I’ve previously suggested that there’s a need for political realism in the debates over ownership of social networks and the general direction of Web 2.0. And I’ve suggested that Old Labour is dead and any expectations that the government will start nationalising services is being naive.

Well, I got that wrong didn’t I! However lefties in the US and Canada will probably be disappointed that the Government’s nationalisation of Northern Rock doesn’t herald a return to socialist principles – indeed even the Daily Mail acknowledges that nationalisation “is extremely rare and embarrassing for Labour“.

I think my mistake was in attempting to use political analogies which are still too relevant to many and capable of being reinterpretted in different ways.

So I was really pleased to read Martin Weller’s post on Downes vs Wiley – Cato and Cicero revisited on his Edtechie blog. As Martin describes:

Cato and Cicero both believed passionately in the same higher level goal, ie the establishment of the Roman Republic. Yet they frequently clashed about what was the best way to achieve it. In the same way I think Stephen (Downes) and David (Wiley both believe passionately in the overall aim of open education, but have differing views as to how it should be realised.

Cato was the purist, unbending and uncompromising. Cicero was the pragmatist, willing to compromise and work with a range of people to advance the republic. Cato often thought Cicero compromised too much, thus rendering his beliefs invalid. Cicero was often infuriated that Cato wouldn’t compromise and through this played in to the hands of the anti-republicans.

In his post Martin was suggesting that Stephen Downes’ objections to the Cape Town Declaration were based on the declaration’s inclusion of commercial entities, with Stephen arguing that “… the internet is already awash with really vile and intrusive commercial activity, do we have to export it too? We have the opportunity to do something really special in the world; why do we have to carve into every declaration of principle a paean to Things As They Are (and Those Who Profit From Them)?“.

Now I have to admit that, although my knowledge of Cicero and Cato is limited to having read Imperium, I have (mostly) taken a pragmatic approach to life generally and IT development in particular.

This struck me today when I read an article in CILIP Update about the inclusion of advertising leaflet in books borrowed from libraries and then returned home to find that my new passport had arrived – and a leaflet from a local estate agent was included in the letter (together with one from the NHS inviting me to join the NHS Organ Donor Register).

Now I personally don’t have any great concerns about the inclusion of adverts in library books or with my passport. Indeed if the income this generates can improve the quality of their services, then I would suggest that this is a good thing.

These particular issues, of course, aren’t about technologies. And neither, fundamentally, are the issues about ownership of social networks and use of commercially-provided services in the provision of educational and cultural heritage services (although I do acknowledge that the nature of IT can add extra complexities to the debate).

We need to recognise that the debates on the specifics of Facebook’s ownership, Bill Gates plans for Microsoft’s future role in Internet services and Rupert Murdoch’s plans for his media empire will only go so far. The Catos (Catoers, Catoists?) followers of Cato will need to convince the followers of Cicero that there vision have a realistic chance of being implemented, otherwise the debates are doomed to be endlessly repeated.