Last night I watched The Great Hack a second time. It’s a fine documentary, maybe even a classic. (A classic in literature, I learned on this Radio Open Source podcast, is a work that “can only be re-read.” If that’s so, then perhaps a classic movie is one that can only be re-watched.*)
The movie’s message could hardly be more loud and clear: vast amounts of private information about each of us is gathered constantly in the digital world, and is being weaponized so our minds and lives can be hacked by others for commercial or political gain. Or both. The movie’s star, Professor David Carroll of the New School (@profcarroll), has been delivering that message for many years, as have manyothers, including myself.
But to what effect?
Sure, we have policy moves such as the GDPR, the main achievement of which (so far) has been to cause every website to put confusing and (in most cases) insincere cookie notices on their index pages, meant (again, in most cases) to coerce “consent” (which really isn’t) to exactly the unwanted tracking the regulation was meant to stop.
Those don’t count.
Ennui does. Apathy does.
On seeing The Great Hack that second time, I had exactly the same feeling my wife had on seeing it for her first: that the very act of explaining the problem also trivialized it. In other words, the movie worsened the very problem it solved. And it isn’t alone at this, because so has everything everybody has said, written or reported about it. Or so it sometimes seems. At least to me.
Okay, so: if I’m right about that, why might it be?
One reason is that there’s no story. See, every story requires three elements: character (or characters), problem (or problems), and movement toward resolution. (Find a more complete explanation here.) In this case, the third element—movement toward resolution—is absent. Worse, there’s almost no hope. “The Great Hack” concludes with a depressing summary that tends to leave one feeling deeply screwed, especially since the only victories in the movie are over the late Cambridge Analytica; and those victories were mostly within policy circles we know will either do nothing or give us new laws that protect yesterday from last Thursday… and then last another hundred years.
The bigger reason is that we are now in a media environment summarized by Marshall McLuhan in his book The Medium is the Massage: “every new medium works us over completely.” Our new medium is the Internet, which is a non-place absent of distance and gravity. The only institutions holding up there are ones clearly anchored in the physical world. Health care and law enforcement, for example. Others dealing in non-material goods, such as information and ideas, aren’t doing as well.
Journalism, for example. Worse, on the Internet it’s easy for everyone to traffic in thoughts and opinions, as well as in solid information. So now the world of thoughts and ideas, which preponderate on social media such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, are vast floods of everything from everybody. In the midst of all that, the news cycle, which used to be daily, now lasts about as long as a fart. Calling it all too much is a near-absolute understatement.
But David Carroll is right. Darkness is falling. I just wish all the light we keep trying to shed would do a better job of helping us all see that.
No question is asked more often by editors in newsrooms than that one. And for good reason: that’s what news is about: stories.
I was just 22 when I got my first gig as a journalist, reporting for a daily newspaper in New Jersey. It was there that I first learned that all stories are built around just three elements: character, conflict and movement toward resolution. You need all three.
So let’s look at them.
The character can be a person, a group, a team, a cause. Anything with a noun. Mainly the character needs to be worthy not just of attention, but of caring, meaning at least a small degree of emotional investment. You can love the character, hate it (or him, or her or whatever). Mainly you have to care about the character enough to be interested.
The conflict can be of any kind at all. It just needs to involve the character(s) in a problem, and a struggle (for the character or others) around that problem. All that matters is that the conflict keeps going. If not, the story is over. (For example, if you’re at a sports evbent, and your team is up (or down) by forty points with five minutes left, the character you now care about is your own ass, and your problem is getting it out of the parking lot. If that struggle turns out to be interesting, it might be a story you tell later.)
Movement toward resolution is nothing more than that. Bear in mind that many stories, and many characters in many conflicts around many problems, never arrive at a conclusion. In fact, that may be part of the story itself. Soap operas work that way.
For a lesson in how this can go very wrong, let’s take the example of the character now serving as President of the United States, and the conflicts he generates on purpose. I doubt any other character in history understands more deeply and instinctively how stories work, or is more practiced and successful at attracting journalistic attention by causing constant conflict, always toward his personal advantage, much of which is about enlarging his character to maximum size. There is true genius to how he does all this, especially in these early years of our new digital age, when the entire Internet is one big gossip mill. It is beyond amazing to watch him bend history, much like The Mule does in Isaac Azimov’s Foundation and Empire. (It was for this reason that, along with Scott Adams, I expected the dude to win in 2016.)
That he is cocaine for journalists and news organizations, however, is beside the point I’m making here,* which is that stories are inadequate ways to represent facts and truths, even if (as my favorite priest says) there are some truths so deep only stories can tell them.
Most truths we need to know aren’t deep, or even complicated. They just don’t fit the story format, and therefore resist becoming news—or interesting to journalists. That’s because stories are what journalism produces. This isn’t fatal flaw. But it is a failing, because there are some truths stories can’t tell. And most facts in the world don’t fit the story format.
For examples, let’s start with some facts that once mattered by now mostly don’t. The best evidence of these may be cemeteries. All a cemetery’s occupants were, in life, characters. Each of their lives was a story, and within their lives were many more stories. But their problems are all over, and there is no motion toward a conclusion, since all their lives are done. In most cases their characters have been erased by time and the full disinterest of the living. This even goes for relatives of the deceased, all of whom will also be deceased eventually, if they aren’t already.
To make him more real as a character, here is how he looked as a sharp young man:
His headstone says nothing about him, other than that he died at eighty-seven, seventy-six years ago. Being a journalist, however, and knowing a bit about Henry, I tell some of his story in the captions under the dozens of photos I’ve put in this album: that he headed the Steel and Copper Plate Engravers Union in New York, that he was what his daughter (my grandma) called a “good socialist,” that he had at least seven daughters and at least one son (Henry Jr., known as Harry, who died at age four) by two marriages, and that he outlived both of his wives at three of his kids by a long margin.
There are also questions within stories that have no answer, or even a way to get one, so the story just stops, even if the facts matter. For example, Henry’s plot is marked only by his headstone, with no markers for five others buried in the same plot, in just three graves, including both his wives and three of his children, all of whom predeceased him:
The sad but true summary here is that none of these people matter much, if at all, today, even though they mattered in each others’ lives a great deal when they were all alive. The great-grandchildren of Henry and his wives are now all advanced in death’s queue, or have already arrived there. And the living ones, including me, are way too busy living stories of their own and long since past caring much, if at all, about any of the gone people here. And the same is pretty much true for all but the most recently planted dead at Woodlawn and every other cemetery.
For a very different example—one that undeniably, deeply, and fully matters—take the killing fields of Cambodia: the story about how Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge murdered what eventually became more than a million people. I first heard of this genocide from Hughes Rudd, who was anchoring the CBS Morning News one day in the late 1970s. Between other news stories (as I recall they were about the Superbowl and Patty Hearst), Rudd said there were now reports that perhaps half a million people were dead in Cambodia. But the story wasn’t a story. It was just an item: too important to not mention but not interesting enough to say more about. The next morning I checked The New York Times and found the item mentioned in a short piece on an inside page. Dig: half a million dead, and no story. What made it not a story was the absence of all three elements. There were no characters, no apparent struggle, no movement toward resolution. Just a statistic. It hardly mattered to journalistic institutions of the time that the statistic itself was a massive one.
The story finally became a story on January 20, 1980, when Sydney Shamberg‘s The Death and Life of Dith Pran ran in the Times‘ Sunday Magazine. Now the story had a protagonist, a conflict, and movement toward resolution, all illustrating and illuminating important facts about the conflict, which was still going on at the time. Eventually it became a movie as well. For journalism, however, what also matters about this is that years went by, with hundreds of thousands more dying, before the killing fields became a big story.
And this wasn’t the first or last time that massively important and consequential facts got too little attention in the absence of one or more of a story’s three elements. Consider The Holocaust (six million dead) vs. the story of Ann Frank. The Rwandan genocide vs. Hotel Rwanda. The Rohingya conflict (more than 10,000 civilians dead, 128,000 internally displaced, 950,000+ fled elsewhere) vs. approximately nobody. Heard of Holodomor? How about any of the millions who died in Mao’s revolution in China? Without characters to care about, or a struggle to focus interest, without movement toward resolution, you mostly just have statistics. Sure, all that stuff will get studied by academics and obsessives of other kinds (including journalists who care about the topics and publish what they learn wherever they can). But Big-J journalism will mostly be preoccupied elsewhere, by more interesting stuff. Like it is right now.
You may notice that this post is itself a non-story. That’s one reason it has been incubating here for months. It still isn’t ready to be born now, and may not ever be. But I do feel a need to share my thinking on the topic, even though my thinking about it is likely to change. I am at least hoping that the journalistic feeding frenzy generated by the Mule of our time will lead to some fresh thinking about what journalism does best and worst, and especially about what, almost by design, it can’t or won’t.
So far twenty dead have been removed. It will take much more time to remove twenty thousand dump truck loads of what geologists call “debris,” just to get down to where civic infrastructure (roads, water, electric, gas) can be fixed. It’s a huge thing.
The big questions:
Did we know a catastrophe this huge was going to happen? (And if so, which among us were the “we” who knew?)
That was dated more than a month before huge rains revised to blood-red the colors in the mountains above town. Worries of County Supervisors and other officials were expressed in The Independent on January 3rd and 5th. Edhat also issued warnings on January 5th and 6th.
Edhat’s first report began, “Yesterday, the National Weather Service issued a weather briefing of a potential significant winter storm for Santa Barbara County on January 9-10. With the burn scar created by the Thomas Fire, the threat of flash floods and debris/mud flows is now 10 times greater than before the fire.”
But among those at risk, who knew what a “debris/mud flow” was—especially when nobody had ever seen one of those anywhere around here, even after prior fires?
The first Independent story (on January 3rd) reported, “County water expert Tom Fayram said county workers began clearing the debris basins at San Ysidro and Gobernador canyons ‘as soon as the fire department would let us in.’ It is worth noting, Lewin said, that the Coast Village Road area flooded following the 1971 Romero Fire and the 1964 Coyote Fire. While touring the impact areas in recent days, (Office of Emergency Management Director Robert) Lewin said problems have already occurred. ‘We’re starting to see gravity rock fall, he said. ‘One rock could close a road.'”
The best report I’ve seen about what geologists knew, and expected, is The Independent‘s After the Mudslides, What Does the Next Rain Hold for Montecito?, published four days after the disaster. In that report, Kevin Cooper of the U.S. Forest Service said, “no one alive has probably ever seen one before.” [January 18 update: Nick Welch in The Independentreports, “Last week’s debris flow was hardly Santa Barbara’s first. Jim Stubchaer, then an engineer with County Flood Control, remembers the avalanche of mud that took 250 homes back in November 1964 when heavy rains followed quickly on the heels of the Coyote Fire. He was there in 1969 and 1971 when it happened again.” Here is a long 2009 report on the Coyote Fire in The Independent by Ray Ford, now with Noozhawk. No mention of the homes lost in there. Perhaps Ray can weigh in.]
My point is that debris flows over Montecito ae a sure bet in geologic time, but not in the human one. In the whole history of Montecito and Santa Barbara (of which Montecito is an unincorporated part), there are no recorded debris flows that started on mountain slopes and spread all the way to the sea. But on January 9th we had several debris flows on that scale, originating simultaneously in the canyons feeding Montecito, San Ysidro and Romero Creeks. Those creeks are dry most of the time, and beautiful areas in which to build homes: so beautiful, in fact, that Montecito is the other Beverly Hills. (That’s why all these famous people have called it home.)
One well-studied prehistoric debris flow in Santa Barbara emptied a natural lake that is now Skofield Park,dumping long-gone mud and lots of rocks in Rattlesnake Canyon, leaving its clearest evidence in a charming tree-shaded boulder field next to Mission Creek called Rocky Nook Park.
What geologists at UCSB learned from that flow is detailed in a 2001 report titled UCSB Scientists Study Ancient Debris Flows. It begins, “The next ‘big one’ in Santa Barbara may not be an earthquake but a boulder-carrying flood.” It also says that flood would “most likely occur every few thousand years.”
And we got one in Montecito last Tuesday.
I’ve read somewhere that studies of charcoal from campfires buried in Rocky Nook Park date that debris flow at around 500 years ago. This is a good example of how the geologic present fails to include present human memory. Still, you can get an idea of how big this flow was. Stand in Rattlesnake Canyon downstream from Skofield Park and look at the steep rocky slopes below houses on the south side of the canyon. It isn’t hard to imagine the violence that tore out the smooth hillside that had been there before.
To help a bit more with that exercise, here is a Google Streetview of Scofield Park, looking down at Santa Barbara through Rattlesnake Canyon:
I added the red line to show the approximate height of the natural dam that broke and released that debris flow.
I’ve also learned that the loaf-shaped Riviera landform in Santa Barbara is not a hunk of solid rock, but rather what remains of a giant landslide that slid off the south face of the Santa Ynez Mountains and became free-standing after creeks eroded out the valley behind. I’ve also read that Mission Creek flows westward around the Riviera and behind the Mission because the Riviera itself is also sliding the same direction on its own tectonic sled.
We only see these sleds moving, however, when geologic and human time converge. That happened last Tuesday when rains Kevin Cooper calls “biblical” hit in the darkest hours, saturating the mountain face creek beds that were burned by the Thomas Fire just last month. As a result, debris flows gooped down the canyons and stream valleys below, across Montecito to the sea, depositing lots of geology on top of what was already there.
So in retrospect, those slopes in various colors in the top map above should have been dark red instead. But, to be fair, much of what geology knows is learned the hard way.
Our home, one zip code west of Montecito, is fine. But we can’t count how many people we know who are affected directly. One friend barely escaped. Some victims were friends of friends. Some of the stories are beyond awful.
At this writing the map is 70% complete. [January 17 update: 95%.] I’ve clicked on all the red dots (which mark destroyed buildings, most of which are homes), and I’ve copied and pasted the addresses that pop up into the following outline, adding a few links.
Going downstream along Cold Spring Creek, Hot Springs Creek and Montecito Creek (which the others feed), gone are—
2075 Alisos Drive (marked earlier, but I don’t see it in the final map)
627 Oak Grove Lane
Along Romero Creek—
1000 Romero Canyon Road
1050 Romero Canyon Road
860 Romero Canyon Road
768 Winding Creek Lane
745 Winding Creek Lane
744 Winding Creek Lane
2281 Featherhill Avenue B
Below Toro Canyon—
876 Toro Canyon Road
572 Toro Canyon Park Road
Along Arroyo Paredon, between Summerland and Carpinteria, not far east of the Toro Canyon—
2000 Cravens Lane
Ten flanking Highway 101 by the ocean are marked as damaged, including four on Padero Lane.
When I add those up, I get 142163* 178† among the destroyed alone.
[* This is on January 17, when the map says it is 95% complete. All the additions appear to be along San Ysidro Creek, especially on San Ysidro Lane, which I believe is mostly in San Ysidro Ranch. Apparently nearly the whole place has been destroyed. Adjectives such as “lovely” fail to describe what it was.]
[† This is on January 18, when the map is complete. I’ll need to go over it again, because there are subtractions as well as additions. Additional note: on March 22, the resident at 809 Ashley Road asked me to make sure that address was also added. There are two homes at that address, both gone.]
Now let’s go back and look more closely at this again from the geological perspective.
What we see is a town revised by nature in full disregard for what was there before—and in full obedience to the pattern of alluvial deposition on the flanks of all fresh mountains that erode down almost as fast as they go up.
This same pattern accounts for much of California, including all of the South Coast and the Los Angeles basin.
To see what I mean, hover your mind above Atlanta and look north at the southern Appalachians. Then dial history back five million years. What you see won’t look much different. Do the same above Los Angeles or San Francisco and nothing will be the same, or even close. Or even there at all.
Five million years is about 1/1000th of Earth’s history. If that history were compressed to a day, California showed up in less than the last forty seconds. In that short time California has formed and re-formed constantly, and is among the most provisional landscapes in the world. All of it is coming up, sliding down, spreading out and rearranging itself, and will continue doing so through all the future that’s worth bothering to foresee. Debris flows are among nature’s most casual methods for revising landscapes. (By the way, I am writing this in a San Marino house that sits atop the Raymond Fault scarp, which on the surface takes the form of a forty-foot hill. The stack of rock strata under the bottom of that hill is displaced 17,000 feet from the identical suite under the base at the top. Many earthquakes produced that displacement, while erosion has buffed 16,960 feet of rock and soil off the top.)
So we might start to look at the Santa Ynez Mountains behind Santa Barbara and Montecito not as a stable land form but rather as a volcano of mud and rock that’s sure to go off every few dozen or hundreds of years—and will possibly deliver a repeat performance if we get more heavy rains and there is plenty of debris left to flow out of mountain areas adjacent to those that flowed on January 9th. If there’s a lot of it, why even bother saving Montecito?
One enters the Engineering building at the University of Wyoming under that stone plaque, which celebrates what may be our species’ greatest achievement and conceit: controlling nature. (It’s also why geology is starting to call our present epoch the anthropocene.)
This also forecasts exactly what we will do for Montecito. In the long run we’ll lose to nature. But meanwhile we strive on.
In our new strivings, it will help to look toward other places in California that are more experienced with debris flows, because they happen almost constantly there. The largest of these by far is Los Angeles, which has placed catch basins at the mouths of all the large canyons coming out of the San Gabriel Mountains. Most of these dwarf the ones above Montecito. All resemble empty reservoirs. Some are actually quarries for rocks and gravel that roll in constantly from the eroding creek beds above. None are pretty.
To understand the challenge involved, it helps to read John McPhee’s classic book The Control of Nature, which takes its title from the inscription above. Fortunately, you can start right now by reading the first essay in a pair that became the relevant chapter of that book. It’s free on the Web and called Los Angeles Against the Mountains I. Here’s an excerpt:
Debris flows amass in stream valleys and more or less resemble fresh concrete. They consist of water mixed with a good deal of solid material, most of which is above sand size. Some of it is Chevrolet size. Boulders bigger than cars ride long distances in debris flows. Boulders grouped like fish eggs pour downhill in debris flows. The dark material coming toward the Genofiles was not only full of boulders; it was so full of automobiles it was like bread dough mixed with raisins.
The Genofiles were a family that barely survived a debris flow on a slope of Verdugo Mountain, overlooking Los Angeles from Glendale. Here’s another story, about another site not far away:
The snout of the debris flow was twenty feet high, tapering behind. Debris flows sometimes ooze along, and sometimes move as fast as the fastest river rapids. The huge dark snout was moving nearly five hundred feet a minute and the rest of the flow behind was coming twice as fast, making roll waves as it piled forward against itself—this great slug, as geologists would describe it, this discrete slug, this heaving violence of wet cement. Already included in the debris were propane tanks, outbuildings, picnic tables, canyon live oaks, alders, sycamores, cottonwoods, a Lincoln Continental, an Oldsmobile, and countless boulders five feet thick. All this was spread wide a couple of hundred feet, and as the debris flow went through Hidden Springs it tore out more trees, picked up house trailers and more cars and more boulders, and knocked Gabe Hinterberg’s lodge completely off its foundation. Mary and Cal Drake were standing in their living room when a wall came off. “We got outside somehow,” he said later. “I just got away. She was trying to follow me. Evidently, her feet slipped out from under her. She slid right down into the main channel.” The family next door were picked up and pushed against their own ceiling. Two were carried away. Whole houses were torn loose with people inside them. A house was ripped in half. A bridge was obliterated. A large part of town was carried a mile downstream and buried in the reservoir behind Big Tujunga Dam. Thirteen people were part of the debris. Most of the bodies were never found.
This is close to exactly what happened to Montecito in the wee hours of January 9th. (As of March 22, two of the 23 dead still haven’t been recovered, and probably never will be.) (In September 2018 a first responder I talked with said the bodies of a least one the two missing victims, a teenage boy and a toddler, were probably carried to the ocean.)
As of now the 8000-plus residents of Montecito are evacuated and forbidden to return for at least another two weeks—and maybe much longer if officials declare the hills above town ready to flow again.
Highway 101—one of just two major freeways between Southern and Northern California, is closed indefinitely, because it is now itself a stream bed, and re-landscaping the area around it, to get water going where it should, will take some time. So will fixing the road, and perhaps bridges as well.
Meanwhile getting in and out of Santa Barbara from east of Montecito by car requires a detour akin to driving from Manhattan to Queens by way of Vermont. And there have already been accidents, I’ve heard, on highway 166, which is the main detour road. We’ll be taking that detour or one like it on Thursday when we head home via Los Angeles after we fly there from New York, where I’m packing up now.
My short answer is “Yes, but not much, and not evenly.” This is my longer answer.
In your case and mine, it has taken the better part of a century to see how some revolutions take generations to play out. Not only won’t we live to see essential revolutions complete; our children and grandchildren may not either.
Take a topic not on your list: racial equality—or moving past race altogether as a Big Issue. To begin to achieve racial equality in the U.S., we fought the Civil War. The result was various degrees of liberation for the people who had been slaves or already freed in Union states; but apartheid of both the de jure and de facto kind persisted. Jim Crow laws and practices emerged, and in still live on in culture if not in law.
The civil rights movement in the Fifties and Sixties caused positive social, political and other changes. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 especially helped. But the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 put civil rights almost back where it was before its revolution started. I participated in civil rights activism in Greensboro, North Carolina at the time of both assassinations, and I can’t overstate how deep and defeating our despair felt after both events. And that feeling proved correct.
Small incremental improvements followed over the decades since, but no leaps forward like we had before those murders. (Even the election of Barack Obama failed to change a terribly durable status quo. Backlash against that election is at least partly responsible for Trump and the Republican Congress.)
We are still stuck with inequality for races, religions and so much else. Will we ever get over that? I think we will, inevitably; but only if our species survives.
One collateral victim of those assassinations in the Sixties was the near-end of non-violence as a strategy toward change. Martin Luther King Jr. used it very effectively, and kept the flame alive and well-proven until violence took him out. Martyred though he was, it was not to the cause of nonviolence or pacifism, both of which have been back-burnered for fifty years. We (in the largest sense that includes future generations) may never find out if non-violence can ever succeed—because violence is apparently too deeply ingrained as a human trait.
Back to tech.
I too was, and remain, a cyber-utopian. Or at least a cyber-optimist. But that’s because I see cyber—the digitization and networking of the world—as a fait accompli that offers at least as many opportunities for progress as it does for problems. As Clay Shirky says, a sure sign of a good technology is that one can easily imagine bad uses of it.
What I’m not writing at the moment are my thoughts about why some of those advantaged by power, even in small ways, abuse it so easily. I’m not writing it because I know whatever I say will be praised by some, rebuked by others, and either way will be reduced to simplicities that dismiss whatever subtle and complex points I am trying to make, or questions I am trying to ask. (Because my mind is neither sufficiently informed nor made up.) I also know that, within minutes for most of my piece’s readers, the points it makes will be gone like snow on the water, for such is the nature of writing on the vast sea of almost-nothing that “social” media comprises. And, as of today, all other media repose in the social ones.
Compared to that, and its effects on the planet, all other concerns shrink to insignificance.
We didn’t have that in the old print and broadcast worlds, and still don’t, where they persist. (For example, on news stands, or when you hit SCAN on a car radio.)
But we have it in digital media.
Here’s another difference: a lot of the stuff that gets shared is outright fake. There’s a lot of concern about that right now:
Why? Well, there’s a business in it. More eyeballs, more advertising, more money, for more eyeballs for more advertising. And so on.
Those ads are aimed by tracking beacons planted in your phones and browsers, feeding data about your interests, likes and dislikes to robot brains that work as hard as they can to know you and keep feeding you more stuff that stokes your prejudices. Fake or not, what you’ll see is stuff you are likely to share with others who do the same. This business that pays for this is called “adtech,” also known as “interest based” or “interactive” advertising. But those are euphemisms. Its science is all about stalking. They can plausibly deny it’s personal. But it is.
The “social” idea is “markets as conversations” (a personal nightmare for me, gotta say). The business idea is to drag as many eyeballs as possible across ads that are aimed by the same kinds of creepy systems. The latter funds the former.
Rather than unpack that, I’ll leave that up to the rest of ya’ll, with a few links:
Even though Fort Lee and Manhattan are only a mile apart, it has always been a toll call between the two over a landline. Even today. (Here, look it up.) That’s why, when I was growing up not far away, with the Manhattan skyline looming across the Hudson, we almost never called over there. It was “long distance,” and that cost money.
There were no area codes back then, so if you wanted to call long distance, you dialed 0 (“Oh”) for an operator. She (it was always a she) would then call the number you wanted and patch it through, often by plugging a cable between two holes in a “switchboard.”
Toll-free calls could be made only to a few dozen local exchanges listed in the front of your phone book. Calls to distant states were even more expensive, and tended to sound awful. Calls outside the country required an “overseas operator,” were barely audible, and cost more than a brake job.
That’s why, to communicate with our distant friends and relatives, we sent letters. From 1932 to 1958, regular (“first class”) letters required a 3¢ stamp. This booked passage for the letter to anywhere in the country, though speeds varied with distance, since letters traveled most of the way in canvas bags on trains that shuttled between sorting centers. So a letter from New Jersey to North Carolina took three or four days, while one to California took a week or more. If you wanted to make letters travel faster, you bought “air mail” stamps and put them on special envelopes trimmed with diagonal red and blue stripes. Those were twice the price of first class stamps.
The high cost of distance for telephony and mail made sense. Farther was harder. We knew this in our bodies, in our vehicles, and through our radios and TVs. There were limits to how far or fast we could run, or yell, or throw a ball. Driving any distance took a sum of time. Even if you drove fast, farther took longer. Signals from radio stations faded as you drove out of town, or out of state. Even the biggest stations — the ones on “clear” channels, like WSM from Nashville, KFI from Los Angeles and WBZ from Boston — would travel hundreds of miles by bouncing off the sky at night. But the quality of those signals declined over distance, and all were gone when the sun came up. Good TV required antennas on roofs. The biggest and highest antennas worked best, but it was rare to get good signals from more than a few dozen miles away.
All our senses of distance are rooted in our experience of space and time in the physical world. So, even though telephony, shipping and broadcasting were modern graces most of our ancestors could hardly imagine, old rules still applied. We knew in our bones that costs ought to vary with the labors and resources required. Calls requiring operators should cost more than ones that didn’t. Heavier packages should cost more to ship. Bigger signals should require bigger transmitters that suck more watts off the grid.
A world without distance
Everything I just talked about — telephony, mail, radio and TV — are in the midst of being undermined by the Internet, subsumed by it, or both. If we want to talk about how, we’ll have nothing but arguments and explanations. So let’s go instead to the main effect: distance goes away.
On the Net you can have a live voice conversation with anybody anywhere, at no cost or close enough. There is no “long distance.”
On the Net you can exchange email with anybody anywhere, instantly. No postage required.
On the Net anybody can broadcast to the whole world. You don’t need to be a “station” to do it. There is no “range” or “coverage.” You don’t need antennas, beyond the unseen circuits in wireless devices.
I’ve been wondering for a long time about how we ought to conceive the non-thing over which this all happens, and so far I have found no improvements on what I got from Craig Burton in an interview published in the August 2000 issue of Linux Journal:
Doc: How do you conceive the Net? What’s its conceptual architecture?
Craig: I see the Net as a world we might see as a bubble. A sphere. It’s growing larger and larger, and yet inside, every point in that sphere is visible to every other one. That’s the architecture of a sphere. Nothing stands between any two points. That’s its virtue: it’s empty in the middle. The distance between any two points is functionally zero, and not just because they can see each other, but because nothing interferes with operation between any two points. There’s a word I like for what’s going on here: terraform. It’s the verb for creating a world. That’s what we’re making here: a new world.
A world with no distance. A Giant Zero.
Of course there are many forms of actual distance at the technical and economic levels: latencies, bandwidth limits, service fees, censors. But our experience is above those levels, where we interact with other people and things. And the main experience there is of absent distance.
We never had that experience before the Internet showed up in its current form, about twenty years ago. By now we have come to depend on absent distance, in countless ways that are becoming more numerous by the minute. The Giant Zero is a genie that is not going back in the old bottle, and also won’t stop granting wishes.
Not all wishes the Giant Zero grants are good ones. Some are very bad. What matters is that we need to make the most of the good ones and the least of the bad. And we can’t do either until we understand this new world, and start making the best of it on its own terms.
The main problem is that we don’t have those terms yet. Worse, our rhetorical toolbox is almost entirely native to the physical world and misleading in the virtual one. Let me explain.
Distance is embedded in everything we talk about, and how we do the talking. For instance, take prepositions: locators in time and space. There are only a few dozen of them in the English language. (Check ‘em out.) Try to get along without over, under, around, through, beside, along, within, on, off, between, inside, outside, up, down, without, toward, into or near. We can’t. Yet here on the Giant Zero, everything is either present or not, here or not-here.
Sure, we are often aware of where sites are in the physical world, or where they appear to be. But where they are, physically, mostly doesn’t matter. In the twenty years I’ve worked for Linux Journal, its Web server has been in Seattle, Amsterdam, somewhere in Costa Rica and various places in Texas. My own home server started at my house in the Bay Area, and then moved to various Rackspace racks in San Antonio, Vienna (Virginia) and Dallas.
While it is possible for governments, or providers of various services, to look at the IP address you appear to be using and either let you in or keep you out, doing so violates the spirit of the Net’s base protocols, which made a point in the first place of not caring to exclude anybody or anything. Whether or not that was what its creators had in mind, the effect was to subordinate the parochial interests (and businesses) of all the networks that agreed to participate in the Internet and pass data between end points.
The result was, and remains, a World of Ends that cannot be fully understood in terms of anything else, even though we can’t help doing that anyway. Like the universe, the Internet has no other examples.
This is a problem, because all our speech is metaphorical by design, meaning we are always speaking and thinking in terms of something else. According to cognitive linguistics, every “something else” is a frame. And all frames are unconscious nearly all the time, meaning we are utterly unaware of using them.
For example, time is not money, but it is like money, so we speak about time in terms of money. That’s why we “save,” “waste,” “spend,” “lose,” “throw away” and “invest” time. Another example is life. When we say birth is “arrival,” death is “departure,” careers are “paths” and choices are “crossroads,” we are thinking and speaking about life in terms of travel. In fact it is nearly impossible to avoid raiding the vocabularies of money and travel when talking about time and life. And doing it all unconsciously.
These unconscious frames are formed by our experience as creatures in the physical world. You know why we say happy is “up” and sad is “down”? Or why we compare knowledge with “light” and ignorance with “dark”? It’s because we are daytime animals that walk upright. If bats could talk, they would say good is dark and bad is light.
Metaphorical frames are not only unconscious, but complicated and often mixed. In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson point out that ideas are framed in all the following ways: fashion (“old hat,” “in style,” “in vogue”), money (“wealth,” “two cents worth, “treasure trove”), resources (“mined a vein,” “pool,” “ran out of”), products (“produced,” “turning out,” “generated”), plants (“came to fruition,” “in flower,” “budding”), and people (“gave birth to,” “brainchild,” “died off”).
Yet none of those frames is as essential to ideas as what Michael Reddy calls the conduit metaphor. When we say we need to “get an idea across,” or “that sentence carries little meaning,” we are saying that ideas are objects, expressions are containers, and communications is sending.
So let’s look at the metaphorical frames we use, so far, to make sense of the Internet.
When we call the Internet a “medium” through which “content” can “delivered” via “packets” we “uploaded,” “downloaded” between “producers” and “consumers” through “pipes,” we are using a transport frame.
When we talk about “sites” with “domains” and “locations” that we “architect,” “design,” “build” and “construct” for “visitors” and “traffic” in “world” or a “space: with an “environment,” we are using a real estate frame.
When we talk about “pages” and other “documents” that we “write,” “author,” “edit,” “put up,” “post” and “syndicate,” we are using a publishing frame.
When we talk about “performing” for an “audience” that has an “experience: in a “venue,” we are using a theater frame.
And when we talk about “writing a script for delivering a better experience on a site,” we are using all four frames at the same time.
Yet none can make full sense of the Giant Zero. All of them mislead us into thinking the Giant Zero is other than what it is: a place without distance, and lots of challenges and opportunities that arise from its lack of distance.
Terraforming The Giant Zero
William Gibson famously said “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” Since The Giant Zero has only been around for a couple decades so far, we still have a lot of terraforming to do. Most of it, I’d say.
So here is a punch list of terraforming jobs, some of which (I suspect) can’t be done in the physical world we know almost too well.
Cooperation. Getting to know and understand other people over distances was has always been hard. But on The Giant Zero we don’t have distance as an excuse for doing nothing, or for not getting to know and work together with others. How can we use The Giant Zero’s instant proximity to overcome (and take advantage) of our differences, and stop hating The Other, whoever they may be?
Privacy. The Giant Zero doesn’t come with privacy. Nor does the physical world. But distance alone gives some measure of privacy in the physical world. We also invented clothing and shelter as privacy technologies thousands of years ago, and we have well developed manners for respecting personal boundaries. On The Giant Zero we barely have any of that, which shouldn’t be surprising, because we haven’t had much time to develop them yet. In the absence of clothing, shelter and boundaries, it’s ridiculously easy for anyone or anything to spy our browsings and emailings. (See Privacy is an Inside Job for more on that, and what we can do about it.)
Personal agency. The original meaning of agency (derived from the Latin word agere, meaning “to do”), is the power to act with full effect in the world. We lost a lot of that when Industry won the Industrial Revolution. We still lose a little bit every time we click “accept” to one-sided terms the other party can change and we can’t. We also lose power every time we acquiesce to marketers who call us “assets” they “target,” “capture,” “acquire,” “manage,” “control” and “lock in” as if we were slaves or cattle. In The Giant Zero, however, we can come to the market as equals, in full control of our data and able to bring far more intelligence to the market’s table than companies can ever get through data gathered by surveillance and fed into guesswork mills that: a) stupidly assume that we are always buying something and b) still guess wrong at rates that round to 100% of the time. All we need to do is prove that free customers are more valuable than captive ones — to the whole economy. Which we can if we build our own tools for both independence and engagement. (Which we are.)
Politics and governance. Elections in democratic countries have always been about sports: the horse race, the boxing ring, the knockout punch. The Internet changes all that in many ways we already know and more we don’t. But what about governance? What about direct connections between citizens and the systems that serve them? The Giant Zero exists in all local, state, national and global government contexts, waiting to be discovered and used. And how should we start thinking about laws addressing an entirely new world we’ve hardly built and are years away from understanding fully (if we ever will)? In a new world being terraformed constantly, we risk protecting yesterday from last Thursday with laws and regulations that will last for generations — especially when we might find a technical solution next Tuesday to last Thursday‘s problems.
Economics. What does The Giant Zero in our midst mean for money, accounting and everything in Econ 101, 102 and beyond? Today we already have Bitcoin and its distributed ledger, the block chain. Both are only a few years old, and already huge bets are being made on their successes and failures. International monetary systems, credit payment and settlement mechanisms are also challenged by digital systems of many kinds that are zero-based in several different meanings of the expression. How do we create economies that are both native to The Giant Zero and respectful of the physical world it cohabits?
The physical world. We live in an epoch that geologists are starting to call the Anthropocene, because it differs from all that preceded it in one significant way: it is altered countless ways by human activity. At the very least, it is beyond dispute that our species is, from the perspective of the planet itself, a pestilence. We raid it of irreplaceable substances deposited by life forms (e.g. banded iron) and asteroid impacts (gold, silver, uranium and other heavy metals) billions of years ago, and of the irreplaceable combustible remains of plants and animals cooked in the ground for dozens to hundreds of millions of years. We fill the planet’s air and seas with durable and harmful wastes. We wipe out species beyond counting, with impunity. We have littered space with hundreds of thousands of pieces of orbiting crap flying at speeds ten times faster than bullets. The Giant Zero can’t reverse the damage we’ve caused, or reduce our ravenous appetites for more of everything our species selfishly calls a “resource.” But it puts us in the best possible position to understand and deal with the problems we’re causing.
I could go on, but I’d rather put another question to those of you who have made it to the end of this post: Should The Giant Zero be a book? I’m convinced of the need for it and have a pile of material already. Studying all this has also been my focus for a decade as a fellow with the Center for Information Technology and Society at UCSB. But I still have a long way to go.
If pressing on is a good idea, I could use some help thinking it through and pulling materials together. If you’re interested, let me know. No long distance charges apply.
This piece is copied over from this one in Medium, and is my first experiment in publishing first there and second here. Both are expanded and updated from a piece published at publius.cc on May 16, 2008. The drawing of the Internet is by Hugh McLeod. Other images are from Wikimedia Commons.
Whatever else happens, the rights clearing question gets very personal. Do you want to be recorded by others and broadcast to the world or not? What are the social and device protocols for that? (Some are designed into the glasses above. Hope they help.)
We should start zero-basing some answers today, while the inevitable is in sight but isn’t here yet.
It should help to remember that all copyright laws were created in times when digital life was unimaginable (e.g. Stature of Anne, ASCAP), barely known (Act of 1976), or highly feared (WIPO, CTEA, DMCA).
How would we write new laws for the new video age that has barely started? Or why start with laws at all? (Remember that nearly all regulation protects yesterday from last Thursday — and are often written by know-nothings.)
We’ve only been living the networked life since graphical browsers and ISPs arrived in the mid-90’s. Meanwhile we’ve had thousands of years to develop civilization in the physical world.
Relatively speaking, digital networked life is Eden, which also didn’t come with privacy. That’s why we made clothing and shelter, and eventually put both on hooves and wheels.
How will we create the digital equivalents of the privacy technologies we call clothing, shelter, buttons, zippers, doors, windows, shades, blinds and curtains? Are the first answers technical or policy ones? Or both? (I favor the technical, fwiw. Code is Law and all that.)
Protecting the need for artists to make money is part of the picture. But it’s not the only part. And laws are only one way to protect artists, or anybody.
Manners come first, and we don’t have those yet. Meaning we also lack civilization, which is built on, and with, manners of many kinds. Think about much manners are lacking in the digital world. So far.
None of the big companies that dominate our digital lives have fully thought out how to protect anybody’s privacy. Those that come closest are ones we pay directly, and are therefore accountable to us (to a degree). Apple and Microsoft, for example, are doing more and more to isolate personal data to spaces the individual controls and the company can’t see — and to keep personal data away from the advertising business that sustains Google and Facebook, which both seem to regard personal privacy as a bug in civilization, rather than a feature of it. Note that we also pay those two companies nothing for their services. (We are mere consumers, whose lives are sold to the company’s actual customers, which are advertisers.)
Bottom line: the legal slate is covered in chalk, but the technical one is close to clean. What do we want to write there?
Start here: privacy is personal. We need to be able to signal our intentions about privacy — both as people doing the shooting, and the people being shot. A red light on a phone indicating recording status (as we have on video cameras) is one good step for video producers. On the other side of the camera, we need to signal what’s okay and what’s not. Clothing does that to some degree. So do doors, and shades and shutters on windows. We need the equivalent in our shared networked space. The faster and better we do that, the better we’ll be able to make good TV.
Internet.orgcalls itself “a Facebook-led initiative bringing together technology leaders, non-profits and local communities to connect the two thirds of the world that doesn’t have Internet access.” But what it offers is not the Internet, but a sphinctered fraction of it: Facebook plus a few chosen others.
India is rejecting Internet.org for one simple reason: They know sphincternet ≠ Internet, and that the sphinctered Net is not Neutral, meaning not the real thing.
Naturally, Mark Zuckerberg disagrees, and explains how in this post on the matter, which went up yesterday, and I’ll respond to, piece by piece:
Over the past week in India, there has been a lot written about Internet.org and net neutrality. I’d like to share my position on these topics here for everyone to see.
First, I’ll share a quick story. Last year I visited Chandauli, a small village in northern India that had just been connected to the internet.
In a classroom in the village, I had the chance to talk to a group of students who were learning to use the internet. It was an incredible experience to think that right there in that room might be a student with a big idea that could change the world — and now they could actually make that happen through the internet.
Those students should know the whole Net. Not just a subset of it.
The internet is one of the most powerful tools for economic and social progress. It gives people access to jobs, knowledge and opportunities. It gives voice to the voiceless in our society, and it connects people with vital resources for health and education.
I believe everyone in the world deserves access to these opportunities.
Fine. Then either give them the whole thing, or call what you give them something else that’s clearly less: Facebook+, perhaps.
In many countries, however, there are big social and economic obstacles to connectivity. The internet isn’t affordable to everyone, and in many places awareness of its value remains low. Women and the poor are most likely to be excluded and further disempowered by lack of connectivity.
Yes, there are first-time and maintenance costs for the wires and waves that carry its bits. But, as Steve Kamman explains, “Bandwidth is dirt cheap. And bog-standard…This isn’t like electricity. There’s no power plant on the other end burning fuel to deliver those bits. Bits are nearly weightless and cost accordingly.”
Steve’s case is for where the Net ends up, everywhere: the effect implicit in its cause. Think about how to make that happen. Trust me: it’ll be good for Facebook too.
This is why we created Internet.org, our effort to connect the whole world. By partnering with mobile operators and governments in different countries, Internet.org offers free access in local languages to basic internet services in areas like jobs, health, education and messaging. Internet.org lowers the cost of accessing the internet and raises the awareness of the internet’s value. It helps include everyone in the world’s opportunities.
But it’s not the whole Internet. It’s what you and your partners, in an exclusive and non-neutral way, have decided to provide.
We’ve made some great progress, and already more than 800 million people in 9 countries can now access free basic services through Internet.org. In India, we’ve already rolled out free basic services on the Reliance network to millions of people in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala and Telangana. And we just launched in Indonesia on the Indosat network today.
We’re proud of this progress. But some people have criticized the concept of zero-rating that allows Internet.org to deliver free basic internet services, saying that offering some services for free goes against the spirit of net neutrality. I strongly disagree with this.
Zero-rating certain services, fast lanes and sponsored data clearly have their benefits for users of the subsidized services, but have also been criticised as anti-competitive and limiting open markets. As many new internet and content services are launched targeting primarily mobile usage, and further adoption of internet connectivity globally (including broadband in rural areas of developed countries) relies heavily on mobile, zero-rating has also been regarded as a threat to the open internet, which is typically available via fixed line networks with unlimited usage tariffs or flat rates. The Wikimedia Foundation and Facebook have been specifically criticized for their zero-rating programs, to further strengthen incumbent mobile network operators and limit consumer rights to an open internet. (That’s as of today.)
Whatever else it is, it’s not neutral.
We fully support net neutrality. We want to keep the internet open. Net neutrality ensures network operators don’t discriminate by limiting access to services you want to use. It’s an essential part of the open internet, and we are fully committed to it.
But net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected. These two principles — universal connectivity and net neutrality — can and must coexist.
To give more people access to the internet, it is useful to offer some service for free. If someone can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all.
Internet.org doesn’t block or throttle any other services or create fast lanes — and it never will.
It just doesn’t carry them. It says “My way or no highway.”
We’re open for all mobile operators and we’re not stopping anyone from joining.
The Internet is not what just mobile operators carry.
We want as many internet providers to join so as many people as possible can be connected.
That’s fine. But what they provide won’t be the Internet if they don’t carry the whole thing. It will be a sampler box of rocks rather than all of geology.
Arguments about net neutrality shouldn’t be used to prevent the most disadvantaged people in society from gaining access or to deprive people of opportunity. Eliminating programs that bring more people online won’t increase social inclusion or close the digital divide. It will only deprive all of us of the ideas and contributions of the two thirds of the world who are not connected.
There wouldn’t be an argument if you didn’t call this thing “Internet.org,” and if you didn’t represent a few Internet services as the whole thing. But you do, and that’s why you’re having trouble.
Every person in the world deserves access to the opportunities the internet provides. And we can all benefit from the perspectives, creativity and talent of the people not yet connected.
We have a historic opportunity to connect billions of more people worldwide for the first time. We should work together to make that happen now.
Fine. But make clear that what you’re offering isn’t the Internet, but a bunch of free services also found on the real thing.
Below that post are a zillion comments, some of which Mark answers. Here is the first Q&A:
Ritesh Pandya: We really appreciate your initiative on making the internet accessible to most remote part of the world, but the only question is why access only to selective websites and not all on internet.org??
Mark Zuckerberg: It’s too expensive to make the whole internet free. Mobile operators spend tens of billions of dollars to support all of internet traffic. If it was all free they’d go out of business. But by offering some basic services, it’s still affordable for them and it’s valuable and free for everyone to use.
But it’s not the Net. It’s just a set of services that also happen to be on the Net.
The Internet is free. That’s its nature. So stop confusing access with the Net itself, and a few services with the whole thing. Nobody’s buying it.
This is not the propagandist’s aim. For him the validity of an image must be measured not by the degree of its fidelity, but by the response it may evoke. If it will induce the action he wishes, its fidelity is high; if not, low. … The standard that he uses in choosing the images to be disseminated — his “truths” — would be a scale based on the range of possible human responses to an image. His criterion thus is established on the basis of overt action.
At first this made me think about journalism, and how it might fit Choukas’ definition of propaganda. Then it made me think about how we might confine the study of propaganda to a harmless subset of human story-telling. That’s when sports jumped to mind.
Sports are almost entirely narrative. They also have, as social phenomena go, less importance outside themselves than such highly fraught concerns as politics, religion and business. To the cynic, sports are Kurt Vonnegut‘s foma: “harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls…Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”
Yes, sports are more than that, but my soul at its simplest is a fan of the Mets. (And, less simply, a fan of the Red Sox.) Likewise, some of my least productive time is spent listening to sports talk radio — unless I count as valuable the communing of my simplest self with the souls of others who share the same mostly-harmless affections. (Hi, @MichaelSHolley.)
But how much more productive is the time I spend listening to NPR, or reading The New York Times? Some, I would say. So, I am sure, would sports fans who favor getting their news from Fox and The Wall Street Journal.
To see where I’m going here, lets unpack “harmless untruths” into a 2×2:
Foma are in the lower right corner. Whether the subject is sports or something else, that seems like a good corner in which to study propaganda.
Sports journalism, like all breeds of the discipline, escapes the foma classification by being about Truth, or at least about facts. But that’s beside my point, which is that interests, talk and reporting about sports all moves toward effects, which happen to be harmless but interesting.
So, speaking of bait, consider the three words uttered constantly by assignment editors everywhere: What’s the story?
Stories, I was taught, are the main format of human interest; and all of them have just three elements:
A protagonist, or character. This might be a person, a team, a cause or some other entity the reader, listener or viewer cares about. This character need only be interesting. Likability is a secondary matter. (Example: I hate Christian Laettner, an ESPN film.)
A problem or challenge, This needs to be a situation that keeps the reader interested: tuned in or turning pages. (Classic edtorial instruction: “No story starts with ‘happily ever after.'”) In fact, it helps if the situation gets worse, so long as we have…
Movement toward a resolution. If the war is over, or the home team is up or down by forty points with three minutes left, the challenge vanishes. If you’re at the game, your problem is beating traffic out of the parking lot.
If you’re missing one of those elements, you don’t have a story.
Case in point: Cambodia’s killing fields. The first I heard about them was in a story read by Hughes Rudd on a CBS newscast in the mid-1970s. He said that perhaps half a million people were already dead. On hearing this, I was appalled, because it came, in an “Oh by the way” manner, after stories about the Super Bowl and Patty Hearst (whose developing story sucked huge amounts of oxygen out of nearly every newsroom at the time).
The slaughter happening in Cambodia mattered far more than either the Super Bowl or Patty Hearst; but it wasn’t a story, because it was missing all three of those elements. There was no protagonist, other than a population with a statistic. The problem, while immense, was not ours, and also not moving toward resolution. In fact years would pass before the killing stopped.
For us here in the U.S., the killing fields story didn’t get real until The New York Times ran “The Death and Life of Dith Pran,” by Sydney Shanberg, in the Sunday Magazine. That gave us a character, and made Cambodia’s plight real and compelling. (The story also grew, naturally, into a movie.)
Sports is always focused on those three elements. Is that because sports is always about propaganda? Or is it the case that all stories are, by their narrative nature, propaganda of a sort?
Stories are at least tendentious in the sense that the author needs a point of view — even if that point is what Jay Rosen calls the view from nowhere. (That’s pretty much where CBS stood when it first reported on Cambodia’s many dead.)
Look at the photos that accompany a sports story. If a team wins, the star player is shown making a great kick, throw, shot or whatever. Or maybe just smiling. If the same team loses, the picture shows the same player messing up or frowning. Never mind that the game was close, or that the photo is of one moment among zillions of others. The entire meaning of the photo is narrative. Its entire purpose is effect, which is both to serve and drive the interests of the reader, the viewer, the listener. What’s that say about journalism as a whole?
Has anybody studied sports or journalism as propaganda? At least one inquiring mind wants to know.