Notes from the post-print transition, 2: astonishing confirmation — from medicine — that cooperatives fit the 21st-century’s zeitgeist

postgutenberg@gmail.com
Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 23.22.56

Media resisting the unavoidable bow to the democratic future of media ownership are being shown up in Britain by, of all people, the bean-counters of medicine — the traditionally conservative, cautious and slow-moving top managers of the country’s most cherished public institution, the roughly £100 billion ($171 billion) National Health Service.

The pinch-me-I’m-dreaming headline at the top of The Independent’s home page on Monday read: ‘New government policy for the NHS could allow doctors and nurses to “own” hospitals’.

Before we get to the reasoning behind that proposal, let us quickly say that inviting readers and commenters – reader-commenters — to become part-owners of media organisations through subscriptions that would also be financial shares — making them small-scale co-owners – is an actual need in this sector, though not in British medicine. The flow of cash into the NHS is assured. It comes from taxpayers. But, as last week’s entry in this blog noted, the advertising revenue on which print journalism depends to pay its bills looks increasingly shaky as a supreme cash cow for online publishing, as it elbows print out of the way.

Moving towards co-ownership — or ‘mutualisation’ — is the one step that the boldest experimenters with new media structures are resisting. Declining to go that far, we pointed out last month, is the single disappointment in the otherwise wildly impressive reports about De Correspondent – the new Dutch publishing enterprise putting commenters at front and centre-stage in its publishing scheme. Nick Denton, the serial online media entrepreneur – most famous for co-founding Gawker in 2003 with Elizabeth Spiers – has perfectly expressed what we also believe, in describing his many excellent adventures in media redesign to Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab:

“Publishing should be a collaboration between authors and their smartest readers. … And at some point the distinction should become meaningless.”

These smartest readers are most likely to devote all the time they can to the success of an online publishing enterprise – whether a startup or a famous name in the news business ‘flipping’ co-ownership of a part or the whole of its web site to commenters – if they can justify that to themselves with the hope of sharing in its financial success, some day. Denton’s schemes allow reader-commenters to share the stage with professional writers and journalists. They are designed to make readers feel part of a larger family or club, and – as in the De Correspondent plan — to improve the quality of information disseminated on his sites, and the range of expertise on which it draws.

Giving performance and efficiency a gigantic boost is the ambition behind the remarkable news about the proposal for British medicine:

Ministers are drawing up plans to allow doctors and nurses to own and run the hospitals they work in as part of a radical blueprint to change the way the NHS is run.

Under proposals to be floated tomorrow, staff could be able to take over hospitals and other NHS responsibilities and run them as new mutual companies in the style of the department store chain John Lewis.

Staff would then become “shareholders” in the new company with the power to dismiss the chief executive and board members as well as set policy and targets for the new organisation.

Ministers are not ruling out the possibility that staff could even be given a financial stake in the organisations for which they work – sharing bonuses if their hospital makes a profit on NHS work. The new policy comes after an independent review, led by the independent think-tank the King’s Fund, found what it described as “compelling evidence” that NHS organisations with high levels of staff engagement delivered better quality care. […] Ministers have been particularly taken by the success of Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Cambridgeshire, which had been losing £10m a year and had very low levels of patient satisfaction until taken over by the private provider Circle, which manages it for the NHS. Circle is owned jointly by the staff who work for it and private-equity funders.

… We hope that the people in charge of making the rules for the ‘mutualised’ British hospitals will take care to head off any possibility of repeating one grave mistake in American medicine — allowing doctors to invest in medical testing laboratories, rightly blamed for countless unnecessary tests ordered by many of those doctors. These are notoriously a large part of the explanation for America’s expensive and inefficient health care.

The chief fear for the democratic redesign of media is that it will lead to the collapse of cultural standards; that it will usher in a depressing age of mediocrity. Again, the right rules have to be drafted to ensure that this does not happen. Who says that any such effort would lack supporters? Who says that the least talented co-owners of a media enterprise will not wish to celebrate and promote their most talented comrades, attracting honour, fame and new members?

A few weeks ago, there was news of opera-lovers panicking about performances in some places accompanied not by live musicians but digital recordings. A New York Times reader said, in a letter to the editor:

Live music is being performed by an ever-shrinking elite corps of musicians. This trend cannot be reversed. But it will bottom out. There will always be a market for elite musicians … On some level we want to see humans demonstrating their mastery.

 Who would disagree?

What should a writer’s position be on the battle between Amazon and the Hachette publishing conglomerate? Let’s have some basic information, for a start

alley

– photograph by MIL22

As print publishing firms competing with digital rivals have less than ever to give the majority of writers – who have no record as best-sellers — where should scribblers’ sympathies lie in the fight between the Hachette publishing empire and Amazon?

The essential details of what they are quarrelling about are being hidden from us on grounds of commercial secrecy — as noted in one report after another**. These are negotiations conducted down dark alleys. Without those details, we can only puzzle over the tones of ringing certainty in which newspaper commentators have unanimously been denouncing Amazon – although the bookselling giant was plainly wrong to punish Hachette and its authors in these ways noted by The Los Angeles Times:

Amazon is subjecting many books from Hachette to artificial purchase delays. Books that had been available for next-day delivery now take 2-5 weeks to ship. Some titles don’t surface in search as they should. … As a result, Hachette will sell fewer books.

Strangely absent from coverage of the war is an eye-popping point for writers made by a sharp-eyed reader of The New York Times:

To the Editor:

Neither Amazon nor the publishers are pure of heart. Amazon is facing serious pressure on the profitability front from investors, so it is looking to increase margins and reduce costs.

The publishers see e-books as their largest profit area. A Publisher’s Lunch article last year showed the profit breakdown for HarperCollins:A $27.99 hardcover provides a $5.67 profit to the publisher and a $4.20 royalty to the author; a $14.99 e-book provides a $7.87 profit to the publisher and a $2.62 royalty to the author.

While the publishers are making a claim to a noble struggle against Amazon’s efforts to devalue publishing, they are also seeking to protect their higher profits on e-books, not higher royalties for writers. While Amazon claims to want to offer readers the best pricing, Amazon has no qualms about using its powerful market leverage to get what it seeks while inflicting collateral pain on readers to boost its profits.

The two players that are suffering in this situation are the authors (book sales delayed or prevented, dramatically lower royalties) and the consumers, many of whom have invested heavily in the Kindle-based environment.

CHRIS WATSON

Barrington, R.I., May 31, 2014

For authors to extract a bigger share of e-royalties, we are guessing that more scribblers with market power ranging from middling to great will have to start publishing e-books on their own, and do well at it. What advantages of being conventionally published do they give up, when they take the indie road? Fewer and fewer. Many more authors who have tried both the old route to being published and the new say exactly what this Guardian reader did last month, reacting in the comments section of a blog post about self-publishing:

remittancegirl

29 May 2014

I’m not a fan of self-publishing, but I don’t think this article addresses some of the salient reasons for its rise. Nothing is mentioned of the radical shift in traditional publishing to put marketing efforts into nothing but established writers with blockbuster track records, or its abandonment of a good editorial process.

Having been one of those writers who did get published by a major publisher, it quickly became obvious that it was a waste of time and financially costly. The royalty rates offered (especially on electronic sales) are, frankly, laughable. There is no effort at marketing. As a new author, you are expected to do all the publicity and marketing for yourself anyway. The least one might expect was a decent line edit, but the book I published through a major house was published with typographical errors aplenty. So, exactly how does it benefit new writers to even consider submitting to a traditional publisher?

Forget the money. What about the cultural landscape? Are publishers are lining up to publish radically new forms of narrative? No. In fact, the chances of you getting a publishing deal for your book depends, most notably, on how much it resembles another book that’s done well.

And if a writer opts for self-publishing and does well with it, there is a far better chance of having a major publisher will pick you up, republish your work, offer far better terms, better editors and some marketing – now that you no longer need it.

… [T]he disdain in this article for the self-published work doesn’t take into account what is driving many authors to circumvent the publishing apparatus altogether.

The Independent noted,

At least one author, Barry Eisler, is standing up for Amazon, saying: “More people are buying more books than ever and more people are making a living by writing them. Why do millionaire authors want to destroy the one company that’s made this all possible?”

The problem for many in publishing is that the dominance of this one company, with its Kindle store, keeps growing. It is estimated that e-book sales will soar to almost $9bn this year in America, while print book sales fall below $20bn, down from $26bn in 2010.

Yes, it’s clear from those numbers that Amazon has too much power in e-publishing. But to see what can be done about it, let’s have some more information about precisely what terms it was arguing about with Hachette.

Transparency, please.

** For instance, although The Los Angeles Times’s handy summary of the dispute is highlighted as an instance of ‘an unusually public battle’ — in ‘Amazon and Hachette: The dispute in 13 easy steps,’ — its step 6 says:

Amazon has not commented to The Times regarding this dispute other than to point us to a message-board posting in the Kindle discussion forums on its site. There, it explained that Hachette was one of its 70,000 suppliers and that the two had been unable to reach acceptable terms (without disclosing what was being negotiated).

for 1. 1. 2014: Charles Dickens, implacable foe of the witless ‘information wants to be free’ movement

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Sant’Ambrogio, 6.30 am, 31.12.2013 - photographs by MIL22

Sant’Ambrogio, 6.30 pm, 31. 12. 2013
- photographs by MIL22

1.1.2014 - postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

1. 1. 2014 begins
- postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

[ re-posting 'for 1. 1. 2014' entry, now that there are finally a few minutes to add the clips originally intended for this space ]

The anger of Charles Dickens about greed and hypocrisy —  which extended to copyright scoffers, we recently discovered — was the fire that lit his genius. This fact is strangely forgotten by critics of his ‘mawkish sentimentality,’ possibly because too many of them crumble before the challenge of long sentences fizzing with wit to have read him in the original.

Anyone can understand Dickens’s fury about book pirates driving him to write about how much copyright could mean to an author scraping by on earnings from literary craft and the exercise of imagination — as he had himself, before he was famous. But who could guess that in 1838 and ‘39, when he was publishing The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby as a serial, he specifically addressed copyright opponents intent on smashing the concept of artistic ownership – with exactly the same perverted notion of ‘democracy’ as leaders of today’s ‘information wants to be free’ movement?

For a representative of those opponents, in Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens chose a Member of Parliament,  a Mr. Gregsbury, ‘a tough, burly, thick-headed gentleman, with a loud voice, a pompous manner, a tolerable command of sentences with no meaning in them, and, in short, every requisite for a very good member indeed.’

This oaf’s rhinoceros hide makes it easy for him to blow off the demand by a delegation of his constituents that he resign immediately, even though they have presented him with proof of several acts of blatant corruption. This happens just before Nicholas’s interview with him for the post of secretary – an offer he is obliged to reject, though desperate to find work and emaciated from lack of food. The insultingly tiny salary is for duties the M.P. outlines that include serving as office clerk, speech-writer, researcher, PR-man, outsourced brain, and late-night attendant at parliamentary sessions.

In that job interview, the pontificator turns to the subject of copyright:

‘With regard to such questions as are not political,’ continued Mr Gregsbury, warming; ‘and which one can’t be expected to care a curse about, beyond the natural care of not allowing inferior people to be as well off as ourselves—else where are our privileges?—I should wish my secretary to get together a few little flourishing speeches, of a patriotic cast. For instance, if any preposterous bill were brought forward, for giving poor grubbing devils of authors a right to their own property, I should like to say, that I for one would never consent to opposing an insurmountable bar to the diffusion of literature among THE PEOPLE,—you understand?—that the creations of the pocket, being man’s, might belong to one man, or one family; but that the creations of the brain, being God’s, ought as a matter of course to belong to the people at large—and if I was pleasantly disposed, I should like to make a joke about posterity, and say that those who wrote for posterity should be content to be rewarded by the approbation OF posterity; it might take with the house, and could never do me any harm, because posterity can’t be expected to know anything about me or my jokes either—do you see?’

‘I see that, sir,’ replied Nicholas.

‘You must always bear in mind, in such cases as this, where our interests are not affected,’ said Mr Gregsbury, ‘to put it very strong about the people, because it comes out very well at election-time; and you could be as funny as you liked about the authors; because I believe the greater part of them live in lodgings, and are not voters.

… Dickens, who would make an excellent patron saint for the Occupy movement, also sounds bang-up-to-the-minute topical – in the same novel – in a scene in which an unsuccessful, small-time crook cringingly addresses one routinely getting away with larceny on a grand scale:

I left you—long after that time, remember—and, for some poor trickery that came within the law, but was nothing to what you money-makers daily practise just outside its bounds, was sent away a convict for seven years.

Why is the smaller snippet worth adding, there? Because, as we were on our way to this post, we caught sight of a blog title on the site of The New York Review of Books:

The Financial Crisis: Why Have No High-Level Executives Been Prosecuted?

The answer by the blogger, Jed S. Rakoff, in part:

One possibility […] is that no fraud was committed. This possibility should not be discounted. Every case is different, and I, for one, have no opinion about whether criminal fraud was committed in any given instance.

But the stated opinion of those government entities asked to examine the financial crisis overall is not that no fraud was committed. Quite the contrary. For example, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, in its final report, uses variants of the word “fraud” no fewer than 157 times in describing what led to the crisis, concluding that there was a “systemic breakdown,” not just in accountability, but also in ethical behavior.

… Fairness in the copyright debate. Progress from mere rhetoric to forcing reforms in keeping with the Occupiers’ aims.  How wonderful if these should prove to be defining features of 2014. Too much change for a single year? Ah, but this is the centenary of the start of a single war that re-drew the boundaries of the countries of Europe, in the course of which both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires vanished.

Anything is possible. ‘Candles, flowers and hope in a new beginning,’ reflected our MIL22 — whose peerless images from an impulsive New Year’s Eve visit to the medieval Sant’Ambrogio begin 2014 for post-Gutenberg.

One hundred posts, but many more kudos to Annalisa Piras and Bill Emmott for a post-print work of genius focused on Italy

giac b+w title

<i>Girlfriend in a Coma</i> encourages viewers to join its creators in knocking down and neutralising ‘Bad Italy’ – a podgy monster, in Phoebe Boswell’s conception of it

Girlfriend in a Coma urges viewers to join its creators in neutralising ‘Bad Italy’ – a podgy monster, in Phoebe Boswell’s conception

Phoebe Boswell

Phoebe Boswell
photograph by Sky Arts

[…an inadvertently belated appreciation...]

Our 100th post-Gutenberg entry amounts to a standing ovation for two old media journalists — one Italian, the other English —  who have unzipped their imaginations to create a model of transmedia fence-jumping, using digital tools to communicate subtler and more penetrating information than can be transmitted through either conventional opinion journalism or documentary film-making.

The key to realising their extraordinary ambitions for their collaborative video production, Girlfriend in a Coma, was the free hand they gave a hair-raisingly original and gifted young British artist and animator, the Kenyan-born Phoebe Boswell. Hers is a talent that had us scribbling the names of the manically brilliant English cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, his ghoulish American kindred spirits, Edward Gorey and Charles Addams, the Alice in Wonderland illustrator Tenniel, and Salvador Dali, as we ruminated about influences.

Girlfriend is based loosely on Good Italy, Bad Italy (2012), a contemporary portrait in a book by Bill Emmott, The Economist’s editor from 1993 to 2006. He is listed in the video’s credits as co-writer and co-director with Annalisa Piras, credited as director, and the prime mover behind the project. She is about ten years younger than Bill, who happens to be a former colleague of p-G’s remembered for true and exemplary collegiality. This makes it not in the least surprising that – as well as he plays his part as the video’s unassuming narrator, and as much as the narrative is technically filtered through his memories of Italy, his thoughts, and his feelings about Europe’s high-heeled boot — the production is saturated with a wildness and emotional intensity so unlike him that they could only have been conjured by his collaborators. Bill is clearly a first-rate encourager.

Annalisa (as referring to Bill as Emmott feels awkward, we’ll dispense with surnames) has explained how she sketched Girlfriend’s essential requirements for Phoebe and Jenny Lewis, Phoebe’s partner in animating her drawings and imaginings: ‘the Italian characters — the Good Italy, based on the female image since Roman times, the Bad Italy, a thug wearing a “Pulcinella” mask from the Commedia dell’Arte — and the ideas I wanted to convey, and they ran with it.’

Actually, they flew. Annalisa stayed closely involved: frame by frame, they flew together. (See updated Q & A about ‘the making of …’ here.) The result made p-G, a jaded lifelong observer of Italy, sit up and marvel, as if for the first time, about the paradox of a country easily seen as a screaming basket case — as far as economics and politics go — somehow managing to hold its place, for decades, among the world’s leading economies. If this trans-documentary has a single flaw, it is that it fails to offer an adequate explanation for the Italy that, against long odds, has not merely survived but often prospered mightily in modern times. But this is beside the point for Girlfriend — mistakenly slated by some critics for a lack of balance. It is a call to arms. It is a manifesto for the reform of a deeply marvellous but also staggeringly corrupt, inefficient, uncaring and misogynistic society.

Not that anything as dreary as ‘consciousness-raising’ remotely describes its tone. This is set by Phoebe’s surreal, dreamlike imagery, briskly intercut with footage frequently shot from clever camera angles that recalls the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, especially Blowup, and micro-clips from interviews – the interviewees as diverse as high-ranking politicians, Mafia prosecutors, all-too-understandably outraged feminists, top industrialists, historians, political theorists, the irresistible novelist-philosopher Umberto Eco, workers and inmates in a home for the disabled – that justify the video’s charming frame.

And what is that?

Italy is presented to us as a girl with whom Bill fell helplessly in love as a tourist in his student days. Not any old girl but an ethereal and languorous jeune fille who happens to be a touch eccentric, neurotic to the core, and assailed by homicidal inner demons – encapsulated in the figure of the mega-ogre with the Pulcinella mask. She has, for him, come to fit the skin-crawling title of a pop song by the Smiths; a girl so severely afflicted as to end up, virtually, on artificial life support.

No wonder Girlfriend was financed as an indie project – by Annalisa’s own company, Springshot Productions. Though her potted biography mentions her education in Rome in history, politics and cinematography, and two decades of shooting documentaries while she also served as the London correspondent of L’Espresso, we cannot imagine any part of the old media establishment backing such a commendably outlandish project.

That does say something disappointing in the extreme about the reluctance of our dominant communicators to get to grips with the future. Fear of the unfamiliar in other quarters – among arts reviewers – could also explain why p-G is writing about Girlfriend nearly a year after its release in Europe.

We learnt of its existence by accident, last month – having been mostly cut off from news about arts-and-letters at the time of its launch last November. Online searches show that though it did indeed cause the intended stir in Italy, at the loftiest levels, and was shown in art cinemas and nominated for awards in European cities, it has so far failed to be noticed for the right reasons. Though it has had some laudatory reviews in the Anglosphere, including a rave here and there, these have mostly been short (a single glowing paragraph in The Financial Times, for instance). Where, we have been wondering, are the lavish allocations of column-inches that this trans-documentary deserves? The colour photo-spreads? The probing investigations on the front pages of arts sections of how Annalisa, Bill and Phoebe came to be the pioneer-collaborators they are? The questions about their insights into the evolution of post-print media?

Funny, to say the least, that no one apparently saw plenty to write home about in watching the calm, gently reasonable ex-editor of a well-known magazine drifting in silhouette through shadowy stone arches, up and down dark stairways that evoke dungeons — sequences near the start of his narration that evoke both the vicious underside of Italy that includes the Mafia, and our narrator’s own unconscious mind.

Are we being invited, in this segment, to believe that Italy is where Bill’s muse or — from one perspective in psychological theory — anima, in the form of this Girlfriend, resides? Later in the video, one of the readings from Dante Alighieri that interrupt the narrative periodically goes, ‘O lady, you in whom my hope gains strength.’  This is stimulating allusiveness. In the hands of Girlfriend’s creative quartet, it hugely enhances all the information it packs in – is sophisticated, successful sugar-coating for the flow of statistics, miniature history lessons and political science lectures that barely register as anything so dull.

Some highlights (not necessarily in the right sequence):

• Blisteringly incisive insight and commentary in clips from interviews with Roberto Saviano, a (now) 34 year-old investigative journalist and novelist obliged to live in hiding, under police protection, from Mafiosi infuriated by his revelations. His handsome shaved head, winglike black eyebrows and dark eyes shot in stygian gloom are in perfect harmony with the sinister animation sequences.

• Bill talks to the intellectual and left-leaning Canadian-Italian industrialist, Sergio Marchionne, who made his name by restoring the fortunes of Fiat; who hopes that we will see the evolution of a healthier form of capitalism, and says that ‘People who engineer the free market have a responsibility to keep it clean.’ His point is underlined by the words of Dante – reaching us by way of the disembodied voice of the actor Benedict Cumberbatch – to which we listen looking at a panorama of industrial sprawl, probably Turin: ‘[Y]our avarice afflicts the world:/ it tramples on the good, lifts up the wicked.’

• Maurizio Viroli, a slender, elfin professor of political theory at Princeton sits at a dining table talking to us over the remains of what appears to have been a simple, vinous meal all the more delicious for its informality. He points out that the three main leaders of the 19th-century Risorgimento or ‘resurgence’ that created modern Italy – Cavour, Mazzini, and Garibaldi — ‘had a deep religiosity inspired by currents of Protestanism – Jansenism.’ He adds that ‘all three were critical of the Catholic attitude of making deals with those who are powerful,’ and he mainly blames the Catholic Church for the besetting national flaws, ‘sloth and moral weakness’.

• Sad, wraithlike, girlish figures sketched by Phoebe rise from Lake Pellicone, a dramatic expanse of blue set in a rock-walled canyon. Dante’s lines, here: ‘This miserable way / is taken by the sorry souls of those / who lived without disgrace and without praise. / They now commingle with the coward angels, / the company of those who were not rebels / nor faithful to their God, but stood apart. /’ In the rocks above the water, in another superimposed animation, the demonic ogre bashes Bill’s girlfriend.

• Bill cycles around a deserted, sparkling Ferrero chocolate factory, dressed in one of a succession of dapper outfits, many in brilliant colours that recall swinging ‘60s London. The ghastly, thankfully deposed Silvio Berlusconi, three times Italy’s prime minister – who did not keep his promise to appear in the film — was apparently thinking of Bill’s appearance as well as his politics in nicknaming him ‘Lenin,’ yet the cumulative impression he makes is a hybrid of Agatha Christie’s brainy Hercule Poirot, Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, and Amélie’s beloved globe-trotting garden ornament in the film by that name.

Not many experimenters with post-Gutenberg communication will have either the funds or connections to match the excellence of the musical sound track, or engage the likes of Cumberbatch for poetry recitations. What any of us can still learn from Girlfriend is the importance of re-conceiving from scratch our presentation of what we want to say; of not merely pouring well-worn forms and conventions for shaping information into new-media bottles, but grabbing the chance to communicate what was virtually impossible to communicate before about non-fictional places, events and people.

As far as we can tell, Girlfriend is as scrupulously factual as the finest old-fashioned print journalism. But it exploits special capacities of moving pictures to show us how the facts about its subject impress and affect its chief observer and fact-gatherer, Bill, drawing us beneath the surface of hard reality into psyche – with the animation sequences drawn and directed by Phoebe ensuring a clear demarcation of the boundary between the actual and the strictly impressionistic. One parallel for such innovativeness that we mentioned in a recent post is Carl Djerassi’s revisiting, re-sifting, and powerful re-enlivening of the mental preoccupations and lives of pre-war intellectuals in his Four Jews on Parnassus – by recasting them as dialogue; as a spikily argumentative conversation.

This appreciation of Girlfriend will end with a whiff of the uncanny. A day or so after we first watched it, we kept thinking of Blowup, and wondering why. After we had tapped a tentative explanation into a keyboard, we went to the Wikipedia looking for the year of the film’s release – 1966, and there was a New York Times arts correspondent attributing part of critics’ reaction to this ‘stunning picture’ to the way it is ‘beautifully built up with glowing images and color compositions that get us into the feelings of our man,’ its photographer-protagonist. No, there was nothing uncanny about that discovery. The spine-prickling came from being told something we never knew, in the same Wiki entry. Antonioni had used as the backdrop for Blowup’s carnivalesque opening scene (below) the plaza of a London office building — part of a streaky-concrete-and-glass specimen of Brutalist architecture — where we had once toiled long past sunset, years after we had forgotten details of the film. … And that was the office where, bizarrely, we once worked with Bill.

Did Girlfriend’s collaborators have Blowup in mind when they were mulling over the look and feel they wanted for their project? We must remember to ask.

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The message from ‘High tech’s missionaries of sloppiness’ about blogging’s future status is encouraging. As for its transformation of computer (in)security – bah!

One lovely child of flawed software: poster in an office of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Bern, postgutenberg@gmail.com

One lovely child of flawed software:
poster in an office of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Bern, postgutenberg@gmail.com

Seven years ago, Elinor Ostrom — a winner of the 2009 Nobel prize for economics — cited an article on computer unreliability in a paper on knowledge-sharing that she wrote with Charlotte Hess. The angry essay they mentioned ran in late 2000 in an e-zine, the online magazine Salon. Their thirty-nine citations included only one other in a general-interest publication, a decades-old New Yorker piece by E. B. White.

More on that in a moment …

Long before print journalists shrank from crediting or citing blogs as sources of good ideas and information, they refused to acknowledge debts to e-zines and other online-only publications. If they gave them any credit at all, it was for being brave enough to dip their toes in the digital future – in which, from print’s Olympian perch, it seemed as if these pioneers were bound to fail. Their cold-shouldering will soon have to end, thanks to the example set by unprejudiced, fair-minded thinkers.

In post-Gutenberg’s experience, intellectual greatness is in direct proportion to the trouble a powerful brain worker takes over acknowledging useful information or inspiration found absolutely anywhere – whether or not the source meets old-fashioned, conventional criteria for respectability. Only shallow snobs care about labels.

With a quotation of just three words about a growing ‘culture of carelessness,’ Ostrom and Hess directed readers of their paper about obstacles to sharing research findings to the Salon article — ‘High tech’s missionaries of sloppiness’ (‘HTMOS’) — whose subject has been making front-page headlines, lately.

For instance, yesterday’s ‘Chinese Hackers Resume Attacks on U.S. Targets’ followed by only a few weeks a long profile in the same newspaper about the über-Cassandra on this topic, an octogenarian computer scientist called Peter Neumann who is leading a team of researchers trying to make computers less vulnerable to security breaches. His interviewer noted that

… the increasing complexity of modern hardware and software has made it virtually impossible to identify the flaws and vulnerabilities in computer systems and ensure that they are secure and trustworthy. The consequence has come to pass in the form of an epidemic of computer malware and rising concerns about cyberwarfare as a threat to global security …

We would name the newspaper we have quoted in linking to it, as we usually do, except that we are trying to make a point about the churlishness of print journalists’ tendency to – shall we say, forget to credit e-zines and blogs as sources. In April, the same daily ran an opinion piece by a hacker-turned-security-consultant, Marc Maiffret, who made our eyes pop in one paragraph (our italics):

The unspoken truth is that for the most part, large software companies are not motivated to make software secure. It’s a question of investment priorities: they care more about … developing the latest features and functions that consumers and businesses are looking to buy.

Unspoken, eh?

‘High tech’s missionaries of sloppiness’ certainly spoke, twelve years ago:

A culture of carelessness seems to have taken over in high-tech America. The personal computer is a shining model of unreliability because the high-tech industry today actually exalts sloppiness as a modus operandi.

[…]

American companies accept “good enough” quality for the sake of speed. Being first to market with new products is exalted as the highest goal here, and companies fall back on huge technical support and customer service staffs to cope with their many errors of commission and omission.

“Don’t worry, be crappy,” was how Silicon Valley veteran and pundit Guy Kawasaki expressed the same idea two years ago, in a speech that won him a standing ovation.

Programmers, hackers, and technologists of every stripe were incensed by the Salon essay. After a link to it was posted in the week of its publication on Slashdot.org — then the most popular computerists’ chat-forum – they swarmed aboard, so furious that at least a third of the posts denounced the author of ‘HTMOS’ as ‘he,’ in spite of her unambiguously female name. The explosion was partly owed to the genius of Andrew Leonard, the Salon editor on the job, who barely scratched the piece’s text but wrote its headline and dreamt up a standfirst borrowing none of its actual words, which read,

Computer companies specialize in giving consumers lousy products — it’s the American way of techno-capitalism.

Maiffret and his editors might simply have failed to check the antecedents for his condemnation of Silicon Valley’s lack of interest in safe computing. A lone editor from the print world, Simon Caulkin – renowned in British journalism not just for his talent but peerless integrity (and a former colleaugue of the Salon contributor) – did cite ‘HTMOS’ in one of his Observer columns on management, titled, ‘Software must stop bugging us’.

For the most part, it is in books and university curricula that the essay has been marked for attention. Even if the world is still a long way from curing computers of their flaws, the citations that come up on the first page of Google results for the essay’s title are in, for instance:

Adapting Buildings and Cities for Climate Change, Sue Roaf, David Crichton and Fergus Nicol, Routledge, 2012

Why Programs Fail – A Guide to Systematic Debugging, Andreas Zeller, Elsevier, 2009 [also a Google e-book]

Geekonomics: The Real Cost of Insecure Software, David Rice, Pearson Education, 2007

Quality software project management, Robert T. Futrell, Donald F. Shafer and Linda Isabell Shafer, Prentice Hall Professional, 2002

‘HTMOS’ also continues to find its way into arguments between technophiles, as in 2007, on the site of the ‘Central West End Linux Users Group’ – where it was used to slap down a debater who declared airily, ‘Every OS [operating system] has its faults. Pick your poison.’

That Ostrom-Hess paper with which this post began was, as it happens, about tribalism getting in the way of sharing information critical to human life – in microbiology research. The authors noted, in their abstract, that ‘there are many, diverse participants in producing and consuming information who often have conflicting interests …’.

Conflicting interests indeed. It is obvious from the rarity with which print journalism acknowledges good work published online in e-zines and blogs that its workers are afraid of their new competitors. And then, of course, programmers are not particularly fond of that article. We at post-Gutenberg are not much interested in conspiracy theories, but could not help smiling when we noticed that someone at both The Observer and Salon appeared to have gone to pains to make it harder to find ‘HTMOS’ and the Caulkin column on flawed software. The London newspaper misclassifies his eloquent jeremiad with the work of a political writer, Madeleine Bunting. And for years, the Salon essay has been indexed not with its collections of pieces on computers, software or Silicon Valley but under ‘AUTO INDUSTRY, ENTERTAINMENT NEWS’.

Of course we imply no conspiracy… the culprit could only be a dear little sloppiness gremlin piling up overtime hours.

Bloggers’ rights, and blogging vs. traditional journalism: let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend

'Let a hundred schools of thought contend' postgutenberg@gmail.com

‘Let a hundred schools of thought contend’
postgutenberg@gmail.com

'Let a hundred bloggers bloom' postgutenberg@gmail.com

‘Let a hundred bloggers bloom’
postgutenberg@gmail.com

Blogging as one of our rights to free expression was the subject of an important and excellent ARTICLE 19 paper published earlier this month. ARTICLE 19 ‘is an international human rights organisation, founded in 1986, which defends and promotes freedom of expression and freedom of information worldwide.’

Highlights — to some of which we have added extra emphasis, in italics:

Who is a blogger?

In the most basic sense, a blogger is any person who writes entries for, adds materials to, or maintains a ‘blog’ – a web log published on the Internet. Blogs allow anyone to self-publish online without prior editing or commissioning by an intermediary (e.g. someone like a newspaper editor). They can be immediate and also anonymous if the blogger so desires.

What matters most about the right to blog?

Blogging plays an invaluable role in the free flow of information worldwide. It enables a true exchange of information in ways that traditional media did not in the past. It also allows an immediate sharing of information with its audience and immediate feedback. It represents a valuable form of alternative journalism and is an example of the Internet’s ‘democratisation of publishing.’

In the 21st century, many bloggers will take their place as watchdogs, alongside traditional media. The international community and individual states must develop protection for bloggers, just as they have developed protection for traditional media, despite the many constraints. Throughout history, the traditional media have obtained protection as a group although, at the individual level, many members of the media are not concerned with advancing public interest. Similar protection must be provided to bloggers.

How are bloggers different from journalists?

ARTICLE 19 has long argued that ‘journalism’ and ‘journalists’ should not be defined by reference to some recognised body of training, or by affiliation with a media entity or professional body.5 We have argued that journalism is an activity that can be exercised by anyone, and that it is important that any legal standards and principles applicable to the activity should reflect this.

In particular, the definition of the term ‘journalist’ should be broad to include any natural or legal person who is regularly or professionally engaged in the collection and dissemination of information to the public via any means of mass communication.

At the same time, any person who seeks to publish information on matters of public interest should benefit from the same protection and privileges given to professional journalists under existing case law, including prohibiting any requirement for journalists to be registered, requiring the authorities to investigate attacks on them, and protecting their sources.

Key recommendations

– Relevant legal standards should reflect the fact that ‘journalism’ consists

of disseminating information and ideas to the public by any means of communication. As such, it is an activity which can be exercised by anyone.

– Any definition of the term ‘journalist’ should be broad, to include any natural or legal person who is regularly or professionally engaged in the collection and dissemination of information to the public via any means of mass communication.

– Bloggers should never be required to obtain a licence to blog.

– Bloggers should never be required to register with the government or other

official bodies.

– Accreditation schemes must meet international freedom of expression standards and should ensure that:

– all applicants, including bloggers, who meet the minimum requirements defined in the law should be automatically issued with a ‘press’ facilitation card;

– press cards should only be required to get access to events or premises where there is a clear need to limit attendance based on limited space or the potential for disruption;

– the conditions for obtaining a press card should be based on the overall public interest and not on considerations such as affiliation with a professional association or degree in journalism.

– Legal commentators, including bloggers, should be allowed to use social media from court rooms if the hearings are open to the public.

– To the extent that they are engaged in journalistic activity, bloggers should be able to rely on the right to protect their sources.

– Any request to disclose sources should be strictly limited to the most serious cases. It should be approved only by an independent judge in a fair and public hearing with a possibility of an appeal.

– State authorities must guarantee the safety of bloggers using a variety of measures, including the prohibition of crimes against freedom of expression in their domestic laws.

– States must take reasonable steps to protect bloggers and other individuals actively engaged in online communities when they know or ought to know of the existence of a real and immediate risk to the life of an identified blogger as a result of the criminal acts of a third party;

– State authorities must carry out independent, speedy and effective investigations into threats or violent attacks against bloggers or other individuals engaged in journalistic activity online.

– The laws governing the liability of bloggers, including defamation law, incitement and other speech-related offences, must comply with international freedom of expression standards.

– As a general rule, bloggers should not be held liable for comments made by third parties on their blogs in circumstances where they have not intervened or modified those comments.

– For certain types of content, for example content that is defamatory or infringes copyright, consideration should be given to adopting ‘notice-and-notice’ approaches whereby bloggers would be required to pass the complaint to the original maker of the statement at issue, without removing the material upon notice.

– The term ‘duties and responsibilities’ in Article 19 of the ICCPR and Article 10 of the European Convention must be interpreted flexibly to take into account the particular situation of the blogger in question.

– Bloggers should not be forced to abide by the ethical codes or codes of conduct developed by traditional media and should not be coerced or given an incentive to join self-regulatory bodies for traditional media.

– Bloggers may decide to follow the ethical standards of traditional media of their own accord. They can also develop their own code of practice either for their own blogs or for associations they voluntarily join. Alternative dispute resolution systems should also be encouraged.

– When bloggers produce a piece for a traditional newspaper, they should be subject to the newspaper’s editorial control, and abide by the ethical standards of journalists.

Could a pope getting respect on atheist blogs make co-operatives his weapon for fighting poverty?

Might co-ops help to correct Rupert Murdoch’s delusional prediction and become Pope Francis’s silver bullet?

Might co-ops end the reign of press barons like Rupert Murdoch and become Pope Francis’s silver bullet?

It began as a lament about the disposal of a mountain of spring weeds, the conversation that got us thinking about the new Vatican leader’s inaugural promise to ‘embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest,’ and his wish expressed elsewhere to see ‘a church that is poor and for the poor.’ He sounds remarkably like someone on an Occupy soapbox. But unlike members of that well-meaning but chaotic movement, he has a massive organisation behind him to help point followers in the right direction.

We have been astounded by the evidence search engines supply of wide interest in a Christian spiritual figure among so many typically secular intellectual institutions – The New Yorker, for instance — and stretching as far as blogs like one called Non-Prophet Status declaring, ‘Why this atheist is (tentatively) optimistic about Pope Francis’. Soon, he could win a popularity contest with the Dalai Lama, among non-believers.

There was even a surprise for us close to home. Though there have been no Catholics among our blood relations for three generations, one scrupulously apolitical member of our family about the same age as the pontiff, and paying close attention, insisted last week that the papal mission was doomed. ‘Because,’ he explained, ‘most of the world is poor and always will be. As he won’t be able to make any difference to the impoverished far outnumbering everyone else, why choose certain failure?’

While we considered that opinion, a question occurred to us: what single lever could Pope Francis choose to concentrate on, to prove the pessimists wrong? What might be his equivalent of the Lone Ranger’s silver bullet?

Unexpectedly, an answer suggested itself not long after we heard from a grizzled, kindly Greenlander living on the edge of San Francisco about his reason for being incensed by an argument with his local garbage collector. This rubbish-disposal engineer, on his weekly round, had haughtily spurned, then left behind, several giant plastic bags into which the Greenlander’s neighbours had taken pains to squeeze a towering weed-pile. No bags, he said. Nothing but greenery.

When the Greenlander appealed for mercy — an exception made for neighbours who were still newcomers, the haul-away man said it was time that they learnt the rules.  No, the Greenlander said later, shaking his head, the smelliness of the work did not excuse the man’s unfeeling intransigence. ‘Don’t you know how much money these garbage guys make? A fortune!’

The next person to enter the conversation filled in some fascinating details. He said that the average income of a rubbish collector working for Recology, the dominant garbage company in the region, is $80,000 – or roughly twice the salary of the average American schoolteacher or policeman. Though we have not, so far, been able to check the precise accuracy of that number, we suspect that it is correct, or nearly so, because it was part of a case handled by our informant, a lawyer with a good memory.

We thought this salary fair, and said as much. Imagine the stench for mile after mile, working on a trash-collecting truck in summer heat! But then came a bigger – and even more welcome – shock. Recology is entirely employee-owned. Historically, its workers had ancestry in common with Pope Francis. This cooperative’s website says :

Our company’s roots have always been in recycling and employee ownership.

[…]

The original Bay Area garbage men, or “scavengers”, came to San Francisco from Italy in the late 19th century. At that time, scavenging in San Francisco was a disorderly and inefficient business. Hundreds of independent collectors competed for business. The 1906 earthquake and fire temporarily improved business, but did little to bring order to the chaos of garbage collection.

The website boasts that Recology has an outstanding record for innovation, and one item on the list it offers as proof suggests a startling interest in the radical 1960s Arte Povera (art from poverty) movement in Italy:

The world-renowned Artist in Residence Program in 1990 allowing local artists to find materials in our processing facilities to create art.

… Anyway, we were, as we said, reminded by this chat of Pope Francis committing himself to helping not merely the indigent but ‘the weakest, the least important, …’. Could there be a better salve for the lowly status of garbage-collecting than a bank balance honestly earned through joint ownership?

Post-Gutenberg began as a spinoff of a paper setting out a detailed proposal for saving journalism from the machinations of press barons like Rupert Murdoch through a ‘keiretsu-cooperative’ – owned by workers and customers.

Pope Francis, being a Jesuit, a member of the religious order famous, for centuries, for being frighteningly intelligent, would know about the remarkable success of huge cooperatives in, for instance, Switzerland. He would certainly stand a far better chance of pushing a new cooperative movement than any blink-and-you-miss-it blog like ours, or any of the pundits making the case for employee ownership on newspaper sites often, but to little avail – so far.