Meeja: June 2008 Archives

Chris Anderson, George Dyson and Kevin Kelly reckon we are better off letting computers understand everything for us. I was going to quote some lengthy passage from "Brave New World". But, as always, comedy has the answers.

In the wake of the uneasy truce between Loren Feldman and Shel Israel, it seems that Feldman has been able to do both things from the most famous quote from John Dryden's "A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire":

"Yet there is still a vast difference betwixt the slovenly butchering of a man, and the fineness of a stroke that separates the head from the body and leaves it standing in its place."

In ruthlessly taking Israel apart with the humour equivalent of a rusty meat cleaver, Feldman co-opted Israel into saving the finer cuts for social media in general.

"And now it’s done, my little experiment with Social Media. I beat you with your own tools, in the arena in which you bill yourself an expert. You are an amateur Shel, an amateur, always remember that."

With the puppet, Feldman did distinctly old-media things. For one thing, it's all fake. It's a puppet pretending to be some other guy. Out through the window goes the social media stricture of "authenticity". Although the puppet was a goof, it was a lovable goof – the kind of thing old TV loves. And the set-ups were straight from from pro-TV school. It's just as well. Israel's videos were self-satirising: the one of him waving a boom mic around like a balloon on a stick in front of a bleary-eyed Jeremiah Owyang while supping disinterestedly on a latté is unforgettable. And not in a good way.

Feldman called the puppet "more real": a classic bit of legerdemain. Israel was very real during the whole spat. He was angry. He was upset. He wanted to get even. Faced with what Feldman was doing to him, what would you want to do? Social media's advice: be real, be honest.

But nobody believed the advice. The sensible advice to Israel was to bottle it up, act nice. And that probably would have worked. Had Israel gritted his teeth and pretended that he really loved the puppet, he would probably have come out of the whole episode more famous and better off. In other words, ignore Naked Conversations: Be inauthentic. You can't blog or tweet your way out of a crisis any more than you can knit your way out of a burning building.

And don't forget Feldman's position of being a pro versus Israel's amateur in what was meant to be an amateur's game.

And that is the Feldman's gift to social media in a situation where most in the club seem to have ignored the puppet sites's tag line: "A parody of Social Media’s impact on business & culture".

But what about the position of Michael Arrington and Jason Calcanis in this? Israel seems to believe that Arrington's hand was behind the puppet all of the time. Feldman's response:

"You chose to blame Mike Arrington, Jason Calacanis, and myself when you should have been blaming yourself. Mike is busy taking on AP and the NY Times. Jason is taking on Google. I’m taking on TV, do you think anyone of us have the time or even give a shit enough about you to plot a conspiracy?"

Or, to paraphrase with a slant on social media: these people are building media empires, do you imagine they give a shit about some social-media revolution? It's been good to them, it's been a laugh, but there's a lot more money in replacing the 'old-media' companies.

Now it seems to be Dave Winer's turn. The joke's just not so funny second time around but the ability of some of social media's voices to self-satirise, who knows what's possible.

It took me ages to get round to reading Nick Carr's Atlantic piece on the stupefying effects of Internet usage. I was too busy looking at lolcats, surfing the news and skimming through RSS feeds. And I liked it. That's probably where the problem lies.

In The Big Switch and other recent writing, Carr worries about the relentless push toward the Singularity - a time when humans and computers become inseparable because the machines will keep us alive and help us think. The Atlantic piece signs off: "as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence".

I think Carr worries too much about the ability of computer science to deliver on Larry Page's 2004 promise in a Newsweek interview that he cites: "Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off."

There was something oddly convenient about the passage extracted from a 1944 manual on sabotage supposedly written in 1994 by the US OSS about disrupting corporate activity. You read through the list of things a saboteur should do, as quoted by people such as David Weinberger, and think: "Yeah, I've been in those meetings."

Take, for example, point one on page 28:

Insist on doing everything through “channels.” Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.

It was at that point that my internal hoaxmeter started edging into the red.

Download the document. Take a look at it. Doesn't it look just a little too clean for a publication that was printed more than 60 years ago and, presumably, scanned only days or weeks ago? The front page has been disfigured by stamps to make it look a little distressed but there's barely a dog ear – in fact there are no dog ears - on the subsequent pages.

Maybe it's the little things that give it away. There is the lack of hyphenation in 'cooperate', the use of phrases such as "inside dope" and the reference to fluorescent lighting. Yes, dope was slang for information a century ago. But in a document supposedly for distribution to agents whose first language probably wasn't English? Fluorescent lighting? It existed but hardly anybody had seen it in the 1940s.

And then maybe it's the reference to "the United Nations war effort": an organisation that was not formed until after the Second World War.

When you consider the provenance of the 'manual' - it's an exhibit being used by a couple of Web 2.0 evangelists from the OSS's successor the CIA - it shows that spooks have a sense of humour too. The OSS and CIA did have sabotage leaflets (they probably still do). Just not, in all likelihood, this one.

Update: Darn it. A commenter at David Weinberger's blog points out that the term United Nations was used before 1945. The commenter points to the Declaration of United Nations in 1941 as the point at which the name started to be used. I wasn't totally convinced but then spotted some speeches given by Roosevelt where he used the terms United Nations liberally. So, maybe that bit was culled from a real OSS document. But the whole thing still screams fake to me.

The currency of news

4 June 2008

It wasn't until I read about the research commissioned by the Associated Press into news consumption (via Martin Stabe's blog) that I realised that hardly anybody has done ethnographic studies of how people deal with news. Other than this study, I can't find anything through Google Scholar that deals with the audience – most of the ethnographic research concentrated on the journalists not on who they are producing the work for.

Media companies make a fair amount of use of focus groups and surveys but those sessions can be very misleading, not least because internal marketing departments structure them to probe behaviour that affect commercial decisions rather than the editorial concerns. The other big problem is that people don't tell the truth about how they read newspapers or magazines. You spend a lot of time watching the sessions or reading the reports trying to infer what the subjects are really thinking. Ethnographic research goes further by trying to compare what people say versus what they do.