Here’s a promotional video about Public Parts, coming out next month:
Posts about publicparts
Here’s audio of my interview with Brooke Gladstone of On the Media about the e-G8:
I just want to get this on the record and off my (fully clothed) chest: I was wrong about Anthony Weiner.
I’d said nothing about the whole hoo-ha because I didn’t think it was worth the attention. Then I got a call from Howard Kurtz’ Reliable Sources to come on last Sunday and talk about it. My wife said, Why are you doing that? I said, I’ll be on the right side. As always, she was right. On the show, I said that media were using this as an opportunity for sophomoric jokes and that the fuss over a penis was a symptom of American Puritanism. What’s the worst that happened here? I asked: So what if he had a stupid picture on his phone and accidentally tweeted it, so long as he wasn’t sexually harassing anyone? But that’s not the worst that happened.
Weiner lied. That is the story. That’s what haters said in email to me after the CNN segment. They were right.
What’s most amazing to me is that anyone in politics in this age could still be stupid enough to think that the coverup won’t be what kills them. That’s not just a matter of the age of publicness and the net that I write about. It is perhaps Richard Nixon’s most important legacy. I gave Weiner too much credit when I thought he must have figured this out.
The personal irony for me is that I’ve long thought Weiner is a weasel. I chose to overlook that in this case. Wrong again. I confronted him at a Personal Democracy Forum a few years ago (it so happens that PDF11 is going on right now) over his support of noxious legislation to raise fines on so-called indecency on broadcast. Weiner would go onto Howard Stern’s show as an alleged fan to get the attention but then he’d turn around and throw Stern, the First Amendment, and freedom of speech to the wind for a politically expedient vote. So he voted with prudery and isn’t it always the case that the prudes are the ones with something to hide? Now we see what he was hiding.
I’m trying to pull back from my personal embarrassment and stupidity at giving this shmuck the benefit of the doubt and see the lessons here about our age of publicness. There are many. It fascinates me that Twitter provides such an easy way for people to connect for *any* purpose. It astounds me that Weiner thought he could do this under his name with his face and think it would not end up being a public act. Once he was public to the extent of sharing with one person — a stranger — then it’s nothing for that to be shared with the world in an instant. All this affirms my belief that the only sane way to operate in one’s life today — as a public figure especially — is as if *anything* you do can and will be seen by *anyone.* I would still like to think that eventually this will lead to an assumption, a default of transparency.
But then, I keep forgetting the calculate into this view the forgetful, venal stupidity of the public official. That’s where I was wrong. Have I said that enough?
: I emailed a link to this post to the people who emailed me after the CNN segment. They were nasty in how they said it but they were right.
First, do no harm.
That is the message I would like to bring to the e-G8 summit on the internet gathered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy this week in Paris.
I am apprehensive about a meeting of government and industry that begins with the presumption that they wield authority over the internet, the people’s internet. Cory Doctorow decided not to attend, declaring it a “whitewash” for regimes that are at “war with the free, open net.” Perhaps that’s the right decision. Given the chance to go, I decided to witness it up close and say what I have to say so at least I can say I said it. And that is this:
The internet was born open, free, and distributed. As conceived and built, all bits are created equal. It must stay that way. Sarkozy called this meeting to discuss the growth of the internet. It will grow only if it is open and free.
Like John Perry Barlow, I believe that governments have no sovereignty in the net. There is no consent of the governed as there are no governed there. Governments are not the appropriate bodies to protect the internet. When one government assumes that authority, all will. If the U.S., the U.K, the E.U., the U.N., or the G8 impose their wills on the net — no matter how benevolent they claim to be (and none should be trusted) — then China, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and no end of tyrants and despots will also claim the right to govern the net. We will end up living under the high water mark of regulation. That means the death of the open net and all it affords society. Instead of reducing the internet through regulation, government should protect the internet.
Companies are also not to be trusted as protectors of the net. Even as I praised Google for at long last deciding to stop doing the bidding of censorious Chinese dictators, it was negotiating a cynical devil’s compact with Verizon to apportion the net into a neutral wired net and a constrained wireless net. No, companies are not to be trusted. The most appalling thing about the Google-Verizon-FCC pact was that the people were not at the table. These companies and agencies presume to cut up our internet and do not even try to give the appearance of including us. That is the dangerous vacuum they try to fill.
Some argue that protecting net neutrality is a form of government regulation. At South by Southwest, Sen. Al Franken convincingly counters that all net neutrality is doing is assuring that the internet is not changed, not perverted from its original state of freedom. He exhorted the crowd of net people, creative people, and entrepreneurs: “It is time for us to use the internet to save the internet.”
The pity is that this meeting on the future of the internet and its growth was called by a head of state and not by us, the people of the net. We have only ourselves to blame. Imagine if this meeting had instead been called by some other body closer to the people with preservation of net freedom as its agenda: an Electronic Frontier Foundation, a Mozilla Foundation, a Berkman Center, SXSW, a university, students in Egypt, an ad hoc disorganization of people online… who?
And what would such an assembly do? I have argued that we need to have a discussion of the principles of the net. I don’t think we will ever get much past discussion, as I do not want to see the imposition of governance on the net from government or corporations or self-appointed bodies, either.
But we must have an open and vigorous discussion of principles so we can discern the shape of our beliefs. In the course of that, I argue at the conclusion of my book Public Parts, “some truths will become self-evident. We will come to examine what matters to us and what we must protect. We will expose different views, priorities, dangers, and needs. Most important, we will have an expression of some principles to point to when powerful institutions try to control our net and diminish our publicness, power, and freedom.”
I welcome the discussion in Paris. I wonder about context set by the convener and the congregants it gathers. Yes, government should be at the table. See German Justice Minister Sabina Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger also calling (auf Deutsch) for a debate over digital values. Yes, companies should be at the table. Like it or not, they build the net. But the table should be ours, not theirs.
There have been many attempts to craft bills of rights for the net, from the Association for Progressive Communications, to a group of Chinese intellectuals, to the Internet Rights and Principles Coalition, to the Brazillian Internet Steering Committee, to the Facebook users who wrote a set of social rights. There is much good thinking there. I offer mine to add to the discussion, broadening it, I hope, to embrace not only the openness of the internet but also the principles of publicness (I go into these in greater depth in my book):
I. We have the right to connect.
II. We have the right to speak.
III. We have the right to assemble and to act.
IV. Privacy is an ethic of knowing.
V. Publicness is an ethic of sharing.
VI. Our institutions’ information should be public by default, secret by necessity.
VII. What is public is a public good.
VIII. All bits are created equal.
IX. The internet must stay open and distributed.
The last one is the internet’s best protection: its own structure. To the leaders gathered in Paris, I say of that architecture: Primum non nocere. First, do no harm.
I am also set to be on a panel about privacy and data. There, I plan to say that the framing of the discussion is limited and prejudicial. Why is the discussion about privacy? It should also be about protecting publicness.
The internet is our greatest tool of publicness ever. It is everyperson’s Gutenberg press. It enables anyone to speak to everyone. It allows revolutionaries to organize and supports their revolutions. It brings transparency to governments and markets. It helps us find and organize our own publics, across boundaries, apart from mass labels. We should be discussing protecting the internet rather than protecting us from it.
In Der Spiegel (auf Deutsch), Christian Stöcker warns against the demonizing of tools. That is, I fear, the starting point of this discussion, like so many others. If this discussion is about the growth of the internet, then we should guard against restricting it because of prospective fears before we even fully understand it.
At this entire meeting, we must be aware of the internet as a means of disruption. That is why it frightens institutions of legacy power and why they hope to regulate and limit it, using convenient masks — privacy, security, civility…. And that is why I worry when those institutions call a meeting to discuss governing the agent of their own disruption.
There is no reason for me to be at the E-G8 except that I happen to know people who invited me (after the initial lists were out). No one elected me. I have no standing to represent anyone. But I would like to try to represent some of your views, as best I can. So please enter into the discussion here.
(Full disclosure: As an academic without corporate support, I accepted travel accommodations from Publicis, which is organizing this meeting on behalf of the French government. I did not pay nor am I being paid to attend.)
: Here is a petition urging Sarkozy et al “to publicly commit to citizen-centered policies like expanding internet access for all, combating digital censorship and surveillance, limiting online intermediary liability, and upholding principles of net neutrality.”
FROM PARIS: I got to ask my question of Sarkozy this morning. He acknowledged in his talk today that government does not own the internet. I said that if a government asserts authority over the internet, any internet can. So I asked him and the G8 to take the Hippocratic pledge: First, do no harm.
He mocked the question, saying that was easy, that he would take the pledge. Ah, but then he defined harm. He asked whether it was harmful for the government to protect intellectual property, security, children… Having no microphone now, I could not say that, indeed, it could be harmful.
I write from the city where Gutenberg’s erstwhile partner and funder, Johann Fust, was nearly arrested because he came here to sell printed Bibles. The booksellers in Paris called the policy on him, declaring there was no way he could have so many Bibles except from the work of black magic. Well, today, the internet is still black magic. We don’t know what it is yet. To define it, restrict it, regulate it, limit it before we even know what it is, there is danger there.
Yes, President Sarkozy, you can do harm.
: Here is video of Sarkozy’s talk and my Q&A (starting at 48:10):
: LATER: Here’s Dave Morgan’s good summary of the event.
Here’s a tale that reveals how journalists tend to think of their role in the conversation that makes up news and society.
I think the conversation is happening all around us, with or without the journalists. I teach now that it’s the role of the journalist to add value to that conversation: verification, debunking, facts, reporting, context, platforms, teaching…. The late James Carey defines the role differently. As Jay Rosen explains in the Carey Reader: “The press does not ‘inform’ the public. It is ‘the public’ that ought to inform the press. The true subject matter of journalism is the conversation the public is having with itself.”
But I’m seeing that news organizations think it is their role to lead the conversation (they set the agenda), allow the conversation (you may now comment on our story, now that it’s done), and judge the conversation (see Bill Keller’s sniffing at vox polloi).
That’s why I went theatrically batshit on Twitter against the BBC for holding the first day of a meeting this week about *social media* under Chatham House Rule, which decrees: “participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”
That’s a fancy, British way to say “not for attribution.” Or as I said in another tweet, “Chatham House Rule turns everyone into an anonymous source. Precisely the wrong thing for a journo org to do!” That is especially an issue for a public journalistic institution, which should be setting an example for other journalists and their sources.
But it’s most shocking that the BBC would impose this rule on a meeting that is not only about *social media* — I thought all Brits bragged about having a sense of irony Americans lack; apparently not — but worse, one that carried the haughty ambition to formulate “a universally accepted set of verification guidelines for social media material” and “an accepted ethical framework for using sensitive material from social networks.” Don’t they see that one can can longer set true standards for the rest of the world in closed rooms with invite-only guests who are gagged or anonymous and prevented from interacting with that world? Then the outcome becomes a standard only for that small subset of people, which negates its authority as a standard. At best, it’s another club rule.
The arguments back to me on Twitter were mostly that employees needed the comfort of anonymity to speak freely about their employers. My response: The meeting wasn’t streamed. Anyone could request the courtesy not to be quoted or that what he or she says isn’t to be attributed. But the BBC made secrecy the default. Tone deaf. Shameful.
The next morning, at the open and streamed second day of the conference, Peter Horrocks, head of news for the BBC, attacked critics for attacking the BBC for limiting comments on its site to 400 characters (2.85 tweets), calling them extremists and zealots. Horrocks is bidding to control the conversation about controlling the conversation. Oh, my.
But that is the reflex of the journalist: to control the conversation.
Later in the afternoon, by coincidence, I heard from the BBC’s flagship show, Newsnight, asking me to come on to talk about privacy and the superinjunction row in the UK. I told the producer what I had to say about how futile and noxious to my idea of free speech it was for the courts of London to think they could control the conversation and do so in secrecy.
Later, I heard from the producer that “we have booked someone here in London who can make it into the studio, which always works better, and it would imbalance the discussion to have a third person.” Imbalancing a discussion sounds just up my ally. Pity I couldn’t. But that’s fine, it’s their prerogative as it’s their time on their air. But this moment illustrates the point: What journalists have done for a living is manage a conversation.
That is the presumption they now bring to online and the world’s comments.
The problem with comments, I’ve argued lately, is that the form and timing of them is essentially insulting to the public: It says we journalists don’t want to hear from you, the public, until after we are done with our work making content for you to consume. Then the public speaks and journalists don’t listen (because they think their stories are done) and the commenters are insulted and so they insult the journalists and the journalists say that’s the proof that the comments and the commenters aren’t worth the attention. A very vicious cycle. The conversation catches cooties.
The reason the BBC cut its comments down to 400 characters is cost. In a discussion on Twitter with the BBC’s Nick Reynolds, the social media executive who oversees moderation of all BBC social media, that became clear. Comments require moderation and that’s a cost. True enough. But I tried to argue with Reynolds in Twitter that the conversation writ large could also save costs. I couldn’t get it through to him. He kept defining the conversation as comments and “UGC.” I kept defining the conversation as collaboration.
Collaboration is not allowing people to comment. Collaboration is not giving them opinion polls. (Carey, by the way, argued that polling is “an attempt to stimulate public opinion in order to prevent an authentic public opinion from forming,” but that’s another topic.) Collaboration is not enabling them to send in the pictures of the snow on their back porches, something I hate when TV news does it as it condescends — it says the public can’t provide real news or quality images; we’re merely humoring them. “UGC” is bullshit.
No, collaboration is about sharing the work of journalism. Collaboration brings value and can even save costs. Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian (he closed the BBC’s conference but, unfortunately, video of it is not online), often talks about the mutualization of news and how opening up its work can enable a journalistic organization to produce journalism it otherwise could not do or afford to do.
At the BBC conference, Esra Dogramaci of Al Jazeera gave an impressive presentation of the networks’ use of social media to collaborate. Then the BBC moderator quizzed her about whether social media would “drive the agenda” of the news. And a BBC staffer fretted that by providing cameras and training to protestors in the Arab Spring, “aren’t you now intertwining yourselves with the protestors?” The moderator asked whether Al Jazeera’s mission of “giving voice to the voiceless” encourages the revolution. Another BBC staffer suggested that by providing the means for the people to talk, Al Jazeera may be subversive. Dogramaci replied, most articulately, that Al Jazeera is on the side of the people and if that is subversive, then so be it.
In what Al Jazeera does, we see the seed of a new definition of journalism and its role in the conversation: as a service to it.
There is yet a further extension of the model in what Andy Carvin has been doing on Twitter covering the Arab Spring (he also spoke at the BBC event). What strikes me there is that Andy does not start or enable or even necessarily serve the conversation, as the conversation is going on with or without him. The witnesses to news are telling the world what they are seeing. Andy observes it and plucks out the good and reliable witnesses and he passes what they observe on, adding value along the way: vetting, questioning, debunking, context, explanation, assigning….
News, then, begins to take on the architecture of the internet itself: end-to-end. At one end are the witnesses sharing, at the other the readers reading and interacting, asking their own questions, having their own say, passing on and recommending what interests them. No need for a gatekeeper. No need for a distributor. No need for a central hub. No tolerance for controllers. The conversation is occurring on its own.
Journalism is sometimes a subset of that conversation. It can add value. It can serve. But it should not think of itself as the creator of the conversation, the setter of the agenda, though that is what I see in so much of the BBC’s worldview as demonstrated at events this week. They might have learned that better if instead of a meeting, they held a conversation.
The conversation is news.
: MORE: Adam Tinworth wonders why a group of big-media people deserves the protection of CHR but the larger group doesn’t. Ah, the Brits and class.
: Here’s the BBC’s explanation of its decision re Chatham House Rule.
Given the discussion about Facebook enabling other sites to use its comment infrastructure — and what that means for identity and anonymity in discussion — I thought I’d share some of what I’m saying about the question of multiple identities in my book, .
One tactic to cope with the fear of exposure and overexposure is anonymity. Anonymity has its place. It protects the speech of Chinese dissidents, Iranian protestors, and corporate whistleblowers. It allows Wikileaks to expose secrets. It helps people share, for example, medical data and benefit others without having to reveal themselves. It lets people play with new identities. When the game company Blizzard Entertainment tried to bring real identity into the forums around its massive, multi-player games, including World of WarCraft, players revolted, and no wonder: Who wants everyone to know that in your other life, you see yourself as a level 80 back-stabbing night elf rogue who ganks lowbies at the Crossroads? Taking on identities—pseudonymity—is the fun of it.
But anonymity is often the cloak of cowards. Anonymous trolls—of the human race, not the WarCraft type—attack people online, lobbing snark at Julia Allison, spreading rumors and lies about public figures, sabotaging a politician’s Wikipedia page, or saying stupid stuff in the comments on my blog. I tell commenters there that I will respect what they have to say more if they have the guts to stand behind their own words with their own names, as I do.
Real identity has improved the tone and tenor of interaction online. That was Facebook’s key insight. Twitter’s, too. Tweeters want credit for their cleverness; they are rewarded with followers and retweets, their nanoseconds of microfame. Facebook is built on real relationships with real people in real life. “The whole thing was based on this foundation of reality,” Mark Zuckerberg says in an interview. “That doesn’t mean that every single thing is true. But on balance, I think it’s a lot more real than other things on the internet. In that way, I think, yes, it does create authenticity.”
Zuckerberg believes we have one authentic identity and says it is becoming “less and less true” that people will maintain separate identities. Emily Gould, admitted oversharer, agrees. Julia Allison, on the other hand, sides with those who say we should maintain many identities—one for work, another for school, another for home, another for friends. Those folks say we get in trouble online when these identities mix and blur, when our boss sees our picture from the college beer party (as if bosses never had beer). In a New York Times Magazine piece arguing that “the internet records everything and forgets nothing,” Jeffrey Rosen tells the story of a 25-year-old student-teacher who was deprived of her diploma after posting a MySpace photo of herself drinking over the caption, “Drunken Pirate.” On his blog, Scott Rosenberg counters that “the photo is harmless; the trouble lies with the people who have turned it into a problem.”
What needs to change is not so much our behavior, our rules, or our technology but, again, our norms: how we operate as a society and interact with each other. When presented with someone’s public face, which may differ from our own, is our response to disapprove, condemn, ridicule, and snipe, or is it to try to understand differences, offer empathy, overlook foolishness, offer freedom, and share in kind? When we do the former—and we all have—we are guilty of intolerance, sometimes bigotry. When we do the latter we become open-minded. I suggested in my last book that because we are all more public, we will soon operate under the doctrine of mutually assured humiliation: I’ll spare you making fun of your embarrassing pictures if you’ll do the same for me. “An age of transparency,” says author David Weinberger, “must be an age of forgiveness.”
There are two forces at work here: identity and reputation. Our identities are the first-person expressions of ourselves. Our reputations are others’ third-person views of us. Thanks to our increasing publicness, the two are coming closer and sometimes into conflict. As I was discussing these topics on my blog, Weinberger left a sage comment wondering about what he called the private-public axis:
Marilyn Monroe was a public figure but most of us are private citizens. That used to be pretty easy to compute and, because of the nature of the broadcast medium, it used to tend toward one extreme or another: He’s Chevy Chase and you’re not. But there’s another private-public axis: who we really are and how we look to others. We have tended to believe, at least in the West, that our true self is the inner self. The outer, public self may or may not reflect our inner, private self, and we have an entire moral/normative vocabulary to talk about the relation of the two: sincerity, authenticity, integrity, honesty….
Those are the two identities we are trying to manage—not our work selves and our home selves, not our party selves and our serious selves, but our inner, real selves and our outer, show selves. When our inner and outer selves get into conflict and confusion, we look inauthentic and hypocritical. In all our spoken fears about privacy and publicness, I think this is the great unspoken fear: that we’re not who people think we are, and we’ll be found out.
These are new skills for everyone, celebrity and commoner alike. Marilyn Monroe never had to deal with blogs and Twitter, let alone 24-hour TV news. She had press agents to create and manage her identity and big, frightening security people to keep the scary strangers away. Today, stars and pols have to deal with being constantly exposed. When they are caught in a contradiction of words or deeds—not exactly a challenge—they suffer the gotcha. Then again, stars like Ashton Kutcher, Lady Gaga, and Howard Stern are grabbing the opportunity on Twitter to interact directly with their publics without scripts or PR people in-between. Reputation.com, which makes a business out of helping people whose online reputation is being harmed by others, suggests that the solution is not to hide but to publish more about yourself so that will rise in Google’s search about you. The way to improve your reputation is to share more of your identity.
The best solution is to be yourself. If that makes you uneasy, talk with your shrink. Better yet, blog about it.
Friends, I need help choosing a subtitle for Public Parts, my book. You all were helpful with What Would Google Do? (which I initially wanted to call WWGD?, but the publisher fought me and you convinced me the publisher was right). Many of you have already been helpful with great suggestions via Twitter (some inspired some of these candidates).
The book is about the value of publicness. It’s about technology, change, privacy, fear, and protection as well. But I try hard not to pit private against public. Instead, I argue that when we make choices about what to make public or private and how we build the tools and laws that enable or regulate t hat, we need to include in the equation in the benefits of publicness. We also need to protect our new tools of publicness. I interview Mark Zuckerberg, danah boyd, Ev Willliams, Dennis Crowley, Philip Kaplan, Josh Harris, Eric Schmidt, Elizabeth Eisenstein, and more. I explore the history of privacy (and its definitions) and the development of our notions of the public.I also explore the progression of the tools of publicness. It’s a book about choices and optimism. I also talk about lessons from my public life. And saunas. (My editor, @bloehnen, will write much better jacket copy than that, but it gives you an idea.)
Here’s the shortlist of subtitles (not listed in any order so as not to prejudice you with the preferences of me and my editor and publisher). The main title, Public Parts, I already like (and, yes, it’s a bit of an homage to Howard Stern). Please weigh in with a discussion in the comments. If you have a new suggestion, what the hell, by all means add that. And if you have a great idea for imagery, that’s next.
[Hat tip to @chrisgordon77]
What Happens When Companies, Governments, and People Let It All Hang Out
(Variations: Should “people” be “all of us” or “individuals” or “you”?)
[Hat tip to @txhoudini for inspiration]
If We’re So Worried About Privacy, Why Do We Share a Billion Times a Day?
(Variation: take off the first clause)
Privacy and Fear, Openness and Opportunity
The Private Self, The Public Sphere, and Principles for a New Society
Exposing Ourselves for Fun, Profit, and a Brighter Future
[Hat tip to @zekeweeks]
: Oh, and no plug would be complete without telling that Public Parts will be out in the fall from Simon & Schuster.
In the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland is the latest curmudgeon to recycle Nick Carr’s distraction trope, microwave it, and serve it with gravy. The argument is that Twitter—though possibly a wonderful thing for Egyptian revolutionaries (we can argue that trope another day)—is distracting us Westerners from our important work of deep reading and deep thinking and something simply must be done. We have a crisis of concentration brought on by a crisis of distraction, he tells us. Some people I respect react and call this matter urgent.
Bollocks, as my Guardian friends would say.
I want you to think back with me now—I’m hypnotizing you, which should alleviate the stress of distraction, at least momentarily—to the moment in 1994 or soon thereafter when you discovered the World Wide Web and a new activity: browsing. Didn’t we all, every one of us, waste hours—days, even—aimlessly, purposelessly clicking links from one site to the next, not knowing where we would go and then not knowing where our hours went? Oh my God, we would never get anything done again, we fretted. We are all too distracted. We were hypnotized.
I know from market research I did that back then that it was not long before browsing diminished and died as our primary behavior online. We became directed in our searches. We came to the web looking for something, got it, and moved on. That’s partly because the tools improved: Yahoo gave us a directory; brands took on the role of serving expected content; Google gave us search. But this change in behavior came mainly because we got over the newness of browsing and had other, more important things to do and we learned how to prioritize our time again.
It is ever thus. Think back to the early days of TV and cable: My God, with so much to watch, will we ever get anything done? The exact same argument can be made—indeed, one wishes it were made—about books: With so many of them unread, how can we possibly ever do anything else? But, of course, we do.
Twitter addiction shall pass. Have faith—faith in your fellow man and woman. I was busy doing other things yesterday, important things, and so I pretty much did not tweet. I survived without it. So, I’m depressed to say, did all of you without me. I just wrote in my book that Twitter indeed created a distraction to writing the book, as I was tempted by the siren call of the conversation that never ends. But it also helped with my writing that I always had ready researchers and editors, friends willing to help when I got stuck or needed inspiration.
Twitter is a tool to manage and we learn how to do that, once the new-car smell wears off. That’s exactly what has happened with blogging. And here is the moment the curmudgeons triumphally declare the triumphalists wrong and blogging—which, remember, was also going to destroy us—dead or dying. What killed blogging? Twitter. Ah, the circle of life, the great mandala.
But I can guarantee that the distraction trope will be pulled out of the refrigerator and reheated again and again as the curmudgeons raise alarms about the destructive power of the next shiny thing. I’m loving reading a long-awaited new book by the esteemed Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein. In Divine Art, Infernal Machine, she takes us back to exact same arguments over the printing press among the “triumphalists” and the “catastrophists.” That is perhaps better title for our curmudgeons. She quotes Erasmus arguing that
the benefits of printing were almost eclipsed by complaints about increased output: swarms of new books were glutting the market and once venerated authors were being neglected. “To what corner of the world do they not fly, these swarms of new books?… the very multitude of them is hurting scholarship, because it creates a glut, and even in good things satiety is most harmful.” The minds of men “flighty and curious of anything new” are lured “away from the study of old authors.”
And isn’t really their fear, the old authors, that they are being replaced? Control in culture is shifting.
What are our catastrophists really saying when they argue that Twitter is ruining us and Western (at least) civilization? They are branding us all sheeple. Ah, but you might say: Jarvis, aren’t you and your triumphalists making similarly overbroad statements when you say that these tools unlock new wonders in us? Perhaps. But there is a fundamental difference in our claims.
We triumphalists—I don’t think I am one but, what the hell, I’ll don the uniform—argue that these tools unlock some potential in us, help us do what we want to do and better. The catastrophists are saying that we can be easily led astray to do stupid things and become stupid. One is an argument of enablement. One is an argument of enslavement. Which reveals more respect for humanity? That is the real dividing line. I start with faith in my fellow man and woman. The catastrophists start with little or none.
Ah, but some will say, these tools are neutral. They can be used by bad actors as well. That’s certainly true. but bad actors are usually already bad. The tools don’t make them bad.
Take the Great Distractor of the age: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. The real debate over him in The Social Network and among privacy regulators and between catastrophists and triumphalists is about his motives. I write in Public Parts:
If, as the movie paints him, he acts out of his own cynical goals—getting attention, getting laid, getting rich—then manipulating us to reveal ourselves smells of exploitation. But if instead he has a higher aim—to help us share and connect and to make the world more open—then it’s easier to respect him, as Jake [my son] and I do. . . .
There is the inherent optimism that fuels the likes of him: that with the right tools and power in the right hands, the world will keep getting better. “On balance, making the world more open is good,” Zuckerberg says. “Our mission is to make the world more open and connected.” The optimist has to believe in his fellow man, in empowering him more than protecting against him. . . .
He believes he is creating the tools that help people to do what they naturally want to do but couldn’t do before. In his view, he’s not changing human nature. He’s enabling it.
I talked with Ev Williams at Twitter and he says similar things. He’s not trying to distract us to death. (That would be Evil Ev.) He’s trying to help us connect with each other and information, instantly, relevantly. (That is Good Ev.) It’s up to us how we use the tool well—indeed, we the community of users are the ones who helped invent the power of @ and # and $ and RT to refine the gift Ev et al gave us. I heard a similar mission from Dennis Crowley at Foursquare: helping us make serendipitous connections we otherwise wouldn’t.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the one who started this whole mess in the beginning (damn you, Sir!) is trying to push all the toolmakers to the next level, to better understand the science of what they are doing and to unlock the data layer of our world. Wonderful possibilities await—if you believe that the person next to you isn’t a distractable dolt but instead someone with unmet potential. There’s the real argument, my friends. And you are my friends, for remember that I’m the one who respects you.