Posts about Internet

We are the lobbyists

The internet has helped untold publics to form. Yesterday, the internet became a public.

Or rather, millions of people who care about internet freedom used the net to organize and defend it against efforts to control and harm it.

The SOPA-PIPA blackout got attention in media that previously all but ignored the issue, whether out of conflict of interest or negligence. More important, it got political action as legislators — especially Republicans — tripped over themselves to back away from the Hollywood bailout.

In the discussion about the movement yesterday, I heard someone in Washington quoted, saying that these geeks should hire lobbyists like everyone else.

No, we’re all lobbyists now, and that’s just as it should be. This movement didn’t need influence peddlers. It didn’t need political commercials. It didn’t need media. It needed only citizens who give a shit. Democracy.

I’m delighted that the discussion rose to the level of principles, a discussion I’ve argued has to take place if we, the internet public, are to protect our tool of publicness.

There’s much more going on under this battle: the disruption of media business models, a fundamental change in our view of the value of content, the undercutting of institutions’ power, the lowering of national boundaries. But for now, nevermind that and concentrate on what was born yesterday: a political movement, a movement whose cause is freedom.

What else can this movement do? Can it elect candidates? Should it? Or should it continue to hold politicians’ feet to the fire? I don’t think I want to see the formation of an internet party. I don’t want this movement to mimic the way power used to be traded. I don’t want it to become an institution. I also don’t think it’s possible. I prefer to see it continuing to mimic #OccupyWallStreet, organizing without organizations (pace Shirky), discerning through interaction its principles and goals.

After yesterday, the powerful are on warning that a public can rise up out of nowhere to protest and pressure, to fight and win. Dell Hell taught companies to behave, to respect and listen to their customers, and better yet to collaborate with them. The SOPA blackout taught politicians to hear citizens directly, without mediators. Now we’ll see whether they can learn to collaborate as well.

Network knowledge

I’m a bit late in blogging about and urging you to read David Weinberger’s new book, Too Big to Know. That’s because I couldn’t find my oft-underlined, much-dogeared galley, which I soaked in as soon as I got it.

David is an intellectual hero of mine. He is a coauthor of the seminal work of net culture, The Cluetrain Manifesto. His subsequent books, Small Pieces, Loosely Joined and Everything is Miscellaneous taught me to look at the world differently (yes, it’s partly his fault) and to understand the changing architecture of relationships, information, and now knowledge. He is generous with his thoughts. He challenges me (when I presented Public Parts at Harvard, where David moderated, he pushed me to consider what I was saying about the relationship of ethics and norms and he likely influenced me to consider that as a next project … his fault, again). He is open and curious. He does this with charm and unwarranted but sincere self-deprecation. All that comes across in his books.

Knowledge is an awfully big topic, the biggest. As he started this project, I heard David fret over that. But he succeeded in bringing new perspective even to this. The nut of it:

As knowledge becomes networked, the smartest person in the room isn’t the person standing at the front lecturing us, and isn’t the collective wisdom of those in the room. The smartest person in the room is the room itself: the network that joins the people and ideas in the room, and connects to those outside of it. It’s not that the network is becoming a conscious super-brain. Rather, knowledge is becoming inextricable from — literally unthinkable witout — the network that enables it. Our task is to learn how to build smart rooms — that is, how to build networks that make us smarter, especially since, when done badly, networks can make us distressingly stupider.

I interpreted that through one of my favorite (and, sorry, oft-repeated) memes these days: the Gutenberg parenthesis. Among other things, it argues that before Gutenberg, knowledge was about preserving the wisdom of the ancients. In the Gutenberg parenthesis, knowledge sprung from contemporary authors, experts, and institutions. After the parenthesis, as I see Weinberger’s thesis, knowledge becomes province of the network. It isn’t resident only in single facts or artifacts (that is, books) but is a much more complex prism that can be seen from many angles and changes its appearance across them. Knowledge becomes less static, more living. David says it better:

Knowledge now lives not just in the skulls of individuals. Our skulls and our institutions are simply not big enough to contain knowledge. Knowledge is now a property of the network, and the network embraces businesses, governments, media, museums, curated collections, and minds in communication.

Knowledge until now was about creating and controlling scarcity. Up to now, says David, “[w]e’ve managed the fire hose by reducing the flow. We’ve done this through an elaborate system of editorial filters that have prevented most of what’s written from being published . . . Knowledge has been about reducing what we need to know.” But now, of course, information is abundant and only growing — multiplying — as we invent more ways to create and discover and capture and analyze and question. That’s what freaks the old — pardon my choice of word — sphincters of information, the controllers and owners of it. This conflict erupted when Gutenberg invented the printed book and scholars feared we’d end up with too many of them. It emerges again now that Berners-Lee has invented the web.

David grapples with the history of our perception of facts, then wrestles with the idea that we “are losing knowledge’s body: a comprehensible, masterable collection of ideas and works that together reflect the truth about the world. . . . We’ll still have facts. We’ll still have experts. We’ll still have academic journals. We’ll have everything except knowledge as a body. That is, we’ll have everything except what we’ve thought of as knowledge.”

Knowledge, he says, “has been an accident of paper.” We convinced ourselves that a set and knowable worldview was possible because the media into which we put our information created that comforting expectation. Same goes for news: “All the news that’s fit to print” is the greatest conceit imaginable: that everything that matters happens to fit in what we can afford to produce. We know so much better now.

These are profoundly disruptive ideas about ideas. It helps that they come from someone who presents them via doubt rather than dogma. David is, like me, essentially an optimist, but he sees the choices we have and the dangers that present themselves if we chose the wrong paths.

At the end, he examines the characteristics of the net and its knowledge: abundance (“The new abundance makes the old abundance look like scarcity”); links (“Links are subverting not just knowledge as a system of stopping points but also the credentialing mechanism that supported that system”); no need to get permission (“Let anyone publish whatever they want … and the Knowledge Club loses its value”); publicness (somebody ought to write a book about that); and the unresolved nature of questions (“The old enlightenment ideal was far more plausible when what we saw of the nattering world came through filters that hid the vast, disagreeable bulk of disagreement”). “What we have in common,” he concludes, “is not knowledge about which we agree but a shared world about which we will always disagree.”

So the idea that things will settle down and opinions will coalesce around shared facts once we get through this maelstrom of change is a fantasy born of experience but blown apart by the network. So will the future sound like the Fox-News-and-comment-snark present? It needn’t if we adapt our norms to a new reality and if, as David says, we build our networks well. That means building them around new opportunities, for example: “The solution to the information overload problem is to create more information: metadata.” We don’t need more filters, more gatekeepers, more mediators. We need smarter, bigger brains digging through more and better information. Don’t recreate old models. Disrupt them.

David concludes: “We thought that knowledge was scarce, when in fact it was just our shelves that were small. Our new knowledge is not even a set of works. It is an infrastructure of connection.”

Chew on those wires for a while.

Jon Stewart & SOPA (please)

Got to see The Daily Show taping tonight (more on that in a minute) and in the pre-show conversation with Jon Stewart, an audience member said he was sent by The Internet to ask about SOPA. Stewart professed (not feigned, I think) ignorance, asking whether that was net neutrality, and excusing himself, what with their “heads being up their asses” in the election and all. But he said he’d do his homework and he looked at writer Steve Bodow when he said that. Let’s hope he comes out loud.

Confidential to Mr. Stewart: The problem here is that [cough] your industry, entertainment, is trying to give power the power to blacklist and turn off sites if they’re so much as accused of “pirating” (their word, not ours) content. This changes the fundamental architecture of the net, giving *government* the power and means to kill sites for this and then other reasons. That threatens to destroy this, our greatest tool of publicness (book plug). So please, sir we need your force of virtue to beat down this, another evil. On behalf of The Internet, thank you.

Dear Verizon,

I have a simple, helpful suggestion for you:

Put your technician assignments online for customers to see so we can judge when we need to be home and so we don’t get mad at you for having to stay home all day.

Our internet went out after the storms in New Jersey. We were lucky: We lost big trees but they only scraped our house and didn’t take out lines. We lost power and heat but I managed to get the last hotel rooms in the area so we had warm beds. Our power was restored after about 36 hours (many around us in the state still don’t have it) and with power we also got our phone and TV back. But our internet didn’t return. Not so bad. Troubleshooting over the phone with my wife for an hour yielded nothing, so we were told we had to have a visit. But the storm damage was widespread and Verizon was going to take two weeks to come. Internet being lifeblood to me — imagine me Twitterless — I appealed for help to @verizonsupport and they quickly and nicely gave us an appointment after only a few days. That came yesterday.

We were told we were to be the first appointment of the day. So my wife didn’t go out to restock the refrigerator, which was high priority. She waited. She waited 10 hours for the technician to come.

When he came, he said that we weren’t first on his schedule; he had an install, and we know from the effort that went into ours that that takes time. Then his dispatcher inserted another appointment before us. That’s fine, of course. Things are crazy in New Jersey right now. We don’t mind waiting. We just want to know how long to wait.

So here’s my suggestion, Verizon: Go to the Apple store and see the screen that tells customers where they are in line. When you see you’re No. 6, you know you have time to duck out to Starbucks. Apple doesn’t guarantee an exact time — and I know you hate doing that. But Apple gives us enough information so we can know what’s going on and make our own judgments.

Now go to Continental Airlines, look up flight status, and see that they give fliers the complete stand-by list for seats and upgrades. You can see how many seats are open and how many people are ahead of you so you can judge your odds. Again, they give us information. There’s no reason not to. I wrote about this in Public Parts as a simple example of a company being more open. It improves our experience. It saves gate agents from getting the same anxious questions over and over. (I hope this nice practice isn’t lost in Continental’s merger with United.)

So, Verizon, why not open up and simply let customers see a list of how many appointments a technician has and even where they are so we can judge how long it would take to arrive. Give more information when it’s helpful — e.g., that installs take a few hours. When things change, send an update, just as airlines now send SMS or email updates on flight status. You’re a communications company; I’ll bet you can do that well. If we’d had that yesterday, my wife could have spent the morning outside the house (and I wouldn’t feel so guilty for being in New York all day).

When the technician arrived, he was very good and spent time solving our problems with the internet and TVs. He replaced our router.

That leads to another suggestion: Wouldn’t it have been cheaper to send us a router? We’d have had it before the technician came, which means you could have saved the expense of our visit at a really crushed time. Worst case: It wouldn’t have fixed the problem and the appointment would have stood; the only loss would be the shipping cost.

These might seem like minor irritations to customers. But so was Bank of America’s $5 debit card fee. And look what happened to them. In this post, I attributed the bank’s retreat to a young woman’s online petition. But others perhaps rightly credited #occupywallstreet with stirring up productive anger at the banks and winning this small but symbolic and gratifying victory against them at a time of low trust and high contempt for banks in this country.

Friendly advice: You and the other telephone and cable companies could be in a similar boat. No surprise to you that there’s pent-up anger about you. In Public Parts, I tell this story about Frank Eliason, who started Comcast’s @comcastcares — a model for the very helpful @verizonsupport (he later came to New York to work for a bank):

“He was candid about Comcast’s problems, with a rare sense of corporate humor. I watched him at a Salesforce.com event when he came onstage and said, “Customer service . . . . We’re well-known for service, aren’t we . . . . C’mon.” Pause for laugh. “We’re actually working very hard to improve the customers’ service.”

Now see Susan Crawford’s excellent piece for the Harvard Law and Policy Review, out this week, arguing that we are faced with a cable/phone duopoly over our internet access. It is a call to action for regulation of you. It is also, possibly, a focal point for anger about how we customers are imprisoned with our one or two choices.

So beware the seemingly small things — $5 debit cards, 10 hours of thumb-twiddling — can become rallying points for anger and organization against you. We, the community of customers, now have the tools to organize and be heard.

I’m grateful I got my appointment yesterday; thank you @verizonsupport. I’m grateful I got good service from your technician; thank you, Michael. I’m grateful to be using my internet connection at home right now to write this. I’ve also mellowed since Dell Hell. So I want to be helpful.

My helpful suggestion is: open up. If you know information that could be helpful to customers, share it — because now we have the tools that enable you to do that.

P.S. Yesterday was perhaps not the best day to notify us that our rates are going up.

On the Media on the e-G8

Here’s audio of my interview with Brooke Gladstone of On the Media about the e-G8:

Transcript here.