A Compelling, Compassionate, Critique of Conservative Extremism by David Frum

NewYorkMagazine_20111128_politicscvr_150the [Republican] party is getting the big questions disastrously wrong

[David Frum on the GOP’s Lost Sense of Reality (New York Magazine, 20 November 2011)]

David Frum, former economics speechwriter for former U.S. President George W. Bush, offers a sharp critique of the Republican Party in an interview with NPR's Steve Innskeep yesterday, David Frum asks "When did the GOP lose touch?". The interview was prompted by Frum's recent article in the current issue of New York Magazine, which is impressive in its breadth and depth ... and, I would argue, its compassion.

I often feel incensed at some of the things I hear and read conservatives saying and writing. Frum's article helps provide some context for some of the perspectives presumably felt and sometimes articulated by some conservatives, but does so largely without being condescending. I'm reminded of one of the central tenets of non-violent communication: communication designed to induce fear, shame and/or guilt in a listener often arises from conscious or unconscious fear, shame and/or guilt on the part of the speaker. I'm also uncomfortably reminded of my own tendencies toward projection and rejection ... which are [also] reflected in the subtitle of Frum's article:

Some of my Republican friends ask if I’ve gone crazy. I say: Look in the mirror.

I highly recommend reading the entire article, and its complementary companion article by Jonathan Chait, who until recently was senior editor at The New Republic, How Did Liberals Become So Unreasonable (although frankly, I did not find Chait's article as compelling ... or compassionate). Here, I wanted share a few excerpts highlighting some key observations Frum makes regarding the rightward GOP shift(s).

  • On Fiscal Austerity and Economic Stagnation:
    ... the big winners in the American fiscal system are the rich, the old, the rural, and veterans—typically conservative constituencies. ... Any serious move to balance the budget, or even just reduce the deficit a little, must inevitably cut programs conservative voters do like: Medicare for current beneficiaries, farm subsidies, veterans’ benefits, and big tax loopholes like the mortgage-interest deduction and employer-provided health benefits. The rank and file of the GOP are therefore caught between their interests and their ideology—intensifying their suspicion that shadowy Washington elites are playing dirty tricks upon them.
  • On Ethnic Competition:
    [In a National Journal article based on a Gallup poll of Republican voters, Second Verse, Same as the First, Ron Brownstein reports that] "... noncollege whites are the gloomiest: Just one-third of them think their kids will live better than they do; an equal number think their children won’t even match their living standard. No other group is nearly that negative." Those fears are not irrational. ... It is precisely these disaffected whites—especially those who didn’t go to college—who form the Republican voting base.
  • On Fox News and Talk Radio:
    Extremism and conflict make for bad politics but great TV. Over the past two decades, conservatism has evolved from a political philosophy into a market segment. An industry has grown up to serve that segment—and its stars have become the true thought leaders of the conservative world. The business model of the conservative media is built on two elements: provoking the audience into a fever of indignation (to keep them watching) and fomenting mistrust of all other information sources (so that they never change the channel).
  • On [what I would call] unenlightened self-interest:
    We used to say “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.” Now we are all entitled to our own facts, and conservative media use this right to immerse their audience in a total environment of pseudo-facts and pretend information. ... [sinister GOP] billionaires do exist, and some do indeed attempt to influence the political process. ... Yet, for the most part, these Republican billionaires are not acting cynically. They watch Fox News too, and they’re gripped by the same apocalyptic fears as the Republican base. In funding the tea-party movement, they are ­actually acting against their own longer-term interests, for it is the richest who have the most interest in political stability, which depends upon broad societal agreement that the existing distribution of rewards is fair and reasonable. If the social order comes to seem unjust to large numbers of people, what happens next will make Occupy Wall Street look like a street fair.
  • "a going-out-of-business sale for the baby-boom generation":
    Some call this the closing of the conservative mind. Alas, the conservative mind has proved itself only too open, these past years, to all manner of intellectual pollen. Call it instead the drying up of conservative creativity. ... In the aftershock of 2008, large numbers of Americans feel exploited and abused. Rather than workable solutions, my party is offering low taxes for the currently rich and high spending for the currently old, to be followed by who-knows-what and who-the-hell-cares. This isn’t conservatism; it’s a going-out-of-business sale for the baby-boom generation.

Frum finishes off the article with a call for conservative moderates to speak up:

I refuse to believe that I am the only Republican who feels this way. If CNN’s most recent polling is correct, only half of us sympathize with the tea party. However, moderate-minded people dislike conflict—and thus tend to lose to people who relish conflict. The most extreme voices in the GOP now denounce everybody else as Republicans in Name Only. But who elected them as the GOP’s membership committee?

Silent majority_for_peaceDuring this period of increasing protests against inequality and injustice - on Wall Street and other streets in America, as well as on streets and squares in Egypt and elsewhere around the world -  I'm reminded of earlier widespread protests against the Vietnam War ... and former Republican President Richard Nixon's claims during that period to be the spokesperson for what he called the silent majority, and his largely successful efforts to divide and polarize the American people ... and claims made by the more recently self-appointed Republican spokespeople of real Americans.

However, harking back to that earlier period of protest also reminds me of the wisdom of an inspiring liberal who, like Frum, [also] called for moderation in words and actions in the cause of promoting change: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr:

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.

Although Frum and King espouse different perspectives on the types of changes that are likely to lead to a greater Good, a vigorous, non-violent debate seems like the most likely course to lead toward improvements in politics and society.

Nothing brings people together like ignoring each other to stare at their phones

SanityFearAppIcon Last night, on the Colbert Report, near the beginning of the segment on Fear for All, Part I, host Stephen Colbert announced the new Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear app for the iPhone (also available in the Android store).

The app was developed by MTV Networks for the upcoming combined Rally to Restore Sanity (instigated by The Daily Show's Jon Stewart) / March to Keep Fear Alive (instigated by Colbert) in Washington, DC, this Saturday, an event that has received considerable attention over the past few weeks on Comedy Central, Fox News and other traditional and new media outlets (though the rally will apparently not be receiving any direct attention from National Public Radio).

PeopleStaringAtPhones Colbert highlighted several benefits to this new mobile social activist application:

If you're going to the rally, well, there's an app for that ... It's really cool! You can use the app to get directions to the rally, check-in on Foursquare, post photos to Facebook and Twitter, and you get a special video message from Jon [Stewart] and me on the morning of the rally. This app will truly enhance your rally experience, because nothing brings people together like ignoring each other to stare at their phones. [emphasis mine]

image from blogs.reuters.com These "features" for enhancing physical world experiences reflect the tensions I recently wrote about regarding the Starbucks Digital Network and its impact on engagement and enlightment on physical world "third places". Although I have not precisely measured it, I have perceived an increasing trend of people standing or sitting together in Starbucks and becoming ever more effective at ignoring each other by staring at / typing on their phones (or laptops), and I predict less physical world engagement will result from the greater online engagement provided by this new location-based network. This may not be universally seen as a "bug" by all, but I have been encouraged to read others urging a shift of attention from the online back into the offline, such as Lewis Howes' recent post predicting the offline shift is coming, and John Hagel and John Seely Brown's recent article in Harvard Business Review proclaiming the increasing importance of physical location.

Malcolm Gladwell has also addressed the relative tradeoffs between online and offline engagement, touching off a firestorm of controversy in a New Yorker article criticizing online social networks such as Twitter and Facebook and their impact on social activism in the physical world: Small Change: Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.

image from www.rallytorestoresanity.com The Rally to Restore Sanity, however, is more about resolution than revolution:

We’re looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn’t be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it’s appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles.

image from www.keepfearalive.com The March to Keep Fear Alive is, of course, also intended to promote reasonableness, though employing the kind of parody traditionally used by Colbert in drawing attention to the fear that is regularly promulgated through other media channels:

America, the Greatest Country God ever gave Man, was built on three bedrock principles: Freedom. Liberty. And Fear — that someone might take our Freedom and Liberty. But now, there are dark, optimistic forces trying to take away our Fear — forces with salt and pepper hair and way more Emmys than they need. They want to replace our Fear with reason. But never forget — “Reason” is just one letter away from “Treason.” Coincidence? Reasonable people would say it is, but America can’t afford to take that chance.

I will not be present at the rally / march in Washington, DC, but I may attend the Rally to Restore Sanity in Seattle. In any case, I will be tuning in to the main rally  /march remotely - perhaps using my iPhone - to see how the resolution or revolution will be tweeted.

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Fear for All Pt. 1
Colbert Report Full Episodes 2010 Election March to Keep Fear Alive

Update, 2010-11-16: Perhaps due to the fact that the only commercial TV I watch with any regularity is the Comedy Central "news" hour - The Daily Show and The Colbert Report - and even those I typically watch via buffering on my DVR to skip commercials, I was not aware of the Microsoft Windows Phone ad campaign launched earlier in October that promotes the theme of phone-based obsessive-compulsive disorder that Colbert is alluding to. While I like the video, I don't see how this would motivate people to buy Windows Phones (say, instead of iPhones or Androids), but perhaps the goal was simply to draw some attention to Windows Phone. In any case, I'm embedding the Windows Phone "Really" advertisement below.

And finally, just for good measure, I'll embed what I see as the classic short video in this genre, Crackberry Blackberry (though I do not believe this was ever used as a marketing tool by Research in Motion). Interestingly, it was prefaced by yet another Windows Phone ad when I watched it just now.

Coffee and conversation with congressional candidate Suzan DelBene

SuzanDelBeneCoffee Two local Coffee Party groups - from Redmond and Renton / SE Lake Washington - organized a meeting with Suzan DelBene, the Democratic candidate for Washington's 8th Congressional District, at Vovito Caffe & Gelato in Bellevue last week. A dozen or so people participated in a civil and engaging conversation with the candidate about a range of important civic matters during the one-hour event. Some of the participants became quite animated about some of the issues they were raising, but all those present abided by the Coffee Party civility pledge, and so articulated their positions with passion and respect. The upshot is that I came away with a keener appreciation both for the candidate and the process of civil, honest and respectful political discourse.

Suzan began with a brief overview of her background, motivations and goals for seeking the 8th Congressional District seat currently held by Republican Dave Reichert. She was born in Alabama, attended Reed College, and has held leadership positions in a variety of organizations of different sizes and orientations - a large corporation (Microsoft), two for-profit startups (Drugstore.com and Nimble Technology, the latter of which was spun out of the University of Washington) and a non-profit promoting micro-financing in Latin America (Global Partnerships). She wants to apply her business and entrepreneurial experience to the problems facing the 8th district and the country as a whole.

Having experienced the effects of her father losing her job when she was in 4th grade, Suzan has first-hand experience with the challenges that arise during periods of unemployment. I was inspired by her emphasis on the importance of not just creating economic opportunities (jobs), but creating meaningful opportunities -jobs that promote a sense of pride, dignity and confidence, as well as foster community and leadership - reminding me of some entrepreneurial wisdom shared by Guy Kawasaki on making meaning vs. making money.

TheFortuneAtTheBotttomOfThePyramid-cover One of the first questions was how to address the unfair advantage large corporations seem to have over small businesses with respect to political influence and access to financial capital. Suzan acknowledged that the financial system is broken, and emphasized the prime importance of stabilizing the system. Referencing the book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty through Profits, she suggested that we need to find more ways to make more capital - and opportunities - available to people at lower levels of the pyramid, e.g., through reducing the tax burden on small business and increasing the flow of money to community banks. She commended the Small Business Jobs and Credit Act (H.R. 5297) signed into law by President Obama two weeks ago - after Congressman Reichert voted against the bill in the House [Suzan didn't mention this, but I looked it up] - as a positive step in that direction.

We also discussed health care, and there seemed to be general agreement that we still need to move forward with [further] health care reform. Suzan observed that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 was more about health insurance reform than health care reform, expanding access but falling short of the cost containment requirements to ensure long-term stability of the health care system. She also expressed support for a position that I (and others) strongly believe in: health care is a right, not a privilege.

Qliance-how-it-works Suzan mentioned a local company, Qliance, that is taking a new, more entrepreneurial approach to providing health care by providing incentives that are more appropriately aligned with achieving positive health care outcomes. Qliance members pay a $75 monthly fee (on average) for unlimited access to a primary care clinic, and with no extrinsic monetary incentives for ordering additional tests or requiring additional clinic visits - in contrast to the pay-per-procedure incentives that pervade the predominant health insurance system - doctors are more focused on successful treatment (and prevention) than successive treatments. In briefly skimming the Qliance pages, it appears that there may be significant gaps outside of the realm of primary care in the overall coverage (e.g., "prescription medications, laboratory tests and outside services such as x-ray interpretation" ... and, I imagine, hospitalization), but it does seem to offer a promising possible alternative.

The conversation then shifted to education, and Suzan expressed a preference for President Obama's Race to the Top program over former President Bush's No Child Left Behind program - comparing them to a carrot vs. a stick - but noted that charter schools (which are not [yet] allowed in Washington State) are disproportionately favored in the RTTT point system. Having served as CEO of Nimble Technologies, a startup that spun out of University of Washington research, she is also a strong proponent of funding basic research. More generally, she observed that we need to shift our thinking (and acting) from the short-term to the long-term, focusing less on spending and more about investing.

image from fightwashingtoncorruption.com The last topic we discussed was campaign finance reform. Suzan said she disagrees with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizen United v. Federal Election Commission, which struck down campaign spending limitations that had been imposed on corporations. She mentioned state initiatives such as the Clean Elections Act in Maine, which has served as a model for subsequent campaign finance reform initiatives in other states, and the Fight Washington Corruption campaign ("Democracy for the other 98% of us") initiated by MoveOn.org. She supports greater transparency in political campaigns.

image from covers.oreilly.com This emphasis on transparency, combined with her entrepreneurial approach to problems, and her proposal that "we need more leadership and less followership" reminded me of Tim O'Reilly's concept of government as a platform, and the application of platform thinking to government, health care, education and science. Although Suzan is a Democrat, many of the views she articulated struck me as more libertarian than liberal, and more pragmatic than ideological ... and she doesn't appear to see government as the sole or even primary solution to our problems.

I do not live in Washington State's 8th Congressional District, and so I cannot vote for Suzan, but many aspects of her experience and perspective resonate with me, and I am grateful for the chance to learn more about her beliefs and goals. I also want to express my gratitude to the other Coffee Party members and supporters, as well as to our gracious hosts, Ariff and Shairose Gulamani, Alex Negranza and the rest of the staff at Vovito Caffe & Gelato (who, like the Coffee Party, support civil discourse and the democratic process but do not endorse any political candidates).

Finally, I want to note that a recent poll suggests that DelBene is gaining on Reichert, and I hope this will provide greater incentive for Reichert to reverse his refusal to debate her ... as I think we all benefit from more opportunities to engage in - and/or observe - civil discourse on civic matters.

The facts and opinions surrounding the Proposition 8 ruling

image from imgs.sfgate.com I was elated by U.S. District Court Judge Vaughan Walker's ruling agaist California's Propostion 8 last week. The 136-page ruling, overturning the state's ban on same-sex marriage, renews my hope for full civil rights for all of us's, including lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Over the weekend, I have read some interesting facts and opinions about the facts and opinions presented in the case. I also watched - and was moved in different ways by - Boys Don't Cry and The Kids are All Right, but I will stick to reviewing news articles rather than movies in the context of this post.

Dahlia Lithwick wrote a brilliant article on A Brilliant Ruling that appeared in Slate on Wednesday, in which she reports on some of the facts and opinions that were expressed by witnesses for the plaintiffs (two same-sex couples) and the defense (the state of California and opponents of same-sex marriage) in the U.S. District Court case. After noting the likelihood of an appeal of the ruling proceeding all the way up to the Supreme Court, the carefully crafted 15 citations to 2 Supreme Court decisions written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, and commenting on the imbalance in preparation and presentation of expert testimony between the two sides in the trial, she highlights some specific findings articulated by Judge Walker that I find difficult to dispute (and I hope that Justice Kennedy and his colleagues will encounter similar difficulties in disputing the findings):

Then come the elaborate "findings of fact"—and recall that appellate courts must defer far more to a judge's findings of fact than conclusions of law. Here is where Judge Walker knits together the trial evidence, to the data, to the nerves at the very base of Justice Kennedy's brain. Among his most notable determinations of fact, Walker finds: states have long discriminated in matters of who can marry; marital status affects immigration, citizenship, tax policy, property and inheritance rules, and benefits programs; that individuals do not choose their own sexual orientation; California law encourages gay couples to become parents; domestic partnership is a second-class legal status; permitting same-sex couples to marry does not affect the number of opposite-sex couples who marry, divorce, cohabit, or otherwise screw around. He found that it benefits the children of gay parents to have them be married and that the gender of a child's parent is not a factor in a child's adjustment. He found that Prop 8 puts the force of law behind a social stigma and that the entirety of the Prop 8 campaign relied on instilling fears that children exposed to the concept of same-sex marriage may become gay. (Brand-new data show that the needle only really moved in favor of the Prop 8 camp when parents of young children came out in force against gay marriage in the 11th hour of the campaign.) He found that stereotypes targeting gays and lesbians have resulted in terrible disadvantages for them and that the Prop 8 campaign traded on those stereotypes.

image from www.americanvalues.org After reading this article, I decided to download and read the full text of the ruling in Perry v Schwarzenegger [PDF] for myself. [Update: HTML5 version of the Prop 8 ruling on Scribd embedded at bottom.] Of particular interest, to me, was the testimony of one of the only two expert witnesses called by the proponents of Proposition 8 called in the case: David Blankenhorn, the founder and president of the Institute for American Values and author of The Future of Marriage.

Here are some particularly poignant passages regarding Blankenhorn's testimony, which the court concluded constitutes "inadmissible opinion testimony that should be given essentially no weight" (with a few links to items referenced directly or indirectly inserted):

During trial, Blankenhorn was presented with a study that posed an empirical question whether permitting marriage or civil unions for same-sex couples would lead to the manifestations Blankenhorn described as indicative of deinstitutionalization. After reviewing and analyzing available evidence, the study concludes that “laws permitting same-sex marriage or civil unions have no adverse effect on marriage, divorce, and abortion rates, the percent of children born out of wedlock, or the percent of households with children under 18 headed by women.” PX2898 (Laura Langbein & Mark A Yost, Jr, Same-Sex Marriage and Negative Externalities, 90 Soc Sci Q 2 (June 2009) at 305-306). Blankenhorn had not seen the study before trial and was thus unfamiliar with its methods and conclusions. Nevertheless, Blankenhorn dismissed the study and its results, reasoning that its authors “think that [the conclusion is] so self-evident that anybody who has an opposing point of view is not a rational person.”

I added emphasis to the last sentence, as to highlight the irony of one purported expert summarily dismissing the work of other purported experts while accusing them of, in effect, summarily dismissing other points of view that differ from their own ... reminding me of another article I read recently about a study that suggests what you say about others says a lot about you. Judge Walker similalry noted that Blankenhorn "failed to consider evidence contrary to his view in presenting his testimony".

In my reading of the case, it appears that Blankenhorn, if anything, offered testimony that tended to support the claims of the plaintiffs (the same-sex couples), against which he had been invited to testify:

Blankenhorn’s concern that same-sex marriage poses a threat to the institution of marriage is further undermined by his testimony that same-sex marriage and opposite-sex marriage operate almost identically. During cross-examination, Blankenhorn was shown a report produced by his Institute in 2000 explaining the six dimensions of marriage: (1) legal contract; (2) financial partnership; (3) sacred promise; (4) sexual union; (5) personal bond; and (6) family-making bond. PX2879 (Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, et al, The Marriage Movement: A Statement of Principles (Institute for American Values 2000)). Blankenhorn agreed that same-sex marriages and opposite-sex marriages would be identical across these six dimensions. Tr 2913:8-2916:18. When referring to the sixth dimension, a family-making bond, Blankenhorn agreed that same-sex couples could “raise” children. Tr 2916:17.
Blankenhorn testified on cross-examination that studies show children of adoptive parents do as well or better than children of biological parents [possibly referring to Farr, R. H., Forssell, S. L., & Patterson, C. J. (2010). Parenting and child development in adoptive families: Does parental sexual orientation matter? Applied Developmental Science, 10, 164-178]. Tr 2794:12-2795:5. Blankenhorn agreed that children raised by same-sex couples would benefit if their parents were permitted to marry. Tr 2803:6-15. Blankenhorn also testified he wrote and agrees with the statement “I believe that today the principle of equal human dignity must apply to gay and lesbian persons. In that sense, insofar as we are a nation founded on this principle, we would be more American on the day we permitted same-sex marriage than we were the day before.” DIX0956 at 2; Tr 2805:6-2806:1.
Blankenhorn stated he opposes marriage for same-sex couples because it will weaken the institution of marriage, despite his recognition that at least thirteen positive consequences would flow from state recognition of marriage for same-sex couples, including: (1) by increasing the number of married couples who might be interested in adoption and foster care, same-sex marriage might well lead to fewer children growing up in state institutions and more children growing up in loving adoptive and foster families; and (2) same-sex marriage would signify greater social acceptance of homosexual love and the worth and validity of same-sex intimate relationships. Tr 2839:16-2842:25; 2847:1-2848:3; DIX0956 at 203-205.

Dana Mack, who co-authored an earlier book with Blankenhorn in 2001, The Book of Marriage: The Wisest Answers to the Toughest Questions, wrote a spirited defense of Blankenhorn's testimony and views in her Wall Street Journal opinion piece on Friday, Now What for Marriage?. However, like her colleague, Ms. Mack appears to exhibit the same unwillingness to consider alternate perspectives:

there is simply no other way to view the age-old, universal institution of marriage than as rooted in the biological family

Also consistent with the conduct of her colleague, she makes claims without offering much scientific evidence; and while I don't mean to imply that a newspaper opinion article ought to have the exact same standards as courtroom testimony, I do believe that opinions with factual corroboration generally carry more weight ... at least among those who care about facts.

In this case, Mack claims that "there is a great deal of social-science evidence connecting marriage and the active engagement of two biological parents with child well-being", and yet only makes reference to a single statement made by anthropologist Bronislaw Molinowski without any reference to supporting studies he or others may have conducted.

I would argue that, as was the case with her colleague, she raises issues that may unintentionally serve to further support the plaintiff's case. After suggesting that the institution of marriage's "common denominator across time and cultures has been its dedication to the offices of reproduction", she goes on to report that "A recent Pew analysis of 2008 census data showed that only just over 40% of Americans consider children fundamental to marriage", a decline from 65% who expressed that view in 1990. I believe she quotes this statistic to bolster her and Blankenthorn's supposition that marriage is being "de-institutionalized"; in my reading, it suggests that the institution of marriage is being progressively re-defined rather than being undermined.

image from pewsocialtrends.org

The report I believe she is referring to, Childlessness Up Among All Women; Down Among Women with Advanced Degrees, shows that the proportion of all women who end their childbearing years without bearing children has risen from 10% in 1976 to 18% in 2008; among women who have ever been married, that rate is 13%. If procreation is an essential element of a "successful" or "legal" marriage, I don't know how Mack, Blankenhorn and other opponents of same-sex marriage regard childless marriages, but I have several married friends who are childless - or childfree - by choice, and I don't believe that they see their marriages as any less legitimate than childful marriages. I certainly don't, nor do I see same-sex marriages as any less legitimate than heterosexual marriages ... and I hope the growing preponderence of facts supporting the positive aspects of same-sex marriages will help influence more opinions so that we can move beyond this controversy and devote more attention to other social, economic and political problems in dire need of resolution.

Update: Just found the full text of the ruling on Scribd; embedding below:

Prop 8 Ruling FINAL

Platform Thinking, De-Bureaucratization and the Redistribution of Agency

Tim O'Reilly wrote the definitive guide to the concept and term Web 2.0 back in 2005. The central theme from the outset was to view the web as a platform, and that view has evolved over time to encompass a collection of platforms with varying degrees of interoperability ... and varying degrees of openness to external innovation. His most recent thinking along this trajectory is captured in a sequence of blog posts, The State of the Internet Operating System and Handicapping the Internet Platform Wars, and a broader range of platform thinking (and doing) by others is captured in my notes from the keynotes at the Web 2.0 Expo organized by O'Reilly Media and TechWeb in San Francisco last month. While reading Tim's essay on Government as a Platform, in anticipation of the Gov 2.0 Expo two weeks ago, I started thinking about platform thinking in terms of de-bureaucratization and redistribution of agency ... and decided to stage a few photos and write a few words about this characterization.

Bureau as enclosed storage Bureau as platform

The word bureau traditionally refers to a writing desk that includes an enclosure or cover for the writing surface and a set of drawers. The idea of a writing surface is very consistent with the concept of platforms - support for tools (paper, pen, laptop) and activities (reading, writing, coding) - but the more passive, restrictive and constricting ideas of enclosure and storage have come to represent the more dominant metaphor for bureaucracy. Similarly, the word agency can denote an individual capacity and willingness to act - conveying a sense of personal power - or it can refer to an organization that acts on behalf of others, a delegation of authority to experts which can have an unintended disempowering effect on those who are purportedly being served.

image from covers.oreilly.com Thinking about the web - or government or other networks of organizations - as a collection of platforms entails seeing these entities not as ends but as means: essential building blocks upon which people can actively participate in the co-creation, coordination and dissemination of solutions to their problems, rather than providers of finished goods for passive consumers. In the opening chapter of Open Government, Tim offers his view on Government as a Platform, borrowing an evocative image for non-platform thinking as a "vending machine" view of government:

We pay our taxes, we expect services. And when we don’t get what we expect, our “participation” is limited to protest—essentially, shaking the vending machine. Collective action has been watered down to collective complaint.

Instead, if I may borrow from John F. Kennedy, we should not ask what government can do for us, but rather what we can do with government. Reducing bureaucracy will require increased openness and malleability on the part of the platform providers and a more broadly distributed sense of agency - including an increased capacity and willingness to act - on the part of platform users ... and I suspect that the changes will not come easily on either side of the partnership (platformship?).

OpenGov-logo Some of the most promising prospects for platform proliferation are proceeding from the Open Government Initiative announced by the Obama Administration shortly after taking office last year. The OpenGov initiative seeks to promote trust, transparency, participation and collaboration, and many government agencies are implementing this through, in effect, opening their drawers and making more government data available.

Gov20expo-logo The recent Gov 2.0 Expo highlighted many of the ways that individuals and groups inside and outside of government, at different levels and in different countries, are taking advantage of this and related developments to transform bureaucracies into more open platforms for participation. I won't go into them all here, but highly recommend the videos and slides from many of the Gov 2.0 speaker presentations that have been made freely available online. Tim's keynote, on Government as a Platform for Greatness, can be seen below:

I want to delve more deeply into three areas that I think are ripe for de-bureaucratization and redistribution of agency: health, education and science ... all of which might fit the "vending machine" model that Tim applied to government, possibly substituting "premiums" and/or "tuition" for "taxes" as input to the vending machine.

Health as a Platform

Health20dc-300x51 As part of the Open Government Initiative, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched a Community Health Data Initiative to open the drawers of some of the health-related data kept by the government. A Health 2.0 Conference was held in Washington, DC, this week to bring together traditional and non-traditional agents who are taking advantage of the newly released government data as well as data and metadata collected from other segments of the health community. While the conference web site doesn't appear to reflect the level of platform thinking exhibited by O'Reilly Media conferences - e.g., no live stream of the presentations nor any archive of videos and/or slides (yet) - the agenda, as well as some post-conference summaries by HealthCentral, Health Populi and e-patients.net, suggest that platform thinking is alive and well in the health domain, in no small part due to those who have died or are unwell because of bureaucratic obstructions.

73centsReginaHolliday Regina Holliday presented a powerful pitch for platform thinking in Patients 2.0 ("engaged, empowered, equipped and expert"). She shares the compelling story of her struggles against bureaucratic obstructions to proper and timely diagnosis and treatment of her late husband's kidney cancer, and advocates for full and free access to medical records by patients, who are - or can be - the most effective agents for their own medical care. Regina has channeled her anger with the system into words (her Medical Advocacy Blog) and pictures (a photo of her mural 73 cents, named for the cost per page she was charged by a hospital to get a copy of her husband's medical records, is shown on the right); a full timeline of Regina's advocacy can be found at the Open Health Project. She finished off her presentation with a call to arms (or paintbrushes, pens, microphones and cameras), inspired by a quote from Christine Kraft on the power of stories and platforms:

I can tell you something about stories: They drive engagement. What we don't typically consider (and this is why stories are so controversial) is that stories become legitimized by an audience, not a storyteller. That's why some stakeholders resist - they don't want to legitimize a story, a rad idea or tribute or pain, by giving it a platform.

Other individuals and organizations mentioned in the summaries include Trisha Torrey (Every Patient's Advocate), Josh Summer (Chordoma Foundation), Jonathan Kuniholm (Open Prosthetics Project), Jamie Heywood (PatientsLikeMe) and Amy Romano (Maternity Care 2.0). In addition to promoting de-bureaucratization and individual agency - and a proposal to think of patients as a platform (an interesting twist) - another Web 2.0 thread that appears to run through several of the presentations is the application of the long tail effect to the health domain - empowering people who suffer from relatively rare conditions and diseases to access and share vital information.

A new platform was announced at the conference by the Journal of Participatory Medicine: The Moment, a patient-produced video series in which people with medical conditions describe the "Aha!" moments when they shifted from being passive patients to active participants in managing their health and wellness. Health care may represent the area in which we have traditionally been most likely to defer to the authority of experts, perhaps best epitomized by the use of "patient" to describe people receiving care. Words are powerful, and I believe a key ingredient in the redistribution of agency in this domain will be coming up with a more appropriate term to denote a person seeking information about and/or treatment for a medical condition: something more akin to "participant" than "supplicant".

Education as a Platform

Our education system has traditionally encouraged patience and supplication on the part of the receivers of services (students). PBS recently aired an episode of Digital Nation that explores the transformation of learning and education in the digital age. In a segment on Education 2.0, author Mark Presky reviews a number of obstacles to learning posed by traditional schools, and argues that online platforms offer students unprecedented opportunities to take a more active role in finding and following their passions.

TEDxNYED-logo The recent TEDxNYED conference, curated by David Bill, provided another platform for challenging assumptions, adopting new tools and promoting new practices in education.  As with the other conferences I've mentioned so far, there were many inspiring presentations; fortunately, videos of all the presentations are available on the conference web site (and on the TEDxTalks YouTube channel), and some speakers have shared their TEDxNYED slides on SlideShare.

Most inspiring (to me), and most relevant in the current context, was the presentation on Open Education and the Future by David Wiley, in which he defined education as "a relationship of sharing" and argued that "openness is the only means of doing education". Highlighting the "4 Rs" of web 2.0 tools and techniques - reuse, redistribute, revise, remix - he declared that new media technology offers an unprecedented capacity for sharing, and thus an unprecedented opportunity for education. The reigning bureaucracy in the 15th century - the Catholic Church - imposed draconian restrictions on even reading the bibles produced via printing press, that era's new media technology, leading to the de-bureaucratization and redistribution of agency known as the Protestant Reformation. Similarly, current bureaucracies are obstructing the dissemination of information via new media technologies and even employing technology to conceal and withhold its own potential. Fortunately, with the anticipated soaring demand for higher education globally - increasing from 120 million to 270 million over the next 25 years - he suggests that "education is on the edge of its own Reformation".

image from static.thelotteryfilm.com There is plenty of potential for platform thinking in primary and secondary education as well. Eva Moskowitz, founder of the Harlem Success Academy network of charter public schools, refers to the challenges of what I would call de-bureaucratizing what she calls the union-political-educational complex. Other aspects of this complex are explored in Storming the School Barricades, a Wall Street Journal interview with Madeline Sackler about her documentary film, The Lottery. I haven't seen the film yet, but I have certainly encountered bureaucratic barricades in our local school system, and my son's recent experience with a web-based math course offered by Apex Learning has heightened my appreciation for the prospect of online learning platforms to reclaim agency from union-political-educational complexes. The recent success of Christian conservatives in using the Texas State Board of Education as a platform for propagating their revisionist views on science and history via the traditional text book approval process may galvanize more people to become more active in seeking out new platforms for education.

Science as a Platform

The third area in which I see some growth in platform thinking is science. The reliance on experts may be more deeply entrenched in science than in most other areas, due to the nature of science itself: the discovery and/or creation of new knowledge. Expertise clearly plays a central role in this process, and much of science requires specialized techniques and expensive tools in order to make progress, but this can lead to a silo effect wherein scientists interact primarily with other scientists in their field. There are a number of platforms - online and offline - for translating scientific discoveries into narratives that can be better understood by more general audiences. However the real potential for platform thinking is to open up the drawers of the scientific bureaucracy in ways that allow people to not just read about science but to contribute in more meaningful ways.

sagecongress The Sage Commons Congress was recently convened to promote the Sage Commons, "a novel information platform being built by an international partnership of researchers and stakeholders to define the molecular basis of disease and guide the development of effective human therapeutics and diagnostics". In his summary of the event, provocatively entitled "Engage or become irrelevant", Cameron Neylon presents a compelling argument for de-bureaucratization and the redistribution of agency:

“The public” is not some homogeneous group of barbarians at the gate of our ivory towers. They are a diverse group, many of them interested in what researchers do; many of them passionately interested in some specific thing for a wide range of different reasons. In a world where the web enables access and communication, and enables those with common interests to find each other, people who are passionately interested in what you are doing are going to be increasingly unimpressed if avenues are unavailable for them to follow and contribute. And funders, including those ultimate funders, are going to be increasingly unimpressed if you don’t effectively tap into that resource.

There are strong interrelationships between science and health care (and science and education), and so many of the developments mentioned in earlier sections apply to the domain of science. Cameron Neylon's arguments for greater engagement are articulated in a context mostly concerned with the scientific modeling of diseases, diagnostics and therapies - clearly at the intersection of science and health care. However, platform thinking applies to other areas of science that are not as closely related to health care.

SETI@HomeSETI@Home represents an early (1999) but relatively minimalist platform for engagement in science. Participants in this project simply run an application that uses spare cycles on their home computers to automatically download and analyze radio telescope data in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The NASA Clickworkers program (2000) offers a higher level of engagement, requiring participants to visually inspect and mark craters on downloaded satellite images of solar system bodies. The Science of Collaboratories project has an extensive list of other early projects, all of which were begun prior to the Web 2.0 era (but some of which have been revised to take advantage of new platforms).

image from www.nsf.gov In the U.S., one of the most important platforms for promoting the advancement of science has traditionally been The National Science Foundation. As an agency of the federal government, the NSF has its share of bureaucratic rules and regulations, but its policy of peer review in the consideration of grant proposals is at least a partial embrace of platform thinking. The review process involves significant engagement with external stakeholders - scientists who have no conflicts of interest with those submitting proposals - to evaluate the intellectual merit and prospects for broader impact of proposed scientific research in a wide array of fields. The NSF recently announced that scientists seeking funding will be required to submit data management plans for sharing the data they collect in their research as part of the proposal process. The agency also announced a new STAR-METRICS assessment that will provide a "rigorous, transparent review" of the impact of research on publications, patents, citations as well as entrepreneurship (new start-ups).

NSF tends to fund long-term research, with an average annual allocation $145,000 per grant. A number of alternative open science platforms / projects were profiled in a recent New York Times article, Seeking to Help Budding Researchers With a Click of the Mouse. All are attempting to open up not just the proposal process, but the funding process - which might be viewed as a proxy for peer review - as well, and to move down the long tail of research to fund people and projects that might not qualify for NSF funding. The Eureka Fund, the main focus of the article, is seeking $25,000 - via suggested donations of $25 each - to support a single pilot project investigating the energy ecosystems in emerging economies. Other platforms include SciFlies.org, which lists several potential projects in the range of $5,000 - $12,000, and FundScience.org, which is intended to support pilot projects up to $50,000 (though I don't see any projects listed). All of these platforms are intended to route around the established scientific bureaucracies in order to fund smaller-scale research outside of and/or at the intersection of the boundaries of traditional scientific disciplines. Unfortunately, I can't find any information about funding levels for SciFlies or FundScience, and while the EurekaFund has doubled its funding base in the past 2 months - from $1,300 when the NYTimes article was published on April 2 to $2,754.00 today - prospects for full funding do not appear very promising in the foreseeable future.

A Harris Interactive poll on What We Love and Hate About America released this week suggests that we have a far more favorable view of science and technology (75%) than education (33%), health care (32%) or government (23%). While we seem to admire science, it appears we generally prefer to do so at a distance. Given the pressing societal problems we face with respect to climate, energy and sustainability, the time seems ripe for a deeper engagement across a broader range of our population.

image from moviebanter.files.wordpress.com One of the things that struck me about Regina Holliday's presentation on Patient 2.0 was her emphasis on the power of the personal story. I'm reminded of an interview I saw with Nicholas Kristof, co-author of Half the Sky, where he observed that the articles he wrote about the oppression of women that focused on individual stories were far more effective in attracting attention and galvanizing action than articles that focused on the larger-scale statistics. I'm also reminded of a provocative commentary I encountered shortly after I wrote my review of Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth, and included in an update:

Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, has posted a blog entry on An Inconvenient Truth, entitled It's the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Fine, which includes a copy of his LA Times op-ed article on If Only Gay Sex Caused Global Warming. The article lists four factors that may help explain why more people aren't more concerned about global warming:

  • There is no human or group, e.g., a brutal dictator or evil empire, that is consciously trying to harm us
  • Human societies have not, generally speaking, evolved moral rules about atmospheric chemistry (unlike, say, gay marriage)
  • The negative impacts are too far in the future, and not generally perceived as a clear and present danger
  • The changes are happening too slow for our brains to register

However, Paul Hawken offers a somewhat different perspective - or, at least, suggests a different possibility - in his book, Blessed Unrest:

We cannot save our planet unless humankind undergoes a widespread spiritual and religious awakening … [but] What if there is already in place a large-scale spiritual awakening and we are simply not recognizing it?

We may be in the process of a widespread spiritual and religious awakening, but until we achieve critical mass in the recognition of the large-scale problems that face us and the capacity and willingness to address them, the proliferation of smaller-scale platforms - in government, health care, education and science - through which we can participate more fully may help us make incremental progress toward bettering our collective lot.

There's no data like more open data

Ldc-logo When I was working on natural language processing and speech recognition systems in the 90s, one of our mantras was "there's no data like more data", i.e., all things being equal, the accuracy of recognition tends to increase with the addition of more labeled data. The Linguistic Data Consortium at the University of Pennsylvania was [and, I suspect, still is] the primary source for labeled text and speech data, and it was available - for a fee - to all members, most of whom were researchers and developers in academia and industry. Three recent developments in the past week have prompted a reflection on the broader power of data ... and the people and organizations that have access to it.

LibraryOfCongress-logo TwitterLogo The first development was a series of recent announcements about the broader availability of Twitter data. One announcement was that the U.S. Library of Congress was acquiring the entire Twitter public archive:

Every public tweet, ever, since Twitter’s inception in March 2006, will be archived digitally at the Library of Congress. That’s a LOT of tweets, by the way: Twitter processes more than 50 million tweets every day, with the total numbering in the billions.

We thought it fitting to give the initial heads-up to the Twitter community itself via our own feed @librarycongress. (By the way, out of sheer coincidence, the announcement comes on the same day our own number of feed-followers has surpassed 50,000. I love serendipity!)

We will also be putting out a press release later with even more details and quotes. Expect to see an emphasis on the scholarly and research implications of the acquisition.

On the one hand, I believe this is a very positive development. Google, Yahoo and Microsoft all pay for real-time access to the Twitter "firehose", and now researchers and developers with shallower pockets will be able to access the entire Twitter public data archive ... after some yet-to-be-announced delay (it's not clear when the archive will become available, how often it will be updated, or how often developers or their applications will be able to access it).

ChirpLogo A related development, also announced during the recent Twitter's developer conference (Chirp), was that Twitter is offering a stream API to supplement its REST API and Search API. As with the other APIs, there are limitations imposed on its use, lest fail whales become a significantly more common sight, but this still represents a positive development in making more data more openly accessible.

150px-Bork2 150px-Clarence_Thomas_official However, the co-occurrence of these announcements with speculation about President Obama's next nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court reminded me of the release of video rental data during the confirmation hearings for Robert Bork during the Reagan administration; although this data did not seem to affect the outcome, its release did lead to the Video Privacy Protection Act in 1988. Belated revelation of alleged pornographic video rental data shortly after the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991, during the George W. Bush administration, has given rise to speculation about whether Thomas would have been confirmed had this evidence been made available earlier in the process.

FacebookNetflix I don't want to draw too strong of an analogy between private video rental records and public tweets, but given the broadening range of web services that enable people to automatically update their status[es] about their use of those services (e.g., Netflix users can automatically post their movie ratings on Facebook), I find myself speculating about how the Twitter archive might affect future judicial nominations and/or future elections for political offices ... but given my biases toward a more transparent society, I suppose that if the data is out there, I'd rather have it publicly available than have limited access to it.

Zuck-at-f8 F8-logo And speaking of sharing updates and other data across web services, the second recent development in the realm of open data to give me pause were announcements at the Facebook developer's conference (f8) last week. VentureBeat's f8 roundup offers a nice summary of these announcements, which included a Graph API and a "like" button that can be used on any web site ... vastly increasing the prospects for personalization and sociality across the web ... and placing Facebook squarely in the center of this hyperpersonalized and hypersocialized network. Lili Cheng, of Microsoft's FUSE Labs, wrote about the first Facebook partnership announced - and demonstrated - during the keynote at f8, a new Facebook app for sharing documents created by her group.

Readwriteweb-logo As with the Twitter announcement, I see many positive possibilities in these developments, but I see an even darker shadow being cast by the Facebook announcements. Marshall Kirkpatrick at ReadWriteWeb articulated some of my concerns in a post asking Is the New Facebook a Deal with the Devil?

Facebook blew people's minds today at its F8 developer conference but one sentiment that keeps coming up is: this is scary. The company unveiled simple, powerful plans to offer instant personalization on sites all over the web, it kicked off meaningful adoption of the Semantic Web with the snap of the fingers, it revolutionized the relationship between the cookie and the log-in, it probably knocked a whole class of recommendation technology startups that don't offer built-in distribution to 400 million people right out of the market. It popularized social bookmarking and made subscribing to feeds around the web easier than ever before. And it may have created the biggest disruption to web traffic analytics in years: demographically verified visitor stats tied to people's real identities. There was so much big news that the analytics part didn't even come up in the keynote.

This is so much new technology and it's tied in so closely with one very powerful company that there is big reason to stop and consider the possible implications. There are reasons to be scared. The bargain Facebook offers is very, very compelling - but it's not a clear win for the web.

Mashable Pete Cashmore at Mashable offers a somewhat less apprehensive, or perhaps simply more capitalistic, perspective on these developments, Shocker: Facebook Does What’s Best For Facebook:

Facebook is building a database of the world’s preferences, but won’t give others access unless they promote Facebook on their sites (by using Facebook logins). ...

So Facebook is building a database of information about you, but you don’t really own it: Facebook does. ...

Bottom line: when a company solves a problem, should we be surprised that they solve it in a way that creates value for both customers and the company itself? Isn’t that how capitalism works?

Techcrunchuk2 Since then, I've read other commentaries that present a less apprehensive view of these developments, e.g., a comment by Austin on a post in TechCrunch Europe on Privacy issues? Google engineers leaving Facebook in droves:

There are two things going on here:

1. An iFrame on sites that points to Facebook. The iframe request is data loaded so it knows where the user came from. Facebook shows activity and friends that have interacted with the site but the data IS NOT shared. You have to be logged into facebook for it to work. It LOOKs like it is on that site but it isn’t. It is a little window into facebook on a different page.

2. Applications can ask users for access to their data through the service formerly known as ‘connect’. Each and every user has to agree to share the data. If you don’t want to share then don’t use the App.

Facebook isn’t doing anything differently then they did before, it is just easier and more integrated.

Although a subsequent commenter posted an unsubstantiated and rather abusive allegation that Austin works for Facebook (Austin's username is linked to Aqumin, a financial data and analysis firm), no one rebutted his argument.

Radar_logo Another positive perspective was presented in an O'Reilly Radar post by David Recordon - who does work for Facebook - on Why f8 was good for the open web

  • No more 24-hour caching limit (as long as developers using Facebook API data are keeping it up to date and agree to remove it at a user's request).
  • An API that is realtime and isn't just about content (developers can subscribe to changes).
  • The Open Graph protocol benefits the web, not just Facebook, and is licensed under the Open Web Foundation Agreement.
  • Support for OAuth 2.0

I discovered Dave's post via Tim O'Reilly's tweet, and as one of the post prominent proponents of the open web, Tim's endorsement carries a great deal of weight (for me). He also tweeted a link to another positive perspective on the Facebook announcements, by Fred Wilson, a partner at Union Square Ventures, who raised doubts about One Graph to Rule Them All?:

These other social graphs [Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare, Disqus, GetGlue, and others (remember del.ico.us?)] can and will grow in the wake of Facebook. I am not sure if Facebook's ambition is to create the one social graph to rule them all but if it is, I don't think they will succeed with that. If it is to empower the creation of many social graphs for various activities and to be in the center of that activity and driving it, I think they are already there and will continue to be there for many years to come.

And referencing Tim brings me to the third (and final) recent development I wanted to mention regarding open data: his keynote on where open source and open data are going in the age of the cloud at the 2010 O'Reilly MySQL Conference and Expo last week. Some of the issues he raised in his talk are reflected in a blog entry he posted last month on The State of the Internet Operating System (a "part 2" followup is promised soon). If I were to highlight one theme from the keynote, it is his statement that the future actually belongs to the data, not the database. I'll highlight a few of his more specific observations and insights below.

The 21st century data challenge is how to deliver algorithmic real-time cloud-based intelligence to mobile applications.This cloud future includes...

  • Devices acting as sensors for intelligent data collection
  • Devices whose UI is on the web rather than the device
  • Feeding data into multiple online services that will turn into a full-on sensor web
  • Setting the stage for robotics, augmented reality and the next generation of personal electronics

The Internet Operating System is a Data Operating System:

  • It helps applications find out about
    • People
    • Places
    • Things
    • Prices
    • Documents
    • Images
    • Sounds
    • Relationships
    • ...
  • and helps people interact with them through services
    • Search
    • Payment
    • Matching and Recognition
    • ...

Referencing an earlier blog post on The War for the Web, Tim asked "Who will own the Internet Operating System? Do we want anyone to own it? If not, we better get busy."

MoneyTech Invoking concepts from Wall Street, via the Money:Tech conference ("Where Web 2.0 meets Wall Street"), and applying them to the prospects for the open web, Tim noted that some financial companies that started out as brokers started trading for their own accounts, against their customer, and warned us to watch for this behavior on the Internet: "The giants of the internet are trading for their own accounts, building a platform on which all roads lead back to themselves."

Noting that each of the players (giants) in "the Internet Operating System game" tends to embrace open source for their own strategic reasons and is giving away something that is valuable to someone else, Tim suggested that we may see "some interesting open source moves around Microsoft's Bing search engine", and offered a partial list of potential open source supporters in different application areas:

  • Search: Microsoft
  • Maps: Microsoft, Nokia, Yelp, Foursquare
  • Speech: Nuance, Microsoft
  • Social Graph: Google
  • Payment: Paypal
  • Cloud infrastructure: VMware
  • Smartphones: Google
  • Device Operating Systems: Google

Shifting his attention from industry to government, Tim presented some Open Government Data Principles - relevant to data sharing by anyone else - composed by a group of 30 other leading strategic thinkers. Interestingly, this group did not include any government representatives.

Government data shall be considered open if it is made public in a way that complies with the principles below:

  1. Complete All public data is made available. Public data is data that is not subject to valid privacy, security or privilege limitations.
  2. Primary Data is as collected at the source, with the highest possible level of granularity, not in aggregate or modified forms.
  3. Timely Data is made available as quickly as necessary to preserve the value of the data.
  4. Accessible Data is available to the widest range of users for the widest range of purposes.
  5. Machine processable Data is reasonably structured to allow automated processing.
  6. Non-discriminatory Data is available to anyone, with no requirement of registration.
  7. Non-proprietary Data is available in a format over which no entity has exclusive control.
  8. License-free Data is not subject to any copyright, patent, trademark or trade secret regulation. Reasonable privacy, security and privilege restrictions may be allowed.

Toward the end of his talk, Tim referenced a recent Radar O'Reilly blog post by Nat Torkington on Truly Open Data, in which Nat notes that we have to build some tools to support open data, e.g., tools for provisioning and tracking. In short, we need to make it as easy to share data as it is to share code in open source movement. So maybe a more appropriate title for this post would be "There's no data like more open data and tools" ... but I think I'll save that for a future followup post.

Violent communication, emotional contagion, genocide and eliminationism

WorseThanWar Last night, I watched a disturbing show on PBS, Worse than War, "the first major documentary to explore the phenomenon of genocide and how we can stop it". Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, narrator of the film and author of the book upon which it is based, argues that contrary to common conceptions of irrational and spontaneous combustion as the cause of genocide, it actually involves careful planning by rational actors, beginning with the identification of a political objective - typically the removal or elimination of an ethnic group - followed by the persistent demonization and vilification of members of that group through violent and virulent communication and other acts.

Goldhagen proposes that genocide could be more properly characterized as eliminationism:

the belief that one's political opponents are "a cancer on the body politic that must be excised — either by separation from the public at large, through censorship or by outright extermination - in order to protect the purity of the nation"

The 2-hour film (which can be viewed online in its entirety) reviews a number of large-scale atrocities - mass murders often accompanied by systematic rapes and other forms of torture - committed during the 20th and 21st centuries in Darfur, Rwanda, the former Republic of Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Guatemala, Armenia and, of course, Nazi Germany.

In nearly every case, the international community did little to stop the atrocities, and many actions - and inaction - of members of the local and global community reminded me of the social roles involved in the circle of bullying I wrote about in my last post (Be Impeccable with Your Word: Confrontation vs. Condescension and Intimidation): bullies, followers or henchmen, supporters or passive bullies, passive supporters or possible bullies, disengaged onlookers, possible defenders and defenders.

One of the most disturbing segments of the film (starting around the 1:03 mark) showed U.N. Peacekeepers in Rwanda abruptly abandoning the Ecole Technique Officielle school in Kigali, in which they had been protecting thousands of Tutsi from homicidal Hutus, who immediately moved in and massacred the unprotected and unarmed Tutsi. Goldhagen claims that the one post-WWII example of significant and effective intervention, the 1999 NATO bombing of former Yugoslavia, resulted in Slobodan Milošević, leader of the Serbian eliminationists, quickly ceasing atrocities and coming to the negotiation table. He argues that the biggest obstacle to preventing genocide is the lack of the will on the part of world leaders.

ConnectedBookCover Throughout the film, I was reminded of the concept of epidemic hysteria or Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI) that I recently read about in Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. The authors, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, describe several instances of large-scale emotional contagion in which groups of people "catch" emotions from others through direct contact or observation over varying lengths of time. For example, in what has become known as the Tanganyika laughing epidemic, uncontrollable bouts of laughter lasting a few minutes to a few hours spread across a population of several hundred people during the first several months of 1962. Another, more recent, example was several waves of MPI at a high school in McMinville, TN, during 1998, in which gasoline was purportedly smelled and dozens of people suffered from symptoms of nausea and dizziness; no objective evidence of gasoline or any other physical agent that may have caused the symptoms was ever found. Several other examples are provided, but the important thing I want to note here is that the characteristics that tend to mark episodes of MPI include a highly connected community that tends to be isolated and/or stressed ... characteristics that appear to apply to most, if not all, of the groups of genocide perpetrators depicted in Goldhagen's film.

Toward the end of their book, Christakis and Fowler discuss the "interpersonal spread of criminal behavior as an example of a bad network outcome". As with other viral effects, people observing the commission of a crime - or perhaps its after-effects (e.g., the broken window theory) - may be more likely to commit crimes themselves. They note that "the riskier or more serious the crime, the less likely others are to follow suit (though there can be frenzies of murder too, as in the Rwandan genocide)." Unfortunately, in this context, they do not explore these more serious types of criminal frenzies further.

LuciferEffect Another book that came to mind was The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, by Philip Zimbardo, which reports on - among other things - his [in]famous Stanford Prison Experiment, in which a group of college students were randomly partitioned into groups of prison guards and prisoners and placed within a simulated prison. The experiment, which was intended to last 2 weeks, was stopped after just 6 days due to the unanticipated ferocity and sadism with which the "prison guards" adopted and performed their roles, and the depression and other signs of stress exhibited by those playing the "prisoners". I haven't actually read the book, but based on the broader coverage described in its synopsis, I believe that it provides many insights relevant to the types of genocide - or eliminationism - described in Goldhagen's film, e.g., the strength of "situational power" and the effects of "conformity, obedience to authority, role-playing, dehumanization, deindividuation and moral disengagement".

I wish I could say that Goldhagen's film depicts atrocities beyond anything I could ever imagine happening in this country ... at least in modern times (slavery, the civil war, and other epochs in our history may represent approximations of eliminationism). However, the roots of all of the examples of eliminationism he examines are all preceded by periods of persistent demonization and vilification of classes of people ... practices that seem to be on the increase in some media pundits and channels. In researching this blog post, I was simultaneously heartened and disheartened to discover that I am not alone in this concern.

In a Marquette Law Review article on Eliminationist Discourse in a Conflicted Society: Lessons for America from Africa?, Phyllis Bernard writes:

This Article proceeds from the assumption that—from a less lofty, more grassroots perspective—modern, organized, formal, one-time venues for extremist political speech do not present the most potent threat to physical safety and a stable democracy. The greater danger emanates from pervasive right-wing extremist themes on radio, television, and some online news sources (often as a modern-day replacement for hard-copy newspapers and newsletters). These media support an increasingly passionate and virulent message in public discourse. This message encourages persons who feel uneasy or displaced in society to expiate their grievances not through the political process, but through murder.


This Article addresses pervasive, long-term, mixed messages that blend ostensible news with entertainment, politics, religion, and appeals to ethnic identity and general fear-mongering. Although such discourse receives the greatest coverage in the mass media, the better forum to mitigate and neutralize the incitement to action may be on a person-to-person level. This Article will explore interventions in Rwanda and Nigeria that adapted American dispute prevention and resolution methods to African media and dispute resolution traditions. The African collaborations offer a different view of justice, based on relationships, which may provide a better fit and forum for America to address extremist media messages and their impact on society.

I hope, for the sake of all Americans, that we can learn the lessons from other conflicts, find common ground, foster more civil and respectful relationships, and avoid the kinds of catastrophes we have witnessed in countries that may be, in some key respects, not so different from our own. And I also hope that we can find and employ the will to use our considerable power to stand up to bullies in other parts of the world.

Be Impeccable With Your Word: Confrontation vs. Condescension and Intimidation

TheFourAgreementsI've had a number of opportunities recently to reflect on don Miguel Ruiz' first agreement: be impeccable with your word. Amid public conversations at the recent Coffee Party kickoff meeting, private discussions about reviews of academic papers and proposals, and listening to an interview about the science of wisdom, I've gained a greater appreciation for the importance of making this agreement and adopting this practice. A comment advocating confrontation by my good friend Robb - an ardent defender of the Ruahines Mountain Range in New Zealand and wild places in general - on my blog post about political conversation vs. confrontation in the context of the Coffee Party movement helped me reconsider my opposition to confrontation (the meaning of which is "opposition"), and realize that what I'm actually opposed to is condescension and intimidation. I decided to further clarify my own beliefs about being impeccable with my word in a followup blog post.

I'll start off with the brief description of this agreement on the inner jacket cover of don Miguel Ruiz' book, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom.

Be Impeccable With Your Word: Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.

In the chapter elaborating on The First Agreement, Ruiz defines impeccable as "without sin" and suggests that sin begins with rejection of myself, and in the case of the word, manifests in using words against myself. [Actually, Ruiz uses the word "yourself" rather than "myself", but I prefer to use "I" statements wherever possible.] If I reject myself, I am more likely to reject others, and if I use words against myself, I am more likely to use words against others. Or, as is observed in the recently released movie, Greenberg (and elsewhere): "hurt people hurt people".

Ruiz describes the power of the word as a form of magic, through which we can cast spells for good or evil. Impeccable use of words - pure magic - can have a powerful effect on people, helping us appreciate positive qualities and do positive things. I've written before about the power of positivity and appropriate praise (and the perils of inappropriate and profuse praise), and recently encountered psychological studies showing that even the unspoken expectations of others can influence us. Ruiz warns that the invocation of what he calls black magic - sowing seeds of fear and doubt in the minds of others - can also have powerful impact, alluding to Hitler, whose words so successfully demonized and vilified an entire race of people that 6 million were killed.

Given my recent revelation about confrontation vs. condescension, I want to distinguish between using words to criticize a person (or a race, religion or political party of persons) and using words to criticize a person's actions. For example, I can question the truthfulness or logic of another person's statements and still be impeccable with my word. However, if I call another person a liar or an imbecile, I am not being impeccable with my word.

S-JOE-WILSON-large The specific words and tone I use to raise a question or potential criticism also offer an opportunity to practice impeccability. For example, someone may say something like "The reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally". I may question the truthfulness of that statement, but if I say "You lie!" - especially if I were to shout that out in a nationally televised public setting - I am not being impeccable with my word ... though I may be giving that person an opportunity to practice the second agreement, don't take anything personally.

If instead I were to say "I disagree with that statement" - especially if I were to do so at another time and place - I am being impeccable with my word. And, if it turns out that the statement with which I disagree is actually true, e.g., the reforms that person is proposing include a provision that explicitly states that "Nothing in this subtitle shall allow Federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States", then being impeccable with my word may help me preserve my integrity more effectively.

I was discussing the distinction between confrontation and condescension in the context of political conversations with a friend yesterday - over coffee - who suggested some references that might inform my perspective. One site lists two basic types of arguments:

There are basically two types of arguments: Aristotelian or adversarial, and Rogerian or consensus-building. Aristotelian argument is made to confirm a position or hypothesis or to refute an existing argument. Using the techniques at hand, the writer attempts to persuade the reader to a particular point of view. The writer uses logic, appeals to the rational in the audience, and provides empirical and common sense evidence to persuade the audience members to change their beliefs, attitudes, and actions.

Rogerian argument is a bit different—its goal is to develop consensus among readers rather than establish an adversarial relationship. The idea is that a successful argument is a winning situation for everyone. Avoiding all emotionally sensitive language, the writer phrases statements in as neutral a way as possible to avoid alienating readers by minimizing threat and establishing trust. The analysis of the opposition's point of view is carefully and objectively worded, demonstrating that the writer understands the position and reasons for believing it. In preparation for the conclusion, the writer points out the common characteristics, goals, and values of the arguments and persons involved. Finally, the writer proposes a resolution that recognizes the interests of all interested parties.

I believe both types of arguments benefit from being impeccable with your word ... assuming the goal is to arrive at the truth of the matter - or at least a deeper under understanding - rather than simply winning. I'm not so sure that truth is a top priority of some participants in our political process.

Speaking of truth, resolution and evolution, I'm reminded of Gandhi's inspiring insights into truth vs. consistency:

My aim is not to be consistent with my previous statements on a given question, but to be consistent with truth as it may present itself to me at a given moment. The result has been that I have grown from truth to truth.

Aristotle, who generally advocated dialectic (logic) over rhetoric (the art of persuasion), acknowledged the pragmatic value of rhetoric in civic affairs, and outlined three primary strategies of persuasion:

  • ethos: how the character and credibility of a speaker can influence an audience to consider him/her to be believable.
  • pathos: the use of emotional appeals to alter the audience's judgment.
  • logos: the use of reasoning, either inductive or deductive, to construct an argument.

Again, I believe that being impeccable with your word is an important ingredient in applying all of these strategies. One can establish one's credibility without resorting to the character assassination of one's opponent, although respectfully raising questions about the credibility of statements made by an opponent is consistent with the first agreement. One can also appeal to emotions without insulting an opponent. And, of course, constructing a logical argument can be done with impeccability, as long as one begins with impeccable premises.

A story on NPR yesterday morning, on anti-bullying programs in schools, based on the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, offers an instructive overview of the social culture of bullying that supports and promotes intimidation which has ramifications well beyond the schoolyard.


Olweus emphasizes the social culture that supports, condones or promotes bullying - the dark side of the idea that "it takes a village":

  • Students who bully: These students want to bully, start the bullying, and play a leader role.
  • Followers or henchmen: These students are positive toward the bullying and take an active part, but don't usually initiate it and do not play a lead role.
  • Supporters or passive bullies: These students actively and openly support the bullying, for example, through laughter or calling attention to the situation, but they don't join in.
  • Passive supporters or possible bullies: These students like the bullying but do not show outward signs of support.
  • Disengaged onlookers: These students do not get involved and do not take a stand, nor do they participate actively in either direction. They might thin or say "It's none of my business" or "Let's watch and see what happens."
  • Possible defenders: These students dislike the bullying and think they should help the student who is being bullied, but do nothing.
  • Defenders: These students dislike the bullying and help or try to help the student who is being bullied.

The NPR story notes that "The community can take away the bully's power by refusing to cheer him on, by telling an adult, or perhaps the ultimate step: stepping in to help the victim."

Anti-bullying tactics has a particular poignancy in political arenas outside of the schoolyard, given recent words and actions surrounding the health care reform debate. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi alluded to the power of words yesterday, in response to the violence and death threats in the wake of this week's health care vote:

I believe that words have power, they weigh a ton. And they are received differently by people in - depending on their, shall we say, emotional state. And we have to take responsibility for words that are said that we do not reject.

A blog post about American Kristallnacht: Conservative Hatred Shatters the Peace includes an extensive rundown of the powerful, hateful and intimidating words used by various conservative leaders over the last several days, some of which explicitly call for the breaking of windows and the murder of elected officials who voted for the health care reform law. I wish I was surprised to learn that the frequency of death threats against President Obama is 400% higher than against former President George W. Bush.

I believe that with a "government of the people, by the people, for the people", the potential victims of this campaign of intimidation are not just our elected officials but all citizens, just as I believe the ultimate victims of the violent words and actions that crystalized on Kristallnacht were not just the persecuted Jews, but the Nazi bullies and their supporters, the passive or disengaged German citizens, and eventually most of the citizens of the world community.

CP_square So, what can someone who objects to the tactics of intimidation do to step in to help the potential victims? One could start or join a movement to "wake up, stand up and speak up", to re-engage in vigorous and respectful political conversation, to oppose bullying without resorting to the bullying tactics of condescension and intimidation. I'm not sure if the Coffee Party movement will ultimately succeed, but I plan to participate in one of the local National Coffee Summit meetings this weekend, as it appears to be a promising vehicle through which to promote and practice being impeccable with your word on a large scale.

The Coffee Party: Political Conversation vs. Confrontation

Coffee Party @ SoulFood Books, Music & Coffee I attended a Coffee Party kickoff meeting at SoulFood Books, Music and Organic Coffee House on Saturday. Approximately 40 people subdivided into smaller groups to discuss their hopes and fears about the state of the union. Amid the largely liberal perspectives voiced by several participants, I was delighted to discover an unanticipated diversity of opinions in our group. A number of common themes emerged, but I came away most hopeful about the prospect for preserving this diversity and promoting a resurgence of the middle way in American politics.

Among the issues raised by participants were ethics, elections, economics, employment, energy and the environment. At several points, I was reminded of Paul Hawken's book, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came Into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, and a blog post I wrote about his systems view of the interrelationships between social, economic and environmental justice. At other points, I was reminded of Doug Rushkoff's book, Life, Incorporated: How the World Became a Corporation and How To Take It Back - e.g., one person championing de-marginalization, another recommending the de-personalization of the corporation (referring to the 1844 U.S. Supreme Court decision designating a corporation as a natural person) and another suggesting a transformation from a me society to a we society.

During the course of the discussions, there were a number of references to the Tea Party movement - whose members tend to be male, rural, upscale, and overwhelmingly conservative - mostly in the context of expressing opposition to or at least distinction from that movement. I believe there are some important areas of agreement between values espoused by the Tea Party and the Coffee Party: an affinity for transparency, accountability and responsibility, and an aversion to abuses of power and other perceived injustices.

There do appear to be areas of differences between the Tea Party and the Coffee Party; among the most significant - to me - are the tactics employed. Based on what I've read and seen, the Tea Party seems to be rather ideological and confrontational whereas my first experience with the Coffee Party suggests a more idealistic and conversational approach to politics. Some members and groups within the Tea Party appear to be adopting the demonizing and spiteful rhetoric that was used so extensively during the McCain-Palin campaign of 2008. The tone and tenor of the discussions and debates within the Coffee Party meeting - in which some people articulated and advocated strong positions - was far more civil and respectful.

In a blog post about coffee, conversation, community and culture at Starbucks, I proposed the possibility of promoting civic engagement without sacrificing civil engagement, noting that others have articulated a tension between the two:

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Coffeehouses: Bringing the Buzz Back, Michael Idov talks about some of the European coffeehouses I first read about in The Grand Literary Cafes of Europe, warning that Americans are "losing the coffeehouse ... to our own politeness". Idov claims that while coffeehouses were once "hotbed[s] of a proudly rootless culture", "seminaries of sedition" with traditions of "intellectual sparring", they have now become elitist bastions of "balkanization". While these coffeehouses may have promoted civic engagement, it appears that they were not well known for civil engagement.

I [still] believe it is possible to have vigorous debate - in the best traditions of the coffee house - without stooping to the vilification of one's opponent(s).

That said, one of my concerns about the Coffee Party is how effective a conversational approach can be at this juncture in American politics. We may come to understand and appreciate - if not agree with - one another better, but will this effect changes in policy and legislation? Especially if other, more ideologically unified parties and movements - and corporations - are more certain, focused and strident about their views. It's hard to have a productive conversation if no one else is listening.

In an earlier post, on conservatism, liberalism and independence, I recounted a classic Doonesbury comic strip:

In the main portion of the strip, Chase [a conservative] sums up the differences between liberals and conservatives: "[Y]ou liberals are hung up on fairness! You actually try to respect all points of view! But conservatives feel no need whatsoever to consider other views. We know we're right, so why bother? Because we have no tradition of tolerance, we're unencumbered by doubt! So we roll you guys every time!" When Mark [a liberal] replies "Actually, you make a good point...", Chase responds, "See! Only a loser would admit that!"

Listening to "The Science of Wisdom" on KUOW Weekday yesterday, I heard Stephen S. Hall, author of Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience, talk about the power of anger as a motivating emotion. While he said that anger and wisdom are not antithetical, the ability to regulate anger and other emotions effectively is one of the hallmarks of a wise person. However, he also observed that many famous wise people have been willing to run the risk of contradicting conventional wisdom and adopt adversarial stances.

The question, I suppose, is whether it is wiser - and/or more effective - to promote alternative perspectives through conversational or confrontational tactics, or to advocate adversarial positions with consideration or condescension. Personally, I tend to prefer coffee to tea.

Applying the One Percent Doctrine to Climate Change

Onepercentdoctrine_cover I remember hearing an NPR Fresh Air interview with Ron Suskind, author of The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of It's Enemies Since 9/11, shortly after the book came out in 2006, in which he explained that the title came from a statement made by [then] Vice President Dick Cheney about the Bush Administration's pre-emptive policy for "low-probability, high-impact events":

If there's a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It's not about our analysis ... It's about our response.

[Excerpted from an interview with Suskind in Time, The Untold Story of al-Qaeda's Plot to Attack the Subway]

Next-hundred-million-joel-kotkin Last week, I was listening to an interview on KUOW's The Conversation with Joel Kotkin, author of The Next 100 Million: America in 2050. In contrast - if not contradiction - to the negative impacts of continued population growth articulated by many people and organizations, Kotkin predicts that the anticipated population increase of the next 100 million people in the United States will be a net gain, adding to our diversity, competitiveness and overall economic strength. When host Ross Reynolds asked him about the impact of population growth on climate change, Kotkin revealed that he is a climate change skeptic (along with 40% of the American public), and expressed doubt about the likelihood that humans, especially those in high resource consumption countries like the United States, have a significant impact on climate change.

ThereYouGoAgain During part two of the interview, one caller asked about Kotkin's views on adopting a population-control policy, noting the growth in energy use per capita. Kotkin - reciting a refrain of "I've seen this movie before" [reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's famous catchphrase, "there you go again", in his cheerfully derisive dismissal of Jimmy Carter's compelling articulation of a national health plan during the 1980 U.S. Presidential debate] - talked about earlier reports of impending crises - or what he calls variations of "an environmental apocalypse" -  that did not come to pass, and then deftly switched the metric by stating that energy use per GDP was declining. Anyone who has read David Korten's book, Agenda for a New Economy, or Doug Rushkoff's book, Life, Incorporated, may be a GDP-skeptic, and question whether GDP is an appropriate metric for assessing the health of the economy ... much less the environment.

Another caller, who identified himself as Billy, from Seattle's Ravenna neighborhood, posed a particularly penetrating and provocative question (the one that sparked this post):

If the scientists are wrong and we act on their prescriptions, then we'll spend a lot of money on green technology, and maybe we'll blight a lot of landscapes with windmills. But really, in the worst case, we're talking about wasting a lot of money.

But if he [Kotkin] is wrong, and we act on his prescriptions, then we are facing - potentially - a disaster. It's not like climate change in the past that happened gradually. We're talking about very quick and rapid changes.

So, to me, if there's a 10% - even a 5% - chance that the scientists are right, dealing with that [climate change], as difficult as it is, really seems like the prudent thing to do.

Kotkin replied that he supports making some changes, but that they should be less drastic and be primarily motivated by clear and present dangers, such as reducing dirty air or enhancing our national security by reducing dependence on foreign oil. This is ironic on at least two levels. From what I understand, Kotkin considers himself a futurist (and indeed, the title of his book is future-oriented), so it's interesting that he is promoting a more "presentist" perspective. Secondly, his emphasis on national security brings to mind Cheney's earlier dictum about the unacceptability of even the slightest risk of another devastating terrorist attack.

I wonder how many climate change skeptics accept - or champion - the One Percent Doctrine with respect to the risk of terrorism ... and what percentage of risk of environmental apocalypse they would find acceptable. Kotkin argues that earlier religious fundamentalists' warnings of an apocalypse have been largely supplanted by "hysterical" warnings of environmental apocalypse, but I do wonder whether religious fundamentalists - Christian and Muslim - may still be more drawn to visions of a more "traditional" version of apocalypse these days.

Continuing with the theme of fundamentalism, but returning to the terrorism domain, in a recent PBS Newshour segment on Biden and Cheney Clash Over Terror Trial Policy, CSIS Senior Adviser Juan Carlos Zarate, who served the Bush administration as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism from 2005 to 2009, argued that we are seeing a "fundamental continuity in our counterterrorism policies". Georgetown University Law Professor David Cole countered that we are seeing a continuity in the war(s), but significant shifts in policy, especially with respect to policy decisions to operate "within the frame of the rule of law".

I'm not sure what the Obama administration's position is on the One Percent Doctrine with respect to terrorism, and I'm increasingly unsure about what their position is with respect to the environment. The announcement last week of Obama's upport for nuclear power, coupled with proposals to expand clean energy sources and assign a cost to the polluting emissions of fossil fuels, represents the latest attempt to find common ground and pursue a middle way. However, I wonder if greater progress can be made by adopting what some may consider a more extremist position, and apply the One Percent Doctrine to the risks of climate change.