Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Politics, popularity, and personalization

June 22, 2008

I already said that i love DC. Another reason to love it, are the many opportunities offered by this city.

A week ago or so, i participated in a debate/discussion about “new” media and political campaigns hosted by Google and National Journal and titled “The First 21-st Century Campaign“. Being hosted by Google, the event attracted some very interesting people and was held in a format of discussion rather than a traditional (academic) presentation-style lectures. Unfortunately, i wasn’t smart enough to bring a camera even though the event was absolutely open and the organizers even encouraged people capturing it in any possible way. Another unfortunate thing was that i couldn’t stay for the entire event and in fact stayed only for the first panel (out of three).

Ad of the Google\'s June Symposium

Fortunately, though, the first panel was very thought provoking.  Nothing super controversial or innovative has been said, but it was great to hear thet the industry people are concerned with the same issues that academics are.  Actually, i think the panel would benefit from a visionary academic person who could bring the entire discussion under a comprehensive (dare I say, macro) umbrella.

The first panel, moderated by Judy Woodruff of PBS, hosted Mark Halperin (“Time” – as a representative of the old media), Katherine Ham (, even though she announced she has a new job now), James Kotecki (Politico – he and Katherine were the representatives of “new” media), Phil Singer (Clinton campaign), and Kevin Madden (Mitt Romney campaign _ he and Singer were the political practitioners on the panel).

Most of the discussion focused on the tensions between the “old” and the “new” media.  In my view it started pretty awkward with Kotecki’s remark that he doesn’t see himself as a journalist and was (i got a sense that he was implying that he still is) making his video just to feel popular.  It was particularly stonning because one of the main points of the discussion was credibility of the “new” media as a journalistic practice.  Kotecki himself was making claims for being credible, which (together with some of the other comments, such as those made by Singer) got me thinking whether or not the 2.0 culture equates credibility to popularity.  If so, i find that idea pretty disturbing.  One the one hand, i can buy into the idea of wisdom of crowds (that’s the term i think), but, on the other hand, i cannot buy into dismissal of expertise that seems to be attached to it (at least in the current discussion).

Another interesting point came from the campaign people and it was primarily about the use they make of information.  For Madden, the “new” media were all about speed and precision of the media message.  Even though they never got talking explicitly about how they use microtargeting (even though i raised that questions), it was constantly implied in the examples they provided.  Building of the idea of popularity, it was now also the ability of precise targeting of the message.  I would describe that as an ability of talking about “popularities” rather than a single popularity.  To a a degree that appeared as a distinction between the “old” and the “new” media as well.  I found the latter rather interesting – the basic concepts mass (popularity) did not change, but progressed and evolved (into popularities), but the substance became implicitly even less important.  In other words, there is no substantive change in the policy or in the ideas, but the package is more personalized.

As the discussion evolved, it became more interesting and sophisticated.  To one degree or another, the panelists touched upon many relevant points.  This highlight was, I think, when Singer or Halperin, noticed that the mere division between the “old” and the “new” was artificial.  Ham also was very sharp when talking about the relations between the “old” and the “new” media (even though she was clearly advocating for the legitimacy of the latter).  I found this particularly interesting, because usually you hear a very deterministically-dichotomous discourse where the “new” is presented as separate and mostly superior to the “old”.  Even though Judy Woodruff finished the panel with some techno-utopian remarks (mostly as a tribute to the host), it did spoil the overall flavor of complexity.

On the practical level i came out of this symposium with two titles for potential books.  Not that i plan on writing those this summer, but… If i were to write a book with critical analysis of the modern Western society, particularly focusing on the youth, i would title it “The popularity generation.”  Maybe there is such a book already and maybe it will become the label of generation Y with all the reality shows and a myriad of televised competitions (for popularity of course :).  The other book would be about this campaign, or about contemporary politics in a broader sense.  That one i would title “The politics of personalization.”

Finally, kind of getting back to one of my first points, i think the symposium would really benefit from an academic input.  Maybe even more broadly, i think this industry could learn as much from the academia as the academia is learning from it.  At the end of the day, all the points raised by the panelists are being discussed and studied, and bringing those inputs would enrich the discussion and probably take it into the next level.

You can read a short post following the event on Google’s blog or you can actually watch the entire thing on C-Span (and enjoy me asking some questions :).


Facebook and surveillance

April 8, 2008

Another post that spent a while in my drafts. I wrote it after Syria blocked FB and i got in a short conversation with bloggers on Mideast Youth.

One of the commenters stated that “there is no doubt that these socialisation sites like Facebook, Orkut, Hi5, Xuga, etc and even Hotmail, Yahoo, GMail and all others are connected to CIA, and CIA feeds MOSSAD when necessary”. That sparked a conversation about the degree of involvement of the intelligence agencies in monitoring the web in general and particularly FB. My interaction was actually with Tamara, with whom i think we agree and the discussion was mainly on semantics. I think my problem was primarily with an idea of CIA, or any other intelligence agency, actually being directly linked to something like FB and monitoring what is going on in there. From my point of view, that would be crossing a few red lines unacceptable “even” in the post 9/11 reality (as if to support my thoughts Washington Post published this article). In other words, assuming CIA having a pipe plugged into FB servers is going a little bit too far.

Interestingly, just a few days after that discussion, i bumped into a Newsweek article about a mysterious murder in Italy. One of the prominent points in that article is the use Italian police made of the Web in order to track the suspects. They did check out suspects’ FB profiles, their recent Google searches, and used Skype to reach one of the other suspects. However, linking this back to the CIA-Syria discussion, i think this articles makes an interesting point. It seems like when they need it, the security forces are capable of gaining the information from social networking websites and more. The articles of course does not explain how exactly they gained that access, but i don’t think it implies that there is a constant surveillance of these public spaces. Actually it seems to me that it makes quite an opposite point and in this sense the new media are no different from the more veteran technologies (phone, TV, or library for that matter).

Also, as I was reading that, i couldn’t help but think about the degree of exposure people are reaching online these days. And it is not that they were forced into it, or had actually to exchange something about themselves in return for a product or service. FB in fact does not have any content or even a product. All it provides is a platform, but the choice what to put on this platform is totally in the hands of the users. This leads me to thinking about the changing awareness and perception of privacy among the youth. What is going on there?

Going mobile…

March 9, 2008

The “Pew Internet and American Life” project just published an interesting report about the use of mobile access to data and information. According to this report over 40% of the adult Americans have used mobile Internet access and almost 60% used non-voice services on their mobiles.

They show some interesting trends in people’s readiness to give up information technologies. If in 2002 only 38% said it would be very hard to give their mobile phone, in 2007 this number jumped to 58%. At the same time the percentage of people who find it very hard to give up television went from 47% in 2002 down to 43% in 2007. Even more interesting is the percentage of people who think that it would very hard to give up a land-line. That went down from 63% in 2002 to 40% in 2007, which actually is consistent with notions that more and more people are giving up land-lines. Also interesting is the willingness to give up email. The percentage of those finding it very hard to give up their email went from from 35% in 2002, to 34% in 2006, to 37% in 2007. Although there is no clear trend here, it seems like email is keeping a rather stable position in the communication lives of adult Americans using email. I wonder thought, if the situation with young Americans is any different though. The Pew report does not survey people younger that the age 18, yet, there are some trends noticeable even in the available data. The summaries presented in the report clearly show that the younger people are more willing to experiment with technology. For example the difficulty to give up internet and mobile phones grows as the age goes down, while the difficulty to give up land-line and television is growing with the age. I find this fascinating!

The interesting aspect of this increasing mobility however, is the actual type of activity. According to the report text messaging is leading the way with 31% of the users performing this activity on a typical day. The next most popular activity is picture taking with 15% of the users reporting doing so. To me, the latter point is particularly interesting in light of my recent post on digital photography. Pew data shows that 58% of the users tried taking a picture with their mobile device (same percentage as that of people who tried sending a text message), but only 15 view that as part of their typical day (as opposed to 31% mentioned above). It seems to me that my intuition about mobile photography was right.

When it comes to the types of activity, the younger people are really standing out. As i mentioned earlier, they are more willing to experiment with technology. Yet, they are also using more technology in general. Here again, text messaging is the leading activity (60% of 18-29 years old reported it to be part of their typical day) with taking pictures (31%), playing music, playing games (both 16%), and consuming news (14%). I find the last point particularly interesting from the societal point of view and also because this activity seems to be really distinct for this age group (only 7% of 30-49 years old, 3% of 50-64 years old, and 1% of 65+ years old reported that kind of activity as part of their typical day).

There is more demographic and especially racial specifics discussed in the report. Very interested and rather concise read.

Sex and the City (and the new media)

February 27, 2008

I will probably have to explain in person later to all those who wonder why I know that, but the official trailer for Sex and the City (the movie) is out and it is available on YouTube. Now this is where it is getting interesting…

If you look at the related videos on that YouTube page you will something that I don’t think was possible even just 10 years ago. Together with the official trailer you can see links to many amateur videos featuring the actual shooting of the film in NYC. For example this:

and this:

I find it fascinating. The entire idea of movie marketing and creating a buzz around new and anticipated creations is getting here to whole new level. People are talking about it, trying to guess what is going on, and are gaining a peak into the unknown and yet so expected. Whether the creators want that or not, the ubiquity of digital video recording allows the fans and even random people who were passing in the area to become part of the buzz around the movie.

And there is apparently an entire blog dedicated to the process of movie creation (probably not only one). It has pictures, video clips, and commentary about the upcoming movie – most of which is generated by fans and the rest by the blog owner. The disclaimer on blog sais it is not affiliated with the movie or HBO and the domain ownership is routed back to Ontario, Canada. But thinking about this, nobody stops HBO from doing the same and encouraging similar behavior because after all it helps promoting their movie.

My brief observation of this incident made me thinking about the ongoing battle between the traditioal movie industry establishment and what is labeled as “new” media. I think it shows how in fact the two can coexist in a new type of culture. Not a type of culture where there are creators, people who are ripped off, and thieves of original content, but a type of culture where there are creators and their fans and the two coexist and feed each other (both creatively and financially). However it seems as if it will take a long time or a sudden shift in thinking (particularly by the industry) for this new types of culture to emerge. Anyhow, we live in interesting times…

The wonders of Russia

February 16, 2008

I am currently assisting Phil Howard with his World Information Access Project. Particularly, i am looking for raw data on internet access in Russia (if you have any, please let me know).

Browsing the RUnet, i came across this post telling the story of the campaign website of Dmitry Medvedev, the leading presidential candidate in Russia. Apparently, his campaign website is hosted by the Russian Academy of Science…

Although the blog telling this story is explicitly anti-Medvedev, the information they use to determine this fact is publicly available. So, what do you say my internet gurus, is it really so?

On laptops and malnutrition

January 27, 2008

Here is a very interesting post from the OLPC news blog. It is written by a person working in Darfur and, as the publishing venue suggests, is addressing the One Laptop Per Child idea in the context of their work with refugees.

It reminded me of a a post i had a while ago about OLPC and the discussion that followed. Particularly it reminded me Nadia’s comment:

I don’t want to sound cynical, but IMHO kids in developing countries would benefit much more from improved health care than from laptops…

Nadia’s comment is not unique.  The common critique of the entire ICT4D idea is that there are basic needs, such as nutrition, health care, and literacy, to be addressed before the information technology can introduce any good.  Many times, I personally find it difficult to explain the importance of ICT in addressing these issues.  It is hard to talk about abstract concepts such as knowledge and human capital with an image of a hungry kid in the background.  I think this post provides some of the potential explanations in a better way that I could probably articulate:

This is not going to stop the fact that children are hungry, and if the extent of their malnutrition is such that they are developmentally challenged to the point that the XO is useless to them, then obviously alimentary relief is in order, but I would say that most of the malnutrition I have seen in my work in the Sahel comes from ignorance about balanced diet, and mismanagement of water resources (so you see toddlers eating only white rice, a water-hog of a crop grown in the desert). For this type of hunger and malnutrition to stop on a societal level it has to be learned and discovered, and shared throughout the community.

Coming from a person actually living this reality and working there, I think this observation has more authority than my academic debates.  Also I think the bottom line of the post captures the idea pretty well:

I think the XO, if distributed, deployed, and integrated properly into the educational and societal systems of developing countries, has a better shot than anything else I have seen to end hunger and poverty.

There are many “if”s in this statement, but I think it captures the essence.

“Technological optimism”

January 21, 2008

Just read about a new startup of Dov Moran, called “Modu” and it prompted a number of thoughts.

Moran is a remarkable person. In fact he is the one standing behind the invention of USB flash drive and M-Systems that was sold to SanDisk for $1.6 bln. “Modu” is his new startup developing a device that according to the article will revolutionize the world of mobile phones or in other words mobility of personal data. It was the claim for revolutionizing that kept me reading the article and thinking about it.

The idea of “Modu” is a miniature device with memory, energy source, and cellular abilities. It can be attached to anything from your land-line, the radio in your car, your laptop, etc. Once attached the hosting device is getting the capabilities of the “Modu”. In other words you have one mobile set of all your personal communication data, which is usually found in you mobile phone, and make it useful with all the other devices. You wouldn’t need a fixed line and a mobile – according to the limited information that Ynet journalists could gather (the project is very secret), “Modu” will take care of that.

According to the article, having all the personal communication data on a single miniature device will change the world (they actually start the article with this statement). This is where my social training is kicking in. Will it? Will people want to have everything on a single device? We don’t know enough about the product yet, but how is that information going to be protected and backed up? What about compatibility of “Modu” with all the other devices? Moreover, is there an economic model behind the device that will make the device standing out from being just another gadget? For example, the cellular communication is usually more expensive. How does that fit into shifting everything into a single mobile? Would organizations like their employers walking home with all the corporate information on their “Modu”? And the list can go on…

It is interesting how in most cases the new gadgets are described with such an optimism and, i would say, from a deterministic perspective. And then i start also thinking if such an enthusiasm about technology is necessary attribute for any visionary beginning in that industry. Most of the technological gurus i hear are always optimistic, as are the people behind technological startups. The fact that most of the startups fail and the fact that less than a decade ago we witnessed a major .com bubble, seems not being able to wipe out that belief in the next gadget changing the world (I suddenly remember Kindle and the fact that it has practically disappeared from the public agenda).

And that is interesting. I wonder how this technological optimism works. Is it an inseparable component of innovation? Is critical thinking here in fact limits creativity?

What do you think?

Something is wrong with the Israeli education system

December 6, 2007

In light of the ongoing strike of the education system in IL, i took a few minutes to browse the recent UNESCO report comparing the school education systems across the globe (the full report in PDF is here).

I have start with a warning that i did not read the 200+ pages. I did glance at the graphs and the numbers, as well as occasional mentions of Israel in the text. That brief glance left me a little bit puzzled. If my understanding of the report is correct, the Israeli numbers are not that bad. They are not that bad both in terms of performance, but more so in terms of investment in education. But something is fundamentally not working.

On the one hand, Israel is far from being at the bottom in terms of the investment in education proportionally to its GDP (22.3% for primary education and 22.7% for secondary in 2005, with 71.7% going to the salaries). This is contrary to the argument of the striking teachers claiming further public investment in the education system. On the other hand, Israel seems to have one of the highest proportions of private investment in education (2.1 of GDP in 2005). This suggests that there is room for further government involvement.

The main question is why with all this investment things seem not to work well? Although the report does not assess the quality of students’ knowledge, the numbers it sites are of people who actually finish school, and that nears 100% in Israel (which is also much higher than what i’ve heard so far). But something is still not working… something is wrong in the system? Or is it me misreading the report?

A couple of interesting facts before i stop. First, when it comes to “Top five destinations (host countries) for outbound mobile students” the numbers are: U.S.A. (3,471), Jordan (1,695), Germany (1,225), United Kingdom (1,122), Italy (1,002). Just to remind you, these number refer to school students. However i am still wondering who are the students studying in Jordan (second largest group) and i was really surprised to see Italy in the top four. Another peculiar issue is that the geographical group for Israel was North America and Western Europe. I understand that it is probably according to the level of development, but still… :)

What do you think?

October 26, 2007

Got this link from John Lester’s post on Facebook.  Before writing any comments I really wanted to ask what you (the few people who read this blog :) think about the following video:

New collection (your help needed)

September 30, 2007

A while ago, i posted here a few videos featuring communication technology as their main theme. Today, one of my Facebook friends posted this video, which is a remake of Enrique Iglesias’ “Hero“, adapted to the Facebook reality:

So, i decided that i would like to start collecting these videos, songs, and other cultural artifacts that mention communication technology explicitly, or even more so, make it the main theme. If you come across any, please send them over. They don’t have to be in English (though in that case i may ask for help with translation :) and there is no hard criteria for them to be super mature, or absolutely immature. To start with, anything will go.  Actually looking at the YouTube page with this video i could find a few more already, but i am sure there is much more out there.

I find the whole phenomenon really fascinating and would like to study it at some point. So, thank you in advance for anything you send!