Projects

Occasionally, when people join forces and put their minds to it, a new blueprint for something emerges, and this process can have real effects on the quality of lives and on the efficiency of human endeavors, whether on a large scale (e.g., a national Constitutional Convention) or a smaller one (a new standard for more secure wireless networking). The Unboxed Mind is eventually intended to serve as a catalyst and a hub for working groups interested in putting together proposed “better ways” for many of the things that we do in our society (or that we could do, with some creative vision to lay down a more productive framework).

It is hoped that this site can serve as a focal point for assorted projects aimed at purposefully bettering some of the systems and patterns found in our society, especially (but not entirely limited to) our means of communication and public discourse in the modern, technological world. Here it is hoped that the way X is done is always open for examination, knowing that many of the systems embedded in our culture were never designed for the purposes to which they are put today, or may never have been designed, exactly, at all. Some of the systems or patterns of American culture today that are ripe for serious overhaul or improvement include:

Arenas

Projects

Public Discourse
Many of the current forms of conversation in the public sphere are failing us, and even damaging us. This conversation is about very important things, and yet we carry on the conversation in ways that make it extremely unproductive. Demagoguery, sniping, unfair rhetoric, and a prior commitment to partisan loyalty before truth are getting us nowhere. The reformulation of political conversation as entertainment, as incitement to rage, and as advertising are undermining our ability to govern ourselves. It is therefore well worth exploring whether alternate models of conversation can be found.
A Different Sort of Publication: There do exist publications which regularly add worthwhile thoughts to the public square. These, unfortunately, are often drowned out by the numerous, loud, other media voices. The Unboxed Mind is intended to reduce that imbalance, however slightly, by presenting a web journal whose purpose is to directly offer up thoughtful discussion, engaging authors and readers in the business of considered, independent thinking, rather than ideological ranting.
A New Model of Online Discussion: As ever-greater shares of our conversation moves online, the inadequacies of Internet discussion become more and more apparent. Nearly all online mechanisms for discussion fall into one of the same several models, which often tend to encourage “drive-by commenting,” make it nearly impossible to closely follow a discussion, or otherwise undermine the potential for productive dialogue. This dialogue is vitally important, and the articles of a web journal such as The Unboxed Mind should be the starting point of conversation, not the ending point. Therefore, another project hosted here will be the development of, and experimentation with, alternate designs for an online forum, one purposefully designed to foster productive discussion, with the ultimate intention of building something that can be put to use by numerous online publications and sites with a need for improved engagement with their audiences.
Personal Identity Management A New Design for Identity Management: There are major flaws in every form of identity management currently in use and in many of the currently-proposed solutions. For instance, knowledge of a Social Security number is regularly used as proof of identification, even though a Social Security number is not by nature a secret piece of information– hundreds or thousands of people at numerous private and public institutions have access to any one person’s Social Security number even when it has never “leaked”. Modern technology only makes things more complex. Identity verification, whether for banking regulations or for spam detection in personal communications, is a tricky problem, as demonstrated by the prevalence of identity theft, numerous online scams, and vast amounts of time and money wasted distinguishing between legitimate and unwanted email, phone calls, and other communications. But modern technology also makes new things possible. For instance, it opens up the door to defining multiple “identities” for multiple contexts, disallowing any one organization from having complete control or easy surveillance of a person. It creates a world in which people can communicate and do business without having to verify one’s partner face-to-face. Most attempts at putting these possibilities into practice don’t truly solve these problems and revolve around a highly centralized identity authority (the government, or Facebook, owns your identity), a smart but partial and overly arcane solution (PGP), or shape people’s security habits in ways that make them excellent targets for phishers (OpenID). Modern processing power and mass storage change some assumptions we typically build into systems, such as whether or not it is feasible to have much larger sets of key pairs corresponding to our various individual correspondents or online identities, and even open the door to extensive use of one-time pads. I think because of this there is room for a well-designed system of creating, storing, and using identities that can make communications secure and verifiable, give people control over their own cross-site identity management and trust relationships with others, and keep all secure information completely in the hands of the person to whom it belongs.
Interpersonal Electronic Communications Moving Beyond Email: Email has done well for us, but there are unmet needs that can be addressed by re-thinking Internet messaging from the ground up. Email is not designed to be secure. It takes a lot of effort and care to make it so, or to even do simple things such as know for sure from whom a message came (which feature results in email servers wasting the vast majority of their energy handling spam). It is a very poor medium for collaboration, as anyone knows who has ever tried to send a document around to multiple people for revisions, or who has even attempted to plan an event and assemble together multiple people’s feedback into a single document. Its flaw with the most widespread, but subtle, influence in our culture is that it does not work well for extended discussion, because it doesn’t by nature support a true analogue to a “conversation”. We make do with a messy stew of “reply-all” and the pseudo-threaded or pseudo-conversational views offered by our email clients, if even that. Most problematically, it is heavily oriented toward a model where information that should be yours is instead owned, stored, and managed by someone else. You are one unexpected “product sunset,” corporate bankruptcy, or hacker takeover away from losing it all. Moreover, you have no ability whatsoever to control access to your data. Does a “privacy policy” that can be changed tomorrow, disregarded today without your knowledge, and goes away altogether when the company is sold or its assets auctioned off in bankruptcy really protect you? Do you mind that nearly all your communications are mined for advertisers and vacuumed up into vast government data centers? It is time to pursue the development of a framework for the next generation of Internet communications.
Personal Data in a Connected World A Better Model for Storing, Accessing, and Synchronizing Personal Data: It is said that the future is in the cloud. I disagree. I think only the immediate future is in the cloud. In the long-term, as connection speeds and the portability of mass storage increase, it makes very little sense for us to put all of our own private data outside our control and outside our reach except as some third party chooses to make it available to us. There is no reason our private lives, personal records, and our own documents and files can’t ultimately live on, and only on, our own hardware, secure and synchronized between our portable and stationary devices. This direction makes far more sense as respects both privacy and access concerns– at least for individuals. (Those who love having access to our data for advertising or other purposes might prefer we continue down the current path). Portable devices and average connection bandwidth are not yet where they need to be to fully attain this goal, but developing patterns and frameworks to take advantage of these capabilities as they first emerge might go a long way toward avoiding eventually being inertially locked into a model without privacy, security, or control over one’s own data.
The Future of Media Creation and Distribution New Frameworks for Media: Newspapers, book publishers, and record labels are struggling and dying. Why? Not because the demand for news, reading material, or music has dried up. Rather, the Internet has vastly changed the environment in which these things exist. Meanwhile, newer phenomena, such as blogging, video sharing, and e-readers have emerged, but how to translate them into services that make enough money to survive is not always clear, and how to sustain society-enhancing institutions such as a trustworthy news media in these conditions is unknown. The entire world of media creation and distribution is undergoing rapid change with no clear signs of coalescing into a new equilibrium. Given the high stakes- a well-informed public, the survival of the arts- it is worth giving active thought to ways media could work well, and attempting to intentionally devise a model or models to suit the next era. Existing companies desperately try to cling to revenue streams based on the old model, by distribution agreements that prevent innovative businesses from getting anywhere, by lobbying for protective legislation, and by forcing consumers to use devices and software whose operation is dictated by sellers of content, but what is really the best future for media? Is it possible at all to sustain a situation in which a single company owns the artists, the art, the marketing, and the distribution (and if so, is it worth the cost)? How do we handle a large volume of self-published content without any good way to sort it, filter it, narrow it, or measure its worth? Are there ways to preserve the idea of trusted curation or mediation of content while simultaneously opening up new possibilities for its creators, distributors, and consumers? Can Internet distribution allow for a future world in which Firefly doesn’t need an audience big enough to win one of the very few spots available on a tiny number of networks, merely an audience big enough to pay for the show’s ongoing production?
Taxation and Government Budgeting A Fairer, More Productive Way to Tax and Spend: Politicians accuse one another of wanting to tax and spend, or of spending away our children’s future, but no matter what party is in power, our deficit-based government spending goes ever-upward. The basic problem is this: 1. Spending government money wins you votes; while 2. Lowering taxes also wins you votes. This is a disastrous combination, because it means the incentives for politicians are always to raise spending while cutting revenue. This is why we never get out of debt. Balanced budget amendments don’t seem to be powerful enough to overcome this. But what if there were a way to inextricably link taxing and spending, so that we always had to tax ourselves enough to pay for whatever we spent? Then every expenditure would have to answer the question, “Is this worth spending my money on?” For some things, the answer is yes, but under today’s system we don’t spend our money on them; we just leave the costs to our children. For other expenditures, the answer is no, but today we spend it anyway, because, again, it is someone else paying. I propose that it is possible to come up with a system where, under a massively simplified tax code (which itself needs to happen for many other reasons, as well), we set tax rates to automatically follow budgets. By ending the disconnection between the two, we would force legislators to individually consider every expenditure as if it costs their constituents money- because it does- and approve it only if the benefits are worth that cost.
Elections and Voting A Better Mechanism for Voting: Voting in the United States is broken. If there are two, similar candidates for office, both of whom are liked by roughly the same 60% of the voters, and a third, very different one liked by the other 40%, guess who wins? The least-liked candidate, because the other two split the vote of their supporters. This effect damages local and regional elections on a regular basis, and occasionally even affects Presidential elections. It nearly always has a direct result on the quality of the outcomes of primaries, where there are typically multiple candidates. It is also why attempts to create third major parties always do and always will fail. All of these problems arise for one reason: the way we vote has no ability to express the popular will when there are more than two candidates. But this is not the only way to vote. There are a number of other possible ways, some of which allow expressing preferences among a whole group. I believe, for various reasons, that some form of what is called “Range Voting” is probably the best of these systems (although many of the alternate options are better than what we have today). I am by no means the first to propose this, but American democracy could truly benefit from the project to bring a better voting system into practice.
The Practice of Medicine A Redesigned Medical System: Why does it cost so much? Why does it cost more every year? Why don’t medical bills have even slightly rational numbers on them? Why are all the hospitals merging, and why do they all spend so much of our money advertising? Why are general practitioners disappearing? Why do so many doctors appear only for 30 seconds at the very end of your visit, and therefore have utterly no relationship with, or personal knowledge of, their patients anymore? Why do we have to make job choices based on insurance instead of being able to choose the two separately? Why doesn’t it seem to work better than it does, if we’re spending that much on it? Everyone knows something is wrong, but almost everybody focuses blame on one or two small parts of a giant, complex system that includes medical schools, researchers, pharmaceutical companies, doctors, both for-profit and non-profit hospitals and medical corporations, pharmacies, insurance companies, employers, individuals, cultural expectations, government programs at the local, state, and federal level, and law as regards practice, insurance, standards, and liability, all in a hugely complicated interplay of incentives, needs, habits, moral hazards, choices, and money. The sheer number of moving parts makes it too large a topic to even fully describe here, much less discuss, but that doesn’t make it any less important to look at all these pieces and take up the project of reform, not with the aim of promoting the favorite (partial) solution of one or another party, but with the aim of discerning and bringing about changes that would most comprehensively and wisely address all of the interlocking pieces.
Interconnection in the Church A Better Model for Church Connection: Strangely, most of the connections between denominations seem to occur at the national level, where the links are, at best, shared programs, and often are merely abstract declarations of some kind of theoretical relationship. This is strange because it is the local congregations which could benefit from connection in far more clear ways. Theological differences may well mean that a small town has half a dozen congregations which run their worship or polity in different ways. But does that really mean they cannot share any resources to better serve their community and their joint mission? How many churches are not big enough to field a mission trip, or a tutoring program, or put on a special celebration of one of the church holidays? How many of those churches are within a few miles of one another? Many of them are even on theologically similar ground, but it would never occur to them to join forces with a neighboring church to offer a more substantial adult education program or a better array of bible studies, a fuller choir, or a more adequate but shared building. There are real obstacles to these goals, but that fact is not a good reason to refrain from trying. Partnerships in certain kinds of work do exist, but right now there are not many widespread models or patterns for overcoming the barriers to cooperating at a more substantial, everyday level…and yet cooperating is part of our mission, so we should examine it intentionally and seek ways to do so wherever possible.