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August 4, 2012

Ethanz on culture’s shaping of technology

I wasn’t sure how to title this post from a few weeks ago by Ethan Zuckerman. His own title is also inadequate: “Kenya, Power, and Questioning My Assumptions.” It’s not so much that the title is bad as that the post is too, too rich.

Holy cow, Ethan is a good writer. And this piece is superb in every direction. It’s structured around assumptions of his that were overturned by his visit to an “upscale slum” in Nairobi, exploring what might be needed from a power generating business he is involved in. (No, he’s not turning into a utilities baron.) In the course of the post, we learn at every level possible: about technology, economics, communities, Nairobi, and the persnickety ways culture shapes technology.

Ethan is special. If you know him or have heard him you already know that. So I would never want to generalize based on him. But he’s engaged in a style of writing that we simply would not have been able to find in the past, which meant that people didn’t bother writing it. Thank you, Internet!

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October 23, 2011

Waiting for the Italian spring

Journalist and friend Luca de Biase wonders why the Italians have not risen up against the unabashed corruption of the Berlusconi years.

Italians are living an “after war”, a cultural war that devastated the country. Rebels have conquered the government and have destroyed peace, in Italy. Fear, urgencies, finances, are concentrating attention on the short term. Italians can rebel again. But most of all, they need perspective and peace.

How to get peace?

Luca suggests a direction more than an answer:

Italians, probably, don’t really need a rebellion. They need a shared vision based on facts and reality (not on ideology and reality shows): a deep cultural change, that helps them in understanding their shared project, that helps rebuild a perspective and that makes them look ahead with an empirically based hope.

Although Luca does not say so in this piece, I suspect he looks to the Internet as a tool for forging that shared vision and project.

(Luca has invited me to the Italian Internet Governance conference in Trento in November for a panel discussion. Perhaps part of our discussion can be whether the lack of an Italian Spring indicates a failure of the Internet as a political/cultural tool. After all, if we’re going to give some credit to the Net for its role in Arab Spring, then shouldn’t it get some of the blame? Or, should we wonder how much worse the Italian situation would be if there were no alternative at all to Berlusconi’s Orwellian control of the mass media?)

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November 24, 2010

Rich Net users are different

A new Pew Internet survey confirms some obvious assumptions as well as some not so obvious ones about differences in how the Net is used by those with more money and those with less.

For example, U.S. households with an income of $75K tend to have faster connections and more Net devices. But also:

  • “Even among those who use the internet, the well off are more likely than those with less income to use technology.”

  • The richer are more likely to get their news online.

  • “Some 86% of internet users in higher-income households go online daily, compared with 54% in the lowest income bracket.”

  • “79% of the internet users in the higher earning bracket have visited a government website at the local, state or federal level versus 56% of those who fall into the lowest-income group”

Obviously, there may well be other correlations going on here. But it’s an interesting report, and one that confirms for those who need it that the Net is different depending on the circumstances within which it is embedded.

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October 21, 2010

Brazilian library slides

The conference I talked at in Rio yesterday has posted the slides from my keynote. You can download them here. The talk was organized around five characteristics of the Net just about anyone experiences by spending even a little time there. More particularly, what do those characteristics tell us about knowledge?

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October 18, 2010

Berkman report on circumvention tools

The Berkman Center has released a new report on the use of tools to circumvent restrictions on the Internet imposed by countries that control their citizens’ access to the Net. This is important especially given the State Department’s commitment funding of such tools (“We are also supporting the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship.”).

Here is a brief summary from the email announcing the report:

In this report, the authors use a variety of methods to evaluate the usage of the first three of these four types of tools to test two hypotheses. First, even though much of the media attention on circumvention tools has been given to a handful of tools, they find that these tools represent only a small portion of overall circumvention usage and that the attention paid to these tools has been disproportionate to their usage, especially when compared to the more widely used simple web proxies. Second, even when including the more widely-used simple web proxies, the authors find that overall usage of circumvention tools is still very small in proportion to the number of Internet users in countries with substantial national Internet filtering.

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February 21, 2010

[ahole] Human rights and the Internet

I can’t go to a conference on an Amnesty International conference on whether technology is good for human rights., but the organizes said they were accepting videos and other contributions. So, I dashed this off in a hotel room the other day.

Evgeny Morozov very likely disagrees.

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February 5, 2010

[ahole] Cyberutopianism, technodeterminism, Web exceptionalism

In the spirit of my Be A Bigger A-hole Resolution, here’s a video of my talk at Reboot this summer. It leads to “Is the Web moral” segment, based on a talk I gave at the Drupalcon a few months before.

In it, I claim to be a cyberutopian (gosh the Web is wonderful) and a Web exceptionalist (the Web is way different from what came before), but not a technodeterminist (the exceptional goodness of the Web won’t happen by itself.)

[Later that day:] Ok, fine, if I’m going to stay true to my Resolution: I’m going to be on HubSpot.tv today at 4pm EST, talking mainly about cluetrainy marketing stuff, I think, although I hope we also touch on some other stuff as well. (I think I’m going to start prefacing the titles of this a-holic posts appropriately.)

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August 20, 2009

New issue of JOHO the Newsletter

I’ve just sent out the August 18, 2009 issue of JOHO, my newsletter. (It’s completely free, so feel free to subscribe.) It’s all new material (well, new-ish) except for one piece.

[email protected]: Recently, the tenth anniversary edition of The Cluetrain Manifesto came out, a book I co-authored. Here’s some of what we got wrong in the original version.

In the new edition’s introduction, I list a bunch of ways the world has become cluetrain-y, many of which we take for granted. The fact is that I think Cluetrain was pretty much right. Of course, at the time we thought we were simply articulating things about the Web that were obvious to users but that many media and business folks needed to hear.

But Cluetrain also got some important things wrong…and I don’t mean just Thesis #74: “We are immune to advertising. Just forget it.”

Our kids’ Internet: 

Part 1: Will our kids appreciate the Internet?: Will the Net become just another medium that we take for granted? 

I love the Internet because even now, fifteen years into the Web, I remember what life used to be like. In fact, give me half a beer and I’ll regale you with tales of typing my dissertation on an IBM Model B electric, complete with carbon paper and Wite-Out. Let me finish my beer and I’ll explain microfiche to you, you young whippersnappers.

The coming generation, the one that’s been brought up on the Internet, aren’t going to love it the way that we do…

Part 2: The shared lessons of the Net: The Net teaches all its users (within a particular culture) some common lessons. And if that makes me a technodeterminist, then so be it.

In my network of friends and colleagues, there’s a schism. Some of us like to make generalizations about the Net. Others then mention that actual data shows that the Net is different to different people. Even within the US population, people’s experience of it varies widely. So, when middle class, educated, white men of a certain age talk as if what they’re excited about on the Net is what everyone is excited about, those white men are falling prey to the oldest fallacy in the book. 

Of course that’s right. My experience of the Web is not that of, say, a 14 year old Latina girl who’s on MySpace, doesn’t ever update Wikipedia articles, isn’t on Twitter, considers email to be a tool her parents use, and — gasp — hasn’t ever tagged a single page. The difference is real and really important. And yet …

Part 3: How to tell you’re in a culture gap: You’ll love or hate this link, which illustrates our non-uniform response to the Net.

The news’ old value:  

Part 1: Transparency is the new objectivity: Objectivity and credibility through authority were useful ways to come to reliable belief back when paper constrained ideas. In a linked world, though, transparency carries a lot of that burden.

Part 2: Driving Tom Friedman to the F Bomb: Traditional news media are being challenged at the most basic level by the fact that news has been a rectangular object, not a network.

Bogus Contest: Net PC-ness: What should we be politically correct about in the Age of the Web?

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May 31, 2009

Utopianism: Threat or danger?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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