[joho] JOHO - June 15, 2004

  • From: "David Weinberger" <self@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <joho@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Wed, 16 Jun 2004 19:52:18 -0400

Journal of the
Hyperlinked Organization
June 15, 2004
Editor: David Weinberger (self@xxxxxxxxxxx)
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  | CONTENTS                                    |
  |                                             |
  | nothing to do with Bin Laden. It all began  |
  | in the third grade...                       |
  |                                             |
  | PACIFISM AND FLAMING: Maybe the important   |
  | part of speaking truth to power is just     |
  | speaking                                    |
  |                                             |
  | QUESTIONS TOO DUMB TO ASK: How does a       |
  | Voice over IP phone ring a real-world       |
  | phone?                                      |
  |                                             |
  | BOGUS CONTEST: If history were a movie      |
  | SPECIAL DIGRESSION ISSUE                    |
  |                                             |
  | I know JOHO is supposed to be about         |
  | technology and business -- it stands for    |
  | the Journal of the Hyperlinked              |
  | Organization, after all -- so I'm sorry to  |
  | lead with a piece on pacifism.              |
  | STUFF I WRITE                               |
  |                                             |
  | Just a reminder about this page that lists  |
  | my articles, radio stuff, and               |
  | speeches/presentations. I keep it slightly  |
  | up to date:                                 |
  | http://www.hyperorg.com/johonews.html       |


Until I was in my mid-30s, I was a pacifist,
absolutely against the killing of humans. Then, over
the course of about five years, I stopped being one.
Not much changed except a label. In another sense, a
lot changed.

I had always been upset by the use of force to get
one's way. Surprisingly, this was not rooted in some
dysfunctional family situation; although I was the
youngest, my siblings never bullied me. Nor was I
traumatized by some incident of suburban violence.
Instead, my pacifism was tied to my amazement that
there were other people in the world. From about the
third grade on, I could enter what I now think of as
a state of awe by contemplating how thorough and
thoroughly distinct the life of each of my
classmates was. And not just my classmates. Each car
we passed on the highway while driving to the beach
or to the Berkshires was filled with people going to
their own special places, thinking their own
thoughts. This struck me as beyond comprehension.
Using force to get your way with these people
ignored the most real fact about our world (I
thought): We are each a world.

By the time I got to college, I was expressing this
in terms of the absolute value of life. I wrote in a
ridiculously typical freshman theology paper that
since there is only value insofar as we imbue the
world with value, consciousness must be the highest
value. Therefore, there could be no justification
for destroying a mind. I then twisted the first five
books of the Bible to show that G-d wants us to be
non-violent, which isn't such an easy argument given
the amount of righteous smiting that goes on.

It's not as if this pacifism cost me anything.
Circumstances never required me to choose to die
rather than kill. I was given conscientious objector
status during the Vietnam War, I think because I
wore my draft board down with letters from everyone
I'd met -- yes, including my third grade teacher --
attesting that I was a pacifistical type person. I
thus missed the opportunity to test my moral mettle
(and thank goodness for it).

For the next fifteen years, I periodically argued
with people who made up ludicrous scenarios
involving Martians and guns wired to people's chests
in which the choice between killing Hitler and
saving the life of a good person could no longer be
postponed. I wriggled against the hypotheticals
using a variety of ploys, none of which are worth

Then, one day I was writing a dialogue about the
morality of pacifism, and I lost the argument with

Why should there be no circumstances imaginable in
which killing someone would be wrong? If I could
save a city by allowing ants to eat through the
sugar cube holding back the trigger on a gun sewn to
the head of a man who has his finger taped to a
switch, then, yes, dammit, I'd let them. Why not?
What was I preserving by denying the obvious fact
that sometimes you have to do something bad to
prevent something worse? And, there was a price to
my absolutism. It was forcing myself into the sort
of Cartesian perfectionism I decried when applied to
knowledge: Descartes demanded perfect certainty
before accepting knowledge, and I was demanding
perfect certainty in my moral actions. As a result, I
couldn't admit what seems now so obviously right: If
you attack my children, I will use force to stop
you, and will kill you if must.

I felt enormous relief, not unmixed with a sense of
self-betrayal. But what had actually changed? I now
admitted a tiny set of circumstances in which
killing would be justifiable. But I was so far to
the left on the justifiable-killing scale that there
was no good label for me. So, I still on occasion
call myself a pacifist with the mental reservation
that you don't have to be against killing Hitler to
be a pacifist. Maybe I'm mislabeling myself on those
occasions, but I think it's good to keep pacifism on
the table as a legitimate position.

Something else broke in me during those years of
transition. I went from believing that one is moral
by adhering to principles, to believing that
principled action can be morally wrong even when the
principle is good. If there are times when dying for
a principle is the right thing to do, it's not for
the sake of the principle but because of the effects
a principled death can have.

Principles have lost their mystic hold over me.
Acting well in the world and doing good have not --
in theory if not in practice -- but principles have.
Principles are guides, not justifications. They are
like "maxims," in Kant's terms.

The truth is that I resent principles. Over the
years I've come to believe that life is complex, not
simple.(What an insight!) My friend AKMA [1]
sometimes says that his role in the classroom is to
keep showing students that "it's not that simple."
(Sorry if I got that wrong, AKMA!) Exactly right. At
times teaching means showing the hidden simplicity
in what looks complex. But more often, your job is
to show them that matters are just more complex than
any of us can imagine. Principles make morality too
simple. And so does a utilitarian view that
reduces values to a common denominator for the
sake of a "calculus."

In fact, oddly, my pacifism began in the third grade
with the recognition of complexity: Each person is a
world that we can only know by living with them for
a lifetime, and even then, well, after twenty five
years, my wife is a mystery to me, which I've come
to believe is a condition for love.

So, I am no longer a pacifist if that means I pledge
never to use violence no matter what the situation,
real or hypothetical. But I would like to reclaim
the term: I am a pacifist because I want us to go to
extremes to avoid using violence. Why? Because
violence is the ultimate over-simplification.

[1] http://akma.disseminary.org/


By coincidence, as I was preparing this issue, I
got flamed for not flaming.

On Sunday, that ol' flame-magnet, Dave Winer [1],
shut down weblogs.com, a free blog hosting service
he had offered for four years out of the goodness of
his heart. I totally don't want to wade into this
topic again, so let's just say that it touched off a

My first draft of a blog entry expressed the pain I
felt for my fellow bloggers who were shut down, but
on reflection I thought I was being more angry than
fair. So, I deleted it before posting it and wrote
something else [2]. I have nothing against flaming
as a rhetorical form. In fact, I like to read a good
flame. But ...

The old Quaker phrase "Speak truth to power" [3] has
behind it the useful idea that the arbitrary use of
power says something untrue about the world. But it
also has an irksome self-righteousness since it
assumes that the speaker has the truth. I think I'd
take out the word "truth" and just say "Speak to
power." Simplicity breeds conflict. Flaming rejoices
in simplification. A good conversation, on the other
hand, complexifies its topic.

Peace may be just too complicated for us humans.

[1] http://www.scripting.com
[2] http://www.hyperorg.com/blogger/mtarchive/002739.html
[3] http://www.quaker.org/sttp.html


I've been a happy but puzzled Vonage [1] user. I
thought I understood pretty well how VOIP (Voice
over Internet Protocol) calls make it from my
telephone onto the Internet, but I couldn't figure
out how they snake their way back into the phone
system to ring a non-VOIP phone in, say, Malaysia
(or next door, for that matter). So, I called Vonage
and asked them.

To use Vonage, you plug a plain old phone into the
modem they give you, and you plug that modem into
your cable/DSL modem. The Vonage modem converts the
phone's signal from analog to digital, breaks it
into the sorts of packets the Internet expects, pats
them on the tush, and sends them on their way.

I asked Louis Holder, Vonage's Executive Vice
President of Product Development how the transitions
are made between the Net and the phone system.  He
explained that Vonage has done deals with phone
companies in each of the cities where you can get
Vonage service. The phone companies sell phone
numbers to Vonage that Vonage then offers its
subscribers. When a call comes in for a Vonage
subscriber, the phone company sends it to a Vonage
gateway co-located at the site, treating Vonage as
one of its customers. The gateway then sends the
call to the appropriate subscriber's telephone.

But how about when a Vonage customer calls someone
who isn't a Vonage customer? Suppose I want to call
someone in Malaysia? Vonage has done deals with
companies such as Qwest and GlobalCrossing around
the world, installing gateways that turn digital
signals back into analog for local delivery. With
the Internet, not only is all politics local, but so
are all phone calls.

When I asked Louis how Vonage is doing as the
telephone companies begin to roll out their own VoIP
plans, he said that things are going great. "We're
able to pick the best rates for each market," he
said, explaining why it's $0.02/minute to Hong Kong
but $0.04 to Copenhagen. About the Big Boy
competitors now offering the service, he added:
"Their first year will be spent fixing bugs."

By the way, I asked how they pronounce "VoIP" inside
Vonage. It's "voip" as in "void," although they
spell it out for newbies and customers. Now if we
can only decide how to pronounce "GIF"...

[1] http://www.vonage.com


Yes, ol' Bogus is back. This time, your task is to
suggest movie-ish style plots for real world events.
At the end of the realevent, people would say, "Wow,
you can't make up stuff like that!" (But, of course,
the whole point of the contest is to make up stuff.)
For example:

1. Twilight Zone Episode: "The Man behind the

   [NOTE: The following is in bad taste.]

        Pretend for a moment that the conspiracy theory
        that's been going around is true: Bush has had
        both Reagan and Bin Laden on ice for months, just
        waiting for the right political moment to
        announce their deaths. The administration
        announced Reagan's death last week to distract
        the electorate from the torture scandal, etc.

        So, here's how I'd like this theory (which I of
        course don't believe) to play out: In October
        Bush is still down in the polls, so W holds a
        press conference to announce that we've found and
        killed Bin Laden. In response to the clamoring
        from the press, he solemnly pulls back the sheet
        that's covering the body.

        It's Reagan.

2. Action Movie: "The Remake"

        Arnold Schwarzenegger is making a political stop
        at a mall in LA to kick off California's campaign
        against sexual predators. With him for the event
        are Jesse Ventura and Carl Weathers, the three
        former stars of Predator. There's a loud bang and
        the three stars dive into a FootLocker where they
        plan how to hunt down the assassin. Ninety
        minutes later when they catch him and pull off
        his black ski mask, s/he turns out to be ...??

3. Action/Comedy Movie: "The Orbit Club"

        The president's 81-year-old father decides he
        wants to go up into space, so he pays for a ride
        on the first commercial flight into orbit. But
        the framistan gets stuck and the ship can't come
        down. The president has to decide whether US
        taxpayers ought to fund the rescue of private
        citizens who knowingly engaged in the risky
        business of space travel. Instead, John Glenn
        approaches a rival private spaceship company and
        signs up for one more flight...

Now it's your turn. Just remember: No flaming.


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