Covert Cobbling is an idea from sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom. It appears to be a suite of strategies for reverse engineering engines of information asymmetry. This is basically what Josie and I would like to see accomplished with what we call pubwan. I have my thought leader, Frank Pasquale, to thank for bringing this concept to my attention via a retweet. Once upon a time, I formulated a list of defining attributes for pubwan, which seemed appropriate at the time. For example, I specified that by definition, pubwan would have to be non-profit. That is because I believed (and still believe) that profit models based on information are inherently asymmetric, which would instantly defeat the purpose of implementing pubwan in the first place. Another attribute I felt was appropriate at the time was lawfulness:
In fact, pubwan should draw its sources, methods and its proposed strategies from all manner of “openist” movements. Such movements include “open systems,” “open content,” “open source” and others. Obviously, this should not be generalized to “open <fill in the blank>.” It can’t be emphasized enough that pubwan is not “open season” on any organization, practice, person or philosophy. Not all features of all openist movements are appropriate for pubwan. For example, some public licenses prohibit use of the licensed information or technology for specified uses, examples including commercial, military, classified and non-educational uses. Others allow commercial use but allow free use only by noncommercial users. Pubwan is free. Free means you don’t have to pay. Free also means there are no strings attached. Note that it is the use of pubwan resources, not their preparation, which is unrestricted by pubwan. “Pubwan activities” are subject to all kinds of self-imposed constraints, which we have already discussed in some detail. By “pubwan activities,” we mean any volunteer efforts aimed at developing or improving pubwan, its technologies, its content, the organization of its content, its accessibility, inclusivity, ethical standards, technical standards, efficacy, data integrity, integrity in general, openness, sources, methods, etc., etc., etc. Lori believes that the Cypherpunks Anti-License is generally compatible with pubwan principles. Lori doesn’t know enough about legal issues to judge the appropriateness of any statement of copyleft to any set of objectives, but she likes the general tone of the CPL. This appreciation is of course tempered by the assertion that pubwan isn’t “anti” anything. Pubwan might benefit from a licensing and copylefting protocol of its own. On the other hand, the world at large might not benefit from yet another variant on the concept of public domain.
Since that time, I’ve re-considered whether lawfulness is a viable option for a pubwan movement, for various reasons. Mainly, because applied information asymmetry has become so high-stakes, and the difference in information gathering and leveraging capabilities between the public (as in public-spirited) and proprietary spheres has become so enormous, that illicit, and even covert, countermeasures may be a necessary evil in service to the greater good of reversing the degeneration of our society into a privately managed panopticon.
As of this writing, a Google search on the quoted phrase “covert cobbling” yielded only three results, one of which appears to be non-relevant and the other two are on Twitter. A search of Covert Cobbling on Twitter appears to reveal tweets only from attendees at some conference hashtagged #4s2017. According to Colin Shunryu Garvey, Covert Cobbling is necessary methodological innovation for opening blackboxes in the 21st century. Opening informational black boxes is the specific reason I came up with the idea of #pubwan. According to Sarah Myers West: “[Dr. McMillan-Cottom] calls for covert cobbling: disciplined methodological attacks on the black box, chosen to counter limitations of an individual method.” This suggests an all-hands-on-deck sense of urgency, as well as an eclectic approach to methodology, also very much what I have in mind for pubwan. Dan Hirschman: “Covert part is old/classic, cobbling is the new part – need to combine covert qual work with cobbling from every other method,” and “So, what’s the solution? “Covert cobbling”- real and legal secrecy means you need to do covert data collection.” This adds up to a pretty vague picture, so it’s quite possible that my take on covert cobbling is wrong. If so, my apologies to persons involved.
In addition to a commitment to lawfulness, the original formulation for pubwan called for non-secrecy. I’m wondering whether to move that goalpost. I deeply cherish the idea of a true transparent society in which transparency is omnidirectional; not the sort of unilateral transparency implicit in an informational power ratchet such as the pair of mirror shades on a cop or the one way mirror in the primate research lab. But informationally speaking, we are living in very dark times. The foes of transparency and public informational empowerment know who they are. They know what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. They make maximal use of both intellectual property and trade secrecy when it comes to maintaining their one-way information valves. To put it bluntly, this is war. Perhaps instead of a collegial brainstorm of ideas for making the information landscape more navigable by the public, what will be needed is an underground resistance, operating at least partially in secret, always worried about infiltrators from both commerce and state, perhaps resorting to black-hat hacks. While I’m a little squeamish about that, I consider it a lesser evil than using monetization/capital-raising to launch pubwan from idea to implementation.