Periodically at The Barbarian Group, a small team of new employees and veterans with varying skill-sets are brought together to work on Project Popcorn, a side project that embodies the inventiveness, technical skills, and values of the agency.
Within my first week as a developer for the agency, I was assigned to Project Popcorn, along with a senior art director, a senior copywriter, a creative director, and a technical director.
Cryptstagram is the resultant product of our teamwork. Cryptstagram is a web site that lets you steganographically encrypt a hidden message into any image, unlockable only with a specific password, and then apply glitchy Instagram-like filters to that image.
The National Security Agency whistleblowing story had just broken, and as a result we quickly became fixated on doing something involving cryptography and, to fulfill our artistic ambitions, on doing something involving the glitch aesthetic.
The glitch aesthetic is popular amongst our creatives and developers because it requires technical knowledge of formats and methods underpinning systems in order to then manipulate, pixel-push, and distort those systems towards the artist’s ambitions.
As a team we spent a lot of time discussing what tone we wanted to convey with Cryptstagram. How secure should it be end-to-end to pay respect to citizens’ cryptographic requirements and expectations of privacy? Should Cryptstagram’s filters create aesthetically-pleasing images or should they reflect entropy of input and interaction from the user? To what degree did we want Cryptstagram to be a statement about the NSA and privacy in general or just a reaction to the state of our relationship with technology?
In the end we decided on a reflective tone for Cryptstagram, emphasizing a common public desire to share stylized parts of ourselves in public but other parts of ourselves in private or semi-private. We should empower ourselves with stealth and style.
So, easily, a citizen could choose to encrypt her image with a message and save it without it ever touching an external server, then send that image via private means to intended recipients with a password that could be distributed in any number of ways. Or the citizen could share the image on Cryptstagram’s wall for others to see and even try to decrypt!
A perk of this open-ended design is that we can extend its utility: we (or you, via jsfiddle sandbox!) can add seasonally- or topically- themed filters for specific clients, a celebrity can release images with a password known only to fans, or people can use the Cryptstagram wall to create puzzles or scavenger hunts or just post encrypted messages publicly without drawing suspicion.
At The Barbarian Group, we’re invested in making things that are gonna be awesome, and in order to do so, we need to be just as able to wade through the technical limitations of CORS and CSRF as to create something people love to use and share online.
So, what creative uses can you come up with for Cryptstagram?
A common refrain. People will complain that Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever, is boring. What’s usually going on is
their friends are boring,
they’ve reached mental exhaustion,
they try to use social networks less as a social pulse or passive awareness and more as active entertainment,
they reached exhaustion of new content, or
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Snowden leak has been immensely disappointing all around. It makes me sick to my stomach to read different constituencies circling their wagons on it. The outcome is almost certainly already written.
First of all, people are acting like it’s a major revelation that this stuff has been going on. Really? It’s been in the news since post-9/11 took shape, and, among people in DC who care about this stuff, it flared up in 2006 and 2007 with the EFF and ACLU finding its scent. Whistleblowers have been punished, military blogging has been pretty much extinguished, FISA silliness has made its way into Al-Qaeda propaganda, Hollywood movies, bad TV documentaries.
Technically speaking, with sheer processing speed and storage being rendered inexpensive with the advent of cloud computing and parallel processing across networks, along with massive amounts of investment by the NSA into equipment so much that it would affect local power stations, what did people really think was going on? Room 641A was uncovered by Mark Klein, a whistleblower whose name no one knows, and showed how the FBI could tap into telecoms. When did that happen? 2006! How much more evidence did people need for the story to blow up?
Mark Klein, whistleblower
People I know in NYC are for the most part universal human rights-type liberals, which is to say they strongly believe that the notion of freedom has something to do with expecting freedom as a standard right for all, but not really having much idea how to implement or enforce it except through dreamy notions of Hans Zimmer-soundtracked Supreme Court victory films and through self-example (thus “hipster” stuff like gardening, eating healthier, being a smarter consumer, exotic hobbies, etc., but without a similar push into practicing politics).
I felt like I was a broken record in our flying robots class as people would worry about the impact of drones, while I saw drones as an eventuality of the future and cared more about the policy impacts of an unchecked and unnoticed NSA, both my allegiance and suspicion of its work coming during my time in service when all this stuff was basically being prototyped in Iraq (after years of research on systems such as Echelon). Drones are a tool to gather intelligence for larger databases, and a technological replacement weapon for cruise missiles and gunships. By themselves, Predators and Reapers will be footnotes in history. The apparatus that collects, collates, targets, and scores potential enemies of the US will have a legacy that will lead us well into the end of this century.
Many of the non-security people I follow on Twitter are mostly journalists or DC -based or -biased analysts, which means to say that they are indulging in the sauciness of the Snowden story while at the same time indignant at the idea that the government is spying on journalists as well as the American public.
The initial journo phase of giving Snowden a pass on reporting accuracies gave way to a more careful view of his story now (in other words distancing themselves from admiration of his courage), particularly as he’s had contact with countries considered non-friendly with the US and incompatible with the principles of freedom of speech and civil liberty. There’s still a strong undercurrent among these people though of defending the whistleblower aspects of Snowden’s actions while downplaying his questionable behavior in other countries.
But look, here’s the thing with all this, and I’m sorry for all the setup to get to this. The story’s going to keep morphing and Snowden supporters are going to continue to modify their lines to fit the current narrative. There’s no accountability for such people giving half-baked opinions and mawkish support for a man who is for the most part inconsistent (see his IRC logs and personal work history) on the matter — no one will call them out later on it.
Journos will turn on or bail on this guy. He’s just a tool to them. Assange has turned into a punchline for the intelligentsia while Manning has turned into the equivalent of those ads on late night TV for abused pets that need healthy homes. I saw one tweet suggest that Snowden is to Greenwald as Manning is to Assange. A pawn in a larger dance.
Snowden reminds me of those LulzSec guys before they got caught. Everyone likes the story of the fugitive — it plays well in the media. FUGITIVE AT LARGE! NEW DETAILS, NEXT! In my opinion the LulzSec folks were far more compelling than Snowden’s story: they were directly challenging the international community to cooperate to find them and arrest them — they lived in multiple countries and they had a technical superiority edge at first that must have deeply concerned law enforcement, but they were ultimately undermined, most notably by their leader becoming an informant for the FBI! I can only imagine that LulzSec was a wakeup call for building up more serious capability within intelligence to keep up with blackhats online.
What should be more scary is not how authorities are reacting to Snowden, but how they managed to thoroughly infiltrate Anonymous, WikiLeaks (Sigurdur Thordarson), and even LulzSec — people who were more capable of hiding their digital footprints than most people in society. Given attempts to infiltrate Muslim communities in NYC, running operations to entrap potential jihadists throughout the US, and so on, virtually no organizations seem to be impenetrable to government operations.
Snowden, contrary to his depiction in the press, seems like your typical mixed bag type of person. Contradictory views at different times, inconsistent motivations, full of character flaws. It’s completely up in the air how his story plays out, but I think the easiest thing to conclude is that the guy has always wanted to be where the action is (a feeling I can relate to) and was seemingly raised to believe that nothing is impossible (see his 18X special forces attempt, et al) and that actions speak louder than words (being the figurehead of this NSA leak). I’m interested in the guy too but I agree that the NSA news must be fully integrated into American citizens’ notions of what is going on behind the scenes.
As for Greenwald, the guy is fighting the good fight but is a super-douche (putting him in the panned-theon of Tom Friedman, Umair Haque, Evgeny Morozov, Paul Krugman, Jeff Jarvis) and so even if I’m harsh on him, for the most part it’s been good to watch him speak up for things over the years that people have ignored. But seriously, why do these guys twitter-search their own names for any mentions and feel compelled to talk back? It’s the number one reason I call them Morozlov and Greenlold — so they don’t throw a Twitter fit in a @mention.
It would be alright if this eavesdropping news was somehow a revelation but the bottom line is that people have not been paying attention for the last decade or so. Most importantly, the NSA story has been decontextualized from post-9/11 security mission requirements and solely towards some happy fantasyland where America lives out some high school class teaching of freedom of speech and international role model-setting of a higher moral arc towards justice.
That is to say, there is next to zero intelligent balancing of the issues being discussed in the circles that should be setting the debate for everyone else. The NSA has a pretty clear objective and it’s fairly good at executing that objective: monitoring communications and creating target packages for people who come up on its radar. In an environment where potential enemies don’t line up in formation to attack, basic pragmatism and realistic world view would acknowledge the need for tactical and organizational ability to collect that kind of data.
Furthermore, it would be ludicrous for the US government to not pursue serious (fair trial) charges against Snowden, based solely on the current standing of the law. It has to prevent leaks and it has to protect its intelligence. Why do people act surprised that the US government would be seeking to detain and prosecute the man behind a massive breach of classified information and ensuing media controversy, all while passing through China and Russia?
At the same time, the networking of our data online not only increases the government’s ability to collect, it also increases the abilities of adversaries (say, China) and non-states (hacking groups, organized crime, etc.), so the public needs to be vigilant about its rights to protect its data from those groups.
All of this is within the perfectly rational and justified perception among caring Americans that the NSA’s eavesdropping programs have gone way out of control and pose a threat towards American citizens’ civil liberties.
But you don’t hear this. The decontextualization makes it sound like the NSA is J. Edgar Hoover putting intel hits on everyday Americans for no reason, when in fact it’s more of an intelligence effort to adapt to today’s big data environment — and the NSA will do whatever it is allowed to by those who set policy (Congress), who set legal precedent (Supreme Court), and who actually have skin in the game (military, security, etc.). 9/11 was perceived as a massive failure to many professionals who dedicate their lives to ensuring that it never happens, and they will dedicate the rest of their careers to doing whatever is in their power to try to prevent 9/11 from happening again.
Do you begin to see that there are different interests at play here and that they all have varying degrees of legitimate concerns and readily apparent biases?
The bottom line is that hey, you just found out about this and it’s like reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in college and now you’re one of the few initiated who gets what’s really going on in the system man. Enslavement, dude.
Do you know how frustrating it is to listen to people whose opinions came from a BuzzFeed blurb about a Mother Jones article (that cites news from years ago as breaking) and are all the sudden pro-disclosure rules and anti-intelligence apparatus?
Do you know what it’s like to read hit-and-run op-ed pieces about how intelligence agencies continue to fail to find viable targets from the same types of people who laughed at the crowdsourcing effort to find the Boston bombers?
Do you know what it feels like now, after having had my clearance revoked back in the day, during a deployment, because I was blogging honestly (but not giving away OPSEC) about what was going on in Iraq before the Surge and ethnic cleansing and before there were the chilling-effect blog rules in place now that have all but cut off most reports from servicemembers deployed abroad? Let me please hear from kids who skipped out on our last decade of deployments which required leadership of smart, freedom-loving Americans who were lucky enough to not be too busy trying to save what was left of the lives they were clinging on to (which is how lower middle class, the poor, and victims of Katrina spent the last decade). Let me please hear about speaking truth to power from kids who weren’t there, didn’t see it happening, and only found out about it years later because they’re always on the internet. It’s easy to speak out in hindsight or when nothing is at stake for you.
I’ll tell you who gets hurt in this. First of all, the public will put up an outcry over this only so long as it’s in the paper. For that reason I would think Wikileaks is the way it is: shilling for story, content, and control of the narrative. They want to ensure that it stays on Page 1. But really I don’t think much will change because there’s little check on the government to prevent electronic data snooping and very few people actually understand the mechanics behind how it works. Also security concerns will still trump privacy concerns. So the public is going to continue being spied against with few checks or even basic smell tests to see if the government should not be spying on this person or that person. We’ll continue to see bizarre, brief fiascos like Stop and Frisk and CIA-NYPD collaboration to provoke, say, the Muslim community.
[the above is my ITP classmate Atif Ateeq’s thesis about bringing context back to Muslims and Arabs who were decontextualized after 9/11]
The behemoth which is the system that allows government and corporate spying will continue almost unabated against citizens around the world, regardless of their affinities. The technical ease is too great and the will to put understandable limits on it by decision-makers is too weak. It’s a cliche in the science fiction world but it’s an easy eventuality. I can only see this disparity in interests increase as tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) continue to get scaled down for easier use by lone wolves (see 3D printing, propagation of extremist material, biohacking, DIY energy devices).
The other people to get hurt will be security people. The narrative of the post-9/11 story for intelligence has been that it took the rest of the blame for Iraq that Dubya didn’t soak up. “The intel was bad,” people remember. But Tenet went along with pushing for Iraq in the end, even though key intel analysts were advising the complete opposite. After that was settled, recommendations were made, particularly in Congress, to boost the concept of fusion centers, which were supposed to prevent stovepiping of intelligence within agencies and to possibly allow for a layered effect of intel analysis where different types of data could be plotted against each other to build out networks of important terrorist individuals. Well, fusion centers ended up costing a lot of money and were for the most part just okay but not terribly productive. Where security is now is that data is now streaming in faster than it can be analyzed, and so systems need to be built to sift through it. And after this scandal, it is likely that checks will be put back in place to make at least some of that data integration difficult again.
In short, I would think that it will be at least a bit more frustrating for analysts to do their jobs and to perhaps prevent another attack on American assets — maybe not even through figuring out a specific plot but by knowing the internal networks of highly capable groups.
To sum up: Americans weren’t paying attention and expect to be briefed on intelligence that they A) don’t care about, B) don’t know anything about, and C) don’t have time for. Americans are acting like a nosy, shitty boss calling in from St. Maarten for a checkup.
Really the debate about NSA stuff should focus squarely on the test to allow for eavesdropping: the court order. Instead of the rubber-stamping of FISA requests which has been standard operating procedure, there should be a stricter, more accountable, more quantifiable test for how analysts (who should be enabled to find oddball connections and sketchy hypotheses) go about getting further approval for eavesdropping. [As a note I should add that someone I respect on Twitter countered my rubber-stamping statement and said that there are stringent tests and quick retractions for requests that have errors in them or that are not valid. So it’s not as easy as I made it out to be, but I do believe it’s telling as a trend that, according to judicial reports, the end result of rejected requests is near-zero. I defer to an expert though.]
THIS is the fascinating part of the debate. Yes, allow for eavesdropping, but ONLY if there’s a strong case for it that’s demonstrable through evidence. The same it has ALWAYS been. How do we do it? Well, I don’t know, and we need to have very smart people think about solutions. I could say that we allow citizens’ interest reps onto the board but that might give away tactical intelligence. What about algorithms? As I understand it the NSA had attempted to score potential targets using algorithms already. I know people like Morozov would roll their eyes (which is about all they ever do) but algorithms, properly understood for the bias inherent in the creation of any algorithm, could provide a way for multiple interest groups to weigh in on what would constitute a threat or a viable target so that it could be non-specifically applied (read, programmatically) to actual targets so that it could be analyzed later. Right now this system of judges approving anything that passes past their desks is not working, mostly because judges are always going to be supportive of law enforcement efforts, particularly with regard to terrorism. Why would they get in the way of a dedicated law enforcement team?
If Only the Apple Store Sold iFreedom in Spotless White
I really want to go back to that part about the journos turning on Snowden.
I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to deal with the disloyalty and hypocrisy of people on that count. Here are a bunch of people upset that the government is tracking them, even if they had security passwords and encryption and all that. They were upset that an American has to leave his own country to whistleblow on it, which somehow turns the US into East Germany. If only there were networks, projects, and technologies which might allow citizens to return their own privacy and security!
If only there were something like bitcoin to circumvent large-scale banks and payment systems which can block your money from going to online poker, drugs, and anonymous bitcoin transactions! Well, bitcoin did blow up in the news recently, and what did the twitterati and intelligentsia do with it? They laughed at it, said it would never work and was unstable in comparison to the American dollar. They felt it was like throwing your money down the drain.
And okay. If only there were some way to pass information, download movies, files, etc. easily, without having to pay some middleman extra money or to be subject to their licensing rules! Oh, you mean like torrents or napster or whatever else? No way dude, I’m not risking my clearance or well-being for being flagged as a pirate; that’s not as cool as using my walled garden App Store on my locked-in iPhone. Torrents? Peer-to-peer? Well, it’s SLOW. :( And I don’t have time to figure that stuff out.
If only there were anonymized networks so we could use the web as it was originally intended again! Yeah well isn’t Tor for people to sell guns and drugs and child porn? It just sounds kind of shady lol. How about mesh networks where people pool together their internet connections so you can connect to a network no matter where you are? [check out my ITP classmate Sean McIntyre’s work on building mesh networks in Brooklyn] Nah, I want my own connection! I need blazing speed to stream my GoT.
Decentralized Social Networking
What is diaspora*? Oh wait, that’s the one with the dead co-founder right? Wow that was rough. But hey diaspora* isn’t as nice as Facebook so I’m not going to switch right now.
The point is that for a community that claims to be for breaking down mechanisms for control by a government that is spying on it, thought-leaders have been shooting down all the grassroots, open source, hacker-built, decentralized products that have sprung up recently.
The contempt people have for all these technologies that would help free them from corporate or government interests? Well, it just makes me think that people aren’t as desirous of freedom as they claim — it reduces technological interest among most people to just another coolness factor. Do you have the latest iPhone? Sorry, I only use Instagram after I deleted my Facebook account (a personal favorite considering Facebook owns Instagram). Macs are for overpaying idiots.
The lowest level of Maslow’s Digital Needs Curve has shit like iPhone, cloud services, gawker, reddit, and whatever else people REALLY want to use daily. I’ve seen fairly savvy journalists on Twitter railing against Obama on his policy against whistleblowers in one tweet while drooling over their new iPhone 5 in the next.
It was all topped off for me seeing the utter contempt from the twitterati and most liberals with the Occupy movement. From its very onset, people who constantly act like they’re for a more democratic and grassroots system, sticking it to the banker-politician complex, etc. would laugh in the face of Occupy while at the same time being drawn to it as some chic “fuck The Man” rebelliousness. People would go visit Zuccotti but always with a curious detachment and ultimately a pointed, knowing critique of how Occupy had no leaders or had too broad a platform or whatever else they would claim as armchair protest organizers. Protestourism.
Occupy had its own problems and the issues that Occupy folks would bring up were some of the most important of the day (money in politics, lack of prosecution for finance industry scammers, and so on) but really it failed because, despite everyone saying it’s a problem, it’s not THAT bad a problem.
It’s not as though the Occupy protesters were dying in the streets from police abuse, malnourishment, or invasion from foreign enemies. We barely see the poor in our day-to-days, let alone see people from the poorer parts of the city protesting. The iconic Occupy protester would be a fairly well-educated person who had life pretty good. Is that person going to be there when the weather turns cold? Or when Occupy gets too dangerous? No.
What has been telling to me as I’ve gotten older is spotting which people will stick up for what they believe and who will disappear when things get less convenient. My main critique with my generation is that it stands up for nothing. Maybe things are good enough that it doesn’t have to? It’s a generation that is against most forms of patriotism (so passé!), against joining the military (don’t be a sheep), against religion (Hitchens and Dawkins are MY gods), against political affiliation (I don’t like boundaries, man), against pretty much any form of outright aligning yourself with any larger organization or cause. Even joining that DC kickball league is a barely acceptable affiliation. We are all lone boats out on the ocean, apparently. Which is fine except the politics of my generation is largely based on liberal socialist ideals for collectivized Wilsonian whatever, health care or taxation etc. I understand the folks who live out in the country and don’t want anyone to come near — but urban liberals are not those people.
I believe at some point in life you have to start standing for something. Maybe it’s in some ways naive or dumb, but it’s important, particularly for men, to have a set of principles and values that are immutable. Shapeshifting and adapting to whatever is hot is something that younger children do as they try to find themselves, and I just think that once you get old enough, you have to be the person defining what’s important in life. Maybe there’s some truth to the argument that Americans in their 30s are the new infantile Americans in their 20s. What does it mean to be American anymore, where borders cease to matter and people switch from city to city with the same standard of living, as part of some cosmopolitan elite ideal? What does it mean when a whistleblower travels to a Chinese surrogate and then to Russia with America’s technical secret goldmine in tow and people are more concerned about the soap opera of a missing man than of a massive foreign policy disaster?
What it says to me is that most people don’t understand the gravity of situations across the world. Poverty reduction has been reduced to feel-good slacktivism, foreign policy has been reduced to Hollywoodish notions of outmoded Cold War era spy games, homeland security has been reduced to comedic Paul Blart-quality bureaucracies.
It just makes me not want to pay attention to more and more people who don’t have experience, who have no skin in the game, who have no cause to stick their necks out for. It increases my willingness to listen to those who are on the ground, who have hammered out any naive notions or ideals of how the world really works, leaving only hard-nosed pragmatism behind.
How Convenience is at Odds with Art
This brings me to a bigger subject: art. I never thought I was going to be an art student, particularly after being in the Army and having a love for business. The quality of the art students I’ve met in terms of their abilities to look past what is useful or what provides an immediate payoff or what seems possible at the time, along with their technical and ambitious abilities to actually carry through with them, I’ve just been so impressed. I still associate most art with projects carried on for no reason in particular and which don’t really make much sense and which seem to take up a lot of unnecessary room. That said, art school is just as expensive as other schools. (this artist wrote a post on why you SHOULDN’T go)
But what I’ve come to feel about art is that what I associate with art is only what has been successful art in the past. The cutting edge art of now and in the future is not going to be seen as accepted, as cool, as mainstream. To understand what the fringes of meaningful art are now is to look not at what will be cool (advertising and design have successfully co-opted that particular game) but to look at what is seen as obscene, weird, disconnected, and offensive. Meaningful art now is not called art: it’s called some variation of the term hacking. Experiment, play, prototype, tool around, whatever.
In school I learned the ITP hacker ethos. The ITP hacker ethos revolves around the 80’s-based mystique contained in phreaking, War Games, Sneakers, Easter Eggs, sleight of hand, Max Headroom, Hackers, etc. Now society seems to think geeks are cool, but the real geeks are the ones who stay glued to the computer, hacking away on some tech that may not even pan out or make sense to anyone outside of a handful of people. The chaos behind the high latency of Tor, or the arms race of pirates and copyright holders through torrents, the idea of darknets: this is the uncomfortable edge of where art is. It’s childish and naive in some areas, it’s foolish and illegal in others, and it’s unproductive and a dead end too. It’s not polished, it’s not beautiful, but what it does is test legal limits, test technical limits, test ways of seeing the world.
Drones. A touchy subject. For ITPers, it’s a mix of unsurpassed American military might, combining speed, surveillance, technology, and intelligence, all of which are core advantages to American power. But it also stands for death, particularly collateral death. It stands for disposition matrices and hitlists and reaching out and touching someone and the disconnect of killer and victim and secret orders signed by the President. Drones are one of the best examples of a conflict between liberal disgust with warfare and conservative Jacksonianism and exertion of power.
So it has been depressing to read about drones because few people fall somewhere between those two extremes. But some people have begun making what I consider to be fine art, and it has not come in the usual form of something beautiful.
Bridle realizes that drones are more than the sum of their 3D parts; they are the capillaries of a network, the point at which lines of computer code, political power, and obscured decision-making appear in the physical world. “This is what I’m really interested in at the moment: trying to push this debate back from the fetishization of the drones themselves, back into the computational networks behind them,” he says of his piece “Disposition Matrix,” a computer monitor reeling through a software program Bridle wrote that searches public resources for people who have a connection to drones and a series of volumes printed from the findings of the program, conveniently accompanied by some gloves for museum visitors to don as they flip through the pages. The program is meant to evoke the system and variables that generates an official “kill list.”
This is the greatest form of art for me. Technical understanding of something to the point that you can recontextualize it and link it back to the bigger themes involved.
You should also watch my ITP classmate Josh Begley’s thesis presentation on dronestre.am, his API for accessing info about deaths as a result of drone strikes. Particularly interesting were his remarks on geography being an inescapable reality and thus the increasing importance on mapping blank spots in reality, his interest in that sparked by Trevor Paglen and his “experimental geography”.
Drones as peace advocates discuss them are boring things. A drone today is just a gadget, but what lies behind it is sophisticated blending of GPS, radio comms, cheap parts, remote weaponization, integration of real-time video and control into the commander’s toolkit. Beneath the drone debate was always the intelligence debate, which the public has only now decided it wants to take part in, despite Bradley Manning rotting away in jail and the NSA blooming in size and a witchhunt for whistleblowers within the government. Way to ferret out the main story, armchair analysts.
One of the quieter stories I read about in Wired a while ago was one that has stuck with me for a while. It was a glimpse at UX, Urban eXperiment, a French hacker-collective. Wrote Jon Lackman:
UX is sort of like an artist’s collective, but far from being avant-garde—confronting audiences by pushing the boundaries of the new—its only audience is itself. More surprising still, its work is often radically conservative, intemperate in its devotion to the old. Through meticulous infiltration, UX members have carried out shocking acts of cultural preservation and repair, with an ethos of “restoring those invisible parts of our patrimony that the government has abandoned or doesn’t have the means to maintain.” The group claims to have conducted 15 such covert restorations, often in centuries-old spaces, all over Paris.
Begley’s and Paglen’s interest in the unmapped spaces may coincide with UX’s wishes to find and protect that which has been forgotten. Anonymity can provide security when everyone is too distracted to pay attention.
Why do they care about these places? Kunstmann answers this question with questions of his own. “Do you have plants in your home?” he asks impatiently. “Do you water them every day? Why do you water them? Because,” he goes on, “otherwise they’re ratty little dead things.” That’s why these forgotten cultural icons are important—”because we have access to them, we see them.” Their goal, he says, isn’t necessarily to make all these things function once again. “If we restore a bomb shelter, we’re certainly not hoping for new bombardments so people can go use it again. If we restore an early 20th-century subway station, we don’t imagine Electricité de France will ask us to transform 200,000 volts to 20,000. No, we just want to get as close as possible to a functioning state.”
UX has a simple reason for keeping the sites a secret even after it has finished restoring them: The same anonymity that originally deprived them of caretakers “is paradoxically what’s going to protect them afterward” from looters and graffiti, Kunstmann says. They know they’ll never get to the vast majority of interesting sites that need restoration. Yet, “despite all that, the satisfaction of knowing that some, maybe a tiny fraction, won’t disappear because we’ll have been able to restore them is an extremely great satisfaction.”
Art stolen by UX, on display out of public view, in tunnels
Today’s cutting edge of art is also political, because expression vs. government is a tangible, dangerous battle that we witness daily in various forms. I consider Ai Weiwei to be one of the most daring and genius artists of the day to reach widescale attention, but almost no one has heard of him. I recommend you read this article about him.
All art is political in the sense that all art takes place in the public arena and engages with an already existing ideology. Yet there are times when art becomes dangerously political for both the artist and the viewers who engage with that art. Think of Jacques-Louis David’s involvement in the French Revolution—his individual investment in art following the bloodshed —and his imprisonment during the reign of terror. If it were not for certain sympathisers, David may well have ended up another victim of the guillotine. Goya is another example of an artist who fell foul of government power. There are instances in the 20th century when artists have faced down political power directly. Consider the photomontages of John Heartfield. Heartfield risked his life at times to produce covers for the magazine A/Z, which defied both Hitler and the Nazi Party.
Backpacks spelling out: “She lived happily for seven years in this world”
As an idea of what he has done, he built a marvel, then disavowed it (the Bird’s Nest), he created a facade of backpacks outside a museum to represent the lost children who died in China’s major earthquake while back. In his words:
The idea to use backpacks came from my visit to Sichuan after the earthquake in May 2008. During the earthquake many schools collapsed. Thousands of young students lost their lives, and you could see bags and study material everywhere. Then you realize individual life, media, and the lives of the students are serving very different purposes. The lives of the students disappeared within the state propaganda, and very soon everybody will forget everything.
Most poignantly, he was detained and beaten by police in Chengdu after he had gone there to support a local activist Tan Zuoren (who was on trial for helping create a victim database for the aftermath of the earthquake) and snapped this photo of himself with cops in an elevator, which he shared across the internet:
That photo tapped into elusive, seductive themes. Social media, a joke to its trollish inhabitants like Evgeny Morozov (whose skin in the game involves finding a new fellowship at a university to bum around in while writing a book attacking all the people who provided material for it). The Chinese police, a symbol of ham-fisted authority. The artist as a threat (with multiple police surrounding one unarmed artist). Surveillance, cleverly used by Ai Weiwei to take videos of the police who tried to threaten him with video and photos.
It wasn’t being arrested by police that was rebellious or artistic — any fool in the US can get arrested these days just for acting like a jackass, and Ai Weiwei wasn’t even doing anything at the time. It wasn’t some artistic stunt — Ai Weiwei, already known for art, was seeking the truth in recording names of those killed in the earthquake. He…just sought the truth.
The reaction: he survived the altercation and had a choice response for the police.
The tragedy: almost no one knew this had all happened! Even fellow art students. I can barely comprehend this. The disconnect is glaring. You know, I’ve served my time. I’ve reinvented myself to fit in to various communities, to take up their rituals and make them my own, to become a part of those communities, to care for them and to be cared for by them.
Now that I’m out of school, I feel like I’m freed from that need to try to catch up with what other people have done, and instead I should begin to forge my own artistic path, to be okay with creating things that no one understands. My own temptation to believe that I should be trying to convince others has long before died as I realized it is certainly not my talent. My dreams of grandeur have been tempered by failure, by meeting people far more intelligent and wise and wonderful and humanistic and charismatic and insightful than me, and by realizing that the best I can do is get my own affairs enough in order that I will have time to be able to help others — a project I’m still working strenuously on. To these ends, I feel as though my bullshit filters are honed (filtering out the day-to-day nonsense in different industries while selecting the genuinely new and game-changing events) and I’ve become very good at understanding the people who are really pushing things to the edge — and I want to promote and encourage them to continue to contribute the beauty to the world that they so wonderfully create.
I suppose I just wish that people would have a more understanding perspective of the world — understanding peoples’ motivations for doing things, understanding the reasons for why traditions or events came to pass, understanding the chaos as well as the order. What I see is not a lot of understanding, compassion, or sympathy in the world, but a whole lot of laziness. It’s toxic, and it leads to people being able and thinking it only natural to take advantage of others — in a world where we wish and idealize that people would help each other instead.
I also wish that people would understand that when they claim to want to know the truth — whether it’s about government spying or whatever — what they often only want is the drama behind popular exposure of the truth, when perhaps the truth was out there in the open for them to avoid and ignore for years beforehand. A critical look at “truth” involves, most importantly, a critical look at oneself and how much one will put on the line in order to accept that truth.
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.
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.
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
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:
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!
By tracking individual data, one can also track internal company metrics and state-level happiness metrics too!
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.
Professions and Skills
What does it mean to be “good” at something? Are companies hiring the most qualified candidates? How do we standardize that?
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.
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.
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?
“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?
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.
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.
My friend Kevin Donovan sent me a link (thanks Kevin) to this post (by Fred Stutzman) criticizing a NYTimes article (by Randall Stross) about how Facebook is affecting privacy boundaries for different age groups.
Personally I think the post is a bit too harsh on the NYTimes article (along with Michael Zimmer‘s), but provides excellent data points in his criticism.
Stutzman quotes some excellent data (see his post for references):
Stross simply has this one wrong. Instead of misguided intuition, let’s look at the numbers. In the Summer/Fall of 2008, Jacob Kramer-Duffield and I ran a survey of undergraduate Facebook users. We employed a list-based simple random sample, with 494 respondents. When asked the question Have you changed the default Facebook privacy settings to give yourself enhanced privacy in Facebook?, 72.47% responded “Yes.” To the question Based on your Facebook privacy settings choices, who do you allow to see your Facebook profile?, 50% answered “Only my Facebook friends.” (1)
It’s good to see that Facebook users are beginning to learn how to use the many settings Facebook gives them to control their privacy, such that the percentages have changed dramatically. It had been weird to see so many Facebook users unresponsive to the privacy tools given to them.
I also liked Stutzman’s final comments:
First, Facebook defaults have changed over the years, so a default now may have been a modification in the past. Second, Facebook’s audience is increasingly international, so we must remember that norms will vary significantly across nations and cultures. Third, privacy is not in Facebook’s business interests. Less privacy = more content, so it may not be in Facebook’s interest to craft a privacy statistic that reflects current norms.
But Stutzman concludes with this:
Young people didn’t simply decide to give up privacy. Rather, the studies show that social network sites, in their early iterations, created a very meaningful sense of close community. Young people disclosed not because attitudes about privacy instantly and simultaneously changed, but because they felt very comfortable with their audience.
Hmm. It seems as though Randall Stross was just saying that older people do not take as freely to sharing their lives publicly as younger people would. Is that horribly wrong to say? While there is more resistance among older people, sure, many will eventually adapt (I’ve been getting my dad to share more online).
But generational memory and identity are hard to break; try as we might, there will be many of the older generations who will just never change, and will never want to share online. They grew up in a different world, and it sticks with them. I’m not saying Stutzman is wrong — I would just like to see him add generational memory to the study of old vs. young people. I’d argue that kids these days are being wired to accept a future flesh/digital hybrid world…one where a radical transparency and accountability system exists and there is little privacy except for the most intimate parts of our lives.
Over on my reputation research blog, I wrote a post that applies to our Yahoo! work too.
It’s on the concept of “negative identity”: perhaps social identity formation consists of an element of defining yourself by what you are not. That is, you don’t always actively define your identity in terms of all the things you like to do, but instead, by who you are not and by what you don’t like.
Most social networking sites tend to allow users to define themselves only by what they are: that is, what are your favorite hobbies, music, movies, etc.? Who are your friends? But you don’t really use social groups on social networking sites to keep other groups out, do you?
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. =(
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.
One excellent point brought up during our breakfast presentation in the CCT lounge (their journal, Gnovis, posted a write-up of it by Margarita Rayzberg) was that one coping mechanism for lack of privacy controls on an SNS or within an intrusive state is to create fake profiles and characters and pseudonyms in order to operate online.
(Outside our discussion, I want to quickly add, why Asians are more comfortable with avatars, pseudonyms, and anime in representing themselves online?)
Anyway, in my privacy controls post, I showed just how extensive Facebook’s privacy controls are. This allows people to feel more secure about putting more information into Facebook’s databases because, whether they use those controls or not, they feel as though they can control their own data.
But Brazil uses Orkut, which has fairly weak controls relative to the rest of the spectrum of SNSs (Myspace excluded). I am not sure if Brazilians fear government intrusiveness into their day-to-days, since I haven’t done the research yet, so if they are using fake profiles quite often, then it might be because they are uncomfortable sharing info that those in their peer group or real life may view. We see this phenomenon here in the US with Myspace users. Younger users are encouraged to create fake profiles to hide from their parents, unauthenticated classmates, and other outside, threatening players in their lives.
I would argue that pseudonymity has an unappreciated role online. Anonymity has been with us since the start, back to “on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog”. Certainly much has been made about verified identity online, to facilitate trade and commerce — it wasn’t long ago that people refused to shop online for fear of fraud, an irrational fear as it turned out.
Pseudonymity has been discussed at length as well, as most outsiders see it as escapism from reality and compensating for missing traits in real-world personality. But it also allows, at the identity layer level, for a blend of authentication and anonymity to make up for the lack of identity tools to properly set the level of privacy you’re comfortable with online. You may want to be anonymous to all those who know you in real life, but you want to be known online within a certain community. So you take a handle or nickname and create a reputation around it.
The Yahoo!/ISD fellowship was originally created with the help of Michael Samway, Yahoo!’s VP and general counsel of human rights efforts and a former Georgetown MSFS alumnus, in response to a case of censorship by the Chinese government with the collaboration of Yahoo!.
The NYTimes this weekend published a long article called “Google’s Gatekeepers”, which describes a case involving Google’s YouTube property and Turkey’s blocking YouTube because of videos from Greece that defamed the founder of modern Turkey, which is a crime there. This spurred a look into how Google decides which videos get taken down and why.
What should companies do about issues such as this? Should they concede to governments’ wishes in order to stay in the market, particularly one as delectable as China’s? If they decide to stick to principles of free speech and user protection, they risk being banned, while their competitors could decide to concede and gain the lost market share.
For now, multiple stakeholders have formed the Global Network Initiative in order to collaborate and work together to ensure freedom of speech and privacy; it remains to be seen who will cooperate with the group and who will break apart, and whether they can exert enough leverage on governments to back off from censorship.
The Little Guy
What I am primarily concerned with in my research is how all this affects the little guy. You, me, those in BRIC countries. How do different countries’ users approach social media usage, knowing the risks they take both socially and from their governments? From some discussions I’ve had (but with nothing concrete to back it up), it seems as though Chinese users have a good sense of where the line is when saying something potentially risky in the government’s eyes. It’s hard to draw such a line when it comes to what one can say within his social network, though, since there are many more actors and attitudes and roles of relationships with that person. In other words, what you would say if you knew your mom was listening and what you would say if your best friend or boss were listening would be markedly different. At least you know in China fairly reasonably what you should and shouldn’t say in order to get the government censors concerned.
With that in mind, I think my privacy model holds well, although I’ve learned from our CCT chat and various other discussions to modify some of the language and words used, since each word has very specific meanings and inferences.
Your True Identity
The last thing I want to talk about here is with regards to hiding your true identity, as in your real life identity. In my “What’s Shaping the Internet” class (also in the CCT department), one of my colleagues did a presentation on Chinese censorship. One thing I started thinking deeply about through the pre-class reading was that foreign companies use tunneling and encrypted networks to pass through the Chinese firewall (or “Golden Shield”) in order to phone home to their offices. Both technically (encrypted tunneling is hard to defeat or wiretap) and commercially (if foreign companies have no privacy, then they would object and would pull business out for fear of losing trade secrets or more), encrypted networks and VPNs within China seem untouchable.
This ability can’t necessarily be said for regular Chinese citizens, who must find a secure connection to use in order to start tunneling securely. But it brings up the interesting question: how much tunneling do Chinese citizens engage in?
And would it really help them as far as SNSs go if they could tunnel out? SNSs are huge in China and by statistics we’ve discussed earlier, Chinese use social media far more than Americans do.
But at some point, can you really escape who you are? If you could post about yourself on computers based in a country that protects free speech, you’re still at some level talking about metadata that links back to your identity back home. If you were to scrub all your information of your real name or pseudonym, it would not take much work to find out where you live, what you do, and who you know. It would then not be much of a stretch to find you. Your personal data is horribly non-anonymous whether you’re Publius or Joe Klein.
So we’re led back to the beginning of this post, resorting to using pseudonyms to create completely fictional characters that anonymize our real life personas.
Apologies for the interruption in posting regularly. It’s the end of the semester and I can’t speak for Gaurav and Pav but I’ve had a lot of on-going semester-long projects. The Mumbai attacks hit close to home for Gaurav and Pav and I kept up with Gaurav’s tweets and posts during the Thanksgiving break while watching TV coverage and reading the spotty journalism online. Certainly there was a communitas and online awareness during the Mumbai hostage situations that’s unique to our times.
In mid-November, Gaurav gave a presentation during a Georgetown CCT (Communications, Culture, and Technology) breakfast chat. The CCT program, by the way, has a really cool blog called gnovis which covers interdisciplinary issues such as culture, technology, media, politics, and the arts. Add it to your RSS feed!
I assisted in covering a few slides for the presentation. Our topic was how cultural context affects social media usage in the BRIC countries and in the US.
This presentation was very useful for us because the CCT students are not only already well-versed in the subject we covered, but also pointed out areas we completely overlooked, studies we used that have blind spots, and presented an argument that we should look more carefully at how the different BRIC countries and the US view issues like privacy, openness, and sharing.
So these issues I will be researching for my future posts, particularly how the word “privacy” does not translate well into other languages and is fairly confusing even in English.
I also plan to study the individual countries to see if I can isolate characteristics applicable to my studies on privacy and openness vs. closedness.
It should also be mentioned that discussion within the web developer community regarding identity, sharing data across sites, and privacy vs. advertising is extremely hot right now, so I will try to post more summaries of good stories I see out there on that front.
Happy belated Thanksgiving, and here’s hoping you have a happy holiday season, wherever you are.