25 February 2011

Clay Shirky – Here comes everybody

Some quotes from Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations.

On the complementarity between travel and communication tools (p. 194-5):

The  assumption that communications tools  are  (or will someday be)  a good substitute for travel assumes that people mainly gather together for utilitarian reasons of sharing infor­mation.  Companies  have  been  selling us  this  idea  since the invention of the telegraph, and AT&T's famous Picturephone, first launched at the  I964 World's Fair, was pitched as a way to reduce the need for travel. This  reduction did not happen, not in  1964  or ever.  If communication were a  substitute for travel, then the effects would have shown up by now, but they haven't.  In  1978  President  Carter  deregulated  the  airlines, causing travel  prices to  fall,  but telecommunications  stocks didn't  collapse;  they  rose.  Similarly,  i n  1984  Judge  Harold Greene broke  up AT&T,  leading to  a  rapid decrease  in long­ distance  phone  call  costs;  airline  customers  increased  that year.  Communication  and  travel  are  complements,  not  sub­stitutes.  Chris  Meyer,  a  globe-trotting  consultant  for  the Monitor Group, observes that "better communications make it  easier  for  me  to  keep  in  touch with the  office,  so  I  spend more time on the road, talking to clients."

We  gather  together  because  we  like  to,  and  because  it  is useful. Assuming that videophones or e-mail or virtual reality will  reduce the  overall  amount of travel  is like  assuming that liquor stores will kill bars, since liquor stores  sell drinks much more cheaply than bars do.  In fact, the reason people go to bars is not simply to get a drink, but to do so in a convivial environ­ment.  Similarly,  cities don't exist just because people have had to be nearby to communicate; cities  exist because people like to be near other people, and it is this fact, rather than the mere trading of information, that creates social capital.

Social capital: bonding and bridging (p. 222; 224):

Bonding capital is an increase in the depth of connections  and trust within a relatively homogenous  group;  bridging  capital  is  an increase in connections among relatively heterogeneous groups. Think of  the  difference  by  considering  the  number  of people  to whom you'd lend money without asking when  they'd pay you back. An increase in bridging capital would increase the num­ber  of people  you'd  lend  to;  an  increase  in  bonding  capital would  increase  the  amount  of money  you'd  lend  to  people already on the list.

Bonding  capital tends  to  be more exclusive  and bridging capital  more  inclusive.  In  Small  World  networks  bonding tends to happen within the clusters,  while bridging happens between clusters.

Where good ideas come from (p. 229-230):

In one of the  more  evocatively titled  papers  in the  history  of social  science,  "The  Social  Origins  of Good  I deas,"  Ronald Burt of the University of Chicago detailed his research into the relationship  among  social  capital,  social  structure,  and  good ideas. ...

The  essence of Burt's thesis  comes  down to a  linked pair of observations. First, most good ideas came from people who were bridging "structural holes," which is to say people whose immediate  social  network  included  employees  outside  their department.  Second, bridging these structural holes was valuable even when other variables, such as rank and age (both of which correlate for higher degrees of social connection), were controlled for.  Note that this  experiment was  a  test  for bridging  capital,  not  mere  sociability-the  highest  percentage  of good  ideas  came  from  people  whose  contacts  were  outside their  own  department.  On  the  other  hand,  managers  who were highly connected, but only to others in their department, had  ideas that were  not ranked as highly.  Bridging predicted good ideas; lack of bridging predicted bad ones.

In Burt's analysis, a dense social network of people in the same department (and who were therefore likely to be person­ ally  connected  to  one  another)  seemed  to  create  an  echo-chamber effect.

The effect of failure and the open-source model (p. 245-7):

The overall  effect  of failure  is  its  likelihood times  its  cost. Most  organizations  attempt  to  reduce  the  effect  of failure  by reducing its likelihood.  Imagine that you are  spearheading an effort for a firm that wants to become more innovative. You are given a list of promising but speculative ideas,  and you have to choose  some  subset  of them  for investment.  You thus have to guess  the  likelihood  of success or failure  for each  project. The obvious problem is that no one knows for certain what  will  succeed  and  what  will  fail.  A  less  obvious  but  potentially  more significant problem is that the possible value of various projects is  unconnected  to  anything  their  designers  say  about  them. ... In these circumstances, you will in­evitably  green-light  failures  and  pass  on potential  successes. Worse  still,  more  people  will  remember  you  saying  yes to  a failure  than  saying  no  to  a  radical  but  promising  idea.  Given this  asymmetry,  you will be pushed to make  safe choices, thus systematically undermining the rationale for trying to be more innovative in the  first place. ...

Open source  doesnt  reduce  the  likelihood  of failure,  it  reduces  the cost of failure; it essentially  gets  failure  for free. This reversal, where the cost of deciding what to try is higher than the cost of actually trying them,  is true of open systems generally. As with the  mass  amateurization  of media,  open  source  relies  on  the "publish-then-filter" pattern. In traditional organizations, trying anything  is  expensive,  even  if just in  staff time  to  discuss  the idea,  so  someone  must  make  some  attempt  to  filter  the  suc­cesses from the  failures  in advance.  In open  systems,  the cost of trying something is so low that handicapping the likelihood of success  is  often an unnecessary distraction.  Even  in a  firm committed to experimentation, considerable work goes  into re­ducing  the  likelihood  of failure. ...

Cheap  failure,  valuable  as it is on its  own,  is also  a  key part of a  more  complex advantage: the exploration of multi­ple  possibilities. ... When  a  company  or indeed any organization finds a strategy that works, the drive to  adopt it and stick with it is strong.  Even if there is a better strategy out  there,  finding  it  can  be prohibitively expensive. For  work  that  relies  on  newly  collapsed  transaction  costs, however,  providing basic resources  to the  groups  exploring the  fitness  landscape  costs  little,  and  the  failure  of even  a sizable  number  of groups  also  carries  little  penalty.

Bonus, in praise of scribes (p. 68-9):

In 1492, almost half a century after movable type appeared, Johannes Trithemius, the Abbot of Sponheim, was  moved to launch  an  impassioned  defense  of the  scribal  tradition,  De Laude Scriptorum (literally "in praise of scribes").  In this work he laid out the values  and virtues of the scribal tradition: "The devout monk enjoys four particular benefits from writing: the time  that  is  precious  is  profitably spent;  his  understanding is enlightened as  he writes; his  heart within  is  kindled to  devotion;  and  after  this  life  he  is  rewarded with  a  unique  prize." Note  how  completely  the  benefits  of the  scribal  tradition  are presented  as  ones  enjoyed by  scribes  rather than by society.

The  Abbot's  position  would  have  been  mere  reactionary cant ("We must preserve the old order at any cost") but for one detail.  If,  in the year  1492, you'd written a treatise you wanted widely disseminated, what would you do? You'd have it printed, of course,  which  was  exactly  what  the  Abbot  did.  De  Laude Scriptorum was not itself copied by scribes; it was set in movable type,  in  order  to  get  a  lot of copies  out  cheaply  and  quickly­something for which scribes were utterly inadequate. The con­tent  of the Abbot's  book praised the  scribes,  while its  printed form damned them;  the  medium undermined the message.

There  is   an   instructive  hypocrisy  here.  A  professional often becomes a  gatekeeper,  by providing  a  necessary or  de­sirable  social  function  but  also  by  controlling  that  function. Sometimes this gatekeeping is explicitly enforced (only judges can  sentence  someone to  jail,  only doctors can perform  surgery)  but  sometimes  it  is  embedded  in  technology,  as  with scribes,   who   had   mastered   the   technology   of  writing. Considerable  effort  must  be  expended  toward  maintaining the discipline and structure of the profession. Scribes existed to increase the  spread of the written word, but when a better, nonscribal way of accomplishing the  same  task  came  along, the  Abbot  of Sponheim  stepped  in  to  argue that preserving the  scribes'  way  of life  was  more  important  than  fulfilling their mission by nonscribal means.

Professional self-conception and self-defense, so valuable in  ordinary  times,  become  a  disadvantage  in  revolutionary ones, because professionals are always concerned with threats to the profession.  In most cases, those threats are also threats to  society;  we  do  not want  to  see  a  relaxing  of standards  for becoming a  surgeon or a  pilot.  But in some cases the change that  threatens  the  profession  benefits  society,  as  did  the spread of the printing press; even in these situations the professionals  can  be  relied  on  to  care  more  about  self-defense than  about  progress.  What was  once  a  service  has  become a bottleneck.  Most  organizations  believe  they  have  much more freedom of action and much more ability to shape their
future than they actually do,  and evidence that the ecosystem is changing in ways they can't control usually creates consid­erable  anxiety,  even  if the  change  is  good  for  society  as a whole.

Thanks, Anca!

12 February 2011

Albert Camus – Letters to a German friend

From the Preface:

I cannot let these pages be reprinted without saying what they are. They were written and published clandestinely during the Occupation. They had a purpose, which was to throw some light on the blind battle we were then waging and thereby to make our battle more effective. They are topical writings and hence they may appear unjust. ... When the author of these letters says “you”, he means not “you Germans” but “you Nazis”. When he says “we”, this signifies not always “we Frenchmen” but sometimes “we free Europeans”. I am contrasting two attitudes, not two nations, even if, at a certain moment in history, these two nations personified two enemy attitudes. To repeat a remark that is not mine, I love my country too much to be a nationalist. ... I loath none but executioners. Any reader who reads the Letters to a German Friend in this perspective – in other words, as a document emerging from the struggle against violence – will see how I can say I don’t disown a single word I have written here.

From the first letter (July 1943):

You said to me: “The greatness of my country is beyond price. Anything is good that contributes to its greatness. And in a world where everything has lost its meaning, those who, like us young Germans, are lucky enough to find meaning in the destiny of our nation must sacrifice everything else.” I loved you then, but at that point we diverged. “No”, I told you, “I cannot believe that everything must be subordinated to a single end. There are means that cannot be excused. And I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice. I don’t want just any greatness for it, particularly a greatness born of blood and falsehood. I want to keep it alive by keeping justice alive.” You retorted: “Well, you just don’t love your country.” ...

We had much to overcome, first of all, the constant temptation to emulate you. For there is always something in us that yields to instinct, to contempt for intelligence, to the cult of efficiency. Our great virtues eventually become tiresome to us. We become ashamed of our intelligence, and sometimes we imagine some barbarous state where truth would be effortless. But the cure for this is easy; you are there to show us what such imagining would lead to, and we mend our ways. ...

Contrary to what we used to think, the spirit is of no avail against the sword, but the spirit together with the sword will always win over the sword alone. That is why we have now accepted the sword, after making sure that the spirit was on our side. We had first to see people die and to run the risk of dying ourselves. ... One really possesses only what one has paid for. We have paid dearly, and we have not finished paying. But we have our certainties, our justifications, our justice; your defeat is inevitable. ...

We are fighting for fine distinctions, but the kind of distinctions that are as important as the man himself. We are fighting for the distinction between sacrifice and mysticism, between energy and violence, between strength and cruelty, for that even finer distinction between the true and the false, between the man of the future and the cowardly gods you revere.

From the second letter (December, 1943):

This is what separated us from you; we made demands. You were satisfied to serve the power of your nation and we dreamed of giving ours her truth. It was enough for you to serve the politics of reality whereas, in our wildest aberrations, we still had a vague conception of the politics of honor, which we recognize today. When I say “we” I am not speaking of our rulers. But a ruler hardly matters. ...

What is truth, you used to ask? To be sure, but at least we know what falsehood is; that is just what you have taught us. What is spirit? We know its contrary, which is murder. What is man? There I stop you, for we know. Man is that force which ultimately cancels all tyrants and gods. He is the force of evidence. Human evidence is what we must preserve. ... If nothing had any meaning, you would be right. But there is something that still has meaning. ...

“I am ashamed for that man, and I am pleased to think that no French priest would have been willing to make his God abet murder.” That was true. The chaplain simply felt as you do. It seemed natural to him to make even his faith serve his country. Even the gods are mobilized in your country. They are on your side, as you say, but only as a result of coercion. You no longer distinguish anything; you are but a single impulse. And now you are fighting with the resources of blind anger, with your mind on weapons and feats of arms rather than on ideas, stubbornly confusing every issue and following your obsession. We, on the other hand, started from the intelligence and its hesitations. We were powerless against wrath. But now our detour is finished. It took only a dead child for us to add wrath to intelligence, and now we are two against one.

From the third letter (April 1944):

That idea of Europe that you took from the best among us and distorted has consequently become hard for us to keep alive in all its original force. ... Your speak of Europe but the difference is that for you Europe is a property, whereas we feel that we belong to it. ... You say “Europe”, but you think in terms of potential soldiers, granaries, industries brought to heel, intelligence under control. Am I going too far? But at least I know that when you say “Europe”, even in your best moments, when you let yourselves be carried away by your own lies, you cannot keep yourselves from thinking of a cohort of docile nations led by a lordly Germany toward a fabulous and bloody future. I should like you to be fully aware of the difference. For you Europe is an expanse encircled by seas and mountains, dotted with dams, gutted with mines, covered with harvests, where Germany is playing a game in which her fate alone is at stake. But for us Europe is a home of the spirit where for the last twenty centuries the most amazing adventure of the human spirit has been going on. It is the privileged arena in which Western man’s struggle against the world, against the gods, against himself is today reaching its climax. As you see, there is no common denominator. ...

Your Europe is not the right one. There is nothing there to unite or inspire. Ours is a joint adventure that we shall continue to pursue, despite you, with the inspiration of intelligence.

Sometimes on a street corner, in the brief intervals of the long struggle that involves us all, I happen to think of all those places in Europe I know well. It is a magnificent land molded by suffering and history. I relive those pilgrimages I once made with all the men of the West: the roses in the cloisters of Florence, the gilded bulbous domes of Krakow, the Hradschin and its dead palaces, the contorted statues of the Charles Bridge over the Ultava, the delicate gardens of Salzburg. All those flowers and stones, those hills and those landscapes where men’s time and the world’s time have mingled old trees and monuments! My memories has fused together such superimposed images to make a single face, which is the face of my true native land. ... It never occurred to me that someday we should have to liberate them from you. And even now, at certain moments of rage and despair, I am occasionally sorry that the roses continue to grow in the cloister of San Marco and the pigeons drop clusters from the Cathedral of Salzburg, and the red geraniums grow tirelessly in the little cemeteries of Silesia.

But at other moments, and they are the only ones that count, I delight in this. For all those landscapes, those flowers and those plowed fields, the oldest of lands, show every spring that there are things you cannot choke in blood. ... So I know that everything in Europe, both landscape and spirit, calmly negates you without feeling any rash hatred, but with the calm strength of victory. The weapons the European spirit can use against you are the same as reside in this soil constantly reawakening in blossoms and harvests. The battle we are waging is sure victory because it is as obstinate as spring.

And, finally, I know that all will not be over when you are crushed. Europe will still have to be established. It always has to be established.

From the fourth letter (July, 1944):

For a long time we both thought that this world had no ultimate meaning and that consequently we were cheated. I still think so in a way. But I came to different conclusions from the ones you used to talk about, which, for so many years now, you have been trying to introduce into history. I tell myself now that if I had really followed your reasoning, I ought to approve what you are doing. And this is so serious that I must stop and consider it, during this summer night so full of promises for us and threats for you.

You never believed in the meaning of this world, and you therefore deduced the idea that everything was equivalent and that good and evil could be defined according to one’s wishes. You supposed that in the absence of any human or divine code the only values were those of the animal world – in other words, violence and cunning. Hence you concluded that man was negligible and that his soul could be killed, that in the maddest of histories the only pursuit for the individual was the adventure of power and his own morality, the realism of conquests. And, to tell the truth, I, believing I thought as you did, saw no valid argument to answer you except a fierce love of justice which, after all, seemed to me as unreasonable as the most sudden passion.

Where lay the difference? Simply that you readily accepted despair and I never yielded to it. Simply that you saw the injustice of our condition to the point of being willing to add to it, whereas it seemed to me that man must exalt justice in order to fight against eternal injustice, create happiness in order to protest against the universe of unhappiness. ...

I continue to believe that this world has no ultimate meaning. But I know that something in it has a meaning and that is man, because he is the only creature to insist on having one. This world has at least the truth of man, and our task is to provide its justification against fate itself. And it has no justification but man; hence he must be saved if we want to save the idea we have of life. ...

Our difficult achievement consisted in following you into war without forgetting happiness. And despite the clamors and the violence, we tried to preserve in our hearts the memory of a happy sea, of a remembered hill, the smile of a beloved face. For that matter, this was our best weapon, the one we shall never put away. For as soon as we lost it we should be as dead as you are. But we now know that the weapons of happiness cannot be forged without considerable time and too much blood. ...

You are the man of injustice and, and there is nothing in the world that my heart loathes so much. But now I know the reasons for what was once only passion. I am fighting you because your logic is as criminal as your heart. And in the horror you have lavished upon us for four years, your reason plays as large a part as your instinct. This is why my condemnation will be sweeping; you are already dead as far as I am concerned. But at the very moment when I am judging your horrible behavior, I shall remember that you and we started from the same solitude, that you and we, with all Europe, are caught in the same tragedy of intelligence. And, despite yourselves, I shall still apply to you the name of man. ... I can tell you that at the very moment when we are going to destroy you without pity, we still feel no hatred for you. ...

Our strength lies in thinking as you do about the essence of the world, in rejecting no aspect of the drama that is ours. But at the same time we have saved the idea of man at the end of this disaster of the intelligence, and that idea gives us the undying courage to believe in rebirth. To be sure, the accusation we make against the world is not mitigated by this. We paid so dear for this new knowledge that our condition continues to seem desperate to us. Hundreds of thousands of men assassinated at dawn, the terrible walls of prisons, the soil of Europe reeking with millions of corpses of its sons – it took all that to pay for the acquisition of two or three slight distinctions which may have no other value than to help some among us to die more nobly. Yes, that is heart-braking. ... The dawn about to break will mark your final defeat. I know that heaven, which was indifferent to your horrible victories, will be equally indifferent to your defeat. Even now I expect nothing from heaven. But we shall at least have helped save man from the solitude to which you wanted to relegate him. Because you scorned such faith in mankind, you are the men who, by thousands, are going to die solitary. Now, I can say farewell to you.

Published in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death.