Joho the Blog » peace

September 12, 2011

Other news

Hanan Cohen has created a neat little world-expander, called Other News. Bookmark this link and click on it a few times. Each time it loads a random country’s version of Google News. Nice!


August 18, 2011

Internet, freedom, and the tools of circumvention

Three new reports have come out of the Berkman Center:

The Evolving Landscape of Internet Control

by Hal Roberts, Ethan Zuckerman, Rob Faris, Jillian York, and John Palfrey

This paper summarizes the results of the studies we have undertaken in order to better understand the control of the Internet in less open societies. It provides an overview of our research in the context recent changes in the methods used to control online speech, and some thoughts on the challenges to online speech in the immediate future.

International Bloggers and Internet Control
by Hal Roberts, Ethan Zuckerman, Jillian York, Rob Faris, and John Palfrey

Infringements on Internet freedom, particularly through Internet filtering and surveillance, have inspired activists and technologists to develop technological counter-measures, most notably circumvention tools to defeat Internet filters and anonymity tools to help protect user privacy and avoid online surveillance efforts. However, despite the perceived importance of this field, relatively little is known about the demand for and usage patterns of these tools. In December 2010, we surveyed a sample of international bloggers to better understand how, where, why, and by whom these tools are being used.

Circumvention Tool Evaluation

by Hal Roberts, Ethan Zuckerman, and John Palfrey

This paper evaluates 19 circumvention tools tested in five countries. In this report, we focus on questions of utility—the ability for a tool to be installed and used in a particular location, and the accuracy and speed of the tool. Additionally, we address concerns about security, usability and openness when appropriate.

Drawing on background research, meetings with tool developers, consultations with experts, interviews with users, structured surveys, and technical evaluations, these publications help improve our overall understanding of the role of circumvention tools in promoting greater Internet openness.

We are grateful for the participation of Global Voices Online and for the work of those who translated our blogger survey into more than a dozen languages. We offer our special thanks to the bloggers that participated in the survey.

For more information about the Berkman Center’s research on circumvention, including links to these and other reports, please visit:

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July 11, 2011

Remembering Persephone

My friend Persephone Miel died very young about a year ago. This afternoon there’s a discussion in her memory: “Cultivating new voices, approaches, and audiences for national and international reporting.” The official description:

Journalists Fatima Tlisova (Voice of America) and Pulitzer Prize winner Dele Olojede will join Ethan Zuckerman (Berkman Center/Global Voices), Colin Maclay (Berkman Center), Ivan Sigal (Global Voices), Jon Sawyer (Pulitzer Center) and the Miel family for a discussion and reflection on these questions, and on Persephone’s work and the journalistic values she championed.

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.

Ethan begins by saying that Berkman is a “supercollider” for people working on Internet issues. Berkman has everything from behavioral economists to folksingers. He says when people there go around the room and say what they’re working on, one of the three things happen: First, you find that people are speaking in a language you don’t understand. Second, you understand what they’re saying and you want to have a fight with them — a worthy conversational opponent. Third, you react by thinking “Thank God you’re here.” Persephone was the only person, Ethan says, to whom he had all three reactions simultaneously. She was a professional journalist, while Ethan works on amplifying citizen media. Then there were the sparks flying: Persephone was a professional journalist and Ethan loves amateurism. But, after talking, they realized that they shared one basic question: In a world that is increasingly interconnected, in which our actions have impact and meaning on people all over the world and vice versa, why don’t we hear much about the rest of the world?” Except that Persephone framed it: “In a world that is so interesting, so fascinating, why would people spend their time only paying attention to one little corner?”

Persephone came to Berkman to work on a massive project, Ethan says: Media Re:public. She worked with a great team to create a careful, skeptical analysis of the new media environment. The overview she wrote with Rob Faris “holds up remarkably well,” Ethan says. Persephone talked about many of the questions raised emphatically by the Arab Spring…questions of authenticity, legitimacy, trustworthiness. The questions journalist scholars are now asking are ones Persephone asked. How do you tell if the reports are true and are telling the story. The problem isn’t just making sure people are getting to speak, she wrote, but that those voices are reaching the public that needs to hear them. It’s not just increasing the supply of news.

Yet, Ethan says, Persephone remained an optimist. She worried about the loss of the values and virtues of professional news, but she also understood that news was not coming to the West from other parts of the world. “Maybe we just haven’t done it very well,” she said. Ethan: “When you’re doing reporting in a digital age, you have the opportunity to tell a story at different depths.” You can go long or short. You can bring in multiple media. You can bring in interactions. You can enable people to have a real conversation with the people you’re writing about. We can work not just on the supply problem, but on the demand problem.

The people speaking today, says Ethan, are figuring out not just how to report under difficult circumstances, but how to involve their readers deeply. Persephone before she died set up a fellowship so more of these extraordinary journalists can share their stories with a broader audience. Fatima Tilsova is an exemplar of this. She comes from the northern Caucuses and was the inspiration for Persephone asking to be remembered in this fashion.

Fatima begins by remembering how beloved Persephone was by journalists around the world. Fatima came from a very small village. The north Caucuses is a violent area, but her area was considered to be peaceful. She shares some of her work, beginning with a story about the torture of Russian prisoners. In one case she reported on a young man who in 2004 was found in a trash pile with all of his internal organs crushed; the story was never reported in the media. Same with other cases she has reported on. Her reports are ignored by the government. [She shows the Voice of America News site ( as the home of her reporting.]

The same is true for her stories of corruption. She shows a YouTube of the expensive cars owned by a Russian official who makes $5000/year; the video was put together from photos taken by people with their mobile phones. Counter-terrorism zones are declared in order to free them of tax requirements so Russian official can invest heavily there. In another case, when Forbes announced the ten most wanted terrorists in the world, the media transformed the list into FBI’s list, because Russians where on the Forbes list. In another case, an elderly man was beaten up for holding a mild protest sign. He took them to court, which decided there was no damage to him, despite his broken shoulder. So he took it to the European court, which brought a visit from Russian officials telling him to withdraw his suit.

These stories do not get out without help. The Pulitzer Center (for which Persephone worked) helps. Persephone was one of the few people ready to listen, and ready to help.

Dele Olojede After returning to Nigeria, Dele won a Pulitzer for his work at Newsday. He is also involved in the Global Net Initiative, which Persephone also worked on. He reminds us that we in this room are in the top one percent of privileged people. In Nigeria, 0.1 percent sits atop a vast pool of oil and gas.

He started as a young reporter in Lagos thirty years ago. His cohort was the first to come into journalism with college degrees. They were quite idealistic. That lasted about 6 years. His editor was killed by a letter bomb in 1986. They had evidence it was done by the country’s dictatorial leader, and the paper was shut down over the weekend. Dele left for the US. He went to Newsday and became “the foreign correspondent to the Hamptons.” He decided the time was right to go home. (He had not been allowed back in for a while.)

He wants to create a space where news and truth can flourish, so that at least people couldn’t say “I didn’t know.” NEXT began to publish stories about what Nigeria’s leaders are up to in politics and business. Sometimes the stories have results. The establishment found them puzzling, but then the temperature started rising as they wrote about corruption in the banking system. A few of the malefactors were jailed, but only for a few months. The establishment from trying to influence them through friendship, then bribes, then through the withdrawal of business. When NEXT broke the story about a billionaire who was paying no taxes because bribing tax officials was cheaper, NEXT’s biggest ads (telecom, banks, etc.) were withdrawn.

The president of Nigeria vanished for a few months. NEXT looked into it an discovered that he was terminally ill and the country was being run from the shadows by his wife. The constitution specified that the vice president — “who we didn’t know from Adam or Eve” — should take over. NEXT became a hero to the the VP, who recently was elected president. (His name is Goodluck Jonathan.)

Now NEXT is working on exposing the “degree of thievery” in the petroleum industry run by a “beautiful 50 year old woman who is reported to be the President’s girlfriend and who is hated understandably by the President’s wife.” NEXT discovered where bribes were being paid, and showed up for a meeting where a duffel bag of cash was supposed to be exchanged. The night before they posted and printed the story, it seemed that everyone who knew Dele called him, telling him he cannot do that. He was offered $20M not to tell the story.

NEXT now is broke. They’re losing some of their brightest employees. “We put all of this into the public arena, and nothing happened.” The Petroleum minister has been reconfirmed without a single question being asked. “What if you armed the public with information and they refused to act? What then?” It was all carefully document. They published the source documents. But nothing has happened. One choice is to change how they work. The other is to say to hell with it. “What if you did all this, and armed the public with the information they need to make rational decisions as citizens, and they don’t?”

Q: Dele, did your reporting not have an effect because no enough people read newspapers?”
A: We probably have the highest traffic web site of any news site in Nigeria. Two million of the most active, educated, privileged part of society are reading us but not doing anything. The other newspapers and media do not jump all over these stories, even though we’ve offered to share the documents.

Q: Maybe you needed to frame it more sensationally, although you probably don’t want to do that.
Dele: Maybe we haven’t found the right language. I assume people are rational and will act in their own best interest. My job is to give them the information they need. But I need to learn new tricks.

Q: Fatima, how do you report on these sensational stories without being sensationalistic?
A: You can drive people to act with a quiet whisper. Sometimes I think social apathy is a survival instinct for people in the Caucuses. People don’t always react. That’s why sometimes we need international action.

Q: [me] Ethan, you and Persephone are interested in why people don’t care about people who are not like them. But we just heard two cases of people not caring about even people like them. Is your issue a subset of not-caring?
Ethan: Hearing a story that you’re powerless to do anything about is a bummer. How do you overcome cynicism. The answer may be a non-journalistic answer. It may require you to report and invite action.
Fatima: Is it a question for me whether it’s dangerous for journalists to become involved, to become partisan activists. With human rights, if you give up a small piece, you’ve given up the universal.

Q: I’m a newbie publisher with an occasional sense of hopelessness, but then you have to remember that there is hope. Even so, sometimes getting the story out can have the opposite result. E.g., support for Ghadafi went up dramatically once news go out that the West was opposed to him.
Q: That sense of hopelessness and apathy was very much the norm in the Middle East and North Africa. People put out information for years and nothing happened. Yet at some point there was a conceptual breakthrough and the stories mattered. Sometimes you have to drop journalistic principles because we’re engaged in informational warfare.
Q:[ethan] where’s the line between journalism and activism?
Fatima: Your purpose as a journalist is to tell the story, to represent the story as it is. But you’re a human being. You can’t shut off your heart and your judgment. Just tell the story. Yet I have survivor guilt. I told their stories, but I exploited them.
Dele: There is great value in calm rationality, fact-checking, balance, and not waging a campaign, principally because we have more than enough of the other side. We have bloggers, and activists. The Internet is full of junk. But there are times when I’ve withheld information a few times because of the potential damage it could do. I’m not absolutely sure I’ve done the right thing.

Ivan Sigal begins by talking about why we follow specific stories. How do we enable ourselves to follow international stories when it’s barely possible to tell them at a national level? That question encapsulates work that Persephone did over 15 years. She had two strands of her work: structure and personal engagement. She worked to create and sustain structures for media to exist so they could tell stories fearlessly. She created social webs within which people could be confident that their work would be taken up by their own communities. The second aspect of her work was that everything that Persephone did was deeply personal. The people she engaged with were always individuals. And that’s important when you’re thinking about attention. For Persephone, the choice to engage in an issue was personal before it was philosophical or rational. Persephone’s goal and gift was to create networks that allow us to expand our perception of what is important to us. That is a long and slow task. The question of media attention too often falls into the ideological sphere, but it should begin with the personal, as Persephone understood.

Ten years ago, Persephone and Ivan tried to build TV shows to attach local and international reporters. At the Berkman Center, she worked on how to create person to person links that would scale.

Ivan introduces Jon Sawyer from the Pulitzer Center who says that Persephone was wonderful at connecting people. The Persephone Miel fellowship helps international journalists tell their stories outside of their countries. The Center had trouble choosing just one, so they awarded three. One is an Indian journalist working on Kashmir. Another is another Indian journalist working on issues of caste. A third is Pakistani journalist who has returned there to report. “Persephone was one of the most influential in our development.”

Ivan says that American international media tends to focus on just one or two big stories. We rarely hear stories from the Pakistani perspective, and that are not coming out of the geopolitical framework with which we approach that country. Pakistan is as corrupt as Nigeria and as dangerous as the Caucuses. More journalists are killed in Pakistan for what they’re doing than anywhere else. In the latest case, the US government actually came out and said that we have evidence that the journalist was killed by the ISI.

Her husband Tony talks movingly about Persephone. A slide show follows. [I lose it.]

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July 10, 2011

Elliot Noss — an Internet good guy, and my friend — finds additional significance in ICANN’s June decision to open up new dot-whatever names to anyone willing to pay a very hefty price:

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June 22, 2011

Cultivating New Voices – An event to remember Persephone Miel by

The Berkman Center is hosting what should be a fantastic discussion on July 11 at 5pm.

The participants (from an email announcement): Colin Maclay (Berkman Center), Ivan Sigal (executive director of Global Voices), Fatima Tlisova of Voice of America, Dele Olojede of Nigerian newspaper 234Next that focuses on connecting Persephone’s Media Re:public work with cutting-edge projects in journalism around the world, and Ethan Zuckerman (Berkman, Global Voices.)

The topic: “In an age of shrinking news budgets, American newspapers and broadcasters are producing less original reporting of international stories. And while gripping events like the Arab Spring capture the attention of the public, many important international stories fail to capture widespread attention. The challenges for international reporting are both ones of supply (who reports the news from around the world?) and demand (who pays attention?)”

Inspired by, in honor of, remembering: Persephone Miel, an open-hearted, tireless, worker for the dignity of all, who is so deeply missed.

RSVP here.

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June 10, 2011

[hyperpublic] Panel 2 :Experience and re-creation

Jeffrey Schnapp introduces the second panel.

Beatriz Colomina gives a brief talk called “Blurred Vision: Architectures of Surveillance.” [I continue to have difficult hearing due to the room's poor acoustics and my own age-appropriate hearing loss. Also, Beatriz talks very fast.] She begins with a photo of a scene framed by windows. Comm is about bringing the outside in. So is glass; glass has taken over more of the building. She points to skyscrapers made of out of glass that have an x-ray aesthetic. It is no coincidence that glass houses and X-rays occur at the same time, she says. X-rays exposed the inside of the body to public eye, while architecture was disclosing the inside of the house to the public eye. X-rays acclimatized us to living in glass houses, including the glass house of blogging. Beatriz talks about architecture that looks further inward, through more and more layers, beyond transparency [I lack acoustic confidence that I'm getting this right. sorry.] With our surveillance equipment, x-ray vision is becoming pervasive, changing the definition of the private.

danah boyd gives a talk: “Teen privacy strategies in networked publics.” She begins by explaining she’s an ethnographer. How do young people think about privacy? The myth is that they don’t care about it, but they do. They care about it but they also participate in very public places. Just because they want to participate in a public doesn’t meant they want to be public. Being active in a public does not mean they want everything to be public to everyone.

Networked publics are publics that are enabled by network technologies, and that are simultaneously spaces constructed through tech and an imagined communities. We are becoming public by default, and private by default. danah quotes at 17yr-old who explains that rather than negotiating publics to make things available one by one, she posts in a public space so it’s available all of them.

New strategies are emerging. Privacy = ability to control a social situation, and to have agency to assert control over those situations. A 14yr old danah interviewed thinks that he’s signalling the social norms in his communications, but people comment inappropriately, so he’s started using some explicit social structures. Another young person deletes comments to her posts after she’s read them, and deletes her own comments on other people’s posts the next day. She’s trying to make the structure work for her.

A 17yr-old likes her mother but feels her mother over-reacts to FB posts. So, when the teen broke up with her boyfriend, she posted the lyrics from “Always look on the bright side of life.” This is social stenography, i.e., hiding in plain sight, for that song is from the crucifixion scene in The Life of Brian.

danah points to an online discussion of a social fight. The kids knew the details. The adults did not know if they were allowed to ask. The kids’ careful use of pronouns controlled access to meaning.

Sometimes we can use the tech, and sometimes we have to adopt social norms. In all of our discussion of privacy about the role of law, tech, and the market, we ought to pay careful attention to the social norms they’re trying to overrule. (She hat tips Lessig for these four.)

Ethan Zuckerman talks about the role of cute cats. Web 1.0 was about sharing info. Web 2.0 is about sharing photos of kittens. This has important implications for activists. The tools for kitten sharing are effective for activists. They’re easy to use, they’re pervasively viral, and there’s tremendous cost to a totalitarian regime trying to censor them because they have to throw out the cute cats with the revolutionary fervor. It raises the cost of censorship.

Ethan says that cute cats have a deep connection to activism. What happened in a dusty little town of 40,000 spread throughout Tunisia, spread because of cute-cat social media. Protests happen, they get filmed and posted on Facebook. FB is pervasive, but makes it extremely find to the content, make sense of it, and translate it. So, local people find it and make sense of it, and feed it to Al Jazeera. Now people can see the events and decide if they want to join in.

Why FB? Because Tunisia has blocked just about everything except FB. They tried to block it in 2008, which resulted in a 3x increase, because Tunisians inferred there was something good about FB. The day before stepping down, Tunisia’s leader offered three concessions: It won’t fire on crowds, it will lower the tax on bread, and it will allow Net freedom.

Tunisia confirms Ethan’s theory, but Egypt is counter-evidence. The Egypt government shut off the Internet. China is manufacturing its own cute cats: you can post all the kitten vids you want on Chinese sites. “This is a much more effective way of combating the cute cat theory.” But it’s expensive and requires a huge amount of human labor to review.

What worries Ethan most is that we’re moving our public discourse into private spaces, e.g. FB and Google. “We’re leaving it up to the owners of these spaces whether we’ll be allowed to use these spaces for political purposes.” It’s not that these spaces are evil. Rather, these digital spaces have been designed for other purposes. They have an incentive to shut down profiles in response to complaints, especially when it’s in a different language. Also, the terms of service are often violated by activist content. And real name identity is often dangerous for activists.

Organizations are slowly but surely figuring out how to deal with this. But it’s slow and very difficult. E.g., video of the army deliberately killing unarmed civilians. These videos violate YouTube’s terms of service ;. But YouTube made an exception, putting up a warning that it’s disturbing video. This is great, but it holds out some basic tensions. For example, it’s not good for advertisers and thus runs against YouTube’s business model.

The challenge is that we have invented these tools to have a certain set of behaviors. We wanted friends to be able to exchange info, and we create terms of service for that. Now we’ve allowed those privately held spaces to become our networked public spheres. But the lines between private and public are not well suited for political and activist discourse. Do we ask corporations to continue hosting these, or do we try to come up with alternatives. We didn’t drive people to YouTube because they were good for activists , but for the other cute cat reasons. Now we have to figure out the right tools.

Q: (zenep) Value of real name policies?
Ethan: It may be that we need public interest regulation of some of the policies of these corporations.
danah: Our tech will make real names no longer the best and only way to identify you. Systems of power will be able to identify people, and no amount of individual hiding within a collective will work. We need to rethink our relation to power as individuals and collectives.

Paul: We shouldn’t forget that it’s not just corporations. It’s American corporations. to shut down WikiLeaks you just need Visa and Mastercard.
Ethan: WikiLeaks is vulnerable to credit card platforms because DDoS attacks made it move off its own platform to Amazon’s, and Amazon is vulnerable to such pressure. The Amazons have special responsibilities. Also, we’re now advising activists to always make sure there’s an English-language description of your material when you put it up on YouTube, etc., so that the YouTube admins can evaluate the take-down claims that arise.

Jeff Jarvis: Regulation is the wrong way. The question what is the def of a public space for public speech. Other than lobbying private corps, what’s the right way?
Ethan: Rebecca MacKinnon’s upcoming book, Consent of the Networked, argues that we need to have a revolutionary moment in which the users of these spaces rise up these spaces and use the companies that are open to supporting them. Ultimately though, we don’t have a way to do a FB in a decentralized fashion. We can’t have a networked conversation without having some degree of centrality.
danah: Corporations have incentives that sometimes align with users’. There’s a lot of power when users think about alignment. Sometimes it’s about finding common interests, or social norms at a legal or social. It’s good to find those points of alignment.

Q: danah, have you seen designs that are more conducive to people following social norms?
danah: The design question can miss the way in which the tech is used in various contexts. E.g., you can design in tons of privacy, but nothing stops a parent from looking over the shoulder of a child. People will adjust if they understand the design. Design becomes essentially important when there are changes. It’s important for designers to figure out how to tango with users as the design evolves.

Q: [tim from facebook] Every design for any networked system has consequences. The choice that has always bedevilled me: the same system that finds fake accounts for activists also identifies fake accounts from secret police. How do we avoid building systems that create a pseudo sense of privacy?
ethan: People do things with social platforms that we never intended. Admirable or dangerous. How to figure out? It’s got to be an ongoing process. But, as danah says, changing those decisions can be dangerous and disruptive. We need to have some way of opening up that process. The activist community should be involved in evolving the terms of service so that it doesn’t recognize just the legitimate law enforcement, but also recognizes the needs of activists and citizens. It should not just be a process for lawyers but also for citizens.
danah: What is the moral environment in which we want to live. What outs activists can also out human traffickers. Some of the hardest questions are ahead of us.

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May 16, 2011

Ethan on serendipity and cosmopolitanism

Ethan Zuckerman blogs the brilliant and delightful “extended dance mix” of his talk on serendipity at CHI 2011.

He begins by wondering why people migrate to cities, even when those cities have been vastly unappealing, as per the stink of London in the mid 19th century. “You came to the city to become a cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world.” You may still have encountered a tiny stretch of humanity that way, but you’d at least be in a position to receive information about the rest of the world. “To the extent that a city is a communications technology, it may not be a surprise that early literally portrayals of the internet seized on the city as a metaphor.”

Ethan wonders if cities actually do work as “serendipity engines,” as we hope they do. Nathan Eagle “estimates that he can predict the location of ‘low-entropy individuals’ with 90-95% accuracy” based on aggregated mobile phone records. [Marta C. Gonzalez, Cesar A. Hidalgo & Albert-Laszlo ? Barabasi recently in Nature made a related claim.] We are not as mobile as we think, and our patterns are more routinized than we’d like to believe. Even in cities we manage to mainly hang out with people like ourselves.

Likewise on the Net, Ethan says. He’s analyzed the media preferences of 33 nations, and found that countries that have 40+ million Net users tend to strongly prefer local news sources. The result is “we miss important stories.” Even if we are well-plugged in to a social network, we’re not going to learn about that which our friends do not know. Ethan reminds us that we need to worry about “filter bubbles,” as Eli Pariser calls them. While social filters are powerful, if they only filter your own network, they are likely to hide more than they show.

Against this Ethan recommends serendipity, which requires “an open and prepared mind.” We should learn from cities when designing Web spaces that enable and encourage serendipity. “What makes cities livable, creative, vital, and ultimately, safe is the street-level random encounter that [Jane] Jacobs documented in her corner of Greenwich Village.” Design to “minimize isolation.”

Ethan then talks about some of the ways we get guided serendipity in cities — friends showing you around, local favorites, treating a city like a board game via geocaching, etc. As always, Ethan has some amazing examples. (He even points to the Library Innovation Lab‘s ShelfLife project, where I work; I promise I didn’t realize that until I’d already started blogging about his post.)

I’d started blogging about Ethan’s post because I love what he says even though I have a knee-jerk negative reaction to much of what people say about serendipity on the Net. Ethan is different. His post represents a full-bodied conceptualization. I read it and I nod, smile at the next insight, then nod again. So, what follows is not a commentary on Ethan’s post. It’s actually all about my normal knee-jerk reaction. (Oh, bloggers, what _isn’t_ all about you?) I’m trying to understand why serendipity doesn’t square with the hole in my own personal pegboard.

Perhaps the problem is that I think of serendipity as a sub-class of distraction: Serendipity occurs when something that hijacks our attention (= a distraction) is worthwhile in some sense. We now have social networks that are superb at sharing serendipitous findings. So, why don’t we pass around more stuff that would make us more cosmopolitan? Fundamentally, I think it’s because interest is a peculiar beast. We generally don’t find something interesting unless it helps us understand what we already care about. But the Other — the foreign — is pretty much defined as that to which we see no connection. It is Other because it does not matter to us. Or, more exactly, we cannot see why or how it matters.

Things can matter to us in all sorts of ways, from casting a contrasting intellectual light on our everyday assumptions to opening up sluices of tears or laughter. But cosmopolitanism requires some level of understanding since it is (as I understand it) an appreciation of differences. That is, we can (and should) be filled with sorrow when we see a hauntingly disturbing photo of a suffering human in a culture about which we know nothing; that’s a connection based on the fundament of shared humanity, but it’s not yet cosmopolitanism. For that, we also have to appreciate the differences among us. Of course, appreciating differences also means finding the similarities. It is a dialectic for sure, and one so very easy to get wrong and impossible to get perfectly right: We misunderstand the Other by interpreting it too much in our own terms, or we write it off because it is so outside our own terms. Understanding always proceeds from a basic situatedness from which we make sense of our world, so cosmopolitan understanding is always going to be a difficult, imperfect dance of incorporating into the familiar that which is outside our usual ken.

This is why I don’t frame the failure of cosmopolitanism primarily in terms of serendipity. Serendipity sometimes — not in Ethan’s case — is proposed as a solution as if we can take our interest in the Other for granted: Just sneak some interesting African videos into our usual stream of youtubes of cute cats and people falling off of trampolines, and we will become more cosmopolitan. But, of course we will fast forward over those African videos as quickly as we used to turn the pages in newspapers that reported on Africa. The problem isn’t serendipity. It’s that we don’t care.

But, we can be brought to care. We know this because there are lots of examples (and Ethan recounts just a handful of the trove at his command) of our attention being arrested by cosmopolitan content. To generalize with a breadth that is sure to render the generalization vapid, cosmopolitan content that works — that gets us interested in something we hadn’t realized we cared about — seems to have two elements. First, it tells us what we need to know in order to let the otherness matter to us. Second, it is really well done. Both of these are difficult, and there is not a known formula for either of them. But there are also lots of known ways to try; Ethan gives us bunches of examples. Creating cosmopolitan content that works requires craft and, if it is to be transformative, art. It can range from the occasional Hollywood movie, to New Yorker articles, to blog posts, to Anthony Bourdain, to Ethan Zuckerman. Content that creates interest in itself may be extraordinarily difficult to craft, but it is a precusor to the possiblity of serendipity.

Take the wildly successful TED Talks as an example. They satisfy a need the “market” didn’t know it had, and if asked would probably deny: “Hey, do you have a burning interest in questioning the assumptions of bio-engineering?” TED Talks ripple through the social networks of serendipity because they create interest where formerly there wasn’t any. That’s how social serendipity works: It begins with works that through skill, craft, and art generate their own motive power. TED shows us that if we are trying to remedy the dearth of intellectually stimulating materials passing through social networks, we should worry first about creating materials that compel interest. Compelling materials create social serendipity. And the corollary: Nothing is interesting to us until it makes itself interesting to us.

But perhaps it simply comes down to this. Perhaps I don’t frame the failure of cosmopolitianism primarily as a problem with the lack of serendipity because I personally approach the world as a writer, and thus focus on the challenge of generating interest among readers. When I see people passing over a topic, I think, “Oh, it must not have been written well enough.” And on that idiosyncratic worldview, I would not seiously base an analysis of a topic as vast and important as the one that Ethan Zuckerman continues to address so profoundly.

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May 7, 2011

World War II as a camping trip.

I’ve been re-reading a 1944 collection of amusing anecdotes assembled by Bennett Cerf, called Try and Stop Me. I’d read it as a child (I was born in 1950), and the celebrities in it belonged to my parents’ world — people like Herbert Bayard Swope, Alexander Woollcott, and Monty Woolley. Most of those names, huge in the 1930s, are completely unknown to the current generation, of course. Indeed, many are on the fringes of my own consciousness, or are beyond my recall entirely.

I’m finding it fascinating. Cerf was a television celebrity in the 1950s and 1960s, always with an amusing story. We are even on the verge of losing the word so often used to describe him: a raconteur. The anecdotes in Try and Stop Me concern authors, playwrights, poets, intellectuals, and actors. You do come away thinking that celebrity has taken a long walk downhill since then.

The attitudes and values the anecdotes betray are sometimes quite surprising. But here’s one that really floored me (which I’m presenting unedited):

Astute diagnosing by John Gunther [an important, popular historian] in his latest book, D Day: “The worst thing about war is that so many men like it … It relieves them of personal responsibilities…There is no worry about frictions at home or the dull necessity of earning a living. Military life is like a perpetual camping trip. I heard one officer say, ‘How nice all this would be if only you could eliminate the bloodshed and the killing.’” “Perhaps,” adds Orville Prescott [NY Times book critic], “peace planners who debate problems of frontiers and economics had better give a little more attention to eliminating the pleasures of soldierly comradeship and vast cooperative endeavor, the drama and excitement and the fun of war also.”

Can you imagine an historian saying the same thing about, say, the Afghanistan War, or Vietnam, for that matter? Did the American people really know so little about the horrors of WWII that they could believe that it was “like a perpetual camping trip” and oh so much fun? This seems to me to be beyond propaganda, but maybe I’m just underestimating how much propaganda can get away with.

(Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb by George Feifer is a horrifying oral history of that particular “camping trip.”)


April 26, 2011

Michael Porter’s Shared Value vs Don’t Be Evil

Harvard Business Review has just posted my response to the article by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer in which they propose moving business to a strategy that includes creating Shared Value. Obviously I support the idea of businesses taking seriously their obligation to create a better, sustainable world. But I’m not as optimistic about businesses embracing that strategy solely on the grounds that Porter and Kramer propose.

It’ll make the HBR folks happier — and therefore me too — if you comment there rather than here.

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March 16, 2011

Episcopalian Rector prohibited from adopting Muslim rituals for Lent

According to an article at St. Louis Today by Cynthia Billhartz Gregorian of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Steve Lawlor, a part-time rector at an Episcopal church took up elements of Islamic ritual for Lent.

On Wednesday, the first day of Lent, he began performing salah five times a day, by facing east, toward Mecca, and praying to Allah. He also started studying the Quran and following Islamic dietary restrictions by abstaining from alcohol, pork and fish. During Holy Week, he planned to fast from dawn to sunset as Muslims do during Ramadan.

He avoided rituals that would have conflicted with church doctrine; for example, he skipped the prayers declaring Mohammed to be G-d’s prophet.

Steve did this as a way of understanding Islam, especially in the light of the McCarthyite hearings being held by Rep. Peter King.

But, Bishop George Wayne Smith considered it to be a forsaking of his Christianity, and to be play-acting. The Bishop forbade Steve from continuing, saying:

“I believe what he’s trying to accomplish or says he’s trying to accomplish, which is to deepen his understanding of Islam, is admirable,” he continued. “But you dishonor another faith by pretending to take it on. You build bridges by building relationships with neighbors who are Muslim.”

Not an unreasonable statement, nor an islamophobic one (although we could have done without the “or says he’s trying to accomplish” statement of distrust). But, it’s a false disjunction. You can build bridges both ways. More important, what Steve was doing was not quite pretending. Rather, it was enacting the rituals and finding in them similarities of meaning. I can understand the Bishop’s discomfort with this. For example, as I understand it, Jews are forbidden from kneeling while praying, and thus could not perform the five daily prayers the Muslim way, for ritual has meaning. That’s why performing — enacting — another religion’s rituals can help in understanding that religion. Performing another religion’s rituals thus is subject to contradictory objections: (a) The performance of empty gestures is mere play-acting and thus disrespectful. Or, (b) the performance of ritual is never mere play-acting because ritual always carries inner meaning, so performing the rituals of another religion is transgressive of one’s own religion.

Yet, between these poles of negativity there can be respectful intent, the possibility of genuinely furthering one’s understanding, and make a statement of shared humanity in the face of the shameful fear-mongering of Rep. King and his followers.

Two references, of very different sorts. First, there’s Stephen Colbert’s bit about giving up Christianity for Lent. Second, Islamicate mentions (in the post where I found the link to the “Muslim for Lent” story) that s/he has spent the past six weeks in an Episocpal seminary. Fascinating.


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