Swiss author and entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli recently published a provocative essay titled “News is Bad for You” in The Guardian. The essay describes news – particularly fast-breaking, rapidly updated news – as an addictive drug, inhibiting our thinking, damaging our bodies and wasting our time. Dobelli is so concerned with the negative effects of news that he’s cut himself off from consuming news for the past four years and urges that you do the same.
His arguments attracted angry responses within The Guardian‘s newsroom. Madeleine Bunting writes, “As Dobelli described his four-year news purdah to a group of Guardian journalists last week, there was a sharp intake of collective breath, nervous laughter and complete astonishment. How could someone suggest such a thing to a journalist?”
I had a different reaction to Dobelli’s provocation. I found it pretty persuasive. I shared the article with students in a class I teach called “News and Participatory Media”, and asked the students for their reactions. Many found Dobelli’s case compelling, especially those students who were mid-career journalists. Much of what frustrated them about their profession was bluntly identified in Dobelli’s piece: too often, news is a set of disconnected snippets that promises to inform and empower, but merely entertains, distracts and ultimately misleads.
While Dobelli offers a persuasive set of problems, his proposed solution – stop reading news – strikes me as unhelpful and selfish. You personally may benefit from the time you reclaim in kicking the news habit, but there is likely a societal cost in encouraging people to opt out of consuming the news. A democratic form of government presumes an informed populace that can select appropriate representatives and identify issues that merit public debate. As Bunting notes in her response, a happy, docile and ill-informed citizenry is the precursor to a Huxleian vision of totalitarianism.
Dobelli might accept the accusations of selfishness. His essay is adapted from his new book, “The Art of Thinking Clearly”, which is an odd example of a self-help book. Deeply inspired by Naseem Taleb’s work linking cognitive science and economics, Dobelli outlines 99 cognitive shortcomings, errors and fallacies in an attempt either to steer us towards smarter decisionmaking or, more likely, to bludgeon us into a realization that human beings are pretty lousy at making rational decisions. By the end of the book, Dobelli admits that he rarely considers all these errors and fallacies in making decisions and simply goes with his gut – however, he wants us to have these tools handy for the really important decisions. Those decisions, his examples suggest, generally have to do with making investments as wisely as Warren Buffet or getting good deals on expensive cars. His is not a book about civics – it’s a book about maximizing your personal gains.
If we take Dobelli’s criticism seriously but reject his proposed solution, one next step is to look for ways to address the shortcomings of contemporary journalism. If we don’t like the sort of repetitive, click-seeking, shallow journalism that Pablo Boczkowski identifies in his book “News at Work“, we need to find ways to support “slow news” that focuses on investigation and contextualization of breaking news. If we are dismayed by how both new and old media got many details of the Boston Marathon bombing and the manhunt for the bombers wrong, we need either to slow newsrooms down, or to build better tools to help both newsrooms and readers cross-check and verify breaking news reports.
I can (and frequently do) point to people and projects focused on solving the problems Dobelli poses , but I’m left with two of his challenges that I can’t ignore or solve. They are related points: “News is irrelevant” and “News makes us passive.” These intertwined problems strike me as uncomfortably hard to address.
I like sumo. A lot. I follow the tournaments online, watching matches on YouTube a few hours after they’ve aired, then reading commentary on fan sites in English and Spanish. I have, one or twice, participated in virtual sumo leagues, performing dismally as there’s not always much overlap between the style of sumo I love (focused on agility and throwing techniques) and the style of sumo that wins. I show sumo matches to friends, hoping to turn them into fans, and I’ve been known to give talks at academic conferences on the globalization of this very Japanese sport.
But I’ve seen very little sumo in person. This past week was only my second trip to Japan, and while I was privileged to attend a day’s bouts in Ryuguko Kokugikan, Tokyo’s temple of sumo, I sat in the nosebleed seats, peering through the telephoto lens on my camera to follow the action.
I have a very different perspective on the sport after an incredible experience yesterday morning. On Monday, I gave a talk at Tokyo Midtown Hall, organized by Japan’s most prestigious newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, and by Dentsu, Japan’s leading marketing and communications firm. My friend Mr. Mori and his colleagues at Dentsu organized a morning visit to the Oguruma Beya, the dormitory and training academy where a dozen sumo rikishi live and practice.
Four year ago, Hal Roberts and I were researching internet censorship by studying the use of proxy servers around the world. Proxy servers are often used to circumvent internet filtering, letting users access content that’s otherwise blocked by a national government, an internet service provider, or a school or business. We found that the usage of these tools, including both free, ad-supported tools and subscription-based VPN services, was surprisingly small: less than 3% of all internet users in countries that aggressively censored the internet.
This surprised us, as there’s been a great deal of dialog in the US about “internet freedom”, a US government policy that supports providing uncensored internet access to people in China, Iran and other nations whose governments filter the internet. Our research suggested that the efforts already underway by projects like Tor and Freegate weren’t being used nearly as much as their authors hoped. This might be due to weaknesses in the tools, but we suspected another motivation: lack of user interest. Hal designed a study of bloggers in countries that censored the internet, asking whether they used circumvention tools. Almost all were aware of the existence of proxy servers, but few used them regularly. When we asked why they weren’t using these tools, most told us that they weren’t very interested in accessing blocked content.
A new paper from Harsh Taneja and Angela Xiao Wu at Northwestern University offers some insights into why this is the case. Taneja and Wu use internet usage data from Comscore to analyze the thousand most globally popular websites, examining their overlapping audiences. Audiences for websites tend to cluster together – people who visit CNN.com are more likely to also visit ESPN.com than people who visit Chinese search engine Baidu. The authors identify a set of 37 “culturally defined markets”, collections of popular websites that seem to be visited predominantly by people who share languages or cultures. Language, while a powerful factor in explaining this clustering, isn’t the sole factor: a cluster of French and Arabic-language sites represents a bilingual North African culture, for example, and an Indian cluster containing mostly English-language sites is distinct from an English-language North American/UK/Australian cluster. And there’s a cluster of football sites that appears to have a truly transnational audience. (more…)
Yanhong Li, Vice Dean and Associate Professor of Communications at Sun Yat Sen University, offers an example of ancient organizing history in China: a case from four years ago. She tells us about a set of protests against a garbage incinerator in Panyu district in Guangzhou, where middle class, well educated citizens challenged the incinerator and managed to get the incinerator moved to another district.
Professor Li’s work focuses on the narrative these activists created. The government advanced the idea that there were zero risks associated with this garbage incinerator. The debate focused on questions of risk and balancing this risk with rewards. She references the “risk society” theory, proposed by sociologist Ulrich Beck. In this theory, we accept the idea that living in a society has some risks. Humans develop tools to survive in a risky society, including the ability to rationally assess risks involved with our behaviors. For instance, we rely on expert opinion to evaluate the level of risk we are taking in consuming a product or taking an action. Experts and scientists, however, always have controversies and disagreements. We may rely on experts, but we will still have risks based on the disagreements between these experts.
In risk society, we are always involved with self-reflection. Beck notes that people in a risky society are always interested in these risks and in the debates between experts. The Chinese government has started listening to professionals and experts, and introduced into political debate the idea of risk management. However, this idea of risk management is still very new to Chinese government thinking, and decisionmaking is very heavily influenced by stakeholders, like the businesses or projects regulated.
Professor Li’s work looks at whether mass media in China takes seriously its role as helping audiences understand and navigate risk. She studied Southern Metropolis and News Express, two papers she saw as very representative of Chinese mass media. She considered a three month period where local residents and policymakers were most active in discussing this issue. The texts considered include about 100 reports in each paper, which suggests intense coverage.
The main conflict is the conflict over a right to have a voice in the policy-making process. The government claimed that the incinerator is zero-risk, relying on expert reviews and assertions that the technology is highly advanced and offered no risk of exposure to dioxin. Both sides drew on experts, but the government shifted to a reliance on social policy experts, using a policy rationale of “reasonable” balance.
The government tried to constrain who could participate in the debate, limiting participation to those who lived within 3km of the proposed plant… though citizens argued that people more than 3km away from the plant would be able to smell the odor of the garbage. People who lived near another plant talked about problems with odor, with water pollution and increased cancer list, relying on their personal experience to challenge expert narratives. This argument became known as “experienced rationality”, arguments rooted in local knowledge of conditions on the ground.
Media tended to focus on frame of “procedural justice”, a question of whether the government had followed proper procedures in acquiring land, getting perspectives of local residents, etc. Eventually, the media came to a conspiracy frame, considering the interests of the companies in building the plant as a way of structuring the narrative about the incinerator. An internet story revealed a close relationship between the owner of the proposed plant and the local environmental regulators, suggesting collusion to make this plant possible. This framework of interest, the idea of “what’s the real reason” behind the plant, became a compelling narrative.
A discussion that was originally about risk and expert opinion turned into a discourse about conspiracy, a narrative that moved from low-risk into a deeply risky space, where wealthy and powerful people are able to ignore societal considerations of risk. The analysis is significant because it’s a place where media has been able to challenge ideas of risk and government narratives about expertise.
I asked Professor Li what ultimately happened to the incinerator – it ended up in another community, which also protested, but less successfully. I asked whether the community where it ended up was a poorer community. It was, but Professor Li urged me not to conclude that the outcome was purely about the government selecting a poorer neigborhood – it was in part about moving to a more viable dialog about risk, not just a dialog about “zero risk”.
Friend and colleague Sasha Costanza-Chock leads off the morning at Sun Yat Sen University’s conference on Civic Media with a talk titled, “Transmedia Organizing: Social Media Practices in Occupy Wall Street and the Immigrant Rights Movement”. Sasha begins with his personal journey towards a scholar of activism. He started his story with his work as an electronic musician in Boston as a student at Harvard, working to create multiracial and multicultural spaces around electronic music as a way of addressing some of the long-term cultural divides in Boston. That work led him to work on film audio for the Independent Media Center and work with Indymedia, documenting
This work on filmmaking turned into an investigation of distribution methods, which led him to work with the Transmission Network, a group focused on bringing independent media from around the world, especially to Southeast Asia to global audiences. He moved on to UPenn Annenberg, where he focused on media policy and went on to work with Free Press, an international NGO focused on participatory interventions into media policy.
Pursuing his PhD at USC Annenberg, Sasha found himself working with the immigrant rights community, a key community in LA, which has a massive immigrant population. His work with immigrant groups led to the Mobile Voices project, which has gone on to become vojo.co. This platform, which allows people to share their stories via mobile phones, is an example of a tool for transmedia activism, activism that uses a variety of media tools to seek change.
Sasha suggests that a broad view of media ecology suggests we take the new affordances of digital media seriously. Social movements have always used new media to express their identity and articulate their issues. But we need to look beyond tools and platforms, and consider the political economy of media systems. What companies are involved with these new spaces, how are they regulated, who benefits from these new systems? What are the new affordances of these tools? Who has access to tools and skills in these new spaces? (more…)
Professor Jing Wang is the organizer of our international symposium at Sun Yat Sen University. She’s the founder of a project called NGO2.0, which teaches participatory and social media tools to grassroots NGOs in China, helping them advertise themselves to the outside world.
Jing opens her talk by examining her personal motives for focusing on strengthening NGOs in the “hinterlands” of China, the western and central provinces. She shows a photo of herself in the mid-1950s, as a kindergartner in Taipei. Her family retreated to Taiwan with Chang Kai-Shek’s government in exile. Hoping to give her and her brother as many advantages as possible, Jing’s parents sent their children to a newly built private school. She and her brother stayed for seven years, which sound like they were pretty hellish. She was in the same class with sons and daughters of nationalist generals, mainstream media moguls and, in general, the children of the cultural and political elite of the nationalists.
“As a little girl, I understood the meaning of social class.” The other students – and the school administrators – bullied and ostracized the less wealthy children. One girl came in for particular humiliation – she was the granddaughter of an activist and critic of the Chang Kai-Shek government, and when her grandfather was arrested for treason, she was ordered to be ostracized from her peers at school.
“That emotion remained with me for years after I left the school. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school at the University of Massachusetts that I was able to name that feeling: ‘Opression’.” Jing tells us, “To this day, my favorite films are martial arts films.” As those of us who interact with her know, her online avatar is a sword-carrying warrior.
In 2006, Jing was deeply involved with launching Creative Commons in China. At the launch of the CC license for China, Larry Lessig attended, and celebrated the idea that 1.3 billion new users could now license their content freely. Jing realized that Creative Commons, as a project, has a blind spot about digital literacy – CC needed to think beyond digitally sophisticated users, and how to help the digitally challenged have their voices hear.
NGO2.0 was born in response to this second question. There was a boom in the forming of NGOs in China in 2008 in reaction to the Sichan earthquake. These nonprofits face a lot of serious problems. The government is not very interested in investing in non-government led civic participation. Most of these organizations don’t actually have legal status – their existence is in a legal grey area. And it’s very difficult for NGOs to compete with “GONGOs”, government-founded NGOs.
While NGO2.0 focuses on the least wealthy provinces in China, those in the Center and West, there’s less of an access divide than you might expect. A village to village universal service program brought internet connectivity to 98% of small townships by 2010. What’s missing was the knowledge of how to navigate online. NGOs in these areas needed extensive training in social media if they were to use new media to reach audiences.
NGO2.0 is run by a twelve person virtual team which meets for three hours each Sunday night. This distributed team has produced a huge range of outputs. Their partner organizations have recorded three minute promotional videos to share their work with public audiences. There’s an online and offline set of social media trainings, including a series of training workshops, a field guide to software and an online survey of NGO internet usage and behavioral patterns.
The field guide takes the form of a technology field map. NGOs have a wide variety of technical needs, including the ability to send out mass emails. NGO2.0 has evaluated 160 tools useful to NGOs. The database includes information on who’s developing the tool, whether they are domestic or overseas, which can be a key issue for product support. That database both informs existing NGOs on what tools they might use, and helps provide a backdrop for future tech and NGO collaborations and hackathons, helping hackers who are anxious to create tech but who don’t always know what NGOs need.
NGO2.0 is now building around the idea of city-based NGO2.0 networks. NGOs in the same city are able to reach out to each other for help and for information. And these city-based networks allow NGOs to reach out to the local commercial sector, finding businesses who might be interested in supporting these grassroots organizations. The importance of reaching out to corporate sponsors stems from the fact that the culture of personal philanthropy slow to grow in China.
Traditionally, corporations only give to large and established NGOs. But there was a scandal recently where a woman who identified herself as the general manager of Red Cross China flaunted her expensive lifestyle online, creating a crisis in confidence in these large NGOs. As a result, there’s a new opportunity for these small NGOs to approach large donors.
NGO2.0 initially tried to match NGOs and donors through a map, allowing donors to see what NGOs were located in their communities. But they’ve discovered they need to run a set of fora involving local government, local media, local corporations, and local NGOs. Jing explains that you need to invite the government because media follow government, and corporations follow media.
She closes her talk with a portrait of six NGO workers including Ma Junhe, who fights desertification through tree-planting in Minching; Qi Yongjin, who works as a barefoot doctor for the poor; and Gao Qiang, a former drug addict and advocate for welfare of AIDS patients.
Professors Zhou Runan and Wang Qing are also working with China’s NGO community. They jointly ran a course of codesign, matching design and computer science students with local NGOs to work in tandem to create new technology that meets their organizational needs. We close the day hearing from five teams of students. They show a new website produced for PFLAG China, a mobile phone application designed to document bicycling routes in Guangzhou, and a video-based training program that helps migrant workers understand their rights.
The co-design course is based on Sasha Costanza-Chock’s class on codesign, offered annually at MIT as part of the Center for Civic Media. It’s awesome to see Sasha’s hard work turn into inspiration for an important course taught at Sun Yat Sen, which is inspiring some very impressive students.