Sea of Joy

….waiting in our boats to set sail/ Sea of Joy

Steve Winwood, Sea of Joy. Blind Faith, Blind Faith, August 1969

Steve Winwood. One of my all-time favourite musicians. Someone whom I heard for the first time in the early Seventies, someone whom I’ve been an ardent fan of ever since. Even went to a pub in Gloucestershire decades ago because I was told he drank there, just to see him in the flesh. He wasn’t touring then. He has, since, resumed touring, and I’ve been fortunate enough to see him maybe half a dozen times since. I was able to see him “live” twice this year, and I shall be doing so again next May. In fact, I took the photograph above while watching him play with Eric Clapton at Wembley Arena earlier this year. But that’s not what this post is about. [Even if I did enjoy being able to link to the concert using setlist.fm; what a lovely service!].

Sea of Joy. One of my all-time favourite songs, taken from one of my all-time favourite albums, Blind Faith by Blind Faith. A song dating back to times when working out the meanings of song lyrics was a hard thing to do…..”Once the door swings open into space, and I’m already waiting in disguise”……There was a time when I used to try, until I heard what might have been an apocryphal tale about the Doors and Mr Mojo Risin’. Erudite people had written erudite essays about what Jim Morrison may have meant in his repeated use of the phrase “Mr Mojo Risin” in a number of Doors songs. Extremely erudite essays about the meaning and role of mojo at the time, in terms of hoodoo and voodoo symbolism and representations of power and sex-appeal. And it is possible that Jim Morrison may have been influenced by all that when he chose to use the phrase as a motet. But. But then I heard the story of a little old lady who wrote in to some magazine some years after Morrison’s death, wondering what all the fuss was about. She said that the Morrisons used to live next door to them when little Jim was growing up. And Jim used to come and play in their yard. And her husband made up the phrase Mr Mojo Risin’ to describe the young James Douglas Morrison, who would have been 67 last week if he hadn’t died so tragically in 1971. Her husband liked crosswords and suchlike. And Mr Mojo Risin’ is a perfect anagram of … Jim Morrison. As I said, the tale is apocryphal. I don’t have a shred of evidence to back the story. And yet I believe it.

But that’s not what this post is about either.

This post is about a sea of joy. Maybe even an ocean of joy. Oceans of joy.

The internet.

I know, I know, comparisons can often be odious. And while pictures paint thousands of words, they come with frames. And anchors. Which can constrain imagination.

Nevertheless.

I’ve always imagined the internet to be a whole heap of rivers, feeding many seas, feeding one large ocean. Living, breathing, moving. A giant organism which is more than just a space. Containing water, that wondrous substance that helps keep us alive. A place where people swim and frolic, laugh and play. An environment of magic, of depth, of beauty we’re still discovering. A place full of life in all its brilliance. A repository of rich resource we can mine and use, sensibly and sustainably. And yet a place where danger lurks, where death too can be found. With pirates. And with pollution.

Despite all that, a sea of joy.

Which is partly why I’ve found recent discussions about Wikileaks intriguing to say the least. For some time now I’ve been talking about having to “design for loss of control”, referred to here and here, here and at the TED Salon here.

Humour me for a moment or two.

Imagine it’s raining outside. [For some strange reason I find this very easy to do. Perhaps it’s because of where I choose to live.] Imagine you go for a walk around your house, with a beaker in your hand, collecting rainwater, getting absolutely drenched in the process. [For an even stranger reason I’ve done this, as part of a school Physics question set by Resnick and Halliday, in 1974….I remember the question as “Drops are falling steadily in a perpendicular rain. You need to get from A to B in this rain. In order to encounter the least number of raindrops in your journey, would you (a) travel at your fastest speed (b) travel at your slowest speed or (c) travel at some intermediate speed you determine? Explain your answer.“]

Anyway, where was I? More importantly, where were you? Oh yes, I had you out collecting rainwater. Imagine you have a beaker full of rainwater. Imagine you take that beaker of rainwater and pour it into a nearby brook, which feeds a river, which empties out into a sea and forms part of the oceans.

For the sake of argument, let’s leave aside the philosophical question of whether you “own” the rainwater you collected. Imagine just trying to find that rainwater in the ocean, something you’re going to have to do if, for some reason, you’re keen on staking a claim to your rainwater.

Hmmm.

The sea is designed to be plentiful, abundant. Quite different from lakes and ponds, which are contained and isolated, controllable. And often stagnant. [No, I’m not going to enter into angels-dancing-on-pins arguments about the Caspian Sea or for that matter the Dead Sea here].

Making things that are abundant by design somehow appear scarce is not an easy task. As I’ve said before, and said many times before, every artificial scarcity will be met by an equal and opposite artificial abundance; over time, the artificial abundance will win. Region coding of DVDs and music DRM are simple examples of the principle.

So it is with the internet. When you make something digital, you have something that is cheap to copy. When you connect that digital something to the internet, you have something that is cheap to distribute far and wide. That is why Kevin Kelly called the internet a “copy machine” in his seminal essay, Better Than Free, from which the illustration below is taken. If you haven’t read it yet, stop here and follow the link. It’s a must-read.

So now the internet exists, does it mean no one can keep a secret any more? No. It’s just like in the good old days before the internet: if you want to keep something secret, try not telling anyone.

The internet is designed to share.

There are many things that people don’t want to share, for a variety of good reasons: personally identifiable information; commercially sensitive information; and information demonstrably pertaining to national or international security. Sometimes it’s because the information is held asymmetrically and misused; in polite society we would call this “blackmail”, and in the civilised world this is illegal. Sometimes it’s because the information is considered “private”, and a right to privacy is seen to exist, a right not to be embarrassed because something you said in private somehow makes its way into the public domain. Which is why the recent spate of leaks has caused such consternation. Contrast this with Eliot Spitzer and the Wall Street firms he went after, the whistleblower/leak aspect of all that happened, and the difference in reaction then. Contrast this with Talking-To-Journalists 101, which says Nothing Is Ever Off The Record. In England, thirty years ago, when I was given rudimentary media training, I was told “always imagine that anything you say, everything you say, could be on the first page of the Mail tomorrow”.

Bruce Schneier, an erstwhile colleague and someone whose writings and sayings I pay attention to, wrote a wonderful little piece on the subject, making five simple points:

  • Encryption is not the issue
  • Secrets are only as secure as the least trusted person who knows them
  • Access control is hard
  • This has little to do with Wikileaks
  • Governments will have to learn what the music and film industries have been forced to learn already, that it’s easy to copy and publish digital files

You should read the whole essay, which I’ve linked to here. Bruce is brilliant, terse and trenchant as ever.

Clay Shirky, another writer I have a lot of time for, writes a very balanced piece here, about the importance of the legal process in all this. Any medium of communication, any method of publishing and propagating, needs to have its principles and guidelines, and over time, its laws and its regulations. Of particular importance is the following paragraph from his post:

The key, though, is that democracies have a process for creating such restrictions, and as a citizen it sickens me to see the U.S. trying to take shortcuts. The leaders of Myanmar and Belarus, or Thailand and Russia, can now rightly say to us, “You went after WikiLeaks’ domain name, their hosting provider, and even denied your citizens the ability to register protest through donations, all without a warrant and all targeting overseas entities, simply because you decided you don’t like the site. If that’s the way governments get to behave, we can live with that.”

Due democratic process is always important; it is doubly important when we’re dealing with an emergent, valuable phenomenon. Such as the internet and all things digital.  Which is why I was so concerned with the apparently trivial all-downloaders-are-thieves approach that Mandelson et al sought to steamroller through via the Digital Economy Act. Which is why I remain concerned now. [Incidentally, I’m delighted that BT was part of the lobby that fought for, and won, a judicial review into the DE Act].

Not that I have anything against secrets per se.

Secrets are important, and there is a place for secrets. There are ways of keeping secrets secret.

Sharing is also important. And there is a place for sharing. It’s called the internet.

And it is really important that there continue to be ways of keeping shared things shared.

Which is why I appreciate the tireless work of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society in all this; John Palfrey, and, more recently, Urs Gasser, do a great job there. Which is why I look up to people like Charlie Nesson and Jonathan Zittrain and Larry Lessig as they strive to make sure that the law cannot be confused with genus Equus subgenus Asinus, and that due democratic process is followed when new laws are constructed. Which is why I appreciate the time that people like Doc Searls and Cory Doctorow spend on this. Which is why I appreciate the work of the Electronic Frontier Foundation; of the Open Rights Group; of Creative Commons; of the Web Science Trust, particularly for their work on open data. People in all these places have somehow found the time and the motivation to devote to this cause. I am privileged to count many of them amongst my friends, too many to list here. You know who you are. Thank you.

You see, it’s not really about Wikileaks. Artificial scarcities will continue to be met by artificial abundances. There will be many more Wikileaks. In many places. At the same time. And some of them will be very damaging. Which is not a good thing. But. There is a right way to stop it. It’s called the democratic process.

The internet is about sharing. It’s about making it easier to copy things and to move them around, to publish at scale. It’s about making it easier for Linus’s Law: Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow. It’s about the power of democratised access. Access to publishing. Access to editing, to changing. Access to reading. Access to community skills and talent.

The internet makes it possible for us to do things we could never do before, like the World Wide Web itself. Like Wikipedia. Like Craigslist. Like being able to listen to “A symposium on Wikileaks and Internet Freedom” live yesterday at the Personal Democracy Forum, as thousands of us were able to do yesterday.

The internet is capable of transforming lives at the edge, making radical impacts on education, on healthcare, even on government. Of course the internet is dependent on all of us having ubiquitous affordable connectivity, something I continue to be optimistic about. It will happen. Perhaps not in the way we thought it would. But it will happen. And there won’t be a digital divide. Because that too would be an artificial scarcity….

Steve Winwood, when he penned Sea of Joy, also had these words to say in the song:

Having trouble coming through,
Through this concrete, blocks my view
And it’s all because of you.

All because of you. The “you” in that phrase is us. We have a responsibility to future generations that the internet is governed the right way, that the right laws are formulated and promulgated, that the right process is followed.

Because there are generations to come….

Waiting in their boats to set sail, Sea of Joy.

8 thoughts on “Sea of Joy”

  1. I wonder, amongst the questions this paradigm generates, we are somehow guided to address such questions as ‘who guards the guards?’ and, in the spirit of our collectively esteemed references ‘is there a power shift from company hierarchy to individual rights?

    It’s an exciting time :)

  2. Hi JP,

    The Wikileaks saga demonstrates just how closely data flows are intertwined with the way we live today, in terms of Security/Privacy; Money; Commerce; The Law, Politics; Media/Free Speech.

    No-one should be in any doubt – not only are flows of data now critical to governments, the global economy and society as a whole, as individuals we increasingly rely on data-flow to live our lives.

    When data doesn’t flow……………..we have a problem!

    For a little more on this, see:

    http://think.obashi.co.uk/profiles/blogs/wikileaks-and-flows-of-data

  3. @jonathan @fergus I would be less concerned about “individual” rights at present; the key is for us to understand communal rights, community rights, “our” rights as opposed to “my” rights. The power of the internet and of the web lies in how it liberates and empowers *us*

  4. Amen.
    i wonder if it would be a sensible idea to create a central resource to list and support all those who are being, and who are going to be, crushed between the sea and the land.

    (presumably there already is one and I am merely unaware of it…)

  5. Thank you JP, this is one of the better pieces, as well as points to great thoughtful pieces, that I have run across. As mentioned, the thinking goes far beyond the subject of digital communication/social interactions.

  6. Thanks for this, JP.

    One further point. Why is internet sharing so important? It’s because we only make sense together, as part of a whole, not as individuals struggling alone.

    I believe that the “making sense together” capacity of the internet – the collaborative “aha” potential that it offers – has scarcely yet been tapped. By that I mean its affordances for enabling us to ‘touch’ or ‘feel’ the experience of others in ways that help us to understand ourselves better – and as a result, to recognise a myriad of practical possibilities for joining our efforts to those of other people.

    Your instinct for sharing images and music is a kind of ‘touch’ – a light and invitational one. And the same quality of touch is available in our talk together as well. As you know, this is the kind of conversational conduct that opens up so much human potential, and that so engages me.

Let me know what you think