The message from ‘High tech’s missionaries of sloppiness’ about blogging’s future status is encouraging. As for its transformation of computer (in)security – bah!

One lovely child of flawed software: poster in an office of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Bern,

One lovely child of flawed software:
poster in an office of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Bern,

Seven years ago, Elinor Ostrom — a winner of the 2009 Nobel prize for economics — cited an article on computer unreliability in a paper on knowledge-sharing that she wrote with Charlotte Hess. The angry essay they mentioned ran in late 2000 in an e-zine, the online magazine Salon. Their thirty-nine citations included only one other in a general-interest publication, a decades-old New Yorker piece by E. B. White.

More on that in a moment …

Long before print journalists shrank from crediting or citing blogs as sources of good ideas and information, they refused to acknowledge debts to e-zines and other online-only publications. If they gave them any credit at all, it was for being brave enough to dip their toes in the digital future – in which, from print’s Olympian perch, it seemed as if these pioneers were bound to fail. Their cold-shouldering will soon have to end, thanks to the example set by unprejudiced, fair-minded thinkers.

In post-Gutenberg’s experience, intellectual greatness is in direct proportion to the trouble a powerful brain worker takes over acknowledging useful information or inspiration found absolutely anywhere – whether or not the source meets old-fashioned, conventional criteria for respectability. Only shallow snobs care about labels.

With a quotation of just three words about a growing ‘culture of carelessness,’ Ostrom and Hess directed readers of their paper about obstacles to sharing research findings to the Salon article — ‘High tech’s missionaries of sloppiness’ (‘HTMOS’) — whose subject has been making front-page headlines, lately.

For instance, yesterday’s ‘Chinese Hackers Resume Attacks on U.S. Targets’ followed by only a few weeks a long profile in the same newspaper about the über-Cassandra on this topic, an octogenarian computer scientist called Peter Neumann who is leading a team of researchers trying to make computers less vulnerable to security breaches. His interviewer noted that

… the increasing complexity of modern hardware and software has made it virtually impossible to identify the flaws and vulnerabilities in computer systems and ensure that they are secure and trustworthy. The consequence has come to pass in the form of an epidemic of computer malware and rising concerns about cyberwarfare as a threat to global security …

We would name the newspaper we have quoted in linking to it, as we usually do, except that we are trying to make a point about the churlishness of print journalists’ tendency to – shall we say, forget to credit e-zines and blogs as sources. In April, the same daily ran an opinion piece by a hacker-turned-security-consultant, Marc Maiffret, who made our eyes pop in one paragraph (our italics):

The unspoken truth is that for the most part, large software companies are not motivated to make software secure. It’s a question of investment priorities: they care more about … developing the latest features and functions that consumers and businesses are looking to buy.

Unspoken, eh?

‘High tech’s missionaries of sloppiness’ certainly spoke, twelve years ago:

A culture of carelessness seems to have taken over in high-tech America. The personal computer is a shining model of unreliability because the high-tech industry today actually exalts sloppiness as a modus operandi.


American companies accept “good enough” quality for the sake of speed. Being first to market with new products is exalted as the highest goal here, and companies fall back on huge technical support and customer service staffs to cope with their many errors of commission and omission.

“Don’t worry, be crappy,” was how Silicon Valley veteran and pundit Guy Kawasaki expressed the same idea two years ago, in a speech that won him a standing ovation.

Programmers, hackers, and technologists of every stripe were incensed by the Salon essay. After a link to it was posted in the week of its publication on — then the most popular computerists’ chat-forum – they swarmed aboard, so furious that at least a third of the posts denounced the author of ‘HTMOS’ as ‘he,’ in spite of her unambiguously female name. The explosion was partly owed to the genius of Andrew Leonard, the Salon editor on the job, who barely scratched the piece’s text but wrote its headline and dreamt up a standfirst borrowing none of its actual words, which read,

Computer companies specialize in giving consumers lousy products — it’s the American way of techno-capitalism.

Maiffret and his editors might simply have failed to check the antecedents for his condemnation of Silicon Valley’s lack of interest in safe computing. A lone editor from the print world, Simon Caulkin – renowned in British journalism not just for his talent but peerless integrity (and a former colleaugue of the Salon contributor) – did cite ‘HTMOS’ in one of his Observer columns on management, titled, ‘Software must stop bugging us’.

For the most part, it is in books and university curricula that the essay has been marked for attention. Even if the world is still a long way from curing computers of their flaws, the citations that come up on the first page of Google results for the essay’s title are in, for instance:

Adapting Buildings and Cities for Climate Change, Sue Roaf, David Crichton and Fergus Nicol, Routledge, 2012

Why Programs Fail – A Guide to Systematic Debugging, Andreas Zeller, Elsevier, 2009 [also a Google e-book]

Geekonomics: The Real Cost of Insecure Software, David Rice, Pearson Education, 2007

Quality software project management, Robert T. Futrell, Donald F. Shafer and Linda Isabell Shafer, Prentice Hall Professional, 2002

‘HTMOS’ also continues to find its way into arguments between technophiles, as in 2007, on the site of the ‘Central West End Linux Users Group’ – where it was used to slap down a debater who declared airily, ‘Every OS [operating system] has its faults. Pick your poison.’

That Ostrom-Hess paper with which this post began was, as it happens, about tribalism getting in the way of sharing information critical to human life – in microbiology research. The authors noted, in their abstract, that ‘there are many, diverse participants in producing and consuming information who often have conflicting interests …’.

Conflicting interests indeed. It is obvious from the rarity with which print journalism acknowledges good work published online in e-zines and blogs that its workers are afraid of their new competitors. And then, of course, programmers are not particularly fond of that article. We at post-Gutenberg are not much interested in conspiracy theories, but could not help smiling when we noticed that someone at both The Observer and Salon appeared to have gone to pains to make it harder to find ‘HTMOS’ and the Caulkin column on flawed software. The London newspaper misclassifies his eloquent jeremiad with the work of a political writer, Madeleine Bunting. And for years, the Salon essay has been indexed not with its collections of pieces on computers, software or Silicon Valley but under ‘AUTO INDUSTRY, ENTERTAINMENT NEWS’.

Of course we imply no conspiracy… the culprit could only be a dear little sloppiness gremlin piling up overtime hours.

Would the Nobelist Elinor Ostrom have agreed that women are naturally more cooperative than men?

Bukidnon women of the Philippines island of Mindanao — Hans Brandeis

Norwegian women:
Minnesota Historical Society

Are women instinctively more cooperative than men?

Annoyingly, post-Gutenberg cannot seem to get off the fence, on that question.

There is no equivalent, for the other gender, of Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman — a blood-curdling, too often accurate, book about the scope of this category of unkindness by a respected psychologist, Phyllis Chesler. On the other hand, women have never fashioned whole careers from bludgeoning each other, the way legions of men did for most of human history — serving both noble causes and evil ones.

Nor has highly organised, male-dominated aggression disappeared. Our eyebrows went shooting ceilingward when we discovered, the other day, that in the country proud to think of itself as the land of Gandhi, elite business school students gather as rapturously as American hipster-cultists at Burning Man for a contest in strategic capitalist thinking called the Mahindra War Room. Om mane padme … oh dear, … we thought.

We would like to know whether there is any substance in the idea that women involved in running organisations tend naturally to a more consultative and collaborative style. Should women be encouraged to lead in promoting cooperative ownership as the fairest and most engaging way to organise people working together, wherever coops make sense?

We care about the answer because we have been obsessed by coops for some time. As we explained in a February post, the internet — used as both frame and engine for cooperative organisations — could vaporise many of the handicaps and inefficiencies that plagued failed coops of the recent past. More than once, we have linked to an outline of a scheme for making readers and commenters co-owners of media – a collection of ideas marinated in 2009, then lightly grilled and put on the table in January of 2010.

We could all be witnessing the start of capitalism’s evolution into an array of highly motivated, updated cooperative workplaces. It hardly matters that beady-eyed commenters spotted the questionable logic in one specific comparison in an otherwise accurate Guardian piece, last week, on the growing enthusiasm for cooperatives: ‘Co-operatives and mutuals keep outperforming the UK economy’. A reader, @johnjm, remarked acidly: ‘Comparing co-operatives, which are largely in retailing, with GDP is spurious and arguably financially illiterate.’

If @johnjm is honest, he will concede that some eminent economists find the concept of GDP itself unsatisfactory.  Scrolling down all the reader comments on that article by Greg Rosen does suggest that its premise — that a ‘cooperative renaissance’ is underway — is warranted. Growing numbers of us see coops — warts and all, without any expectation of being led to paradise on earth — as the shrewdest solution to the problem of the 1% that Occupy campaigners turned into high drama. Even if Rosen’s is a flawed comparison, it was intriguing to see these numbers side-by-side – and the next sentence rang deeply true:

While the real level of GDP in the UK in 2011 was 1.7% lower than in 2008, co-operative sector turnover has grown 19.5% over that period.

Some parts of the co-operative economy have been resilient for the past 40 years – but without public recognition.

That said, how are we to get more people to demand cooperative organisations? Could women hold the key to that galvanisation? If forced at gun point to guess either way, a few months ago, post-Gutenberg might have ventured, with cringing reluctance, that females are probably somewhat less adept at friction-free collaboration than men are (see Phyllis Chesler, above).

But lately, these scraps have come floating to the front of our mental screens — on eddies of serendipity:

• Elinor Ostrom, the first and only woman ever to win the Nobel prize for economics (2009), made her name as a specialist in ‘examining the use of collective action, trust, and cooperation in the management of common pool resources’ – such as irrigation networks and fishing grounds — working closely with her husband, Vincent Ostrom.

Our introduction to this radical but self-effacing thinker came from Howard Rheingold’s new book, Net Smart. Like Howard, a cyberspace pioneer and writer, she stood out for putting her ideas into practice in her own life. Shortly after her death in June, he kindly answered our question about their brief acquaintance by explaining that they met at a conference in Bali, through another woman academic interested in the same subject …

… Charlotte Hess, whose work I had been following. In my research on cooperation theory (compiled at I had become familiar with the foundational work of Elinor Ostrom. Hess had co-authored with Ostrom a key paper on information as a common pool resource. […]  Lin Ostrom, as everyone seems to call her, was gracious enough sit down with me and talk about our shared interest in informing policy decisions about common pool resources with real empirical research. Then, as she often did, Ostrom voiced her concern about all the decisions being made at the political level without a shred of knowledge of the significant body of scientific research about what worked and what didn’t work with commons governance issues. […] I came away […] understanding that I had met one of the few great people I had the good fortune to encounter in my lifetime.

• A paper by an economic historian, Beatrice Moring, ‘Female Networks and Cooperation in the Nordic Past’. She delivers an important reminder of how women once excelled at cooperative tasks – ‘[c]ommunal activity without payment, lasting one day or less, aimed at performing tasks needing many participants.’ She argues that after the industrial revolution, the specialisation and commercialisation of work destroyed strong and indispensable female networks which — in Finland, Norway and Sweden — had once milked cows, collaborated in weaving and making clothes, communal baking, and heavy-duty housecleaning.

Elinor Ostrom’s animating spirit, or what can be gleaned of it in an excellent obituary in The Economist, was in close sympathy with those toiling Nordic women:

[C]ollaboration was her watchword. Neighbours thrived if they worked together. The best-laid communal schemes would fall apart once people began to act only as individuals, or formed elites. Born poor herself, to a jobless film-set-maker in Los Angeles who soon left her mother alone, she despaired of people who wanted only a grand house or a fancy car. Her childhood world was coloured by digging a wartime “victory” vegetable garden, knitting scarves for the troops, buying her clothes in a charity store: mutual efforts to a mutual end.

• A light-hearted April 23 column by the science journalist Natalie Angier taking an extreme position also, incidentally, at the furthest extreme from Phyllis Chesler’s – and extended to include non-human females:

In animals as diverse as African elephants and barnyard mice, blue monkeys of Kenya and feral horses of New Zealand, affiliative, longlasting and mutually beneficial relationships between females turn out to be the basic unit of social life, the force that not only binds existing groups together but explains why the animals’ ancestors bothered going herd in the first place.

• A blog post about Elinor Ostrom by the president of the International Cooperative Alliance, founded in 1895 and representing 248 co-operative federations and organisations in 92 countries, according to the Wikipedia. And who did that turn out to be? Yet another woman – Pauline Green.

… Might these scraps amount to dots describing a larger, highly significant pattern – even if they do not quite add up to proving a greater female affinity and aptitude for working in cooperative organisations?

We have no idea. We would like to have asked Elinor Ostrom that question but, sadly, learnt of her existence too late.

Yes, cooperatives are idealistic … like marriage and parenting, and no, they do not have to be run like AA meetings

Cooperation or a Mexican standoff? Photograph and mise-en-scène by MIL22

When there is separation, there is coming together. When there is coming together, there is dissolution.

Chuang-Tzŭ (Zhuangzi), Inner Chapters,4th century BCE

[ trans.: Gia-fu Feng and Jane English ]

It is curious that anger about inequality is boiling over around the world precisely when we have new tools capable of taking us a long way towards a solution.

Yet disillusioned, battle-weary romantics who once joined some attempt to make democracy more democratic — or run a cooperative as an alternative to the Darwinian capitalism so adept at spawning plutocracies — have been telling us how they failed so gloomily that they could be competing for hopelessness with the Icelander Halldor Laxness and his Independent People.

Is it unreasonable to ask that, instead of justifying their pessimism, they collect and broadcast their thoughts about what they learnt from those failures and would do differently if they were to try again? And might they sit up and notice exactly what is possible with the new, democracy-friendly tools that could have helped them to avert disaster — if these had only been invented in time?

If paying attention, the nay-sayers might avoid the unfortunate misperception of cooperatives as cuddly, slow-moving, necessarily lovable ‘kumbaya’ institutions – as in a newspaper columnist’s suggestion last week that members of worker-owned coops might specialise in listening to each other as patiently and empathetically as people at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.

… er, please, … no! … ideal co-owners are far more likely to be reading at their own pace – in most cases, fast and online — than attending in the same room to statements of each other’s positions on any issue. Or they might be watching a short video clip on the subject – in the information-gathering and debating prelude to making a decision.

As this blog noted six weeks ago, technology has made it possible for everyone to consider the same information simultaneously, and to spell out goals and policies crisply. The deciding in a cooperative could be done at – well, why not say, warp speed, and that hardly seems an exaggeration when you consider the spread of ‘clickers‘ linked to polling software, and mentioned on the front page of the New York Times last week as

… hand-held wireless devices with just a few buttons.

[…] In recent years, college students have been bringing clickers to lecture halls, where professors require their use for attendance, instant polls and multiple-choice tests. Corporate executives sometimes distribute the devices at meetings, and then show survey responses immediately on Power Point slides. Just two of many companies that make clickers have sold nearly nine million units, which typically cost between $30 and $40 apiece, in under a decade. One of the companies, Turning Technologies, sold 1.5 million in 2011 alone.

But clickers can now be found in […] churches, fire departments, cruise ships and health care providers […] spreading the phenomenon of online crowdsourcing to off-line crowds. Fans of the devices say they are efficient, eco-friendly and techno-tickling, allowing audiences to mimic TV game-show contestants.

Do not, dear reader, mistake me for a neophile. I put off admitting digital innovations into my life until the penalties for resisting them are nipping at my heels – or a brother of mine has nagged me to distraction. I never forget that no matter how much more tools let us do today than we could yesterday, human nature remains the same at its core — fallible and perverse.

No technological wizardry has made it possible to hand over to robots the effort it takes to succeed at marriage, child-rearing, or working productively and in harmony with other people. All that calls for unceasing trial and error – and persistence, staring down disappointment and discouragement. I found a statement of this truth, twenty-five centuries old, browsing in my ravishing edition of the Chinese philosopher Chuang-Tsŭ’s Inner Chapters – for a reason to be explained in next week’s post.

‘When you wrack your brain trying to unify things,’ the passage begins,

… it is called ‘three in the morning’. What do I mean by ‘three in the morning’? A man who kept three monkeys said to them, ‘You get three acorns in the morning and four in the evening.’ This made them all very angry. So he said, ‘How about four in the morning and three in the evening?’ – and the monkeys were happy. The number of acorns was the same, but the different arrangement resulted in anger or pleasure. This is what I am talking about.

Empathetic listening could be a good guiding principle for some cooperatives, like the one the newspaper columnist has in mind. Other coops will want a different arrangement of acorns. It will all depend on the rules they make for running them.

I have yet to read Howard Rheingold’s latest book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online — but look forward particularly to seeing what he has to say in it about cooperation and collaboration, having glimpsed in this section his introduction to the ideas of Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009.  He quotes her conclusion that

… ‘institutions of collective action’ were more likely to succeed when a small number of design principles were observed, and more likely to fail in the absence of these measures.

He lists her suggested principles, of which these struck me as most important:

  • Ÿ Rules governing the use of collective goods are well matched to local needs and conditions.
  • Ÿ Most individuals affected by these rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  • Ÿ The right of community members to devise their own rules is respected by external authorities.

… Discussing suggestions like hers is exactly where the conversation about cooperatives needs to go next.