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

A photo of pollution in Wuhan

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. 😉

Technology is a symptom

As “software eats the world,” further intertwining with our daily lives, more and more discussions that are ostensibly about tech are at heart political discussions. What looks like technology criticism is actually political critique, and therefore cannot be countered by arguments resting entirely within the niche of technology.

That is why I do not look for critical thinking about tech in tech publications. I am often disappointed by full-length books that are billed as deep, meaningful and thoughtful takes on society and technology.

In my heavily annotated copy of Douglas Coupland’s Kitten Clone (see review), there are a number of Post-it notes labelled with the admittedly dismissive tag: “old man problems.” Coupland’s tech-criticism-as-nostalgia is not satisfying to me by any means, and I am sure is completely dismissed by the Kool-Aid drinking techies in Silicon Valley. This type of “critical thinking” is of no help to anyone.
Continue reading “Technology is a symptom”

War in the East China Sea… or lack thereof

Foreign Affairs is being unnecessarily alarmist on China-Japan relations in the East China Sea. Take these quotes:

A military conflict between China and Japan would have catastrophic consequences and would almost certainly involve the U.S. military.

And:

The cost of any military conflict between China and Japan would be immense, and neither side wants a war.

Yet:

It isn’t as if China and Japan want to go to war over a few islands.

And:

While neither side wants a conflict…

But there is always a risk:

… in this volatile reality of increasingly crowded waters and airspace, the risk that a miscalculation or accident could escalate into a major crisis is far too high for comfort.

However small:

Yet even if the probability of any single encounter resulting in an incident remains low…

We insist, there is still risk!

… the frequency of plane and ship traffic in the region increases the likelihood of an incident that could escalate to a military crisis if not managed rapidly and effectively by both sides.

Here they are referring to these MOFA stats:

vessels in senkaku by year

Despite the article repeatedly stating that this is a “war” nobody wants, FA is willing to bang the drums. This article is simply a neorealist solution looking for a problem. (Here I refer you to my master’s thesis on this exact topic). Undoubtedly, China-Japan relations are a delicate topic and a better framework in East Asia is necessary. Nevertheless, banging the war drums is not the way to bring these parties to the peace table.

Long Morozov

The New Left Review has an excellent in depth interview with Evgeny Morozov called Socialize The Data Centres! Too bad that was the headline they went with, because his argument is more subtle than that, and the article contains so much more. For example, we learn about Morozov’s upbringing in Belarus and his early intellectual development (a major in Business Admin!?). Even better is discussion about his ideological evolution since writing his books. I find this interesting because while he has been working on his PhD at Harvard we have been only getting the occasional opinion piece. I can imagine he is going through a transformation and look forward to the resulting book(s?) at the end. Below are a few choice quotes from the article, however I encourage you to read it in its entirety.

On the problem:

… the encroachment of capital into everyday life by means of Silicon Valley, which I think is probably more consequential than the encroachment of the nsa into our civil liberties.

… we’re in danger of ending up with a kind of idiot history, in which everything starts in Silicon Valley, and there are no other forces or causes.

On the solution:

Right now all we can do is try to articulate some kind of utopian vision of what a non-neoliberal, but technology-friendly, world might look like.

The question is how can we build a system that will actually favour citizens, and perhaps even favour some kind of competition in its search engines. It’s primarily from data and not their algorithms that powerful companies currently derive their advantages, and the only way to curb that power is to take the data completely out of the market realm, so that no company can own them.

Some related links:

Computing in North Korea

RedStarOS screencap

There has been a wave of information about the computing environment and networking capabilities of North Korea coming out in the past week. Vice reported on the the release of a torrent of RedStar OS, a North Korean fork of Fedora. Combined with heightened interest over the purported Sony hack, there have been a lot of tear-downs of RedStar on security sites, including this one of the Naenara browser. Among other things, it hints at how the Nork internet is like a SME intranet, and not a private part of the global internet.

Another great piece is this CCC talk about teaching computer science in North Korea. Will Scott taught at PUST (Pyongyang University of Science & Technology) in 2013, a couple of years after Suki Kim did. Her book about her experience there is recommended (read my review: Emotional prisoner — a review of Without You, There Is No Us). In this talk Scott gives a demo of RedStar, and puts it into context of the day to day computing in North Korea, which he says is mostly WinXP. The demo is sort of a bizarro world Steve Jobsian demo, as the RedStar UX is heavily, heavily influenced my Mac OS X. He also demos an Android tablet.

Language is obviously a challenge, since not a lot of English-speaking security researchers can read Korean. But the code is much more legible, being that most coding conventions are based on English (a little bit of Anglo developer privilege there). Regardless, any glimpse into the “Hermit Kingdom” is a welcome one.

Foreign Affairs: Cash but no plan

Columns at Persepolis

Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada announced $9 million dollars in funding in partnership with the Munk School of Global Affairs at U of T for something called the “Digital Public Square project.” The CBC dubbed the project an experiment in digital diplomacy. The Globe called it “direct diplomacy.” The coverage in the National Post, Toronto Star et alia related how the project aims to allow government firewall circumvention, information sharing, and increase government accountability for citizens in “oppressive societies.” Leaving aside the questions around the efficacy of “digital diplomacy” (UPDATE: Taylor Owen outlines some of the perils), I was curious as to why there were no details on the “how.” Where is this money going to? Much of the news coverage focused on current efforts to engage Iranians, which is pretty confusing since the project seems to be about spreading to other countries. But how can we tell? There is no roadmap, and the hard questions have yet to be asked by the press. How can you announce $9M without saying how it will be used?

Until we get some more information, I took a look at the current Munk Center-backed program to engage Iranians.

Rial politik

The Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran site and its accompanying Google moderator sites sure don’t seem like something you throw $9M at. The RouhanimeterThe Rouhani Meter is some pretty good transparency propaganda, but Iran is awash in foreign propaganda (see below). The results seem impressive:

On May 10th, 2013, the Munk School launched a new kind of digital public square for Iran. … within two weeks, more than 360,000 unique users had connected with the Global Dialogue from inside Iran, and had visited the site over 1,490,000 times.

I am unclear as to how you would measure success. Iranians are notoriously political. Robert D. Kaplan once compared getting into a taxi in Tehran with getting into a taxi in Damascus: in Tehran the cabbie would right away start bitching about the government, while in Syria the cabbie was silent.

My experience was like this too. In 2004, during Ahmadinejad’s antagonistic era, I was in Iran covering the US presidential election (when George W. Bush was elected for a second term). Everybody wanted to talk to me about politics. Admittedly, I did spend most of my time with the kind of people who would hang around foreigners. They all listened to the BBC because they couldn’t trust their own newsmedia. However the blue-collar folk that I stayed with for my last week thought the BBC was propaganda. There are sharp divisions in the country to be sure, but Persian-language satellite channels, radio, websites etc. abound, especially thanks to the diaspora in Los Angeles. For years now, there has been a lot of civic activity around getting anti-regime voices to Iranians in country. I am unclear as to how a “digital public” square would be perceived any different. And it doesn’t explain how Iranians are being protected online.

Too many tomans?

So why is the Canadian government putting $9M in? That is a princely sum for a small startup guy like myself. Just from the news coverage, I don’t get it. I reached out to the Munk Center on Twitter and they recommended a couple of sources. Again, they related only to the current Iranian efforts, nothing about the future. Still, it did answer a couple of my questions.

Psiphon Inc logoFor example, circumvention. Psiphon originated as a project at the Citizen Lab (one of my fave orgs). They use a combination of VPN, SSH and proxies to get you around official barriers. Open source too. I am sure these guys could use some funding, so I hope they see some of that 9 mil.

Another org Munk pointed me to is ASL19, which seems like a sort of Citizen Lab focused on Iran. They have links with other orgs and other cool sites like Meidoon Watch which is kind of like a Hacker News for Iranian stuff. Seems useful. I wish I knew how much activity on that site is actually from inside of Iran. The Iranian diaspora is in the millions.

Mo’ money, mo’ problems… need mo’ info

There is certainly a network of organizations working on the Iran problem. The new Foreign Affairs money must be going to replicating these networks in other countries. I am just frustrated that Foreign Affairs and the Munk Center aren’t giving us more information on their plans, and that the press hasn’t asked for more. Sorry for this rambling post, but there is a bit of an information vacuum here, and I thought I would draw attention to it. I will gladly update this post if someone can provide answers. Or feel free to add some in the comments.

Photo credit: Me.

Disruptive politics

As Silicon Valley becomes the economic and cultural center of the US (and everywhere else, considering how “software is eating the world”) it is only natural that it will seek to become a political center. Hiring lobbyists — like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Uber (and Netflix in Canada) have — is just the first step. In fact, since that is an attempt to work inside of the existing system, those big companies are stuck within the innovator’s dilemma. For some in Silicon Valley, what is needed is disruptive innovation.

In Come With Us If You Want to Live: Among the apocalyptic libertarians of Silicon Valley, Sam Frank takes us on a networking spree with transhumanists, singularitarians, panpsychists, and negative hedonic utilitarians; all seeking to “change the world” in a much larger sense than Facebook or Whatsapp. The article “investigates the sometimes elitist, anti-democratic, utopian, and millenarian politics of Silicon Valley” and in it Frank relates a number of apocalyptic scenarios. Here is one that I think outlines the logic quite succinctly (or, at least how Frank sees it):

In five years an estimated 5.9 billion people will own smartphones. Anyone who can code, or who has something to sell, can be a free agent on the global marketplace. You can work from anywhere on your laptop and talk to anyone in the world; you can receive good anywhere via drone and pay for them with bitcoins — that is, if you can’t 3-D print them at home. As software eats everything, prices will plunge. You won’t need much money to live like a king; it won’t be a big deal if your job is made obsolete by code or a robot. The rich will enjoy bespoke luxury goods and be first in line for new experiences, but otherwise there will be no differences among people; inequality will increase but cease to matter. Politics as we know it will lose relevance. Large, grid-locked states will be disrupted like any monopoly. Customer-citizens, armed with information, will demand transparency, accountability, choice. They will want their countries to be run as well as a start-up.

The rhetoric is great, I love the term “customer-citizens” in particular. Unfortunately the article is behind a paywall, but you can get a taste with the online supplemental: Battlefield Worth: Occupy goes to TechCrunch Disrupt.

Sam Frank’s take is by no means even-handed. He opens his article with a visit to Zucotti Park and self-identifies as a “democratic-socialist introvert” and a Gramsci-ite. Frank’s interactions with the “libertarians” are a pastiche, with myriad quotes entirely out-of-context and comes off not thoroughly representative. Although that seems like a weakness, it actually turns out to be a strength. Through this whirlwind tour of Silicon Valley’s fringe politics we get a snapshot of the primordial ooze of political thought there — all seeking to disrupt politics as we know it, even seeking “post-politics” as Frank puts it.

The political spectrum of Silicon Valley is wide and varied. First there are the engaged politics which span the traditional right and left. For example: hyper-capitalist libertarians like Peter Thiel (“I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”); neoreactionaries which pine for a technocratic aristocracy; political activists like Aaron Swartz; or techno-socialists like Astra Taylor that want to shake up the system as it is. Then there is the more sinister, underlying ideology of the system of the type that Evgeny Morozov tries to expose and attack when he rails against cyber-utopianism and the “de-institutionalization of society.” I would love to see a catalogue of political ideology in Silicon Valley by someone like Mike Bulajewski or a working academic like Michael Sacasas. An impossible task maybe. But the next disruptive politics — the next Marx or Hobbes — could be in there somewhere.

In the meantime, explore one section of the spectrum with Sam Frank’s enjoyable piece.