Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tim Wu's "The Master Switch": Centralization v. freedom in global communications


Author: Tim Wu

Title: "The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires"

Publication: New York: Knopf, 2010, ISBN 978-0-307-26993-5, 366 pages, hardcover, indexed,  n Introduction and 21 Chapters, in five parts, Amazon link

In time, I will tell the story of what “I did” for the past fifteen years, once I had “free entry” into Internet publication, but as a proprietorship of one, I exercised the “vertical integration” that Wu considers the potentially self-defeating part of “The Cycle”.  I wrote, edited (hiring proofreading), self-published and to some extent self-distributed my first book. My Internet activity follows the same general path.

I can go off on a tangent here and say that there could be negative social consequences (or political ones) if one has “too much reach” into the public without a lot of personal commitment or “generativity”.   That’s an interesting area, “the privilege of being listened to,” off the track of Wu’s book, although he could have covered it.

Wu (a professor at Columbia) gives a sweeping historical account of the US communications and media industries since the late 19th Century, with some emphasis on telephone, radio, television, movies, and finally the Internet.  Until well into the 1990s with the Internet, asymmetric innovations tended to be engulfed and squashed by corporate monopolism, with a sine-wave cycle of innovation, centralization with elimination of competition, and then political objections leading to some decentralization and more innovation.

His account of movies is particularly interesting.  There was resistance to the idea that too many people could make film, and later there was controversy over whether “vertical integration” of functions (including distribution and exhibition as well as production) was a good thing. For a while, the “George Zukor” model won out. The result was a major studio system well able to make big films that could make money.  For a long time, independent filmmaking about diverse topics was difficult.  After studios could no longer own theaters, it got easier to make indie film. But big studios fell into a system of cookie-cutter content development, tending to depend on established characters or trademarked “franchises” of sequels.   The system also fell under the control of a regime of “private censorship” as he explains in the battles with the “Legion of Decency” and the older production codes that prevented challenging traditional values. Wu provides an interesting side discussion of how copyright and trademark law applies to movie and comic book characters.  

His history of television was interesting to me, since I’ve worked for RCA (1970-1971, at the David Sarnoff Research Center in Princeton) and later NBC (1974-1977). Coworkers who remember me may find this review interesting. He discusses Sarnoff in detail, even to the point of providing some backdrop to the events during my employment.  There were periods when the “establishment” kept television (starting as “mechanical”) and later cable at bay to maintain a “crossword puzzle style” capture audience and maximize profits short-term, a kind of raw capitalism.

Because the development of the Internet at first accelerated slowly (the WWW wasn’t getting mentioned until 1993), companies at first thought they could control content with vertical integration, as with the early versions of AOL and Prodigy. The faulty merger of AOL and Time Warner was based on this precept, based on earlier versions of “The Cycle.”  But “http” changed all that. And so did Google, which started out as essentially a “switch” that did so much by doing so little. It was the idea of “network neutrality” that made older Internet business models like AOL’s flounder.


Wu proposes an extension of “constitutionality” to the way private business works with worldwide communications. On p 304 he articulates a “Separations Principle” that would prevent any one telecommunications or media company (as defined by trading in public stock exchanges or private placements) for engaging in business in more than one “layer” of the entire system.  A Comcast could not merge with an NBC Universal in such a world. 

The interesting thing is that he seems to see a Separations Principle at the corporate level as essential to maintain free speech and “free entry” (which I took so much advantage of) for individuals and very small businesses, to maintain innovation. Perhaps the current controversy over the purported effect of bloggers on the newspaper industry fits into this view, as well as an interpretation of the recent "copyright trolling" by Righthaven to sue bloggers as part of the battle for "control". 

There’s a lot more to this, I think, however, that he could give heed to, particularly in the area of liability, privacy, and online reputation, as in many other books I have reviewed here. There are inherent dangers when one individual has “too much broadcast reach”, that have to do with accountability in ways that are outside of bottom-line and corporate restructuring concerns. Ironically, some of the platitudes originally used to preserve centralization were based on vague notions that decentralized expression could present its own kind of public risk.  History has proved that correct. Furthermore, the transformative nature of our communications culture has reached all the way into the idea of individual self-definition, as compared to being part of a group. That is, social networking (particularly Facebook) has undermines the personal anonymity that used to seem essential to freedom, even free speech.  If an individual (as Mark Zuckerberg and perhaps Eric Schmidt maintain) should have only one identity, arguably one person shouldn’t be permitted to perform too many functions publicly. Maybe that’s the next battle.

Here’s Steve Paikin’s interview with Wu.


Sunday, January 09, 2011

Justin Elzie: "Playing by the Rules": timely, given the (conditional) repeal of "don't ask don't tell"


Author: Justin Crockett Elzie (Foreword by David Mixner)

Title: “Playing by the Rules

Publication: Maine, Rebel Sartori Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-60864-042-3. 227 Pages, paper; Amazon link.

Also included: A Poem, “Naivety


Let me introduce this review with an incident from my own Army Basic training in early Spring, 1968 at Fort Jackson, SC. We were on a day long march (not yet bivouac), “at ease”, when I said, “The Marines are tougher than the Army.” Yup, I just blurted it out, from “naivety”.

In fact, it’s normally up to the Marines to take territory, and for the Army to hold it. A Marine is both a sailor and a soldier, and lives in quarters normally more cramped and intimate than either more “conventional” servicemembers.

So it’s logical that the Marine Corps would provide an ultimate test of the theory that the military requires an unusual does of forced intimacy, and that rules are necessary that would not normally apply in civilian life. That came up during the recent Senate hearings over the final repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell” regarding gays in the military, where General Amos insisted that the Marines, since they always share quarters, could be severely compromised by lifting the ban.

I’m backing my way into the review, as the book indeed recreates the world of 1993, when the new and “na├»ve” President Bill Clinton had proposed lifting the “absolute ban” (with “asking”) that had been promulgated back in 1981, just before Ronald Reagan took office. (Randy Shilts had covered that in “Conduct Unbecoming,” with the famous “123 Word” policy. (In fact, here’s the reference from Google books, link. )

Elzie, having entered the Marine Corps in the early 1980s after dropping out of a Bible college, had outed himself in January 1993, on ABC World Evening News broadcast. So he would relive the entire debate, all the way through President Clinton’s July 19 announcement of “don’t ask don’t tell don’t pursue”. His own discharge hearings would occur in March, and then the Marine Corps would try to take away VSI/SSB (Voluntary Separation Incentive and Special Separation Benefit) retirement that he would have been eligible for. He sued, and under a judge’s order was reinstated, and serve four more years, getting outstanding performance evaluations despite the legal circumstances and the theories (from Sam Nunn and at the time Charles Moskos) that gays would disrupt the sense of “privacy” of straight soldiers, and Marines. (Sam Nunn has said, “They have no privacy”, and later, “When you disclose your status, you have described your conduct”, since Clinton had tried to make a distinction between status and conduct). Elzie would insist that it was more important for him to “make a difference” than just to collect his deserved retirement money.

Elzie describes how the “don’t pursue” idea (even espoused in June of 1993 by Barney Frank) never works. In the early days, NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) agents, who were civilians (themselves protected from anti-gay actions in civil service since 1973) staked out parking lots of gay bars near bases (particularly in North Carolina) to hunt down gays who went to bars. This was supposed to be prohibited by the 1994 administrative rules, but many commands still pursued. Elzie gives some discussion of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), and especially Michelle Benecke and Dixon Osburn who ran the aid group in the 1990s. I attended some of the events, included the “End the Witchhunts” dinners. Elzie would tread his double lfie carefully, avoiding such tactics as marrying a lesbian to hide. His career advanced, to his service as an Americam Embassy Guard.

Elzie also describes growing up around Cheyenne Wyoming (not too far from Matthew Shepard’s Laramie), and his dealing with his family’s religious disapproval of his emerging identity, which did not interfere with his ability to perform socially as a man. When he decided to join the military, he was wooed by a Marine Corps recruiter, probably not quite understanding what that could mean. For a while in the 1960s, it was actually possible to be drafted by the Marines.

“Gay rights” has been presented in terms of equality for the past couple of decades, and the ability to serve in the military with “reasonable” openness seemed essential to me to be a first class citizen. If you are to have fully equal rights, you must have the ability to share the risks of defending your freedom and the freedom of others in your family and community. But in earlier times, it was the right to have a private life out of the pursuit of others, that seemed to be the issue, and this could be an issue even for civilians (who, remember, could, if males, be drafted). Frank Kameny lost his government job in 1957 because of snooping, and in 1967, the horrible documentary “The Homosexuals” with Mike Wallace on CBS had described witch hunts in the State Department (in the words of a belligerent Dean Rusk, “we discharge them”) and saw gay men interviewed in shadows with voices muffled.

I am a product of those earlier times, and will ask "Why". It seems to me that people want others to do what they have to do, and that, as part of a stable and "interesting" marriage, parents expect their kids will carry the family on biologically, and provide vicarious immortality.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Are typos more common now in "published" books?

Typos are certainly more common in books than they were twenty years ago. Yes, there are probably more of them in self-published and print-on-demand books (including mine), but I’ve seen some in books from major trade publishers as far back as the mid 1990s (I won’t mention names here). Copyediting used to be a labor-consuming job, but obviously in the interests of cutting costs, the menial attention to detail is down.

Here’ s a piece by Irene Watson at “Ezine” (Feb. 5, 2010) designed to help authors who outsource their editing, link here. Authors have used subsidy publishers, services from POD, and outside freelance proofreaders.

Here’s a blog entry in “Flights of Fancy” about the problem (link )

Here’s what Yahoo! says about the problem. ("What do you get for finding a typo in a published book? Nothing.")

But it’s also becoming a problem in newspapers and online news stories, as here

Back in 1998, in a gay book club held at Barnes and Noble in downtown Minneapolis (where my first “Do Ask Do Tell” was being sold, distributed then by Bookmen) one member said something like that “errors in published books are inexcusable”. “Get real!” (I know, that’s the name of a gay movie.)

In fact, a reviewer of my book on Amazon wrote, quoting me “"Algebra invokes the manipulation of symbols as surrogates for numbers or objects. As a child, it had sounded like a great mystery, doing arithmetic or `figuring' with `letters' rather than numbers. Some people never understand the abstraction, and stay back at the grade school level where you never do your `number work' in ink."

That second sentence, taken as written, means that algebra sounded like a great mystery when it was a child. I wonder what algebra sounded like when it grew up. In the final sentence, he switches from the third to the second person midway through. And the entire book is written this way. This kind of sloppiness is natural in spoken conversation, but has no place in a published work.”

You see the error? I had used “it” as the impersonal (as “it rains”), when strictly speaking, grammatically, the pronoun would refer to “algebra”. It’s very hard for a writer to catch these errors in his own work. (It’s easier in most (less analytic) foreign languages, where endings force you to make things clearer.) I guess it is very hard in Chinese!

As for newspapers, Foster Winans, in his 1989 book “Trading Secrets” (St. Martins Press) talked about his career (cut short by his own foolish insider trading) at the Wall Street Journal, and in a chapter called “Full Boil” talks about catching grief over small factual misprints (back in the 1980s) in his “Heard on the Street” column.

Monday, January 03, 2011

WSJ reports on problems with Borders, which reflects on problems in "traditional" publishing for "traditional" authors

Stories in the Wall Street Journal Monday Jan.3 indicated that Borders is having difficulty with its debt and making payments to regular publishers. Jeffrey Trachtenberg has been reporting on the problem, with the latest link (subscription required for full content) here

Part of Borders’s problems may simply be the popularity of online purchases through Amazon, which I thought at one time had taken over hosting Borders. I no longer find my iUniverse books on Borders; they are present on Barnes and Noble (as well as Amazon).

The cash flow problems in the mainstream book industry may befuddle new authors and self-published writers, who find that the traditional world has become so uninviting, even to “midlist” authors (as so well explained in 2001 by Donald Maass in his “Writing the Breakout Novel: Inside Advice for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level" (Writers Digest Press).