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May 31, 2009

Utopianism: Threat or danger?

Shannon Bain has posted a long, thoughtful probing of Everything Is Miscellaneous and my defense of cyber-utopianism. It’s philosophical, serious, and generally right in its criticisms. He writes about my ideas in their philosophical context, as few have. I am very grateful for (and flattered by) this extended piece of clear-headed, morally-centered thinking.

His most telling criticism is (imo, anyway) that although he and I agree the Web is revolutionary, I assume the revolution will be for the good. Shannon worries that Cass Sunstein is right, and the Web’s openness and linkiness is really leading us to harden our positions, rather than opening up us to more diversity of thought.

My position has changed over the years on this, in part because I’ve had to the opportunity to hang out with folks at the Berkman Center. So, I now accept that the danger Sunstein points to is real. But, my reaction to this “echo chamber” argument is complex and confusing. I think (a) there are enormous challenges to evaluating the extent to which the Web is closing off thought; (b) the Web is probably leading us to be both more closed and more open simultaneously; (c) there is something wrong with the formulation itself; (d) the question probably mythologizes the degree of our openness in the pre-Web world. So, ultimately my position is: I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter too much because even if Sunstein is totally wrong (which he’s not), we’re still not doing enough to increase our interests and enlarge our sympathies. The Web won’t have this beneficial effect on us by itself; we must be ever vigilant and purposeful.

Shannon usefully connects this to my out-of-the-closet Heideggerianism. He wonders if I think cocooning (or, echo-chambering, if you prefer) “isn’t all bad”:

Maybe these cocoons of confirmation – these little webs of shared connotations and self-reinforced absolutist understandings, which I claim are negative aspects of a naturally biased humanity – are really what Heidegger’s beleaguered teacher Edmund Husserl called “lifeworlds:” the necessary and inescapable social, cultural and historical contexts within and through which we experience the world. Maybe so, but the problem is, these life worlds are hermetically sealed wholes of historical and cultural prejudice, incommensurable and unassailable. As Heidegger’s most influential student Hans-Georg Gadamer formulated it, prejudice – the historical, social and cultural “situatedness” we’re born into – is essential to Being-in-the-world. Outside of your lifeworld, your cocoon of prejudice, you simply aren’t… in the big metaphysical sense. Thus primordial prejudice – our cocoon of reinforcing ideas ever ready to disregard inconvenient or inconsistent “facts” – is the foundation of meaning in this Heideggerian sense.

Shannon’s right to see a connection, but I disagree with the conclusion he draws. I do strongly believe that we are inescapably thrown into a culture, language and history, and these determine much of who we are and how we thinkg. But, I don’t think that echo chambers are ok because of that. We cannot fully escape our context, but being a small-minded bigot who assumes that your beliefs and values are right simply because you believe them is not virtuous, wise, good, or acceptable.

This is, indeed, one of the reasons I think the “echo chambers” argument is mis-founded. The sharing of ideas, language, and values is essential to who we are. Without it, there is no culture and no conversation. But we are almost always in a complex dialectic of agreement and disagreement, identity and difference: We can only argue about something because we agree about so much already. So, in most arenas of life, we do better (as people, as a society) if we try to get past our own assumptions and sympathetically try to understand how the world matters to others. (FWIW, that’s what I found appealing about the academic study of philosophy. I saw it as a way to pry up the floor I was standing on, to see how many of the ideas I take for granted in fact have long, complex histories, and thus are not as “natural” and “self-evident” as I’d thought.)

(Also FWIW, I do think there are lots of areas in which asserting one’s agreement or identity has positive value, because it forms social and political bonds. But if that’s all you do, then you’re a small-minded nebbish.)

Shannon then tries to hang some anti-scientific beliefs on me, which I’m surprised he thinks I might hold. I don’t think science is just a Western superstition. Or whatever. But — and I’m sure Shannon agrees — I also don’t think science is the only way of thinking. It works at what it does. It doesn’t work at what it doesn’t work at. But, I love science. Sign me up for my flu shots!

Now, that doesn’t mean that every question can be settled, by facts, science, or by superstition for that matter. For example, in the piece Shannon refers to, I try to argue that the dispute among cyber-utopians, cyber-dystopians, and realists won’t be settled by facts because we are engaged in a political struggle, and the unknowable outcome of that struggle will give us the lens through we we look back and say “Hurray for the utopians!” or “Damn those utopians!” or whatever.

That criticism is toward the end of the piece, where Shannon then proceeds to argue against what I think is a strawman:

So, back to Weinberger’s utopianism. Remember that utopianism is the idea that the web is essentially good or for the best. Specifically that its native capacity to allow users to add metadata to content and make subtle, personal connections and relations is fundamentally and wholly positive.

Let’s drop the “wholly” from that last sentence. I never thought that the Web is wholly positive and I doubt I ever said it. (I am, however, quite capable of overstatement, so maybe I did. I am a writer with political interests, not a philosopher.) Shannon and I are closer than he thinks. He gives two alternatives to validate my utopianism. Either (says Shannon) I’m saying that we “Ignore the unfortunate facts about humans’ tendency to avoid disconfirmation…” or that we “embrace these tendencies as a prerequisite of authentic, human meaning.” I agree with Shannon that neither of these are acceptable. In order:

(1) I acknowledge our tendency to prefer the comfortable and closed. I acknowledge that the Web won’t magically overcome that. Rather, it is an unprecedented opportunity to work on overcoming it. Constant vigilance. And I think that may be a change in my thinking over the past decade. As I’ve said, I think the echo-chamber alarmists sometimes fail to acknowledge what sharing assumptions and values enables for us humans. But, my utopianism is not based on Shannon’s first alternative.

(2) I know ten years ago I thought “authenticity” was a good idea. But for the majority of the years since then, I’ve thought it’s a pretty bad idea. It does capture something that we want to be able to talk about — a country-western singer who grew up rich but pretends to be hardscrabble — but the metaphysics of authenticity is all screwed up…and within Heidegger it’s an unfortunately throwback to the essentialism he hated. (It did give philosophically-minded Germans a rationale for dying for their fatherland, however. Fucking Nazi.) I do think it’s good to acknowledge the inescapable effects of our birth, language, culture, history, family, etc. But acknowledging that doesn’t mean you can just settle into your prejudices. The reality is that we share our world with lots of people. They care about their lives and their world. If you reject that realization, you’re schizophrenic or evil. It’s our responsibility to always try to expand our circle of sympathy, to understand and care about how the world matters to others.

So, in what sense do I call myself a cyber-utopian? Applying that admittedly ridiculous term to myself is a political act. As I tried to say in the piece Shannon is commenting on, there are political consequences to these labels. I am a utopian because (in my view) it is useful to The Struggle to be one. Utopians remind us that the opportunity in front of us is epochal, and keep us from settling for too little imagination and hope. But the good the Web can do will not happen automatically, as we sit passively on our couches and let the Web work its magic on us. It will only manifest itself if we work tirelessly. My utopianism, as I understand it, is a denial of the sort of technological determinism that Shannon criticizes me for.

But, when you come down to it, I am indeed optimistic about the change we’re going through. It’s not inevitably or purely good, of course. And Shannon is completely right that I do tend to overstate the positive and understate the negatives. I tell myself that I do that for political reasons — there are enough fear mongers, and if they get their way, the Web gets restricted in ways I don’t want — but it means that I’m often writing a form of polemics. We are living through a “transvaluation of values,” and at this stage I feel a need to push on the door that’s opening. That undoubtedly means I need to acknowledge the risks and dangers more than I do, but I still want us to push on that door until it’s all the way open.

Thanks, Shannon, for your post. Truly. [Tags: ]

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Andrew McLaughlin joins the Obama administration

According to CNet:

Andrew McLaughlin, currently listed as Google’s director of global public policy, will leave Google to accept a position within the Obama administration reporting to the nation’s new chief technology officer, Aneesh Chopra, according to a report in The New York Times. McLaughlin’s new title will be deputy chief technology officer, and he would become the third high-profile Google executive to join the government since Obama was inaugurated in January.

I know Andrew. He was a Berkman fellow and I’m happy to be one of the many people who call him a friend (not to overstate our relationship). Andrew is incredibly smart and very thoughtful. (He’s also kind and funny.) You may disagree with his policy recommendations on, say, Google’s presence in China or how to handle Turkey’s desire to block YouTube videos that mock Mustafa Kemal Ataturk but if you have a chance to hear Andrew talk about such issues, you will come away impressed by his knowledge, his seriousness, his vision, and his empathy. He is committed to open access and understands the power of the Net. I’m very happy to have him in our government.

[Later: Here's Ethanz on Andrew.]

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May 30, 2009

The YouTube election … in Iran

Hamid Tehrani at GlobalVoices posts about how Iranian candidates for the presidency are using YouTube…including controversies about jokes and ad hoc footage…

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Daily (intermittent) Open-End Puzzle (DOEP): Fattening yogurt

This is a “Let’s figure out how this statement might be true” puzzle. I have an answer in mind (which you probably won’t like), but I’m more interested in the ones y’all come up with:

For the sort of run-of-the-mill yogurt — no fruit on the bottom — you buy in your average American supermarket, I believe it is true that the further you go down in the container, the more fattening it becomes.

Why might that be true? More important, in how many different ways can we take that putative fact to make it true?

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May 29, 2009

More on Google Wave

From Shannon Clark, from a mailing list, with permission (and a very few light edits because of its original mailing list context):

I just got back from Google IO – but couldn’t hangout as long as I wanted to this afternoon, but I did talk with some of the Wave team.

It is not yet released, they have published dev docs and are taking signups for people who are interested and they are working on opening it up as quickly as possible.

From what I’ve seen so far, it indeed looks exceptionally cool – and is very important to the future of the web.

It is also, and this is a key point, tied closely to the release and support of HTML 5 – so watch how that progresses in Chrome & Safari – Version 4 of Safari is in beta and available easily btw (and watch for the release of Firefox 3.5) – when those are released out of dev into prod supporting HTML 5 I’d predict we’ll see Wave (and likely other surprisingly powerful applications) start to get released that take advantage of HTML 5′s features.

In particular the “Web Worker” feature which allows for a web page to do background processing is pretty key – potentially I suspect also a security concern (though I hope this is not the case) but more practically it means that web pages can do even more intensive processing without killing your ability to switch tabs & keep working (some other moves Google is proposing would enhance this capabilities even further)

The other features are also pretty nifty

- a standard data store to allow for offline applications (without a plugin like Google Gears being required),

- standard ways to do geolocation (where the browser/OS chooses which tools to use to calculate it, the web page only gets the data if you give it permission to do so),

- a video tag also removing yet another plugin being needed – it also allows multiple video elements of a page to manipulated by CSS & Javascript – Google demoed a YouTube page where every thumbnail could play on mouseover – all while loading very quickly) – see http://youtube.com/html5 if you have a dev release which is HTML5 compatible

- a canvas tag which is an area that is pixel level addressable by javascript – allows for really smooth applications to be built & developed

– in talking with people at Google they definitely intend to open source the client & eventually probably the server – currently the whole app is over 1M lines of code which they are reviewing to ensure they can in fact open source all of it (my guess is the would rewrite sections they can’t open source currently – stuff that perhaps uses a licensed library etc)

The plan is for companies or organizations to be able to run their own Wave servers – which might then do federation.

That said, from the conversations it sounds like they have found issues and complications with Federation so that may be a feature left out early on (which isn’t a big deal for the initial releases if Google will be hosting all of the first Waves).

Look carefully at some of the posts about Wave – in particular the distinction between Gadgets & Robots. Gadgets being stuff like the existing OpenSocial apps (which will mostly all work directly) – chess games & other rich, usually social applications which will be embedable into a specific wave.

Robots on the other hand are much like old IRC robots – but can do much more than just respond to a chat/hold a conversation – they will also be able to modify a wave much as any other user – so they could do automated spell checking/translation, could modify/enhance content which is posted (making stocktickers links or the like), and can serve as bridges with other systems – so one of the first Google wrote links specific tweets into a Wave.

Very cool stuff

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May 28, 2009

Initial reaction to Google Wave: Maybe transformative

I’m excited about Google Wave, based on TechCrunch’s description of it, and my own fervid projections of what I’d like it to be. If I’m understanding it correctly — and the likelihood is that I’m not … take that as a serious warning — this could be bigger than Facebook and MySpace in terms of how it terraforms the Net.

Social networking sites were hugely important because they addressed a huge lack. The Web knows how pages are linked, but it knows nothing about the relationships among groups of people. SNS’s added that layer. And the smartest of the social network sites treated themselves as platforms on which other apps could be built. Google Wave goes back to the Internet’s most basic layer: people talking with one another. While there are obviously lots of apps and protocols enabling the back and forth gesticulating we call “conversation,” there’s been nothing underneath them all that recognizes that they’re all different ways of doing the same basic thing: IM doesn’t know about email doesn’t know about Usenet doesn’t know about chat doesn’t know about Facebook messaging doesn’t know about Twitter. Each of these ways humans have invented to talk with one another is treated as its own separate app, as different as playing a zombie-killing game and marking up x-rays. In fact, many years ago, a few of us tried to generate interest in what we called threadsML, which we hoped (vainly) would be a standard way for conversations to be shared, stored, and moved around.

Wave, as I understand it, is a platform underneath the multiple modalities of human conversation. It doesn’t care if you’re emailing, IMing, or throwing photos at one another. The structural object is the conversation; the means of conversation is just a detail. [Note: I think.] The fact that you said “No way!” using IM when talking in realtime with a friend who’s reading the same email thread with you no longer will mean your expostulation will have to be treated as a separate app, just as when talking in the real world, we don’t count our hand gestures as something apart from the conversation just because we make them with our hands instead of with our mouths.

So far, Google is (unsurprisingly) doing the right and smart thing, opening it up to developers early on, using the open XMPP protocol, and open sourcing the Google Wave Federation Protocol. If this is to be more than just another app for talking, Google has to treat it like an open platform. The first sign of lock-in will scare away the very folks Google needs if Wave is to be more than just a shiny new set of tin cans and string for those who want to talk with other Google users.

There’s lots that could go wrong. And my understanding of Wave is so preliminary that I’m sorry to be so far out on the limb. But I’ve been waiting on this limb for a long time, frustrated that conversations are splintered by medium when they should be joined by topic and social group. Wave is the first thing I’ve seen that offers a genuine hope for getting this right by starting with the most fundamental social object we have: people talking with one another.

I think.

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Daily (intermittent) Open-Ended Puzzle: Skull-brain evolution

While watching our local squirrel digging up the flowerpots on our porch, thinking about how much easier it would be for both of us if the stupid thing would just evolve a bigger brain, I got to thinking about how unpleasant the bigger-brain mutation would be if it didn’t come with a simultaneous bigger-skull mutation. But having both of those mutations occur at the same time seems to multiply the improbability, doesn’t it?

So, how’s it happen? Are the two sizes controlled by the same gene? Do skulls form around brains so brains don’t rattle around in them? Does it really take multiplicative random mutations? Or what?

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May 27, 2009

Big news for One Web Day

It’s a big day for One Web Day! [Disclosure: I'm on its board.]

First, Mitch Kapor has agreed to become its chair. Mitch is an Internet lifer who has put his shoulder to the wheel in some of the founding efforts that have made the Net what it is today. So, yay!!!

What is One Web Day? As Mitch puts it:

OneWebDay is an annual, global event which is celebrated every September 22. Much like Earth Day, which inspired it, OneWebDay provides an opportunity for communities to celebrate the power of Web for positive change, to take action to protect what is precious about it, and to educate the public and policymakers on how the Web works.

Second, the Ford Foundation has given OWD a major grant — yay!! — so now we can move from being an all-volunteer organization to hiring an executive director…which leads to…

Third, Nathaniel James is the new executive director. He comes from the Media and Democracy Coalition, and is an ideal fit. Yay!!

One Web Day — founded by Susan Crawford — is a day for us to celebrate the Web, but also to renew our commitment to work together to advance the values that make the Web not just a technology but a hope. Today is a very good one for OWD and for what it can contribute to that hope.

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Advertised broadband rates: We’re number, um, well, never mind

The BBC has posted a map with a histogram of average advertised broadband speeds, per country. The US is #19.

Worse, the histogram takes the shape of a power law distribution: Three of the countries constitute a short head with average speeds approaching ten times that of the median of the long tail. Or something like that.

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