and these children that you spit on as they try and change their world

Short day today, so I’m going to you for content.

First, post a link in the comments to your favorite videos on TED.com. If you don’t have a favorite yet, visit the site and browse.

Mine:

Second, if you got invited to speak at TED, what would you speak on? You don’t need to be a world-renowned expert. But it does need to be a subject that you can speak passionately and creatively about, and it needs to suggest changes (small or large, personal or social) that you think would improve the world.

If I got invited (and I reserve the right to change this if TED calls me up tomorrow), I would speak on how to take advantage of revolution cascades to change a culture. I’d have to spend a few minutes laying out Timur Kuran’s theories of preference falsification. Then I’d get into concrete steps:

  • Promote awareness through spectacle.
  • Change people at the margins first.
  • Decide where your strength lies (endurance vs. speed, ingenuity vs. tradition) and ramp it up.
So that’s my talk. What’s yours?

Of course, if you can dance, you can always dance. But it’s got to be good.

it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor

I haven’t been religious for more than a decade now. From the day I decided to walk away from religion I’ve never missed it. It fills no essential role in my life, either ethically or logically. I almost forget what it was like to be religious.

But I have noticed one thing missing: the sense of community.

Church, or temple, or the mosque: these are all great places to meet a broad cross-section of neighbors. Consider that the people you see at your place of worship, you might never run into otherwise. They don’t work at your office; they don’t belong to your community pool; they don’t date your friends. But once a weekend, you show up at the same place. You bake stale brownies for the same picnics, assemble the same houses on church retreats to the Appalachians and chaperone the same pool parties. You’re forced to meet people whose paths would never cross yours normally.

Networking like that improves the quality of your life. The broader and stronger your network, the better the type of jobs, perks and friends you’ll find. Oh, you’re in the market for a car? My cousin’s a dealer out in Springfield – he’s been trying to offload some inventory. Or: sixth grade, you said? My daughter just entered sixth grade at that private school up in Clinton; she loves it. And my wife sits on the school board. Let me give you our number.

Religious services work like that, in a way few other groups do, because of the disparate interests they draw in. Other groups – professional organizations, amateur sports teams, bar-hopping circles of friends – can approach that level of networking success, but they can never duplicate it. You need the random-but-not-quite sampling that a faith draws in – people who believe enough in common to talk to each other, but not so much that they have nothing to say.

I’ve been part of like-minded atheist experiments – the Boston Objectivist Network being the most successful – but it’s never quite the same. And I think this is why religious people will enjoy a statistical, and thus political, advantage over the non-religious for decades to come. They have instant networks. They have a voter base – or, more importantly, a movement base – that can easily be tapped into. Atheists do not.

I’m not saying you should join a church you don’t believe in for the free brownies and car washes. But I’m always looking for ways to expand my network.

emotional feedback on a timeless wavelength

So I joined Twitter.

You can tell a new technology or medium will be revolutionary when everyone’s talking about it and no one agrees on what it means. Mainstream media outlets think Twitter is the next communication breakthrough, whereas the marketers on AdAge think microblogging is niche. I don’t recall anyone talking this way about Orkut. So while Twitter may not be the platform of the future, it’s at least an arrow pointing the way.

That said, most people make the same mistake with Twitter that they do with Facebook or their weblog. They think of Twitter as an easier way to share things with their friends. That’s not true. You have a very small number of genuine friends (maybe as few as 2, maybe as many as 20). You have a lot of Twitter followers.

When you fill your Facebook page with passive-aggressive complaints about coworkers or jealous acquaintances, you might think you’re sending a message to the right audience. Instead, you’re broadcasting a message to the entire world – a message that will remain until a massive electromagnetic pulse shorts out the digital planet – and hoping that the right audience listens.

Twitter and Facebook might be a way to make new friends. I’ve certainly used it for that. But “friends” have an existence off of social media. You go drinking with them. You stand behind them at their weddings. You lie to them about how good their hair looks. Those experiences, social media can not (yet) duplicate.

So what will I use Twitter for? To entertain people. Let me know how I do.

wet bus stop; she’s waiting; his car is warm and dry

Those of you who don’t follow sensational crime stories, or who live outside of New England, might not have heard that a Boston University medical student was arrested for robbing and killing prostitutes found on Craigslist earlier this week.

I don’t intend to speculate on the suspect’s guilt or innocence in this post. The man certainly doesn’t look like the prostitute-robbing type. And when you read as much Radley Balko as I do, you grow suspect of District Attorneys who leap to the airwaves after making an arrest to trumpet a suspect’s guilt. However, I suppose there’s not a phenotype of “prostitute robber / murderer,” and vainglorious DAs are hardly new.

As I said, that’s incidental. What intrigues me most is a highly public arrest in the Age of the Panopticon*.

Within hours of the arrest being announced, webloggers had found the suspect’s Facebook page. Within a day, they’d found his wedding website with his fiancee. Amateur psychoanalysts have already picked apart his choice of wedding hotel reservations (“registering at Bloomingdale’s before thinking better of it and switching to Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma and Macy’s”). And a slew of anonymous commentators have already told this stranger their opinion of him (and his fiancee) on TheKnot.com.

Here’s a fun exercise: if you were accused of something unthinkable, what clues could people unearth – in hindsight – from your public Internet presence? Google your own name and see what comes up – your weblog, your Facebook page, your LinkedIn profile, etc. Take as objective a look as you can at each of those windows into your life. Now imagine what the dumbest, loudest people on the Internet would say about those clues if they already thought you were guilty.

Leave a lot of cutesy comments for a significant other? “Clearly shows signs of being obsessive. Probably even a little possessive or jealous; I’ll bet they snap when they don’t get their way.”

Complain a lot about how your job’s stressing you out? “Some people repress a lot of tension from work. They let it build and build until it snaps something.”

List any past job experience as a finance professional, lawyer, bartender, musician, or sales executive? “Oh, well, you know how those people are.”

My generation still hasn’t adapted fully to the Panopticon – the all-surveilling-all nature of the Internet, where each of us is equally vulnerable and powerful in turn. We see nothing wrong with bitching about work in our Facebook status, or posting pictures of ourselves on dating sites, or complaining about exes in our weblogs. Yet this clearly doesn’t mesh with our other behaviors. We don’t act like drunken emotional buffoons all the time, but we leave evidence of that behavior lying around for anyone to find.

Given a long enough timeline and enough monkeys at the typewriter, someone will discover something embarrassing about us. And if some brush with glory – or some brutal crime – catapults us to the spotlight, everyone is going to find all of it.

So one of two changes has to occur.

Either the next generation – children born in the 21st Century – will have stricter notions of privacy than we ever did. They’ll make every network private, handing out access cautiously and withdrawing it as a statement of defiance. People will craft multiple masks online: one for family, one for acquaintances, one for potential romantic partners, one for close friends, one for work, etc. Already we see some of this in Facebook privacy settings, but it’s not as broad as it could be.

(If that’s the route they go, I’d see it as a tremendous loss of the Internet’s communicative potential. But, recluse that I am, I can’t fault someone for wanting to keep their drunken pics off their boss’s computer)

Or, the next generation will adapt its behavior, acquiescing to the changes in technology. So the Internet makes everything public? Fine – we’ll abandon all attempts at privacy. We’ll back-sass our parents, speak frankly to friends and strangers, and tell our supervisors what we really think. They could find out who I’m dating or where I went last weekend with enough effort on Google, so why hide it?

(This might also be an unpleasant result, as it means our kids will spit more trash and give less respect than we did. But I imagine we’d think that of them in any case; the old always do think that this generation of kids are the worst ever)

Regardless of which way it changes, the next generation has to make that change eventually. And when they do, our generation will have to catch up. Because technology has once again outstripped our mores, and we need to stop acting surprised.

_______________
* I’m not strictly happy with Bentham’s Panopticon as a metaphor for the death of privacy. The Panopticon doesn’t expose everyone to surveillance – it exposes all the prisoners. The Panopticon also contains a warden who cannot be seen. As Foucault points out, the perpetual tension of being watched without knowing when you’re being watched enforces discipline better than any number of guards.

Since I compare Facebook to the Panopticon in order to say that “we’re all watching each other,” not “we’re all victims of a monolithic power,” I could probably find a stronger metaphor. But I can’t think of one yet. The next best analogy is to the Belcerebon species from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, an alien race cursed with immutable telepathy. Each Belcerebon constantly broadcasts its thoughts to every other thinking creature nearby. And while this is pretty close to the way Twitter works, I get a lot more literati cred referencing Jeremy Bentham than Douglas Adams.

for a moment this good time would never end; you and me, you and me

“Free Tibet” flags made in China (BBC)

Police in southern China have discovered a factory manufacturing Free Tibet flags, media reports say.

The factory in Guangdong had been completing overseas orders for the flag of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Workers said they thought they were just making colourful flags and did not realise their meaning.

But then some of them saw TV images of protesters holding the emblem and they alerted the authorities, according to Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper.

I never limit myself to one meaning when I can encompass two or more, so take away the following from this story:


  1. Globalization commands a lot of power;
  2. You can find irony anywhere if you know where to look, and;
  3. Propaganda permeates the civilized mind in ways outsiders can’t comprehend. The police didn’t uproot this factory in an undercover sting – workers voluntarily turned themselves and their employer in. Tibet never did anything to harm these guys, but they so thoroughly believe the Chinese government’s gospel of Tibet As Guerilla Radical that they went out of their way to make the State’s job easier. Fortunately, in the free and enlightened West we don’t have that problem.

Speaking of, how goes the campaign to nuke Iran, Senator Clinton?

Got it – thanks!

Meanwhile, black males took a bump down to Junior-Level Citizenship in New York on Monday, when three NYPD detectives were acquitted of killing an unarmed black man whom they “feared” might be threatening them. Fifty shots it took, which places the 18- to 35-year-old Black Male somewhere between a charging African Rhino and Wolverine of the X-Men in the Scared White Guy Hierarchy of Indestructability. Remember, black people: you don’t have an inherent right to life as such while in the city of New York. You exist on the sufferance of every paranoid cop.

Kai Wright talks a little more about the Sean Bell shooting here, and also sheds some light on the mystery of New York’s falling crime rate over the last decade. If you believe that Giuliani’s “broken windows” theory of Better Living through Petty Harassment reeks of bullshit – as I always have – then the drop in crime looks like a mystery. But Wright points out the following:

[B]lacks accounted for 66 percent of those killed by New York City police between 2000 and 2007 (New York is a perennial leader in police fatalities, averaging 12 a year over those years). And while the violent crime rate plunged to historically low levels in that time period, the number of people killed by police has not budged—indeed, the number of cop bullets fired has skyrocketed. And it’s happened with impunity. Out of 88 fatal shootings, including at least 12 in which victims were unarmed, in only one instance was an officer convicted of criminal wrongdoing.

So Giuliani didn’t reduce violence so much as outsource it to the NYPD. Juking the numbers, if you will.

In other news, rice continues to get more expensive – and more scarce, which really means the same thing – all around the world. Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution offers his take on why in the New York Times:

The damage that trade restrictions cause is probably most evident in the case of rice. Although rice is the major foodstuff for about half of the world, it is highly protected and regulated. Only about 5 to 7 percent of the world’s rice production is traded across borders; that’s unusually low for an agricultural commodity.

So when the price goes up — indeed, many varieties of rice have roughly doubled in price since 2007 — this highly segmented market means that the trade in rice doesn’t flow to the places of highest demand.

Poor rice yields are not the major problem. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that global rice production increased by 1 percent last year and says that it is expected to increase 1.8 percent this year. That’s not impressive, but it shouldn’t cause starvation.

The more telling figure is that over the next year, international trade in rice is expected to decline more than 3 percent, when it should be expanding. The decline is attributable mainly to recent restrictions on rice exports in rice-producing countries like India, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, Cambodia and Egypt.

Tariffs and export restrictions choke off valuable goods and services. You can’t call arguments for free trade a trivial academic debate anymore, like whether a country profits more from cheaper cars or more domestic jobs. Open trade across borders will save the Third World from starvation. Fortunately, in the free and enlightened West we don’t have that problem.

Speaking of, how goes the effort to dismantle NAFTA, Senator Obama?

Got it – thanks!

As continuing proof of the ancient assertion that no one has ever drafted a law so noble that it can’t be misused, local British councils have started using surveillance cameras to nab litterers and dogs shitting in public. And a student who photographed some cops ticketing other civilians earned himself a $628 ticket for “sitting on a park ledge.”

Finally, on a somewhat upbeat note, Clay Shirky (author of Here Comes Everybody) talks about the growing wealth of a globalizing economy, the surplus of free time that results, and how we spend that time:

I started telling her about the Wikipedia article on Pluto. You may remember that Pluto got kicked out of the planet club a couple of years ago, so all of a sudden there was all of this activity on Wikipedia. The talk pages light up, people are editing the article like mad, and the whole community is in an ruckus–“How should we characterize this change in Pluto’s status?” And a little bit at a time they move the article–fighting offstage all the while–from, “Pluto is the ninth planet,” to “Pluto is an odd-shaped rock with an odd-shaped orbit at the edge of the solar system.”

So I tell her all this stuff, and I think, “Okay, we’re going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever.” That wasn’t her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, “Where do people find the time?” That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, “No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.”

So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.

Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn’t know what to do with it at first–hence the gin, hence the sitcoms. Because if people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social institutions, then it wouldn’t be a surplus, would it? It’s precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society.

I have always measured wealth in units of Time I Can Spend Doing What Makes Me Happy. It pleases me to see that that calculation works on a social level as well.