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I’ve been reading and re-reading Jim Fallows’ post from the other week and have concluded I have nothing smart to say that he doesn’t say already. But, here it is:

A reader sends in a link to this recent post by law professor Orin Kerr, on a ruling about how 4th Amendment protections against “unreasonable search and seizure” apply to email. The central question is whether the government needs to inform individual email users when their messages are seized and read — or whether it is sufficient to notify their internet service provider or mail service, like Google or Yahoo. According to the logic of the ruling, by the sheer act of sending email, a user has transferred custody of the messages to a third party. Thus notifying the third party — Google, Yahoo, et al — is enough, with the sender left in the dark.

All parties with a stake in developing cloud-based computing — Google and Microsoft, IBM and Apple, Yahoo and anyone else you can name — should push for clearer policy statements about keeping things private even in the cloud. People simply are going to store and share more information this way. That shouldn’t mean a further, big, automatic, unintended surrender of privacy, and it would be better to set up rules to that effect before there’s a big scandal or problem.

So – what he said.

Okay, maybe I do have a thought or two. Really what this problem advocates for is personal ownership of all identity information: everything either that is or is owned by you living together in a single space (also backed up in multiple redundant spaces) that, crucially, is also yourself such that you always have control over cloud computing resources. So rather than logging in to Google accounts and accessing your information, you log into your own server (virtual or otherwise) and use Google services to edit and modify the information. They get only what you show them at a given time and then it’s back in your own box. When you become your own third-party provider – and Google et al. are merely providing a limited service to manipulate or move your data – then Fourth Amendment questions are much more easily decided.


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I had a great time presenting on my work with the Bot2.0 project earlier today at ASIS&T; you can find a copy of the talk here [.pdf]. Thanks to Miguel Ruiz for organizing the panel, moderating and presenting, to my co-panelists Bryan Heidorn and Nathan Hall, and everyone who came out to listen and ask some great questions.

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Thus does a large group of eminent scientists frame a pretty gloomy assessment (ScienceDaily summation here) of the failure of multilateral cooperation on a wide range of threats facing Earth, including,

Energy, food, and water crises; climate disruption; declining fisheries; increasing ocean acidification; emerging diseases; and increasing antibiotic resistance are examples of serious, intertwined global-scale challenges spawned by the accelerating scale of human activity. They are outpacing the development of institutions to deal with them and their many interactive effects

Depressingly, there’s nothing to argue with there. But the fact that the authors feel the need to follow the above with the caveat that they are not advocating for countries to abandon sovereignty is troubling for two reasons. First, that scientists are so jumpy about charges of elitism that they feel the need to preemptively defend against the insane (and inevitable) charges from cranks (e.g., some U.S. senators) that global warming is some kind of hoax being perpetuated in the service of a one-world government. Or something.

Secondly, the caveat makes me itch because the authors leave the door open substantially for something similar in their conclusion:

The institution of the nation-state has helped improve the well-being of many individuals, but at the cost of reduced global resilience. To address our common threats we need greater interaction among existing institutions, as well as new institutions, to help construct and maintain a global-scale social contract.

Their proposed solutions on global climate change, fisheries depletion and increased drug-resistance among drugs are to strengthen existing institutions (e.g., WHO) and introduce new institutions along similar lines (e.g., following the WTO). That’s fine as far as it goes, but the thrust of the editorial is to point out the failures of existing frameworks, and the frustration at free-rider problems and the inadequacy of current decision-making processes for addressing these issues. I don’t think it’s reading too many tea leaves to focus on this sentence and parse it out further:

The major powers must be willing to enforce agreements, but legitimacy will depend on acceptance by numerous and diverse countries and by nongovernmental actors, such as civil society and business. [emphasis mine]

I try not to get too paranoid about these things, but this taps pretty deeply into one of my fears with how the conversation on climate change is going to develop over the next 10-20 years. Scientists are rationalists and many are either very bad at or just can’t quite understand the functioning of politics (or are continually frustrated by the results – rightly so, often). Politics, indeed, isn’t very rational. And at the same time, for anyone who cares to look, we’re at a pretty grim moment for the continuance of human civilization along the lines which we’ve grown used to. Many scientists are getting pretty tired of pointing out this fact. As our institutions of shared collaborative decision-making (or not-making, as it may be) continue to dither in the face of planetary doom, it’s a great fear of mine that scientists will look for alternate means of addressing what they see (correctly) as increasingly dire climactic instability. In short, business: the actor with the means and motivation to address these issues on a massive scale, but not answerable to a larger (and often-annoying) polity. The thing is – and I’ve got plenty of dystopian SF narratives to back me up here! – it might work. Multinational corporate rule might save us from planetary self-destruction (or not), but at the great expense of human liberty.

I think that would be a Bad Thing. What would be a Good Thing, would be if scientists would get more engaged in politics. It’s a messy irrational business but that’s how it goes. Rather than pre-emptively defending themselves against Inhofian nonsense, why doesn’t a physics prof at the University of Oklahoma run against him? Or any and every other anti-science, climate-change-denying buffoon out there?

Would they win? Most likely not. But politics isn’t all about winning – or at least, not about winning one particular election. It’s about narratives, and the narrative of a widespread, grassroots effort from scientists to directly address the problems that they see  – rightly – as threatening our continued survival as a species would be a compelling one.

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Bill Gibson:

…New York having been in those days seemingly not a part of the United States but something simultaneously autonomous and interstitially abandoned.

When I first visited New York as an adult (so to speak) at the start of my writing career, it seemed to me that it couldn’t possibly go on, that way. All of it, I suggested to the supposedly futuristically-concerned New Yorkers I was meeting there, would one day be equally unaffordable, post-interstitial. As Jack would soon have it, Regooded. At which suggestion I was invariably recognized as a hick from Hickograd.

But lo.

Not just an I-told-you-so moment, this brings up an important point – every interstitial is followed by a new solidity; every post-____ism concedes its ism the status quo, and acknowledges that it will be, one day, the same as what came before: irrelevant.

This is something to keep in mind during our current transitive, liminal, interstitial moment. Terrible and wonderful things are happening, will happen, but out on the other side of tomorrow things will be different. Whatever else happens, things will stabilize into something, better and worse and mostly else.

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Nicole Ellison has a good post on the uses of Facebook as identity affordance over time, and puts very nicely the sentiment that,

this expanded social network of people from one’s history as a supportive presence that enables individuals to stretch, knowing that they have links to their past should they need them.

Ongoing research I’m doing with Terrell Russell examines user perceptions of time and the life-cycle of information, and this adds another useful perspective. But there’s yet another aspect to keep in mind: the way in which our networks don’t limit who we are, but keep us honest on who we hope to be. I haven’t seen research quantifying this, and I’m not quite sure how you’d do it at any rate. But it’s my big hunch that one of the best aspects of explicating social networks online, and making behaviors public and observable (even if we’re modulating privacy settings) is that we are aware we’ll be held accountable for who we think we should be by those closest to us. It doesn’t even have to be explicit, just the knowledge in the back of our minds that we’re being watched on some level by those we we have chosen to support the norms of our created communities is, I think, an important function.

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Do Something Good

Rob Walker has a recent column in Slate with a provocative suggestion:

Why do agencies need to go find a client that has ideas about social or environmental responsibility? Don’t the smart folks at the agencies have any such ideas of their own? Well, then, pick one, forget about finding a client, and go out there and use your persuasion skills to make a positive change in the world.

Such a campaign might actually help the overall image of your profession—you know, how mostly what you do is create the endless barrage of sales pitches that encouraged Americans to spend way beyond their means. (Congrats on your success with that, by the way.) Maybe you’d have a convincing case study to point to that shows your profession—or your agency, at least—has something going for it besides innovation and smarts: actual values.

This picks up on an idea that he floated in his own blog that I’d been meaning to discuss further, earlier, and will now. The basic thrust is an important one for all of us to internalize as the structure of our economy and society, er, “re-arranges.

Robert Putnam made far too much of the collapse of community in the United States by tracking the decrease in bowling leagues and voluntary organizations. But there’s certainly something going on there, and part of what it is, is a shift in the sense of community and responsibility from a very local, conservative and exclusionary one – my town, full of people like me – toward a more global awareness and sense of responsibility. There’s a trade-off here, to be sure, but I think it would be difficult to argue that the rise of the non-profit sector in the United States over the last generation is a basically bad thing, even if it may owe something to the decline in Elks Lodges.

But this can go too far, and as with many other things there’s been a tendency for “responsibility” to become just another consumption line-item: put your donation to WWF/ACLU/MoveOn/NPR/etc. on the plastic, get your bumper sticker and tote bag as public display of responsible citizenship, and move on to other things.

There’s been a growing awareness in the non-profit community for some time – even before the current economic downturn (the bursting of the first dot.com bubble was a big wake-up for many non-profits) – that while a membership-driven responsibility-consumption funding model does disintermediate the gatekeeper function of the big foundations, it also leaves something to be desired in terms of long-term sustainability.

Our current predicament illustrates this quite nicely. While the marginal value – and need – for charitable donations is never higher for non-profits than in times of trouble, the exact opposite is true for citizens. When you have a red-lining credit-card bill – credit limit decreasing every time you pay dow the outstanding balance, and minimum payments and penalties increasing – teamed with increasingly-unsustainable mortgage paymenets, rising food costs, and the threat or reality of unemployment, the decision to cut out feel-good charitable donations or buy enough dried beans for the week is not a tough one.

But our current predicament also illustrates the need for more good works, not fewer – for a mindset focused on tangible human capital rather than illusory financial capital. A societal focus on maximization of dollar-value has landed us where we are, and jsut scrapping by on the crap-end of that stick is not going to get us out. Not in any way we can be proud of, at any rate.

I will not pretend for a second that this is a silver-lining situation: real pain is here for many people, more is coming, and the bottom is not in sight, yet. But a simple fact that nearly all of us share is this: whether through involuntary un(der)employment or tighter budgets for entertainment and restaurants, most of us are going to have more free time on our hands. So: do something good with it. Build something – use whatever talents you have to bring something good into the world that wasn’t there before, to share it with people and to encourage others to do the same. It could be something big, like Rob suggests – a marketing campaign or a new good product – or something small, like making food for your friends.

But do something. One of the true virtues of times of disruptive change is that barriers to action and new ideas are much, much lower. When things are going fine, most people would just as soon let them be, but when the fundamental tenets of society are called into question on a daily basis: well, why not do things differently?

Postscript: It’s snowing again in Carrboro, and that doesn’t mean anything in particular, but there’s a nice picture from my back porch this morning. snow-day

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American Journalism 2009

Just in time for the New Year comes this heartbreaking account of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s impending demise:

Then, on Friday, the e-mail message from Oglesby. It was a body-less e-mail, the only text being that foreboding subject line: “Please join me in the newsroom for a few minutes for an announcement.” People in both newsrooms by now had a sense that it wasn’t going to be good news for the P-I.

There’s nothing to purchase,” Lewis said. “We’re a room of people in a rented building. I’d happily offer my services. But I don’t know what they’d buy. I guess they’d get a letterhead and some pretty battered laptops, but there’s just not a lot there to buy.”

That roomful of people is worth more than nothing, but I’ll return to that in a minute.

Lots of newspapers are going to go out of business this year. “Dying industry” has become a popular catch-phrase but that’s not quite right – newspapers in American cities are going out of business for the same reason that the United States’ steel industry went mostly belly-up: poor management and an inability by said management and ownership to react to a changing world. Just like it wasn’t previously-well-paid steelworkers’ fault that their employers got it wrong, so it is not journalists’ fault that their bosses have screwed up so royally. Online it’s become popular to criticize the not-getting-it tendencies among American journalists, their knee-jerk anti-blogger sentiments and predjudice in favor of the status quo ante. I’ve indulged in it myself. But that’s not too useful and, at this point, kind of cruel.

That’s in no small part because the effect of lots of newspapers going out of business, is that many of the nation’s finest reporters will be without a job (bad for them) and without a forum (bad for us). The economic downturn is acting as an accelerant on pre-existing trends – newspapers that were already seeing declining revenues (from fewer subscriptions and less advertising) now see those revenues go through the floor as their advertisers batton down the hatches for a potentially long recession. And as the PI reporter notes, with many newspapers there’s not that much to “buy” – except for the capacity to report on the news, which right now doesn’t make that much money, at least in text-version. It will, sooner than many think, as advertisers abandon print entirely and realize the value of online advertising in local contexts (Google, of course, will continue to be the big winner here), but that’s an aside.

What’s available right now for the right investor – and given the economy, that’s a big ask too, but this is a real bargain – is a burgeoning national network of world-class reporters who’ll be desperate to continue in their chosen profession. Let’s say over the course of the year a major newspaper goes out of business in 20 of the United States’ 30 biggest cities, and that there’re half a dozen truly world-class reporters at each of those papers (this is probably both too conservative and too liberal depending on the city). Hiring at their previous salaries probably won’t be tenable in any construction, but let’s say $50,000/reporter, for $300k per city; add health insurance, expenses, equipment and call it $500k for a city bureau. If there’s 20 cities, that’s $10 million for the shoeleather.

Infrastructure, however, doesn’t need to be that expensive – you can start publishing each city’s Bootstrap Newspaper on a Drupal engine, and editors and fact-checkers (who are also finding themselves increasingly jobless) can do double-duty for  a few cities, with several tech-heads to keep the servers up (easy to scale up as the enterprise increases). Give reporters a decent digital camera (or give good photogs a laptop and let ’em write) and you’ve got pictures. Call that another $3-5 million/year for personnel and infrastructure, and for $15 million/year (which is $1 million more than the Post-Intelligencer alone lost last year) you’ve got a national journalistic enterprise of unprecedented scope and quality.

The real question – could it make money? I would say yes but in the short-term that’s not necessarily that important. $15 million is both a lot of money and really not that much – given the right leadership and local buy-in, this is an effort that could be supported both by local communities who want to keep reading their favorite reporters, and by the increasingly large number of people who get their news online exclusively regardless of it source – but who have a very keen interest in quality journalism. Yes, (some/many) bloggers would support this. And an increasingly formidable local/national news site would be a great place for even those advertisers feeling the pinch of recession.

No, it’s probably not going to happen. But really it should.

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