Hi, please

Tag Archives: transparency

New Media and The Digital Natives – Reading Summary

Born Digital – John Palfrey

If you have any interest in Digital Natives – this 1 hour talk is very informative about what a digital native is, and the godfather of this topic, John Palfrey goes into great detail on his definition and how this generation will change the nature of how we see the internet in the future. It is a population of young people who are will impact they we think, work, and function on a day to day basis.

The Digital Natives are a group of people who are comfortable with sharing their daily lives on the net (ie flick, twitter, facebook) and were exposed to these technologies at a very young age. This population is typically born after 1980, have never known life without a computer, TV without a remote control, and never dialed on a rotary phone (not true since I was born after 1980!).

Presentation by John Palfrey – “As part of the Google D.C. Talks series, and in partnership with Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Professor John Palfrey offers a sociological portrait of “digital natives” — children who were born into and raised in the digital world — with a particular focus on their conceptions of online privacy.”

There are a few points he clarifies in this video  -

  • This is a POPULATION, not a GENERATION
  • Born after 1980 – because this is when the advent of technology began
  • They have access to these technologies
  • 1 billion who have access (number is low due to digital divide)
  • This is not a DUMMY generation – they are very tech savvy.
  • Young people are INTERACTING, but in a different way – remixed, made in a different way.
  • We must teach digital media literacy

We are Digital Natives – Barrett Lyon

“A new class of person has emerged in the online world: Digital Natives. While living in San Francisco, I also live on the Internet. The Internet is now a place: a two dimensional world that has transcended the web; there is no government, and the citizens are Digital Natives.”

Lyon’s main point is that people are no longer citizens of the United States, or France, but also citizens of the internet. There are specialized groups within these digital natives such as game players, hackers, developers, and the social etiquette that is involved is much different than the physical reality we live in.

Some people choose to define themselves by the activities they take part in on the web – such as social online movements – ie Green Movement, Tea/Coffee Party, which are branches from physical political movements, but these started on the net.

“This scares the crap out of Governments all over the world, because they are ill prepared to deal with these situations. To government regimes that are comfortable asserting their control, this concept is terrifying. How do they counteract the changes online and the movements? Do they need to change their politics, defense, propaganda, and warfare?”

This statement displays that some of these online movements do have an affect on how governments think about the web. Many countries have harsh restrictions on what their citizens can view on the net, ie China, Iran, etc.

The Future of The Internet and How to Stop it – Jonathan Zittrain – Short Summary

This title is actually a book that JZ has wrote which is actually available on amazon if anyone would like to purchase. His main point is that collaboration is key in the survival of a productive internet and cites wikipedia as the main example. The first generation of products that have spear headed the internet have been Tivo, Ipods, and Xboxes, which are tethered appliances, meaning they are using net as their connection to their content/databases.

“The Internet’s current trajectory is one of lost opportunity. Its salvation, Zittrain argues, lies in the hands of its millions of users. Drawing on generative technologies like Wikipedia that have so far survived their own successes, this book shows how to develop new technologies and social structures that allow users to work creatively and collaboratively, participate in solutions, and become true ‘netizens.’

Mobile Donations – Concluding Post

1. Please text MONKEY to 89183 for a brief summary via 3 Text Messages to your mobile phone!

OR

2. Listen to the podcast and view the accompanied slides.



References:

Mobile Active Org

American Red Cross – Mobile Giving Program

US Mobile Carriers

Mobile Giving Foundation

Where’s the Transparency in the White House Visitor Logs?

In September of 2009, President Obama announced that he would release the names of White House Visitors. It was hailed both by the White House administration, as well as several reporters, newspapers and civic ethics groups as a landmark for transparency. It was “proof” that this administration would be more open and honest, and the first step towards releasing information that was formerly secretive. The decision to release the records was claimed to be voluntary, and it was announced that the visitor logs would be made available online.  And true to his word, beginning on January 29th, 2010, the White House did in fact begin to release the names of its visitor records. Since that time, names of visitors (which includes not only tourists, but also names of union leaders, Wall Street executives, lobbyists, party chairs, philanthropists and celebrities), have been released. The names are released in huge batches up to 75,000 names at a time. However, as I will show, within the sheer quantity of this data lies the problem.

But the honesty about the motives behind this effort as well as its extremely poor execution have been disappointing. There are several key areas that illustrate just how far off the White House is from maintaining an open and transparent effort:

  • There is no justification for waiting between 90-120 days to release this information. This is a huge burden that puts investigators at a serious disadvantage when accessing records. By the time the information is made public, it is clearly too late to do anything about it.
  • There is no ability to tell what visitor logs are considered “confidential” and therefore have been intentionally left off of this list, additionally, personal guests of the first family are left off – yet there’s no clear definition of what that means. There’s absolutely no indication of how many names have been left off – is it 100? 500? 1000? It may be cynical, but my guess is these aren’t all visitors whose names aren’t being released due to “security concerns.”
  • The data as its released is often incomplete. Although it logs the visitors first and last name, as well both the time they signed in and out, and who they met with, often times the reasons that they met with a particular person is left blank. Additionally, there is no affiliation of the visitor’s name listed. This is a serious problem, because unless journalists or activists know the name of the person they are looking for, it’s unlikely that they could identify anything of substance due to the sheer quantity of the data they are presented with.
  • Although the White House claimed the data release was voluntary, it’s looking more likely that the policy was the result of the Justice Department settling lawsuits brought by the “good government group” Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) which had sought visitor’s logs from both the Obama and Bush administrations.
  • There is no accountability to the process. Citizens and journalists have no authority to request the names of unreleased visitors.
  • A conservative public interest group called Judicial Watch (which “investigates and prosecutes government corruption”)  filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Secret Service for denying Judicial Watch’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for access to Obama White House visitor logs from January 20 to August 10, 2009. According to them, the Obama administration continues to advance the erroneous claim that the visitor logs are not agency records and are therefore not subject to FOIA. As Judicial Watch noted in its complaint, this claim “has been litigated and rejected repeatedly” by federal courts. Their complaint is that even though the Obama White House did voluntarily release a select number of White House visitor logs to the public, other records continue to be withheld in defiance of FOIA law.

Although these are some serious points of contention, there are reported instances where journalists have worked to troll through these lists to find valuable information, because there are certain examples of it, but as Mushon pointed out, it’s usually in a case of “gotcha journalism”, that is, journalists were  able to use the logs to prove a theory they already had about who visited Obama and when. In these cases the lists became valuable sources that investigative journalism could use to prove that President Obama or his advisers met with various labor union leaders, business executives, or specific members of Congress. However, even in cases where journalists have been able to pull out some important names, they’re linking them pretty tightly to policies or actions taken, but to a certain extent it’s largely speculation. In fact, it’s possible the whereabouts of these meetings would have been known without the White House visitor logs because so often people who meet with Obama disclose this information themselves. To be fair, the Obama administration made these searches available online and has made them fairly easy to navigate and to download and this marks a visible shift from previous administrations. This has allowed for innovation, such as the following networked map  put together by a blogger “The Networked Thinker” which showed some of meetings individuals had with certain members of the White House staff (click the thumbnail to enlarge or click here to see the original blog post).

Some would argue  it’s not the White House’s job to help the public go through these lists, and that they’ve done enough to release the data, but I feel strongly that they do have a responsibility to make sure they are accurate representations of who is coming and going and why!

The Obama administration may want to point these logs as examples of openness and a willingness to open its inner workings to the public, but so far, that transparency does not exist. Mainstream media has yet to seriously question both the validity of the information on these lists, as well as the White House’s motives and it’s sad that so very few are willing to ask the tough questions. Not until the administration can release the records in a much more timely and manageable way can we even start to understand this as an effort for to be more transparent. If the White House were to release the visitors at the end of each week say, it would be a much more manageable list that citizens and journalists could go through. Additionally, the White House should list the affiliations of the visitors, not only their names, but also who they work for. Perhaps have various types of visitors (eg Class A refers to tourists, Class B to lobbyists, Class C to political figures, etc) so that investigators would have some sort of reference to start looking for patterns, or particular visitors etc.

I have to say that I finish this travalogue at a very different point from where I started. When I first began to investigate this issue, I was pretty clearly the side of the Obama administration. I knew that there were going to be some problems with the data, but overall I did feel this was a good thingbut not anymore. In fact, the lists are so problematic that I fear the Obama administration has done a great disservice to the public by  claiming to have several values, which if evaluated solely on this project, they do not appear to have. Unfortunately by doing so, they’ve cheapened those values dramatically.

WH Visitor Logs: Research Continued

Here’s an update on my research over the past week…

Types of Names that Appear on the White House Visitor’s List: It’s not just tourists names who are being released, although I fear they may be the majority. Names of several prominent union leaders, Wall Street executives, registered power lobbyists, Democratic Party Chairs, business leaders, heads of non-profits and philanthropists also appear.

Mainstream Media’s Coverage: There is little mainstream media coverage of the release of the records, and what stories have been done are pretty generic. When Obama announced the release of the names (October/November), it was covered to some a minor extent and it was mostly celebratory, calling it a “huge step.” Most stories/journalists didn’t challenge the transparency claim of Obama. Since the release of the records several months ago, there has been a little coverage of the lists themselves (see below for journalists who have used the lists for reporting purposes). The little coverage has been mostly puff pieces, marveling at how duplicate names have led to people who have the same name as celebrities visiting the White House that aren’t actually celebrities themselves. There has been some minor coverage as well, but it’s mostly reporting who is on the list, not necessarily making any claims about the validity of the lists themselves, or investigation what can be done with the information. Not exactly earth-shattering journalism so far…

Stories That Have Used This Research: Although the mainstream news media has covered the release of these records pretty positively overall, reporters, journalists and activists have dug a little deeper into this information. One interesting thing I noted is that a lot of the stories I found using WH visitor logs are from conservative news sources. For example:

- The Washington Examiner did a critical story at the end of February on the fact that President Obama and senior members of his staff have met on at least four occasions with Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, whose organization is the nation’s largest provide of abortion and referrals. The piece was especially crticial because a spokesman for Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) said her boss has not spoken with or visited Obama. The piece goes to list other logs of pro-choice groups/individuals that met with Obama and his advisors to discuss an upcoming WH health care summit and no pro-life groups were invited to participate in the event. To see the full story, click here.

There was another piece written for the Auburn Journal that trolled through the visitor logs to determine that the Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern was the most frequent White House Visitor in 2009. About this they criticized: ”For an administration that promised to renounce interest groups, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) certainly has the president’s ear and is sure to be a major player in the December jobs summit.” Stern visited at least 22 times in 2009.

Liberal sources have also used this data, such as this article from The Huffington Post titled “White House Visitor Logs Show Obama Turned to Business Leaders.” This piece used the visitor logs to show that Obama frequently consulted with leaders of the business and financial communities they were saving from the brink of the financial collapse. The logs showed that Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Donohue visited the White House on ten different occasions, meeting twice with the president, twice with his chief economic consultant, Larry Summers and three times with Obama’s business liaison, Valerie Jarrett. The piece also goes on to report that between January 20 and the end of August (of 2009) lobbyists, strategists and others with a stake in health care reform made 575 visits to the White House. And that’s just the ones that were reported!

The majority of the stories I found that used the data follows a very similar pattern, who met with whom, where, how many times, and speculation as to why, that seems, for the most part, pretty solid. There have also been a few examples of bloggers that have picked up the research and examined it, rather than mainstream media.

Some further questions/musings about these stories. Do they raise the validity of the news stories in each case? Would there have been these kinds of stories without it? How much speculation is involved in terms of what goes on at these meetings?

Other Points of Research

  • Ah, it’s getting  worse! I thought it was 90 days after that visitors were released. Well there are several reports that it’s actually 90-120 days after!
  • It appears that the policy was the result of the Justice Department settling lawsuits brought by the “good government group” Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) which had sought visitor’s logs from both the Obama and Bush administrations. This might be the most devastating piece of research I found so far and seriously brings into question the motives behind releasing this data.
  • The data has been known to be released on late Friday afternoons becoming part of the Friday Night News Dump Syndrome!

A Few Points of Growing Frustration: There is no way to tell what’s been censored, what’s been left off due to security concerns. How many names are taken off this list? Is there a clear-cut definition of what is “confidential” and what is not? Not as far as I can tell. And although the list is searchable and downloadable (good things), often the most important piece of information – why the meeting is being held – is left blank. It will often have a very generic description, but it would really help if the list posted the affiliation of the person so as to avoid confusion. You could then also do a search via this field, making it that much easier to find the data you are looking for. Due to the sheer massive amount of names on the list (eg  up to 100,000 have been released at one time), it’s quite difficult to troll through. Which makes the fact that some journalists have used this resources even more impressive. Even if these lists were 100% accurate representations of who visited, when, we still would have a long way in knowing what was discussed, and what influence these meetings had on policy etc. It appears to be just data, and I’m not sure how far that can take us!

I know it’s a lot of information but there is a lot of digging to be done on this issue. Believe it or not I’ve left out some stuff and I hope to include it in my final post. Any thoughts people have before I finish up my research and do a concluding post on Monday would be helpful! Thanks!

Two Heads are (Sometimes) Better Than One. The Individual and the Collective in the Web 2.0

Lanier- Digital Maoism

Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, composer, visual artist and author, who popularized the term “Virtual Reality”. His latest book is “You are not a Gadget. A Manifesto“.

The basic tenets of Maoism include revolutionary struggle of the vast majority of people against the exploiting classes and their state structures, termed a People’s War. Usually involving peasants, its military strategies have involved guerrilla war tactics focused on surrounding the cities from the countryside, with a heavy emphasis on political transformation through the mass involvement of the basic people of the society. -Wikipedia

Anecdotal starter: Lanier directed an unsuccessful experimental short film about 10 years ago, and that data somehow crept into his Wikipedia entry. He would like that particular piece of information to be forgotten and has edited it many times but someone (or many) keep typing it back in. Media reporters (“the portion of the world that is attempting to remain real”) have asked him about his filmmaking career—based, of course, on that profile. In this essay, he uses Wikipedia as an example to analyze and criticize “online collectivism”.

He points out two ideas present now in the current online collective trend:

  1. The idea that the collective is all-wise.
  2. That it is desirable to have few coordinating actors: “to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force.” This concentration of power is not to be taken for representative democracy or meritocracy, rather he compares it with extremist politics, used both by the far Right and far Left in different historical moments and presently re-introduced by technologists.

He then argues against online collectivism:

  • Wikipedia is not as marvelous as it’s believed. It is not balanced to make a comparison between Britannica and Wikipedia encyclopedias. Wikipedia is strong in topics that change constantly, such as science, because the web is the place to find the right authors (young, “competent specialist graduate students”) that research and review this kind of knowledge.
  • “Sometimes loosely structured collective activities yield continuous improvements and sometimes they don’t.” The idea that problems in the wiki will correct themselves as the process unfolds is as imprecise as thinking that free market regulates itself. He believes that for a text to be desirable, it needs to offer more than just accurate data.
  • Most of the information in Wikipedia was already on the Web, but original texts lose value in the process of being modified for it.

  • W. lacks an editorial voice and it decontextualizes the content. For Lanier, Myspace is a better example of collectivism: the central idea is authorship and it doesn’t pretend to be objective or a trustworthy authority, as an encyclopedia.

Removing the scent of people

Aggregating sites started with the first site directories, such as Yahoo or AltaVista, and developed all the way to blogs and meta-blogs. According to Lanier, up to this point “real people were still in charge”—there was some form of identified authorship that allowed for interpretation of the source. Value was considered to come from connecting with real humans, not from faceless conglomerates. Google (this is 2006) is not a threat to authorship, because it provides “one layer of page ranking.” The problem comes with apparent objectivity—when the aim is to erase the trace of people to simulate that “content is emerging out of the web…as a supernatural oracle”.

The Hive Mind

There is a proliferation in the Web 2.0 of aggregating sites that function as “Consensus Web Filters” (Digg, Reddit, Populrs, Vivisimo, and social aggregating sites like SecondBrain, FriendFeed, profilactic and, of course, Feast and Buzz) which use algorithms to present data from other aggregating sites. The criterion is to present what is most popular, or more present in the Web, but that doesn’t mean they’re showing the most important or relevant information. According to Kevin Kelly (Wired) these sites show the hive mind—the opposite of the individual author or institution who takes responsibility for the information provided. The danger, Lanier argues, is that “people become uncritical and dim in order to make these Meta-aggregator sites become coherent.” According to him, this is how Artificial Inteligence technology is (or was) welcomed– “people are too willing to lower standards in order to make the purported newcomer appear smart.”

Collective thought is becoming mainstream

The Internet connects people; it’s not an entity in itself with a voice of its own. Lanier makes a strong distinction between the quality of writing professionally (“writing meant to last”) and blogging—he believes that “it’s easy to be loved as a blogger. All you have to do is play the crowd”. Still, he believes that the problem is that new business models for people who think and write haven’t appeared as quickly as hoped. Thus, the aggregators earn much more out of compiling than the reporters who create the content. This Meta-system is going beyond the Web and influencing other areas:

  • Elite organizations (government, universities, planning corporations, opinion leaders like The New York Times) that are attracted by the idea of the infallible collective.
  • There is a trend of privileging collective knowledge (such as surveys) over new ideas crafted by independent minds that are considered authorities in the field.
  • This is favored because in the current “liability phobia” it minimizes risks and responsibilities. It is safer to be the aggregator of the collective.

As a consultant for large institutions, Lanier has participated in elite Meta-surveys, finding these results: loss of insight and subtlety, disregard for the nuances of considered opinions, and a tendency to enshrine the beliefs of an organization [What would Google do?]

He believes that the lack of critical reaction the to this phenomenon is because “bad old ideas look confusingly fresh when they are packed as technology”.

For him, the main problem with collectivism is that it is becoming central and leading. If only what the majority likes has a chance at success, then the periphery is left outside. For example, American Idol is dictating the trends for new pop artists to thrive—but under the show’s standards, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan would’ve lost the competition.

The collective isn’t always stupid—and the individual isn’t always right.

The “Wisdom of Crowds” is a real, very useful phenomenon in certain situations. Google’s algorithms and Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” are valuable and successful tools that can’t be substituted by a single person’s knowledge.

On the other hand, there are cases “when intelligent thought really matters. In that case, the average idea can be quite wrong, and only the best ideas have lasting value. Science is like that”

Therefore, both kinds of intelligence are essential. The market is a good example of “the marriage of collective and individual intelligence”: The prices are determined by competition, but individual entrepreneurs come up with the products that are competing in the first place.

For him, clever individuals ask the questions and the collective behavior answers them.

The collective thought:

  • is more likely to be smart when it isn’t defining its own questions,
  • is better at solving problems which demand results that can be evaluated by uncontroversial parameters (such as hard data and numbers) but bad when taste and judgment matter.
  • needs its information to be filtered by a quality control mechanism that relies highly on individuals.

He compares aggregation sites with open source, like Linux:

  • They differ in authorship: open source programming is not anonymous, as personal glory is part of the motivational engine for collaboration.

  • They both lack a coherent design sensibility in an esthetic sense (i.e., if we compare Wikipedia or Linux with Apple applications)
  • Open source is very efficient in building hidden information plumbing layers, such as Web servers, but hopeless in producing fine user interfaces or user experiences. [Thinking back to Google Buzz and Mushon’s point: Google’s social applications are designed by engineers, not by sociologists—therefore, the whole social point is missed]

We must consider that there are certain things which are better done by individuals—such as design, lawmaking, and aesthetics–  but others that should be carried out by communities—such as official price setting and, of course, deciding who will rule a country. Still, the best examples of collective intelligence are those that are guided by well-meaning individuals (like democracies and scientific communities). Personality-based quality control can improve collective intelligence and prevent it from becoming stupid and unreliable. Such is the case of independent press and the academy, where opinion leaders are guides or shapers of collective thought.

Lanier acknowledges that no mechanism is perfect, of course, but that it’s important to learn the good stuff from the pre-Internet institutions and apply it to the new ways of knowledge formation. Likewise, the collectivity of the hive mind can help keep in check the doings of the like of the academy, the government, and the press, by maintaining strict observation of their doings.

The hive’s speed

Another thing to consider is the time and speed of collective work:it can move too quickly, fidgeting from one subject to the next without focusing enough to fully provide a working answer. (As THE THESIS warns against the mind-grazing tendency that takes the attention from one site to the other, leaving things unfinished.)

  • it can keep changing incessantly matters that need to be settled, such as law.
  • it might be moving in the right direction, but too slowly. Consensus takes time, and certain situations (such as national emergencies or problems like global warming) require immediate action taken by individuals.
  • rules help to speed up development. According to Lanier, technology took off in Modernity thanks to the structure and constraints that had developed by then. Therefore, excessive openness and flexibility can slow down the process.

The illusion that what we already have is close to good enough, or that it will fix itself, is a dangerous illusion.

Lanier ends on a strong note by warning against the dangers of an empowered hive mind that, according to him, historically has gone to extremes such as Maoism and Fascism.

Empowering the collective does not empower individuals—it works the other way around. The hive mind is a tool that can provide feedback to individuals, but it’s too chaotic to be fed back into itself. Therefore, it needs the individual thought to filter and guide it. Individuals should always be cherished first. There needs to be a humanistic and practical way to maximize value of the collective on the Web without “turning ourselves into idiots.”

Responses to Lanier’s Digital Maoism

Lanier’s essay, as you can imagine, generated Tsunami waves throughout the Web. Clay Shirky organized the very diverse responses to the text, from several authors.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF- Media Analyst; Documentary Writer; Author, Get Back in the Box: Innovation from the Inside Out, award-winning Frontline documentary “The Merchants of Cool”, ex-professor at NYU’s ITP (Tisch).

Indeed, a poorly developed group mind is unpredictable and dangerous. Therefore, user-created database cannot be used with blind confidence.

Still, collective intelligences are not emerging in a vacuum. Specific media platforms are shaping their processes. Wikipedia isn’t throwing away the academic elite of thinkers: it is replacing it with the interactive media elite. This group has its own kind of credentials: (“just because [it] may include a 14-year-old with an internet connection doesn’t change the fact that he’s educated, techno-savvy, and [has] free time to research and post for no pay… he’s certainly in as good position as anyone to get there”)

A networked collaboration is not the Wild West: it is an ecology of interdependencies, with status and influence. In many cases, the filters are more fair and merit-based than those of grad school.

Yes, many current websites have more aggregation that original work. But all of Western culture since post-modernism suffers the same problem. The cultural problem (as in American Idol and the NYT) is not caused by digital populism, but by a priority shift that replaces cultural values with consumer capitalism. The alienating effects of this shift is motivating today’s collective activity.

Authorship is a matter of ego and royalties. Science and technology’s greatest achievements are articulations of collective realizations. The collective is not good at artistic writing or composing—because the Web is aimed at connecting things, not creating them.

Therefore, let’s not dismiss the possibilities of a virtual community based solely on the early results of the technology. The internet may not produce a whole cooperative society, but it might help model new kinds of behaviors towards that goal. The “individual” is as much a social construction as “the collective”.

QUENTIN HARDY- Silicon Valley bureau chief of Forbes Magazine, Berkley School of Information.

Wikipedia might be the worst example of collective mind. It is only a great experiment. Unlike successful collectives, t is unbounded and ungoverned.

It is not desirable to eliminate all error. The process of mistakes is necessary in society and nature.

Definitions of the self and the crowd are ever changing. This new tool might be taking us away from individualism and back towards folk culture, but it’s possible that a third thing might be happening.

The discovery of new ways to be is not a new phenomenon: it’s typical of revolutionary advances in transport and communications.

What is considered successful filtering? Aggregation is just one more example of the problem of the excess of information and what is managed to be heard. Newspapers are filters, too.

Pop culture has always existed, and it has never thrown out endless great stuff. Carrie Underwood and Clay Aiken are not supposed to be Janis Joplin and John Lennon.

Existing hierarchies are not the best places to test the efficacy of the new communication tools. Lanier is testing meta-surveys as part of consulting work for institutions that prefer collective thought doesn’t grow, such as governments and corporations.

Yes, collectives need rules and are best when they don’t define their own questions.

YOCHAI BENKLER- Law professor at Yale, Author: The Wealth of Networks.

Yes, decentralized production can be effective at certain tasks, but that doesn’t mean “collective is always better”—rather, a system needs to be designed to guard against mediocre or malicious contributions through filters.

But there is no loss of individuality by the growth of the collective. Rather, Benkler sees markets, governments and general social relations as overlapping systems that enable and disable action for the individuals who inhabit them. “Because of constraints and organizational adaptations in the last 150 years, information, knowledge and cultural production system has taken on an industrial form to the exclusion of social and peer-production.” That is the cause of the Britney Spears and American Idols, and also of the decline of the NYT and traditional media. The mainstream media tends to uncritically repeat official information much more than the blogosphere does.

As for filters and aggregations, the Web allows for clusters, links and conversation around interesting topics. Those choices create a different path for determining what issues are relevant. This new system is imperfect but harder to corrupt than the advertising-supported media that dominated the 20th century.

Wikipedia is not faceless—its participants develop persistent identities and communities around the definitions. What is amazing is that ten years ago it would’ve been seen as impossible, and now the product of well-intentioned individuals is being compared to the gold standard of encyclopedias.

Network based social production offers new challenges and new opportunities. It is an alternative form of production than markets, firms and governments—with different motivations, accreditation and organization. And it’s the opposite of Maoism: it is based on enhanced individual capabilities, either solo or in loose voluntary associations.

CLAY SHIRKY-you know him.

Lanier reunites dissimilar kinds of group action to analyze the downsides of collective production. There are things wrong with each form of collective action, but the same mistakes are not made in each of them. Lanier misses the opportunity of a good critique by overgeneralizing Wikipedia, American Idol and RSS aggregators, and they work differently.

“Wikipedia is an engaged community that uses a large and growing number of regulatory mechanisms to manage a huge set of proposed edits. Anonymous additions are subjected to a higher degree of control. It is similar to Linux in that the motivations of the contributors are much the same.” Therefore, it has the filters and organization that Lanier considers to be lacking.

“Since social life involves a tension between individual freedom and group participation, the changes wrought by computers and networks are therefore in tension. To have a discussion about the plusses and minuses of various forms of group action requires discussing the current tools and services as they exist.”

CORY DOCTOROW- Science fiction novelist, blogger, activist, co-editor of boingboing.net

Historically, the best way to keep the important things around is to reduce the barriers to entry. It is impossible to predict what will be important in the future, and therefore the more things you have, the more important things you’ll have then. There is no reason to eliminate a new business model because it doesn’t look like today’s models.

Wikipedia was created in no time, for almost no cost, by people who had no access to the traditional cannon. It isn’t great because it’s like Britannica—B. is great at being authoritative, edited, expensive and monolithic. W. is great at being free, brawling, universal and instantaneous. B. tells you what white dead men agreed upon, W. tells you what live internet users are fighting over. Its “history” and “discuss” pages allow learning about the discussions that go under the task of defining “truth”—since truth is an illusion and there’s always more than one approach to any issue.

“Wikipedia is a noble experiment in defining a protocol for organizing the individual efforts of disparate authors with conflicting agendas.” The important thing about systems is not how they work, but how they fail. Fixing a Wikipedia article is simpler than participating in the discussion, but “that’s the price you pay for truth, and it’s still cheaper than starting up your own Britannica”.

KEVIN KELLY- Wired, Cool Tools, Out of Control.

Nor the Wikipedia, or any other collective entities, are pure hive mind. Wikipedia has an elite at is center, and a lot of deliberate design management going on. Evolution in these systems need to be hastened, that is why the hive mind needs to have intelligent design introduced. Top-down control is inserted to speed and direct a system toward its goals. Until this era, technology was primarily all control and design. Now it can be design and hive.

Because the hive mind is smart enough to care about, even if it is dumb. Its brute dumbness produces the raw material that design smarts can work on.

Is Wikipedia a template of other kinds of information of creative works? It might be that the 2006 model is not good for much more than writing universal encyclopedias, but the 2056 one will be.

Wikipedia (impossible in theory, possible in practice) is an example of the fact that the bottom-up hive mind will take us much further than it seems possible. At the same time, it proves that the hive mind by itself won’t ever take us to our goal. We are too impatient for it to evolve by itself, so we add design and top-down control to get where we want to go.

ESTHER DYSON- Editor at large, CNET Networks; Editor, Release 1.0; Director, PC Forum; Author, Release 2.0

The argument is between voting/aggregating (where anonymous people raise or lower averages) versus arguments by recognizable individuals that answer the arguments of other individuals.

The first is useful in coming up with numbers and trends, but it’s not creative in the way that evolution creates species (not by blind voting, but through structured logical changes consistent with the whole).

That’s why there’s representative government: they are the individual experts that design coherent strategies, and collective action (voters) select them.

So, to get the best results, we have people sharpening their ideas against one another rather than simply editing someone’s contribution and replacing it with another (Wikipedia). And we also have a world where the contributors have identities (like politicians or journalists) and are accountable for their words.

LARRY SANGER- Co-founder of Wikipedia; Director of Collaborative Projects, Digital Universe Foundation; Director, Text Outline Project.

The collectivism that Lanier describes is a terrible thing, but no one would admit believing that the collective is “all wise”. Sanger criticized Wikipedia in 2004 for not properly respecting expertise, and got replies saying that Wikipedia has shown that experts are no longer needed, and a wide-ranging description of everyone’s opinions is more valuable than what an expert thinks.

For Sanger, this speaks about an epistemological shift: “Positive epistemic status” is a term that refers to the positive features that can attach to beliefs: i.e. truth, knowledge, justification, evidence, etc.

According to the existing tendency of validating the collective thought over expertise opinion, he sees that the traditional kinds of positive epidemic status are being replaced of whatever it is that the collective believes or endorses. Sanger calls this “epistemic collectivism”.

Epistemic collectivism is a real phenomenon: a lot of people do place the views of the collective uppermost. The phenomenon is rooted in relativism: if there is no objective truth, if there is no reality “out there” that we can be wrong or right about, then there is no way to make sense of expertise or intellectual authority. If you are an epistemic collectivist, then it’s natural to think that the experts can be overruled by the rest of us.

Sanger rejects epistemic collectivism, but promotes strong collaboration because:

  • Wikipedia does not produce an averaged view that is better than an authoritative statement by experts. It organizes enormous amounts of labor for a single intellectual purpose.
  • The virtue of strong collaboration is that it represents a new kind of “industrial revolution” for mental effort.
  • What is great is the sheer efficiency of these systems, not their ability to produce The Truth. That is another problem.

Lanier’s negative collectivism does exist, but is not inherent in tools, such as wikis, nor in methods, such as collaboration and aggregation.

FERNANDA VIEGAS & MARTIN WATTENBERG- Visual Communication Lab, IBM Research

It is hard to claim that Wikipedia is built by an anonymous, mindless mob engaged in foolish collectivism. It provides the transparency that almost no other system offers, by giving full context of the discussion on any entry in the “talk pages”. “This kind of debate doubtless happens in the NYT and Britannica as well, but behind the scenes. Wikipedia readers can see it all, and understand how choices were made…That is not exactly a Maoist mob.” Wikipedia’s uniqueness also resides in its shared policy, providing guidelines to the situations that emerge in editing.

The hive mind is hard to find in Wikipedia—crowd editing usually comes with current events, and plummets after the event loses media exposure. Once that happens, the core group of editors takes over the page maintenance.

As long as critiques of Wikipedia’s processes stop at the article level, they will continue to miss the point. The collective will makes mistakes but also attempts to keep itself in check through emerging policies and guidelines. This publicly available context distinguishes W from algorithmic or market-based aggregation.

JIMMY WALES- Founder and Chair of the Board of the Wikimedia Foundation.

“A core belief of the wiki world is that whatever problems exist in the wiki will be incrementally corrected as the process unfolds”. To that, Wales argues that this “core belief” is not held by him or any important or prominent Wikimedians—nor do they have any particular faith in collectives or collectivism as a mode of writing. Authoring at Wikipedia, as everywhere, is done by individuals exercising the judgment of their own minds.

GEORGE DYSON- Science historian; author, Project Orion

All intelligence is collective. Lanier’s own intelligence was formed by meta levels of information processing language, symbols and meanings throughout his childhood…

The important part of his message is a warning to respect, and preserve, our own intelligence. The dangers of relinquishing individual intelligence are real.

“Real artificial intelligence (if and when) will be unfathomable to us. At our level, it may appear as dumb as American Idol, or as pointless as [the endless corrections of Lanier’s Wikipedia entry.]”

DAN GILLMOR-Founder & director, Center for Citizen Media. Columnist and author.

Lanier’s unfortunate title undermines his essay, to say the least.

The issue is more about a community than a collective. Like with any task, you need experts and novices to chip in. Leaders emerge to steer the process and the goal is reached. “It is also about persistence—and celebrating the reality that knowledge is not a static end-point but rather an ongoing process.” Mistakes were committed in old journalism and research, too—and those articles are now there, never to be updated because they are in print. The flaws in Wikipedia are real, but they’re worth enduring because we can watch the community operates around individual articles and the project as a whole.

The debate does demonstrate that we need to update our media literacy in a digital, distributed era. Our critical thinking is there, but it’s fallen into a low level of use in the old media world. People tend to believe everything they read, or to disbelief everything. Too few apply proper skepticism and do the additional work that true media literacy requires.

More than popularity, we need better tools to help the community gauge the reliability and authenticity of what we find online. “Reputation has to become part of the mix in systems that combine human and machine intelligence in novel ways” [Reputation is still a tricky tool. How about the critique to the NYT?]

HOWARD RHEINGOLD- Communications expert; Author, Smart Mobs

  • Collective action is not the same as collectivism.
  • Commons-based peer production in Wikipedia, open source software, and prediction markets is collective action, not collectivism.
  • Collective action involves freely chosen self-election and distributed coordination.
  • Collectivism involves coercion and centralized control; treating the internet as commons doesn’t mean it’s communist.

World Wide Mush- Jaron Lanier

Four years after Digital Maoism,  Lanier critically analyzes the collective nature of the online world and the existing framework that organizes the Web 2.0. This was published in the Wall Street Journal on January 8, as a preview for his book “You Are Not a Gadget”.

Lanier considers that “a new kind of collectivism” dictates the way many (or most) people participate in the online world. From Wikipedia to Google Wave to music sites like Pandora, the most easily available information on the web is put together, directly or indirectly, by millions of authors.

This is a shift from more passive ways of cultural consuming that were the norm back in the 80’s (such as watching TV). In a way, this collective production is actually what the pioneers of the Internet dreamt of back in its early years—a participative community replacing the inactive one.

But Lanier points to the darker consequences on the other side of the coin:

He questions the utopist idea of the Web 2.0 as a forum where everybody’s voice can be heard, because too many voices “can pile on, ending drowning one another out”.

The global mush: These millions of voices (or collaborators) sharing their ideas and projects on the Web form a huge mixture that Lanier calls the global mush. He points out that collectivism lets everyone know what the rest is working on, and eventually aims at consensus, lowering both innovation and diversity. Collectivism eliminates competition, which (as with everything else in the market) forces people to find better alternatives and fosters creativity “When you have everyone collaborate on everything, you generate a dull, average outcome in all things”.

He makes an argument of proprietary development still being the most successful way of creating innovative products. To prove that, he points at booming examples, such as the iPhone and Adobe’s Flash, which are definitely not built by collectives.

But the problem does not reside solely on the ideological level. He explains that on the last third of the 20th century, the US shifted its economic and industrial structure from physical labor to intellectual activities. Instead of internally taking care of manufacture, those tasks were outsourced to the developing countries while Americans focused on generating design, entertainment, and other types of intellectual property. But at the same time, there was a general championing of information flow and sharing; the Web 2.0 was becoming more and more open and free—free music, free videos, and free info.

For Lanier, this equation “leaves no way … to earn a living in the long term”. Aiming at making a living from intellectual property contradicts opening the doors for free culture.

Unlike capitalism, in collectivism money is not the ideal earning. “The open paradigm rests on the assumption that the way to get ahead is to give away your brain’s work … and earn kudos instead of money.”

For him, this framework just isn’t working:

  • Intellectual work is produced for free, which gives the author some recognition in response, creating a personal brand which he can cash in by doing some other kind of physical work. But as technology is getting better, all jobs, even those, are threatened.
  • Only a tiny handful of writers and musicians are actually making a good living out of their collective labor.
  • The big players in the Internet (like Google) will keep on making money out of data and advertising for quite a long time. The rest will be forced to keep on working in exchange of pure recognition (such as “Likes”, ratings, comments, or any other rating scale).
  • Furthermore, these anonymous contributions “rob people of dignity”—by not fairly paying them back for their time and intellectual labor.

On the contrary, improved technology should be creating better jobs for people (more comfortable and cerebral).

In general, he considers collectivism to be a fallacy, linked to youthful and naïve utopian views of fairness. He warns about pointless aggregation substituting active, productive energy. “I want [young people] to develop as fierce individuals…when they work together, I hope they’ll do so in competitive, genuinely distinctive teams so that they can get hones feedback and create big-time innovations that earn royalties, instead of spending all their time on crowd-pleasing[activities]…or become a mob”.

He believes the actual framework to be so entrenched that it’s hard to make people challenge it and consider other alternatives. He seems to argue that the market allows for more benefits than collective work does.

The Digital Given—10 Web 2.0 Theses. by Ippolita, Geert Lovink & Ned Rossiter

On 2009, media scholars Geert Lovink, Ned Rossiter (who came to NYU last Fall to the Internet as Playground conference) , and the Ippolita Collective published this manifesto on the status of Web 2.0.   I consider that Lanier’s texts are related to several of the theses, particularly No. 2 , 3 & 4.

0. Internet is an indifferent bystander to the global financial crisis. If we consider that the digital is given—the everyday—it’s possible to rethink the political, emotional and social involvement in internet culture over the next few years.

1. In the middle of the economic crisis, the internet is not an essential actor—it’s out of the guilt. Even more so, it’s still growing madly. Web 2.0 applications remain new, but get lost fast amongst the stressful and uncertain working lives of the connected users.

2. Networking sites are social drugs for those in need of the human that is located elsewhere. They lure us with the promise of distraction from the present moment, and situate us all in a comfortable middle ground where social antagonisms are diluted and softened into the organized mainstream. Alternative and diversity are erased from the Web, and the same old opinions and cultural patterns prevail. The network becomes the language itself. They are all data-mined, designed to be exploited and trap us in the illusion of not working, while in reality we are laboring without producing.

3. Social networking sites do not fill the need for sustainable social relations. They respond to fashion and demonstrate the “enculturalisation of software”— people move from one to the next site in an “impulsive grazing mentality” without developing true attachment for a common goal. Sustainability is connected with scaleability. Unlike the big social transformations of the past decades, they do not promote true political change in any substantial way, even if they are as massive as these social movements were.

4. What are the collective concepts of the social networked masses? The networked activity (tag, link, share, tweet) is engineered from the top-down by the corporate programmers and is not a signal of any form of collective intelligence. [but, according to Clay Shirky, isn’t it sharing definitely ahead of consuming? Is social networking a form of corporativism?] Better social networks are organized networks involving better individuals – it’s your responsibility, it’s your time. We need imagination, but only if it illuminates concepts that transform concrete conditions. What is needed is an invention of social network software where everybody is a concept designer.

5. Web 2.0 provides a much better forum for “positive” emphatic linkage than for antagonism. The applications function as a structure that shape social relations in the web under certain rules—actual physical specifications determine the relationships between users and are zones of exclusion, but they also exclude the conflict of the border. Where is the enemy? Not on Facebook, where you can only have “friends”. Formats need to be transformed if they are going to accommodate the plurality of expression of networked life. The virus is the closest thing to conflict online [and they do not allow dialogue].

6. There is nothing false about the virtuality of social networking sites. There is absolute reality to them—managing your online life takes time, energy and strategy. There is an ongoing dynamic that requires attention and has true impact on your life: you do or don’t get the users’ attention, feel accepted or rejected, belong to a relationship and therefore have to nurture it. That is a huge distractor.

7. The network will not be revolutionized. There is no fertile ground for real social transformation in the Web. Indymedia.org, (an attempt of independent media that would give a voice to the stories that don’t make the top news) failed and did not further develop into an active and open social networking site. Transnational social-political networks seem to need face-to-face interactions.

8. Open does not equal free. There is nothing free about the free activities on the Web. Free culture has also an “underlying parasitic economy and deprofessionalization of cultural work.” The inescapable cost of social networking is to provide consumer information. Online activity does not equal social change. So what if you have an anti-whatever Facebook group? What does it change other than expanding your number of friends? Deleting can’t be the radical online gesture—there must be a more subversive and funny way of action.

9. The Web is fueled at the core by the never ending growth of consumerism. It is based on the “endless growth principle” that guided the dotcom model: nonstop growth = healthy systems. But we can learn from natural resource exploitation and pollution that infinite growth brings serious collateral effects. If the Web 2.0 follows the insane capitalist model, we can expect similar crisis. A good end cannot justify a bad means. We have to start elaborating appropriate technologies for a limited world. Collective freedom should be the common goal to be reached through technology.

10. “Better a complex identity than an identity complex”. There is an obsession with the virtual identity, with our and others’ personal profile, a ‘digital narcissism’. Digital identities need to both answer to individual desires and satisfy multiple needs. They should go beyond anonymity as a form of outsmarting the control society. One strategy could be to make the one (real) identity more complex and, when possible, contradictory. If identity is always being harvested by the powerful data corporations, why give them the real you?



White House Visitor Logs: Transparency or Bust?

Question: Does the releasing of the White House Visit Logs promote transparency as the Obama administration claims that it does? Are there instances when this information has furthered investigative journalism? Are there instances when it hasn’t, but it could have? Can this information be exploited? Is there any level of accountability in the whole process? Is it true that the vast majority of names on the list are simply tourists? Does it simply lead to more speculation about why these meetings take place?

Original Assumption: My original assumption is that the publishing of these lists is a good thing. While it may not go far enough in disclosing information, my general feeling is that this is a good first step towards providing information that journalists can use as a source in their reporting. The list is made available online and is searchable (which is a lot more than you can say for other various pieces of information that are available to the public), and does go into providing a certain amount of data. I do have to say I am somewhat skeptical to what extent these lists are censored. I find this frustrating because there is really no way to know what information is left out, it seems anything can be classified as “confidential.” It also clearly doesn’t solve the problem of knowing about what meetings take place not at the White House (is there any way to figure out percentage wise the number of meetings that may be). There also seem to be several problems with the lists such as duplicate names, as well as the fact that it’s released 90 days after. I don’t see any reason that they could not be released sooner, 90 days seem a bit extreme.

Related Norms: The whole issue of transparency and the Obama administration is discussed a lot. People often hail the website data.gov as a huge shift in how information is conveyed both internally and externally to the public. And of course others criticize it and say it doesn’t go far enough. (See this article for a discussion of the UK Open Data site and why it is superior to data.gov). But it begs the question as to why we as a culture are seeing an increase shift in demanding transparency – whether its in disclosing earmarks in legislation, campaign contributions, information on how laws are being made, or just generally about where information comes from. It definitely seems as though the release of the White House Visitor Logs are along the same vein of transparency movement by the President. But it begs the question, should these lists even be released to begin with? If it proves that they aren’t providing valuable data, what is the point?

A few other points to consider…

Having played around with visitor logs over the past few days, there are several important characteristics that I noted:

  • It’s user friendly, specifically it’s easy to navigate, rarely crashes, and allows users to search for as specific or as general information as you want
  • You can download the data into various formats (Excel), this allows for the data to be used in mashups and other various forms by innovative and motivated users
  • It allows you to link lists and results searched for automatically to Twitter, Google, Reddit, Delicious, MySpace, Facebook, Digg, StumbleUpon, etc.

In my next post, I will look closely at several instances related to all my above questions and assumptions:

  • How has the mainstream media covered this issue? Do they take a specific angle? Is it celebratory or more critical?
  • Are there examples of where this data has been useful in journalism and news stories.
  • Are there instances where the data may not have been used, but could have been?

I will also do a bit more digging as well trying to answer the following questions:

  1. How many names appear on this list? How many do not appear? (eg how many actual visitors vs. reported visitors)
  2. What kinds of visitors besides tourists appear on these lists?

Any advice or thoughts would be appreciated! Thanks!

Welcome to the White House: Please Sign In

On January 29th, 2010, the White House released – for the first time in history – its visitor records for the previous 90 days. In included more than 75,000 White House Visitors (the 75,000 represented six months worth of visitors) – now the information is released on a monthly basis. It was part of Obama’s commitment to transparency (however, that definition itself is rather unclear).

The full policy of disclosure described on the White House’s blog site here.

At the surface, it appears there are several positive and negatives of such a policy.

Positives:

  • It is unprecedented for a White House to do this and they should be commended
  • The decision to do this was voluntary
  • It’s available online rather than in some dusty basement in Washington D.C. (which goes a long way in making information “public” in the 21st century). You can also download the information which allows for research potential.
  • Not only is it available online, it’s easily searchable and has quite a bit of detailed information such as visitor’s first and last name, meeting room, who they met with and occasionally a description of purpose of the visit.

Negatives:

  • It’s done 90-120 days after the fact. Is there a good explanation for this? Why can’t they do it daily/weekly?
  • The White House still controls the flow of information and acts as a gatekeeper (eg they can remove names for “security concerns” or any other purposes they want).
  • The “description” (eg purpose of the meeting) is often left out, when that’s probably the most important information!
  • Where is the accountability in this process? Is there any? Will it just encourage meetings outside the White House?
  • Who manages this list?
  • What about duplicate names (the White House admitted this themselves that this has been a problem)? Is it searchable according to the member of the White House who called the meeting? If not, why not?

Over the next few weeks of this travalogue I will continue exploring this issue, including delving deeper into the visitor’s lists themselves, and finding out what kind of information can be gleaned from this list. What kind of research can be done around the people who has access to these lists? Can this information be used successfully in mashups for example, to determine for example what visitors made campaign contributions, etc.

I will also examine instances in which the visitor’s list were useful for journalists, bloggers etc, as well as look at cases when they weren’t not used but could have been (and perhaps do some of that research myself if possible). I will also look further into the limitations of this kind of information.

I tried to get a good visualization of what this visitor log looks like, but was having trouble with getting a coherent screen shot that illustrates the user functionality of it. If you’re interested, you can go here to view all the visitors named “Elizabeth” who have been to the White House.

Thanks to everyone who helped me formulate this idea. I really appreciate it!

Chat Roulette!

Have any of you heard about this new Chatroulette phenomenon yet? I keep reading articles on it and hearing people talk about it. Thought I’d share the new chat forum with you guys, in case you haven’t heard of it yet. The general idea behind it is that you can video/audio chat with any stranger at any given time, for any length of time.

Here’s the site: http://chatroulette.com/

Here’s an article about the founder (a 17 year-old kid!): http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/13/chatroulettes-founder-17-introduces-himself/

And an article posted today on Mashable, just better explaining the gist behind it: http://mashable.com/2010/02/17/chatroulette/

Mini Poll

Hi All – I decided to post a Mini Poll if you don’t mind answering it.. I figure since we are all pretty educated on SNSes.. This group would be a good sampling to test on.. :) Also, if you don’t mind in your comments explaining why you chose that answer… and also, if you can think of a better answer..