Web Freedom isn’t Free

From “Living Singles,” by Virginia Heffernan, New York Times Sunday Magazine, Feb. 27, 2011:

The market for narrative nonfiction shrank not because people got dumber or lost their attention spans; narrative nonfiction, like so many 20th-century forms, fell on hard times when the Web came along, and readers stopped paying for content…

…When the iPhone first appeared, followed by the Kindle and then the iPad, it became clear that e-books and apps provided a way to siphon the resources of the Internet to individuals, who could now sample that energy without having to be vulnerable to the Web’s commercialism. That was an enormous breakthrough. Anyone who’s honest with herself knows that the Web stopped being a great place for consumers of culture a year or two ago. You think you’re reading the Web these days, but it’s reading you — gathering data on you, trying to sell you stuff, pushing you to other links. On the Web, reading is shopping. And sometimes you don’t want to shop.

kindle-coffee The Kindle in particular brought me the first moment of peace from Web noise that I’d had in a long time. True, I thought I loved the Web noise when the only alternative was to recede into analog culture — but I have adored the silence I’ve found on the Kindle.

I never thought I’d back off the Web, but I have. The once-glorious freedom of the Web was not free. Its price is a bone-deep commercialism that cannot yet be circumvented. For convenience, comprehensiveness and social life, I still visit, but now I see these visits as at least as risky and irritating as they are liberating and exhilarating.

Read the whole essay here…

PS I’ve really enjoyed this column and am sad to see it go. Visit ArtsBeat to keep an eye on Virginia Heffernan’s eyewitness traffic reports from the intersection of media and technology.

An Impatience with Irresolution

“I am saying there is a different drama which is enacting itself in our country right now and it has to do with a failure to acknowledge the necessary moral and imaginative predicate that has become an entirely virtual existence, which is, you know, people spend more than half their waking hours watching television. Just think about that for a second. That has to shape the neural pathways. It creates an impatience, for example, with irresolution. And I'm doing what I can to tell stories which engage those issues in ways which can engage the imagination so that people don't feel threatened by it.”

~ David Milch, from “Television’s Greatest Writer,” an interview with David Simon, MIT (April 20, 2006)

Bringing Civility Back

Barack Obama, discussing health care reform with Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes (September 13, 2009):

I will also say that in the era of 24-hour cable news cycles, that the loudest, shrillest voices get the most attention. I mean, let's take these town halls. As I've said, I had four of them. And there were people in there who disagreed with me. But all of them were courteous. All of them listened to each other. I kept on looking for somebody to yell at me, so that I could sort of sort of engage in these folks that you were seeing on TV. That wasn't our experience.

And if you go to a lot of members of Congress, and you ask them, "What was going on at some of these town hall meetings?" They'd say, "Eighty percent of the folks who were there were there to listen, to try to figure out how we can solve this problem." But you never saw those folks on TV, because it was boring.

And so, one of the things I'm trying to figure out is, how can we make sure that civility is interesting. Hopefully, I will be a good model for the fact that, you know, you don't have to yell and holler to make your point, and to be passionate about your position.

It's still a work in progress. No doubt about it.

A Context for Correcting Misinformation

Kathleen Hall Jamieson in conversation with Bill Moyers and Drew Altman on Bill Moyers Journal (8.14.09):

unSpun : Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation People who are angry and frustrated and not necessarily well informed in part driven by people who are on the other side of the reform effort. And it's driving into news evocative visuals that are leading the public, I think, to overgeneralize the extent to which there is principal, reasoned dissent from health care reform.

...But when people are shouting at each other, the answer doesn't get through. And when you're impugning the integrity of the person who's answering the questions, the member of Congress, that person's response isn't going to be believed if it is able to be articulated and isn't simply shouted down.

And so it's not creating context in which misinformation on both sides can be corrected. And that's the problem. We don't have a deliberative process here taking place in public to inform public opinion.

Instead, we're potentially distorting it.

A Spectrum of Opinion

Michael Crichton“We are all assumed, these days, to reside at one extreme of the opinion spectrum, or another. We are pro-abortion or anti-abortion. We are free traders or protectionist. We are pro-private sector or pro-big government. We are feminists or chauvinists. But in the real world, few of us holds these extreme views. There is instead a spectrum of opinion.
The extreme positions of the Crossfire Syndrome require extreme simplification - framing the debate in terms which ignore the real issues.”

~ Michael Crichton, “Mediasaurus: The Decline of Conventional Media,” National Press Club, Washington D.C., April 7, 1993


From a interview with Michael Crichton regarding his 1993 prediction of mass-media extinction ("Michael Crichton, Vindicated" by Jack Shafer, 5.29.08):

I have been very interested in the differences between how scientists and engineers treat information, for example. The fact is, engineers are much more rigorous about information, and it has legal consequences for them. In contrast, scientists (and politicians) are just playing with information. Broadly speaking, they have no responsibility for what they say at all. Now, as our society shifts away from manufacturing (now something like 15 percent of workers are engaged in making something), I speculate that this is having an effect on what we regard as information. I speculate we are moving from the rigor of engineers to the free-for-all of politicians. In which case, nobody is interested in high-quality information. It only gets in the way.

Arguably, contemporary media has made that shift away from hard information toward free-for-all opinion and speculation. This shouldn't cost a lot, and indeed modern media peddles an inexpensive product. Most cable television "news" is just talking heads and food fights; they don't even change the heads very often—they hire regulars who appear week after week. Most newspaper reporting consists of rewritten press releases and faxes. Many reporters don't go after stories, they wait for the stories to be fed to them by publicists and flacks. Now if you set aside this cheap model and instead start staffing bureaus around the world, putting reporters and cameras on the ground, assembling smart teams to do real investigative work in business, high tech, and so on, that costs a lot of money. I remain convinced that plenty of people would pay for a good news service—who stayed with a daisy wheel printer once laser printers arrived? We didn't know we wanted laser printers, as we didn't know we wanted digital cameras, but it turns out we did. In any case, what we are now being fed as news is repetitive, simplistic, and insulting.