Some time ago I had a discussion at the Rathenau institute with Geert Munnich about a new project they are setting up (the picture on the side I took of Geert and Mirjam Schuijff to show them that it is not only information they publish themselves that may harm their privacy but also pictures someone else might take that includes date and GPS data). During this meeting we talked about the idea that in a way the Internet is often used for the same purpose as the formal databases are used to find information about people. There is so much valuable information to find on people if you take some effort to find it. It is probably even richer than the data in many formal databases like those form the civil service.
In relation to this I came across this article. It deals with Judge Scalia of the supreme court in the USA. He has always played privacy issues down in relation to information stored on the Internet. However, recently a professor of law in the USA asked a group of his students to compile a dossier on judge Scalia based on information they could find on the Internet. This turned into a 15 page dossier with much information that is fairly personal like the food he likes, the movies he goes to, private e-mail addresses and more. The response of Scalia was as follows:
It is not a rare phenomenon that what is legal may also be quite irresponsible. That appears in the First Amendment context all the time. What can be said often should not be said. Prof. Reidenberg’s exercise is an example of perfectly legal, abominably poor judgment. Since he was not teaching a course in judgment, I presume he felt no responsibility to display any.
I think this reaction completely disregards the duty we have as a society to protect people from too much information floating around. We know that not everybody will be responsible with information they find.
Of course, there is nothing of interest to find about me …
I recently came across this website that is dedicated to fact checking on political statements in the USA. If you listen to the candidates for US president it is often very hard to know if they are talking the truth, bending the truth in their direction or lying outright. Interesting to see that this website (and there are several other ones like this one) are increasing the transparancy a lot. It is shocking to see how much “distorted truths” are being told by these politicians.
The power of sites like these is that it will be getting harder and harder to stretch the truth once very white lie is monitored..
I came across this article in the paper on Saturday about the fact that civil servants are adding and changing information on Wikipedia during working hours. Some time ago I blogged about the Wikiscanner and of course one can see more and more how important transparency is. There have been numerous cases where with the help of the wikiscanner people have been found out while trying to create their own truth …
However, the question is how are we going to deal with this transparency. Of course ciivil servants also use the Wikipedia during working hours and of course they sometimes also change information. Just like people in companies and people at home. Wherever we are we still remain individual human beings. One of the effects of Web 2.0 is that the different roles we have are more and more blending together. At all times of the day we are private person, employee, citizen, husband and father and can switch easily between all these roles.
Somehow we have to learn how to deal with this transparency. The fact that information came from a computer within a public department has nothing to do with the department. By locking the access to Wikipedia only image may be gained but civil servant will lose access to important information. We have to accept the fact that also aberrations are visible.
Before they existed also and we knew they did, now we can see they do.
When I start to work on something new the first thing you do is find a lot of information about the subject you are going to deal with. However, information only gets you started. In order to really understand a subject it is essential to talk to people that have dealt with it before. You can read a wall of books on how to cure diseases but there is no substitute for a talk with the real expert. In every field the amount of knowledge to make the right decisions is so vast, you simply can not write everything down.
In the past I did a project for bakery’s and my task was to write down how they make the bread. One of the issues was how we could describe the moment the dough is ready to be laid down to rest. Terms like stickiness, feel, elasticity and many others where mentioned but there was no way to get a good description to tell someone knew when it was OK. The only way to learn this was to work together with an expert and be shown how it was to be done.
(this reminds me of a story from Winnie the Pooh. Someone asks Winnie what he likes most in the world. And he thinks in his mind that honey of course is very nice. But the moment just before eating the honey, that was the best….. but he did not know the word for this moment.
For me this leads to the conclusion that we can not rely on written information to understand the complexities of real life. We need the knowledge and interpretation of experienced people to understand what it means.
There I think there are quite some risks in a project like “kindbeeld”, a government project in the Netherlands where all information regarding a child is stored in a system so it is easier to see when something goes wrong, even though the child has moved quite often (the idea is a nationwide implementation). When we all lived our lives in the same villages there was no need for such a system since people knew each other. But the risk with a system like this is that people using this information will give a totally different interpretation of what is meant.
In a project we did some time ago we did not provide people with the information itself but gave back the contact information of the people that wrote down this information. The idea is that it is better to call these people and really get their opinion than to misinterpret the written words.
People (and children …) are a lot more complex than making bread. We should be careful not to overestimate the power of information without context.
Bill sent me this article that describes how voters have a systematic bias regarding some economic effects. The article questions the fact that voters in general have a bias for anti-market, anti-foreign, anti-efficiency loss of work and a pessimistic outlook. This systematic bias of course would lead to bad decisions since the errors do not even out. The stupidity of the crowds.
Though I think part of the bias is not completely false due the following reasons:
Not all companies are rational too. Look at some of the big mergers in the world where the merger is probably more driven by the ego of the winning CEO than by economical motives. Most large mergers fail
Not all market are markets where demand and supply have a more or less balanced power. Once one side creates a invincible power and becomes a monopoly the market stops. Look at Microsoft or the cartel of energy companies in the Netherlands. Health is also an example where it is very hard to impossible to establish a fair market because it involves your health…
Markets are driven by the opportunity to get ahead, to gain more money than the guy next to you (or more women, more free time, whatever makes you tick). But the amount extra that you can gain is not linear connected to the increase of wealth it gives to society at large. Therefore a redistribution of wealth for the automated weaving factory to compensate Ludd for the loss of his job can be done at little cost to the economy.
But still, there certainly is a tendency to underestimate the power of the unexpected. I recently have read a book called the Black Swan. A black swan is something that can not be predicted (expect the unexpected). The analogy is based on the fact that before Australia was discovered everybody (except the Aboriginals) thought that all swans are white. But the discoverers found to their amazement that in Australia there is a swan like bird that is black. In general people are not prepared for completely unexpected things to happen.
It is a bit like being a turkey. Everyday you get a nice meal so after some time you expect the future to be like all the previous days, however conspiracy driven turkey you are. So Christmas really comes as a surprise.
Crowds are often are bad at taking these unexpected events into consideration. But these unexpected events often create big changes in society. Of all the technology that is of major importance 20 years from now we only see about 50%. The other 50% we can not take into account since it does not yet show on our radar screen.
For the design of iCrowds this has big implications. On the one hand it shows that there is a limit to the intelligence of crowds and on the other hand how information sharing across the network is important.
A community of turkeys may find out that some of their cousins are mysteriously disappearing and will expect the unexpected …
The way I see it the idea behind this video is that until now images have been used for a lot of bad reasons. Their message on their website is:
So ask yourself this. If you had the entire world’s attention for just a few minutes, what story would you tell? Perhaps you think the world looks at you, your country and your culture… and just doesn’t understand. Then do something about it. Make a film and upload it here http://www.youtube.com/group/pangeaday. You never know. It could end up bringing millions of people that bit closer together.
The least you can say is that they are used to influence a lot of people at the same time. As they say: “images of the many have been in the hands of the few”. How extraordinary it would be to look through the eyes of other people around the world. Not the people in control of the big cameras but ordinary people like you in me. And in a way we can if you look at the video somebody makes when he wants to make a statement. Not through his eyes but through his lens.Have a look at their website. Somehow I like the idea a lot. One last quote which struck a chord with me:
Movies can’t change the world. But the people who watch them can.
Some books are very helpful in making you understand developments. This summer I have read a book called “The Cluetrain manifesto”. Central theme of the book (which by the way is written in 2000 but started as as website in 1999) is the statement that markets (and a lot of other things) are conversations. The way companies use corporate communications and PR to tell us how we should think about them simply does not work anymore.
It makes you think. When I go to the market each Saturday to get the ingredients for a nice dinner I am in constant conversation. I tell the girl that always helps me with the vegetables how they were last week and she tells me what kind of specials she has this week. Sometimes we discuss how the ingredients are best used for the recipe I will be making. I learn from her and sometimes I can tell her new things. Same with the small butcher that I go to. In essence this is a weekly conversation that accompanies the business we do together. The one greatly enhances the other.
In a way this is the natural way people started doing business. Democracy and debate became of age in the Agora of Athens that was established as a marketplace. It is only with the establishment of big companies that we lost the conversational way of doing business. And because of this greater distance we created corporate communication to tell people what we think they should think of our company. But we stopped listening and forgot about two way conversation.
Internet and especially the social networks it supports again creates the opportunity to be in conversation with the market. Not to tell people why your product is so great but to be in conversation about the features people want. People love to help companies to improve the products they like, all they ask is that they listen and take them seriously.
I think here is a message for a lot of companies. More and more it will be needed to open up the company and invite people from the outside to help. With the development of new products, with how the product can be implemented.
The market is a conversation and conversations go in two directions (at least the nice ones, don’t you think?).
One of the other great books I have read this summer is linked, a book about the theory of small world networks. Many know about the famous Milgram experiment where he showed that most people in the world are connected by not more than six handshakes. Linked shows that this is because society has a “small world” topology, meaning that we have many closely related groups that are coupled by “connectors”, people that have many long range connections. The funny thing is that this type of network is also fairly common in nature, e.g. the way neurons are connected in the brain and the way fireflies synchronizes their lights. He describes many forms of these networks and simulations he did with this topology. I think this work has a lot of design rules in it how to create successful social networks. Somehow I think for example that the dunbar number (which relates to groups size and dynamics) is related to this. I will get back to that some other time.
It has been a long time since last post due to vacation and various other activities. But even in vacation time you can still enjoy the possibilities of all the new channels of communication and communities.
There is a (closed) discussion group I am member of that deals with various political subjects. Many of the members are educated as philosophers and the discussions are on a very interesting level. One of the people in this group is an American living in the Bourgogne in France. During the vacation I sent him an e-mail to suggest to meet for drinks when I would be traveling through France on the way back home. He was so nice to invite us to his house and stay the night there. Imagine: in the middle of the beautiful country side in the Bourgogne in a water mill dating back to the year 1300. Great company, great place, great food, great wine (probably the best red wine I ever tasted) and great conversation. We enjoyed ourselves immensely.
One of the other surprises was how my son of 11 years was able to converse in English. Due to his playing games on Internet and chatting with other children all over the world he could really hold a conversation.
This to me shows that it is the combination of real and digital life that makes the current development on communities so interesting. It is not either the one or the other but the possibilities of intertwining those two to create new surprises.
This is such an interesting example of how our new production of information can go wrong:This is an interview with Christine Boutin, the French minister of housing, about the conspiracy that George W Bush is behind the attack on the WTC towers on 9/11. A small translation of the first part goes like this:
I think that it’s possible. I think that it’s possible… I think it is possible. I think it more especially as I know that the sites that speak of is problem are the sites that have the greatest numbers of visits….And so, I tell myself, I who am extremely sensitive…to the new techniques of information and communication, that this expression of the mass of the people cannot be without any truth. I’m not telling you that I adhere to that position, but let’s say that, nevertheless, I’m questioning myself a bit on this question
Some time ago I talked about the fact that due to ease of copying information of the Internet it is possible for an item of information to multiply rapidly. And a thousand lies remain a thousand lies.
This I think is an excellent example why we have to rewire the way we interpret information due to change that Internet brings us.
Does Wikipedia work or doesn’t it? That is the question.There is a lot of discussion on what the quality of Wikipedia is and how we should use it. An interesting point of view is the comparison with Open Source software. I think there are two quite important distinctions how Wikipedia and the Open Source movement handle the way they organize their processes.
Wikipedia is for the most part anarchy. Anybody can simply put some information in and correct whatever is there. Even when Einstein would have written the part about relativity than john doe can easily “improve” upon it. On pages where this leads to numerous changes (who the hell does this Einstein guy thinks he is by changing what I, John Doe, have shown to the world…) the adopt a feudalist approach where some people (the Aristocracy) have received special administrator powers by Jimmy Wales (the King, Wikipedia: c’est moi).
Open Source has adopted a much more open approach to this. Also here you find the few who are at the inner circle with special powers but they are promoted there by the group based on their merit. In software it is pretty easy to see if something works or not (most of the time). Either it crashes or it works. Either the function works or it does not. That makes it much easier to spot the talent and quality of developers compared to the quality of the contributors to Wikipedia. And of course: Linus Torvalds is no emperor. No, Linus is God and above us all. Considering the ubiquitousness of Linux at least he knows what we all are doing.
My conclusion is: you definitely need some sort of structure to make these things work. And the risk of structures, organisation and hierarchy’s is that they are easily abused.
But does this not like a lot like real (physical) life. The Romans already understood this: “who will guard the guards” (as you clever readers already understood from the title. I had to look it up on the Internet …).
We already have a history in mechanisms for this kind of situation for more than 3000 years since the forum in Athens and it is called democracy (OK, there where times when it did not work…).
In a democracy we elect people to rule our country. We elect people to make the laws and to enforce the laws. We appoint people that judge others within the context of that law. Reality is a big social network. And you know, when we are not satisfied with the ones that rule we send them away during election time.
The mechanisms in social software should not be that different from our democratic rules: we elect people in whom we trust that they will govern rightly. Some rules will be hard to change (the constitution or the way we vote for administrator) and others will be easy to change (parking fines or the mechanism how a recommendation is calculated), depending on how important they are for the foundation of the community. And regularly we will have the opportunity vote or run for administrator ourselves.
In order to make this work we should not just look at Machiavelli but also to Montesquieu who wrote about how to design the checks and balances to prevent the Machiavellian Kings.