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April 20 2013


Paranoia, The Destroyer


Hindsight broadcasts in full HD, but I remember thinking yesterday that the total lockdown ordered by authorities for the greater Boston metropolitan area - with the "shelter in place" order stretching from roughly Emerson's house down to the Adams farm, and from Paul Revere's shop out past Bunker Hill and along the Charles to Watertown, where the Committees of Correspondance once met in direct contravention of the British Crown - was just a bit much.

People walking dogs ordered inside. Bars closed. The Red Sox game with the Royals cancelled. Universities shut down. The entire public transportation system at full stop. The loss of perhaps a quarter of billion dollars in trade for a the nation's 9th largest metropolitan area - sometimes known on school trips as the Cradle of Liberty. [Not all the economic news was bad: Karen Raskopf, chief communications officer for Dunkin’ Donuts, told HuffPo that the shops were asked to remain open “to take care of needs of law enforcement and first responders.”]

All this for one killer on the loose. While praise for the Boston police in the live capture of one of the two suspected bombers after a rampage of death and destruction that killed five in total (including the older of the two suspected brothers and an MIT police officer) and maimed dozens was nearly unanimous last night -  celebrated on live TV by vast inebriation on Boston Common, proving that some of that noble city's traditions of liberty hadn't been lost - there was a small murmer that went something like..."hey, WTF?" (We live in a Twitter age, people).

Cautious criticism crept in. Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, lead Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and a member of the same party as Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, got into it on Politico:  “When you have lives at stake, it’s up to law enforcement. But it’s an accomplishment when someone shuts down an entire community and people can’t go outside and are told to stay away. We have to stand up as Americans to this. … We’ve got to continue to go to baseball games, continue to go to events. We can’t allow these people to shut us down.”

I suspect that the very word "terror" fit not just this horrific and brutal crime but the emotional reaction itself - just as it's designed to do - and not just greater Boston's but our general American reaction. Terror, with its modern-day insinuation of international plotting and violent religious zealotry, has spawned a decade-long over-reaction in our society. "The homeland is the battlefield,” proclaimed Senator Lindsey Graham last night, urging the Obama Administration to treat the captured and seriously wounded 19-year-old suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant, even though he's a naturalized U.S. citizen who came to this country when he was eight.

When you can scare a United States Senator so easily that you force him to reveal his own terror in all its chilling depth - well, the tactics of brutality and random murder might well appear to be profitable indeed to those lacking humanity.

Boston's declaration of near martial law might seem protective and just playing it safe - what Michael Cohen of the Century Foundation called "cover your ass business by public officials" - but doesn't it also prescribe a precedent? I was cheered at the Obama Adminsitration's decision to process the junior Tsarnaev in criminal court and not whisk him off to military detention. But it's also troubling that authorities invoked the "public safety exception," which allows investigators to question a suspect without reading his Miranda warnings against self incrimination and the right to counsel. I often disagree with Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian on some of the nuances of civil liberties, but he was exactly right in his latest column when he noted that this decision is one in a long line of other cases that have gradually eroded the basic rights of criminal suspects to the extent that it makes the invokation of such an extraordinary civil liberties exemption so mundane a choice.

I'm a fan of the cops, the firefighters, the EMTs, the first responders, the members of public service unions who risk their necks for the rest of us. And though I believe that since 9/11 we've over-militarized civilian police forces to a regrettable extent, I still think that most peace officers work to keep the peace. They faced a horrible, rapidly unfolding challenge in Cambridge and Watertown, no question. And they protected the populace. Certainly no one can exempt the omnipresent media for stoking the kind of paranoia our society generally shares during one of these events. Via Digby, I found Rick Perlstein's post in The Nation to be on point about terror and the cost of that mass paranoia:

As ghastly, evil, overwhelming, tragic, as the events this week in Boston, Texas, the Capitol mail rooms, have been, it's easy to forget, in our oh-so-American narcissism, enveloped in the wall-to-wall coverage that makes our present catastrophe feel like the most important events in the universe, how safe and secure Americans truly are by any rational standard. Terror shatters us here precisely because ours is not a terrifying place compared to so much of the rest of the world. 
And also not really an objectively terrifying time, compared other periods in the American past: for instance, Christmastime, 1975*, when an explosion equivalent to twenty-five sticks of dynamite exploded in a baggage claim area, leaving severed heads and other body parts scattered among some two dozen corpses; no one ever claimed responsibility; no one ever was caught; but pretty much, the event was forgotten, life went on, and no one anywhere said "everything changed."

These days, events like the Marathon bombing are no longer just about the victims, the perpetrators and the cops. We come to believe they're about us. And we almost seem to revel in lockdown mode, even in the Cradle of Liberty.

*Note: Rick links to a 2002 story about that bombing at LaGuardia Airport, which I remember as a young teen. As I recall, no one in those days ever talked about a "homeland" unless they were studying European politics of the 1930s.

Acknowledgements: thanks to Lance Mannion and Pamela Leavey for their spirited discussion last evening on Twitter. It led to this post. Also, Blue Girl and Peter Daou. And this post by Charles Pierce on the combat scene near his own blogging lair is required reading.

July 18 2011


Maybe We're Amazed: Tom Watson Digs In

It was a bonnie weekend for Tom Watsons in various corners of the British empire. Craggy, 61-year-old Tom Watson from Kansas City aced the sixth at the British Open at Sandwich, made the cut and played very well through the final round, exuding the class and gentlemanly behavior for which he is known (this is a man who once publicly quit a Missouri country club for excluding Jews, it will be remembered). On these shores, a certain blogger known to you all witnessed an act of British musical noblesse oblige by taking in the Paul McCartney concert at Yankee Stadium with his family, a celebratory act marking 25 years of happy marriage. Maybe I'm amazed, but Macca can still bang 'em out, and even the pro formist of pro forma Billy Joel  guest appearances couldn't dampen the enthusiasm of rockers like Jet, one of the great post-Beatle tunes.

But for real accomplishment, it's hard to beat the achievement of a much younger man, the youthful Tom Watson of West Bromwich East, which is to say, the midlands of Birmingham, the MP son of  a labor organizer and human thorn lodged fatally in the haunches of the Murdoch leviathan.

When I last saw Tom in London he was in government,  carrying the cabinet duties for Gordon Brown. But as the brilliant weekend profile in the Guardian recounted, he was falsely accused by The Sun (oh, irony!) of a role in a campaign to smear prominent Tories and received a retraction only on the day he left the confines of Whitehall.

"I took a quality of life decision. I didn't want to be part of this any more. It was taking too much toll. I had an interest in sport and the arts, so told Gordon [Brown] that at the next reshuffle I wanted to stand down as a minister."

And where did Watson end up? Why, the culture select committee, with its role in press oversight (a strange beast to Americans, I'll admit). The tale from there is pretty riveting, and my friend gives an honest accounting - here's a bit, but read the whole thing. Tenacity has its place in government:

"Two days later Nick Davies broke the story in the Guardian on the extent of the phone hacking, and John Whittingdale, the culture select committee chairman, to his credit, extended the inquiry."

At his very first hearing, on 21 July 2009, Watson found his presence on the select committee challenged by Tom Crone, legal manager on News Group Newspapers, on the grounds he was in litigation with News Group. Speaker's Counsel effectively told the Murdoch group to get lost.

"What was clear from the first hour of evidence given that day was that the executives were incredibly nervous. The interplay between Crone and the News of the World editor Colin Myler was curious. I was just trying to find out whether they'd told Rupert Murdoch about the payments, to silence people like Gordon Taylor with a £700,000 payment. They went defensive and said they had never told Rupert.

"But then they admitted that James Murdoch had authorised the payment, and from that moment I knew there was much more to this than met the eye. As soon as Myler said that, Crone looked very tense and suddenly realised a body blow had been delivered.

What's not in the Guardian profile is Tom's reliance on social media to keep the embers of this story burning. Through his blog, Facebook, and especially Twitter, Watson was able to ask public questions outside the House of Commons - questions that invariably got picked up by the cadre of journalists, bloggers, and observers who were closely following the story. It was a small but committed built-in audience for anything related to the widening (but still mainly quashed) phone hacking story. It helped the have the Guardian, England's most important news outlet, on the case, with investigative reporter Nick Davies running the story.

So tomorrow, the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks will face the committee. The story gets stranger, sadder, and more cinematic every day. Watson cautions against predicting too many fireworks but as James Wolcott slyly notes, this showdown has all the elements of the old Sam Ervin days on Capitol Hill. So much the better, because this story is not merely the tittle tattle of tabloid culture - it's the tale of an elected government and the national force in total thrall of a single multinational corporation and its hegemonic claws. As Watson says, the mess that the Murdochs find themselves in "is of their own making, in both conducting the hacking, and then failing to clear it up."

"Their response until the middle of last week has been dumb insolence, but they are now in freefall. I don't think they have a strategy. They are just slashing and burning everything, and anyone who was there at the time. The difficulty they have is James Murdoch was there at the time, and we know he authorised the payments to buy the silence of a victim of crime.

"It is still hard to believe what has happened over the past 10 days. It is just beginning to sink in what together we may have found out."

UPDATE: Via Jim Wolcott just now, this:

Mr. Murdoch was attending a conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, in early July when it became clear that the latest eruption of the hacking scandal was not, as he first thought, a passing problem. According to a person briefed on the conversation, he proposed to one senior executive that he “fly commercial to London,” so he might be seen as man of the people. He was told that would hardly do the trick, and he arrived on a Gulfstream G550 private jet.

July 11 2011


Murdoch's Wave of Mutilation May Hit These Shores

Tom Watson, the Labour MP from West Bromwich East, is an old friend of this TW by now, the two of us having met years ago by virtue of being early bloggers with the same name, and similar world views. For more than two years, the honorable Mr. W has pursued the phone-hacking scandal in Britain like a terrier, through a voice-in-the-wilderness period when neither Labour nor Conservative nor Metropolitan Police wanted to face off with the world power known as Rupert Murdoch.

The allegations now finally coming to full light are both stunning in the depths of cruelty, impunity and arrogance displayed by the Murdoch empire - and shocking in the clear peril that once-impervious empire now faces. At 80, Murdoch faces his existential corporate moment. He has shuttered the 168-year-old News of the World and his multi-billion deal to create a cable cartel in the UK may well be dead on arrival. His stocks are sagging. His family's reputation is shattered. Still, Mr. Watson is pushing the pols and the police to stop their foot-dragging - because there remain many fruitful avenues of investigation, alleys of inquiry that certain powers would prefer remain darkened forever. Though he's no longer a lone wolf, Tom's Guardian post of only a month ago is worth revisiting, if only to consider where the story has gone since then ... and to realize just how on point his words were:

It is extraordinary that the alleged plot to target a sitting prime minister was not immediately investigated. I can't think of a single country where this would be the case. Since getting on the trail of the hacking scandal, I've had to pinch myself to check I haven't landed in a John Le Carré novel.

On top of this failure, there's also the failure to investigate the alleged targeting of the girlfriend of an heir to the throne. Ask yourself what the prime minister would have publicly said should the allegation have been made that the BBC hired a criminal private investigator to conduct such activities.

Yet it's not just the Conservative prime minister who could do with a spine replacement. It's the former Labour ministers who were allegedly hacked by News International's private investigators who have made secret, out of court settlements with the company. I want to be clear to my parliamentary colleagues (in the Lords and Commons): if you were the target of a News International private investigator you have a democratic duty to speak out. You owe it to yourselves to put an end to a toxic media culture that allows journalists to think it acceptable to hack the phones of the families of murder victims.

That toxic media culture is resident in the deepest hallways and studios of Murdoch's American venture, Fox News. Yet for all its ideological extremism and attachment to gross untruths - of which the sad and sickening birther "issue" was the peak on a mountain of slime - there is no indication of the phone hacking scandal jumping the pond...yet. Tom Watson MP has grown fairly expert in using the digital network to nudge his case along, to bring attention directly to this issue from the citizenry, and to push the press to cover it. Last night, he nudged me with a link to an article in the Daily Mirror: Phone hacking: 9/11 victims 'may have had mobiles tapped by News of the World reporters'. Clearly, this is big news.  Hell, Gawker's got it now.

What's particularly interesting to me is the timing.

Check your calendars, folks. The somber 10th anniversary ceremonies marking the attacks of September 11th are exactly two months away. So the questions are these: Should the Murdoch hacking scandal spread to 9/11 victims and their families, will Shepard Smith resign in protest? Will Sarah Palin defend the media empire reportedly paying her $1 million for her analysis? Will Chris Wallace deposit his checks in good conscience? Will Michele Bachmann stamp on the American flag by appearing on Fox? Will Mitt Romney condemn Rupert Murdoch? Is Roger Ailes a patriot?

UPDATE: Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff told CBS News: "The News of the World has lots of reporters at any given time on the ground in the US. Many of its stories, particularly many of its celebrity stories, are dateline here. So, I think that's the next step."

UPDATE II: The Guardian's expose, by the crack investigative of Nick Davies and David Leigh, widens the scandal signifianctly by revealing the Murdoch scandal goes well beyond the News of the World tabloid, and involves breaking into private medical records of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his family.

Tom Watson spoke in Parliament today about the "institutional criminality at News International." He didn't mention the institutional cowardice of his former party leader. Apparently former PM Tony Blair asked Brown to get Watson to back off the hacking scandal. To his ever-lasting credit, Brown refused and my friend Tom kept digging - and, I might add, kep the story buzzing the back channel via Facebook, Twitter and his blog.

Tags: Media

February 01 2011


The Revolution Will be Televised


You won't find it on Time Warner or FIOS or Cablevision, but Al Jazeera's English language television service is laying claim to the viewing loyalty of vast numbers of news-hungry, media-obsessed westerners following the incredible story of courage and revolution in Egypt.

More than any of the social media platforms we've come to worship with the ardent, almost physical hunger of Charlie Sheen expecting a delivery man, the humble satellite signal is rewriting the course of a region in which secular democracy is the dreamy contrast to the wakeful nightmare of dynastic strongmen or intolerant mullahs.

Al Jazeera. Television and a news network sympathetic to the cause of freedom - a polished and professional network endemic to the ethnic, religious, and cultural characteristics of the region, not an import. Remember that ten years ago, the Bush Administration targeted Al Jazeera's journalists as enemies and bombed its bureau in Kabul. Now our State Department follows Al Jazeera as a matter of basic professional pratice, and you can bet it's in heavy rotation on the Situation Room flat screens. And among those who follow international news and politics closely, Al Jazeera has become the channel of first choice; traffic to the English-language stream online has grown by 2,500 percent since last Friday. And Mohamed Nanabhay, the head of online for the English language channel, told the NYT's Brian Stelter that the site’s live stream had been viewed over 4 million times since Friday, and that 1.6 million of those views have come from the United States. “It’s just a testament to the fact that Americans do care about foreign news,” he said.

Of course, Al Jazeera's English-language service is different than its main Arabic-language programming yet we can't help but marvel at the dead-straight reporting from Egypt (before the Mubarak government shut it down) and the fluff-free style. No studio talking heads, no all-star panels, no attempt to make the television experience look like an iPad app, with anchors pressing touch screens and sliding meaningless graphics around the viewing palette. Just waves of in-depth coverage, images backed by reporting. Yes, this is what big news television used to be - a bit unfashionable perhaps among a crowd of digerati obsessed with smart phones and Quora, but what a joy.

And to use the technical journalism term, it's a hell of a story. What began with the slap of a protester's face in a remote part of Tunisia has spread quickly across the North African Arab countries and is leaking into the gulf states - emboldened and knit together by digital communications tools, but mostly powered by a willingness to confront power and by the mass realization that what lies behind (powerless poverty) is far less compelling than a mysterious and dangerous future that may include self-determination.

We shouldn't undersell the digital communications portion of this. Yes, Twitter may be playing almost no role inside Egypt over the past week, and Facebook may be blacked out, but it's important to look back further into the roots of the revolt. And there, you'll find upper middle class Egpytians and Tunisians (and connected people in other parts of the Arab world) organizing in Facebook groups. They're only a part of the story, of course - most of the anger comes from the poor and the middle class living with high prices, low wages, and no political power. Nancy Scola pulled this quote from the op-ed piece by novelist Mansoura Ez-Eldin in the Times, and I think it says quite a bit about the current among young Arabic people who yearn to be both free and upwardly mobile:

Clearly, the scent of Tunisia’s 'jasmine revolution' has quickly reached Egypt. Following the successful expulsion in Tunis of the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the call arose on Facebook for an Egyptian revolution, to begin on Jan. 25. Yet the public here mocked those young people who had taken to Twitter and Facebook to post calls for protest: Since when was the spark of revolution ignited on a pre-planned date? Had revolution become like a romantic rendezvous?

Facebook groups were a huge part of this; democratic activists have been using the platform for years to gather support and share information. Connected young Egyptians like citizen journalist Noha Atef have been chronicling human rights abuses in Egypt for years, and disseminating the information via Facebook and YouTube. And even though the term "Twitter revolution" has the smell of the discredited about it, short messaging over networks is also a part of this - whether it's texting or Twitter or the on-fly-invention allowing Egyptians to tweet by phone, cobbled together in an unusual collaboration between Twitter and Google. Further, I do think there's something to Jeff Jarvis's suggestion that in the future, connectivity to the network of networks - ordinary people's ability to communicate - should be considered a basic human right. Of course, this raises the spectre of the vast private ownership of most of what we consider "the Internet," and the inherent weakness of private companies interested in profit standing up to governments who demand censorship or monitoring, a topic covered in detail by Evgeny Morozov in his riveting challenge to cyber-utopians (and digital centrism), The Net Delusion.

Yet there is no debating two facts out of Egypt:

1. Mubarak shut down the Internet and digital life there is at a standstill.

2. The revolution not only continued under an Internet black-out, it picked up steam.

Some of it's economic. While cell phone usage has grown wildly in developing countries and places like Egypt, where almost half the population lives in poverty, those phones aren't fancy smart phones with Web access and social media apps; they're cheaper basic models with pre-paid voice service. So while more educated and wealthier elements of Egyptian society may miss their access and suffer from a major Facebook jones, the crowds jamming Tahrir Square are powered by two alternative technologies - their feet, and their voices.

Or as a friend of Parvez Sharma put it from inside Egypt:

Fuck the internet! I have not seen it since Thursday and I am not missing it. I don’t need it. No one in Tahrir Square needs it. No one in Suez needs it or in Alex…Go tell Mubarak that the peoples revolution does not [need] his damn internet!

But it will, I think. It will when the job of building a more liberal civil society in Egypt replaces the job of taking down the dictator, when long-term organizing and creating progressive political parties is at hand. The networks of young organizers that relied on Facebook for years will be reactivated and empowered, and new voices will emerge.

That time is not now, however. Strangely enough, this is television's time - and it's clearly the cross-over moment for the news network that Bill O'Reilly bashed as "anti-America" just last week. No matter: the Drudge Report is now sending linky love Al Jazeera's way. And this is good for our society, not just for the Arab world. In embracing Al Jazeera's splendid coverage in large numbers over the past week, we're laying aside a good portion of fear - and we're turning a page to a new chapter in the post-post-9/11 world. Al Jazeera is good for us.

Watching Al Jazeera break through this week, I was reminded of a conversation I had with Reese Schonfeld 10 years ago at the launch party for his memoir about helping Ted Turner create CNN.  Schonfeld recalled how the CNN founders really saw themselves as revolutionaries - and how they thought of the news network as a kind of social enterprise aimed at changing the nation's relationship to news and information, right down to Turner's  famous banning of the word "foreign." And the conversation recalled how Ted Turner introduced CNN to the world in 1980:

"We won't be signing off until the world ends. We'll be on, and we will cover the end of the world, live, and that will be our last event... and when the end of the world comes, we'll play 'Nearer, My God, to Thee' before we sign off."

That commitment to meaty, unending television coverage lives again, and let's hope it spreads to our sets like democracy activism through the Middle East. With Al Jazeera, the tune may be a little different - maybe they'll be singing Mawtini at the end - but the song remains the same.

December 27 2010


Book of the Year: You Are Not A Gadget

"Think For Yourself" would have been an apt subtitle for Jaron Lanier's You Are Not A Gadget, my pick for non-fiction book of the year and the most important piece of writing on technology and communications to be published in 2010. Instead, Lanier and his publishers went with "A Manifesto" and it certainly is all of that - bright, opinionated, often meandering, occasionally pedantic, happily confrontational and in its totality a bold red stop sign in the path of wired society's long march toward a thin, common identity.

Not that I wanted to stop at that particular intersection.

My 2008 book CauseWired chronicled the rise of online social activism and presented a generally (but not entirely) rosy outlook for a socially-networked world with access to information and the digital tools needed to change society. I chose to focus on the development of positive, collaborative platforms like Kiva, Change.org, GlobalGiving and DonorsChoose and the creation of networks to fight poverty, disease and genocide. And I saw the ascendancy of vast social applications like Facebook and Twitter as generally benevolent to the movement for social change; greater participation could yield more democratic structures, more authentic power from below - and if more individuals could see a wider view of the injustice in the world, more of them would organize to fix it.

Yet I've never embraced techno-utopianism or served time as a social media triumphalist; back in the 90s Jason Chervokas and I would regularly rail in @ny against a form of cyber-libertarianism that argued for a self-regulated technology industry and no societal restraint on anything digital. Where some treated "information wants to be free" as a physicist's formula, we saw it as a political slogan. Chervokas and I recognized that that the "freedom" some technologists were arguing for was merely a cover for seeking power; in a new world ordered by technology, who would be in charge? Fast forward to the socially-networked Internet of 2010, and it's no surprise that a few powerful players now control vast amounts of our identities and our content.

Nonetheless, You Are Not a Gadget was a head-snapper for a me. And the intellectual whiplash was worth the collision.

The central tenet of Lanier's manifesto is the idea that humanistic values are too often lacking in widely-adopted digital technology - that in using online services driven by algorithms and marketing (and what's better for the programmer and the advertiser), users naturally adopt a less complex online personality, a less nuanced identity. In CauseWired, I relayed the wisdom of my then-16-year-old daughter, who explained that Facebook wasn't your actual self, it was "your best you."

Fitting neatly into a Facebook profile is reductive, argues Lanier, who wonders "whether people are becoming like MIDI notes - overly defined and restricted in practice to what can be represented in a computer." Twitter limits in another way, by placing severe strictures of the actual form of communications. With each message limited to 140 characters (much less with a link and a hashtag or two) it often removes the gray space. The big issues can be reduced to a half sentence and a link, really very little more than a click on the Facebook "like" button. It becomes a fantastic echo chamber, a vast din of repetition with easily-delineated sides like a soccer match. No wonder every single politician and celebrity gravitates to Twitter - the control over the messaging is fantastic (indeed, the comical early mistakes some pols made on Twitter were the exceptions that proved the rule). Marketers now understand the on/off MIDI-like notational quality of short messages - they're paying six-figures for so-called "promoted" tweets and trends, which are just a fancy and expensive method for Twitter to lie to the very userbase that built the service. Or as Lanier puts it in discussing social networks like Twitter: "Am I accusing all those hundreds of millions of users of social networking sites of reducing themselves in order to be able to use the services? Well, yes, I am."

Lanier's point is that by reducing personality and the wide sweep of human thought into chunks that can fit easily into databases and digested through clever widely-popular front end designs, the possibility for horrific "crowd-sourced" activity is that much greater. To put it simply, the good guys don't always win. Throughout history, they've often been shouted down by crowds. While it's impossible to argue with the sunny opening lines of the introduction to Yochai Benkler's seminal Internet text The Wealth of Networks - "Information, knowledge and culture are central to human freedom and human development" - and to sympathize with a point of view that argues that great access to those qualities improves the lot of mankind, Lanier's warnings also seem in tune with the times.

It's not crazy to worry that, with millions of people connected through a medium that sometimes brings out their worst tendencies, massive, fascist-style mobs could rise up suddenly. I worry about the next generation of young people around the world growing up with internet-based technology that emphasizes crowd aggregation, as is the current fad. Will they be more likely to succumb to pack dynamics when they come of age?

That kind of thinking flies in the face of a more utopian view of free information, embodied in hacker philosopher Richard Stallman's famous '90s proclamation that when "information is generally useful, redistributing it makes humanity wealthier no matter who is distributing and no matter who is receiving." I'd naturally ask "what does generally useful mean?" and Lanier goes a step further, noting that the free flow of information also brings large-scale vitriol to arguments between semi-anonymous actors on the Net. "What's to prevent the acrimony from scaling up? Unfortunately, history tells us that collectivist ideas can mushroom into large-scale social disasters."

Lanier's "digital Maoism" may be the intellectual equivalent of crying "fire!" in a crowded theater, especially one filled with venture capital-backed tech companies, media conglomerates and telecommunications outfits all mining profits from the social gold rush (not to mention the trade press that loves them). And Lanier's is a particularly well-aimed attack on geek culture: "The new twist in Silicon Valley is that some people - very influential people - believe they are hearing algorithms and crowds an other internet-supported nonhuman entities speak for themselves. I don't hear those voices though - and I believe those who do are fooling themselves."

You Are Not A Gadget also warns against an Internet-based democracy, a world of governing chaos in which "superenergized people would be struggling to shift the wording of the tax code on a frantic, never-ending basis." The remedy is our current actual democracy - "the slower processes of elections and court proceedings" - which are like calming bass waves in Lanier's musical metaphor. They reduce "the potential for the collective to suddenly jump into an overexcited state when too many rapid changes coincide in such a way that they don't cancel one another out." It's dull and it doesn't make a handy retweet. And it also argues against some of the aspects of the latest techie cause célèbre - Wikileaks, a secretive organization that claims it represents the interests of more open government but renounces public accountability. Three weeks ago, I wrote that I didn't think "Wikileaks advances the cause of more accessible government or international justice." And Lanier didn't win too many allies with his essay in The Atlantic last week that argued for more skepticism toward Julian Assange and his shadowy organization, while taking "nerd supremacy" to task for the near lock-step support of Wikileaks at the cost of traditional avenues of trust:

"The strategy of Wikileaks, as explained in an essay by Julian Assange, is to make the world transparent, so that closed organizations are disabled, and open ones aren't hurt. But he's wrong. Actually, a free flow of digital information enables two diametrically opposed patterns:  low-commitment anarchy on the one hand and absolute secrecy married to total ambition on the other."

In a spirited Atlantic response to Lanier's piece, Zeynep Tufekci (who by chance I happened to sit next to on the stage for our panel at the Personal Democracy Forum's Wikileaks symposium on Dec. 11) argued that he "makes the fundamental conceptual mistake of conflating individual human beings and powerful institutions, like governments and corporations." In other words, those large organizations stand opposed to individual liberty - which the free flow of information can help to guarantee. And that idea also infused some of the criticism of You Are Not A Gadget, especially reactions to Lanier's dystopian view of a purely crowd-sourced social commons, his somewhat alarmist suggestion that "collectivist ideas can mushroom into large-scale social disasters."

Frankly, it's part of the deeply romantic view that so many technologists hold of the Internet (I'm not immune to this) and it's an especially American viewpoint. We tend to view corporations and big organizations and "the state" as monoliths, rather than collections of many individual humans working toward a loose common cause - and we tend to welcome the new frontier than disintermediation brings. In 1997, in a column for The New York Times, Chervokas and I wrote:

For more than 200 years Americans have been driven by the myth of the frontier, the feral, boundless space beyond known civilization where opportunities are infinite, where homesteaders can discard identities of birth and inhabit instead their own identities of mind, and where law is what you make it. This libertarian, romantic myth has informed a lot of the national discourse about the Internet -- America's new "freer, vast, electric world," to borrow a phrase from Walt Whitman.

That "freer, vast, electric world" still holds tremendous promise, in my view. Questioning our direction does not mean losing that promise or ending the Internet experiment. Yet Lanier's point of tends to get lumped into naysayer's category. In a tweet today, NYU press watcher Jay Rosen posited that as they age, digital people tend toward the insight that "de-excites." Some keep going, he wrote, while others "become professional debunkers." Challenged by Jeff Jarvis, he named Jaron Lanier as one of the latter - but I think that's a bit off the mark. If you dig into You Are  Not A Gadget, the sense of wonderment at the possibilities of this digital age remains intact. Lanier is more than a professional debunker. And in my view, the very questioning of the impact of crowds and networks on the social commons is welcome.

"Next to the many problems the world faces today, debates about online culture may not seem that pressing," writes Lanier. "We need to address global warming, shift to a new energy cycle, avoid wars of mass destruction, support aging populations, figure out how to benefit from open markets without being disastrously vulnerable to their failures, and take care of other basic business. But digital culture and related topics like the future of privacy and copyrights concern the society we'll have if we can survive these challenges."

I agree. You Are Not A Gadget didn't change my thinking, but it made me a think a lot more. It's the book of the year for 2010.

November 06 2010


Preen Forward

Color me unimpressed with the outpouring of outrage and garment-rending from liberal colleagues in the wake of MSNBC's suspension of shouting head Keith Olbermann.

Fine, fine, fine. Fox has no such enforced rules about political contributions from commentators and news presenters. This would never happen to a conservative. NBC's rules are antiquated in a participatory, opinionated age of "news." Stipulated. Noted. Filed.

But Olbermann certainly knew the rules and made no attempt to tell management he had broken them, when he surreptitiously made contributions to three Democratic Congressional candidates. In accepting millions from the corporation paying him to fulminate and snort nightly, he certainly agreed to the points in his contract above the signatures. And whatever the outraged left may claim about his actual status, it's clear that Olbermann considers himself a journalist - and a worthy successor to Edward R. Murrow, to boot. And he's one who regularly castigates right-wing media for abandoning the strictures of real journalism. Keith's stately silence on the matter thus far is, quite frankly, his most eloquent statement in quite some time.*

Would that it extended to the chirping chorus around the rest of MSNBC's soundstage - and quite frankly, in the progressive blogosphere, which seems to be pouring out more energy and gut-level anger into defending Olbermann than it did in defending the unappreciated accomplishments of the current Democratic administration and the now lame-duck Democratic Congress.

There are many liberals who root for MSNBC to grow into a counterweight to the Fox monstrosity, our side's version of fair and balanced and loud.

Count me out. It's bad strategy, it's bad karma - and it's bad television. The MSNBC squad is almost painful to watch these days. On election night, the roiling tension on the desk was a death star of hair-shirted self-flagellation, a black hole of anger and resentment that almost sucked the sunny Rachel Maddow into its vortex. O'Donnell vs. Matthews vs. Olbermann. Feel the love. Jagger and Richards are warmer at this point. As seat-squirmingly painful as any Larry David show, but without the yucks. And the freak show vitriol of the mid-term coverage was in direct opposition to the preening West Wing-style house ads that MSNBC has rolled out to push its "Lean Forward" line-up of lefties. God, is there anything that smacks of the white upper middle class patriarchy more than the ad featuring Lawrence O'Donnell leaving the MSNBC offices late at night, and the moment he touches the shoulder of the black security guy on his way out?

But you know, it's show business - it ain't activism or organizing. When you give up so much of societal structure to massive corporations, how can you be surprised when those corporations act in their perceived best interests and within the rights of a contract you signed? This is simply the playing field of big, well-compensated modern media. Olbermann was paid by the rules, and is now paying for the rules. It's not a civil rights issue - Keith can sign onto Typepad or Wordpress or Twitter at any time, and issue special statements unencumbered by the bad guys at General Electric.

And maybe he should. The irony is that there's a real story in those contributions; Olbermann picked some pretty fertile territory for his Federal max donations. Take Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, who appeared on Countdown. Imagine if Olbermann moved to his district for a week. Or a month. And told the story of the border, of poverty, of the drugs wars and their relation to American prohibition, of selective and sometimes pernicious law enforcement, of hunger and desperation and dreams. Man, that'd be a worth a special comment - and it would be a real contribution to the American conversation, the one MSNBC thinks it's involved in with its rotating lineup of the same special guests making the same points from 30 Rock or Jersey or Washington.

* Keith Olbermann's most eloquent recent moments on MSNBC had little to do with politics and everything to do with the ties of language and family. While many snickered at Olbermann's on-air tribute to his late father last spring - formed in the reading of favorite passages from the canon of James Thurber - I found it personally very moving. And it helped connect me to the right words from childhood when I lost my own father a few months later. There was an authenticity to Keith's special comments then that cut through the artifice of the daily left vs. right screaming matches - dare I say, it was his true reporter's voice and I honor him for it. We forget too often that the people we rail against in politics and media are living flesh and blood, and as much as I disdain the current format of the MSBNC noise factory, I want to make sure this moment doesn't pass without a nod of appreciation for Olbermann's words earlier this year.

Tags: Media

January 12 2010


Lame Change: The Cartooning of Elizabeth Edwards

For a woman in American politics, there's simply no floor space between harridan and sainthood. There's nowhere to stand, no place to exist, no neutral platform from which to speak. No gray. Bitch or angel, and too few of the latter.

Take Elizabeth Edwards, dying of cancer and the target of the post-2008 whisperings of campaign aides eager for revenge and an off-the-record chat with political Dirt Devils Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. For a while on what passes for the public commons in this country, Edwards was the Mother Theresa of the Democratic Party, holding on her illness-ravaged shoulders the shame of her husband's infidelity and the progressive dreams of followers who judged her calls for public healthcare to be legitimate.

No more. Cheered on by a Washington media rooting section that could only be portrayed by a cackling Heath Ledger brought back from the dead and replicated to fill every seat at Politico, Edwards is now caricatured as a shrill, unhinged she-devil rending her garments in airports and slicing the Achilles tendons of underlings with a vicious alacrity of a demanding hellcat.

I haven't read the apparently juicy Game Change yet, but I read the breathless excerpt in New York Magazine - which felt it necessary not only to carry the take-down of Edwards, but to cartoon the imaginary scenes as well. Yet reading all those juicy details about this supposedly evil woman merely provided a somewhat sad insight into a complicated and painful life lived during the glare of a national political campaign. There is nothing shocking in the one-sided Elizabeth Edwards portrayal in the book - indeed, it's as believable as her sainthood story...or Barack Obama's salvation myth concoctions. Which is to say, a bit but what does it matter.

And why the sheer mean-spirited style of the whole sorry mess? What's the point? I caught a minute or two of Halperin and Heilemann on Imus this morning. Halperin looked dizzy with the rush of attention, giddy with his well-publicized takedown. Heilemann, a good reporter whose work I've admired, looked apologetic and downcast. And as the dearth of sourcing becomes apparent - the book has no notes, and there's already budding controversy over direct quotes from people like Bill Clinton that are now characterized as paraphrases, and second-hand ones at that - I suspect a guy like Heilemann (who appears to have a soul) will become more dispirited. Because Digby has it right:

Sweet Jesus, I hate this goddamned Halperin/Heilemann tabloid atrocity. It's got the villagers so excited I fear they are going to literally orgasm on camera -- and that's something I just don't want to see. A book based on backstabbing gossip from disgruntled campaign aides and pissed off rivals is about as reliable a six year olds playing a game of telephone. When you combine these nasty little tidbits with the Villager sensibility and biases of the writers, you end up with a docu-drama rather than a work of non-fiction.

Over at the Daily Beast, Lee Siegel takes the Elizabeth Edwards reporting apart, bit by bit. And it's not so much whether the stories are true, but whether they amount to anything at all:

According to the book, Elizabeth called John’s campaign manager an idiot. Maybe he was. She accused David Axelrod of lying to her. Maybe he did. At one point during the 2004 presidential race, she “snarled” at the people who were scheduling her appearances: “Why the fuck do you think I’d want to go sit outside a Wal-Mart and hand out leaflets?” Well, why the fuck would she? Halperin and Heilemann are veteran political reporters. Surely they know that such language and tantrums are as common in political campaigns as their opposite: sheer, calculated niceness.

You can't help but feel that the "crazy woman" character is so easily applied to females on the political stage - their anger is never contained, rarely effective, and almost never portrayed as just. It's usually just crazed, unhinged, pre-menstrual or menopausal. Glancing through the New York cartoons is a trip through that little garden of American political sexism so beloved by the mainstream media.

If Game Change (from what I've seen so far) is at all a reminder of the 2008 campaign, it's a reminder of that prism that existed then - and, God help us, exists now - that distorts the lives of public women and creates the kind of monsters that, I guess, sell books.

Tags: Media Politics

December 03 2009


Social Good, Social Contests

Online giving contests such as the Case Foundation's America's Giving Challenge are offering nonprofit groups new opportunities to raise money and awareness. How can charities make the most of these opportunities? Tom Watson, an author and consultant, and Kari Dunn Saratovsky, of the Case Foundation, in Washington, discuss the answers to this and other questions with Allison Fine, the host of Social Good.

via philanthropy.com

I enjoyed appearing on Allison's excellent Chronicle of Philanthropy podcast today with Kari Dunn Saratovsky of the Case Foundation. You can listen right here:


New Media, No Media

Back in the late 90s, Jason Chervokas and I briefly worked on a book proposal we tentatively entitled "No Media." Our contention was that the global network would eventually devalue the existing media universe to the point of its near-disappearance. We believed that the evolution of the Web and the growth of DIY "content" - a word we both came to loathe - would explode the market for expensive, professional news stories, music, movies, television....the works. I think we were partly right, and it was somewhat ironic to see mention in David Carr's dark death-of-media Times column of the very vehicle we used to test some of those ideas at the time.

In the late days of our involvement with @ny, the newsletter and website we founded in 1995 and sold to Alan Meckler in 1999, Jason and I were recruited to work on a start-up media project called Inside. It was a print magazine (we wrote the end-paper column), a website, a media trade-pub community - and it was more than half a decade before its time.

Inside was the brainchild of Michael Hirschorn, Deanna Brown and Kurt Andersen - an all-star team of media veterans hell-bent on creating the, well, inside venue for the whole media industry during its incipient period of turmoil. It was funded by Flatiron Partners and our friends Fred Wilson and Jerry Colonna and it was a great, but sadly brief, writing gig - we wrote about subjects we were interested in and were paid very well. Here's how Carr places the Inside story (it failed within a year and was sold off to Steve Brill, who didn't do much with the carcass) into the narrative of the dying professional media landscape:

That feeling of age, of a coming sunset, is tough to avoid in all corners of traditional publishing. Earlier in November, the New York comptroller said that employment in communications in New York had lost 60,000 jobs since 2000, a year when the media industry here seemed at the height of its powers.

I arrived in New York that same year as part of Inside.com, a digital news site conceived to cover a media space that was converging and morphing into something wholly new. The site covered the mainstream media’s efforts to come to grips with new realities and efforts by new players to cash in on emerging technology.

Few of us could have conceived that in the next decade some of the reigning titans of media would be routed. Profligate dot-com ad money that had fattened print went away in a digital wipeout, and when digital media came back, it was to dine on the mainstream media rather than engorge it. After 2000, jobs in traditional media industries declined at a rate of about 2.5 percent annually and then went into a dive in 2008 or so. (Inside.com, an idea before its time — hey, let’s charge for high-quality, business-oriented content — disappeared after about 18 months.)

That carnage has left behind an island of misfit toys, trains whose cabooses have square wheels and bird fish who are trying to swim in thin air. The skills that once commanded $4 for every shiny word are far less valuable at a time when the supply of both editorial and advertising content more or less doubles every year.

Carr tries to lift his depressing tale at the end with the observation that the young and media-ambitious are still coming to New York to find their futures - and that they will invent a new future. That may be so, but I suspect that it will continue to be a world in which the market for "content" remains almost infinite - thereby generally devaluing its creation. I kinda wish we'd written that book after all.

Tags: Media

November 21 2009


Taking Back My Links: Meet the New Blog

Sometimes, the smallest shifts on Internet platforms can bring about the largest changes in usership. At SixApart, the company that provides the hosted Typepad service that has provided the platform for this blog since 2004, the team saw the massive aggregation of links happening at Facebook (and to a lesser extent, Twitter and other social media havens) and quickly cooked up a little feature to try and capture some of that shareable goodness.

The tiny "Blog It" bookmarklet was born, and I've decided to use it here at My Dirty Life & Times for a while. This will vastly increase the number of posts usually found here. But that's okay; this blog started as a conversational experiment in media, more than a formal collection of essays, and it remains so. Besides, they're my links.

Like a lot of longtime bloggers, I'd shifted a lot of my attention and currency in the so-called "link economy" to Facebook and Twitter, sharing links and media of all sorts on those platforms. That allows Facebook and Twitter to benefit from my consumption, research and sharing - I'm one of millions busily building the corporate fortunes of those start-ups. And that's fine, too. After all, the implicit contract brings software and hosting - and the ability to engage in conversation - back to me, for free.

And I'll go on sharing "my media" - links, articles, photos, songs, podcasts, and videos - through Facebook and Twitter and other platforms, mainly because that's where the people are. But like a lot of my blogging friends, I despaired a bit for this little corner of the digital media universe. The long silences, the crickets and tumbleweed, bothered me. Yet, there I was shifting my idea-sharing and conversation to Facebook and Twitter.

So now, I'm shifting them back here.

In some ways, it's closer to the original notion of blogging, which was simply the sharing of links and content via a personal news feed. There will be more of that here, at least for while while I try this thing on for size and see what happens. Look for many more short posts and links, as well as the occasional essay. Drop a comment or Tweet the links. I have no ideas how it will play out. Stick around for the ride.

November 18 2009


Empowering Sarah

There's a great little Mad Men moment in Jonathan Van Meter's detailed profile of Hillary Clinton in this month's Vogue (and what socially ambitious magazine piece doesn't have a Mad Men moment these days). "That's how it was!" enthuses the...
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