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June 2013

Linking news and action

Swiss author and entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli recently published a provocative essay titled “News is Bad for You” in The Guardian. The essay describes news – particularly fast-breaking, rapidly updated news – as an addictive drug, inhibiting our thinking, damaging our bodies and wasting our time. Dobelli is so concerned with the negative effects of news that he’s cut himself off from consuming news for the past four years and urges that you do the same.

His arguments attracted angry responses within The Guardian‘s newsroom. Madeleine Bunting writes, “As Dobelli described his four-year news purdah to a group of Guardian journalists last week, there was a sharp intake of collective breath, nervous laughter and complete astonishment. How could someone suggest such a thing to a journalist?”

I had a different reaction to Dobelli’s provocation. I found it pretty persuasive. I shared the article with students in a class I teach called “News and Participatory Media”, and asked the students for their reactions. Many found Dobelli’s case compelling, especially those students who were mid-career journalists. Much of what frustrated them about their profession was bluntly identified in Dobelli’s piece: too often, news is a set of disconnected snippets that promises to inform and empower, but merely entertains, distracts and ultimately misleads.

While Dobelli offers a persuasive set of problems, his proposed solution – stop reading news – strikes me as unhelpful and selfish. You personally may benefit from the time you reclaim in kicking the news habit, but there is likely a societal cost in encouraging people to opt out of consuming the news. A democratic form of government presumes an informed populace that can select appropriate representatives and identify issues that merit public debate. As Bunting notes in her response, a happy, docile and ill-informed citizenry is the precursor to a Huxleian vision of totalitarianism.

Dobelli might accept the accusations of selfishness. His essay is adapted from his new book, “The Art of Thinking Clearly”, which is an odd example of a self-help book. Deeply inspired by Naseem Taleb’s work linking cognitive science and economics, Dobelli outlines 99 cognitive shortcomings, errors and fallacies in an attempt either to steer us towards smarter decisionmaking or, more likely, to bludgeon us into a realization that human beings are pretty lousy at making rational decisions. By the end of the book, Dobelli admits that he rarely considers all these errors and fallacies in making decisions and simply goes with his gut – however, he wants us to have these tools handy for the really important decisions. Those decisions, his examples suggest, generally have to do with making investments as wisely as Warren Buffet or getting good deals on expensive cars. His is not a book about civics – it’s a book about maximizing your personal gains.

If we take Dobelli’s criticism seriously but reject his proposed solution, one next step is to look for ways to address the shortcomings of contemporary journalism. If we don’t like the sort of repetitive, click-seeking, shallow journalism that Pablo Boczkowski identifies in his book “News at Work“, we need to find ways to support “slow news” that focuses on investigation and contextualization of breaking news. If we are dismayed by how both new and old media got many details of the Boston Marathon bombing and the manhunt for the bombers wrong, we need either to slow newsrooms down, or to build better tools to help both newsrooms and readers cross-check and verify breaking news reports.

I can (and frequently do) point to people and projects focused on solving the problems Dobelli poses , but I’m left with two of his challenges that I can’t ignore or solve. They are related points: “News is irrelevant” and “News makes us passive.” These intertwined problems strike me as uncomfortably hard to address.

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Sumo practice at Oguruma Beya

I like sumo. A lot. I follow the tournaments online, watching matches on YouTube a few hours after they’ve aired, then reading commentary on fan sites in English and Spanish. I have, one or twice, participated in virtual sumo leagues, performing dismally as there’s not always much overlap between the style of sumo I love (focused on agility and throwing techniques) and the style of sumo that wins. I show sumo matches to friends, hoping to turn them into fans, and I’ve been known to give talks at academic conferences on the globalization of this very Japanese sport.

But I’ve seen very little sumo in person. This past week was only my second trip to Japan, and while I was privileged to attend a day’s bouts in Ryuguko Kokugikan, Tokyo’s temple of sumo, I sat in the nosebleed seats, peering through the telephoto lens on my camera to follow the action.

I have a very different perspective on the sport after an incredible experience yesterday morning. On Monday, I gave a talk at Tokyo Midtown Hall, organized by Japan’s most prestigious newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, and by Dentsu, Japan’s leading marketing and communications firm. My friend Mr. Mori and his colleagues at Dentsu organized a morning visit to the Oguruma Beya, the dormitory and training academy where a dozen sumo rikishi live and practice.

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WeChat: Learning from the Chinese Internet

Four year ago, Hal Roberts and I were researching internet censorship by studying the use of proxy servers around the world. Proxy servers are often used to circumvent internet filtering, letting users access content that’s otherwise blocked by a national government, an internet service provider, or a school or business. We found that the usage of these tools, including both free, ad-supported tools and subscription-based VPN services, was surprisingly small: less than 3% of all internet users in countries that aggressively censored the internet.

This surprised us, as there’s been a great deal of dialog in the US about “internet freedom”, a US government policy that supports providing uncensored internet access to people in China, Iran and other nations whose governments filter the internet. Our research suggested that the efforts already underway by projects like Tor and Freegate weren’t being used nearly as much as their authors hoped. This might be due to weaknesses in the tools, but we suspected another motivation: lack of user interest. Hal designed a study of bloggers in countries that censored the internet, asking whether they used circumvention tools. Almost all were aware of the existence of proxy servers, but few used them regularly. When we asked why they weren’t using these tools, most told us that they weren’t very interested in accessing blocked content.

A new paper from Harsh Taneja and Angela Xiao Wu at Northwestern University offers some insights into why this is the case. Taneja and Wu use internet usage data from Comscore to analyze the thousand most globally popular websites, examining their overlapping audiences. Audiences for websites tend to cluster together – people who visit CNN.com are more likely to also visit ESPN.com than people who visit Chinese search engine Baidu. The authors identify a set of 37 “culturally defined markets”, collections of popular websites that seem to be visited predominantly by people who share languages or cultures. Language, while a powerful factor in explaining this clustering, isn’t the sole factor: a cluster of French and Arabic-language sites represents a bilingual North African culture, for example, and an Indian cluster containing mostly English-language sites is distinct from an English-language North American/UK/Australian cluster. And there’s a cluster of football sites that appears to have a truly transnational audience.Read More »WeChat: Learning from the Chinese Internet