Computer Files Are Going Extinct

Simon Pitt – OneZero

Files have been a unit of organisation for written information for generations. For a rather shorter period, they have been a unit of organisation for digital information. But after a few years in which the metaphor retained at least some connection with the underlying reality, computer files are abstracting themselves to vanishing point.

So what, who cares? Well at one level, none of us need care, that’s almost the point. At another level, those who have lived through the revolution in personalised computing can gently mourn – as the author of this post does – the loss of a way of organising and understanding information, and the sense of familiarity and control which comes with it. But as the author also recognises, all this starts to get really interesting when we recognise files are skeuomorphic (as is much of the language we use to talk about them).

But there is a more serious point too. However much we choose to abstract, in the end, the data is somewhere – and often in several somewheres. Nobody wants backups, as the old adage has it, but everybody wants restores. But the more our data becomes less apparent, less vulnerable to hard drive failures and laptop thefts, the more it becomes vulnerable to subscriptions not paid and services closed down.

This blog post has some characteristics which make it appear to be like a file. But it isn’t, it’s an entry in a database dressed up with some scripts. Its default state is not to exist, a state postponed by the application of money and electricity, but a state it will inexorably reach.

Things Fall Apart

Mark O’Neill

There is an almost universal belief, no less strong for being almost as universally unspoken, that the UK political system is an exemplar of stability and moderation. There is a related belief, near universal among those most affected by it, that being a non-political civil servant is unproblematic, precisely because of those characteristics of the wider political system.

Those beliefs have been pretty resistant to evidence. Reflections on civil service ethics generate little interest. The remarkable resignation letter of a British diplomat in the USA cracked the facade, but the crack is already healing. This post takes that resignation as its starting point for a deeper examination of the fragility of civil society. It is short and pointed; alarmed but not alarmist. It sets a challenge. It is not clear where an effective response to that challenge will come from.

A Manifesto for Better Government

Adrian Brown – Centre for Public Impact

This in some ways a follow up to Adrian Brown’s previous post, but it stands firmly on its own merits doing exactly what the title suggests. It starts with three beliefs, derives seven values from them, and from that combination asserts six principles for action. There’s room for debate about whether these are precisely the right three, seven or six – and that would be a very good debate to have, while at the same time rather missing the point.

Dominant metaphors change over time – often quite a long time. For a century or more, the machine, and more recently the computer, have been the dominant metaphor for systems and organisations, and even for people. That metaphor has not been unchallenged of course – the agile manifesto, of which this is a no doubt conscious echo – can be seen as an attempt to do exactly that. This manifesto is based much more on networks and relationships and, crucially, a view of knowledge which places rich understanding at the periphery of the organisation, closest to its external signals, rather than at its heart. A system operating on those lines would be both more resilient and more responsive and there is much which is highly attractive in the manifesto.

It does not address the perennial hard question of political organisational change. It is easy – relatively – to have a vision of a better future. It is much harder to work out how to get there from here. But that should be taken not as a criticism, but as an important challenge to everybody interested in better government.

On being and doing in Government

Adrian Brown – Centre for Public Impact

What should government do? And, how should it do it? Those are two critically important questions, which fortunately get a lot of time and attention – even though it’s not hard to argue that they still don’t have good enough answers. But there is a third question which is at least as important, but which gets much less attention: what should governments be?

It is that question which is at the centre of this post. One reason why it has not had the attention it deserves is that a generation or two of public servants have been brought up not to notice it: the New Public Management paradigm that efficient delivery is pretty much all of what it’s about has become so pervasive as to be invisible. And that’s unfortunate in that it is neither value free (how could it be?) nor, as it turns out, is it a very good way of making governments work. NPM (and other strands of thought) are right that government does not exist for the benefit of people who work in it as politicians and officials. Its insights and methods have a place. But systems operated by and for humans need to have humans at their heart, and to recognise that it is the relationships and values those humans have which makes those systems work effectively – or even perhaps at all.