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Monday, September 6, 2010

Coping with Information Overload: Thoughts on Hamlet's BlackBerry by William Powers

Information overload is a hot topic these days. I've really enjoyed recent essays by Aaron Saenz ("Are We Too Plugged In? Distracted vs. Enhanced Minds"), Michael Sacasas ("Technology Sabbaths and Other Strategies for the Digitized World"), and Peggy Noonan ("Information Overload is Nothing New") discussing this concern in a thoughtful way. Thoughtful discussion about this issue is sometimes hard to find because, as I've noted here before, information overload is a subject that bitterly divides Internet optimists and pessimists. The pessimists tend to overplay the issue and discuss it in apocalyptic terms. The optimists, by contrast, often dismiss the concern out of hand. Certainly there must be some reasonable middle ground on this issue, no?

There is, and some of it can be found in a fine new book, Hamlet's BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, by William Powers. Powers, a former staff writer for the Washington Post, is a gifted storyteller and his walk though the history of philosophy and technology makes this slender volume an enjoyable, quick read. He begins by reminding us that:

whenever new devices have emerged, they've presented the kinds of challenges we face today -- busyness, information overload, that sense of life being out of control. These challenges were as real two millennia ago as they are today, and throughout history, people have been grappling with them and looking for creative ways to manage life in the crowd. (p. 5)

His key insight is that is that humans can adapt to new technology, but it takes time, patience, humility, and a little effort. "The key is to strike a balance," he says, between "the call of the crowd" and the "need for time and space apart" from it. (p. 4) The problem we face today is that all the pressure is on us to be what he calls "Digital Maximalists." That is, many of us are increasingly out to maximize the time spent in front of various digital "screens" whether we have made the determination that is really in our best interest or not. It has just gradually happened, Powers argues, because "The goal is no longer to be 'in touch' but to erase the possibility of ever being out of touch." (p. 15)

Continue reading Coping with Information Overload: Thoughts on Hamlet's BlackBerry by William Powers . . .

posted by Adam Thierer @ 7:47 PM | Philosophy / Cyber-Libertarianism, What We're Reading

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Monday, August 30, 2010

Two Schools of Internet Pessimism

[I am currently helping Berin Szoka edit a collection of essays from various Internet policy scholars for a new PFF book called "The Next Digital Decade: Essays about the Internet's Future." I plan on including two chapters of my own in the book responding to the two distinct flavors of Internet pessimism that I increasingly find are dominating discussions about Internet policy. Below you will see how the first of these two chapters begins. I welcome input as I refine this draft. ]

Surveying the prevailing mood surrounding cyberlaw and Internet policy circa 2010, one is struck by the overwhelming sense of pessimism about our long-term prospects for a better future. "Internet pessimism," however, comes in two very distinct flavors:


  1. Net Skeptics, Pessimistic about the Internet Improving the Lot of Mankind: The first variant of Internet pessimism is rooted in general skepticism regarding the supposed benefits of cyberspace, digital technologies, and information abundance. The proponents of this pessimistic view often wax nostalgic about some supposed "good 'ol days" when life was much better (although they can't seem to agree when those were). At a minimum, they want us to slow down and think twice about life in the Information Age and how it is personally affecting each of us. Other times, however, their pessimism borders on neo-Ludditism, with proponents recommending steps be taken to curtail what they feel is the destructive impact of the Net or digital technologies on culture or the economy. Leading proponents of this variant of Internet pessimism include: Neil Postman (Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology), Andrew Keen, (The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing our Culture), Lee Siegel, (Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob), Mark Helprin, (Digital Barbarism) and, to a lesser degree, Jaron Lanier (You Are Not a Gadget) and Nicholas Carr (The Big Switch and The Shallows).

  2. Net Lovers, Pessimistic about the Future of Openness: A different type of Internet pessimism is on display in the work of many leading cyberlaw scholars today. Noted academics such as Lawrence Lessig, (Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace), Jonathan Zittrain (The Future of the Internet & How to Stop It), and Tim Wu (The Master Switch The Rise and Fall of Information Empires), embrace the Internet and digital technologies, but argue that they are "dying" due to a lack of sufficient care or collective oversight. In particular, they fear that the "open" Internet and "generative" digital systems are giving way to closed, proprietary systems, typically run by villainous corporations out to erect walled gardens and quash our digital liberties. Thus, they are pessimistic about the long-term survival of the wondrous Internet that we currently know and love.


Despite their different concerns, two things unite these two schools of techno-pessimism.

Continue reading Two Schools of Internet Pessimism . . .

posted by Adam Thierer @ 10:43 PM | Philosophy / Cyber-Libertarianism, What We're Reading

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Is a Massive Taxpayer-Funded Propaganda Machine Really a Good Idea?

Earlier this year, while I was preparing this mega-filing to the Federal Communications Commission in its "Future of Media" proceeding, I read Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-open: A Free Press for a New Century, by Lee C. Bollinger, who is the president of Columbia University. I had planned on reviewing it since I try to review almost every book I read, but it was hard for me to believe that anyone would take this book too seriously, so I just moved along.

I hate to be that dismissive of any text but this is a book, after all, that proposes the creation of a massive U.S. propaganda machine. Bollinger doesn't just want our government to help out a bit at the margins like it currently does; he wants the State to get under the covers, cuddle tight and become intimate lovers with the Press. And then he wants the Big Press to project itself more, especially overseas, to compete with other State-owned or subsidized media enterprises. Again, it's a propaganda machine, pure and simple. In a new Wall Street Journal editorial today entitled, "Journalism Needs Government Help," he argues:

To me a key priority is to strengthen our public broadcasting role in the global arena. In today's rapidly globalizing and interconnected world, other countries are developing a strong media presence. In addition to the BBC, there is China's CCTV and Xinhua news, as well as Qatar's Al Jazeera. The U.S. government's international broadcasters, like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, were developed during the Cold War as tools of our anticommunist foreign policy. In a sign of how anachronistic our system is in a digital age, these broadcasters are legally forbidden from airing within the U.S. This system needs to be revised and its resources consolidated and augmented with those of NPR and PBS to create an American World Service that can compete with the BBC and other global broadcasters.

China's CCTV and Xinhua news? Qatar's Al Jazeera? Really?! As Jeff Jarvis rightly asks in his terrific response essay, "No American BBC,": "In what sane world is the Chinese government's relationship with news a model?" Indeed, this is frightening stuff. Has Bollinger not studied the Chinese system of state media meddling? Needless to say, it's not pretty. And while I would agree that the BBC model shows that some State-funded media can be quite impressive and free of most meddling, that's not been the case across the board.

Continue reading Is a Massive Taxpayer-Funded Propaganda Machine Really a Good Idea? . . .

posted by Adam Thierer @ 10:37 AM | Books & Book Reviews, Free Speech, Mass Media, Media Regulation, What We're Reading

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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Book Review: Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace

Faithful readers know of my geeky love for tech policy books. I read lots of 'em. There's a steady stream of Amazon.com boxes that piles up on my doorstop some days because my mailman can't fit them all in my mailbox. But I go pretty hard on all the books I review. It's rare for me pen a glowing review. Occasionally, however, a book will come along that I think is both worthy of your time and which demands a place on your bookshelf because it is such an indispensable resource. Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace is one of those books.

Smartly organized and edited by Ronald J. Deibert, John G. Palfrey, Rafal Rohozinski, and Jonathan Zittrain, Access Controlled is essential reading for anyone studying the methods governments are using globally to stifle online expression and dissent. As I noted of their previous edition, Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering, there is simply no other resource out there like this; it should be required reading in every cyberlaw or information policy program.

The book, which is a project of the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), is divided into two parts. Part 1 of the book includes six chapters on "Theory and Analysis." They are terrifically informative essays, and the editors have made them all available online here (I've listed them down below with links embedded). The beefy second part of the book provides a whopping 480 pages(!) of detailed regional and country-by-country overviews of the global state of online speech controls and discuss the long-term ramifications of increasing government meddling with online networks.

In their interesting chapter on "Control and Subversion in Russian Cyberspace," Deibert and Rohozinski create a useful taxonomy to illustrate the three general types of speech and information controls that states are deploying today. What I find most interesting is how, throughout the book, various authors document the increasing movement away from "first generation controls," which are epitomized by "Great Firewall of China"-like filtering methods, and toward second- and third-generation controls, which are more refined and difficult to monitor. Here's how Deibert and Rohozinski define those three classes (or "generations") of controls:

Continue reading Book Review: Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace . . .

posted by Adam Thierer @ 10:13 PM | Free Speech, Intermediary Deputization & Section 230, Internet Governance, What We're Reading

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Kakutani 's Look at Internet Optimists & Pessimists

Michiko Kakutani has a very interesting essay in the New York Times entitled, "Texts Without Contexts," which does a nice job running through the differences between Internet optimists and pessimists, a topic I've spent a great deal of time writing about here. (See: "Are You An Internet Optimist or Pessimist? The Great Debate over Technology's Impact on Society.") She surveys many of the books I've reviewed and discussed here before by authors such as Neil Postman, Nick Carr, Cass Sunstein, Andrew Keen, Mark Helprin, Jaron Lanier, and others. She notes:

These new books share a concern with how digital media are reshaping our political and social landscape, molding art and entertainment, even affecting the methodology of scholarship and research. They examine the consequences of the fragmentation of data that the Web produces, as news articles, novels and record albums are broken down into bits and bytes; the growing emphasis on immediacy and real-time responses; the rising tide of data and information that permeates our lives; and the emphasis that blogging and partisan political Web sites place on subjectivity.

At the same time it's clear that technology and the mechanisms of the Web have been accelerating certain trends already percolating through our culture -- including the blurring of news and entertainment, a growing polarization in national politics, a deconstructionist view of literature (which emphasizes a critic's or reader's interpretation of a text, rather than the text's actual content), the prominence of postmodernism in the form of mash-ups and bricolage, and a growing cultural relativism that has been advanced on the left by multiculturalists and radical feminists, who argue that history is an adjunct of identity politics, and on the right by creationists and climate-change denialists, who suggest that science is an instrument of leftist ideologues.


It's a great debate, but a very controversial one, of course. Anyway, go read her entire essay.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 1:33 PM | Philosophy / Cyber-Libertarianism, What We're Reading

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Are Digital Generativity and Openness Overrated?

So, do I need to remind everyone of my ongoing rants about Jonathan Zittrain's misguided theory about the death of digital generativity because of the supposed rise of "sterile, tethered" devices? I hope not, because even I am getting sick of hearing myself talk about it. But here again anyway is the obligatory listing of all my tirades: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 + video and my 2-part debate with Lessig and him last year.

You will recall that the central villain in Zittrain's drama The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It is big bad Steve Jobs and his wicked little iPhone. And then, more recently, Jonathan has fretted over those supposed fiends at Facebook. Zittrain's worries that "we can get locked into these platforms" and that "markets [will] coalesce [around] these tamer gated communities," making it easier for both corporations and governments to control us. More generally, Zittrain just doesn't seem to like that some people don't always opt for the same wide open general purpose PC experience that he exalts as the ideal. As I noted in my original review of his book, Jonathan doesn't seem to appreciate that it may be perfectly rational for some people to seek stability and security in digital devices and their networking experiences--even if they find those solutions in the form of "tethered appliances" or "sterile" networks to use his parlance.

Every once and awhile I find a sharp piece by someone out there who is willing to admit that the see nothing wrong with such "closed" platforms or devices, or they even argue that those approaches can be superior to the more "open" devices and platforms out there. That's the case with this Harry McCracken rant over at Technogizer today with the entertaining title, "The Verizon Droid is a Loaf of Day-Old Bread." McCracken goes really hard on the Droid -- which hurts because I own one! -- and I'm not sure I entirely agree with his complaint about it, but what's striking is how it represents the antithesis of Zittrainianism:

Continue reading Are Digital Generativity and Openness Overrated? . . .

posted by Adam Thierer @ 10:47 PM | Books & Book Reviews, Innovation, Internet, Open Source, What We're Reading

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Monday, February 15, 2010

book review: Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget

Of the many tech policy-related books I've read in recent years, I can't recall ever being quite so torn over one of them as much as I have been about Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. There were moments while I was reading through it when I was thinking, "Yes, quite right!," and other times when I was muttering to myself, "Oh God, no!"

The book is bound to evoke such strong emotions since Lanier doesn't mix words about what he believes is the increasingly negative impact of the Internet and digital technologies on our lives, culture, and economy. In this sense, Lanier fits squarely in the pessimist camp on the Internet optimists vs. pessimists spectrum. (I outlined the intellectual battle lines between these two camps my essay, "Are You An Internet Optimist or Pessimist? The Great Debate over Technology's Impact on Society.") But Lanier is no techno-troglodyte. Generally speaking, his pessimism isn't as hysterical in tone or Luddite-ish in its prescriptions as the tracts of some other pessimists. And as a respected Internet visionary, a gifted computer scientist, an expert on virtual reality, and a master wordsmith, the concerns Lanier articulates here deserve to be taken seriously-- even if one ultimately does not share his lugubrious worldview.

On the very first page of the book, Lanier hits on three interrelated concerns that other Net pessimists have articulated in the past:


  1. Loss of individuality & concerns about "mob" behavior (Lanier: "these words will mostly be read by nonpersons--automatons or numb mobs composed of people who are no longer acting as individuals.")

  2. Dangers of anonymity (Lanier: "Reactions will repeatedly degenerate into mindless chains of anonymous insults and inarticulate controversies.")

  3. "Sharecropper" concern that a small handful of capitalists are getting rich off the backs of free labor (Lanier: "Ultimately these words will contribute to the fortunes of those few who have been able to position themselves as lords of the computing clouds.")


Again, others have tread this ground before, and it's strange that Lanier doesn't bother mentioning any of them. Neil Postman, Mark Helprin, Andrew Keen, and Lee Siegel have all railed against the online "mob mentality" and argued it can be at least partially traced to anonymous online communications and interactions. And it was Nick Carr, author of The Big Switch, who has been the most eloquent in articulating the "sharecropper" concern, which Lanier now extends with his "lords of the computing clouds" notion. [More on that towards the end.]

Continue reading book review: Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget . . .

posted by Adam Thierer @ 10:39 PM | Open Source, What We're Reading

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Friday, February 5, 2010

Another Sky-is-Falling Zittrain Editorial

Harvard Berkman Center professor Jonathan Zittrain has published another pessimistic, Steve-Jobs-is-Taking-Us-Straight-To-Cyber-Hell editorial building on the gloomy thesis he set forth in his 2008 book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. His latest piece appears in the Financial Times and it's entitled, "A Fight over Freedom at Apple's Core. Concerning the recent Apple iPad announcement, Zittrain warns: "Mr Jobs ushered in the personal computer era and now he is trying to usher it out."

I'm not going to go into yet another lengthy dissertation about what it so misguided about his thesis that cyberspace is becoming more "regulable" and that digital "generativity" is dying because of the rise of devices like the iPhone & iPad, or sites like Facebook. Instead, I will just point you to the many things I've written before explaining just how far off the mark Prof. Zittrain is on this point. [See the complete list down below + video of our debate.]

But let me just say this... Ignoring that fact that he is an iPhone user himself -- which makes no sense considering that he thinks of Apple as the font of all cyber-evil -- he can't muster any substantive empirical evidence proving that the Net and digital devices are being more "closed, sterile, and tethered," as he repeatedly claims in his book and editorials. And that's not surprising because the reality is that the digital world is more open and generative than ever, and even if there are some "closed" devices and systems out there, they are actually quite innovative and not perfectly closed as Zittrain suggests. The spectrum of "open vs. closed" systems and devices is incredible diverse and nothing is perfectly "open" or "closed." We can have the best of both worlds: many open systems with some partial "walled gardens" here and there (or hybrid systems combining both). Regardless, we are witnessing greater digital "generativity" and innovation with each passing year. Until Zittrain can prove the opposite, his thesis must be considered a failure.

Finally, I want to associate myself with this excellent critique of the Zittrain thesis by Prof. Ed Felten, who points out that Zittrain's argument doesn't even work for the iPad, which I would agree is a fairly "closed appliance" in the Zittrainian scheme of the things:

Continue reading Another Sky-is-Falling Zittrain Editorial . . .

posted by Adam Thierer @ 12:01 PM | What We're Reading

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Monday, February 1, 2010

Complementary Goods and Debates about E-Book/Music/Video Pricing

During a recent blog post on William Patry's self-parodying, dishonest, and hate-filled book Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars, ("Copyright Wars"), I argued that disputes between creative industries and technologists who create new means to access creative works tend to be notoriously complex because creators of new content and creators of new content-access technologies are producers of complementary goods.

Producers of complementary goods do not want to destroy each other, but they would love to commoditize each other. In other words, a producer of a complementary good should want to drive the price of any complements produced by others as close as possible to marginal cost in order to maximize the share of mutually-created value that it could potentially capture.

For a concrete example of what I was talking about, review Clash of the Titans, an interesting, opinionated, and perceptive account of the recent clash between Amazon.com and Macmillan over ebook pricing. It represents a thoughtful analysis of the complexities lurking behind these debates. Moreover, the issues outlined are relevant to debates about online pricing of all types of expressive works--music, video, news, periodicals, etc.

Thanks to Marginal Revolution for highlighting this post.

PS: Speaking of Patry's vile book Copyright Wars, I just belatedly perceived another of its many glaring ironies. Around a year ago, the unhinged Patry was putting the finishing touches upon its false and hate-filled claims, (e.g., "I cannot think of a single significant innovation in either the creation or distribution of works of authorship that owes its origins to the copyright industries."), in order to depict an ugly alternate reality in which copyrights had so failed to support the production of innovative works that they should be wholly repealed: "In other areas where a government monopoly, created to serve the public interest, is blatantly abused over a long period of time, it is taken away" (p.199).

Meanwhile, back on Earth, funding provided by copyright industries was empowering Director James Cameron to put the finishing touches on the years of work and the millions of dollars in R&D required to create the beautiful alternate reality depicted in his wildly popular film Avatar. A finer testament to the vacuity of Patry's rabid, unreasoned hate is scarcely conceivable....

posted by Thomas Sydnor @ 11:58 AM | Antitrust & Competition Policy, Books & Book Reviews, Copyright, E-commerce, IP, Innovation, Internet, Mass Media, What We're Reading

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

William Patry's "Moral Panic" about MPAA, Dan Glickman and ACTA

Recently, some routine events occurred. Stars shone at night. Snow fell in winter. And, in a new blog post, Dan Glickman's Moral Panic, Mr. William Patry warned that another vicious "moral panic" has been launched by another representative of the copyright owners whom Mr. Patry has denounced as Maoist, Stalinist, Fascist, Terrorist, murderous, war-mongering religious-zealot stranglers who will stoop not only to "castration" but even to "name calling."

But Mr. Patry's latest attempt to smear a creative industry backfires as badly the "siege-engine"/"screed"/worthless book that he called Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars ("Copyright Wars"). Consequently, Mr. Patry has again proven only that he is either the most incompetently diabolical "Master of Moral Panics" ever known or that he has become so unhinged by rage that he can no longer rationally comprehend or reply to even simple arguments made by copyright owners.

Continue reading William Patry's "Moral Panic" about MPAA, Dan Glickman and ACTA . . .

posted by Thomas Sydnor @ 6:05 PM | Books & Book Reviews, Copyright, E-commerce, Googlephobia, IP, Innovation, Internet, What We're Reading

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Friday, December 4, 2009

Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars: EFF Condemns Patry For "Assembling the Rhetorical Siege Engines of the Copyright Wars...."

posted by Thomas Sydnor @ 5:17 PM | Books & Book Reviews, Copyright, Cyber-Security, Economics, Googlephobia, IP, Innovation, Internet, What We're Reading

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Oh Farts! The Droid, the iPhone & the Lessig-Zittrain Thesis

posted by Adam Thierer @ 6:15 PM | Commons, Innovation, Internet, What We're Reading, Wireless

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

review: A Better Pencil by Dennis Baron

posted by Adam Thierer @ 12:04 AM | Books & Book Reviews, What We're Reading

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The "Moral Panic" of "Copyright Wars": Part One of a Reply.

posted by Thomas Sydnor @ 7:20 AM | Books & Book Reviews, Copyright, E-commerce, Googlephobia, IP, Innovation, Internet, Regulation, What We're Reading

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Monday, September 28, 2009

George Gilder's Micrososm: Hardware as Ideas

posted by Berin Szoka @ 5:23 PM | Innovation, Philosophy / Cyber-Libertarianism, What We're Reading

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

George Gilder's Microcosm: How Entrepreneurial Capitalism Creates & Uplifts

posted by Berin Szoka @ 9:54 PM | Antitrust & Competition Policy, Philosophy / Cyber-Libertarianism, What We're Reading

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  Coping with Information Overload: Thoughts on Hamlet's BlackBerry by William Powers
Two Schools of Internet Pessimism
Is a Massive Taxpayer-Funded Propaganda Machine Really a Good Idea?
Book Review: Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace
Kakutani 's Look at Internet Optimists & Pessimists
Are Digital Generativity and Openness Overrated?
book review: Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget
Another Sky-is-Falling Zittrain Editorial
Complementary Goods and Debates about E-Book/Music/Video Pricing
William Patry's "Moral Panic" about MPAA, Dan Glickman and ACTA
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