The Habit of Fear

In a recent episode of the BBC podcast From our own correspondent I heard a segment by Kevin Connolly contained a quote worth remembering:

One middle-aged woman told me, at the beginning of this last revolution in the battered centre of the city of Benghazi, that she thought the worst thing about living under a dictatorship was that it made you ashamed that you did not resist, that you were not a hero.
“You pass the habit of fear on to your children,” she said.

The habit of fear.

This position reminds me of another quote, this time by Salman Rushdie from his book The Moors Last Sigh

By embracing the inescapable, I lost my fear of it. I’ll tell you a secret about fear: its an absolutist. With fear, its all or nothing. Either, like any bullying tyrant, it rules your life with a stupid blinding omnipotence, or else you overthrow it, and its power vanishes like a puff of smoke.

Filter people

Two things happened yesterday that together made me think. Neither of these things were particularly surprising or unusual but, to me, together they point to something that I have intuitively been aware of without clearly thinking about it properly.

The first thing that happen was when a friend of mind referred to a well known Swedish political scientist and commentator – I had to amit that I had never heard of her. This is not unusual for me. I am Swedish but have grown up abroad to I have a limitations to the shared Swedish socio-cultural history. But this was different. I was not ignorant about a childhood tv show or modern historical event or person. The woman in question has appeared in recent years. My lack of awareness cannot be excused thorugh my historical ignorance.

The second event was even more common. I turned on the tv and within minutes the show was paused for commercials. In irritation I switched off the tv and runed back to my computer. This is a pattern I see more and more. TV, which was once a central part of my life, has become irritating. I still like screens, but cannot abide by the lack of control.

Of course the answer is that the actions in the second event very much explain the first event.

But looking at what I do, which media I consume is actually interesting. Or rather the effects are interesting. I listen to a lot of radio – but at home it’s internet radio mainly in English, on the road it’s a constant stream of fascinating podcasts – none of which are Swedish. I follow masses of blogs, but only a few are Swedish, at work books and articles are almost 100% English.

Now it’s natural that without the language barrier Sweden has a low chance of creative success. It has a small population so this means a comparitvely low amount of creativity. Cases of Swedish international success cannot be seen as examples that the system of global culture works but are more unusual exceptions to the rule. Swedish crime success must be an enigma to publishing – who knew? Even if Swedes were much more creative per person we still only have a population of 9 million. The rest of the English speaking world has a huge advantage.

When you throw off the limitations of national cultural borders you are flooded with an (almost) infinite sources of cultural production. This realization makes me wish I could speak more languages to be even more flooded. All these choices means that there are huge demands on our time. All this choice makes me filterfocused. I pick and choose, I discard sources with incredible ease. If it does not catch my attention – it’s gone!

I am sharing culture, ideas and data with people like me but these people are. Not those who are geographically around me. This is nothing new. Cass Sunstein wrote about the Daily Me already in the first edition of Republic.Com but what he was writing about – And what most energy is focused on – is using this kind of focus & filtering as a reason for why they become extreme. From terrorists to the Norwegian mass murderer Breivik the lack of multiple sources of information play an important part in explaining why they become extreme.

But my interest here is not about the extremism. Its about the lack of connection to the geographically located people. What will the long term effects of this? In particular among those normal users who do not become extremists…

For example: If a nation state attempts to motivate it’s existence through a shared culture and history. But what is the nation state without a shared culture?

Soon time for FSCONS 2011

It’s soon time for my favorite annual Free Culture event. This time, it’s the 5th FSCONS conference will be between 11th and 13th of November. As usual it is held in Gothenburg, Sweden.

FSCONS is the Nordic countries’ largest gathering for free culture, free software and a free society. The conference is organised yearly with 250-300 participants primarily from northern Europe. The main organiser is the Society for Free Culture and Software.

This years keynote speakers will be Richard Stallman & Christina Haralanova.

This year’s track are Building Together — Manufacturing Solidarity, Development for Embedded Systems, Development in Free Software Communities, Free Desktop Environments, Free Software in Politics, Human Rights and Digital Freedoms, Social Events, The Future of Money, Universal Design — Aiming for Accessibility.

Since I am not a coder I am especially looking forward to attending Book scanning, proofreading, and advanced reuse & Bitcoin: decentralised currency & Policy issues around Free Software & Privacy or welfare – pick one: Cryptocurrencies, taxation, and the legibility of culture & WikiLeaks, Whistleblowing and the Mainstream Audience & Internet and Civil Rights In LATAM & many more. Not to mention the great discussions and beer drinking nights.

Oh, and I will be giving the presentation Off the grid: Is anonymity possible?

Registration here.

Peter Langmar’s Cultural Sphere and Public Interest

Reading and enjoying Peter Langmar‘s masters thesis Cultural Sphere and Public Interest: Combining Free and Participatory Culture, Cultural Democracy and Critiques of Value Regimes to Rethink Policy, Artistic and Institutional Practices

Here is part of the abstract:

The thesis aims at a holistic and multidisciplinary redefinition of public interest in the cultural sphere, contextualised in the democratic and cosmopolitan era. The thesis reveals various problems and weaknesses of the cultural sphere by combining a wide variety of concepts and discourses such as critiques of: high and mass culture, aesthetics, monopolistic competition, hegemonic value and copyrights regimes. In other words the thesis merges the critiques of the oligopolistic actors, of the hegemonic copyright and value regimes of the cultural sphere.

Peter’s work is theoretically a bit heavy – it even includes a section on future research in the form of a PhD research proposal – but its highly readable and is well worth the time. So far I am most pleased with the ways in which he connects free culture, cultural democracy and participatory culture.

As it’s licensed under Creative Commons BY NC SA I have added it to the texts of interests in my growing open licensed collection of works of interest.

Wikipedia Reader: new free book

Another book has been added to my growing hoard of CC licensed works that are somehow relevant to my research area.

The Critical Point of View: A Wikipedia Reader is an interesting work featuring research from a large group of exciting and original thinkers. It is, as the blurb states:

About the book: For millions of internet users around the globe, the search for new knowledge begins with Wikipedia. The encyclopedia’s rapid rise, novel organization, and freely offered content have been marveled at and denounced by a host of commentators. Critical Point of View moves beyond unflagging praise, well-worn facts, and questions about its reliability and accuracy, to unveil the complex, messy, and controversial realities of a distributed knowledge platform.

Right now the chapters which have my interest are

The Argument Engine by Joseph Reagle, What is an Encyclopedia? From Pliny to Wikipedia by Dan O’Sullivan
A Brief History of the Internet from the 15th to the 18th Century by Lawrence Liang, Questioning Wikipedia by Nicholas Carr, The Missing Wikipedians by Heather Ford, and The Right to Fork: A Historical Survey of De/centralization in Wikipedia by Andrew Famiglietti. But this is only a small fraction of the topics covered in this work.

So check out: Geert Lovink and Nathaniel Tkacz (eds), Critical Point of View: A Wikpedia Reader, Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2011. Its available in online, pdf, or good old dead tree versions!

Also if there are other titles of CC licensed books which should be included in the list please let me know…

Is user education a red herring?

The BBC podcast of The Media Show with Steve Hewlett is always interesting to listen to. The latest show I listened to (episode 28 September 2011) contained a segment on the recent changes to Facebook and what these may mean for privacy. Hewlett interviewed Facebook’s Christian Hernandez and attempted to get him to see the privacy effects of the new changes.

Basically the new changes will mean that your friends will see what you are doing online – unless you opt out of showing those specific pages. In other words Facebook will happily announce to your “friends” that you have been looking at pages on weight loss (or whatever) and naturally let them draw their own conclusions from what they see of what I saw.

Hernandez was quick to stress the elements of user control over his/her information. If you chose you may opt-out of showing friends the specific pages you are viewing right now. Additionally if you forget you can remove the pages after the fact.

My problem with the former is that I need to be aware that my Facebook friends will always be looking over my shoulder. I am easily going to forget this. As for the latter – well once my friends know what I have looked at, removing the links/pages/information is not effective… I have already outed myself.

When pressed for a reasoning to why the privacy encroaching changes were made Hernandez talked about Zuckerbergs vision of a social net. When pressed further he returned back to the concept of user control. Eventually he did accept that these changes will require user education.

In other words we, the users, need to learn new proactive, protective forms of behavior. The platform owner has washed their hands – its our problem that they have given us the gift of freedom and control. Wonderful terms like freedom and control become red herrings in the world of data harvesting.

But if we are in danger from social media shouldn’t we be able to expect that the state will somehow regulate to protect us from our own behavior. They did so in areas such as smoking, seat-belts and motorcycle helmets… Sure there is a lot of interest in attempting to update privacy regulation from the pre-social media age – but its tricky. Also not everyone is in favor of regulation.

An example of this is Jeff Jarvis’ recent book Private Parts – Gordon Crovitz reviewed it in the Wall Street Journal

“Congress is considering several privacy bills. But Mr. Jarvis calls it a ‘dire mistake to regulate and limit this new technology before we even know what it can do.’

“Privacy is notoriously difficult to define legally. Mr. Jarvis says we should think about privacy as a matter of ethics instead. We should respect what others intend to keep private, but publicness reflects the choices ‘made by the creator of one’s own information.’ The balance between privacy and publicness will differ from person to person in ways that laws applying to all can’t capture.”

Jarvis is right that it is complex to regulate what we do not fully understand but this means that in the meantime we are losing our integrity rights every time the platform owners make changes – nominally to increase our freedom and control – but in reality to increase their control and profits. Lets never forget what MetaFilter user blue_beetle wrote “if you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold”.

Profiteers may act to protect access to raw material – not the rights of raw material.