Twitter, Facebook, and social activism: newyorker.com

Twitter, Facebook, and social activism: newyorker.com.

This article by Malcolm Gladwell makes a useful distinction between strong ties activism and weak ties activism. The former was always possible, the latter only really viable with the coming of the social web. Activists with strong ties have real, face to face friends. Online activism has to make do with the weak ties of friends on Facebook. Gladwell disparages weak ties activism as, effectively, activism for people who can’t be bothered to actually do it. He claims that rumours of the Twitter revolution in places like Iran have been greatly exaggerated.

I’d agree about the exaggeration. One cause of this which he doesn’t mention is the incentive journalists and editors have to add current buzzwords to well-established reporting tropes. Thus for example ‘crack addicts stole my iPad’ breathes new life into an otherwise dying formula. In the case of civil unrest in far-flung nations there is a great temptation to add the words Facebook or Twitter to the headline.I’d also agree that weak ties are, well, weak. There’s a danger of them being expected to accomplish more than they can reasonably be expected to.

Much of what passes as media comment on internet activism is little more than star-struck boosterism. But I think Gladwell is a little too negative about the potential for the social web to ‘change the world’. There are two areas in particular where worthwhile things seem to be happening.

First, in the area of activism, organisations like GetUp in Australia and Moveon in the US have had a fairly large impact on the political landscape. Certainly GetUp has filled a gap that would otherwise not have been filled in engaging dynamically with political issues and making it possible for groups of people to do things they never could have done prior to Web 2.0. For instance it is now common for GetUp to run political TV ads in prime time, flash-funded by its members all chipping in small amounts of cash to create a big effect. These microdonors don’t need to be best buddies with one another. They don’t need strong ties. They just need to be able to leverage the aggregated power their web-enabled weak ties give them. Weak ties do some political things very well. Interestingly these weak ties can also lead to the strengthening of strong ties. There is a deliberate strategy of encouraging local face to face meet ups, and it was claimed that before the last federal election 1 in 30 residents of Canberra, the national capital, was a GetUp member.

This brings us to the second way the social web can reasonably claim to be  changing the world. This is the use of weak ties to connect otherwise disconnected people to make practical differences collectively. Micro-credit organisations such as Kiva are linking lenders and borrowers in mutually beneficial ways and thus empowering the otherwise disempowered. The Ushahidi mapping platform is being used to monitor elections in Egypt, Brazil and Venezuela.  In these ways the social web helps committed people to do their activist work more effectively. Erik Hersman, the organisation’s operations director, says:

I don’t see too many governments being displaced or replaced by online cooperation alone. Trust, reputation and resources are just a few of the hurdles to overcome before that happens. Instead, I think we’re seeing the continuation of the refinement of mass movements, brought about by the inefficiencies in the system, which catch on faster and are enabled better online and then move offline for impact.

My own guess is that these new kinds of social movement and the new kinds of public association – enabled by internet and mobile phone technology –  are going to become ever more important. If this is so, the current views of Malcolm Gladwell may come to look an awful lot like the second stage of the time-honoured  method of assimilating ideas whose time has come. To paraphrase the trade unionist Nicholas Klein:

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.

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Mutualism: Flavour of the month

As predicted this time last year, mutualism is the new favourite political idea.  It has been so ignored by policy makers over many decades that it has temporarily lost its left/right label and the Tories are also talking about it.

But it shouldn’t be thought that mutualism is a way of making money grow on trees. You can run money-generating operations on this model, but money-spending operations (eg most public services) require external funding. As Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber puts it:

‘There seem to be two possibilities: either the mutuals have independent sources of funding or they don’t.’

It will be interesting to see how much of the utopian mutualist talk survives the forthcoming UK general election, and how far the resulting government ends up supporting what Rudolf Bahro might have called ‘actually existing mutualism’.

Read: A mutual alternative to markets and hierarchies

Beware – Dangerous Robots!

Dan Kahan of the Cultural Cognition Project has been thinking about the possible ways of reacting to robots that kill. It’s a relatively new set of technologies, but what happens when AI merges with weaponry to produce robots that want to kill you? He thinks the arguments could go in several ways and I tend to agree.

The ethics of this is already being worked out, with the aim of making robots behave ‘more humanely than humans’. There is a summary.

The title of a key book on the subject points to the potential contradictions:

Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots

Governance is great – as long as we’re the ones in charge

The context in which all this is happening is an Hierarchical one: the so called military-industrial complex. Hence the great significance of the term ‘Governing’. For Hierarchy, governing is exactly the correct response to ‘lethal behavior’ – and this applies to all lethal behaviour, not just that of robots, who in a sense are nothing special. The point is, in the Hierarchical worldview violence is warranted, provided it is clear who is doing the warranting. But lethal robots present something of a problem. What happens if they aren’t programmed to be ‘governed’? Continue reading “Beware – Dangerous Robots!”

Characterising the Open Source Movement: It’s not the ‘new socialism’

Just as I reach the end of reading Rebel Code by Glyn Moody , a riveting (to my mind) early history of GNU/Linux (subtitled Linux and the Open Source Revolution), Kevin Kelly’s article in Wired mag comes to my attention. Kelly claims the open source movement is ‘the new socialism’.

No, it isn’t.

For example, there is no way on God’s earth that Continue reading “Characterising the Open Source Movement: It’s not the ‘new socialism’”

Slow Reading and the End of Print

It seems you can do all sorts of things slowly. Why weren’t we told?

Actually, Slow Reading by John Miedema is a thoughtful consideration of the enduring place of print in our culture. You’d be forgiven for assuming print was dying out under the pervasive i-influence of e-everything. Indeed, the author quotes Jeff Bezos of Amazon as saying the book is ‘the last bastion of analogue’.

Actually what I find interesting about the times we’re in is the arrival of radical new forms of physical textuality which call into question the simple story of the death of print. Two examples that keep catching my eye are the espresso book machine and the youtube graffiti wall.

The Espresso book machine is basically a photocopier that can spit out well made paperback books while you wait. This is a hi-tech mix of the digital (the back catalogue of every digitised book on the planet instantly available) and the traditionally physical (the physical paperback book to take away and enjoy). But it’s important to remember that paperbacks themselves are relatively new technology, having only achieved mass appeal in the 1930s (and the first paperback book shops were introduced to the US in the 1950s).

Where the publicity for the Espresso Book Machine goes wrong, I think, is that it tremendously underestimates the revolution that it heralds. Supposedly the new technology will make small independent book shops more competitive with the larger chains and the larger chains more competitive with supermarkets. This is exactly wrong. What it means is that notionally, every shop can and will become a book shop. And the cost of the technology is only going to come down. What will make the difference is not the ability to stock books, since there’s no more stock, nor the ability to discount them, since overheads are now minimal. The difference will be in the ability to promote them. The rise and rise of the expert bookseller has just begun.

The graffiti wall is a very weird phenomenon. This is the ability of internet video to bring to life monumental artwork inscribed on physical surfaces using stop motion filming techniques. This form of art has been feasible for a long time – since the invention of photography – but only now, with ubiquitous digitization, has it taken off. What’s interesting about this is the sense that the digital somehow requires the monumentally and immovably physical wall for its rhetorical effect as spectacle to work. It shows, I think, that the end-of-the-book anxiety is just a sub-set of a larger end-of-the-physical anxiety. It also shows that the physical doesn’t end, it just gets transformed. We are living in a time of digital-physical hybridization and we should probably get used to the feeling of not being able to get used to it.

East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet…

Fourcultures has previously expressed frustration over the ubiquity of the fiction of ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ thought worlds. One antidote on offer is to read the excellent book The Shape of Ancient Thought. To get a little more up to date, another suggestion would be:

Kapil Raj. Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650-1900 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

This book disputes the idea that modern western knowledge originated in the West then was transmitted elsewhere (contra Basalla 1967, for instance). Instead, the author shows, fields such as botany, cartography, terrestrial surveying, linguistics, scientific education and colonial administration, all depended for their development on a good deal of intellectual coming and going between ‘East’ (with a focus here on South Asia) and ‘West’ , between colonial centres and their colonies.

Read also: How to combine Eastern and Western Philosophy

Reference: George Basalla, The Spread of Western Science.  Science 5 May 1967: Vol. 156. no. 3775, pp. 611 – 622

Virtual Goods and the Greatest Story ever Told


Virtual goods make money

In a recent post about the profitability of online social networks in the US, China and Japan, venture capitalist Bill Gurley presents evidence that the more financially successful social network sites are those that downplay advertising revenue and focus on revenue from virtual goods. He points out that Users in Second Life are doing $450m annually in this business and taking out of Second Life $100m a year.

But why would anyone buy them? Continue reading “Virtual Goods and the Greatest Story ever Told”

The climate is what we expect: the weather is what we get

sunburnt country by spoungeworthySupposedly, Mark Twain once wrote “The climate is what we expect; the weather is what we get.” Had he lived in in Australia he would surely have been even less confident.

Notoriouosly unpredictable, the climate in this driest of continents plays a large part in the dominance of fatalism over the national culture. So it’s news when climate researchers release a report claiming the origins of the long-running drought in South East Australia are even more complex than previously thought. Until now it has been held that the main driver of the weather cycle in this region is ENSO – the El Nino Southern Oscillation – a fickle two to eight year repeating pattern of temperature anomolies in the Pacific Ocean.

Now though it seems that Indian Ocean variability is more significant. Previously it was thought the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) only affected Western and Southern Australia, but the evidence now presented indicates the IOD is a major contributor to the weather in South Eastern Australia as well. This suggestion goes some way towards explaining why the ‘Big Dry’ which began in 1996 was not broken by La Nina conditions in 2007, but continues to the present. Further, the evidence suggests that there have been an unprecedented three successive positive cycles in the past three years, bringing warm, dry winds, low rainfall and high temperatures to South Eastern Australia.

This is a new piece of information. According to a news report by Ben Cubby it ‘could overturn decades of weather research’. So it’s putting it mildly to say that this requires some interpretation. What then can we say about it? Is it good or bad? Who will benefit from this new reality (if such it is) and who stands to lose out? If this counts as knowledge, what is its power? Who and what does it change? The newspaper report of the announcement gives a number of clues.

For the lead author, Dr Caroline Ummenhofer, the news is positive since it might reduce uncertainty for farmers: “There really is that opportunity to improve seasonal forecasting and seasonal predictions due to these findings, because the Indian Ocean dipole is predictable several months in advance.”

For Professor Matthew England the co-director of the Climate Change Research Centre, the news is very negative, especially in terms of climate change trends: “If these Indian Ocean dipole events do follow the trend [of more positive and fewer negative events], this is a terrible piece of information for the Murray-Darling Basin.”

Meanwhile the authorities have the situation regulated by motitoring it carefully: ‘The Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s quarterly update yesterday showed the drought there is worsening. Toxic algae blooms are expected, water storage is down by two-thirds and decent rain is months away.’

In the article you are now reading, the phrases in bold print, all except one lifted from the news report, summarise the four cultures of Grid-group Cultural theory. The theory suggests that when faced with new information, we rush to make sense of it, to fill the interpretive vacuum – but typically we do so in one of four competing ways, and we organise our environment to reinforce one or another of these ‘cultural biases’ . In the case of Australian climate science, we can see this happening in real time. Is it just an effect of journalism – to try to cover all perspectives (but then this begs the question of what counts as ‘all’)?

Why not check it out for yourself, by observing how people construct their arguments and their worldviews?

The report is to be published in Geophysical Research Letters but here is the pre-print.