Posts about publicness

Where Gutenberg worked

I took a detour on a trip to Europe so I could visit Mainz and the Gutenberg Museum, having become obsessed with the great man and his magnificent disruption as both an inventor and an entrepreneur.

It was awe-inspiring to stand before the first known page of his printing (a snippet from the Sibylline prophesy, found in the binding of another book). It’s not beautiful; betas rarely are. But next to it is the culmination of Gutenberg’s art in three of his his Bibles, his masterpieces.

Another case captured my imagination. In it were the indulgences the Catholic Church could make and sell at scale, thanks to printing. Next to them were three of Martin Luther’s pamphlets, which he could also print at scale and it is that scale that enabled him to so disrupt the Church.

Also in that case were political broadsides printed by Gutenberg’s successors–his funder, Johann Fust, who called the startup’s debt and took over the business–in a battle between two bishops in Mainz. I write in Public Parts:

The press quickly made an impact on the political structure of society. According to Albert Kapr’s definitive biography, Johann Gutenberg: The Man and his Invention, among the earliest nonreligious publications produced in the great man’s shop by his successors—Johann Fust and his son-in-law Peter Schöffer—were political pamphlets. A series of broadsides from each side of a church fight to control the city of Mainz were published on the same presses in 1461, demonstrating from the start that this tool of publicness, like most to follow, was neutral and agnostic. “All these pamphlets were aimed at gaining public support for the respective protagonists and defaming their opponents,” Kapr writes. “To the matériel of warfare—halberds, rapiers, swords, harquebuses and cannon—psychological weapons had been added, which could be delivered by means of the printing press.” Here we see publishing’s nascent role in the birth of media, propaganda and the public sphere they would influence.

On another floor was an exhibit about newspapers and their predecessors, including small publications called posts. Pardon my blog-centric view of that, but I quite like that on blogs, we also have posts. I was struck by the continuum of media on display there and the reminder that neither print nor newspapers were forever; they were each invented. Each may be replaced. Soon, I’ll post a piece I’ve been working on about Gutenberg as probably the first technology entrepreneur. In it, I note that printing by impressing ink on paper may be seeing its twilight, replaced by ink-jet technologies just as photography on paper has been replaced by digital.

Mind you, books and printing will not disappear. After my visit to the museum, I had the great privilege of having lunch with Bertram Schmidt-Friderichs, thanks to a connection made via Twitter by his wife and partner, Karin Schmidt-Friderichs. They run a wonderful small press, Verlag Hermann Schmidt Mainz, publishing and printing beautiful small books about art and typography. Where better in the world to do that? Bertram said that books will continue but as special, premium products. I agree. In that, they recapture Gutenberg’s original vision of print as beauty.

At the museum, I was lucky to be around as a TV crew was filming a demonstration of the technologies in Gutenberg’s pressroom. The press already existed for olives, grapes, and paper; Gutenberg had to adapt it for printing. Ink already existed, of course, but Gutenberg had to adapt that, too, to his needs. But his critical and unsung invention was the hand-held mold that enabled Gutenberg to make fonts–thousands of letters needed for the Bible–quickly and consistently. It required ingenious design and no small expertise in metallurgy and I was delighted to finally see one in action, below.


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.

Shifting the discussion to principles

The good news about the White House’s response to an anti-SOPA petition is that it raised the discussion to the level of principles, arguing against “disrupting the underlying architecture of the Internet.” That is where it needs to be.

The bad news, as Tim O’Reilly eloquently explores, is that the White House makes a gross and unsubstantiated assumption:

Let us be clear—online piracy is a real problem that harms the American economy, and threatens jobs for significant numbers of middle class workers and hurts some of our nation’s most creative and innovative companies and entrepreneurs. It harms everyone from struggling artists to production crews, and from startup social media companies to large movie studios. While we are strongly committed to the vigorous enforcement of intellectual property rights, existing tools are not strong enough to root out the worst online pirates beyond our borders.

O’Reilly responds:

In the entire discussion, I’ve seen no discussion of credible evidence of this economic harm. . . . In my experience at O’Reilly, the losses due to piracy are far outweighed by the benefits of the free flow of information, which makes the world richer, and develops new markets for legitimate content. Most of the people who are downloading unauthorized copies of O’Reilly books would never have paid us for them anyway. . . .

As I wrote in What Would Google Do, novelist Paulo Coelho found that piracy spread his name and reputation and found him new readers in new lands …. so he pirated himself and sold more books. The man has sold more than 100 million.

This part of the discussion — the justification for SOPA and PIPA in whatever form — needs to be based on principles and on facts.

The question of fact is difficult to answer as it is an attempt to prove a negative: How do we know how many copies of a work pirates would have bought if they hadn’t pirated? How do we know how many more people discovered and bought a work because it was pirated? How do we differentiate between shrinking industry sales caused by piracy or by a new abundance of competition?

The matter of principles is this: Where will the White House and government put their priorities: in protecting the interests of a shrinking industry or in protecting the interests of innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic expansion? Will they favor protecting the interests of a closed industry or the freedom of speech?

That is why we must raise this discussion to the level of principles. That is why I wrote Public Parts, to help spark a discussion of principles. These, once more, are the principles of publicness and an open society I propose in the book:

I. We have the right to connect.
If we cannot connect, we cannot speak. That is a new and necessary preamble to our First Amendment. Finland has declared internet access—high-speed at that—as a right of citizens. Whether countries should subsidize and provide access is a separate question. But once access is established, cutting it off should be seen as a violation of human rights. That’s what a 2011 United Nations report said. “It’s now a basic human right to have internet,” [former] Thomson Reuters CEO Tom Glocer told media executives in the Middle East. “Systematic denial of freedom of accessing information will lead to a revolution.”

II. We have the right to speak.
Freedom of speech is our cultural and legal default in the United States. That First Amendment protection should extend not just to information and opinions delivered by text but also to information delivered by applications and data. Yes, there need to be ­limitations—on child pornography online, for example. But beware the unintended consequences of attacking a specific problem with an overly broad response. To fight child porn, Australia proposed mandatory filters to block content—filters that could be used against any content. We cannot manage everything to the worst case, to that which might offend someone, to that which could happen. We must not live by the lowest common denominator of fear and offense and the highest watermark of regulation, diminishing our most precious right of speech in the process.

III. We have the right to assemble and to act.
It is not enough to speak. Our tools of publicness enable us to organize, to gather together—virtually or physically—and to act as a group to demonstrate or to build.

IV. Privacy is an ethic of knowing.
We need protection of privacy. We also need to adapt our norms of privacy to new social tools and behaviors so we can better understand when something is said in confidence, when information should not be used without consent, what the harm is of spreading information, and how to give people more control of their information.

V. Publicness is an ethic of sharing.
The foundation of a more public society is the principle of sharing: recognizing the benefits of generosity, building tools that facilitate it, and protecting the product of it.

VI. Our institutions’ information should be public by default, secret by necessity.
Openness is a better way to govern and a smarter way to do business.

VII. What is public is a public good.
When public information or the public space is diminished, the public loses. Secrecy too often serves the corrupt and tyrannical.

VIII. All bits are created equal.
When anyone gains the power to decide which bits, words, images, or ideas can or cannot pass freely through our network, it is no longer free.

IX. The internet must stay open and distributed.
“Let’s give credit to the people who foresaw the internet, opened it up, designed it so it would not have significant choke points, and made it possible for random people including twenty-four-year-olds in a dorm to enter and create,” says Eric Schmidt.

Most relevant to the discussion of SOPA are the last two. If anyone restricts any bit — whether that is China restricting searches or India restricting what it says is offensive content or the U.S. restricting what someone calls piracy — then no bits can be assured to be free. If the architecture of the net is altered to enable the U.S. government to block alleged pirates, then any government can use that power to block anything.

My response to the White House’s response is to ask what is more important: protectionism for a fading industry or the future of speech?

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.

Very public health

Watching the remarkable Xeni Jardin tweet her mammogram and cancer diagnosis, then blog eloquently about it, then crowdsource opening up her own MRI data makes me ask: Why are we so secretive about sickness and health? And what do we lose because we are?

The answers to the first questions are fairly obvious. First, we keep our sicknesses secret, we say, because we fear we could lose insurance. Except insurance companies force us to reveal our medical histories anyway. And let’s hope that Obamacare — may it survive the Supreme Court — succeeds in outlawing the denial of health coverage due to preexisting conditions. Next, we fear that we could lose jobs. Except in cases where a condition would affect job safety, shouldn’t employers be told that they cannot discriminate on the basis of health? Whether or not society chooses to address these issues through legislation, my point is that it’s possible to do so.

The other reason we keep sickness secret — the bigger reason — is stigma. We don’t want people to know we’re ill. But in this day and age, why should anyone be ashamed of being sick? To be clear, I am not saying that anyone should ever be forced to reveal health information. But why should our norms, stigmas, and economic considerations force us not to reveal it?

Imagine if we didn’t feel compelled to hide our illnesses. Imagine if we could be open about our health. What good could come of that?

We could learn more about correlations, which could yield information about causation and even cures. Given large data sets, we could find out that people who get a disease share common behaviors or characteristics. We might gain the opportunity to discover an environmental cause to a local outbreak of, say, breast cancer, enabling a community to fix the condition and prevent more cases.

Of course, I want to emphasize the conditional: correlation *could* help. One data point is never meaningful: That I’ve contracted one heart condition and two cancers since being at the World Trade Center on 9/11 is meaningless — unless there are many others in the same boat, and even then, one mustn’t jump to conclusions about causation. Still, more data is always better than less.

With openness about health, we could do a better job connecting people who share conditions to get information and support and each other. I am on the board of Learning Ally, formerly Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, and at our last meeting, I was struck by the barriers that stigmas put in the way of young people getting the organization’s help. I heard how getting our software on iPods has helped more kids use the service because they no longer have to carry around a special device that marks them as different — stigma. I heard a mother say that school officials warned her that her child would be labeled — stigma — if she got him appropriate services, but she said she’d eagerly embrace the label if it got her son the help he needed.

On my blog, I’ve been in a debate about the recommendation by a government panel that men shouldn’t be given the blood test for prostate cancer anymore because, statistically, it hasn’t been shown to save lives. That’s because medical science can’t yet distinguish between fast- and slow-growing prostate cancer. I say men should get the test. I say we should be talking openly about our prostates as women have fought to talk about breast cancer. More information and communication is always better than less.

The real question is what men choose to do when they find out — through a biopsy following the blood test — that they have cancer. Perhaps more men should choose what the doctors call watchful waiting over surgery. But, you see, the problem is that we don’t have *enough* data to make a good decision. I want to know, based on the largest possible population, how long it took prostate cancer to spread after it was found. Then I could decide how long to watch and wait. But I don’t have that information. So I chose to get the cancer out of me. I could make that choice only because I had the test. I had my own data. If I had the data of millions more men, I could make wiser decisions.

How could get get more data?

Step one is to encourage men to talk about their prostates — and, yes, sorry, their penises — so we disarm the stigma about it and get more men to be aware and get tested and share their experience.

Step two is to create the means to open up and share as much health information as possible so researchers, doctors, and hackers can dig into it and find correlations and patterns and questions worth pursuing, perhaps leading to answers.

When I talk about the principles of an open society in Public Parts, this is what I mean. Rather than reflexively declaring that sharing information about ourselves — our bodies as well as our thoughts and actions — is dangerous, we must stand back and ask what benefit could come from such data, now that we have better technological means to open it up, gather it, and analyze it.

Only then can we balance the benefits and risks and decide, as a society, how open we want to be, how open we should and need to be — and why. That is the kind of discussion about privacy and our changing norms I’d like to hear. Let’s not just talk about what can go wrong now but also what could go right.

: LATER: Some added links:
* Larry Smarr quantifying his own health.
* On being a medical data donor.
* Give us access to our own health data, online.