FUDushima continued

Paul Raven @ 21-03-2011

I appear to have lost my original source for the tweet that pointed me to this piece at Talking Points Memo, so my apologies for the lack of attribution; I think it’s been doing the rounds, and – if there’s any justice on the intertubes – it should continue doing so (preferably at high volume), in the hope that it might counteract even a small part of the underinformed lipflapping about the Fukushima reactor. So: excerpts from a letter to TPM from a Japanese student who was in the country for the quake and its aftermath:

… the Japanese news coverage has been largely calm, rational, informed, and critical. Some of this is naturally to avoid creating panic, but it has been able to do that because as a whole it has answered many of the questions people have and thus gained a certain level of trust. As a media scholar, I can pick this coverage apart for its problems, and of course point to information that is still not getting out there, but on the whole it is functioning as journalism should.

It also just looks good because there is something so ugly beside it: the non-Japanese coverage. That, I am afraid, has been full of factual errors and other problems. This has not been just Fox News, but also CNN, MSNBC, ABC, and even the New York Times to differing degrees. They get the reactors mixed up or report information that is simply wrong (e.g., writing that the TEPCO workers had fully abandoned the effort to control the plant because of radiation levels when TEPCO had only withdrawn some non-essential personnel). They are perpetually late, continuing to report things the Japanese media had shown to be wrong or different the day before.

[…]

There are results to this irresponsible journalism. Many foreigners in Japan who do not have the language capabilities to access Japanese media or who are used to foreign media are in a state of panic, when around them Japanese are largely calm. People in California start searching for iodide pills on the internet and there are already people voicing worries about whether Japanese cars are now all going to be radioactive. But worst of all, the inordinate and sensationalist attention given to the reactors by American and other media has taken attention away from where it should be: on the likely nearly 20,000 people who died in the quake and tsunamis, on the nearly 400,000 homeless people, and on the immense suffering this has caused for Japan as a whole.

[…]

Japanese people and government officials will have to spend many years investigating all that went wrong in this accident. I feel it is likely that many at TEPCO and in the government will be found at fault for inadequate preparation, overly optimistic projections, willful ignorance, and just plain lying to the public. This will be an investigation in which the Japanese media will play an important part. But the non-Japanese media should also look at itself and see where it went wrong―so that it can better prepare for a similar accident which, unfortunately, is not altogether impossible in the United States as well.

I don’t think I need to add anything to that, really. But as a side-dish, here’s Tim Maly on the half-life of information in the 24-hour newschurn:

At this moment, the current status of the nuclear plants in Japan matters for about 200,000 people in the world. This is the number of people who can do anything about it. Most of those 200,000 people can only decide whether or not to flee further away. They need information at the 15-minute scale probably. A very tiny minority of the people need information at the moment to moment scale. This is the team of people tasked with bringing the reactors under control. For the rest of us, we need information at the daily scale or less. Because the ramifications of Japan reactor situation IF THEY MATTER AT ALL matter in regard to decisions made at the scale of decades and centuries.

It is completely insane that countries are announcing that they are scaling back or cancelling nuclear programs based on Japan’s troubles. If those programs were a good idea two weeks ago they are still a good idea now. And if they might have been converted from a good idea to a bad idea based on evidence coming out of Japan then smart decision makers need to wait until the information has the stability and solidity of data that will support a decade/century scale decision.

As a number of people have said to me over the last week or so, there surely needs to be new debate and research into nuclear safety.However, it needs to be done by experts in the field in question, with as much verifiable information as possible, as opposed to being done by uninformed television anchors with a five-minute Physics 101 briefing tucked in their suit pocket.

We have access to an utterly unprecedented volume and rate of information flow. Unless we learn to filter for the truth, we’ll drown in lies.

[ And yeah, I make mistakes from time to time; I’m making no claims to perfection here, and I learn a lot from sharp people in the comment threads, for which I’m grateful. It’s a collaborative effort, really… which is another thing we’d do well to remember as we look at problems overseas and worry about how they’ll effect us. ]


Churnalism, undersight

Paul Raven @ 25-02-2011

Also known as “nontent”: largely unedited chunks of press release copypasta’d into supposedly legitimate British journalism venues. This clever project can help you spot it in the wild. It’s depressingly common, especially in those organs which I increasingly find myself bracketing in a category labelled “the usual suspects”…

I like projects like this, because they let us watch the watchmen (and the watchmen who are supposed to be watching the watchmen). For the last few months I’ve been kicking around a concept called “undersight” for exactly this sort of citizen sousveillance phenomenon, and thinking it a pretty smart coining… until a swift Google revealed that someone at H+ Magazine beat me to it back in 2009, and that was probably where I first picked the term up before burying it in my subconscious. Ah, well. Still a useful term, though, and one I’ll be keeping.


Perpetual perfect present: journalism strategies for an atemporal world

Paul Raven @ 18-02-2011

Apparently the BBC has been doing this for a while, but this is the first time I’ve seen anyone mention it explicitly; The Guardian attempts to address the atemporality of the globalised 24/7 newsriver:

So our new policy, adopted last week (wherever you are in the world), is to omit time references such as last night, yesterday, today, tonight and tomorrow from guardian.co.uk stories. If a day is relevant (for example, to say when a meeting is going to happen or happened) we will state the actual day – as in “the government will announce its proposals in a white paper on Wednesday [rather than ‘tomorrow’]” or “the government’s proposals, announced on Wednesday [rather than ‘yesterday’], have been greeted with a storm of protest”.

The BBC website, among others, adopted a similar strategy some time ago and I feel it gives an immediacy to their reports akin to watching or listening to a live news broadcast. So in a sense we are, perhaps belatedly, recognising another way in which a website is different from a newspaper.

We are likely to make much more use of the present tense (“the government is facing a deepening crisis …”) and present perfect tense (“the crisis engulfing the government has intensified …”); until the change of approach, we would probably have written “the crisis engulfing the government intensified tonight …”

Largely unmentioned is the root cause of the problem being addressed, namely that folk who aren’t “digital natives” don’t make a habit of checking the date and time on online articles. To be fair, I only learned that necessity the hard way, after being called out on having posted some five-year-old nugget as news…

Though this raises an interesting facet of atemporality, namely that not all information is time sensitive to the same degree. A lot of more general knowledge is “news” if it’s new to the person reading it. The central channel of the river flows faster than the edges…


Careless whispers

Paul Raven @ 20-01-2011

This just in: Chinese whispers happen on real-time social communications platforms just as they do in real life, only faster!

Here in the UK yesterday there was a brief Twitter panic about a non-existant shooting in London’s Oxford Circus, highlighting the problems inherent to the 24-hour global peer-to-peer news cycle: namely that when an erroneous signal gets out onto the network, it’ll probably propagate more quickly than the less senational truth of the matter. Cue lots of “bad Twitter!” punditry, which largely misses the point: this phenomenon isn’t new, it’s just a faster version of the good ol’ scuttlebutt. Some sensible thinking from GigaOM:

Traditional media have struggled with the issue as well, with newspapers often running corrections days or weeks after a mistake was made, with no real indication of what the actual error was. In a sense, Twitter is like a real-time, distributed version of a news-wire service such as Reuters or Associated Press; when those services post something that is wrong, they simply send out an update to their customers, and hope that no one has published it in the paper or online yet.

Twitter’s great strength is that it allows anyone to publish, and re-publish, information instantly, and distribute that information to thousands of people within minutes. But when a mistake gets distributed, there’s no single source that can send out a correction. That’s the double-edged sword such a network represents. Perhaps — since we all make up this real-time news network — it’s incumbent on all of us to do the correcting, even if it’s just by re-tweeting corrections and updates as eagerly as we re-tweeted the original.

Taking responsibility for our own contributions to the global conversation? What a controversial suggestion! Of course, the problem is that “nothing much happening in Oxford Circus after all” just isn’t as interesting a conversational nugget, and therefore doesn’t get passed on as quickly or frequently. (Compare and contrast with the old aphorism that good news doesn’t sell newspapers.)

Related to this is the rush-to-explain (and rush-to-blame) that follows a story, real or otherwise: see, for example, the instant dogpile of people pinning the blame for the Tucson tragedy on Sarah Palin*. Again, it’s an age-old process that’s been scaled up to global size and accelerated to the speed of electrons through wires, and I suspect that we’ll adjust to it eventually: like a teenager adjusting to his or her lengthening limbs, we’re bound to knock a few things over as we grow.

[ * In the name of pre-emptively deflecting my own dogpile, I think that the political rhetoric from all sides in the US has demonstrably contributed to escalating tensions, and I find Sarah Palin an utterly repugnant exploiter of ignorance, be it her own or other people’s. However, the rush to find her prints on the metaphorical pistolgrip was not only counterproductive (that sort of political fire thrives on the oxygen of martyrdom), but was also precisely the same sort of demonisation of ideological figureheads that the left accuses the right of relying on. The further apart ideologically the two polar positions appear to be, the more alike in character they seem to become… and while it might be possible to pin that problem on The New Media™, I don’t think it’ll stick. More depressing still were the countless articles decrying Palin’s “it’s all about me!” attitude to the tragedy, coming as they did in the wake of half the damned internet telling Palin it was all about her. C’mon, folks, work it out. ]


Speculative entrepreneurship

Paul Raven @ 17-01-2011

Via Chairman Bruce, the next iteration of design fiction: fictional entrepreneurship.

Fictional Entrepreneurship is the use of design fiction to imagine businesses in order to discover what could be, creating things that are not impossible, but possible, often times derived from utopian, theoretical, and philosophical principles. Fictional entrepreneurship aims to author critical media through the creation of enterprises (imaginary, and real).

While reflecting on this definition, I have come to the conclusion that this concept is in no ways limited within the walls of academia, but can also be executed within a “practical,” corporate culture for the following reasons.

  1. Fictional Entrepreneurship is the design of business that begins with “what if…” in order to innovate the unimaginable.
  2. Fictional Entrepreneurship is an approach to business design which can serve as a tool for reaching new, almost impossible, demographics.
  3. Fictional Entrepreneurship is a a method that can be used by entrepreneurs to imagine the potential impact (good or bad) their business design can have on the world.
  4. Fictional Entrepreneurship is the ability to make the impractical practical.
  5. Fictional Entrepreneurship uses aspects of Design Fiction in order to work imaginatively while creating products and services that are not impossible, but possible.

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that science fiction isn’t dying at all; it’s metastasizing. When the world looks like an sf novel, sf is no longer novel.

Related: revisionist entrepreneurship. For instance, what would have happened if MySpace hadn’t been bought by Murdoch’s News Corp?

June 2005. Freston misses his flight. In the airport’s VIP lounge, he spots one of the News Corp M&A team. Freston tears back to his office and hand delivers the letter that completes the deal. Viacom, the owner of MTV, has just bought MySpace for $500m. The deal releases its co-founders, Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe, from Intermix, an unspectacular online retailer.

Viacom uses MySpace to redefine itself online. The site needs a complete engineering overhaul, and anything not related to music or entertainment is stripped out. MTV programming, bite-sized interviews, exclusive tracks and live shows are weaved throughout the site. “We want MySpace to keep its hacky, creative ethos,” executives might have said, “while making the site cleaner and less cluttered.”

A little Panglossian, perhaps – I think MySpace was already go-karting down into the trough of disillusionment at that point – but what you have there is a tech-biz journalist picking a comparatively recent and well-documented jonbar point and sketching an alternate history around it. See what I mean? Sf has metastasized; the cultural body is riddled with it, and it’s penetrating to the marrow.

And let’s not forget the increasing ubiquity – and ease of creation – of quasifictional characters, events, organisations, texts… Joanne McNeil of Tomorrow Museum looks at the Web of Misleading Things:

Remember the real reason for Friendster’s decline? It was the ban on “fakesters.” Friendster cracked down on user-created profiles for celebrities, places, and things, instead of embracing it as another slice of the bizarre in the spectacle of social networking. So people moved to Myspace, where non-person identities were encouraged. The site even provided space for bands and filmmakers to upload multimedia.

Now, everybody knew that’s not really Andy Warhol leaving testimonials on your page. But what about that person you know as tiny Twitter avatar? Robin Sage is a particularly interesting example (Quite a number of fictional online identities are in the image of attractive female hackers. I imagine this creates even more tension/skepticism toward women in these communities.)

[…]

So long as social media participation requires no public records or birth certificates, we are free to use these services to reinvent ourselves, regardless of what Mark Zuckerberg says.

Is there a more slippery term in the modern word than “real”?


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