Matthew Burton

Tag: democracy

Should We Let Apple Decide What We Read?

The below essay appeared in The Guardian on January 26, 2010, in advance of Apple’s public announcement of the iPad.

On Wednesday, Apple is expected to unveil a product that will be, among other things, a competitor to Amazon’s Kindle. That will be a crucial test for Apple, and for society. If the company lives up to its reputation for revolutionizing media, this new product and its successors will one day replace physical books. The test for Apple is in whether they try to control what we read. The test for society is whether we let them.
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On the Weaponization of the Collaborative Web

Around this time yesterday, I, along with countless others, tried to bring down the Web sites of Iran’s information and justice ministries, and state-sponsored media outlets. The idea was to silence the pro-Ahmadenijad, anti-dissent messages coming from these outlets, and in so doing, strengthen the opposition protests in Tehran.

You didn’t have to be computer smart to take part: a developer in San Francisco had set up a push-button tool that would, upon your click, immediately start bombarding 10 Web sites with requests. I clicked Start, and in the 10 little boxes below, I could see the pages load and reload. About half of them were already down.

This was exhilarating. The goal was to promote democracy, and I could actually watch as it happened. Empowering.

But there’s more to it than that. I’m conflicted about the virtue of this idea. I’m still trying to sort out my thoughts about what happened, but I know that we will be talking about yesterday morning for years to come. We turned our collective power and outrage into a serious weapon that we could use at our will, without ever having to feel the consequences. Network warfare became available to the general public. That is frightening. Here is how my thinking evolved throughout the day:

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Open for Questions Needs MORE Pot Smokers!

For comments, see the original post on Personal Democracy Forum.

In the aftermath of Thursday’s virtual White House town hall, most of us in the tech-politics arena have been pondering one question: How do we improve upon this system to create a better virtual democracy experience? The conversation usually comes back to the problem exemplified by the marijuana questions, which were far and away the most popular questions asked of the president. Some thoughts:

To the tech-politics gurus bemoaning the marijuana questions:

“The marijuana people” did not “game” the system. They didn’t “sabotage” it. They didn’t get advanced notice. There is no (public) evidence of astroturfing or systems exploitation. They played fair. “Sabotage” is shouting from the back of a room during a Senate testimony. All these people did was show up at the polls. It’s the same thing you and I do every other November: they voted. If that’s sabotage, then senior citizens are incredibly cunning saboteurs. It’s fine to look for better ways of building this system. But stop equating fervent yet fair participation with cheating. I see the marijuana questions as a huge success, in two regards.

First, people participated. Yes, marijuana was #1 and #2 in the energy category, and this was caused by disproportionate enthusiasm for Open For Questions. But instead of bemoaning the marijuana questions and figuring out ways to silence them, we should be thinking about why the other more topical questions fared so poorly by comparison. Those questions have constituencies. But those constituencies didn’t turn out. Why? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure pot smokers aren’t the reason. I’m ashamed that our first reaction has been to blame enthusiasm when we should be celebrating it and trying to generate more. It’s fair to recommend improvements to the system that will make it more representative of public interests. But it’s not fair to blame the people for being vocal.

Second, I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of people asking how the president is going to “bring back jobs from overseas” or “why we don’t have a better health care system.” He’s gotten those questions for the last two years. He knows the answers like the back of his hand, and so do we. The entire point of Web-based interaction with the president is to see something that we otherwise never would. We have wanted this for so long, and now that the medium has finally created that unique opportunity, we’re calling it a problem. The marijuana questions were the only questions that could have taught us something new about the president’s thinking. Outcome: he laughed them off, and now, so are we.

To Macon Phillips and Bev Godwin:

Open For Questions wasn’t perfect, but I’m glad you’re experimenting. Know this: too much participation was not your problem. You want participation. Your problem was lack of participation from a broad base of the populace. That, and a dearth of intriguing questions that inspire interesting answers. For the next iteration, please do not think of ways to–ahem–weed out questions that might embarrass you. Instead, think of ways to create the unexpected. That is the only reason to try new things.

For comments, see the original post on Personal Democracy Forum.

Rebooting American essay selected for book

The essay I submitted to the Rebooting America essay contest was chosen as one of the three winners. Hooray!

This means it was published in the resulting book (Amazon) along with essays from Clay, Doug, Aaron, Susan, Esther, Yochai…quite a group.

If I had it to do over again, I would have summed up my chapter like this:

Despite being one of the top physics minds of his generation, Richard Feynman once admitted in a lecture that “nobody really ‘understands’ quantum physics.” The world has had the Web for 16 years, and I think I can safely say that nobody really understands it, either. Even when we think we do, we wake up the next morning and it surprises us with something new. But we’re ready to propose Constitutional changes based on our elementary knowledge of it? Such changes would become obsolescent as quickly as the Web churns out new surprises. So let’s not get too eager to cure our net anxieties. Instead, let’s prepare our government to face all tech revolutions, not just the current one.

Lessig, selfless candidates, Feynman, etc…

The first draft of my most recent essay had a big chunk on politicians: running for office was the final of three suggestions I made to people who want to reform our government. I removed that chunk, but with PDF 12 hours away, I figured I’d post it anyway, as its own little musing. So here it is:

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“Suppose two politicians are running for president, and one goes through the farm section and is asked, `What are you going to do about the farm question?’ And he knows right away – bang, bang, bang. Now he goes to the next campaigner who comes through. `What are you going to do about the farm problem?’ `Well, I don’t know. I used to be a general, and I don’t know anything about farming. But it seems to me to be a very difficult problem, because for twelve, fifteen, twenty years people have been struggling with it, and people say they know how to solve the farm problem. And it must be a hard problem. So the way I intend to solve the farm problem is to gather around me a lot of people who know something about it, to look at all the experience that we have had with this problem before, to take a certain amount of time at it and then to come to some conclusion in a reasonable way about it. Now, I can’t tell you ahead of time what conclusion, but I can give you some of the principles I’ll try to use…’

“Now such a man would never get anywhere in this country, I think. It’s never been tried, anyway. This is in the attitude of mind of the populace, that they have to have an answer and that a man who gives an answer is better than a man who gives no answer, when the real fact of the matter is, in most cases, it is the other way around.”

This is how Richard Feynman explained modern politicking in a 1969 lecture. I often quote this passage, because I think it describes our ideal candidate: someone who puts time into making decisions, who gathers facts before doing so, who doesn’t make false promises in exchange for votes.

That’s why I was excited to see Larry Lessig consider a Congressional bid. But my first reaction wasn’t positive: Is that really the best place for him? He wouldn’t really fit in, and his ideas would fall on deaf ears. Eventually, I got it: not fitting in is exactly the point. The most fundamental way to change Congress is to populate it with a new breed. While Lessig would have been very lonely during his first term, his run would have inspired others among us to do the same, and slowly, the tide would turn.

Lessig decided not to run; thankfully, it was not because he felt Congress was the wrong place for him. I believe that it is, and that his decision not to run makes him an even better fit for the job. Congress needs more people who think about running and decide against it. Such a person is ambitious and passionate, but also humble. Such a person thinks things through and makes prudent decisions, without regard for celebrity or public perception.

If I were to suggest a more long-term goal for Lessig’s new Change Congress campaign, it would be to transform the public’s idea of what constitutes a good public leader: I would replace charisma with gravitas, expedience with prudence, celebrity with humility. I’ve noticed the latter qualities in many of the people I work around—many of them have scientific backgrounds and cannot avoid making wise decisions in spite of themselves. I know it would be hard for them to leave their research-grounded jobs in hard science for the daily life of a politician, and even harder for the average voter to become acquainted with their style. So I’m not expecting this to happen soon. But if we’ve quintupled the number of scientists in Congress by 2016 (there are currently four), I think we’ll be on our way.

Why I Help “The Man”, and Why You Should Too

Three years ago, when I told a mentor from the tech sector that I was soon leaving my job as an intelligence analyst to start a technology Masters program, she replied, “It’s good that you’re getting out of that field.”

She didn’t like the Intelligence Community’s work, and in her eyes, the longer I stayed, the more it would corrupt me. I’ve always thought of it in reverse: the longer I stayed involved, the more opportunities I would have to change it. Afterall, if you want something to get better, should you entrust the job to those who caused the problem in the first place? Or should you take care of the problem yourself? To me, it’s a pretty simple question. (That’s why I still work with the Intelligence Community as an outside consultant.)

Unfortunately, among my colleagues—fellow politicos and geeks who are trying to reform the U.S. Government—my mentor’s philosophy seems to be more popular than mine. It’s a philosophy that won’t get us very far. By not engaging our government directly, and instead choosing to merely blog about it from afar, we are surrendering the most important, most influential roles to the very people we want to get rid of.

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Upgrading Congress For the Future

Personal Democracy Forum and TechPresident recently sponsored an essay contest:

When the Framers met in Philadelphia in 1787, they bravely conjured a new form of self-government. But they couldn’t have imagined a mass society with instantaneous, many-to-many communications or many of the other innovations of modernity. So, replacing that quill pen with a mouse, imagine that you have to power to redesign American democracy for the Internet Age. What would you do?

Below is my blue sky response, which was selected for publication. You can order the whole book from Amazon.

NOTE: The first three paragraphs below were inserted post-publication and do not appear in the printed version.

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Richard Feyman—possibly the most brilliant physicist of his generation—once said that “nobody really understands quantum physics.”

We’ve had the Web for 16 years, and I think I can safely say that nobody really understands it, either. Sometimes we think we do, but then it surprises us with something new. We know a lot about what it’s done so far, but none of us know what lies ahead.

In spite of this, here we are, proposing Constitutional changes based on our elementary knowledge of the Web. Such changes would become obsolescent as quickly as the Web churns out new surprises. So let’s not get too eager to cure our net anxieties. Instead, let’s prepare our government to face all tech revolutions, not just the current one.

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