Tuesday, March 04, 2008

To Be of Use

Phil Jones is one of my favorite bloggers. Phil is a polymath and has a real genius for explaining complex concepts in ordinary language. That said, I get hardly anything at all when he writes about coding, but that he is an information scientist has been a great help to me in trying to get a perch to view what's going on in the ever changing landscape of information and communications technologies.

Phil Jones has written several posts on netocracy. That Wikipedia entry notes that netocracy is a word-play on the words internet and aristocracy. The term as Phil is referring to it is based on his reading of two Swedish philosophers, Alexander Bard and Jan Soderqvist propounded upon in their book Netocracy - The New Power Elite and Life After Capitalism. There seems to be some fairly derisive reviews of the book online. If you enjoy reading Slavoj Zizek, his piece The Ideology of the Empire and its Traps maybe of interest for some context for Bard and Soderqvist's ideas. But Phil's presentation a the Wittgenstein Symposium is a concise introduction to the ideas.

Recently Phil wrote a piece, Live Together, Die Alone which explores some of the pitfalls of netocracy. And that piece really has seemed worth blogging about, but collecting my thoughts has proven difficult.

Phil makes a useful distinction between netocracy and concepts like attention economy and commons based peer production, noting:
Not that "attention" isn't an essentially important idea too in netocracy, but "imploitation" reveals a different character.

If you believe it's all about "attention" then simply *maximizing* your number of connections is a good thing. It's all about openness and inclusion and transparency.

Blogging is an attention economy. Ebay, Google, Myspace, Craiglist etc. are attentional. They are "markets"

Netocracy OTOH is about hoarding and managing links. Facebook, AlwaysOn, aSmallWorld ... these are netocratic.

Unlike most bloggers, I'm loathe to look at the stats for this blog, finding it easier to imagine that nobody reads it anyway. So I blog for myself, but that's not entirely it, really. I love to read blogs and even to comment occasionally. Being a reader of blogs feels like being part of a community and that having a blog is part of the price of membership. I participate at an YSAN (yet another social network) called Ned. Among the many advantages in writing within a social network is responding it a context of discussions with others. I particularly like Ned because the people there are from all over the place; including a nice contingent from my beloved Uganda. I wrote that last sentence with a smile; I've never traveled to Uganda. I love Uganda because by way of the Internet I've come to know a few Ugandans. Blogging and participating in social networks are activities which I consider social.

Internet tools offer such opportunities for collaboration and I'll concede to imbibing in a dose of cyberutopianism when contemplating the possibilities. Ethan Zuckerman wrote a good critique of cyberutopianism in a review of Fred Turner's book From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Zuckerman's blog searches well and he's had plenty more to say on the subject. Still with all the downsides--even social ills--of the online world, the potential to create something good online seems great.

The whole premise of Bazungu Bucks is evidence of that cyberutopian thinking is a little trippy. Bazungu Bucks are traded nowhere. I gave away BBs explicitly saying I'd accept them in exchange, but nobody has ever offered one in exchange for doing anything. I do not imagine that Bazungu Bucks ever will become a viable alternative currency. But the notion that people all over can be of some use to one another, and that even Americans like me can be of service to African people. The big question is how?

As in Marxism aristocracy is contrasted with proletariat, Bard and Soderqvist's netocracy is contrasted to the consumtariat. Phil points out that in an economy of links, the netocracy in some ways steals social links from the consumtariat. That's one way of looking at what happens at Facebook, or at least prompted user outcry over Facebook's social ads scheme called Beacon. The consumtariat are social and actively creating--often by appropriating cool stuff we find on the Internet--but as Phil put's it:
We are "composing" with instruments handed down to us by the elite. (As Attali warned) And so we are isolated.
John Robb noted recently:
Criminal hackers take down the ELF to sell Viagra.
Reading that provoked a laugh. Reading John Robb generally doesn't make me laugh, in fact reading him is a good antidote to too much cyberutopian enthusiasm. Crimeware is just one darkside of netocractic conspiracy. John Robb's Global Guerrillas blog provides plenty of evidence for how anti-social these new social tools can be.

I was dumb recently and fell prey to a phishing site. Perhaps my antivirus and various protection software had lulled me into complacency. In the process of trying to clean up the mess I used Spybot-S&D. In the more than 100,000 known malware files the software hunts for, predictably there are porn site dialers, all sorts of files associated with online gambling; what I hadn't anticipated was the number of bogus anti-spyware, anti-virus, and "protect your children" sorts of malware. Sex and money as motivators seem almost quaint in comparison. It was a shock to discover there are thousands upon thousands of malicious sites playing fear to advantage.

Phil wrote:
By making social connections a means to an end rather than an end in themselves, a tool rather than the condition within which we live, we have stripped them of all real significance or value. They have become dead. We have become dead. Out capacity to participate has been eroded even as we gained a capacity to curate.
Phil's in Brazil, I'm in the USA; I have friends and interest in Uganda and others around the world. Online connections certainly are need not be "means to an end rather than an end in themselves." But, Phil steps in a positive direction by pointing to the need for genuine local relationships with others; we actually participate with others. Local connections matter in ways that are somewhat distinct from more global relationships. Our local relationships help to ground us in genuine ethics and value of being people.

I'm inclined to agree with those who credit Rene Dubos with the maxim:
"Think Globally, Act Locally"
The communication among people across localities is important and meaningful. Still, Dubos' insight that global problems are conditioned on local circumstances and choices is really quite profound. Phil has resolved to endeavor to include more participatory and social music in his life. For my part, I try to make more paper party hats because, heavens knows in tough times like these we need more parties. Our ability to produce online can lead to forgetting how important being in touch with others is.

A windstorm downed a big fir tree in the front of the property. It collided with a Chinese Chestnut tree and that probably has damaged that tree beyond salvaging. The fir tree seemed in good health, but a few years back a close lightening strike damaged its bark on a section near the base of the trunk, which accounts for weakening it enough to fall in the wind. When the lightening hit he sap got so hot so quickly the soil along roots nearly twenty feet from the trunk exploded in air making little culverts in the dirt. Sawing up the trees is something to do. I've been gradually limbing the tree, but I'll leave that effort until it's a little warmer. Spring is on it's way. This spring I want to engage more with others locally. Our local solutions contribute to the solving of global problems.

1 comment:

Daisy said...

"I love to read blogs and even to comment occasionally. Being a reader of blogs feels like being part of a community and that having a blog is part of the price of membership."

This was a major reason for me, too! I immediately noticed how people took you far more seriously if you were "valid"--i.e. had a real blog providing some semblance of a biography and point of view. Before that, I was regarded as a mere phantom or something, and often simply ignored. The change has been pretty dramatic!

More than anything, I think this is how Blogdonia erupted into being.