'O Wai Kou Inoa?
By MT:15 on Jun 11, 2007
I recently spoke at a conference in Australia (AusCERT, a really fabulous conference) on a (for me) entirely new topic, Web 2.0. I had no idea when I put the presentation together whether it would gel or whether the audience would be lobbing rancid fruit in my general direction. (Being the security-oriented person I am, I requested that everyone be checked for rancid fruit before they entered the auditorium.) I talked a bit about what Web 2.0 is, a bit about the security implications, a bit about some emerging technologies, and lastly, a bit about the social implications of Web 2.0, which has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with community.
It is almost a universal mantra in Silicon Valley that more technology is better and technology will solve all problems. I am not so sure about that; sometimes technology contributes to a problem (if it isn't actually the problem), and sometimes there is no technical solution to the genies that technology unstoppers from their lamps.
The concept of No Free Lunch dates back to the Bible (even if "lunch" was merely an apple). The power of almost infinite collaboration that Web 2.0 represents is like the bargain Adam and Eve made with the snake. When they bit the apple, they Got Wisdom (knowledge of both good and evil), but they also realized they were "nekkid," developed shame, and got kicked out of paradise. None of us probably want to move back into the Garden of Eden and couldn't even if we wanted to, but the lesson is that even very juicy, delicious apples come with strings attached (that, and you should be careful about buying from something that slithers no matter how good the deal sounds).
One of the (non-technical) concerns I have about Web 2.0 is that the pursuit of democratized fame and glory will crowd out the transformative and timeless for the trivial and temporal. Andy Warhol once famously remarked that in the future, everyone would have 15 minutes of fame. What he did not anticipate was the trend of everyone competing fiercely for those 15 minutes of fame, or that one's 15 minutes of fame might yield 15 minutes of mass opprobrium through no fault of one's own.
Many of us are amused by film clips of celebrities' mistakes, meltdowns or vanities posted on YouTube that reverberate through our comedic consciousness. I've also seen a fair number of gaffes by politicians (and, like most people, I find myself sniggering at clips that validate my worst thoughts about individuals whose political views I don't agree with). Stepping back into objectivity from schadenfreude, I wonder who among us would want our worst moments captured by -- for example -- near-ubiquitous camera phones (soon to be supplanted by disposable video cameras) and uploaded for all to see? I've had plenty of bad hair days and "what was I thinking?" moments. I really do not want to revisit them. I sure do not want them posted so I can be reminded of my screwups in perpetuity (my siblings are happy to fulfill that function, thanks).
Web 2.0 may mean that we are captive collaborators, our mistakes writ large for others' amusement. Maybe there are going to be no "file and forget" mistakes anymore, if every gaffe can be captured and viewed by millions. (You can't burn the negatives anymore, either, because there aren't any if you've gone digital.) In the ubiquity of collaboration, we risk becoming a nation of paparazzi, eager to humiliate our neighbors for 15 minutes of directorial fame on YouTube. You have to ask, does this really build community? If so, what kind?
In the interests of being somewhat even-handed, there are some positives to the "15 minutes of fame" phenomenon. For example, I recently read about a soldier stationed in Afghanistan who just wrote a book. Writing a book is not novel (no pun intended), but his book started as a series of blog entries. The blog entries were so well received -- they developed a following among some very well known writers -- that he elected to write a book (also well-received, apparently). The soldier remarked that he never would have had the confidence to write the book if he had not been a blogger first. So, the corollary to everyone having 15 minutes of fame is that Web 2.0 also may bring to the forefront talent that would not have had a ready outlet before. The "collaborative" aspect here is the feedback he got as a blogger. It's no longer just your sister who is your cheering section, it's the "community" of people who didn't know you, but now feel they do because of your (blog, mashup, video clip).
If reputations can be made or lost in an instant, as parents tell their children, on the Internet, reputations are "make or break" in a nanosecond. By way of example (OK, it's a silly one), it used to be that if you had a bad date, you commiserated with friends and never asked the person out again (or went out on another date, if asked). Now, there are web sites devoted to rating one's dates that degenerate into mass kvetching. (One is tempted to email some of the ranters and point out, "Maybe you were not his dream girl, either." Or dream guy, as the case may be.)
Everybody remembers the caption of the now-famous New Yorker cartoon: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." It's worse than that: on the Internet, nobody knows you are a low-down, no-good dirty dog. Anybody can say anything about anyone for any reason, with varying degrees of objectivity and veracity. And people tend to believe things reported from a "reputable" source (e.g., email from their friends) even though their friends may have heard this from a second cousin twice removed who got it from an RSS feed. I confess, I just forwarded something egregiously stupid that a politician I don't like purportedly said, only to be find out (by being challenged over it) that the person didn't say that at all. (You can be so sure someone is an idiot that you don't bother to fact-check.)
The ripple effect of reputational smears linger on, as the smear-ees risk losses ranging from friends to denial of employment based on the fact that someone once vented in their direction, and the posting lingers on somewhere in a dusty cabinet of the Internet that is still searchable. Corporate and personal reputational smear is such a big problem that there are now firms whose specialization is being a sort of Internet cleaning service: finding bad things about you or your brand and trying to get them delisted or scrubbed.
Compounding the matter, in a world of increasing amounts of information, where each web persona competes for the precious 15 minutes of fame or 15,000 links, "nice" does not sell; but "nasty" does. (Nastiness that, in some cases, has escalated beyond bloggy name calling to threats of violence.) It can hardly be a surprise, because there are few checks on bad behavior when bad behavior "sells." What we need is the cyber-equivalent of the kindly but formidable grandmother who will lower her reading glasses disapprovingly and say, "Apologize to that nice Mrs. So-and-So, and go wash your mouth out with soap." Where are they?
While the elevation of the banal is hardly on the same order of gravitas as venal blogging salvoes, one does question the amount of resource dedicated to what can only be construed as cyber showoffs. For example, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal discussed how the ritual of the "first dance" at weddings has become a veritable media event, with brides and grooms hiring choreographers, set and costume designers, recreating chorus lines and MTV videos (Michael Jackson's "Thriller" routine was cited), all in an attempt to grab market share on YouTube. Long-standing friendships are apparently expendable: you risk eviction from the wedding party if you do not attend "first dance rehearsal" and can't pirouette in heels. As my mom would say, "The world's gone mad."
On the one hand, this really only harms people subjected to the overblown egos of bride- and groom-zillas, but where does one-up's manship stop in the search for 15 minutes of glory? People are now known not for who they are, but what they do. Anyone can achieve 15 minutes of immortality for silliness or depravity, and it is far easier than 15 minutes of integrity or valor. We are elevating the meaningless or banal at the expense of the good and true. Is this the community we want to build?
It seems particularly useful to point this out as we just celebrated Memorial Day (May 28 this year) and the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Midway (June 4-6, 1942). Slight rant: the Battle of Midway was the turning point of the Pacific War, with many incidents of collective and individual valor, and what did newspapers cover on the days when they should have commemorated such an important moment in history? A celebrity's parole violation. That's just wrong.
I can't write absolutely every Main Stream Media outlet and chide them for their failure to a) acknowledge one of the greatest naval battles in history and b) pay veterans their due while they are still alive to receive our heartfelt thanks for saving Western civilization. I can't control the fact that people who do stupid stunts on YouTube or blog vitriol are more famous, in some cases, than people who make the world a better place. But I can remind myself that while the Web is World Wide, the world is not the web.
One of my friends says that there is law and order in the universe, and maybe he is right. A couple of months ago, I heard from my family that a dear family friend and true hero, now deceased, would receive a great honor: the Navy is naming one of its two new Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers after him. I was so happy, I almost cried, to think how much this would have meant to him, and how much it does mean to his family and those who knew, loved and admired him, of which there are many.
VADM William P. Lawrence was one of the finest people and finest naval officers it has ever been my privilege to know. He was a naval aviator, a poet (a poem he wrote is the state poem of Tennessee), a great leader (former Superintendent at the US Naval Academy), and a kind and thoughtful person. As a young naval officer, I got the lowest level medal you could get in the Navy, but I nonetheless received a personal letter from him congratulating me on my accomplishment. I cannot even begin to say what it meant to me as a JO (junior officer) to get words of praise from someone of his stature (it would be like getting a "congratulations on your confirmation" phone call from the Pope).
The other new ship, I note, will be named after ADM Raymond Spruance, one of the heroes of the Battle of Midway (commanding officer of Task Force 16). My reaction when I heard that there would be two new ships, was that ADM Spruance was in great company with VADM Lawrence, and not merely the other way around. The men and women who sail on the William P. Lawrence will have a daily remembrance of someone who was good and true, and who served his country with honor and valor, at a personal sacrifice that included 6 years as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton. There is law and order in the universe, because the USS William P. Lawrence (DDG-110) and the USS Spruance (DDG-111) will sail the seas long after film clips of celebrity meltdowns and wedding first dance extravaganzas have gone to "bit heaven."
The Hawaiians had another way of commemorating individuals, the mele inoa. As the Bishop Museum noted in a recent exhibition: "I ka ‘ôelo no ka make, 'in the word is life, in the word is death.' This Hawaiian proverb reflects the importance of the spoken word and of the mele (song or chant) in Hawaiian culture. The most popular type of chant, mele inoa, is a name chant composed in honor of a person and a gift that will remain for generations to come (emphasis mine)."
On my last trip to Hawai'i, I had the great fortune of hearing a group called 'Ike Pono perform a mele inoa for King David Kalâkaua, the last king of Hawai'i. It is, without doubt, one of the most haunting, yet joyous songs I have ever heard, and nobody -- but nobody -- performs it better than 'Ike Pono. I get chills (chicken skin, as Hawaiians would say) when I hear the first and last tropes:
Kalâkaua a he inoa
Ka pua mae ‘ole i ka la
(Kalâkaua is his name
A flower that wilts not in the sun.)
My response to Web 2.0 is first, to work to make it as secure as it can possibly be (more on that later). And second, while I can't set community norms for the Internet (and who made me queen, anyway?), I can be a community of one. I can choose the good and true over the insulting, demeaning, and degrading. Maybe if we all choose to collaborate on the positive and good, and create a cyberworld that celebrates honor and valor, we can sail the digital seas long after the banal and degrading has gone to bit heaven. Perhaps the name we leave will be, like King David Kalâkaua and William P. Lawrence and Raymond Spruance and a host of others who have lived and died with honor -- "a flower that does not wilt in the sun."
For more information:
("'O wai kou inoa?" means "What's your name?" in Hawaiian. Literally, "Who (is) your name?")
A rather goofy Rate-a-Date site (there are some really vitriolic ones I could not bring myself to link to):
About the Bishop Museum exhibit on mele inoa:
'Ike Pono's CD, Ka Mano Wai (yes, you can hear part of Kalâkaua):
Lyrics for Kalâkaua:
A biography of William P. Lawrence:
About the two new Burke-class destroyers:
One of the few articles about the 65th anniversary of Midway:
The Naval Historical Museum's website (Midway section):
About Raymond Spruance:
AusCERT, a great group of folks, mahalo for your hospitality: