Posts about Technology

Journalism & technology: to duel or dance?

I have a yes-but relationship with Emily Bell. I say yes to most every brilliant thing she says but sometimes am foolish enough to add a but.

Go read Emily’s important speech on journalism’s relationship to technology and its masters in Silicon Valley. I will say yes to her argument that algorithms that determine distribution spring from editorial decisions. I will say yes to her concerns about the implications of those formulae for journalism and an informed society. I couldn’t agree more with her endorsement of Zeynep Tufecki’s brilliant exploration of the issues surrounding open v. filtered communication for news: It’s Twitter’s openness, its immunity from gatekeepers either algorithmic or editorial, that allowed news from Ferguson to emerge online before it emerged on the news. It’s Twitter’s openness that also makes it a Petri dish for trolls, harassers, and terrorist beheading videos. I say yes to Emily’s reminder that the platforms we’re discussing are still very new; the Jell-O is still warm and formative.

But I would remind readers that it was technology that freed journalism from its bondage to media moguls and corporations. Who’s to say that our corporations were better than their corporations? We have Murdoch. They have Uber.

I would remind us all that the craft of journalism and the business of news have had 20 years — an entire generation — since the introduction of the commercial web to understand that they should be about more than manufacturing content to fill products and messages to feed to a public that didn’t necessarily ask for them. We have had 20 years to learn to serve people as individuals with relevance and value as Google does; and serve communities with tools to gather, share, and interact as Facebook does; and serve advertisers with greater efficiency as both of them do. And we didn’t. Can we yet learn to create our own technology? We’re not so young as Silicon Valley. Based on our miserable performance thus far, I have my doubts.

I strongly agree with Emily that there must be a discussion about the ethics and principles of the algorithms that distribute, filter, and thus shape the information that cascades over us, now that everyone can publish and share. But my first reflex is not always to build our own; see the prior two paragraphs. My first reflex is to help Silicon Valley define evil and good. As journalists we have a role in sparking and informing discussion of issues that matter to society; that’s our skill, no? I agree with Emily that this is an issue that matters. So let us start there.

Emily and I were both at a — I choke at the label — unconference at Arizona State’s journalism school last week called #Newsgeist. It was convened by the Knight Foundation (which funds both of our work) and Google. I jumped at the chance to join a discussion that I and others had proposed, asking: What could Google do for news? There were many suggestions around the distribution — the embedding — of news in containers that news creators can control and benefit from; around advertising and data; around security.

I now wish that Emily had raised and I’d have seconded a suggestion to convene a discussion with Google, Facebook, Twitter, et al to grapple with the issues she as well as Zeynep and others raise about the ethical issues presented by both filters and openness.

I would remind us all that just because we in the news business used to control the entire chain of news — from deciding what was news to deciding how to cover it to writing the stories to packaging those stories to manufacturing their container to distributing the container to setting prices for both readers and the advertisers who subsidized us — there’s nothing to say that we can or should continue to maintain that vertical hegemony. The web demands and rewards specialization. We now work in ecosystems that demand and reward collaboration.

I chose to write this on Ello, which was built as a protest against Facebook’s power. Bravo for that. But we know that no one will discover it there. I have but one follower, the one who invited me at my request to join the platform. I will tweet this. I will share it on Facebook. I will add it to Google Plus. I will link to it on LinkedIn. (I repost it here.) I will hope for the kindness of friends and strangers to pass it on. They, our public — not an editable algorithm — are the real gatekeepers now. What I have to say will resonate or not depending on whether anyone thinks this falling tree is worth listening to. An algorithm may or may not help that along. That is our circumstance.

I won’t discourage any journalist from building technology — I encourage many of my entrepreneurial students to gather teams with technologists to do just that. But I am not ready to pin my hopes for the future of journalism on the unicorn much sought after and PowerPointed at #Newsgeist: the elusive hack-hacker, the programmer-journalist.

I am certainly not willing to pin my hopes on government regulation. I’ll soon have an essay published in Germany in which I take my journalistic colleagues there to task for running to government to attack Google et al because they could not reimagine their craft and business in our new circumstance, bringing forth an avalanche of unintended consequences: bad regulation, bad law, bad precedent. But I also take Google to task for not doing more to rethink the task and responsibility of informing society.

I agree with Emily that we must report, report, and report with the skepticism many — especially the technology press — have let slip away. I’m worried about the journalists who have criticized Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith for reporting on Uber’s idea to perform opposition research on PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy. I’m worried about the journalists who criticized the Guardian for reporting on Whisper’s — not to mention the NSA’s — dubious doings. The critics fear that Buzzfeed and the Guardian will ruin it for the rest of them — that is, cut off their access to technology’s powerful. The new inside-the-Beltway is the inside-the-101-and-280. What’s insidious in both is journalists’ desire to be inside.

But skepticism need not beget cynicism. I can well be accused of being too optimistic about technology and its makers. I do that to counteract what I see as the Luddite reflex of too many in my field — I’ll link to that German essay when it is published — to attack technologists as the enemy because they ruined the business for us. I think there is a chance to work together. I think we need to.

As a journalist and now an educator my response to the issues Emily raises has been to convene discussions with Silicon Valley about its responsibilities — not to us journalists but to the public we both seek to serve.

Philanthropy and the news

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On a trip to Silicon Valley with my new dean, Sarah Bartlett, I heard technology people express concern about the state of news. That is good of them, for they have had a role in the disruption of news — and I’m glad they have. Now they need to consider taking the fruits of their technology and the innovation, efficiency, productivity, profitability, and wealth it has created and turn some of it and their attention toward the good of society and perhaps, with it, journalism.

But not as philanthropists. That was my plea to them. We in journalism need them to bring their innovation and investment to news, to teach us how to see and exploit new opportunities to improve news and sustain it. More on the role of technologists another day.

Today, I want to talk about the role of philanthropy. As I was thinking about my trip to the Bay Area — and in the midst of a magnum opus Twitter conversation about the future of news sparked and stoked by Marc Andreessen — I tweeted this:

My good friend Jay Rosen got angry with me, accusing me of being hostile to nonprofit news.

Not true, I replied. I am expressing a preference. Given a source of capital and given the state of innovation in news and media — this is 1472 in Gutenberg years — I prefer to see that precious resource go first to sustainability. Don’t buy a hungry man a fish — or a news-starved community another article. Don’t just teach them to fish. Build the damned fishing boats.

A few months ago, I went to an event in Washington for nonprofit news organizations put on by the Knight Foundation and Pew. Again and again, we heard that the problem with too many of these good organizations is that they put no resource into development — whether fundraising or sponsorship or events. I often hear journalists say that every dollar they get should go straight into reporting; anything else feels practically immoral to them. But so is letting their good work die and disappear: no more fish, no fishing boats, just fishwrap.

I also hear journalists say that they don’t want to concern themselves with the business of journalism. Clearly, I disagree. That is precisely why I started the Tow-Knight Center in Entrepreneurial Journalism.

In New Jersey, I have been doing a lot of work alongside the Dodge Foundation, Montclair State, and others to try to build the foundation for a sustainable news ecosystem that can grow and improve. We are working with sites to make them profitable by improving the services they sell to local merchants, by experimenting with new revenue streams like events, by building a network to share content and audience and — soon, I hope — advertising. We just received $2 million from Knight and one of their wise conditions was that we not spend the money on operations — on buying more stories — but instead on building infrastructure. That is why we are hiring a sustainability director to manage just that. (Know anyone who’d be great at the job?)

So I do see a role for philanthropy in news, an important role. But I’ll caution journalists — as will every foundation I know — that there is not enough money in the endowments of all the foundations interested in supporting news to pay for the work that needs to be done. Similarly, charity and patronage from individuals and companies can do much, whether that is supporting the work of public radio or now crowdfunding a worthy project from a journalist. But neither can that do it all. Charity runs out. That resource is precious and should go where it is most needed.

So now I’ll have the temerity to propose not rules but suggested guidelines for the use and role of philanthropy in news:

1. Philanthropy should support that which the market will not support. And it should wait patiently to determine what that is. In other words, just because something is not being done now does not mean that philanthropy should swoop in and take it over if the market may find opportunity in it.

2. Philanthropy should not compete with the market. We heard this some years ago when a new non-for-profit news entity sprouted in San Francisco and an executive at the crippled Chronicle complained that it could kill the paper. Thank goodness for the paper, the charity was worse run than it and the paper outlasted it.

3. Philanthropy should help build the economic sustainability and independence of news. Here’s the most self-serving thing I will say from my perch in a university: This includes training the next generation of news innovators. It also includes investing in infrastructure and innovation, new methods and models. Innovation in news requires patient capital that will fund not losses but instead experiments and daring failures. Philanthropy can do that.

4. Philanthropy — and journalism , too — should measure its success by the outcomes it accomplishes. Journalists have something to learn from foundations here: It’s not enough to produce content and build audience. Journalism has to help communities better themselves. That starts with listening to the public and its needs.

5. Charity is finite. Yes, you can start a news organization on charity. Yes, we could support a great deal of the investigative reporting we have philanthropically. But I am more ambitious than that; the need is greater. The souce for investigative reporting is (1) whistleblowers and (2) beat reporting. We need to support beats at scale. That’s why I’m doing the work I’m doing in New Jersey and why I’m starting a new training program for beat businesses in a box. Charity doesn’t scale. Sustainability does.

Philanthropy is precious, important, useful. It is a gift to use well and wisely. It isn’t an excuse not do do our jobs. And our job is to rebuild journalism into a service that will last.

Cross-posted to Medium and HuffingtonPost.

Oversight by conscience

Here’s a post I wrote for the Guardian this week….

Official means of oversight of American and British spying have failed. So we are left with the protection of last resort: the conscience of the individual who will resist abuse of power or expose it once it is done.

At the Guardian Activate conference in New York last Wednesday, I moderated a heated panel discussion about the NSA affair with former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, a member of the 9/11 Commission; Prof. Yochai Benkler, codirector of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard; and journalist Rebecca MacKinnon, a New America fellow.

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“We do not have appropriate mechanisms to hold abuse accountable,” MacKinnon said, and to more or lesser degrees, the panelists agreed that oversight is at least too weak. Said Benkler: “The existing systems of oversight and accountability failed repeatedly and predictably in ways that were comprehensible to people inside the system but against which they found themselves unable to resist because of the concerns about terrorism and national security.” Kerrey: “I don’t think we’re even close to having unaccountable surveillance [but] I don’t think it’s good oversight.” I’ll count that as consensus. We then checked off the means of oversight.

* Executive-branch oversight is by all appearances nonexistent.

* Congressional oversight didn’t exist before Watergate, Kerrey said, and when it was established it was made intentionally weak. It should be conducted, he said, “under a constant, militant sense of skepticism.” The clearest evidence that the authority that exists is not being used, he said, is that in the Snowden affair, not a single subpoena has been issued from either the House or Senate select committees.

* The secret FISA courts have proven to be rubber stamps using invisible ink — their justices sometimes concerned or reluctant, Benkler said. But they have been largely ineffectual in any case.

* Journalistic oversight is the next resort. But as MacKinnon stressed, the work of the journalist investigating spying is threatened by the spies themselves as they collect metadata on any call and message and reconstitute raw internet traffic so that no reporters and no sources can be certain they are not being watched unless they find woods to walk in.

So we are left with the whistleblower. “What the whistleblower does is bring an individual conscience to break through all of these systems,” Benkler argued. “It can’t be relied upon as a systematic, everyday thing. It has very narrow and even random insights into the system. But it can be relied upon occasionally to break through these layers of helplessness within the system.”

But this oversight, too, is jeopardized by the severe penalties suffered by Chelsea Manning and the label of traitor pasted on Edward Snowden.

“There’s no question Snowden violated U.S. law,” Kerrey declared in our panel, “and there has to be consequences to that.”

Benkler disagreed, arguing the case for amnesty. “There is a law but the law is always affected by politics and judgment,” he said. “Clearly when someone opens up to the public a matter that is of such enormous public concern that it leads to such broad acceptance of the need for change and for reform, that person ought not come under the thumb of criminal prosecution.”

There we tried to find the line that enables acts of conscience and civil disobedience to keep watch on the powerful. Benkler imagined “a core principle that when a whistleblower discloses facts that actually lead to significant public debate and change in policy — that is to say a public rejection whether through judicial action or legislative action; a reversal — that is the core or heart of what needs to be protected in whistleblowing.”

Kerrey again disagreed, drawing a parallel between Edward Snowden and Klaus Fuchs, who handed secrets on the atomic bomb to the Soviets, Kerrey contended, also out of conscience. Benkler in turn drew a line between revealing information to the public, serving democracy, and revealing secrets to an enemy. Kerrey responded that Fuchs, like Snowden, caused public debate. Benkler thought the rule could be written; Kerrey did not. You can see that we failed to find the line.

But I want to take this discussion beyond whistleblowing — beyond the past tense — the the present tense of objecting to the work one is required to do before it is done. “At what point does conscience require a person to refuse to act in a certain way that they consider completely acceptable in the system they’re in but they find completely unacceptable to their conscience?” Benkler asked.

Kerrey countered: “I don’t think every time you get a team of people working on the danger [to national security], one person can say, ‘Oh, I don’t like what we’re doing,’ and as an act of conscience blow everything we’re doing and say we’re not going to be prosecuted.”

But we must find the room for conscience to act as the check on power without facing 35 years in prison or life in exile or irreversible jeopardy to our security. We must be able to expect the honest technologist working in the bowels of Google or telecom provider Level 3 or the NSA or GCHQ to define a line and refuse to cross it. Can we expect that?

In recent testimony before Congress, Gen. Keith Alexander said the NSA is the nation’s largest employer of mathematicians — or to be exact, 1,103 mathematicians, 966 PhDs, and 4,374 computer scientists.

Where is the code of ethics that governs their work in breaking into our communication or breaking the encryption we use to protect it? Where is the line they will not cross? Doctors have their codes. Even we journalists have ours (and though some apparently never imagined a clause relating to phone hacking, others found it for them).

We have heard two Google engineers tell the NSA to fuck off for — according to Snowden’s documents — infiltrating internal traffic between servers at Google and Yahoo.

Does this challenge to the NSA give us confidence that others at Google will tell the NSA “no”? But who said “yes” to Project MUSCULAR, in what company? Was that company commandeered by the the NSA and employees with security clearance or was the work done willingly? Why didn’t the technologists who spliced that line say “fuck you”, too? Will they be more willing to do that now that this work is known? And what will happen to those who do stop at the line?

On July 17, 1945, 155 scientists working on the Manhattan Project signed a petition to President Harry Truman urging him not to use the bomb on Japan. “Discoveries of which the people of the United States are not aware may affect the welfare of this nation in the near future,” they said.

They were too late.

Here is video of the panel discussion:

The Future of the Internet from The Guardian on FORA.tv

OMFG! Change! Media freaks out!

I got a call today from ABC.com’s Joanna Stern about Google’s Goggles. She’s very nice. But I had a fit when she started by asking me about all that could go wrong with the new technology. That is your angle? I screeched?

OMFG. Why must that be the starting point for media? Technology bad. Technology scary. Ooh. Ooh. We must save world from new technology. We must think all bad things to happen with technology. Our people sheep. Sheep scared. Stupid sheep. We big protectors.

GMAFB. (Figure it out.)

I said: Imagine all the wonderful things this amazing technology could do, alerting people to news around them, enabling them to report news around them, finding out information, staying connected… I can’t wait to try on a pair.

I suggested she look at the case of the heinous Girls Near Me app this week. It made terrible and disgusting use of technology that could be used to good ends — to, for example, find Starbucks near me or friends near me or repair people near me or cops near me. The world quickly freaked out and for good reason. Apple and Facebook quickly cut the assholes off. Case solved. System worked.

I said that when phones came with cameras, we heard freakouts about people taking them into gym locker rooms. Gyms promptly banned them. Case solved. System worked.

New technologies arrive. We take a little time — as quickly as days as long as months or even years — to negotiate our new norms. And then life proceeds — better, thanks to said new technology.

Why the hell must media and government begin with the default of Chicken Little? I’m sick of it.

Here is Stern’s piece. I had much more to say. You can now imagine what I said.

Efficiency over growth (and jobs)

The hook to every song sung at Davos is “jobs, jobs, jobs.” The chorus of machers on stages here operate under an article of faith that growth can come back, that they can stimulate it, that that will create jobs, and then that all will be eventually well.

What if that’s not the case? I am coming to believe, more and more, that technology is leading to efficiency over growth. I’ve written about that here.This notion is obviously true in some sectors of society: see news and media, retail, travel sales, and other arenas. But how many more sectors will this rule strike: universities? government? banking? delivery? even manufacturing?

As I write this, I’m watching a WEF panel moderated by Reuters’ editor, Steve Adler, with Larry Summers and government and business leaders. They’re discussing growth strategies and so far we’re hearing the same notions we hear elsewhere in Davos, the complete trick bag: spend money on infrastructure, be nice to business, regulate less, reform taxes, reform immigration. OK and OK.

“The problems of job creation are more complicated than that. They are more complicated than wealth creation,” says one of the panelists (operating under Chatham House Rule, so I won’t attribute*). “This is a group that understands wealth creation better than job creation.” He says “there are inherent limits” to the number of people employed in various sectors.

I haven’t heard any strategy yet that reverses the trends underway in the transition from the industrial economy to the digital economy. What will offset the shrinking of vast industries? New industries? Well, we have new, digital industries, but they are even more efficient than restructured old industries. Compare Google’s staff size to GM’s, even now. Facebook serves almost a billion people with the staff the size of a large newspaper. Amazon employes far fewer people than the bookstores it put out of business did. So those new industries will bring growth, profit, and wealth, but not many jobs.

“There are fewer jobs for regular people because those innovations happened than there would have been if those innovations hadn’t happened,” the panelist says. It would be “a delusion” to think that encouraging this innovation will increase jobs.

So what if the key business strategy of the near-term future becomes efficiency over growth? Productivity will improve. Companies will be more profitable. Wealth will be created. But employment will suffer.

I’m hearing no strategies focused on this larger transition in a gathering about the transition. I think that’s because the institutions’ trick bags are empty. They ran an industrial society. That’s over. And the entrepreneurs who will create new companies but also new efficiency aren’t yet in power to solve the problem they create.

I ask the panel whether all this talk of jobs, jobs, jobs is so much empty rhetoric. I ask whether there are other tricks in the bag.

The panelist I’ve been quoting says that there are two sets of economic issues: In the short term, for the next five years, we are dealing with demand and macroeconomic policy. “Employment today has nothing to do with the Kindle,” he says. “It has everything to do with the financial system, deleveraging, and macroeconomic policy.”

It’s in the long term that the issues I’m addressing here come to bear. “For the longer term, we don’t have nearly as good answers as we would like to,” he says. “We are going to have to embrace the idea that we are going to have growing numbers of people involved in the provision of fundamental services to other people, services like health care and education. We’re going to need to make that work for society.”

That is to say, health and education don’t directly create wealth; they are services funded in great measure by taxes of one sort or another. Employing people in those sectors amounts to a redistribution of wealth with the fringe benefit of providing helpful services. Is a service-sector economy the secret to growth? Who pays for that when fewer people have jobs in the productive economy? I still don’t see an answer. This is not an economic policy so much as it is a social policy.

Another panelist says that we will have fewer people and we will need to retrain people throughout their lives for new jobs. I agree. But that doesn’t create jobs (except in schools); it just helps fill the ones we have.

One more panelist, from Europe, suggests that nations here will end up making stuff for the growing economies and consuming middle classes of China, India, Brazil, etc. In a globalized world with maximum price competition, I’m not so sure that’s a strategy for growth, only survival. I’d hate to place my strategic bets on continuing — or returning to — the industrial economy. And at some point, that strategy bumps up against the question of sustainability: is there enough stuff to go around?

Indeed, in a globalized society, we need to look at total jobs, the sum of work and productivity and demand, not country-by-country. The question is: Will jobs on the whole increase in this digital economy?

If instead efficiency increases — and with it, again, productivity and profit — then great wealth can be created: see Google, and the technology economy. But that means the disparity of income and capital will only widen yet more. And it’s just wide enough today to cause unrest around the world. That’s much of what #Occupy_WEF et al is about. That’s what is causing such tsuris and uncertainty on the stages of the world (Economic Forum). That’s what is causing the institutions represented here to fear, resist, and regulate technology in the hopes of forestalling the change it is bringing. There is the root of the disruption we’re witnessing now even in Davos.

* I saw Summers later and he gave me permission to quote him by name. He is the quotable panelist.

Davos08: Wireless

“If you defend the status quo when the quo has lost its status, you’re in serious difficulty,” says Sony head Howard Stringer in a panel on the future of mobile. “It’s a most exhilerating time” because it’s all up in the air. A year ago, he says, cable companies were negotiating from a position of strength. But look at their stock prices now; they reflect the walls falling around them. This has made them nicer to deal with. But he’s not saying he’s sitting in daisies himself. “It’s going to be hard to hold onto the price of content.” Then again, he turns to a Chinese mobile phone mogul and says that if Sony could sell just one song to each of his 500 million users, his music company would be instantly (and apparently finally) profitable.

Stringer, the funniest man at Davos (far funnier than Al Gore), says out of nowhere that he likes Google. Why? asks moderator David Kirkpatrick of Fortune. Because Google’s going to buy wireless spectrum and they’ll be in his business even more. The only reason he came onto the panel to be close to Google’s Eric Schmidt.

NBC’s Jeff Zucker says mobile is not that important to the network. Nonetheless, they’re going to put out 2,200 hours of programming on mobile from the Olympics.

Stringer says young people will drive usage in ways we can’t predict. The hot fact passing around conferences this week is that novels written — written — on mobile phones are selling like crazy in Japan. Stringer says mobile will be the platform for everything.

Google’s Schmidt asks what’s new “and I think it’s the arrival of short-form video as a category.” He says it’s not a replacement for a prior form but an entirely new form.

He also says he is so bullish about mobile as a business because he believes the players are motivated to make sense of the current lack of standards and create a unified platform.

There’s much discussion about openness from regulation to devices to business models. From the audience, Jonathan Zittrain asks about whether an open system will bring us viruses on our phones and a new frontier of unreliability. Schidt responds: “Open platforms are like Linux, not like Windows.” Oohs from the geeky audience.

Michael Arrington asks FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin about the open letter Google wrote requesting openness in the upcoming spectrum auction, wondering whether this made the decision harder — as pressure — or easier, as covering fire with the other commissioners. “The open letter is nothing like the pressure that others can put on in more private ways. I actually appreciated the openness of it,” Martin responds.

Somebody asks whether any of the companies represented planned to include scent — olfactory functionality — in phones since it’s the only sense not addressed by the internet. Gawd, and you thought it was irritating to hear other people’s mobile phones. I dread having their smells waft my way. Another person from the audience whether anyone is working on holographic images to replace the tiny screen on mobiles. That doesn’t seem to be in the works, either.

From the tree

Check out my son Jake’s review of Windows Vista. Can’t blame a dad for bragging, can you?

Big trouble

I’ve been saying for sometime that Google is getting to be trouble: big, closed, arrogant. Now the NY Times is saying it:

But instead of embracing Google as one of their own, many in Silicon Valley are skittish about its size and power. They fret that the very strengths that made Google a search-engine phenomenon are distancing it from the entrepreneurial culture that produced it – and even transforming it into a threat….