Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Battlestar Galactica Guide to Great Literature

As they contemplated Season Four, Battlestar Galactica's writers confronted the narrative mess of the previous three years and exclaimed "There must be some way out of here!"

Would-be screenwriters, novelists and playwrights can learn an important lesson from this past week’s Battlestar Galactica finale. For those not tuned into the BSG universe, the series finale revealed that Starbuck, the plucky fighter pilot who died and came back to life a few seasons back, was not quite human. You may think that BSG’s writers mixed up coffee brands in their minds, Starbuck’s Incorporated with Chock Full 0’ Nuts (that heavenly coffee), when they reincarnated Starbuck not as an android or a clone or some other high SciFi concept, but rather as a true angel. In fact, Angel Starbuck allowed the writers to conveniently tie up of a number of loose ends, contradictory story arcs and mythological red herrings that kept viewers coming back for more Human/Cylon action week after week and season after interrupted season.

In true Deus ex Machina fashion, Angel Starbuck leads the wandering BSG survivors to Earth, not the cinder Earth they previously visited, but our own true Earth of 150,000 years ago where the primitive native inhabitants sat around their campfires humming Bob Dylan tunes. The various BSG humans, Cylons and hybrids disembark, toss their advanced technology into the nearest convenient fusion recycler, scatter themselves to the Earth’s four corners and presumably become fruitful and multiply. Having completed her angelic mission, Angel Starbuck simply vanishes, leaving Lee Adama ("Apollo") to wonder on God's inscrutability.

Flash forward to our present-day world on the verge of creating its own Cylons thanks to Japanese robotics advances, and we witness two angels in America. They appear in the guise of Cylon Caprica 6 and Human Gaius Baltar strolling arm-in-arm through the streets of Manhattan, and go about wryly commenting on our civilization’s chance to get the cybernetics thing right this time.

So Battlestar Galactica turns out to have been about angels, not robots, divine intervention, not binary interpolation. A better title for the series might have been "Cylons In The Hands of An Angry God." This is where the other arts can learn a lesson from television in general and Battlestar Galactica in particular. No matter how dire the circumstances, how severe the situation, how irreconcilable the protagonists, there is no conceivable story line that can’t be resolved by supernatural agency.

A survey of the great literature of the world reveals that, with the exception of The Bible, The Koran, John Milton's Paradise Lost and possibly James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, no writer of note has hit upon this simple device to resolve the dramatic crises of their writings. In tale after tale, protagonists suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune without the benefit of divine intervention.

Imagine a Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act V, where an Angel prince Hamlet exchanges the poison drinks and weapons for less lethal alternatives and convinces usurper Claudius to voluntarily abdicate his throne to a newly heroic Prince of Denmark.

Or an Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman where a reincarnated Angel Ben Loman appears bearing a new, lucrative sales route to bestow on his father.

How about an update of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind where Angel Melanie reappears and leads the South to victory, saves baby Bonnie from her equestrian mishap and convinces Rhett and Scarlett that they were truly meant for each other.

And of course, there would be a Herman Melville's Moby Dick where another angelic Starbuck finally nails the great white whale for Captain Ahab with a propitious cast of his harpoon.

You can see the possibilities.

Post-modern critics may argue that dramatic art isn’t like that. In our poetry, our plays, our books and our movies, bad things happen to good people all the time and recently deceased revenants with heavenly bodies don’t always appear to make things right.

Aristotle taught us that art imitates nature. Isn't it about time that art imitate the supernatural?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Columbia Journalism Professor Says "F*** New Media!"

An homage to the guidance and sagacity of Columbia University Journalism Professor Ari Goldman.

According to New York Magazine, when addressing his "Reporting and Writing I" class, Columbia Journalism Professor Ari Goldman is reported to have said "Fuck new media!" and to have described online media training as "playing with toys." His print-centric approach to journalism joins a chorus of practicing newsgatherers contemplating the end of the newspaper business as we know it.

It might appear a bit self-serving or conflicted when bastions of the mainstream media publish article after article bemoaning the death of newspapers, or claiming that only their business model for the collection and dissemination of information will save the American republic. Thus there are Walter Isaacson over at Time Magazine, David Lazarus of the LA Times and David Carr of the New York Times (among many others) who insist that readers pay for their news or suffer an increase in corruption or the end of the Republic. According to these sources, if news dissemination moves to the Internet, we must adopt a new, lucrative business model that will generate revenue sufficient to support their extensive news operations.

At least L. Gordon Crovitz over at the Wall Street Journal is upfront about his perceived need to feather journalists' nests. Under the heading "Information Wants to Be Expensive" he writes:

“People are happy to pay for news and information however it's delivered, but only if it has real, differentiated value. Traders must have their Bloomberg or Thomson Reuters terminal. Lawyers wouldn't go to court without accessing the Lexis or West online service.”

I wouldn't say I'm happy to pay for my news, especially when the traditional newsgathering operations set much of the agenda of what is worth investigating and knowing about and what isn't.

What traditionalists contemplating the future of news on the internet don't mention is that the need to charge their readers is a result of the hyperlink structure of the World Wide Web itself where banner ads have not yet (and may never) replace the revenue generated by print advertising.

Under the current business model in newspapers, the amount of news that is "fit to print" is determined by the number of column inches of advertising sold. The money I pay for my personal copy of the paper largely goes to support the newsstand where I make my purchase.

Of course, setting up pay tiers for information automatically creates text-based information "haves" and broadcast media-based information "have-nots", not exactly what the Founding Fathers envisioned when the drew up the First Amendment. Those who can pay will get the internet value, the rest of us news seekers will have to watch or listen to broadcast headlines.

There are alternatives already in production on the web. Blogs, Wikis, Facebook groups, Twitter cabals and many other information sharing operations are still in the process of becoming, but may have the potential to replace the key functions of mainstream media with free, open access to just the information each of us needs. As David Bollier notes in The Huffington Post, a myriad of below-the-radar activities on the Web are undermining corporate gatekeeping and control of news content:

“There are now countless online communities dedicated to generating their own content. It turns out that the joys of shopping pale in comparison to the pleasures of sharing and curating information with a community of peers.”

One can easily imagine a near future without newsprint:

Well, its been two years since the last printed newspaper shut down and I’ve finally settled into to the newspaperless media ecology. My day started with a two way tweet to President Obama concerning the latest stimulus package, protesting the inclusion of yet another bailout for NBC, CBS and ABC. The President agrees that network broadcasting is obsolete, but we can’t afford to let the three majors fail. Meanwhile, over at Fox, the “all reality programming all the time” former network, Bill O’Reilly was voted off “Debating with the Stars.”

I pulled out my handheld to review this hour’s digital news headlines, some of which I had contributed, when I noticed that our new puppy, Rush, had had another accident on the new carpet. “Bad boy!” I scolded him, tapping him lightly on the nose with my PDA. I completed my other chores, cycling out the old disposable laptop from the bottom of the budgie cage and lining the bottom of the garbage pail with old thumbdrive detritus. I wonder what we used before they came up with that solution?

As usual to start my work day, I exchanged text messages with my congressman, my senator and my friend in the Middle East who keeps my Facebook group up to date on the Palestine-Israeli détente. I noted that my YouTube video has achieved 100,000+ views and surveyed some of the response videos. I considered starting a new group, “Media Ecologists against the use of sepia tone videos” but put it off until later.

Later I set up a three way video conference with my SO who is away on business in Chicago and my daughter, who is on a mid-term break trip to Africa. We finalized plans for our family vacation this summer to one of the new National Tree Farm Parks that recently opened while the country gives the older national parks a few years fallow time to complete recovery from the ravages of the Bush years.

My daughter is researching and shooting a school report on the history of newspapers and had some questions:

  • Is it true that the first toy airplanes were made out of something called "paper"?
  • Did opinion columns and editorials once only go one way?
  • What is papier maché?
As printed newspapers go the way of buggy whips, anti-maccassers and Republicans, it is comforting to know that the traditions and the triumphs of the age of newspaper journalism is being preserved by the Newseum in Washington D.C(which bills itself as "the world's most interactive museum") and online. Someday I’ll take my daughter there to see it in person.

So, Professor Goldman, perhaps the better message to your students (and would-be future journalists) would be: "Make love to the new media, not war!"


I don't often post an entire article written by someone else on my blog, but this overview of this new "Digital Republic" by David Bollier is so germane to the continuing news about newspaper decline that I think its worth a read.

From The Huffington Post, March March 19, 2009:

How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own

The Bush Administration achieved a virtual lockdown of American political culture for eight years, bringing policy innovation to an utter standstill. So consider this improbable fact: one of the most significant achievements in open, participatory democracy in history burst forth during the Bush years.

Working in the parallel universe of the Internet, a loosely coordinated, global federation of digital tribes built a new kind of democratic culture. This culture is embodied in free and open source software, the blogosphere and hundreds of wikis on specialized topics. It can be seen in remix music and amateur videos, the flourishing social networking sites, and new types of "open business" models.

These innovations are not primarily creatures of government or the marketplace. They represent a new "commons sector" -- a realm of collective wealth generated by ordinary people through their own resourcefulness and sharing, largely outside of the money economy.

Although the tech world gets a lot of attention, few people appreciate how the new commons sector is achieving a slow-mo political revolution. As I put it in the subtitle of my new book Viral Spiral, the commoners have built a digital republic of their own. Using software code, free public licenses authorizing sharing and their own imaginations, the commoners have built an impressive civic, economic and cultural infrastructure that belongs to them. It is a world based on open access, decentralized creativity, collaborative intelligence and cheap and easy sharing.

The established order, meanwhile -- the world of centralized control, strict intellectual property rights and hierarchies of credentialed experts -- is under siege. Broadcast networks, daily newspapers, government agencies and politicians are still nominally "in control" -- but with each passing day, the new culture of the commons asserts its powers and out-maneuvers the old order.

The influence of this new sector -- law professor Lawrence Lessig has dubbed it "free culture" -- is large and growing. There are, for example, thousands of free software and open source software programs that power Web sites and blogs, information archives and social networking communities. Where would we be without GNU Linux (operating system), Mozilla (web-browsing), Thunderbird (email), bitTorrent (file-sharing) and BIND, Perl and Apache, which are central to many Internet functions? Linux alone -- a free program created by a vast commons of programmers -- is estimated to have spawned some $30 billion in economic activity.

More than 150 million Web objects now use Creative Commons licenses, an ingenious "hack" around copyright law that lets people allow the legal sharing, copying and distribution of their works. Online sharing and collaboration have become so popular that companies now base their business models around them.

Yet the real story is the power of the commons itself. There are now countless online communities dedicated to generating their own content. It turns out that the joys of shopping pale in comparison to the pleasures of sharing and curating information with a community of peers.

For every name-brand commons like Craigslist, Flickr and Wikipedia, there are thousands of impressive niche sites like Flu Wiki (decentralized tabulation of flu outbreaks), Wikitravel (user-generated travel guides) and Jamendo (music sharing). Sometimes these commons actual serve as "staging areas" for commercial startups. The Internet Movie Database, now the leading database of film facts and credits, was started by two film buffs. Gracenote, the database that looks up information about audio CDs, was started by a community of music fans. This is a new macroeconomic reality -- the commons as an incubator for market innovation.

To date, the commons sector has largely eluded mainstream attention because it is so fragmented and decentralized. It doesn't necessarily make money and it is run by self-organized amateurs. Neither government nor corporations are "in charge" of this eclectic, unorganized realm. It's supposedly a world of bloggers in their pajamas and teenagers exchanging silly videos via YouTube. How can we take it seriously?

Not surprisingly, powerful people from President Obama to corporate executives to newspaper publishers use the commons sector as a convenient foil. They try to dismiss it as a way to show that they remain in control -- and that the insurgent digital republic can be safely ignored.

The commoners know better.

After centuries of being victimized by market forces, the commoners now have powerful tools to protect and advance their interests. They no longer have to put up with the privatization and commodification of their shared inheritance and collective work -- a process known as "enclosure."

The commoners now have their own software infrastructures and open platforms. They have their own legal licenses to prevent anyone from "taking private" their content. One need only recall how Disney appropriated fairy tales and literary classics to build its corporate empire. Or how commercial broadcasters have used the public's airwaves for decades, for free. Or how Big Pharma pays a pittance (if anything) for exclusive rights to federal drug research -- which is then sold back to us as expensive proprietary drugs.

But in the online world, the commoners are asserting their control. Think how the mainstream media are often two steps behind the blogosphere, and how GNU Linux has taken huge market share away from Microsoft. Consider how YouTube is stealing audiences from the broadcast networks....and how the music industry has now eliminated "digital rights management" encryption from most recorded music.

Remember how Barack Obama's candidacy was borne aloft by the commoners acting on their own -- and think how Obama and Congress now face a mobilized public that is more actively engaged in our national political life than ever.

While centralized media continues their sad decline, remix artists and indie musicians and filmmakers are producing some of the most daring new works around. Newcomers with style and vision are using the Web to reach audiences cheaply and directly, without having to get the approval of stodgy, risk-averse Hollywood gatekeepers.

In education and science, there are strong movements underway to reclaim control over knowledge. In the face of soaring subscription rates for academic journals, academics have created more than 3,900 "open access" journals that are free to everyone, in perpetuity. M.I.T. and dozens of other universities have put their curricula up on the Web for free, spurring a new "open courseware" movement.

Students frustrated by exorbitant textbook prices are starting to develop "open textbook" projects, in the style of a wiki, so that they can pay $25 for a print-on-demand textbook with the latest scholarship, rather than $125 for a standard commercial textbook that may be outdated.

An open culture, a sharing economy and a digital republic: the foundations for this new world actually matured during the nightmarish Bush years, beneath its contemptuous gaze. Now that such radical ideas as participation, transparency and accountability have a stable home on the Internet (provided Net Neutrality can be assured), the challenge will be to safeguard this world -- and build it out even further.

R. Buckminster Fuller once said, "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." That's exactly what the commons sector is doing. For all the thrashing about that will surely occur in coming years, somehow I think I know who will prevail.

David Bollier is an editor of and the author of Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own (New Press). For several short video interviews with Bollier on the "viral spiral," visit here, here and here.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Decline and Fall of the Times Roman Empire

What we know about the death of newspapers
Do 400,000 Twitters = 1 New York Times?

If you still read newspapers and magazines, or watch network television for that matter, you are probably aware that times are tough for the mainstream media. Latest casualty: The Rocky Mountain News which folded after 150 years in the press. News rooms across the country are laying off staff and cutting costs. Even the venerable New York Times is forced to sell and lease back its headquarters to stay afloat. Of course, the journalistic consensus is that the fault lies not in themselves but in their competition. In a recent issue of Time Magazine Walter Isaacson blames the Internet for print journalism’s decline:

“The problem is that fewer of these consumers are paying. Instead, news organizations are merrily giving away their news. According to a Pew Research Center study, a tipping point occurred last year: more people in the U.S. got their news online for free than paid for it by buying newspapers and magazines.”

His solution? Micropayment charges that would allow newspapers to collect revenue from web browsers:

“Under a micropayment system, a newspaper might decide to charge a nickel for an article or a dime for that day's full edition or $2 for a month's worth of Web access. Some surfers would balk, but I suspect most would merrily click through if it were cheap and easy enough.”

Over at the LA Times, David Lazarus, rejects the iTunes model for a new revenue generation, an “iNews” as it were, in favor of a subscription approach that would provide the funding for expensive news gathering:

“But unless we want digital newsrooms staffed by skeleton crews of a dozen or so reporters and editors, we have to accept that it costs money to cover news events, perform investigations and tell yarns.”

Bad times affect not only print but also broadcast television. Under the headline “Broadcast TV Faces Struggle to Stay Viable,” Tim Arango at the New York Times quotes Jeff Zucker of NBC Universal:

“…broadcast television is in a time of tremendous transition, and if we don’t attempt to change the model now, we could be in danger of becoming the automobile industry or the newspaper industry.”

Ouch! As newspapers go the way of the buggy whip it is appropriate to examine where the defenders of the press have got it wrong, and where they are right. I have included a mention of broadcast television because the news organizations of broadcast media have often adopted the poses and nomenclature of print journalism even though their now digital-based product is quite a different animal.

Defenders of the press as it stands mistake the physical medium of print with the function of the Press in a democratic society as envisioned by our nation’s founders. Indeed, the rational behind including "freedom of the press" in the First Amendment was detailed by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist #84. Answering the objection that a large central government would be too far away to be effectively monitored and controlled, he wrote:

“The public papers will be expeditious messengers of intelligence to the most remote inhabitants of the Union.”

This is necessary because

“Of personal observation they can have no benefit. This is confined to the citizens on the spot. They must therefore depend on the information of intelligent men, in whom they confide; and how must these men obtain their information? Evidently from the complexion of public measures, from the public prints, from correspondences with their representatives, and with other persons who reside at the place of their deliberations.”

The remedy for the dangers of a remote, central government is a system of communication which, of necessity in that colonial era, relied on the printing press to carry word to citizens at a distance from the seats of government. Living at the height of the print era, Hamilton would naturally rely on the printing press as the medium of choice to preserve the transparency of government he deemed essential to a democracy. If the internet had existed in his time, he might have deferred to any number of Internet blogs rather than to the printing press.

Paul Starr’s epitaph “Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to the New Era of Corruption)” in the March 4 issue of The New Republic is one of dozens of recent laments that mistake the medium for the message. Starr assumes that newspapers have everywhere and always lived up to Hamilton’s ideals, or that only through the medium of ink pressed on newsprint can the "Truth" be revealed and corruption curtailed. He notes that:

“Although the rise of broadcast journalism changed the newspaper business, radio and television did not kill it because newspapers retained their local advantages in providing information to readers and connecting advertisers and consumers in a city.”

I was at CBS News in the 1980s when the decision was made to convert the entire news operation from a cost center to a profit center. Salaries of top news stars were increased. News support operations deemed not essential to the primary goal of maximizing ratings were abandoned. For example, CBS News used to employ a staff of full time research librarians and a facility in-house for news staffers to use in the development of their stories. This was among the first things to go, with a resulting decline in the quality and quantity of fact checking for news productions.

This decision to extract the monetary value of CBS’s crown jewel was not based on ideological or editorial criteria, but on a purely financial one. That such a criterion would ultimately lead to the tarnishing of the jewel never seemed to have occurred to them. The resulting, inevitable degradation of the broadcast news product has also tainted print journalism as newspapers struggled to maintain relevance in the face of sound bite news delivery.

The new information environment of broadcasting required a subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) change in journalistic practices and created a gap between what the public wanted to know and what the public needed to know. This gap, being environmental, was largely invisible until the advent of the Internet. The “amateurs” of this new media environment have brought this gap to the foreground, focusing our attention on unquestioned compromises of mainstream media news gathering and reporting that have little to do with real journalism.

Newspapers’ reliance on advertising and classified revenues has always left them vulnerable in economic downturns. This vulnerability has become critical in the face of simultaneous assault for eyes and minds by a competing medium, the Internet. Had print journalism really fulfilled Hamilton’s vision of the Fourth Estate, large scale newspapers might still be viable. If collectively newspapers were still the source the distant public could turn to for information important to their lives and well-being, we might not be witnessing newsprint’s end. The problem is that often they did just the opposite. I won’t go into the shortcomings of the obviously biased papers like Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, the Washington Times or the Chicago Tribune. Even the so-called liberal papers of record like the Washington Post and the New York Times have fallen short of the mark more often then not.

For too long most of the press has gone along with the Washington establishment to get along. Publishers and editors alike mistook the physical ownership of the printing press for the spiritual ownership of Hamilton’s function of the Press.

On both economic and political fronts, the mainstream media often have failed to keep the public informed. Where was any of the press during the length of Madoff Ponzi scandal? More than twenty years in the making, with numerous warnings from whistleblowers like Harry Markopolos, but no financial reporting organization picked up the lead. For that matter, where were the warnings of the current Great Recession? Not only did the mainstream media failed to call the Bush Administration to account during the lead-up to the Iraq War, most of them actively enabled that catastrophic misdirection, including the New York Times whose own Judith Miller helped cheerlead the war.

But you don’t have to look only to the most recent events to see the shortcomings of the press. During much of the Vietnam Era if you wanted the straight facts on the War you had to seek out a tiny little independent weekly newsletter by I.F. Stone.

Having consolidated their smaller competitors out of existence, the declining newspapers can’t use the same trick that they used in the face of broadcast journalism, that is exploiting “local advantages in providing information to readers and connecting advertisers and consumers in a city.” This opportunity has been sucked away by the Internet.

In other times of media change, old media found new, albeit smaller niches in which they thrived. When video killed the radio star, radio said “I shrink, therefore FM.” In a similar manner, newspapers must reinvent themselves to survive. By this I don’t mean to find new business models or sources of revenue to continue doing the same old thing.. To retain the mantle of the “Fourth Estate” the old guard media must rediscover what reporting is really about. Maybe the example of I.F. Stone’s Weekly from forty years ago can serve as a model. Stone suggested that if you can’t compete with the media, go small, go independent:

"Reporters tend to be absorbed by the bureaucracies they cover; they take on the habits, attitudes, and even accents of the military or the diplomatic corps. Should a reporter resist the pressure, there are many ways to get rid of him... But a reporter covering the whole capital on his own — particularly if he is his own employer — is immune from these pressures."

Monday, March 2, 2009

Stopping by the Woulds on a Snowy Day

Being snowed in would be much better if the weather wasn't so terrible and we could do something with the free time. After all, I spent Sunday soaking up the requisite 15 hours of television to make up for viewing time lost during the week to office hours. And, to be honest, I have not yet reached the stage where weekday television programming (Rachel Ray? Seriously?) is appealing. No bowl games, no playoffs, no golf tournaments in sunny climes, no marathon airings of Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, no Bear Grylls exposing his digestive system to something abhorrent, not even a commercial showing Lewis Black in Aruba.

Sure there are carpets to be vacuumed, floors to be washed, other household chores to be deferred, but is that really the best use of this bonus time? I could write another inspiring blog about media ecology, but I haven't been able to come up with a good tetrad about snow. Is a snowstorm an extension of our senses anyway?

So I sit watching the snow on my neighbor's air conditioner pile up and check the Accutrak Radar every so often. Oh wait, they're plowing the rooftop parking garage across the way. See you later.