5 Years On: Why Understanding Chris Lightfoot Matters Now More Than Ever

My friend and mySociety’s first developer Chris Lightfoot died five years ago today. He killed himself in his own flat for reasons that we will never really know, but which are doubtless linked to the depression which he’d been fighting for years. He was just 28, but had already achieved so much that The Times ran an obituary of him. He would have laughed mightily about the fact that this is now behind a paywall.

To mark this occasion I wanted to write something for mySociety staff and volunteers who never knew Chris, and for a wider audience of people who work in places like GDSCode For America or indeed anyone with an interest in politics and governance. What Chris represented is too important to be lost in the grief at his passing.

The basic fact to understand about Chris was that he was a very specific kind of polymath – one perfectly suited to the internet age. What I mean by this is that he did much more than simply master varying disciplines:  he saw and drew connections between fields. He wouldn’t just master cartographic principles, engage in politics and, as Francis Irving put it, ‘write Perl like other people write English’: he invariably saw the connections and mixed them up in meaningful and often pioneering ways.

Moreover, this mixing of disciplines was conducted at a furious, restless pace, and knew absolutely no concept of ‘too hard’ – problems were either fundamentally impossible, or ‘trivially soluble’, to use one of his favourite and most gloriously under-stated phrases. Who else would build the technology to break a captcha, just to investigate what American truck rental costs tell us about internal migration in America, for fun?  The answer is trivial.

That he was a genius is not what I want you to understand. Telling you that someone you never met was smarter than you is not helpful, and doesn’t fulfil my promise to tell you why understanding Chris matters.

What is fundamentally valuable about Chris’ legacy (besides piles of code that power services still running today) is that his story signals how we all need to change our conception of what it means to be ‘wise enough to rule’. Let me explain.

Unlike most of us, Chris had the luxury of being able to pick any field of study that interested him, dig up some books and papers, and teach himself a graduate-level understanding in what felt like a few days. It is hard to express quite how fast he could consume and internalise complex new information, and how relentlessly he went at it. To note that he got six A grades at A-level is too puerile a précis, but it is indicative.*

Again, I am not telling you this to make you feel stupid: what matters is what he chose to do with this gift.  What he chose to do was built an ever-expanding palette of skills from which he could paint as he pleased. And what he chose to paint was a vision of a better, saner world.

This painting ranged across a huge expanse of topics and disciplines: nuclear engineering, political ideologies, constitutional law, military history, statistics, psephology, economics, security engineering, behavioural psychology, propaganda, intellectual propery law and more. His favourite brushes were Perl and a blog composed of prose so sharp and funny that George Bernard Shaw would not have been displeased by the comparison. I still wish I could write half as well as him.

What I want to communicate most is this: the disciplines he chose to study form a combined19th, 20th and 21st century curriculum of skills required by modern leaders, both leaders of political organisations and government bureaucracies.  Chris’s life was the invention of a massively expanded, far more up to date version of the traditional Politics, Philosophy and Economics course that this country still uses to educate its elites.

Some of these disciplines are timeless, like the understanding of ideologies or economics. Some represent vital new issues that emerged in the 20th century, like nuclear energy and world-scale warfare. But mixed in there are wholly new, alien group of skills that the recent SOPA, Wikileaks and ID cards debacles show that modern leaders haven’t got anywhere near to internalising: they include knowledge about security engineering, intellectual property and how new technologies clash with old laws and ideologies. They are skills that nobody used to think were political, but which are now centre stage in a polity that can’t keep up.

This doesn’t mean Chris would have made a perfect leader: I used to argue with him a lot about how he weighed up the costs and benefits of different issues. But what he fundamentally had right was the understanding that you could no longer run a country properly if the elites don’t understand technology in the same way they grasp economics or ideology or propaganda. His analysis and predictions about what would happens if elites couldn’t learn were savage and depressingly accurate.

The canon of Chris’s writings and projects embody the idea that what good governance and the good society look like is now inextricably linked to an understanding of the digital. He truly saw how complex and interesting the world was when you understood power as well as networking principles in a way that few have since.

There is, of course, much more to say about Chris’s life. His blog, built on software that foresaw Posterous, is wonderful, hilarious and utterly readable, so you can learn more yourself. Martin Keegan’s obituary is touching and a much better portrait of how much fun it was to be friends with Chris. I hope to memorialise what he represents to me, if I can. But for now, I’ll sign off with a quote from a blog commentor:

“Chris was kind enough to take the time to reply to me, an internet nobody whom he didn’t know from a bar of soap, on a fairly complex statistical question once. He took a lot of time and effort in his response, and he made sure I understood it properly. It’s not often you find knowledgeable people willing to take their own time to educate an unknown person. We need more people like him, not less.”

* For US readers, this is like having a GPA of 4.0, but achieved across twice as many subjects as you actually need to take.

5 Comments

  1. Hm as the quoted comment in the end, I am a humble internet nobody. I have never heard of Chris before, but just by the vague idea this article gave, I am already amazed.

    I protested against ACTA today in Germany for the exact same reasons, Chris probably foresaw.

    Thank you!

  2. Chris foresaw (and indeed created) ways in which the Internet can be used to improve society and “politics”, but which professional politicians are even now only beginning to dimly understand.

    I think he would be proud of the work that MySociety continues to do.

  3. I only met Chris a few times but I remember when you took us for a walk along the river in South Oxfordshire. Chris could find something to talk about with anyone. He pointed out the WW2 Pill Boxes along the river and we spent a pleasant hour or so chatting about what these funny little structures implied in terms of military planning, historical what-ifs, the geography of the South of England and so on. I regret I never got to know him better.

  4. I thought you might like to know of another side of how Oggie impacted on our lives.

    I knew Oggie as a friend of my son’s. In many ways he changed my life. His was the third death within 10 weeks that impacted on my life and two were young men who had died by suicide. My own father had taken his life and i had my own mental health issues. I was determined that these young men should not have died in vain. Overtime I became commited to the Recovery movement and I helped edit a book of stories, ‘Beyond the Storms – reflections of personal recovery in Devon, available as a download. I became increasingly active in Recovery Devon. In that capacity I have just thanked some-one who has openly shared her own story of personal recovery and also helped set up internal mental health support groups in her work.

    Her activism around mental health grew from a ‘Tea and Talk’ presentation baased on an hour’s intervention and ending in a pledge. It was created and led by Helen Hutchings a mental health nurse with her own lived exerience of mental distress. in my thanks to this person for her mental health activism I wrote the following.

    “People’s lives are often turned around by tragedies. I am involved in the recovery movement partly because of mu own struggles with mood disorders and partly because of the suicide of my son’s friend, Chris ‘Oggie’ Lightfoot ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chris_Lightfoot or read the online obituaries ) an inspirational computer scientist and activist for the democratic use of the world wide web, who died five years ago on 11th February aged 28.

    One of his collaborative creations was the ‘pledge bank’. i recall pledging on their site on ‘speaking up’ for youth and I find I have gone on to do so. and I also contacting Time to Change in it’s very early days about the power of the pledge. I have no way of knowing that Time to Change took their idea from Oggie’s ‘pledge’. Partly because things have moved as he foresaw and wanted. Ideas have been developed and shared swiftly via computers and knowledge is more easily socially constructed. Views and actions have become more open and democratic.

    I find that I really want to believe that things have gone full circle. Oggie taught us to care compassionately for each other and for our world and to use the internet in the service of others. Part of my own pledge has been not to forget his contribution.

    So five years on, I’m delighted to see the progress that has come about around opening up the debate on mental health I’m sure Oggie’s family and friends would feel the same, His sister Steph, contributed an article in a women’s magazine on Oggie’s struggle with depression. It was about the isolation of mental illness and the dangers of not talking. I thought you might be interested in this aspect of the pledge. I don’t know whether Helen developed the ‘Tea and Talk’ pledge from Oggie’s ideas, Time To Change or from the AA movement. But ‘Tea and Talk’ is like a jewel, it contains something extraordinary within a carefully designed setting.

    I think Oggie’s family, would be thrilled to think that perhaps he has not died in vain. His ideas have lived on and people like you and Helen have found the energy and courage to pick up the baton to tackle the issues of mental health in small and huge organisations, which are often so hard to turn around.

    It is fascinating, poignant and significant for me looking back over those five years to see how together, people make a big difference. ”

    I thought you might like to know this.

  5. You can definitely see your skills within the paintings you write. The arena hopes for even more passionate writers like you who are not afraid to mention how they believe. All the time go after your heart.