EMAC6300: Code 2.0

I enjoyed reading Code 2.0, mostly because (and I never thought I’d ever hear myself saying this) it was refreshing to hear the consitutional lawyer’s opinions and perspective over a bunch of over-stimulated technologists/academics.  Yes, friends, Hell has just frozen over.

What I really enjoyed the most was his allegation that in our new reality – specifically in cyberspace – we can simply ‘recode’ the situation if we don’t like the laws of the universe we’re operating in.  Especially since Web 2.0 is a highly interdependent and contributory medium (one in which everybody not only brings their own content but also can bring their own programmatic coding which may or may not rely on multiple websites and APIs for functionality), you can literally reprogram the virtual space you are in to obey the laws you want.

I felt like, in the section on translation, he was indicting constitutional “originalists” quite fiercely.

This kind of translation speaks as if it was just carrying over something that has already been said.  It hides the creativity in its act; it feigns a certain polite or respectful deference.  This way of reading the Constitution insists that the important political decision have already been made and all that is required is a kind of technical adjustment.

Constitutional Originalism, popularized in recent years by Justice Scalia and now coopted (at least in part) by conservative political factions, presupposes that one can actually guess what the founder’s original intent was; and lawyers (above all others) should understand the difficulty in proving intent even for the living (no less, the intent people who lived over 200 years ago).

Perhaps I’m revealing my own biases here, but I do believe that laws have to be made given the present reality, and I believe that Lessig makes a nice case as to the perils of too-simply translating old beliefs into the new, virtual world.  As Lessig points out, in the late 18th century, while the founders saw the need to protect citizens from government trespass into their personal property space, they put no such limit on the public space.  And now, the debate continues to rage over whether the Internet is an inherently public or private space, who owns the data that is put thereon, and what means of legal recourse governments and individuals can expect in this new reality.

In the chapter on copyrights, Lessig opines that the pendulum is certainly swinging in favor of copyright holders and the public space perception; that cyberspace is a place to be policed.  I do believe it is, but it is also a place that needs to be policed through the front door.  We need statesmen who will courageously define the virtues and vices of governance in this space, rather than politicians who are bought and sold by corporations and copyright interests – whose primary motivation is control.

As Lessig points out, though, we have seen a change of the “code” since the DMCA was put into place.  The implementation of the law, in some ways, backfired on the corporations and government that ended up implementing it.  We now see that most music providers who used the draconian DRM measures have now backed off and simply watermark purchased files with the licensee’s information.  They have responded to consumer demand for open formats over the control that was promised and delivered through DRM.  I count this up as a win for consumers.

Video is next in this space.  What mp3s were in the late 90’s, videos are today.  Netflix is certainly the first to effectively and massively commoditize this space (sorry Apple), but they are hawking a subscription model rather than a content ownership model.  While this can be a good deal for consumers, it leaves ultimate control in the hands of the corporation, who simply can’t be trusted to make all the right choices that all the consumers will agree with in the long run.  Since consumers aren’t owning the content one has to wonder – how long can they hold a market lead?  Until the network speeds up a bit more (it’s underway) will this finish playing out.

EMAC6300: “Here Comes Everybody”

While reading the Shirky book, I couldn’t help but think back to an episode in my life, about 3 or 4 years ago, when I decided I wanted to get Lasik surgery.  I visited a local doctor’s office (you know, the one who had the overly aggressive advertisements that he had done the most Lasik surgeries of anyone in the world) for their free screening.

To make a long story short, the “free” screening ended up costing me $150 even though I walked out of the office having decided against this particular doctor and the surgery in general given my eyesight and medical history.  When I discovered they had cashed my “deposit” check, I was furious.  My first reaction, other than to complain to my mother (who happened to work for a doctor who did these surgeries), was to register the domain name “butcherbooth.com” and post all about my horrific experience in his “free” screening.  I started working out elaborate plans in my head of how I would rally the Internet to my cause and singlehandedly put this terrible doctor out of business.

My rage calmed, and I actually opted for the more structured, organizationally centered response; documenting the experience and getting my money back through my bank.

Of course, the documentation was riddled with empty threats of reporting them to the Better Business Bureau, the American Medical Association, etc etc etc.

My recollection of this experience came as I read the opening of the book in which someone successfully (maybe too successfully) gets my intended reaction over a misplaced cell phone.  One would think, in that particular situation, that ‘finders keepers’ would be a sensible solution to consoling your feeling of losing a $300 phone.  However, the loser’s friend decided to amp up that feeling to a whole ‘nother level…

Considering the power of the group, and the ability the group had to terrorize the poor girl who ended up with the lost cell phone, Shirkey’s analysis later on struck a chord:

Networked organizations are more resilient as a result of better communication tools and more flexible social structures, but this is as true of terrorist networks or criminal gangs as of Wikipedians or student protestors. (Shirky, 210)

The issues of cyber-bullying quickly come into focus.  Even though it would feel good to disproportionately strike back at the injustice I felt over my lost $150, is it right to destroy a man’s whole practice over it just because I have the technical capability to do so?  Considering these situations and others suggested in the book, it becomes clear that the web’s version of justice is clearly not the same as the “blind justice” ideal our society has tried to achieve with her blindfold and scale.  Justice on the web is never balanced, fairly applied, or monitored in any way.  In fact, you can rarely even see the full picture since factions tend to be navel gazers, infinitely linking to other individuals and opinions that only align with theirs.  Indeed, “fair and balanced” is a pipe dream both in traditional media and new media.

Looking back, I still wonder what the result of my efforts would have been.  The blog was a well-established technology, so it clearly passed the Shirky’s initial test:

Communications tools don’t get socially interesting until tehy get technologically boring.  … It’s when a technology becomes normal, then ubiquitous and finally so pervasive as to be invisible, that the really profound changes happen (Shirky, 105)

Still, though, I lacked the built-in social ties to bring it completely to fruition.  I suspect it would have taken some pretty active recruitment, as I had trouble even among all my friends of getting equally negative sentiment built up as I had felt.  Most of them had the surgery from him or another doctor with similar results.

Perhaps my expectations were just too high to begin with?

Shirky gets a little problematic to me in a few places where, perhaps due to the copyright date of the text, he neglects to acknowledge the “nowness” of the new social media tools.  Facebook, Twitter, and even Blogs (which he covers in great detail) don’t only follow the “publish, then filter” model, but they also highly favor what is going on now vs what might have happened in the recent past.  The quality of the publication is not longer a question as the “now” tools of the status update tend to favor short burst of real time thought or multimedia presentation (video or photo) of the event itself.  Editorializing is now done in 140 characters or less, lending itself less and less to prose and more and more to poetry.

All in all, though, I like the Shirky book and think it has great coverage of the implications of the changing media landscape.

The Secret of Good Government

A while back, I watched a 60 minutes episode and was really impressed with two of the pieces.

First, the piece on John Boehner turned him from a stoic, orange, minority leading, whiner, into a real human being. I have to say, I was really impressed with his story of truly coming up from nothing and becoming 3rd in line to being the President of the US. The blubbering got a little distracting – but I can empathize with a man who wears his emotions on his sleeve. It really is impressive to see someone who worked his way through college cleaning toilets become Speaker of the House. That is the story of America: anyone can become anything with enough work and luck.

I was a little turned off by his refusal to say the word “compromise.” Leslie Stahl really tried hard to get him to say the word, and finally he basically said that his new constituents have assigned the word a negative connotation. That is the definition of the sad state of politics in our nation, it’s not popular to compromise. You have to WIN. It has to be YOUR WAY or the HIGHWAY – or just stall long enough until you can pin enough negative things on the majority party and get back into power so they can then pull the same crappy tricks on you.

But — the most surprising tidbit of good advice for politicians everywhere actually came from a later interview in the same program with Presidente Lula of Brazil. He was first elected when I was in Brazil in 2000 on my mission, and he was a wildly successful politician and president. He said something that was most memorable in this broadcast:

It’s about 5:19.

“Success of an elected official is the art of doing the obvious. It is doing what everyone knows need to be done.”

I wish our politicians would subscribe to this statement a bit more. Rather than being power brokers, money grubbers, yarn spinners, and issue chameleons, why can’t we just get together and do the obvious stuff. We can solve fiscal problems by cutting spending and raising taxes. We can become more energy independent by drilling for oil here at home AND investing heavily in researching alternative fuels. Etc etc etc. Our solutions are in front of us, and we just need someone to be more comfortable with doing the obvious rather than who is up and who is down, who won last and what you can get for your vote.

New Album: Men of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

So, this album made me miss singing.  A lot.  Listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir often does, but this one pushed me over the edge quite a bit.  I love singing in men’s choirs and I love sounding like… like… that!  Like sooooo good.  With awesome accompaniment of a full orchestra, singing in a such a live, resonant space as the Tabernacle.





EMAC 6300: “The Exploit”

“The Exploit” was an interesting extension to last week’s read and discussion on “Connected” reading.

One of the key items that I thought the authors surfaced in discussing ‘nodes’ was that one of the failings of mathematical network theory is that it fails to capture the fact that the network has life!

As the authors state:

Thus, not only do existing network theories exclude the element that makes a network a network (it’s dynamic quality), but they also require that networks exist in relation to fixed, abstract configurations or patterns (either centralized or decentralized, either technical or political), and to specific anthropomorphic actors.

In other words, these networks only really exist in snapshots – moments frozen in time – where the network can be examined in a frozen state.

The nature of the network is that it’s fluid, dynamic, and ever-changing.  This applies to both computer networks and human networks, especially with the proliferation of network-enabled devices and the ubiquity of WiFi and open networks.  My device can ‘attach’ to the network anywhere at any time and thus alter the topology of the network.

At my work, we are creating a product that, as one of its core features, captures a network’s topology.  In using this product, though, I’ve observed what the authors talk about here.  When I view my home network topology, I don’t just get the active view of the network, I also see artifacts of devices that were once part of my network.  Since this product is a network monitor, this is considered a feature of the device – it tracks devices’ entrance and exit from your network.  But, this includes things like friend’s iPods and iPhones and test systems I work with.  It becomes a chore to keep my network topology in a ‘clean’ state, because it’s always being polluted by devices whose presence on the network is intermittent and fleeting.

Expanding this problem out further, imagine how something like this would look to a mobile phone carrier, for example.  Thousands of devices cleanly register or deregister at any time on their mobile networks., and millions are in an active, useful state — but auto switch from physical tower to tower, and may even go completely off the grid at times only to pop up later.  It would be impossible for an at&t or Verizon to map all of its users in any kind of visualized topology, because the rate of change to that topology certainly exceeds any supercomputer’s capability to re-render the topology in any human-understandable format.

Considering this phenomenon reminds me of an atomic law that I remember studying in my undergraduate – one that I can’t recall the name of – but which states that you can never truly know where in the ‘electron cloud’ an electron is at a particular time because you can never slow down the orbit enough to get a glimpse of it without changing the orbit itself (or changing the atom itself).

It also goes back to a more general scientific theory that it is impossible to study something without impacting or influencing the environment the thing you are studying is in.

In other words, there is no real way to freeze time and nature to really capture any of the living ecosystems or networks that surround us, whether they be social or technical.

One other thing that stuck in my craw as I read this book was a brief but mind-bending allegation the authors made on page 22 that some “antiweb” might one day come into existence that could eradicate or reorganize the networks as we currently understand them.  They sounded like they would get to this point later, but I seemed to have missed their point.

Last thing I want to point out is that I think their discussion on protocols is fascinating.  Being a student of the TCP/IP protocol, I think it is an incredibly fascinating protocol in that packet switched networks rarely take the most efficient path through the network.  TCP/IP is not known for efficiency, but it IS known for resiliency.  A TCP packet is rarely truly ‘lost’ in the network because the protocol is a very resilient protocol.  If the packet fails to reach its destination, it will scale back along its path to find a new route to the destination.  I don’t really have a lot to say about it, or what the authors pointed out, except to say it’s always fascinated me!