What We Have Here is a Failure to Differentiate

It’s like we have no idea what to spend our time on. In recent months, many seers, like Lessig, Barlow and others have asked why we’re not more exercised by the disappearance of America–details like civil rights, free speech, public domain media, freedom from unreasonable search & seizure, habeus corpus. You know, the stuff that mattered before the 2000 coup d’état.

The only possible explanation is that we’ve lost the collective ability to differentiate between what matters and what’s flashy. Today’s news tells us about the life-changing project that has possessed a group of bright people at GM working tirelessly around the clock for the last few months: spending millions to create a 1,000 horsepower V-16, $250,000 land yacht called the Cadillac Sixteen. As Alan Watts asked so long ago, Does it Matter?—Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality.

We all know, of course, that it’s the height of folly to decry the spending of other people’s resources on foolish or unworthy projects. Like pornography, folly is in the eyes of the beholder. But it’s irresistible to contrast the unilateral cancellation of constitutional guarantees with the rise of managerial capitalism.

Then there’s this gem from the Consumer Electronics Show:

Japanese video-game giant Nintendo will also have news, after titillating gamers for a month with the promise of a “megaton” announcement. Nintendo won’t give any clues, but the most informed forecasts have the company unveiling a new version of its Game Boy Advanced portable game player, equipped with a backlit screen to address one of the most frequent complaints about the megaselling handheld game machine.

Boy Howdy! A megaton backlit display to rescue us from lives of quiet desperation!

Then there’s this Doc-baiting analysis:

“Manufacturers will focus on new ways of consuming digital content so that it will really be ubiquitous,” said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with research firm Jupiter Research. “They’ve been talking about this for a while but they will work to mature their products so that consumers can more easily access digital content.”

Any time you hear consume and content twice each in the same paragraph, you can count on retribution from the seer of Santa Barbara.

Liberty Shits
(an obscure riff on Liberty Ships,
  the WWII transports that carried gung-ho kids to Normandy,
  …reputed to have been built in return for $1 profit per year
  …what a difference 6 decades make)

So here I am, playing around with this lukewarm screed I started this morning on our collective failure to pay attention to what matters, and I get an email from Mitch saying, “Listen up now, I’m onto something big!”
Naturally, I drop my single malt to rush to his post:

“the Liberty Alliance trumpets the first roll-out plans of its members while we people, whose identities they will be abusing, cower in the shadows like a Strawman, Lion and Tin Man waiting to sneak in to see if we can rescue innocence. Read this Infoworld story about the Liberty Alliance. Check out the press release announcing 22 new members of the Libery Alliance.”

“I challenge anyone to find a single example of a project that will give the individual control of their identity; instead it is all about hanging tags around our necks and tracking us, like the security systems at all those Web startups that have gone out of business. These top-down identity regimes will not produce an equitable relationship between companies who want access to our identities and each of us, the sovereigns of our personal information. Instead the dialog is going to end up like this: You [sheep] need a card to open this door. You [slaves] need a card to access this building. You [consumers, the wide-mouthed baby birds of the economy] need a card to be issued food from the cafeteria.

“We must own our identities and that process must begin from the edge and grow into the networks so that people end up in greater control of their personal information. What these projects describe is a world dominated by T2 and T3 identity in Andre Durand’s hierarchy . I cannot imagine anyone arguing that, if 802.11 wireless had been rolled out by carriers before it started growing organically, the results would have been revolutionary in any sense. However, we’re giving in on identity before the first skirmish because there is an assumption that only organizations give people identity.”

Brains and Courage and Hearts, Oh My!

So, in the face of a clearly untenable assault on our privacy and anonymity, how shall we acquire the brains, courage and spirit to defend ourselves against this further assault on our personhood? Since we’re not doing well so far, let’s drop back and get the big picture.

The Industrial Age invented Mangerial Capitalism, whereby a tiny oligarchy has usurped most economic and political power, since management is the only capitalistic stakeholder with a coherent interest in how things are run. I suggest we’re on the tail end of that cycle.

The internet is accumulating protocols faster than managements are adding success theories du jour. Based on Doc’s Nobody Owns It, Everybody Can Use It, Anybody Can Improve It (NEA) model, the internet is like a 6 foot 14-year-old, testing its strength and reflexes, learning how to kick a field goal without falling down. This gangly wunderkind would be a lot more promising if it weren’t the first expression of its species. Without an Alpha Centauri talent scout here to reassure us that this is gonna work out just fine, we’re wodering if the current dinosaurs will continue to rule our swamp.

The answer’s in front of us, but not top-of-mind. Haven’t all of us worked in a big company and witnessed how incompetent it is at doing what it thinks it does well? Don’t we understand the glacial inability of Microsoft, “the world’s greatest software company”, to respond to problems with its raison d’etre, software code? Don’t we see how much better the LAMP applications (Linux, Apache, MySQL and Perl/PHP/Python) respond to issues as they arise? What are the missing element to transform all of us into open resources?

Put the Blame Ennui

Perhaps we’d understand how close we are to a solution if we remember how clumsy companies are. Trust me on this: companies are far more scared of us than we of them. It’s just that they’ve managed to camouflage the irritation we collectively feel about depending on them to allocate resources (Us) to extract resources from the Consumer Us. When we recognize and organize our voice speaking to ourselves, we’ll find it easier to take the small steps to finish the story we imagine but don’t know how to conclude.

he solution is NEA web applications. Design our culture, not widgets. If we don’t like the economy, design a better one (our mission here). If we don’t like the way the Electoral College works, design the Electoral Collage, the silent majority made deafening by broadcasting preferences derived from the most of us using a UI so compelling we won’t leave it alone. Even if things don’t resonate with the designers’ preferences, who cares? Once we establish our collective voice, we’ll learn to live with the elegance of equitable disappointment and the power of our own awakening.

Mitch is right to be alarmed. Let’s take up his challenge. Where are the issues-based tag structures to help us “roll up” our passionate web logs and comments into a coherent voice which we pledge to act upon in the voting booth?

In short, imagine something that takes us in the right direction, then make it more concrete until it amplifies all these voices. We just need a few more design studies.

11:41:03 PM    

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