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"the Dark Energy Of The Net"

Hello again from the Personal Democracy Forum in New York. The focus for today’s plenary sessions is how to deploy advanced internet and communications technology in service of democratic institutions. The interdisciplinary organization Internet for Everyone just held a press avail discussing their four pillars of their movement to wire and inform America: access, choice, openness and innovation. “Peeracy”—a riff on piracy that rather explains itself—is the word of the hour.

To address the marriage of good government and good technology, Harvard's Jonathan Zittrain is delivering a fascinating talk on "the Future of the Internet" and what he terms “non-civic technologies.” He's got a startling array of counterfactuals: as technology has “improved,” he notes, such advances have not democratized our politics or bettered end user choices, and have certainly not enhanced consumer or voter agency. The primary examples of this malevolent tech are, ironically, darlings of the tech-savvy millenial set: Facebook and iPhone. Both technologies have recently been “enhanced” by the introduction of peer editing mechanisms. Software developers can now create applications that can be grafted on to their respective platforms. Iphone owners can choose to Skype, surveille their home, or receive telephone reminders of to-dos—a far cry from a string around the finger. Likewise, on Facebook, applications allow users to, among other things, “throw” food at one another.

These hybrid “open source” developments sound good, right? But Zittrain rips into the framework that governs the acceptance and dissemination of said applications, which he sees as largely monopolistic. The accompanying image of Steve Jobs introducing the applications initiative crystallizes the problem: Banning "pornography" or "illegal" content makes some sense—but quashing “unforeseen” innovations? Since when is the unforeseen a bad thing?

Ultimately, Zittrain sees the consolidation of such technological advances as a grave social ill. Sure, the iPhone will give you the world—but the price is your soul. I’m being hyperbolic, but he supplements this argument for “non-civic” innovation with descriptions of OnStar technology being used for FBI eavesdropping, roadside surveillance technology in Britain that can detect blood (too many people were using dummies to ride in the carpool lane), and the disturbing 2006 case in which Tivo sued Echostar  for patent infringement, and not only got a $74 million settlement, but had will have the lion’s share of Echostar units remotely deactivated. Zittrain sees such easy injunctions and legal precedents as a slippery slope that will eventually quash “the dark energy of the net”—which is its capacity to cooperate in pursuit of best practices.


Another interesting speaker discusses the federal approach to internet democracy. Sheila Campbell for discusses the ways that the Man is getting hip. In addition to the TSA blog I mentioned yesterday (which got 8000 comments in an open thread about how to improve airline security), the census bureau is using an externally-sourced population clock widget, state websites that shill for “scenic West Virginia,” et al, are now promoting on Facebook, Second Life and YouTube. “Going where the people are” has its merits, but, Campbell says, there’s also a concerted push to get rid of “redundant, outdated and trivial information" on government sites, and to establish benchmarks for user-friendliness—how long should it take to apply for a passport?—and meet them. It will also seek to involve web developers and tech people as strategic decisions are being taken. Somehow that’s not the case now, but, as she notes, the federal government "can no longer look at internet as technology—it is a communicative tool."

The entire spectacle here has me moderately enthused about cooperative strategies for curating the noise and fury of internet use. Certainly, PDF offers a distinctly 21st century vision of the problems and potential of global technological explosion. Barack Obama has some decent approaches to these issues on his site. But John McCain, I fear, would be lost in the shuffle here. A filmmaker documenting the event cornered Andrew Rasiej, who’s been moderating a number of the panels here in New York. She asked him: Would you trust this brave new world to a president who doesn’t understand computers? The answer was no.

Update: Zittrain Facebooks me (!) with a correction. Echostar appealed its case against TiVo, during which the order to zap the already installed models was stayed for a time. They lost, however.

--Dayo Olopade

BONUS for bossa nova fans: Gilberto Gil, legendary musician turned culture minister of Brazil, spoke of “classical revolutionary action” with great grace today—a fitting performance in the Jazz center here in New York. 

BONUS BONUS for Obama Girl fans: She's here! Looks great. Still didn't vote.