April 29, 2012
For this edition of my occasional “five things” series, I’m trying out a twist on the usual theme (ideas, places, people, or things that I’ve run across in the preceding week) by discussing five things I’ll learn about next week. So, without further ado, here are five things I am excited to encounter in the coming days…
- CHI and CrowdCamp – I’m headed to Austin, Texas at the end of the week to present at CHI and participate in the CrowdCamp workshop. The lineup and agenda for CrowdCamp look incredibly exciting – the plan is to rapidly brainstorm, design, and (if possible) implement crowdsourcing projects. Given the past accomplishments of many of the other people who will be in the room, I’m excited!
- New Zion Missionary Church (no website) – As part of my Austin trip, I hope to make a pilgrimage or two to as many of the regional holy sites of barbecue as I possibly can. In the case of New Zion Missionary Baptist Church (link points to a 2010 review on the Full Custom Gospel BBQ blog), I have heard that the slow smoked brisket can sometimes resemble a religious experience.
- May Day Occupy actions in New York – Tuesday marks the first of May and, so it seems, a day of rebirth for the Occupy Movement. A few friends will be attending the New York actions and I’ll try to remember to link to anything they write or photograph.
- The Onyx Boox M92 – Perhaps as a result of the extra attention that went to Mako’s setup a couple of weeks ago, I’ve succumbed and ordered my own e-book reader. I chose the Onyx Boox M92 because it checked all the boxes that mattered to me (linux based, large E-ink screen, file format agnostic, vendor agnostic, and not reinforcing the Amazon empire) and because it seems to compare well against similar devices.
- Calibre – Mako and Alan Toner kindly introduced me to Calibre – a very widely adopted and popular piece of free software to manage e-reader libraries - this afternoon, but I won’t really start playing with it until my reader arrives next week.
March 18, 2012
As the Republican presidential candidates continue to duke it out in contentious primary elections around the country, I’ve started to notice the increasingly public signs that the Obama campaign is gearing up for battle. Not surprisingly, I tend to focus on the Obama re-election team’s uses of digital technologies, where a number of shifts may result in important changes for both the voter-facing and internal components of the Obama For America’s (OFA) digital operations. I started writing this post with the intent of reviewing some of the recent news coverage of the campaign, but it turned into a bit more of a long-form reflection about the relationship between the campaign’s approach to digital tools might mean for democracy.
OFA 2.0: Bigger, Faster, & Stronger (Data)
A fair amount of media coverage has suggested that the major technology-driven innovations within OFA and the Democratic party this election cycle are likely to consist of refined collection and analysis collection of vast troves of voter data as opposed to highly visible social media tools (such as My.BarackObama.com) that made headlines in 2008.
As Daniel Kreiss & Phil Howard elaborated a few years ago, database centralization and integration became core strategic initiatives for the Democratic National Committee after the 2000 election and the Obama campaign in 2008. These efforts have been expanded in big ways during the build-up to the current campaign cycle.
According to the bulk of the (often quite breathless) reporting on the semi-secretive activities of the 2012 Obama campaign, the biggest and newest initiatives represent novel applications of the big data repositories gathered by the campaign and its allies in previous years. These include the imaginatively named “Project Narwhal” aimed at correlating diverse dimensions of citizens’ behavior with their voting, donation, and volunteering records. There is also “Project Dreamcatcher,” an attempt to harness large-scale text analytics to facilitate micro-targeted voter outreach and engagement.
For a vivid example of what these projects mean (especially if you’re on any of the Obama campaign email lists), check out ProPublica’s recent coverage comparing the text of different versions of the same fundraising email distributed by the campaign two weeks ago (the narrative is here and the actual data and analysis are here).
(Side note: in general, Sasha Issenberg’s coverage of these and related aspects of the campaigns for Slate is great.)
What’s Next: “Gamified” and Quasi-open Campaign App Development
As the Republicans sort out who will face Obama in November, OFA will, of course, roll-out more social media content and tools. In this regard, last week’s release of heavily hyped “The Road We’ve Traveled” on YouTube was only the beginning of the campaign’s more public-facing phase.
The polished, professional video suggests that OFA will build on all of the social media presence and experience they built during and the last cycle as well as over the intervening years of Obama’s administration.
Less visible and less certain are whether any truly new social media tools or techniques will emerge from the campaign or its allies. Here, there are two recent initiatives that I think we might be talking about more over the course of the next six months.
The first of these started late last year, when OFA experimented with a relatively unpublicized initiative called “G.O.P. Debate Watch.” Aptly characterized by Jonathan Easley in The Hill as a “drinking game style fundraiser” the idea was that donors committed to give money for every time that a Republican candidate uttered particular, politicized keywords identified ahead of time (e.g. “Obamacare” or “Socialist”).
In its attempt to combine entertainment and a little bit of humor with small-scale fundraising, G.O.P. Debate Watch fits with a number of OFA’s other techniques aimed at using digital initiatives to lower the barriers to participation and engagement. At the same time, it incorporates much more explicit game-dynamics, setting it apart from earlier efforts and exemplifying the wider trend towards commercial gamification.
The second initiative, which only recently became public knowledge, has just begun with OFA opening a Technology Field Office in San Francisco last week.
The really unusual thing about the SF office is that it appears as though the campaign will use it primarily to try to organize and harness the efforts of volunteers who possess computer programming skills. This sort of coordinated, quasi-open tool-building effort is completely unprecedented, especially within OFA, which has historically pursued a secretive and closed model of innovation and internal technology development.
If the S.F. technology field office results in even one or two moderately successful projects – I imagine there will be a variety of mobile apps, games, and related tools that it will release between now and November – it may give rise to a wave of similar semi-open innovation efforts and facilitate an even closer set of connections between Silicon Valley firms and OFA.
Is This What Digital Democracy Looks Like?
I believe that the applications of commercial data-mining tools and gamification techniques to political campaigns have contradictory implications for democracy.
On the one hand, big data and social games represent the latest and greatest tools available for campaigns to use to try to engage citizens and get them actively involved in elections. Given the generally inattentive and fragmented state of the American electorate, part of me therefore believes that these efforts ultimately serve a valuable civic purpose and may, over the long haul, help to create a vital and digitally-enhanced civic sphere in this country.
At the same time, it is difficult to see how the OFA initiatives I have discussed here (and others occurring elsewhere across the U.S. political spectrum) advance equally important goals such as promoting cross-ideological dialogue, deliberative democracy, voter privacy, political accountability, or electoral transparency. (Along related lines, Dan Kreiss has blogged his thoughts about the 2012 Obama campaign and its embodiment of a certain vision of “the technological sublime.”)
All the database centralization, data mining, and gamified platforms for citizen engagement in the world will neither make a dysfunctional democratic government any more accountable to its citizens; erase broken aspects of the electoral system; nor generate a more deeply democratic and representative networked public sphere. Indeed, these techniques have generally been used to grow the bottom line of private companies with little or no concern for whether or not any broader public goods are created or distributed. Voters, pundits, President Obama, and the members of his campaign staff would all do well to keep that in mind no matter what happens this Fall.
January 23, 2012
I don’t have a lot to add to the excellent overviews and insightful commentary the SOPA/PIPA debacle, but I thought I would round up a couple of thoughts as well as some of my favorite posts related to it.
SOPA and PIPA may be history for now, but you can be sure that they’ll be back in some form or another. As a result, the big question that interests me about this particular policy fight has to do with its implications for the distribution of political power around knowledge and technology policy.
The big story in this sense is that a quite substantial sub-population of the Internet’s most active users and most powerful organizations decided to blackout their sites on Wednesday. The blackout left Reddit, Google, Wikipedia, Craigslist, AND MORE at least partially disabled for the better part of the day.
This more popular activism has been matched by aggressive lobbying, testifying, wheeling & dealing on the Hill by a staggering coalition of Silicon Valley companies.
Both the majority of these companies as well as these large online collectives and communities have only begun to find their political voices. Moments like these – when groups coalesce around particular common causes and realize that they wield immense collective power can sometimes look really important after the fact when (say, twenty years from now) we’re living in a world where the MPAA and RIAA have continued to waste away and the bottom lines (and political arms) of the Googles, Facebooks, and Twitters of the world are likely to be doing even more heavy lifting in terms of national GDP and policy impact.
Will this be such a turning point? I think one of the biggest obstacles to long term transformation is the anti-political ideology that prevails among many Silicon Valley elites. By and large, many Silicon Valley companies would prefer to avoid public scrutiny even understand what it is they are trying to create (much less regulate it or use it effectively). This is an unfortunate reality because it means that it will take a very long time for the Valley to really catch Hollywood when it comes to political muscle.
There has also been very little overlap or effective attempts by Silicon Valley to harness the public opposition to Hollywood’s positions. Maybe the SOPA/PIPA experience can facilitate some organizational alliances and capacity building to fill that gap.
Read what other Berkman Center affiliates had to say about SOPA/PIPA this week.
November 20, 2011
The past two weeks’ protests and police-led violence at UC Berkeley and UC Davis signal both the expansion of the occupy movement as well as the extent of the leadership vacuum at the country’s most prestigious public university. Participants and observers much more eloquent than I have offered thoughtful responses to the situation. However, after reading about the events and media reactions to them, I thought that some recent history behind these campus movements could clarify how things got so bad in California and what they might mean in the coming months.
Most news reports have depicted the protests and confrontations as an outgrowth of the occupy Wall Street and Oakland protests, but in fact, the campus movements has much deeper roots. Four years ago, UC President Mark Yudof and co. responded to the financial shortfall brought on by the California budget crisis with a series of highly unpopular initiatives designed to centralize administrative authority, slash funding for a variety of programs, and avoid any sort of public accountability or debate over these actions. The following year, the union of graduate students and academic staff faced a lengthy, contentious budget negotiation in which the university negotiating team repeatedly undermined the collective bargaining process. Around the same time, a series of unilateral tuition increases provoked rage across many of the campuses and, at Berkeley, culminated in a violent showdown between police and student protesters seeking to occupy a classroom building.
The resulting climate around the campuses has become tense and polarized as the mutual distrust between the administrations on one hand, and an alliance of highly mobilized students, faculty, and staff on the other, has escalated.
The student organizers at Berkeley made a smart tactical decision to harness the momentum of the occupy movements and, in particular, the widespread resentment against the violent police response to the occupation of Frank Ogawa plaza in Oakland. With the November 9 protests, they sought to keep the pressure on their campus administrators as the UC regents planned to approve a new round of tuition increases last week (the meeting, planned to take place in San Francisco, was canceled in the wake of the Berkeley violence).
Chancellor Birgeneau (Berkeley) and his staff, in contrast, failed to learn anything from either their own past mistakes with the budget crisis protests or the errors of mayors across the country in responding to the recent occupations. Faced with a group of students opposed to further university budget cuts, tuition increases, and the widening inequality gap in California and across the country, the administration deployed the UC and Alameda County police departments. In doing so, they chose to enforce the letter of campus rules at the cost of student and faculty safety. The resulting violence was predictable, avoidable, and (from the point of view of building a climate of constructive public debate on campus) counterproductive. Birgeneau’s subsequent defense of the brutality was inexcusable.
The Davis protesters looked to build on the momentum of their Berkeley peers, joining in non-violent solidarity against budget cuts, police brutality, and inequality. Somehow, Chancellor Katehi managed to respond in an even more ham-handed manner than Birgeneau. Not only did she deploy the police – who, along with their pepper spray, proceeded to make national headlines – but she didn’t even plan on facing protesters when she called a press conference later that evening. Not surprisingly, her actions provoked righteous anger (and a poignant, silent confrontation as she left her office) on the part of students and faculty alike.
Today, UC President Mark Yudof entered the fray, delivering slaps on the wrist to his colleagues along with some bland comments condemning the excessive use of force against students and professors. Announcing that he will hold meetings and convene committees to review the events, Yudof delivered what many have come to expect from him in times of systemic crisis: bureaucracy.
In this sense, Yudof’s response is not only inadequate to the situation, but fails to address the complete breakdown of trust that has now occurred between the UC administrators and their respective constituents. On both campuses, the interests of the administrative elite have become so far removed from those of the students and faculty that the two groups are, perhaps a little too literally, at war. As a result, both Birgeneau and Katehi should go. They should be replaced with leaders who understand how to adopt creative responses that defend free speech and student safety at the cost of bending a few campus restrictions. These new leaders should also undertake an immediate overhaul of UC police crowd management techniques.
To close with a speculative prediction: I suspect that the intensity and extent of the violence on two UC campuses this past week will galvanize support for the students and, by proxy, the occupy movement with which they have aligned themselves. As James Fallows notes, the images coming out of New York, Portland, Oakland, Berkeley and Davis have much in common with those from Selma and Birmingham half a century ago. For many Americans, this sort of violent repression of protest speech will not resonate as either a legitimate or democratic use of state power.
April 24, 2009
Well, Facebook users’ votes on the proposed Terms and Conditions are in – all 650,000 of them – and the company is pleased to report that 75% of the voters approved!
Hang on a moment, though – they only got 650,000 votes? I thought they wanted 30% of the Facebook user population to participate…
Since Facebook claims over 200,000,000 users – 650K is less than one third of one percent. Thirty percent would have been 60 million votes, not a measly 650 thousand.
That’s as if the United States held a national vote to reform the constitution and only the state of Montana voted…And then somebody described the election as a success.
In fact, since only 75% – or 450,000 of the 650,000 voters actually approved of the new T and C, it is more accurate to say that less than one quarter of one percent of the Facebook population supports this proposal.
So the equivalent in a U.S. election would be if the entire population of Memphis, Tennessee voted in favor of amending the constitution; the population of Spokane, Washington voted against the amendment; and the rest of the country just sat it out on the sidelines.
Since Facebook spokes-persons seem to indicate that the company intends to accept this vote as a sufficient mandate for adopting the new T and C, they are turning my snarky twilight zone scenario into a reality.
Here’s Facebook’s chart of the results (as re-published on the LA Times’ Technology blog):
…and here’s my chart of the same results (sorry for the fuzzy image – feel free to take 5 minutes and bake your own if you want a better one):
Such a woeful mockery would be even funnier if it weren’t so sad. Go, go, gadget, democracy!
I draw two conclusions:
1. Facebook has been hoisted by their own petard and they probably deserve whatever they get. This was a well-intentioned – but nevertheless naive – stunt from the beginning. It’s unfortunate that nobody at FB saw fit to back up all the rhetoric of user-generated revolution with a more meaningful participatory process.
2. Legitimate democracy is really, really hard. It doesn’t matter if it’s online or not. It’s not as simple as just holding a vote and hoping everyone will show up. It’s also not as simple as saying that the Facebook users were irresponsible because they didn’t show up. You have to build a culture of democracy in order to support democratic institutions like elections. That doesn’t happen overnight and it may be that a population like the users of Facebook isn’t sufficiently organized or engaged to begin that process.
The SF Chron reports that Gavin Newsom loudly declared his candidacy for governor via social media services like Facebook and Twitter yesterday.
In his speech Newsom promised “to spin CA to the future.”
Welcome to the sad reality of post-Obama politics in the U.S., where every candidate will succumb to the temptation to imitate the form and style of the OFA campaign without capturing the substance.
If Newsom is any indication, many of these candidates will fall flat on their faces – repeatedly – in the process.
Somebody get this man a new speech writer.
(updated: April 24, 2009 )
April 10, 2009
Tony Curzon Price has a thoughtful piece at Open Democracy in which he examines what he calls The G20′s sins of commission.
I’m interested in a whole bunch of angles that Price explores, but the money shot for all you global governance and development geeks out there is a graph Curzon Price recycles from Paul Swartz at Council on Foreign Affairs Geo-Graphics blog:
Curzon Price goes on to use the graph to make an interesting (and important) claim about the implications of China’s newfound romance with the IFI’s and global regulation.
I, on the other hand, thought it would be kind of fun to play with the graph to try to get a better sense of what may have driven these changes in the IMF’s role over time. Since Swartz doesn’t share the data or source for his graphic, I’m reduced to hacking around with the .jpg in the GIMP (which made for a really fun distraction during a meeting the other day). Apologies for the resulting visual clutter, but here’s the same graph with some new knobs and bits. The bigger dots correspond to the events that accompanied the biggest shifts:
- Margaret Thatcher elected: May 1979
- Black Monday: Dec 1987
- Berlin Wall taken down: November, 1989
- Soviet Union Collapses: December 8, 1991
- Mexican Peso crisis: Dec 1994
- Asian Financial crisis: July 1997
- Brazil devalues the Real: Jan 1999
- Dot-com bubble bursts: March 10, 2000
- September 11, 2001
- Argentine debt default: Dec 2001
- US invades Iraq: March 20, 2003
- Brazil and Argentina pay off IMF debts: Dec. 2005
- Global Recession: October 2008
Some of the things I thought might correlate with sudden changes in the global weight of IMF lending – such as Black Monday (2); the Dot-com bubble burst (8); Argentina and Brazil paying off their debts (12) – didn’t seem to matter at all.
Others – such as Thatcher’s (and Reagan’s) election (1); the Mexican Peso crisis (5); and the 1-2 combo of the Asian (6) and Brazilian (7) financial crises – appear magnified when seen through this lens.
Most intriguing to me is the long steep slide that occurs following September 11, 2001 (9). My inclination is to explain that as the result of a perfect storm that combined the eroding credibility of the IMF (Joe Stiglitz, eat your heart out!) and a real estate derivative and petro-dollar fueled explosion of private lending world-wide. No matter how you slice it, though, there’s no denying that the world financial system has gone through some exceptionally dramatic changes in the last ten years.
Other than that, I don’t have a flashy Theory of Everything to explain all the data here. Heck, as I said, I don’t even have the data. Nevertheless, it’s fun to speculate.
December 19, 2008
Sources close to transition officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Genachowski had been recently meeting with key Democratic lawmakers to see if the role of CTO would have policy-making authority and decided against taking the job when he realized the definition of CTO would not include a strong regulatory role. Instead, Genachowski expressed interest in the FCC post.
Why do I find it hard to believe that Genachowski didn’t realize that the CTO post would not have regulatory authority?
December 16, 2008
President-Elect Obama’s team at Change.gov has posted their first batch of replies to a few of the most popular inquiries submitted via the bally-hooed question tool since it went live last week.
If you really want to read the responses, go ahead, knock yourself out. They’re just like the comment threads at DailyKos/LGF/Wonkette/BoingBoing/Lifehacker except they’re completely dry, soul-less, and snark-free.
Take this stirring exchange, for example:
Q: “What will you do to establish transparency and safeguards against waste with the rest of the Wall Street bailout money?” Diane, New Jersey
A: President-elect Barack Obama does not believe an economic crisis is an excuse for wasteful and unnecessary spending. As our economic teams works with congressional leadership to put together a plan, we will put in place reforms to ensure that your money in invested well. We will also bring Americans back into government by amending executive orders to ensure that communications about regulatory policymaking between persons outside government and all White House staff are disclosed to the public. In addition all appointees who lead the executive branch departments and rulemaking agencies will be required to conduct the significant business of the agency in public so that every citizen can see in person or watch on the Internet these debates.
Can you even remember the question after all that opacity? Turns out the White House press corps might not be out of a job after all.
Be honest, though, who’s actually surprised that the Obama team is sticking to their script and refusing to engage in precisely the sort of off-the-cuff banter that makes conversations on the Internet interesting? I was at an event with a few members of their new media team last week and these folks are at least as disciplined as a Bill Belichik offense.
For all the hoopla about the many wonderful ways in which Change.gov might transform the relationship between the POTUS and the rest of us, it’s going to take more than a few Rick-rolls before somebody mistakes this site for 4chan. (Dear Mr. President Elect, I video taped myself asking you a very important question: please watch it here!)
That said, the first idiot who celebrates the fact that someone in the transition team took the time to answer the question about legalizing pot ought to have their head examined. It may be Democracy in motion, but only in the sense in which Jeffersonian “mob rule” sense. I’m not one to romanticize the high-flown days of the republic of media gatekeeping, but this is just campaigning by other means and a waste of everybody’s time.
It may not matter, though, because unless the Change.gov team loosens up a bit (and opens the door to the risk of a mini scandal or two), I suspect people will quickly forget about this site after the inauguration.