Thursday, February 15, 2007

Greenpeace Win Nuclear Consultaton Challenge

This is a big story: Nuclear consultation 'was misleading' proclaims Judge, following a legal challenge on the government by Greenpeace.
A judge ruled that the consultation process before making the decision last year had been "misleading", "seriously flawed" and "procedurally unfair".
For too long, public "consultation" has been subject to bad information from the government (think Iraq Dossier). This ruling seems to strongly highlight the difference between what government want to do, and how much they permit discussion to take place. I suspect the attitude examined in this ruling isn't particularly unique, and goes a long way to explaining the general dismissal of politicians as willing-to-listen.

Climate change is a huge issue. The solutions may well include nuclear power in some form, but the point here is that we can only reach the right solutions through greater discussion. Tony Blair rubbishing suggestions about cutting long-haul flights, for instance, very much clamps down discussion, by letting it be known that these things aren't open to debate.

Some people would like to think that the future of the country/world has been decided for us already.

Politics: Honing in on the Social Enthusiasts

Slashdot links to an article about a US presidential candidate setting up in Second Life, the virtual world reminiscent of Snow Crash. What's intriguing here is why John Edward is doing it - not for any features or particular press coverage (he says), but for the kind of people that inhabit the space.

The new social networking craze has, in a way, re-embodied the thing that many feared the Internet would threaten in the first place - social interaction. OK, perhaps "re-captured" or "re-structured" might be better phrases, as I'd go so far to say that the kind of interaction taking place is fundamentally different - location, and all the issues that stem from it, is absent. The community here is self-selecting. Thus, the kind of community that emerges will be different.
While SL users do not have the same numbers as, say, MySpace, they have communication skills, and a desire to communicate, that, I humbly say, exceeds that of MySpace users.
This highlights an interesting facet of politics within a liquid network of networks. The question faced by a politician is: who should I address - the people who are interested in politics and who are likely to vote, or the masses (the majority, one would suspect) who can now be reached, but who aren't so interested? To be so crude about it, quality or quantity?

Mass media has meant that the latter has become more "efficient" over the last few decades. But can we now expect this to shift dramatically as group formation gets easier, and (more importantly) group selection becomes more readily available? Or is Second Life simply a one-off novelty party, which it makes sense for politicians looking to be "hip" to tag along with?

Certainly, the strength and "fluidity" of groups is one theme that I'll definitely be following here for a while.

Update: After reading David Wilcox's piece on local on-line centres and "confident citizens", I wonder if there's a similarity. Just because people aren't in a certain place (whether it be the centre, or a 3D virtual world) doesn't mean they're not social, or not politically interested. Nor does socially "enthusiastic" necessarily equate to politically enthusiastic - in the same context. That is, we may be political in one group, and completely apolitical in another. Perhaps it's more important to focus on appropriate engagement forums, than making efficient ones? (Going into Second Life to garner discussion because people are there is efficient from a candidate's point of view, but ignores all the people who aren't there, or who can't get there.)

Is it all about getting the right mix of setting, attitude and topic?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Pseudonymous Politics

Danah Boyd muses about the abolition of walled gardens, taking more searchability as a thread to weave together contextuality and identity - in other words, perhaps we need walls to define context, to define identity. But more transparency (mostly through searching, but also - I would add - through stronger network externality effects*) seem to be the way the net is going.

I think this has important and interesting implications for on-line discussion, as it provides a nice basis for thinking about what identity means within political debate, and how it could be handled on-line. For example, my local issues forum has a "real name" policy - one assumes that by using a "real" name, not only are people are more likely to consider what they say more carefully, but also that the link to off-line deliberation is "preserved" to a greater extent.

But now compare this to other forums. In my experience, isolated identity can also prove to be a strength - of the community, and therefore also of the discussion. Despite - or through - a foundation of anonymity (though certainly not mandatory), the cypherpunks mailing list flourished in terms of arguments, to an extent that I would hope many practitioners of politics would be proud of. Perhaps the technical nature of the crowd acts as a counterbalance to some issues that arose (e.g. from the use of killfiles to discussion of the plausibility of content analysis to gauge identity), but the point remains - arguments do not depend utterly on knowing someone's "true" identity.

Naturally, if we reconstruct democracy in some selected image (rather than merely growing it and seeing what emerges), then issues of identity over "legitimacy of participation" arise. A forum on the Internet is inherently global, so how do I make sure that only local people can participate? True identities are one way to help encourage this. But no workable solution will be foolproof, nor need be. The question then, the decision to be made, is over whether pseudonyms help or hinder discussion. And, perhaps more vitaly, what the aims of the discussion are (which may not necessarily be simply to arrive at a decision).

I'd like to see some research into this - say, comparisons between deliberative groups that were pseudonymous and groups that weren't. There might be some out there, but I haven't come across it. Perhaps some hypothesising/observations might help air some thoughts:

  • Pseudonyms have a reputation of their own. People like pseudonyms as this reputation is separate to any previous/alternatives (perhaps a "local reputation"). The upside of this is that people are more likely to focus on arguments than on personal attacks. The downside, of course, is that there is less come back, so people may be encouraged to lie, etc. However, both of these are initial concerns in the evolution of a group - assuming that all pseudonyms within a group are new. How the group grows will affect how newcomers are reacted to (which will probably depend on a further mix of local reputations, and argument). In this sense (an important one, I feel), the group is more likely to see the ongoing discussion in an objective manner.

  • People may feel more attached to their pseudonymical identity, as it is their "creation". Thus, just as people invest time and money in building up a character within a game (such as World of Warcraft), they may also invest time in building up their newfound identity.

  • Anonymity within discussion may help people to "come out of the woodwork" if they feel it is unattached to the rest of their life. While there may be some effect on what people say, I would expect that only a minority of people actually go out of their way to be troublesome. This would probably be easily countered by the number of people who would feel encouraged to say things they wouldn't normally say under their true name.

Just a handful for now, to raise the question - there are certainly huge issues over legal accountability, technical surveillance, etc tat go alongside. Certainly, the target audience is a huge consideration. Hopefully in a follow-up post (and to get back on topic...), I'll have some thoughts over what this area of nymity means for a political sphere in which groups are often the most persuasive forces, and where one person may participate in many groups.

* As we become more and more connected, do we increasingly flock to less sites in greater numbers?