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Hammers and Nails

March 2, 2009

This week I found myself changing my mind about something even as I was saying it. That’s not that unusual for me, but it doesn’t normally happen in public. My colleague Jasmine invited me to speak at a session she was running on Youth participation and social networking – she’s blogged about this excellent event below – and I’d been asked to speak about democracy and participation, so I thought I’d illustrate a point with my second favourite Mark Twain quote:

To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.

Now I think there’s a profound truth in this. When we have tools that we are comfortable with or excited about we tend to see problems in light of those tools. Government is particularly bad at this (national worse than local). And I think it is something that we have to remember when we’re thinking about how we might use social networking tools. But as I was saying it, I realised that I also thought that exactly the opposite was true.

As I’ve argued before we’re in an era of restless technological change.

Throughout history technical progress has been driven by a need to solve problems but also by an objectless creativity that delights in doing things simply because it can and only worries later, if at all, about their application.

In relation to how we communicate and collaborate this second type of creativity is becoming more and more prevalent, particularly when these activities take place on the web. There are at least two reasons for this. Firstly the barriers to technological innovation are much lower than they used to be, anyone with a computer and an internet connection can create new web applications. Secondly, the networks that people are plugged into mean that these innovations circulate much more rapidly than they used to (and this is true even for off line tools). As these tools are dispersed and disseminated they are changed and reworked and people find new uses for them (this is essentially the history of the internet itself).

The upshot of this is that we are all walking with hammers looking for things to hit with them. And the pace of change is so fast that just when we think we have found a nail someone invents a new kind of hammer and we all start using that instead. (Twitter being the most high profile current example of this).

But if Twain’s law is still true, as I think it is, we are faced with a real dilemma. We need to choose out tools to fit our problems but the production of those tools has become decoupled from particular tasks. Bringing task and tool together therefore becomes a much more iterative, trial and error process, driven by experimentation not design.

We therefore need to give more space and lattitude to government (local and national) to pilot ideas, take controlled risks, get things wrong and change approach. There’s a real role for organisations like LGiU in helping local government to do this and in making the case for it at a national level. Jasmine’s social networking learning set is just one example of this in action, but we need many more.

Finally in case anyone was wondering what my favourite Mark Twain quote is, it’s currently:

A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain.

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