Category Archives: democracy

report on democratization and the networked public sphere

I was at the “Democratization and the Networked Public Sphere” panel on Friday night in a room full of flagrantly well-read attendees. But it was the panelists who shone. They fully grasped the challenges facing the network as it emerges as the newest theater in the political and social struggle for a democratic society. It was the best panel I’ve seen in a long time, with a full spectrum of views represented: Ethan Zuckerman self-deprecatingly described himself as “one of those evil capitalists,” whose stance clearly reflected the values of market liberalism. On the opposite side, Trebor Scholz raised a red flag in warning against the spectre of capitalism that hovers over the ‘user-generated content’ movement. In between (literally—she sat between them), Danah Boyd spoke eloquently about the characteristics of a networked social space, and the problems traditional social interaction models face when superimposed on the network.
Danah spoke first, contrasting the characteristics of online and offline public spaces, and continuing on to describe the need for public space at a time when we seem obsessed with privacy. The problem with limiting ourselves to discussions of privacy, she said, is that we forget that public space only exists when we are using it. She then went on to talk about her travels and encounters with the isolation of exurban life—empty sidewalks, the physical distances separating teens from their social peers, the privatization of social space (malls). Her point was that with all this privacy and private space, the public space is being neglected. What is important though is to recognize how networked spaces are becoming a space for public life. Even more important: these new public spaces are under threat as much as the real life publics that have been stripped away by suburban isolation.
Ethan Zuckerman began with a presentation of the now infamous 1984 Mac ad, remixed to star Hillary Clinton. He then pointed out that a strikingly similar remix had been made in 2004 by the media artist Astrubal, featuring Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Zuckerman was excited because it pointed to the power of the remix, and the network as an alternative vector for dissent in a regime with a highly controlled press. While the ad is a deadly serious matter in Tunisia, in America it is just smear. The Hillary ad seems to be a turning point in media representations on the network in the US. Zuckerman asserted that 21st century political campaigns will be different than 20th century campaigns precisely because of the power of citizen generated media combined with the distributive power of the network.
Trebor Scholz warned that unbridled enthusiasm for user-generated content may mask an undercurrent of capitalist exploitation, even though most rhetoric about user-generated content proposes exactly the opposite. In most descriptions, user-generated content is an act of personal expression, and has value as such: Scholz referenced Yochai Benkler’s notion that people gain agency as they express themselves as speakers, and that this characteristic may transfer to the real world, encouraging a politically active citizenry. But Trebor’s main point was that the majority of time spent on self-expression finds its way onto a small number of sites—YouTube and MySpace in particular. He had some staggering numbers for MySpace: 12% of all time spent online in America is dedicated to MySpace alone. The dirty secret is that someone owns MySpace, and it isn’t the content producers. It’s Rupert Murdoch. Google, of course, owns YouTube. And therein lies the crux of Trebor’s argument: someone else is getting rich off a user’s personal expression, and the creators cannot claim ownership of their own work. They produce content that nets only social capital, while the owners take in millions of dollars.
It’s a tricky point to make, since Boyd noted that most producers are using these services expressly to gain social capital—monetary concerns don’t enter the equation. I have a vague sense of discomfort in taking a stance that is ultimately patronizing to producers, saying “You shouldn’t do this for fear of enriching someone else.” But I can’t get away from the idea that Trebor is right —users are locked in to a site by their social ties, and the companies hold a great deal of power over them. Further, that power is not just social but also legal: the companies own the content.
On the other hand, users have a great deal of power over the companies, a fact made plain by the recent protest against the ‘News Feed’ feature added to Facebook. The feature caused a huge uproar in the Facebook community and a call for boycotting Facebook spread—ironically—using the News Feed feature. Facebook removed the feature. responded by allowing users to control what went in the feeds. [updated 4.17.07. thanks to andrew s.]
This discussion spun off into another one: what does it mean that 700,000 users found it in their willpower to protest a feature on Facebook, when only a portion of those would be as active in any other public sphere? Boyd claims that this is a signal that networked public spaces are a viable arena for public participation. Zuckerman would agree—the network can activate a community response in the real world. Dissidents working against repressive governments have used the network to amplify their voices and illuminate the plight of people and nations ignored by the mainstream media. This is reason for optimism. In America we’ve recently seen national and regional politics embracing networked spaces (see Obama in MySpace). Let’s hope they do so in good faith, and also embrace the spirit of openness and collaboration that is an essential part of the network.
I have hope, but I am also circumspect. The networked public space can serve the needs of a democracy, but it can also devolve into venality. There is a difference between using the network to further human freedom and the lesson that I take away from the Facebook uprising. What happened on Facebook is not a triumph of a civil polity; it’s more like the plaintive cry in a theater when the projector breaks. Public outcry over a trivial action doesn’t improve our democracy—it just shows how far into triviality we have fallen.
Ethan Zuckerman’s follow up to the event
Trebor’s presentation and follow up to the event

democratization and the networked public sphere

New Yorkers take note! This just came in from Trebor Scholz at the Institute for Distributed Creativity: a terrific-sounding event next Friday evening at The New School. Really wish I could attend but I’ll be doing this in London. Details below.
Democratization and the Networked Public Sphere
* Panel Discussion with dana boyd, Trebor Scholz, and Ethan Zuckerman
Friday, April 13, 2007, 6:30 – 8:30 p.m.
The New School, Theresa Lang Community and Student Center
55 West 13th Street, 2nd floor
New York City
Admission: $8, free for all students, New School faculty, staff, and alumni with valid ID
This evening at the Vera List Center for Art & Politics will discuss the potential of sociable media such as weblogs and social networking sites to democratize society through emerging cultures of broad participation.
danah boyd will argue four points. 1) Networked publics are changing the way public life is organized. 2) Our understandings of public/private are being radically altered 3) Participation in public life is critical to the functioning of democracy. 4) We have destroyed youths’ access to unmediated public life. Why are we now destroying their access to mediated public life? What consequences does this have for democracy?
Trebor Scholz will present the paradox of affective immaterial labor. Content generated by networked publics was the main reason for the fact that the top ten sites on the World Wide Web accounted for most Internet traffic last year. Community is the commodity, worth billions. The very few get even richer building on the backs of the immaterial labor of very very many. Net publics comment, tag, rank, forward, read, subscribe, re-post, link, moderate, remix, share, collaborate, favorite, write. They flirt, work, play, chat, gossip, discuss, learn and by doing so they gain much: the pleasure of creation, knowledge, micro-fame, a “home,” friendships, and dates. They share their life experiences and archive their memories while context-providing businesses get value from their attention, time, and uploaded content. Scholz will argue against this naturalized “factory without walls” and will demand for net publics to control their own contributions.
Ethan Zuckerman will present his work on issues of media and the developing world, especially citizen media, and the technical, legal, speech, and digital divide issues that go alongside it. Starting out with a critique of cyberutopianism, Zuckerman will address citizen media and activism in developing nations, their potential for democratic change, the ways that governments (and sometimes corporations) are pushing back on their ability to democratize.
For more information about the panelists go here.

world without oil: democratic imagination?

I’ve written a couple of times recently about alternate reality gaming as an emergent genre of Web-native storytelling. But one of the things that’s puzzled and frustrated me is the fact that the stories played out in most of these games tend to revolve around sinister cults, reborn gods, out-of-control AIs, government conspiracies and suchlike: the bread-and-butter paranoias that permeate the Web. No criticism here, I should add. Asking ‘What if all this were true?’ can kick-start a very entertaining daydream.
But in exploring these games, and reading around them, it becomes clear that the way these stories are told is as interesting as their content. In particular, there is a tendency (see this paper by academic and game designer Jane McGonigal for example) for ARG-style collaborative problem-solving to escape the boundaries of gaming and become a real-world way for distributed groups of people to address a problem they cannot fix by themselves.
In addition, the founding dramatic convention is “This Is Not A Game.” That is, the games are supposed to leak out into players’ lives. And this, combined with a chance to practice widespread collaborative problem-solving, is a phenomenally powerful and intriguingly democratic artistic form. So why, I wanted to know, is no-one using it to address contemporary politics?
No sooner do I formulate the thought than I discover that McGonigal’s latest project, trailed in a talk she gave at the 2007 San Francisco game developers’ conference , is an ARG called World Without Oil. Its central characters believe that an oil crisis is approaching on April 30 – the game’s launch date – and are trying to spread the word. Or are they…? Who is trying to stop them…? And we’re off.
I’ll be following this one closely. Rather than taking a fantastical theme, it invites players to think seriously about a situation which is increasingly imaginable in the near future. And it seems that people are ready to engage: since its appearance yesterday, the the Unfiction discussion thread about the game is already many pages long, and mixes discussion of the game with serious musings about the very real possibility of a world without oil.
It also looks as though it’s going to go way beyond asking its players to solve ROT-13 encryption for the next clue. In this Gamasutra interview McGonigal explains her ideas about collective intelligence and gaming, and outlines the way in which World Without Oil will be not just a game but a collaborative storytelling process. Along with the narrative of the main fictional characters, players will be invited to create blogs detailing – as if it were happening – the problems they would face in a (so far) fictional world without oil. And the game will respond. So, in effect, it will invite players to take part in a huge collaborative exercise in imagining a very possible future.
Looking at this game, I was reminded of the RSA’s response to the Stern report on climate change, where it was pointed out that reactions to climate change and the like often lurch between optimism and pessimism without progressing beyond high emotion to imaginative or practical engagement with the situation. On a similar tack, Dougald Hine wrote an article recently for opendemocracy discussing climate change as a challenge to the democratic imagination: “Whether or not we succeed technically in mitigating its effects, it is all too easy to envisage the result as a more or less unpleasant authoritarian future. The task is to imagine and bring about a future which can accommodate both austerity and autonomy.”
It may be too soon to tell. But if it goes well, I have some hope that World Without Oil may manage to engage not just collective fear but a collective and collaborative imagination to address some increasingly urgent questions.

thinking about blogging 2: democracy

Banning books may be easy, but banning blogs is an exhausting game of Whack-a-Mole for politically repressive regimes like China and Iran.

andishe no1.jpg

Farid Pouya, recapping recent noteworthy posts from the Iranian blogosphere last week on Global Voices, refers to one blogger’s observations on the chilled information climate under president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

Andishe No (means New Thought) fears that country was pushed back to pre Khatami’s period concerning censorship. He believes that even if many books get banned in twenty first century, government can not stop people getting information. Government wants to control weblogs in Iran and put them in a guideline.

Unlike the fleas that swarm American media and politics, Iran’s cyber-dissidents frequently are the sole conduit for uncensored information — an underground army of chiseler’s, typing away at the barricades. Here we see the blog as a building block for civil society. Electronic samizdat. Basic life forms in a free media ecology, instilling new habits in both writers and readers: habits of questioning, of digging deeper. Individual sites may get shut down, individual bloggers may be jailed but the information finds a way.
Though the situation in Iran is far from enviable, there is something attractive about the moral clarity of its dissident blogging. If one wants the truth, one must find alternatives — it’s that simple. But with alternative media in the United States — where the media ecology is highly developed and corruption more subtle — it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. Political blogs in America may resound with outrage and indignation, but it’s the kind that comes from a life of abundance. All too often, political discourse is not something that points toward action, but an idle picking at the carcass of liberty.
Sure, we’ve seen blogs make a difference in politics (Swift Boats, Rathergate, Trent Lott — 2004 was the “year of the blog”), but generally as a furtherance of partisan aims — a way of mobilizing the groundtroops within a core constituency that has already decided what it believes.

a map of the political blogosphere

When one looks at this map (admittedly a year old) of the American political blogosphere, one notes with dismay that there are in fact two spheres, mapping out all too cleanly to the polarized reality on the ground. One begins to suspect that America’s political blogs are merely a pressure valve for a population that, though ill at ease, is still ultimately paralyzed.

illusions of a borderless world

china google falun gong.jpg
A number of influential folks around the blogosphere are reluctantly endorsing Google’s decision to play by China’s censorship rules on its new service — what one local commentator calls a “eunuch version” of Here’s a sampler of opinions:
Ethan Zuckerman (“Google in China: Cause For Any Hope?”):

It’s a compromise that doesn’t make me happy, that probably doesn’t make most of the people who work for Google very happy, but which has been carefully thought through…
In launching, Google made an interesting decision – they did not launch versions of Gmail or Blogger, both services where users create content. This helps Google escape situations like the one Yahoo faced when the Chinese government asked for information on Shi Tao, or when MSN pulled Michael Anti’s blog. This suggests to me that Google’s willing to sacrifice revenue and market share in exchange for minimizing situations where they’re asked to put Chinese users at risk of arrest or detention… This, in turn, gives me some cause for hope.

Rebecca MacKinnon (“Google in China: Degrees of Evil”):

At the end of the day, this compromise puts Google a little lower on the evil scale than many other internet companies in China. But is this compromise something Google should be proud of? No. They have put a foot further into the mud. Now let’s see whether they get sucked in deeper or whether they end up holding their ground.

David Weinberger (“Google in China”):

If forced to choose — as Google has been — I’d probably do what Google is doing. It sucks, it stinks, but how would an information embargo help? It wouldn’t apply pressure on the Chinese government. Chinese citizens would not be any more likely to rise up against the government because they don’t have access to Google. Staying out of China would not lead to a more free China.

Doc Searls (“Doing Less Evil, Possibly”):

I believe constant engagement — conversation, if you will — with the Chinese government, beats picking up one’s very large marbles and going home. Which seems to be the alternative.

Much as I hate to say it, this does seem to be the sensible position — not unlike opposing America’s embargo of Cuba. The logic goes that isolating Castro only serves to further isolate the Cuban people, whereas exposure to the rest of the world — even restricted and filtered — might, over time, loosen the state’s monopoly on civic life. Of course, you might say that trading Castro for globalization is merely an exchange of one tyranny for another. But what is perhaps more interesting to ponder right now, in the wake of Google’s decision, is the palpable melancholy felt in the comments above. What does it reveal about what we assume — or used to assume — about the internet and its relationship to politics and geography?
A favorite “what if” of recent history is what might have happened in the Soviet Union had it lasted into the internet age. Would the Kremlin have managed to secure its virtual borders? Or censor and filter the net into a state-controlled intranet — a Union of Soviet Socialist Networks? Or would the decentralized nature of the technology, mixed with the cultural stirrings of glasnost, have toppled the totalitarian state from beneath?
Ten years ago, in the heady early days of the internet, most would probably have placed their bets against the Soviets. The Cold War was over. Some even speculated that history itself had ended, that free-market capitalism and democracy, on the wings of the information revolution, would usher in a long era of prosperity and peace. No borders. No limits.

jingjing_1.jpg chacha.jpg
“Jingjing” and “Chacha.” Internet police officers from the city of Shenzhen who float over web pages and monitor the cyber-traffic of local users.

It’s interesting now to see how exactly the opposite has occurred. Bubbles burst. Towers fell. History, as we now realize, did not end, it was merely on vacation; while the utopian vision of the internet — as a placeless place removed from the inequities of the physical world — has all but evaporated. We realize now that geography matters. Concrete features have begun to crystallize on this massive information plain: ports, gateways and customs houses erected, borders drawn. With each passing year, the internet comes more and more to resemble a map of the world.
Those of us tickled by the “what if” of the Soviet net now have ourselves a plausible answer in China, who, through a stunning feat of pipe control — a combination of censoring filters, on-the-ground enforcement, and general peering over the shoulders of its citizens — has managed to create a heavily restricted local net in its own image. Barely a decade after the fall of the Iron Curtain, we have the Great Firewall of China.
And as we’ve seen this week, and in several highly publicized instances over the past year, the virtual hand of the Chinese government has been substantially strengthened by Western technology companies willing to play by local rules so as not to be shut out of the explosive Chinese market. Tech giants like Google, Yahoo! , and Cisco Systems have proved only too willing to abide by China’s censorship policies, blocking certain search returns and politically sensitive terms like “Taiwanese democracy,” “multi-party elections” or “Falun Gong”. They also specialize in precision bombing, sometimes removing the pages of specific users at the government’s bidding. The most recent incident came just after New Year’s when Microsoft acquiesced to government requests to shut down the My Space site of popular muckraking blogger Zhao Jing, aka Michael Anti.
One of many angry responses that circulated the non-Chinese net in the days that followed.
We tend to forget that the virtual is built of physical stuff: wires, cable, fiber — the pipes. Whoever controls those pipes, be it governments or telecomms, has the potential to control what passes through them. The result is that the internet comes in many flavors, depending in large part on where you are logging in. As Jack Goldsmith and Timothy Wu explain in an excellent article in Legal Affairs (adapted from their forthcoming book Who Controls the Internet? : Illusions of a Borderless World), China, far from being the boxed-in exception to an otherwise borderless net, is actually just the uglier side of a global reality. The net has been mapped out geographically into “a collection of nation-state networks,” each with its own politics, social mores, and consumer appetites. The very same technology that enables Chinese authorities to write the rules of their local net enables companies around the world to target advertising and gear services toward local markets. Goldsmith and Wu:

…information does not want to be free. It wants to be labeled, organized, and filtered so that it can be searched, cross-referenced, and consumed….Geography turns out to be one of the most important ways to organize information on this medium that was supposed to destroy geography.

Who knows? When networked devices truly are ubiquitous and can pinpoint our location wherever we roam, the internet could be censored or tailored right down to the individual level (like the empire in Borges’ fable that commissions a one-to-one map of its territory that upon completion perfectly covers every corresponding inch of land like a quilt).
The case of Google, while by no means unique, serves well to illustrate how threadbare the illusion of the borderless world has become. The company’s famous credo, “don’t be evil,” just doesn’t hold up in the messy, complicated real world. “Choose the lesser evil” might be more appropriate. Also crumbling upon contact with air is Google’s famous mission, “to make the world’s information universally accessible and useful,” since, as we’ve learned, Google will actually vary the world’s information depending on where in the world it operates.
Google may be behaving responsibly for a corporation, but it’s still a corporation, and corporations, in spite of well-intentioned employees, some of whom may go to great lengths to steer their company onto the righteous path, are still ultimately built to do one thing: get ahead. Last week in the States, the get-ahead impulse happened to be consonant with our values. Not wanting to spook American users, Google chose to refuse a Dept. of Justice request for search records to aid its anti-pornography crackdown. But this week, not wanting to ruffle the Chinese government, Google compromised and became an agent of political repression. “Degrees of evil,” as Rebecca MacKinnon put it.
The great irony is that technologies we romanticized as inherently anti-tyrannical have turned out to be powerful instruments of control, highly adaptable to local political realities, be they state or market-driven. Not only does the Chinese government use these technologies to suppress democracy, it does so with the help of its former Cold War adversary, America — or rather, the corporations that in a globalized world are the de facto co-authors of American foreign policy. The internet is coming of age and with that comes the inevitable fall from innocence. Part of us desperately wanted to believe Google’s silly slogans because they said something about the utopian promise of the net. But the net is part of the world, and the world is not so simple.

what I heard at MIT

Over the next few days I’ll be sifting through notes, links, and assorted epiphanies crumpled up in my pocket from two packed, and at times profound, days at the Economics of Open Content symposium, hosted in Cambridge, MA by Intelligent Television and MIT Open CourseWare. For now, here are some initial impressions — things I heard, both spoken in the room and ricocheting inside my head during and since. An oral history of the conference? Not exactly. More an attempt to jog the memory. Hopefully, though, something coherent will come across. I’ll pick up some of these threads in greater detail over the next few days. I should add that this post owes a substantial debt in form to Eliot Weinberger’s “What I Heard in Iraq” series (here and here).
Naturally, I heard a lot about “open content.”
I heard that there are two kinds of “open.” Open as in open access — to knowledge, archives, medical information etc. (like Public Library of Science or Project Gutenberg). And open as in open process — work that is out in the open, open to input, even open-ended (like Linux, Wikipedia or our experiment with MItch Stephens, Without Gods).
I heard that “content” is actually a demeaning term, treating works of authorship as filler for slots — a commodity as opposed to a public good.
I heard that open content is not necessarily the same as free content. Both can be part of a business model, but the defining difference is control — open content is often still controlled content.
I heard that for “open” to win real user investment that will feedback innovation and even result in profit, it has to be really open, not sort of open. Otherwise “open” will always be a burden.
I heard that if you build the open-access resources and demonstrate their value, the money will come later.
I heard that content should be given away for free and that the money is to be made talking about the content.
I heard that reputation and an audience are the most valuable currency anyway.
I heard that the academy’s core mission — education, research and public service — makes it a moral imperative to have all scholarly knowledge fully accessible to the public.
I heard that if knowledge is not made widely available and usable then its status as knowledge is in question.
I heard that libraries may become the digital publishing centers of tomorrow through simple, open-access platforms, overhauling the print journal system and redefining how scholarship is disseminated throughout the world.
And I heard a lot about copyright…
I heard that probably about 50% of the production budget of an average documentary film goes toward rights clearances.
I heard that many of those clearances are for “underlying” rights to third-party materials appearing in the background or reproduced within reproduced footage. I heard that these are often things like incidental images, video or sound; or corporate logos or facades of buildings that happen to be caught on film.
I heard that there is basically no “fair use” space carved out for visual and aural media.
I heard that this all but paralyzes our ability as a culture to fully examine ourselves in terms of the media that surround us.
I heard that the various alternative copyright movements are not necessarily all pulling in the same direction.
I heard that there is an “inter-operability” problem between alternative licensing schemes — that, for instance, Wikipedia’s GNU Free Documentation License is not inter-operable with any Creative Commons licenses.
I heard that since the mass market content industries have such tremendous influence on policy, that a significant extension of existing copyright laws (in the United States, at least) is likely in the near future.
I heard one person go so far as to call this a “totalitarian” intellectual property regime — a police state for content.
I heard that one possible benefit of this extension would be a general improvement of internet content distribution, and possibly greater freedom for creators to independently sell their work since they would have greater control over the flow of digital copies and be less reliant on infrastructure that today only big companies can provide.
I heard that another possible benefit of such control would be price discrimination — i.e. a graduated pricing scale for content varying according to the means of individual consumers, which could result in fairer prices. Basically, a graduated cultural consumption tax imposed by media conglomerates
I heard, however, that such a system would be possible only through a substantial invasion of users’ privacy: tracking users’ consumption patterns in other markets (right down to their local grocery store), pinpointing of users’ geographical location and analysis of their socioeconomic status.
I heard that this degree of control could be achieved only through persistent surveillance of the flow of content through codes and controls embedded in files, software and hardware.
I heard that such a wholesale compromise on privacy is all but inevitable — is in fact already happening.
I heard that in an “information economy,” user data is a major asset of companies — an asset that, like financial or physical property assets, can be liquidated, traded or sold to other companies in the event of bankruptcy, merger or acquisition.
I heard that within such an over-extended (and personally intrusive) copyright system, there would still exist the possibility of less restrictive alternatives — e.g. a peer-to-peer content cooperative where, for a single low fee, one can exchange and consume content without restriction; money is then distributed to content creators in proportion to the demand for and use of their content.
I heard that such an alternative could theoretically be implemented on the state level, with every citizen paying a single low tax (less than $10 per year) giving them unfettered access to all published media, and easily maintaining the profit margins of media industries.
I heard that, while such a scheme is highly unlikely to be implemented in the United States, a similar proposal is in early stages of debate in the French parliament.
And I heard a lot about peer-to-peer…
I heard that p2p is not just a way to exchange files or information, it is a paradigm shift that is totally changing the way societies communicate, trade, and build.
I heard that between 1840 and 1850 the first newspapers appeared in America that could be said to have mass circulation. I heard that as a result — in the space of that single decade — the cost of starting a print daily rose approximately %250.
I heard that modern democracies have basically always existed within a mass media system, a system that goes hand in hand with a centralized, mass-market capital structure.
I heard that we are now moving into a radically decentralized capital structure based on social modes of production in a peer-to-peer information commons, in what is essentially a new chapter for democratic societies.
I heard that the public sphere will never be the same again.
I heard that emerging practices of “remix culture” are in an apprentice stage focused on popular entertainment, but will soon begin manifesting in higher stakes arenas (as suggested by politically charged works like “The French Democracy” or this latest Black Lantern video about the Stanley Williams execution in California).
I heard that in a networked information commons the potential for political critique, free inquiry, and citizen action will be greatly increased.
I heard that whether we will live up to our potential is far from clear.
I heard that there is a battle over pipes, the outcome of which could have huge consequences for the health and wealth of p2p.
I heard that since the telecomm monopolies have such tremendous influence on policy, a radical deregulation of physical network infrastructure is likely in the near future.
I heard that this will entrench those monopolies, shifting the balance of the internet to consumption rather than production.
I heard this is because pre-p2p business models see one-way distribution with maximum control over individual copies, downloads and streams as the most profitable way to move content.
I heard also that policing works most effectively through top-down control over broadband.
I heard that the Chinese can attest to this.
I heard that what we need is an open spectrum commons, where connections to the network are as distributed, decentralized, and collaboratively load-sharing as the network itself.
I heard that there is nothing sacred about a business model — that it is totally dependent on capital structures, which are constantly changing throughout history.
I heard that history is shifting in a big way.
I heard it is shifting to p2p.
I heard this is the most powerful mechanism for distributing material and intellectual wealth the world has ever seen.
I heard, however, that old business models will be radically clung to, as though they are sacred.
I heard that this will be painful.

speaking of aggregation, speaking of war…

Speaking of aggregating blog commentary on the Judy Miller intrigue, Open Source’s Monday podcast, “Getting Judith Miller” (listen), aggregates the bloggers themselves in a rigorous discussion of the “inexplicable gaps” in the Times’ self-investigation, placing it in the larger context of the war, the state of journalism, and American democracy in crisis. Guests include Jay Rosen (Press Think), Ariana Huffington (Huffington Post), Josh Marshall (Talking Points Memo, TPM Cafe), and Kevin Drum (Political Animal). A great example of the kind of triangulation Bob was talking about earlier, in this case, a radio show, drawing its material and voices from the web like a hurricane pulls its fury from a warm ocean.
(Drawing from the web to discuss the world is what Open Source is all about. Highly recommended.)

podcast: discussing neil postman’s “building a bridge to the 18th century”

book_building_a_bridge.jpg (Annotated audio recordings of this discussion appear further down.)
On the dedication page of “Building a Bridge to the 18th Century,” Neil Postman quotes the poet Randall Jarrell:

Soon we shall know everything the 18th century didn’t know, and nothing it did, and it will be hard to live with us.

Though often failing to provide satisfying answers, Postman asks the kind of first-order questions one hears all too infrequently at a time when technology’s impact on our social, political and intellectual lives grows ever more profound. Postman has been accused of deep reactionism toward technology, and indeed, his hostility toward computers and telecommunications betrays an elitism that discredits some of his larger, and quite compelling observations.
In spite of this, Postman’s diagnosis is persuasive: that the idea of technological progress bequeathed by the Enlightenment has detached from reason and become a runaway train, that we are unquestioningly embracing new technologies that unleash massive change on our family and communal life, our democracy, and our capacity to think critically. We have stopped asking the single most important question that should be applied to all new technological innovations: does this technology solve a problem? If so, then at what cost? To whose benefit? And at whose expense?
Postman portrays the contemporary West as a culture without a narrative, littered with the shards of broken ideologies – depressed, unmotivated, and therefore uncritical of the new technologies that are foisted upon it by a rapacious capitalist system. The culprit, as he sees it, is postmodernism, which he lambasts (rather simplistically) as a corrosive intellectual trend, picking at the corpse of the Enlightenment, and instilling torpor and malaise at all levels of culture through its distrust of language and dogged refusal to accept one truth over another. This kind of thinking, Postman argues, is seductive, but it starves humans of their inspiration and sense of purpose.
To be saved, he goes on, and to build a better future, we would do well to look back to the philosophes of 18th century Europe, who, in the face of surging industrialization, defined a new idea of universal rational humanism – one that allowed for various interpretations within its fold, was rigorously suspicious of religious or any other kind of dogma, and yet gave the world a sense of moral uplift and progress. Postman does not suggest that we copy the 18th century, but rather give it careful study in order to draw inspiration for a new positive narrative, and for a reinvigoration of our critical outlook. This, Postman insists, offers us the best chance of surviving our future.
Postman’s note of alarm, if at times shrill, is nonetheless a refreshing antidote to the techno-optimism that pervades contemporary culture. And his recognition of our “crisis in narrative” – a formulation borrowed from Vaclav Havel – is dead on.
September 19: Bob, Dan, Kim, and Ben discuss Postman’s book at our new Brooklyn office (special prize if you pick out the sound of the ice cream truck passing by).
1. Bob’s preface – thoughts about how we do business at the institute (1:56) (download)

2. Ben’s first impressions – childhood under threat… Dan’s first impressions into discussion – a Clinton-era book, sets up a rather straw man caricature with the postmodernists, but society’s need for a narrative is compelling – why the Christian right has done so well… Postman seems to be assuming that progress is a law, that there is a directed narrative to history – problems with how he treats evolution. (6:43) (download)

3. Bob: Postman is much better at identifying problems than at coming up with solutions. Which is what makes him compelling. His stance is courageous. People assume with technology that just because something can be done it should be done. This is a tremendous problem – an affliction. If you could go back in time and be the inventor of the automobile, would you do it? People get angry at the responsibility this question imputes to them. How can we put these big questions at the center of our work? (13:34) (download)

4. Another big question… “An electronic community is only a simulation of a real community”? Flickr, Friendster, Howard Dean campaign? What is the vehicle for talking about this? What format is best for engaging these questions? Looking for new forms that illuminate or activate the questions. (15:43) (download)

5. Where/who are the public intellectuals today? [The ice cream truck passes by.] Strange bifurcation of the intellectual elite – many of the best-educated people most able to deal with abstraction make their living producing popular media that controls society. (10:07) (download)

6. Is capitalism the problem? Postman’s bias: written language will never be surpassed in its power to deal with abstract thought and cultivation of ideas. But we are arguably past the primacy of print. What is our attitude toward this? (9:39) (download)

7. What opportunities for reflection do different media afford? Films on DVD can be read and reread like a book – the viewer controls, rather than being controlled – a possibility for reflection not available in broadcast. What is the proper venue for discussing this? Capitalism is the 800 lb. gorilla in the room. How do we create, if not a mass agitation, then at least a mass discussion? Tie it to the larger pressing problems of the world and how they will be better addressed by certain forms of discourse and reflection. Averting ecological catastrophe as one possible narrative – an inspiring motivator that will get people moving. How do find our way back into history? (10:09) (download)

8. What should we read next as counterpoint/antidote to Postman? The Matrix – are we headed that way? (12:33) (download)

9. How do we organize new kinds of debates about technology and society? Other issues to be addressed – class, race and gender inequality. (11:26) (download)

thinking out loud

on sunday one of my colleagues, kim white, posted a short essay on if:book, Losing America, which eloquently stated her horror at realizing how far america has slipped from its oft-stated ideals of equality and justice. as kim said “I thought America (even under the current administration) had something to do with being civilized, humane and fair. I don’t anymore.”
kim ended her piece with a parenthetical statement:
(The above has nothing and everything to do with the future of the book.)
the four of us met around a table in the institute’s new williamsburg digs yesterday and discussed why we thought kim’s statement did or didn’t belong on if:book. the result — a resounding YES.
if you’ve been reading if:book for awhile you’ve probably encountered the phrase, “we use the word book to refer to the vehicle humans use to move big ideas around society.” of course many, if not most books are about entertainment or personal improvement, but still the most important social role of books (and their close dead-tree cousins, newspapers, magazines etc.) has been to enable a conversation across space and time about the crucial issues facing society.
we realize that for the institute to make a difference we need to be asking more the right questions.although our blog covers a wide-range of technical developments relating to the evolution of communication as it goes digital, we’ve tried hard not to be simple cheerleaders for gee-whiz technology. the acid-test is not whether something is “cool” but whether and in what ways it might change the human condition.
which is why kim’s post seems so pertinent. for us it was a wake-up call reinforcing our notion that what we do exists in a social, not a technological context. what good will it be if we come up with nifty new technology for communication if the context for the communication is increasingly divorced from a caring and just social contract. Kim’s post made us realize that we have been underemphasizing the social context of our work.
as we discuss the implications of all this, we’ll try as much as possible to make these discussions “public” and to invite everyone to think it through with us.