Mathematics, psychology and sociology, philosophy.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Transparent Society, Foretold. Part II - Gorby, Bert, and Barbra

2011 May 26th
II. Gorby, Bert, and Barbra

If the broad light of day could be let in upon men's actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects.    -- U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis

In the late 1980's a revolution in transparent society came from a seemingly unlikely place: Soviet Russia. Most aspects of that period in the USSR's history are very hard to sort out, and clearly the policy of Glasnost put in place by Gorbachev had many effects, both intended and unintended. But the contribution of technology to transparency is fairly clear.
Prior to this time, every photocopy machine in the Soviet Union had been watched by a Communist Party member who approved anything copied on it -- lest it be used as an underground publishing tool[1]. The Soviets had begun to clone the Apple II and the ZX Spectrum and created several of their own designs locally. Cellular phones, satellite television and USENET were becoming more widespread[2],[3]. As all of this technology became common in the U.S. and Europe, the USSR had to keep up. A closed society was unsustainable in the long run, provided that it was to remain competitive in the world.

Information distribution can also bring about a more restrictive society. American proponents of personal privacy and free information exchange, such as supporters of the EFF, were clearly of the opinion that surveillance should be resisted in any way possible. I suppose most of them saw a downside only after 9/11.
Meanwhile, the same Internet that might have helped al-Qaeda plan its attacks in secret also gave us Evil Bert [4]. A curious chain of events led to Bert the Muppet's appearance in a pro-Osama rally in Bangladesh, seen here. The creator of the poster had collected photos of Osama bin Laden online, and neither he nor the other anti-US protesters realized Bert's significance.

Perhaps the greatest impact of widespread communication is exemplified by the reaction to Bert's appearance in Bangladesh. Most everyone was amused by this, except for the al-Qaeda supporters and the Sesame Street workshop. Soon, the whole Evil Bert website and its mirror were taken down -- but of course, it was too late. Attempts to remove a popular Internet meme fail, and usually also backfire.
The same social force that causes the spread of controversial (but deemed humorous) photographs also brings to bear upon issues of ethics and morality. This had long ago been demonstrated by the Fishman Affidavit, which showed that millions of people will copy something they didn't even care about prior to hearing of it, in the face of threats by a large and powerful organization, simply because its distribution is being suppressed for the wrong reasons. This phenomenon eventually came to be known as the Streisand effect, after a 2003 episode in which the celebrity called attention to herself by trying to avoid attention[5]. More on that in Part III...


[1] Los Angeles Times (David Owen), "Who Invented Xerox?", Power to the People: the Photocopier, 2004 Aug 10. Here is the relevant portion:
A telling indication of xerography's significance is that in the former Soviet Union, whose rulers maintained their power in part by monopolizing access to information, copiers were guarded more closely than computers, and individual copies were numbered so that they could be traced....

[2] InfoWorld (Paul Staffo), "Today the microprocessor is more powerful than the gun", 1991 Sep 2. Here is a part:
Within hours of Gorbachev's removal, messages were humming between the Soviet Union and points abroad via telephone and such computer networks as UseNet. One note from Moscow underscored the importance of the link: "Please stop flooding the only narrow channel. We need the bandwidth to help organize the resistance." Elsewhere in the Soviet Union, fax machines were zapping messages among resisters, while in the Baltic states, cellular phones allowed people to keep one step ahead of the events.

[3] I heard an anecdote about Gorbachev's house arrest during the August 1991 coup attempt. The anecdote states that, although Gorby's phone lines had been cut, the coup leaders did not cut off cell phone service and Gorbachev was able to call for help that way. 20 years later, I cannot find a source for this story.

[4] Evil Bert is seen here courtesy of, almost two years before 9/11. The reference to "the World Trade Center in New York City" refers to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

[5] Streisand sued (for $10 million in damages) the nonprofit organization that runs the California Coastal Records Project because her estate (along with every other house on the coast of California) was visible in an image on the website, and had been labeled with a caption contributed, wiki-like, by a website user. As described in a press release after the suit was rejected by the court:
...Streisand grossly overestimated the number of people who would use the caption to download or order pictures of her blufftop estate. In her declaration, Streisand claimed that it was likely that thousands of people had downloaded the frame to view her estate. In fact, prior to the lawsuit, only six downloads of that frame were executed (out of a total of over 14,000 downloads for the site as a whole), two of which were downloads by her own attorneys. Similarly, prior to the lawsuit, only three reprints of the frame were ordered through Pictopia - two by Streisand herself and one by a neighbor who is in a lengthy dispute with her over controversial expansion plans for her blufftop estate.    -- CCRP press release