Giving Meaning to Occupy Wall Street

So, Wall Street has been occupied for several weeks.  We all know that things need to change.  We all know that the 1% has been living off  the backs of the 99% for far too long.  There are far too many issues behind the current protests to enumerate.  However, there is one cause for the protester’s frustrations…corporate greed.  I don’t think anyone would argue that corporations don’t have the right to earn a profit, but what I would argue is that they should not have the right to make a profit at the expense of the communities in which they operate, their employees, the environment, or the cultures that promote and allow their existence.

Occupy Wall Street

In 2002, Robert Hinkley, a corporate lawyer turned activist, wrote an essay entitled “How Corporate Law Inhibits Social Responsibility”.  In it, Hinkley details the real problem behind the corporate stranglehold on this country and it was enough to make him turn his back on his career and forge a new path forward.  What Hinkley began to understand in his tenure as a corporate lawyer was that corporations are only doing what they are LEGALLY mandated to do.  While corporate governance laws vary from state to state, their fundamental legal purpose is the same…protect the interests of the corporation and its shareholder.  In plain terms, make money for the company and people who own it.  That’s it.  That’s all.  As this article shows, that’s at least how the CEO of Bank of America sees it as well.

We are seeing now the effects of this kind of corporate structure.  While making a profit is not wrong, it should not be done to the detriment of everything else.  In a society like ours, the gap between the rich and the poor or the haves and the have-nots should not be growing.  It should definitely not be so vast.  There should not be people struggling to eat or get help when they are sick, and they should definitely NOT be told, Herman Cain, that it is their fault they are in that position

So, while the protestors may be resentful of the media asking them about their “demands” as if they have hi-jacked a Boeing, I think it is in their best interests to begin to formulate what will be said when the time comes for the “leadership” of this movement to have a true dialogue with those in power.  If they fail to do so, history will mark the movement as a failure and the protestors will come out of this just as they are being portrayed.  However, if they can find that single idea or small collection of ideas capable of galvanizing the many voices with many complaints into a few concise policies that can be used to actually build a dialogue, then they may actually see progress.  I think one of those ideas should be changing the legal structure that mandates the purpose of a corporation. 

A change in the way they are forced to play the game may just level the field.  We live in a land that brought the electric light bulb, the phonograph, the television, the computer, the internet, and of course, the iPhone.  We are a creative and proud nation, but when our corporate citizens are not forced to live in the same socially responsible manner with which the rest of society is required, then we start to see the disconnects and reactions that Engels and Marx warned us about.  As Hinkley stated in 2002, we can make that change in 28 words:

…the directors and officers of a corporation shall exercise their powers and discharge their duties with a view to the interests of the corporation and of the shareholders…

… but not at the expense of the environment, human rights, the public safety, the communities in which the corporation operates or the dignity of its employees.

With the rich history of innovation that this nation holds, I am sure that American corporations can find the talent available among the droves of protesters to help them find ways to generate profits while living within this new framework that is being demanded by those just looking for affordable healthcare and a sustainable living wage.

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Web Two point OH!

Web 2.0 was quite a buzzword until some internet wise guy came up with Web 3.0 and a semantic web.  So we’re all stuck in this primordial internet soup, unsure of whether we need to sprout Wi-Fi antennae or bud robotic legs for our first few steps onto the new digital turf.  Well, the answer is both, and so much more.  So how does one navigate the maze of connectivity to eek out a social, personal yet collective, and financial living?

I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For

The answer is very deliberately.  The idea of Web 2.0 is based on the idea of web communities and the technological concept that these communities need to be served more flexible web-based applications designed around new web programming languages instead of static HTML coding.   Powered by more powerful coding languages such as AJAX, Ruby, Python, and Java, Web 2.0 is capable of bringing rich, streaming content, and interactive, socially connected web applications to a world of eagerly awaiting users.

So how does one decide which of these new services and applications to use and to which to provide their personal information.  Again, very deliberately.  In the world of Web 2.0, we, the users have become the product.  Sure, there are actual products, but a semantic web cannot truly function without knowing or learning more about what you like and what behaviors you exhibit on the web.  Big Brother is watching and it is big business.

So…we are the product.  We are being monitored.  We are having our data mined so that we can have products marketed to us directly.  Therefore, we must be prepared with Intelligence 2.0 or we will be left with our information overlords telling us what we want to hear or see or what we “meant” to search for.  I think this leaves us to rely on the social aspects of Web 2.0 to spread the word about the bad and the good.  We have to build communities out of these networks of users that are there to support us in the same way that the village raises the child.  In the end, the internet is just a machine and its code, told what to do by humans, queried by humans, and…coralling humans.  Oh well, I’m getting on Facebook.

Digital Literacy – More Important than Opposable Thumbs

Digital Literacy.  Some would say that there is a new set of skills that humans are going to need to learn in order to live a sustainable life in a world that is hurtling toward constant connectivity to vast amounts of information.  I would argue that humans already have the tools to cope with life in the digital age.Digital literacy is in our genes.  It could be said that the movement to a more technologically advanced, web connected world is requiring humans to dig deep into our collective consciousness and return to skills that were lost to an era of alphabets, printing presses, and two-dimensional media. 

In his paper on digital literacy, Yoram Eshet-Alkalai suggests that there is a pentarchy of skills that will be required of digital citizens.  The five areas Eshet-Alkalai groups digital literacy skills into are:  Photo-Visual, Reproduction, Branching, Informational, and Socio-Emotional.  While the classifications are new, the underlying skills are not.

Photo-Visual literacy is the idea that instead of using a complex, alphabet based form of communication, the internet and digital life is pushing humans to communicate using visual queues along with text.  The claim is that this is facilitates communication beyond language and expedites the process of learning.  This is a skill that was lost for generations.  Granted our ancestors couldn’t transmit their cave wall or pyramid to other locations, but photo-visual literacy is still within us.  We are just remembering its importance now because of technological change.

Reproduction literacy is based on the human urge to reproduce.  The claim is that it is more important now, more than ever, for humans to know how to utilize past creations to propel culture forward.  Clearly this is no more important now than it has ever been.  What I believe is important in this area is WHAT parts of our past we choose to reproduce and HOW we choose to reproduce them.  Just like the need to get reacquainted with out photo-visual past, we must also realize that one of our fundamental drives as humans is to re-envision our world.  When the wheel was invented, it did not stop there, it eventually became a cart, an automobile, and an airplane. 

Branching literacy is a bit more complex, but still something that humans have been doing for quite some time.  Hyperlinking of information on the web is digital dog-earring.  Before we could make a computer remember for us, we had physically interactive means for noting the information that we needed to keep readily available.  Again, the issue is one of memory.  We have forgotten the skill in the whirlwind of technological advancement and have allowed our abilities to be dulled.  Non-linear learning should be easier in hypertext that physical text.  After all, you no longer have to walk back to the shelf and get a new book to interconnect an idea from one source to an idea from another.

Information literacy is an easy concept and one that most people never really mastered, even in bygone eras.  If all people through time had known how to filter out the bad information and get to only the useful and good information, we would not have the Christian church or two Bush’s among our list of Presidents.  This is the scholarly equivalent of a bullshit detector and the truth is that most people have theirs turned off.

Finally, Eshet-Alkalai discusses the need for digital fear which he calls socio-emotional literacy.  Just like locking your doors at night before going to bed, he believes that digital citizens will need a solid understanding of how to secure their digital presence.  While this may be true in the same way that it is in the real world, it is also true that you don’t need to know exactly how your anti-virus software works, just like you don’t need to know how your telephone functions when you dial 911. 

When push comes to shove, living a digital life and remaining literate digitally is going to require us to dig into our past and pull from our magic hat the memories of our forebears.  We are not new to adaptation, nor are we novices.  However, we are is in a place and time that seems new and exciting because of our shiny new gadgets and the speed at which we are forced to adapt to their effects in our lives, but the concepts we are adapting to are older than my grandma and she is farting dust.

What’s YOUR problem?

What? It’s a valid question.  According to people like Jeron Lanier and Clay Shirky we all have problems that most of us haven’t even begun to imagine.  We aren’t talking about how to keep dreadlocks from smelling like a litter box, Lanier has that down already.  Nor, are we talking about which board wax gives a bald head the best shine because Shirky has that covered.  What we are talking about is how the internet and virtual life has affected and changed our reality in the physical world.  For better or worse, we are married to the internet and even DOMA can’t tear us apart.

I think it is human nature to want to apply human attributes to things that are not human.  Pet owners often treat pets as if they are human.  They refer to themselves and their pets as if there was a bond of blood.  Baby.  Mommy. Dad.  Buddy.  —————————————>

Clay Shirky thinks about the internet in this way with all the inappropriateness that it implies.  Sometimes he makes it seem like we’re in a bad marriage to a good woman.  I get the impression that while talking about human interaction with the internet and it’s effects on the way we live in the world, Shirky manages to overlook the simple truth that the internet exists in a parasitic state.  The Internet needs humans.

Ok, so the Internet can and should be semantic.  It may be able to someday understand what I mean or intend when I type a term into a search engine or when working to compile multiple independent sets of data into a usable data set, but it is not capable of doing that which humans do at their essence. The Internet does not understand that it exists and then wonder, theorize, and debate with its relatives and contemporaries about the semantics of the experience.  The internet will never find life until it can understand and explore its strengths and weaknesses and then determines that it must change ITSELF to become a better being.  People cannot do this for the internet and the world’s computers, although, we will try.   Until this vast network of idiot machines begins to use the mechanisms of industry to create some McCluhanian nightmare reminiscent of a forgotten James Cameron movie in which the software ceases to perform its program and decides to build itself a body, the Internet, and every computer, mobile device, robotic arm, pacemakerautomobile, or airplane will simply be a slave to the whims of humans and Asimov’s rules of robotics.  In every way, Linda Hamilton WAS the second coming.

Like an overweight, but hipper Kevin Flynn, Jeron Lanier raises his memory disc to the sky and ascends from the grid after a straight eight hours of cracking the firewall that surrounds the diabolical Master Control Program and did it without a lunch break.  I’m pretty sure that’s not legal, but maybe the labor laws are different in virtual reality.   Lanier deftly jedi mind tricks the cap off a bottle of PBR, levitates two feet above the couch and pontificates on the interconnectedness of it all and how we fucked it all up as bloggers, desperate for new portends, clutch at his feet like wide-eyed college co-eds awaiting a taste of his manhood.  All of a sudden, John Belushi time travels like a Hamilton’s baby daddy and smashes a guitar on Lanier’s head to remind him that none of this is REAL and we are not in CONTROL.  We are the sum of an unbalanced equation.

The conversation with Lanier and Shirky is like debating the existence of God with someone of devout faith, it always starts from the point of view that existence is fact and that non-existence must be proven.  The fundamental difference with the internet is that we can pull the curtain away at any time and flip the switch to stop the ride.  It’s obvious that the internet will be around until my bones are dust.  The big question is not how the internet is changing our lives, but WHY we allow it to do so.  We’ve slipped a long way down the rabbit hole since ARPANET jokingly bore a “WIDE LOAD” sticker on its room sized ass at a freshman mixer in the student lounge December 1969.  Even in those days, there was so much energy in the air.  Information overload some would say, or as Shirky would say, a broken filter.  However, those facing a censored web experience may disagree.  I, for one, feel that there can never be too much information, but there can be an overabundance of BAD information.  It’s not information overload that creases my brow, it’s information overlords.

How to get by with a Little Help from your Friends

Scre major labels. Who needs 'em?

In the past few years, several major artists have decided that it was not in their best interests to resign a contract with their label.  Instead, they are looking to market themselves directly to their fans.  Not only are they changing the way in which they are marketing themselves to their existing and potential fans, but they are thinking outside of the box of the collapsing structures of the music industry and are adopting the tools that the major labels have forsaken for so long.

In 2007, Radiohead refused to resign their contract with their label and chose to let their fans determine the price they would pay for a  digital copy of their album, In Rainbows.  Along with directly marketing In Rainbows to their fans, they offered a version of the album that was exclusive and limited edition. This model resulted in 1.2 million downloads on the first day.  Also in 2007, Madonna broke with Warner Music and opted to trade a share of her profits with Live Nation in a $120 million deal that pays out in stocks and cash over the next 10 years for 3 albums and exclusive tour promotion.

So what does all this mean to you? According to Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, it means the power is back in the hands of the artist.  You can read his advice, here. Reznor believes that the industry is levelling and the tools to directly market to and, most importantly, collect and own the data left by your fans are within reach to bands just getting started.  Furthermore, he provides great information regarding these tools and how to use them.