Cyberspace, cognitive mapping and design: some stray thoughts

I apologize in advance because this is going to ramble. And be wonky. If it helps, please know that it all makes sense in my head.

Our professional development program at work – yeah, my new job has an actual interest in professional development – has us doing some reading each week and informally discussing the insights. This week we were asked to read a section from a human-computer interaction text. It got me to thinking about some issues, and then one of my co-workers had a comment that took me even further down the rathole. Continue reading

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The UNSHARE button: Can we all just step away from the propaganda?

Our social media activities would benefit from a dose of critical thinking.

A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on. – Terry Pratchett

I had an exchange with my sister earlier about something she had shared on Facebook. If you haven’t seen it, it’s the one alleging that 11 US states now have “More People on Welfare than they do Employed.” Hint number one: cluelessness regarding the mysteries of punctuation. And no, I won’t link to it. Continue reading

CATEGORY: InternetTelecomSocialMedia

Twitter is the Rush Limbaugh of communications media

Whatever Twitter was supposed to be originally, as a communication medium it suffers from one basic problem: there is only so much you can convey in 160 characters. Especially when you burn 20 of those precious characters for a URL, another ten with an “@username,” and maybe another five with various hashtags. That leaves maybe 125 characters for any Tweeter to use.

And what good is 125 characters? It’s fantastic for basic advertising of the “Look what I just wrote up – give it a read and comment at my site if you are so inclined” variety. It works as an immediate version of the Facebook Wall where you can post cool links that you think your friends and/or co-workers might like. And it’s fantastic for repeating sound bites that enable close-minded thinking.

What Twitter is not good at, however, is serving as a medium for detailed, in-depth discussions about any topic that has nuance. Which, when you really think about it, is pretty much every interesting discussion worth having.

Imagine for a moment the following situation. You need to have a discussion among your co-workers about a topic that has some technical complexity. It could be an aspect of industrial climate disruption, avionics design, new product development, teaching methods – whatever. You can’t meet face-to-face because you and your co-workers aren’t all co-located, but you have the following communications methods available to you: Twitter, email, conference call, and video conferencing. What do you choose? I bet it wasn’t Twitter.

Email is better than Twitter for this kind of discussion because you’re not limited by length and you can include files that help explain things. But email is a notoriously poor communication medium, one that is plagued by users who simply haven’t been trained in how to express nuance in text. And when trained communicators can still mess up via email, you know that untrained users are all but doomed. It’s remarkably easy to offend someone inadvertently via email, for example, and sometimes things get so twisted up in email that emails can be misunderstood and taken all out of context (e.g. the Climategate mess).

A conference call is generally better than email because you can judge a lot from vocal inflections. Confusion is quickly identified and can often be corrected immediately. And when files have been distributed by email before the conference call (or are available via web conferencing tools), a tremendous amount of progress can be made in a very short period of time. Videoconferencing should theoretically be even better since you have even more non-verbal cues to help determine the level of understanding in a group. But in my own experience few businesses use video conferencing because the cost of entry is high and the improvements over conference calls are not so great.

Communicating complex topics requires a communication medium that permits complexity, not one that is designed to drive complexity out of communicating.

Years ago I was working at a summer job when I was forced to listen to Rush Limbaugh on a shared radio. About a half hour into my listening to my first ever show I realized just what Limbaugh’s shtick was – he took complicated ideas, oversimplified them until they fit whatever ideological box he was working with that day, and then he spoon fed them in sound bites to his listeners in a way that freed his listeners from the need to think. Listening to Limbaugh’s show one could be secure in the knowledge that yes, the world really was simple and that everything that wasn’t right was unambiguously wrong.

Twitter is the Rush Limbaugh of communications media. Twitter forces us to think in tiny, oversimplified, sound bite-sized boxes where reality’s glorious rainbows and shades of gray have been dumbed down to mere black and white.

CATEGORY: The New Constitution

The New Constitution: comprehensive statement of principles (draft)

CATEGORY: The New ConstitutionThe original plan when we began this project was to offer the amendments individually, invite discussion, then produce a final document. The course of the process, though, has made a couple things clear. First, there needs to be a period to discuss the entire document in context, and second, while the original “Bill of Rights” approach perhaps had a certain formatic elegance about it, the project is better served by a less formalized articulation of general principles.

As a result, what follows is a restructured draft that accounts for the discussions so far and that also adds some new elements that have arisen since the process launched.

We will compile a final statement of principles out of this discussion.

_____

1)    Organization, Composition and Conduct of Government

a)     Proportional Representation

i)      No political party representing a significant minority of the electorate – and here we suggest five percent as a workable baseline – will be denied direct representation in the legislature.

ii)     All legislative bodies shall be comprised proportionally according to the populations represented and all elected officials should be selected by direct vote of the people.[1]

b)     Public Financing of Elections

i)      In order to eliminate the corrupting, anti-democratic influence of corporate and special interest money on the electoral process, all elections shall be publicly financed. No individual will be allowed to contribute more than a token sum to an official, candidate or political party (perhaps the cap could be in line with the current $2,000 limit for contributions to presidential candidates).

ii)     All corporate, commercial and other private or publicly held entities shall be forbidden from contributing directly to any official, candidate or political party.

iii)   All citizens and collective entities are free to designate a portion of their annual tax contributions to a general election fund.

iv)    No contributions to the electoral process shall be allowed by foreign interests, either individual or institutional.

v)     Election funds shall be administered on a non-partisan basis and no candidate or party demonstrating a reasonable expectation of electoral viability shall be denied access to funding.

c)     Secular Government

i)      The government of the people shall be expressly secular. No individual, religious or quasi-religious entity or collective engage or seek to influence the course of legislation or policy in accordance with theological creed.

ii)     No government edifice, document, collateral, communication, or other production, including currency, shall make reference to religious concepts, including “god.”

iii)   No one shall, in any legal context, including legal processes or oaths of office, swear upon a sacred text.

iv)    Oaths of office shall explicitly require officials to refrain from the use of religious language and dogma in the conduct of their duties.

v)     No government funds shall be spent to compensate employees who exist to serve religious functions. This includes, but is not limited to, the office of Chaplain in various military bodies.

vi)    No religious institution shall be eligible for tax exempt status.

d)     Oversight of Covert Activities

No governmental entity shall conduct secret or covert proceedings absent ongoing oversight by a multi-partisan body of popularly elected officials.[2]

e)     Federal Autonomy

No state or local government entity shall assert special privilege or exemption with respect to established rights granted by the Federal Constitution.

2)    Individual Freedoms

a)     Free Speech, Press and Religion

i)      No government, corporation, commercial or private entity shall abridge an individual’s legitimate exercise of free speech. This includes all political, social and civic speech activities, including those criticizing the government, corporations and business entities and other collective organizations.[3]

ii)     The right of the people peaceably to assemble, especially for purposes of protest, and to petition for a redress of grievances will not be infringed.

iii)   The health of the nation depends on a vital independent check against public and commercial power. As such, no government, corporation, commercial or private entity shall be allowed to abridge the rights of a free and unfettered press.

iv)    Congress will make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

b)     Equal Rights Under the Law

i)      No governmental, corporation or commercial interest, or other private organization shall deny to any enfranchised citizen the rights or privileges accorded to others.

ii)     The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

c)     Freedom from Surveillance

i)      All individuals shall enjoy the right to privacy and freedom from systemic surveillance by governmental entities in the absence of a legally obtained warrant articulating probable cause against the individual.

ii)     The right of the people to be secure in their persons, homes, papers, data, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

iii)   All individuals shall enjoy the right to privacy and freedom from systemic surveillance and data gathering by corporate, commercial or other private or public entities unless they have specifically opted into such programs.

d)     Basic Human Rights

All citizens shall enjoy the right to shelter, nourishment, healthcare and educational opportunity.

3)    Conduct of Business and Commercial Interests

a)     Legal Standing

No corporation, business interest or any other collective entity shall be accorded the rights and privileges attending citizenship, which are reserved expressly for individuals.[4]

b)     Public Interest Standard

No corporate, commercial or other private or governmental entity shall be licensed, accredited or incorporated absent a binding commitment to serve the public interest.[5]

c)     Lobbying Restrictions

i)      In order to further the public’s interest in a free and independent legislature, elected officials shall not be allowed petition the body in which they served, either on their own behalf or on behalf of the interests of a third party, for a significant period of time after the conclusion of their terms.[6]

ii)     No person shall be allowed to assume a position charged with regulatory oversight of an industry in which they have worked in the past five years.

iii)   No elected official shall be allowed to assume a position on any legislative committee charged with oversight or regulation of an industry in which they have worked or held financial interest for the past five years.

d)     Collective Bargaining

i)      All workers shall have the right to organize for purposes of collective representation and bargaining.

ii)     In any publicly held commercial interest where a significant percentage of the workforce is represented by a union, the workers shall be entitled to representation on the corporate board of directors.[7]

4)    Citizen Responsibilities and Service

a)     Mandatory Service

i)      All citizens will, upon attainment of their 18th birthdays, enroll in a two-year program of public service, which may be fulfilled with either civic programs or the armed forces.

ii)     Enfranchisement will be earned upon completion of the public service commitment and a demonstration of a basic understanding of principles informing the political and policy issues facing the nation and the world.

b)     Right to Arms

i)      The right of an individual who has completed a two-year military service commitment to keep and maintain firearms appropriate to the common defense should not be infringed. [8]

ii)     The Federal government will establish guidelines by which enfranchised citizens may obtain firearms for reasonable purposes of sport and self-defense.

5)    Justice System

a)     Due Process and Fair Trials

i)      No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against him or herself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

ii)     In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed five hundred dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury shall be otherwise re-examined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

iii)   In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury of professional, trained adjudicators sanctioned by the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; defendants shall have the right to be confronted with the witnesses against them; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in their favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for their defense.

b)     Punishment

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.


[1] This disposes of the Electoral College.

[2] An alternative might be to entrust the public court system with the decision. Make all documents automatically become public in N years (and make destruction a federal felony) but the government can petition a federal court to hold them as secret. Court uses a strict scrutiny standard to continue secrecy, advocates for release present arguments and can appeal a secrecy decision (no appeal on orders to release). (Submitted by Evan Robinson.)

[3] This does not prevent said entities from policing explicitly illegal behavior, such as theft of proprietary information or sexual harassment. (Suggested by Carole McNall.)

[4] This item overturns the Citizens United case.

[5] This item eliminates the narrow “interest of the shareholders” doctrine emerging originally from Dodge vs. Ford.

[6] It is suggested by multiple commenters that “a significant period of time after the conclusion of their terms” might best be changed to “forever.” This is a perspective with some merit. In truth, though, we’re discussing a body of people who possess expertise that can, in the right circumstances, be of benefit to the people. A term of five years, for instance, might serve to rid the system of revolving-door corruption without permanently eliminating the possibility that a highly qualified individual may be able to contribute to the public good.

[7] This practice is common in Europe and promotes an environment of collaboration, instead of confrontation, between management and labor.

[8] Weapons systems are constantly evolving and we are now perhaps within a generation of the point where lasers, thermal lances and other currently experimental man-portable devices might be viable. The term “firearms” in this document should not be construed as limited to the sorts of projectile weapons we’re familiar with, but should instead be taken in a broader context. (Suggested by Rho Holden.)

Acknowledgments

The New Constitution has been a long time in the making, and it would be the height of arrogance to suggest that I reached this point on my own. In truth, I’m an intensely social, extroverted and associative thinker, which means that if I have an interesting idea, it probably emerged from interactions with one or more other people. This is why I work so hard to surround myself my folks who are as smart as possible. If they’re brighter than me, as is often the case, that’s all the better because that means there’s more opportunity to learn.

Some of the people in the list below are known to readers of S&R and others aren’t. Some have played a very direct and active role in my political thinking in recent years, and others contributed less obviously in conversations, in grad school classes, in arguments and debates over beers, and so on. In fact, there are undoubtedly some on the list who will be surprised to see their names, but trust me, each and every one of them helped me arrive at the present intellectual moment. This doesn’t necessarily mean they all endorse the project or want their names attached to it, so if there are things that aggravate you, please direct those comments at me and me alone.

All that said, many thanks to:

Brian Angliss

Frank Balsinger

Dr. Jim Booth

Dr. Will Bower

Dr. Robert Burr

Gavin Chait

Dr. Lynn Schofield Clark

Dr. Erika Doss

Dr. Andrea Frantz

John Hanchette

Sam Hill

Rho Holden

Dr. Stuart Hoover

Dr. Douglas Kellner

Alexi Koltowicz

Dr. John Lawrence

Dr. Polly McLean

Carole McNall

Stuart O’Steen

Alex Palombo

Dr. Michael Pecaut

Dr. Wendy Worrall Redal

Evan Robinson

Sara Robinson

Kristina Ross

Dr. Willard Rowland

Dr. Geoffrey Rubinstein

Mike Sheehan

Dr. Greg Stene

Jeff Tiedrich

Dr. Michael Tracey

Dr. Robert Trager

Dr. Petr Vassiliev

Sue Vanstone

Angela Venturo

Dr. Frank Venturo

Pat Venturo

Russ Wellen

Cat White

Dr. Denny Wilkins

Lisa Wright

CATEGORY: Sex

SnapChatting around the issues

In the aftermath of Anthony Weiner’s most recent sexting scandal, I keep hearing this argument for better technology from pundits and late night hosts. Something along the lines of “Why didn’t he just use SnapChat? Those photos on only last up to 10 seconds! Any middle schooler who has ever sent a picture of their bits knows that!”

There are a bunch of problems with this argument, and I wanted to address them.

First, let’s take care of the “use better technology” part. SnapChat, for the uninitiated, is an app for iPhone and Android phones that allows users to take and share photos with other SnapChat users. They allow captions, drawings on the photos, and a set expiration time: usually 10 seconds or less. In my experience, the technology is used to send dumb, double-chinned photos with Perez Hilton-esque finger paintings back and forth to your friends. But the app gained some popularity with sexters because of the set time limit. Finally, people could send NSFW photos to others and have them disappear after mere seconds!

This argument is flawed. Even with this “new and improved” sexting technology, there are ways to keep that photo. You can still screen grab them – and screen grabbing DOES allow you to send the photo along to others. The app has developed a notification system for the sender in case this happens, but it doesn’t actually do anything to stop the recipient from freezing that photo, adding it to their camera roll, and then sharing it with others.

The second problem with this argument is, technology is not the problem we should be focusing on.

By focusing on the technology part of this scandal, we’re ignoring the fundamental fact that Anthony Weiner sent photos of his junk to women who were not his wife – some of whom probably didn’t want that photo in their inbox. After doing so, he lied about it and said his Twitter feed was hacked, and spent thousands of dollars to investigate the hack (when he could’ve saved that money and simply owned up to sending the photos). After swearing to never send those photos again, he sent more photos of himself to women who were not his wife, and appeared unrepentant when asked about it.

In this way, the news media and entertainment media focusing on the technology used, instead of the transgression, is a disservice to their viewers. This is an elected official lying about his personal life, and wasting campaign money in investigating a “hack” to save face. This is a candidate for public office, expected to be (semi) honest with the people he governs, and by focusing on SnapChat as a solution rather than his lies as a problem, it’s not helping anyone.

More importantly, by suggesting a technological “work around” to getting caught sexting, we’re acknowledging that politicians are going to sext people, and that it’s acceptable behavior. We’re not holding someone accountable for their actions here – we’re telling them how to obfuscate their behavior even further. By saying “Just use SnapChat!” we’re saying “You’re an idiot, instead of not sending pictures of your junk, you should’ve just sent them another way so we have less chance of finding out about it.”

Call me crazy, but I think people should be held accountable for stupid things that they do. I think Wall Street bankers that shafted millions out of their homes and retirement savings should be punished by more than pithy fines. I believe that 18 year-olds that post drinking photos on Facebook without at least making their profiles private should have employers find them and question them. I believe that journalists that mislead people and report false news should be exposed as the frauds they are. And I believe that public figures should be questioned when they do dumb things like send photos of their naughty bits to constituents. I don’t think we should be advising them on how to lie more easily, because this just grows the problem into something larger – and it has nothing to do with technology.

CATEGORY: InternetTelecomSocialMedia

Social media and false intimacy

by Patrick Vecchio

I was searching YouTube the other day for a Jason Isbell song I thought a LiveJournal friend should hear. I found the song, and while I was listening to it, I scrolled through the listener comments and spotted this one:

Jason,Your the reason I play_ guitar and write songs. But most of all id like to thank you for saving my life in a lot of ways. I will always take playing for a room of 15 drunk guys on hard times and connecting with them, over making radio bullshit. i dunno what life has in store for me, but i hope its a life as a working musician, getting by and helping people through rough shit. Shit that your music has helped me through. Thank you Jason, keep playin for those who understand, leave the rest.

Setting aside its sincerity, the comment made me wonder: Did the writer think his words would reach Isbell? I hope they did, but my hopes are faint because of the false intimacy of social media.

Admittedly, I have a limited perspective. I am on Facebook, although I rarely visit it, comment on other people’s statuses or tell people I “like” something or someone. I have a LinkedIn profile, but all I do is say OK to anyone desperate enough to want to add me to her or his network. I maintain this blog, which I post to in bursts—not the best way to attract and keep readers. My credibility as a critic of social media is shaky.

Even so, the concept of false intimacy rolls around in my brain like a marble rolling around in a bathtub. The rolling marble got particularly loud one day this spring. The university where I teach puts on a sports symposium every other year, and this year, one of the panelists was someone whose writing I’ve followed and admired for years. I spent 90 minutes alone with him as I drove him from the Buffalo airport to the university.

I thought his writing had given me a pretty good idea of what kind of a guy he was, but he was as charming as a canker sore. I tried to get him to talk about work of his I was familiar with, but it just annoyed him. The trip was so unpleasant that I told the symposium organizer to find someone else to drive him back to the airport the next day.

This leads me to wonder how well we know people who exist to us only as words. I like to think my blog friends would find that if they met me, they would see my online personality was just an extension of who I am in person. At least I hope that’s the case. I don’t know, though.

This knowing-but-not-knowing idea resurfaced a couple of weeks ago on Facebook. I received a friend request from a woman whose name I didn’t recognize until I dropped the name after the hyphen of her last name. It turns out she was a classmate from high school. Her friend request puzzled me because I don’t remember even speaking to her back then—that’s how different our orbits were. When I replied to her request, I said it was “good to hear from you after 40 years.”

She wrote back. She has had a distinguished career and might be someone you’ve seen on TV or read about. She asked the usual questions about me, and then our online conversation faded. I told her I’m always glad to hear success stories involving our classmates, so I was glad she reached out and had done so well. Even so, I still don’t know her much better than I knew her in high school.

The question is, why did she reach out? To put on the other shoe, why did I hope my response would prompt a reply?

I suspect it’s because we want to be in touch. We seek significance in our lives, so we post snippets of them on Facebook, we write about them on our blogs, and we tweet them—and we’re gratified if someone responds. A blog post that gets zero hits feels like failure.

We constantly whip out our cell phones to see whose message we’ve missed. Once I post this, I’ll begin checking to see who responds, and how quickly. We want to be wired, networked, in on the conversation, even if the conversation has the substance of meringue.

Because the Internet makes it so easy, we reach out to musicians, authors and other people we don’t know. The chances of reaching them are far better than they used to be, and from experience, I know how gratifying it is to hear back from someone whom we respect, even idolize to a degree.

I once emailed a writer whose work I had read in The Sun magazine. I told her how much I admired her short story, but I also told her how reading it deflated me as a writer because she was much more talented. Quite unexpectedly, she responded with encouraging words. Several months later I read another story of hers, and I emailed her again, thinking she wouldn’t reply and might think I’m a 59-year-old fanboy. Instead, she replied how much she appreciated my comments because her piece, in her words, “cost me a lot” emotionally. Had this exchange happened 30 years ago, it would have occurred at a snail mail pace, which would not have been nearly as satisfying as our wired world’s instant gratification.

We cannot grasp how many people know about our online personalities (hello, NSA), and as a result, when we write, we can’t answer one of the two basic questions a writer asks—“Who is my audience?” Nor can we, as an audience, truly know the writer. On the car ride from Buffalo, my favorite writer turned out to be a dick; the short story writer turned out to be someone whose responses were unexpectedly sincere.

Maybe the person who posted the YouTube comment to Isbell got a degree of satisfaction from it. After all, we never can know if someone has read a comment and simply not responded. So we continue to reach out to expand our network, to learn more about people we know only superficially, and we hope they live up to our expectations. This is one way we try to make our place in the world a little more certain—but in our age, such certainty is elusive.

CATEGORY: Journalism

Building my own news machine, whether I like it or not

I didn’t realize it until this morning. I have not watched CNN in more than five weeks. Since Ted Turner set loose the Chicken Noodle Network in June 1980, I have watched it daily — in the morning as I stumble through waking up, at the office, and in the evening when I return home. It has been a staple in how I gathered information I need for more than three decades.

But no more. It’s not CNN’s wall-to-wall Zimmerman coverage or the Zuckerization of the network that turned me away. Maybe it was the departure of Howard Kurtz from Reliable Sources. CNN has simply failed to help me address the two questions that matter most to me: How does the world work? Why does it work that way?

It’s not just CNN, either. As I reflect on how I used to gather news (instead of the content proferred today), I realized that as little as a few years ago, I still heavily depended on mainstream staples I grew up with — The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe (I’m a native New Englander). Add in the local newspaper in the places I’ve lived.

Like many people, I have come to look askance at the ability of these long-time sources of news to tell me what I need to know. As their ability to generate reliable profit sufficient to sustain credible news gathering has declined, I am left with a diet of what they believe I want to know.

And they are so wrong: I do not want false equivalence or false balance in reporting, or one-source stories, or anonymous-source stories, or government or corporate flack-based stories. I do not want geographically limited stories, either: Bring me the floods in Bangladesh, the difficulties facing Greece and Spain in managing their debt, the urgency of fighting malaria in Africa. And I do not want happy talk, celebrity journalism, or shoutfests on air or in print.

I grew up in a media world in which each day what I needed to know was decided for me in New York City at the budget meeting at The Times. Those decision informed the national and international news budgets of The Associated Press. In my newsroom days, that’s the slate of meaningful information from which I selected a diet for the readers of my hometown paper.

No more. First, the nation’s roughly 1,400 daily newspapers — down more than a sixth from just 20 years ago — no longer deliver what they once did reliably. The loss of thousands of newsroom editorial posts have deprived the industry of the ability to produce well-considered news stories in reliable quantity and quality. (Yet every corporate press release following the layoffs of journalists promises “the quality of our journalism, so very important to us, will not suffer.”)

That has a democratic cost: The moral imperative of newspapers to hold government accountable has been terribly weakened. In the coverage of government, access to “official” sources has trumped penetrating reporting. In the coverage of large, multinational corporations — which have become governments unto themselves — business reporting falters before the weight of corporate lobbying, advertising, and image-management budgets.

And now, two of my mainstays of information have been sold to corporate titans: The Post to billionaire Jeff Bezos of Amazon and The Globe to the billionaire owner of the Boston Red Sox, John Henry.

Billionaires now own two of America’s once-great newspapers. Billionaires now routinely represent the money that best elects candidates to national office. How can we not view such developments as worrisome?

How are we to assess, now, how the world works and why it works that way? How can we do this, given that the newspapers of the past have morphed into “content providers” owned by entities that, frankly, I’ve always wanted news organizations to empower their journalists to probe at much greater depth?

I can only reflect on what I’ve done: I have evolved into my own wire editor. I still read The Times; I still read The Post; I still read The Globe. But so much less. Now, like many of you, I read Twitter, and, to a lesser extent, Facebook. I follow certain YouTube channels.

We’ve all been on these social media sites for years now. We have pruned our friends and followers to those we find useful.

We have constructed a web of people who routinely post either news they themselves have reported or links to information that we, over time, have come to find credible. Among the people I follow are former reporters and editors now running foundation-supported or non-profit journalism startups; brilliant people (like the “Newsosaur,” Alan Mutter) who assess the news industry; people who write books about subjects that interest me; people who travel and write blogs about places I’ve never been; students and former students who blog about the nature of being young today and the challenges they face; and, yes, politicians and lobbyists (you learn to sort the wheat from the chaff).

Most of this I do on my phone, usually in the morning and evening. Virtually all my “content consumption” is on my phone. CNN won’t be getting me back on a routine basis. Neither will these three major newspapers. As much as I like the smell of newsprint in the morning at a diner, those days are finito for me. My Kindle has breakfast with me.

I do not like this. It takes time to recreate a viable information system for myself. But the industry I toiled in for 20 years, and that I have now taught undergraduates about for nearly another 20 years, has lost its ability to reliably perform for me as needed.

Now, if I could only do something about my tendency toward confirmation bias …That’s the real problem in building your own news budget: You tend to lean toward intellectual agreement rather than challenge.

A final but important note: Only The Times gets money from me for a digital subscription. Frankly, we’re all screwed in terms of getting good journalism unless the “content provision” industry figures out how to get money out of me and you — so it can pay journalists sufficiently well and in sufficient numbers to do their jobs well on our behalf.

CATEGORY: Democracy & Social Media

Egypt, Brazil, Turkey and the revolutionary implications of a Social State

An Egyptian protester shouts ant-President Morsi slogans as anti-riot forces block the entrance to the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Jan. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

An Egyptian protester shouts ant-President Morsi slogans as anti-riot forces block the entrance to the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Jan. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

In August 2006, 18 months before I would choose to leave South Africa, I was invited to speak at a gathering of technology pundits.

It was still the height of the last economic boom and the room was a hubbub of young people doing well for themselves. I was surviving a disastrous business venture and had spent a year contemplating the emptiness behind that financial well-being.

“An individual is a person with a long tail. Individuals have tended to live in states full of wildly swinging doors. Cities, nations and markets are as able to serve their needs as they are of tracking every grain of sand in a three-week desert sand-storm,” I said.

I warned of revolution, that emerging social media would lead to people finding mutual interests that would permit them to express themselves in ways we had yet to understand. People who are currently alienated and isolated will make common cause with others. Continue reading

CATEGORY: Journalism

Cost over quality: Chicago Sun-Times fires its photo staff, and journalism’s death spiral continues

That crashing sound you just heard from the Upper Midwest was the Chicago Sun-Times throwing its photography staff out the window. All 28 of them. Pulitzers and everything. The paper explained thusly:

The Sun-Times business is changing rapidly and our audiences are consistently seeking more video content with their news. We have made great progress in meeting this demand and are focused on bolstering our reporting capabilities with video and other multimedia elements. The Chicago Sun-Times continues to evolve with our digitally savvy customers, and as a result, we have had to restructure the way we manage multimedia, including photography, across the network.

This seems a clear and official acquiescence to the idea that the Sun-Times presence has now crossed the tipping point, that it is more about online than it is the traditional daily paper channel. And the logic about the value of video content in the online medium is solid enough if you’re a Marketing manager, I suppose. I personally don’t usually watch videos when they’re included with news stories online because the print tells me a lot more a lot faster, but I suspect I’m the exception to the rule there.

But I suspect that the official statement is more about misdirection than it is telling us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Apparently the S-T is going to rely on freelancers for stills, and also they’ll make their reporters more responsible for shots to accompany the stories they’re covering. Okay.

Nobody is actually saying it, but I’m also willing to bet that they’ll be “crowdsourcing” more “content” from “citizen journalists” with camera phones.

I bought my first camera and took up photography a year ago today, and since then have cultivated a tremendous respect for what pro shooters do. Unfortunately, now that everybody in the world has a decent quality little camera in their phone, our society seems to have concluded, as a culture, that everybody is a photographer. That’s just how we think here in the Postmodern age. Everybody can be a poet. Every scribble is art. And suggesting that people with experience and training are somehow better than everybody else, well, that’s elitism that borders on the fascist, isn’t it?

But the truth is that just anybody isn’t as good as a pro, especially one who’s good enough to have earned the profession’s highest honor. Pointing and clicking isn’t the same as framing a shot and understanding how light and shadow and composition can tell a compelling story.

CATEGORY: JournalismI suspect that the real story at the Sun-Times isn’t about “bolstering our reporting capabilities with video and other multimedia elements” or “digitally savvy customers.” It’s about cash. Because these days, that’s what all large media organizations are about. Full-time professionals are expensive and freelancers aren’t. You pay them a few bucks for a shot and you’re not on the hook for salary or benefits. When you tell the reporter to bring back some shots, one employee is doing the work of two. And when you rely on that legion of citizen journalists, well, you can pimp them for free.

As Mickey Osterreicher at the National Press Photographers Association observes, “you may end up getting what you pay for.” No doubt. Some freelancers are pretty good, but since they’re, you know, freelancers, you’re not getting their full attention. Reporters grabbing a shot while they’re there? They’re not pro photojournalists, either, and when you’re trying to do two things instead of one, the likelihood is that both will suffer. And while I guess that an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of iPhones would eventually reproduce the catalogue of Margaret Bourke-White, I’m not sure that’s a winning business model.

My S&R colleague Dr. Denny has been tracking the decline of journalism since we launched over six years ago, and if you’ve followed his reports and analysis there shouldn’t be anything here that surprises you. We can also expect other agencies around the country to follow suit, so if you’re a staff photographer at the New York Times or the Denver Post or the Winston-Salem Journal or the East Bumfuck Picayune, you need to get that résumé updated (although I don’t really know where you’re going to send it). The union is going to file a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board, but I think we know how that’s going to turn out, don’t we?

Denny has been telling us for years that eroding the integrity of the product you’re putting on the streets has a direct long-term effect on the success of that product (to say nothing of how it impacts the public’s knowledge of the important issues that shape our shared social lives). Once again, a major news agency is significantly compromising the quality of its journalism. It may produce more “content” and it may do so more cheaply, but when news organizations are driven by their Marketing and Finance departments, the result are predictable.

In the end, understand that a major US daily just fired a Pulitzer winner. It remains to be seem how many Pulitzers the new structure will win, but the over/under is zero.

CATEGORY: ArtSunday

ArtSunday: If everything is possible, is anything possible…?

Cover, After the End of Art (courtesy, Princeton University Press)

As promised earlier this week, this book review from my 2013 reading list looks at Professor Arthur C. Danto’s series of lectures on fine art (part of the Mellon series), Contemporary Art and the Pale of History, published as part of the Bollingen Series by Princeton University Press as After The End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History.

I go to some lengths here to describe this book’s genesis and development because many who read this will have had (or have chosen to have) little truck with scholarly writing. That’s a shame, because there are marvelous scholars who write well and whose ideas about art, culture, history, politics, science, etc., deserve wider reading – and considering. That is certainly the case with this book. Danto, professor emeritus of philosophy at Columbia University as well as long time art critic for The Nation, is both an engaging writer and a prodigious scholar. Those are credentials that make for rich, readable prose.

Some 15 years old now, After the End of Art expands a famous article Danto wrote in 1984 to describe a historical (or rather post-historical) moment: the end of art history and the beginning of a post-historical period in art when, as he proclaims, “everything is possible.” In this series of lectures he argues that it should only make sense to move the basis of art criticism from the long narrative of “Vasarian” examination of artists’ works in terms of their historical significance and relation to the canon of “great art”  to a philosophically based critique methodology that would look at art in terms of its essentialist characteristics. This, Danto believes, is the only way that one can accept what happened when Andy Warhol first exhibited Brillo Box: unlike Marcel Duchamp, whom Danto believes was merely tweaking the nose of serious art by exhibiting “found objects” such as a urinal and snow shovel as “works of art,” Warhol, in his careful recreation of commercial art and celebrity photos as work for serious artistic contemplation not only brings an end to the last great narrative of art history, modernism, with its focus on “the elements of art” (i.e., paint, canvas, and artist application of former to latter; to understand this easily, one has but to think of abstract expressionism, modernism’s last hurrah and the work of PollockRothko, and de Kooning), he also ushers in postmodernism with its focus on art as commentary.

Danto is correct in his appreciation of Warhol’s importance as artist and cultural icon: “…Warhol made films, sponsored a form of music, revolutionized the concept of the photograph, as well as made paintings and sculpture, and of course he wrote books and achieved fame as an aphorist. Even his style of dress, jeans and leather jacket, became the style of an entire generation.” That’s as succinct and accurate an assessment of Warhol’s epitomizing of the postmodern impulse in the arts as one could ever want.

Where he errs – and, to be fair, this may be the result of the book’s age more than any other factor – is in his estimation of the potential of pop art (and by extension postmodernism) as a force that would liberate art and set loose possibilities for new forms of creativity. Here’s how he describes what he felt after seeing Roy Lichtenstein’s The Kiss“…I must say I was stunned…if everything was possible, there really was no specific future; if everything was possible, nothing was necessary or inevitable….”

What Danto does not/perhaps could not account for (in this one is reminded of the limitations of another fine, readable scholarly work, Neil Postman’s Technopoly) is the effect of distributed culture, especially a culture powered by socio-technological forces such as ubiquitous access to communication and social networking. His assumption of the ability of the serious artist to use irony (which he foresees as a comic force) to make artistic statements/comments has been so undercut by the ability of the entire population on the Web to use irony to make artistic statement/comments. And the multi-media installations and performance pieces that characterized high art in the 1990′s that Danto cites fondly are now easily replicated by any clever soul from eight to eighty. As a famous New Yorker cartoon once observed, “No one knows you’re a dog on the Internet.” One can easily replace the word “dog” with “artist.”

You can’t make fun (or art) of anything, as the postmodern artistic credo demands you must, when everyone is making fun (or art) of everything. If everyone is an artist, is anyone an artist? Is there even art? Would anyone notice if there wasn’t?

These questions deserve at least some consideration. We can hope that despite Danto’s age (he’s now 89) that he, or someone he trusts can revisit this topic and offer some further insight.

Danto may be right – we may have reached the end of art. But it may be that it is not a time to be glad, but to whimper….

CATEGORY: Journalism

The time a source has to respond to request for comment? Virtually none.

The deadline is now.

Thirty years ago, I faced a deadline once a day. For any reporter today, the deadline is … well, now. The technological leap into the Internet era that changed the notion of deadlines has consequences, as I wrote three years ago:

Speed kills. Accuracy dies when hordes of people, each with an electronic device capable of transmitting a story, strive to be first to tell the world what they found out — without necessarily checking its veracity.

Context dies. Because speed is the premium of the Internet era, the patience for explaining what does this mean is vanishing.

Tweets kill. Successive waves of 140-character messages are unlikely to carefully convey context, meaning and depth and breadth of description. It’s ironic that a generation branded with a short-attention span waits breathlessly for a succession of tweets — about what? And why?

But there’s another, far more subtle consequence on the notion of fairness. In my dinosaur era of once-a-day deadlines, I’d call a source on Monday afternoon. If an answering machine greeted me, I’d leave my name, my affiliation, my reason for calling — and my deadline. I might even place a second call Monday evening and a third Tuesday morning. If she had not returned my call, I would write:

Jane Doe had not responded to three phone messages seeking comment by deadline.

Today, however, the time within which a source has to respond to a message is, well, now. A reporter may begin a story at 1 p.m. and expect to post it online within minutes (see context dies above). Consequently, a phone call (tweet, Facebook message, email) to a source may not draw an immediate response. Not everyone, even seasoned PR pros or institutional information gurus, checks FB, Twitter, or email phone messages minute to minute. (If they are, how often do they have opportunities to actually think on behalf of their employers?)

So the reporter, in the spirit of fairness, writes:

Jane Doe did not respond to a message seeking comment.

So, is this actually fair in the digital era?

In online news media large and small, I have seen did not respond and failed to respond. Both suggest an assumption that the source had received the message and chose not to respond. The phrase had not yet responded does not carry that same nuance of receiving and choosing.

It may be argued that in the digital era that sources sought by journalists must be able to receive and respond to requests for comments at a moment’s notice. Well, argue away: That does not mean that it is fair for a journalist to expect source callbacks within minutes just because the deadline is now.

I wish, in these stories written on deadlines of mere minutes, reporters would tell us more about their messages left for sources. Recall, please, that stories posted online usually have a time stamp: “Posted at 1:37 p.m.” If that were the case here, then I’d like the reporter to write this:

Jane Doe had not responded to a tweet (FB, email, phone message) left at 1:15 p.m.

That would allow the reader to determine whether Jane Doe has been fairly treated. After all, in this Age of New Media, Jane obviously should have responded to the reporter’s bidding within 22 minutes, right? Surely the reporter’s message explained that’s all the time she had within which to respond?

Yes, I know: When (or if) Jane returns the call, the reporter can always update the online story. But there’s no guarantee that all who read the copy posted first will return to check for updates.

The more I examine online journalism, the more examples I find of the dictum speed kills — and what speed kills. Fairness is becoming one such victim.

CATEGORY: Journalism

So you wanna be a citizen journalist? Good luck with that.

Citizen journalist. Citizen journalist?

How does that adjective modify journalist? What is a citizen journalist? How does a citizen journalist differ from a plain, ink-stained (or digitally adept), adjective-unfettered journalist?

CJs (let’s call them that; it sounds cool) are in demand. MSNBC wants them. It asks, “Be part of the dialogue of the issues affecting everyone. Tell us YOUR story by being a Citizen Journalist ” on its website. But, MSNBC cautions: “MSNBC will not pay you for your Submission. MSNBC may remove your Submission at any time. “

A collaboration between CNN and IBN, the Indian Broadcasting Network, really wants CJs. It especially likes the whistle-blowing kind: “Do you know any cases of bad corporate governance, illegal business practices or corruption in a government scheme? Become a CJ and share your story with the world.”

CNN-IBA’s lawyers, however, appear to be less supportive. The disclaimers regarding citizen journalists (the “Parties,” of course, are CNN and IBA):

Under no circumstances will the Parties be liable in any way for any Content, including, but not limited to:

  • for any errors or omissions in any Content,
  • mistakes or inaccuracies of Content,
  • for any loss or damage of any kind incurred,
  • any interruption or cessation of transmission to or from the websites,
  • infringement of any third party rights

CNN, of course, runs the granddaddy of CJ operations with its “IReport” system. It really likes CJs (or IReporters, its preferred nomenclature): “Together, CNN and iReport can paint a more complete picture of the news. We’d love for you to join us. Jump on in, tell your story and see how it connects with someone on the other side of the world.”

CNN’s lawyers offer a different, fine-print view:

Users are solely responsible for anything contained in their submissions, message board and/or chat sessions. CNN does not verify, endorse or otherwise vouch for the contents of any submission, message board or chat room. Users may be held legally liable for the contents of their submissions, message board and chat sessions, and may be held legally liable if their submissions or chat sessions include, for example, material protected by copyright, trademark, patent or trade secret law or other proprietary right without permission of the author or owner, or defamatory comments.

And if that doesn’t impede your CJ career, read the 19-point “conduct” rules for IReporters, especially this: “You agree not to post or transmit through CNN iReport any material that is offensive to the online community, including blatant expressions of bigotry, racism, abusiveness, vulgarity or profanity …” [emphasis added]

Damned if I know what the “online community” would find “offensive.” So much for the commentary and analysis function of journalism. Stripped away by the adjective citizen in front of journalist.

Yahoo!, of course, welcomes CJs. It calls them “contributors” (and claims nearly 600,000 of them) or “voices.” But its legal backing of and confidence in these CJs is underwhelming:

Yahoo! Inc. (“Yahoo”) does not evaluate or guarantee the accuracy of any articles, videos or other posted information on the Yahoo! Contributor Network (“YCN”) (collectively, “YCN Content”). All YCN Content is provided by YCN Contributors in the YCN community, like you. None of the YCN content is written, or edited by Yahoo! employees. You agree that any use you make of such YCN Content is at your own risk and that Yahoo! is not responsible for any losses resulting from your reliance on any YCN Content on the YCN. YCN Content on the YCN Website should never be used as a substitute for advice from a qualified professional. [emphasis added]

Ouch. Your content, your neck. CJs get well paid for such risks, right?

Not really. Nearly eight years ago, Poynter’s Steve Outing, back in what he called the “very early days of citizen journalism,” said “psychic rewards” are insufficient compensation for CJs. Good work requires good pay, he said:

While most citJ content will remain uncompensated — because its quality isn’t high enough to get anyone to pay for it — the best of it will have a price tag. And publishers may have to adapt to paying for it. [emphasis added]

Remember how Arianna Huffington sold HuffPo to AOL for $315 million? Remember the details of the lawsuit? It claimed more than 9,000 people wrote uncompensated posts for HuffPo.

How many of these CJs can afford to be dedicated to a continual effort to further civil discourse on public issues supported by CJs’ continual research into their topics of coverage? How many of them have sufficient resources, both intellectual and financial, to keep their eyes on the ball, day after day, meeting after meeting, event after event, month after month, year after year?

No support, no corporate recognition beyond hype, no financial compensation. Citizen in front of journalist at the moment mostly means amateur.

The really good (or potentially good) CJs must figure out how to be compensated (beyond those “psychic rewards”), how to find more effective networks of promotion for their work, and how to find legal protections for their work (you know, like “shield laws”). When that happens, they’ll be just like the good folks at CNN and The New York Times and that little local daily in your home town.

They won’t be citizen journalists any more. They’ll just be journalists — and share the problems and opportunities professionals now face in a digitally mediated information universe.

CATEGORY: Journalism

Is CNN’s Howard Kurtz still credible? We’ll see.

How much credence should I place, beginning now, in whatever media reporter and critic Howard Kurtz says or writes? First came his ill-considered contretemps regarding NBA player Jason Collins’ announcement that he is gay. That led to this morning’s mea culpa on Kurtz’s “Reliable Sources” program on CNN, quizzed on his credibility by two other media critics.

Did Kurtz, in his phrase, “screw up”? Most assuredly. Did he fail to immediately amend and apologize? Yep. He admitted to both today under (somewhat predictable) questioning by Dylan Byers, media reporter for Politico, and David Folkenflik, media correspondent for NPR News.

His two (perhaps overly gentle) questioners noted that Kurtz had made other, serious errors in the past few years involving two members of Congress and a commentator at another network. Given that record, he was asked: “Why should we put stock in you as a media critic? Why should the audience of this show put its trust in you when so much of your recent work has been shown, at times, to be sloppy and even reckless?”

Given Kurtz’ decades-long body of work, which includes five books and, in his phrase, “millions of words,” so much might be an exaggeration. But given his profile — CNN’s media authority at “Reliable Sources” since 1998 — he faces a higher standard. And he said as much this morning. To be fair, he should be judged by that decades-long body of work, not on selected excerpts. But he’d better learn from this sensitivity fiasco. He’s becoming the Darryl Strawberry of media reporting in the past few years.

Should CNN fire Kurtz? No. He did nothing wrong on CNN’s dime and time. After all, CNN didn’t can Fareed Zakaria after his journalistic lapse (it’s called plagiarism). Why fire Howie? (It’s likely, however, this is Kurtz’s last contract with CNN. New honcho Jeff Zucker has been revamping, um, infotainment-ing, the network. Kurtz is a serious man doing a serious program about consequential matters. In the long run, he’s toast at ZNN … er, CNN.)

I’ve read and watched Kurtz for decades. I admire his skill. He’s first rate at what he does — reporting on the media. (He is, perhaps, not so skilled as a critic.) His face-the-music dance this morning — 15 minutes with no commercial breaks — required no small measure of guts. (Then again, CNN needed to do something to try to rehabilitate his reputation.)

Whether I continue to support him depends on whether he’s learned what he ought to from this insensitive episode: Speed is dangerous. He made errors of haste and carelessness (reminding me of some of my sophomores). He did not read the Collins piece in Sports Illustrated carefully. He made snap judgments about content and tone. He gave little time to careful consideration of what he wrote. Speed is dangerous.

So, Howie, here’s some advice.

  • Tweet less. Tweeting is about speed , and speed is dangerous. Twitter breeds haste. Cut back, Howie. Relentless tweeting breeds bad habits.
  • Shed some jobs. Decide what you most wish to do, then tackle it earnestly. Right now, you’re a walking bundle of conflicts of interest. You have too many deadlines at too many enterprises (which you shamelessly over-promote). That leads to … speed. Haste. Carelessness. As you said this morning:

Sometimes, under deadline pressure or when you’re doing something quick and short where it’s a little too hazy and decided when you should press a button.

Your problem, Howie, is that you have too many buttons to push. Rid yourself of a few. Get back to being the damn good reporter you used to be.

CATEGORY: Racism

Boston Marathon bombing: tragedy, bigotry and hope

CATEGORY: RacismFirst and foremost, my thoughts are with Boston today. I hope your friends and family were as lucky as mine were to avoid any harm, and my prayers are with those who were not as lucky.

Watching the news was horrific for anyone who turned on a television or browsed the Internet yesterday. But apart from the horrible images and stories I was hearing out of Boston, a smaller part of the coverage was scary. Without any clear evidence, some sources were claiming that the person or team behind the bombing was Muslim.

While the Boston PD and other law enforcement denied anyone being in custody, the New York Post and Drudge Report stirred the pot by saying a man of Saudi descent was being questioned in the hospital following the blasts.

The culturally-sensitive Erik Rush tweeted “Everybody do the National Security Ankle Grab! Let’s bring more Saudis in without screening them! C’mon! #bostonmarathon,” and then when a follower asked if he was already blaming Muslims for the blast, he tweeted “Yes, they’re evil. Let’s kill them all.”

He said it was a joke, intended as sarcasm, and then added “Hypothesis proven: Libs responding to ‘kill them all’ sarcasm neglect fact that their precious Islamists say the same about us EVERY DAY.”

Even MSNBC, the supposedly progressive, liberal news network had a commentator allude to Islamic terrorism, saying that the London Marathon was upping security, because they had a “higher population of possible terrorists” than other countries. And today, they continue to speculate about foreign threats.

The Washington Post offered a piece yesterday, in response to the bombing, about Muslims worldwide hoping the bomber was not one of them. The bombing was horrific for everyone, but to see blame needlessly pinned on them was even more frightening, and probably brought back nasty memories of the 9/11 backlash from 12 years ago.

Yes, it is true that a Saudi man was being questioned by police as one of many persons of interest and a search warrant for his apartment was issued. But NBC reported that “nothing of value was found in that search” and no one has been formally named a suspect yet – the police have not revealed why he was a person of interest, only that he was tackled at the run as he was running away (just like every other spectator). And yes, the comments on the news were made in the heat of a crisis, but the circumstances don’t make that sort of bigotry okay.

It’s repulsive that the media – both mainstream and not – is allowing these sort of Anti-Muslim feelings pervade the coverage of a horrible event. I’m absolutely disgusted with the news right now, both with the writers and “journalists” making these comments, and with their editors and producers for letting them go to print or go to air.

The last 12 years have seen hate crimes skyrocket against Muslims in the US, and saw every television show and action movie casting a Middle Eastern villain fighting “jihad” against the American hero. Fiction is already doing enough to make Americans afraid of Muslims and Arabs. The last thing we need is for our agenda-setters and news media to scare people further with baseless speculation, and encourage the bigotry and fear lingering in peoples’ minds from years before.

To its credit, social media has responded in droves in support of Muslims worldwide, save for a few trolls taking advantage of the tragedy to spread hate. Tweets like “Don’t be an idiot and know the facts first” and “educate yourself” were among the millions of other tweets of love and solidarity that cropped up across the social network.

Call it armchair activism, but armchair activism did a lot this week.

It’s scary not knowing why someone would do such a horrible thing, to hurt and kill innocent people out for a run. But that’s no excuse to blame an entire faith, to stir racism and anti-Muslim feelings and dredge up memories of 9/11 to put a villain to a crime. We cannot continue to blame innocents for the work of a few.

The simple fact is, we don’t know who did this, and speculating if Islamic terrorists did this is not only untrue, but hurtful to the Muslim community and any progress in religious tolerance we’ve made since September 11th. But if we keep working together like the first responders and runners and Bostonians who ran towards the blasts to help, we can heal.

Privacy

The Tech Curmudgeon – Google’s CEO Schmidt clueless

Google CEO Eric Schmidt (center) and other Google VIPs wearing Google Glass (image credit: KPCB)

So Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt thinks that government regulation is required to protect privacy from a rising tide of civilian drones. The Tech Curmudgeon agrees, at least in principle, because civilian drones and things like passenger aircraft should be kept well separated.

Yet this is the man apparently doesn’t see a problem with Google Glass, a system that turns every user into a mobile audio and video surveillance system, with all that data conveniently stored in Google’s server farms.

If you’re a Google investor, dump your shares now. With a CEO who’s too stupid – or who thinks that everyone else is too stupid – to understand how these two claims are hypocritical, Google’s future looks bleak.

The new Mailbox app for iPhone and iPad: so far, a waste of time

Like many of you, I had been hearing about this new app called Mailbox. The buzz said it was a killer mobile app that was in nearly every respect superior to the default e-mail program in iPhone and iPad. So I went to the App Store and signed up, only to be told that I was in line behind a couple hundred thousand people. Wow, I thought. This must be some hellacious app.

Then, a few days ago, the news broke that Mailbox was being bought by Dropbox.

“Rather than grow Mailbox on our own, we’ve decided to join forces with Dropbox and build it out together,” Mailbox said in a Friday blog post. “To be clear, Mailbox is not going away. The product needs to grow fast, and we believe that joining Dropbox is the best way to make that happen.”

Nice, I thought. Full steam ahead.

It isn’t that the iPhone app is a trainwreck or anything. It’s generally a pretty good way of managing e-mail (and I get a lot of it, using multiple accounts, each day), although there are two issues that need addressing. The first is that it can be difficult adding an account from any ISP other than the big services like Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, etc. Like my E Street ISP account – it’s doable, but even with all the info you need in front of you, it isn’t easy, and it’s damned sure not intuitive.

Second, why in the tapdancing motherfuck am I not allowed to “select all” when I want to clean up my goddamned inbox?! It’s like Apple hired a hateful wanker from Microsoft to handle mobile e-mail functionality.

All of which is to say that I wasn’t feeling a desperate need for what I imagined Mailbox would be, but I was interested in taking it for a spin.

Last night I got the message that my Mailbox was ready to set up. So I open the app, follow the instructions to add an account, walk through the little tutorial, etc. And I quickly hit on a problem: Mailbox isn’t an app for handling your e-mail, it’s an app for handling your Gmail. Period. It doesn’t let you add Hotmail or Exchange or Yahoo or AOL (not that you should want to, but that isn’t the point), and it certainly doesn’t let you add accounts from smaller ISPs like E Street.

Mailbox offers users some slick, elegant ideas for managing their Gmail, it’s true, although it mainly seems devoted to letting me do things that I don’t have any interest in doing (like kicking an e-mail over to a special “save for later” queue). May work for you, and by all means check it out, but it’s not the game-changer that all the hype led me to expect.

Even if I loved it, though, it still complicates life because I’d have to use two e-mail apps instead of just one. Oh – and if it lets me select all to clean up the inbox, I haven’t figured out how yet.

If you’ve heard that it’s a Gmail handler with some cool features for arranging and organizing inbound e-mail and you like that idea, then by all means check Mailbox out. If you rely on services other than Gmail, then keep moving. They may let you add other services in future releases, but for now it’s going to be a waste of your time.

CATEGORY: Journalism

Pew study: Newspapers’ hard times continue

Shocked! Shocked we should be! But the latest report on the State of the Media by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism comes as no surprise. The bottom line: Fewer resources equals compromised journalism. From a PEJ press release summarizing the 2013 report‘s overview:

The report pinpoints multiple signs of shrinking reporting power. For newspapers, estimates for newsroom cutbacks in 2012 put industry employment down 30% since its peak in 2000 and below 40,000 employees for the first time since 1978. On local television, where audiences were down across every key time slot in 2012, news stories have shrunk in length, and, compared with 2005, coverage of government has been cut in half and sports, weather and traffic now account for 40% of the content. On cable, coverage of live events during the day, which often requires a crew and correspondent, fell 30% from 2007 to 2012, while interview segments were up 31%. And among news magazines, the end of Newsweek’s print edition coincided with another round of staff cuts, and Time, the only general news print magazine left, announced cuts of roughly 5% in early 2013 as a part of broader company layoffs. [For a quick look at the Pew findings, view its infographic overview]

The drop in newsroom employment has fallen precipitiously, particularly since 2007. That’s not news to S&R’s regular readers, as that’s been a principal topic of discussion here over the years. S&R has covered the reasons behind the firings (yep, “layoffs” is too soft a word for canning a pro) and posited on the consequences of a depleted journalism workforce. (See here, here, here, and here.)

The root cause? Loss of revenue. As the graphic below shows, print ad revenue is down dramatically (at 45 percent of 2006 revenues). Digital ad revenue is increasing, but at a far slower rate than print revenue is falling.

And now, Pew research has detailed the decline of journalistic expertise and ability.

This adds up to a news industry that is more undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands.[emphasis added]

Pew placed particular emphasis on the one of 2012′s most significant stories — the most recent U.S. elections. Journalists underperformed, argues Pew:

So far, this trend has emerged most clearly in the political sphere, particularly with the biggest story of 2012—the presidential election. A Pew Research Center analysis revealed that campaign reporters were acting primarily as megaphones, rather than as investigators, of the assertions put forward by the candidates and other political partisans. That meant more direct relaying of assertions made by the campaigns and less reporting by journalists to interpret and contextualize them. This is summarized in our special video report on our Election Research, only about a quarter of statements in the media about the character and records of the presidential candidates originated with journalists in the 2012 race, while twice that many came from political partisans. That is a reversal from a dozen years earlier when half the statements originated with journalists and a third came from partisans. The campaigns also found more ways than ever to connect directly with citizens.

Sadly, reports Pew, 60 percent of Americans have heard little, or nothing, about the news industry’s financial reversals. But a third of Americans know when they’re not getting what they used to: Pew reports that 31 percent of Americans have fled a particular news outlet because it no longer provides readers or viewers what it once did.

That’s particularly disturbing. A third of Americans, if you have faith in Pew’s arithmetic, seek new sources of information, particularly news. Sure, digital media offer those Americans choices — but how will they assess the quality and credibility of those sources? If information seekers flee to news aggregation sites, where the hell (with a few exceptions) do they think those aggregated stories originated?

And the blogs? How will the credibility of millions of blogs, many, if not most, operated and populated by untrained volunteers (or wing nuts with large chips on their shoulders), be assessed?

Good sources of reliable, credible information exist. Most are newspapers or originated with newspapers’ materials. Some are operated by foundations or Kickstarted into existence.

Newspaper circulation has begun to recover (or at least not decline further). But 44 million papers sold daily is a far cry from nearly 60 million in the early ’90s at the dawn of the World Wide Web. Those 16 million readers aren’t returning. (Many are dead, of course; newspaper circulation skews more older than younger these days.)

Is there hope that newspapers will survive long enough to return to some form of prosperity (defined either as financially healthy or journalistically sound)?

Rick Edmonds, a longtime newspaper analyst at The Poynter Institute, suggests the news industry is not dead despite its myriad problems.

Newspapers’ fortunes, admittedly from a rock-bottom base, have been looking up lately — Warren Buffett and others have bought papers, digital pay plans are boosting circulation revenue, and new lines of business like digital marketing services are taking root.

After wisely noting the “continued erosion of resources” in the industry, Edmonds offers this counsel:

  • Be present on the mobile platforms where news consumers are headed. Try, try again on advertising or related revenue possibilities. Find money to support development of new apps and experimentation, but pace the spending since today’s hot technology yields quickly to tomorrow’s.
  • Get reader/users to pay a share. Digital subscriptions and print + digital bundles have been the industry’s biggest success story of the last several years. The report found that 33 percent of the country’s 1,380 dailies “have started or announced plans for some kind of paid content subscription or paywall plan.” Of course, a corollary to asking readers to pay is giving them a news report that’s worth it in an era where free options are abundant.
  • Continue to develop “other” efforts — digital marketing, events, contract printing and sponsored content. And measure it — first indicators are that newspapers may be covering as much as half their print ad losses with circulation revenue increases and income from these new ventures.
  • As the new business models become established, focus on the net income they generate. Halting, or at least slowing revenue declines, has been the first order of business. However, New York Times Co. executive James Follo raised the relevant caution late last year: the margin on new circulation revenue and other activities may not be nearly as good as on selling more print advertising. [emphasis in original]

That’s good advice. Readers — and those who need information — should hope it’s not too little, too late.

Privacy

Google Glass: Welcome to the end of privacy

CATEGORY: PrivacyIf you haven’t yet seen Mark Hurst’s piece on Google Glass over at Creative Good, you need to. You really, really need to. A lot of times cool new gadget and service roll-outs mainly just affect the manufacturers and the people with the cash to buy them. Sure, there can be collateral damage – World of Warcraft widows, for instance – but usually the downside isn’t as direct as it is with this latest idea from the Don’t Be Evil crowd. A snip from Hurst’s analysis:

The key experiential question of Google Glass isn’t what it’s like to wear them, it’s what it’s like to be around someone else who’s wearing them. I’ll give an easy example. Your one-on-one conversation with someone wearing Google Glass is likely to be annoying, because you’ll suspect that you don’t have their undivided attention. And you can’t comfortably ask them to take the glasses off (especially when, inevitably, the device is integrated into prescription lenses). Finally – here’s where the problems really start – you don’t know if they’re taking a video of you.

Now pretend you don’t know a single person who wears Google Glass… and take a walk outside. Anywhere you go in public – any store, any sidewalk, any bus or subway – you’re liable to be recorded: audio and video. Fifty people on the bus might be Glassless, but if a single person wearing Glass gets on, you – and all 49 other passengers – could be recorded. Not just for a temporary throwaway video buffer, like a security camera, but recorded, stored permanently, and shared to the world.

Ummmkay, that’s a little creepy. But we’ll adjust, right? Not so fast.

Now, I know the response: “I’m recorded by security cameras all day, it doesn’t bother me, what’s the difference?” Hear me out – I’m not done. What makes Glass so unique is that it’s a Google project. And Google has the capacity to combine Glass with other technologies it owns.

First, take the video feeds from every Google Glass headset, worn by users worldwide. Regardless of whether video is only recorded temporarily, as in the first version of Glass, or always-on, as is certainly possible in future versions, the video all streams into Google’s own cloud of servers. Now add in facial recognition and the identity database that Google is building within Google Plus (with an emphasis on people’s accurate, real-world names): Google’s servers can process video files, at their leisure, to attempt identification on every person appearing in every video. And if Google Plus doesn’t sound like much, note that Mark Zuckerberg has already pledged that Facebook will develop apps for Glass.

Wait – so now it’s not only taking video of me, it’s linking that video to my name and identity? Yes. Try not to think, for a moment, about all the data that exists on you already – you know, consumer profiles and the like. You don’t surf porn, do you?

Finally, consider the speech-to-text software that Google already employs, both in its servers and on the Glass devices themselves. Any audio in a video could, technically speaking, be converted to text, tagged to the individual who spoke it, and made fully searchable within Google’s search index.

Nervous yet? Keep reading.

Let’s return to the bus ride. It’s not a stretch to imagine that you could immediately be identified by that Google Glass user who gets on the bus and turns the camera toward you. Anything you say within earshot could be recorded, associated with the text, and tagged to your online identity. And stored in Google’s search index. Permanently.

I’m still not done.

The really interesting aspect is that all of the indexing, tagging, and storage could happen without the Google Glass user even requesting it. Any video taken by any Google Glass, anywhere, is likely to be stored on Google servers, where any post-processing (facial recognition, speech-to-text, etc.) could happen at the later request of Google, or any other corporate or governmental body, at any point in the future.

Remember when people were kind of creeped out by that car Google drove around to take pictures of your house? Most people got over it, because they got a nice StreetView feature in Google Maps as a result.

Google Glass is like one camera car for each of the thousands, possibly millions, of people who will wear the device – every single day, everywhere they go – on sidewalks, into restaurants, up elevators, around your office, into your home. From now on, starting today, anywhere you go within range of a Google Glass device, everything you do could be recorded and uploaded to Google’s cloud, and stored there for the rest of your life. You won’t know if you’re being recorded or not; and even if you do, you’ll have no way to stop it.

So, say in five years you’re applying for a job with, I don’t know, Google. You might not remember calling Sergey Brin a fascist motherfucker on May 3, 2013, while having coffee with your best friend and discussing this article. But Google’s HR group remembers. They have the audio (and maybe the video, too). But, but – HR groups would never use that, right? No, of course not. Just like they never ask for Facebook passwords.

Just think: if a million Google Glasses go out into the world and start storing audio and video of the world around them, the scope of Google search suddenly gets much, much bigger, and that search index will include you. Let me paint a picture. Ten years from now, someone, some company, or some organization, takes an interest in you, wants to know if you’ve ever said anything they consider offensive, or threatening, or just includes a mention of a certain word or phrase they find interesting. A single search query within Google’s cloud – whether initiated by a publicly available search, or a federal subpoena, or anything in between – will instantly bring up documentation of every word you’ve ever spoken within earshot of a Google Glass device.

Seattle’s 5 Point Cafe has proudly become the first establishment to ban Google Glass. I’m guessing they won’t be the last. I’m also thinking of starting a pool: on what date will we hear about the first assault against a GG wearer by somebody who doesn’t want his/her privacy invaded?

Once again, corporate America is innovating new and improved ways of invading your privacy. Orwell saw the future, only he thought governments would be the culprits. And they certainly will be – expect them to be lining up to purchase Google’s data. And expect Google to find an excuse to sell it to them.

What we need now are equally gifted tech entrepreneurs dedicated to short-circuiting Google and to assuring greater privacy for the citizenry. I actually have a couple of ideas. If you’re a venture capitalist who’s concerned about our civil liberties, drop me a line….

PoliticsLawGovernment4

Tea Party Community: a league of their own

There’s a teaching in communications psychology called “selective perception” and “selective retention,” which theorizes that two people with opposing viewpoints could watch the same news report or movie, and only hear and retain things that reinforce their own views. So for example, two people watching the same presidential debate could walk away remembering very different things: the Democrat would remember President Obama’s plans to expand health care, and the Republican would remember Mitt Romney’s plan to create jobs and bring down the deficit.

The theory holds true for cable television as well, with stations like MSNBC catering to the left-leaning news consumers, and Fox News catering to those on the right (the ones who claim to be “fair and balanced”).

Now, that theory extends even to social media. Meet Tea Party Community, the conservative Facebook.

The welcome/sign up page features the “Don’t Tread on Me.” Sample posts feature Obama holding screws with the caption “Free Obamacare suppositories,” and a photo of guns saying “My guns won’t be illegal, they will be undocumented. SHARE IF YOU AGREE!”

A note at the top of the forum apologizes for tech issues and wrongful banning from the forum with the following message:

Because we have doubled our membership count since our national launch,  we have been under severe attack by large hacking and troll groups which has caused discord for our managment team and  members alike. These groups despise what we stand for and seek to destroy us and silence our voice.

First off, we would like to apologize to our members that have had their accounts accidentally banned by our automated controls and fake reports to our moderation staff. We have now tuned our moderation software and have opted instead to let “You the TPC member” to help us keep our community troll free. We are also placing trusted members in moderator position to help accomplish this task.

The site looks a lot like an earlier version of Facebook (you know, the one everyone knew how to use before the revamps) and seems to be more open to strangers commenting on and liking posts and statuses than its predecessor – while you can friend other users on the TPC, any TPC user (friend or not) can comment on your posts and activity.

And the language used in its explanation of banning – referring to “trolls” and “silencing our voice” – has the site playing social media victim, as if other social networking sites don’t allow them to voice their opinions. But clearly, this is a community of proud conservatives creating their own forum for sharing their own ideas outside of an Internet they consider to be too liberal/reality based.

From the outside world, this looks like a crazy aberration of gun-toting, Jesus-loving “Keep the government out of my life and send the President back to Kenya” individuals who are tired of their liberal friends commenting on their Facebook statuses. And it is. But it goes beyond that. This community was designed as a “safe space,” for people to be as conservative as they want, to keep out “trolls,” meaning anyone with a differing opinion. It was designed as a self-feeding bubble of a site, to keep the conservative views of its users insulated. It’s very much the Fox News of social media.

Of course the Tea Party would start its own social media page, because the rest of the world is too left-leaning to accept. It ties back into the idea of “selective perception” and “selective retention,” where even if these Internet users stuck to Facebook like the rest of the world, they would most likely ignore posts that do not agree with their point of view anyway. Rather than accepting reality, they substitute their own.

I’m interested to see the future of this online community, and whether it evolves into a full-fledged tool for connecting like-minded people for grassroots causes or campaign purposes for Tea Party candidates, or if it fizzles out. Right now, the page seems like too much of a hodgepodge to truly organize – it’s a lot of angry people who want to keep their guns, put God back in the White House, bash Karl Rove for silencing Tea Party candidates, stop illegal immigration, and post a lot of really offensive racist and sexist content to the delight of racist and sexist internet users. Really, at this point, the TPC is just preaching to the choir and reinforcing the bubble that the Tea Party seems to live in. Whether or not this community will grow beyond discontent and ignorance is yet to be seen, but I have a feeling it will see the same rise and fall as the Tea Party has over the next few months.

CATEGORY: CATEGORY: ArtSunday

ArtSunday: the Tokyo telephone book

by Dan Ryan

I have owned or had the use of a personal computer since 1982, when my dad bought me an Osborne 1 to take to college. In some areas dad was a bit of a forward thinker. His experience as an upper mid-level executive for Electronic Data Systems (EDS), a now-defunct information services company, convinced him back then that by the end of the ‘80s there would be a PC on every desk in the workplace and that non-techie consumers would buy more of them for use in the home. And he was generally right about that.

Picture 045

What he got totally wrong, however, was that me having the gigantic, chunky Osborne at school would inspire me to get good grades and to focus sharply on computer science, the subject dad decided would be my major. That was a dismal failure. I have always been horrible at math, and I lacked the particular creative DNA twist required to write anything resembling decent Pascal or Fortran code. So as a result I almost flunked out of Lehigh University. Fortunately, the Osborne PC proved to be a very sturdy and reliable word processor, and after I switched my major to journalism (my dad was accepting but not thrilled about this) it helped me crank out essays and news articles very nicely.

Picture 039

But since then, through the long years and different jobs and moving from Lehigh to Tokyo (where I worked for EDS) to Maryland and then to California, I have been typing on and and screaming at personal computers. The damn things have changed so much in three decades. From the Osborne 1 to the Hewlett-Packard laptop I use today, I feel like I am watching the accelerated evolution of an inorganic species that is one day going to surpass us and force us to make it Turkish coffee with lemon zest for breakfast every morning.

Picture 041

This was the context going through my mind a couple of nights ago when I decided I was minorly blown away to be using a telephone device to peruse a small book I created, a telephone device that is the size of a Hershey bar and has more computing power than probably 85% of the actual computers I have owned in the last 31 years. I don’t know how you feel about it. Perhaps you’re using your telephone to read this text, or “surfing” the web while waiting in line for a movie that’s based upon a book you originally read on your laptop.

The feeling I take from all of this is that as a writer, editor, creator, and publisher of words and pictures, I have “arrived” at a remarkable convergence where creative content fuels the development and deployment of new technology, and that new technology stimulates and inspires the creation and distribution of a wider variety of creative content than has ever been available.

Admittedly, if I weren’t talking about my own creative content, my own word and picture book on a telephone, I would probably be a bit more blasé. But I have never been on the digital cutting edge before, and it’s a hell of a thing, and I think my dad would finally be proud.

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Dan Ryan is a journalist, photographer, and poet. His work has been published by Scholars & Roguestsuki MagazineGiant RobotKizuna and Jack Move. You can see more of his work at Dan Ryan’s SmallStories. Dan is also an editor and co-founder at Abiko Free Press. He lives in Brisbane, California.