Human Systems

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Quick disclaimer: I realize there is still a lot of rescuing, grieving, and hard work to do in the Gulf coast. I respect the city of New Orleans, and its people. This post is just me thinking out loud about a bigger issue, possibly prompted mainly by my “corruption” in English Lit grad school.

I just read this article in the Washington Post — A Sad Truth: Cities Aren’t Forever — and wondered about a few things.

Only in July, I heard a wonderful story on NPR about the 100 year old restaurant Galatoire’s, where various folks were interviewed about its history and its long-time clientele. The verbal posture and language, the way these people spoke of the area and its sultry, complex eccentricities, reminded me of something, but I wasn’t sure what.

Finally I realized what it reminded me of: the way expatriates talk about the near-third-world places where they’ve set up shop with their little typewriters over the last hundred years or so. Hemingway in Mexico or Spain, or William Burroughs in Tangier (and Mexico too, for that matter). Other examples that I can’t think of at the moment … but it made me wonder other stuff …

Was the “New Orleans” so many of us romanticize actually a sort of last-bastion of this kind of existence? That is, relatively well-off intellectual white folks sipping coffee (or bourbon or whatever) in old-world surroundings, steeped in “dark” mystery? It makes me think of Post-Colonial Lit Theory: essentially the worldview and literature sprouting from a people who occupy another, weaker or poorer (or at least colonized) country or people.

I’m oversimplifying, and maybe even misappropriating, but New Orleans has always seemed the sort of place where people could be writers and artists and languidly soak up the atmosphere of the place, and then use it as grist for their typewritten mills, without actually having to be one of the poor and downtrodden folk who make up the majority of the mysterious “dark” (yeah that word is, in an academic sense, “problematized,” because of the racial connection, but here I’ll only acknowledge it; to get into it much would be a huge tangent) vibe surrounding them.

Even one of my favorite James Bond movies, “To Live and Let Die,” takes place partly in New Orleans and in the Caribbean, and makes great use of the “voodoo” spookiness and, let’s face it, sultry sexuality through a Hollywood lens. Same for the infamous “Angel Heart” film, with chicken blood and everything.

What I’m getting at is this: when I read the article I linked above, I wondered if the romantic New Orleans that so many of us want to fight to preserve is really just a sort of weird Disney World version of the city that’s built on the backs of the hundreds of thousands of poor people surrounding it? Evidently what most outsiders (and the relatively well-off in NO) like to think of as New Orleans is really just a small part of the city, a crescent slice of Orleans Parish.

From the article:

That tourist crescent is relatively intact. (Only two of the 1,500 animals at the Audubon Zoo died.) But it is only perhaps 10 percent of the city. … The rest to the north of the river … is under as much as 25 feet of water. For the last 90 years, this vast bulk of the city has required mammoth pumps to clear the streets every time it rains. This is where you’d find … areas of soul-destroying poverty, part of the shredding fabric of a city that had a poverty rate of 23 percent. …

Plus there’s the rest of the city, which doesn’t fare much better (many of the other parishes). Does this explain in part the huge failure of preparation and evacuation? (although to be fair, hundreds of thousands of even the very poor *were* rescued and evacuated) I mean, though, is part of the reason that many of the levees never were quite up to par was that those parts of the city were systemically written off in the collective imagination of the culture?

If I were still in academia, I’d jump on this concept: of New Orleans as a last holdout of post-colonial romanticism.

This isn’t to say that all the people in the city don’t deserve to have their homes back. It’s not to condone the situation in any way. It just makes me wonder if we need to question some assumptions.

The “Forever War”

When I first started hearing the rhetoric right after 9/11/2001, that we were in a “war on terror,” I really didn’t want to be difficult. I mean, it was a horrible thing, people were passionate and grieving, and yeah I wanted revenge, or justice, or something.

But when I heard that, I thought, “I hope that’s just a rhetorical flourish, and not an actual policy … because how the heck can you fight ‘terror’?”

Now, four years later, I wonder why more people (the press especially) didn’t challenge the administration on this? But, like all of us, they undoubtedly wanted to believe in our leaders, that they would lead us properly and wisely, in spite of all the signals to the contrary.

Even a war on “terrorism” or for that matter “Radical Extremist Islam” is absurd. You cannot fight ideas and win. Ever. Not as a war. All you can do is provide better ideas, which have never in human history taken hold of people’s imaginations and cultures with any permanency at the point of a weapon.

The quotation below is from an article [Taking Stock of the Forever War – New York Times] linked by JJG recently. He points out how the article shows just how “open-source” and nodal the terrorist networks are. They’re the brutal pioneers of social network technologies. (Of course, from the perspective of the ancient native cultures of the Americas, European explorers could easily be seen as ‘brutal pioneers’ of nautical technologies, but I digress…)

I liked this bit especially because of the metaphor at the end … I’m a sucker for visceral metaphors:

Call it viral Al Qaeda, carried by strongly motivated next-generation followers who download from the Internet’s virtual training camp a perfectly adequate trade-craft in terror. Nearly two years ago, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, in a confidential memorandum, posed the central question about the war on terror: “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?” The answer is clearly no. “We have taken a ball of quicksilver,” says the counterinsurgency specialist John Arquilla, “and hit it with a hammer.”

Yeah, we kill off or capture leaders in the organization, but because it’s not a strictly top-down/hierarchical organism, new leadership sprouts up very quickly. Every bit we prune sprouts two more bits. In the face of this kind of nimble, ant-hill-like phenomenon, the US feels like a lumbering elephant being tormented and devoured by insects.

Think of all the Science Fiction and War genre movies and stories where the plucky Americans win because they think on their feet, while the totalitarian enemy topples because of failure at its top. We still cast ourselves in this role, not realizing that we’ve become the new (in relative terms) stiff-limbed abomination, the super-monster trying to devour the world. This is how we look in the eyes of many. We want to think of ourselves still as those plucky underdogs, but we’re not the underdog, not by a long shot. And we’re no longer so nimble.

Also, last night, I watched Weapons of Mass Deception, a documentary about how the thought police and incestuous corporate media interests sold us on the war. Unlike Michael Moore’s sniveling, quack-fest “Fahrenheit” movie (lots of good potential there, but his immaturity and simplistic conspiracy-think crippled it for any truly thoughtful observer), this one actually documents what it says, and backs it up over and over again.

The truly creepy thing about what is going on isn’t that it’s the result of some Illuminati crowd of puppetmasters smoking cigars and drinking cognac in a secret room in the basement of the Pentagon. It’s that the whole system is so huge and complex and self-interested, that the entirety of it all dooms us to certain outcomes, unless we hack the system. It also makes clear how important things like regulated media really are — how what seems like a harmless, capitalistic/democratic move (let the media companies do what they want! don’t hinder commerce!) can change the entire character of how “truth” is created and propogated in a society.

At any rate, I think I’ve officially hit the point where I no longer can trust my country’s leaders to be safe and sane. I know I was naive to even think that to begin with — not that it was a totally conscious choice, more of a feeling leftover from childhood about any parental or authoritative figures, perhaps? I really wanted to believe that at least more than half of what was going on was being handled with some competence. But the more I learn about how the Iraq conflict came to pass, how personal pockets and careers have been bloated on other people’s misery, how deep the lies and self-deceptions and insidious ideologies really go, the more I … well, I’m not sure. I suppose the more I want to just go to sleep and hope it goes away?

The Uses of Disaster (

And when we look back at Katrina, we may see that the greatest savagery was that of our public officials, who not only failed to provide the infrastructure, social services, and opportunities that would have significantly decreased the vulnerability of pre-hurricane New Orleans but who also, when disaster did occur, put their ideology before their people.

She makes the point that looting of a superfluous or violent nature was overemphasized in the reports (and by the government). I wonder if that’s the case — I’m curious to see what various inquiries uncover later on.

I just want to brag a little about my current employer.
While most places would be horrified that anyone might take a few minutes out of the day to check on the status of areas hit by Hurricane Katrina, my intranet just published a quick item with links to various resources (National Hurricane Center, Red Cross, etc) encouraging people to keep tabs on the event “and about friends and relatives in affected regions.”
Even a cynic like me has to admit that’s a mark of a pretty excellent company.

I’ve wondered the bit Denham says in the last sentence quite a bit myself. So many vendors sell software, and services to help you integrate it, but they don’t do anything about change management or cultural conditioning for their clients.
Do they think that offering such a service would make their software look bad?
Or maybe they actually *believe* that their software will solve all ills?
I suspect it’s more along the lines of what any manufacturer thinks: you buy my product, and what you do with it is your business.
Plus, hey, lots of companies are shelling out millions for ERP, CRM, CMS and other megalopolis-size products without demanding that kind of service.
The more I’m in this business, though, the more absurd it seems to me.

From: Knowledge-at-work: Sharing knowledge – do we know enough?

Asking WIIIFM (what is in it for me) before you start to share defeats the objective, you are getting off on the wrong foot. In the same vein, asking you to enter a password protected space with the aim of sharing should send up warning signals. If your CEO comes back from a KM conference and sets up Lotus, LiveLink or eRoom with complex access privilege’s, you should question if they have really got the message. Is giving in the knowledge economy just being naive?, How about the groupware vendor that sells tools, but sponsors no work on understanding collaboration, group processes or conducts no ethnographic research?, do you believe they have collaboration at heart or are they just selling more software?

JSB trove

I’ve been rolling around in an orgy of reading on design and innovation lately. And JSB’s site is a fine treasure trove. I just heard him on Talk of the Nation, discussing China. I felt like calling in just to be a fan-boy, but figured that would just annoy the radio producer. chief of confusion

Why can’t we keep things simple? Sure, we all complain, but why can’t we design stuff that mere mortals (like you and me) can use? There are many reasons why this doesn’t happen, but one of the main ones is that we, technologists, continually overlook the social resources that people use to orient themselves, to navigate through complex territory, and to help each other figure things out. Some of these ideas Paul Duguid and I cover in our book, The Social Life of Information, but others go to the heart of how we can design transparent systems that fade into our subconscious and are just there, not in our face.
Take the U.S. Constitution. Part of the constitution’s strength was keeping it simple and honoring the social resources that a community of imagination (i.e. the nation) could deploy to evolve its interpretation as the world evolved. Design applies to institutions and nations, and individuals as well- the freedom to design your own life…

Last night I was reading this article in the Guardian, that was published in 2002, about the “Millennium Challenge” wargame, where the military was outfoxed by the ex-marine consultant they hired to play the bad guy: Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Wake-up call. I got the link from a post over on Antonella’s blog. She’d linked it because the story is also used in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink.
I’ve been reading Blink as well, and I may have more to ruminate about that, because it’s remarkable (and everybody’s reading it, it seems, so others may have done the ruminating for me).
Anyway, what converged in my head when looking at this story was what I saw earlier the same night when watching a movie with my daughter. See, we were watching the last of the old Star Wars movies, Return of the Jedi. And for years I think I undervalued the movie in general — I think it’s better than I remembered. Not great, but better. Still, it really is a sort of “Muppets in Space” flick and a little annoying at times. But I digress.
In that movie, we see brave rebel forces sacrificing their lives when fighting the overpowering Empire. Because the rebels don’t have the resources of their enemy, they have to be more clever, daring, and ingenious in their tactics.
Not only they, but also the cute little (evidently human-eating?) Ewoks, whose Endor is overrun as part of the clash, have to bring whatever means at their disposal to the task of dispatching the Empire forces.
As I was watching, I couldn’t help but wonder (and be pretty sure) that people like Bin Laden have seen this movie and others like it (because after all, Star Wars wasn’t especially original — it mainly repackaged a lot of tropes from previous Hollywood fare). Every time I saw an Ewok or a Rebel fighter use the Empire’s own destructive power against it, or crash a ship into an Imperial destroyer, I thought — hey, all it takes is a slip of perspective to see that other people could easily see themselves as the heroes in their own story, fighting the Imperial Americans. Would this be a fair perspective? Maybe not. But perception rules. If the US and the west in general are perceived as evil oppressors, it doesn’t take much to convince oneself that they should be brought down at all costs.
Anyway, that’s nothing new — the point’s been made plenty before. But what struck me was the ingeniousness of the ‘good guys’ in the battles of Star Wars, thinking outside the box and hitting the lumbering Empire in ways they don’t necessarily expect.
Then I read the Guardian article and am reminded of the tactics Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper used when imitating Saddam in the giant wargame:

As the US fleet entered the Gulf, Van Riper gave a signal – not in a radio transmission that might have been intercepted, but in a coded message broadcast from the minarets of mosques at the call to prayer. The seemingly harmless pleasure craft and propeller planes suddenly turned deadly, ramming into Blue boats and airfields along the Gulf in scores of al-Qaida-style suicide attacks.

And I thought about how he essentially did the sort of things that we’ve seen the underdog do in movies for generations (or in books even before that), and you have to wonder: How the heck could the US military have such a major blind spot? And how can we, in general, invade countries whose cultures and point of view our leaders seem to so basically misunderstand??
Like I said … nothing new here. I’ve seen others ponder the same thing. But it was an odd juxtaposition that made it so clear to me — Ewoks and Arabs. Go figure.

Human news

Antonella asks Where did you get your news today? and explains how, after the 7/7 bombings in London, the truly visceral understanding of the news was to be found on the greater ‘net rather than in ‘official’ news channels like CNN.

ACM Queue – A Conversation with Alan Kay – Big talk with the creator of Smalltalk—and much more.
He’s the guy who says great stuff like “The best way to predict the future is to invent it” as well as this chestnut that describes so perfectly the phenomenon so many of us experience in corporate life:

It’s not that people are completely stupid, but if there’s a big idea and you have deadlines and you have expedience and you have competitors, very likely what you’ll do is take a low-pass filter on that idea and implement one part of it and miss what has to be done next. This happens over and over again.

It’s fun to see someone thinking out loud in their blog, and especially when it’s Weinberger.
Joho the Blog: NECC talk – New Shape of Knowledge

But in the digital age, we snip the connection between how we organize physical stuff and how we organize knowledge. Four principles of organization change: A leaf can be on many branches, messiness is a virtue, the owners of the information no longer own the organization of that information, and users are contributors.

The Buzz Report: Five reasons social networking doesn’t work –

I think this article kind of misses the point. Sure, social network websites as distinct businesses are dying off — I’m surprised anybody thought they’d make money doing it to begin with. It’s like selling ice in the Arctic.
The phenomenon of Social Networking isn’t dying — it’s thriving. It’s just that the whole Internet is a social network.
Once people start realizing that, and the tools for connecting people outside of proprietary “sites” have become more useful and widespread, then there’s just no need for “social networking sites” like Friendster.
The only kind that will survive are specialty sites, like dating/matchmaking services or ones where people already share something like a career discipline or hobby.
Otherwise, the Internet already links everybody.
It does make the astute observation, though, that the problem with a lot of artificial social network sites is that they don’t have anything happening once you get there. That’s why things like LiveJournal (which I’ve basically given up on, but it’s still growing like mad) and RSS aggregators linking people’s blogs are thriving.
Social networks as a money-making business plan are, though, mostly kaput.

IHT has a story about how the US has hit the watershed “majority broadband” point. US Leans to Broadband

As recently as six months ago, a majority of Americans were using dial-up connections at home. In the first quarter of this year, broadband connections for the first time overtook dial-up.

This is significant, I think, not just because of the types of services and speed that are available, which seems to be the focus of the article. But because of what might happen when a majority of people on the internet fundamentally change the way they connect to it, from a temporary “phone call” paradigm to a “permanent resident” paradigm.
There’s a big difference between dialing in to access something as a remote service and having it always there, always available. And it’s not like having cable TV always available — because that’s just broadcast content. The Internet is a place that’s always moving, always changing and evolving. A planet unto itself. Having a broadband feed means you’ve moved from being a frequent visitor to a neighborhood to having a lot and house on one of its thoroughfares.

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