Technopolitics

21C: Technopolitics

Originally published in 21C, 1997

The global Internet’s awash with email lists, chats, and online conferences for discussion of governance and what goes with it: the politics of issues and of personalities, trad partisan thrashes, visionary thrusts (e.g. Barlow’s Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace), theoretical rants and practical spins. But is this all just talk talk talk? Or do we see action emerging from this hash?

So far no distinct political FORCE or suite of positions has emerged (unless you take seriously the dreamy anarchy of technolibertarians, who thrash about many issues but always return to one, taxation-as-theft). Though dedicated political activists increasingly use the Internet to build organizations and share information, and a growing number of orgs and individual users are finding ways to leverage net access, net.activism has found success on a limited playing field, where the issues are mainly Constitutional (First and Fourth Amendment issues, censorship, search and siezure): issues that can be supported as absolute values requiring no partisan wrangling. The movement, as it stands today, is a RIGHTS movement, without regard to the messier political questions of welfare and healthcare, environment, defense, taxation, etc.

Contemporary politics has a forest-for-trees relationship with technology; in fact, the politics of a postindustrial society is itself a technology for organizing and managing those messy piles of unique, increasingly opinionated individual products of universal education and the global media wash. Though elsewhere (third world) dictators, unrefined jerks, still rule with brute force and terror, they’re like relics, fading from the scene as the postindustrial postmodern wash pumps through media pipes worldwide.

What happens when you funnel information into a culture where force and coercion were the key determinants of power? Force is an external, but information, education and democratization work to internalize control, making the individual responsive to sophisticated forms of communication (sign the social contract, then read the daily updates). This is a reality of the cybernetic world: "they put the control inside!" as a character in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow says. Cybernetics is the science of communication and control theory, and there’s a clear theoretical link between ‘cyber’ and ‘polis’ that predates the age of ‘a Pentium in every pot, a web in every Pentium.’ Broadcast media (a prototype cyberactive technology) changed the face of politics in the era following WWII; during the war Hitler, Roosevelt, and Churchill made especially effective use of radio as propaganda tool, and the concept of ‘news’ was redefined by folks like Ed Murrow and his ‘boys.’ What does news/propaganda/agitprop do but pipe suggestive memes into the heads of individuals with the expectation that the distribution of information will change the power equation big time. The mob reads the handwriting on the virtual wall, and opposes the dictator, whose machinations, once exposed, lose their mojo.

Once you’ve flattened those hierarchies, though, propaganda mode can backfire as manipulation of information replaces brute force as the source of power. After WWII broadcasting and politics coevolved, producing today’s carefully managed media circus that dilutes information with showbiz glitz and leaves a cynical populace and an ever-widening credibility gap. The average high school graduate has more facts and more cognitive skill than the best and brightest of a century ago, and broadcasting’s morphed into narrowcasting and, with the Internet, many-to-many communications that defy control by propagandists. Those who get their information from the Internet have a vastly different (though not necessarily more accurate) picture of the world than those who read newspapers or watch television, or even those who listen to NPR everyday while driving to and from work.

Originally a defense network, then used to support research and development, the Internet was no household word when the first seeds of net.activism were planted in the late 1980s, when a few adolescent "hackers" let their digital explorations carry them to the point of intrusion, just to show that they could do it. Once they’d hacked into a system, they would grab a ‘trophy’ and show it to their friends and rivals, which meant emailing it across various systems.

Just such an incident led to the creation of the seminal online activist organization, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). John Perry Barlow was a lyricist for the Grateful Dead and regular participant in discussions on the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), the BBS on which the concept of virtual community was formed and tested. He had links to the hacker community which led the FBI to question him about the theft of Apple Computer proprietary software by the NuPrometheus League. It was clear to Barlow that the FBI did not understand enough about the technology of computer networks to distinguish prank intrusion for criminal espionage, and this concerned him. Flash! Cyberspace is an electronic frontier, unsettled, poorly understood by those who don’t ‘live’ there. When the powerful misunderstand, great harm can result. Barlow talked this through with Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development Corporation, and activist/entrepreneur John Gilmore, and EFF was born from those talks. Initially misunderstood as a "hacker defense fund," EFF grew through three major iterations. First, as grassroots activist org, with Kapor and then Cliff Figallo at the helm. (No time to explore the implications here, but consider that Figallo, a communitarian from Stephen Gaskin’s farm, had been director of the WELL, a true fountainhead of the virtual community concept, a conferencing system formed originally by Steward Brand and the Whole Earth bunch, virtual home of Bay Area deadheads, with whom Barlow, a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, had clear affinity.) Grassroots EFF morphed as a Washington, DC wing was added, with former ACLU activist Jerry Berman at the helm; for a time EFF tried to accommodate two approaches to activism, the grassroots model, from their Cambridge office, and the Washington lobby model, from their D.C. office, with some hope that the two could derive strength from each other. However at a facilitated retreat in 1992, just before a meeting in Atlanta with potential EFF chapters, the group decided to focus on lobbying, legal work, and building industry coalitions. The organization would drop the grassroots aspect of the organization and close the Cambridge office.

The DC/Beltway version of EFF lasted until, in 1994, financial and personnel problems, along with flak from the activist community over support for compromise Digital Telephony legislation, led to a split. Jerry Berman formed his own Center for Democracy and Technology; EFF moved to the Bay Area and continues to work effectively as an activist organization, considering a possible return to grassroots development, but focusing primarily on development of a Silicon Valley pro-user response on issues of privacy, access, free expression, etc. This is market-oriented political activism: convincing the Silicon Valley companies that their markets depend on a free and open cyberspace.

From EFF’s influence several influential cyberactivist groups have emerged. "Electronic Frontiers" groups span the globe: EFF-Austin, EF-Australia, EF-Canada, EF-Florida, EF-Georgia, EF-Houston, EF-Ireland, EF-Italy, EF-Japan, EF-KIO (Kentucky, Indiana, Idaho), EF-New Hampshire, EF-Norway, and EF-Spain, in addition to CDT and its spinoff, CIEC (the Citizens’ Internet Empowerment Coalition), VTW (Voters Telecommunication Watch), and New York’s SEA (Society for Electronic Access), which was originally named NTE for "Not the EFF."

Online activists focus on issues like censorship, privacy, encryption, intellectual property, and universal net access, i.e. issues associated with transmission and protection of, and access to, information. Organizations and coalitions emerge ad hoc from hot issues of the moment, though momentum’s not always sustained as issues lose their sense of urgency, e.g. activist energies diminished after Steve Jackson won a decision against the government, and after the Communications Decency Act was overturned by a lower court in Philadelphia. However activists still don’t focus on the partisan model to build support. Rather than constructing elaborate philosophies and platforms, cyberactivists build networks, replacing belief systems with cycles of information and opinion.

Given the brief of the history of net.activism, it’s hard to draw conclusions about potential long-term efficacy and feasibility of a broader appeal. Consider the barriers to entry, not only for the activists themselves, but for their constituents. Moving to the Internet with a sense of purpose requires a commitment of money (for the technology) and time (for the learning curve and ongoing maintenance of the information flow). "Netizens" are inherently members of an elite group, well educated, with discretionary money and discretionary time. Some have decent incomes, others are students with decent potential incomes…but it’s not a large group, compared to traditional political parties. Traditional politicians don’t get the smell of cash from the Internet just yet, and many of the issues of relevance to net activists are considered fringe issues. Cyberactivists have yet to establish focused and well-financed (i.e. "real") political clout, and have been unable to influence legislative initiatives in major ways.**

**But what we call ‘technopolitics’ or "net activism" is not about politics as usual and not a short-term blip on the radar of political evolution. A focus on core civil liberties issues narrows the scope of netizen activity so that consensus is possible among those with diverse political positions. On the net.politics scene we see broad-based coalitions formed ad hoc with minimal partisan wrangling and little reference to any particular agenda other than constitutional integrity.**

When Senator Jim Exon and friends proposed a bill to squelch ‘indecent’ speech on the Internet, opposition to the bill was initially unfocused, but had the advantage of established paths through electronic networks to spread the word, the warning, of Exon’s proposal. Activists thought the bill was dead ’til it was glommed onto the Omnibus Telecommunications Act as a rider, a political trick that called for quick response. Shabbir Safdar and Steven Cherry of Voters Telecommunication Watch organized an online campaign with just the focus and energy that urgent issues demand. CDT and EFF joined in, too. They didn’t succeed in blocking passage of the CDA, but the thousands of phone calls and letters to legislators that resulted from VTW’s bulletins led to some revisions, and psyched the ACLU and other opponents of the bill, leading to a court challenge fought successfully by a coalition of activists and civil liberties organizations. The bill was overturned, but that decision’s been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, as Mike Godwin noted, the findings of fact in the lower court decision, informed as it was by highly effective opposition arguments (assembled with substantial online support), make it difficult for the Supreme Court to reverse.

When VTW emailed bulletins to its email list, those bulletins were retransmitted to others who again retransmitted them, so that the CDA updates were reaching many thousands of "netizens." A political force was building, ad hoc, and the campaign was so successful that opposition to the CDA seemed near universal among Internet users. If there were online critics of VTW’s campaign, they found fault only with the lack of focus on other potential problems within the Omnibus Telecommunications Act. However many opponents of the CDA found the OTA otherwise acceptable if not desirable; VTW showed smarts in keeping the message focused on the issue about which broad agreement was possible.

This ad hoc opposition to the CDA demonstrated the potential of online organizations to build powerful organizations around particular issues. This kind of networking’s not new, but computer mediated communications enhance the speed and effectiveness of networking by factors of magnitude. There’s a sense that decisions could be made within global online communities so fast that legislatures and executives will always lag, and will eventually be considered archaic. It’s the virtual equivalent of taking the power to the streets, creating either more effective democracy (if you listen to the angel on your right shoulder) or inchoate mob rule (if you listen to the devil on your left shoulder).

Partisan politics reflects the government’s hierarchical structure: parties, like nations and states, have leaders, committees, hierarchical bureaucratic structures, and set articles or principles to which members of the party (or subscribers to the doctrine) must adhere. Computer mediated chaos politics is way different: there are no established parties, no hierarchical structures, no established principles; groups form around particular issues, but group members may agree with each other only about this one issue.

This isn’t new. Traditional politics emerges from the same tendency to form constituencies around issues; partisan politics hardwires these constituencies and holds them together from election to election, hoping to have the winning numbers. Participation in partisan politics is still limited; no party has the numbers to win an election. Political parties build and sustain power by playing to the ‘great silent majorities’ of the world, appealing and winning votes on focused, carefully researched issues, with more or less charismatic personalities fronting the elections.

With computer mediated, relatively instantaneous communications, you can toss this institutional approach. Netizens respond in blocs to particular issues but are increasingly reluctant to join parties or vote party lines. Technolibertarians particularly share this mindset. Libertarian thinking is widespread in virtual communities on the Internet, its proponents voluble in their opposition to the complexity, intrusiveness, and evident inefficiency of big government. Libertarians are at the edge of a movement to dismantle government bureaucracies and decentralize governance wherever possible. This resonates with the tendency to move away from established, monolithic political parties. Even the big-L Libertarian party has difficulty recruiting small-l libertarians.

Netizens, libertarians, and cyberactivists orgs are not going to replace party politics in the near future, but given the mood of cynicism and the growing opposition to large institutional approaches to damn near anything, and you wonder whether this is the handwriting on the wall.

2013 Top Ten (Social/Political/Technical) Culture Blasts

These are things I thought were important in 2013.

NSA Leaks and surveillance society

I always figured the NSA was watching, but it was still a shock to find how extensive surveillance had become – and it was disturbing to see clearly how surveillance of this kind was somebody’s job, something they would inscribe in how-to PowerPoint presentations. This realization via Snowden leaks brought the panopticon home in a big way: as we move so much of our lives into massive databases, we’re increasingly trackable, increasingly exposed to those who know how to capture and analyze the data, and especially vulnerable to government scrutiny. But NSA and government is only part of the story. We’re seeing widespread surveillance by both public and private entities – marketing analytics engines could be or become as robust as NSA tools, meanwhile none of us has ownership of, or control over, our personal data.

In 2013 our level of trust was low and declining. We especially don’t trust governments and corporations with our data because we’re so increasingly aware of the potential for, if not the fact of, abuse. To some extent concerns are legitimate, and to some extent they emerge from a culture of paranoia that has evolved in the wake of mass media and network technology, which have had several relevant effects: greater awareness of abuses when they happen, feeding into myriad fictional surveillance and pursuit fantasies, and more recently the emergence of a social media panopticon. But the Snowden revelations make paranoia feel pretty rational.

Andrew Leonard has a good Salon piece about surveillance/sousveillance: http://www.salon.com/2013/12/27/how_to_defeat_big_brother/

Death of the Internet /DIY/free culture etc.

As the Internet has become the pervasive platform for media and commerce, it has ceased to be the “network of networks” of the 90s. As so many of us predicted, the Internet has been transformed into something more like the cable networks. Content and technology are increasingly locked down behind paywalls and other barriers. Even social media have become more professional, less DIY. Anyone can still participate, but few will capture attention or persistent mindshare as the Internet version of mass media has emerged, more conversational and less top-down than the 20th century version, but nothing like the transitional blogosphere. As small publishers moved from desktop publishing to the web, 2013 saw bloggers moving onto managed platforms like Facebook and Tumblr. We now have a media environment that includes a relatively small number of high-profile content sources, and smaller clusters of online conversation and sharing. Shirkification proceeds (referring to Clay Shirky’s predictions that just such a thing would happen). Question is, how will cream rise to the top? How will new voices emerge and capture attention? Or they be excluded by stricter gateways and media dominance by a limited few. The promise of the Internet was that it could bring a vibrant mix of new perspectives and a cheerfully unmanageable confluence of cultures, but we lose that, if network culture is dominated by a top-down mass media paradigm.

Boston Marathon bombing

The Marathon bombing was similar to the 9/11/2001 attack on the World Trade Center, though smaller scale and evidently involving only two Chechen Muslim perpetrators who didn’t seem to be acting as part of a larger conspiracy or movement like Al Qaeda. This seemed to be more the case of “another nut with a gun” (and some bombs. However I find it just as troubling, maybe more so, to see the bombing as part of an epidemic of random acts of senseless violence. Note also that there were 359 mass shootings in the USA in 2013. (http://www.reddit.com/r/GunsAreCool/wiki/2013massshootings)

The Tea Party gets elected

Through a combination of hard work, effective propaganda, big money, and possibly a heavy thumb on the voting scales, a number of Tea Party politicians have been elected to public office, have been empowered by their supposed popularity, and have managed to freeze Congress from producing any effective legislative solutions. 2013 has been the year of peak Tea Party ascendance, much to the dismay of Democrats and pragmatic Republicans whose business-as-usual has been derailed. The debate about the role and extent of government may ultimately be healthy, if it doesn’t kill us first.

Pope Francis

As religious figures go, this is a breath of fresh air. Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, and the first pope from the Americas, is known for his humility and openness, and the simplicity of his demeanor. These are welcome traits in the leader of the world’s largest, and arguably most influential, Christian religious organization. He hasn’t sold all the Catholic gold, but he’s wearing less of it.

Economy, what?

We keep hearing that the economy will tank any day now, and for anyone who’s on the exasperating downside, that doesn’t seem so speculative. Tech is booming (but it could be a bubble), and there are signs of life in the world of manufacturing. Innovation is everywhere. However the American middle class is on the ropes, and much of the world’s money is socked away in Swiss bank accounts, i.e. out of play. And while there are many experts in the infosphere, nobody seems to have a definitive clue. There’s a lot of “next economy” talk, and we may very well see a collapse of traditional means of exchange and the ascendance of new forms – worker cooperatives, alternative currencies and barter systems, resilient communities, etc. These are gathering steam (and may have to be steam-driven, as fossil fuels burn away).

“Obamacare”

Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) depends on the commitment of citizens and corporations to make it work. However opponents who see in the potential for broad mandated insurance a kind of socialism, where the strong support the weak, have undermined that commitment. Those that are healthy/wealthy don’t want the sick and the poor in their insurance pools, just as they don’t want their tax dollars spent on benefits or “entitlements” for the lower and middle classes. The actual launch of Obamacare was the best they could’ve hoped for: the web technology to support ACA exchanges and enrollments was poorly planned and executed, and this seemed to validate the opponents’ arguments that the ACA would be a disaster. But the botched website development doesn’t say anything about the viability of the ACA system itself. While the law’s not ideal, it’s a step toward universal healthcare and improvement of the whacky dysfunctional American healthcare system. As of this writing, the website’s working better, so we may be past that particular glitch. Meanwhile ideological wrangling over the complex (ergo not well understood) legislation sucked much of the political energy out of 2013.

Chelyabinsk meteor

What happens when an asteroid strikes the earth? We’ve often wondered, and the answer depends on the size of the particular rock. Many think the Tunguska event in Russia was an asteroid or comet strike. The Chelyabinsk meteor, also in Russia, was also thought to have been an asteroid, and the first case where a meteor blast caused documented widespread injuries. I’ve used the word “strike” here, but in the case of both Tunguska and Chelyabinsk, there wasn’t a direct hit. Both exploded above the earth; most of the damage was caused by shock waves.

How can we prevent larger asteroids from striking the earth? NASA’s currently planning an asteroid-tow-and-study mission that would be a step in the right direction: http://www.space.com/22764-nasa-asteroid-capture-mission-candidates.html

Miley Cyrus twerking

Miley’s unconventional, racy MTV Video Music Awards appearance shocked the Twitterverse and escalated her prominence as a pop culture icon, not so much because of the performance itself (which I saw as a clever, entertaining parody of pop culture excess) as her smart handling of the supposed controversy. Can’t say that there was any shift in mainstream commercial pop culture as a result of the furor, but hey, it was just a bit of fun.

Google Glass

I guiltily admit that I haven’t taken any opportunity, and there’ve been some, to give Google Glass a try. I’m skeptical whether I’ll be able to see much of the overlay, but it might be cool to shoot photos and videos on the fly, though a GoPro would be better for that. To me, the real significance is not so much of the specific product or platform but the boost for the wearable computing meme, which we’ve been talking about since the early 90s. However my pocket device is useful enough, I don’t have to “wear” it (though I’m jonesing for a wearable health data tracker like FitBit.)

The point of “wearable” is that computers are increasingly embedded in the fabric of everyday life, via devices like Glass, Nest, FitBit et al, and concepts like the Internet of Things. 2013, two decades after the Internet’s mainstreaming began in 1993, these next generation technologies have arrived. Soon enough, they’ll be commonplace and boring.

Yochai Benkler runs it down: the NSA, our rights, America in decline

Yochai Benkler shines a summary light on NSA revelations. I personally don’t think the problem is the NSA but the context in which the NSA is operating – a context in which American values are in transition – I would say decline – as a concept of governance founded on democratic and scientific traditions is replaced by a concept of governance based on traditions of elite power, superstition and fear. Note my boldface below…

We have learned that in pursuit of its bureaucratic mission to obtain signals intelligence in a pervasively networked world, the NSA has mounted a systematic campaign against the foundations of American power: constitutional checks and balances, technological leadership, and market entrepreneurship. The NSA scandal is no longer about privacy, or a particular violation of constitutional or legislative obligations. The American body politic is suffering a severe case of auto-immune disease: our defense system is attacking other critical systems of our body.

Further on:

Serious people with grave expressions will argue that if we do not ruthlessly expand our intelligence capabilities, we will suffer terrorism and defeat…. The “serious people” are appealing to our faith that national security is critical, in order to demand that we accept the particular organization of the Intelligence Church. Demand for blind faith adherence is unacceptable.

You think Yochai Benkler is angry? Shouldn’t you be?

The Internet inherits war

Bruce Schneier at Technology Review:

Arms races are fueled by two things: ignorance and fear. We don’t know the capabilities of the other side, and we fear that they are more capable than we are. So we spend more, just in case. The other side, of course, does the same. That spending will result in more cyber weapons for attack and more cyber-surveillance for defense. It will result in move government control over the protocols of the Internet, and less free-market innovation over the same. At its worst, we might be about to enter an information-age Cold War: one with more than two “superpowers.” Aside from this being a bad future for the Internet, this is inherently destabilizing. It’s just too easy for this amount of antagonistic power and advanced weaponry to get used: for a mistaken attribution to be reacted to with a counterattack, for a misunderstanding to become a cause for offensive action, or for a minor skirmish to escalate into a full-fledged cyberwar.

At SXSW Interactive: Art, Activism, and Augmented Reality

Pool Hopping on the Island of the Bull

Artist/activist Patrick Lichty and I have a session at SXSW Interactive called “Art, Activism, and Augmented Reality.” Here’s the blurb from the SXSWi schedule:

One of the latest genres in New Media art is that of Augmented Reality, or the overlay of digital content onto physical reality through the use of smart phones and computer vision. Marshall McLuhan heralded artists as early adopters of new technology, and the emergence of AR as an art genre is no surprise. Numerous AR works have sought to explore the expressive and critical possibilities of the technology, and groups like Manifest.AR have used this medium as a means of creative dissent through their Occupy Wall Street AR intervention. With AR a burgeoning platform for New Media art investigation, we will discuss the potentials and limitations of the medium, the history and context of work being done today, and the tactical potentials of AR as political intervention.

Over the last two decades, thinking about technology and activism, I’ve followed the process of embedding the former in the latter, and the evolution of a straightforward kind of cyborg activism with standard functionality: using email and social media to rally the troops, using SMS for coordination on the ground, spreading grassroots memes through websites, etc. The impact of technology, and the automation of the activist, is clear enough; with lower costs of coordination, grassroots movements at least Have A Chance. However much of the deployment of technology has, as in other fields of endeavor, fallen into the funding groove – we’re using computer-mediated activist approaches to fill the coffers of various organizations, large and small, and truly disruptive uses are rare.

ar-financeThe Occupy movement brought a new crop of activists to the table with open minds and (often) open hearts, and a commitment to disrupt established political machinations that exploit rather than serve. Occupy worked, not as an activist project, but as a movement-building enterprise, and it worked partly by using art and design to burrow into the collective psyche. Some of the more fascinating approaches that emerged within Occupy leveraged augmented reality applications to make points that are better driven by art than by polemics. See the example on the right.

So Patrick, one of my colleagues at Reality Augmented Blog, and I will be talking how AR, activism and art can support social and political movements. If you’re at SXSW Interactive this year, try to drop by.

Image: “Pool Hopping” at the Island of the Bull, Mark Skwarek.

Community: listening and leading

For the last two decades I’ve been preaching about the limits of “community management” – no one can “own” a community or tribe; top-down approaches fail. You can lead, you can facilitate, but you can’t dictate – you have to listen to the community, and be sensitive to community input.

At larger scale, this is the rationale for democracy, “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Democracy is difficult, you can’t have a true and pure democracy and make it work – but when we talk about democracy we’re seldom talking about a system that’s purely that, a direct democracy. We always have vertical hierarchies, however flat they might be, and we always need leadership. Few members of a community will have the understanding and perspective required to make decisions; success depends on their input. But success also depends on a system that supports a sense of open, public discussion preceding whatever decisions are embedded in policy.

We see this in micro in online communities and social networks. On a platform like Facebook, for instance, there’s a persistent tension between what Facebook wants to do and what its users will accept; Facebook-the-company has been forced to back off on policies that were perceived by users as too constraining. It’s an ongoing dance, and to the extent that the users of Facebook are its product (sold as eyeballs to advertisers), the system must empower its users while at the same time depending on a more passive form of information consumption (the kind that makes advertisers happy). Facebook is a company, it makes platform decisions, but to the extent users feel locked out or ignored, they’re cranky and might ultimately walk, if they feel they have no input, no control over the online environment. You didn’t have this with television, because television doesn’t create the same sense of place or community. It was media, but not social media.

Coding Horror has a post that about online social space and community empowerment, quoting the 1990 paper “The Lessons of LucasFilm’s Habitat.” Habitat was an early online game/community, “one of the first attempts to create a very large scale commercial multi-user virtual environment.” This quote could have been written about any number of online platforms that have emerged over the last two-plus decades:

… we shifted into a style of operations in which we let the players themselves drive the direction of the design. This proved far more effective. Instead of trying to push the community in the direction we thought it should go, an exercise rather like herding mice, we tried to observe what people were doing and aid them in it. We became facilitators as much as designers and implementors. This often meant adding new features and new regions to the system at a frantic pace, but almost all of what we added was used and appreciated, since it was well matched to people’s needs and desires. As the experts on how the system worked, we could often suggest new activities for people to try or ways of doing things that people might not have thought of. In this way we were able to have considerable influence on the system’s development in spite of the fact that we didn’t really hold the steering wheel — more influence, in fact, than we had had when we were operating under the delusion that we controlled everything.

The author of the Coding Horror post, Jeff Atwood, points to his earlier post about lessons learned managing the Stack Overflow community, “Listen to Your Community, But Don’t Let Them Tell You What to Do.” That strikes me as a good description of the process of practical democracy: those who hold power (community managers, legislators, executives) must listen (actively, seriously), but they have to make their own decisions from their perspective, which is different from the perspective of the average community member or citizen. As Atwood says in his “Listen” post, “Community feedback is great, but it should never be used as a crutch, a substitute for thinking deeply about what you’re building and why.” I.e. leaders have to work hard at having the right perspective and understanding to make meaningful, “right” decisions. He goes on to say that “half of community relationships isn’t doing what the community thinks they want at any given time, but simply being there to listen and respond to the community.” Spot on.

Debate and contention

I watched this bit of theatre yesterday…

David Brinkley would never have had the Carvile-Matalins back for a second appearance, yet they keep popping up on the George Stephanopoulos version of This Week. In the latest episode, Mary Matalin called Paul Krugman a liar for his comments on the Romney/Ryan out on their Vouchercare plan, a subset of the overall plan to make decent healthcare a privilege for the elite, barely available to the rest of us. We’re already practically there, despite “Obamacare.”

You’ve probably already seen this debate:

Wondering if this changed anyone’s mind, or are we having a lot of preaching to the already-converted on either side of the fence. Echo silo solipsistic wrangling.

Okay, I’m frustrated by politics. But who isn’t?

Bruce Schneier: Liars and Outliers

Bruce Schneier

Bruce Schneier

Check out our conversation on the WELL with security expert Bruce Schneier, who among other things is responsible for the Crypto-gram Newsletter. In this conversation, he’s discussing his book Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive. Because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the value and erosion of trust, this book and the conversation on the WELL are especially resonant with my own focus and thinking.

In the book, I wander through a dizzying array of academic disciplines: experimental psychology, evolutionary psychology, sociology, economics, behavioral economics, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, game theory, systems dynamics, anthropology, archeology, history, political science, law, philosophy, theology, cognitive science, and computer security. It sometimes felt as if I were blundering through a university, kicking down doors and demanding answers. “You anthropologists: what can you tell me about early human transgressions and punishments?” “Okay neuroscientists, what’s the brain chemistry of cooperation? And you evolutionary psychologists, how can you explain that?” “Hey philosophers, what have you got?” I downloaded thousands — literally ­­ of academic papers. In pre-Internet days I would have had to move into an academic library.

What’s really interesting to me is what this all means for the future. We’ve never been able to eliminate defections. No matter how much societal pressure we bring to bear, we can’t bring the murder rate in society to zero. We’ll never see the end of bad corporate behavior, or embezzlement, or rude people who make cell phone calls in movie theaters. That’s fine, but it starts getting interesting when technology makes each individual defection more dangerous. That is, fishermen will survive even if a few of them defect and overfish — until defectors can deploy driftnets and single-handedly collapse the fishing stock. The occasional terrorist with a machine gun isn’t a problem for society in the overall scheme of things; but a terrorist with a nuclear weapon could be.

Mark Dery dances the apocalypso

Mark Dery

I’m leading a two-week asynchronous discussion with erudite author and culture critic Mark Dery, whose provocative essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts has been turning my head on its axle. At the moment, we’re discussing apocalypse:

I *do* think we live in times of chaos and complexity, when society is “far from equilibrium,” as
scientists who study dynamical systems like to say. Steven Pinker’s claim, in _The Better Angels of Our Nature_, that violence is on the decline notwithstanding, most peoples’ experience of the wider world—which is to say, as a funhouse-mirror reflection in the media—seems to be as a growingly out-of-control place. Ideological extremism and lockstep partisanship are monkeywrenching the American political system—an article by Ezra Klein in the March 19 _New Yorker_ notes that ideological “rigidity has made American democracy much more difficult to manage”; the culture wars are reaching a boiling point, ginned up by backroom dealmakers like the Koch brothers, whose real agenda is simply to create the most deregulated, tax-free landscape in which to Do the Lord’s Work; and Angry White Guys are stockpiling guns and training their crosshairs on scapegoats, post-traumatically stressed by a black man in the Oval Office, the demographic rise of the nonwhite population, the sea change in households where women earn more than men, and the econopocalypse.

But if you’re shopping for apocalypses, the rough beast right around the bend is Envirogeddon. Come of the middle of the 21st century, we—at least, those of us who can’t afford a climate-controlled biosphere lush with hydroponic greenery and an artesian well guarded by a private army—are going to be living in one of Ballard’s disaster novels. Global Weirding, as climate scientists call it, is *the* pressing issue of the near future, and I have every confidence my friends on the right will bury their heads in the sand, on that issue, until the sand superheats and turns to glass.

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The truth about OWS

Naomi Wolf in The Guardian: we hear that Occupy Wall Street has no clear message, but is it precisely because the dis-organization has a clear message, set of goals, and growing force that we’re seeing efforts to shut the 24/7 demonstrations down?

The mainstream media was declaring continually “OWS has no message”. Frustrated, I simply asked them. I began soliciting online “What is it you want?” answers from Occupy. In the first 15 minutes, I received 100 answers. These were truly eye-opening.

The No 1 agenda item: get the money out of politics. Most often cited was legislation to blunt the effect of the Citizens United ruling, which lets boundless sums enter the campaign process. No 2: reform the banking system to prevent fraud and manipulation, with the most frequent item being to restore the Glass-Steagall Act – the Depression-era law, done away with by President Clinton, that separates investment banks from commercial banks. This law would correct the conditions for the recent crisis, as investment banks could not take risks for profit that create kale derivatives out of thin air, and wipe out the commercial and savings banks.

No 3 was the most clarifying: draft laws against the little-known loophole that currently allows members of Congress to pass legislation affecting Delaware-based corporations in which they themselves are investors.

When I saw this list – and especially the last agenda item – the scales fell from my eyes. Of course, these unarmed people would be having the shit kicked out of them.

Update: Joshua Holland at AlterNet says Naomi Wolf’s piece “takes an enormous leap away from any known facts to suggest that Congress is ordering cities to smash the Occupy Movement in order to preserve their own economic privilege.”

Photo by Lily Rothrock

Taking leave of our consensus

Consensus Process

Tree Bressen, guest-posting at Dave Pollard’s “How to Save the World” blog, has a helpful summary of consensus process mistakes and barriers, and how to avoid them. This is a followup to Pollard’s earlier post, “When Consensus Doesn’t Work.”

In my experience, a good first step is to admin that consensus is hard, in fact that all social/communication processes are difficult. To have a productive meeting resulting in a decision by consensus requires leadership, and the leader’s agenda should be more about achieving consensus than getting a particular result. The word for this kind of leadership is facilitation. A good facilitator parks her ego outside the door, and has no preferred outcome other than consensus. One reason the consensus process is hard is that the facilitation mind-set is hard to develop. The set of consensus mistakes presented by Bressen could also be characterized as signs of poor facilitation. E.g. “when the facilitator is also the person offering information and context on an issue, it lessens safety for those who may disagree with the general thrust, putting them immediately on the defensive.”

A truly democratic political process would require a facilitated conversation producing consensus decisions. This is what I see the Occupy groups trying to do with General Assemblies; their success would depend on the quality of emergent leadership and the degree to which the emergent leaders understand facilitation and consensus. Occupy points to a crucial issue, that political leaders are not leading by consensus, and their decisions are driven by self-interest rather than commitment to greater good of all. Political self-interest is always present, but consider Plunkitt’s concept of “honest graft.” In a meeting run by a selfish leader, dissatisfaction is probable and mutiny is always possible, especially where there’s a strong expectation that leadership will honor consensus. In the national ongoing “meeting” that is U.S. politics, I would argue that consensus is broken and backlash is likely unless leaders left and right start listening to the real concerns of real people.

Call me Trim Tab

We’re packing for a move, and when you move it shakes out all the dust and skittering spiders in your head, and thoughts ordered and disordered collide and melt into each other. There’s an insecurity you feel when all your physical analogs are packed in boxes ready for the movers.

I took a break today and drove down to Occupy Austin, but I was too early for the union march that was set for 12:30pm. A friend who was going to meet me there hadn’t made it yet, and I didn’t have time to wait, so my visit was short. Austin’s City Hall was reserved for a Green Festival, so the die-hard “Occupants” were forced to move across the street from City Hall, where there’s an island large enough to hold the encampment, though it was a little cramped. I wandered through. People were wrangling about the day’s march and demonstration, which I later found was moving to the plaza at the Wells Fargo building on Congress Avenue, a few blocks away. I heard later that things were pretty disorganized, or as we like to say, emergent.

My thoughts about Occupy were in flux. I was thinking we don’t really need a radical transformation here, just a restoration of a balance that was lost in the first decade of the 21st Century. We need less “every man for himself” and more “love thy neighbor.” Our economy works when there’s a widespread ethical commitment to each other, a balanced economy, and a real hope for the future. I hear people talk about reinventing economies and reinventing society, but I don’t think we have to boil the ocean.

Bucky Fuller:

Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary—the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab.

It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go.

So I said, call me Trim Tab.

Go deeper

A couple of @jonl tweets re #OWS:

[blackbirdpie id=”125761219188621312″]

[blackbirdpie id=”125951840578846723″]

Revolutions won at a superficial level take us into similar power games because we haven’t addressed fundamental issues that are deeply embedded in our thinking.

“A man will renounce any pleasures you like but will not give up his suffering.”

“Without self knowledge, without understanding the working and functions of his machine, man cannot be free, he cannot govern himself and he will always remain a slave.”

Both quotes from G.I. Gurdjieff