Thursday, March 26, 2009

Digital Walls

I originally wrote this entry on September 14, 2004, and published it on

Dan Gilmore points to Steve McGookin's article "Bloggers and Blinders" and notes McGookin's view on the echo-chamber effect:

Our tendency to visit the sites we agree with, rather than seeking out information and opinion that might change our outlook.

That's quite common. People stick to what they know. For example, how many people, even in the Bay Area, struggle to read IRIB.IR or IRNA.IR. Our minds have been filled with suspicions that make these foreign news sources lose any value that they may actually have.

People are generally more comfortable with what's more familiar to them, and the concept of some abstract, scientific and provable Truth gives them comfort as long as it is the Truth that is most comfortable. In contrast, dialog seems to provide the only way to any shared Truth.

The idea that we can broaden our scope by simply going to a different web site seems rather unfounded to me. Unless one experiences another culture from close-up and cares to engage in a constructive dialog and exchange, there's no hope of inter-cultural understanding . . . even with the Web. In fact, the web could make it harder because there's no need for exposing or experiencing any vulnerabilities, a requirement for any exchange that could lead to greater understanding and trust.

Walls do not need to be visible or built in bricks and cement. They can be digital and mountains high.

Thought Leadership vs. Dialogue Leadership

I originally wrote this entry on September 11, 2004, and published it on

We often hear of "thought leadership" or "moral leadership" but we rarely hear of "dialogue leadership." Why?

"Thought leadership" is about leading through a mostly solitary activity that has been had. We have had some thoughts, at best involving a small clique of people, and then we go out and try to "lead" with those thoughts.

"Dialogue leadership" is about creating opportunities to think together creatively and to learn from each other.

If you want to learn more about the distinction between thought leadership and dialogue leadership, I highly recommend William Isaacs' Dialogue (and the art of thinking together).

Unfortunately, theories of interaction that emphasize asocial conflict have dominance in many peoples' thinking. See, for example, these two highly-recommended books that do a very good job of summarizing these theories: Thomas Schelling's Strategies of Conflict and Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff'sThinking Strategically. These books are often used to teach business strategy, economics and social interaction.

Theories of interaction that search for a more social approach to fostering exchange have been sidelined. See, for example the distinguished economist Oliver Williamson's The Mechanisms of Governance. (I have to admit that I've seen references to Williamson's work in corporate strategy chapters of some strategy books such as Robert Grant's Contemporary Strategy Analysis.)

Ranked-Choice Voting in San Francisco

I originally wrote this entry on September 8, 2004, and published it on

Golden Gate Bridge

I'd written earlier about the mathematics of elections, with particular attention to Condercet or ranked-choice voting. Now, Professor Lawrence Lessig has pointed his readers to a demo for San Francisco's upcoming ranked-choice voting experience.

I wonder whether a reduction in the number of available rankings (say from the number of candidates for an office to only three choices, as has been done in San Francisco) diminishes the probability of cyclic ambiguities.

San Francisco's ranked-choice voting system was passed as proposition A in March 2002, and the first ranked-choice vote for local offices will be held during the November 2nd, 2004 election. It will be a great time to look and see how Condercet voting does in practice in Northern California.

In the text version of the official San Francisco ranked-choice voting demo, we read:

The Department of Elections cannot predict the date on which it will begin the process of elimination and transfer. The Department will do so as soon as possible, after all provisional and absentee ballots are processed. The Department intends to report final election results no later than 28 days after election day.

The "28 days" of waiting for election results seems awefully long. It could be that old counting machines are used for a physical implementation of the various elimination algorithms. As I wrote earlier, some computing power and already-implemented algorithms could help with the counting and the elimination process in ranked-choice voting in cases of result ambiguities.

The Edison Audio and Motion Picture Collection

I originally wrote this entry on September 7, 2004, and published it on

The Library of Congress has been hosting a stupendous collection of motion pictures and audio recordings by companies associated with Thomas Alva Edison.

These recordings are truly great in scope, interest and quality.

One of my favorites is the Buffalo dance, peformed by Last Horse, Parts His Hair, Hair Coat. Now, I don't know about the level of authenticity of this dance but it looks as authentic if not more authentic than some I've seen performed in the last 25 years.

Another one of my favorites are the motion pictures of the Sutro Baths: 1, 2. I remember visiting the ruins of these baths on coastal walks in San Francisco in the 1980s and 1990s.

How many intelligence organizations?

I originally wrote this entry on August 23, 2004, and published it on

Judge Richard Posner has written about breaking up the CIA.

The most important benefit of multiple intelligence organizations is a certain fault-resilience that they together introduce into the system. That fault resilience will be lost in a single organization.

If there's a single organization, and that single organization gets things wrong, lives could be ruined. Multiple organizations add ability to view facts from multiple angles and with different attitudes. They are also harder to subject to a single political force.

The problem of U.S. security is not one of organization but one that is caused by a global posture that breads enemies through the carnage it unleashes. (The intentions are almost irrelevant.) To minimize backlash, we need to reduce the asocial, conflictual attitude in dealing with the world and build an attitude based on "commerce" and "exchange."

East Asia and Europe seem to be the masters of that transformation.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The importance of multi-lingualism

I originally wrote this entry on August 19, 2004 and published it on

I have already written about the importance of multi-lingualism and multi-cultural living as a response to some who have written about Balkanization on the Web, the inadequacy of automatic translation and the promise of universal, artificial languages.

I walk and talk to a farmer from Vila Dara hot springs, Ardabil Province, Iran, July 2004, on the foothills of Mount Sabalan.

I accompany a farmer from Vila Dara hot springs, Ardabil Provice, Iran, July 2004, on the foothills of Mount Sabalan. Language: Azeri and Persian.

To become truly multi-cultural, you actually have to live the lives of different cultures. There are people who do that and who have no trouble crossing linguistic boundaries because they have lived both sides, if not more than two sides. Young people, children in fact, do it all the time. We just don't foster it as a society, and we should have arrangements that encourage such living at a global level. Where I live, there are already children of Western European and South Asian descent, who are going to bilingual, public-private elementary schools that cater to an already large Chinese population. Many people in California already speak Spanish.

Also, to appreciate other cultures and languages, one doesn't necessarily need to be a very competent writer in multiple languages although there are many who can do that, very proficiently.

As an example, while I know of many great multi-linguals who speak, write and read many very diverse languages (not all of which are Indo-European), I can only speak competently in three languages and quite badly in two others, read in six different languages, three of them quite competently and three with various degrees of competency, and can write competently in two and quite badly in the rest, if at all. (Competency in reading or speaking can generally be accomplished in a larger set of languages than competency in writing.) I certainly cannot speak all world languages, or all "important" world languages but I can connect with more people because I can speak, read and write in more than one language.

This expansion effect is always true, no matter how large or a small the linguistic community.

So, opportunities for diversity are much better and more rewarding than the opportunities for an invented, uniform global language, which will often lack a living culture, rich literary history and tradition. (By the "living culture" of a language, I mean the culture of communities that primarily speak that language.)

Diversity comes at a well-spent cost. It requires dedication and hard work. I doubt anyone who's neither tried to learn nor read nor written Chinese and has not learned or lived it could translate (not literally, but figuratively speaking) that living, that history, that tradition in full into some other language, whether Esperanto or English.

Poets learn other languages because they know the difficulty of translating the music of each into the other, and also because they want to boraden their poetic horizons.

Musings on Mass Culture

I originally wrote this entry on August 5, 2004, and published it on

In his 2003 Aspen Institute information technology roundtable comments, John Seely Brown draws a distinction between mass and popular culture. As summarized by rapporteur, David Bollier:

In mass culture, meaning is generated and disseminated centrally, through television, radio, and film, for example. In popular culture, however, meaning is actively generated through a dynamic social process in which everyone can participate. People appropriate and change meaning as it suits their needs, tastes, and circumstances—a process that cultural anthropologists have called bricolage. The new forms of social participation and collaboration enabled by the Internet are creating new structures of identity and meaning.

I will try to write about Brown's ideas on a later occasion, but here are some immediate musings, not necessarily last thoughts, that follow along the lines Brown has set up.

The development of personal identity depends on social participation. Pure, non-participatory consumption creates only mechanical beings lost in the world.

Mass culture assumes, creates and regenerates consuming machines.

Popular culture requires participating creatures.

Andy Warhol's work celeberated mass culture and its icons but also tranforms them through a kind of participation which may, today, raise copyright issues. I'm not sure if such issues were raised when Warhol produced his work, for example, his Micky Mouse images.

Writing of weblogs is certainly a participatory activity but of course the possibilities and realities of disembodied communities and their resilience is a different matter all together worthy of a real dialogue.

As an example of popular culture, consider Tai Chi, as I saw it in Daqing, Harbin, Bejing, Chengdu, Xi'an, Kunming and Shanghai. People wake up in the morning, meet friends, do Tai Chi, have tea, walk to work, home or finish breakfast. One does all of this with no payments necessary and as the city walks by, or at least, that used to be the case in 1990 - 1991, when I lived and worked in China's north eastern provinces.

As an example of mass culture, consider aerobics exercises to the music of Britney Spears with the required equipment and the payments made to your local club. (I have to admit, I could be totally wrong with this particular example. There may be a real feeling of participation and community involvement that one feels when one joins these exercises or clubs for at least a short period while in the club. I doubt the feeling extends when one goes out into the city. In any case, there's nothing in the commercial activity of the usual clubs that would facilitate that. I'm basing my observation on limited personal observation as an outsider, not any real involvement of my own.)

When the producers of mass culture become overzealous in the perpetual protection of their revenue streams from cultural products, they lobby for laws that effectively banish to oblivion other cultural material. Lawrence Lessig's Free Culture describes this very salient point.

The trouble is that the vast majority of the U.S. public rely on non-participatory television, the greatest instrument of non-participatory mass culture, as a source of news and views.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Free Culture

I wrote this entry, originally, on July 6, 2004.

In the very beginning of his book, Free Culture: How big media uses technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity, Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford Law Professor and reknowned Internet intellectual seems to be taking a rather narrow approach when describing the sense of the word "free" in the title of his book: Free Culture.

Although I may be mistaken, in the following passage from the preface, Lessig seems to be confusing "free" with the freedom to put the past behind, to become free of its control over us.

A free culture supports and protects creators and innovators. It does this directly by granting intellectual property rights. But it does so indirectly by limiting the reach of those rights, to guarantee that follow-on creators and innovators remain as free as possible from control of the past. A free culture is not a culture without property, just as a free market is not a market in which everything is free. The opposite of a free culture is a "permission culture"--a culture in which creators get to create only with the permission of the powerful, or of creators from the past.

Let us first attend to the question of "permission" and then to "freedom".

It is hard to see how creators of the past could give any "permission" one way or the other. It appears as if Lessig is taking some poetic license with the word "permission". So, perhaps my whole enterprise of interpreting his definitions in any serious way is just off the course … but I have to assume he is somewhat serious about his definitions … and go on giving my own interpretation of them …

Turning to freedom "from" the control the past exercises on us, I would like to observe that we don't have any such freedom.
We only imagine we do.

The freedom we do have is a freedom to review, interpret, re-mix and learn from the past and move towards a possible future, disclosing its various aspects and possible realizations. I think later on in his book, Lessig is really focusing on that type of interpretive and creative freedom. So, it is a pity that he defines "free" as he does in the first few pages of Free Culture. I find that definition at best unnecessarily narrow and at worst inconsistent with the force of the rest of his argument.

As Heidegger has pointed out in his Was hei├čt Denken?, rootedness is the very essence of meditative thought. Without rootedness it is impossible to grasp the past, the present or the future in a context that relates to our being. So, to state that "free culture" is about freedom from the "control of the past" is to confuse the very meaning of the past and of culture.

A rooted culture, e.g. the Shiite Muslim culture, is not to be confused with a culture where only what the old version of that culture has permitted receives expression. On the contrary, a free culture has a capability to re-interpret what has gone on up to the present moment. In fact, elsewhere in his book, Lessig gives expression to this understanding of what "free" means.

Lessig should have defined "free culture" as one where:

… follow-on creaters and innovators remain as free as possible to re-interpret the past, and do so for all of the past, not just a selected portion of it that is perpetuated by commercial activity protected by copyrights …

Furthermore, the opposite of "free culture" is not a "permission culture" but a "shackled culture," where the past is shackled either by neglect (or otherwise by purposeful forgetfulness) from being re-interpreted in creative ways. A "shackled culture" or a "culture of slavery" only allows certain interpretations and ideas to survive. All other ideas are banished into the abyss of silence and fall forever out of reach. In a free culture, all ideas have an opportunity to florish and be interpreted anew.

It is that sense of "freedom" that the rest of Lessig's book is about.

Finally, to what extent big media is involved in purposefully using "technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity," as Lessig's book title suggests, is open to question. While big media's use of technology and the law in pursuit and protection of their commercial interests may lead to such lock-down and control, it is the job of policy-makers and the government to set the rules of the game to strike a sustainable balance between private property and free culture. If the giants of media business care little about Free Culture, that lack of care is more a by-product, not flowing from their direct intent, but a derivative consequence of their calculative, profit maximizing mode of being. One may still argue, from an economic point of view, that a shackled culture is bad for profit in the marketplace of ideas but that requires a separate, more in-depth consideration.

Note: I wrote this note on July 5th while waiting in the Mumbai International Airport for my flight to Frankfurt. I had just flown in from Bangalore and had to wait until 2:55 am, July 6th, to get on my flight to Frankfurt. It would be 19 hours in total before I can make it from Bangalore to Frankfurt. I entered it as a blog while sitting at 54f offices in Darmstadt. 54f is an architecture company my brother and three others from Darmstadt University founded some time ago . . . More on 54f to come later.