Sunday, October 31, 2010

...And An Answer

Another day, another completely rubbish science story. We'll get it out the way quickly. Researchers in Harvard and California claim to have found the liberal gene. People with a specific variant of the DRD4 dopamine receptor gene are more "novelty-seeking", apparently. Those of them with a wide variety of friends are therefore more liberal, because they are "more interested in learning about their friends' points of view".

The press release stated: "People with this genetic predisposition who have a greater-than-average number of friends would be exposed to a wider variety of social norms and lifestyles, which might make them more liberal than average."

There's a lot that's revealing about this experiment, although none of it concerns what makes us adopt a political stance. It is, to be fair, not inconceivable that genetic traits influence a person's range of social contacts and that people with a wider range of contacts take a more relativistic view of politics. The trouble is the researchers slip into a commonly-made assumption about liberal social views, which is that they require relativistic thinking - the appreciation of other people's point of view.

Socially, that's a charming trait for someone to have. Politically, it is the first step on the road to moral relativism, one of the grandest mistakes of so-called liberals the world over. In actual fact, liberalism follows from absolute values. Without them, it betrays itself. Moral and cultural relativism have led many of our fellow liberals into appalling positions. It has led anti-war protestors to argue, horrifically, that Middle Eastern countries do not want democracy. It has led us to accept female circumcision in the Third World. It has led us to a strand of multiculturalism which delegates authority to the leaders of communities, without worrying about the individuals in those communities themselves.

Liberalism is not based on relativism. It is based on an absolute value, one which was best expressed by Immanuel Kant but which you can also find in the New Testament: "Do unto others as you would have them to do unto you." In Kant's philosophical language it's more like: Act as if each of your actions was a universal maxim.

This is a rational rule designed to create a moral society. If we implement it in politics, we come to the following idea, which you will be well aware of: everyone should be able to do whatever they like as long as it does not affect the freedom of others. That sentence is the rock upon which liberalism rests. That is the real and coherent political response to Kant's maxim.

There are plenty of debates to be had over it, all of which involve a clash of freedoms. Sexual freedom is not interesting, because no-one else's freedom has been affected. People who object to it are simply wrong. There's no point listening to them. Abortion is more complex. Does the woman's freedom override that of the unborn child? I would suggest it does, on the basis that the child is unborn and that its freedom is therefore of a lesser quality than the woman's. But someone could have a different view and that view would have some credibility on the basis that it addresses relative freedoms.

Even economic issues, which we usually consider distinct from political freedoms, are also about competing freedoms. The higher rate taxpayer loses the freedom to keep all his money so that we can deliver the health care for the less well-off. Health care, because it maintains life, is the precondition for all other freedoms.

The important thing is not that there are disagreements. The important thing is that these are not relative values. They are absolute values which allow people to pursue happiness in whichever way they see fit. Because they acknowledge the variety of human motives and needs, they can sometimes lead to the mistaken conclusion that they are themselves relative.

This has led us to some very dangerous places. It has led to a political culture which allows religious authorities, typically but not exclusively in minority communities, to exercise regressive power over people in that community. When was the last time you heard from a feminist Muslim? They exist, but you'll be lucky to find one on TV. Instead, the microphone is handed to the conservative elder males. They are consulted by government. They are the spokespeople for a community. Worse, our support for faith schools means we serve up future generations to their stigma.

It leads to anti-war activists, whose aims and motivations are sincere and honourable, suddenly arguing that a free political culture is unsuitable for the Middle East.
It leads to western feminists saying it would be 'imperialist' to oppose female circumcision.

Relativism takes us away from the individual, who is the only thing ever worth defending. It takes us to the group, and its own relative values. Within that, there is scope for great tyranny, all done with the political approval of so-called liberals. The only way to ensure freedom for everyone is to reject relativism, and to embrace the all-conquering dominance of absolute liberalism. It is non-negotiable, because it is the only political philosophy that focuses on the freedom of each and every individual, wherever they live, whoever they are.

It's nothing to do with a switch in the brain. It's to do with Kant.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Liberal Gene!

Ever wondered why you have a hankering to drive a Prius and drink lattes? Or why you read the Guardian and scrupulously put it in the recycling? There might be a gene for that – with a little help from your friends.

Researchers at the University of California and Harvard University have identified a specific gene variant that they say predisposes those carrying it to liberal political ideology – with the findings quickly seized on by the US media as uncovering "the liberal gene".

Simply having the gene – a variant of a dopamine receptor known as DRD4, linked to novelty-seeking – is not enough by itself to make someone a liberal, according to the article in the latest issue of the Journal of Politics, published by Cambridge University Press. The study found that adults with the gene were more liberal depending on how wide their circle of friends was while they were growing up.

"It is the crucial interaction of two factors – the genetic predisposition and the environmental condition of having many friends in adolescence – that is associated with being more liberal," the researchers state. They found that the correlation held true independently of gender, age or ethnic and cultural background.

According to the study: "Ten friends can move a person with two copies of [the gene variant] 7R allele almost halfway from being a conservative to moderate or from being moderate to liberal."

The research, led by James Fowler of the University of California's San Diego campus, suggested that those with the novelty-seeking gene variant would be more interested in learning about their friends' views, exposing them to a wider variety of lifestyles and beliefs and making them more liberal as a result.

"These findings suggest that political affiliation is not based solely on the kind of social environment people experience," said Fowler, a professor of political science and medical genetics best known for his work on social networks with Nicholas Christakis of Harvard, who worked on this study.

The authors, however, say their findings should be "treated cautiously" and that more research is needed before hailing a liberal gene. "The expectation in genetics is that only repeated efforts to replicate associations on independent samples by several research teams will verify initial findings like these," they wrote. "Perhaps the most valuable contribution of this study is not to declare that 'a gene was found' for anything, but rather, to provide the first evidence for a possible gene-environment interaction for political ideology."

By matching genetic data with the friendships and social circles of those surveyed, the researchers could show that people with the variant of the gene were more likely to be liberal as adults if they also had an active social life during their teenage years.

"It is our hope that more scholars will begin to explore the potential interaction of biology and environment," Fowler said.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Picture Of The Day

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Future Of The Internet

THE first internet boom, a decade and a half ago, resembled a religious movement. Omnipresent cyber-gurus, often framed by colourful PowerPoint presentations reminiscent of stained glass, prophesied a digital paradise in which not only would commerce be frictionless and growth exponential, but democracy would be direct and the nation-state would no longer exist. One, John-Perry Barlow, even penned “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”.

Even though all this sounded Utopian when it was preached, it reflected online reality pretty accurately. The internet was a wide-open space, a new frontier. For the first time, anyone could communicate electronically with anyone else—globally and essentially free of charge. Anyone was able to create a website or an online shop, which could be reached from anywhere in the world using a simple piece of software called a browser, without asking anyone else for permission. The control of information, opinion and commerce by governments—or big companies, for that matter—indeed appeared to be a thing of the past. “You have no sovereignty where we gather,” Mr Barlow wrote.

The lofty discourse on “cyberspace” has long changed. Even the term now sounds passé. Today another overused celestial metaphor holds sway: the “cloud” is code for all kinds of digital services generated in warehouses packed with computers, called data centres, and distributed over the internet. Most of the talk, though, concerns more earthly matters: privacy, antitrust, Google’s woes in China, mobile applications, green information technology (IT). Only Apple’s latest iSomethings seem to inspire religious fervour, as they did again this week.

Again, this is a fair reflection of what is happening on the internet. Fifteen years after its first manifestation as a global, unifying network, it has entered its second phase: it appears to be balkanising, torn apart by three separate, but related forces.

First, governments are increasingly reasserting their sovereignty. Recently several countries have demanded that their law-enforcement agencies have access to e-mails sent from BlackBerry smart-phones. This week India, which had threatened to cut off BlackBerry service at the end of August, granted RIM, the device’s maker, an extra two months while authorities consider the firm’s proposal to comply. However, it has also said that it is going after other communication-service providers, notably Google and Skype.

Second, big IT companies are building their own digital territories, where they set the rules and control or limit connections to other parts of the internet. Third, network owners would like to treat different types of traffic differently, in effect creating faster and slower lanes on the internet.

It is still too early to say that the internet has fragmented into “internets”, but there is a danger that it may splinter along geographical and commercial boundaries. (The picture above is a visual representation of the “nationality” of traffic on the internet, created by the University of California’s Co-operative Association for Internet Data Analysis: America is in pink, Britain in dark blue, Italy in pale blue, Sweden in green and unknown countries in white.) Just as it was not preordained that the internet would become one global network where the same rules applied to everyone, everywhere, it is not certain that it will stay that way, says Kevin Werbach, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

To grasp why the internet might unravel, it is necessary to understand how, in the words of Mr Werbach, “it pulled itself together” in the first place. Even today, this seems like something of a miracle. In the physical world, most networks—railways, airlines, telephone systems—are collections of more or less connected islands. Before the internet and the world wide web came along, this balkanised model was also the norm online. For a long time, for instance, AOL and CompuServe would not even exchange e-mails.

Economists point to “network effects” to explain why the internet managed to supplant these proprietary services. Everybody had strong incentives to join: consumers, companies and, most important, the networks themselves (the internet is in fact a “network of networks”). The more the internet grew, the greater the benefits became. And its founding fathers created the basis for this virtuous circle by making it easy for networks to hook up and for individuals to get wired.

Yet economics alone do not explain why the internet rather than a proprietary service prevailed (as Microsoft did in software for personal computers, or PCs). One reason may be that the rapid rise of the internet, originally an obscure academic network funded by America’s Department of Defence, took everyone by surprise. “The internet was able to develop quietly and organically for years before it became widely known,” writes Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard University, in his 2008 book, “The Future of the Internet—And How To Stop It”. In other words, had telecoms firms, for instance, suspected how big it would become, they might have tried earlier to change its rules.

Whatever the cause, the open internet has been a boon for humanity. It has not only allowed companies and other organisations of all sorts to become more efficient, but enabled other forms of production, notably “open source” methods, in which groups of people, often volunteers, all over the world develop products, mostly pieces of software, collectively. Individuals have access to more information than ever, communicate more freely and form groups of like-minded people more easily.

Even more important, the internet is an open platform, rather than one built for a specific service, like the telephone network. Mr Zittrain calls it “generative”: people can tinker with it, creating new services and elbowing existing ones aside. Any young company can build a device or develop an application that connects to the internet, provided it follows certain, mostly technical conventions. In a more closed and controlled environment, an Amazon, a Facebook or a Google would probably never have blossomed as it did.

Forces of fragmentation

However, this very success has given rise to the forces that are now pulling the internet apart. The cracks are most visible along geographical boundaries. The internet is too important for governments to ignore. They are increasingly finding ways to enforce their laws in the digital realm. The most prominent is China’s “great firewall”. The Chinese authorities are using the same technology that companies use to stop employees accessing particular websites and online services. This is why Google at first decided to censor its Chinese search service: there was no other way to be widely accessible in the country.

But China is by no means the only country erecting borders in cyberspace. The Australian government plans to build a firewall to block material showing the sexual abuse of children and other criminal or offensive content. The OpenNet Initiative, an advocacy group, lists more than a dozen countries that block internet content for political, social and security reasons. They do not need especially clever technology: governments go increasingly after dominant online firms because they are easy to get hold of. In April Google published the numbers of requests it had received from official agencies to remove content or provide information about users. Brazil led both counts (see chart 1).

Not every request or barrier has a sinister motive. Australia’s firewall is a case in point, even if it is a clumsy way of enforcing the law. It would be another matter, however, if governments started tinkering with the internet’s address book, the Domain Name System (DNS). This allows the network to look up the computer on which a website lives. If a country started its own DNS, it could better control what people can see. Some fear this is precisely what China and others might do one day.

To confuse matters, the DNS is already splintering for a good reason. It was designed for the Latin alphabet, which was fine when most internet users came from the West. But because more and more netizens live in other parts of the world—China boasts 420m—last October the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the body that oversees the DNS, allowed domain names entirely in other scripts. This makes things easier for people in, say, China, Japan or Russia, but marks another step towards the renationalisation of the internet.

Many media companies have already gone one step further. They use another part of the internet’s address system, the “IP numbers” that identify computers on the network, to block access to content if consumers are not in certain countries. Try viewing a television show on Hulu, a popular American video service, from Europe and it will tell you: “We’re sorry, currently our video library can only be streamed within the United States.” Similarly, Spotify, a popular European music-streaming service, cannot be reached from America.

Yet it is another kind of commercial attempt to carve up the internet that is causing more concern. Devotees of a unified cyberspace are worried that the online world will soon start looking as it did before the internet took over: a collection of more or less connected proprietary islands reminiscent of AOL and CompuServe. One of them could even become as dominant as Microsoft in PC software. “We’re heading into a war for control of the web,” Tim O’Reilly, an internet savant who heads O’Reilly Media, a publishing house, wrote late last year. “And in the end, it’s more than that, it’s a war against the web as an interoperable platform.”

The trend to more closed systems is undeniable. Take Facebook, the web’s biggest social network. The site is a fast-growing, semi-open platform with more than 500m registered users. Its American contingent spends on average more than six hours a month on the site and less than two on Google. Users have identities specific to Facebook and communicate mostly via internal messages. The firm has its own rules, covering, for instance, which third-party applications may run and how personal data are dealt with.

Apple is even more of a world apart. From its iPhone and iPad, people mostly get access to online services not through a conventional browser but via specialised applications available only from the company’s “App Store”. Granted, the store has lots of apps—about 250,000—but Apple nonetheless controls which ones make it onto its platform. It has used that power to keep out products it does not like, including things that can be construed as pornographic or that might interfere with its business, such as an app for Google’s telephone service. Apple’s press conference to show off its new wares on September 1st was streamed live over the internet but could be seen only on its own devices.

Even Google can be seen as a platform unto itself, if a very open one. The world’s biggest search engine now offers dozens of services, from news aggregation to word processing, all of which are tied together and run on a global network of dozens of huge data-centres. Yet Google’s most important service is its online advertising platform, which serves most text-based ads on the web. Being the company’s main source of revenue, critics say, it is hardly a model of openness and transparency.

There is no conspiracy behind the emergence of these platforms. Firms are in business to make money. And such phenomena as social networks and online advertising exhibit strong network effects, meaning that a dominant market leader is likely to emerge. What is more, most users these days are not experts, but average consumers, who want secure, reliable products. To create a good experience on mobile devices, which more and more people will use to get onto the internet, hardware, software and services must be more tightly integrated than on PCs.

Net neutrality, or not?

Discussion of these proprietary platforms is only beginning. A lot of ink, however, has already been spilt on another form of balkanisation: in the plumbing of the internet. Most of this debate, particularly in America, is about “net neutrality”. This is one of the internet’s founding principles: that every packet of data, regardless of its contents, should be treated the same way, and the best effort should always be made to forward it.

Proponents of this principle want it to become law, out of concern that network owners will breach it if they can. Their nightmare is what Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia University, calls “the Tony Soprano vision of networking”, alluding to a television series about a mafia family. If operators were allowed to charge for better service, they could extort protection money from every website. Those not willing to pay for their data to be transmitted quickly would be left to crawl in the slow lane. “Allowing broadband carriers to control what people see and do online would fundamentally undermine the principles that have made the internet such a success,” said Vinton Cerf, one of the network’s founding fathers (who now works for Google), at a hearing in Congress.

Opponents of the enshrining of net neutrality in law—not just self-interested telecoms firms, but also experts like Dave Farber, another internet elder—argue that it would be counterproductive. Outlawing discrimination of any kind could discourage operators from investing to differentiate their networks. And given the rapid growth in file-sharing and video (see chart 2), operators may have good reason to manage data flows, lest other traffic be crowded out.

The issue is not as black and white as it seems. The internet has never been as neutral as some would have it. Network providers do not guarantee a certain quality of service, but merely promise to do their best. That may not matter for personal e-mails, but it does for time-sensitive data such as video. What is more, large internet firms like Amazon and Google have long redirected traffic onto private fast lanes that bypass the public internet to speed up access to their websites.

Whether such preferential treatment becomes more widespread, and even extortionary, will probably depend on the market and how it is regulated. It is telling that net neutrality has become far more politically controversial in America than it has elsewhere. This is a reflection of the relative lack of competition in America’s broadband market. In Europe and Japan, “open access” rules require network operators to lease parts of their networks to other firms on a wholesale basis, thus boosting competition. A study comparing broadband markets, published in 2009 by Harvard University’s Berkman Centre for Internet & Society, found that countries with such rules enjoy faster, cheaper broadband service than America, because the barrier to entry for new entrants is much lower. And if any access provider starts limiting what customers can do, they will defect to another.

America’s operators have long insisted that open-access requirements would destroy their incentive to build fast, new networks: why bother if you will be forced to share it? After intense lobbying, America’s telecoms regulators bought this argument. But the lesson from elsewhere in the industrialised world is that it is not true. The result, however, is that America has a small number of powerful network operators, prompting concern that they will abuse their power unless they are compelled, by a net-neutrality law, to treat all traffic equally. Rather than trying to mandate fairness in this way—net neutrality is very hard to define or enforce—it makes more sense to address the underlying problem: the lack of competition.

It should come as no surprise that the internet is being pulled apart on every level. “While technology can gravely wound governments, it rarely kills them,” Debora Spar, president of Barnard College at Columbia University, wrote several years ago in her book, “Ruling the Waves”. “This was all inevitable,” argues Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired, under the headline “The Web is Dead” in the September issue of the magazine. “A technology is invented, it spreads, a thousand flowers bloom, and then someone finds a way to own it, locking out others.”

Yet predictions are hazardous, particularly in IT. Governments may yet realise that a freer internet is good not just for their economies, but also for their societies. Consumers may decide that it is unwise to entrust all their secrets to a single online firm such as Facebook, and decamp to less insular alternatives, such as Diaspora.

Similarly, more open technology could also still prevail in the mobile industry. Android, Google’s smart-phone platform, which is less closed than Apple’s, is growing rapidly and gained more subscribers in America than the iPhone in the first half of this year. Intel and Nokia, the world’s biggest chipmaker and the biggest manufacturer of telephone handsets, are pushing an even more open platform called MeeGo. And as mobile devices and networks improve, a standards-based browser could become the dominant access software on the wireless internet as well.

Stuck in the slow lane

If, however, the internet continues to go the other way, this would be bad news. Should the network become a collection of proprietary islands accessed by devices controlled remotely by their vendors, the internet would lose much of its “generativity”, warns Harvard’s Mr Zittrain. Innovation would slow down and the next Amazon, Google or Facebook could simply be, well, Amazon, Google or Facebook.

The danger is not that these islands become physically separated, says Andrew Odlyzko, a professor at the University of Minnesota. There is just too much value in universal connectivity, he argues. “The real question is how high the walls between these walled gardens will be.” Still, if the internet loses too much of its universality, cautions Mr Werbach of the Wharton School, it may indeed fall apart, just as world trade can collapse if there is too much protectionism. Theory demonstrates that interconnected networks such as the internet can grow quickly, he explains—but also that they can dissolve quickly. “This looks rather unlikely today, but if it happens, it will be too late to do anything about it.”

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Ben Harper

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Five Years of Joy

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Picture Of The Day

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Poets on TV

The poet WH Auden (1907-73) once said: "A poet – pardon me, a citizen – has one political duty, which is to try, and by one's own example, to protect the purity of the language. I'm a passionate formalist on hedonistic grounds." Were these words spoken in The Paris Review or the TLS? No, on Parkinson on BBC1 in 1972: they are recorded in Parky's People, a just-published collection of annotated transcripts.

Michael Parkinson often comments – has just done so again in the Radio Times – on the decline of televisual conversation and this encounter is compelling evidence: Auden on a mainstream talk-show! Can we imagine Seamus Heaney appearing with Graham Norton, or Carol Ann Duffy chatting to Paul O'Grady? And, even on late-night BBC2 or BBC4, that sentence about the hedonism behind his formalism would, to borrow the words of Philip Larkin, bring the men in their long coats running across the fields.

Perhaps this was a peculiarity of Auden who, as a frontline English verse writer, has always had an unusual overlap with popular culture: working on the earliest version of the musical Cabaret; achieving an international hit poem through Four Weddings and a Funeral; and appearing as a character in Alan Bennett's latest play, The Habit of Art. But many other literary figures, such as Anthony Burgess, Laurie Lee and Ben Travers, also appeared on Parkinson. Burgess even made half a dozen appearances at 7pm on BBC1 with Wogan.

So something has changed in the culture of television. The most popular explanation will be a drop in standards: that commissioners have become hedonistic in a formalistic way. The kinder reading is that British TV has become more generically complex: talk-shows are less highbrow, but news and current affairs more so: an Auden could now expect to appear on Newsnight or The Andrew Marr Show.

Even so, it's hard not to envy the schedules of the past: stop all the clocks, switch off the television, as Auden almost wrote.

Tweet Of The Day

"I do love the irony, it´s Thatcher´s birthday and the whole world is focused on a mine".

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Supernova 1604

Supernova 1604, also known as Kepler's Supernova or Kepler's Star, was a supernova which occurred in the Milky Way, in the constellation Ophiuchus. As of 2007, it is the last supernova to have been unquestionably observed in our own galaxy, occurring no farther than 6 kiloparsecs or about 20,000 light-years from Earth. Visible to the naked eye, it was brighter at its peak than any other star in the night sky, and all the planets (other than Venus), with apparent magnitude −2.5.

The supernova was first observed on October 9, 1604.[2] The German astronomer Johannes Kepler first saw it on October 17, subsequently named after himself. His book on the subject was entitled De Stella nova in pede Serpentarii (On the new star in Ophiuchus's foot).

It was the second supernova to be observed in a generation (after SN 1572 seen by Tycho Brahe in Cassiopeia). No further supernovae have since been observed with certainty in the Milky Way, though many others outside our galaxy have been seen.

The supernova remnant resulting from this supernova is considered to be one of the "prototypical" objects of its kind, and is still an object of much study in astronomy.

Lessons From Latin America

Unlike in Europe, the left in Latin America is still winning elections – albeit with difficulty. After 12 years in power, President Hugo Chávez has just seen his party win Venezuela's election with a much reduced majority. In Brazil the Workers' party is on the way to its third presidency in a row – though Dilma Rousseff must run off against the centre-right José Serra. And Ecuador's Rafael Correa has survived an attempted coup. They all face similar challenges – heavy pressure from regional oligarchs, and civil unrest from their grassroots social base. To understand this, look at how the left came to power in the first place.

In the 80s Latin America emerged from the dark days of military dictatorship with the hope that democracy would bring social justice. It was not to be. Forced to accept the free-trade doctrines of the Washington consensus, the weak and ill-prepared governments of the day auctioned off public resources at bargain-basement prices, mainly to Spanish capital and were drawn into global capitalism. The elite benefited, while the majority gained nothing. Jobs barely increased, public sector wages were "readjusted", and poverty rose dramatically. Workers suffered a double disadvantage: their labour cost more than that of their Chinese counterparts, and they were less well educated than eastern Europeans.

As the redistributive and welfare roles of government were progressively abandoned, the image of the old nation state began to erode. Poorer sectors of society dissociated their idea of national identity from the state. There was a deep crisis of political representation: traditional parties alienated voters, and the politicians who replaced the military quickly exhausted their credibility.

This was the context in which the left came to power. In the last two decades mass mobilisations – particularly of indigenous peoples – brought down four presidents in Argentina, three in Ecuador, and one each in Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia and Peru. Social movements challenged US hegemony and stopped the privatisation of state enterprises and natural resources, building a new sense of identity forged by ethnic and regional demands and uniting the excluded and marginalised. Before the centre-left's electoral victories, a cultural victory had already been won.

In Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador new constitutions were the expression of these new pacts: a legal framework recognising collective social and environmental rights and creating the conditions for radical democracy, emerging from the decolonization of states.

These progressive governments have driven a reconstruction of the architecture of power and geopolitics. Throughout the continent there has been a profound redefinition of the relationship with the US and global financial organisations, expressed in the rejection of the policies of the White House and the emergence of new institutional arrangements favouring regional integration on the continent's own terms.

It was no accident that the ambitious US-backed initiative for a free-market framework – the Free Trade Area of the Americas – was torpedoed, or that Ecuador did not renew the contract for a US military base at Manta. Foreign relations are flourishing in other directions, however: solidarity with Cuba and active diplomatic ties with Iran, and growing Chinese investment.

The central element of this redefinition has been the demand for national control of natural resources – which has produced major conflicts with multinationals. Today the states have greater control over resources, but social and indigenous organisations have criticised governments for continuing to base their strategies on an "extractivist" model – in which they remain primarily producers and exporters of raw materials.

These grassroots challenges over the exploitation of natural resources are gaining in strength, despite the international boom in the price of raw materials. Additional challenges have emerged – the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador accused Correa of being authoritarian, and environmental groups argue that he has given undue concessions to large mining companies. In Brazil the MST – the landless workers' movement – has criticised President Lula for failing to make advances in land reform. In Venezuela there is discontent with the ruling bureaucracy and the "Bolibourgeoisie" – those who have become wealthy under Chávez's socialism, which reveres Simón Bolívar, the 19th-century aristocrat who won Venezuela's freedom from Spain. In Bolivia, the more radical indigenous groups have criticised new gas exploration projects.

The extraction of natural resources has brought considerable new income to the continent, which these governments have used to finance social programmes and to combat poverty. During Lula's two terms his family plan has reached 50 million of Brazil's poorest people. In Venezuela 60% of tax income was dedicated to social programmes between 1999 and 2009; the poverty index fell from 49% to 24%, and the level of extreme poverty from 30% to 7%. Economic elites in each country have attacked this social spending, but corporate profits have actually increased – in Brazil under Lula, three banks earned $95bn in eight years.

The social transformation under way in Latin America has not yet produced definitive results. Disputes over the role of the state and the direction of regional integration and development policy have not been resolved. The waters of change are turbulent – and are likely to remain so for several years to come.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Friday, October 01, 2010

The Wiki Way

AFTER Kenya’s disputed election in 2007 Ory Okolloh, a local lawyer and blogger, kept hearing accounts of atrocities. State media were not interested. Private newspapers lacked the money and manpower to investigate properly. So Ms Okolloh set up a website that allowed anyone with a mobile phone or an internet connection to report outbreaks of violence. She posted eyewitness accounts online and even created maps that showed where the killings and beatings were taking place.

Ms Okolloh has since founded an organisation called Ushahidi, which puts her original idea into practice in various parts of the world. It has helped Palestinians to map the violence in Gaza and Haitians to track the impact of the earthquake that devastated their nation in January. It even helped Washingtonians cope with the “snowmaggedon” that brought their city to a halt this year. Ushahidi’s success embodies the principles of wikinomics.

Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams coined the term “wikinomics” in their 2006 tome of that name. Their central insight was that collaboration is getting rapidly cheaper and easier. The web gives amateurs access to world-class communications tools and worldwide markets. It makes it easy for large groups of people who have never met to work together. And it super-charges innovation: crowds of people can develop new ideas faster than isolated geniuses and disseminate them even faster.

Mr Tapscott and Mr Williams have now written a follow-up to their bestseller. They solicited 150 suggestions online for a snappy title. The result, alas, was a bit dull: “Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World”. But the book is well worth reading, for two reasons.

The first is that four years is an eternity in internet time. The internet has become much more powerful since “Wikinomics” was published. YouTube serves up 2 billion videos a day. Twitterers tweet 750 times a second. Internet traffic is growing by 40% a year. The internet has morphed into a social medium. People post 2.5 billion photos on Facebook every month. More than half of American teens say they are “content creators”. And it is not only people who log on to the internet these days. Appliances do, too. Nokia, for example, has produced a prototype of an “ecosensor” phone that can detect and report radiation and pollution.

The second reason is that the internet’s effects are more widely felt every day. In “Wikinomics” the authors looked at its impact on particular businesses. In their new book they look at how it is shaking up some of the core institutions of modern society: the media, universities, government and so on. It is a Schumpeterian story of creative destruction.

Two of the most abject victims of wikinomics are the newspaper and music industries. Since 2000, 72 American newspapers have folded. Circulation has fallen by a quarter since 2007. By some measures the music industry is doing even worse: 95% of all music downloads are illegal and the industry that brought the world Elvis and the Beatles is reviled by the young. Why buy newspapers when you can get up-to-the-minute news on the web? Why buy the latest Eminem CD when you can watch him on YouTube for free? Or, as a teenager might put it: what’s a CD?

Other industries are just beginning to be transformed by wikinomics. The car industry is a model of vertical integration; yet some entrepreneurs plot its disintegration. Local Motors produces bespoke cars for enthusiasts using a network of 4,500 designers (who compete to produce designs) and dozens of microfactories (which purchase parts on the open market and then assemble them). Universities are some of the most conservative institutions on the planet, but the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has now put all of its courses online. Such a threat to the old way of teaching has doubtless made professors everywhere spit sherry onto the common-room carpet. Yet more than 200 institutions have followed suit.

Wikinomics is even rejuvenating the fusty old state. The Estonian government approved a remarkable attempt to rid the country of unsightly junk: volunteers used GPS devices to locate over 10,000 illegal dumps and then unleashed an army of 50,000 people to clean them up. Other governments are beginning to listen to more entrepreneurial employees. Vivek Kundra, now Barack Obama’s IT guru, designed various web-based public services for Washington, DC, when he worked for the mayor. Steve Ressler, another American, created a group of web-enthusiasts called Young Government Leaders and a website called GovLoop.

How can organisations profit from the power of the web rather than being gobbled up by it? Messrs Tapscott and Williams endorse the familiar wiki-mantras about openness and “co-creation”. But they are less starry-eyed than some. They not only recognise the importance of profits and incentives. They also argue that monetary rewards can be used to improve the public and voluntary sectors. NetSquared, a non-profit group, introduced prizes for the best ideas about social entrepreneurship. Public-sector entrepreneurs such as Mr Kundra are excited by the idea of creating “app stores” for the public sector.

Messrs Tapscott and Williams sometimes get carried away with their enthusiasm for the web. Great innovators often need the courage to ignore the crowd. (Henry Ford was fond of saying that if he had listened to his customers he would have produced a better horse and buggy.) Great organisations need time to cook up world-changing ideas. Hierarchies can be just as valuable to the process of creative destruction as networks. But the authors are nevertheless right to argue that the web is the most radical force of our time. And they are surely also right to predict that it has only just begun to work its magic.

(from The Economist)