Portrait of Edd Dumbill, taken by Giles Turnbull

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expectnation
a conference management web application


XTech Conference
a European web technology conference

Rediscovering intellectual honesty

The biggest deficiency in the internet and software industry, and consequently in the swell of blogging groundlings that accompany it, is that of a lack of intellectual honesty.

The principle of intellectual honesty is that you acknowledge the contributions of others' research and writing that may well have contributed to your own. In academic circles, the more you can relate your work to that of predecessors, the sounder it is likely to be as a valid progression from that work.

Out in the wild west internet, however, we're convinced that we're doing something entirely new and original. This perception is endemic, right from the big boys who patent the jaunty angle of an animated GIF to the meme-manufacturing crowd who busily relabel the obvious.

The unfortunate corollary to this indulgence in improbable originality is an unwillingness to criticise and deconstruct. If we're all in glass houses, throwing stones seems like a bad idea. The only unacceptable act is not to accept something. Criticism of ideas is taken directly as a personal attack, and therefore as unkind.

The lack of criticism coincides with an absence of what I view as the second principle of intellectual honesty -- that of being honest with yourself about the quality of your work. These days, if you don't criticise yourself, who else among your peers is going to? Our intellectual economy has been corrupted.

A corrupt intellectual economy, however, seems to go hand-in-hand with making money in today's high-tech economy. I cannot be the only one who finds a distinct mismatch between pursuing my real intellectual interests, and those compromises I feel I must make in order to put bread on the table. Yet it is my fond conviction that it is lack of moral courage that keeps me in this predicament, and indeed that a stagnant intellectual economy will ultimately lead to the stagnation of the financial one.

The state of affairs demands that we take a big step, and stop looking only to breathless yes-men. We must find people who will criticise us honestly and make them our friends. We must learn to view being wrong as an essential step to getting it right, and not as another vote for the worthlessness of our existence. We must, foremost, be honest with ourselves.

Einstein had many sensible things to say on this topic. I love his forward-looking world of messy truth: "I haven't failed, I just found 100,000 ways that don't work." That's the kind of adventure I want most from my intellectual life.

This is one reason the world of open source software appeals so much to me. The media and other cynics see splits, divisive arguments and amateurishness. I see honesty, open debate, commitment to ideals, freedom to pursue individual ideas, and Einstein's passionate curiosity.

I can't change our industry, but I can decide the terms within which I engage with it, and I can change myself. Perhaps not overnight, but in an attempt to stop these words becoming another testament to my already rampant hypocrisy, I shall try to change in little bits.

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