Should We Replace Political Hacks With Hackers?

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Going into politics usually means boning up on legal code not Google Code, but the Howard Dean campaign's lead developer and a major proponent of open government suggested in an editorial this week that programmer-politicians would make Washington work better.

"Great developers are systems fixers and systems hackers. There is no system more ripe for elegant process hacks than the United States House of Representatives," wrote Clay Johnson on his new Infovegan blog. "Put a developer in Congress, and they'll start exposing data on their own. They'll build systems to make it so they can hear from their constituents better. Just as Ted Kennedy had his staff make the first Congressional website, a developer in Congress will seek to use new technology to make their job easier. That's what hackers do."

Johnson's call for coders to run for Congress is part of a larger trend that I'm watching: the spread of programmer ideals into the most powerful circles in the country. You can see it in Bill Gates becoming a philosopher-king of the nerds, Google's growing legislative influence, or makers trying to change education practices.

What's important in all this isn't the practical skills that coders bring, but that they tend to think about problems and organizations in different ways. They want transparency and data-driven decisionmaking. They emphasize toolsets, interoperability, and do-it-yourselfness. Perhaps that's not all that Congress needs to get less rancorous and more productive, but they sure wouldn't hurt.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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