Thursday, November 29, 2007

Epiphany: All that Personal Stuff (or All that Jazz): constructors and self-instantiation on Web 2.0


I remember a particular epiphany. On a Saturday in early August, 1994, I walked into a family restaurant in Sterling, CO (known for the rumors of alien cattle mutilations), picked up a rag and had a burger. I vaguely remember now a story about some local soldier discharged under the new “don’t ask don’t tell.” As I walked out of the restaurant and got in my rental stick shift car to drive to Scottsbluff and Cheyenne, I knew that I would write my book. I knew that I would put myself in the public limelight, whatever the consequences, over this issue. I felt that events earlier in my life (well documented on these blogs) justified it and could affect the long term political and even judicial debate. Later, that evening, I would actually meet, at the motel bar (Cheyenne) a man at the who claimed to be gay and an LTC in Commandant Carl Mundy ‘s Marine Corps. Later in the trip I would circle back to Colorado Springs, given the furor over Colorado’s “Amendment 2” and, within earshot of the Focus on the Family property, have lunch with another migrated friend who asked if I was out there to “run around.” There would be more “planes, motels, and rental automobiles” in the mid 90s as I burned vacation time “running around” the country digging up more stories (an mountain driving with a clutch).

The book would lead to the websites and blogs of today (and the screenplay treatments); the DADT issue would bud out into practically every other issue in the cultural wars: the transition of a society based on family and tribal ties, based in part on emotion and automaticity, into one in which individualism and objectivism have developed new world views for younger generations. Economically, extreme capitalism and globalization would accompany the psychological transformations, banging up against international realities of the limitations of this planet and of the problems of being perceived as living off the sacrifices of less developed peoples. 9/11 would wake us up. Issues like terror, war, the draft, the idea of mandatory national service, global warming, energy shortages, pandemics, disasters, workplace risks (including now recent reports on graveyard shift dangers) and the wide array of individual human tragedies and misfortunes (now including eldercare demographics) portrayed in the media – all of these remind us that “burdens” are not shared equally and can in time threaten or undermine the “individual sovereignty” model or freedom – and they are all interconnected (ultimately back to "DADT") and sometimes seem to justify older notions of “public morality.” Variation in unelected responsibility does help explain some reckless behavior (the subprime mess for openers). However, individual freedom should not be taken for granted, and everyone, regardless of how "born", should take some personal responsibility in addressing these problems, sometimes requiring "sacrifices" outside normal notions of market economy (and not necessarily starting just when having children).

By the end of the 90s, it was clear that something profound had happened because of Internet technology. Anyone with a good enough message could make himself (or herself) a celebrity in cyberspace, simply because the topology (or, in the language of advanced calculus, measure) of cyberspace turned upsidedown all the economic and other valuation notions that had previously run the bricks and mortar world. We had a “second life” that was not exactly “real life” but could certainly affect “reality.” Domain names could be hoarded and sold as if they were real estate, almost. For one thing, by the end of the 90s, the pretense of “privacy” that was supposed to be protected by “don’t ask don’t tell” had been shredded by search engines. The world had morphed that quickly.

A sociologist calls this phenomenon “asymmetry.” One individual, because of a twist in circumstances (here, leveraging of suddenly available technology with self-publishing or “self-instantiation,” to borrow from java) gains influence way beyond his normal competitive ability or what would seem appropriate for his social responsibilities. Shawn Fanning made this point when he created Napster which, despite the period of legal copyright problems, certainly taught the music industry that it needed to change its business model quickly.

What I found was that one Internet domain, because of the effect of search engines (which started to become important in 1998) could have a real influence on political issues, if it was structured concentrically around the relationships among the issues and if if it kept up with the news. It just took one person, very little money, no real profits, and most of all, nor organization or employees. Previously, political advocacy had always been organizational and usually partisan. People had always been encouraged to band together in “solidarity” and engage in single-minded campaigns to get their way. Minority groups tended to present themselves as “victims” and GLBT tended to depend on superficial arguments about immutability because that had worked with race. People generally had depended on lobbyists or organizations to represent them and boil issues down to litanies of need; and often, people could personally speak out on specific topics because of conflicts possible with the workplace (potentially legal) or sometimes family; there was sometimes a lot of social pressure to spin certain issues in a slanted fashion to manipulate political or social comfort. Now, there was the capability to present issues in a compact but structured fashion, for one person or a small company to “control” it, and keep it deployed at low or no cost. In this state of affairs, politics could change for ever. This might not bode well for the future of K Street.

It’s important to realize how quickly things on the web get indexed and found everywhere on the planet (and that can include even the tribal areas of Pakistan), even when there are umptime million new blogs or sites created every day or week. Well-organized and presented material (it doesn’t have to be fancy – in fact static content gets loaded and found more quickly a lot of times) gets found and has an impact.

In a world where book publishers exercised so much legal due diligence before going to press, it seems like an accident that “amateurs” were turned loose to post their wares on the Web with no real understanding of possible legal consequences. In theory, intellectual property law (copyright, libel, right of publicity, etc) works the same way on the web as in print, but typically most of the time only defendants with deeper pockets are pursued (the exception is illegal downloading through P2P, which is a totally different issue, but arose with Napster, as above). Now, I do follow the expectations of i.p. law as normally understood in my postings. I fully credit sources, and I don’t target people. (I generally don’t publish the names of unconvicted defendants even though they were published in conventional newspaper stories first. I don't report on "private" matters of named celebrities, even though sometimes I can "see" them even in public places.) Much of my argument comes from personal material, most of which happened years or decades ago. With the passage of time, I believe, the value to the public of knowing about a historical incident that bears on an issue today (like the military DADT) can be considerable, while the practical effect on others involved in the incident (usually unnamed or pseudonymed, but conceivably they could recognize themselves or others could anyway from the circumstances).

However, in the past few years, and especially since about 2005, we have heard a barrage of reports about people getting into serious trouble with their behavior on the web. It's true that the "wild west" mentality of the early web days and the suddenly apparent (unknown before the mid 1990s) capability to broadcast content globally without much obvious personal accountability sets an example that some people misinterpret as an invitation for risky or harmful behavior online. It used to be that the most common problem was people getting fired for badmouthing their employers, who then would find the postings through search engines. Sometimes people tried to influence share prices with rumors and got into trouble with the SEC.

Then the nature of the problems started to expand as social networking sites with Web 2.0 became all the rage. Teenagers (and sometimes adults, especially women) got into trouble giving away provocative personal information and attracting bad people. Teens may say they want the public limelight, but often they do not fully understand the global nature of “fame” and are more concerned about in-crowd popularity, and see social networking sites as a primary social tool. Teenagers (and sometimes adults, as in the case in Missouri recently) would use the web to harass and tease each other. Sometimes people, in fun or to protest social convention, would post derogatory pictures of themselves (especially drug use or underage drinking) and lose jobs or at least job opportunities when employers trolled for this. People, sometimes ignorant of libel or privacy law, would post derogatory information or pictures of others on the web, and employers would find that too. People began to confuse the concepts of social interaction with legitimate publication. Social networking sites have responded by help and encouraging customers to whitelist their material (keep restricted to known lists of users) but even so a lot of derogatory material would get passed around into the wrong hands, just as in Gossip Girl. “Reputation defense” became a new industry.

Legal battles have raged since the mid 1990s about Internet pornography (the CDA and later COPA, the later of which I became involved with as a plaintiff because other material can be confused with pornography) but the creeping problem is much more subtle. Some lawyers call it “implicit content” – the “between the lines” meaning that visitors may attribute to material that they find out of context by searches on the web. Implicit content may concern the motives of the speaker, as they would be perceived by the visitor based on what the visitor is likely to know about the speaker’s familial, social or business position. A careless rendering of the concept could mean that a speaker has a particular personal problem because he or she addressed a certain controversial topic in a posting that itself is legitimate and presents no legal problems in the usual sense. Socratic online “thought experiments” can cause real trouble if they are perceived as Orson Welles broadcasts.

That’s why, for employers especially, the presence of “self-instantiation” on the web can present previously unknown problems, with many ambiguous and gray areas. It’s especially important in jobs where the person makes decisions about others, has some usual public trust (teachers), has to accept forced intimacy on the job (the military, fire, law enforcement), has access to very sensitive information (intelligence). We may be coming to realizing that “free speech” and the “right to publish” should not be identical concepts. For example, one can propose a rule that people in sensitive jobs should accept “professional” supervision of all their personal web activities or whitelist all of their material – the job would be the only “portal” to the public and the employer would have legal ownership of the person’s “right of publicity.” Another more common sense rule would be that one should not make a posting that compromises the confidence in others that he can do his job, even if he has a legitimate political motive (he may have to consider resigning instead if the issue is compelling enough).

Some people say that I should “keep a low profile” unless I am willing to take the risks (emotional and otherwise) that others believe they must take (often for family). (Some have said, why don’t I have the guts to run for office rather than remain an Internet pamphleteer. Then I’d have to be partisan and beg for money.) This notion is just unacceptable. I do what I think I have to do to contribute to my world my own way.

I look upon that "before and after" 1994 moment in Colorado as a selection of my second career, a commitment to rationalize the content and process of debate (starting with DADT). A future job could force me into a “quiet period” of some sort, or major restructuring. Money matters (no more specifics here). But I won’t do something where the point is to manipulate others into buying something that I had nothing to do with. No “we give you the words” stuff – I want to “give” the words rather than “take” them. The resolution of my career must remain with content that must come from me before I can sell it. It does seem like I am pushing "the knowledge of good and evil" as I believe that what people know should not depend just on their familial, tribal, religious or even business associations.

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