Thursday, February 17, 2011

Thoroughly Modern McLuhan

Some iconic media moments seem permanently lodged in my mind, and each defines a transient truth.  The TV show I Remember Mama debuted on July 1, 1949 some 4-and-a-half months before my first birthday, and remained on the air almost until I was almost 8.  I do not know exactly when during that time span the phrase from the prologue: “But most of all when I look back to those days so long ago, most of all I remember Mama”, stuck in my brain – but it did, as surely as the fuzzy black and white image of a can of Maxwell House Coffee, the program’s sponsor.  The “truth” of that moment has less to do with the actual images on the screen, still available over on YouTube, than it does with the emotional memory of watching that family, while sprawled around the TV with my family.  I am still uncertain as to how much of those idealized memories of my own family experience were real, and how much seeped out of the screen from the Hansen’s little house in San Francisco.

Many years later, as a young graduate student, I remember watching a very different onscreen domestic dynamic in All in The Family, while struggling with the seemingly intentionally oblique prose of Marshall McLuhan.  What did he mean, “the medium is the message?”  Obvious not that content was irrelevant. The television “on” was radically different than the television “off.”  I could "stifle" Archie with the flip of a switch - even if I actually had to walk over to the set to do it.  Eventually, I came to understand that McLuhan was exploring the idea that the medium in which a message is contained, through which it is depicted, has such a significant impact upon the effect of the message as to almost “co-create” that message.    The medium as co-author if you will.

I remember hiking in the Sandia Mountains years ago when I taught out at the University of New Mexico.  While resting on a bench by the side of the trail I noticed initials carved on the bench, carved inside a heart: “JP + someone.”  I couldn’t read the “someone”, because JP, or someone, had scratched the other initials out.  What an intriguing little romance: Who was JP?  Who was someone? What had happened?  A tiny mystery carved here on a bench by a lonely path through a forest; visible to few, noticed by fewer still.  Now imagine JP or “someone” changing their status on Facebook, announcing to hundreds of “friends” and “friends of friends” that they are no longer “in a relationship.”  Those interpersonal ripples far exceed a little carving on a bench at pathside. The “medium is the message” not because it supersedes the content of the message, but rather because it transforms the communicative potential and impact of that message.

Fast-forward to the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East.  I apologize for the whiplash, but there is a connection.  Social discontent has been present in that region for centuries.  Wherever power is maintained by power, discontent lives among the powerless.  And for those same centuries that discontent has been articulated.  Murmurs of dissent in the quiet of a desert night, perhaps scratched upon the walls in ghettos, refugee camps and interment centers both ancient and modern.  And there the message lay, like a heart carved upon a simple bench - until a little bird alights.  She cocks her head, spies the message and sounds a single Tweet, and then another and another and another until in their hundreds of thousands, the tweets unite into a roar that sweeps power from power and finds the powerless blinking in the unaccustomed glare of freedom. The “medium is the message” because it transforms the communicative potential and impact of the message.

I am tempted to leave the story here, to revel in the “good news.”  But the negotiation between the medium and the message, between culture and technology is unending, and already the wheel has turned.  During the uprising in Egypt, the press reported, often almost tangentially, “Internet and cell phone service to the country has been interrupted.”  Yesterday, the New York Times finally published an article titled “Egypt Leaders Found ‘Off Switch’ for Internet” that discusses the various aspects of the Internet that make it far more susceptible to control and manipulation than is commonly believed.

A wide-ranging round of discussions continues regarding the nature and the power of this new medium that now contains so many of the messages of our lives.  The Obama administration calls for open and transparent access to the Internet, yet seeks to discover private Twitter account information in connection with the Wikileaks diplomatic cable investigation.  China, known to closely monitor the Internet activities of its citizens, is widely rumored to have a national “kill switch” for the Internet. But is that a feasible option for a country whose rise to economic power is closely intertwined with Internet-enabled commerce? Eben Moglen, a Columbia law professor is advocating an inexpensive “plug in server” he calls the Freedom Box, that would make political dissidents “invisible” to the authoritarian governments who seek to oppress them.  Yet, if it works, could not the same technology be used by child pornographers, spammers and terrorists to become “invisible” to those in government whom we charge to protect us from these harmful messages?

So, I am still inclined to agree with McLuhan, at least as I choose to read him.  The medium co-creates the impact of the message by merging content with the unique technical and social capabilities of the container: the medium is the message.  The devil, it seems, remains firmly entrenched in the details. Bad guys infest the Internet like roaches discover the cleanest closets.  But without the Internet, you couldn’t read this – and nobody wants that :-) !

Monday, February 7, 2011

Compassionate Privacy

It would be nice if Mark Zuckerberg had actually said, "Privacy is so 20th century." But if he did, I can find no credible reference. However, the phrase does seem to capture the essence of his remarks about "changing social norms regarding privacy" that Facebook seeks to champion. There is evidence, though, that Eric Schmidt, the out-going CEO of Google, did actually say, "We know where you are. We know where you've been. We can more or less know what you're thinking about," and "If you have something you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." Taken as a whole, these remarks reveal an unsettling trend toward mandating excessive sharing; like making you eavesdrop on cell phone calls about medical procedures in a coffee shop. Yeech.

This move to obsessive openness isn't a generational issue. Yes, Zuckerberg is 26, but Schmidt is 55. The phenomenon seems more a kind of “BigTech”-induced simplemindedness. Both Internet "A-listers" appear to view "privacy" as an archaic abuse of privilege: someone - your parents, your boss, "the man" - is “hiding” something to advantage themselves and disadvantage you, your friends, or "the people." I do wish privacy were that simple.

Certainly, there is a whole realm of hidden information that is venal and vindictive. We have seen too many examples of the misuse of governmental, corporate and personal secrecy to blithely assume an open and truthful world. People are "disappeared," elections are engineered, banks collapse, lakes become sewers, and the Gulf of Mexico is despoiled. One would be a fool to deny that webs of secrecy enable these human failings. But those webs of secrecy have been around for centuries. Their existence does not entitle the new digital Dons to rip away the gentle curtains of privacy that shield every human life. To acknowledge deceit does not deny the need for compassionate privacy. The Internet’s ability to peer into the most cherished and sheltered spaces in someone’s life does not legitimize the practice.

Perhaps much of the confusion surrounding the debate regarding Internet privacy stems from different entities using similar words to mean different things. “Privacy” and “secrecy” have become co-mingled to the extent that they are erroneously seen as being synonymous. However, the Oxford English Dictionary defines privacy as “The state or condition of being alone, undisturbed, or free from public attention, as a matter of choice or right; seclusion; freedom from interference or intrusion.” While secrecy is defined as “the quality of being secret or of not revealing secrets; the action, practice, or habit of keeping things secret.”

The “open life” advocates, among whom I would place both Zuckerberg and Schmidt use “privacy” when they really mean “secrecy.” Julian Assange provides perhaps the most salient contemporary example of the difference. As the majordomo of Wikileaks, Assange is secrecy’s fiercest antagonist. He obviously believes that, in the public sphere, no secret is sacred. For Assange, when governments and businesses are concerned, awkward transparency trumps the effective “habit of keeping things secret” every time. However, when the issue is what transpired in a Swedish bedroom among adults, privacy, “the right to be free from public attention” suddenly reigns supreme in his worldview.

Still, Zuckerberg and Schmidt did get a couple of things right. First, it is “complicated.” As personal information becomes increasingly valuable in the core human arenas of conflict and commerce, the ceaseless dance of Spy versus Spy drives the development of Internet-based applications that allow the gracious sphere of privacy to be punctured as never before. Second, those routine perforations of the very fabric of our lives have rightfully relegated many na├»ve assumptions regarding privacy to the previous century. What I believe Zuckerberg and Schmidt have gotten wrong are the implications of these realities for public policy.

The “open lifers” seem to reason that since privacy currently lies in tatters, we should simply affirm that state as acceptable: what is, is right. I have trouble with that notion. I believe we are capable of a more nuanced approach to life in the digital age, that we can devise processes that deliver the advantages of the Internet without turning our private lives into peep shows.

Let me close with a story from my life. When I was in college, shortly after the surrender at Yorktown, we were required to live in the dorm. There were 10 young men on my hall, in their teens, away from adult supervision for the first time. “This,” I thought, “is what they mean by ‘chaos theory.’” There was no privacy, ever. Oh, certainly, you could retreat to your room where only your roommate, and whomever he brought to visit, punctured your solitude. But that was as tranquil as it got. Graduation changed my life in many ways. In retrospect, one of the most profound shifts was the ability to live in a house where I could walk in and close the door. And behind that door I found “the state or condition of being alone, undisturbed, or free from public attention.” I found privacy.

I do not believe that, as a culture, we are intellectually or technically unable to craft hardware, software, and policy that allows us to occasionally turn off the lights of the Internet and just "shut the door."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

New Media, Old Problems

It is, increasingly, a familiar story – young, political idealists sound a call to action via Facebook and Twitter.  Thousands sweep into the street demanding that established, authoritarian regimes cease their nefarious ways and return power to the people.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  In the summer of 2009 we waited with baited breath to see Mir-Hossein Mousavi swept to power in Iran on the wings of a Green Revolution powered by Twitter.  It didn’t happen.  Then a couple of weeks ago in Tunisia it did, sending President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family packing.  Today, in Egypt, it is anyone’s guess.  Mubarak lies low, and the army disappears while cellphones, Facebook and Twitter take a back seat to bricks and clubs, blood, bodybags and bandages.

As technologies go Facebook and Twitter are relative babies. Were they children, neither would be old enough for middle school.  However, they are huge babies.  Were Facebook a country, at 500 million users, it would be the third largest in the world, trailing only China and India in population.  It makes a strange sort of sense then, that revolutions fostered by these new media often founder on adolescent arrogance and childish assumptions.

Egypt provides a painful example.  Fed by Tunisia’s success, the opponents of Mubarak’s long and often churlish regime assumed that they, too, could Tweet thousands into the streets and break the tyrant’s grip on power.  And, like many adolescents, they were right – almost.  Mubarak, as the opposition planned, ceded power, but only in that he declared he would not seek re-election.  “WTF?”  And now he has, at least for the moment, faded into the mist – neither present, nor gone.  Similarly, the official trappings of power have withdrawn from Tahrir Square, apparently replaced by the “non-governmental” thugs who have often been the unofficial enforcers of unpopular policy during the Mubarak years.  The protestors had childishly assumed that the old regime would be swept away by a flood of digital demands and the sun would rise on a new Egypt – fresh and full of promise.  Instead the sun set on bloodshed and the morning is very much in doubt.

The opposition’s vision may yet materialize.  But I am quite confident that it will not be done in 142-character Tweets, or with Facebook status updates. New media, we are learning, are powerful tools for claiming the moment, for mobilizing the mob, for occasionally winning the election.  But they have yet to prove themselves in the more pedantic arenas of governing, democracy, and compromise.  In the adult world the devil is in the details.  And those details, it seems, are still hammered out the old-fashioned way: face-to-face, word-by-word, and person-to-person.