Pragmatism, zeal, laziness, freedom

Kap Zeal shared CC by sabeth718

I recently came across a transcript of an interview posted by journalist Adrianne Jeffries. She had just published a worthy examination of the emerging practice of banks mining social networking data to calculate credit scores. In the course of her research, she interviewed noted lawyer and free software advocate Eben Moglen.

Things quickly got ugly:

Moglen: …The thing you’re working on is simply one of 100,000 implications of that disaster.

Jeffries: Right.

Moglen: Okay, so have you closed your Facebook account and stopped using Twitter?

Jeffries: Have… I?

Moglen: Yes, you!

Jeffries: No, I can’t!

Moglen: (getting agitated) Of course you can, if you don’t want to be in a situation in which you are more heavily surveilled than the KGB or Stasi or Securitate or any other secret police ever surveilled anybody (indistinguishable) and what do you mean you ‘can’t’? I can, how come you can’t?

Jeffries: Well, everyone else is using it.

Moglen: That’s not true. And besides, if everybody else is using them then I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I’m not using them. You’re quite wrong.

Jeffries: Right…

Moglen: Right. But you’re not going to do anything about that. So you’re using them and every time you tag anything or respond to anything or link to anything, you’re informing on your friends. You’re part of the problem, you’re not part of the answer. Why are you calling up to ask me about the problem you’re creating?

This is in a sense a classic case of (to borrow David Wiley’s phrase) zeal over pragmatism. One of those conflicts between values and expediency that I always seem to be on the wrong end of… I have been chastised for my infidelity to free software because I use Apple products, yet also been criticized for knee-jerk anti-corporatism because I criticize Apple’s ethics and malignant effects on an open information environment. I also own a car and eat junk food even though I worry about the personal and societal effects of both those things. So emotionally I can relate to Jeffries “why me?” stance… aren’t we all just muddling along in an imperfect world best we can?

In this transcript, Moglen certainly fits the role of the relentless zealot, and in posting the transcript Jeffries plays the victim card without shame. She writes: “Banks aren’t the problem, he said; the users tempting banks with their Twitter and Facebook postings are the problem” (I don’t read Moglen saying anything like that, maybe you do.) But by all appearances, the well-meaning journalist was trying to write a story about the abuse of social media information, she was trying to “help”, shouldn’t Moglen have buried his zeal and played along?

A more interesting take is offered up by Jonah Bossewitch:

I think the real challenge posed my Moglen’s response speaks to journalism’s failure to embrace the possibilities of hypertext, and grow beyond the conventions that dead-tree publishing imposed.  Why don’t stories regularly include links to the expert  interviews, in their entirety? Or, if the interview is sloppy or inaccurate, links to the experts relevant work. Moglen has spoken on numerous occasions warning about the dangers of corporate surveillance, an Jeffries easily could have quoted Molgen in her article, and referred readers to talks like Freedom in the Cloud or Navigating the Age of Democratized Media. Her interviews with him should have started with these talks as a baseline, not require him to rehash privacy 101 for the umpteenth time.

I think most people who’ve been interviewed by media as “experts” can relate. After about fifteen of these interview ordeals, I became convinced that there was no point in trying to be insightful, all the reporter wanted from me was to “recite my line”, which I would quickly be led toward by questions being asked. And it was clear that all the reporters had no time to think through or articulate more complicated narratives, which led to all sorts of lapses. (I blogged about one frustrating, not especially relevant episode here.) Finally, one day I got a call from a local TV station asking if I would do an on-camera interview about “texting while driving”, and since I could not think of a single worthwhile thing to say other than “bad idea”, I declined. It felt so good that I have turned down almost every interview request since. There have been a few exceptions, and they have for most part proven excruciating and embarrassing.

Had Jeffries taken Bossewitch’s advice and read the transcript (or listened, or watched in her choice of zealous or pragmatic formats), she would have quickly found many gorgeous nuggets for her piece. Here’s just one of them:

…Mr. Zuckerberg has attained an unenviable record: he has done more harm to the human race than anybody else his age.

Because he harnessed Friday night. That is, everybody needs to get laid and he turned it into a structure for degenerating the integrity of human personality and he has to a remarkable extent succeeded with a very poor deal. Namely, “I will give you free web hosting and some PHP doodads and you get spying for free all the time”. And it works.

But quoting an existing piece wouldn’t be reporting, would it? She needs to get him on the phone, and demand he feed the banality-on-a-deadline-machine, or else the result is just something boring and irrelevant… like academic research. No linkbait there.

As an aside, I highly recommend giving Moglen’s “Freedom In The Cloud” a read, or a listen, or a viewing. It’s strong stuff, argued with vigour, vision and humour. A few choice bits to take this post home…

In fact, people who are investing in the new enterprises of unfreedom are also the people you will hear if you hang out in Silicon Valley these days that open source has become irrelevant. What’s their logic? Their logic is that software as a service is becoming the way of the world. Since nobody ever gets any software anymore, the licenses that say “if you give people software you have to give them freedom” don’t matter because you’re not giving anybody software. You’re only giving them services.

Well, that’s right. Open source doesn’t matter anymore. Free software matters a lot because of course, free software is open source software with freedom. Stallman was right. It’s the freedom that matters. The rest of it is just source code. Freedom still matters and what we need to do is to make free software matter to the problem that we have which is unfree services delivered in unfree ways really beginning to deteriorate the structure of human freedom.

Like a lot of unfreedom, the real underlying social process that forces this unfreedom along is nothing more than perceived convenience.

…Everyday that goes by there’s more data inferences we can’t undo. Everyday that goes by we pile up more stuff in the hands of the people who got too much. So it’s not like we should say “one of these days I’ll get around to that”. It’s not like we should say “I think I’d rather sort of spend my time browsing news about iPad”.

It’s way more urgent than that.

It’s that we haven’t given ourselves the direction in which to go so let’s give ourselves the direction in which to go. The direction in which to go is freedom using free software to make social justice.

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