Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"Digital Natives" grew up as "dwellers on two planets"


Authors: John Palfrey and Urs Gasser.
Title: Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives.
Publication: New York: Basic, 2008. ISBN 978-0-465-00515-4. 375 pages, hardcover, indexed, endnotes; Introduction and 13 Chapters.

In an episode in the second season of TheWB’s "Everwood", old jazz artist Will Cleveland (James Earl Jones) needs to collect a damage debt from piano teen prodigy Ephram Brown (Gregory Smith) and asks the 16-year-old, “you grew up doing computers, didn’t you?” Ephram did, and his father soon sets up a digital studio for his practicing Beethoven, Chopin and Prokofiev.

So it is, that kids born since about 1985 or so have grown up in a culture used to computers, and by the late 90s, by and large, were starting to experience a lot of their lives online. Digital connections seemed as fundamental utility for getting on in life as the telephone (and I can remember party lines in the Midwest). It wasn’t just for self-promotion; it was for social networking, for employment, school work, politics, any communication, everything. So the authors call “The Kids” “Digital Natives” and people of older generations “immigrants”. I am a bit of a hybrid, as I started an information technology on mainframes (starting with defense) in the 1960s, when people ran accounting ledgers on EAM equipment. And, in the early years of my career, “desk checking” work before keypunching was the norm. My, how times would change.

The thirteen chapters each have one-word titles that summarize the major, unsettling areas of controversy in our wired world. For openers, the authors separate the problems of “Identity”, “Dossiers” and “Privacy” and later “Safety” but they are obviously interrelated.

Writing in a style that reminds one a bit of George Gilder, the authors start with the example of a fictitious young woman, and imagine how technology could mediate her concept and function of her “identity.” In rural or feudal societies, her “identity” would be limited by circumstances and family. During the industrial age, she might move to a distant city, and perhaps work a long time before (likely) marrying (especially starting with World War II) and she might establish what she perceives as multiple “identities.” In fact, the tendency of more technology societies to keep records, even if mostly on paper at first, would tend to cause her “identities” to consolidate and become knowable to others. Still, she might develop an enhanced sense of a “private life,” and after marriage family life would largely be viewed as private. Along comes the Internet (as it evolves from user groups and dialup to self-publishing and blogs, and finally Web 2.0, peer-to-peer and, most of all, social networking) and she finds she can, at first, invent multiple identities (associated sometimes with “avatars” in cyberspace environments). But in time, the “two way street” takes effect. The record of her activities accumulates, often available to search engines, and she develops an “online reputation” (so much a concern to entrepreneurs like Michael Fertik with his “reputation defender”). That reputation is affected by the postings of others and even by the identification of others as “friends” – the company she keeps. In time, her life must integrate; her career and personal life will have to comport with her online identity and reputation.

Somewhat similar processes are at work with issues like dossiers (generally under control of governments and especially of data collection companies, especially credit reporting companies, that existed well before the Internet), and privacy (which is challenged by the tracking of her behavior by marketing companies and sometimes by insurers), leading to potentially profound ethical questions. Safety has received a lot of attention in the media, with respect to Internet sexual “predators” and also some recent tragedies (as with the Myspace case in Missouri), as well as, of course, consumer identity protection. Furthermore, protection of children comes up in connection with “adult content”, which the First Amendment vigorously protects. The authors discuss the CDA and COPA briefly. They also discuss Section 230 of the CDA, which still stands and which protects Internet hosts from vicarious liability from content posted by subscribers, generally, but they believe that ISP’s should share more legal burden (it’s not clear how from what they write).

They give a thoughtful discussion of the whole piracy problem, without going into the technical details of the DMCA or its controversial safe harbor provision. They explain that younger people, and in fact the public as a whole, has inadequate understanding of copyright, and believe that the recording and motion picture industry has been rather brutal with sudden lawsuits against consumers, who sometimes have been wrongfully identified, and must defend themselves at their own expense. (The potential “chilling effect” of having to fend off wrongful litigation or even computer seizure or prosecution for other situations ought to get more space here.) They do explain the logic behind taking town of the original Napster, and of the MGM-Grokster case, where downstream liability does exist if a business model is predicated on infringement.

On quality of information when self-published (the "cult of the amateur" issue, discussed here in June 2007), as well as the safety of sites and services, the authors support the trend toward user ratings and companies that publish user experience. In the Web safety issue, a good example is "Web of Trust."

The authors are always “walking the line,” calling for great wisdom on the part of the “digital natives” and effort by parents and teachers to impart this “wisdom” since many of the risks are counter-intuitive and not obvious to younger people, especially teens.

It’s the entrepreneurial or “innovation” paradigms, and (in my own case) political activism that the real issues of the Internet become razor sharp. “Youngsters” like Mark Zuckerberg (deploying from a dorm room no less), Aaron Greenspan, Cameron Johnson, and Shawn Fanning simply climbed onto their computers and networks, invented services or businesses, and deployed them. It wasn’t necessary to ask for anyone’s permission or advance in a hierarchy first. It wasn’t “necessary” to have a wife and children first (most of them were younger than typical age for that anyway). In some cases, “creative destruction” occurred; other jobs could be destroyed, whole industries restructured. In some cases there were real legal questions. Napster, in its first form, at least, lost its legal battle, in fact. But almost in no case did any of the young entrepreneurs imagine the long term consequences that could occur, even if those consequences were necessary for society to swallow in the long run. (It sounds like “The Chicago School” doesn’t it!) Zuckerberg could hardly have imagined “reputation defender”.

My own case is different in that it was no a technical deployment as simply a publishing one (starting in 1997). The idea was not to let organizations and special interests keep “bureaucratizing” the debate and shielding people from “personal responsibility,” but simply that one person, or at least one small business, could put everything down in one place. Since I “deployed” Wikipedia (Jimmy Wales) has come along, with a somewhat different (less politicized) emphasis. I realize there is a certain arrogance on my part in this, but there is a certain arrogance in deploying anything “revolutionary” without the “permission” of others, following the spirit of objectivism, perhaps one of Ayn Rand’s characters.

I recall back in the 50s looking forward to idea of space travel, and I recall seeing "2001: A Space Odyssey" in 1968, right after finishing Army Basic. In the 70s I would come closer to the mark when reading about mysticism, "Phylos the Tibetan: Dweller on Two Planets." Somewhere around age 50 or so, I made the migration, perhaps like the character Wall-e; digital cyberspace became something like a separate dominion, almost like another planet. But the "reconciliation" with mother Earth is certainly unsettling.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

National Geographic has Collector's Edition on The Maya


National Geographic has followed up with the article on the Maya published August 2007 (reviewed on this blog on July 18, 2007) with (a year later) a glossy “Collector’s Edition” called “Mysteries of the Maya: The Rise, Glory and Collapse of an Ancient Civilization.” The book (112 pages) is edited by Chris Johus (only his “captcha-like” signature appears on p 15). The book includes a foldout poster with detailed diagrams of the temples and monuments, and a Cinerama-style photo of “The House of the Doves.” The book is filled with large, high-quality archeological photographs and diagrams, with more pictures than text, making it rather like a “filmstrip”. I found the book at a Rite-Aid for about $10.

The book is in five parts, covering the “Preclassic”, “Classic”, and “Postclassic” periods.

Generally, the Maya had authoritarian monarchial structures with nobles and peasants, and developed technology in certain focused ways, leading to their achievements in tracking the motions of heavenly bodies, although it is not clear that they really could have understood astronomy as even Galileo forced us to. They did not have instant personal mobility or instant communications that mark our society and that might consume too many resources.

Nevertheless, one of the main “lessons” of the book is that sustainability problems and ecological or environmental failure can doom even smaller civilizations or “city-states” while surrounding communities thrive. The “Preclassic” section, the authors describe the slashing of green wood wetlands to make charcoal to make plaster for the rich at El Mirador. As a result, in a couple generations the population could not feed itself and the area died. The pattern would be repeated elsewhere in a long and politically complicated Maya history, as the Maya often slashed their own vegetation and inadvertently destroyed their own soils.

Visitors may want to check the National Geographic article from Feb. 29, 2008, “Maya May Have Caused Civilization-Ending Climate Change,” by Anne Minard, link here.

National Geographic also has a generic link “Maya: Portraits of a People” here.

The Maya history reminds us how we can fail, even if their collapse occurred in a relatively circumscribed area and seems to have progressed from one city-state to the next. Mayan progressive and successive ecological failures occurred in authoritarian societies with privileged and consuming upper classes. Our culture, based on democracy and mass consumption by middle classes, faces a qualitatively different challenge.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Naomi Klein: The Shock Doctrine


Author: Naomi Klein.
Title: The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.
Publication: New York: Picador, 2008. ISBN 0-312-42799-9.
Description. 700 pages, indexed, paper. There are detailed notes, and the main text ends on p. 589; Seven Parts, 21 chapters.

Klein’s book was recently featured on Amazon, and it is logical for someone who has read John Perkin’s “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” (review in July 2008) to follow up with this book.. You might say that Perkins was just one of many, as Klein offers an almost encyclopediac survey of the manipulation of economies around the world under free market “ideology.”

But Klein has a particular focus. That is, catastrophe, whether the result of political instability or nature, offers an opportunity for the “rich” to come in to a country, buy up its industry, and apply “shock therapy” to the people and then essentially create a new society, with a veneer of moralism on top.

The earlier part of the book creates a metaphor between rendition or shock treatment in intelligence circles, such as some of the “Manchurian” experiments in the CIA (she discusses a particular experiment in Montreal but there were others in the 50s), and the “shock treatment” for a society, with the ideology developed at the University of Chicago by the Milton Friedman crew.

She then proceeds with the details of many coups and transformations, such as in Chile (which had its own 9/11) and Argentina, South Africa, Russia after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the eastern European countries (like Poland), the Asian financial crisis of 1998 (subject of a famous October 1998 Esquire article which I would have to hunt down later), then 9/11 in the United States, followed by Katrina, as well as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

One concluding point is the most important. An ideology of endless “economic growth” tends to create the non-sustainability of instability that leads to catastrophes, and the opportunities for the “disaster capitalists.” She does pooh the notion that some kind of right-wing cabal deliberately causes the incidents like 9/11, although one might say that about the South American coups, it seems.

She also believes that local collectives, in a socialist model, can manage national resources, like oil in Venezuela, without slipping into the authoritarian Communist model. I would question that, although she seems to point to Scandanavian democracy as provide role models to be followed.

In fact, after 9/11, neo-conservative writings were critical of most Islamic countries (at least in the Arab and central Asian world) for not having tried “democratic capitalism”. There was an interesting tone in some of these writings. Germany, France, Spain, Canada, Britain, and (even) Scandanavia are democracies, more socialistic than ours, and tolerant or even celebrative of diversity. Great artistic and cultural talent comes from all these places and mixes well into the extreme capitalism of US culture. It’s OK if it doesn’t follow out own religious ideas. But then, in implementing actual policy, the neo-conservatives turn the spin around. They set up crony capitalism, creating whole industries, with stock often owned by public officials with considerable conflict of interest (as with Cheney and Halliburton). They say they are “creating”, not just building nations and sometimes display disparaging attitudes toward the peoples (like Arabs) they say they are trying to reinvent. They throw the “little people” overboard, and invent a “moral” ideology saying that somehow these people didn’t “make it”, or would have made it had they practiced “Christian” family values, etc. The whole process reminds me of what happened in DC after the 1968 riots. Eventually the affected area was redeveloped and gentrified with expensive real estate, while the poor people were kicked out, sending the crime especially to neighboring Prince Georges County MD. Particularly galling was what happened in Iraq, where many jobs were given to “immigrants” rather than to natives, who had all the more reason to continue sectarian violence.

Klein has an interesting account of the Bush administration’s (especially Rumsfeld’s) behavior just before 9/11, when it wanted to “privatize” DOD, and after, when it first took control with sweeping powers (the USA Patriot Act) but then used these powers to create a whole new kind of “Beltway Bandit” group of security industries, often headed by ex “public servants” who were better at “getting business” by schmoozing existing public officials than they were at the actual technical expertise. In a similar fashion, Israel has used its state of military readiness (in its “eminent domain” activity in the West Bank and Gaza) to develop a whole security business that it can export. At the same time, the "ultra capitalists" can take advantage of the generosity of volunteers. After Katrina, some conservatives suggested repealing Davis-Bacon and the minimum wage, and setting up "enterprise" zones that obviously depended on faith-based organizations and teenager carwashes for money.

Monday, August 04, 2008

New Politics: Issue on the Gay Movement and the Left


I saw this book-like periodical “New Politics” (for Summer 2008) at a B. Dalton’s and picked it up impulsively, attracted by its “Special Section on the Gay Movement and the Left,” with nine contributions reaching to p. 59. That’s over a third of the entire issue that reaches p. 163. Only later did I notice the political affiliation of the mag, “a journal of socialist thought.” The website is here.

I “confess” that I dabbled around with the Left in the early 70s, until I came out and then for a while thereafter. At NBC, there was another programmer, a young man, who was really into the ideology, and who, with a wife, helped run a city food coop. That sort of anticipate the “sustainability” movement talked about today. But earlier, back around 1972, I had experimented with Doctor Spock’s “People’s Party of New Jersey” until I found out how radical they really were. What I personally found is that, in person, leftists seemed to be a bit dismissive of gays, but wanted to include them as another oppressed “group.” Individual rights were seen relative to the group, in an manner analogous to the way conservative Christians often see individual rights as circumscribed by the needs of the nuclear family.

I can jump forward twenty years to my libertarian era, where gay rights were justified by hyperindividualism (very much along the lines of GLIL and the Cato Institute), by absolute accountability of the individual for himself, along with harmlessness to others. It’s easy to see how this view could help overturn sodomy laws. Since then, we’ve seen a backslide, as pressures (and both short term and long term “threats”) from the outside world force people to consider their “responsibilities” more collectively, it seems. Libertarianism would offer a good way to diagram the whole problem: the Nolan Chart, which offered perpendicular axes of degrees of personal freedom and economic freedom (and respect for property rights), would yield four ideologieis: authoritarianism, conservatism, liberalism, and libertarianism. One problem is that authoritarianism can sometimes “take care” of people who can’t fend for themselves.

The contributors to the Gay bis left Symposium are Christopher Phelps, Bettina Aptheker, John D’Emillio, Martin Duberman, Jeffrey Escoffier, Thomas Harrison & Joanne Landy, and David McReynolds. The section then concludes with a poem by Pier Paolo Pasolini, and a discussion of Pasolini’s films by Kurt Jacobson. Curiously, I didn’t see a discussion of Oedipus Rex (1967), which I rented from Netflix recently. Pasolini lived his life in the third person, fascinated by moral dilemmas but not always ready to walk his own walk.

The gay-left contributions do tend to stress the abstractions of struggles between groups of people, and tend to posit the struggles of the 60s and 70s in broad ideological terms. D’Emilio (whose columns in Charles Ortleb’s New York Native during the 80s, in relation to the AIDS crisis I remember well) sums up some of this when he writes (p..30):

“I wanted a social structure in which other systems of oppression and inequality would become artifacts of the past. Because I didn’t think that the latter (no racism, no sexism, no homophobia) would ever happen under capitalism, a democratic socialist version of the future became mine. And as I read more history, especially about American radicalism, I was taken by the way the way that fighting for the underdog, fighting for those who were persecuted and mistreated, seemed to be what motivated people who called themselves leftists.”

Jeffrey Escoffier analyzes the rather negative-seeming, oedipal theories of Sigmund Freud’s Left, and compares this to the theories of Marxist Herbert Marcuse, whose Eros and Civilization (1955) was often mentioned in the early 70s, even in the workplace.

The Far Left, however (like the Far Right) can be, oh, just so moralistic when mapping its ideology onto demands made on individuals. I certainly discovered that myself in the 70s, with this obsession with doing away with inherited wealth (it isn’t “earned” or “deserved”), and how professionals in the middle class (like me) could rapidly be seen as “enemies of the people.” They think nothing of expropriating what someone has “underservedly” and giving it to someone else, playing Robin Hood. The extreme endpoint in the 60s was the “purification” of Mao’s “cultural revolution.” In a global world (as well a religious one) that can lead to some agonizing debates. We’re used to telling teens not to have children until you’re ready with a career and ready for marriage. But the flip side of this can be that avoiding having children (for career) is morally wrong because if avoids sharing the risks that others take, and that one depends on. That’s the kind of thinking (in various restatements) that drives Vatican teachings. And generally, the Catholic Church has been connected to the Left (Justice Scalia and Pat Buchanan notwithstanding).

If one wants a world where there is a place for everyone and not just the strongest or most competitive, then, we all do have to think about how burdens are shared. You can call this a “pay your dues” philosophy perhaps. Or you might find some justification in older notions of “public morality,” even in socialistic or communistic societies.

The book-magazine follows on to the gay-left debate with some pointed articles and book reviews that relate back logically. Lois Weiner and Mary Compton have an essay “Neoliberalism, Teachers, and Teaching: Understanding the Assault”. This piece maintains that “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) is a ruse for doing away with a lot of public education, eventually. Give ‘em a test at age 16, and if they don’t pass, no more public school.

The try Joanne Landy and Oliver Fein on “Single Payer National Health Insurance.” They do try to provide evidence that most Americans, although not the most privileged, will be better off under a single payer system like Canada’s. They admit there are waiting lists for elective procedures and some priorities must be set, politically.

Betty Reid Mandell has a “book review” of “Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State and Society,” Fall 2007, with particular emphasis on post-Communist states in Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, which has some issues with anti-gay rhetoric precisely because it has to be pro-natal and pro-maternal to build itself back up.