Max’ optimistic view on Freedom & Fairness vs. Chomsky’s pessimistic stance

The serious read of the this Ghana trip turned out to be “Introducing Noam Chomsky“, a new series pushing the concept of serious graphic novels to include non-fiction i.e. philosophy (read the first 30 pages here). Chomsky expert John Maher provides a well selected and dense overview of Chomsky’s approach and insights while illustrator Judy Groves eases comprehension and rememberability by adding visual context. It ain’t an easy read and some masocistic interest in linguistics and epistemology is necessary to enjoy the read – but i would give it a strong 3 1/2 on the five finger scale.

Like all good brainfood it was interesting to get a better understanding of Comsky’s thinking and it caused some opposition.  In my view Chomsky delivers a convincing analysis of post-modern politics BUT he misses the important point that societies have never been more _fair_ in all of history. Along the lines of Churchill “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time“, I think our post-modern globalized capitalist world provides better conditions and more freedom for most people than any other system before.

While I believe concepts like the “manufacturing consent” and “rotten apple theory” should be taught to all high school students, the decisive and encouraging argument is that _we are on the right track_!

I’d argue that the systemic fairness in our societies has increased manyfold over the last several thousand years. Prehistorically power was directly dependent on individual physical strength. Then for most part of history it depended on your family’s status and clan relations where one ranked and what profession to pursue. The divine order gradually gave way to rational and democratic distribution of political and economic power. Most importantly: before the french revolution political power was pretty much unbound, but then humanity developed a game changing institution in terms of overall fairness – human rights. Since then political leaders and CEOs of multinational companies have the same basic rights then a poor homeless.

I am not saying our current post-modern capitalist system is fair, but it is fairer than other system we had before.

This brings me a related second point where I disagree with Chomsky: The rotten apple theory states that the western world was and is eager to ensure that no non-capitalist country will become successful and thereby provide a good example which others might follow, soon spoiling the propaganda that only the modern capitalist system is capable to produce sustainable wealth and welfare. So far so good, however along these lines he argues that it is insightful to compare similar countries (in terms of size and development before the cold war). He goes on to claim that it is only propaganda that development in socialist states, say Russia, compare negatively with capitalist states e.g. Brazil.

It might have been true at the time when Chomsky stated it that in Russia is more equality than in Brazil – i.e. most people earn similar wages with only a few super-rich and super-poor. The comparison however leaves out the most important variable when it comes to judging justice or fairness of a system: freedom or civil liberties.

Ever since reading Amartya Sen’s “Development as Freedom“ I believe that it is not about the real life trajectory an individual’s life is taking, but about the potential trajectories, the freedom to dream up and pursue fulfilling alternative biographies. Of course Chomsky would argue that the whole idea of the “american dream” is just a myth kept alive by the ruling class in order to lure the lower classes into compliance by dangling a carrot in front of them, but I dont agree: there are concrete opportunities and real examples of smart folks who make it. Contrarily there are no examples of free thinkers and smart entrepreneurs who overcame the rule of the socialist dictatorships. so for me it is less about equality but all about freedom.

Recommendations from our Family RoadTrip in Ghana 2012/13

over new year’s my wife, little Moritz (16 months) and myself undertook a wonderful two week roadtrip in Ghana. We had such a splendid time that we hallily share our travel route and esp. the links to the mostly excellent low budget beach resorts we enjoyed staying in.

1) DreamLand @ Ada Foa – run by very nice and trustworthy Ibrahim, dreamland was setup by Beate from Bavaria about 10 years ago. Conveniently Ibrahim picked us up from the airport in Accra and about 2.5 hours after we arrived in Ada we enjoyed a nice rum-cola at our terrace looking at the nightly ocean. We had a very nice room with bathroom (about 65 cedis) but most people stayed in bambo huts for about 20 cedis.

2) Big Milly’s @ Kokrobite – possibly one of the oldest backpacker beach resorts in this area, Big Milli’s is a very professional but still cosy and beautiful tourist ecosystem. The staff and folks who run the little stalls in and outside of the backyard have evolved to provide a dynamic equilibrium feeding of the constant stream of travelers passing through.

Alternatively we can also recommend Kokrobite Gardens, just around the corner. Run by a very nice italian couple, the place has pretty good pizza and pasta as well as little wooden huts scattered in a sanctuary of a garden.

3)  Mighty Victory @ Cape Coast – when we arrived my wife wasn’t amused at all. After the very beautiful beach spots we had stayed at before the Mighty Victory Hotel struck us as a pretty undesirable place. However we came to the agreement that it was quite a suitable, and, given the other options, even the most suitable place to stay in Cape Cost. One might however consider to just stop for some hours in Cape Cost, visit the famous fort or do some shopping and continue to Hans Cottage (which features a pond with a dozen or so crocodiles and which was recommended to us repeatedly). Especially given that the cottage is situated about half way between Cape Coast and Kakum National Park – an attraction you should not miss while in the area – this seems a pretty good option.

4) Ko-Sa @ Ampenyi – we found our favorite place in Ghana only about 40min west of Cape Coast. Both the location as well as the style & architecture of Ko-Sa are perfect. It is literally build on the beach, which is guarded by a set of rocks that build perfectly protected bigger and smaller swimming- and kids-playing-pools (as well as protect the land from the BIG problem of erosion found almost everywhere at the ghanaian coast). The dutch owners build a very snugly, big and light-weight wooden restaurant that reminds one of indonesian huts (probably some of the best food we had in Ghana). The rooms in the round clay huts are quite small and bath and toilet are shared but everything is very well kept, clean and with a price of 30 cedi you get very good value for your travel budget.

5) Yellow Rose of Princess Town – by far the most obscure and interesting place we traveled to, the Yellow Rose is run by Hartmut and Renate from East-Berlin. It would take an extra blogpost or better a book to share the amazing stories of Hartmut and Renate’s lives in socialist east-germany, so let’s just say that they are coming to Princess Town for more than 20 years and have build a solid (german) guesthouse/restaurant three years ago with crocodiles chilling out at the banks of the lagoon behind the house and and monkeys visiting from their mangrove play grounds.
For the more adventurous the option to stay at the prussian built Friedrichsburg might be even more appealing. The fort is pretty much falling apart and has no running water or electricity – but the views from the outside “towers” are amazing and the old caretaker has setup one double bed (with mosquito net) for people who want to sleep outside.
Importantly the last ca. 15km of the road to Princess Town are quite bad and after heavy rain (during the raining season) it is regularly impossible to reach the village for some days.

6) on our way back we stopped at Anomabo Beach Resort – which we first thought was way to expensive, but in the end we were really appeased as the 35 Dollar we paid for a very nice hut without bath included a spectacular breakfast. They also offer huts with bath for 65$ and executive huts with bath directly at the beach front for 85$. The whole venture and especially the executive huts are however in great peril as the beach is snapped away by the Atlantic at alarming speed. If no action is taken the first huts will be destroyed in the next months by the erosion. The staff at Anomabo was not as nice, but the beach and the restaurant were really good.

7) we have no recommendation for a place to stay in Accra where we spent the last two days, because we stayed at the house of a friend we had made in DreamLand.

As for traveling with a baby (or if traveling in a mini-van packed with double the people allowed in western countries, plus four chicken), we can highly recommend to ask the folks of the resorts/hotels to arrange for a responsible driver with a (relatively) decent car. We ended up paying a total of about 300€ for all the 7 long journeys; and in fact we were so happy with our driver Bob from Ko-Sa that he came to pick us up for all the trips since Ko-Sa.

For my friends and peers here are pictures of the trip (feel free to ask me to include you in list of folks who can access the pix).

As you can read between the lines Birte, Moritz and myself had a wonderful time and we can only highly recommend to explore this warm-hearted, beautiful and very very interesting country. If you find any information here needs corrections and/or you have additional recommendations, please shoot me an email or comment below. Happy travels

A hippocratic Oath for Techies & Policymakers

Acknowledegements & Context

When Rick Whitt and I were working on a paper on a framework for internet policy that brings together complexity theory, endogenous economics and common pool resource governance, I pondered once again about a proposal to write and promote a hippocratic oath for internet techies and policy makers in order to have them (including me) pledge to “do no harm” to the potent but also fragile internet ecosystem.

Below you find a code of conduct to which I feel I can subscribe. However it is not and will never be final. Rather I plan to develop, add and sharpen the code further. Please send comments and suggestions as to what should be included and/or where it should be more precise.

UPDATE: I have moved the text to a google-doc and updated it based on the comments received so far. The gDoc can be commented publicly, which should allow for more detailed refinement. The IRP coalition has offered to publish it on their website after collaborative editing, so people can actually take the oath.

—————– Old Version ———————

Preamble

I recognize technology as a product of human effort, a product serving no other purpose than to benefit man in general, not merely some men; man in the totality of his humanity, encompassing all his manifold interests and needs, not merely some one particular concem of his. Humanistically viewed, technology is not an end in itself but a means to an end, the end being determined by man. I hence promote a humanistic conception of technology in which the desire to obtain maximum benefits is subordinated to the obligation not to injure human beings or society at large.

Therefore the following principles shall marshal my mindset, decision making and practices:

Code of Conduct


1) Do no harm:

  • I hold a humanistic conception of the internet and therefore will not simply compare costs and benefits of any particular code or practice, but follow a rights based approach as formulated in the 10 Internet Rights & Principles.
  • When assessing code, practices and policy proposals I will seek to understand the technological, economic, socio-cultural and ethical dimensions and interdependencies of the online ecosystem, always aiming not to hamper user-centered development and innovation but to further creative destruction and open competition.

2) Participate in deliberation:

  • Acknowledging that internet governance must be an open multi-stakeholder process, I will participate in both internal organisational discourse as well as in public deliberation with the aim to collaboratively generate knowledge and to contribute to sound decision making.
  • I will take critics seriously. Governance is about constructive dialogue rather than representation.

3) Act responsibly  

  • I will contribute to the internet governance discourse to the best of my knowledge. Should an obligation to an institution contradict my perspective I shall refrain from disagreeing publicly but will take the responsibility to argue my case internally.
  • Should I witness any error or misdeed (i.e. human rights violation) I shall first address and remedy it with the responsible individual or within the responsible organisation. However should it prove impossible to resolve a serious matter directly, I shall bring the case to prosecution.

4) Promote openness & contribute to the commons

  • Whenever possible I will contribute to the commons and the public domain. Subsequently I will always practice a strong bias towards open innovation and open standards.
  • I will always acknowledge from whom or from what text I have learned about a certain idea or concept and if appropriate include direct links (or other relevant bibliographic references)
  • I will be transparent about my social networks and motivation to choose collaboration partners.

5) Respect privacy and confidentiality

  • I will honor the contextual agreement regarding the use and sharing of information and data that I have access to. This means that I will use and discuss information only within a given institution (confidential) or between certain individuals (private). In order to do so I shall always strive to understand the contextual agreement and make it explicit when in doubt.
  • Given the strong socio-political and economic benefits of information and data that is in the commons (or public domain), I will strive to make transparent and public as many of the endeavors and practices I am involved in as possible.


Acknowledegements
I had been inspired to work on such a code of conduct some years back when I read the excellent article “A Humanistic Technology” (1965) Hyman Rickover. (The Preamble is a mashup from his text.) In the article he proposes that given the power technocrats and engineers have over mankind they should swear an hippocratic oath which binds them to an ethical code which is placed above the interests of their employer or their self-interest.

Back then I chaired the Internet Rights and Principles (IRP) coalition and the discussions about how to transpose human rights to the net and what technical principles should be upheld was also aimed at the goal to find an agreement on which to root internet governance (policies) and hence practices. The group has since produced an excellent document “10 Internet Rights and Principles” which I naturally use as fundament of this code of conduct.

During the development of these guiding principles I also consulted several related texts such as ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct and The Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics from the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) website.

And of course I also happily followed Jeff Jarvis’ proposal to President Sarkozy (and all policy makers) to swear an hippocratic oath for the internet back at the eG8 Summit in 2011. In fact it was when I listened to his pretty good audio book “Public Parts” that I decided to take a shot at a prototype for such an oath as feels right to me as professional policy entrepreneur.