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Tuesday Topsight, July 11, 2006

netease.jpgI had the somewhat surreal experience last night of participating in a focus group on the California energy industry. My experience was odd because, about a quarter of the way through, the moderator was called out by the faceless folks behind the mirror, and when he returned, he asked that I, in essence, keep my mouth shut. I literally knew too much about the world of energy production, distribution and efficiency to make a good focus group participant. I was told that they'd love to hear what I had to say at the end, if there was enough time. I did manage to sneak a couple of comments in here and there, but I ended up being more an observer than anything else.

Some things about the focus group are worth noting, however. The primary California power company, Pacific Gas & Electric, is going all-out to make itself into a leading renewable/"green"/"clean" energy producer, with upcoming programs including state-wide smart meters, wave power, and a goal of 20% of California energy coming from wind and solar by 2010. More importantly, every one of the participants in the focus group (which included stay-at-home moms, retirees, pink collar workers, executives, and a few hard to categorize folks) wanted to see PG&E do more to drive to renewable energy. Even the one guy for whom lower energy prices was a top priority put increased renewable power as his number two. That the power company is trending green is heartening; that the citizenry is leading them that way is even more so.

Phrase of the Week: "Aspirational Terrorists." David Stephenson notes the term in the coverage of the apparent plan to bomb tunnels between New York and New Jersey. The wording seems to encompass both those who talk tough but don't have realistic plans for carrying out their threats (so-called "jihadi bravado," a fascinating language mix used by the FBI) and those who may be a bit more capable, but have no direct links to existing groups and have yet to turn plans into action. This is an important piece of re-framing, as it is a sign the people engaged in counter-terrorism work are moving away from casting any possible terrorist cell as "al Qaida" (as if it were a structured organization with branch offices) and towards the "netwar" view articulated by John Robb (among others), in which "al Qaida" isn't an organization, it's a brand.

(By the way, if you haven't read The Advent of Netwar, by John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, do so soon -- it's easily the best articulation of the changing nature of conflict I've ever read, and its observations about the role of guerrilla movements come across as prescient, given that Advent was published in 1996!)

Of Red Suns and Ethnic Cleansing Online: Netwar of a different sort. Terra Nova links to reports of nationalist/ethnic conflict in Asian online games. One report tells of Korean Lineage players hunting down Chinese players, while the other discusses a virtual uprising in the Chinese game Netease over an in-game symbol looking something like the Japanese WW2 battle flag -- an uprising organized by a now-disbanded guild with a virulently anti-Japanese name.

It's probably a good thing that World of Warcraft doesn't allow the players who can speak to each other to kill each other (outside of easily-ignored duels). I could otherwise totally imagine "red state" and "blue state" players hunting each other in WoW as the 2006 and 2008 elections draw near.

Participatory Panopticon goes Mainstream: Janet Kornblum of USA Today writes about the growing ubiquity of digital cameras and cameraphones, and the trend (primarily among young people) of posting images and videos of themselves for easy downloading by others. Kornblum's piece covers some of the same topics I've talked about in my various participatory panopticon explorations, and raises some new concerns, chiefly around young people telling too much about themselves, potentially ruining their own futures.

Most kids are posting for each other, but quickly are learning that the world also is watching.
Internet expert Nancy Willard has been warning parents about the possibly incriminating pictures their kids' friends may post online after graduation parties.
"Kids go to these parties, and everybody's going to have a camera," she says. "And when they finally wake up (the day after the party), they'll post all these really fun pictures on the Internet and maybe post names to go along with the pictures. Nobody has any ability to control what's going to happen with those images. And they can be damaging."

Such concerns strike me as artifacts of a pre-ubiquitous camera age ("ubicam?"). It's entirely possible that as we grow more accustomed to pervasive recording of ourselves and of others, and as more of the MySpace/YouTube/camerphone generation moves from school to the workplace, these worries will die down. There's a distinct scent of moral panic about these fears, as if stopping photos and videos of underage drinking or teen sexuality will somehow prevent the activities from taking place to begin with.


I agree that this fear is largely unfounded. A photo of you on Flickr is hardly the equivalent of a scandalous expose in Heat magazine (not that such expose's seem to do the celebs careers much harm either). I suspect however that there will be plenty of instances of people being singed over what's posted by them (or about them) online but it's not something I worry about personaly and there's a lot of incriminating photos of me out there.

I had the same experience in a focus group years ago for a mainline environmental group. I was politely asked to shut up.

I think the concern about ubicam images on the Web is less about underage drinking and sex and more about personal embarrassment and possible blackmail or some other form of predation. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that there isn't somebody watching. Especially over time.


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