Celebrating Celebration

Witold Rybcynski, the writer and scholar of architecture, really likes Celebration, the Disney-built planned town in Florida that raked in controversy for its venture into privatized civic life.
Rybcynski visit and admires the comforting, human-scale houses, streets and sidewalks…

and the thoughtfully laid out parks

and considers it the honest heir to classic garden suburb development in the early 1900s.
The worry about Disney’s Celebration wasn’t about the buildings and streets (which seem genuinely humane), but about the civic structure — Disney’s attempt to build resort-level quality control over the road, school, and social hall fabric of life.
My question about Celebration, a decade later, is how and whether it is evolving from a housing development into a town.

Lakoff, Metaphor, and the world

Alan Ampolsk on Lakoff, via Andrew Sullivan’s blog.
Lakoff’s focus on frames is useful, but too shallow to be sufficiently powerful. It misses the depth of emotion and myth, and the reality-transforming power of reason.

I’m interested in metaphor and politics, so I’m supposed to admire Lakoff. But I don’t. Sure, he did important work on the central role of metaphor in our lives. Worth a look. But even there, you run up against the problem — which is that at the end of the day, he’s a linguist. That means he’s all caught up in the superficial mechanics of language, and has no handle at all on deeper, darker, messier stuff — such as, for example, values, beliefs, core myths — the things that drive actions and power movements.

To Lakoff it’s all a matter of “framing” — frame better, and the human sheep will follow. Because, you know, enlightenment has failed, and the best manipulator wins. Being a progressive, Lakoff is angry at the way Republicans frame. But, in despair over the need to frame — and operating far from the emotional core — the best he can come up with are tinny alternative phrases. Call trial lawyers “public protection attorneys.” Campaign for “poison-free communities.” And you’ve solved it.

Meet the Fockers / Moral Politics

Meet the Fockers is a lowbrow comedy version of George Lakoff’s political theory. Ben Stiller’s embarrassingly touchie-feely parents — his mom’s a sex therapist for senior citizens, his dad’s an ex-radical-lawyer house husband — meet his fiance’s parents — a macho, uptight ex-cia agent and his repressed wife.
In case you couldn’t decipher the contrast in parenting style, the movie has an otherwise gratuitous Byrnes grandchild who’s supposed to be toughened up by letting him cry it out before he’s old enough to say his first word; the Fokkers soothe him with hugs, and the occasional chocolate and thimble of rum.
Many bathroom and sex gags later, the goofy yet loving Fokker family shows up the authoritarian Byrnes style. Meet the Fokker’s was apparently the highest-grossing movie of the Christmas weekend — I wonder how it’s doing in red states?
George Lakoff’s theory — explained in Moral Politics, and popularized in the last election cycle — contends that conservative politics is modeled on a “strict father” family, while liberal politics is based on a “nurturant parent” theory. Conservatives draw on the parenting philosophy of James Dobson, based on harsh discipline and physical punishment, where liberals draw on the empathetic philosophy of T. Berry Brazelton, where discipline is based on teaching the child to understand the feelings of others and consequences of their actions.
Lakoff’s definition of “nurturant parents” includes the notion of responsibility, which stacks the deck, giving liberals too much inherent credit for balance. Extreme viewpoints on the left of the spectrum can be statist and absolutist, not just “nurturing.” Not to mention the “nurturing” nature of old-style, big-city spoils-system Democratic patronage politics.
Opposition to big budget deficits has crossed party lines in recent political cycles. When Republicans oppose budget deficits, presumably they wish to cruelly restrict social programs. When Democrats oppose budget deficits, they are being prudent stewards for future generations.
A theory this general can be used like a horoscope to explain any occurrence. Lakoff describes right-wing opposition to Bill Clinton’s philandering in terms of defense of the father’s moral leadership. Perhaps right wing silence on the moral pecadilloes of Tom DeLay can be explained in terms of authoritarian obedience to the leader. Or perhaps both of these can be explained in terms of aggressively self-interested party politics.
I appeciate Lakoff’s efforts to find a coherent underpinning to liberal beliefs. Lakoff is right that liberals need to do a better job of conveying an emotionally and morally compelling story. He’s right that recent Democratic campaign messages have been a grab-bag of policies, rather than a coherent vision. He’s right that liberals need to reframe issues in a favorable light — Pell Grant and National Science Foundation spending as investment in the country’s future.
But I’m uncomfortable with the psychoanalytic approach explaining people’s beliefs in terms very different than ones they would use to describe themselves.
Lakoff’s theory doesn’t leave room for the very different flavors of self-defind conservative; the corporate capitalists; the small-government libertarians; the socially conservative christians. Conservative message discipline seems to be better explained by publicists effectively crafting and distributing responses than a psychologically driven natural affinity.
Also, the family dynamics theory is blissfully blind to history; the response of Progressive reform to Robber Baron excess, the New Deal to the Depression; the Civil Rights movement to segregation. It can’t see the stasis and complacency that afflicted liberal groups after they won major 60s battles.
Compelling political philosophies work at multiple levels — they resound emotionally, make sense intellectually, and respond historically to the challenges of the time. Lakoff’s family dynamics are part of a valuable effort to explain the moral basis of liberal beliefs. They’ve clearly filtered into mainstream popular culture. But they aren’t the whole of a compelling political story.
To respond to Peterme’s perennial call for explicit opinion, I found “the Fockers” a moderately amusing and entertainingly silly movie for a Christmas weekend night out. I found Lakoff a bit disappointing for a thoughtful airplane read, against billing that he had the secret explanation for conservative success and liberal redemption. Opinions, of course, are all relative to expectations.

The Long Tail, Creative Commons, and Peer Production

The Long Tail is a fabulous Wired Magazine article that proves the business opportunity beyond the mass market hit-based model.
Amazon and Netflix are fundamently different from Walmart and Sony. People are trained by the mass market model to assume that sales follow the 80-20 rule — the top few titles will garner the lion’s share of sails. But more than half of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles.
Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson explains the secrets to success at the tail of the curve:
The first secret to making money at the tail is discovery. “Long Tail” businesses aggregate a vast and diverse inventory, and use collaborative filtering algorithms, recommendations, group-forming tools to help people discover things.
The second secret is lower prices. Anserson analyzes the premium in current pricing, which is calibrated to preserve the margin required to advertise in mass media and to stock shelves, even for products that have no shelf rent and are sold by peer recommendation. Anderson suggests that conventional hits distributed electronically are overpriced by 25%. There are opportunities to charge much lower prices for inventory that never incurs mass production and distribution costs.
Long Tail and Peer Production
The article talks exclusively about commercial production. The long tail creates profit from the vast virtual warehouse of obscure, backlist, minor-label, and out-of-print works. The tail extends further with peer production — blogs, wikis, photo galleries, open source software.
The value model of the long tail applies even more strongly to peer production.
* Low starting price. With peer production, the base price of content falls to $0.
* Discovery. Services like Technorati, Feedster, Freshmeat and CPAN help people discover what’s new and what’s interesting in the long tail.
The peer production model suggests two more principles that apply back up through the middle of the curve:
* Groupforming. Flickr is great because it lets you invite friends to share photos. One of the secrets of Wikipedia success is how it supports micro-communities around obscure topics like obfuscated programming languages.
* Creation tools. Apple, Blogger, 6Apart and now O’Reilly sell tools that help people make and mix their own content.
The Power Law Red Herring
The Long Tail article reveals the limitations of the Clay Shirky power law model. Several years ago, Shirky explained how the top of the peer production curve segues into the mass market. The aggregation of interest raises popular bloggers like Andrew Sullivan, and popular open source software projects like Linux far above the tail, to join the ranks of mass market mainstream hits.
The Power Law essay amputates the long tail, and translates the head of the peer production curve into familiar mass market terms — the creation and packaging of celebrities. By focusing at the top of the curve, where peer production segues into the mass market, the Power Law obscures the the economic and social principles that create profit and value from the Long Tail.
The Power Law essay implied that A-list bloggers were the big winners in the peer ecosystem. This incited resentment of A-list bloggers by community bloggers, who are influential in local groups, but who don’t reach a mass audience. Anderson’s essay suggests that the relationship between the head and the tail is symbiotic instead.
The head’s connected to the tail
In suggesting that the tail will wag, Joi Ito is both right and wrong. He’s right that companies and organizations that take advantage of the tail will be the next-generation powers, and the hit machine will itself become a niche.
The Long Tail shows how it’s profitable for emerging powers like Amazon and Netflix to cultivate the deep backlist. It shows what the mass market content kings are losing by cutting off the tail.
But Joi is wrong with the implication that the tail can succeed without the head. Anderson suggests that earlier experiments like MP3.com failed because they couldn’t get licenses from major labels to distribute hits, so they only offered obscure bands. Anderson contrasts MP3.com with Rhapsody, which lets a music fan traverse a recommendation path from Britney Spears to an obscure 80s ska band in 3 clicks.
Popular content gathers audiences and interest; groupforming and discovery tools help people branch out into niches. This insight suggests that with the right ecosystem, the popular and the obscure can support each other, rather than competing.
Longterm win for Creative Commons
The Long Tail suggests opportunities for Creative Commons and copyright reform. The problem we’ve got in copyright policy is that the Mass Media content kings have purchased the law to try and protect their moribund hit-based business model. Fortunately, the opposing forces aren’t just David fighting Goliath.
The good news is that money and power will accumulate over time to the businesses making money from the tail. The Wired article suggests that NetFlix should hire lots of lawyers to clear copyrights on old, obscure works. Netflix and its peers will also have an interest in freeing the back list by making it easier for old material to re-enter the public domain.
Businesses at the tail are getting involved in production too, very differently from their hit-based A&R predecessors. Labels send scouts looking for the next Brittany, who will sell millions of records. NetFlix saw a award-winning PBS documentary and put up the money to get it produced to DVD, because they make money on items that sell tens and hundreds of thousands. NetFlix and it’s peers using the Long Tail business model will have an interest and leverage at the front of the the production process to use more flexible copyright terms, because recombination will result in a richer database.
Ecology, not ideology
This feels like the right conversation. It’s mildly interesting to see how internet distribution and peer production fits into existing ideological models. It’s a lot more interesting and fun to look at what’s working, understand the principles and effective practices that make it work, and see opportunities to build further.

Open Source Is/Isn’t

Dan Hunter and Crooked Timber have clarified distinctions between Marxism — the political philosophy of Karl Marx — and the extensions to Marxism by others professing and practicing Marxism. The belief that private property must be abolished, and the practice of mandatory collective farms and factories, were follow-ons, not part of Marx’ original philosophy.
It wasn’t clear that Hunter’s article meant “Marxism in Marx’ writings” rather than “Marxism in the arguments and practices of Marxists” — perhaps that is clear in the academic discourse that the paper belongs to.
Going back to Hunter’s article, here is the bit that I disagree with most.

They suggest, for example, that property rights do exist here, it

open source is/isn’t

Til the weekend, I may not have enough time to respond to the good comments on the Red Penguin series distinguishing the thoughts of Marx from the 20th century implementers of Marxism.
But wanted to add a few thoughts about the motivation behind the series. I first wrote Love and Money and Red Penguin as reflections on Benkler — and added the narrative link to Marxism because it was the Hunter article that led me down that path.
Peer production — open source software, wikipedia, weblogs and the rest — is a new way of organizing creation and people.
What’s most interesting is understanding how this wonderful thing works — what are the principles, properties, processes and passions that make the whole thing go, and that make particular things thrive.
So, the interesting avenues to follow, after the classics by Raymond and Benkler and the FSF crew, are the practitioners and observers who are doing it and figuring it out. Good references welcome.
Analogies to existing frameworks like Marxism are interesting inasmuch as they shed light on this new thing.

Love and Money

Yochai Benkler’s classic essay, Coases Penguin, explains peer production as a third classic means of organizing economic activity, parallel to the marketplace and the firm. Peer production has a distinct set of advantages for information products, where costs of communication and distribution are low.
Benkler notes that in the real world, of course, market and firm aren’t mutually exclusive. There are many variants and hybrids between pure market and pure managerial forms. Industry ecosystems typically include a mix of big companies, small suppliers and service providers, and market-based commodity purchasing.
Similarly, we would expect to see hybrid forms combining aspects of peer production and the other classic market and firm-based forms. Following up to Benker’s analysis, here are some thoughts on some emerging combinations.
At Socialtext, we see companies using wikis to generate peer-created internal knowledgebases to share information, replacing centralized, structured collection and publication processes. Companies are finding that removing barriers to contribution by a larger number of contributors improves the speed, quality, and amount of content.
Another hybrid of organization form is for-profit customization and service on an open source base. This isn’t just “rent-seeking” — the economist’s slur for exploitation of freely contributed work. It’s a way to fill a gap in the peer production model.
Benkler describes the traditional method of prioritization in a firm as “managerial.” Resources are allocated by a manager’s dictate. This description ignores a key factor in managerial production — the customer. Managers gather customer needs, and ensure that production is done to customer schedule.
The advantages of peer production are greatest where the developers are the customers. When customers are separated from developers, by skill set or time priorities, there needs to be some way to communicate the customer’s needs to the developers. Customers also bring deadlines, which are foreign to pure peer production. Benkler writes that peer production is more efficient over time because of its ability to marshall vast resources. “Peer production relies on making an unbounded set of resources available to an unbounded set of agents, who can apply themselves toward an unbounded set of projects.” But if a customer needs functionality by a specific moment, it won’t help that a given free software project will probably develop that capability eventually.
Agile development methods — where customers and developers work collaboratively to set priorities against deadlines — take advantage of lowered communication costs to increase customer input and reduce risk. Using these methods on an open source base allows producers and customers to take advantage of peer production low cost and high-quality for things that are generic or non-time-sensitive.
With agile development, money is a measure of practical empathy — you get paid when you understand and meet customers needs and priorities over time.
Another interesting and puzzling question is the mix of incentives in a hybrid world. Where financial and nonfinancial motivations co-exist, how can money be introduced without discouraging people who contribute for free, for fame, satisfaction, personal need, and other nonmonetary incentives.
As noted in the previous post, some activities, like sports and music, where participating for money isn’t seen as mutually exclusive to participating for social rewards and personal satisfaction. There are fields like academia and scientific research, where participants make a living, but choose to earn substantially less than their peers who work in law practice and industry. There are also fuzzy lines in artistic and academic communities between being successful and “selling out” — tilting the balance all the way toward money, and away from values respected by peers, like unbiased research.
Benkler notes that there are some areas where perceptions change over time. In Shakespeare’s time, professional actors and musicians were looked down on; in the 19th century, professional athletes were disrespected. These values have reversed.
Given the substantial economic activity surrounding open source (IBM, anyone?), there are many people negotiating the “love and money” boundary every day. Personally, I like serving customers, and think it is fortunate that it is customer focus that makes money in an open source ecosystem. Much of the innovation in social software is coming from peer production — the way to innovate is to participate in the game. And, like anyone in a business based on “commons” resources, I want those resources to thrive, for reasons of inherent value, and for self-interest.
What do y’all think?

Anarchist in the Library

I loved Siva Vaidhyanathan’s last book, Copyrights and Copywrongs. It’s a superb excellent intellectual and cultural history and critique of copyright policy.
His new book, Anarchist in the Library isn’t up to his standards. “Anarchist” tries to draw a connection between the spread of peer to peer file-sharing, peer cultural creation, and political anarchy.
The analogy is thin, though. Anarchism is a deliberate political philosophy that opposes central government. My guess is that most file-sharers aren’t making a political statement, they just want access to music.
The bigger problem with defining file-sharing as anarchy is that it focuses on what’s absent — central control; rather than what is present — strong and shifting networks of cultural influence.
After a brief historical period dominated by mass media, we’re seeing a revival of folk culture, with new forms of peer cultural sharing and creation — file sharing, blogging, mashups. The trend has been growing since the advent of cheap photocopiers and cheap videocameras, and accelerating with cheap distribution and improved tools for sharing taste and collaborating.
The portrayal of culture as anarchy is a Romantic notion, shaped by the ideal of the artists as lone rebels or dissident cliques. That concept itself is the result of the mass media dominance. Artists see themselves as an embattled minority, then their work gets co-opted into mass media (Lennon’s Revolution selling sneakers).
With the rise of mainstream folk culture, though, the interesting structural observation isn’t the lack of central control. It’s the emergence of networks of influence that are shaped by taste, by opinion, by identity, by personal connection, by mentorship.
Vaidhyanathan laments the lack of community formed around Napster. But that was just immaturity. We’re just inventing tools for groupforming around shared preferences and collaborative creation. Flickr has cool tools for building groups around sharing pictures. If Napster was allowed to live, if music-sharing were legal, we’d see faster growth of social software around music.
“Anarchist” segues from Napster to chapters showing science and libraries under attack by increasing corporate and political control. I found those chapters more interesting and informative, probably because I knew less about those topics than then internet copyright wars.
But the anarchist argument still wasn’t all that persuasive. There’s a strong case to be made that a balance is shifting toward control. But the converse — that science and libraries are inherently anarchistic — just doesn’t hold up. David Weinberger recently published an interesting piece on cultural bias in the Dewey Decimal system. Western science and technology has always had an alliance with military and industrial forces.
Also, the book’s politics contain a bit of kneejerk Chomskyism. Lets get this straight — third world unlicensed DVD factories are good guys, fighting US intellectual property protectionism. Meanwhile, the Brazilian domestic aerospace industry are the good guys when they implement protectionism, fighting US free trade. IP production is bad when the US does it, and good when the 3rd world does it.
In summary, Anarchist in the Library has some interesting ideas and information, but is a disappointing book overall. Beyond this book, Vaidyanathan thinks and writes well about interesting and important topics, and I look forward to reading more good books from him in the future.

The Geography of Thought

I’ve wondered idly whether the naming game between adults and infants was universal, or culturally-specific. It turns out that Western children learn nouns faster than verbs “that’s a ball. see, ball” and East Asian children learn verbs just as fast.
Richard Nisbett’s “The Geography of Thought” includes a variety of experimental evidence showing how East Asians and Westerners think differently.
When shown pictures of a cow, a chicken, and some grass westerners are more likely to group the cow and the chicken, while East Asians are more likely to group the cow and the grass. Westerners are more likely to organize things in categories, while Asians are more likely to organize by relationship (the cow eats grass).
Westerners perceive things as objects (a bowl), easterners as substances (wood). Westerners will group a wooden bown and a silver bowl; easterners will group a wooden bowl and a wooden spoon. Westerners more likely to group items by rule, Easterners by similarity. Westerners are more likely to attribute human behavior to essential traits, Easterners to social context.
Some of the differences covered in the book are well-known — the individualism of the west, compared to eastern group identity. Western culture — particularly US culture — thrives on debate, while East Asian cultures value harmony.
The book seems naive at times — ancient Chinese images of bucolic scenes are taken as typical of Chinese life, rather than as conventional subjects of art, produced (I don’t know, but guessing) for the wealthy. The book makes broad-brush assumptions about how East Asians are content with the hierarchical structures of their societies, an assumption that’s falsifiable with the barest minimal familiarity with literature.
The most compelling evidence in the book was about low-level thought constructs that one might think are universal but aren’t.

women, competition, followup

A few good follow-up conversations about the “women and competition” story, two posts down.
Sunir wondered about whether the study reveals cultural bias in favor of single-winner competition.
Just one recent example: Joi Ito’s post about Japanese reaction to the hostages in Iraq and ideas about individualism vs group identity in Japanese culture.
Peter comments that the preference for competition vs. co-operation doesn’t line up neatly on a gender axis.
(Which is my beef with difference feminism; gender is an illustrative lens to examine human differences, but one of many; gender differences are real, but reflect averages across the population, and don’t determine individual behavior).
The more that I think about it, the real, detectable underlying bias here is that of the University of Chicago, the affiliation of the study’s lead author. The Chicago school of economics applies the mathematical and experimental techniques of economics to “prove” how the rational, individualistic incentives of “homo economicus” apply to everyday social life. Debatable philosophical assumptions about human nature are baked into the premises of the studies, and the outcomes confirm the premises.