Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Minerva Revealed: Questions of Authority in a Digital World

MinervaWhile slowly working my way out of a candy coma, I came across an interesting article in the November edition of Wired titled, "Who is Minerva?" It's the story of the electronic rise and fall of Park Dae-Sung—Korea's most influential economic pundit until the government shut him down. A thirty-something freelancer with a telecom company in Korea, Park spent his days off in the library reading economics textbooks. At night, he logged in to play simulation games like Capitalism II. He was virtually invisible by all rights—just another cog in the machine. That is, until he decided to put his knowledge to work: In March 2008, he opened an account on a popular forum with the intention of blogging about economics, drawing on his research and public reports. It was only a matter of time before his pseudonym, Minerva, would  become a household name.
As Minerva, Park dealt out financial advice with authority and precision:
The world economy is in the midst of collapse, he warned, so pay your debts and stock up on noodles and drinkable water. He made pronouncements when to buy or sell a home, exchange Korean won for dollars, and pull out of the financial markets altogether.
As the financial markets around the world faltered, people began to pay attention. It didn't take long for his posts to attract attention, garnering hundreds of thousands of pageviews in addition to publicity from the press. He cemented his position as financial guru when he attacked a proposed plan by the Korean Development Bank to purchase a portion of Lehman Brothers in 2008. He maintained that the Lehman's debts were deadly and would cost the Korean people somewhere in the range of $80 billion. Lehman filed for bankruptcy a few short weeks later, and newspapers hailed him on "the Internet economic president." Park maintained later that all he did was analyze the data:
"I looked at the mortgage market in America, the oil market, the economic cycle, the circulation of capital. I analyzed all of these and determined the result."
He felt he was safe as Minerva. There was no published email address linked to the account—he could lay aside his mild manner and speak the "truth." He found a voice and it was one that commanded respect. This, of course, would not last.

The phone began to ring. "Would you like to speak to a journalist?" Park wasn't as anonymous as he would have liked to think despite the fact that he hadn't shared his secret with anyone: When he set up his account, he submitted his national ID and his telephone number, and he began to suspect that the information had been forwarded to the government. A bit panicked, he began the process of shutting down his blog. Posting one last time, he revealed a history and a warning, casting Minerva's as a "selfish financier" whose experiences should serve as a lesson to the people of Korea about the dangers of greed.

Two days later, he was arrested. He was held for 103 days—the government argued that he had cost Korea $2.2 billion by panicking thousands of citizens into selling off dollars. Park would eventually be acquitted of all charges, thanks in part to the testimony of an economics professor, Kim Tae-Dong:
"Minerva is a much better teacher than I am," Kim said later. "His writing is so easy for ordinary people to understand. I was surprised about his lack of a formal economics background."
While the judge agreed, Park's ordeal is far from over. The government can appeal and try him again. They have seized his computer and hard drive. The media lies in wait to plague him with questions—he must know where the real Minerva is. Friends shy away from contact with him.

Park has been completely stripped of his identity—both online and offline. He is no longer a cog, but the attention he attracts is reserved for those in exile. He is scorned and avoided because he interrupted the social order.
When Park lost his anonymity, he lost his credibility as well. Rather than accept that the ramblings of a self-educated freelancer were superior than their daily newspapers, most of the public wrote off the cult of Minerva as a fad. Daum's hardcore readership became consumed by conspiracy theories about the identity of the real Minerva, who must have set up Park through some Byzantine plot.
Park was able to use the Internet to author himself as an authority in economics. Internet identities are flexible—it's almost a bit like playing dress up: you can be anyone you like online. It began with customizable user names. Shy Samantha could suddenly be HotGrl28 and swear like a sailor and no one would the wiser of her shy nature. Or your highschool science teacher could be CycleDude65 online, reflecting his hidden biker interests from students while he droned on and on about sedimentary rocks and delta formations. With the growth of avatars, customization has become even more imaginative. Your avatar can bear a remarkable resemblance to you, or it can sport green skin and a cyclopian eye. Whatever the form, your virtual representation becomes your presence online. Repeated visits to a particular forum using a specific user name or avatar links you to this identity, and your actions through this identity generate your digital persona.

Park authored his digital authority in two ways: First his choice of the name Minerva inspired confidence. In borrowing Minerva's name, Park also appropriated her authority and reputation, which was confirmed when his predictions proved to be accurate. Second, he let his identity shape itself. He didn't offer any details about the real Park online. He didn't respond to comments left on his blog. He was simply a digital being—he projected a sense of omniscience and the readers of his blog granted him power by accepting his predictions and clamoring for more. The dialogue in creating an identity flows in both directions. The readers played a large part in shaping Minerva. But establishing yourself as an authority is not enough. You must demonstrate that you have a right to the knowledge. While there are any number of bloggers who post anonymously online because they could lose their jobs for their statements, when your posts affect the lives of millions, you need to have the right to share this information. In Park's case, his lack of an education worked against him—how could he have made such complex economic analyses without the benefit of a formal education? He surely could not have analyzed the data!

Who owns knowlege, and who has the right to distribute it? Cori Hayden explores these questions in When Nature Goes Public: The Making and Unmaking of Bioprospecting in Mexico. Hayden takes us to Mexico where we visit the Sonora Market and view stalls upon stalls of dried and fresh herbs purported to be the cures for various ailments (2003: 125). The marketplace and its inhabitants tell the story of a tradition of local medical practitioners who have served Mexico for generations: Maria Velasques, a vendor in Sonora, “has been tending the same stand for the past twenty years … she inherited the stand from her father, who was forced into an early retirement by the foot problems he accumulated after twenty-odd years of standing still [all day long]” (Hayden 2003: 139). These vendors are keepers of local knowlege regarding the uses of plants at their disposal. They gain this knowledge from their customers and from the various books that litter their stalls. However, ultimately, they are not the ones who manage this knowledge.  In Hayden's text, it is apparent that pharmaceutical companies would rather that the global audience never knew about this simple marketplace where wonderous cures are to be found. They themselve do not view the knowledge of the vendors as legitimate:
“It does not make sense to treat vendors as sources of knowledge who deserve compensation: when you buy plants, you buy the information, and no further obligations are involved” (Hayden 2003: 134).
This is a landscape that the drug companies would rather we not know about because it undermines the authority vested in them by the image of individuals in glasses and lab coats working fastidiously over their microscopes. The management of this knowledge is clearly manufactured to support a specific image. In Mexico the authority of knowing is constructed by the ideology that scientific knowledge of the large non-native pharmaceutical companies is superior to local knowledge.

Minerva's knowledge directly contradicted government intiatives. However, because MInerva's existence was mostly relegated to the digital world, Park was able to hold on to his authority in a way that Hayden's vendors could not. Park had the chance to reach hundreds of readers and share his knowledge—he could not be neatly contained and managed like the vendors. Nonetheless, the response of his readers to his true identity suggests that efforts to brand knowledge have been successful.

Can online identities be used to combat "ownership" of knowledge by sanctioned bodies? How does the Internet blur the question of subject-matter authority? Are anonymous sources more trustworthy than named sources—how does the digital public weigh these issues? The answers to these questions may have implications for the way we manage artifacts. Talk back below.


Hayden, Cori.
2003  When Nature Goes Public: The Making and Unmaking of Bioprospecting in Mexico. Princeton: University Press.

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