Putting the Value Back

Mass HouseLast week I rambled into Boston and as soon as I set my bag down Chris Lydon said, “Let’s go interview Jaron Lanier.” And as always, I was pleased and excited to not only get to record another interview with Chris, but very glad that I would finally get to speak with Jaron, who’s previous book “You Are Not A Gadget” had a profound effect on my thinking.

What had most stayed with me from the book was the discussion of the danger posed by group think and the “crowd” mentality that seems to dominate large parts of the internet. Despite the endless possibilities, Lanier pointed out that there is and has been a lot of cases of people all doing the same thing; talking about the same topics, designing websites the same way, etc.  A trend that I too have observed and wondered about for some time now. But at the same time, like Jaron points out, there is still plenty to be excited about and the opportunity is still here- for people to challenge these conventions and steer the internet using a more critical-free thinking approach.  – At least, this is what I understood from the book.

Meeting Jaron in a very impressive Boston Hotel was admittedly very exciting but also rather intimidating. As a man who writes and speaks often, interviews seemed to be routine and easily irritating for him.  I think both Chris and myself wanted to do our best to keep him interested in the interview while not letting the answers sound too routine.  Thankfully I think we found a balance.

Perhaps the highlight of the interview for me were his theories on the value of information.  Like many people out there who used to believe 100% in the idea that information should be free and this will all work out somehow, Lanier has changed his stance on this issue. He believes it was a mistake and that there needs to be a return to recognizing and giving value where information is created or exchanged. A familiar idea, especially to fans and users of micropayment systems (like flattr here on my site) who have long been making use of a system where work you enjoy and want to help continue receives a piece of your monthly media budget.  Jaron talked about how this trend of giving our information for free and the devaluing of so many jobs within a growing list of sectors, is dangerous and spreading fast. It used to be something we bloggers and podcasters thought was only our issue, but now it could be architects, manufacturers of all types, translators, etc, who may increasingly find their work isn’t worth much of anything thanks other sources of “free” information that have emerged.

When it is published I will no doubt listen to the interview a few times in order to properly understand both what Jaron is worried about, what he foresees for the future.  But what I did understand is that all his experience and research points to one solution to get us out of this pyramid scheme style internet where we put in work and information for free and then someone else profits from our contribution- returning the practice of giving value to information. You provide me with X, I give you Y in exchange.  Instead of an unsustainable economy where, as he describes it, “they that have the biggest computers always win,” we could still move towards an internet economy where we the individuals adopt the tradition of recognizing and giving value to one another’s contributions, even on the smallest of scales.

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A Living Podcast History

photo by dolescum on flickr

Most discussions of blogging or podcasting history immediately sound crazy because they all involve an allegedly “long” span of about 12 to 14 years.  As crazy as it may sound, when it comes to the internet, 12 years is an eternity. When it comes to life, however, 12 years goes by in the blink of an eye.

This spring I have rediscovered a podcast I used to listen to regularly, The Overnightscape, hosted by Frank Edward Nora who several times a week takes you along during his commute to work from New Jersey to Manhattan and occasionally invites you to relax at home with him or with a friend as they talk about everything from pop-culture to history and generally, things going on in Frank’s mind. Back in 2004, when podcasting first officially started, Frank’s style of recording would have been called stream of consciousness, which could be one of the greatest examples of what made the voices and style of podcasting so unique.  No radio program would ever have had the nerve and patience to allow a host to just think out loud without a time limit, but the freedom and honestly of podcasting was the perfect place for it.

Though we’re not far from podcasting turning a decade old, strangely many of those podcasts that were so unique and experimental have disappeared. Producers of these programs stopped for a wide range of reasons, among them: the lack of financial resources to continue, the lack of returns in the form of feedback (or perhaps money), the demands of a day job or other offline life requirements, loss of interest, or as Ivan explained on a recent edition of the podcast – some projects need to end.  Among today’s remaining independent podcast programs, there is a mix of specialized topics which often involve interviews and just a few long running monologue (stream of consciousness) type shows. (my favorite being the incomparable Yeast Radio) Many of these have faced their own critical moments where things almost shut down for good but then fortunately made it through and carry on still today.

Yet despite what we still have in terms of audio (and video) creators, many great ones have hung up their spurs and called it quits. There are countless audio and video files who’s hosting accounts ceased to exist and are therefore no longer available online. Time and the internet keep moving forward, things change, and what seems at present so permanent, can disappear so easily.  At the recent gathering of creative minds during Re:publica12 in Berlin there was a group of people looking for like-minded individuals interested in archiving and preserving blogs. The familiar idea- that one day many of us and/or our websites will be gone and the only way to preserve this valuable (or valueless) work is to put it somewhere in such a manner that it will still be accessible well into the future.

With all this in mind I notice wordpress telling me that I will soon reach 2000 posts on citizenreporter.org. 2,000 posts, 420 podcasts and counting- will it all still be accessible in 12 years?  I very much hope so.

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Your Personal Mayor

Mayor of Twitter! Cory BookerWhen looking critically at changes in democracy and politics around the world, much has been said about the personalization of politics. In many countries, where politics may have once been about the policies of a party and choosing between those parties at the ballot box, today it is increasingly all about the individual candidate.

Political posters feature huge images of the face of a candidate, either smiling or looking confident. Somewhere in smaller print is the party logo, in case you’re wondering about that.  In many municipalities in the US, where one party automatically dominates, it is all about the individual candidates.  But even on the highest levels, president, prime minister, these days we pay close attention to the policies, values, and personality of the individual, more so then the party. This has been referred to as the personalization of politics.

Yet right now there is another type of personal politics that has become a major force in many democracies thanks to the internet. It is the type of political relationship where the candidate or election official reacts and behaves based on your wishes.  Bill Clinton’s staff used to do phone surveys after his speeches and TV appearances, to get a feel for what works and doesn’t work for potential voters.  Adam Curtis laid out these and other activities in his fantastic documentary “The Century of the Self,” where he looks at how candidates would make changes to their policies and actions, based on what individuals wanted.

Tweeting Snow CleanupThis might all sound well and good, people getting what they wish; a direct democracy perhaps?  If we look at the phenomenon of Mayors who make use of twitter on a regular basis to communicate with the public, we find what is very much another example of this personalized representation.  Many, including myself, have celebrated this development, as citizens are actively hearing about their election official’s daily activities, and providing real time feedback.

One of the greatest examples I follow has been my friend, Newark Mayor Cory Booker.  Now in his second term as Mayor, much has been documented about how this young Mayor takes a different approach to politics and leading a city.  Where some make speeches with their sleeves rolled up to look busy, Cory picks up the shovel during snow storms, pulls over drivers who litter, patrols the streets with citizens at night, and turns up more neighborhood parties than anyone in history.

It should be no surprise based on this description, that Mayor Booker is an avid twitter person. Tweeting a mix of inspiring quotes, personal observations, thank you’s, and daily city hall acitivies, he is not only widely followed but he also does a lot of following as well.  I should know, I’m one of those he follows.   As someone who keeps an eye on twitter and has the good nature to listen when citizens have a problem or concern, Cory receives many public twitter messages asking for help with issues in Newark.  From large to small problems, citizens tweet their Mayor about streetlights being out, meetings being held, abandoned lots that get filled with garbage, and most of all at this time of year – snow not being shoveled on their streets. Unlike his counterpart Mayor Bloomberg of (admittedly much larger) New York City, Cory does not simply post a phone number and tell his followers to use it, almost 100% of the time he responds with a “sending a crew over now” or “we’re on our way.”  Sure enough some hours later, you will be able to find a followup tweet from a citizen saying thank you or great job Mr. Mayor.  Occasionally it will be a followup complaint if the street in question isn’t clean yet, to which he still takes the consideration to tweet a very polite “be patient, we will get to you.”

Once again many observers will say – Fantastic! A modern Mayor using modern means to cut out the middleman and communicate openly with the public. Indeed I never miss a chance to tell people about the good deeds the Mayor of the city of my birth does using twitter.

Yet as more snow falls, as more problems appear for the city of Newark (or any city for that matter), and more people join twitter to tell the Mayor something directly, the more it becomes a legitimate question if this is really as fantastic as it first seemed. The individual might rejoice because their complaint or demand has been addressed almost immediately, but taken together, is the energy spent satisfying the individual well spent, among all the tasks the elected official must perform. Beyond that, how can the Mayor be sure that these issues tweeted to him are as deserving of his attention as say, some other city hall business? At some point even Mayor Booker himself tells people with demands to “be patient”.

Naturally the work of the Mayor is more often in city hall and not on twitter, the responsibilities people entrusted him with by electing him to the office.  Much of that work, as long has been true, occurs in the offline world, and sometimes unavoidably, out of the site of the general public.  Citizens of course see and live the results of the Mayor’s work over time, which always results in approval, disapproval, or something in between.

The main question here is: Does this style of leadership, elected leadership directly active on twitter, signal something positive in the long run? Is it a breakthru in the practice of addressing the needs and concerns of citizens? Or at some point will it just be the individual speaking only for an immediate and personal problem, at the expense of the greater good.

Postscript: Mayor Booker became the focus of this post which I actually wanted to be about the bigger picture of politics and twitter. I know for a fact he does tons more offline and online to hear from citizens directly and man oh man do I admire him for that.

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