I’m a new contributor to Medium’s Backchannel technology publication. In my first post, I ask journalists to ditch any semblance of “objectivity” — a word I consider in the same category as a unicorn, i.e. mythological — when it comes to freedom of expression and the right to publish. On some issues, even trying to be neutral is a trap, and for journalists this is one of them.
For journalists, there should be no objectivity, no neutrality, about freedom of expression and other key liberties that are at the foundation of self-rule. There should be an open bias toward openness and freedom—and news people who don’t use their reports to push those values are not fit to call themselves journalists.
Powerful governments and corporations are leading the attack against these core values, usually in the guise of protecting us or giving us more convenience. But these powerful entities are also creating a host of choke points. And the result is a locking down of computing and communications: a system of control by others over what we say and do online — a betrayal of the Internet’s decentralized promise.
(Note: This is adapted from a Thanksgiving Day editorial I wrote many years ago in the Detroit Free Press, and then adapted in my blog starting in the early part of the last decade. It changes each time I write it, to reflect current realities)
Today, we Americans celebrate our finest holiday, Thanksgiving. I’m overseas, in Hong Kong. I expect to join a couple of expatriates this evening. I will miss my family and friends at home.
I’ve been spending a fair amount of time at the “Occupy Central” locations since I’ve been here, with growing admiration for the young people who have created and persisted with their Umbrella Movement. They want a Hong Kong that respects personal liberty and offers a genuinely representative government. The authorities are starting to evict them from their street encampments here on Hong Kong Island and in Kowloon across the harbor. It’s both an inspiring and sad sight.
Across the ocean people are in the streets to protest a corrupt system of justice that has produced the Ferguson case and so many others like it. A student at the University of Hong Kong, where I’ve been teaching for a few weeks, asked me to explain Ferguson after the grand jury reached its obviously pre-ordained decision and anger spilled over. I couldn’t. I still want to believe the best about my country.
The young people who’ve camped in the streets of Hong Kong’s Admiralty, Monkok and Causeway Bay, and the angry but overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrators in Ferguson and other American cities, remind me of what a friend once said, many years ago:
We need more pilgrims, and fewer turkeys.
There are still plenty of pilgrims around. They refuse to accept the way things are. They reject pure grasping for money and control and status. They are outnumbered and outspent in the halls of power, but their day may return if the people ever recognize what is happening.
My material table overflows with bounty this Thanksgiving. Tonight I will raise a glass to family and far-away friends. I’ll salute the brave people worldwide who champion and fight for justice. I’m grateful beyond words for my life of comfort and relative safety in a deeply troubled world.
I’m grateful, too, for my opportunity to constantly explore and learn. I hope to sustain, as long as I live, a spiritual pilgrimage — for life, for justice.
And on Thanksgiving Day 2014, I wish the same for you.
Journalism watcher and professor Jay Rosen’s “How to be literate in what’s changing journalism” is a solid list of things tomorrow’s journalists will need to understand, and in many cases adopt. As he wisely does in his PressThink posts, Jay asks at the end what he’s missing.
From my perspective, there’s one more major element that every journalist, today and tomorrow, truly needs to grasp and deal with: who’s in control.
The answer, increasingly: Not us.
I’ve written many times in recent years about the dangers we face as a society as centralized entities, primarily governments and corporations, are taking control of the Internet away from those of us who use technology from the edges of the network of networks. The promise of the Net, and of the personal devices that emerged starting with the PC, was a radically decentralized system of computing and communications. Conversations and innovation, in that system, started and thrived at the networks’ edges, not in the center.
Some vital functions are being recentralized, through technological developments and political fiat. Governments that feel threatened by technology increasingly use our devices and systems to spy on us, and much worse.
In many cases, governments act (read: are paid) to protect legacy industries that loathe the liberty that technology can spark. Industries like Hollywood push harder and harder for laws giving them the authority to determine what innovations will emerge, especially if these breakthroughs threaten legacy business models that no longer make sense in a networked arena.
Meanwhile, corporate centralization is burning through the ecosystem. Facebook and Google, in particular, have taken control of wide swaths of the Internet’s key functions. Facebook is becoming what amounts to an alternative Internet — literally so in some countries where mobile dominates — and its growing power over content, along with Google’s search dominance, should worry everyone. (Jay alludes to this in his first point, I should note.)
That centralization may pale next to what telecommunications carriers are attempting: control over how information moves in and across our networks. In the U.S. wired-Internet market, local duopolies of cable and phone companies — the cable companies are effectively monopolies when it comes to actual broadband, not the pathetic imitation that phone-line DSL service provides — are insisting on the right to decide what bits of information get delivered to our devices in what order and at what speed, or whether they get delivered at all. Mobile service is completely deregulated on this score. Federal regulators, claiming the opposite, give the carriers more and more power, and the FCC’s pathetic mutterings about restricting carrier dominance tell us network neutrality is on its last legs.
All of the above trends are relevant to journalism. Which is why journalists need to understand at least these key points (among many others in this context):
Carrier dominance is the ultimate in media consolidation. If they get away with their power play, they will determine almost everyone’s future in the media world. They will decide which content, and to some degree which innovation, lives or dies.
Facebook and Google — with Twitter looming on the horizon — are not just incredibly powerful and ubiquitous platforms. They are competitors for advertising, eyeballs and time. Journalists who use Facebook to promote their material — or, with supreme stupidity, as a host for their material — are also feeding a beast that intends to consume them.
Government surveillance and censorship are acts of control that threaten all serious journalism.
The Copyright Cartel’s efforts to restrict deployment of technology that threatens traditional business models is a threat to all innovation of the future.
Again, Jay is entirely right to push journalists to understand the items he mentions. It’s a great list. I hope he’ll add “who’s in control” as another.
I’m visiting Hong Kong for a month (with a side trip to Shanghai toward the end of the trip). I find myself agog, again, at the pure energy of the place.
Over the weekend I got guided tours of the student protest encampments widely known as Occupy Central (it really should be called Occupy Admiralty and Mon Kok and Causeway Bay) with local journalists who’ve been covering the students since before this started. I find myself totally admiring these kids — but I wish they had a better sense of security in their communications. They’re using Facebook for the most part, which is basically an invitation to be surveilled.
Transcript of a voicemail message left for me today at Google Voice:
And I don’t know if you’re gonna get this message but both teams, and I feel more dot com address is, R pouncing, the bye for maybe a problem with a hold of me and just when I send you an email. I’ll try that. Now to you later that pounces as well.
We pay a non-trivial annual subscription fee to read the online Wall Street Journal, and consider it worth the money. But the company feels it has the right to not only charge us royally for the privilege but also to insert all kinds of surveillance into our reading.
I use browser plugins that block nearly all of this stuff.
Last weekend, like a lot of other people, I watched from afar as the Hong Kong protests took over the city’s Central district. I spotted a tweet showing a photo of hundreds of people holding their hands in the air, and I immediately recalled the prior (and ongoing) protests in Ferguson, Missouri, where people had held their hands up as well.
I quickly got some Twitter replies from people who were enraged that I was — if I correctly understood their “logic” — taking the side of hoodlums against always-right law enforcement. I ignored them.
Then, however, I got some pushback from people who said I was completely wrong — in one person’s words, I was an “idiot” — in what I was suggesting.
Looking back, there was indeed a problem with what I posted: the word “emulating” in my original tweet. It was a careless word, and didn’t exactly reflect what I was thinking: a deep admiration for what the Hong Kong protesters were doing, and how the “hands up” gesture was the same as demonstrators in Ferguson (whom I also admire) had used. But even though I wasn’t certain it was a conscious channeling of the Ferguson protests, my tweet did connect the two situations, and it did strongly suggest the Hong Kong demonstrators had chosen to use common body language.
How could I possibly know that? A journalist at the Guardian asked, and I couldn’t disagree when he said I was creating an unproved connection.
I retweeted several news articles that asked this question and came up with inconclusive answers — and no compelling evidence that the Ferguson protests had been a major spark in Hong Kong.
So I considered removing the original tweet and replacing it with something much less declarative — something along the lines of “Amazing image, and wondering if there’s a connection to the Ferguson protests” or words to that effect — or posting a new tweet retroactively modifying the first one.
Too late. Hundreds of people had retweeted my tweet within hours.
Meanwhile, U.S. news organizations started using this notion as a mini-meme. Some of the coverage strongly suggested there was a connection; other coverage made it clear that this wasn’t known for sure.
I got in touch with a friend in Hong Kong and asked him. His reply:
I’d argue that the similarity in gesture with Ferguson is entirely coincidental.
Ferguson was simply not covered much here in Hong Kong, not in msm [mainstream media] and not in social media.
I don’t take it for granted that my Hong Kong friend was right. But I did trust his judgment. Which is the reason for this post: to express regret at my careless language — an unconscious reflection of my inevitably western view of the world — and hope the probably incorrect meme, which I helped push along, won’t be the one that survives.
I say this especially because of my admiration for the people of Hong Kong, where I’ve spent a great deal of time over the years. They are trying to save a (somewhat) democratic system of government, and preserve the relative freedom Hong Kong has enjoyed for many years. They know it is part of China now, but they also hoped the Beijing government would honor its “one country, two systems” pledge longer than it seems to be doing. What they are doing in the streets of their amazing city is profoundly important. It is history in the making, and they are making it for themselves.
I showed a draft of this post to my ASU Online digital media literacy students this week before putting it up here. I’ve spent a lot of time in the course telling them about the dangers of high-velocity information, and here I’d gone and done what I told them they should avoid. Their comments were useful, and I wanted to quote one in particular. In a media environment like the one we have now, the student advised us all, as media creators, to ask before we post:
Will someone who just glances at this understand my intent?
Not always, of course, no matter how hard we try. But I plan to keep this question in the back of my mind from now on.
For six years starting in 1999, I spent 5-6 weeks each fall at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism & Media Studies Centre, co-teaching an online media course. I’m certain that HKU was the first university in the world to require students to create blogs, because Dave Winer gave us space on a server to test his then-beta blogging software in the very, very early days of the mass-blogging movement.
I’ll be based in Hong Kong again this November, co-teaching a class at HKU and visiting the mainland. The JMSC has changed a lot over the years, but it’s still leading the way in Asia. I’m looking forward to seeing the centre’s director, Ying Chan, and her terrific colleagues.
Over the years Hong Kong became one of my favorite places. A friend accurately called it “Manhattan on speed” — capturing the frenetic energy of the place. It revs me up, too.
In the Atlantic, I look at Twitter’s entirely reasonable decision to remove the James Foley snuff videos — a decision not to allow murderers to use the service for their PR. But, like others who’ve sounded off on this in recent days, I have major misgivings.
My deepest misgivings are less about Twitter’s (and Google’s and Facebook’s, etc.) right to be editing what’s posted. They’re about the power these services are accruing over online content.
Who gave them this power? We did. And if we don’t take back what we’ve given away—and what’s being taken away—we’ll deserve what we get: a concentration of media power that will damage, if not eviscerate, our tradition of free expression.
Let’s wake up, and re-decentralize the Internet, before it’s too late.
The citizen journalists in Ferguson changed the nature of how we understand these events — and that’s a very, very good thing, I say in my latest column in the Guardian, entitled “Ferguson’s citizen journalists revealed the value of an undeniable video”.