Many modern readers push themselves through speed-reading courses. If they haven’t time for a full course, there are Youtube videos and websites on the subject. Now, in the age of digital reading, there are additional speed-reading gadgets: tools like Feedly and Twitter enable users to absorb small bits of text in a speedy fashion. A bunch of speed-reading apps have come into vogue, enabling users to read on the clock with greater efficiency.
Efficiency. It’s the word of the age, according to Alasdair MacIntyre: in After Virtue, he said “efficiency” is our most prized virtue. While the Greeks of Homer’s time valued virtues like duty and honor, our age preferred more “managerial” virtues, efficiency being the most valued of all.
But have we lost something in our endeavors for efficiency? Curator contributor Brett Beasley says yes. In a Monday post, he mused on our changing reading patterns, as our culture passes from speed-reading to half-reading, to complete negligence:
“Sharing” is the buzzword of our age, in which nearly all of what we read can be linked to, tweeted, emailed, attached, and downloaded within seconds. Mass digitization projects like Google Books and the Digital Public Library of America place more words within our grasp each hour, yet meanwhile we continue to hear reports that nearly a third of Americans did not read as much as one book in the past year. It’s strange, isn’t it? Reading often feels as easy as breathing. When I go on a road trip, I don’t have to make myself read the words written on the road signs and billboards. It just happens. But when it comes to anything longer than a few hundred words, the text seems to thicken and we have to push back against a surprising amount of resistance.
Why is it that we can spend significant time browsing menus and reading Buzzfeed articles, but roll our eyes when we scroll to the bottom of a new story and see the words “Page 1 of 12”? What is it about length that intimidates and frustrates us so?
At least in part, this annoyance is rooted in that modern striving for “efficiency.” We want our laughs, lunches, and letters as quickly as possible. We are increasingly aware of time’s incessant ticking: from the days in centuries past when church bells heralded the hours, minutes now flick by on our phone and computer screens. We own it, in a way that our ancestors did not. Countdown apps show us every millisecond whizzing past, set to our own schedules and deadlines.
Thus we, along with Beasley, remember “many thinkers and artists throughout history who have written and worked with a momento mori, or reminder of death, nearby. While we might pride ourselves on the nearly instantaneous speed with which we can deploy and make use of information online, in the end our time and our attention are finite, and we have to make difficult decisions about what is valuable enough to spend our time on.”
This is our second problem: in the age of information, reading is literally everywhere. News stands, Google news, even the nearest coffee shop—one needn’t go far to become bombarded with words. What shall you read first? What’s worth reading? What if you waste time reading something awful, when you could have been reading something else? “Stream, cloud, dust; now more than ever our text and our reading times are in need of a shape and an architecture,” writes Beasley. “Intentionally or unintentionally, each of us has a reading practice that shapes the way we live, think, and interact.”
What shape and architecture should we give to our reading life? One thing is certain: the way we read will affect the way we absorb information, and thus will shape the very way we live. Should we read Drudge-style—absorbing the most interesting headlines of the moment, discarding length for sensationalism? Or should we read in a more bookish, antiquated style: throwing “efficiency” to the wind, cherry-picking books we think will be the best, ignoring anything that isn’t timeless or classic?
Some would assume the latter is the “conservative” position. But it seems the best path is a narrow trail between the two extremes. There is pertinent everyday information we must absorb to make pertinent decisions. But essential information doesn’t always foster deeper human flourishing and intellectual growth. We should digest the pertinent with efficiency, but not for efficiency’s sake.
Efficiency is a means to a greater end, a greater virtue: that of wisdom. Wisdom is “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” To have wisdom, therefore, one must have basic knowledge of the pertinent. But “good judgment” doesn’t come from gulping down news in a frenzied fashion. Good judgment requires thoughtful, prolonged, and careful meditation. It requires outside opinions, secondary sources, and at least some research. It requires a depth of reading inspired by thoughtfulness, as well as inquisitiveness. In order to get wisdom, slow reading is necessary: a careful, deliberate inculcation of timeless truths.
The real trick, then, is determining what to read fast, and what to read slowly. Beasley references the reading traditions of the monks, and we can learn something from their style. Their reading during the Middle Ages, he says, “was the centerpiece of daily life. Several hours of reading (or lectio) often fell in the middle of the day, with the rest of the day devoted to periods of meditation, prayer, and contemplation. While lectio ‘puts whole food in the mouth,’ meditation ‘chews it and breaks it up,’ prayer ‘extracts its flavor,’ and finally contemplation ‘is the sweetness itself which gladdens and refreshens.’”
Perhaps our modern reading challenge lies in learning when lectio is the best course, and when deeper meditation or contemplation is required. We must differentiate between the times when efficiency leads us to wisdom—and when efficiency becomes a distracting end in and of itself.
The snark versus smarm debate has flooded our news feeds, after Tom Scocca’s December 5 Gawker article “On Smarm” took off. The piece asked critics and social media users whether their desire for a “positivity” and “civility” was actually a desire for something more mawkish: a desire for “smarm.”
Over time, it has become clear that anti-negativity is a worldview of its own, a particular mode of thinking and argument, no matter how evasively or vapidly it chooses to express itself. For a guiding principle of 21st century literary criticism, BuzzFeed’s Fitzgerald turned to the moral and intellectual teachings of Walt Disney, in the movie Bambi: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” The line is uttered by Thumper, Bambi’s young bunny companion, but its attribution is more complicated than that—Thumper’s mother is making him recite a rule handed down by his father, by way of admonishing her son for unkindness. It is scolding, couched as an appeal to goodness, in the name of an absent authority.
Scocca’s repudiation of smarmy discourse is well deserved, in some instances. His explication of Obama’s 2012 speech (full of happy, opaque words like “free enterprise, prosperity, self-reliance, initiative, a fair shot,” etc.) points out the niceties resplendent in our public discourse—niceties that blind us to the controversies and contradictions behind all the talk.
But here’s the problem: “snark,” so often, is a façade for undergirding anger, disillusionment, and cynicism. Snark rarely offers up anything positive, while smashing everything (and everyone) to smithereens in the name of “just telling it like it is.” The definition of snark is “sharply critical; cutting; snide.” This is more than “telling the truth.” This is something derogatory, underhanded, mocking. Snark is not meant to correct—it’s meant to humiliate.
Scocca disagrees. He argues that “Snark may speak in cynical terms about a cynical world, but it is not cynicism itself. It is a theory of cynicism.” This definition itself seems rather opaque; what theory of cynicism does snark offer, exactly? By embracing and using cynical thought, snark seems more of a mode than “theory” of cynicism.
The problem with snarkers is not their truth-telling—what would society be without truth-tellers? Rather, the problem with snark is that it doesn’t have the good of society, or the bettering of the critiqued, at the center of its concern. The goal of snark is to make the critic look smart, funny, interesting. The snarky critic loves him or herself more than the critiqued—and thus, the snarky critic can attack, humiliate, and burn all they want, without personal remorse.
This isn’t meant to excuse smarm. No one wants to wade through the candy-coated discourse that spills from most politicians. It’s all rather saccharine and opaque, and we’re usually left wondering, “What are you really about? What do you really want?”
But where smarm falls short, snark disappoints us as well. Scocca believes plutocrats perpetuate smarm for their own personal benefit. Perhaps so. But Malcolm Gladwell shared a good point in a New Yorker article last week: “Scocca thinks that the conventions of civility and seriousness serve the interests of the privileged. Coe says the opposite. Privilege is supported by those who claim to subvert civility and seriousness. It’s not the respectful voice that props up the status quo; it is the mocking one.” Perhaps both Scocca and Gladwell are right: smarm is propagated for self-preservation, to create a safety net for the plutocrat. At the same time, snark becomes a weapon for self-promotion, a tool for tearing down others and uplifting one’s own intellect and position.
Smarm is bad. But the way in which we gleefully suck up snark’s sneering jabs is equally detrimental to society. Public discourse, in both cases, is more concerned with personal loftiness than truly elevating the needs and concerns of the public. Truth, one would hope, could offer us a different course: one in which “civility” is not saccharine, and “truth” is not nasty—a discourse in which mercy and truth can meet together.
A Pew Research Center report released last Wednesday revealed that, counter to popular sentiment, the public library is neither outdated nor ignored. In fact, according to an Atlantic article posted Friday, their approval rating is higher than apple pie and baseball: “That’s right. Public libraries not only rank more highly in the American psyche than Congress, journalists, and President Obama, but they also trump baseball and apple pie. Public libraries are more beloved than apple pie.”
A couple disclaimers must be introduced here: first, of the 91 percent who told Pew they had never had “a negative experience using a public library,” there are probably a few who’ve only been to the library once or twice in their lives. Additionally, some participants may view libraries in a withdrawn but pleasant light, as a nice place for old people or schoolchildren—but not for personal use.
But these provisos do not discount the overall positive picture drawn by Pew: they reported that the majority of Americans have either visited a public library or used a public library website in the past twelve months. Though the proportion is lower this year than last (54 percent versus 59 percent in 2012), that’s still a significant number—more significant than many of us would guess. Only 32 percent of participants said local library closure would not affect them and their families personally, whereas 90 percent said it would have an impact on the community—63 percent called it a “major” impact.
Perhaps we wrote the book obituary a bit too soon. The closure of Borders gave us a scare, and Barnes & Noble still seems to be salvaging itself in the wake of the Nook failure. But independent bookstores, despite the doomsday predictions, are doing quite well. The Washington Post reported Sunday on the opening of a new indie bookstore Maryland, where owners Marlene and Tom England “are defying the future,” according to writer Michael Rosenwald. The Englands credit the continuing popularity of print books with America’s “vintage” craze: “We think there’s a desire by many to go back to a very simple time,” Tom England told Rosenwald. “Kids are starting to play Risk again. People want to touch things. They want to be a little low-tech.”
This doesn’t mean Americans are throwing out their tablets: rather, they’ve become what customer Ryan Young calls “hybrid readers.” Americans use both print and digital editions, swapping iPads for hardbacks in a random but seemingly contented fashion. People continue to frequent libraries, despite their lack of technological features, because some still like the quiet, the books, and librarian assistance.
Could it be possible to live with the best of both worlds? Young thinks so: “There has to be a value in both,” she told the Post. “There are books on my bookshelves that are like my friends. You can go back to them over and over again.” It may be an idealistic hope, but perhaps books and e-readers, libraries and Amazon can coexist in peace and harmony. So far, so good.
Soon after the Kindle craze, some warned of print books’ imminent extinction—but thus far, the codex has shown laudatory tenacity. It seems that, if things continue in their favor, print books are here to stay.
But what of the print magazine? Its content is less permanent, less extensive. Its flimsiness is often coupled with excellence, but who’s to say one must procure excellence in print—especially with so many magazines putting their print features online? Atlantic contributor Peter Osnos noted Tuesday the rather woeful future some envision for print magazines: “…Alas, as everyone with the remotest interest in media developments can attest, the great era of magazines notable for their largesse to staffs, and replete with copious, handsome advertising and strong single-copy newsstand sales, is almost certainly in the past.”
Perhaps magazines can take a cue from print books’ relative success, and mimic their selling points in order to survive this digital trend. For instance: many print-aficionados refer to the experiential appeal of books. The codex is aesthetically pleasing to the reader. Print fans don’t merely read for the words on the page—they savor the very smell, texture, and sight associated with print books.
Similarly, magazines can meet or even exceed the appeal of online experience through the power of visual and sensory mediums. Magazines have great potential for graphic experience: visual images, graphs, and diagrams help the reader connect more deeply with the text. While a magazine doesn’t have the interactive powers of the web at its disposal, there are other ways a magazine captivate its readers.
Books give us some ideas: for instance, the simple power of a good cover can hardly be overstated. It’s the first thing we see—the graphic that entices us to take a closer look. Book covers have become progressively more exciting in the past decade. Their use of typography and image are interesting and unique. Magazines can also use this power to greater effect. Too often, it seems, magazines mimic newspapers in their graphic rigidity. But the magazine has potential to become a more flexible and creative medium.
There are two main sorts of books that people buy: flimsy paperbacks bought in airports on a whim, and beautiful hardbacks bought for “keeps.” As one could imagine, the former usually end up at yard sales or secondhand stores—but the latter often morph into a collection. Similarly, people usually buy two sorts of magazines: the cheap, flimsy versions one reads for temporary diversion, and serious-minded publications (like the Economist and New Yorker) that get saved, collected, and even treasured.
How does a print magazine avoid the trash bins and yard sales of readers? It must not only have good, strong, consistent content—it must also have timeless content, superseding mere paltry observations on the fickle political or cultural atmosphere of the day. Also, magazines that serve as curators—of art, food, or culture, for instance—stand the test of time by serving as a reference book to their readers.
A final note: I’m not sure how long magazines can survive while putting their print content online. It seems that, in order to survive as a print and online entity, they must diversify material enough to entice readers to subscribe. While the ethos of the publication must remain consistent, its print content must offer something more—or at least something different.
It is true that, even with good graphics and content, some magazines may fail. They may not prove as hearty as their book cousins. But one hopes that, with some diligence and ingenuity, they will continue to grace our bookshelves and coffee tables.
Eric Garris, co-founder and editor of Antiwar.com, says he filed a request this week demanding the FBI fix a fraudulent story in his file that says he once threatened to hack the FBI’s website.
That there is an FBI file on Garris dating back to the 1970’s should be cause enough for alarm. He has been charged with no crime, and is suspected of no criminal nor domestic terrorist activity. But thanks to recently released documents (the result of a lawsuit launched last spring by Antiwar.com and its attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California), we know that the FBI has been monitoring Garris, his co-founder Justin Raimondo, and other staffers of the website (full disclosure: I am a columnist for Antiwar.com) for several years.
And here’s the punch line: it turns out that the agency has been spying on Antiwar.com as a potential “threat to national security,” because, in part, Garris once asked the FBI for help.
Internal, un-redacted documents obtained in October by Antiwar.com show that in 2001, Garris passed along a threat he received on Sept. 12, 2001 from a Antiwar.com reader obviously disgruntled with the website’s coverage of 9/11. The subject line read, “YOUR SITE IS GOING DOWN,” and proceeded with this missive: “Be warned assholes, ill be posting your site address to all the hack boards tonight … your site is history.”
Concerned, Garris forwarded the email to the FBI field office in San Francisco, where he is based. Garris heard nothing, but by January 2002, it turned up again, completely twisted around, in a secret FBI memo entitled, “A THREAT BY GARRIS TO HACK FBI WEBSITE.”
It turns out this “threat” went on to justify, at least in part, the FBI’s ongoing interest in monitoring the website, as a potential “threat to national security on behalf of a foreign power,” beginning in 2004. TAC reported on the secret surveillance in July after Antiwar.com, along with the ACLU, launched their suit for full disclosure of all FBI records pertaining to Garris and co-founder Justin Raimondo.
Up until that point, all the two men had to go on was a heavily redacted, 94-page FBI memo passed along by a intrepid reader in 2011. The file is illuminating, to say the least. It shows the FBI secretly taking stock of what Raimondo had published on the site, particularly on the issue of the arrest of five Israeli nationals who were ostensibly celebrating and taking photography of the burning World Trade towers in 9/11. Raimondo wrote about their arrests and release in 2002, and linked to versions of at least two government watch-lists already published on the Web by others.
His reporting of this alleged Israeli spy angle to the 9/11 story was handed out by peace activists in UK, and an alleged neo-Nazi group here in the U.S., according to the FBI. These examples, and the fact that an unnamed FBI suspect had supposedly browsed Antiwar.com, “among many other websites,” and that “many individuals worldwide” view the site, “including individuals who are currently under investigation,” were all noted in the 2004 memo.
The agents authoring the memo also questioned Antiwar.com’s funding, and pointed to the website’s criticism of U.S. war policy. All of this apparently led them to conclude that further surveillance of Antiwar.com was warranted, “to determine if [redaction] are engaging in, or have engaged in, activities which constitute a threat to national security on behalf of a foreign power.”
The newly acquired documents flesh out much of the missing or redacted material from the 2004 memo. Now Garris and his ACLU attorney, Julia Mass, have a better idea about the FBI’s interest in the website. Not only was Garris’ “threat” revealed in the un-redacted portions of the file they received in October, but so was an accounting of Garris’ participation in a 1972 war protest.
Garris insists the FBI’s depiction of him as “threat” does not bother him as much as the fact that it’s quite clear Antiwar.com has been targeted solely for its First Amendment protected activities. There was never a suggestion that Raimondo or Garris committed any crime. But it was hinted that their (free) speech was a threat nonetheless.
Mass tells TAC that when the story broke in The Guardian last week, reporters honed in on the “sloppiness” angle regarding the agent who wrote the first mangled account of Garris’s “threat” and the agents who decided to run with the “mistake” years later.
“It seems a little more purposeful than that,” she said, noting that there was never any attempt to investigate the so-called threat. Yet it was used by other agents in 2004 as a justification to monitor Garris and Raimondo (the San Francisco office eventually declined requests by the Newark, N.J. office for an official investigation into the website, according to the memos).
“The obviousness of the original mistake really causes you to question whether the 2004 memo’s reliance on it was also an honest mistake,” she told TAC. “And if it is not an honest mistake, then it really makes it look like an intentional targeting of Justin and Antiwar because of their speech and their critique of the government’s actions.”
When contacted by The Guardian, the FBI said it would not comment due to the ongoing litigation. Mass said that if the FBI does not move to fix the file, they will be bringing their demands back to the court.
If you are literate today, it does not mean you can write — not even close to it in many cases. But if you were literate in 1863, even if you could not spell, you often could write descriptively and meaningfully. In the century and a half since, we have evolved from word to image creatures, devaluing the power of the written word and turning ourselves into a species of short gazers, focused on the emotions of the moment rather than the contemplative thoughts about consequences and meaning of our actions. Many everyday writers in the mid-19th century were far more contemplative, far more likely to contextualize the long-term meaning of their actions. They meticulously observed and carefully described because, although photography was the hot new medium during the Civil War, words remained the dominant way of communicating thought, memory, aspiration, hope.
Raasch’s theory is not a new one. Back in the 1980’s, when Internet was still in its primordial days and television was king, Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death. His book cautioned against the developing “Age of Show Business,” fed by television’s sensory, visual medium.
Postman believed three “ages” were prominent throughout information’s history: first, ancient oral cultures encouraged the preservation of information through spoken records and stories. When the printing press and writing became more prominent, oral cultures dissolved into the “Age of Exposition”: a time when written records were perceived as holding the greatest truth. Then as photography and videography developed, media began to change again—for the worse. Postman believed we would lose more than writing ability in the wake of the entertainment era: he warned of a depleting mental and emotional capacity. He believed we would become as obsessed with pleasure as the humans in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Postman’s descriptions of distracted, sensationalistic consumers relate well to Raasch’s “species of short gazers.”
We can only imagine what Postman would have said about the Internet; perhaps Raasch gives us a taste when he describes it as “the Great Din”: “Today, throwing barbs and brickbats into the Great Din of the Internet has become as second nature as breathing … The Great Din requires no forethought, no real calculation of purpose or result, no contemplative brake, no need to seek angles or views beyond those that reaffirm or reassure what we think right now.”
Is this truly the future of media? Will we lose any true, deep, thoughtful communication in its havoc of pixels and pictures?
One interesting counter-opinion comes from former Daily Beast editor Tina Brown. Having recently left the world of journalism for event production, Brown has told reporters that she no longer reads magazines herself—in fact, she thinks “the whole writing fad is so twentieth century” (in the words of New York Magazine). But rather than warning of impending havoc and din, Brown calls people back to oral communication: “I think you can have more satisfaction from live conversations,” she said, adding that we are “going back to oral culture where the written word will be less relevant.”
If we experience the “death of writing,” as Rassch puts it, could we come full-circle and return to the age of oral communication? Will grandfathers sit down with their grandchildren and tell them stories, like our ancestors so long ago? One can only hope; but if such an experience were truly to flower from “The Great Din,” it would be rather surprising.
Some say journalism is on the decline. Others, however, think this may be a golden age of journalism: the New York Times’ Bill Keller is belongs in the latter camp. In his Sunday column, he said he believes modern media prevents dictators from getting away with with propaganda and deception. New technology like auto-translate software has made foreign news even easier to procure. But there is a downside to this new media world, as well:
When practitioners of global reporting get together—as some of us did last week for a stimulating conference on the future of foreign news at Boston College—one question on the table is whether, for all the moaning, we are now enjoying a golden age of global news. My own view is: “yes, but.” I’ve already explained the “yes.” Now the “but.”
The problem with the cutbacks in professional foreign coverage is not just the loss of experience and wisdom. It’s the rise of—and exploitation of—the Replacements, a legion of freelancers, often untrained and too often unsupported. They gravitate to the bang-bang, because that’s what editors and broadcast producers will pay for. And chances are that nobody has their backs.
This new journalism reality is one in which freelancers risk their lives with no backing or safeguard, and often without a contract or formal assignment. Bill Keller cites Emma Beals, a British journalist, who believes that of 17 kidnapped foreign journalists being held by Syrian rebels, the majority are freelancers. This is the dangerous and unsavory side of modern reporting, Keller posits.
Keller pinpoints another disadvantage of modern media, more inhibitive to the reader: “My other caveat about this time of abundance is that while it’s great for a foreign-news junkie, I’m not sure how well it serves the passive reader. The profusion of unfiltered information can overwhelm without informing.”
But when Keller talks of a profusion of “unfiltered information” in news, he is only partly right. One of the dangers of our current news era lies in its plethora of filters. Sites like Google filter their search engines to spit out the results they think you want, according to author Eli Pariser. Sites like Facebook and Twitter have changed our ideas of “relevance” and “connection,” by letting us define those terms according to our preference. If “relevant,” in your mind, means exclusive entertainment news and no foreign policy articles, your social media sites can construct themselves in your image. It will be difficult to break through your bubble.
This is not the fault of journalists, per se, but rather the fault of those organizations that propagate news and information. If readers still pick up a print newspaper, they cannot filter out pertinent front-page headlines without concentrated effort. However, newspapers and news magazines have also increasingly supported the idea of partisan reporting: one should know that The Washington Post and The Washington Times present two different versions of our national and international landscape. Such news coverage propagates the news “bubble.”
It seems a confusing and deluding news world: the amalgamation of information renders some readers overwhelmed and others apathetic, while many retreat into their ideological news bubbles. It’s a world of endless information, but also one of endless blinders. Can we really call this a golden age of news?
Yesterday the Committee to Protect Journalism released a report on the Obama administration and the press. Much coverage of this report has rightly focused in on the clandestine nature of the White House about its activities, its employment of the 1917 Espionage Act to prosecute leakers, and its attempts to control leaks through peer monitoring under the Insider Press Program. One of the more disturbing points this report raises is that while the name of the game might be “free and open,” there is nevertheless a large quantity of officially sanctioned communication only. The report cites Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen’s characterization of the administration’s message machine that they originally posted on Politico:
One authentically new technique pioneered by the Obama White House is government creation of content—photos of the president, videos of White House officials, blog posts written by Obama aides—which can then be instantly released to the masses through social media. And they are obsessed with taking advantage of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and every other social media forum, not just for campaigning, but governing. They are more disciplined about cracking down on staff that leak, or reporters who write things they don’t like.
The report continues on discuss the White House’s preference for its own newscast West Wing Week to reporting by the fourth estate, and how it often redirects reporters to generated content rather than answering questions in person. While it serves the intentions of our elected officials to present content and spin stories in such a way that they remain elected, it is extremely worrisome to think that such user-generated content is not content merely to compete with external journalism, but is demonstrating a desire to supplant it.
Propaganda and spin are always a part of politics: one merely need to look to Thucydides’ account of of the Peloponnesian War to be assured of that. However, when the game of self-promotion begins to displace an open and effective dialogue with the public about the political reality, that harms our ability to interact in a dynamically democratic manner.
What the CPJ’s report highlights, more than anything, is that Obama’s strength as a campaigner has undermined his ability to enter into the complexities of political dialogue. Politics is a give and take, yet in this increasingly polarized political environment, which has come to a head in the shutdown, this give and take has devolved into a zero-sum game of partisan ideological push. The report employs the words of Eric Schmitt, national security correspondent of The New York Times, to describe this reality:
There’s almost an obligation to control the message the way they did during the campaign. More insidious than the chilling effect of the leaks investigations is the slow roll or stall. People say, ‘I have to get back to you. I have to clear it with public affairs.’
The particular mark of American democracy is authentic treatment of the issues. The less freedom the press has to present the facts to the public for an open discussion, the greater the blow is to the American experiment. When the fear of scrutiny, critique, and opposition become so strong as to stymie the conversation that America has engaged in since her inception, the liberty invested in the American people suffers the blow. Journalists must be free to report, and the public free to respond to those reports, to engage in political conversation. President Obama, and all those involved in politics, would do well to take this report seriously and remember that freedom of information does not just apply to forced disclosures.
How much does “big data” know about you? Thanks to commercial data aggregator Acxiom, you can find out: the “data giant” has decided to make a large portion of its information public via a new website, Aboutthedata.com. The New Republic contributor Paul Rosenzweig explained the significance of the company’s revelations in a Monday post:
Acxiom is one of the largest commercial, private sector data aggregators around. It collects and sells large data sets about consumers (sometimes even to the government). And for years it did so quietly, behind the scene—as one writer put it ‘mapping the consumer genome.’ Some saw this as rather ominous; others as just curious. But it was, for all of us, mysterious. Until now.
Rosenzweig created a profile on the site, and was able to see Acxiom profile of his tastes and life. While he found the purchase and household interests rather boring and “un-illuminating,” the personal history “insights were at least moderately invasive of my privacy, and highly accurate.” All the same, Rosenzweig was not perturbed by his data profile. “…When I dove into one big data set (albeit only partially), held by one of the largest data aggregators in the world, all I really was, was a bit bored.”
Curious, I also created a profile. Unlike Rosenzweig, the company was more correct on my purchasing preferences than my personal history. (They thought I had a child and a truck. I have neither.) I didn’t feel that they knew me considerably well at all—and was quite pleased by that fact. But the website triggered a different question in my mind, separate from (legitimate) privacy concerns. On the Aboutthedata.com’s home page, they posit this claim: “We [consumers] no longer want to receive mass marketing – getting bombarded with ads that have no relevancy to our lives – because it’s intrusive and wastes our time. That’s why companies want to use data about you to personalize and shape your experiences with them.”
Companies are increasingly “personalizing” their advertising in an effort to buy our attention. Online advertisers increasingly shape consumer profiles to garner users’ time and money. But what are the detriments and dangers of such attention economics? Tom Chatfield elaborated on in an Aeon Magazine piece entitled “The Attention Economy.” He includes an interesting quote from David Auerbach of N+1 Magazine:
In a Friday interview at Patrick Henry College, a Christian conservative institution, Mark Leibovich offered a rather bleak view of D.C. politics and journalism. But this is no surprise, considering the frank and disenchanting language of his book This Town: Two Parties and A Funeral. Leibovich spoke of a city wallowing in “egregious” and “unsustainable” corruption, fixated on money and power.
However, the New York Times Magazine reporter did offer some hope for the young journalism and government majors gathered: he encouraged them to embrace “rootedness” and community, rather than seeking the popularity and charisma of Washington. “Being immersed in small communities gives one an exposure to how people interact, a more hands-on approach to things,” Leibovich said in response to an email on the subject. “Plus, I think it’s more interesting.”
While these statements may not be a full endorsement of localism per se, Leibovich offered important supports for the movement. First, he noted the importance of community-centric service. D.C. media and political leaders often become fixated on their own sphere of political bias, to the detriment of objectivity and even courtesy. Leibovich believes Washington’s reporters are often disdainful of their customers (Leibovich referenced a Politico story entitled “Are Voters Dumb?” that appeared on their front page in 2012).
Journalists writing and living in community recognize their customers. They develop relationships with them, and learn to seek the good of those communities. Leibovich said that any reporter or politician who wants to come to D.C. should first develop this rich background—and added that they (politicians especially) should return to their homeland, and not remain in the noxious D.C. atmosphere.
My personal experience aligns with Leibovich’s statements. While writing for a local Idaho paper, I grew close to my readers and community. The work transcended mere reporting and writing: every article was intimately tied to the daily lives of my neighbors. Obituaries and high school senior profiles, while not glamorous, were incredibly important. Stories on a hot local topic meant hours on the phone with concerned or interested readers the next day. Though I did not fully realize it at the time, it was deeply meaningful work.
Unfortunately, these small bastions of journalism are suffering most in the current media climate. They haven’t the funds available to larger companies like the New York Times. Oftentimes, they lose young journalists to the glamor of big-city newspapers. Young writers eager for a future Pulitzer or book deal see little promise in writing for the local county.
It may seem disingenuous for Leibovich and myself to advocate for small-town journalism while writing in “This Town.” I cannot speak for Leibovich, but perhaps there will come a day when I return to that small-town Idaho community. It was a blessing to write for them. But writing for The American Conservative does feel much like writing for my small-town paper did: we have a very involved readership community, even if it is online. Our active and thoughtful commenters always offer interesting feedback. We do offer a service to an important ideological community, and many of our writers, including Rod Dreher, have combined their work here with a strong sense of place. The two work hand in hand.
Hopefully Leibovich’s comments will encourage other young writers to strongly examine their journalistic motives: are they seeking fame and fortune, or are they seeking to serve? Washington’s corruption, power-lust, and nearly inescapable partisanship are very real temptations. But those who remain rooted to their place and beliefs can offer hope—even in “This Town.”