Toronto mayor Rob Ford is a controversial character. 2300 words in his 7600 word Wikipedia biography make up a section titled “other controversies“. These controversies include being drunk and picking a fight at a Leafs game, insulting people with AIDS, people of Asian descent, and allegedly groping a female mayoral candidate.
But all that colorful behavior pales in comparison to the accusations he’s now facing. The Toronto Star, a left-leaning newspaper that’s repeatedly reported on mayor malfeasance, reports that they’ve watched a video that shows mayor Ford smoking crack cocaine with Somali drug dealers. Star reporters Robyn Doolittle and Kevin Donovan were approached by a community organizer from Toronto’s Somali community, who was acting as a “broker” for the person who shot the video on a smartphone, a man who alleges that he has sold crack to the mayor previously.
For Americans, the Ford story calls up fond memories of Marion Barry, the Washington DC mayor who was videotaped freebasing cocaine by the FBI and the DC police. (Good news for mayor Ford – after serving a prison term, Barry returned to DC politics under the campaign slogan “He May Not Be Perfect, But He’s Perfect for D.C.”, and retook the mayorship four years after his arrest.) But, if anything, the Rob Ford story is crazier and more complex than the Barry scandal, at least from a journalistic perspective.
While Doolittle and Donovan of the Star have seen video, but when they were asked to pay a six figure sum for the recording, they refused. Their article states unambiguously: “The Star did not pay money and did not obtain a copy of the video.”
That’s not surprising. Paying sources for stories is a controversial practice. In the English-language press, it’s often called “checkbook journalism“, and it’s frowned on in elite US media (though it’s certainly happened through history), though quite common in tabloid media. In the UK, it’s significantly more common, and underpins much of the scandal around the behavior of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers in the UK. US journalist Jack Schafer argues that there are practical, as well as ethical, reasons to avoid paying sources – you’ll cultivate sources who want to sell you bad information as well as good information.
Nick Denton and the freewheeling opportunists at Gawker Media don’t spend much time worrying about these niceties. Gawker’s tech site Gizmodo paid $5000 for a prototype of a next-generation iPhone, which made some headlines as the site may have paid money for stolen goods. But the attention didn’t damage Gawker, and they are now raising a set of new questions in offering to pay $200,000 for the Rob Ford video.
What’s interesting this time is how Gawker plans to pay for it.
Gawker editor John Cook published an article on Friday titled “We Are Raising $200,000 to Buy and Publish the Rob Ford Crack Tape”. Cook calls the campaign a “crackstarter”, a pun on Kickstarter, but the project is raising money on Indiegogo, perhaps because Kickstarter reviews proposals and rejects many of them, while Indiegogo maintains a more open platform.
The text associated with Gawker’s ask suggests that they might have, in passing, considered that there are some ethical issues involved with paying drug dealers $200,000 for a video recording. Gawker’s sophisticated and nuanced ethical explanations include this thoughtful passage:
Christ, That’s a Lot of Money.
Yes, it is. But they’ve got the video! And it’s not all about greed, though of course most of it is. The owners of this video fear for their safety, and want enough money to pay for a chance to get out of Toronto and set up in a new town. Their fear is not entirely unwarranted. Rob Ford is a powerful if buffoonish man, and he was wrapped up in a drug scene that purportedly involved many other prominent Toronto figures.
Rather than respond to this analysis, I’ll point you to Rosalind Robinson, who notes that the $200,000 Gawker proposes to pay drug dealers, is money that could go towards healing the city of Toronto, not harming it more. In a piece titled “Fuck You, Gawker“, she observes:
Gawker wants to write these criminals a cheque for more money than most of us can imagine having access to in our lifetime. And not a cheque of their money – of *yours*.
All you who bitch about taxes, who need public health care, who are on a waitlist to see a doctor, who work day in and day out, who work hard in crap jobs that don’t pay well – you, joe citizen, who have never broken a law in your life – they’re asking YOU to give this huge amount of money to a group of people who are a violent plague on my city, who risk the lives of both addicts and innocent bystanders on a regular basis.
Thus far, Gawker’s campaign has raised roughly a third of its goal, almost $67,000 at last check. With eight days to go, it’s possible that Gawker will raise the money to purchase the video. Whether they publish the video, or get robbed at gunpoint by their business partners, they’ll surely get a good story out of the experience.
Does raising money to purchase incriminating video represent a new milestone in crowdfunding? Is it a particularly ethically cloudy example of civic crowdfunding? Or just an attention grabbing stunt by Denton and crew?
Writing in Forbes, Maureen Henderson sees this as the latest example of the rich and powerful using crowdfunding to fund projects they could fund through other means. Much as Warner Bros. could have funded a new Veronica Mars movie without $5.7m raised online, Gawker could probably negotiate a deal with their sources to purchase the video at a price they could cover from online ad revenue, as nothing sells like a political train wreck.
What does the Crackstarter mean for online journalism and crowdfunding? When I began working at the Berkman Center ten years ago, John Palfrey offered a helpful rule of thumb for understanding how law worked in cyberspace: “If it’s illegal offline, it’s illegal online.” I’d suggest that the same applies in the realm of ethics: paying a source for a story is ethically suspect both offline and online.
But there’s a dimension to crowdfunding payments to a source that complicates matters. Not only has Gawker’s editorial board made the decision that it’s ethically permissible to pay for the Rob Ford video – so have 2,896 donors, who’ve given their own money to see the mayor inhale. It’s a reasonable guess that few are Rob Ford supporters. This crowdfunding campaign lets Ford opponents vote with their pocketbooks to increase the chances Ford will be forced to resign.
I predict Ford will resign before Gawker purchases and runs the video. But the implications of the campaign are still worth considering. When asked about the ethics of paying drug dealers for the video, Gawker can point to thousands of supporters who didn’t have ethical qualms about paying for the footage. And much as civic crowdfunding raises questions about whether only rich neighborhoods will fund new parks and civic infrastructure, crowdfunding to pay for videos is a trend that seems likely to favor high-visibility politicians with wealthy opponents over lower-attention scandals. Had the city of Bell, California needed to crowdfund evidence to indict city manager Robert Rizzo, it’s unlikely the poor, majority-Spanish speaking community would have ousted corrupt leaders.
More than one online commenter has asked whether Gawker will share revenue from pageviews with their donors if they are able to purchase the Ford video. I’m more curious whether the donors will share the credit and the blame if crowdfunding checkbook journalism becomes the next big thing.
Charles Mann offers a big story in the latest issue of the Atlantic. It’s 11,000 words, and it’s based around an audacious premise: the end of energy scarcity. The peg for the story is Japan’s ongoing research on methane hydrate, an amalgam of natural gas trapped in water ice that occurs in oceans around the world. If methane hydrate can be harvested, Mann tell us, the global supply of hydrocarbon fuels are virtually unlimited. This, he argues, would have massive geopolitical and strategic implications, as the history of the twentieth century can be read in part through the lens of wealthy nations without oil seeking the black stuff in less developed lands. New forms of power might center on who can extract ice that burns like natural gas.
The bulk of the Mann piece is a debate over “peak oil”, an idea put forward by M. King Hubbert in the 1950s, when he correctly predicted that US oil production would slow. Mann’s piece pits Hubbert against Vincent E. McKelvey, his boss at the US Geological Survey for years, who argued that energy supplies are virtually inexhaustible, though the costs to extract them increase as we use up the “easy” oil ready to burst above the surface. While Hubbert’s predictions about US oil production were initially right, Mann argues, the rise of techniques like horizontal drilling and hydrofracking means McKelvey is right in the long run. If we need methane hydrate – and Japan does, as it lacks other hydrocarbon resources – we’ll find a way to pay for it. The argument only looks like a contradiction, Mann argues, because it’s an argument between geologists on one side and social scientists on the other, and from the social scientists’ point of view, so long as there’s economic demands for hydrocarbons and the means to extract it, we should expect these fuels to keep flowing.
There’s something very attractive about Mann’s argument. He writes as an insider who’s going to let you in on what the smart guys know that poor, dumb saps like me would never imagine. It’s a tone you hear a lot in Washington policy circles, a realpolitik view of the world that suggests you can entertain yourself with solar panels as long as you’d like, but the adults in the room are deciding who gets invaded for their petrochemical wealth and whose civilizations will collapse into a new Medieval period.
Fortunately, there are some smart responses to Mann’s article, some vitriolic, some patient and thoughtful. (To the Atlantic’s credit, they published both Mann’s piece and Chris Nelder’s excellent response.) The essence of the responses is this: yes, there’s a whole lot of methane trapped in ice. Yes, if we could extract it, we’d have a whole lot of fuel that burns with half the carbon emissions of coal. But it’s unclear we can ever extract this at an affordable cost. (Canada just dropped out of the methane hydrate race, perhaps because they see extracting oil from tar sands as a more plausible source of hydrocarbons.)
And even if we can, then what? Methane burns cleaner than coal, but we’d be still emitting massive amounts of CO2 in a methane-based economy.
Mann’s not wholly unaware of the environmental implications of methane hydrate for global CO2 levels, but he frames his argument simply: natural gas may be bad, but coal’s worse. He acknowledges that we’ll need to move to renewables, but worries that we won’t be able to store power during periods of low solar or wind intensity. (These are real problems, but ones where a great deal of innovation are taking place, from high tech solutions like power-storing flywheels to effective low-tech solutions like pumped storage.)
In his cursory consideration of how a near-infinite supply of methane might have negative environmental implications, Mann dedicates 2 paragraphs of his love-song to natural gas to a minor problem: methane is a potent greenhouse gas. When a gas well leaks more than 3%, it’s worse from a climate change perspective than burning coal. And it’s not just the wells – America has a long system of pipelines that carry natural gas, and no one is sure just how leaky those pipes are.
Mann assures us that repairing the holes in natural gas pipelines (3,356 in Boston’s pipelines alone!), is “a task that developed nations can accomplish”. It’s not as hard as changing the laws of economics, Mann asserts, which ensure that cheap natural gas will help America recover its geopolitical might.
So let’s talk for a moment about those laws of economics. If you’re a natural gas pipeline operator, losing 3% of your supplies in transit is a rounding error, so long as the gas dissipates and doesn’t present an explosion risk. My friend at the Department of Energy who made me aware of natural gas leakage noted that current requirements for pipeline inspection largely involve flying over vast lengths of cast-iron pipe and looking for browning of vegetation from leaking gas, a method that would be humorously inexact if the environmental consequences weren’t so serious.
The laws of economics Mann is so focused on won’t force pipeline operators to replace their leaky infrastructure. Markets don’t do a very good job of correcting for “externalities” like climate impact, unless governments force them to. The modest success of cap and trade in the northeastern US under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative required nine states to spend political capital and impose new requirements on industry, requirements that were politically unpopular, especially with Republican governors, like Mitt Romney who pulled Massachusetts out of the compact. (Deval Patrick pulled us back in, thankfully.)
The ultimate point of Mann’s essay, I think, is that environmentalists have hoped that peak oil and the threat of losing our energy supplies would push developed economies to embrace zero-emissions power. That’s not going to happen, Mann argues – so long as we’re willing to pay for it, hydrocarbon energies are inexhaustible for the foreseeable future. What Mann doesn’t say is this: if we are worried about climate change, the market won’t solve things for us – we need governments to help us.
That’s a deeply unsexy position to hold these days. Authors like Mann are fascinated by ways in which new technologies can save us from ourselves, discovering energy sources where none existed before, and developing even more profound technological solutions to handle the waste, like sequestering CO2 deep into the ocean, where it becomes trapped in water ice much as methane is trapped in methane hydrate. The problem is that these technologies cost billions to develop, and there are always cheaper alternatives that have externalities not calculated in market equations. The market for CO2 sequestration exists only if meaningful, widespread controls on greenhouse gas emissions come into play and create “artificial” incentives to invest in these technologies.
My friend Ivan Krastev has a smart essay – a short TED ebook – called “In Mistrust We Trust: Can Democracy Survive When We Don’t Trust Our Leaders?” Of the several problems he identifies with contemporary democracies, one of the most challenging is this: “Economic decision-making is methodically being taken out of democratic politics as the spectrum of acceptable policy choices has been dramatically narrowed. Politics has been reduced to the art of adjusting to the imperatives of the market.”
Krastev is largely focused on the ways European economies are wrestling with austerity, trying to provide social services to their populations but facing market pressures to be globally competitive. Voters become systematically disenfranchised because their popular will is held in check by what markets “want”.
We face similar disenfranchisement in the US. A large majority of Americans see climate change as a serious problem. But carbon taxes remain largely off the table in the US, due to fears of reducing American competitiveness in a global market.
Mann and the Atlantic missed a great opportunity here to celebrate what’s actually working: a slow conversion towards solar and wind in parts of the world where cap and trade and other emissions controls have been put into place. It’s not as sexy as burning ice, but it’s a future far more livable than the one Mann posits.
Some years back, I gave a talk at O’Reilly’s ETech conference that urged the audience to spend less time thinking up clever ways dissidents could blog secretly from inside repressive regimes and more time thinking about the importance of ordinary participatory media tools, like blogs, Facebook and YouTube, for activism. I argued that the tools we use for sharing cute pictures of cats are often more effective for activism than those custom-designed to be used by activists.
Others have been kind enough to share the talk, referring to “the Cute Cat theory”. An Xiao Mina, in particular, has extended the idea to explain the importance of viral, humorous political content on the Chinese internet.
I’ve meant to write up a proper academic article on the ideas I expressed at ETech for years now, and finally got the chance as part of a project organized by Danielle Allen and Jennifer Light at the Institute for Advanced Studies. They invited a terrific crew of scholars to collaborate on a book titled “Youth, New Media and Political Participation”, now in review for publication by MIT Press. The volume is excellent – several of my students at MIT have used Tommie Shelby’s “Impure Dissent: Hip Hop & the Political Ethics of Marginalized Black Urban Youth“, which will appear in the volume, as a key source in their work on online dissent and protest.
I’m posting a pre-press version of my chapter both so there’s an open access version available online and because a few friends have asked me to expand on comments I made on social media and the “Arab Spring” at the University of British Columbia and in Foreign Policy. (I also thought it would be a nice tie-in to the Gawkerization of Foreign Policy, with their posting today of 14 Hairless Cats that look like Vladimir Putin.)
Abstract: Participatory media technologies like weblogs and Facebook provide a new space for political discourse, which leads some governments to seek controls over online speech. Activists who use the Internet for dissenting speech may reach larger audiences by publishing on widely-used consumer platforms than on their own standalone webservers, because they may provoke government countermeasures that call attention to their cause. While commercial participatory media platforms are often resilient in the face of government censorship, the constraints of participatory media are shaping online political discourse, suggesting that limits to activist speech may come from corporate terms of service as much as from government censorship.
Look for the Allen and Light book on MIT Press next Spring – it’s an awesome volume and one I’m proud to be part of.
Cultural critic David Rieff uses my new book, Rewire: Digital Cosmpolitans in the Age of Connection, as a jumping off point for a screed against “techno-utopians” – and, near as I can tell, the very idea of progress – in the latest issue of Foreign Policy. I’m a little surprised that Rieff has grouped me with thinkers like Ray Kurzweil, as I’m far more skeptical of technological potential than he. Then again, it would be very hard to recognize my positions from Rieff’s portrayal of my book.
It’s a bit frustrating that Foreign Policy is releasing this essay (they’ve made it clear that it’s not a book review) six weeks before my book is in print. Unfortunately, you can’t yet read my book and see the wide gap between what I actually say and Rieff’s portrayal of my positions. FP gave me a very brief window to respond to Rieff, and that response runs in their current issue.
If you’d like a better introduction to my work than Rieff offers, Publishers Weekly was kind enough to review my book here. I’m looking forward to other reviews and reactions in the coming weeks.
I spent last week in Senegal at a board meeting for Open Society Foundation, meeting organizations the foundation supports around the continent. Two projects in particular stuck in my mind. One is Y’en a Marre (“Fed Up”), a Senegalese activist organization led by hiphop artists and journalists, who worked to register voters and oust long-time president Abdoulaye Wade. (I wrote about them last week here, and on Wikipedia.)
Documentary on OSIWA’s Situation Room project in Senegal, featuring Y’en a Marre
The other is a project run by Open Society Foundation West Africa – OSIWA – with support from partners in Senegal, Liberia, Nigeria and the UK. It’s an election “situation room”, a civil society election monitoring effort that focuses less on declaring elections “free and fair” than on reacting quickly to possible violence, mobilizing community leaders as peacemakers. OSIWA’s method has been used in Nigeria and Liberia, as well as in the Senegalese election where Y’en A Marre was such a powerful actor, as portrayed in the documentary above.
Elections are a moment where civil society often shines. Holding elections has become a major priority for governments, bilateral aid organizations and civil society organizations, and there’s been a good deal of creativity around monitoring elections using parallel vote tabulation and social media monitoring.
But elections don’t always equal development, or even a democratic process. Economist Paul Collier notes that elections in very poor nations often spark violence, and sees evidence that 41% of elections are marred by significant fraud. Elections work, Collier tells us, when governments are evaluated on their performance, not on their propensity for patronage. Citizens need to watch whether governments keep their promises, and oust those that don’t measure up. (See MorsiMeter, developed to monitor the first 100 days of Morsi’s presidency of Egypt.)
One question colleagues and I had for the remarkable activists at Y’en A Marre was what they were planning to do now that Wade had been ousted and Macky Sall elected. The bloggers and journalists I spoke to had a number of answers that centered on ensuring the Sall government benefits the rural poor and helping Senegal reduce dependence on international food suppliers. While it’s great to see activists thinking about macroeconomics, it was also clear that the intense focus of the movement – ousting a president who’d overstayed his constitutional mandate – had significantly dissipated, and that new foci hadn’t generated the same energy amongst the hundreds of community leaders who make up the Y’en A Marre movement.
I was thinking about this question – what do election-focused movement do once an election is over? – when I stumbled on this paper from colleagues and friends at Columbia’s Earth Institute. The Columbia team document a system they’ve built for government-hired enumerators in Nigeria, who are using mobile phones equipped with cameras and GPS to conduct a census of the nation’s essential infrastructure: boreholes (wells), schools, health clinics, etc. The teams rapidly mapped over a quarter million points of data, one of the larger extant sets of information on the Nigerian government’s efforts at service delivery.
As the Columbia authors explain, mapping using mobile phones is less a clever gimmick than a technical necessity – make a map with paper surveys and you’re transferring long GPS coordinates by hand. A simple application that stores a GPS reading, a picture and a human report allows for a large set of “human sensors” to rapidly build a data set.
People involved with the Columbia project have worked on version of this idea that are more expressive – Matt Berg (who took over some of the Geekcorps work I’d helped start in Mali) worked with a nonprofit in Kolkata to help children map trash and public health issues in their neighborhoods, overlaying data on maps they’d drawn by hand of their home communities. And other projects have focused on helping communities map their infrastructures and needs through a combination of digital and analog means, notably Map Kibera, which has worked to create accurate maps of one of Nairobi’s largest slums.
It strikes me that a major opportunity for groups like Y’en A Marre to remain active between elections is to take on a role as citizen monitors. If the key to a successful democracy is a government that delivers services and is elected based on its performance, then documenting whether campaign promises get met is a critical step towards responsive government. In most African nations where I’ve worked, campaign promises center primarily on building infrastructures: “Name me to Parliament and I will ensure we’ll have 20 new primary schools and clean water in every village.” Citizens need to be able to verify those claims. Even in developed nations, those are hard claims to verify – ProPublica memorably turned to crowdsourcing to determine whether US federal stimulus money was being put to work, or sitting in local government coffers. (Most of it was put to work quite quickly.) If it’s hard to understand the local impacts of federal spending in the US, it’s really hard in nations that have a weak press, a culture of government secrecy or little ability to collect on the ground data.
I’d like to find ways to help groups like Y’en A Marre, Enough is Enoughhttp://eienigeria.org/ and others collect and share data, creating open data sets useful to activists, journalists, governments and the development community. The same data could help governments document their successes, journalists monitor government spending and activists demand equitable resource distribution in their communities. I can imagine projects that incorporate low-cost CO sensors that talk to phone to monitor vehicular and cooking stove pollution; projects that invite people to document their favorite and least favorite parts of their cities and villages; projects that enlist broad cooperation by compensating participants for their time with mobile phone minutes, as Esoko does to collect agricultural market information. Other monitoring projects could focus on rapid response. My friend Tunde Ladner of Wangonet began a project in Lagos that encouraged people to report dangerous construction underway, a critical dataset that would demand quick response to protect against building collapse.
I’m thinking about putting some of Center for Civic Media’s resources towards exploring this idea, probably first in Nairobi with friends at Ushahidi and the iHub. If you have ideas about partners, about questions to explore, pushback on the concept of citizen monitoring, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Last week was a stressful, dreadful one, not just for people in Boston who lost friends in the marathon bombing and a colleague when Officer Sean Collier was shot and killed. It was a dreadful week in Iraq, a week that featured a massacre in Syria and an industrial explosion in West, Texas that killed at least 15 and raises difficult questions about the poor state of industrial regulation in the US.
During that miserable week, I got a piece of sad news: the untimely death of a man I’ve long admired, Scott Miller. As more than one music critic has pointed out in their elegies for him, Scott Miller is the best songwriter you’ve never heard of. He led a band in the 1980s called Game Theory which produced four hooky, catchy and deeply strange power-pop/new wave albums, then formed Loud Family, which released seven albums between 1992 and 2006. The Loud Family albums cover an amazing stylistic range, from cheery pop songs to unpredictable sonic experiments, sometimes within the same track.
“Don’t Respond, She Can Tell”, by Loud Family
Miller often answered questions about his obscurity, noting that he’d never set out to make music that would be appreciated by critics and a small army of obsessed fans, and ignored by the wider world. I was deeply struck by a comment he made some years back, answering a fan’s inquiry: “I’m utterly serious about music, I just respect the buying public’s judgment that it’s not what I should do for a living.” One of the many hopes of an age of digital distribution was that artists who produce work adored by a small artist, instead of appreciated by a large one, will be able to make a living. Miller walked this narrow path well before the tools and support systems smoothed the way.
The first Game Theory albums got some college radio play, but by the end of that band, Miller had given up on the prospect of following arty-yet-accessible artists like REM into the mainstream, and stopped editing himself. The result was Lolita Nation, an unbelievably strange and wonderful album that also became legendarily unobtainable. (Amazon will sell you one of the few CD copies extant for about $100, but Scott’s friends are posting links to digital copies of the albums on the Loud Family site. You really should download these, particularly Real Nighttime – perhaps the most accessible – and Lolita Nation – the masterpiece.)
Loud Family took off where Lolita Nation left off, juxtaposing pop songwriting with sonic collage, remixing his back catalog into new songs, snippet by snippet. The six Loud Family albums, especially Days for Days and Interbabe Concern, are near the top of my most played list over the last decade, and often find myself caught between wondering why everyone isn’t as in love with this music as I am, and wondering how Miller persuaded a record label to ever bother releasing it, as it was clear his music was very much an acquired taste.
Not everyone who deserves an audience finds one. Miller turned to music criticism (appreciation, really) in recent years, and his book “Music: What Happened?” introduced me to other bands who’ve become favorites, like Thin White Rope, whose remarkable lead singer, Guy Kyser, now studies invasive plants at UC Davis. Kyser and Miller are two in a very special class of artists – visible enough that you might discover them and have their work change your life without knowing them personally, but invisible enough that they need day jobs. Finding an artist like this is a special gift, a treasure you share with friends you trust enough to believe they might “get it”, a secret handshake, not a badge.
Miller, like most professional musicians, didn’t make much money, and his friends have set up a scholarship fund for his two daughters, open to contributions from his fans. The Onion’s A/V Club has a particularly good remembrance of Scott Miller, including three music videos. Rest in peace, Scott, and thanks for the music.