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146 Martyrs, Pharaoh, Respecting Labor, and Two-Thirds of a Century of New York City Social Democracy

Posted by Stephen Lewis on March 28, 2010

This past Thursday marked the 99th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a now near-forgotten incident that galvanized labor, sparked American trade unionism, and animated the social-democratic, collectivist ethos that characterized New York City and was the backbone of its greatness from the early-twentieth century through to Republican Washington’s fiscal war against New York in the 1970’s and the ascendancy of the financial sector  in  the 1980’s.

Fire!

On Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire raged through the overcrowded premises of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, a sweatshop producing women’s blouses located on the upper floors of the then newly-built Asch Building, just off fashionable Washington Square in lower Manhattan.  Workers trapped in the blaze were unable to flee.  Exit doors had been sealed by the company’s owners to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks.  Ladders on the trucks of the City’s fire department proved too short to reach the factory’s windows.  Passersby stared with horror as workers jumped to escape the flames or were pushed to their deaths by fellow-workers desperately pressing forward in search of air. All told, 146 people perished, almost all of them young immigrant women, the majority Eastern European Jews and most of the rest Italian Catholics.  The outcry, demonstrations, and strikes that followed led to labor reforms, unionization, and the remaking of New York into a place of (comparative) respite and opportunity for working people.  By mid-century, New York was America’s only social democratic city, boasting an infrastructure that included free libraries, museums, water supply, hospital care, and universities, ample green space, adequate welfare benefits, affordable public transport, and a massive supply of publicly subsidized housing (up to the 1950s, New York City accounted for more than 80% of the US’s total public and union-sponsored housing stock).

“No Better Than Pharaoh”

Today, the Asch Building houses part of the science faculty of New York University.  Few of NYU’s 40,000 mostly well-heeled students are likely to have ever heard of the Triangle Fire and fewer still are likely to care.  Sadly, most of the descendants of the worlds from which the victims of the fire came are no better.  The McCarthy era, upward mobility, suburbanization, renewed religious obscurantism, and the Republican years led many American Jews to forget their origins and the martyrdom of those who paved their ways to more comfortable lives. Parallel experiences seduced many Italian-Americans into misanthropic and authoritarian political conservatism.

This year, the anniversary of the Triangle Fire occurred only days prior to the start of Jewish festival of Pesakh (Passover), a springtime holiday of renewal and of recollection of escape from “slavery unto Pharaoh in Egypt.”  Passover and the Triangle Fire coincide in meaning as well as in dates.  One of the watchwords of Passover — “once we were slaves but now we are freemen” —  underscores an obligation to identify with all those who are enslaved and oppressed.  The Triangle Fire, and the opportunities its aftermath brought to all of us who descend from the immigrant workers of a century past, obligates us to respect everyone who toils and never hold ourselves above those who work with us, for us, or on our behalf.  In the words of a recent web-posting  by the young Rabbi of the Stanton Street Shul, one of the few synagogues remaining of the more than seven hundred that once dotted the former Jewish neighborhoods of New York’s Lower East Side: ” … we should be ever vigilant to remember the human sacrifices of every worker. For once we take other people’s labor for granted, we in turn become no better than Pharaoh.”

Links and Haymarket

For more on the Triangle Fire — including archival photographs and documents — click herehere, and here.  For a link to a Facebook group dedicated to commemorating the Fire and its victims, click here. For those of you who see social conscience and egalitarianism is an inconvenience spread by (secular) Jews alone, click here and here to rediscover Chicago’s Haymarket Affair and the activitism and harsh repression of German-American and Czech- and Slovak-American anarchists, craftsmen, and intellectuals less than a generation prior to the Triangle Fire.  In the age of Sarah Palin and “Tea Party” rabble, conservatives in America’s heartland are pathetically ignorant of the radicalism and ideals of their forebears.

Posted in Change, Cities, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Jewish History, New York, Politics, Work | 3 Comments »

Pulchritude, Passion, and Some Marketing Tips for Crisis-time Entrepreneurship

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 31, 2009

My friend Abu Cihan (out of respect for his cultivated anonymity I am using his honorific rather than his real name) is a great historian of Ottoman and Turkish identity and an almost equally great admirer of ladies both big and bigger.  He also is treasure trove of American pop culture trivia.  Still,  Abu Cihan was surprised recently when I told him that the great Jewish-American singer and vaudevillian Sophie Tucker was not only a very big woman but a very passionate one as well, with a string of husbands and a very liberated lifestyle long before the late-20th century idea of  “liberated” was ever articulated (Note: Tucker was also a union activist and a generous giver to charities).

Like all moderately emotional one-time Lower East Siders, I still unashamedly weep at Tucker’s over-the-top Yiddish-language tribute to the ur-Lower-East-Side stereotype of  “Mayn Yiddische Mammeh” but I love even more the tough and resilient acceptance of the fleeting nature of sexual and emotional attachment that radiates from her theme song “Some of These Days” (a powerful tonic, by the way,  for any readers emerging from broken relationships).  For the story of “Some of These Days” in Sophie’s own words click here.  For a terse time-line of the life of its unsung, and most likely under-compensated, composer, African-American songwriter Shelton Brooks, click here. Better yet, to listen to a 1920s recording of  Tucker performing  “Some of These Days” (with the Ted Lewis Orchestra) click here.

Thinking in an East Side way often sets me to thinking of Joe and Paul.  Joe and Paul, in fact, were really just Paul, Paul Kofsky.  The short version of the story (for a longer one click here) is this: Early in the twentieth century Paul Kofsky opened a clothing store in Brooklyn.  Times were tough and most one-person operations were doomed to failure.  So, to add substance and repute to his ailing venture, Paul invented an imaginary senior partner, Joe, changed the name over the door to Joe and Paul, and business soon boomed.

During the Great Depression, Kofsky turned to advertising.  He paid legendary Yiddish music hall composer Sholem Secunda (who wrote the original “Bei Mir Bist Shayn” only to make the mistake of selling it to a promoter for $25.00) to compose a radio advertisement jingle for Joe and Paul.  Kofsky, who had always dreamed of  a life on the stage, performed the jingle live himself, dashing from one Yiddish- and English-language New York radio station to another to sing it.  The tune soon became a hit and remained ubiquitous into the 1950s, when Cuban-born band leader Pupi Campo even recorded a cross-over Latin version of it, more likely than not with a young Tito Puente in the background.

To listen to Kofsky singing his original ode to Joe and Paul click here and click here for Pupi Campo’s cover.  For those who do not understand the vanished interim wandelsprache of NYC Yiddish, my own bland translation (minus Kofsky’s Yiddish-language scat-like embellishments) is: “Joe and Paul, a store, a pleasure; there you can cheaply buy a suit, a coat, a caftan, all perfect, so be sure to buy only at Joe and Paul.”

Why do I tell these stories?  Simple, because in the midst of the present “crisis” it is important for all of us to look for the imaginary senior partner within, to be confident enough to sing our own praises, and never to bemoan what or who we have lost.  And now … will someone please point me to the nearest radio station!

Posted in Broadcasting, Change, Eclectic, Identity, Music, Popular Culture | 1 Comment »

Gerrymandering the Internet, Continued

Posted by Stephen Lewis on December 17, 2008

Further to my last post, Doc Searls expands on the fragmentation of the web in Splinternet.  In World-Wide Regions, James Robertson relates the absurdities of geographic coding of DVDs.  As an additional absurdity, I quote below the well-meaning and obviously pained text of a webpage that popped up when I tried to log-on to the music service Pandora from my desk in Sofia, Bulgaria:

Dear Pandora Visitor,

We are deeply, deeply sorry to say that due to licensing constraints, we can no longer allow access to Pandora for listeners located outside of the U.S. We will continue to work diligently to realize the vision of a truly global Pandora, but for the time being we are required to restrict its use. We are very sad to have to do this, but there is no other alternative.

We believe that you are in Bulgaria (your IP address appears to be 87.126.21.115). If you believe we have made a mistake, we apologize and ask that you please contact us at pandora-support@pandora.com

If you are a paid subscriber, please contact us at pandora-support@pandora.com and we will issue a pro-rated refund to the credit card you used to sign up. If you have been using Pandora, we will keep a record of your existing stations and bookmarked artists and songs, so that when we are able to launch in your country, they will be waiting for you.

We will be notifying listeners as licensing agreements are established in individual countries. If you would like to be notified by email when Pandora is available in your country, please enter your email address below. The pace of global licensing is hard to predict, but we have the ultimate goal of being able to offer our service everywhere.

We share your disappointment and greatly appreciate your understanding.

Sincerely,

Tim Westergren
Founder

Readers not familiar with the word “gerrymander,” its etymology, history, and effects might find it worthwhile to click here.  How we chart geopolitical boundaries shapes legal jurisdictions, national identities, and the very “non-rationalized” emplacement of infrastructure.  It also interprets how we interpret the significance political mandates (see this past post on the mapping of the recent US presidential election).  New and old forms of gerrymandering, apparently, affect how we use and envision the internet, are served by it, and structure and control its services and infrastructure.

Posted in Identity, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, Music, National Identity | Leave a Comment »

Locating Obamaland, Cotton and Presidents, and Accurately Rendering American Divides

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 20, 2008

countycartpurple512

Further to Purple v. Pixilated below and JP Rangaswami on Reds and Blues and Purples, I point to two recent entries on the excellent weblog Strange Maps.  In Where is Obamaland?, Strange Maps takes us first from the state level to the county level and then (via Mark Newman of the Physics Dept. at the Univerity of Michigan) to a series of cartograms (click here) that transcend the strictures and dogmas of traditional cartographic projections to chart the boundaries of the political fault-lines that divide the US.  Newman’s cartograms hint at the importance of intentional relationships vs. strictly spatial ones in characterizing and understanding our world.  Newman’s final cartogram (illustration above) provides an solid point of departure for discussing the effects of settlement patterns, historical asynchronicities, ethnic self-identification, and shifting demographics and economic differentiation on American politics and worldviews.  In From Pickin’ Cotton to Pickin’ Presidents, Strange Maps illustrates how the abberations of the economies and social orders of the seemingly distant past invariably echo in the present, taking the arcane case of the correlation of pockets of deep-south support for Obama with the geographic distribution of mid-19th-century cotton culture.

Posted in History, Identity, National Identity, Politics | 1 Comment »

Viktor Klemperer, Values-Based Identity, German and Dutch Perspectives Online, and Two Glorious Mistranslations

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 19, 2008

Links to my recent piece on The Language of the Third Reich and the Politics of Middle Names led me to two articles in the English-language online edition of the German news magazine Der Spiegel treating German-Jewish wartime diarist and analyst of totalitarian language, Viktor Klemperer.  The first article contains an excerpt from an entry in Klemperer’s diary written in the aftermath of the firebombing of Dresden.  The second article refers to a diary entry written earlier in the war in which Klemperer poses the conundrum that, based on enlightenment values, it is he who is German and the Nazis and their supporters — the very people who exclude him from German identity and, in the end, the very right to live — who are un-German and destroyers of all that is German.  Klemperer’s entry poses the opposition of values-based communities to contrived 19th and 20th century concepts of race-, ethnicity-, and language-based nation states having exclusive title to present and promised geographic territories.

Both articles appeared in Spiegel Online International which, despite its somewhat Time magazine-like style, is an excellent window though which monolingual Anglophones can observe European affairs and opinions up close, as well as US affairs through European eyes.  Americans often hold forth about the arrogance and condescension of Europeans towards them but, quite oddly, few if any Americans ever read the European press.

Spiegel Online International appears on the web in association with nrc.nl, the English-language web presence of the NRC Handelsblad, the erudite albeit sometimes pompous paper-of-record of the Netherlands.  The realization of a combined Dutch-German news presence online says much about the efforts Western Europe has made to transcend national differences and wartime scars.  It also says much about the power of the internet to erode artificial distinctions of national mindsets. (Note to Blackberry and iPhone users: Spiegel Online is also available in a mobile edition).

Glorious Mistranslations

Among the features of nrc.nl is its Denglish blog, a regularly updated compendium of malapropism-like mistranslations.  The editor of Denglish asks readers to submit their favorite Dutch-English linguistic confusions.  Here, thus, are two of mine:

1. Supporting the Undertaker

At a meeting of the World Economic Forum during the 1970s, Joop Den Uyl, leader of the Netherlands’ Labor Party (PvdA) spoke on the role of labor-private sector rapprochement in strengthening his country’s economy.  Den Uyl proudly announced: “In Holland we social-democrats always support the undertaker!” (The Dutch word for entrepreneur is ondernemer, literally under-taker.)

2. Equine Sex

Some years later, the Netherlands’ conservative Christian Democrat Premier Dries van Agt, when asked by Margeret Thatcher what he planned to do in his upcoming retirement, confided: “Madame, I plan to fuck horses.”  (Fokken is the Dutch verb meaning  “to breed.”)  Legend has it that the Iron Lady replied without missing a beat: “I wish you success!”

Posted in History, Identity, Internet, Language, Links, Media, National Identity | 5 Comments »

Purple vs. Pixelated: The Obsolescence of States and the Reality of Differences

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 19, 2008

A few days after the US presidential election, colleague JP Rangaswami posted two maps of results from the 2004 election.  The first map showed the results by states, portraying them as red or blue. (NB: In the US quite oddly and contrary to the political color-coding used in the rest of the world, blue represents the sometimes left-of-center Democratic Party while red is the color of the right-of-center Republicans).  The second map showed results by county, giving a more variegated portrait of results.

JP writes that the difference between the two maps suggests that there are neither red nor blue states — nor counties, cities, and households — but only purple ones. My own take is that America’s red/blue divide is very real, albeit one that can no longer be encompassed by geographic boundaries gerrymandered in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Just as in digital photography, what appears purple from afar is divisible on a pixel-like-level into primary colors.  Fault-lines separating red and blue are increasingly divorced from geography.  They might be hard to chart but they are very real nonetheless. My short comment on JP’s post can be read here, for a far sharper take on the reality and permutations of the red/blue divide see Frank Rich’s The Moose Stops Here.

The larger implication is that America’s states appear purple because they are entities without substance, irrelevant to real fracture lines that divide the country and define the issues that confront it.  States are administrative inheritances from a past age and are increasingly obsolete as clusters of interests or self-identification.  Immigration and trans-state migration within the US, the rise of megalopolises that span state boundaries, and the divorce of economic functions from locational agglomerations call into question the utility of states and their efficacy in coping with or resolving economic, infrastructural, and environmental challenges.

Posted in Commentary, Identity, Politics | 5 Comments »

Obama Victory: “Get Thee Out,” Mayakovsky and the Dust on My Blue Passport, and In Praise of a Skinny President

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 9, 2008

I’ve waited before posting a post-Obama-victory entry.  Wiser people and better writers have already have had much to say.  Just a few peripheral observations, thus …

“Get Thee Out”

President-elect Obama used church cadences in his acceptance speech (i.e. the responsive chanting of the phrase “yes, we can!”), so forgive me if I step out of character and get biblical.

A week or so ago, I was examining the facade of a synagogue in Brooklyn and noticed on its bulletin board that the Torah-portion to be read on the upcoming Sabbath was Lekh L’KhoLekh L’Kho is translated in the King James version of the bible as “Get thee out.”  In the original Hebrew, Lekh L’Kho has a crisper sound more akin to “Walk!”, “Get Moving,” or, even more simply, “Go!  Lekh L’Kho is the portion of the Pentateuch in which God tells Abraham to leave his father’s house and head to a new land, to depart Harran for Palestine.  Figuratively, Lekh L’Kho also refers to Abraham’s departure from a place of idolatry to the domain of a monotheistic deity.  How apt in the week of the American presidential election.  Think of the false gods of the Republican years: Deregulation and “free markets,” “trickle-down” economics, the equating of individual greed with the public good, “pro-life” anti-abortion agitation, patriotism and “vets” “WMDs” and “War on Terror,” “the surge,” martial and mercenary definitions of “freedom,” and more.  Together, they form a pantheon of idols sufficient to occupy a score of Abrahams in smashing.

When Abraham left his father’s house, he abandoned the old, cut with the past, and stepped into the unknown.  This took courage.  Those who voted for Obama have the shown the same courage (see Bob Herbert’s Take a Bow, America).  The irony is that the mean-spirited, bible-thumping Evangelical Christian right and the majority of residents of the Old South and the still largely homogeneous Anglo-Saxon and Germanic mid-western states who voted for McCain/Palin would never have had the faith or the courage to abandon idolatry or go forth from their father’s house.  When the Old Testament god said: “Lekh L’Kho” they would have cowered in fright and hid like Cain once did.  Hand me my walking shoes!

Mayakovsky and the Dust on My Blue Passport

I have two passports: a red one (The Netherlands) and a blue one (USA).  The red passport is well worn and the blue one is pristine but for a layer of dust.  Throughout the Republican years it has been far more congenial to move around the world as a Dutchman (which I am by passport only) than as an American (which I am by birth).  On a Dutch passport one travels with anonymity, never upsetting fellow passengers, border police, or hotel clerks.  (How short people’s memories are.  Who today remembers the brutalities of Dutch colonialism or the venality of Dutch collaboration with the Nazis?)  Traveling on the American passport, on the other hand, awakens the condescension of Western Europeans and the envy of Eastern Europeans.  During the Bush years, it made the bearer personally accountable for corporate misdeeds, misuse of the world’s resources, and violence in the Middle East and Central Asia.  Worse still, it often attracted the unwanted good fellowship of fascists, racists, and professional “anti-communists” worldwide who love America for being “white” (66% and falling!) and for rejecting all pretenses of supporting its citizenry (see this post-election editorial in the New York Times).  The enthusiastic international reaction to the election of Obama and the courage of Americans in electing him has lead me to do do something I haven’t done in a long time.  This week, I will blow the dust off of my American passport and, later this month, I’ll hand it to police and clerks in Istanbul, Sofia, and Amsterdam and look into their eyes with pride.

(Pride in passports brings to mind Mayakovsky’s 1920’s poem about traveling abroad on a Soviet passport.  A serviceable but somewhat flat English-language translation can be found here and a bilingual version — Russian original followed by English-language translation — here.)

In Praise of a Skinny President

In years past, I sometimes antagonized Israeli friends by telling them that I had lost faith in Israel and its politics because of the girth of its leadership.  Ariel Sharon was grotesquely obese as was opposition figure Tommy Lapid.  So were the leadership of the religious parties and the membership of the politically influential “Chabad” sect.  During the 1960s, African-American comedian and political activist Dick Gregory used to do a routine that involved asking the women in the audience who they would rather go to bed with … Lyndon Johnson or Che Guevara?  Without waiting for the answer, Gregory would archly say: “… and that is how you judge the vitality of a nation.”  Click here for Finally a Thin President, an “Op-Ed” piece from the New York Times.

Posted in Change, Commentary, Identity, Language, Politics, Religion | Leave a Comment »

In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 31, 2008

gatewaysofiamedium

A few days ago, I resumed posting to my alter-ego photographic and (art/urban) historical weblog, Bubkes.Org.  The title of the latest entry: In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing.” Taking a photograph of a wrought-iron gate in Sofia, Bulgaria (above) as its point of departure, the new post considers the merits of a classic film-based pocket camera, the origins of the decorative iron work that was once characteristic of Balkan cities, and the changing circumstances of Balkan Roma (Gypsies).

Additional photograph-based postings treating small cameras, transformation of cities, and the urban experiences of Roma will follow on Bubkes.Org.  I hope to accompany them with parallel postings here on HakPakSak.  Indeed, In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing” touches on matters of the sort treated within the present “pages.”  Consideration of contemporary small-camera digital photography raises issues as to whether companies’ marketing or users’ actual wants and needs are the drivers behind product design, manufacture, and distribution.  It aslo raises issues as to how technology and taste interact.  Examination of the history and circumstance of Roma in Balkan cities casts light on the interplay of infrastructural shifts and transformations of identity within the urban context.  (Much) more to follow, thus.

Posted in Architecture, Bulgaria, Change, Cities, Economy, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Markets, National Identity, Photography, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Obama’s “Homeostasis”: It must be the Roedjak!

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 19, 2008

In Friday’s New York Times, David Brooks considered the causes and outcomes of Barack Obama’s seemingly even and unflappable temperament — his “homeostasis,” as it were — and suggested two types of presidencies Obama’s style might shape.  Obama, Brooks observes, has the class origins of a Clinton or Johnson, but without their self-defeating needs for affection or respect, and the evenness of an FDR albeit without FDR’s characteristic ebullience.  According to Brooks, Obama’s seeming emotional distance could lead to a presidency that is a needed island of calm and rationality or to one that is an island of ineffectual isolation.  An Obama victory will enable us to find out which.

So far, Obama’s seeming detachment has been exploited by his opponents as proof that “we don’t know who he his” or as a sign of his supposed smugness and intellectual superiority.  And, for quite a number of Democrats, Obama’s politeness and fixed smile are unsettling suggestions of a lack of the politically requisite instinct to go for the jugular.  I would suggest something quite different and far more positive … namely, that Obama knows how to eat Roedjak.

Roedjak is an Indonesian fruit salad, slices of not-yet-fully-ripened tropical fruit served with a sauce of thick sweet soy ketjap, tamarind paste, crushed chili peppers, and a dash of dried dessicated shrimp.  Roedjak‘s harmonic fusion of superficially contradictory flavors is more than culinary.  Roedjak restores equilibrium even while satisfying the senses.  Preparing and eating Roedjak is a tonic during moments of individual emotional turmoil. Domestic disagreements and work conflicts are calmed by sharing Roedjak when tensions begin to escalate. On the symbolic level Roedjak embodies much of what is positive in the wisdom and values of southeast Asia.

Political commentators — other than those Republican cranks who have accused Obama of having attended fundamentalist Muslim Koranic schools — have overlooked the Indonesian facets of the Democratic presidential candidate’s personality and past, his formative years on the island of Java and his being part a family with Indonesian connections as well as Kansan, Kenyan and African American ones.

In Java, outward emotional evenness and formal displays of respect are inherent to the workings of families and of villages.  Frontal confrontations are avoided and adversaries are given room to retreat.  Such stances are central to the the stylized conventions of Java’s traditional complexly hierarchical society and to the realities of domestic, social, and political life on an overpopulated agrarian island and in crowded mega-cities such as Jakarta.

On the surface, Java is devoutly Muslim but Javanese Islam rests on older strata of Hindu and Buddhist culture.  The characters of the Buddha and of the heroes of the Bhagavad Gita still resonate as strongly as those of the Prophet Mohammed and Ali.  They are part and parcel of classical Javanese theater and dance and of raucous puppet theater and shadow plays. In Java, one learns that displays of restraint are incumbent on leaders and are signs of strength in people at all levels of society.

And so, for the sake of the US and the world, I’d rather see the American presidency in the hands of a Roedjak eater than a heart-beat away from the rule of an eater of mooseburgers.  Join me for a mango, anyone?

Posted in Commentary, Food, Identity, Media, National Identity, Politics | 2 Comments »

Call Me Hussein: The Language of the Third Reich and the Politics of Middle Names

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 12, 2008

Years ago, when I worked in the field of so-called “marketing communications,” I used to tell colleagues that there were two fathers of modern advertising: St. Paul and Dr. Goebbels. Paul was a true believer who knew how to craft the message of a small sectarian movement and convey it throughout the Roman world. Nazi propaganda chief Goebbels was a hate-driven man who was a master of twentieth-century communications media and who knew how to use the power of the big lie to manipulate individuals and nations. Goebbels also understood the subtle power of contrived language to reshape people’s perceptions, emotions, and behavior and turn their ideals on their heads.

The classic, and possibly the only, study of the language of Nazi Germany is Viktor Klemperer’s brilliant Lingua Tertii Imperii (“The Languague of the Third Reich”). Klemperer, best known in the West for his posthumously published pre-war and wartime diaries (issued in the US in a two-volume abridgment entitled “I Will Bear Witness”), was a Jewish-born convert to Christianity and professor of French literature in Dresden. Klemperer’s background was as rich as his interests; his father was an orthodox Jew turned reformed rabbi and his uncle was orchestral conductor Otto Klemperer. Klemperer was saved from war-time deportation by being partner to a childless “mixed” marriage and later by the disappearing into the chaos that followed the fire-bombing of Dresden. After the war, Klemperer chose to remain in Dresden — in East Germany, thus — proudly clinging to his German identity. He also joined the Communist Party, a decision he chronicled in his book “The Lesser of Two Evils” and that later, in the aftermath of Stalin’s Anti-Cosmopolitan campaign and Doctors’ Trials, caused him no small inner anguish.

That “Lingua Tertii Imperii” remained relatively unknown in the west during the cold war was in part due to its East Bloc pedigree and also to the embarrassing applicability of its insights to the language of post-war denazification and the reinvention of national identity and political discourse in West Germany. This was a shame, not least because the language and style that Goebbels perfected and Klemperer documented survived the denouement of Nazism to manifest themselves in what on the surface seem the least likely of places — including the present US presidential campaign.

Two of the most oft-quoted, albeit simplest, examples of Klemperer’s treatment of Nazi reshaping of the German language refer to the words fanatisch and aufziehen. Under the Nazis fanatisch (fanatical) was transformed from something negative into something worthy of emulation, an exhortation to over-the-top true-believer-ship and transcendence of reason; aufziehen was transformed from a word whose meanings included the act of winding clocks to an approving term for the staging of manipulative events on a grand scale.

Both these words came to my mind during the recent Republican convention, especially during Alaska governor Sarah Palin’s speech accepting her party’s vice presidential nomination. The choice of Palin and her contrived stance as an establishment-hating populist were case studies in aufziehen. In her acceptance speech, Palin made good use of the Nazi’s big lie technique, repeating over and again, amongst other exaggerated claims, the absurd and easily disproved contention that the Democrats are responsible for America’s staggering national debt. Palin’s tone of voice and body language were also classic Goebbels, her references to Democratic candidate Barack Obama were laced with sarcasm and dismissive gestures. On the television screen, the facial expressions of many of the Republican delegates cheering Palin’s comments appeared stereotypically fanatisch, betraying mixtures of rage and near-ecstasy, the stuff that street brawls and civil wars are made of. As a coda, during the vice-presidential debate, Palin described how, if elected, she would expand the role and power of the vice presidency in the American congress, this redolent not only of current US vice-president Dick Cheney but also of the Nazis’ bullying tactics in the German parliament following their rise to power in 1933.

The Politics of Middle Names

Goebbels’s fellow Nazis understood the power of names as well as words. Raul Hilberg, the pioneer historian of the administrative workings of the wartime murder of six million European Jews, described the underlying method of the Nazi’s war against the Jews as identification, concentration, and extermination. Part and parcel of this process was the compulsory assignment to all Jews of identical middle names, “Israel” for men and “Sarah” for women. The desired effects were to make Jews visible, portray them as caricatures, rob them of their individuality, and break their spirits. Given the minority position of Jews and the scope of the power turned against them, such stigmatization invariably accomplished at least the first two of these goals and more often than not the last two as well.

Over the past week, a vicious undertone in the Republican campaign rose to a crescendo as Palin and McCain used Obama’s passing acquaintance with a long-ago member of the one-time Weather Underground in a manner worthy of the Nazis’ heavy-handed attempts to incriminate their opponents in the 1933 burning of the Reichstag. During the same week, supporters of the Republican ticket increasingly and ever-more-archly referred to Barack Obama as Barack HUSSEIN Obama — this not as a paean to Democratic candidate’s mixed heritage but as an ad hominem slur and questioning of his “Americanism” and professed Christianity. By the end of the week, the flood of hatred proved too great even for John McCain to control and he was heckled and booed by his own supporters while trying to speak up for the “decency” of his opponent. The Republicans’ emulation of Goebbels, it seems, has created a Frankenstein.

Footnote: Call Me Hussein

I am particularly sensitive to the politics of names. My own family changed its name in the early-1950s in the shadow of the social and political pressures in America at the time. This said, this morning I decided — out of solidarity with Barack Obama and disgust with Republican stigmatization of his “un-American” names and origins — that from now until election day in November I will adopt “Hussein” as my own middle name and introduce myself on all occassions, informal and official, as “Stephen HUSSEIN Lewis.” Bigotry, innuendo, and the legacy of 1930s Germany call for protest and satire. Care to join me?

Posted in Commentary, Communications, History, Identity, Language, Media, Politics | 1 Comment »

Infrastructure and the Artificiality of Nations: The Internet, Balkan Crossings, and Border Radio

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 10, 2008

Over the last few years I have been involved part-time in the study of the origins and consequences of national identities and nation states.  Countries organized around homogeneous “peoples” united by common religions and languages and sharing common histories, destinies and exclusive title to geographic entities are artifices that came to the fore during the Romantic Age, that solidified during the 19th century, and occassioned wars and genocides in the 20th.

On the work front, I am now involved in a project to create an institute for the study of the history and future of infrastructure — especially the infrastructure of “connectivity” as manifested in the Internet.  Issues of internet infrastructure, national identity, and nation states overlap.   On the surface, the Internet appears to transcend geographic boundaries that delineate nation states and also has provided a platform for enabling individuals to shape their identities and live their lives according to self-defined clusters of interests and allegiances separate from the nationalities stamped on their passports. But, the cables and fibers that comprise the infrastructure on which the Internet rests remain divided and clustered according to national boundaries and regulated and controlled within the contexts of nation states — just as are water, energy, and telephony.

Balkan Crossings

The absurdities of dividing infrastructure — traditional and new — along nationally-defined lines becomes palpable as one moves from the centers of nation states to their edges.  I often travel by night train from Sofia in Bulgaria (once a part of the Soviet Bloc and now a member state of the European Union)  and Istanbul in Turkey (a country that, in its post-1923 incarnation, developed its economy and infrastructure largely on its own).  Trains in both directions between Sofia and Istanbul approach the Bulgarian-Turkish border at 3 a.m.  State-railway-owned electric locomotives are removed from the trains just before they enter the infrastructure-less strip of no-man’s land that parallels the border itself. The trains are then shuttled from one country to the other by jointly-maintained diesel-powered locomotives. Passengers’ passports and baggage are checked once at the Bulgarian checkpoint and again on the Turkish side.  The glowing lights of towns visible from stations on both sides of the border are lit by separate nationally-defined power grids and their residents drink from separate nationally-defined water supply systems.  Telephoning or checking email from the border can be shockingly expensive, a glance at the screen of one’s mobile phone shows that signals switch back-and-forth between those of Bulgarian, Turkish, and Greek service providers (Greece’s northeastern border with Bulgaria and Turkey is only a few kilometers away).

Border Radio

Last month, US National Public Radio’s On the Media program broadcast The X Factor, a piece on the history and phenomenon of Border Radio.  Border Radio refers to the radio stations whose immense towers sprouted on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border during the 1920s and 1930s.  Most of these stations were “fugitives” on the run from US broadcasting and truth-in-advertising regulations and were welcome in regulation-free Mexico in part due to the revenues they produced.  The first of the Border Stations was set up by a patent medicine peddling Kansan with an MD degree from a diploma mill in Chicago and a thriving practice in curing male impotence through goat gonad transplant operations. The station was established as the doctor’s own proprietary advertising and marketing device for gonad transplants and associated medicines but soon became a thriving business in its own right.

As more such stations were founded, other flamboyant figures flocked to Border Radio including faith healing preachers who talked in tongues and announcers who moved beds into their broadcasting booths so they could have sex while speaking on the air.  More profoundly, as Border Radio grew it came to reflect the mood and tastes of the American heartland.  East and West Coast based  mainstream radio with its big-band music, movie-star guests, and limp comedies and soap-operas fared well in New York and Los Angeles but the rural states of the former Confederacy and the dust-bowl stricken plains needed a voice of their own.

From its physical location just outside of the US, Border Radio came to mirror rural America and also to reshape it.  Border Radio played a role in solidified and promoting commercial country music and, through the legendary Brooklyn-born disk-jockey The Wolfman, spread rock ‘n roll through the American heartland.  On the political front, Border Radio’s religious programs brought the worldview of rural pentecostal Christianity into the age of broadcasting, feeding the creation of what ultimately became America’s powerful religious right.

Central to the influence of Border Radio was its infrastructure– million-watt clear-channel frequencies whose waves were said to be strong enough to fry flocks of birds in mid-flight and whose signals not only blanketed  America’s heartland but also caromed off the stratosphere to listeners in the South Pacific and in KGB listening posts in Moscow.  Like the Internet, national boundaries were superfluous to Border Radio and, also like the internet, by creating an alternative to the mainstream of its time, Border Radio shaped a new mainstream in its own image.

More on this theme in subsequent entries …

Posted in Bulgaria, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, National Identity, Popular Culture | Leave a Comment »

Friendship and Borders: Facebook, Turkish Etymology, a Virtual Kurdistan, and a Moment of Remembrance

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 28, 2008

Facebook, the Banality of Friendship, and the Wisdom of Turkish Etymology

Late last year I opened a facebook account. In part, I was compelled to. Several work-related acquaintances in the US and UK had told me that they were so overwhelmed by regular email that they were restricting their correspondence to those listed as “friends” on their facebook accounts. I was also curious. Having devoted much time these last years to researching the origins and consequences of 19th- and 20th-century national identities, I am intrigued by mechanisms claiming to offer individuals possibilities to shape their own identities and allegiances at will and to transcend the simple congruent assemblages of geographic borders, officially-sanctioned languages and religions, and artificially contrived histories and heritages that are at the core of most if not all national identities.

For a time, I gave facebook a chance. I let it troll my address book and I began to collect a community of facebook ‘friends’ of my own. My list of ‘friends’ soon grew to contain several dozen names. Most of my facebook “friends,” however, turned out to be little more than acquaintances, acquaintances of acquaintances, or people with whom I had had one-off conversations at meetings or conferences. Others were unfortunates who either had mistaken me for someone else or imagined me to have far more influence or connections than I will ever amass. Few were what I would call friends and only a few more were people with whom I would care to be friends. Friendship as defined by facebook was not what I would call friendship. It appeared to conflate every from of acquaintanceship, no matter how slight, and to ascribe value to relationships in terms of their numbers and not than their substance.

I then set out to purge my list and separate facebook “friends” from real friends. In search of a filter, I turned to Turkish, a language in which I can do little more that travel and shop and exchange basic pleasantries and in which have a vocabulary of only a hundred or so words, many of them archaic survivals of Ottoman Turkish still embedded in Balkan Slavic languages, as in colloquial Bulgarian, a language that I do speak quite well.

Turkish has two words for friend. One, dost, is Persian in origin; the other, arkadas, has Turkish roots. Dost, according to Hanneke van der Heyden, a translator from Turkish to Dutch of writers including Nobel Prıze winner Orhan Pamuk, implies sentiment and emotional connection. The more commonly used arkadaş, which can refer to colleagues and co-workers as well as friends, invokes inter-reliance, trust, risk-taking, and self-sacrifice. Ottomanıst and archıtectural historıan Machıel Kıel points out that arkadaş is comprised of two shorter root words and can be literally translated as “companion of the back.” Kiel surmises that the word is of martial origin, referring to fighting back-to-back against foes and relying on one another to guard each other’s vulnerabilities, not unlike the hackneyed phrase “watch my back” used by police officers under fire in American crime cinema and “police procedurals.”

Thus, with two Turkish words as criteria, I eliminated from my facebook list all those with whom I did not share or admire sentiments or passions or for whom I would not put myself on the line to defend or trust to do the same for me. The number of names on my list plummeted from scores to an even half dozen.

(A correlate phenomenon: A glance at my facebook home page shows me that those on my list whose passions and work and relationships are conducted face to face, who produce rather than watch and who see the internet as a tool or conduit rather than an end in itself show far less activity on facebook.)

Linked-In, Geopolitical Boundaries, and a Virtual Kurdistan

Linked In is even more puzzling to me than facebook is. I regularly receive requests — mostly from contacts and ex-colleagues in the Netherlands and occasionally from hustling would-be entrepreneurs in the Balkans — to “link” to me on Linked In, but why and what for I’ve yet to figure out. A bit of clicking around on Linked-In suggests that like facebook-ers in search of friends, Linked In-ers thrive on numbers, confusing numbers of contacts for qualitative measures of worth or self worth. Some of my more active Linked In connections have hundreds of contacts but, absurdly, those with the largest collections keep their lists confidential, closed to the prying eyes and linking obsessions of others.

This said, a look at the Linded-In contact list of one ex-coleague led me to the name of another, a veteran telecommunications consultant who had set up fixed-line and mobile systems throughout the world, quite often under harsh physical conditions and even harsher regimes. Back in the late 1990s he told me that he had been approached sometime before by Kurdish “separatists” dedicated to carving an independent Kurdistan out of contiguous regions of present-day Iraq, Iran, and Turkey asking him to conceive a pan-national mobile phone network that would be a first step toward creating out of infrastructure what had been denied them in terms of internationally recognized physical boundaries and political self-rule, i.e. a functional actualization of Kurdish identity.

I have no idea what happened to this project or even whether it was feasible technically but, coincidentally, it fits within the concerns of my present work in the study of the history of national identity and of current issues in telecommunications and the internet. Projects and visions based on overlapping patterns of allegiance and infrastructure are potential alternatives to the limitations and divisiveness of outmoded models of ethnically and geographically defined national states with arbitrary physical and cultural boundaries.

The Meaningfulness of Friendship and the Transcendance of Worlds: A Moment of Remembrance

Consideration of issues of friendship and boundaries leads me to reflect on a remarkable woman whose life was a study in friendship and community and in uniting and transcending seemingly disparate worlds and peoples.

This coming Saturday at the Meeting House of the Society of Friends on East Fifteenth Street in Manhattan a memorial service will be held for Rachel M. Yoder. Rachel was born almost 72 years ago into the Amish and Mennonite world of rural Maryland. She came to New York in the mid-1960s with her husband Monroe. Together, they built a family and helped build a church — Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church in Harlem — that ignored divisions of race and class. Rachel’s home and heart were open to blacks, whites, hispanics and all others, rich and poor, educated and not, Christians and non-Christians (this writer among them), whether in times of joy, sorrow, or need. By transcending the superficial distinctions that divide most people, Rachel enabled others to transcend themselves. Rachel had a soft voice, a youthful laugh, and compassion, understanding, and a warm smile for all. She lives on in the hearts and thoughts of all those whose lives and souls she touched and united.

Posted in Commentary, Identity, Infrastructure, Internet, Media | 1 Comment »

Queen’s Day, May Day: Tonight the Wilhelmus, Tomorrow the Internationale

Posted by Stephen Lewis on April 30, 2008

Queen’s Day

Tonight, I will attend the annual reception at the Netherlands Consulate in Istanbul (housed in the palatial former residence of the Dutch Ambassador to the Ottoman Court) in honor of Konninginedag — Queen’s Day — the symbolic Dutch national day linked to the springtime birthday of the country’s former queen, Juliana. I travel on a Dutch passport and Konninginendag receptions broad lend a way to catch up with friends, associates, and potential new acquaintances and contacts. Yet I do not feel fully comfortable at such events. People who are ethnically Dutch — a category, like most nationalities, based on an artificial identity shaped over the course of the 18th through the 20th centuries — can at times be condescending or even sharply hostile towards those of us who are Dutch by passport and conviction alone, especially if we hail from the country’s ethnic or religious “minorities.” An added discomfort in that I am not a monarchist (this despite my personal respect for the late Queen Juliana, who I met several times in connection with charitable projects).

It was only in the post-war period that identification with and loyalty to Dutch society and the Dutch state came to be fully conflated with support and identification for the Dutch monarchy. Prior to the war, enthusiastic support of the Dutch monarchy was far from universal. In republican, labor, and leftist circles, the monarchy was viewed as transitory and few people sang the song that became the country’s official national anthem, the Wilhelmus, a tortuous composition sung in near-falsetto and with the gruesome opening line: “William of Nassau, I am of Germanic blood; I will remain faithful to the fatherland until death”). The Dutch cult of monarchy was solidified with the polishing of the image of Queen Wilhelmina, the grandmother of the present queen, who fled from the Netherlands to Britain with her immediate family in advance of the German invasion of 1940 without consulting her government. Elevation of the monarch was part and parcel of the general clean-up of the Netherlands’ wartime record of passive and active collaboration and its post-war record of colonial brutality. A single example of an oft-bowdlerized statistic: Approximately 1,200 Dutch soldiers died defending the country against the Germans whereas approximately12,000 Dutchmen died fighting on the Eastern front as members of SS volunteer battalions. (I’ll save the complicity of the Dutch police and bureaucracy in the deportation and murder of two-thirds of the country’s Jewish population for a future posting.)

May Day

Tomorrow is May 1, the international day of Labor. In Istanbul the atmosphere in advance of May Day is tense. Last week, the Turkish prime minister and leader of the country’s ruling party, the Islamic AK Party, announced that May Day should not be an official holiday, cavalierly adding that Turkish workers have too many days off as is. In fact, Turkish workers work one-third t one-half more hours each year and receive salaries far lower than of most of their European counterparts. Soon after, the governor of Istanbul issued an order that May Day marchers from the country’s labor unions and parties of the left not be allowed to march and assemble at Taxim Square, Istanbul’s main open space. The unions have announced that they will march and assemble nevertheless. Their May Day gathering promises to be a magnet for groups and individuals that support secularism in Turkey and oppose the present government and ruling party and suspect it of advancing a radical Muslim agenda and back-peddling on reforms requisite to EU membership. The gathering will also attract an army of baton-, machine-gun-, tear-gas-, and water-cannon-equipped helmeted and masked riot police and, many people fear, a sufficient number of provocateurs of whatever stripe to precipitate violence. In 1977 in Istanbul, more than 30 people were killed and hundreds wounded in clashes between police and marchers; last year’s May Day was marred by tear-gassings and beatings.

For a bit of May Day spirit go to my alter-ego weblog Bubkes.Org to listen to two arcane recordings of the one-time international working men’s anthem, the Internationale.

Posted in History, Identity, Politics, Work | 1 Comment »

More Balkan Lessons: Health Care Data and the Benefits of Dog-Eared Files and Messy Desks

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 19, 2007

One of the frustrations of working outside of the US on and off for much of my life is that Americans often react with irritation or hostility when I describe to them the benefits of “Big Government” in European social democracies. It seems beyond the comprehension of many Americans that Western European countries have actually developed and maintained powerhouse economies while also attending to an ethos of social responsibility and egalitarianism — to paraphrase the tone of Bush and Co.’s Iraq War rhetoric: How could cowardly, self-indulgent Europe surpass the world’s number-one democracy? Now, to their benefit and credit, Americans are beginning to wake up to the fact that they have cheated themselves and allowed themselves to be cheated, and that other nations have surpassed the US when it comes to taking care of their citizens. Michael Moore’s new film “Sicko” makes this point with Moore’s usual delightful bombast while the New York Times sums up the sorry state of affairs in this more somber editorial.

Health Care Chaos and the Democratization of Records

In a recent posting on the implications of the ever-narrowing gap between the US dollar and (!) the Bulgarian Lev, I described some facets of the economy and tone of post-communist Bulgaria and possible lessons to be learned from transformations and chaos in this small Balkan Republic over the last two decades, i.e. since the implosion of Communism. In the posting, however, I neglected to mention health care. Depending on which side of their country’s deepening gap between rich and poor Bulgarians fall, they have private or state insurance and visit expensive medical and dental clinics or are served by the country’s rank-and-file GPs and dedicated but overworked and ill-equipped public hospitals.

The single, but admittedly accidental, benefit of this unmanaged flux is that, for the moment at least, many Bulgarians have control of their own medical data, albeit without the adequate tools to administer them. Most Bulgarian doctors have neither the desire nor space to store records. Thus, their patients carry their own x-rays with them and pick-up and store their own blood-test and lab results. As a result, patients have a full set of printouts, film, and hands-scrawled charts with them most of the time — even if carried in dog-eared folders and stored on messy desk tops and in jumbled desk drawers. If they are interested and capable, and have sufficiently confrontational personalities, possession of such documents give them an inside track into understanding and maybe even managing their own conditions and treatment. Thus, once again, accidental circumstances in Bulgaria point to solutions for problems Americans face, in this case getting medical records out of the file cabinets and off the desks of doctors and, even if in duplicate, into the hands of the patients to whom they rightfully belong. The next step of course would be to set advanced information technology to work to support patients in setting data to work for their benefit and the potential benefit of others. The New York Times editorial linked to above underscored the urgency of this issue:

“Shockingly, despite our vaunted prowess in computers, software and the Internet, much of our health care system is still operating in the dark ages of paper records and handwritten scrawls. American primary care doctors lag years behind doctors in other advanced nations in adopting electronic medical records or prescribing medications electronically. This makes it harder to coordinate care, spot errors and adhere to standard clinical guidelines.”

Not Just the Province of Giants

Some days later, the Times reported that Google and Microsoft have entered into the medical information management fray. But, as I wrote following a meeting with Vendor Relations Management activists at the Oxford Internet Institute back in July, there are numerous opportunities for grass-roots information projects (in this case a proposed community-based project serving diabetics in the UK) that can turn us all into managers rather than victims of medical care. We needn’t wait for industry giants, even if well-willing, to do the job.

Posted in Bulgaria, Commentary, Digitization, Health Care, Identity, Infrastructure | Leave a Comment »

Oxford and “VRM”: Diabetics and Phone Subscribers, Megaphones and Cudgels, Privacy as Currency, Automobiles and Electron Microscopes, Aggregation and Open Source

Posted by Stephen Lewis on July 25, 2007

Earlier this month I spent a week in London and Oxford, including a day at the Oxford University Internet Institute attending a meeting and work session of web and tech specialists active in giving voice to something called Vendor Relations Management (VRM).

VRM

The Oxford meeting was spearheaded by Doc Searls, co-author of “The Cluetrain Manifesto,” senor editor at Linux Journal,and research fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Institute for the Internet and Society. Doc is a pioneer in the development of VRM, which he calls ” … the reciprocal of CRM (Customer Relations Management).” VRM, it seems, is envisioned as an Internet-based means to enable people to cease being mere “consumers” of what companies and institutions offer and aggressively market. Instead, VRM aims to turn ordinary people into active co-determinants of the goods and services markets and societies produce and offer. To accomplish this, VRM entails compiling, managing and “broadcasting” the aggregations of data that comprise one’s online identity or publicly visible persona — a continuous transmission, so to speak, of “lifestyle-,” preference-, and needs-based “RFPs” (requests for proposals).

Concepts into Projects

One of the best ways to clarify and test concepts is to translate them into prototypes and pilot projects. The thrust of the Oxford meeting was to create such existential definitions of VRM by momentarily pushing philosophizing aside and seeking to give shape to VRM by coming up with a set of feasible, fund-able, bench-scale projects with “real world” applications and relatively high chances for success.

Diabetics and Phone Subscribers

Two projects emerged from the meeting. One, conceived by marketing specialist Alan Mitchell, would involve setting VRM to work in the service of a discrete demographic group with clearly defined, urgent needs — in this case diabetics, a population that is skyrocketing as diabetes increases at epidemic rates throughout the industrialized, processed-food- and sugar-consuming world. The proposed project would be implemented in association with one or more UK-based diabetes associations and would enable diabetics to maintain and chart data pertinent to the course of their medical treatment and self-care. Bundling of data by voluntary organizations serving diabetics would also feed into medical research and public policy formation. In a broader societal context, the project would also constitute a step towards getting diagnostic and treatment data out of the propretorship of physicians and insurers and into the hands of individuals. The second pilot project, proposed by Iain Henderson of QCI, would serve the needs both of a major company and of its legacy customers by attempting to put individualized and collective “faces” on British Telecom’s fixed-line customers. The latter are still seen by the former state telecommunications monopoly as “subscribers” identified by phone numbers alone, rather than as multifaceted individuals, families, and companies with variegated communications needs, needs, profiles, and budgets.

An Immense Megaphone and a Hefty Cudgel

My own metaphor for Vendor Relations Management is that it would give individuals the cyberspace equivalents of an immense megaphone and a hefty cudgel. The VRM “megaphone” would enable individuals to make their needs and preferences heard over the noise and artificial categories of marketing-driven product development and corporate branding. As a “cudgel,” VRM would cluster individual’s needs and demands so as to give them the clout to awakening providers of goods and services to the real individuals who make up the collective abstractions we call markets. VR-based “megaphones” and “cudgels” could work equally well to ensure responsive, effective government.

Privacy as Currency

As saloon-goers used to say in 19th-century New York: “There is no free lunch.” Similarly, on the 21st-century internet there will be no free VRM. “The currency for VRM is privacy,” according to Oxford meeting participant Graham Sadd. In other words, to the degree that one wants to make markets responsive to one’s needs and desires, one must also selectively release information about one’s self and, unavoidably, compromise one’s privacy proportionally. There is no way out of this; the alternative is to avoid engaging in any and all informational transactions or, as Graham puts it, “… to withdraw from the world and sit on a mountain top.”

I agree with Graham. I am puzzled by the extreme preoccupation with keeping one’s data private that many internet activists seem to have. Such preoccupation can block the development of empowering innovations such as VRM. Indeed, the point VRM is to make one’s “data” resonate throughout the marketplace. I’ve posted about this before (see the closing paragraphs of this entry) and will return to the subject in the future. My own take is that those obsessed with web privacy might lack faith in their own efficacy to control or influence the societies inwhich they live. They may also be afraid of taking calculated risks — risk-taking being an unavoidable ingredient of innovation and change. (For more on the courage to take risks and the social importance of risk-taking listen to Norman Mailer in his June appearance with Günther Grass at the New York Public Library). A frequent underpinning of the privacy argument is the fear of misuse of data by governments. Interestingly, the terror apparatuses of the major totalitarian regimes of the 20th century may have relied less on sophisticated data gathering than on sheer brutality and, even more important, on social anomie, atomization, and the inculcation of a culture of betrayal and denunciation (see, for example, Eric Johnson’s “The Nazi Terror,” London, 2000) just as, in a far more tentative way, the US had during the McCarthy era and the years of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam-War movements. Following the Oxford workshop, I had a chance to chat with Berkman Fellow Mary Rundle whose in-depth work on the internet and government I look forward to reading to inform and balance my future comments on this subject.

Automobiles and Electronic Microscopes, Aggregation and Open Source

On my last day in Oxford I had breakfast with Albert “Rick” Lawrence of the Electron Microscopy Department of the University of California at San Diego. As I was describing VRM, Rick pointed out, using the example of automoble manufacturers, that many manufacturers are actually aggregators of systems and of parts. This led me to posit that VRM may have the potential of enabling end-users to exert more influence over aggregation and, figuratively, to move the point of aggregation much closer to their own needs, specifications, and control. Referring to his own field, Rick added that suppliers are sometimes hampered in implementing customers’ needs because their software lags behind that of their customers, not infrequently because such suppliers rely on Microsoft-based platforms rather than on customizable open source software. Rick’s comments on gaps between suppliers and customers highlights a link between the open source movement and the concept and implementation of VRM.

Posted in Identity, Innovation | 2 Comments »