Joho the Blog » pessimism

December 2, 2014

Micah Sifry: Why the Net’s effect on politics has disappointed us

This is a liveblog of Micah Sifry’s book talk hosted by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. It is not a perfect transcript of the event. It was created collaboratively by Erhardt Graeff, , Nathan Matias, Sands Fish, Dalia Othman, Mayte Schomburg, and David Larochelle. and me. It’s also posted at the MIT Center for Civic Media blog, from whom I have stolen this html-ized version. I have done a tiny bit of cleanup, and inserted a few comments in brackets…

Micah Sifry at Berkman Center

Micah Sifry is the co-founder and editorial director of Personal Democracy Media, Kate Krontiris (today’s moderator) met him a few years back and asked him what an online Civic Hall would look like. Now “Civic Hall” will be opening soon in NYC in January as a brick and mortar institution.

Kate Krontiris: Why did you write this book? What case studies or sparks made you think there’s something to write about here?

Micah Sifry: I had a persistent editor at a small publishing house (OR Books). Great people to work for. The impetus for the book was the sense after ten years of long engagement observation in the the tech politics scene in the USA and a little abroad, through PDF conferences and blogging at techpresident, I finally got my head around what was bothering me. I thought I could lay out what I wanted to say about the hopes and aspirations for the internet, and what did and did not happen. Starting point was 10 years ago with explosion of civic participation around Howard Dean campaign. What we thought would happen, what has happened, and what we can do to shift the course.

The disruptive moment is over. [It certainly seems like it. But disruptive moments are like the Spanish Inquisition.] The expectation that reducing the barrier to entry would lead to a democratization of power has not been fulfilled. We need to distinguish what the internet seems to be good for in the political arena for small -d democratization and what it is not. My book focuses on two areas: (1) the changes in the political campaigning space in how they use tech, data analytics and their supporters, and how the role of the citizen in influencing the process has shrunk rather than increased. (2) How advocacy orgs have also adapted to mass connectivity and mass participation, largely by using Big Data, analytics, A/B testing, etc., to extract some value but not to empower people in any quantifiable way

We have not changed the political operating system in any major way or the way we expected. The percentage of money coming from small donors is essentially constant from 2004 to 2012, without even considering the superpacs enabled by the Citizens United case. We thought that the number of small donors would explode, but today we are seeing that most of the money is coming from large donors.

So there’s a lot of soul searching to be done by the tech community.

Also: there’s the problem of the attention economy and the perverse effect that we have made self expression so easy, but we have not made the listening function work at a pace that keeps up with all the expression.

Kate reads an excerpt from Page 48:

The result is a body politic that has grown more and more distorted. It has a gigantic mouth and two huge fists, left and right, that spend most of their time swinging at each other. Its heart still beats strong, and often it races in response to emotional events. But its ears and eyes are deafened and blinded by all the noise and flash; its stomach only rarely gets to digest anything; and its leg muscles are atrophying from lack of use.

Present Shock” by Douglas Rushkoff crystalized this: The future is here and it’s broken the present. We’re losing our collective attention, which is what we need for political action. Each advocacy group may get your attention, but that collectively pollutes the commons. The only things that seem to interrupt that are hugely emotional spectacles and giant crises like hurricanes cutting off NYC’s power.

Silver lining: We’re a little more resilient in response to crises. And I don’t want to leave the impression that I think the internet is bad. I love the internet as much as I hate the internet now.

Kate: In the book, you make the observations:
1. The effective use of tech is no longer a low barrier. You need money and power to wield these tools well.
2. The Net’s better at gathering Stop energy than Go energy.
3. We don’t have very good tools for doing things together.

Can you talk a little bit more about your chapter on big data? You talk about Obama being the most technological president. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Micah: I wanted to put to rest the question: What happened after 2008? Why didn’t Obama come to DC with his list of millions of energized supporters? They trained tens of thousands of organizers in a rigorous way. Why didn’t that go forward? Why was it so easily smothered?

The answer is only in part due to Obama. We now know he is nowhere near the community organizer he was portrayed as. He’s a technocrat and very cautious politician. You can blame Rahm Emanuel and the other people around him but he’s the one who picked ‘em. The question is: Why didn’t the base fight that?

I think the answer is that the tools the Obama campaign used were not designed to make it easy for the base to organize itself. There was a time in 2008 when Obama signalled he was going to shift his position on the FISA wiretapping bill. A group formed on MyBarackObama and swelled to 20,000 people, the largest group there. It forced Obama to deal with it and issue a statement saying, “I heard you, but here’s what I believe,” followed by his advisors spending three hours liveblogging…and the issue went away. The question is why we let that happen.

When Obama came in, there was no transition plan for the base. We can’t just blame the top. We have to asked ourselves why Americans don’t have a stronger tradition of assertion. In my book, I don’t spend enough time exploring where that culture comes from: lack of history, forgetting that politicians need to be held accountable, very weak local communal organization. So I’m not sure this generalizes to other countries. E.g., Spain has a stronger tradition of local self-organization. The Podemos party is using Reddit and Loomio to do face-to-face organizing, showing that other paths are possible. There was a moment when the Obama team reached out to the supporters and there was a high response and support them and many of them expressed their interest in running for local office, but nothing happened. A lot of people didn’t take matters into their own hands because of deep cultural issues. I think of this as “learned deference.”

Also, a failure of leadership. The history of the Democratic party is that there’s a moment when the people try to keep the pressure on, and then they lose. E.g., Clinton and Labor.

Kate: We’ll get to a moment of optimism, but not yet.

Micah: Yochai Benkler read the manuscript, didn’t find much to disagree with, and said that afterwards he felt like crawling under a rock. [There’s your cover blurb, Micah!]

Kate: Let’s talk about another force shaping the body politic: big technology companies are another group affecting these efforts. What role do you see these companies playing now and what do you think these companies can do to more positively promote civic life?

Micah: The people inside the companies think they’re benign. They have very little self-awareness of the possibility that the effect of what they’ve created could be dangerous. I’ve been banging on Facebook for years to get them to open up and tell us more about the experiments they’ve done where they tweak the news feed or put the “megaphone” to encourage people to vote. In 2012, in the 10 weeks before the election, they pushed hard news to the top of the feed of two million users. If your friend shared a link to a news story, they would put those articles at the very top. They then went back and surveyed that group. The self-reported results of the survey were that people who saw the news higher up reported that they were significantly more likely to vote and pay attention to government. They were planning to publish an academic paper about the results and the issue with academic papers is that we’ll get to see the results and learn from them years after the event.

News publishers are afraid to question the power of social media platforms. The power of these platforms is enormous and we have to take their word on their experiments. There needs to be independent auditing of Facebook algorithms by other qualified technologists, so that if Facebook says it does something in a neutral and random way, we can see if it was actually neutral and random. It’s good when companies do things like encouraging people to be organ donors, but as they have a drive to maximize profits, it will be important to watch the effect they have on society.

We have to be concerned that so much of our public discourse occurs on private platforms. Why should an Orthodox Jew who doesn’t want to be on Facebook be forced to be a member of Facebook in order to participate in a town hall with their member of Congress? If Walmart were hosting town hall meetings and required people to have Walmart cards to participate, we would be up in arms. Why do congress-people do that with Facebook?

Another piece of important work for us is building the public internet. The government should be doing this, but isn’t. You can get a permit for a meeting in a public park, but you can’t congregate on a government website. I can’t get an email address from the Post Office. We’ve allowed too much thinking about what a public internet should look like fall under the carpet.

We can distinguish among the platforms. Twitter is a better platform than Facebook for enabling public discourse on a topic. But that is about to change, as they start diddling with their platform and you’ll see less of what you want to see and more of what they want you to see.

Kate: So you’re interested not only in the algorithm and its transparency, but also about the kind of platform on which we might have public discussion?

Micah: Yes, we need to have public platforms. Our communication is happening on private connections. The US has twice tried to deal with crises in public infrastructure. Access to clean water in NYC in the 1800s when there was a cholera epidemic from drinking water polluted with sewage. Moms and dads bought water sources in upstate New York and built aqueducts to bring it into the city. And that’s when it became the premier metropolis in the United States.

Second there was the provision of a telephone dial tone. Today, public broadband is the dial tone of the twentieth century: that is another aspect of building the public infrastructure and Internet that we need.

Micah: We should also talk about Stop/Go. The Wealth of Networks is a bible to me, as I expect it is to lots of people in this room. I agree that the networked public sphere is a better public sphere than the mass media public sphere. But there is a flaw in the examples Benkler puts in the Wealth of Networks. The cases, where the public has a greater interest than moneyed actors, whether it’s Diebold having flaws in their electronic ballot machines; or the Sinclair Network trying to put out partisan videos right before an election, and a civic network organizes and protests, and Sinclair withdraws them; or SOPA/PIPA is another example, where Hollywood overreaches and the Internet public, with the help of large companies rises to oppose the legislation…

What do these cases have in common? An outrageous action. People know what they want to stop Diebold, Sinclair, SOPA/PIPA, stop Wikileaks from being taken off the Web.

The Internet is very good at “stop moments” but not “go” moments.

What tool would you use to enable a consensus to form among a group of people if you’re working on the Web and there isn’t an existing consensus? A wiki? When Wikipedia decided to go dark in support of the SOPA/PIPA protest, they used Jimmy Wales’ Talk page. Try to read it. It’s 55 screens long on my laptop. There’s no way that people read all that. You might say it was sufficient because people came to agreement, but, it’s not at all clear to me that the minority voices came to agreement.

The most painful example: Egypt. There was consensus for the Stop: to get Mubarak out of office. But when they briefly had an opening to create a new government, they failed. They fractured. We have a disease of too much ease in expressing yourself and not enough listening and coming to agreement.

Kate: Is there fundamental clash between Internet organizing and community organizing?

Micah: We have to change the toolset. We need easy to use tools that replicate the processes that community organizers use, to avoid privileging face to face; not everyone can get to a community meeting at night.

Loomio has a great opportunity to fix this gap. This is a tool that was written by folks in New Zealand who participated first hand in the occupy protests in Wellington. They realized that the consensus-based decision-making broke down when scaling in space or time.

The problem with Loomio is that it works well if you are already part of a bounded group. If the group feels like they have a common purpose they are bound to, then Loomio works great for them. We haven’t solved the problem of getting people to that point of common purpose. It may be unsolvable.

Kate: In the last chapter you reflect on the Snowden moment and what it means for us. You are by nature hopeful and optimistic, yet this book suggests that we shouldn’t be optimistic. Is that right? When you finished writing it did you think there are reasons to be hopeful?

Micah: I’m hopeful constitutionally for lots of different reasons. But I think seeing things clearly is the starting point for acting in better ways. Maybe I’ve cleared some cobwebs. That’s the prerequisite for taking better action going forward: understanding what has happened before.

Lots of complicated thoughts about the Snowden affair. The constitutional optimist in me is with Cory Doctorow who says the moment of peak apathy by privacy and surveillance is over. We’re seeing some changes in tech. E.g., WhatsApp adopted privacy encryption for 100s of millions of users. It’s a reason for optimism that some companies are opting for privacy as default.

We have a political sickness. I don’t know a single Congressperson who’s called for clemency for Snowden. There’s been political pressure for reform, but that’s been blocked. But there will be more.

I had lunch with Ben Wizner [twitter: benwizner, who is Snowden’s ACLU lawyer. First off, Snowden’s film may be nominated for an Oscar and will be on HBO which will give millions a chance to learn more about him. Second, Snowden is incredibly popular among people. He articulates what the Internet should be in a way that many young people recognize. The fact that 3-4M people have told the FCC that they want Net Neutrality is a pretty big deal; I’m surprised this issue is even still alive.

On the other hand, we’re creatures of convenience. Yesterday I gave a talk at Nicco Mele‘s class at the Harvard JFK school. I said to the students, “You know, if you’re not paying for something, you’re the product.” People’s eyes light up and say, “I never thought of that!” On the other hand, people may not want to know they are the product. That might be when the scales fall from people’s eyes. I expect to see more clashes along these battle lines.

I have one request to make: We need to stop referring to “privacy policies.” I’m on the board of Consumer Reports and I’ve been urging them to adopt this change.

It’s not privacy if they have your data. It’s fine if you want to give that away, but don’t refer to it as privacy.

I write something called First POST, which you can all subscribe to; it’s free. And when I go to put that together, every day I see where someone is doing something good with the internet.

Kate: Thanks. I feel better.

Micah: Don’t feel too much better.

Micah Sifry at the Berkman Center

Halley Suitt: What should those policies be called?

Micah: Daily usage policies

David Larochelle: At the beginning you talked about filtering out Citizens United when comparing then to now. Maybe without the Net things would be much worse than they are now.

Micah: If you look at political contributions, the percentage of money going from small donors (Anyone who gives less than $200 is considered a small donor) has gone from 8-10% in House races and from 12-14% in Senate races since 2004 to 2012. There are a handful of candidates, like Elizabeth Warren, who have amassed a serious war chest from small donations. They’re just a few, not enough to say that the operating system of politics has changed. The most depressing statistic of all is that if the barrier to participation in politics has been lowered by the Internet, why are 4-10 races per state unopposed? People don’t bother because they know the incumbent is going to win. The problem is gerrymandering, pork, learned deference, corrupt local power structures — many other things than technology go into the lack of society opening up in the way we hoped.

Let me give a silver lining, because I see so many grim faces. The one change I would credit to the open media system the Net has enabled is the rise of women and minorities into parity. We’re living through a calamitous moment when you think about how gender and race are emerging online and demanding parity. The idea that Bill Cosby could be taken down after decades of successfully suppressing rape allegations— his defense just shattered. Every day, another bastion of male power starts to crumble, like the fraternity system. Women are 51% of the population and not 51% of the power, but open media is enabling an assertion. This is not without horrible misogyny, harassment and attacks on women in response, but this is a rising force that is actually getting stronger with each battle.

David Weinberger: I love the book, and I love you. I have two reactions to the book. I am totally depressed by it. I was an optimist and something of a techno-determinist. But I think there is something optimistic in what David Larochelle just said. When I was a lad and you wanted to get information from your congressperson, you had to go and get a one-page mimeographed copy of their position paper, on maybe a dozen topics. Our ability to get information now is amazing. There is a bigger change than we could have anticipated in how we engage in politics. On the other hand, nothing has changed as you pointed out; the money has made things worse. So there are forces outside of technology (as you say). Technology is not enough to overcome these powers. In the longer game though I still have hope.

Micah: I still have hope too. The optimist in me is amazed that the week SOPA/PIPA happened there had been almost no mainstream media coverage, but the Pew survey of what people were paying attention to that week showed that old people were paying attention to the cruise ship that sunk but young people were paying attention to the SOPA/PIPA issue.

David W: Not just that they were paying attention but the depth of understanding that they had about this issue was so much more than they would have had before this new technology existed.

Micah: We may be at the extreme end of arc here and might unlearn some bad behaviors. We are constantly attracted by what the next spectacle is that attracts our attention. I hope that by pointing that out we might collectively decide to stop doing it. We still have way more good stuff to look at that might keeps us sitting still. Clay Shirky says we don’t have info overload, we have filter failure. He’s hopeful that our filters will get better and better and get pure signal. Nicholas Carr says that we in fact have filter success, not filter failure, because we are getting fed the good stuff — the algorithms are working in our Facebook feed—and we are getting too much of it.

The best example I have in my book is on SeeClickFix. SeeClickFix fascinates me a lot; it’s based in New Haven, CT. It’s basically 3-1-1 + location + phone. It started when Ben Berkowitz wanted to report something to city hall. This started when it became easy to put things on Google Maps. He and some friends spent a weekend hacking together a way to post a report to a map and allow comments on it for others to participate.

City hall started to get emails from people putting up issues on SeeClickFix and asking for service. And the city ran with it rather than ignoring those emails. SeeClickFix is now operating at scale in New Haven. They have 17,000+ registered users from a population of about 140,000. This is altering how the city works there. In the book, I write about a report a lady submitted about a stray dog (see the excerpt on TechPresident).

This is an example of local civic life being enacted….

Kate: what you call thick engagement..

Micah: … Thick engagement means to me more than click and sharing, but rather knowing each other and having a sense of obligation. [Micah tells an anecdote about SeeClickFix being used to enable neighbors to watch out for one another.]

SeeClickFix has created an augmented reality that makes things better for everyday life (read Micah’s post on SeeClickFix from June). New Haven’s municipal website gives real estate for a live feed of recent reports from SeeClickFix. By the way, SeeClickFix is a for-profit. It begins to knit together the opportunity for greater civic action. E.g., food deserts, intersections where lots of people have been hit by cars.

So I think there’s a way to design for thick engagement that improves people’s lives. But it can also be used in a Big Brother way. E.g., Waze is giving its traffic data to civic managers in Rio de Janeiro, but the drivers don’t have any sense that they are contributing their data. SeeClickFix enables people to share a common location to form interest groups. Waze did that in Europe, but not once it was bought by Google.

Richard Parker: I hear you talking about pessimism and I think about starting Mother Jones 40 yrs ago: Nixon, Vietnam, etc. And I’m not as pessimistic as you are. I’d like to see this discussion become part of a larger public discussion. Thomas Piketty has begun this conversation. Big Data frightens more people than it encourages them. The environment has become a mobilizing issue. The discussion of tech if nested within the wider environment might bring more empowerment.

Micah: Richard, I think that first of all the shiny optimism about tech is losing some of its sheen. The conversation around inequality and the degree to which the Silicon Valley version of how the tech economy is working is finally on the table. There are conflicting goals: there are a lot of us fighting for expanded broadband access because the way the economy works now you can’t even apply for a job without wifi. There’s a lot of boostering going on about how important it is to open up free or low-cost access, but we have to skate past the question whether the Net is empowering those without power or entrenching those with power already. I don’t feel like that discussion is being engaged all that well right now.

On the other hand, I think there is a cultural desire for magical power that tech still embodies for people. It’s like secular religion. When Apple introduced the iPad that moment got more international attention than Obama’s first State of the Union speech which was probably a more important event. That’s part of why every day we share these amazing examples of altruism or collective action that the Internet enables and helps us discover, and that’s a good thing. We have the capacity to do self-organized, non-market-based collective action at world scale. We’re not doing it yet, but it’s a potential yet to be realized and could be a very very very powerful thing.

Felipe Heusser: I agree that when you look at a significant portion of Internet users as a herd, there are reasons to be pessimistic. What is the role that you assign to smaller intermediaries: companies, organizers, NGOs? Rather than arriving at consensus around something, what about smaller groups that push for more specific issues? In our work on civic technology, we got lobby legislation passed after a big campaign — our tenth campaign. Over time, we’re getting better at politics, using tech tools to create awareness, while also playing the field of lobbying. When we used both elements, we were able to get legislation passed. Might organizing institutions be getting better at the Internet and Internet organizers be getting better at politics?

Micah: I think what you were asking was in reference to the American political context. I don’t know how you guys managed to pass that strong legislation in Chile. What I would say about that is you always get a moment of transition wherein there is an opportunity to make change. The longer the government is in power, the harder it is to make changes. Obama was great on transparency on his first day in office, but the longer he’s in office, the worse he gets about it. You have to use that window.

We need something like the NRA for the internet. People need to believe that the internet is a fundamental part of their identity like owning a gun. We need internet lover’s leagues. This is one of the unfinished moves in our emerging political process as more people express their desire for an open internet. [This is a remaining strand of optimism in Micah’s thought: Getting more people on line, especially those with less power, and good things will happen.] Those people are out there they are just not organized. And there are members of congress that probably know that they have constituents that care about the internet. I tried to convince Google to mobilize the 2-3M people they had on their SOPA/PIPA list, but no.

Tim Davies: in the case of See Click Fix, the state is collaborating with the public. In other cases like OpenCorporates, we see civic technologies as a balance to power, providing open data so essential to a civic infrastructure. What key civic infrastructures are needed, in addition to public space and broadband?

Micah: I’m intrigued by the Indieweb movement, the idea that we can own our own stake and claim to a piece of cyberspace. As people think about themselves not wanting to be products, the answer is to think about how to be an owner of your own space online. There are many ways to do that- maybe the library that trains students on how to do research could also train them how to be your own person online.

I should really talk about Civic Hall. It’s basically PDF all year round. We are trying to create a space where people like NGOs, activist, and technologists can get together and experiment. We have a space opening next month in the heart of Silicon Alley that will hold about 150 people.

Mayte Schomburg: Although Internet conversations can reveal to us what the public is passionate about, government doesn’t always pick up on the conversation. The system is very self-referential and does not have the incentive to pick up on what is politically relevant. In our small NGO in Germany (Publixphere.net), we’re working on non-partisan spaces for deliberation around politics. Originally, we were thinking that this should be provided by the state. However, in Germany, we have a lack of trust of the people in politics who we are trying to reach, so as things stand at the moment we don’t even accept state funding. Institutions have been slow to catch up to movements. We realized that the government wasn’t going to do it, and that it’s now too late for them to have the legitimacy to create public space. If someone were to create public Internet for political discussion in the US, would the government be the right entity to create this?

Micah: I kind of like Germany at the moment having twice seen the horror of what can happen with big data. The Germans are most attuned to those issues. I like that GErmans have sufficient distrust of the state to form alternative ways to do what you are describing. For me, the state is the option of last resort. I would like something independent that is then supported by government.

In order to make the connection to enable political discourse, I think it’s important that governments create processes to open two-way channels. The head of the rules committee of the Utah House of Representatives opened up a space for comments online to share. People keep trying to open things up to a group of people not bound by common purpose, it fails. Richard Durbin tried this too until the graduate student working for him went back to school. But when people who have power make the efforts, there is a possibility.

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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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