The prophet Aaron Swartz

Writers write on this Internet Freedom Day, and so I write.

In 1985, an unknown songwriter named Julie Gold birthed a tune that would become one of the classics of a generation. Always a favorite regardless of who recorded the song, it wasn’t until Bette Midler’s version in 1990 that most of us heard “From A Distance.” Do yourself a favor right now, and click on the link below and watch and listen.

The hook of the song is the powerful and emotional refrain that, from a distance, “God is watching us.” This song came to mind over the past week and wouldn’t let me go as I read about and pondered the death of Aaron Swartz, the techno-prodigy-rockstar who took his own life at the age of 26. Never before have I witnessed the denizens of the network come together in harmony around the death of a pioneer-legend, and it has been a rare kind of corporate look into the soul of Western humanity. It reminds me very much of the counterculture soul of the 60s, and perhaps that’s why I feel so deeply emotional over this tragedy.

It’s because Swartz’s life wasn’t so much about his immense talent as it was about how he used his talent, for the liberty of all. As Jay Rosen pointed out beautifully, Swartz could have been a billionaire but chose a different path.

He could have tried to develop the next YouTube and sell it to Google for a billion dollars, he had the skills for that, but the only thing that really mattered to him was the fight for Internet freedom, which included taking part in democratic politics. That conception of the good, in someone so young, is deeply moving to me.

I didn’t know Aaron, though I knew of his legend, but from what I have read about him he was one of those people (Timothy Berners Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web and Richard Stallman, the founder of the free software movement, are both like this) who believe that if someone is in need of knowledge and you can provide it, but you don’t, you are guilty of a crime against the human spirit. (See this.)

The cause of Internet freedom, which is very often a radical cause, is radical in just this sense: let all who are hungry eat. Farewell, Aaron, my child. Your cause is just.

I feel similarly touched by this, but my thoughts are drawn more to those of the spirit of humanity upon which Jay touches. We’re coming up on the 52nd anniversary of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as president. I remember his speech well, and the charismatic and forceful way in which it was delivered. Communism and the bomb were common enemies, and Kennedy had a wonderful way of threatening our foes while at the same time putting his arm around them. Of course, the speech is remembered most for its conclusion:

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

The counterculture movement in the U.S. was energized that day, and it has lived on in the likes of people such as Aaron Swartz. The press saw it as one thing back then, but those of us engaged in its mission were aroused and inspired by President Kennedy. We were devastated by his murder in 1963, but the cause — as he framed it — lives on even today.

I have to hold back much of what I feel in the wake of Swartz’s death, for to do otherwise would open the door to a form of criticism that I don’t wish to entertain right now. Some day, perhaps, but not now. We ARE spiritual beings, however, and suffice it to say that God IS watching us (from a distance and from within) and talking to us at the same time. Life (with a capital L) talks to us in many ways, and the prophets of history have all paid a stiff price for the privilege of carrying the message.

Prophets were and are interesting and unusual people. They’re not necessarily the kinds of folks that you’d want to bring home to mom with a big grin, saying, “Hey, everybody, here’s my friend, prophet Harry.” The status quo doesn’t generally care for prophets, preferring profits instead. Yet, our history is filled with the wisdom of those who’ve “touched” the raw creative energy that is Life and tried to pass what they found along to the rest of us. Usually, however, we seem unable to “listen” or breathe in that which they are trying to impart. Argue with me if you wish, and if it’s necessary, call me a nutcase, but Aaron Swartz was a prophet, and I know that for two reasons. One, his knowledge was almost otherworldly and could only have come from that same raw source of creative energy, what Richard Adams called “The Unbroken Web.” Those who touch this have always been in our midst, and they’re always a bit “different,” for a venture near the edge cannot help but influence the lives of those who’ve been there and often with tragic results. Two, he eschewed the trappings of the world to teach us that there was serious evil in our midst, although we didn’t, couldn’t, or wouldn’t recognize it. Most of all, the way he gave of himself was godlike, and so I am deeply touched by this man and this event.

The difference between a criminal and a prophet is often in who’s telling the story.

Your concept of evil is based on your world view. Look around. Whether it’s a hypothetical “perfect” girlfriend for the “perfect” football player, a maniac mass murderer loose in a movie theater or elementary school, or our Congressional representatives playing with destroying the economy, it’s safe to say that not only is there something terribly wrong with us, but we seem powerless to do anything about it. Our networked world won’t stand a chance, if every node on the network is in it only for themselves.

Can we learn to ask not what Life can do for us but what we can do for Life? Aaron Swartz thought so.

The postmodern world of which I write is one of participation. Whereas modernity celebrated the ability to study, chart, reason, and, in so doing, understand the unknown, postmodernists develop their understanding on top of all that by including what they’ve experienced. Therefore, the mantra of postmodernism is “I participate or experience, therefore I understand.” God in the postmodern world is removed from His formerly hierarchical throne — a place where He speaks to people through the priests of the hierarchy — and is spread across all of humanity in a form that Biblical scholars would call “the Holy Spirit.” If there is to be a vast spiritual awakening in our world, it’ll be everywhere and in the streets, not in the superchurches of America’s suburbs.

We will be hypernetworked if and when the awakening happens, and it won’t take place unless the network is free.

Thank you, Aaron, for your tireless efforts to that end.

Redefining Community

Here is the latest in my ongoing series of essays, Local Media in a Postmodern World.

Redefining Community

I’m officially back to working for myself, with a gig that, I hope, will help advance my thought. I tell everybody today that I’m not a business consultant, a news consultant, or a sales consultant. I’m a reinvention specialist, and not just for media anymore. As Mary Meeker wrote in her Internet report last year, we need to reimagine everything, and that’s what I’m all about. I’m redesigning The Pomo Blog and also building two new websites that will further explain what I’m doing. Out with the old; in with the new. Of course, I’m going to keep writing and advancing the concepts that I’ve been exploring with you for the past 10 years.

As my thinking shifts and expands to encompass the wider reinvention field, I’m starting with a deeper discussion of what our life in “the network” means for doing business the old-fashioned way. The equilibrium of the industrial age is morphing into what feels like chaos in the postmodern age, post-industrial age, or whatever you’d like to call it. Those who fear change miss the remarkable opportunities that are before us, including changing definitions of what we thought were permanent. Consider the word “community,” for example, and how connected people are able to experience life outside the bonds of geography. This impacts media, of course, but it also impacts everybody else.

Enjoy, and welcome to 2013.

The expanding sphere of defense

The advertising industry is running into a block that’s going to challenge any new attempt to use technology to “target” people. I call it the expanding sphere of defense. It’s been around for a long time (circle the wagons), but let me show you how expanding spheres work in dealings with human nature.

One day in the mid 1980s, I assumed command of the television fundraising for The 700 Club. I asked Pat Robertson to teach me, so we went to lunch. There was an old joke at the time that the devil didn’t want Billy Graham, Oral Roberts or Pat Robertson in hell, because Billy would get everybody saved, Oral would heal everybody, and Pat would raise the money for air conditioning. Cute at the time and apropos, because the world has known few people who could raise money like Pat.

At lunch, he said, “People give money to ministries for these reasons and in this order:”

How does it help me?
How does it help my family?
How does it help my neighborhood?
How does it help my community?
How does it help my state?
How does it help my country?
Finally, how does it help somebody else?

This is a spherical diagram of self-centeredness, the default position of human beings, at least according to a Judeo-Christian heritage. It’s that old “sinful nature” stuff, and if you can get past the religious references, it’s surprisingly helpful in observing life.

I’ve found this to be especially useful in examining my own assumptions and motives and those of many others. You can use it almost anywhere, and I think the advertising industry would do well to examine it in light of the kinds of technological advances referenced in my previous post. Think about it. If we’re self-centered in drawing things to us, then we’re equally self-centered in keeping things away, even those “targeted bombs” that Madison Avenue so enjoys playing with.

The expanding sphere of defenseIn terms of defending all that’s near and dear, let’s look at the expanding sphere this way:

How do I defend myself?
How do I defend my family?
How do I defend my neighborhood?
How do I defend my community?
How do I defend my state?
How do I defend my country?
How do I defend somebody else?

I make this point to say that targeting the very center of that expanding sphere — with or without an individual’s approval — simply isn’t going to happen. Nobody feels comfortable letting strangers that far inside, where so much destruction can take place, so the number of people who’d approve such a thing is limited. And let me repeat that a small, mobile device is very much deep inside the sphere. It is a highly, highly personal instrument.

Okay, let’s assume that access isn’t granted or “approved” and that Madison Avenue simply finds a way to penetrate to the core. How long do you think that’s going to stay viable? Not very long, because the empowered bottom — the great horizontal — will find a way to spread the word, and nobody’s going to allow that kind of personal invasion. Moreover, this is just another example of business-by-toleration, which is not, frankly, a workable model for business in the 21st Century.

We have to reimagine this whole concept of advertising. Hang on; it’s going to be a bouncy and bumpy ride.

Bombardment anyone?

The below is from an interesting article (Location + Mobile + Ads: Verve CEO Says People Are Set to Get It) in Street Fight about geo-local marketing. The speaker is Verve Mobile CEO Tom MacIsaac, and I want you to pay close attention to the depth of marketing-speak employed here.

Geofencing is just one tool in location-based mobile advertising. Obviously, the radius of a geofence and the population density of the targeted areas are [axes] that have to be balanced to deliver scale for an advertiser. The better way to look at this is to consider the advertiser’s objectives; geofencing can be helpful in reaching people nearby, but what about people who aren’t currently nearby but live or work nearby. wouldn’t it be great to reach them too? Or to retarget people who have recently been at or near a location? Or to target your optimal audience — like soccer moms or business travelers or outdoor enthusiasts — where those segments are built based on data associated with user locations? All of this is possible.

Possible, perhaps, but holy crap!

The advertising industry assumes much in its practices, the biggest of which seems to be an inherent right to disrupt any experience of human beings in order to sell them something.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should, and with this, the industry continues to dig itself deeper into the hole of empowered consumer irritation. Sigh.

Al Jazeera move will challenge our beliefs

Al Jazeera logoI am disgusted by the knee-jerk reactions I’ve been reading about the news that Al Jazeera is buying Al Gore’s Current TV with plans to launch a version of its news network in the U.S. Completely disgusted. America cries “foul” at any wisp of censorship abroad — principally, when “our” version of truth is blocked from the eyes and ears of others — but we personify the term “hypocrite” in so doing. Nothing proves it like calling into question the character and motives of Arabs wishing to do business among us.

Time-Warner Cable immediately pulled Current TV from its line-up, even before the deal was announced. I am a Time-Warner Cable subscriber, but I won’t be one for long. The Atlantic Wire tried to explain:

The network did not give an official reason for the move, but many have speculated that it’s simply prejudice against the new owners, who are based in Doha, Qatar, and have seen their fair share of controversy over the years. The Middle East-focused Al Jazeera began as an Arabic-only network, before adding a English language version, and has been accused in the past of a decidedly anti-American bias and even of sympathy for terrorist organizations. More than a decade after the September 11 attacks first brought the network to the attention of most Americans, and despite its impressive coverage of the Arab Spring in 2011, those stereotypes still persist.

Never afraid of spreading those same stereotypes, comedians are getting into the discussion. Here’s a transcript (courtesy Newsbusters) of Jay Leno with Joy Behar, who works for Current TV.

Leno opened, “Osama bin Laden is your new boss?”

Behar responded, “Current TV was bought by Al Jazeera, yes. To me it’s like Al Gore, Al Jazeera, Al Pacino. It’s all the same thing to me.”

I just work there,” Behar continued. “I’m learning Farsi, you know.”

So much for Jews controlling the media,” quipped Leno.

A commenter to the Atlantic Wire story called Al Gore a “traitor” for selling the channel to Al Jazeera. This view is shared by many, many Americans. And Fox’s Bill O’Reilly said Gore had “shamed himself” and called the former vice president a “hypocrite” and the deal “sleazy” and “disgraceful.”

the men of my Arab familyAl Jazeera has been a part of my life since I first watched the channel while visiting my daughter’s family in Amman in the winter of 2006. Here’s part of what I wrote back then:

My son-in-law, Waseem, took me through the cable channels that he has available, and it brought to mind the contemporary absurdity of Napoleon’s old saying about war, “the victor gets to write the history.” Let me tell you folks, that statement is no longer possible in war time, for the reality is that there are many versions of truth when it comes to war.

And all of them are present on cable TV in Jordan, including the channel that speaks for the Iraqi resistance. Numerous versions of propaganda are there for the average citizen to weigh, and I have to believe this is ultimately healthy for a region dominated by colonialism for centuries. Juxtaposition, for example, the American general saying everything’s fine on the Arab language channel created by the U.S. with the resistance channel’s video showing just the opposite. And much of this video (which shows up on Al Jazeera two hours later) isn’t shot by professional news crews; it’s our old friend “citizen journalism” telling the tale in picture and in sound. Cell phones, it seems, are a new weapon of war.

And my son-in-law’s window on the world is much wider than mine.

I wrote plenty about Al Jazeera during the Arab Spring, and I think they provide a much-needed point-of-view in the U.S., a counterpoint to the Zionist movement, which has torn the region apart since 1948. Our economic interests have aided in atrocities and the Palestinian genocide, over which the planet itself weeps and mourns. Consequently, we get a highly censored view of the whole Middle East, and the inbred hatred we seem to have for Arabs is now being played out over, of all things, a cable channel! Are we so fearful that we would deny the same free speech to Al Jazeera that we claim for those not under our governance throughout the world?

I want Al Jazeera, because I think we’d all be better off knowing Arabs as human beings instead of the dangerous fanatics that our government needs us to know. Loss of innocent life is loss of innocent life, regardless of whose “side” it is on, and we’re all going to have to make a decision sooner or later about the world we have taken for granted for so very long.

In addition to the nonsense about the deal, I’m also reading some thoughtful commentary, too, and that gives me hope (New York Times, Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, and even The New Republic). If this proves only to get us talking, that would be a net gain for everybody.

Andrew Sullivan’s paywall isn’t

RSS symbolAndrew Sullivan shocked observers yesterday by announcing that he was leaving The Daily Beast to go out on his own, charging a nominal $20 annual fee for access to his Daily Dish blog. This is both affordable for readers and so far quite profitable for Sully ($333k in first day). There are many excellent observations out there on this (Dean Starkman, Mathew Ingram, and others), so I won’t bore you with repetition. I simply want to point out a couple of things about this.

A whole lot of people are trying to call this a paywall or a “meter” similar to those of the newspaper industry. While it may appear that way on the surface, Sully is also providing — at no charge — a full RSS feed of everything that he writes. You may have to pay some small sum for reading the Daily Dish at the Daily Dish, but if you subscribe to his RSS feed, it’s free-of-charge. This demonstrates an understanding of the Web that few in legacy media would or even could bring themselves to repeat, but it guarantees that Andrew Sullivan will always be part of the conversation, which is every bit as important for a journalist as paying the water bill.

On that matter, Sullivan is employing the laws of 1,000 true fans to support himself and his six employees, and I certainly wish him well. It wouldn’t work for me, however; Andrew Sullivan is an anomaly as a blogger.