Noosphere Blues

[ Sunday, July 27, 2003 ]

If you appreciate the rare combination of raw edged acerbic cynicism and unapologetic idealism in a writer you'll like (or at least want to read) Phil Freeman. His first book, NY is NOW, was an effort to reconnect contemporary jazz criticism with the radical lineage of free jazz by connecting, aurally and intellectually, with the mostly ignored radical jazz underground scene of the late 90s. An interesting project which (perhaps not so surprisingly) managed to simultaneously piss-off both the neo-classicist and academic "post-modernist" critical establishments alike. An animosity his post-book polemics against both have done little to smooth over. Now he's got a blog that'll keep you awake in a way most essays and novels might not. For many reasons, not least his running sound log, with comments, on music from all recorded eras he's listening to, which serves as an atonal sound-track to his literary life on 21st century Grub St. USA.
Phil [1:40 PM]

[ Wednesday, July 23, 2003 ]

Never stop being awed by how much great esoteric stuff I can find at wood s lot. Stuff i'd have otherwise missed. Like this 5 year old interview with DJ Spooky, the best opening I've seen into the mind of the most literary, intellectual and political of mix-sound artists. Sourced from the nettime discussion list.
Phil [3:12 PM]

[ Tuesday, July 22, 2003 ]

Lots of buzzing lately (at least among the blog-a- gentsia) about Howard Dean and his gig as guest blogger at Larry Lessig’s, and generally adept use of the Internet as a fundraising and organizing platform.

Many like David Weinberger are (appropriately) impressed. They rightly see Dean’s (or more accurately perhaps Joe Trippi, his manager’s) use of blogs and tools like Meetup as pioneering attempts to leverage the unique advantages of the web’s peer to peer architecture, rather than as a pseudo-broadcast medium. Just as importantly they see Dean’s youthful organizers as the first truly web-rooted media activists in mainstream politics.

Inevitably all the good vibe coverage has spawned its own media backlash, with skeptics pointing out the limitations of the Dean model. J.P. Gownder, a Yankee Group analyst writing in the Washington Post Op-ed section, argues that Dean’s campaign, despite the hype about electronic outreach, has failed to connect with poor, black and working-class citizens, remaining a movement of white, middle-class professional geeks, and other “knowledge workers” who already self-identify as liberals or progressives. He winds up warning that the Dean campaign may well wind up as the of politics.

I think his analysis of the limitations of the Dean campaign is pretty accurate, but that those limitations stem fundamentally from Dean’s own limitations as a political leader and campaigner. Dean, after all, for all his moderate liberalism on many issues, is no populist, by style, temperament or inclination. Indeed his style is most reminiscent of such past mandarin mavericks as Eugene McCarthy, or, going even further back, Adlai Stevenson. His is not a style, or a program, made to resonate in any medium with the populist base Gownder talks about.

The problem with the Dean campaign (and one should hasten to add it’s been a brilliant campaign overall, making a contender out of someone who six months ago was given no chance of being one) is precisely that the candidate’s intellectual premises and political message are not nearly so inventively radical as his media vision.

Chris Suellentrop in Slate (cleverly dubbing Dean’s campaign the “Napster of Politics”) worries that by “encouraging so much spontaneous organization” the campaign risks losing “message discipline” by having unofficial groups “hijack” his campaign, “dilute his message” and “create strange arguments” about what Dean really stands for.

The fact is the dangers of such a “dilution” are directly proportional to the extent said company fails to articulate its raison d’etre in a handful (ideally 3 or at most 4) of simple, forceful, unequivocal positions from which dialogs may derive secondarily. Lenin was an authoritarian creep but the early Bolshevik program of Land, Peace and Bread was a political message of utterly compelling clarity, perfect for “viral” transmission among and between disparate groups. As was that of Ronald Reagan- Cut Taxes, Cut Government spending and beat the Russkies.

It’s low-proof campaigns built on overly complicated wonkish (infinitely parseable) minutiae on issues that will be subject to dilution (and corruption) via decentralized networks.

Phil [8:39 AM]

[ Friday, July 18, 2003 ]

Sorry to hear Sander Hick's no longer in the NYC area, which means one less entrepreneurial radical rabble-rouser in a place where (despite the myth of boho NY) there are far too few already. And sorry we never did get together for the beers we talked about a few months back. But NY's loss is appparently the SW's gain.So good luck.
Phil [3:29 PM]

Went last week to the invigoratingly eclectic Super-Nova conference in Washington, D.C. (actually Crystal City, Va.). (haven’t had a chance to write about it yet because I’m operating less on Internet time at the moment than on bringing up a 7 week old infant time)

I haven’t been to too many conferences, new technology/media or otherwise, but I’ve been to enough to know that, (whatever their stated agenda ) usually they congeal around:

1) An elite of stars and their followers, or as Art Kleiner calls it “Core Group”, with the implication not only of insiders/outsiders but of a well-developed pecking order.
2) Privileged disciplines, intellectual styles, discourses, whether derived from e.g. civil liberties law, free-market (or neo-Marxist) economics, social theory, engineering, punk rock or venture capitalism.
3) A fairly well-defined (or at least known and shared) sense of shared ambition and market opportunity. A palpable sense of collective resume-building.

To its credit Super-Nova (whether by design, fortuitously creative accident, or most likely a combination of both) managed to transcend its tech-conference genre.

Though organized (and, yes, centrally so, despite its decentralist philosophical theme ) by a titular, formal leader and chairman, Kevin Werbach, cults of leadership personality and/or bureaucratic coercion have (at least for the moment) not “emerged”. Rather the art of leadership as Werbach has so far practiced it is one of the impresario. It involves drawing-out affinities among those of disparate but complementary interests and enthusiasms, remaining directive enough to set and structure the scene, and receptive enough to the power of indeterminacy to stand out of the way.

Rather than professional association corporate, industry or even entrepreneurial ties, the proceedings and participants were “loosely joined” around around two simple notions:
Social creativity is best nurtured and sustained through “bottom-up” networks rather than top-down hierarchies. New cheap mobile personal technologies make the formation of such networks practical on an unprecedented scale.

There was a “star-system” of sorts, with status conferred by position on the formal panels or speaking gigs on the formal agenda, previous reputation of writings, (pop bloggers like Joi Ito, David Weinberger, mass media imprimatur (JC Herz, James Surowiecki) ) or corporate/government positions held or formerly held (Reed Hundt and upper level managers at Microsoft and Intel ). What was striking to me, though, was how “weak” (in a good way) that star system was. In a future where, as David Weinberger memorably quipped “everyone will be famous to fifteen people” the relationship between elites and followers, star figures and their audience was subject to continual shifting. Thought-leaders and celebrities were in the eyes of the beholder, and who they were depended as much as anything else on who you were and which blogs you liked to read.

This blurring of conventional conference-style boundaries was amplified by the simultaneous co-existence (encouraged, rather than merely tolerated) of multiple channels (group weblogs, wikis, IRC) that alternately supplemented, competed with, and even replaced what was going on on the official agenda of speeches and panels. (By the way nixing most panels altogether, as suggested here, might not be a bad idea) You could say, probably rightly, that this sort of formal-informal contrapuntalism goes on at all conferences. But at SuperNova it seemed (for the first time in my experience) intrinsic to the process. A party at Casablanca’s in Alexandria the night before the conference (an open invite to all including those not able to afford the conference, or have a company pay for them to get in) also served to differentiate the conference from other affairs.

It was good to meet Jeff Gates there (who reminded me that blogs can/should be a forum for learning about other bloggers via personal narrative, as well as getting information, intellectual style, attitude, politics, and perhaps insight. Something i'd like to take him up on, though right now I'm lucky just to have the time/energy to read much and post. And Halley, whose perceptions on blogculture will be written up she says in HBR this Fall- a good reason, if not necessarily the only one, to grab it.

SuperNova was full to over-full of different professional communities (academics, economists, venture capitalists, industry analysts, cyber-lawyers, D.C. policy wonks), but it wasn’t a venue where turf-definers or turf-warriors were readily rewarded (possibly because the precise zoning and value of “real-estate”, and whether and what the “pay-off” will be is still unknown). And because no one could be sure whether indeed showing would in fact enhance one’s resume, which meant (unlike many another conference) no one there really cared about that. Another good sign.

Rather the structure of topics not only encouraged but necessitated boundary-spanning.

Ironically the factors that seem, in conventional conference terms, the biggest deficiencies- the lack of established stars and scenes, the lack of a cohesive industry and market, and codified intellectual discipline, have (for the moment at least) become advantages.

At its best SuperNova showed that much of the flavor of openness rightly celebrated about blog-wiki culture can infuse and inform the offline world as well, to the benefit of both worlds.

Phil [9:11 AM]

[ Friday, July 11, 2003 ]

Just when I was ready (for the millionth time) to write off American tube news (except for jon Stewart) just about completely, CBS shows some guts. And, in Nixonian manner, Rove&Co. move to try to intimidate the mainstream press from follow-ups. Which they'll likely do unless emboldened. The big question now is whether the blog-o-sphere can keep the story from being dropped by big media once the heat is on from the White House.
Phil [2:24 PM]

Students of radio history-recalling the battle waged between ASCAP and BMI in the 30s over broadcast of music for "free" over the airwaves have likely been avidly following (with a sense of deja vu) the contortions of the RIAA hiding as it is behind the letter of IP law to attempt (ultimately futilely) to avoid adapting to the evolution of market competition, culture and technology. Here's some encouraging news. , coupled with this earlier item. And some interesting long view perspective on this human tragi-comedy, in the form of an entertaining book review.
Phil [1:54 PM]

[ Friday, July 04, 2003 ]

Thanks to Clay Shirky ( whose regular e-letter list is regularly rich in astute and provocative observations on the social functions (and dysfunctions) of technology) for turning me on to this MIT Biz school paper by Eric Von Hippel on "Horizontal User Innovation" networks. A little arcane, of course, given its source. But amidst the academic jargon looks like some some pretty original assaying of a radical theory of open-source economics.

Thanks to Eric Hananoki of The Hamster not just for the link but for keeping up an indispensable portal of diverse liberal opinion and bloggery.
Phil [12:21 PM]

[ Wednesday, July 02, 2003 ]

Two books by baby boomer (or slightly older) liberals (both of which I'm hoping to review soon) get dissed and dismissed at Counterpunch by young radicals-one Letters to a Young Activist (by Todd Gitlin) pretty justifiably, the other a more hopeful and helpful one subtitled How the Left Lost Teen Spirit (from Danny Goldberg) less so.
Phil [3:54 PM]

How many neo-conservative political schisms and factions can dance on the head of a pin. Michael Lind and Alan Wald debate at HNN (History News Networks). For hard-core nerds only.
Phil [3:33 PM]