Tuesday, 12 June 2012

History Repeating

With 3 examples, I will illustrate a maddening tendency to skim over the complexities posed by the digital age by relying on easy comparisons to a conveniently invented era or an imagined history-free experience.  Whether we are compelled by awe of the potential to make a false parallel to a renaissance or terrified by the expansiveness and so cry, 'the sky is falling,' it's what Lewis Lapham calls, "fanciful deployments of history in the collective American consciousness," in a May article in Harper's.  He was examining the US presidential campaign, but I think the phenomenon occurs for political purposes outside of campaigns.  Those who control the present, to rephrase Orwell, sell the past.

1) Open Access is an equalizer, just like the first libraries.  Quoting David Eaves on the Ushahidi blog:
"It is worth remembering: We didn’t build libraries for an already literate citizenry. We built libraries to help citizens become literate."

Can't be the first library in Alexandria.  He must be thinking of Andrew Carnegie's contributions in the late 19th and early 20th century.  The pursuit of pastimes, reading, as well as the means to chose education over subsistence work was a result of the industrial revolution... but still not open to everyone.  Quite unintentionally, there is a real parallel with the first ancient libraries because there is an elite techno-class which has the wherewithal to manipulate and make sense of open data.  Purely being open does not make data comprehensible.   There remain levels of literacy for the digital which resemble earlier times.  And the silos into which data is lost, stored, digested for commodification... there is ample evidence that more and more data is beyond our reach than is becoming accessible. 

2) Crowdsourcing allows crowds to be bought for a political show.  This was a fear shared on the recent NYT's 32 Innovations list.  While perhaps not good, also not new.  Flashmobs used to be just mobs, remember?  Collecting by word-of-mouth, massing without political motivation, but just because there was no TV or there was a promise of free food or drink.  Beyond a contrived scene at rallies, throughout early American history (up until into the early 20th century) votes could be delivered en mass.  Vote early. Vote often. 

The flashmob phenomenon has a nostalgic quality to me.  As though we've decided we need to get back to a time when our individual screens didn't demand our attention so much and we participated in communal activities (the pre-TV sort) such as standing, walking.   So we join up-- eat spinach, bike 30mins, logged off human contact.... check, check, check. 

3)The Quantified-Self Movement.  Ben Franklin anyone?  He was a major measurer.  Not surprisingly, MIT is offering a course on this trendy topic, and they provide insight into its history as frequent pursuit human pursuit.  To know oneself inside and out, this is not new... technology may provide a few bells and whistles such as home EEG, but you'll be impressed if you go back and read the crafty ways humans have conceived to measure ourselves in other centuries (no resource links here, try a library).

A recent NYT's opinion piece reviewed the addition of addictive behaviors, such as gambling, to the DSM.  The medicalizing of everything.  Fear that science will explain away responsibility.  This has been on the minds of philosophers for quite a while.  Big data surveyors are seduced by the idea that patterns will portend the future.  Seeking quantification of ourselves, we find a data driven determinism.    

Monday, 11 June 2012


Let's play a game called spot the logical fallacy... not roller coaster fun, but crossword fun, until you realize it's the foundation of foreign policy.

"The Internet is a powerful tool for innovation and expression because it allows information and ideas to flow freely. According to McKinsey, the Internet has generated as much growth over the past 15 years as the Industrial Revolution generated in 50 years. This is a clear jobs issue — particularly in the United States. Over the past five years, the Internet has been responsible for 21 percent of the growth in mature economies and has created 2.6 jobs for every job it has displaced. Its power to generate innovation is rivaled only by its potential to help people realize their rights and democratic aspirations."(OECD rep. K. Kornbluh, 2011

Water freely flows down in a river.
People freely express themselves in a democracy.
ease of movement ≠  live free or die Freedom

This seamless transition from economic statistics to the natural conclusion that the internet is a tool of democracy hinges on the two meanings of free.  It is the basis of the crusade for openness, the pursuit of the same old policy of free markets overturning autocracy.  However, in the current environment of election rhetoric against evil empires like Iran or Syria, falsely equating a policy to protect the free flow of information with protecting oppressed populations is a ruse, a red herring, a play to the fear of censorship and regulation.  In 2011, the OECD (an economic body) adopted policy guidelines while the White House crafted the International Strategy for Cyberspace which leads off with the subtitle 'Prosperity, Security and Openness in Networked World.'  These both influenced the drafting of the EU's Cyber Security Directive.  Within these documents, the priority and bulk of language (i.e. things they thought to list first and spend the most time going into detail about), were economic.  These are economic policies, not 'protect democratic freedom' policies.  They are not about human rights, they are about shielding corporations from liability and regulating just enough to protect intellectual property as the US (the leader in this field) innovates.  Lines such as:
"the internet is at risk" (Kornbluh, 2011)
"looming threat" and "naked power grab led by Russia and China" (Krigman, 2012)
These are the red herrings of risk.  The real threat is another dominant tech.  Chinese based systems? Intranets?  Countries designing for domestic users and limiting interoperability. Anything where Google's Ad Sense won't work.  And where information gathering agencies struggle because they no longer have an open door with American made tools collecting data.

When the organization responsible for protecting human rights (HRC) met to talk about creating more coherent international norms about the right to freedom of expression and the internet, the response by lawmakers in the US was uproar and indignation that limitations might be set on the internet.

Back to the game... here's where the two meanings of the word 'free' go their separate ways in the debate.  The UN expresses a wish to continue the same freedom of expression on the internet that is guaranteed in the charter (presciently described as 'any media').  The US wishes to protect the free flow of information from any regulations.  If these two things were really equivalent, then there would be no problem.