Hypnotic illusions at the Wikileaks Show

There’s a theatrical quality to the publication of the Wikileaks Afghan logs that’s quite at odds with what they contain. You’ll recall that Wikileaks obtained a large number of classified field reports from US forces in Afghanistan and gave three media outlets, the New York Times, Der Spiegel and the Guardian, advanced copies of a small portion of the material, before publishing on Monday.

We’re told that they’re sensational, but this mundane and arcane collection of scraps of information has landed with a thud: it doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know. Yet everyone involved has a role to play, and is hamming it up to the full. The oohs and aahs wouldn’t be out of place at a WWE Smackdown, or a Christmas panto. Something feels not quite right here, but what is it?

The star actor and media manipulator is undoubtedly Wikileaks founder Julian Assange himself. Assange plays the part of “master hacker” and “international fugitive” – cliches at home in an airport thriller. But recall that the template is Cryptome, a site operated by New York architect John Young for 15 years. Young doesn’t appear to need Assange’s theatrical garb – such as never staying in the same location for two nights, requiring cryptography, and changing his number and email constantly. Young’s name and address are prominent on his website, and haven’t changed for 15 years. Young has arguably has far more to lose than Assange. So the fugitive role Assange adopts is a lifestyle choice, and not a necessity. Nor does Young feel the need to become part of the story himself: he doesn’t do vanity PR: press conferences or proclamations are not the Cryptome style. On Cryptome, you come and get it. And crucially, you then work out whether it’s genuine or not, and how important it may be.

“Assange is a master at hiding his assets and providing hypnotic illusions,” notes Young.

The Guardian has devoted as much space to how it processed the story, as to the story itself – which is usually a warning bell that the news content might actually be quite thin.

Read more at The Register

Stephen Fry’s truly terrible mistake

It’s little wonder that Stephen Fry holds such a place in the nation’s affections. He’s earned it through a string of unforgettable performances. There’s his voiceover for Direct Line’s pet insurance, his voiceover for the 2008 Argos catalogue, not to mention voiceovers for Anchor Butter, Tesco, Dairylea, Kenco, Coca Cola, Trebor Mints and UK Online to name but a few examples. Who could forget his legendary partnership with Hugh Laurie for Alliance and Leicester?

Then there’s the quiz shows. When it comes to reading out infonuggets from pieces of card prepared for him by TV researchers, Fry is the master. And more recently, his pioneering new media work on Twitter has put him at the forefront of an elite group of British comedy talents (including Graham Linehan and Peter Serafinowicz) who have found fame by telling us when they’re stuck in a lift, or about to have lunch. Once upon a time, comedy writers and performers had to be funny, as a minimum requirement. Now, the Twittering comics have now smashed that glass ceiling.

But Fry risks throwing away this incomparable legacy, built up over a lifetime, because of a weakness. And it’s a weakness every bit as reckless as Oscar’s love for Bosie.

Continue reading “Stephen Fry’s truly terrible mistake”

Panorama on the Digital Economy Bill

BBC1’s flagship current affairs program was devoted to file sharing last night, and contained something to piss off a range of lobbyists.

Usually when this happens, BBC producers often conclude “they’re doing something right”, and pour themselves a large, congratulatory drink. They shouldn’t, because while the program succeeded in trying to be “fair”, it failed in its larger mission to present the issue properly – something we already understand.
Continue reading “Panorama on the Digital Economy Bill”

Radio whinge(r)s

Ed Richards cocked a sympathetic ear to the troubles of the commercial radio business yesterday – but the Ofcom chief could offer little in the way of instant pain relief.

With an end-of-life government meandering to its termination, and Carter’s Digital Britain review soaking up all the attention of bickering departments, he can’t set policy.

Largely as a result of their own greed, financial miscalculations and lack of innovation, large radio companies are suffering. They want to slash costs and merge. Richards, who was addressing the “Radio 3.0” conference in London, listed his preferred solutions. One was to put more emphasis on news and local radio as a community information service. (You could almost hear teeth grind at that one). This was especially useful “during flooding or heavy snow” or other times of crisis. (The grinding continued).
Continue reading “Radio whinge(r)s”

"Journalism can and should bite any hand that tries to feed it, and it should bite a government hand most viciously"

Google, the nemesis of newspapers, was at the Congress yesterday, to turn a blonde deaf ear to their troubles. The company’s pin-up VP of products Marissa Meyer described quite a bright future to the Senate’s commerce committee – but it’s a bright future for Google, and people with a lot of time fiddling with their computers. Also testifying was creator of The Wire David Simon.

Let’s contrast how each of them addressed the crisis.

Meyer said Google’s policy “first and foremost” was to respect the wishes of content producers, but offered nothing in the way of new business partnerships. Instead, she gave them a short but haughty lecture on how they should present their stories – they should become more like Wikipedia:

“Consider instead how the authoritativeness of news articles might grow if an evolving story were published under a permanent, single URL as a living, changing, updating entity,” she said in her statement. “We see this practice today in Wikipedia’s entries and in the topic pages at NYTimes.com. The result is a single authoritative page with a consistent reference point that gains clout and a following of users over time.”

So instead of publishing 50 stories a day, the implication is that publications should only publish 50 a year – tweaking those 50 constantly, in the hope they wriggle up through the Google search results. Yes, that’ll fix things.

She also said they should offer more scope for mash-ups. At both ends of the news chain, then, you have people fiddling – instead of writing (at one end) and reading (at the other). That’s very Web 2.0, and you couldn’t get a clearer statement that Google doesn’t really understand what news is for. (It’s merely the stuff that goes between the BODY tags, silly.)

The creator of The Wire and former reporter David Simon said he found the phrase “citizen journalism” Orwellian. He added:

“A neighbor who is a good listener and cares about people is a good neighbor – he is not in any sense a citizen social worker. Just as a neighbor with a garden hose and good intentions is not a citizen firefighter. To say so is a heedless insult to social workers and firefighters.”

Continue reading “"Journalism can and should bite any hand that tries to feed it, and it should bite a government hand most viciously"”

Newspapers: David Simon vs Google

Google, the nemesis of newspapers, was at the Congress yesterday, to turn a blonde deaf ear to their troubles. The company’s pin-up VP of products Marissa Meyer described quite a bright future to the Senate’s commerce committee – but it’s a bright future for Google, and people with a lot of time fiddling with their computers. Also testifying was creator of The Wire David Simon.

Let’s contrast how each of them addressed the crisis.

Meyer said Google’s policy “first and foremost” was to respect the wishes of content producers, but offered nothing in the way of new business partnerships. Instead, she gave them a short but haughty lecture on how they should present their stories – they should become more like Wikipedia:

“Consider instead how the authoritativeness of news articles might grow if an evolving story were published under a permanent, single URL as a living, changing, updating entity,” she said in her statement. “We see this practice today in Wikipedia’s entries and in the topic pages at NYTimes.com. The result is a single authoritative page with a consistent reference point that gains clout and a following of users over time.”

So instead of publishing 50 stories a day, the implication is that publications should only publish 50 a year – tweaking those 50 constantly, in the hope they wriggle up through the Google search results. Yes, that’ll fix things.

She also said they should offer more scope for mash-ups. At both ends of the news chain, then, you have people fiddling – instead of writing (at one end) and reading (at the other). That’s very Web 2.0, and you couldn’t get a clearer statement that Google doesn’t really understand what news is for. (It’s merely the stuff that goes between the BODY tags, silly.)

The creator of The Wire and former reporter David Simon said he found the phrase “citizen journalism” Orwellian. He added:

“A neighbor who is a good listener and cares about people is a good neighbor – he is not in any sense a citizen social worker. Just as a neighbor with a garden hose and good intentions is not a citizen firefighter. To say so is a heedless insult to social workers and firefighters.”

Continue reading “Newspapers: David Simon vs Google”

WiReD UK: it's back!

There was a surprise in the goodie bag for attendees of WiReD UK’s launch party. Alongside a copy of the launch issue and a Windows game, was a small bottle of Thunderbird – the fortified wine beloved of students and park bench alcoholics.

Actually – I made the last bit up. There was no Thunderbird. But you’ll need something similar – or maybe stronger – to anaesthetise your synapses after trying to read WiReD. After a 12 year absence, the magazine that purports to tell us the future returns to the country that invented the bouncing bomb, the hovercraft, television and the computer.

So, er … is it any good?

I can think of three or four reasons why it should be.

Continue reading “WiReD UK: it's back!”

Web 2.0 and feedback loops: a conversation with James Harkin

Weiner

Don’t judge a book by the title. Especially if the title is something like Cyburbia. James Harkin, who worked with Adam Curtis on The Trap, has produced the first proper full-length critique of Web 2.0 – tracing the daftness back to the cybernetics pioneers of the 1940s.

It’s odd that something with so much hype as Web 2.0 has received so little intelligent criticism. Half of Nick Carr’s The Big Switch, looked at the social and psychological implications, and he’s following up at length in The Shallows.

But Cyburbia takes a different approach. By looking at the mania for feedback in a historical context, Harkin finds a common thread in subjects as diverse as military strategy, TV shows like Lost, as well as the interwebs.

Q. We’re used to cyber-everything but can you define cybernetics for us?

Harkin: There are a lot of definitions but the simple idea I use is this idea that what distinguishes human beings, or what’ smost important about humans, is that they exist on a continuous information loop defined by a constant stream of messages we’re sending or receiving.

Now you can interpret the world in that way – me picking up a glass, say – but it is just a metaphor. The story of my book is how this metaphor, created by Norbert Wiener, because of its beauty, became the inspiration for a new medium and influencing how we live. It’s given rise to all this incredible technology, but the idea of fitting ourselves into that mould will mean we’re the losers.

The central image of the book is Cyburbia, this strange alternate world where we watch each other and the minutiae of each others’ lives.

You might have stared out of your window in suburbia in the 1950s and seen a few people across the street, but now you can stare at millions of other people. The danger is that when you spend all your time deciphering what other people are up to, you never get around to doing something original on your own, because you’re so swamped by opportunities to go onto other people’s lives on blogs, social networks and Twitter.
Continue reading “Web 2.0 and feedback loops: a conversation with James Harkin”

Twitter's Jam Festival


Writing about Twitter is the journalistic equivalent of eating the fluff from your navel. The posh papers love it. Menopausal middle-aged hacks love it. The BBC is obsessed with it. Instead of telling us something we didn’t know before, Twitter makes churnalism so easy, it practically automates the entire job.

The rest of the world, however, completely ignores it. But with the journalists’ attention fixed firmly on each others’ navels, they don’t seem to realise what a fringe activity Twitter is. Now we can quantify this a little.

Continue reading “Twitter's Jam Festival”