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March 16, 2016

Filed under: politics»national»executive

Seventy-two

Since it is election season, when I ran out of library books last week I decided to re-read Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, as I do every four years or so. Surprisingly, I don't appear to have written about it here, even though it's one of my favorite books, and the reason I got into journalism in the first place.

On the Campaign Trail is always a relevant text, but it feels particularly so apt this year. In the middle of the Trump presidential run, the book's passage on the original populist rabble-rouser, George Wallace, could have been written yesterday if you just swap some names — not to mention the whirlwind chaos of the primaries and a convention battle. On the other hand, with writing this good, there's really no wrong time to bring it up.

Even before his death in 2005, when most people thought about Thompson, what usually came to mind was wild indulgence: drugs, guns, and "bat country." Ironically, On the Campaign Trail makes the strong case that his best writing was powerfully controlled and focused, not loose and hedonistic: the first two-thirds of the book (or even the first third) contain his finest work. After the Democratic national convention, and the resulting breakdowns in Thompson's health, the analysis remains sharp but the writing never reaches those heights again.

That's not to say that the book is without moments of depravity — his account of accidentally unleashing a drunken yahoo on the Muskie whistlestop tour is still a classic, not to mention the extended threat to chop the big toes off the McGovern political director — but it's never random or undirected. For Thompson, wild fabrication is the only way to bring readers into the surreal world of a political race. His genius is that it actually works.

Despite all that, if On the Campaign Trail has a legacy, it's not the craziness, the drugs, or even the politics. The core of the book is two warring impulses that drive Thompson at every turn: sympathy for the voters who pull the levers of democracy, and simultaneously a deep distrust of the kind of people that they reliably elect. The union of the two is the fuel behind his best writing. Or, as he puts it:

The highways are full of good mottos. But T.S. Eliot put them all in a sack when he coughed up that line about... what was it? Have these Dangerous Drugs fucked my memory? Maybe so. But I think it went something like this:

"Between the Idea and the Reality... Falls the Shadow."

The Shadow? I could almost smell the bastard behind me when I made the last turn into Manchester. It was late Tuesday night, and tomorrow's schedule was calm. All the candidates had zipped off to Florida — except for Sam Yorty, and I didn't feel ready for that.

The next day, around noon, I drove down to Boston. The only hitchhiker I saw was an eighteen-year-old kid with long black hair who was going to Reading — or "Redding," as he said it &mdsash; but when I asked him who he planned to vote for in the election he looked at me like I'd said something crazy.

"What election?" he asked.

"Never mind," I said. "I was only kidding."

October 4, 2013

Filed under: politics»national»congress

The Crazification Factor: Part n in an Infinite Series

John: Hey, Bush is now at 37% approval. I feel much less like Kevin McCarthy screaming in traffic. But I wonder what his base is --

Tyrone: 27%.

John: ... you said that immmediately, and with some authority.

Tyrone: Obama vs. Alan Keyes. Keyes was from out of state, so you can eliminate any established political base; both candidates were black, so you can factor out racism; and Keyes was plainly, obviously, completely crazy. Batshit crazy. Head-trauma crazy. But 27% of the population of Illinois voted for him. They put party identification, personal prejudice, whatever ahead of rational judgement. Hell, even like 5% of Democrats voted for him. That's crazy behaviour. I think you have to assume a 27% Crazification Factor in any population.

John: Objectively crazy or crazy vis-a-vis my own inertial reference frame for rational behaviour? I mean, are you creating the Theory of Special Crazification or General Crazification?

Tyrone: Hadn't thought about it. Let's split the difference. Half just have worldviews which lead them to disagree with what you consider rationality even though they arrive at their positions through rational means, and the other half are the core of the Crazification -- either genuinely crazy; or so woefully misinformed about how the world works, the bases for their decision making is so flawed they may as well be crazy.

John: You realize this leads to there being over 30 million crazy people in the US?

Tyrone: Does that seem wrong?

John: ... a bit low, actually.

I saw a CBS poll this morning stating that 25% of the public favors the shutdown of the federal government. 80 representatives (that's 18.3%, one third of the Republican caucus in the House and representing roughly 18% of the total population) signed the original manifesto leading to the shutdown. Even if the numbers are a little low, is there any remaining doubt that John Rogers' Crazification Factor remains more accurate and revealing than most of Politico on any given day?

This is what you get when you elect people who don't believe in government to political office. You cannot deal with the Suicide Caucus, because they don't recognize the legitimacy of the rules that the Congress is supposed to operate under (thus the endless parade of funding delays and filibusters over the last seven years). Besides, they don't want to negotiate. They've gotten what they wanted: the government is basically closed for business, and they couldn't be more thrilled about it.

August 22, 2013

Filed under: politics»national»agencies»nsa

The Revolution Will Not Be Encrypted

This week, Internet law commentary site Groklaw shut down, citing the lack of privacy in a world where the government is (maybe, possibly) reading all your e-mail. On the one hand, you can argue that this is evidence of dangerous chilling effects from surveillance on the fourth estate. On the other hand, shutting down a public blog (one that's focused on publicly-available legal filings) because the NSA can read your correspondence seems... ill-considered, but sadly not atypical.

In the initial wake of the NSA wiretapping stories, David Simon, author of The Wire, wrote a series of essays saying, effectively, "Welcome to the security state, white people."

Those arguing about scope are saying, in a backhanded way, that thousands of Baltimoreans, predominantly black, can have their data collected for weeks or months on end because they happened to use a string of North Avenue payphones, because they have the geographic misfortune to live where they do. And it’s the same thing when it’s tens of thousands of Baltimoreans, predominantly black, using a westside cell tower and having their phone data captured. That’s cool, too. That’s law and order, and constitutionally sound law and order, at that. But wait: Now, for the sake of another common societal goal — in this case, counter-terror operations — when it’s time for all Americans to ante in with the same, exact legal intrusion, the white folks, the middle-class, the affluent go righteously, batshit, Patrick-Henry quoting crazy? Really?

Whether you find these situations comparable will probably indicate how credible you find Simon's argument in general. It's important to note that he's not trying to say we should just roll over for the NSA. The question he raises is one of social justice: when we talk about fixing these problems, are we worried about strengthening protections for everyone? Or just in ways that will preserve privacy for people who can afford it? What Simon doesn't say is that technological solutions are mutually exclusive with social justice — without fail, they always fall into the latter category.

By this point, there's been a lot of ink spilled on how to "protect yourself" from the NSA. People write long how-to guides on setting up a secure mail server (like hilariously long "two hour" guide) or using PGP encryption. None of this is manageable by normal human beings: speaking as someone who has actually set up a private, unencrypted mail server, it's completely out of reach for all but the most devoted shut-ins. You could not pay me enough to edit my Postfix config again, much less try to add encryption to it.

Okay, so the open-source situation is rough at best. That scratching sound you hear is a million start-ups raiding their trust funds to create the new Shiny, User-Friendly Crypto Solution. None of them will answer the following questions:

  • Does this make Facebook/Twitter/Social Network X secure? Because those aren't going away.
  • How much does it cost? If it's not free, it's already only for the privileged, and an ad-supported privacy program is a contradiction in terms.
  • How do you know it's safe — as in, how do you really, really know? Even if I trust the app, can I trust the random number generator that powers its cryptography? Can I trust the OS that provides that generator? Can I trust the chip running the OS (or the baseband chip running the radios)?
But see what happened there? We got distracted by the technical issues again, forgetting that there are no technological solutions to political problems.

I am increasingly uncomfortable with all of this technocratic rhetoric — "the solution to our political problem is more software" — because it sounds an awful lot like "the solution to a dangerous government is more guns (and particularly more guns for white people)" from the NRA. Both arguments are misguided, but more importantly they both invoke a siege mentality. They assume that nothing can be done as a community, or even at all. Instead, their response is to hole up in a bunker and look out for number one.

Personally, I think the great thing about our system of government is that it is designed to be rebuilt on a regular basis. There is no law in the USA that can't be changed. Everything up to and including the Constitution is under debate, if you can convince enough people. Granted, activism requires participation and cooperation, and both of those (especially compared to buying a firearm or coding a protocol) are hard. But they are robust solutions that address the wider problem for everyone, instead of merely fulfilling someone's resistance fighter fantasy.

It's easier to look for loopholes and clever fixes. It's easier to write manifestos for (just to pick on a single random example that popped up while I was writing this) "a better web" through framework improvements or decentralized software. But neither of those actually changes anything. At best, they're workarounds. At worst, they're snake oil. Take whatever actions you want online--write new code, sign petitions, or unpublish your blog. Until that energy is matched offline, with old-fashioned, inefficient politics, you're just wasting your time.

July 16, 2013

Filed under: politics»issues»firearms

Trigger Happy

I wish I could say I'm surprised by the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. It would have been nice to see the manslaughter charge stick--even Florida should be able to prosecute the poor man's murder--but that was probably a long shot. The fix was in from the moment that the police had to be embarrassed into even charging Zimmerman in the first place.

There were a lot of ugly parts of the American character wrapped up in the case. There was the casual, almost off-handed racism of the whole affair, but there was also the clownishness of our national fixation on firearms. That's the narrative that drove George Zimmerman, after all: a one-man neighborhood watch, following whatever "punks" were unlucky enough to find themselves the antagonists of his inner screening of Death Wish. I imagine that there are a lot of people who knew Zimmerman, who thought he was a nut and a caricature--almost a joke. After all, I have known people who were a hair's breadth from being George Zimmerman, and I've laughed at them. They're a lot less funny now.

Over the last year, since the shooting in Newtown, Josh Marshall has reposted stories to the TPM Editor's Blog whenever there's a story on the wire services of child deaths caused by guns. On average, there's probably one a week. It's a powerful, if understated, kind of journalism, like one of those Family Guy hanging gags: at first it's horrific, then it becomes routine, and then the normality of that routine becomes devastating in and of itself. There have been a lot of kids killed in the last eight months, with surprisingly little outcry.

It's as if, across the country, we've decided to raise our kids in a tank filled with deadly scorpions. Even though we lose children on a regular basis, discussing the obvious solution--getting rid of the scorpions, maybe buying a puppy instead--doesn't seem to be an option. To the contrary: more scorpions, screams the NRA! Scorpions for everyone! Only when everyone is covered in poisonous arthropods will we truly be safe!

(Of course, as various people have commented, the NRA is oddly silent on whether or not Trayvon Martin would have been safe from assault if he had been packing heat. This differs markedly from their usual argument that the solution is always more, and more powerful, weaponry. I can't imagine what's different in this case.)

With every recent shooting, there's been a sense on the left that this time, people will see how terrible our firearms fetish has become: Tucson, Aurora, and Newtown each brought a fresh sense of unreality to the whole debate. And now George Zimmerman walks, after shooting an unarmed black teenager for the simple crime of being where George Zimmerman didn't think he belonged. Maybe, finally, this will be the case when we start to think about what all these guns actually mean as a society, but I doubt it. That gives us too much credit: the deadlier our guns, the more we cling to them for comfort. Heaven help us all.

March 27, 2013

Filed under: politics»issues»education

Free 'Til It Hurts

These "Academic Freedom Act" laws seem like a very good idea to me, but I wonder if we're taking them far enough. If the Discovery Institute and all manner of right-wing think tanks want to Teach the Controversy, why limit ourselves to evolution and climate change? With that in mind, I've assembled a new school curriculum that (finally!) acknowledges the complicated world beyond "facts" and "truth."

Social Studies: Students will learn about the checks and balances built into our democratic way of life, of course. But we shouldn't leave them ignorant of competing theories, such as David Icke's "lizard oligarchy," in case the queen of England really does turn out to be a giant space reptile bent on world domination. As high school seniors, students will also spend the semester learning about Ayn Rand's theory of radical selfishness, in the hopes that it will keep them from reading Atlas Shrugged in college and becoming insufferably tedious for about a year and a half.

History: Move over, eurocentric history! Take cover, afrocentric and multicultural history! Under new management, history class will approach the hard questions of the past with an open mind toward alternate theories. For example: did the holocaust really happen, or is it just the invention of a shadowy cabal working behind the scenes of our financial and entertainment industries? You know who I'm talking about.

Physical Education: Gym class doesn't change, but students who get sick will now be told that their humours are out of balance, and will be bled by on-site leeches. Coaches also have the option of blaming vaccines when the football team loses.

English: Given the predominance of "literacy" in the early grades, students will spend the second half of their primary education learning how to communicate pre-verbally, mostly by pointing and grunting. For many teenagers, this won't be much of a change. The curriculum will culminate with a trip to a local quarry, where the students will attempt to recreate the Lascaux cave paintings, thus teaching them the valuable life lesson that art is hard so why try anyway?

Math: I tried to think of something funny about math, and then I remembered that we still teach kids about "imaginary" numbers, and to add insult to injury we do so very badly. Math is weird, y'all.

Foreign Languages: One word: Esperanto. Ironically, in Esperanto, this is actually twelve words. It's the language of the future, people. William Shatner did a whole movie in Esperanto once. I've got a good feeling about this one.

You're welcome.

August 16, 2011

Filed under: politics»national

Poster Politics

One of my pet peeves are those big, intricately-designed infographic "posters," partly because I think they tend toward smugness, but also because they're very good at setting up a simplistic narrative from a series of loosely-related statistics. They lead the reader from one isolate number to another, often without establishing a clear connection between them--and because they're just giant JPG images, they don't lend themselves to easy fact-checking via links to source data. If there's one thing I've learned at CQ, it's that the policy situation is rarely that simple.

So of course, look what the White House is doing now.

It was probably inevitable that politicians would jump on the visualization bandwagon at some point, and given Congress's penchant for signs that would look underdesigned at a Lyndon LaRouche campaign table, it had to come from the executive branch. It isn't surprising that this administration--with its affection for social media as a political tool--would be the one to take action. But somehow I didn't expect it so soon, or to look so polished--several of these wouldn't be out of place in the New York Times.

I am not so much concerned that the government is creating slicker graphics--in these troubled economic times, I'm happy to see any jobs being created, even for designers!--as much as I think this is a good chance to consider "ethical" information design. What the White House is doing is different from data that comes from the CBO or the GAO, because it's rhetoric, not research. And while I don't necessarily think that the administration is lying to us with each graphic, even my hackles are raised by the matter-of-fact presentation of political data through flat, opaque graphics. Here are some measures I'd like to see the White House, and other political actors considering data visualization, take in the future:

  • Release the data sets and tools. This is a no-brainer. These are interactives made by government employees on the public dime. We should be able to view the datasets that they're using, and the equations they're running to extract visual information from them. If the data is online, as with CBO data, the page should link to it. I should not have to know how to hunt through government agency sites to verify a White House visualization. Which leads to...
  • Eat the (government API) dogfood. For all the government data out there, it is still often an oddball collection of badly-documented, infrequently-updated files in a wide range of formats, many of which are not easily machine-readable. There are legal requirements for agencies to publish data, but a White House that actually uses that data adds a whole new incentive (as well as a feedback loop within the government) to make information easy to retrieve, use, and understand.
  • Create interactives, not JPGs. This may just be my bias as an interactives programmer, but I think they're more interesting than static pictures, and I think they're harder to tilt ideologically. That's especially true if we can see the source--examine how the numbers were translated into their visible representations.

I admit, these suggestions aren't necessarily good for the White House from a political perspective. But then, as a citizen I'm not really interested in what's good for the White House from a political perspective. I'm interested in national policy and a more informed debate--which shouldn't be mutually exclusive with political influence. You can still make shiny graphics for a rhetorical goal without sacrificing transparency and honesty. The question is whether politicians will do so, or if they'll use the public's general cluelessness about data visualization to their own advantage.

May 16, 2011

Filed under: politics»issues»economy

Bitcoin Bankruptcy

With a post on Boing Boing this morning and a decent amount of chatter on Twitter, BitCoin appears to have hit the Internet mainstream. CNN will probably run a story in a week, although they'll be hard-pressed to make it seem any sillier than it already is, because BitCoin is the seasteading of economics: a bizarre scheme created by technolibertarians to address a problem nobody needed solving with a solution that nobody will ever find practical.

The site went down when the first flurry of links hit (a tremendously comforting state of affairs for an entirely-digital currency, I have to say), but here's the gist of BitCoin: it's a monetary system where you earn money by letting your computer "solve" large, complicated mathematical problems. The exact difficulty of these problems is adjusted by a peer-to-peer network to keep the rate of money generation at a planned level. Once created, each "coin" is a cryptographically-signed hash that can be passed from one person to another using a form of public key encryption. The theoretical advantages of this whole scheme are that:

  • There's no inflation, because the supply of coins is strictly constrained. In fact, they're designed to deflate over time. (As if this is a good thing?)
  • The coins can't be tracked, so the Man won't know what you've been buying. (This strikes me as a surpremely dim view of The Man's capabilities and/or motivation.)
  • It's all digital, so it supposedly can't be taxed. (And yet somehow we developed taxation before the invention of the electronic funds transfer.)

If these seem like they hit the all the standard talking points for crazy people who read Cryptonomicon and thought it was non-fiction, you're not far off. Avery Pennarun's explanation of its flaws has caught a lot of attention (as well as a lot of derision from the pro-BitCoin crowd, although I have yet to see anyone rebut it with anything more convincing than "nuh-uh!").

I'm not an economist, but I play one on the Internet. And from my point of view, the biggest strike against this, or any other alternative currency, is simply that it'll never get more of an audience than conspiracy theorists and utopians. Normal people won't use BitCoin because you can't buy lunch with it. Businesses won't use it because normal people don't use it. And banks won't use it because they already have a perfectly usable system of moving money around electronically, and because they have no incentives to switch unless businesses and normal people demand it, which they won't. Much of the argument for BitCoin seems to be "well, good, we didn't want banks or banking to exist anyway." At that point, the only reasonable response is to back away slowly toward the nearest exit.

Despite the fact that it's completely bonkers, I feel like it's a bit of a shame that BitCoin's so obviously useless. Not because we need a global, untraceable currency that eliminates useful governmental controls on the market, but because our current options for spending money online are so limited. If you pay for something over the Internet, chances are that your transaction went through one of the big credit card companies--they've become the de facto standard platform for remote purchases. That's a huge cash cow, built on a framework with little transparency or real competition. As we move more and more of our economy online, their dominance is basically a license for a small number of corporations to print money.

But mostly BitCoin just leaves me melancholy. It's a dream by and for people who have missed the real lesson of Internet commerce, which is that it succeeded not because it was independent of the real world economy, but precisely because the two could be linked. Sites like eBay and Amazon were revolutionary because they were built on the same basic mechanisms as regular commercial networks: reputation, reviews, consumer feedback... and of course, plain old dollars. BitCoin (much like seasteading) tries to reduce the messy, human parts of economics to a set of sterile game mechanics. That's not even really libertarianism--it's nihilism, masquerading as a political philosophy.

I'm no great fan of money for its own sake, and I think we could stand to tweak our economic systems a bit, but the concept isn't broken in and of itself. If I thought BitCoin had a chance, I'd probably be worried. But despite its extreme principles, it still has to compete in the same marketplace of ideas as everything else--and I'm pretty sure nobody's buying what they're selling.

June 17, 2009

Filed under: politics»the_new_protest

Unity Is the Problem

There's been a cycle between client-server and peer-to-peer as long as there have been computers. We've been stuck in the former for a while now, as AJAX and web browsers became the new "thin clients." Opera's newly-announced Unite technology is a hint that we might be swinging back: it embeds a JavaScriptable web server into the browser, turning the thin client into a server as well. Opera hopes this'll be a return to the ideals of a decentralized, peer-to-peer web. I don't know personally if they'll be the ones to do it--we're talking about a company with an x86 market share that's practically a rounding error outside of Europe--but I think it's an exciting move in the right direction. Mostly.

Granted, Opera's not the first company to try this. They're not even the first Scandinavians to do it: I wrote a while back about Nokia's Mobile Web Server, which does something very similar using a dynamic DNS service and ports of Apache and Python to S60. It's kind of funny, actually: even when I wrote that post, I thought a lot of the applications I proposed--data collection apps, location-aware multimedia blogs, peer-to-peer REST APIs--might be a little far-fetched. Now you could practically drop my post into Opera's Unite pitch without changing anything other than the brand names. It'd blend right in.

Given my interest in digital activism, the first thing that came to mind was the usefulness of this technology for dissidents. Sadly, Unite suffers from the same problems as most Web 2.0 communication technologies: its idea of decentralization, isn't. In repressive environments, that makes it potentially vulnerable.

Opera claims that Unite is decentralized--and it is, to a certain degree. In theory it moves user data away from repositories like Facebook and Flickr, and leaves them on your individual machine. But in reality, Unite simply moves the centralization into the network channel itself. Despite the claim of creating an "interpersonal web," the service doesn't actually connect users to each other directly. Instead, to handle the problem of addressing dynamic servers, as well as providing some degree of security, all Unite traffic goes through Opera's proxy servers and is routed to its actual destination.

Having a proxy server, of course, is not a bad idea. For activists it might even make a lot of sense: it adds a layer of obfuscation, and means that the data server can't immediately be physically located via its IP address. And Opera has a lot of experience in proxy technology: its Java-based Opera Mini browser provides a fantastic web experience on resource-constrained devices by running page requests through a proxy that compresses them. I don't use it for anything secure, but it's astonishing how much faster it is for basic reading compared to a full Webkit mobile client. Opera probably also has a way to monetize the Unite accounts required to use its service, and which serve as the subdomains for users.

In a repressive environment, however, this strategy is disastrous. Take China, for example: you may have heard that a few weeks ago, on the anniversary of the Tiananmen protests, China simply shut down Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and a number of other social networking tools. For all its talk of decentralization, Opera Unite could be shut down just as easily, simply by blocking access to unite.opera.com. Suddenly that "interpersonal" web collapses. Likewise, if anything goes wrong--or if Opera caved to governmental demands--any traffic moving between Unite servers through their proxy would be vulnerable. So much for security.

Granted, not every regime is as competent--or as concerned--as China when it comes to ICT. We're all aware of how Twitter (among others) has become a part of communication in and out of Iran. Why hasn't it been shut down? As Evgeny Morozov argues, it may simply be a matter of priorities: when you've got real riots in the streets, riots on a microblog service probably seem relatively inconsequential--probably are relatively inconsequential, being more useful for publicizing protests than for actually organizing them. My cynical side also notes that (if they've thought about it this far) Iranian authorities may see an advantage in allowing the rest of the world to see this as a dramatic electoral struggle, rather than merely a dispute between two Shah-chosen figureheads--but then I know nothing about Iran, and you should certainly take my opinion with a ton of salt.

Despite my doubts, I think a Unite-ish system could be very useful for activists if combined with a user-run proxy system. It makes information dissemination flexible, simple, and mobile: as easy as sitting down near a wireless hotspot and opening up a browser. Adding some kind of discovery mechanism for the proxy--maybe via a distributed, browser-based darknet--or a process for spamming its location to blogs/e-mail/messaging when online would make this a powerful way for activists to share their data without giving up ownership to a third party. There's no reason Opera themselves couldn't lead the way on this, based on what they've done with Unite so far--but it looks unlikely.

March 9, 2009

Filed under: politics»the_new_protest

Good Reads

I keep adding "New Protest" feeds to my reader, in the hopes of eventually studying the topic for a graduate degree. Here's a few of the interesting blogs on the topic that I've found lately, although the list is always growing.

  • Afrigadget: Covers all kinds of inventions and clever hacks across Africa.
  • Afromusing: Juliana Rotich is a Kenyan working for Ushahidi who writes about tech, conflict, and environmental issues.
  • Daily EM: Notes on censorship, cyberwar, and open society from Evgeny Morozov.
  • Global Guerrillas: I still think John Robb may be slightly crazy, but it's usually interesting reading. Stay away from the comments.
  • International Values and Communications Technologies: A blog by the Yahoo! Fellows at Georgetown. Ranges from development to protest to censorship.
  • ICT for Peacebuilding: Sanjana Hattotuwa comments on conflict management and organizing, often focusing on Sri Lanka.
  • iRevolution: Graduate student Patrick Meier studies conflict and ICT at Tufts University. He's working on a dissertation on the impact of information technology under authoritarian governments.
  • Magical Nihilism: Ex-Nokia designer and futurist Matt Jones.
  • MobileActive: "A resource for activists using mobile technology worldwide."
  • Open the Future: Worldchanging's Jamais Cascio.
  • RConversation: Rebecca MacKinnon is an Open Society Fellow and former CNN journalist who focuses on China's Internet censorship, and the ways that activists attempt to circumvent it.
  • Smart Mobs: From the book of the same name.

February 20, 2009

Filed under: politics»the_new_protest

Bay Leaves

Pirate Bay Testimony knock-knock jokes probably aren't going to catch on:

Knock knock!

Who's there?

The Pirate Bay.

The Pirate Bay who?

We don't know!

If you don't get it, well, that's kind of the point. Ars reports that the Pirate Bay's legal strategy has taken a turn for the bizarre: when questioned about who owns the site, whose name is on the contracts, and who wrote their public material--in short, who bears the responsibility for the all those torrents--they basically insisted that the answer is "nobody."
The prosecutor kept trying to pin [Pirate Bay staffer Gottfrid Warg] down on who ran the site, how it was organized, and who paid for (and received the revenue from) site operations. Warg kept insisting that the project wasn't a "top-down" business, but that interested users volunteered time and effort to make different pieces of it work. The prosecution appeared not to believe this and continued asking questions to tease out the relationships between everyone involved. Warg continued to insist it was a "loose project"--even the moderators who took down material that didn't match its stated description were volunteers.
Now, like the prosecution, you may believe that the defendents are lying. After all, it's not like they've shown any other signs of taking the trial seriously, treating it instead as a combination of publicity stunt and performance art. But the fascinating possibility--one that has intriguing implications for social movements--is that they're not lying at all. It's entirely possible that their site really isn't "run" by any particular people in the sense that we normally think of the word. And far from being a weakness, this is a tremendous advantage for them.

It's not a coincidence that The Pirate Bay's raison d'etre, BitTorrent, gets its power from massive, distributed parallelism. From Google's Map/Reduce (which splits enormous tasks across equally enormous datacenters), to the multi-core processors that have become commonplace, to BitTorrent's use of "seeds" to spread files across networks, parallelism is one of the biggest advances in computer technology for the last five years. I'd argue that it also carries similar implications for social movements.

Start with the basic idea of organizational decentralization and open-source organizing. Could an operation like The Pirate Bay be run without central leadership, as the defendents insist is the case? Absolutely. For a digital community, moderation and management can certainly be split into a set of distributed actions, carried out by autonomous actors that coordinate via software and modern communication tools. That's one of the secrets behind the Obama political effort: instead of directing all efforts from the top down, it granted a high degree of autonomy and initiative to middle levels of the organization, and reserved the upper layers for support and communication--tasks that were, whenever possible, automated. It wouldn't be hard to design or cobble together a simple system for distributed, consensus-based decision-making. At that point, who's responsible for the movement? In a sense, everybody is. In another, as Pirate Bay staff claim, nobody is.

The decentralization of (nonviolent) social movements is not a new idea, but in the distribution of agency we begin to see how it creates an asymmetrical approach that gives the authorities fits. The prosecution in the Pirate Bay case has found themselves frustrated when their targets stand up and engage the legal system on terms prosecutors can understand. It's unlikely that this is a sound legal strategy for the defendants, but then civil disobedience rarely relies on legal reasoning. Nonviolent tactics are inherently based around the idea that it's foolish to engage the opponent where he is strongest (i.e., through violence and forceful coercion). Distributed parallelism extends this idea further into the political sphere, by removing the known pressure points that authorities might normally use to control organizations.

Consider: if a social movement has leaders, they can be discredited, bribed, jailed, or otherwise influenced. But if (from the perspective of the authorities) it doesn't have any, there's no weak place to apply power against the movement. If it has a structure, that structure can be disrupted at its links--but if each member is a peer in the network (and, to borrow BitTorrent jargon again, they're capable of seeding new political action), then each one has to be disrupted individually. In addition to its value as international legal comedy, this is clearly a powerful development in social movements, one that's made possible by new networking innovations.

Even in organizations that retain a central leadership structure, the advantages of distributed action are hard to deny. Consider a movement that has its own version of Amazon's Mechanical Turk service, which provides a marketplace for piecework. If the movement can break even just a few menial tasks (call lists, processing organizational data, collecting data) into bite-sized parts and pass those out to volunteers, it not only frees up staff for more creative tasks, but it gives a large number of people a chance to work for--and identify with--the organization. Since movements derive their force from the sympathetic bodies that they're capable of motivating, that identification, however slight, is a powerful thing.

Undoubtedly, there are also potential drawbacks to the distributed approach. The most obvious of these is the difficulty of forming and maintaining consensus--how does the movement bargain? How does it develop a plan of action? When does it decide to stop? If anything, I suspect that these are problems that arise from "too much of a good thing": what activist wouldn't want to be faced with the challenge of directing a massive, widely-spread, perpetually-restless populace? Besides, the problems of coalition-building have always been at the heart of political action (it makes up a significant portion of Randy Shaw's Activist's Handbook, for example). Ironically, one scenario for distributed activism comes from fourth-generation warfare theorist John Robb, who has written about what he calls "open-source warfare," or a network of insurgent groups that work separately but coordinate effectively when their goals align (I must note that I see 4GW theory, with its emphasis on asymmetric conflict and bottom-up organization, as armed conflict finally catching up to nonviolent political theory). In this model, it's true that coalitions are transient--but they form with dizzying rapidity when a common goal is found.

In short, there's tremendous power in applying distributed parallelism and decentralization to social movements, and not just as a fanciful legal strategy. We're just starting to see the potential applications of this kind of organizing model. Although the Pirate Bay defendants seem to have hit on their courtroom gambit as a media ploy, there's no reason we have to treat it as a joke.

Future - Present - Past