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A tangled web of differentiations

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This morning, twitter network delivered a bit of a red herring argument due to lack of differentiation between the internet and the web. So it helps to say first what is internet and what is web (these are not proper official definitions but will have to do for the purposes of this post):

The internet is a set of open protocols that have given rise to a specific type of network – a heterarchy. By heterarchy, in this case, I mean a network of elements in which each element shares the same “horizontal” position of power and authority, each playing a theoretically equal role.

The wikipedia article also points out that heterarchies can contain hierarchical elements and DNS is an example. But an (infra-)structural heterarchy such as the internet ultimately undermines hierarchies. I often paraphrase what John Gilmore famously said: The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it – replacing censorship with control.

This feature of a heterarchical network:

…no one way of dividing a heterarchical system can ever be a totalizing or all-encompassing view of the system, each division is clearly partial, and in many cases, a partial division leads us, as perceivers, to a feeling of contradiction that invites a new way of dividing things.

- is the internet’s greatest advantage. Built into the fabric of the internet is the ability to bypass missing or ‘damaged’ nodes and so imposition of hierarchical structures is incompatible in the long run – such control is perceived as an obstacle and therefore damage*.

The above is the ‘defence mechanism’ of the internet as a network. Now the ‘offense mechanism’ or better yet, the disruptive one:

What makes the Net inter is the fact that it’s just a protocol — the Internet Protocol, to be exact. A protocol is an agreement about how things work together.

This protocol doesn’t specify what people can do with the network, what they can build on its edges, what they can say, who gets to talk. The protocol simply says: If you want to swap bits with others, here’s how. If you want to put a computer — or a cell phone or a refrigerator — on the network, you have to agree to the agreement that is the Internet.

The web, on the other hand, is a network of platforms and silos, with many intermediaries. Some of them have considerable ability to control large chunks of it in ways that would not be possible on the open network that the internet still is. Facebook and any platform based around control and management of my data spring to mind, regardless of how much ‘use’ or functionality they provide.

Still, even on the web, hierarchy is not the defining organisational structure though closed platforms undermine openness of the web as a whole. There are overtones of feudal serf-lord relationship – you can farm my land in exchange for tithes and/or working for me (just substitute platform and data and you’ve got the current relationship between users and Facebook etc).

That said, there are emerging orders on the web which structurally can be described as power law and socially/politically sometimes as meritocracy. So not all order is automatically a hierarchy.

Another fallacy is due to the term democracy having two meanings. Those who argue that the web is a force for democratisation often use them interchangably which can lead to confusion about the nature of democracy online.

Democracy as open access i.e. right to and equality of voting – one man, one vote (though sometimes it’s not hard to see the one Man with the one Vote) and democracy as rule of the majority. The web is strongly driving the first meaning of democracy – anyone can connect (assuming sufficient resources such as a device and internet connection) and interact online. I can set up an email (communication tool), a blog (publishing platform) and twitter (distribution network). Pretty powerful and heady stuff considering that in the offline world all three capabilities are very expensive and highly controlled and controlable.

Democracy as a rule of the majority is not applicable to the internet or even the web. Nobody tells me what to write on my blog or who I connect and interact with. There is no General Will or Greater Good that would dictate or subjugate my actions online… though social pressures and technical limitations make this a far cry from a utopia. :)

With that out of the way, let’s look at the argument that the internet (or the web) is being used and abused by various government to oppress their citizens. How is that evidence of either the internet or the web being hierarchical? If it is evidence of anything, it is of the effectiveness of online in distribution and management or monitoring of data… and governments’ eventual catching up with those capabilities.

As Alec pointed out in an IM conversation about this – would those citizens be any more free or less oppresssed without the governments (ab)use of the internet? I don’t think so.

The real problem with countries using the internet to oppress its peoples is not in the ‘virtual’ world – they wouldn’t be able to control that any more than the rest of us can – it is in their access to its infrastructural underpinnings.

The use of hackers and cyberwar techniques against other countries by Russia and many other countries is not a sign of governments’ control of the internet either. Such techniques are not limited to governments and can be (and sometimes are) applied to the government.

Finally, I do take issue with the concluding paragraph of the blog post that sparked off this rant:

The exaggerated claims of those who say the internet is inherently a destroyer of organisations and hierarchies or that it is bound to lead to greater democracy and collaboration are an unhelpful distraction from the important study of the internet’s real impact on real lives.

The claims that internet is inherently a destroyer of organisations and hierarchies are not exaggerated, they are based on understanding of the nature of the internet as a heterarchy. As long as that is unassaulted, the internet will be able to re-route around censorship, control or hierarchies as damage.

That said, none of this can or should be taken for granted. The web does reflect our mental models of organisation, social conventions and power structures. However, it is build on an infrastructure – the internet – that has already profoundly shifted balances of power, brought about phenomenal technological innovation and is currently having a go at social and organisational conventions. Let’s give it a hand where we can by keeping protocols, data and technology as open as possible.

*An important proviso – the underlying infrastructure of the internet has to remain open and not in the hands of some mega-hierarchy such as government, directly or via telcos.

Cost of damage, cost of repair and unruly human behaviour

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This morning I commented on JP’s blog post on Wondering about damage and repair , where he applies a useful concept of comparing the cost of damage with the cost of repair to chewing gum. It transpires that the cost of chewing gum is 3p and cost of cleaning (by councils) is 10pm and therefore the full cost born by us all as taxpayers. The question is what can be done to balance this out, as it is the balance in the right direction that keeps things ticking over – such as Wikipedia for example.

Maybe it’s time for some radical solutions. Maybe we could try something else. If a good for sale is capable of damaging “the commons” then maybe we should measure the cost of repairing that damage. If that cost exceeds the cost of damage, then we raise a tax on the good until the cost of damage is higher than the cost of repair. Half the tax is payable by the manufacturer, half by the consumer. The taxes so collected are then used to do the repairing.

chewing gum

To me using taxes to influence such things is anathema, here is why:

Hm, to me the problem with the ’solution’ to chewing gum is trying to control behaviour through taxing it – a slippery slope indeed. Apart from the fact that even if it works, i.e. in aggregate people stop or start doing more of whatever the tax is designed to change, there are _always_ unintended consequences that cause further distortion(s) in the market. Just look at financial regulations. :)

But my real objection to using any tax to control behaviour is that is it paternalistic and shifts the relationship between the state and the people from one of servant-master to master-slave.

People don’t seem to differentiate between the state and society – two separate realms that relate to the individual in fundamentally different ways. The state is political and the society, well, social. One of the features of communism (or any totalitarianism) is the explicit aim to politicise the social. In such systems, everything is political and the power is taken away from the society and individual for political purposes. Therefore, I distrust and thwart the state wherever I can. I support and strengthen society to the best of my abilities.

A bit of a political theory overkill for a chewing gum issue, however, that is the reason my alarm bells go off every time I hear proposal to tax one thing or another to change or influence human behaviour. Social solutions are always better than political and taxation IS a political solution.

The cost of repair vs cost of damange is a brilliant framework for understanding why some phenomena work and others don’t. I am with DE on how to approach it – education and lower cost of clean up. :)

House of Terror

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In one of the most beautiful avenues of Budapest, Andrássy Road, is a museum dedicated to the two 20th century horrors, Nazism and Communism. House of Terror (Terror Háza) does not differentiate between the two toxic ideologies. After all, they are the same thing with different packaging – one in black, the other in red. That they hate and fought each other is not evidence to the contrary, merely evidence of territorial in-fighting.

In winter of 1944, when the Hungarian Nazis came to power, hundreds of people were tortured in the basement of the house in 60 Andrássy street. In 1945 Hungary was occupied by the Soviet Army. One of the first tasks of the Hungarian communists arriving with the Soviet tanks was to take possession of the location. The building was occupied by their secret police, the PRO, which was later renamed ÁVO, subsequently ÁVH (names for political police). The entire country came to dread the terrorist organisation. The ÁVH officers serving at 60 Andrássy Road were the masters of life and death. Detainees were horribly tortured or killed. The walls of the cellars beneath the buildings were broken down and transformed into a prison.

After the end of communism in Hungary, 60 Andrássy Road has become a shrine, the effigy of terror and the victims’ memorial. At least in Hungary they recognised that the ‘past must be acknowledged’. The exhibition is a visual feast, both in the artefacts displayed and in the symbolism of their arrangement. The rooms have themes and objects in them are meant to create an atmosphere as well as communicate facts. Alas, the visual beauty conjures an image of a retro nightmare – distant and unreal it masks the brutality and dull reality of communist terror.

There is an exquisitely designed hall dedicated to Soviet forced-labour and slave camps. There are reminiscences, photographs and the display cases contain relics, the original paraphernalia used by the people detained by the Soviets and taken to gulags. And yet, it does not squeeze your heart and make you sick to your stomach. The muted light and the droning voice of the audio guide fail to convey the tragedy. By trying to describe the suffering of many thousands, they miss the opportunity to make us feel the suffering of one, to put ourselves in their place, imagine our lives being arbitrarily and brutally torn apart. And to remember that this did not happen in some kind of parallel universe, that this is history next door.

I wanted to know the people whose meagre possessions I was looking at in the display cases. Their names, stories, family, circumstances, fates. I believe that the best and only way to understand Communism and Nazism is through the lives of individuals who were affected by it not through a historical methodology or chronological exposition.

And so we need to be told about their neighbours reporting and spying on them, children betraying parents, we need to hear the tales of endurance, mercy and resistance that no historical narrative can capture. We document history in such impersonal terms and yet there is nothing more powerful then actions of a man. We look for overarching explanations but historical causality without human beings and their behaviour leaves the patterns of history indistinct, lacking in colour and texture.

Everyday life is as important to understanding of what happens as are historical milestones. It might help people realise how little it takes for the society to find itself in a grasp of a toxic ideology and how gradual the decline can be, how unnoticed the erosion of freedom, dignity and moral strength.

If I had the time and resources, I would gather the human details about communism, not just the historical facts, and create a place where others can ‘re-live’ the individual tales. I would try to explain what it took to survive and resist. I would address the connection between totalitarianism and bureaucracy – why is it that an already unhinged and all powerful regime is so obsessed with record-taking, papers and stamps, correct documentation…? I would point at the need inherent in any totalitarian ideology for an external enemy, and by extension its internal allies. I would expose the mundane and ridiculous reasons for which people were sent to prison, torture and death. I would throw light on the ‘little helpers’ without whom no authoritarian regime can succeed – the nosy neighbour, ambitious boss, jealous colleague, petty family member… and at the ’silent majority’ who by ‘minding their business’ and ‘just getting on with their lives’ lend credence to the ravings of the power-mad ruling class. I would examine propaganda, not through the posters, broadcasts and mass demonstrations but through the eyes of children growing up under the barrage of idiotic but effective brainwashing.

And finally, I would bring up the horrors of arrest, detention, interrogations, beatings and torture, imprisonment and executions, hiding in history’s basement and cellars. Both the victims and the interrogators. Who were the people who carried out the daily atrocities? What and how did they believe? Where are they now? Did they go back home to their families at the end of the day, having broken a few more bodies and spirits? Did they do this out of fear? Or were they merely sadists gravitating to the communism sanctioned violence towards their fellow human beings? I would name them and publicly decry their deeds, spell out their participation. The Nazis got that treatment but when will such judgement be upon the Communists? Why is the hammer and sickle not abhorred the same way the swastika is? After all, it has brought evil to many more people…

Failing that, here are the pictures from the House of Terror in Budapest. The museum is an excellent reminder of what happened in just one dreaded house. And to think that there were many more.

House of Terror

The photos were taken despite the ban on photography in the museum. I did play along and kept my camera away until I came across a quote that sums up the deranged mindset of a communist ideologue. I wanted to make a note of it to look it up later and the fastest way was taking a photo. After the first furtive but successful attempt, it was impossible to resist taking more pictures.

Here is the quote* that goes to the heart of implementation of communism – and any other totalitarian ideology. It eradicated any notion of individual responsibility and therefore freedom, autonomy, rights and justice. And that is the essence of terror.

We do not look for evidence, we do not attempt to uncover acts or agitation against the Soviets. The first question we ask is: where are you from, how were you raised, what was your profession? These questions determine the fate of the defendant. This is the essence of the red terror. – MJ. Lacisz, Chief ÁVO, Hungarian political police.

*Note: Credit for translation goes to Zoltán Módly. The Hungarian version: “Nem keresünk bizonyítékokat, tanúkat, nem akarunk szovjetellenes tetteket vagy agitációt leleplezni. Az első kérdés, ami minket érdekel: honnan származol, milyen volt a neveltetésed, mi volt a foglalkozásod? Ezek a kérdések döntenek a vádlott sorsáról. Ez a vörös terror lényege.”

Humanity Lobotomy

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Net Neutrality Open Source Documentary:


Save the Internet | Rock the Vote

My take on net neutrality from June 2006.

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