You Are Not a Gadget

February 15th, 2010

This is what a social network looks like.

Each dot represents a human being. Each line represents a social connection between two people, such as acquaintanceship, financial exchange, friendship, or love. The picture can become arbitrarily more complex as we take one-way relationships into account and add more dimensions to model particular interests and behaviors.

Much of the attention around technology these days has something to do with this picture. Authors like Clay Shirky write about amazing things that can happen when the amount of effort needed to transmit information through the lines is drastically lowered. Companies like Google harvest information from the dots to offer better services to them; products like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk harvest little slices of spare time from the dots to quickly complete otherwise unwieldy tasks; games like Zynga’s Farmville are designed to propagate through the lines like a virus.

Advertising companies and some advocates of open-source software don’t even refer to the dots as human beings: they call them “eyeballs”. The involvement of just one pair of eyeballs means just a few cents to a revenue stream or a single bug-fix in a software program, but when the process is scaled, it results in billions of dollars of profits or bug-free software.

Jaron Lanier, the author of You Are Not a Gadget, is not interested in dots and lines. Indeed, he finds it strange that the relationship between two people is reduced to a mere line, and that the people themselves are just dots.

Instead of reducing things, he claims, we should be using technology to deepen the connection between two people and make it more meaningful.

You Are Not a Gadget is a complex book. I originally bought it because, flipping through its pages at a bookstore, I found random fragments to offend me. Even though I don’t agree with everything the author has to say, I still found it a fascinating read that I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in technology and where it’s taking us.

A Letter to School Board Member Norton

December 9th, 2008

One of the most interesting races for me this past election season was that of the four seats available for the San Francisco Board of Education. The voter’s guide put out by the city included profiles of each candidate, and of the fifteen running for office, only seven of them had a website. Six of them were essentially static, electronic versions of standard campaign brochures. The last was that of Rachel Norton, whose site consisted of a frequently-updated blog with comments enabled—and which the candidate actually responded to. Aside from being evidence for a passion in the field, what set this candidate apart from the others for me was her interest in using the web as a way to facilitate two-way communication with her constituents. As the incoming presidential administration has also shown, this is a great way to promote transparency and civic engagement.

After long, drawn-out recounts in what turned out to be a very close race, Norton ultimately won the fourth seat on the board. I’ve always had a lot of reverence for education—something I have my parents to thank for—and apparently I was excited enough about both Norton’s election and some of the recent work of Henry Jenkins that I actually wrote my very first letter to a public official this morning:

Hi Rachel,

Congratulations on getting elected! I just wanted to let you know about something that’s been on my mind lately regarding education. I’m not sure to what extent the Board of Education deals with this sort of thing, but it has to do with what’s called “new media literacies”. There’s a foundation for it here that has more information about it:

http://newmedialiteracies.org/

There’s a video on the front page that explains what it’s about, but I thought you might be particularly interested in it given your recent participation in this “new media landscape”. I’m not sure whether it sounds too radical or not—I don’t have any kids so I don’t know what the current state of education is. As an example, I was disheartened to hear that Wikipedia is shunned in most classrooms across the nation, when it could instead be embraced as an opportunity to contribute to a global community of individuals who are passionate about knowledge and encouraged to question where it comes from and what its point of view is.

What I’m thinking about isn’t the same as “bringing technology into the classroom”—an idea I’ve always personally disliked—but rather encouraging kids to actively participate in society by creating things that help people. For me, the latter has always provided a much more interesting context for learning than, e.g., writing a paper that will only be read by my teacher.

All this is clearly a far cry away from raising standardized test scores, though, so I’m not sure how well it fits into the Board of Education’s agenda, but I hope these thoughts are helpful in some way.

- Atul

That Empowerment Thing

November 13th, 2008

One of the really interesting things about the social-network-oriented website for the Obama campaign, my.barackobama.com, was the fact that it was essentially an online nexus that connected people who were interested in political and social change. And as Henry Jenkins mentioned in February, what Obama has created over the past year has not been a campaign, but a movement that would have lived on even if he’d lost the election.

Skeptics have wondered how exactly this “change” Mr. Obama has been talking about will happen. But what’s really interesting is that it’s already going on, and actually may have been going on for quite some time. As today’s MyBO blog post states, the online campaign headquarters for Obama’s movement has now effectively transformed into a social networking site that provides individuals with the tools they need to effect social change: already, people are using the site to organize book-club meetings, pet adoption events, and all kinds of community service meetings.

The word “empowerment” seems to be surfacing itself more and more lately, and not just in relation to Obama’s campaign. At yesterday’s Labs Meetup, Alex Peake gave a lightning talk on his new site Empower Thyself. Suneel Gupta’s been writing an excellent series of blog posts about how Mozilla can help give individuals the tools they need to start movements. The Mozilla mission at its core is about empowering individuals with the tools they need to shape their own internet experience and make the web the way they want it to be. In a lot of ways the Open Web itself is a social movement.

So empowerment has been on my mind a lot lately. The three main things I’ve involved myself in over the past few months have been a political movement, an organic software movement, and a World of Warcraft community that seeks to empower people to make the game what they want it to be. The extent to which these three things have informed each other is impressive to me, and I guess what I like most about them is the common attitudes that the participants of these communities tend to share: a sense of transparency, openness, and curiosity that lends itself to trust, solidarity, and learning.

It’s pretty awesome to see.

An American Moment: My Vision

November 7th, 2008

The newly-launched change.gov has a section for citizens to share their vision for what America can be, and where President-Elect Obama should lead America. I decided to post this to their form:

While reading Robert Kuttner’s Obama’s Challenge several weeks ago, I was fascinated by his description of Denmark’s Flexicurity program, which seemed to both help the interests of free-market capitalism while simultaneously offering security to its country’s citizens. Rather than subsidizing failing industries, their government appears to give corporations as much free reign as they want to fire/lay-off employees, move workforces overseas, and so forth; they then offer a wealth of social services for people to recover from job loss through retraining. From the little I learned of it, this seems like a really great way to ensure an “agile” government that’s able to harness the innovation of capitalism while protecting the citizenry from its vagaries.

That said, Denmark is a small country with less than 10 million residents, not a world economic and military superpower with 300 million people. So I can certainly understand that this kind of model may not apply here, but I thought that it might be worth considering.

Not really a vision, more like a suggestion, and one that I imagine plenty of people in government have considered before. But I wanted to contribute something, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the new administration enhances the citizenry’s voice in government.

One of the most fascinating things about the Obama campaign was the way in which it was run: in some sense it mirrored the candidate’s desire to make government more participatory, because it was an extremely participatory campaign. There’s certainly good reason to be skeptical of Obama’s ability to lead, given his lack of experience, but it’s also useful to keep in mind the fact that the campaign itself is a trial of sorts that tests a candidate’s ability to act under pressure, to organize, and to construct a coherent narrative. In this respect, as numerous publications have pointed out, Obama’s team handily surpassed the competition, and he fully deserved the presidency.

A Refreshing Alternative to Presidential Debates

October 5th, 2008

Nothing reminds me how much I despise American politics as the presidential debates. Due to the context surrounding them—that is, the election—the candidates have an enormous incentive to focus on tactics directed at lowering the public’s regard of an opponent while improving one’s own standing, often through the use of misleading statistics and avoiding candid answers to questions. And as a result, rather than helping me understand the issues, the bickering between the two candidates usually results in an incoherence that leaves me utterly confused about the issues and saddened about our politicians’ ability to arrive at any kind of consensus.

Watching these debates does have its uses, but ultimately I think that there are much better ways to spend one’s election time. One of them is The Economist’s guide to the American Election, which cogently and concisely analyzes the stances of the Democratic and Republican candidates on a bevy of issues: the economy, regulation and trade, foreign policy, Iraq and Afghanistan, health care, immigration, energy and the environment, education, crime, and cultural values. As I’ve explained before, I particularly like The Economist because of its ability to coherently explain issues from a thought-provoking perspective, and in this regard their guide is a breath of fresh air.

President as Teacher

October 1st, 2008

This year’s Presidential election has me more passionate about politics than I’ve ever been. In part, this is because Obama’s campaign is more like a social movement than a political campaign: as Henry Jenkins explains in Obama and the “We” Generation, part of the reason that Obama’s message resonates so much with me and others in my generation is because of how participatory it is. His campaign isn’t about making him president and then having him magically repair our nation; it’s about working together, with his help, to make our country a better place. (That I’m drawn to Mozilla for similar reasons isn’t coincidental.)

To both learn more about this candidate and the problems facing our nation, I recently picked up a book called Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency by Robert Kuttner. I’m currently only two chapters into it, but it’s already been a thoroughly thought-provoking read, and one that heavily informs the rest of this post.

As educated citizens, we’re expected to know what the answers to many of our woes are. The world would be a much better place if only we’d have more government programs to help people in need—or alternatively, if only we’d remove more of those programs to ensure that people aren’t rewarded for laziness.

Are the answers to our problems really that cut-and-dry? Is deciding on a candidate really just a matter of looking at their voting history and their proposed platform and seeing how well it aligns with one’s own stances?

Certainly, that’s part of it, when it comes to issues that you’re truly informed on. The problem is, having a truly informed opinion across all the issues that face our nation is actually pretty hard. When I press myself for them, I’ve found that many of my stances come from simple arguments that are sometimes built on dubious premises. After following debates on important issues that face our world, I’ve found that most of them quickly become so mind-bogglingly intricate that they’re difficult to follow without a significant time investment. And investing that time becomes especially hard when one isn’t directly affected by the outcome of a problem, and even harder when one feels powerless to change it. Some issues, like the current financial crisis, are so complex that they still don’t make complete sense to people whose jobs it is to understand them.

This feeling of being simultaneously overwhelmed and powerless to change the situation isn’t comfortable, and as a result people often turn to other criteria to figure out who to vote for: criteria such as personality and character. It’s become conventional wisdom of late that using this as a basis for making a voting decision is fickle; liberals, for instance, laugh at conservatives who flock to Sarah Palin because she’s easy to relate to, or because she’s the kind of candidate that they could have a beer with or invite over for dinner.

I contend, though, that the instinct of such conservatives is appropriate. Abraham Lincoln once said the following:

With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.

It makes sense, then, that one should be attracted to the candidate that they’d love to have over for dinner; for if the public can’t relate to a candidate, and if the candidate isn’t effective at capturing both the hearts and minds of the people, how can he or she convince them of things that may be unpopular but are nonetheless the right thing to do? If you don’t trust a candidate at a gut level, how likely are you to believe in the promises they make?

Progressives often decry the concept of “truthiness” supposedly favored by conservatives—that is, the concept that you agree with an idea simply because it feels right—but ultimately it’s something that everyone, progressives included, fall prey to. And it makes perfect sense given how overwhelming the challenge of being a truly rational and informed human being is.

I believe that a great leader is someone who understands this concept enough to see it in themselves, and recognize that neither they nor anyone else has all the answers. They’re inquisitive enough to take advice from many conflicting perspectives, wise enough come to their own conclusion, and have the character to convince others that what they propose is the right thing to do.

In Obama’s Challenge, Robert Kuttner writes of Lincoln, drawing from the work of Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin:

First, Lincoln’s great challenge as president was not just to preserve the Union, or even to free the slaves. It was to win over public sentiment among what today would be called opinion leaders and the people generally. Lincoln gradually transformed how different segments of society thought about the problem of slavery, the challenge of rebuilding the Union, and the role of government in reconstruction and economic development. Out of impossible disunity, he built something close to national consensus.

The idea of “transforming how different segments of society thought about the problem of slavery” is something that Kuttner contends is quite like teaching. The best teachers are the ones who have the capability of showing their students not merely how to perform tasks or remember facts, but how to perceive a problem in an entirely different way than they did before.

For me personally, Obama’s capacity to do this is most convincingly evidenced by his A More Perfect Union speech, in which he responded to criticisms about his affiliation with a prejudiced pastor by making a profoundly compelling statement about racism in America that any side of the racial divide can relate to.

As Kuttner writes about Lincoln, such consensus-building takes character:

What made people his allies and admirers was not just his keen intellect and good humor. More importantly, it was his kindness, decency, idealism, and honor. He went out of his way to let people know that they were valued when he might have chosen to humiliate them.

That is to say, a great leader takes the high road. And while the Obama campaign’s advertisements and a few of Obama’s own actions have raised some questions about this, I believe that his character and the way he’s conducted his campaign is generally consistent with the qualities I’ve described so far. Even though I don’t necessarily agree with everything on his platform, I also don’t deny that my mind can’t be changed. Because just as I treasure my teachers for giving me new ways to perceive the world, so too do I long for a transformative national leader who can do the same for the American people.

Believing that Barack Obama has the ability to do this may sound a little far-reaching even to some of his supporters. Perhaps this is something I’ll look back on years from now and wonder how I could’ve been so naive, and the reality of politics certainly encourages such thinking. But at the same time, I wonder: if Franklin Roosevelt or Lincoln were running for president today, would we be able to tell? Or would we be so detached from the candidate’s character, so desensitized by cynicism, that we wouldn’t ever notice?

On The New York Times

February 15th, 2008

I’ve decided that I’m not a big fan of New York Times, or of newspapers in general. It’s not that they’re fundamentally wrong or anything, but as a source of daily information, it’s complete and total overload for me.

For instance, on the day after Super Tuesday, I wanted to read a bit about what happened, so I tried subscribing to a two-week trial of the online edition of the New York Times on my Kindle. I quickly found myself inundated by a torrent of information that, while perhaps useful to someone else, was useless to me; reading a sentence about how exhausted Obama and Clinton seemed during their speeches once the day was over, or a completely blasé quote from Hillary about how great it was that the American people came out to vote that day, was a complete waste of my attention. The relatively small size of the page on my Kindle, combined with the relatively large text size I had set it to, meant that there were entire pages in the article that had no useful information for me.

Like I said, though, this doesn’t mean they couldn’t be useful to someone else. Indeed, I’ve often found some NY Times technology articles that people have sent me, or articles that involve something I have a deeply vested interest in, to be genuinely informative. But as a whole, every issue of the NY Times is a vast morass of information that’s largely useless to me, and most of my time spent with it is used up wading through the irrelevance to find nuggets of truly useful information.

Fortunately, I’ve recently found an excellent alternative to the kind of information I want to get out of the New York Times: The Economist. It’s published only once a week, and isn’t nearly as large as a daily issue of the Times, let alone a Sunday issue. Its articles are relatively short, but very concise: the information density here is very high, meaning that almost every sentence provides me with something useful to think about. Using the reader’s attention like the precious resource it is, this magazine does an excellent job of informing someone about what’s happening and, more importantly, why they might want to care about it.