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Archive for December, 2010

Elizabeth Edwards on political discourse

December 9, 2010 Leave a comment

At my earlier blog, Elizabeth Edwards joined a 2003 conversation about the quality of political discourse, making a distinction between political speech that is essentially marketing and speech that creates “a community of thought, analysis, and exchange.” Here is her entry:

As someone who has participated in online dialogues for years (previously in newsgroups, now in blogs), I have found there is an element on online dialogue that is inhibiting to political candidates (and surrogates) and maybe also inhibiting to productive analysis generally — and that is tone. There is an entertaining edge to online dialogue. In fact maybe there is an imperative of an entertaining edge — for it is easier to scroll past a dull online entry than even to reach for the remote to change the television channel. Maureen Dowd would be good at combining content and edge, but we are not all blessed with that talent or that license.

Even naming the entries on a weblog or a forum has become a form of marketing — “come, read me” — so the writer, blogger, poster feels compelled to whip up interest with a teaser and then feels to compelled to try to live up to the tease. (Of course, like many Hollywood trailers, often if you have read the title of the entry, you have read the best the author has to offer.) The compulsion can not be satisfied either — because each day the last day’s offering becomes stale and a new teaser is needed. Maybe even Maureen Dowd could not keep pace.

And for many bloggers and commenters, it is not about dialogue, it is in fact about marketing — in my present world, a candidate, and ultimately in every field, our point of view. The desire then to influence aggravates these structural shortcomings — more tease, more edge, more readers, more baiting responses so there are more comments — and with all of this, the elements of productive dialogue become less and less useful.

But I don’t despair. Serious blogs, and Lessig’s comes to mind first, have really become a community of thought, analysis, and exchange. Is that the model? I don’t know. I suspect there is not a single model. All I know is this comment is already too long for the medium and with each new sentence I lose yet another reader.

The gift of information

December 6, 2010 Leave a comment

Concerning the Wikileaks work of Julian Assange, Misha Glenny writes about the traditional imbalance between a government’s access to information and the access of the rest of us:

[K]nowledge translates into power and influence. For most of history, government has enjoyed an easy superiority in adjusting the ebb and flow of information. Now the rules of the contest have changed.

Against this traditional control, Glenny sets an equally long-standing human desire to know and to tell the story of what we know. The powerful, however, consider it bad form for others to have a chance to tell the story.

And it is a sign of a properly worldly world leader, it seems, to want this control to be tightly held. “Is this not the curse of power, forever compelled to conceal and dissemble?” Glenny asks. In a lovely detail, she notices a seemingly older and wiser former British prime minister returning (as the powerful should) to the savvy fold:

In his recent memoir, Tony Blair berates himself for introducing a Freedom of Information Act. ‘‘You idiot. You naïve, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop,’’ he writes.

The powerful are foolish to want information to circulate in the world, according to Blair. He once thought otherwise.

(“The Gift of Information,” NY Times, 12/4/10)

Making the expert listen

December 6, 2010 Leave a comment

In the NY Times Diagnosis feature this week a key element of the story is a husband who tells a doctor that she has to reconsider the diagnosis and treatment being given his wife because it is not working. “We can’t go on this way,” he tells her.

For whatever reason, Dr. Lisa Sanders is able to hear his remark seriously, and she returns to the details of the woman’s medical history, where she discovers a new pattern and is able to make a fresh and successful diagnosis.

Doctors know that they should be open to the ideas and opinions of non-experts, and in fact they should rely quite a bit on them, Sanders notes:

In medical school, I was often told that if you listen, the patient will tell you what she has. It turns out that sometimes the patient’s husband will, too.

It appears, then, that experts are tempted by the tools of their expertise–the diagnostic tests, say, and the machinery and the science–tempted so fully at times that they might forget that the patient, and even the patient’s friends and family, may have in hand vital clues and even accurate judgments about a course of treatment. In an expert-dominated society, we need customs by which non-experts are granted their turn to speak in every arena, and we need experts who understand the limitations of their training and the science of their field. Sanders shows ways that one kind of expert can forget the lesson.

In fact, part of the problem might be a misunderstanding of the nature of science–a faith in its powers that is not accurately aligned with the amazing extent as well as the real limits of its powers. Possibly, too, experts play the odds, letting their science tell them the most likely diagnosis but forgetting that they are making a wager with a person’s life, not carrying out a rigorously logical methodology that always leads to truth.

(“A Heart Loses Its Way,” 12/3/10)

Own your own data

December 5, 2010 Leave a comment

Imagine that you owned the digital data produced by your own life, Indhira Rojas asks with the help of NY Times writer Rob Walker. You know, the data produced whenever you do business with a credit card, operate your smart phone, visit a website. Other people are gathering this information and using it.

A quick example from Walker’s opening paragraph: the grocery store gives you a small discount for using a card that lets them track the pattern of your shopping. This information must be of some value to them, and might be of some value to each of us. Right now, we give this information away, and we couldn’t easily get it back anyway. But maybe we could get it back. Maybe we should.

Rojas has in mind new ways to spot the patterns of our own behavior, that is, to improve our own lives. But couldn’t you also sell the data? After all, it is, in some way, yours. But for now we can’t even easily have access to it.

(“Wasted Data,” 12/3/10)

Little messages that mean

December 5, 2010 Leave a comment

Votes are little messages that matter, but what exactly do votes say? According to Elizabeth Drew, our politicians routinely claim to know exactly what voters were saying with their votes:

After an election, there’s inevitably a variety of pronouncements of politicians on what they “heard the voters say.” They and the various pundits largely “hear” an echo of their own previously held views and find vindication of their particular hobbyhorses. It’s a subjective and self-serving exercise.

Perhaps we will learn somehow to send messages that are more precise, less easy for politicians to translate in such self-serving ways. To accomplish this, the ballot box is a necessary but not sufficient means of communication.

(“In the Bitter New Washington,” NY Review of Books, 12/23/10 issue)

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