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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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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.