Friday 8 January, 2021

Motoring, French-style

Quote of the Day

’Everywhere wander thousands of rumours, falsehoods mingled with the truth, and confused reports flit about. Some of these fill their idle ears with talk, and others go and tell elsewhere what they have heard; while the story grows in size, and each new teller makes contribution to what he has heard. Here is Credulity, here is heedless Error, unfounded Joy and panic Fear; here sudden Sedition and unauthentic Whisperings…

  • Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 12

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Billy Preston | My Sweet Lord | Live


Long Read of the Day

Welcome to the splinternet – where freedom of expression is suppressed and repressed, and Big Brother is watching

Useful essay by Danny Bradbury on how the global Internet might wind up as just a fond memory, broken into ‘splinternets’ — internets of various geopolitical actors like Iran, China, and Russia.

Mail-In Voter Fraud: Anatomy of a Disinformation Campaign

Really interesting study by Yochai Benkler and a team from the Berkman-Klein Centre, which comes to conclusions that challenge conventional wisdom about the power of social media.

Contrary to the focus of most contemporary work on disinformation, our findings suggest that this highly effective disinformation campaign, with potentially profound effects for both participation in and the legitimacy of the 2020 election, was an elite-driven, mass-media led process. Social media played only a secondary and supportive role. This chimes with the study on networked propaganda that Yochai, Robert Faris and Hal Roberts conducted in 2015-16 and published in 2018 in  Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics. They argued that the right-wing media ecosystem in the US operates fundamentally differently than the rest of the media environment. Their view was that longstanding institutional, political, and cultural patterns in American politics interacted with technological change since the 1970s to create a propaganda feedback loop in American conservative media. This dynamic has, they thought, marginalised centre-right media and politicians, radicalised the right wing ecosystem, and rendered it susceptible to propaganda efforts, foreign and domestic.

The key insight in both studies is that we are dealing with an ecosystem, not a machine, which is why focussing exclusively on social media as a prime explanation for the political upheavals of the last decade is unduly reductionist. In that sense, much of the public (and academic) commentary on social media’s role brings to mind the cartoon of the drunk looking for his car keys under a lamppost, not because he lost them there, but because at least there’s light. Because social media are relatively new arrivals on the scene, it’s (too) tempting to over-estimate their impact. Media-ecology provides a better analytical lens because it means being alert to factors like diversity, symbiosis, feedback loops and parasitism rather than to uni-causal explanations.

There’s a whole chapter on this — with case-studies — in my book From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg — published way back in 2012!

On the importance of everyday things

Tim Harford has a lovely essay on his Blog about the humble but magical things we take for granted — like pencils and toasters. He writes about Thomas Thwaites, an artist and designer whose “Toaster Project” was an attempt to design and build an ordinary toaster, beginning with assembling his own raw materials — quarrying mica, refining plastic, smelting steel.

“You could easily spend your life making a toaster,” he told me when I interviewed him about the project more than a decade ago. And indeed he took various short-cuts. Nevertheless, his finished toaster cost about £1,000 and required several months of work. It looked like a cake iced by a three-year-old, and when plugged into the mains it immediately caught fire.

A budget shop-bought toaster does not catch fire and costs less than a hardback book. It is unlikely to move anyone to tears, yet the people who mine metals, refine plastics, generate our electricity and design safe electrical appliances no doubt work at least as hard as any author. The results are so cheap and reliable we overlook them. Indeed, we are surrounded by products we barely understand, produced by people we never meet, often at a quality so high and a price so low — relative to our wages — that our ancestors would be staggered.

Great piece. I’m a sucker for these kinds of of reflective essays. One of my favourites is Henry Petroski’s The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. Another book of his — To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design — is also a (salutary) delight.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Decoding the insurrectionist’s flags. Link from Quartz.
  • Trump Is Said to Have Discussed Pardoning Himself. Yep, you read that correctly. Why are you not surprised? Link

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