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Archive for the ‘Openness’ Category

Social Networks are Boring

12 Aug

A common refrain. People will complain that Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever, is boring. What’s usually going on is

  1. their friends are boring,
  2. they’ve reached mental exhaustion,
  3. they try to use social networks less as a social pulse or passive awareness and more as active entertainment,
  4. they reached exhaustion of new content, or
  5. they’re boring.

In a previous job, I’d do 12-hour shifts watching social media, 2 or 3 days in a row. Like, say, on overnights on a weekend. By 6AM on Monday morning, I wanted nothing to do with looking at a computer, and I say that as a completely internet-wired junkie. Sometimes there’s just nothing going on at all. No news. Even the Associated Press wires are just posting baseball recaps. Even the most loserish folks online aren’t busy bashing something on Sunday evenings.  Social media on Sunday overnights is dead.

So hearing from anyone else that one needs to unplug for a while is understandable. What isn’t understandable is the lack of recognition that your boring feeds reflect boring friends or your boring interpretation of what your friends do.

There are variations of this problem: sometimes people don’t follow a critical mass of content creators, so that when they try to view a stream or feed, they barely see any new content, and what content is actually there is boring as fuck.  Some present evidence that Facebook or whatever is dying — well, if you want to cast your widest social net, what’s better than Facebook?  What will possibly be better than Facebook any time soon?  Best place for photos?  Instagram has got that locked up tight, with several derivative competitors trying to offer alternatives (Snapchat).  Social networks are entrenched.  The verdict is still out on video, private social networks, etc.  Maybe reddit is the least secure of the large social media companies.  But I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you claim you’re bored, then your only alternative is to opt-out and go offline, or maybe go underground.

Self-Censored Data

Another variation of the problem, and the main one I want to talk about, is that the types of content that we want to and are able to post lead to limited and boring outcomes, as a result of our ambivalence about personal privacy online, legal norms for data, corporate apprehension toward data liability, etc.

I took some time off working on Galapag.us after thesis presentations ended — I was handling personal matters including moving to a new place with my girlfriend, graduation from school, parents visiting, job interviews, and so on — but I’ve recently started wading back into my code again.

For Galapag.us, I created tons of categories for data for people to enter the moments that occur in their lives every day, such as memories, interactions, loves, hates, etc. Making the data entry part as accessible and as fluid as possible is key since I think anyone who’s done any quant selfing has tired of entering in what food they ate, where they checked in, etc. constantly every day.

My logic is that while physically-generated data is easier to quantify, even the results (aggregation and charting) of it are not very exciting. What good is it to know the flawed number of steps or relative activity level we achieve per day, without further context like diet, circumstances? (sitting at a desk at work, traveling in a plane, skydiving)

Qualitative Data

And so, perhaps as an alternative to that physically-generated data, what we really find meaningful over time might be when and where we had an interaction with someone else, or how our preferences change over time.  Those are the things we remember for years afterwards.

I grew up in a command line interface type world, one of BBSs and MUDs and prompts.  So I started working on an API for Galapag.us so one could access JSON responses via curl, via the web site, or via a command line on the web site (similar to github’s).  The command line on the site let me use angular.js for two-way data binding and for making a nice interface for commands to output.

I started having to think about what new data I could make reachable through the API.  I don’t have a large user dataset yet, so I was considering external APIs. APIs are bad enough these days, as the former best one (Twitter) has been jailed, and most APIs expose almost no interesting public data. It’s cool that data.gov releases a bunch of government data but to be honest 99% of that data is completely fucking boring.  The rest of it is most likely useful only to some NYTimes data scientist who will make some sexy d3 or raphael dataviz that people will cream their pants over.

Facebook, Twitter, etc. are most useful through the data exposed within their networks’ metadata — tracking how circles of friends and followers are related — but the rest of their content is fairly boring. One could say the same about the data that the NSA is collecting.

Instagram is the beneficiary of being the leader for photos, which are the king when it comes to immediate gratification, entertaining content, and pageviews/clicks/PR. The photos we take power today’s social media, now that our networks algorithmically have been around long enough that they’re reaching adolescence (I would think our networks will reach “adulthood” when most of the userbase is old enough that network graph sizes begin to shrink from old age deaths, and the social network providers begin to change their site designs to reflect that contraction in connection to the external self).

Unoffensive and Boring Data Schema

The data itself being exposed for public consumption is fucking boring. The most exciting stuff you might see (outside of, once again, awesome photos from life-changing events that people post, and those swimsuit pics of those people you just friended) are who viewed your profile on LinkedIn (imagine if you could see that on Facebook), or an occasional drunk post signalling the rare chaos added to the polite, custom-filled order of our normal social feeds.

If you need an analogy, the personal data we disclose on our social networks is the equivalent of reading some small midwestern company’s corporate site.  Our front pages (Facebook and LinkedIn) are using, I guess, some shitty flash animation interstitial.  We probably have a shitty about page that barely contains any actual timeline info.  There’s no contact info available.  Check-ins on FourSquare?  A little racier, but maybe that’s just some scantily-clad photo we posted as a camgirl.  Most of the links on our shitty sites are broken or old.  Altogether it’s just a whole shitty experience.

At the same time, we can barely accept this “free use in exchange for using your data to advertise off you” compact we have with large siren servers like Google and Facebook, and we’re scared we’ve already contributed too much data online.

But it’s all so, so boring.  Few of us have the talent and courage to share what’s most dazzling and interesting and inspiring about our personalities and deeds online.  Those who do succeed because they are fulfilling their potential and fulfilling the powerful medium of expression that the internet was supposed to give us.  The rest of us hide our personalities and flaws and desires and failures and weaknesses because that would diminish our carefully curated statures online.

Few of us have enough details online to verify our reputations or trust, show proof of temperament or sound judgment under different bad circumstances, etc.  At the very least, most of us contribute nothing yet consume a lot every day.  People are afraid Facebook and Google and the rest know too much about us, but in reality, we’ve all agreed to some sort of social norm where we conceal what’s really interesting about us and only post the most fluffy, superficial information about ourselves.  We’ve all signed up to a social norm that we must be safely boring.

Dangerous Data

What I envision one day is seeing, over time, how other people and groups of people changed their body types after they had children, or as a result of increased work hours, or seeing the patterns of their lives through the 24 hours of their days.  What I envision is seeing hard data on failed dates vs. attempted dates, aggregated opinion of participants at concerts, sexual data, tracking peoples’ young potential vs. their older outcomes.

You know.  All the data that can be embarrassing to share — the data that often defines us more than any other data.  The data that shows when we’re vulnerable, emotional, petty, impulsive, breaking our own habits and patterns.

And what if the schema, API, and backend architecture also encouraged more scandalous insight? What if the data we collected, and the representation and sharing of it, did, as Jer Thorp wrote in his article “Art and the API”, bring us closer to what we really want to express?

[The] conceptual API. A piece of software architecture intended not only to bridge but also to question. The API as a software art mechanism, intended to be consumed not only by humans, but by other pieces of software. (Promisingly, the API also offers a medium in which software artists can work entirely apart from visual esthetic.)

Burnham wrote in 1968 that ‘the significant artist strives to reduce the technical and psychical distance between [their] artistic output and the productive means of society’. In an age of Facebook, Twitter & Google, that productive means consists largely of networked software systems. The API presents a mechanism for artistic work to operate very close to, or in fact to live within these influential systems.

There’s a reason people love to read the gossip sites all day.  The stories are glitches in the matrix regarding people we know (celebrities).  When order breaks down, we get interested.  Within our digital networks, order rarely ever breaks down.  People tailor their content to fit an identity, maybe not to improve their reputation, but very rarely to degrade it, unless they sacrifice some of it to pursue an issue worth it to them, like politics or sports.

If you want to know why social networks are “boring”, it’s because we’ve censored ourselves into being safe, and boring.

Identity

If anything, this is a stark argument for virtual identities, pseudonyms, and anonymity.  They allow us to act out in ways that we can’t within our main imprisoned identities.  They allow us to interact and experiment without the shaming that could come back to our physical identities.  The inference here is also that our other identities are inherently dangerous.

To me it is not shocking that the government can collect on any of us.  One should always assume that the US keeps the blade of its sword sharpened, and if it chooses to target you, anything you have linked to you is compromised.  What is shocking is the breadth for which the government is trying to piece together disparate datapoints together.  A huge piece of that puzzle is linking random datapoints collected online back to a MAC ID on your network card, so that it knows that “Xeus” and “Ben” are the same person.  Google is trying to do the same thing to get better data on pageclicks vs. pageviews across sessions and page transitions.  This is the key data.

If you want your social networks to be more interesting, you’re going to have to give more online.  You’re going to have to play more, experiment more, fail more.  You’ll have to expand your friend networks to areas you’re not as comfortable in.

And of course you can argue: hey, who gives a shit?, it’s just an online waste of time.  But I wonder how many peoples’ lives are not actually enriched at least a tiny bit by the passive awareness granted by online networks. I actually consider it beneficial knowing almost subconsciously that distant friends and acquaintances are busy raising that newborn or are changing jobs and moving to another country (you know, the heavy lifting of our timelines) even though we haven’t talked.

I think everyone’s going to have to suck it up a bit and realize that a digital life is one worth living to the fullest. The digital life can no longer be neglected or made fun of.

One of the more recent influential articles for me was by Nathan Jurgenson, who wrote about the IRL fetish:

Every other time I go out to eat with a group, be it family, friends, or acquaintances of whatever age, conversation routinely plunges into a discussion of when it is appropriate to pull out a phone. People boast about their self-control over not checking their device, and the table usually reaches a self-congratulatory consensus that we should all just keep it in our pants. The pinnacle of such abstinence-only smartphone education is a game that is popular to talk about (though I’ve never actually seen it played) wherein the first person at the dinner table to pull out their device has to pay the tab. Everyone usually agrees this is awesome.

Completely fetishized.  The reality:

Facebook doesn’t curtail the offline but depends on it. What is most crucial to our time spent logged on is what happened when logged off; it is the fuel that runs the engine of social media. The photos posted, the opinions expressed, the check-ins that fill our streams are often anchored by what happens when disconnected and logged-off. The Web has everything to do with reality; it comprises real people with real bodies, histories, and politics. It is the fetish objects of the offline and the disconnected that are not real.

Publicy vs. Privacy

The power of the people is publicy whereas the power of siren servers, cartels, etc. stems from privacy.  I would argue that we’re fighting a losing battle if we try to pursue even more privacy, government data retention laws, and oversight into surveillance.  We should still pursue strict controls on authorized surveillance as a matter of course, as it’s the only way to solidify gains legally, but the underlying strategy should be more openness, more sharing, more creation of public alibis to verify our reputations and livelihoods.  By withholding information from others, we give those who can still get that information power, since they then have access to data others don’t.  By sharing information, we not only take it out of play in the interconnected data market, we free that data for use in silly experimental games, behavioral economics studies, and so on.

I feel as though the conservatives have been particularly absent from the NSA story, probably because they are conflicted: on one hand, whistleblowing is a fine line between treason and heroism, whereas Big Brother and mysterious government agency behavior is a mainstay of the skeptical conservative.  The liberals on the other hand have gone full-retard.  Their shock that an agency tasked with collecting and analyzing information might try to game the internet is just downright laughable, particularly after almost a decade of encroachment into our communications networks painstakingly whistleblown by brave but mostly unheard individuals.  The liberals are also in disbelief that Obama could do this (!) and have begun equating what “he” has done with the horrors under Bush and Cheney.  It’s like some sort of retarded amnesia.  The final absurdity is that there has been no even half-constructed policy suggestion from the liberals on how to deal with maintaining intelligence superiority through surveillance versus maintaining first amendment freedoms in an interconnected hyperglobalized hybrid digital-actual world.  The NSA of course has blown almost every opportunity to win by just laying out an honest case for the nation requiring such systems in order to maintain superiority in foreign affairs.  I assume it squanders this position because it knows it really doesn’t have to do anything except keep its head down until this passes (like gun control, Gitmo, and a litany of other liberal causes abandoned when the next fauxtrage comes about).  You know, at least the Tea Party advocates turned out for rallies.  Digital liberals will just mock Occupy and Anonymous and Like Kony 2012 and anti-NSA causes on Facebook, slacktivism at its finest.

There’s absolutely no informed debate about this issue at all, yet it permeates every damn site right now.  So frustrating.  I would maintain that you can have 3 legitimate stances on it: 1) you don’t care, 2) you delete all your social data online and encrypt all your email along with friends who agree to it, or 3) you try to see the issue as a balance between national security, technological advancement, and public freedoms.  I choose #3 as a matter of pragmatism.  But I respect those who choose #1 and #2 as well.  I also allow for the criticism of being more open, which Jaron Lanier partially explains:

Metadata has proven to be a tool for certain kinds of behavioral change. Facebook can use metadata to find people who are more likely to agree to share information with each other, because they share history with each other anyway. This, in turn, increases the amount of metadata available to the algorithms. Once enough people are signed up, a new sphere of social mores is created and even more information is shared. … Young people, weaned on free Internet services that spy on them, seem to have accepted an America in which their financial prospects are reduced, and in which no one should expect “privacy.” The acquiescence of our young people is historically exceptional and bizarre. In the metadata age, privacy needs a new definition, and it might be “freedom from being profiled.” Or “equity with those who use the biggest computers.”

So in short: I wish there were more people clamoring for more openness, more transparency, starting with our own personal data.  If agencies and corporations draw power from controlling the distribution of our data, then we need to dump it out there into the public domain.  Aren’t open sourcing, transparency, openness, public domain the things digital liberals and other civil libertarian groups always say they want?

Well, as my final point, I would argue that those values are not really what they want.  They want everyone else to share more, but they won’t do it themselves.  Other people can fight the war, they’ll stay home and watch the Daily Show “destroy” some FOXNews pundit.  Other people can put the leg work in, they’ll make sure to catch that sweet rooftop party tonight.  Other people can dirty their hands with campaigning and fighting for causes, they’ll just photograph it to feel like they’re a part of it.  No associations, no taking a stand.  Just criticizing, critiquing, “doing no harm”.  Useless.

Tech Fetishism

At the same time, the obsession over drones, NSA surveillance, and other aspects of the “military-industrial complex” borders on tech-fetishism.  Behold the awesomeness of that drone turning that pickup truck into glowing-white heat signatures.  Think of the sexiness of that NSA terminal poring a search query through petabytes of data!  Are you getting a boner yet?  It plays into every Ayn Rand teen’s wet dream about how insidious and dangerous the government is, yet it’s ignorant of the reality of today’s world, where columns of tanks and infantry are so rarely seen, but code — and data — runs 24 hours a day, every day.  The thing about that is, tanks and infantry always cause destruction — they were built to destroy — whereas code can be good or bad, depending on the policy and the actors behind it.  Anti-NSA tech-fetishists would have the code and tech destroyed, while in awe of it, but a more sensible approach would be for a citizenry to push a responsible use of that tech through Congress and POTUS: acknowledge the necessity of it, yet create sound policy to govern the use of it.

And a nation won’t use it as much if the nation’s priorities don’t require so much of it.  Right now under a paranoid post 9/11 security apparatus (worldwide and even in the holier-than-thou Europe, I might add, and not just under Nobama’s America), the threat vector includes just about any potential self-radicalizing self-pitying dumbass who read a pamphlet about how x or y is oppressing z.  So you take away the siloed cartel control of distribution of our data, establish reputations and publicize them, and you take away much of the potential for abuse by over-zealous states who either through blunder or through antipathy go after non-targets and then claim confidentiality and parallel construction (a technique as old as the hills by any type of law enforcement, I might add) as a defense.

I don’t know where the fuck this post is ending :) so I’ll wrap it up here but right now there’s some sort of weird disconnect between the reality of a world I thought we all witnessed in the last decade or so and the Sesame Street world that the old Tea Partiers, anti-NSA libertarianers, and uninformed liberals are living in.

And so it will continue.  Sigh.

 

Opening Up Galapag.us for Alpha

30 Apr

My thesis project for NYU-ITP has been Galapag.us, a tribe and ecosystem for promoting the idea that we should be radically open and transparent with our data so that we can form and share metrics to measure our progress and success in different areas of our lives.  More info at the front page of Galapag.us.

User Zero

I came up with the idea in 2006.  An email I sent to my Army buddy in April, 2006:

I sort of had an idea but it seems like it’ll be difficult to build out.  My idea would be for something similar to Xbox Live’s ranking system.  Except it’s for your life.  Privacy issues aside, people would volunteer to put in as much personal info as they want.  At first it might seem cumbersome putting in so much info but I think as myspace and other services have shown, people are willing to do it if it means it cultivates their identity.

So for instance you put in your income and number of kids and connect your accounts for online game rankings (like in Halo or Battlefield 2) and your exercise plan and your birthdate and your finances and investments and how many web sites you’re on (like myspace, digg, yahoo, etc.) and from all that data, the company would generate statistics that break down your life and give you info about how much time you spend on certain tasks, how efficient you are with your money, what your online reputation is.  Stuff like that.  The core would be statistics…anonymous statistics I think so people won’t have any incentive to forge their results.  The point would be to turn peoples’ lives into a numeric game where they can see how they rate in certain aspects of their lives.  Think of all those online quizzes people take about what kind of lover they are or what their personality is.  That could be tabulated into the statistics, which could be searchable or broke down any way the person wanted.

At the end of a year, we could look internally at our statistics and go visit the top overall people in person to go verify their data and videotape their lives, interview them.  Then a winner would be announced…like the best person award.  Heh…there’d be so much controversy and whining and competition if it caught on.  Then we could write a book about our experiences going out and discovering what makes someone “the best” compared to everyone else.

So…that’s my idea so far.  Sort of like a real-life RPG.  Perhaps we could offer points for real-world scavenger hunts or traveling to different countries around the globe.  What about having life coaches for certain segments, if someone was weak in an area like professional development?  I was thinking we could also offer points for accomplishing certain tasks like humanitarian work.

A lot of stuff happened in the meantime: I got out of the Army, went to study foreign policy in DC, worked for Homeland Security, moved to NYC for school.  And so now I’m wrapping up the thesis, which allowed me more than a semester to work just about full-time (including any waking moment) on trying to make Galapag.us a reality before I can either A) get funding or B) get an engineer/developer job after school.

So I present Galapag.us for thesis on May 15 at NYU.  I have two weeks still to work on it before then.  I think I’ve gotten it to a point where I can start letting alpha testers in to explore, and think about it.  My work log has been tracked on the thesis blog.

Beginning Alpha Testing with Thesis

Want to help alpha test or just look around?  Give it a try at https://galapag.us/login and see what you think!

Here’s the slide deck I’ll be presenting at thesis:

Stack

  • Amazon EC2 small instance with ubuntu
  • node.js/express.js: So easy to build a site using this framework.
  • varnish/nginx+ngx_pagespeed: Caching, run-time optimizations for faster page loads/downloads.  Routes to https and socket.io server too.
  • python scripts for maintaining server default state
  • celery for queuing
  • redis for temporary data dumps and lookups
  • mongodb for permanent data storage
  • angularjs for the comment system
  • mocha, unittest, qunit for unit testing in python and javascript

 

I know the site’s confusing — like an airplane pilot dashboard.  It’ll become more cohesive over time.  A lot of things aren’t quite working yet, or they have filler data to get them going.  Apologies for that.  For more familiarization, try the welcome demo.

But here are some features that are worth checking out:

Comment System

Comments will be available for tribe forums, formula critiques, peoples’ profiles.  I decided to use angularjs so I could learn how to build SPAs with it!

ss_comments

 

Tribes

By tracking individual data, one can also track internal company metrics and state-level happiness metrics too!

ss_graph

 

The Islands

Each island has its own weather, environment, and bonuses/penalties for certain user behavior, so it benefits you to live on the island that incorporates your style best.

ss_islands

 

Professions and Skills

What does it mean to be “good” at something? Are companies hiring the most qualified candidates? How do we standardize that?

ss_professions

 

Your Genome

A profile for your data.  You get reputation scores in different areas.  Those scores are determined by which formulas you choose to use.  You can also see your internet of things (devices, pets, objects) is on the bottom right, while you’ll also be able to create gaming characters using your own data.

ss_profile

 

Quests

You can complete quests within Galapag.us to gain experience.  Some tasks will be data-gardening for other people, some will be to introduce gaming elements, others will be to visit lesser-seen parts of the site.  But mostly the quests should be geared towards helping others.

ss_quests

 

Status Bar

I love github’s command bar. I want users to be able to do most everything through the search bar.

ss_searchbar

 

Tribes and Their Genomes

Tribes are important to our identities. formulas serve as their DNA.

ss_tribes

 

Universal Reputation Lookup

The left-side widget can be opened on most pages to see what reputations the people named on them have.  I intend to allow people to look up reputations from just about anywhere.

ss_widget

 

 

API/Sandbox

Galapag.us will have an API to access one’s data, as well as common stats such as state population census results, zodiac signs, and global stats.  Plus a place to test the routes, within the sandbox:

ss_api

 

So with all that, please go help alpha test at https://galapag.us/login to begin your exploration of identity and reputation.  Thanks, and come to the ITP Spring Show if you can!

 

Eudaimonia Versus Existing in a Childproofed Society

10 Aug

We live within a culture where negative feedback is purposefully avoided.  You can’t “dislike” on Facebook, you can only “+1″ on Google+.  Yelp was rumored to have strong-armed companies into paying to get rid of bad reviews.  Online sites like Consumerist are attacked by businesses who claim they’re unfair.  Most companies purposefully hide their contact numbers on their sites so you can’t easily call them (because if you’re calling, you probably have a problem with them!), you can’t cancel service on a web site and usually have to call, people avoid conflict and argument, companies set up complex levels of firewalls to prevent angry customers from getting anywhere, etc.

It goes further.  The world’s standard for measuring national improvement is Gross Domestic Product, which only tracks consumption in a very crude way.  Simon Kuznets, one of the architects of the GNP metric, admitted, “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income… Goals for “more” growth should specify of what and for what.”  But this forewarning was ignored.  If someone gets cancer and has to purchase a bunch of equipment and pills and spend money in the hospital, this is counted as a net positive for society because of the purchases, even if all these resources are being spent on one person who is unable to contribute to society while sick.  The U.S. government (!) is protesting credit rating agencies’ assessment of its indebtedness, where both the U.S. government has been profligate and the agencies have been corrupt in currying favor with the U.S. one moment and then trashing it the next.

The stock market, currently in shambles within the last few weeks, has scared nations yet again after a shock only three years ago.  Predictably, the Greek government, which has watched its economy grind to a halt and reach almost-default levels, has decided to ban short-selling of stocks for two months.  This is essentially an ideological move.  Short-selling, where you make money by betting on a stock going DOWN, not up, has always been seen by non-market people as, in varying degrees, dastardly, unpatriotic, illegal, and even dangerous.  It’s that last point regulators focus on.  They believe that short sales by people who hate a company can drive a stock to zero.  Meanwhile, market folks know that short selling actually adds more transparency, information, and support to stock prices, because there will be pressures pushing the stocks both up AND down, and not just up.  The problem in a market without short sellers is that without them, when buyers disappear, prices collapse completely.  No short sellers would be covering their positions.

And this says something else about markets.  Very few people actually understand how they work.  Virtually all the mainstream articles being written about the latest downturn are just flat out WRONG.  You’ll get guys like this, who tell you to stay in the market so you don’t risk the upside (again, it’s always about things going up).  He goes on in another piece to say that Wall Street is irrelevant!  The Daily Beast, usually a pretty savvy digest of the most important stories, has turned to mush when it comes to the markets.  Otherwise very intelligent people I follow online also have very flawed notions of how the markets work.  The lack of economic understanding is frightening when you consider that these people probably know a little bit more than the politicians elected to vote on policy for government role in the economy.

I’d prefer to read people like George Friedman, who emphasizes that it is not just economy, but political economy, that we must talk about.  Politics and the relations between power groups affects most of the dynamics in our lives, and we cannot act like the economy is some neutral entity that is impervious to human mistakes and designs.  The “economy” is intimately wrapped within the designs of men.

I had to quit watching the daytrading IRC channels because even those high-frequency traders had what was basically a cynical Ayn Rand-ish slash Gordon Gekko slash Snake Plissken view of the world where you’re only successful if you cut others’ throats to get to where you are.  Their adaptability to changing market conditions was highly questionable.  Basic economic principles were ignored.  But hey, they made good money so I can’t complain too much.

I would agree with Richard Florida (PDF), Umair Haque, Tim O’Reilly, and some others that we are in the very early, ugly stages of a transition to an eudaimonia society, from a purely consumerist society.  I believe that we need to be able to take an honest look at how our society is structured and allow for more negativity in our metrics.  We need to develop the capacity to take criticism, to be voted down, to be shamed when we do things that are wrong (a concept crudely and devastatingly wielded mostly by religion), to take a more holistic look at everything impacting our lives.  Pure revenue should mean less if it comes at the cost of environmental degradation, pollution, lack of time at home raising families, lack of sleep, abuse from employers or manipulation from unions, etc.

Eudaimonia is a term fit only for us classicists, but @'s concept of the economics of the good life is spot on http://bit.ly/l25koR
@timoreilly
Tim O'Reilly

Umair Haque:

“I believe the quantum leap from opulence to eudaimonia is going to be the biggest, most significant economic shift of the next decade, and perhaps beyond: of our lifetimes. We’re not just on the cusp of, but smack in the middle of nothing less than a series of revolutions, aimed squarely at the trembling status quo (financial, political, social): new values, mindsets, and behaviors, fundamentally redesigned political, social, economic, and financial institutions; nothing less than reweaving the warp and weft of not just the way we live–but why we live, work, and play.”

The goal is for people to be able to pursue middle-class professions in fields that they are talented at, to unlock their creative potential, instead of shoe-horning people into certain professions if they want to live any kind of decent lives for themselves.  The goal is for people to have a successful career but also a family to raise, a community to participate in, and a healthy life.  The way society is constructed now, as I’ve said before, is a zero-sum kind of get-rich-or-die-tryin’ mentality where everyone is incentivized to fuck everyone else over, at least until one becomes wealthy enough to think about maybe working on philantropy for others.

My "EUDAIMONIA" Tattoo

Instead of just Gross Domestic Product, people like Mark Anielski (“The Economics of Happiness: Building Genuine Wealth”) recommend the Genuine Progress Index, or the GPIAtlantic.  The GPIAtlantic was broken down into these indicators:

  • Time Use
    Value of Civic and Voluntary Work, Value of Unpaid Housework and Child Care, Value of Leisure Time, Paid Work Hours
  • Living Standards
    Income and its Distribution, Financial Security – Debt and Assets, Economic Security Index
  • Natural Capital
    Soils & Agriculture, Forests, Fisheries and Marine Resources, Energy, Air, Water
  • Human Impact on the Environment
    Solid Waste, Ecological Footprint, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Transportation
  • Human and Social Capital
    Population Health, Costs of Crime, Educational Attainment

These indicators are far more in line with how we actually consider the world subjectively.  They capture our concerns, worries, and understanding of how much we feel safe living in our communities.  But all of the factors are ignored in the top-line metrics that we use.

Which is sad because we live in an era now of big data.  The top quants in the nation are working in finance, insurance, computer science, crypto.  Yet the metrics we use for our own well-being and happiness are crude “neutral” measurements from another century.

The above chart shows the disparity between how the U.S. economy is measured through GDP versus how it is in actuality.  In short, we have hit a plateau in our quality of life for almost 60 years, while our GDP measurement seems to indicate we’re much “richer” per capita.  It coincides with increasing income inequality, measured through the Gini coefficient:

They show that our society as a whole probably peaked in overall access to happiness somewhere in 1968.

In short, we have insulated ourselves from seeing the negative aspects of our society.  Amartya Sen calls this phenomenon “hedonic opulence”, Anielski calls it “chrematistics”, Clive Hamilton calls it “affluenza”.  We believe that we can grow our way out of poverty, that if we have enough positives in a society, that we can just overwhelm the negatives.  But the truth is that the negatives impact the bottom line of growth and positivity.  A community full of pollution and crime will stop creative processes from flourishing there.  A sick populace will be less productive at work, impacting overall economic success.

Said Robert Kennedy on March 18, 1968, at the University of Kansas:

“Too much and too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product [GNP]… – if we should judge America by that – …counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities…. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

This is why I want to work on Galapag.us as my life project.  It is an ecosystem for reputation.  All the things you’ve worked on in your life are aggregated into metrics of your own design.  The most popular metrics (say, success at being a contributor to your community, looking at data such as your volunteer work, church life, money donated, time spent tutoring other people or children, household income, trustworthiness, crime record, etc.) would be voted up to the top.  We would not be constrained to just GDP.  We could build our own metrics.  Then those local, individual metrics could be aggregated for county level, state level, all the way up to national level.  The data is anonymized as it is grouped, or, if you choose, fully identifiable and open if you are an open person.

The imperative, though, must be on more transparency and accountability.  If we as individuals can’t handle being criticized publicly, then we can’t expect things to improve at higher levels of organization.  Being criticized is not always a bad thing.  If the criticism is fair, you should improve yourself with it.  If it is unfair, your detractor should be penalized for making false statements.  We do not have this kind of global feedback system in place.  We are victim to flash mobs, anonymous attackers, stalkers, people who suffer no negative feedback from their actions.  Galapag.us would fill this hole in the internet’s identity layer while still providing degrees of anonymity, pseudonymity, and identity.

Daniel Suarez’s seminal but overlooked books, Daemon and Freedom (TM), suggest deprogramming the “Non-Player Character”/NPC dynamic of being trapped within a world of simplistic metrics (the quotes below are from Freedom (TM):

“What do we look like to a computer algorithm, Sergeant? Because it will be computer algorithms that make life-changing decisions about these people based on this data. How about credit worthiness—as decided by some arbitrary algorithm no one has a right to question?”

“Imagine how easily you could change the course of someone’s life by changing this data? But that’s control, isn’t it? In fact, you don’t even need to be human to exert power over these people. That’s why the Daemon spread so fast.”

Suarez’s books propose that darknet hacker communities will spring up in the rural areas, away from legal restraints and the encroachment of lawyers, corporations, and other barriers to entry, creating more balanced, sustainable, networked communities for people to be rewarded at their individual trades by leveling up in the darknet world and then using darknet credits to earn a reputation and a living.

“Holons are the geographic structure of the darknet. Any darknet community lies at the center of an economic radius of one hundred miles for its key inputs and outputs—food, energy, health care, and building materials. Balancing inputs and outputs within that circle is the goal. A local economy that’s as self-sufficient as possible while still being part of a cultural whole—a holon—thus creating a resilient civilization that has no central points of failure. And which through its very structure promotes democracy. That’s what we’re doing here, Sergeant.”

“The Daemon financed this.” Sebeck turned to her. “Didn’t it?” “The Daemon’s economy is powered by darknet credits, Sergeant. Imaginary credits are all that money is.” “But there’s a theft at the heart of it.” She thought about it and nodded slightly. “Yes, the darknet economy was seeded by real world wealth. Wealth that was questionable in origin to begin with. Here, it’s being invested in people and projects that have begun to return value—not in dollars, but in things of intrinsic human worth. Energy, information, food, shelter.”

There are ways out of the messes we’re in, but most people see them as unconnected issues.  But personally I see it as symptomatic of an entire society’s failure to examine itself.  Gnowthi seauton.  Jared Diamond-type stuff.  Granted, it would be a LOT to expect humankind to be able to look at itself honestly, for humans always hope to avoid the negative and only see the good in the things they believe in, but this would be one of those points where one would hope that our civic leaders and politicians would be required to study — and therefore detect — such policy/societal failures and properly diagnose them.

Unfortunately, that is not the ruling class that we have, and we are not likely to correct these systems until an alternative system is built.  Those who make money under the current system will resist, but even politicians go along with something when it’s shown to be successful.  Hopefully for me it would be something like Galapag.us, but I would accept any attempts.

The only way to change our systematic problems is to build our own alternative.

 

Public Transit Adds Data Points

11 Aug

Here in DC, WMATA (Washington Metro Area Transit Authority) has started putting up signs at all its bus stops that have a unique stop number on them.

wmataWhat this number symbolizes is a unique ID that riders and WMATA operators can use to point to an exact location and stop.

As you can see from the sign, it’s not exactly intuitive what this number is for, but you can call that number and tell the system the unique stop ID and it would tell you when the next bus is coming.

More useful is that WMATA has put up a mobile version of the same functionality at http://www.wmata.com/mobile/ which allows you to go on your iPhone or whatever and type in the stop # to find out when the next bus is coming.

This app also lets you check when the next trains are coming on the Metro, once you’ve entered the station.

But I think there are some interesting applications more on the bus side, what with WMATA having to add the pictured signs to ALL of its bus stops.  This is no small number; according to Wikipedia, that number is 12,301 total bus stops.

It will take some time for WMATA to get signs on some of the lesser-traveled stops, but I’ve noticed that a lot of the work’s already been done as I travel around town.

That means there are now 12,301 new data points (maybe not new to WMATA’s internal logs, but certainly new to us) that could be used.  Right now, people can’t interact actively with those data points.

But I could imagine that if the data points were all mapped onto Google Maps or OpenStreetMap, then interesting things would begin to emerge, e.g. emergency responders could be told that there’s an injured person at that location.

This might be done by turning the bus stops into communication posts:  the sign itself could be connected to a WiMAX network and thus displays the next-bus time without you having to look it up.  But it could also allow for emergency requests, or you could touch your phone or an RFID-enabled device to it to get more information on whatever was needed; this information would be primarily localized, like where the nearest convenience or grocery store was, etc.  This would make up for a lot of the shortcomings that still exist in being able to use the GPS/triangulation on your phone but still not having any context on your map that’s meaningful beyond what cross-streets you’re at.

New York supposedly is about to try out its own version of having next-bus displays at bus stops, according to the NY Times.  It’s not entirely clear to me what their technology is although they claim it is some sort of “mesh network technology” which to me sounds like it’d be fraught with errors and lost coverage.

The new data points could be used in different applications:  you could check in to FourSquare from them as you travel around town, playing its social game.  If WMATA played ball and opened up the data, you could calculate total hits on a station by a bus over a year.  Even more interesting would be if you could see how many people were on each bus, to see how congested things are over time (I can already see privacy zealots complaining about that).  How about figuring out overall transit times for Metro users?

What else could we do with this stuff?

 

Big, Interesting, Mysterious Pragmatic Problems

31 May

I’ve just finished a master’s program full of amazing classmates seeking policy solutions to some of the toughest problems the US and international institutions have to currently deal with.  For my part, I deeply love to spend a lot of my recreational thinking time searching for gaps in solutions to problems — entrepreneurial thinking — looking for where something is grossly inadequate and is in need of a better solution.

Better Left Unsaid?

There are certain wide swathes of areas of study that are ignored — and within them lurk many potential solutions.  I’ve gradually noticed some of these areas over the years of study and experience I’ve gathered in my life.  And I’ve often thought about why they remain ignored, and why the solutions, which some very smart people very clearly understand how to identify and implement, remain unused.

I’m reading The Wisdom of Whores:  Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of AIDS right now (thanks Kevin Donovan for lending it to me), and its author, Elizabeth Pisani (see her blog on the subject), talks about why HIV/AIDS continue to thrive.  One of the main problems is that we refuse to talk about sex realistically.  We refuse to talk about, as she says, how certain men dress as women and think of themselves as women, how young unmarried women are often more at risk for HIV/AIDS than young unmarried men, how adultery and multiple sexual partners are fairly common all around the world.  Certainly we have not been helped by Ms. Beetroot in South Africa or by George Bush’s insipid abstinence policy for Africa instead of more condom usage.

What Pisani calls it is a problem of taboos.

Taboos Make Us Act Dumb

There must be some sort of linkage between massive societal problems and taboos, because many of the gaps I’ve come across have, in some part, to do with deep cultural taboos.  Taboos around certain issues, like sex and drugs and economics, cause individuals and their government representatives and their communities to ignore debate — what comes out of that perversity is things like bars in Tokyo where Japanese businessmen go into a mock subway car and feel up girls in schoolgirl outfits, or massive failures in counter-narcotic policies, or the idea in some areas of Africa that condoms actually give you AIDS.

I remember a poignant moment when I went to New York City as part of Georgetown MSFS’s NYC alumni trip.  We went to a bar for my birthday and one of my friends brought a guest, some young girl who didn’t really seem that clued in.  We asked what she did for a living and she snootily said that she worked in “collateralized debt obligations”, spoken in such a way that we were stupid if we didn’t know what they were.  Such a phrase didn’t belong to the person speaking it (which might be a little stereotypical, I know), but as it turns out I’m willing to bet she’s out of a job right now and probably never understood the underlying securities.  I just think of that moment for its essence of cognitive dissonance and how no one understood how real estate was booming without underlying income and assets to support it.

As part of my Yahoo!/ISD research, I proposed an openness/closedness model, wherein the nexus was transparency.  Within the realm of health, a society can choose to be very closed, leading to rampant STD prevalence and incidence and cultures of distrust and adultery and secrecy, or it can choose to be very open, in which case it loses much of the meaning of intimate and long-lasting relationships and is prone to gossip (when those who are very open are criticized by those who aren’t as much so).  A third way is institutional and societal transparency, leading to public health initiatives (i.e. civic responsibility over personal privacy in order to increase general health).

Thinking in this way, here are some other massive existing problems I’ve always wondered about.  Most of them have their own inflection points that are seared into my head for one reason or another.  My spidey sense kicks in and asks, “Why did this person react so strongly to this topic?  Why is a topic very intensely studied EXCEPT for this certain area?”  What are the cultural taboos lurking underneath these large-scale societal issues?

Job Hiring and Human Resources

This one is near and dear to my heart right now, since I’m unemployed and looking for work.

Despite services like headhunters, monster.com, et al, the entire job hiring process is completely broken.  Here’s how it generally works.

A job listing is posted on the organization’s web site.  The organization receives maybe hundreds of resumes, cover letters, and all the other junk that recruiters ask for.  The recruiter chooses the most promising candidates for interviews and then after an interview, the recruiter and team picks the best person.  Sounds fine, right?

But what really happens is that some overworked manager at work needs to recruit someone, so he writes up this long listing with completely unrealistic job requirements, like “20 years experience in Swaziland and Indonesia, 15 years executive experience, for free summer internship”.  In fact, someone could probably get a lot of traffic with a blog that tracks the most audacious, ridiculous job listings on the market.

On top of this listing, what one needs to do is apply, and that turns into a whole game unto itself.  If you’re lucky, all you need to do is send your resume to an e-mail address.  The more onerous ones ask for a cover letter, which seems to me to be an exercise in redundancy, since your resume should be enough to warrant interest.  The worst hiring mechanisms are in larger organizations, which ask for short-answer or essay responses.  Or you might upload your resume (which is fine), but then the server software tries to parse your resume and then you have to fill in these laborious form fields so that your data fits in this organization’s database.  The worst system perhaps exists in Avue Digital Services, a contractor’s system used by a lot of government agencies.  You should really check this web site out.  It looks like it’s from 1998.  I applied for one job at USAID and I literally had to click on options about how extensive my experience with “formulating a plan and carrying it out” and THEN had to fill out a textbox fleshing out the details behind it.  And this was repeated for 10 other questions.

Keep in mind that if you want to take this process seriously, it will likely take you several hours to complete.  And also keep in mind that you’re not even likely to get any sort of response for all your work!

That is another peccadillo of mine:  people who don’t have the courtesy to respond, even if just to say “no”.  Obviously people are overworked and busy enough as it is, but how does one know whether to follow up or give up if they don’t even get a form letter denial?  This is professionally lazy.

I have a bunch of unemployed friends right now and they are brilliant.  But there’s no entry path into organizations.  A smart organization would put a lot of money into entry-level pipeline programs for training, because there’s few jobs where someone is actually going to come in and be fully-trained for their job.  (Chemonics International and the World Bank seem to have these sorts of programs — kudos to them.  Anyone else you’ve found?)

Thus you get these ridiculous requirements in job listings, posted by people who don’t really know what their organization needs, sent to people who have to send out more and more resumes just to get one organization that responds to them.  The whole system is burdened and, in short, completely broken.

All that said, smart people know that you don’t really get jobs by going on monster.com or through job listings.  The best jobs come through your weak ties and social networks.  But doesn’t this sidestep the great advantages the internet offers in terms of matching up interests and human capital?

It is 2009 and we still don’t have online standardization for job hunting.  LinkedIn has a wonderful system that is essentially an online resume with social networking.  But why doesn’t Reid Hoffman, if he’s so brilliant, push LinkedIn as a standard resume system?  Why do we have these bizarre artifacts like tailored resumes that have to be in Word format?  We do we have artifacts like a resume flood where only a few people are even notified that their resume was acknowledged?  Why isn’t there a system that tracks which places you’ve applied to, when you applied to them, and what the results were in an open system?

The answer is that it’s all taboo.  Companies don’t know what they really need in new hires.  People can’t share salary details because people don’t want to know that they might get fleeced, and companies prefer the information asymmetry.  Those on the job market aren’t quite sure what skills they need to get jobs because they know that in their jobs, the “skills” are often complete nonsense.  Opaqueness is the name of the game — don’t let anyone on to the fact that you have no clue what’s going on.

It really is a wonder that organizations are able to make money.  I dream of the day when I get to do hiring as part of my job as a founder — I would, in a heartbeat, volunteer my company to be part of a network of organizations that agree to use an open, transparent hiring system.

Altruism and Non-GDP Labor

I took a biology class in college which stood out in mind for its professor who was keenly interested in making sure we understood the most sweeping, important ideas within the field.  In particular, he spoke pointedly about the concept of altruism in nature, so much that I think he might have even devoted a whole lecture to it.  He spoke about whether there are examples of altruism in nature and whether that altruism was ultimately self-interest or if it was genuine.

The attention he gave to that topic signified its importance to me.  But having grown up in a fairly mercantilist Dallas, and in particular the ultra-competitive suburb of Plano, and then bearing witness to the high-flying dotcom boom and the era of Greenspan and Reagan and trickle-down economics, altruism has been a topic suspiciously ignored and avoided in much of the literature I’ve read.

Something has changed since the dotcom bubble collapsed.  The massive drop in costs for storage, bandwidth, and processing has made information dissemination and creation go exponential.  Freemium (offering most of your services for free while charging for premium features) is a viable business model, collaborative projects like open source Linux and Wikipedia are a normal part of our innovation ecosystem, and the “gift economy” is no longer fantasy.  Check out this article on the altruism in economics.

Greenspan infamously admitted there were flaws in his theory, and Reaganomics have gone dormant.  Now The Economist is worried about big government (its latest cover signals the magazine’s shift from averting financial collapse to anti-government economic conservatism, as if those are either/or states).  The neo-cons have gone dormant as well.

This is allowing for more integrative economic theories to be debated and explored — the outcome will be some mix of purely economic labor (i.e. going to work and earning a salary) and social capital wealth (fostering your strong and weak ties) and incorporating household labor (cleaning the house, taking care of family) into statistics about overall wealth.

You can see the taboo in this area in how economic growth used to be calculated:  gross domestic product per capita.  This is a crude measurement of overall GDP divided by population, ignorant of massive socio-economic divides or other measures of well-being.

But the Human Development Index has gained traction.  On top of GDP/capita, it also includes statistics on literacy and life expectancy.  This is a closer approximate to tracking a realistic, sustainable snapshot of human life.  In fact, one might even call it an attempt to measure happiness (in the past, happiness was just how much money you earned, according to economists).  Bhutan has taken a radical approach — it’s made happiness a national measurement.

“Specifically, the government has determined that the four pillars of a happy society involve the economy, culture, the environment and good governance. It breaks these into nine domains: psychological well-being, ecology, health, education, culture, living standards, time use, community vitality and good governance, each with its own weighted and unweighted G.N.H. index.”

Economic theory is the real story of the 20th century.  The advent of Marxism and Communism vs. Capitalism, the Keynesian economic school that led to Friedmanism and a collapse of financial institutions in the United States (1929 and eventually 2007).  Why are economists, who are given so much control over policy, unable to break the taboo of non-monetary labor?

For more, read Clive Hamilton’s “Growth Fetish”.  Some choice quotes:

“As Andre Gorz has observed, ‘Socialism may … be understood as the positive response to the disintegration of social bonds ensuing from the commodity and competitive relations characteristic of capitalism.’  Eudemonism too is motivated by an understanding of the corrosive effects of capitalism on social bonds, but it differs in two respects.  First, it attributes this erosion of social bonds not so much to the depredations of the capital-worker relationship but to the social disintegration associated with excessive consumption in the marketing society.  Second the problem of capitalism is not only the disintegration of social bonds but also the loss of self that characterises the marketing society.  We need to recover the security and integration of pre-modern societies, societies ‘in which the unity of work and life, of society and community, of the individual and the collective, of culture and politics, of economy and morality, is re-established; in which the functional requirements of the system coincide with the aims of everyone, and the meaning of each person’s life coincides with the meaning of History.”

“Becker defined marriage as an arrangement to secure the mutual benefit of exchange between two agents of different endowments.  In other words, people marry in order to more efficiently produce ‘household commodities’, including ‘the quality of meals, the quality and quantity of children, prestige, recreation, companionship, love, and health status’.  The marriage decision is therefore based on quantifiable costs and benefits.

“He defined love as ‘a non-marketable household commodity’, noting that more love between potential partners increases the amount of caring and that this in turn reduces the costs of ‘policing’ the marriage.  Policing is needed ‘in any partnership or corporation’ because it ‘reduces the probability that a mate shirks duties or appropriates more output than is mandated by the equilibrium in the marriage market.”

Those organizations and companies that seek to promote the value of activities and social goods other than those goods and services produced and paid for will be the big winners in the next century.  Who is tackling these issues?  Read Kevin Kelly’s latest primer on the subject of the global collectivist society.

Human Capital and Social Capital

Facebook I believe is one of those companies.  While Facebook still has a tinge of triteness in the minds of many, I think what it is doing will help to define our coming networked information economy, to use Yochai Benkler’s “Wealth of Networks” term.

Facebook is building a standardized international system for maintaining our pre-existing social capital and expanding upon it.  Social capital is roughly measured by the number of your contacts, weak or strong (weak ties are acquaintances or co-workers while strong ties are your friends and family), and the level of interaction you have among them and your ability to bring your different nodes of interaction together.  Essentially this is what you are doing on Facebook when you’re having conversations with all your friends in one location (your wall).

Human capital focuses more on things like education level and health care and nutrition, the fundamental building blocks which allow us to achieve more parts of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (further discussion of Maslow suggest that you don’t need to have all the lower levels on the hierarchy of needs to reach self-actualization — you can have different combinations).

I bring up human and social capital because they are deeply awash in taboo.  People react violently to sharing their data online, because they are terrified of accountability and misuse and the idea that you can game human interaction.  Ask girls you know what they think about Neil Strauss’s “The Game”, a book that describes a community of men who figured out that if they wore attention-grabbing ornamentation to a club and said certain things to ladies at a bar, they could get those ladies to do just about anything they wanted while there, including “number-closing” or getting a girl to give you her number.

No one wants to think of human relationships as so base and simplistic, particularly when it comes to her OWN relationships.  Everyone wants to be complex.  But there are biological and social mechanisms that are intrinsic to how we interact.

The taboo that humans cannot be studied as though they are animals stops us from being able to understand ourselves, and thus we are exploited by reputation thieves, identity crooks, marketing projects, “players” and “hustlers”, et al.  We come up with imperfect systems like eHarmony to try to find us the perfect mate, and we use simplistic hiring systems to find jobs.

Good Governance and Strong Leadership

The international development discipline has gone through many fads in its attempts to systematically reduce worldwide poverty:  economic growth, education initiatives, public health, increased nutrition, food aid, import substitution, infrastructure projects, anti-corruption, institution-building, etc.

Naturally, flooding anything with money will lead to existing power structures siphoning that money away or just plain mismanaging it so that the end result looks nothing like how the project was intended on paper.  What you end up getting are things like warlordism (Somalia), clientelism (South America and much of the world), and simple corruption (everywhere).  Thus, you have people like Bill Easterly and Dambisa Moyo, development economists, who are saying that we’re wasting our money with “aid”, if it’s not accompanied with the proper incentives for all parties, and if it’s not held accountable to the recipients of aid (i.e. poor people and the citizenry) but only to the government.

I’ve just started a very interesting book my brother chose about Tokyo’s fish market, Tsukiji.  In it, the author, Theodore Bestor, has a disclaimer up front that anthropologists should stop being afraid to address power structures and economics — he notes that anthropologists abhor discussion of economics and economic systems, a sentiment I’ve noticed when I listen to my family talk about the two topics.  There is notable distaste between anthropologists and economists, even though I’ve always found both subjects fascinating and inextricably linked.

I studied international development as my concentration in my master’s program and very rarely does any of the literature talk about the importance of strong leaders except in a negative context, primarily for “big men” in Africa who ruled for multiple decades and ran their countries into the ground.  But if we’ve established that aid money is subject to graft, infrastructure projects are steered towards clients of the government, literacy is kept down to stop the citizenry from fighting back, and virtually all development initiatives can be co-opted, doesn’t that leave good governance as an important (but not the only) step?

And that’s where development stands now:  encourage strong institutions and good governance and a country’s government will start performing better for its citizens. But still, the issue of having a strong leader to push these programs through, even knocking down incumbent interests who will resist, is ignored.  It is a taboo topic.

Just look at what the CIA used to be obsessed with:  regime change and propping up friendly rulers.  The most taboo and secret people of all, our clandestine services, used to subvert governments worldwide.  They did it either to keep parts of the world so fractured that they couldn’t challenge the US or to bring in someone who would represent American interests.  And in that context, it worked pretty well.  We didn’t care if that country’s people were disenfranchised and thrown into poverty.  We didn’t care about internal civil societies or human capital.  We just wanted rulers who would do what we wanted them to.  End of story.  The CIA knew what was up.

It doesn’t seem as though there are many ways to birth, train, and promote a great leader like Gandhi or Churchill or Lincoln out of a lab or vacuum.  So how can development practitioners bring this about?  They can’t, really…at least, not that popular literature and research has uncovered.  Have you found anything?  The best thing seems to be leaving countries alone, forcing them to deal with their national identity and to have a natural process of finding leadership.  But this is not something we can spend millions of dollars on.

Perhaps the best thing we can do is to be the best role model country on our own, to exemplify values we hope others have.  This solution does not provide practitioners with jobs.  So perhaps that is why there is a taboo about strong leadership in international development literature.

Personalities & Social Lubricants

One subject that has come to dominate my thoughts more and more over time is the importance of individual personalities.  This is somewhat linked to the strong leadership gap described in the last section, but specifically I am obsessed with the development of very interesting people.  I don’t care as much about how they got to where they are, but am most interested in the conditions and environment those people grew up in, and what decisions those people were faced with at critical junctions in their lives.  This is why I loved Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” so much; he finds that successful people did not appear at a vacuum.  In many cases they were blessed with extraordinary opportunities that seemed mundane at the time but that gave them the time to become experts in their fields.

Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Sergei Brin and Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, etc.  These are remarkable human beings but they do not just settle on one thing in their lives.  They are pushing forward on new initiatives.  They’re not one-trick ponies.  They have stunning ability to motivate others to go further.  It’s these personalities that I don’t think get enough credit except for the fact that they are filthy rich.

It’s no secret that personalities sell — I appreciate the tabloids on that basis alone.  But the celebrity world of movies and music seems to be the only real vector for pushing personalities into the forefront.  It is not as though many other professions can hope for that level of fame, no matter how eccentric they are or how interesting their award-winning work is.

As far as I know, there’s really only one organization that seeks to build a network of particularly entrepreneurial individuals:  the Ashoka Foundation.  My impression is that the foundation takes entrepreneurial winners from different countries and then encourages them to become mentors for the next generation of social entrepreneurs from their country.  This talent-centric approach is at odds with venture capital and the public markets, which only care about the ideas, and more recently, only pay attention to entrepreneurship in business models.

I would much rather hire or invest in someone whose mind is abuzz with new ideas than fund one idea and hope that it pans out.  This is why talented individuals are so important.  Hire them, put them in a room together, and they will come up with absolutely brilliant stuff.  Why is this so hard?

Some might blame it on shareholders wanting to see short-term results.  Others see it as protecting an entrepreneur’s future revenue streams.  Both lame explanations.

What is a Taboo-Destroying Entrepreneur?

Part of being a social entrepreneur is helping solve societal problems.  But they are still problems for a reason.  It’s not because no one’s had a brilliant-enough idea.  It’s because of cultural taboos.  It’s because no one’s chosen to shatter a taboo into a bunch of different pieces and force people to see the truth underneath that taboo barrier.  So you could equate social entrepreneurship to shining a spotlight on a culture’s most embarrassing traits, the dirty little secrets that no one talks about regarding sex, drugs, black markets, relationships, bribery, and so on.   Social entrepreneurship is about destroying taboos.

Some more taboos.  Assuming we can just stop everyone from doing drugs or having sex has resulted in a failed abstinence program worldwide and a massively-defunct war on drugs that has turned Mexico and the pipeline countries of the drug trade into a bunch of city-states fighting cartels.  Nintendo crushed its competition by releasing a console, the Wii, that appealed to a bigger pie of people than just hardcore gamers.  What are we doing about our prison system, the costliest and most populace in the world?  Prisoners still manage to get cellphones and all the gear they need into jail, and terrorism and hardening of criminal behavior seem to actually thrive within the prison system that is supposed to rehabilitate them.  Prisoners easily even get drugs in prison!  Michael Lewis’s Moneyball showed how one statistician fought the commonly-held assumptions of how to recruit talent (i.e. hunch) and decided to let statistical analysis do the talking instead, resulting in a revaluation of which players should be signed and, although not yet, eventually a revaluation of salaries versus performance.  There are just so many examples of individuals having to fight the incumbent system to install what everyone should want:  something that more closely models reality.

Is the American Innovation Ecosystem Broken?

I am about done reading Judy Estrin’s “Closing the Innovation Gap:  Reigniting the Spark of Creativity in a Global Economy”, one of the best books talking about innovation out there.  One of the most poignant things Estrin brings up in the book is asking whether the US is not longer innovating as it should.  Estrin argues that even while dotcoms were all the rage and the web 2.0 community lifted off in the first decade of the 21st century, the underlying building blocks of the innovation ecosystem had gone stagnant.  Estrin doesn’t pull any punches for Bush the Younger for not improving education and immigration incentives, not funding the apolitical science foundations enough, etc.  She is worried that while things have the appearance of being good right now, the US is shutting down innovation-wise and countries like China are investing massive amounts of money into general research such that immigrants are no longer as likely to come to the US and stay afterwards to work.  What happens when we become exporters of information workers and not importers?

I’m not high-level enough to know how today’s situation compares to the past, since I’ve only spent limited time with master’s and PhD types and administrators at universities.  Georgetown has a pretty small endowment and even smaller for my program.  I’d like to think I’d be able to rally the alumni to bring money and attention back to MSFS later, but I don’t know how to do that yet.

I’ve read a bit about Harvard’s looming budget crisis for research and Estrin talks a bit about how PhD research is in danger of becoming a beauty pageant tailored towards whichever areas receive the most money and not where people are most interested in researching.

I’ve also had some trouble getting interest in my topic of interest, identity and reputation in the digital world, despite its being the next step for the online networked information economy.  There haven’t been any big IPOs lately and start-ups seem to be mostly dead-on-arrival ideas.  It’s a far cry from what was going on in 1995 online.  All the interesting stuff is lurking under the surface right now — and mainly in collaborative open source projects.  In other words, the internet’s development is back to underground communities because the public and private funding is not there.

Final Words

I just want to close with the sentiment, that despite my attempts to quantify human behavior, I do come from an anthropologist family and so therefore I do passionately enjoy reading about the peculiarities and eccentricities of different cultures and would never want those things to disappear.  What I do think, though, is that many people take advantage of other peoples’ lack of access to information and then they exploit that.  Such exploitation of power and information is substantially different from cultural and social community-level identities.  To make our societies more transparent, I argue, is to embrace our differences fully and bring them out so we can enjoy them.  Without taboos.

 

Mash-Up Culture is Still Young

21 Dec

A buddy of mine on IRC posted a YouTube video that mashes up (a phrase meaning to mix up different sources of music and video and other media into one product) drum n’ bass (dnb) music with footage from church sermons with people dancing and being overcome by religious experience and priests giving emotional sermons.  I used to listen to a lot of dnb so I enjoyed the video a lot.

These particular videos below are 3 parts of “Baptazia” called “Super Sunday”, posted on YouTube by a user named airloaf.  I don’t know much about him except for what’s on his profile.

Watch the three below:

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Well done, dude! Indeed, there’s a whole slew of related videos that mash up gospel stuff with dnb. airloaf calls it “speedgospel”, but I guess it could be dnb gospel too.

It’s funny posting so many YouTube links; the “other” founder of YouTube, Jawed Karim, used to be in the IRC channel I still use to this day.

One of the more well-known mash-up artists right now is Girl Talk. The guy behind Girl Talk is mentioned quite a bit in Lawrence Lessig‘s new book about remix culture, entitled “Remix”.

Girl Talk, coincidentally, has a similar video for the new single off his album “Feed the Animals”; “Play Your Part” also uses church footage:

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I don’t know who thought to put the two together, but obviously mash-up artists like using the crazy dancing in church sermons for their video bases.

Intellectual Property Law Hurting Innovation

In Lessig’s “Remix”, he talks about how intellectual property law is constricting innovation in video and music at a time when it’s possible for any individual to mash stuff up easily on their computers. The freedom we have to mash-up and remix text is what needs to happen for video and music next, but we’re a long way from that both in terms of technology and of legal protection.

The Concept of the Screen

Kevin Kelly, former editor of Wired Magazine and well-known internet visionary, recently published an article in the New York Times Magazine about “screen literacy”. Kelly makes similar points to Lessig, saying that we have already achieved “text literacy”, freely cutting and pasting text and bookmarking and Kindle-ing and quoting and referencing in papers freely. Both Lessig and Kelly point out that no one has any problem or legal disagreement with being able to quote someone else’s text without their permission, as long as attribution is made.

Kelly then goes on to say that video sharing is still in its infancy. We can’t yet really link an article about a scene from a movie to the actual scene from a high-quality feed of that movie. Says Kelly:

“With true screen fluency, I’d be able to cite specific frames of a film, or specific items in a frame. Perhaps I am a historian interested in oriental dress, and I want to refer to a fez worn by someone in the movie “Casablanca.” I should be able to refer to the fez itself (and not the head it is on) by linking to its image as it “moves” across many frames, just as I can easily link to a printed reference of the fez in text. Or even better, I’d like to annotate the fez in the film with other film clips of fezzes as references.”

Kelly then closes his article as follows:

“With our fingers we will drag objects out of films and cast them in our own movies. A click of our phone camera will capture a landscape, then display its history, which we can use to annotate the image. Text, sound, motion will continue to merge into a single intermedia as they flow through the always-on network. With the assistance of screen fluency tools we might even be able to summon up realistic fantasies spontaneously. Standing before a screen, we could create the visual image of a turquoise rose, glistening with dew, poised in a trim ruby vase, as fast as we could write these words. If we were truly screen literate, maybe even faster. And that is just the opening scene.”

The Four Screens

Interestingly, Nokia has been doing a lot of hardcore research into the future.  It employs the now well-known (as the result of an inspiring NYTimes article from April of this year) Jan Chipchase as an anthropologist who goes out and studies how people use cellphones or how they build solutions to everyday problems.

Nokia also published a video called “The Fourth Screen”, about how cell phones are a fourth screen of history that are just beginning to revolutionize our world:

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Nokia argues that the moving picture or movie was the first screen we ever used.  It was a public meeting place-type viewing experience.  The second screen was the TV, which allowed us to stay in our homes.  The third screen was the computer screen and internet, which let us share with each other again, but still from our homes.

And now there’s the fourth screen, the mobile phone, that lets us go out and be social again, while still having the power of the internet and digital communication with us.

It is interesting to think about this only being the beginning.  In many ways we consider technology to have a predictable path now.  We have cellphones, and okay, maybe they will be a little faster on the internet and have better cameras soon.  But do we really imagine much more?

Nokia and more international development-oriented organizations (Grameenphone, etc.) think that cellphones can do a lot for poor people.  A lot’s been written on the topic.  But how will humankind interact and mash things up once technology is freed from the tyranny of the literate towards video and music, which even the illiterate and uneducated can relate with?  What will happen when we can search videos with the same relative ease as we can with text on Google?

It’s still too difficult.  I’ve been messing with ACID (audio editing) and Final Cut Pro (movie editing) and it takes a long time and it’s hard to get all the different file formats from different media under one roof.  You have to use the tools a lot to learn how to mix up the content well.  I just made a mixtape for a Christmas gift, under a silly pseudonym I like to use, DJ Industrial Average (for DJIA, the acronym for the Dow Jones index), and the quality of my mixing was poor, given especially that it took me many hours to do it.

So there’s still lots of work to be done before everyone can use this stuff.  But the flood is coming.

More on Girl Talk

To conclude this post, I’ll leave you with some more mashed up YouTube videos, this time using Girl Talk’s blend of 80’s, 90’s, and 2000’s music with their accompanying music videos.  Make sure to watch all 14 parts, which are not all from one user as YouTube is probably removing them gradually for copyright infringement (sadly).

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My Tech Policy Memo to President-Elect Obama

12 Dec

For my excellent “What’s Shaping the Internet?” class with Professor Michael Nelson, we had to write a 6-page memorandum to either President-Elect Obama, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, or some other organization head, using three main policy points.

I chose to advocate for an innovation commons, a push for open-source government interfaces, and a national identity system.

I posted the memo online at Scribd, which hosts my other academic papers as well.  Scribd is awesome — it embeds papers within Flash so you can see the original format, and also export to PDF or crowdshare it. I would embed it here but WordPress.com doesn’t let you embed most content. =(

Again, READ THE MEMO HERE.

I know that my memo does not have a conclusion. =)  I opted to leave the explanation to the executive summary, so it’s not a proper structure…  Memorandums are sometimes the hardest papers to write, because they need to be very brief, concise, and appealing.  That’s why our program stresses it so much.  But I strayed from it here.  Hopefully the content carries the weak structure.

What the Memo Said

My logic in the memo was that the government should create an innovation- and business- enabling environment by ensuring universal broadband access, net neutrality, a hybrid public commons/privately auctioned spectrum, and increased R&D with clustering through universities and companies.

After we get more people online and collaborating, we can call upon them to help build and inspect open-source applications to allow everyone to interface with the government more efficiently as befitting a digital 21st century.

And finally I called for a national ID system to help unify all the databases, ensure personal privacy and access controls, and allow us to fix our own information and use it better within the government.

The national ID system would use a social reputation system, part of which I’m hoping to create through my start-up, Galapag.us — see the research blog if you haven’t already.

 

Underground Warblogging

12 Dec

Warblogging died in 2006.  It died when the military and US government decided that ANY servicemember’s content online must be approved through the chain of command, AFTER informing the command that that content MAY exist. (i.e. registering one’s blog even without posting content to it)

The message coming out of Iraq was warped after this decision.  Crowdsourcing what was happening in Iraq and Afghanistan halted.  We had to rely on embeds and independent journalists (Michael Yon continues to be excellent), and of course, brutal, savage terrorist/insurgent attacks to figure out what was really going on.

I attended the senior Yahoo! fellow Gaurav Mishra’s talk at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy last week, on the subject of citizen journalism/media during the Mumbai Attacks.  You can read about Gaurav’s coverage of the Mumbai attacks on his own blog.  Gaurav talked about how people were now able to report instantly from the scene.

He had me say some words about my own situation, where I had to remove content from my web site to include photos from Iraq and my journal on my deployment to Iraq, after my command found out and I got in heaps of trouble for it.

This “war” is going to be over soon, yet not as quickly as I’d like.  But I guarantee you, when the smoke clears, there will be a TON of stuff coming online written by the troops on what has been happening over there.  That the military said we couldn’t post it online didn’t mean that soldiers weren’t still lying in their hooches, writing long rants on how fucked up or how successful it was over there to their loved ones.  Soldiers, Marines, and others were still snapping photos and taking video of what they saw.  All that stuff is out there NOW, but it is underground.

It will bubble to the surface once all these people feel that it is safe to do so.  You will probably see more books published again.  Few would be worth reading.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that they will have the ability to express themselves again.

About the best we’ve had lately is a book written by a pseudonymous former Army interrogator who decried US torture practices, and a 60 Minutes interview by a pseudonymous former Delta operator who said his team could have had a good shot at killing Osama bin Laden in the early stages of the “war” in Afghanistan.

Pseudonymity, anonymity…both are great ways to circumvent broken systems.

You can also expect revelations, scandals, and investigations to come soon for other related reasons.  The changing of the political appointees and DC guard will bring out exposés on the Bush Administration.  The financial crisis will expose the corruption in Wall Street (like the latest hedge fund/NYC investor scam).  Much of the rot that’s spread as a result of Dubya will get exposed.  I should add that it’s not that the Democrats are not a part of it too — the politicians all had their hand in the till.

The flood of information that people didn’t want you to hear is coming.

[

edit:  Newsweek just did a great story about Thomas Tamm, the guy who gave the New York Times a heads-up on the wiretapping scandal that would later emerge as a collage of different whistleblowers' reports.  People won't be as afraid to report, once the horrible Bush Administration leaves.

My buddy d14n wrote a blog post about Tamm also, and he verified the info on how and where to contribute to the Thomas Tamm Legal Defense Trust.

]

 

Sharing

20 Sep

A few weeks ago, there was an excellent article in the NYTimes about online ambient awareness.  This article was immediately influential — it was quoted and passed around by a lot of blogs and readers, and I got personal e-mails saying that it reminded them of my Galapag.us project.

An excerpt:

But as the days went by, something changed. Haley discovered that he was beginning to sense the rhythms of his friends’ lives in a way he never had before. When one friend got sick with a virulent fever, he could tell by her Twitter updates when she was getting worse and the instant she finally turned the corner. He could see when friends were heading into hellish days at work or when they’d scored a big success. Even the daily catalog of sandwiches became oddly mesmerizing, a sort of metronomic click that he grew accustomed to seeing pop up in the middle of each day.

This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating. The ambient information becomes like “a type of E.S.P.,” as Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life.

“It’s like I can distantly read everyone’s mind,” Haley went on to say. “I love that. I feel like I’m getting to something raw about my friends. It’s like I’ve got this heads-up display for them.” It can also lead to more real-life contact, because when one member of Haley’s group decides to go out to a bar or see a band and Twitters about his plans, the others see it, and some decide to drop by — ad hoc, self-organizing socializing. And when they do socialize face to face, it feels oddly as if they’ve never actually been apart. They don’t need to ask, “So, what have you been up to?” because they already know. Instead, they’ll begin discussing something that one of the friends Twittered that afternoon, as if picking up a conversation in the middle.

I’ve met a lot of new people since coming to Georgetown, and they’re more wired than many of my friends in the military, who are for the most part still not publically online yet.  Combine this with work commitments and trying to get myself enmeshed in the startup/web2.0/online communities, and I get inundated with a lot of information flows.

This is not to say they’re more important than my friends and my family, but it did get me to start thinking about passive communication.

A lot of people are still not contributing information to the internet.  They write some e-mails, they view some web sites, and that’s about all they have time for.  This is fine, and is to be expected.

But for people like me, I share quite a bit of my life and opinions online and anyone who was even vaguely interested in keeping up with what I do would be able to without really knowing me.  This could potentially be bad, but if you were to total it all out in the long run, it’s probably more beneficial towards me and my reputation (my brand, as it were) to share.

But most of my friends and family do not share.  At least not in a way that is captured easily.  So I am learning how to allow for passive participation but it needs to be reciprocated.

More people need to contribute, even if only a little.  Perhaps this is why Twitter has done so well.  It allows for 140-character updates.  So you don’t feel burdened by writing a lot.  Just a little note to say what you’re up to.

Let’s do this…it makes for sharing what’s on all our minds easier.  You may have great ideas and thoughts, but how will people know about them unless they directly ask you?

“I don’t understand how this stuff works.”  Well, like e-mail and the web, you’ll be using it eventually.  Stop fighting it and learn.  Certainly find what makes the most sense to you, but don’t write it off.  It might be that you’ll end up having to use it at work, so see it as an investment in your communications education.

Said Tim Berners-Lee, father of the web:

Letting your data connect to other people’s data is a bit about letting go in that sense. It is still not about giving to people data which they don’t have a right to. It is about letting it be connected to data from peer sites. It is about letting it be joined to data from other applications.

It is about getting excited about connections, rather than nervous.

And Jan Chipchase, Nokia ethnographer, said:

Whilst sharing music, video, intimate details is both inherently human and mostly positive – we have to recognise that when the default is to share then it creates significant social pressure on those that prefer not to since the question of opting out of adopting a technology becomes one whether to opt out of society. You can see it today with late adopters who are pressured by relatives or their employer’s [sic] into carrying a mobile phone, but the same applies to any mainstream connected technology.

If everyone I knew contributed, it would certainly make my life easier…and I’d be able to keep tabs on what everyone’s doing without being a burden.

And while nothing beats a phonecall or personal visit, those aren’t always realistic options.

Stop being stingy!

 

Reputation Research

17 Sep

I made my research blog for Galapag.us, my project, public. So if you want to subscribe to the RSS feed, you can.

http://represearch.blogspot.com/