The Future of Mediocrity

Larry Lessig?s book The Future of Ideas is an examination of the Internet?s influence on social discourse as well as an analysis of the forces shaping the net in the past and present. The message is both utopian and apocalyptic, and the analysis aspires to be technical, cultural, and legal. It?s an ambitious enterprise that would have been tremendously valuable had it been successful. Unfortunately, this is one of the most absurd books ever written. Its fundamental premise — that the Internet can only be regulated according to a mystical appreciation of the values embedded in its original design — is ridiculous, its reseach is shoddy, and its exposition of these values is deeply confused.

Apart from gross errors of theory and fact, the book is nonetheless an amusing and deeply felt diatribe against modern government, industry, and society, written with such earnestness and passion that its shortcomings in humor and insight may almost be forgiven. Unfortunately, Future has developed a cult following that threatens to go mainstream with a deeply disturbed misconception of the Internet’s design, purposes, and challenges.
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Technology Review: Human Body Network Gets Fast

Researchers from NTT Docomo Multimedia Labs and NTT Microsystem Integration Labs in Japan have demonstrated a 10-megabits-per-second indoor network that uses human bodies as portable ethernet cables.

The network, dubbed ElectAura-Net, is wireless, but instead of using radio waves, infrared light, or microwaves to transmit information it uses a combination of the electric field that emanates from humans and a similar field emanating from special floor tiles.


Advancing the Internet

Congresswoman Diana DeGette (D, CO) is fighting the good fight against a distasteful coalition of Internet merchandisers who want to stifle innovation. She points out the irony of a collection of companies who’ve profited from the free and open network seeking to impose draconian regulations on cable companies:

Much of the commercial success of the Internet came because there was little government restriction on how companies could operate or expand in this new market. For much of this period, the companies that thrived off of the Internet embraced the absence of federal regulation as one of the keys to their success. They have fought efforts by states to impose sales taxes on Internet purchases, opposed suggestions that the federal government establish standards for broadband, and argued against antitrust lawsuits by the Department of Justice that they asserted would cripple innovation.

But, in a switch that only students of public policy with a strong taste for irony could appreciate, these same companies that supported an absence of regulation, and succeeded because of it, are now clamoring for the federal government to impose its will on the Internet.

These companies, including Microsoft, Amazon and Yahoo, created the misnamed Coalition for Broadband Users and Innovators (CBUI) to push federal regulators to create new government rules that would prevent some broadband providers from teaming with other companies to offer consumers joint products and services.

The CBUI is a lobbying group funded by Microsoft, AOL, Disney, Apple, Amazon, Ebay, and a host of similar ilk. Larry Lessig is apparently in their employ as he was a featured speaker at a presentation they made in Washington, DC, earlier this year. He naturally attacks Congresswoman DeGette on his blog as a “cable lobbyist” in an outstanding example of the pot calling the kettle black.

Given the track record of the CBUI members, I’d be hesitant to endorse any plan they put forward. These companies have, after all, done more damage to the Internet than any other collection of businesses one could assemble, and the net effect of the regulations they propose would be to stifle innovation on the Internet infrastructure and ossify it as the pathetically inefficient network it is today, in perpetuity.

Face it, all Ebay, Amazon and the others want to do with the Internet is use it as a gigantic catalog order system. They don’t want e-mail that’s free of spam, they don’t want real-time applications like VoIP and Video on Demand, they don’t want mobility; all they want is secure credit card transactions and lots of eyeballs on their pages because people have no place to go that’s any more interesting than an Ebay auction.

Cable TV networks are large, complicated, and expensive, and they’re never going to grow toward full broadband with QoS if their business model is continually assaulted by lobbyists representing companies with no stake in their evolution because they’re doing so well today.

The Internet need not be about consumers spending money on crap they don’t need. It can be about advanced communication and entertainment, but it will never grow in that direction as long as these short-sighted profiteers have their way.

Did I mention Lessig’s working for Disney in this battle? He is.

Sleight of blog

George Lakoff is a student of propaganda and influence who uses his learning to take shots at moderate and conservative Americans in the interest of his left wing values. His method is pretty transparent once you’ve seen it a couple of times. He ostensibly tosses out a theory of journalism that attempts to wring some controversy over the practice of finding the story behind the story, and then he maps a theory of politics on top of that. The theory of politics holds that the right appeals to a “battered child” instinct, while the left is virtuous and pure. But that’s not really the message, it’s the misdirection that’s calculated to get an emotional reaction from the reader, which suspends his critical reasoning and therefore enables Lakoff to get into their heads with some warped perceptions, such as these:

…the national Republicans [made an] effort over several years to make Davis look bad by hurting the California economy…energy deregulation was brought in by Republican governor Pete Wilson…there was no real “energy crisis.” It resulted from thievery by Enron and other heavy Bush contributors, thievery that was protected by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission run by Bush appointees. The Bush administration looked the other way while California was being bilked and went to great lengths not to help California financially in any of the many ways the federal government can help. Arnold had had a meeting with Ken Lay and other energy executives in spring 2001 when Lay was promoting deregulation, but denies any complicity in the theft. Arnold is now promoting energy deregulation again.

The energy bill that was passed in 1996, while Wilson was governor, was written by the man who would become Davis’ finance director, Steve Peace, and approved unanimously by the legislature. If Steve Peace, a Democrat, wrote a bill that was intended to get Davis recalled, he was pretty far-sighted about it, as nobody had any idea that Davis would someday be elected governor and then would attach conditions to the bill through his PUC that would make it suck, and cause a crisis in California before Bush was elected President.

If the architects of the deregulation were so clever, how come they didn’t realize Enron would be bankrupt by the time Davis was recalled? Only Lakoff knows for sure. But there’s more:

…California’s Republican legislature also went out of its way to make Davis look bad, refusing to support reasonable measures for dealing with the budget problems…the recall petition was paid for by a wealthy conservative legislator… signature gatherers were paid handsomely… some signatures were from out of state, which is illegal. [There was] an enormous amount of money and organization put into the Schwartzenegger [sic] campaign by Republicans.

California’s legislature had comfortable Democratic majorities in both houses throughout the Davis governorship, of course. The recall petition, which started as a grass-roots effort by Ted Costa, was certainly accelerated by Darrell Issa’s $1.6M contribution, about ten cents a voter. But how does that compare to the $60M Davis spent on his re-election and the $25M he spent fighting the recall? Like what it is, nothing.

But there’s more:

The Republicans manipulated the media using some of the frames we have discussed to hide facts and create false impressions. From the perspective of the facts we have discussed, the election does seem to fit the Right-Wing Power Grab frame.

Except, gee whiz, the media were relentlessly pro-Davis and anti-recall. Not only did the LA Times assign an unprecedented squad of 24 to dig up dirt on Arnie, all the major papers editorialized against the recall. So where was this media manipulation, on the Fox News channel watched by, at most 500,000 California voters out of an electorate of 9 million?

The people recalled Davis and elected Arnie because they, unlike Lakoff, aren’t fools, and they can’t be manipulated by fools all of the time. It’s called “democracy” and that’s what you ignore at your peril.

Hat tip to Doc Searls.

You can learn so much on the Internet

Today I learned some cool stuff from my buddy Mitch Ratcliffe:

…the California state budget is larger than the combined budgets of other states, as it is the eighth largest economy in the world.

This explains a lot. California has roughly 15% of the American population, and according to Mitch, its state government spends more than all other states combined, or roughly four times as much per capita. No wonder those folks are in trouble.

BTW, that economy is around 5 or 6 in the world, depending on stuff.

Bay Area Exceptionalism

The “we’re too smart to vote for a movie star” meme has entered a new phase, wherein Frisco Area residents proclaim their superior education as the reason for their voting to retain the Davis status quo. (See: Mark Simon via Dr. Frank).

Once again, let’s look at how education interacts with voting preferences. From the VNS Exit Polls in the 2000 Presidential Election, we have a handy chart:


As you see, Democratic Party voters tend to be concentrated in two educational groups, high-school dropouts and holders of advanced degrees. Most advanced degrees are Masters’, held by union-member school teachers, and most Ph. D.’s work for universities or government-supported institutions. So we have a simple matter of people voting their interests: the welfare class and union members vote for the party of big government, and non-union working people with high-school and college degrees vote Republican.

(The same pattern held in California on the Recall: people at all educational levels from high school grad to college degree voted for Arnie, but people with advanced degrees went for Bustamante. High school dropouts were not reported. Is anyone surprised that the teachers’ union supported Davis and Bustamante?)

The Bay Area has a lot of people with advanced degrees, a lot of immigrants, and a lot of people who haven’t thought about politics since college. All of these groups are conservative, in the sense of endorsing the status quo, which happens to be the Democratic Party around there:

“A lot of people have been brought up in a political culture that is very left,” said Shanto Iyengar, a professor of political communication and mass media at Stanford University. “They really live in a cocoon.”

It has become a form of conservatism to be a liberal, Starr said.

“Today, outside the box is the box,” he said. “Who would be outside the box in San Francisco? A thoughtful conservative.”

So Bay Areans vote liberal because they’re conformist and conservative in their life styles and values, and because they’re sucking the government teat.

Not too complicated.

Emergent Mythology

Emergent Democracy advocate Mitch Ratcliffe explains his objection to the Davis recall in an effort to deal with my claim that the recall was in fact a model of democratic action:

There’s nothing wrong with recalls or the initiative process in a widely informed society. When there are very few sources of news and they militate with political groups to elect someone who reads scripts but doesn’t speak extemporaneously, they leave something to be desired.

So Arnie is another moron, like that Bush fellow who stole the 2000 election from that smart Gore fellow, and the voters are uninformed owing to our paucity of news sources, which today include just about every news outlet on the planet, and the blogs, etc. Fine. Now what would we ignorant citizens know if we were as well-informed as the Emergent Davis boosters? This:

…the budget crisis is the result of Pete Wilson’s misguided energy deregulation policies and collusion by the Bush Administration with the energy industy, not to mention the Bush Administration’s general failure in domestic policy leading to the bankrupting of the states

Now to Ratcliffe’s credit, he didn’t make this up; rather, he’s citing a well-traveled meme that you can find on any number of far-left blogs, news organs, and talk radio shows. The only trouble with it is that it’s complete crap. The State of California did sign $8B in long-term electricity contracts after Davis finally stepped in and tried to deal with the rolling blackouts of 2001. But these contracts were financed by bonds to be paid off my utility rate-payers. So when the legislature dealt with a $38B budget deficit, these bonds weren’t part of it – they’re off the books.

So yeah, if Ratcliffe were “informed” he probably wouldn’t have voted for Davis as he did, and if everyone were informed, it would have passed by acclamation.

On his other point, I haven’t noticed any states going bankrupt. California’s budget deficit exceeded the total deficits of all other states, and you clearly can’t blame that on Bush. Unless you’re “uninformed”, of course.

Suggestions for the Governator

Dan Gillmor offers a few suggestions for California’s next governor:

* Schwarzenegger should ask the Legislature to take all of the fiscally relevant propositions of the past several decades…and put every one on the table for an overall reform.

* Make California the showcase for wide-open, taxpayer-friendly e-government.

* Reform the state’s utility regulation.

* Make data privacy a centerpiece.

* Schwarzenegger should also call his pal in the White House on several matters of interest to Californians (and everyone else).

These are generally sound recommendations, but I do have some quibbles (hey, this is a blog, after all). California is the national leader in e-government, and has been for several years – all the bills are on-line, and many committee hearings are broadcast on cable TV and on the Internet in Real Audio. The legislature offers a service that automatically sends you e-mails when the status of bills changes, and most of the legislators publish e-mail addresses. So we’re actually in good shape on this front.

Arnie is already making strides on utility de-regulation, although I’m not sure Dan is going to like them. Dan wants a competitive market for telecom, but not for electricity, and I suspect Arnie wants to see more competition on both areas.

The fiscal area is probably the most interesting, and I don’t expect Arnie to go after Prop. 13. It gets a bad rap, as does Prop. 98, but these are things the voters are very proud of, and they’re not going to change in any meaningful way. Nor should they, as they place limits on government spending that are important in a state whose legislature is far to the left of the citizenry.

Recommendations to the Governor is an interesting exercise, though. Got any?

Dire straits for US software business

Andy Grove predicts bad times ahead for America’s software and services industry:

He predicted that the software and services industry is about to travel the well-worn path of the steel and semiconductor industries. Steel’s market share dropped from about 50 percent to 10 percent in a few decades. U.S. chip companies saw theirs shrink from 90 percent to about 50 percent today. Now the writing is on the wall that software could suffer the same fate, said Grove, whose 1996 bestseller was titled Only the Paranoid Survive.

Grove’s solution is government policies tearing down protectionist barriers and more advanced degrees for American software engineers.

Thanks, but I’ll pass. An awful lot of software engineering doesn’t take highly-trained geniuses, and as the world economy becomes more decentralized, the export of jobs is inevitable. The solution, if there is one, is to export more products and to be more efficient in our production of them.

Emergent Hypocrisy

While Lessig and Searls accept the legitimacy of the democratic recall, some of our Emergent Democracy advocates are having a hard time with the people’s judgment.

Ross Mayfield tries to convey an untenable distinction between Emergent Democracy as an exercise of the pure of heart in contrast to the Big Money pollution that envelopes government in a capitalist economy:

Emergent Democracy should differ from Direct Democracy. Self-organization, deliberation, and citizen driven initiatives — where the constraint is equal interest of the people — is in stark contrast to modern direct democracy. Dean’s decentralized organization is in contrast to professional pertitioners.

Joi Ito beats the tom-toms in favor of grass-roots elitism as an alternative to the rule of the unwashed masses:

Emergent democracy is about leadership through giving up control, activating the people to engage through deliberation and action, and allowing emergent order to grow from the grass roots. It’s the difference between a couch potato clicking the vote button and a group of people starting their own Dean coalition group.

And Mitch Ratcliffe chimes in with some loud clucks against The Politicians:

The question in emergent democracy is how to make everyone a politician, again. In early democracies, every citizen–a narrowly defined group of patricians, in most cases–was expected to be involved. The problem we have today is that most citizens leave politics “to the professionals” and then complain that they feel alienated from the system.

This is an awfully pure and austere model, where the people have to each and every one take the time out of their busy days to study each and every issue for themselves in order to govern without representatives, or at least without paid ones.

The question that it raises following the recall is, of course, how the people — even when armed with super-fantastic blogware — can make detailed policy decisions if they can’t be trusted by the technical elite to make basic personnel decisions as we did in the recall.

And if a Dean Meetup is an example of Emergent Democracy and good, how can it be that a group of grass-roots volunteers lead by Ted Costa organizing a petition drive is bad? When Ted Costa let Darrell Issa pay some signature gatherers a pittance ($1.5M, compared to the $10M Davis spent warping the Republican primary) wasn’t that an example of leading by giving up control?

Obviously, Emergent Democracy is any process that defeats the Republican Party, whether it’s in Sacramento, Washington, or Baghdad, and the process is utterly unimportant.

UPDATE: Ratcliffe says I’ve got him all wrong. What he really wants is:

…citizens should be able to organize to address specific issues without having to embrace the top-down plans of government. That means organizing to have their own representatives on specific issues, figuring out ways to pay them (enough money flows in politics–it’s an industry) to hive off some portion of a living from being involved in one’s community.

It appears to me he’s just described the Recall. Citizens organized to address the problem of Gray Davis’ lack of honesty and leadership, and rather than relying on his top-down leadership style (“the legislature is here to implement my vision”) they replaced him with a man who represented their values. They figured out how to pay for the recall by putting their own money up, and they hired campaign consultants and attorneys to remove the barriers erected by the ACLU, the Casinos, the labor unions, and the other anti-democratic forces in California.

If you like democracy, of any kind, you have to love the recall.