Category Archives: technology and society

Save The Data campaign

Today I signed the Sunlight Foundation’s open letter to Congress about the planned cuts to the U.S. government’s open data programs.

Then I used their wizard to send out a letter to the editor to a bevy of newspapers.  Here’s the letter I wrote:

It’s deeply disappointing, but not surprising, that when budget cut time comes around, the small bit of funding for public access to government data is the first on the chopping block. We made real progress in recent years with and other programs that let people actually *see* how their government spends their money.

Of course the special interests–which benefited for so long from the lack of public information about government spending–want to go back to the bad old days. But cutting transparency in the name of the budget crunch is a false promise. The proposed 2011 budget would cut the Electronic Government Fund from $34 million down to $2 million, forcing the shutdown of and other key transparency and accountability programs–which have already saved us not millions but billions. The only reason to cut the transparency budget is for the sake of the special interests and corruption that thrive in the darkness.

If you live in the U.S., you should sign the open letter and write your own letter to the editors as well.

Where Good Ideas Come From

I just finished Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.  It’s great read; I went straight through in one sitting, en-route to San Francisco.

At the start, Johnson sketches out his ambitions for a “natural history of innovation” by looking at three different kinds of environments that have been extremely conducive to innovation: coral reefs and their enormous biodiversity; cities and the rich cultural and subcultural diversity they generate; and the Internet, the key generative platform that underlies so many of the most celebrated innovations of recent years.  Patterns of innovation are fractal, he says, with recurring features to be found for ecological and macroevolutionary innovation, microevolutionary innovation, the physiology of innovation (that is, the neuroscience of how ideas come about), habits and lifestyles that foster innovation, innovation-friendly work environments, and social and political structures that promote widespread innovation.  So Johnson takes a “long zoom” approach, using examples from every level of zoom–but primarily, the stories of particular scientific and technological developments–to identify seven patterns that are part of innovative environments.

Johnson also makes clear at the outset his overall conclusion, which will be familiar to anyone involved with the free culture movement: “we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them.”

The seven chapters on Johnson’s seven innovation concepts are fun and interesting.  I won’t go into detail; I’ll just say that each of them—the adjacent possible, liquid networks, the slow hunch, serendipity, error (as a goad to try new things), exaptation, and platforms (upon which further innovation can be built)—is a useful tool for thinking about innovation.  Johnson doesn’t convince me that this is any sort of natural or complete set of concepts for understanding innovative environments, but I don’t think he really tries to (despite the definitive subtitle: The Natural History of Innovation).  Others attempting a similar analysis of innovation would no doubt frame it in terms of different concepts.  Nevertheless, Johnson’s chosen concepts are satisfying and he puts them to good use.

It’s the concluding chapter that leaves me frustrated.  Here, Johnson tries to generalize about innovative environments using a framework from Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks.  He plots four “quadrants” where innovation might take place: market-focused individual environments (the entrepreneur inventor working alone), market-focused network environments (the group of firms or individual entrepreneurs sharing ideas and collaborating), non-market individual environments (the amateur inventor, the cloistered academic), and non-market network environments (the academic community, amateur open-source projects).  He categorizes two hundred “good ideas” (with no defined criteria for how they were selected) according to these four quadrants, and concludes that markets (with their intellectual property regimes that produce artificial scarcity for ideas) are not the ideal drivers of innovation they are often characterized as.

I agree with the conclusion itself, but I don’t think Benkler’s framework is a particularly useful way to categorize innovation here.  As Johnson notes, ideas happen at the level of individuals (with an enormous role, of course, for their environments).  A market/non-market dichotomy obscures the more fundamental issue of the motivation of individual innovators.  Taking an historical view, the political economy of science and technology has shifted dramatically from the Renaissance (where Johnson begins his catalog of innovations) through the Enlightenment and the Industrial Era into the century of Big Science.  Simply plotting the major innovations coming from each quadrant doesn’t account for the changing number of people trying to innovate in different types of environments.  And even within a given environment (say, the patronage scene in 17th century Italy, an Eastman Kodak R&D lab in the mid-twentieth century, or an academic molecular biology lab in the 1990s), the mix of market and non-market motivations for a given researcher doesn’t sort out neatly according to private sector vs. public sector.

Conspicuously absent from the bibliography is Steven Shapin’s brilliant The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation, which has shaped a lot of my thinking about environments for innovation and the relationship between markets and professional research.  I’d love to see a discussion between Shapin and Johnson; their ideas, in Johnson’s words, “want to connect, fuse, recombine.”

silly videos and obscure post-structuralist terms

Evgeny Morozov has a new review of Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, and he spends a fair bit talking about Wikipedia, the touchstone for how the Internet is changing culture.  (Wikipedia researcher Ed Chi offered to review it for the Signpost, but Knopf publicity has so far ignored my every attempt to request a review copy.)  As I understand it, the book is in part an extension of Lanier’s Wikipedia-centered 2006 essay “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism“.  I haven’t read the book, but I trust Morozov’s assessment.  His central point is this:

Technology has penetrated our lives so deeply and so quickly that the only way to make sense of what is happening today requires not only drinking from the anecdotal fire hose that is Twitter, but also being able to contextualise these anecdotes in broader social, historical and cultural settings. But that’s not the kind of analysis that is spitting out of Silicon Valley blogs.

So who should be doing all of this thinking? Unfortunately, Lanier only tells us who should not be doing it: “Technology criticism should not be left to the Luddites”. Statements like this establish Lanier’s own bona fides – as a Silicon Valley maverick unafraid to confront the cyber-utopian establishment from the inside – but they fail to articulate any kind of vision for how to improve our way of discussing technology and its increasingly massive impact on society.

Morozov says that our understanding of the legal dimensions of the Internet have been elucidated by the likes of Zittrain, Lessig and Benkler.  But humanist and social scientists, he says, have let us down in their duty to explore the cultural dimensions of the rise of the networked society, by either ignoring it or relying “obscure post-structuralist terms” that occlude whatever insights they might or might not have.

The overall point, that the academy hasn’t done enough to make itself relevant to ongoing techno-cultural changes, is right on target.  But I think Morozov’s glib dismissal of work in media studies, sociology, anthropology, etc., is unfair to both the main ideas of post-structuralism and the writing skills of the better scholars who do work on technology and culture (Henry Jenkins and Jason Mittell come to mind, but I’m sure there are plenty of others).  Lanier’s epithet of “digital Maoism” is crude red-baiting; I’m not sure whether Morozov’s jargon jibe is red-baiting (post-structuralism being the province of the so-called academic left), he genuinely doesn’t think much of how humanists have analyzed the Internet, or he is just being contrary.

Post-structuralism is complicated (and I don’t pretend to be an expert) but what’s relevant in this context, I think, is (as the Wikipedia article obtusely puts it) the idea of “the signifier and signified as inseparable but not united; meaning itself inheres to the play of difference.”  Put another way, culture (that is, a work of culture) is valuable in whatever ways culture (that is, a culture, a group of people) values it; what matters is not the work itself (and its inherent or intended meaning) but the relationship between a work an its audience.  Related to this is a value judgment about what kinds of culture are better or more worthy of attention: “writerly” works that leave more opportunity for an audience to create its own meanings vs. “readerly” works that are less flexible and open to reinterpretation.  The relevance of these ideas for the Internet’s effects on culture should be obvious: audiences now have ways collaborating in the creation of new meanings and the reinterpretation of cultural works, and can often interact not only with authors work, but with the authors themselves (thereby influencing later works).

So when Lanier sneers at ‘silly videos’ and Morozov complains that Lessig doesn’t address “whether the shift to the remix culture as a primary form of cultural production would be good for society”, I can’t help but see it as the crux of a straw man argument.  You would have us give up our current system that creates such wonderful culture (left helpfully unspecified, since there’s no accounting for taste) in exchange for remixed YouTube tripe? But humanists are starting to place more value in the capital intensive products of the culture industry precisely because of the way that audiences can remix them and reuse them and create meanings from them.

YOYOW vs. privacy and anonymity

Laura DeNardis, in her presentation for the “Technologies of Dissent” panel at the Access to Knowledge and Human Rights conference today, illustrated the dangers of too much openness and access to certain kinds of knowledge by pointing to, a mashup of Google Maps and donor data for the Prop 8 anti-same-sex-marriage campaign in California: you can find out right where these donors live in San Francisco.

Later in the panel, Eddan Katz of the Electronic Frontier Foundation was emphasizing the virtues of online anonymity for facilitating free expression and dissent (with EFF’s Tor software, for example).

Obviously, most people at this conference think Prop 8 is a bad thing while anonymous communication between dissidents in places with oppressive and censorious governments is a good thing.  But is there a principled argument that is good and legitimate and those Prop 8 donors ought not be able to hide from the public, while dissidents in Iran or China ought to be able to organize and speak out and push for their favored kinds of political change behind the cloak of anonymity?

It’s the tension, as panelist Anupam Chander explained it, between the Foulcault and the Habermas versions of the Internet’s potential: universal panopticon surveillance state vs. universal public sphere for rational discourse.

My own view is that there’s a balance to be struck between the classic net principle of YOYOW (“You Own Your Own Words” meaning both that you can say what you want to say and you are responsible for what you say) and the right to speak anonymously.  The balance (one of the driving tensions in the history of the Wikipedia community, incidentally) is essentially the question of  the limits of anonymous speech and action.

(Shooting from the hip here) I suggest a rule of thumb: the closer the political environment approximates an ideal Habermasian public sphere, the stronger the imperative that that people own their own words when they choose to engage in public discourse.  Likewise, the more limits on what people are allowed to say, the more right they have to engage in a wider variety of anonymous speech and action.  (For speech that is not intended to be part of the public sphere, things are quite different and there is more of an argument for privacy and anonymity.)

[A summary of the whole panel is up on the Yale ISP blog: A2K4 Panel II: Technologies of Dissent: Information and Expression in a Digital World]

“Minds for Sale” (or, “Clickworkers of the world, unite!”)

This recent lecture by Jonathan Zittrain is long, but well worth it.  It’s about various forms of crowdsourcing and clickwork, and their scary potential for exploitation, political manipulation, political repression, and other bad stuff, related to what I’ve blogged about Demand Media vs. Wikimedia and the psychology of fun and games.

The send-up of Wikipedians and why Wikipedia isn’t on Subvert and Profit is kinda cute at 39:20.

On the Internet, anyone can be a historian

The Washington Post has a flattering profile of a young Wikipedian, Adam Lewis, who worked on the article for Washington, D.C. The punchline comes a few paragraphs in:

Lewis joined thousands of other amateurs toiling in obscurity on Wikipedia, where facts are more important than the star historians who tend to dominate the popular view of history. On Wikipedia, anyone can be a historian.

I think this is suspect in a couple of ways (do “star historians” really dominate the popular view of history? what does “historian” mean in the Wikipedia context, where the policy is “no original research“?) but the spirit of the remark is right on, and relevant beyond just Wikipedia.

The history profession hasn’t yet been much affected by the “pro-am revolution“, but it’s increasingly possible for amateur historians to do original work with professional quality (even if that work is unlikely to much resemble academic history writing).  Some academic fields–astronomy is the most dramatic example–have already started benefiting  greatly from the contributions of amateurs.  But history seems slow on the uptake, with frustratingly little appetite for collaborative projects  and little interest in taking the work of amateur historians seriously (the exciting projects of George Mason’s  Center for History and New Media notwithstanding).

Will that change dramatically?  Will a pro-am revolution come to the history profession?  The case of history of science may be instructive here.  History of science has actually had a vibrant “pro-am” community (of scientists who write science history) since well before the Internet made relevant sources and publishing venues easily accessible to other interested groups of amateur historians.  Nevertheless, historians of science have not drawn closer to pro-am scientist-historians in recent decades–just the opposite, they’ve withdrawn from scientist-historians and often dismiss their work as hopelessly naive or self-interested.  If history of science is any guide, I fear that history as a whole may view the coming rise of “pro-am” history as more of a threat than an opportunity.

[cross-posted at Cliopatria]

Wikipedia in Theory (psychology of fun and games edition)

In my last Wikipedia in Theory post, in which I looked at game theory and experimental economics, David Gerard commented:

People edit Wikipedia because it’s fun. What is the economic motivation to buy music or play WoW? The theory’s out there.

But what, exactly, is that theory?  What makes Wikipedia fun?  Is that the same thing that makes World of Warcraft fun?  The same thing that makes gambling fun?  The same thing that makes all three addictive, sometimes pathologically so?

As far as I can tell, there isn’t a single well-established theory of fun and games.  There are some interesting ideas floating around, though.

The best known comes from positive psychology: the concept of flow, which is often considered the essence of what makes games and other activities fun.  Flow is that state of sustained concentration (and associated elation) when all of your efforts are directly toward a difficult and significant task that is nevertheless within your capabilities.  Different kinds of Wikipedia work are available that can test the skills of adolescent and professor alike and Wikipedians are free to choose tasks they think are significant, so it’s easy to make sense of why Wikipedia can be fun in terms of flow.

Another widely quoted formulation of fun comes from A Theory of Fun for Game Design, by Raph Koster:

Fun is just another word for learning.

James Paul Gee expands on this concept in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.  In a short journal article, he summarizes some of the relevant points:

  • Good games give information “on demand” and “just in time,” not out of the contexts of actual use or apart from people’s purposes and goals…
  • Good games operate at the outer and growing edge of a player’s competence, remaining challenging, but do-able…
  • Games allow players to be producers and not just consumers. Along with the designer, the player’s actions co-create the game world.
  • In computer and video games, players engage in “action at a distance,” much like remotely manipulating a robot, but in a far more fine-grained fashion. Cognitive research suggests that such fine-grained action at a distance actually causes humans to feel as if their bodies and minds have stretched into a new space…a highly motivating state.

All of these aspects of games have parallels in Wikipedia editing.  In the last case, Wikipedia offers not just the illusion of affecting the world at a distance, but a way to actually do so; writing on Wikipedia has the potential to affect readers across the world.

Neuropsychology puts flow and fun and learning (and addiction) into chemical terms: it’s all about the dopamine.  All that talk about flow and motivation and fun gets boiled down to the release of neurotransmitters, especially dopamine, which is associated with pleasure, motivation, concentration, reinforcement, learning, and addiction.  Sustained released of dopamine (or in the case of some addictive chemicals, dopamine re-uptake inhibition) both creates a sense of pleasure and elation and creates an association between the activity at hand and the dopamine jolt, motivating you to do that activity again (and again).

That’s the core of activist game designer Jonathan Blow‘s critique of mainstream video game design.  To quote from my post on video game addiction:

the best practices of commercial game design, particularly MMOs, are “predicated on…player exploitation” by “plugging into their pleasure centers and giving them scheduled rewards”. He suggests that the gaming industry may be engaged in “the intellectual and emotional equivalent of [Joe Camel]”.

That same principle is at work on Wikipedia, with people compulsively checking their watchlists to see if their work has been built upon or the comments replied to.  But with careful attention to the principles of video game design, Wikipedia could probably be made much more compelling/fun/educational/addicting to a larger number of people.

Wikipedia in theory (Marxist edition)

The zeroeth law of Wikipedia states: “The problem with Wikipedia is that it only works in practice. In theory, it can never work.”

That’s largely true of the kinds of theory that are most closely related to the hacker-centric early Wikipedia community: analytical philosophy, epistemology, and other offshoots of positive philosophy–the kinds of theory most closely related to the cultures of math and science.  (See my earlier post on “Wikipedia in theory“.)  But there’s another body of theory in which Wikipedia’s success can make a lot of sense: Marxism and its successors (“critical theory”, or simply “Theory”).

A fantastic post on Greg Allen’s Daddy Types blog, “The Triumph of the Crayolatariat“, reminded me (indirectly) of how powerful Marxist concepts can be for understanding Wikipedia and the free software and free culture movements more broadly.

It’s a core principle of post-industrial political economy that knowledge is not just a product created by economic and cultural activity, but a key part of the means of production (i.e., cultural capital).  Software, patentable ideas, and copyrighted content of all sorts are the basis for a wide variety of production.  Software is used to create more software as well as visual art, fiction, music, scientific knowledge, journalism, etc.  (See “Copyleft vs. Copyright: A Marxist Critique“, Johan Söderberg, First Monday.) And all those things are inputs into the production of new cultural products.  The idea of “remix culture” that Larry Lessig has been promoting recently emphasizes that in the digital realm, there’s no clear distinction between cultural products and means of cultural production; art builds on art.  (Lessig, however, has resisted associations between the Creative Commons cultural agenda and the Marxist tradition, an attitude that has brought attacks from the left, e.g., the Libre Society.)

Modern intellectual property regimes are designed to turn non-material means of production into things that can be owned.  And the free software and free culture movements are about collective ownership of those means of production.

Also implicit in the free culture movement’s celebration of participatory culture and user-generated content (see my post on “LOLcats as Soulcraft“) is the set of arguments advanced by later theorists about the commodification of culture.  A society that consumes the products of a culture industry is very different from one in which produces and consumers of cultural content are the same people–even if the cultural content created was the same (which of course would not be the case).

What can a Marxist viewpoint tell us about where Wikimedia and free culture can or should go from here? One possibility is online “social networking”.  The Wikimedia community, and until recently even the free software movement, hasn’t paid much attention to social networking or offered serious competition to the proprietary sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc.  But if current agenda is about providing access to digital cultural capital (i.e., knowledge and other intellectual works), the next logical step is to provide freer, more egalitarian access to social capital as well.    Facebook, MySpace and other services do this to some extent, but they are structured as vehicles for advertising and the furtherance of consumer culture, and in fact are more focused on commoditizing the social capital users bring into the system than helping users generate new social capital.  (Thus, many people have noted that “social networking sites” is a misnomer for most of those services, since they are really about reinforcing existing social networks,  not creating new connections.)

The Wikimedia community, in particular, has taken a dim view of anything that smacks of mere social networking (or worse, MMORPGs), as if cultural capital is important but social capital is not.  But from a Marxist perspective, it’s easier to see how intertwined the two are and how both are necessary to maintain a healthy free culture ecosystem.

Wikimedia and the rest of the free culture community, then, ought to get serious about supporting OpenMicroBlogging (the protocol) and other existing alternatives to proprietary social networking and culture sites, and even perhaps starting a competitor to MySpace and Facebook.  (See some of the proposals I’m supporting on Wikimedia Strategic Planning wiki in this vein.)