Archive for the 'media' Category

Liberal Caricature

By JSC5

Yesterday, co-blogger JSC7 linked to a bunch of new posts out there on the nets about how to effectively manage your online time and get away from destructive overconsumption. JSC7 ended the piece with a keen observation about the importance of models of healthy living, and how we basically don’t have any for internet use:

“We don’t yet really have a firm sense of what is living well or badly in the modern world, the way we do with say, alcohol consumption or other addictive vices.”

As a matter of societal consensus, I think JSC7 is right.

However, it seems to me that there actually is a sizable group of people who are seriously grappling with “what it is to live well or badly in the modern world”. Those people are hippies, or leftists, or ‘limousine liberals’, or ‘latte-sipping, volvo-driving elitist snobs’, or granola west coasters — at least, that how they get caricatured.  These are the people who self-consciously think about their diets and their impact on the world, go out of their way to avoid dumping their externalities on the world, and limit the time they spend in front of the TV or ditch the TV entirely. And they’re also the people who are trying to spend more time outdoors jogging or playing Frisbee golf than inside on the internet.

And, as we all know, those people are all caricatured and ridiculed by the rest of us. It seems like ‘we’ actually do have a fairly good model of what healthy, ‘good’ living is supposed to look like in the modern world: eat more local, organic produce; don’t light a barrel of oil on fire to keep your living room warm; get more exercise; spend less time staring at a screen and more time interacting with real live people. Healthy internet use seems like part of an entire lifestyle package.

And even though ‘we’ all know what the right thing to do is, we can’t imagine adopting that lifestyle entirely. The magnitude of the change frightens us. So instead of accepting the superiority of healthy internet and exercise choices and making incremental improvements to our lives, we end up bragging about eating at McDonald’s and not driving a Prius. The real shame there is that the markers of a healthy lifestyle — which have no business being a partisan issue — get turned into partisan markers in a weird, tribal way. It’s terrible for our society when the healthy model of modern living turns into a liberal caricature that no one feels like emulating.

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Death by Information link dump

Ask and you shall receive. Well, sort of. After my first post on suboptimal internet use, I’ve noticed a number of other bloggers talking about that problem. At the bottom of this post, Chris Hayes talks about his internet use, and here’s Ezra Klein’s take. I assume more will follow. From Hayes’ post, I caught wind of two applications, Freedom and Anti-Social, that are a first rough hack at the sort of software I was calling for in my post (essentially, they lock you out of the internet or certain websites for a certain period of time that you set). But by far the most interesting piece I’ve read is by Paul Graham, about the addictiveness of the internet, which I think has implications beyond just the internet (and which I’m surprised isn’t discussed at all in the social sciences blogosphere). Money quote:

as the world becomes more addictive, the two senses in which one can live a normal life will be driven ever further apart. One sense of “normal” is statistically normal: what everyone else does. The other is the sense we mean when we talk about the normal operating range of a piece of machinery: what works best.

These two senses are already quite far apart. Already someone trying to live well would seem eccentrically abstemious in most of the US. That phenomenon is only going to become more pronounced. You can probably take it as a rule of thumb from now on that if people don’t think you’re weird, you’re living badly.

That last point, if true, is going to be a tough one to wrestle with, since we don’t yet really have a firm sense of what is living well or badly in the modern world, the way we do with say, alcohol consumption or other addictive vices.

The kids aren’t all right: plagiarism(!) edition

[by JSC5]

Another day, another curmudgeonly story about “kids these days”. Today’s complaint comes from the New York Times, which goes out of its way to blame plagiarism among college students on everything except the obvious culprit.

The article starts off on a prejudicial – if hilarious – anecdote:

At DePaul University, the tip-off to one student’s copying was the purple shade of several paragraphs he had lifted from the Web; when confronted by a writing tutor his professor had sent him to, he was not defensive — he just wanted to know how to change purple text to black.

Now, on a first reading, I figured this paragraph was trying to tell me that DePaul students aren’t the brightest of bulbs if they can’t see the big text color tool at the top of the Microsoft Word window. On a second reading, however, my Old Codger radar went off. This is more than just a funny story about a lone idiot and his lack of a moral compass; this sets the stage for how the author wants the reader to interpret the entire rest of the article. What explains plagiarism in college these days, the author asks? Why, the decrepit morals of the young, of course! The author even has anecdotes to prove it!

Then we get this gem of an explanation:

Sarah Brookover, a senior at the Rutgers campus in Camden, N.J., said many of her classmates blithely cut and paste without attribution. “This generation has always existed in a world where media and intellectual property don’t have the same gravity,” said Ms. Brookover, who at 31 is older than most undergraduates. “When you’re sitting at your computer, it’s the same machine you’ve downloaded music with, possibly illegally.”

On a first reading, I figured this was a story of a 31-year-old undergraduate misfit committing social suicide on the front page of the New York Times while engaging in some pop psychology. But no, this is supposed to be another piece of “data” on young people’s attitudes towards plagiarism, with the conclusion that kids these days just lack the moral compass of their forebearers when it comes to serious things like media and intelectual property.

Then the story brings in the academic set to try their hand:

“Ms. Blum argued that student writing exhibits some of the same qualities of pastiche that drive other creative endeavors today — TV shows that constantly reference other shows or rap music that samples from earlier songs. …  Our notion of authorship and originality was born, it flourished, and it may be waning,” Ms. Blum said.

This one’s harder for me to dismiss as just the lazy observations of a single student. Ms. Blum is a professor, after all — an anthropologist at Notre Dame. What I find hard to stomache, however, is the offhanded way in which Ms. Blum asserts that today’s media content is more pastiche-driven than previous generations. While I love a good mash up as much as the next guy, I’m not crazy enough to believe that Kanye invented sampling or that Family Guy invented allusions. I’m pretty sure that most creative works going back to antiquity have drawn on pre-existing works.

Finally, the article brings in the favorite boogey man of the Old Codger: the internet and its deliterious effect on the morals of our youth:

“Now we have a whole generation of students who’ve grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn’t seem to have an author,” said Teresa Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. “It’s possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take.”

Yeah, it’s possible to believe that cultural creations accessed via the internet have no author, just like it’s possible to believe that Star Wars really did take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

The difference is that we usually give moral actors who are not “kids these days” (like Star Wars fans) the benefit of the doubt and treat them like normal humans with thoughts, feelings, and beliefs similar to our own. The rules for “kids these days” are different, however. Lazy writers get to trash them at will.

Let me lay down what I think ought to be a fairly simple explanation for plagiarism:

  1. Kids today are no different from my slightly older generation, or their parents’ generation, or Shakespear’s generation. We’re all the same idiots and fuck-ups, geniuses and successes.
  2. Things like Wikipedia, YouTube, and the internet in general don’t erode our values to the point that people start commonly believing that “this information is just out there for anyone to take”. Please treat the younger generations as competent moral agents (see point #1)
  3. Instead, the internet reduces access and plagiarism costs. Copying someone else’s words no longer involves clickety-clacking them from a book to your typewriter or Apple II. Now you can Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V it (or use an entirely different and unintuitive keystroke, for my Apple folks out there). When costs fall, consumption tends to rise. In this case, ‘consumption’ is plagiarism.

Now, this explanation is boring compared with the sexy NYT article talking about the moral failings of the youth caused by “the Internet” (always capitalized, like Towne, Shoppe, or any Noun from ye olde Book of random Capitalizations). But it seems far more plausible, and has the added benefit of not treating the current youngest generation as a bunch of uniquely-monstruous idiots.

Don’t get me wrong: plagiarism is a terrible thing. But the fix seems to be pretty easy. The only way students could think they’ll get away with copying and pasting Wikipedia entries without attribution is if their teachers are in the habit of accepting long entries of text including information, analysis, and theories that the student clearly was not born knowing. Start treating shitty writing that doesn’t reference its information like it deserves — by giving it a failing grade — and you’ll be well on your way to fixing plagiarism. One can’t help but wonder how awful the teachers are if their students think that merely copying and pasting Wikipedia articles would get them anything but a swift kick in the ass and a big fat goose egg on the top of the paper — even if the actual plagiarism is never caught.

A note to everyone who looks like the people from the bar last night: you’re on my list

[by JSC5]

If you were looking for a concrete example of what I was talking about in my previous post on how terribly puerile our privacy culture is these days, then look no further.* The libertarian/conservative law prof blog Volokh Conspiracy has you covered. Here’s Prof. Kenneth Anderson talking about the effect the JournoList ‘scandal’ has had on his perceptions of reporters in general:

When I was reading Peter Finn’s reporting on the Washington Post website on the CIA for my previous post, and despite this being a widely reported, straight-facts story, and despite my long-time, continuing, unstinting admiration for Peter Finn as a reporter on national security and related issues at the WaPo, I do admit that one of the first thoughts in my head was … is he a JournoLister?  And if he is, do I need to somehow discount his account as being part of a pre-conceived narrative?  And if so, by how much? 

So Kenneth Anderson used to have tremendous respect for Peter Finn’s work as a reporter because of his extensive body of work as a journalist. But post-JournoList, suddenly Kenneth Anderson has grave doubts about Peter Finn’s reporting — so much so that he’s decided to cast aspersions about Finn’s work on a widely-read media outlet.

That’s quite an about-face to be caused by one listserve. For those of you who’ve rationally decided to care more about your own things than the latest inside-the-beltway ‘scandal’, here’s a brief recap. JournoList was a private listserve for center-left journalists, opinion writers, professors, bloggers, and public intellectuals. From what I know, J-Listers used it to chat about current events, policy, sports, gossip, and the state of journalism. Some members clearly used it to let off steam. Dave Weigel, a former journalist/blogger for the Washington Post, famously used it to complain to his friends on JList about Rush Limbaugh and some other celebrities on the right. Someone with an anti-Weigel axe to grind leaked the JournoList archives to a new right-wing website called the Daily Caller. It was a win-win for all involved in the shady deal: the Daily Caller got a bunch of new hits, and the leaker got Weigel fired and may have destroyed his career (we’ll find out in a few years).

Some conservative media outlets decided to run with the story that JournoList was a liberal cabal coordinating stories and manipulating the news. The evidence to support this view is pretty weak / non-existent, but that hasn’t stopped some people – like Kenneth Anderson – from moving into full freak out mode.

It’s probably unfair to single out Kenneth Anderson, since there are plenty of other examples, but I think it’s important to have a concrete example of how insane our culture has become. Anderson used to have a very high opinion of some journalist named Finn based on years of experience consuming and appreciating  his reporting. But now that some partisan hack media outlets are publishing vague accusations of journalistic misconduct among a group of people on J-List, Anderson is suddenly extremely distrustful of ALL JOURNALISTS. I apologize for the profanity, but that’s just fucking nuts. I’ll echo my colleague JSC7 in asking why vague allegations about JList, or specific citations of intemperate words said in private, should be such a powerful signal that should change a person’s professional credibility despite years and years of actual work product that could provide a more accurate source of judgment?

Let me put this another way: A random, untrustworthy dude on the street comes up to you and says that some heinous shit went down at a local bar last night. Do you (A) dismiss the bum’s allegations and go on with your life unless you get some actual, credible information, or (B) gasp in horror and publicly question the morals and credibility of anyone who even looks like the people who would have been in that bar last night — even if you had just recently asked one of them to be your newborn child’s godfather?

Common sense says (A). Certain oh-so-earnest and concerned political operatives on the right say (B).

Does this mean that everything about JournoList was above board? I don’t know. I wasn’t on it. But nothing yet has come out that makes me think JournoList was any more problematical than an office water cooler. So like any sane, good-spirited person, I’m choosing not to believe the worst and most outlandish conspiracy theories until I see some credible evidence. I’d like to even stop reading, writing, or caring about this topic untill/unless this credible evidence materializes. Unfortunately, the cause of maintaining standards of decency and privacy is too important.

* The title of the piece in question, as you’ll notice if you click through, is “A note to all the non-JList reporters”. Combine that with my bar analogy later in the post and you have the odd title to my blog post. Sorry about that.

The internet and privacy: stop taking the easy way out

[by JSC5]

[Update: Thanks to Jonathan Bernstein for linking to this on his site and giving us our biggest readership day since we started. For all of you new-comers, if you like what you see, please feel free to look around the rest of the site and sign up for our RSS feed.]

Jonathan Bernstein may be (is!) a brilliant analyst of the structure of American politics in the modern era, but I really hope people don’t start taking his words of wisdom on other major life issues seriously:

Kids: never, ever, ever, write something anywhere that you don’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper.  Forget the WaPo; the universe is going to make you suffer, and it’s just brutal.

Let’s imagine I’m an impressionable kid and I take Jonathan’s advice seriously. What effect does it have on me? I’ll give just two of many examples:

  1. I’m going to have a hell of a time maintaining long distance relationships of any kind (friendship, family, romantic). The phone only really works if you pre-plan a meeting time that works for both of your schedules, a challenge that becomes especially thorny if you’re calling across time zones. Written communication opens up the possibility of regular, spontaneous contact — the kind of contact that social relations thrive on — by letting the sender write when she has the opportunity and the receiver read it when he’s got a free minute. But would I really want the New York Times to run with the hyperlinked headline: “So-and-So Calls Shake Weight Ad ‘Funny as Shit’ ‘” ? Like an inmate or an astronaut, I guess I better restrict my long distance relationships to a once-a-week phone call from now on.
  2. I will never go on the record with an opinion stronger than “I guess it could be defensible to conclude X, but proponents of !X make some good points, too.” This one’s a no-brainer. It’s really hard to know what the big issues of the day will be 10, 20, or 50 years from now when people might be digging through my written record for a quote to exploit. No one’s ever been impeached for saying they love America, apple pie, and grandma — or for omitting their opinion entirely. If I want to have a successful career, clearly I’m going to have to turn into either a blithering idiot of a stereotypical politician on the one hand, or Elena Kagan on the other.

Whether we’re talking about private missives or public pronouncements, Jonathan Bernstein’s advice to keep yourself out of the written record is just terrible. When so much of who we are is mediated by writing, it’s detrimental to humanity to tell young people that the tyranny and whim of public standards of acceptability should determine who they are and what they write.* And unfortunately, Bernstein’s advice seems to be pretty common. The popular reaction to the Weigel affair, which Bernstein is writing about, seems to be: hey, he shouldn’t have written those emails with the expectation of privacy, and he should have known what was coming to him if they got out. That’s the typical advice to young people regarding internet privacy, and privacy in general.

Maybe it’s good strategic advice for an individual — but, given the developmental and experiential importance of putting yourself in your writing, maybe it’s not. Either way, it is a terrible standard to be advocating to the public. We desperately need to move away from a society that invests zero effort in understanding what someone is really trying to say and instead focuses on the ‘controversy’ surrounding the statement itself. We desperately need to move away from a society that doesn’t give a damn about context, presumptions of privacy, or the complicated inner world of all human beings.

I think most people realize we need to end this culture of public tyranny. And yet very few people seem to be willing to argue against it when it matters. Telling someone you’ll keep your trap shut if ya know what’s good for ya may help him avoid getting whacked by the mob, but it won’t do much to end the reign of terror of La Cosa Nostra. And that is, after all, what we need to do.

*This may seem at odds with my previous post on Elena Kagan, in which I defended her for making sacrifices and structuring her life to maximize her odds of ascending to the Supreme Court. I’d separate these two posts by noting that Kagan is an individual who should be free to choose the life she wants, which apparently involved neutering her public, written opinions in order to have success in her profession. That’s a legitimate choice for an individual to make, and far be it from me to start criticizing her work-life balance. People are allowed to prefer work. Jonathan Bernstein’s advice, however, applies more broadly to just about everyone, and affirms the principle that we all ought to judge others and expect to be judged by whatever the prevailing standards of middle-of-the-road, vanilla opinions are these days. As a standard that would apply to everyone, I find this very disagreeable and worthy of ridicule.

You say entertainment, I say information

I’m not sure where I’m going with that title, but whatever. I don’t think JSC5 and I disagree much in our two posts on the topic (here and here), at least not in terms of the definition of internet content. I agree that what I’m referring to as information is actually just entertainment in (an entirely see-through) disguise, though denial of that fact certainly contributes to the problem.

I guess where JSC5 and I disagree is how to deal with the problem that we both acknowledge exists. He, like a good American, is all for the pull yourself up by the bootstraps approach, and I think that’s fine, as long as it works. He uses the analogy of a bar, that a bar is entertaining, but none of us would focus all our social life at bars because we know that that wouldn’t be a good idea. I think the analogy works really well, but on a different level. The reason alcohol doesn’t monopolize our lives, as fun as it is, is because we have a strong social infrastructure that discourages it from doing so. Compare, JSC5, drinking culture in the U.S. to drinking culture in the Vietnamese business world, where those structures are weaker. Also, there’s the added fixed cost of having to go to a bar or otherwise procure alcohol, which at the very least means you need to be wearing a shirt, which already makes it different from most of time spent on the internet.

Right now, there’s very little cost to going online. Time and money costs are minimal, as most of us are never too far from an internet connection. And social costs, for now, are also minimal. We make fun of people who are glued to their Blackberries, but it’s worlds apart from how we view alcoholics. And so death by infotainment is very easy to reach, whereas death by cirrhosis is probably pretty rare. I still think that JSC5’s recommendation for diversifying entertainment stands, but I think that might take some willpower to implement. I know for me at least, software that let me forward commit to limitations would be a big help in implementing that diversification. Think about it like a forward commitment that didn’t allow you to drink during Vietnamese business lunches – tell me that wouldn’t have been nice?

And as for your recent guzzling of smart phone Kool-Aid, I say LEAVE! LEAVE BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE! BURN THE PHONE! No, but seriously, I have nothing against smart phones per se, other than that I think the social obsession with them is representative more of how much we are entertained by useless crap than by any value added. Obviously, this is not the fault of the machine itself, but how we use it. The alcohol analogy applies again; there’s nothing inherently wrong with the substance, just certain uses of it. Think of a smart phone as a the infotainment equivalent of a flask. A flask isn’t inherently bad – I’m sure there are plenty of occasions when I’ve thought, man, a spot of whiskey would really do the trick right now (as in, you know, every time I had to discuss something with el Doctor; apologies for the inside references, loyal readers). But generally, if someone has a flask, it’s not because they’ve adequately assessed their potential needs for portable alcohol, it’s usually because they’re the sketchy older guy taking his high school girl friend to a Dave Matthews concert and brooding in the background waiting for one of her hotter friends to ask if anyone brought liquor. Obviously, smart phones are handier than flasks, and, unlike flasks, will figure in prominent and useful ways in the development of human civilization. It’s just that those ways represent just a fraction of current smart phone use.

Death by entertainment

[by JSC5]

I can’t help but take issue with some things my colleague says in his interesting post, “Death by information“.

First, our points of agreement. I, too, think that we as a culture are far behind the learning curve in terms of our ability to successfully integrate into our lives the massive amount of new information that the web makes available. The dopamine rush of clicking the next link, reading the next email, reading that next little piece of insightful analysis of today’s news … that’s all very real.

Where I part ways with JSC7 is where I look for a solution. He calls for technologies that give our internet experience more structure, with pre-commitments to self-limit time or locations while online. That seems a bit off to me.

The problem isn’t so much “death by information” but rather “death by entertainment“. We shouldn’t treat the next item in the RSS feed or the next email in the inbox as information that we’re gathering in a (misguided) attempt to make ourselves more productive. Instead, we should treat the next unread item in the RSS feed as entertainment, pure and simple. It’s not the case that we were thirsty and came to the internet faucet for a drink of water and just end up lingering a longer than is optimal. Instead, we were bored and went into the Internet Saloon for a drink, and our drunkeness is the predictable result.

One outcome of looking at the problem as death by entertainment rather than information is that the obstacle to optimizing internet use isn’t necessarily structure, but rather personal creativity and imagination. While bars are fun and great places to pass the time, all but the most incorrigible souses agree that it’s just not healthy for a bar to be the main source of entertainment. There’s a bunch of other great places to find entertainment, like triple-A ball parks, Do-It-Yourself artisan groups, folk music festivals, and so on. It seems to me that we all overconsume bars and underconsume all the other great entertainment options — not because we’re alcoholics, but because it’s an easy, sure place to find some fun without having do the work of scrolling through the list of alternatives and picking one.

To bring this back to the internet, I guess the lesson is that online communication can be great for spreading information and increasing productivity. But my personal overconsumption over the internet has little to do with the information I’m getting and everything to do with my failings as a creative, active pursuer of entertainment. I have all the tools I need to structure my online experience. It’s just that sometimes I’m simply not creative enough to find better modes of entertainment than reading the day’s news and commentary.

So maybe the solution isn’t additional technologies to structure the internet experience. Maybe the solution is additional effort in cataloging, searching, and settling on alternative modes of entertainment. The relevant barriers there are in higher entry costs, uncertainty, and inconvenient access.


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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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