Every Saturday morning for as long as I can remember, BBC Radio 3 has had a programme at 9am called “Building a Library”, in which a group of experts review recordings of classical music with a view to recommending the one(s) that the listener should contemplate adding to his or her ‘library’. The implicit model is that the music comes on a disc, which made complete sense in the pre-streaming era. The fact that the channel is still running the programme suggests that lovers of classical music still buy discs, which I guess really marks them out nowadays from lovers of pop, rap, etc., most of whom probably get their music from streaming sources. In which case a ‘library’ is now a playlist, I guess.
A couple of weeks ago my Observer column was about podcasting and the pioneering role that Dave Winer played in its evolution. Since Dave often includes a short podcast on his daily blog, I thought I should include an audio version of that particular column. Here it is:
(It’s only five minutes long, but the embed player doesn’t seem to realise that.)
This morning’s Observer column:
I’ve just been listening to what I think of as the first real podcast. The speaker is Dave Winer, the software genius whom I wrote about in October. He pioneered blogging and played a key role in the evolution of the RSS site-syndication technology that enabled users and applications to access updates to websites in a standardised, computer-readable format.
And the date of this podcast? 11 June, 2004 – 15 years ago; which rather puts into context the contemporary excitement about this supposedly new medium that is now – if you believe the hype – taking the world by storm. With digital technology it always pays to remember that it’s older than you think.
When he started doing it, Winer called it “audioblogging” and if you listen to his early experiments you can see why. They’re relaxed, friendly, digressive, unpretentious and insightful – in other words an accurate reflection of the man himself and of his blog. He thought of them as “morning coffee notes” – audio meditations about what was on his mind first thing in the morning…
This morning’s Observer column:
Last Monday was a significant anniversary in the evolution of the web. It was 25 years to the day since the first serious blog appeared. It was called Scripting News and the url was (and remains) at scripting.com. Its author is a software wizard named Dave Winer, who’s updated it every day since 1994. And despite its wide readership, it has never run ads. This may be partly because Dave doesn’t need the money (he sold his company to Symantec in 1987 for a substantial sum) but it’s mainly because he didn’t want to compete for the attention of his readers. “I see running ads on my blog,” he once wrote, “as picking up loose change that’s fallen out of peoples’ pockets. I want to hit a home run. I’m swinging for the fences. Not picking up litter.”
When some innovators cash out big, as Winer did, they more or less retire – play golf, buy a yacht and generally hang out in luxury. Not so Dave. He has a long string of innovations to his name, including outliner and blogging software, RSS syndication, the outline processor markup language OPML and podcasting, of which he was a pioneer.
And his daily blog at scripting.com continues to be a must-read for anyone interested in the intersection between technology and politics. Winer has a quirky, perceptive, liberal and sometimes contrarian take on just about anything that appears on his radar. He is the nearest thing the web has to an international treasure.
He’s also a reminder of the importance of blogging, a phenomenon that has been overshadowed as social media exploded and sucked much of the oxygen out of our information environment…
The best metaphor for the net is to think of it as a mirror held up to human nature. All human life really is there. There’s no ideology, fetish, behaviour, obsession, perversion, eccentricity or fad that doesn’t find expression somewhere online. And while much of what we see reflected back to us is uplifting, banal, intriguing, harmless or fascinating, some of it is truly awful, for the simple reason that human nature is not only infinitely diverse but also sometimes unspeakably cruel.
In the early days of the internet and, later, the web, this didn’t matter so much. But once cyberspace was captured by a few giant platforms, particularly Google, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, then it became problematic. The business models of these platforms depended on encouraging people to upload content to them in digital torrents. “Broadcast yourself”, remember, was once the motto of YouTube.
And people did – as they slit the throats of hostages in the deserts of Arabia, raped three-year-old girls, shot an old man in the street, firebombed the villages of ethnic minorities or hanged themselves on camera…
All of which posed a problem for the social media brands, which liked to present themselves as facilitators of creativity, connectivity and good clean fun, an image threatened by the tide of crud that was coming at them. So they started employing people to filter and manage it. They were called “moderators” and for a long time they were kept firmly under wraps, so that nobody knew about them.
That cloak of invisibility began to fray as journalists and scholars started to probe this dark underbelly of social media…
This is interesting.
All the bad press about Facebook might be catching up to the company. New numbers from Edison Research show an an estimated 15 million fewer users in the United States compared to 2017. The biggest drop is in the very desirable 12- to 34-year-old group. Marketplace Tech got a first look at Edison’s latest social media research. It revealed almost 80 percent of people in the U.S. are posting, tweeting or snapping, but fewer are going to Facebook.
From Mary Meeker’s ‘State of the Internet’ report, 2019.
This morning’s Observer column:
Last Monday, at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, the company’s head of software engineering, Craig Federighi, announced that it was terminating iTunes. In one way, the only surprising thing was that Apple had taken so long to reach that decision. It’s been obvious for years that iTunes had become baroquely bloated, a striking anomaly for a company that prides itself on elegant and functional design. So the decision to split the software into three functional units – dealing with music, podcasts and TV apps – seemed both logical and long overdue. But for internet users d’un certain âge (including this columnist) the announcement triggered reflections on personal and tech history.
There’s been music on the internet for a long time. The advent of the compact disc in the early 1980s meant that recorded music went from being analogue to digital. But CD music files were vast – a single CD came in at about 700MB – and for most people, the network was slow. So transferring music from one location to another was not a practical proposition. But then, in 1993, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany came up with a way of shrinking audio files by a factor of 10 or more, so that a three-minute music track could be reduced to 3MB without much perceptible loss in quality…
“The third and most vital lesson of the Renaissance is that when things change more quickly, people get left behind more quickly. The Renaissance ended because the first era of global commerce and information revolution led to widening uncertainty and anxiety. The printing revolution provided populists with the means to challenge old authorities and channel the discontent that arose from the highly uneven distribution of the gains and losses from newly globalising commerce and accelerating technological change.
The Renaissance teaches us that progress cannot be taken for granted. The faster things change, the greater of people being left behind. And the greater their anger.
Sound familiar? And then…
Renaissance Florence was famously liberal-minded until a loud demagogue filled in the majority’s silence with rage and bombast. The firebrand preacher Girolamo Savonarola tapped into the fear that citizens felt about the pace of change and growing inequality, as well as the widespread anger toward the rampant corruption of the elite. Seizing on the new capacity for cheap print, he pioneered the political pamphlet, offering his followers the prospect of an afterlife in heaven while their opponents were condemned to hell. His mobilisation of indignation — combined with straightforward thuggery — deposed the Medicis, following which he launched a campaign of public purification, symbolised by the burning of books, cosmetics, jewellery, musical instruments and art, culminating in the 1497 Bonfire of the Vanities”.
Now of course history doesn’t really repeat itself. Still… some of this seems eerily familiar.
Also co-author of *The Age of Discovery:Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance. ↩
Barely a week goes by without government ministers or MPs warning Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube (a subsidiary of Google), Instagram or WhatsApp (both owned by Facebook) that they must do more to prevent radical or dangerous ideas being spread. A “crackdown” is always just around the corner to protect users from harmful content.
Oddly, MPs never wonder whether they might be victims of the same effects of these tools that they, too, use all the time. Why not, though? We keep hearing that it’s a big problem for people to be repeatedly exposed to radical ideas and outspoken extremists. It’s just that for MPs, those tend to be within their own parties rather than on obscure YouTube channels.