Wherever he laid his laptop was home: the internet and homelessness

Paul Raven @ 02-06-2009

I dare say many of you have already seen this Wall Street Journal piece that documents the increase of internet presence in San Francisco’s homeless population… but if you haven’t, I think you should go read it, especially if you’ve ever found yourself fretting over the horrible sense of disconnection from the world that a temporary loss of your broadband connection can cause.

Cheap computers and free Internet access fuel the phenomenon. So does an increasingly computer-savvy population. Many job and housing applications must be submitted online. Some homeless advocates say the economic downturn is pushing more of the wired middle class on to the streets.

Aspiring computer programmer Paul Weston, 29, says his Macintosh PowerBook has been a “lifeboat” since he was laid off from his job as a hotel clerk in December and moved to a shelter. Sitting in a Whole Foods store with free wireless access, Mr. Weston searches for work and writes a computer program he hopes to sell eventually. He has emailed city officials to press for better shelter conditions.

Lisa Stringer, who runs a program that teaches job and computer skills to homeless and low-income residents, says some students who can’t even read or write save money to buy computers at Goodwill. “It’s really a symbol in today’s society of being OK and connected,” she says. She sometimes urges homeless students to put off buying laptops until their living situations stabilize.

What’s most interesting to me about this is the way that the ‘freeconomics’ model of most web businesses is providing opportunities for social interaction to those who have dropped out of or been abandoned by the traditional meatspace support systems; homelessness no longer equates to invisibility, in other words, and a lack of fixed address no longer excludes you from a complex social life with people from a vast variety of social and political backgrounds. These people are using free services that are funded by payments from the better-off… smells a little like socialism, no?

If this isn’t a tangible example of how geography is dissolving under the influence of ubiquitous communication media, I don’t know what is. Which do you think you’d find easier to live with – losing your home, or losing access to the internet?


Your new credit card, courtesy the US Treasury

Paul Raven @ 27-05-2009

There’s no shortage of weird and wonderful ideas flying around with regard to fixing the financial systems and making them fairer for the end users (i.e. most of us), but this is the first time I’ve heard this one crop up: state-backed interest-free transactional credit – or, in layman’s terms, a credit card issued by the government.

Access to revolving credit should be rationed, but transactional credit should indeed be ubiquitous. Not having to carry and count cash, deal with paper checks, or even worry about some particular account’s balance at the time of purchase are important benefits. Indeed, an efficient payments system is a public good. That’s why states are in the business of establishing currencies, right?

In fact, while transactional credit provision is a perfectly good business, it might be reasonable for the state to offer basic transactional credit as a public good. This would be very simple to do. Every adult would be offered a Treasury Express card, which would have, say, a $1000 limit. Balances would be payable in full monthly. The only penalty for nonpayment would be denial of access of further credit, both by the government and by private creditors. (Private creditors would be expected to inquire whether a person is in arrears on their public card when making credit decisions, but would not be permitted to obtain or retain historical information. Nonpayment of public advances would not constitute default, but the exercise of an explicit forbearance option in exchange for denial of further credit.) Unpaid balances would be forgiven automatically after a period of five years. No interest would ever be charged.

As is immediately pointed out in the resulting comment thread at MetaFilter, there’s a strong aroma of socialism around that idea which would prevent its adoption… not to mention the fierce anger of the credit card companies, should the idea be tabled seriously. But if there’s one thing we should have learned over the last few years, it’s that schemes which frighten the companies who make a killing by lending us money are well worth considering more closely.


The web as emergent collectivist digitopia

Paul Raven @ 26-05-2009

socialist starEven now, US resistance to the concept of socialism is a knee-jerk of epic proportions, at least among the more vocal ranks of punditry. But maybe it’s coming anyway – Kevin Kelly crops up at Wired, claiming that the internet is fostering a grassroots variant of technology-enabled collectivism deep in the heart of America… and beyond.

We’re not talking about your grandfather’s socialism. In fact, there is a long list of past movements this new socialism is not. It is not class warfare. It is not anti-American; indeed, digital socialism may be the newest American innovation. While old-school socialism was an arm of the state, digital socialism is socialism without the state. This new brand of socialism currently operates in the realm of culture and economics, rather than government—for now.

The type of communism with which Gates hoped to tar the creators of Linux was born in an era of enforced borders, centralized communications, and top-heavy industrial processes. Those constraints gave rise to a type of collective ownership that replaced the brilliant chaos of a free market with scientific five-year plans devised by an all-powerful politburo. This political operating system failed, to put it mildly. However, unlike those older strains of red-flag socialism, the new socialism runs over a borderless Internet, through a tightly integrated global economy. It is designed to heighten individual autonomy and thwart centralization. It is decentralization extreme.

It’s an interesting and provocative read, and I heartily recommend you take twenty minutes to read it all.

What I find most intriguing about it, though, is the fact that most of the article would work just as well if you replaced every instance of the word “socialism” with the word “capitalism”. That doesn’t invalidate Kelly’s argument, though; what I think it means is that the old polarity between the ideas encapsulated by those two words is weakening; both socialism and capitalism as ideologies have taken some serious blows in the last sixty years or so, but the underlying systemic approaches to examining and adjusting the way huge numbers of people live that lurk beneath those political edifices are increasingly looking like complementary models or theoretical frameworks, much like you’d find in science.

Which isn’t to say that people won’t crusade under the banner of a scientific theory – look at the new wave of militant evolutionists, for example. But it suggests to me that social economics may gradually be coming detached from the binary oppositions of geopolitics; as awareness of the flaws and benefits of both approaches become clearer and more widely disseminated (thanks to the web, natch), perhaps it will become harder for politicians to claim that one or the other is “right”, “better” or “more American” (or British, or Chinese, or whatever). [image by anarchosyn]

Hey, a guy can dream, right?


Resilience economics – Jamais Cascio’s 2020 vision

Paul Raven @ 01-04-2009

skyscraper construction siteJamais Cascio has been doing what futurists do best – speculating on the near-term changes that need to be made to haul our asses out of the economic hole they’re in and, hopefully, ensure we don’t end up stuck there again.

Of course, the web is full of people doing the same thing, making pretty much every website (this one included, to be fair) a shower of competing ideas and ideologies (of varying degrees of sanity). What’s interesting – and perhaps more reasonable – about Cascio’s approach is that he isn’t adhering to either of the standard polar opposites of socialism and capitalism; he’s attempting to synthesise the two in this report from an imaginary future a few decades away:

Traditional capitalism was, arguably, driven by the desire to increase wealth, even at the expense of other values. Traditional socialism, conversely, theoretically wanted to increase equality, even if that meant less wealth. But both 19th/20th century economic models had insufficient focus on increasing resilience, and would often actively undermine it. The economic rules we started to assemble in the early 2010s seek to change that.

[snip]

Decentralized diversity (what we sometimes call the “polyculture” model) means setting the rules so that no one institution or approach to solving a problem/meeting a need ever becomes overwhelmingly dominant. This comes at a cost to efficiency, but efficiency only works when there are no bumps in the road. Redundancy works out better in times of chaos and uncertainty — backups and alternatives and slack in the system able to counter momentary failures.

Some food for thought there, no? It’s informed by the networked and distributed technologies which surround us, but lacks the idealistic tang of utopian thinking… and compromise seems like a good idea from where I’m sitting, at least.

And while we’re talking about major upheavals to the way we do stuff nowadays, how about open source healthcare?

… in healthcare, state intervention artificially skews the model of service toward the most expensive kind of treatment. For example, the patent system encourages an R&D effort focused mainly on tweaking existing drugs just enough to claim that they’re “new,” and justify getting a new patent on them (the so-called “me too” drugs). Most medical research is carried out in prestigious med schools, clinics and research hospitals whose boards of directors are also senior managers or directors of drug companies. And the average GP’s knowledge of new drugs comes from the Pfizer or Merck rep who drops by now and then.

[snip]

In an open-source healthcare system, someone might go to vocational school for accreditation as the equivalent of a Chinese “barefoot doctor.” He could set fractures and deal with other basic traumas, and diagnose the more obvious infectious diseases. He might listen to your cough, do a sputum culture and maybe a chest x-ray, and give you a round of zithro for your pneumonia. But you can’t purchase such services by themselves without paying the full cost of a college and med school education plus residency.

That’s a bit more extreme (or at least more detailed and close-focussed) than Cascio’s vision, but they both depend on a degree of decentralisation, with local systems picking up the slack where national institutions have failed. Given the increasing urbanisation of the world’s population, maybe devolving some governmental systems to independent local nodes would provide the flexibility we need to deal with these times of rapid change. [image by mugley]