Archive for the ‘technology’ Tag

Black clouds over Tehran

There will be blood — much more of it, if need be — was the implicit message from Ayatollah Khamenei at Friday prayers in Tehran. “Struggling on the streets after elections is not acceptable,” the Iranian Supreme Leader said. “If they do not stop these actions, then any consequences will be their responsibility.”

KhameneiJune19AFP

Khamenei emphasized that the Islamic republic would never “commit treason” by manipulating votes, that the country’s legal system does not allow vote-rigging. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s large margin of victory — supposedly by 11 million votes — proved that the election could not have been fixed, Khamenei said.

Many Iranians, and people around the world, understand that’s a lie. As Stanford University’s Abbas Milani noted on CNN Thursday night, numerous towns across Iran had reported vote totals for Ahmadinejad amounting to more than 100 percent of their resident populations.

protestJune17AFP

But in Iran the fist, not the facts, likely will prevail.

batonsJune14AFP-2Neil MacFarquhar reports on the violence unleashed in Iranian cities at night since last Friday’s election, with the vigilante thugs known as Basijis beating, looting and sometimes gunning down protesters they tracked during the day. Says one Iranian exile who helped found the Revolutionary Guards during the 1979 Islamic revolution: “It is the special brigades of the Revolutionary Guards who right now, especially at night, trap young demonstrators and kill them.”

If mass protests continue, as seems almost certain, more violence will spill into broad daylight, whether or not any foreign media is left inside the country to document it.

UPDATE: The Times’ Lede blog has a source in Tehran describing the use of Twitter — apparently less instrumental in organizing street demonstrations, while “primarily being used to communicate with the outside world.”

Regarding prospects for greater violence and ultimate political outcome, Steve Clemons shares an interesting dispatch from “a well-connected Iranian internationalist” who has been in Tehran during the post-election unrest. The source describes witnessing young Mousavi supporters in the streets at night, fighting back by “hunting” Basijis. He describes them as agile “militia style” groups, including “a surprising number of girls.”

Iran election upheaval continues

Trading in their bright green for black, hundreds of thousands of protesters marched again in Iran on Thursday, urged by presidential challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi to mourn the students killed during demonstrations earlier in the week. Photographer Saeed Kamali Dehghan documented the action for the Guardian in Tehran’s Imam Khomeini square:

Tehran-demonstrations-002 Tehran-demonstrations-007

iran(Getty/NPR)NPR’s Mike Shuster reports that members of the Basij, the feared Iranian paramilitary group, have instigated violence under cover of darkness — apparently to help justify a more forceful crackdown against the opposition movement, which by most accounts largely has remained peaceful. One eyewitness report includes a thug exploding an incendiary grenade under a car.

The extraordinary role of digital media in the upheaval remains a hot topic, now including some obligatory contrarianism from the veteran journo corps. (Any hot story in the media tends to provoke both herd-like hyperventilation and a subsequent above-the-fray backlash.) Slate’s Jack Shafer questions the noise-to-signal ratio of the gangbusters #IranElection Twitter stream and points to a potential dark side: “How long before the secret police start sending out organizational tweets — ‘We’re massing at 7 p.m. at the Hall of the People for a march to the Hall of Justice!’ — and busts everybody who shows up?”

Business Week’s Joel Schectman wonders if the “Twitter revolution” has been overblown: “Iran experts and social networking activists say that while Iranian election protesters have certainly used social media tools, no particular technology has been instrumental to organizers’ ability to get people on the street.”

Sure, it’s a worthwhile reminder not to get too utopian about the empowerment of digital technology, especially as the foreign media gets pushed out of the country — but the bottom line is clear: Media control has long been a powerful, essential weapon of the Iranian regime. Twitter, Facebook and blogs increasingly are powerful forces toward neutralizing that weapon. According to Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University, Iran has the highest number of bloggers per capita in the world. No matter the outcome of Iran’s historic turmoil, they will continue to be heard.

Twitter as unstoppable diplomacy in Iran

The Guardian reports an estimated half million people protesting in Tehran on Wednesday, the fifth day of unrest. Despite President Obama’s cautious posture thus far, the Iranian regime has now begun to openly blame the United States for interfering in the election and inciting upheaval. As the vulnerabilities of the regime and its Supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, have become more apparent, the tactic undoubtedly is aimed at undercutting an opposition movement in a country where anti-U.S. sentiment still exerts a powerful pull. It seems to have an out-of-touch air of desperation to it — blame the ol’ Great Satan, and maybe the masses will fall back in line with renewed nationalist fervor. The problem is, those masses now see Barack Obama, not George W. Bush, presiding in the White House. (Not to mention the price of tomatoes in Tehran.)

The situation on the ground appears to be growing more ominous. According to a Reuters report from Wednesday, Mohammadreza Habibi, the senior prosecutor in the central province of Isfahan, declared that demonstrators could be executed under Islamic law. “We warn the few elements controlled by foreigners who try to disrupt domestic security by inciting individuals to destroy and to commit arson that the Islamic penal code for such individuals waging war against God is execution,” Habibi reportedly announced.

Newsha Tavakolian/Polaris/New York Times.

Protesters in Tehran, June 15. (Newsha Tavakolian/Polaris/New York Times)

Other dispatches from Wednesday described the regime further cracking down on digital communications. In one particular way, it’s an area where official U.S. involvement indeed appears to have been instrumental, in terms of the extraordinary role Twitter has played following the election upheaval. With the messaging network set to go offline temporarily earlier this week, the U.S. State Department stepped in. The Times reports:

On Monday afternoon, a 27-year-old State Department official, Jared Cohen, e-mailed the social-networking site Twitter with an unusual request: delay scheduled maintenance of its global network, which would have cut off service while Iranians were using Twitter to swap information and inform the outside world about the mushrooming protests around Tehran. The request, made to a Twitter co-founder, Jack Dorsey, is yet another new-media milestone: the recognition by the United States government that an Internet blogging service that did not exist four years ago has the potential to change history in an ancient Islamic country.

“This was just a call to say: ‘It appears Twitter is playing an important role at a crucial time in Iran. Could you keep it going?’” said P.J. Crowley, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs. Twitter complied with the request, saying in a blog post on Monday that it put off the upgrade until late Tuesday afternoon — 1:30 a.m. Wednesday in Tehran — because its partners recognized “the role Twitter is currently playing as an important communication tool in Iran.”

The global interconnection helping to electrify Iran’s history in the making has been on display in myriad ways over the last few days. This morning I was able to zoom in on one specific example of it: After I’d written here yesterday about a UK blogger’s “#Iranelection cyberwar guide” — which soon vanished from the Web and remains missing as of Wednesday morning Pacific time — I’d also put the link out via my Twitter page. By early this morning at least one person apparently located in Tehran had read and re-tweeted it. (See tweet there with: “http://bit.ly/mfo0i #iranelection”) That quickly led to a burst of referral traffic coming to my site from that person’s Twitter feed. You can imagine the exponential spread to follow. Multiply that by millions of other blog posts and tweets, and you start to see the extraordinarily powerful picture of communication.

As I noted yesterday, there isn’t necessarily any way to verify the particular Twitter user’s location or identity — is it really some young woman, a spark in her eyes, now leaving her dorm room for the massive demonstration in Tir square? — and it’s just one little example of precisely why the Iranian regime will not be able to stem the digital tide.

UPDATE 12:30pmPDT: As K.M. Soehnlein points out, the crackdown on foreign journalists inside Iran raises a disturbing contrast. The Times surveys the latest circumstances, and it’s chilling to read. Most journalists allowed into Iran only get one-week visas, and their numbers are fast dwindling:

“Visa extensions have been denied across the board,” says Times executive editor Bill Keller, who has himself been reporting from Tehran this week. “Some reporters have considered staying on without visas, working under the radar. There are two problems with that. First, this is a fairly efficient police state; the chances of anyone eluding arrest long enough to see how the story plays out are slim. More important, in my mind, is that it puts at risk the decent, hospitable Iranians who would be needed to put us up, translate and help us get the story out.”

Many Western journalists were effectively confined to their offices on Tuesday after the information ministry forbid them to report on protests or conduct interviews outside, according to the Times. Some were told they would be arrested if they were spotted on the streets with a camera.

Jim Sciutto, an ABC News correspondent in Tehran, said the Iranian government had “run out of patience” with the televised images of protests. Until Tuesday, he told the Times by email, “we sensed there was the slightest bit of wiggle room and so we took the risk of filming on our cellphones. But now the message seems to be ‘don’t even think about it.’”

And from Keller’s dispatch above:

For a sense of what may await Iran’s discontented when there is no one around to report on it, consider Monday night in Isfahan, Iran’s third largest city and a five-hour drive from the nearest foreign TV camera. As in Tehran, large parts of the city — the squares and boulevards — were scenes of smoke and flames, tear gas, stones crashing into windows, bloodied heads.

The uprising seemed more organic than organized — groups of a few dozen merging into groups of a few hundred, converging on lines of helmeted riot police officers, chanting “Death to the dictator!”

But in Isfahan the police response seemed far tougher.

At one point, a white S.U.V. with a red ambulance-style light raced up behind a knot of protesters and smashed into them, running one over before racing a few blocks to the protection of the riot police.

It may not be much longer before a lot more blood flows.

Iran’s Twitter revolution goes global

It’s been amazing to watch it spread.

“As the embattled government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears to be trying to limit Internet access and communications in Iran, new kinds of social media are challenging those traditional levers of state media control and allowing Iranians to find novel ways around the restrictions,” reports the New York Times. “Iranians are blogging, posting to Facebook and, most visibly, coordinating their protests on Twitter, the messaging service. Their activity has increased, not decreased, since the presidential election on Friday and ensuing attempts by the government to restrict or censor their online communications.”

The circuitry of the situation in Iran truly has gone global — not only is the world watching, but political and tech junkies everywhere are getting involved in the communications battle. One compelling example: A blogger in Wales, Esko Reinikainen, has posted a #iranelection cyberwar guide for beginners.

“The purpose of this guide is to help you participate constructively in the Iranian election protests through twitter,” Reinikainen says. He offers tips including how to disseminate proxy IP addresses for Iranian bloggers to use, how to help them target repressive Web sites and how to help give them cover: “change your twitter settings so that your location is TEHRAN and your time zone is GMT +3.30. Security forces are hunting for bloggers using location and timezone searches. If we all become ‘Iranians’ it becomes much harder to find them.”

IranianprotestorviaASAt the Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan is keeping a running log in bold green lettering of tweets ostensibly flowing from the streets of Tehran and beyond. There isn’t really a way to judge the source or authenticity of the material. (For one thing, there are regular mentions at this point of Iranian security operatives spreading disinformation digitally; meanwhile, if Twitter users worldwide increasingly are posing as Iranians per above, how to identify the real ones?) But assuming a majority of it remains authentic, it’s fascinating reading. A sampling from Tuesday morning:


Tehran hotels under high security to stop Iranians from contacting foreign press

anyone with camera or laptop is attacked in street

i am seeing tweets about a lot of disturbances, arrests, violence in Shahrak Gharb, any reports?

we hear 1dead in shiraz, livefire used in other cities RT

Very scared, I was talkin to myuncle in shiraz and he was so paranoid.

If you hear the forces talking in arabic..BE CAREFUL..these guys are imported in, they are not affraid of suicide bombing and killing

Police the reason of insecurity; Dead students buried by profs

Basij attacking Shiraz and Mashad universities, Shiraz U’s dean resigned

some student killed by the 4a blast in Babol Univ’s dorms; surrounded by Basij forces

Militia still attacking people in sidestreets but main roads are peaceful marchers.

All last night we hear shooting accross Tehran – everyone is full of rumours and stories – many arrests in night

stay safe and I will RT anything you write! The world is watching and history is being made–we bear witness!

UPDATE – 6/16/09, 9:55amPDT: Esko Reinikainen’s blog apparently is now having technical problems — overloaded with traffic, perhaps, or blocked or otherwise shut down. The above link currently leads to an “Account Suspended” page at Justhost.com. Unclear if or when his site will be back up. Reading the comments section on his page earlier this morning, I noted that his “cyberwar guide” had already been linked and copied widely, including translations in Spanish and German. I was working quickly and didn’t think to grab the whole thing, unfortunately. Reinikainen himself had warned of the potential for his site to go down, and encouraged copying it.

UPDATE 2: Wired’s Noah Shachtman digs into the complexities of the battle online, and has more of the copy from Reinikainen’s missing blog post. How all of this ultimately shapes events in Iran remains to be seen, but there can be little doubt about the rising potential of digital communications for political movements, from Tehran to Tiananmen.

Tiananmen Square erased

“Today, reports abound of young Chinese saying they don’t know or don’t care about events in 1989,” Xiao Qiang, founder of China Digital Times, wrote this week. “Yet all one has to do is go online to the vast number of Chinese forums and blogs to know that the spirit of Tiananmen is still alive.” He described China’s nearly 300 million youthful netizens and their unprecedented capability to express a roar of dissent, despite heavy government censorship.

I shared that essential optimism, albeit cautiously, in thinking and writing earlier this week about the potential of digital communication from Tehran to Beijing. After I published that post, a friend who teaches in the Bay Area emailed me with a striking example of how successful the Chinese government has been at burying the bloody history of June 4, 1989:

I taught modern Chinese history last semester. I had 3 students who grew up in mainland China in my class. They had never heard about Tiananmen. One of them is the son of a top official in China who was heavily involved in the economic development of Shanghai, the miracle city we all saw during the Olympics. This kid was brilliant and incredibly well informed about Chinese history already. He has levels of access you and I can only imagine and is being groomed to be an elite in the Chinese power system. He had never heard about Tiananmen. Interesting to think that a generation of leaders is growing up with a false view of their recent history.

While the student’s ignorance isn’t surprising, it is indeed astonishing to think that even the very people who might soon be running China wouldn’t necessarily know about what transpired at Tiananmen. Imagine Barack Obama being elected U.S. senator from Illinois without having a clue that Chicago had been torn by violent protests in the 1960s.

One place for inquiring Chinese youth to start would be the collection of raw U.S. government reports from 1989 found in the declassified history of Tiananmen Square at The National Security Archive.

Tiananmen3

An overview section titled “The Crackdown” brings into focus the actions of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and the resulting human toll. (In retrospect the initial estimates of people wounded, killed, arrested and executed were conservative. Emphasis here is mine.)

The Secretary of State’s intelligence summary for the following morning (Document 13) reports that “deaths from the military assault on Tiananmen Square range from 180 to 500; thousands more have been injured.” It also describes how “thousands of civilians stood their ground or swarmed around military vehicles. APCs [Armored Personnel Carriers] were set on fire, and demonstrators besieged troops with rocks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails.” …

One section of the Secretary of State’s Morning Summary for June 5th (Document 17), titled “After the Bloodbath,” focuses on developments in Beijing. It reports that “troops continued to fire indiscriminately at citizens in the area near Tiananmen Square.” It also notes the destruction of a large number of military vehicles, threats to execute students, and the potential for violent resistance by students. …

By June 21, the Morning Summary (Document 29) was reporting that, “More than 1,500 have been arrested … including at least six of the 21 ‘most wanted’ student leaders.”

That same section documents how Chinese soldiers also began to turn on each other.

sq_on_fire_AK47sPBS/Frontline has a lucid narrative timeline of the political and on-the-ground developments leading up to the explosion of violence, including the moment when the PLA soldiers began “firing on unarmed civilians with AK-47s loaded with battlefield ammunition.”

On the New York Times’ Lens blog, four photojournalists who captured famous images of the Tank Man share engrossing eyewitness accounts.

“The remainder of the day was spent trying to gain access to hospitals to determine how many had died or were wounded,” photographer Stuart Franklin writes. “In the two hospitals I could get access to, I found young Chinese — probably students — being treated on the floor of hospital corridors. It was mysterious that there were no dead. I understood later that the majority of the fatalities were taken to children’s hospitals in the city to avoid media attention. Chinese officials worked very hard to obscure evidence of the massacre.”

And Chinese officials remain hard at work on that goal today, despite the irrepressible promise of digital technology. As Yang Jianli, who participated in the 1989 uprising and was held as a political prisoner in China for several years, wrote this week: “It is estimated that the Communist Party employs over 30,000 ‘cyber cops’ to censor Internet traffic.”

UPDATE: In addition to the four photojournalists’ accounts and well-known images from Tiananmen, The Times’ Lens blog now has up an image never before published, with a dramatically different perspective on the Tank Man. The image was captured by then AP photographer Terril Jones. The Tank Man can be seen at the left, in the distance, with the tanks rumbling towards him, while other protesters flee in the foreground:

TerrilJones-TankMan

As Times editor Patrick Witty writes, the newly published image encourages a fresh evaluation of the encounter: “Mr. Jones’ angle on the historic encounter is vastly different from four other versions shot that day, taken at eye level moments before the tanks stopped at the feet of the lone protester. Wildly chaotic, a man ducks in the foreground, reacting from gunfire coming from the tanks. Another flashes a near-smile. Another pedals his bike, seemingly passive as the tanks rumble towards confrontation.”

At the above link you can also read Jones’ account from Tiananmen, and why he didn’t seek to have his photo published until 20 years later.

Digital revolution from Tehran to Tiananmen Square

June 2009 could be a big month for democracy on the world stage, with digital technology playing no small part.

With a landmark speech in Cairo on Thursday, Barack Obama will continue his quest to connect with the Muslim world and repair the grave damage done to U.S. standing under George W. Bush. It remains to be seen how much he might also press for government reform by Hosni Mubarak. Egypt is considered a crucial U.S. ally in the Middle East, but more light has been shed on its dark human rights record particularly since 2007, when a video circulated on the Internet showed a man being sodomized with a stick in a Cairo police station.

In Iran later this month, the 10th presidential election could shake things up significantly for a country whose own population is very much displeased with life under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The regime has failed to suppress the use of Facebook and Twitter on behalf of the reformist movement.

This week also brings the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, where on June 4, 1989, thousands of Chinese pro-democracy protesters were wounded and killed at the hands of the Chinese army. One unknown man, instantly made an indelible historical figure, temporarily halted the killing machine in its tracks.

Tiananmen

The iconic image of him will again saturate media around the globe in the days to come. (Several versions of it were captured by photojournalists in the vicinity then; the above was taken by Stuart Franklin.) To this day the identity and fate of the so-called Tank Man, who was whisked away by Chinese agents to end the extraordinary standoff, are unknown. (For more, watch this fascinating 2006 documentary, “The Tank Man,” from Frontline.) In the aftermath, the Chinese government maintained that “not one person” was killed in Tiananmen Square, and has depicted the uprising as a “counterrevolutionary rebellion” ever since. As author Yu Hua underscored in an essay this weekend titled “China’s Forgotten Revolution,” today the event is little known to the nation’s youth.

This is the first time I am writing about Tiananmen Square. I am telling my story now because 20 years later — the anniversary is June 4 — two facts have become more apparent. The first is that the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests amounted to a one-time release of the Chinese people’s political passions, later replaced by a zeal for making money. The second is that after the summer of 1989 the incident vanished from the Chinese news media. As a result, few young Chinese know anything about it.

Twenty years later, hopefully the above image and the truth about its bloody context will percolate widely among China’s younger generations. Could the explosive spread of the Internet be the key?

In terms of state media control, China in some ways is a very different place today than even just a few years ago, according to The Washington Note’s Steve Clemons. Following what he describes as a “very candid” diplomatic meeting recently, as well as some guidance from one unnamed Chinese youth, Clemons shared insight about the limitations the Chinese government faces in trying to control an uncontrollable force:

In fact, this young person walking through Internet access issues with me said that Chinese young people can essentially access anything that the government might try and does block. This person who works in international affairs says that the ability of the Chinese government to significantly control access to web-based content is quickly eroding.

And as a result of very interesting and candid discussions with the Vice Minister of the State Council Information Office, Qian Xiaoqian, I believe that many Chinese government officials know that the practice of blocking this site or that is undergoing significant change or reform.

At the end of 2008 China was home to nearly 300 million “netizens,” or regular Internet users, with 162 million blogs and 117 million mobile Internet users, according to Clemons. By the end of this month, Chinese authorities predict another 20 percent jump in those figures.

“Terminals are everywhere,” Clemons says. “The newspapers are actually full of stories about people critiquing government officials, standards, building and infrastructure quality. It’s fascinating — not perfect. I do get the sense that political entrepreneurship is mostly a non-starter here, but even on that front, I have found several key cases where even that form of self-censorship is changing for the better.”

A very relative assessment, of course — seemingly still plenty far from the day when what happened at Tiananmen Square is understood widely across China. But amid the continuing technological revolution, that day could be on the horizon.

UPDATE 6/2/09: From photo sharing on Flickr.com to BBC television, the Chinese government now has a sweeping effort underway to enforce a media blackout of anything revealing the Tiananmen uprising 20 years ago. “The measures came as the authorities tried to close all avenues of dissent ahead of Thursday’s anniversary, placing prominent critics under house arrest and banning newspaper from making any mention of the pro-democracy protests,” reports the Telegraph. “The co-ordinated internet ‘takedown’ occurred at 5pm local time (10am GMT) on Tuesday as a broad range of websites suddenly became unavailable to Chinese internet users.”

Tiananmen2 blackout

But the evolving digital realm apparently is enabling at least some breakthrough: “Twitter users found alternative outlets in rival providers to evade the censors.”

More on the Twitter aspect from the Guardian.

This is your senator on Twitter

In a column last weekend Matt Bai argued that Capitol Hill’s growing infatuation with the micro-blogging service is the last thing D.C. needs. His analysis in terms of the political culture is persuasive. But poke around on a few politicians’ Twitter pages and there’s a simple reason the trend deserves to be voted down posthaste: Washington’s minute-by-minute musings are, for the most part, epically dull.

mccaskill mccain issa twitterbird palin

A universe more than 140 characters has been typed about the greater Twitter phenomenon. At this late date the triviality of bazillions of “tweets” is no secret. But additionally there’s even something micro-insulting about the daily minutiae dispatched by elected officials. It purports to be about transparency, or even intimacy, but essentially it’s a ceaseless stream of micro-campaigning. Even if it’s utterly uninteresting:

Sen. Chris Dodd:
Holding an Executive Session in the Banking Committee to vote on a few HUD, Treasury, and Export-Import Bank nominations.
7:17 AM Apr 28th from txt

Sen. Chuck Grassley:
4hr healthcare mtg turned into 6 hr mtg. Took up all day. Watch my cable show tonight on mediacom. 630pm CST. U can ask questions.
3:50 PM Apr 29th from txt

Rep. Steve Israel:
Heading to DC. This week’s legislative schedule: hate crimes bill and credit card consumer protections.
12:17 PM Apr 27th from twitterrific

Rep. Darrell Issa:
On the way home to San Diego sunshine (fingers crossed…but we need the rain!)
about 3 hours ago from TweetDeck

As a member of the opposition party, at least Issa is willing to add a tad of zing:
Had fun watching the staff photoshop. Let’s just say Obama could’ve saved us a cool million using that instead of buzzing manhattan in AF1!
2:42 PM Apr 28th from TweetDeck

There is indeed a certain awkwardness to some of it given the pretense of informal and personal. See John McCain, in an oddly self-aggrandizing moment:
Sec. Napolitano confirmed Swine Flu has spread to 4 new states including AZ. I call on the Admin to do more to prevent further outbreaks!
08:42 AM Apr 29

Of course, staffers are probably behind much of the messaging. Though apparently not in Claire McCaskill’s case:
I have strict policy. I write every tweet and tumblr blog. These are my thoughts and my words. Really. For good or for bad……
5:06 AM Apr 28th from web

For good or for bad, or, as Bai noted, for her fast food faves:
I get old style crunchy taco, and a chicken burrito supreme & Diet Coke at Taco Bell. Miss those tostados.
2:06 PM Mar 12th from web

snoopIt seems Twitter functions much more effectively as a portal into the world of celebrity entertainment. There must be a good reason that CNN is locked in a popularity showdown with Ashton Kutcher. Or that Snoop Dogg has 195,862 followers:

been 4 dayz since been of here. Happy 420 ma twizzles may all your smokn dreams come true!! yeezzzziiirr!!
1:25 PM Apr 20th from web

Fa shizzle.

At times Twitter has proven strikingly useful as a tool for disseminating information; its profile shot up per a role in covering major news events such as when terrorists struck in Mumbai and when a jetliner ditched into the Hudson River. As an additional tool for journalists — or for anyone seeking to report or share information quickly — its potential is undeniable.

If you’re at a loss, though, to find much that’s culturally meaningful about the Tweet-geist at this point — I confess that I am, still preferring my short-form poetry on the page or in person — New York Magazine appears eager to help with its freshly posted Twitter Approval Matrix. Apparently not many pols have made the cut. Meanwhile, you’d think that someone commanding as much attention as Sarah Palin — who just jumped into the Twitter fray this week — might give the lot a boost. As of this post, her first six tweets aren’t even interestingly banal enough to quote.

You can find your favorite lawmaker’s latest by way of Tweet Congress.
Don’t all click at once.

Google, Kindle and The Library of Babel

Technological innovation seems almost strangely commonplace these days, from say, contact lenses that could layer data directly onto your view of the world to robots fighting far-flung wars to computer systems perhaps smart enough to compete on “Jeopardy!” All astonishing developments in their own right, and yet the most profound change of our times may yet be purely informative in nature: The digitization of all that we read.

At the University of San Francisco on Sunday I participated in a symposium on “Life after the MFA” for students graduating the writing program. Unsurprisingly, the technological upending of books, magazines and newspapers was a particular focus. Fellow panelist Patrick Dunagan, a poet who works as a specialist at the USF library, spoke with some alarm about the rate at which books and print periodicals there are going the way of the dodo. The idea is that many are being replaced digitally. I expressed a bit of surprise to him about this afterward, whereby he asked me when I last conducted any research in a library. Point taken. If only Borges were still hanging around and could rejoin the discussion.

visualofbabel

One theme I hoped to suggest in my part of the talk was that print vs. digital isn’t a zero-sum equation. We can still love books and newspapers while getting charged about the possibilities of digital publishing. In many ways the latter remains a Wild West — and without a doubt has blown holes in some old ways of doing business. But in my view the rising digital infosphere is far more expansive and generative than it is destructive.

In a recent essay published in the Wall Street Journal, author Steven Johnson explores both the thrill and potential chill of electronic books, a fast-growing realm thanks to Amazon’s innovative e-book reader, the Kindle, and Google’s Book Search service, home to approximately 10 million scanned titles and counting. One exciting aspect Johnson flags with regard to ideas and research:

Before too long, you’ll be able to create a kind of shadow version of your entire library, including every book you’ve ever read — as a child, as a teenager, as a college student, as an adult. Every word in that library will be searchable. It is hard to overstate the impact that this kind of shift will have on scholarship. Entirely new forms of discovery will be possible. Imagine a software tool that scans through the bibliographies of the 20 books you’ve read on a specific topic, and comes up with the most-cited work in those bibliographies that you haven’t encountered yet.

But there will be pitfalls, too, especially with respect to evolving market forces. The all-powerful search engine that is Google, and the ways in which it guides users to digital content of all sorts, could impact how books actually get written:

Writers and publishers will begin to think about how individual pages or chapters might rank in Google’s results, crafting sections explicitly in the hopes that they will draw in that steady stream of search visitors.

Individual paragraphs will be accompanied by descriptive tags to orient potential searchers; chapter titles will be tested to determine how well they rank. Just as Web sites try to adjust their content to move as high as possible on the Google search results, so will authors and publishers try to adjust their books to move up the list.

What will this mean for the books themselves? Perhaps nothing more than a few strategically placed words or paragraphs. Perhaps entire books written with search engines in mind. We’ll have to see.

A strength of Johnson’s essay is that he doesn’t pass judgment on these possibilities; he concentrates on laying out in lucid terms what he sees coming. (Another recent piece of his, on how the web’s information ecosystem changes how we get our news, is also well worth reading.)

The latter segment above, under the subhead “Writing for Google,” got me thinking about a worn adage heard in MFA programs everywhere: “Write what you know.” If that advice translates fundamentally to writing from a place of experience and passion, it could take on fresh meaning in the digital future — when the suggestion to “Write what you can search engine optimize” may well become a growing temptation.

UPDATE: Some wonder if Google already has too much sway with its Book Search service, including the U.S. Department of Justice.

A blogger breaks news on waterboarding

Pondering the rise of new media and the decline of the traditional newsroom, skeptics still tend to cling to either-or thinking: You’ve either got shrill partisan hacks or experienced professional reporters, and never the twain shall meet. The failure of imagination involved is pretty obvious. Digital media has unlocked great potential for nontraditional approaches to the gathering and analysis of information — a vast middle ground of additional possibilities.

Let’s say the government releases a bunch of documents related to a controversial, secretive activity. Now anybody with a computer, an Internet connection and a little motivation can dig in. (Of course, this has already been going on for quite a while.)

whatiswaterboardingpgToday brings a fresh example of how reporting by bloggers can contribute to, or even lead, a major news cycle. In a front-page story today, the New York Times announces that the CIA used waterboarding, a torture technique provoking fear of death by drowning, hundreds of times on two Al Qaeda suspects — far more than was previously known. It’s newsworthy information on several levels, including for how it punches holes in past testimonials from U.S. officials about covert interrogations conducted by the Bush government.

This was not a scoop from the nation’s largest newsroom. The information underpinning the Times report came via blogger Marcy Wheeler, who discovered over the weekend that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in one month when she examined the fine print in a newly declassified Bush administration memo from 2005. Wheeler also used the memo to look at a telling clash between the FBI and CIA over the interrogation program and to examine the key question of whether waterboarding actually is effective, as has been claimed by Dick Cheney et al.

The Times report underscores that this story remains far from over (also see Mark Danner for an in-depth political discussion of the unresolved torture issue) — and the public has an enterprising blogger to thank for pushing it ahead.

Guardian’s Twitter move, GM’s bailout madness

It’s adding up to a strange day in the news, my friends, but then again these are no ordinary times.

The venerable 188-year-old Guardian, apparently seeing the ugly writing on the wall for the media business, has taken perhaps the boldest step yet to embrace digital technology. Will such an all-in bet on rapid-fire reporting pay off?

kravitzMeanwhile, in the heart of Silicon Valley, a hotshot entrepreneur has moved to capitalize on social networking technology in a different cutting-edge way. If the producers of “The Bachelor” take notice, look out for a full convergence of reality TV and the Internets even sooner than already anticipated.

And in what can only really be considered a desperate move, General Motors apparently is grasping for a solution to its epic troubles by way of two well-known, if irritating, car experts.

More odd stuff going on across the pond.

Seeing Obama’s burden, the drug war and more

Even in the loquacious realm known as the blogosphere, it is possible at times to lack words. Or to feel that there are simply too many of them. Either way, Daryl Cagle’s Political Cartoonists Index offers a pleasing alternative. Here are three recent entries that caught my eye.

Hajo (Amsterdam), on President Obama’s economic travails:

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John Cole (Scranton, PA), peering into journalism’s truncated future:

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Pat Bagley (Salt Lake City), a potent take on the Mexican-American drug war:

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Is AIG evil? Let’s hear from the people!

At hearings Wednesday on Capitol Hill lawmakers excelled at one of the things they do best: political theater. The outrage flowed, as Edward Liddy, the current CEO of American International Group, got grilled about the $165 million in bonuses going to a bunch of guys who helped bring the U.S. banking sector to the brink of collapse with immense and immensely reckless insurance bets. (A complicated scheme, but credit to President Obama, who did a decent job Wednesday morning of explaining in basic terms how they did it.)

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To what degree Americans should be angry at taxpayer-backed AIG or our government leaders (past and present) is a murky discussion, but it’s clear that the level of outrage across the country is plenty high right now. (High enough not only to juice a show on Capitol Hill, but also some widely celebrated media blood sport.) What’s interesting to me at the moment is how a number of major news outlets have seen the popular discontent as an opportunity to highlight reader interactivity on the Web.

At the top of its home page Tuesday night the New York Times featured reader diatribes — treating them as news itself. “Some people are vengeful, calling for jail, public humiliation or even revolution,” reported A.G. Sulzberger. Over the last few days, “the most passionate voices, not surprisingly, could be found on the Internet — on blogs and discussion threads — in unusually bountiful numbers.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the Washington Post featured a round-up of its own reader comments, if not especially articulate or enlightening. (“Corporate and political self-seeking are devastating our families, our country, and out [sic] world.” Etc.) The Wall Street Journal’s home page gave top real estate to voices from the “Journal Community,” which tended, naturally, to reflect a constituency of a somewhat different kind. “The Obama administration is spending too much time and resources to go after this money,” scolded reader Craig Cohen. “The fact is, it will probably cost the US more money in legislative time, attorney fees, opportunity cost, etc to get these bonuses back than they are worth. But that doesn’t matter to the President. This is not about bonuses. It’s about class warfare. These bonuses went to the elite…. They must be punished!”

A key question on my mind is, how can media companies unlock greater potential with reader engagement and participation? It’s stating the obvious to say that there’s nothing cutting-edge at this point about letting readers loose with their opinions. (Put nicely, it tends to have limited value in unfiltered form.) Are there new ways to generate useful insight and information from the many smart readers out there, rather than just a lot of noise? This is an issue we grappled with regularly over the years when I was at Salon, and I have a hunch it could figure prominently in ways forward with news reporting in the rising digital realm. What if, for example, readers with experience in the culture of Wall Street could begin to add to the picture of how the AIG problem metastasized? Or shed light on how thoroughly it has been reported on?

Smart people have been working on ideas in this area for some time. Mother Jones has an interesting activist-style approach that it’s experimenting with. Between the ongoing destruction in the newspaper industry and what some major companies are attempting now online in terms of reader interactivity (the two hardly unrelated), I have the sense that whoever begins to unlock the challenge in a more creative, substantive way could make a big splash.