Joho the Blogculture Archives - Joho the Blog

August 25, 2016

Five minutes of hope

What I find most remarkable about this exchange: So few conversations begin with the request for help changing one’s own mind.

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July 2, 2016

Corrupting "Earned media"

The Intercept reports on several news media who are selling special services at the national political conventions — meetings, cocktail parties, and more. The services are corrosive. Some are explicitly corrupt, “…they make explicit the inevitable failure of the distinction between “paid” and “earned” content.”making explicit the inevitable failure of the distinction between “paid” and “earned” content.

The less controversial services are corrosive because they let the media take money from the people they cover. Having spent a few decades as a marketing communications guy, I can promise you that in every business considering these offers, the conversation includes someone saying, “It doesn’t matter if no one comes to the cocktail party. It’d still improve our relationship with the publication.” Why? Because it’s a way to pay the journal money. That’s corrosive.

Larry Lessig points out that it’s not much different from news organizations tuning their coverage to their ratings. But such tuning at least caters to perceived piopular interest. These new services let an organization or candidate buy coverage despite a decided lack of public interest. It is worse than buying ads because the news media have traditionally had a “Chinese wall” between the advertising and editorial departments. This has been a fairly effective way of protecting editorial content from the direct influence of the marketing needs of the journal, even though the wall is sometimes breached, and Time Magazine has shamefully torn it down.

Once the media started letting companies pay for phony news coverage, they pretended to honor the breach by distinguishing “earned” and “paid” content. “Earned content” is coverage provided by media of events they think are newsworthy. “Paid content” is, well, paid content. Non-sleazebag companies and their PR reps expect media to mark paid content as paid for. Edelman, the world’s largest independent PR company, created ethical guidelines that not only say that the paid content must be well marked, but that Edelman will have its own Chinese wall between the processes by which earned content is pitched (“Yo, I have a client who’s invented a time travel machine. Wanna an interview? How’s yesterday for you?”) and the negotiations that result in the placement of paid content. (Disclosure: I had a tiny hand — Trump-sized — in drafting those guidelines.)

That’s better than nothing, but paid content still makes me queasy. Companies are willing to pay for content precisely because it looks like real coverage and thus tends to be taken more seriously than obvious ads. This erodes the phenomenological line between news and ads, which is bad for democracy and culture. Indeed, “the point of paid content is to erode the line. ”the point of paid content is to erode the line.

But letting candidates pay for interviews takes this to a whole new level. This is what The Intercept says:

Sponsors who pay $200,000 are promised convention interviews with The Hill’s editorial staff for “up to three named executives or organization representatives of your choice,” according to a brochure obtained by The Intercept. “These interviews are pieces of earned media,” the brochure says, “and will be hosted on a dedicated page on thehill.com and promoted across The Hill’s digital and social media channels.”

The Hill says the resulting interviews will be earned media. Suppose the interview is stupid, boring, self-serving and non-newsworthy? If it weren’t, the client wouldn’t be paying for it. But The Hill is promising it’s going to run anyway because the client paid them $200,000. That is the very definition of paid content. So, by calling it “earned content,” The Hill can only mean that the article will not be marked as paid content, even though that is precisely what it is.

This corrupts the already corrosive practice of accepting paid content. It is disgraceful.

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July 1, 2016

Will blockchain kill culture?

Peter Brantley [@naypinya] has posted an important and succinct warning about the effect blockchain technology may have on culture: by making the mechanism of trust cheap, transparent, and more reliable, blockchain could destroy the ambiguity that culture needs in order to thrive. Peter’s post is clearly thought and powerfully put.

Pardon me while I agree with him, including about blockchain’s positive promise.

Culture is the ultimate analog phenomenon, even when it’s communicated digitally, for it is only culture to the extent to which people—we—make it our own. We understand our lives and our world through culture. If we can’t appropriate it, re-express it, and re-use it, culture simply dies.

As Peter says, blockchain could perfect the system of tracking and control, leading us further into the tragic error of thinking that ideas and culture are property. Property has boundaries and borders that can be precisely demarcated and can be defended. Culture by definition does not. Blockchain technology can further the illusion that culture is property.

While blockchain will have a positive, transformative effect on systems where trust is valuable and expensive, it almost inevitably will also be used to impose restrictions on the appropriation of culture that lets culture thrive. If so, I expect we’ll see the same sort of response that we’ve already seen to the Internet’s inherent transparency—the transparency that has simultaneously made it the liberator of culture and the surveillor’s wet dream: We will route around it with some degree of success. And we will—I hope— continue to encourage an ethos of sharing in which creators explicitly exempt their works from the system of copyright totalitarianism.

The license you adopt will be your uniform in the coming culture wars. It already is.

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June 23, 2016

No more rockstars

Leigh Honeywell [twitter: @hypatiadotca] has posted an important essay — No More Rockstars — written by her, Valerie Aurora (@vaurorapub), and Mary Gardiner (@me_gardiner). There’s a lot in it, and it’s clear and well-written, so it does not need summarizing by me, except to let you know why I think you should read it: It addresses the power imbalance implicit in a conceptual framework that thinks some industry leaders are special and therefore not subject to the same rules as the rest of us. The post analytically describes the phenomenon and suggests ways to avoid the dangers.

Lexi Gill writes a follow-on piece about one particular way that the rockstar culture leads to inequities:

… rock stars are often unofficial gatekeepers to an entire community or industry. They not only get to decide who’s “in” and who’s “out,” but have privileged access to an endless stream of new victims to choose from. Once “in,” the rock star also has special power to manipulate a newcomer’s experience, role and relationships within the community.

Having worked for many people and having observed many more, I can say that for me the best leaders are people whose joy comes from helping people flourish, that is, to discover and become who they are, even if that means developing away from the organization. Those are the women and men who have made the biggest difference in my professional life. I thank them for it.

…All part of the privilege of being a man.

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June 12, 2016

Beyond bricolage

In 1962, Claude Levi-Strauss brought the concept of bricolage into the anthropological and philosophical lexicons. It has to do with thinking with one’s hands, putting together new things by repurposing old things. It has since been applied to the Internet (including, apparently, by me, thanks to a tip from Rageboy). The term “bricolage” uncovers something important about the Net, but it also covers up something fundamental about the Net that has been growing even more important.

In The Savage Mind (relevant excerpt), CLS argued against the prevailing view that “primitive” peoples were unable to form abstract concepts. After showing that they often in have extensive sets of concepts for flora and fauna, he maintains that these concepts go beyond what they pragmatically need to know:

…animals and plants are not known as a result of their usefulness; they are deemed to be useful or interesting because they are first of all known.

It may be objected that science of this kind can scarcely be of much practical effect. The answer to this is that its main purpose is not a practical one. It meets intellectual requirements rather than or instead of satisfying needs.

It meets, in short, a “demand for order.”

CLS wants us to see the mythopoeic world as being as rich, complex, and detailed as the modern scientific world, while still drawing the relevant distinctions. He uses bricolage as a bridge for our understanding. A bricoleur scavenges the environment for items that can be reused, getting their heft, trying them out, fitting them together and then giving them a twist. The mythopoeic mind engages in this bricolage rather than in the scientific or engineering enterprise of letting a desired project assemble the “raw materials.” A bricoleur has what s/he has and shapes projects around that. And what the bricoleur has generally has been fashioned for some other purpose.

Bricolage is a very useful concept for understanding the Internet’s mashup culture, its culture of re-use. It expresses the way in which one thing inspires another, and the power of re-contextualization. It evokes the sense of invention and play that is dominant on so much of the Net. While the Engineer is King (and, all too rarely, Queen) of this age, the bricoleurs have kept the Net weird, and bless them for it.

But there are at least two ways in which this metaphor is inapt.

First, traditional bricoleurs don’t have search engines that let them in a single glance look across the universe for what they need. Search engines let materials assemble around projects, rather than projects be shaped by the available materials. (Yes, this distinction is too strong. Yes, it’s more complicated than that. Still, there’s some truth to it.)

Second, we have been moving with some consistency toward a Net that at its topmost layers replicates the interoperability of its lower layers. Those low levels specify the rules — protocols — by which networks can join together to move data packets to their destinations. Those packets are designed so they can be correctly interpreted as data by any recipient applications. As you move up the stack, you start to lose this interoperability: Microsoft Word can’t make sense of the data output by Pages, and a graphics program may not be able to make sense of the layer information output by Photoshop.

But, over time, we’re getting better at this:

Applications add import and export services as the market requires. More consequentially, more and richer standards for interoperability continue to emerge, as they have from the very beginning: FTP, HTML, XML, Dublin Core, Schema.org, the many Semantic Web vocabularies, ontologies, and schema, etc.

More important, we are now taking steps to make sure that what we create is available for re-use in ways we have not imagined. We do this by working within standards and protocols. We do it by putting our work into the sphere of reusable items, whether that’s by applying the Creative Commons license, putting our work into a public archive, , or even just paying attention to what will make our work more findable.

This is very different from the bricoleur’s world in which objects are designed for one use, and it takes the ingenuity of the bricoleur to find a new use for it.

This movement continues the initial work of the Internet. From the beginning the Net has been predicated on providing an environment with the fewest possible assumptions about how it will be used. The Net was designed to move anyone’s information no matter what it’s about, what it’s for, where it’s going, or who owns it. The higher levels of the stack are increasingly realizing that vision. The Net is thus more than ever becoming a universe of objects explicitly designed for reuse in unexpected ways. (An important corrective to this sunny point of view: Christian Sandvig’s brilliant description of how the Net has incrementally become designed for delivering video above all else.)

Insofar as we are explicitly creating works designed for unexpected reuse, the bricolage metaphor is flawed, as all metaphors are. It usefully highlights the “found” nature of so much of Internet culture. It puts into the shadows, however, the truly transformative movement we are now living through in which we are explicitly designing objects for uses that we cannot anticipate.

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June 5, 2016

Muhammed Ali

I was a fourteen year old, suburban white boy with zero interest in sports or boxing when Muhammed Ali beat Sonny Liston. But, Cassius Clay, as he was named then, knowingly defied every stereotype his culture tried to confine him to, suffered for his insistence on being more than his culture would tolerate, and thereby gave us a model of bravery that we have yet to live up to.

It began with his transcendence as an athlete. Here he is at 35 in an exhibition match against Michael Dokes, with his beautiful face — as he’d be the first to acknowledge — still unmarred by punches.

Muhammed Ali ‘s story will be told for generations. The generations will be better for it.

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May 30, 2016

Some iconic dream imagery

I know I am 27 million views late to the party, but this Coldplay video has imagery that reminds me of dreams that I have had since childhood.

In my dream, the sky is a reflection of the Earth. You look up and see the Earth as seen from space. I can neither explain its meaning nor convey the awe it engenders in me. For what it’s worth, the dream feels Jungian to me, not symbolic.

In any case, this music video is pretty great.

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May 19, 2016

Working in a co-working space

I’m in Talent Garden‘s largest branch, which is also its headquarters, in Milan. It’s a ridiculously large co-working space for startups, with an emphasis on openness. I’m enjoying sitting at a table with a few other people, none of whom I know and all of whom are speaking Italian.

I like co-working spaces enough that if I were looking for a place to work outside of my house, I’d consider joining one. It’s that or the local library. It depends on whether you find being around the young and the digital to be distracting, energizing, or both.

I find it energizing. Nevertheless, the segregation of the young from the old is a cultural and business loss.

talent garden open work space

Talent Garden ameliorates this by renting space to a handful of established companies (IBM, Cisco, and a bank, here in Milan) to provide mentoring, and so the old companies can get behind startups they find interesting. It’s a good model, although since I’m just here for the afternoon, I don’t know how much actual mingling occurs. Still, it’s a good idea.

I also like that Talent Garden explicitly tries to build community among its users. Not waving-in-the-hall community, but a community of shared space, shared events, and shared ideas. The American co-working space I’m most familiar with has public areas but assumes startups want to work in rooms with closed, solid doors. An open floor plan helps a startup culture to grow, which is perhaps more needed in Italy than in the US. Nevertheless, you can’t have too much community. Well, you can, but that’s easier to remediate than its opposite. (For a US shared space dedicated to building community, check out the treasured Civic Hall in NYC.)

(Note: Unlike the co-working space I’m most familiar with, TG does not provide a free, well-stocked kitchen. Just as well. Free kitchens cause my metabolism to think its faster than it is.)

 


 

I’m in Italy to participate in an Aspen Institute event in Venice over the weekend (poor poor me). I stopped in Milan to give a talk, which I internally have titled “Is the Internet Disappointed in Us?” It’s actually a monolog — no slides, no notes — about why my cohort thought the success of the Internet was inevitable, and why I am still optimistic about the Net. If you’re interested in having me in to speak with your group, let me know. Yeah, a plug.

And while I’m plugging, here’s some disclosure: Talent Garden is the venue for this talk, but no one is paying me for it.

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May 17, 2016

When the transgender bathroom debate will end

It’ll end when the Republicans have this conversation with their daughters:

“You see, precious, that’s really a woman who’s just pretending to be a man because, well, she’s what we call a ‘pervert.’ No, dear, she can’t use the men’s room because we passed a law to make sure that lady perverts have to use the lady’s room. Yes, dear, we also made a law that the male perverts have to use the men’s room dressed as ladies. Yes, dear, the lady perverts who look like men actually are lady homosexuals — why aren’t you precocious! — who lust after little girls, just like we’ve told you, but, well, …you won’t understand it when you grow up either.”

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April 28, 2016

Preferred applicants will have four decades of experience

Why do we never see job offerings that specify that applicants should have at least forty years of experience? Thirty years? Twenty years?

I understand that people can be qualified for a job with far less experience than one might think. We’ve all met people like that, damn them. But that’s why we couch some qualifications under the rubric “preferred.” So, do we think that having a lifetime of experience in a field is never preferred? Or even just a lifetime of experience of living and working?

(PS: If you hear of such a job in the Boston area, you know how to reach me.)

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