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June 29, 2012

[aspen] Eric Schmidt on the Net and Democracy

Eric Schmidt is being interviewed by Jeff Goldberg about the Net and Democracy. I’ll do some intermittent, incomplete liveblogging…

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.

NOTE: Posted without having even been re-read. Note note (a few hours later): I’ve done some basic cleanup.

After some amusing banter, Jeff asks Eric about how responsible he felt Google was for Arab Spring. Jeff in passing uses the phrase “Internet revolution.”

ES: Arab Spring was enabled by a failure to censure the Internet. Google enabled people to organize themselves. Especially in Libya, five different militias were able to organize their armed revolt by using the Net. It’s unfair to the people who died to call it an “Internet revolution.” But there were fewer people who died, in part because of the incessant media coverage. And we’ve seen that it’s very easy to start what some call an Internet revolution, but very hard to finish it.

JG: These were leaderless revolutions, crowdsourced revolution. But in Egypt the crowd’s leaders were easily pushed aside after Mubarek fell.

ES: True leaders are very hard to find. In Libya, there are 80 militias, armed to the teeth. In most of the countries there were repressed Muslim groups that have emerged as leaders because they organized while repressed. Whoever takes over inherits financial and social problems, and will be thrown out if they fail.

JG: Talk about Google’s tumultuous relationship with China…

ES: There are lots of reasons to think that China works because its citizens like its hierarchical structure. But I think you can’t build a knowledge society without freedom. China wants to be a knowledge society. It’s unclear if China’s current model gets them past a middle income GDP. Google thought that if we gave them free access to info, the Chinese people would revolt. We were wrong, and we moved Google to Hong Kong, on the open side of the Great Firewall. (We had to because that’s the Chinese law.) Now when you enter a forbidden query, we tell the user that it’s likely to be blocked. We are forbidden from announcing what the forbidden terms are because we don’t want employees put in jail.

JG: Could Arab Spring happen in China? Could students organize Tianamen Square now?

ES: They could use the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. But if someone organizes a protest, two people show up, plus 30 media, and 50 police.

JG: Google’s always argued that democratization of info erodes authoritarian control. Do you still believe that?

ES: The biggest thing I’ve learned is how hard it is to learn about the differences among people in and within countries. I continue to believe that this device [mobile phone] will change the world. The way to solve most of the world’s problems is by educating people. Because these devices will become ubiquitous, it’ll be possible to see how far we humans can get. With access to the Net, you can sue for justice. In the worst case you can actually shame people.

JG: And these devices can be used to track people.

ES: Get people to understand they have choices, and they will eventually organize. Mobiles tend to record info just by their nature. The phone company knows where you are right now. You’re not worried about that because a law says the phone company can’t come harass you where you’re sitting. In a culture where there isn’t agreement about basic rights…

JG: Is there evidence that our democracy is better off for having the Internet?

ES: When we built the Net, that wasn’t the problem we were solving. But more speech is better. There’s a lack of deliberative time in our political process. Our leaders will learn that they’ll make better decisions if they take a week to think about things. Things will get bad enough that eventually reason will prevail. We complain about our democracy, but we’re doing quite well. The US is the beacon of innovation, not just in tech, but in energy. “In God we trust … all others have to bring data.” Politicians should just start with some facts.

JG: It’s easier to be crazy and wrong on the Net.

ES: 0.5% of Americans are literally crazy. Two years ago, their moms got them broadband connections. And they have a lot of free time. Google is going to learn how to rank them. Google should enable us to hear all these voices, including the crazy people, and if we’re not doing that, we’re not doing our job.

JG: I googled “Syria massacre” this morning, and the first story was from Russia Today that spun it…

ES: It’s good that you have a choice. We have to educate ourselves and our children. Not everything written is true, and very powerful forces want to convince you of lies. The Net allows that, and we rank against it, but you have to do your own investigation.

JG: Google is hitting PR problems. Talk about privacy…

ES: There’s no delete button on the Net. When you’re a baby, no one knows anything about you. As you move through life, inevitably more people know more about you. We’re going to have to learn about that. The wifi info gathering by StreetView was an error, a mistake, and we’ve apologized for it.

JG: The future of journalism?

ES: A number of institutions are figuring out workable models. The Atlantic [our host]. Politico. HuffingtonPost. Clever entrepreneurs are figuring out how to make money. The traditional incumbents have been reduced in scale, but there are plenty of new voices. BTW, we just announced a tablet with interactive, dynamic magazines. To really worry about: We grew up with the bargain that newspapers had enough cash flow to fund long term investigative research. That’s a loss to democracy. The problem hasn’t been fully solved. Google has debated how to solve it, but we don’t want to cross the content line because then we’d be accused of bias in our rankings.

JG: Will search engines search for accuracy rather than popularity?

ES: Google’s algorithms are not about popularity. They’re about link structures, and we start from well-known sources. So we’re already there. We just have to get better.

JG: In 5 yrs what will the tech landscape look like?

ES: Moore’s Law says that in 5 yrs there will be more power for less money. We forget how much better our hw is now than even 5 years. And it’s faster than Moore’s Law for disks and fiber optic connections. Google is doing a testbed optical installation. At that bandwidth all media are just bits. We anticipate a lot of specialty devices.

JG: How do you expect an ordinary, competent politician to manage the info flow? Are we inventing tech that is past our ability to process info?

ES: The evidence is that the tech is bringing more human contact. The tech lets us express our humanity. We need a way of sorting politicians better. I’d suggest looking for leaders who work from facts.

JG: Why are you supporting Obama?

ES: I like having a smart president.

JG: Is Romney not smart?

ES: I know him. He’s a good man. I like Obama’s policies better.

Q&A

Q: Our connectivity is 3rd world. Why haven’t we been able to upgrade?

A: The wireless networks are running out of bandwidth. The prediction is they’ll be saturated in 2016. Maybe 2017. That’s understandable: Before, we were just typing online and now we’re watching movies. The White House in a few weeks is releasing a report that says that we can share bandwidth to get almost infinite bandwidth. Rather than allocating a whole chunk that leaves most of it unused, using interference databases we think we can fix this problem. [I think but please correct me: A database of frequency usages so that unused frequencies in particular geographic areas can be used for new signals.]

A: The digital can enhance our physical connections. E.g., a grandmother skyping with a grandchild.

JG: You said you can use the Net to shame govts. But there are plenty of videos of Syria doing horrible things, but it’s done no good.

ES: There are always particularly evil people. Syria is the exception. Most countries, even autocratic ones, are susceptible to public embarrassment.

Q: Saying “phones by their nature collect data” evades responsibility.

ES: I meant that in order to their work, they collect info. What we allow to be done with that info is a legal, cultural issue.

Q: Are we inherently critical thinkers? If not, putting info out there may not lead to good decisions.

ES: There’s evidence that we’re born to react quickly. Our brains can be taught reasoning. But it requires strong family and education.

Q: Should there be a bill of rights to simplify the legalese that express your privacy rules?

ES: It’s a fight between your reasonable point of view, and the lawyers and govt that regulate us. Let me reassure you: If you follow the goal of Google to have you as a customer, the quickest way to lose you is to misuse your information. We are one click away from competitors who are well run and smart. [unless there was money in it, or unless they could get away with it, or…]

Q: Could we get rid of representative democracy?

ES: It’ll become even more important to have democratic processes because it’s all getting more complicated. For direct democracy we’d have to spend all day learning about the issues and couldn’t do our jobs.

JG: David Brooks, could you comment? Eric is an enormous optimist…

ES: …The evidence is on my side!

JG: David, are you as sanguine that our politicians will learn to slow their thinking down, and that Americans have the skills to discern the crap from the true.

David Brooks: It’s not Google’s job to discern what’s true. There are aggregators to do this, including the NYT and TheBrowser. I think there’s been a flight to quality. I’m less sanguine about attention span. I’m less sanguine about confirmation bias, which the Web makes easier.

ES: I generally agree with that. There’s evidence that we tend to believe the first thing we hear, and we judge plus and minus against that. The answer is always for me culture, education.

Q: Will there be a breakthrough in education?

ES: Education changes much more slowly than the world does. Sometimes it seems to me that education is run for the benefit of the teachers. They should do measurable outcomes, A-B testing. There’s evidence that physics can be taught better by setting a problem and then do a collaborative effort, then another problem…

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June 28, 2012

[aspen] Amanda Michel and Matt Thompson on how the media have changed recently

Amanda Michel, who I know from her time at the Berkman Center, is being interviewed by Matt Thompson. She’s pretty amazing: Howard Dean campaign, Huffpo’s Off the Bus, Pro Publica, and now social media at The Guardian. She’s talking with Matt Thompson from NPR.

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.

She says that the Off the Bus effort now strikes her as surprisingly structured and profesionalized. For a year and a half, they recruited citizen journalists. Of the 12,000 of the people who participated, only 14% wanted to write articles on their own. The formalized approach Off the Bus took has been adopted by sites that invite readers to contribute their photos, their thoughts, etc.

The biggest shift, she says, is how much the campaigns rely upon data. E.g., how did Romney think he could win Iowa with just a few offices? The people who worked for him had identified die-hard supporters, who were asked to call other supporters, who were also then asked to call. In 2004, we the people were making media constantly. Now the engines driving the campaign are largely under the hood. So, if you’re reporting on campaigns today, you’re doing email analysis to understand the candidates’ strategies

Matt: It’s amazing how much media people now have woven into their days. A study shows that people are now spending 700 mins a day on media. Media is now a layer on top of people’s everyday experience. We looked at how a persistent story — a storm damaging a town — has been told throughout history. The single thing that stood out: We’ve gone from medium as an appointment you keep to media as a constant texture that both succors and buffets you.

Amanda: That’s why in 2008 we used a formalized approach — asking reporters to sign up and giving them assignments — and now people know if they go to a campaign event, they’ll be asked to post photos and twist.

Amanda: How has the shift between media and people changed?

Matt: We used to broadcast. We used to send out msgs. Now people use their mobile devices to talk with one another. We sit in this space, right alongside them. For us at NPR, that position is sweet. Radio is intimate. People can now carry us with them. That intimacy has created a drastically new dynamic for us.

Amanda: At Pro Publica, we worked on “explainers,” explaining questions people have. Readers told us they were particularly useful. I’m interested in how we can hold those in power accountable. We did the “stimulus spotcheck” to see how the economic stimulus money was being used. We asked our readers if we could tell what was going on. I asked readers to help us identify sites. Readers checked 550 sites around the country — 4.5% of construction sites aroiund the country — and we found that that gusher of work was further down the pipeline.

After making multiple phone calls, readers would sometimes say, “Journalism is hard,” which helps them understand the value of journalism.

The big challenge for media institutions is to keep their eye on the ball. The ubiquity of media can give you the false confidence that you’re seeing all there is. You’re checking Twitter, but many stories are much more difficult to find, and there are many people who don’t have a voice.

Amanda: Matt, what do you see coming?

Matt: I try to work through with the journalists the idea that we’re moving from stories toward streams. Humans have told one another stories forever, and will do so. But stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, are being augmented by the constant stream of info. Andy Carvin is constantly tracking events in the Middle East over Twitter. It’s a very different experience — no beginning, middle, end. Twitter gives you a sense of the texture of the lives of the people you follow. “We’re encountering the end of endings,” said Paul Ford. At NPR we’re trying to pull back to tell a longer story, a quest.

Amanda: There is this real need to see the context. Other trends: We’re going to be making sense of the world through the visual. We’re moving from the written word toward the image. At The Guardian, we think about how to bring people along in an ongoing process. How do you tether together items in the stream?

[Great session. My fave so far. But I’m a pretty big fan of both of these people.]

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Woohoo! Let’s all go out and get sick!

Holy cow! I did not see that coming.

Amusingly, at 10am this morning, I was giving my talk here at the Aspen Ideas Festival about knowledge in the age of the internet. I’d asked someone to interrupt when the news came through. So at 10:05, someone said: “The court overturned the individual mandate!” And someone else said, “No, they upheld it.” It turns out that CNN got it wrong, but a blogger got it right. Pretty much made one of my points right then.

Anyway, pretty amazing outcome.

And, please, let’s NOT all go out and get sick! Stay well and healthy, my friends.

2 Comments »

April 16, 2012

Media reports its reaction as news…again

Secret Service scandal eclipses Obama trip

That’s the headline in USAToday. It’s typical of the news coverage of the Secret Service scandal before the President arrived in Colombia.

Let me fix that for you:

Media’s decision to focus on the Secret Service scandal eclipses Obama trip

The eclipse has only to do with how the media have chosen to cover the trip. And with headlines like the one in USAToday, the circle is complete: the media reporting on the media’s coverage as if they were actually reporting an event.

Sheesh.

4 Comments »

March 9, 2012

[2b2k] Information overload? Not so much. (Part 2)

Yesterday I tried to explain my sense that we’re not really suffering from information overload, while of course acknowledging that there is vastly more information out there than anyone could ever hope to master. Then a comment from Alex Richter helped me clarify my thinking.

We certainly do at times feel overwhelmed. But consider why you don’t feel like you’re suffering from information overload about, say, the history of stage costumes, Chinese public health policy, the physics of polymers, or whatever topic you would never have majored in, even though each of these topics contains an information overload. I think there are two reasons those topics don’t stress you.

First, and most obviously, because (ex hypothesis) you don’t care about that topic, you’re not confronted with having to hunt down some piece of information, and that topic’s information is not in your face.

But I think there’s a second reason. We have been taught by our previous media that information is manageable. Give us 23 minutes and we’ll give you the world, as the old radio slogan used to say. Read the daily newspaper — or Time or Newsweek once a week — and now you have read the news. That’s the promise implicit in the old media. But the new medium promises us instead edgeless topics and endless links. We know there is no possibility of consuming “the news,” as if there were such a thing. We know that whatever topic we start with, we won’t be able to stay within its bounds without doing violence to that topic. There is thus no possibility of mastering a field. So, sure, there’s more information than anyone could ever take in, but that relieves us of the expectation that we will master it. You can’t be overwhelmed if whelming is itself impossible.

So, I think our sense of being overwhelmed by information is an artifact of our being in a transitional age, with old expectations for mastery that the new environment gives the lie to.

No, this doesn’t mean that we lose all responsibility for knowing anything. Rather, it means we lose responsibility for knowing everything.

6 Comments »

February 26, 2012

[2b2k] Linking is a public good

Mathew Ingram at GigaOm has posted the Twitter stream that followed upon his tweet criticizing the Wall Street Journal for running an article based on a post by TechCrunch’s MC Siegler, who responded in an angry post.

Mathew’s point is that linking is a good journalistic practice, even if author of the the second article independently confirmed the information in the first, as happened in this case. Mathew thinks it’s a matter of trust, and if the repeater gets caught at it, it would indeed erode trust. Of course, they probably won’t, and even if you did read the WSJ article after reading the TechCrunch post, you’d probably assume that the news was coming from a common source.

I think there’s another reason why reports ought to link to their, um, inspirations: Links are a public good. They create a web that is increasingly rich, useful, diverse, and trustworthy. We should all feel an obligation to be caretakers of and contributors to this new linked public.

And there’s a further reason. In addition to building this new infrastructure of curiosity, linking is a small act of generosity that sends people away from your site to some other that you think shows the world in a way worth considering. Linking is a public service that reminds us how deeply we are social and public creatures.

Which I think helps explains why newspapers often are not generous with their links. A paper like the WSJ believes its value — as well as its self-esteem — comes from being the place you go for news. It covers the stories worth covering, and the stories tell you what you need to know. It is thus a stopping point in the ecology of information. And that’s the oeprational definition of authority: The last place you visit when you’re looking for an answer. If you are satisfied with the answer, you stop your pursuit of it. Take the links out and you think you look like more of an authority. To this mindset, links are sign of weakness.

This made more sense when knowledge was paper-based, because in practical terms that’s pretty much how it worked: You got your news rolled up and thrown onto your porch once a day, and if you wanted more information about an article in it, you were pretty much SOL. Paper masked just how indebted the media were to one another. The media have always been an ecology of knowledge, but paper enabled them to pretend otherwise, and to base much of their economic value on that pretense.

Until newspapers are as heavily linked as GigaOm, TechCrunch, and Wikipedia, until newspapers revel in pointing away from themselves, they are depending on a value that was always unreal and now is unsustainable.

12 Comments »

February 1, 2012

So, I said to my pal Rupert Murdoch, Rupie, how about if…

I do appreciate John Blossom’s listing me among the top ten influential people in digital media. Thanks, John. And while my ego’s nether regions are indeed all a-tingle, I’m mainly enjoying the thought of the other nine people — the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Larry Page, and Jeff Bezos — reading the list and saying “Uh huh, uh huh, uh huh, uh huh, uh huh, uh huh, uh huh, wtf?, uh huh…”

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December 23, 2011

[2b2k] Is HuffPo killing the news?

Mathew Ingram has a provocative post at Gigaom defending HuffingtonPost and its ilk from the charge that they over-aggregate news to the point of thievery. I’m not completely convinced by Mathew’s argument, but that’s because I’m not completely convinced by any argument about this.

It’s a very confusing issue if you think of it from the point of view of who owns what. So, take the best of cases, in which HuffPo aggregates from several sources and attributes the reportage appropriately. It’s important to take a best case since we’ll all agree that if HuffPo lifts an article en toto without attribution, it’s simple plagiarism. But that doesn’t tell us if the best cases are also plagiarisms. To make it juicier, assume that in one of these best cases, HuffPo relies heavily on one particular source article. It’s still not a slam dunk case of theft because in this example HuffPo is doing what we teach every school child to do: If you use a source, attribute it.

But, HuffPo isn’t a schoolchild. It’s a business. It’s making money from those aggregations. Ok, but we are fine in general with people selling works that aggregate and attribute. Non-fiction publishing houses that routinely sell books that have lots of footnotes are not thieves. And, as Mathew points out, HuffPo (in its best cases) is adding value to the sources it aggregates.

But, HuffPo’s policy even in its best case can enable it to serve as a substitute for the newspapers it’s aggregating. It thus may be harming the sources its using.

And here we get to what I think is the most important question. If you think about the issue in terms of theft, you’re thrown into a moral morass where the metaphors don’t work reliably. Worse, you may well mix in legal considerations that are not only hard to apply, but that we may not want to apply given the new-ness (itself arguable) of the situation.

But, I find that I am somewhat less conflicted about this if I think about it terms of what direction we’d like to nudge our world. For example, when it comes to copyright I find it helpful to keep in mind that a world full of music and musicians is better than a world in which music is rationed. When it comes to news aggregation, many of us will agree that a world in which news is aggregated and linked widely through the ecosystem is better than one in which you—yes, you, since a rule against HuffPo aggregating sources wouldn’t apply just to HuffPo— have to refrain from citing a source for fear that you’ll cross some arbitrary limit. We are a healthier society if we are aggregating, re-aggregating, contextualizing, re-using, evaluating, and linking to as many sources as we want.

Now, beginning by thinking where we want the world to be —which, by the way, is what this country’s Founders did when they put copyright into the Constitution in the first place: “to promote the progress of science and useful arts”—is useful but limited, because to get the desired situation in which we can aggregate with abandon, we need the original journalistic sources to survive. If HuffPo and its ilk genuinely are substituting for newspapers economically, then it seems we can’t get to where we want without limiting the right to aggregate.

And that’s why I’m conflicted. I don’t believe that even if all rights to aggregate were removed (which no one is proposing), newspapers would bounce back. At this point, I’d guess that the Net generation is primarily interested in news mainly insofar as its woven together and woven into the larger fabric. Traditional reportage is becoming valued more as an ingredient than a finished product. It’s the aggregators—the HuffingtonPosts of the world, but also the millions of bloggers, tweeters and retweeters, Facebook likers and Google plus-ers, redditors and slashdotters, BoingBoings and Ars Technicas— who are spreading the news by adding value to it. News now only moves if we’re interested enough in it to pass it along. So, I don’t know how to solve journalism’s deep problems with its business models, but I can’t imagine that limiting the circulation of ideas will help, since in this case, the circulatory flow is what’s keeping the heart beating.

 


[A few minutes later] Mathew has also posted what reads like a companion piece, about how Amazon’s Kindle Singles are supporting journalism.

4 Comments »

December 16, 2011

Terry Heaton on the misleading year coming up

Terry Heaton provides some broad context in a provocative post about the coming year of media turmoil. He writes in an email:

2012 is a dangerous year for all mass media, because decay in our core competency will again be hidden by record revenues (in some cases) due to what promises to be a huge political year. Despite advances in communications’ methods, politicians fall back on the tried and true during elections, and that means big money for an industry that’s struggling. The money will distract us from the real issues, and before you know it, 2013 will be here. It’s time to do something completely different.

The actual post is about the media issues the political year will distract us from.

3 Comments »

October 10, 2011

Erik Martin on what makes Reddit special

Erik Martin, the general manager of Reddit, explains what’s so special about the discussion site. I’m particularly interested in the nature of authority on the site, and its introduction of new journalistic rhetorical forms.

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