When is it better to ask permission than forgiveness?

When I was a child, I prayed to God to send me a bicycle. The Priest told me God doesn't work like that; so I stole a bicycle and prayed for forgiveness.

Emo Philips (probably)

There's a noble tradition in hackerdom of finding creative ways around obstacles. My personal favourite expression of this desire to get things done quickly is the maximum "far better to seek forgiveness than beg for permission."

It's something I practice both at work and for my private projects. It's much easier, faster, and more fun to get on and do things without the tedious rigmarole of filling in forms, creating business plans, and generally seeking permission. But now, I'm beginning to wonder about the limitations of such an approach.

Hijack This

I remember going to a talk by the Space Hijackers at an OpenTech conference. The mischievous anarchists were talking about how they set up an agit-prop May Day fair in a busy high street. They made a big show of extolling the virtues of not asking permission. Desperately trying to show how cool and counter culture they are.

I asked if they'd bothered talking to any of the shop keepers whose businesses they had disrupted.

"Nah mate! Don't bother asking for permission; you won't get it!" was their predictable reply.

I pointed out that, while the council may have refused them permission, perhaps the people who lived and worked there may have been more tolerant. Perhaps they would have liked to have helped, to have sold their wares, to have been able to participate rather than just be bystanders. Invading people's space makes for a good story - but when you trample on people's hearts, it's hard to capture their minds to your causes.

This point seemed lost on the "artist", who mumbled something about annoying the police being more important than pissing off local people. Oh, and you should never have to ask for permission.

(You can listen to the audio from the OpenTech session. My question is around 13m 20s.)

That's when I first started having my doubts about forgiveness as an initial approach.

Aaron Swartz

More recently, I've been reading about the upsetting case of Aaron Swartz, the gifted young hacker who seemingly killed himself after years of Government harassment.

Two of his largest hacks had invoked the same basic cause - liberating information which (he and many others felt) had been unjustly locked away. It is said that he hacked PACER and JSTOR to retrieve hundreds of thousands of documents in order to liberate them.

I think that his cause was just - restricting access to publicly funded work and the public law is an unconscionable crime and freeing the data is the correct thing to do. But there is no doubt that his methods caused him a great deal of legal troubles. By appointing himself arbiter of right and wrong he effectively alienated those people within the system who may have been prepared to help him.

Perhaps if Aaron and the Space Hijackers had asked permission they would have been rebuffed anyway. Perhaps the action they wanted to happen would have taken place over a different timescale or in a different manner. Perhaps lip service would have been paid but no action taken. Perhaps there were good reasons why the status quo should be maintained.

Or perhaps not. We'll never know.

Lost Your Marbles

I think the tale of EarnestMarples.com is an interesting study. The UK's postcodes data were locked up tight. The team behind EarnestMarples took it upon themselves to liberate the data and, unsurprisingly, got all sorts of legal threats.

What happened next is that they were able to have a very constructive meeting with the Post Office which - along with the current vogue for Open Data - led to Ordnance Survey releasing the data.

Approaching the Post Office and Ordnance Survey initially may have saved a lot of time and worry.

The Risk is in Your Hands

Because of unilateral action, people opened themselves up to legal challenge and a world of hurt.

Sometimes the fight is righteous and justified. Sometimes revolution, subversion, and hacking are necessary. Sometimes the system is so broken that it needs to be destroyed and reformed.

And sometimes, only sometimes, we should ask the people running the show if we can help change their minds before we bluster in like a bull in a china shop.

I feel like a quisling for writing this. I don't want to live in a world where we have to ask permission for every little act. I want to be free to experiment. But I don't want to see my friends in jail, or worse.

It's the authorities who have the attitude problem - not us. We are righteous, but they have bigger sticks. And that's what scares me. That's what makes me want to temper my approach to begging forgiveness. I'm afraid of the fear we generate in the hearts of the powerful.

...[hackers are] chased down like someone starting wildfires. Why? Because they scare the crap out of officialdom. Because they tend to be cheeky, and there is nothing which angers bureaucracy like mockery. Mockery kills careers and brings down stupid fiefdoms and idiotic rules faster than anything else. Play - which is part of creative technology and its ethos of making the world better - is scary to traditional authority. And traditional authority reacts poorly to being afraid.

Nick Harkaway


4 Responses to “When is it better to ask permission than forgiveness?”

  1. Martin Image of Martin

    I think the rule is easy: if you're willing to accept the punishment (if not being forgiven) to do what you think is the right thing, this might (!!!) be the right moment. If the expectation of forgiveness is essential part of your plan, better drop it ;-).

    Reply
    • Owen Image of Owen

      That's fair enough, but only when the punishment is clear beforehand. The risk is not always immediately apparent.

      Reply
      • Martin Image of Martin

        Correct, but it served me well in the past. Usually, where it matters, the punishment is very clear (go to jail, loose your job, etc.).

        Reply

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