Saturday, January 30, 2010

In which netroots democracy is maligned by a schmuck

Clay Johnson of the Sunlight Foundation talking to Guy Raz on All Things Considered:

Mr. JOHNSON: ...[I]t's important to remember that just because, you know, an organization or a group or a community is the most well-organized doesn't mean they're the most popular. So when you see, for instance, marijuana questions being the top question, it doesn't mean that they're the most popular amongst all of America. What it means is this is the most organized community...

RAZ: Yeah.

Mr. JOHNSON: ...that's capable of getting their, you know, plus-one-ing their question.

RAZ: And when you plus-one-ing, that means you're voting for it.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, you're up-voting it. What's really interesting is you can watch people organize to rig these questions, which isn't something that you can do, you know, with, say, lobbyists.

RAZ: And how can you see that?

Mr. JOHNSON: So you can go on like, right, and plug in CitizenTube, space, marijuana and you get a list of all of the mailing lists that Google indexes out there. And the discussions of people saying, hey, go plus one this question. And you can, in a really transparent way, watch people organize and see what's going on.

RAZ: Does this process actually distort the power of a small number of people, in a sense, kind of undermine the whole point of democratizing this whole thing?

First of all, the answer is yes, "YouTube democracy" does distort the power of a relatively small number of people. In particular, it distorts the power of people with webcams Internet connections fast enough to upload videos YouTube -- mostly class-privileged folks. It also distorts the power of people who are, in general, more likely to be chosen as spokespeople for that crowd -- mostly white, class-privileged cisgendered men.

But that's not what Guy Raz was going for. It was not the problem of access that Guy Raz was worried about -- it was the problem of get-out-the-vote efforts. The problem with YouTube democracy is that sometimes, people try to encourage other people to vote, especially if they believe those people will vote in a particular way.

In any democracy, it's problematic when some people are more likely to vote than others. And it's also somewhat problematic when get-out-the-vote efforts target particular populations and ignore others. But this is by no means a problem that's unique to Internet democracy. Furthermore, the analogy we should be drawing isn't to lobbying, it's to (a) voter registration drives and/or (b) all forms of campaigning.

If you want to object to the fact that some people are much more likely to vote than others, and the people who vote tend to be whiter and richer than the people who don't, that's fine. I object to that too. But the solution should not be for the people who do vote to stay home -- it should be to have get-out-the-vote efforts targeting people who are currently underrepresented. And if you're going to talk about these problems as "undermin[ing] the whole point of democratizing this thing" when it's happening online, shouldn't we consider our formal democracy at least as undermined?

It's also worthwhile to talk about the specifics -- they were complaining about the fact that a bunch of potheads voted up a question about pot legalization, and got Obama to talk about it. Really? This is the one time when I've heard Obama talk about legalization -- and he treated it as a joke. I didn't hear it talked about seriously by his opponents during the campaign, either. All of this is despite the fact that 44% of Americans support legalization, and support is at 78% among liberals -- who are theoretically Obama's base. Given these levels of support, and the paucity of serious politicians who talk about legalization, we're complaining about these people being over-represented?

(Granted, the question Obama chose to answer talked about legalization of pot as though it would fix the economy. While I agree that it couldn't hurt, thinking of this as a serious economic policy makes me wonder if some stoner mixed up "million" and "billion.")

Friday, January 29, 2010

In which user-generated geographies of religion say more about access than about religion

Fascinating stuff over at floatingsheep where they map "religious references in user-created content indexed by Google." Here's the key image:
What they don't talk about at all is the way other factors (other than religion) influence the prevalence of these references. In particular, a couple of facts seem startling to me:
  1. China almost doesn't show up at all -- probably due to a combination of an anti-religious political culture, a censor-controlled online environment, and a lack of Internet access.
  2. They comment that:
    Likewise the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian archipelago (particularly the island of Java) illustrate the complexity of religious practice in this region. References to Buddha, Allah and Hindu are all in evidence on Java.
    What they don't mention is that Java is more than 90% Muslim, so although I agree that there is a great deal of "complexity of religious practice" there, this map totally misrepresents its nature. The map makes it look like it's about evenly split between Muslims and Hindus, with a few Buddhists and Christians thrown into the mix.
  3. Another even more egregious example is Bangladesh -- you can see it there tucked in just to the right of India as a huge concentration of red dots. This despite the fact that Bangladesh is 90% Muslim.
  4. Nigeria is huge -- about five times the size of Morocco (and three times the size of Spain). Would you ever guess it from the number of dots there? Furthermore, Nigeria is majority Muslim as well. There are not only more Muslims in Nigeria than in Morocco, there are more Muslims in Nigeria than in Turkey.
It seems like the big story here is the broad lack of Muslim-generated content. You would never guess from looking at this that there were more than half as many Muslims as Christians. I assume this largely reflects the relative poverty of the Muslim population of the world as compared to the other religions -- but I really don't know. Does anyone know more about this than I do, and/or see more discrepancies between map and reality?

Separate question: take a look at the map where they overlay user-generated content mentioning sex. What's going on in Algeria and Tunisia? Is there a huge Algerian/Tunisian porn industry I don't know about? Fascinating.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

In which we explore the consequences of equating money and speech.

The Supreme Court ruled recently that, since money is speech and corporations are people, restricting corporate spending on electioneering communications is a violation of their First Amendment rights. This made me think of another fairly recent case, which does a great job of showing the consequences of that sort of approach.

So the newsroom staff of the Santa Barbara News-Press decided to unionize. The bosses there started doing the worst kind of union busting -- suspending workers for legitimate, routine organizing activity, forcing themselves into labor meetings uninvited, etc. The employees brought this shit to the National Labor Relations Board, who backed them up completely.

But a district court found that in this case, the workers' right to organize didn't matter. See, workers' right to organize is a statutory guarantee, and in this case, the courts found that it conflicted with a constitutional guarantee. That's because the original source of the controversy had to do with management's intervention in editorial decisions, and compromises of journalistic integrity. And journalists' decision to organize to protect their right to do honest journalism from these kinds of attacks -- to protect, you might say, their right to free speech -- constituted an infringement on the News-Press's First Amendment rights.
Respondent argues that by preventing Respondent from disciplining employees engaged in such activity, the proposed injunction in its entirety infringes on Respondent's First Amendment right to maintain its editorial discretion. In so arguing, Respondent takes the view that a newspaper has a First Amendment right to retaliate through discharges and other standard disciplinary tools against concerted or union activity demanding, in part, the ceding of that newspaper's First Amendment-protected editorial discretion. (source)
In other words, the right to freedom of speech is really the right to absolute control of speech made with one's property. This gives you the right to use what are widely accepted as coercive, unfair and intimidating methods to make sure employees say what you want them to say -- no matter what statutes may say to the contrary.

I can't speak for the framers of the First Amendment -- most of them were pretty squarely in the Lockean camp that saw one's property as an extension of one's person, and it's pretty clear that "freedom of the presses" did not mean, for them, freedom of access to presses by people who did not have the resources to buy them. But it is ironic that a provision that was intended to prevent the censorship and bullying of writers is being used now to protect the censorship and bullying of writers.

I'm really troubled by the fact that this interpretation of "freedom of speech" explicitly values the opinions of rich people more than the opinions of poor people, to the point of enabling rich people to control the speech of poor people.

See, when we interpret the right to free speech as the right to use private resources to promote speech -- thus implicitly tying the right to free speech to the ownership of capital -- we're not privileging freedom of speech per se. We're privileging freedom to coerce poorer people to deliver a certain kind of speech.

Monday, January 25, 2010

In which poop becomes a metaphor for learning

Lorraine Forte on Eight Forty-Eight, talking about use of time in Chicago schools:
The consortium says that, you know, based on their observations, there's just no way to make up for that amount of time -- you can't be that efficient. I mean, you need a certain amount of time to do announcements, to line kids up to go to the bathroom... You have to do that because it's part of the school day.
Yeah, I guess that makes sense... If Chicago does have a short school day, we might need to lengthen it... Yeah, sure, I guess you do need some announcements... Wait, what? To go to the bathroom? What the hell do bathrooms have to do with lines?

Apparently this is a common practice among elementary school teachers, resulting from the assumption that you can't trust kids to walk down the halls by themselves, let alone to come back from the bathroom when they're done. This, of course, means they need to be accompanied by a teacher -- and since you can't have a teacher going out of the room every time someone has to go to the bathroom, you've got to have kids saving up their poop so they can all go at once.

Let's save the human-rights issue about controlling one's own body functions for another time -- not that I don't think it's significant. Let's also save for another time the question of what this does to our relationships with children.

For now, let's suppose that I take a long time to poop. Way longer than normal people. Would you want your child in class with me, knowing that an average bathroom break takes seven minutes without me or twenty-seven with me? I know many parents would actively lobby to have the slow poopers put in a separate class -- which, depending on the relative number of slow poopers as compared to the number of stalls, could mean that that class spends half the damn day at the bathroom.

Even if that didn't happen, imagine being the one slow pooper in the class, when everyone else is waiting to go back to the classroom. Imagine knowing that every time you had to go to the bathroom, the class would be forced to choose between waiting for your slow ass and moving on to leave you behind. My reaction would probably be to give up on pooping at school altogether. Some other people would probably respond by stretching out that process even longer, until everyone else went back to class, and then taking advantage of that time to themselves, while -- for once -- their slow pooping wasn't the subject of everyone's discussion.

Okay, maybe I'm going a little over the top with this analogy, but there's something here. The point, obviously, is that if you don't maintain the expectation that everyone's going to be doing the same thing at the same time, it doesn't matter whether some people take longer to do some things than others. But when you decide that it's multiplication time, and so everyone's going to be doing multiplication for the duration of multiplication time, then it becomes an issue.

It's the bathroom-line approach to education that led C.S. Lewis to say:
What I want to fix your attention on is the vast overall movement towards the discrediting, and finally the elimination, of every kind of human excellence -- moral, cultural, social or intellectual... The basic proposal of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be 'undemocratic.' Children who are fit to proceed may be artifically kept back, because the others would get a trauma by being left behind. The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval's attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT.
Despite Lewis's obvious elitism, he has a point. There's no reason we should all have to be doing the same thing at the same time, and to insist upon it is tyrannical. But Dante doesn't actually have to happen in a separate classroom. And the fact that you're reading Dante doesn't mean that you have nothing in common with someone who's struggling with phonics, let alone that you should be isolated from them.

What's truly democratic is to enlist the smart kids, according to their abilities, to spend some of their time helping those who need it -- and also give them chances, without leaving the room, to push the boundaries of their own knowledge. The presence of someone sitting nearby plugging along with multiplication does not actually stop me from thinking about algebra -- and the opportunity to take breaks from my own work to explain foundational concepts in simpler terms can actually help me harness those concepts in more complicated ways.

In which we learn what the two kinds of gays are, and what we should think about them.

Today's episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show featured an interview with Rosie O'Donnell, including some footage from a documentary she filmed about her family going through a divorce, as an attempt to show (paraphrasing her words) that gay families are just like straight families.

During this episode, there's a preview of the next episode: "If your husband cheated on you with another man, would you stay? Why Gayle Haggard did."

See, it's important to show a balanced view of what it means to be gay in America. Despite what the religious right might want you to believe, there's not just one way to be gay. There are two.

On the one hand, you've got married lesbians with children, who love their children and maintain close family ties despite divorces. As far as I can tell from watching, this type of gay person doesn't have gay sex: their gayness just means their children have extra mommies.

On the other hand, you've got secret gay sex on meth, by someone in a monogamous relationship who publicly condemns homosexuality in the strongest possible language.

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