Identifying the source of the problem

Ever since I started this blog, I’ve been trying to stress the importance of dealing prudently with the Three Is of Information: Identity, Intellectual Property Rights and the Internet.  Recent events have only served to highlight why.

Most of you are aware of the tragic time that Kathy Sierra has had, her response, the polarised debate that ensued, the continuing firestorm, culminating, at least for the time being, in Alan Herrell’s e-mail to Doc. The blogosphere is a small world; you have seen me refer to Kathy’s writings many times; I have, and continue to have, enormous respect for her and her writings; and I know many of the people involved in the debate (at both extremes!), and count quite a few as my friends. Much has been said in the heat of the moment, and much emotion expressed. These are sad times.

Nobody should have to put up with the perverseness, hate, misogyny and bullying that was directed at Kathy. It cannot be defended or condoned. Full stop. So how are we going to prevent this from happening?

Not by knee-jerk attempts at “governing” what happens on the web; personal empowerment is a key attribute of the web, and should remain so. Let us be careful about introducing cyberlaw sledgehammers.

Not by McCarthyist hounding of people judged by innuendo and insinuation either; the presumption of innocence is not something the web can take away. If we do this, all we do is bring the worst of journalism into the digital world rather than the best, which we are still in a position to do.

Not by polarised emotion and blamestorming and flaming either; I am saddened to see just how many friends I have on both sides of the arguments right now, people I will continue to call my friends. I prefer to take the beam out of my own eye rather than look for motes in my friends’ eyes.

We live in a world that has a lot of evil in it, and the Web gets its share.  While I have seen many attempts to legislate ethics, I have also seen them fail. The community space that is the Web can only be “governed” by community ethics and community values. Civility and common sense are more important than legalism and legislation.

If we get Identity right, we can go a long way towards preventing the recurrence of what Kathy faced. Bullies, especially cyber-bullies, tend to be cowards.

If we get Identity right, we can also go a long way towards preventing Digital McCarthyism as well.

Getting Identity right will help ensure that the Web is a safer place for our children, at home or at school; that Web tools can be used more effectively to teach and communicate.

Getting Identity right will help us ensure that the Web is a safer place for us, as we get and spend and lay waste our powers.

Getting Identity right will allow us to ensure that the Knowledge Commons doesn’t become another Tragedy of the Commons, as we use Identity to push back against mindless DRM and IPR legislation.

It’s all about Identity, and the trust that is engendered when Identity is real. And the things that can happen when trust does not exist, or when Identity is not real.

The entire Kathy Sierra incident is a tragedy, one we can and should learn from. Maybe it’s time we became passionate about Identity. I have enjoyed reading Kathy’s blog; I have also enjoyed reading the blogs of many others scattered right across the spectrum of anger and argument engendered by what happened to Kathy. If we want to continue to enjoy reading such conversations, then we have to do something.

And Identity is where I would begin.

5 thoughts on “Identifying the source of the problem”

  1. JP,

    I certainly share your feelings about knee-jerk attempts at ANYTHING. Put another way, I am equally opposed to those who, as a matter of reflex, OPPOSE and ENDORSE governance, respectively! I also believe we need to be very cautious in any move towards governance. History has taught us how delicate the concept is, and the opportunities for failure will always outnumber those for success. Nevertheless, unless we examined the concept long enough to develop a strong model of its assets and liabilities, I think we are in serious danger of falling victim to something worse.

    Any good classroom instructor knows that a crowd can have wisdom, but the emergence of that wisdom still requires some kind of guiding hand. Like it or not, the visible version tends to work better than the invisible one! So let me try to elaborate on my own conception of governance as an invitation for you to do the same on your conception of Identity.

    As I see it, one of the most important questions surrounding being-in-the-world-that-the-Internet-made involves dealing with the delicate interplay between permanence and change (to shamelessly appropriate a Kenneth Burke title). The United States government deals with this interplay through separation of powers. The Executive branch is authorized by the Constitution to look after permanence, and the Legislative branch is responsible for introducing change. The Judiciary branch then serves two mediating functions. The first is between the population and the government that is supposed to be serving that population; but just as important is the second, which has the authority to mediate between the other two branches.

    Because the Internet is such a volatile environment, we cannot ignore the many ways in which permanence and change keep bumping into each other. I am not proposing a full-blown system of cyberlaws that reflects the “American solution;” but I think there is great value in examining how the Constitution dealt with such a fundamental problem. This territory is so uncertain that we are going to need to learn what we need to learn. Examining the workings of a government that lasted more that two hundred years could be a good start!

    Those are the initial cards I wish to lay on the table. Now I should ask whether or not you feel as strongly about this balance of permanence and change as I do; and, however, you answer that question, to offer up your current thoughts on what you mean by Identity and what the operational implications of those thoughts are. With my own background I have tended to think about identity as one of the major attributes of consciousness, but I am not sure that it the appropriate context for your three Is.

  2. Stephen, I’m with you on the delicate interplay. Not as sure as you are about the validity of examining the workings of Government, my suspicion is that Government as it works today is a far cry from Government at the time of writing of the Constitution. Sometimes I feel that the only life-form that has gained as a result is the lobbyist….

    More than happy to spend more time extending what I mean about identity; I will do so over the next few weeks.

  3. JP, I sympathize with your suspicion. I just think we need to be careful about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater (no matter how bad the current bathwater stinks)! Remember that both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were products of a lot of self-interested haggling. (Unless I am mistaken, there is at least a bit of that in Magna Carta, too!) On the other hand, if we all recognize their value IN THEORY, then the debate can be confined to questions of practice! Meanwhile, I look forward to reading your latest thoughts on Identity.

Let me know what you think

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