We really need to invite some Young People to the People’s Republic to change our jaundiced minds about stuff. For we are grown old and crabby, and here followeth the evidence.
I was never into student politics, of any stripe, largely because all those that were seemed like such unconscionable wankers. Liberal Democrats have, on the whole, a lower wanker quotient than most other affiliations, but even so what strikes me most about the under-25s I have observed in this party is pretty much what struck me back at Oxnod and Cambifudge about all parties’ student activists: they’re all trying to act like fifty-five year olds. They think that’s what they “should” be doing.
Take the suits, for example. No-one in their right mind wants to wear a suit. They’re uncomfortable and worrisome and expensive to clean. And the tie is possibly the single most outlandish and ridiculous creation in the history of costumery, destined to take its place alongside five-foot-wide bustles and male tights in the Museum of Domestic What The Fuckery. What are ties for? To aid natural selection by trapping the stupid in shredding machines? Everyone looks ridiculous in a tie. Including you.
So naturally, most people who are forced regularly to wear a suit live for the moment when they can close the front door and rip the whole sorry lot off in exchange for their gardening jeans and a jumper with tea stains on it. Few people over the age of thirty who don’t have to wear a suit actively choose to do so. And you’d think that Young People, particularly those of a liberal, individualistic bent, would revel in their all-too-brief freedom from this outmoded uniform. But no, up they suit for a weekend away socialising in Yorkshire, the little perishers, presumably in the hope that party movers and shakers will “spot” them as convincing suit-wearers. Do they realise that in doing this they are condemning us all to another forty years of enslavement to the crippling social conventions of the mid-twentieth century?
But sartorial choice is only the outward demonstration of the Trouble with Da Yoof: the real problem is much more serious than that. Take a subject close to my heart, the uses of the internet in political campaigning. In the generation born in the 1980s and 1990s we surely have the most instinctive technologists, the most natural web-savants and the earliest adopters ever to surf the earth. Even I was born a few critical years too early to “get” it as instinctively as those in the next generation down do – I didn’t touch a computer until I was six, and that was at school. Now, I learn things about technology rather than absorb them. My brother is four years younger than me, not particularly a tech-nerd. But he still gets it better than I do, just because he’s that bit younger, because when he was six, we had our first computer at home. Considered alongside most of the political blogosphere – never mind the rest of the internet community – I’m one of the very rearguard early adopters. Blogged my first blogpost in 2007, sent my first Tweet in 2008, only just getting my head around what the internet is really all about.
It is natural that I am a comparative technological fuddy-duddy. I’m old. And yet. It seems I’m still way ahead of Liberal Youth. I recently had it on good authority that they actually hired in web consultants to relaunch their website at a cost of some thousands of pounds. The web architect (and party member) I was with when I heard this news nearly cried.
This is an organisation, mark you that possesses an e-mailing list of several thousands of people under 30, all of whom have chosen to be members of the nerdiest party in British politics. Many of them probably only leave their bedrooms under protest. Some of them are probably going to change the world. A goodly sprinkling of them are almost certainly better web designers than the party’s official providers. All that talent, a cornucopia of innovative potential. And Liberal Youth spent money on web consultants?
A considerable minority of the people on Liberal Youth’s emailing list could have told them the following: there are inherent weaknesses in closed source web design. Big organisations still use closed source because they need to cover their arses, and because the senior management team are of a generation that is used to buying its software from one provider, on one operating platform.
But if you’re a small, mobile organisation, particularly one which needs to husband its resources carefully, open source is a no-brainer. Forget any guff about hiring consultants being the “proper”, “grown-up” thing to do. Getting a closed source provider to build your website locks you into a relationship with that provider, technologically and financially. In fact, it’s that liberal scourge, a protected capitalist monopoly. Open source is a more robust, adaptable and flexible way of doing things, and it’s free. What seventeen-year-old liberal techie wouldn’t leap at the chance to redesign the website of a national party’s youth wing?
Now, if wrinkly old me knows this stuff, why in the name of arse doesn’t Liberal Youth? Why aren’t they the ones doing things faster, better, more coherently with the internet than we are? Why aren’t they the ones getting excited about the possibilities of internet campaigning, and how best to use it to supplement real-life campaigning? Why aren’t they building open source websites, collating campaigning materials, collecting canvassing data and writing neat little program-ettes to analyse it? Where, in short, is the action?
Nearly all the most free-thinking techies I know, the ones who are really starting to grasp the possibilities, comprehend the resources we can build with the internet, are in their thirties and forties. Now, regular citizens will know I am but a cynical friend of technology, at least for its own sake. Lynne Featherstone’s Clay Shirky quote about behaviour and not technology being the pivot of change is a splendid rule of thumb. But the whole point of having a big, varied volunteer activist base with different specialities is that individual components of the base can set out to try everything – throw every technology going at the wall, however daft, and see what sticks.
Liberal Youth ought to be the people trying everything. They’ve got the time, they’ve got the expertise among their membership, and they’ve got the opportunity, over the next twenty years, to change how the party does things, not just on the internet, but throughout the system. And they seem to be too busy playing at wearing suits.
The problem, the above-mentioned web architect theorised, is a social one. Under 25, people are still divided into tribes, the cool tribe, the ambitious tribe, the jock tribe (with apologies to Jock), and the nerdy tribe. They haven’t learnt how to co-exist productively yet. The nerdy tribe has no official presence in Liberal Youth – the nerdy tribe is busy building AI in its bedroom. Liberal Youth seems to be made up for the most part of a single, and therefore sterile, tribe of the politically precocious. Ugh. And this is the future, is it? Sadly, on past evidence, yes.