Not in the Here and Now.

There’s an essay by Peter Augustine Lawler entitled “The Utopian Eugenics of Our Time” in Perspectives on Political Science that does a good job of cataloging the issues that will impact on human nature in the near future. And he makes the useful point that biological human nature, being the source of our anxieties about change, will undermine our enjoyment of biotechnological advances and perhaps retard radical change, unless we alter human ethical nature dramatically. But then he goes ahead and indicates that this is happening already with psychotropics and agrees that individuals will keep pushing ahead with genetic manipulation. It’s annoying, because he’s trying very hard not be alarmist and be at peace with it all, but the implications of what are supposed to be partially reassuring predictions keep running away from him. Actually, the article is very good, which is why it’s so distressing to perceive that it’s fundamentally in error.

He does throw in a nice formulation about how we will likely have a human future that will cause us to miss our human past. I like the Schismatrix theme better, Life moves in clades.

On a similar note, I have a new thought tool (courtesy of the belle dame).The principle is that if you object to the prospect of some technological or social development, you have to be willing (in theory) to assert your benevolent will over humanity through a global Council of Guardians. Then you must establish specific prohibitions on further human progress. Now, the question is how you and your council will respond to individual abberations.

The first test case is three CS undergraduates who have linked their brains together with coaxial cables. They will die if the cables are disconnected. Failure to act means that within a year the world will see a 50-person wireless “mental network”, with bizarre social transformations thereafter. The upstarts will raise various civil rights and personal autonomy objections. There is a strong case to be made by the establishment side that the groupings violate any concept of “equality”, and that the individuals who dissolve their identities in this way are illegally a)commiting suicide or b)entering into slavery.

But then it’s pointed out that “mental union” would probably be more like a walkie-talkie system for certain frontbrain thought-processes and a shared broadcast of the group’s sensory inputs. So a more advanced test case does not involve the visually frightening (and unrealistic) cables, but a gradual progression from heavy technological social networking behavior to something like a group-mind. Where does the Council step in? Are “bone phones” (Neuromancer) too much? Also thrown into the mix is the fact that religions might be the first to adopt forms of technological communion.

mose wrote back!

And he hooked me up with some information. One new catchphrase is collective intelligence. Another is democratic money. There’s a lot on this guy’s site: http://www.thetransitioner.org . To be honest, I think he talks funny (I mean, with the jargon) and he whips out some mysticism/PMA (but you know I can git with that) at some points. He claims to be “founder AOL France”, 5 years former stuntman, a martial arts teacher…and the action plans!!! I’m swooning.

Oh.

So everything’s going back server-side. At least for one flavor of “computer”. The concept will be so ubiquitous that appending “virtual” to it will be superfluous. The philosophical justification for it will be that one’s informational “center” should be this insubstantial, nongeographical pure mind, divorced from a particular earthly coil. Of course, it will actually reside somewhere, but that somewhere will be a sector on a harddrive or distributed across a vast Google-esque cluster. Best of all is if it’s distributed across a reliable peer-to-peer network…

Your data is going to live on the web. This seems to be because 1) you can get it there from anywhere without special software, 2) it can be shared (with your permission) more easily from there 3) companies want it out there so they can ask your permission to interact with it and provide services based on it. These companies (especially Google) are going to keep developing web side applications until the server hosts the best features of a full-fledged operating system. One effect is that a Google (and a Microsoft, and a Sun…) will start offering a “free high-powered computer” to anyone who has access to an Internet cafe or library. Or cheapo portable terminals will be offered (try: an E-ink electronic paper sheet attached to a Gumstix CPU and a Bluetooth unit) at convenience stores.

It’s not clear what’s going to happen to your hardware. It may be that actually owning a computer will be a sign of conspicuous consumption in the future.

Some Definitions: Wiki

Wiki is hot right now because of Wikipedia’s 1 million article achievement. This has lead to some confusion between wiki (wikiwiki=quick, quick), a collaborative software concept, and the Wikipedia, the most visible implementation of that concept. For the record: wiki is free editing of pages and keeping revision histories. It is merely a way to rapidly compose a set of non-hierarchical, associated web pages (like an encyclopedia). Other criteria will fall down immediately and are for zealots: allowing edits without signing in (Wikipedia might end the practice); open membership ( Jotspot is a cool corporate application); a specific look, feel or affiliation (the main reason I run MediaWiki is that I can’t abide WikiNames).

This is a bit disingenuous, though, since those two simple features, free edit and revision history, are all-important. Wiki works well because it is an unsophisticated content management system. There is only one rule regarding pages: in general, if it’s a page, you can edit it. In the past, the rule has been:if it’s a page, and the owner gives you permission, or if you own it, you can edit it. Also, because wiki relies so heavily on a “social hack”, it’s hard to imagine wiki without The Wiki Way, the set of infocommunistic mores that hold Wikipedia and other wikis together. Wikipedia solves the previously mentioned design challenges in an elegant and, from most people’s natural command-and-control impulses, non-intuitive way: by letting people assign themselves to tasks, disavowing ownership, and allowing disagreements to resolve themselves through discussion and edit wars.

The success of Wikipedia speaks to the virtues of open systems, but following the same theme as the last entry, I wonder whether open systems don’t favor volunteerism and the ability to donate large amounts of (leisure) time. The Wikipedia has grown as big as it has because early on it established the precedent of a large number of people donating small portions of spare time. The sight of a large volunteer effort provides the initial inducement to contribute. But the underlying reality is that a smaller but substantial group of “marginal” users donate large amounts of time and are responsible for a disproportionate bulk of the contributions.

These people have their reasons, not the least of which is the pleasure they get from writing and receiving positive feedback, but the disparities of output between marginal and normal users would be a problem in a wiki less grounded in volunteerism. Imagine a company wiki where several employees are responsible for maintaining important documentation. A marginal user in the workplace would want to make his larger number of edits known, and would resent sharing the credit for a well-written page with someone whose contribution consisted of cursory spell-checking. This might be considered a problem with capitalism itself, but a similar problem could arise with an academic wiki written by people who consider their time extremely valuable.

As I’ve put more and more time into my own labor-of-love wiki (why, I’m the #1 contributor!), I’ve felt greater misgivings about the prospect of other people adding to or in any way sharing ownership of “my” work. I know that this is not the Wiki Way, but I can’t help feeling somewhat proprietary about my words. Examining my own fragile ego, I think that a sufficient social hack would be to add the “Created by:” label some wikis have, along with an automatically generated credits page that would list percentage of overall and retained contributions made by a user to a page.

I’ve also had a desire for a version-freeze system, so that a page could be frozen at 1.0, 2.0 etc., with the frozen versions being the public face of a document while revisions go on behind the scenes (similar to the CVS development cycle). There are other things that can be done with wiki, including the introduction of complex group decision-making and evaluation processes (e.g., voting and mod points), although these would detract from the current simplicity and openness. And in general, version history is simply a good idea for documents, especially if splitting is tracked in a consistent way. For example, I wrote this blog entry as if it were a wiki, which is why it’s so disorganized.

Some Definitions: Collaborative Software

Collaborative Software is sometimes called Social Software, but arguably CS suggests work and Social Software suggests play and community. Social software is party-lines, chat, forums, photo swapping, six-degrees-of-separation, and not a cause of angst for me. Collaborative software is people working on the same project at the same time. The grand concept design challenges for any CS are therefore:

  1. Allow simultaneous work without unproductive interference
  2. Handle disputes about authority and judgment
  3. Handle “ownership” of a task
  4. Handle steering or allocating of tasks
  5. Keep track of contributions and credits

The corporate world has known CS for a long time in the form of groupware applications. As far as I can tell, these consist of internal email (“memos”), shared calendars, shared contacts and sometimes “drawing boards” and document versioning systems. The new groupware applications tend to be served from a web site and emphasize design concept #3, hardcoding concepts like “tasks” and time/resources (e.g, dotProject ).

(These are creepy, especially in the context of free software and online communities, because business management theory analyzes a “project” (I speak Corporate, can’t you tell?) into tasks and resources, and deals with conflicts based on a hydraulic model of “flow”. Resources are people and office equipment (e.g., printers), and have dependencies on each other that can lead to “resource conflicts”. For instance, Resource A (“Bob”) might need to use Resource B (“HP Printer”), but Resource C (“Mary”) is already using B, leading to suboptimal utilization of A. No matter.)

The Sourceforge open source project is perhaps the most socially significant collaborative software other than wiki. Sourceforge is built around CVS (Commit/Content Versioning System, perhaps?), a linux app that tracks incremental additions to a code base. It adds forums, task-management and internal documentation. Sourceforge is the central CVS repository used by thousands of open source (and commercial) projects.

Some Definitions: Open Source

Open source is software that is licensed under an agreement, usually the GNU Public License (GPL), requiring that 1) fully compilable program code be made available for download 2) the program and code be freely distributable 3) extension and redistribution of the code and program be permitted. The “advantages” of OS software include: fast development time, stability due to bugspotting, and freedom to develop software in different conceptual directions.

OS software is, per the agreement, always free, but some people make fine distinctions between Open Source and Free Software. Open source software is ideologically ‘free’, since the code is at ‘liberty’ to evolve and improve itself, but many Open Source advocates also claim that it is a good way to make money! In practice, many OS projects rely on either donations or patronage of a pay service related to the software (e.g., webhosting for open source server software). OS projects also benefit from the donation of a great many hobbyist man-hours. Many successful projects have no profit-motive, but are developed for the sake of having a free tool, oftentimes as a substitute for an expensive commercial product (eg., GIMP as a feature-equivalent replacement for Adobe Photoshop).

The main motive for most open source development seems to be related to the ancient (and in modern times, likely underserved) human desire to work for the sake of a community. The biggest community tent in OS (and perhaps on the Internet) is Linux, the GPL’ed operating system core and related projects (Xorg, Gnome, KDE, Apache, etc.). Participants in the Linux development efforts can tell themselves a (mostly true) story about an open, free, community-driven operating system’s battle (to the death!) with monopolistic, kludgy, closed Microsoft’s Windows empire. The motive, in this case, for contributing to OS efforts is akin to patriotism.

There is an additional altruistic or humanistic motive that I find compelling. The argument is that if the undeveloped world is going to derive any benefits from computer technology, that technology must be affordable. Otherwise, third world countries must make the choice between outlays for computers and software packages, and payments for social services and education, which is unconscionable. Donated old hardware loaded with free software can be nearly as cheap as the cost to ship. A particular advantage of Linux is that it performs well on old hardware. Together with powerful commercial-equivalent applications, these machines could lead to greater and fairer global development.

Open source is a fearsome thing in the developed world, because it threatens to undercut the livelihoods of computer programmers by seeking to create a world where people expect software to be free. OS advocates tend to argue that no such fear is warranted because 1) innovation breeds innovation, and therefore 2) fear of free software belongs to a zero-sum mentality. I won’t pursue this here, but I believe that the OS people are in denial, or lie, about the ultimate implications of a system that relies heavily on volunteerism and donations. This is not to say that open source is not the future.

OS/CS/CMS

I think that I should inform the reader that the most concrete thing that agitates me at the present, the source of my dreary angst and torpid prose, is that sinister trifecta of open source development, collaborative software and content management systems. I am only partly joking when I say that nearly every word on these pages has been written under the influence of a near-constant meditation and study on these minute phenomena.