Publius 2.0

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If the physical world is but a reflection of Platonic Forms, and we are but Plato’s caveman witnessing the world as a shadow on the wall, then today we’re witnessing a life of shadows additionally removed and projected in 1280 x 800. E.M. Forster might have called them “Screens with a View,” but ever more of our lives are projected onto the walls of the digital Platonic cave. We’re subject to the accessibility of information, the caprice of self-projection, and the ubiquity of public opinion.  Online, Sophist arguments can dominate, and “Might can be Right.”  The loudest Blogger voice with the greatest links, or the “expert” with the most Twitter followers can direct discourse. De Tocqueville feared a “Tyranny of the Majority.” In today’s online democracy, such demographics can be quick to emerge.  Perhaps an emergent “Publius” -Madison, Hamilton, and Jay- ought to advocate for crowd-sourcing circumspection, lest offline patrons may fall victim to those “insidious factions” Madison would have enumerated in his 1787 Federalist Paper #10, version 2.0.

“I’m not away from my computer”

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Since the recent disputed Iranian election, the online world has emerged –with renewed vigor– as the outlet of informative discourse.  Though YouTube videos are ubiquitous and more widely cited than Al Jazeera across the Middle East, Facebook has more users than all but a few countries have people, methods of communication such as Twitter remained fringe.  Many doubted the extent to which 140 character “Tweets” could substantively impact discourse; today Iran is proving that wrong.  Though the conversational value of Twitter remains dubious, it provides a newfound ability to track rapidly changing information on the ground through its use of hashtag (#) attribution. More than the AOL, Gchat, or Facebook status update evolution, Twitter has enabled informative directional broadcasting, signaling, and information sharing.  What started as “I’m away from my computer,” has become a novel form of laconic expression, and a means to re-tweet (RT) vital information to personal networks of followers.

From Router to Ballot Box

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The use of new media in the electoral process is gaining momentum.  Obama allowed proof of concept by raising unparalleled capital through prolific –yet small– donations, many of which came through his YouTube channel and Google Checkout donate button.  Today, on election-eve in Iran, Mousavi appears to have employed similar, tech-savvy, tactics, leveraging SMS, YouTube, and manifold online platforms to bolster his cause.  Catering to the widely-online, and growing youth demographic, Mousavi’s web savvy could tip the scale.  Based on Google Insights for Search trending, and as highlighted in my Foreign Policy web-exclusive, “Who’s Winning Iran’s Google War?” such tactics are winning him “hits,” if not yet votes.  Whether this trend will move from router to ballot box will be determined on Friday.  In the meantime, even the Google Policy Team has paused to ponder… In Iran, do online hits translate to offline votes?

Hayek’s “Know How”

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In April, Nobel Laureate and Columbia University economist Edmund Phelps published an Op-Ed in the Financial Times related to uncertainty and the economic crisis.  In his piece, references to Friedrich Hayek’s soup of “know-how” piqued my interest in their web application.  In the 1930s, Hayek claimed that modern economies –capitalist or centralized– muddled about in what Phelps calls “a great soup of private ‘know-how’ dispersed among the specialised participants.” Today, given the advent of decentralized content creation –albeit not always by experts– and the increasing facility with which knowledge is aggregated and broadcast, perhaps Phelps was remiss not to mention the Internet’s new-found ability to collate Hayek’s “know-how.”  The Internet allows users access to diverse and specialized information that facilitates what David Hume called “imagining” a commercial departure from what one knows best, toward what is innovative.  While such commercial departure would traditionally lead to Schumpterian “creative destruction,” or the iterative process of innovation, online this is not always true. With minimal cost and few structural impediments to expansion, the Internet fosters “creative proliferation.” The web consolidates Hayek’s “know how,” accelerates Hume’s “commercial departure,” and substitutes “creative expansion” for Schumpeter’s “creative destruction.”

Subjective Search

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While the recent launch of Google Labs’ “Google Squared” Internet search continues to innovate in its display of objective information.  Google Squared aggregates and displays results in a new modular fashion, but it still pulls such information from published online sources; I blog therefore I exist.  If one should think without writing it down online, however, such knowledge could never be aggregated, could never be presented, and would never be shared.  The advent of Social Search changes this.  Innovators such as Aardvark (vark.com), co-founded by former Google News Product Manager Nathan Stoll, are striving to surface subjective knowledge by integrating social search into forums such as Google Chat.  On Vark, I recently asked for the best Mexican restaurant in Davis Square, received four results within 10 minutes, and confirmed with my Bostonian roommate that these were –in fact– useful results.  Perhaps social search can revise the Cartesian 2.0 “I blog therefore I exist,” returning it to the more harmonious –and Google Chat accessible– “Cogito ergo sum.”

Twitter Twitter on the Wall

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On June 1 I began as a summer researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.  Surrounded by talented and enthusiastic youth, I find balance in the combination of tradition and innovation, and look forward to what I believe will be a challenging and engaging summer.

Today, in accord with my putatively “techie” status here at Berkman, I joined the ranks on Twitter.  In most respects opposed to what I find a vain and trendy obsession, I thought it necessary to use before I judge.  Twitter, or “tweeting,” makes public what to-date has been private.  It fundamentally alters how we present ourselves.  We choose to surface information in a way that shapes others’ perceptions of us, and in this self-awareness, I find the process rather vain. To the extent that Tweets can surface private information and add to public discourse and understanding, then such actions are perhaps useful.  To the extent that they create self-absorbed chatter, impelled by the presumption that followers care about our trivial moments, Twitter enables new-found vanity.

I’ve yet to form a resolute opinion, but I fear that the latter may subsume the former; we’ve created a new digital mirror-mirror-on-the-wall, and each Tweet makes us feel like we’re the fairest one of all.