I Just Don’t Get It

Posted: July 28th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Culture, Politics | Tags: , , | 5 Comments »

Obamamania, that is. I’m about 90% sure I’m voting for him, because at the end of the day I’m (moderately) left of center, but I’ll be voting for him the way most liberals voted for John Kerry in 2004: with a shrug, and a total lack of emotion.

I’m trying very hard to at least comprehend what has everyone else so jazzed up, but so much pro-Obama coverage confuses me. For example, I hear that he promises some new kind of politics that is cleaner and more honest than what we’ve got now. I may not like that, but that’s something I can get my head around. But as soon as I start to process that, I see this piece in the Sunday Times about how he and McCain represent “new” politicians because they come from the Senate, which is a change from an “old” model of governors (Carter, Clinton, Bush) and generals (Eisenhower).

Wrong. If we take the longview, we’ll realize that for most of US history, senators were the most likely presidential candidates. The 20C examples of presidents with executive, not legislative, experience was the change. Electing senators is old news: Abe Lincoln was a one-term Congressman, and from Illinois too. The contradictions go further–the article opens with a long lede about Lyndon Johnson and the kind of bargain politics he mastered as a senator, then used to pass a ton of legislation as President. But Johnson’s bargain politics was manifestly un-clean: it was the backroom dealing and verbal arm twisting of a DC insider. I kind of like Johnson, even if I think his policies were flawed, BECAUSE of that willingness to be forceful. The analogy might fit McCain, but using a HISTORICAL comparison to say Obama is a new politician, however, is just mind-boggling.

Then there’s the contradictions in the coverage of his recent international tour. Arguably, Obama’s biggest strength is that electing him would be a great PR move for America. That seems to be the gist of this blog post from Kevin Xu at Brown’s Watson Institute. But then, in the same post, titled “Obamamania around the world” Kevin reminds us that Obama has no foreign policy experience, so he should focus on the economy in this campaign. With all due respect to Kevin, who’s a good friend of mine, “Huh?”

That’s my biggest problem with Barack: not simply that it’s still unclear to me why I should vote for him, but that no one in his campaign or among his supporters is trying to bring his vision into focus. To ask for focus is an insult, a sign that I’m just an old fogey (keep in mind, I’m 21.) Instead, I’m asked to believe, to feel, to vote for some intangible inspiration–Kevin says Obama’s best foreign policy asset is that he “cares about people’s feelings.”

“Change we can believe in” just doesn’t get my political juices running, because I’ve never seen politics as an act of faith. If I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be seeing in the tea leaves, I have no way to evaluate if it’s there or not. Can anyone decipher?

Good Girls Don’t Blog

Posted: July 27th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Culture, Technology | Tags: , , | No Comments »

The blogosphere is all abuzz because of an article in the New York Times about a conference of female bloggers called BlogHer. The article looks at the conference as a sign of a glass ceiling in the blog world where women tend to blog as a hobby, while a lot of men have been able to make their blogs a full time, and highly lucrative, job. Maybe, the piece muses, that’s because women don’t want to be blogger-executives. Or maybe it’s because they can’t get venture capitalists and advertisers to support them.

The feminist blogs are up in arms that the article confirms stereotypes of women. Because the piece focuses on blogs about fashion and family, it implicitly suggests that women don’t blog about anything else. And because it’s in the SundayStyles section, it confirms that women bloggers aren’t real entrepreneurs, who would get profiled in the Business section. Simply by devoting two pages to discussing gender difference, some of these bloggers say, the article has helped to create them.

The piece has a lot of problems, but they would certainly not be solved by treating BlogHer as an ordinary business conference and ignoring the presence of gender altogether. Rather, instead of simply stating that women blog differently or get less funding, the reporter–Kara Jesella–needed to spend more time probing those inequities. This article should have been longer on cultural criticism and shorter on fluffy prose. By spending several paragraphs, for example, on the atmosphere inside a ladies’ restroom, Jesella leaves no room for analysis.

She drops bombs like “women are taught not to be aggressive and analytical in the way that the political blogosphere demands, and are more likely to receive blog comments on how they look, rather than what they say,” then doesn’t explain her point. The feminist blogs had a field day with this statement, because it seems as though Jesella is endorsing this image of women as non-confrontational and appearance-conscious.

What she could have, should have, added was that even though women bloggers aren’t passive airheads, enough media moguls think of them this way that they might have a hard time raising money. Big advertisers might be confident of the success of an angry man’s blog (think of Arrington, Jarvis, or Drudge) and fearful of an opinionated woman. The article really wasn’t about who female bloggers are, but the struggles they face as a result of the way they are perceived. It strikes me as an attempt to expose sexism that falls flat because it’s badly written, not (as the bloggers contend) because its author (a woman, by the way) is a sexist herself.

The whole point of the BlogHer conference is for women to network with one another to get around these kinds of impasses by DISCUSSING gender issues. To somehow cover the conference without talking about the difference between male and female bloggers is just naive, and hardly a productive feminist approach.

Dumb as we wanna be

Posted: July 24th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Economics, Foreign Policy, South Asia | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

Tom Friedman has a line about US energy policy—“dumb as we wanna be.” I’d like to apply the same to our policies in Pakistan. Right now, we’re pummeling billions into the Pakistani military to help us fight insurgent Taliban sympathizers on the Pak-Afghan border. This is a good cause, but giving a blank check and big arms shipments to the army, then waiting for them to do the right thing is a bad methodology.

First of all, as the NY Times reports, there’s no guarantee that the funds go towards counterterrorism. Secondly, by helping to expand the power of the military at the expense of civilian leadership, we undermine the progress of the rule of law. That’s been the case throughout the Musharraf years, but it’s even more so now when there’s a new democratic government who campaigned as an alternative to Mush. Thirdly, by encouraging the country to focus so myopically on its military, we feed the fire of a ballooning deficit and stalled economic development.

In the end, this “counter-terror” policy of ours promotes dictators over democratic leaders, martial law over constitutionalism and wasteful government spending over economic growth. But it’s when young people have no economic opportunities and no voice in government or in the law to appeal for change that they turn to radical alternatives like terror in the first place.

As Dumb As We Wanna Be.

McDonald’s might just get it

Posted: July 20th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Business, Technology | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

So a few weeks ago, McDonald’s joined the legions of companies who’ve used user-generated content to create advertising campaigns. Sometimes, it’s a disaster because users submit videos making fun of your product and the company gets bad press for censoring those clips out. Sometimes, it’s a flop, because all the ads toe the company line but, for lack of a more technical term, suck: they aren’t funny, they’re badly produced etc. What’s a brand to do?

Along with a colleague, I wrote an article offering some advice on this subject last summer, but none of the user-generation attempts I’ve seen since have taken that advice to heart. The McDonalds contest, however, might reflect a change.

See, company judges just announced five finalists and oddly, one of them is a man who tried to job a Mickey D’s in his teenage years. According to TechCrunch, this is a sign that the idiots at McDonald’s don’t know to run a Google background check. But in fact, I think it’s a sign that McDonald’s understands Web 2.0 branding. People are saying things about you–good and bad–all over the Web anyway; so why not bring your “enemies” inside, where you can counter the attacks. Moreover, the ad in question isn’t critical of McDonald’s so it’s the company’s way of saying that even if you hated us at 14, you might come ’round. I gotta admit, I think it’s pretty coy.

Which Party is more tech savvy?

Posted: July 15th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Politics, Technology | No Comments »

In most polls I see, Barack Obama is set to win in November, which suggests that he and the Dems are pretty tuned in to the national pulse. President Bush is unpopular, it’s a “change” election, and in an era of big technological transformations, the geriatric McCain admits he doesn’t use email. Barack is the hip, young, leader of tomorrow etc.

But then, I learn that the GOP is using Facebook to solicit policy ideas from voters. It’s a similar approach to Gordon Brown’s Ask the PM project, which I blogged about in May: issue-oriented brandbuilding, rather than the plea for donations that characterizes most online politicking.

So I’m split–any thoughts on which party actually gets the Web 2.0 universe? And how important is an understanding of these technologies to lead a 21st century society?

It’s Officially a Trend

Posted: July 11th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Journalism | Tags: , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

I’ve been saying for sometime that the media business model of tomorrow involves the big print organizations (which have brand caché) buying up collections of blogs (which have insider niche information and a savvy grasp of technology). First, the WashPost cut a deal with TechCrunch. Then CondeNast bought ArsTechnica. And now the UK’s Guardian is buying paidContent. Add that to the super-big organizations (like the NYTimes) who can augment their coverage with their own blogs, and you’ve got the beginnings of a new order.

Free Culture 2.0?

Posted: July 10th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Culture, Technology | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

So I’m not a believer in all that free culture anarchism, at least not the way it was articulated in the mid-1990s as some kind of communitarian alternative to the capitalist economy. Artists were supposed to produce for the joy of it, and do something else (teach, sell coffee) to pay the rent. Art for money was not art. Writing licensed computer code for Microsoft was sinful. Etc.

The result is the old record companies arguing for REGULATING the internet as the capitalism-friendly model (which is weird, given all that stuff I learned in econ class about free markets…) and the artists/college students protesting for “free culture as both free from regulation and cost-free.

But now digital media has become mainstream, rather than a geek toy, and the 1990s GenX radicals have given way to GenY entrepreneurs. Artists are finally coming forward to say that free access to the Internet as a technology is and should be compatible with maintaining ownership and rights to content: artists need to make a buck from their work, but they can’t do that if they can’t get to market, and the Internet is now the market, not the product.

That’s the idea behind a new CD that brings mainstream artists (ex: Wilco, on the Warner Music Group’s Nonesuch label) with independents (ex: Aimee Mann) to raise money and awareness for this new middle ground, called “Net Neutrality.” The record, from indie label Thirsty Ear, is out on July 29, and the big surprise is a new song (I kid you not) from the Wrens!

Meanwhile last.fm is moving from free downloads to a model that remunerates artists for their work. AND the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, the proposed revision to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998, is back in circulation on the Hill.

Together, those three incidents tell me that the old binary might be breaking down.

Apocalypse 5: Change begins at home

Posted: July 6th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Journalism | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

In a previous post, I flagged Sam Zell’s approach at the Tribune newspapers as a future business model for the industry. What Zell is after is “a smaller, slimmer, all-print, all-local product that capitalizes on the fact that internet news sources have an edge in fast breaking headlines, but don’t have the time for local color coverage,” to quote myself. Of course, I’m not alone in saying this. Jeff Jarvis has similar comments about some bold moves at the Tampa Trib, while Jon Fine has some thoughts on how bloggers could seize the local space too.

If there’s one city where every internet source, ever TV source, and every paper DO compete for local credibility, however, that city is New York. Over the last five years, the New York Times has beefed up the Metro section, added a Metro blog, and a section of local human interest stories, “The City” on weekends. But to rise above neighborhood newsletters and blogs galore, the Times had to do something more.

On Friday, they took a snapshot of New York’s demographic diversity, achieved by sending a whole team of reporters and photographers to ride the Subway across the Brooklyn bridge and interview commuters. Not only did this make for a great 4th of July story, but it was the Times’ way of saying that with the big resources of a major paper, they can do local color better than the smaller fry in this media saturated town. Whether anyone buys that claim, sales figures in the next few years will show, but the attempt is noteworthy none the less.

Holiday Reading

Posted: July 3rd, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Ephemera | No Comments »

Before I vanish for the long weekend, here are two, very different, blogs I’ve recently got into.

Dealbreaker has some hilarious (and often mean) updates on Wall Street shenanigans, as well as an impressive array of leaked memos that have me wondering who’s running this site.

Front Lines, off the WSJ home page, has news about women. I’m pretty sure no other major print organization has such a blog, and most of the other women’s issue blogs I’m familiar with are less newsy and more ideological. This is a welcome addition that I wish I’d found earlier.

Also, I was going to write something about Obama’s shift into general electioneering, but the NYT did it for me:

“We are not shocked when a candidate moves to the center for the general election. But Mr. Obama’s shifts are striking because he was the candidate who proposed to change the face of politics, the man of passionate convictions who did not play old political games.”

In fact, it now seems, “Yes We Can” was the greatest political game of all.

Happy Independence Day!

Pixar Nails It, Again

Posted: July 2nd, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Business, Culture, Technology | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

I saw WALL-E last night and completely fell in love. There are many film critics better qualified than I to wax eloquent about the animation and the soundtrack. But what got me about the film was its approach to technology and industrialization.

To summarize, WALL-E lives on an Earth that is so covered with litter that it can’t sustain human life. His job is to clean up while the humans orbit the Earth in a space-station cum shopping mall and become fatter and lazier as they continue to buy, and throw away, more junk. But WALL-E also picks through the litter before he runs it through his compressor. He saves relics of human civilization that appeal to his sentimental side: tapes of “Hello, Dolly!,” a rubiks cube, a spork, some Twinkies for his pet cockroach, Christmas lights etc. All of these are the outgrowth, in one way or another, of the same technological and commercial trajectory that produced the mess WALL-E cleans. So, for that matter, is WALL-E.

In our current debates about globalization or climate change, we often talk as though there are two sides: humanitarian, environmentalist lefties who oppose technology and right-wing libertarians who believe it can do no wrong. Meanwhile debates about copyright or social media privacy controls often pit free culture radicals (who believe the Internet SHOULD be allowed to do everything it CAN do) against an old media establishment (who believe, the story goes, that the Internet should be allowed to do as little as possible).

WALL-E is a film that points out the middle ground in these binaries. Just because industrialization can pollute does not mean pollution is its necessary outcome. Nor does that destructive potential compel us to abandon its positive abilites, like making the computers that give us digital animation. Just because the Internet allows us to see everyone’s personal information and steal company secrets does not make those practices okay. Nor do the dangers of the digital world mean we ought to give up the convenience of the Google search.

Fitting, then, that WALL-E comes from Pixar, and thus from Steve Jobs, a titan of the digital age.