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The Virtual Revolution Episode 1: Some Notes

In Coming to terms with the Web, The Web and democracy on October 23, 2010 at 3:50 pm

Last week I watched the first episode of a doco about the Web, The Virtual Revolution (SBS, 8.30pm Tuesdays). This episode is called The Great Levelling? It’s presented by Aleks Krotoski, an academic and technology journalist for the Guardian.  The producers of the doco have evidently decided that she’s a bit like Simon Schama: an approachable intellectual. Accordingly, she’s often in front of the camera, wearing a thoughtful frown, a choppy ‘do and a flattering outfit. She strolls in fields, drives a convertible, and looks stylishly windswept on a ferry.

Nonetheless, if you can ignore the endless posing and  shameless Apple promotion (Krotoski often needs to whip out the Mac to better appreciate her exotic surrounds), it’s a thought-provoking 50-odd minutes. I thought I’d summarise some of its main points and link to some of the people, including technology writers and Web luminaries, who featured.

As the title suggests, Krotoski is trying to come to terms with the ‘democracy’ of the Web. Is it really the great leveller it’s made out to be?

 

The computer Tim Berners-Lee used to invent the Web

The Web, she notes, espoused the culture of sharing from the beginning. Frustrated at the lack of interconnectivity the Internet provided, Tim Berners-Lee (now Sir) created the Web, then gave it away. Its first users were, to use Krotoski’s wording, social misfits, and the first bloggers were those who ‘had no voice’. She posits that the Web was (is?) a virtual continuation of doomed sixties libertarianism.

 

One guest was musician John Perry Barlow from The Grateful Dead. He was an enthusiastic early adopter of the Web and promoter of Web equality; in 1996 he even wrote a Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. It begins:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.

Barlow was also one of the first celebrities to be mobbed by internet-savvy music geeks in a chatroom, in this case the historic Web institution, The Well. Never heard of it? I hadn’t neither, but it’s been around since 1985. It’s the original social networking site, and its still a lot more basic than Facebook et al. It distinguishes itself by asking that members use their real names and by banning advertising, formal or otherwise – now that’s idealistic.

Krotoski enthuses that the Web ‘blows open access to knowledge’,  and points to the crowdsourcing phenomenon that is Wikipedia, but she’s not afraid to canvass a few dissenting voices. One of these is Lee Siegel, cultural commentator and author of a book Against the Machine. Check out this interview with Siegel in New York Books, in which he trashes another of the doco’s interviewees, cyberculture expert Douglas Rushkoff. Siegel hates Wikipedia and other internet phenomonena, but is nonetheless drawn to them – like the rest of us.

Unsurprisingly, Stephen Fry makes an appearance. He lopes to the Web’s defence, hailing it ‘the best source of perfectly acceptable knowledge’. Talk about a back-handed compliment – perhaps he’s read too much Wilde.

Krotoski wheels out more celebs – Al Gore observes, optimistically but not especially originally, that the Web facilitates the discussion of ideas, which in turn can lead to better ideas; we also meet Bill Gates, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (reminiscing, with no apparent sense of irony, about the times when software piracy was just sort of funny),  Napster creator Shawn Fanning (who admits to being amazed by how quickly he managed to destroy the old music distribution model and the industry itself), and the founders of You Tube and Wikipedia.

We also learn that Tim Berners-Lee frets about the Web’s future, and how it might come under central control – he notes that in some countries, it already has.

Following this thread, Krotoski describes the battle between the philosophy of sharing which characterised the early Web, and colonisation by major corporations, and seems to come to the conclusion that the capitalists have won. One commentator notes that it’s strange how now there is one dominant social networking site, one online bookshop, and one search engine. To the terrifying thought that the Web’s inequality merely reflects that of the real world, Korotski counters that the Web may be more than a reflection of the world, as the technology is endlessly reinventing itself. Once a monopoly has asserted itself, the technology presents an alternative (or, in the case of Internet Explorer, competition laws re-level the playing field).

This being said, I think the most significant observation in the doco was that the Web helps people, musicians for example, promote themselves within the existing system. Yes, new online frontiers are constantly opening up, and there might be the illusion that the Web is consistently able to slip out of corporate control, but all of this was brought about, and most of it is still happening within, the biosphere of capitalism.

Did anyone else catch this doco? Any thoughts?

Photo by Robert Scoble from Half Moon Bay, USA [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Clicks/Bricks: the Kogan/Norman controversy

In The Web and advertising, The Web and democracy, Uncategorized on September 14, 2010 at 12:25 pm

I’VE decided to renege on my promise of a photo extravaganza (see last week’s post), because something more intriguing – and pertinent to the theme of this blog – has caught my eye this week.

ON last week’s highest rating episode of the Gruen Transfer (Season 3, Episode 9), the panel discussed the battle between the new online TV retailer Ruslan Kogan and Harvey Norman. Somehow, I’d managed to miss the whole shemozzle (perhaps because I get my news from ABC News Breakfast and Jon Stewart rather than Today Tonight). For those of you who are similarly behind on the news, and don’t have time to watch the Gruen episode (the Kogan segment starts around 23 minutes in, but why would you watch just part of the show?), here’s a summary from blogger Renai LeMay on Delimiter.

The Lowdown

IF you refused to be distracted by the link minefield I’ve just laid, the battle between the Kogan CEO Ruslan Kogan, and Gerry Harvey (no introduction necessary) made it on Gruen Transfer because of a cheeky ad Kogan had made in the style of those insistent and eminently lampoonable Harvey Norman ads. The Gruen panel, especially Todd, were glowing in their praise of the parvenu’s advertising strategy, and pointed to the fact Kogan has saved a packet on advertising, relying on the viral spread of the advertisement instigated in part by the story that Channel 7, a longtime partner of Harvey Norman, refused to show the ad during the Ben Cousins documentary (Kogan announced in advance that he’d booked the spot). Russell used a great term to describe the contest between the internet-based business model over the mass-market franchise model Gerry has thrived on for so many years: clicks versus bricks.

ANYWAY, why might this all be of interest to us? Well, another strength the panel pointed to was Kogan’s online community building (over 2000 people ‘like’ Kogan on Facebook). I thought I’d look into Kogan a bit further, through their Web site.

The site

It’s not the prettiest of sites, but then perhaps we don’t want that in a bargain retailer. All the same, it’s not amateurish. In fact, it’s reassuringly average.

From kogan.com.au

It’s also roguishly militant, in its taunting of Gerry Harvey and Stephen Conroy’s internet filter (see Delimiter’s commentary on the latter); the company’s blog has the combination refreshing directness, quasi-diplomacy and insolence that characterises much Web 2.o communication.

And, along with all that swagger, it’s inclusive, encouraging readers to help name TVs and and take their own swings at Harvey, Conroy and big brands.

Also, though consumer reviews are not given prominence,  Kogan appears to be unafraid of what its customers might say:

My one big disapointment is the location of the page turn button. In my opinion, it’s a design flaw, especially if you read with the unit in it’s case. It also requires quite a bit of pressure to turn a page. Not good for repeated page turning.

(From customer review of the 6″ Kogan ebook Reader)

This, I believe, is called crowdsourcing.

IN SHORT, not only has Kogan embraced an efficient internet business model, its site seems to have tapped the Zeitgeist of Web 2.0 – or at least makes a damned good impression of doing so.

BUT once the novelty has worn off, will Kogan’s community suspect (/realise) that they are being manipulated just as the Gruen panel was, just as they are lured into Harvey Norman stores by those tantalisingly interest-free months? The curious and skeptical reader might look at the list of domains Kogan’s acquired and wonder whether they are just another unsuspecting gnat in a rapidly expanding corporate Web.

Now, I just have to make sure my partner doesn’t see Kogan’s site (or this post), otherwise I’m afraid we’ll see the unwieldy but perfectly fine CRT in our lounge room replaced with a Kogan whatchamecallit.

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More

Gerry Harvey takes Kogan’s bait in this SMH article: Go Harvey!

Mumbrella’s commentary on Gruen’s commentary: meta-meta-advertising moments

Tuning in to a shift of power

In The Web and democracy on August 22, 2010 at 10:13 am

Today I’m writing  this with one eye on the television. Of course, nothing’s going to happen for a while, but here are some post-election (or post non-election) observations. ABC 24’s clumsy but amusing pastiches of campaign highlights have fired my cross-wired mind, and snippets of pollie speak are fusing with the reports some of my classmates have posted about the Jay Rosen lecture. In particular, Rosen’s observations about the shift of power from journalists to the audience is food for thought. Thanks, miss bec, for your thoughtful post on this topic, and also for the link to the Guardian MP expenses claims assessments. (Note the admission of error at the beginning of the article outlining the best discoveries ‘training’ was mistaken, hilariously for everyone but the MP in question, for ‘tanning’. The apology is unmissable, a little different from the corners reserved for corrections in print publications – it was probably a lot swifter, too.)

I wonder how tuned Tony Abbott is into the shift of power? He (rightly, in my opinion) poo-pooed the idea of climate change citizens’ assembly, but in typical Tony fashion he went too far: ‘We already have a citizens’ assembly – it’s a parliament.’ Abbott is indeed out of touch. This being said, in suggesting the assembly, Labor went too far. Perhaps fancying itself as fashionably democratic, as it did with the 2020 summit, it forgot that there is power in numbers. Randomly choosing 150 members of the public to offer their opinion on ‘the greatest moral challenge of our time’ does not earn our respect. While the concept of expertise has changed, we still understand that experts are necessary. I’d propose that what we want is experts, but their claims have to be tempered by the opinions of citizens, in the old-fashioned sense. Of course, when you ask everyone to contribute, you have to sift through a lot of rubbish, but the odds of coming across a good idea are far better, as the Guardian claims assessments showed. (The apparent reliability of Wikipedia also stems from this truism.)

On the topic of expertise, here’s Tony again, explaining his lack of knowledge of his flawed wireless/broadband scheme: ‘I’m not a tech-head’. Of course you’re not, Tony, and nobody expects you to be. But watching both candidates relatively competently canvas questions on myriad topics in the town hall-type meetings, this response was unconvincing. Abbott just doesn’t rate an NBN as a topic worth boning up on. Just as in Tony’s time a rounded education was probably a much coveted thing (he was a Rhodes Scholar and has an MA in politics and philosophy – a degree that would presumably cover a pretty broad range of topics), these days an interest in, and passing knowledge of, internet access and the means and speed with which it is obtained is simply general knowledge expected of any intelligent member of society. Although this moral ‘disconnect’ with younger voters, which in an ageing Australia probably makes no difference, given the lack of differentiation between the it is possible changing his NBN policy may have (definitively) won him the election, the only chance he’ll probably have. (The pundits on Insiders are now debating what factor/s lost Labor seats – I think they’ll move to this complementary topic soon.)

One final note: Wouldn’t it be lovely if the losing candidate takes this as an opportunity to stop the ‘dog-whistling’ and show some real compassion to refugees? One of the Gillard’s questioners on her Q & A appearance clearly agrees. The transcript reads:

TONY JONES: We’ve got a web question that’s come in from Dave Bathur in Erskineville: “I’m hoping/praying your initial missteps on asylum seekers were just to win over the marginal seats and in government you’ll revert to a more humane and sensible approach … If this is the case and you’re not allowed yet to admit it, just look at the camera and say, ‘Moving forward.’ I will know what you mean. Want to send a little coded signal?”

JULIA GILLARD: I can’t send any coded signals. I tried to lay out before the Australian people my whole view here. I think maybe some of it got through, some of it didn’t. Maybe some of that’s my fault. It’s a complex debate but I’ve tried to say to the Australian people let’s be clear about the size of what we’re dealing with here. I’ve specifically adopted Julian Burnside’s words, noted lawyer, that at current rate of arrivals it will take 20 years to fill the MCG. That’s true. So, you know, let’s get a sense of perspective, 20 years to fill the MCG. But even with that perspective, I don’t want to see people get on boats, risk their lives, pay people smugglers to get here. I want to have a better solution than that and that is why I’ve put forward the regional process in play.

With the unprecedented success of the Greens, it seems that some previously muted voices are being heard, particularly on the topic of climate change, but Dave Bathur’s plea underlines what a double-edged sword true democracy is: regardless of how easily we can make our voices heard now, some voices will still be louder.

What’s your take on the election, and Web-enhanced political debate?

Back to the future

In The Web and democracy, Web writing on August 14, 2010 at 2:00 pm

You might recall that I’m cynical about the quality of much online content (see Is this what it is like?) and, of course, I’m not unique in this respect. Now,  from my own, unfocused surfing,  links my classmates and others have given me, and my reflections on my history with the Web, I’m starting to feel a bit better, and a bit more ‘in control’ – if this makes me paranoid, then so be it.

This week’s readings have helped with this. One of the common threads in all of the readings was that concision is key. Why is this so reassuring? Well, for a start, there is nothing new about this advice. Remember Strunk? For the uninitiated, here is an extract from his 1918 treatise, Elements of Style (since updated).

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
Many expressions in common use violate this principle:
the question as to whether whether (the question whether)
there is no doubt but that no doubt (doubtless)
used for fuel purposes used for fuel
he is a man who he
in a hasty manner hastily
this is a subject which this subject
His story is a strange one. His story is strange.

Second, there are many examples of this sort of writing on the Web, Catherine Caine’s article among them. I love decluttering text almost as much as I like throwing out household junk. My friends will tell you there’s nothing I love more than picking up cliches, tautologies and skips in semantic logic (mostly they find this amusing too, until I turn on them). On the topic of linguistic redundancy, no-one is better than Don Watson. He now has a website, quite a disappointing effort, but well worth a visit nonetheless. Better still, buy his books and devour them, or simply google him to find articles like this.

I also liked the advice regarding brevity. Roy Peter Clark’s idea that any topic can be tackled in 800 words is great. (The article is referenced in Jonathan Dube’s article, but the link doesn’t work, so here is the shortened version, abridged by Clark himself. How fitting! ) This too is not a particularly newfangled idea: remember the tiny essays you were asked to write as undergrads? Lecturers would insist that if you could distil your thoughts into, say, 1000 words, you had really come to understand your topic.

So why does this old-fashioned advice, common to all this week’s readings, reassure me? Well, it makes me believe there is some consensus about what good writing is. It indicates that despite the rubbish we’re faced with, many of us still have the critical faculty needed to weed it out.

On the other hand, something about this advice bothers me.

Do we all want to write like Hemingway?

We should be vigilant against tautologies and other redundancies, but I’m wary of  too much decluttering. After reading McEwan, an economical writer, a few weeks ago, I’m back to Thomas Hardy, one of my all-time favourites. I don’t think Hardy’s a great stylist: I don’t gasp over the beauty of his sentence construction. In fact, with his distinctive nineteenth-century punctuation, I’m often forced to re-read sentences to find the point. This being said, he can really tell a story. He’s a bit like the Stieg Larsson of the romantic period.

Yes, Catherine, the impulse to shorten sentences and remove idle words should be encouraged, but not everyone wants to write like Hemingway, even if they can. Sometimes these short, sharp posts, with their one-sentence paragraphs and self-satisfied economy, simply annoy me. If the Web is truly democratic, perhaps we should all be looking to find our own way of expressing ourselves? (Of course, those looking to sell something on the Web would do well to heed her advice.)

Today’s musing brings me full circle: as much as I’d like to encounter only quality – a wish that is only going to result in my turning off the Web altogether – I’d much prefer to develop my own Web filter, and be happy in the fact that, however long and ungainly their sentences, and however vacuous their chatter, people are simply expressing themselves. Which I guess is the point of Web 2.0.