Online self-government

Another Clay Shirky article that is fascinating, eloquent, insightful, and at heart, deeply wrong. Clay ponders the emerging mechanisms of self-governance in online game communities, and probes the differences with 3D communities.
One difference is that in the real world, we have a mechanism for changing the rules — it’s called legislation. This takes Clay to explore Nomic games, where changing the rules can be a move in the game.

Another big difference, posits Clay, is that in the online world, somebody else owns the server. At the end of the day the server owner can always pull the plug, so governance defaults to dictatorship. Clay explores models of server co-ownership, which would remove this barrier to self-government. In making citizenship a function of property-ownership, Clay is back with the Athenians and the US founding fathers, who found it self-evident that property-owners can self-govern, and others can’t.

Take the thought experiment a few steps forward; imagine a virtual world in which one can sell one’s server shares. Soon, game players down on their luck will sell server shares to refresh depleted life scores, entrepreneurs will amass oligopolistic ownership of the servers, and property control will be stronger than it is today, because the owners feel that they earned it by the divine invisible hand. Liberty, as political thinkers concluded in the physical world, is not a property of property ownership — it’s a property of being human.

In the long run, the solution to the problem isn’t collective ownership of servers — although that suggests some interesting and fruitful models. The solution to the problem is itself political. Denizens of virtual worlds can demand self-government, and can use the physical-world political system to get it. Think about it. A landlord doesn’t have the right to kill tenants at will (not since feudal times), nor to destroy a tenant’s furniture. If it is important to enough online game-players to demand tenants’ rights, this will happen. Big owners have the ability to buy physical-world government, but the oligopoly isn’t omnipotent — a large enough, vocal enough voting population can win a populist issue. It seems counterintuitive now — it might take a generation to make the point — but it could happen.

Clay rightly points out that a second scarce commodity is software and coding skill. The programmers can choose to unilaterally change the rules of the game. This is an artifact of the social system. Law-making is also a relatively scarce technical skill, but legislators are seen to be employed by the people. Programmers are currently employed by game companies. What if programmers were employed by game-players? Programmers would implement the rules that game-players wanted, or they’d be out of a job. Game-players will demand rules that guarantee easy wins, you might argue. It’s the same argument against democracy itself — government by the people will “naturally” result in bad laws. We use representative government to ensure some continuity, and avoid government by mob; similarly, programmers might be elected for a term, and voted out of office.
The scarcity of programmers and game platforms is an artifact of the immaturity of the games industry. Given a decade or more (think about how long it took for Linux to emerge and become popular), there may well be a set of free, open source game platforms, large populations of developers and power users, with open standards for virtual cities, virtual property, and scores. When this happens, communities or players will be able to move more easily. The condition of a game-player today is like a medieval serf, who is bound to his land (the virtual world), and has painfully few rights. A combination of changed economic conditions (greater mobility) and changed political beliefs (government by the people), could transform the relationship between players and game hosts, just as it did between rulers and ruled.

Clay’s conclusion that the solution to game world tyranny is only fractionally right, and misses deep principles about the nature of self-government. But, as usual, his articulate framing of the issues invites broader discourse, and thoughtful disagreement. Thanks as usual, Clay.

Pictures

Usually, when I go for a walk in my neighborhood, I wish I had a digital camera to share the pictures. Tonight the images wouldn’t have come out on film or pixels, at least with my snapshot skills. The air is steamy, the moon is white and half-hiding behind silver clouds, the live-oaks look shaggy and nearly animated, like their cousins in the wizard of oz and the lord of the rings; and the neighborhood’s stage lighting talents are up for awards. Small, yellow footlights along the path above the stairs from streetlevel, lighting the way to the looming white triple decker. Twinkling white strands surround a courtyard, suspended on fences. Yellow living room light glows behind a cavern of bushes. Stray sunflowers grow in stray dirt and rubble in the corner of the street. The globes of the 1930s experimental tower streetlight cast halos against the sky, appear and disappear around corners down the hill.
Some of the chiaroscuro comes from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, which I’ve finally gotten around to reading. May blog more about Sandman upon reflection.

Cleaning

Cleaning is an important part of the weekend. As soon as I’m rested enough to think and see, I’ll declutter the house and pick something else to clean up.
Blog comment spammers are just another kind of vermin. They evoke the same sort of visceral disgust as ants, roaches, and flies. I just downloaded the latest MTBlacklist and cleaned the comments.

Why Friendster isn’t Social Capital

Talking to Jonas Luster a couple of weeks ago about the popularization of Social Capital and other social science concepts.
Jonas is frustracted that people confuse numbers of Orkut and Friendster connections with social capital itself. The problem, says Jonas, is that people mistake Friendster and other social networking sites for social capital. “We can not see Social Capital — we can only see its effects.”
Social capital is a measure of the strength of relationships and communities. It’s measured using factors including cohesion (would I lend you money or offer you my guest room if you were travelling), proximity (degree of separation) and density (do my friends know your friends).
But the Orkut/Friendster/weblog/wiki fans aren’t that far wrong, I don’t think.
Social network tools and structures are potential energy, and cohesion is kinetic energy.
New means of meeting and staying in touch — YASNS, email, weblogs, wikis, and meetups — give people more chances to create groups and build relationships.
We have a history of similar shifts. Cheap telephone connections let families stay in touch across distance. Television displaced vast quantities of social interaction, community-building, and cultural creativity with passive isolation.
Will today’s new tools have no effect, destructive, or constructive results for communities and connections?
I have an opinion. I have a company and several communities that communicate online often, and meet in person occasionally. I think the new patterns will give more people opportunities to strengthen ties across distance, and make in-person connections. When we lower the cost of networking, some of the connections are shallow, like Orkut friend requests, and some of them are deep, like the open source projects that power the internet.
Time will tell. We get to watch and participate.
p.s. Jonas also explained that there are two main ways to define social capital
* Robert Putnam, of Bowling Alone fame, sees Social Capital as an aggregate entity — a person or society can have strong or week social capital.
* Coleman sees Social Capital as being measured by the sum total of attributes — social prestige, family connections, business reputation etc.
The definition seems important if you’re doing social science research and want your numbers to add up, but they seem mathematically equivalent to me.

Texas strips Unitarian church tax exemption

The second and sixth US presidents, John Adams and John Quncy Adams, belonged to the Unitarian church.
But that’s not enough for the State of Texas. Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn ruled this week to take away the tax exempt status of the Unitarian church, because the church “does not have one system of belief.” See this Knight Ridder story for more detail.
Why stop with the Unitarians? Hindus and Buddhists surely don’t meet the standard either. In fact, Jewish theology has far to much room for variance in important areas such as the precise nature of the afterlife. Time to tax synagogues and temples.
The failed attempt to finance schools with “sin taxes” on cigarettes, strip clubs, and lottery machines was clearly a step in the wrong direction.
Clearly, we need to finance Texas education with taxes on religious organizations with insufficiently rigorous theology. Not to mention atheists, who should register to pay extra taxes.
Or maybe reread the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Texas strips Unitarian church tax examption

The second and sixth US presidents, John Adams and John Quncy Adams, belonged to the Unitarian church.
But that’s not enough for the State of Texas. Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn ruled this week to take away the tax exempt status of the Unitarian church, because the church “does not have one system of belief.” See this Knight Ridder story for more detail.
Why stop with the Unitarians? Hindus and Buddhists surely don’t meet the standard either. In fact, Jewish theology has far to much room for variance in important areas such as the precise nature of the afterlife. Time to tax synagogues and temples.
The failed attempt to finance schools with “sin taxes” on cigarettes, strip clubs, and lottery machines was clearly a step in the wrong direction.
Clearly, we need to finance Texas education with taxes on religious organizations with insufficiently rigorous theology. Not to mention atheists, who should register to pay extra taxes.
Or maybe reread the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Senate Hearing on Electronic Voting

The Texas Senate State Affairs Commitee held a hearing yesterday, May 17, on the implementation of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Professor Dan Wallach and I testified on behalf of a voter-verifiable paper trail. (Without a paper trail, there is no good way to audit or recount the result of an election.)
Chairman Duncan asked county administrators sharp questions about what happens if there are discrepancies in the vote tally. Senator Nelson’s son has worked in computer security, and she asked questions that showed an understanding of the vulnerabilities and risks that affect computer systems.
The voter-verified paper trail got better reception in Senate State Affairs than at the House Elections Committee hearing on March 31, where the Representatives had a much earlier level of understanding about computer security. Chairwoman Denny dismissed evidence of problems with electronic voting systems in other states, even though the same systems are used in Texas as elsewhere in the country. We have more education to do in the House.
You can download and watch the video of the meeting here on the “lege-cam.”
Dan’s testimony is here

Austin library unclear on the concept

The Web catalog is currently on-line:
Sunday 10:30 a.m.-12 midnight
Monday-Friday 6 a.m.-12 midnight
Saturday 6 a.m.-9 p.m.
The Web catalog is not available on Library holidays.

Do they have little sql elves to fetch the book references from the database? Does the web server belong to a union?
Or do they take the system down every night while data entry clerks in Bangalore add new novels and take away obsolete collections of magazines.

Intimacy gradient

Socialtext is based on wiki which, which uses a model of collaboration coming from the world of agile software development.
Within a team, there is a level of trust. People want to be able to work together quickly, with few barriers. If someone makes a mistake, others will rally and correct it. The capabilities of the team as a whole is greater than the sum of the parts, so it’s great to be able to get contribution from everyone. People are working quickly, in short iterations. It’s important to be able to contribute quickly, with as few steps and interruptions as possible.
The original wiki model was fully open to the public. Socialtext supports public wikis, which are fully open, and private wikis, which are open to members of the team.
Larger organizations require a more sophisticated model than “public” or “private.” There are models to draw on from Christopher Alexander, an architect whose work on “pattern languages” describes the design patterns in the physical built environment, ranging in scale from rooms, to houses, to streets, to neighborhoods and cities.
Alexander writes about an “intimacy gradient”. There are some areas in a house that are public — the front porch; areas that are indoors and public — the living room; and areas that are indoors and more private — bedrooms and bathrooms.
The design opportunity is to create livable, workable, more-public and more-private spaces, using a “social software method” that focuses on helping people connect and collaborate with people in the least restrictive, most appropriately trusting way.
This is a different design philosophy than the traditional methods for setting levels of privacy. The underlying traditional assumption is that information should be available, and users should have privileges, on a “need to know basis.” Individuals should have as little information and as few privileges as they need to do their jobs.
The goal of a tool for group work is to be able to restrict access with as much control as possible. Content and privileges should be controllable at a highly granular level. A work process should be clearly defined, to determine what users should have access to what information, and a given stage of a process.
This methods depend on a highly-structured, formal process. Analysts and administrators need to carefully define the types of information, to parcel out privileges, and to be able to monitor information access.
These processes and assumptions are right for some environments, and wrong for many others. If an organization needs a highly structured, controlled, restricted process, then Socialtext is probably not right for that need.
Many knowledge workers overuse email, because that’s the only way they can get the kind of rapid, flexible communication that’s appropriate for the collaborative work they’re doing.
Socialtext is seeking looking to add more layers to the “intimacy gradient”, without recreating the highly structured collaboration tools that exist today.

Weblog muse

There’s a class of private conversation thats an alcove in a broader, more conversation.
You develop ideas in exchange with someone, and those ideas are shared by blog or wiki. The social convention is to credit the blogmuse, and the source of conversation (in person, on IM or IRC channel.
Like many social interaction, the norm is based on give and take. It would be unfair for one party to interview another and continually post the results. It is normal give and take to share ideas, credit sources, and put the ideas out in public as material for further conversation.
The traditional muse is female, the artist is male. The physical beauty of the muse inspires the artist to create. The muse is a model, not a collaborator.
The blogmuse is any gender, and the conversation is the inspiration. The ideas are created collaboratively. Who blogs is a matter of the day.
The tensions of authorship and inspiration are more relevant in weblog form, which is individually authored, than wiki form, which is group authored. Although wikis are not necessarily public domain — some wikis have collective ownership of content, without permitting wholesale copying and repurposing elsewhere.