Sunday, May 16, 2010

Power, Control, Metaphors and I'm Beat

President Obama came to town the other day. I wanted to mount my bicycle and ride over to check out the crowds, but instead I learned that Mom would be out for the afternoon, giving me my chance to do the family's bidding and get Dad's car keys from him. I'd taken him to the doctor on Monday, after having gone driving with him several days before, and the verdict was clear.

This was not fun. It felt about like murdering someone you love, who is using every single non-violent tactic in the book to get you to stop. We drew a truce. He gave me the keys just to get me out of his face. I had the legitimate threat to have his license revoked to make me unanswerable. It wasn't exactly a fair fight.

Now I've just returned from a trip to Albany where I hope that I was helpful to a fellow traveller in the game of divorce your feelings. Home again, I notice that the Preakness stakes are about to run, and having somehow gotten snared by the Kentucky Derby, I'm snared again, rooting, of course, for the winning horse and jockey combination; hoping for the odds-defying triple crown. Not to be.

I read of a fellow China watcher, who also watches the blogging and freedom of speech scene in China, who observes that the nature of Chinese blogging is the same as blogging all over. Lots of self-disclosure, blah blah blah.

Of course, I engage in lots of self-disclosure, and it would seem I'm just another Lonely Girl, wanting people to pay attention to my life. But, of course, I prefer to think that I'm developing yet another form of performance art, where the random happenstance of my every day is disclosed as some sort of context for the events of the day on the larger stage which I feel compelled to write about. I say compelled, because, honest, I wouldn't be writing if it weren't that I feel that I have something of some importance to say.

That doesn't mean that I'm saying it here and now and that there's something wrong with you if you don't see it. It means that I feel the need to practice, to work it out, to learn how to write, and, I suppose, to develop what I hear gets called a "voice" to my writing. I'm not sure it's going too well.

It's my sense that "self-disclosure" might lend a kind of credence to what I'm writing about. It tells both why I'm paying attention to what I pay attention to, and relates myself as microcosm to the larger scene. My feelings, after all, count toward my slant on the events on the large stage, and I figure that if I disclose those feelings, and in particular how they might relate to what's going on in my life, then what I write about will be less contrived and abstract and ideological.

Needless to say, I'm not a great believer in logical "truth", truth in any kind of abstract, nor in understanding as an even possible outcome of argument or study or dialog or discussion. I'm disturbed by the certainty which people seem to lead by, as they enter into arguments, take positions. It seems clear enough that there is almost never any grounds for certainty on ideological or scientific or depth of preparation grounds.

There might be, however, grounds for certainty on various emotional grounds. I'm reasonably certain, for instance, that we should stop raping the earth. I'm certain that I would prefer that there weren't so many miserable people on the Earth, and I'm pretty certain that the lack of imagination among those of us with the power of choice have a lot to do - at the very least by our omissions - with the plight of so much of humanity.

The means for amelioration are very very debatable, and I'm always amazed at the certainty displayed by so many people about what means are best. Especially in the face of what is clearly the randomness at the root of most historical sequences.

So, it seems clear to me that my Dad need not attach so much significance to his ability to drive a car. It is clear to me that if he were still reasonable, he would be able to stand beside himself, as it were, and agree that it's just not a good idea. He would do that if he were blind. But in this case, it's his cognitive abilities which are lacking. Plus some real deficits in what might be called reaction time. There is some horrific Catch-22 at work here. He hasn't the sense to discern the irrationality of his demands.

For Europeans and Americans north of the equator, and increasingly for people everywhere, to own a car means to be a free agent. There is no way that the Earth can support this collective compulsion toward such an extreme manifestation of such personal freedom, but each of us who has it seems loathe, ever, to give it up. The very economy is organized to make it seem as though our vehicular freedom not only makes economic sense, but is even economic necessity. You can't even get to the first square of making a living without one.

So, in that sense, we are, as a people, as irrational - as embedded in our own personal Catch-22 - as is my Dad. He isn't 'with it' enough to understand why he must not drive. He only knows that something very important is being taken away from him. He also knows that he's a good driver. In terms of body memory, that remains true. But he can't find the right pedals if he thinks about it. Only if he doesn't.

Now, I know you think I'm going to attempt some kind of environmentalist case about how each of our cars must be prised from us in the same way that Dad's was from him. But I'm not. I wouldn't give that enterprise a snowball's chance in hell.

No, what interests me now is how certain we all are that the Chinese, for instance, are just simply dead wrong in their censorship of what we call "free speech." We are certain that such censorship will doom their form of capitalism, just as we labor to bring them fully into the Western regime of intellectual property protections. They not only censor free speech, but they tacitly encourage theft of intellectual property, in the form of industrial knock offs, but most prominently, in the form of software theft. Media theft. General laxity about copyright and copy protection

Perhaps this is just as evil of them as their artificial pegging of their currency to the dollar, instead of letting it float freely according to market forces. I guess that they like to manipulate the directionality and quantity of import/export flows. It all just seems unfair. As though they are able to get for free what the rest of the world must pay for., As though they have inputs to their economic engine which they have not properly earned.

Well, no-one earns their winnings. No one earns the natural resources they are lucky enough to find under their ground. No-one earns their smarts of the social capital they started their schooling with.

Just today, I learned from the radio, some on this side of some great divide are celebrating this new piece of stealth software which is being deployed by hand to hand combat in Iran against the totalitarian regime which our American narrative insists that they have. I'm certain that theirs is a god-awful regime, but I'm not entirely sure about how this software achievement should be received.

For a long while, there have been ways to skirt around firewalls and censors by going through anonymizing proxy sites, and by using encryption. But this product offers to go a few steps further, so that you don't even have to go so far as to disclose your intentions in the first place by heading over to that wrong part of the Internet town.

Since it can't be downloaded, for obvious reasons having to do with the censors spoofing or infiltrating the download site - in the target country, the censors presumably  have privileged access - the idea is to distribute this software hand to hand from trusted person to trusted person. They were very public about making Iran 'target regime number one.' They were coy about which country would be number two, but only a fool wouldn't bet on China. (Although you can easily see why naming China as a part of any 'axis of evil' would get a little dicey really quickly, since, well, they hold all that debt of ours)

OK, so even apart from the liklihood that dissident Iranians (or Chinese, for that matter) will actually trust that this software is somehow pure, coming as it does from the U.S. of A. Hell, even apart from the liklihood of you or I trusting that it hasn't somehow been concocted by our own government's secret services as a stealthy way to infiltrate and co-op the friendly to the U.S. ranks of these targeted countries. I mean, who really knows about the viruses attacking the Afghani opium crop, you know? And even apart from the simplicity with which the target regime could insert their own stealthy code for use in rounding up the usual suspects (that's a hack so trivial, even I could accomplish it)

Even apart from all that, what I want to know is why this kind of software is any different from all the various techniques now out there to aid and abet the criminals among us who would steal digital property by sharing files and keygen cracks and pictures and music and all the rest. It's the use to which the software is put that gets celebrated.

Fact is, of course, that the reason we sell so much more software around here than gets stolen is purely ideological. Well, OK, there might be a little bit of fear of getting caught thrown in, but our narrative about why the Chinese don't speak freely about their government would have it only because they are afraid to do so. Even while we marvel at how fully co-opted the Chinese intelligentsia have become, we seem to think they would speak freely if only they weren't afraid to.

Supposedly, the Chinese self-censor because they are afraid of government sanctioned consequences, and it is this fear which tones the language well on the inside of some kind of shifty and only partially discernible barrier.

But is it fear which keeps us honest, or some kind of true belief in the fundamental validity of intellectual property law? If we win, we want to be able to keep our winnings. If we come out with something first, then we want to be able to lay claim. Even though this approach, like all and every one of us owning a private powered vehicle, will doom us all collectively. We equate intellectual property rights to the chastity of our spouse, the inviolability of our private space and the ownership of our bank accounts. Well unless our stuff is ill gotten, in which case, all bets are off.

Let me ask you. Do you think it's fair that farmers who don't police their land to be sure that no stray patented seeds are taking root should be sued for patent infringment (our courts do)? Do you think that someone surfing for adult pornography should be held accountable when some site slips in child porn which is then discoverable on that hapless lonely person's hard drive? Do you think that users of health insurance should be accountable to understand all the rules before getting sick, on threat of being financially accountable for expenses incurred as ordered by expert health care practitioners (I have stories to tell)?

The Chinese arrange things a little differently is all. I imagine they never did learn anything about the inviolability of private space, and chastity was always more about pledges than romance, and well, as to the bank accounts, until recently, private wealth was never a real possibility.

My guess is that the most dangerous move the Chinese government has ever made was to open the possibility for personal ownership of automobiles. This was as calculated risk, since the automobile has been the engine of vibrant economies the world over. And it would be hard to stop it without stopping the exuberance of the Chinese economic miracle altogether. But the danger of the automobile is that it will embed notions of personal autonomy, the inviolability of personal and private space, and the priority of individual rights and possession over all else. Demands for free speech will follow, right?

It's not, in other words, that the Great Firewall of China won't be able to keep up with the quest for freedom of thought and speech craved by the newly wealthy and emboldened citizenry. Rather, it is that the citizenry will forget about its individual responsibility to labor in concert with the interests of the whole. It would be as though the entire U.S. populations collectively and suddenly decided it would be alright to "steal" digital property. It would be like the futile exercise of trying to get people to stop smoking dope, or before that, to get them to stop drinking alcohol. Not gonna happen.

OK, so I've got to find some way to wind this up. Over here, we are getting all exercised that Google would sneak up on us, Facebook would give away our privacy rights, ignorant that it's all a grudge match against Bill Gates' company, because of what he once did to the leaders of these newer upstart companies. They have tried and tried to brand themselves as something other than the goon-squad of Microsoft's marketing engine, and in the end look rather, well, evil.

But this stuff is trivial and almost meaningless up against what agribusiness does in defense of their patents over genetically modified crops. This is as nothing against the consequences of our mono-culture when the bee population risks collapse, and global starvation is one virus away from a genetically neutered food production regime. The powers of natural evolution have been stopped dead in their tracks by the American Intellectual Property regime, which has ensured that most of the food the world over is dependent on both petroleum and a very very few genetic lines. Not quite as few as were allowed for stem cell research or as get used for cancer research, but you get the idea.

Nature requires diversity in the face of stresses. Especially such global stresses as are being applied by humanity against the entire planet. Intellectual property law now is like Nature rewarding the winners of some evolutionary contest with rights in perpetuity against all possible variants. Sure, the intellectual rights are termed, and I can read my Melville free, but for Monsanto or ADM, they have all the marbles, and are pretty much guaranteed to be able to keep improving their patented varieties of whatever mono-cultural corn is most effectively produced on the back of cheap oil. The term never runs out for so long as there is "innovation" once you have the monopoly. Another Microsoft lesson.

So here I am very nearly favoring Chinese censorship over freedom of speech, for so long as freedom of speech is constrained by copyright and intellectual property law. I do so for the sake of the planet. Of course, only an idiot ever really believed that there is any such thing as free speech. Speech is one of the most dangerous tools at our disposal. Just try talking your Dad out of his car keys. But wait until he's too old to hurt you.

Meanwhile, if they had any sense, good farmers everywhere would do the bidding of the patent holding companies. They would boycott agribusiness altogether, plant biologically diverse crops using proven techniques for combatting pestilent hoards of insects and smaller organic enemies. We would all refuse to purchase any digital product that is copy protected, or protected by any sort of digital rights management. We would disclose our full identity and particulars over the Internet, just like the Chinese make their citizens do. And we would work assiduously within the constraints of powers deployed against us to be sure that we are never ever placed in the position of utter powerlessness to know which actions of our own are consequential and which are not.

I'd say it's a toss up which regime is more dangerous in that regard. As I drive, I must remain ever vigilant of the tricky speed limit signs. As I submit my written work to the academy, I must somehow first use the same tools my professors will use to check for snippets which might, by happenstance or perhaps by some workings of my subconcsious, match those of published authors from whom I will be assumed, by default, of stealing.

Google now will do this for me, and remove from exposure anything I might have seemed to cut and paste. Will they soon learn to discern the idea that was never mine in the first place, and remove my very thoughts? Or will I learn to game their system, submit my writings first to the 'hand me in' engines, change a few phrases until I pass, and then fool the professors into thinking I'm that much smarter than I am. Catch me if you can . . .

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