Monday, April 22, 2013

9 Year Old Censored: Clay Shirky: How the Internet will (one day) transform government

Now, this isn't just a contemporaneous question. This is something we've faced several times over the last few centuries. When the telegraph came along, it was clear that it was going to globalize the news industry. What would this lead to? Well, obviously, it would lead to world peace. The television, a medium that allowed us not just to hear but see, literally see, what was going on elsewhere in the world, what would this lead to? World peace. (Laughter) The telephone? You guessed it: world peace. Sorry for the spoiler alert, but no world peace. Not yet. Even the printing press, even the printing press was assumed to be a tool that was going to enforce Catholic intellectual hegemony across Europe. Instead, what we got was Martin Luther's 95 Theses, the Protestant Reformation, and, you know, the Thirty Years' War. All right, so what all of these predictions of world peace got right is that when a lot of new ideas suddenly come into circulation, it changes society. What they got exactly wrong was what happens next.
And the answer, I think, can be found in things like this. This is the cover of "Philosophical Transactions," the first scientific journal ever published in English in the middle of the 1600s,and it was created by a group of people who had been calling themselves "The Invisible College," a group of natural philosophers who only later would call themselves scientists,and they wanted to improve the way natural philosophers argued with each other, and they needed to do two things for this. They needed openness. They needed to create a normwhich said, when you do an experiment, you have to publish not just your claims, but how you did the experiment. If you don't tell us how you did it, we won't trust you. But the other thing they needed was speed. They had to quickly synchronize what other natural philosophers knew. Otherwise, you couldn't get the right kind of argument going. The printing press was clearly the right medium for this, but the book was the wrong tool. It was too slow. And so they invented the scientific journal as a way of synchronizing the argumentacross the community of natural scientists. The scientific revolution wasn't created by the printing press. It was created by scientists, but it couldn't have been created if they didn't have a printing press as a tool.
So I study social media, which means, to a first approximation, I watch people argue. And if I had to pick a group that I think is our Invisible College, is our generation's collection of people trying to take these tools and to press it into service, not for more arguments, but for better arguments, I'd pick the open-source programmers. Programming is a three-way relationship between a programmer, some source code, and the computer it's meant to run on, but computers are such famously inflexible interpreters of instructions that it's extraordinarily difficult to write out a set of instructions that the computer knows how to execute, and that's if one person is writing it. Once you get more than one person writing it,it's very easy for any two programmers to overwrite each other's work if they're working on the same file, or to send incompatible instructions that simply causes the computer to choke, and this problem grows larger the more programmers are involved. To a first approximation, the problem of managing a large software project is the problem of keeping this social chaos at bay.
So, the law is also dependency-related. This is a graph of the U.S. Tax Code, and the dependencies of one law on other laws for the overall effect. So there's that as a site for source code management. But there's also the fact that law is another place where there are many opinions in circulation, but they need to be resolved to one canonical copy, and when you go onto GitHub, and you look around, there are millions and millions of projects,almost all of which are source code, but if you look around the edges, you can see peopleexperimenting with the political ramifications of a system like that. Someone put up all the Wikileaked cables from the State Department, along with software used to interpret them, including my favorite use ever of the Cablegate cables, which is a tool for detecting naturally occurring haiku in State Department prose. (Laughter) Right. (Laughter) The New York Senate has put up something called Open Legislation, also hosting it on GitHub, again for all of the reasons of updating and fluidity. You can go and pick your Senator and then you can see a list of bills they have sponsored. Someone going by Divegeek has put up the Utah code, the laws of the state of Utah, and they've put it up there not just to distribute the code, but with the very interesting possibility that this could be used to further the development of legislation. Somebody put up a tool during the copyright debate last year in the Senate, saying, "It's strange that Hollywood has more access to Canadian legislatorsthan Canadian citizens do. Why don't we use GitHub to show them what a citizen-developed bill might look like?" And it includes this very evocative screenshot.

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