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First POST: Longform

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, September 16 2013


  • Steven Johnson pinpoints what I thought was missing from Henry Farrell's essay on the "Tech Intellectuals" in a comment on CrookedTimber, where Farrell blogs:

    my main disagreement has to do with the “drab uniformity” of the tech intellectuals. The one thing you don’t really mention is the emphasis on commons or peer-based production that runs through the work of many of the people you mention: certainly in my books, and Lessig’s, Shirky’s, Zittrain’s, not to mention Aaron Swartz and Yochai Benkler, and so on. I think you’d agree with me that, in mainstream US political discussion, collectively created property without traditional ownership relationships has almost no place whatsoever. It doesn’t even register as a recognizable category. And yet it is a central animating idea for many of the people you talk about.
    Now, you can argue I suppose where that idea fits on the political spectrum — I think it belongs on the far left, in the BoingBoing socialism side of the spectrum, as you once called it. And of course you could argue that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be: that peer production works well for making software and encyclopedias, but not much else. Those are all legitimate debates. But even the critics would have to acknowledge that there’s nothing “drab” and “uniform” about that commons-based orientation; if anything it’s too weird and hard to place for mainstream discussion…

    The whole comment thread is worth perusing, as it's got fresh insights from people like Zeynep Tufekci, Nick Carr and Tom Slee, along with a serious back and forth between Farrell and Johnson. And there's also plenty of interesting pushback on Twitter from folks like Jillian York, Quinn Norton and Kate Crawford.

  • Meanwhile (and we're late to this), Tom Slee has penned a tough critique of the Omidyar Network's philanthropy, arguing that its venture capital investments "time and time again" have damaged "commons-based sharing" projects, pointing to investees like microfinance fund Unitus, Global Giving, CouchSurfing, Code for America and As with all of Slee's writing, the piece is worth reading. Here's my response.

  • Comedian Russell Brand has written a hilarious and pungent description of the night he was given an award by GQ Magazine in Britain and chose to point out that the event's corporate sponsor, Hugo Boss, had made uniforms for the Nazis, leading to his ejection from the party. It's reminiscent of the night Stephen Colbert hosted the White House Correspondents Dinner and made fun of the journalists present for failing to challenge the Bush White House's version of events leading up to the Iraq War. It's a taste of "This Town," London-branch, only much much funnier than Mark Liebovich.

  • Historian Andrew Russell has a dense but fascinating response to Bruce Schneier's recent call on Internet engineers to re-design the net in ways that would address the NSA's violation of the system's underlying social contract of transparency and trust. Russell notes that the Internet Engineering Task Force has begun discussing Schneier's call to action, with a post called "The gauntlet is in our face. What are we going to do about it?" But then Russell turns and argues that not only does the IETF lack the ability to force new standards into use, the economics of today's Internet are all pointed away from investments in a different infrastructure. Besides, the Internet wasn't designed for privacy or security. Russell's conclusion:

    only an act of "dot-org entrepreneurship" can generate something truly different.  If/when that happens, it won’t be the "internet" that Schneier, Snowden, and their allies seek to defend: it would have a new “imaginaire” that, one hopes, would embody the values of privacy and security in ways the Internet does not and never has….I’ll conclude with a historian’s lament.  I worry that we are witnessing a cautionary tale of writing history without the benefit of one of our most powerful tools: long-term perspective.  Thus far, it has seemed reasonable to cast the Internet’s brief history as a narrative of success.  Perhaps it is time to re-imagine Internet history as a tragedy.

  • Twitter co-founder Evan Williams shares his vision for the future of Medium, his increasingly influential publishing start-up, with Gregory Berenstein. A snippet:

    “I think more people would be in a better place if more people shared their ideas,” says Williams. Seen this way, Medium is just the next logical step in Williams’ three-product cycle to inject better ideas into the world. Blogger helped open the doors for pajama bloggers to compete with the media moguls. A few years later, Twitter gave the power of broadcast distribution to everyone who had 140 characters to share.
    Now, to complete the circuit, Medium wants to make viral information more substantive — the hope in the Pandora’s box of communication. “It’s also an optimistic stance to say that we can build a system where good things can shine and get attention. And there’s an audience for ideas and stories that appeal to more than just the most base desires of human beings.”

  • Speaking of reinventing publishing, Syria Deeply's Lara Setrekian is getting her 15 minutes of well-earned fame. After Syria, she's looking at Myanmar and "Oceans Deeply" as other places where news is needed badly and where a market failure is creating an opportunity for her site's model of intensive coverage. "The news business may be down, but the insight industry is booming," she says.

  • The Washington Post has a beautiful new interactive story about the International Space Station, complete with tidbits like this one: "Satellite TV reception in space is poor, oddly enough." And, "Astronaut Mike Fincke spent his downtime reading science fiction, including the Arthur C. Clarke novel '2001.' Picture it: A man in a space station reading a novel about people on a space station. That closed a cultural loop."

In other news around the web

  • If you live in New York and have an EZ Pass in your car, it's likely that plenty of people other than toll-takers are tracking your movements, reports Kashmir Hill. The solution? Stick the pass in the bag it came in, and only take it out when you have to pay a toll.

  • Outline, formerly known as Politify, has its first customer: the state of Massachusetts. The civic start-up will build a budget simulator for the state and include a consultation element, so users can not only see how the state budget affects them personally, they will be able to give their feedback as well.

  • The Brazilian government is running a transparency hackathon.

  • Kenya's vibrant tech scene, including Nairobi's iHub, gets a friendly write-up in the Guardian. One skeptical observer notes, "In Kenya everyone's opening a mobile venture trying to solve a problem that nobody has." Huh. Sounds like Silicon Valley?

  • Meet BlueJay, where "cops watch your tweets in real-time."

  • GOP freshman Rep. Justin Amash, who is making waves challenging the White House and his own leadership on subjects ranging from Syria to the NSA, gets a respectful review in the New York Times. Last summer, Amash posted this on his Facebook page, the Times' Ashley Parker notes: “Have you talked to someone who has talked to someone who has talked to someone who has talked to someone who might be a terrorist? Well, the government might be spying on you.” Rep. Mike Rogers, his senior colleague and chair of the House Intelligence Committee, was not amused. “This isn’t a game, this is real,” Mr. Rogers said on the House floor. “Are we so small that we can only look at our Facebook likes today in this chamber, or are we going to stand up and find out how many lives we can save?”

  • Upworthy is doubling its staff and expanding into new verticals, buoyed by an $8 million Series A funding round, reports Fast Company's Anya Kamenetz. The investors are led by Spark Capital, Catamount and the venture arm of the Knight Foundation. Upworthy now has 4.5 million subscribers to its daily newsletter. More background here from Spark Capital's Andrew Parker.

  • Happy Birthday to Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, Ben Brandzel and Rebecca MacKinnon!