Archive for February, 2009

Of Vision and Victory

February 23, 2009

John Battelle’s account of Google’s various predecessors in The Search conjures up distant memories of Boston’s Route 128, once known as America’s Technology Highway. That was home to the now defunct Digital Equipment Corporation, known as DEC, and other towering high-techs. At DEC, Louis Monier took AltaVista from “concept to executable code.” His search engine, with multiple simultaneous crawlers, produced for its time an unprecedentedly wide-ranging index. But when Monier sought approval from DEC to go public, its executives “scratched their heads,” Battelle notes. After all, DEC was a hardware outfit, and this new phenomenon did not fit the company plan to sell minicomputers. Those corner-office creative thinkers stumbled over success and kicked it out of their way as they headed to obsolescence.

What the DEC execs lacked was vision. Ditto for Compaq. I wonder how the chain of events would have played out if those folks had possessed some foresight and imagination. Would Google now be the powerhouse it is?  Kudos to Google for having that vision. The question is whether Google can maintain it. There’s a thin line between success and failure.

Blogger journalist Jeff Jarvis, who wrote the book What Would Google Do?, gushed about Google’s sensational success on “Press: Here,” a Silicon Valley Show on the San Hose NBC station http://www.buzzmachine.com/.

“It’s genius what they’ve done,” he declared. “It’s just amazing to see a company that defaults to smart.”  Jarvis added that Google has a “different relationship” with their employees and their world.  If that is the magic of Google’s stardom, companies should take a hard look at their MOs . Gary Hamel’s Management 2.0 blog in The Wall Street Journal, offers a checklist to prod companies toward a similarly successful vision in this new economic era.  http://blogs.wsj.com/management/. It can no longer be management as usual, Hamel tells us. Among Hamel’s most pressing items:

Adaptability:  Companies must be as adaptable and resilient as they are focused and efficient. The problem: Typical management processes “reflexively favor more of the same and discourage pre-emptive change.”

Innovation:  It’s the only protection from destruction. The problem: Most management processes were built to promote “conformance and alignment rather than contrarian thinking and bold experimentation.”

Engagement: Institutional success depends on the willingness of employees to bring the “gifts of initiative, imagination and passion to work each day.” The problem: Traditional management systems, while good at “compelling obedience and harnessing expertise, typically fail to engage the emotional and spiritual energies of employees.”

 So with Google seemingly taking a page from this playbook, it sits on top of the world.  It’s lucky even in the legal world, where a federal judge this past week dismissed the lawsuit a Pittsburgh couple brought against the company claiming that it Google Maps’ Street View violated their privacy http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2009/02/18/google-wins-boring-lawsuit/.

But will that good fortune continue? Will it take more than futuristic management for a company whose riches rest on mining personal data to continue doing so? Will Google be able to take the next step that DEC and other companies could not? It’s mind-boggling that Google’s “Database of Intentions,” as Battelle calls it – our collective electronic footprint – is probably the world’s best monitor of our global culture.  And right now, we just shrug our shoulders in resignation as something known as privacy has been swept up in the dustpan of history.  But already, there are rumblings of starting over with a “new” Internet; Stanford techies already designing it. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/15/weekinreview/15markoff.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&ref=technology . There is speculation that “the current Internet might end up as the bad neighborhood of cyberspace. You would enter at your own risk and keep an eye over your shoulder while you were there.”

 If so, the question is, what would Google do then?

Blogging Accessibility, Veracity, Tenacity

February 18, 2009

Dan Gillmor’s We the media – which chronicles the evolution and influence of new media, particularly blogs – is both an easy read and chock-full of amusing and thoughtful anecdotes that even a technological novice can appreciate.

Gillmor extols the virtues of blogs “as acts of civil engagement” that can instill a sense of excitement even in those who have remained on the periphery of political discourse; nevertheless, he buries in his Epilogue and Acknowledgments some worthwhile analysis regarding the “viral” quality of blogs described within the book. In this ending section, Gillmor quotes his friend and editor Tom Stites, who cites “the blog elite” in surmising that “democracy is doomed.”  Stites is not referring “business/government power,” Gillmor quotes him as stating. Rather, this so-called blog elite is “a highly educated deeply curious insider group centered among the technologically proficient. The sad truth is, most people are passive consumers of news who, because of the insider jargon blogs tend to be written in, couldn’t decipher most blogs even if they signed on; the segment of the citizenry that are savvy and proactive news-seekers is very small, and I don’t expect that to change much.”

            Given that blogs have the potential for broadening the conversation, their predominant use by a niche group is disheartening. How can the breadth and depth of dialogue expand if blogs are primarily a tool for the educational and technological elite?  And by using language that average folks cannot interpret, are bloggers creating their own “walled garden” that effectively shuts out diversity? From a policy perspective, there is something really wrong with this picture.  If blogs have the ability to influence public officials and public policy, will a significant portion of our citizenry continue to be voiceless despite a medium that purports to give voice to anyone with an Internet connection? Of course, not everyone has access to an Internet connection that would allow for this expression. Instead of ending with Stites’s prediction that the status quo will remain, I would have liked to read about ways we could bring about needed change.

            Gillmor rightly points out that the “growth of grassroots journalism has been accompanied by serious ethical issues, including veracity and outright deception.”  He notes that anyone with Photoshop skills can manipulate images to distort reality. But such lapses have occurred in the mainstream media as well. Some three years ago, a Reuters photographer was discovered to have manipulated images. And according to Poynter Online – Visual Voice, such practices continue: see “Inauguration Photo Manipulation Raises Questions,” http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=47&aid=157631 .

 

            Bloggers play an important role in exposing this type of fraud, but a prerequisite to true transparency is a blogosphere built on the kinds of credentials Gillmor himself seems to possess:  He tells us that he verifies information, quotes credible people, avoids anonymous sources wherever possible. But how many bloggers actually engage in such scrupulous fact-checking? Is it naive to expect such a high standard?

            Gillmor offers a caveat to consumers of blogs:  “take information on the Internet with a proverbial grain of salt… verify the claim before reacting.”  I share those sentiments, but would like to believe there is a place for building an ethical framework, given the power of bloggers to expose important stories that our mainstream media miss, or choose to ignore. For example, Gillmor relates that an Iraqi blogger was a key conduit of information regarding a massive march on the streets of Baghdad in December 2003 involving “thousands of Iraqis” who protested bombings by insurgents. “For all practical purposes,” Gillmor states, “The New York Times and other major media outlets missed the march and its significance.”

Bloggers can play a powerful role, but if the editorial standards are impeccable and a diverse audience is accessible.

 

On new voices, media transparency

February 9, 2009

My journey through new media with Dan Gillmor’s We the media has been both uplifting and disheartening. Gillmor outlines several ways new media give voice to the voiceless at a time when trust in traditional media is low.  The evolution from journalism as a lecture to journalism as a conversation, has he puts it, has indeed humbled Big Media. But I can’t help worrying about these voices, given his statement that “most of us don’t stop long enough to consider what we’ve been told, much less seek out context.”  Particularly in view of his revelation that most bloggers have not enabled the comment feature, will this lead to the substantive dialogue we all seek? Will RSS as our own “Presidential Briefing” open our minds and conversations, or further close us off to valuable information?

I join Gillmor in lamenting the demise of quality investigative journalism, which requires commitments of time and money few media outlets are willing to support during these convulsive times.  I disagree with Yale University professor Yochai Benkler’s referenced comment that Big Media retain an advantage over open-source journalism in the investigative realm. Sure, Big Media have the better capacity to make this happen, but they have squandered that gift.  Big Media began chipping away at investigative journalism years ago in favor of quick, cheap, mindless stories. With that, complex thinking was swept up in the dustpan of history. The question is: Is that what the public wants, and if so, should media defy demand and offer expensive investigative pieces at its peril?

I am intrigued that business is making use of wikis for planning and collaboration tools. But this kind of connectivity also must extend to customers. Perhaps the “hacking” phenomenon Gillmor describes – consumers making adjustments to products – could be the result of the death of customer service as we have known it. On the other hand, I’m not sure his push for more public information sharing in the product-development phase would be workable for businesses whose existence depends on patents.    

While business can’t be expected to spill trade secrets, it nevertheless can, and should, share information on successes and failures that could help the industry as a whole. But behold, even the media business, whose livelihood is communication, is reluctant to do this. In his buzzmachine blog on Feb. 6, journalist Jeff Jarvis pleads with The New York Times to reveal information about its Times Select books venture, “the shuttered experiment in paid content,” for the benefit of the industry http://buzzmachine.com/ .

                Which brings me to Gillmor’s astute observation that journalism is among the least transparent of industries; I contend that it is this veil of secrecy that in part triggered the popularity of blogging. But even he doesn’t seem to take the leap toward full disclosure. While embracing those who challenge and correct him, he shows discomfort with the emergence of what he calls “Truth Squads,” and expresses doubt that the media industry will become entirely transparent. But the truth is that other industries, such as medicine, have their scrutinizing truth squads, so what makes the media less touchable?  It seems that a proactive rather than a reactive approach might work better if Big Media are truly committed to the transparency that’s needed to rebuild credibility. Why not make available for each news story a full list of sources tapped, so consumers can decide for themselves whether the story was constructed with truth and objectivity? This could be problematic for investigative pieces, but hey, who sees those anymore anyway? 

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February 4, 2009

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