Is Cybertopianism Really Such a Bad Thing?

in Slate: “As the historian and technology scholar Langdon Winner suggests, “The arrival of any new technology that has significant power and practical potential always brings with it a wave of visionary enthusiasm that anticipates the rise of a utopian social order.” Technologies that connect individuals to one another—like the airplane, the telegraph, and the radio—appear particularly powerful at helping us imagine a smaller, more connected world. Seen through this lens, the Internet’s underlying architecture—it is no more and no less than a network that connects networks—and the sheer amount written about it in the past decade guaranteed that the network would be placed at the center of visions for a world made better through connection. These visions are so abundant that they’ve even spawned a neologism: “cyberutopianism.”

The term “cyberutopian” tends to be used only in the context of critique. Calling someone a cyberutopian implies that he or she has an unrealistic and naïvely overinflated sense of what technology makes possible and an insufficient understanding of the forces that govern societies. Curiously, the commonly used term for an opposite stance, a belief that Internet technologies are weakening society, coarsening discourse, and hastening conflict is described with a less weighted term: “cyberskepticism.” Whether or not either of these terms adequately serves us in this debate, we should consider cyberutopianism’s appeal, and its merits….

If we reject the notion that technology makes certain changes inevitable, but accept that the aspirations of the “cyberutopians” are worthy ones, we are left with a challenge: How do we rewire the tools we’ve built to maximize our impact on an interconnected world? Accepting the shortcomings of the systems we’ve built as inevitable and unchangeable is lazy. As Benjamin Disraeli observed in Vivian Grey, “Man is not the creature of circumstances, circumstances are the creatures of men. We are free agents, and man is more powerful than matter.” And, as Rheingold suggests, believing that people can use technology to build a world that’s more just, fair, and inclusive isn’t merely defensible. It’s practically a moral imperative.

Excerpted from Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection by Ethan Zuckerman.

Why Are We Signing Our Emails With “Thank You?”

Krystal D’Costa on Anthropology in Practice in Scientific American: “These types of linguistic structures are known as “politeness formulae.” … These patterns of responses are deeply nuanced and reflect the nature of the relationship between participants: degree of intimacy, relative status, and length of contact or expected duration of separation all influence how these interactions are carried out.

In the age of texting, these practices may seem antiquated, but the need for those sorts of rituals remains important, particularly in electronic communication where tone is hard to read. We end our communiques with “talk later,” “talk 2 u tomorrow,” or even simply “bye.” “Thanks” and “Thank you” have worked their way into this portion of the formula particularly in emails. More traditional valedictions have been replaced with “Thank you” so subtly that it’s now a common sign-off in this medium. But what does it mean? And why is it more acceptable than “Sincerely” or “Yours truly”?

It is in part be a reflection of our times. Email offers a speedier means of contact than an actual letter (and in some cases, a telephone), but that speed also means we’re sending more messages through this medium both for personal and professional reasons, and reading and responding to these messages requires a commitment of time. So it’s more important that the sender recognize the burden that they’ve placed on the recipient. In a time when letters took time to write, send, and respond to, it was important for the sender to attest to her reliability. Responses and actions were not so easy to take back. “Sincerely” and “Yours truly” which were meant to build trust between communicants. Credibility was an important determinant of whether a response would be issues. Today, as the web enables stranger to contact each other with little effort, credibility is less of a factor in determining responses (SPAM mail aside) when weighed against time.”

Great groups: What 15 things do breakthrough genius teams share?

Barking Up The Wrong Tree: “Warren Bennis and Patricia Biederman studied a number of breakthrough great groups to see what made them so successful. They compiled the results into their book, Organizing Genius.
They looked at the Disney’s Animation division, the Manhattan Project (developed the nuclear bomb), Xerox PARC (designed the modern computer interface), the 1992 Clinton campaign (pulled off an enormous victory), Lockheed’s Skunk Works (created the U2 spy plane and the Stealth Bomber), and others.
Highlights from Organizing Genius summarized by Erik Barker can be found here.”

Presentation: Innovations for Citizen Engagement in Fragile States

World Bank presentation by Soren Gigler: “This presentation provides an overview about several cases how innovations in ICTs can be leveraged to improve the delivery of public services to poor communities. Under which conditions can technologies be transformational in fragile states? What are the opportunities and critical challenges in particular in the context of fragile states? The presentation was part of the session on Using Innovative Approaches for Enhancing Citizen Engagement in Fragile States on May 1, 2013 during the World Bank Group Fragility Forum 2013”

Finding the Common Good in an Era of Dysfunctional Governance

New Essay by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein in the Spring 2013 issue of Daedalus (a journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences):

“The framers designed a constitutional system in which the government would play a vigorous role in securing the liberty and well-being of a large and diverse population. They built a political system around a number of key elements, including debate and deliberation, divided powers competing with one another, regular order in the legislative process, and avenues to limit and punish corruption. America in recent years has struggled to adhere to each of these principles, leading to a crisis of governability and legitimacy. The roots of this problem are twofold. The first is a serious mismatch between our political parties, which have become as polarized and vehemently adversarial as parliamentary parties, and a separation-of-powers governing system that makes it extremely difficult for majorities to act. The second is the asymmetric character of the polarization. The Republican Party has become a radical insurgency—ideologically extreme, scornful of facts and compromise, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. Securing the common good in the face of these developments will require structural changes but also an informed and strategically focused citizenry.”

Human-Based Evolutionary Computing

Abstract of new paper by Jeffrey V. Nickerson on Human-Based Evolutionary Computing (in Handbook of Human Computation, P. Michelucci, eds., Springer, Forthcoming): “Evolution explains the way the natural world changes over time. It can also explain changes in the artificial world, such as the way ideas replicate, alter, and merge. This analogy has led to a family of related computer procedures called evolutionary algorithms. These algorithms are being used to produce product designs, art, and solutions to mathematical problems. While for the most part these algorithms are run on computers, they also can be performed by people. Such human-based evolutionary algorithms are useful when many different ideas, designs, or solutions need to be generated, and human cognition is called for”

New NAS Report: Copyright in the Digital Era: Building Evidence for Policy

0309278953National Academies of Sciences: “Over the course of several decades, copyright protection has been expanded and extended through legislative changes occasioned by national and international developments. The content and technology industries affected by copyright and its exceptions, and in some cases balancing the two, have become increasingly important as sources of economic growth, relatively high-paying jobs, and exports. Since the expansion of digital technology in the mid-1990s, they have undergone a technological revolution that has disrupted long-established modes of creating, distributing, and using works ranging from literature and news to film and music to scientific publications and computer software.

In the United States and internationally, these disruptive changes have given rise to a strident debate over copyright’s proper scope and terms and means of its enforcement–a debate between those who believe the digital revolution is progressively undermining the copyright protection essential to encourage the funding, creation, and distribution of new works and those who believe that enhancements to copyright are inhibiting technological innovation and free expression.

Copyright in the Digital Era: Building Evidence for Policy examines a range of questions regarding copyright policy by using a variety of methods, such as case studies, international and sectoral comparisons, and experiments and surveys. This report is especially critical in light of digital age developments that may, for example, change the incentive calculus for various actors in the copyright system, impact the costs of voluntary copyright transactions, pose new enforcement challenges, and change the optimal balance between copyright protection and exceptions.”

UK: The nudge unit – has it worked so far?

The Guardian: “Since 2010 David Cameron’s pet project has been tasked with finding ways to improve society’s behaviour – and now the ‘nudge unit’ is going into business by itself. But have its initiatives really worked?….
The idea behind the unit is simpler than you might believe. People don’t always act in their own interests – by filing their taxes late, for instance, overeating, or not paying fines until the bailiffs call. As a result, they don’t just harm themselves, they cost the state a lot of money. By looking closely at how they make their choices and then testing small changes in the way the choices are presented, the unit tries to nudge people into leading better lives, and save the rest of us a fortune. It is politics done like science, effectively – with Ben Goldacre’s approval – and, in many cases, it appears to work….”

See also: Jobseekers’ psychometric test ‘is a failure’ (US institute that devised questionnaire tells ‘nudge’ unit to stop using it as it failed to be scientifically validated)

Bright Spots in Community Engagement

The last few years, we have seen a variety of experimentation with new ways to engage citizens in the decisions making process especially at the local or community level. Little is known however on what works and why. The National League of Cities, working with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, released a report today reviewing the impact of experimentation within 14 communities in the US, highlighting several “bright spots”.  The so-called scans focus on four aspects of community engagement:

  • The use of new tools and strategies
  • The ability to reach a broad spectrum of people, including those not typically “engaged”
  • Notable successes and outcomes
  • Sustainable efforts to use a range of strategies

A slide-deck summarizing the findings of the report:

Bright spots slideshare – final from Knight Foundation

The Social Affordances of the Internet for Networked Individualism

Paper by NetLab (Toronto University) scholars in the latest issue of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication: “We review the evidence from a number of surveys in which our NetLab has been involved about the extent to which the Internet is transforming or enhancing community. The studies show that the Internet is used for connectivity locally as well as globally, although the nature of its use varies in different countries. Internet use is adding on to other forms of communication, rather than replacing them. Internet use is reinforcing the pre-existing turn to societies in the developed world that are organized around networked individualism rather than group or local solidarities. The result has important implications for civic involvement.”