When conversations get real

I’ve yet to see what CNN aired. But in the meantime. Kathy Sierra and Chris Locke have published some “coordinated statements” which are worth reading. We have to get these things right, rather than wallow in mass hysteria and McCarthyism.

8 thoughts on “When conversations get real”

  1. I continue to follow this story with more interest in what has been left UNSAID, rather than what appears in any of the stated texts. In my own Talkback to a CNET News.com Talkback item about an “unrepentant” Chris Locke, I made the observation that nowhere in the text of the 95 theses of the Cluetrain Manifesto can we find a word with the prefix “gov:”


    That was the observation that got me thinking about the questions of governance and its proper role in cyberspace. I believe it is important to keep raising these questions, even if just about every implementation of the concept is flawed in its own way. To ring my own change on Churchill, whatever the flaws may be, the concept remains preferable to the alternative of unbridled anarchy.

    Now I realize that there is another word that has been avoided with the same delicacy that one avoids talking about the dead moose on the dining table; and THAT word is “morality.” (At this point I suppose that if we could harness the energy of all the eyeballs being rolled upward, we could power the lights of Manhattan for a night; but please bear with me.) My point is that, while we all seem quite content to wax optimistically over the virtues of trust, we tend to neglect that it is a concept that is virtually meaningless unless is rests on a foundation consisting of “axioms of morality.” I have chosen those words very carefully, because what I want to avoid most is introducing any bias towards any particular set of those axioms; but, just as we cannot talk about geometry without first accepting a few basic axioms, we cannot talk about trust without first stipulating the axioms of morality that provide its frame of reference.

    So, to invoke a Zen metaphor from Suzuki days, I have now thrown two heavy ashtrays at the audience:

    1. We cannot talk about topics such as safety in cyberspace without first understanding how permanence and change bump into each other; and we cannot deal with that tension between permanence and change without some foundation of government.

    2. We cannot talk about concepts like identity-in-practice without invoking the concept of trust; and we cannot talk about trust without a foundation of axioms of morality.

    I suppose I have now done enough damage for the day! Would someone else please clean up the moose?

  2. Interesting. I would use different words and arrive at a different place. Instead of morality I would use values and ethics.

    Now suppose I believe that one of the core values of the internet is its openness. That another is its peer reviewed nature. That a third is its low cost of entry. That a fourth is its low cost of participation. That a fifth is its everywhereness, maybe a sixth is its ungovernability.

    Then what happens to the governance question?

    I need to think about it and will post something longer later.

  3. JP, I found an interesting sentence in Simon Blackburn’s OXFORD DICTIONARY OF PHILOSOPHY: “Although the morality of people and their ethics amount to the same thing, there is a usage that restricts morality to systems such as that of Kant, based on notions such as duty, obligation, and principles of conduct, reserving ethics for the more Aristotelian approach to practical reasoning, based on the notion of a virtue, and generally avoiding the separation of ‘moral’ considerations from other practical considerations.” My guess is that, to the extent that we both have been grappling with issues of conduct in cyberspace, we both come down on Kant’s side! As to “values,” I find myself about as cautious in using that word as I am with “trust.” In the concrete world of economics, I side with Robert Solow, who wrote, “Modern economics dispenses with the notion of ‘value’ altogether, and deals only with ordinary, observable market price.” Context available at:


    Recognizing that social values are not necessarily the same as economic values, I would still apply Solow-like thinking and deal, instead, with those “principles of conduct!”

  4. Perhaps I am naive (it would hardly be the first time), but I would like to suggest “humanity” as an alternative to morality or ethics or values as proposed above. I don’t think we will ever arrive at perfect agreement about the semantics of humanity as a requirement for for the ongoing health of the Internet (not to mention the planet and its inhabitants), any more than we could finally come to terms with such slippery concepts as morality, ethics or values. Rather, I see the net as an invaluable tool for exploring our collective and (let’s hope) mutual humanity to arrive at a deeper sense — if not a bounded definition — of what is humane.

  5. If we lose the humanity we lose what the web stands for. Maybe values was too hackneyed a word for me to use, yet in a strange way even saying that irks me. Why do we live in a world where values are considered hackneyed?

    Incidentally, Chris, the CNN segment is now available on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQ6IxYaD774

  6. Chris, I agree that we shall never arrive “at perfect agreement about the semantics of humanity” in ANY setting, on or off the Internet; but that is because “humanity” is one of those words whose meaning can only derive from the way we use it (in, as Wittgenstein put it, making moves in the “language-games” we play). I would then argue, though, that when you strip everything down to those moves, you are left with “principles of conduct!” I say this not to try to argue that the last word is “morality” but to suggest that you may be a Kantian without knowing it (sort of like discovering that you have been speaking prose all your life)!

    JP, in this peculiar amalgam of Kant and Wittgenstein, values are not hackneyed; but how they are considered can only derive from how we talk about them. The reason I spend so much time on text analysis in my own blog is that I believe we have become very sloppy in the way we play our language-games; and I would argue that sloppy play devalues EVERY concept that language affords us, not just the particularly tricky ones like “values,” “humanity,” and “morality.” If you will allow me to really push the metaphor, what happened to Kathy Sierra is what happens when a gang of street bullies decide to take over the playground where the rest of us are playing our language-games seriously and sincerely. Calling out the bullies for what they are is important but not sufficient. In the words of one of the great bullies of politics, Boss Tweed, after the newspapers reported on all the corruption in Tammany Hall, “What’re ya’ gonna do about it?” I do not have any quick answers (let alone good ones); but the questions needs to be held up high for all of us to see!

  7. I guess that’s where I get stuck. On the one hand I’m delighted by words like “dandle” with very precise meanings and contexts, it’s part of the pleasure of communication. On the other hand I feel we lose something in the same communication if we keep trying to figure out how many angels dance on the head of a word.

    Somehow I have to keep both these in perspective. Do you see my dilemma?

  8. Interestingly enough, the fifth edition of THE SHORTER OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY provides two usage examples for “dandle.” The second (G. Hough) is blatantly metaphorical in just about every sense of the word (actually, words: both “dandle” and “metaphor”)! The first is from Samuel Beckett, much of whose literary genius came from the ways in which he could push the envelope of “precise meanings and contexts!”

    I do not think there IS a dilemma, actually. The issue is not one of semantic angles dancing “on the head of a word.” Rather, it is closer to playing a game where both sides have not committed to an A PRIORI agreement on the rules (a rather coarse paraphrase from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE). To invoke a phrase used by the philosopher David Farrell Krell, our language-games are always “on the verge” of rules; but, if we ever succeeded in COMMITTING to such rules, we would lose the essence (and pleasure) of the language-game itself. I may be too radical about this; but I see it as a cause to celebrate rather than an impalement on the horns of a dilemma!

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