Occupy ABC’s This Week

Update: link to a transcript of La Greca on This Week at DailyKos

DailyKos blogger Jesse LaGreca was eloquent and focused on ABC’s This Week this morning. I want to post the conversation about #OccupyWallStreet featuring Jesse, and come back a little later with my own thoughts.

To the question, “What is your plan? Are you going to harness this into a political movement?” – a question that keeps coming up, and misses how this movement is different, Jesse responded that OWS is really about “pushing the narrative that working people can no longer be ignored.” They’re not trying to be the politicians – the more important thing is for politicians to come out and listen to the people at OWS.

#Occupy clustering and coping

Micah Sifry writes that “Rapid growth is going to stress the #OWS [Occupy Wall Street] movement,” and he talks about similar stresses on the Students for a Democratic Society in the 60s. He notes that core bonds of trust weren’t sustained as the movement grew. He says “social media may save #OWS from that fate, or just produce other, equally challenging problems of growing a movement to scale while keeping its core ethos.”

Steven Johnson, writing about the Howard Dean campaign, writes about two aspects of emergent political movements, clustering and coping. Steve says

Some simpler emergent systems are good at forming crowds; other, more complex ones, are good at regulating the overall state of the system, adapting to new challenges, evolving in response to opportunities. Sometimes, I suspect, it’s helpful to blur the distinctions between clustering and coping for simplicity’s sake. But when you subject them to the intense scrutiny and pressure of a national political campaign, the fault lines inevitably appear. Right now, emergent politics is brilliant at clustering, but clustering is not enough to get a national candidate elected. In fact, without the right coping mechanisms in place, clustering can sometimes work against your interests. You need crowds to get elected to public office, but without more complex forms of self-regulation, crowds can quickly turn into riots. And riots don’t win elections.

Johnson’s analysis was about a national presidential campaign, but I think it’s applicable to a potential movement like #OccupyWallStreet (or #OccupyWherever). So far, Occupy is about clustering, but to be really effective it should evolve as an organized movement. Does it have, or will it have, the right coping mechanisms in place? Johnson talks about two essentials of coping: “a relatively complex semiotic code to communicate between agents” and “metainformation about the state of the collective.” Those two mechanisms sound very much like what you could achieve through the use of social media for coordination. The so-far sophisticated and effective use of social media by Occupy may be the right sauce.

Photo by Adrian Kinloch

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?

More on bandwidth: light and darkness

My friend Robert Steele emailed me in response to my last post, saying there’s more to consider, and I agree. He mentions Open Spectrum.

I’m feeling cynical. Here’s how I responded:

I’m aware of open spectrum… I’m in other conversations with various wonks & engineers who’re discussing bandwidth, spectrum, etc. Of course we could have a much different scene if we weren’t constrained by markets and politics. People how can see one sense of the obvious often miss another, which is that the world we’re in is not an ideal world, and the ideals we can conceive are not necessarily easy or even possible to implement. I pay less attention to the “next net” list we’re both on because so much of it is fantasy and masturbation.

I own a nice home in rural Texas but I can’t live there because I can’t even get 500kbps. I thought it was amusing that Vint is arguing for gigabit bandwidth when most of the U.S. is dark and there’s too little monetary incentive to bring light to the darkness. Of course I think we need a public initiative to make it happen, but in this era “public” is a dirty word. I halfway expect to see all roads become toll roads; a world where only the elite can travel, and only the elite will have broadband access. Though aging, I’m struggling to remain part of the elite… *8^)

Technology: tipping the balance

Roger Cohen in the New York Times:

Something immense is happening as the world transitions to a hyperconnected state where, for many, the distinction between the real and virtual worlds has ceased to exist. All the trailing paraphernalia of states and borders and government-to-government palavers, not to mention privacy laws, look so 20th century.

The more I speak and write about “the future of the Internet,” the more I realize that I’m talking about the future of the human world. Cohen goes on to say “that technology and international relations are becoming interchangeable topics. There are many more networks in our future than treaties.”

Clueful, yes. Also interesting is the article’s mention of Google Ideas and Jared Cohen’s thinking

that technology is agnostic: It can be used in the cause of freedom — and has been to great effect from Tunis to Cairo — just as it can be used in the cause of repression. So how do you “tip the balance in favor of the net positive?”

There’s seven billion people in the world, population’s growing every day. We’ve been organized as nations, and more recently corporations have been taking power and authority for action (though they still work through legacy forms, i.e. legislatures that are influenced by various means, including contributions of money and personal persuasion). We see a tendency for people to want to have something we call “freedom,” though the meaning of that label, and its limits, are not always clear. Traditionally effective action has been associated with authority and leadership, and the nature and meaning of leadership in a democratized world is unclear. (Also the pervasive influence of corruption, and how it will play out if systems of authority are diminished, as we have more “freedom.”)

We live in exciting and “interesting” times, but we should be skeptical – and I appreciate Jared Cohen’s point about the uncertain potential in social technology. We should be exploring how to tip the balance.

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.

Ratko Mladic’s arrest

Jasmina Tesanovic posts about the arrest of Ratko Mladic here.

As a further financial twist, the state still owes the general his regular pension, which he never received (as a fugitive). Handsome lump-sums have paid by and to the other citizens of the state — mainly, blood money for his victims.

And what about the dead? Do they have a price? Gone without a name, many of them still without graves since their bodies, dismembered and scattered all over the territory are still being sought. The silence of the ghosts is loud as ever in this moment of joy and victory.

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?

bin Laden and the horserace

Osama bin Laden’s death is a complex event with many implications and potential repercussions, yet it’s been trivialized by media analysis (professional and social) that avoids going deep and focuses only on its meaning in the context of the 2012 campaign, or as Adam Hochberg notes, “just another lap in the political horserace.” Another Hochberg point that bears repeating: “…the Internet has removed the traditional filters and allowed the public
to immediately see and participate in Washington’s constant political
posturing.”

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.

Technology, politics, and balance

When Mitch Ratcliffe and I published Extreme Democracy in 2005, the question came up whether the discussion of politics and social technology was technoutopian. Without getting into the specifics of the book (which included diverse articles, some more positive than others about the potential role of what we now call social media in our political life), I can say that I rejected the “technoutopian” label as a rather shallow dismissal of a complex question: does a technology that gives everyone the potential to have more of a voice bring us closer to a democratic ideal? Or does it turn up the noise and overwhelm the signal? Or could it do both?

I thought about this after reading Cory Doctorow’s piece about the general question of technology optimism vs pessimism. Cory says that he’s a techno-optimist, but note that his position embodies both optimism and pessimism: ” the concern that technology could be used to make the world worse, the hope that it can be steered to make the world better.” He has a great example:

To understand techno-optimism, it’s useful to look at the free software movement, whose ideology and activism gave rise to the GNU/Linux operating system, the Android mobile operating system, the Firefox and Chrome browsers, the BSD Unix that lives underneath Mac OS X, the Apache web-server and many other web- and e-mail-servers and innumerable other technologies. Free software is technology that is intended to be understood, modified, improved, and distributed by its users. There are many motivations for contributing to free/open software, but the movement’s roots are in this two-sided optimism/pessimism: pessimistic enough to believe that closed, proprietary technology will win the approval of users who don’t appreciate the dangers down the line (such as lock-in, loss of privacy, and losing work when proprietary technologies are orphaned); optimistic enough to believe that a core of programmers and users can both create polished alternatives and win over support for them by demonstrating their superiority and by helping people understand the risks of closed systems.

On the question of democracy, I feel an optimism that we can have better transparency and more participation through the Internet-based technologies we’ve created, and are still evolving. Certainly more people are engaged in conversations about politics and the ideas that inform political action. However I have worrisome concerns. One is that too many voices in the mix, too much commitment to consensus, can stall or prevent effective action in governance, and we have too many critical problems to be stalled.

I’m also concerned that “the will of the majority” is not necessarily guided by intelligence, and that it can be manipulated by effective propaganda, such as self-serving well-orchestrated astroturf email and blog campaigns founded on a memetics of fear, uncertainy, and doubt – the “birther” phenomenon is an example of this.

In my last post I mentioned the possibility of an Open Source party that leverages the kind of thinking about organization and action that has emerged from projects based on what Benkler calls commons-based peer production, “in which the creative energy of large numbers of people is coordinated (usually with the aid of the Internet) into large, meaningful projects mostly without traditional hierarchical organization (and often, but not always, without, or with decentralized, financial compensation).” I’m feeling cautiously optimistic about this idea; will be exploring it further… I’m clearly pessimistic that the current direction of politics is sustainable, so it’s time for new ideas and experimentation.

Open Source Politics and Religion

I just sent the following to an email list I’m on, and thought it would be worth sharing here:

I’ve been involved with R.U. Sirius in instigating an International Open Source Party (version 2.0 – we tried it before but it didn’t quite launch). He wrote about it here: http://hplusmagazine.com/2011/02/24/open-source-party-2-0-liberty-democracy-transparency/ This article includes the principles I came up with for Open Source politics, which I include below. Open Source is not a religion, i.e. not based on faith in something that can’t be observed or experienced. It’s about transparency: when we apply the term Open Source we’re talking about following methods and processes in production and distribution such that whatever we define as “source code” can be observed and experienced, so to me it’s the opposite of religion. Eric Hughes once explained to me, when I was new to Open Source thinking, that a particular encryption tool should be Open Source so that its source could be examined and its effectiveness and integrity verified. Politics should be like this, and if we all insisted on this approach, religion would be transformed into practice (a la Buddhism and 4th Way) rather than dogma (a la much of Christianity).

Principles of Open Source Politics:

Openness

Many of us who are tech-focused have come to understand the power of open approaches and open architectures. Even technologies that aren’t strictly “Open Source” benefit from Open APIs and exposure of operating code (kind of inherent with scripting languages like Perl and PHP). When we know how something works, we know how to work with it. And we know how to transform it to meet our needs.

Government should be as open and transparent as possible. There may be some rationales for closed doors, but few — for the most part, citizens should be able to clearly see how decisions are made. That’s a key component of our political platform: we want to see the actual “source code” for the decisions that affect our lives.

Collaboration

Open Source projects are often highly collaborative and can involve many stakeholders, not just manager and coders. The Open Source Party sees this as a great way to do government. (I’m partial to charrette methodology, personally.)

Emergent Leadership

Effective action and decison-making requires leadership. In an Open Source form of politics, leaders emerge through merit -— by providing real leadership and direction, not by appointment, assignment, or election. Nobody made Linus Torvalds the lead for Linux, or Matt Mullenweg the lead for WordPress. They saw a need, created a project, and found an effective following who acknowledged their vision, expertise, and ability to manage and lead. Emergent leaders aren’t handed authority. They earn it, and if they cease to be engaged or effective, they pass the baton to other leaders who emerge from within the group.

Extensible and Adaptable

Open Source projects and structures are agile and malleable. They can be adapted and extended as requirements changed. Governance should have this kind of flexibility, and our system of governance in the U.S. was actually built that way. We should ensure that bureaucracies and obsolete rule sets don’t undermine that flexibility.

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.