Review: The Victorian Internet or ‘How I learned online dating is A-OK’

28 01 2009

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers. Tom Standage. New York: Walker & Company, 1998. 217 pp.

To think, all this time I was mildly embarrassed to have met my girlfriend on Match.com. I would have spent much less time dodging friends’ questions about how we met if I had known that, 150 years ago, couples met – even married – using the telegraph. Online dating seems much less unique given that legacy.

This is one of many parallels that Tom Standage, business editor at The Economist, draws between the Internet and telegraph in his book, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers.

In the book’s preface, Standage notes how similar the Internet and telegraph are for delivering unprecedented networking capabilities in their respective eras. “The telegraph unleashed the greatest revolution in communications since the development of the printing press,” Standage says. “Modern Internet users are in many ways the heirs of the telegraphic traditions, which means that today we are in a unique position to understand the telegraph.” With that, Standage leaves the Internet comparisons for readers to discover and provides an enjoyable narrative describing the birth and death of the telegraph and its effect as “The mother of all networks” upon the world.

Standage’s greatest achievement in this efficient, 200-page book spanning the telegraph’s 100-year history is his ability to develop characters. Pioneers of the telegraph – Samuel Morse, William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, among others – are brought to life for readers though the chronicles of their trials, blunders, recognitions and lack thereof. For example, Standage turns Wheatstone from a name in a history book into a real, flawed person though passages like the one describing how he and Cooke struck a partnership to create what became the first telegraph in England: “Impressed by what he later described as Cooke’s ‘zeal, ability and perseverance,’ Wheatstone eventually agreed to a partnership, on the rather childish condition that his name would go first on documentation.”

Thomas Edison, best known for his inventions of the phonograph and light bulb, has a strong presence in the book as well. His experience as a telegraph operator (and a damn good one at that) would be a side note in other texts, but The Victorian Internet expounds how his experience as a telegraph operator connected him to the company that funded his most famous inventions.  Passages like these are plentiful in the book and valuable to those seeking to learn more about the path to success rather than success itself.

Outside of these characters, Standage demonstrates the impact the telegraph had on the world, from news reporting to war to romance. Stories of a bride and groom marrying via telegraph published in London in 1848.  The telegraph played a strategic role in the Crimean War during the 1850s. By the 1880s, European and American stock markets relied upon the telegraph for timely business exchanges. Sound familiar? Throughout the book, Standage knits a pattern of examples that makes the Internet feel more evolutionary than revolutionary.

The Victorian Internet’s “decline and fall” happens, ironically, when Standage describes the telegraph’s decline and fall. This isn’t all Standage’s fault.  Historically, the creation of the telegraph was exciting – a roller coaster of pitfalls and triumphs. By the time the telegraph was in decline, its pioneers were relatively inactive and innovation was flat. The impact of the telegraph was realized, and inventors left it for developing audio technologies like the telephone. As a result, the book slows and becomes as uninteresting as the telegraph in its late life. Still, for as exciting as Standage could make the telegraph, which is considered a dull topic by today’s standards, he could have better enlisted his skills to enhance the storyline of its last days.

Despite this, Standage more often than not entertains and educates. He does this, in part, by maintaining a consistent presence in the book. His rich, tongue-in-cheek transitions like, “Meanwhile the French, as usual, were doing things their own way,” compliment his narrative style and are a reminder that he is equally historian and storyteller.

It’s this style that carries the story and reader’s interest, separating the book from an extended Wikipedia entry while never compromising the historical impact of the telegraph. I’d recommend The Victorian Internet to any fan of history and would even recommend it to my girlfriend, who I am proud to say I met online.

Advertisements




Review: We’re All Journalists Now

18 08 2008

We’re All Journalists Now: The Transformation of the Press and Reshaping of the Law in the Internet Age.  Scott Gant.  New York: Free Press, 2007.  240 pp.

On the 2008 US presidential campaign trial, a select group of journalists follows the candidates and gains special access for interviews and photo opportunities. Whether it be a press conference, sporting event, or parade, the pack of journalists has greater access to the candidates than average American citizens. Rarely does anyone ask why.

We see the same privilege granted to journalists in presidential press conferences, sessions of Congress and Supreme Court trials. With technology advancing the ability to create and disseminate information online and quality of online journalism on the rise, who are “journalists” today anyway?

“Although we are not all engaged in the practice of journalism, any one of us can be if we want to,” says Scott Gant, a distinguished Washington attorney and constitutional scholar. “In that respect, we’re all journalists now.”

In his book, We’re All Journalists Now: The Transformation of the Press and Reshaping of the Law in the Internet Age, Gant explores press privilege within the context of US law and politics. Through thorough examinations of court rulings and how each branch of government regulates press access and privilege, Gant argues that this “more perfect Union” has a less than perfect system for regulating the freedom of the press.

“Preferential treatment for professional journalists is so common today that we often don’t even notice it,” Gant says. In our passive state, Gant argues that we’ve wrongly misidentified journalism as a job rather than an activity.

Gant takes a historical, methodical approach to supporting his argument. He reviews the rise of the American press system and points out that although recent technological advancement has pushed the need for updated rules of engagement for journalists, it is only the most recent catalyst. He says freedom of the press, since its inception, has been narrowly bestowed by government branches to professional media companies, wrongly excluding individuals, book authors, freelancers, libraries and other publishers of alternative media. Gant says online journalists are only the latest group to be left out.

He reviews how the courts have defined press freedoms as constitutionally guaranteed by “The Press Clause” in the first amendment in the Bill of Rights and identifies the ambiguity of 1972 Branzburg vs. Hayes Supreme Court decision, which rejected reporters’ contentions that they should be exempt from compliance with subpoenas, as the cause for confusion about press freedoms today. He faults the Supreme Court for evading the hard questions about the nature of press freedom since Branzburg and avoiding to evolve the definition of journalism despite renewed urgency by online journalists. Gant says journalism is “in flux” with traditional media organizations and online journalists at odds and trying to determine how they can exist harmoniously and if they should enjoy the same privileges without direction from the courts.

Gant is not shy to assert his own opinion. “There is virtually no historical support for the claim that that the Press Clause bestows rights on the ‘organized press’ that are not enjoyed by others,”  he says. “Moreover, attaching constitutional significance to judgments about who is a member of ‘the press’ would invite one of the few things we now the First Amendment was designed to avoid: conditioning of speech on securing a license.”

After he argues that press freedoms should be extended to individuals practicing journalism rather than just blanketed over the traditional, professional media industry, Gant transitions to define what privileges the freedom of the press should guarantee. He dedicates the discussion to shield laws and criticizes state shield statutes for being “woefully outdated,” and limited in scope. He uses as example the 2006 Connecticut shield law that only protects an undefined “news media” and does not expressly cover blogs or nontraditional media.

Regardless, Gant says even if more specific or amended state shield laws arise, “…The absence of a federal shield statute leaves an enormous gap in protection for journalists.” He blames the ambiguity of the Branzburg decision for limiting support in Congress or efforts by media organizations to pass a federal shield law in the past and the current Bush administration for undermining renewed efforts and believing that “a shield law would undermine national security by tipping the scales in favor of journalists…”

Gant concludes that we need to overhaul the structure of press privilege and freedoms, which do not meet today’s demands. “We need a thorough reexamination of existing laws to debate how they should be changed to properly account for the reality that we’re all now capable of being journalists, and to avoid relegating non professional journalists to second-class status,” he says.

Gant’s assessment of press access and privilege is timely and thought-provoking. At a time when the boundaries between professional and amateur journalism are blurring, we have an increasing need to determine to whom, why and when, preferential press treatment should be granted. With a presidential election in the horizon, the need is immediate. Gant provides groundwork for the greater discussion about the role of press in democracy and the definition of journalism looking forward.

As Gant points out, our pervasive system of press preferences has created “a journalistic caste system, in which those working for established news organizations are given priority over others sharing information and ideas with the public.” He demonstrates that this system no longer alone serve the interests of the networked, connected public, which has more diverse, specific demands for information, and has greater access to create its own content and dialogue. Citizen journalism can help fill the void.

“Journalists are not a priestly class. They are citizens just like the rest of us,” Gant says. He makes a compelling argument through detailed examinations of constitutional interpretations and legislative, judicial and excutive precedent to prove his point. Any student of media, law or US politics has something to gain from reading and realizing We’re All Journalists Now.





Review: The Wealth of Networks

3 08 2008

The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Yochai Benkler. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. 515 pp.

Abstraction can succeed in a variety of mediums. In the arts, particularly painting and sculpture, depicting real world objects in non-representational ways is widely praised for “capturing something of the depicted objects’ immutable intrinsic qualities rather than its external appearance,” according to Wikipedia.

However, abstraction may not be the best vehicle for explaining the complex topic of today’s information networks. For this reason, Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom falls short for relying on too many abstract examples rather than tapping more of the rich, real-world examples to drive his analysis. And for this, Benkler, a professor of law at Yale Law School, shouldn’t be considered a Picasso of text either.

The Wealth of Networks explores how “the series of changes in technologies, economic organization, and social practices has created new environments and opportunities for how we make and exchange information, knowledge and culture.” In fewer words, Benkler examines how the “Internet revolution” impacts information and culture. The book is comprehensive, ranging from business strategies to power laws to the conflict of broadband access privatization. To his credit, Benkler explores modern day information networks from all angles, but keeping fluidity to the content appears to be a challenge. To compensate, Benkler frequently resorts to stating, “The networked information economy has created change,” in a variety of forms as he introduces each new topic and relies upon abstract examples to support definitions and provide consistency.

Too often, Benkler relies on abstract examples to explain economic environments. In Chapter 5 he discusses why some portions of telecommunications and information exchanges systems should have been built as commons in the mid-1990s, when the market structure of modern communications was developed. Instead of providing real world examples, Benkler explains market scenarios in the abstract, detailing for a few pages how companies A, B, C, and D could interact based upon “commons vs. private ownership” scenarios.

“Now imagine that D owns the entire infrastructure,” Benkler writes. “If A wants to get information from B or to communicate to C in order to persuade C to act in a way that is beneficial to A, A needs D’s permission.” While this abstract example is fairly easy to follow, it is not conducive to memorable, effective learning. Not only does this abstract method bore readers, but it fails to extend theory to reality, which should be the purpose of providing the example. He uses the same abstract tactics to describe “linking” in Chapter 11, “transactional frameworks” in Chapter 4, “autonomy” in Chapter 5, “justice” in Chapter 9 and just often enough to limit what could have been a narrative read, similar to Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, to a more simple reference text.

Benkler does succeed where he identifies tangible, real-world examples that support his statements. In Chapter 7, he provides the Stolen Honor documentary case study to explain how the networked public sphere can disrupt the power of mass media. Benkler details how popular blogs such as dailyKos.com and MyDD.com and one new blog, BoycottSBG.com, organized to undermine television station powerhouse Sinclair Broadcastings’ alleged political agenda and expose to the public and advertisers that the Stolen Honor documentary, which Sinclair Broadcasting intended to air in swing states, was propaganda against then Democratic-presidential candidate John Kerry.

Because Benkler’s approach is so broad, he ranges his content from basic definitions to in-depth case studies within the same breath, making the flow of information feel inconsistent. For example, just pages ahead of the Stolen Honor case study, Benkler provides readers with a basic definition of blogs. The expectation that the same readers who need a definition of blogs can also immediately understand a complex example of blogs’ impact in news and the public sphere, which requires a familiarity with how blogs fit into the digital media landscape, seems shaky. Because of these quick transitions of reader expectations, it’s difficult to decipher what audience Benkler is writing for.

Overall, The Wealth of Networks is an excellent source for understanding the end-to-end network of information that the Internet has enabled but should be considered a reference text rather than a book to consume cover to cover. Readers should be ready for abrupt jumps from topic to topic and narrative movements from basic definitions to detailed case studies without warning. The text is published both in print and online, in PDF, html and Wiki, though the online access was down as of the time that this review was published.

Although Benkler occasionally stumbles when relying on abstractions and struggles in transitions between topics and levels of analysis, The Wealth of Networks does present comprehensive, relevant content that students of networked information should entertain.





Review: The Long Tail

13 07 2008

The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. Chris Anderson. New York: Hyperion, 2006. 226 pp.

A local journalist recently interviewed my indie rock band. “What are your aspirations for success?” she asked. “We don’t expect radio play because we don’t sound like what’s on the radio right now,” our drummer replied. “We just want to get our music out there because a lot of people don’t want to hear what’s on the radio,” I added.

Using online tools like MySpace, Pandora and Last.fm, my band is hoping to capture what Wired editor Chris Anderson defines as the Long Tail – the niche market.

The Long Tail is an extension of an article Anderson wrote for Wired in late 2004 and explains the economics of abundance. “The theory of the Long Tail can be boiled down to this: Our culture and economy are increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of hits (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve, and moving toward a huge number of niches in the tail,” Anderson says.

Long Tails, according to Anderson, are enabled by digital markets democratizing the tools of production, cutting the costs of consumption by democratizing distribution, and connecting supply and demand via increasingly intelligent filters. In the case of my indie band, the costs of recording and producing technologies are so low that we can create an album for just a few hundred dollars and make the music available for free via MySpace. People can find our music using search engines like Google. We’re riding the Long Tail economy.

Anderson supports his thesis by analyzing data from Amazon, Rhapsody and Netflix among others. He shows that their demand curves are similar. A few blockbuster titles are in high demand, and the rest are in low demand – but those low demand titles are the majority of the total market, and their sales add up to a significant proportion of total demand. Anderson justifies that these low demand, niche markets are growing due to digital efficiencies and people’s innate desires, supported by culture, for increasing choice. Anderson credits Sears, Roebuck and Co. for its 1897 “Wish Book” mail order catalog – 786 pages containing 200,000 items for sale – for hooking America on abundant choice and paving the way for digital models today.

The Long Tail works because Anderson speaks to the economic plebeian. The only prerequisites for reading the book are understanding basic supply and demand curves and familiarity with the major Internet consumer retailers. Even when he delves into identifying the Long Tail as a “powerlaw,” he avoids treading formulas and graphs and simplifies the definition of a powerlaw to the lowest denominator: “…Powerlaw distributions occur where things are different, some are better than others, and effects such as reputation can work to promote the good and suppress the bad.”

The Long Tail excels where Anderson provides interesting examples of Long Tail elements. He provides especially colorful examples of “new producers” – amateur astrologists help to identify a supernova; small-time comedians landing roles on Saturday Night Live based upon low budget, viral videos. He makes a compelling argument for how Wikipedia is the most comprehensive encyclopedia ever created and, equally impressive, built by volunteers.

However, not all of Anderson’s case studies of Long Tails economies succeed. In his example of how blogs and mainstream media comprise the Long Tail for online media, he provides a Technorati chart measuring popularity by incoming links. Four blogs – Boing Boing, Engadget, PostSecret and Daily Kos – are present in the chart’s top 48 Web sites. Thus, these blogs are actually part of the “short head” of the curve, and likely even more blogs have entered this list in the two years since The Long Tail was published. The chart is a better argument for the success of blogs than for how blogs extend the Long Tail of online media. Anderson could have improved his argument by providing evidence for the number of new media blogs Technorati records daily.

The Long Tail also falls short where Anderson asserts the Long Tail extends beyond the economics of online businesses and into culture. His example of the rise of house music in Chicago is ineffective because he focuses on a music genre that has no mainstream and therefore does not have a Long Tail demand curve.

Though Anderson provides unsteady evidence to identify the Long Tail in culture, his assertion can be supported with alternate examples: People can choose from the thousands of niche groups on Facebook or recreate themselves as avatars in Second Life and become part of niche online communities within that virtual world. Chris Anderson himself participated in Second Life for a discussion with a niche audience – those interested in The Long Tail.

Looking back, I can see Long Tails in social environments, too. A small number of students in my high school were popular, “the cool kids.” The rest of us didn’t command the same attention but still made the majority.  Niche interests and activities defined us. Four of us that wanted to make rock music formed a band. Today, the same four of us have access, via Internet distribution channels and aggregates, to a broader audience that shares our niche taste for music. Vying for acceptance with “the cool kids” – the mainstream – is less important than ever.

The Long Tail is profound because it articulates what we can easily see in digital markets and increasingly in culture. The theory of abundance isn’t revolutionary – Sears, Roebuck and Co. recognized it more than 100 years ago – but it has never been presented in such a digestible form. Anderson’s book is a valuable addition to the public discourse about digital marketplaces and the impact of the Internet on consumers and culture.