Joho the BlogOctober 2009 - Page 3 of 4 - Joho the Blog

October 14, 2009

When markets are angry conversations

The Financial Times asked four concerned experts how a CEO should handle a mob outraged at his or her corporation’s behavior. All four recommend some form of conversational engagement, including the possibility of changing corporate policy if it is discovered to be wrong. The hard part, of course, is what you do if rational minds simply disagree, and if the stakes are high enough that conversation fails and confrontation remains. At least one of the four commenters acknowledges that the CEO may just have to push back, and Oxfam says it engages in dialogue even as it also runs campaigns.

(Disclosure: I am consulting to Edelman and am friends with the Edelman person who is quoted in the piece. Also, we regularly donate money to Oxfam and I hope you do, too.)

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October 13, 2009

Larry Lessig: Beyond Transparency, and Net Triumphalism

Plenty is being written already trying to parse, understand, and come to terms with Larry Lessig’s article “Against Transparency” in the New Republic. Ethan Zuckerman does his usual outstanding job in clarifying ideas sympathetically. Transparency advocate Carl Malamud responds to Lessig. I presented my own “walkthrough” of the article. The New Republic has run Tim Wu‘s response, which agrees with Lessig in important ways. The New Republic has also run four other responses, including an excellent response from Ellen Miller and Michael Klein, founders of the Sunlight Foundation, the leading advocate for transparency. (My response is included in that set of four.) Aaron Swartz prefigured Larry’s argument in a piece he posted in April: “Transparency is bunk.” Plenty to chew on.

I want to briefly expand on the article’s import.

At the end, Larry expands his own argument to cover “Internet triumphalism.” Over the past couple of years, we’ve been seeing Net triumphalism waning, at least in the circles I travel in. Triumphalism is the notion that the war has been won. It’s over. Net triumphalism thinks that the new tech is in place, cannot be removed, and will change everything. It thus includes Net techno-determinism, i.e., the idea that the mere presence of the Net has predictable, determinate, and inevitable effects. Triumphalism adds: Yay!

Net triumphalism seemed more plausible back in the days when the demographics of the participants were pretty homogeneous, masking the role culture played in the homogeneous effects the Net was having. As regimes have censored the Net in ways the Net has not routed around, as Albert-Laszlo Barabasi and then Clay Shirky showed us that the Net tends towards the old patterns of unequal influence, as the mere networked presence of Howard Dean supporters failed to end GW Bush’s reign of error, naive Internet Triumphalism has become unsupportable. As Joe Trippi said, we need mouse pads and shoe leather. As Aaron Swartz says, we need narrative journalism as well as the Web. As Larry Lessig says, we need political reform as well as the Web. Indeed, as Aaron and Larry point out, the sunlight of transparency casts shadows as well.

I think “Against Transparency” misidentifies the source of the threat and undervalues the benefits of transparency-as-the-default, even as I agree with Larry’s cautions and his policy agenda. I nevertheless think it is one more marker in incremental extirpation of Internet triumphalism. Some of the pain reading his article causes old-time Net enthusiasts like me comes from that. It’s the right pain to feel, even if we disagree with the particularities of Larry’s article.


October 12, 2009

Lessig’s “Against Transparency”: A walkthrough

I’ve been in a small round of email among friends, arguing over exactly what Larry Lessig means in his article in The New Republic titled “Against Transparency.” It is a challenging article for those of us who support government transparency, and Larry is obviously both influential and brilliant. So, I wanted to be sure that I was following his argument, since it is somewhat discursive.

Here’s what I think is a guide to the flow of the article, with links to the eleven Web pages across which the article is spread. (I’ve made judgment calls about where to divide topics that span a page.) The following is all my gloss and paraphrasing; let me know if you think I’ve gotten it wrong. Note that I intend this only as a guide to reading the article, not as a substitute. I’ve purposefully filed off the nuances, grace notes, and subtleties that make this a Larry Lessig article. (Note also that the italicized bits are not me interjecting; they’re the article’s own objections and qualifiers.)

Section I: Transparency is not necessarily good

[link] Sometimes, transparency that seems good is bad. (“Punch-Clock Campaign” example.)

Especially bad is “naked transparency,” which wants massive amounts of government data made available over the Internet. Naked transparency will “simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff.”

Qualifier: Most transparency projects are not bad.

[link] Transparency projects that track the flow of money and influence are particularly bad.

[link] A short history of transparency. (Brandeis)

To be helpful, information has to be incorporated into “complex chains of comprehension.”

Is that what’s happening with what naked transparency reveals? The supporters of transparency haven’t asked that question.

[link] Section II: Transparency leads to untruth

Mere correlations between politicians, donors, and votes does not tell us if the politician is corrupt.

Objection: But, revealing those correlations does no harm.

[link] Yes it does! (Hillary Clinton example.) Once the correlation gets in our head, we can’t get rid of it.

Objection: More information will chase out the bad info.

[link] No it won’t! Our attention spans are shot. You can see this everywhere. (Surveillance camera example.)

[link] Section III: How to respond

Can we get the good of transparency without the bad? No. (JAMA example.)

[link] The transparency argument is following a familiar pattern. Similarly, tech has enabled a “free content movement” that has disrupted the newspaper and music industries.

Let’s not follow that pattern in how we respond. We can’t fight the Net’s lessening of control over info.

[link] We need solutions that accept the Net’s effect. (William Fisher and Neil Netanel examples.)

[link] The solution is obvious. Transparency is inevitably going to raise false suspicions. We are prey to those suspicions because we already believe that politics is corrupt. Therefore, we need to eliminate political corruption.

To eliminate political corruption, we should enact the Fair Elections Now Act.

Caveat: The name of the act is misleading. It’s not about fairness.

Without this, we are doomed.

The transparency movement should support campaign finance reform, and should constantly remind us that transparency is not “just a big simple blessing.”

[link] Likewise for the rest of the Internet triumphalism.


October 11, 2009

Do-it-yourself Google Books — a million dollar idea for Amazon?

Harry Lewis has a terrific post about a $300 do-it-yourself book scanner he saw at the D is for Digitize conference on the Google Book settlement. The plans are available at, from Daniel Reetz, the inventor.

There are lots of personal uses for home-digitized books, so — I am definitely not a lawyer — I assume it’s legal to scan in your own books. But doesn’t that just seem silly if your friend or classmate has gone to the trouble of scanning in a book that you already own? Shouldn’t there be a site where we can note which books we’ve scanned in? Then, if we can prove that we’ve bought a book, why shouldn’t we be able to scarf up a copy another legitimate book owner has scanned in, instead of wasting all the time and pixels scanning in our own copy?

Isn’t Amazon among the places that: (a) knows for sure that we’ve bought a book, (b) has the facility to let users upload material such as scans, and (c) could let users get an as-is scan from a DIY-er if there is one available for the books they just bought?


Net uncovers new type of cloud

There are reports of a new type of cloud, one that is not currently in the official International Cloud Atlas. Or, possibly, it is a formation that’s been around forever, but the scattered reports are only now coalescing thanks to the Net.

According to Amazon’s review of Richard Hamblyn’s The Invention of Clouds, we only began thinking clouds could be categorized in 1802 when Luke Howard started giving public lectures. The very idea that clouds — the paradigm of uncatchable — could be divided into groups was (apparently) fascinating and thrilling. (Lamarck had also categorized clouds, but it didn’t catch on.)

A quick googly scan makes it seem that the cloud taxonomy is pretty messy. For example, the University of Illinois’ “cloud types” page lists four broad categories, and a list of miscellaneous clouds, each of which is categorized under one of the four basic types, evoking a “Huh?” reaction from at least one of us. The cloud taxonomy page at Univ. Missouri-Columbia lists eight types. Do you categorize by what they look like, how high they are, what they do (rain or not?), which celebrity profiles they resemble …? Categorizing clouds is truly a Borgesian task.

And, dammit, wouldn’t you know? Here’s a poem by Jorge Luis Borges called: “Clouds (II)” (with the line-endings probably removed):

Placid mountains meander through the air, or tragic cordilleras cast a pall, overshadowing the day. They are what we call clouds. And their shapes are often strange and rare. Shakespeare observed one once. It seemed to be a dragon. That one cloud of an afternoon still kindles in his words and blazes down, so that we go on seeing it today. What are the clouds? An architecture of chance? Perhaps they are the necessary things from which God weaves his vast imaginings, threads of a web of infinite expanse. Maybe the cloud is emptiness returning, just like the man who watches it this morning.

(translated by Richard Barnes. B; Robert Mezey; Richard Barnes. “Clouds (II). (poem).” The American Poetry Review. World Poetry, Inc. 1996. HighBeam Research. 11 Oct. 2009 v)

More Borges poems


October 10, 2009

Obama’s dignity

Robert Fuller has a good post at DailyKos that speculates that the Nobel committee was rewarding Obama for his “dignitarian” politics. “Dignitarian politics represents a modern synthesis of libertarian and egalitarian politics.”

Dignitarianism is Robert’s political philosophy. I don’t know the specifics of it, but I like the word it’s based on.
The term has come to connote someone who remains polite and proper, no matter what the occasion, because of a sense of self-worth and confidence. That’s part of what Obama manifests as “coolness” — not in the hep cat sense (yes, I just said “hep cat”), but in the way he refused to rise to the bait the way many of his supporters were hoping he would during the debates with McCain.

Even more important than being dignified is treating others with dignity. Being dignified can be a trick of manners or a technique for self defense, but consistently treating others with dignity is a profound statement of what you think matters in this world. That is what many around the globe are responding to when they hear Obama, especially when they remember the cacklin’ cowboy who came before him. (Pardon me. When it comes to GW Bush, I make an exception to the rule of dignity. I am no Obama.) It is also what many in our national political scene respond to negatively about Obama, confusing it with compromise, appeasement, weakness, or triangulation.

Treating people with dignity is an acknowledgment of the equality of worth aspirations. Your life and values are as serious to you as mine are to me. Dignity is thus hope’s social self. But, for peacemakers, it is also highly pragmatic. If you will not accord opponents dignity, then your only alternative is to conquer them. Sometimes that is required. But a peaceful world is built on dignity accorded to others.

That is what President Obama brings. Coming from the leader of the world’s most powerful nation, it is worth a Nobel Peace Prize if only as a legacy to be fulfilled.


October 9, 2009

What I learned from my annual physical: Rationing, records, red blood

At my annual physical today I learned three things, in addition to the fact that I seem to be basically healthy:

1. My doctor told me that as someone over 50 years old (I’m 58), I should not get a swine flu inoculation. See, we’re already rationing medicine, the damn socialists! Of course. We always have. At least flu shots are being rationed by doctors, not by insurance companies. Rationing is the only reasonable response in a world of non-infinite resources.

2. The health center I go to has an extensive electronic record of my health, but it is designed around billing, not around my health. For example, I was diagnosed with Type II diabetes a few years ago. (I no longer have that diagnosis. Amazing what losing 40lbs and not eating sugar can do for you.) When my doctor tried to look up when he had made that diagnosis, he had to instead look for when he first prescribed an anti-diabetes drug. The electronioc record knows about which drugs I was prescribed, but doesn’t think of diabetes as something worth noting. Eventually my doctor found that diagnosis in a note of some sort, but if I were brought unconscious into an emergency room that got access to my electronic record, the attending George Clooneys would not easily see that I might have a problem with sugars.

3. I asked my doctor for my blood type because when I jog I carry a little health card with me, so as strangers are picking over my remains, they can see that I have no known allergies and thus they should feel free to test out new drugs on me. My doctor doesn’t have my blood type recorded and was puzzled that I’d want to know. It’s a residue of my youth when children were supposed to prominently write their blood type in lipstick on their foreheads in case they were trampled by a dinosaur. These days, apparently they just type you on the spot, before they steal your wallet and test out new drugs on your remains. Good to know!


October 8, 2009

Please don’t honor me with a cross

In the early 1980s, I was teaching philosophy at Stockton State College. At one point, I said something like, “OK, guys, let’s get started — and I mean ‘guys’ in the generic sense.” Afterwards, a couple of the young women in the class came up to me and said, “You can’t get out of being sexist by saying you don’t mean what you said.”

“‘Guys’ stands for everyone,” I said, thinking that my embedded apology had been rather enlightened of me.

“Then next time try saying ‘OK, gals, let’s get started.'”

Got it.

Justice Scalia says of a cross on public land* honoring U.S. war dead: “It’s erected as a war memorial. I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead … What would you have them erect?…Some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and you know, a Muslim half moon and star?”

He’s right that it’s intended to honor all the war dead. The problem is the assumption that you honor all war dead by putting up the religious symbols honored by some.

Scalia should talk with the young women who set me straight 25 years ago.

NOTE: I posted this at Huffington Post where the comments are, um, interesting.

*The case seems to be turning on whether the land was made private simply to skirt the problem with erecting religious symbols on public land.


October 7, 2009

[berkman] Viktor Mayer-Schönberger on the virtue of forgetting

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is giving a talk at the Berkman Center (well, actually at Pound Hall) on his book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. Viktor teaches at Singapore University, and was at the Kennedy School for ten years.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

He begins with a story of person studying to become a teacher who was kicked out of school because the school noticed a photo of her drinking on Facebook. She tried deleting it, but the Internet remembered it. He gives another example: A person who noted in an article that he had taken LSD in the 1960s. When trying to cross into the US, an immigration officer refused him admittance because he hadn’t offered up that information, and the officer uncovered it by googling him. What’s put on the Web is never forgotten. In another example, the information was not put up by the individual but by someone else: a bar/club in Europe records all the people, all the drinks, etc., and hasn’t ever deleted any information. Likewise, Google knows more about us than we can remember.

For millennia, forgetting was easy, and remembering was hard, says Viktor. So, we’ve come up with ways to pass on our memories. The oral tradition. Painting. Writing. “But these tools have not altered the fundamental fact that for us humans, forgetting is easy, and remembering is time-consuming and expensive.” The book and the photo also haven’t altered this fact. What is long past fades in our mind. We depreciate what is no longer relevant. But because forgetting is biological, we never had to develop explicit strategies to forget. Now we’ve moved from biologically forgetting to permanent remembering. [Hmm. I haven’t. We still don’t remember much. But we have more records, and thus are able to retrieve more. That seems different to me.]

This has happened because storage is cheap in the digital world. Google has server farms with a capacity of 100,000 terabytes perhaps. And we’ve gotten much better at retrieving information. And we have global access. Remembering has become the default.

There are, of course, benefits to this, Viktor says. But undoing forgetting has deep consequences, far beyond the information efficiencies. He points to power and time.

Power: If others have info about us and can keep that info accessible for a very long time, the informational power increases, and can affect how we transact and interact. It’s Bentham’s Panopticon: behavioral compliance through the permanent threat of constant surveillance.

Time: Imagine Jane is about to catch up with her old friend John, but when reviewing their history of email, discovers msgs from a time when he was nasty to her. She had forgotten that time. Now it comes back. Her current relationship with John now is ruined. [Or, she discovers msgs that remind her she once loved him. Isn’t Viktor’s example actually an argument for more remembering, so she can see how she got over the bad time?] “In analog times, the dangers were limited” because our biology would have brought us to forget.

Viktor talks about AJ, a non-fictional woman who has difficulty forgetting. It is a weird and unhappy condition.[This is why the conflation of human remembering and the presence of a fairly complete digital record matters. The presence of digital info and the tools for retrieving it does not turn us into AJ.]

Without forgetting, we have trouble changing. We have trouble forgiving. We may turn into an unforgiving society. “This is the real danger of shifting the default from forgetting to remembering.” Worse, suppose we stop relying on our own memories and rely instead on the digital memories. “Does that give those who control digital memory the power over history?”

What to do? Perhaps give privacy rights to individuals. But there are weaknesses: It’s not politically feasible in the US. The European have those rights, but people have not used them.

Or perhaps we could create an information ecology, a regulatory construction of what can be remembered. E.g., it might require the deletion of info after a particular time. This does not require individuals to go to court for enforcement, and it protects against an unforeseen future as when the benign Dutch social services registry was repurposed by the Nazis to identify Jews. “It may be better to store less than more.” But, after 9/11, we’re seeing requirements for increasing data retention, Viktor notes.

So, maybe we need to augment these approaches. “Digital abstinence,” for example. Don’t put everything on Facebook. But abstinence isn’t all that reasonable, he says. By the end of 2007, two out of three young Americans had put their info online.

The opposite approach is “full contextualization.” E.g., Jane can’t find the context of her bad treatment by John. Full contextualization would restore that. But will that ever be technically feasible? And if it were, would it really address the challenge of digital remembering? Do we have time to relive our past again and again?

Another approach: Hope for a cognitive adjustment. That is, over time we’ll learn to devalue older info and learn to live with an omnipresent past. “That would solve our problem. But is it likely?” How long would it take us to change how we assess information? “Cognitive psychologists are very critical of our ability to change our decision making in the short run.” [But a change in norms can happen much faster than that, and we govern what we’re allowed to notice and remember through norms. Statements like “That’s water under the bridge” and “Youthful indiscretions” are expressions of norms that enforce social forgetting without requiring actual brain evolution.]

Or, we could change our technology, rather than changing ourselves. E.g., a global DRM system to protect privacy. Viktor is not recommending this: “Wouldn’t this be a perfect surveillance system?” And we’d have to make sure that privacy is built deep into the infrastructure.

None of these six solutions are sufficient, although all offer something.

“I advocate a revival of forgetting…to establish a mechanism that makes forgetting easy, and makes remembering just a bit more strenuous.” Just enough to shift the incentives back to what we humans are used to. Viktor suggests an expiry date for information. Whenever we save info, we should be prompted to put in a date when we want it deleted. We should be able to change those dates.

The core of this proposal isn’t the automatic deletion, he says. Rather, the prompting for the date will remind us humans that most information is not of permanent value.

E.g., search engines could offer us an easy way to say how long we should remember searches. Or people could carry a device on their keyring to set expiration dates, perhaps tagging the expiration dates for the images of the people in digital photos.

Any expiry date system must have only two characteristics. First, it must aim at changing the default from remembering back to forgetting. Second, it must remind us of information’s temporal nature.

Expiry dates are also no silver bullet, and don’t solve digital privacy problems, Viktor says. But they could be useful when used with some of the other proposed solutions.

“Forgetting is often forgotten…Let us remember to forget.”

Q: You don’t mention the propensity of all media to fade over time. Digital memory is not perfect. Also, data is growing so quickly that it gets too expensive to digitally remember everything. The amount of data is growing faster than Moore’s Law.
A: You don’t need much space to remember a billion queries a day. A couple of hundred dollars worth of data storage. And Google’s way of saving data is relatively future-proof.

Q: [me] If we take memory to mean only the human capacity, and digital “memory” to be more like what we usually call storage, then what has actually happened to human memory in the digital age?
A: I chose the term “digital memory” carefully. If I can’t access my VCR tapes easily, they’re pretty much useless to me. Digital stuff is so easily accessible. How has digital remembering changed human remembering? I don’t know. But my argument isn’t that it’s changed human remembering, but that it has changed the external stimuli affecting our memory.

Q: One of the way a culture forgets is that it lets books go out of print, get moved out of libraries, etc. Now we have Google Books, which will make all books ever printed available (pretty much). Do you see negative effects of this project?
A: I haven’t given it enough thought because authors would like to set their books’ expiry dates very far in the future. Some preliminary research we’re doing on court decisions are showing an interesting effect on memory.
Q: The author of the book isn’t the only one concerned with the info in it. There may be people written about who would want to a say…
A: Yes, and the author’s rights aren’t always fully owned by them.

Q: Digital memory has value as cultural memory. The things we’d put expiration dates on have value even if against the interests of the people at the time, because it has social and historic meaning…
A: That’s just conjecture…
Q: No it’s not. We’re leaving traces now all the time. How we put that info to use is a different question.
A: Suppose you’re an author. Shouldn’t you be able to put bad early stories into the trash bin? Why should society have the right to take it from you and preserve it and make it public?
Q: Great point, but we still do struggle with this. Nonetheless, I would recommend we give thought to how these things might sensibly be balanced. E.g., the Iran election twitter stream. Enormous amt of fascinating info has been lost.
A: The solution is built in. For certain contexts, we may be required to mandate a very long expiry date. We do that all the time. I’m arguing for keeping that as the exception to the rule.

Q: I’m a cultural historian, trained as a Medievalist. There’s data scarcity in that field. Who decides about inclusion, preservation, etc.? Institutions have performed the filtering role. Google keeps some types of info and not others. Others are interested in your social security number, etc. So, who are the gatekeepers? There’s power to the Internet Archive’s approach of capturing everything. The stuff that the institutions of memory don’t preserve may turn out to be the most interesting for historians. (I basically buy your core argument, although I’m a believer in the cognitive adjustment.)
< A: Brewster Kale and I (of Internet Archive) are in general agreement. The Archive sets expiry dates. [Not sure I got that right. Sorry.] My core argument is to give back the choice to the individuals.

Q: I too believe in the cognitive adjustment because I see myself and others already doing that. Sure, you find old emails reminding of something you wanted to forget, but when you accidentally delete some years’ worth, you feel an intense sense of loss.
A: When I lost all my email at the end of 1998, I was completely horrified. But then I discovered it doesn’t really matter. I started out believing the cog adjustment argument, but after I read cog science books, I changed my mind. I want to plug The Seven Sins of Memory, which shows how hard it is to readjust.

Q: Suppose two of us in a shared record have different expiry preferences…
A: I talk about that a lot in the book.

Q: There’s a big diff between what I want to preserve and what others do. The European privacy laws require data deletion. Google and others are now negotiating with the European Commission about this …
A: We need to differentiate between privacy rights and norms.

[missed a couple of questions. sorry.]

Viktor says that he recognizes that expiry dates are a crude instrument. Too binary. “I’d prefer rusting or something like that.” :)

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Ethanz on Don Tapscott on the passing of the couch potato

Ethan Zuckerman reports — and he’s the best live-blogger there is — on Don Tapscott‘s stories at the BIF-5 conference.

Here’s a snippet of Ethan reporting on Don:

“If you spend 24 hours a week being a passive participant, consuming tv – as Baby Boomers did – you get a certain sort of brain.” If you spend those hours searching, researching and building connections, you get a very different brain.

Tapscott wants to refute the idea that the internet is making kids dumb. There’s no data to support this, he tells us. Instead, we’re seeing radical societal change, especially around the structure of the family. Kids and parents get along as friends, and sometimes they move back in after graduation. He wonders, “is this the first time in history that we can learn from young people and their new culture of work and learning?”

By the way, Ethan told me the topics he was planning on covering in his own 20-minute BIF story. Fabulous. I hope he blogs that as well.


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