Cory Doctorow in Austin

Cory Doctorow was in Austin yesterday on a book tour for his new young adult novel, For the Win. Cory says he likes writing young adult fiction because it’s for people who use it, not just for entertainment, but to figure out the world. Cory introduced me to another science fiction writer, Steven Brust, now living in Austin. I love the information-dense, visionary, ironic and funny conversations science fiction geeks have, just casually over dinner or drinks. Cory’s not just a science fiction geek, though – he’s also an Internet maven and activist, especially focused on issues like copyfight and freedom to connect. Cory is former EFF online activist and board member of EFF-Austin, which threw an after party, called “Whuffiefest,” following his book signing. Produced by Plutopia Productions, the event had a large and enthusiastic turnout.

Arianna Huffington – interviewed by Evan Smith

May 4, 2010 – As part of the Texas Monthly Talks series, Evan Smith interviewed Arianna Huffington, in town to speak at a benefit for the Texas Freedom Network. Huffington’s flight arrived late, so the talk was abbreviated. Much of the discussion was about the current state of journalism and Huffington Post’s (HuffPo’s) success as new media hybrid journalism – a combination of user-generated and professional content.

Huffington led with the observation that people want contgent, but they also want engagement – they want “to be part of the story of our time.” That’s the essence of participatory journalism. She said that self-experssion has become the new entertainment. Evan: “It all counts.”

Huffington Post has been successful, has a readership apporaching that of the New York Times, and leaving other major online publishing venues in the dust. She says part of the secret of HuffPo’s success is that “we’re not just talking to people who agree with us.”

HuffPo has a thriving community and “human moderators” that maintain the civility of the conversations – “we don’t want it to be the Glenn Beck Show.” When Rick Perry shot the coyote and it was reported at HuffPo, there was an immediate surge of interst – 1,000 comments within a day. In addition to moderators, the Post’s readers police the site – they wouldn’t be able to manage the conversations without help from the community.

Evan: “What happened to journalism?” Why is for-profit legacy journalism failing? Have they lost sight of their mission, or is it that new media approaches are more compelling. “Are they down, or are you up?”

Huffington responds that they just didn’t get it. When HuffPo launched, legacy media were still skeptical of new approaches (participatory media/social media), but now they’re moving online, moving toward a hybrid model. Pay walls haven’t worked – worked for Wall Street Journal initially, but their subscriptions are down. In this context, she mentioned that traditional tenets of journalism should prevail – meaning that fundamental journalistic ethics and standards will necessarily be maintained in new media. [I’ve been thinking about this, and want to be involved in training news bloggers and citizen journalists. Matt Glazer of Burnt Orange Report and I have been instigating a conference for this purpose.]

Digital natives consume all their news online. We can’t go back to old ways of doing journalism – can’t put the genie back in the bottle. The Internet has a culture of free content that can be monetized [she didn’t specify how, but I suspect she was thinking of advertising and some other mix of revenues associated with brand].

You have to be prepared to take your content to the readers, rather than expecting them to come to you. [This is a 101 new media concept, but always worth repeating.] Evan notes that this implies a “disintermediation of content from the source.” Arianna: “ubiquity is the new exclusivity.”

HuffPo includes content contributed by unpaid bloggers, paying only editors and reporters. Is Huffington building an empire on the backs of unpaid contributors? Not at all – bloggers are leveraging HuffPo’s visibility, finding and building audiences, getting book deals, etc.

HuffPo aggregates content from other sites, too – is this leveraging others’ content? Huffington notes that they strictly follow fair use guidelines and have never been sued for infringement. Aggregation and curation of content are essential parts of an Internet information service. Curation means identify what’s important and elevate it, give it visibility. Put flesh and blood on data.

Evan: “Obama – how is it going?” Huffington says she is very glad he was elected, that he inherited a huge crisis. One problem: he’s surrounded himself with Clintonites like Larry Summers, and did everything humanly possible to save Wall Street, but nothing to save Main Street. Huffington is writing a book on the decline of the middle class, and is very concerned that there is no effort to reverse the decline, which has been going on for thirty years. So Obama’s administration should be doing dramatic things to save the middle class – though he may have done a lot already, he’s not necessarily taking the right approach, making bold moves that he should be making to support those in the middle. Some say he saved the economy, but he didn’t – he just saved Wall Street. We still have 25 million people out of work, and escalating foreclosures.

It also bothers her that no strings were attached to the salvation of Wall Street.

Otherwise, Obama is an extaordinary communicator and has improved U.S. standing in the world community – those are real pluses. “I will definitely vote for him again. What’s the alternative?” The “loyal opposition” is not talking today’s issues seriously. They treat governing like it was a debating club.

The administration’s attempts to be bipartisan are wasted effort, she says. She compares it to guys hitting non Ellen Degeneres “and not being told you’re not going to get anywhere.”

Doug Rushkoff: Program or be Programmed

At dinner the night before he spoke at SXSW Interactive, Doug Rushkoff told me that he had been working a new book idea, but had decided not to write the book. Instead, he was going to present it in his talk and let others run with it however they might. Actually writing the book was less important than getting the ideas out.

In the talk, he noted how quickly things become polarized in this era, the bad-trip bizarre extremes suggested by the Tea Party and the Palinites. Given all this, he had come to the conclusion that we’re “running obsolete code” socially… something about the information environment we’ve created enables polarization, perhaps. How much of this is the bias of a binary medium, and how much of it is attributable to the biases of the people who program our technologies… and our “social code”? He had been thinking about how our technology works vs how our technology works on us. His conclusion: if you’re not the programmer, you are one of the programmed.

So the book he was going to write was to have been called something like Program or Be Programmed. He discussed how game players progress from players to “cheaters” (i.e. they find the tricks, backdoors, and cheats within a programmed game) to author or programmer. It’s a natural progression – taking control of our environment, the reality we’re banging around in. This goes back to the creation of writing as a formalized symbolic representation of reality, and the invention of the printing press, which means the written word can be replicated. Initially “anyone can program reality” via written text, when we get the ability to read and write. However the invention of the printing press assigns more control to those who control the means of production/replication – we get the division between those who publish and those who “merely” read. Those who control publishing control which representations of reality are broadly replicated – I’ve spoken elsewhere of the invention of the printing press as the genesis of broadcast media, where control of “reality” is centralized. In the era of mass media, there’s a sense of mainstream knowledge that’s vetted carefully by editors and publishers who share similar biases and assumptions.

In the era of computers and the Internet, we’ve seen the evolution of a more decentralized, diverse “social” media. How free are we from a the centralized set of biases associated with mass publishing? While we appear to have many and diverse publishers, what we have is more bloggers but not necessarily more programmers, and Rushkoff argues that there are biases in the way things are programmed – programmers have biases or they’re directed according to the biases of others. An example is a Facebook profile, which has a structure defined by Facebook so that it reduces the personality of the Facebook user to a consumer profile. Similarly Google is programming Internet-based structures – presumably on the “open Internet” – where the bias is for Google to extract value from content creators who produce their content for free within an infrastructure that Google increasingly controls.

Doug was going to write Program or Be Programmed as a description of ten biases of digital media, and ten commands that go with them. He decided that the “era of the book” has ended, along with the biases of a linear literary culture, which gives way to the nonlinear biases of a digital culture, so he’s tossing out his list of biases and thoughts as a set of memes dropped into the digital stream. The format: bias followed by commandment, along with additional comments from Doug, and some of my own.

1) Time: “Thou shalt not be always on.” We can lose ourselves in our persistent connection to content streams. We assign our time to the presence of other voices at the expense of our own. We need to take more time to be who we are, and to shape our own thinking, our own voices.

2) Distance: “Thou shalt not do from a distance what can be done better in person.” This relates to Doug’s thinking about economies, which were delocalized and centralized by industrialization. Digital fetishism has us using long distance technology for short distance communication. Example: Doug visited a classroom where a group of students in the same room were all logged into Second Life for a meeting. Network technology has long distance biases, or equates all distance. Global becomes weak local; local becomes weak global. There are some kinds of local coordination that it makes sense to do online, but you have to be clear whether you’re using the technology where it’s most effective, or simply conceding to its inherent bias.

3) Scale – the net is biased to scale up. “Exalt the particular.” Not everything should scale. This makes me think of E.F. Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful.”

4) Discrete: “You may always choose none of the above.” The real world is not digital, is not a symbolic representation in metrics. Online activity is a digital landscape of forced choice. I see this as more about database coherence – if you’re trying to build a manageable data, you have constraints that are built into the interface as limited choices. Simple example: you might enforce one specific way of expressing a date, e.g. MM/DD/YYYY so that all dates will have the same format, therefore all date data will be coherent. Lacking this constraint, data is less usable. To the extent we force choices in something like a user profile, we’re forcing real, complex persons to limit their self-descriptions so they fit the biases of our data structures. You should always be able to withhold choice, or choose “none of the above.”

5) Complexity. “Thou shalt never be completely right.” Doug starts by noting the Wikipedia is taken seriously as a reference, whereas “using an encyclopedia used to be a joke” – i.e. the encyclopedia has many references but none of them captures the full complexity of the subject described. Real scholarship acknowledges, embraces, and digs into that complexity. There are few answers that are completely “right.” Complex inquiry is a good thing.

6) Anonymity. “Thou shalt not be anonymous.” We should work against the tendency of the net to promote anonymity and decentralization. Doug notes that, online, we have an “out-of-bodiness” which negates nonverbal communication. By default, we are incomplete in an environment that is mostly textual and binary communication. In this context, it is liberating to adopt a strong sense of identity.

7) Contact. “Remember the humans.” Content is not king in a communications environment – CONTACT is king.

8) Abstraction. “As above, so below.” Text abstracted words from speech. Invention of text led to an abstract god. Also led to treating economy as if it is nature – but it’s not, it’s a game. Don’t make equivalencies between the abstracted model and the real world.

9) Openness. “Thou shalt not steal.” This is about the assumption that everything should be free that seems prevalent on the Internet. Doug makes a long term bet against Google: “if everything is free, there is no one left to advertise.” Free is not the same as “open source.” I think what he’s saying here is “free as in beer” is not the same as “free as in freedom,” which is Richard Stallman’s persistent distinction. In fact I don’t agree that Google or anyone else is trying to make everything free. We’re seeing a transitional economy where value and compensation are being redefined, and where especially the value and exchange of social capital is increasingly more relevant.

10) End users. Here the bias is toward making all or most of us end users rather than programmers. “Program or be programmed.” Doug notes that in the early days of computing, computer classes taught programming with BASIC etc.. Now the classes teach how to use applications that others have programmed. The user and the coder are farther apart. He argues that we should all understand programming, be able to build our own tools or configure tools other have built so that we have more control over the digital environment. “But what about the greater learning curve?” He argues this is a good thing.

There is a tendency toward centralization with systems like Facebook. Is the web becoming more centralized? How does it remain decentralized?

One last note from Doug’s talk. I wrote this note: “Future of client side technology is digital currency. Will do to central bank what Craig’s List did to Hearst. Will have to be decentralized to exist and not be taken down.”

Information/culture wars

In creating with a history of the “climate fight,” Dr. Spencer Weart has created a history with interesting points about the democratization of knowledge. [Link] He talks about a decline in the prestige of all authorities, expansion of the scientific community with greater interdisciplinarity, and a decline of science journalism.

These trends had been exacerbated since the 1990s by the fragmentation of media (Internet, talk radio), which promoted counter-scientific beliefs such as fear of vaccines among even educated people, by providing facile elaborations of false arguments and a ceaseless repetition of allegations.

Mike Hulme’s response:

I think Spencer is helpful by suggesting there is a much bigger story happening in the world of science, knowledge and cultural authority of which the climate change incidents of this moment are just part. These are going to be increasingly difficult challenges for many areas of science in the future – how is scientific knowledge recognized, how is it spoken and who speaks for it, and how does scientific knowledge relate to other forms of cultural authority. It’s not just about the politicization of public knowledge, but also about its fragmentation, privatization and/or democratization.

In comments, Bob Potter says

The key phrase is “expert public relations apparatus”. In the mid 20th century scientists had the luxury of public respect. People believed what they said. As public confidence in authority figures of all types waned, scientists took no notice. When global climate change became a serious issue scientists still assumed that a “word from the wise” would be sufficient, and that is all they brought to the fight. They lost the war because industry had a public relations army and they did not.

All great points: we’re in the midst of culture and information wars, and the concept of “authoritative voice” is less meaningful, if not lost. We can’t fix this by going backwards… as so many of us have said before, we have to focus more than ever on media literacy. Should be right up there with reading, writing, and arithmetic.

State of the World

Time for the 11th annual Bruce Sterling/Jon Lebkowsky State of the World conversation on the WELL. This year we have a lot to talk about, the world’s off-center and wobbly. We’re off to a good start…

Basically we’ve got an emergent, market-driven global financial system that was all about a faith-based market fundamentalism. It was deprived of oversight for three good reasons (a) it rapidly brought prosperity to billions (b) under globalization, money is inherently global while governance is inherently local (c) complete regulatory capture of the system — nobody but bankers understands how to bank. There’s no caste of regulators left anywhere who have the clout or even the knowledge to do anything usefully stabilizing. No, not even if you give them guns, lawyers, money and back issues of DAS KAPITAL.

Too big to fail. So, what can you do? Cross your fingers, basically. Make some reassuring noises. Cheerlead instead of reforming the infrastructure. And pawn what’s left of the credibility of government.

Twenty years ago, it seemed like this situation might lead to shareholder power, a kind of pension-fund ownership society. It kind of did, for a while. But over a longer term, the poor engineering told on the rickety, fungus-like structure of finance. The wealth and the executive capacity drifted into the hands of moguls. Not governments, big institutions, megacorporations, multinationals, but moguls, weird eccentrics, like Russian moguls. Madoff figures, Enron. Nobody was left to look. Even if they did look, all they could possibly see in Madoff and Enron was a genius, highly charitable head of the NASDAQ and the world’s most nimble and innovative energy company. It’s like looking at your SUV and seeing drowning polar bears. Just a minority viewpoint.

Another shaggy apocalypse story

I should say more about the “Collapse” preview I just posted – don’t want to mislead. For every pile of ashes there’s a great squawking phoenix, after all.

In fact I can’t say that we’re not screwed – god knows what unforeseen dangers are lurking in our little corner of the universe. The sun could explode, or the planet could implode. The Yellowstone caldera is overdue for a cataclysmic eruption. All hell could break lose.

And if you’re conversant with Buddhist thinking, you know that all things are impermanent.

That said, I also know that we’re remarkably resilient and we can probably survive more than we know. The real question (as in the global warming controversies) is this: is there something we can do now to avert a catastrophe, and should we be doing it? Those who once denied “global warming” (I prefer climate change), faced with incontrovertible evidence that Something Is Up, are now acknowledging that point but arguing that there’s nothing we can do about it (i.e., we shouldn’t do anything to disturb tourism on Amity Island, even as Bruce the shark cruises the waters, looking for hors d’oeuvres.)

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Mac Tonnies

Mac Tonnies would definitely have been part of FringeWare. Check out his bio (though I would disagree with the second sentence).

Consciousness is a potential technology; we are exquisite machines, nothing less than sentient patterns.
As such, there’s no convincing technical reason we can’t eventually
upload ourselves into matrices of our design and choosing. It’s likely
the phenomenon we casually call “intelligence” will cease to be
strictly biological as we begin to merge with our machines more
meaningfully and intimately. (Philip K. Dick once wrote that “living
and nonliving things are exchanging properties.” I suspect that in a
few hundred years, barring disaster, separating the animate from the
inanimate will probably be an exercise in futility.) Ultimately, we
have two options: self-mutate by venturing off-planet in minds and
bodies of our own design, or succumb to extinction.

Mac Tonnies died last month. We’ve lost one uniquely weird and compelling fringe researcher.

Doug Rushkoff on Life, Inc.

For the last week and a half, I’ve been leading a discussion with Doug Rushkoff about his new book, Life, Inc. You can find us on the WELL. Doug’s analysis of the coevolution of the corporation and contemporary cultures and economies is important to consider; it points to the need for a new sustainability economy.

Of course centralized currency works for some. Hammers work for some. They just suck at brain surgery. Centralized currency is not the only kind of currency there could be, and it has certain biases to it. It would work a whole lot better if there were other currencies that promoted circulation over hording, and abundance over scarcity.

Yes yes yes. Some things are scarce, and scarce currencies can help orchestrate scarce markets for scarce things. They also help very wealthy people stay wealthy without working – and I make no judgment on that. There are many people who we might want to keep rich, even though they create no value. Or businesses that are just going through a rough century or two and need to be able to stay afloat by investing and growing rather than creating or innovating. And they should be entitled to use whatever they can.

But we – people who create value, who work, who innovate – should also be able to work with currencies that reflect the value we have created. Just as people used to get a grain receipt for every pound they brought to the mill – a receipt that could be traded – we, too, should be able to work currency into existence. We shouldn’t have to work *for* someone who has borrowed money at interest from the bank in order to pay us; we should be able to use a kind of money that reflects the abundance of our output rather than just the artificial scarcity of the treasury.

We’ve got a currency system that could not support the introduction of a renewable energy source. That should give us pause. We don’t have to destroy the Fed. We simply need additional mechanisms for value exchange.

Free as in beer

In the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell runs a sanity test on Chris Anderson’s book Free: The Future of a Radical Price.

There are four strands of argument here: a technological claim (digital infrastructure is effectively Free), a psychological claim (consumers love Free), a procedural claim (Free means never having to make a judgment), and a commercial claim (the market created by the technological Free and the psychological Free can make you a lot of money). The only problem is that in the middle of laying out what he sees as the new business model of the digital age Anderson is forced to admit that one of his main case studies, YouTube, “has so far failed to make any money for Google.”

Why is that? Because of the very principles of Free that Anderson so energetically celebrates. When you let people upload and download as many videos as they want, lots of them will take you up on the offer. That’s the magic of Free psychology: an estimated seventy-five billion videos will be served up by YouTube this year. Although the magic of Free technology means that the cost of serving up each video is “close enough to free to round down,” “close enough to free” multiplied by seventy-five billion is still a very large number. A recent report by Credit Suisse estimates that YouTube’s bandwidth costs in 2009 will be three hundred and sixty million dollars. In the case of YouTube, the effects of technological Free and psychological Free work against each other.

Note that Gladwell’s review is available free online, and Anderson’s book costs $17.19 via Amazon.

Our pretense of control

Sanjay Khanna reporting on The New Yorker’s “Next 100 Days” policy summit: [Link]

…it seems our human nature leads us to insist on turning towards increasingly discrete, expert-dependent disciplines to save us from ourselves. Which is why this could be a good time, as [Malcolm] Gladwell smartly hinted, to question our pretense of control. After all, every day, beneath our conscious awareness, the Earth spins around its axis and revolves around the Sun, while the biosphere in its every realm demonstrates that the whole is greater than the sum of its constituent parts. It may seem glib to say so, but given that we’re simply a small part of that infinite complexity, it might serve us well to ask, hat in hand: What is it we believe we can control, exactly?

Personal health records: the data’s not in (really)

A PHR (Personal Health Records) system like Google Health supposedly “puts you in charge of your health information,” but where do you start? ePatient Dave, decided to take the plunge and move his considerable (after bouts with cancer) health data to Google’s system. His hospital was already supporting easy upload of patient records to Google Health, a matter of specifying options and clicking a button at the patient portal.

The result? “…it transmitted everything I’ve ever had. With almost no dates attached.” So you couldn’t tell, for instance, that the diagnosis of anxiety was related to chemotherapy-induced nausea: “… the ‘anxiety’ diagnosis was when I was puking my guts out during my cancer treatment. I got medicated for that, justified by the intelligent observation (diagnosis) that I was anxious. But you wouldn’t know that from looking at this.”

Where there was supposed to be “more info” about conditions listed, the information wasn’t particularly robust, and some conditions were listed that Dave never had.

I’ve been discussing this with the docs in the back room here, and they quickly figured out what was going on before I confirmed it: the system transmitted insurance billing codes to Google Health, not doctors’ diagnoses. And as those in the know are well aware, in our system today, insurance billing codes bear no resemblance to reality.

All this raises the question, and the point of Dave’s post: do you know what’s in your medical records? Is it accurate information? If some physician down the line was reading it, would (s)he make an accurate assessment of your history?

Think about THAT. I mean, some EMR pontificators are saying “Online data in the hospital won’t do any good at the scene of a car crash.” Well, GOOD: you think I’d want the EMTs to think I have an aneurysm, anxiety, migraines and brain mets?? Yet if I hadn’t punched that button, I never would have known my data in the system was erroneous.

Dave realized that the records transmitted to Google Health were in some cases erroneous, and overall incomplete.

So I went back and looked at the boxes I’d checked for what data to send, and son of a gun, there were only three boxes: diagnoses, medications, and allergies. So I went back and looked at the boxes I’d checked for what data to send, and son of a gun, there were only three boxes: diagnoses, medications, and allergies. Nothing about lab data, nothing about vital signs.

Dave goes on to make a rather long and magnificent post, which you should read (here’s the link again). The bottom line is that patients need working, interoperable data, and patients should be accessing and reviewing, and there should be methods for correcting factual inaccuracies.

We’re saying this having heard that most hospitals aren’t storing data digitally, anyway. This is new territory and we know we have to go there. Salient points:

  • Get the records online
  • Make sure they’re accurate
  • Have interoperable data standards and a way to show a complete and accurate history for any patient
  • Have clarity about who can change and who can annotate records

That’s just a first few thoughts – much more to consider. If you’re interested in this subject, read regularly.

Thinking about education

Jamais Cascio ponders education, saying first that we need more Sids than Andys, a Toy Story reference. Sid was, according to the Wikipedia article, “hyperactive” and “disturbed.” Jamais quotes another perspective. “A Sid-based education would encourage children to invent and explore, to chart their own paths, to defy conventions, to explore dead ends as well as promising boulevards.” I get the point, though I’m not sure that’s Sid… hmmm.

Later in the post, he links to a page by KnowledgeWorks Foundation and the Institute for the Future: “Creating the Future of Learning,” quoting this page:

We are seeing “educitizens” define their rights as learners and re-create the civic sphere. Networked artisans and ad hoc factories are democratizing manufacturing and catalyzing new local economies. These creators are highlighting the significance of cooperation and cross-cultural intelligence for citizenship and economic leadership.

Furthermore, advances in neuroscience are creating new notions of performance and cognition and are reshaping discussions of social justice in learning. Communities are beginning to re-create themselves as resilient systems that respond to challenges by replenishing their vital resources and creating flexible, open, and adaptive infrastructures.

Together, these forces are pushing us to create the future of learning as an ecosystem, in which we have yet to determine the role of educational institutions as we know them today.

Pondering this – it’s what we should be thinking about.

Purpose of America

Roy Spence and Haley Rushing say, at Huffington Post, It’s Time to Renew the Purpose of America. This resonates well with me – I’ve been doing a lot of work defining and organizing around purposeful thinking and setting goals lately. The clarity in that kind of work is powerful.

America’s clear purpose was already articulated, they say: To be a nation of the people, by the people and for the people, always moving forward without leaving anyone behind.

The first pillar of our nation’s purpose was originally, eloquently and prophetically spoken by our 16th President on the battlefield at Gettysburg. On the political battlefield of our day, with its own deep divisiveness, let us all come together behind the sacred purpose in those words. It does not say of the lobbyists, by the lobbyists, for the lobbyists. And it does not say of the bankers, or by the Democrats, or for the Republicans. It says that in our nation, the people are in charge. We are responsible and accountable for our deeds. And we are the beneficiaries of all we achieve.

The second pillar of our purpose is about progress itself. Always moving forward without leaving anyone behind. We are a nation of doers and dreamers and it’s that drive, that purposeful pursuit of what’s next that has taken us to places we could never have imagined. Let us never waver in that conviction to achieve. Now is the time to redouble our ambition, to look up from the circumstances we’re in and toward the place we want to be. And then let’s go there. All together.

They go on to say that “in times of great turmoil, purpose is your anchor.” And in a period of calm, “purpose is also your north star.”

Rod Bell, who was my undergraduate government professor almost 40 years ago, said “to solve big problems, you have to have big confusion.” Problems and confusion have both been growing, where are the solutions? Spence and Rushing include an Abraham Lincoln quote: “Adhere to your purpose and you will soon feel as well as you ever did. On the contrary, if you falter, and give up, you will lose the power of keeping any resolution, and will regret it all your life.”