Archive for the ‘Impacts’ Category

State of the Onion

Monday, December 5th, 2011

me?Remember, remember, the fifth of December. No, wait — that was November. Lost a month. I hate it when that happens. *grumble*

So where are we now? Hmmm. The news is mixed. Better take it one category at a time.

Technology: StarFleet-bound. Forget silicon; the future is written in graphene. So far they haven’t found anything it can’t do yet:  superstrong material, conductor, semiconductor, light-absorber, quantum wells, charge density waves, intercalated superconductors, only our imagination is limiting us.

Politics: Assange will be allowed to appeal his extradition to the UK Supreme Court.

Finance: Europe struggles to hold it together one more time for Greece.

me?Breaking history: the first Earth-like planet in the “habitable zone” of its star has been confirmed. Named keppler-22b, it is a little larger than earth but does not appear to be a gas giant. Has at least some of the conditions that may support life. But it is 600 light years away.

Freedom: still an endangered species. The Occupy protests continue, punctuated by arrests, beatings, and the now-famous weapons-grade pepper spray. Cities have coordinated evictions, moving in under cover of night to avoid media coverage: so brave.

Congress just passed the NDAA which allows them to use the military to arrest people. Welcome to the Police State. What else can we call it, when the police become militarized and used against students? I suppose with so many protesters to abuse, the police ARE a tad busy, so busy that now we will use our military against our own people, also.  Isn’t that what we were sad to see in Tianmen Square? Military against citizens? Well now it can happen here too, folks. Oh, sure, they SAY it is only against terrorists. But history is not reassuring on this note. And guess who gets to define who a terrorist is? That’s right; the government. If they decide you are helping terrorists, (or even if they just pretend that they believe that), you have lost all of your rights. They can then arrest you and hold you until peace or victory is declared (if ever).

The short-term view looks bumpy. If the rich and powerful are determined to continue to vacuum up all the spare change left in the couch of America, there is bound to be even more civil unrest and protest. They continue to get richer, faster than ever before due to decades of tax-cutting. Meanwhile the rest of us count our pennies and decide which bill to pay this time.

Despite all this, I remain optimistic, one of my most persistent character flaws. It seems incredible that we can do more and more with technology but cannot seem to break out of our ancient pyramidal social structures. But even as some of us burn the midnight OPEC oil developing better planes, bombs, and missiles, others of us are working miracles with solar cell technology, self-cleaning glass, nanotube transistors, and 3D printers. Maybe some will always look to their piles of gold, but some are looking at the stars.

The stars are still waiting for us. There is still a future where we reach them.


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Quis Custodiet? Stop Censorship!

Monday, November 28th, 2011
The co-called “Protect IP” act is not designed for your protection.

It is designed to protect rich entertainment media companies…and to give more censorship power to government and corporate entities.

Remember the “Patriot” act? The jokers who draft these kinds of legislation are getting clever at giving them warm fuzzy names. Was the Patriot act designed to help us be more patriotic? Don’t kid yourself. It used the excuse of 911 to make it easier for Big Brother to spy on US citizens.

Now they’re at it again. The Protect IP act is not designed to protect any Internet Protocol; the initials IP in the name of the bill stand for Intellectual Property.

But that’s good, right? When someone creates a book, song, film, play, whatever, we should protect their ownership of it and their right to earn money from it, right?

We already have something for that, called international copyright law.

So why do we need Protect IP? We don’t. Who does? Apparently, the entertainment industry feels it is not making enough money, and thinks it deserves special protection.  Apparently, making huge profits ever since they discovered they could sell scratches on plastic and call them “records” somehow isn’t enough.  It really bugs these media moguls that a kid in Springfield (or halfway around the word) can download a pirated copy of the latest music video without tossing $20 on top of the treasure horde these media corporations have amassed.

Yes, they will whine about “lost sales” or try to claim that pirated material forces them to charge you even more for recordings. They’ll claim they are “job creators” and urge you to support their latest grab for your money and your freedom.

But what stinks most about Protect IP is not its stated intentions. What it seeks is no less than endorsing the censorship of the Internet by government and corporate interests. Right now, the Internet and its free exchange of ideas and information are fueling a drive for democracy and independent thought all over the world.  None of that would be happening if the Internet was merely the information apparatus of government and big business.

Consider what happened to Television. Deciding that we needed to keep the number of stations limited to avoid crowding the airwaves, we established the FCC to watch over radio and television. And what has been the result? TV stations are all owned by large corporations and mainly used to sell advertising for corporate sponsors. All those TV shows, good and bad? They are a loss leader — what the store puts in the display window to get you to come in and spend your money there.

Is this what we want for the global information network? For it to be owned by governments and large corporations so they can use it only to promote the status quo and sell us more products?

No! The Internet was created to share information. Yes, some of that information will be commercial; hard to avoid that in any human endeavor. But don’t we want it to be a tool of freedom — not tyranny?

The Protect IP act is an invitation to tyranny. Giving ANYONE the power to shut down a website because you don’t like its content (or to force ISPs to route traffic around it) is a violation of the original purpose of the Net; to share information. When you walk into a bookstore, you will probably be able to find books or magazines you don’t like. Does this mean you should have the right to make the cops close down the bookstore? After all, if you don’t want to be offended by the contents of a book, all you have to do is *not* *read* *it*. This is why we do not burn books in America. We just read the ones we like.

Ideas should be able to stand on their own. They don’t need help. If something is true and useful, people will share it. If not, they will ignore it. There is a intellectual Darwinism that usually ensures that liars and fakers will be found out and abandoned.

Have you heard the saying “Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodies“? It’s Latin for “who will watch the Watchers?”.  It is the quintessential reminder that entrusting too much power to overseers is something we should always avoid. Yes, we can train a cop, give him weapons to defend himself, and tell him to defend the helpless and watch over the greedy. But who will watch him?  Cops are human too.  So he has a supervisor.

While less than 1% of Americans are millionaires, over 50% of members of Congress are millionaires.  Our only check on them is not re-electing them in a few years. Do you want them to supervise our Internet?

Leggo my Eggo, Congress! Stop grabbing for censorship!

The Protect IP act might come up for a vote this week. Add your name to those Senator Wyden plans to read in filibustering this obscene bill.


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Accidental Conspiracies

Monday, November 7th, 2011

pathI walk 2.7 miles  most mornings. Sometimes I skip a day; sometimes I go farther. I know it’s about 2.7 miles because I measured it with my odometer. I have lost a lot of weight on treadmills, but if I can walk outside I’m not tempted to stop early. I have to do the whole route to get home again.

Sometimes I go farther. I can choose the path less taken and wander off road into the woods. The woods here seem to be a combination of pine trees, scrub oaks, palmettos, and the occasional palm tree. The pine trees are the tallest, and give most of the shade. In between the trees and palmettos are small ferns and grass.

pathThe path I take from the subdivision road is carpeted with a soft carpet of pine needles, up through which spring numerous ferns, each about a foot or so tall; I step between them under a cloudy sky, treading softly without a stick.

It’s a different kind of beauty here; there is no gleaming beach, manicured landscaping or implanted garden. Billboards call this “the real Florida”, away from the neon techno-madness of Orlando and Miami and Tampa. Here it is back to basics: sand, palmettos, birds, people, alligators. I would have found this different aesthetic rather harsh when my father retired here, were it not for the fact that we lived in Florida before. It’s still different, and after being gone for 30 years my sinuses are complaining: there is pollen in Florida year-round.

As I sit here in this secular cathedral, pine trees like pillars, pine needles for carpet, I find myself wondering if all the patterns we take for granted as deliberate could be accidental conspiracies. I look at the carpet of pine needles. To someone who knew nothing of pine trees, it might look as though a crew had brought out tons of this stuff from somewhere and carefully spread it around especially on this path. The pattern of the needles could seem contrived, like the soap flakes Hollywood has used for snow.

If I were to confide this suspicion to anyone who knows anything about pine trees, however, I would look crazy. Perhaps he might patiently explain to me that the while a pine tree stays green all year, it sheds needles like my cat Otto sheds his fur; the needles turn red and fall fall one by one, laying down an intricate almost interwoven layer.

I suppose that the complex webs of interdependence we see in nature could be seen in two ways as well. We see the lion at the top of the food pyramid, and call him the king of the jungle. But none call him tyrant, or accuse him of conspiring to oppress the other animals. In fact, undergraduate biology students learn to their surprise that without carnivorous predators, the plant-eaters overpopulate, deplete their food sources, and suffer losses from starvation until there are fewer of them again. Predators stabilize these excessive populations so that none starve (especially the predators).

Those who really believe in social Darwinism, the prospering of the fittest, would have us believe that in human pyramids, some similar mechanism is at work, so that for every thousand human sheep there must be a wolf  (or a war?) to keep their numbers in check and a shepherd to supervise and harvest their wool.

But we are not sheep to grow wool for a shepherd, nor antelopes to be pruned by the jaws of a lion. It is all very well to speak of the mere appearance of conspiracy, but we must remember that unlike the pine trees, we are thinking creatures. While the fall of a pine needle is a random statistical event, the actions of humans are the result of planning or impulse decisions. But do these individual actions fit together in a planned way, or do they merely overlay each other in history, as the pine needles overlay each other in the forest?

When we see similarities or apparent structural or causal relationships in the ways that human civilization is formed, we must look carefully at evidence, lest we either mistake accumulated random events and actions as a deliberate plot — or look at a a suspicious sequence of events and actions and airily dismiss them as coincidence: pictures seen in clouds and inkblots.

Those who disapprove of the Occupy Wall Street protest are saying the same things that have been said about protests since the 1960s: that the protesters “hate america”, are “anti-american”, or that they are simply whiners who are too lazy to work.

The protesters might retort that the 46 million Americans now officially living in poverty is more than the population of the ENTIRE USA was in 1870 (39 million):

Seriously, folks, when one of the richest nations on earth has one-sixth of its population living in poverty, tens of millions of citizens, reasonable minds might want to know why.

It is predictable that some of the rhetoric will focus on perceived patterns and conspiracies; just as it is difficult to accept that one man with a rifle could end the life of JFK (if he did), it is difficult to see the mass migration of money in the last 30 years from the hands of the middle class and poor to the concentrated assets of a tiny percentage of the population., and not see a deliberate intent behind it.

Before we demonize the rich, however, let us remember the parable of the pine needles. Yes, the events of the past few decades have resulted in their getting richer. And yes, the figures show that they are getting richer faster than anyone else, even though they are the least in need of money. But it is a stretch to suppose that they wanted this wildfire of bankruptcies and foreclosures. The rich need poor people to wash their clothes and cook their food and maintain their homes and businesses.  But what they do not need is people homeless from foreclosure, hungry and angry with nothing left to lose.

So I have to admit that I do not believe the Great Recession was deliberately engineered. I think it is more of a pine needle carpet. People wanted homes they could not afford, and greedy bankers encouraged them in order to get raises, commissions, and promotions. If their had been a boom in the economy, maybe so many defaults would not have happened. But they did.

I don’t know about you, but I get angry when the rich say it is the fault of the people for getting loans they were too lazy to pay.  My girlfriend has been working 2 and sometimes 3 jobs. Now she lost her job managing a neurologist’s office and she is in the process of losing her home. She is not lazy. Saying that her situation is all her fault sounds to me like the tobacco companies saying that when a smoker dies of lung cancer it was the smoker’s fault, that it was their choice to smoke. Sure, never mind the studies that show nicotine to be more addictive than heroin. After all, since we’ve been telling heroin addicts that it is all their fault too, so why not say the same to nicotine addicts?

I am unemployed. No, Mr. Tea Party, I was not an Art History or Philosophy major in college: I have a degree in Physics. I am unemployed anyway. I lost my own web development job when the customer decided he couldn’t afford any more software development for a while. It wasn’t because I did anything wrong or failed to do something right. It was simply a matter of not being able to afford my salary in tight times. So I do not blame anyone for deliberately making me poor. There was no plot.

I guess what I am saying is that the rich did not make us poor. It was a combination of jobs outsourced overseas to cheaper workers and poor planning and greed and their inevitable consequences. Now that we can stop saying it is the fault of this class or that class of citizens, it is time to stop squabbling over causes and get a plan to fix things.


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Freedom Isn’t Free

Saturday, November 5th, 2011

Or, to be more precise, Freedom requires maintenance. If we fail to affirm our freedom, if we fail to defend it against the oppression of tyranny and the creep of corruption, we will live to regret it.

Once people are living in a non-dictatorship, either by transitioning from monarchy to democracy or from a more repressive regime to a definitely less-so, there are at least two types of vigilance which are required to prevent a return of a repressive regime.

1. Beware of attempts to overthrow or undermine the current less-repressive regime, and

2. Beware of creeping cynicism, corruption and self-interest in administrators which can turn any system however well-designed right back into a tyranny by favoring a privileged class.

Many of those in the American Revolution wanted to make General Washington into an  American King George. Fortunately, Washington himself resisted these suggestions, knowing that it would have defeated the purpose of the Revolution: we would have declared ourselves independent of the control of one monarch, only to put ourselves in the hands of another. This would have been a type (1) failure to protect freedom.

Unfortunately, the founding fathers did not do so well with type (2). They realized from the first that wealthy people would exert more influence, since they would be the ones who could afford to run for office or sponsor those who did. But they were so obsessed with ensuring the protection of the privileges of private property that they failed to make adequate provision to prevent the rich from controlling too much. When Congress decided that America needed an Income Tax, the wealthy class were already prepared to tweak the process and ensure that they had loopholes and ways to avoid paying their fair share.

And so here we are again. This time it is not a guy on a throne we have to worry about, and it’s not just our own country either. Multinational corporations continue to show a preference for profits over safety and sustainability; they exert more influence on our governments than ever before. In the midst of all of the growing disillusionment and discontent, we see a new phenomena in political activism: an organization whose members strive for group success, not for mere personal distinction: Anonymous.

Unlike violent revolutionaries, Anonymous does not use bombs or guns. Their bullets are doxes that release names, campaign contribution amounts, and other info; their big gun is the coordinated but decentralized DDoS attack, which can bring popular and lucrative Web severs down. You cannot blow up their tanks: they have no tanks. You cannot invade their headquarters: they have no headquarters. You cannot buy them off, because they are not seeking wealth, and you cannot hire them against your enemies, because they are not a private army. You might argue that the Zetas bought them off by releasing an Anon they had grabbed somehow. But this merely meant that the planned op to expose details on the Zeta Cartel was tabled (many had opposed that plan anyway). It does not mean Anonymous works for the Zetas. Anonymous works only for Anonymous.

Whatever anyone says about Anonymous, you cannot say that it is a cult as some have accused Scientology of being. A cult requires a charismatic leader, and the driving forces inside Anonymous are content with results instead of fame — they seem uninterested in spotlights unless they are aimed at corruption being exposed.  While some have attempted to paint them as dangerous and irresponsible, it is undeniable that they were active in Arab Spring where they attacked servers working for repressive regimes.

Anonymous does not murder people, hook them on poison, or send them across the ocean to attack other countries. Instead they discover and expose corruption and wrongdoing. OK, they don’t wear green so they can’t be Robin Hood.  But I’m pretty sure they don’t work for the rich (the 1%), and that’s close enough for me, lol. –MRK

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Online Activism: Are You Anonymous?

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

Anonymous international
We have reached a new era in political participation with the advent of online activism. In the “good old days” intelligence operatives and agents did their best to uncover information and plans to either embarrass enemies or to stay ahead of their weapon systems.

That was then. There are new players now, and the troublesome thing about them to authorities is that the new players do not do “business as usual.” They do not sell secrets to the highest bidder. They do not offer to keep secrets in exchange for trade advantages. They are not working for countries or governments, which means that they cannot be defused by exerting diplomatic, economic,  or military pressure  on their bosses — they HAVE no bosses.

1. The Leader problem

For example several times police have attempted to persuade the leaders of OccupyWallStreet to get their followers to disperse and go home.  This is standard procedure for mobs with leaders. If the leaders do not cooperate, then the next step is to take the leaders into custody, hoping that the group will fall apart once leadership is gone.

What they may not have anticipated is that the very idea of leaders and followers has been rejected by this movement; while some members might be more influential than others, the simple fact is that there is no person or group of persons what they can seize and realistically hope to end this situation. The decentralized nature of these new movements, drawn as it is not from the old cell model of early revolutionaries, but from imitation of the relatively decentralized structure of the Internet itself.  No real boss means no headquarters, hence no military targets to try that shock and awe out on.


2. The Hardware problem

The new activism movements have no armies, ships or planes. For the last 200 years the United States has concentrated on land, sea and air power as the preeminent factor in maintaining global supremacy. But now they are in a pickle, because times have moved on and left them behind: the weapon of this new age is Information, not bullets or bombs. You cannot blow up an idea; walls and Kevlar vests are no protection against information, which finds its way around blockades and damage, particularly since the Internet has been designed from the beginning to be decentralized and fault-tolerant; since its information flows are dynamically routed they are automatically detoured to bypass faulty routers or servers.

To stop the free flow of information across the Internet a government would have to kill the goose that laid the golden egg: they would have to disable all the largest nodes on the network so that effective rerouting collapses. Needless to say, governments and multinational corporations are becoming dependent upon the Internet just as you and I are; there might be significant damage both to the global and national economies if the Internet became unusable. As I have remarked elsewhere in my One Way Change article, no one really wants to go back to doing business by telephone and mail-order catalogs. Yesterday’s technological curiosity has become today’s necessity.  Imagine if IBM or MacDonald’s had tried to build a business empire without having telephones.  Although many business wish that someone actually owned the Internet, that there was one central power controlling it, they tend to lose steam when you ask them just who they would trust with that much power.


3. The Scapegoat problem

When I was in high school I was required to take a course entitled “Problems of American Democracy”. But the older name was clearer: “Americanism vs. Communism”.  Communism was the enemy, and the course was designed to stress the dangers of the system and to demonize its founders and leaders. We were led to believe that Communism was taking over the world and that its followers would do anything, no matter how despicable, in order to spread their “evil empire”.

Well, we see how well that worked out. Deprived of the profit incentive of capitalist economies, the Soviet economy crumbled badly enough to bring about a change in government. Apparently, you cannot grow crops with slogans, and you cannot house and clothe a people with mere patriotism.

At first I thought China would be the next logical scapegoat; since their economic and political evolution seemed to be a a decade or two behind that of Russia. But Osama Bin Laden changed all of that; Terrorism replaced Communism as the new Big Bad Wolf. This was awfully convenient for America’s military-industrial sector, because since terrorism had no capital to conquer, the War on Terror could be maintained indefinitely, like the War on Drugs. With a little care and foresight, it could be possible to wage a new kind of war, one whose polemic and profits could to go on forever.


4. The Rise of Anonymous and other LOIC vigilante groups

Now that Bin Laden is dead (or so we are told), the U.S. thought it could get back to business as usual. But while the planners map out which resource-rich third world country they will exploit next, a new threat to their order has emerged: Anonymous and similar entities.

Who is Anonymous? To even ask that  question shows ignorance, yet many are guilty of it.  The police who attempt to contacts its leaders sometimes do not seem to be able to wrap their minds around the fact that there is NO leader to talk to. And this is a problem for them, because the standard way to crush a movement is to imprison or assassinate the leaders. But you cannot imprison an idea, and you cannot assassinate a dream.

Anonymous has no armies of fanatical thugs. This is no James Bond movie. Their main ammunition is the truth, but in between finding and releasing incriminating data, they unleash the power of the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC).

Back in the time of Napoleon,  concentration of force meant you could get a group of soldiers to shoot at the same target at the same time. You COULD shoot one gun at an enemy 200 times, but the damage is far more effective if you get 200 guys to shoot at once and then you have 200 bullets flying into the target.

Nowadays the target is often a server, a computer connected to the internet. Instead of bullets, what you fire off at the server is HTTP requests. Servers are not like telephones; they are designed to handle multiple simultaneous requests. But like all technology, there is a limit to how many requests they can respond to at any given time. So you can overwhelm a server’s resources by simply getting thousands of computers to ping that server at the same time. LOIC makes this simple; all of the participants load the program into their computers and point them to a particular address where central control resides. The “Hivemind” informs all of the participating computers where the target is and then triggers them to commence. When the target server is deluged with all of these pings, even if it manages to not crash it is still unable to respond to any other requests until the storm of pings is over.

In addition to the LOIC Distributed-Denial-of_Service attacks, Anonymous and other groups have dedicated hackers who have been able to score some impressive stunts: they hacked NATO computers, hacked FOX News, and even hacked and defaced the FBI website. Those who dismiss the abilities of Anonymous hackers as unimportant are either optimistic or in denial.


5. The Problem of Managing Change

Will the current wave of cyber-activism bring about real change in governments and economic and social institutions? It is undeniable that the moneyed powers have been rattled; the tactics used against peaceful protesters now include attempts to discredit the protests by infusing them with derelicts, mass arrests, chemical weapons such as pepper balls (like paintballs but they sting a lot more), tear gas, and the amazingly illegal ruse of covering police names and IDs with tape to avoid accountability for their actions.  These actions show how perturbed the powers that be have become — they are resorting, again, to methods that backfired in the 60s as they will backfire today, because people empathize with underdogs and oppressed persons, especially people who already feel dispossessed and disenfranchised themselves by the erosion of their buying power as even more money becomes concentrated in the hands of the 1% super rich who have no need of it.

People are standing up, the Establishment is beating at the flames in a heavy-handed way as usual, and the People are beginning to sit up and notice that someone is actually trying to represent them and address their suffering. But will all of this result in any real change at all….or will it fizzle again as it did in the 60s?

I’d like to argue here that this time there might actually be some real change. And for several reasons:

(a) Protests of the 60s era were always vulnerable to charges that they were organized by elitists who dictated their agendas to their followers. The organizers, of course, were also tempting targets for counterrevolutionary forces. But in the new Internet era, the information exchanges is not simply trickle-down, but is bidirectional; followers can tweet or email in suggestions.  And in the case of LOIC attacks, members can simply vote with their feet: if they do not agree with the selected target, they can turn off their computers and decline to join in the attack. In this way, although there is a centralized trigger to say “go!”, there is democracy in that unwilling participation cannot be forced: members have to agree on targets. In this way Anonymous and others preserve both coordination (to concentrate attacks on a single target) and individual choice (whether to join a particular attack).

(b) It is difficult to imagine how meaningful change can succeed without the agreement of the people. Yet a valid consensus is only possible with communication, and the only widespread means of communication available in the 1960s were telephones and the postal system. (TV doesn’t count. since it is a one-way medium used to distribute entertainment and news, not for dialogues.)  That was then. Now we have email, instant messaging, a billion cell phones, and are fast approaching the point where there will be a computer (or “information appliance” as some have dubbed them) in every home, absorbing into itself the television and telephone and radio. After snafus and worries about voting machines, I kinda have to ask: is there some reason why encryption makes it safe to buy things online, but not safe enough to vote online? Now that we can actually get live feedback from our population, why not finally listen to them?

(c) The looming shadow of the Cold War, with its constant worry about nuclear showdown oppressed out thoughts for sixty years. And it isn’t completely over yet; though the Soviet Union has restructured, China remains (and we don’t even want to talk about North Korea). I would maintain, however, that China’s attempt to hold up a Great Firewall to shut out the modern ideas of the West will ultimately fail, and thus the people of China will demand change as the people of the Soviet Union did. France has nuclear weapons, but for some reason I don’t hear people worrying about France starting a nuclear war.  In fact, now that we realize that a nuclear winter could wipe out any survivors of a nuclear war, we are finally even rethinking the idea that we need a stockpile of nuclear weapons to prevent nuclear war.  Apart from whack jobs like Kim Jong Il, I think most people would really like to live long enough to see the wonders that this 21st century will bring. And if we finally get to the point where we can stop cowering in the shadow of our missiles, then we can finally take a turn at trying to make the kind of major changes in our governments that we would prefer not to enact at the cost of appearing disorganized and off-balance to nuclear opportunists. People think more clearly when they aren’t stifled by fear of extinction.


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The Guilden Age

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

In my post “Me, Myself, and I” it is likely I may have given some of you the impression that I am always a loner, that I have something against organizations. But while in the real world it has often been my observation that ALL large organizations of humans seem to become corrupt and impersonal, in virtual reality I see their value. Most of my avatars end up belonging to one, because it can be hazardous and frustrating trying to run an instance all by yourself with elite bosses. Okay, I have pontificated about virtual relationships, virtual combat, virtual money yadda yadda yadda; I guess it is time to discuss virtual organizations.

Since the first humans formed themselves into villages, tribes, cities and then nations, we have been grouping together for mutual defense, for more efficient hunting, to exchange knowledge, and and to discuss mutual interests. It is no surprise, therefore, that as virtual humans (or elves, or orcs, or whatever) we are doing the same thing. In City of Heroes and City of Villains, these voluntary associations are called Super Groups and Villain Groups. In World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, and most other medieval-theme online gaming worlds, they are called Guilds. (Am I the only gamer with a humongous secret crush on Felicia Day after watching The Guild at Yeah, right. Totally out of my league. Dream on, Matt.)

What is a Guild? Before the advent of online gaming, I would have known only one definition. Rather than looking back to it, let’s set the way-back machine for the early Middle Ages and look forwards. Professional organizations of craftsmen with specialized skillsets began to be called guilds because of the gold they held in treasuries for group-related activities. The word guild thus derives from gold. (This tradition continues today in games like WoW, where your guild usually has a guild bank with game gold put into it by members for the use of all needy persons in the guild.)

In the Middle Ages, of course, guilds were not about gaming, but about standardization and competence. If you wanted to become a successful blacksmith, weaver, goldsmith, stonecutter, or whatever, you became an Apprentice to someone who already was recognized as a master. Fetching water, preparing materials, pumping the bellows of the forge, you made yourself useful, gradually being taught how things were done, until you became a Craftsman or a Journeyman, whereupon you were allowed to actually go out and practice your skills for pay. Eventually upon passing tests and being adjudged sufficiently competent at the skillset, you became a Master and could take on Apprentices of your own, passing on what you had been taught. If you continued to improve you could become a Grand Master. All this worked well for centuries. The guilds had a monopoly, usually granted in letters patent from the local king, and so they could control the quality of work that craftsmen performed, maintaining dependable standards. They also, of course, controlled prices, and restricted the flow of information to people outside the guild, both of which eventually led to their downfall after the eighteenth century.

Interestingly, in World of Warcraft, we see a similar classification of crafting skill levels. if you want your avatar to be a blacksmith so that he or she can make armor and weapons from metal, you start as an Apprentice. As you craft items for use or sale in the game (for example, if you “create” a sword that you or another avatar can use in combat), you rise in skill level. After crafting skill level 75 you can no longer skill up unless you become a Journeyman. The process continues until you give up or until you become a Grand Master, a rank which was added with the most recent expansion. However, it is important to note that you can have these skill ranks in WoW without actually belonging to any guild.

In online gaming, guilds are not organized to maintain secrecy and standards. They are more like sports franchises and exist to help their own members and to compete against other guilds for prestige. Belonging to a guild is more than us-versus-them, however. When you are in a guild you have a ready-made pool of guildies to help you to finish quests, to assist you in obtaining armor and weapons and crafting items (also called gear) and to chat with when you are bored or lonely. I have heard the Internet criticized as being a wasteland of loneliness. Someone said “it brings you closer to people you are far from…and takes you farther away from people you are close to” or something like that. (And I know what that person meant; I have already lost a girlfriend because I was into gaming and she was not. We drifted apart, and she is gone.) But what I have seen is the same phenomenon we saw in the early chat rooms and BBS groups — that people who otherwise might never have met find that they have things in common and things to talk about.

It is clear we are seeing previous human institutions incarnating on the Web. I already mentioned online churches in a previous post. We also have online universities, clubs, sales organizations, fan groups, and who knows what. I know I am being Mr. MOTO (Master Of The Obvious) when I say anything we already know how to do —  that can be done on the Internet — is being done or will be done. In myriad ways.

How are these virtual organizations affecting us?

1. Raising expectations of convenience. For one thing, they are easier to interact with. You don’t have to drive to your local Masonic Temple or Guildhall to meet your fellow members. You drive your browser to a website, or log into an online world or game and you are in contact with others who are online at the time. There was a time, a little over a century ago, when the only meetings that could happen were face-to-face. Telephones changed that. If you work in the vast wasteland of cubicle-land, as I have, you see that every cubicle has a phone. Meetings are often, if not usually, teleconferences instead of sitting around a table. Then videoconferencing made it possible for one table of people in Detroit to interface visually with another table of executives in Paris or Tokyo. The question used to be “is he or she at their telephone?” but now it is “are they online?”

2. Erasing prejudice boundaries. When I type to my guild mates. I often have no idea how old they are, what “race” they are or their gender. Many men create female avatars because, let’s face it, we usually prefer looking at women. And many women create male avatars because they want to avoid being hit on by horny guys like me. So unless they tell you (and even then, because, believe it or not, some people lie, duh), you have no clew as to details that are probably irrelevant to the topic of conversation. What counts is what you know and what you say, not how much you weigh or your sexual preference. Virtual worlds can be worlds of new ideas, not worlds of thoughtless discrimination.

3. Encouraging the flow of information and ideas. This follows from 1 and 2 above. If it is easier to get in touch with people, and if what they look like, what kind of chromosomes they have, or who or what they worship does not get in the way, you end up talking more and concealing less. Not surprisingly, studies have found that people tell things to complete strangers that they wouldn’t dream of mentioning to their spouses or neighbors. The anonymity of the mask of the avatar, the untraceability of the chat handle, makes ordinarily reticent people open up and discuss their dreams, their gripes, and their fantasies to an extent that no one ever dreamed of before the online world was born. Am I the only one who thinks this is probably a positive thing?

Okay, I confess I like to dream of Utopia instead of Dystopia. I could be completely wrong. Maybe this is all a dream a-borning that will die in the glowing ashes of an eventual nuclear war or a festering bioweapon plague. That could still happen. Maybe, as some fear, computers will suck the humanity out of us, turning us all into regimented drones that will serve a useful purpose until artificial intelligence takes over and pushes us aside to grumble with the ghosts of dinosaur and dodo. That might happen, as well. But I cannot make myself believe it. I see people reaching out the electric handshake to strangers. I see minds freed of the tyranny of traditions, forging new alliances and empathies in brave new worlds of endless extendability, of transfinite possibilities.  The currency of the future is data, and its ones and zeroes of on-and-off microscopic transistors are a metaphor of our choice as a species: will we come together to form a synergistic union of wholeness, or let it all die away to the emptiness of nothing? I know which I’d prefer. –MRK

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