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Google, and the Problem of “Two Democracies”

Posted by chanders on June 26, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about Google over the past few weeks, partly because I’m working on a project this summer on the future of news reporting, and partly just because there has been a lot of stupid crap said and written recently about the role of Google and the “link economy” in the production and dissemination of news. And a lot of this, in turn, ties into issues of public policy– specifically, the changes in laws and regulations that might reach down into the very guts of the web. In the next few paragraphs, I want to  examine the relationship between Google, linking, democracy, and gathering news by positing two principles, a proposition, a caveat, two (big) conundrums, and conclude by pointing the way to some of the best forward thinking on this topic.

Here we go:

Principle One: Google is not “the web” — but its complicated. Back in the days of the Ma Bell monopoly, was At&T the equivalent of the U.S. telephone system? Obviously not. The “system” was really a series of interconnected cables, phone lines, local utility offices, operator switches, headsets, and human beings (like operators and telephone repairmen) in which AT&T was a dominant player. That dominance, however, made things complicated; many of the rules, technologies, systems, and even the methods by which telephones were used stemmed, in large part, from the way that AT&T, over its history, interpreted the telephone system and what it was for. Obviously, there were limit cases — AT&T could not have unilaterally decided that telephones were really best used for hitting robbers over the head, and marketed themselves as a home protection service. But given those limit cases (what scholars of science and technology call “affordances“),  individuals, companies, scientists, and the government had a fair degree of room to shape the system they were operating on top of. At least for a while.

This isn’t a case, however, of “powerful companies determine how technologies get used, and it’s all a conspiracy.” Rather, there is a second principle at work here– what the same science and technology scholars call “black boxing.” The term actually comes out of computer science, and basically means that, at some point, a cluster of complex infrastructures become “black boxed.” They become seen as unproblematic and unified in a way in which they might not have been originally. Problematizing these unitary systems is called “opening the black box.” The example that has always made the most sense to me here is the idea of a car– for most of us, our car is a “black box”; it’s a unitary device that we ride to work and don’t think about much. Except, of course, when it breaks down; then we start to think very hard about the different objects that make up the black box, mostly so we can figure out how to fix them.

If we put these two concepts together– affordances and black boxing– and apply them to Google and them to the internet, here’s what we get. By deeply understanding and leveraging certain affordances of the internet, Google became the dominant company of the early 21st century digital economy. Along the way, partly because of its’ market and cultural dominance, and partly because it understood the world wide web so well, out notions of “the internet” and “Google” got packaged together in one black box. These days, its hard to disentangle the two; its hard to open that black box.

Newspaper executives are trying, though, and that’s what we’ve been watching over the past year or so. And that’s why it seems to frustrating, futile, and odd to so many people.

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“On the Media,” On Iraqi Bloggers and Journalists

Posted by chanders on October 22, 2006

Great piece from "On the Media" on the new– and tenuous– world of Iraqi journalism.

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The Silence of the Netroots (cross-posted on NYC Indymedia)

Posted by chanders on September 3, 2006

The moment Ned Lamont toppled pro-war incumbent Senator Joseph Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic Primary, a new– but also a very old– narrative got underway in American politics. Captured by Time Magazine, new (or old) story went something like this: “With Lieberman’s primary loss, the netroots movement has established itself as a power center among Democrats. But will its influence haunt the party in November?"

The capture of the soul of a political party by its formally excluded, the transformation of outsiders into insiders is nothing new; indeed, such is the narrative that underlies the triumph of the modern-day Republican Party, from the ashes of Barry Goldwater to Ronald Regan’s shining “city on a hill.” But before progressive activists become too enraptured by the triumph of the netroots, there are some serious questions that need to be answered– or at least discussed. Is a “passion to win” all that really matters in politics? How do the social dynamics of the internet affect the makeup of the liberal blogosphere? And what is the place of big ideas in today’s liberal, not to mention progressive or radical, American movements?

Lamont vs Tasini: A Passion to Win

Perhaps the defining characteristic of the most powerful liberal political blogs like the Daily Kos, MyDD, Eschaton, the Huffington Post, is their pragmatism, their passion to win.  The absence of such a killer instinct among segments of the American left has long been  a source of frustration for many progressives; as ex-60’s radical turned Democratic Party activist Todd Gitlin wrote in the summer of 2001:

The right also tends to win in the great game of organization—and in a mass democracy, that means the great game of politics. Our side likes to have fun. We cherish our differences and identity factions. We like to argue about the political significance of movies and TV shows, not about the politics of pensions and living wages. The fanatics of the right get up early and stay up late. They sit through meetings. They take instructions. This does not make them insuperable. But it does make them the team to beat. And the left will not beat them until it is just as serious—yes, just as fanatical—about winning.

For pragmatic progressives like Gitlin, then, there seems to be a new reason to hope. The netroots “crashing of Washington’s gates wasn’t about ideology, it was about pragmatism,” wrote Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas in the Washington Post in the summer of 2006. Closer to home, and even more bluntly, Daily Gotham contributor Michael Bouldin had this to say about his vision of politics: “I believe strongly that politics is not about "taking a stand" or "expressing feelings" or other such therapeutic drivel; it is about winning.”

Bouldin’s commentary was written in reaction to the candidacy of anti-war Democrat Jonathan Tasini, and Tasini’s candidacy, as much as anything else, demonstrates the playing-to-win mentality of much of the liberal blogosphere. The most powerful lefty blogs, with the exception of the Huffington Post, have either ignored Tasini entirely or systematically denigrated his candidacy, especially in comparison for the near-holy crusade that became the Lamont (or rather, the anti-Liberman) campaign. Despite the numerous “member diaries”written about Tasini in the past few months on the Daily Kos, there has been no “featured” diary about the Democratic candidate for at least the past month, maybe more. Atrios of Eschaton has ignored Tasini entirely. Ditto with Talkingpointsmemo. And MyDD, one of the prime movers and shakers behind the Lamont campaign, had this to say about Tasini: “I had interest in Tasini early on, but I did some research and concluded that Tasini didn’t have the infrastructure ready to seriously challenge Senator Clinton.  I didn’t blog about Tasini, but it’s good he’s getting some time to push Senator Clinton on key issues.”

While there are numerous explanations advanced for the lack of netroots support for Tasini– Clinton is more liberal than Lieberman, Tasini ran a bad campaign, the vote isn’t just about the war– there can be little doubt that, basically, Tasini was seen early on by much of the netroots as a “loser,” and there it stands. When Tasini fought Clinton to a standstill in what can only be described as a “stealth” Moveon.org primary, it was seen by the netroots, those that noticed it at all, that is, as the final nail in the campaign’s coffin rather than a surprising outcome for a candidate that has received almost no media attention, online of otherwise.

The moral of the story goes far beyond the success or failure of one little known anti-war candidate. I myself donated to the Lamont campaign and have generally paid little attention to the primary race here in New York (though I’ll almost certainly vote for Tasini on primary day and for Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate, on Election Day.) The point, rather, is to document the overwhelming desire to win on the part of the lefty blogosphere. And while part of me can’t help but be encouraged– indeed, electrified– by the renewed focus on politics on the American left, another part of me knows for sure that “winning” isn’t the only thing that helped lead to the 40 year triumph of American conservatism. It was, in part, their embrace of bold, nay, their embrace of absolutely radical political ideas. The more than the online left moves from a radical political vision to a pragmatic, electorally defined pragmatism– moves from the political to politics in Sheldon Wolin’s marvelous phrase– the more that any ultimate electoral triumph may be as hollow as the 8 year Clinton interregnum that has helped lead to our current sorry state of global affairs. In short, memo to the lefty blogosphere: winning is not enough.

The Powerlaws of the World Wide Web.

If the driving force behind the new Democratic Party politics wasn’t on the Internet, and if the Internet didn’t demonstrate some fundamental social attributes, none of this would matter as much as it does. But the fact is, the very center of online liberal life has become the pragmatic, election-focused, win-at-any-cost politics of the Daily Kos. Despite the unlimited freedom promised by the internet, solid social science research demonstrates that the distribution of traffic on the web exhibits what Clay Shirky calls a “powerlaw,” a tendency for a few websites to have a tremendous amount of traffic (and power) and a vast majority of websites to have about the same lack of power. Writes Shirky, “in systems where many people are free to choose between many options, a small subset of the whole will get a disproportionate amount of traffic (or attention, or income), even if no members of the system actively work towards such an outcome. This has nothing to do with moral weakness, selling out, or any other psychological explanation. The very act of choosing, spread widely enough and freely enough, creates a power law distribution.”

So, there is a powerful center to the communities of the world wide web. For conservative bloggers, dominated by Little Green Footballs and Michelle Malkin, the center most resembles talk radio. For liberals, it resembles a highly efficient electoral machine. This is obvious if one looks at either the Technorati Top 100 or the “Advertise Liberally” blog network. And while I’d rather the center of the liberal blogosphere be more like an election machine than a rabid talk radio station, I wouldn’t mind a little of a third option: a venue where committed progressive, liberal, and yes indeed, genuinely radical political thinkers could debate the future of American and world affairs. At the moment, such an option seems unlikely, with the thinking of the online left dominated by opinions those of  Mole333 from The Daily Gotham:

“I didn’t stay [in the Democratic Socialists of America]. What I discovered was that, at the time at least, it was composed of a bunch of squabbling, dogmatic fools that left me even more disgusted than mainstream American political parties. In much the same way that is what turns me off to the Greens today: excessive dogma and insufficient practicality. Those are reasons I dislike the Republican party of today as well. Why should I like those qualities in the left when I dislike them in the right? I have had no real experience with the DSA since then. I have no idea whether they have evolved since my brief experience with them so long ago. But what I have learned over the years is that good ideas do not always mean an effective and inclusive political philosophy. That is the lesson that DSA certainly needed to learn 20 years ago and I think the Greens need to learn today.”

To answer the question posed: one should “like those qualities in the left when I dislike them in the right” because, in the end, it’s partly those qualities that helped the right win. A liiberal netroots truly concerned about the meaningful capture of power would engage intellectualy with liberals, anarchists, radicals, black pwer proponents, and yes, Michael Bouldin, even socialists. Power only matters, my dear Democrats, when one has ideas about what to do with power once one gets it.

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Lebanon’s Agony

Posted by chanders on July 24, 2006

For folks who care about such things, here’s a copy of the front page editorial I wrote in the latest issue of the Indypendent

Within hours of the launch of the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon,
the photos of dead Lebanese raced across the Internet. Shot by AP
photographers and released by Hanady Salman of the As- Safir newspaper
in Beirut, they are heart wrenching and stomach churning. Children’s
blackened bodies lie in the wreckage of a burned-out jeep (see
centerfold). A man with a blossom of blood running down his face
staggers out of rubble. An eight-year-old girl is roughly lifted up by
her ankles, her lifeless head hanging limply and her small mouth
partially open.

The Western press, of course, largely ignored these photographs – a
few of the less-graphic photos released by Salman were used in
Newsweek, the New York Times and the New York Post. The mainstream
media preferred instead to focus on the damaged buildings, action shots
of the Israeli military or shrouded bodies of the dead.

Publishing a few photographs of injured or dead Lebanese does little
to break through the narrative that conditions the public to accept the
war as reasonable: Myths that Israel is responding to terrorism; the
toll is similar on both sides; and Israel and Hezbollah are military
equals, exchanging blows daily.

The press tends to show as little death as it can — whether in
Lebanon, Gaza or Iraq. The photos on the front page of the July 17
edition of the New York Times are typical: above the fold were scenes
of Israeli corpses covered in white sheeting. Partly below the fold was
a photo captioned, “A night of bombing produced rubble in a
neighborhood that is a Hezbollah stronghold.” A Lebanese man stares at
the wreckage. The Lebanese, it seems, simply lose their homes, while
Israelis lose their lives.

Despite the disproportionate numbers – at least 20 times as many
Lebanese civilians have died as Israeli ones – the reporting and
visuals strain for “balance.” The dominant photo inside the Times on
July 17 was of an Israeli family grieving over the death of a family
member in Haifa. The next day’s paper featured a collage of sobbing
families from “all sides” of the conflict.

Images are most powerful in the heat of battle. If the media were
publishing more of the readily available photos of blown-up and
incinerated Lebanese children, then the outcry could help force an end
to the bombings. After all, it was the endless repetition of images of
a naked child, screaming and running after being burned by napalm and
the summary execution of a Vietnamese prisoner during the Tet offensive
that helped solidify opposition to the war.

It is easy for Americans to marvel at this “endless cycle of
violence” engulfing the Middle East. We should remember, however, that
Osama bin Laden himself watched the 1982 bombing of Lebanon and first
conceived his plans to demolish American towers. “While I was looking
at these destroyed towers in Lebanon,” he said in 2004, “it sparked in
my mind that the tyrant should be punished with the same and that we
should destroy towers in America, so that it tastes what we taste and
would so be deterred from killing our children and women.”

If destruction visits the shores of the United States again, we must
never be able to ask, with our uniquely American innocence – “why do
they hate us?” They hate us, in part, because we close our eyes.

You can read more stories from the Indypendent <a href=here.

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A Little More on Farnaz Fassihi and the Imprisioned Journalist

Posted by chanders on June 1, 2006

Just to start, I really want to thank Christopher Albritton for engaging with my last post. Again, his response is in his blog and in the comments section of yesterday’s entry. He quotes an interview he did with Farnaz Fassihi where she argues, basically, that despite all the dangers and difficulties in Iraq, and despite the fact that "the security situation may prevent us from getting a hundred percent feel of the place, …  [I] think we have a better idea of what’s going on in Iraq than anybody else."

Then I had one of those "duh" moments: Fassihi spoke at the graduation at my current school, the Columbia University j-school just a few weeks ago. Though I wasn’t there (us PhD students take a long time to graduate!) the text of her remarks are online. Basically, what she says echoes her comments to Albritton, though at greater length. I’m going to quote her in some detail

Not much has changed in terms of our safety since I wrote that email. In the face of all these security limitations, we learned to get creative about reporting. More and more, we relied on the brave Iraqi men and women who work for us.Every where in the world, foreign correspondents are helped by “fixers’’ and ‘’stringers” — young energetic locals who are resourceful, have good contacts and speak good English. On any foreign assignment, the quality of your fixer makes or breaks your trip but this is especially true in Iraq, where the role of the local Iraqi staff has been much more pronounced.

Don’t take me wrong, of course we still venture out but very carefully. We try to be as unobtrusive as possible, staying no long than 30 minutes in any spot. A simple reporting trip requires hours of advanced planning and security checks.We travel in an armored car, followed by a surveillance car with our armed guards. We go out with walkie-talkies and make sure another reporter is aware of where we are going, the roads we take and what time to expect us back.

But the Iraqis go to places we can’t go; they find us stories and sources and conduct interviews on our behalf; sometimes they even convinced people to come to the hotel so I could interview them myself. They buy our groceries and arrange every little detail of our work and living arrangements. They work for us at the risk of their own lives and the safety of their families.

So in sum: journalism in Iraq is beset on all sides, but the news bureaus there are still carrying on, often very creatively, and at great expense and personal danger.  This isn’t a reason to say that the situation for journalism in Iraq is ideal, or even very good, but its much worse to insinuate, as Laura Ingram did, that somehow journalists are "losing Iraq" because they can’t get the story.

But back to my original point: what should the role of the lefty media critic be in a situation like Iraq?  I noted in an earlier post that "it might be nice to see the left blogosphere distinguish itself from the right blogosphere by praising good journalism, by being fair, and by being merciless when, indeed, the mainstream press f—-s up." I’ve certainly penned my own armchair criticism of the Iraq conflict, and have  especially excoriated Judy Miller, but there must be a way to distinguish the crap from the good. Journalism can, after all, me a powerful weapon in the progressive arsenal; it is true, as Fassihi notes, that "journalists have thus far remained the only independent observers of this [Iraq] conflict." But how independent have they been? Either way, they may be the best we can do.

One last thought: I was thinking yesterday about why Fassihi’s letter made such a splash when it came out. Part of it was because here was a journalist who actually had honest-to-god personal opinions about public matters. That resonates with people. But also because, like so much else in Iraq, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Whether you were on the right or the left, a supporter or critic of the war, this conflict was supposed to be the conflict of "embedding," of too much access. Lefty media critics were prepared to blast journalists for being pawns and prisoners of the military. What they weren’t prepared for, as much doom and gloom as they expressed before the war, was that Iraq would become the hell that it has; that journalists would become, along with being the occasional prisoners of U.S propaganda, real-life prisoners of a seemingly endless war.

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Albritton to Bloggers: Shut Up Already

Posted by chanders on May 30, 2006

Chris Albritton of Back to Iraq is tired of the blogging class– both left and right– trashing the mainstream media. It has led, in his words, to a

distrust of all so-called Mainstream Media … [i]t’s almost heretical to defend “the press” in a blog these days. Well, fire up the coals and burn me at the stake then: I think the journalism coming out of Baghdad has been some of the best the international press corps has produced.

Albritton’s got a good point. A few lefty bloggers have tried to walk the line between a general attack on the mainstream press and what Atrios has called an "attack on the press when it screws up." But this is a hard and narrow road to walk: the opprotunities to trash the mainstream media are ever-present, fairly easy to do, and well-documented. In short, perfect its blog material.

It might be nice to see the left blogosphere distinguish itself from the right blogosphere by praising good journalism, by being fair, and by being merciless when, indeed, the mainstream press f—-s up.

Finally, I’m not so sure I agree with Albritton about the quality of journalism coming out of Iraq. After all, the meme of the imprisioned press didn’t just emerge out of nowhere. It was given a fairly vigorous push by Wall St. Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi’s infamous email and has been consistantly reinforced, especially in this article by Berkeley J-School dean Orville Schell. So is the notion of the "besieged press" totally off-base? How do we reconcile Albritton’s plea and Schell’s critique?

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The Future of Local News Revisted: Josh Breitbart on the Pending Sale of the Inky and DN

Posted by chanders on May 22, 2006

Josh Breitbart has a thought provoking and informative post over at Civil Defense documenting the latest moves in the about-to-be-pending-sale of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. This is something I’ve followed with some interest ever since my attendance at the Philly NORGs conference in March. There’s a lot to digest here, so I thought I would largely leave aside the actual details of the sale (except when relevant to other points) and talk a little bit about some of the ways that I think concerned independent media activists should thinking about the economic, financial, and political changes shaking the news industry.

First, lets look at the big picture. As Josh notes, he’s someone who has "worked to de-professionalize journalism for his entire adult life." The increasing (and increasingly nuanced) attention that long time independent media activists are paying to developments in the mainstream, corporate media world is only surpassed by the increased attention that corporate media powers-that-be are paying to independent media. I talked a lot more about this in the aftermath of the NORG’s meeting, so for now all I’ll add is that there would have been a day when just about anyone who cared about alt. media would have barely mustered a shrug of the shoulders with regard to the pending Knight-Ridder sale. Indeed, there’s still plenty along these lines to go around, as  Rolando de aguiar writes on the Philly IMC site, in reaction to Josh’s post:

"I am very disappointed to see an Indymedia feature offering such a facile treatment of this situation. These two abysmal papers–faces of the same overvalued coin–have for many years been hostile to progressive issues … the idea that Philadelphia’s African American community would be "simply shut out of the world of information" is absurd and offensive; rather than crying about the quality of the potential suitors for these two rags, independent media should see this crisis as an opportunity.

By and large, I agree with the thrust of Josh’s post, but I think Rolando also makes some good points. A couple of specific reactions first, before I get to the punch-line, so to speak. First, with regard to the professionalization of journalism. Josh writes, regarding the Newspaper Guild:

"The Newspaper Guild came into existence at a time when journalism was in ill repute. In the 1930s, the Guild brought a new professionalism to journalism and established a sense of respect for newspapers in the eyes of the general public. They set as their mission "constant honesty in news, editorials, advertising, and business practices; [and to] raise the standards of journalism and ethics of the industry." They won pay raises for reporters who were getting paid less than unionized drivers and printers, giving birth to journalism as the professional occupation we know today.

Readers know that the professionalization of journalism is a particular interest of mine, and I wanted to point out (yet again) the ambiguity of the professionalization project with regard to journalism. There’s no better way to do it than to quote James Carey, who has argued that the professionalization of the reporter, along with fostering a growth of objectivity, also helped to create journalists as a separate class increasingly distanced from, and standing in for, the public at large. In other words, while the growth of objectivity and professionalization may have raised the quality of information received by citizens, it undermined both their trust in journalism and the very fabric of public life that made public deliberation possible in the first place.  I think this is a fundamental insight of the independent media activists, even if they don’t often frame their arguments this way. This isn’t to say that professional journalism is bad, just that its a double-edged sword. Can one witness the truth emerge via a deprofessionalized conversation? What about the quality of information? There aren’t easy answers to these questions, but they’re worth asking, at least.

My second and broader thought has to do with Josh’s recommendations. This is related to Rolando’s point that media activists should see the Inky’s sale as an opportunity, not a disaster. Josh points readers in several direction if they hope to comment on the pending McClatchy sale: they can submit comments via 2papertown.com. There’s no reason not to make this kind of noise, but I think its a bit late. Not just with regard to the McClatchy sale, but by and large, with the entire state of the American newspaper industry. Are we just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic here?  Michael Shapiro has an amazing story in the March/April CJR about the rise and fall of the Inquirer which can stand in for a much larger collapse of the newspaper business under the weight of its own conservatism (in both senses of the word) and greed. In other words, does it really matter much who buys the Inquirer and Daily News? There’s no easy way to answer the question, "is journalism possible under capitalism?" but an easier question to ask is, "is journalism possible under the current stage of corporate, investor driven, globalized capitalism?" Jeff Jarvis says yes, and thinks all the talk about evil corporate journalism is bullshit. I say that I’m not so sure.

I’ll take off my ill-fitting Marxist hat for now; it doesn’t really fit me very well, anyway. But I’ll just say this: we are in a moment of opportunity, no matter who buys the decaying remains of the Knight-Ridder empire. This isn’t to say that we can’t try to make the best out of a bad situation, and that the folks in Philly don’t deserve the best, most progressive, most racially forward-looking news they can get. But I don’t know if they they’ll get it from Brian Tierney, or Yucaipa, or Mort Zuckerman, for that matter. Something new is being born in the journalism world that we can see the vague outlines of but can’t quite recognize, exactly. Its not exactly the world that either old-style journalists or their alt. media antagonists expect, I don’t think. But its coming.

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