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June 22 2012

The emerging political force of the network of networks

The shape and substance of our networked world is constantly emerging over time, stretching back over decades. Over the past year, the promise of the Internet as a platform for collective action moved from theory to practice, as networked movements of protesters and consumers have used connection technologies around the world in the service of their causes.

This month, more eyes and minds came alive to the potential of this historic moment during the ninth Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) in New York City, where for two intense days the nexus of technology, politics and campaigns came together on stage (and off) in a compelling, provocative mix of TED-style keynotes and lightning talks, longer panels, and the slipstream serendipity of hallway conversations and the backchannel on Twitter.


If you are interested in the intersection of politics, technology, social change and the Internet, PDF has long since become a must-attend event, as many of the most prominent members of the "Internet public" convene to talk about what's changing and why.

The first day began with a huge helping of technology policy, followed with a hint of triumphalism regarding the newfound power of the Internet in politics that was balanced by Jaron Lanier's concern about the impact of the digital economy on the middle class. The conference kicked off with a conversation between two United States Congressmen who were central to the historic online movement that halted the progression of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate: Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR). You can watch a video of their conversation with Personal Democracy Media founder Andrew Rasiej below:

During this conversation, Rep. Issa and Sen. Ron Wyden introduced a proposal for a "Digital Bill of Rights." They published a draft set of principles on MADISON, the online legislation platform built last December during the first Congressional hackathon.

Both Congressmen pointed to different policy choices that stand to affect billions of people, ranging from proposed legislation about intellectual property, to the broader issue of online innovation and Internet freedom, and international agreements like the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA or the Trans Pacific Partnership). Such policy choices also include online and network security: Rep. Issa sponsored and voted for CISPA, whereas Sen. Wyden is to opposed to a similar legislative approach in the Senate. SOPA, PIPA, ACTA and TPP have all been posted on MADISON for public comment.


On the second day of PDF, conversations and talks turned toward not only what is happening around the networked world but what could be in store for citizens in failed states in the developing world or those inhabiting huge cities in the West, with implications that can be simultaneously exhilarating and discomfiting. There was a strong current of discussion about the power of "adhocracy" and the force of the networked movements that are now forming, dissolving and reforming in new ways, eddying around the foundations of established societal institutions around the globe. Micah Sifry, co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, hailed five of these talks as exemplars of the "radical power of the Internet public.

These keynotes, by Chris Soghoian, Dave Parry, Peter Fein, Sascha Meinrath and Deanna Zandt, "could serve as a 50-minute primer on the radical power of the Internet public to change the world, why it's so important to nurture that public, where some of the threats to the Internet are coming from, and how people are routing around them to build a future 'intranet' that might well stand free from governmental and corporate control," wrote Sifry. (Three of them are embedded individually below; the rest you can watch in the complete video catalog at the bottom of this section.)

Given the historic changes in the Middle East and Africa over the past year during the Arab Spring, or the networked protests we've seen during the Occupy movement or over elections in Russia or austerity measures in Greece, it's no surprise that there was great interest in not just talking about what was happening, but why. This year, PDF attendees were also fortunate to hear about the experiences of netizens in China and Russia. The degree of change created by adding wireless Internet connectivity, social networking and online video to increasingly networked societies will vary from country to country. There are clearly powerful lessons that can be gleaned from the experiences of other humans around the globe. Learning where social change is happening (or not) and understanding how our world is changing due to the influence of networks is core to being a digitally literate citizen in the 21st century.

Declaring that we, as a nation or global polity, stand at a historic inflection point for the future of the Open Web or the role of the Internet in presidential politics or the balance of digital security and privacy feels, frankly, like a reiteration of past punditry, going well back to the .com boom in the 1990s.

That said, it doesn't make it less true. We've never been this connected to a network of networks, nor have the public, governments and corporations been so acutely aware of the risks and rewards that those connection technologies pose. It wasn't an accident that Muammar Gaddafi namechecked Facebook before his fall, nor that the current President of the United States (or his opponent in the the upcoming election) are talking directly with the public over the Internet. One area that PDF might have dwelt more upon is the dark side of networks, from organized crime and crimesourcing to government-sponsored hacking to the consequences of poorly considered online videos or updates.

We live in a moment of breathtaking technological changes that stand to disrupt nearly every sector of society, for good or ill. Many thanks to the curators and conveners of this year's conference for amplifying the voices of those whose work focuses on documenting and understanding how our digital world is changing — and a special thanks to all of the inspiring people who are not only being the change they wish to see in the world but making it.

Below, I've embedded a selection of the PDF 12 talks that resonated with me. These videos should serve a starting point, however, not an ending: every person on the program of this year's conference had something important to share, from Baratunde Thurston to Jan Hemme to Susan Crawford to Leslie Harris to Carne Ross to the RIAA's Cary Sherman — and the list goes on and on. You can watch all 45 talks from PDF 2012 (at least, the ones that have been uploaded to YouTube by the Personal Democracy Media team) in the player below:

Yochai Benkler | SOPA/PIPA: A Case Study in Networked Discourse and Activism

In this talk, Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler (@ybenkler) discussed using the Berkman Center's media cloud to trace how the Internet became a networked platform for collective action against SOPA and PIPA. Benkler applies a fascinating term — the "attention backbone" — to describe how influential nodes in a network direct traffic and awareness to research or data. If you're interested in the evolution of the blueprint for democratic participation online, you'll find this talk compelling.

Sascha Meinrath | Commotion and the Rise of the Intranet Era

Mesh networks have become an important — and growing — force for carrying connectivity to more citizens around the world. The work of Sasha Meinrath (@SashaMeinrath) at the Open Technology Institute in the New America Foundation is well worth following.

Mark Surman | Making Movements: What Punk Rock, Scouting, and the Royal Society Can Teach

Mark Surman (@msurman), the executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, shared a draft of his PDF talk prior to the conference. He offered his thoughts on "movement making," connecting lessons from punk rock, scouting and the Royal Society.

With the onrush of mobile apps and swift ride of Facebook, what we think about as the Internet — the open platform that is the World Wide Web — is changing. Surman contrasted the Internet today, enabled by an end-to-end principle, built upon open-source technologies and on open protocols, with the one of permissions, walled gardens and controlled app stores that we're seeing grow around the world. "Tim Berners-Lee built the idea that the web should be LEGO into its very design," said Surman. We'll see how if all of these pieces (loosely joined?) fit as well together in the future.

Juan Pardinas | OGP: Global Steroids for National Reformers

There are substantial responsibilities and challenges inherent in moving forward with the historic Open Government Partnership (OGP) that officially launched in New York City last September. Juan Pardinas (@jepardinas) took the position that OGP will have a positive impact on the world and that the seat civil society has at the partnership's table will matter. By the time the next annual OGP conference rolls around in 2013, history may well have rendered its own verdict on whether this effort will endure to lasting effect.

Given diplomatic challenges around South Africa's proposed secrecy law, all of the stakeholders in the Open Government Partnership will need to keep pressure on other stakeholders if significant progress is going to be made. If OGP is to be judged more than a PR opportunity for politicians and diplomats to make bold framing statements, government and civil society leaders will need to do more to hold countries accountable to the commitments required for participation: all participating countries must submit Action Plans after a bonafide public consultation. Moreover, they'll need to define the metrics by which progress should be judged and be clear with citizens about the timelines for change.

Michael Anti | Walking Along the Great Firewall

Michael Anti (@mranti) is a Chinese journalist and political blogger who has earned global attention for activism in the service of freedom of the press in China. When Anti was exiled from Facebook over its real names policy, his account deletion became an important example for other activists around the world. At PDF, he shared a frank perspective on where free speech stands in China, including how the Chinese government is responding to the challenges of their increasingly networked society. For perspective, there are now more Internet users in China (an estimated 350 million) than the total population of the United States. As you'll hear in Anti's talk, the Chinese government is learning and watching what happens elsewhere.





Masha Gessen | The Future of the Russian Protest Movement

Masha Gessen (@mashagessen), a Russian and American journalist, threw a bucket of ice water on any hopes that increasing Internet penetration or social media would in of themselves lead to improvements in governance, reduce corruption, or improve the ability of Russia's people to petition their government for grievances.





An Xiao Mina | Internet Street Art and Social Change in China

This beautiful and challenging talk by Mina (@anxiaostudio) offered a fascinating insight: memes are the street art of the censored web. If you want to learn more about how Chinese artists and citizens are communicating online, watch this creative, compelling presentation. (Note: there are naked people in this video, which will make it NSFW is some workplaces.)

Chris Soghoian | Lessons from the Bin Laden Raid and Cyberwar

Soghoian (@csoghoian), who has a well-earned reputation for finding privacy and security issues in the products and services of the world's biggest tech companies, offered up a talk that made three strong points:

  1. Automatic security updates are generally quite a good thing for users.
  2. It's highly problematic if governments create viruses that masquerade as such updates.
  3. The federal government could use an official who owns consumer IT security, not just "cybersecurity" in at the corporate or national level.

Zac Moffatt | The Real Story of 2012: Using Digital for Persuasion

Moffatt (@zacmoffatt> is the digital director for the Mitt Romney presidential campaign. In his talk, Moffatt said 2012 will be the first election cycle where persuasion and mobilization will be core elements of the digital experience. Connecting with millions of voters who have moved to the Internet is clearly a strategic priority for his team — and it appears to be paying off. The Guardian reported recently that the Romney campaign is closing the digital data gap with the Obama campaign.


Nick Judd wrote up further analysis of Moffatt's talk on digital strategy over at TechPresident.

Alex Torpey | The Local Revolution

Alex Torpey (@AlexTorpey) attracted widespread attention when he was elected mayor of South Orange New Jersey last year at the age of 23. In the months since he was elected, Torpey has been trying to interest his peers in politics. His talk at PDF focused on asking for more participation in local government and to rethink partisanship: Torpey ran as an independent. As Gov 2.0 goes local, Mayor Torpey looks likely to be one of its leaders.

Gilad Lotan | Networked Power: What We Learn From Data

If you're interested in a data-driven analysis of networked political power and media influence, Gilan Lotan's talk is a must-watch. Lotan, who tweets as @gilgul, crunched massive amounts of tweets to help the people formerly known as the audience to better understand networked movements for change.






Cheryl Contee | The End of the Digital Divide

Jack and Jill Politics co-founder Cheryl Contee (@cheryl) took a profoundly personal approach when she talked about the death and rebirth of the digital divide. She posited that what underserved citizens in the United States now face isn't so much the classic concerns of the 1990s, where citizens weren't connected to the Internet, but rather a skills gap for open jobs and a lack of investment to address those issues in poor and minority communities. She also highlighted how important mentorship can be in bridging that divide. When Contee shared how Yale computer lab director Margaret Krebs helped her, she briefly teared up — and she called on technologists, innovators and leaders to give others a hand up.

Tracing the storify of PDF 12

I published a storify of Personal Democracy Forum 2012 after the event. Incomplete though it may be, it preserves some thoughtful commentary and context shared in the Twittersphere during the event.

April 25 2012

Four short links: 25 April 2012

  1. World History Since 1300 (Coursera) -- Coursera expands offerings to include humanities. This content is in books and already in online lectures in many formats. What do you get from these? Online quizzes and the online forum with similar people considering similar things. So it's a book club for a university course?
  2. mod_spdy -- Apache module for the SPDY protocol, Google's "faster than HTTP" HTTP.
  3. The Top 10 Dying Industries in the United States (Washington Post) -- between the Internet and China, yesterday's cash cows are today's casseroles.
  4. Notes from JSConf2012 -- excellent conference report: covers what happens, why it was interesting or not, and even summarizes relevant and interesting hallway conversations. AA++ would attend by proxy again. (via an old Javascript Weekly)

January 19 2012

From SOPA to speech: Seven tech trends to monitor

Here's what's coming for 2012, starting with the bad.

SOPA and PIPA

Although SOPA has had a setback in the House, it would be a bad mistake to assume that this story is at an end, or that it will end any time soon. And its evil twin, PIPA, still rumbles along in the Senate. You've all read the arguments about how SOPA and PIPA have the potential to harm the Internet-based economy, and how it makes it nearly impossible to protect the integrity of the DNS, virtually guaranteeing an explosion of malware. But I'm more disturbed by the big legislative theme of 2011: rather than rule-by-law and innocent until proven guilty, we have rule by corporation and guilty if a wealthy corporation says you are. Laws that sneak around legal due process are not a good thing in a democracy, particularly when there's already a very lengthy history of copyright abuse by actors ranging from outright trolls such as Righthaven to supposedly reputable movie studios and record labels.

SOPA and PIPA aren't dead. The most important thing we can do in 2012 is see that they become dead. I wish I could predict some useful intellectual property reform for the next year (or even the next decade), but right now that train is heading in the wrong direction. A few bloggers have opined that we'll get patent reform when the big players realize that intensifying patent wars are counterproductive. I wish I could believe that.

Now to happier thoughts:

Speech

I was talking to Brady Forrest a few weeks ago, and I asked "what do you think the most important new thing is?" He said immediately "speech interfaces, because of Siri." And my reaction was "D'oh. Should have thought of that myself." I'm not terribly impressed by Siri. I've been using Google's voice commands for a couple of years now, and I've yet to see an interesting use case for Siri that Google voice commands couldn't match. I don't particularly need my mobile devices to talk back to me. But Brady is absolutely right, that Siri, backed by Apple's fan base, has put speech interfaces on the agenda in a way that Android hasn't.

In the long run, I don't think the winning speech applications will be as ambitious as Siri. Having a conversation with your phone is ultimately dull and sterile. But Siri will cause developers to push the envelope of what's possible, and what's desirable, in a speech interface. Speech opens up new possibilities in user interface and user experience design; we're just at the beginning of figuring out how to use it. A key question is whether Apple will open up APIs to Siri, so iOS developers can play with it. But even if Siri remains closed, companies such as Twilio (and many others; a quick Google search showed a surprising number of companies building cloud-based voice platforms) stand to benefit as developer rush to build voice-enabled software.

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Deployment as a service

People have been talking about "the cloud" for a few years now. No big deal, right? It's been a while since we've seen a startup that wasn't built on top of a cloud vendor (usually Amazon). But there's been a change in the past year. Heroku and VMWare's Cloud Foundry have made huge steps in taking the pain out of deploying and managing cloud services. Heroku isn't new, but it's greatly expanded its offerings from Ruby on Rails to include Node.js, Java, Python and more. Cloud Foundry is a new open source product that runs everywhere from laptops to commercial clouds, and supports a similar set of application frameworks.

How is this different, and where is it leading us? Deployment has always been the bête noire of web (and now mobile) development. It's easy to get something running on your laptop; a lot harder to get it running properly on your servers; and even harder to get it running in "the cloud," where everything is happening via remote control, as it were. If Heroku and Cloud Foundry succeed in making deployment of complex applications to the cloud as simple as deploying the application on your laptop, that will lead to a major change in the way cloud computing is used. Simplifying cloud deployment for complex real-world applications is obviously much more difficult in practice than in demo, but I hope they succeed. They're calling this "platform as a service" (PAAS), but I think it's a step farther. Deployment as a service?

Services, not apps

A while ago, I was talking to a mobile app developer who made an important comment. All the noise over whether you make more money selling apps for iOS or for Android was meaningless. Unless you have a mega-hit, you're talking about the difference between making $1,000 or $300, both of which are insignificant compared to the development effort. So I asked him what his plan was, and he said "we're selling a data service, not the app." The app is really just a proof of concept, something to help users get their heads around the data they're making available. What's really interesting, and what he's betting on, is that other people will build apps on top of their for-pay data service. That strikes me as a much more plausible strategy for building a profitable company than buying a ticket in the app lottery.

The social backbone

We've been saying for years that everything has to become social. But a good six or seven years into the social networking phenomenon, there's really not much that's social, particularly if you look at enterprise software.

There's a good reason for that: social networks aren't easy to build. It's not trivial for a company to make itself into the "next Facebook," particularly if it's really interested in selling clothing. Amazon, with its reviews and reviewer pages, may come closest, but you'd never mistake Amazon for a "social" site.

One of 2011's highlights was Google's long-anticipated entry into social networking with Google+. But most people missed the point. The point of Google+ isn't the social site that you see when you visit plus.google.com. Nor is it the 400 million users it hopes to acquire by the end of 2012. I believe that Google is playing for bigger stakes. The Google+ page itself is only the proof of concept. Google's bigger strategy will be to get developers building social into their own apps, using the Google+ APIs.

Google+ is a general framework for "socialness," automatically integrated with all of Google's other features. If you want to build "social" into your ecommerce application, you no longer need to build your own Facebook: Google will deliver it, complete with well-staffed datacenters. And since Google itself is increasingly built on Google+ services, building on top of Google+ will be nothing less than integrating with Google itself.

Is that the not-so-hidden downside? Google certainly wants your data, and will put it to use. And if you get in bed with an elephant, you've got to worry about what happens when it rolls over. But Google strikes me as a more reliable, consistent partner for this kind of enterprise than the alternatives. Regardless of what I think, though, this year we'll see Social as a Service. Google-powered.


Microsoft gets its game back

I'm not a huge follower of the Microsoft borg, and certainly not a fan. And it's not news to anyone reading this that Microsoft has been something of a paper tiger over the past decade. However, one thing that I've noticed about Microsoft over the years is that it's a company that doesn't stop trying, and it's a company that can be surprisingly nimble when its life depends on it. I remember Microsoft trying to figure out how to package Internet services with Windows back in the early '90s. There were four successive strategies, within a period of about eight months, until Microsoft finally hit upon the right one, which was bundling Internet capability with the operating system. You might say that bundling Internet with Windows was the obvious right choice, and it should have done that first. Yeah, but it didn't, and hindsight is always 20/20.

Here's what I learned: Unlike many large companies, Microsoft realized it had made a mistake, fixed it, and kept fixing it until it got it right. Would AT&T do that? Would Oracle do that? Hey, would Apple do that? (Before you answer that last question, just contemplate the word "antenna" for a few minutes.)

So it's never wise to count Microsoft out. Starting with Windows 8, with a possibly revolutionary new interface design, continuing with the release of new Windows Mobile phones from Nokia, continuing to push more developers to Azure — this is clearly a big year. Microsoft has a lot to accomplish, or it'll be relegated to the dustbin of cyberhistory. But counting Microsoft out is always a mistake. It'll be back in the game.

Data?

The data train is chugging along. It's going to keep chugging. We're looking at a severe shortage of competent data scientists; the Hadoop space is becoming competitive, with Cloudera, Hortonworks, and MapR in the game, plus Oracle admitted that "big data" is important. Open source tools for working with streaming data are arriving (Storm and S4), and I expect that we'll see more.

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