Obstacle Removal

Ganesh Came to Be Regarded as the Remover of Obstacles

Friday, December 02, 2005

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

And So We Beat On, Boats Against the Current

The conclusion of The Anarchist in the Library gets straight to the heart of tectonic political and cultural shifts occurring around us. Sometimes, without a true frame of reference, we tend to idle along as if nothing is changing. This is the danger of old ideas and paradigms applied to the new problems and uncharted demands being placed on our comfortable political systems. Vaidhyanathan calls for boosting cultural democracy and civic republicanism in order to recast the framework for the 21st century.

There are examples of thriving cultural democracy. Look at the next generation of tape traders whose communities share and promote the live recordings of their favorite bands, with permission from the bands. Enabled by digital networks, these communities build and feed one another, and display all the qualities of a thriving cultural democracy. They have used these communities to be commercially successful as well, so it can work.

The effectiveness of civic republicanism, though, is being eroded. Lack of engagement, lack of community identities, lack of personal responsibility, and the manipulation of public trust for personal gain cripples the longstanding ability of civic republicanism to effectively function as a societal framework. In this respect Vaidhyanathan is right. Without reversing this erosion, our society is at risk from both the freeloaders (and nefarious, violent exploitation) and from knee-jerk reactions from the State.

In many ways we get lost chasing our tail. All too often we are unable to confront complex problems with the canned solutions that sometimes seem to be the only options forwarded by a Government held captive by the quick fix. This captivity is even more dangerous with a disengaged citizenry. Many of the most powerful tools that we can employ to combat 21st century problems are locked away by law and regulations that today serve only narrow interests. Many laws and regulations governing information have served a valuable public purpose, but most are anachronistic. We do need to look at all of these delicate balances through new eyes.

Ready to Go "Over the Top"

Clearly the confluence of broadband technology and independent 527 political organizations has created a perfect storm of sorts for video on the internet. This spot has touched upon our class discussion, which identified online video as the next big thing for political campaigns. The same dynamics that led to that conclusion for official campaign organizations also apply to independently produced videos.

Looking at IPDI's report on online political videos in the full context of internet viewership, official campaign organizations risk being completely subsumed by the wave of videos produced by independent groups. There are a couple of key reasons why.

First, according to IPDI, 69% of online activists meet the criteria as "influentials". That means those who seek and provide the distribution function for online videos are disproportionately influential. Big deal, right? Well, it turns out that influentials are also "less likely than the norm to describe themselves as middle of the road" ideologically. What better way to please the "very conservative" or "very liberal" than to produce a video eviscerating a candidate or cause dear to the opposition. In short, play to the audience with the power to make your site visits soar.

Second, we can call to mind some of Sunstein's analysis of social psychology findings that support the idea of group polarization and describe an insularly nature inherent to online activism that embraces more extreme political views. Now, if Sunstein is correct, it will be very difficult for official campaign organizations to capture the hearts of online activists the way an unaccountable 527 can. After all, official campaigns can't typically afford to completely alienate or offend mainstream Americans.

Monday, July 25, 2005

It All Seems So Ridiculous

It's always a bad sign for freedom when a country has a Ministry of Information. In China it is the Ministry of Information Industry. The MII, along with a myriad of other State organizations that serve to work at various layers (both legal and technological) to control what end users (or citizens) can access or distribute.

The legal framework can be construed to meet whatever State objective exists at the time. Let's take a look, from an American's perspective, at the nine categories of restricted information. Now, to be clear, information cannot be produced, copied, published or disseminated if it contains data

"1. Which are against the principles prescribed in the Constitution"
That's odd. Their constitution prescribes principles. Isn't our Constitution's Bill of Rights in place to eliminate any chance of the Government prescribing it's principles?

"2. Which endanger the security of the state, divulge the secrets of the state, overthrow the government, or damage the unification of the state"
Publishing data that damages the unification of the state...huh?

"3.Which harm the dignity and interest of the state"
Please don't harm the interest of so dignified a State.

"4. Which instigate hatred, discrimination among the ethnic groups, or destroy the unity of nationalities"
Don't destroy the unity of nationalities (notice plural)...oh wait, hopefully these nationalities are working in concert to avoid damaging the unification of the State

"5. Which break the religious policy of the state, spread evil cults or feudal superstition"
Evil cults? Try Communism.

"6. Which spread rumors, destroy the social order, and damage the social stability"
Sounds like we've banned all discussion of Tom Cruise

"7. Which spread pornography, sex, gambling, violence, murder, terrorism or abetment"
Without pornography and gambling, our e-commerce revenues are in a world of hurt

"8. Which insult or slander others and thus infringe upon others' lawful rights and interests"
This is a insult

"9. Which involve other contents prohibited by the laws and administrative rules"
The elastic clause!

All mocking aside, the range and sophistication of the Chinese State's filtering system is remarkable. Beyond restricting access to information by law or technology, the State has intimidated local or regional ISP's into self-censoring material that might otherwise be accessible. The excessive, business-destroying penalties imposed upon "violators" of the ridiculously vague legal restrictions make it perfectly understandable that ISPs avoid the grey area entirely.

The effort that it has clearly taken to employ the State's MII apparatus reflects the difficulty of restricting information in the information age. Hopefully technology will develop to the point where access to information will one day be impossible to restrict. In the meantime, one can only hope that if the Chinese insist on locking down access, they at least drain their treasury while doing so.

Video Convergence

The Campaign Solutions folks who were kind enough to speak with the class are certainly onto something when they, without hesitation, indicated that the next big thing would be online video.

This spot has touched before on the failure of most internet content to convey emotion. Emotion is what television does really well. With the convergence of digital media (data, music, video), websites should be able to leverage the power of video, while maintaining the other advantages of interactivity that the internet provides.

While some of the same principles apply to online video, it is different from television in a couple of key ways. First, it is not bound by the restrictions of time, viewing market, or advance purchase requirements. Second, it can be viral, spreading much more efficiently and effectively throughout the audience.

Without the traditional restrictions, and with a premium placed on viral marketing, video on the internet will have much more variety than a 30 second spot on cable TV. We've seen John Edwards' video podcasting, a format that lends itself to longer videos. We've also seen (along with over 50 million other Americans) the JibJab video, which was short, humorous and viral. The beauty of video online is that it can fall under so many different criteria and be tailored to the audience.

Campaign professionals should avoid falling into the trap of simply hosting their campaign commercials online. While this provides important synergy, it is not enough to make an impact by itself. Online video needs to go above and beyond in providing a variety of choices that appeal to the diverse desires of the audience. On TV, political ads are force-fed to a captive audience. Visitors to political websites are a different kind of captive audience, one that is eager for information and willing to be engaged. It stands to reason that the videos they are able to see should be different as well.

Sunday, July 24, 2005


The most compelling point about micropayments that Neilsen makes in his 1998 article is that they offer a more flexible market of options for internet users. Rather than the all-or-nothing approach so common to the subscription model on the internet, micropayments offer an opportunity to selectively choose meaningful content and access that content without breaking the bank.

Some online media, such as the NY Times, provide a significant amount of free content to registered visitors to the site. Faced with a user population that has "grown up" with free NY Times Online content, it would be very difficult to transition to a subscription model, despite the fact that subscriptions have been the primary method to access NY Times content in print format for ages. Micropayments provide an avenue to generate some revenue from selected content without placing huge burden on the user's wallet.

With micropayments, some of the same cultural transition issues remain. However, the decision to spend 50 cents for a specific article or issue is generally easier than the decision to spend $50 dollars for a set period of unlimited access when you cannot possibly be sure what, if any, content will be put forward that is worth paying for.

I think micropayments have a lot of merit in providing more flexibility and choices in the way content is purchased. This is particularly true if purchases are made easy, and without forcing the user to fumble for his/her credit card. The micropayment model, frankly, tracks a lot closer to the behavioral patterns and culture of the internet than the stodgy subscription model. It may be a boon for blogs, too, if those blogs generating quality content can figure out a way to harness micropayments to pay their bills.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Podcasting Pioneers

For those looking to devour your daily dose of Nancy Pelosi's manufactured alliteration, the House Democrats have announced the rollout of a new podcasting project. Podcasting, you'll remember, is like TiVo for your portable audio device. Democrats hope to use this technology to jump start a messaging machine that has difficulty getting out of the garage. The problem is, unlike rushing home to search the TiVo, it is doubtful that the American public is all that eager to sync up and hear the latest press conference from the House Democratic leadership. That goes for the RNC, too.

Podcasting has its place, and as it becomes more user-friendly and well known, it will be a neat opportunity to get news from primary resources. The circle of folks that is interested in hearing those messages, though, is limited. I'm not sure iPods are the jumper cables capable of getting the House Democrats' message machine humming, but kudos for trying.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Thought Police

It says a lot about a society when the release of a movie is threatened because a car drives through an area resembling a courtyard whose design has been copyrighted. I'm sure the lawyers love it, but for the rest of us it is an extraordinary hassle that drains creativity, pocket books and erodes the will of citizens to resist.

Prior to reading Lawrence Lessig's exerpt, I had no idea the extent to which our legal system supports such creative straightjackets. Not that I am surprised, considering how cottage industries have sprung up across all forms of commerce whenever legal minds spot an opportunity to ply their trade by throwing up barriers to the trade of others.

The internet, on the other hand, has transformed the way intellectual property is defined, copied, purchased, or transferred, and is the wild west of copyright infringement. Copyright protection has been a major focus of the entertainment industry, as the RIAA and MPAA have sought legal remedies to combat software that enables consumers to steal rather than spend for artists' work. While there have been notable legal victories for industry, the real challenge lies in coping with technologies that make violating copyrights a snap, and create a culture that doesn't see anything particularly wrong with these violations.

So while the movie industry has matured to the point where every aspect of creativity is run through the lawyers, the internet is still relatively unpoliced. You can imagine the dollar signs that must be flashing through the heads of lawyers who see a regulatory gold rush ahead. This includes those who pore through election law and FEC advisory opinions, and impact how political voices are heard.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Luntz of the Left?

In a preview of a piece set to appear in the New York Times Magazine on Sunday, we see that Democrats have recognized the value of language and its ability to favorably frame political debate. George Lakoff, the subject of the article, is compared with Frank Luntz, whose methodology, impact, and results we have read about and discussed in class.

Luntz' value to Republicans has been demonstrated time and again. The rhetorical upper hand can make a huge difference in how Americans respond to issues. Despite Luntz' success, the Democrats have not to-date countered with a language guru of their own. As a result, they frequently find themselves pinned in by the words that frame the debate.

As one example, look at the hot button issue of abortion. The act of aborting a fetus is an act nearly impossible to advocate, no matter ones position on the issue. Despite polls showing that a majority of Americans support a woman's ability to choose this course, Democrats lose on the issue because they cannot help but be on the defensive. Pro-choice candidates are characterized as favoring "abortion on demand" or worse. Anti-abortion candidates, meanwhile, run under the mantel of "pro-life", a vastly superior rhetorical position. If you follow DNC Chairman Howard Dean's statements, he has made a concerted effort to re-cast the language of the abortion debate. Hillary Clinton is attempting to position herself similarly.

In the end, language can't trump the actual positions being staked out, but it is a crucial feature in effectively communicating with voters. Beyond simple words, the work of Luntz and Lakoff is geared toward the context or framing of debate. This is their real impact on political messaging, as it defines how voters perceive issues. If Lakoff can match the work of Luntz, the subsequent rhetorical posturing of both sides will be dizzying. The risk is that such activity will ultimately put the public in a spot where reality is shielded by the nuance of language and metaphor.