Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Archive for May, 2007

Identity and Open Space, Privacy and “Gezelligheid”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 16, 2007

Almost three weeks have passed since the Open Space Conference on Internet Identity held in Brussels under the aegis of the Liberty Alliance and deftly organized and facilitated by Kaliya Hamlin. For me, the conference was a revelation, a multidisciplinary exchange of ideas and accomplishment that brought me up-to-date on web identity issues and technology and in touch with a score of intelligent, energetic specialists on both the tech and visionary sides.

Flemish and Dutch

The siting of the conference in Brussels also gave me a chance to exercise not only my French but also my Dutch or, more accurately, my Nederlands Nederlands being the common language of both the Netherlands (Holland to many English-speakers) and the Flemish population of contiguous Belgium. Once an amalgam of dialects, Nederlands was standardized a little more than a century ago and is still watched over by an official academic commission that periodically updates and streamlines the language and symbolically guards it against foreign intrusions. Indeed, unlike English, which has evolved and mutated for a millennium on a foundation of mutual consent, many continental European languages have been artificially shaped by fiats from above. (More on the relation between languages and group identities in future postings).

Gezelligheid

One of the most stereotypical and possibly overused words in Nederlands is gezelligheid — literally “sociability” but better understood as a combination of coziness and conviviality. Despite its over-use, however, the word remains far from banal. Gezelligheid refers to the warmth one feels in the comfort of one’s own space and the company of close friends and acquaintances — a flush feeling of trust, security, and safety in the midst of a teeming larger society. Indeed, the Netherlands and Belgium are among the most densely populated states in the developed world and periodic enjoyment of gezelligheid is a key to sanity and survival. As distinct from the rugged individualism that many Americans claim to aspire to, Gezelligheid involves a retreat into immediate community rather than into monadic self-sufficiency. In gezelligheid, one transcends self by momentarily being part of a group of one’s choosing. Because the Netherlands is not only communal society but also a very successful commercial one as well, most Dutch-speakers know that all things have a price. The price of gezelligheid is continuous compromise, avoidance of conflict, and the acceptance of the presence and manifest self-interest of others.

On the surface, gezelligheid describes a number of features of the Brussels conference. The method of the conference, Open Space — the on-the-spot generation of an agenda by allowing each and every participant to post their interests — embodied gezelligheid at its best. A delicious, relaxed, laughter-filled, post-conference dinner at a street-side-cafe-restaurant arranged by Philippe Borremans and joined by Doc Searls, Adriana Lukas, Kaliya Hamlin, Ben Laurie, and this writer was a memorable case-study in leisure-time gezelligheid.

On a deeper level, the concept of gezelligheid lends insight into a number of identity-related issues, not least the debate over web privacy. At the conference, I noticed a distinct difference between the viewpoints and concerns of many US and Dutch attendees. At the risk of over simplifying, the Dutch seemed more relaxed about balancing societal and individual needs and less concerned than Americans about the potential malevolence of prying institutions, marketers and advertisers, and other data miners. The Dutch also seemed as much attendant to the the obligations of manifesting an online identity as to the benefits of creating one. A few examples follow …

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Posted in History, Identity, Language | Leave a Comment »

Michael Polanyi, Articulation, and Marx’s Fatal Flaw

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 10, 2007

The obscure Hungarian philosopher Michael (Mihaly) Polanyi surfaced this week on Doc Searls’s Weblog. Referring to our years together as philosophy undergraduates, Doc supposes that Polanyi might still influence my thinking. After reactivating my philosophy “chops,” I realize Doc is right, Polanyi does continue to influence my thinking … and my work and personal life as well.

I remember two things from Polanyi. The first is his succinct summation of his investigations into epistemology and the role of intuition in scientific discovery, as expressed in his simple dictum: “We know more than we can tell.” The second is his concise critique of some streams of Marxist thought. In his examination of the personal nature of knowing, Polanyi seems to have stumbled onto Marx’s Achilles heel.

In Polanyi’s view, what we are able to put into words is only a part of what we actually know; indeed, there are many things that we know and learn viscerally and intuitively in ways that defy articulation. A mystic Slavo-Semitic side of me likes this idea, as does the side of me that photographs, for it leaves room for wonder and for the ineffable. But a more Anglo-Saxon side of me (a tip of the hat to the logical positivists), takes Polanyi’s dictum not as a description but as prescription, a challenge to spend a lifetime trying to articulate all that I see, sense, and feel. This is been the driver of my life-long obsession with multidisciplinary learning that is my real “core business.” It also has been the basis of my decades of work in strategic consultancy, policy analysis, organizational change, and corporate communications and public information.

In the work world, I’ve found that strategy and policy can be successfully formulated, applied, and refined only when articulated over and again until all ambiguities and all misrepresentations of external realities disappear. Likewise, organizations achieve successful change only when they can fully articulate what they do, and why and how, and in what environment. In the same way, project management is dependent on continuously articulating where one stands and should stand. Successful marketing communications, in turn, is dependent on clear articulation of who one is addressing and what one really has to say. It sometimes takes an irritating gadfly like me to help companies and institutions achieve this, but I believe in the mission and even enjoy it. Maybe this is what has enchanted me about the internet, i.e. the theoretical possibility it affords for ultimately articulating all that is from every perspective possible.

To close, a few words about Polanyi and Marx. In his book Personal Knowledge, Polanyi examines what may be Marxism’s tragic flaw, the key to its self-destruction, this being its futile attempt to clothe moral rage in the guise of scientific objectivity and historical necessity. By abandoning the language of morality some streams of Marxism lost their moral rudders and became sidetracked, preoccupied with their own rectitude and the illegitimacy of all who questioned it, rather than with the wrongs and inequities Marxism was conceived in response to in the first place. This also poses a lesson for all of us in our personal lives — and not just to moderate our Marxism! – but never to forget that all that we seek, desire, approve of, or work toward is not necessarily what is right or what should be. (In this light, another tip of the hat to G.E. Moore.)

Posted in Articulation, Communications, Marx, Philosophy | 3 Comments »

Whimsy Trumps Solipsism Trumps Arrogance

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 8, 2007

A few days ago, on Confused of Calcutta, JP Rangaswami posted a piece about customer emancipation in which he described the irritation phrases and concepts such as owning content, owning customers, and owning pipes awakens in him. JP’s comments prompted me to think back on my years in the telecommunications sector and my many more years as a mobile telephone user. Instead of irritation, my reaction was a sad shake of my head and a glum look at my wallet.

Mobile providers indeed “own their customers” and shamelessly charge accordingly. I am writing this post from the Republic of Bulgaria, a country with Europe’s second lowest per capita income but with the continent’s highest charges for GSM services. A decade ago there was only one GSM provider in Bulgaria. With a naïve faith in the beneficence of competition and the efficiency of markets, many Bulgarians expected that the entry of new mobile operators into the fray would cause charges for basic — and, in an emerging economy, critically necessary — services such as voice traffic and SMS to plummet. Instead, the result was, and continues to be, a plethora of confusing price plans, hidden interconnect-charges, and an infuriatingly slow, barely noticeable decline in monthly bills and prepaid charges.

Thankfully, however, mobile providers in most countries have not taken as great advantage of their wish to own customers as they might have. Operators have been too inept or too solipsistic to dream up content or services attractive enough or useful enough to tempt consumers into paying for, let alone using. Back when WAP was introduced almost a decade ago, mobile phone manufacturers and GSM operators waxed euphoric about a plethora of location-based “push” services that WAP would occasion. These were to be based on complex, never-realized profiles of users’ identities, lifestyles and purchasing patterns. Such services never materialized. In the sage words of an Australian commentator: “WAP was CRAP.” GPRS, touted as Generation 2.5, proved no better.

The ultimate debacle was UMTS, Generation 3.0. Mobile operators worldwide flocked to auctions for UMTS broadband frequencies without giving as much as a thought to the services they would offer on them. It was a classic case of being seduced by technology rather than focusing on the customer. Bidding amongst operators for UMTS frequencies became so hysterical that license fees were pushed into the multi-billion Euro range, creating the greatest investment bubble since the tulip mania that nearly destroyed the economy of northern Europe in the 17th century. Proud winners of UMTS auctions waltzed home with “dark” frequencies for which thay had no specific uses in mind. To this very day, every time we place a mobile call or send an SMS at inflated prices, we are reimbursing operators for their folly. As to the one universal benefit that UMTS could offer, i.e. high-speed mobile internet access, operators indeed control the pipes and, until now, keep their fees correspondingly exorbitant.

From personal conversation, I know that JP (rightly) finds SMS charges to be artificially high. Still, SMS was a dark-horse winner that operators never expected to succeed. Despite its pricing, the universal popularity of SMS (outside of the US at least) was in large part a customers’ revolt against the high cost of mobile voice telephony, especially in international traffic. The other unexpected mobile money-maker has the ring-tone business. As exploitative and artificially overpriced as ring-tone sales may be, they at least targeted customers’ desires, albeit in this cause the irrational but wonderful human weakness for whimsicality.

Posted in Telecommunications | Leave a Comment »

Hak Pak Sak: Genesis

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 7, 2007

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Welcome to Hak Pak Sak, a new weblog addressing internet-, identity-, and infrastructure-related issues. The genesis of Hak Pak Sak lies in the prodding of Internet commentator, blogger, and author Doc Searls. For the last several years, Doc, a friend for more decades than either of us care to remember, has been challenging me to plug my training in philosophy and public policy, my work experience in marketing and telecommunications, my eye as a photographer, and my avocation as an architectural and urban historian into the conversations that engage who shape the Web. And so, Doc, I hereby pick up the gauntlet and throw my hak, my pak, and my sak into the ring! (For definitions, see About Hak Pak Sak.)

By the way, if Doc was the prime mover behind this new blog, formal causality can be ascribed to media expert Adriana Lukas. Via Skype, Adriana deftly guided me through the decision as to whether to manifest myself, my interests, and my worlds on one blog or more (see my older and very eclectic “personal” blog, Bubkes.Org) and how to shape the identity of the new launch. My final decision was for multiple blogs, each based on the interests of the clusters of people with whom I communicate. At Adriana’s suggestion, I am kicking-off Hak Pak Sak on WordPress. I will develop a custom template and announce a permanent host, platform, and URL after completing a sufficient number of postings and harvesting a sufficient amount of feedback.

Posted in General | 1 Comment »