If you listen to Episode 49: Parler, Ownership, and Open Source of the latest Reality 2.0 podcast, you’ll learn that I was blindsided at first by the topic of Parler, which has lately become a thing. But I caught up fast, even getting a Parler account not long after the show ended. Because I wanted to see what’s going on.

Though self-described as “the world’s town square,” Parler is actually a centralized social platform built for two purposes: 1) completely free speech; and 2) creating and expanding echo chambers.

The second may not be what Parler’s founders intended (see here), but that’s how social media algorithms work. They group people around engagements, especially likes. (I think, for our purposes here, that algorithmically nudged engagement is a defining feature of social media platforms as we understand them today. That would exclude, for example, Wikipedia or a popular blog or newsletter with lots of commenters. It would include, say, Reddit and Linkedin, because algorithms.)

Let’s start with recognizing that the smallest echo chamber in these virtual places is our own, comprised of the people we follow and who follow us. Then note that our visibility into other virtual spaces is limited by what’s shown to us by algorithmic nudging, such as by Twitter’s trending topics.

The main problem with this is not knowing what’s going on, especially inside other echo chambers. There are also lots of reasons for not finding out. For example, my Parler account sits idle because I don’t want Parler to associate me with any of the people it suggests I follow, soon as I show up:

l also don’t know what to make of this, which is the only other set of clues on the index page:

Especially since clicking on any of them brings up the same or similar top results, which seem to have nothing to do with the trending # topic. Example:

Thus endeth my research.

But serious researchers should be able to see what’s going on inside the systems that produce these echo chambers, especially Facebook’s.

The problem is that Facebook and other social networks are shell games, designed to make sure nobody knows exactly what’s going on, but feels okay with it, because they’re hanging with others who agree on the basics.

The design principle at work here is obscurantism—”the practice of deliberately presenting information in an imprecise, abstruse manner designed to limit further inquiry and understanding.”

To put the matter in relief, consider a nuclear power plant:

(Photo of kraftwerk Grafenrheinfeld, 2013, by Avda. Licensed CC BY-SA 3.0.)

Nothing here is a mystery. Or, if there is one, professional inspectors will be dispatched to solve it. In fact, the whole thing is designed from the start to be understandable, and its workings accountable to a dependent public.

Now look at a Facebook data center:

What it actually does is pure mystery, by design, to those outside the company. (And hell, to most, maybe all, of the people inside the company.) No inspector arriving to look at a rack of blinking lights in that place is going to know either. What Facebook looks like to you, to me, to anybody, is determined by a pile of discoveries, both on and off of Facebook’s site and app, around who you are and what to machines you seem interested in, and an algorithmic process that is not accountable to you, and impossible for anyone, perhaps including Facebook itself, to fully explain.

All societies, and groups within societies, are echo chambers. And, because they cohere in isolated (and isolating) ways it is sometimes hard for societies to understand each other, especially when they already have prejudicial beliefs about each other. Still, without the further influence of social media, researchers can look at and understand what’s going on.

Over in the digital world, which overlaps with the physical one, we at least know that social media amplifies prejudices. But, though it’s obvious by now that this is what’s going on, doing something to reduce or eliminate the production and amplification of prejudices is damn near impossible when the mechanisms behind it are obscure by design.

This is why I think these systems need to be turned inside out, so researchers can study them. I don’t know how to make that happen; but I do know there is nothing more large and consequential in the world that is also absent of academic inquiry. And that ain’t right.

BTW, if Facebook, Twitter, Parler or other social networks actually are opening their algorithmic systems to academic researchers, let me know and I’ll edit this piece accordingly.

Northern Red-Tail Hawk

On Quora the question went, If you went from an IQ of 135+ to 100, how would it feel?

Here’s how I answered::::

I went through that as a kid, and it was no fun.

In Kindergarten, my IQ score was at the top of the bell curve, and they put me in the smart kid class. By 8th grade my IQ score was down at the middle of the bell curve, my grades sucked, and my other standardized test scores (e.g. the Iowa) were terrible. So the school system shunted me from the “academic” track (aimed at college) to the “general” one (aimed at “trades”).

To the school I was a failure. Not a complete one, but enough of one for the school to give up on aiming me toward college. So, instead of sending me on to a normal high school, they wanted to send me to a “vocational-technical” school where boys learned to operate machinery and girls learned “secretarial” skills.

But in fact the school failed me, as it did countless other kids who adapted poorly to industrialized education: the same industrial system that still has people believing IQ tests are a measure of anything other than how well somebody answers a bunch puzzle questions on a given day.

Fortunately, my parents believed in me, even though the school had given up. I also believed in myself, no matter what the school thought. Like Walt Whitman, I believed “I was never measured, and never will be measured.” Walt also gifted everyone with these perfect lines (from Song of Myself):

I know I am solid and sound.
To me the converging objects of the universe
perpetually flow.

All are written to me,
and I must get what the writing means…
I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept
by a carpenter’s compass,

I know that I am august,
I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself
or be understood.
I see that the elementary laws never apologize.

Whitman argued for the genius in each of us that moves in its own orbit and cannot be encompassed by industrial measures, such as standardized tests that serve an institution that would rather treat students like rats in their mazes than support the boundless appetite for knowledge with which each of us is born—and that we keep if it doesn’t get hammered out of us by normalizing systems.

It amazes me that half a century since I escaped from compulsory schooling’s dehumanizing wringer, the system is largely unchanged. It might even be worse. (“Study says standardized testing is overwhelming nation’s public schools,” writes The Washington Post.)

To detox ourselves from belief in industrialized education, the great teacher John Taylor Gatto gives us The Seven Lesson Schoolteacher, which summarizes what he was actually paid to teach:

  1. Confusion — “Everything I teach is out of context. I teach the un-relating of everything. I teach disconnections. I teach too much: the orbiting of planets, the law of large numbers, slavery, adjectives, architectural drawing, dance, gymnasium, choral singing, assemblies, surprise guests, fire drills, computer languages, parents’ nights, staff-development days, pull-out programs, guidance with strangers my students may never see again, standardized tests, age-segregation unlike anything seen in the outside world….What do any of these things have to do with each other?”
  2. Class position — “I teach that students must stay in the class where they belong. I don’t know who decides my kids belong there but that’s not my business. The children are numbered so that if any get away they can be returned to the right class. Over the years the variety of ways children are numbered by schools has increased dramatically, until it is hard to see the human beings plainly under the weight of numbers they carry. Numbering children is a big and very profitable undertaking, though what the strategy is designed to accomplish is elusive. I don’t even know why parents would, without a fight, allow it to be done to their kids. In any case, again, that’s not my business. My job is to make them like it, being locked in together with children who bear numbers like their own.”
  3. Indifference — “I teach children not to care about anything too much, even though they want to make it appear that they do. How I do this is very subtle. I do it by demanding that they become totally involved in my lessons, jumping up and down in their seats with anticipation, competing vigorously with each other for my favor. It’s heartwarming when they do that; it impresses everyone, even me. When I’m at my best I plan lessons very carefully in order to produce this show of enthusiasm. But when the bell rings I insist that they stop whatever it is that we’ve been working on and proceed quickly to the next work station. They must turn on and off like a light switch. Nothing important is ever finished in my class, nor in any other class I know of. Students never have a complete experience except on the installment plan. Indeed, the lesson of the bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything?
  4. Emotional dependency — “By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors and disgraces I teach kids to surrender their will to the predestined chain of command. Rights may be granted or withheld by any authority without appeal, because rights do not exist inside a school — not even the right of free speech, as the Supreme Court has ruled — unless school authorities say they do. As a schoolteacher, I intervene in many personal decisions, issuing a pass for those I deem legitimate, or initiating a disciplinary confrontation for behavior that threatens my control. Individuality is constantly trying to assert itself among children and teenagers, so my judgments come thick and fast. Individuality is a contradiction of class theory, a curse to all systems of classification.”
  5. Intellectual dependency — “Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. It is the most important lesson, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. The expert makes all the important choices; only I, the teacher, can determine what you must study, or rather, only the people who pay me can make those decisions which I then enforce… This power to control what children will think lets me separate successful students from failures very easily.
  6. Provisional self-esteem — “Our world wouldn’t survive a flood of confident people very long, so I teach that your self-respect should depend on expert opinion. My kids are constantly evaluated and judged. A monthly report, impressive in its provision, is sent into students’ homes to signal approval or to mark exactly, down to a single percentage point, how dissatisfied with their children parents should be. The ecology of “good” schooling depends upon perpetuating dissatisfaction just as much as the commercial economy depends on the same fertilizer.
  7. No place to hide — “I teach children they are always watched, that each is under constant surveillance by myself and my colleagues. There are no private spaces for children, there is no private time. Class change lasts three hundred seconds to keep promiscuous fraternization at low levels. Students are encouraged to tattle on each other or even to tattle on their own parents. Of course, I encourage parents to file their own child’s waywardness too. A family trained to snitch on itself isn’t likely to conceal any dangerous secrets. I assign a type of extended schooling called “homework,” so that the effect of surveillance, if not that surveillance itself, travels into private households, where students might otherwise use free time to learn something unauthorized from a father or mother, by exploration, or by apprenticing to some wise person in the neighborhood. Disloyalty to the idea of schooling is a Devil always ready to find work for idle hands. The meaning of constant surveillance and denial of privacy is that no one can be trusted, that privacy is not legitimate.”

Gatto won multiple teaching awards because he refused to teach any of those lessons. I succeeded in life by refusing to learn them as well.

All of us can succeed by forgetting those seven lessons—especially the one teaching that your own intelligence can be measured by anything other than what you do with it.

You are not a number. You are a person like no other. Be that, and refuse to contain your soul inside any institutional framework.

More Whitman:

Long enough have you dreamed contemptible dreams.
Now I wash the gum from your eyes.
You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life.

Long have you timidly waited,
holding a plank by the shore.
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,
To jump off in the midst of the sea, and rise again,
and nod to me and shout,
and laughingly dash your hair.

I am the teacher of athletes.
He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own
proves the width of my own.
He most honors my style
who learns under it to destroy the teacher.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then. I contradict myself.
I am large. I contain multitudes.

I concentrate toward them that are nigh.
I wait on the door-slab.

Who has done his day’s work
and will soonest be through with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me.

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me.
He complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed. I too am untranslatable.
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

Be that hawk.

December 10, 2020: This matter has been settled now, meaning Flickr appears not to be in trouble, and my account due for renewal will be automatically renewed. I’ve appended what settled the matter to the bottom of this post. Note that it also raises another question, about subscriptions. — Doc

I have two Flickr accounts, named Doc Searls and Nfrastructure. One has 73,355 photos, and the other 3,469. They each cost $60/year to maintain as pro accounts. They’ve both renewed automatically in the past; and the first one is already renewed, which I can tell because it says “Your plan will automatically renew on March 20, 2022.”

The second one, however… I dunno. Because, while my Account page says “Your plan will automatically renew on December 13, 2020,” I just got emails for both accounts saying, “This email is to confirm that we have stopped automatic billing for your subscription. Your subscription will continue to be active until the expiration date listed below. At that time, you will have to manually renew or your subscription will be cancelled.” The dates match the two above. At the bottom of each, in small print, it says “Digital River Inc. is the authorized reseller and merchant of the products and services offered within this store. Privacy Policy Terms of Sale Your California Privacy Rights.”

Hmmm. The Digital River link goes here, which appears to be in Ireland. A look at the email’s source shows the mail server is one in Kansas, and the Flickr.com addressing doesn’t look spoofed. So, it doesn’t look too scammy to me. Meaning I’m not sure what the scam is. Yet. If there is one.

Meanwhile, I do need to renew the subscription, and the risk of not renewing it is years of contributions (captions, notes, comments) out the window.

So I went to “Manage your Pro subscription” on the second one (which has four days left to expiration), and got this under “Update your Flickr Pro subscription information”

Plan changes are temporarily disabled. Please contact support for prompt assistance.

Cancel your subscription

The Cancel line is a link. I won’t click on it.

Now, I have never heard of a company depending on automatic subscription renewals switching from those to the manual kind. Nor have I heard of a subscription-dependent company sending out notices like these while the renewal function is disabled.

I would like to contact customer support; but there is no link for that on my account page. In fact, the words “customer” and “support” don’t appear there. “Help” does, however, and goes to https://help.flickr.com/, where I need to fill out a form. This I did, explaining,

I am trying to renew manually, but I get “Plan changes are temporarily disabled. Please contact support for prompt assistance.” So here I am. Please reach out. This subscription expires in four days, and I don’t want to lose the photos or the account. I’m [email address] for this account (I have another as well, which doesn’t renew until 2022), my phone is 805-705-9666, and my twitter is @dsearls. Thanks!

The robot replied,

Thanks for your message – you’ll get a reply from a Flickr Support Hero soon. If you don’t receive an automated message from Flickr confirming we received your message (including checking your spam folders), please make sure you provided a valid and active email. Thanks for your patience and we look forward to helping you!

Me too.

Meanwhile, I am wondering if Flickr is in trouble again.

I wondered about this in 2011 and again in 2016, (in my most-read Medium post, ever). Those were two of the (feels like many) times Flickr appeared to be on the brink. And I have been glad SmugMug took over the Flickr show in 2018. (I’m a paying SmugMug customer as well.) But this kind of thing is strange and has me worried. Should I be?

[Later, on December 10…]

Heard from Flickr this morning, with this:

Hi Doc,

When we migrated your account to Stripe, we had to cancel your subscription on Digital River. The email you received was just a notice of this event. I apologize for the confusion.

Just to confirm, there is no action needed at this time. You have an active Pro subscription in good standing and due for renewal on an annual term on December 14th, 2020.

To answer your initial question, since your account has been migrated to Stripe, while you can update your payment information, changes to subscription plans are temporarily unavailable. We expect this functionality to be restored soon.

I appreciate your patience and hope this helps.

For more information, please consult our FAQ here: https://help.flickr.com/faq-for-flickr-members-about-our-payment-processor-migration-SyN1cazsw

Before this issue came up, I hadn’t heard of Digital River or Stripe. Seems they are both “payment gateway” services (at least according to Finances Online). If you look down the list of what these companies can do, other than payment processing alone—merchandising, promotions, channel partner management, dispute handling, cross-border payment optimization, in-app solutions, risk management, email services, and integrations with dozens of different tools, products and extensions from the likes of Visa, MasterCard, Sage and many other companies with more obscure brand names—you can understand how a screw-up like this one can happen when moving from one provider to another.

Now the question for me is whether subscription systems really have to be this complex.

(Comments here only work for Harvard people; so if you’re not one of those, please reply elsewhere, such as on Twitter, where I’m @dsearls.)


The show is over. Biden won. Trump lost.

Sure, there is more to be said, details to argue. But the main story—Biden vs. Trump, the 2020 Presidential Election, is over. So is the Trump presidency, now in the lame duck stage.

We’re in the epilogue now.

There are many stories within and behind the story, but this was the big one, and it had to end. Enough refs calling it made the ending official. President Trump will continue to fight, but the outcome won’t change. Biden will be the next president. The story of the Trump presidency will end with Biden’s inauguration.

The story of the Biden presidency began last night. Attempts by Trump to keep the story of his own presidency going will be written in the epilogue, heard in the coda, the outro, the postlude.

Fox News, which had been the Trump administration’s house organ, concluded the story when it declared Biden the winner and moved on to covering him as the next president.

This is how stories go.

This doesn’t mean that the story was right in every factual sense. Stories aren’t.

As a journalist who has covered much and has been covered as well, I can vouch for the inevitability of inaccuracy, of overlooked details, of patches, approximations, compressions, misquotes and summaries that are more true to story, arc, flow and narrative than to all the facts involved, or the truths that might be told.

Stories have loose ends, and big stories like this one have lots of them. But they are ends. And The End is here.

We are also at the beginning of something new that isn’t a story, and does not comport with the imperatives of journalism: of storytelling, of narrative, of characters with problems struggling toward resolutions.

What’s new is the ground on which all the figures in every story now stand. That ground is digital. Decades old at most, it will be with us for centuries or millennia. Arriving on digital ground is as profound a turn in the history of our species on Earth as the one our distant ancestors faced when they waddled out of the sea and grew lungs to replace their gills.

We live in the digital world now now, in addition to the physical one where I am typing and you are reading, as embodied beings.

In this world we are not just bodies. We are something and somewhere else, in a place that isn’t a place: one without distance or gravity, where the only preposition that applies without stretch or irony is with. (Because the others—over, under, beside, around, though, within, upon, etc.—pertain too fully to positions and relationships in the physical world.)

Because the digital world is ground and not figure (here’s the difference), it is as hard for us to make full sense of being there as it was for the first fish to do the same with ocean or for our amphibian grandparents to make sense of land. (For some help with this, dig David Foster Wallace’s This is water.)

The challenge of understanding digital life will likely not figure in the story of Joe Biden’s presidency. But nothing is more important than the ground under everything. And this ground is the same as the one without which we would not have had an Obama or a Trump presidency. It will at least help to think about that.

 

For many decades, one of the landmark radio stations in Washington, DC was WMAL-AM (now re-branded WSPN), at 630 on (what in pre-digital times we called) the dial. As AM listening faded, so did WMAL, which moved its talk format to 105.9 FM in Woodbridge and its signal to a less ideal location, far out to the northwest of town.

They made the latter move because the 75 acres of land under the station’s four towers in Bethesda had become far more valuable than the signal. So, like many other station owners with valuable real estate under legacy transmitter sites, Cumulus Mediasold sold the old site for $74 million. Nice haul.

I’ve written at some length about this here and here in 2015, and here in 2016. I’ve also covered the whole topic of radio and its decline here and elsewhere.

I only bring the whole mess up today because it’s a five-year story that ended this morning, when WMAL’s towers were demolished. The Washington Post wrote about it here, and provided the video from which I pulled the screen-grab above. Pedestrians.org also has a much more complete video on YouTube, here. WRC-TV, channel 4, has a chopper view (best I’ve seen yet) here. Spake the Post,

When the four orange and white steel towers first soared over Bethesda in 1941, they stood in a field surrounded by sparse suburbs emerging just north of where the Capital Beltway didn’t yet exist. Reaching 400 feet, they beamed the voices of WMAL 630 AM talk radio across the nation’s capital for 77 years.

As the area grew, the 75 acres of open land surrounding the towers became a de facto park for runners, dog owners and generations of teenagers who recall sneaking smokes and beer at “field parties.”

Shortly after 9 a.m. Wednesday, the towers came down in four quick controlled explosions to make way for a new subdivision of 309 homes, taking with them a remarkably large piece of privately owned — but publicly accessible — green space. The developer, Toll Brothers, said construction is scheduled to begin in 2021.

Local radio buffs say the Washington region will lose a piece of history. Residents say they’ll lose a public play space that close-in suburbs have too little of.

After seeing those towers fall, I posted this to a private discussion among broadcast engineers (a role I once played, briefly and inexpertly, many years ago):

It’s like watching a public execution.

I’m sure that’s how many of who have spent our lives looking at and maintaining these things feel at a sight like this.

It doesn’t matter that the AM band is a century old, and that nearly all listening today is to other media. We know how these towers make waves that spread like ripples across the land and echo off invisible mirrors in the night sky. We know from experience how the inverse square law works, how nulls and lobes are formed, how oceans and prairie soils make small signals large and how rocky mountains and crappy soils are like mud to a strong signal’s wheels. We know how and why it is good to know these things, because we can see an invisible world where other people only hear songs, talk and noise.

We also know that, in time, all these towers are going away, or repurposed to hold up antennas sending and receiving radio frequencies better suited for carrying data.

We know that everything ends, and in that respect AM radio is no different than any other medium.

What matters isn’t whether it ends with a bang (such as here with WMAL’s classic towers) or with a whimper (as with so many other stations going dark or shrinking away in lesser facilities). It’s that there’s still some good work and fun in the time this old friend still has left.

You don’t walk around wearing a name badge.  Except maybe at a conference, or some other enclosed space where people need to share their names and affiliations with each other. But otherwise, no.

Why is that?

Because you don’t need a name badge for people who know you—or for people who don’t.

Here in civilization we typically reveal information about ourselves to others on a need-to-know basis: “I’m over 18.” “I’m a citizen of Canada.” “Here’s my Costco card.” “Hi, I’m Jane.” We may or may not present credentials in these encounters. And in most we don’t say our names. “Michael” being a common name, a guy called “Mike” may tell a barista his name is “Clive” if the guy in front of him just said his name is “Mike.” (My given name is David, a name so common that another David re-branded me Doc. Later I learned that his middle name was David and his first name was Paul. True story.)

This is how civilization works in the offline world.

Kim Cameron wrote up how this ought to work, in Laws of Identity, first published in 2004. The Laws include personal control and consentminimum disclosure for a constrained usejustifiable parties, and plurality of operators. Again, we have those in here in the offline world where your body is reading this on a screen.

In the online world behind that screen, however, you have a monstrous mess. I won’t go into why. The results are what matter, and you already know those anyway.

Instead, I’d like to share what (at least for now) I think is the best approach to the challenge of presenting verifiable credentials in the digital world. It’s called KERI, and you can read about it here: https://keri.one/. If you’d like to contribute to the code work, that’s here: https://github.com/decentralized-identity/keri/.

I’m still just getting acquainted with it, in sessions at IIW. The main thing is that I’m sure it matters. So I’m sharing that sentiment, along with those links.

 

The goal here is to obsolesce this brilliant poster by Despair.com:

I got launched on that path a couple months ago, when I got this email from  The_New_Yorker at e-mail.condenast.com:

Why did they “need” a “confirmation” to a subscription which, best I could recall, was last renewed early this year?

So I looked at the links.

The “renew,” Confirmation Needed” and “Discounted Subscription” links all go to a page with a URL that began with https://subscriptions.newyorker.com/pubs…, followed by a lot of tracking cruft. Here’s a screen shot of that one, cut short of where one filled in a credit card number. Note the price:

I was sure I had been paying $80-something per year, for years. As I also recalled, this was a price one could only obtain by calling the 800 number at NewYorker.com.

Or somewhere. After digging around, I found it at
 https://w1.buysub.com/pubs/N3/NYR/accoun…, which is where the link to Customer Care under My Account on the NewYorker website goes. It also required yet another login.

So, when I told the representative at the call center that I’d rather not “confirm” a year for a “discount” that probably wasn’t, she said I could renew for the $89.99 I had paid in the past, and that the deal would be good  through February of 2022. I said fine, let’s do that. So I gave her my credit card, said this was way too complicated, and added that a single simple subscription price would be better. She replied,  “Never gonna happen.” Let’s repeat that:

Never gonna happen.

Then I got this by email:

This appeared to confirm the subscription I already had. To see if that was the case, I went back to the buysub.com website and looked under the Account Summary tab, where it said this:

think this means that I last renewed on February 3 of this year, and what I did on the phone in August was commit to paying $89.99/year until February 10 of 2022.

If that’s what happened, all my call did was extend my existing subscription. Which was fine, but why require a phone call for that?

And WTF was that “Account Confirmation Required” email about? I assume it was bait to switch existing subscribers into paying $50 more per year.

Then there was this, at the bottom of the Account summary page:

This might explain why I stopped getting Vanity Fair, which I suppose I should still be getting.

So I clicked on”Reactivate and got a login page where the login I had used to get this far didn’t work.

After other failing efforts that I neglected to write down, I decided to go back to the New Yorker site and work my way back through two logins to the same page, and then click Reactivate one more time. Voila! ::::::

So now I’ve got one page that tells me I’m good to March 2021 next to a link that takes me to another page that says I ordered 12 issues last December and I can “start” a new subscription for $15 that would begin nine months ago. This is how one “reactivates” a subscription?  OMFG.

I’m also not going into the hell of moving the print subscription back and forth between the two places where I live. Nor will I bother now, in October, to ask why I haven’t seen another copy of Vanity Fair. (Maybe they’re going to the other place. Maybe not. I don’t know, and I’m too weary to try finding out.)

I want to be clear here that I am not sharing this to complain. In fact, I don’t want The New YorkerVanity Fair, Wred, Condé Nast (their parent company) or buysub.com to do a damn thing. They’re all FUBAR. By design. (Bonus link.)

Nor do I want any action out of Spectrum, SiriusXM, Dish Network or the other subscription-based whatevers whose customer disservice systems have recently soaked up many hours of my life.

See, with too many subscription systems (especially ones for periodicals), FUBAR is the norm. A matter of course. Pro forma. Entrenched. A box outside of which nobody making, managing or working in those systems can think.

This is why, when an alien idea appears, for example from a loyal customer just wanting a single and simple damn price, the response is “Never gonna happen.”

This is also why the subscription fecosystem can only be turned into an ecosystem from the outside. Our side. The subscribers’ side.

I’ll explain how at Customer Commons, which we created for exactly that purpose. Stay tuned for that.


Two exceptions are Consumer Reports and The Sun.

Cruise ends

In Your favorite cruise ship may never come back: 23 classic vessels that could be laid-up, sold or scrappedGene Sloan (aka @ThePointsGuy) named the Carnival Fantasy as one those that might be headed for the heap. Now, sure enough, there it is, in the midst of being torn to bits (HT 7News, above) in Aliağa, Turkey. Other stories in the same vein are herehere, here, here, here and here.

I been on a number of cruises (here’s one) in the course of my work as a journalist, and I’ve enjoyed them all. I’ve also hung out at a similar number of colleges and universities, and have long found myself wondering how well the former might be a good metaphor for the latter. Both are expensive, well-branded and self-contained structures with a lot of specialized staff and overhead. Both are also vulnerable to pandemics, and in doomed cases their physical components turn out to be worth more than their institutional ones. John Naughton also notes the resemblance. But it’s Scott Galloway who runs all the way with it; first with Higher Ed: Enough Already, and then with a long and research-filled post titled USS University, featuring this title graphic:

Those three schools are adrift across a 2×2 with low value<—>high value on the X axis and high vulnerability<—>low vulnerability on the Y axis. At the lower left are the low-value/high vulnerability schools in a quadrant Scott calls “challenged,” meaning “high admit rates, high tuition, low endowments, dependence on international students, and weak brand equity.” Among those are—

  • Adelphi
  • Brandeis
  • Bard
  • Dickenson
  • Dennison
  • Hofstra
  • Kent State
  • Kenyon
  • LIU
  • Mt. Holyoke
  • Old Dominion
  • Pace
  • Pacific
  • Robert Morris
  • Sarah Lawrence
  • Seton Hall
  • Skidmore
  • Smith
  • St. John’s (Maryland & New Mexico)
  • The New School
  • Union
  • UC Santa Cruz
  • U Mass Dartmouth
  • Valparaiso
  • Wittenberg

— plus a plethora of mostly state-run “directional” schools (e.g. University of Somewhere at Somewhere).

The Hmm here is, How many have more value as real estate than as what they are today?

I started wondering in the same direction in May, when I posted Figuring the Future and Choose One. Both pivoted off this 2×2 by Arnold Kling

On Arnold’s rectangle, D (Fragile/Inessential) is Scott’s “challenged” quadrant. What I’m wondering, now that school is in session and at least some results should be coming in (or at least trending in a direction), if any colleges or universities in that group (or in the other quadrants) are headed already toward their own Aliağa.

Thoughts? If so, let me know on Twitter (where I am @dsearls), Facebook (here) or by email (doc at searls dot com). I hope to have comments working again here soon, but for now they don’t, alas.

It bums me out that Gail Sheehy passed without much notice—meaning I only heard about it in passing. And I didn’t hear about it, actually; I saw it on CBS’ Sunday Morning, where her face passed somewhere between Tom Seaver’s and John Thompson’s in the September 6 show’s roster of the freshly dead. I was shocked: She was older than both those guys and far less done. Or done at all, except technically. Death seems especially out of character for her, of all people.

Credit where due: The New York Times did post a fine obituary, and New York, for which she wrote much, has an excellent remembrance in the magazine by Christopher Bonanos (@heybonanos). Writes Bonanos,

Sheehy had an 18th book in the works, and it would have been — or will be, if someone else takes to the finish line — a fascinating one. Instead of reporting amid her peers (she was a few years older than the boomers, but roughly in their cohort), she set out to write a kind of echo of Passages, but this time about the millennial generation. And I can tell you that she was reveling in the immersion among people 50 and 60 years younger than she. She went to clubs with college guys and got out on the dance floor, and (by her account, at least) they were disarmed and amused by her — which is to say that she’d found every journalist’s sweet spot, where people get loose and comfortable enough to reveal themselves. She was constantly offering bits and pieces of her findings as magazine stories and columns. Some would work as stand-alone pieces and others wouldn’t, but all were tesserae in what was clearly going to be a big ambitious swoop of sociology. At New York, we were so taken with this project that we had also begun work on a profile of her…

@Gail_Sheehy is chronologically uncorrected. Her website, GailSheehy.com, also still speaks of her in the present tense: “For her new book-in-progress, she’s a woman on a mission to redefine the most misunderstood generation: millennials. They are struggling with the rupture in gender roles and a crisis in mental health. But this generation of 20- and 30-somethings is also inventing radically new passages.”

Gail Sheehy’s writing isn’t just solid; it is enviably good. BrainyQuotes has 71 samples, which is far short of sufficient. One goes, It is a paradox that as we reach our prime, we also see there is a place where it finishes. (Tell me about it. I’m only ten years younger than she was.)

As it happens, I’m writing this in the home library of a friend. On its many shelves a single spine stands out: Pathfinders, published in 1981. I pull it down and open it at random, knowing I’ll find something worth sharing from a page there. Here ya go, under the subhead Secrets of Well-being:

Like the dance of brilliant reflections on a clear pond, well-being is a shimmer that accumulates from many important life choices, mad over the years by a mind that is not often muddied by pretense or ignorance and a heart that is open enough to sense people in their depths and to intuit the meaning of most situations.

If there is an afterlife, I am sure Gail Sheehy is already reporting on it.

Tags:

Bits don’t leave a fossil record.

Well, not quite. They do persist on magnetic, optical and other media, all easily degraded or erased. But how long will those last?

Since I’ve already asked that question, I’ll set it aside and ask the one in the headline.

Some perspective: depending on when you date its origins, digital life—the one we live by extension through our digital devices, and on the Internet (which, like The Force, connects nearly all digital things)—is decades old.

It’s an open question how long it will last. But I’m guessing it will be more than a few more decades. More likely we will remain partly digital for centuries or millennia.

So I’m looking for guesses more educated than mine.

Since this blog no longer takes comments from outside of Harvard (and I do want to fix that), please tag your responses, wherever they may be on the Internet with #DigitalLife. Thanks.

« Older entries § Newer entries »