Occupy Long-term Thinking

...we can't afford to simply indulge the passion of our differences. Not anymore.

- Lawrence Lessig

I was planning on writing a well thought out post about the Occupy movement, American polarization, and the necessity of thinking long term. Instead, I've been drinking wine with my wife and refreshing Twitter to see what's happening in Oakland. So here's what I've decided to pound out.
I like the passion of the Occupy movement. The majority of its participants stand much closer to my cultural comfort zone than do Tea Partiers. So I root for the political engagement that Occupy is stimulating. Unfortunately, I also recognize that passion is almost inevitably short-sighted. At least one  major supporter of the Occupy movement is proving as much through a conversation with Lawrence Lessig.

In Something More Than Polarization, Lessig reviews an online conversation he's been drawn into with David Zirin of The Nation. The whole conversation is worth a read, but my summary is this: Zirin thinks that the Tea Party is the enemy and can not be engaged while Lessig asserts that all Americans should come together to demand political reforms that will free our government to listen to the People.

Ok, I just deleted a paragraph of ranting. It concerned my abhorrence of solidarity built on a foundation of Us v Them talk (no, I was not referring to the Tea Party). Anyway, I recommend the article. That is all.

Republic, Lost: Read This Book

For this is the paradox at the core of my argument: that even without sinning, we can do much more harm than the sinner.

 -Lawrence Lessig

I've just begun reading Lawrence Lessig's new book today and I am already going to recommend it without reservation.  Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress--and a Plan to Stop It, is an account of our government's addiction to special-interest money. This addiction leads to a corruption of our process that is found, not in the souls of our Representatives, but in the system in which they must work. Lessig has been researching this corruption for years now. He has also presented on it in part, which is why I feel I can push this book without yet finishing it. 

Republic, Lost proposes bold actions against boring things. This is often the curse of truly radical proposals, and both Professor Lessig's view of corruption and his proposed solutions are radical in the truest sense. They deal with the roots. We can pretend that radical ideas easily inspire. The truth is, it is so much simpler to direct energy and attention towards the superficial. The bad men in back rooms, even when they really exist, are just leaves on the tree of government corruption. Dealing with the roots is so much more difficult.

I hope our country engages with this book. There is so much anger and defiance in our streets today. I'm sure it's cathartic. I doubt it's effective. Lawrence Lessig offers a true target at which to aim all our energies. I suggest we hand this book out to the protesters on Wall Street, stage a read-in and after that, stand up again.


Bruce Sterling on Wikileaks

Wikileaks is a manifestation of something that has been growing all around us, for decades, with volcanic inexorability.

-Bruce Sterling

 Bruce Sterling's December 22nd commentary on Wikileaks is gold. I've read about twenty of the hundreds of editorials covering Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Cablegate and the rest; only Bruce has found the proper vantage point from which to describe the chaos. Unlike the pundits, Sterling has the benefit of a historical perspective. He knows hackers, he has chronicled the rise of cyberculture (helped birth the unfortunate trend of affixing "cyber" on anything new and tech related, actually) and he understands what Wikileaks represents. Bruce's perspective allows him to relate to Assange and pity his plight. Conversely, Sterling's maturity, and perhaps a bit of aged based conservatism, allows him to simultaneously groan for the State as it attempts to adapt to the the emerging world.

This knotty situation is not gonna “blow over,” because it’s been building since 1993 and maybe even 1947. “Transparency” and “discretion” are virtues, but they are virtues that clash. The international order and the global Internet are not best pals. They never were, and now that's obvious.

The data held by states is gonna get easier to steal, not harder to steal; the Chinese are all over Indian computers, the Indians are all over Pakistani computers, and the Russian cybermafia is brazenly hosting wikileaks.info because that’s where the underground goes to the mattresses. It is a godawful mess. This is gonna get worse before it gets better, and it’s gonna get worse for a long time. Like leaks in a house where the pipes froze.

Sterling isn't picking sides, he's offering perspective. In the end, I think we all have to agree. It is truly a godawful mess.

Cities vs. States

What happens in our cities, simply put, matters more than what happens anywhere else.

-Parag Khanna

 In a provocative Foreign Policy article, Beyond City Limits, Parag Khanna examines the future influence cities will have on our world. As Khanna points out, today "100 cities account for 30 percent of the world's economy, and almost all of its innovation." Tomorrow, there will not only be more cities, but a significant number of megacities, each of which will assert a powerful gravitational force economically, politically, and culturally. Khanna lays out the trajectory of city growth quite well, but his article doesn't live up to its promise.

Subtitled, The age of nations is over. The new urban age has begun., one would expect an explanation or, at least, speculation as to the manner in which cities will decouple from states. State economies have always been dominated by their urban centers. Simply pointing out that cities are growing bigger and continuing to innovate is hardly a proof that state systems need to worry. The strongest example of an imbalance between the state and city interests given by Khanna is China, where "cities have now begun to bypass Beijing as they send delegates en masse to conferences and fairs where they can attract foreign investment." This may indeed challenge Beijing's particular love of centralized control. However, the government delegates of capitalist societies have been similarly outnumbered even prior to calling themselves capitalist and yet they persist.

Khanna has penned an interesting primer on the primacy of the modern city. I fully agree that cities pose a challenge to states and, if we are lucky, could lay the foundations for a worthy successor. Still, I don't find any explanation of how cities would move beyond the limits states impose upon them. I would have welcomed his input.

Empowering Women and Pooling Resources

You may have noticed my Twitter post about Jeffery Gettleman's NYT article Rape Victim's Words Help Jolt Congo Into Change. It was a follow up to an older story, Rape Epidemic Raises Trauma of Congo War. These are powerful and gut-wrenching pieces that I seriously believe you should read. I do not say this because I think that everyone has to be steeped in the details of the worst atrocities on earth simply for the sake of knowing. I do not believe that impotence is very inspiring. I post these articles first, because they show that concerned individuals do make a difference and second, because I believe more can be done.

Gettleman's latest article speaks of the various efforts being made to address the rape crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some of these efforts are government driven, some local. In the United States, V-Day has an active campaign going that both places pressure on the government and helps traumatized women on the ground. V-Day could use your donations.

All of this is important, but so much more is necessary. The Congo is politically and economically unstable. Also, like so many other places in the world, women have little say over their own lives even in the calmer times. Studies have shown time and time again that societies improve when woman are empowered and that the foundation of that empowerment must be  economic. Personal income equates to personal control. That's why I believe in microlending, and that's why I choose to lend exclusively to women when I use Kiva.

If you do not know about Kiva, please check it out. I had planned to write an article about it today, but this took precedent. In short, Kiva allows you to become a financier of entrepreneurs around the globe. Microlending is a potent force for change in the poorest regions of the world. I know that Kiva has already loaned to businesses in the Congo. Here is my question. Would Kiva lending be that much more potent if it focused on the traumatized regions of the world?

Here is what I would like to do. I want to ask Kiva to send its people into the Congo to set up contacts with the microlending organizations there. I believe in what Kiva is doing. I think their efforts could mean more here than elsewhere.

I am going to draft a letter asking Kiva to focus more attention on the Congo. If anyone has ideas on how best to shape this letter, or has reasonable objections, add to the conversation on the Discussion page. Also, if anyone knows how to create one of those online petitions that multiple people can sign, let me know. Thank you.

Widget For Visualizing Political Bias

Andy Baio has an interesting post about a recommendation algorithm he and a partner created to color a writer's words red or blue to reflect political leanings. A writer's bias is weighted based off of links to sites deemed appealing to either the political Right or Left. The program is site specific, having been developed for use on MEMEorandum.

This is a great example of social feedback technology. At a glance, a user can make a judgment about the content in question. I don't know if it's desirable for people to make rush judgments of this type, but damned if the program doesn't make them easy!

I would like to know if general usage promotes negative or positive feedback. If writers desire to be seen as objective, they may seek to balance their links. A negative feedback loop could drive the content towards a calm middle ground. Or perhaps bias drives traffic and writers will strive for Red or Blue through and through? MEMEorandum could become a totally bipolar site. Here's a situation where an outsider's tool could shift the output of a system*. Fun stuff!

*As I understand it, the program doesn't use live information. So "shifting the output" is only theoretical.