News & Opinion

Friday Links - Alarm Edition

January 21, 2012


➻ Umair Haque, author of The New Capitalist Manifesto released by Harvard Business School Press last year, recently asked Is America a Failing State? It's a dramatic, possibly even hyperbolic question to ask, but one that has become increasingly common as most registered voters say the US is in decline, and don't believe their children's standard of living will match their own. Haque looks for solutions: Perhaps the most vital question is this: what can we do to reverse the decline?

Umair Haque, author of The New Capitalist Manifesto released by Harvard Business School Press last year, recently asked Is America a Failing State? It's a dramatic, possibly even hyperbolic question to ask, but one that has become increasingly common as most registered voters say the US is in decline, and don't believe their children's standard of living will match their own. Haque looks for solutions:
Perhaps the most vital question is this: what can we do to reverse the decline? The remedy I've heard being whispered in the back-slapping corridors of power is what the hoary old wonks call "good governance"—accountability, transparency, and the like, neatly pushing us right back to the status quo ante. But I'd like to challenge that simplistic remedy. After all, what got us there is what got us here. Instead, decline's moonshot might just be pioneering fundamentally better ways of living, working, and playing; an economy that elevates human potential to a higher apex.
He goes on to suggest five reasons "to reimagine what we want from 'recovery.'"
  1. You can't have accountability without working accounts.
  2. Industrial output is not a human outcome.
  3. Transparency doesn't mean much to the blind.
  4. "Value" depends on what counts as "harm."
  5. Philosophy isn't a luxury—it's a necessity.
For an explanation of each of principles, head over to the original post. He ends his post with a dose of realism, and call to introspection and action.
[T]hough I fist-poundingly believe we can, the fact is, I don't know if we will turn our fate around. But I do know we probably can't do it without the courage, wisdom, and determination to look it unflinchingly in the eye.
I also believe we can, and hope we will.

But in a post about Learning leadership from Congress, Seth Godin reinforces the popular skepticism. Venting a bit of frustration over the SOPA/PIPA debate, Seth offers a reverse career guide based on the example set by those "representing us" in Washington.

When did we lose Congress? Not just in terms of losing our respect for just about everyone there (one of the least respected careers in the USA) but in the sense that they no longer even pretend to represent our interests or act as we would act if given the chance?

I'm not so much angry as saddened that it has come to this.

When planning your career, avoid these pitfalls, behaviors evidenced by many elected officials:

  • In all things, look for money first. Listen to people with money, respond to people with money, justify your actions around money. Worth noting that 47% of those in Congress (House and Senate) are millionaires—an even greater percentage than those that are lawyers.
  • Embrace the fact that you don't know what you're talking about. Aspire to run systems you don't understand.
  • Compromise over the important issues, but dig in and fight forever over trivia.
  • Along those lines: focus obsessively on the short run. Even though you are virtually assured of re-election, define the long term as "before the next election."
  • Take months off from your day job (with pay) to actively campaign for a better job.
  • Blame the system, the other side and your predecessors for the fact that you are not taking brave, independent action.
  • Avoid developing independent thought and analysis. Focus on parroting the work of lobbyists and the party line.
  • When given the choice between being on television or doing hard work, pick television.
  • When a difficult problem shows up, duck
  • Try mightily to outlast passionate resistance by quietly ignoring it and waiting for it to go away.
[...] At least they've left us a useful career guide about what not to do in the real world. So I guess it's left up to us to do two things: begin enacting the change we want to see in ourselves, and try to stop electing idiots.

But SOPA has been stopped for now. The clearest bit of thinking on why that is so important, I think, is Cory Doctorow's Lockdown: The Coming War On General-Purpose Computing, in which he envisions the loss of the current copyright wars leading to a world in which governments and big business are able to surveil and even control our actions through the technology we use.

Human rights activists have raised alarms over U-EFI, the new PC bootloader, which restricts your computer so it only runs "signed" operating systems, noting that repressive governments will likely withhold signatures from operating systems unless they allow for covert surveillance operations.

On the network side, attempts to make a network that can't be used for copyright infringement always converge with the surveillance measures that we know from repressive governments. Consider SOPA, the U.S. Stop Online Piracy Act, which bans innocuous tools such as DNSSec—a security suite that authenticates domain name information— because they might be used to defeat DNS blocking measures. It blocks Tor, an online anonymity tool sponsored by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and used by dissidents in oppressive regimes, because it can be used to circumvent IP blocking measures.

In fact, the Motion Picture Association of America, a SOPA proponent, circulated a memo citing research that SOPA might work because it uses the same measures as are used in Syria, China, and Uzbekistan. It argued that because these measures are effective in those countries, they would work in America, too!

It may seem like SOPA is the endgame in a long fight over copyright and the Internet, and it may seem that if we defeat SOPA, we'll be well on our way to securing the freedom of PCs and networks. But as I said at the beginning of this talk, this isn't about copyright.

The copyright wars are just the beta version of a long coming war on computation. The entertainment industry is just the first belligerents to take up arms, and we tend to think of them as particularly successful. After all, here is SOPA, trembling on the verge of passage, ready to break the Internet on a fundamental level—all in the name of preserving Top 40 music, reality TV shows, and Ashton Kutcher movies.

The truly scary thought in all of this is the possibility that Ashton Kutcher movies might be preserved to haunt future generations. But it seems my apocalyptic imagination isn't big enough. It might be even worse than that.
This stuff matters because we've spent the last decade sending our best players out to fight what we thought was the final boss at the end of the game, but it turns out it's just been an end-level guardian. The stakes are only going to get higher.

As a member of the Walkman generation, I have made peace with the fact that I will require a hearing aid long before I die. It won't be a hearing aid, though; it will really be a computer. So when I get into a car—a computer that I put my body into—with my hearing aid—a computer I put inside my body—I want to know that these technologies are not designed to keep secrets from me, or to prevent me from terminating processes on them that work against my interests.

Last year, the Lower Merion School District, in a middle-class, affluent suburb of Philadelphia, found itself in a great deal of trouble. It was caught distributing, to its students, rootkitted laptops that allowed remote covert surveillance through the computer's camera and network connection. They photographed students thousands of times, at home and at school, awake and asleep, dressed and naked. Meanwhile, the latest generation of lawful intercept technology can covertly operate cameras, microphones, and GPS tranceivers on PCs, tablets, and mobile devices. The questions swirling around the issues of piracy, privacy, public access, policy and philosophy are not simple, but a reasoned debate and rational (even if imperfect and evolving) approach should be able to inform the efforts to address each. Subtract the rational debate and throw in a heavy dose of lobbying and money, and you begin to get some frightening proposals and efforts.

If that doesn't scare you, perhaps Eben Moglen can do the trick. Adrianne Jeffries relates a conversation In Which Eben Moglen Like, Legit Yells at [Her] for Having Facebook, and suggests that participating in social media as it's currently constructed puts us "in a situation in which you are more heavily surveilled than the KGB or Stasi or Securitate or any other secret police ever surveilled anybody." In an article in The New York Times about Decentralizing the Internet So Big Brother Can't Find You, he clarifies his position a bit:

Social networking has changed the balance of political power, he said, "but everything we know about technology tells us that the current forms of social network communication, despite their enormous current value for politics, are also intensely dangerous to use. They are too centralized; they are too vulnerable to state retaliation and control."

In January, investors were said to have put a value of about $50 billion on Facebook, the social network founded by Mark Zuckerberg. If revolutions for freedom rest on the shoulders of Facebook, Mr. Moglen said, the revolutionaries will have to count on individuals who have huge stakes in keeping the powerful happy.

"It is not hard, when everybody is just in one big database controlled by Mr. Zuckerberg, to decapitate a revolution by sending an order to Mr. Zuckerberg that he cannot afford to refuse," Mr. Moglen said. But Moglen isn't just complaining. He is working with a team of developers to develop solutions and alternatives:

In response to Mr. Moglen's call for help, a group of developers working in a free operating system called Debian have started to organize Freedom Box software. Four students from New York University who heard a talk by Mr. Moglen last year have been building a decentralized social network called Diaspora.

Mr. Moglen said that if he could raise "slightly north of $500,000," Freedom Box 1.0 would be ready in one year.

"We should make this far better for the people trying to make change than for the people trying to make oppression," Mr. Moglen said. "Being connected works." According to a recent Co.Design Infographic Of The Day: All About The 2012 Facebook IPO, 1 in 10 humans on Earth currently uses Facebook.

Moglen hasn't convinced me to get off Facebook (or perhaps more accurately, my wife has convinced me to stay), but he raises legitimate issues. We wouldn't without question provide most of the information we give up online every day to a government ostensibly elected by us. Why are we so willing to give it up for what essentially amounts to marketing espionage by a company we have no control over. As Douglas Rushkoff says, We're Are Not Facebook's Customers, we're are the product. I believe that there may be value in that to us, to help the companies we purchase from understand what we desire and demand as consumers, but there may be dangers in it as well. We have to be mindful of how we use that technology and how it uses us. We have to use it to engage in citizenship as heartily as we use it to engage in consumerism, and we have to demand more in both roles.

It's not Freedom Day quite yet, but perhaps one day it will be.

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