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Civil asset forfeiture, yikes!

In 2013, The New Yorker published a revealing, troubling piece called “Taken,” an in-depth investigation into the practice of civil asset forfeiture, where American citizens can have their property (cash, cars, homes) confiscated by police, even though they haven’t been charged with a crime.

Now John Oliver on HBO takes on civil forfeiture:

The Institute for Justice is tackling civil forfeiture: website here: http://endforfeiture.com/

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2013 Top Ten (Social/Political/Technical) Culture Blasts

These are things I thought were important in 2013.

NSA Leaks and surveillance society

I always figured the NSA was watching, but it was still a shock to find how extensive surveillance had become – and it was disturbing to see clearly how surveillance of this kind was somebody’s job, something they would inscribe in how-to PowerPoint presentations. This realization via Snowden leaks brought the panopticon home in a big way: as we move so much of our lives into massive databases, we’re increasingly trackable, increasingly exposed to those who know how to capture and analyze the data, and especially vulnerable to government scrutiny. But NSA and government is only part of the story. We’re seeing widespread surveillance by both public and private entities – marketing analytics engines could be or become as robust as NSA tools, meanwhile none of us has ownership of, or control over, our personal data.

In 2013 our level of trust was low and declining. We especially don’t trust governments and corporations with our data because we’re so increasingly aware of the potential for, if not the fact of, abuse. To some extent concerns are legitimate, and to some extent they emerge from a culture of paranoia that has evolved in the wake of mass media and network technology, which have had several relevant effects: greater awareness of abuses when they happen, feeding into myriad fictional surveillance and pursuit fantasies, and more recently the emergence of a social media panopticon. But the Snowden revelations make paranoia feel pretty rational.

Andrew Leonard has a good Salon piece about surveillance/sousveillance: http://www.salon.com/2013/12/27/how_to_defeat_big_brother/

Death of the Internet /DIY/free culture etc.

As the Internet has become the pervasive platform for media and commerce, it has ceased to be the “network of networks” of the 90s. As so many of us predicted, the Internet has been transformed into something more like the cable networks. Content and technology are increasingly locked down behind paywalls and other barriers. Even social media have become more professional, less DIY. Anyone can still participate, but few will capture attention or persistent mindshare as the Internet version of mass media has emerged, more conversational and less top-down than the 20th century version, but nothing like the transitional blogosphere. As small publishers moved from desktop publishing to the web, 2013 saw bloggers moving onto managed platforms like Facebook and Tumblr. We now have a media environment that includes a relatively small number of high-profile content sources, and smaller clusters of online conversation and sharing. Shirkification proceeds (referring to Clay Shirky’s predictions that just such a thing would happen). Question is, how will cream rise to the top? How will new voices emerge and capture attention? Or they be excluded by stricter gateways and media dominance by a limited few. The promise of the Internet was that it could bring a vibrant mix of new perspectives and a cheerfully unmanageable confluence of cultures, but we lose that, if network culture is dominated by a top-down mass media paradigm.

Boston Marathon bombing

The Marathon bombing was similar to the 9/11/2001 attack on the World Trade Center, though smaller scale and evidently involving only two Chechen Muslim perpetrators who didn’t seem to be acting as part of a larger conspiracy or movement like Al Qaeda. This seemed to be more the case of “another nut with a gun” (and some bombs. However I find it just as troubling, maybe more so, to see the bombing as part of an epidemic of random acts of senseless violence. Note also that there were 359 mass shootings in the USA in 2013. (http://www.reddit.com/r/GunsAreCool/wiki/2013massshootings)

The Tea Party gets elected

Through a combination of hard work, effective propaganda, big money, and possibly a heavy thumb on the voting scales, a number of Tea Party politicians have been elected to public office, have been empowered by their supposed popularity, and have managed to freeze Congress from producing any effective legislative solutions. 2013 has been the year of peak Tea Party ascendance, much to the dismay of Democrats and pragmatic Republicans whose business-as-usual has been derailed. The debate about the role and extent of government may ultimately be healthy, if it doesn’t kill us first.

Pope Francis

As religious figures go, this is a breath of fresh air. Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, and the first pope from the Americas, is known for his humility and openness, and the simplicity of his demeanor. These are welcome traits in the leader of the world’s largest, and arguably most influential, Christian religious organization. He hasn’t sold all the Catholic gold, but he’s wearing less of it.

Economy, what?

We keep hearing that the economy will tank any day now, and for anyone who’s on the exasperating downside, that doesn’t seem so speculative. Tech is booming (but it could be a bubble), and there are signs of life in the world of manufacturing. Innovation is everywhere. However the American middle class is on the ropes, and much of the world’s money is socked away in Swiss bank accounts, i.e. out of play. And while there are many experts in the infosphere, nobody seems to have a definitive clue. There’s a lot of “next economy” talk, and we may very well see a collapse of traditional means of exchange and the ascendance of new forms – worker cooperatives, alternative currencies and barter systems, resilient communities, etc. These are gathering steam (and may have to be steam-driven, as fossil fuels burn away).

“Obamacare”

Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) depends on the commitment of citizens and corporations to make it work. However opponents who see in the potential for broad mandated insurance a kind of socialism, where the strong support the weak, have undermined that commitment. Those that are healthy/wealthy don’t want the sick and the poor in their insurance pools, just as they don’t want their tax dollars spent on benefits or “entitlements” for the lower and middle classes. The actual launch of Obamacare was the best they could’ve hoped for: the web technology to support ACA exchanges and enrollments was poorly planned and executed, and this seemed to validate the opponents’ arguments that the ACA would be a disaster. But the botched website development doesn’t say anything about the viability of the ACA system itself. While the law’s not ideal, it’s a step toward universal healthcare and improvement of the whacky dysfunctional American healthcare system. As of this writing, the website’s working better, so we may be past that particular glitch. Meanwhile ideological wrangling over the complex (ergo not well understood) legislation sucked much of the political energy out of 2013.

Chelyabinsk meteor

What happens when an asteroid strikes the earth? We’ve often wondered, and the answer depends on the size of the particular rock. Many think the Tunguska event in Russia was an asteroid or comet strike. The Chelyabinsk meteor, also in Russia, was also thought to have been an asteroid, and the first case where a meteor blast caused documented widespread injuries. I’ve used the word “strike” here, but in the case of both Tunguska and Chelyabinsk, there wasn’t a direct hit. Both exploded above the earth; most of the damage was caused by shock waves.

How can we prevent larger asteroids from striking the earth? NASA’s currently planning an asteroid-tow-and-study mission that would be a step in the right direction: http://www.space.com/22764-nasa-asteroid-capture-mission-candidates.html

Miley Cyrus twerking

Miley’s unconventional, racy MTV Video Music Awards appearance shocked the Twitterverse and escalated her prominence as a pop culture icon, not so much because of the performance itself (which I saw as a clever, entertaining parody of pop culture excess) as her smart handling of the supposed controversy. Can’t say that there was any shift in mainstream commercial pop culture as a result of the furor, but hey, it was just a bit of fun.

Google Glass

I guiltily admit that I haven’t taken any opportunity, and there’ve been some, to give Google Glass a try. I’m skeptical whether I’ll be able to see much of the overlay, but it might be cool to shoot photos and videos on the fly, though a GoPro would be better for that. To me, the real significance is not so much of the specific product or platform but the boost for the wearable computing meme, which we’ve been talking about since the early 90s. However my pocket device is useful enough, I don’t have to “wear” it (though I’m jonesing for a wearable health data tracker like FitBit.)

The point of “wearable” is that computers are increasingly embedded in the fabric of everyday life, via devices like Glass, Nest, FitBit et al, and concepts like the Internet of Things. 2013, two decades after the Internet’s mainstreaming began in 1993, these next generation technologies have arrived. Soon enough, they’ll be commonplace and boring.

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Aaron Swartz, 1986-2013

Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz

Update: Statement from Aaron’s family:

Our beloved brother, son, friend, and partner Aaron Swartz hanged himself on Friday in his Brooklyn apartment. We are in shock, and have not yet come to terms with his passing.

Aaron’s insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable—these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter. We’re grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world.

Aaron’s commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his life. He was instrumental to the defeat of an Internet censorship bill; he fought for a more democratic, open, and accountable political system; and he helped to create, build, and preserve a dizzying range of scholarly projects that extended the scope and accessibility of human knowledge. He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place. His deeply humane writing touched minds and hearts across generations and continents. He earned the friendship of thousands and the respect and support of millions more.

Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.

Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost.

Aaron’s funeral will be held on Tuesday, January 15 at Central Avenue Synagogue, 874 Central Avenue, Highland Park, Illinois 60035. Further details, including the specific time, will be posted at http://rememberaaronsw.com, along with announcements about memorial services to be held in other cities in coming weeks.

Remembrances of Aaron, as well as donations in his memory, can be submitted at http://rememberaaronsw.com

In 2003 during SXSW Interactive EFF-Austin and EFF threw a party in a club called Texture in downtown Austin. Cory Doctorow, Sandy Stone and I were instigators of the party. Cory showed up with Lisa Rein and a teenager who helped us make the wifi work. Cory told me that the teen was brilliant, but I could see that for myself. He seemed a little shell-shocked, too – an east coast kid in Texas for the first time with the whacky, diverse crowd that EFF-Austin attracted.

He was Aaron Swartz, and I crossed paths with him at other conferences and heard his name over and again as found ways to apply his genius, helping create the essential RSS protocol for online sharing and cofounding Reddit and Demand Progress. Those who noted his accomplisments saw him as a force to be reckoned with, and imagined that he would have a brilliant future. Unfortunately he had a brush with the law for downloading 4 million academic articles from JSTOR.

Aaron, who had battled depression, committed suicide yesterday. Read Cory’s obit. Read Larry Lessig’s reaction.

I don’t have anything to add – I didn’t know Aaron well enough, I don’t know the merits of the case, I’m conflicted over IP issues and would like to see the copyright wars end with a truce and some kind of reasonableness. I don’t know that Aaron’s death was brought on by his legal troubles, but I’m pretty clear he wasn’t a criminal, and I’m sure being treated as one didn’t help.

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Sandy Frankenstorm video

Animation compiled from NASA satellite images shows evolution and movement of the massive Hurricane Sandy:

Check stats and images at Weather Underground. Also at Weather Underground, a post by Dr. Jeff Masters emphasizing the storm’s dangerous potential:

This afternoon’s 3:30 pm EDT H*Wind analysis from NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division put the destructive potential of Sandy’s winds at a modest 2.8 on a scale of 0 to 6. However, the destructive potential of the storm surge was record high: 5.8 on a scale of 0 to 6. This is a higher destructive potential than any hurricane observed since 1969, including Category 5 storms like Katrina, Rita, Wilma, Camille, and Andrew. The previous highest destructive potential for storm surge was 5.6 on a scale of 0 to 6, set during Hurricane Isabel of 2003. Sandy is now forecast to bring a near-record storm surge of 6 – 11 feet to Northern New Jersey and Long Island Sound, including the New York City Harbor. This storm surge has the potential to cause many billions of dollars in damage if it hits near high tide at 9 pm EDT on Monday. The full moon is on Monday, which means astronomical high tide will be about 5% higher than the average high tide for the month. This will add another 2 – 3″ to water levels. Fortunately, Sandy is now predicted to make a fairly rapid approach to the coast, meaning that the peak storm surge will not affect the coast for multiple high tide cycles. Sandy’s storm surge will be capable of overtopping the flood walls in Manhattan, which are only five feet above mean sea level. On August 28, 2011, Tropical Storm Irene brought a storm surge of 4.13′ and a storm tide of 9.5′ above MLLW to Battery Park on the south side of Manhattan. The waters poured over the flood walls into Lower Manhattan, but came 8 – 12″ shy of being able to flood the New York City subway system. According to the latest storm surge forecast for NYC from NHC, Sandy’s storm surge is expected to be at least a foot higher than Irene’s. If the peak surge arrives near Monday evening’s high tide at 9 pm EDT, a portion of New York City’s subway system could flood, resulting in billions of dollars in damage. I give a 50% chance that Sandy’s storm surge will end up flooding a portion of the New York City subway system.

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Slow jammin’ the news: let’s be cool about student loan rates

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RIP Insanely Great Steve Jobs

boingboing tribute to Steve Jobs

When Steve Jobs left Apple recently, what seemed like premature obituaries started appearing, so he had the unusual opportunity to see the kind of appreciation usually published postmortem. It’s too bad he’s not around to see the best tribute, boingboing’s retro Apple interface redesign (above).

The phrase often associated with Apple and Jobs was “insanely great” (also the title of a book by Steve Levy). Gary Wolf interviewed Jobs for Wired about “The Next Insanely Great Thing”:

Having children really changes your view on these things. We’re born, we live for a brief instant, and we die. It’s been happening for a long time. Technology is not changing it much – if at all.

These technologies can make life easier, can let us touch people we might not otherwise. You may have a child with a birth defect and be able to get in touch with other parents and support groups, get medical information, the latest experimental drugs. These things can profoundly influence life. I’m not downplaying that. But it’s a disservice to constantly put things in this radical new light – that it’s going to change everything. Things don’t have to change the world to be important.

The Web is going to be very important. Is it going to be a life-changing event for millions of people? No. I mean, maybe. But it’s not an assured Yes at this point. And it’ll probably creep up on people.

It’s certainly not going to be like the first time somebody saw a television. It’s certainly not going to be as profound as when someone in Nebraska first heard a radio broadcast. It’s not going to be that profound.

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Fires, storms, and the crisis of authority

Smoke from the Bastrop Fires

Smoke from the Bastrop Fires

Of course we’ve been tracking the fires in the Austin area, especially the massive complex fire in Bastrop, and I’ve been thinking how to make sense of the disaster. Marsha and I drove toward Bastrop, Texas Monday to get a better look, not expecting to get very close (we didn’t want to be in the way). We drove within ten miles – not close, but close enough to capture photos of the massive tower of smoke: http://www.flickr.com/photos/weblogsky/sets/72157627607062626/ Jasmina Tesanovic was there the same day, and posted her thoughts here.

The whole area is a tinderbox after an unprecedented drought, and a great, now dangerous, feature of the Austin area is that cities and suburbs here have pervasive greenspaces, and we’ve built residences and other structures close to, and surrounded by, foliage that is now potentially explosive.

The current disasterous fires have a climate change signature; they’re products of the record Texas drought – at least exacerbated by, if not caused by, global warming. They were fanned by strong, oddly dry, winds from tropical storm Lee, and while no single storm is specifically related to global warming, their increasing number and severity may be related. While I’m not looking for a climate change debate here, it’s frustrating that the issue has been politicized on both left and right, and leaders have ignored scientific consensus for so long that prevention is no longer an option. We should be thinking about adaptation, but that’s not happening, either.

In fact, we’re not prepared for disaster. Marsha and Jasmina returned to Bastrop Tuesday hoping to volunteer, and Marsha spent much of Wednesday as a volunteer at one of the evacuee shelters. So much is happening so quickly, it’s hard to manage – and there’s no clear leadership or structure. The fire has destroyed 1,386 homes, and it’s still burning. Much of the attention and energy is focused on core concerns. On the periphery of the disaster, there are too few leaders or managers and too many details to manage.

This is a metaphor for global crisis. Economies are challenged and systems are breaking down; at the same time, we have real crises of authority. At a time that demands great leadership, we have no great leaders. Politicians left and right are stumbling. In Texas, which has needed great insightful leadership for some time now, the governor dismisses science and leads rallies to pray for rain.

In difficult times past, great leaders have emerged. Where are they now?

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Bruce Sterling’s talk via live tweet

Bruce Sterling at SXSW 2011

Bruce Sterling at SXSW 2011

I live-tweeted Bruce Sterling’s talk at SXSW Interactive. Here are the tweets… in reverse chronological order, so read ’em backwards.

  • “Women of Italy, cast away all the cowards from your embraces.” SXSW looks like a new world because it’s got women in it.
  • Closing with a Garibaldi quote. “I offer only hunger, thirst, forced marches, battle, and death.” And people went for that.
  • This is an era of organized deception! Days of rage, baby. Be realistic, demand the impossible.
  • “Move to Austin, take over the town!”
  • You need to take power, millenials. I’ll vote for ya! You need a global youth movement.
  • Boomers, shut up! What you should study now is collaborative consumption, technomadism.
  • Young people are the victims of a decaying status qo.
  • They pretend to govern, we pretend to obey.
  • Who would save us from the BP? We’re incapable of rapid deciseve action, and the world demands that sometimes.
  • What worries me is the response to things that take courage and virtuosity and passion to work out, like disaster response.
  • Obese people in the US: “Imagine if the Statue of Liberty looked like that.” It brings out one’s inner Bill Hicks.
  • Catholic Church borgia-like devil’s bargain with Berlusconi to get the legislation they want.
  • Republicans: “a joke to anyone outside the range of Fox News.”
  • People don’t want to throw Berlusconi out, because they fear some kind of economic upheaval.
  • Talking about Berlusconi – he’s a head of state behaving like Hugh Hefner. This is a big deal in Italy.
  • ExxonMobil are not the only political malefactors, they’re just the best connected.
  • ExxonMobil is the personification of corporate evil. (applause)
  • You cn do whatever you want to a microbe and no hippie will show up with a protest sign. Microbes are not in the Bible.
  • Beautiful social network for synthetic biology: http://bit.ly/ei4Wja (expand)
  • Craig Ventner was at SXSW because he’s trying to reframe 20c genetic engineeering as 21stc synthetic biology.
  • In our society, we don’t have any passionate virtuosity.Our political situation is the opposite,disgusted incompetence.
  • We’ve got a series of problems that are poorly recognized.
  • Passionate virtuosity…. the ideas in Worldchanging 2.0 are passionate but lack virtuosity.
  • Bruce Sterling shows Worldchanging 2.0 (the book) at sxsw.
  • As a design critic, I criticize stuff that doesn’t exist yet.
  • Polarizing brand management. Culture wars. Politics from POV of a design critic.
  • All the political language has been rendered toxic.
  • “There are people here who are younger than the event.”
  • At Southby, science fiction authors talk like they know what’s going on.
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Routing around suppression

The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it. – John Gilmore, 1993

I thought about John’s quote yesterday when I heard about attempts to block access to the Internet in Egypt. It ain’t working, per a couple of links Robert Steele sent me.

From The Atlantic’s website:

And now many Egyptians are finding ways around the cuts and getting back on the Internet, allowing them to more easily communicate with the outside world and spread information from the inside. One popular method is to use the local phone lines, which remain intact. The trick is to bypass local Egyptian ISPs (Internet Service Providers) by connecting to remote ones hosted in outside countries — many are hosted here in the United States; Los Angeles seems, for whatever reason, to be a popular site. This is easy enough for the most computer-illiterate among us to do using basic settings and a built-in ‘Help’ function, but Egyptians have a second hurdle as most homes in the country are unable to call internationally. One way that many are getting around this is by linking through a mobile phone network by establishing a connection between a cell with built-in bluetooth compatibility and a laptop with similar functionality or a computer with a bluetooth dongle.

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Egypt’s fired up

Coincidentally while I’ve been at the TXGov20Camp that I’ve worked on (via EFF-Austin, along with the LBJ School), what looks like a democratic rebellion’s caught fire in Egypt; there’s people in the streets calling for the resignation of the 30-year president, Hosni Mobarak. The government tried to squash communications by shutting down Internet access, because so much of the action’s been coordinated online. Wikipedia has an overview. Gilad Lotan has created a “jan25″ Twitter list where you can follow tweets from the scene. Aljazeera probably has the best news coverage, and Global Voices is aggregating citizen media from the region. Here’s a piece on the Internet shutdown.

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2010 Top Stories and Trends: The Eight-Ball List

I’m not much for categorical top ten lists, but my inner pundit won’t let the year end without some kind of list – in this case stories/trends that stood out for me over the last year. I don’t have a top ten, only eight – the eight ball list.

(Here’s a bit about my year, which you can skip if you want to cut to the chase.) It was an busy, interesting, often slightly insane year for me: I had just spent three years in the for-profit and marketing worlds, leveraging my online community-focused Internet expertise to get a handle on social media strategy. My orignal thought was to work with nonprofit and academic organizatins, as had always been my preference, but I found myself getting drawn more into the world of for-profit marketing, which is where the term “social media” found resonance. (More about SM below.) At the end of 2009, I left the social web company I had cofounded and spent some time in a state of professional identity crisis – “what do you do now?” The answer was threefold: go back to web development, which had been my day job since leaving my last couple of jobs sunk with the dotcom bust in 2000-2001; commit more time to Plutopia Productions,the future-focused events company I cofounded; and spend more time writing. Progress? I’m doing a lot of web development, working with developer Selwyn Polit and designer Steve Bartolomeo (real gems to work with). Plutopia’s reputation is spreading, and we’re working hard on three aspects of the business: our signature event in March at SXSW Interactive; our media channel, Plutopia News Network, which I’m coproducing with Scoop Sweeney, and with David Whitman as managing editor; and our white label events production company. Not as much time for the writing, but I expect to do more writing and speaking in 2011 as I sort things out and find bits of time. (My personal kanban is always very full.)

One other thing I’m doing is leading a social media team for the Society of Participatory Medicine, where I was one of several cofounders. Participatory medicine is a hot topic, lots of interest; I could have done a top ten list on that subject alone… but I didn’t include items related to healthcare here. I expect to have more to say about it in the next couple of months.

Meanwhile, (drum roll…)

Jon L.’s 2010 Eight Ball List

Who says the web is dead? Drupal and WordPress are alive and well…
There’s a huge demand for website development; many individuals, nonprofits, and for-profits are rethinking their web presences, modernizing, moving to content management systems, integrating social media, etc. There are many great technologies, but I believe there’s no web development need that can’t be addressed by either WordPress or Drupal. They’re versatile and powerful open source tools, and they both scale pretty well. And they’ve really come into their own – both have high and growing adoption, and are increasingly sophisticated platforms. I’ve committed to these two platforms in web development, acknowledging that there are other great options (Joomla, Rails, Zope/Plone, et al.)

The Internet matures
I think “matures” is a very positive word for what we’re seeing – the network of networks is increasingly valuable, and there’s increasing demand for high bandwidth and rich services. Backbone providers (telcos like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast) are dominant providers of high-bandwidth connectivity. They want a bigger share of increasing value I mentioned, and they want clear ROI for the buildout of fatter pipes. One big issue: they’ve also become content providers, which could create a conflict of interest. That’s where net neutrality comes in – how free should the Internet be on both sides, delivery and consumption? Net neutrality approaches are seen as one way to preserve the neck of the golden gooses. There are many different perspectives and opinions on what IS happening and what SHOULD happen. By 2012, will we have definitive answers?

Social media, ugh.
“Social media” is a buzzword that’s cycling out. Many professionals don’t want to use the label, figuring it’s been sullied by the many amateur consultants who were hustling for work over the last couple of years. And there really wasn’t much of a market for consulting in this space – over a year ago, I saw even clueful social media consultants looking for Real Work, and acknowledging that they couldn’t find clients. My thought du jour is that to the extent that organizations are buying advice about social media, they’ll buy it either from communications consultants (PR/marketing firms, etc.) or from web experts. But the sense I’m getting from many conversations over the last couple of years is that organizations have other things they have to do with their money and their time – social media’s way down on the list, if it’s there at all. Does this mean that it isn’t important? Not at all – I think social media’s embedded in everyday life, we’re all using it. It’s like the telephone – we all use it, we all need it, but that doesn’t mean we have a lot of love, respect, or need for telemarketers.

Facebook, The Social Network, my newfound respect for Zuckerberg.
The film “The Social Network” was an acknowledged fiction, but it showed enough about Mark Zuckerberg’s thought processes and work ethic to convince me that I had radically underestimated him. I’m convinced now that he really does have genius, a vision, and he’s a hard worker. Facebook is a force of nature, however you might feel about it – for more and more people, it’s how they experience the Internet. As for the film, it was smart and powerful, but its down side was that it wasn’t really smart about the Internet. Aaron Sorkin admits that he knows little about it. I think that was a missed opportunity.

It’s the stupid economy
Nobody seems to know what’s up with the economy, and I’m no economist – I certainly don’t want to add more fog. I agree with Doug Rushkoff that too many people are living off float, finance charges, related services, layers of bureaucracy, etc. – therefore not creating and sharing tangible value. I’m not sure what the answer is. Clearly crooks, liars, and economic errors helped crash the economy, and ordinary people have been screwed by opportunists who have managed to hang onto their money, and make more, as others are struggling hard to pay their monthly dues. We should be pissed off, but we’re too confused. I recall the line when Clinton successfully opposed Bush – “It’s the economy, stupid.” Turn that around – “It’s the stupid economy.” I’d like to see what a smart economy looks like. I grew up in an era of balance between progressive liberal and grounded liberal thinking, and it seemed to work – maybe that’s what makes an economy smart, that balance.

Obama under attack
Barack Obama, who seems to be a very good president strugging with almost insurmountable problems, most of which he inherited from predecessors, has been savagely attacked in a complete breakdown of domestic statesmanship on the right. The level of disrespect is rather amazing and the degree of polarization is disheartening. What happened to respectful, balanced, moderate Republicans? They seem to have lost their political party, and I wonder where they’ll go from here. As an independent, I have an issue with Democrats, too, and with political parties in general. Partisan thinking brings out the worst in people – and when times are rough, it behooves us to get on the same page more often.

Rethinking journalism
Journalism is not dead, but it’s harder to fund, especially deep investigative journalism. I’ve been hanging out with journalists lately, talking about the fate and future of the endeavor, and many are into interesting and fruitful experiments with new technologies, forms, and business models. One great model: Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news organization that’s forming partnerships with other nonprofits as well as for-profits (like the New York Times). I won’t say a lot about this here, but I helped coordinate a journalism track at SXSW Interactive that should include lively discussions about news innovation.

Wikileaks raises questions about transparency.
Everybody’s been weighing in on this one, and I’ve made several posts about it. I should just summarize what I think: governments do need to be able to have confidential discussions, not everything should be public – I get that. However governments are accountable to citizens, and should be as transparent as possible. Journalists (the fourth estate) should mediate transparency by digging out the sort of information information Wikileaks revealed, analyzing it, and reporting the facts, using judgement, keeping secret what should be secret and needn’t be revealed. Something like Wikileaks exists partly because news organizations are failing, because the effective business model for hard news is unclear, because nobody’s paying journalists sufficiently well for sufficiently long to dig that stuff out. Real journalists shouldn’t be asked to churn PR pieces and write infotainment articles. They should be asked to dig out the kind of information Wikileaks has been publishing, and to do the analysis to build real, effective news stories.

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Taking a Wikileak

In my obligatory post about Wikileaks as the story du jour, I point to the great set of questions Dan Gillmor has posted in his column at Salon. These are especially lucid. I like especially Dan’s point about the character of the communications that were leaked, that many of the messages are gossip. Journalists are dutifully reporting “facts” gleaned from the leaked material without necessarily digging deeper, verifying and analyzing. Of course, they don’t have time – the information environment moves too quickly, he who hesitates is lost, accuracy be damned.

Then again, journalism is so often about facts, not truth.  Facts are always suspect, personal interpretations are often incorrect, memories are often wildly inaccurate. History is, no doubt, filled with wrong facts and bad interpretations that, regardless, are accepted as somehow “true.”

The high-minded interpretation of this and other leaks, that people need to know what is being said and done by their representatives in government, especially in a “democratic society,” is worth examining. We’re not really a democracy; government by rule or consensus of a majority of the people doesn’t scale, and it would be difficult for the average citizen to commit the time required to be conversant in depth with all the issues that a complex government must consider.

Do we benefit by sharing more facts with more people? (Dan notes that 3 million or so in government have the clearance to read most of the documents leaked – this seems like a lot of people to be keeping secrets… is the “secret” designation really all that meaningful, in this case?) But to my question – I think there’s a benefit in knowing more about government operations, but I’m less clear that this sort of leak increases knowledge vs. noise.

I’m certain about one thing: we shouldn’t assume that the leaked documents alone reveal secrets that are accurate and true. They’re just more pieces of a very complex puzzle.

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Knight News Challenge

The Knight News Challenge will launch October 25, just days after our Austin News Hackathon.

According the the press release, the challenge “for the first time will feature experimental categories: Mobile, Authenticity, Sustainability and Community.” Knight adopted these categories “to harness and accelerate the entrepreneurial energy we are seeing in the field.”

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Vote for the future of journalism!

I’m part of an informal group of journalists who are focusing on the future of that profession, and more generally on the future of news discovery and delivery. We proposed a coordinated set of SXSW Interactive sessions on journalism via the panel picker, and we’re soliciting votes from any and all of you who are ready to see journalism re-imagined and re-invented in the context of what McLuhan referred to as the “new media matrix,” facilitated by the Internet and participatory media.

The informal group includes Evan Smith from Texas Tribune, Chris Tomlinson from Texas Observer, Matt Glazer of Burnt Orange Report, Dan Gillmor from the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, Tom Stites from the Banyan Project, Burt Herman from Storify and Hacks/Hackers, Jennifer 8. Lee of the Knight News Challenge,, Jay Rosen of NYU, and Andrew Haeg of the American Public Media Public Insight Network.

The sessions:

We’d be thrilled to get your vote for each and every one of these sessions, or for any you have time to review!