Civil asset forfeiture, yikes!

In 2013, The New Yorker published a revealing, troubling piece called “Taken,” an in-depth investigation into the practice of civil asset forfeiture, where American citizens can have their property (cash, cars, homes) confiscated by police, even though they haven’t been charged with a crime.

Now John Oliver on HBO takes on civil forfeiture:

The Institute for Justice is tackling civil forfeiture: website here: http://endforfeiture.com/

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.

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.

Slow jammin’ the news: let’s be cool about student loan rates

Fires, storms, and the crisis of authority

Smoke from the Bastrop Fires
Smoke from the Bastrop Fires

Of course we’ve been tracking the fires in the Austin area, especially the massive complex fire in Bastrop, and I’ve been thinking how to make sense of the disaster. Marsha and I drove toward Bastrop, Texas Monday to get a better look, not expecting to get very close (we didn’t want to be in the way). We drove within ten miles – not close, but close enough to capture photos of the massive tower of smoke: http://www.flickr.com/photos/weblogsky/sets/72157627607062626/ Jasmina Tesanovic was there the same day, and posted her thoughts here.

The whole area is a tinderbox after an unprecedented drought, and a great, now dangerous, feature of the Austin area is that cities and suburbs here have pervasive greenspaces, and we’ve built residences and other structures close to, and surrounded by, foliage that is now potentially explosive.

The current disasterous fires have a climate change signature; they’re products of the record Texas drought – at least exacerbated by, if not caused by, global warming. They were fanned by strong, oddly dry, winds from tropical storm Lee, and while no single storm is specifically related to global warming, their increasing number and severity may be related. While I’m not looking for a climate change debate here, it’s frustrating that the issue has been politicized on both left and right, and leaders have ignored scientific consensus for so long that prevention is no longer an option. We should be thinking about adaptation, but that’s not happening, either.

In fact, we’re not prepared for disaster. Marsha and Jasmina returned to Bastrop Tuesday hoping to volunteer, and Marsha spent much of Wednesday as a volunteer at one of the evacuee shelters. So much is happening so quickly, it’s hard to manage – and there’s no clear leadership or structure. The fire has destroyed 1,386 homes, and it’s still burning. Much of the attention and energy is focused on core concerns. On the periphery of the disaster, there are too few leaders or managers and too many details to manage.

This is a metaphor for global crisis. Economies are challenged and systems are breaking down; at the same time, we have real crises of authority. At a time that demands great leadership, we have no great leaders. Politicians left and right are stumbling. In Texas, which has needed great insightful leadership for some time now, the governor dismisses science and leads rallies to pray for rain.

In difficult times past, great leaders have emerged. Where are they now?

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.

Personal Democracy Forum’s flash summit on Wikileaks

Video archive of Saturday’s Wikileaks discussion, which was quite compelling… quite a bit about the new world of journalism and Wikileaks’ place in it. These are truly chaotic and “interesting” times.

Watch live streaming video from pdfleaks at livestream.com

All government is local 2.0: manor.govfresh

Manor, a small town in Texas a few miles from Austin, has become an unlikely star player in the new world of “Government 2.0.” This week Manor and GovFresh, an organization that provides news and information about technology innovation in government, joined forces to host a conference on “big ideas for local America.” The conference highlighted the work Manor, nearby DeLeon, and other small governments in the U.S. are doing to incorporate social media and open data approaches to provide better information and services to citizens, and to engage them more effectively. This is part of an open government trend that’s been brewing since the 1990s, but is catching fire with pervasive Internet adoption and digital convergence.

When Obama was President-Elect, Gary Chapman at the LBJ School in Austin spoke to a local community media summit and told how the Obama Transition Team had been working with the LBJ School on government transparency, with Open Government as the new administrations highest priority. Beth Noveck, Assistant to the White House CTO, was in Manor affirming that priority – the Obama Administration is providing leadership from the top.

In the last 5 years or so, as we’ve seen an acceleration of digital convergence and increasingly pervasive use of smart digital devices to access all sorts of information, we’ve seen a disruptive democratization of knowledge and information and demand for all sorts of data to be opened up via application programming interfaces. The world’s information is increasingly sorted, sifted, and combined in various useful and creative ways. This is transforming the worlds of journalism, healthcare, energy, and law as well as politics and government. The Manor gathering was an acknowledgement and update. Janet Gilmore of the Texas Department of Information Resources noted that there’s an open data movement within governments – and governments have all sorts of data sets they can expose – about weather, wildlife, real estate, income flows, resource locations, etc.

There’s also a huge potential for government at all levels to use social media to engage citizens – not just to get the word out about what government is doing, but listening to citizen input on what government should be doing. The message I heard in Manor is that people don’t want to talk about doing cool and innovative stuff with emerging technologies, they want to stop talking and start doing. And there’s so many easy ways to start doing: WordPress sites, 311 systems, Facebook and Twitter presences, QR codes, mobile applications… a list as long as crowdsourced minds can make it. Manor is soliciting ideas and conceiving new ways to incorporate technologies via its Labs, in partnership with Stanford Univeresity’s Peace Dot Program and others.

There are many challenges to opening up government, not the least of which is culture. Someone at the Manor gathering commented that “the technology is easy, but the people are hard.” That speaks to all sorts of challenges – training and adoption, privacy issues, culture change, apathy, control. But we’re on kind of a roll here, and picking up momentum and energy.

On January 28th and 29th, there will be a Texas Government 2.0 Barcamp at the Eastview Campus of Austin Community College. Watch this space for more information.