At NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, the Future is in Play

Back in the Spring, I took up an offer to take a backstage tour of NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, aka “The Center for the Recently Possible.” I think of it as a Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory of new media and technology graduate programs. What the kids there are doing is what we’ll all be thinking about or plugging into in the near future.

My strategy was to hang around with a notebook, bug the students standing next to crazy looking contraptions, and write down what they said that I could (mostly) comprehend. The result was this piece for PBS MediaShift. Did I stumble on any everlasting gobstoppers? You be the judge.


The saw-toothed mountain whose mists and tangled
Thickets bewitched us, and the slant-angled
Railway over hushed and holy redoubts
Where men have dreamed away twelve hundred years.

At the prompting of a priest we escaped
Blue-eyed Barcelona, fat with Christmas,
To seek the patron of my boyhood’s relics,
Which proved to be only an empty scabbard.

We wept together at the bone in the rock.
We shook hands with the genius of the place.
We traipsed the peak still filling its lonely cisterns with water.

Yet it was not to see the cave where golden images are kept
That I milked our time or write these lines,
But because I sensed you drawing closer,
Beset by a language in stone you could not speak.

Poet’s note: Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and a poem happens. So I thought I’d share one example here. More to follow, perhaps.

The top 7 questions I want answered about BuzzFeed

  1. Why does it do such a poor job of providing free resources to help children learn how to read?
  1. What is BuzzFeed doing to provide an engaging and well-curated browsing experience, akin to the best retail environments?
  1. How is BuzzFeed adapting itself to be more relevant to low income, minority communities who need help finding jobs?
  1. Why can’t I find free, reliable, well-written information on BuzzFeed about deep dive topics like history, politics, and science?
  1. Why doesn’t BuzzFeed provide free, live, in-person assistance if I want to learn about a particular topic?
  1. Why doesn’t BuzzFeed break down paywalls and let me read the latest articles in the top newspapers and magazines for free?
  1. What is BuzzFeed doing to improve its user experience, like providing free physical spaces where the public can consume their content?

This list is intentionally ridiculous. I don’t expect BuzzFeed to do any of these things.

This list does, however, describe what libraries do well, not flashy click-bait websites.

So, if it is absurd to ask BuzzFeed and its ilk to be like libraries, why is the reverse an endlessly repeated argument? Why do we deem libraries irrelevant unless they come to resemble the open Internet?

This post was provoked by an old but particularly odious post by Seth Godin, in which he says that we should close down libraries and instead spend public money on training people who will help the public get more “aggressive” about hunting down information online. Since all information is free now, Godin argues, we don’t need libraries anymore. We just need people who know how to hack their way through the Internet to the right information at the right time.

In other words, we should take all the money and cultural energy that we have spent creating libraries and training librarians and divert it instead to the purchasing of technological products and training an army of evangelists to promote their use.

In a world of physical libraries, communities get durable, multifunctional spaces which provide local employment, and are already partially devoted to providing free access to the latest technology and training people to use it. Libraries have long been and will continue to be adapted to future needs, while fulfilling their traditional role. In Godin’s universe, all of that is vaporized and converted to an endless stream of rent to Silicon Valley.


At the Huffington Post, I say why Google’s removal of news links in the EU is a good thing

homepage.gifI’m not in favor of censorship. But I do believe that the questions raised by the “right to be forgotten” highlight our need for noncommercial search, or for making sure there is more than just one dominant player.

Read the full story here.

Meeting the President

Because of my habit of saying awkward things to famous people, I was determined not to say anything to Al Gore last week. We were in the same room because he was getting an award at the Interfaith Center of New York’s annual dinner, where I was filling out the table of a friend and donor to the center where I work. Despite my determination, at the cocktail reception I found myself turning around and suddenly shaking hands with the most famous person in the room.

As he took my hand in his, he looked right into my eyes and greeted me with respect and openness. For a long moment, I felt as if I were the only person in the room with him. It was dazzling. This is remarkable when you consider how often he has had to greet strangers. Summoning the psychic energy to do so over and over again with genuine respect, or even its convincing simulacrum, must require monastic levels of strength and discipline. I once saw the performance artist Marina Abramovic make a moving piece out of honoring strangers one by one with her full attention in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art. Gore’s presence was equally striking.

I had a front row seat to his remarks later in the evening. He was introduced and humanized for the crowd by his daughter Karenna Gore Schiff. She recounted her childhood admiration of her father’s ability to balance large objects on his nose for long periods of time. He had once, she said, explained the theory of nuclear disarmament by using salt and pepper shakers at the dinner table. As a girl, she had confronted him one morning with the front page of the Washington Post, showing the picture of a woman suffering in the Bosnian conflict, and asked why America wasn’t doing more to help. That same day Gore told this story to Clinton’s national security team, kicking off a conversation that eventually changed US policy. From the surprised reaction of James Parks Morton, a Gore family friend sharing the stage with her, I surmised that this wasn’t the usual patter trotted out to personalize her father’s public appearances.

Then Gore got up and cast his spell over the room. Because of my time in the Whiffenpoofs and my work in New York’s not-for-profit galaxy, I have been to my share of fancy dinners with the 1%, and one of their tribal quirks is to talk through events where basic politeness would require silence (as when the Whiffenpoofs are singing, for example). I can’t explain this behavior, but I have come to expect it, so the silence in the room during Gore’s remarks surprised me.


Tim Kreider on what it’s like to be asked to work for nothing

Practicalities aside, money is also how our culture defines value, and being told that what you do is of no ($0.00) value to the society you live in is, frankly, demoralizing. Even sort of insulting. And of course when you live in a culture that treats your work as frivolous you can’t help but internalize some of that devaluation and think of yourself as something less than a bona fide grown-up.

Read the full piece from the New York Times here.

The Right to be Forgotten

A court in the EU has recently upheld the complaint of a man who said that the Google hits associated with his name should be taken down, on the grounds that they were no longer relevant to his life. As somebody with a very distinctive name, I applaud this decision. When you Google me, there is no doubt who you’re getting information about. I’m grateful that none of my stupid mistakes in life have ended up as an electronic record somewhere. But if they ever did, there would be no way for me to avoid having them easily accessible to everybody in my vicinity with a smartphone, for the rest of my life.

Up until the advent of the World Wide Web, an ineradicable reality of life was the erosion of our old decisions, thoughts and in essence, selves. Like a snake’s former skin, they fell away, to be replaced by who we were becoming in the present. We have always had to take responsibility for our actions, but that’s not the same as being pursued by a perfect and ever present and ambiently available record of them, forever. Yet this is the future that technology is taking us in, and those of use who aren’t running huge Silicon Valley companies don’t have any say in the matter.

As Marshall McLuhan said in the 1960s (and as I quoted back in 2011):

“The future will be an electrically computerized dossier bank – that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early ‘mistakes’.”

How he could’ve seen this so early on I don’t know. His gift of prophecy is eerie sometimes. McLuhan was a traditional Catholic, and for him the erasure of earthly mistakes through the mechanism of divine forgiveness was an important part of living a full life. Along with forgiveness came the ability to atone for and move on from one’s mistakes. Perhaps he felt there was something more than a little Luciferean about a world where that process was hampered by technology.

The pain of having all our mistakes remembered forever is a symptom of what we used to call information overload, but it’s not a symptom that anybody saw coming. We all knew we were going to have trouble organizing increasingly massive amounts of information usefully so it could become a basis for our decisions. We didn’t know that forgetting some of that information was an essential part of the process.

Predictably, Google’s response to the EU’s ruling is to call it “anti-business,” and their zombie objection has been echoed by the Financial Times. Here’s the first sentence of what is supposed to be an objective article on the topic (at least I assume so, since it was their lead news piece and not in their Op-Ed section):

A landmark “right to be forgotten” ruling against Google in Europe risks damaging the next generation of internet start-ups and strengthening the hand of repressive governments looking to restrict online communications, Larry Page, the search company’s chief executive officer, has warned.”

You could be forgiven for reading that first sentence and internalizing it as the main take-away on the issue, rather than the opinion of Google’s co-founder. The FT really is a bit much, sometimes. Their piece doesn’t even make the nod to the idea that technology should serve people and not just businesses or the ideology of innovation at all costs.

Here’s a much more thoughtful report on the “right to be forgotten,” from TIME’s incomparable Lev Grossman. In the piece, he says: “Just because something is technologically feasible, and part of a business plan, doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.”

Amen to that.