Long Morozov

The New Left Review has an excellent in depth interview with Evgeny Morozov called Socialize The Data Centres! Too bad that was the headline they went with, because his argument is more subtle than that, and the article contains so much more. For example, we learn about Morozov’s upbringing in Belarus and his early intellectual development (a major in Business Admin!?). Even better is discussion about his ideological evolution since writing his books. I find this interesting because while he has been working on his PhD at Harvard we have been only getting the occasional opinion piece. I can imagine he is going through a transformation and look forward to the resulting book(s?) at the end. Below are a few choice quotes from the article, however I encourage you to read it in its entirety.

On the problem:

… the encroachment of capital into everyday life by means of Silicon Valley, which I think is probably more consequential than the encroachment of the nsa into our civil liberties.

… we’re in danger of ending up with a kind of idiot history, in which everything starts in Silicon Valley, and there are no other forces or causes.

On the solution:

Right now all we can do is try to articulate some kind of utopian vision of what a non-neoliberal, but technology-friendly, world might look like.

The question is how can we build a system that will actually favour citizens, and perhaps even favour some kind of competition in its search engines. It’s primarily from data and not their algorithms that powerful companies currently derive their advantages, and the only way to curb that power is to take the data completely out of the market realm, so that no company can own them.

Some related links:

Who watches the watchers?

Full disclosure: I back CANADALAND on Patreon.

Turning a critical eye towards the national news media is an important and valuable endeavour. But the daily lives of Canadians are influenced far more by local news. Although Jesse Brown’s eps on Hamilton and New Brunswick are informative forays into local conditions (and how terrible they are), it is too much to expect Jesse to cover every local media landscape.

That is the reason I started the Kelowna news media audit. It is an attempt to start a discussion, and to map out our local news media landscape to discover where it serves us well, and where it is weak.

Often the newsmedia is the lens the citizenry uses to observe the doings of local government. Thus it is of vital importance that we as citizens are precisely aware of the condition of that lens. It is key to government and public relations, and vital to a healthy community.

My piece from last week has generated some discussion. I made an appearance on CBC Radio’s Daybreak South with host Chris Walker, and I met the editor of another local outlet for some one-on-one time. And of course there has been some interesting feedback via Twitter. Overwhelmingly many have asked: what’s next?

I am not sure if I want to take the mantle of “Okanagan’s Jesse Brown.” It is a matter of time and training (I have neither). But the media audit certainly did bring up a lot of questions, and some potential paths of research. For example:

  1. Historical analysis: I listed the number of reporters on the beat (which was problematic since “the beat” doesn’t really exist any more). I would be interested in comparing this current number to 5, 10, 15 years ago.
  2. What went down with Kelowna.com? I have talked to two members of that team and I would like to pursue this story. The fact they had 11 reporters backed by tech entrepreneurs makes this story fascinating to me. In the meantime, check out this writeup from one of its former reporters.
  3. Wider context: While I listed the outlets responsible for civic reporting, I did not bring up the city’s public relations department, or other ways a citizen can get information on civic issues. There are more contours to this landscape, and we should be aware of them all.
  4. Related to #3, 15% of our population is foreign-born (according to ancient stats from 8 years ago because we haven’t had a decent census — a topic for another day) but I only covered mainstream English-language outlets. How do our sizable South Asian, Filipino, Korean, Iranian and other minority communities get the news?
  5. Inspired by this tweet, it would be interesting to take attendance for media that show up to council (since apparently some only show up sporadically). Who shows up when, and during what discussions? What conclusions can we draw from this?
  6. Would the media orgs in the community be willing to have a round-table discussion about the landscape here? I would be willing to facilitate, if we couldn’t find a media scholar to do so. Such a discussion would be valuable to the community, methinks.

If there are any media studies or journalism students that would like to tackle these questions, or even just concerned citizens like myself, feel free to get in touch. Maybe we can work together to get a better handle on how we see our own community.

Kelowna news media audit

kelowna newsmedia logos

I was inspired by the story of Joey Coleman, an independent and crowd-sourced reporter in Hamilton, who I learned about from this great episode of CANADALAND about the collapse of local news. It made me think about my local news media landscape, and I decided to compile a list of all the news media outlets in our fair city.

There are two conditions to be on this list:

First, I am only including outlets that provide some amount (however small) of local, civic content. In other words, I exclude outlets that are purely about culture, wine, tourism, festivals or other community events. Not that those aren’t great, I am just more focused on outlets that contribute to an informed citizenry. I want to list the type of outlets that would have a reporter in a city council meeting (hopefully every time…).

Second, I want outlets that create original content. I did not want to include aggregators, of which there are a ton. The orgs on this list have live bodies that type stories on a keyboard, or even better get sent outside to gather news.

The list below is based on what I could find out online, and asking around on Twitter and via email. It is probably not complete, but I am confident I have a pretty good foundation. If you have anything to add, please do so in the comments and I will update the list. Or, if you want to reach out privately, contact me here.


TV

Global News Okanagan. Owned by Shaw Media. 2 field reporters and 1 web reporter in Kelowna; 1 field reporter each in Vernon and Penticton. (source)

ShawTV Okanagan. Owned by Shaw Media. No real news coverage, but they do broadcast City Council meetings on Channel 11.

CTV Okanagan. Owned by Bell Media. 1 news reporter, 1 videographer/editor, and a Facebook page. Responsible for covering BC interior for CTV Vancouver. (source)

Radio

CBC Kelowna including Daybreak South and Radio West. The local incarnation of our public broadcaster, owned by us. Covering the entire Okanagan (and more): 1 reporter, 2 asst. producers, 2 producers, 2 radio anchors, 1 news editor. (source) But no podcast… that’s how I listen to The Current and Spark and all my fave CBC shows!

AM1150. Owned by Bell Media. 4 reporters. (source) Soundcloud which basically means podcast. Provides news coverage to the two other Bell Media radio stations in Kelowna: 99.9 SunFM and 101.5 ezRock.

The other stations don’t seem to have any news coverage, aka:

Newspapers

Daily Courier. Owned by Continental Newspapers Canada Ltd. 1 reporter? (awaiting response).

Capital News. A Black Press paper, owned by David Holmes Black (no relation to Conrad). As far as I can tell, 1 reporter covering civic news (a couple more doing sports and the like). (awaiting response)

Web

Castanet. Owned by Nick Frost. 4 reporters? (awaiting response by email) I like that they have audio uploads of city council and are even distributing them as a podcast, but what they should be doing is recapping them and providing analysis.

InfoTel. Owned by Bonnie Derry. 2 reporters. According to our Lord Mayor, these guys are regulars at City Council.

KelownaNow. Owned by Jim and Nikki Csek and one other minority shareholder. 5 “journalist reporters” in total (confirmed by email with the GM). Not sure how many actually cover civic affairs.


So what does this all mean? Could Kelowna support a Joey Coleman? Considering he is only approaching the break-even point in a market that is four times the size of us, I am doubtful. Yet one reporter for every 10,000 residents seems too low. Well, with only a 30% voter turnout (about 30K people), it is more like one reporter for every 2000 voters. I wonder if these two problems are linked?

Although I am not a media scholar and have no framework for analysis, I certainly think we could be doing better. That is in both quantity and quality. Shaw and Bell own a lot of our traditional news media, while the web-based news orgs are all private and self-identify as "marketing" companies. It'd be nice to see the CBC step up here, maybe add a digital presence, but they have a lot going on already.

Computing in North Korea

RedStarOS screencap

There has been a wave of information about the computing environment and networking capabilities of North Korea coming out in the past week. Vice reported on the the release of a torrent of RedStar OS, a North Korean fork of Fedora. Combined with heightened interest over the purported Sony hack, there have been a lot of tear-downs of RedStar on security sites, including this one of the Naenara browser. Among other things, it hints at how the Nork internet is like a SME intranet, and not a private part of the global internet.

Another great piece is this CCC talk about teaching computer science in North Korea. Will Scott taught at PUST (Pyongyang University of Science & Technology) in 2013, a couple of years after Suki Kim did. Her book about her experience there is recommended (read my review: Emotional prisoner — a review of Without You, There Is No Us). In this talk Scott gives a demo of RedStar, and puts it into context of the day to day computing in North Korea, which he says is mostly WinXP. The demo is sort of a bizarro world Steve Jobsian demo, as the RedStar UX is heavily, heavily influenced my Mac OS X. He also demos an Android tablet.

Language is obviously a challenge, since not a lot of English-speaking security researchers can read Korean. But the code is much more legible, being that most coding conventions are based on English (a little bit of Anglo developer privilege there). Regardless, any glimpse into the “Hermit Kingdom” is a welcome one.

Foreign Affairs: Cash but no plan

Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada announced $9 million dollars in funding in partnership with the Munk School of Global Affairs at U of T for something called the “Digital Public Square project.” The CBC dubbed the project an experiment in digital diplomacy. The Globe called it “direct diplomacy.” The coverage in the National Post, Toronto Star et alia related how the project aims to allow government firewall circumvention, information sharing, and increase government accountability for citizens in “oppressive societies.” Leaving aside the questions around the efficacy of “digital diplomacy” (UPDATE: Taylor Owen outlines some of the perils), I was curious as to why there were no details on the “how.” Where is this money going to? Much of the news coverage focused on current efforts to engage Iranians, which is pretty confusing since the project seems to be about spreading to other countries. But how can we tell? There is no roadmap, and the hard questions have yet to be asked by the press. How can you announce $9M without saying how it will be used?

Until we get some more information, I took a look at the current Munk Center-backed program to engage Iranians.

Rial politik

The Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran site and its accompanying Google moderator sites sure don’t seem like something you throw $9M at. The RouhanimeterThe Rouhani Meter is some pretty good transparency propaganda, but Iran is awash in foreign propaganda (see below). The results seem impressive:

On May 10th, 2013, the Munk School launched a new kind of digital public square for Iran. … within two weeks, more than 360,000 unique users had connected with the Global Dialogue from inside Iran, and had visited the site over 1,490,000 times.

I am unclear as to how you would measure success. Iranians are notoriously political. Robert D. Kaplan once compared getting into a taxi in Tehran with getting into a taxi in Damascus: in Tehran the cabbie would right away start bitching about the government, while in Syria the cabbie was silent.

My experience was like this too. In 2004, during Ahmadinejad’s antagonistic era, I was in Iran covering the US presidential election (when George W. Bush was elected for a second term). Everybody wanted to talk to me about politics. Admittedly, I did spend most of my time with the kind of people who would hang around foreigners. They all listened to the BBC because they couldn’t trust their own newsmedia. However the blue-collar folk that I stayed with for my last week thought the BBC was propaganda. There are sharp divisions in the country to be sure, but Persian-language satellite channels, radio, websites etc. abound, especially thanks to the diaspora in Los Angeles. For years now, there has been a lot of civic activity around getting anti-regime voices to Iranians in country. I am unclear as to how a “digital public” square would be perceived any different. And it doesn’t explain how Iranians are being protected online.

Too many tomans?

So why is the Canadian government putting $9M in? That is a princely sum for a small startup guy like myself. Just from the news coverage, I don’t get it. I reached out to the Munk Center on Twitter and they recommended a couple of sources. Again, they related only to the current Iranian efforts, nothing about the future. Still, it did answer a couple of my questions.

Psiphon Inc logoFor example, circumvention. Psiphon originated as a project at the Citizen Lab (one of my fave orgs). They use a combination of VPN, SSH and proxies to get you around official barriers. Open source too. I am sure these guys could use some funding, so I hope they see some of that 9 mil.

Another org Munk pointed me to is ASL19, which seems like a sort of Citizen Lab focused on Iran. They have links with other orgs and other cool sites like Meidoon Watch which is kind of like a Hacker News for Iranian stuff. Seems useful. I wish I knew how much activity on that site is actually from inside of Iran. The Iranian diaspora is in the millions.

Mo’ money, mo’ problems… need mo’ info

There is certainly a network of organizations working on the Iran problem. The new Foreign Affairs money must be going to replicating these networks in other countries. I am just frustrated that Foreign Affairs and the Munk Center aren’t giving us more information on their plans, and that the press hasn’t asked for more. Sorry for this rambling post, but there is a bit of an information vacuum here, and I thought I would draw attention to it. I will gladly update this post if someone can provide answers. Or feel free to add some in the comments.

Photo credit: Me.

“The means of information”

Information Doesn't Want to Be Free by Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow’s new book Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free is ostensibly a guide for creators on how to approach the Internet, and does so in an extremely informative, yet conversational manner. Furthermore it is concise, making it very accessible. When people ask me why I care so much about copyright and DRM, I will point them to this short and entertaining book.

Funnily enough, this book reminded me a lot of Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (which I was critical of in my Literary Review of Canada review). One thing I didn’t like about her book was tone. I had even expressed that she be more academic in her approach. I think that opinion was wrong. She should have taken an approach more like Doctorow: conversational and entertaining.

Doctorow lays out a lot of the challenges that today’s creators face. He is familiar with the means of production and the regulations concerned (he did spend a number of years at the EFF fighting this stuff) and communicates it easily. Furthermore, he offers realistic solutions. This is the kind of book I wish Taylor had produced.

Although I didn’t think People’s Platform was all that great, I still recommend it to people because it encapsulates a lot of the Internet criticism of the past five years or so. Doctorow essentially does the same thing for copyright, piracy and digital locks, and then shows how it affects the wider society through censorship, privacy and surveillance. I prefer his execution. There is some overlap (and sometimes conflicting), but otherwise I think these books complement one another, and will probably recommend them as a pair. I would love to see Taylor’s review of Doctorow and vice-versa.

Mobile-induced disestablishmentarianism

Over 2014 I saw the rise of mobile in a new light. The web is diminishing as the window to the internet. Benedict Evans expressed it well in the most recent a16z podcast: New questions in mobile (I recommend the listen, but here is the article if you would read it instead.) Evans does some back-of-the-envelope math:

… we are now well on our way to having some 3.5bn to 4bn people on earth with a smartphone – there are probably 2bn today, and close to 4bn people with a mobile phone (the number of duplicate SIMs makes the number of active connection closer to 6bn). This compares to around 1.6bn PCs, of which roughly half are consumer and half corporate. So there will be something like 5 times more smartphones than consumer PCs, and those devices are always with you and, with all their apps and sensors, are much more sophisticated than PCs ever were, seen as internet devices.

This scaling trend has been talked about before. Early on only the military and universities owned computers. In the seventies and eighties the “personal computer” exploded that number. In the late nineties, with the growing popularity of the World Wide Web, PC penetration exploded again. Now smartphones.

I asked on Twitter:

Mobile is changing everything. The two fields that I work in now — online commerce and advertising — are being revolutionized. I see it every day, unfortunately they are often trying to hold on to the past.

I know I am not presenting any new information. This has been a trend in the making for the past 5 years or so. In the final year of my old consultancy we started projects with API design. This is a very profound shift that cannot be summed up with the pithy “There’s an app for that.” Thus this post is is more of a resolution to myself to strictly separate the once interchangeable terms “internet” and “world wide web.” A sort of separation of church and state.

It is also an exercise to think more critically of what it means for “general computing.” Mobile has certainly contributed to less tracking by advertisers (except for “social”, which is another new space in ads), but it means even more stronger social control through digital locks and exclusive ecosystems. “Tethered appliances” as Zittrain called them. How can we bring the benefits of “general computing” to mobile, while leaving behind some of the weaknesses? Watching some of the presentations from the 31st Chaos Communication Congress, I think security is the first priority. It is an old problem, endemic to the system. A proverbial “big hairy audacious goal.” Like the Grail. A worthy goal, methinks.