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March 31, 2010

[2b2k] The Web style of nonfiction story-telling

The challenge of the writer of non-fiction intended for a general readership is that usually the general readership doesn’t care about your topic. The big, obviously interesting topics have already been written about, by writers with bigger advances than you. So, you’ve probably picked something somewhat quirky. Readers don’t think they’re interested in your topic. Your job is to convince them that they’re wrong by pulling them through the book.

A current way of doing so is to introduce chapters and sections with a bit of nonfiction narrative that is quirkily interesting in itself, and then reveal that it is relevant to the book in some unexpected way. The reader begins happily surprised to find herself interested in the history of quail shoots or the discovery of floor wax, and then gets an extra squeeze of joy when she finds out that the digression – promisingly short – enlightens the overall topic.

This sort of writing has the structure of a joke: the sudden revelation of meaning. And I find it quite enjoyable as a reader when in the hands of a master such as Malcolm Gladwell, whose brilliance at it I think has driven the use of this style. And, yes, I use the technique myself, albeit lamely.

My hypothesis – and it is nothing more than that – is that the Web has abetted the spread of this literary form in two ways. First, the technique is a way of sustaining interest across the attention spans the Web has fragmented. Second, the Web makes it astoundingly easy for a writer to find digressive anecdotes and stories. You think it might be fun for the reader to begin a chapter with an account of the superstar team that analyzed why the Challenger shuttle exploded? Ten seconds later, you’ve got a rich set of materials listed for you. The reader would enjoy an account of the origins of the phrase “turtles all the way down”? The Web considers it done.

Of course, using this technique effectively is an entirely different story. But, the Web gives us both the motive and the means.

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Order, art, and the miscellaneous

Giulia Ricci’s investigates:

the shift between order and disorder within different systems, which is the reason why I recurrently use geometrical grids, although on a more abstract level I am also interested in systems of categorisation and lists and how these can be visualised with diagrams and geometrical drawings.

For example, take a look at these. I find them fascinating as they swim close to resolution but never quite make it.

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March 30, 2010

[berkman] Michael Slaby on tech, politics, and freedom

Michael Slaby was Chief Technology Officer for Obama for America. His team was responsible for the technology behind the online campaign. He’s giving a Berkman lunchtime talk. NOTE 1: I’m liveblogging, aqnd thus getting things wrong, paraphrasing, missing points, etc. Do not trust these notes. NOTE 2: Ethan Zuckerman’s far superior livebloggage is here.

He begins by modestly disclaiming credit. His group didn’t build the 13M-person mailing list. He at first didn’t want to do Twitter. President Obama was a spectacular campaigner. Everyone was clear about what needed to be done. He says he was part of an incredible team that executed well, including, Chris Hughes and Joe Rospars [and one more person whose name I did not get - dw].

Lessons from the campaign: The importance of being genuine. You can’t fake who you are. He points to the fact that old people who try to sound cool always sound ridiculous. “If you fail the genuineness test, you will lose the ability to make a connection with your supporters.” A motto from the campaign: “Respect. Empower. Include.” When they went into Iowa (where they had an astonishing 33 offices), they understood they were visitors. [Unlike the Dean campaign four years earlier? -dw] Also: Be generous with ownership. Empower your supporters to be your best advocate. “People trust other people about you more than they trust you about you.” “Giving away control means you have to teach your values.” That way, instead of telling them what to do, you can give them tools to act and they will do the right things. They’re going to say some things you don’t want them to, but they will pass the “genuity” test more than you will.

This campaign was won in the field, not online. The impressive thing about having 2M Facebook supporters was that half of them went out and did something for the campaign. When you start a campaign, you’re in a relationship with people. When the campaign started, FB didn’t have fan pages, so you’re just another profile, so you have to act like one, respond to people, etc.

Tell good stories, he says. Lots of people can write a good email, but few can structure an email program that will last for two years.

“The Obama campaign was a good object lesson for technology serving purpose.” Tech is merely a means. “We didn’t use stuff in the campaign that didn’t help us win. That was my mantra: ‘How does this help us win?'”

He says that it was amazing that Secretary Clinton gave an Internet Freedom speech, but that much was absent from it. Our goal is promote democracy, but democracy depends on lots of other things in the culture. It’s myopic to think that democracy is banging on the door of totalitarian states. It can be difficult to go from an authoritarian regime to elections; elections may not be the first thing to do. If we want Net Freedom, we should make it more partisan. We are fine with censorship of some things, e.g., child pornography. So, we should be more explicit about what we value, rather than pretending to support Net Freedom overall. We need to articulate what the purpose of Net Freedom is.

Q: What do you mean by stories?
A: The story on the Obama campaign was born out of Pres. Obama’s personal story as a community organizer, who wanted to empower others to enable change. [I'm paraphrasing poorly.] When you run an email campaign, you have a specific goal, but if it’s not part of the wider message you get a clanging cymbal [symbol?] problem. So, if you send an email asking for a large donation, it clangs against the story that this is about empowering a wide range of people, so we wouldn’t send that email. Joe Rospars came up with the idea of flying 4 low-dollar donors to “dinner with Barack”; usually, you have to donate $100K’s to get dinner with the candidate. Pres. Obama loved these opportunities. “In the summer of ’07 when we were this crazy longshot, we were telling Pres. Obama’s personal story.” Even back then Pres. Obama talked about this being “your campaign.” “If that’s going to be who you are, that’s how you have to stay who you are.” E.g., you have to remember what you’ve told your supporters.

Q: How do you get all these people on the same page? And what mistakes did you make that we can learn from?
A: Joe Rospars, the dir of new media, was a peer with the dir of communications. Joe reported to David Plouffe. It was important for us to be able to say no credibly. There was little drama. The top has to lead with values. Not everyone is comfortable talking about values because they think it’s too soft. “It’s hard to distill your passion into something that is easily articulated and easily understood.” “The humility of knowing who you are is really important.” It’s missing from our Net Freedom policy.
In terms of mistakes, it was great to have the freedom to try things and fail. We thought an honest way to do fund-raising: we’d let people buy the things we need by posting a list. You’d rent us a van and then we’d send you a photo of the van. Sounds great, but it didn’t work at all. Too complicated. We tested an email campaign this way, where you could buy a line item or you could get a t-shirt for contributing, and the t-shirt won. (It’s important to understand when you’re in a tech echo chamber, he says.)

Q: [ethan] At a talk one of Howard Dean’s organizers in response to a question said online campaigning means getting a lot of email addresses and raising money from from. You’ve addeed: Make sure your supporters understand your values and let them speak on your behalf. Great for politics and non-profits. But there’s a gap between that and the larger movement-building that some of us hope will come out of the Net. [That Dean person's characterization is quite unfair to the Dean campaign, which built open source social networking tools, and went out of its way to make sure supporters felt empowered to talk for the campaign. See Joe Trippi's book. - dw]
A: Emails are great for raising money. But, converting online interest to offline action is the most important metric. Everything we did was based on mobilizing people, including building tools to allow people to volunteer easily online. E.g., signing up for a shift is a gigantic pain; we did it fairly effectively with a lot of different tools. We had MyBarackObama that let people find each other locally and go out into the community. Those are the tools that are most interesting for general advocacy. Cf. Chris Hughes’ Jumo that will create a community and then bring organizations to the table. Chris is a genius, says Michael. For engagement online, you have to go where people are; most advocacy campaigns don’t have the advantage of being on TV every day for two years the way we did.

Q: [wendy] What’s your favorite tool for listening to people, and how many do you listen to as opposed to making people feel like they’re being heard?
A: We handled this by having lots of staff. Don’t go into a social medium that you’re not prepared to support with staff. By the end, we had almost 100 paid staff in HQ on new media, plus people in every state, plus a lot of interns, many of whom were helping us respond to people individually. We did a lot to make people feel heard; we’d ask people for their stories and feature some of them. “The only way to make people feel heard is to hear them. You need a person answering a question.”

Q: [me] The Dean campaign went with the idea of horizontal links rather than staffing up to get people to feel connected. Also, they thought those bonds would later form a movement for governing. Did you think about how the tools you were building to win the election might be used to govern?
A: We knew the campaign was temporary. OfA has continued. But when you only have horizontal connectiions, they’re only teaching each other, and there’s less room for you. That may be one reason they were so powerful after the Dean campaign – they weren’t that connected to the campaign. The whole goal of our campaign was to take on K Street, to change the way influence works.
Q: [me] Do you share the criticism that OfA wasn’t carried forward enough? David Plouffe was brought in to reinvigorate it recently?
A: Everything could be done better, but it’s really hard to carry this forward. It’s far more boring than campaigning. Macon Philips is doing a great job with the new media team in the White house, but it’s hard, in part because of legal issues. And David Plouffe was brought back maybe also because it’s getting to be time for midterm elections.

Q: Involving communities?
A: It’s still a goal. Unrealized goal. Doing local stuff seems easier when you’re campaigning and have lots of local resources. It’s important not to over-promise and under-perform. If you don’t have the people to support local people in a few places, not supporting local people everywhere is bad. It looks like you don’t care. But, all of those goals are still goals.

Q: What else did you do culturally or managerially to keep people focused on the campaign’s values?
A: There was a focus on “What are you doing for Iowa?” Iowa was so key to the campaign. I love Iowans now. Iowa was a big part of who we were for the first year. It’s very hard to be a good boss in a campaign: everything is an emergency, you never have enough resources, no one sleeps. The values stuff is central or else you’ll burn out. People aren’t paid well, overworked, under-resourced, which is a recipe for making people undervalued. You have to find other ways to make people feel taken care of and heard. There was a lot of bottom up, but there’s also top down; you have to cut off conversation and just go. Campaigners are very difficult, so you need to take care of your people.

Q: Your tools matched your values. Do you have problems with people using it for other values?
A: Our tools were election tools. There’s a tension between a national and a local goal. But, you’re right that form follows function. When goals change, sometimes tools adapt, but not always. You need more than one tool, and if your problems change, your tools have to change; it’s hard for big orgs to be that nimble. That’s one reason why open source tools are often useful.

Q: [donnie dong] The Net is so interactive that if someone doesn’t like your values that s/he shuts you out, and s/he takes others with her/him
A: Absolutely. This is how the Net works. You get negative comments. It’s not a problem with the tool; with interactive tools, you now know the symptoms that were there but you didn’t know about.

Q: Criticisms make the praise more meaningful.
A: I totally agree.

[herkko] What legal problems? Any copyright problems?
A: We made sure to educate the people we were empowering. If people were going to fundraise for us, we explained the rules to them. Of course there were problems, but nothing too severe. “There was no point in the campaign when I was worried about what we were doing.” We set a high bar for being a supporter. Hanging out on the email list was not enough. If you’re going to do more, you have to take responsibility for your actions. We tried to educate people properly and give them the right tools.

[donnie] Difference between the content you created and the user-generated stuff in terms of quantity?
A: No idea. Most of the content was coming from the campaign. Personal content tends to be more personal. That’s the reason why it’s good. A person telling a story about their own life is more engaging than me telling a story about that person. Ideally the user-generated content and campaign content works together. UGC is worth the danger.

Q: What did you do in social media that resulted in the most offline activity?
A: Measuring social media is difficult. FB’s calendaring structure is good at supporting events. Text messaging was good for getting volunteers to go to a particular place to do some work. We never got to the Holy Grail of knowing who is where and can do what. The data integration posed by campaigns is overwhelming. You have disparate data sets of disparate quality, and you’re not going to be able to match them all up. Even though it’s hard, you need to try to measure. How do you decide what gets credit for why someone went out to vote — TV ad, FB message, etc.?

[the talk ends, but no one leaves]

Q: Where are you addressing your concerns about Sect’y Clinton’s talk?

A: Privately so far. This is the first I’ve talked about it in public…

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March 29, 2010

[2b2k] Jon Orwant of Google Books

Jon Orwant is an Engineering Manager at Google, with Google Books under him. He used to be CTO at O’Reilly, and was educated at MIT Media Lab. He’s giving a talk to Harvard’s librarians about his perspective on how libraries might change, a topic he says puts him out on a limb. Title of his talk: “Deriving the library from first principles.” If we were to start from scratch, would they look like today’s? He says no.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Part I: Trends.

He says it’s not controversial that patrons are accessing more info online. Foot traffic to libraries is going down. Library budgets are being squeezed. “Public libraries are definitely feeling the pinch” exactly when people have less discretionary money and thus are spending more time at libraries.

At MIT, Nicholas Negroponte contended in the early 1990s that telephones would switch from wired to wireless, and televisions would go from wired to wireless. “It seems obvious in retrospect.” At that time, Jon was doing his work using a Connection Machine, which consisted of 64K little computers. The wet-bar size device he shows provided a whopping 5gb of storage. The Media Lab lost its advantage of being able to provide high end computers since computing power has become widespread. So, Media Lab had to reinvent itself, to provide value as a physical location.

Is there an analogy to the Negroponte switch of telephone and TV, Jon asks? We used to use the library to search for books and talk about them at home. In the future, we’ll use our computer to search for books, and talk about them at our libraries.

What is the mission of libraries, he asks. Se;ect and preserve info, or disseminate it. Might libraries redefine themselves? But this depends on the type of library.

1. University libraries. U of Michigan moved its academic press into the library system, even though the press is the money-making arm.

2. Research libraries. Harvard’s Countway Medical Library incorporates a lab into it, the Center for Bioinformatics. This puts domain expertise and search experts together. And they put in the Warren Anatomical Museum (AKA Harvard’s Freak Museum). Maybe libraries should replicate this, adopting information-driven departments. The ideal learning environment might be a great professor’s office. That 1:1 instruction isn’t generally tenable, but why is it that the higher the level of education, the fewer books are in the learning environment? I.e., kindergarten classes are filled with books, but grad student classrooms have few.

3. Public libraries. They tend to be big open rooms, which is why you have to be quiet in them. What if the architecture were a series of smaller, specialized rooms? Henry Jenkins said about newspapers, Jon says, that it’s strange that hundreds of reporters cover the Superbowl, all writing basically the same story; newspapers should differentiate by geography. Might this notion of specialization apply to libraries, reflecting community interests at a more granular level. Too often, public libraries focus on lowest common denominator, but suppose unusual book collections could rotate like exhibits in museums, with local research experts giving advice and talks. [Turn public libraries into public non-degree based universities?]

Part 2: Software architecture

Google Books want to scan all books. Has done 12M out of the 120 works (which have 174 manifestations — different versions and editions, etc.). About 4B pages, 40+ libraries, 400 languages (“Three in Klingon”). Google Books is in the first stage: Scanning. Second: Scaling. Third: What do we do with all this? 20% are public domain.

He talks a bit about the scanning tech, which tries to correct for the inner curve of spines, keeps marginalia while removing dirt, doing OCR, etc. At O’Reilly, the job was to synthesize the elements; at Google, the job is to analyze them. They’re trying to recognize frontispieces, index pages, etc. He gives as a sample of the problem of recognizing italics: “Copyright is way too long to strike the balance between benefits to the author and the public. The entire raison d’etre of copyright is to strike a balance between benefits to the author and the public. Thus, the optimal copyright term is c(x) = 14(n + 1).” In each of these, italics indicates a different semantic point. Google is trying to algorithmically catch the author’s intent.

Physical proximity is good for low-latency apps, local caching, high-bandwidth communication, and immersive environments. So, maybe we’ll see books as applications (e.g., good for physics text that lets you play with problems, maybe not so useful for Plato), real-time video connections to others reading the same book, snazzy visualizations, presentation of lots of data in parallel (reviews, related books, commentary, and annotations).”

“We’ll be paying a lot more attention to annotations” as a culture. He shows a scan of a Chinese book that includes a fold-out piece that contains an annotation; that page is not a single rectangle. “What could we do with persistent annotations?” What could we do with annotations that have not gone through the peer review process? What if undergrads were able to annotate books in ways that their comments persisted for decades? Not everyone would choose to do this, he notes.

We can do new types of research now. If you want to know whether the past tense of “sneak” is, 50 yrs ago people would have said “snuck” but in 50 years it’ll be “sneaked.” You can see that there is a trend toward regularization of verbs (i.e., not irregular verbs) over the time, which you can see by examining the corpus of books Google makes available to researchers. Or, you can look at triplets of words and ask what are the distinctive trigrams. E.g., It was: oxide of lead, vexation of spirit, a striking proof. Now: lesbian and gay, the power elite, the poor countries. Steve Pinker is going to use the corpus to test the “Great man” theory. E.g., when Newton and Leibniz both invented the calculus, was the calculus in the air? Do a calculus word cloud in multiple languages and test against the word configurations of the time. The usage of phrases “World War I” and “The Great War” cross around 1938, but there were some people calling it “WWI” in 1932, which is a good way to discover a new book (wouldn’t you want to read the person who foresaw WWII?). This sort of research is one of the benefits of the Google Books settlement, he says. (He also says that he was both a plaintiff and defendant in the case because as an author, his book was scanned without authorization.)

The images of all the world’s books are about 100 petabytes. If you put terminals in libraries so anyone can access out of print books. You can let patrons print on demand. “Does that have an impact on collections” and budgets? Once that makes economic sense, then every library will “have” every single book.

How can we design a library for serendipity? The fact that books look different is appealing, Jon says. Maybe a library should buy lots and lots of different e-readers, in different form factors. The library could display info-rich electronic spines (graphics of spines) [Jon doesn't know that this is an idea the Harvard Law Library, with whom I'm working, is working on]. We could each have our own virtual rooms and bookshelves, with books that come through various analytics, including books that people I trust are reading. We could also generalize this by having the bookshelves change if more than one person in the room; maybe the topics get broader to find shared interests. We could have bookshelves for a community in general. Analytics of multifactor classification (subject, tone, bias, scholarliness, etc.) can increase “deep” serendipity.

Q&A

Q: One of the concerns in the research and univ libraries is the ability to return to the evidence you’ve cited. Having many manifestations (= editions, etc.) lets scholars return. We need permanent ways of getting back to evidence at a particular time. E.g., Census Dept. makes corrections, which means people who ran analyses of the data get different answers afterward.
A: The glib answer: You just need better citation mechanisms. The more sophisticated answer: Anglo-Saxon scholars will hold up a palimpsest. I don’t have an answer, except for a pointer to George Mason conf where they’re trying to come up with a protocol for expressing uncertainty [I think I missed this point -- dw]. What are all the ways to point into a work? You want to think of the work as a container, with all the annotations that come up with it. The ideal container has the text itself, info extracted from it, the programs needed to do the extraction, and the annotations. This raises the issue of the persistence of digital media in general. “We need to get into the mindset of bundling it all together”: PDFs and TIFFs + the programs for reading them. [But don't the programs depend upon operating systems? - dw]

Q: Centralized vs. distributed repository models?
A: It gets into questions of rights. I’d love to see it as distributed to as many places and in as many formats as possible. It shouldn’t just be Google digitizing books. You can get 100 petabytes in a single room, and of course much smaller in the future. There are advantages to keeping things local. But for the in-copyright works, it’ll come down to how comfortable the holders feel that it’s “too annoying” for people to copy what they shouldn’t.

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March 27, 2010

[2b2k] Big problems

I’m liking a line from Brian Behlendorf that came through my Twitter stream: “The only way I know to solve big problems anymore is to do it in public.” (@brianbehlendorf)

The human brain being an ornery thing, our first response is probably to find exceptions. And there are undoubtedly lots of them…although it can be a little hard to tell because when you think of some big problem you’d want solved behind closed doors — The recent US/Russia nuclear arms reduction? A path to peace in the Middle East? — you can’t tell if maybe it were done in public, we would have come up with something better or faster. Still, there have to be places where this aphorism is wrong.

So what? The amazing thing is that it even looks plausible, much less that it’s proven itself to be true in some important instances. That is a big BIG change.

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March 26, 2010

Banish the miscellaneous?

When both Oprah and Lifehacker, two of the most respected names in Life Advice, both recommend not labeling things “miscellaneous,” a lonely-yet-proud voice must speak up. (I mean me, by the way.)

First, telling us to “banish” the miscellaneous is silly. We have miscellaneous drawers and bins because classification schemes are imperfect. Go ahead and try to follow Oprah’s and Lifehacker’s advice on your kitchen’s miscellaneous drawer. You’ll either have to create so many ridiculous sub-divisions that you won’t remember them, or you’ll have to force objects into categories so thinly related that you can’t remember where you put them. That’s why you have a miscellaneous drawer in the first place.

Second, their complaint is about the use of the the miscellaneous category for physical objects. In the digital world, giving objects multiple categorizations and allowing multiple classification schemes — what I mean by the miscellaneous in that book I wrote a couple of years ago — makes more sense than trying to come up with a single, perfect, fits-all-needs, univocal classification system.

Viva la miscellaneous!

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March 25, 2010

My two days in Saudi Arabia

I came back yesterday from a two-day trip to Saudi Arabia. I didn’t blog about it beforehand because I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize the chances of my getting a visa, which arrived on the morning of the day I left.

Now I’m back and I’m suffering from a type of cognitive dissonance — something more like cultural dissonance. I’m having so much difficulty making sense of it that I’ve found myself anxious about trying to describe the two days to my family. Blogging about it is yet more difficult.

First, there are so many reasons I distrust my own impressions: I was there for two days. I hung out with Saudis studying the Internet and with Netty foreigners. I saw only the inside of the Marriott, King Saud University, and a coffee shop. I was one of two Americans (as far as I could tell) at the event I went for. I was the sole Jew (as far as I could tell). I am a Jew with deeply mixed feelings about Israel. (No, I won’t elaborate.) I’ve never been to the Middle East before. I speak no Arabic. I am liberal democrat (small “d”). I am a vegetarian who keeps incidentally kosher. I am male. In short, Saudi Arabia — The Kingdom — not only is so foreign to me that I have no reliable framework for understanding it, it challenges more aspects of my identity than anywhere I’ve been.

And yet, while the dissonance can be jarring, I know yet more of dissonance is hidden behind the normalcy of the Saudi world. The fact that the entire audience of the conference at which I spoke was male is simply normal for the Saudis. When the voice of a woman is piped in over a loudspeaker — the women students were watching over a fiber optic connection — to ask a question, the Saudis think they’re being progressive by allowing women to be heard, but the Westerner wants to walk out and enter a different century. Then there are the dissonances that are invisible to the tourist’s experience: death for homosexuals, an economy built on carbon, an all-powerful monarchy.

I went because I understood the day was intended to advance the cause of integrating Saudi Arabia into the rest of the world through a (relatively) open Internet. I’m in favor of that. The Internet track was part of the traditional Al Janadriyah festival; the festival’s theme this year was “One World — Multiple cultures,” which shows admirable intent. I was part of a morning panel, and gave a 10-minute talk that summarized a 10-page article I’d written for the event. Having given it, I now think that the talk wasn’t particularly useful, but I think and hope my being there helped in some tiny way to reinforce the belief that the Net is an opportunity for Saudis to engage with the rest of the world. (Disclosure: In addition to paying all expenses, the festival has promised to pay me a relatively modest speakers fee. [Update: They reneged on the promise to pay me.])

I was treated very hospitably by every man I met, no matter what his station. Every man was generous, seemed delighted to be talking with an American, was open-minded or at least willing to have a frank conversation. I did not talk with a single woman. I would have loved to have talked with one of the women’s classes, but in fact I didn’t meet with any classes, and I would not have been allowed to be in the same room as women students. The Saudis I did talk with (a non-representative sample) think that this segregation respects women and simultaneously were slightly apologetic, pointing to the progress women have made: The woman’s campus is being moved to be a mere half kilometer from the men’s, women “participate” on campus via fiber optic cable, more women have been sent abroad for study this year than men (which I found quite surprising), the King says women will eventually have full rights.

Of course this is outrageously unacceptable. And yet, you fly out of The Kingdom, stop at Frankfort, and are confronted by a newspaper that has a fully naked woman on the front page for no reason except to excite men, and the truth of your own culture’s outrageousness hits you right where your cultural dissonance lives. The structural oppression of women, the whipping of women for being the female participant in adultery, the removal of women’s voice from the public sphere, the systematic deprivation of power over their own fates, all of this goes far beyond whether the culture strips women naked or clothes them in sacks with eyeholes. Nevertheless, seeing that naked woman on the front page of a Western newspaper extended the cultural dissonance into my own culture.

 


I am going to continue my act of ridiculous generalization by telling you about the state of the Internet in Saudi Arabia. Please re-read the part above where I go through all the reasons I am not qualified to have an opinion about such things. It is especially important to remember that I only spoke with educated, Netty men, mainly people studying new media as faculty and students. I’m leaving them anonymous because I don’t want to get them in trouble, especially by misrepresenting them because of the language differences.

So, we know from the Open Net Initiative that the Saudi government filters porn, Jihadist sites, and some Israeli sites. I encountered little desire to undo that: Why would a devout Moslem want to see such sites? They are not looking for more liberty. Far more at the forefront of the
concerns of the men I met was the opposite issue: How can the Saudis not only maintain their traditional values on the Net but present themselves as they are so the world will understand them?

I asked one of my interlocutors whether the Saudis see the Net as transformative or as way of further accomplishing traditional goals. The answer: Mainly the latter. Saudis have traditionally taken new media as a way to route around traditional taboos, he said. When phones were first introduced, men would hold up signs with their numbers on them when stopped at lights so that women could call them if they wanted; phones were for forbidden flirting. Likewise, the Net is providing a new medium for flirting, and for meeting with women within the same (virtual) space. He said the Net is also for expressing risky political ideas, although that seemed secondary in his explanation.

The same man drew an appropriate distinction between the Net as an extension of old media — e.g., news organizations send out mass SMS news alerts — and as a transformative medium that allows new uses and new social forms. But just as I asked whether he thought the bottom-up nature of the Net might allow for a new configuration of power in The Kingdom, we got interrupted. Probably just as well. My guess is that he would have said no; Saudi Arabia works pretty well, if you’re a man.

 


I saw four places and stretches of road in between them. In order:

1. The Riyadh airport is large and modern, but empty of shops aside from some coffee-and-pastry stands, at least as far as I saw. While I was waiting for Customs clearance, I was taken to a hall in which I was served a small cup of cardamon-scented tea. Because of the total power of the government, the airport remains a somewhat scary experience, even while you are being served from a gold tray.

2. The Marriott is a fine hotel with friendly service and excellent buffet meals, slightly run down by US standards. The lobby, which circles around the central elevators, is a more social place than American lobbies. People hung out there — mainly men, but occasionally local women, as well as women from outside Riyadh in various stages of modest not-entirely-coveredness. (Riyadh is the most conservative city in Saudi Arabia.) Security is heavy at the hotel.

3. King Saud University is large and modern. It’s home to 70,000 male students. 75% of the faculty got their degrees abroad. (It might actually be that 75% got degrees in the U.S.) The Mass Media Department, which was the host of the Internet Day of the festival, is well-equipped. They are building more new media facilities. The head of the department seems to have warm and friendly relations with his staff, the students, and the service staff of the university.

The Kingdom is engaged in a massive school building program, creating new universities at an impressive pace. I don’t know the mix of male and female schools, although the NYT reported that at least one of the universities was going to have gender-mixed classes. As it is, only female teachers can be in the classroom with women students; the classrooms are connected by fiber optic cable so male teachers can beam in. For the first time, more women are being sent to study abroad than men. The government picks up all expenses for foreign study, as well as paying all students a stipend for attending university; university is free. (A couple of Saudis I spoke with complained about the grade schools, which, they say, are fine facilities but very weak on the elements of education other than Koranic studies.)

4. Three of us got taken through Riyadh by a graduate student, who drove us to a coffee shop about 20km from the Marriott (see #5). So, this was far from a comprehensive tour of the city, but the student said that what we saw was typical. And what we saw was a vast city, almost entirely newly built, with few buildings higher than four or five stories. The streets were straight, flat, wide, and choked with traffic. But, there were virtually no pedestrians, perhaps because the distances between places to go is so vast, and certainly because for months of the year, the sidewalks would melt your sandals. The sidewalks are so empty that when we passed a couple of blocks bordering a park, our host pointed out that there were people walking.

By the way, when I asked at the hotel desk for a pamphlet with tourist attractions, the clerk said that they didn’t have any such list. He sent me to the gift shop, which also did not. I’m not saying there aren’t interesting places to visit (e.g., there’s an old part of the city, a museum, a market); I’m saying that this is not a town geared up for the tourist trade. For example, there is no such thing as a tourist visa.

5. The coffee shop the student took us to was nothing like a coffee shop. Forget I even called it that. It was a walled area with some grassy spots and some covered areas for smoking hookahs and drinking tea or coffee. (As the entry form you get on the airplane tells you, drug dealers are executed, so you need not doubt me when I tell you it was tobacco in the hookahs. Given the Saudis’ barbaric penal system, you don’t f*ck around in The Kingdom.) We sat in one of the semi-enclosed areas. It consisted of eight stalls separated by low walls. You sit on cushions on the floor. The attendant brings a TV unasked and puts it on your front wall. Everyone else has his TV blaring. You order a flavor of tobacco — I mimicked our host and chose orange — and tea or coffee. You smoke and talk about the Internet. I don’t smoke, so I didn’t inhale (insofar as I could avoid it). Our host tells us that this is where his classmates and friends hang out at night. Later, when we were telling another Festival speaker about the oddness of the TV, he pointed out that in English pubs, there’s always a TV on. Good point.

Of course the coffee shop is for men only.

 


So, I am deep in cultural dissonance. The men I met were warm, hospitable, eager to connect to the rest of the world. Once I was identified as an American, several of them volunteered to me how upset they were by 9/11, how much they hate the Jihadists, and how they have squashed the terrorists within their own country. (There was news today about an additional assault on terrorists within The Kingdom.) When I identified myself as a Jew, they would offer that Islam is not the only path and that Judaism is among the great religions; more than once, this included a passing denunciation of Israel, by way of separating Judaism and Zionism. The hospitality they offered to a Western Jew would have put to shame the reception they would have received, dressed in their traditional clothes, in most places in America. I had conversations that were warm and frank. I only had conversations with men. I made genuine friendships. The Kingdom is brutal to offenders. People were open to differing ideas. The Kingdom represses half its population. German tabloids have naked women on their covers. The Kingdom executes homosexuals. The Kingdom pays its young people to go to college.

Cultural dissonance is, I am afraid, a type of truth.

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March 24, 2010

Copyright for librarians

March 24, 2010 – Cambridge, Mass., and Rome, Italy – The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University today announced the launch of a new online, open access curriculum, “Copyright for Librarians” (http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/copyrightforlibrarians/), developed in conjunction with eIFL.net. “Copyright for Librarians” aims to inform librarians about copyright law in general, as well as the aspects of copyright law that most affect libraries, especially those in developing and transition countrie

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Speaking like a human isn’t quite enough

So, Nestle made a Facebook page. Commenters angry at Nestle’s time-honored disregard for the planet, exploited labor, and nursing mothers (and I’m sure I’m leaving some groups out) made their ire manifest on the page. Nestle took it like a Modern Multinational until some commenters used hacked versions of the Nestle logo as their profile photo. A Nestle person stepped in, went back and forth, used sarcasm, and whipped up a firestorm of Social Media scorn.

Andrew Leonard has a terrific post about the whole brouhaha, pointing out that the Nestle person is being attacked for speaking like a human being, letting his/her exasperation show. And I agree with Andrew that the Nestle person showed admirable non-corporate-speak humanness. Refreshing. Well done, Nestle. (Seriously.)

That’s Step One for Nestle. Unfortunately for Nestle, there’s a Step Two: Don’t be dicks. Then there’s Step Three: Stop your blithe laying waste to human values. And here’s a big hint: Do Step Three first and you won’t have such problems with those other Steps.

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March 23, 2010

Why the light blogging

I’ve been traveling. It’s been an intense trip that I’ll tell you about when it isn’t 2am while I wait in an airport to begin a 20 hour trip home…

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