Stunting a Renaissance

An underlying theme in my projects at school has been thinking about potential versus actual.  And one common question that people ask when my classmates introduce their project ideas is, “Will this be illegal?”

How well is our society fulfilling its potential right now?  Is it under-performing based on its many inputs?  Is it being constrained by the law, policy, culture, tradition, taboos?  Or are we doing okay right now, from a broader perspective at a wider time-horizon?

I wonder if we could be having a Renaissance right now.  Something along the lines of the Italian Renaissance itself.  Or the Harlem Renaissance. Or the American medical revolution during the Great Influenza when the US adopted scientific method instead of quackery for medical treatment.  I feel like we should be having a Renaissance of, say, Universal Freedom:  a major push towards tech/information/communications freedom, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, energy and information independence.

These particular moments seem to arise when all the restraints and boundaries are cast off in necessity or after great struggle or strain.  What held them back was partly health-related (Black Plague, Great Influenza), societal readiness (Civil Rights), fit of technology (post WW2), etc., but I bet it had mostly to do with tradition, culture, and policy.  Such factors can be massive force multipliers — for good and bad.

So my classmates, obsessed with coming up with new ideas, startups, expressions, reinterpretations of old media, mashing up, etc., are haunted by questions of copyright, legality, restraints foisted upon them by a highly litigious entertainment culture which has spread to other industries and cultural spheres.  Right now our chief societal constraints are shitty policy, over-privatization, and domination by lawyers (lawyers and CIOs, the banes of any innovative team or division).

Entertainment’s the big one.  It can be hard to employ fair use for remixing and sharing music and videos and movies and art.  Are you in as much disbelief as I am that Spotify hasn’t been shut down yet?  The MPAA and other consortiums perhaps pushed too hard on PIPA and SOPA recently, but until governments and politicians see those consortiums as parasitic, detrimental to the public good, but still a necessary middleman in the industry (e.g. they’re seen as one of many competing interests), they will continue to ask for the whole pie in the form of favorable legislation and court rulings.

But look where the public good has been battered back for the last few decades: agricultural patents for rice and genetically modified food, privatization of water and other public services, control and monitoring and censorship of communications networks worldwide, normal functioning of public-good-protecting agencies like the EPA and public health policies like contraceptives vs. abstinence, copyrighting and patenting of software.  It’s no longer just a game, involving pirating just movies and music.

I guess this isn’t really big news, but I see an overarching trend that’s, for most citizens, just really exhausting and debilitating to keep identifying, organizing, and fighting against.

The restraints being placed on societal advancement are now affecting core human needs (water, food) and basic human rights (rendition, warrantless wiretapping, freedom of assembly, and voting representation).  As a result of my comparative democratization class at Georgetown, I came to see the internet in more of a political and cultural dimension, where it serves as a gathering place for dissenters from the status quo.  Having a gathering place for dissent outside of the mainstream or government’s absolute control is crucial towards any free society, or the progress towards citizens’ freedom.  In Latin America and Eastern Europe, the Catholic Church often stood as a place where people could organize and discuss higher ideals for their restrictive societies.  The same often exists for Muslims, as mosques and weekly juma’a are where potentialities and dissent are tested, refined, and propagated.  Hence from this way of looking at things you can see just how volatile it is for American security forces to invade mosques and to, in New York’s and other cities’ cases, actively infiltrate them.  The threat of removing the internet as a public sphere for free expression is one of the greatest we’ll probably have to deal with in our lifetimes, even if it’s not as immediately threatening as nuclear apocalypse or global societal collapse from disease, war, etc.

What I’m really waiting for is the eventual breakdown of corporate advantage in lobbying Washington, and a return to more balance of public interests vs. private interests.  Certainly as an entrepreneurial sort, I would not want to see a society overly zealous with a public interest at the expense of private startups and innovative ideas, but it’s far too unequal right now toward the other direction.

What will make the difference in the next couple decades will be the emergence of meshnets, darknets, and long-distance wireless.  When individuals, citizens, and free speech organizations can set their routers to repeat and mesh up with each other, to transmit data over large swaths of physical territory without having to use the networks, which are already well-infiltrated by the NSA, local police, FBI, crackers, anyone with the knowhow to get in, then we can perhaps live up to the principles of free speech that we were raised to believe in in America.  When politicians realize that free speech in a genuine definition is worth protecting again, the two factors combined could lead to a remarkable tech renaissance which has long been promised but never delivered.  Right now, though, any emerging technology or idea is treated as inherently infringing upon something else that’s already established.  The war is being fought out on the edges, and the rest has just stopped because of chilling effects of judicial threats and adherence to law.  Certainly the freedoms of anonymity and encryption that should exist also affect the ability of law enforcement and security to track terrorist cells, murderers, etc.  But strict warrants, empowered intelligence analysts, and flattened intel bureaucracy have been and should continue to be sufficient without impacting the majority of people who would benefit from having their freedom of speech lionized.

Where is WiMAX?  It is supposed to be able to broadcast wifi at higher speeds than we have now, with better transmission through building materials, from distances up to Baltimore to DC.  If not WiMAX, why not something else?  What is the hold up?  Can you imagine the impact our being able to share wifi across entire cities would have for communications companies which try to enforce one internet hookup per residence or occupancy?  They will get drowned when this internet capability is fully unleashed, so predictably you would expect that there’ll be tons of attempts to stop long distance wifi.  But it comes as a massive hit to the public good to protect cable companies.  What is worth more to us, as a society and as a species?

I’m still encouraged.  Hacker hardware is coming — Arduino and open source and circuit diagramming is now more available to the masses, and I’m hoping that breakthroughs in building meshnets will spread like wildfire.

Not only that, open source software is booming.  I used to want to know three or four spoken languages when I was younger, but I could never hack it — I was never talented enough to just pick them up automatically, and I never took the chance to immerse myself in a foreign country for long enough.  So I ended up not knowing very much about any particular language, but knowing a little bit here and there.  Arabic I know the most about, but even that is pretty weak.

I see a lot of discussion about linguistics focus on these spoken languages — linguistics seem highly insular to spoken languages.  But as I’ve gotten more technologically-inclined, I’ve drifted towards the languages that are truly growing and forking: computer languages.  How come linguists never talk about these?  Is it because there’s such a massive divide between computers/coding and traditional academic tracks?

Software is fascinating right now.  Windows dominated my youth, but now most all students use OS X (particularly in ITP, but for a different reason — we drop down into Darwin and Linux quite a bit, and OS X makes that super-easy).  Github is by far the most intriguing social network right now.  It’s so actively engaging in that you upload and maintain versioning of your code there, and you actively follow interesting projects and coders on it.  There isn’t too much interaction through it, but it’s producing real content: software that anyone can download and use.  The emergence of node (and reemergence of JavaScript), Python, Ruby, PHP, etc., using open stacks of software and libraries, that anyone can download and install onto, say, a fresh Ubuntu box, using package installation software, is far different than the past, where this shit used to just plain suck to work with.  A lot of the stuff you can simply “git clone”, or it’s already installed on your system!  It’s a software insurgency.

The degree of self-organization and self-correction among open source coders is high enough that it can create software far more useful than corporations, save perhaps for the heavyweights, could ever do with their best talent.

Looking forward, I just have a sneaking suspicion that something great will come about, somewhat subtly and under the radar, out of the open source movement and breakthroughs in open technology.  It’s not quite there yet, but it may offer hope for our other massive, systemic societal problems.  At the same time, I think the public’s been somewhat invigorated by Obama’s election (the apathy of loss of hope is now gone, if not replaced in many peoples’ hearts by bitterness or wonder at Obama’s post-election behavior).  I think the public is far more aware of the large systemic issues than it was just a few years ago, and this may lead to breakthroughs in organizing movements against concerted lobbying efforts by wealthy individuals and powerful private interests.

I’m encouraged, and hopeful.  I would love to see the walls come down, to see innovation be something we can act upon and not just dream about, to see the pie get bigger for all of us, to see peoples’ hearts warmed by the possibility of ideas that could work.  I am hopeful we will see a uniquely 21st century Renaissance we can call our own, within our lifetime.

Applications: Guest Speaker Mike Hawley

For this week’s Applications class, the group projects discussed Margaret Gould-Stewart‘s lecture last week on collaboration and not being an ass.  I thought Justin made a good contrarian point that people should not be so nice to each other at the expense of pushing for great ideas and doing really bold artwork.  I thought this was poignant because it seems to me like there have been places in history where one after another great artists have come from, and they very often hate or at the very least compete against each other.  That edge made everyone stronger and forced them to be bolder, even if it made for a meaner environment.  Then you have environments like this week’s speaker, Mike Hawley, talked about, like Bell Labs, which he forlornly said was a great, collaborative, unique research lab that was broken up before its time by the courts.  Maybe there’s no rule to being competitive versus being collaborative.  Maybe some people need either, or both, at varying times.

What I think through my own experience is that it’s great to have a strong team, but the team members have to be allowed to play to their own strengths.  More importantly, shit needs to get done.  One of the things I hate most is worrying about whether someone else will get his shit done or not.  When you find people who can execute, they are more than worth it, even if they don’t get it exactly right.  Things can be fixed later, within reason, but people who dawdle make everyone else suffer, waiting on them to finish their work.  This might be reinforced by the current argument for development, which is “release early, iterate often”.

The other thought I had with regards to the group projects was that I don’t really mind if someone is an “ass” as long as he’s being an ass for a reason.  Is he being mean and arrogant and an asshole because he’s challenging people to do better work, because he knows they can?  Is he giving people an opportunity to try harder and to improve, or is he just taking away their self-respect and dignity?  I never minded being yelled at by drill sergeants or sergeants in the military, as long as I trusted that they knew better than I did and were trying to instill something in or teach something to me.  Humans really need to be pushed pretty hard to be the best they can be, and hopefully enough of them will eventually take the ball and start pushing themselves harder than anyone else ever could.

So our guest speaker last night was Mike Hawley, who worked at the MIT Media Lab, NeXT, Apple, and LucasFilm, and who has the ear of key players in business and government.  He really is a badass Renaissance Man.  What struck me about him was that he was really zeroing in on America’s priorities while understanding how Congress won’t fund anything, and while figuring out where the greatest risk/reward is.  For instance, he was interested in getting our feedback on how to revitalize libraries, since his friend, Tony Marx (a rival Princeton Woodrow Wilson grad), the president of the New York  Public Library, is meeting with President Obama today.  How can libraries be streamlined for the digital present, while still maintaining that key sense of community and place for knowledge that it has always been?  He was also interested in electric cars that would obsolete human driving as well as reduce car accidents, which are the number one cause of death for Americans under 35.  These are crucial considerations for what America wants to be in the future.

Hawley is also fantastic at distilling the key points of audience questions into their key components, which is something many speakers can’t do.  Clearly the man is brilliant, and has been mentored by some of the best American minds in history.  He makes the Q&A part of lectures actually MORE exciting — usually I want to walk out once a speaker’s done.  Plus my fellow classmates are actually quite insightful and aren’t pushing some pet cause they have, which was often a part of many Q&As I went to while in Washington DC (where almost everyone has an agenda).

One thing is that he clearly sees technical solutions as catch-alls.  When asked about cultural differences affecting the success of autonomous cars, he essentially argued that it was just a coding/design issue to remove any possible flaws in the code.  But how will you ever get a perfect system for driving?  There will always be human drivers to some degree, even if just a few in a mostly computer-driven road system.  What if cars could be hacked into, or if they go haywire?  You can’t have a perfect system, and it’s true that some cultures will take to the technology different than others.  But the key points remain: car accidents are a massively undervalued problem, and even some form of computer-assisted driving would solve all sorts of follow-on problems (e.g. congestion, safety, free time for working, reliance on gasoline, etc.).

The main thing I took out of Hawley’s visit was that I hope that more Americans like him have the ear of our senior leaders for envisioning how great America could be in the future.  I also hope to be one of those Americans who contribute as much as he has, one day.

Exponential Times

Watch this video on how technology is affecting our world (thanks to Itzbeth for the link!):

Not that readers of this blog are unaware of this, but we live in exponential times where technology is pulling us kicking and screaming into a future that our cultural institutions are not equipped to deal with yet.

Be fast, be flexible, be adaptable.  The stats on labor (many of today’s top jobs did not exist a decade ago, and the number of jobs in one’s career is skyrocketing compared to past generations) are impressive within the context of a collapse in an American auto industry that guaranteed pensions to its retirees.

Also the massive growth within the BRIC countries will add new layers of complexity, ingenuity, and vectors for innovation that we can’t imagine right now. Perhaps through social networking sites will be the only way that we will be able to organize and visualize the enormous changes in ways that we can process. Old traditions and institutions will be tested, but we will have to rely on an underlying value system that those old institutions previously provided to keep some sort of semblance of stability and order.

That’s a lot of what this blog and our research is about.