Revolutions take time

The original version of this ran as a comment under Francine Hardaway‘s Medium post titled Have we progressed at all in the last fifty years?

My short answer is “Yes, but not much, and not evenly.” This is my longer answer.


In your case and mine, it has taken the better part of a century to see how some revolutions take generations to play out. Not only won’t we live to see essential revolutions complete; our children and grandchildren may not either.

Take a topic not on your list: racial equality—or moving past race altogether as a Big Issue. To begin to achieve racial equality in the U.S., we fought the Civil War. The result was various degrees of liberation for the people who had been slaves or already freed in Union states; but apartheid of both the de jure and de facto kind persisted. Jim

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Dear DSCC: unsubscribe means unsubscribe

I have unsubscribed from the DSCC mailing list, which I never joined, multiple times. Here’s a screen shot of my last unsubscribe session, dated 21 October:

That’s the third screen, after others that mute the unsubscribe option. At this point, “Take a break” is their euphemism for what I really want, which is a divorce. Here’s the confirmation:

And here is the confirming email:

I have earlier ones from June, July and August.

But the DSCC emails keep coming. Here’s just the top of the latest:

So here’s a question for the DSCC, or anyone else who knows: Is this deliberate on the DSCC’s part?

I do believe one should never ascribe to __________ what can also be ascribed to incompetence.

But this is a long time for any incompetence to persist. At a certain point this kind of shit gets hard to read as anything other than intentional. That Continue reading "Dear DSCC: unsubscribe means unsubscribe"

Exploring the business behind digital media’s invisibility cloaks

  amsterdam-streetImagine you’re on a busy city street where everybody who disagrees with you disappears. We have that city now. It’s called media—especially the social kind. You can see how this works on Wall Street Journal‘s Blue Feed, Red Feed page. Here’s a screen shot of the feed for “Hillary Clinton” (one among eight polarized topics): blue-red-wsj Both invisible to the other. We didn’t have that in the old print and broadcast worlds, and still don’t, where they persist. (For example, on news stands, or when you hit SCAN on a car radio.) But we have it in digital media. Here’s another difference: a lot of the stuff that gets shared is outright fake. There’s a lot of concern about that right now: fakenews Why? Well, there’s a business in it. More eyeballs, more advertising, more money, for more eyeballs for more advertising. And so on. Those ads are aimed
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The Giant Zero

The Giant Zero

The world of distance

Fort Lee is the New Jersey town where my father grew up. It’s at the west end of the George Washington Bridge, which he also helped build. At the other end is Manhattan.

Even though Fort Lee and Manhattan are only a mile apart, it has always been a toll call between the two over a landline. Even today. (Here, look it up.) That’s why, when I was growing up not far away, with the Manhattan skyline looming across the Hudson, we almost never called over there. It was “long distance,” and that cost money.

There were no area codes back then, so if you wanted to call long distance, you dialed 0 (“Oh”) for an operator. She (it was always a she) would then call the number you wanted and patch it through, often by plugging a cable between two holes in a

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We can all make TV. Now what?

meerkatLook where Meerkat andperiscopeapp Periscope point. I mean, historically. They vector toward a future where anybody anywhere can send live video out to the glowing rectangles of the world. If you’ve looked at the output of either, several things become clear about their inevitable evolutionary path:
  1. Mobile phone/data systems will get their gears stripped, in both directions. And it will get worse before it gets better.
  2. Stereo sound recording is coming. Binaural recording too. Next…
  3. 3D. Mobile devices in a generation or two will include two microphones and two cameras pointed toward the subject being broadcast. Next…
  4. VR, or virtual reality.
Since walking around like a dork holding a mobile in front of you shouldn’t be the only way to produce these videos, glasses like these are inevitable:

srlzglasses

(That’s a placeholder design in the public domain, so it has no IP drag, other than whatever submarine patents already exist, and I am Continue reading "We can all make TV. Now what?"

Internet.org is a failed exercise in misdirection

The Internet is one thing. It is comprised of everything it connects. By nature it is as neutral as gravity. It favors nothing and is not partial to anything. Yes, there are exceptions to that rule, in the way Net access is provisioned, but the basic nature of the Net — as a free, open and neutral shared space in the world — is by now obvious to pretty much everybody who doesn’t have an interest in limiting it in some way. This is why Facebook’s Internet.org is pure misdirection: a partial private fraction masked as a complete public whole. And also why it’s in trouble. The misdirection isn’t working. The site calls itself “a Facebook-led initiative bringing together technology leaders, non-profits and local communities to connect the two thirds of the world that doesn’t have Internet access.” But India isn’t buying it. See here, here, here, here, here, here — and every other place you’ll find piles of stories about it. (Start with the Critique section of the Wikipedia article on Internet.org, and a search for India+Facebook+Internet.org.) They’re rejecting Internet.org for one simple reason: it’s not Neutral. Naturally, Mark Zuckerberg disagrees, and explains how in this post on the matter, which went up yesterday, and I’ll respond to, piece by piece:
Over the past week in India, there has been a lot written about Internet.org and net neutrality. I’d like to share my position on these topics here for everyone to see. First, I’ll share a quick story. Last year I visited Chandauli, a small village in northern India that had just been connected to the internet. In a classroom in the village, I had the chance to talk to a group of students who were learning to use the internet. It was an incredible experience to think that right there in that room might be a student with a big idea that could change the world — and now they could actually make that happen through the internet.
Those students should know the whole Net. Not just a subset of it.
The internet is one of the most powerful tools for economic and social progress. It gives people access to jobs, knowledge and opportunities. It gives voice to the voiceless in our society, and it connects people with vital resources for health and education. I believe everyone in the world deserves access to these opportunities.

Fine. Then either give them the whole thing, or call what you give them something else that’s clearly less: Facebook+, perhaps.

In many countries, however, there are big social and economic obstacles to connectivity. The internet isn’t affordable to everyone, and in many places awareness of its value remains low. Women and the poor are most likely to be excluded and further disempowered by lack of connectivity.

Don’t confuse access providers with the Internet itself. The Net itself has no cost. That’s one of the features of its inherent neutrality. As Steve Kamman explains, “Bandwidth is dirt cheap. And bog-standard… This isn’t Continue reading "Internet.org is a failed exercise in misdirection"

Sports as a propaganda laboratory

TBasketballhe other day a friend shared this quote from Michael Choukas‘ Propaganda Comes of Age (Public Affairs Press, 1965):
This is not the propagandist’s aim. For him the validity of an image must be measured not by the degree of its fidelity, but by the response it may evoke. If it will induce the action he wishes, its fidelity is high; if not, low. … The standard that he uses in choosing the images to be disseminated — his “truths” — would be a scale based on the range of possible human responses to an image. His criterion thus is established on the basis of overt action.
At first this made me think about journalism, and how it might fit Choukas’ definition of propaganda. Then it made me think about how we might confine the study of propaganda to a harmless subset of human story-telling. That’s when sports jumped to mind. Sports are almost entirely narrative. They also have, as social phenomena go, less importance outside themselves than such highly fraught concerns as politics, religion and business. To the cynic, sports are Kurt Vonnegut‘s foma: “harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls…Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.” Yes, sports are more than that, but my soul at its simplest is a fan of the Mets. (And, less simply, a fan of the Red Sox.) Likewise, among my least productive time is spent listening to sports talk radio — unless I count as valuable the communing of my simplest self with the souls of others who share the same mostly-harmless affections. But how much more productive is the time I spend listening to NPR, or reading The New York Times?
harmless-untruth2x2
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The Dangers of Internet Voting

Summary: I am serving on Lt. Governor Cox's iVote panel, which is looking at whether Internet voting might be used in Utah. I presented the following statement to the panel this morning: I Voted! Current computer operating systems, Internet protocols, and standard computing practices are inherently insecure. Recent news stories about break-ins at Target, UPS, Community Health Systems, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission point out all too well both the weaknesses in the system and the power of hackers to take advantage of those weaknesses. Groups mounting attacks include both state and criminal actors. Yet in spite of this inherent insecurity, the Internet has become an indispensable tool for myriad activities. Consider why. In many cases, we’re able to get around the inherent insecurity of the Internet because the value to be received from attacking a weakness isn’t sufficient to attract the attention of those who exploit these weaknesses for gain. In other cases there is significant value to be gained by attacking a system. Yet despite that, the use of the Internet for commerce, enterprise systems, data dissemination, and other activities continues to grow because the rewards for using the system outweigh the risks and those risks are mitigated by other factors. Similarly, Internet voting presents a valuable target for hackers. Elections have consequences and the ability to influence an election is enticing to those who have a stake in the outcome of an election. The list of potential attackers is large: individual hackers, political parties, international criminal organizations, hostile foreign governments, or even terrorists have a stake in the outcome of elections and can be expected to use weaknesses in the voting system to gain influence or simply cause mischief. Proponents of Internet voting point out the great benefits to be gained from making voting easier. They point out that the Internet has been used to great benefit in other activities. Specifically, the refrain, “if we can shop online, why can’t we vote online?” is frequently heard. After all, online shopping and other activities continue to grow in spite of security problems. Online voting has three properties that, taken together, set it apart from other online activities like shopping:
  1. Secret ballots are required — We require that people register to vote, but how they vote is kept secret from election officials and others. This measure protects the validity of the vote by making it more difficult to coerce or pay people to vote a particular way and by ensuring people that they won’t have to answer to others for their decisions in the polling booth. Internet voting initiatives have to ensure secret ballots.
  2. Computing environment is uncontrolled — Online voting would have to allow people to vote from their own devices in their own homes or businesses to have the desired impact. But a study in 2010 showed that 48% of 22 million scanned computers were infected with a virus and “over a million and a half [were] infected with crimeware/banker trojans.” Any Internet voting system has to be able to run on a collection of computers that is not only not under the control of the voting authorities, but not wholly under the control of the voter either.
  3. Margin for error is very small — Elections are often decided by very small margins. Unlike a business transaction where the likely hood of fraud can be statistically calculated and then factored in to the cost of doing business, there is no margin in a voting scenario to use in mitigating fraud. The margin for fraud has to be very near zero.
These three properties of voting, taken together, make online voting a very different proposition than other activities that we regularly undertake online. To see why, consider the problem of ensuring the integrity of the vote. Vote integrity is particularly important because people will not trust a government when they don’t believe that the results of elections are valid. The only reason we know about security breaches at Target and others is because the system is, by design, transparent and auditable. Even if these companies were unable to prevent an attack, it was abundantly clear after the fact that a breach had occurred. In a voting system, however, the secret ballot and uncontrolled computing environment combine to make auditing the validity of the vote impossible. To make the online commerce scenario analogous to online voting, the online commerce company would know that a customer had bought something but not what she’d bought or how much she’d spent except in aggregate with other purchases. Further, we have to assume the customer never receives any feedback (like a package) and thus can never verify that the order was received correctly. Under these circumstances, there’s almost no way we could ever assure ourselves that the orders the company were receiving had any correlation to the orders customers were placing. To see why this is a problem, suppose some group claims to have altered the results of an election after the fact. Whether they have or not is immaterial because there would be no way to prove they had not. Voter confidence in the validity of the vote could be undermined without even going to the trouble of mounting an attack. I do not believe that we can easily overcome any of these problems in the near future. Further I am confident that none of the present commercial offerings solve these problems. Consequently I believe that the risks of Internet voting sharply outweigh the benefits and will for some time to come. But you need not take my word for it. Numerous computer scientists have come out against Internet voting. In addition, an independent panel examined Internet voting for the Province of British Columbia and concluded:
Do not implement universal Internet voting for either local government or provincial government elections at this time. However if Internet voting is implemented, it should be limited to those voters with specific accessibility challenges. If Internet voting is implemented on a limited basis, jurisdictions need to recognize that the risks to the accuracy of the voting results remain substantial.
I strongly urge the committee to curtail Internet voting initiatives for the time being. The pressure to do something might be great, but having studied the issue, we must be the ones to educate others on why Internet voting is not for Utah. Tags:

Escaping the Black Holes of Centralization

Turkey shut down Twitter today. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced, “We now have a court order. We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.” (Hurriyet Daily News) He also said Turkey will “rip out the roots” of Twitter. (Washington Post)

Those roots are in the Internet. This is a good thing. Even if Turkey rips the roots out of the phone and cable systems that provide access to the Net, they can’t rip out the Net itself, because the Net is not centralized. It is distributed: a heterarchy rather than a hierarchy. At the most basic level, the Net’s existence relies on protocols rather than on how any .com, .org, .edu or .gov puts those protocols to use.

The Net’s protocols are not servers, clouds, wires, routers or code bases. They are agreements about how data flows to and from any one end point and any other. This makes the Internet a world of ends rather than a world of governments, companies and .whatevers. It cannot be reduced to any of those things, any more than time can be reduced to a clock. The Net is as oblivious to usage as are language and mathematics — and just as supportive of every use to which it is put. And, because of this oblivity, The Net supports all without favor to any.

Paul Baran contrasted centralized systems (such as governments), decentralized ones (such as Twitter+Facebook+Google, etc.) and distributed ones, using this drawing in 1964:

Design C became the Internet.

It appealed to military folks because it was the best design for surviving attack. Even in a decentralized system there are central points of vulnerability where a government can spy on traffic or knock out a whole service. The “attack surfaces” of a distributed system are no larger than a single node or a single connection, so it’s much harder to bring the whole thing down. This is why John Gillmore says ”The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” No doubt this is happening right now in Turkey, just as it is in China and other countries  that block sites and services on the Net. It might not be easy, but it is do-able by design. That design is not about hard fixed administrated lines, but voluntary connections, or what Bob Frankston calls ‘DIY connectivity’.

Twitter’s centralized nature makes it a dot in the star-shaped designs of A and B. That dot becomes a black hole when powerful actors like the Turkish and Chinese governments “eradicate” it. We need to bear this in mind when we design and use centralized systems — and even decentralized ones.

It helps to recognize that some things — such as being social with each other — do not require centralized systems, or even decentralized ones. They can be truly distributed, heterarchical and voluntary. Just as we have freedom of speech and association in any free society, we should have the same on the Net. And, at the base level, we do.

But this isn’t easy to see, for five reasons:

  1. We do need centralized systems for doing what only they can do
  2. Existing building methods and materials make it easy
  3. The internet is also a “network of networks” which at the backbone and “provider” level (the one you access it through) is more like a combination of B and C — and, because you pay providers for access,  it’s easy to ignore C as the virtuous base of the whole thing
  4. After eighteen years of building centralized systems (such as Twitter) on the Net, it’s hard for most people — even geeks familiar with the Net’s base design — to think outside the box called client-server (and some of us call calf-cow)

A great way to avoid the black hole of centralization is to start from the fully distributed nodes that each of us are, designing and building first person technologies. And I have a specific one to recommend, from Customer Commons:

This is Omie:

She’s the brainlet of Customer Commons: She is, literally, a clean slate. And she is your clean slate. Not Apple’s. Not Google’s. Not some phone company’s.

She can be what you want her to be, do what you want her to do, run whatever apps you want her to run, and use data you alone collect and control.

Being a clean slate makes Omie very different.

On your iPhone and iPad you can run only what Apple lets you run, and you can get only from Apple’s own store. On an Android phone you have to run Google’s pre-loaded apps, which means somebody is already not only telling you what you must do, but is following you as well.

Omie uses Android, but bows to Google only in respect of its intention to create an open Linux-based OS for mobile devices.

So Omie is yours, alone. Fully private, by design, from the start.

Omie needs crowdfunding. More specifically, she needs somebody who is good at doing crowdfunding videos, to help us out. We have the script.  If you’re up for helping out, contact me. I can be DM’d via @dsearls, or emailed via my first  name @ my last name dot com. Thanks!

 

 

The Coming Century of War Against Your Computer

Read this short post on Intel Processors to Become OS Locked, then listen to Cory Doctorow's The Coming Century of War Against Your Computer. Cory's actual talk is about 45 minutes followed by another 45 minutes of question and answer.

As Cory points out, computers exercise a particular intersection of property and human rights that makes for some interesting societal questions. Sometimes, the questions are ones for which we've already got a meatspace precedent that we choose to ignore when computers are involved. For example, can your employer spy on what you put in email because they own the network and computer? Many find nothing wrong with that. After all, they own the computer and the network. But we'd come to different conclusions about a plan to spy on all the conversations in the lunchroom even though they own the building.

In other cases we are faced with entirely new situations. Can I decide what software runs on my cochlear implants or does the manufacturer control that? What if a competitor comes out a much better algorithm that is compatible with my implants? Who controls the code? The owner? The user (who many not be the same person)? The manufacturer? Who has what property rights and when do human rights trump them?

I'm a big fan of Cory's. I like his books and I think he's eminently well-spoken. His novels raise these issues and tell great stories at the same time. In a similar vein, I just had my class of Computer Science seniors read Rainbows End (by Venor Vinge), a book that's full of technology that raises these kinds of questions inside the vehicle of a fun story.

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Short Attention Spasm Theater

This post is a hat tip toward Rusty Foster’s Today In Tabs, which I learned about from Clay Shirky during a digressive conversation about the subscription economy (the paid one, not the one Rusty and other free spirits operate in), and how lately I’m tending not to renew mine after they run out, thanks to my wife’s rational approach to subscriptions:

  1. Don’t obey the first dozen or so renewal notices because the offers will get better if you neglect them.
  2. See if you miss them.
  3. If you don’t miss them, don’t renew.

While thinking about a headline for this post, I found that searches for theater and theatre are both going down, but the former seems to be holding a slight lead.

While at Google Trends, I also did a humbling vanity search. Trust me: it helps not to give a shit.

Other results::: tired is up… stupid still leads dumb, but dumb is catching up… Papua New Guinea leads in porn. And Sri Lanka takes the gold in searches for sex. They scored 100. India gets the silver with 88, and Ethiopia settles for the bronze with 87. Out of the running are Bangladesh (85), Pakistan (78), Nepal (74), Vietnam (72), Cambodia (69), Timor-Leste (67) and Papua New Guinea (66) — perhaps because porn is doing the job for them.

Michael Robertson continues to invent stuff. His latest is Clock Radio, a Chrome browser extension that lets you tune in, by genre or search, to what’s playing now on the world’s Internet radio stations. Links: bit.ly/ClockRadio & bit.ly/ClockRadioVideo. Here’s what mine looks like right now:

I’m not surprised (and I don’t know why) that most of the stations playing music I like are French.

David Drummond, SVP, Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer at Google, will talk about The Fight for Internet Freedom tomorrow at Stanford. Register by 5:30pm Pacific, today. @Liberationtech is hosting. Oh, and Google Fiber may be coming to your city.

George Packer says Amazon may be good for customers but bad for books, because Amazon is a monopoly in that category. Paul Krugman meanwhile says the same kinda thing about Comcast, and the whole cablecom biz. He’s not alone. Nobody likes the proposed Comcast acquisition of Time Warner Cable, other than Comcast, their captive regulators and their big-biz amen corner in what’s left of the press. (Watch: it’ll pass.) FWIW, Quartz has some nice charts explaining what’s going on.

What’s the word for a business nobody dominates because basically the whole thing, as we knew it, looks like Florida a week after Chicxulub? That’s what we have with journalism. The big reptiles are gone or terminal. The flying ones are gonna be birds one of these eras, but for now they’re just flying low and working on survival. For a good picture of what that looks like, re-dig A Day in the Life of a Digital Editor, 2013, which Alexis Madrigal posted in The Atlantic on March 13 of last year. In it he said,

…your total budget for the year is $12,000, a thousand bucks a month. (We could play this same game with $36,000, too. The lessons will remain the same.) What do you do?

Here are some options:

1. Write a lot of original pieces yourself. (Pro: Awesome. Con: Hard, slow.)
2. Take partner content. (Pro: Content! Con: It’s someone else’s content.)
3. Find people who are willing to write for a small amount of money. (Pro: Maybe good. Con: Often bad.)
4. Find people who are willing to write for no money. (Pro: Free. Con: Crapshoot.)
5. Aggregate like a mug. (Pro: Can put smartest stuff on blog. Con: No one will link to it.)
6. Rewrite press releases so they look like original content. (Pro: Content. Con: You suck.)

Don’t laugh. These are actual content strategies out there in the wilds of the Internet. I am sure you have encountered them.

Myself, I’m very partial to one and five. I hate two and six. For my own purposes here, let’s say you do, too, and throw them out.

That leaves three and four…

You’re reading #4. Flap flap flap…

Speaking of trash talk, Polygon says NBA 2K14 gives you a technical foul for swearing at the game.

I like the Fargo2 model:

Want to know where your Internet comes from? Look here. While it lasts. Because what that describes is infrastructure for the free and open world wide Internet we’ve known since the beginning. Thanks to the NSA spying, national leaders are now floating the idea of breaking the Internet into pieces, with national and regional borders. That seems to be where Angela Merkel is headed by suggesting a Europe-only network.

Progress: there’s an insurance business in protecting companies from data breaches. No, they’re not selling it to you, because you don’t matter. This is for big companies only.

Finally, because you’re not here — or you wisely don’t want to be here — dig what parking in New York looks like right now, after two weeks of snow, rain, freezing, melting and re-freezing:

parking in NYC

Let’s hope it thaws before alternate side parking goes back into effect.

Into the dark

The power is out and won’t be back for awhile. That’s what the guys in the hard hats tell me, down where they’re working, at the intersection where our dead-end street is born. Many trucks are gathered there, with bright night-work lights illuminating whatever went wrong with the day’s power pole replacement job. The notices they left on our doors said they’d be done by five, but now it’s eight and I’m sitting in a house lit by candles, working on the nth draft of a writing assignment, in the absence of a steady flow of electrons off the power grid. Also in the absence of connection except to the physical world alone. Connectivity = 0. My laptop is good for another four hours or so, but without a connection I lack the building materials I need for constructing the piece. So I’m writing this instead.

Some other utilities are unaffected by the power outage, of course. I have matches, and can fire up the gas stove. Water runs, cold and cold. It also drips out of the little motel-grade refrigerator upstairs, defrosting itself into towels I’ve fed under it. The freezer in the kitchen remains closed, to keep whatever is in there from thawing and requiring use in the next couple days. What I’m witnessing is a gradual breakdown that is easy to imagine accelerating fast, especially if I was coping instead with a wildfire or an earthquake.

Three interesting facts about California and the people who — like me — choose to live here:

  1. The state tree is the California redwood. What made these things evolve into groves of spires with thick bark, standing at heights beyond three hundred feet, with branches in mature specimens that commence a hundred or more feet above the ground. I say they are adapted to fire. A cross section of a mature redwood will feature black edges to rings spaced thirty, fifty, two hundred apart, all marking survival of wildfire at a single location.
  2. The state flower is the California poppy. Here is what makes poppies thrive in dry rocky soils that are poor for agriculture but rich with  freshly exposed minerals: they are adapted to earthquakes. More than any other state, except maybe Alaska, California is a product of recent earth movement. Imagine looking at the southern Appalachians in the U.S. or the Blue Mountains of Australia, two million years ago. It’s not hard: they would pretty much like they do now. If you looked at the site of the future California from anywhere two million years ago, you would recognize nothing, unless you were a geologist who knew what to look for. All of California has been raised up or ferried in by tectonic forces that have been working at full throttle for a couple hundred million years, and aren’t moving any slower today.
  3. Neither of those facts teaches caution to human beings who choose to live here. For example, the home where I write this, in Santa Barbara, has been approached, unsuccessfully, by two wildfires in recent years. The Tea Fire in November 2008 burned 210 homes and the Jesusita Fire in May 2009 burned other 80 more. The Tea Fire came straight at us, incinerating everything but rocks and soil for a mile in its path before stopping a quarter mile and ten houses short of where I’m sitting right now. (Here is my report on the aftermath.) The Coyote Fire in September 1964 burned the same area, and much more. The Sycamore Fire in 1979 came even closer, burning houses just up the street from here.

“We live in the age of full convenience,” John Updike wrote, at a time when it made sense to think copiers and fax machines marked some kind of end state.* But the lessons that matter at the moment arise from the absence of the two most essential utilities in my life, and probably yours too: the electric grid and the data network. (Yes, I can get on the Net by tethering my laptop to my mobile phone, but both use batteries that will run out, and the phone is down below 20% already anyway.) So here are three lessons that come to me, here in the dark, all of which we are sure to continue ignoring::::

  1. Civilization is thin. A veneer. Under it nature remains vast, violent and provisional. In the long run, which may end at any time for any of us, nature will prove no easier to tame than the tides. For three great perspectives on this, I highly recommend John McPhee‘s The Control of Nature. The title is taken from a plea to students, carved into sandstone over the door of a building at the University of Wyoming in Laramie: STRIVE ON — THE CONTROL OF NATVRE IS WON, NOT GIVEN. (I also recommend this blog post, by Themon The Bard, who went to UW and provides a photo.) Its chapters are “Iceland versus the volcanoes,” “Los Angeles versus the San Gabriel Mountains” and “The Army Corps of Engineers versus the Mississippi River.” The New Yorker re-ran a set piece from the third of those, right after Hurricane Katrina, which produced what New Orleans natives call “The Flood.” In it McPhee describes what would happen to New Orleans when a levee is breached. Here is the original, published years before reality certified true McPhee’s prophesy.
  2. Humanity is insane. A good working definition of psychosis is disconnection of the mind from reality. As a species we have proven ourselves nuts for the duration, as the examples above attest. Present company included. (Further proof: war, genocide.) It should be clear by now that humanity is not merely at the top of the food chain around the world, but a pestilence to everything God (or whatever) put in position to be exploited in the short term, regardless of the obvious fact that it took approximately forever to put those resources in place, and how much of it cannot be replaced. While it’s true that in the very long run (a billion years or few), the aging Sun will cook the planet anyway, we are doing our best to get the job done in the geologic present. This is why many geologists propose renaming our current epoch “Anthropocene.” Bonus question: Why do political conservatives care so little about the long-term conservation of resources that are, undeniably, in limited supply and are clearly bound for exhaustion at any consumption rate? Before categorizing me, please note that I am a registered independent, and in sympathy with economic conservatives in a number of ways (for example, I do like, appreciate and understand how the market works, and in general I favor smaller government). But on environmental issues I’m with those who give a shit. Most of them happen to be liberals (or, in the current vernacular, progressives). George Lakoff provides some answers here (and in several books). But, while I love George, and while he has probably influenced my thinking more than any other human being, it still baffles that opposing conservation of resources fails to seem oxymoronic to most avowed conservatives.
  3. The end is in sight. Somewhere I’ve kept a newspaper story that did a great job of listing all the resources our species is bound to use up, at current rates of exploitation, and how long that will take. On the list were not only the obvious “reserves,” such like oil, gas, coal and uranium, but other stuff as well: helium, lithium, platinum, thorium, tungsten, neodymium, dysprosium, niobium… stuff we use to make stuff that ranges from balloons to hard drives to hybrid car engines. Many of the heavier elements appear to have been deposited here during bombardments by asteroids several billion years ago, when the Earth has hard enough not to absorb them. Helium, one of the most abundant elements in the universe, is produced on Earth mostly by decay of radioactive elements in certain kinds of natural gas. Much of the world’s helium comes from the ground here in the U.S., where our enlightened congresspeople decided a few decades back to hand the reserves over to private industry, where “the market” would decide best how it would be used. So, naturally, we are due to run out of it within maybe a couple dozen years, and have not yet found a way to replace it. Read on.

[Later...] I wrote this three nights ago, but didn’t put it up until now because I was already way overdue on the  writing assignment I mentioned up top, and I had to deal with other pressing obligations as well. So I just went through the post, copy-edited it a bit and added some links.


* Special thanks goes to anybody who can find the original quote. I’ve used it so often on the Web that I’ve effectively spammed search results with unintended SEO. The closest thing I can find is this from Google Books, which fails to contain the searched-for nugget, but still demonstrates why Updike’s criticism earns the same high rank as his fiction.

Close to home

Fort Lee has been in the news lately. Seems traffic access to the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee was sphinctered for political purposes, at the spot marked “B” on this map here: The spot marked “A” is the site of my first home: 2063 Hoyt Avenue. Here’s how it looked in 1920: My grandfather, George W. Searls, built it in 1900 or so. He and grandma, Ethel F. (née Englert) Searls, raised thee children there: Ethel M. Searls, born in 1905, Allen H. Searls (my father), born in 1908, and Grace (née Searls) Apgar, born in 1912. Grandpa died in 1935, but Grandma and Aunt Ethel lived here until 1955, when I was eight years old. It was in a fine old neighborhood of similar mansard-roofed homes, most of which were built before the George Washington Bridge showed up and became the town’s landmark feature. Pop, who grew up climbing the Palisades and had no fear of heights, helped build the bridge, mostly by rigging cables. Not long after finding a place to stay in New York in Fall of 2012, my wife and I took a walk across the bridge to visit the old neighborhood. I knew the old house was gone, the land under it paved over by Bruce Reynolds Boulevard. What I didn’t expect was finding that the entire neighborhood had been erased. See the brown area on the map above, between the highway and Main Street? That was it. Palisade Avenue, behind Hoyt, is now a house-less strip of rotting pavement flanked and veined by wild grass. The only animal life we spotted was a large groundhog that ran to an old storm drain when we approached. Little of the Fort Lee I knew as a kid is still there. The only familiar sights on Main Street are City Hall and the old fire station. Dig this: City Hall also shows up in the background of this shot of Mom with my cousin Paul and I, when we were both a few months old, in April 1948. This street too has been obliterated: replaced by stores and parking lots, with no trace of its old self. When I was a kid in the ’50s, my grandparents’ generation — all born in the second half of the 19th Century — was still going strong. One relative I remember well was great-aunt Eva Quackenbush, Grandpa Searls’ older sister. Here she is with Mom, and the baby me. Eva was born in 1853, and was twelve years old when President Lincoln was shot — and event she talked about. She visited often from her home in St. Louis, and died just a few days short of 100 years old, in 1953. Living long is a Searls family trait. Grandma made it to 107 and Aunt Grace to 101 (she passed just last month, fun and lucid to the end). So to me the world before cars, electricity and other modern graces was a familiar one, because I heard so many stories about it. Grandma grew up in The Bronx, at 742 East 142nd Street, when it looked like this: Today, according to Google’s StreetView, it looks like this: The red A marks 732. On the left, behind that wall, is a “towed car” lot. It sits atop a mound of rubble that was once “old Lincoln Hospital”: According to the Wikipedia article on Lincoln Hospital, “In 1895, after more than half a century of occupying various sites in Manhattan, the Board of Trustees purchased a large lot in the South Bronx—then a semi-rural area of the city—at the corner of 141st Street and Southern Boulevard.” This is a morning view, lit from the southeast, looking north across 141st Street. Grandma’s place was on the back side of the hospital. Amazing to think that this scene came and went between the two shots above it. Grandma’s father, Henry Roman Englert, was the head of the Steel and Copper Plate Engravers Union in the city. His trade was also destroyed by industrial progress, but was an art in its time. Here he is, as a sharp young man with a waxed mustache: Henry was a fastidious dude who, on arriving home from work, would summon his four daughters to appear and stand in a row. He would then run his white glove over some horizontal surface and wipe it on a white shoulder of a daughter’s dress, expecting no dust to leave a mark on either glove or girl. Or so the story went. Henry was the son of German immigrants: Christian Englert and Jacobina Rung, both of Alsace, now part of France. They were brewers, and had a tavern on the east side of Manhattan on 110th Street. Jacobina was a Third Order Carmelite nun, and was buried in its brown robes. Both were born in 1825. Christian died in 1886 while picking hops in Utica. Jacobina died in 1904. Grandma met Grandpa in 1903, when she was twenty and he was forty. She was working as a cleaning woman in the Fort Lee boarding house where Grandpa lived while he worked as a carpenter. One day she saw him laying asleep, and bent down to kiss him. He woke, reached up, and kissed her back. Romance commenced. Grandma didn’t like to admit having done cleaning work, insisting always that she was “lace curtain Irish,” to distinguish her family from “shanty Irish.” When ethnic matters came up in conversation over dinner, she would often say “All for the Irish stand up,” and everybody would rise. In fact she was only half Irish. Her mother, Catherine “Kitty” Trainor, died in her thirties. Henry later married an Italian woman and produced more progeny, only one of which was ever mentioned by Grandma. That was Harry, who died at age five. The largest framed photograph in Grandma’s house was one of Harry, looking up and holding a toy. Kitty’s dad was Thomas Trainor, who came over from Ireland in 1825 at age 15 to escape England’s harsh penal laws. (He shipped out of Letterkenny with an uncle, but the Trainors were from south of there. Trainor was anglicized from the Gaelic Tréinfhir, meaning “strong man.”) Thomas worked as an indentured servant in the carriage trade, and married Catherine McLaughlin, the daughter of his boss. Thomas then prospered in the same business, building and fixing carriages at his shop at the south end of Broadway. His two daughters were Kitty and “Aunt Mag” Meyer, whom Grandma often quoted. The line I best remember is, “You’ve got it in your hand. Now put it away.” Mag taught Grandma how to walk quietly while large numbers of other people in the house were sleeping. Grandma passed the same advice to her grandkids, including me: “Walk on the balls of your feet, toes first.” The Trainors also had a son, who ran away to fight in the Civil War. When the war ended and the boy didn’t come home, Thomas went down to Washington and found his son in a hospital there, recovering from a wound. The doctors said the boy would be home by Christmas. And, when Christmas came, the boy indeed arrived, in a coffin. Or so the story went. An interesting fact about Fort Lee: it was the original Hollywood. The Searls family, like most of the town, was involved. Grandpa was D.W. Griffith’s head carpenter, building film sets such as this one here. Here he is (bottom right) with his crew. Here’s a link for the Fort Lee Film Commission, featuring samples of the silent movies made there. Among the extras are family members. Lillian Gish and Lon Chaney both boarded upstairs at 2063 Hoyt. So did the dad of the late Elliot Richardson, a cabinet member in the Nixon and Ford administrations. Time flies, and so do people, places and memories. My parents’ generation is now gone, and family members of my own generation are starting to move on. I can count ten places I used to live that are now gone as well, including my high school. Kevin Kelly told me a couple years ago that none of us, even the famous, will be remembered in a thousand years. I’m sure he’s right. But I still feel the urge to pour as much as I can of what I know into the public domain, which is what you’re witnessing now, if you’re still with me at the bottom of a long post. I believe it helps to see what was, as well as what is. For example, this view up Hoyt Avenue from the site of the old Searls place, in 2012, is now filled with a high-rise that is almost complete. The little bridge-less town where my grandparents met and my father and his sisters grew up is now a henge of high-rises. Fort Lee itself is now also known as Fort Lee Koreatown. In this constantly shifting urban context the current scandal seems a drop in the bucket of time.  

Is it too late to save the Net from the carriers?

Eye of SauronIn Big Cable’s Sauron-Like Plan for One Infrastructure to Rule Us All, Susan Crawford (@SCrawford) paints a bleak picture of what awaits us after television (aka cable) finishes eating the Internet. But that’s just in our homes. Out in the mobile sphere, telcos have been eating the Net as well — in collusion with cable. That’s one of the points Marvin Ammori makes in We’re About to Lose Net Neutrality — And the Internet as We Know It. Both pieces are in Wired, which is clearly on our side with this thing — especially since, if Marvin is right, Wired might someday need to pay the carriers for privileged carriage on what used to be the free and open (aka “neutral”) Internet. Specifically,

Net neutrality is a dead man walking. The execution date isn’t set, but it could be days, or months (at best). And since net neutrality is the principle forbidding huge telecommunications companies from treating users, websites, or apps differently — say, by letting some work better than others over their pipes — the dead man walking isn’t some abstract or far-removed principle just for wonks: It affects the internet as we all know it.

Once upon a time, companies like AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and others declared a war on the internet’s foundational principle: that its networks should be “neutral” and users don’t need anyone’s permission to invent, create, communicate, broadcast, or share online. The neutral and level playing field provided by permissionless innovation has empowered all of us with the freedom to express ourselves and innovate online without having to seek the permission of a remote telecom executive.

But today, that freedom won’t survive much longer if a federal court — the second most powerful court in the nation behind the Supreme Court, the DC Circuit — is set to strike down the nation’s net neutrality law, a rule adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in 2010. Some will claim the new solution “splits the baby” in a way that somehow doesn’t kill net neutrality and so we should be grateful. But make no mistake: Despite eight years of public and political activism by multitudes fighting for freedom on the internet, a court decision may soon take it away.

He continues,

How did we get here?

The CEO of AT&T told an interviewer back in 2005 that he wanted to introduce a new business model to the internet: charging companies like Google and Yahoo! to reliably reach internet users on the AT&T network. Keep in mind that users already pay to access the internet and that Google and Yahoo! already pay other telecom companies — often called backbone providers — to connect to these internet users.

That was eight years ago. In response to the same AT&T salvo, I wrote Saving the Net: How to Keep the Carriers from Flushing the Net Down the Tubes in Linux Journal. It was submitted in November 2005 and ran in the February 2006 issue. In it I outlined three scenarios:

  1. The Carriers Win
  2. The Public Workaround
  3. Fight with Words and Not Just Deeds
Neither #2 nor #3 have come to pass, except in very limited ways. So, since #1 seems to be on the verge of happening, here’s what I wrote about it. There is a fair amount of link rot, but the points are still sharp — and depressing to contemplate:
Scenario I: The Carriers Win
Be afraid. Be very afraid. –Kevin Werbach.

Are you ready to see the Net privatized from the bottom to the top? Are you ready to see the Net’s free and open marketplace sucked into a pit of pipes built and fitted by the phone and cable companies and run according to rules lobbied by the carrier and content industries?

Do you believe a free and open market should be “Your choice of walled garden” or “Your choice of silo”? That’s what the big carrier and content companies believe. That’s why they’re getting ready to fence off the frontiers.

And we’re not stopping it.

With the purchase and re-animation of AT&T‘s remains, the collection of former Baby Bells called SBC will become the largest communications company in the US–the new Ma Bell. Verizon, comprised of the old GTE plus MCI and the Baby Bells SBC didn’t grab, is the new Pa Bell. That’s one side of the battlefield, called The Regulatory Environment. Across the battlefield from Ma and Pa Bell are the cable and entertainment giants: Comcast, Cox, TimeWarner and so on. Covering the battle are the business and tech media, which love a good fight.

The problem is that all of these battling companies–plus the regulators–hate the Net.

Maybe hate is too strong of a word. The thing is, they’re hostile to it, because they don’t get it. Worse, they only get it in one very literal way. See, to the carriers and their regulators, the Net isn’t a world, a frontier, a marketplace or a commons. To them, the Net is a collection of pipes. Their goal is to beat the other pipe-owners. To do that, they want to sell access and charge for traffic.

There’s nothing wrong with being in the bandwidth business, of course.

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But some of these big boys want to go farther with it. They don’t see themselves as a public utility selling a pure base-level service, such as water or electricity (which is what they are, by the way, in respect to the Net). They see themselves as a source of many additional value-adds, inside the pipes. They see opportunities to sell solutions to industries that rely on the Net–especially their natural partner, the content industry.

They see a problem with freeloaders. On the tall end of the power curve, those ‘loaders are AOL, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and other large sources of the container cargo we call “content”. Out on the long tail, the freeloaders are you and me. The big ‘loaders have been getting a free ride for too long and are going to need to pay. The Information Highway isn’t the freaking interstate. It’s a system of private roads that needs to start charging tolls. As for the small ‘loaders, it hardly matters that they’re a boundless source of invention, innovation, vitality and new business. To the carriers, we’re all still just “consumers”. And we always will be.

“Piracy” is a bigger issue to the cargo sources than to the carriers. To the carriers, “fighting piracy” is a service offering as well as a lever on regulators to give carriers more control of the pipes. “You want us to help you fight piracy?”, the transport companies say to the content companies. “Okay, let’s deal.” And everybody else’s freedoms–to invent, to innovate, to do business, to take advantage of free markets and to make free culture–get dealt away.

The carriers have been lobbying Congress for control of the Net since Bush the Elder was in office. Once they get what they want, they’ll put up the toll booths, the truck scales, the customs checkpoints–all in a fresh new regulatory environment that formalizes the container cargo business we call packet transport. This new environment will be built to benefit the carriers and nobody else. The “consumers”? Oh ya, sure: they’ll benefit too, by having “access” to all the good things that carriers ship them from content providers. Is there anything else? No.

Crocodile grins began to grow on the faces of carriers as soon as it became clear that everything we call “media” eventually would flow through their pipes. All that stuff we used to call TV, radio, newspapers and magazines will just be “content” moving through the transport layer of the pipe system they own and control. Think it’s a cool thing that TV channels are going away? So do the carriers. The future à lá carte business of media will depend on one medium alone: the Net. And the Net is going to be theirs.

The Net’s genie, which granted all those e-commerce wishes over the past ten years, won’t just get shoved back in the bottle. No, that genie will be piped and priced by the packet. The owners of those pipes have a duty to their stockholders to make the most of the privileged position they’ve been waiting to claim ever since they got blind-sided, back in the 80s and 90s. (For an excellent history of how the European PTTs got snookered by the Net and the Web, see Paul F. Kunz’ Bringing the World Wide Web to America.) They have assets to leverage, dammit, and now they can.

Does it matter that countless markets flourish in the wide spaces opened by agreements and protocols that thrive at the grace of carriage? Or that those markets are threatened by new limits, protections and costs imposed at the pipe level?

No.

Thus, the Era of Net Facilitation will end. The choke points are in the pipes, the permission is coming from the lawmakers and regulators, and the choking will be done. No more free rides, folks. Time to pay. It’s called creating scarcity and charging for it. The Information Age may be here, but the Industrial Age is hardly over. In fact, there is no sign it will ever end.

The carriers are going to lobby for the laws and regulations they need, and they’re going to do the deals they need to do. The new system will be theirs, not ours. The NEA principle–Nobody owns it, Everybody can use it, Anybody can improve it–so familiar to the Free Software and Open Source communities will prove to be a temporary ideal, a geek conceit. Code is not Law. Culture is not Free. From the Big Boys’ perspective, code and culture are stuff nobody cares about.

That’s us: Nobody.

The new carrier-based Net will work in the same asymmetrical few-to-many, top-down pyramidal way made familiar by TV, radio, newspapers, books, magazines and other Industrial Age media now being sucked into Information Age pipes. Movement still will go from producers to consumers, just like it always did. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Literally.

The deals that matter will be done between tops of pyramids. Hey, it’s easier to do business with the concentrated few than the dispersed many. The Long Tail can whip itself into a frenzy, but all the tech magazines and blogs in the world are no match for the tails and teeth of these old sharks. (Hey, Long Tailer, when’s the last time you treated your erected representatives to private movie screenings, drafted their legislation, ghosted their committee reports, made a blockbuster movie or rolled fiber across oceans?)

Google and Yahoo and Amazon and eBay and e-commerce and free software and open source and blogging and podcasting and all the rest of that idealistic junk have had their decade in the sun. Hell, throw in Apple and Microsoft, too. Who cares? Them? Doesn’t matter how big they are. They don’t matter. They’re late to the game.

We all know the content business got clobbered by this peer-to-peer crap. But the carriers took a bath by building out the Net’s piped infrastructure. They sank $billions by the dozen into fiber and copper and routers and trunks, waiting for the day when they’d be in a position to control the new beast fleshed on the skeleton that they built.

That Day Has Come.

It came earlier this month, when the November 7, 2005, issue of BusinessWeek hit the Web’s streets. In that issue are “Rewired and Ready for Combat” and “At SBC, It’s All About ‘Scale and Scope’”, which features an interview with Edward Whiteacre, CEO of SBC. Here’s the gist of it:

How concerned are you about Internet upstarts like Google (GOOG), MSN, Vonage, and others?

How do you think they’re going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain’t going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there’s going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they’re using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?

The Internet can’t be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo! (YHOO) or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!

What’s your approach to regulation? Explain, for example, the difference between you and Verizon in how you are approaching regulatory approval for Telco TV [digital-TV service offered by telecoms].

The cable companies have an agreement with the cities: They pay a percentage of their revenue for a franchise right to broadcast TV. We have a franchise in every city we operate in based on providing telephone service.

Now, all of a sudden, without any additional payment, the cable companies are putting telephone communication down their pipes and we’re putting TV signals. If you want us to get a franchise agreement for TV, then let’s make the cable companies get a franchise for telephony.

If cable can put telephone down their existing franchise I should be able to put TV down my franchise. It’s kind of a “what’s fair is fair” deal. I think it’s just common sense.

What if the regulators don’t agree?

Then there won’t be any competition–there will be a cable-TV monopoly.

I know you’re a competitive person. Who are your biggest competitors?

Our big competition in the future is with the cable companies. Verizon’s going to be a player, and certainly I want to compete. And I want our shareowners to do better than anyone else.

If I were BusinessWeek, I’d ask:

What about the free and open marketplace that has grown on the Net itself? Do you have any interest in continuing to support that? Or in lobbying forms of deregulation that foster it? Or are you just in a holy war with the cable companies inside the same old regulatory environment you’ve known since forever?

I’d ask:

If you were to buy, say, Level 3, would you start to filter and restrict content at the transport level, to extract the profits you want, without regard for other market consequences? Would Cisco, builder of the great Firewall of China, help out?

I’d ask:

Which do you prefer: The regulatory environment where your business has adapted itself for more than a century, or a completely free and open marketplace like the rest of us enjoy sitting on top of your pipes?

Whiteacre’s answers, of course, would be less relevant than the obvious vector of his company’s intentions. For a summary of that, let’s return to Lauren Weinstein of People for Internet Responsibility:

Of course, the truth of the matter is that the telcos have been moving rapidly through massive consolidation–and a range of other tactics–to create an environment where “competition” will only be a pale reflection of what we were originally promised, with only a few gigantic players in control of all telecom resources and policies. Like the robot cop in Terminator 2 that reformed from blown-apart mercurial blobs of metal, the “golden age” of telecom competition is already giving way to empire.

Don’t blame BusinessWeek for not asking the important questions or for missing the Carriers vs. Net story. Biz pubs love to cover vendor sports. And there’s certainly a big story here.

Great distraction, vendor sports. While we’re busy watching phone and cable giants fight over a closed battlefield that ought to be open, we miss Net-hostile moves by other parties that result in other lost freedoms.

Take ICANN, for instance, where a new .com Registry Agreement allows Verisign to raise the rates for .com names by 7% annually, and to operate .com in perpetuity, and to “mak[e] commercial use of, or collect, traffic data regarding domain names or non-existent domain names”, and to reap other rewards for what few other than Verisign would agree is a good job. Bret Faucett summarizes the darkest shadow across the noir scenario we’ve already described:

The theme running through all of these is that ICANN and Verisign are treating the .COM registry as a private resource. It’s not. The root servers and TLD servers are public resources. We should treat them like that.

Bret has one of the most eloquent voices in the wilderness of clues the Big Boys would rather avoid. So does Susan Crawford, who was just, perhaps miraculously, named to the ICANN board.

For Bret, Susan and the rest of the restless natives of this new world, what matters most is Saving the Net–keeping it a free and open marketplace for everybody–while also making sure that carriers of all kinds can compete and succeed while providing much of the infrastructure on which that marketplace resides. That means we need to understand the Net as more than a bunch of pipes and business on the Net as more than transporting and selling “content”.

This isn’t a trivial issue. It’s a matter of life and death for the Net itself. How are we going to fight?

Read on.

You can do that here. Also dig Marvin Ammori’s own follow-up. Meanwhile the Net continues to cry out for a definition all can agree on. Toward that goal, I wrote this in The Intention Economy:

To simplify things a bit, look at the Net’s future as a battleground where any and only fight it out. On the side of any are the Net’s protocols. On the side of only are governments and businesses with interests in restricting and controlling access to the Net, and thwarting many purposes to which the Net might be put. This battle also happens inside our own heads, because we tend to view the Net both ways. Ironies abound.

For example, the Internet is often called a “network of networks,” yet the Net was designed to transcend the connections it employs, and is therefore not reducible to them. It is not comprised of wiring, and is not a “service,” even though it’s called one by ISPs.

So let’s look at the sides here. On the any side, “net-heads” (yes, they call themselves that) frame their understanding of the Net in terms of its protocols, and those protocols’ virtues. On the only side, “bell-heads” (yes, they call themselves that, too) frame their understanding of the Net in terms of wiring infrastructure and billing systems.

To net-heads, the Internet is a vast new virtual space with qualities such as neutrality and generativity. To maximize economic opportunity and vitality, those virtues need to be maximized—even if phone and cable TV businesses don’t wish to acknowledge or support those virtues.

To bell-heads, the Internet’s “network of networks” is a collection of mostly private properties, with which owners should be free to do what they please. So, if what pleases them is throttling certain kinds of data traffic to maximize QoS (Quality of Service), too bad. They are The Market, which will grow best if they act in their own economic self-interest. Hey, look at all the good they’ve done already. (Want dial-up again, anyone?) And look at the robust competition between cable and phone companies. Isn’t that producing enough economic benefits for everybody?

Since net-heads tend to make social arguments while bell-heads tend to make economic ones, net-heads get positioned on the left and bell-heads on the right. Between the two are boundless technical arguments that aren’t worth getting into here.

I’m a net-head, but one who wants both sides to recognize that the Net’s original design is encompassing and beneficial for economies and societies everywhere. That is, I believe the argument for the Net is the same as the one for gravity, sunlight, the periodic table and pine trees: that it is part of nature itself. What makes the Net different from all those other products of Nature is that humans made the Net for theselves.

The Net’s nature—its essential purpose—is to support everything that uses it, just as the essential purpose of a clock is to tell time. So, while the Net today relies on phone and cable connections, its support-everything purpose should not be subordinated to legacy phone and cable TV businesses. The Internet, in the neutral and generative form defined by its protocols, is a far larger and more interesting market environment than the one defined by the parochial and limited interests of phone and cable companies, both of which are desperately trying to hold on to their legacy businesses, and would be better served by embracing all the opportunities the Internet opens up, for everybody.

We’re going to evolve past those old businesses anyway. Phone and cable company engineers know that, and so do many of the business leaders in those companies, even as they fight to protect their legacy businesses at all costs.

As a pro-business guy, I sympathize with phone and cable companies, which are cursed by the need to maintain margins in existing business while building out infrastructures that obsolete those businesses (at least as we know them). These companies get little credit (especially from net-heads) for their genuine innovations, and for their ability to innovate more. We do need them, whether we like them or not…

So, then

The Net’s capacity to support limitless economic activity and growth will win in the long run because it will prove out in the very marketplaces it support. But there will be a great deal of resistance along the way, as the narrow interests of both Big Government and Big Business try to contain the Net’s potential within the scope of their own ambitions. Still the evolutionary direction of the Net is toward ambient connectivity. Whatever that looks and feels like, it won’t resemble either the phone system or cable TV. Rather it will look like everything, together.

That’s the long-term optimistic view. Meanwhile, there is much cause for pessimism in the short term.

The American Way of Privacy

My sister Jan — student of history, Navy vet and a Wise One — sent me an email a couple days ago that I thought would make a good guest post. She said yes to that suggestion and here it is…

Is the new born-in-connectivity generation going to re-define privacy?   They may try — from the comfort of their parents’ homes or the cocoon of youth — but first they have to understand what constitutes privacy.  They are going to learn, albeit the hard way, that what you make available is no longer private and therefore you cannot expect it to be protected by the norms of privacy.  The norms of privacy, however, aren’t universally understood.

America is one of the few — perhaps the only if we’re talking large scale — modern countries that was created though one people’s individual exploration and individual settlement into an ever-moving frontier.  After initial sputtering wealth-seeking attempts, the true settlement along the coast line of north America was primarily under private sponsorship rather than military incursion.   It was “relatively” benign colonization in that the goal was not to annihilate, enslave or ‘save’ the indigenous people through religious conversion or education.  The arriving colonists primarily sought freedom to work and worship and the opportunity to better their lives and raise their social standing.  The principal asset needed to obtain those goals was land, which was seen as limitless and free for the taking provided the native population withdrew beyond the frontier and one had the strength and determination to tame the land as needed.

The leading edge of this frontier movement started with those who built the original settlements in the early 17th century and continued to move out in the lower 48 until the mid-20th century and in very remote areas continues still.  The “frontier” society was composed of people who took the initiative and individually ventured into new areas where there was little law, oversight or judgement.  Although they brought morals and manners of every social strata, they also had to rely on each other and build some form of community where ever they settled in order to survive and thrive.  But in the frontier, in the place of established laws, there were protocols — unwritten codes of correct conduct — born of common consent and enforced by common acceptance  that enabled the community to function, grow and improve.  These protocols became the societal norm for most of the expansion into the US as it is today.

In the rest of the world connected by the major trade routes during this same period, societies grew and countries were formed primarily from the top down by gathering like together, or by force, and they were ruled through laws and protocols that came into being to enable financial investors, religions or conquerors to subjugate and /or extort populations.

But America came into existence and continued to expand as one contiguous country because the key unifying principle was individual liberty, and our legal and societal norms developed to support that principle.  This is what made America so singular as a nation in it’s early days. This is at the heart of what some call exceptionalism today.  Exceptional may be an egotistical term for it — as Putin just called it and as the push-backers deny — if one interprets exceptional as being “above average,” or “extraordinary” or any other superlative.  But America is exceptional if one uses the term in the context of “deviation from the norm.”

Now overlay this frontier concept onto the development of the Internet and our other networking systems.  How were they developed?  Was it by governments pushing out into or conquering a new frontier with laws and protocols in hand or was it by individuals determining the most effective protocols that would help them solidify what they had achieved and enable them to push the frontier borders out further, wider and deeper?

A unique concept of individual privacy was part of America’s frontier society;  it wasn’t a place of one’s past but rather a place of new starts, of re-creation, a place where a person made themselves anew, a place where it didn’t matter where or what you came from but rather where you were going and what you would do.  Therefore individual privacy became an expectation rather than an exception in the country that frontier society created.

However, that ingrained individualism is not the norm in the rest of the world, a world that technology has rapidly connected.  As of today, the concept of individual privacy is not universally understood, now that online, networked and connected  technology is at a confluence of cultures.  Because of the universality of the usage of connective technology, privacy is going to need a universally accepted definition.  And at the heart of privacy is the idea of identity:  is it vested in the individual or the collective?

A good word for a good cause

@BlakeHunskicer has a kickstarter project, Fleeing the War at Home: An interactive documentary introducing the crisis in Syria through the personal histories and dreams of Syrian refugees, with a few days and a few thousand dollars left to go.

Blake is one of the graduate students I got to know this last year as a visiting scholar in @JayRosen_NYU‘s Studio20 (@Studio20NYU) class at NYU. He’s a terrific journalist and photographer already, and will put both skills to good use for a good cause. Join me in helping him make it happen.

Rebuilding the future

In Bubkes, Stephen Lewis has lately been blogging with depth and insight on many topics — music, architecture, culture, infrastructure and events historic and current — in two cities with which he is intimately familiar: Istanbul and Sofia.

In Taksim Underpass: Ask Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Parker, Jane Jacobs, and Robert Moses, he writes,

By itself, the Turkish government’s plan to shunt traffic under and past Taksim Square might indeed lessen vehicular congestion, thus freeing this iconic location from dominance by motor vehicle traffic. In conjunction with the plan to replace all of Taksim Square and Gezi Park with a massive complex of shopping mall, mosque, and fantasy reconstruction of a 19th-century military barracks, however, the underpass will instead deliver more automobile traffic into the urban core, a further step toward transforming a vital, unplanned, dense, “legacy” urban agglomeration into just another suburb.

In Istanbul Conflicts From Afar: Issues and Aspersions, Headscarves and Rambo, he visits specious tales by the Turkish Prime Minister and his sympathizers, of protestors “harassing pious Muslim women and tearing off their headscarves” (among other offenses for which there is no confirming hard evidence), and compares them to equally wrong tales from the Vietnam War era. That was when “US antiwar activists were stigmatized — and crocodile tears poured forth — over reports that US soldiers returning from tours duty in Vietnam were being spit upon by opponents of the war.  Not a single person, however — neither spitter, spat upon, nor witness thereto — ever stepped forward to confirm any such attack.” In support of this he recalls an On the Media program confirming the purely propogandized nature of the claim. I just did some digging and found the program transcript. Here it is.

In Sofia, Bulgaria: From Protest to Protest to Protest, Steve visits “the Balkan blurring of what is said and what is, and what is and what could or should be” and how in Bulgaria “nothing is what is seems to be at first glance, and words, no matter how clear, often refer to alternate realities (click here for my long-ago online discourse on the wisdom and convenience of the oft-heard Bulgarian-language phrase po printsip, tr. ‘in principle‘).” His next post, Plovdiv, Bulgaria, 1997: Musicians Marching in Protest, recalls an earlier protest, again accompanied by an excellent photo.

In Istanbul: Water, Fountains, Taksim, and Infrastructural Tourism, Steve reports on joining a colleague in visiting “the layers of infrastructure — including Ottoman-era fountains — that have served Istanbul over centuries past and during its ten-fold growth in population during the twentieth.” I share with Steve a passion for what he and his colleague call “infrastructural tourism” — a practice which, he adds, “appears already to be underway, albeit searching for its own content and method, as per this report at Design Observer.” Wonderful link, that one. Go read that too.

In From the Archives: Fading Fragments of Legacy Infrastructure, he begins,

Two decades ago, I began to photograph the historic water fountains (çeșme) and water kiosks (sebil) of Istanbul.  I began, not with the grand and monumental, but with obscure and abandoned — those in backstreets, alleyways, and courtyards, functioning and non-functioning fragments of legacy urban infrastructure, overlooked by scholars,  their features surrendered to the elements, decay, and neglect. The forgotten origins and gradual disappearance of many of these structures seemed symbolic of larger urban processes of decline and abandonment — processes that are as central to the functioning and continuity of cities as are restoration and (re)development.

I’ve been doing something similar in New York and New Jersey, where I grew up. A few days ago, driving back to Manhattan from a meeting in Edgewater, New Jersey, I found myself following Google Maps’ navigation to the George Washington Bridge, turning onto Bruce Reynolds Boulevard before bearing right onto a ramp leading into the toll lanes. Paused at a light,  I saw on the right an old street sign marking the late Hoyt Avenue, and realized I was exactly where my parents lived when I was born: at 2063 Hoyt. Ninety-three years earlier, this was the view from that very same spot. (And here’s the larger photo set, with shots old and new. Credit for the old ones goes to my late father and to his little sister Grace, now 101 years old and doing fine.) I hope, when Steve next returns to New York (his home town), we can do some infrastructural touring together, cameras in hand.

Bonus link: Steve’s latest, Further to “Istanbul Conflicts From Afar:” Kudos, Mentions, and “Great Expectorations”, which cites this post as well.

The title of this post, Rebuilding the Future, is one I came up with back when I read Steve’s Taksim Underpass piece, and I wanted to post thoughts about the ironies that always surround the civic graces — especially infrastructure — that we choose to keep using (often for new purposes), or just to preserve, for generations to come. I didn’t go there, because I’ve already said enough and I’d rather that readers get into what Steve is writing and sharing. But I still kinda like the headline, so I’m letting it stand.

Identity systems, failing to communicate

There is a classic scene in Cool Hand Luke where the prison warden (Strother Martin), says to the handcuffed Luke, (Paul Newman), that he doesn’t like it when Luke talks to him as an equal. So, to teach a lesson, the warden smacks Luke hard, sending him rolling down a hill. The warden then says to the crowd of prisoners below, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

That’s also what we’ve got with login failures on the Web. Case in point: In response to The Illusion of the Gifted Child in Time, I tried posting this comment:

Standardized education and testing both deny that which makes us most human: our differences, as individuals, from everybody else. Whitman said it best: “I was never measured, and never will be measured… I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by a carpenter’s compass… I know that I am august. I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood. I see that the elementary laws never apologize.” Standardized schooling cannot respect any of that.

As the great teacher John Taylor Gatto put it, genius in children is common, not exceptional. Thus the job of the teacher is not to fill empty heads with curricula, but to remove whatever “prevents a child’s inherent genius from gathering itself.” The first thing to remove (which Gatto did, year after year, winning awards along the way), is standardized schooling. Or at least framing our understanding of education in standardized terms. We’ve been in that box so long we can no longer think outside of it. Yet we must. For lack of thinking outside that box, we ruin kids.

When I was a kid, my mother taught in the same school system, and had access to my text scores. Between those and others, my IQ score had an eighty point range, from very smart to very dumb. Those scores showed that there is no such thing as “an IQ.” It also suggested that giftedness has little or nothing to do with test scores, and may not be something schools can deal with at all. My own gifts didn’t appear until after college, and all the achievements for which I am known came after I was fifty.

All of us are profoundly unique. Even identical twins, split from the same egg, are complete, separate and distinct individuals with independent souls. School teaches otherwise. And that’s the problem. Not the parents, and not the kids.

I failed to post that, which is why I’m posting it here. But my point is about digital identity, which is is no less fucked up in 2013 than it was in 1995, when the Web went viral.

What’s fucked up about identity is that every site and service has its own identity system. None are yours. All are theirs, all are silo’d, and all are different. For this we can thank the calf-cow model of client-server computing, and we are stuck in it. That’s why we are forced to remember how we identify ourselves, separately, as calves, to many different cows, each of which act like they’re the only damn cow in the world.

When I attempted to post the comment above under the essay at Time, I was given a choice of social logins (Twitter, Facebook, etc.), plus Time‘s own. Not remembering if I ever created an identity for myself (or, actually, for Time) at that site, I chose to log in with Twitter. This should have worked, given the expectations we all have with “social” login. But it didn’t work, because Time still required an email address to go with the login ID. When I provided the email address I use with Twitter, Time said the address was taken. When I tried another email address, it said that one was taken too. Then I guessed that maybe I had already used one of the handles (login+email A or email B) I had just attempted, as a login with Time. So I tried several new combinations. All failed.

There are two main difference between this failure and Luke’s with the warden: 1) machine programming does the smacking, and 2) no lessons are taught to the rest of the prisoners.

This is a design issue, and it’s as old as computing. It’s called the namespace problem. Every system has its own namespaces, and getting different systems’ namespaces to work together is very hard. Maybe impossible. After all these years (hell, decades), it damn sure looks that way.

I believe, as do more many others, that the only solution is for those with the damn names to be in charge of those names, and to identify themselves in their own ways to the many different systems that require putting those names in their namespaces.

In a blog post last year, Devon Loffreto in Moxy Tongue laid out Why sovereign source authority matters. He was right then and he’s right now. So was Walt Whitman, quoted above in the failed comment to Time.  I believe sovereign identity is the only answer — or at least the only right place to start finding the answer.

I’ll be defending that position when we meet to talk about it, among lots of other subjects, in a couple weeks at IIW. If you’re interested, be there. It’t about time, doncha think?

On cities and networks

I’m in Boston right now, and bummed that I can’t attend Start-up City: An Entrepreneurial Economy for Middle Class New York, which is happening today at New York Law School today.

I learned about it via Dana Spiegel of NYC Wireless, who will be on a panel titled “Breakout Session III: Infrastructure for the 21st Century—How Fast, Reliable Internet Access Can Boost Business Throughout the Five Boroughs.” In an email Dana wrote, The question for the panel participants is how fast, reliable internet access can boost business throughout NYC.” The mail was to a list. I responded, and since then I’ve been asked if that response might be shared outside the list as well. So I decided to blog it. Here goes:

Fast and reliable infrastructure of any kind is good for business. That it’s debatable for the Internet shows we still don’t understand what the Internet is — or how, compared to what it costs to build and maintain other forms of infrastructure, it’s damned cheap, with economic and social leverage in the extreme.

Here’s a thought exercise for the audience: Imagine no Internet: no data on phones, no ethernet or wi-fi connections at home — or anywhere. No email, no Google, no Facebook, no Skype.

That’s what we would have if designing the Internet had been left up to phone and cable companies, and not to geeks whose names most people don’t know, and who made something no business or government would ever contemplate: a thing nobody owns, everybody can use and anybody can improve — and for all three reasons supports positive economic externalities beyond calculation.

The only reason we have the carriers in the Net’s picture is that we needed their wires. They got into the Internet service business only because demand for Internet access was huge, and they couldn’t avoid it.

Yet, because we still rely on their wires, and we get billed for their services every month, we think and talk inside their conceptual boxes.

Try this: cities are networks, and networks are cities. Every business, every person, every government agency and employee, every institution, is a node in a network whose value increases as a high multiple of all the opportunities there are for nodes to  connect — and to do anything. This is why the city should care about pure connectivity, and not just about “service” as a grace of phone and cable companies.

Building a network infrastructure as neutral to purpose as water, electricity, roads and sewage treatment should be a top priority for the city. It can’t do that if it’s wearing blinders supplied by Verizon, Time Warner and AT&T.

Re-base the questions on the founding protocols of the Net itself, and its city-like possibilities. Not on what we think the carriers can do for us, or what we can do that’s carrier-like.

I came to the realization that networks are cities, and vice versa, via Geoffrey West — first in Jonah Lehrer’s “A Physicist Solves The City,” in the New York Times, and then in West’s TED talk, “The Surprising Math of Cities and Corporations.” West is the physicist in Lehrer’s piece. Both are highly recommended.

Bonus link.

Freedom and Violence

Freedom!

Republicans accuse Democrats of bankrupting the country on their way to socializing America and destroying the very freedoms upon which the country was founded. At the same time, Democrats paint Republicans as heartless bastards out to dismantle every social safety net in pursuit of ever larger tax breaks for the wealthy. I, for one, don't believe either argument.

Rather I believe that people on both sides, deep down, are trying to build the best future they can conceive, but they're coming at it with very different conceptions of "freedom." Both sides of the argument have a firm basis for their fundamental beliefs that has nothing to do with being heartless or a socialist. Let me explain.

(Note: I'm not saying there aren't people on both sides manipulating the entire situation. But talking about them isn't the purpose of this post. I try to ignore them. I think the greatest danger we face is when sincere people on either side get caught up in the rhetoric and lose site of their real goal to focus on "winning" an argument at any cost.)

Types of Freedom

There are three basic kinds of freedom (greatly simplifying here):

  • freedom from—this kind of freedom is termed negative freedom. The word negative is not pejorative, but rather descriptive. "Freedom from" is often cited as the right to be left alone, to live your life unrestrained. As an example, I have done nothing to prevent my children from going to college. They're perfectly free to do so, if they wish.
  • freedom within a framework—this kind of freedom is termed positive freedom. Again, the word positive is descriptive. "freedom within" is seen as more than opportunity, which "freedom from" supplies. "freedom within" implies support from a framework of some kind. To extend the example from above, I help my children attend college by ensuring they have enough money, the right preparatory education, giving them advice, and so on. The framework in this case is the family organization.
  • independence—this kind of freedom means more than merely being left alone, it implies that you can largely function without outside support. This kind of freedom was very important to certain of our founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson who envisioned an agrarian society as the highest form of freedom because it offered true independence.

In modern society it is very difficult to be completely independent. All of us are increasingly interdependent as we become evermore specialized in our education, skills, and trades. This is the root of the nasty arguments about Pres. Obama's "you didn't build that" speech. Both sides, of course, are right as far as it goes. No one builds anything in a vacuum, but anyone who's created a business knows that it does require very hard work and at the same time offers more independence than simply "working for the man."

So let's stipulate that independence isn't really what Republicans and Democrats are fighting over. While there are various degrees of independence, that's not anything government can provide and not what I think we're talking about when we say "freedom" in a political debate. It might be desirable but it is increasingly impossible to achieve.

The debate comes down to this: Republicans are driven by "freedom from" while Democrats are passionate about "freedom within." Look at the arguments and I think you'll come to the same conclusion. While both talk about freedom, they're talking about different kinds of freedom and thus largely talking past each other. Whether you're Republican or Democrat largely comes down to whether you think Government's job is to provide "freedom from" (hence the historical emphasis on crime and defense) or "freedom within" (hence the historic emphasis on social programs).

Violence

"Freedom from" and "freedom within" are not necessarily in conflict until the government gets involved. In the example with my children and school they have freedom from restraints and my support at the same time. At the same time, my freedom is intact since I support them voluntarily.

You might think that their "freedom within" is at the mercy of my willingness to offer support and guidance. That is true insofar as they have no other means of getting support or guidance (which is not true). My support and guidance is more convenient for them than other sources and comes with the added bonus that it is borne of love and compassion, making it that much more aligned with their interests.

What's this have to do with violence? Simply this: every act of the state1 is conducted under threat of violence. The whole idea of government is to create a monopoly on violence. The state is very jealous of that monopoly. In a democracy, government wields that violence at the behest of the majority to accomplish societal goals. The genius of the Bill of Rights is that it defines areas where the majority may not use violence to further its aims at the expense of the minority. All other curbs on the use of violence by the state are merely conventions that can be changed by the next legislature.

You might object to my use of the word "violence." Violence is defined as "behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something." Imagine that the state gives my child a grant to attend college (which they did, in the interest of full disclosure). You paid for that, at least in part. Not out of altruism or compassion, but because if you do not pay your taxes the state will threaten you with imprisonment. Provided you acquiesce, it will remain just a threat. But resist and the threat will be carried out. This is violence. And every single thing that the state does, from imprisoning murderers to providing free vaccinations to toddlers is made possible by the state's monopoly on it.

Usually, we skirt around this issue in polite society. We don't like to think of the good that is done by government programs as being the fruit of something so loathsome. But in the end, it is. We cannot get away from it. This thread on violence underpins much of my political philosophy. I worry about the freedoms that will be taken from some when we attempt to provide opportunity for others.

Violence and Government Spending

Democracies have a hard time keeping government spending in check because the violence of the state is hidden in a velvet glove of societal benefit. This is why classic conservatives have a problem with providing "freedom within" the framework of some new government program. Government programs to provide opportunity to one group (e.g."freedom within") must necessarily take something (e.g. "freedom from") from another. When the government is involved we provide more opportunity to some only by further restricting the freedom of others (usually by imposing taxes).

Because the state has a monopoly on violence and can consequently force people to comply with rules and regulations, it provides a shortcut that is tempting to many—Republican and Democrat. If you don't like something, you can simply pass a law and, as a result, have the threat of violence on your side. Government tempts everyone involved to use violence over persuasion. Believe me, I've been there and it's a heady potion. No wonder we hate bureaucrats (except, of course, when they're on our side). Whenever you hear someone say "there ought to be a law..." substitute "we should use violence to..." and see if you still agree.

"Freedom from" and "freedom within" are only mutually exclusive when we assume that the only way to provide opportunity, to succor the sick, and to raise up the poor is through government. Because government provides a way to force people to help, whether they like it not, many see it as the only way to solve the problem. But, of course, it's not. People and organizations not associated with the government are capable of, and perhaps better at helping the disadvantaged and providing opportunity. Anytime we take shortcuts, we're likely to miss the cues that will lead us to better, more efficient ways to do something. When we force rather than persuade, we miss the knowledge and experience that discussion provides. When we throw invective at each other, we fail to build the consensus that is crucial to our future.

I'm not advocating anarchy, although I do find many of it's tenets intellectually interesting. And I'm not a libertarian. I consider myself a classic conservative. I don't have a touchstone for knowing where we should draw the line. I'm not sure a free market approach to city water would work, for example. There are some societal ventures that simply need everyone's participation. There are classic arguments, for example about why defense is a necessary and proper function of the state.

I think we need more than vague promises of "everyone will be better off." People often say "you can't do experiments in economics" and the same is true of government. That's why I favor smaller steps over large, grandiose programs. I believe that when we fail to guard against the temptation of quick wins for some through government violence, we risk a society that is headed toward failure.

Unfortunately, the political climate of the day has left us largely unable to have fruitful discussions or trust that we can take small steps without risking future gains. Twitter, in my opinion, has made this worse because its a perfect platform for partisans to speak in their echo chamber. I'll have more about this issue after the election.


1. Note that I'm using the term "state" in the general sense to refer to any government.

Tags: politics