Saturday, June 06, 2009

Those were the days

Matt Yglesias points to this entertaining clip of a c. 1991 CBC TV news report on the amazing new phenomenon of Internet.

I love that c. 2:18, we switch directly from a shot of the names of usenet groups to a paean to the no-cursing, no-swearing, no-putdowns, no-personal-attacks norms of Internet from the guy who looks like Steve Gutenberg. Yes, it's true that usenet groups did have norms, and norm-enforcement. But they sure as heck also had flamewars and viciousness-- and indeed had flamewars and viciousness about what the norms were and who had authority to enforce them. As one would expect, the more intimate and specialized the group, and the more the participants had real-world reasons to care about one another's opinions, the more civilized things were. High-traffic groups with regular influxes of newbies (e.g. every September when a new generation of college freshmen got internet access), or groups about controversial topics like politics or religion, or fandom groups where geek passions ran high-- all of these were prone to, well what we now recognize as normal internet behavior.

It was only a couple of months after I first encountered Mosaic in 1993 that I met a guy who told me about the huge quantity of porn he'd downloaded from online sources. (This conversation was in front of his sister, which I found especially odd.) I think he was spending his time on porn BBS sites, not on the newly-html'ed World Wide Web, but it did serve as an early hint to me that adding pictures and graphics to the existing online universe of words wasn't necessarily going to improve the world.

Also chez Yglesias: the safety of bike-riding in cities goes up as the number of riders goes up. I think that the terrific new bixi program in Montreal has already noticeably increased traffic in the city's bike lines-- and that drivers are learning to respond appropriately, and remembering that the bike lanes exist.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Good for Obama

From the Cairo address:

Likewise, it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit – for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.

The sixth issue that I want to address is women's rights.

I know there is debate about this issue. I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous.

It's an extraordinary speech overall, hitting lots of very important themes and ideas. I started off a little annoyed, because the only terrorist attack mentioned is 9/11 and the reaction to it is made to seem like a purely American one. I understand that it's vital to avoid describing a civilizational war, and that this generates an impulse to compartmentalize 9/11. Making 9/11 a localized security threat against the United States, and the response to it a localized war in Afghanistan, is a way of forestalling Bush-era maximalism.

But it also makes the security account seem parochial: the U.S. responded to Al Qaeda's attacks on New York and Washington, and that's the extent of the American interest. I don't want to see the deaths in Madrid, London, Bali, Casablanca, Jakarta, Riyadh, and Istanbul disappear from our historical memory of 9/11 and its aftermath. And invoking them doesn't have to mean describing a global civilizational struggle-- indeed it allows one to emphasize that much of Al Qaeda's violence is committed against targets within Muslim countries. Through Obama's address, 9/11 is mentioned several times, and other attacks are only alluded to.

But that's my only substantial objection to a very important, and very effective, speech. And I was of course especially glad to see the passages with which I began, and don't at all mind the implied swipe at France and Turkey. The American doctrine of religious freedom does have a distinct position from the Jacobin doctrine of laicite, and it's worthwhile to stress the implication for Muslim liberty in America.