Friday, March 16, 2007

And we moved to Paraguay

Will is keen to dispel some myths about think tanks:
Imagine you're throwing a party, and invitations have to be equally split into three factions. Firstly you must invite your grandparents, great uncles and great aunts. Secondly, you must invite your colleagues. And thirdly you must invite the kids who hang around the local park. When they arrive, they inevitably split into their respective groups, and congregate in separate areas of the room. As the host, it's up to you to come up with topics of conversation on which all three groups will engage enthusiastically and frame that conversation in language that all three groups can understand. If any group opts out or feels alienated by the conversation that you introduce, you have failed in your hostly duties. Within those limits, you have complete freedom to take the conversation where you like.

Now substitute 'government, business and media' for 'grandparents, colleagues and kids' ... and you have a sense of how much independence a think tank has in what it says.
There's a bunch of assumptions here which could do with unpacking - who is 'media'? who is 'business'? come to that, who's 'government'? Do the answers change over time, and do think tankers make any contribution to the way they change?

But what struck me was something about the metaphor itself. Firstly you must invite your grandparents, great uncles and great aunts. What this tells me is that British thinktanks are populated by young people. The last time I could have invited a grandparent anywhere, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.

I used to work in IT - programming was my first job after college (Thatcher was in power then, too). Over a period of years I learned that young coders tend to be very bright, very keen, very confident and very prone to screw up (myself, in retrospect, very much included). They could really crank out the lines of code, but you needed to watch them. You wouldn't let them do their own program design without severe misgivings, and you certainly wouldn't let them go out and talk to the business.

This has nothing to do with intelligence or ability to learn - I had plenty of the former when I was a junior programmer, and probably more of the latter than I have now. (I seem to remember I had something called 'energy', too. Wonder what that's like?) What I didn't have was experience - including the experience of screwing up horribly. Consequently I didn't have a lot of the other qualities that go under the heading of 'maturity' - caution, circumspection, the sense that things are probably more complicated than you realise and that other people probably know more than you understand.

Greater than all of these is the sense that it's all been done. Back on (those were the days eh?) one of the regulars summed up the "old coder" mindset as

10 We tried it
20 It didn't work
30 GOTO 10

Which makes the encounter with old coders frustrating as hell for new-broom managers and business consultants.

Admittedly, this isn't a good guide to (in)action all the time - you'd end up with the character in La Peste who's described as a saint because he sits in bed all day, and hence doesn't do anyone any harm. But I can't help thinking that the old coders are likely to be right more often than not.

So, think tanks are meeting-places for government, business and the media, and places where they go to hear new and interesting ideas. And think tanks are staffed by young coders. I guess that explains a lot.

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Blogger Will Davies said...

Come on, I was simply searching for an example of heterogeneous groups. For the record, I only have one remaining grandparent.

It is true that UK think tanks tend to be staffed by quite young people, but that's quite a lot to do with the fact that the vast majority of the jobs are not very well paid (at least in the eyes of a 40- or 50-year old). The short-comings of that are various, and include some of those you describe. However my post was not seeking to explore whether or not these institutions are of much political significance or not, only about this exact question of how they relate to their various audiences.

17/3/07 22:02  
Blogger Phil said...

It is true that UK think tanks tend to be staffed by quite young people ... The short-comings of that are various

That was all I was saying, really. I said it more snarkily than I needed to - I didn't mean to imply that all think-tankers are callow, over-confident neophiliac jargonauts who delight in change for its own sake. (Apart from anything else, I wouldn't be reading your blog if I thought that applied to you.) Just, you know, people like those guys at that place...

19/3/07 15:44  
Blogger Rob said...

Ah, FORTRAN. Alternatively

while (We_tried_ it = true)
it didn't work;

May have too many/few semicolons in there - blame it on a life mis-spent on COBOL and Assembler, no Algol since Callaghan was PM, and occasional corruption by PL/1 which has semicolons everywhere.

27/3/07 02:00  

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