No, it’s not about Discordianism. It’s about the real world discord and human misery that is the political situation in Greece. It’s written by Laurie Penny and illustrated by Molly Crabapple, and it’s worth your time.
It’s not just political journalism, either — it touches on youth culture, the way a movement’s drug of choice reflects the zeitgeist, art, feminism and more.
The Guardian did a group interview of five of the six nominees for the the Royal Society’s Winton prize for science books 2012 — Steven Pinker, James Gleick, Brian Greene, Lone Frank and Joshua Foer.
Here’s an exchange between Greene and Pinker:
How has the formal, technical way scientists write journal papers affected popular science writing?
BG: I was looking back over some quantum mechanics papers from the 1920s and in one article the scientist described an accident in his laboratory when a glass tube exploded, a nickel got tarnished and he heated it to get rid of the tarnish – he went through the whole story himself in the technical article. You don’t really see that much these days. I don’t know if that is a one-off example, I haven’t done an exhaustive study, but have journal articles moved away from telling the story of discovery to just a more cut-and-dried approach?
SP: They have; I think that’s been documented. There is scientifically a problem with that, as opposed to narrating what happened. The problem is that since you’re under pressure from the journal editor to tell your story leading up to your conclusion without talking about all the blind alleys and accidents, it actually distorts the story itself because it inflates the probability that what you discovered is really significant. If you tried 15 things that didn’t work and one thing that did work and didn’t talk about the 15 that didn’t work, then the statistic that makes it significant is actually mistaken. The statistic has to be computed over all of the experiments you ran, not just the one that happened to work. In the social sciences especially, we’re seeing that there’s a lot of damage done by the practice of only reporting the successes and telling the story as if it was a straight line to a successful result.
Lehrer spent much of August writing about the affair, trying to figure out where it had all gone wrong. He came to the conclusion that he’d stretched himself too thin. His excuses fall along those lines: He told Seife that his plagiarized blog post was a rough draft he’d posted by mistake. And his latest explanation for those fabricated Dylan quotes is that he had written them into his book proposal and forgotten to fix them later. Even by his own account, then, the writing wasn’t his top priority.
The lectures, though, were increasingly important. Lehrer gave between 30 and 40 talks in 2010, all while meeting constant deadlines, starting a family, and buying a home in the Hollywood Hills. It was more than just a time suck; it was a new way of orienting his work. Lehrer was the first of the Millennials to follow his elders into the dubious promised land of the convention hall, where the book, blog, TED talk, and article are merely delivery systems for a core commodity, the Insight.
The Insight is less of an idea than a conceit, a bit of alchemy that transforms minor studies into news, data into magic. Once the Insight is in place—Blink, Nudge, Free, The World Is Flat—the data becomes scaffolding. It can go in the book, along with any caveats, but it’s secondary. The purpose is not to substantiate but to enchant.
Science journalist Jonah Lehrer, whose articles I have linked to from Technoccult in the past, stepped down from the New Yorker today after admitting to fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in his book Imagine. Here’s Lehrer’s statement, as quoted by Julie Bosman for The New York Times:
“Three weeks ago, I received an email from journalist Michael Moynihan asking about Bob Dylan quotes in my book ‘Imagine,’ ” Mr. Lehrer said in a statement. “The quotes in question either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes. But I told Mr. Moynihan that they were from archival interview footage provided to me by Dylan’s representatives. This was a lie spoken in a moment of panic. When Mr. Moynihan followed up, I continued to lie, and say things I should not have said.”
“The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers. I also owe a sincere apology to Mr. Moynihan. I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed. I have resigned my position as staff writer at The New Yorker.”
Books like The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel and The Information Diet by Clay Johnson examine the responsibilities of journalists and other information producers and what the public should expect, and demand, of its news and information outlets.
In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, unendearing and disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, yet unbeneficial, unendearing and disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, yet unendearing and disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.
In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, yet endearing and agreeable to others, he does not say them.
In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, but unbeneficial, yet endearing and agreeable to others, he does not say them.
In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing and agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings.
Wikipedia puts it: “In every case, if it is not true, beneficial nor timely, one is not to say it.”
Or, for modern times: Write, and/or read, things that are true, timely and informative. Don’t troll. Don’t spread rumors. Don’t read gossip. Don’t create or click on linkbait. Don’t read substanceless content just because it affirms what you already believe.
This fits nicely with “The Essence of Journalism is Verification” (from the Principles of Journalism) and Clay Johnson’s summary of his thinking: “Consume deliberately. Take in information over affirmation.”
You can listen to or download the interview at Disinfo. Here are some of the points Ellis made:
In Transmet Ellis was more interested in the effects of celebrity on Thompson.
Celebrity had a corrosive effect on Thompson. Although he became more well known, he was portrayed as a cartoon character and that resulted in him being defanged and not taken seriously.
Because Thompson’s work is so seductively well written, it can actually be a bad influence on writers who try to imitate his style.
The point of drawing on 60s and 70s politics in Transmet was to show how little things had changed in the 90s and 00s when Ellis was writing it, and how unlikely it was that things would change substantially in the future.
I love Thompson’s work but think he can be a bad influence on writers and journalists who wind up writing crappy prose in an attempt to be edgy and play it fast and loose with the facts to be “gonzo.” And because of his image and style, his message was often lost. Too many people remember him as a character.
Type One: The enterprise scoop. “Where the news would not have come out without the enterprising work of the reporter who dug it out.”
Type Two: The ego scoop. “This is where the news would have come out anyway–typically because it was announced or would have been announced–but some reporter managed to get ahead of the field and break it before anyone else.”
Type Three: The traders scoop. “This is the most ambiguous of my categories. It recognizes that there can be situations in which, for the general public, ‘who got it first?’ is next-to meaningless, but for a special category of user–the traders, investors, arbitrageurs–minutes and even seconds can count.”
Type Four: The thought scoop. “The most under-recognized type of scoop is the intellectual scoop: ‘stories with new insights’ that coin terms, define trends, or apprehend–name and frame–something that’s happening out there… before anyone else recognizes it.”
In my rant Getting Scoops Is Not (Necessarily) the Same as “Doing Journalism”., I’m basically talking about the difference between what Rosen calls “enterprise scoops” and “ego scoops.” The thing is, ego scoops do matter financially to tech publications – the first blog to get a story will generally be rewarded with more traffic. Because of that, I don’t judge my fellow tech reporters chasing these sorts of scoops, in fact I do it myself. The unfortunate thing though is that the tech journalism community seems to have lost track of the difference between enterprise and ego scoops (as have quit a few other journalistic communities, I take it).
There can be a degree of luck involved in getting enterprise scoops as well. Being the in the right place at the right time when someone mentions something. A lot of the dirty work is actually done by non-profit “wachdog” organizations. But it also means recognizing a real story, and doing the digging and fact checking to turn it into something substantial and not just a quick hit gossip piece. It means developing sources so that you’re the person that gets a tip.
There’s been a bit of a shitstorm the past few days over TechCrunch blogger turned venture capitalist M.G Siegler’s defense of Path, a social networking company that the CrunchFund (a VC firm where Siegler is a partner) invested in. Dan Lyons (probably best known for his alter ego Fake Steve Jobs) skewered Siegler well enough. Siegler’s rant about the failings of tech journalists is mostly a distraction, a cover for the real issue: the cavalier attitude startups, including one that Siegler’s firm invested in, have towards privacy and security of its users (who are, generally, the product and not the customer).
But Siegler did touch a nerve when he talked about the poor quality of so much tech journalism. It’s nothing new, the problem has been there for everyone to see for the past few years. AOL’s official policy was exposed a year ago by Business Insider, a company notorious for following a similar content farming model. There’s even an entire book now dedicated to helping people create reasonable “info diets” (a subject near and dear to my heart, though I’ve not yet had time to read it).
It’s a real problem, and Siegler, to his credit, admits that he was was one of the worst offenders during his time at TechCrunch. Now he’s part of a whole new problem exemplified by the CrunchFund and PandoDaily, but that’s not what I want to write about today. Nor do I want to focus on the high speed production of numerous low quality blog posts. That’s a long standing problem that’s been plain to see for quite a while, a product of a flawed business model for journalism and “content” in general. We’re trying to solve the business model problem at SiliconAngle, but I think there’s a deeper issue at play here.
Since The Verge published its best tech writing of 2011 list I’ve been thinking about the fact that no tech blogs actually made this list, unless you count VC Dave Pell’s blog. But none of the usual suspects – TechCrunch, VentureBeat, ReadWriteWeb, GigaOM, etc. Why is this? Part of it may be the pressure to constantly pump out new posts, multiple times a day, which leaves little time for writers to do in-depth journalism and quality writing. But I think there’s something else to it. Jay Rosen has written about the ideology of the mainstream political press. I think there’s an ideology of tech blogging, and I think that ideology reduces the overall quality of reporting. I think it’s the ideology of “the scoop.”
There are huge pressures to post a story first. Not only does it get you on TechMeme, but probably more importantly it gets your story more traction in social media, from Twitter to Reddit to Hacker News. Speed is the name of the game. It’s tempting to blame speed itself as the problem, but I think it’s this scoop mentality itself.
Adrianne Jeffries of BetaBeat (who I worked with briefly at ReadWriteWeb) put it best to me a while back: most of these “scoops” are things that everyone is going to know about soon anyway. The Kindle Fire, a new Google feature, the latest round of funding for a startup – all of this this is stuff these companies actually pay people to promote eventually. By racing to be the first to tell the world about some companies future announcement, we’re actually competing to serve as PR people for the companies we’re reporting on.
Update: Jay Rosen has helpfully categorized four types of scoop. What I’m talking about here is the different between “enterprise scoops” and “ego scoops.”
I’m not opposed to chasing this sort of scoop – I do it too. But it’s not the end all be all of doing journalism. In fact, in many cases there’s little to no journalism being done. The easiest way to be first is simply to break a news embargo – something that used to be an official policy at TechCrunch (I’m not sure whether it still is). I’m not sure this really counts as a “scoop,” but it’s one quick and dirty way to approximate one, and it’s one that requires nothing but re-writing a press release and publishing before any one else does.
Most of what we think of as “scoops” are at least a bit more involved than breaking an embargo. Unless the journalist gets lucky and overhears some execs talking about something in line at a Silicon Valley burrito joint, there’s some measure of source development going on behind the scenes of a scoop. Source development is one dimension of journalism, and it’s a very important one. Still, most of the scoops I see are still pretty shallow. A source inside a company tells a journalist about a forthcoming product, service or other announcement coming from the company. The journalist writes down what the source said and publishes it. There’s little other research or fact checking going on (Mike Arrington allegedly went to great pains to verify that his scoops were legit, but that’s apparently not common practice, and I have my doubts about how he actually sourced his scoops). Maybe there’s some speculation about whether this product will actually be competitive against a comparable product from Apple, but that’ll be it. Once the source spills the beans, this sort of post can be done very quickly, in hours or even minutes. There are a few counter examples, like when bloggers dogpile on a company that makes a mistake – I guess that helps us feel like we’re fulfilling our “watchdog” role. But the vast majority of scoops are product announcements. It’s still a far cry from the “muckracking” we expect from political journalists.
Why is this a problem? It creates an artificially low expectation of the time it takes to do journalism (if you can write a post about some forthcoming Twitter function in an hour based on a scoop from an insider, why spend more than that on a “non-scoop”?), it limits tech journalists ideas of what stories are and are not worth covering and it limits the role of the tech journalist to shilling for the companies they cover. It makes our role into professional waiters-for-something-happen rather than professional investigators or explainers.
Now let’s take a story from The Verge’s list as an example: Ken Auletta’s New Yorker story on Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. There’s no “scoop” here. No new Facebook features, no juicy gossip about Mark Zuckerberg, no IPO date. But there’s tons of insight into Sandberg, into what women experience in corporate America, and into Facebook as a company. Auletta likely spent days, probably weeks, researching and writing this piece. It’s the sort of quality stuff we all say we want to see more of, but few of us actually do. Partially of course because we don’t have the time, we’ve got posts to write and post TODAY. But partially, I think, because we don’t recognize the *story* here because it doesn’t fit with our ideology of the scoop.
It might not be fair to ask daily tech blogs to do the same sort of long form journalism that high brow magazines do, any more than it would be fair to ask a local daily newspaper to be Harper’s. But I think the contrast between scoop-driven tech blogs and the way other publications handle tech stories is illuminating because it shows a difference not just in the number of words or time spent on a story, but a difference in the type of story. There’s actually an opportunity for PR here, which I talked a bit about this in an interview on Sam Whitmore’s Mediasurvey (it’s behind a paywall, alas), and have a half-written blog post waiting to be finished.
The thing I’d like to see is a greater variety in the type of story, and a shift from the scoop mindset of quick hits about a new product to a mindset that sees technology journalism as more encompassing.
Glenn Greenwald reports that the U.S. has subpoenaed Icelandic member of parliment and WikiLeaks supporter Birgitta Jónsdóttir’s Twitter history:
What hasn’t been reported is that the Subpoena served on Twitter — which is actually an Order from a federal court that the DOJ requested — seeks the same information for numerous other individuals currently or formerly associated with WikiLeaks, including Jacob Appelbaum, Rop Gonggrijp, and Julian Assange. It also seeks the same information for Bradley Manning and for WikiLeaks’ Twitter account.
The information demanded by the DOJ is sweeping in scope. It includes all mailing addresses and billing information known for the user, all connection records and session times, all IP addresses used to access Twitter, all known email accounts, as well as the “means and source of payment,” including banking records and credit cards. It seeks all of that information for the period beginning November 1, 2009, through the present. A copy of the Order served on Twitter, obtained exclusively by Salon, is here.
The Order was signed by a federal Magistrate Judge in the Eastern District of Virginia, Theresa Buchanan, and served on Twitter by the DOJ division for that district. It states that there is “reasonable ground to believe that the records or other information sought are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation,” the language required by the relevant statute. It was issued on December 14 and ordered sealed — i.e., kept secret from the targets of the Order. It gave Twitter three days to respond and barred the company from notifying anyone, including the users, of the existence of the Order. On January 5, the same judge directed that the Order be unsealed at Twitter’s request in order to inform the users and give them 10 days to object; had Twitter not so requested, it would have been compelled to turn over this information without the knowledge of its users.
It’s possible other companies like Facebook, Google and Skype were subpoenaed and complied with the requests silently.
The fact that Twitter is being targeted by the government is another sign of how important the network has become as a real-time publishing platform, and also of how centralized the service is — something that could spark interest in distributed and open-source alternatives such as Status.net, just as the downtime suffered by the network early last year did. It is another sign of how much we rely on networks that are controlled by a single corporate entity, as Global Voices founder Ethan Zuckerman pointed out when WikiLeaks was ejected from Amazon’s servers and had its DNS service shut down.
See also this post about Douglas Rushkoff’s call to abandon the corporate Internet and the supplemental links I supplied there. I’m tagging further links on the subject of a decentralized Internet with decentralized net.
Erik Davis has been covering fringe spiritual movements, underground music and subcultures for magazines like Wired, Arthur and Spin for the past two decades. He’s probably best known for books his books TechGnosis and Visionary State. He’s currently a contributor to several publications, including Reality Sandwich and HiLobrow. His web site is here and you can follow him on Twitter here.
Erik’s latest book, Nomad Codes, is a collection of several of his articles and essays. It can be purchased from its publisher YETI or from Amazon. I talked with Erik about the new book, the changing American spiritual landscape, and why he’s now pursuing academia.
Klint Finley: Over the last few years, while writing the essays that comprise this book, have you seen any significant shift in American spirituality? Has much changed since the publication of TekGnosis?
Erik Davis: Spirituality is always changing, because “spirituality” itself is almost defined by its informality, at least in contrast to those more organized movements we call “religion.” And even religions are always changing. Since the 1990s, there have been some intriguing developments, some cool, some odd.
One has been the extraordinary popularity of yoga, and what makes yoga particularly interesting is that it bridges between spirituality and a purely secular world of exercise and keeping fit. People don’t go to yoga for gurus like they did in the 70s — it’s about the “practice.” That shows some healthy pragmatism in some ways, but it also represents how easily spirituality gets commodified in America. I mean, yoga is pretty cheap when you boil it down–you on a mat on a floor. And yet it has become a whole industry.
Yeah, the brouhaha over Bikram yoga really exemplifies that.
Then there’s the 2012 thing, which has really grown tremendously, right on schedule. I have been tracking that for years, a combination of archaic dreaming and very contemporary apocalypticism. I knew some folks in British Columbia that all decided to adopt the 13 moon calendar for a while, and they lived their lives partly in that alternate calendrical frame. Pretty outside stuff! Then a year ago, my sister, who is not a freak by any stretch of the imagination, started talking about 2012 and what it meant. That represents quite a shift. Even Christian fundamentalists are talking 2012 these days. Everyone on the bandwagon!
Where does the title of the book, Nomad Codes, come from?
For me the phrase Nomad Codes really captures something about the 1990s culture that really influenced me and most of the writing in the book, even the later stuff. In some ways, we never leave our home-base cultural framework. In the early 1990s, there was a tremendous sense of novelty and possibility–the Internet was opening up, electronic music, a revived psychedelic culture, even “Twin Peaks” on the TV seemed to confirm that reality itself was warping. That sense of warp was captured by the figure of the nomad–slipping beyond the established narratives and institutions, not trying to root himself anywhere, flowing between the cracks. But all this stuff was happening in the context of an exploding media and particularly digital culture. So codes were, and are, everywhere. The world we perceive is partly dependent on our codes–not just our ethical codes, but the codes of perception and experience we use to program our engagement with reality.
Do you have a favorite story from the book? One that you’re particularly proud of?
There’s a number of pieces that come out of really amazing trips and explorations I’ve one on. “Sampling Paradise” was about going to Goa in India in 1994 to hunt down the origins of raves; it was just when Psy-Trance was starting to leak into the west, and I went to some amazing parties. But the craziest time was my visit to Burma, which I write about at length. At the end of the piece, I am drunkenly dancing with a cute transvestite spirit-medium whose gaudy outfit was stuffed with currency. My wife was there at the time and she found it all hilarious.
I don’t have a copy of the book yet, so I don’t know if “Technopagans” and/or “Songs in the Key of F12” are included, but I wanted to tell you that those two article were formative for me.
Well thanks. They both nearly made the cut, but not quite. “Technopagans” was too long, and a little dated, and some of the ideas were repeated elsewhere. And not a lot of the music writing made it in, other than a profile of Sun City Girls and a long piece on Lee Scratch Perry. Maybe I should have given more thought to “Songs” though! That was a fun time to write about electronic music. I am curious though: how did they influence you?
I read “Technopagans” in 2000 just as I was starting to learn about chaos magic, and the way the article related it to tech culture kind of gave me the push I needed to jump in and start doing it.
I read “Songs in the Key of F12” around the time it came out, and it planted the seeds that eventually lead me to become a laptop musician myself – though it was years after reading it. I guess, like “Technopagans,” it told me “This is something YOU can do.”
That’s great. That’s why I love writing about subcultures: I get drawn toward things I want or attract me, and then I try to communicate the attraction and the appeal, even if I don’t end up becoming a chaos magician or a laptop musician myself.
Here’s a question someone on Twitter just asked me to ask you: Have you faced any challenges as an independent scholar outside the university system?
Well its funny you should ask. I have faced some challenges, and the unfortunate fact is that, in terms of getting paid, the challenges have only gotten larger the more established in my career I have become. I came of age as a writer at a time when I was lucky enough to be able to live off interesting magazine work–I got paid for the Goa piece by Details magazine, all expense paid trip and a good fee, even though they never ran the story. That world is gone, at least for someone with my interests, which have only gotten farther off the beaten track as far as the “mainstream” goes. Which is why I have decided to cross the great divide and enter the academy. I am at a religious studies program at Rice that specializes in magic, mysticism, and the esoteric tradition. I still like to think of myself as an independent scholar though, cause I am just doing what I want to do!
In a round-table on the impact of the Internet on writing, you said “I find the internet-driven pressure to make pieces short, data-dense, and crisply opinionated — as opposed to thoughtful, multi-perspectival, and lyrical — rather oppressive, leading to a certain kind of superficial smugness as well as general submission to the forces of reference over reflection.” Since then, Slate has reportedly found long-form pieces on its site to be the among the most popular. Have you seen any shift back towards a demand for longer form work?
Well that’s wonderful news. I have certainly gotten great reactions from the half-dozen longish-form pieces I have written for HiLobrow this last year or so. They werent super-long, but they were dense and careful and reflective. I think the interest for this kind of stuff probably never went away but the editors and the people designing magazine and online templates went for the short stuff. I will be a happy camper if the pendulum swings back.
What are your favorite publications, print or otherwise?
Online I rove; I rarely return to the same place as if it were a magazine. Print is more conducive to a regular relationship, in my experience. I love Fortean Times, I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t have a subscription. Marvels and Wonders every issue. Coming to school I kind of went on a magazine diet though, so I am not reading the journals I normally do, from the annoying/enjoyable New Yorker to the occasional issues of Plazm. My parents just got me a subscription to The Economist, which is great because I don’t usually read that much news online, so it keeps me more “current”–whatever that means. But I like it because they write intelligently about this insane, totally fucked up world and somehow manage to seem chipper about it all.
And what’s next for you? Are you working on another full-length popular audience book, or are you completely focused on academia now?
I have always written some stuff that had an academic twist–I’ve hard articles in almost half a dozen university press books. So I will be emphasizing that side of the equation while still doing as much online and magazine work as possible. I’ve also been doing the Expanding Mind net radio show on the Progressive Radio Network for a year and a half, and will continue to do that. It’s great because I have to push myself to discover new and interesting people–or to remember all the interesting people who have crossed my path, and bring ’em on and find out what they’re doing now. I love that conversational style. I am also working on an collection of Philip K. Dick’s writings from the Exegesis which is really fun.