Wednesday, January 31, 2007

More on the World's Second Oldest Profession

CNET just ran a story by Sylvia Carr under the headline "Bill Gates' syllabus for tech and education." Here is the lead sentence:

Speaking at the Microsoft Government Leaders Forum here [in Edinburgh] Wednesday, Gates laid out his vision for just how technology is going to transform learning.

This strikes me as an excellent point of departure for continuing to discuss the nature of the service economy and the question of what roles science and technology should be playing there.

Let me begin with the premise that, for all the talk about how we are moving from a production economy to a service economy, here in the United States, we have shown ourselves to be incredibly inept (if not customer-hostile) in the service sector (which probably goes hand-in-glove with our inability to keep up with the rest of the world in the production sector). I attribute our "service incompetence" to our lack of how to achieve quality in the world's second-oldest profession, which happens to be a service profession; and that, of course, is education.

As I see it, there are a variety of interrelated reasons why we have made such a mess of our educational system. The most important, which I have already discussed, is our effort to shoehorn it into production-economy thinking, assuming that the best way to improve the quality of education is to make it more efficient. From this position it is a short hop to the premise that the key to efficiency lies in better software, whether that software provides content (as in course material) or conversations (with teachers, students, and anyone else covered by the Cluetrain Manifesto). What is missing from this picture, however, is the assertion that socialization plays a fundamental role in the experience of education, a role with facets too subtle to be "managed" by the software "solutions" of social networking and virtual worlds. What distinguishes socialization is a committed approach to engagement (which, to be fair, is in Thesis 45 of the Cluetrain Manifesto); and, as we develop an appreciation for just how incapable we have become at social engagement, we see why our failures in education translate into failures throughout the service sector.

Now we should give Gates credit for a public face that is beginning to appreciate the value of engagement. However, while that appreciation may flow into his charity work, I doubt that anyone would claim that it is flowing into any Microsoft product! So, would you trust Bill Gates to "fix" our educational fiasco with a "Microsoft solution!" I most certainly would not!

The Mother of All Bubbles

One of the last entries I prepared for my previous blog addressed the question of whether or not the next economic bubble-burst would begin in China (and probably propagate from there, thanks to the "virtues" of globalization). The speculation was based on a London Times article about a pending "bruising internal power struggle among the highest ranks of China’s secretive ruling Communist Party." Today the Financial Times has a story with the headline, "Warning on China stock market ‘bubble.’" What makes this story particularly interesting, given the context set by the London Times, is the source of the warning:

Cheng Siwei, vice-chairman of the National People’s Congress and an influential figure in Beijing financial circles, warned the mainland stock market could be overheating, after a rise of 130 per cent last year.

My reaction to the earlier article was that any "bruising internal power struggle" could bring about a level of instability that would lead to uneasy feelings about the stock market. If enough people translated those feelings into a shift of investments into something based less on a "fiction of convenience," then this could bring on the sort of crash that would burst the bubble. Cheng seems to have enough confidence in his personal position of influence to state publicly that "The market is based on people’s behaviour," rather than any "theory of value." In other words, as John Kenneth Galbraith did when writing about the concept of money, Cheng has developed his own terminology for representing the market as a "fiction of convenience."

There is also the possibility that a bubble-burst is precisely what some of the agents involved in this power struggle want. Having a stock market at all must be extremely galling to any remaining old-timers who are still passionate about Mao's ideology; and it is not too far-fetched to imagine that they see it as a nightmare from which China must awaken, preferably sooner rather than later. Fomenting an instability that would weaken the market when it is in such a vulnerable state would be just the sort of alarm clock that these ideologues would desire. After all, if they read their Marx along with their Mao, they probably subscribe to the conviction that "Men make their own history" and see this as an opportunity to put theory into practice. Indeed, the sentence from which that phrase is plucked may well capture the state of affairs in not only the China stock market but also the global economy:

Men make their own history, but not spontaneously, under condition they have chosen for themselves; rather on terms immediately existing, given and handed down to them.

Those "immediately existing" terms for bursting a bubble can be found all around the world; but it is beginning to look like the holder of the pin may be in China!

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Nostalgia of Service Science

I recently accused CRM technology of "a desperate nostalgia to make the service economy look like a production economy." I now realize that this is related to another nostalgia, which is for Frederick Winslow Taylor's Principles of Scientific Management. This latter nostalgia seems, for me at least, to be the best explanation for why the phrase "service science" seems to be insinuating itself into our working vocabulary. As I wrote in my previous blog:

Taylor's intense quantitative analysis of manufacturing processes cast a dark shadow over the nature of work for most of the twentieth century, but we never seem to be able to get out from under that shadow. What was comedy in Cheaper by the Dozen has become dark farce as die-hard Taylorists reflect the behavior of the small boy with a hammer to whom everything looks like a nail.

Taylor's principles were not intended to be applied to anything other than production, yet efforts to make the provision of service look like the manufacturing of a product are not as recent as we might thing. One has only to examine the book, Education and the Cult of Efficiency: A Study of the Social Forces that have Shaped the Administration of Public Schools, by Raymond E. Callahan. As I wrote in one of my earliest blog entries:

Never mind that this book was published in 1962; the extent that it was still relevant today was, to say the least, chilling. In a nutshell this book provided an excellent review of the principles of "scientific management," which basically originated from the work of Charles Taylor, and then discussed the ways in which public school systems tried to embrace those principles to the general detriment of the quality of education.

Since education is not just a service profession but also "the second oldest profession" (which makes it interesting that "the oldest profession" is also a service profession), this confusion of service and product can be traced back at least as far as the appearance of Taylor's book.

This leads me to think about one of the more inspiring papers I read that provides an articulate opposition to Taylorism, an article by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid that appeared in 1991 in Organization Science entitled, "Organizational learning and communities-of-practice." What most impressed me about this paper was the way, in the words of their subtitle, Brown and Duguid tried to develop "a unified view of working, learning, and innovation." In the context of the argument I have been trying to develop here, I now see that this unified view may actually be viewed as necessary to the service economy, while in a production economy one would be hard pressed to find many who would advocate it as even desirable. This may have to do with my own reasons for supporting Callahan so enthusiastically: In a production economy, your highest priority is the efficient use of your capital in the production of more capital. Education, on the other hand, does not accord such priority to capital or to its efficient use. Rather, it is concerned with the effectiveness of a process of engagement, the relationship that is formed between teacher and student. This returns me to the theme that our bias towards transactions runs the risk of abstracting away the concept of engagement until nothing is left to it. Unfortunately, this kind of transaction-based thinking is invading the world of education with a destructive force even greater than that of Taylorism. In the community of eLearning, we now have a whole community that wishes to reduce the "educational engagement" (if you can still call it that) to the management of "learning objects," while Ray Kurzweil would have us believe that education is just another form of goal satisfaction.

Where will all this lead? I have already suggested that we are well on the path to losing all confidence in our service providers, but then did not the shift to service come about in response to consumers losing confidence in products manufactured in the United States? Perhaps this is why we now turn to both the products and services as the only place left to place our confidence, trying to ignore, as long as we can, just how impoverished those offerings really are. Then, when the shock of recognizing that impoverishment hits us, while shall succumb to that boredom that will turn us into "mindless and ineffective Eloi!"

Monday, January 29, 2007

Continuing to Live with Unconnected Dots

Maddy Sauer has released a report on The Blotter to remind us that things have not changed very much since 9/10/2001:

Despite a recommendation from Congress, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) voted today not to upgrade security measures at the nation's nuclear power plants to protect against a 9/11-style attack from hijacked aircrafts.

The NRC ruled today that while the threat of an attack by air is real, it is not the NRC's responsibility to protect the plants. The commission said that military weapons would be required in order to protect the plants, and thus "the airborne threat is one that is beyond what a private security force can reasonably be expected to defend against."

If, as the reports have persuaded us to believe, the tragedy of 9/11 was a consequence, at least in part, of not-my-job denial of responsibility, then, in the words of Twin Peaks, "It is happening again." This time the question seems to be who is responsible for the security of our nuclear power plants, particularly as it involves protection from deliberately destructive measures. The NRC seems to be implying that this is the responsibility of the military, since protection can only be provided by military weapons. This premise if questionable, at best, since the prospect of military weapons being fired anywhere near a nuclear power plant is too chilling to contemplate. Rather, the NRC is trying to cover up with language the premise that, as far as they are concerned, the security of the facility does not fall under their rubric for "regulation." So, while Congress has tried to step up to the plate and see to the people's business in the matter of one of the scarier worst-case scenarios we can imagine, the NRC has decided that the best response is: "Go bother somebody else." Does this language sound familiar? Whatever Marx may have said for the sake of rhetoric, this time the second time around is going to be about as far away from farce as we can get!

Virtual Morlocks

Until this morning I had not realized that there was a "Continental Automated Buildings Association" (CABA). According to CRM Buyer, they are "a nonprofit industry association that promotes advanced technologies for the automation of homes and buildings in North America." In other words they traffic in the sort of automation-based utopianism that we encounter among those trying to inject the Internet into every corner of our everyday life. This is the sort of vision that is their stock-in-trade:

In the not-so-distant future, the mundane will become borderline miraculous. The home washing machine will order its own repairs and the sprinkler system will call you on your cell phone to say the lawn service has broken one of its water spouts and it is now wasting water.

The car will tell you to pull over -- its left rear tire is low on air -- and, by the way, the service department at the local dealership has an opening on Thursday, if that's convenient for you. There seems to be a problem since your garage sensors have reported oil drippings on its floor.

Next, your home security system will ring you up and ask if it should let the repairman in to perform the service your washing machine ordered. The repairman's work order number matches the one the washing machine assigned, so the service call is legit, reports the security system. "Press one to allow entry with video surveillance, two to reschedule the repairman or three to summon the police," it might say.

Hopefully, this kind of writing will send at least a few of us back to H. G. Wells' Time Machine, or at least the summary that Wikipedia now provides. Recall that the protagonist of this novel discovers a future of two races, the Eloi and the Morlocks. The former are gentle and, at first blush, seem to indicate that the lost Garden of Eden has finally been recovered. The latter are coarse and cannibalistic but are also the only life forms that can maintain the machines that, in turn, maintain the Eloi's Edenic existence. Thus, as the Wikipedia article points out, this Garden of Eden is less of a paradise than one might initially take it to be:

The Utopian existence of the Eloi turns out to be deceptive. The Traveller soon discovers that the class structure of his own time has in fact persisted, and the human race has diverged into two branches. The wealthy, leisure classes appear to have devolutionised into the ineffectual, not very bright Eloi he has already seen; but the downtrodden working classes have evolved into the bestial Morlocks, cannibal hominids resembling albino apes, who toil underground maintaining the machinery that keep the Eloi – their flocks – docile and plentiful. Both species, having adapted to their routines, are of distinctly sub-human intelligence.

Writing not that long after Wells, Karl Mannheim observed that utopianism, just like blind ideology, provides a significant impediment to serious critical thinking. The problem is that, when we get too fixated on our favorite ideals, that fixation tends to our inhibit any thoughts of the consequences in which those ideals may be embedded. This is why Neustadt and May placed so much emphasis on the need to anticipate consequences when making critical decisions in a time of crisis. It is also why I have tried to apply there advise to the assessment of new technologies, bemoaning that fact that, as a rule, innovators tend to place more weight on "cool" than on "consequences."

So, do I really believe that CABA is promoting a technology of "virtual Morlocks" that will build up a customer base that will turn us into a world of mindless and ineffectual Eloi? I suppose the most telling indicator in the CRM Buyer is a comment from a Gartner analyst about market potential:

Sheer laziness and freedom from boring things are two of the biggest drivers.

In other words we have come to view the day-to-day activities of life as too boring to deserve attention; so we have become too lazy to summon the will to act on them. This is the point at which we have to invoke another important lesson from Neustadt and May: In a time of crisis, the first thing you have to do is ask, "How did we get into this mess?" How has life itself become so boring to us? As I suggested in exploring the concept of "secular Messianism," I see this as a consequence of the ways in which mass media have addicted up to believe in the deus ex machina, yet another example of how utopianism inhibits our critical thinking.

I read The Time Machine as a cautionary tale about what happens when a utopian vision actually gets implemented. The most important consequence is that the resulting sentient life-forms lose most, if not all, of the characteristics that, in our own vague way, we tend to associate with the concept of "humanity." As Isaiah Berlin pointed out in so many of his essays, the preservation of our underlying humanity is more important than whether or not we can realize our personal ideals through technology. Part of that humanity is that we do not all share the same ideals; and the last thing we want is for difference of opinion to turn into a conflict that technology resolves by turning us into "winners" and "losers." By stereotyping what those winners and losers might eventually become, Wells prepared us for Berlin's injunction that civil discourse about our differing values is more important (and more human) than trying to reduce the assessment of those values to "right" and "wrong."

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Another Big Lie: Customer Relationship Management

In my last blog I devoted a lot of attention to the continuing development of CRM (Customer Relationship Management) technology and the dangerous consequences of its growing use. I first started writing about this when I encountered a report of "user-hostile" customer service associated with changing an airline reservation. I realized that, while it was definitely right to attack the airline industry about such service, the problem could probably be traced to the industry's dependence on CRM software, most likely being run at an outsourced call center. Ironically, this was all prompted by my reading an article in E-Commerce Times/CRM Buyer; and the double irony is that this article now seems to have been expunged from their archive.

However, the beat goes on, as they say; and last October CRM Buyer ran a report about the fact that call centers were now spending $400 million annually on recently-developed "emotion detection" technology. Again, this story is no longer in the archive; but I was able to recover a comment I made at the time it appeared. Today we got a story that is basically promoting one of the providers of this "emotion detection" technology, Autonomy. I have decided that the only explanation (excuse?) for throwing this kind of technology at a situation that keeps going from bad to worse is a desperate nostalgia to make the service economy look like a production economy. In the spirit of the kind of analytic methodology I have been employing in this new blog, the best way to examine the underlying pathology of CRM is to take apart the terminology word-by-word:

CUSTOMER: Back in the days when it was a production economy and there was no Internet, any successful salesman could tell you the quickest path to failure was to treat the customer as an object, rather than a subject. CRM has perverted this principle on both sides of the coin. Not only has the customer been objectified, but anyone the customer ever contacts is also objectified! This is why stories about "user-hostile" customer service, such as the one cited above, will continue to appear. Of course the ultimate nightmare story about this kind of objectification was actually not a technology story. This was the story that Spike Lee told in When the Levees Broke, where we saw the "objectification of the subject" at its worst. While we may not be able to blame CRM technology, itself, for the mishandling of the Katrina disaster, the mentality behind that mishandling is certainly a reflection of the mentality behind the technology.

RELATIONSHIP: The distinction here is between transactions and engagements. A relationship between two subjects is an engagement, an ongoing process in which awareness (including listening) is as important as delivery. Transactions abstract the concept of relationship by reducing it to relations between objects. Awareness, of course, involves more than the semantics of text. If you cannot hold a conversation and sense (without the assistance of technology) that the person you are talking to is angry, then there is something wrong with your psychological makeup. That is the sort of awareness that makes us human and enables relationships on a subject-to-subject basis.

MANAGEMENT: The bottom line here is that technology providers have no idea what they are managing or why they are managing it. All that seems to matter are productivity statistics, which are far from the best indicator that a business is doing a good job. Of course, if the concept of "customer" has been perverted, then the concept of "customer satisfaction" has been banished to an exile in ultima Thule! The business has thus liberated itself from worrying about customer satisfaction, and customer anger mounts to the point where the customer finally takes action to the disadvantage of the business.

So this is the world that technology has made, and it seems as if the Internet has both necessitated and proliferated its distribution. We might ask users of the technology if they are satisfied with it, but how can we ask a question about a concept they have banished from their working vocabulary? This seems to be a case where the Lie is so big that most of us no longer recognize it as a lie (which is precisely that "force of credibility" that Hitler had in mind)!

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Fighting the Big Lie

I used to think that Harry Truman was the one who discovered the ugly phenomenon of the Big Lie. It turns out that he got it from Hitler (and then used it as a stick to bring public attention to just how evil Hitler was before America had committed to joining Britain and France in the Second World War). Wikipedia has an entry for "Big Lie;" here is its first paragraph:

The phrase Big Lie refers to a propaganda technique which entered mass consciousness with Adolf Hitler's 1925 autobiography Mein Kampf. In that book Hitler wrote that people came to believe that Germany lost World War I in the field due to a propaganda technique used by Jews who were influential in the German press. This technique, he believed, consisted of telling a lie so "colossal" that no one would believe anyone "could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously". The first documented use of the phrase "big lie" is in the corresponding passage: "in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility".¹

Why should we be reflecting on this concept today? The reason is that the Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that one of the bigger lies of last year, The Path to 9/11, is about to impose itself on public consciousness again. ABC may have taken a beating for airing this program; but Fox now has outtakes, particularly insidious material that got excised when they were brought to public attention, which it is planning to air on Sunday on (where else?) Hannity's America. Hitler's strategy is alive and well and thriving on Fox, reminding us that the cognitive impact of narrative has a dark side.

For many years I thought I could deal with that cognitive impact on a strictly academic level. I probably cannot count the number of times I have invoked that great summarizing passage from Jerome Bruner's Acts of Meaning that concludes, "what does not get structured narratively suffers loss in memory." This is usually a good thing, but what happens when an institution masters the art of deliberate deception (Big Lie) through narrative structure? As Emery Roe has demonstrated in Narrative Policy Analysis, such narratives are tenaciously impervious to refutation by mere facts, evidence, and reasoning. As a matter of fact, Roe's conclusion is that the only way you can undermine such a narrative is with a counternarrative. (Think, for example, of how this strategy has been deployed by the "intelligent design" crowd.)

The good news is that counternarratives are being deployed. Look at the sort of Iraq documentaries that got Oscar nominations. Getting them distributed, on the other hand, is still a problem, particularly when the Fox pulpit is the biggest bully in the media business! Still, it was nice to see that counternarrative was part of Jim Webb's rhetorical toolbox; so he may be "showing the way" in more ways than one!

Beyond Race

The study I cited at the beginning of this week demonstrated that race is still a factor in whether or not you get a job. Now Truthdig has informed us of a study that deals with the question of how much you are likely to be paid, once you manage to get that job. This study involved a survey of 2084 legal immigrants, and the factor being examined was the shade of skin color. The bottom line: those with the lightest skin earned 8 to 15 percent more than immigrants who were basically the same in all respects except for having darker skin. By controlling for other factors, the study was able to conclude that this skin-tone prejudice goes beyond race. Readers may recall that I examined the earlier study for the powerful way in which it used discourse to make its point. Truthdig got this new study through Associated Press, which, as a matter of its professional policy, is concerned more with story than with discourse; so, in spite of the fact that this report is as important as its predecessor, I cannot assess the discourse impact of its researchers. I have to wonder, though: How many more of these studies we shall be encountering throughout this year (having not even gotten through January yet)?

Friday, January 26, 2007

Putting a Price Tag on Consequences

According to Reuters, this morning the Canadian government declared what they felt would be suitable compensation for a case of (apparently) unjustified extraordinary rendition:

Canada will formally apologize on Friday to software engineer Maher Arar, who was deported to Syria by U.S. agents after Canadian police mistakenly labeled him an Islamic extremist, and offer him C$10 million ($8.5 million) compensation, according to media reports.

Arar, who says he was repeatedly tortured during the year he spent in Damascus jails, had initially sued Ottawa for C$400 million, a figure he later cut to C$37 million. CBC Television said the settlement would be for C$10 million, while CTV said Ottawa would also pay Arar's C$2 million legal bills.

The bad news is that Canada has been stuck with paying the price for US blunders of both strategy and tactics. If this whole affair could be used as a "learning experience," we might try to find good news in it; but this does not appear to be the case:

The official probe found that the Mounties had wrongly told U.S. border agents that Arar was a suspected Islamic extremist and it slammed the police for incompetence and dishonesty.

Canada's top Mountie resigned in December over the issue.

Ottawa is also probing claims by three other men who say they were tortured in Syria because of information provided by Canadian authorities.

Canadian Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day has promised to keep pressing Washington to have him removed from the security watch list, something the U.S. ambassador to Canada has described as "presumptuous."

U.S. officials say Arar will remain on their list because of unspecified information possessed by law enforcement agencies. Arar is also suing the United States for damages.

This makes the comment by Paul Cavalluzzo, lead counsel for that official probe, that Arar "can live his life now like a normal Canadian" sound more than a little gratuitous!

Chutzpah on Schedule

Last week I speculated on whether or not I had chosen the right granularity in my article title "Chutzpah of the Week Award." I had also wonder whether the news from Myanmar that I reported would set the bar too high for any future awards. Leave it to the government of North Korea to come to my rescue (as reported by Al Jazeera English):

North Korea has lashed out at the South Korean government for what it calls the "fascist action" of blocking public access to websites sympathetic to the North.

Furthermore, their "official" newspaper demonstrated that this is a government (like so many other governments) with absolutely no sense of irony:

"This is a fascist action against democracy and human rights as it infringes upon the South Koreans' freedom of speech and deprives them of even their right to enjoy the civilisation offered by the IT age," the North's official Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in a commentary on Friday.

Silly me to think that, in this day and age, chutzpah would be in short supply!

Secular Messianism

While the Internet may have given me an advantage in providing an early analysis of Jim Webb's response to the State of the Union, I am still a bit surprised to see that Webb is becoming a bit of a bandwagon with folks still rushing to board. Of all the other pieces I have read after committing my own impression to text, I was probably most impressed with Scott Ritter, to the point of continuing my own line of reasoning by responding to his response to the response (so to speak)! While Ritter's analysis was limited to the Web version of The Nation, the editors have now delivered their own version of the story for the February 12 print edition; and that editorial now has its own Web page. Then there was E. J. Dionne's column for The Washington Post, which I first saw printed in The San Francisco Chronicle and then found on Truthdig. In this latter form it has accumulated eighteen comments (one of which is my own). Finally, there was Jon Stewart's take on both the State of the Union address and Webb's response, again available through the fine editorial graces of Truthdig. Stewart's impersonation of the typical Bush ideologue struck dumb by Webb's straight talk said it all, reminding us that the best humor is not always in the words.

However, just as everyone had their turn to vent after Bush delivered his speech on his "new" Iraq policy, I think it is again time to put this particular news flurry in perspective. For my part, given how much of yesterday's writing turned out to be about reflection, I feel a need to reflect on there this past week fits within the greater flow of history. More specifically, I find myself thinking back to the Democratic Convention in 2004, the last time we felt it was within our grasp to "throw the rascal out." Today John Kerry is but a shadow in my memory, recognizable perhaps only because of that rather foolish announcement he made this week about not seeking candidacy in 2008. Rather, just about all I remember is that obscure congressman from Illinois whose oratory reminded us all of what our values were, why they were in jeopardy, and why it was so urgent to do something about it all. That congressman, of course, was Barak Obama; and the speech was instrumental in elevating him from the House of Representatives to the Senate. Now his ambitions are aimed beyond the Senate; and a national conversation has begun (again, in Web journalistic fora such as Truthdig) over whether or not he is "Presidential material."

Alas, the spotlight has a narrow focus; and, for all the attention Hillary has been getting, it now seems to be pointing at Jim Webb. This time the galvanizing oratory came from a man who has just take his seat in the Senate; and suddenly he is the subject of those "Presidential material" conversations! Is the only "lesson of history" the evidence of how great a case of Attention Deficit Disorder this country has?

As the title I selected for this piece indicates, much as I like to harp on short attention spans, I have an alternative diagnosis in this case. We know the extent to which the "Messianic meme" has been infecting our national consciousness when we see the Left Behind books getting far more attention than any "fringe literature" deserves; but, even beyond the texts that are overtly religious, we see it in a preference for stories of crisis that end up getting resolved by the good old-fashioned deus ex machina trick. The strongest impact of 9/11 is the extent to which, as a country, we now seem to have the collective belief that we are in a mess; and there is this general longing for the "narrative device" that will extricate us before the final pages of the story. The only reason that religion has been getting so much attention is that, as an institution, it has more experience with that "narrative device" than the secular world does.

So, when we saw Obama address the Democratic convention, we all suddenly held our breaths waiting for someone to read the inevitable line from the script: "Is he The One?" Now we are seeing Webb's performance get the same treatment. (Let me be clear about one thing, though: I am not using the word "performance" with any pejorative connotations. I subscribe to the Genette "architecture" of "narrative reality," which has three parts: 1. What you want to say. 2. How you structure your text to say it. 3. How you deliver that text. Without the performance element, the text does not "take.")

Where I do want to get pejorative is over this whole disposition for Messianism. I once heard Paddy Chayefsky being interviewed on NPR when everyone was flocking to see Network. He recalled that he had come to public attention by writing a play for television called "Marty." In its time (1953) people were saying that it was the most important dramatic event to appear on television. In spite of this success, though, Chayefsky was never invited to write another script for television. Chayefsky reasoned that he had undone himself with the success of the story he had told: Marty is an unattractive but good-hearted butcher in the Bronx who can't get a date. One night he meets a girl who is rather plain but also good-hearted; and, with a surprising minimum of narrative complication, they ultimately realize that they can be happy with each other. Chayefsky explained that this kind of story was anathema to commercial television, whose "gospel" was that you could only find happiness through a new car, better hair creme, or fresher smelling mouthwash. Marty's "sin," as it were, was that he was able to solve his problem through his own devices rather than buying some deus ex machina consumer product; and advertisers just did not want any more stories like that being told on television, particularly if it turned out that viewers liked them!

The reason I like to tell this anecdote is that its moral is that the deus ex machina is a device of fiction. Like it or not, it is not an instrument of the real world! If we are in a mess, then they only way we are going to get out of it is through the exertions of our own devices. No Presidential candidate, no matter how audacious his vision and/or oratory may be, is going to be the Messiah that saves us. The sooner we realize this, the sooner we are likely to get out of the mess!

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Reviewing can Still be an Art Form

As I probably made clear by paying more attention to Jim Webb's response than to the State of the Union address itself, I like texts that do not pull their punches. I particularly appreciate when this is done well in reviewing the performing arts, the "turf" on which I first developed whatever talents I now have. Like any newspaper reporter I knew that accounting for the event was more important than dishing out opinion, meaning that opinion had to held off for any column space that remained after the accounting was completed. Given those constraints, the real skill lay in hitting on the mot juste to capture the opinion. This is all prelude to my saying that Rupert Christiansen did just that in accounting for one of the key soloists in the Royal Opera production of Carmen:

Liping Zhang made pretty noises in Micaëla's Act 3 aria, but Heaven knows what consonant-free language she was using.

I cannot remember the last time I read a review with such a belly-laugh reaction!

Web 2.0 and the End of Science?

Gregory Lamb has written has written an extended, and probably troubling, article for The Christian Science Monitor entitled "Is this the end of the scholarly journal?" Lamb is far from the first to invoke the Internet as a point of departure for asking this question, but he has summoned an interesting collection of interviews and examples to explore it. This is enough to make his article worthy of examination.

The first source that Lamb quotes (in his third paragraph) immediately gives us a sense of where the wind is blowing. He is Mark Gerstein, a professor of biomedical informatics at Yale University and author of an article entitled "The Death of the Scientific Paper," which, as one might guess, has been published online. Here is the Gerstein quote:

The traditional journal publishing medium we've grown used to really needs to evolve and change because that's not the way people are accessing information.

"Accessing" and "information" are two relatively innocuous words; but, when they are combined, they never fail to send a chill down my spine, particularly because they have become a familiar mantra among the Web 2.0 evangelists. When did science become a matter of "accessing information?" No historian of science would find that phrase associated with Galileo or Einstein, although I suppose that much of the controversy surrounding Rosalind Franklin had to do with the fact that it was "her" imaging data that sent Crick and Watson down the path to the double helix. Nevertheless, the stories we read of Galileo, Einstein, and the double helix researchers (not to mention the vivid memoirs of Feynman) are primarily stories of observation and reflection. Have the new "informatic" disciplines displaced those fundamental practices that make science what it is; and, if we have lost those practices, can we really claim to be doing science any more?

The question is not one of whether online circulation of research documents is an improvement over the old-fashioned practices of journal editing and publication. Rather, the question involves what is happening to what Bruno Latour called "science in action," i.e. what it is that scientists do by virtue of which we recognize them as scientists. The legacy of observation and reflection reaches all the way back to a time when "scientist" was not in the working vocabulary and those reflective observers were called "natural philosophers," because their observations were directed at the natural world, rather than metaphysics. However, that legacy now seems to be running into a confrontation with what we might call the "Web 2.0 mentality," the result of which may end up being a major overhaul in our thoughts about both "science as a concept" and "science in action."

Before Web 2.0 became a buzz phrase, there was already a considerable amount of dime-store philosophizing over how Google and Wikipedia were changing the world. What seemed to be overlooked in the philosophizing was what these tools were actually doing: They were the new mechanisms for delivering answers; and, as a result, they were inspiring other innovative approaches to how the Internet could be used as an answer-delivery mechanism, some of which involved more powerful analytic techniques while others pursued to cultivation of social networks. These were the building blocks from which the glib entrepreneurs and venture capitalists could start infecting the general public with the "Web 2.0 meme!"

Does this have anything to do with science? Yes, science is driven by how we ask questions about the natural world and how answers to those questions drive us to ask more questions. This certainly does not diminish the value of the answers themselves; but it does call the concept of "delivery" into question, whether we choose to interpret it literally or metaphorically. Consider a Gedankenexperiment: Suppose you were occupied with the question of whether there is a connection between a woman's genetic structure and her risk of developing breast cancer. Suppose now that one day FedEx comes to your laboratory with a package. Inside the package is an old lamp and a worn-out book declaring this to be the legendary lamp of Aladdin and providing instructions for its use (including the loophole for being allowed more than three wishes). As a scientist you decided to test the lamp and genie with several challenging questions whose answers you already know, and the performance of each test is flawless. If you now decide to put your breast cancer question to the genie, would you be doing science?

At this point I am sure that my experiment will be challenged: How can you compare the Internet to Aladdin's lamp? Aren't you forgetting the ways in which the Internet connects you to your peer scientists around the world? This is sort of the "Cluetrain" strategy: It's all about the conversations. One of Lamb's unnamed sources stressed the importance of the principle that placing a scientific document online begins a conversation of annotations, comments, and critiques, thus becoming an "electronic Talmud."

I would not deny this challenge. I would just go back to the original question of priorities: What is at stake for you, my imaginary researcher? If an answer can be "delivered" by a mechanism that has nothing to do with "science in action," is that "delivery" an acceptable (desirable?) substitute for all the frustrations surrounding old-fashioned observation and reflection? Well, if you have a multi-million dollar grant from Pfizer supporting your efforts to answer the question, I am pretty confident that you would not refuse the lamp! You might draw heavily upon the Internet to write up your conclusions in a way that concealed the role of the lamp; and, in so doing, you would then find yourself back in the world of "science in action." However, sooner or later, word would get out about the lamp; and then concealment would no longer be necessary, nor would the practice of science as we know it!

I have tried hard to be judgment-free in developing this argument; but I shall not hide the fact that I believe that losing the skills of observation and reflection would be to our disadvantage. Nevertheless, I do believe that reflection is best exercised as a combination of solitary and group practices; and, on the basis of personal experiences, I have great appreciation for how the Internet (going back to the days before it was called the Internet) has helped me with my own reflective practices. Where I start to choke is when the Cluetrain crowd comes along and tries to convert those reflective practices into markets (and then the Web 2.0 crowd comes along in their wake to sell the platforms for those markets)! I also choke over the recognition that the practice of science has become like a horse that is constantly being whipped by the economic value of answers. Such a horse can go only so far before breaking down entirely; and that is why I fear that the "buzz" around the end of the scientific journal is actually an ugly omen of the end of the practice of science as we know it.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Response to the Response?

Scott Ritter's "unofficial" response to both the text of the State of the Union and meanings that he felt were "lurking" in that text (and in the audience response to the text) may not, strictly speaking, be a response to Webb's response in the spirit of my own reading of Webb; but it is still directed at Webb's punch line by lining out things that the Democratically-controlled Congress will need to know if they are serious about showing the way. Hopefully, I am not the only one who remembers Ritter's efforts to expose as dangerous fictions those claims that the White House had tried to pass off as justified motives for going to war with Iraq. His language was always direct and clear, reflecting an intuitive, if not actually studied, understanding to how to persuade through rhetoric. Unfortunately, his goal of persuasion was not achieved.

He now seems to have adopted the strategy that what does not work on Republican ideologues may have more success with Democrats. Whether or not he is being realistic about the workings of politics, we have to hope that the Democrats remember that they managed to regain their Congressional power by listing to what the American public was saying. Therefore, at the very least, we, as the American public, should digest and consider with Ritter has to say, because we may end up being that conduit that brings it to the attention of our legislators! In other words we should read Ritter's text as if it were directed at us, regardless of whether in receives any attention from members of Congress.

So what is the text saying? It is warning us that the White House has not learned from its experiences in Iraq. Instead, Ritter sees in the text of the State of the Union an explicit warning signs of a war with Iran; and he sees in the audience response a sign that Congress will be just as complicit the second time around as it was the first. Here is the crux of his argument, including his own selection of text from the State of the Union:

This is not an idle statement on my part. One needs only to read the words of President Bush during his recent State of the Union address:

Osama bin Laden declared: "Death is better than living on this earth with the unbelievers among us." These men are not given to idle words, and they are just one camp in the Islamist radical movement.

In recent times, it has also become clear that we face an escalating danger from Shia extremists who are just as hostile to America, and are also determined to dominate the Middle East.

Many are known to take direction from the regime in Iran, which is funding and arming terrorists like Hezbollah, a group second only to Al Qaeda in the American lives it has taken.

The Shia and Sunni extremists are different faces of the same totalitarian threat. But whatever slogans they chant, when they slaughter the innocent, they have the same wicked purposes: They want to kill Americans, kill democracy in the Middle East and gain the weapons to kill on an even more horrific scale. In the sixth year since our nation was attacked, I wish I could report to you that the dangers have ended. They have not.

And so it remains the policy of this government to use every lawful and proper tool of intelligence, diplomacy, law enforcement and military action to do our duty, to find these enemies and to protect the American people. [Author's emphasis]

What is unrealized in this passage is the loud applause given by members of Congress to the President's words.

Now, in all fairness to the Democrats, I felt there were plenty of times when I could not tell just who was doing the applauding. There were enough of those Republican cheerleaders who bolstered Bush in the past to make it unclear how much enthusiasm was coming from whom. There certainly was one telling moment on the television screen when Cheney stood to join a standing ovation and Pelosi remained seated!

Nevertheless, Ritter knows that there is very little distinction between a bandwagon and a juggernaut; and I think he is right to worry that, even with the power they hold, Democrats could get crushed by the wheels of irrational ideology. Let us hope that, if the Democrats are obliged to show the way, they will not make similar bad decisions fueled by fear; and, in the spirit of Webb's remarks, if we see them trembling on the bring of such bad decisions, then it is our responsibility as their constituents to show them the way!

Responding to the State of the Union Address

I am not, as a rule, a close follower of the proceedings surrounding the annual State of the Union address. I feel that it is primarily a formal ceremony; and, like most ceremonies, substance takes a back seat to style. The "equal time" practice under which the opposing party is then given air time for a response is not much better. It is usually a laundry list of refutations, delivered with less rhetoric than the President's speech (which over recent years really says something about the minimality of rhetorical skill), sustained only by the virtue of being shorter in duration.

This year, however, we did not need media hype to persuade us that things would be different. I wonder if the President entered the Capitol Building with the feeling that this might be the ultimate test of his faith and his decision to seek his own counsel through his personal communion with God. Given the direction that public sentiment has taken leading up to and then following the last election, one cannot imagine that his communion has room for the vox populi vox dei principle ("the voice of the people is the voice of God"). In such a context one can only wonder how many listeners/viewers were there anticipating a Passion Play, rather than a political address.

In the President's favor I have to admit that, not only was the ceremony a political address but also it maintained a level of dignity that had been absent in every preceding State of the Union he had given. Of course the dignity was enhanced by the shift of power in the Congress, meaning that the speaker-audience relationship could no longer fall back on the rhetoric of a football cheerleader revving up the fans. Where there was agreement, it was enthusiastically supported; where there was disagreement, it was evident, but not blatant. In the end there was no Passion Play, and any efforts at substance were kept at a minimally safe level.

Things changed the Jim Webb delivered the response, however. There had been some talk about whether or not the response should be delivered to the same audience in the same chamber (thus obliging the Vice President, if not the President himself, to sit in attendance). I am glad that decision was not made. In a more august setting Senator Webb might have opted to cool down some of his rhetoric, and that would have been a mistake. Yesterday I regretted the lack of anger being voiced by those who would seek to be the next President. Webb understood the rhetorical impact of anger, but he also knew how to control it. While rants may play to the mass audience of Comedy Central, Webb opted for being cool and honest; and, for the first time I can recall, we were hearing a response which, itself, really demanded a serious response.

Fortunately, the full text of Webb's response is on the Born Fighting PAC Web site. (What is going to happen to this PAC now that Webb is in the Senate, by the way? Presumably there is some regulation against a PAC being chaired by a member of Congress, and I would think that it would even be suspect for him to advise other members of the PAC. I am pretty solidly behind the three goals of this PAC. I am glad they mean so much to Webb; but I hope that he will now concentrate on achieving them as a Senator, rather than as the Chair of a PAC. Perhaps the PAC can now disbanded: It achieved its most important material subgoal, which has enabled the pursuit of the primary goals to move to another arena.) Having the full text means that we can do some text analysis, so I propose to try to get at why I felt that this was the high point of last night's proceedings.

I could begin by picking on beginning with celebrating the 400th anniversary of the colonization of Jamestown. This would mean starting by picking nits and would distract from the primary thrust of the argument. Besides, my reaction was probably colored by my recent aggravation with The New World, which I had just seen on cable; so I shall let it pass!

More important was the strategy of beginning with points of agreement tempered by knowing how to turn a "yes" into a "yes-but." This was how Webb addressed the initial themes of the President's address:

Let me simply say that we in the Democratic Party hope that this administration is serious about improving education and healthcare for all Americans, and addressing such domestic priorities as restoring the vitality of New Orleans.

This phrasing can be read as the first unsheathing of the sword. The electoral tide of November may have turned over discontent with our presence in Iraq, but Webb made it clear that, in his book, the mishandling of the aftermath of Katrina was just as much of a national disgrace and that this one was a matter of "domestic priorities."

From here he could move to a "yes-but" with sharper barbs:

Further, this is the seventh time the President has mentioned energy independence in his state of the union message, but for the first time this exchange is taking place in a Congress led by the Democratic Party. We are looking for affirmative solutions that will strengthen our nation by freeing us from our dependence on foreign oil, and spurring a wave of entrepreneurial growth in the form of alternate energy programs. We look forward to working with the President and his party to bring about these changes.

This time the message was "been there, still haven't seen anything done." Also, since the primary purpose of the response was to address "two areas where our respective parties have largely stood in contradiction," Webb chose not to go down the path on inquiry around enthusiasm for ethanol. The investigative ground has now been prepared for making a case that Archer Daniels Midland will probably be the next Halliburton (at least in terms of who gets the most slops from the public trough); but this was not the time for that case. Besides, Iowa has too strong a voice in determining who the Presidential candidates will be!

Instead, Webb launched into those "two areas:" the economy and Iraq. In the first area he moved with a flat-out challenge of the President's assertion of how good things are; and he did this with his first appeal to the wisdom of a past President:

In the early days of our republic, President Andrew Jackson established an important principle of American-style democracy - that we should measure the health of our society not at its apex, but at its base. Not with the numbers that come out of Wall Street, but with the living conditions that exist on Main Street. We must recapture that spirit today.

By making his rhetorical move this way, Webb not only attacked the President's assertion but called out the lie that lurks behind that folksy style that has colored Bush's "presentation of self" before the general public. Webb told that public that such style is just there for show: Bush is very much at home at the "apex" and has no sense of all of the "base." (It took Spike Lee to show us, in When the Levees Broke, that this is very much a family thing and that the President is very much the son of his parents.) As a result he cannot speak for the struggles of day-to-day-life than now plague most Americans and can only say that things look great from his (highly restricted) vantage point. Getting this point across to the general public is probably more important to Webb's one Born Fighting agenda than reminding that public about their discontent with the situation in Iraq.

Regarding that second "area," Webb realized that he had to do more than rub salt in the wound. He did this by trying to remind his audience of what the most important issues were:

The war's costs to our nation have been staggering. Financially. The damage to our reputation around the world. The lost opportunities to defeat the forces of international terrorism. And especially the precious blood of our citizens who have stepped forward to serve.

The majority of the nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought; nor does the majority of our military. We need a new direction. Not one step back from the war against international terrorism. Not a precipitous withdrawal that ignores the possibility of further chaos. But an immediate shift toward strong regionally-based diplomacy, a policy that takes our soldiers off the streets of Iraq's cities, and a formula that will in short order allow our combat forces to leave Iraq.

In other words we are bankrupting our economy (which, as I had previously observed, is what Osama wanted in the first place), the terrorist threat is still with us, and our actions in Iraq are not really benefiting those we are supposed to be helping.

This brings us to the coda. Here again, Webb based is argument on two past Presidents. In the spirit of bipartisanship, he sought the wisdom of past Republican Presidents:

Regarding the economic imbalance in our country, I am reminded of the situation President Theodore Roosevelt faced in the early days of the 20th century. America was then, as now, drifting apart along class lines. The so-called robber barons were unapologetically raking in a huge percentage of the national wealth. The dispossessed workers at the bottom were threatening revolt.

Roosevelt spoke strongly against these divisions. He told his fellow Republicans that they must set themselves "as resolutely against improper corporate influence on the one hand as against demagogy and mob rule on the other." And he did something about it.

As I look at Iraq, I recall the words of former general and soon-to-be President Dwight Eisenhower during the dark days of the Korean War, which had fallen into a bloody stalemate. "When comes the end?" asked the General who had commanded our forces in Europe during World War Two. And as soon as he became President, he brought the Korean War to an end.

These Presidents took the right kind of action, for the benefit of the American people and for the health of our relations around the world. Tonight we are calling on this President to take similar action, in both areas. If he does, we will join him. If he does not, we will be showing him the way.

Thus, the conclusion is a challenge to not just the White House but also the Congress. We know the actions that need to be taken. Who takes those actions is less important than whether or not they are taken at all. Thus, Webb has not only challenged the President to rise to the occasion but also challenged the Congress to assume the burden if the President fails to do so.

The worst thing we can say about politics today is that it has become too bland to recognize urgency. Bush could capitalize on that blandness in his State of the Union address. The best thing that can be said of Webb is that he pulled out all the right stops in an effort to remind us of the urgency.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

On "Presidential" Material

Truthdig has run an interesting contribution by the Reverend Madison Shockley that sees Barack Obama's move for the presidency as an opportunity for racial healing. This makes for fascinating reading in light of that study of racism that just appeared on the Nieman Watchdog Web site. It is all very well and good to talk about racial healing in the “freak show” of presidential politics; but the real issue is what is happening in day-to-day life. What makes this recent racism study so important is that it is not about the elevated world of getting elected to high office but about the more mundane problem of getting a job; and, as I have discussed, the basic conclusion is that racism looms larger than we would like to think.

Reverend Shockley seems to imply that we have progressed from the days of the “ANGRY black candidates.” I fear we have regressed. Racial distinctions may have passed; but now, for all the lip service that "audacity" is getting, the discourse of presidential politics lacks angry candidates of any color. America does, indeed, desperately need healing; but it is a healing that can only come from reflection. I do not yet see Obama leading us to that reflection in a constructive way.

Interestingly enough, most of the comments on Shockley's article have overlooked the argument about racial healing and concentrated, instead, on Obama's qualifications to be President. I was particularly interested in a list of reasons by a reader writing under the name of Evergreen:

He is intelligent.
He is inspirational and a unifier and people do love him.
He sees problems clearly (intelligence again) and has identified the basic priorities.
He understands and approves of the principles our government was founded upon.
His intelligence will compensate for any lack of experience.
And perhaps most important:
To the best of my knowledge Obama has not sold his ideals to anybody and is not owned by the corporate world.

This makes for nice enough reading; but for me it served as a reminder that I ought to start writing about Isaiah Berlin in this new blog (since he was one of my favorite topics on the old one). In particular I would like to cite the "Political Judgement" essay, which is included in the Sense of Reality collection. Berlin's basic argument is that, in the arena of politics, intelligence is not the deciding factor, nor should it be, since it often overlooks key issues of humanity that cannot be ignored in any relationship between a leader and those being led. (Lest you draw the wrong conclusion about him, I doubt that anyone who ever read anything by Berlin would question his own capacity for intelligence!) To draw upon the reasoning in Evergreen's list, one of the ways in which Berlin develops his argument is by demonstrating that intelligence cannot compensate for experience. Besides, too much emphasis on intelligence conjures up Plato's image of the philosopher-king. Not only has this already been distorted to destructive proportions by the neoconservatives, but it leads us to forget that "Republic" was a relatively early work. Plato, himself, tried to put his theories into practice; and many of his later writings show him to be sadder and wiser (not to mention lucky to be alive)!

The Real Failure

It seems appropriate that, so close to the State of the Union address, The Washington Post should run an extended analysis by Anthony Shadid under the headline "War's Arab Supporters Bitter Over Its Results." Posted from Dubai, this is an extended survey of reactions to the American presence and mission in Iraq, primarily from journalists, many of whom are under such scrutiny by their home governments that they have a deep appreciation for the values of free speech and freedom of the press (probably more of an appreciation than most of us do). These are the most important beneficiaries of any efforts to bring democratic practices to the Middle East, and they are very direct in declaring that the American efforts in this respect have failed. Here is a typical example of the language these journalists invoke:

"It's a success story for al-Qaeda, a success story for autocratic Arab regimes that made democracy look ugly in their people's eyes. They can say to their people: 'Look at the democracy that the Americans want to bring to you. Democracy is trouble. You may as well forget about what the Americans promise you. They promise you death,' " said Salameh Nematt, a Jordanian analyst and the former Washington bureau chief for the Arabic-language daily newspaper al-Hayat.

As we might expect, this analysis is not without irony. Here is part of Shadid's own account:

In the fall of Hussein's government, some still see a redeeming moment. They cite Lebanon's 15-year civil war as a hopeful analogy: In time, after breathtaking carnage, the war ended there, and Lebanon remained a troubled but recognizable country.

Yet these words have appeared on the heels of a general strike led by Hezbollah that could well throw Lebanon back into that state of civil war from which it had hoped to recover.

Unfortunately, the theme that recurs the most in these accounts is pretty much the same one we have encountered in our own "internal" arguments against the war:

But those who most fervently supported the American action bestow much of the blame on the United States itself, in a critique all the more bitter because it comes from admirers: There was no plan for the postwar period and too few troops; Iraqis played too small a role in the early days; and the Americans fumbled about as Iran, Syria and other countries outdueled them in Iraq. Fundamentally, some say, U.S. officials knew too little about the country they inherited, imagining a blank slate for their vision.

Here, at least, we see a sign of trans-national agreement. In another gesture of irony, however, it is just not the sort of agreement we had (or wanted to have) in mind!

Monday, January 22, 2007

A Day Late and a Dollar Short

If there is any good news to this story, it is that the BBC has obtained the video of an Israeli settler in Hebron harassing her Palestinian neighbor, the video that had been so aggressively (and righteously) attacked by Yosef Lapid. The bad news is that they presented it as an abbreviated story of two cultures at each other's throats, restricting themselves to comments from within Hebron and making no mention of Lapid's remarks and why they were important. Furthermore, on their Web site this story is available only as a video clip, a rather evanescent medium for such a complex issue. (The half-hour news summary I just watched seemed to feel that Leonardo Di Caprio's comments about Blood Diamond on the even of the Oscar nominations demanded more air time than Hebron!) In other words (with respect to the title) they were two days behind Al Jazeera in reporting the Hebron story at all and short-changed most of the issues that made it more than just another story about conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians. So much for the BBC being a cut above the news reported by American television!

Why Story Needs Discourse

Strictly speaking, that Burke pentad, to which I referred earlier today, focuses on only have of the domain of narrative analysis: the description of the events being recounted. In the terminology of Seymour Chatman, from whom I acquired my working knowledge of narrative theory, this half is called the story; and its complementary half is called the discourse. If the story is concerned with those elements that need to be accounted for, the discourse is concerned with how those accounts are rendered, such as the rhetorical devices that guide the reader of the text through the accounts. The significance of discourse is illustrated in almost painful clarity in a report of a recent sociological study about racism that is now available, as summarized by the author, at the Nieman Watchdog Web site. Here is the critical text of the summary:

In this experiment, I hired young men to pose as job applicants, assigning them resumes with equal levels of education and experience, and sending them to apply for real entry-level job openings all over Milwaukee. There were two teams, one white and one black. The two members of each team also alternated presenting information about a fictitious criminal record (a drug felony), which they “’fessed up to” on the application form. During six months of fieldwork, the two teams audited 350 employers, applying for a wide range of entry level jobs such as waiters, sales assistants, laborers, warehouse workers, couriers, and customer service representatives. The results of these studies were startling. Among those with no criminal record, white applicants were more than twice as likely to receive a callback relative to equally qualified black applicants. Even more troubling, whites with a felony conviction fared just as well, if not better, than a black applicant with a clean background. Racial disparities have been documented in many contexts, but here, comparing the two job applicants side by side, we are confronted with a troubling reality: Being black in America today is just about the same as having a felony conviction in terms of one’s chances of finding a job.

This is about as good an illustration as we can hope for of the critical role that discourse can play, regardless of the strength of the "underlying facts" of the story. The greatest virtue of this account is the way in which it presents its key result in a manner that is as vivid as it is meaningful. The implication that the "level of the playing field" for a black with a clean record is the same as that for a white with a felony conviction cannot fail to grab the attention of the reader! It would be nice to believe that the strength of that formulation will be enough to incite action to change this imbalance, but I am not holding my breath!

The Narrative of Outsourcing

I just decided to feed the search term "outsourcing" to Google, and I got 70,600,000 results! I should take this as a sign that the topic really does not need any more attention; but I suspect that anyone who starts to wade through all of those results will encounter precisely the sort of complexity that metanarrative is supposed to resolve. However, on the basis of a case study just examined at Confused of Calcutta, I am not sure there is any need to "go meta." It should be sufficient to go back to the basics of narrative analysis. Rather than review those basics (grounded in Kenneth Burke's "pentad" of dramatism), I shall rely on the hyperlink I just provided and try to write the example in such a way that it will speak for itself.

The example is based on the following "rant" (the blog author's wording") at The Park Paradigm:

Next up… a couple days ago I linked to a video on featuring Weatherbill’s CEO. Today I wanted to show it to someone and clicked on the link. Well, after 24 hours you need to have a paid subscription to see the archives. (I’m not going to debate now whether or not that is a good policy or business model etc. - you can probably guess what I think in any case…) It costs $9.95/mo (no option to pay in another currency of course…); I already pay for a cable subscription to CNBC (gee why wouldn’t they think to offer web access to their cable subscribers…); but I’m more often in front of my laptop than my TV and I think it’s a really good business news service so I thought what the hell and spent 5 minutes signing up and giving them by credit card number. Then I went to back to try an watch the Weatherbill clip. Boom. You need a Windows PC and Media Player to use CNBCplus. Mac and Quicktime users bugger off. Funny thing is the free service works just fine with Quicktime. What the hell is up with that kind of decision??? You actually convince someone to buy a paid subscription to your website and then you give them fewer choices and try to lock them in to one proprietary standard. And they can’t even hide behind some lame excuse that they don’t know how to make it work because it works on the free-to-view site! (Maybe I shouldn’t shout too loud lest they disable this compatibility…)

This narrative was brought to my attention by JP Rangaswamy, who runs Confused of Calcutta. He analyzed the account as follows:

Sean’s example of and its archives policy made me wonder about something. Why would anyone do something like that? Why would anyone take something that was already made available for multiple devices and then pay to reduce the market opportunity?

Three possibilities:

* One, incompetence. They didn’t know they were doing the restricting.
* Two, greed. They were paid to use a walled garden.
* Three, line-of-least-resistance. They could not find a way of implementing their DRM without restricting choice further.

Even the optimist in me thinks it is possibility 3. After all, we live in a world where people can come up with rank stupidities such as Region Coding.

This explanation is probably as good as any, at least if you live in the objective techno-centric world where all actions are teleological; but narratology can help us discover that there is "more to the story," so to speak. The point I would like to make is that there is a major source of confusion in Sean’s use of the pronoun “they,” which JP then translated to “anyone.” The confusion lies in the assumption that was the agent and that “something like that” was one of the agent’s motivated acts.

I recently ran into a similar case of silliness in the way Comcast handles their On Demand service. So when I heard one of the Comcast flacks pitch this service at a marketing seminar, I held my tongue during the Q&A and then confronted her face-to-face. I pointed out the instance of silliness; and, of course, the first thing I encountered was that she was totally unaware of it! That was what I expected; but I pushed forward with the question pretty much as JP phrased it: “Why would Comcast do something like that?” This time I should have been better prepared for the answer: They didn’t (at least not directly)! Everything about the On Demand service, functionality and interfaces, had been outsourced! All Comcast did was enable subscribers’ set-top boxes to link in to it! On the basis of the beginning of my encounter with the flack, it was clear that there was little, if any, review of either the design or the implementation of the service.

So, invoking the principle that “as Comcast goes, so goes the world of mass media” (at least in the United States), my guess is that had no active hand in what Sean encountered and was probably not aware of their subscribers encountering such silliness. From that point of view, JP’s first possibility probably hits closest to the mark. No one at knew what was happening. However, the incompetence goes deeper than setting access policy; it has to do with responsibility for all services provided to subscribers (and, for that matter, visitors). There is nothing wrong with outsourcing in theory; but, if the customer (in this case Comcast or does not take the responsibility of reviewing what the outsourcing agent is required to do and what actually gets done (at a bare minimum, since I am a rabid advocate of mid-stream review), then no one should be surprised when the whole outsourcing process screws the pooch. (Hey, if that language is good enough for Law & Order, it’s good enough for me!) So, rather than accuse of incompetence, I would write the whole thing off to laziness (which, more often than not, is the underlying cause of incompetence)!

The Hidden Back-Story

In a recent item I invoked the concept of a "nuclear power Renaissance." I had appropriated this language from what I took to be an investigative report in SPIEGEL ONLINE, which had prompted me to consider at least one possible counter-argument in my previous blog. However, reading this morning has led me to wonder about the objectivity of this report, if not in the content then at least in the timing of its release. What the report failed to mention is that Germany, itself, is currently experiencing what Financial Times report Bertrand Benoit called "acrimonious debate" over a commitment that the previous administration had made in 2000 to phase out nuclear power. Merkel has decided to honor this commitment, in spite of the consequences forecast in the lead sentence of Benoit's report:

Germany’s plan to phase out nuclear energy will make it miss its CO2 emission targets, raise electricity prices, cause more blackouts and "dramatically" increase Berlin’s dependence on imported Russian gas, an independent study has warned.

In an earlier article Benoit and his colleagues had indicated that Merkel was not at all happy about this commitment:

Ms Merkel has never made any secret of her aversion to the deal, struck in June 2000 between the Social Democratic government of the time and energy producers, to take Germany’s nuclear power stations off the grid by 2020.

Yet as chancellor of a “grand coalition” between the SPD and her Christian Democratic Union, she agreed in the contract signed in November 2005 by the two parties that the law governing the nuclear phase-out “could not be amended”.

“It is very unlikely that the SPD will change its mind on this and, if it does not, it will be very hard to achieve anything in the life of this parliament,” an official close to Ms Merkel said, suggesting that the chancellor might make it an issue of the CDU’s next electoral campaign, in 2009.

In other words Merkel is in the extremely uncomfortable position of having to weigh energy policy consequences, environmental consequences (of the sort I had tried to raise in my previous blog), and political consequences against each other.

This now puts Falksohn's report in SPIEGEL ONLINE in a less favorable light. By restricting the focus of the article to energy policy and then setting that policy in a global context ("all the other kids are doing it"), Falksohn ignored both the environmental and the political sides of the story. Addressing the global environment is as painful as it is difficult, particularly since we neither have nor can expect any sort of global authority for setting and accounting for energy policy. On the other hand neglecting the political side leads one to wonder whether or not the article appeared when it did in order to fuel that "acrimonious debate," giving the opponents of the nuclear phase-out the bully pulpit of a respected publication for the general German public.

Given the general suspicion I now hold for American "mass media" as a source of information, I have enjoyed the SPIEGEL decision to set up an English site. That is why it is on my WHAT I READ list, along with Al Jazeera English. However, I have a pretty good model of what I can expect from Al Jazeera (thanks, in part, to the documentary Control Room, which was perceptive about both sides of their coin). I am not as well informed about any biases that may be implicit in the "editorial culture" at SPIEGEL. I see now that I am going to have to read their articles more carefully, even when those articles purport to be objective reports!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Party On!

It's the Sunday morning before the State of the Union address! The Sabbath-day gasbags are tanking up at the hot-air pumps in preparation for their weekly public rituals, so this seems to leave The Washington Post at loose ends in deciding what to put in the morning edition. The result seems to have been the decision to focus on the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents Association (WHCA), scheduled for April 21. (God forbid that they should cover any "fresh news." I check the entire home page for any sign of a follow-up story about the Dink assassination in Turkey. As far as I could tell, it was entirely absent; and that, dear reader, is why I feel it is more important to include Al Jazeera English on my "What I Read" list and not bother with The Washington Post!) However, lame this story may be, one can always mine the discourse.

Since the first rule of discourse is, "Context is everything," context is the best place to begin. The WHCA annual dinner is sort of the Friar's roast for the political set. (The White House, itself, is the subject of the roast and is usually represented by the President himself.) This used to carry more weight when there was a lower supply of political humor, only a few columnists, cartoonists, and stand-up comedians, in other words before Comedy Central institutionalized political humor with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (which now seem to command far more attention than any of the "straight news" programs on the more ostensibly "serious" networks). Last year the WHCA recognized this sea-change by inviting Colbert to host the dinner. Colbert rose to the occasion with his usual no-prisoners style and seems to have been best remembered for comparing the Bush administration to the Hindenburg disaster. Since one of my favorite topic in my last blog was the power of satirical thinking (in an age where too many seem to have lost the ability to read satire), I figure that there are any number of fascinating ways to read this particular quip (not to mention Colbert in general). Unfortunately, this turned out to be too much for the WHCA (although I have yet to find an account of how the President reacted); so they decided that controversy would not be part of the recipe for this year's roast.

The result was to invite Rich Little to host this year's dinner, a Las Vegas impersonator who is probably totally unknown to the under-40 set. Now, in fairness to the WHCA, according to their current president, Steve Scully (C-SPAN), Little was far from their first choice. He came in behind David Letterman, Jay Leno, Billy Crystal, and Martin Short. As far as I can tell, the real news story here is that all four of these guys turned down the gig. The Washington Post, however, decided not to go down this path but at least was willing to report that Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review, did choose to go there. Rieder's reading of the chain events is that it is time to scrap the dinner itself, and he is admirably blunt about it (as the Post reported).

After the Colbert controversy last year, and an earlier one in which Bush joked about not finding weapons of mass destruction, Rieder wrote that such press-politico events reflect the "smugness" and arrogance of the news media, suggesting that they are "part of a wealthy elite, completely out of touch with ordinary Americans."

The hiring of "a controversy-free" Little underscores the point, he says: "Do we really need a neon sign to proclaim the coziness of the White House press corps and the White House's occupant? It's really hard for me to understand making a decision like this, particularly so close to the WMD debacle. The dinner must go."

In other words, to continue one of my favorite themes, Rieder uncovered the metanarrative behind the events of the story. That metanarrative is about the fact that the relationship between the White House and the so-called "legitimate" media has become so corrupted that the general public has been drifting towards the satire of Comedy Central as a "primary" news source; and, just as denial has been a major White House strategy ever since we started ramping up our aggressive stance after 9/11, that strategy has been assumed by the WHCA as they attempt to exclude satire for their internal celebration of their own practices. So it is that from a relatively silly little narrative about satire we can read a more penetrating metanarrative about irony!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Need for Effective Reading

One of the themes that recurred frequently in my last blog was the idea that effectiveness was often (always?) more important that efficiency. I first encountered this distinction in the area of decision-making; but it also spilled over to a project I had contributed to called "Productive Reading," where I would argue that, for most of the reading matter we were considering, productivity that was effective was more important than productivity that was efficient. I was reminded of this distinction when this blog received its first comment from a reader who seemed to enjoy the approach I was taking to interpreting news. (Since I received all of one comment over the seven months of writing my blog, I was happy enough to receive any comment is quickly!) The comment reminded me that, while there is no shortage of editorializing about every day's news (particular the sorts of things that are coming over the wire these days), that editorializing does not always involve the sort of "productive reading" that our project was trying to address; and, sadly, that may be because it is always much easier to bounce back with an opinion then to worry about whether or not your opinion is grounded in what the text was actually trying to say!

My perspective may also be informed by my recent efforts to read Derrida, which have turned out to be less traumatic than I had anticipated! One of the insights that helped me over the trauma was a remark in David Allison's translation of Speech and Phenomena, which tried to frame Derrida's work in terms of the mediaeval trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Our modernist disposition leads us to focus almost entirely on "extracting the logic" from the text; and we have even seen efforts in artificial intelligence to do just that with news stories. I would argue, though, that extracting the logic is not sufficient for critical reading. I once heard it said that Robert Musil spent every day at his favorite cafe table in fin de siècle Vienna reading the day's newspapers with an editor's pencil in his hand, because he believed that every grammatical error was a sign of a deeper error of thought. It is certainly the case that understanding the grammar and uncover subtleties that escape us if we are only interested in what semantics tells us about logical relationships, and we see that same kind of understanding in the way Derrida can bring new meaning to reading familiar texts, such as the writing of Freud. However, for Allison the discipline that was most neglected was rhetoric, which, I suppose, is why I have a tendency to use that noun to excess in much of my own writing! Nevertheless, the point is that, however much we think that reporting as an objective documentation of facts, it is all but impossible to write about anything (with the possible exception of mathematical equations) without being rhetorical. Our very choice of words shapes the persuasive power of our text, and all reporters know this. So my study of Derrida has encouraged me to examine those texts that we assume to be the most objective and then tease the subjectivity of the writer out of the text itself, drawing upon the subtle hints of grammar and the less subtle hints of rhetoric.

Do we have time for all of this? Well, most of us mere mortals don't really have time for "all the news that's fit to print" in the first place; so, no, we cannot read every news item we encounter that productively. On the other hand knowing that there is more to any story than its objective logic primes us to look for cues in the grammar and rhetoric that something interesting may be bubbling beneath the surface. This is how I know when to dig deeper, sometimes only on the basis of a seemingly innocuous headline. Yes, it takes time; but I have discovered that, as it becomes more of a habit, it is also fun. Since I no longer trust any established source of media, those habits are what I need to get through the news sources and feel as if I am not being manipulated; and having that feeling is worth the effort!