Saturday, April 19, 2014

"Ontario Gets Open Data !" or... "Progress Fast &Slow"

Ontario Government Services Minister John Milloy is now talking about Open Data, which is a little late... actually very late... but at least it's some good news.  Unfortunately once again, Open Government is supposed to be about Data, Collaboration and Transparency.  

From the Open Government Declaration:

We acknowledge that people all around the world are demanding more openness in government. They are calling for greater civic participation in public affairs, and seeking ways to make their governments more transparent, responsive, accountable, and effective. 
What's emerging is that so far, governments have been very selective of the kinds of data they release.  And I suspect that Data, Collaboration and Transparency are also the order of interest for said governments.It's no wonder.  Open Government as it is discussed, and proposed could be the 21st century equivalent of the press, if it's done right.   And fact-based summary data about government could open up dialogue real dialogue, breaking the political party-lines paradigm by inspiring fact-based dialogue about policy, and allocation of resources.  Oh, but I dream, I dream.

Here is John Milloy's statement to on the Ontario initiative.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the UK has made the expected mistake of going too fast, as explained in this article in The Guardian.  This is, as far as I can see, the first time someone has accused a government of going too fast on open data, and that's a sign that something real is happening there.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Data Absolutists and the Limits of Privacy

Neil Seeman and Sabrina Tang have blogged about 'Data Absolutists' who believe in the liberation of public data; data to be reviewed by citizen researchers and fed back to "the" public to moderate government services and promote openness.

But if more open data, as promised in the OGP (Open Government Partnership) is such a great thing then what are the limits to online privacy ?   In discussing the utility and costs of information privacy, we could perhaps learn something about where it lives, and where it should live, in our societal machine.

This is an old article (from last year):.

 [NY Judge Richard] Posner likened privacy to a "superior good," one that is not something that is deeply ingrained in human nature, but rather a luxury.

The thrust of the argument is that privacy is a double edged sword because it essentially means concealment. Posner argues that privacy is simply protection to conceal that which we do not want others to know, like arrests, illnesses, etc. In his eyes, it's the right to present the most polished version of ourselves. He asks whether that is a social luxury we are willing to forgo in order to preserve something greater, like security.
So we have an idea here of privacy as an updated form of 'hiding'.  I like that association because it places the social and technical construct of privacy as one of McLuhan's extensions of man - in this case, an extension of our basic social selves.  That means that online privacy serves to address our human feelings: of fear, of modesty, of curiosity for example.   

Now we're in the age where your public person is define through your online transactions and behaviors - public and private.  There is still a public and private sphere, that you constantly trade and share with service providers such as Google and Facebook, much as you check your right to privacy when you walk in public, or through a private space owned by someone else.

The opportunities for engaging in public discussion for collective benefit in the same way are immense, as well as from benefiting from public online behaviors but we will need to develop our ideas of privacy a little more and especially recognize that online personas are a certain type of extension of our real selves. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Social Dialogue and Designing for Choice

Ok, everyone.  I'm still looking for ideas on finding some wisdom.  Getting some wise thoughts, or even better a wise person that we can all sit down and listen to..  ( Diogenes said it takes a wise man to find a wise man, but didn't talk about the wisdom of me, ie. the guy who's looking for the wise man to find the wise man. )

When I fall short in my web walk for wisdom, I end up on and today's article reviews 'legibility':

The article talks about the failure of sweeping authoritarian plans to improve peoples' lives - which is described by James C. Scott in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed,:

The more I examined these efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state’s attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion.  Having begun to think in these terms, I began to see legibility as a central problem in statecraft. The pre-modern state was, in many crucial respects, particularly blind; it knew precious little about its subjects, their wealth, their landholdings and yields, their location, their very identity. It lacked anything like a detailed “map” of its terrain and its people.

It's pretty clear what he's describing but it seems to me, though, that there needs to be a state of readiness for legibility to be undertaken.  Even for public choices to be designed, there need to be some options being discussed.  If you want to pave the cow paths, then there have to be cow paths to being with.

If there is a need for some direction, but we don't have even paths yet - don't we need to have somebody architect those choices for us ?  To plan a space for discussions to occur ?  
Maybe our directions will be clearer once people start talking about the failures in dialogue - lack of public fora, no tools to build consensus, mass one-to-many communication rather than public discussion.  And to talk in a progressive and constructive way requires design - not the authoritative design that Scott describes, but design that iterates on and enhances humans' natural social and problem-solving needs.

There are examples, after all, where social tools were designed as such - I'm thinking of money as an example here.

I think the question of choice architecture is an interesting one, but in terms of public discussion, we don't even have a path or an open square today, far from a home.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Big Media Pays the Bills 

I wanted to jump on this item quickly, as it's from a podcast recently done by Jesse Brown at Canadaland wherein he regularly talks about Canadian writing, bloging and mainstream journalism.

As television news dies, the value of their weatherbeaten icons soars, kind of like the maidenhead on a sinking ship where you look for anything that floats.  Murphy's bleats about Neil Young's responsibility have turned out to be poorly mirrored in the CBC's approach to the ethics in this case. Incredibly, Canadaland reports that CBC even refused to acknowledge that Murphy works on The National.

Google this to find out some facts about the lack of mainstream coverage and kudos to Canadaland for this piece of citizen journalism.

Share and discuss.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Moral Case for Participation in Government

I'm taking a break from discussing philosophers, media theorists and other societal therapists to call attention to Canada's participation in the Open Data Partnership.  Specifically, Canada's participation in the ODP seems to be headed towards providing "the" public with killer apps, rather than access and participation.

Teresa Scassa blogs that ...

The review, carried out by Carleton University Professor Mary Francoli, does note, however, that a number of the government’s other commitments are less ambitious and less directly relevant to the goals of the OGP. This does not mean that they are not worth doing, just that they are less impactful. One issue, therefore, would seem to be whether the government’s plan has struck the right balance between ambitious and significant goals and low hanging fruit.
A further concern is that the broad commitment to open government has been channelled primarily into developments around open data. While open data is important, and while developments in this area have been meaningful, open access and open participation are crucial components of open government and are essential to realizing its objectives. Indeed, one of the recommendations in the review document relates to the need for the government to broaden its focus so as to give more attention to open access and participation.

This topic seems so cold and academic at times, but after reading Christie Blatchford's recent column questioning the utility of inquests this week, I was reminded of the inquest as an audit of government's failure to help people.   Here is a list of inquests scheduled for the Province of Ontario.  So many lives lost.  I went from that list to a list of past inquests , wondering the whole time whether there's any way to follow-up on the recommendations.

So, picking an inquest randomly off the list, I Googled the inquest on the death of Jordan Heikamp.  Were these recommendations followed ?  The search results produced many pages of media and academic discussion, but I only found one official page in the top 3 pages of Google searches - a response from the City of Toronto Medical Officer of Health. 

So - ARE such recommendations followed up ?  Is there a way for us to look into what the operations are, and whether changes have been made and how they're impacting the welfare of those who use the services ?  There may be, but Ontario doesn't make it easy for a public to access and participate in the recommendations about our social services.

If there isn't a way for us to monitor these things directly, are we supposed to rely on the press to notify a fickle and bored mass of people what is happening ? If we as a public don't care, then who will ?

Saturday, February 8, 2014

In These * Times

On this blog I've been advocating for MetaDiscussion - ie. talking about talking about things - as a way for us to move forward, based on an assumption that we're in a period of extreme change, with attendant feelings of confusion, fear, indirection and so on.  

But it occurred to me today that I haven't fully validated my starting position on this path, so I thought I'd try to use Google as a social thermometer by searching for the words: "In these * times".  (The * is what is called a "wild card". Google will return anything that matches the other words around the asterisk exactly, allowing any word to appear the middle of that phrase.)

What I found in the top 10 Google results where an interim word was added was this:

Tough (2)
Hard (2)
Uncertain (2)

(Methodology: I did a Google Search for 'In These * Times'  and removed 'cold' from my results, which appeared in the results from a maple syrup ad.  (I live in Canada.)) 

If Google is to be believed, then we do indeed have troubles on us today.  I've been blogging about our need for societal therapists, so I wondered if Google could help with that too.

I searched "Source of wisdom" and the results of the search were telling: many pages of religious offerings, and a brand of jeans (?).  I was doubtful that God or new pants could help our troubles, so I paged forward through the results until I found this gem: 

What the dead lack in currency they make up for in depth. Accessing their work is an automatic exercise in editing: for it to have survived at all, beyond the championing of their living energies, it must have been unusually robust. 
The hot metal of their ideas will have been tempered into the steel of their finished intellectual constructs by the force of sustained peer critique and exacting editorial standards. 
Certainly, re-reading the closely-argued theories of, say, Erving Goffman or Denis Diderot feels qualitatively different from browsing the inchoate ideas that pour forth from even strong thinkers in a world forever in Beta.

A world forever in Beta !  What a great diagnosis of our current mental state by Helen Edwards, who is ... let's see... I assume she is a philosopher and a social theorist... no wait.. let's see here...

"Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand. "

Discouraging.  Not to disparage Ms. Edwards' career choices too much, it seems to me that despite our clear need for societal therapy in these * times, there's so little demand for wisdom that we are redeploying our talented thinkers and social commentators as marketers.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Finding A Good Therapist

I talked about MetaDiscussion in my last blog, and about why I think that "we", ie. our world, needs some therapy, or at least a bracing jolt of wisdom to wake us up from the current neurotic sleepwalk.

Who, though, are the wise ones to help us ? Elvis Costello asked that: Where are the strong ?  Who are the trusted ?  Where is the harmony ?  We are in times of deep and unfathomable change now, so we need to tap into essential wisdoms to help us understand and help talk us through what is happening.  

But pure wisdom on its own isn't enough either: it's not social.  There always have been vaults of philosophical thought out there describing how societies and publics function.  As we learned from the online Climate Science wars, professorial wisdom often suffers outside the domain of the university lecture and the old bearded wizard.  If the message isn't sociable, then it won't spread off campus.

Wouldn't it be swell if there were relevant and appealing thought leaders who could speak to the circumstances of today using the media of today and - AND - with an understanding of history and philosophy.  How would that look ?  And would you share it on Facebook ?  Click to share !

That is: please comment here with links any such people: social theorists, philosophers, even bloggers.  I'm finding these sites one by one, such as...  Ribbonfarm.  It was started by Venkatesh Rao in 2007.


"The name ribbonfarm refers to the ribbon farms of 18th century Detroit — strips of lands 2-3 miles long, each with 2-300 yards along the Detroit river waterfront — that the then French governor used to resolve water disputes. I thought it was a great metaphor for a blog trying to get its thin slice of attention from the great river of eyeballs that is the Web. "

It's replete with philosophy, reflection, wisdom, Metadiscussion.  Like the latest, an interesting article on how the West vs the East look at organisms, government and society:

Thought leaders such as these will be our collective therapists; we need to share their wisdom on Facebook and elsewhere.  It's on us to start building new publics - new audiences that will entertain broader views, deeper reflection and more wholesome dialogue.

Next blog, we'll keep looking for therapists and thought leaders to guide us through the MetaDiscussion.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

MetaDiscussion: How We Deny Our Collective Mental Illness

If a person is sick, they will seek medical help.  A sore elbow, leg, or headache will prompt them to seek the appropriate specialist to make things feel better.  Mental and emotional problems, though, are a different sort of problem and not just because these ailments are so stigmatized.

There's something in us that trusts our brains and our perspective over all else - even reality.  It just doesn't occur to a paranoiac that their reality is skewed.  We innately bind ourselves to these cerebral control systems we have, so that we discount and dismiss emotional problems and mental problems even when it's obvious that there is something wrong.  And this is also how we behave as a society.

Our social central nervous system is the set of systems of governance, discussion and feedback we use to discuss things.  Government, the press, public debate - that is our collective mind: our way of perceiving issues thinking about them, and acting.  It moves us forward towards solving problems, and hopefully past them to paths of material and physical growth.  

I would say that such systems are in such disarray today that we can't trust our group psyche.  There is no unity, there is only indecision.   We're mentally ill, and in denial of it.  We may even have aboulomania:

"Aboulomania (from Greek a–, meaning "without", and boulÄ“, meaning "will") is a mental disorder in which the patient weakened willpower or pathological indecisiveness. It is typically associated with anxiety, stress, depression, and mental anguish, and can severely affect one’s ability to function socially."

Our problems appear to be everywhere: environmental, economic and even social. But we can't seem to agree on a  way forward.   We can't even agree on what is a fact anymore.  Far from not trusting politicians to lead the discussions, we no longer even trust media, scientists or academics.  

This is why MetaDiscussion is needed today. That is, we need to talk about the discussion itself. Our group brain, our way of making decisions, our public forums are broken. They're based on decaying old manifestations of the 'press' (itself an archaic term) that are dying and not coming back.
We need to find a way align our new digital publics to our social institutions as our old ways of discussion (newspapers and television) crumble and wither.  We need to digitize our dissent, so that our leaders can cut a way through the darkness, to negotiate, take risks, make decisions and lead us as past leaders had to do.

Otherwise, we will continue in our unhealthy psychosis and its attendant self-denial and inner conflict.  In my next blog, I will recommend some group therapists.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

MetaDiscussion: Grantland's Sports Guy Talks about Talking About It

Link to Grantland article 

Bill Simmons talks about the differences in public and private discussions on performance enhancing drugs.  This is a great example of MetaDiscussion even if he doesn't quite try to realign the 'old' distinctions between public and private dialogue with digital media:

If you're a public figure who says something offensive, we're going to rake you over the coals until you apologize … but if you make that same offensive comment under the protection of anonymity, whether it's on YouTube's comment section, Reddit, a message board or whatever, that's totally acceptable. What are we? Where are we?  ... Anyone with a public forum should feel a certain responsibility to the greater good, whether you have a blog, a column, a podcast, a radio show or a steady TV gig. 

People will naturally be more responsible for opinions given under their name but 'anonymous graffiti' posting has its place too.  Some common morality will coagulate in a society, through the high pronouncements of authorities as well as through back-door finger wagging gossip and sniping.

Chaning modes of communication such as those we are living through today will tend to shake up social foundations and 'loosen' morality in some cases.  McLuhan has anecdotes about these things, such as when radio was introduced to Bedouin tribes and nobody seemed to mind that the broadcasters told stories that would be inappropriate in mixed company.

Ultimately, though, a common morality serves a purpose so it will be there again in the digital age.  If we start talking about the discussion itself, as Grantland has done, then that's a first step to understanding what is happening to us IMO.

Friday, January 10, 2014

MetaDiscussion: Let's Cross the Bridge

Scandal of the day: The New Jersey governor is in trouble because a political appointee of his was able to close lines on a busy bridge, allegedly for reasons of political retribution.

My response to this situation is to ask how the appointee was simply able to order a closure affecting many people, seemingly without a rationale.  This happened in a part of the world that places a high value on accountability, citizen rights and service.

How did the political process allow this to happen ?

MetaDiscussion first:  My curiosity took me to Google News, in order to read the top 10 articles on this matter.

 Google News Search Jan 10, 2014

I looked at the top 10 listed articles on this scandal from: CBC, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Fox, The Economist, The Telegraph, Chicago Tribune, The Globe and Mail, Christian Science Monitor, CNN.

As expected, the focus is on the SCANDAL, and the resulting impact on the Governor's presidential hopes, not on the underlying causes.  This result teaches us a very important basic fact of political coverage: it's usually about the campaigns.  These spectacles are the most exciting things in politics; "political coverage" as it is today tends to revolve around the horse race of campaign strategies and gaffes more than policies.

So the discussion about this scandal, as it is, won't result in any changes to the process.  There isn't enough focus on how the authorities don't have to explain such decisions (well, without a subpoena) And nobody will mention "Open Government" as a possible solution to throwing light on backdoor deals such as this.  Yet.

We need to discuss the discussion first.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Fish Out of Water - Why We Need Political Meta-Discussion NOW

"One thing about which fish know exactly nothing, is water" Marshall McLuhan

As an analogy for us, in today's world, this is not exactly correct in that we know that there is something wrong with the water.  There is, as Jimmy Carter described, a feeling of malaise and that assessment may be the only thing we can agree on.

So the fish is us, and the water is our collective means for solving problems ie. politics.  So how does a fish find out about water ?  It could evolve to be able to leave the water, or - more easily - it could ask a fish that thinks about things.

 Philosophers are these types of fish:

Michael Warner in his essays 'publics and counterpublics' states that "A public is the social space created by the reflexive circulation of discourse".  He builds on the work of Jurgen Habermas, bringing it into the digital age.  Things that work against creating a public are desituated individuals (individuals who are situated outside the domain of the problem being discussed) and the ascension of the trivial.

I would add that the complexity of our engagements to the world make the discourse difficult to manage.   How can so many disparate groups of people think that they are not being heard ?

The time has come for us to use personalized digital media as a platform to start a meta-discussion so we can replace our failing media institutions with a new, realigned discourse.  The next time you comment on a political issue on facebook, or elsewhere, take the time to add how this issue has arrived in the public sphere - who is commenting on it, how it's being processed, and think a little more like a fish out of water.