Archive for the 'Media ecology' Category

Jeff Bezos’s letter to Washington Post employees

[link] Monday, August 5th, 2013

This could be really interesting. Jeff Bezos has bought the Washington Post as a personal — not an Amazon — purchase. His letter to employees suggests that he understands what’s at stake. Sample:

The values of The Post do not need changing. The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners. We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely.

I won’t be leading The Washington Post day-to-day. I am happily living in “the other Washington” where I have a day job that I love. Besides that, The Post already has an excellent leadership team that knows much more about the news business than I do, and I’m extremely grateful to them for agreeing to stay on.

There will of course be change at The Post over the coming years. That’s essential and would have happened with or without new ownership. The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: shortening news cycles, eroding long-reliable revenue sources, and enabling new kinds of competition, some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs. There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment. Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about – government, local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports – and working backwards from there. I’m excited and optimistic about the opportunity for invention…

Stirring stuff. But, as my mother used to say, fine words butter no parsnips. We’ll just have to see if he means it. And if he can stand the heat in the kitchen when the going gets rough. Which, given the pathological dysfunctionality of US politics, it will.

Do we want ISPs to be censors?

[link] Sunday, June 30th, 2013

This morning’s Observer column.

In a way, identifying and barring the truly horrible content is the easy part, at least in legal terms. If downloading or viewing certain kinds of online content is deemed illegal, then internet companies know where they stand, and they will obey the law. If a site contains illicit content, then Google et al will find ways of not pointing to it.

The problem is that this alone will not stop people who are willing to take the legal risk implicit in accessing illegitimate sites. The next logical step, therefore, is to make access impossible by forcing internet service providers to block them, using the same technology that the Chinese government employs to make sure that nobody in China learns anything about, say, Falun Gong.

Not surprisingly, nobody in the industry likes this idea. Apart from the extra costs it would impose, it also places companies in the uncomfortable position of deciding what their customers can read and view. And it would effectively put the UK in the same boat as China, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and other countries whose governments decide what citizens can access.

Nevertheless, the ISPs are feeling the heat from a government desperate to be seen to be “doing something” about porn…

Emergence and media feeding frenzies

[link] Friday, May 24th, 2013

Anyone who studies systems (and I started life as a systems engineer) knows that emergence is the most potent and mysterious property they have. One sees it in behaviour or properties exhibited by the whole system that cannot be inferred from studying its components in isolation. (For a metaphor, think of the pungent smell of ammonia, an emergent property of a system comprised of two odourless gases — nitrogen and hydrogen.)

What brings this to mind is the media frenzy that has accompanied the brutal killing of an off-duty soldier in a part of London. As Simon Jenkins points out in a fine column, what the killers seek is worldwide publicity for their rationalisations for hacking a British soldier to death. And that is precisely what the media have given them.

The first question in any war – terrorism is allegedly a war – is to ask what the enemy most wants you to do. The Woolwich killers wanted publicity for their crime, available nowadays at the click of a mobile phone. They got it in buckets. Any incident is now transmitted instantly round the globe by the nearest “citizen journalist”. The deranged of all causes and continents can step on stage and enjoy the freedom of cyberspace. Kill someone in the street and an obliging passerby will transmit the “message” to millions. The police, who have all but deserted the rougher parts of London, will grant you a full quarter hour for your press conference.

There is little a modern government can do to stem the initial publicity that terrorism craves. But it has considerable control over the subsequent response. When the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, pleaded for calm and for London to continue as normal, he was spitting into a hurricane. Terror could not have begged for more sensational attention than was granted it by Britain’s political community and media.

Where does the idea of emergence fit into this? Well, I’d bet that if one asked any individual journalist involved in covering this story — from the humblest reporter thanklessly knocking on doors in run-down council estates, to the editors of national newspapers and broadcast networks — they would agree that it’s crazy to acquiesce in the terrorists’ desire for publicity. But they’re all caught in a system that makes it impossible to do otherwise. So the crazed feeding frenzy is the emergent outcome.

The other interesting aspect of the story is the way in which right-wingers — e.g. former Home Secretary John ‘Lord’ Reid and the intelligence nerd Lord Carlile — immediately began talking up (on Newsnight on the evening of the murder) the need for a revival of the Communications Data Bill (aka Snoopers’ Charter). Gruesome news provides not only a way of burying bad news; it also enables politically-motivated folks to slip in repressive legislation under the radar.

Fragile systems

[link] Sunday, April 28th, 2013

This morning’s Observer column.

On Tuesday 23 April, a tweet from Associated Press (AP) revealed startling news. There had been explosions in the White House and Obama had been injured. The tweet was a hoax – the AP Twitter account had been hacked via a clever phishing exploit – but it briefly caused havoc. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 144 points between 10.07am and 10.09am, for example. Crude oil prices also briefly tumbled and the price of US Treasury bonds and gold futures spiked. Within minutes, AP disclosed that the tweet was erroneous and things returned to normal, with the Dow eventually rising 152 points for the day to close at 14,719.

Crisis over, then? Er, not quite. The story of the hoax AP tweet resurrects troubling thoughts about systems and fragility…

The ‘Gay Onslaught’

[link] Friday, April 19th, 2013

Wonderful speech by Maurice Williamson in the debate in the New Zealand parliament on the bill that would legalise same-sex marriages.

Wish more of our parliamentarians had the same sense of ironical style. I particularly like the bit about him roasting in hell for all eternity.

The Facebook pathogen

[link] Sunday, April 14th, 2013

This morning’s Observer column.

Infectious diseases, says the World Health Organisation, “are caused by pathogenic microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, parasites or fungi; the diseases can be spread, directly or indirectly, from one person to another.” Quite so. Just like Facebook addiction, which also spreads from person to person and has now reached pandemic proportions, with more than a billion sufferers worldwide.

The Facebook pathogen doesn’t kill people, of course, for the good reason that dead people don’t buy stuff. But it does seem to affect victims’ brains. For example, it reduces normally articulate and sophisticated people to gibbering in the online equivalent of grunts. Likewise, it obliges them to coalesce all the varieties of human relationships into a simply binary pair: “friends” v everyone else…

The problem with eBooks…

[link] Saturday, April 6th, 2013

… is that they try to mimic print books. It’s skeuomorphism and the horseless carriage all over again — as this excellent rant by Kane Hsieh puts it:

The problem with ebooks as they exist now is the lack of user experience innovation. Like the first television shows that only played grainy recordings of theater shows, the ebook is a new medium that has yet to see any true innovation, and resorts to imitating an old medium. This is obvious in skeuomorphic visual cues of ebook apps. Designers have tried incredibly hard to mimic the page-turns and sound effects of a real book, but these ersatz interactions satisfy a bibliophile as much as a picture of water satisfies a man in the desert.

There is no reason I need to turn fake pages. If I’m using a computer to read, I should be able to leverage the connectivity and processing power of that computer to augment my reading experience: ebooks should allow me to read on an infinite sheet, or I should be able to double blink to scroll. I should be able to practice language immersion by replacing words and phrases in my favorite books with other languages, or highlight sections to send to Quora or Mechanical Turk for analysis. There are endless possibilities for ebooks to make reading more accessible and immersvie than ever, but as long as ebooks try to be paper books, they will remain stuck in an uncanny valley of disappointment.

Right on, man!

My advice to Tony Hall

[link] Sunday, March 31st, 2013

Tony Hall takes over as Director-General of the BBC this week. The Observer, like every other newspaper in the land, was keen to offer him advice and Vanessa Thorpe (the paper’s Arts and Media Correspondent) asked various people what they thought Hall should be focussing on. I was one of the people she consulted, and some of what I said is included in her piece. Here, for the record, is the full text of what I said.

In thinking about its future, the BBC ought first to look back to its roots. Lord Reith may have been a crusty old patriarchal bird but in a way his vision for the BBC was startlingly egalitarian. He believed that the corporation’s mission was to bring the best to everyone. And he wanted the things it created to be free from commercial and political manipulation. When considering what the BBC’s role should be in a digital world, Tony Hall and James Purnell could do a lot worse than return to those two aspirations.

Because we’ve all bought into the techno-utopianism of the early Internet, we tend to assume that it’s always going to be open to everyone. But as more and more of the world goes online, it’s clear that we’re heading in a very different direction — towards an online world dominated by huge, primarily foreign-owned, corporations which are creating walled gardens in which internet users will be corralled and treated like captive consumers, much as travellers are in UK airports now. The dream that the Internet would make everything available to everyone on equal terms is fading fast.

For various reasons, including accidents of history, the BBC is the only institution in the world with the resources and the capability to challenge the drift towards commercially-controlled walled gardens. It has a huge archive of cultural treasures — 6 million photographs, 4 million copies of sheet music, a complete record of everything that has ever been broadcast, one of the world’s largest record collections, and national and international news reports for every day for the past 70 years — plus recordings of most of what it has ever created and transmitted. And it sits at the heart of a society endowed not only with the world’s lingua franca, but also with 2,500 museums and galleries, six national libraries, a thousand academic libraries and some of the world’s best universities.

So here’s what the BBC should be doing next: orchestrating the creation of a new kind of unwalled online garden, one which gathers together all of the nation’s cultural heritage in digitised form, together with: the metadata which enables things to be discovered; open access for all; and and permissive licences that allow citizens of Britain — and the world — to access, enjoy, consume, learn from and remix the great things that this society and its people have given to the world.

Google’s Keep: is it for keeps? Probably not

[link] Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

So Google has decided that Evernote needs to destroyed. That’s not what the search giant says, of course, but that’s the clear intention. The company has launched Keep as a web service and an Android app. This video confirms that Evernote is the target, because it could have been made about the older service.

I’m reminded of the way Apple launched iCloud as a way of dealing with Dropbox. That doesn’t seem to have worked. I’m still using Dropbox and avoiding iCloud. I expect I’ll continue to use Evernote, for two reasons. Firstly it’s built into my daily workflow. And secondly, if I pay for a service I have some level of confidence in its continuity.

No such certainty attends reliance on any of Google’s services. Charles Arthur has a terrific piece in the Guardian, “Google Keep? It’ll probably be with us until March 2017 – on average”, based on an analysis of 39 services that Google has shut down. Here’s what he found:

According to data I’ve gathered on 39 Google services and APIs – ranging from the short-lived “Google Lively” (a 3D animated chat introduced on 9 July 2008 and euthanised just 175 days later, on 31 December) to the surprisingly long-lived iGoogle (a personalised Google homepage, to which you could add RSS feeds and data, introduced in May 2005 and due for the chop in November after 3.106 days) – the average lifespan of products that don’t make the cut is 1,459 days. That’s just two days short of four years. For those keen on statistics, the standard deviation is 689 days; bar one item (iGoogle) all the group members lie within two standard deviations of the mean.

There are various ways of looking at this. One can, for example, applaud Google’s creativity — the way its engineers spew out innovative, experimental services as “perpetual betas”; it shows the kind of cognitive surplus that the company generates. Good for them!

On the other hand, one can take the view that as a dominant company on the Internet, Google has acquired special responsibilities: it’s become like a public utility and therefore should not behave like a cheeky, innovative start-up. Thousands and thousands of serious Internet users (including yours truly) built their work-flows round Google Reader; and Google’s entry into the RSS-aggregator market effectively ended the lives of earlier, smaller products. (I remember a time when the most chilling question a start-up could face from a potential investor was: “What will you do if Google decides to enter your target market?”)

Now, having wiped out those small fry, Google exits with a blithe statement saying that it needs to focus on core business.

I have a hunch that Google will come to regret this particular decision. Apart from anything else, Reader drove a lot of traffic — far more, I suspect, than Google+ does.

On the basis of his statistical analysis, Charles Arthur thinks that we can expect Keep to be around only until 18 March 2017.

Kicking away the ladder

[link] Sunday, March 24th, 2013

This morning’s Observer column:

Why does this matter? Well, in a way, it comes back to the guys who won the Queen Elizabeth prize. The network that Cerf and Kahn built was deliberately designed as an open, permissive system. Anyone could use it, and if you had an idea that could be realised in software, then the net would do it for you, with no questions asked. Tim Berners-Lee had such an idea – the web – and the internet enabled it to happen. And Berners-Lee made the web open in the same spirit, so Mark Zuckerberg was able to build Facebook on those open foundations.

But Zuckerberg has no intention of allowing anyone to use Facebook as the foundation for building anything that he doesn’t control. He’s kicking away the ladder up which he climbed, in other words. And if he ever gets the Queen Elizabeth prize then I’m leaving the country.