Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Internet

It’s not just porn: Net filter will limit culture and public debate

I had such high hopes for Stephen Conroy as Communications Minister. After the corruption of Richard-what free tv-Alston and luddite Coonan (not to mention the decidedly not tech-savy Howard), Conroy seemed a breath of fresh air. Having watched him operate in several years of Estimates hearings, he clearly knew his way around a PC Whilst asking questions to officials (when in opposition) he often was able to quickly call up relevant data to challenge claims made by wayward or mis-informed ministers or their public servants. His boss may have been a bit socially conservative, but he could tweet & sms easily. That Conroy under Rudd’s direction has taken Australia into such a embarassing and frankly authoritarian direction online is therefore a great shame.
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The financial benefits of a R18+ rating for games

This is our culture and our economy:

CALL of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 has racked up more record sales of $US550 million ($593 million) in its first five days, but the publisher Activision Blizzard is still concerned about weak consumer spending.
The game, a first-person-shooter that lets gamers play as elite soldiers hunting down targets from South America to Afghanistan, beat the record set by last year’s blockbuster Grand Theft Auto IV in its first week.
Last week it said it sold 4.7 million copies for a total of $US310 million ($333.3 million) on its first day in the US and UK alone.
Activision said five-day sales for Modern Warfare 2 topped the $US394 million ($423.6 million) earned at the box office by Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in its first five days.
The video game bested Batman film The Dark Knight, which had held the record for the top opening weekend ever by taking in $US158.4 million ($170.3 million) in July 2008.

There is always a lag between capitalism and culture, though inevitably the dollar wins through. However it takes some time for societies to integrate in and accept certain cultural artifacts, regardless of sales. The rise of evangelical literature/music/films (such as the Left Behind series) is one example, another that suffers is video games. While you will see the occasional article in the papers about them, their coverage pales into comparison compared to films, despite computer games being a bigger industry for films, both in Australia and world wide. Indeed according to the Canberra Times (p6 Monday Nov 23 2009) this morning (no online copy) most Australian’s are gamers:

Computer games are set to be an bigger part of Christmas entertainment than ever this year, with strong growth for an industry now worth $2 billion in Australia….“The average age of the gamer in Australia is 30 and another key figure is that almost half (46%) the gamers in Australia are actually female”… Dr Jeffery Brand, the head of Bond University’s communications and media studies school, said most Australian homes had a game device.
“We have roughly seven out of 10 Australian’s playing computer games at some point in the year” he said. “Most of those, the vast majority of that 70 per cent, are playing daily or every other day”.

All this makes it even stranger then that in Australia, we do not have an R18+ rating for computer games. The Federal Classifications ACT was set in 1995, a lifetime ago in the industries view, with only limited consultation since. The biggest hold up it seems is the gentleman’s agreement that Australia has uniform laws on censorship via COAG. Despite the fact that this isn’t the case in videos (The ACT sells X rated videos, whilst other states have banned them), the convention has given South Australian Attorney General Michael Atkinson an effective veto power over such a large industry. In the last year some of the biggest computer games released including Fallout 3, GTA IV and Left 4 Dead 2 have all been refused classification (ie banned) or major changes forced on the overseas producers. That means lost sales, as people either dont buy, buy overseas, or simply pirate the game. When such contempt for the laws is commonplace, it is the laws that must change.

Yet these loses pale in comparison to the loss and harm the restrictions place on the development of a local Australian computer games industry, one in which Australia has some key niche advantages. The industry requires highly trained professionals which we produce in droves, it is an industry that depends on quality not quantity (meaning it can’t be outsourced to asian factory workers) and it is green and high paying business, returning nice tax benefits to the country. Yet both the Howard and now Rudd governments have ignored the industry, much as they have almost all high-tech industries. Australian governments it seems consider it a core business of theirs to spend billions of tax payer dollars to protect already dead industries (parts of our manafacturing and agricultural fields for instance) whilst not only ignoring but hampering the rise of new industries that seem well suited to our demographics and skills. The loss could already be measured in the billions (I know of 2 ACT games manufacturers that have closed and gone offshore in the last few years) and with video games set to grow, will be worth tens of billions in years to come.

From my reading of the Classification ACT’s it seems it would only require a change in the Federal law, and the compliance of one state or territory for video games to be classified at a R18+ rating by the OFLC and sold only in those states or territories that changed their law to accommodate it. (If there’s something I’m overlooking in my reading of the act, please email me or post a correction below.) For the loss of uniform laws on the issue, each state and territory could choose to encourage or restrict the industry in their territory. South Australian voters could continue to ban the sale of R18+ games, whilst those in the ACT or Victoria allow it. This would be competitive federalism at its best, something the constitution writers were very keen to encourage.

The potential sales revenue for any state which was the first to move would be immense. They would become the only port of call for the sale of these games, dramatically reducing overseas sales of games, and likely enticing video game production companies to consider moving their business to those cities in order to be able to freely develop their products. That reassurance would be a big boost for an industry that thanks to increasing photo-realistic graphics is having to continually re-account for why its material is classifiable as only MA 15+. What was assured of passing 5 years ago, might not today, without any significantly different levels of gore, just a more natural depiction of it thanks to better technology. Equally potential games producers (which need be only a professional working from a home office developing a game for phones as much as the multi-million dollar blockbusters like Bioshock 2 (produced in Australia) could be enticed to start their own businesses once the laws are expanded and clarified.

Despite massive tax payer funded handouts, Australia has lost much of its manufacturing industry and some of its agricultural as well But in high tech and value adding areas, such as the original idea’s, design and marketing, Australian workers and companies are almost impossible to beat. I don’t know who coined the phrase (I suspect Paul Keating), but the claim Australia needs to become the brain to Asia’s brawn has always struck me as very good economic sense. By not having a R18+ rating we are not only continuing with laws that do not reflect community sentiment, but are actively denying Australia billions in lost revenue in both production and sales in what is is fast becoming the largest entertainment industry in the world. We simply can’t afford not to make the necessary changes and get Australia’s computer games industry into action.

Twitter’s growing pains

I’ve blogged about twitter before, yet I still find it a valuable service to keep updated of the news, and give me a peak at what journalists & politicians are saying. Only it may not actually be them at the keyboard:

Turnbull sometimes does his own tweets

Turnbull sometimes does his own tweets

It took Barack Obama only 25 characters to shock most of his 2,677, 720 followers to the core. “I have never used Twitter” confessed the leader of the Free World, when pressed on new technology by Chinese students in Shanghai. But, hang on a minute. Wasn’t this the first Social Media Presidency? One of the very first Twitter accounts to be verified? And if Barack says he really is all thumbs, just who is it who is doing all his tweeting?

Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull appeared at ease during the Sydney Media 140 conference in discussion with broadcaster Fran Kelly, leaning comfortably back in his chair. But little did he know that only a few days later, he would looking for a new social media advisor, after his chief on-line strategist, Thomas Tudehope, was revealed to be linked to a version of the popular spoof Hitler “Downfall” video lampooning besieged Liberal politician, Alex Hawke.

The admission that “Tommy Tudehope helps with a lot of it” [Turnbull's tweeting] during the Media140 interview may well have contributed to the startling resignation. But I believe that what these events may reveal is a key danger of the burgeoning use of social media: politicians leaping on the bandwagon and the consequent use of new media tools for more complex political tricks.

To the twitterati, these revalations are a real outrage, and a slightly heartbreaking one at that. Social media has been seen as a way for direct, personal, unhindered contact between the elites and the masses. To find out it’s instead a staff member who is writing up the information seems to them to break the fundamental trust that they invest in the system. Yet whilst it’s unfortunate, it certainly isn’t surprising, at least no more than the use of speech writers or even media spokespeople. Politicians are immensely busy, their job is to both understand, decide and communicate on the issues of the day, and if they outsource the communication part occasionally, that’s not the worst sin in the world.

As a wanna-be speech writer, this has always been an issue that has interested me. Whilst the best remembered and usually most sucessful politicians are the best communicators (such as Lincoln, Churchill, Reagan, Obama), all used some assistance to cover the sheer workload and variety and forms of communications which they are expected to produce. This isn’t too different from sending out supporters or influential figures to help advocate for your case as happened in the ancient greek agora. Everyone would rather be personally visited by the politician and asked for their support, or hear their arguments and have a chance to respond in person, but it was impossible in a city of 30’000 active citizens, and simply laughable in a country of 21 million or 300 million or 1.6 billion.

We are thankfully emerging from the era of one to mass communication, with the decline of TV & Radio as the main communication sources. But we should not expect that the requirements of politicians are any less, even if we want no more than 140 characters out of them from time to time. To the good politician, such resources are simply another media outlet to be used in so far as they advance their cause. I know some federal politicians read this blog, along with their staffers, and taking a quick pulse check on what’s happening online may give them a heads up on issues the media may be looking at, or the way it is generally trending. But all this means more work, and more time spent hearing talk about themselves, and from competitors for the audiences attention.

The Twitterati are a smart bunch and will soon recover from this (in their hearts they probably knew it from the start). They may have lost the dream of reforming politics through their particular technology, but this happens every time a new technology is created. With its acceptance as a mundane addition the discussion can move to the truly important debates such as the social norms of it’s use, and the right and wrong ways to utilise it. Finaly it allows us to begin to measure its actual impact in real data, rather than against idealistic dreams of a new public sphere, dreams that have been floating around under the label of of E-Politics since at least the mid 1990′s if not in similar form for 2500 years.

Twitter as a failed (but useful) experiment

Like a lot of political junkies, I’ve been giving twitter a go, to see it’s use for political information/discussion. I’ve liked much of it, as a time-wasting tool, it is a great resource, and whilst it wasn’t a twitter revolution in Iran, the service surely had some significant effect (real or imagined it’s largely the same thing in such situations). I’ve also found it fun and exciting to be on the feed of some important people, esp journo’s who blog and so therefore usually have too many good links they want to share, or those which just have a quick wit (such as @annabelcrabb).

That said, I have to say I think the medium is an essential failure as a next-gen social media tool. Blogging and facebook clearly have their niches, and serve a lot of people, replicating what we do normally (read articles on paper/gossip with friends in cafes) but quicker and easier via our computers/phones. Both work well for political followers, but twitter seems to be half of one, half of the other, without ever making a whole. The tiny size of each tweet means that it is not quite a blog post, at an infuriatingly short 140 characters. But equally, twitter doesn’t have the mass publishing of blogging, in that unless I know to add you, I won’t ever see your tweets (or will only see 1-2 in a torrent of mass messages, but more on that later). And unlike a bookmarks where I can visit occasionally and quickly get to know what your site is about/like, tweets are too small to be useful as coding devices for working out if someone is worth paying attention to. A few good lines and you add them. And all of a sudden you are following 200+ people and your main page is filled with around 20 messages, each with a small picture, popping up constantly on all sorts of different topics and issues, none quite perhaps what you wanted to read/hear about today. So whilst political/fashion/sport blogs generally stay on fashion, tweeters like to casually range, though only a few bring anything worthwhile to fields outside their main area.

Then there is the problem of following everyone who is talking about a particular topic. Unlike blogs/newspapers and the power of google searches, it is rather hard to find where exactly everyone is talking about a particular issue, due to a lack of clear organisation for what is the right #hashtag to join. During the Iranian uprising a lot of people tweeted that certain #hashtags were being watched by the Iranian intelligence services, sending people scrambling for thousands of different #tags. Now whether they really were being watched or not, it certainly disrupted the service. Even without such nefariousness, it’s hard to find a good channel of commentators as anyone can jump on. Other mass channels such as the “#GoodNight” channel make even less sense as a channel. No one would sensibly want to read such a channel, but it’s common use means it ends up in the top 10 channels almost every night.

Which brings me to my final problem, the sheer amount of people on twitter makes the service rather useless. If you are an Australian political junkie, it’s been a lot of fun recently to watch #qt, the channel for question time in the Australian parliament. Only with the recognition that politicians were joining in, what was a small thing for journalists and those of us who actually enjoy watching question time, has become just another channel for those with an axe to grind or a desire for attention. End result, it feels like you are just being shouted at, and only catching glimpses of the people you want, or able to check about half the links you might like to.

Though Australian tweeters problems are nothing compared to when you watch US events live in twitter. Right now, the US house of congress is about to vote on Obama’s health care bill, and everyone is tweeting on #hcr along with #tcot #pelosibill, #killbill and others. But on #HCR, I’m im refreshing about once a minute with between 200-2000 tweets a minute appearing. These include personal messages “is watching the debate with fascination” or “to my congressman Rep. blah blah – please vote for this bill” “rumor going around 35 dems voting against the bill”
etc etc. Actually finding what is happening in terms of if they are voting yet, how the voting is going, or what the major players think is simply impossible amongst all this noise.

Instead I find myself even more reliant on a good journalist, on location to give me at least some idea of how it is trending, even if they’re sometimes using rumors, they are likely to come back to it and update, and I can easily check if such changes have occurred, or cross reference against a few others I also trust. So i’ve switched to sites like TPM, The Daily Dish and NYTimes and Instapundit.

My guess is that twitter will continue to live as a social media tool, but it’s role will be less vaulted as a home for political junkies than as a stream to dip in and out, or as a side bar for people to comment or to post quick stuff not worthy of a full blog post ala on The Punch or for sporting events where it will be a fun way to follow sporting events or ultra localised events ala #tinpotcountyfair.

Twitter was certainly a useful experiment, and I expect more rather than less people to be updating via phones or pc’s their immediate thoughts/rumors on events. But it probably won’t be presented on just one site or in the cluttered torrent of tweets format that you currently see on twitter. What it most needs is a way to be filtered, sorted and organised, such as upcoming services like Geon. Then it will become a truely powerful tool. Though again, the experience for me really just proves the worth of a good journalist.
And now I’m off to post this blog, and trying and drum up traffic for it on twitter. If you’re interested or disagree, you can follow me here (@AndrewOssieCarr) and tell me why you disagree.

Obama’s hidden healthcare weapon

While we’re all still waiting for the definitive campaign strategy books on the Obama 2008 campaign to be written (I’m looking at you David Plouffe), one thing is patently clear: Obama won because he mobilised people to assist his campaign in a way never before seen in America. Instead of just asking volunteers to grab a phone call and begin calling, he had a motto of ‘Respect, Empower, Include’. Volunteers were instead asked to go find 5 more people who would also join. Those who managed this were made team leaders, with similar opportunities for advancement for those new members in a similar fashion. People were given increasingly harder tasks to see if they could deliver, and then were rewarded with being team leaders. Neighbourhood teams were set up across the country, each invited to build their own networks. This process continued for months and months, before any phone calls were made, emails sent or doors knocked. That could come later, and did, delivering perfectly on election day.
OFA_Call_Congress
Why am I recounting this history? Because, a lot of the self-obsessed media have forgotten about Obama’s Organizing For America organisation. The media like to imagine that their shows as the only forum for real political discussion(far more real in their eyes than even the legislative chambers), with polls simply rating how the people react to various lines or positions. But Obama’s still organising, even with the power of the Presidency in his hands.

On the 20th of October, Organising for America set out to make 100’000 calls to members of congress to encourage them to support health care reform. That was passed easily. So they set it for 200’000. Again too easy. From Obamas facebook this morning:

obama_facebook_small Barack Obama Yesterday’s numbers are in. The final tally was not just 200,000 calls placed or pledged — it was 315,023. You’ve taken America one giant, irreversible step closer to passing health reform. Thank you.

Just imagine trying to field all that as a staffer in some Republican Senators office! (or wavering Democrat) While many Republican’s took comfort in the anger expressed at the town halls in August, it’s clear those events, (including members of the public bringing guns to public meetings, and numerous comparisons of Obama to Hitler), along with the Presidents speech to Congress, began to turn people towards supporting healthcare.

healthcare_polls_us

While Republicans raged, Obama’s network kept organising, holding functions, parties, door knocking, and continually organizing and seeking to expand. To Respect, Empower and Include their neighbors, friends and colleagues in the wider movement. Obama has already gotten closer than FDR, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter & Clinton to delivering Universal healthcare reform in the US. The Democrats policy has many flaws that would make it almost unacceptable to many in other western first world countries, but for America it’s still a big and important step. His big speech was important, as was his deliberate outreach to Congress, and decision to let it choose its path (rather than draw up the policy in private inside the White House as Hillary did in 1994). But when Health Care reform passes, a large part of the credit will have to go to the 2 million active volunteers (& 13 million supporters) who signed up to help elect Obama’s, and now are invested in his success.

It’s not just about having a flashy website, its about getting people involved any way possible. The internet just helps break the hold talking heads have on politics. As I discussed a few weeks ago, if people feel invested in your success, they will work harder and longer, than any bribe or pork barrel could possibly compel. And if Republicans think this network will have dissipated by 2012, or let them waltz into the White House on the back of public anger over SOCIALISM! they have a great big surprise coming. It’s going to be fun to watch, and a very important lesson for all future political strategists, not just in the USA and countries with voluntary voting, but also Australia.

Charting the Iranian Revolt

Other sources have far better insights into what is going on on Iran, but I just want to make a couple of key points.
Where_is_their_vote
1. The issue is not the election but the break in the legitimacy that has occurred between the Iranian Government and the people. Iran has been ruled by fear for most of the 30 years since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, but that military and material power was only significant so long as it seemed to re-enforce the already accepted legitimacy of the government. Poor economic and social policy in Iran has slowly weakened that link (the first role of any government is always to provide bread and circuses), such obvious and exaggerated efforts to control what was claimed to be a real election process have severely damaged that legitimacy bond. Even if, as expected the government violently cracks down and the protests fail to overturn the establishment, this makes a permanent new relationship between the people and the government of Iran. From now on, no public statement will be accepted at face value (ie “The US/Jews want your destruction”) and spending on programs that seem more about the wellbeing of the government (such as the nuclear program) will fall into significantly greater question.

2.The MSM is still critical, but despite our obsession with video and cable and the money put into TV news, most of the really big events in the world happen outside of a camera lens. Video is of course important, (Youtube videos are doing great job), but to properly understand what is going on in much of the world we need to rely on the flow of words and here at home in the west need trained professionals to wade through it to help provide the facts and filter out the falsities. As if we are all witnesses to a crime scene, everyone is talking and it needs wise heads to filter, edit, collate, and check. The best sources in following this story seem those using new media technology, but run by professional print journalists such as The New York Times Lede blog and Andrew Sullivan. The next generation of journalists for whom such social networking and publishing tools are as easy to adapt to as breathing will be a great sight to behold when going after a story. There are many very smart and switched on members of my generation using these technologies but I think this is more a transition generation with only some likely to get the best use of this technology. The media companies will also need to significantly update their online and published platforms to take advantage of this potential, right now they act to limit and punish those who attempt alternate methods or who take time away from standard reporting to engage such technology.

3. Technology obviously cant make revolutions, only people do. However the twitter network has really come into its own with the Iranian revolution*. Reports suggest that about an hour or so before the polls closed, the Iranian government acted to block SMS’s and severely limit the internet. Twitter, which can be accessed through a number of devices and mediums however has been able to escape some of this. If you are new to twitter go to http://monitter.com/ which displays all the messages “tweets” sent under a particular topic heading. Try these for size #IranElection #Iran #Tehran.
Other digitial technology such as video’s on youtube and photo’s on flickr are also providing great on the ground details. If you are interested follow this handy guide on accessing the media flowing out of Iran & responses from the rest of the world. Of course with all these technologies rumors and false claims abound, so much of it is useless from a perspective of knowing what is definitely occurring, but it certainly gives you a sense of the sentiments, energy and fear that is happening in Iran right now. Either way, this is another instance of the way new technology is changing politics in ways which no one has fully figured out yet.
(*Though this is not the first twitter revolution, Moldova back in April has that claim)

4. This is not a fight the west should get into, particularly the United States. The Obama administration seems to have handled this well in a very low key fashion, emphasizing that this is an Iranian issue. Obama has to walk a fine line between supporting and giving encouragement to the protesters (which helps protect them indirectly from a violent government crack down), and staying out of the debate so as to prevent Ahmadinejad from claiming the protesters are tools of foreign governments. Some will doubtless attempt to make this a partisan issue, but really it’s a debate between idealists and realists. The idealists (the fringes on both the left and right) will say we should be as loud and aggressive in supporting the protests as possible , the realists (the vast vast majority) will recognise the very limited impact western commentary can have and the serious consequences if we make the wrong decision.
Secondly, we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Mousavi is not quite the reformist character he seems in contrast to Ahmadinejad. Daniel Larison makes the point well. Interferring simply to replace one mob of self-interested politicians with another is not worth our time or the inevitable blow back should it fail (and even in success it hardly changes the likely facts of Iran’s move towards nuclear power/weapons and generic hostility to the west).
Despite this caution, I think Middle Power governments like Australia could do their bit to champion international action and recognition of the protesters. Nothing we do will be enacted, so therefore we have much more freedom to call for change.
Kevin Rudd has spoken often of his desire for Australia to engage in “creative middle power diplomacy”, here is his chance. That said, Australia has a lot to deal with at the moment, and engaging in largely symbolic efforts isn’t that great a use of our Prime Ministers time or spending down our national piggybank. But the Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith could really use this to try and increase his influence and stature worldwide in the way that Gareth Evans did to great effect during his 8 years as foreign affairs minister.

Right now my instinct is that there will be a crackdown (violently) over the next few days and the protests will fade away. But I’m much less sure of that today than I was yesterday, and same for the day before. Something is clearly happening, and as I alluded to at the start of this post, the critical issue of legitimacy is forever cracked. It will take a massive act, either true reform or outright fascism in order to overcome the fissures this election and it’s ham fisted theft have opened up.

The revolution will be blogged

In a distant time and place, I began a PhD looking at how the internet and related technology was affecting our conceptions of politics and the public sphere. Eventually given the morass and confusion inherent in such a debate at present times (and the chasm between boosters & degrader’s) I eventually, and reluctantly gave up on the project. There is much there to write in the future, but for the time being, simply taking note of how the internet and related technology is shaping politics (particularly in non-democratic societies) is a passing interest of mine. So here’s a few links if the issue likewise sparks your fancy (and as an excuse for my light blogging today as I work towards the deadline for handing in chapters)

Moldova’s Twitter Revolution

The protests began after a conversation between Ms Morar and six friends in a cafe in Chisinau, Moldova’s tiny capital, on Monday, April 6, the day after the parliamentary elections. The elections brought a larger-than-expected victory for the incumbent Communist Party.

Suspecting vote-rigging, “we decided to organise a flash mob for the same day using Twitter, as well as networking sites and SMS,” she said, speaking at a secret location. With no recent history of mass protests in Moldova, “we expected at the most a couple of hundred friends, friends of friends, and colleagues”, she said. “When we went to the square, there were 20,000 people waiting there. It was unbelievable.”

The demonstrations continued into Tuesday peacefully. But later that day, with no response from the Government, angry protesters swept police aside to storm the parliament building and the presidential palace opposite. Fire broke out in one wing of the parliament, and the protesters vented their fury by wrecking computers and office furniture.

“Not only did we underestimate the power of Twitter and the internet, we also underestimated the explosive anger among young people at the Government’s policies and electoral fraud,” Ms Morar said.

And closer to home:

Blogs continue criticism in Fiji

Fijian bloggers have mounted an online tirade against the military regime as the government pushes on with harsh media censorship and wide-ranging reforms.

Frank Bainimarama’s government has silenced Australia and New Zealand’s radio transmitters in Fiji, thrown out international media and imposed tough reporting constraints on domestic media, leaving an information vacuum in the beleaguered state.

In the latest reports, international freelance journalist Pita Ligaiula has been detained and two Fiji Times newspaper journalists were summoned by government officials to explain “negative” coverage.

The censorship has pushed voices of dissent underground, onto several active blog websites that deride Bainimarama as an illegal leader.

What mainstream media there is, has been forced into printing non-news like ‘Man gets on Bus’, rather than just blank holes in protest of the governments censorship.

Whilst there are many out there in the developed west cheering on the downfall of the MSM (mainstream media) and urging bloggers onwards, it is in the developing and third world that the most interesting and democratic use of technology is to be found. The big daddy of them all currently is the site Global Voices online which gives a great overview of develops around the world. If you prefer a more personal voice in blogging (as I must admit I do) then take a ganger at
Ethan Zuckerman’s site ‘My hearts in Accra’. Zuckerman has spent a number of years in africa and the third world assisting the spread of the technology and integrating its use in these communities, and regularly updates with fascinating links. Whilst not always directly on topic, another must link is to Andy Carvin who whilst not blogging much anymore, has been going since 1994! and one of the best sourced writers.

More academically speaking, I would be remiss not to link to Clay Shirky whose book ‘Here Comes Everybody’ is a must read for scope and insight on the coming impact of technology on society. Whilst more socially than politically concerned Shirky has emerged as one of the sharpest new voices on the impact of the new technology, without coming across as merely a dot com booster as so many other young writers on the subject inevitably end up. (In fact part of the reason I abandoned the field was the depressing number of utopian pieces that from even the 1980′s predict the coming democratization and liberalization of society due to this technology. Even 30 years later, with blogs and twitters and the like proliferating it still isn’t anywhere like such a scope, and one must imagine, given human nature, never will be.)

But Shirky also (via Carvin) relates one of my favourite episodes above, one immediately brought to mind by the Moldovian case at the start of this post: Nothing Says Totalitarianism like arresting kids for eating Icecream
belarus_icecream

By Andy Carvin: In many countries, flash mobs are often seen as communal practical jokes or even performance art, with hordes of participants suddenly showing up in a public place, doing something irreverent, then vanishing without a trace.

In Belarus, young people are employing flash mobs to push the boundaries of what the government will tolerate in terms of free assembly. Last Friday[May 2006], flash mobbers descended upon a public square in the capital Minsk to gather together and eat ice cream. No rally, no speeches, no sit-in nor march – just standing around and eating ice cream:

If this were almost any other country in the world, standing around eating ice cream wouldn’t even cause the local authorities to bat an eyelash. In Belarus, though, it was treated as an organized public assembly, so plainclothes government agents broke up the event, arresting some of the young participants:

In the west flash mobs are a fun joke. In other parts of the world it can be taken as a serious challenge to the authority and control of the government.

Politics still operates essentially as it has for the last 300 years in the west. Parliament, the Executive and the Courts set the laws and the people form as various mobs pushing and pulling society in an ever expanding bubble past modernity and across the entire globe. The new technology has not changed, nor will it likely change such a pattern. No robot presidents will emerge. But it is at the very least a powerful tool for the dispossessed, the minority and the forbidden to advocate their cause. Like hitting jelly with a hammer, those using the new technology will often find a way around, though as in the first case I linked to, it doesn’t guarantee the safety of any just yet. But we can hope.

Many hands make light work

Whilst everyone has been quick to lay the blame for the financial slippery-dip we are currently on, few have actual solutions. Or rather, their solutions are almost entirely ideological, and held well before the crisis started. On the right it’s old meme’s such as the Community Protection Act, and Government always and everywhere being the problem. On the left its the nature of greed and free market fundamentalism. Both have some point, but it doesn’t exactly help much, and neither have been able to turn their principles into clear policy prescriptions. This idea however strikes me as one of the best to thus far come along:

we need to rethink our entire philosophy of regulation. Instead of assigning oversight responsibility to a finite group of bureaucrats, we should enable every investor to act as a citizen-regulator. We should tap into the massive parallel processing power of people around the world by giving everyone the tools to track, analyze, and publicize financial machinations. The result would be a wave of decentralized innovation that can keep pace with Wall Street and allow the market to regulate itself—naturally punishing companies and investments that don’t measure up—more efficiently than the regulators ever could.

Typically I’m sceptical about the proclaimed power of the online world to revolutionize data organisation. Wikipedia is held up as the great example, but it’s founder Jimmy Wales did some tests and found that: “over 50% of all the edits are done by just .7% of the users … 524 people. … And in fact the most active 2%, which is 1400 people, have done 73.4% of all the edits”

The blogosphere is very good at disseminating information, or getting 100 people to investigate something, each bringing in a new fact, but this is often done in an ideological manner without much social benefit (ie the Pajama Media’s efforts against Dan Rather in 2004) or is outclassed by the efforts of a few professionals (see the uncovering of the Windschuttle Hoax). Likewise the SETI and Folding @ Home programs havn’t really taken off as their founders would like; most computers idle downtime is still wasted.
here-comes-everybody
But, as Clay Shirky argues, this is just the beginning, and the norm of such group uses of technology is still being socialized amongst the wider community (Shirky argues we will reach that point once it shifts from being new to ‘boring’ in how we view such roles). Equally the theory seems to make sense, and if there is an incentive (and every single stock market investor would have one) then the potential is immense. Even helping reduce some of the delays and costs of some of the current system could be a boon:

A Senate study in 2002 found that the SEC had managed to fully review just 16 percent of the nearly 15,000 annual reports that companies submitted in the previous fiscal year; the recently disgraced Enron hadn’t been reviewed in a decade..A few years ago, when banking regulators started requiring filings in XBRL [a set of tags that standardizes financial information] from its member banks, it found that the time it took auditors to review a bank’s quarterly financial information dropped from about 70 days to two. More regulators are catching on: Last December, the SEC announced that by June, every company with a market capitalization over $5 billion will be required to submit all filings using the format. And all publicly traded companies and mutual funds must follow suit by 2011.

It wont replace the need for the government regulatory bodies, but it could help us reduce their role to one of looking after the major & difficult players (those too big to fail/with a bad history) and leave the rest to be poked into by the public at large. In each and every theory of markets, the flow of accurate information is considered the essential requirement for efficiency to occur. This seems one great way to help move towards that goal.

And theory aside, this also seems to me to highlight one group who’ve thus far escaped blame in the financial crisis : Shareholders. Government has had to step in to help protect such people, and yet they were engaged in the market on the basis of self-interest, yet their willingness to ignore executive compensations, and the short-term focus and risky actions of many of these companies represents a failure of a role society needs such people to undertake, and is the least that could be expected of them, in return for the financial return they receive (indeed any who fail to, ought fail to make money under a real efficient market theory).