Democracy


19
Jan 14

Part 2: Snowden – Whistleblowing & Its Consequences

Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning

A couple of weeks ago, I posted some thoughts about clemency for Edward Snowden and whether I thought he was a hero.  My main point was that I was grateful to know the information he gave the world, but I felt that fleeing the US was an immoral choice, that whistleblowers who make the decision to “go public” have a responsibility to stand by their decision whatever the consequences.  I said that even if I could understand the choice to run, that that didn’t meet my standard of “hero”.

The post generated a lot of comments, and I’ve been thinking about some of those responses.

First, I have to acknowledge the insensitivity of referring to Chelsea Manning as “he” and by a prior name.  I fully 100% support everyone’s right to define their own identity, and it was thoughtless of me to do otherwise.  I suppose that the name “Bradley Manning” had become somewhat iconic in my own mind and though I was aware of her choice to become known as Chelsea, it was almost as if the whistleblowing icon and the actual person had become separate entities in my brain.

But of course they aren’t separate at all, Chelsea Manning is an actual person, and its exactly these kinds of careless and unthinking errors that expose cisgender privilege and, however unintentionally, perpetuate prejudice and discrimination.  Many thanks to those who pointed this out and I will be more conscious and thoughtful in the future.

Regarding the discussion about whether or not Snowden is a hero, everyone who commented here or on G+ or other places universally disagreed with my position. I have a lot of respect for the people in my network and when my perspective is completely out of step with the majority view, it definitely gives me pause.  Even more so when virtually everyone thinks I’m wrong.  😉

I think it speaks very highly of the folks who read my blog that though they disagreed with me, passionately even, no one was disrespectful or rude, and I appreciate that. For me, blogging is a form of processing, of trying to think through issues and problems, and I’m always ready to acknowledge that I may be wrong.  The whole point of posting publicly is to get feedback and to have good dialogue with people who are also passionate about the issues I care about, and I’m happiest when we’re really digging into an issue but doing it kindly and civilly with each other.  So thanks to everyone for keeping it cool.

I can’t say that I’ve been completely swayed from my position by the arguments everyone made, but it has made me think more about the complexity of Snowden’s particular situation.  My mother and many others asked if I thought Snowden should have paid with his life for his actions, and the answer is no, I don’t think he deserves to die or spend life in prison for trying to expose the wrongdoing of the NSA.  I also agree that both of those scenarios were plausible outcomes if he had chosen to stay instead of leaving the US, and by that logic, then he would be justified in trying to protect himself from that fate.

Despite that, I still feel resistance to the idea that it is a moral choice to blow the whistle and run.

I may be persuaded that Edward Snowden’s, or to some extent, even Chelsea Manning’s, specific circumstances were extraordinary.  That they were not exposing your run-of-the-mill malfeasance or wrong-doing, but rather they were exposing wrongdoing of such a horrific scale and magnitude, and perpetrated not by some low level official or small corporate concern, but by our own government across many branches and departments, and therefore that deserves some leeway.  I think that’s a fair argument and it’s forced me to reconsider my position.

I would still argue, though, that universalizing Snowden’s decision to flee is ultimately NOT the best outcome – for whistleblowers OR for the society a whistleblower is trying to protect.  In the best of worlds, what should happen is that the whistleblower should be safe, should be protected, should be given safe harbor until the disclosures can be digested and the situation investigated.  Edward Snowden shouldn’t have to flee his own country, rather our government and our society should have better measures in place and better systems to protect those who make the brave choice to expose wrongdoing.  We should be demanding better protections for the Mannings and Snowdens (and Swartzs) of the world.

And I guess that’s where it shakes out for me.  If we universalize Snowden’s decision to blow the whistle and flee, and say that’s ok, then we run a two-fold risk:

1) We open the door for anyone claiming whistleblower status to get a pass whether it’s deserved or not.  I maintain that making a public accusation of wrongdoing carries with it a responsibility to stand behind the claim. We all must have the right to face our accusers, and whistleblowers are not and cannot be exempt from that.  Due process matters, it protects us from unfounded accusations and (in an ideal world) acts as a safeguard against vigilante justice, by the state OR other people.

2) We let ourselves off the hook for failing to provide the protections that legitimate whistleblowers deserve.  While I’ll admit that Snowden likely had little rational choice but to leave, don’t we all agree that he shouldn’t have had to?  I think in some way, blessing Snowden’s decision to flee is a form of ignoring our own complicity in a system that we know is terribly unjust.  Instead of arguing about whether or not he was justified in running, we really should be expending that energy on making it so he doesn’t have to – not just for Snowden, but for all the legitimate whistleblowers out there who don’t have international visibility and media scrutiny to protect them.


That’s where my reasoning is at the moment, but I’m sure I’ll keep thinking on this for some time to come.  Thanks again to everyone who commented, and as always, feel free to disagree!  🙂


7
Jan 14

How Do We “Immunize” Society Against Technology Futures We DON’T Want?

Recently The Guardian published an interesting critique of the TED Talks series by Benjamin Bratton that I’ve been thinking about since I read it.   The piece asks what good does it do for TED to take extremely complex topics and boil them down into 20 minute presentations, which are viewed as infotainment by a certain segment of people, and then not much gets done about the issues being discussed.  I think it’s an interesting critique, and as someone who organizes technology conferences, I often worry that if we all just come and do a lot of talking and not much afterwards, what purpose has the conference really served?  I’d be interested to hear others’ thoughts.

Beyond the critique of TED Talks, however, there were two lines in particular that really struck me:

Because, if a problem is in fact endemic to a system, then the exponential effects of Moore’s law also serve to amplify what’s broken.

And the concept of not just innovating but also “immunizing” society:

The potential for these technologies are both wonderful and horrifying at the same time, and to make them serve good futures, design as “innovation” just isn’t a strong enough idea by itself. We need to talk more about design as “immunisation,” actively preventing certain potential “innovations” that we do not want from happening.

Regarding the exponential effects of Moore’s Law, I’ve written before that I think our public institutions (government, academia, social structures) aren’t just failing to keep pace with changes in technology, but that the technology itself is amplifying their (our) failures.  Wherever a gap existed before the information age, now it’s becoming a gulf (think income disparity, socio-economic mobility, access to real political power).

Whatever minor systemic failures or bureaucratic quagmires that crept in during the industrial age are turning into full-blown catastrophic disasters in the information age. See the US Congress or our public education system for stark examples, both represent not just a failure to adapt to a changing world, but technology is also amplifying the ills inherent in those systems with truly catastrophic results – a congress that has gone from dysfunctional to not functional at all, and a public school system that is failing the very students it was designed to help – the poor, the underserved, the first-generation students.

We talk and read about “disruptive innovation” every day in the tech and business press, but often its in the context of “creative destruction” as some new business model or product displaces an old one, and in general that’s seen as a positive outcome in a “free” market system.  But for public systems and institutions, those public goods that have no profit or market incentive, this amplification of the broken is really very scary to me and I am not at all convinced that privatization of public systems is the answer (which is why I don’t support charter schools or for-profit education businesses, no matter how innovative they promise to be – MOOCx blah blah blah).

The most important things in life can’t be quantified in dollars and we can’t “innovate” a business model or technology solution that changes that basic fact.

So where does that leave us?  I’m not sure, but I’m intrigued by Bratton’s concept of “immunizing” society against the futures we don’t want, and I’m wondering just how we might go about doing that.  Bratton says:

Problems are not “puzzles” to be solved. That metaphor assumes that all the necessary pieces are already on the table, they just need to be rearranged and reprogrammed. It’s not true.  “Innovation” defined as moving the pieces around and adding more processing power is not some Big Idea that will disrupt a broken status quo: that precisely is the broken status quo.

.. and I’m inclined to agree.  I think those of us who consider ourselves technology evangelists and futurists need to think long and hard about these questions.

As a practical step, perhaps one way to help “immunize” society against the technology futures we don’t want would be to make sure that every talk we give, every presentation, every slide deck (or Prezi or whatever), every workshop has a section about possible NEGATIVE outcomes of the technology we’re talking about, and what we could or should do to avoid it?  If we’re going to spread the word about new tech, don’t we have a responsibility to also discuss the possible negative effects? Perhaps as conference organizers and workshop planners, we need to include not just positive visioning, activities, and keynotes, but  sessions that specifically talk about the possible negative outcomes?

I’m not sure, but it’s something I’m thinking about and want to keep in mind.


4
Jan 14

Re: Snowden – Whistleblowing & Its Consequences

Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning

I was very surprised to read the New York Times editorial calling for clemency for Edward Snowden, less so to read Slate’s piece about why he won’t and shouldn’t get clemency, since it is difficult for me to imagine any scenario in which full clemency would be granted by this administration or in this geo-political climate. I expect Snowden to be on the run or in exile likely for the rest of his life.

Without knowing all the details of what he leaked, how he leaked them, and the explanations for his actions afterwards that led him to China and then Russia, I can’t in good conscience call for his clemency either. Even if I acknowledge that his leaks have better informed a critically important debate about the surveillance power of the government and the constitutional balance (or lack thereof) of the NSA’s programs, even if his stated motivations as a whistleblower are 100% true, and even if I acknowledge that, like Bradley Manning, there likely were no “legitimate” paths he could take to take to expose the truth to the public, I still can’t go so far as to say that they deserve clemency because I’m not in a position to have enough information to make a good judgement, and my guess is, if you’re reading this blog, neither do you.

My own (very small, insignificant except to those of us who were affected) experience with being a whistleblower was a wholly terrible and unpleasant experience. Exposing misconduct and bringing to light what (some) people in power do not want revealed is a dangerous undertaking, even when the stakes are much less than national security. It is fraught with difficult ethical and moral decisions about how much information and when to disclose and how to proceed, and at least in my experience, I had absolutely no way to fully appreciate all of the unintended consequences of my actions, and how many other (innocent in the scheme of things) people would be hurt by my choices, no matter how well meaning and good my intentions were when I started.

I’m not comparing myself to Snowden or Manning, of course, the situations were completely different and on a completely different scale of importance, but I can only draw from my own experience. I certainly felt that I had an obligation take responsibility for the fall-out, and I guess that is where my own, however insignificant, experience as a whistleblower leads me to feel critical of both Manning and Snowden’s decisions to hide and run from the path they chose.

Yes, it stinks that whistleblowers are often punished for trying to do the right thing, but if you choose to do battle with the powers-that-be, then you have a responsibility to stand up and say, “Yes, I did this, my conscience demanded I take action to right this wrong, and be damned the consequences to myself.” That is what sacrifice is, that is what a “hero” does, and that is not quite what either Manning or Snowden did. Even if their initial motivations were largely for the right reasons, even if there have been many good things to come of their disclosures, they still failed to see it through by trying to hide from or escape from the consequences of their choices.

What makes that a “wrong” is that all the untold number of (innocent in the scheme of things) people who paid a terrible price for their actions had no choice in the matter. The co-worker who gave Snowden a password because of trust or because he thought Snowden’s request was legitimate as a sysadmin who was later fired. The diplomats or soliders or, heck, full on spies whose careers were destroyed or lives were endangered by Manning’s or Snowden’s disclosures. Those people had no choice in the matter. They didn’t have an opportunity to hide or escape from the fall-out of those decisions, so why should Manning or Snowden?

When you set the ball in motion, you have a responsibility to see it through to the end, no matter how bitter that end may be. To do less may be only human, but it doesn’t meet my standard of “hero”.


23
Feb 13

Must Watch – Lessig’s Harvard Law Talk About Aaron’s Law

I found this both moving and inspiring. I’ve come to believe that academics and researchers have a moral imperative to fight closed publishing, and this talk by Lessig only makes me feel that more strongly.


11
Sep 12

A September Eleven Blue Sky

In a moment of tragedy or crisis, it’s strange what single detail stands out most among a thousand details of a scene. Some people remember where they were standing when they saw the towers fall on tv, some remember who they lost that day.

For me, the single detail I remember most is a certain shade of blue sky that I will always think of as September Eleven Blue. As I walked to work after spending hours glued to the television set, my brain was on some strange surreal loop. I kept looking up into the most pristine and sparkling blue sky I’d ever seen and thinking over and over:  How could this happen? How could someone deliberately fly a plane full of people into a building full of people on such a beautiful sunny day? How could this happen?

The horror of it was more than I could fathom, it seemed somehow all the more horrific against that backdrop of happy blue – as if tragedy could only happen when it’s storming outside.

Image courtesy of New York Social Diary, “The Morning of September 11” by Alexandra Lebenthal

I don’t think I’ve ever posted a reflection on that day before, because in the weeks and years that followed, I became exhausted by and to the whole spectacle of 9/11. Instead of engendering feelings of patriotism or love of country, the cheap plastic flags and yellow ribbons pasted on every available surface, car, window, and t-shirt came to feel very cheap indeed – hollow symbols of a feeling of unity that lasted for only a brief millisecond before we turned to, not politics as usual, but far worse, the politics of fear and retribution. I didn’t know then that it would eventually lead to the War on Terror and the War on Iraq and the War on Afghanistan, so many wars on so many things, I just knew that I felt numb and frightened and suddenly very painfully aware of how fragile life is.

I had friends and colleagues who seemed for a while to need to know every gory detail of every victim’s last moments, but I didn’t. I didn’t listen to the last voice mails and the 911 recordings, I didn’t watch the videos of the people jumping, I tried not to imagine what it would have felt like to be in that plane over Pennsylvania, or to be burned alive or buried in the rubble. I couldn’t. For me, the horror of what I already knew was enough and the fascination with the tragic details felt repulsive – I couldn’t understand it. They have a name for that phenomenon now, disaster porn they call it.

To me it just felt somehow.. disrespectful. And something worse, some word I can’t put a name to, that thing that makes us gawk and take some creepy pleasure in seeing other people’s agony. Or maybe using other people’s agony to fuel our own ugly impulses, to go kill whoever was responsible, even if it meant killing hundreds of thousands of other completely innocent people as collateral damage to salve our wounded American soul.

I was afraid, back then, to even say words like these. To not feel a burning patriotic fervor to hunt down the evil-doers in the post-9/11 world was to be a traitor. In the city where I live, conservative, religious, American heartland Cincinnati, Ohio, it was impossible to avoid the forwarded-hundreds-of-times email chain letters (this was before Facebook or Twitter existed) about how we would destroy Osama bin-Ladin and every “towelhead” who got in our way. Jingoism doesn’t begin to describe it, I saw blood lust even in the eyes of my mild mannered office mates. That scared me far more than the terrorists did, far more than whatever horrible thing al-Qaida might have planned. I became afraid of my own countrymen and my own government more than I was afraid of any shadowy enemy in the middle east.

Terror Alert: Orange lasted for years afterwards. And when it was over (is it over? will the wars ever be over?) I felt mostly sadness that all those people died so tragically, and sadness that in their names we destroyed nations and our own civil liberties. That so many of our own young men and women in the military had paid as high a price as the victims of 9/11 in as senseless a tragedy through the War in Iraq.

Another Anniversary, Another Election

As another 9/11 anniversary approaches, another presidential election, I can’t help but think back about that time and how that incident really did change us. How it really did change the trajectory of our nation, our politics, our financial security. For a long time there was that cynical joke about how if you do X, the terrorists win.  I sometimes think, looking back, that the terrorists did win, and win big.  9/11  changed so much about our culture, made us so much more willing to surrender our privacy and our human rights for often just the illusion of security.

One of the things that struck me about the political conventions this year was how little 9/11 was mentioned, how little the history of the last 10 years was discussed beyond the current economic issues and pandering to military voters.  There was little acknowledgement even from the Democrats about the truly brutal, dishonest, and frightening Bush administration.  They didn’t really tell the narrative about exactly how and why the Republican Party led us into disaster and how and why it would be disasterous to put them back in charge of the White House again.  Why didn’t they tell that story more forcefully?

For my part, I felt an enormous amount of rage towards the those who had led us to that precipice.  After spending billions or trillions of dollars in Iraq, after pushing through tax cuts for the wealthy, after de-regulating financial reforms put in place to protect us from another Great Depression, the Republicans marched us to catastrophe.  In US Economic Crisis – “Privatizing Gains, Socializing Losses”, I wrote:

The REPUBLICAN PARTY, representing free-market capitalists, has largely had their way in terms of economic policy, they passed their tax cuts, they gutted many of the laws put in place after the Great Depression, and theysuccessfully protected the profits – the sickeningly vast profits – of a very, very tiny percentage of very, very wealthy Americans. […]

I am angry. Afraid. Worried. The REPUBLICAN PARTY has quite literally wrapped themselves in the American Flag and used every dirty trick in the book to keep the average, church-going American distracted by issues like guns, abortion, and gay marriage so they can rob our country blind. And they seem to be getting away with it.

When does it stop? When does the party of “Country First” actually start putting the country – the whole country, not wealthy investors – first?

It was a welcome relief to me when Obama was elected at the end of that year. Obama’s campaign rhetoric stirred in me some of those patriotic and hopeful passions I remembered from the days before 9/11, when I still believed that reasonable people could find some agreement.  That’s back when I thought most Republicans were conservative like my grandpa, a staunch life-long Republican, who I loved and respected greatly, even as I passionately disagreed with his philosophies about human nature.  Where he and I found common ground, I assumed so would be the case between the Left and the Right.  I thought love of country and the need to help each other in such dire times would bring some kind of relief from the endless political bickering.

But I was disappointed to discover that we were more divided by partisan zealotry than ever before.  Obama’s complete cop-out on a single payer system, or even a public option, for healthcare reform, his wholesale embrace of the Right’s solution did nothing to quell the divide.  Such a pitiful excuse for a “socialist” solution to the healthcare problem was so well spun by the Right that it led to the birth of the Tea Party nutjobs and the “Keep the government out of my Medicare” protests.  Republicans in Congress began their steadfast refusal to do anything but say “no”, be damned the consequences, including the debt ceiling fiasco that actually led to the downgrading of our nation’s credit rating.

These last few years, it has seemed as if all sanity has flown the coop.  One cannot reason with those who are unreasonable, those who do not believe in science, or education, those who would rather scream about God than have any faith in or compassion for each other – those who seem to revel in the disaster porn that our nation has become.  The divide has become such a chasm, I wonder what America they are even living in, because it doesn’t seem like the one I am living in.

The only exception to these political divisions seemed to be the night Osama bin-Ladin was finally killed. I wrote about how it felt to experience that moment with others through Twitter, and just like with 9/11 itself where I could not feel pure hatred and bloodlust, I could not feel pure joy and glee that we killed bin-Ladin, either.  I felt somewhat ashamed of the reactions; disgusted by the calls to literally put bin-Ladin’s head on a spike as if we should engage in some gruesome medieval display of power.  Reflecting back, I wrote:

 By my view, the world really did change on September 11th, and it has been a long, brutal, depressing decade since. Whatever innocent naivete I still held at the wise old age of 25 began to crumble as those towers fell and the 10 years since have held many bitter lessons still. Wars that seem unending and against people and ideologies that are complex and don’t lend themselves to simple narratives about “defeating our enemies”. A decade of absolute fiscal corruption and robbery that would have made the robber barons blush. A political system that seems barely functional on the good days and completely ill equipped to address any of the real issues facing our nation. Catastrophes like Katrina from mother nature, and catastrophes of our own making, leaving people without homes and jobs and even those of us who still have both ever fearful that they could disappear tomorrow.

” A nation that can’t resolve sensibly any issue that matters..”

I’ve been pretty candid about my political views.  I’ve written about why I consider myself a progressive, and about the values and beliefs that guide my political conscience.  I know that other people value other things, have beliefs that are different than mine, and I can accept and understand that.  What I can’t understand, what I can’t accept, is pretending as if this history didn’t happen: Two wars costing trillions of dollars, millions of wounded, and hundreds of thousands of lives lost.  An economic disaster that triggered a global crisis, erased a decade of wealth in the US, and left millions of our own people in desperate straights.  These two things frame the beginning and the end of the last decade of our nation, and both of them happened under the leadership of the Republican Party, and with little to no meaningful dissent from the Democratic Party.

This history leads the partisan part of me to want to ask anyone who’s even considering voting for Mitt Romney – what the heck are you thinking?  Have you completely forgotten that it was a Republican led White House that took us falsely to war in Iraq?  Have you completely forgotten that it was Republican led de-regulation of the financial industry that led us to this depression/recession/whatever mess?  Aren’t you absolutely horrified by the voter suppression, the racism, the insulting belief they should control women’s bodies, the religious zealotry, the anti-science, anti-education, anti-common-freaking-sense craziness of today’s Republican Party?

But make no mistake, that partisan part of me is just as furiously angry with an Obama administration who has not closed Guantanamo Bay, not ended either war, continued and even extended some of the worst parts of the Patriot Act, who completely caved on the Bush era tax cuts, whose administration has not done more to help homeowners and average working people after bailing out big business and big banks, who has not prosecuted those who were responsible for the collapse, or passed any reasonable legislation to stop it from happening again.

Indeed, I am left feeling that, while I’ll be voting for Obama again this election because the lunatic right just isn’t an option, the entire system is so corrupt that a vote for Obama or even a win for Obama is just a degree in difference, not kind.  When Lessig points out that:

A tiny number of Americans — .26 percent — give more than $200 to a congressional campaign. .05 percent give the maximum amount to any congressional candidate. .01 percent give more than $10,000 in any election cycle. And .000063 percent — 196 Americans — have given more than 80 percent of the individual super-PAC money spent in the presidential elections so far.

These few don’t exercise their power directly. None can simply buy a congressman, or dictate the results they want. But because they are the source of the funds that fuel elections, their influence operates as a filter on which policies are likely to survive. It is as if America ran two elections every cycle, one a money election and one a voting election. To get to the second, you need to win the first. But to win the first, you must keep that tiniest fraction of the one percent happy. Just a couple thousand of them banding together is enough to assure that any reform gets stopped.

Some call this plutocracy. Some call it a corrupted aristocracy. I call it unstable. Just as America learned under the Articles of Confederation, where one state had the power to block the resolve of the rest, a nation in which so few have the power to block change is not a nation that can thrive.

.. what else can a simple working girl like me think but that the whole game is just plain rigged?  When so many pressing issues of our time go unaddressed while we spend billions and billions of dollars and months and months of time on campaigns, not just for president, but for congress and governors and local officials as well, it seems that the entire system is just plain failing us. I feel so frustrated, so distrustful, so dissapointed in what has become of our country since 9/11, that I am paralyzed by it.

Many things have changed since the Twin Towers fell, but eleven years later, I’m still looking up into a September Eleven Blue sky caught in that surreal loop, wondering how all these things could have happened.  Just as I wondered how on earth someone could deliberately fly a plane full of people into a building full of people on a perfectly beautiful sunny day, I wonder what kind of craven souls could deliberately be playing political cat and mouse with each other instead of dealing with the enormous challenges facing our country – or worse, how it has come to be that we the people seemingly have no more power to stop this calamity than we had to stop those towers from falling.

Lessig ends by saying that a nation that can’t resolve sensibly any issue that matters is a nation that will fail.  I’m afraid he’s right.

 


25
Nov 11

Reflections on Black Friday, de Tocqueville Nailed It in 1840

Shoppers wait in line at the Kenwood Towne Center in Cincinnati, OH.  Image courtesy cincinnati.com.

After participating in the midnight Black Friday sales with my mom and cousin despite my general political antipathy towards such raw displays of capitalism run amok, I was reminded of one of my favorite passages from Democracy in America by de Tocqueville, and I had to look it up this morning to see if it was as spot-on as it seemed in my memory.

And it was. See for yourself:

I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest—his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind; as for the rest of his fellow-citizens, he is close to them, but he sees them not—he touches them, but he feels them not; he exists but in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country. Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild.

It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness: it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances—what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range, and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things: it has predisposed men to endure them, and oftentimes to look on them as benefits.

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned them at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a net-work of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described, might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom; and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people. Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions; they want to be led, and they wish to remain free: as they cannot destroy either one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite; they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large that holds the end of his chain.

By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master, and then relapse into it again. A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large. This does not satisfy me: the nature of him I am to obey signifies less to me than the fact of extorted obedience.

~  Chapter VI: What Sort Of Despotism Democratic Nations Have To Fear, Democracy in America, Volume 2 by Alexis de Tocqueville,

In this time where the Occupy movement continues to protest our corporate overlords, the Tea Party continues to protest the long arm of government, but the average American is still willing to stand outside in the cold at midnight to save $400 on a wide-screen TV…  I fear that the despotism that de Tocqueville imagined is as entrenched as ever.  A sobering thought even as I am enjoying my newly purchased heavily discounted slippers this morning.


16
Sep 11

What’s Missing from Governance in Second Life

In the past week or so, two of my favorite thinkers about Second Life have written about governance – Gwyneth Llewelyn’s post Humble Governance is typically lengthy but worth reading, and Prokofy Neva responded on How to Improve Governance in Second Life.

This has long been a topic of interest, I was a polisci undergrad after all, and I’ve been trying my own hand at governance with varying degrees of engagement, success, and failure with the Chilbo Community on the mainland.  In fact, I presented about Chilbo’s model at the Governance in Virtual Worlds conference  back in March 2010, and I’ll never forget the upbraiding I received from a fellow panelist who simply could not believe that governance could exist without constant disagreement and strife, or that any system that didn’t include a parliament or direct democracy could be feasible or representative.  I begged to differ then and now.

Governance in Virtual Worlds 2010: Virtual Self Governance – Fleep Tuque

View more presentations from Fleep Tuque

I’ve never claimed that the Chilbo model of participatory consensus was scalable or feasible for all communities in Second Life – I think our system developed to suit our specific community, our specific geography on mainland rather than private sims, and to suit the personalities of our specific members – but I certainly think it has been a viable model that others might learn from as one example of a long lasting, self-governing community.  We’re coming up on our 5th anniversary, which in Second Life terms is a pretty long time!  But I remain a big believer in the old adage “those who show up make the decisions, those who are willing and actually do the work get to decide how its done” and so long as that is tempered by a fair, open, and transparent input process where those who don’t have the time to show up or do the work get to put their two cents in, we’ve found in Chilbo that it mostly works pretty well.

And even though in the past year or so I’ve been much less active myself, and some of the more administratively heavy processes we had in place have been eliminated or downsized to accommodate people’s changing schedules and time availability, the fact that we continue to iterate, flex, and experiment without carving immutable laws into virtual stone is one of the very reasons I think Chilbo has lasted as long as it has.  From my perspective, the biggest issue with our “real life” political institutions right now is their inability to cope with the rapid pace of change in today’s crazily quickly changing world.  Being flexible and nimble is crucial to ensuring that governance is responsive to actual reality and actual problems rather than continuing to run on auto-pilot addressing problems from previous decades or, at this point, a previous century.  I have come to hate the buzzword “agile” because it’s so overused in the IT industry, but governments need to have the capacity for agility when necessary and neither the real world nor most Second Life government systems I’ve seen in practice have demonstrated that capacity.

In any case, there were several points in Prokofy’s post that absolutely resonated with my experience as a Second Life Resident and community organizer.  My favorite quote was the following:

Governance in SL will do better when it’s a verb, not a noun.

I couldn’t agree more!  Further, Prokofy goes on to say:

What is needed isn’t a parliament, a resident body that the Lindens fete somehow, or self-appointed busy-bodies who want to run *your* land. What’s needed is functionality — the ability to minimize grief in groups and get better traction on mainland complaints revolving around neighbours’ and Governor Linden land.

This is something I’ve been saying for years.  Back in August 2008, I wrote an open letter to Jack Linden when they first proposed changes to the Mainland to deal with litter, griefer objects, ad farms, and the all-too-common abandoned first land plots.  In that letter, I wrote:

Linden Lab has for years claimed that they eventually wanted to put more governance in the hands of residents since they do not have the staff or the time to resolve all disputes. So do it. Where organized communities exist, empower long-term residents with established records of good payment, good stewardship, and good relations to manage the sims instead of Linden Lab. Enforce our community-generated standards or allow us to enforce them. Whether through appointment or elections or petitions or through some other means, give community managers the ability to remove offensive ads, griefer objects, and banlines. Put your money where your mouth has been for the last 5 years.

I absolutely agree with Prokofy that the biggest issue is the need for group and land management tools to better allow us to govern our OWN communities.  I don’t need that argumentative fellow from the Confederation of Democratic Simulators to come and inject his contentious brand of politics into our easy going consensus-based community, what we’ve long needed in Chilbo is better mechanisms to enforce our own community standards – better data, better management tools, better and more flexible group permissions and management – those are the things that would genuinely help our community.

Having said that, I’m not sure I agree with Prokofy that there’s no need for larger governance structures.  While I very much like the concept that participation should be tied to some kind of stake in the grid – if not direct land ownership, then some kind of representation on behalf of those who rent or play on group owned land or systems like Chilbo’s – the fact that we are all at the mercy of a privately held company and have done little to effectively organize ourselves in ways that can leverage our power as customers of Linden Lab has been to our detriment.  As Gwyn rightly pointed out, the forums become a cacophany and the JIRA was never intended to be a voting mechanism, and so we’ve been left to individually or in small groups try to fight for the changes we hope to see with the platform, the interface, or the policies that Linden Lab adopts.

Gwyn wrote:

I think that there was always a need for mechanisms to represent residents’ opinions in a systematic and inclusive way, and that the “fear of corruption and drama” has been just a convenient excuse to avoid a democratic forum. The consequence of this way of thinking is that it’s far easier to blame the Lindens for making the wrong decisions instead of organising a grid-wide method of aiding their decision process.

I think that’s pretty spot-on.  And applicable to more than just Linden Lab and Second Life, in fact, since increasingly more and more of our interactions and civic life is conducted online in virtual spaces that are owned by, “governed” by, and controlled by third party private or publicly owned corporations who are not accountable in a democratic sense to their constituents, er customers, er.. whatever label you call us.  For another example, see the Nymwars with Google.

This is a 21st century problem that we must solve, and it will require 21st century solutions and institutions to do it.  Many of us have long said that Second Life is merely a precursor of the things to come, that in many ways it portends the future of our physical world and other online spaces, and I find myself agreeing with Gwyn that it is time we tackle these issues and stop passing the buck.  If we can find workable solutions for dealing with governance in Second Life, perhaps we’ll find structures and systems that will be useful in dealing with other service providers who forget who they’re serving, too.

So.. where do we start?


7
Sep 11

What I Mean When I Say I’m A Progressive

As we start to head into another Presidential election season, I want to write more about political issues, but I’ve always been a little shy of blogging about it because I live in an area that has overwhelmingly different political views than my own.  Since I moved to Green Township (a western suburb of Cincinnati), I’ve voted in nearly every single election and most primaries, but the candidates or issues I voted for have only won maybe a half a dozen times in 8 years because this is such a conservative area.

Feeling unrepresented at both the local and state level (nevermind the national level) gets a little depressing after a while, and realizing just what a minority view I hold in this area of the country has made me hesitant to post about it.  Still, I think we have a civic duty to speak up and be heard, so I’m going to start by just putting some of my core political beliefs out there.

~

I consider myself a progressive.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read an official definition of progressivism, but to me, at its core, to be a progressive means to believe in the ability of people to improve the human condition and our way of life – that we have the intelligence and ability to analyze our situation, discover where problems lie, and fix them.  It is above all a hopeful viewpoint that refuses to give in to despair.

I believe government is not only necessary, but that it can create positive social change in ways that the private sector or other public sector actors simply cannot.  It is popular these days for people to argue that government isn’t necessary at all, for example a leading Republican candidate for president recently argued that the federal government had no business helping victims of hurricanes, but as a progressive, that’s exactly the kind of thing that I think government can and should do.  In the face of widespread natural disasters, I believe government has a duty and an obligation to care for its citizens.

Further, in my view it is the government’s job not just to protect and defend the people and our nation as a whole, but also to protect the average working person from the greed and excesses of the wealthy, the under-privileged from the excesses of the over-privileged, the minority from the tyranny of the majority, and to create the kinds of “public goods” that the private sector will never provide because some of the most important things in life can’t be quantified in dollars and cents and there is no profit motive to provide.  Some things are simply more valuable than money – like clean air, safe towns and cities, safe food and water supplies, and an educated and healthy populace.

I also believe Science is one of humankind’s greatest achievements and our only hope of dealing with some of the most pressing environmental problems of our time like climate change, depleting petroleum-based energy sources, and dwindling supplies of water.  Science also is responsible for our increasing life span, reductions in infant mortality, improvements in cancer survival rates, improvements in nutrition, and a whole host of other improvements to our general health that were often funded by, you guessed it, government.

Government can and should fund fundamental science and research for the benefit of society at large, in my view, and all of that is absolutely dependent upon a population with a solid education.  Without public education, this nation would never have achieved the triumphs of the last century and we won’t achieve triumphs this century if we don’t make our schools and education system a true priority. I simply can’t understand those who would abolish the Department of Education or the National Institutes of Health or NASA, or any of the other government agencies who are tasked with educating our people or researching cures for diseases and future technologies.

Another thing that really frustrates me, especially in our political discourse, is that our public rhetoric doesn’t seem to allow you to be considered a spiritual person unless you are some variant of the big three religions.  I disagree with that entirely.  A person can be spiritual and compassionate and caring about their fellow man without being religious, and despite what the media might say, conservatives don’t own the market on spirituality.  I want the other political parties to recognize my spirituality, government to protect me from having the religious beliefs of others forced on me, and both to allow me the freedom to practice the kinds of charity, volunteerism, and public service that I feel called to do.

I also want government to protect my right to make decisions about my own body. I believe one of the very best things a society can do for women is to provide access to affordable birth control and reproductive health care services so that we have control over our own lives and can choose when and how and the circumstances under which we have children.

And speaking of control of our own bodies, the criminalization of certain categories of drugs has been about as successful as Prohibition was (in other words a total disaster), and though Prohibition was a classic political goal of the Progressive Era, I’d like to think the progressives of then would appreciate how much we learned from Prohibition and would oppose the War on Drugs now.  Just as Prohibition ended up greasing the wheels of organized crime and political corruption then, the War on Drugs serves the same purpose now, and I want our politicians and governments to acknowledge this and treat addiction as the sickness it is instead of imprisoning those who suffer from it.

Finally, as a progressive, I have been utterly and absolutely appalled by our government’s response to the economic crisis our country has been in for the past three years.  From the bailouts of the big banks and large corporations to the focus on cutting spending on social services when they are needed most, it certainly feels like all the election rhetoric about needing to help Main Street and reign in Wall Street was simply fancy talk.  Instead I know more people out of work or fearful of losing their jobs, more people struggling to find work or pay for school, more people struggling to make mortgage and rent and car payments, and all of us struggling with higher gas and food prices.  I think the Obama Administration should be ashamed of itself for the condition of the American worker – it was so hard to swallow Obama’s speech on Labor Day that I had to turn it off.  I believe government absolutely has a role to play in ensuring that every American who wants to work can and that those of us who do shouldn’t be ripped off by the Presidents and CEOs and shareholders at the top of the pyramid.

~

I’m sure I could go on, but these are just a few of the core things that are important to me politically and I keep hoping to see these beliefs represented at ANY level of government, local, state, or national.  But I don’t see much of it and I’m really not sure why.  I think people get so caught up in labels and boxes, so caught up in the election horse race, so invested in a particular political party or cause that they stop even thinking about what their actual core beliefs are.

It’s hard not to get so jaded by how corrupt the whole mess is that you tune out completely, but despite all the cynicism and corruption, the progressive in me wants to remain hopeful.  The progressive in me still believes that we’re smarter than this, we’re better than this, that we CAN do better.

I’m just not sure how.


3
May 11

Experiencing History Through Twitter and Other Thoughts about the Death of bin Ladin

President and national security team receive updates about the bin Ladin mission.
Image source: White House on Flickr.

I’ve been very surprised about America’s reaction to the death of Osama bin Ladin.

If you had asked me two days ago what I thought people would do if Osama bin Ladin were killed tomorrow, I would have guessed that most Americans wouldn’t care much – that after 10 years of wars, which at this point in the US, mostly only military families and some politicians pay close attention to, and with any sense of unity we felt after 9/11 a faint memory in the bitter and nasty political climate of today, I would have guessed that the average Jane on the street would feel a momentary sense of “finally got him” and that would be the end of it.

I would have been very wrong.  I was really shocked by how emotional people felt. I was shocked by the gleeful and joyous feelings people felt. I didn’t feel joy, I felt.. ok, some faint vindication, triumph over evil and all of that, but mostly I felt terribly sad remembering the horror of what happened on that beautiful blue sky day in September and sadder still at all the death and war and destruction that followed it. Osama bin Ladin was certainly a mass murderer and a zealot and a terrorist – and his death means that he can no longer plan or proselytize or execute any more death and destruction, and for that I _am_ glad. But not joyous.

I also wondered today how much my perception was colored by the experience of learning about it and participating in the immediate reaction on Twitter – which was wildly fast paced and .. words truly fail me. At times it was hysterically funny, the first time you read the “long form death certificate” joke it was funny, by the 50th time not so much. At times it was uncomfortable, or at least I felt uncomfortable with the glee that so many seemed to feel.   And at times it was inspiring, to be part of such an amazingly multi-threaded conversation, with comments whizzing by in English, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, and more, you had a sense that to experience historical events today is somehow different – with Twitter and Facebook and a cell phone in nearly every pocket, it’s not even that news travels fast, but that our reactions to it travel just as quickly.

Image hat tip @mixed_realities, image source @miguelrios (submitted by pleated-jeans).

From speculation to confirmation to reaction in minutes, and your immediate reaction tempered by the hundreds and thousands of others’ reactions erupting simultaneously. The ones cracking jokes, the ones shouting “GO USA!”, I literally saw calls for bin Ladin’s head on a spike on the #tcot hashtag (not surprising), calls to be reflective, reminders that bin Ladin was just one man and al Qaida is more than one man, remembrances of 9/11.. it was crazy! And some of it very discomfiting.

I was heartened to see others in my Twitter stream expressing discomfort with the celebratory tone, even as I felt conflicted about my own feelings. I wrote:

@annehaines I think part of the “celebration” aspect is that these wars have been SO long SO costly SO complex. A simple victory resonates.

@annehaines And US is divided by so many things, when we can feel unified about something, I think it amplifies the emotion.

After reading more about what happened and reading and listening to all of the voices on the net and in my networks, I think that maybe it’s too simplistic to say that Americans were celebrating the death of Osama bin Ladin. Certainly some were, and it really WAS and IS that simple for many, but in some part I think it was an outpouring of pent up emotions that maybe we didn’t even realize we were feeling.

By my view, the world really did change on September 11th, and it has been a long, brutal, depressing decade since. Whatever innocent naivete I still held at the wise old age of 25 began to crumble as those towers fell and the 10 years since have held many bitter lessons still. Wars that seem unending and against people and ideologies that are complex and don’t lend themselves to simple narratives about “defeating our enemies”. A decade of absolute fiscal corruption and robbery that would have made the robber barons blush. A political system that seems barely functional on the good days and completely ill equipped to address any of the real issues facing our nation. Catastrophes like Katrina from mother nature, and catastrophes of our own making, leaving people without homes and jobs and even those of us who still have both ever fearful that they could disappear tomorrow.

There hasn’t been a whole heck of a lot to celebrate since September 11th and I think the reaction to bin Ladin’s death was less about dancing on one man’s grave and more about the resonance of a simple, understandable victory against at least some small part of all of the tremendous uncertainty and evil in this world.

And I guess that’s ok, or at least it makes the emotion I saw and sometimes felt a little more understandable.

I think the important thing will be to see if in death, the symbol that bin Ladin became in our minds and in the media can become a symbolic closing of that sad chapter in our history. The Arab Spring certainly gives hope that radicalism will give way to revolution of the kind America’s forefathers would understand, and I hope against all hope that the end of these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will come soon.

As for the rest of it, this explosion of pent up emotion and the rush to cheer about SOMETHING after so long a drought of things to cheer about.. well, it’s partly our own doing we’re in this glum mess. Though the world is complex and we have an important role to play in it, I think we really need to spend some time cleaning up our own house and maybe then we’d have truly joyous reasons to celebrate.


4
May 10

On Tonight Live with Paisley Beebe

Back on April 15th, I was a guest on Tonight Live with Paisley Beebe to speak about governance in virtual worlds and the Chilbo Community that I help run in Second Life.   Paisley is a wonderful host and it was terrific meeting the other guests, thought I’d post the video since it’s up on Treet.tv now.