Losing your center

Decentralization. That’s the theme of the day. We’re not linear, we’re networked. We’ve lost the center, the authority, even the middle-man. Often called democratization, as in the ‘the democratization of news’, it engenders a heady feeling of freedom, access, openness, breaking down barriers.

It’s things like: crowdfunding, peer-to-peer lending, the sharing economy, q+a forums, citizen journalism. On the more technical side: decentralization is the core of bitcoin and its underlying blockchain technology. Also mesh nets, where devices can connect to each other without going through a main server.

Mesh nets remove what could be a choke point. Now, if a government, or a bad actor, wants to shut down the internet, all they have to do is shut down AT&T or Comcast and we all go dark. In a mesh net, every device (that’s configured to use the technology) is connected to every other device within a certain proximity, so you’d have to shut down every connected device separately.

Decentralization is less a positive than simply the reality, with certain characteristics.

First of all, the idealism gets old quickly. Uber is not a power-to-the-people organization, it’s a capitalistic enterprise leveraging new technologies for (surprise!) money, and it has to work within the current framework of government regulation, whether they’ll admit it or not. Second, networks can be super inefficient, and messy, and not great at curating.

Look at journalism. The internet has given a voice and a platform to millions. We have this tremendous clamor of voices saying incredibly wise, mundane, stupid, cruel, quirky things. (In theory, this is wonderful, but the reality of it challenges our democratic notion that everyone SHOULD have a voice. Just read all the jeremiads about how the internet has ruined journalism, and ergo, the world.)

What we no longer have is a Walter Cronkite, or the New York Times (of old) – a central command, respected by the nation as a whole. There is no national conversation, or agenda. We don’t know who to trust. And that’s a loss. Authority is not inherently bad, not when it’s used to guide instead of dictate, to inform instead of command, and when it responds to the will of the people.

All the old media/new media discussions compare then and now like they exist on a spectrum. It’s not clear that they do. There’s a new world-order. The new isn’t on a spectrum, it isn’t linear. There’s a chance it will turn into anarchy or the dictatorship of the mob, and a chance we’ll become a more open, voluble, accessible society where everyone knows how to make the best use of the bewildering amount of choice around him or her.

The Macklemore Matter

Read the question below and circle the correct answer. 

Macklemore wore a disguise that looked like the nazi caricature of a Jew to a surprise concert in Seattle. This implies that Macklemore:

a. is a Jew hating Nazi-sympathizer who purposely dressed to look like the caricature of a Jew while singing about how great it is to be thrifty. 

b. picked up a a random mask and a beard as a disguise and meant no harm. You are the Jew hater if you look at a big nose and think “Jew!” And jeez people need to stop getting so worked up and thinking that everything is about them.

c. (his audience, and anyone who circles b) is ignorant of the propaganda against Jews during the Nazi area. They’ve never seen the posters/cartoons which depicted Jews with large hook noses. Like this:

  image

If they had they might have realized how insensitive such an visual is, regardless of the innocent intent.

d. (and his audience) is an idiot, who should have known better (a la c) but slept through history class so either didn’t know or didn’t care about the implication of using a visual homage to Nazism as a disguise.

PS

Please be advised that the four options are a consolidation of the many hundreds of comments on the issue found on the internet. The original language in said comments was much more colorful, and not appropriate for publication.

PPS

For your edification, From a children’s publication in Germany in 1938:

image

“The Jewish nose is bent at its tip. It looks like a number 6…”

Wealth Inequality is the new Income Inequality

If you care about Piketty and his 900 page book on capital you should go read a review from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about. (Good luck with that. There are hundreds.)

If you don’t care about Piketty and his views on income inequality you should not read the rest of this post because that’s what it’s about.

(If you don’t fit into either one of the above two categories, you don’t fit into my black and white worldview and I don’t know what to make of you.)

So I read Branco Milankovic’s 20 page review of Piketty’s book “Capital in the 21st Century”, the wonderful How To Write a Thomas Piketty Think Piece in 10 Easy Steps, Piketty on Piketty  on Vox, and lots of tweets and headlines that said smart things about Piketty. These are my conclusions:

  • Capital = wealth = assets, real estate, stocks, machinery, businesses etc.
  • Wealth to income ratio is growing, which means that wealth is being concentrated in the hands of very few, and it’s becoming more important to hold on to wealth (inheritance etc.) than have a high income. In other words, it’s more worthwhile financially to marry a rich heir than get a good job.
  • Post WWII, when wealth-to-income ratio, was low was an anomaly and can’t be duplicated. It was because of really high growth rates, which an economy can’t sustain forever. Younger economies (China, India) may go through a period of low wealth-to-income ratios (or not, because the economy is more interconnected now) but will then end up in the same place as the US and Europe today.
  • We need global tax laws on wealth and inheritance if we want to stop the concentration of wealth. It will only work if there is global agreement because otherwise there will always be tax havens.

Tl;dr (which mean you couldn’t be bothered to read my 3 line review of the 20 page review of the 900 page book): Wealth inequality is the new income inequality.

Innocent until the government says otherwise

Yesterday I wrote on Twitter, “It bothers me that I can’t articulate why what the NSA is doing scares me.” This is my attempt to articulate it.

I watched the Columbia Journalism panel yesterday, “Journalism After Snowden.” I read Professor Kooperman’s article on Infopolitics, where he suggests that what’s wrong with this data hoovering is that we are our data. Both conversations left me with the feeling that the question of data, privacy, surveillance is so big, nobody knows where to start.

A story:

In 1930s Russia my great-grandfather kept his children home from government school to spare them the Communist propaganda machine, and raise them in the Jewish tradition. His two older children would leave in the morning with school bags and return when school was over so the neighbors wouldn’t suspect and inform on them.

Eventually the dreaded day arrived. The father received a notice to appear at police headquarters. He told his children to go to school that day and ask to be excused to use the restroom every half hour.

At the police station he explained that his children had a condition where they urinated very often and so for the children’s and the school’s sake, he kept them home. They sent officers to investigate, and when it was verified, the police sent him home with a stern warning that next time they’d be less accommodating.

He enrolled the two children in two different schools so it wouldn’t be strange that they were both sick on Jewish holidays, and on Shabbat, they were often suffering from a hand injury that didn’t allow them to write. Every holiday doctors notes would be forged or doctors would be bribed. The children would keep watch so that when agents from the school came to check on them, the “sick” child would be in bed, looking pale.

There may be a long way from this to the NSA surveillance, but this is what comes to mind. My grandmother keeping watch at the window so her siblings could eat the Passover meal with them, my great-grandfather pretending a toothache to hide his beard, illicit celebrations and gatherings where people came one by one to avoid attention, the quick, furtive interactions, the constant suspicion of friends and family, of who might be the dreaded informer.

Am I being ridiculous? I don’t think so. I don’t think what we’re suffering soviet-grade surveillance now. What’s terrifying is the idea of a soviet-like government with the powers of the US government.

We shouldn’t be complacent only because we are incredibly lucky to live in a democracy that still works. There are no guarantees. The idea that a government could have the power – legally and practically – to know every bit of information about me, to collect it, and store it, and use it should they so decide, is frightening and wrong. Trusting any government with that kind of power – that’s ridiculous.

Right now as a culture we are in agreement on the notion of innocence, usually, but it wasn’t so long ago that it wasn’t that way. Right now we trust our government to some degree – that somewhere between the money and the power there is also the desire to uphold democracy and freedom. Right now we can’t imagine a government that would persecute innocent people.

But history is full of examples – and we as a nation are guilty – of legally persecuting others on the basis of religion, race, sexual orientation.

Do I need to evoke Nazi Germany? Sure, they did it without surveillance. But that’s not the point. The point is that prior to the rise of the Nazi party, no one predicted government sanctioned persecution and murder of particular groups in Germany. No one predicted that you could die – legally and ethically – because your nose wasn’t the right shape.

Anyone who comes from a people/group that has been discriminated against on the basis of belonging to a group by birth or by association, should be feeling real worry right now. I do, and I don’t understand why people are either resigned or disinterested.

If what the NSA is doing is illegal they need to be stopped. If what they’re doing is legal then it shouldn’t be.

My great-grandfather died in the hunger of Leningrad in 1944, as did his wife and two older children. His third child, my grandmother, survived and immigrated to London where she raised her family in freedom.

 

Twitter for humans

In 2008 Twitter’s tagline was still “What are you doing?” and all sane adults were scratching their heads wondering the proverbial, “Why would anyone want to know what you ate for breakfast?”
Ah. The good old days.
Now twitter killed RSS, overthrew Mubarak, and is overrun by marketers, pundits, celebrities, bots and auto-posts. Everyone’s attempting to build their brand, increase influence and followers and engagement, all code for duping the humans into buying whatever they’re selling. There are a million Twitter how-to articles for these types, how to gain followers, how to engage them, track them, target them, and otherwise treat them as commodities.

What about us humans? How should we use Twitter? We’re the guys/girls who don’t care to influence but don’t want to be invisible. We check the notification bar too often and lie about what it does to our self esteem.

This is a guide on how to find and talk to other humans on Twitter, human being those who are there to exchange ideas, share the little joys, vent, tell bad jokes. Be prepared to encounter some awkward moments, some rejection, some wanted and unwanted attention – all the delights of genuine human relationships.
The following is not a guide. You will not find the light by the end of it. It’s some tips from a by-most-measures unsuccessful Twitterer, who loves it anyway.

How to spot a human

Twitter’s tagline today is “follow your interests”. You follow blogs, get updates from your favorite bands and brands, find out about deals and events and whatnot. Great. But they’re not human and they aren’t going to talk to you. They’re the one-to-manies.
If you want to have human interaction go for the regular people.
They look like this: active users who tweet regularly, sometimes about themselves, sometimes about their job, or hobby, or some favorite topics. They share easily, retweet with comments explaining why this or that is worth a read, use hashtags they made up on the spot, and say OMFG seriously.
To be more exact: they follow and are followed by less than 1,000 people. That’s not an exact number obviously, but you want someone who isn’t inundated by their home feed and incoming @ messages.
Personally, my bar is even lower. I look for people with less than 500 followers because I know they’ll be less businesslike about it, and plus, they’ll be happy with the attention I give them, and won’t judge me for not having a twitter following.
Narrow this list of humans by your own criteria – they share an interest with you or have a cool blog or a cool job, you think you’d like to meet them in real life, or you like their profile picture.

Introduce yourself

When you start following someone, @ message them and tell them why. It’s like a pick up line but with the added advantage of being able to stalk them first so you have what to say.

“Hey @joesmith I read your post about Twitter IPO and it was spot on.”

“@janedoe I came across your blog and it’s really informative. Thanks!”

“@runnerjoe Congrats on your 10k time. I’m running my first 10k in three weeks #aaah #wishmeluck”

“This way in the future, when you want to communicate with them, they’ll have some context.”

Table manners

Has it ever happened that you’re at a dinner table with friends, or family, and you’re like “pass the salt.” Nothing.
“Please pass the salt.” Still nothing.
“Hello, can you please pass the salt? Helloooo?”
Then some smartass will give you the advice you’ve heard a million times. Use someone’s name.
“Hey Mark, pass the salt.” And what do you know, he passes it immediately, without stopping his conversation or looking at you.
This is not some secret psychology, or a trick from How to Make Friends and Influence People. It’s common sense, and it works.
Transfer this to Twitter. If you have a question or want feedback on a post, or thoughts on a topic, ask someone. Ask a specific someone. Use the little @ symbol, it’s your friend. You can add the user’s name at the end of the tweet so that all your follower see the tweet. In Twitter culture, the recipient will see it less as a direct question, and more as an invitation to add their two cents.
Make sure it’s someone who’s likely to know or care about the topic. It doesn’t have to be a celebrity, CEO, or anyone practicing one-to-many Twitter. Just someone who knows more than you and is probably happy to share what they know.
And it’s Twitter. If they don’t answer you, there are no hard feelings. They didn’t see it, or they didn’t know, and there are a couple million other people for you to ask.

Diversify

Follow people you disagree with. Follow people from other countries, other colors, other races and religions and political affiliations. This isn’t to make you better at Twitter, just better at life.
You don’t want to get stuck in the recommendation funnel. You follow young white programmers from Silicon Valle so Twitter suggests that you follow young male entrepreneurs and V.C.s, which you do, and then Twitter suggests young male programmers and startup founders.
If it feels racist to search out a Muslim woman or an African or a priest, get over it. Do a demographic search of the people you follow and see if it doesn’t need a little diversity.
This applies both to humans and one-to-manies. You might want to follow an Egyptian in Egypt because they talk about the political situation from a non-Western prospective, or follow an Egyptian because they share an interest, or have a cool blog etc.

Talk back

This one’s obvious but needs to be said: talk to people. Take time when you go through your Twitter feed to respond. Almost anyone (human) who tweets wants a response to their tweets. They want feedback, or attention, or validation.
To make it easier to spot the humans I created a list called “People”. This is a list for people that I know in real life, or that I’ve interacted with on Twitter in a human way, and I want to keep up the relationship. It’s easy for regular people who don’t tweet super often to get lost on Twitter, drowned out by all the other updates.
I go to my People list and just scroll through. There are usually a lot of posts about wine and dogs and movie recommendations and random comments about life. It’s a lot like sitting around with friends and shooting the breeze.
If any of the tweets warrant a response – anything from congratulations, to looking up the answer to a question – then it gets one.
I won’t lie, there’s some navigating you’ll have to do here. Even though people are volunteering this information, you sometimes get the feeling they don’t realize people actually read it. It can be hard to know if you’re coming across as friendly, or nosy.

But then again, no one ever said relationships were easy.

Get on it tweeps. It’s time for the humans to reclaim Twitter.

What a data driven world does to indiviualism

I was at work the other day doing the tedious but necessary job of typing up handwritten notes from customers. It was for a client, an appliance repair company, and most of the notes were some combination of “professional”, “courteous”, “got the job done”, “punctual”, “thank you”. The same message written over and over in big loopy handwriting, in illegible scrawl, in carefully shaped capitals, in prim or flourishing cursive.

One note was written in thick purple marker. It was a unique purple, violet, bluish, probably from a giant 64-pack of markers that kids use. It brought to mind a dining room table strewn with yesterday’s playtime, or a junk drawer full of the flotsam of family life. A mother in a house somewhere with a now-fixed dryer had reached for the nearest writing utensil, the purple marker, and written “Very efficient! Fixed problem fast.”

As I typed it up, I stripped it. Gone was the imaginary mother, the house, the coloring books. There were just 5 words in black 11-point Arial, listed with hundreds of similar comments, all uniform. I felt like I was robbing the world of something. The more I tried to convince myself that these notes were meaningless in the grand scheme of things, written briskly out of politeness or gratitude, the more I saw them as poetry, as artifacts of humanity.

I tried to think of a digital equivalent to the expressiveness of handwriting, and when I couldn’t, for a digital compensation for this glaring detriment. This made me wonder about all the ways that the last two decades have diminished the individual.

Data is the currency of the internet.

It makes the internet (and by extension, much of the world) go round. By data, I’m referring to human triggered data for the purposes of this discussion – the likes, retweets, views, minutes on page, and communication metadata of humankind. The thing about data is that it’s by definition impersonal. It’s binary, quantitative, excel-happy, unassailable fact, stripped of the individual who gave it to the world.

By definition
The story of one Facebook like: Joe Smith and his wife Lisa were watching TV together and got into an argument over something dumb. Lisa went to quiet the baby. Joe ate microwaved pocpcorn while he checked Twitter, clicked on a link to a Kickstarter campaign for an eco-friendly wallet, landed on their Facebook page, and liked it.

His was one of 3,000 likes to this page. From Joe’s perspective, there is a history behind the like. It’s an expression of his individuality, perhaps not a very deep one, but there was something that motivated him to click “Like”, which won’t ever be replicated in any other human being. From the data perspective though all likes were created equal. There is nothing about his like that distinguishes it from the others. It’s a binary fact. He did or he did not.

(It’s true that with the data available today, marketers (and others) use a variety of indicators to interpret motivation, by judging things like where the user came from, what page they visited next, how long they spend on the page, but we’re hardly at the point where we can actually know a human’s intention by data alone.)

Aggregate data
Data is further impersonalized by the fact that it’s most often collected in aggregate. It’s not ‘Joe Smith liked the Starbucks Facebook page while eating microwave popcorn and watching TV’. His behavior is interpreted only once it’s been compiled and categorized by gender, age, socioeconomic status, education level and other demographics.

In fact, in interpreting data, you want as little as possible of the individual datum to show itself. The more data you have, the more accurate your predictions and insights because the larger your data set, the smaller the individual datum. A single fluke or irregularity won’t skew the results.

Metadata
If data is impersonal, than metadata (data about data) should be even more so.

Metadata in my mind is now associated with the NSA revelations. The NSA’s first defense after Edward Snowden leaked information about their spying programs, was that they were collecting metadata only.

The implication of that defense is that because it’s metadata, reams of numbers – times, locations, duration, phone numbers – degrees away from the girl in her dorm room crying to her best friend about a break up – it doesn’t invade the privacy of the individual.

And this is where the danger lies.

For those concerned about what marketers, the NSA, and others are doing with our data – the impersonal nature of data is supposed to make it better, less invasive. Nobody has to know your name, or what you want, or your intentions behind liking the page. All they need is the binary fact, you did like the page, or the quantifiable fact, you spent 3:37 minutes on the page, 15.67% more than males in your demographic and 5.34% more than the overall site average.

But is it really better?

Is it better that we have so successfully wiped the individual from our consciousness that we think it’s okay to spy, collect, share, sell and trade in the private lives of people?

We’re looking at this digital infrastructure we’ve created as an inevitable force of nature to be reckoned with, when really it’s an interpreted form of humanity. Servers and algorithms and massive secret databases are at their essence the Joe Smiths of the world, clicking, sending, viewing, liking, and communicating.

No matter how many steps away the final piece of data is from Joe Smith and his microwave popcorn, he will always be there. Data can only be the outermost layer of a person’s self expression, and still it contains everything that makes up his or her identity. The outrageousness of the NSA’s programs could only have gotten to the point that they have because we forgot that.

But what else are we creating now with this mind frame? Which parts of the internet are entrenching this way of thinking? Or do we decide what we can collect etc. based on how many degrees away it is from the person it represents?