Daring, risky innovation by a famously conservative — notoriously hidebound — public service institution leaves old print ‘legacy’ media trailing far in its wake

 

 …

ANDERS NILSEN on the power of graphic storytelling, New York Times, 18 October 2015 - postgutenberg@gmail.com

This set of drawings by Anders Nilsen — scanned from crumpled newsprint found lining a box of crockery — was an answer with a touch of genius to The New York Times’s invitation to artists in 2015 to convey ‘the power of graphic storytelling in one comic panel.’ What might that talking horse symbolise today? Could it be conventional — legacy — media’s post-Gutenberg future, with which they seemingly cannot strike up any sort of conversation?

Believing the impossible gets easier with practice — say, half an hour a day, the White Queen advises Alice in Through the Looking-Glass. Here’s a mental barbell for anyone else attempting that exercise: the U.S. Navy, a military institution as renowned for being rigidly hierarchical, compartmentalised and tradition-bound as its counterparts in practically every country, has been implementing — not merely experimenting with — radically progressive new operating methods driven by new technology. 

Some of us waiting impatiently for an equivalent leap in publishing — or even the smallest experimental prototype with a hint of forward-thinking — could almost weep with envy, reading a thrilling account of nautical innovations in the July issue of The Atlantic Monthly. These are grounded in thinking about a much broader and deeper managerial revolution, as the title conveys: ‘At Work, Expertise is Falling Out of Favor.’ 

Possibly the most startling effect of reading the piece is realising how rare it has become to learn about large-scale innovation strictly for the public good, untainted by the profit motive. It is now hard to remember the last time a technological transformation with implications for nearly everyone was not about making some obscenely lucky 15 year-old a billionaire in three years, and greedy for even greater wealth and power.

A sample of the revelations from that tale of a sea change: 

… Built in 2014 from 30 million cans’ worth of Alcoa aluminum, Littoral Combat Ship 10, the USS Gabrielle Giffords, rides high in the water on three separate hulls and is powered like a jet ski—that is, by water-breathing jets instead of propellers. … Unlike the older ships now gliding past—guided-missile cruisers, destroyers, amphibious transports—the littoral combat ship was built on the concept of “modularity.” There’s a voluminous hollow in the ship’s belly, and its insides can be swapped out in port, allowing it to set sail as a submarine hunter, minesweeper, or surface combatant, depending on the mission.

The ship’s most futuristic aspect, though, is its crew. The LCS was the first class of Navy ship that, because of technological change and the high cost of personnel, turned away from specialists in favor of “hybrid sailors” who have the ability to acquire skills rapidly. It was designed to operate with a mere 40 souls on board—one-fifth the number aboard comparably sized “legacy” ships and a far cry from the 350 aboard a World War II destroyer. The small size of the crew means that each sailor must be like the ship itself: a jack of many trades and not, as 240 years of tradition have prescribed, a master of just one.

… On most Navy ships, only a boatswain’s mate—the oldest of the Navy’s 60-odd occupations—would handle the ropes, which can quickly remove a finger or foot. But none of the three sailors heaving on the Giffords’s ropes is a line-handling professional. One is an information-systems technician. The second is a gunner’s mate. And the third is a chef. “We wear a lot of hats here,” Culinary Specialist 2nd Class Damontrae Butler says. After the ropes are put away, he reports to the ship’s galley, picks up a basting brush, and starts readying a tray of garlic bread for the oven.

Two boatswain’s mates are on hand, but only to instruct and oversee—and they too wear lots of hats, between them: fire-team leader, search-and-rescue swimmer, crane operator, deck patroller, helicopter-salvage coordinator.

… The operative concept is “minimal manning.” On the bridge, five crew members do the jobs usually done by 12, thanks to high-tech display screens and the ship’s several thousand remote sensors. And belowdecks, once-distinct engineering roles—electrician’s mate, engine man, machinist, gas-turbine technician—fall to the same handful of sailors.

… Minimal manning—and with it, the replacement of specialized workers with problem-solving generalists—isn’t a particularly nautical concept. Indeed, it will sound familiar to anyone in an organization who’s been asked to “do more with less”—which, these days, seems to be just about everyone.

… The Navy, curiously, has pushed the idea forward with an abandon unseen anywhere on land …

This¯article by Jerry Useem does not pretend that giving the methods of old sea dogs a makeover has been error-free. One innovation that has already come a cropper:

… [T]he modular “plug and fight” configuration was not panning out as hoped. Converting a ship from sub-hunter to minesweeper or minesweeper to surface combatant, it turned out, was a logistical nightmare. Variants of all three “mission packages” had to be stocked at far-flung ports; an extra detachment of 20-plus sailors had to stand ready to embark with each. More to the point, in order to enable quick mastery by generalists, the technologies on each had to be user-friendly—which they were not. So in 2016 the concept of interchangeability was scuttled for a “one ship, one mission” approach, in which the extra 20-plus sailors became permanent crew members.

Mistakes on the road to genuine progress are unavoidable. Time for another invocation of T. S. Eliot. His gloomy opinion of lilac-breeding featured here last year was nonsense, to any botanist, but this observation by him has rarely been stated better:  ‘Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.’ 

Wanted: a brave newspaper, for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders ( updated, 25.5.2019 ). The keiretsu-cooperative is a kind of platform cooperative — an idea getting closer to takeoff 

 

+Newspaper readers on a poultry farm near Kirchzell, ROY EALES postgutenberg@gmail.com

Like these two on an egg farm in Germany last November, there will be keen newspaper-readers — in some medium — for a few more years, yet. The question for the future is, can we organise a better way of owning and running newspapers and media sites — one better suited to a democracy than conventional corporate ownership? Photograph: Roy Eales

The purpose of this entry on post-Gutenberg is to reverse the unexplained disappearance from search engines of the headline and link for the site’s very first post, which launched p-G on 5 September 2011. 

Not for the first time, someone appears to have gone to special trouble to make it impossible to find a p-G post in Google or Bing by typing its title into a search box. Adding the site’s name as an additional search term only yields indirect routes to it. Because Google, certainly, does not explain its methods, it is impossible to identify the culprit — inadvertent technical errors or active tampering by human algorithm-tweakers. Human tamperers can hide behind algorithms, which leave no fingerprints.

Riding the most recent wave of interest in ‘platform cooperatives,’ which began in 2016, this month’s print edition of Wired spotlights online workers’ cooperatives — through which operators in the gig (freelance) economy can jointly own and control a website from which they market their services and get paid. This is a radical improvement on working through platforms owned by, say, a classic employment agency for housecleaners — or a cleaning service — cutting fat commissions out of workers’ incomes in exchange for setting up and running the website, and acting as an intermediary.

The writer of the Wired piece, Clive Thompson, pinpoints the solution to the most aggravating obstacle to launching a platform cooperative — which is, getting it organised and ready-to-roll and, in that helpful cliché from physics, achieving critical mass. This did not present a problem for Up & Go, the successful platform cooperative for housecleaners that he singles out for special mention, because ‘the workers were already organised.’

For precisely that reason, post-Gutenberg’s original proposal of a keirestu-cooperative — a collaborative internet platform for newspapers and other media — did away with the idea of starting from scratch. It recommended beginning with an existing newspaper, with its established core of readers and commenters. As a post revisiting this subject last year explained:

These are the principal components of a ‘keiretsu-cooperative,’ or economic structure for the future — a keiretsu being a sort of Japanese industrial club made up of companies pursuing similar or complementary aims:

• A newspaper publisher might create a meta-site with one or more book publishers with which its audience overlaps — and these partners could share this site’s capital improvement and running costs.

• Reader-commenters visiting the site would not be paid for individual comments. Instead, they would buy subscriptions that would also be small financial stakes in the keiretsu publishers’ meta-site.

Here — except for its old introduction — is the original text of the first entry on post-Gutenberg that, at present, cannot easily be found through an internet search:

Newspaper and other print media sites to which I have returned several times a day – or week, depending on what has been happening in my life – have had two things in common:

  • Unusually sharp and entertaining comments sections in site segments dedicated to topics that interest me.
  • A group of stimulating, well-informed debaters among the regular commenters, who often enter into extended wrangles – sometimes, not just with each other, but with the writer of an article.

Unfortunately, commenters tend to come and go unpredictably, then vanish altogether. And I have to start looking for a new equivalent of an online coffee shop.

But what if commenters were given some incentive to keep commenting on a particular site – for years at a time? Two years ago, thinking about what would make contributing posts irresistible to me, my conclusion was: money, and the feeling that I was helping to build a semi-permanent family of debaters. Without some form of payment – or the possibility of being paid in the future – posting frequently on newspaper sites becomes suspiciously like wasting time. I have found it hard to justify time spent commenting, even though joining online discussions has deepened and enlivened my understanding of all sorts of topics.

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In January of last year, I outlined a scheme that a newspaper could run as an experiment in sharing ownership of a part of its site with reader-commenters. In a future entry in this blog, I will describe the reactions of particular publishing organisations to which I sent a link for my proposal. There were, broadly, five reasons for their reluctance to try it out:

  • ‘Too new’ – the scheme diverges too far from their ideas about the future evolution of media.
  • Protectionism. The mistaken belief that the scheme would entail paying commenters at the same rates as professional writers and journalists. That is not what the proposal says at all. The idea is that the arrangement would work very broadly in the way insurance does: people contributing more or less equal sums into a pool of money from which disbursements would be made in accordance with merit and need.
  • Semantics. Interpreting the scheme as ‘socialism’. There is no precise counterpart for the proposed arrangement – certainly not in publishing, as far as I know. But to convey the idea of shared ownership I used the word ‘cooperative’—which unfortunately spells ‘hippie’ utopianism or bankrupt socialist idealism to many people. It says something else entirely to me. For nearly 20 years, I have been a member of a rural electricity cooperative founded 75 years ago by a group of farmers – after the local power company refused to put them on its network. This organisation runs so beautifully that my electricity bills have always been a small fraction of sums I have paid for the identical usage patterns in other places.
  • Fear of losing power. Most publishers of the print era cannot give up the idea of journalists and editors performing on a stage for readers – the audience down in the pit, which is where they would like them to stay. They cannot accept that technology has made it realistic for readers to want – indeed, expect – to share the stage with them, even if only in walk-on parts, in most cases, at the start.
  • Pessimism. Publishers cannot conceive of making a bigger pie – that is, expanding revenue, and even earning profits, with luck – through sharing ownership with reader-commenters. They can only imagine being forced to accept smaller slices of an unchanged or shrunken pie.

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Here is a summary of what a test of a jointly owned site would involve for publishers and reader-commenters at the beginning:

As this is a scheme for helping print media to adapt for the arrival of the 5th Estate, a publisher would have to initiate the experiment, inviting readers to become part of it.

The publisher would set a price for a subscription-cum-stake in the jointly owned site called, say, the Forum. Just one stake per reader. Site visitors who do not buy a subscription-stake would not be shut out from reading articles and discussions but could not, of course, share in any future profits.

The publisher would develop the software tools and infrastructure for the experiment – to collect and record subscription-stakes; run elections and referendums; develop apps, links to social networking sites, and so on – and, if the test site makes a profit from subscriptions and advertising, distribute it to stakeholders.

Both the publisher and readers would nominate a few reader-stakeholders for membership of the Forum’s (say,) eleven-member management board. All reader-stakeholders would elect six of these as their representatives. The other five board members would be appointees of the publisher from within its own executive and editorial ranks.

As noted above, the arrangement would work in roughly the way insurance does. Reader-stakeholders would pay more or less equal sums into a pool of cash. Payments from that pool would be made according to certain criteria. How would classes of subscription-stakes be established? Who would set the criteria? These – and all other rules for the site’s operation – would be proposed by the management board and then voted into existence by subscriber-stakeholders.

So setting rule-making in motion would be the first task of the management board, and the first job for reader-stakeholders after that would be choosing from among alternative rules proposed to them.

A publisher would not have to finance the experiment alone. A newspaper could, for instance, share the costs and administrative burden with a book publisher. Their partnership would resemble a Japanese keiretsu – or arrangement between companies with common or interlocked business interests.

The rationale for this scheme for shared ownership is set out in more detail here.

Any takers? Careful suggestions for refining and improving the experiment would be indescribably welcome, and will be given proper credit in a future post on this site.

Correspondence to postgutenberg@gmail.com, please.

O happy day! The ‘free’ surveillance/advertising-centred/data-cow business model has been superseded by the pay-to-be-spied-on contract for e-commerce

+++ dog + blonde postgutenberg@gmail.com

A watchful pair: he was too intent on his task to move a single canine muscle **

The tale of Big Brother at A Certain Newspaper (ACN.com), the last entry on this site,  omitted a crucial fact because it deserves its own post.

It is this: access to the visitor-sleuthing, visitor-interrogating ACN site is not free, but requires a subscription. Reader, if you haven’t noticed, this should tell you that things have gone from bad to dire — well beyond the normalisation of the surveillance business model’s (SBM) unwritten contract, in which the actual cost of ‘free’ admission and use of a site’s services is the loss of our privacy.

Bowing to the SBM meant accepting that when we pay no cash to use  Facebook — and innumerable other web services, including search engines — these companies can make records of our every click and cursor twitch. In many cases they do worse, following us wherever we go on the net, even after we have signed out of their domains. We have effectively told them, do come in and help yourselves to anything you’d like to know about us — or, as post-Gutenberg has observed before: by all means, please milk us like dumb data cows.

In the SBM’s successor, the pay-to-be-spied-on model for e-commerce that we are now bowing to in an almost imperceptible transition, we are giving them money to exploit us. In our delight with the discount on sub-zero winter boots and free shipping that the online retailer offers us, we do not object to being hooked up to the automated data-milking machines that our cash helps to finance ***.

The media version of this shift entails a striking switch in the terms of trade that our ACN.com encounter dramatised. In the old days of print, a newspaper handed over pages filled with news and analysis in exchange for our coins — and those paper pages had countless secondary uses. The exchange between buyer and seller ended, there. Today, a newspaper can believe that the sum billed to a credit card entitles it to monitor and record exactly how the owner of that plastic rectangle reads its online pages — to facilitate ‘personalising content and ads,’ as the ACN.com site informs visitors, ‘and to analyse how our sites are being used’ — today, tomorrow, … whenever.

What we call data-milking is blandly referred to by digital commerce specialists as ‘data-gathering.’ One such expert, Josh Bernoffwrites about ‘the data equation’ — implying that there is a fair and just equivalence in Facebook users paying with undefined ‘data and attention’ to upload what they want to communicate or ‘share’ on the social media platform. But saying ‘equation’ is applying a misleading euphemism to what the average Facebook user grasps, since that user does not understand the SBM, or know that it is also the advertising business model. Users do not understand how they enrich social media giants by letting them hawk facts about their behaviour and demographic and psychological profiles to other companies that use the information to maximise their advertisements’ ability to seduce them into buying their products.

In a perceptive post on Medium.com, Bernoff suddenly swerves sharply from tip-toeing around the sensitivities of e-commerce giants to making the critical point that users ‘are happy to give up an infinite amount of data’ to social media platforms and predicts — sadly, without exaggeration — that most of them will not stop doing this until ‘Facebook starts taking naked pictures of everyone in the shower and posting them without permission.’

That was a point made in his ruminations in early October about whether the software that Tim Berners-Lee (TBL) has been developing to return control of their data to internet users will be usable and used by enough people to reverse the soaring trend of exploitation, manipulation and restriction. Bernoff concludes that this will not happen unless a rich, dominant company can adopt and deploy it to support TBL’s project.

He nominates Apple for the task.

We cannot imagine a better use for Apple’s cash mountains than destroying the surveillance business model. But surely putting Apple in charge of creating ‘new devices, new experiences, new apps, and new ways to entertain yourself and experience life without requiring you to give up all your data’ would be a move in the wrong direction — further centralising power, when TBL is trying to take the web back to the freeing open space it was originally?

Today’s Tim Cook-led Apple appears to have high ethical standards, but what guarantee is there that this company’s tremendous potential for doing good would not be misused if he were replaced by — say, someone like Mark Zuckerberg, whose actions seldom match the high humanitarian ideals he claims to believe in, and who chronically breaks promises about protecting and respecting the privacy of Facebook users?

What might be more compatible with TBL’s aims? Putting Apple’s cash and managerial resources behind social media platforms that their users jointly own. Apple could assist with and finance their design and launch. 

See: ‘The media establishment has begun to see sense in a user-owned Facebook …’ An extract:

[L]ast Wednesday, the New York Times presented, as if this were a brand new idea, the otherwise commendable suggestion by three scholars — Jeremy Heimans, Henry Timms and separately, Nathan Schneider in 2016: ‘[W]hat if a social network was truly run by its users?’ In a newly published book they have written together, Heimans and Timms note the unfairness of what we — like many others — have been pointing out for years: the injustice of ‘the creative output of billions of people’ being turned ‘into a giant, centralized enterprise, with most users sharing none of the economic value they create and getting no say in the platform’s governance.’

[ continues here … ]      

** like any other well-trained ceramic dog

*** Why are we permitting this? See John Logan’s reference, in his comment on the last post-Gutenberg post, to soma — the drug crucial to subjugating the masses in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), which creates ‘a quite impenetrable wall between the actual universe and their minds’. Imagining themselves as ‘celebrities’ on their Facebook pages, and riding waves of happiness from online shopping discounts that let them buy-buy-buy probably works a similar dark magic on real, live, people in our time.

Who is going to start a movement to stop the social media giants from milking us like witless data cows? (Why a keiretsu-cooperative could be a better idea)

indoor rainbow 2 SC postgutenberg@gmail.com copy

Indoor rainbow, through a crack in a glass pane

Will the conversation about forcing Big Tech — especially Facebook and Google — to pay us for stripping our lives of personal information they sell to advertisers lead to a revised business model for newspaper publishing?

We launched this site in 2011 with a proposal that newspaper and other media websites share with commenters (then referred to as ‘bloggers’) the economic value that they add with their comments — a scheme we have updated intermittently since we first outlined it in 2010 as ‘The Keiretsu-Cooperative: A Model for Post-Gutenberg Publishing’.

In a paper released at the close of 2017, ** five scholars and computer experts at elite U.S. institutions are calling for social media users to unite to demand payment for the streams of data about us that have made Big Tech rich, and insist on our right to determine where that information goes and on what terms.

That is the essence of the boldest conclusion of those thinkers, collaborating over the fence from these places: the School of Engineering and the Department of Economics at Stanford; Columbia’s Department of Economics; Microsoft’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer, and the Department of Economics and Law School at Yale.

Their justification for their call to action is technical, apparently aimed at mandarins (wonks) drafting economic policy, whom they hope to persuade that governments must shift ‘ownership rights in data to the users that generate them.’ (About time, we say.) They couch their arguments in basic economic theory — the theory of the firm — whose jargon and quasi-mathematical symbols obscure concepts that are easy to express in plain English. The overall impression is of rabbis presenting scriptural sanction that they felt obliged to seek in the Talmud to bolster a commonsensical moral argument: social media users must not accept being milked for our data without compensation or control.

How likely are we to see the birth of a movement with such a rallying cry? Not very, we suspect. For a start, hardly anyone seems to have heard of its ivory tower recommendation or the paper in which that was made. We only learnt of this document’s publication by chance, browsing on the site of The Financial Times [ ft.com ]. There, the final paragraph of John Thornhill’s helpful outline and commentary reminds us that the exploited have historically got the attention of their exploiters by going on strike — and suggests ‘digitally picketing social media groups under the slogan: “No posts without pay!”’

In his column’s comments section, some readers urged the FT to set an example. This one, for instance:

FTcom reader's comment on John Thornhill column

Organising movements and keeping up their momentum can be frustrating enough to drive surpassingly patient saints to distraction. Time and patience are scarce, and we have all grown used to instant gratification on the net. Anyone can sign up for an account on Twitter and broadcast a maiden tweet in minutes. A newcomer to WordPress could write and publish a first blog post in less than an hour. By contrast, although launchers of a movement to get us paid for our data could use, say, Change.org’s tools to collect signatures for petitions, that would only be the first stage of years of hard graft, gathering political support for drafting laws to regulate the ownership and sale of users’ data.

Media organisations implementing our own proposal for treating users fairly could get results faster and lead in setting standards for post-Gutenberg economic equity. These are the principal components of a ‘keiretsu-cooperative,’ or economic structure for the future — a keiretsu being a sort of Japanese industrial club made up of companies pursuing similar or complementary aims:

• A newspaper publisher might create a meta-site with one or more book publishers with which its audience overlaps — and these partners could share this site’s capital improvement and running costs.

• Reader-commenters visiting the site would not be paid for individual comments. Instead, they would buy subscriptions that would also be small financial stakes in the keiretsu publishers’ meta-site.

What would be the attractions of a scheme like this for today’s corporate media owners?

• It would reduce their dependence on advertising, which social media giants have been diverting into their coffers.

• Offering readers co-ownership of a site where they read and contribute comments would give the keiretsu publishers an edge over Facebook — which, as we have argued in this space repeatedly, should be a cooperative owned by its users.

• Drawing up rules for paying readers and commenters for each individual contribution would be a lot more complicated than allowing them to buy stakes in the meta-site. Making them co-owners would ensure their loyalty and give them an incentive to return to participate often — making the site more attractive to advertisers.

We have laid out other advantages and other dimensions of our proposal here: ‘Adapt-or-die advice for newspapers being squeezed out by Facebook: create symphysis with your reader-commenters!’

Despite our reservations about it, a movement to end social media’s data theft is guaranteed our whole-hearted support.

** ‘Should We Treat Data as Labor? Moving Beyond “Free,”’ Imanol Arrieta Ibarra, Leonard Goff, Diego Jiménez Hernández, Jaron Lanier and E. Glen Weyl, American Economic Association Papers & Proceedings, Vol. 1, No. 1, (forthcoming).