In developed nations, and in the US in particular, high-speed wireless access to the Internet is a given for the affluent and an achievable possibility for most. In the rest of the world, owning a computer is a dream for a community, and a fantasy for the individual. At this moment, away in the central mountains of Colombia, I am virtually disconnected from the world, though quite connected to the splendor of nature. I’m writing this relying on uncertain electricity that, if it fails, will be backed up by a gas generator that will keep food fresh and beer cold, the hell with the laptop. Reading one of last week’s Medellín’s newspapers, I was surprised to see news of the advent of the BlueBerry as a technological advance that will reach the city in early 2006. Medellín is a booming, sophisticated Third World city of more than 3.5 million people. This piece of news made clearer for me, more than ever, how in the US we take technology for granted when, in fact, it is the domain of only a small minority of the world. This doesn’t mean that the rest don’t need connectivity, it means that if they are being pushed to play in the global monopoly game, they must have it. From that perspective, I bring the New York Times Magazine’s fifth edition of The Year in Ideas” (12/11/2005.) As always, it examines a number of trends and fads that, in a way or another, were markers of the year. Considering the year at the Institute and its pursuit of the meaningful among myriad innovations, I’ll review some of the ideas the Times chose, that meet the ones the Institute brought to the front throughout the year. Beyond the noteworthy technological inventions, it is the human contribution, the users’ innovative ways of dealing with what already exists in the Internet, which make them worth reflecting upon.
The political power of the blogosphere is an accepted fact, but it is the media infrastructure that passes on what is said on blogs what has given the conservatives the upper hand. Even though Howard Dean’s campaign epitomized the power of the liberal blogosphere, the so called “Net roots” continue to be regarded as the terrain of young people with the time in their hands to participate in virtual dialogue. The liberal’s approach blogs as a forum to air ideas and to criticize not only their opponents but also each other, differs greatly from that of the conservatives’. They are not particularly interested in introspection and use the Web to support their issues and to induce emotional responses from their base. But, it is their connection to a network of local and national talk-radio and TV shows what has given exposure and credibility to the conservative blogs. Here, we have a sad, but true, example of how it is the coalescence of different media what matters, not their insular existence.
The news media increasingly have been using the Web both as an enhancer and as a way to achieve two-way communications with the public. An exciting example of the meeting of journalism and the blog is the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Before Katrina hit the city, they set up a page on their Web site called “Hurricane Katrina Weblog.” Its original function was supplemental. However, when the flood came and the printed edition was shut down, the blog became the newspaper. Even though the paper’s staff kept compiling a daily edition as a download, the blog was brimming with posts appearing throughout the day and readership grew exponentially, getting 20 to 30 million page views per day. The paper continued posting carefully edited stories interspersed with short dispatches phoned or e-mailed to the newspaper’s new headquarters in Baton Rouge. In the words of Paul Tough, “what resulted was exciting and engrossing and new, a stream-of-consciousness hybrid that combined the immediacy and scattershot quality of a blog with the authority and on-the-scene journalism of a major daily newspaper.”
Joshua M. Marshall, editor of the blog Talkingpointsmemo.com, decided to ask his readers to share their knowledge of the ever spreading Washington scandals in an effort to keep abreast of news. He called his experiment “open-source investigative reporting.” Marshall’s blog has about 100,000 readers a day and he saw in them the potential to gather news in a nationwide basis. For instance, he relied on his readers’ expertise with Congressional ethics code in order to determine if Jack Abramoff’s gifts were violations. What Marshall has come up with is a very large news-gathering and fact-checking network, a healthy alternative to traditional journalism.
Podcasting has become another alternative to broadcasting which provides the ability to access audio and video programs as soon as they’re delivered to your computer, or to pile them up as you do with written media. Now, through iTunes, we are experiencing the advent of homemade video postcasts. Some of them have already thousands of viewers. Potentially, this could become the next step of community access television.
The mash-up of data from different web sites has gained thousands of adepts. One of the first ones was Adrian Holovaty’s Chicagocrime.org, a street map of Chicago from Google overlaid with crime statistics from the Chicago Police online database. Following this, many people started to make annotated maps, organizing all sorts of information geographically from real-estate listings to memory maps. The social possibilities of this personal cartography are enormous. The Times brings Matthew Haughey’s “My Childhood, Seen by Google Maps,” as an example of an elegant and evocative project. If we think of the illuminated maps that expanded the world and ignited the imagination of many explorers, this new form of cartography brings a similar human dimension to the perfect satellite maps.
Thomas Vander Wal has called “folksonomy” to tagging taken to the level of taxonomy. The labeling of people’s photos, on Flicker for instance, gets richer by the additions of others who tag the same photos for their own use. Daniel H. Pink claims, “The cumulative force of all the individual tags can produce a bottom-up, self organized system for classifying mountains of digital material.” In an interesting twist, several institutions that are part of the Art Museum Community Cataloging Project, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim, are taking a folksonomic approach to their online collections by allowing patrons to supplement the annotations done by curators, making them more accessible and useful to people.
The effort of Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of the MIT’s Media Lab, to raise the funds to have a group of his colleagues design a no-frills, durable, and cheap computer for the children of the world is a terrific one. Having laptops equipped with a hand crank, in absence of electricity, and using wireless peer-to-peer connections to create a local network will make it easier to access the Internet from economically challenged areas of the world, notwithstanding the difficulties this presents. The detractors of Negroponte’s effort claim that children in Africa, for instance, will not benefit from having access to the libraries of the world if they don’t understand foreign languages; that children with little exposure to modern civilization will suddenly have access to pornography and commercialism; and that wealthy donors should concentrate on malaria eradication before giving an e-mail address to every child. Negroponte, as Jeffrey Sachs, Bono, Kofi Annan, and many others, know that education along with connectivity, are key to bring the next generation out of the poverty cycle to which they have been condemned by foreign powers interested in the resources of their countries, and by every corrupt local regime that has worked along the lines of those powers. The $100 laptop, accompanied by a sound and humane program to use them will bring enormous benefits.
A. O. Scott’s review of the documentary as a genre that supplies satisfaction not from Hollywood formulas but from the real world, reminded me of Bob Stein’s quest for thrills beyond technologically enhanced reality. A factor of the postmodern condition is the unprecedented immediate accessibility to the application of scientific knowledge that technology brings, accessibility that has permeated our relationships with and towards everything. Knowledge has acquired an unsettling superficiality because it has become an economic product. Technology is used and abused, forced upon the consumer in all sorts of ways and Hollywood’s productions are the obvious example. 2005 was the year of the documentary, and I suspect this has to do with a yearning for the human, for the real, for the immediate, for the unmediated. A. O. Scott eloquently traces that line when he praises Luc Jacquet’s “March of the Penguins” as the documentary that hits it all; epic journey, humor, tenderness and suspense, as well as “an occasion for culture-war skirmishing. In short it provided everything you’d want from a night at the movies, without stars or special effects. It’s almost too good to be true.” With that I greet 2006.