic as was asserted for all those years. Huh?

The classic “civil service desktop” tribe, led by IT heads of ministries and municipalities and supported by Microsoft, Pinkroccade and Centric, have had many happy years of “standardising” the Netherlands on proprietary tools, the management of which would then be done by the Dutch business partners of Microsoft. When asked why such a vulnerable and expensive monoculture was necessary, the standard reply is "working together!". For “working together”, according to these people, can only occur if everyone works with exactly the same stuff (never mind that millions of people on the internet are working together with very different tools). And that stuff should be consistent with what people already know, because learning something new is ultimately ‘not realistic’.

The Web 2.0 tribe wants everything on "the cloud" so that with iPads they can “work together” from Starbucks with colleagues and consumer-citizens-entrepreneurs. That this places control of state information in the hands of uncontrolled private and foreign parties is not part of the discussion. "We must work with the most modern tools!" When asked what they do in concrete terms,  the  answer is almost always shifty or there is some muttering about experiments and the importance of “working together”.

Both of the above tribes mix at “e-government” conferences and other such events and hear both perspectives, one after the other, with nobody apparently perceiving  these contradictions. It is Doublethink in its ultimate form: simultaneously believing two contradictory ideas without experiencing a conflict: from 11:00 to 11:30 they can believe that a Microsoft monoculture is a necessary requirement for civil servants to “work together”, and then from 13:30 until 14:00 just as happily accept that all hip 2.0 workers, with their privately-bought iPads authorised via LinkedIn, must have access to the State-intranet so that they are finally able to “work together” with other officials. And nobody is pointing to the naked emperor and saying that at least ONE of these two stories has to be nonsense (and probably both).

Despite all this focus on collaboration between government organizations are regularly at odds, working against each other, re-inventing wheels 300 times, or point to each other when things go wrong. Even Caligula or G W Bush could still learn a thing or two from such levels of surrealism.

Proprietary vs. open source in government is just ONE of the examples where sly salesmen from dubious companies appear to be much more attractive than people with demonstrated expertise. Also in the cases of Electronic Health Records, voting computers, the public transport chip card and the security of its own systems, the government actively chose lying, cheating vendors and/or incompetent bureaucrats over its own citizens and academics with a proven expertise.

After last year’s ‘Leaktober month’ and the Diginotar drama, it appeared that some light might finally break in, but now it is clear that one deals with problems by treating them as an immutable fact of reality. With the logic of “as it is now, so shall it remain”, the years-long impetus towards greater vendor independence and diversity of systems ground to a halt. Now the same logic is used as an excuse to defend failure everywhere. It’s a bit like claiming to achieve fire safety by shouting that not every building is on fire, and anyway the fire engines can drive with 130km/hr away – "We react so quickly!". Prevention is seen as difficult and, moreover, "as it is now, so shall it remain – you will never be safe."

Despite this latest capitulation to foreign intelligence services and criminals, yet more megalomaniac IT projects are underway. Citizens continue to entrust the government with all their personal information, despite the fact that the government itself admits to being unable to protect them adequately. When working on such projects, you’d need to remain in a permanent state of Doublethink to avoid a serious moral dilemma.

Once the Netherlands had a government that built the Delta Works to keep the sea out and ensured that the country was ranked in the global top 2 or 3 in the fields of health, education, social security, security, democracy and transparency of governance. Only Sweden and Denmark sometimes did better.

Today feels like the Dutch government is abolishing itself. It knows nothing, wants nothing, does nothing. Perhaps we the citizens should do the same. Give them nothing, ask for nothing, expect nothing. The Zen of the citizen-government relationship. Happiness is low expectations!