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September 29, 2010

Are we in for perpetual innovation?

Here’s a hypothesis that emerged when talking with Henry Copeland [twitter:hc] about a panel at Web2.0 he’s leading:

Previous media have generally gone through a period in which their navigational systems were unsettled, but then developed stabled systems that lasted for at least a couple of generations. Libraries certainly did. Television spawned tables of channels, times, and shows that are still in use today. Newspapers developed a semantic lay out and use of fonts that is so standard that for generations all newspapers have looked and worked basically the same.

So, will the Internet’s navigation systems follow the same pattern? Will they settle down so that over the course of several generations, the Net will look and work basically the same? Even within particular functional areas, say, search engines? Or will we be constantly innovating the basic navigational systems of the Net? Or, will some systems become settled — say, search engines with text entry boxes (and their oral equivalent) and lists of results — while there is wild innovation in other areas?

I don’t know, of course. But, if I had to bet, I’d say that we’re in for perpetual innovation, with some inventions lasting longer than others. The Net may be the exception to the pattern because of its scale, its complexity, and the ease with which anyone can innovate.

(This of course assumes we continue to have an open Internet. But that’s a hobby horse for another trail.)

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September 28, 2010

Hoder in for 19.5

It’s hard to muster any enthusiasm for Iran’s sentencing Hossein Derakhshan — “Hoder” — to “only” 19.5 years in jail instead of executing him, as they had threatened.

Maybe the Canadian government can do something for Hoder since he holds dual Iranian-Canadian citizenship. I don’t want to have to wait until I’m almost 80 to hear that he’s free.

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September 26, 2010

[2b2k] Decisions, decisions

About two minutes ago I discovered that I was at the end of an EXTREMELY rough first draft of the chapter on decisions. If forced to lay odds, I’d say it’s about 12:1 that I will be doing a major rewrite of it, since I went through it with only a provisional idea of what I was going to say and how I was going to structure it. For example, I believe I may have the structure exactly backwards, and that the long first sections should be dropped or turned into a paragraph or maybe into a cute line drawing of a kitten.

This is the last chapter before the Grand Summation, of which we shall not speak, mainly because it causes formication over all areas of my exposed skin. In the current chapter I am writing about decision making because it is one of two proof points. The previous chapter is about science. Both that one and this one are intended to see if all the jibber jabber about networked knowledge that the reader has slogged through so far actually holds up in areas where we really really have to know what’s right and wrong. So, when we make a decision, does networked knowledge help? What happens when the rubber hits the node, so to speak?

The chapter as it stands begins by spending way too much time on the nature of distributed leadership. I spend page after page talking about Jack Welch as a counterexample (this will almost surely be cut drastically) to make the argument that modern business leaders take integrity as the chief attribute of leaders because organizations are Too Big to Be Led. Since you can’t be sufficiently competent in everything you would need to be, you claim that simply being a truthful, authentic person is enough. Yeah, sure. The fact that the memoirs of successful business leaders are often among the most inauthentic, squirmtastic writings around is just icing on the cake.

Anyway, I then argue that leadership, too, is becoming a property of networks, albeit it unevenly and certainly not in every case. I have a brief case study of the Army’s leadership center at West Point, based mainly on an interview with Lt. Col. Anthony Burgess. (The link is to a piece he wrote up after the interview.) I just don’t know if I’ve successfully sold the reader that an extended discussion of leadership is directly relevant to the topic of networked decision making.

I then make the point that I think I should begin the section with: If you look at decision-making as the isolated moment in which the bit is flipped, then you miss the networking of decision-making that goes on before and after that, even if the organization has no networked decision-making structures in place. Even when the decisions are made by the person at the top, they are made within a network that takes on many of the tasks and properties decision makers shouldered alone. So, the decision may still be a flicking of an leader’s thumb up or down, but that gesture may now occur within a network that has helped inform it, will carry it out, and will support it.

The final section takes a surprising turn for the practical. I was not expecting to end up there, but, when I checked my original outline, sure enough, that was exactly where I thought I’d be. I suppose that’s a good sign. Anyway, this final section’s premise is that to make smart decisions, we need smart networks (not in David Isenberg’s sense!). So, I quickly look at a bunch of properties of networks and loosely tie them to practices that will help make the network smarter than the smartest individuals in them. Nothing you haven’t heard before, which is, of course, a problem.

So, a very very very rough first draft that I may throw out tomorrow. Yay?

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September 25, 2010

Berkman Buzz

Here’s the weekly Berkman Buzz, as compiled by Seth Young:

  • Ethan Zuckerman blogs the H20 project presentation link

  • Joseph Reagle lays down some “Good Faith Collaboration” link

  • Radio Berkman 164: “The University in Cyberspace” link

  • Wendy Seltzer encounters the “Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act” link

  • ProjectVRM asks, “Do we have to ‘trade off’ privacy?” link

  • Jonathan Zittrain imagines being able to declare reputation bankruptcy link

  • Weekly Global Voices: “Anti-censorship webmaster arrested in Thailand” link

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September 24, 2010

Internet exceptionalism

Because of preceding comments at the little confab on “The Net as a human right?” I went to, I decided that it might be worthwhile to defend Internet Exceptionalism, since that’s the basis for the claim that access to the Net ought to be a human right. So, I opened my brief comments by pointing to three exceptional things about the Internet [abbreviated]:

1. As a medium, we use it for information, communication, and sociality. It’s hard to find another medium that combines those three uses and is becoming dominant in all three. This matters because it means we go to the Net to ask a question and end up making friends.

2. The Internet scales from one to billions, group to any size group. It is different at every scale.

3. Telephones were invented for speaking, and cars were invented for driving, but the Internet was not invented for any single use. That is the source of its value, and certainly of its economic value. It’s why we need to preserve Net neutrality. It’s also why the Net does not fit into any frame perfectly.

Then I pointed to three things we learn from this exceptional invention. 1. We create unimaginable things when we are put in a connected environment that has been made permission-free. 2. Collaboration is natural. 3. We will never ever agree about anything.

But, does that exceptionalism mean that the Internet ought to be made a human right? Nah.

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September 22, 2010

Whatever happened to peace?

When I was a lad and then a young man and a young academic, peace used to be an idea we studied, debated, marched for. It was a central concept around which movements and university centers were built.

Now I cant recall the last time I heard someone arguing about peace. I’m sure there are still researchers and activists working on peace issues. But it has dropped from public consciousness as a topic or even as a goal. Why?

I only have some hunches.

During my time with the concept of peace, I saw it incorporate conflict. Peace was getting a bad name as a wooly-headed, utopian idea of the young and recently stoned. So, we built right into the concept of peace — and into the names of the academic centers dealing with it — the idea that peace is not the absence of conflict. A peaceful world would still be at odds with itself. Otherwise, we’ve defined peace into unattainability.

Over time, perhaps (remember, this is a hunch), the focus shifted from peace to conflict studies. First, peace is such a high value that putting it into an academic centers name makes the center sound partisan. And Lord knows, we wouldn’t want academics to have a partisan bias in favor of peace! Second, it’s far easier to be practical and helpful about resolving conflicts than about bringing peace.

I have no problem with this — if these hunches are correct — except that there’s still a role for thinking about peace. For example, we hear lots about cyberwar, cyberterrorism, and cybersecurity, but comparatively little about what a cyberpeaceful Net might look like.

Is it time to give thinking about peace another chance?

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September 21, 2010

Everything is Warburg

The NY Review of Books gives a substantial taste of an upcoming article by Anthony Grafton and Jeffrey Hamburger about the library of the Warburg Institute. It organizes books on the shelves — it’s an open stacks library — into clusters of related materials, cutting across the usual subject classification. The University of London, which rescued and preserved the library, now is planning on dispersing its contents.

[The next day:] The full article has now been posted. Thanks, NYRB!

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September 20, 2010

Global open Internet treaty

From an article by Mark Ballard in ComputerWeekly:

Europe has proposed a global Internet Treaty to protect the net from political interference and place into international law its founding principles of open standards, net neutrality, freedom of expression and pluralistic governance.

The draft law was compared to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty as the Council of Europe presented it to web luminaries from around the world at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Vilnius, Lithuania, this week.

This strikes me as a way better idea than declaring Net access to be a human right. Not only is it more likely to be accepted — which is not to say that it’s likely that it will be — but it also gets the scope of the Net’s importance roughly right. Food first. But if you’re going to have Internet access, it should be to the actual Internet, not some bowdlerized, commercialized, censored pretender.

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September 19, 2010

The Internet as a human right

I’m on a panel at a State Dept. event this week. The panel is about the Net as a human right. Here are some initial thoughts about what I might say, for your kicking-around pleasure:


I count myself as an Internet exceptionalist. Here are three ways I think the Net is unique or close to it: 1. It is the only medium we use for information, communication, and primary sociality. 2. The Internet scales from personal to global in each of those three dimensions (although it’s different at every scale). 3. Unlike most other technology, the Internet isn’t for anything in particular. (This last, by the way, is an argument for preserving Net neutrality.) And I am an exceptionalist not just in regard to the Net as a technology. I believe it is having transformative effects on our cultures, institutions, economies, governments…

Even so, I want this morning to argue against claiming Internet access as a human right. But I want to began with a caveat to that, as well, because I am of at least two minds about this. I happened to have been at the event on January 21, 2010 where Secretary Clinton called on the UN Human Rights Council to adopt five new Internet freedoms: freedom of expression, of worship, from want, from fear, to connect. I was thrilled to hear the Secretary of State express her understanding of the importance — the exceptional importance — of the Internet. And, of course I too want an Internet that is open to all ideas and that is understood to be ours.

But…

There are at least two ways to take the call to claim Net access as a human right. The first is the stronger claim: People have the right to Internet access, just as they have a right to food and shelter. The second expresses qualities of the Internet to which people should have access.

Secretary Clinton seemed to be talking about this second sense of Internet human rights. The first four of her five proposed Net rights, of course, apply existing human rights to the Internet domain. About the fifth, the freedom to connect, she said: “…governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other,” analogizing it to freedom of assembly. I like those five freedoms, but the analogy doesn’t quite work. Everyone has a physical ability to assemble, but not everyone has access to the Net. The right to connect seems more like a right to education or to water — a right that requires a positive action from the government, not a governmental duty to stay out of the way. So, suppose there is no Internet access in your country. Does that count as blocking your right to connect? If the first four Internet freedoms are about the quality of access, like adding to the right to water that the water must be clean and pure, doesn’t that impy that the government has to supply Internet access in the first place, just as it has to supply access to water? This second, weaker sense of access to the Internet as a human right turns out to entail the stronger sense as well.

So, do we want Internet access to be one of those stronger rights, something you can demand of your government? Take a look at the U.N.’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Freedom from slavery. Freedom from torture. Equal protection under the law. Do we really want to add to that list “The right to have an Internet connection”?

Oh, the practical problems! Would a 28kpbs dial-up connection suffice, or would anything less than, say, 5mbps symmetric be a violation of our human rights? How open and non-discriminatory does the Net access have to be to satisfy our rights as humans? Does Thailand’s blocking of irreverent YouTubes of their king count as a violation of human rights? How about Germany’s preventing eBay from listing Nazi memorabilia? How about the pressure brought onCraigslist to censor its adult services section? If Comcast blocks BitTorrent, can we take it to the UN? We’re having enough trouble getting Net neutrality asserted by the FCC; do we really want to take on making Net neutrality a new human right?

Of course, if we really felt that access to the Net is a human right, we’d take a best-effort stab at the specifics. After all, we can’t really define exactly what the parameters of free speech are, but we still count it as a human right. So, I think it comes down to whether we think the Internet is so exceptional that it should be added to the list of material objects to which we have a fundamental right. So far, the only material objects to which we have asserted rights as humans are tied to our biological nature: food, water, shelter. Other human rights have to do with core human values, such as freedom and the flourishing that education enables. The Net, too, enables a set of interactions and relations that feel truly fundamental to what it means to be human: Communication, creativity, economic activity, free expression, collaborative action, community. So, perhaps the Internet should be the exception, the one piece of non-biologically necessary technology so central to our core values that it is the object of an official human right.

To address this, we need to ask what makes something a human right. Let me suggest two types of justifications.

One useful way to think about human rights is to say that they happen to be where the globe’s nations agree to draw the line. This accords with the origins of the UDHR: In 1946 a group of countries gathered to outlaw behavior that the world agreed was just too awful to countenance, in the face of a world war that was horrible beyond recounting. This line of justification for human rights depends upon a global sense of where to draw the line when it comes to intolerable actions. If lack of Net access starts to strike the world’s governments as being on a par with starving one’s own citizens, then Net access might get added as a human right. We are not at that point yet, however.

Another way to think about human rights is to say that they spring from facts about the nature of being human and even from the nature of being moral in the first place. (Yeah, I know an ought can’t come from an is. We’ll talk later.) There is a right to food and shelter because humans are animals with biological needs. There is a right to education because humans are creatures of the mind. There is a human right to equal justice because of the nature of moral imperatives themselves: behaving morally entails denying special treatment for oneself and for those one happens to prefer. So, what is it about human nature (if I may use such a term) that implies a right to access the Internet? Perhaps that we are social creatures, so there is a right for us to engage with one another. This, for me, is the most convincing argument. But, if the Net fulfills our innate need to be social, so do parks, cafes, and playgrounds, and it would be foolish to demand any of those “technologies” as a human right. Like parks and playgrounds, the Net is a means to fulfilling other rights spelled out in the UDHR. Specifying Internet access as a human right would express how important we think the Net is, but would raise unintended practical, political, and economic issues.

You don’t have to assert something as a fundamental human right to believe that it provides a social good of deep, deep of value. So, I remain an Internet exceptionalist and fanatic. I am all in favor of providing Internet access to the world, preferably for free. (Of course, I’d first want to make sure everyone can read and write, has electricity, has a full belly, and has access to medical care, so that they can use the Net in the first place. Also, so they can live.) Access to an open Internet is an incredible social good. We who have such access should cherish it, use it, spread it, share it, and fight to keep it open. Nevertheless, calling Net access a human right blurs the line between social goods and demandable human rights. That does not bring the Net to the world any faster, and diminishes the effect of claims of genuine human rights.


[LATER that day:] I was thinking about this some more and realized that I’d probably sign a petition to make Internet access a human right. So, you can see that I’m a bit conflicted about this. I’d sign it because I think it’s good to express to the world how important I think Net access is, not because I expect or even want Net access to be a basic human right at this point. Once we’re all fed, employed and medicated, it’d be great to have Net as a human right. Even better, it’d be great to just put up some satellites and take that first step toward free, universal access.

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September 17, 2010

The Berkman Buzz

The weekly Berkman Buzz, as compiled by Seth Young.

  • Jonathan Zittrain observes the network neutrality debates link

  • Radio Berkman 162: “Lessig & Zittrain Take On…Competition” link

  • Ethan Zuckerman blogs Eric von Hippel’s talk on user and collaborative innovation link

  • Berkman Center alum Rebecca MacKinnon comments on Microsoft in Russia link

  • Weekly Global Voices: “Brazil: Jornal do Brasil Quits Print and Goes Online” link

  • A year ago in the Buzz: “Capital, Power, and the Next Step in Decentralization” link

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