Reliving some of the high points of the 2008 presidential campaign

13 Nov

November 10, 2007: One of the first scandals to break out during the campaign was about planted questions in Hillary’s townhall meetings. “They asked me if I would ask the senator a question. I said, ‘Sure, you know,'” Gallo-Chasanoff told CNN. “He showed me in his binder, he had a piece of paper that had typed out questions on it. And the top one was planned specifically for a college student. It said ‘college student.'” ‘A video on MSNBC shows Gallo-Chasanoff reading the question word for word, and then winking when she was done.’ ABC News

November 10, 2007: “I love my wife and my five sons and their five wives. Wait a second. Let me clarify that. They each have one.” Mitt Romney (Economist gave this quip the title – Best Freudian slip;

December 12, 2007: In kindergarten, Senator Obama wrote an essay titled ‘I Want to Become President.’ “Iis Darmawan, 63, Senator Obama’s kindergarten teacher, remembers him as an exceptionally tall and curly haired child who quickly picked up the local language and had sharp math skills. He wrote an essay titled, ‘I Want To Become President,’ the teacher said.”
From: Clinton campaign’s press-release.

December 13, 2007: “It’ll be, ‘When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?'” Shaheen on Obama
Bill Shaheen (husband of NH Senator-elect Jeanne Shaheen; national co-chairman of Clinton’s campaign at that point)

February 24, 2008: Bill Clinton speaking about Hillary’s inability to win caucus states – “the caucuses aren’t good for her. They disproportionately favor upper-income voters who, who, don’t really need a president but feel like they need a change.” Audacity of Hopelessness by Frank Rich

March 8, 2008: “She is a monster, too – that is off the record – she is stooping to anything,” Samantha Power; Obama’s foreign policy adviser.

March 10, 2008: Hillary Clinton chief spokesman Howard Wolfson declared Monday that Clinton does not consider Obama qualified to be vice president.

March 11, 2008: “I will not be discriminated against because I’m white. Geraldine Ferraro

“If we can’t trust Mitt Romney on Ronald Reagan, how can we trust him to lead America?”
From John McCain’s attack ad on Romney

“The Clintons will be there when they need you,” said a Carter friend. (Maureen Dowd, NY Times)

May 3, 2008: When asked, at the Republican presidential primary debate at Simi Valley, whether any of the candidates did not believe in evolution , three candidates – Tancredo, Brownback, and Huckabee – raised their hands.

May 9, 2008: “Senator Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again.” (Hillary Clinton, Interview with USA Today)

Google News - Clinton Accuses Obama
Google News Archives timeline graph of citations of 'Clinton Accuses Obama' between August 2007 and August 2008

August 21, 2008: “I think – I’ll have my staff get to you. It’s condominiums where – I’ll have them get to you.” (John McCain unsure about the number of houses he owns.)

A special tribute to Palin:

September 24, 2008: “As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where– where do they go? It’s Alaska. It’s just right over the border. (Interview with Katie Couric, CBS News)

In defense of Palin, she never said that she could see Russia from her house. (Time)

September 25, 2008: Couric: And when it comes to establishing your worldview, I was curious, what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this to stay informed and to understand the world?
Palin: I’ve read most of them, again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media.
Couric: What, specifically?
Palin: Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me all these years.
Couric: Can you name a few?
Palin: I have a vast variety of sources where we get our news, too.
CBS News

October 1, 2008: “Well, let’s see. There’s — of course — in the great history of America rulings there have been rulings.” Sarah Palin (When asked by Couric to name a Supreme Court decision, other than Roe vs. Wade, that she disagreed with; CBS News)

Graphical analyses of news coverage of Sarah Palin

12 Nov
News Coverage of Sarah Palin and Joseph Biden
News Coverage of Sarah Palin and Joseph Biden
Ratio of News stories by day covering Sarah Palin and Joseph Biden
Ratio of News stories by day covering Sarah Palin and Joseph Biden
Coverage of Sarah Palin's interview with Gibson, Couric, and Tina Fey's impersonation on SNL
Coverage of Sarah Palin's interview with Gibson, Couric, and Tina Fey's impersonation on SNL
Ratio of stories citing John McCain that also cited Sarah Palin vis-a-vis Ratio of stories citing Barack Obama that also mentioned Joe Biden
Ratio of stories citing John McCain that also cited Sarah Palin vis-a-vis Ratio of stories citing Barack Obama that also mentioned Joe Biden
Palin's coverage: MSNBC and Fox
Palin's coverage: MSNBC and Fox

Difference in Coverage of Clinton and Obama

12 Mar

The following tables tally up the articles that mention “Barack Obama” or “Hillary Clinton” in their body or title. The results show that both New York Times and Washington Post cover Obama at much lower rates than average rate of coverage in “US Newspaper and Wires.”

The differences are particularly significant given that most articles follow the “horse race” format, and hence mention both Obama and Clinton.

  WP Clinton* WP Obama* NYT Clinton* NYT Obama* LN Obama* LN Clinton*
Apr-07 85 81 98 113 3479 2324
May-07 110 87 110 93 3309 2373
Jun-07 122 101 112 78 3425 2874
Jul-07 142 104 104 82 3820 3276
Aug-07 119 109 103 76 4070 3201
Sep-07 152 115 160 94 4088 3649
Oct-07 171 108 159 95 4813 4742
Nov-07 174 111 164 108 4391 4445
Dec-07 195 169 194 164 6134 4774
Jan-08 342 354 357 335 15276 10540
Feb-08 315 330 409 436 18857 11658
  LN Ratio WP Ratio NYT Ratio
Apr-07 1.50 0.95 1.15
May-07 1.39 0.79 0.85
Jun-07 1.19 0.83 0.70
Jul-07 1.17 0.73 0.79
Aug-07 1.27 0.92 0.74
Sep-07 1.12 0.76 0.59
Oct-07 1.01 0.63 0.60
Nov-07 0.99 0.64 0.66
Dec-07 1.28 0.87 0.85
Jan-08 1.45 1.04 0.94
Feb-08 1.62 1.05 1.07
Avg. 1.27 0.81 0.78

*Article count from LexisNexis Power Search with search term “Barack Obama” and “Hillary Clinton” respectively. The source field was constrained to “New York Times”, “Washington Post”, and “US Newspaper and Wires” respectively.

In conversation with Glenn Frankel: Principles, ethics, and practice of journalism

10 Oct

On February 5th, 2007 Lisa Nowak, an astronaut with NASA, was arrested on the charge of attempted kidnapping. Nowak had apparently driven 900 miles, from Houston to Orlando, to confront and allegedly kidnap her ex-boyfriend’s new love interest. Three days later, when I met Mr. Frankel for the interview, the story was still usurping substantial amount of time on most news channels. The news channels were not only reporting ‘breaking’ details about the saga, they were also hosting panel discussions with ‘experts’ – ranging from psychologists to ex-astronauts – to try and help the ‘American public understand’ why Nowak might have snapped.

It is partially to understand the same – why stories of allegedly diaper wearing astronauts become ‘news events’ – that I met with Mr. Frankel.
Mr. Frankel is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, and former editor of the Washington Post Sunday Magazine. He worked for over 27 years at the Post in varying capacities including working as foreign correspondent covering South Africa, Israel, and United Kingdom. In 2006, Mr. Frankel joined the Stanford faculty as a ‘Visiting Hearst Professional in Residence’ in the Department of Communication, where he now teaches journalism students.

Mr. Frankel is highly perceptive, articulate, and intelligent. He is also somebody who cares deeply, and has thought carefully about the ethics of journalism, the role of journalism in society, and the factors influencing what gets reported, and how it gets reported. In the three hour long conversations that I have now had with Mr. Frankel, he has maintained a dogged, and unwavering stance about the key elements and importance of what he thinks are the principles of good journalism. He believes that you have to be fair to be accurate, and that you have to report about everything – the events, the characters, and the context.

We started our conversation with talking about ‘Episodic’ coverage in news. Shanto Iyengar, a professor at Stanford University, in his book, Is Anyone Responsible?, uses the term, ‘Episodic’ to articulates one of the ways in which news is ‘framed’ – Episodic framing refers to a style of reporting in which events are reported independent of larger context. ‘Episodic’ framing is in contrast to thematic framing which generally refers to a style of reporting in which some attempt is made to provide background context or ‘theme’. “Episodic framing depicts concrete events that illustrate issues, while thematic framing presents collective or general evidence.”

Iyengar, and since then many others, have found that television news routinely uses ‘episodic’ framing. Taken in conjunction with the finding that subjects shown episodic reports are less likely (than people exposed to ‘thematic’ coverage) to consider larger societal elements responsible for a particular problem (be it crime or poverty), we can begin to see the larger impact of presentation decision on people’s perception.

The larger unstated point here is about the medium. Each medium not only has its own constituency, its differing monetization methods and the constraints imposed on it because of that, its audience, its limits on what it can present and not present, but also its temptations, and ease with which certain things can be done, and not done. So the importance of ‘strong’ visuals in television, and the “need to be the first”, has meant the ascendance of adrenaline-pumping, helicopters with search lights, kind of ‘live breaking event’ ‘episodic’ reporting on television. “You sort of defined the most essential part of how television functions – it is constantly looking for the visual, sort of the simple narrative; it is looking for the visceral impact story. It has no particular interest in themes. It is only interested in grabbing you at what you see,” adds Mr. Frankel.

The other threat of the dominance of ‘episodic’ coverage, and dominance of visuals, according to Mr. Frankel, is that it is so much easier to manipulate television. “The feeling is that if you came up with the visuals, if you came up with the sound byte, and you came up with the stage, you are going to be on the Evening News.”

Mr. Frankel almost always makes it a point to present the ‘escape hatch’ from the negative attributes that emerge from traits of a medium or something else, and the escape hatch is almost always found in following the principles of good journalism. “Medium do effect the message and it is naïve to think that there is no spillover but yes the important thing is good journalistic approach and it doesn’t matter what the platform is,” Mr. Frankel argues. “All platforms have their pitfalls. Some stories lend themselves better on one platform than the other but nonetheless it’s not a question of platform – it is a question of sensibility, of commitment to content.”

Talking about the Internet, Mr. Frankel adds, “Web is an enormous potential resource- it has all kind of contextual material, all kinds of ways of filling in, and newspapers are slowly finding out what links can do for you and are beginning to use them to offer some background, interpretation and things. And that’s enormously promising. Technology gives you enormous opportunity. But, Technology is just that – it’s a means to an end. If it’s not used by people to understand the value of providing people a larger context, it won’t be used for that. It won’t happen. I guess what I am saying is that the same basic sensibility that dictated how to provide information to readers in 1972 is still there – you still have to have that if you really want to get readers the information they really want and help public get more informed. It is the same process you have to go to and the same understanding that you have to have. If you don’t have that – you will have the sort of episodic ‘quick hit’ phenomenon and the stories about the jealous astronaut in the diaper going to kill her boyfriend’s lover. It still takes the sensibility to understand what you need to provide.”

“And that’s, for what it is worth, we try to teach here. We give people training across different platforms but what we are really offering people is a solid grounding in what journalism ought to be.”

The principles of good journalism, the ‘sensibility’, according to him, transcend medium and time. “You know journalism in some ways is still the same. I was a foreign correspondent in the 80s and then I went back in 2002 for one more round. I was at the London Bureau and I did that for three or four years. The platforms are changing rapidly but you know the fundamental thing that I did everyday in 2005 was very close to what I did in 1983. Now that’s only 22 years, and that is only one slovenly journalist, but what I am saying is that the fundamental thing that I was doing then I think is the same fundamental thing a journalist was doing in 1945 or 1925; he is trying to give important information, trying to find out what they don’t want you to know.”

The biggest disservice that the ‘episodic’ format has done is that it doesn’t allow people to see relationships, and see the linkages that exist across time and across events. Journalists – jour comes from the French word for ‘day’ – across board sometimes seem preoccupied with assiduously cataloging reports about the daily events. Mr. Frankel, after acknowledging the truism, brings the discussion back to that ‘escape hatch’ and how good journalists should approach reporting. “What good journalists are supposed to do is see the relations within events. Yes to report out the event but – to use the analogy of building a wall – there is one brick and there’s another brick – as you are analyzing and sort of putting the bricks in place you gradually see the wall and you see a social phenomenon and you need to describe that well and you need to write about it.”

The beauty of the good journalistic method is that it is ground up and it takes specific events and slowly constructs a theme, a theory, a phenomenon, a trend, according to Mr. Frankel. Narrating his experience of covering South Africa in 1985, he illustrates how a functioning ‘ground up’ method looks in reality. “Covering South Africa in 1985 and going to say one township where kids are battling with police and police are shooting, and going to another, and seeing things replicating themselves, and gradually making connections and seeing that actually there was an uprising with a capital U, and to understand where that uprising may go. As I went from place to place, I could see that there was an important new phenomenon taking place and that I needed to understand it, I needed to analyze it for my readers, and I had to be very knowledgeable about it – I saw it at many, many places, talked to many, many people about it including academics, and got raw information and pulled out whatever analysis I could from people whose job it was to understand these things. That’s what good journalism is about and there are a lot of bad journalists and not just on TV.”

He surprisingly ended the quote pointing out, “So the episodic is the easy fall back option,” –perhaps seeing it from the perspective of the journalist – and his expectation of what a journalist should be doing. And indeed, episodic reporting is virtually painless for the journalist except when it involves standing in Gail force winds to present a report on hurricanes.

Research takes time, and it requires you to talk to ‘many, many’ people. And that work you put in to understand an issue and the work you then put in to pass on that understanding to people is the essence of good journalism.

There are multiple types of frames in news, and we have covered one –episodic/thematic -but another important one remains. It matters if the journalist focuses on the individual rather than the sociological, and the environmental. It matters whether we spend more time analyzing, and understanding the people, rather than the system.

Mr. Frankel, like in our previous conversation, bristles at the suggestion that covering individuals somehow makes reporting too subjective. Chaste, a contributor here on Spincycle, has correctly argued that morality doesn’t exist in tired half-explanations of flawed men in important positions, but in grounded analysis of how they have caused harm. Hence when we report ‘personal profiles’, we introduce subjectivity into morality, and into the broader themes. We simultaneously make it harder for people to find ‘blame’ and assign ‘blame’ correctly. We make the system less accountable.

Mr. Frankel, only half agrees with what I say, if that. Instead he argues that good journalists can do both – that is they can cover the individual and the context. And I get the sense that he believes that good journalists should do both, that one is not quiet complete without the other. “If we dwell on people, if we focus our journalism on people – we run the risk of missing certain important things, and about being critical about certain things. Good journalists do both – good journalists bring you fully formed human beings that you can visualize in front of you and understand and they are extremely critical of the phenomenon they have put in place. You take the example of ‘The Looming Tower’, by Lawrence Wright, about the making of Al-Qaeda. He gives you a pretty good sense of who some of these guys were, their family lives – but you know you don’t fall in love with them. But you do get a much better understanding of who they were. Events are driven by people. Wright even explains the social movements of political Islam mostly through telling the stories of the individuals and how they interact with the politics. It affected them and they affected it – I think it is a great narrative technique – it is not the only one.” The narrative technique that Mr. Frankel rightly observes in Wright’s book is known as the ‘Coleman boat’ in Sociology. The technique refers to the macro affecting micro affecting macro progression.

“When you are humanizing people – when you are writing about the Bush administration, when you are describing about their family life – what’s the purpose of that and how effective is that in concealing more than what you are revealing. What are wonderful narrative writers doing occasional small things as Post reporter [name not clear] did about Bill Frist’s family or John Negroponte and his five adopted Honduran kids – that’s gives you an insight into his mind and into his thinking, into his values and what he does. And even though it tends to be a piece that’s fairly sympathetic to John Negroponte it is still a very valuable piece. Doing that piece doesn’t take away from we wrote about Abu Ghraib and whatever John Negroponte and all of his predecessors were up to. I think we have to learn about everything.”

It is a naïve hope – to learn about everything, more so to teach ‘everything’ to the apathetic multitudes. The audience not only has little interest, but also limited time, and limited cognitive capacity. By focusing on the individual and some leader’s dog, one runs into the danger to confusing people – especially the majority who pay scant attention to politics. They need to know how each of the different stories needs to be weighed to produce a reasonably good understanding of what is going on. And if a journalist feels obligated to run that personal portrait, cues should be left for the reader so that they can peg the story –accurately- in a broader understanding of the topic. Mr. Frankel grapples with it a little tangentially. Conversation is always an exercise in parallel narratives. “That’s a good point. You know where it came was the run up to the Iraq War because we had lots of stories and we had some critical stories but it was such a huge flow of stories that we weren’t giving the readers any roadmaps to what was really important and what they really needed to know and keep an eye on or worry about. You know the defense of many editors after the Iraq War – we had that story. We ran it on that X date just didn’t get any traction. Probably we didn’t get any traction because we didn’t put it out in the front page, make it a big deal, and keep at it in the same way deciding that this was the most important thing that we needed to keep writing about. It got lost in the flow of stuff. And you are right – if we give the reader all this material and don’t give them signposts and sort of emphasize what we think is really important then how is a reader supposed to sort it out.”

From exhorting about the principles of good journalism, Mr. Frankel quickly moves on to being a realist defending infotainment when we switch topics, and start discussing the increasing prominence of ‘soft news’ items, especially on the web. While he was critical of the preponderance of entertainment on web portals, he argued that some entertainment was essential.

“All journalism is a compromise and especially American journalism. Mainstream American Journalism is an effort to entertain as well as inform because it perceives that you cannot do one without the other. If you are a publication like New York Review of Books with a circulation of 150,000, that is one thing, whereas if you have a publication which has 1.7 million customers you have to cater to a very broad church of interests and ambition and demographics. That’s the great joy of writing for a place like Washington Post – you are writing for a really large audience.”

“The Washington Post more or less invented the modern Style section back in the 60s with Watergate and all that. They sort of added this section with gossip and celebrities. Washington Post front page was seen as the deadliest front page in American journalism. And then we had ‘Style’ – we had the beauty and the beast. That’s the balancing act. And I think both are important.”

“When I was working as a Deputy National News Editor at the Washington Post, it was during the time of OJ Simpson and many of my colleagues didn’t think that the OJ Simpson story needed to be out there on the front page. It was sleazy. I disagreed. I felt that the themes would emerge – this was the story that America was focused on – and that we didn’t have to be National Inquirer to want to put that story on the front page. And actually serious themes did emerge about women, about race, celebrity, DNA evidence- many, many American themes. It was actually a struggle to that story on the front page. A lot of my colleagues were never comfortable with that story because they thought it was frivolous and pandering to the audience.”

I am unsure where the ‘compromise’ ends being a compromise and instead becomes a Faustian bargain. I am sure Mr. Frankel is concerned about it too for he frets over what he sees are these ‘get to know a celebrity’ blurbs that now find space on the Washington Post digital homepage. He is also concerned whether good serious journalism will be able to sustain itself in this era of rapidly multiplying options, and drastically different monetization. He says that “Another thing that we have at Washington Post- and it may be a theory that might be proven wrong shortly – If we do really good journalism as a brand for good journalism, if we provide good journalism, tie together things and give you a perspective on how the world is changing and if we are able to do that – we will prosper and survive. That’s a theory I have always believed in and I am really having some doubts about it. That in spite of what we hear about the crisis about dead tree journalism – that if someone does good enterprising journalism and reveals important surprising facts about how the world works that the journalist would survive and that somebody would pay for it, people want that information and will reward those who provide it. My whole career has been based on the belief in the relationship between good journalism and financial success.”

Glenn Frankel writes – [Corrigendum]

1) near the top you say I did three foreign assignments for the Post—actually it was four because I was London bureau chief on two separate occasions—1989-92, 2002-2005. Toward the bottom you quote me as saying: “The Washington Post more or less invented the modern Style section back in the 60s with Watergate and all that…” I suspect what I really said was “along with Watergate and all that…” Watergate had nothing to do with the Style section. I was arguing here that while Watergate is the Post’s most recognized claim to fame, the invention of Style was equally important as a ground-breaking journalistic innovation that gave the Post a unique identity. Also, Style was invented in the late 1960s, Watergate happened in 1972.

Vague apprehensions

18 Jul

“There is a possibility of a terrorist attack.” Or, “There is a heightened possibility of a terrorist attack.”

These statements are often interpreted as, “There is a high (or very high) probability of a terrorist attack.” These are not sensible interpretations. Of course, news media do plenty to encourage such interpretations. Footage of prior attacks, police sirens, SWAT teams, helicopters, all encourage the sense of dread, which likely encourages such interpretations. On the flip side, few news reports spend any length of time on elucidating the probability of winning the ‘Megamillion Jackpot.’

Like the news media, in everyday life, people also tend to speak in terms of possibilities than probabilities. And often enough possibilities are used to denote high probabilities. And often enough incorrectly so. Sometimes because individuals are mistakenly convinced that probabilities are actually higher (most people often do not remember numbers, replacing them with impressionistic accounts consistent with imagery or their own biases) and sometimes because people are interested in heightening the drama.

Speaking in terms of possibilities also allows one the advantage of never being technically wrong, while all the time encouraging incorrect interpretations. It allows people to casually exaggerate the threat of crime, or indeed any threat they feel like exaggerating. And it allows people to underestimate the frequency of things they would rather deny: for instance, dangers of driving faster than the speed limit, or when drunk, or both. The same benefits are afforded to strategic elite actors. It allows policy makers to sound logically coherent without being so. And to sell less rational courses of action.

By possibility we mean that something that has a chance of occurring. It doesn’t give us information as to how probable the scenario is. A little information or thinking on probabilities that can go a long way. So aim for precision. Vagueness can be a cover for insidious reasoning (including your own). Avoidable vagueness ought to be avoided.

Marginal value of ‘Breaking News’

12 Mar

Media organizations spend millions of dollars each year trying to arrange for the logistics of providing ‘breaking news’. They send overzealous reporters, and camera crew to far off counties (and countries -though not as often in US), pay for live satellite uplink, and pay for numerous other little logistical details to make ‘live news’. They do so primarily to compete and to out do each other but when queried may regale you with mythical benefits of providing the death of a soldier in Iraq a few minutes early to a chronically bored, apathetic US citizen. The fact is that there is little or no value whatsoever for a citizen of breaking news for a large range of events. Breaking news is provided primarily as a way to introduce drama into the news cast and done so in a style to exaggerate the importance of the miniscule and the irrelevant.

The more insidious element of breaking news is that repeated news stories about marginal events, which most breaking news events are – for example a small bomb blast in Iraq, a murder in some small town in Michigan, provide little or no information to a citizen consumer about the relative gravity of the event or its relative importance. In doing so they make a citizen consumer think either that all news (and issues) is peripheral or that these minor events are of critical importance. Either way, they do a disservice to the society at large.

This doesn’t quite end the laundry list of deleterious effects of breaking news. Focus on breaking news makes sure that most attention is given to an issue when the journalists on the ground typically know the least about the issue. To take this a step further – often times the ‘sources’ for reporting during the initial few minutes of an event are often times ‘official sources’. In doing so the breaking news format legitimizes the official version of the news which then gets corrected a week or a month later in the back pages of a newspaper.

While there is little hope that the contagion of ‘breaking news’ will ever stop (and it stands to believe that web, radio and television will continue to be afflicted by the malaise), it is possible for people to opt for longer better reported articles in good magazines or learn about an issue or an event through Wikipedia, as Chaste in his column for this site suggested earlier.

Interview with Bill Thompson -Part IV – Fragmented Information

10 Mar

This is the fourth and concluding part of the interview with BBC technology columnist, Mr. Bill Thompson.

part 1, part 2, part 3

This kind of completes two of the major questions that I had. I would now move on to digital literacy and fragmented informational landscape. Google has made facts accessible to people – too accessible, some might say. What Google has done is allowed the people to pick up little facts, disembodied and without the contextual information. It may lead to a consumer who has a very particularistic trajectory of information and opinions. Do you see that as a possibility or does the fundamental interlinked nature of the Internet somehow manages to make information accessible in a more complete way? In a related point do you see that while we are becoming information rich, we are also simultaneously becoming knowledge poor.

That is such a big question. In fact, I share your concerns. I think there is a real danger – that it’s not even just that there is sort of a surfeit of facts and a lack of knowledge, its that the range of facts which we have available to us becomes defined by what is accessible through Google. And as we know that even Google, or any other search engine, only indexes a small portion of the sum of human knowledge, of the sum of what is available. And we see that this effect also becomes self-reinforcing so that somebody is researching something and they search on Google, find some information, they then reproduce that information and link to its source and it becomes therefore even more dominant, it becomes more likely to be the thing people will find next time they search and as a result alternative points of view, more obscure references, the more complex stuff which is harder to simplify and express drops down the Google ranking and essentially then becomes invisible.

There is much to be said for hard research that takes time, that is careful, that uncovers this sort of deeper information and makes it available to other people. We see in the world of non-fiction publishing, particularly I think with history every year or two we see a radical revisionist biography of some major historical figure based on a close reading of the archives or access to information which was previously unavailable. So all the biographies of Einstein are having to be rewritten at the moment because his letters from the 1950s have just become available and they give us a very different view of the man and particularly of his politics. Now if our view of Einstein was one defined by what Google finds out about Einstein we would know remarkably little. So we need scholars, we need the people who are always going to delve a little more deeply and there is danger in the Google world – it becomes harder to do that and fewer people will even have access to the products of their [careful researcher’s] work because what they write will not itself make it high up the ranking, will not have a sufficient ‘page rank’.

So I actually do think Google and the model of information access which it presents us is one that should be challenged and it should only ever be one part of the system. It is a bit like Wikipedia. I teach a journalism class and I say to my students that Wikipedia may be a good place to start your research but it must never be the place to finish it. Similarly with Google, anybody who only uses the Google search engine knows too little about the world.

You bring up an important point. Search engine design, and other web usage patterns are increasingly channeling users to a small set of sites with a particular set of knowledge and view points. But hasn’t that always been the case? An epidemiological study of how knowledge has traditionally spread in the world would probably show that at any one time only a small amount of knowledge is available to most people while most other knowledge withers into oblivion. So has Google really fundamentally changed the dynamics?

You are trying to do that to me again and I won’t let you.

This is not a fundamental shift in what it means to be human. None of this is a fundamental shift in what it means to be a human. Things may be faster, we may more access or whatever but we have always had these problems and we have always found solutions to them. And I am not sort of a millenialist about this; I don’t think this is the end of civilization. I think we face short term issues and we historically have found a way around them and we will again. That Google’s current dominance is a blip. In a sense – it will go, I don’t know how. Ok, here’s a good way in which Google’s dominance could go – so at the moment we have worries in the world about H5N1 avian flu mutating into a form which infects humans. Lets just suppose that this happens and that somebody somewhere writes an obscure academic paper which describes how basically to cure it and how to prevent infection in your household. Well all the people who rely on Google won’t find this paper will die and all the people who go to their library and look up the paper version will live and therefore the Google world will be over. How about that? There is something, perhaps not quite on that scale, something will happen which will force us to question our dependence on Google and that would be a good thing. We shouldn’t ever depend on anyone like that.

You know Mr. Thompson, even libraries have sort of shifted. They are increasingly interested in providing Internet access.

Yeah, it is and it is search rather than structure. And you know the fact is that search tools make it easy to be lazy and we are a lazy species and therefore we will lazy and we will carry on being lazy until we are forced, until something bad happens because of our laziness at which point we will mend our ways.

That’s why I had brought up the question of fragmented knowledge earlier. One of my close friends is blind and he generally has to read through the book to reach the information that he wants. He tends to have a much fuller idea of context and the kind of corroboration that he presents is much different from the casual kind of scattered anecdotal argumentation that others present. Of course part of that is a function of he being a conscientious arguer but certainly part of it stems from he not having as many short cuts to knowledge and actually having a fuller contextual understanding of the topic at hand. The fact is that most users can now parachute in and out of information and Google has helped make it easier.

I don’t think we see what’s really going on. There is a lot more information and there is a lot more to cope with and this superficial skimming is a very effective strategy. Skim reading is something we know how to do, we teach our children how to do, we value in ourselves and indeed in them, and skim surfing is just as valuable. You know I monitor thirty-forty blogs, news sites and stuff like that and when I am doing it, I don’t look too closely at things. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have the ability or the facility to do something which is a lot deeper and a lot more involved.

I have a fifteen year daughter –she is doing her GCSE exams this year – and I have watched over the last 18 months or so how she has developed her ability to focus, her research skills, her reading around, she is surrounded by a pile of books, she has stopped using the computer as the way to find things quickly because she now needs to know stuff in depth and she is doing all of that. So I suspect that from the outside observing children we seem them in certain way because we only see part of what they do and we have to look in more detail. It is too easy to have the wrong idea and actually I am a lot more hopeful about this, having seen this with my daughter and I think I will start to see it with my son, who is fourteen at the moment. And again I see his application to the things he cares about and the way he searches. He is a big fan of The Oblivion, the X-Box game, his engagement and the depth of his understanding is immense. So we shouldn’t let the fact that we look at some domain of activity where they are purely superficial let us lose sight of the fact of other areas where it is not superficial at all, where they have developed exactly those skills which would want them to have.


Bill Thompson’s blog

Interview with Bill Thompson – Part III – Copyright Law

8 Mar

This is part III of a four part interview with Mr. Bill Thompson, noted technology columnist with the BBC.

part 1, part 2

“Copyright is not a Lockean “natural right” but is a limited right granted to authors in order to further the public interest. This principle is explicitly expressed in the U.S. Constitution, which grants the power to create a system of copyright to Congress in order to further the public interest in “promoting progress in science and the useful arts.” (Miller and Feigenbaum, Yale) UK’s copyright law dates back to Statute of Anne from 1709, which states – “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned.” Both seem to see copyright as something tailored towards public good. The modern understanding of it has sort of disintegrated into a sort of “right to make as much money as one can”. Am I correct in saying that? Please elaborate your views on the subject.

Copyright started out as an attempt to restrict the ability of publishers of books to control absolutely what they did under contract law and to establish limitations on the period in which a work of fiction or indeed any written work could be exploited by one group of people, and to ensure that after certain amount of time it was available as part of the public domain to serve the public good. So copyright has always been about taking away any absolute right so that the creator of a work of art, fiction, literature or non-fiction has so that everyone can benefit; take away the absolute right and give away in return monopoly over certain forms of exploitation during which period they are expected to make enough money or gain enough benefit to encourage them to carry on creating.

So the idea is that it is a balance – give the creator enough so that they can create more and encourage them to do that because it is good but make sure that the products of their creative output fall into the public domain so they can be used by everyone for the wider good on the grounds that you can never know in advance who will make the best use of someone else’s creative output and therefore it should be available. So, the fact that the early years of the last century a cartoonist in the United States called Walt Disney drew a mouse based on other people’s ideas is great and Disney and his family have had a lot of time to exploit the value in the mouse but there are other people now who could do a better job with it and they should be allowed to get their hands on the mouse and do cool stuff with it. That’s the idea and that is the principle that is being broken by large corporations who see economic advantage to themselves in extending the term of copyright, in limiting the freedoms that other people have because they don’t care about the public good, they care about their own good. And legislatures, particularly in the United States but also elsewhere, have been bought off, corruptly or not, and have not been true to the original principles, which is that in the end it should all go into the public domain so that anybody who wants can make use of it and exploit it in creative ways that we cannot yet imagine. In a sense it’s an expression of humility – its saying that we cannot know for sure who will be able to do the best with its work and therefore it is the interest of everybody that it should be available to everybody. That was the breakthrough – the insight – of copyright law 300 years ago. We are coming up to the 300th anniversary of the Statute of Anne, the first codified copyright law and I think we should big party for it.

The point is that – the point is most eloquently made not by Larry Lessig, who is good, but by Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation and his point is just that copyright is broken and it needs to be rebalanced and we need new and different approach to copyright and in a sense it is the one area of law where we actually do need to start again. I am advocate always of trying to make old laws work with new technologies. I think that we should be very cautious about making new laws because looking back historically it does like that today’s politicians are more stupid and more corrupt than those of older days and therefore are less likely to make good laws – that just seems to be the case. Correct me if I am wrong. And therefore we should avoid giving them the ability to screw things up. But with copyright we are forced to. So we have to engage with the political system, we have to make sure that the people who have political power understand the issues and we have to force them to do the right thing. In other areas for example libel laws and all sorts of other aspects of what we do online, in fact the existing legal framework has proven remarkably robust. There have been problems over jurisdiction and problems over enforcement but the laws themselves have applied pretty well in the networked world and we haven’t needed that many new laws and that is a good thing. Copyright is the one area where we clearly do.

Copyright, if minimally construed, is the right to produce copies. This particular understanding is fabulously unsuited for the Internet era where technology companies like Google have a business model based on making daily copies of content and making it searchable. Book publishers, along with some other content producers, have cried afoul. It seems to me that they don’t understand the Internet model, which in a way has changed the whole dynamic of ‘copying’.

I don’t think it has changed the whole dynamic as much as it as exposed another reading of the word copy and made it the dominant reading and so undermined part of ball. Parliamentary draughtsmen, the people who wrote those laws, were perfectly right in using the word like they did; it is just that we have promoted one particular facet of copy. The fact that we use the word copy to refer to the version that is made in sort of viewing a webpage on a browser – the version that is held in the display memory and all those sorts of things – we could have avoided a lot of this fuss by redefining what the word copy means thirty years ago or fifty years ago or just not using the word copy. It wouldn’t have actually helped the larger issue because the real problem with copyright is not that too many incidental acts on our computer systems, on our network are in principle in breach of copyright, it’s the fact that the existence of the network makes it possible to breach copyright deliberately, almost maliciously.

As we talk I am waiting for the Episode 13 of Series 3 of Battlestar Galactica to download onto my PC via Bittorrent from the United States so I could watch it. Ok! Now that is a complete infringement of copyright.
[I reply jokingly – so I am going to the MPAA.] Feel free, I would welcome their letter. I would delete it once I have watched it and I would buy the DVD once it comes out. But Sky here hasn’t started showing it four months after it was on the Science Fiction channel. Well I am not going to wait four months to watch something when it is available. I mean that’s just foolish. That exposes holes in copyright law. It also exposes holes in the economic strategy of multinational corporations who run the broadcast industry in the UK and the US because they just don’t understand the market or what people are doing. There are times when you have to stretch the system to demonstrate the absurdity of the old model and that’s what I see myself as doing.

The US and EU copyright regimes differ in some marked ways. Similarly Australian copyright law is different in its statute for limitations that is much smaller than US. Post Internet, we do really need a common international framework for copyright.

But we do. We have that. We have the World Trade Organization, we have WIPO – the World Intellectual Property Organization, we have the Berne (convention signatories). There is an international framework for copyright. It’s as broken as anything else. We need a new Berne, we need to go back to Switzerland and renegotiate what copyright means on a global level but there is that framework but it’s been caught out by technology.

Databases are given legal protection in EU via its database directive while similar privileges haven’t been granted in US. What do you make of this effort to give copyright to databases?

That’s just a European absurdity which we will realize was a mistake and eventually change. You have a database copyright in European Union and in some other countries though not in United States and it is clearly a mistake. There is growing awareness that something needs to be done about it because it’s not necessary to offer such protection. The idea that you get automatic protection for taking other people’s data and structuring it in a certain way has limited economic flexibility and has damaged competitiveness.

There is always a problem you see that as new technologies emerge to suggest new rights to go with them and this was the case where [we drafted something into] a law before wiser counsels could prevail.

Gowers report recently received a fair bit of attention. The report, I believe, had this wonderful recommendation for handling patent applications. It talked about putting up patent applications online and having an open commenting period. You in fact wrote about the report in your recent column. Can you talk a little more about the report?

Gowers report was commissioned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, who is a senior government minister, basically second only to Tony Blair and indeed Gordon Brown hopes to be Prime Minister within the next few months. Because of the way British politics works he can probably manage that without ever getting elected because he would just become party leader and therefore automatically the Prime Minister because the Labor Party is the dominant party in the government.

Brown commissioned a man called Andrew Gowers, who had at that point just been fired from being the editor of the Financial Times, to carry out this report. Andrew is a nice man but many of us doubted his ability to resist the Copyright lobby, to resist the pressures, to write something which would make industry happy, but he surprised us all, partly thanks to the excellent team of people he had working for him at the Treasury in the UK. He came up with a report that wasn’t radical but was sensible and what we do best in British politics is sensible because people can behind sensible. He said some things which were well argued, didn’t give in to the vested interests, and didn’t give the music industry what they wanted.

Unfortunately the Gowers Report is just that – it is a report, it is a series of recommendations which then goes into the government machine and has then to be acted on. It doesn’t do anything itself. We have a political issue here which is that when Gordon Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer commissioned the report, he believed that by the time it was published he would be Prime Minister, he believed by then Tony Blair would have gone and he would then be in a position to take this report and say I commissioned this report when I was Chancellor and it is absolutely fantastic, now I am Prime Minister and I am going to make it happen. Unfortunately Tony Blair has refused to go and so Gordon Brown has received the report as a Chancellor and has no real power to deliver on it. And so the question is when Gordon does become Prime Minister – will it be his priorities – probably not, will the world have changed- probably, will he have been leaned on so effectively by the very wealthy music and movie industry so that he will actually dilute some of its recommendations –well tragically probably yes. So the timing is all wrong. The opportunity that Gowers presented was for Gordon Brown to say – this is great let’s just do it. Now we are going to have to wait – eight months – and [in that time] things would have changed and there will be a lot else for Gordon Brown to do. So for those of us who think that the recommendations are good are trying to keep the pressure on and keep track of what is happening, have the right conversations and make sure that when Gordon does become Prime Minister, because it looks fairly likely that he will, that he is reminded of his at the right time in the right way so that it can then turn into real change.

The other thing to remember is that a lot of changes that are proposed, a lot of recommendations are proposed, are actually international recommendations. So there are things that will have to happen at a European level or at a global level and so to some extent it is a call for British ministers, for British representatives, for British commissioners at Europe, for British delegates at WIPO to behave in a different way but it will take some time before we know that’s being successful. The report advocates engagement at a global level. It then needs to happen.

Interview with Bill Thompson – part II -Political Economy of Internet

6 Mar

This is part 2 of the interview with Bill Thompson, technology columnist with the BBC. part 1

When I look at Internet there is this wonderful sense of volunteerism. It is incredible to see the kind of things that have come out of recent technology like the open source movement, and Wikipedia. There is palpable sense of volunteerism that pervades the medium. Even Internet companies seem to have, regardless of what they actually do, adopted sort of socially nurturing missions. How did these norms of volunteerism get created? Has technology created merely enabled these norms, as in made it easier for people to volunteer or are we witnessing something entirely new here?

If you look at common space peer production, as Yochai Benkler calls it, – what motivates people -that is exactly the same question as what motivates altruism – it sits on it perfectly. Because what we have with contributions to open source projects like Linux or positive contributions to Wikipedia, is what would be seem to be on surface just pure altruistic behavior. So we can ask the same questions – what do people get in return? And do they have to get something in return?

Pekka Himanen in the Hacker Ethic, I think, nailed what people get in return – the social value you get from that, the sense of self-worth, the rewards that you are looking for – all of that makes perfect sense to me. I don’t think we need to ask any more questions about that. You get stuff back from contributing to the Linux kernel or putting something up on SourceForge. The stuff you get back is the same sort of stuff you get back from being a good active citizen. It is the same stuff as you get back from say recycling your trash.

The question as to whether something new is emerging, whether what’s happening online , because it allows for distributed participation – because the product of the online activity is say, certainly in the case of open source, a tool which can then itself be used elsewhere, or in the case of Wikipedia, a new approach to collating knowledge. Whether something completely new or radical is coming out of there still remains to be seen. I am quite skeptical about that. I am quite skeptical of brand new emergent properties of network behavior because we remain still the same physical and psychological human beings. I am not one of those people who believes that singularity is coming, that they are about to transcend the limitations of the corporeal body and that some magical breakthrough in humanity is going to happen thanks to the Internet and new biomedical procedures. I don’t think we are on the verge of that change.

I think that Internet as a collaborative environment might emphasize what it is to work together and change what it means to be a good citizen but it doesn’t fundamentally alter the debate.

But the kind of interactions that we are seeing today wouldn’t have happened if it were not for the Internet. For example, the fact that I am talking to you today is, I believe, sufficiently radical.

But has it changed anything fundamentally? Ok, it has allowed us to find each other but there was in the 13th century medieval Europe a very rich and complicated network of traveling scholars, who would travel from university or monastery to share each others ideas, they would exchange text. It was at a smaller scale, it was much slower, and it was at a lower level but was it fundamentally different to what we are doing in the blogosphere or with communications like this? Just because there is more of it doesn’t mean it is automatically different.

Let me move on here to a related but different topic. I imagine that the techniques which have been developed around this distributed model be applied to a variety of different places. For example, lessons from open source movement can be applied to how we do research. Can lessons of the Internet be applied elsewhere? Certainly alternative forms of decision making are emerging within companies. Is Internet creating entirely new decision models and economies?

That’s quite a big question. There’s a sort of boring answer to it which is just that more and more organizations and more and more areas of human activity are reaching that third stage in their adoption of information and communication technologies. First stage is where you just computerize your existing practices and the second stage is where you tinker with things and perhaps redefine certain structures but the third stage is where you think ok these technologies are here so lets design our organizational processes, structures and functions around the affordances of the technology, which is a very hard thing to do but something which more and more places are doing. So just as in the 1830s and 1840s, organizations built themselves around the capabilities of steam systems and technologies and in the 1920s they built themselves around the new availability of the telephone, so now, in the West certainly, it is reasonable to assume that the network is there, and the things it makes possible it will continue to make possible. So you start to build structures, workflow and practices, businesses and indeed whole sectors of the economy around what the net does. In that sense it is changing lots of things. As I said, I think that’s a boring insight. That’s what happens! We develop new technologies and we come to rely on them. It’s happened for the past five thousand years. So while it may be a new one but it’s the same pattern. Joseph Schumpeter got it right in the 1930s talking about waves of ‘Creative Destruction’ and everybody is now talking about that in the media but fundamentally there is nothing different going on there.

There is a more interesting aspect of that which is – are some of the outputs of the more technological areas – the open source movement and things like that -creating wholly new possibilities for human creative and economic expression? And, they might be. I don’t think we know yet. I think it’s too early to tell. We have seen the basis of the Western economy and hence of the global economy move online (become digital) over the past twenty years. As Marx would put it the economic base has shifted. We are seeing the superstructures move now to reflect that. The idea of economic determinism is not right at every point in history but certainly the world we live in now is a post-capitalist world. We still use the word Capitalism to describe it but in fact the economy works in slightly different way and we are going to need a new word for it. In that world – we have a new economic base – we will find new ways of being. And we will start to see impact in art and culture, in forms of religious expression. You know we haven’t yet seen a technologically based region and it is about time we saw something emerge where the core presets rely on the technology.

Are we really post-Capitalist as you put it? I would still argue that Capitalism still trumps. The usage patterns of websites etc. still largely reflect the ‘old economy’. More importantly, I would argue that the promise of Information Age has long been swallowed by the quicksand of Capital.

When I say post-Capitalist, I don’t mean it’s not capitalist. If you look at the move from the feudal economy to Capitalism, the accumulation of capital became important. It still remains very important. It is still what drives things. The rich get more, the powerful remain more powerful and indeed those who have good creative ideas get appropriated by the system. We are seeing it happen already with the online video world where now if you create a cool 30 second video, your goal is to monetize that asset and basically you put it on Youtube and try to advertise it – you become part of the system and that this continues to happen. Just in parenthesis, the idea is that we are post-Capitalist not in that we are replacing Capitalism but it’s a different form of Capitalism – its Uber Capitalism, its Networked Capitalism. We need a new word for what we can do now. It doesn’t mean that those with capital don’t dominate because they do and they will continue for some time, I imagine.

In that sense that the network had some sort of democratizing influence is misguided. It hasn’t. It has enabled much greater participation. It may well make it possible for more people to benefit from their creativity in a modest way but I don’t think it will do anything to challenge the fundamental split between the owners of capital, those who invest their money and that counts as their work, and the wage slaves, the proletariat, those who have to do stuff every day in order to carry on and earn enough money to live. I don’t think it will change that at all.

I think your comments are just spot on. It is great to hear comments that show an astute understanding of the political economy of the net especially at a time when one constantly hears of the wondrous impact of the Internet to revolutionize everything from Democracy to Economy.

Yeah. The network is a product of an advanced Capitalist economy largely driven by the economic and political interests of the United States although that balance is starting to shift. We see what is happening – particularly India and China are starting to have some influence, not very strong at the moment but growing, on the evolution of the network. But again India and China are trying to find their own ways of be industrial capitalist economies. They are not really trying to find their ways to be something completely different.

The digital economy, as you pointed out, still largely reflects the ‘real’ world underneath it. Things will change and are changing in some crucial fundamental ways but the virtual world is anchored to the real world. One facet of that real world is the acute gender imbalance in the IT industry. What are your thoughts on the issue?

There have been massive advances, particularly in Europe and United States, [which] are I think two [places] in which over the past 100 years we have accepted and indeed believe that differences [in treatment] between men and women, which existed in many other societies, were just wrong. The differences which are currently enforced on billions of women around the world by their religions should be overcome. This was a historical era. There is no real difference [between genders]; the gender differential is unjust. Social justice requires equality. But it’s [gender equality] a very recent idea, it’s a very recent innovation and one of the last places where it has made an impact is within the education system so that fifty years ago the education system would push the men towards science and technology and women towards art and domestic skills. I think we are just living through the consequences of that in that sort of adults that we have today, in the people of my age now. When I was in school the girls would be glided away from the sciences and as a result technology and engineering were to a large extent male preserves and we are still correcting that historical injustice.

Now, what’s interesting though is that whilst we see that difference between those who build and create the machines, and at the engineering level, we are seeing it much less and less at the user level. So now the demographics of Internet use, computer use, laptop use, mobile phone use and all those sorts of things, certainly within the West, reflect the general population. Over the last ten years I have watched Internet use equalize, certainly here in the UK between men and women, and indeed what research has been done about how computers are used in the household makes it very clear that the computer has now become another household device that is as likely to be used by or controlled by the women or girls in the house as by the boys. So I think at the user level where the technology pushes through in to our daily life that distinction isn’t there anymore. It’s at the programmer level where we see fewer women programmers and fewer women web designers. There are still a lot of them out there, friends of mine, male and female who are just as equally good and astute and capable at coding and developing and all those things but we still do see fewer. And I think it’s just a general societal imbalance that has yet to be corrected.

Interview with Bill Thompson, technology columnist for the BBC – Part I

5 Mar

While technology has become an important part of our social, economic and political life, most analysis about technology remains woefully inadequate, limited to singing paeans about Apple and Google, and occasional rote articles about security and privacy issues. It is to this news market full of haberdasher opionating that Mr. Bill Thompson brings his considerable intellect and analytical skills every week for his column on technology for the BBC.

To those unfamiliar with his articles, Mr. Bill Thompson is a respected technology guru and a distinguished commentator on technology and copyright issues for the BBC. Mr. Thompson’s calm moderated erudition of technology comes from his extensive experience in the IT industry at varying capacities and a childhood that he spent without computers. “I was born in 1960 so I grew up before there were computers – around. Indeed, I never touched one at school.” It was not until his third year at Cambridge University, while he was running experiments in Psychology, that he first touched a computer. He says that in many ways his first experiences with the computer formed his mindset about computers, something that has stayed with him for over 25 years that computers are there to perform a useful function.

Mr. Thompson went on to get a Master’s level diploma in Computer Science from Cambridge University in 1983. After graduating from Cambridge, he joined a small computer firm and then quit it to join Acorn Computers Limited, creators of the successful BBC Micro., as a database consultant. He left the enterprise because “they wanted to promote me” and joined as a courseware developer with Instruction Set. After a stint with PIPEX, he found himself running Guardian’s New Media division a decade or so ago when Internet was still in its infancy. After working for a few years managing Guardian’s online site, Mr. Thompson left to pursue writing and commenting full time. It is there in the field writing and providing astute analysis on technology related issues that Mr. Thompson finds himself today.

I interviewed Mr. Thompson via Skype about a month ago. The interview covered a wide range of issues and given the diversity of issues covered I have chosen to put an edited transcript of the interview rather than an essay styled thematic story. Here’s an edited (both style and content) transcript of the interview.

The technology opinion market place seems to be split between technology evangelists and Luddites. Your writing, on the other hand, manifests a broad range of experience; it reflects moderated enthusiasm about what computers can do. I find it an astute and yet optimistic account.

I am fundamentally optimistic about the possibilities of this technology that we have invented to both make the world a better place and to help us recover from some of the mistakes of the past and make better decisions as a species, not just as a society, in the future. It informs my writing. It informs as well the things that I am interested in, and the areas that I want to explore.

Our relationship with machines was once fraught with incomprehension and fear. Machines epitomized the large mechanized state and its dominance over the natural world. There was a spate of movies somewhere in the 70s when refrigerators and microwaves ‘rose up’ to attack us. Over the past decade or so, our relationship has transformed to such a degree that we not only rely on fairly sophisticated machines to do our daily chores, we look at machines as a way to achieve utopian ideals. Dr. Fred Turner, professor of Communication at Stanford, in “From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism” traces this rise of digital utopianism to American counterculture. How do you think the relationship evolved?

The way you phrase the question leads me to think that perhaps it was the exaggerated claims of Artificial Intelligence community that led people to worry that computers would reach the point at which they would take over. And the complete failure of AI to deliver on any its promises has led us to a more phlegmatic and accepting attitude, which is that these are just machines – we don’t know how to make them clever enough to threaten us and therefore we can just get on with using them.

The fact is know that Skynet is not going to launch nuclear weapons at us in a Terminator world and so we can then focus on the fact that the essential humanity of the Terminator itself, certainly in the second and third movies, is a source of redemption. We can actually feel positive about the machines instead of negative about them.

When you have a computer that is around, that crashes constantly, that is infected by viruses and malware, that doesn’t do what is supposed to do and stuff like that, you are not afraid of it – you are irritated by it and you treat it as you would a recalcitrant child that you might love and care for and that has some value but is certainly not something that is going to threaten you. And then we can use the machines. That then actually allows us to focus on what you call the Utopian or altruistic aspects. It allows us to focus on machines in a much broader context, which is recognize that human agency is behind it.

The dystopian stories rely on machines getting out of control but in fact we live in a world in which the machines are being used negatively by people, by governments, by corporations, and by individuals. The failure to have AI allows us to accept that – to reject the systems they have built without rejecting the machines themselves.

And for those who actually believe that information and communication technologies are quite positive – (it allows us) to focus on what could be done for good instead of just dismissing all of the technology as being bad. It allows us to take a much more complex and nuanced point of view.

I think you make an excellent point. I think I see where you are coming from.

In a sense it is where I am coming from which is – I am a liberal humanist atheist. I believe we make this world and we have the potential to make it better and the technologies we invent should be part of that process.

Just as I am politically socialist – I believe in equality of opportunity and social justice and all those things [similarly] I have a humanist approach to technology which is that what we have made – we can make ‘do good’ for us.