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When I heard about GMail, the new email service from Google. It didn’t seem that relevant to me, since I moved to the Spamcop service last year, since the spam (spam, spam, spam, spam) on my previous email.com account was totally out of control. (For at least the last year, I had to mark all mail for deletion, then un-mark the few that I might actually want to read. Forwarding all that mail to my work address was totally out of the question.)

Yesterday, on a whim, I put a request up on gmailswap.com, and had a response in a few minutes. I’ve agreed to send a small Irish souvenir to North Carolina. At least, I think it’s North Carolina, since I don’t have my correspondent’s address yet, but she has a publicly accessible website, like mine, complete with a weblog and photos. So I’m happy that I’m dealing with a real person who will keep up her end of the bargain, and she can feel the same about me, since we both have virtual reputations at stake here.

The way GMail has been launched, as an invitation-only public beta test, has revived debate in the USA and elsewhere about the idea of reputation and reliability in the online world. There have been several attempts to codify shch a thing and get a head start, but none have been truly successful so far. I took a look at two on Friday: Friendster and Orkut.

Friendster is a self-registration service: it asks for a bunch of demographic and marketing information from you, and also the names and contact details of friends you wish to register with the service. It supposedly operates on the “friend of a friend” idea, to offer a trail of friendship or reputation that (supposedly) guarantees a bit more than you would get from a total stranger. Orkut, however, is invitation-only, a closed community developed by and named after a Google employee. I only heard about it thanks to a warning on GMailSwap, that Orkut invitations were not permitted for exchange for a GMail invitation. It aims to maintain that elusive aloofness, out of reach of the average wannabe.

In both cases, it is not at all clear what I would get in return for the handing over of valuable personal information that would turn me in to a target market. Even something as simple as my GMAT results have alredy been spread around the world: I have emails asking me to consider taking a MBA in Singapore. So, I won’t be signing up for one of these services, I am already spread thinly enough, thank you. As I’ve noted recently, I don’t need to reach out to internet strangers: I fight to keep them from kicking my front door down.

Cory Doctorow’s novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which you can also download and read, uses a system called “whuffie” as a measure of a person’s worth that has crossed over from the virtual world to the real world. Anyone can “ping your whuffie” and get an instant measure of your worth, a worth not acquired financially, but through good and useful actions. Just how much an action is worth is not specified; it appears to be ad-hoc or collectively bargained. When your whuffie runs out, whether it’s your fault or not, well, that’s where the Down and Out part of the title came from.

The idea of whuffie is attractive, on the one hand, as a more meritocratic measure of worth, one not tied to physical assets directly; indirectly, of course, the greater your physical assets, the better you can help others. The drawback, from my viewpoint, is the way it ties you to other people; not just friends and acquaintances, but random strangers. Like the novel’s protagonist, you can find yourself and your livelihood at the mercy of irrationality and whims, or even political manoeuvring.

I hesitate to mantion Ayn Rand in this blog, in case Google marks it down as another “Randroid” site, but I have to agree with an important point she made about Civilization:

Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.
— The Fountainhead (1943)

Today, rightly or wrongly (a personal value judgement), worldly success is measured financially, and if I had the money, I would live in a penthouse or secluded mansion. People who enjoy that luxury today have largely cut themselves off from society; but not totally. They can decide to go and take part in society, and dictate the terms on which they do so, knowing who their friends really are. I must not be a Socialist, then, since I find that prospect thoroughly appealing, and I have long been making choices about who I associate with, within the limits imposed by my circumstances. (Consider it a compliment – or vice versa!)

I am not much of a Rand scholar, and have read only bits of her work, but controversy is never far away when you mention her. Part of the confusion, to me, seems to stem from the apparent hypocrisy in putting forth a comprehensive philosophical position, but one that encourages people to think for themselves, even if means rejecting her philosophy. Yet, at one point, her ideas were striking enough to capture the attention of Hollywood, who turned The Fountainhead into a film staring Gary Cooper. I have a book called The Ayn Rand Reader, an anthology of her writing, which I have read only bits of, but in picking it up today, I went straight to the end, to a reply to a fan letter in 1971:

I hope that you will understand and accept my philosophy fully and—if I understand you correctly—that you will never give up the values you had once held.
You ask me about the meaning of the dialogue on page 702 of Atlas Shrugged:

‘We never had to take any of it seriously, did we?’ she whispered.
‘No, we never had to.’

Let me begin by saying that this is perhaps the most important point in the whole book … the conviction that joy, exaltation, beauty, greatness, heroism, all the supreme, uplifting values of man’s existence here on earth, are the meaning of life — not the pain or ugliness he may encounter — that one must live for the sake of such exalted moments as one may be able to achieve or experience, not for the sake of suffering — that happiness matters, but suffering does not — that no matter how much pain one may have to endure, it is never to be taken seriously, that is: never to be taken as the essence and meaning of life — that the essence of life is the achievement of joy, not the escape from pain.

Why does that resonate with me? Because “escape from pain” alone doesn’t actually contribute anything to your life, or the lives of others, does it? I don’t mean physical pain: you can take painkillers for that. But what about existential pain? The feeling that your whole life is in an injured state? The direct escapes from such pain are negative: drugs, alcohol, suicide. But you can work on your pain by looking outside yourself, helping others. Life doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game: we can choose to make more of it, a decision only we, individually, can make. It won’t happen naturally – evolution favours only the best, brightest and most privileged – you must do it your self. Just watch out for those waiting to take advantage of your optimism..!

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Written by brian t

July 24, 2004 at 11:20 am

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