Sunday, February 23, 2014

Rough And Honest, The State As A Work of Art.

Hallway, 201 W Napa St, Sonoma, CA 95476
Photo taken Feb. 16, 2014.
This week, as I walked through Sonoma’s Black Bear restaurant, I noticed the photograph on the right, of the dedication of the Bear Flag monument in the Sonoma Plaza. It's dated June 14, 1914.

It’s not often that just about the only statue on the Sonoma Plaza turns 100, I thought. And even rarer that the anniversary would seem to approach without notice. But then I reminded myself that the Bear Flag Revolt, a mere historical footnote, has little relevance today.

And then I remembered the story of Sonic.net, of Sonoma Interconnect.   And I realized my dismissiveness was totally,  completely, and utterly wrong. 

--- 

Late in his life, bankrupt, and, to fashionable society, a has-been, the 17th century Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn won (due to the untimely death of Govert Flinck) the commission for a history painting for Amsterdam's Royal Palace (think U.S. Capitol).  The subject was to be Claudius Civilis, the leader of the Batavian (~Dutch) rebellion against the Romans two thousand years ago.  His patrons expected that Rembrandt would produce the detailed realism of the Dutch Golden Age.  All Rembrandt had to do (per Simon Schama) was paint it "straight," to show the wealthy Dutch what they wanted to see,  and a comeback (and large fee) would have been his.  

"The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis"
Rembrandt van Rijn, 1662 Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden
image available at http://tinyurl.com/kujhp4p
And Rembrandt did anything but. Rembrandt refused to paint by the rule book - he created an unfinished, aggressively raw canvas, a visual roar.  Rembrandt painted the roughest, toughest history painting ever, a barbarian king in his lair, his tribesmen swearing oaths, Claudius Civilis, not in profile as a Baroque artist would have done, but with his empty eye socket glaring. For Rembrandt, as Schama says, had been stripped not just of his fortune but of his illusions, and now what the wealthy of Amsterdam wanted to see was beside the point, for this was what they needed to see.  

Schama calls this the thing that drives the very greatest of art -- contempt for ingratiation.  Paraphrasing Schama now (but I don't really care, because Schama's ripping off Rembrandt in the first place), he calls this Rembrandt's group portrait of Amsterdam, a portrait of who the Dutch are and always have been, a city and a country that is a work in progress: 
"Let the high and mighty celebrate their greatness with their fastidious etiquette ... smother yourself in fashion at your peril ... but these are your flesh-and-blood, rough and honest ... they made you, so banish your embarrassment, embrace them, and honor them, for everything you think matters doesn't ... as long as you have your rough freedom, you have all you need."
And Amsterdam refused to look.  The painting hung for less than two weeks; taken down, Rembrandt put his own knife to the canvas, cutting it, perhaps hopeful he could sell a fragment to a patron, his commission never paid.  The mutilated stump of the picture, looking nothing like an old master, was found in Rembrandt's home at his death seven years later. 

--

image available at http://tinyurl.com/km34ku9
I think of The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis when I consider Jacob Burckhardt, the 19th century Swiss historian, and his brilliant organizing metaphor -- that in understanding the State, our source domain of knowledge should be art.  In telling the history of the city-states of Machiavelli's The Prince, Burckhardt writes:
“A multitude of political units - republics and despots — in part of long standing, in part of recent origin, whose existence was founded simply on their power to maintain it. In them for the first time we detect the modern political spirit of Europe, surrendered freely to its own instincts, often displaying the worst features of an unbridled egotism, outraging every right, and killing every germ of a healthier culture. But, wherever this vicious tendency is overcome or in any way compensated, a new fact appears in history—the State as the outcome of reflection and calculation, the State as a work of art.
image available at http://tinyurl.com/lc4p563
Holding the metaphor in my mind, and taking Schama's point about Rembrandt seriously, that the thing that drives the very greatest of art is contempt for ingratiation, I turn to the work of Cass Sunstein, the 21st century legal scholar. Should one of my readers meet me in Peet's Coffee with an hour to talk, I'd probably mention at some point that the assumed voting behavior in a Condorcet jury is not always a Nash equilibrium, a point that usually takes a couple of pages of equations to get across. Yet Cass explains it succinctly:
"... deliberative bodies are subject to serious problems. Much of the time, informational influences and social pressures lead members not to say what they know. As a result, groups tend to propagate and even to amplify cognitive errors ... [producing] forms of self-silencing that are highly damaging to good deliberation ... well functioning groups take steps to ensure ... people feel free to disclose what they believe to be true." 
Self-silencing is highly damaging to good deliberation. Democracy depends on people feeling free to disclose what they believe to be true. 

Rembrandt's visual roar.

---

On December 13, 2010, Google announced the selection of Sonic.net to operate an experimental, prototype high-speed fiber optic network under construction at Stanford University. That turned heads on the Peninsula.  Google, perhaps the titan of the Internet, had tapped a near-unknown for network engineering expertise. 

On October 10, 2011, the world got a hint of why.  The Wall Street Journal reported that the United States government had obtained a court order to force Google and Sonic.net to turn over information about Jacob Appelbaum. When you read "Jacob Appelbaum," the next four words that should pop into your head are AssangeWikileaksNSA, and Snowden. Google wouldn't say a word, but Dane Jasper confirmed Sonic.net had fought the order, and lost.  

Sonic.net Company photo.
Image available at http://tinyurl.com/k7pce5p
Since 2011, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has ranked firms on the degree to which they protect their users when facing government requests for information.  In 2012, in EFF's ranking of Internet firms, entitled "Who Has Your Back?" the #1 ranked firm, in the world, is Sonic.net.

Who in the hell is Sonic.net?

---

In 1992, if you were a high school student in Santa Rosa, and you were interested in "computers," you probably had heard you could get on the "Internet" with a network account at the Santa Rosa Junior College. Someone might have even offered to sell you one (I'm not saying I was a buyer ...). That gave Dane Jasper, a student lab technician, and Scott Doty, a student employee in the Computing Services department, an idea. When asked, Jasper said that "[w]e found that high school students were buying [SRJC] IDs on the black market for $25 to get this product. That' s what drove me to start a company and do this privately."

Scott Doty and Dane Jasper
image available at http://tinyurl.com/khsnjr6
Jasper and Doty own the company together to this day. They have no significant education beyond their time at the Santa Rosa Junior College. They started Sonic.net with $9,000 in cash and equipment, working from a room in Dane's mom's house. Today, the firm has no debt, hundreds of employees, and most importantly, a reputation for candor. “Basically," says Jasper, "we only grew as fast as we could afford to grow. At one point, we closed the door to new clients while we waited on new capacity.” The company's corporate history attributes their success to " ... customer service, careful design philosophy, extensive network monitoring, and 'straight-shooter' philosophy in informing customers about problems."

When asked about Appelbaum, CEO Dane Jasper characterized the fight as "rather expensive, but the right thing to do." Paying out of their own pockets, with their own money -- earned, not inherited -- on the line, the principals of Sonic.net convinced a court to lift its seal, to tell Appelbaum the order existed. 

Dane Jasper and Scott Doty come from the Internet as I knew it as a teenager and a young man.  Not the gleaming promise of the wealth of Bubble 2.0, but instead seemingly marginal and scrappy. A work in progress. Tie-dyed, perhaps, but somehow also cautious.  Hardly fastidious, maybe unfashionable, but oftentimes speaking the language of freedom, particularly freedom of expression.  Always intensely aware that values are at stake. And above all else, not of Sonoma's world of wine and tourism. 

For Dane and Scott are exemplars of Sonoma County's flesh-and-blood, rough and honest. It is no accident they are the products of the Junior College. 

---


"Bear Flag Monument"
geo:38.293233,-122.4568
image available at http://tinyurl.com/kzj2wvz
It may be mere chance that Dane and Scott chose the name "Sonic.net."  Dane himself characterizes "Sonoma Interconnect" as a backronym, to somehow explain his choice of their domain name.  But that is the explanation he chose; he took upon himself the mantle, the power of the name, and has shown us all its 21st century relevance. 

And thus we find the cause with which to celebrate the enduring importance of the nearly 100-year-old statue at the northeast corner of the Sonoma Plaza.  The bear flaggers show us, as does Claudius Civilis, what it takes to start a State; Sonic.net, like Rembrandt, how to keep it.  The beginnings are rough -- the bear flaggers as ne'er-do-wells has long been a latent theme in the literature. Yet we should banish our embarrassment. Let the high and mighty celebrate their greatness with fastidious etiquette, for we smother ourselves in mere fashion at our peril. This June, when we come together around that piece of art that stands at the starting point of our State, it would serve us well to remember that the State itself is a work of art -- a work in progress, rough in conception, honest in practice.  For as the bear flaggers knew, and as Dane and Scott have reminded us, as long as we have our rough freedom, we have all we need.