The internet strike may have worked

The Wikipedia blackout and other protests on the internet to the SOPA bill may have done some good.   Congressmen, including former sponsors in the House and the Senate, are now running away from the bill.  President Obama has also come out against the bill as it stands, provoking Hollywood moguls to threaten to withdraw their financial support of his campaign.

 

Wikipedia is on strike today

If you try looking something up today on Wikipedia, you won’t be able to.  The ubiquitous online encyclopedia is shutting down as a way to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) currently before Congress.  Other sites, such as Reddit and Boing Boing are also joining the strike.  Google and others will not shut down, but they will put up messages decrying the attempt at internet “censorship.”  Here are some details:

Though the Stop Online Piracy Act has the support from the likes of Hollywood, the music industry, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, many Silicon Valley firms say it effectively amounts to censorship. To show their opposition to the bill, some sites are planning a service blackout on Jan. 18. Hayley Tsukayama reports:

Wikipedia, Reddit and Boing Boing are planning to black out their services Wednesday to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act by showing users the bill’s effect on Web companies. These companies object to language in the bills, which are aimed at stopping online piracy on foreign Web sites, that grant the U.S. government the right to block entire Web sites with copyright-infringing content on them from the Internet.

Wikipedia will block all of its English-language pages — the first time since the encylopedia’s 2001 launch that it has ever restricted access to those pages as a form of protest.

“[It’s] a decision that wasn’t lightly made,” the company said on its blog Monday. The decision to take down the free encyclopedia’s English pages was made with the input of 1800 Wikipedia users who voted overwhelmingly in favor of the blackout, according to statement from the Wikimedia Foundation. . . .

via SOPA protests planned by Google, Wikipedia and others on Jan. 18 – The Washington Post.

What would SOPA do?  As I understand it, the target is sites that pirate movies and music.  But what the bill does is to allow for court orders that would actually take down sites–including those from other countries–by delisting the domains and stopping search engines and service providers from accessing them.  From Everything You Need to Know about Congress’s Online Piracy Bills:

At a basic level, SOPA — and its Senate analogue, the Protect IP Act — would enable copyright holders and the Justice Department to get court orders against sites that “engage in, enable, or facilitate” copyright infringement. That could include, say, sites that host illegal mp3s or sites that link to such sites (the revised House bill focuses primarily on foreign sites like, oh, Pirate Bay). Courts could bar advertisers and payment companies such as PayPal from doing business with the offending sites in question, order search engines to stop listing the accused infringers, or even require Internet service providers to block access entirely. The bills contain other provisions, too, like making it a felony to stream unauthorized content online. . . .

Why are tech start-ups so vehemently opposed? These companies have argued that the bills are tantamount to Internet censorship. Rather than receiving a notification for copyright violations, sites now face immediate action — up to and including being taken down before they have a chance to respond. Intermediary sites like YouTube and Flickr could lose their “safe harbor” protections. Nonprofit or low-budget sites might not have the resources to defend themselves against costly lawsuits. And, meanwhile, larger companies like Google and Facebook could be forced to spend considerable time and money policing their millions of offerings each day for offending material.

Do these online piracy bills threaten free speech? Plenty of law professors, including Harvard’s Laurence Tribe, think so. The original version of the bill would have allowed copyright holders to block advertising and payment services for an accused Web site before a judicial hearing even took place. The new version of the House bill would require a hearing first, but, as Julian Sanchez notes, the bill “still makes it far too easy for U.S. corporations to effectively destroy foreign Internet sites based on a one-sided proceeding in U.S. courts.” Other critics have worried that the bill’s language is far too broad, threatening all sorts of potentially benign Internet uses. What’s more, the Electronic Frontier Foundation worries that the bill cracks down on electronic tools to circumvent government blacklists that are essential to human rights activists and political dissidents around the world.

Could the bills actually “break” the Internet? Many tech experts think so. The bills would give courts the power to order rogue sites to be de-listed from the Domain Name System — basically, the Internet’s phone directory. U.S. service providers would be tasked with acting as if the site didn’t exist at all (although the newly revised House bill gives a little bit of flexibility here). A big potential pitfall here is that the Internet is global, and it’s possible that users could seek out foreign DNS servers to access blacklisted sites. Some experts have raised security concerns about this splintering of the Internet’s architecture.

I’m curious who in Congress is pushing for this?  Democrats or Republicans or both?

Do you think this is much-needed protection of intellectual and creative property?  Or are the methods too heavy-handed, with unintended consequences that could damage the internet as a whole?

Information’s dependence on advertising

Ezra Klein points out that in the 19th century the different newspapers were tied to and funded by political parties.  The news was slanted accordingly.  But then newspaper revenue switched to advertising. This led to a greater degree of objectivity–as well as blandness–since newspapers didn’t want to alienate any particular audience, the advertisers wanting to sell to everybody.

After that interesting discussion, Klein segues into a larger discussion based on this observation:

One of the most mind-bending facts of our information culture is that almost every major medium of information supports itself by advertising.

Radio? Advertisers. Magazines? Advertisers. Television? Advertisers. Google? Advertisers. Facebook? Advertisers. Twitter? Advertisers. Perhaps the only major exceptions to this rule are books, which are supported by sales, and Wikipedia, which is supported largely through donations.

From an economic standpoint, most information is simply a vehicle for advertising. We see the advertising as a distraction. But so far as the media company’s bottom line goes, the advertising is the point. Without the advertising, the information wouldn’t exist. So the history of information, in the United States at least, is the history of platforms that could support advertising.

via Human knowledge, brought to you by . . . – The Washington Post.

Thus free market capitalism shapes the online world and makes it available for nothing!  Of course, in exchange it gets information about us, so as to make marketing to us more effective.

Do you see anything nefarious or potentially nefarious in this?

A new kind of environmentalism

Classic environmentalism wants to restore things to their pristine condition, untouched by man.  But a new kind of environmentalism thinks that man should actively take the lead in steering “spaceship earth.”

More and more environmentalists and scientists talk about the planet as a complex system, one that human beings must aggressively monitor, manage and sometimes reengineer. Kind of like a spaceship.

This is a sharp departure from traditional “green” philosophy. The more orthodox way of viewing nature is as something that must be protected from human beings — not managed by them. And many environmentalists have reservations about possible unintended consequences of well-meaning efforts. No one wants a world that requires constant intervention to fix problems caused by previous interventions.

At the same time, “we’re in a position where we have to take a more interventionist role and a more managerial role,” says Emma Marris, author of “Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World.” “The easy answer used to be to turn back time and make it look like it used to. Before was always better. Before is no longer an option.”

Although Marris is speaking about restoration ecology — how to manage forests and other natural systems — this interventionist approach can be applied to the planet more broadly. In his book “The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans,” environmental activist Mark Lynas writes, “Nature no longer runs the Earth. We do. It is our choice what happens from here.”

via Spaceship Earth: A new view of environmentalism – The Washington Post.

Read the whole article for examples of this “ecopragmatism,” which depends on technology to give us a better environment.

How is this different from not being an environmentalist?  Doesn’t this describe the “dominion” over nature that the Bible describes and that human beings have been carrying out for millennia?  It seems different mainly in its utopian trust in human capabilities, which nature has been humbling for a long time.

China to put a man on the moon

China, the new America:

China has declared its intention to land an astronaut on the moon, in the first official confirmation of its aim to go where Americans last set foot nearly 40 years ago.

While Chinese scientists have previously discussed the possibility of a manned lunar mission, a government white paper published on Thursday is the first public government document to enshrine it as a policy goal.

China will “conduct studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing”, the white paper said.

Although a manned moon mission is still some time off – Chinese experts say after 2020 – the statement highlights Beijing’s soaring ambitions just five months after the US retired its space shuttle programme . “Chinese people are the same as people around the world,” Zhang Wei, an official with China’s National Space Administration, said at a briefing. “When looking up at the starry sky, we are full of longing and yearning for the vast universe.”

According to the white paper, which serves as a blueprint for the next five years, China will develop new satellites, accelerate efforts to build a space station and strengthen its research in space. Laying the foundation for a mission to the moon, the government also plans to launch unmanned lunar probes and make “new technological breakthroughs” in human space flights by 2016.

via China push to put astronaut on the moon – FT.com.

Remember when we used to have grand ambitions like that, thinking we could do anything and then doing it?  Our last manned moon landing was in 1972.  Back then we were in a competition with the Soviets in a “space race.”  As the new and improved version of communism that China has devised outperforms us economically, I doubt that we will even care if China takes up where we left off in outer space.  For better or worse, we don’t have the same energy and optimism that we used to have.  Evidently, China has it.

“How Luther went viral”

The Economist tells how Luther, in effect, used social media:

Although they were written in Latin, the “95 Theses” caused an immediate stir, first within academic circles in Wittenberg and then farther afield. In December 1517 printed editions of the theses, in the form of pamphlets and broadsheets, appeared simultaneously in Leipzig, Nuremberg and Basel, paid for by Luther’s friends to whom he had sent copies. German translations, which could be read by a wider public than Latin-speaking academics and clergy, soon followed and quickly spread throughout the German-speaking lands. Luther’s friend Friedrich Myconius later wrote that “hardly 14 days had passed when these propositions were known throughout Germany and within four weeks almost all of Christendom was familiar with them.”

The unintentional but rapid spread of the “95 Theses” alerted Luther to the way in which media passed from one person to another could quickly reach a wide audience. “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation,” he wrote in March 1518 to a publisher in Nuremberg who had published a German translation of the theses. But writing in scholarly Latin and then translating it into German was not the best way to address the wider public. Luther wrote that he “should have spoken far differently and more distinctly had I known what was going to happen.” For the publication later that month of his “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, he switched to German, avoiding regional vocabulary to ensure that his words were intelligible from the Rhineland to Saxony. The pamphlet, an instant hit, is regarded by many as the true starting point of the Reformation.

The media environment that Luther had shown himself so adept at managing had much in common with today’s online ecosystem of blogs, social networks and discussion threads. It was a decentralised system whose participants took care of distribution, deciding collectively which messages to amplify through sharing and recommendation. Modern media theorists refer to participants in such systems as a “networked public”, rather than an “audience”, since they do more than just consume information. Luther would pass the text of a new pamphlet to a friendly printer (no money changed hands) and then wait for it to ripple through the network of printing centres across Germany.

Unlike larger books, which took weeks or months to produce, a pamphlet could be printed in a day or two. Copies of the initial edition, which cost about the same as a chicken, would first spread throughout the town where it was printed. Luther’s sympathisers recommended it to their friends. Booksellers promoted it and itinerant colporteurs hawked it. Travelling merchants, traders and preachers would then carry copies to other towns, and if they sparked sufficient interest, local printers would quickly produce their own editions, in batches of 1,000 or so, in the hope of cashing in on the buzz. A popular pamphlet would thus spread quickly without its author’s involvement.

As with “Likes” and retweets today, the number of reprints serves as an indicator of a given item’s popularity. Luther’s pamphlets were the most sought after; a contemporary remarked that they “were not so much sold as seized”. His first pamphlet written in German, the “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, was reprinted 14 times in 1518 alone, in print runs of at least 1,000 copies each time. Of the 6,000 different pamphlets that were published in German-speaking lands between 1520 and 1526, some 1,700 were editions of a few dozen works by Luther. In all, some 6m-7m pamphlets were printed in the first decade of the Reformation, more than a quarter of them Luther’s.

Although Luther was the most prolific and popular author, there were many others on both sides of the debate. Tetzel, the indulgence-seller, was one of the first to respond to him in print, firing back with his own collection of theses. Others embraced the new pamphlet format to weigh in on the merits of Luther’s arguments, both for and against, like argumentative bloggers. . . .

Being able to follow and discuss such back-and-forth exchanges of views, in which each author quoted his opponent’s words in order to dispute them, gave people a thrilling and unprecedented sense of participation in a vast, distributed debate. Arguments in their own social circles about the merits of Luther’s views could be seen as part of a far wider discourse, both spoken and printed. Many pamphlets called upon the reader to discuss their contents with others and read them aloud to the illiterate. People read and discussed pamphlets at home with their families, in groups with their friends, and in inns and taverns. Luther’s pamphlets were read out at spinning bees in Saxony and in bakeries in Tyrol. In some cases entire guilds of weavers or leather-workers in particular towns declared themselves supporters of the Reformation, indicating that Luther’s ideas were being propagated in the workplace. One observer remarked in 1523 that better sermons could be heard in the inns of Ulm than in its churches, and in Basel in 1524 there were complaints about people preaching from books and pamphlets in the town’s taverns. . . .

Amid the barrage of pamphlets, ballads and woodcuts, public opinion was clearly moving in Luther’s favour. “Idle chatter and inappropriate books” were corrupting the people, fretted one bishop. “Daily there is a veritable downpour of Lutheran tracts in German and Latin…nothing is sold here except the tracts of Luther,” lamented Aleander, Leo X’s envoy to Germany, in 1521. Most of the 60 or so clerics who rallied to the pope’s defence did so in academic and impenetrable Latin, the traditional language of theology, rather than in German. Where Luther’s works spread like wildfire, their pamphlets fizzled. Attempts at censorship failed, too. Printers in Leipzig were banned from publishing or selling anything by Luther or his allies, but material printed elsewhere still flowed into the city. The city council complained to the Duke of Saxony that printers faced losing “house, home, and all their livelihood” because “that which one would gladly sell, and for which there is demand, they are not allowed to have or sell.” What they had was lots of Catholic pamphlets, “but what they have in over-abundance is desired by no one and cannot even be given away.”

via Social media in the 16th Century: How Luther went viral | The Economist.

The article also tells about the role music and visual images (with a shout out to Lucas Cranach), both of which also went viral, in the spread of the Reformation.

Can you envision a time and a cultural context in which this sort of thing–the spread of the gospel–could happen again, now that we really have the technology for it?

HT:  Joe Carter


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