Final project

For my final project I plan to do a research paper on digitial currencies (with a particular focus on Bitcoin.) The central question will be the following:

What are the implications for governments of the rise of digital currencies with no central bank backing?

In seeking to answer the question I will explore:

  1. The rise and evolution of digital currencies
  2. The different government responses so far
  3. An overview of some of the academic analysis (I will try to get some views from interviews with members Harvard economics faculty)
  4. Some possible scenarios and implications

What do you think Nicco? Would be good to hear if others have done papers on this before or are planning on doing one so that I can focus on a particular angle.

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The tiger, infinity pool and ice cream from St. Tropez- symbols that sparked a revolution?

Hidden deep in the Wikileaks cables, a memo from Robert Godec, the then US Ambassador to Tunisia, describes a lavish dinner with the then Tunisian President’s son-in-law Sakher El-Materi:

 

“El Materi has a large tiger (“Pasha”) on his compound, living in a cage. He acquired it when it was a few weeks old. The tiger consumes four chickens a day. El Materi had staff everywhere. There were at least a dozen people, including a butler from Bangladesh and a nanny from South Africa. (NB. This is extraordinarily rare in Tunisia, and very expensive.)”

 

The cable goes on to describe El-Materi’s newly renovated terrace complete with infinity pool, his preference for delicacies flown in from St.Tropez and a string of corrupt business deals- all whilst average Tunisians faced high unemployment and rising food prices.

 

Most theories of social movements point to the importance of symbols- images, stories or sounds that help to galvanize a group of people into action. In the Tunisian revolution, the image of the 26 year-old fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi, setting himself on fire outside the provincial headquarters, is often recalled as the central image that sparked a revolution (with help from, as Ethan Zuckerman describes,  Facebook, a Tunisian diaspora website called Nawaat and Al-Jazeera.) But others argue that the picture of greed and corruption that emerged  from the Wikileaks cables, coming from a US diplomat, played an equally important symbolic role in mobilizing public opinion against the regime. The cables, again with the help of social media and Al Jazeera, reached a wide Tunisian audience, 2 million of whom were Facebook users. Gruesome images uploaded to YouTube of the slaughter of the tiger by protesters, days into the revolution, attest to the anger that these symbols provoked.

 

Whilst it is easier to take a moral position on the virtue of the Tunisian protests-most of us will agree that Tunisians are better off without Ben Ali’s corrupt and despotic regime- taking a position on the role of Wikileaks in this process, and more recently the Snowden revelations in other debates, is far trickier.

 

On one hand, there is something highly appealing in Julian Assange’s drive for ‘total transparency’, as described by Raffi Khatchdourian– the chance for the underdog to use the internet to hold people and institutions accountable, and to shine a light on the injustices and crimes carried out by institutions that act in our name. As the Snowden revelations have shown, even legislative branches may not be aware of the extent of activity carried out in the name of security. One is reminded of the Benjamin Franklin maxim, that “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.“

 

 

On the other hand, as Jaron Lanier points out, this drive for total transparency comes with a great deal of ‘collateral damage.’ Do we want the details of people carrying out controversial but necessary work- in abortion clinics or negotiating with disagreeable regimes, for example, to be available to all? Do we want to put our trust and power instead in the hands of secretive, manipulative and often paranoid leakers of these documents? Do we want our military institutions to become even more secretive? And even if we agree that more transparency in our foreign policy and military action is a good thing in the long term- can we accept the short-term risks associated with pushing potential attackers further away from being stopped?

 

Perhaps it is futile to even try to take a moral position.  In his afterword to The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov argues for a kind of ‘cyber-agnosticism’ – taking lengths to avoid a moral evaluation of the internet- so as to avoid the opposite but similar traps of ‘cyber-utopianism’ (‘the internet will liberate us’) and cyber-dystopianism (‘the internet will be used to monitor and control us.’)

 

One unavoidable conclusion is that, in the digital age, leaks will become more, not less, common. Leaders of public and private institutions must accept and adapt to this. And in this regard, I welcome the drive for total transparency with open arms. We need leaders that behave with integrity and that means being willing to publicly defend decisions. That means recognizing that mistakes and conflicts are inevitable, but that intent is important. That still means, of course, taking steps to protect data that could be really harmful to individuals if made public (although this ‘deservedly secret’ category is often given out too quickly)- but still living by a general principle of openness and transparency.

 

In the UK and US, one such area considered ‘deservedly secret’ is that of salaries. What chaos would ensure, we fear, if everyone knew what everyone else was earning. And yet in Norway, you can simply google someone to find their latest tax return with details of their income. No big deal, no chaos- and a far more equal society. Would we have accepted the great income divergence in the UK and US of the last 30 years with such acquiescence, had all salaries been public?

Can the internet persuade?

That the internet has changed the American political landscape is beyond doubt- from Obama raising $690 million online in 2012 to large scale online voter data collection , volunteer mobilization and the coordination of protests online – the internet has touched almost all aspects of the political process.  Yet most political campaigns in the US still spend the largest share of their money on TV ads– why? Are we beyond political persuasion online?

 

There are several plausible reasons why this might be the case:

 

1)   Eli Pariser’s Filter Bubble concept– that the people we are trying to persuade are difficult to reach online as algorithms and search habits ‘filter out’ information they would not normally seek out .

2)   The intentionality of our internet actions make us less susceptible to political persuasion. For example, if we are looking for the recipe for a dish online, we tend to ignore a political ad on the website, in a way that is harder if we see an ad during a TV cooking program

3)   Our attention is simply split between more things online

4)   We place less trust in messages from online advertising then we do TV advertising

 

Yet many of the challenges above are shared by commercial organizations doing online advertising, and online commercial advertising spending is increasing year on year. Is political advertising somehow different?

 

In their overview of Harry Reid’s 2010 Senate campaign in Nevada, Jon-David Schlough, Josh Koster, Andy Barr and Tyler Davis show how some campaigns are attempting to reach and persuade voters online. The Reid campaign’s approach to online persuasion adopted a highly targeted, granular approach to reaching each voter with the most persuasive, personalized material possible- much of it negative campaigning against their opponent Sharon Angle.

 

As digital consultants, Sclough et al have some interest in demonstrating the success of this type of online strategies- and they are quick to acknowledge that not every campaign has the funds available for such elaborate online campaigns. But part of the cost must be associated with the fact that the Reid team were doing something new- and as more companies and campaigns use online persuasion methods the costs will surely come down. It is not a stretch to imagine ‘off-the-shelf’ products being sold to campaigns with a guarantee to reach a targeted and specific group of voters online.

 

In thinking about online persuasion we should also take care to avoid the narrow thinking  that advertising is the only way to go- there are many ways to persuade online. Viral videos can be just as powerful- as Wallsten demonstrates in his piece on Will.I.Am’s ‘Yes we can’ video. In fact, none of the most viewed political videos on youtube in 2012  were traditional political ads- instead they were parodies, speeches and slip-ups. Whether these videos have any persuasive power in how we vote is unclear- but they can certainly do a lot of damage to the image of the candidates.

 

One of the most viewed videos on Youtube in 2011 was Zach Wahl’s speech to the Iowa House of Representatives. Wahl, a 19 year old college student with 2 lesbian mothers, made an impassioned speech for equal and fair treatment for homosexual couples –   which received 1.5 million views within 2 weeks and was eventually seen by 17 million viewers. This is an example of online political persuasion at its best- short, personal, moving and above all, human- with a persuasive impact far greater than a slick political ad about gay marriage. There is something far more trustworthy and compelling in a grainy Youtube video from someone with a (short) story to tell.

 

The absence of online advertising in many political campaigns may therefore be more a consequence of the nature of online persuasion techniques rather than anything to do with the intrinsic limitations of online persuasion. It is not worth spending money on banner ads and facebook placements when we are looking for something different on the internet- a powerful and compelling YouTube video may do the same persuasion for far less.

 

We should also recognize that the technology is still young and there is still a digital divide in most countries. As we better understand user patterns and as more voters spend more time online, campaigns will have no choice but to move persuasion online- it just won’t look like a typical TV ad.

Who will pay for the news?

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.

Thomas Jefferson

The news business is not what it used to be. As Huey, Nisenholtz and Sagan note in their recent paper on the internet and news businesses, the newspaper moguls of yesteryear have been replaced on the rich lists by the internet moguls of today. Since a historic peak in 2005, newspaper advertising revenues have fallen by 55%,  and the recent bargain basement sales of the Washington Post and Boston Globe seem to indicate an industry in disarray. Through blogs, news sites and social media, the internet has collapsed the cost of reporting and publishing, making news consumption and production far more ubiquitous– but in doing so has also placed traditionally expensive public service journalism in jeopardy. The challenge for journalism in the digital age, is in short: Who will pay for the Baghdad bureau?

An emerging group of digital age thinkers such as Clay Shirky, Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis, who Starkman dubs the “Future of news” (FON) consensus, argue that we are in the middle of a revolution whose impacts will be as far-reaching as those that accompanied the introduction of the printing-press. The traditional news industry have had their heads in the sand, attempting to hold on to their old business models but not realizing that, in revolutions “The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.”

What the new stuff is, argue the FON consensus, is yet to become clear- but will become clearer through a process of trial and error in the coming decades. They are clear, however, that it will not simply be a digital version of the traditional newspaper industry- since most of the news that they produce has become commoditized and can be produced faster and cheaper by unpaid citizen journalists. There is a degree of schadenfreude in the SON’s doomsday predictions for traditional media- the journalistic failures leading up to the Iraq war and the Great Recession are often pointed to as symptoms of a failed journalistic establishment that is ripe for disruption.

But how good is the “new stuff” that is seen as replacing traditional journalism? Blogging is often cited as a new type of mass-journalism, but it is difficult to assess the relative importance of blogging in terms of moving public opinion. Peter Daou argues that blogging can only affect public opinion in combination with the political establishment and traditional media outlets- on its own the audiences in the long tail of blogging are simply insufficient to make a dent on the public discourse.

Dean Starkman takes an even stronger position against those that hail the death of traditional media institutions. Whilst acknowledging that the news industry is undergoing major changes, Starkman sees a continuing vital role for journalistic institutions even in the digital age, particularly in exposing malpractice. Journalists, he argues, in digging for, gathering presenting information in a reliable way, provide a critical service to the public that cannot easily be replicated by unpaid citizen journalists and certainly should not be seen as a ‘commodity.’

Addressing the question of business models, Starkman also points out that, from a crisis point in the 2008-2009, online revenues for traditional media outlets are now improving – showing that many people are in fact willing to pay for high quality, trustworthy news online. This has become especially relevant as mobile internet use has increased, and now 400 of the 1300 US newspapers use some form of paywall (which is up from 100-200) in 2010. The New York Times now has 708 000 online subscribers, a 45% increase in just 1 year- helping to make up for the fall in ad revenues.

Digital success story? Online subscriptions of the New York Times may soon surpass print subscriptions

Clearly society needs a trusted fourth estate- in whatever form that works. As we grieve the traditional media business model it is easy to become nostalgic, eulogizing their role in exposing wrongdoings whilst forgetting that many of the traditional newspapers had become highly profit-focused entities driven by scandal, PR, myopia, polemics and anything else that would sell advertising space.  This made them especially poor at communicating long-term trends that lacked a clear short-term headline grabbing narrative.

One such example is the failure to convey the growth and causes of inequality in the US since the 1960s. As a recent study showed, most Americans are completely unaware of the skewed distribution of wealth in the US today, to say nothing of the policy drivers of this inequality.

Perhaps the “new stuff” that emerges from the digital revolution, free from immediate corporate pressures, will be better equipped to communicate this type of long-term change that happens slowly. Or perhaps they will just be better equipped to communicate these trends to that fraction of the long tail that is listening to them.

Evaluation of a wikipedia article

My wikipedia user page is here

I have chosen to evaluate the Wikipedia article on the Swedish construction company Skanska as I spent 6 happy years working there (and also met my wife there!)

Skanska’s wikipedia article is important for many of the company’s stakeholders- it is the 3rd ranked result on a google search for ‘Skanska’ and the first ‘independent’ result (ie not a company website.)

Overview

The Wikipedia article on Skanska was created in May 2003 and has had 244 edits. 54 of theses edits came from a user called ‘Dormskirk’ – and expert in financial and military history with many wikipedia awards and over 100000 edits. The article has at times been edited by employees of the company, but they are in the minority. Edits peaked in 2009. The page has c. 120 average daily views.

The article has 3 headings:  History, Operations and Major Projects. There is also a parallel Swedish language article with more detailed information on operations.

Comprehensiveness

The article provides basic information on the company e.g. number of employees, turnover, current leadership, history, markets and some key projects. The article however, lacks valuable context-setting and detail under its headings, which would be valuable information for users of the article e.g. customers, potential employees, investors and other partners.

Examples of missing information include:

  • Details of some of the historic projects that Skanska was involved in e.g. repairing pyramids in Egypt,  large infrastructure projects in many parts of the world in the 70s and 80s.
  • Details of the type of work carried out in home markets e.g. infrastructure vs residential vs commercial operations. This is not currently clear.
  • More concrete examples of high profile ground-breaking ‘green’ projects
  • Details of geographic expansion and acquisition of companies over the years (this is somewhat piecemeal in the article)

Of interest, Skanska has been involved in several controversies over the years, and only one of these is mentioned in the English language version (the Argentinian gas pipeline case.) These controversies are particularly difficult to handle as, whilst important, they may place excessive focus on specific incidents.

Sourcing

The majority of the 27 sources are from mainstream (e.g. New York Times, The Telegraph, Economist) and industry press (e.g. Skyscrapernews, ENR.) These must be considered reasonably reliable sources. Information on the company’s history is sourced from the Skanska website, which is not independent but arguably reliable.

The article handles the Argentinian scandal in a reasonably unbiased way, citing four different reputable sources, with good geographic spread.

Neutrality

Overall the article is unbiased and factual, which is noteworthy given the temptation for many companies to use the Wikipedia article as marketing material.

The scandal in Argentina is particularly challenging to present in an unbiased way, especially since it attracted a lot of political attention in Argentina and Sweden:

“In 2005, Skanska was awarded a gas pipeline contract in Argentina, and later, suspicions were raised that government corruption had been involved. Skanska performed its own investigation, dismissed seven managers, and worked closely with the authorities concerning the inquiry”

This text is reasonably unbiased, and presents a positive view of Skanska’s response “….worked closely with the authorities concerning the inquiry.”  The sources cited also provide more nuanced information on the different interpretations of the incident.

Readability

The article is largely a list of unrelated historic events in the company’s history and major projects. Further prose providing more context would make it far more readable. It would also benefit from further sub-headings- for example, a separate section on sustainability, for which Skanska has received a lot of media coverage over the years.

Formatting and Illustrations

There are no obvious deviations from the Wikipedia manual of style. The article is not well illustrated (only 1 picture) and could be enhanced with further pictures of projects (particularly high-profile historic projects) and a map of geographic presence.

The network society and the upside of our diminishing privacy

Two related features of the digital age tend to attract more attention than most- the rise of social media and the decline of traditional notions of privacy. Much has been written on the transformative power of social media and the network society– but what transformations will come as online users become more aware of the limits of online privacy? Could there be an upside to this?

In their analysis of social networks, both Howard Rheingold and Christakis and Fowler agree that the power of technologically enabled social networks comes from making new forms of connections between people possible – thereby building on Reed’s law that the utility of a network scales exponentially with the size of the network.  In facilitating and visualizing what Mark Granovetter called “weak-ties,” social networks have extended the reach of traditional ‘Dunbarian’ networks– allowing broader and easier connections across countries, sectors, organizations, interest areas and even phases of life. In this way, Rheingold argues that the internet has led to a shift from group-centered life (closely-knit, tightly bounded) to network-centered life (sparsely-knit, loosely bounded.) With a further push from mobile technology, we have accelerated towards a network society, with each individual at the center of a vast network that they can use to communicate and get things done outside of traditional institutional structures.

Screen shot 2013-09-29 at 10.16.34

Weak and strong ties- a visualisation my LinkedIn network

One implication of this shift is the convergence of the public and private spheres. Our traditional notions of privacy do not fit well with the online reality- when, as Rheingold argues, our communications and actions in this socially connected world are not only persistent (messages stick around) they are also replicable, scalable and searchable. As Jeff Palfrey and Urs Gasser point out in Born Digital, “never before has so much information about average citizens been so easily accessible to so many.”

For a new generation of  ‘digital natives’, who now carry their ‘digital dossier’ of blogs, Facebook posts, online activities, Instagram photos and twitter arguments and rumors into their adult working lives, these changes require careful navigation.  The risk of hurt not only arises with public data but also with private data that can be sold or stolen for nefarious uses (e.g. medical records.)

The NSA revelations have brought yet another threat of the online world into the public conscious – the surveillance state. Some see this as the ‘nail in the coffin’ for online privacy, others see it as a ‘surveillance peak’ we will now climb down from. Either way, more of us are aware that nothing we do online is perfectly secure, and that this surveillance apparatus has been abused. Whilst some promising initiatives are underway to create a more private internet, we are likely entering an even more protracted arms war, between those that wish to collect data and those that wish to protect it.

The specter of an international surveillance state with the power to track individuals is certainly terrifying. The idea that a teenager’s online error of judgment could continue to haunt them through their working life seems deeply unfair. The thought of corporations gathering intimate data on every aspect of our lives in order to ‘better meet our needs’- and shield us from views we might disagree with – is unnerving.

And yet it is undeniable that there is also an upside to the ‘assault on privacy’- greater transparency. The Snowden story is not only a story of state surveillance, it is also a story about how institutions can no longer keep their activities secret. The assault on privacy, therefore, also applies to organizations and people in power.

When Warren Buffet took over Solomon Brothers in 1990 following a series of trading scandals, this was his message to the Solomon staff:

“I have asked every Salomon employee to be his or her own compliance officer. After they first obey all rules, I then want employees to ask themselves whether they are willing to have any contemplated act appear the next day on the front page of their local paper to be read by their spouses, children and friends, with the reporting done by an informed and critical reporter.”

In some way, the assault on online privacy means that every online act we contemplate has even more chance of being seen by our spouse, children and friends.  In a low-privacy online world, we increasingly must be willing to justify our actions to others, and this can be a powerful check on certain harmful activities.  The upside to the assault on privacy on social networks is that it also shows that we are all fallible- when even our bosses have embarrassing photos online, perhaps we all become more human and can move on. Sunlight, as the saying goes, can be the best disinfectant.