Dispatches From Blogistan

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the book
Dispatches From Blogistan
by suzanne stefanac
peachpit/new riders
voices that matter series
shipping now
> amazon
> barnes & noble
from the book
> table of contents
 
> chapter 2 history of open discourse
 
> chapter 6 history of journalism
 
> 10 blog design tips
 
> what is this long tail?
 
> trackback demystified
 
> blog ethics primer
 
> glossary
 
> resource hotlinks

interviews

> cory doctorow

> farai chideya

> bruce sterling

> denise caruso

> craig newmark

> jamais cascio

> laura lemay

> christian crumlish

> jon lebkowsky

interview with jamais cascio

/feed/Jcap.gifamais Cascio has distinguished himself as an online advocate and activist over the course of nearly two decades. He brings a great deal of both practical and ideological refinement to his endeavors and his responses below are peppered with advice and observations that we would all do well to heed. You can check out what he’s currently up to over at Open the Future.

background
I’ve been online in one medium or another for close to 20 years now, and from early on recognized the utility of the net as a tool for activism. My initial online political/social action focused almost entirely on technology and online issues — as was true for many (if not most) of us at the time. In the early days of the Internet, politics on the net meant politics *about* the net, and the distributed collaboration that the Internet makes possible was our source of strength as we fought battles against online censorship and top-down control. A piece I wrote about anonymity got me invited to South-by-SouthWest in 1996, where I met luminaries such as Jon Lebkowsky, Steve Jackson (still flush with his-EFF-supported victory against the Secret Service) and Bruce Sterling, but most of my activism of the time was behind-the-scenes stuff at my place of work, GBN, trying to shape how the consultants and clients understood the online world.

More recently — and much more visibly — I co-founded WorldChanging.com, and saw the real power of the Internet as a tool for political and social action that went far beyond digital technology concerns. WorldChanging wasn’t in the first wave of social or even environmental blogs, but I think we made a big splash (and helped to shape online and offline discussions about the environment) with our strong emphasis on doing more than complaining about the state of the world. There are plenty of voices telling us about the planet’s problems, and not nearly enough voices telling us about what we can do for solutions.

on truth
The key reason why blogs have such potential to reveal fragments of the truth is the embedded hyperlink. With blogs, the reader no longer has to rely on the author’s voice or status to make a determination of right or wrong, or has to seek out sources that confirm or deny an author’s statements. The author can — and should — put links directly in her or his assertions that back up claims, making it possible for the reader to understand where an argument comes from. Authors who don’t use links to back up their arguments, or link only to other subjective sources, do their readers *and themselves* a disservice.

The best way to foster critical thinking, then, is to teach readers to follow the sources.

on the new journalism
The only journalists (by which I mean the writers of traditional news media) who should be nervous about the rise of citizen media are those journalists whose work can’t stand scrutiny. Good journalists should be ecstatic about this development, and not just because of the fact-checking aspects. Hint to writers encountering blog backlash for the first time: the three most powerful words in the English language in this kind of situation are “I was wrong” — you’ll be amazed at how quickly opinion will shift about you when you own up to your mistakes.

Blogs can serve as distant early warning networks for journalists, alerting them to stories that they might otherwise miss. I don’t mean that journalists should simply regurgitate what they’ve read online — as is far too common, especially in the “talking points” political journalism world — but they should learn to keep an eye out for stories that, with further investigation, need to be told. The flip side of this, however, is that journalists should be willing to cite their sources, including blogs; when I see a news report that only credits “stories on the Internet,” I see a reporter that can’t be trusted.

In five years, everyone (or many of us early adopters, at least) will have heads-up displays running all day with personalized “CNN crawls” running along the bottom edge of our peripheral vision — probably pulling headlines from the 2011 version of RSS feeds — with filters of some sort (Bayesian logic or collaborative filtered or whatnot) flagging headlines that are worth paying more attention to. The stories behind those headlines will be written by citizen journalists, paid journalists, and machine journalists mashing-up multiple sources to tell a complete story.

Television news will be filled with reports of auto accidents supposedly resulting from people watching their heads-up displays instead of watching the road.

on the new software paradigms

I believe that we’re in the early days of a new information/communication world. Where the “perpetual beta” structure falls short, in my view, is that it’s *mostly* unidirectional — platforms and services roll out new versions and features, but only pay grudging attention to the responses of users.

We need to stop thinking of this as alpha/beta/release, and start thinking of it as co-evolution or iterated design. Users should be thought of as stakeholders and participants in the design process, and I expect to see initially radical approaches to product design that rely heavily on Digg or Slashdot-style collaboration. Imagine the “wisdom of the crowds” philosophy adapted to the design field. It probably wouldn’t work all that well in every case, but it would have enough surprising successes that it would eventually become part of the designer’s toolkit.

From a user’s standpoint, the best adaptation tactics (they really can’t be called strategies) include:

* Backup, backup backup.
* Avoid proprietary formats like the plague; if you can’t take your data and move it to another app without losing structure or content, you’re (eventually, but inevitably) hosed.
* You may be stuck in only one location at a time, but your information isn’t. Don’t rely on a single place, online or off, for your important information. Eventually, one of the storage sites will fail/go bankrupt/burn to the ground, taking your stuff with it.

on privacy
Privacy is a construct that combines physical/technological conditions with social norms. Privacy isn’t just about keeping stuff secret, it’s about maintaining control over information about yourself that others could use to hurt you, physically, financially or emotionally. Threats to privacy, then, arise from decreasing ability to control one’s information without a corresponding decrease in the threat arising from that loss of control.

If we believe that the ongoing growth of technologies of transparency is unstoppable, then our options are limited. We could:

* Try to slow the growth, fighting tooth-and-nail over every encroachment;
* Push for mutual transparency, so that everyone is more-or-less equally vulnerable, and therefore less likely to abuse your formerly-private information (essentially a Mutual Assured Destruction model for privacy);
* Push for social changes that reduce the threat arising from disclosure of personal information.

Most likely to succeed is a combination of all three, with sharp controls over financial information, MAD tactics for physical information (e.g., location), and social changes to reduce the threat that would come from (e.g.) the disclosure of video rental habits.

Most likely to happen is an all-out effort to fight privacy reductions, one that eventually fails.

on the question of artifacts (and their impending death?)
Don’t tell the iPod owners that we’re witnessing the death of the artifact.

Distribution may be digital and intangible, but participation (i.e., use, enjoyment, consumption) isn’t. You need a screen upon which to view a movie, a page upon which text can be read, a player to hear music, etc.. The real question is whether we’re witnessing the death of the semi-permanent artifact: the book that can be read a century from now, the art that can be looked at a millennia from now. Many of the physical media upon which we store digital information have startlingly brief lifespans, whether we’re talking about disks that crash or tapes that crumble, or about disk sizes and formats that no longer get used anywhere (hello, 5.25″ floppies with WordStar files!).

The answer, I think, links back to something I mentioned earlier, the need for multiple simultaneous *different* locations for content. A printed copy of a document and a digital copy on a backup disk, together, will last longer than either of the two would alone, and as long as each is checked in on every so often, each can be used to produce the other if necessary. The more one uses open, public data and content formats, the greater the chances are that the information can be moved from one application to another, from one storage service to another, or from one medium to another. The physical form and the digital form become dependent upon the openness and availability of the other for ongoing survival.

We’re not witnessing the death of the artifact — we’re witnessing the birth of the physical artifact-digital artifact mash-up.

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