A New S- Word

May 30, 2009

One of the topics I talk about here is the open-source model of software development; and, more generally, about the kinds of collaborative actions that are made possible by communications technology, most notably by the Internet.  So I was very interested to see, in the recent issue of Wired magazine, an article by Kevin Kelly called “The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online”.

Now, the first thing I want to say about the article is that I think the title is unfortunate.  As Mr. Kelly himself says, the word “socialism” carries with it an awful lot of baggage:

I recognize that the word socialism is bound to make many readers twitch. It carries tremendous cultural baggage, as do the related terms communal, communitarian, and collective. I use socialism because technically it is the best word to indicate a range of technologies that rely for their power on social interactions. Broadly, collective action is what Web sites and Net-connected apps generate when they harness input from the global audience. Of course, there’s rhetorical danger in lumping so many types of organization under such an inflammatory heading. But there are no unsoiled terms available, so we might as well redeem this one.

What he is talking about is not a political ideology, and in fact doesn’t have much to do with politics at all, at least at present.  Rather, he’s looking at a range of collaborative activities that are enabled by Internet tedchnology, including:

  • Sharing In some sense the first and most basic form, sharing is represented by sites like Facebook or YouTube.  There has, of course, been some controversy over people sharing content that is not theirs to share, but I’d guess that most of what’s there is personal and completely above-board.
  • Cooperation This is the next step, in which a (usually) ad hoc group works together toward some common purpose.  Many of the original text-based newsgroups on USENET fit this pattern, as do user-focused support forums.  To cite one example in which I’ve participated, the group comp.lang.c has existed for many years to discuss and help resolve programming problem with the C language.
  • Collaboration Represents a more organized group working with a more focused purpose. Many open-source projects, like the Apache Web server, fit this pattern.   Here it is commonly the case that the direct reward to an individual participant is small compared to his or her investment of skilled labor.  Rather, the rewards tend to be intangible: reputation for skill, for example.
  • Collectivism This is the pattern exhibited by the largest group endeavors, like Wikipedia, or the development of the Linux operating system.  Typically, the total number of contributors is large, but there is a smaller core group that coordinates the effort.  In the case of Linux itself, there is also its originator, Linus Torvalds, who serves as a “benevolent dictator”.

One of the interesting aspects of all this is that it seems to alleviate some of the tension that always existed between allowing individual freedom and initiative on one  hand, and organizing for efficiency on the other.

In the past, constructing an organization that exploited hierarchy yet maximized collectivism was nearly impossible. Now digital networking provides the necessary infrastructure. The Net empowers product-focused organizations to function collectively while keeping the hierarchy from fully taking over. The organization behind MySQL, an open source database, is not romantically nonhierarchical, but it is far more collectivist than Oracle.

(This ties in, too, with some of the writing that Eric Raymond has done on the open-source phenomenon, notably his extended essay, “Homesteading the Noosphere”.)

Kelly’s hypothesis is that the success of collective ventures enabled by the Internet is making people more receptive to the idea of collective action on other fronts.  The Internet phenomena are different from traditional political socialism, in that they are based much more on pragmatism than ideology.

The coercive, soul-smashing system of North Korea is dead; the future is a hybrid that takes cues from both Wikipedia and the moderate socialism of Sweden.

I am not at all sure that I agree with all his conclusions about the political import of these “collectivist” activities, but I think it is clear that we are seeing the evolution of an interesting new social and cultural phenomenon.   It’s been an interesting journey so far.

Galactic Positioning System

May 30, 2009

No, that title is not a mistake.  Of course, most people by now are familiar with the idea of another GPS, the Global Positioning System, which uses a “constellation” of satellites in Earth orbit, fitted with high–accuracy atomic clocks, to enable a terrestrial receiver to determine its position.

According to a note posted on the Physics ArXiv blog at the MIT Technology Review Web site, a couple of French researchers have published a short paper [PDF – quite technical] proposing that a similar system could be constructed on a much larger scale, using natural objects in place of the satellites:

Today, Bertolomé Coll at the Observatoire de Paris in France and a friend propose an interstellar GPS system that has the ability to determine the position of any point in the galaxy to within a metre.

The proposed system would use signals from a set of four pulsars, which lie approximately in a tetrahedron centered on the Solar System.  (A pulsar is a rotating neutron star, with a very high magnetic field, which emits a strong beam of electromagnetic radiation.  Because, as with the Earth, the magnetic axis does not correspond exactly with the rotational axis, the signal appears to “blink” on and off, as a lighthouse might.  This “blinking”, for at least some individual pulsars, has a very stable period, to within a few nanoseconds.)

Because of the distances involved, and the fact that the signals travel at the speed of light, General Relativity has to be taken into account:

Why four pulsars? Coll points out that on these scales relativity has to be taken into account when processing the signals and to do this, the protocol has to specify a position in space-time, which requires four signals.

Basically the corrections must account for the relativistic time dilation, and the curvature of space-time caused by gravity (sometimes called the gravitational blue-shift).

Many people (myself included) are surprised to find that the existing GPS also has to take relativity into account.  The current system’s undithered signals (the ones used by the military) permit determining location to about a 1 meter radius.  In order to do this, time must be measured to an accuracy of about 1 part in 1013.  But if relativistic effects were ignored, that would introduce an error of about 1 part in 1010, or 1000 times as much.  Over the course of a day, you could accumulate a position error of ~10 kilometers.  (Source: Warped Passages, by Lisa Randall, ISBN 0-06-053109-6.)

I’ve mentioned before how parts of modern physics take us away from the domain where our instincts and intuition work.  This is another aspect of that same paradox: the ideas underlying General Relativity (such as curved, non-Euclidean space-time) seem exotic, and the mathematics is formidable.  Yet the little box you may have in your dashboard has to “know” all about it.

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