Moving venues, already

December 25th, 2009 by Graham


I’ve moved this blog to another server for more flexibility. All of the existing posts have been moved over, and comments here are closed. Please visit:

Conference on Information Flow Restrictions at the New School

December 8th, 2009 by Graham

Via @berkmancenter, an interesting-looking conference at the New School, Feb. 24–26:

The central question asked by this proposed conference is, where is America today with respect to the limits on our access to information, limits on what we can keep confidential and what the government and other institutions can keep secret? How can the public gain access to information and how do we decide what information is a citizen’s right to know? What information endangers individuals’ or the country’s wellbeing and safety? Are the ever-increasing number of technological innovations fundamentally transforming what we can know and what we cannot? What can remain confidential and what cannot? On the one hand, technology has aided access to information and knowledge to broader and broader communities, thus eroding limits, while on the other hand, technologies are increasingly used by governments, businesses, and other social institutions to monitor and interfere with what we can know and cannot know and what is private and what is not.

An interesting array of speakers. Bios here.

On the ‘Berkman School’ and its limits

December 5th, 2009 by Graham

Tim Hwang has a remarkable essay looking at what he’s provisionally calling “The Berkman School of Thought” based loosely upon the community surrounding the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. The original post is a must-read. He proposes four pillars of Berkman School thought:

  • Faith in users and emergent collaboration
  • Civics as the center of attention
  • “The Internet” as a specific configuration of features
  • Faith in Internet as revolution

I started writing a comment on his post, but it got lengthy, so here we are.

There is probably a lot that can be said on the topic of a “Berkman School” and its relationship to cyberoptimism. Hwang notes that many Berkmanites tend to be optimistic about the Internet’s transformative potential, but that notes of caution sometimes emerge, as from Ethan Zuckerman and Eszter Hargittai. I might add Rebecca MacKinnon to that list.

I’m curious about two things.

One is how we might understand other “schools” of thought on Internet and society. Certainly many others could be suggested. There is a problem, however, in looking for groups of thought on the Internet in that many of the non-Berkman-type perspectives are rooted not in discourse directly about the Internet but rather in academic disciplines, policy communities, or business communities.

When political scientists, sociologists, or policy scholars take to understanding the Internet and society, they bring their communities’ theoretical contexts into play. Carving out schools might be easiest if the criteria for delineation are assumption-based rather than content-based. I think this is what Hwang is on to when he talks about “faith” in various principles. But if those are the principles, MacKinnon’s work on “cybertarianism” and Hargittai’s work on web-use divides and socioeconomic status, for example, might tend to put them farther from the Berkmanite epistemic community, despite their personal affiliations with the center.

Moreover, Benkler’s work reaches out toward social and economic theory while also engaging with the particular story of the Internet.

Two is how US- or democracy-specific are these assumptions, and to what extent the center’s physical home at Harvard Law School affects some of these assumptions. Many participants in this line of thought are not American, but that doesn’t remove the fact that freedoms, free speech, and liberal democracy seem to be key motivating factors. I think this is similar to what commenter Jillian C. York mentions at Hwang’s post.

This is important because many Berkmanites are activists as well as thinkers. In political terms, many of these projects, their coordinated action, and their claims making vis à vis various business and government bodies could mean it’s most reasonable to think of a Berkman School as more of a Berkman-like movement. Without rambling on about the ties between schools of thought and political movements, I just thought that would be an interesting thing to point out.

I hope this discussion continues.

David Weinberger: What Information Was

October 6th, 2009 by Graham

I’m going to be blogging notes from this talk by David Weinberger at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. Usual caveats apply (all things not in quotes paraphrased, sometimes badly.) Here we go!

  • Asking how information became our dominant metaphor. What did we become? How are we moving out of it? After 50 years of understanding ourselves as in an information age, what has come of it?
  • Early stage of thinking about this, but presenting initial ideas.
  • Example 1 of informationalization: DNA as one way we are seeing ourselves as informationalized. We depict it as a code in schematic, but in fact it’s a lumpen molecule. The molecule itself is not information, it’s just a shoelace-like molecular chain.
  • Example 2: Kurtzweil’s question about when we’ll be able to model the entire matter of the brain and keep it running in a computer—and, live for ever, at least as a neurological model.
  • Example 3: sense data, sensation, perception, judgment. — and lately, information ahead of sense data.
  • Last example: Wolfram: the universe is a computer.
  • What is information? (But put your hands down, information scholars.) It’s hard for most people to define this, and for many of us it escapes definition.
  • Five meanings
  1. Charles Babbage, the reputed creator of a computer (which he never finished). His sense of information: “something you didn’t know but now you do.”
  2. A second from Babbage: “The contents of a table—standardized expression”
  3. 1948, Claude Shannon’s paper. Task was to figure out how much “information” could move through a given transmission line. Useful because he was working at Bell Labs. So “information” was a “sequence of choices from a finite set of elementary symbols” as transmitted.
  4. Meaning of symbols unimportant, except in that information is what you couldn’t have known for certain already. —— Information: The New Language of Science: a book with several contradicting definitions. —— Charles Seife from Decoding the Universe: Also concerned with symbols. And puts “information” in cells.
  5. The stuff in computers
  6. Everything, at all. Most expansively, “literally the stuff of the universe”
  • Possible argument emerging, that the history of information is discontinuous, and Shannon’s insight was important. Marks, holes in cards, need to be part of a system.
  • Why did this (information, or information theory, sometimes both) become so important in its march through the culture?
  1. For one, it’s useful. Shannon’s work and following lowered data storage costs.
  2. Two, versatility of bits. (Bit is a unit of measurement, and all other units measure a thing, whereas bits measure anything–maybe with certain mathematical exceptions.)
  3. Three, information explains communication. Jump to communication theory from information theory happened fast “but not in a way that would have made Claude Shannon happy.” The definition of communication gets really broad.
  • What information excludes… Well, it doesn’t help us with the meaning, only with shoving the meaning around. Models are useful, but they leave out “the bodily, the ‘mattering’ of the personal, and the contingent.”
  • Argument [and I’m paraphrasing] that bits present the world to us as a set of things without qualities, whereas our experience of the world is not in this disaffected, encoded condition.
  • How did the wartime environment of information and communication theory affect the way we view it? Noise of course could be quite literal on the battlefield. So could “encoding,” for the cryptographically inclined.
  • All this is not the only way of talking about communication, which is a much more diverse phenomenon than information theory’s view of information. Demonstrates this on way through Descartes and then Heidegger.
  • So if the age of information is ending, what’s next? Not trying to assert something, but now, maybe the network. And among other things this means that we don’t focus on “agreement” anymore as much as “servicing and maintaining differences,” which the Internet excels at.

At the top of U.S. government, no mobile phones?

September 22nd, 2009 by Graham

I don’t want to overstate anything, as a cursory Google search offers no confirmation, but from the looks of this photograph from the official White House Flickr feed, sometimes having a meeting in the Oval Office means checking your tech at the door.

Mobile phones checked at the door outside the oval office

The official caption reads: “Cell phones are left outside the Oval Office during a meeting with President Barack Obama, May 25, 2009.” As commenter clareperretta points out it would be fun to know what the little card on the table says.

The Flickr account itself is pretty cool. Not quite Hugo Chávez’ Aló Presidente, but it’s part of some interesting things the present administration is doing with online publishing.

UPDATE: Even if you’re an important member of Congress, you leave it outside. This image from outside the cabinet room.
Members of Congress leave phones outside a White House meeting

U.S. Justice Department opposes Google Books settlement

September 20th, 2009 by Graham

Wired reports: “The Justice Department, citing anti-trust and copyright concerns, asked a federal court judge late Friday to reject a controversial settlement that would have allowed Google to cut through knotty copyright issues in order to create the library of the future.”

The Justice Department’s concerns mirror some of the sentiments expressed by Harvard law professor John Palfrey when a seminar last spring took up the settlement. As the wiki record of that week notes, Palfrey suggested improvements to the settlement that would allow the immensely valuable resource to come into existence without hurting the prospects for future innovation.

Professor Palfrey suggests three generalized improvements to the settlement that would begin to address many of the concerns that have been raised:

  • Ensure the possibility of a meaningful competitive landscape, such that second-comers are not barred from success.
  • Establish a means by which the public can have a meaningful level of control over the workings of the Book Rights Registry.
  • Create a system of periodic review for the settlement terms. This system would not need to involve periodic wholesale review of the entire settlement by the courts; it could instead merely involve libraries negotiating sunset provisions for individual works with publishers, authors, and other rights holders.

As a researcher, I have already found the Google Books machinery to be of great use. I have used it to access sources I did not have space to bring along while studying in Beijing last summer. I have used the full-text search available for some texts to double-check citations when preparing papers. And I have been able to point friends and family to specific passages of books without scanning or retyping the text by hand.

My additional hope is that the restrictive provisions in the settlement that regulate how the data can be used can be avoided at the library terminals that form part of the public good derived from Google’s gargantuan scanning project. If the vast amount of information being gathered can be processed in yet unforeseen ways, computation-based research may reveal hidden value in a corpus of text. If we are restricted to search and display applications that replicate traditional reading, however, we will still fall short of the potential this information holds.

Giving Internet and politics writing a space of its own

September 18th, 2009 by Graham

In recent months, blogging has taken a back seat to other writing in my life: seminar papers, course assignments, and yes, even letters. Sometimes, however, I stopped short of writing because my present blog space at Transpacifica isn’t the right place to put musings on Internet research and information in politics. That brings me here.

Why write here rather than on my own site? It’s about community. The Berkman Center, which provides this forum, is a convivial and diverse collection of scholars, engineers, and activists, many of whom I have had the chance to meet or learn from. Many of them write here, at I only hope I can contribute something to the lively discourse in progress among this community’s other blogs.