Monthly Archives: December 2004

is Google a “commons”?

This was a topic of heated debate at the American Library Association meeting that I attended in October. It’s all the more interesting now that Google has promised to help digitize the entire contents of several major research libraries.

The answer to the literal question is “no.” Google cannot be a commons because it is a corporation. A commons belongs to everyone in a community or to no one at all, whereas the ownership of a corporation is limited and proportional to an individual’s financial investment. However, the interesting question is whether the whole web, when navigated using Google’s search engine, is a commons. The web doesn’t belong to anyone–or we could say that everyone owns it. Its elements are privately owned and controlled, but it’s quite easy for anyone to add a new page to the pool. While access to (and use of) some webpages is restricted, most of the web has an open feel, just like a classic physical commons.

But what happens when we use Google to find our way through the web? The Internet itself may be unlimited, but the list of top-10 results for any given Google search is very limited and is under the company’s control. Google uses a proprietary database and search algorithm to generate results. In principle, Google’s management could block you from searching at all, or could promote a favored site to #1 for money–or for totally capricious reasons. The Google search algorithm is secret (necessarily, or else people would manipulate their websites to gain higher ranking). Google sells advertising space for cash.

None of these features sounds compatible with a “commons.” On the other hand, Google has chosen to create a space with many commons-like features. To the best of my knowledge, Google still ranks sites proportionally to the number of links from other sites. A link is a kind of gift or vote. A large number of incoming links does not indicate quality or reliability, but it does indicate popularity within the community of website-owners. Google’s search results mirror that popularity. To be sure, money can buy popularity, yet there are many cheap sites that have become major nodes on the web.

In theory, Google could start charging for placement (not only for the advertisements that appear on the right side of the screen, but also for basic search results). However, that would be a risky move for the company, since its popularity comes from its commons-like feel. Besides, Google’s capacity to destroy the commons does not prove that there is no commons on its site right now. Every commons is subject to destruction and/or control. The Alaska wilderness is a commons (I think), yet the state and federal government could suddenly decide to charge large fees for access. Thus the question is not whether Google must create and preserve a commons, but whether it has done so to date.

Some people feel that corporations are fundamentally incompatible with a commons. They may be attracted to the idea of the commons in the first place because they are hostile to corporate capitalism. It’s worth asking, however, exactly what’s wrong with corporations. Do they promote consumerism? Google is a portal to many political, civic, spiritual, and environmental pursuits as well as e-commerce. Are corporations undemocratic? Google has made money by using a fairly democratic system for ranking its search results. Its system is not perfectly equitable, but neither is any conceivable government. Are corporations greedy? Sometimes private vice brings public benefit.

To me, the best question is: Compared to what? Google has created a tenuous kind of commons, with secret rules and concentrated power. But democratic governments tend to create commons with similar problems. And anarchic commons, such as the high seas, are easily destroyed by individuals’ greed. I’d say that Google is about as good a large-scale commons as we have seen, although we’ll have to keep a close eye on it. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, even in the 21st century.

against “cultural preservationism”

Near the end (p. 227) of Anne Fadiman?s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (which I discussed on Monday), there?s a dialogue between a doctor and psychotherapist. They have been talking about Lia Lee, the Hmong girl whose treatment for epilepsy violated several basic Hmong beliefs. I?ve reformatted Fadiman?s paragraphs into a mini-dialogue:

Physician: You have to act on behalf of the most vulnerable person in the situation, and that?s the child. The child?s welfare is more important than the parents? beliefs. You have to do what?s best for the child, even if the parents oppose it, because if the child dies, she won?t get the chance to decide twenty years down the road if she wants to accept her parents? beliefs or if she wants to reject them. She?s going to be dead.

Psychotherapist (tartly): Well, that?s the job you have taken on in your profession.

Physician: I?d feel the same way if I weren?t a doctor. I would feel I am my brother?s keeper.

Psychotherapist: That?s tyranny. What if you have a family who rejects surgery because they believe an illness has a spiritual cause? What if they see a definite possibility of eternal damnation for their child if she dies from the surgery? Next to that, death might not seem so important. What?s more important, the life or the soul?

Physician: I make no apology. The life comes first.

Psychotherapist: The soul.

The psychotherapist mentions beliefs about the after-life, which are especially thorny because no one can know what happens after death?there is no empirical evidence. If a treatment saves lives but causes damnation, then one should certainly forgo the treatment. However, just because parents believe that a treatment will put their child?s soul in peril of eternal torture, that doesn?t make them right. Parents do not own their children. As I argued earlier in discussing the Amish, there is a profound conflict between children?s freedom and parental freedom. I believe that a liberal state should protect children against their parents, although it is harrowing to read about California?s unjust and harmful decision to take custody of Lia Lee.

In any case, the Hmong don?t believe in eternal damnation. Although Lia?s parents were concerned about what would happen to her reincarnated soul if her blood were drawn (violating a taboo), that was not the main problem. The main problem was their belief in the efficacy of traditional Hmong healing and their skepticism about the effects of Western medicine. In short, they thought that a Hmong shaman could cure their daughter, while American doctors were making her worse. Fadiman argues that there was some limited truth to this; the physicians made serious errors, whereas Hmong shamans are non-invasive healers who work only on the spiritual level and often get good psychological results. They would have done Lia no harm and might at least have helped her parents.

But ultimately, Western medicine is going to work better than Hmong shamanism for a lot of diseases. Hmong people are learning this; some are even becoming doctors. Thus their traditional culture is bound to change. Even if they preserve shamanistic medicine, it will have a new meaning for them. They will either use it to fill gaps left by Western medicine (especially psychiatry), or they will choose to preserve it because of its cultural significance. But a ritual performed because it is traditional is fundamentally different from a ritual performed because it cures a disease.

Cultural institutions address problems and must change when they are no longer effective. Sometimes there is a lag, because people understandably cling to what they know; but there is no way to stop history. Contrary to the racist articles that described Hmong immigrants as moving out of the ?Stone Age? when they reached America, they had been part of history all along. In fact, they had participated in high-tech battles and suffered a holocaust during the Vietnam War. Some had learned to fly fighter jets. And this was by no means the first time that they had adjusted to a changing world.

The argument against preservationism also applies to cases in the West. For example, some people want to preserve jobs for Yorkshire coal-miners and the Chesapeake Watermen. But their ways of life no longer make sense. Coal is expensive and bad for the atmosphere; crab-trapping doesn’t pay. Preserving these traditional jobs and cultures would require state subsidies or new ?business models? based on tourism instead of commodity sales. A tough, blue-collar culture must change fundamentally if its function changes. It cannot be ?preserved,? because its traditional values included efficiency and self-sufficiency, and those are gone. The only way is forward.

micro-local news

Free advice … Today I met with the Washington Center for Internships to discuss possible ways to evaluate their program, and then went to Streetlaw, Inc. for their winter Board meeting. (Streetlaw provides a textbook, training, institutes, and other support for teaching about law and politics in schools.) Finally, I joined my colleagues on the Advisory Board of the J-Lab New Voices Project . Thanks to the Knight Foundation, New Voices will be able to fund “20 micro-local news projects” in which citizens generate information, commentary, and discussion for their communities. J-Lab, the Institute for Interactive Journalism, will also collect or create software and other support that anyone will be able to use for interactive or community news.

We discussed some existing projects and products that exemplify community news on the Web. Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine was the source for most of these references. (On his blog, he says that he was in DC to meet with his CIA handlers, but they must have got to him later in the day.)

  • In Bakersfield, CA, residents of the northwestern part of the city produce all the content for an online newspaper that is also printed and distributed (with paid advertising). Essentially, everyone in the community can post blog entries with news, announcements, and opinions. However, thanks to clever use of iupload software, individual posts are classified in appropriate ways, producing a site that looks more like a newspaper than a blog. Simple announcements appear on a calendar. Crime reports go on a map. Sports news would be classified under “sports.” Anything that an individual writes is also saved under her or his name, thus producing a traditional blog for each contributor. And a chief blogger puts the best posts on the main page.
  • Journalism students at Northwestern University quickly built an impressive community news site for Skokie, Il (GoSkokie), for which they and citizens produce content.
  • A “wiki” is a webpage that anyone can edit online. Wikipedia has turned into an amazing repository of information, thanks to untold thousands of volunteer contributors. Apparently, the same folks are working on a “newswiki” that could be used to describe events in a community. Anyone could add (or delete) text.
  • MIT hosts three community news sites for and by retirees, known as “silver stringers.” The same format has been borrowed by groups abroad and by youth groups.
  • (See also Leslie Walker’s recent Washington Post story on Bakersfield and GoSkokie.)

    the centrality of trust

    I’m reading Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, the story of an epileptic Hmong girl and the cultural misunderstandings and outright tragedies that result when she is treated by American doctors. The book is rich, complex, and moving. Among its many themes, the one that interests me most is the role of trust in medicine?and by extension, in all professions and disciplines.

    American doctors are right: epilepsy isn’t caused by a spirit that makes people fall down, but rather by electro-chemical “storms” in the brain. They are right, too, that giving an epileptic infant an elaborate set of medications can reduce the chances of severe seizures, thereby improving her odds of normal cognitive development and survival.

    However, in order to follow doctors’ advice, one must understand it (a difficult matter when complicated prescriptions are written in English and constantly changed, and the parents speak only Hmong and cannot read in any language). One must not only understand but also trust what the doctors say. I would recommend trusting physicians because I believe that their knowledge of disease is based on cumulative, peer-reviewed, basic science, double-blind clinical trials, and other methods that strike me as reliable. I have a general sense that they are motivated by the best interests of their patients. I am impressed that the particular doctors in Anne Fadiman’s book are well-trained, hard-working, and have chosen to serve largely indigent populations at high cost to themselves.

    However, imagine that you arrived in a strange foreign country basically against your will and had to decide whether to treat your suffering baby daughter as the local doctors advised. These experts do not even pretend to understand epilepsy fully, let alone know how to cure it. Each procedure and medication that they prescribe is painful and invasive; hardly any are expected to produce a noticeable positive effect while you watch. There is an obvious correlation between the horrible tasting medicines that they make you give your child and her painful symptoms, so it seems likely that the former cause the latter. When you leave your baby at the hospital, she frequently comes back distinctly worse, having suffered terribly.

    The physicians expect a high degree of respect, deference, and gratitude, but they don?t visit your home or inquire about your beliefs and values. During emergencies, you usually find yourself meeting a whole new set of doctors, or reencountering ones who don?t remember anything about you. Their expectation of deference can easily be taken as mere arrogance, especially when they threaten you with loss of custody since you are allegedly abusing your child by not following their rules. They believe in the drugs and procedures that they prescribe?not because these things work in ?real time??but because they have put their trust and faith in other authorities: drug companies, medical researchers, med-school professors. These authorities are complete strangers to you. Why should you put more faith in the powers that the doctors trust than in the unseen powers you learned about as a child?

    I don?t assume that Anne Fadiman is a perfectly reliable narrator, a transparent window through which we can observe Hmong culture and follow the true story of Lia Lee. I once spent a single evening tutoring Hmong people for the US Citizenship Exam, and my friend, a White graduate student who had learned Hmong, expressed some polite reservations about Fadiman?s account. (He was mainly concerned, I think, that she had won a monopoly position as the interpreter of Hmong-Americans to other Americans). However, no one is perfect, and Fadiman is a remarkable observer. More to the point, the story of Lia Lee would be profoundly credible and disturbing even if it were pure fiction (which it certainly isn?t). Trust is fragile, hard to earn and easy to squander. High-tech machines and chemicals cannot improve our health unless we trust them. Modern medical professionals have mechanisms for engendering trust, ranging from their white lab coats and titles to conflicts-of-interest rules and double-blind clinical trials. These ?mechanisms? do not, however, include getting to know their patients as human beings or listening to alternative explanations. Many of us will continue to trust doctors because we are strongly committed to the general epistemology of scientific research. But we cannot observe the research itself, so our faith is actually in institutions, not in science. If the institutions are corrupt or have bad priorities, then our faith is foolish. This is why the increasing pace of scandal in medical research is so troubling.