Monthly Archives: February 2010

Google Buzz: The Corporatization of Social Commons

While many people are understandably upset that Google Buzz was implemented through an opt-out process, and with auto-follow (email contacts as followers unless explicitly unfollowed), I would like to argue that there is a bigger, underlying issue that would not be solved if Google had introduced an opt-in feature: our social commons on the Internet are now mostly corporate controlled. It would certainly be preferable if decent privacy controls were implemented but this would be an individual-level solution and would not avoid the systemic issue as most people would, reasonably, not bother with fine-tuned privacy controls. The sum of individual actions, however, creates a consequence at the societal level which can be quite undesirable. And that is why Google’s CEO Mark Schmidt’s statement that “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,” just does not address the issue at all.” (Besides, who wants everything they do to be known by everyone? That is not the same as having secrets that must be guarded at all costs).

Many online environments (Facebook, now it seems Google) force an architecture that allows for meaningful participation only if you play by rules that are designed for maximizing profit, not optimum social and personal interaction. Most users go with the flow and use the system as designed even if it is possible to change the settings. For most people, most of the time, that does not create major issues (even while creating dramatic consequences for few), but the totality of these interactions creates a tragedy of commons – actions that may be reasonable for individuals creates an environment which has dramatic consequences for everyone. In our case, the consequence we are headed for is  a world of near-complete surveillance of everyday actions that is searchable, permanent and public. We are slowly but surely creeping into this world and it is high time for a serious public discussion to take place.

The answer cannot be: well, people who are unhappy shouldn’t use those services. Presence on the Internet is effectively a requirement for fully and effectively participating in the 21st century as a citizen, as a consumer, as an informed person and as a social being. Further, many such services are natural monopolies: Google, Ebay, Facebook, Amazon, all benefit greatly from network externalities which means that the more people on the service, the more useful it is for everyone. This makes it very hard for a market leader to be challenged. (Wikipedia is also such a natural monopoly but it is not corporate controlled).

Facebook or Google are optional in the sense that electricity, telephone, modern medicine are optional. Don’t like the medical establishment? Don’t use antibiotics! Don’t like how deregulated electricity markets are run? Well, don’t use electricity! Hey, solar panels are available. Telling people to opt-out of major streams of sociality, information and markets on the Internet makes almost as much sense. While I’ll readily concede the urgency of antibiotics differs from the urgency of social interaction, sociality is a fundamental part of being. It is not optional. It is not a coincidence that solitary confinement is the most severe legal punishment –short of the death penalty—that is legally imposed on people.

The next argument is: well, use an alternative service! That too is as valid as telling people to use a different cable company or an electric utility if they don’t like the current one. In most markets, there is only one or two such utilities, and for good reason. The investment in laying cables and connecting doors is large enough that most markets cannot support multiple, truly alternative services. Similarly, especially in the lives of young people, Facebook acts like a phone directory used to and opting out of Facebook during college would significantly constrain social options for many. Facebook has become de facto social commons, especially in college but now has spread to other cohorts. It takes effort to maintain a profile and people are unlikely to duplicate that effort in multiple services the same way multiple electric companies don’t put down parallel cables to each neighbor to compete with each other. Google is such an environment for searching and for many people who do not have an institutionally-supplied email account they can freely use for personal matters, Gmail makes a lot of sense.

The trick is that architecture matters in shaping social interaction. Anyone who has taken a class in a lecture classroom where everyone faced the teacher versus a seminar classroom where you sat around a table can tell the difference the organization of space makes. In online environments, the architecture of the space is the design and the terms-of-service — in the sense Lawrence Lessig argues. Design choices constrain and structure sociality. For example, profitability often goes along with maximum visibility which is what many corporations are pushing, from Facebook’s recent changes to Google’s Buzz.

Let me explain the issue from a non-online example. Why do lots of teenagers hang out at the mall? Because in modern cities, there are few other alternatives, and once some kids start hanging out at there, the mall becomes the place to see and to be seen so others also hang out at the mall. Soon, it’s the place to be. Schools have very little time in the schedule for socializing and are highly controlled spaces. Homes have parents in them; hardly need to explain why that’s not so attractive to teens. Also, homes can only hold so many people at a time. You can’ talk or eat at the library. The park, if you have one nearby, is rarely designed for hanging out (some places like Central Park in New York are obvious, wonderful exceptions). Corporatized culture and brands are already deeply integrated into the adolescent experience. So you go to the mall.

The problem with the mall is that it is a controlled environment designed explicitly to sell you crap commodities. It encourages shopping, browsing for future shopping and  eating crap Mccrap. You will not see protestors or homeless people because they would be quickly escorted out as you would be trespassing on corporate private property. You will not see ads for local small business or a used car on the bulletin boards. Nobody will strum a guitar or have a drum circle; you will instead be subject to crap muzak piped through loudspeakers. Nothing that interferes with the shopping experience will be allowed and everything will be designed to entice you to shop.

I am not saying all those things that won’t be there are always great, or always worth preserving. I’m just saying they won’t be there because this is a controlled environment. And increasingly, such private malls are also becoming the main outdoor spaces available to hang out. Downtown Silver Spring in D.C. is such an example. It feels like a town square except it’s not. It’s all privately owned, even the streets, and it is the only such space within many miles. Hence, on many weekends, you can find hundreds of people who go there to hang out and not realize they are in a privately-owned space — even when walking on the street! Malls and corporate-owned spaces have become de facto social commons in many cities.

Such a process is now taking place online. It usually goes unnoticed until someone makes a change that causes people to realize they are not in control, like with Google Buzz or with Facebook terms-of-service changes or redesigns. Our social commons have moved online, and into corporate-controlled spaces. It is better to have opt-in and it is better to have meaningful privacy controls. However, as we see with Facebook, many people will use the system as the it is designed and that will create a particular type world. I hope the debate will move beyond fine-tuning privacy controls and also include what kind of world we are creating.

Talk at NASA Goddard. Date: Feb. 10th. Time: 11:00am. Snow: 30 inches and counting.

I will be giving a talk at NASA Goddard this Wednesday (February 10th). Details here.

Of course, having just received 30 inches of snow in my area over the weekend, I should rather say that I’m scheduled to give a talk! More snow is forecast for Tuesday and Wednesday. We’ll see.

UPDATE: My talk was indeed cancelled and will be rescheduled most likely for April 7th.

The Consumptive Turn and the Keyboardless Internet: Why the iPad is an Immobilizing Mobile Device

What does the iPad mean for the future of the Internet? I’ll leave aside how cool the screen is (I am sure it is) and how crisp the colors are (I am sure they are). The iPad strengthens two worrisome trends: the move towards a closed platform and the consumptive turn. (The closed platform has been discussed at length by Jonathan Zittrain: Read it here, or watch him make the argument here.

I’d like to instead  talk about the consumptive turn. The key here is that the iPad has no functional, integrated keyboard and it has a great crisp large screen optimized for media consumption. A keyboard can be added (or the on-screen keyboard can be used) but that is not what the device is for. It is for reading, not writing. It is for watching, not typing. As the NY Times writer noted:

“The iPad’s promise was hinted at before Mr. Jobs hit the stage. The set was dominated by a large, comfy chair. Since the birth of the personal computer, we have been hunched over, squinting at screens — great big terminals, laptop displays, tiny screens on PDAs. With the iPad, the screen has come to us as we lean back in ease.”

If the iPad becomes the primary means of accessing the Internet, many people’s participation channel will become narrower and shallower. The interface matters.

That, to me, is the core peril of the iPad. Hunched back and squinting, and uncomfortable, indeed.  That’s how Wikipedia was created. That’s how millions of people post on their blogs and write their comments on others; compose emails and go down in flame wars;  all do all the things that make the Internet such a great, messy, unhinged place for exchange of ideas, opinions and rants. That’s how it works: hunched backed, squinting, a tad uncomfortable … and typing.

Devices such as the iPad discourage participation through writing. With an iPad, you can tweet a tweet, send an “call me when you arrive” text, and look up the price of an item with ease. Those are very important and useful functions, sure.  If the iPad becomes the primary means of accessing the Internet, many people’s participation channel will become narrower and shallower.

The interface matters. Lack of a keyboard has consequences beyond aesthetics.

I am not advocating bad ergonomics. I like to sink into a comfy chair with a book (or an e-book device) as much as the next book-lover, and you will occasionally find me slouched in a couch, watching television with a rapidly diminishing bowl of snacks on the side.  That is a consumptive mindset and before the Internet, that was the most easily available way of spending free time. Over the years, as the Internet has taken over my world, I have done less and less of that and I suspect that is true for many people.  I find it hard to just consume without being able to say something. I want a keyboard nearby.
A large part of what made the Internet such a breakthrough for the public sphere that was previously dominated by one-way conversation from the powerful, the rich and the slickly-produced is the fact that interactivity through writing was built into the device that we used to access it. Computers came with keyboards, not touchscreens and not speech recognition . So, the issue is not just that typing on a screen is clunky. And I suspect soon these devices will come with speech and natural language recognition. That’s fine if you want to tell your mobile device to call home or pull up recipes for oatmeal-raisin cookies. Not so fine if you want to comment on a blog post, fire off a tirade, or write a lengthy email. Very few people can dictate as if they were writing — and often those rare types are professional writers.

Writing, especially writing at length is a different modality of thought than talking and it also allows a different kind of exchange and discourse. (I refer specially to the scholarship of Neil Postman and Walter Ong.) As Postman argues, writing and the spread of the printed word through literacy and the printing press created a culture in which it is possible to debate ideas at length and produce analytic thought which can be produced, advanced, discussed, refuted, rejected, improved and otherwise churned through the public sphere. As Postman writes in Amusing Ourselves to Death: “almost all of the characteristics we associate with the mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively, and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; and abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response.” (p.63).

I’ll grant you Postman is exaggerating somewhat and all is not rosy in print-world. I’ll also grant that privileging written literacy devalues and hides the value and knowledge in the spoken domain that is often produced by the less-powerful. And, yes, there is great visual creativity on the Internet. It has been wonderful to see the world of visual talent break free from the corporate-controlled bottleneck. True, a lot of the material out there is lacking in brilliance, but as far as I’m concerned, mass-produced mediocrity is actually a sign of democratic participation, so, hurray.

However, as great as it is to see increased participation in visual means of exchange, a visual public sphere is a lacking public sphere. The visual will always be evocative, emotional and visceral compared to writing. A visual-only channel cannot sustain the kind of public sphere that could match the complexity of our world.

Besides, the iPad does not even have a camera which is really interesting. While they might add one in the future, I think this is not just an accident that they left that off when faced with space constraints.  I think the concept is not to do anything with the iPad. The iPad is an immobilizing mobile device. You sit and watch; you slouch and read; and at most, you tweet and go. It is for consuming the world through a crisp, clear screen.

As it stands, the iPad is another big step in the bookification and televisionification of the Internet. I say, let’s hang on to our keyboards.