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A Worldchanging Miscellany
Alex Steffen, 24 Dec 03

Here are a variety of interesting things that have crossed our path recently:

The New York Times, in their Year in Ideas issue, points our attention towards
Darknets ("A Darknet offers all the security of a private in-house network, but it allows users to send encrypted messages and documents around the world through that vast, bustling, danger-filled wasteland of sprawl called the Internet. Sri Lankan human rights activists now trade cloaked electronic communications with one another using a Darknet."), the excellent Seafood Watch cheat sheet (there's one on my fridge), GPS art, social nets, and the turning garbage into oil meme.

Metropolis has a section on the best and worst case scenarios for architecture and urban planning over the coming decade:

Ben Rubin, artist and sound designer:
"An inventor in a little Brooklyn workshop hacks into a Blackberry handheld and discovers that, with a modification to the firmware, it can be redesigned to work for free within a short range. Working with a small upstate electronics manufacturer, this inventor makes a thousand of these mutant pagers and sells them through newsstands and bodegas in his neighborhood, and a free wireless community network is born. As the device becomes more popular, people in other neighborhoods and then other cities adopt them. A graduate student in Chicago gets one and sees an opportunity to add a couple of chips to the circuit, and she invents a new kind of free local voice message system.

"What keeps any of this from happening today is a dense structure of economic and regulatory control. Among the strongest components of these structures are patent, trademark, and copyright laws, laws that originated to protect the rights of inventors and artists. However, now intellectual property law serves mainly to shore up the empires of major conglomerates with enormous stakes in a few closed technologies; this leaves us with an impoverished landscape of overpriced, shrink-wrapped, and thoroughly unimaginative communications products.

"An Open Source revolution, where inventions and technology are thought of as a shared public trust, would transform this landscape into a continuous call to creative engineers and designers. Instead of just designing new ring tones and faceplates for cell phones, individuals would have the opportunity to re-shape the very infrastructure of electronic communication, opening the way for diverse and democratic transformations of communication in the city of the future."

Kurt Andersen, host of Studio 360 and author of Turn of the Century:
"My vision of the urban future exists as a Venn diagram, with a big circle full of Hopes on the left overlapping with another big circle of Fears on the right. On the left side of the left circle, I'd put maglev rail systems, Wi-Fi ubiquity, hand-held GPS electronic maps, and the migration of the Times Square TKTS idea online.

"At the far right of my Fears circle would be the proliferation of pseudo-public, pseudo-piazzas on the ground floors of office buildings and the metastasization of advertising messages into the last remaining untouched bits of the urban tissue.

"In the overlapping middle section are the cool-but-disconcerting things: Jumbotrons, ubiquitous surveillance systems, and my favorite--eyeglasses that work like a fighter pilot's visor, with useful data beamed in real-time onto the insides of the lenses."

James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere:
"We are lurching toward the end of the cheap oil fiesta which has pretty much made modern life what it is. We are going to have to downscale everything we do in this country. We'll have to live closer together. We'll have to get very serious about growing more of our food closer to home, without petrochemical "inputs." The age of the 3000-mile Caesar salad is coming to an end. We are about to experience "globalism-in-reverse": the Wal-Marts and other national chains will not survive the changes ahead. The car will be an extremely diminished presence in our lives. Get ready to live locally."

Kevin Kelly (former Whole Earth editor) sends these tips on "powering virtuous circles" through giving:

"There's no shortage of opportunities to support important causes. Lot of charities are local and community based. Some are more internationally- and future-oriented such as Amnesty International, EFF, Long Now Fondation, World Vision, the AFCLU, and Oxfam to name just a few. Everyone can add their favorite.

"But let's say you were interested in a "tool" to leverage the least amount of money into the largest measurable effect over time. For that I'd like to recommend a type of giving that multiplies itself. Over the years, these are the criteria I've adopted for this challenge:
1) The help is aimed at the lowest, those with the least, where small makes a huge difference.
2) The gift expands itself, gaining amplitude with each cycle.
3) The range is global.

"Think of it as enabling philanthropy: take a minimum of money and aim it at the precise point where it can do the maximum good, multiplied by many generations. Maximum good is measured simply: when you enable someone to enable someone else. That is a virtuous circle.

"I've found the follow three do-good organizations to meet these criteria. They fund the neediest in the world. They are highly-evolved programs that produce amazing results. And one tangential result is that when we give to these three, we feel optimistic."

Kevin specifically recommends Heifer International, Opportunity International, and Trickle Up.

Finally, Frank Rich has written an outstanding rumination on what the spread of collaborative technologies means for politics: Napster Runs for President in '04. Excerpts in the extended entry below.

Even after Saddam Hussein was captured last weekend, all that some people could talk about was Howard Dean. Neither John Kerry nor Joe Lieberman could resist punctuating their cheers for an American victory with sour sideswipes at the front-runner they still cannot fathom (or catch up to). Pundits had a nearly unanimous take on the capture's political fallout: Dr. Dean, the one-issue candidate tethered to Iraq, was toast — or, as The Washington Post's Tom Shales memorably put it, "left looking like a monkey whose organ grinder had run away."

I am not a partisan of Dr. Dean or any other Democratic candidate. I don't know what will happen on Election Day 2004. But I do know this: the rise of Howard Dean is not your typical political Cinderella story. The constant comparisons made between him and George McGovern and Barry Goldwater — each of whom rode a wave of anger within his party to his doomed nomination — are facile. Yes, Dr. Dean's followers are angry about his signature issue, the war. Dr. Dean is marginalized in other ways as well: a heretofore obscure governor from a tiny state best known for its left-wing ice cream and gay civil unions, a flip-flopper on some pivotal issues and something of a hothead. This litany of flaws has been repeated at every juncture of the campaign this far, just as it is now. And yet the guy keeps coming back, surprising those in Washington and his own party who misunderstand the phenomenon and dismiss him.

The elusive piece of this phenomenon is cultural: the Internet. Rather than compare Dr. Dean to McGovern or Goldwater, it may make more sense to recall Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy. It was not until F.D.R.'s fireside chats on radio in 1933 that a medium in mass use for years became a political force. J.F.K. did the same for television, not only by vanquishing the camera-challenged Richard Nixon during the 1960 debates but by replacing the Eisenhower White House's prerecorded TV news conferences (which could be cleaned up with editing) with live broadcasts. Until Kennedy proved otherwise, most of Washington's wise men thought, as The New York Times columnist James Reston wrote in 1961, that a spontaneous televised press conference was "the goofiest idea since the Hula Hoop."

Such has been much of the reaction to the Dean campaign's breakthrough use of its chosen medium. In Washington, the Internet is still seen mainly as a high-velocity disseminator of gossip (Drudge) and rabidly partisan sharpshooting by self-publishing excoriators of the left and right. When used by campaigns, the Internet becomes a synonym for "the young," "geeks," "small contributors" and "upper middle class," as if it were an eccentric electronic cousin to direct-mail fund-raising run by the acne-prone members of a suburban high school's computer club. In other words, the political establishment has been blindsided by the Internet's growing sophistication as a political tool — and therefore blindsided by the Dean campaign — much as the music industry establishment was by file sharing and the major movie studios were by "The Blair Witch Project," the amateurish under-$100,000 movie that turned viral marketing on the Web into a financial mother lode.


In Washington, the only place in America where HBO's now-canceled "K Street" aroused histrionic debate, TV remains all. No one knew what to make of the mixed message sent by Dr. Dean's performance on "Meet the Press" in June: though the candidate flunked a pop quiz about American troop strength (just as George W. Bush flunked a pop quiz about world leaders in 1999), his Internet site broke its previous Sunday record for contributions by a factor of more than 10. More recently, the dean of capital journalists, David Broder, dyspeptically wrote that "Dean failed to dominate any of the Democratic candidate debates." True, but those few Americans who watched the debates didn't exactly rush to the candidate who did effortlessly dominate most of them, Al Sharpton. (Mr. Sharpton's reward for his performance wasn't poll numbers or contributions but, appropriately enough, a gig as a guest host on "Saturday Night Live.")

"People don't realize what's happened since 2000," said Joe Trippi, the Dean campaign manager, when I spoke to him shortly after Al Gore, the Democrats' would-be technopresident, impulsively crowned Dr. Dean as his heir. "Since 2000, many more millions have bought a book at Amazon and held an auction on e-Bay. John McCain's Internet campaign was amazing three years ago but looks primitive now." The Dean campaign, Mr. Trippi explained, is "not just people e-mailing each other and chatting in chat rooms." His campaign has those and more — all served by countless sites, many of them awash in multi-media, that link the personal (photos included) to the political as tightly as they link to each other.

They are efficient: type in a ZIP code and you meet Dean-inclined neighbors. Search tools instantly locate postings on subjects both practical (a book to give as a present to a Dean supporter?) and ideological. The official bloggers update the news and spin it as obsessively as independent bloggers do. To while away an afternoon, go to the left-hand column of the official page and tour the unofficial sites. On one of three Mormon-centric pages, you can find the answer to the question "Can Mormons be Democrats?" (Yes, they can, and yes, they can vote for Howard Dean.) At, volunteers compete at their own expense to outdo each other with slick Dean commercials.

But the big Dean innovation is to empower passionate supporters to leave their computer screens entirely to hunt down unwired supporters as well and to gather together in real time at face-to-face meetings they organize on their own with no help from (or cost to) the campaign hierarchy., the for-profit Web site that the Dean campaign contracted to facilitate these meetings, didn't even exist until last year. (It is not to be confused with the symbiotic but more conventional liberal advocacy and fund-raising site, Its success is part of the same cultural wave as last summer's "flash mob" craze (crowds using the Internet to converge at the same public place at the same time as a prank) and, more substantially, the spike in real rather than virtual social networks, for dating and otherwise, through sites like and From Mr. Trippi's perspective, "The Internet puts back into the campaign what TV took out — people."

To say that the competing campaigns don't get it is an understatement. A tough new anti-Dean attack ad has been put up on the campaign's own site, where it's a magnet for hundreds of thousands of dollars in new contributions. The twice-divorced Dennis Kucinich's most effective use of the Web thus far has been to have a public date with the winner of a "Who Wants to Be a First Lady?" Internet contest. Though others have caught up with, only the Wesley Clark campaign is racing to mirror Dr. Dean's in most particulars. The other Democratic Web sites are very 2000, despite all their blogs and other gizmos.

"The term blog is now so ubiquitous everyone has to use it," says the author Steven Johnson, whose prescient 2001 book "Emergence" is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand this culture. On some candidates' sites, he observes, "there is no difference between a blog and a chronological list of press releases." And the presence of a poll on a site hardly constitutes interactivity. The underlying principles of the Dean Internet campaign "are the opposite of a poll," Mr. Johnson says. Much as thousands of connected techies perfected the Linux operating system's code through open collaboration, so Dean online followers collaborate on organizing and perfecting the campaign, their ideas trickling up from the bottom rather than being superimposed from national headquarters. (Or at least their campaign ideas trickle up; policy is still concentrated at the top.) It's almost as if Dr. Dean is "a system running for president," in Mr. Johnson's view, as opposed to a person.

In that sense, the candidate is a perfect fit for his chosen medium. Though his campaign's Internet dependence was initially dictated by necessity when he had little organization and no money, it still serves his no-frills personality even when he's the fund-raising champ. Dr. Dean runs the least personal of campaigns; his wife avoids the stump. That's a strategy befitting an online, not an on-TV, personality. Dr. Dean's irascible polemical tone is made for the Web, too. Jonah Peretti, a new media specialist at Eyebeam, an arts organization in New York, observes that boldness is to the Internet what F.D.R.'s voice was to radio and J.F.K.'s image to television: "A moderate message is not the kind of thing that friends want to e-mail to each other and say, `You gotta take a look at this!' "

Unlike Al Gore, Dr. Dean doesn't aspire to be hip about computers. "The Internet is a tool, not a campaign platform," he has rightly said, and he needn't be a techie any more than pilot his own campaign plane. But if no tool, however powerful, can make anyone president in itself, it can smash opponents hard when it draws a ton of cash. Money talks to the old media and buys its advertising. Dr. Dean's message has already upstaged the official Democratic party and its presumed rulers, the Clintons. Thanks to the Supreme Court's upholding of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform, he also holds a strategic advantage over the Democratic National Committee in fund-raising, at least for now.

Should Dr. Dean actually end up running against President Bush next year, an utterly asymmetrical battle will be joined. The Bush-Cheney machine is a centralized hierarchy reflecting its pre-digital C.E.O. ethos (and the political training of Karl Rove); it is accustomed to broadcasting to voters from on high rather than drawing most of its grass-roots power from what bubbles up from insurgents below.

For all sorts of real-world reasons, stretching from Baghdad to Wall Street, Mr. Bush could squish Dr. Dean like a bug next November. But just as anything can happen in politics, anything can happen on the Internet. The music industry thought tough talk, hard-knuckle litigation and lobbying Congress could stop the forces unleashed by Shawn Fanning, the teenager behind Napster. Today the record business is in meltdown, and more Americans use file-sharing software than voted for Mr. Bush in the last presidential election. The luckiest thing that could happen to the Dean campaign is that its opponents remain oblivious to recent digital history and keep focusing on analog analogies to McGovern and Goldwater instead.

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