Tag archives for social networking

The Lanier Effect

You’re probably familiar with Jaron Lanier. VR pioneer, musician, author of You Are Not a Gadget and far too many articles to mention. He’s also the inspiration for the Prevail Scenario in Radical Evolution, and the Prevail Project in general. And more recently, he has an hour long interview over at edge.org.

The interview and transcript is far too complex to be summarized here, but Jaron attempts to get at this very basic question: if the internet was supposed to connect people, get them access to information and the levers of power, and make the world better, why do people feel less secure and less wealthy today? It’s because we’re giving up our data, our decisions, and our integrity in the name of efficiency and internet fame, without asking if those are durable goods.

What you have now is a system in which the Internet user becomes the product that is being sold to others, and what the product is, is the ability to be manipulated. It’s an anti-liberty system, and I know that the rhetoric around it is very contrary to that. “Oh, no, there are useful ads, and it’s increasing your choice space”, and all that, but if you look at the kinds of ads that make the most money, they are tawdry, and if you look at what’s happening to wealth distribution, the middle is going away, and just empirically, these ideals haven’t delivered in actuality. I think the darker interpretation is the one that has more empirical evidence behind it at this point…

And so when all you can expect is free stuff, you don’t respect it, it doesn’t offer you enough to give you a social contract. What you can seek on the Internet is you can seek some fine things, you can seek friendship and connection, you can seek reputation and all these things that are always talked about, you just can’t seek cash. And it tends to create a lot of vandalism and mob-like behavior. That’s what happens in the real world when people feel hopeless, and don’t feel that they’re getting enough from society. It happens online.

What does Jaron see as the way out? Well, you’ll have to read the article to find out.

Cracking the Facebook Code

Recommendation agents pay a minor, but increasingly important role in our lives. Whether it’s Amazon’s book recommendations, or Netflix, Pandora Radio, or Google Search, we rely on algorithms and computers to tell us what to watch, listen to, and how to get where we’re going. Anybody who’s a Facebook user knows that the best part of the site is the feed, seeing all your friends and what they’re up to. But we only see a fraction of our friends’ total activity. The “top news” feed is heavily edited for your pleasure. Tom Weber of the Daily Beast goes inside Facebook’s algorithm, running a variety of experiments to see how Facebook decides what we see.

It’s a fascinating read about computers are managing, maybe even censoring our social lives. As we rely more and more on computers to curate the torrent of information out there, we’ll become increasing dependent on these confidential algorithms. Practical reserve-engineering efforts like Tom’s are necessary for us to manage these technologies. As Jaron Lanier put it in a very Prevail-ish op-ed last year.

“What all this comes down to is that the very idea of artificial intelligence gives us the cover to avoid accountability by pretending that machines can take on more and more human responsibility. This holds for things that we don’t even think of as artificial intelligence, like the recommendations made by Netflix and Pandora. Seeing movies and listening to music suggested to us by algorithms is relatively harmless, I suppose. But I hope that once in a while the users of those services resist the recommendations; our exposure to art shouldn’t be hemmed in by an algorithm that we merely want to believe predicts our tastes accurately. These algorithms do not represent emotion or meaning, only statistics and correlations.”

No, these algorithms don’t represent us, but relying on them is far safer if we have better ideas about how they work, and the filters they impose.

Silicon Valley: Hackers, hucksters, and the hopeful

Two articles in the business news caught my eye recently, providing very different takes on entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley.

From Business Insider, Google’s Larry Page Does Exactly the Right Thing: Says ‘Whatever’ to Wall Street. “In some people’s minds, Google’s Larry Page just committed the cardinal sin: He offended Wall Street. Wall Street has reacted to the first quarter in the Page regime by tossing the stock overboard. Larry Page is spending way too much, Wall Street says. Larry Page isn’t communicating well enough. Larry Page couldn’t even be bothered to spend more than a couple of minutes on the earnings call with Wall Street last night. So to hell with him! Lost under the outrage, of course, is that Larry Page may be doing exactly the right thing: Focusing on Google and Google’s products and users, instead of Wall Street.” I’d agree that finance has become too involved in business. Bankers should be providing businessmen with capital and letting them innovate and sell useful products. Big mergers, private equity firms, and the whole Wall Street machine has become very good at shaking money out of business, but their track record on long term health is less than stellar. Hopefully, Larry Page has enough clout, and an actual strategy, to keep Google doing what they’re doing.

Of course, that leads to the question, what is it that Google does? Most people think of them as a search engine, but in fact, Google sells advertisements, and Business Week has an article about how toxic the focus on advertising has become. Says early facebook employee Jeff Hammerbacher, “”The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” “Once again, 11 years after the dot-com-era peak of the Nasdaq, Silicon Valley is reaching the saturation point with business plans that hinge on crossed fingers as much as anything else. “We are certainly in another bubble,” says Matthew Cowan, co-founder of the tech investment firm Bridgescale Partners. “And it’s being driven by social media and consumer-oriented applications.”” One of the big open questions at Prevail is how new forms of media, particularly social media, can be used to increase social participation and guide what we call the Second Curve of Social Change. But if at the end of the day, if everybody is focused advertising, social media is just perpetuating a cycle of consumption, with more wasted time for average people in an already advertising saturated world, and for the researchers who are supposed to be improve the technology.

Makes you think, doesn’t it? These are big issues, and if any entrepreneurs out there are reading, maybe they could share some ideas.

In A World of Rapid Change, What Kind of Critter Do You Want to Be?

There are two kinds of critters on this planet. One produces zillions of offspring, then pays scant attention to them, playing the odds that some will survive. The other produces few offspring, but nurtures each lavishly to increase their chances of being the best they can be.

Each strategy has its plusses and minuses. The upside of having few progeny is that you can shape them to most highly adapt to their existing environment. The downside is, if you lose one, the result is devastating. The upside of having lots of ankle-biters is that if the world they are born into is up for grabs, such heirs as make it to adulthood are likely to be adapters, capable of rapidly evolving. The downside is that in periods of stability, we tend to view them as under-evolved vermin – as weeds.

There are lessons here for human enterprises. If the world we’re heading into is on tumble-dry, which kinds of critters do we want to be?

Our friend Jamais Cascio of OpenTheFuture.com offers a very Prevail-ish answer: both.

Cascio notes we are in a period in which even instability is not stable. If instability were constant, then it would clearly favor the high-reproduction throw-everything-at-the-wall and see what sticks mode, even if the outcome is not optimal. But, he says, it’s not. It is punctuated by periods of consolidation. Think Silicon Valley. A new innovation produces a flood of startups striving for advantage. But eventually, a small number of highly-evolved dominant players emerge.

Therefore, it is dangerous to rely on strategies that assume the continuation of either stability or instability. “Neither relying upon scale and incumbency nor relying upon rapid-fire iteration will succeed as fully and as dependably as we might wish,” says Cascio. “We can’t rely on either the garage hacker or the global corporation to push us to a new phase of history.”

What we want is resilience. The way to get it is by having the two kinds of critters collaborating with – and feeding off – each other.

To Prevail, then, is to create a new ecosystem that we can push in the right direction. For that we need rapid humanistic social bottom-up response to rapid technological change. It doesn’t take a genius to see that states and corporations can’t seem to figure out what to do, or how to plan for tomorrow, using only their slow, legacy, top-down means. In a period where the patterns we’ve seen before don’t seem to be working right, the answer is lots of small and large components in dense networks, bringing the wisdom of the edge to the core, or even bypassing the core, and fast.

Humanistic response means ideas and decisions that take into account the unique, individual values of every human being. It means organizations that allow people to flourish and grow, rather than grind them down and burn them out. Bottom-up means humans self-organizing as useful flocks, capable of rapidly creating powerful change without relying on the merely ambitious. Think of the hundreds of millions on eBay organizing extremely complex behavior without leaders, or YouTube helping swing an American presidential election, or even Twitter, heaven help us – if it terrifies tyrants, it must be good for something. Rapid technological change means transformative revolutions like genetics, robotics, information and nanotechnology, increasingly aimed inward at modifying our minds, memories, metabolisms, personalities and progeny – and thus, what it means to be human.

Thus, our goals: quickly forging community, integration, foresight, and wisdom. It will not be easy to achieve, but all are necessary if we are to prevail.

May we start building all this here, now.

What Comes Next

This is a continuation of a previous post.

I won’t be breaking any news when I say that the Mubarak regime is done. At this juncture, the momentum of the crowd is only accelerating, the army has refused to intervene, and President Obama publicly has called for Mubarak not to run for re-election in the fall. American envoy Frank Weisner demanded Mubarak step down, and was rebuffed, but there doesn’t seem to be a pathway for Mubarak to maintain his grip on power. Asymetric warfare theorist John Robb has laid out the victory conditions for both sides. Essentially, Mubarak wins if he outlasts popular anger. The protestors win if Mubarak is forced to flee the country. With public services decaying, the security police discredited and demoralized, and victory close at hand, the protestors have no reason to stop with their central demand unmet. Conversely, there is literally nothing Mubarak has to offer, not promises of stability, not continued terror, only his departure.

EDIT: As I’m typing this, Mubarak has announced he will step down on the next elections. But I’d bet he’ll leave well before then.

So what happens next? I’d like to focus on three different issues, Egyptian politics, Israel, and democracy in the Middle East.

I will freely admit that I am not an expert on Egyptian politics. Consensus is that the best organized opposition group is Muslim Brotherhood, but that Mohamed ElBaradei is best situated to step into a leadership role. An internationally renown diplomat, ElBaradei is compromise figure who’s stature is his best asset, but who’s long separation from Egypt might hinder his effectiveness. The worry floating around American conservative circles is that the Egyptian revolution is a stalking horse for an Islamist takeover, similar to Iran in 1979. This may yet happen, we can’t know, but the faster the transition happens, the less likely religious groups will be able to exert a major influence. The chaos and uncertainty in Egypt right now favors people with local credibility, the neighborhood wardens and citizen-bloggers. The more time the situation has to settle, the more secular forces will fragment and the influence of the superior organization of the Muslim Brotherhood will tell on the elections.

If elections were held today, my prediction would be on a roughly 3 way split between secular protestors, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the entrenched military/intelligence forces of the government. While Mubarak may be discredited, a bureaucracy the size of Egypt’s security apparatus is not easily dismantled. While a confluence between the Islamist parties, and the military (the Iranian model) is worrying geo-politically, it’s not actually my main concern. Far worse for the Egyptian people would be a situation reminiscent of the French Revolution. As the monarchy collapsed, and the National Assembly took power, actual power devolved into the hands of demagogues, who in the name of “defending the revolution” and “punishing tyrants” committed untold atrocities. Now, the world as a whole has far more experience at democracy than it did in 1789, and the Terror was abetted by the efforts of European monarchies to destroy the new republic. There is no better way to turn a revolution paranoid and violent than by attacking it. The lesson here is that the world should offer its unconditional support to the Egyptian democracy in its embryonic stage, even if we do not like the immediate results.

Israel has suffered a major strategic reversal. Egypt, under the control of a geopolitical realist with ties to the US, was an important, if grudging ally. A return to hot war is unlikely, but ElBaradei has already indicated that he would open the Egyptian side of the Gaza border. Israel faces further strategic encirclement. Clinging to the past is not going to work, Israel should bow to the reality on the ground, and hail a strengthening of peaceful relations with the new democracy. While far from a good choice, taking a hard line now will only force worse choices in the future.

Finally, democracy in the Middle East. From Tunisia, the revolution has swept Egypt, forced the King of Jordan to dissolve his cabinet, and has lead to unrest across the region. Will the revolution continue? I have a feeling that if this initial movement were going to spread, it would have already. The emotional conditions, the heat of the moment, is changing. Potential revolutionaries elsewhere are investing their energies in Egypt for the time being. Social networking, a hyper-oxygenated public sphere, allows the flames of revolution to sprout with surprising speed, but other Middle Eastern autocrats appear to have a better grip on the grievances and mood of the people. In the long run, the example of Egypt (assuming it doesn’t immediately and obviously degenerate into a theocracy or civil war) should inspire democrats elsewhere in the region. With revolution as a distinct possibility, tyrants must take the grievances of their people seriously, including opening political freedoms.

The system, as it stands, has benefited America, which receives a cheap and reliable supply of oil. However, long term it was clearly unsustainable. Mubarak’s government will fall completely within the week. How many dictatorships will last out the year, or five years? Better democracy now, than chaos in an even tenser world later.

Social Media and the Revolution in Egypt

Revolution in Egypt is the story of the week. Over the past seven days, ordinary Egyptians have come together to oppose the 30 year rule of Hosni Mubarak. The protests are a wonder of civil disobedience, technological coordination, and bottom-up action. But what are the origins, chances, the potential outcomes, and options for US policy?

Revolution is like a fire. All the necessary ingredients can exist independently for years, only bursting into a self-sustaining conflagration under the proper conditions. Fires require fuel, oxygen, and heat to burn. Fire-fighting strategies rely on eliminating one side of the triangle. Wildfires are fought by separating the fire from more fuel, while conventional fires use water to reduce the amount of heat available. The social analogs to fuel, oxygen, and heat are grievances, the public sphere, and emotional intensity.

Grievances are the raw fuel of revolution. In the case of Egypt, three decades of misrule, oppression, torture, and the stifling of economic and political freedom have left the population with an endless stock of grievances. Except for a small class of Mubarak’s cronies, few people have benefited from his rule, and a society that was once integrated has become divided into an urban poor, and an exurban elite. The demands of the protestors have become unified into one simple message: Mubarak out.

The public sphere is vital for any protest to organize and gather moment. This includes both the conventional public sphere of streets and squares, and the public sphere of information. From the first, revolutionaries have used the latest in information and communication technology. Printing presses during the American Revolution, tape decks in the Iranian Revolution. The CIA smuggled Xerox machines in the Soviet Union to spread samizdat, the individual distribution of banned books and magazines, while the protestors in Tienanmen Square used fax machines to communicate with the world. More recently of the modern ICTs, text messaging helped bring down the Philipino President Jose Estrada, and social media like Twitter and Facebook has been central in the current Egyptian revolution, the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, and protests in Iran and the Ukraine.

Conventional counter-protest tactics involve squeezing out the public sphere. Physically, riot police and tanks can occupy strategic areas, with curfews for normal traffic. In the modern era, totalitarian regimes have attacked cyberspace as well. Egypt shut down the internet entirely for a day, while Iran slowed external access to a crawl during its crisis. And China is notorious both for a totalitarian system of internet traffic monitoring and censoring, and also for shutting down telecoms service during riots in Tibet and Xinjiang. While shutting down the public sphere is effective in stopping protests, it is risky, requiring the use of mass violence which might further inflame the opposition, and if continued for too long, can cause economic damage.

But don’t be confuse the utility of social networking with the necessity for it. As compared to other forms of ICT, social media plays into the third requirement for revolution; emotion. This is the non-quantifiable element which makes people dare to stand against power, to face batons and teargas and bullets in the name of liberty. Emotion is personal, internal, idiosyncratic, and social networking is about broadcasting your feelings, more than any specific information. A robust internet community can transmit and amplify anger and the demand for change. The sparks of rage can spread from city to city with incredibly rapidity. And once enough sparks have landed, and the crowds have gathered, the revolution becomes self sustaining. Optimism is counter by fear, the longstanding fear of the regime, and fear of future chaos and repercussions. In Egypt, the successful revolution in Tunisia provided the impetuous of hope to counter three decades of oppression. Mubarak has tried to instill fear in the population, by agent provocateurs and the threat of military force, but has so far proven unsuccessful. If the heat of the revolutionaries can outlast the resolve of the military, they will win.

The flame of revolution, kindled in Tunisia, is spreading through-out the Middle East. The authoritarian regimes are like a forest which has not burned for years, with piles of dead leaves and trees lying about. What happens next is impossible to predict, but sparks are jumping, governments falling, and a brave new world may be at hand.

Pt II: On what happens next, will follow tomorrow.