My own tale of a life disrupted and rebuilt and the roots of my fascination with meaning, myth and story are told on my story-trading site, OutInUnder:
Discussion of privacy on the Internet, and, in particular, in social media, hit a local maxima a short time ago in the nym wars on Google+ against a background of increasing public concern. Pronouncement by pundits and officials, some informed and most ignorant, rocks steadily on. None of that had pushed me to add my 2 cents to the mix.
What finally took me over the edge was hearing yet another 20 year old explain that his generation doesn’t have the same concern for privacy that we old folks so quaintly maintain. The implication is that, because they’re from a younger generation, the young are better adapted to current conditions.
There is another possible explanation, however. It follows.
First, let me get my on geezer persona.
Now there, youngsters, I’m from a generation that routinely showed up naked in public and engaged in such low profile activities as chanting to levitate the Pentagon. This was dropped onto an America barely emerging from the 50’s and massively less receptive to living publicly. Nudity was performance art aimed at letting some sunlight into the cloister.
Allow me to assure you that my concerns are not an attachment to some arbitrary, bygone, meaningless convention like, for example, not ending a sentence with a preposition. They are, instead, the result of years of observation and balanced analysis…primarily of the government. More on that later.
You kids may have a different concept of the value of privacy but that concept is not different from the concept I held as a kid. Experience, one of a few advantages of aging, has made me wiser.
I’d argue that privacy concerns come down, not to how you feel about living in public, but how you feel about powerful institutions– governmental organizations, primarily, but any institution large enough to have significant information gathering resources–being able to have easy access to your life’s details.
I think providing that access is dangerous.
Rather than get into point/counter-point or personal biography, I’d like to perform a thought experiment.
Draw a axis of government benignity. Start in, say, Amsterdam and end in Pyongyang. Route it through 6 or 8 cities you think span the spectrum of openness. (Let’s pick Berlin, Beijing, Lagos, Sao Paulo, Moscow, San Francisco, Tehran, Istanbul, and London for the purposes of this experiment.) Put them on the axis wherever you think they belong. Now, imagine yourself in living a Amsterdam. Assume you and your tribe share thoughts, interesting books and websites, music, purchases, shops and restaurants via a social media or two. Sometimes you flirt; sometimes you trade ideas and opinions; sometimes you blow off steam.
(Exclude for the purposes of this experiment the information streams created by your cell phone and credit card.)
Move the slider along until having all that information public becomes a significant threat to your well-being…until you cross a line where your behavior is now suspect and where simultaneously you have revealed who you associate with and much of your daily routine. If you get comfortably all the way to Pyongyang, you need to get a life. Commonly you’re in danger of loss of income, harassment, discrimination, imprisonment, or disappearance at some point midway along the line for any of multiple reasons.
Of course, you say, you’re not in Pyongyang but near Amsterdam on the line…safe perhaps in San Francisco with me, and these concerns aren’t appropriate. Or are they?
At issue? These media are primarily built here but deployed globally. What seems benign locally becomes a tool for the police state with a slight shift of context. Regardless of local comfort, our systems would better be measured on a global yardstick.
Specifically, as the creators, early adopters, critics and evangelists for these systems, we have responsibility to take predictable consequences quite seriously as we design, create, implement, and sell. We are building history, brick by brick, and broad current flow through us and our shapings.
We need to take that seriously.
At least now and then.
It will be of general benefit if we lay down cover for our brothers and sisters that are under genuinely under siege. Perhaps they want to practice Qi Kung in Beijing or discuss their Armenian heritage in Istanbul…or draw political cartoons in Amsterdam.
The issues aren’t necessarily easy to engineer. We need to wrestle, for example, with the interface between criminality and dissent, and the interplay of persona and authenticity. But it’s up to us to do that rather than ignore complexity and the likely paths into the future. I have some ideas that might help in this discussion. Probably you do, too.
I’m urging us to design and discuss privacy in a wider scope–spatially, temporally, morally–and remove it from a discussion of personal preference.
In Brian Eno’s terms, we need to think in a broader here and a longer now.
PS – A few notes in passing.
The US is not necessarily a safe haven.
Consider http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/23/washington/23habeas.html?ref=us in light of the recent National Defense Authorization Act. Or police raids to preemptively undermine protests at the 2008 Republican convention: http://www.salon.com/2008/08/30/police_raids/
You may not be a Judi Bari (they arrest you and search everywhere you hang out after someone bombs your car) or organizing widespread protest in Minneapolis (the show up the week before and take all your stuff) but note: systems integration is changing the game for law enforcement everywhere. It might not be J edGar Hoooover you need to worry about but some local middle-aged portly DA with too tight shoes, a sullen teenager, a nasty mortgage, and a depressed spouse that’s pissed off because some 20 year old is driving a car that costs his yearly salary
Finally, here’s a bit of gratuitous Chuang Tzu – the topic is gathering up treasures for thieves : http://oaks.nvg.org/zhuangzi10-.html
“A constricting snake like a boa or a python kills its prey by suffocation. It uses the momentum of its strike to throw coils around its victim’s body. Then, it squeezes. Every time the prey exhales, the snake squeezes a little more tightly. Soon, the victim can breathe any more.” ref
Essentially, then, constrictors kill not by crushing but by taking in the slack and not giving it back. I view this as relevant to the topic at hand.
History: the Internet Wants to Be Free.
We seem to have generated a cultural lock-in that demands a free Internet. This is the result of a combination of factors: successful initiatives, ideological leanings (sometimes based on the semantic ambiguity between free as unregulated and free as without cost), and significant self-delusion.
There is a component of this freedom that is real. The freedom exist in a commons collectively built and shared. It exists in the group effort to build standards and protocols to connect us and to share and display information. It exists in the collection of individual visions, not always mutually compatible, that maintain and extend this effort. It exists in our ability to design technical hacks to undermine systems of control.
Wikipedia is a good exemplar of this Internet.
Beyond that, it’s not free at all.
Our vision is embodied in components all of which have both capital and maintenance costs.
The initial freedom was built on simple design hacks and the low bandwidth required to move text around. It sat on top of large computing projects in academia and government and survived on crumbs snatched off the table. You might have to pay a bit for your hook to the the infrastructure but content was provided mostly without cost. This was the world of bulletin boards, irc, usenet groups, email, text based MUDs.
This model has been extended with increasing elaborate ‘free’ content and services: Google, youTube, Flickr, facebook, Pandora, Spodify, Twitter and so on. Meanwhile, temporary successes in the paid model, eg AOL, generally seem to erode back to free.
This apparent continuity masks a simple fact: the old model didn’t scale. We benefit from increasing costly products. A new funding source…advertising, of course…by and large pays the bill.
Google is the exemplar, here.
Which brings us to the common wisdom: if the product appears free, then you’re the product.
The true coin of this transaction is information about us individually and collectively.
The economics of targeted advertising is pretty simple conceptually. Information is gathered on you to give you advertising you’re likely to respond to. Or perhaps to provide you a more tailored service that will make you more engaged and hence bring you to the advertising more frequently.
With Google this was an add-on that went from humble beginnings. Now the business plans of start-ups are often designed specifically to elicit information. Products are built around data mining and targeting advertising.
We gain significant benefit from this model and here we, perhaps, become complicit.
This march toward greater public visibility has generated other elements of common wisdom which are more suspect.
You often hear the following: “Privacy is dead. Things are different than in the past. We need to get over it and adjust to new realities. Privacy is already fairly illusory therefore upset is unjustified; just look at the targeted direct mail of the past” And so on.
To my mind, an appeal to the hopelessness of implementing change regardless of that changes desirability somehow lacks punch. We live in a world that’s changing all the time. We live in a world in which an improved technical solution or compelling idea can turn things upside down in considerable less than a decade. And we are inventing that technology every day.
There is a danger that I think it is our responsibility to recognize and attempt to address.
My argument is —
- There’s an unremitting economic pressure to create a higher and higher resolution picture of you, what you do, and what you might potentially consume.
- We’ll hit a point (and are there already in some locations) where you’ll stand out as suspicious by not being transparent. Given this fine grained picture, not being highly visible will become increasingly suspicious. The blurry individuals then stand out as very likely criminals or revolutionaries.
- The most likely to succeed in hiding from scrutiny behind a false front is the deliberate criminal with a carefully constructed public identity. The most likely to fail is the accidental revolutionary…the well meaning public citizen that is compelled to move into some sort of rebellion.
Fang’s path through life observed a pattern that is common to China’s dissidents: a person begins with socialist ideals, feels bitter when the rulers betray the ideals, resorts to outspoken criticism, and ends in prison or exile. Liu Binyan, Wang Ruowang, Su Xiaokang, Hu Ping, Zheng Yi, Liu Xiaobo, and many others have followed this pattern.
Let’s return to a police action in Minnesota cited in the PS to Part 1.
I suspect that these raids proved highly effective in disrupting the protest and that it would have been less so had the naive folks raided been up to actual criminal activity and taken steps to keep backup materials and tools hidden away somewhere. In other words, if they had been the folks that justified a disruptive police action then that action would likely have been ineffective.
Is there an Engineer in the house? How about an ESL Instructor?
We are building, brick by brick, a consolidation of power through an increasingly fine-grained consolidation of data. We live in a world where a major portion of the US security apparatus has disappeared behind a curtain and is accountable, apparently, mostly to themselves. And a world where the idea of individual political rights to speak, meet, and organize are not widely acknowledged. The result of that intersection creates a problem that is not, I think, insignificant. The constraint on oppressive regimes has often been reach and we, in our work on information technologies, are eliminating some significant constraints.
What’s the solution? Is there one?
Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War is one of my favorite sort of books: those that dig into my thoughts and continues to influence them by providing a perspective to work with…or sometimes against. I find his analysis of the patterns of history intriguing and I believe he throws a light on our political landscape.
This will take on much of the flavor of a book report. In fact, it will look much like a bad book report in which I substitute long quotations for my own reactions and analysis. So be it. There is a direction. I am building to an open ended point…some questions I find interesting… which does contain the seeds of a thesis but tries not to narrow down to too fine a point. My format will be to add a skeleton of an outline to frame up material from the book and then add some observations that spark off Turchin’s work.
- The anchor for Turchin’s analysis is social cohesion.
“Following the fourteenth-century Arab thinker Ibn Khaldun, I call this property of groups asabiya. Asabiya refers to the capacity of a social group for concerted collective action. Asabiya is a dynamic quantity; it can increase or decrease with time. Like many theoretical constructs, such as force in Newtonian physics, the capacity for collective action cannot be observed directly, but it can be measured from observable consequences
- Social cohesion => successful societies. Essentially, the groups that do the best job of cooperating are the most successful in competing with other groups. Turchin’s interest is in the creation and collapse of historical empires and he proceeds in his analysis by gathering case histories.
“Generally, in a struggle between two groups of people, the group with stronger norms promoting cooperation and the most people following such norms has a greater chance of winning.
- Inequality erodes social cohesion. Successful societies have, in the past, built empires which then erode social inequality leading to the eventual collapse of the empire.
“The phase of the secular cycle also determines the trend in social and economic inequality—whether it increases or decreases. This aspect is of particular interest because of the corrosive effect that glaring inequality has on the willingness of people to cooperate, which in turn underlies the capacity of societies for collective action
- Turchin uses history as his laboratory and makes the following points about contemporary politics:
- One can’t necessarily generalize his pattern of empire going forward. We may be in a post Imperial world (witness the EU vs historically warring states in Europe.)
- But one can understand the development of historical societies and something about current societies since they are the result of their history.
- Turchin uses Italy as an example because it provides two matching societies:
- North Italy vs South Italy – He makes the point that, if Italy was divided between north and south, we would have one of the best and worst performers in Europe.
“The disparity in economic development between the Italian north and south is striking. Today the south is rural and poor, whereas the north is urban, industrialized, and wealthy. Few people realize just how well off the Italian north is, because when we see economic statistics for Western Europe, they are typically broken down by country, rather than by regions. Italy as a whole is in the middle of the pack, but its northern regions, such as Lombardia and Emilia-Romagna, are at the very top of the list. The overall rank for Italy is pulled down by its poor Mezzogiorno.
- He sees this disparity as rooted in societal function vs dysfunction
- First, he cites a study that took a sustained look at possible measures of social cohesion
“In 1993, Robert Putnam published Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. “Social capital,” as Putnam explains, “refers to features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions.”
“How can one measure “institutional performance,” that is, how well regions are governed? Asabiya (or social capital) is the key. However, capacity for collective action is a complex, multifaceted property of society, and therefore we cannot expect a single way to measure it perfectly. Putnam and his co-workers, however, came beautifully close. They chose 12 indicators, ranging from measures of operation efficiency such as bureaucratic responsiveness and budget promptness to a quantification of services provided to the public, such as the number of daycare centers and family clinics.
“When Putnam and co-workers finished estimating the institutional performance for each Italian region, they saw a remarkable pattern. There was very strong north-south gradient in how well regions were governed. The regions in the Po Valley such as Emilia-Romagna and Lombardia were consistently at the top of rankings in institutional performance, whereas southern regions, such as Campania (the region around Naples), Calabria (the “toe” of the Italian boot), and Sicily were at the bottom.
- Putnam’s study is a picture of effective function but the flip side is a picture of dysfunction
“Well before Putnam, and even before the Italian experiment in devolution of powers to regional governments, anthropologists knew that something was wrong with the society of the Italian south—the Mezzogiorno, as it is known in Italian. A particularly interesting study is that by the American anthropologist Edward Banfield, who spent a number of years in a southern Italian village during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1967, he published a book detailing his findings, The Moral Basis of the Backward Society. Banfield describes the extreme atomization of the southern Italian society, in which all cooperative efforts are limited to the smallest possible societal unit, the family. Relations even to such kin as cousins, and sometimes even grown-up siblings, are rife with distrust and lack of cooperation. Community-level cooperative efforts are virtually impossible. Banfield called this type of society “amoral familism,” and defined its basic philosophy as this: “Maximize the material, short-run advantage of the nuclear family; assume that all others will do likewise.”
- Turchin believes the root of this society lies in the far past in Roman slavery.
“Millions of slaves, captured during the wars of conquest, flooded Italy during the second century B.C. Because slaves had no human rights, and legally could hold no property (in practice, some masters allowed them to accumulate funds to buy themselves out of slavery), their presence in massive numbers made the Roman society during the late Republic even more unequal than is usual in pre-industrial states
“The distinction between slaves and freemen is perhaps the most extreme form of social inequality. Thus, widespread slavery must be a very corrosive influence on the society’s asabiya. In fact, empirical evidence shows slavery has a deep, and lasting, negative impact on “social capital.”
“It was, thus, the rise of inequality and especially of its ugliest form, slavery, that began corroding Roman asabiya during the second century B.C.
“…southern Italy—the core region of the defunct Roman Empire—was an asabiya black hole. <> Peninsular Italy, including Sicily, remained an asabiya black hole from the collapse of the Roman Empire to this very day
- He does not, of course, believe that southern Italy remained a static society. He believes that it is a damaged and ineffective one. One that has never managed to heal itself from a persistant legacy of poverty, feud, and bad government.
- With the issues phrased this way, it’s hard not to draw some parallels to the US. That will be the topic of contemplation next post. For now, here’s something that caught my eye recently and sparked this whole train of thought
You are looking at a map of violence based on an analysis from an NGO, the Institute for Economics and Peace, based in Sydney Australia. Red is bad. Blue is the best. The rest range in between, color coded as you’d expect.
I’m taking the week off to do some writing, work on side projects, and generally try to get organized (an ongoing but quixotic project of mine.) I thought I’d limber up by posting something from the archives.
Here’s something I found last week while digging through old files. High school buddy, Denny, was asked to give the Commencement Address at our old high school. He sent out a call to some of us to send in our advice. Here was mine:
Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you get rained out
Everything I needed to know I learned during freefall.
We all graduated in 1970. That might make you think that we were in high school during the 60’s. In actual fact, South Dakota went directly from the 1950’s to the 1970’s and skipped the 60’s almost entirely with the except of a few short months allowed for transition.
Although those months were short, they were intense and we were there.
The main thing about the 60’s was that all the Big Truths about God, America, and Western History were called radically into question. All the stuff we were taking for granted became so suspect that I found it necessary to clear everything off the table and start over. My theory was that I’d examine the Big Truths one by one and let the valid ones back on. Unfortunately, none of them made it back and I’ve been forced to rely on a collection of smaller truths instead. I offer some for your consideration.
1. Life’s too short to live anybody else’s but you own.
2. Never try to psychoanalyze a cop while he’s arresting you.
3. It’s a good idea not to be any stupider than absolutely necessary.
4. Truth itself is an attempt to use limited tools to describe an unlimited reality and therefore all truths are necessarily wrong.
5. Some truths are much more wrong than others.
6. Reality doesn’t sit there waiting to be described like a mackerel on a plate. It’s a tiger that might get up at any given moment and thoroughly kick your ass.
7. Love and affection are more important that sex.
8. Sex is important.
9. The statement “If he’s so smart, why isn’t he rich” is the logical equivalent of “If he’s so smart, why isn’t he fat”. It takes a lot less money to get fat, however.
10. After reading Kant, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Husserl, Tillich, and numerous others in search of a approach to life, the best I’ve been able to figure is that sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you get rained out. All three, when they happen, have their attendant problems and it’s wise to be emotionally prepared to deal each of them.
Denny, this may need a quick edit. I didn’t have time to let it sit then read it over again. Also, the order of the above might could use rearranging.
21 Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.
22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?
23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
Matthew 7:21-23 (King James Version)
Having been alerted by Pat Robertson that hurricanes and other natural disasters are communications from God, I couldn’t help but notice that what my parents and grandparents termed the Bible Belt seems to take an inordinate number of hard shots. Katrina, for example, hit Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Louisiana (disasters from which they’ve yet to recover) as have frequent subsequent hurricanes. If you look at the map of the BP oil spill, notice it angled in toward Mississippi and Florida.
My hypothesis is that contemporary Christians have changed the religion into a ‘divine’ justification for their petty hatreds, angers, and judgments (encroaching on God’s explicitly claimed prerogative on that last point.) This combination of spiritual arrogance and conscious or unconscious hypocrisy is starting to make God a little testy.
Here’s some good evidence from last week’s San Francisco Chronicle.
photo credit: Brant Ward / The Chronicle
Pictured are Associate Pastors Chris Nunn and Steve Messick from Imperial County featured in an article “County leads battle against gay weddings.”
Notice the background. They are posing in their church which is under repair…after being damaged….in an earthquake….on Easter!
My theory? God loves these people but hates what they do. He’s trying to give them a wakeup call. Will they get it in time?
Yours in faith,
“Many are called but fewer are called Al”
“If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”
I’m glad you asked that.
I’ve always taken my inspiration from biological systems. One universal here is that inputs are good in a biological system only in a narrow range. Too much water and too little water will kill a plant. Too much food and too little food are both bad. Medicines have a low threshold of ineffectiveness and a high threshold of toxicity. My grandfather took strychnine as a blood pressure medicine. Critical vitamins can kill in both lack and excess.
Money is an input in a biological system. Too much and too little both trend towards toxicity…though in quite different ways.
The statement “if you’re so smart why aren’t you rich” is the precise logical equivalent, in my opinion, of “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you fat!”
I point out in passing that I’m not poor.
Now the counter question. I’ve noticed a tendency among the rich to keep working to get rich. What’s up with that? Lack of imagination? Trapped in the system?
To quote Baba Ram Dass when asked about his switch from LSD, “Well, when you’ve received the answer, hang up the phone.”
I recently reread William Gibson’s Spook Country. I read it first years ago shortly after publication and it has lurked the back of my memory ever since. Its characters, plot elements and moods would surface even though only vaguely connected to the matters at hand. I wanted to get back into it for another full immersion.
It was a very satisfying re-read.
Now then, I read it on the Kindle and the Kindle has a dangerous aspect, particularly for insomniacs: you can buy a book on impulse at 2 am and be reading it minutes later. Spook Country (of which I had vivid memories) lead to Pattern Language (which I remembered hardly at all despite some overlap in characters and vibe) and then on into a mini-sf reading spree of early Gibson, newer Ian Banks, and mop up Kage Baker.
Noting what remained vivid in memory and what didn’t lead to some thinking about what sf does.
I’ve read various theories over the past decades about the pulps and the limits and appropriate role of genre fiction. My theory of sf matches none of that and simultaneously works as a description of why I like all the interrelated genre’s of sf, fantasy, & horror.
The role of sf is, quite simply, to erode the present.
- Imagine that we sit down with a new volume by a favorite author on the flat plain of the present.
- Hills and valleys have been flattened since last time by the familiarity of the everyday world.
- We read.
- If the volume is effective the world begins to erode.
- In the best possible case, like a stroll atop Sheep Mountain in the South Dakota, flat prarie drops away into a deeply erode landscape of shape and color.
The gradient of how things will move forward has now been changed!
The present flows into the future along an altered channel with different resonance and open possibilities.
And finally that new future feeds back and revises the present. Our world becomes more eerie, more open, more wondrous, more strange.