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November 21, 2008

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Our strange new home: A talk to the people in the Chinese government designing ways to use the Net to deliver government services.

Has the Internet been saved?: Obama's appointments to head the FCC transition team fill me with joy.


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Our Strange New Home


I gave a talk in Beijing on October 31, 2008, at a one-day seminar for the Chinese government on using the Net for providing  services to citizens. Because this talk was to a Chinese audience (sponsored by the UN Development Program and Cisco's Public Sector group), I wrote out the speech for the interpreters ahead of time, although I then took the organizers' advice and spoke to my slides, rather than reading the text.

Here's what I gave the translators, with a few edits for clarity.

I don't know. It just felt Thanksgiving-y to me.

Thank you so much for allowing me to speak with you today.

I come to you as an American, with an American point of view, but also with an understanding that all points of view are limited and incomplete. But most of all, I come as someone who loves the Internet, and who thinks that it can be as transformative as writing. I know that is an extravagant claim, but I would rather claim too much for the Internet than understand it in terms that are too small.

I want to make two claims in today's presentation. First, the Internet is strange. Unexpected. We sometimes forget that, especially in groups like this one, people who deal with the Internet every day. We can forget just how much the Internet has changed our lives, our communities, and our cultures. The second claim is harder to support. It is that for all its strangeness, the Internet actually reflects who we are as human beings better than the media it's replacing — or, more exactly, the media it's engulfing.

We have consistently diminished the strangeness of the Web by assimilating it to the familiar. For example, at its beginning, in the United States it was common to call it the "information highway." Or we talk about it as if it were a library. 

These metaphors lead us astray: We drive highways to get somewhere else, but the Internet for many is the destination itself.

And there are of course libraries of books online, but books themselves are poor metaphors for the Web, for books embody assumptions that are broken by the Net — that knowledge will fit neatly between covers, that thinking is ever finished enough to be frozen in print. Even the idea that the Internet, like a book, is important because of its content gets the Internet wrong, I believe. The Internet is at least as much about connections as it is about content — connections among ideas and among people. 

Even thinking of it as a medium can get in our way. Messages move through a medium. And certainly we can use the Internet to move a message from here to there. But, the Internet is not simply a medium, for the Internet is characterized by the fact that, unlike a telephone call, what we do on the Net tends to have some persistence. It stays and can be searched for years later. And it is linked. The Internet thus constantly gets richer with content and layers upon layers of connections among that content. 

Those two characteristics make the Net more like a public square. But even that metaphor breaks down. The Internet is bigger than any public square. It's as big as the world. And unlike a public square, the Internet is enriched every time someone posts a new page or idea, and every time someone links to that new page or idea.

The Internet cannot be captured by any single metaphor because most of all the Web is about abundance. It has an unimaginable number of pages and links. And, more important, it produces an abundance of new ideas and even new ways of using the Internet. That abundance requires us to think in new ways. 

Information assumes scarcity

The Information Age that started in the 1950s with the rise of computers is actually premised on scarcity.

In the informational view of the world, what the business knows about someone we work with is pared down to what the database is prepared to accept. The information age has required us to reduce and standardize information so that it can be controlled and managed. There's great utility in this, of course, but we've also always known that the informational view is inadequate.

In the age of the Web 2.0, this person looks like this. [Slide: Same person shown on a mocked-up FaceBook page, with lots of links circled.] At her page at her social networking site there's not only more information about her, but, more important, it's all linked. Without plan or coordination. And each link adds to what we know. This is a much richer view than we got during the age of information.

But this richness challenges our traditional ways of organizing and managing what we know. For example, the US Library of Congress has a staff of several hundred to catalog the 7,000 publications that arrive every day. But 7,000 new publications a day is nothing on the Web. There are millions of new pages added every day. The old techniques simply can't handle the abundance.

The abundance arises because of how the Web was designed. It is the most comprehensive network ever. There is no limit to how big it can get. And how many managers did it take to build it? None. It was designed from the beginning to get managers out of the process. That's the only reason it could grow so big so fast. That's the only reason the Internet has spurred the most innovative period in human history. But that also means that for better or worse, it is a permission-free zone. Governments have tended to focus on the problems with that, and there are some real problems. But we also should keep in mind the advantages it brings.

But to achieve these gains, and to maintain the openness that will allow the next new inventions, we have to rebalance the scales. Reducing the level of control entails some risk. But we know that from an open Internet comes astonishing advances in culture, science, education, and the growth of wealth. Most of all, from an open Internet comes an open future, full of innovation and the rapid development of knowledge, as well as new types of social connections. For those gains, it is worth thinking carefully about the balance we've drawn.

When we do alter the balance, the Internet flourishes, but it also becomes more deeply strange.

The strangeness of the Internet

Crowds sometimes know more than well-organized experts

For example, while experts will always have great value, it turns out that sometimes, and under the right circumstances, the general public can collectively know more than any expert can.

Here's an example. The US Library of Congress recently posted 3,000 photos from its collection at the photo sharing site, because the Library's professional categorizers just can't get to everything in the Library's archives. At Flickr, the Library posted the information it has, which is some but not very much. Then anyone who views the photos can use the capabilities built into Flickr. For example, anyone can assign the photos "tags." A tag, as you know, is a label that a viewer makes up to help him or her find the photo again. But anyone can click on a tag and see all the photos tagged that way. So, people at Flickr made up lots of tags for the photos. Some of the tags are the sort of classifications a professional at the Library of Congress might assign, such as "world war 2" or "factory worker," but people contribute unexpected tags. For example, someone gave this photo the tag "red" because of the woman's lips and the instrument she's holding. Someone looking for photos that illustrate the color red might find that a useful tag. Someone else gave it the label "coif," which is a term from World War 2 meaning "hairstyle" so that anyone looking for examples of that hairstyle might find this photo. Flickr also lets viewers draw boxes on the photo and attach comments. This set of nested boxes actually is a conversation. The first person, in the outermost box, says that the photo was staged because the point on her ballpoint pen isn't extended. The next box says that it's not a pen, it's a probe. The next box says that if you zoom in, you can see that the point is extended. People will take any opportunity to talk and argue because we are an extremely social species.

Flickr also lets any viewer leave a comment. So, what's the first thing people do? They use the comments to make up for the deficiencies of Flickr's tagging facilities. Flickr only allows 75 tags per photo, because Flickr was designed for family snapshots, and if you're posting a photo of your Uncle Phil on the beach, you really only need three tags: Uncle Phil, beach, and sun-burn. So, people leave comments at Flickr working around Flickr's own deficiency, saying, "If there had been room for more tags, I would have tagged it 'workforce' or ‘armband.'" People also leave comments on the sociology of the photos, about the role of women during World War 2. There are lots of comments and questions about the technology used to get color photos from that period. And here someone from the Library of Congress answers. You can tell this person speaks for the Library because there's an image from the Library next to her name. Having this sort of mark of authority is very helpful. The Library person responds in a friendly, informal way, and includes a link for further information. On the Net, we always want more information. Finally, because this is the Internet, someone suggests there's a conspiracy. Surely, this person says, these patriotic photos were posted during an election year to help one particular political party. But, because it's the Internet, someone responds almost immediately, disputing the idea, which is a recognizably stupid idea to begin with.

In this experiment by the Library of Congress, you can see a mix of techniques for letting users participate in the organizing and classifying. It required an old-fashioned institute, the Library of Congress, giving up some measure of control. It meant that users sometime contribute information that is wrong. But the amount of information collected was exponential. In fact, users were able to identify the scenes of photos that the Library couldn't. They'd post comments like, "That's the rope factory in Hamilton. The man in the photo was my father..." And then they'd tell stories. This so enriches what we know. And it gives citizens a real sense that they are participants in their own government's institutions. Trust grows where control is diminished. Control diminishes trust.

I'd like to give a few other quick examples, drawn from the realm of e-governance. This is PublicMarkup, a site created by a citizen's group in the United States. It posts proposed legislation and enables anyone to comment on it. There's no indication that the law-makers are reading the comments, but even so, citizens who read the comments can get a better understanding of what the law is saying and the effect that it might have.

TheyWorkForYou, a site in the UK, provides a place where citizens can not only find information about their representatives, they can add information and videos.

Here's a much more dramatic example During the violence in Kenya in January of 2008, the Ushahidi site was created to enable individuals to report acts of violence, which were then displayed on a map. The information could also be displayed as a chronology. This same idea has been used in much less difficult circumstances. For example, as you know, some cities enable residents to post problems they find in the city infrastructure, such as holes in roads or broken street lights. Residents report such problems as they happen, instead of waiting for city inspectors to notice. So, through the simple actions of residents, cities now can run better.

Content is connection

The Internet is changing our basic ideas about how the world is organized.

I want to use as an example a classic American novel, Moby-Dick, about whaling, written in 1851.

Let's say you've forgotten the name of a book. Before the Internet, you'd have a few different fields you could search on. So, if you knew the name of the author, you could type it in. You might also type in that the book is about whaling. Click on the search button, and the system will give you the title of the book. The system worked by cleanly separating the content of the book from the information about the book. That greatly limited our ability to use what we know to find new information.

It's very different on the Internet. If you enter the author's name into a search engine and click, you'll get back the title but you may also get back the entire book. Which means you can remember a bit of the book's content, search on it, and get back the author … plus everything else the Internet knows about the book: the author's birthplace, a map to the author's birthplace, a bibliography of what the author wrote, the anatomy and ecology of wales, the author's social network, the map to the birthplaces of the people in his social network. You'll get back everything because everything on the Web is connected through links

This is good news because we use what we know as a lever to pry up what we don't know. Now, if everything is a lever , because it's all connected, we just got smarter as a species. That's because all content is connection. The old distinction between content and the links between content has now been erased by the hyperlinked Internet. 

We build astounding things together

The linked nature of the Internet and the fact that it is a permission-free zone enables us to do more than we could have imagined.

There are some types of projects that need careful control. If you are doing a small project [a bird house], it might only be a sketch drawn on the back of an envelope. Bigger projects [Hoover Dam] need lots of control and lots of management. But it turns out that management and control would have prevented some large projects on the Web.

For example, I think Wikipedia at this point is the best encyclopedia in the West. There are two million articles in the English language version, and although the quality is of course uneven, it is a highly credible source, in my opinion. It is an astounding encyclopedia. And we put it together in our spare time, without managers. Likewise, the world's best operating system, Linux, was not created by a corporation or by a government, but by a community...a large, loose community. Then there's the Web itself, created without leaders, without managers, without schedules, and to a large degree without the incentives organizations offer in order to get work done. The lesson is that in many instances, control and management don't scale. Our ambitions in the past have been limited by the need to work within controlled, managed systems. Now our ambitions and our imaginations are expanding.

Imperfect information nevertheless has value

In the West, in any case, we've thought that there are two categories of information: Real knowledge that we know to be true, and then everything else. We've focused on building systems for discovering and distributing real knowledge.

For example, Nature magazine is a highly respected journal of science. It only publishes scientific papers that have passed its careful scrutiny, and that are important enough to make it into its paper pages. That's fine. But there are many scientific papers that are well done but not important enough to make it into Nature magazine. So, The Public Library of Science was created. [Actually, PLOS One] It uses the same rigorous peer review process as Nature, but it publishes everything that passes that process, whether or not it's important. After all, it's still good science. Then there's that publishes any paper written by anyone with a university affiliation [approximately]. Arxiv doesn't do any sort of checking of the article. It simply posts whatever it's sent. But that's good because the site makes it clear that you're reading unchecked articles. You know not to trust it entirely. But you may find an article there that publishes data that leads you to discover a cure for cancer. Our ability to include information about the information, telling the reader how reliable it is, takes the old black and white world in which an article was perfectly reliable or not, and turns it into an ecology in which there's room for articles at every stage of certainty. This accelerates innovation

Topics are too simple for a complex world

And here's a clear way that the Internet is weird. We're used to thinking that the world divides into manageable topics, of the sort that show up in a magazine or an encyclopedia.

That works fine with printed books, because books exist within covers. So, they reinforce the idea that the world, and knowledge of the world, can be sliced neatly into topics that have clear boundaries.

It does not work well on the Internet. For example, the greatest print encyclopedia in English is the Encyclopedia Britannica. Britannica's article on philosophy contains 180,000 words, which is the length of three normal books in English. Wikipedia's article on philosophy is only 9,000 words, which, in fact, is long for a Wikipedia article. So, one might conclude that Wikipedia has one-twentieth the information about philosophy. But, that's the wrong assumption. A high percentage of the words in Wikipedia's article about philosophy are hyperlinked. So, if you want to know how many words Wikipedia has about philosophy, you'll have to follow the links. But as you do so, you'll have to decide if this or that article is really about philosophy. An article about the Middle Ages in the West is not directly about philosophy, but may have some relevance to it. Is that article about philosophy? Sort of. How about the link to the article on faith? Is faith part of philosophy? You won't be able to decide exactly which linked articles should count as philosophy because it turns out that philosophy as a topic is loose-edged. Our world doesn't divide up as evenly as we used to think in the West.

The trivial can surprise us with its depth

Here's another surprise online. The Internet makes it so easy to publish and to connect that people post about small details of their lives. To many, that can look trivial.

But, consider Twitter, where friends share brief snippets from their daily lives, one sentence at a time. The snippets of the people you subscribe to show up as a scrolling list. People twitter about trivial things in their lives, sometime. Even the name, "twitter," refers to the chirping of birds. Yet, following a friend's daily activities can bring you closer. These details create an intimacy. So, yes, from the outside, Twitter looks trivial. But it's actually an example of our ability to use every tool at our disposal to create social depth.

Transparency is the new authority

I'd like to use an example drawn from the presidential campaign currently underway in the US. One of the candidates, John McCain, surprised everyone by picking Sarah Palin as his vice presidential candidate. She was not very well known at all. But on the day that she was picked, her article at Wikipedia was the single best source of information about her. It was comprehensive and, most of all, fair and neutral. It was better than what the news media were offering. 

But the really interesting part of the story is the "talk page" where the contributors to Wikipedia argue about the changes they've made. Every Wikipedia article has a talk page. There we get to see why the article says what it says. We get to see different points of views argued fiercely. We learn a lot from this page, including about how people who disagree can manage to come to agreement. So, why don't all encyclopedias and newspapers show us their discussions? In part it's because they want to maintain their air of authority. But we actually get a better idea about what to believe if we can see the arguments than if we only see the final product. There are important lessons here for governments. Making the deliberations about decisions more transparent and visible will actually increase our trust in those decisions and in the government that made them. We are, in the West, beginning to distrust the sound of authorities who are unwilling to acknowledge the most basic fact about humans: That we are all fallible, that we all make mistakes, that we all have lots to learn.

The Internet is strange. the Internet is famliar.

So, those are some of the ways in which the Internet is strange. And yet, the Internet is oddly familiar to us. A billion people have joined it, most without training. . 

All that strangeness feels oddly home-like because (I think) as you look at the words that characterize our experience of the Internet [fallible, imperfect, complex, messy, connected], we can see that they are also the basic words that describe what it means to be human, to live together with other humans, about whom we care. The characteristics of the Internet are also characteristics of humanity. That's why the Internet, for all its deep strangeness, feels so comfortable and home-like to so many of us. The Internet is reflection of our nature, freed from the old constraints of the physical. That's why history is on the side of the Internet. 

And that's why, for all the pain and difficulty and risk the Internet brings, it is something we should, in my view, embrace and rejoice about.

Thank you.

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Has the Internet been saved?

When Stephen Schultze stopped me in the hallway and told me that Susan Crawford had been appointed head of Obama's FCC transition team, I thought I was being punk'd. It was too good to be true. 

So, Stephen and I went to an open computer and Googled. Yup. But the news was actually even better: Kevin Werbach has been appointed as co-lead.

I was giddy with joy, for two reasons.

First, it just might mean that the Internet has been saved. 

There are many threats to the Net, and there always will be. But one is particularly nasty and urgent. The business model of the incumbent carriers in the US  primarily telephone and cable companies  focuses not on simply providing us with as many bits as we want, but rather on getting us to buy content and services from them. This makes it too tempting to them to tilt the market toward their offerings, and to optimize the system for the sort of content they provide (e.g., high def Hollywood movies), which means de-optimizing it for other types of content (e.g., YouTubes). This problem is exacerbated by the lack of a truly open, truly competitive market.

Susan and Kevin come at these issues not as representatives of the incumbent industries but as Internet folks. They are, I believe, deeply committed to the spread of the open Internet. But, they are not ideologues. They are capable of listening, finding what's of value and what matters in views with which they disagree, and moderating their views. They are informed, intelligent, reasonable, and sweet. You come out of a disagreement with them feeling better about us all.

Which brings me to the second reason I am so happy about their appointment. Imagine a government that values the qualities Susan and Kevin embody. Imagine a government that doesn't go for the lazy, safe wedge issues that divide us, but actually tries to find ways we can move forward together. Imagine a government that thinks not first about winning the argument but about how we can live together afterwards. Imagine a government that assumes our better natures.

No need to imagine such a government. We just elected one.


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