Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Semantic Glue

This sign came from one of the slides from the second day keynote by U.S. Commander Eric Rasmussen, who talked about "resilient communication" and the importance of what he called "emergent strategic collaboration" in which military personnel engaged in humanitarian operations must cooperate with often prickly partners from suspicious non-governmental organizations. The title for this posting comes from another one of his talking points, about "semantic glue" of "language, icons, and geospatial graphics" that gets its cohesive properties not from its fixity but from being "lightweight, adaptive, and interactive." Like the previous day's keynote speaker, he emphasized the fact that "violence is predictable."

Advocates for digital culture, network neutrality, and progressive copyright policy might have also been encouraged by certain aspects of Rasmussen's talk.

First, Rasmussen encourages open networks and open pipes, even in situations where maintaining political power would seem to depend on asymmetrical access to communications. In fact, his mantra seemed to be "protect your data not the network." In other words, he considers making communication infrastructure available to local populations to be a gesture of goodwill that pays off in the long term, and he even advises leaving communication technology behind when armed forces withdraw from a theater of conflict.

Second, as he said, "open standards, open source, and free are preferred." For example, he praised Sahana, a free and open source disaster management system with a victim registry feature, along with several other open source projects.

Third, Rassmussen plugged a variety of Web 2.0 applications to facilitate social networks, including Citizendium and a wiki for his own projects on "The Hub" to foster "situation awareness sharing" among "volunteers, first responders, government and non-government individuals who may otherwise be unable to collaborate." When running the Strong Angel III simulation that involved a pandemic, "bad guys" who were trying to exploit the situation, and no power, Sri Lankan blogger Sanjana Hattotuwa covered all the action as teams struggled to cope. Strong Angel III even has its own island in Second Life.

I was a bit wary of the fact that Rasmussen's talk was so gadget-oriented, particularly when his own website cautioned about potential security risks with TOOzL, one of the products he championed. I also felt that the slides that showed how "for profit" companies were participating in Rasmussen's disaster management scenarios went by too fast for me to critically evaluate. Last but not least, I thought that he was using the term "open source" in two very different senses -- open computer code and as unclassified intelligence -- without always signaling the semantic shift.

Rasmussen even entered into the cultural conversation about Negroponte's $100 laptop initiative. He argued that laptops didn't make sense in the developing world, when cellular telephones had many of the same capabilities in a more durable, portable, and affordable instrument. From his own experience in the field, he has also found wireless communication to often be unreliable in crises.

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