From Punch Cards to Cat Videos

“Do Not Fold, Bend, Mutilate or Spindle” The old phrase about computer punch cards in the sixties came to my mind Thursday as I attended OMMA Video as part of Internet Week in New York City. As experts talked about buying online video advertisements, based on increasingly sophisticated demographic information and programmatic buying, I had to wonder if the concern about being reduced to a number had far surpassed the greatest fears of those fifty years ago who protested the depersonalization that computers with their punch cards had brought.

Now, I understand the argument that improved targeting doesn’t depersonalize advertising, instead it makes it more specific, more personalized, but my mind drifts to the work of Martin Buber’s “I and Thou”. Increasingly, our interactions have become transactional. They are losing the personal touch, the “I and thou”, the chance for transformation.

Perhaps that is because everything is becoming more and more about the numbers. We focus on ROIs, KPIs and how all of this ultimately relates to our “net worth”. At one point, I tweeted, “The talk about data, measurement and automation makes me think of Wittgenstein: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

In contrast to all of this, the keynote speakers touched on something else, creativity. The first speaker, Mike Monello, CCO of Campfire, referenced Spreadable Media, Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture, by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. It sounds like I book I need to get.

Monello spoke about the reason people share content, to elevate their status, to define their community, and to strengthen bonds. It seems like this returns us closer to Buber. He spoke about putting the audience in the middle of the story, breaking down the fourth wall between the advertiser and the consumer and noted that people look for experiences, not content.

All of this comes to mind as I think about my campaign for State Representative. People are tired of politics, of the strategists that carefully run the numbers and craft messages to appeal to the largest demographic. I’ve been getting into discussions about this on Facebook recently.

For example, Whitney Hoffman, whom I met through Podcamp years ago, is running for State Representative. Recently, she wrote,

there seems to be a big gap between what politicians think folks need to know and what's effective, and how voters feel about it. For example, direct mail is a staple of politics, and data typically shows direct mail has a 1% conversion rate in retail, but very few people I talk to pay much attention to the glossy information that comes in the mail, and often toss it right away.

I had a great discussion with Whitney about this. It does seem like things like yard signs, bumper stickers, campaign websites, and direct mail, have little impact, other than showing that you’re a credible candidate. It is the same old politics by the numbers. But what we really need is politics that people will want to share, to define our communities and strengthen our bonds.

When people talk about content that gets shared online, they typically talk about cat videos. Cat videos make us feel good. Jane McGonigal talks about looking at pictures of cute animals in terms of building emotional resilience. It seems like there is an ever increasing need for emotional resilience, especially if you are at all politically active. So, the question that I asked of Whitney, and that I ask here is, how do we build emotional resilience into political discourse? Instead of sending out glossy direct mail, how can candidates reach out with messages that makes us emotionally stronger and builds our communities? What are the cat videos of your campaign?

And when she wrote about rescuing a dog, she gained enlightenment

It is the last Saturday evening of March and the rain is coming down. Kim is downstairs, watching television, unwinding after more social interaction today than an introvert feels comfortable with. Fiona is on the living room couch, cuddling the cat and watching something on her smartphone. I am writing, trying to make sense of the past few weeks.

I’m not sure if I’d describe part of March as being either lion like or lamb like. If anything, March has been like a senile lion, at times dangerous, at times, somewhat peaceful, but always trying. It has been another month where I haven’t gotten to write as much as I normally would like.

Friday, I watched parts of TEDxPhilly livestreaming on my computer. There were lots of bright people saying inspiring things, but does it matter? My thoughts drifted to Benjamin Bratton’s TEDx talk, New Perspectives - What's Wrong with TED Talks? Are TED (and TEDx) talks really just placebo politics? Are they a distraction from the real hard work of changing the world?

At home, Friday evening, I read various news stories about the closing of North Adams Regional Hospital. This was the hospital closest to the town I grew up in. I’ve slowly been learning the details of what led up to this, but I still have a very incomplete picture and uncertainty about what it means for the people of Northern Berkshire County going forward.

This morning, I headed off to the West Haven Funeral Home for a memorial of Bridget Albert. She was a local reporter and an animal rescuer. As I walked into the funeral home, the old feelings about how contrived funeral homes seem came back to me; the wide halls that you can carry caskets in, the large rooms with enough folding chairs for six dozen people, the front of the room with the casket and fresh flowers, instead of the large screen television that seems to grace most large family rooms. The flowers will soon wilt and be discarded. Those who mourn will slowly pick the pieces and find a new normal.

I’ve been to more than my share of funeral homes over the past decade and I looked around this one. Sure, there were the requisite flowers, but there were pictures of rescued animals as well. I glanced around at the crowd. Instead of the distant relatives standing awkwardly in groups around the room, this crowd was made up of people deeply involved in the local community. There were members of various boards and commissions. There were people from various animal rescue organizations. There were local reporters. Yeah, some of them may have watched TED talks, but often they were too busy making sure that the local community they lived in worked as well as possible.

I feel like I straddle these worlds. I sit on boards and commissions, support animal rescue activities, and write about local events when I get time, but I also have my digital life. I took part in a Thunderclap this morning to encourage people to sign up for health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Over a hundred people participated and the message went out to over a hundred thousand people. Did it make a difference? We’ll see.

I read through Facebook posts, and final got around to watching Upside: Anything is Possible; an advertisement by Ford appealing to those who try to make the world better, in contrast to the self-absorbed character in the Cadillac ad. Yes, Pashon Murray, like Bridget Albert, is the sort of role model we should be looking for.

Tomorrow, I’ll head up to TEDxSomerville where Miranda will be speaking. Will the people there be promoting role models like Pashon and Bridget? Will they be offering placebo politics? How can we think more deeply about the issues?

A while ago, a friend posted on Facebook wall a link to 20 Crucial Terms Every 21st Century Futurist Should Know. One of the terms that was discussed was ‘Repressive Desublimation’ based on the work of Herbert Marcuse.

pop culture encourages people to desublimate or express their desires, whether those are for sex, drugs or violent video games. At the same time, they're discouraged from questioning corporate and government authorities

Is this another way of talking about the placebo politics that Bratton talked about? I think so.

It is tempting to wander off on thoughts about how this relates to Godel’s second incompleteness theorem or Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, systems change, and the possibility of the created understanding the mind of the creator. But these thoughts, as well, may end up distracting us from the daily tasks around us of making the world better.

So, I’ll wrap this up, finish clearing the table, head off to bed, and hope my mind will be clear for tomorrow.

A monk told Joshu, “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”
Joshu asked, “Have you eaten your rice porridge?
The monk replied, “I have eaten.”
Joshu said, “Then you had better wash your bowl.”
At that moment the monk was enlightened.

I Got My News from Bridget

As part of its eighth anniversary celebration, Twitter came out with a tool to find your first tweet. Mine was, “playing with twitter” back on October 15, 2006. Twitter wasn’t as well-known back then, but it was a great source of news. I’m guessing it was about a year later that my wife made me a shirt which said, “I get my news on Twitter”. It would raise eye-brows when I wore it to conferences on the future of journalism.

At these conferences, people would talk about how Craigslist was stealing all the classified advertising revenue and large corporations were buying up local papers, sucking whatever they could out of the profit, laying off local reporters, and trying to cover every story from headquarters in Chicago or Yardley, PA.

People talked about how the Internet might be used for news in the future but always talked about the importance of the local reporter. Local reporters had the relationships necessary to get the news. They had the background to provide the context and they had the readers that would follow them to whatever platform.

Bridget Albert was a great example of one of these local reporters. She worked for a while for the New Haven Register, one of those legacy news organizations bought up by folks from Yardley, and now working on reinventing itself. She later worked for The Orange Times. She covered me when I ran for State Representative. She covered my daughter’s radio show. I was a source. I was a reader. I was a friend.

It only seems fitting that Friday night, I learned of her passing from a post her partner posted on her Facebook page. “Bridget has passed. She died suddenly in her sleep. Memorial information will be forthcoming.”

As I read through the outpourings of grief, I find may friends and acquaintances from the community, people I’ve worked with in politics and animal rescue. There are numerous offers condolences and help. It is a fitting tribute to a wonderful local reporter. Rest in Peace, Bridget. I got my news from you.

EPIC Facebook - First Look, Project X and FiveThirtyEight

It is the best of times. It is the worst of times. In the year 2014, people have access to a breadth and depth of information unimaginable in an earlier age.

Thus starts a video made ten years ago challenging journalists to think about the future of journalism. EPIC 2014 gets many things right but misses certain key disruptions. In particular, they don’t mention Facebook, which started about the same time as the video was made and is currently celebrating its ten years by generating videos for Facebook users of their time on Facebook.

Towards the end of EPIC 2014, there is a section that sums up the whole video, and perhaps could have applied to Facebook and their videos.

EPIC 2014 produces a custom content package for each reader using his choices — his consumption habits, his interests, his demographics, his social network to shape the product. A new generation of freelance editors has sprung up — people who sell their ability to connect, filter, and prioritize the contents of EPIC. We all subscribe to many editors. EPIC allows us to mix and match their choices however we like. At it’s best, edited for the most savvy readers, EPIC is a summary of the world, deeper, broader, and more nuanced than anything ever available before. But at it’s worst, and for too many, EPIC is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow, and sensational. But EPIC is what we wanted. It is what we chose. And it’s commercial success pre-empted any discussions of media and democracy or journalistic ethics.

Read that again, and replace EPIC 2014 with Facebook.

Yet it is on Facebook that I learned that Ezra Klein is leaving the Washington Post. He has taken a bunch of his old friends from the Post and other sites to create Project X backed by Vox media. Nate Silver is also building up his team for his relaunched FiveThirtyEight site.

Yet what has really caught my attention is First Look Media.

Founded by Pierre Omidyar, the organization will pursue original, independent journalism that is deeply reported and researched, thoroughly fact checked, and beautifully told.

I heard about First Look from friends I met on the Omidyar Network years ago; some of the best and brightest thinkers about the future of journalism in the digital era that I’ve met. Then, I heard that Andy Carvin is joining First Look as well. This provides an interesting contrast to EPIC 2014/Facebook. Will Project X, FiveThirtyEight and First Look be “deeper, broader, and more nuanced than anything ever available before”?

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The Public Creative Empathetic Sphere

This morning, my Chromebook was acting weird, sluggish. It wouldn’t save what I was writing. In the end, I lost a draft of a blog post which I had put a lot of work in. It’s just one more thing in what is been a frustrating few days. Yesterday, one of the dishes from my mother’s house, from my childhood, broke. Things have been very stressful at work. Blah.

Anyway, I had started my blog post reflecting on Groundhog’s Day. It may be that Punxsutawney will see six more weeks of winter, or perhaps those in the media spotlight will continue to experience cold slippery conditions, but any woodchuck here in Woodbridge would have difficulty seeing much beyond the end of his burrow, let alone his shadow.

The top news story of the day that Google News select for me was about Gov. Christie’s letter to his supporters. The whole thing reads like he is helping write the libretto for Christie and the GWB, an opera on the scale of Einstein on the Beach,Nixon in China, or perhaps Brokeback Mountain.

The next story was about the Super Bowl. I wonder how many people will be talking about Gov. Christie as they drive across the George Washington Bridge on their way to the big game. I expect traffic will be pretty bad.

Buried much deeper in the news was reports that the death toll has now risen to 16 in the volcano in Indonesia.

Yesterday, Dan Kennedy posted a status on Facebook, talking about the State Department report on the XL Pipeline. It has now received fifty six comments, most of them very insightful well thought out about climate change, transportation, cost benefit analysis, stakeholder analysis and so on.

It provided an interesting data point with which to think about Howard Rheingold’s video, Why the history of the public sphere matters in the Internet age. This is a video that was posted back in 2009 and recent reappeared in my social media feed. It has lots of interesting ideas to explore, and I’d love to hear thoughts about it five years later.

Was the discussion around Dan’s post a good example of the public sphere online? Was it an anomaly? What can we learn from it? I was planning to write more on this after I took a break to go to the dump. On the way, I listened to David Sedaris on NPR reading his New Yorker article, Now We Are Five.

It was a moving recounting of issues in his family and it made me stop and think. Is it the public sphere that we need to be thinking about, or is there something bigger, something more important? What about an empathetic sphere? What about a creative sphere? How do these spheres relate to one another? Do the overlap? Does one encompass another? They they part of some giant three dimensional Venn Diagram?

What does this public creative empathetic sphere look like and how does it behave? It’s still foggy outside, and I’m not really sure. So, I’ll get ready and head off to church for Candlemas.

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