Tag Archives: media

ICYMI

I can sense the ‘cycle’ of news media as this rotating blob, tucked just inside a massive doorway, and the moment one tries to step away from it, a persistent wind continues pushing it closer and closer.

It’s unavoidable – even consciously trying to decide that I’m not ready to jump back in after a break, I can’t go anywhere without incidentally grazing the ‘rotating media blob’. I visualize it like Slimer from Ghostbusters, or the big ancient space portal in Stargate – in the case of Slimer, you’re not going to outrun it – and in the case of Stargate, you’ve gotta step through, just because it’s there.

In the waiting room at the dentist’s office, CNN blares the sound of gunshots in Paris. At home, my dormant iPad pushes alerts of Academy Award nominations; newspapers collect at the front door, and restaurants everywhere are painted with televisions that shower everyone passing by with what’s ‘happening.’

Picture of Slimer

Slimer

On the last day of my recent vacation an article was sent to me describing the ‘In Case You Missed It’ (ICYMI) phenomenon and how it has become a kind of permanent purgatory for modern information consumers (anyone in the world with a phone or laptop.)  (“The Unending Anxiety of an ICYMI World,” John Holcroft, NYT)

Looking at the concept from the distance of having spent seven days alternating between a black sand beach and the cloudy rainforest, I could relate to the feeling of an itch that I had ‘missed something,’ but I felt no urgency or responsibility to catch up. It seemed that ICYMI only matters if you’re already ‘locked in.’

Each time the media blob brushes against my sleeve as I try to pass by it, I know that once I fully submit to the cycle, I’ll be pulled back in, and things will start to ‘matter’ again. Far away political events, trivial details of the intellectual arts, and incomprehensible fractions of data concerning the world economy will all congeal and form an awkward, incalculable load balanced across my knuckles as they hunch over their keyboard habitat.

It felt wonderful for just a few days to leave that all behind, and to truly participate in the real world and people who are actually present – instead of expending mountains of energy trying to ‘catch up’ on everything I’m ‘missing.’

Perspectives on the News

What are we meant to think? Where should all this go in our minds? What they present us with each day are minuscule extracts of narratives whose true shape and logic can generally only emerge from a perspective of months or even years.  News organizations are….  institutionally committed to implying that it is inevitably better to have a shaky and partial grasp of a subject this minute than to wait for a more secure and comprehensive understanding somewhere down the line” 

– Alain de Botton

“The audience of people that want to know what’s happening in the world week by week, the people that work during the day and can read it, its small, alright and it’s concise and there’s pictures in it, you know? It’s a certain class of people, its a class of people that take the magazine seriously, I mean sure I can read it, you know, I read it , I get it on the airplanes but I don’t take it seriously. If I want to find out anything, I’m not gunna read TIME magazine, I’m not gunna read Newsweek, I’m not gunna read any of these magazines, I mean cause they just got to much to lose by printing the truth.”

– Bob Dylan

“I feel, on a whole, blogs are probably more accurate particularly in the long term. When I publish a blog post it’s not edited beforehand, it’s not fact checked beforehand, but it’s my words, my name’s on it, I feel personally attached to it, and if there’s anything wrong in it I get a comment within five minutes telling me about it. That was the beauty of blogs and that conversation would be transparent under the blog post. I feel like bias was clearer, understood, and that the conversation that could happen so easily after the blog meant that the truth came out, even if there was a mistake, an honest mistake. Even if there was a dishonest mistake people would blog about it and link to it. You could have these conversations.”

– Matt Mullenweg (founder of WordPress)

on The Smartest Guys in the Room

Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room [Motion picture]. (2005).

This film nicely wrapped up what was a very complicated story. As the scandal took place, uncovering the important pieces of the narrative was difficult because they were competing with everything else in the daily news information deluge. Letting a few years pass and waiting for the dust to settle makes stepping back and taking the 10,000 foot view easier.

When Enron was originally in the news I didn’t have any sense of the great impact that company shareholders suffered, and I didn’t understand what a celebrated and ‘accomplished’ company it had been shortly before the scandal broke out. Being a high school student in 2001, I wasn’t as tuned in as I would be if something like this happened now, so I appreciate the deep-dive explanation of what really happened.

I am proud that investigative reporting was one of the catalysts for uncovering the story. At a time when many people think the media is suffering, news is biased, and technology has rendered newspapers and magazines obsolete – this scandal was ultimately uncovered because a lone reporter asked a few tough questions. A lone female reporter at that, who not was not only dealing with a very ‘macho’ culture at Enron, but also didn’t have very much career experience before breaking the story.

Energy is a form of technology, and that’s what Enron sold – but this didn’t feel like a story about technology. The company’s trouble mostly came from accounting practices, limiting the supply of their product and creating false demand to raise prices. This could happen with any industry that serves a basic need to the population – auto makers, communication services, airline industries, etc.

It raises the question (although it was seemingly answered for energy long ago) at what point does a technology, or a technology market, become regulable? There are probably actual definitions of this, but I’ve never thought about it before. Energy became regulable a long time ago, and now the internet is approaching that same threshold – but does it meet the same criteria?

How would this story be different if Enron were a broadband provider? I don’t know if they would have been held to the same ethical standards, since unlike energy, broadband hasn’t yet been defined as critical to the functioning of everyday life in American society.

The film presents the notion that Enron only attempted these unethical actions because they believed they were ‘smarter’ than the regulators, and that being smarter gave them permission to break the rules. Is this any different from the idea that ‘code is law,’ and whatever code someone is smart enough to come up with gives the coder permission to circumvent legality?

Two Documentaries on ‘Hacking’

BBC – How Hackers Changed the World

While Anonymous was given most of the treatment in this piece, I didn’t feel like their story was the strongest thread in the overall hacker narrative. Lulzsec appears to be the group that did the most actual damage, while WikiLeaks is the most ethically challenging.

Anonymous comes across as a bunch of people posting on message boards who all showed up to protest the Church of Scientology once. Occasionally they were able to DDoS some government websites. They are presented as being large and formidable because allegedly ten thousand people participated in the Scientology demonstrations – but 10k isn’t that much, in the grand scheme. Ten thousand people shop at the Gap, ride the metro, buy a hot dog, blah blah every day. Boring and mundane stuff also attracts many people. Crowds don’t predicate meaning or importance.

Lulzsec on the other hand appeared to be able to cause more disruption with a much smaller and more focused group. Anonymous appeared to be too large to manage any kind of cohesive campaign, and the premise that it could operate without leadership doesn’t really have a historical precedent – anarchistic groups or societies have not accomplished much in the world, compared to groups with leaders and structure.

Discovery Channel – Secret History of Hacking

I think the order in which I watched these two documentaries made a difference in how I reacted to them. Watching the BBC doc first, and being exposed to Anonymous before Wozniak & Cap’n Crunch, had a different effect than if I would have reversed the order. I think I had less sympathy for Anonymous’s cause without the historical context of hackers that came before them.

The hackers of earlier decades, who began with ‘phone phreaking’ seemed to have a more innocent purpose. In the BBC doc, hearing the stories of Anon and Lulzsec and Wikileaks, I didn’t detect any of the harmless and curious aim that the original hackers had.

The earlier hackers also seemed to push the technology further. They subverted the intended use of the technology in a way that was unprecedented. Instead of disrupting or harming the way other people used it, they just found a way to use it more freely themselves. They were apolitical.

One interesting moment came when an early hacker spoke on the initial perception of computers – ‘why would anyone want one of these in their house?’ seemed to be the original sentiment, back in the 70’s when computers were large and not very powerful. It makes me wonder what technology is in its infancy today, that people are having the same reaction to. 3D printers? Self-driving cars? Google Glass? What else are people shunning for its perceived uselessness, that might someday dominate markets?

Two Bloggers Blogging

I stumbled twice today on articles by bloggers, about blogging.

First, in the Washington Post, Barry Ritholtz celebrated his 30,000th blog post. Yes, thirty thousand. If you’re having trouble comprehending that volume, you aren’t alone. He writes about finance in his personal blog and also contributes to several papers. Today was the first time I’ve ever read anything by him. Anyway, it’s taken me seven years to amass a paltry 172 entries in Brian Writing. At my current output, it will take me ONE THOUSAND two-hundred and fifty years (1,250 years) to catch up with Mr. Ritholtz. I better get going.

Secondly, my LinkedIn feed promoted a post by Richard Branson on his blogging tendencies. Instead of celebrating the milestone of an umpteen-thousandth post, Mr. Branson offers a general treatise on writing habit. The Virgin Galactic founder says that topics can be found in anything (I agree) and also praises the art of delegation – although he insists his posts are self-written, a team of ‘content’ people help him generate ideas. Apparently, among the committee’s ideas are to format each post with no less than three or four large, carefully composed promotional photographs of the author: talking on phones, wearing leather jackets, gazing up at the sky or pensively stroking his beard.

I enjoy writing in this blog for one of the same reasons that propelled Mr. Ritholtz to churn out thirty-thousand entries. He says: ‘Writing is a good way to figure out what you think. Often, I have no idea what I thought about a subject until I begin to write about it.‘ 

Well put, Ritholtz. It’s also a good way to make fun of billionaires and their library of self-stock imagery.

on my Ethical Radar

‘A man got to have a code.’ – Omar

As I wrote in a previous post, I just began a class in ethics and technology. During lecture last week, I couldn’t help but remembering the quote from Omar in The Wire on how everyone should have a code, or sense of morals – even if they don’t adhere to societal norms.

One of the ideas I’ve been most interested in, after two sessions with the class, is the concept of ‘discussion stoppers,’ and how they can be categorically expected to occur and also why they should be avoided.

I’ve never really enjoyed arguing for the sake of it. Many people get pleasure from the competition of proving their own righteousness or intelligence through ethical battles, and those people always turned me away from the activity. I prefer finding common ground in conversation, rather than exploring differences of opinion. In class, I’m finding out that to treat a subject which is ethically ambiguous requires a more concentrated effort than I’m predisposed to give.

‘Everyone has their own opinion, so there’s no point in trying to come up with a solution. It’s impossible.’ — this is a common perspective and one that I frequently give in to when a discussion becomes difficult. The textbook I’m reading suggests that it is incorrect to claim ethical progress can’t be made on account of the improbability of consensus. The fact that everyone can’t agree doesn’t mean that the discussion itself is useless, or doesn’t lead to minor advancements in understanding.

In the course of any typical week, I consume all kinds of news which touches on ethics. So, as part of the class, I’m starting to give more consideration to each scenario and what the ethical implications are, what claims were made to reach conclusions, and whether the claims appear to be sound.

Hitting my ‘ethical radar’ recently were several issues:

A police officer distracted by a laptop struck a man with his car, killing him, and the officer was acquitted because he was answering a ‘work-related’ email: Since when are emails or any other internet-based activity considered real-time communications of such a timely nature that drivers should be excused for killing a cyclist because they needed to respond to a laptop? The base claim here – that answering an email while driving was more important than a human life – seems unequivocally wrong.
http://www.businessinsider.com/police-officer-will-not-be-charged-in-killing-of-napster-executive-2014-8

Adderall and other ‘neuroenhancers’ being used in top colleges: Is it ok for students to do this? Why is it different from athletes being issued suspensions for using drugs? Those are the questions hinted at in this New Yorker article, which is more descriptive of the phenomenon than suggestive of any ethical standard. It does make more transparent the norms which predetermined the subject’s choices – such as legal decisions categorizing Adderall and other amphetamines as prescription-only drugs.
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/04/27/brain-gain

The Death of Adulthood: A lengthy and fascinating article in the NY Times by film critic A.O. Scott. The premise is that American literary culture has always been youthful & rebellious, but until now those sentiments had purpose against some specific enemy or authority. Scott claims that post-millennial culture has done away with adulthood, but without the ethical backbone of its predecessors.
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/14/magazine/the-death-of-adulthood-in-american-culture.html?_r=0

Ray Rice and the video taping incident: Aside from the obvious conclusion that Rice’s actions were inexcusable, this story raised several questions about the ethics of surveillance. Was it ethical for the video owners to keep it private for so long after the incident? Does a person who makes a surveillance video have some kind of rights over it, or should they be obligated to immediately make it public? Since they are filming a public place, shouldn’t the video be ‘public,’ and viewable by anyone who is interested in that space? Why are videos filmed for surveillance kept more private than the places that they are filming?

Trendy Tech Article Round-up

Half of my cognitive load on any given day is spent fighting the urge to read EVERY SINGLE ARTICLE on the internet. Fortunately, some make it through my productivity filter, and I allow myself to read them. Lately I’ve been using the very cool application Pocket to save things I want to read later.

Several pieces grabbed my attention this week. Each touched on the start-up culture in which I work, but I didn’t feel like the target audience – they all hinted direction at a reader on the outside of the tech world: Rolling Stone’s big interview with Bill Gates, the NY Times Magazine’sSilicon Valley’s Youth Problem‘, and two from the Wall Street Journal – ‘Success Outside the Dress Code‘ and ‘Have Liberal Arts Degree, Will Code.’

Mr. Gates’ most interesting statements revealed his thoughts on morality, religion, and government, but he also answered questions about the current state of things – massive acquisitions of zero-revenue companies, and the possibility of living in a constant state of surveillance.

The Times article was engrossing, chronicling the division between youth-driven startup culture and the legacy of elder-generation technologists (like Zuckerburg / Gates.) Is it just coincidence that Gates gave an interview to the youth-focused Rolling Stone at the same time as the Times publishes a manifesto on the generational disconnect?

The two WSJ articles also share the ‘young tech’ theme  – ‘Success Outside the Dress Code’ investigates the results of a study on how dressing casually in formal settings can influence opinion (a practice, common among young software developers, which I am happy to rant about) – and the other, ‘Have Liberal Arts Degree, Will Code’ about how young graduates of all departments are abandoning the academic disciplines they studied in favor of higher-paying software industry positions (as an English major working with a Ruby on Rails development team, this one really hit home)

So what catalyzed this deluge of similarly focused articles? ‘Big Media’ writes about technology often, but something about the tone of this writing seems different – Bill Gates waxing poetic on billion dollar acquisitions and world-saving to the pot-smoking readership of Rolling Stone, the NY Times writer (a young Silicon Valley alumn) broadcasting her concern over whether she should work for a hot young startup like Uber or a crusty old-guard firm like Cisco, and the Wall Street Journal exploring the incongruities of tech culture – how its citizens dress eccentrically and give up their educational idealism in favor of cold, hard cash.

Of the articles, Yirin Lu’s writing in the Times magazine stands out the most. Her personal anecdotes as an intern in Silicon Valley bind well to the concrete examples of age division she describes. She rejects the presumption that older companies are home to “subpar, less technically proficient” employees – she cites the number of patents owned by Cisco as evidence to the contrary. Yet, as the WSJ article describes, tech companies are trying to grab as many young engineers as they can – some going as far as offering signing bonuses to dissuade potential hires from finishing college. If only Mr. Gates had fielded a related question in his interview, he surely could have added a valuable argument to the debate.

The Wall Street Journal pieces are brief, neither explores their territory with the critical and sharp eye that Lu focuses on her topic. But each shares the provocative attitude that a certain kind of delirium resides in Silicon Valley’s money soaked culture. In Gates’s interview, he states: “When you have a lot of money, it allows you to go down a lot of dead ends.”

It’s hard to pin down exactly what statement these articles are all trying to make, if any. What I’m most curious about is how deeply these discussions will resonate with their audience, or if they are only this week’s flavor of capricious media interests. Perhaps the journalists’ unstated intent in their recent scrutinization of the modern technocracy is to map those “dead ends” out before too many people (without Mr. Gates’ resources) get stuck moving toward them.

the Fictionalizations of ‘the Google’

I had a colleague a few years ago who joked about how his aging parents always referred to Google, the search engine, as “the Google,” as if the internet giant had become an entity of such massive, generic proportion that it deserved its own “the..”, like “the city,” or “the ocean,” or “the internet.” The Google.

Popular culture has been producing fictionalized narratives about what life at Google might be like, to complement the hordes of reportage documenting the reality of the company. For an account of how it came to be, and an outsider’s view of the founders, Ken Auletta’s non-fiction book “Googled” tells a fascinating story.

But the real story of Google is about the people who work there, and what they are trying to accomplish. There are plenty of imaginary guesses as to what that’s like – in ‘The Internship,’ actors Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn actually have the blessing of Google’s marketing department to use the company’s real logo, and refer to it by name, in their imaginary take on what it’s like to work for the massive company.

The American author Dave Eggers has recently published “The Circle,” his take on life at Google, (or maybe some combination of Google and Facebook) and how the company is changing the world, but without the happy rainbows and moon-glow sheen of the Wilson/Vaughn film.

Of the two accounts, is one more accurate than the other? I would need first hand experience to answer that with any authority. My best guess is that Eggers is reaching closer to Google’s heart than Vaughn and Wilson.

At Eggers’s Google (He calls it ‘the Circle’) the campus glistens and sprawls, the office parties are legendary, and the ‘Circlers’ on staff are all brilliant, young intellectual heavyweights. But eventually, the villianization of privacy becomes overwhelming, the expectations of world-saving become untenable, and the marriage of life and work becomes suffocating.

Eggers’ Google follows these guiding principles, echoing Orwell’s Big Brother:

“SECRETS ARE LIES. SHARING IS CARING. PRIVACY IS THEFT.”

The Circle has incredible ambition – an imaginative product called ‘TruYou,’ which is your real identity, everywhere online; ‘SeeChange,’ a YouTube-like network of tiny cameras placed everywhere in the world, broadcasting everything to satisfy anyone’s curiosity; and ‘Transparency‘, which puts the cameras on individual persons, worn as a necklace, making their every movement a publicly broadcasted act. Numerous other realistic inventions are sprinkled throughout the story, introduced as positive societal game-changers, but simmering beneath the surface with totalitarian terror.

As Eggers’ describes these fictional innovations, without diving into technological reality, they actually seem very close to the realm of possibility – or at least near to the trajectory we can expect to see over the next few decades.

The story follows the path of Mae, an ambitious young woman drawn to the company by its promise of involvement, optimism and excellence. The journey she takes is one that moves from initial bewilderment at The Circle to a creeping acceptance and incapacitating servitude, while she alienates and betrays every real relationship in her life along the way.

The ugly consequences of The Circle’s mission to publicize everything are highlighted by the revulsion felt by Mae’s ex-boyfriend, who chastises her:

 “Every time I see or hear from you, it’s through this filter. You send me links, you quote someone talking about me, you say you saw a picture of me on someone’s wall… It’s always this third-party assault. Even when I’m talking to you face-to-face you’re telling me what some stranger thinks of me. It becomes like we’re never alone. Every time I see you, there’s a hundred other people in the room. You’re always looking at me through a hundred other people’s eyes.” 

At Vaughn and Wilson’s Google, in “The Internship,” the company is nothing more than a place for two aging slackers to take a second shot at being financially responsible adults, who are capable of earning a living to support themselves – it just so happens this place is also Google, where everyone who wears the logo must be disruptively smart and attractive.

‘The Internship’ doesn’t touch on a single thing that Google actually does, or how their real products and technology are used by the world, until a thrown together final scene which vaguely hints that Google can help a small pizza shop – yet this is the fictionalization that the corporation gave a real blessing to, with ample permission to display their bright and shiny logo in nearly every scene, from the extensive coverage of the ‘nap stations’ on campus, and the ample free food and snacks, to the team-building trips at San Francisco strip clubs.

The British film critic Mark Kermode described The Internship as “one of the most witless, humourless, vomit-inducingly horribly self-satisfied, smug, unfunny comedies I have ever seen.”

So which of these representations is the real Google? Hmm, I don’t know…. Maybe you can Google it.

When I was a kid, I remember having playful arguments with friends during our imaginative games that were settled by how many multiples of a number we were better than one another – ‘I’m a million times taller’ or ‘I’m ten million times faster!’

One day, in a conversation with my Dad, he explained the number ‘googol,’ and I felt like a huge cloak had been lifted from the possibilities of the universe. It was the biggest number ever! In my imagination, I could be GOOGOL times faster!

So now, along with all the other cosmic and intricate coincidences that fill up my life, I’m an adult, and Google is still the easiest way to end an argument.

on National Geographic Live!

The National Geographic Society has launched a program called ‘NG Live!’ in which brilliant photographers from the magazine’s pages present their work at the Grosvenor Auditorium, in Washington D.C. to a curious and appreciative audience.

Gardens by Night

Diane Cook and Len Jenshel presented an alluring series of exposures from gardens around the world, captured during the darkest hours of night. The soft light from the moon casts a diaphanous glow on the beautiful landscapes in the images. Gardens, curated carefully to be visually pleasant, calming and intricate, show a hidden power at night.

Fuling and Changing China

I’m acquainted with the modernizing landscape along the Yangtze River from my own travels, but gained fresh perspective from the images captured by Anastasia Taylor-Lind. Her presentation ‘Fuling and Changing China’ uncovered an engaging and striking portrait of the people, structures, and natural beauty of the region.

Ms. Taylor-Lind journeyed along the river learning about the displacement of families during the Three Gorges Dam project, documenting their struggles and achievements.

In addition to her work in China, she showed photos of her experience documenting the search for supermodels in Siberia, and also portraits of the women participating in southern Russia’s ‘Cossack resurgence.’

Alison Wright and the Human Spirit

Alison Wright could be the most amazing storyteller, both through pictures and her personal narrative, that I’ve had the pleasure of listening to. Her travels have taken her everywhere, and her fearlessness shines in all of her work. The dangers she encountered have strengthened her – she was told she would never walk again after suffering a terrible injury in a motor accident in Laos, but a few years later she was back behind the camera, working during the disasters in Haiti and New Orleans, and eventually returning to Asia to visit the doctor who saved her life.

If only all of us who love photography could be as blessed with unfailing curiosity and the will to exercise it as Ms. Wright is.