“Black Leaders” — from *Bulworth*

Most people, if they remember the movie Bulworth (1998) at all, remember Warren Beatty’s Senator Jay Bulworth and his bad socially conscious rapping. He has some big monologues about the media and race relations and healthcare. But for me, the best moment is this one, an exegesis of black leadership spoken by Halle Berry’s character Nina. Nineteen years later, there’s still a lot that rings true. I couldn’t find it anywhere else online, so I wrote it out here.

Bulworth: Why do you think there are no more black leaders?

Nina: Some people think it’s because they all got killed. But I think it has more to do with the decimation of the manufacturing base in the urban centers. Senator, an optimistic, energized population throws up optimistic, energized leaders, and when you shift manufacturing to the sunbelt and the third world you destroy the blue-collar core of the black activist population. Some people would say the problem’s purely cultural, the power of the media that’s continually controlled by fewer and fewer people. Add to that monopoly of the media, a consumer culture that’s based on self-gratification, and you’re not likely to have a population that wants leadership that calls for self-sacrifice. But the fact is, I’m just a materialist at heart. So I look at the economic base. High domestic employment means jobs for African Americans. World War II meant lots of jobs for black folks. That is what energized the community for the civil rights movement of the fifties and the sixties. An energized, hopeful community will not only produce leaders, but more importantly it’ll produce leaders they’ll respond to.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

American Gun Owner

I’m an American gun owner. I have three NYPD pistols. I grew up in Vermont, which has fewer gun regulations than Texas or anywhere else, for that matter. If I moved back, I’d be a hunter. (Back when I was a kid, the first day of deer season was a de facto school holiday. And there were always rifles in racks in trucks in the school parking lot.) But I never wanna see this Onion headline again:

“‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”

They publish it every time—and there have been too many times—forcing us to wince because we know it’s a lie. We know it’s our cop out. So let’s spitball, here, about “no way to prevent this.”

Look, shooting is fun. It is. And I believe that gun ownership is an individual right. But there’s no legit reason for a bump stock. Convenience at the range isn’t a good enough reason for high-capacity magazines.

In the US, between 32,000 and 33,000 people die each year in car crashes—about the same numbers as for gun deaths. But we demand registration, insurance, and tiered licensing (motorcycle, CDL, hazmat, etc) for drivers. Why not for guns? Because it’s in the Constitution? Admittedly, that is a huge difference. After all, the Founders never talked about cars (nor, to avoid arguments about anachronism, did they declare a right to a horse or other conveyance, for that matter). But they talked about our arms, and they put it second after free expression. Still, even Justice Scalia said “the Second Amendment right is not unlimited.” He said “It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”

So the Onion’s wrong (as it knows it is and wants to be): there ARE ways to prevent “this.”

— As I said above, there’s mandatory training, testing, and licensing. Hunter safety courses, stuff the NRA used to do. If dad taught you to shoot at deer camp, take a test a prove it, just the way I did at the DMV after learning how to drive on old logging roads.

— We need to synchronize more robust background checks with HIPAA restrictions. Responsible gun shops should care if they’re selling to someone with a flagged history of violent psychosis or self-harm (about two-thirds of those gun deaths mentioned above are suicides, after all), the same way they should care if they’re selling to a felon.

— The CDC should be allowed to epidemiologically examine gun violence.

— Doctors should be encouraged to ask patients about guns in the house—cops already do it for domestic violence. It keeps people safe.

— Law enforcement should be notified when individuals make massive short-term purchases of firearms and/or ammo. Not to persecute or seize, but to do what they do: investigate to keep people safe.

— There should be much stricter controls on the purchase of combat-oriented items like high-capacity magazines, trigger accelerators, tracers, flash suppressors, sound suppressors, etc.

None of this stops hunting, or sport shooting. It doesn’t preclude possessing weapons for self defense. It doesn’t prevent people who like the cool tricked-out jammies with the mil-spec stuff from getting it—they just need commensurate training, testing, and licensing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really specifically address handguns, either, which are by far the most dangerous problem—for suicides, for street crime, and even for mass shootings.

Finally, I know this won’t stop all criminals from misusing firearms—I was a Bronx cop and I’m not naive about black markets nor about human evil. But it will stop some. Heck, I don’t want ANY sociopathic shooters from crews spraying city corners, but there’s no way to stop them all. So if there are ways to limit the tools of their sociopathy to 8 rounds rather than 20, even part of the time, why stand in the way of that?

The point is: We CAN do something to prevent this. Not all of this, but some. The horrible fact is that America has experienced a mass shooting on nine of every ten days since January 1, 2013. What if we had experienced one on five of every ten days instead? Or two? What if 30 more people came home from that concert in Las Vegas? What if it was YOUR kid, or YOUR spouse, or YOU? Isn’t that worth it?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Harvard Commencement Graduate Oration

The YouTube video of my commencement speech, In Praise of Clip-on Ties.

Link | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE LEGACY OF THE TERROR ATTACK IN BOSTON

An OpEd of mine from The Citizen, the Kennedy School newspaper, published May 29, 2013, discussing the memorial service for MIT Officer Sean Collier and my experience at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

They had come from Cambridge and Boston, of course, and from Burlington and Lowell and Worchester. They had come from Connecticut and New Hampshire, from Maine and New York. They had come from Chicago, from Quebec, from Australia. Thousands of law-enforcement officers gathered at MIT on April 24, to honor slain MIT Police Officer Sean Collier. I am a sergeant with the New York City Police Department, and I also stood in the surprisingly hot sun that day.

Not the first time, and not the last: I’ve been to more police funerals than I like to count. Sean Collier’s memorial was different. In New York, for a violent line-of-duty death like Officer Collier’s, it’s not unusual for nine or ten thousand NYPD officers to stand in their dress blues, lining the street leading to the church or funeral home, four or five deep for half a mile or more. So I’d seen as many cops, but never from so many agencies. And I’d never seen a governor, a senator, and the Vice President of the United States rise to speak at a cop’s funeral, much less heard live music from James Taylor.

But then again, Officer Collier’s memorial wasn’t just about the murder of an exemplary young officer, one who was proof that police can embrace—and be embraced by—the communities they serve and protect. It was about the marathon too.

Nine days earlier, on Patriots’ Day, fellow Kennedy School student Mike Finn and I were at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. We were waiting for two other HKS friends to cross when the first bomb went off fifteen feet behind us and to our right. After people fled, Mike and I did what we could, mostly helping to tear down the barricades and scaffolds separating the first responders in the race course from the casualties on the sidewalk, before police directed us to leave. There was a lot of carnage—different from anything I’d experienced as a cop or detective, and I’d seen some terrible things. Being out of uniform, part victim and part responder, made it worse: There’s a sense of purpose and even invulnerability in uniform, and I didn’t feel either that day.

That sense of vulnerability was not just mine: It was pervasive, and seeped into the city and the country. For most Americans, the twelve years since Sept. 11 have been bewilderingly free of terrorism. Other parts of the world—Bali, Moscow, Madrid, Beslan, London, Mumbai and many more—have been victimized by violent extremism. And in some places—Israel, Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, for example—acts of terror have been horrifyingly ubiquitous. In America, however, many people would be hard pressed to recall specific incidents. Maybe they would mention Fort Hood, maybe the Times Square attempt. Otherwise, nothing.

The truth is more complicated. There have been many other incidents, some successful and some not, and plots galore. (New York City alone has seen at least sixteen.) And there are more tips and leads and potential malefactors than anyone can fully weigh, much less monitor: The TIDE terrorist database alone has hundreds of thousands of entries. Numerous law enforcement agencies, particularly the FBI and NYPD, have done a great deal to preempt and forestall many conspiracies. Cooperation between federal, state and local law enforcement and government has been strong; It needs to be stronger still.

In the coming months, entities across the public service and public policy spectra will assess and react to the terror in Boston. Many of our classmates will be involved in that work. Terrorist incidents in the homeland are black swans: They are unlikely events whose rarity lends them disproportionate impact and makes rational analysis difficult. Although they carry real risks of engendering overreaction, it may be that when protecting people’s lives there is no such thing—so long as our laws and values remain intact. I do not speak for the NYPD in any official capacity, but the NYPD has navigated the line between security and freedom lawfully and, from an objective public-safety standpoint, successfully. In counterterrorism, New York’s efforts have avoided unacceptable tradeoffs between liberty and security. Nevertheless, New Yorkers look at things differently now. Before the Marathon, an abandoned bag in Penn Station meant something different than one in South Station. This is no longer the case.

This change has been felt in Boston, at Harvard, and, naturally, at MIT. By every account, from that of the MIT Chief of Police to those of MIT students and faculty, Officer Sean Collier was a model cop who embodied the idea that protecting a community means being a part of it. For those of us leaving this school who will help formulate reactions to the terror that occasioned his sacrifice, the challenge is to ensure that protecting the community means changing it as little as possible.

Posted in Policing, Security Issues | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Praise of Clip-on Ties

From the Morning Exercises of Harvard University’s 2013 Commencement: The Graduate Oration.

Good morning. My name is Jon Murad, and this is a clip-on tie. Not the height of fashion, perhaps, but when you’re a cop—as I am—there’s a definite value in break-away neckwear, especially if someone’s trying to choke you. On Monday, when I report back to the New York City Police Department after this academic sojourn, I’ll most likely be assigned to a precinct in the Bronx or Manhattan North. And I’ll put this on and go forth to try to make my corner of the city a safer, fairer place. Now, I’d venture that few of us in this theater are embarking on or returning to careers where clip-on ties—much less prospects of getting choked—are the norm. After all, we’re Harvard graduates! We’re joining a distinguished fellowship of eight US presidents, Nobel prize winners, Fields Medal winners, Pulitzer winners, Oscar winners! That’s a lot of winners! It’s a community of accomplishment unlike any other, and I am proud to belong to it.

Actually, I joined it first eighteen years ago, when I sat out there as a member of the College Class of 1995, and pondered my place in the distinguished fellowship. Back then, greatness was the only option, and if you’d told me then that I’d end up a cop in the Bronx I’d have slooowly backed away. Harvard graduates don’t take jobs like that; they become ibankers and start-up entrepreneurs. There are expectations.

The first of Harvard’s eight US presidents, writing to the second, his son, drove this home: “You come into life with advantages which will disgrace you if your success is mediocre. And if you do not rise to the head not only of your profession, but of your country, it will be owing to your own laziness, slovenliness, and obstinacy.” I know, right? I imagine John Adams would have had been unenthused if John Quincy had come home with a clip-on tie.

But somewhere inside, that sentiment is not alien to any of us. The distinguished fellowship, with its scientists and statesmen, sets a high bar. But let us remember: it is incomplete without those among us whose paths will not be written in history books nor on Wikipedia pages. For many of you, perhaps most of you, the lives you’ve envisioned aren’t necessarily the ones you’ll lead. And that’s not a bad thing. My hope today, in this time before the diplomas and the family photos and the deservéd revels, is to remind us all—to assure us all—that there is as much stature in our being social workers and teachers, soldiers and preachers, nurses and, yes, even cops, as in being presidents and poets laureate.

A lot of you know this already, but I did not, when first I sat out there. And now? I’m probably not the only municipal cop in the country with two Harvard degrees, but I’m surely in a tiny cohort, and that’s not a boast, it’s a lament. If there is something special about this place and the lessons we’ve learned here, and I think there is, then America—the world—needs people like you in these roles. Because John Adams was dead wrong. Success doesn’t mean rising to the top, it means changing the world. And here’s the secret: Everyone changes the world. Everything ripples. It’s how we do it that counts.

So how is it done? Do you choose a job that serves others, as many of you have already done? Or do you sign up to be a big sister? Do you check out Citizen Schools? Do you volunteer for hospice? Yes. The answer is yes. These things are the tab for your coming here, when others could not. These things matter. They may even be better than making piles of money, although, as a civil servant, I wouldn’t really know. But I do know this: the crimson H you’ve earned today marks you, like a Cantab Hester Prynne. Sometimes you’ll shy from it, as when you disingenuously say you went to school “in Boston.” Other times you’ll drop the H-bomb with aplomb. Regardless, the crimson letter and the expectations that come with it are yours. And so is the way you choose to change the world.

For the time being, I’ll be doing it one radio run at a time, while wearing a clip-on tie. You can pick whatever neckwear you want, or none at all, but let us go forth, and serve as we can.

Posted in Policing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Internet Is People

The Internet has become inextricable from modern campaigning, thanks to the ubiquity of email and the cost-margins of online messaging. But have we really reached a point where elections are won on the web?

This week’s readings make a strong case for “yes.”

The Obama campaign, particularly its 2008 iteration, is presented as an exemplar.

Zach Exley’s impressive article, “The New Organizers,” captured the evolution of the Dean campaign’s operations, as described by Nuxoll, into a new paradigm of involvement in 2008. Massive amounts of self-entered website data facilitated a “neighborhood team” structure and enabled volunteers to become leaders, rather than assets to be directed by central authority. This is contrasted to the 2004 Kerry Campaign, which was unable to grant volunteers consistent duties—and couldn’t sustain passion as a result. What Exley describes, however, is a type of involvement that spurs lasting connection. In their desire to keep the intense feelings of the campaign alive, participants go on to remain active in their communities and public service. As Patrick Frank, a young volunteer, is quoted: “on the Obama campaign, when I see people like me and my friends used to be, we turn them around and say, ‘Well hey, here’s how to be a community organizer. Let me help you be a community organizer.’”

This GOTV innovation is also discussed in Seth Colter Walls’s “Neighbor to Neighbor.” By using real-time, mobile data tracking, canvassers can track on-the-fence voters within neighborhoods, even street by street. These canvassers can also increase voter registration (presumably regardless of party).

And even a Harvard Business School case study, by Deighton and Kornfeld, discusses Obama’s paragon of online presence. Drawing lines from the Eisenhower shift to TV, and Nixon’s use of direct mail, the authors suggest that the ‘net is both a logical descendant of these and something new altogether. The study notes that Obama’s YouTube channel had a view count nearly ten times higher than Hilary Clinton’s channel. It also points out, via the example of Clinton’s “3 AM” ad, and the way in which Obama supporters made mitigating parodies, that a passionate, tech savvy constituency can provide an amazing buffer. (In a YouTube era, one wonders whether a movie-making Kerry supporter could have weakened George Bush’s “wolves” ad.)

So the consensus seemed to be that the Internet really was changing the game, and that it might even be able to become the whole game, and that Obama’s 2008 campaign was nearly perfect in its applications.

But I decided that some crowdsourcing was in order, so I decided to see what fellow classmates thought, too. Billy Pope’s blog links Shirky’s maxim on successful group formation (Answer #1 on our midterm!) to the Obama campaign: “a plausible promise, an effective tool, and an acceptable bargain with the users.” (Although Pope also finds flaws with the follow-through, and the ability of the campaign to interact with government once the race is won.) With regard to Obama’s embodiment of Shirky’s concepts, the “New Organizers” article reinforces this observation. Exley notes the field campaign’s “ubiquitous motto”—“Respect. Empower. Include”—and draws a persuasive picture of an organization that gives its volunteers real parts to play, and, more importantly, parts they want to play. But with regard to the Exley piece, classmate Kevin Prager makes a good point: “While I know that the use of online tools was crucial to execute a flawless ground game in 2008, this article barely even mentions technology. Why? Because it is still an enabler in this field, and cannot yet replace the human touch.”

Looking past Obama at a more recent ground game, an article about Harry Reid discusses applying the long tail to campaigns, via “nanotargeting.” This form of niche-messaging and informational persuasion seems to represent every noble hope for how the Internet can be employed to enhance constituent decision making. But classmate Zach Crowley raises worthy concerns about the ability of streamlined campaigns to stint on troublesome details, even as they purport to inform voters.

In the end, I think Kevin’s idea is closest to right: the Internet is an amazing tool, as is the capacity for vast, granular data collection. But without a dedicated cohort of believers, field teams willing to work unimaginable hours for terrible pay and in the face of as much citizen rejection as popular support, the Internet cannot win elections. Molly Ball’s recent Atlantic article drives this home, by examining the degree to which this election will cement—or dismiss—the value of tightly focused field work. My mom, who’s been campaigning for Obama in New Hampshire, would probably agree. I know she’s hoping her efforts pay off.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Reports of My Death… Well, You Know the Rest

Watching the second presidential debate last night, I was struck by two quotes from one of this week’s readings: “[L]arge news media companies are being scooped by their own sources—even by their own reporters on Twitter!” And, ““[it] remains unclear if emerging, upstart news organizations empowered by radical connectivity can ensure the kind of accountability Big Media did in its heyday.” (Both are from Nicco Mele’s new book, The End of Bigpre-order today!)

Twitter and the blogosphere were alive last night—a cacophony of opinion and ideas. But the bulk of the fact-checking was coming from the pros: CNN, the Times, even Fox. Most bloggers don’t have the knowledge management that real-time accountability requires. So is professional journalism really on its death bed, or even on the ropes?

Clay Shirky, in one of our first readings, and in his blog, has written memorably about “mass amateurization.” One of his primary questions is whether news is “what is newsworthy,” or “what is covered by the press.” It used to be that journalists weren’t journalists unless they were employed by publishers, and there weren’t many of those. And it used to be that publishers weren’t publishers unless they possessed the means of production, and that was prohibitively expensive. But from Microsoft Publisher to $80 inkjets, the prohibition is gone. You don’t have to be a Sulzberger or a Chandler or a Graham—anyone can be a publisher, anyone can be a journalist. Production-wise, re-creative tools like WordPress and Flickr make every desktop as sophisticated a press shop as any national paper that existed in the 1980s. (Content-wise, that’s less clear, which is part of the point of this blog entry.)

Papers have done their best to stay ahead of the game, and some of them—the New York Times, especially [edited 10-18-12 to include this perfect example of what the Times does better than anyone else: http://www.smallmeans.com/new-york-times-infographics/] —have excelled at leveraging their size (and money and technology) to create graphics and interactive tools that exceed the capabilities of bloggers. But whatever gap the major outlets have maintained isn’t widening, and the upstarts are nipping at the establishment’s heels. As Shirky notes in a more recent blog, “That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.”

But does comparable production mean comparable quality? I’m reminded of some received knowledge a literary agent once told me: “Everyone has a book inside them, and most of them should stay there.” There are some great blogs, no doubt—writers who have burnished expertise and manage to create worthwhile material on a regular basis (for two I like, see here and here). And a good friend of mine was the first accredited blogger at the White House.

But there’s also a long tail of others, shouting into the wilderness (and I include this experiment in that group). The Daou Report points out that there’s no metric to assess the impact of blogs, but also that assessment may be moot, because of the disproportionate influence blogs can exert. Perception may be everything—if people believe blogs are influential, they are.

And there are certainly many who believe them influential. The so-called future-of-news consensus, as Dean Starkman terms it, is an enthusiastic embrace of the blogging/Google/social-network paradigm. But Starkman questions the consensus: “I’m going to make a bold leap and predict—eenie meenie chili beanie—that for a long time the Future of News is going to look unnervingly like the Present of News: hobbled news organizations, limping along, supplemented by swarms of new media outlets doing their best. It’s not sexy, but that’s journalism for you.”

I’m leery of accepting the premise that professional news media is on the way out. The physical paper may indeed be, and there may be headcount diminishment for the industry. But there are still services that only bankrolled entities can provide. The amount of time, effort, and access that an investigative coup like Dana Priest’s multi-part expose on the waste and overlap of the intelligence sector requires is only possible with an expense account. Americans still want and need the fourth estate to fill this role, and as the economics midterm I took this morning asserts, where there’s demand there will be supply.

Posted in Digital Media | Leave a comment

It’s Good To Be The King: Why Leadership Reduces Stress

[From The Citizen, the HKS newspaper]

Once you’ve been here for a while, you’ll eventually see them: the black SUVs parked in the Kennedy School Quad, with their flashing red and blue lights, and the taciturn men in dark suits with earpieces and Oakleys. And we’ve all noticed the Very Important People who occasion this swirl of pomp and circumstance, as they alight from their vehicles, or as they’re whisked about by attentive aides. Visiting dignitaries are a fact of life at this institution, but it takes a particularly questing academic mind to wonder what that swirl means in a scientific sense.

Jennifer Lerner, Professor of Public Policy and Management, is just that sort of seeker. Her office looks out over the quad, and as The Citizen interviewed her, a black SUV and security personnel were coincidentally waiting for some unidentified luminary. “Yes, there they are,” she said, and it was the ubiquity of the experience that prompted her, in part, to examine what it means to be the person at the center of the swirl. Using her position as Founder and Director of Leadership Decision Making, a Harvard executive education course, she was able to access and interview leaders across a range of sectors and a range of ranks. The results are two recently published studies with fascinating but counterintuitive results. Professor Lerner and her coauthors have upended the portrait of the burdened boss, the stress-fractured figure who ages faster than the rest of us owing to the weight of his responsibilities.

“Upon the King!” Shakespeare’s Henry V exclaims, “let us our lives, our souls, our debts, our careful wives, our children, and our sins lay on the king!” Four hundred years later, we still embrace the picture of the leader who bears his subordinates’ loads, and his own, as well. But it turns out that leaders—especially powerful ones—actually experience less stress than nonleaders. This was demonstrated in Lerner’s first study via self-reported responses and through measurements of cortisol levels. (Cortisol is an adrenal hormone that the body releases in response to stress.) The second study showed that decreasing stress levels are observable even among leaders perched on different rungs of their respective ladders: the higher up one goes, the lower the stress. “Not only are leaders less stressed than non-leaders,” study co-author Gary Sherman, also of Harvard, has been quoted saying, “but more powerful, higher-ranking leaders are less stressed than less powerful, lower-ranking leaders.”

The reason? “Control,” says Lerner. Such control, she notes, does not require mastery of the environment, but rather “the perception of having influence” over the course of events and subordinates. More highly-ranked leaders have greater control, and thus less stress. So perhaps it is Mel Brooks, rather than Shakespeare, to whom we should turn: “It’s good to be the king.”

It is not only leaders who can profit from these observations, however. Allowing subordinates to experience the perception of influence—what Lerner calls “the sense of predictability that goes hand in hand with perceived control”—may be able to reduce their stress levels, as well. “Having control can mean things like flex time,” she notes, “so I get to decide which days I work at home, which nights I work late.” These “little increments of control” may be enough to give subordinates some of the same benefits as their bosses.

Before leaping to the assumption that the head that wears a crown lies easy, however (to paraphrase a different Shakespearean Henry), Lerner presents an important caveat. Leaders who operate in “contested hierarchies” don’t experience decreased stress levels like their more stable counterparts.

So is this why presidents age so noticeably in office? Is this why Obama’s hair has gone white?

“That is certainly one possibility,” Lerner says. “He is in a contested hierarchy, and his leadership is attacked on a daily basis and so our data really can’t speak to his situation. But cortisol and other stress hormones are most likely harming his health.” Maybe the saying should be Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown—if that crown can be taken.

Of course, none of this answers the ur-question: Do leaders have less stress because they’re leaders? Or are leaders leaders because they’re less prone to stress? Lerner phrases it more succinctly: “Ah, yes—are leaders born or made. My hunch, absent data, is that it’s both.”

All this is presumably good news for Kennedy School students who aspire to climb the ranks. Just think—all the effort and the long hours will eventually be rewarded by a stress-free sinecure where your car comes with a driver! And if, on the climb, you’re lucky enough to have a boss who takes lessons from Dr. Lerner, and allows you the perception of influence, you’ll probably have less stress as you ascend, too. It really is good to be the king.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Omphaloskepsis, Facebook, and the Filter Bubble

There’s something evocative about the boy in the bubble, isn’t there? Whether cloyingly portrayed by John Travolta, or childishly taunted over Trivial Pursuit by George Costanza (“I’m sorry, the answer we were looking for is moops”), the hermetically sealed child—or, rather, the idea of him—resonates. It was Peggy Noonan and William Safire who first conflated the plastic cage to the White House, and in so doing changed the emphasis of the construct. Originally, being “in the bubble” described a person who longs to connect to an existence he can observe but from which he is separated; Safire used it instead to describe someone who is separated from an existence to which he can no longer connect.

It’s this newer meaning that attaches to the Internet-related term “filter bubble,” which is the topic of one of this week’s readings for DPI 659. As Eli Pariser says, “What’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do. But you don’t decide what gets in — and more importantly, you don’t see what gets edited out.” Casual Web users may be alarmed to find that the Internet makes certain choices for us, which Eli’s TED talk illustrates by comparing two friends’ identical Google searches, and the different results they obtain. “Algorithms curate the world for us,” he says.

But in the real world, curators curate the world for us, so what’s the worry? Newspaper editors determine what we see in their papers, legislators make our laws with minimal public input, and, above all, our own schemata determine how we sort our experiential existence. Each of these operates as much by what is excluded as what is embraced. Despite that, we manage to interact with the world in ways that belie these blinders. Mark Granovetter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties,” forty years old but still fresh, acknowledges mankind’s homophily but nevertheless focuses on the eponymous weak ties that complement the strong ones. Rather than deemphasizing these weak ties, networks like Facebook have made them all the more ubiquitous. As Christakis and Fowler note in Connected, another of this week’s readings, it’s “The Same but Different.”

The truth is, dire prognostications about Internet navel gazing have been made for years, and not much has come of them. Noted thinker Cass Sunstein has made a cottage industry out of such alarums: his 2001 book, Republic.com, he bemoans the degree to which Internet users close themselves off to intellectual challenge or contradiction, to the detriment of democracy. Ten years later he’s still at it, raising hue and cry that the feedback loop of political outrage in chatrooms threatens the Republic itself. In the meantime, few of us have morphed into hikikomori (or their savant cousins, the otaku).

Agoraphobes and hermits fascinate and horrify social cultures, and there’s something about the solipsistic qualities of social networks that causes the same mesmerized revulsion. Perhaps it’s a head-shaking disbelief that digital connections constitute real-life contact; perhaps it’s the concern that Internet users hear only what they want to hear; perhaps it’s the false perfection that glazes some online personas. As social networks have exploded during the past half-decade, their rise has caused paroxysms of handwringing. (Social networking isn’t all that new, of course. In 1994, my friend James Gwertzman invented Facebook a decade before M.Z.—a Harvard professor says so!) But does the Internet, whether via human proclivity or corporate algorithm, really enforce an inescapable echo chamber? Has the filter bubble actually aggravated partisanship to the point of stagnating political discourse?

Well, the news isn’t nearly so dire. In a study of Facebook users, Center of Atention: How Facebook Users Allocate Attention Across Friends, Eytan Bakshy and his coauthors show that polarization isn’t really the clear endgame. They observe that “the fraction of attention to users’ top k contacts, f(k), decreases as a function of activity when averaged over all individuals.” In other words, the more time you spend in online social media venues, the wider your circle of friends, not vice versa.

Far and away, the Web has expanded our expectations and broadened our horizons. In the pre-Internet era, the availability of data and the egocentric network could be compared to a reliable but underpressured water fountain in some city park. Unregulated, the Internet is like the hydrant knocked over by a car chase. If Google et al have managed to funnel that into a strong-but-manageable garden hose, there’s still a significant net gain. And that’s fine by me.

Posted in Digital Media | Leave a comment

Wikipedia and the RTCC

As noted in the “About” section, this blog was begun as a requirement for a class covering digital media and its social power. In order to ground us students in the topic, the professor has taken us on a head-spinning tour of the Internet itself, from its origins through its epochs and into the heart of the writhing beast it is now. We’ve touched on Coasean floors and long tails and Web 2.0. We’ve had to get Twitter accounts and bit.ly accounts and start Google groups. And then, of course, there’s this blog.

This is the first blog assignment: an introduction to Wikipedia and instructions to make an account. Now, I love Wikipedia: its immediacy and depth. On night two of the Democratic National Convention, I went to Wikipedia to check on the phrase “There you go again” after Bill Clinton used it. As I clicked on the page about the phrase (it has its own page!), I saw that Clinton’s paraphrase was already there, not two minutes after he had spoken the words. The folks at Britannica could only dream… That currency is why Wikipedia is a go-to source when I need quick information and I’m not worried about scholarly standards. Boss says “I need background on American suicide stats, stat!” and I hit Wikipedia even before I go to Google. Even when I am trying to meet scholarly standards, a Wikipedia article is a terrific cheat-sheet for other, more acceptable (for now!) sources.

So I anticipated that today’s assignment—find an article about which you have expertise and evaluate the article—would end up reinforcing my affection. Well, it did—but only in the manner of finding a flaw in someone you love. (As Sean Maguire says in Good Will Hunting, “That’s the good stuff.”)

I chose to check the page for the NYPD’s Real Time Crime Center, something about which I have a certain amount of expertise. The RTCC is a database hub and search engine that can rapidly mine a myriad of databases for information from billions of law-enforcement records and public records. When a detective seeks information about an individual or location, or other data associated with an ongoing case, he or she can call the RTCC. Officers there initiate a search and can, within a few minutes, provide a wealth of intelligence that can be used for pattern identification or to develop further investigatory leads.

The article was relatively comprehensive, although it neglected to address the RTCC’s efficacy and failed to identify it as a fusion center. Those omissions were insignificant compared to the utter absence of sourcing, however. Strangely, the article’s first sentence conflated the NYPD’s RTCC with a similarly named program run by the Houston Police Department. Despite the fact that this sentence is the only one that mentions HPD, and then only via a shoe-horned conjunctival phrase, the only sources cited by the article are two articles about the HPD’s version of the center. Other than the aforementioned sentence, no other data in the Wikipedia article refers to the HPD. Instead, all the details—including historical information, technology vendors/developers, and statistics associated with the RTCC’s cost, size, and scope—refer to the NYPD’s center. But there is not a single source. (Strangely, there are several external links that are already listed that would provide verification of the article’s data; none is inserted as a citation, however.)

Now, it must be acknowledged that all the information in the article is accurate. Most of it, in fact, derives directly from published information from New York City Global Partners, an innovation exchange initiative for municipal governments. I can verify the article’s accuracy for the same reason that Philip Roth feels he can dispute interpretations of The Human Stain: because I am very close to the author of the Global Partners RTCC description, if you get my drift. Nevertheless, it’s not sourced.

Moving on to other categories of evaluation: the article is admirably neutral—in fact, the neutrality may account for the above-mentioned absence of any information about the RTCC’s efficacy. The formatting and readability are adequate, and the concinnity is good (after all, the article’s author(s) essentially paraphrased the incredibly—nay, awesomely—well-written Global Partners description). Lastly, there is only one illustration. Considering that there are plentiful photos online that were created by the NYPD, and are therefore public, it’s odd that no one has inserted pictures compatible with Wikipedia’s image-use policy.

[P.S. A wise and talented blogger friend informed me recently that citing Wikipedia in a blog “just isn’t done.” I hope he doesn’t read this.]

Posted in Digital Media | Tagged , , | Leave a comment