Regarding reputation-building on the Internet, Clive Thompson writes approvingly that
network algorithms do not favor the cagey or secretive. They favor the prolific, the outgoing, the shameless.
Said another way, network algorithms do not favour the quiet or the reflective. They favour the loud-mouthed, the self-promoting, the flashy.
O brave new world that has such algorithms in it.
I'm afraid Clive Thompson has jumped the shark. From being a witty journalist at the interesting This Magazine he now fits right in at the boring Wired Magazine. On the way he seems to have lost his sense of irony (maybe they don't let you bring irony into Silicon Valley?) and his cynicism. As a result, he has also lost the plot. Come back Mr. Thompson!
His March 2007 article in Wired Magazine called The See-Through CEO coined the phrase Radical Transparency. Like other Silicon Valley catch phrases, it has that air of youthful rebellion, it is self-consciously ignorant of history (who needs history when all the interesting things are happening right now), and - most important of all - it imparts a feel-good sense of anti-corporate attitude to your next venture funding proposal or business plan. Because like other Silicon Valley catch phrases, Radical Transparency has about as much to do with rebellion as riding a mountain bike.
Here are some snatches from the article, and some recent events in the real world, mainly as reported by The Register - which has thankfully managed to keep its senses of both irony and cynicism - and mainly about Web 2.0 poster-offspring Google and its growing Google-hoard of companies.
"You can't hide anything anymore," Don Tapscott says. Coauthor of The Naked Corporation, a book about corporate transparency, and Wikinomics, Tapscott is explaining a core truth of the see-through age: If you engage in corporate flimflam, people will find out.
Meanwhile, Google plays cat and mouse with regulators. Leif Aanensen, deputy director general of the Norwegian Office of the Data Inspectorate, has been investigating Google's data retention policy:
"We are not satisfied," he said. "We didn't get the proper answers."
"Our main issue was their data retention policy and the use of the data they stored. We asked them what they were doing with the personal data - are you creating profiles - they didn't answer," he said.
Thompson writes: "You can't go halfway naked. It's all or nothing. Executives who promise they'll be open have to stay open."
YouTube says anyone who wants to get paid can let it know by registering an interest, but provided no timescale for when it will cough up, or what the carve-up will be.
Or will there be advertising on the iGoogle front pages?
The company has not made any noises about placing personalised ads on the new iGoogle personalised homepage, but industry observers are fairly confident it is only a matter of time.
When it comes to openness, Thompson writes "there's no use trying to resist. You're already naked." How Naked? Hard to tell, because it is not easy to find out what information Google keeps about you.
"Upon arriving at the Google homepage, a Google user is not informed of Google's data collection practices until he or she clicks through four links," says the section of the complaint which details Google's alleged deceptive trade practices. "Most users will not reach this page. In truth and in fact, Google collects user search terms in connection with his or her IP address without adequate notice to the user. Therefore, Google's representations concerning its data retention practices were, and are, deceptive practices.
"As a result of Google's failure to detail its data retention policies until four levels down within its website, its users are unaware that their activities are being monitored," says the complaint in the section alleging unfair trade practices.
Secrecy is dying. It's probably already dead.
Meanwhile, here's Google being radically opaque:
ord broke this month that Google has purchased 800 acres of land in Pryor, Oklahoma. The company has yet to confirm plans for the site, but I'm betting on a new data center rather than an amusement park (in all fairness, you can never tell with this bunch – Ed).
Oklahoma proves a handy spot to have a data center since the state's Governor signed a new law that affords the largest corporate energy users the right to keep their power consumption figures a secret.
Governor Brad Henry signed the energy law (House Bill 1038) just a couple of days after news of Google's land purchase reached the local newspapers. Coincidence? Sure.
The lawmakers behind the bill denied having chats with Google around any legislation. People familiar with the matter, however, did note that the law proves convenient for an entity such as Google that likes to keep as much information secret as possible.
If you're a demanding type who needs evidence of Google's secret ways, have a listen to head of strategic development Rhett Weiss. He presided over a party celebrating yet another Google data center in South Carolina. When asked about Google's water and power usage, Weiss confessed: "We're in a highly competitive industry and, frankly, one or two little pieces of information like that in the hands of our competitors can do us considerable damage. So we can't discuss it."
What else does Google not tell us? Here's Nicholas Carr:
“We never,” says a Google representative, “comment on who we’re talking to, who we’ve considered, who we’ve rejected. We feel that when we come to an agreement, that’s the time to make an announcement.”
So please, Mr. Thompson - exercise some scepticism. Even a little would go a long way.
Nicholas Carr of Rough Type has been reading David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous, and is disappointed. But in his disappointment he coins a phrase I really like: "the liberation mythology of the Internet".
I only reached the bottom of page nine, at which point I crashed into this passage about music:
For decades we've been buying albums. We thought it was for artistic reasons, but it was really because the economics of the physical world required it: Bundling songs into long-playing albums lowered the production, marketing, and distribution costs because there were fewer records to make, ship, shelve, categorize, alphabetize, and inventory. As soon as music went digital, we learned that the natural unit of music is the track. Thus was iTunes born, a miscellaneous pile of 3.5 million songs from a thousand record labels. Anyone can offer music there without first having to get the permission of a record executive.
"... the natural unit of music is the track"? Well, roll over, Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news.
There's a lot going on in that brief passage, and almost all of it is wrong. Weinberger does do a good job, though, of condensing into a few sentences what might be called the liberation mythology of the internet. This mythology is founded on a sweeping historical revisionism that conjures up an imaginary predigital world - a world of profound physical and economic constraints - from which the web is now liberating us. We were enslaved, and now we are saved. In a bizarrely fanciful twist, made explicit in Weinberger's words, the digital world is presented as a "natural" counterpoint to the supposed artificiality of the physical world.
There's much more at Rough Type, as Carr demolishes Weinberger's claim.
It's been an enjoyable day.
First Alex Tabarrok threw my book against the wall and promised to kick me in the shins if I venture near George Mason University - and sent my Amazon.com ranking up to number 3634.
Now Brad DeLong offers to "throw one of my two copies out my sixth-floor office window and to trap Tom Slee in the Evans Hall middle south elevator for no less than thirty minutes" - and sends it up to 2,460.
Thanks to both of them. I think.
At Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok has posted a fine review of No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: I'll be keeping this paragraph somewhere to cheer me up when I'm feeling gloomy:
Slee's book is the best of the anti-market books: it is well written, serious, and knowledgeable about economics. In fact, I regard Slee's book as an excellent primer on asymmetric information, free riding, externalities, herding, coordination problems and identity - Economics 301 for all those budding young Ezra Klein's of the world who think that Economics 101 isn't quite right.
Very nice. But coming from his libertarian point of view, it's not surprising he has some criticisms. Let's skip right past the lesser ones to the Most Serious Of All:
The chapter on power is terrible, I did throw the book against the wall. Perhaps in order to prepare us to welcome government as the deliverer of our true preferences, Slee wants to diminish the distinction between liberty and coercion. But a true liberal should never write things like this:
...the formal structure of democracy and free markets is not enough to rule out exploitation and plunder - characteristics usually associated with repressive regimes.
If Tom visits GMU (I happen to know he reads MR) he should watch out because I shall kick him in the shins stating, "I refute you thus."
More seriously, repressive governments around the world threaten, rob, torture and murder with impunity. Courageous individuals have died trying to escape such regimes while others have died fighting for their rights. No matter how great are differences in wealth, it is morally wrong to equate what goes on in repressive regimes with capitalist acts between consenting adults.
Strong stuff, and it hits home because I always thought that chapter to be the weakest in the book. But blogs are no place for mild-mannered agreement so let me try to return the kick in the shins.
Most of us see many problems of this world in shades of grey, but there are always a few issues that are starker and more elemental, which we see as black or white. The "shades of grey" issues are questions of nuance and detail - these are questions where reasonable people can reasonably disagree, where we look to modest reform to improve matters, and where we look for technical solutions. It's the dichotomies where we stand our ground - these are the things that define our politics; they are matters of principle - it's right vs. wrong and communication across these divides is difficult. So what are these fundamental, black vs white issues?
Karl Marx knew what he thought was fundamental:
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
My brother once relayed to me a very short conversation he had in a pub with a radical feminist:
Brother: throughout history the fundamental oppression is that of one class by another.
Feminist: throughout history the fundamental oppression is that of women by men.
Imagined Next Line By Both: who else can I sit with?
Peter Singer (in "A Darwinian Left", page 8) sets out what he sees as "fundamental to the left": it is to be "on the side of the weak, not the powerful; of the oppressed, not the oppressor; of the ridden, not the rider."
Where do libertarians draw their line? It's coercion versus liberty: the state versus markets, laws versus bargains. That's why a typical Cato Institute article is something like "Is the Minimum Wage Coercive?" Small wonder then, that it's a chapter setting out to recast this dichotomy as shades of grey that makes Alex Tabarrok throw the book against the wall. You can see elsewhere in Alex's review that this is the fundamental dichotomy he has in mind as he reads. When I talk about collective action he assumes I'm talking about government intervention in the economy because that's where he sees me, as his ideological opposition, coming from.
It's a mark of the success of the libertarian project that the left has bought into this false dichotomy of state versus markets. We (the left) are the victim of our own success - the post-war construction of the welfare state, the achievements of social democracy, the provision of public education, and of public healthcare. We've let ourselves be identified with these achievements, and so now stand as conservative defenders of the state against the market-favouring radicals. Yet things need not be so. I look on my bookshelves and see some books from the UK of the late '70s and early '80s: "In and Against the State", Ralph Miliband's "The State in Capitalist Society" and so on. Those on the left have a long history of opposition to the state, and a recognition of its problems. The difference is, we on the left don't see the state as the root of the problems. The state may be a hammer, but it's the arm holding it we need to worry about. "The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie" wasn't it?.
The point of my chapter is to remind us that the state is not the sole source of coercion, and that libertarians have a blind spot to coercion in the non-state sector. In the comments section of a recent Marginal Revolution post about the Cato Institute Minimum Wage article I said "My employer requires that I follow instructions from my manager or I can be fired. Is that also coercive? Yes." and another commenter responded "No, refusing to buy future labor from you is not coercive." I can see what he or she means, but you can also see the false dichotomy here - the law is coercive, everything else is a matter of choice. Tell that to (among many many examples) workers locked-in overnight at Wal-Mart stores. Was slavery coercion? Yes, and it would surely be a stretch to see slavery as a problem rooted in the state.
Alex writes "If there were no asymmetric information, no herding, no coordination problems and so forth I guarantee that there would still be plenty of inequality." True enough, but if there were no state, no laws, no public health standards, and so forth I guarantee that there would still be plenty of coercion.
We are obviously speaking from very different points of view. Are there paths across the divide? I would suggest there are. Alex claims that I have "no appreciation that what some of us MarketThink people really advocate is civil society which includes non-profits and voluntary collective action of all kinds." Compare that assertion with Erik Olin Wright's rather wordy but still worth reading "Taking the Social in Socialism Seriously" (PDF), which also focuses on civil society as a way out of the market/state dichotomy. Or the way in which both communitarian left and libertarian right took Jane Jacobs to their hearts. There is a phrase there (voluntary collective action) that we all seem to favour, even as some of us focus on the collective and others on the voluntary. Perhaps a focus on the possibilities of that phrase would be worth exploring.
Update: Brad DeLong links to AT's review here (but credits the review to AT's partner in marginal crime Tyler Cowen). The comment thread has quite a different set of sympathies!
Update 2: The other day I was pleased that my amazon.com Sales Rank was around 42,000. It is now 3634 - entirely due to the review.
That's my book's Amazon.com number right now.
It's the lowest (best) I've seen it in the year since publication, which is pretty encouraging. Usually it's up in the 100,000 to 500,000 range, but a series of about three purchases this week knocked it down.
Yes, I still check it far too much.
Being a little technosmug I recently volunteered to revive the website for the Kitchener-Waterloo NDP. The results so far are online at http://www.kwndp.ca. In getting this far I've learned a whole lot of new words and been hugely impressed by some of the software that is now available. It's a new world out there kids. But of course, being also technosceptical, I have some second thoughts.
First things first. I am lazy of course, so I wanted to make sure that not every change to the web site had to go through me. Also, I wanted a system where members can log in, so a database-hosted site of some kind made sense. I found and went with a content-management system called drupal. To see whether this is widely used I did a google trends search and it seems like quite the thing these days, although not quite so much as its newer offspring joomla (google trends comparison here). I went with drupal because it seems a little more open, if a little less user friendly. It’s a PHP package that is usually hosted on a MySQL server using the MyISAM storage engine.
There’s quite a lot of install assistance for drupal. Basically, the ISP provides me with an empty MySQL database on their server, and an admin login to that database. I used filezilla to ftp the files to the ISP server, PuTTY to get a secure command line interface, and followed the instructions. After one misstep, which turned a ten minute process into an hour, I was able to open a browser, point it at the domain name, log in using the admin password my ISP had provided, and there was a drupal home page with items to create accounts and add content. From here on, pretty much everything is done by browser.
There’s a drupal cookbook for beginners which walks you through making some sensible settings. You can add menus to each page, allow comments on pages (like the online documentation initiative), add different content types (individual pages, “books” which have several pages of related content, and so on). You can also create users and define roles, so that visitors (external users of the site) see a web site, but users who log in can (depending on what role I give them) can create content or carry out other tasks. So I think drupal does the trick in allowing me to be lazy, while keeping the site secure.
There are two ways of extending a web site set up with drupal. One is themes - page layouts and colours. I’m just starting to customize our site so it has a theme that reflects the organization. The nice thing is that you can submit themes back to drupal or share them with other sites, so riding associations in other cities could, if they like the look of the KW site, adopt it too.
The second is modules, which are add-on packages. Some are simple, like providing a contact form.
I haven’t seen wiki modules, but there are blogging modules so we could host a candidate’s blog during the election campaign, and forum modules (internal or external discussions).
Other modules are complete applications in themselves. For example, I came across something called CiviCRM, which is a “constituent relationship management” package for community groups. It helps to manage volunteers, fundraising and other campaigns. So maybe the web site can be not just a public face for the riding association, but it can also serve (once people log in and once I assign them to a role that has the right privileges) as a tool for managing membership, election campaigns (who has signs on their lawns and so on) and all that. I’m just starting to look into it, but it looks pretty cool and extensive. It installs as a drupal module, so it should just add to the site I already have.
And all this drupal infrastructure (as you can see from the google
trends page) has been built in the last three or four years. Remarkable.
So I’m very impressed and pretty excited about doing more with this. Why only two cheers then?
Mainly because, if effective technology is what makes community groups and other volunteer-driven groups effective, we should be living in a golden age of participatory democracy, where larger numbers of people than ever are able to take part in everything from supporting their local orchestra to global projects. And while my friend Ruth disagrees, I don't think we are. Participation in politics (as seen by voting rates and party memberships) is down across the board, I think, compared to a few decades ago; protests against the Iraq war have been, those big ones in 203 excepted, muted compared to previous wars. There's a disconnect.
Technology is fine, but we should remember that it's just one piece of the puzzle. So while an e-mail blast automated from a server is much more efficient than afternoons spent licking envelopes in a church basement or the constituency party rooms, it doesn't necessarily free volunteers up to do other things. My own suspicion is because the social aspect of being in an activist group is essential to people, and while licking stamps may not be that thrilling (Principal Skinner's opinion notwithstanding, if you remember the Simpson's episode about the chocolate factory visit), the opportunity to hang out with other group members for an afternoon is part of what we join groups for.
So I'll carry on with the site, and enjoy doing it. But I won't kid myself that the success or failure of the site has much to do with the success or failure of the NDP.