Archive for January, 2009

The End of Forgetting

By , 29 January, 2009, 3 Comments

I’m back at school at Columbia, and one of my electives this spring is a seminar on “Computers, Privacy and the Constitution” with noted intellectual property lawyer and free software, copyleft advocate Eben Moglen. I have my qualms about the politics of the open source crowd but I will admit that Moglen is sharp as nails and I’m psyched to be studying with him. This course actually focuses on the aspect of the open web question that brings me closest to Prof. Moglen: the issue of privacy. Free access to information may sound like a plus when its free mp3s we’re debating, but not such a plus when it’s unrestricted government access to your phone lines.

Eben Moglen is the first person in the free software movement I’ve heard admit and take ownership for the link between the two, and for this he gets major points. To paraphrase his introductory lecture for the course [I was taking notes, not tape-recording], “We who promoted these technologies to trick capitalism into undermining itself and to empower those at the bottom who could not afford to pay for knowledge enabled the surveillance society we live in today.” And of course, it’s big corporations who are teamed up with big government to operate that surveillance. Whether you’re a hippie anti-capitalist or a libertarian wingnut, you have much to fear from that collaboration.

At the worst extreme, there’s the Moglen paranoia scenario in which the Internet brings us free culture fascism. As Moglen sees it, (and there’s some logic to this), the fundamental ideological front in America’s war on 20th century totalitarianism was not the question of its violence, nor of state control of private sector institutions [though we spoke a lot about those]. Our problem, our fear, was the state’s control of individual minds, the ability to police dreams and ambitions. Data-mining our internet searches and Facebook walls does just that.

Now, Moglen continues, what eventually brings down any regime is “the destruction of its instruction sets.” [He's really a poet in lawyer's clothing] Totalitarianism, to extend the example, failed because its machinery started to creak under its own weight. Moglen’s fear about any contemporary state is not that it is evil but that if it turns out to be, it will be impossible to challenge because the government has purchased all our data and that data can never be destroyed or changed. Everything that is uttered or sent in what we perceive as a transitory medium–the phone, the web–is actually recorded and made permanent. This is what Moglen calls “The End of Forgetting.” It’s a tragically beautiful concept, but it’s one I somewhat differ with: sometimes, the ability to Always Remember can be good. But by and large, I’ll admit Moglen is right to be alarmed about our privacy.

If nothing else, his concerns are topical. A few relevant stories from this week alone:

–the British government is going to release a new plan to help internet service providers police privacy. How? By the creation of a new agency which “will decide what level of illegal activity is required before an internet user can be spied upon.” In an Orwellian twist, the agency [to be funded by the telecom firms] is called the Rights Agency. How big brotherly.

–to Moglen’s point about the overlap of free culture with surveillance culture, the British government is also announcing an expansion of its open government policies, shortening the statute of limitations after which journalists can get access to classified documents

–Swiss cops used Google Earth to find a marijuana farm. These kinds of collaborations bring into question any government attempts to regulate these companies. Sometimes, I think the government doesn’t realize how much it is dependent on these firms–last week, the Obama administration signed its staffers up for Gmail when the White House email system crashed, calling the arrangement temporary. Do they not realize they’ve just given a bunch of engineers in California PERMANENT access to what, in the analog age, would have been highly classified correspondence? Do they not know that Google datamines email? Can’t be, because they often buy such data. Do they honestly think Google deletes any info the government doesn’t use? Ha.

–As Moglen concedes, free software has at least thus far failed to undermine capitalism. But capitalism might be the last weapon in the battle to undermine digital surveillance: it’s other companies’ fear of Google’s power that will motivate them to join with civil libertarians in defending privacy. That’s the gist of this article in WIRED, and the case made by the author in the video interview below.

Newspaper Futures

By , 28 January, 2009, No Comment

As readers of this blog will know, I am ambivalent about the emerging M.O. of online journalism. I think original reporting available to more people at lower cost is great news. I think editorializing from informed but partisan experts is a good thing in so much as it engages people to be active citizens even as it educates them. I think the trend of taking the link—the ability to connect disparate ideas—and using it as a license to eschew logic and connect anything you please is bad. I think the claim by link-evangelists that their denial of verifiable truth is more intellectually honest than the imperfect, but well-intentioned, search for objectivity that characterizes traditional print is the worst of all.

I feel compelled to summarize the above stances again in light of a recent article by Michael Hirschorn in the Atlantic Monthly. Hirschorn makes the case that the current financial crisis will speed up the (he says) inevitable bankruptcies of various print organizations, and takes up the NYT as an example.

Women and the political transition

By , 22 January, 2009, 1 Comment




Now-official Secretary of State Clinton: when watching the inaugural, I noticed that the procession grouped dignitaries by professional designation–first the legislators walked down the Capitol steps, then the Obama cabinet designees, then the first family, then former Presidents and Vice-Presidents, accompanied by their spouses, and finally Biden and Obama. Hillary Clinton fit several of those categories: as of Tuesday, she was the junior Senator from New York, the Secretary of State designee and the wife of a former President. I found it telling that she did not walk out with her Senate colleagues or her fellow Cabinet appointees but as Mrs. Clinton on Bill’s arm. As an HRC supporter during the primary, I consider much of her time as First Lady relevant experience (part of the campaign’s core argument). BUT just like you list your most recent job at the top of your CV, it seems to me that on Tuesday Jan 20th, as the administration in which she is about to serve takes over, Hillary Clinton’s primary identity should have been as a member of the Obama cabinet. That it didn’t work out that way reminds us of the many glass ceilings that are still unbroken.

That is not to say that any woman who wants a job should be promoted to it. Or that family ties are irrelevant. My enthusiasm for Secretary Clinton is grounded in the fact that she was working towards a career in public service BEFORE she became a political spouse, BEFORE she had the dynastic ties. Caroline Kennedy, who thankfully withdrew her name from the race to fill Clinton’s Senate seat, is the opposite: someone who has never shown an interest in electoral politics, except for a few weeks this winter when she thought it might come with her name. The same women voters won over by Hillary Clinton are the kind of people irked by Caroline Kennedy because it seems she has never, and never could, put career first.
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Moreover, politically, she never made much sense. New York Democrats already have a big name, downstate (ie New York City) voice in Sen. Chuck Schumer, who gets plenty of press. As a Senator, Clinton’s value was that she ran from an upstate district as a moderate and thereby allowed Democrats to make a case for themselves to the more conservative voters of rural northern New York. That’s how the Dems finally managed to take control of New York State government in Albany. From Governor Paterson’s perspective, ensuring that electoral constituency as a base for his party, and his own reelection, is paramount. Which is why I’m thrilled that he escaped the Kennedy trap.Link
Women were one reason that trap was so effective. So long as it makes sense in our national psychology to see Hillary Clinton as Bill’s wife first, Senator and Secretary of State second, so long as the dynasty is seen as the most important thing on HER C.V., it is possible to make the case that anyone with such a dynasty on THEIR C.V. can also be the glass ceiling-breaking women’s pol.

Because there were many women whose support of HRC during the presidential primaries was driven mostly by her gender; I wasn’t one of them, but I was sympathetic to the gendered part of her appeal. And those people were clamoring for a woman to fill her seat, but it needed to be a woman who, like Clinton as her supporters saw her, had a professional identity independent of any hereditary or marital ties. I had my eye on Carolyn Maloney, who’s sharp as nails, a career politician, but also a downstate liberal. Paterson gave us one hell of a pleasant surprise today by inviting moderate, upstate Congresswoman Kristen Gillibrand to his mansion to discuss her taking the job. Indeed, given the upsate vs. downstate nature of NYPolitics, someone of Gillibrand’s moderate make up is just what NYDemocrats need.

Some Thoughts on Obama’s Big Day

By , 20 January, 2009, 6 Comments


For a man known for his soaring rhetoric, I thought the speech was comparitively flat, disjointed in rhetoric, and plagued by mixed metaphors.

From a vision perspective, he dropped a lot of his “change” rhetoric for an emphasis on the “era of responsibility,” but that’s a pretty innocuous and vague vision that has been used before. What does it mean? Let’s ask Gordon Stewart:
Like so much about the astonishingly gifted, directed, disciplined and composed Barack Obama — we don’t know. And my honest reaction listening to his inaugural address is that he doesn’t know either. Whether history comes to regard President Obama’s remarks today as a great speech will depend upon how it comes to regard his presidency. And that will now, for the first time in his career, depend more on the actions he takes than the words he speaks.

Refreshingly, unlike most of Obama’s campaign speeches, this one did have some actual suggestions about policy in it, and policies I rather liked. First off, he offered up a centrist economic agenda—a medium-sized, efficiency-oriented government that will cut failed programs. I’m with Mickey Kaus on this: it’s a pie-crust promise, but if he pulls it off, it’ll be a massive coup.

Secondly, he offered up a progressive foreign policy, in what was the only real killer line:
To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
As Howard Fineman reminds us in Newsweek, Barack Obama’s career started with this idea of dialogic foreign policy and the core merit of his election is the image, the brand, of America he presents abroad. The woolliness of “change” is perfectly suited to the figurehead component of the Presidency.

It is not so suited to domestic policy, though what I call woolliness President Obama calls post-partisanship. And my biggest problem with the speech was that moment where he, again, called anyone who doesn’t buy the post-partisan thing a “cynic.” Let me explain this again: a cynic is someone who has ideal A, but opts for action B because it seems achievable. In the case of President Obama’s vision, a cynic would say “post-partisanship sounds great, but I don’t think it can happen.” I am not that person. I paraphrase Gail Collins: “God forbid we ever have post-partisanship. I would hate that. Partisanship IS my ideal.”
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I believe great policies are often crafted in the ideological center. But they emerge from principled back-and-forth between two sides. Ex: Even if President Johnson could have passed the Great Society laws without threatening Republican Senators and fighting partisan battles I would not want him to have done so. By alienating and angering some on the Right, he ensured that they would spend a generation trying to find private sector alternatives to his policies. Which meant that when the 1990s rolled around and some of his policies were proven roaring successes [Medicare, education and arts funding], while others started to falter [ex: the urban renewal projects], ideas developed by Johnson’s wounded enemies were ready to fill in gaps. The result was welfare reform, the appropriation of some right-wing ideas by a liberal President [Clinton], without any claims to share a universal set of ideals. Clintonian “triangulation” had a sort of Hegelian dialectic logic to it; Obama’s post-partisan vision is different, and in my mind, worse.
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President Obama and his supporters have every right to disagree with me, or with Hegel, or with anyone else, but to dismiss my ideals as nonexistent, or to assume that I share THEIR ideals and am cynically settling for something lesser is presumptuous.

That brings me to the last point about this speech: there’s a lot of hubris in President Obama’s claim that the end trajectory of history is to some middle point where binary conflicts end and that he represents that path. He claims to speak for all of us, and expects us all to fall in line and march towards his professed goals. It’s a bit groupthink-oriented for my tastes. Mickey Kaus and George Will concur. Worse still, he claims that all past history was marching this way even if we didn’t know it. That bit about slaves and pioneers suffering “for us” was borderline offensive, especially since he brushed aside the very real history of racial struggle in one sentence.

It’s paradoxical in a way. President Obama professes to be all about bottom-up politics, but really he’s very top-down: he has a great man theory of history, in which he is one of the great men, along with all the former presidents [and a token reference to MLK] whose words were quoted in his speech. The rest of us matter so long as you believe, as he does, that everyone is—in their hearts—a believer in his postpartisan ideals. If you actively reject those ideals in favor of conflict-as-an-ideal, you don’t fit his worldview. The notion that processes drive history and that individuals emerge FROM those processes, conditioned by impersonal forces, and able to exercise agency within existing balances of power, is out of sync with Mr. Obama’s rather audacious sense of self.

Pompous, hyperbolic, and intelligent, however, is a welcome relief from pompous, hyberbolic and inept. Good riddance, good night and good luck.

Elephant in the Room

By , 17 January, 2009, 1 Comment

Lest anyone think I am being callous or unfeeling in not covering the war in Gaza, let me explain: it’s because I am so dismayed and so bereft of useful things to say on this topic. BUT if you do want to hear an optimistic and actionable plan for how to untangle the Mid-East mess, watch this video clip. I more or less agree with everything in this plan–someone give this man a job as an envoy to the region and get this ball rolling.

Art and the Link Economy

By , 17 January, 2009, No Comment

Yesterday, I took some friends from college to the Met, which has late-night weekend hours that cater to a younger crowd. We saw a unique exhibit, a tribute to the outgoing head curator, Phillippe de Montebello. The exhibition is an 8 room collection of his major acquisitions, arranged chronologically by the year the Met purchased them.

Normally, of course, these works hang in the museum thematically–17th century Dutch paintings are in one wing, medieval Chinese scrolls are in another. Because this exhibition framed the artworks through the lens of de Montebello’s career, rather than art-historically, the two disparate genres often hung side by side. One room has these two paintings next to one another:

Top: Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri; Italian, 1591–1666), Samson Captured by the Philistines, 1619
Bottom: Balthus (French, 1908–2001), The Mountain, 1936–37

Though of course I knew this already, looking at them together really brought out how much the Renaissance art world was confined to a small group of people who all knew the same basic collection of classical and Biblical stories: this meant that you could show a crowded close-up scene like this without any background and expect everyone to know what was going on. Fast forward to the 1930s and it’s assumed that viewers won’t share such a coherent base of narratives you can throw on the canvas. Instead, to the extent that anyone is still painting narrative scenes, you have broader views that take you THROUGH a story, a fictional story that is new to everyone looking at the work. This is something I hadn’t really thought about before, and probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t seen these works side by side.

For the techie in me, it was a reminder of how the digital link is meant to work: instead of just seeing the internal logic of a blog post like this one, you jump horizontally from this to a Wiki entry on de Montebello or journal articles about these artists or an exhibition review, and learn things you wouldn’t learn if you had just flipped linearly through the Met catalogue.
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On the other hand, there were places in this exhibit where the logic of the link was sorely missing. In particular the curatorial captions on the plaques accompanying the work were the opposite of helpful and often showed a lack of expertise about the particular period or place the work hailed from. One of my companions, a PhD student in early American history, pointed out that the caption for a piece of furniture noted the name “Nicholas Easton” inscribed inside, but said his identity was unknown. In fact, she says, historians of early New England know him well. Academia functions in specialized silos, and if this exhibit is any indication, art and history professors could do well to indulge in more inter-disclipinary link-exchange.

Breaking News: People Like to Shop

By , 15 January, 2009, No Comment

In an oft quoted passage of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith once wrote “The propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another is a necessary consequence of the faculty of reason and of speech.” In other words, every nation is a nation of shopkeepers and we are all innate consumers.

That would explain why those who aren’t asking for money so often adopt the language of commerce to make their case, and why biological analogies to evolution are so key to economic and social models.

Example: political blog FastTalkExpress lays out the five techniques that are prerequisite for building a digital persona, or a political brand: they are “Be A Character,” “Start with a Bang,” “Have a User-Friendly Website,” “Attract Traffic” and “Watch for Threats.” Translation: key principles are speed, access, personalization, simplicity, and interactivity. Google search those buzzwords and you turn up business stories and company websites, not political campaigns. I plugged similar themes myself in a series of articles aimed at business leaders in 2007.

It works both ways: business leaders can take lessons from other types of “sales pitches” to influence their decision making. Barack Obama’s campaign tactics have become case studies in B-school classes and story starting points for countless business journalists. The best dissection, however, is still Fast Company’s story on Obama-as-brand from last spring. That’s my pre-inauguration recommended reading.

Cheeseburgers in Cyberspace

By , 9 January, 2009, No Comment

If there’s one analysis of viral marketing that has really stuck with me, it’s a post my former colleague Burt Helm wrote at Brand New Day in July 2007. He traced the multiple impressions–roadside stands, banner ads, marketing-only websites, special promos, YouTube! videos, a radio soundtrack–it took to persuade him to buy a Wendy’s Baconator! In part, it sticks with me because Burt was my cubicle neighbor, so I got a nice whiff of Wendy’s fast food grease the day he ordered from them.

I thought of that post, and that smell, again today when I read about a new project, this time on behalf of Burger King’s Whopper. We’ll get to the campaign in a second, but first a quick comparison of the advertising interface itself. There’s a mini website, and a promotional deal, but so far no big adverts or street displays. The website is far more understated than the complex design-your-own-burger page set up by Wendy’s last year, and there are few platform’s targeted.

Now Wendy’s and BK are competing for a similar audience of 18-25 year olds, but that audience has dramatically shifted in its attitudes to social media in the time between the campaigns. Where Burt, or I, or our peers were all gung-ho about social media in 2007–more impressions, more platforms was always better–the tide has now turned, with young people annoyed by the frenzy and lack of control that has infiltrated networks like Facebook as they’ve opened up to adult users and corporate sponsors. The personal, intimate connection with real world peers that drew most of us to these networks is fading. Facebook’s not so useful when you have all kinds of ‘friends’ you would never really want to call or see in person cluttering your news feed with their minute-by-minute updates.

THAT’s the key insight, in fact, behind the BK campaign, called the Whopper sacrifice. Realizing that young people are now losing interest in Facebook, BK is offering a Whopper to anyone who will delete 10 friends. In a clever little twist, they’re using a Facebook app to do it.

Put the two campaigns together and you realize what they share is the symbiosis between fast food retailers and adolescent cultures. That’s nothing new: Al’s diner on Happy Days, anyone? Indeed, new technologies aside, there’s a lot in the digital environment that echoes the analog age.

Thank God for Leon Panetta

By , 5 January, 2009, 4 Comments


With his nomination today, the Obama team jolted this blogger back into her native state of righteous indignation, and so Cappuccino springs back into action.

I have expressed no shortage of skepticism about 44-elect, in part about his vision of government as driven by ideas rather than process [it's not cynicism: I actively prefer the institutionalists and backroom dealers], but also about his rhetoric of change, of bringing “new players” to the “Washington game.”Link
Ironically, that rhetoric is among the least new things about him. It’s the argument that worked for Presidents Carter, Reagan and Clinton, and that’s just in recent history. Each of them campaigned as a Washington outsider, but where Carter and Clinton actually brought unseasoned folks into power, Reagan was just talking, and wisely re-employed all the old Nixon and Ford hands. If you’re a progressive like me, you probably didn’t like Reagan’s agenda, but you have to concede that he was able to push that agenda through. That’s because his staffers knew how to work the system. Carter brought a whole bunch of his buddies from Georgia in, and while his personal character, intellect and vision were fine when it came to finessing the U.S. image abroad or lending some good feeling to peace negotiations, on the domestic front (energy reform, anyone?) the approach was a giant flop. Clinton is the middle example: he came in with some friends from Arkansas, then found out they really weren’t up to the job the hard way. His party got walloped in the 1994 elections and by the following year, you had some older wiser hands running the Clinton show. Net result: success on big issues like welfare reform after some big staff reshuffles.

Obama represents a more unpleasant kind of middle ground. He’s trying to have both the goodwill that comes from promising “change” and the success that comes from tapping experience by appointing experienced people (ahem a bunch of Clintonites), but putting them in charge of policy areas they have no experience with. Hillary Clinton, health care, women’s rights and childcare expert, is in charge of foreign policy. Bill Richardson, erstwhile Energy Secy, has been born again–briefly–as an authority on commerce. And now Leon Panetta, Washington inside-baseballer and person-to-person expert, has been charged with managing our national intelligence with the outside world. Oh brother.

This is bound to create precisely the leadership structure Obama wants: each of these people will disregard their institutions and give the President direct advice on the issues they ACTUALLY know about, as individuals and friends. It will be character and idea based, and then 44 will call his own shots based on his relationships to those people and his assessment of their trustworthiness.

Even if he wasn’t such a spring chicken, I’d be mildly alarmed by that. The most effective presidents call their own shots based on advice that comes to them from their deputies NOT as people but as representatives of A. specific policy arenas and B. specific government instutions–the Fed, the Pentagon, the Department of Labor, say. The advice itself then reflects the institutional judgment and memory of those bureaucracies and the seniormost advisors have the experience WITH THAT SPECIFIC AGENCY to squeeze the best intel out of it.

This model isn’t romantic, for which reason the Obama folks won’t adopt it, and I seriously fear that the administration, the country, and the Democratic Party will pay for that audacity.