The summit of security: fortifying Toronto for the G8/G20 meetings

Paul Raven @ 18-06-2010

Regardless of your personal politics, it’s hard to look at the extensive preparations for summits like the G8 and G20 groups – both of which are meeting near Toronto in Canada at the end of the month – and not be dumbfounded by the huge amount of money that gets pissed away on “preparing” for them.

Tim “Quiet Babylon” Maly takes a look at the “media pavilion” that’s been constructed for the world’s journalists to lounge around in, complete with simulated lakefront ambience and local rural flavour, and there’s a bunch of links at MetaFilter talking about the extensive fortification of the town against the inevitable floods of protesters – up to and including the removal of street-side trees and saplings, lest they be used as weapons (yes, seriously).

Maly makes much of the parasitic nature of these conferences, beaming in and completely subsuming a location for the duration of the summit, and that’s certainly one weird aspect of the whole business. But weirder still, at least to my eye, is the sociopolitical nature of the thing: here’s a meeting of powerful people who are ostensibly discussing ways to make the world a better place, and they have to defend themselves from political dissent to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

That’s the sort of budget that most dictatorships can only dream of, all spuffed away for a week or so of hermetically-sealed political secrecy and security for the allegedly democratic governers of the civilised world. There’s something deeply paradoxical – I might even go so far as to say “fucked up” – about that; defending oneself from external enemies is one thing, but any governmental organisation that spends that much money on protecting itself from the people it ostensibly looks after is doing something very, very wrong.

Did the Iranian “Twitter Revolution” actually happen?

Paul Raven @ 11-06-2010

You know, I’m always advising people not to believe everything they read, but I’m just as bad at doing it as anyone else – we all give credence to the stories we want to believe, I guess (and hell knows that media companies know how to exploit that).

So, remember the Twitter Revolution in Iran? That there was a revolution is not in question, but that the revolution was powered by social media? That’s not so clear [via MetaFilter]:

… it is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right. Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran. As Mehdi Yahyanejad, the manager of “Balatarin,” one of the Internet’s most popular Farsi-language websites, told the Washington Post last June, Twitter’s impact inside Iran is nil. “Here [in the United States], there is lots of buzz,” he said. “But once you look, you see most of it are Americans tweeting among themselves.”

A number of opposition activists have told me they used text messages, email, and blog posts to publicize protest actions. However, good old-fashioned word of mouth was by far the most influential medium used to shape the postelection opposition activity. There is still a lively discussion happening on Facebook about how the activists spread information, but Twitter was definitely not a major communications tool for activists on the ground in Iran.


To be clear: It’s not that Twitter publicists of the Iranian protests haven’t played a role in the events of the past year. They have. It’s just not been the outsized role it’s often been made out to be. And ultimately, that’s been a terrible injustice to the Iranians who have made real, not remote or virtual, sacrifices in pursuit of justice.

I’m starting to wonder if a faith in the hierarchy-corrosion of modern communications systems isn’t becoming a core plank of what, for want of a less contentious or partisan label, we might call the postmodern progressive liberal platform. Maybe because we feel ourselves to have been liberated from something by the internet (even though we’re not sure what it is that we’ve been liberated from), we think that it can deliver liberation to others from things that are far more oppressive and powerful (at least at the level of curtailment of individual freedoms) than we have the context and experience to understand? That political revolution can be as safe, easy (and fun!) as our spare time whiled away on social media? (See also: the illusion of participation produced by slacktivism.)

Or maybe it’s just old-fashioned and fallacious Golden Age pulp technophilia: “Twitter is the future! The future is something we progress toward! Democracy in Iran would be progress! Therefore Twitter will help create progress toward democracy in Iran!”

I’m having a weird week; I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how we make pretty much everything into a story that reflects what we already believe to be true. The trouble with dwelling on that for a while is that you reach a point where you realise that, if that assumption is true, then that assumption is also part of a narrative that’s reinforcing itself through you. Which is a pretty weird psychological and philosophical paradox… not to mention being remarkably unconducive to getting anything practical done.

Nation-state gives way to city-state?

Paul Raven @ 08-06-2010

More future politics, courtesy SlashDot: excerpts from a speech by John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (and former Grateful Dead songsmith), in which he states that the mechanics of national government in the US is failing because it’s swamped by too much data, and that a move back to the city-state model may be on the cards:

“The political system is broken partly because of Internet,” Barlow said. “It’s made it impossible to govern anything the size of the nation-state. We’re going back to the city-state. The nation-state is ungovernably information-rich.”


Barlow also said that President Barack Obama’s election, driven largely by small donations, has fundamentally changed American politics. He said a similar bottom-up structure is needed for governing as well.

“It’s not the second coming, everything won’t get better overnight, but that made it possible to see a future where it wasn’t simply a matter of money to define who won these things,” Barlow said. “The government could finally start belonging to people eventually.”


“There is a circle of fat around the Beltway that is incredibly thick” Barlow said. “We can no longer try to run this country from the center. We’ve got to run it, just like the Internet, from the edges.”

I expect Barlow’s quintessential hippie credentials will invalidate his ideas for some, but I think he’s on to something here. I’m no mathematician, but I suspect that the resources needed to maintain centralised control of any system will rise exponentially in proportion to the complexity and size of said system; in effect, we’re trying to run huge nations using software that can’t scale up effectively enough to cope.

However, I’m not naive enough to think that governments will be keen to devolve into federations of city-states; large systems gain a sort of momentum, and develop subroutines to protect their integrity and position of control. But perhaps the economic phase shift that some pundits are saying is just round the corner will leave them with little choice; at some point, it may simply be the path of least resistance (not to mention least resource expenditure) to let small communities hive off and self-manage within the loose framework of a (global? continental?) federal constitution. As Barlow points out, we have the technology to make such a world possible; it’s the lock-in compatibility issues of the current socio-politicall operating system that will prevent such a change from happening.

Related: responding to the UK government’s sudden embracing of transparency, Aditya Chakrabortty at The Guardian wonders whether it’s going to do as much good as its advocates hope:

Who could be against see-through government? After all, it feels so democratic and bipartisan (civil servants privately admit that they had already prepared the pay document for former Labour minister Liam Byrne), and it feels so modish and internet-friendly. But the mistake that is being made here is assuming that merely pumping out information is an end in itself, which doesn’t require context or any consideration of what it’s in aid of.

That might sound odd coming from a journalist, but it’s an argument that’s gaining traction in other quarters too. Last year, the American legal scholar Larry Lessig wrote an essay called Against Transparency. It made precisely the opposite case that you might expect from a stalwart of the transparency movement. In the face of all Barack Obama’s promises of greater openness, Lessig argued that more and more information released “unqualified or unrestrained by other considerations” would be harmful both to political debate and in the end to the ability of government to get things done (the example he used was campaign donations).

[ We talked about the Lessig article here at the time. ]

Beyond the bash-the-public-sector headlines, all this transparency is most helpful to those who are already able and willing to use it – that is, with the internet connections and time to sift through all the data. And, researchers have found, those tend to be the same relatively well-off and highly educated people who are already pretty well served by the public sector. As Tobias Escher at Oxford University puts it: “You end up giving more of a voice to those who already have pretty good representation.

There’s also another concern, namely the sizeable number of people who simply don’t care to find out how their government works, though one might argue that they’ve dug their own hole. But the point remains – transparency isn’t going to be a panacea to the problems of large-scale nation-state governance. If anything, it’s just providing greater amounts of evidence for the underlying problem: a system too large and complex for anyone to fully understand, let alone begin to fix. That said, I’d rather the data was available than not, even if it’s analysed primarily for pillorying the public sector for headline-worthy misdemeanours (while more complex but fundamental issues are ignored because they lack a narrative hook or easy non-partisan explanation).

The times, they are a-changin’

Swapping the Senate for Reddit, and other daft ideas about digital democracy

Paul Raven @ 25-02-2010

Pool's closed (due to extropianism)For the sake of change-around, I’m gonna let someone else propose the wild idea this time. So, how’s about you US citizens swap your Senate for something like [image adapted from a photo by cliff1066™]

Let’s abolish the Senate! Replace it with something truly new and egalitarian, a system that gives us thrilling optimism and empowerment, something far more representative than the so-called “House of Representatives” […] My proposal is to replace the moldering Senate with an electronic plebiscite system, i.e., something like

Here’s how it works.

  1. Everyone who reaches voting age gets a log-in ID and a password.
  2. All bills advanced by the House of Representatives are posted on “” for approval.
  3. Upvote or Downvote, voters get two weeks to cast their ballots and to state their opinions in comments as lengthy and as often as desired.
  4. The millions of comments are categorized in an efficient way so that the curious public can read all existing viewpoints. They are, in turn, also upvoted and downvoted as people find them more or less relevant.
  5. At the end of two weeks, all proposals that have received 60% (or another agreed-upon number) approval are enacted into law.

That would be just the start, apparently… :-s

Look, I’m a proponent of the idea of digitising democracy, but Reddit itself is a great example of why it wouldn’t work for major policies at a national scale. The tyranny of the minority, a banal hegemony of kneejerk special-interests NIMBYism and me-too-gimme-gimme… not entirely unlike a lot of the Western world as it already stands, in other words, albeit with more cat videos (which would admittedly be something of an improvement).

But if you can’t see how easily that sort of plebiscite framework could be gamed (let alone hacked)… well, you were a bit bold naming your website “Extropism”, let’s put it that way. Rhizomatic digital democracy could work, sure, but only in small numbers over small areas. You wanna go national with plebiscite, you need to think again, especially in a territory as large as the US – and you’re going to have to think about representatives in some shape or form, because there’s too much law and too little time for us everyday Josephines to deal with it at the same time as holding down a job. Now, if you want to talk about ways of building a representation system with total transparency and full-duplex discussion between the people and the rep, though, that’s another argument entirely…

That said, it’s hard not to be sucked in by the illusion of participation that the internet already offers – I’ve signed more petitions in the last two years than I have in my entire life, just because it’s so damned easy to do online. But things easily done are easily ignored, and that nice warm glow you get afterwards is the glow of complacency. You may not believe me, but the big charities and campaign groups are certainly waking up to it:

“… underlying slacktivism isn’t enough — you can’t just turn your profile green. If you show support you are lazy? No. But there has to be a number of people taking actions in the real world, too.” Anderson said.

It is this growing trend to show support via an online campaign that is threatening human rights movements across the globe, and the panel quickly picked up on the drawbacks of the internet in promoting false activism.

“I coined the phrase ‘mousy solidarity’ to explain how easy it is to click on a petition. We feel like we can participate.” said Professor Sreberny.

What was made clear from the event was that both sides — activists and regimes — can see the potential for technology to promote their cause. But it was the words of a press spokesman for hosts Amnesty International that really struck home, underlining the need to continue to fight across several platforms, rather than relying on new trends to promote the cause.

Speaking of supporting political protest against corrupt regimes, everyone seems a little stuck on this whole Iran business. Why don’t we just bombard Iran… with satellite internet signal!

This would be an invaluable help for a movement that the government can currently easily hinder with telecommunication cuts in the wake of large demonstrations. Most importantly, and from a US policy perspective, it would empower Iranians without committing troops or confronting the Iranian regime directly, solving the dilemma of American non-interference.

(Ah, non-interference is a dilemma, now? Is that another word for “knowing that there’s no legal way to pull it off, and remembering how badly it worked out last time?”)

Complications might, of course, arise. The Iranian government can crack down on the use of satellite dishes, as it has consistently done in the past, or attempt to jam the signal. The whole project might prove costly, perhaps cost more than the Voice Act’s $20m budget. But is a cyber war with Tehran’s regime not a more palatable route than the other “options” that remain relentlessly on the table?

Um. This chap somewhat misses the point of cyberwar – namely that the people opposing you on the web don’t necessarily have to be based in the country you’re trying to face down, or even care much about it beyond some vague and naive notion of religio-cultural brotherhood – but the idea itself isn’t entirely crazy.

In fact, if I wanted to destabilise a totalitarian regime with a censorship fixation, giving its people open internet access is one of the first things I’d want to be able to do… which leads me to suspect that toppling the Iranian regime probably isn’t as big a priority for the governments of the West as they might like us to think.

But maybe it would be, if we all just popped over to Reddit and clicked “upvote” enough times through multiple different proxy servers…

The web =/= the mob?

Paul Raven @ 15-12-2009

Network diagram of macaque brain connectivitySeeing as how I ended up with a whole bunch of related links, I thought they might as well all fit in one post. So, your overarching thematic question is: the power of the web and social media is pretty much a given, but does it empower us in ways that are beneficial or detrimental?* [image by arenamontanus]

For a start, Bruce Sterling points to what must be the third story I’ve seen in the last year about what happens when jurors are accustomed to social media and ubiquitous information access. In a nutshell, it’s almost impossible to keep people in an informational vacuum without locking them up in a Faraday cage, or to keep them from Tweeting about a case they’re hearing… so what happens to the existing legal model of the unprejudiced jury of your peers? Pandora’s box is well and truly open; how can we develop fair trials in the information age? Expert systems instead of juries? Crowdsourced multiplex juries? Or a trial process that not only accepts but embraces its position at the centre of a media ecology based on novelty and shock?

Over in Egypt, however, the political counterculture is just starting to flex the lithe and slippery new limbs that the internet has provided it, thanks to the incumbent government’s possibly self-defeating decision to leave the internet predominantly uncensored in the hope of encouraging international trade and domestic development. Decentralised networks like Twitter are undermining the official media controls and embargoes that are the hallmark and lynch-pin of the despot… with the end result that the Egyptian government is falling back on the time-honoured (if counterproductive) methods of intimidating and threatening the loudest dissenting voices.

Meanwhile, televangelist megapastor Rick Warren caves in to public opinion and writes publically to Ugandan ministers to condemn their violent persecution of homosexuality. While it’s impossible to truly know the mind of another, I think I can safely assume that Warren would have lost no sleep over the Ugandan lynch-mobs; the bad publicity focussed on himself as a result of staying quiet, however, was simply unacceptable. A small victory for public opinion, perhaps.

But that knife cuts both ways. Remember me linking to an interview with Indian science fiction author Ashok Banker, in which he took the Western publishing industry to task for institutionalised racism, accompanied by a chorus of voices denying that any such racism existed? Well, that interview has been deleted from the World SF Blog at Banker’s request, because he and his family have been receiving death threats in response to it, through assorted social media channels. A sad story, and one that pretty much proves his initial point… as well as demonstrating that the “pure” democracy of the web can enable the primacy of hatred just as easily as justice (your postcard from Switzerland has just arrived). It all depends on which group cares enough to do the most hard work with that media lever.

And speaking of inequalities, here’s a post from a well-known figure in the copywriting blogosphere, wherein he reveals that he’s actually a she. And no, it’s not even some dramatic story of gender confusion and coming out: it’s an inside account of the glass ceiling that still exists in the Western world for women who dare to make their own way in a male domain. Long story short: after a long period of crap work, poor pay and demanding clients, she started using a male pen-name and found that everything improved drastically.

In some ways, there’s a small victory for the web here: intertube anonymity overcomes the gender boundary, saves family from poverty! But the story overall is a sad one, highlighting an institutionalised misogyny that we still perpetrate at a subconscious cultural level, even on the supposedly egalitarian plains of the internet. Worth bearing in mind next time the subject of female authors submitting stories using their initials rather than their first names comes up, and folk start saying that they’re doing themselves a disservice by doing so, eh?

[ * Obviously the answer is “both”, but I think there’s a lot of value to be gained by thinking about how these things happen. We’ve asked whether the web is an inherently democratising force here before, and the stories above seem to suggest that social media empowers the most vocal and/or powerful groups that possess the savvy and access to use them effectively. In Egypt, that appears to be the good guys (at least from my perspective); unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case everywhere. ]

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