Punctuated Equilibria

The first chapter of The Wealth of Networks (How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom) by Yochai Benkler was very interesting reading. I am looking forward to reading more.

In an earlier post, I talked about how mass collaboration is only possible for those with a computer and an internet connection. It does not include many in the developing world and those that do have it in most of those countries are not girls. It is hardly inclusive at this stage of the game. Benkler too points out that the “declining price of computation, communication, and storage have, as a practical matter, placed the material means of information and cultural production in the hands of a significant fraction of the world’s population – on the order of a billion people around the globe. (3)” This still leaves over 5 billion people without that means. My guess is that it is primarily those who live at a subsistence level. Why guess? Check the Number of computers per 100 inhabitants by Country. The top five are Switzerland, United States, Sweden, Canada and Australia, while the bottom five are Cambodia, Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, Malawi and Chad.

Benkler also says that the marks of what a society’s freedom looks like is based on “how we make information, how we get it, how we speak to others, and how others speak to us. (7)” If we were to look at women as a segment of any society I wonder if we could use Benkler’s analysis as a reliable test. Let’s look at Switzerland then. Hmmm, women won the right to vote in 1971. 59% of Swiss women are employed while 75% of men are, but that does not tell us if they are seeking employment. Would the numbers be similar for who is making the information? What about Chad then? Women in Chad could vote in 1958. Well before Switzerland. Women in the workforce in Chad? About 44%. I don’t think this is going to work as a test without some heavy duty analysis. Just because women are given the right to vote doesn’t mean they take advantage of it or even have the ability to exercise that right. That is what is so incredibly embarrassing about the latest vote I participated in. Under 60%! Shameful.

What is also touched on in previous posts, as well as posts by classmates, is the idea that these technologies can bring about social change. Benkler says, “The technology will not overcome their resistance through an insurmountable progressive impulse.” It won’t just happen. “The reorganization of production and the advances it can bring in freedom and justice will emerge, therefore, only as a result of social and political action aimed at protecting the new social patterns from incumbents’ assaults. (23)” It is fragile and it requires those who are willing to fight for it in order to preserve it. Benkler also adds to that discussion by pointing out that the tension between economics, institutions, laws and technology is dynamic, yet it is never in tension for too long a period and usually finds a kind of equilibrium. I suppose then that we can and should look forward to the change that is coming as a result of the economic “shock” we are now experiencing.

What will we renegotiate? What will we fight for?

On Closed Systems & Freedom

I have been a busy, busy little bee. Ok I am not that little, but I have been busy.

Part One
Catching up on this past week’s reading in Wikinomics (by Tapscott and Williams), I took note of anything that struck me as I read. On page 238 I made a notation, “Unlimited Growth?” I am not sure in re-reading that page why I wrote that, but it does raise an interesting question, but first an illustration from life.

When I was in grade nine and introduced to the wonders of Biology (by a teacher who reminded us that we should not hold hands because eventually that could lead us to do things we would be sorry about later) and the Pond Experiment. We were required to get a jar and fill it with pond water. We were to make sure we got some plant life in there and a bit of pond muck too. Punching a few holes in the lid top ensured that the only thing in or out was air. Essentially a closed system (I know technically not, but for a bunch of grade niners it was close enough). On a bi-weekly basis we began to make a log of the organism count. At first, there were a nice number of floaty things under the slides. A couple of weeks later the number was skyrocketing, then suddenly a drop off to nill. Nothing. Nada. All gone. No life at all.

Economic systems are like that. I remember hearing an Amway presentation once. What happens if all the people in the world sign up, I asked. It just does not make sense to me. We cannot grow forever. Our economies cannot grow forever. (Unless we can start mining the moon) But, this new openness, peering, sharing and acting globally (is the rest of the globe on board?) has new possibilites. I know there are all kinds of people out there ready to make their bucks, but I think it also has the potential for all kinds of social change. I fear for it though. I think it is pretty fragile yet.

Part Two
Another thing I noted was the use of all the adjectives used to tell the Geek Squad story, beginning on page 241. As a former employee at a small tech company, I was one of three females (one web site designer, two programmers) among 15 males, I have the feeling that there are not too many female Geek Squaders.

With descriptions like, “Global domination,” “special agent badge,” “black clip-on tie,” “black ops,” “James Bond,” “all play Battlefield 2 online,” and “simultaneously fighting each other,” what do you think?

Part Three
Email at the workplace sucks. On page 252 Tapscott and Willimas quote Mayfield as saying that the average Fortune 500 employee spends 4 hours in their Inbox! Wow! The upside is that apparently many employees are using wikis to communicate without approval coming from up on high first. This is a good thing and I think it is also something that some of us have achieved in this course. Hey, how about a Ning, sounds good let’s do it, and poof there it is!

Part Four
Another section where I made copious notes was in the section titled “War on the open internet.” Again I am reminded that freedom is always bought at a cost. It never comes without a fight. I don’t mean a guns and blood fight (although that is sometimes necessary…my parents were freed from dictatorial occupation by people who used guns and spilled blood to do it), but one must be ever vigilant. If we want freedom, we will have to fight for it.

Trouble with Sources & Saying What I Want

Reading assignment number one, for SOCS300, is a few pages from Mark Frauenfelder’s book Rule the Web. Frauenfelder points out that Technorati.com, a blog database, lists over 57 million blogs (13)! While I found that Technorati returned results formatted with too much information for a quick assessment, I did find the Top 100 blogs tab to be very useful. It seems amazing that blogging as a tool for communication did not even begin until 1996 (15), the very same year I purchased my first computer, a Mac Power PC running Mac OS 7.5.3 (it crashed…a lot). Frauenfelder’s excitement rubs off as he explains that anyone with a computer and a “$20 Internet connection” can publish virtually anything to an “audience of a billion people” (22). Truly amazing.

What initially began as light-hearted informative reading became worrying. Frauenfelder relates the story of Zouhair Yahyaoui who was arrested, tortured and died in prison because of a post on a blog (26). I decided to investigate and what I found was troubling and interesting on two levels.

In the first case, I was concerned that this could be happening frequently. Worse yet, it may also be under-reported. Researching at Human Rights Watch I found a few more troubling stories. Such as that of Abd al-Raziq al-Mansuri. Mansuri had been detained and then convicted on October 19, 2005 for illegally possessing a handgun. Apparently, over the previous year he had written approximately 50 articles as a journalist for a UK based web site, which were unflattering to the Libyan government. (I can’t confirm as it is written in Arabic.) Mansuri’s story is just one among others at HRW, such as the plights of Huang Qi, Liu Di, Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, Le Chi Quang, Nguyen Khac Toan, and Pham Hong Son.

Also troubling, was the story I initially read about Zouhair Yahyaoui in Rule the Web. Frauenfelder, without citing a source, wrote that Yahyaoui was arrested in 2004 and died in prison in 2005 (26). Reporters Without Borders claims that Yahyaoui was jailed on June 4, 2002 and released from prison on November 18, 2003. HRW confirms Yahyaoui’s release from prison in 2003 and also reports that Yahyaoui died of a heart attack on March 13, 2005 at age 36.

It seems that the free flow of information can cause difficulties on, at the very least, two fronts. It can be a problem for those using “mashed” up information, which has been drawn from multiple resources, as a final reliable source. This leaves me with more questions. For example, what sources can I truly trust? Printed or Digital? Or does it matter?

More importantly, speaking freely can result in fines, arrest, torture and imprisonment for those very individuals who are fighting to keep that right. Will I always have that right? How important is it for me to consider the rights of my society as a whole? How hard will I have to fight to keep it?