Podcast • March 24, 2008

Real News: Ethan Zuckerman & Solana Larsen

Ethan Zuckerman Ethan Zuckerman is up there with Yo-Yo Ma among my heroic models of global citizenship. His brainchild, Global Voices Online, is my model of journalism transforming itself. Global Voices Online (GVO) is an ...


Ethan Zuckerman

Ethan Zuckerman is up there with Yo-Yo Ma among my heroic models of global citizenship. His brainchild, Global Voices Online, is my model of journalism transforming itself.

Global Voices Online (GVO) is an edited aggregation of blogs in roughly 200 countries. It’s a brilliant early stab at the notion of the world reporting on itself. I think of it as Ethan’s answer to the famous prayer of the great Scot, Robert Burns (1759 – 1796): “Oh wad some power the giftie gie us / To see oursel’s as others see us!” … and, in the meantime, to see Chinese, Colombians, Nigerians and others in something like the variety of ways they see themselves.

Click to listen to Chris’s classroom conversation with Ethan Zuckerman and Solana Larsen here (71 minutes, 33 MB MP3)

The conversation here is a master class with Ethan and the new managing editor of GVO, Solana Larsen, from our Monday-night new-media seminar with a score of Brown students.

The old cartoonish model of parachute journalism was a reporter from New York or London, with a crisis mentality and a short list of questions. The new model is hundreds, or thousands, of homegrown bloggers piecing together many perspectives — counting on a hidden hand of links to sort out differences and shape a “lede” on the story. Kenya and China present the most striking examples of how the new model is pushing back on the old one.

solana larsen

Solana Larsen

Solana Larsen: In the post-election violence in Kenya in January, we had a team of Kenyans who read the Kenyan blogosphere. Local media was shut down. No live reporing was allowed. Where did you go for information? Who was taking pictures? Who was taking cellphones and cameras out to where the violence was happening. Bloggers. So by collecting many different voices of bloggers we provided a feed, with round-the-clock updates on blogs, linking to the contributions people were making in the country, and working together with mainstream media to connect to bloggers they could talk to, with email addresses and phone numbers…

Ethan Zuckerman: What happened in Kenya was very interesting. The read on Kenya from global media at first was: Oh, here’s another Rwanda, right?. Everybody saw the violence in and said: Oh, were’ gonna see this nation go up like a torch. And the bloggers came back and said: no, no, no, you don’t get it. This is political violence. This is not ethnic and racial violence. This was a thrown election and people are furious about it, but we also see evidence all over the place of people in communities looking for ways to make ethnic and racial peace. Concerned Kenyan writers put on a concerted campaign to contradict certain narratives: that all African violence is tribal; that Africa is always on the edge of falling to pieces; that Kenya was coming apart. And at the same time they wanted to talk about a genuine electoral injustice. At ushahidi.com, for example, fires on the map of Kenya were the icons locating violence, and doves for locating peace efforts. Kenyans told their own story…

Solana Larsen and Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices Online at Brown University, March 10, 2008

The best-read story on Global Voices Online last year was about an otherwise invisible scam in China. It makes Ethan’s point that the next step for the citizen journalism is rewriting the mainstream agenda:

Ethan Zuckerman: If you are a New York Times reporter and you’re looking for news in China you are probaby looking for economic stories: how is the US slowdown affecting the Chinese economy? You’re always looking for democracy and repression stories, because there’s an endless appetite for it. And you’re probably looking for and Olympic stories: will they be reay? What will we see? How will it change them?

The story you probably would have missed unless you were reading the blogs was about ant farming. This is a story that didn’t get a ton of attention in the US, but should have.

It’s very difficult to invest in China today. If you’re an average Chinese citizen, the interest you get from your bank isn’t worth very much. It’s difficult to buy shares on the open market.

So what you have is basically the Albanian economy immediately after the fall of the Berlin wall. You have people investing in Ponzi schemes, and pyramid schemes. And one of the most popular ones has been ant-farming. Companies come to you and give you a cardboard box filled with of ants. You pay $100, $200, maybe $500 for the ant farm and the company agrees to buy ants from you as the ants grow up.

Before you conclude this is completely insane, we should mention that ants are used in a great deal of traditional Chinese medicine. There are these companies that look like formal, well run establishments that claim that they’re going to make herbal viagra out of ants.

What ended up happening was, in Shenyang, a rust-belt village, people were defrauded out of, literally, more than $100-million through these ant farm scams. In many cases people lost their life savings.

We started covering this story not because we’d decided to follow the Chinese economy, but because the Chinese blogosphere exploded. Lots of Chinese bloggers knew a friend or a family member who had lost money in ant-farming and wanted to tell the story. The Chinese government predictably reacted by shutting down a lot of these sites. In lots of cases we had the only videotapes of the evidence.

We got blocked for the first time in China. We’d reported on the arrest and detention of our own Chinese editor, and we started a human-rights campaign to get him released. That didn’t get us blocked. Ant farms were a different story, because people were taking to the streets

In the end the Chinese government stepped in, and offered to compensate people for their money lost. At then they executed the guy that was running the scheme. Consumer protection isn’t always our job, but it’s a really interesting function for telling you what stories to watch. What’s interesting in China is the economics that puts people out on the street. We wouldn’t have known that had we not been listening to Chinese citizens writing in Chinese and letting it filter up from the blogs and set our news agenda.

Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices Online at Brown University, March 10, 2008

Podcast • March 7, 2008

London: The News about the News

“Harry’s War is Over” was the headline all over London on the weekend of our grand gabby openDemocracy conference on “Credibility in the New News.” But, of course, that scoop about 23-year-old, third-from-the-throne Prince Harry ...

“Harry’s War is Over” was the headline all over London on the weekend of our grand gabby openDemocracy conference on “Credibility in the New News.” But, of course, that scoop about 23-year-old, third-from-the-throne Prince Harry at the front in Afghanistan had been suppressed for weeks by the embedded London papers until it finally surfaced in the Drudge Report. Is there more to be said about the near-death of British newspapering? They’re all colorful tabloids now, shrunken in size, seriousness and self-respect, except perhaps for the Guardian and the broadsheet Financial Times. Who’s got the credibility problem?

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations at the Open Democracy conference in London here (39 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

tony curzon price

Tony Curzon Price of openDemocracy

Yet there we were at the London School of Economics in a wary, often worried meditation on the rewiring of the circuits that go from information to “content,” to news, to master-narrative, to belief, to action in the body politic these days. Tony Curzon Price, editor of openDemocracy, spoke with reserve about the “very hectic slow motion” in which the digital transformation in media reveals itself. “It’s all up in the air,” he said, “and it’s still falling, no one knows where.”

The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, a contrarian in the openDemocracy fellowship, is not reconciled to the ease of access to the blogosphere and what seems to him “massive self-publication by imbeciles.”

David Hayes neatly identified openDemocracy, of which he is deputy editor, with the spirit of the Gandhi line: “I want the winds of all the world’s cultures to blow freely through my house. But I don’t wish to be blown away by any of them.” The mission of openDemocracy and Web journalism, Hayes said, must be to build a space both broad and deep, that brings many kinds of outsiders into the conversation, because “everything now works both ways.”

masha lipman

Masha Lipman: “Pro et Contra” the Web

Masha Lipman gave a vivid picture of a burgeoning Internet culture in Russia — making not the slightest dent in the crushing power of the Kremlin. Mark Hunter, an American journalist who teaches at the University of Paris, argued that right-wing presslord Rupert Murdoch of FoxNews and left-wing movie man Michael Moore are the real success stories of the new “consensual media,” blatantly surfacing the identities of their customers in both style and content. John Lloyd of the Financial Times pressed the question of who, in the new market, is interested in the wider view — in reality — and who is willing to pay for it?

My takeaway is that we’re having a hard time thinking big enough — or talking as cheerfully as we actually feel — about the Internet blessings in store for a planet that must be liberated and reconciled in new ways. I have been reading Arnold Toynbee (1889 – 1975) recently (at Parag Khanna‘s urging) and on the flight to London I was struck specially by a Toynbee essay from shortly after World War II, just 60 years ago, that told us to be on the lookout for a “scaffolding,” an epochal tool (sounds like the Internet) for “the unification of the world.” We are, he suggests, the last innocents, the last provincials, in a world that our technologies have changed utterly. So here, from the meta-historian of civilizations, is what I take to be Toynbee’s summary of the 500-year course from Vasco da Gama, who reached India by sea in 1498, to the World Wide Web:

arnold toynbee

Arnold Toynbee

The main strand is not even the expansion of the West over the world — so long as we persist in thinking of that expansion as a private enterprise of the Western society’s own. The main strand is the progressive erection, by Western hands, of a scaffolding within which all the once separate societies have built themselves into one. … [The] future world… will be neither Western nor non-Western but will inherit all the cultures which we Westerners have now brewed together in a single crucible…

The paradox of our generation is that all the world has now profited by an education which the West has provided, except… the West herself. The west today is still looking at history from that old parochial self-centred standpoint which the other living societies have by now been compelled to transcend. Yet, sooner or later, the West in her turn, is bound to receive the re-education which the other civilizations have obtained already from the unification of the world by Western action…

The West alone has so far escaped this unceremonious treatment. Unshattered, up till now, by an upheaval of its own making, our local civilization is still hugging the smug and slovenly illusion in which its ‘opposite numbers’ indulged till they took their educative toss from the levelled horns of an unintentionally altruistic bull. Sooner or later, the repercussions of this collision will assuredly recoil upon the West herself; but for the present this Janus-like figure slumbers on — abroad a charging bull, at home a now solitary Sleeping Beauty.

Arnold Toynbee, “The Unification of the World,” in Civilization on Trial, Oxford University Press, 1948. Pages 79 through 91.

For “the West” I would read the United States these days; we have met this Sleeping Beauty, and she is Us.

Podcast • January 8, 2008

Anthony Barnett on What’s Changed

Credit Anthony Barnett with making the link between the Barack Obama campaign and Will Smith’s box-office smash, “I Am Legend.” Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Anthony Barnett here (28 minutes, 13 MB MP3) ...

Credit Anthony Barnett with making the link between the Barack Obama campaign and Will Smith’s box-office smash, “I Am Legend.”

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Anthony Barnett here (28 minutes, 13 MB MP3)

anthony barnettopenDemocracy’s Anthony Barnett

In the movie it’s the lean and gorgeous family-minded, brown-eyed man (the scientist Robert Neville, played by Smith) who’s “the last human” in New York and maybe on earth. He’s immune from the virus that has turned the rest of us into zombies, and he’s in a mad dash to share whatever it is that’s protecting him with a colony of survivors. “I can help you,” he shouts in the last self-sacrificing moments of the film. “Let me save you.”

On our polluted political playing field it’s the Hollywood-handsome Senator from Illinois who stands alone — the slim, still mysterious stranger who’s come to rescue us, who said in his Iowa victory speech “in the face of impossible odds, people who love this country can change it.” See Gary Kamiya‘s fine piece today in Salon.

In the film we’re told that the killer virus was a human accident, the work of a dotty, donnish English lady who thought she’d compounded a universal cure for cancer. Anthony Barnett’s distillation of the filmic-political parable is: “In short, the world is saved from Mrs Thatcher by Barack Obama.”

There are church-state resonances here: “God didn’t do this, we did,” says Dr. Neville, in the weedy ruins of Manhattan. And there’s a gender riddle: how is that in both versions the plausible savior is a youngish African-American man, while his fumbling foil is a very smart woman contriving to do good?

Suffice it to say we have one of those delicious convergences or “visual rhymes” to remind us that no event, and surely no trend, stands alone in this mediated world. And further that there are depths and resonances of the Obama boom that haven’t been measured yet. Anthony Barnett’s reading after Iowa and a family night at the movies was: “He is not just a potential president, he alone has the combination of skills to save mankind. Every single seat sold for “I Am Legend” makes Obama more electable and puts Hilary on the wrong side of the great plague.”

I’ll engage Anthony Barnett in conversation tomorrow (Wednesday) not as a film critic and not as an expert particularly on American politics, but as an off-shore wiseman — “a torchlight procession of one,” as a friend describes him — on most of the grander question we care about. I hope we’ll get this chance often again. Anthony Barnett is a model of thinking and doing: writer, editor, reformer and entrepreneurial radical from the Labour Club at Cambridge in the Sixties and the New Left Review in the Eighties, a hold-out from Tony Blair’s New Labor movement in the Nineties, and then founding editor (months before 9.11) of the compendious site openDemocracy. Here’s the bouquet that friends tossed at him on his 65th birthday last November. When I met Anthony Barnett in Greece last July, I noted here that he speaks with that experienced, curious, post-imperial English voice that we waited for and never heard on the way to Iraq.

I want to ask him for the Big Picture — at least a big picture frame — for 2008.

Podcast • November 29, 2007

Pakistan for Beginners: 3, with Omer Alvie

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Omer Alvie (17 minutes, 8 MB MP3) But suppose this were a realistic novel! Just think what else I might have to put in… How much real-life material ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Omer Alvie (17 minutes, 8 MB MP3)

But suppose this were a realistic novel! Just think what else I might have to put in… How much real-life material might become compulsory! — About, for example… the attempt to declare the sari an obscene garment; or about the extra hangings — the first for twenty years — that were ordered purely to legitimize the execution of Mr. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto; or about why Bhutto’s hangman has vanished into thin air, just like the many street-urchins who are being stolen every day in broad daylight; or about anti-Semitism, an interesting phenomenon, under whose influence people who have never met a Jew vilify all Jews for the sake of maintaining solidarity with the Arab states which offer Pakistan workers, these days, employment and much-needed foreign exchange; or about smuggling, the boom in heroin exports, military dictators, venal civilians, corrupt civil servants, bought judges, newspapers of whose stories the only thing that can confidently be said is that they are lies; or about the apportioning of the national budget, with special reference to the percentages set aside for defense (huge) and for education (not huge). Imagine my difficulties!

Salman Rushdie, in his “modern fairytale” of Pakistan, Shame, 1983… p. 67 in the Picador paperback.

Pakistan: All Martial and No Law was the headline on Omer Alvie’s last piece for the invaluable Global Voices Online. In our conversation today he remarks on the comic-opera moment in the news this very day as General Musharraf took his oath as President Musharraf under a constitution he’s suspended, making him — what? — a Suspended President.

Omer Alvie is a Pakistani who works and blogs in Dubai, and commutes now and then to Karachi. He has a talent for the absurd humor and not-so-post-colonial anguish of Pakistani politics. It was all, as Omer says, described and foretold nearly a quarter century ago in Salman Rushdie’s novel Shame — a telling in fiction of the ouster and then the hanging of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979. “I tell myself this will be a novel of leavetaking,” Rushdie writes in the book, “my last words on the East, from which, many years ago, I began to come loose.”

Omer Alvie is of a younger generation that once saw charisma and modernity in the face of Pervez Musharraf. He now feels bitter disappointment and the weight of more than Pakistan’s history on events. He says:

The external influence is so strong on Pakistani politics… I have to go back to the War on Terror. This thing overall is farcical to me… If you want to get to the root cause of why terrorist cells exist, or why terrorism happens, you don’t go around bombing countries or arresting innocent people in hopes of catching a few. That’s not addressing the problem, and that’s what’s happening in Pakistan. I sometimes get the feeling that Pakistan is being conditioned. I believe it’s on the same hitlist as Iraq, Iran and Syria. Actually I should clarify: the hitlist should have the letter S in front of it, because that’s probably how the project of the New American Century and most of the Bush administration sees it… this collosally screwed up foreign policy which is now classified as a “war on terrorism”…

…The whole “war on terror” thing, this 9.11 thing, I think, has screwed up Pakistan more than anything else really, because it’s affected us more. We’re stuck in bookends. The average Pakistani is now stuck being questioned by extremists and militants about how to dress, what to do, when to pray, and being questioned constantly about how they live their lives. This is their experience in Pakistan. The same Pakistanis when they travel outside to the US get blamed and classified in a very generic manner as a terrorist, because they’re a Pakistani or a Muslim. We are squeezed between 2 bookends.

Omer Alvie of The Olive Ream, in conversation with Open Source, November 29, 2007