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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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What #OccupyWallStreet is about

#OccupyWallStreet is just the sort of movement I’ve been expecting. It’s a true grassroots movement catalyzed and sustained by social media (which is probably crucial, as I explained in an earlier post). While there is an overriding agenda about economic justice, OWS represents a diversity of interests and concerns. It’s a working class phenomenon, but it includes both blue collar and white collar workers, many of them newly unemployed. These are the statistics that corporations ignore when they cut jobs and strip healthcare benefits. These are people who heard a promise throughout their lives and saw it shattered to dust over the last decade. These are people who have created much of the value that millionaires and billionaires have captured and stashed in their Swiss bank accounts. These are honest, hardworking swimmers who didn’t see the sharks coming until it was too late.

Remember Frank Capra’s film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” where an ordinary guy played by James Stewart takes on Washington corruption? Sending a true-blue Mr. Smith to Washington didn’t work to his advantage, the level of corruption almost took him down. What happens, though, if you have an army of idealistic, straight-shooting Mr. Smiths who actually believe that the system should work for everybody, not just the wealthiest 1%? To me the Occupy movement is that army, and they’re occupying not Washington D.C., but Wall Street, which has become the real seat of power as corporations ascend and governments weaken.

I saw a talk last night by David Cobb, a former shrimper and construction worker who got his law degree in 1993 and was the Green Party’s presidential candidate in 2004. He’s currently active with MoveToAmend.org, and organization that seeks an amendment to abolish the concept of corporate personhood, arguing that corporations never should have been assigned the rights normally assigned to a person in the first place. Why is this a problem? The biggest issue currently is the assertion of a corporation’s Constitutional right to contribute to political campaigns. The question is the extent to which corporate power and influence over government should be limited. Cobb’s argument was that the supposed American democracy is not really “of, by, and for the people” because corporations are making and enforcing (through influence) decisions that we should be making together. What’s an example? One might be the complex of government decisions connected with the recent “too big to fail” financial crisis and bailouts, including weakened regulation of banking and credit card industries. It’s the financial crisis, and more so the response to it, and resulting loss of jobs and benefits, that’s brought diverse citizens to the streets in the “Occupy” movement. Also, for that matter, it was an inspiration for the formation of the Tea Party on the right side of the fence.

Like Cobb, I don’t think the issue is the idea of the corporation, of people coming together to create an entity to accomplish something, like building a business or fulfilling a not for profit mission. The problem is an imbalance of power and influence, and the growing sense that a few rule the many. Most of us grew up believing in something called democracy, which is difficult to achieve and too easy to game. Cobb pointed out that there’s been a democratization trend – more and more people assigned the rights of a person, women minorites, etc. But at the same time there’s a corporatist trend, a kind of gentler version of what we used to call fascism, that has been growing and is currently ascendant and taking as much power as possible.

I don’t think it’s too radical for the people to demand their rights as persons and as citizens, and assert those rights against the rights of “legal fictions,” i.e. corporations. But (as I posted in Facebook and Google+ earlier), we have to stop feeling outraged and start feeling a tranquil and firm sense of empowerment. That’s what I think I’m seeing in the OWS demonstrations so far.

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Collaboration, cooperation, democracy

Everybody’s head is a strange universe filled with echos of voices they’ve heard over and over again. Against this, we try to manifest our intentions, to persuade with more voice, more conversation. Sometimes we get through, but even when we get through, we’re often filtered, just as we’re filtering. Is it any wonder that it’s so difficult to build and sustain an effective collaboration?

I’m looking at the ways that we strive to aggregate our attentions, find common ground, and work together. Over the years I’ve approached this through the lens of democracy, or what I’ve referred to as the “democratic intention” to create a participatory process that works. The older I get and the more I think about it, the more I realize that this intention, though we so often profess it, is actually rare. Most of us would really like to assert our self interest, our own preferences, but society is a collision of interests and preferences, we have to give in order to take. In a recent discussion of the book The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod, I was struck by the hardwired assumption that self-interest inherently rules, and cooperation is reached most effectively with an understanding of that point, thus the prisoner’s dilemma. In fact, I find that real people are fuzzy on that point, they’re not necessarily or inherently all about self-interest. We’re far more complex than that.

There’s a force of democratization in this world that I suspect is an inherent effect of two factors, population growth and density (which forces us to socialize and co-operate) and human evolution (hopefully we’re growing wiser, more capable, and continuing to adapt). I see aspects of it in work that I do. My internet work is often about building contexts to bring people together for shared experience and collaboration. At the Society of Participatory Medicine I’m involved in communications, and the concept of participatory medicine is driven by a democratization of health information and process. In politics I’ve focused on grassroots emergence, ad hoc and headless organizations, methods for effecting and enhancing participatory culture and activism. In thinking about markets, I’m drawn to the Cluetrain Manifesto and Doc Searls’ current Project VRM, or vendor relationship marketing, which is about giving consumers tools for symmetrical power within the vendor/customer relationship.

I’m thinking about all this in the context of my ongoing fascination with culture, media, and the Internet, and developing thinking that might feed into several interesting projects here and elsewhere. One thought I had was about a potential revival of Extreme Democracy and new conversations about emergent democracy. These are potentially lush gardens of thinking and doing that at the moment are barren, having been untended for a while.

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Doc Searls on user-driven democracy

Speaking at the 2011 Personal Democracy Forum, Doc talks about how power relationships work in markets vs how they should  and could work. Markets are conversations, and they should be symmetrical conversations. Note his bit about how the language of marketing parallels the language of slavery.

Watch live streaming video from pdf2011 at livestream.com
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Busted for dancing at Jefferson Memorial

This is a hell of a thing to see on Memorial Day. This would be a real nightmare for some soldier sitting in a soggy trench under fire, fighting for freedom of speech and assembly.

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Emerging thoughts

I’ve been in conversation with a diverse group of people who are interested creating a next version of the Internet that’s more peer to peer, more open source/open architecture, less vulnerable to government or corporate restriction. Some aspects of the various threads of conversation are idealistic – not wholly unrealistic, but so far a bit fuzzy and not fully baked. However there’s substantive, useful, and promising discussion in the air, and I’m hopeful that something viable and helpful will emerge.

Coincidentally, the concept of emergence came up, via this article by Margaret Wheatley, who calls emergence “the fundamental scientific explanation for how local changes can materialize as global systems of influence” as networks evolve into communities of practice, and then systems of influence begin to emerge. This she calls the life cycle of emergence.

This resonates with the Emergent Democracy discussion and paper that Joi Ito, Ross Mayfield, and I (along with several others) worked on in the early 2000s. But what’s missing in this talk about emergence and changing the world is the role of intention. Who sets the goals for changing the world? Who catalyzes networks and drives them in a particular direction? No person or group decides to make something emerge or to make specific changes – emergence is about force and evolution, not human intention. And when you talk about changing the world, by whom and for whom, and with what force, become relevant questions.

The Tea Party and the Koch Brothers want to change the world, too. Is their vision less valid than mine or yours?

But there are forces that transcend Internet theorists and instigators, Tea Parties, partisan movements, idealistic next-net theorizers, rebels in the street, corporations, governments, etc. – forces that emerge out of control; evolution that occurs, not created or driven by some interest group, but driven by complex social physical, psychic, and social factors that have unpredictable effects.

We’re just another set of smart people who think we know how the world should work, and we probably need more humility. How can we be effective in a context where there are forces that are truly beyond our control? What intentions should we support and honor?

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Filter bubbles

This talk by Eli Pariser reminds me of discussions with David Weinberger about online echo chambers. I recall that this came up as social technology became part of the political process in ~2004. I’ve been concerned that the polarization we’re seeing in the U.S. and elsewhere is exacerbated if not caused by our tendency to pay all of our attention where we agree, and none of it where we’re challenged by opposing or new ideas.

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SXSW 2011

Jeff Lofton playing with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band

Jeff Lofton playing with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band

Intense week at SXSW, starting with the Ed Ward/Jon Lebkowsky breakfast Saturday morning, followed by a Project VRM workshop organized with Doc Searls that afternoon, and much running around Austin that night. Sunday, a core conversation I attended discussed iPad apps for journalism, a good lead-in to the panel I moderated Monday about news apps (standalone apps vs thin client or browser-based data apps). Spent most of Monday revving up the Plutopia event Monday night, which was a smashing success, and included a press conference with Text of Light, David Merrill of Sifteo and Bruce Sterling, where we discussed the meaning of the event’s theme, “the future of play.”

It was like we were thrashing around in our ideas. Some of them might be revolutionary, though none were especially new. For example, I found myself in several discussions about political and governance subjects that felt new when I wrote about them in the mid to late 1990s… they’re still presented as new thinking today in the wake of seemingly effective Middle East protests. But the jury’s still out on those, and governing a protest demonstration, however large and long term and however successful, is not the same flavor as governing a country and plugging it into a new global reality.

I walked into SXSW with a sense that the world is profoundly changing, with the change driven by forces, not by people. It felt like I was in a bubble where time and the world had frozen, a world with its own laws driven by old-school capitalism and marketing. A very pleasant world where so many hoping to attract my attention and allegiance would buy me drinks and feed me really-okay conference food. Last night Asleep at the Wheel was closing down the trade show and I saw a line of people waiting for slices of an enormous cake shaped like Texas. Texas itself is not much of a cake; a state which, like so many other political entities, is overextended and starving for cash. No icing on that cake; very little flour and egg. Mostly a need that politicians were loathe to acknowledge pre-election. Now they’re scrambling to shut down schools and end essential services. No cake there – Texas will be an economic disaster in a decade, because without great schools and a commitment to education, we won’t compete well within the global capitalist economy, if indeed there is one. Things are tough all over; toughest today in Japan, devastated by earthquake and facing potential nuclear meltdown. I heard yesterday that the Japanese at SXSW are stranded here for now, they can’t go back.

The Middle East is exploding with supposed democratic fervor; the energy of democratic revolt is compelling, but there are hard questions ahead, even in if “the people” win. Governance is hard. Democracy is difficult. It’s arguable whether a revolution fixes more than it breaks. You just can’t tell at this stage of the process. The Middle East could be an unstable, unworkable mess for decades in the wake of widespread democratic revolts – this is why the U.S. has tolerated and often propped up dictators there and elsewhere to serve our interest in stability. As a matter of policy, we’ve wanted global stability and sources of cheap labor. The implications of a global middle class are difficult for those who have real power. Those with whole pies socked away aren’t comfortable with the idea of a world where slices of pie will be evenly distributed. Even now they’re driving the dismantling of the American Middle Class, with the full cooperation of ignorant Tea Party zealots who are ready and able to work against their own interests, thinking it’s patriotic to deprive ordinary citizens of education and basic services so that millionaires can become billionaires and billionaires can become trillionaires. We’ve had one of the worst recessions ever and we’re sliding backward, throwing power back to oligarchy even as we rant about the democratization “possible with these great information tools at our disposal.”

That sounds bleak, but I’m still a bit hopeful because so many that I met and spoke with at SXSW seemed smart, sparkly with energy, good-humored and (aside from the Robert Scobles and Tim O’Reillys in the crowd) showing a certain humility, a modesty about their lives and their accomplishments.

And there’s still hot jazz and jammin’ rock and roll in the streets; for that I’m thankful.

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Egypt’s fired up

Coincidentally while I’ve been at the TXGov20Camp that I’ve worked on (via EFF-Austin, along with the LBJ School), what looks like a democratic rebellion’s caught fire in Egypt; there’s people in the streets calling for the resignation of the 30-year president, Hosni Mobarak. The government tried to squash communications by shutting down Internet access, because so much of the action’s been coordinated online. Wikipedia has an overview. Gilad Lotan has created a “jan25” Twitter list where you can follow tweets from the scene. Aljazeera probably has the best news coverage, and Global Voices is aggregating citizen media from the region. Here’s a piece on the Internet shutdown.

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Sterling on Assange

Bruce Sterling’s analysis of Wikileaks is long, engaging, and depressing.

The cables that Assange leaked have, to date, generally revealed rather eloquent, linguistically gifted American functionaries with a keen sensitivity to the feelings of aliens. So it’s no wonder they were of dwindling relevance and their political masters paid no attention to their counsels. You don’t have to be a citizen of this wracked and threadbare superpower — (you might, for instance, be from New Zealand) — in order to sense the pervasive melancholy of an empire in decline. There’s a House of Usher feeling there. Too many prematurely buried bodies…. This knotty situation is not gonna “blow over,” because it’s been building since 1993 and maybe even 1947. “Transparency” and “discretion” are virtues, but they are virtues that clash. The international order and the global Internet are not best pals. They never were, and now that’s obvious.

Read the whole piece and ponder how we’ve been falling into decline and denial simultaneously so many years. Wikileaks is like a stiff wind against a house of cards. Let’s hope for a better deal next shuffle.