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Please, please don't throw me into the briar patch, Brer Fox!

SOPAgeddon - Should We Take Them Seriously?


Chronogical Blog Entries:



Date: Tue, 24 Jan 2012 22:42:48 +1100

Your blogger sincerely hopes that you have had a pleasant and refreshing holiday break, and welcomes you back to the coal-face, dear reader. As some of you may be aware, your blogger often rides his bicycle to work ... In fact just the other day as he was riding to work, a small glint of gold caught his humble eye.

It was a two dollar coin lying in the gutter ... Now dear reader, your blogger is only a humble programmer ... And two dollars was just enough to persuade him to stop his push bike, dismount and pocket the cash. And as he did so, your humble blogger pondered the remarkable changes that he has seen since decimal currency was introduced to our "land down under". When your blogger first encountered the new two dollar unit of currency it was a note that would have purchased a newspaper, a hearty meal and a round of drinks at the pub ... Although at the time, your blogger was not of a suitable age that he could have made such a purchase legally, and you, dear reader, probably weren't even born! These days two dollars is merely a small gold (coloured) coin that wouldn't even buy a cup of coffee and has so little value, your blogger has to actually think about whether he has the time to arrest his onward flight to his station of toiling over a hot computer to earn even more dollars in order to feed the many hungry mouths in his humble family.

Of course, money has changed in many ways, since the two dollar note was introduced to replace our pound. And some of us reminisce about the good old days when you could buy a beer for a shilling (Not your humble blogger of course -- it wasn't legal for him to drink beer when it was only a shilling a glass). And while we experience such nostalgia it must be apparent that things are very different today. Or it least it so seems to your blogger's long-time cobber, Dan Byrnes, historian, raconteur and Poet without a blog, who sends the odd email to your humble blogger. Recently Dan wrote:

The politician versus the millisecond: misadventures in the past, present and future due to computers

By Dan Byrnes (in Armidale NSW, 24 January, 2012)

Dear Editor,

Lately my usual phone callers, emailers, friends and contacts, have been complaining about the lack of eloquence shown by our politicians. We seem to begin 2012 afloat on an ocean of banality, and flying by our cabin windows are predictions of a coming financial crash worse than the one beginning in late 2008.

I think some of my callers' consternations are prompted by the bizarre, only-in-America lack of calibre we see in the current Republican aspiring presidential candidates. A bunch of outdated and cliche-ridden duds, their views must be an insult to anyone who actually knows about or experiences the realities of American life in recent years.

They are so far out of touch, it seems obvious that most of the US Republican Party is at great risk of engaging in national self-harm, and should be put in custody for its own good and placed on permanent political suicide watch.

(How might many house-foreclosure Americans feel today? Listen again sometime to the Jimi Hendrix version of The Star-Spangled Banner, Woodstock, 1969. Go Google, it is on YouTube, check the stunned-mullet look on the faces of the audience. Hendrix was darkly predictive, maybe 30-40 years ahead of his time about his country's future.)

In Australia, the offensiveness of the Liberal Party back-room rulers, or faceless men, in keeping Tony Abbott as ostensible leader of their party, has become toxic. Our media should be outing these senior Liberals and asking them why they continue to employ Abbott as opposition leader, whose lack of vision for our country is extremely worrying. Meaning, their lack of vision generally, is conspicuous as well.

Perhaps, we could be charitable and suggest that politicians (and voters too) are suffering information overload as they try to cope, and eloquence has been tossed out the window due to politicians being continually flabbergasted. No, no charity is applied here, because it deflects attention from identifying the stress levels we are feeling, from the cracks appearing in our stress-tolerance. Dangerous cracks.

Abbott is hardly the only politician in the world unable to cope with the rates of change any nation has today. For example, it is said that the politicians of Greece were unable (or unwilling) to supervise a useful taxation system. There is worse to consider than the misbehaviour of individual governments. It seems to be the case globally that with financial capitalism, business-cycle downturns are happening more often. They used to happen around each 11.5 years. Now they seem to happen each 7.5 years. And I mean here, business downturns of the scale which make economists flinch from the dreaded R word - recession.

The millisecond problem

With trying to delve into today's sets of problems, I find a common factor around the world, which is the turbo-charged speed of modern communications, which collectively is having unintended consequences on an unimaginable number of fronts.

One of which is that toxic politicians and toxic voters become more conspicuous even more quickly. Today, if any politician in any country at all tells outright lies, the Internet can advise of this with improving speed. World-wide, politicians have still not adjusted to this. (Look at Zimbabwe!)

A phrase used in the computer industry for some outcomes of computerisation in particular organisations is "uneven diffusion of information", which can create glitches even for the best-intentioned, most co-operative efforts. There seems not to be a phrase that newspapers can use for referring to the effects of uneven diffusion of information, in a context of uneven reduction of time lags, across entire nation states!

Let's call it, the millisecond problem.

Much faster communications are creating timing gaps. Or rather, time gaps, lags, delays in affairs that we used to regard as normal are now speeded up. Faster disclosure of accurate information can result in credibility gaps opening up that were not apparent before. These reduced timing gaps are amplifying credibility gaps old or new (as the Arab Spring protestors know very well as they confront their regimes).

Widening credibility gaps are eroding trust of all kinds, in politics and in individual politicians, in institutions, in democracies and in democracy itself, in ideas that the world's financiers and bankers can't in fact cope with fast-changing financial scenarios.

Things happen faster, and odd things are happening for example with what used to be called the generation gap between parents and children - the generation gap has been subdivided, and multiple generation gaps have been segmented. It shows in TV free-to-air program time-slotting. It shows in the multiple games, gadgets and communication devices that youngsters like to use.

Delays we were used to with lodging our tax return and getting a response from the Taxation Dept are now less. We can look up our current bank balance anytime we like if we use Internet banking systems. What used to be called lag effects in the economics of handling national accounts probably occur now across a reduced time frame. Corporations can update their affairs more quickly and in theory are more nimble.

But there are paradoxes too. The opposite of a nimble corporation seems to be Kodak, which invented the digital camera, did little with it, and has lately been put out of business by other corporations making and selling digital cameras. Somehow, Kodak fell into a huge credibility gap of its own making. Very ironic.

Educators have to cope with students' abilities to cut-and-paste material, that is, to plagiarise, which erodes trust in the educational process. (Less thoughtful students possibly feel they finish their homework more quickly?)

Today it is far quicker to verify a quote, or find information to answer a question or help settle a dispute. A few nights ago I had a visitor. An amusing conversation arose of the pub-bet variety. We agreed to abide by what answer we found via Google. The answer took 0.23 seconds to find. A quick end to that direction of conversation. Suddenly we had to find something else to talk about.

Yet in Australia, we have larger pub-bets to worry about, such as how to manage the Murray River Basin? There is no 0.23 second answer arising for those kinds of complex problems, but we can wonder about what kind of computer modelling would be best to apply? What we have got so far have been politician-modelling of the problems and any solutions.

(You mean, Mr and Ms Australian Politician, that around the world, we cannot find an off-the-shelf computer-modelling system for managing large river basins? I do not believe it. If there isn't one, why can't we write it?)

In the Western World, with slow-moving political parties, slow-learning politicians answering to voters who have not yet identified all the issues arising from faster communication, let alone found solutions, it is not so easy to find what is best to talk about next. Predictions are that the EU will break up within ten years, and that the Euro will fail as a currency in fewer years.

Yet a strong currency is not the answer it once was, nor is it necessarily easier to exploit opportunities arising if our rivals weaken. Our newspapers are riddled with quotes from our frightened manufacturers, producers, retailers and tourism industry, that a stronger dollar backlashes on business and changes business plans. And we can find out about changes in the value of our currency, and reasons for them, far more quickly: and so can our rivals and enemies.

Trust in our major institutions in society is eroding. Universities now enjoy much less prestige, and are white-anted by management gurus with little empathy with the paradoxes of the education processes, especially knowledge versus ignorance, while the states of knowledge seem to be rapidly changing due to changed communication patterns.

Our banks in Australia are predicted to be putting off staff and off-shoring work, outsourcing a variety of higher-level banking functions. Which helps erode the trust the middle class used to have in its position, and in turn, the trust the politicians can have in middle-class voting patterns.

Maybe, faster communications plus extra transparency means less confidentiality too, and the beliefs of Julian Asssange and Wikileaks aside, the extent to which any society (or group of nations) can deal with less confidentiality remains unknown because no one speaking in public has the courage or the ability to test it.

No one seems to ask, if Wikileaks can acquire a vast cache of US army and government information, why such a cache of computerised data cannot be transferred from the computers of a regime in a Burma, a Pakistan, an Egypt, a Syria, a Russia, or anywhere that proper, democratic voting patterns are allegedly less-than-visible. Somewhere, and despite the controversy, Wikileaks fans are not yet trying. Too easily gob-smacked, we have not yet seen even the beginning of these sorts of quick-moving, vast-databank, whistle-blower scenarios.

The digital palimpsest vs the old hard-copy copyright

In the USA, with the current SOPA-PIPA arguments about the protection of copyrights and the prevention of Internet piracy of and so maybe, censorship-style control of the Internet, free speech is endangered in the home of the brave and the land of the free. Actually, the very notion of copyright has been eroded. What we actually see here for human creativity itself, is a battle between pre-digital and post-digital approachesi.

I have tried via the Net to assess the likely future view on the US Supreme Court on such issues, based on its past decisions, and broadly, the future does not seem healthy for free speech in the USA, or internationally.

The Court it seems would choose to defend old-fashioned copyright property rights, rather than ponder on a changed situation due to a digital revolution in information-handling. That is, it will have trouble addressing the central issues. The usual conservatism of The Law will collide nastily with turbulence in the busy, binary world of digital reality, and with how people worldwide prefer to use digital technology.

In 2012, any national Supreme Court might as well try to deliver an enforceable verdict on the correct way to lick ice cream!

Money is now merely collections of electrons in computers. World-wide, the faster and extra electronic definition and re-definition of money and the meaning of major money transfers has changed the meaning of money, wealth, and apparently, corporate and government debt as well. Right across the EU! While it appears, half or more of the individual states of the USA are technically bankrupt (while their Federal Republicans, bravely, they think, refuse to raise particular taxes for the most wealthy.)

Changes in the meaning of money here might perhaps be relative, but relative changes also look different when measured by faster abilities with information transfer.

Daily on ABC TV news, finance commentator Alan Kohler regales us with wonderfully multi-coloured graphs of economic activity and trends. No one seems to ask if any of the graphs are still worth the hills of beans they were once alleged to be worth. Or if any graph depicts anything still actually meaningful in economic or financial terms. Reports on the financial ill-health of the EU would seem to indicate the graphs report little that is true or useful.

The flight of safe havens to where?

For months I have looked in vain for sensible remarks in newspapers, or on the Net, about the existence of safe havens for finance around the world, even less-than-legal safe havens. Even for suitably scandalized reports about less-than-legal havens for large amounts of any sort of money. Nothing arises. The media world-wide are not onto anything here, so we assume they have gone doggo.

Interest rates seem to trend lower, which bodes ill for the future of usury, more so in the USA. World-wide, no set of government bonds seems to represent a safe haven. The notions of money and intrinsic value seem to have made a flight from economic reality, if any such thing ever existed.

What we appear to have are sets of less-than-safe havens for money. Which means risk-management gurus will still find their voices heard. Yet in 2009, failed theories of risk-management were said to be one cause of the 2008 global financial crash. Can anyone these days point anyone to a reliable theory of risk management for nation-states?

World wide, in politics generally, it is now far easier and quicker (using say, Wikipedia alone) to make a cross-comparison of conditions of life in various countries. This is one part-cause of the turbulence in the Arab or Middle Eastern world, with the so-called Arab Spring Movement.

And what can the turbulence be called? Terrorism? Civil disobedience? Legitimate protest? Some computer cynics have suggested that the protestors using mobile phones (and the Internet, etc, twitter etc) are merely flash-mobbing, which in the West is just a fun new way for youngsters to suddenly gather in numbers suitable for ambushing security guards, police, and owners of property while they engage in culture-jamming of one kind or another.

In the Middle East, however, neither the reactionary views of certain oppressive regimes, nor the impetus of the protestors, have any tradition of either enjoying or deploying democracy as it is understood in the West. We are more likely to hear of something near a return to Sharia Law.

While the most important trick with democracy is not about acquiring political power, it is with letting power go, giving it up when the voters tell a party-in-power that they have reached their use-by-date.

(Why does some newspaper not interview both John Howard and Tony Abbott on this very point? Because the western media too have forgotten that this is the basic trick with democracy -- at some point, and with a good grace, giving up the exercise of power and handing it to a rival political party without bloodshed!)

Here, seeking what they imagine is safety, the Middle Eastern protestors want more of fast information transfer and socio-political change, the regimes want less. Is this a situation of the race between the tortoise and the hare? What both might find is that when they finish their race, the world oil industries will have entered some new state of turmoil due to peak oil scenarios, and they are teetering on the edge of the same cliffs the EU now risks falling over.

Ways to cradle civilisation, and not ...

Meanwhile, Italy and Greece in the EU have lately installed non-elected technocrats to fill in the large credibility gaps left by politicians (and voters) unable to cope with or to understand today's sets of problems. This is not a good look for the future of democracy in the Mediterranean World, supposedly the first cradle of civilization.

(There have been many cradles of civilization since, Today the cradle seems to be swinging like a crazy hammock in a butterfly-effect hurricane.)

Timing/credibility gaps and anomalies in timing and planning have re-opened old political wounds around the world, amplifying credibility gaps old and new while we ponder the rise of India and China and their amazing population size.

Knowledge itself is not quite what it was because it is now shared differently. So to the extent that knowledge can be power, power has changed too.

Newspapers are struggling in their own ways with the implications of the digital revolution. Their business model, like the business model of film producers, music recording companies and print copyright owners, has been radically changed.

Our politicians and voters, our political parties and institutions, are all reeling and struggling to cope because communications are now much faster. (And in the case of Wikileaks releasing vast caches of information that governments thought they owned, the sheer scale of possible problems arising, related to vast information transfers, has also changed dramatically.)

Nor can I think of any panacea for any of these problems, because humanity is a social animal and so requires information transfer for its survival. It seems that if information transfer processes have speeded up, views on our modes of survival need to be modified somewhat as well. (Problems from global warming, if they are real, only intensify this.)

Our social dependencies on information transfer are here both causes and effects of our current problems, with international situations probably made more wobbly (destabilised?) because of different cultural ways prevailing in different countries

(As with the Arab Spring Movement. Or a Scotland seceding from the UK. Or a USA eclipsed by China. Or a Horn of Africa again beset by famine and too-slow reactions from aid agencies all presumably long forewarned of the situation by email. Or an Iran being, well, Iran.)

Our political institutions were simply not built to cope with the ultra-speed of today's information handling possibilities; they were more likely built during the age of the telegraph, or earlier, when international mail travelled by ship.

We enjoy our computers, but we are not yet ready to deal with the unintended consequences, the aggregations of the ultra-speedy implications of the digital revolution(s). What we need especially are politicians who have woken up to all this. Via the Internet, I can find the names of very few of them praised for having woken up, but thankfully, Obama is one name we can find.

Faster ways of counting votes in an election, meanwhile, would probably only reveal, more quickly, how few voters and politicians have woken up to these issues.

Yours faithfully, Dan Byrnes

Dan Byrnes is a freelance writer based in Armidale, NSW, much interested in history. His websites are at: http:// www.danbyrnes.com.au. You can e-mail him at [dan((at))danbyrnes.com.au]

Now although your blogger does not necessarily endorse the views expressed in the above missive, he can understand why some people might express such views.

In fact the recent SOPA-PIPA bill and it's demise could have been construed as a plea for help ... And your blogger must concur that it could even resemble a suicide attempt. Today all the crumbling components of America's old economy are stagnant and/or decaying. The only vibrant, growing sector is the "new economy" of the Internet and associated industries. Remarkably the legislators in the nation's capitol for several months, seriously considered killing off the new economy so that a few media fat cats might feast briefly on the corpse, gouging unreasonable profits out of the poor bleeding American consumer, charging the same outrageous prices for their product that they charged when the distribution costs were about a thousand times higher, merely because they do not have the knowledge, industry, culture or imagination to fully engage with the new digital economy, further threatening to deploy their legal teams to sue the hapless consumers who have started turning to pirate sources because they (the consumers) can't get the product they wish for (from the greedy mega-corporations) at a fair and reasonable price.

Changes in technology have often been opposed. This is especially true of information technology. When the printing press was invented, monks who used to transcribe books protested that the mechanically reproduced goods lacked the quality and craftsmanship of their beautifully illustrated work. Besides, they argued, the easy availability of books would corrupt the weak-minded amongst the general populace, and possibly give them airs and graces above their station.

And so it went throughout the ages ... Famous performers and their agents protested that the phonograph record would undermine the musical arts and deprive them of their livelihood ... There have been similar complaints about photography, cinema, radio, TV, the cassette tape the video tape, etc. Each advance in technology brought a reduction in the cost of transmission and should have reduced the per unit costs ... And generally that is what happened. Those capable of surviving in the new milieu thrived. Others resorted to whinging and whining or more vociferous complaints to their congressman (via their well-paid lobbyists).

It seems to your humble blogger, that if a complex and expensive industry that must ship large cannisters of film all around the world to be displayed in cinemas packed with highly expensive projection equipment, can still turn a profit by charging a few dollars per bum on seat, then a technology which can transmit the same information at greater speed to many more bums on seats at a cost that is orders of magnitude lower, should be profitable at a much lower price per bum. But the American entertainment industry wants the same return per derriere, it seems ... They would even kill the golden goose just so that they can serve it up on a platter for one last supper.

As it turned out, it would be the SOPA-PIPA bill itself that would eventually have its head on the chopping block ... Although just as with the vacillation that preceded the increase in the US debt limit the cave-in was delayed until the very last minute ... In retrospect the whole fiasco did seem somewhat like a suicidal plea for help. Just as in August last year, a conservative rump tried to block the bill which proposed to increase the US debt-limit. For many weeks during that debacle, the world watched spell-bound as America teetered on the brink. Would they do it? Would they actually commit financial hari-kiri? America is still sufficiently important to the world economy that a US (economic) suicide attempt is something we would all take seriously.

Six months later, after once again, teetering on the brink of (digital) self-destruction, it was decided to shelve the SOPA-PIPA exercise in stupidity and greed. And it was curiously enough, the protest by sites such as Wikipedia who threatened to go dark, which may have tipped the balance. And if the Internet went dark ... Your blogger can only humbly wonder whether the dodo-like right-wing elements in the US congress, largely in the pockets of big business, would turn to Conservapedia for information ... In which case, we might all see just how deep in the dark they really are.

So yes dear reader, the mere inkling of an attempt to hobble the Internet for transmission of movies and music can be interpreted as a plea for help, which was nonetheless, sadly over simplistic ... In that the whole premise of the legislation ignored the (bleeding obvious) fact that the Internet is used for many, many other activities apart from distributing entertainment ... Fortunately sanity prevailed ... The entire Internet is not owned by any single corporation or group of corporations and hopefully it never will be.

The sector that is probably most dependant on the "new digital economy" is finance. And the problems that the finance sector face really do make the problems of the entertainment sector look like a "hill of beans". Right now pundits are speculating about eurogeddon. But the reason we are speculating about it at all is because of sub-primegeddon which was actually precipitated by dot-comgeddon and one could argue that nine-elevengeddon (or perhaps george-dubbya-bushgeddon?) was the domino that started the whole sorry Armageddon sequence.

And so we all ponder whether we are on the brink of a genuine Financial Armageddon ... Because it seems that there may be certain over-religious elements in the USA who (in a second-coming fashion) actually hope and pray for Armageddon ... And there are some of us who just wish they'd get on with it and get this whole Armageddon thing over and done with so that we can maybe go and get the Xbox or Playstation 3 version of Armageddon.


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