This is the opposite of a live blog post, despite the fact that I was listed as a live-blogger at last week's Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in Half Moon Bay (near San Francisco). I am now at the iSummit in Sapporo, which I will write about soon. For some more timely reporting about what got said in Half Moon Bay last week, try here, here, here, here, and here.
Anyway. Since I don't live in Silicon Valley and don't visit it very often, attending the Fortune Brainstorm was a useful reminder of How "The Valley" views "The Rest of the World." It was pretty clear that the CEO's, tech entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists whose lives and businesses revolve around Silicon Valley really do view the world in two parts: The Valley and Everybody Else - with the latter in concentric layers of tech-unsavvyness, remoteness, non-English-speaking-ness and primitiveness. There was even a session titled "What the Rest of the World Wants." As if you can generalize about "The Rest of the World" beyond the implied Valley+the U.S.+some more advanced parts of Europe, vaguely defined. (Wish I was talented enough to draw one of those New Yorker-style cartoon maps...maybe Gapingvoid can help us out here?)
As author Rebecca Fannin pointed out on the Huffington Post, even China was barely mentioned: "Why was China ignored in the panel discussions? First, it's far away. Second, and more importantly, Silicon Valley is in a state of denial." She thinks that the Silicon Valley patrons of the Fortune Brainstorm are failing to take China seriously, and that this denial will cause them to be "blindsided" by a "truly disruptive force."
Denial? Probably. Hubris? Definitely.
I was struck by the assumption permeating many discussions at Half Moon Bay: that communications technology (mainly, the internet and mobile devices) combined with capitalism will inevitably make everybody in the world more free. Just by virtue of being deployed as broadly as possible. Thus, as these people continue to make millions, they are also saving the world. Which makes them all feel terribly good about themselves.
Don't get me wrong, there were plenty of people at the conference with strong and admirable sense of social responsibility. A new and very worthy Prize for Technology and Development was announced for entrepreneurs whose businesses do good things for poor and/or un-free people in The Rest of The World. I attended a very stimulating session on governance run by Daniel Kauffman of the World Bank and Ross Mayfield of Social Text - both great guys doing excellent work and thinking. In that session, while much general enthusiasm was expressed about the ability of mobile phones and twitter to make people more free and politics more transparent, we also managed to have a brief discussion about technology and corporate social responsibility, and the issues of corporate involvement with government control and manipulation of populations.
But in several sessions, when I raised my hand to push back on blanket statements made by many people about technology and capitalism being inevitable forces of good, and to insist that whether technology or capitalism make people more or less free depends on specifically how they are deployed, by and with whom, and how transparently and openly that deployment happens, my comments were met by many attendees with rolled eyes and looks of annoyance.
It was thus a relief when Joi Ito and Larry Lessig had a chance to poke holes in the thick layer of self-congratulation. Lessig predicted that the U.S. government will eventually find an excuse (perhaps after some kind of "i-9/11" attack) to clamp down on Internet freedoms in the United States - with the implication that law-abiding U.S. Internet and telecoms companies will have little choice but to go along with it (nor can we be very optimistic that Congress will let us sue these companies for helping the executive branch infringe on our constitutional rights). Joi warned that not all kinds of capitalism lead to greater freedom or spread wealth and opportunities to everybody. "The capitalists aren't really that helpful, generally," he said. It depends on the business model deployed which really depends on the social intentions of the people running the business, and how much they care about long-term social and political repercussions. "We're forgetting that we had to fight to create an open Internet." Venture capitalists, he said, "assume that the Internet just works... that's very irresponsible," and they're not thinking about how specific business decisions impact overall levels of freedom, openness, and inclusion. "We have to do more than just run around chasing deals." (Watch a video of Joi's remarks shot by Tom Foremski at the bottom of this post.)
Which brings me to another conference held in London earlier this month which I didn't attend, OpenTech, and the keynote given by the EFF's Danny O'Brien, along with his companion series of blog posts. The talk is titled Living on the Edge. Here is the blurb summary he posted for it:
Living on the Edge (of the Network) When you want to make a private picture or note available only to your friends, why do you hand it over to a multi-national corporation first? What use is a mobile phone running Apache? Does IPv6 really exist? Can we be ecologically-sound and still run our terabyte home servers? Please? These, and other whining rhetorical questions answered by Danny O'Brien, ORG founder and EFF activist.
His point is that we have come to depend way too heavily on a small number of Internet and telecoms companies to conduct the most private and intimate details of our professional and personal lives. As long as those companies have values aligned with our own and are run by people we think have integrity, we don't see a huge problem. But what if the values cease to be aligned or political circumstances change? See the video embedded at the bottom of this post. Also see the PDF and Open Office presentation file. In one of his companion blog posts he writes:
If we want people to have the same degree of user autonomy as we've come to expect from the world, we may have to sit down and code alternatives to Google Docs, Twitter, and EC3 that can live with us on the edge, not be run by third parties.
..and in another titled "Independence day" he continues:
There's also a pressing civil liberty reason to start leaning back towards holding your data close to your chest. Data held by a third-party in the United States just isn't safe. Terms and conditions deny you any recourse for leaked or lost data; courts and Congress both deny citizens the protections of the Fourth Amendment for *any* data that you share with others. That even means data you expect to keep private, or have no way of keeping to yourself (the key case here is United States v. Miller, where the court decided that you have no expectation of privacy in your bank records, because you *shared them with your bank*!) So here's the question: how much of our life that we share with the Web 2.0 giants do we really *need* to share? How much of these services can and should we be running from the comfort of our own homes?
It’s like if I was to concede that a benevolent dictatorship is a far more effective model for a political system than a liberal democracy. The problems you hit in that context is when the dictatorship slides from benevolence (or effectiveness), or you need a new dictator in a hurry. I love having Steve Jobs at Apple: I just can’t quite believe the odds that the next Steve Jobs will be at Apple too, and the one after that. I want to move my data seamlessly where the best ideas and implementation move.
The guys running Google, Apple, Microsoft, and many other companies represented at the Fortune Brainstorm are the benevolent dictators of the global information and communications system. But can we assume they will always be benevolent? What happens when they roll out services in not-so-benevolent authoritarian regimes? We need to push our service providers to be honest, transparent and not screw us over, which is why I've been involved for the past two years in developing a corporate code of conduct for free speech and privacy (which is likely to go public sometime this Fall). But that's not enough. Power over our communications and identities is much too concentrated in the hands of people who are more accountable to v.c.'s and shareholders wanting profits than to users who want their rights and interests protected. We need to have more choices - which should include plenty of non-proprietary, grassroots, open alternatives. At the iSummit here in Sapporo, many conversations are taking place about how to build a global community devoted to incubating, nurturing and supporting services, tools, and platforms - things that will help ensure that the global information and communications environment really does continue to evolve in a freer, more democratic direction.