SOPA, PIPA, and the Web Strike: What’s It All About?

Originally published at Texas Enterprise

wikipedia_blackoutA web strike has been called, and many web pages will go black, in response to two proposed bills — the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House, and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate.

From a high level, these bills may seem reasonable enough. Their stated purpose is to prevent “piracy,” the unlicensed distribution of intellectual property without compensation to rights holders. Pretty much any recorded music can be found online and downloaded for free, as well as a growing number of movies and televison programs. Commercial television programs are routinely recorded and released quickly in digital formats with commercials removed.
The Internet is traditionally a culture with an expectation that content will be free; networks of free distribution of content readily emerged, especially with digital convergence, wherein all media are released in digital formats easy to replicate and redistribute. The growing availability of broadband has meant that content downloads that formerly took hours now take minutes; more and more people are accessing digital content online, legally or not. The Internet has disrupted music, film, and television industries, and while that disruption is not solely attributable to “piracy,” it’s clearly painful to see a product copied and shared broadly online.

Oddly enough, those that share content get no compensation for their efforts — the content is offered for free. And many take it, if only because it’s so much more convenient to do so. They may just as readily pay for downloads or streaming via Netflix or iTunes, or subscribe to content delivery on demand via cable. These legal forms of distribution contribute to the effect of commodifying content, thereby reducing value, another insult to the bottom line of content providers.

Surely it makes sense to pass legislation to protect content providers from outright theft? Wouldn’t it make sense to shut down channels of online distribution, and block access to websites that offer pirated content for free? Pursuing copyright infringement through the courts seems insufficient — it hasn’t worked — and it’s expensive. Wouldn’t it be better to take the “bad” sites down?

In fact, there are pretty large issues with this approach, and that’s why many Internet experts and ‘net-based companies, some of them also content providers, are up in arms. The Internet has thrived as an ecosystem that drives innovation and commerce precisely because it is so frictionless; barriers to entry are low, the means of production inexpensive, and the flow of information unimpeded. You don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to set up a website or build a web-based company. The Internet has resisted efforts to add obstructions within the network. Even in countries like China, which famously has its “Great Firewall,” users find ways to access information.

The approaches suggested by SOPA and PIPA will alter the way the Internet operates. Restricting search engines and domain name services may seem straightforward, but it’s not. DNS filters, a key provision of the bills (though evidently dropped from SOPA this week), would result in security risks and performance issues, according to some Internet engineers. Domain name records would be inconsistent and potentially less reliable. Users may be driven to unregulated alternative systems for domain name resolution, avoiding legitimate regulation and management.

There are also nontechnical civil liberties issues. Whole websites could be blocked, even if there is only one instance of alleged infringement, harming a majority of users because of the actions of a minority. Sites may be blocked incorrectly — who’s to decide what infringes and what doesn’t? What of sites that may facilitate or enable infringement, but don’t infringe themselves? Aren’t they protected speech?

The legislation could have a chilling effect by making site operators liable for the actions of site users, therefore unwilling to host user-generated content. This could have a huge impact on innovative social media websites and technologies.

The problem here is that these laws were driven — if not created by — content industry lobbyists who don’t understand the Internet and are more concerned with protecting the interests associated with older forms of content delivery, versus defining how content delivery can and should work in a digital world. Legislators should drop SOPA and PIPA and have an extended conversation and collaboration with a broad set of stakeholders before they attempt to create policies affecting the Internet.

The Abolition of War, suggested by Krzysztof Wodiczko

War Vehicle

We recently watched all episodes of HBO’s intense, realistic miniseries about the brutal and devastating war in The Pacific; it was a jaw-dropping experience – watching human beings blow each other apart, a real nightmare of violence. I was realizing how transformative that experience would be – you can’t go home again after that kind of experience.

Artist Krzysztof Wodiczko has an exhibit in London currently that is dedicated to war veterans who “might have a roof over their head but it doesn’t feel like home anymore. They are traumatized to various degrees and feel like they’ve become strangers to the place where they used to live. They don’t function like they used to. They have been conditioned to be constantly on alert, to react on the spot to any unexpected light, move, noise, etc. It is difficult for them to turn off that aggressive instinct once they are back to civilian life.” This resonates with the thoughts I was having as I watched the miniseries. We should wonder about the role of post-traumatic stress disorder in shaping postwar culture.

Shown above: “His War Veteran Vehicle is a ex-military vehicle complete with missile launcher converted into a mobile video projector with loudspeakers. Words, coming from interviews with homeless veterans were magnified and projected from the vehicle in buildings and monuments in Liverpool two years ago (a year before, a military Humvee had screened the words of American veterans on the facade of a homeless shelter and of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts during the Democratic National Convention.)”

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

Thinking about memory, association, and identification

A lesson in memory.

I showed up ten minutes early for a meeting this morning at Sweetish Hill, paid for coffee, took a cup and filled it half caf, half decaf, found  a table for two and hung my sturdy black leather jacket on the back of my chair. My Nikon was in the left pocket of the jacket. I thought to myself, “better remember your jacket when you leave.”  Matt Glazer showed up for our meeting, we dove into a focused conversation of less than an hour, said goodbye and both wandered off to our respective Fridays. 

I drove a few miles south and noticed on the left, as I turned onto Manchaca Road, that there was a truck with a piece of earth-moving equipment on it and a sign, “For Sale 44K.” I wondered if the price included the truck and trailer, and realized I hadn’t seen anything like that by the side of the road for sale by owner before. Another sign of economic instability, I thought, and thought I should take a photo and share it online, though I figured I couldn’t pull out phone or camera and get a shot before the light changed. Somehow my network of memories made an association: photo | camera | jacket pocket. Oops, no jacket. It was hanging on the chair at Sweetish Hill. I turned quickly around, headed north again, and called Sweetish Hill. The good folks there nabbed my jacket and held it for me, so all was good.

This left me thinking how the mind works. I spend more time now than ever watching and assessing my mental operations, influenced by Buddhism, and lately by the Gurdjieff work. Much of the visible wrangling of the mind is forming associations, like the association that began with a piece of heavy equipment for sale and ended with my jacket-saving realization. There’s also forgetfulness: having proactively realized I might walk off without my jacket (I know that I’m “absent-minded”), why did I not remember? The associations running through my head as I left my meeting were all about what was discussed and what’s next. It wasn’t cold enough to think about putting on the jacket. Somehow I wandered off unthinking, and who knows how long it would’ve taken me to remember, had I not made the association describe above?

I’m tempted to say something about how imperfect and error-prone our thinking can be, but the wonder is that our minds and memories work as well as they do. Memory is a mystery, no one quite knows how the mechanism works.  For many years I had complete faith in my memory, which I thought to be accurate. As I’ve grown older I’ve come to understand that memory is usually imperfect. I passed the “For Sale 44K” sign again and realized it didn’t look as I remembered it – I recalled a black on white sign, but part of the sign was orange. How many of my memories are constructed incorrectly? I have a reputation for good and accurate memory, but it’s more effective about some kind of memory than others. My wife can remember details about trips and restaurants that I’ve completely forgot, for instance, though I have a good memory for meetings I’ve been part of and projects I’ve worked on.  

Much of memory, I’m convinced, is about where you place your attention. My attention is often on my thoughts, in my head, thinking something through internally and detached from what’s happening externally. Hence “absent-minded”: the absent-minded professor stereotype is about sinking deeply into thought. P.D. Ouspensky, a student of Gurdjieff, had this to say about this sort of thing, referring to it as “identification”:

A man identifies with a small problem which confronts him and he completely forgets the great aims with which he began his work. He identifies with one thought and forgets other thoughts; he is identified with one feeling, with one mood, and forgets his own wider thoughts, emotions, and moods. In work on themselves people are so much identified with separate aims that they fail to see the wood for the trees. Two or three trees nearest to them represent for them the whole wood.

‘Identifying’ is one of our most terrible foes because it penetrates everywhere and deceives a man at the moment when it seems to him that he is struggling with it. It is especially difficult to free oneself from identifying because a man naturally becomes more easily identified with the things that interest him most, to which he gives his time, his work, and his attention. In order to free himself from identifying a man must be constantly on guard and be merciless with himself, that is, he must not be afraid of seeing all the subtle and hidden forms which identifying takes.

It is necessary to see and to study identifying to its very roots in oneself. The difficulty of struggling with identifying is still further increased by the fact that when people observe it in themselves they consider it a very good trait and call it ‘enthusiasm,’ ‘zeal,’ ‘passion,’ ‘spontaneity,’ ‘inspiration,’ and names of that kind, and they consider that only in a state of identifying can a man really produce good work, no matter in what sphere. In reality of course this is illusion. Man cannot do anything sensible when he is in a state of identifying. If people could see what the state of identifying means they would alter their opinion.

What you really need to know about the state of the world

Tying a few things together here, starting with the mysterious 8-foot Lego Man that “washed up” on a Florida beach. The front of his “shirt” says “No real than you are,” and the reverse side has the name “Ego Leonard.” Ego has a website based in the Netherlands, but nobody knows how he got to Florida (vacation?). Lego Man appears by inference (link on the site) to be a project of St. Art Gallery.

Ego’s a cheerful sort: “I come from the virtual world. A world that for me represents happiness, solidarity, all green and blossoming, with no rules or limitations.” However, he says, “my world has been flooded with fortune-hunters and people drunk with power.” Maybe we’re looking at a potential Occupy Legoland.

Ego Leonard’s visit was timed just before the world population hit 7 billion more or less (who’d have a precise count?), and that’s supposedly today, Halloween 2011. How fast are we growing?

1 billion – 1804
2 billion – 1927
3 billion – 1959
4 billion – 1974
5 billion – 1987
6 billion – 1999*
7 billion – 2011

The crazy and wildly diverse human race, is clearly a successful species, as of the 1800s – we’re producing new humans faster than Lego’s producing its brightly-colored simulacra. How successful we can remain, growing at this accelerating rate, is another question. How do you employ and provide resources for a population of 7 billion and counting? While people are staying around longer, crowding the new kids. (Perhaps this is why some of my libertarian acquaintances have argued against spending resources on aging citizens – arguing to end Social Security and Medicare, let ’em drop, defer resources to the next batch of humans).

You’ve been hearing a lot about economic injustice in the US, with the high-rolling, elite top 1% controlling 40% of the wealth and striving to get more. Perhaps they see the handwriting on the wall and want to make sure they have theirs as resources are stretched to the limit by 7 billion demands. However if the global economy collapses under the weight of this growing crowd’s demand for resources, it’s questionable what value the wealth of the wealthy will actually have in that context.

Meanwhile climate is increasingly whacky. Latest is an “unusually early snowstorm” leaving ~3 million in the eastern US without power. A decade ago, a climate scientist told me that, while climate change is driven by global warming, but not all the effects will be “warm.”

Some argue that climate change is unrelated to the substantial emission of gases associated with the growing numbers of people in the world (with their exhaust-ing cars, boats, and airplanes, and their aggregated farts). This is because they want to sell more: the current world economy pivots on the burn.

We should all move to Legoland.

And now for something completely different… but possibly related…

Did you know that Steve Jobs was a Buddhist? My pal Steve Silberman has written a great piece on Jobs’ Buddhist history. Maybe the best thing I’ve read about Jobs, and incidentally a striking perspective on American Buddhism. Excerpt:

Why would a former phone phreak who perseverated over the design of motherboards be interested in doing that? Using the mind to watch the mind, and ultimately to change how the mind works, is known in cognitive psychology as metacognition. Beneath the poetic cultural trappings of Buddhism, what intensive meditation offers to long-term practitioners is a kind of metacognitive hack of the human operating system (a metaphor that probably crossed Jobs’ mind at some point.) Sitting zazen offered Jobs a practical technique for upgrading the motherboard in his head.

The classic Buddhist image of this hack is that thoughts are like clouds passing through a spacious blue sky. All your life, you’ve been convinced that this succession of clouds comprises a stable, enduring identity — a “self.” But Buddhists believe this self this is an illusion that causes unnecessary suffering as you inevitably face change, loss, disease, old age, and death. One aim of practice is to reveal the gaps or discontinuities — the glimpses of blue sky — between the thoughts, so you’re not so taken in by the illusion, but instead learn to identify with the panoramic awareness in which the clouds arise and disappear.

Punctuation: Steve Jobs’ last words: “Oh, wow. Oh, wow. Oh, wow…”

Thinking about the future of online marketing

Notice a lot of ads and marketing activity in your virtual ‘hood? Other forms of media are moving online, so the Internet is inherently where you go to get attention for whatever it is you’re selling – widgets, written content, audio and video, political or economic movements.  Our former research and development platform, which became a platform for digital content, then a social platform, is now also defined as the marketing platform of choice. Ads are everywhere, many of them hostile to the user (e.g. those lightbox ads that overlay the content you were hoping to read).  The real stars of the Internet today are not bloggers or other content providers, but marketing mavens like Guy Kawasaki, Robert Scoble, and Pete Cashmore. 

As someone who consults about the Internet and as a web developer, I watch these developments with a large salt shaker within reach, taking everything with a grain of salt. I realize that there are many with online marketing expertise who understand how to run the numbers and have a sense what works and what doesn’t.  I’m sure they’re seeing results for what they do, or they’d be canned. But much of what I’m seeing doesn’t make sense. Those lightboxes I mentioned are a great example: they’re clearly hostile to the user. You can’t avoid ’em, they’re completely in your face, but users I’ve seen are quickly entrained to find the “close” button and shut the ad down without giving it any mind, and to the extent they notice the thing advertised, it’s with some level of irritation and a mental note not to buy from the advertiser who set out to ruin their browsing experience.

One big question for me has been the relationship of marketing to social media. Social media marketing is conceptually so close to spam, and as with spam, I’m constantly surprised that it seems to be working.  My substantial experience working with social media has proved to me over and over that subtle is best, that social media works to facilitate customer engagement, but overt marketing pitches feel wrong in that context. I was talking to Josiah Sternfeld of the Austin-based company Integrous Marketing about this. Josiah, who focuses on search marketing, noted that marketing professionals are rewarded for acquisition, which social media doesn’t do that well – and not for retention, which social media does do well. Broadcast approaches have traditionally driven customer acquisition, and many marketing pros who use social media are broadcasty about it. This seems to work, but I wonder if other approaches could work better – approaches that are more long term, harder to measure, and not productive of rewards and continued employment for marketing pros.

One of the more promising conversations I’ve been in lately is via Project VRM, Doc Searls’ fellowship project at Harvard, and an extenion of his Cluetrain Manifesto thinking. Project VRM is about empowering the customer in relationship with the seller, and it’s similar enough thinking to the participatory medicine concept I’ve been working with that Doc and I (et al.) have been thinking how to bring the concepts together.  As a result of the Internet’s democratization of knowledge and access, it’s possible have a more symmetrical relationship between customer and seller, and between the patient and the healthcare system. In this context, marketing becomes more of a conversation (which is hard, but important, to scale).  An example of VRM is the beta site Buyosphere, “a tool to help you take control of your shopping history: organize it, share it and track how you influence others.” Bazaarvoice also strikes me as a (possibly slightly off-balance) VRM company as it helps businesses “capture, display, share, and analyze customer conversations online.” I say off-balance because it still leans more in the direction of the business than the consumer… but if you dig through Bazaarvoice you’ll find a lot of interesting information about “social commerce.”

My own thought is that much of the online marketing activity we see now is transitional; that we’ll have customer-centric tools and strategies that haven’t quite been defined yet, but as they emerge and mature will change the way marketing works online, and will yield better metrics than we can get today for social media.

When I started this piece, it was going to be a response to piece on “The Digital Age of Marketing,” an article discussing Gartner’s forecasts for online marketing. Gartner’s Adam Sarner is quoted as saying “Successful campaign management strategies have shifted from
interruptive push toward two-way conversations and addressing mutually
beneficial approaches to customers’ wants and needs, which a digital
marketing approach can provide.” I’m not sure this is completely correct (nor is the author of the article, who quote a skeptical Esteban Kolsky of ThinkJar: “You’re basically saying that four out of five people will be basing
their decision on social media. We don’t have that today, and
we won’t have four out of five people actually connected to social
media in 2015.”)  Kolsky, as many others I’ve run across, favors an integrated approach with some social media along with traditional marketing approaches. My point, though, is that the relationship of the customer to the business will likely be redefined, not by social media but by a broader set of tools and new contexts for relationship. And we don’t quite know what that is yet, though Project VRM is a pointer.