Nostalgic utopianism — a review of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

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Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity  by Douglas Rushkoff

Power corrupts and money ruins everything. These are basically the premises that Douglas Rushkoff starts from in his latest book, a critique of the concentration of power in the digital economy and the inequality it breeds. He uses the protests targeting private Google buses in 2013 to highlight the inequality driven by the US economy dominated by the monopolous forerunners of the digital economy. I was in SF at the time, and commented on what I saw:

I was struck by how conflicted the city is. The chasm between those in tech and those not in tech is nearly at class-warfare levels. Almost daily there are articles about the chasm widening (eg. the recent Google Bus demonstration). To get better sense of the civic strife, read the following link-filled article: Silicon Valley Is Living Inside A Bubble Of Tone-Deaf Arrogance.

Rushkoff has always been writing on the edges of technology and society. Now he tries his hand at technology and economics. His argument is that the digital economy is not a disruption, but merely an extension of the industrial age, with the problematic bits of that era even more acute. He takes great pains to show the monopolistic tendencies of networks and the ill effects of “digitally accelerated capitalism.” The evidence that he provides is damning, but his framework of analysis is not particularly convincing. His mistake is to analyze corporations using McLuhan’s tetrad of media effects, which ends up looking like this:

  1. What does the corporation enhance?
  2. What does the corporation make obsolete?
  3. What does the corporation retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does the corporation flip into when pushed to extremes?

It is an interesting thought experiment, but ultimately fails where more traditional economic arguments would succeed. The results are muddled. For example in chapter 21 he criticizes mainstream economic education, yet nowhere in the book does he name alternative economic models. The terms “neoliberalism”, “socialism”, “socialist democracy” never appear in the book. “Communism” pops up a handful of times, but only in a defensive matter:

For a business to find its appropriate size even if this means scaling down is not a Communist Plot. [pp. 105]

Rushkoff fears being accused as “communist” above all else, and that ends up undermining his argument. For Rushkoff, there is only Capitalism and Communism. His understanding of political theory comes off as unsubtle, but maybe it is the the limited of understanding of his audience that is influencing him, aka. the big tech CEOs that ask him for advice running their companies or hire him for highly paid corporate speaking engagements. This economic calculus might be the reason for Rushkoff’s lukewarm critique. He is not willing to go to the radical, or use radical language for fear of alienating his audience (née customers). The result is a fuzzy, friendly, plush toy critical theory. He is good at pointing out how damaging capitalism is, but instead of rejecting it, he dreams of a more “conscious” capitalism, a more “humane” capitalism. His solution is go back to a pre-industrial economic model, like the putting out system. Imagine a massive distributed network of makers 3D printing bespoke items for their neighbours out of their handmade cottages. This is how it should have been. Rushkoff is a nostalgic utopian, and this is further evidenced by his analysis of the internet.

Many of the greatest hits of 1990s internet theory are covered in this book, each critiqued and shown how they were not bourne out in the past decade and a half. Rushkoff gives a recent history lesson, showing how terrible things currently are, but then wishes things were like the old theorists thought it would be. Rushkoff is an early model cyberutopian.

However, there is a difference: the saviour of our society is not necessarily technology(!). In fact, Rushkoff argues that it comes down to how we structure our firms and our economy that will save society (aka. politics). That being said, he still thinks that distributed technologies can play a big role in achieving a less centralized system. Thus, Rushkoff’s view might be categorized alongside Steven Johnson’s peer progressivism (see some of my old thinking about PP here).

Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus might not be the final wrench in the gears of our system of unfettered cyber-capitalism, but it is still worth the read. There are some excellent arguments in here against our addiction to growth, some cool examples of alternative transaction systems (local currencies, time dollars, LETS), and a spectacular takedown of startups and venture capital near the end of the book. Despite coming up short in its overall analysis, it is a good book to recommend to a friend who has just started to smell something bad in tech, knows something wrong, but is not quite ready for a full-blown attack on the real underlying problem: capitalism itself.

Clausewitz Roundtable released as book

Many years ago I participated in an inter-blog (and very detailed!) discussion of the military classic On War by Carl von Clausewitz. The proceedings of that endeavour have been collated into 553 page book, released this week by Ever Victorious Press.

I submitted three chapters under my alias at the time “Sir Francis Younghusband.” My bio from that time was appropriately ridiculous:

Younghusband_bio

If you are very interested in CvC, you can get the book from all the usual places. Below are the links to my minor contributions:

My thanks to Michael Lotus and Mark Safranski for their work.

Why NOT Uber?

What do people really want when they say they want Uber to come to their community?

Once they learn about all the scandals, lawsuits, riots and demonstrations, the many lists of reasons not to use Uber, most people come away with a nuanced opinion. But typically, at first blush, many people have a very positive reaction to Uber. Why?

One reason could be the marketing. Uber is a poster child for the “sharing economy” — a feel-good marketing term that is inaccurate and “needs to die.” In his excellent book What’s Yours is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy author Tom Slee digs into the hopes and promises of the new rash of sharing economy companies, and shows how they fail to deliver and can actually damage our society.

A key objective of marketing is generating demand. Recently in Kelowna Uber Canada held two information sessions to “gauge interest”. Uber is really good at this. They turn their users into lobbyists, use social media effectively (see the recent province-wide #bc4uber hashtag campaign), and they get local governments to lobby on their behalf. As of last summer they had 250 lobbyists and 29 lobbying firms registered in capitols around the US. Earlier this year our provincial political leaders jumped on the bandwagon and spent money on their own ad campaign for the sharing economy.

Uber is able to get many people on its side through marketing, but that cannot be the only reason people like (at least the idea) of Uber. There seems to be some deep-seated dissatisfaction with the state of transportation as it is today.1 Let us examine some of these arguments.

Often Uber proponents say 1) taxis are expensive and there is no competition; 2) that they can never get a taxi when they need one; and 3) the Uber experience is better.
Continue reading “Why NOT Uber?”

Recommended reading: Religion and neoliberalism

James Chappel reviews four books in the Boston Review that dig into the link between neoliberalism and religious institutions. I found this piece enlightening just from its perspective on the rise of neoliberalism in general. The idea that neoliberalism is merely “sophisticated common sense” explains its common appeal… just like religion.

Below are a number of choice quotes from the piece, but I recommend reading the entire thing.

“A specter is haunting the academy—the specter of neoliberalism. In response to assaults on racial, gender, and economic equality, scholars from multiple disciplines are turning to neoliberalism as the culprit.”

This is the conclusion I have come to with regards to tech. Continue reading “Recommended reading: Religion and neoliberalism”

The superficiality of living small

Downsizing (or minimalism) is often portrayed as anti-consumerist and eco-friendly. Living small means you buy less stuff, produce less trash, and have a smaller environmental footprint in terms of heating/cooling your home. Plus, if you position your home close to amenities, you walk/bike more and drive less. Secondly, living small is about removing oneself from the current trend of financialization — getting off the mortgage hamster wheel, removing debt dependance, and not participating in surveillance capitalism by using credit cards and the like.

These are all good reasons for downsizing, but is the tactic wrong? It depends on what you are trying to solve for.
Continue reading “The superficiality of living small”

Learning about the Syrian crisis

The five year long Syrian Civil War is one of the largest conflicts in our world at this time. 250,000 dead (possibly more than 470,000 by some estimates), 6 million refugees, 11 million IDPs — the Syrian Civil war is a disaster and it doesn’t look to be ending soon.

The Middle East is not my specialty; Japan is the foreign country I know most about although I covered Tajikistan and Central in my Regional Analysis class at Royal Military College, and nearly wrote my master’s thesis on Iran. The closest I have ever been to the Middle East is Iran, with a layover in Dubai. But in working with the Okanagan Refugee Coalition for Advocacy (ORCA), I decided I needed to learn more about the context that these people are escaping from.

Coming to grips with the Syrian Civil War has a bit of a learning curve. Inside the country there are a lot of conflicting players. Then, as always, there are the outside influences. This (admittedly simplistic) WaPo diagram gives you a sense of the growing complexity (click to see the full flowchart):

syrian_crisis_diagram

The conflict in Syria not only involves lots of players, but also lots of issues: Syria is an example of the failure of the Arab Spring; it lies at the heart of the rise of ISIL/ISIS; it is a flashpoint of sectarianism and secularism; is a proxy in the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and between Russia and the West. And that doesn’t even include the legacy of post-colonialism and dictatorship that Syria has suffered.

There are layers upon layers, so as a beginner I was looking for some books to provide context. Here are a few recommendations: Continue reading “Learning about the Syrian crisis”

Helping Syrian refugees

Out of 11 million people diplaced during Syria’s five year long civil war, more than four and a half million are languishing in camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and other countries. Many have been in the camps for years. At the end of October 2015, our new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his intention to give sanctuary to 25,000 Syrian refugees. Not a large number compared to other countries, or even compared to Canada’s response to other refugee crises historically, yet this is still a large undertaking. Helping Syrian refugees is a massive national project and will take the support of many Canadians beyond the civil servants in Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).

I wanted to get involved. After some investigating and talking with friends involved, I joined ORCA.

ORCA_header

The Okanagan Refugee Coalition for Advocacy is a non-governmental group that connects neighbourhood groups sponsoring local refugee families with common services and advocates on their behalf to policymakers and the wider public. ORCA tackles issues on a project-by-project basis with special focus on things faced by every sponsorship group, for example vetting volunteers, organizing English as a Second Language training, and even securing driver’s licenses. ORCA’s role is to support the wider network of sponsor groups as needs arise.

There are currently 8 (known) groups sponsoring a couple of dozen families in the region (you can see short profiles of each group at orcabc.org). Sponsoring a family takes a lot of time and money. Usually, each family is supported by a dozen people. In most cases in the Okanagan these groups privately raise at least $30,000 to see the refugee family through their first year. So far we have not received any Government Assisted Refugees (GARs). Most are Privately Sponsored Refugees (PSRs) or a mix of government and private (BVOR: Blended Visa Office-Referred).

Meeting with these neighbourhood groups (we at ORCA call them “support pods”) I have been impressed with their variety and resilience. These are regular people without any special training trying to help other humans in need. To get a sense of what kind of people are in these groups, and what they talk about, listen to this short CBC documentary about a sponsor group in Toronto. Some of the topics that come up in pod meetings are very intense, leading to philosophical debate. Groups have differences in how they approach problems, but they are all doing excellent work, and I aim to support them in any way I can.

Since starting on this project, I have learned that many of the problems that refugees face are actually part of bigger social problems. The standout is housing. Securing homes for incoming refugees, which often arrive with just 24 hours of notice, has been the main challenge of sponsor pods so far. But this is in the context of a wider housing crisis. Kelowna is ranked “Severe” on the Canadian Housing Rental Index. More than a quarter of people here spend half of their income on rent, and availability is very tight (2.6% as of Apr 2015). Other centers in Canada are also suffering from the same problem. In the long-term, we are looking to tackle issues like this — issues that not only refugees face — in a more holistic manner. In the meantime, there is only a couple more months of intake and a whole lot of soon-to-be-arriving families on the horizon that need help.

If you are interested in helping too, please visit ORCA and get in touch. In general, sponsor pods need to solve the housing issue. If you have access to affordable housing, please let us know. Sponsor groups are also looking for people with professional skills (doctors, dentists, etc) willing to donate their time, as well as drivers to help with mobility, and of course potential employers. Things like clothes, furniture and toys are generally not needed. Vehicles are, especially vans for large families. Monetary donations are always welcome. Since we have no central fund, talk to an ORCA rep to find out where your money is most needed. If you want to dedicate the next year or so of your life and help a family, become a sponsor pod member or start your own pod! There are more and more families coming, and long term volunteers that get to know the families and shepherd them along in their journey are sorely needed. If you are looking for a new project, or are looking to do some good in the world, I can assure you that helping a Syrian (or any other nationality) refugee family is highly rewarding.

A slim crisis — a review of Disruptive Power

cover of Disruptive Power

Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age by Taylor Owen

From the book:

Coupled with the power that is derived by the state’s increasing sophistication in this space — whether through automation, biometrics, or the new forms of social control and the violence they enable — there is reason to question the narrative of empowerment that has been explored throughout this book.

Emphasis added. This quote comes from page 184 (of 210). That is 88% of the way into the book. It reflects my frustration with this book, as I spent much of my time questioning the “narrative of empowerment.”

Owen does a good job giving an overview of the state of tech and the state. Each chapter tackles big issues in tech and the way we govern ourselves: “activists, humanitarians, journalists, … terrorists”. All the usual suspects make an appearance — Anonymous, Bitcoin, Ushahidi — and the tried and true analysts like Shirky, Benkler, and Castells are cited at length.

But there is a shocking lack of critique.

A simple example:

Anyone can now disseminate information on a new media infrastructure. Blogs, social networks, and the wider Internet all allow people to self-publish and have the capacity to reach most people around the globe.

This completely ignores the inherent power imbalances the incumbents have (ie. talent pools, media relationships, existing audiences etc). Joe Sixpack blogger != CNN. This kind of statement has been debunked time and again. Throughout Disruptive Power there are a number of these observations which are seated more in the cyberutopian wishful thinking of the 1990s, than the analyses bourne out in the past few years.

Throughout the book Owen derides hierarchy, lauding liquid democracy and the “flat” structure of Occupy Wall Street. This belies how fractured and terrible the decision-making was/is in OWS and the Pirate Party. Owen pits hierarchy against networked organizations — yet, hierarchy is simply a type of network architecture. The book is riddled with such simplifications, and it detracts from his overall argument.

Owen cites tech critics like Evgeny Morozov, so he is surely aware of the negative aspects of the tech-boosterism he seems engaged in. His Twitter activity is also evidence of this. So why is this book so one-sided? Later in the book Owen takes on a more critical tone, and these chapters are much more satisfying. It is almost like this book was written in the same order it is presented, and the longer he researched, the more nuanced his opinion became.

A more likely hypothesis is length: Disruptive Power is a mere 210 pages (plus endnotes), and gives a whirlwind tour of some very large trends. Books have been written on each of the chapter topics. Owen barely scratches the surface. I would have liked him to add another 120 or so pages and include a more rounded-out argument. Disruptive Power may be a good primer on these topics, but it is not a thorough critical analysis. Read it as the beginning of a journey into this topic, not to get caught up on the current state of affairs.

China’s Inconvenient Truth

Photo: Residential buildings in Wuhan, Hubei Province. Darley Shen/Reuters.

In late February, Under the Dome, a documentary by former television news anchor and investigative journalist Chai Jing, was released criticizing China’s environmental record. Her quiet, understated approach is charismatic. Armed with statistics, footage and interviews from a number of impressive sources, she flexed her investigative journalist muscles. The film went viral in China.

Within a week, the Party shut it down. The film was “spirited away by gremlins.”

Of course, it still exists online outside of China, and I recommend you watch it. The entire film is on YouTube, the translation of which was apparently coordinated by a grade 12 student from Mainland China via GitHub.

(I watched via this playlist by a different translator, which I had discovered before finding the project above.)

Even if you are not a China watcher, the presentation is very engaging — a master class in presentation skills. Many have compared it to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

Chai examines the impact of China’s energy mix, criticizing coal, diesel, oil, as well as the lax enforcement of the various ministries responsible and the corporations that control them. She closes with a number of suggestions including market competition and people power. I don’t know if opening up the market is the right answer, but surely the stricter enforcement that she calls for is necessary whether or not China reforms its energy sector. She promotes apps made with the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs that allow the public to see and report businesses with excessive emissions to environmental watchdogs and publicly on Weibo.

Harnessing China’s powerful netizens to work with environmental NPOs might seem like a risky move. But just this year the government introduced new new environmental protection provisions that encourages “naming and shaming” of illegal polluters. Last year, President Xi himself declared war on pollution. This is an interesting use of open data, and can only be executed by having the right legal infrastructure in place (ie. buy-in by the government) and an engaged citizenry (ie. buy-in by the people).

Chai points out that this is a chance for Chinese citizens to test the fortitude of these laws and their government. The government is asking for transparency and public involvement in solving to pollution crisis in China. But as the pulling of this documentary demonstrates, they don’t want transparency and public involvement in pointing out how the government has failed thus far.

That criticism aside, awareness of how bad things are in China (and soon to be in India) is an important step, especially since they offer tools for the public to get involved. In Canada, emergency environmental reporting is devolved to the provincial and sometimes city level. This isn’t as convenient as China’s hotline number “12369” (which I can already recall by memory, just from watching the film), but just knowing that such infrastructure for reporting exists in the first place should be made common knowledge.

Documentaries like Under the Dome promote conversation around these issues (even though sometimes the politics involved can be … ahem … toxic). China is attempting to shut down the conversation in its own country, but that doesn’t mean we have to ignore the problem here. And if Canada wants to grow that $20B in trade we do with China, we can make sure that our government does so in a responsible way, leveraging the laws that the Chinese government has already put in place.

More than computers — A recap of LinuxFest Northwest 2015

For me, this year’s LinuxFest Northwest 2015 was learning more about the politics of the Free Software movement. This track featured some excellent and eminent speakers, and I enjoyed it very much. Here is a short recap of each session:

1.

Deb Nicholson, the Director of Community Outreach at the Open Invention Network gave an entertaining talk called Patents and Copyright and Trademarks: A Primer for Developers. Using plain language and funny pictures, she delineated trademarks (how it looks), copyright (the content), and patents (how it works) in a simple way. I enjoyed her examples of “trademark collision” and where things get fuzzy with regard to patenting software.

2.

screen cap of slide

Bradley Kuhn, former director of the Free Software Foundation brought the controversy in his talk Considering the Future of Copyleft: How Will The Next Generation Perceive GPL?. You can see a previous version of the talk on YouTube. Basically he advocated the enforcement of licenses, the abandonment of weak copyleft, and bringing the principles of copyleft to a new generation of coders. Javascript and Android are the new fronts for free software in this age, and the young devs coming up are used to wiring together frameworks and APIs without much knowledge or background about licensing. This is a long-term problem for the free software movement. As I summed up in my tweet from the event:

3.

Every year at LFNW there is an ACLU/EFF Panel Discussion. This year Seth Schoen from the EFF partnered with ACLU Washington state’s Technology and Liberty Director Jared Friend. Seth was great as always, and I was really impressed with Jared. As usual the crowd got pretty riled up. The discussion included stingrays, the terrible DMCA exemptions process, and fighting 215. The EFF must make a chunk in donations on LFNW weekends, but I feel like we in the crowd want to do more, but can’t, and feel helpless.

4.

The final talk I took in was an intro to The Free Software Foundation Licensing & Compliance Lab; We Fight for the User by Donald Robertson who is a Copyright and Licensing Associate with the FSF. This was a more informational session, but I came away with a much better understanding of the FSF and its activities.

Other interactions

With 1800 attendees and a bunch of exhibitors, you can bet you are going to meet some interesting people at LFNW.

Late Saturday, on the way to our traditional drinking spot Uisce, we stopped by The Foundry, Bellingham’s Makerspace. They had a really nice setup with electronics, sewing, woodworking corners in addition to the “traditional” 3D printers, laser cutters and the like. Check out my album on Flickr to see their amazing PAPER 3D printer. This thing blew my mind. (They have better pics on their

(http://www.bellinghamfoundry.com/gallery/)). We capped off the visit by playing a 3D printed guitar and 3D scanning my head. Good times.

screen cap of Chad's 3d scanned head

On Sunday I wandered the exhibitor’s floor rather than going to sessions.

I spoke with the executive director of Geeks Without Bounds, and we had a good discussion about balancing fervor for technological solutionism and the realities of delivering aid through established frameworks. I am confident that GWOB isn’t simply about air-dropping mobile phones across the developing world and telling them to simply apt-get install democracy.

There was another deep discussion with Aaron Wolf from Snowdrift.coop, which is a platform for coordinating donations to F/OSS projects to make a bigger impact on development (those are my words). Rather than tons of disparate small donations going to disparate projects, getting everyone to put there money in the same place can push a project forward in a meaningful way. The vision of the project, and the idea to convince proprietary projects to go open once a sustainable ecosystem is developed is intriguing and worthy, even if extremely challenging. Check them out.

In conclusion

LFNW is about more than computers. There is a rich background of history and culture to the Free Software movement and the Free Culture movement. Learning about the ways these organizations fight for every user’s rights through legislative, legal and technical means is empowering. It is not all about the tech, but about the politics and social norms that underly every human endeavor. This recap should demonstrate that you do not have to be a Linux geek to enjoy LinuxFest. There are tons of learning and networking opportunities for developers and users of all kinds.

I did not touch a command line all weekend. Which suits me, since I only have a Mac and wouldn’t want to be scorned by all the true neckbeards there. 😉