September 23, 2010

Tonight I will be talking (9pm Eastern) to David Brin, Hugo and Nebula award winning author of the Uplift Wars series, The Postman (made into a fairly unrecognizable post apocalypse movie starring Kevin Kostner), Earth, The Practice Effect,  a novel in Asimov’s Foundation Universe and other books you can find on his website.  We will talk for a bit about what it is like creating universes all your own, but I would like to focus on his non-fiction book-length essay called The Transparent Society.

In this book, written in 1998, very presciently describes a society where the citizenry will be empowered by the spread of information to anyone who wants to obtain it. Filled with counter-intuitive points of view, the book takes us through the choices we face in a society where, as Larry Ellison of Oracle has said, “privacy is dead; get over it.”  First off, though, he notes that privacy is a very recent development in human society. It is an artifact of modern urban environments and modern transportation systems. Before the industrial revolution, there was no real privacy. People were born, grew up and died in small communities where there were (and could be) no  real secrets. And now, the combination of integrated databases and ubiquitous surveillance capability, privacy is no longer something we can count on.

The challenge then becomes whether we can use these tools to monitor government and the large corporations who have come to resemble government agencies in their power over the citizenry and control of citizens’ data.  Some people, like Bruce Schneier (Here at VS with James Fallows) believe David is underestimating the impact of the asymetric power relation between the elites in the state (and in large corporations) and the citizenry.

David replies by noting that we can divide the elites, supported by the ubiquity of new citizen devices:

How have we fought this? One early Enlightenment trick was divide the elites. Sic ’em on each other! Unions vs. management, tort lawyers vs. megacorporations, regulators vs moguls, and activist Nongovernmental Organizations against any power center you can name. NGOs, the boomer innovation, let citizens clump en-masse, pooling influence to increase their common “Schneier exponent” and use information advantageously. It’s an enlightenment method of great power and flexibility. Each person can find and join an NGO suited to any passion or interest.

But the next step in people empowerment is even more impressive — those burgeoning “smart mobs” Howard Rheingold and Vernor Vinge talk about, and now Clay Shirky, in Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. It’s agile. It’s wired. Every generation innovates, or the Enlightenment dies.

Oh, I can hear cynical snorts. Yes, it’s flawed! Elites keep rediscovering tricks of secret collusion. Still, if it’s hopeless, how come we’re having this conversation?

Almost monthly, we hear of some angry cop arresting a citizen on trumped “privacy violations,” for using a cellcam or MP3 to record an interaction with authority. (In Wired, twelve years ago, I forecast these “rodneykings.”) And each month, judges toss the arrests, forcing police to apologize. Every time. So much for those power-exponents.

Of course, the elites respond, with cops claiming that there is no citizen right to record their actions.  David and I will discuss this conflict, and his belief in its resolution in the interests of the citizenry.

We will also talk about alien contact and SETI.  Because maybe there are real threats out there. (Or, perhaps not.)



September 20, 2010

I will be talking to Markos tonight at 9pm Eastern on Virtually Speaking about his book American Taliban (autographed copies available).  Among the topics that I will raise will be the negative response some progressives have had, sometimes in response to nothing more than the title. Glenn Greenwald discusses the issues that were raised, including the fairly peculiar idea that what the US has done in Afghanistan and Iraq somehow doesn’t seem to count as the acts of killers and terrorists in the eyes of many of those critics.

I will also want to talk about something I discussed with mcjoan and dday last night.  And that’s the use of the word “crazy” to describe some Republicans.  Markos uses the word frequently, to describe people who profess belief in things that are obviously false, like the people who say they believe that the President is a Muslim who was born in Kenya.   This turns out to be a complicated question, because people frequently believe things that aren’t true, especially on political topics.  For example, it doesn’t correlate with ignorance, or people we consider low information voters.

David Barstow of the NYT spent a lot of time with the Tea Partiers.  I saw him on a panel with Glenn Greenwald and Daniel Ellsberg back in February. (Jane Hamsher was there too, although I didn’t see her.)   He pointed out that there is actually a quite extensive literature that underlies false beliefs like those held by truthers, birthers, Roswellers and other fantasists. (Personally, I would add in the extensive literature involving widely held beliefs in the supernatural, like those held by Christians, Hindus, Jews and Muslims. But that’s just me.)  So you end up with people like this providing collections of half-truths and innuendo that support rationalizations for stuff  people want to believe anyway.  It’s a lot easier hating Obama the secret Muslim out  to destroy the nation with his socialist plots than the handsome, intellectual father of two charming daughters.  So when people are offered reasons to profess belief in something that is objectively ludicrous, they grab onto them.  When you add tribalism to the mix, then it’s not hard to get people to say they believe in crazy stuff.

So does that make them crazy?

This is becoming a topical question, because of the people rank and file Republican voters are nominating for the Senate.  There is a growing snobby media (and progressive!) narrative that these are the GOP equivalent of dirty fucking hippies, invading the upper echelons of society, saying things that people just don’t say.  Glenzilla again:

As Atrios also suggested, these Tea Party candidates differ not in their views but in their untrained, unsophisticated style of expressing those views.  They just haven’t been groomed yet to comport themselves with Ruling Class mannerisms, which is what is causing most of the consternation.  A perfect example of this occurred during the 2008 presidential campaign, when Palin said in an interview with Charlie Rose that the U.S. should be prepared to fight a war with Russia in order to defend Georgia and other republics, such as the Ukraine.  That caused widespread outrage as Democrats everywhere rushed to condemn her as a crazed warmonger.

But as Matt Yglesias accurately pointed out in an interview I did with him, Palin’s view was more or less shared by both Obama and Joe Biden, both of whom had expressed support for admitting those countries into NATO, which would obligate the U.S. to wage war to defend them.  As Yglesias explained, Palin’s real offense was that she used uncouth language — meaning language that was too honest and clear — to describe the implications of this policy:

Sarah Palin’s real mistake in that Russia interview, was being sufficiently inexperienced and unsavvy to just state plainly what’s become consensus American policy, which is that we should risk a nuclear war with Russia, that would kill billions of people, and possibly lead to the total end of human civilization, over boundary disputes about Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in Georgia. When she said it, it sounded a little bit crazy, and I think it is a little bit crazy, but Joe Biden just has a more sophisticated way of saying the same thing, and certain routine formulations about this.

Fast forward to “nutty” (Karl Rove) Christine O’Donnell.

Her views are right down the Republican mainstream.  The sneering jokes about her rejection of masturbation, coming from both the media’s Church of the Savvy and from progressive voices as well (although our side is funnier, at least) are obscuring the fact that this is indeed a mainstream Republican view, that abstinence only programs were all that the Federal Government would fund under Republican rule. What she says in that video is right down the line of the party that provided Federal money to pay for those very creepy purity balls.

The same holds for people like Rand Paul who believe the promises that the GOP have been making for the last 30 years–that we can have a small Christianist government with low taxes, no deficit, no reduction in services and a mammoth defense establishment.  If these people are crazy, then so is the entire party.

And, in my opinion, that is what Karl Rove and the Republican leadership fear most of all–that these true believers’ message will resonate with their voters, making it more difficult for them to hold the voters in the center.