When Users are Losers, or Datapocalypse, part 2 and How to Avoid It

A month ago, I suggested that with investment capital scarce, social media sites will be forced to close their doors and, as a consequence, users will lose huge amounts of social and cultural capital.

This week demonstrates another, highly efficient path to datapocalypse: data loss. In the most spectacular failure to date, ma.gnolia.com has all but declared the loss of its social bookmarks permanent.

I had a similar problem back in 2007 when Flock, the social web browser wiped out my bookmarks and yahoo, which had recently acquired delicious, informed me that delicious didn’t make backups.

That was only one user losing his data, so it wasn’t a big deal—although it demonstrated the dangers of relying on social software—but backups seem to be a tremendous problem for these services. They effectively double the cost of storage, so corporations seek to cut corners. On the other hand, since we backup religiously at home (you do, don’t you?), we expect that the online services we’d use do as well.

If ma.gnolia can’t recover its users’s data, I don’t see how they can come back from such a loss and even if they do, it seems like their run is over.

But I also predict that in the near future we’ll see a high profile failure or closure that will dwarf the loss that the users of ma.gnolia experienced. I still wonder, for example, how Facebook can survive given the trouble it seems to be having paying its bills. "It’s all about eyeballs" is something that the doe-eyed MBAs used to say a decade ago, but isn’t going to hold any credence in the more mature network culture of our day.

Maybe, though, this will give a boost to develop a counter-cloud, like the one that I proposed earlier this year, in which social media functions would be spread across a multitude of Web sites running common platforms (think Drupal for example). Take a look at this article by Brian Suda, for example, that explains how to carry social networking relationships between sites. It’s a great start, but it needs to be made easy to do for the non-technically savvy user and it would have to be possible to scatter data across sites, with redundancy built into the system to make it work. It may sound impossible, but so in principle, so does bittorrent, but it still works. Like the move from Napster to Bittorrent, this would be a move from centralized to decentralized systems, dispersing control and responsibility into a DIY counter-cloud. Something for Drupal version 10 maybe? 

I suspect that some version of my modest proposal is going to be enacted in the next decade. Trusting one site for anything is a big problem, as the users of ma.gnolia found out. 

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Goodbye, Capitalism

Polymeme brought me to this post by Ethan Zuckerman, about the irrationality of newspaper advertising in a pay-for-performance world. I was interested to hear mention of the Berkshire Eagle, which was the local paper when I was growing up. In a nutshell, Zuckerman suggests that in an advertising world in which performance can be measured, the high costs of ads doesn’t support the expenditures required to publish the Eagle or, for that matter, the New York Times. Now it’s worth mentioning that the Berkshire Eagle is, as far as newspapers go, a hold-out of real local news in a relatively intelligent part of the country and that localism may go a long way to explaining the high cost of the ads. Still, Zuckerman has a good point: earlier models of cultural production don’t pay anymore. 

But new models of cultural production don’t pay either. Although new models of cultural production employ a certain number of people, as Zuckerman points out with regard to his own online citizen media venture, the efficiency they create means they can run much more leanly than previous models and still reach the same audience numbers.

This sounds great, but what happens to the other jobs? Unfortunately, they aren’t needed anymore. New models of cultural production have streamlined them out of existence as effectively as the most ruthless downsizing strategies of the 1980s did to blue-collar jobs.

So now what? If employment in industry is long gone, is in free fall in finance, real estate, and construction, and is rapidly contracting in cultural production on what basis do economies exist?

My sense is that the long boom was not just the product of speculation. Rather, much of that speculation came out of a collective belief that technologies was leading to new efficiencies. This helped fuel the boom as some corporations were able to take advantage of that condition. But now what? The efficiency is largely there (unless you really think we need video teleconferencing, which I’ve had on my machine for three years now and used all of twice), the jobs have been eliminated, but the growth is gone. Is there any way to restart it? 

This is a fundamental theoretical problem with Network Culture and I’m afraid I don’t see an easy answer out there.

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more trouble in paradise

Time to paint this morning’s picture of just how dark it is out there. Let’s start with the Irish situation. I haven’t remarked much on it lately, because, I suppose, it seemed so obvious. Mistaking a peripheral position in the economy for a core position is always bad, especially if it’s your government and finance industries doing it. That’s just what happened in Ireland. The Celtic Tiger is not so much in free fall as in fast reverse now. It’s important to look back in history and remember that the Great Depression, bad as it was in the United States, was worse elsewhere. Hitchcock and Johnson originally intended the International Style exhibit as an intervention in Germany and only turned to MoMA when it became clear to them that the conditions in Germany would prevent future building.

Speaking of that show, think about the fact that in 1932 it was still possible to be somewhat optimistic about the economy, to think about building. We may not have fallen much yet. Obama’s latest plan, to digitize health care records, suggests that he may not have much idea what to do. This may help save money in health care, but it’s hardly much of a boost to the GDP. It makes nothing, it allows us to export nothing, and the investment is for a one time project that serves only one industry, albeit a big one. In other words, it’s rearranging desk chairs on the Titanic.

Meanwhile, at the Atlantic Michael Hirschorn plays out a scenario in which the New York Times shuts down its presses, perhaps as early as this May. The other day I was telling someone how the AT&T building is the last great corporate skyscraper and how the annihilation of AT&T after its completion meant that there would never be such iconic architecture again. Then I was sobered by the thought of the New York Times building as a new icon, but immediately realized that the exception confirmed the rule.  

Finally, if you think we aren’t producing anything, we are! Lots of nice carbon dioxide emissions are being created by all those Google searches. Two searches produce as much CO2 as boiling a tea kettle does. See Slashdot for more. At least we’ll stay warm in the winter when fossil fuels run out. 

 

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Datapocalypse is Coming

It’s a corollary that when I have more time, e. g. between semesters, and can spend time on the blog, my readership dwindles to my most hardy readers. So for you another post, via slashdot. It’s time to raise concern about the coming datapocalypse. There’s going to be a bag of hurt for many people as the economy takes down their favorite site. On a related note, JPEG magazine‘s parent company, 8020 media, is shutting its doors. 

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Google’s Gatekeepers

Today’s New York Times Magazine relates some of the complexities in Google’s control of the Internet search market. In order to deal with less tolerant legislation regarding the freedom of speech, Google sees itself forced in the positon of gatekeeper, deciding what to allow and to censor. See Google’s Gatekeepers.

Update: Hmm… I wonder what’s been banned from my Google searches. For some reason, even though I am located in Montclair, New Jersey and my IP clearly says that, Google thinks I am in Germany and I frequently see the Google.de page when I go there.

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networked publics and publicity

As I mentioned, the first of my three fall books, Networked Publics, is out. Initial reaction has been really positive and I am just thrilled.

If you are a member of the press, please contact me and I will ask MIT to send you one.

One of my goals in the next few days is to get the video section of Networked Publics back online after a year’s hiatus. I post a note to the site to that end when I’ve done that.

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whence and wither

I got back from teaching in Limerick yesterday and am slowly plotting my next steps. Certain things are in play. I continue to do new work with Robert at AUDC. The Netlab is going to launch a large project or two during the next year. But the foremost question in my mind now is: "what’s my next book?"

Fate conspired to make three years of edited books come out this fall. That’s not ideal, but we take what we can get, I suppose. Part of the fall will go to the inevitably necessity of promoting these books, but my clever strategy of having projects published in neat succession was undone by one slow publisher, one collaborator who wanted his project out by this Christmas, and one project that came out on on time. So a barrage of books will be followed by a gap as I gear up to the next project.

Originally, I had planned to write my network culture book, but now as the economy is tanking, I’m wondering how such a book will be received and where it would fit into such a rapidly degenerating condition. So another strategy may be to finally put together my work on Philip Johnson, add some more research, and publish that.

Now, as anyone reading this blog knows, I have been predicting the implosion of the markets for years. In any sensible world the market would have had a correction years ago so of course this one is much worse than expected. Well, I told you so. If anything surprises me about the world economy’s current plight it’s that anybody professes surprise. The signs of the collapse have been around us for a long time and, this will come as unwelcome news to many, but things are worse even than they might appear. My current bedside reading is Kevin Phillips’s Bad Money. Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Failure of American Capitalism, a harrowing account of how this collapse happened, written in 2007 (!). See the Bill Moyers interview with Phillips here. If the book is written in 2007 and the interview is from September of this year, they both anticipate and explain the current collapse.

Since the collapse is a key moment in network culture, once I can get a handle on its consequences, it would only make sense to continue that project. This strain of thought argues toward network culture as the next book and that’s likely to happen. There’ll be a lot of thinking aloud,  wondering, and asking you, my reader for advice along the way no matter where all this winds up.

 

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Place, Revised

One month ago, I announced that I’d re-introduce the Networked Publics book to my readers, chapter by chapter. In the meantime I’ve been hard at work on that book, the Johnson Tapes, and the Infrastructural City. Networked Publics achieved another milestone yesterday as MIT finished my corrections to the copy edits that they made to the text. So far, my experience with the press has been stellar. I’m a big fan. 

Today I’d like to turn to the text that Anne Friedberg and I co-wrote on Place. To introduce it, I’d like to recall a conversation I had with Mark Shepard last night. Mark is a brilliant professor with a joint appointment in architecture and media studies at the University of Buffalo. His Tactical Sound Garden is an amazing project that employs locative media while it avoids the kind of heavy-handed instrumentalism that so many locative media projects embrace (aside: I really hope it gets realized for a broad audience with the opening up of the iPhone SDK). Curiously, Mark and I were in architecture school together at Cornell, sitting two desks away from each other. But circumstances are just that, the milieu certainly did little encourage us in this direction, unless perhaps it provoked a counter-reaction.

In any event, Mark clarified my own framework to me when he suggested that the model of network culture that Anne and I lay out in the Place chapter of Networked Publics is spatially distinct from the one that Jameson lays out in Postmodernism, or the Logic of Late Capitalism. In that model, which was so crucial for us for so long, Jameson takes the Bonaventure hotel as his rhetorical object. Jameson sees the hotel’s notorious interior as an analog to postmodern hyperspace, its bilaterally symmetrical interior simple in plan but impossible to navigate in reality. For Jameson, this condition represents the postmodern entanglement of the subject in a system that has no exterior, a system that the subject can no longer take an outside vantage point in order to map. But this is still a Euclidean space. Being inside it is the reason the subject can’t map it. In contrast, Mark noted that the condition of spatiality that Anne and I describe is entirely different. In this model (even if this is an AUDC project and goes unmentioned in the Place chapter), my rhetorical object is One Wilshire (which has indeed been as important to me as the Bonaventure was for Jameson), a structure that seemingly exists in one space but in fact defines many superimposed simultaneous environments. 

So, Mark pointed out, at the very core of Jameson’s theory, we find a condition that is very different from ours. To be sure, we’ll continue mapping, something I suggest in this essay, but placefinding is going to be a very different thing indeed under network culture. 

All that said, there have been some revisions to the text in the last iteration and I’m quite happy with the chapter and the voice that Anne and I developed during our year at Networked Publics. See here for Place.  

 

 

 

 

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networked publics on the net

The last few years have been a whirlwind of projects. This week, I deliver to MIT Press  the final copy edits of the Networked Publics book, which they will print this fall. 

I want to turn to this project for a while so let’s start with the inside scoop about the book. It came about as the product of a theme year at the Annenberg Center for Communication at USC. Initially, when I was brought on as a senior fellow, it was to coordinate a group of a dozen or so fellows, build and manage a group blog and write a book based on my Network City work.

With a new director at the Center, however, the rules of the game changed and we were asked to deliver some kind of joint product. After much deliberation, the group came to the conclusion that only a book project could rivet our attention enough. We divided up into four groups, each one devoted to one issue: Place, Culture, Politics, and Infrastructure. In turn, each group worked collaboratively, using social software such as Writely (now Google Docs) to produce the texts. As the leaders of the group, Mimi Ito and I framed the texts with an introduction and conclusion respectively. 

Initially our ambitions were pretty humble. How could you take such a diverse group and create a coherent whole out of it? Since all of us were treading in the heady realm of interdisciplinarity, we all felt like fish out of water that year. I barely talked about architecture in 2005-2006 at all. Could we pull it off? If we did, could the book be anything more than an introduction to the material?

As the texts got finished, ambitions on all of our parts began to rise. After all, the book does have our names on it. My conclusion, it became clear to me, would form the basis of an upcoming book on network culture. In editing the work, I realized how timely and important this project was. Two years after the initial drafting, an eternity today, the book still defines the key issues in network culture and does so incisively. The peer reviews from MIT suggested the same. Of course the reviewers, as good reviewers should, provided comments that necessitated a good deal of rethinking and rewriting this summer. I worked with the chapter editors over the summer and turned in the text last fall. As I complete the final copy edits this week, I am uploading the chapters one at a time to the Networked Publics site. I will be adding some reflections on each text and featuring them on this site. Be aware that some of the texts are not yet updated. 

Over the last few months, I have reworked the Networked Publics site to focus on the content and bring new readers to the book and the blog quickly. It’s looking rather nice although I have a bug or two in IE 7 that I still need to squash and I need to bring up the videos from our lecture series as well.

Of course the book will be far easier to read in print form and it will have certain features that don’t appear on the Web, such as sidebars by noted thinkers reflecting on issues addressed in the book. If you read the Web site, make sure you buy the book too. Our ability to work with publishers to allow content from books to appear on the Web as well as in print is linked to good sales. If sales takes too much of a hit, presses will invoke more protective models about their property.

So, with that preface, start out today by taking a look at Mimi Ito’s introduction to see how she frames the book. More than an introduction to this book, it lays out her models of thinking about the relationship of individuals and media today. For those of you who are architects, this introduction is especially important as it begs the question where is architecture in the ecology of new media? 

Mimi Ito, "Introduction," Networked Publics.

   

 

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