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November 09 2013

A connected world is a better world. Right?

We are more connected now than ever:

  • You can chat with your kids when you’re on the road, so can a pedophile.
  • You can access your bank account in your pajamas, so can the RBN.
  • Your healthcare data is always readily at hand, but not just to your hands.
  • You can tell your political representatives what you think; they can whip the “base” into a frenzy with what they want them to think.
  • You can talk to people all over the world and share ideas with people with different points of view, but you probably don’t.
  • You can easily organize against an unjust government (not just yours!), and they can watch you do it.
  • You can stay in touch with friends no matter where they live, and companies can co-opt you into influencing their purchases.
  • You can find information on any possible disease you suspect you might have, and your network and search provider will cheer for your recovery with pharmaceutical ads.
  • You can live a rich, fulfilling expanded life experience outside of the constraints of physical space, without fourth amendment protections (or even locks on your doors).
  • Everything is democratized, except for, it seems, our democracy.

Recently I was in New York City for our Strata conference and had the opportunity to host an Oxford-style debate. We debated the proposition that “A connected world is a better world.” In our preparations leading up to the debate, I asked our debaters not to hold back. I told them they could really help crystalize an understanding of the arguments by leaving nuance and subtlety at the door. I encouraged them to dive in, elbows out. I needn’t have. They would have anyway. These were real, not dramatic, passions on display. Take a look:

A spirited debate in a conference meeting room is a lot of fun, but I think this is a question of deadly importance. As the moderator, it wasn’t my role to take a position, but I can’t help but think about this question a lot. And I’m not a natural optimist.

Maybe it’s just that the magic of a connected world quickly becomes the new normal, an unremarkable part of our everyday experience. While I’m unthinkingly enjoying the connection with family and the access to knowledge afforded by connection, the pitfalls of connection loom large in my mind. They are the scaffolding of a dystopian future yet to be realized but terrifying in its possibility. It could be that our risk / utility curve for connectivity is bent, just like it is for money.

Or, maybe I just think too much about historical analogies. We live in a time of increasingly extremist politics that maybe aren’t caused by the filter bubbles we cocoon in, but they are most definitely amplified by them.

The last time our politics changed at scale was about 150 years ago at the nexus of migratory patterns and the rise of mass media. The industrial revolution moved agrarian workers into factories at massive scale. For the first time in history, large numbers of people were densely packed together in cities, and our “social graph” changed overnight. This newly concentrated network supported a different kind of politics — the mass movement — and all of the “isms” we talk about today were born in those new networks.

The arrival of mass media right on the heels of that concentration further amplified the signals projected into those connected webs, while effectively connecting them together into something even bigger: a national people. This was demonstrated convincingly by Speer’s Roman imagery, masterfully presented by Riefenstahl while the Führer’s speeches radiated from radio towers in real time across a continent.

I’m not suggesting that any new technology automatically spawns evil; I’m arguing that by changing the reach of our connections and the dynamics of our interactions, new technologies change our social physics. Imagine if the relative strengths of the strong nuclear force and electromagnetic forces suddenly changed throughout the universe. Material science would be turned on its head as matter rearranged itself in an instant.

Fundamental changes in how we communicate and connect do that to us. They rearrange the matter of society in fundamental and unpredictable ways. Things once held together fly apart, or new things clump into new forms. We can be sure only of change, and change of that sort is disruptive regardless of what form it takes.

Coming back to the question for a moment: our panel argued hard (technically the cons won the debate), but the answer is most likely “there is no answer.”

Because, of course, a connected world is a better world — and, of course, it’s also worse. And the ways it’s better and worse aren’t the same kind of thing. They can’t be easily summed into a neatly netted out answer. It’s better and worse at the same time, in different ways.

Thomas Jefferson struggled with this conundrum while considering America’s entry into the industrial age. He valued the independence and “virtue” of our previously agrarian existence, but he recognized the value of England’s mechanization to both quality of life and national economic positioning. (See Doug Hill’s new book for a deeper discussion of Jefferson and industrialization).

And, anyway, are choices like this even choices? Or does game theory make techno determinism a certainty? That which can be done, will be?

Where the pessimist in me raises its ugly head is in considering the trade-off between benefit and harm. What if the benefits are incremental but the harm is ultimately existential? We face something like that now with industrialization, as it runs its course and anthropomorphic climate change becomes harder and harder to ignore. Industrialization makes life better for a lot of people, right up until it doesn’t? And then it kills them?

As I write this, the biggest typhoon ever to make landfall is coming ashore on the Philippines, and it’s not likely to be the last of its size.

What is the “global warming” of connection?

The connected world is a world that is both more democratic and more concentrated, at the same time. Which of these forces “wins” — and under what circumstances? Perhaps Iran’s Green Revolution couldn’t have happened without the network, but in the end, the State used the network even more effectively than the revolution.

Like our universe, does the connected world keep expanding with forces of democratization? Or does it collapse into concentrated plutocracy under those who have privileged positions on the network? We don’t even know what dark matter to weigh to answer the question.

October 22 2012

What I learned about #debates, social media and being a pundit on Al Jazeera English

The Stream - Al Jazeera EnglishThe Stream - Al Jazeera EnglishEarlier this month, when I was asked by Al Jazeera English if I’d like to be go on live television to analyze the online side of the presidential debates, I didn’t immediately accept. I’d be facing a live international audience at a moment of intense political interest, without a great wealth of on-air training. That said, I felt honored to be asked by Al Jazeera. I’ve been following the network’s steady evolution over the past two decades, building from early beginnings during the first Gulf War to its current position as one of the best sources of live coverage and hard news from the Middle East. When Tahrir Square was at the height of its foment during the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera was livestreaming it online to the rest of the world.

I’ve been showing a slide in a presentation for months now that features Al Jazeera’s “The Stream” as a notable combination of social media, online video and broadcast journalism since its inception.

So, by and large, the choice was clear: say “yes,” and then figure out how to do a good job.

As is ever the case with new assignments, what would follow from that choice wasn’t as easy as it might have seemed. Some of the nuts and bolts of appearing were quite straightforward: Do a long pre-interview with the producer about my work and my perspective on how the Internet and social media were changing the dynamics of a live political event like the debate. (I captured much of that thinking here at Radar, in a post on digital feedback loops and the debate.) Go through makeup each time. Get wired up with a mic and an earpiece that connected me to the control room. Review each show’s outline, script and online engagement channels, from Twitter to YouTube to Google+ to Reddit.

I was also afforded a few luxuries that bordered on the surreal: a driver that picked me up and took me home from the studio. Bottled spring water. A modest honorarium to hang out in a television studio for a couple of hours and talk for a few intense minutes about what moments from the debates resonated online and why. The realization that my perspective could be seen by millions in Al Jazeera English’s international audience. People would be watching. I’d need to deliver something worth their time.

Entering The Stream

Live television doesn’t give anyone much room for error. On this particular show, The Stream, there was no room for a deep dive into analysis. We had time to answer a couple of questions of what happened on social media during the debates. Some spots were 30 seconds. Adding context in that context is a huge challenge. How much do you assume the people viewing know? What moments do you highlight? For this debate show, I had to assume that they watched the two candidates spar — but were they following the firehouse of commentary on Twitter? Even if they did, given how personalized social media has become, it was inevitable that what viewers saw online would be different than what we did in the studio.

When we saw the campaigns focus on Twitter during the debates, I saw that as news, and said as much. While the campaigns were also on Facebook, Google+, Tumblr, YouTube and blogs, along with the people formerly known as the audience, the forum for real-time social politics in the fall of 2012 remained Twitter, in all its character-limited glory.

Once the debates ended each night, campaigns and voters turned to the new watercoolers of the moment — blogs and article comment sections — to discuss what they’d seen. They went to Facebook and Google+ to share their reactions. To their credit, the Stream producers used Google+ Hangouts to immediately ask undecided voters what they thought and bring in political journalists to share their impressions. It’s a great use of the platform to involve more people in a show using the tools of the moment.

I’ve embedded each of the debate videos below, along with the full length episode of The Stream on data mining in the 2012 election. (I think I delivered, based upon the feedback I’ve received since in person and online, but I’m quite open to feedback if you’d like to comment.)

The Stream: Presidential Debates [10/3/2012]

The Stream: Vice Presidential Debate [10/11/2012]

The Stream: Presidential debates pre-show [10/16/2012]

On memes, social journalism and listening

The first two presidential debates and the vice-presidential debate spawned online memes. Given the issues before the country and the world, reducing these debates to those rapid expressions and the other moments that catalyzed strong online reactions was inherently self-limiting. The role of The Stream during the debates, however, was to look at these political events through the prism of social media to explain quickly and precisely what popped online. At this point, if you’re following the election, you’ve probably heard of at least two of them: Big Bird and “binders full of women.” (I explain both in the videos embedded above.) We also saw acmes of attention and debate conflict reflected online, from Vice President Biden’s use of “malarkey” to reaction to CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley’s real-time correction of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s challenge to President Obama regarding his use of “act of terror” on the day after the United States Embassy to Libya was attacked.

There are limits to what you can discern through highlighting memes. While it might be easy to dismiss memes as silly or out-of-context moments, I think they serve a symbolic, even totemic role for people who share them online. There’s also a simple historic parallel: animated GIFs are the political cartoons of the present.

Reducing the role of social media in networked political debates to just Twitter, GIFs and status updates, however, would be a mistake. The combination of embeddable online video, blogs and wikis are all part of a blueprint for democratic participation that enables people to explore the issues debated in depth, which is particularly relevant if cable news shows fail to do so.

There’s also a risk of distracting from what we can learn about how the candidates would make policy or leadership decisions. I participated in a Google+ Hangout hosted by Storify last week about social media and elections. The panel of “social journalists” shared their perspectives on how the #debates are being covered in this hyper-connected moment — and whether social media is playing a positive role or not.

Personally, I see the role of social media in the current election as a mixed bag. Networked fact checking is a positive development. The campaigns and media alike can find interesting trends in real-time sentiment analysis, if they dive into the social data. I also see an important role for the broader Internet in providing as much analysis on policy or context as people are willing to search for, on social media or off.

There’s a risk, however, that public opinion or impressions of the debates are being prematurely shaped by the campaigns and their proxies, or that confirmation bias is being reaffirmed through homophilic relationships that are not representative of the electorate as whole.

All that being said, after these three shows, I plan to watch the last presidential debate, on foreign policy, differently. I’m going to pocket my smartphone, sleeve my iPad and keep my laptop closed. Instead of tracking the real-time feedback during the debates and participating in the ebb and flow of the conversation, I’m just going to actively listen and take notes. There are many foreign policy questions that will confront the 45th President of the United States. Tonight, I want to hear the responses of the candidates, unadorned by real-time spin, fact checking, debate bingo or instant reaction.

Afterwards, I’ll go back online to read liveblogs, see where the candidates may have gone awry, and look abroad to see how the world is reacting to a debate on foreign policy that stands to directly affect billions of people who will never vote in a U.S. election. First, however, I’ll form my own impressions, supported by the virtues of solitude, not the clamor of social media.

October 03 2012

The missing ingredient from hyperwired debates: the feedback loop

PodiumPodiumWhat a difference a season makes. A few months after widespread online frustration with a tape-delayed Summer Olympics, the 2012 Presidential debates will feature the most online livestreams and wired, up-to-the-second digital coverage in history.

Given the pace of technological change, it’s inevitable that each election season will bring with it new “firsts,” as candidates and campaigns set precedents by trying new approaches and platforms. This election has been no different: the Romney and Obama campaigns have been experimenting with mobile applications, social media, live online video and big data all year.

Tonight, one of the biggest moments in the presidential campaign to date is upon us and there are several new digital precedents to acknowledge.

The biggest tech news is that YouTube, in a partnership with ABC, will stream the debates online for the first time. The stream will be on YouTube’s politics channel, and it will be embeddable.

With more and more livestreamed sports events, concerts and now debates available online, tuning in to what’s happening no longer means passively “watching TV.” The number of other ways people can tune in online in 2012 has skyrocketed, as you can see in GigaOm’s post listing debate livestreams or Mashable’s ways to watch the debates online.

This year, in fact, the biggest challenge people will have will not be finding an online alternative to broadcast or cable news but deciding which one to watch.

If you’re low on bandwidth or have a mobile device, NPR will stream the audio from the debate online and to its mobile apps. If you’re a Spanish speaker, Univision will stream the debates on YouTube with real-time translation.

The New York Times, Politico and Wall Street Journal are both livestreaming the debates at their websites or through their apps, further eroding the line between broadcast, print and online media.

While the PBS News Hour and CSPAN’s debate hub are good options, my preference is for the Sunlight Foundation’s award-winning Sunlight Live liveblog.

There are a couple of other notable firsts. The Huffington Post will deploy its HuffPost Live platform for the first time, pulling more viewers directly into participatory coverage online.

For those looking for a more… animated approach, the Guardian and Tumblr will ‘live GIF’ the presidential debates.

Microsoft is livestreaming the debates through the XBox, giving gamers an opportunity to weigh in on what they see through their Xboxes. They’ll be polled through the Xbox console during the debate, which will provide more real-time data from a youthful demographic that, according StrategyOne, still has many voters who are not firmly committed.

Social politics

The political news cycle has long since moved from the morning papers and the nightly news to real-time coverage of events. In past years, the post-debate spin by campaigns and pundits shaped public opinion. This year, direct access to online video and to the reaction of friends, family, colleagues and media through the social web means that the spin will begin as soon as any quip, policy position or rebuttal is delivered in the debate.

Beyond real-time commentary, social media will provide useful data for the campaigns to analyze. While there won’t be a “do over,” seeing what resonated directly with the public will help the campaigns tune their messages for the next debates.

Tonight, when I go on Al Jazeera’s special debate night coverage at The Stream, I’ll be looking at a number of factors. I expect the #DenverDebate and #debates hashtags to be moving too fast to follow, so I’ll be looking at which tweets are being amplified and what we can see on Twitter’s new #debates page, what images are popping online, which links are popular, how Facebook and Google+ are reacting, and what people are searching for on Google.com.

This is quite likely to be the most social political event ever, surpassing either of the 2012 political conventions or the State of the Union address. When I watch online, I’ll be looking for what resonated with the public, not just what the campaigns are saying — although that will factor into my analysis. The @mittromney account tweets 1-2 times a day. Will they tweet more? Will @barackobama’s 19 million followers be engaged? How much and how often will they update Facebook, and to what effect?

Will they live tweet open statements with links to policies? Will they link to rebuttals or fact checks in the media? Will they push people to go register or comment or share? Will they echo applause lines or attack lines? In a larger sense, will the campaigns act social, themselves? Will they reshare the people’s posts about them on social platforms or keep broadcasting?

We’ll know answers to all of these questions in a few hours.

Fact-checking in real-time

Continuing a trend from the primary season, real-time fact-checking will play a role in the debate. The difference in this historic moment is it will be the pace of it and the number of players.

As Nick Judd highlighted at techPresident, the campaign response is going to be all about mobile. Both campaigns will be trying their hands at fact checking, using new adaptive microsites at barackobama.com/debate and debates.mittromney.com, dedicated Twitter accounts at @TruthTeam2012 and and @RomneyResponse, and an associated subdomain and Tumblr.

Given the skin that campaigns have in the game, however, undecided or wavering voters are better off going with the Fourth Estate versions. Wired media organizations, like the newspapers streaming the debates I’ve listed above, will be using liveblogs and leveraging their digital readership to help fact check.

Notably, NPR senior social strategist Andy Carvin will be applying the same approach to fact checking during the debate as he has to covering the changes in the Middle East. To participate, follow @acarvin and use the #factcheck hashtag beginning at 8:30 ET.

It’s unclear whether debate moderator Jim Lehrer will tap into the fact-checking efforts online to push back on the candidates during the event. Then again, the wisdom of the crowds may be balanced by one man’s perspective. Given that he’s serving in that capacity for the 12th time, Lehrer possesses substantial experience of his own to draw upon in making his own decisions about when to press, challenge or revisit issues.

The rise of networked polities

In a larger sense, all of this interactivity falls fall short of the promise of networked politics in the Internet age. In the age of the Internet, television debates look antiquated.

When it comes to how much the people are directly involved with the presidential debates of 2012, as Micah Sifry argued earlier this week, little has changed from 2008:

“Google is going to offer some kind of interactive audience dial gadget for YouTube users, which could allow for real-time audience feedback — except it’s already clear none of that feedback is going to get anywhere near the actual debate itself. As best as I can tell, what the CPD [Commission on Presidential Debates] is doing is little more than what they did four years ago, except back then they partnered with Myspace on a site called MyDebates.org that featured video streaming, on-demand playback and archival material. Oh, but this time the partner sites will include a dynamic counter showing how many people have ‘shared their voice’.”

While everyone who has access to the Internet will be able to use multiple screens to watch, read and participate in the conversation around the debates, the public isn’t going to be directly involved in the debate. That’s a missed opportunity that won’t be revisited until the 2016 campaign.

By then, it will be an even more wired political landscape. While many politicians are still delegating the direct use of social media use to staffers, in late 2012 it ill behooves any office to be seen as technically backward and stay off them entirely.

In the years ahead, open government advocates will push politicians to use the Internet to explain their votes, not just broadcast political attacks or campaign events. After all, the United States is a constitutional republic. Executives and Congressmen are obligated to listen to the people they represent. The existing ecosystem of social media platforms may give politicians new tools to interact directly with their constituents but they’re still relatively crude.

Yes, the next generation of social media data analytics will give politicians a dashboard of what their constituents think about their positions. It’s the next generation of polling. In the years to come, however, I’m optimistic that we’re going to see much better use of the Internet to hold politicians accountable for their campaign positions and subsequent votes.

Early experiments in creating an “OKCupid for elections” will evolve. Expect sophisticated choice engines that use social and legislative data to tell voters not only whether candidates share their positions but whether they actually voted or acted upon them. Over time, opposition candidates will be able to use that accumulated data in their campaign platforms and during debates. If a member of Congress or President doesn’t follow through with the wishes of the people, he or she will have to explain why. That will be a debate worth having.

January 01 2009

October 19 2007

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