Joho the Blog » pessimism

September 17, 2014

The problem is not with our imaginations

Yet another brilliant post by Ethan. (I think I’m going to turn that into a keyboard macro. I’ll just have to type ^EthanTalk and that opening sentence will get filled in.) It’s a reflection on the reaction to his piece in the Atlantic about advertising as the Net’s original sin, and the focus on his “confession” that he wrote the code for the Net’s first popup ad.

But I think I actually disagree with one of his key points. In other words, I’m very likely wrong. Nevertheless…

Ethan explains why the Net has come to rely on advertising money:

We had a failure of imagination. And the millions of smart young programmers and businesspeople spending their lives trying to get us to click on ads are also failing to imagine something better. We’re all starting from the same assumptions: everything on the internet is free, we pay with our attention, and our attention is worth more if advertisers know more about who we are and what we do, we start business with money from venture capitalists who need businesses to grow explosively if they’re going to make money.

He recommends that we question our assumptions so we can come up with more imaginative solutions.

I agree with Ethan’s statement of the problem, and admire his ability to put it forward with such urgency. But it seems to me that the problem is less a failure of imagination than the success of the power of incumbent systems.Is access to the Net in exactly the wrong hands because of the failure of someone to imagine a better way, or because of the structural corruption of capitalism? Similarly, why are we failing to slow global warming in an appreciable way? (Remember when Pres. Reagan took down the solar panels Pres. Carter had installed on the White House?) Why are elections still disproportionately determined by the wealthy? In each of these cases, imagination has lost to entrenched systems. We had innovative ways of accessing the Net, we’ve had many great ideas for slowing global warming, we have had highly imaginative attempts to get big money out of politics, and they all failed to one degree or another. Thuggish systems steal great ideas’ lunch money. Over and over and over.

Ethan of course recognizes this. But he ties these failures to failures of the imagination when one could just as well conclude that imagination is no match for corrupt systems — especially since we’ve now gone through a period when imagination was unleashed with a force never before seen, and yet the fundamental systems haven’t budged. This seems to be Larry Lessig’s conclusion, since he moved from CreativeCommons — an imaginative, disruptive approach — to a super-Pac that plays on the existing field, but plays for the Good Guys ‘n’ Gals.

Likewise, one could suggest that the solution — if there is one — is not more imagination, but more organizing. More imagination will only work if the medium still is pliable. Experience suggests it never was as pliable as some of us thought.

But the truth is that I really don’t know. I don’t fully believe the depressing “bad thugs beat good ideas” line I’ve just adumbrated. I certainly agree that it’s turning out to be much harder to overturn the old systems than I’d thought twenty or even five years ago. But I also think that we’ve come much further than we often realize. I take it as part of my job to remind people of that, which is why I am almost always on the chirpier side of these issues. And I certainly think that good ideas can be insanely disruptive, starting with the Net and the Web, and including Skype, eBay, Open Source, maps and GPS, etc.

So, while I don’t want to pin the failure of the Net on our failure of imagination, I also still have hope that bold acts of imagination can make progress, that our ability to iterate at scale can create social formations that are new in the world, and that this may be a multi-generational fight.

I therefore come out of Ethan’s post with questions: (1) What about this age made it possible even to think that imagination could disrupt our most entrenched systems? (2) What makes some ideas effectively disruptive, and why do other equally imaginative good ideas fail? And what about unimaginative ideas that make a real difference? The Birmingham bus boycott was not particularly imaginative, but it sure packed a wallop. (3) What can we do to make it easier for great acts of imagination to become real?

For me, #1 has to do with the Internet. (Color me technodeterminist.) I don’t have anything worthwhile to say about #2. And I still have hope that the answer to #3 has something to do with the ability of billions of people to make common cause— and, more powerfully, to iterate together — over the Net. Obviously #3 also needs regulatory reform to make sure the Internet remains at least a partially open ecosystem.

So, I find myself in deep sympathy with the context of what Ethan describes so well and so urgently. But I don’t find the rhetoric of imagination convincing.

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June 19, 2012

[sogeti] Andrew Keen

I’m at an event put on by Sogeti, in Bussum, about 30 km outside of Amsterdam. Sogeti is a technology consulting company of about 20,000 people. Last night on the way to a dinner event, Michiel Boreel the CTO, explained that the company markets itself in part by holding events designed to provoke thought and controversy. At today’s event, they have a guy from IBM talking about Big Data, Andrew Keen, Luciano Floridi, me, and others. At tomorrow’s event, they are having a debate about whether Big Data is good or bad for you. (Disclosure: They’re paying me for speaking.)

Andrew Keen is giving the final speech of the morning. He’s going to talk about the themes of his book, Digital Vertigo, especially as they apply to Big Data.

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.

“Real time is yesterday’s news,” he says. We’re into Web 3.0, he says. What does that mean? Paraphrasing Robert Scoble: the bartender knows what you want before you order. “The future arrives before we know it.” (He refers to his recent op-ed at CNN.com.)

He says he calls his book Digital Vertigo because the future is being scripted by Alfred Hitchcock. The premise is that Hitchcock’s Vertigo gives us a preview of what life is like in the age of Big Data. “It’s a movie about watching and being watched.” “Jimmy Stewart is us in the age of Big Data.” “Surveillance and voyeurism…a little preview from Hitchcock of the age of exhibitionism” In the Age of Big Data weve fallen in love with the idea that more we make public, the happier we will become.” People like, um, me (i.e., DW) and the Berkman Center are responsible for fooling us into thinking that the more together we are, the happier we are.

He plays a bit of The Social Network, when Sean Parker says, “We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the Internet.” Up through Web 2.0 the distinction between the real and virtual was clear. Now some authors (James Gleick) say that we are made of data. Many companies are in the business of collecting our data and enabling us to distribute ourselves and to define ourselves as data. People (he cites Loic Le Meur) are recording everything about themsevlves — his weight, his exercise runs, etc. “All these apps are designed to record, callibrate, intepret ourselves.” The location apps could have been invented by Orwell. The app Highlight keeps tabs on where we are. It aggregates our data.

He plays a bit of The Truman Show. “We’re all starring in the age of big data as ourselves…There’s no difference between private and public life.” “We have the collapsing of the public and private.” “Privacy is being destroyed. Many people in Silicon Valley say this is a good thing.”

“What’s behind this? Part of it is what I would call Digital Narcissism.” Andrew went to the Parthenon and found that no one was looking at the ruins because they were too busy photographing each other. The Age of Big data is an ideal complement to the Age of Narcissism, just as Jimmy Stewart fell in love with a fake blonde. “All love stories end badly. I’m British, not American.”

“Visibility is a trap,” said Foucault, says Andrew. “I’m not saying we should turn off all our devices, ” but visibility is a trap in three ways: 1. We, the innocent, are in fact the victim. The apps are collecting our data and selling it to advertisers, although they deny that. Eric Schmidt has said that he wants Google in 5 years to know what we want better than we do. 2. Even if we’re living in a post-1984 world, there still are governments whose eyes get big when they see they can know everything about us, telling us they’re fighting “absurd things such as terrorism.” Did social media bring down Mubarek? Yes, but there’s a darker side: 3. We’re watching ourselves. We’ve become little brothers.

History is repeating itself. He cites Bentham’s panopticon. Bentham thought if we all watched one another, it would aid progressive causes.

We need to do what Jimmy Stuart did: He sees the truth. We need to draw a line in the sand. “I’m not against some elements of the transparent network.” We’ve fallen in love with the idea that we become more human the more we distribute ourselves. “The problem with social media is that it’s not making us human. It’s doing away with the complexity of who we are.” Human essence is premised on secrecy, mystery. Individualism requires us to be alone. It does not require us to be in this perpetual social environment. Wozniak invented the personal computer by shutting himself in a room. If you want to bring the most out of your people, you need to put walls up in your office. You need to give people the space to develop their own ideas. You need to take them off the network.

We’ll finally be able to predict our own deaths. We need an alternative ending. We need to rethink the age of big data. We need government action. “I’m not a 20th century Stalinist. I’m not say the govt has to shut these companies down. But we need regulation.” We need apps that are premised on privacy and there are some. We need to rely on tech, e.g., some that’s being developed that allows data to degenerate. We need most of all to teach the Net how to forget. The Net is immature. It needs to learn how to forget. If data could fade away like writing, then the Net would be habitable. But now it is inhabitable. It is not a place fit for humans.

Andrew shows the end of the Truman Show where Truman realizes he’s on a TV set and he escapes. We need to discover that here’s a world beyond the network. Truman disappears into the darkness. That’s what we need to do in the age of big data. We need individually to discover that black space, where we can retire, where we can really work on ourselves as unique individuals. We’re born in that darkness and we die in it. The Net is a deception. We can civilize and humanize it. But we need collectively to work on it. [Collectively? Like on the Net?]

Q&A

Q: Do we have a right to be forgotten? Is it a right?

A: Brandeis wrote we have this as a core right because privacy allows us to build our individuality. I’m not a legal scholar, so I don’t know.But I do think the govt can’t legislate it. We have to be careful that this doesn’t turn into censorship.

Q: What’s worse than no regulation is bad regulation.

A: Clearly someone from Silicon Valley. The Net should be legislated like any other medium. I’m ambivalent about enforcing the right to forget. I’ve failed many times, but the business of America is reinvention. With a medium that doesn’t forget, then you can’t reinvent himself. Even Mark Zuckerberg reinvented himself. Facebook’s Timeline writes a narrative of our lives. I wrote an aggressively negative article about this and got 20,000 FB Likes.

Q: Who in the room sees mainly the positive side of Big Data? The negative side? [Very few hands go up for either side.]

A: The purpose of my work is not to trash the Internet; it’s to have us think more carefully.

Q: What is the positive side of big data?

A: The positive is that it enables people who have mastered themselves to improve that mastery. If you use medical apps to chart your weight and fitness, these platforms to reinvent yourself as a brand , enable us if we’re mature and responsible to improve the quality of our lives. The problem is that most people aren’t using social media that way. The biggest problem with big data is that it turns us into ones and zeroes. Bentham thought we can quantify everything about ourselves. The real way to happiness is not through data. [True. The positive side: Bentham quantified as a way to equalize interests across classes.]

 


During the break, Andrew and I had a lively conversation. In brief, we agree that we don’t trust social networks like (and especially) Facebook to handle our data in ways that reflect our interests. And where we fundamentally disagree is in our assessment of how humans flourish. Andrew emphasizes the individual. I can only see individuals as social creatures. That of course over-simplifies the discussion and the idea, but, well, I’m over-simplifying.

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June 26, 2009

[reboot] Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling is doing the wrap-up speech.

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 says what’s great about your event is that it matches it’s name. What’s wrong with it is (he says) that it’s the eleventh reboot. “When are you going to have a stable system?” We’re rebooting the reboots.

He s says he’s not into the action vs. words thing because he’s a novelist. He also promises to tell us what the next decade looks like culturally. He begins with an anecdote about the chief designer at Fiat who talked about the Fiat since the 500, a very popular car. The designer told an audience that it succeeded because it’s a 50-yr old design. Bruce asked from the audience: Since the new Fiat 500 is a big success, what’s the future for it? Are you going to release the car that came after the F500. (There was such a car.) No, he said. They were looking at post-consumer alterations of the F500 and they were going to “professionalize” that; they were going to move the F500 into “emergent demographic groups.” “I thought this was a really clever idea” and that this is going to happen a lot, a “scary paradigm of the future.” It’s very hard to construe that as progress, he says. We’ve known since the 12th century what progress is: Master nature, more security, better health, etc. What we’re going to get: No money, scarcity, financial collapse, low-intensity global warfare, and a climate crisis. We’re deliberately moving backwards. Gen Xers in charge when people are “afraid of the sky.”

He says he heard a guy [missed the name] that “future” is an old paradigm. Bruce agrees with him. A mythos of the future, the belief in the future, just won’t be the same. We’re moving into a-temporality. Steam punk + metaphysics. Gibson is working on a book called “Zero History.” But Bruce isn’t ready to talk about this yet. Instead, he wants to talk about what it’ll feel like to live through the next ten years. It won’t be progress or conservativism. We get “transition to nowhere.” No big boom bubbles. Bad weather. Global emergent change.

Divide the future into four quadrants.

1. Crisis capitalism for aging baby boomers. They’re not major actors but they have all the votes. They’ll be more attached to crotchety fantasies.

2. BRICs. Emergent countries emerging into nowhere. They’re globalizing but not progressing . Fundamentalists are in charge but they don’t get anything done except ruin things.

Most of the world is in the first two quadrants. Quadrant 3: Reboot in power. Gen Xers running things. Cultural sentiment: “Dark euphoria.” Things are falling apart, everything is possible, but you never realized you would have to dread it so much. You leap into the unknown, you fall toward earth, and then you realize there’s no earth there. a) Top end: Gothic high-tech. You’re Steve Jobs, you build something beautiful but you’re dying of something secret and horrible. Death is waiting, and not a kindly death. Heroic story, but very Gothic. Or, from the political world: Sarkozy. Brilliant. Ethnic. You have no ideology. He’s willing to run against himself, reboot himself. Obama is a gothic high-tech figure. He’s a Chicago machine politician, an ethnic indeterminate politician with a massive fund-raising routine. Sarkozy comes on TV after the Brazilian aircraft crash because he wants to be on TV. These guys are positioning themselves in the narrative rather than building infrastructure. Their cheerleaders, not leaders.

b) The other side of Reboot in power is low-end: Favela chic. You’ve lost everything but you’re wired to the gill and still big on Facebook. Everything you believe as geeks is Favela thinking. This venue is itself a stuffed animal. The unsustainable is the only frontier you are. You’re old in old-new structure, a steam punk appropriation.

Bruce now promises us some practical advice. “I was shamed by Matt’s 100 hour speech. I know what I ought to be studying. I have to go do it now.” So, here’s some practical advice on bright green geek environmentalism. A general principle, painful for a gothic generation like yours: “Stop acting dead.” You’ve been trained that way; it’s the default for your generation. Hair shirt green just changes the polarity of the 20th century. It just inverts it. It’s not really a different way to live.

How do you know if you’re acting dead. The test: The great-grandfather principle. Would your dead great grandfather do a better job of what you’re intending to do. E.g., saving water. Water is indestructible. But your dead great grandfather is saving more water than you. You can’t save more than a dead guy. Save electricity. Move into a smaller apartment. [Amusing bullshit.] You’re going to be dead much longer than you’re alive. So you need to do stuff that you can do better than your dead great grandfather.

How can you do this, he asks. A geek-friendly approach to consumption. For people of your generation, objects are print-outs. They’re frozen social relationships. Think of objects in terms of hours of time and volumes of space. It’s a good design approach. Because if you’re picking these things up — washing it, storing it, curating it — these possessions are really embodied social relationships: made by peole, designed by people, sold by people, etc. Relationships that happen to have material form. You might argue that you ought to buy cheap things or organic. That’s not the way forward. Economizing is not social. If you economize, you’re starving someone else. You need to reasses the objects in your space and time.

The monarch among objects are everyday objects. Whatever is taking up your time most, or closest to your space. E.g., get the best bed you can get. Get a beautiful, well-designed chair. If you haven’t touched it in a year, get rid of it. Women, get real cosmetics.

It’s hard but it’s doable, he says. It’s very hackerly. Make lists. Four categories: Beautiful things, things that have some emotional meaning, your tools and devices, everything else. Bruce then tells us how to tell which is in which. First two: you’re eager to tell someone about its beauty or meaning. Tools: Don’t make do with broken stuff. You’re not experimenting with it if you’re not publishing the results in a falsifiable form.

This is hard to do. It’s the sort of thing you do when a spouse dies or a child leaves your home. It’s tough. It’s not a thing to do on impulse. But you will become much more of what you already are. [Tags: ]

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