Monday, January 23, 2012

SOPA, Super PACs, and Tech: Envisioning Media and Politics 2.0

So it's been a busy week in the world of technology and politics. As a big chunk of the tech industry got behind the day of SOPA/PIPA protest on the Internet, constituent forces were energized and some members of Congress actually shifted their public position. Across the Internet, there was a sense of victory. The tides had turned. Momentum on our side. But this was not the war. This was not even The Battles of Lexington and Concord.

Barely a day after the SOPA protests, the Justice Department and law enforcement officials in eight other countries shut down file sharing site MegaUpload, arrested a handful of MU employees, and seized "over $50 Million in assets." It was as if the pro-SOPA/PIPA message machine demanded a head, something that would enable the media to say, "See how much these guys make? See how bad this problem is?" Of course, the irony of the entire MU thing is that any legal action that results from the whole thing is taking place in an pre-SOPA/PIPA environment.

But let's look down the road. Here are a couple of links -- dots to help paint the picture taking shape in my thoughts:

Here's a link to a post, RFS 9: Kill Hollywood by Paul Graham at Y Combinator. Here's a snippet:
Hollywood appears to have peaked. If it were an ordinary industry (film cameras, say, or typewriters), it could look forward to a couple decades of peaceful decline. But this is not an ordinary industry. The people who run it are so mean and so politically connected that they could do a lot of damage to civil liberties and the world economy on the way down. It would therefore be a good thing if competitors hastened their demise.
Sarah Lacy at PandoDaily has some thoughtful insight into entrepreneurs taking down the Hollywood industry.

Also noteworthy is Michael Arrington's thoughts on the SOPA/PIPA fight. While I don't completely agree with him that the problem is "big government", I do think that he is spot on regarding the influence of lobbying money being the real underlying factor shaping this battle.

And finally, just to add a note of flavor, here is a post from Nicolle Belle at Crooks and Liars. This is just a nice reminder about how the media and the industry of politics all profit from this. This isn't just politicians, lobbying and Super PACs, it's ad revenue and it's content generation -- it's multi-threaded reality TV that dwarfs the Kardashian enterprise. 

Questions that I Keep Asking
Why is it that money and incumbent interests tend to drive the political winds with little regard to constituent interests or long-term value?

Why is it that, instead of faster Internet and universal broadband, we get laws proposing The Great Firewall of America?

Why is it that I have only found a handful of television programs in the past two or three years that I consider worth watching? Why is it that, with over 700 options being piped through the cable box, most of the programs that I watch aren't available there?

I sometimes wonder how come, with 12-15 channels devoted to "24 hour news" and another 30 channels that feature news programs, I find so little useful news or analysis on television.

Why is it that, somewhere in Hollywood, somebody seems to think that if they just delay giving Netflix and Redbox new release content, you and I will suddenly run out and buy that content on Blueray?

Do we really want -- or trust -- anyone sitting at the switch, deciding what content can come down our pipe, controlling what we can say, see, read or hear?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Deflating the SOPA Quackery: Facts, Figures and Fun Stuff

"Why is it that when Republicans and Democrats need to solve the budget and the deficit, there’s deadlock, but when Hollywood lobbyists pay them $94 million dollars to write legislation, people from both sides of the aisle line up to co-sponsor it?“ — Reddit Founder Alexis Ohanian on CNBC. 

Politics. There is an element of absurdity that often emerges from the process of crafting laws that, regardless of your personal political values, you just want to through your hands in the air. It's like, in making the legal soup, when you through in ingredients like money, lobbying, special interests, the need for some sort of consensus, and maybe a little more money, you get this rich sort of political umami -- this taste that says, "we're getting ready to serve you a load of crap and tell you how good it tastes and how good it is for you." It happens a lot when they start to legislate around technology -- you get "a series of tubes" crafting laws controlling the infrastructure platform that many modern businesses depend upon.

Often, this load of crap and it's associated political umami is developed in the long, slow simmer of a PR echo chamber, stating and restating a misrepresented position as though it were fact. One reason why this works so well is that few of us will actually do the deep dive needed to question those raw ingredients making up the Spin soup. Eventually, the misrepresentations take on a life of their own.

In the midst of a day of SOPA protest on the web, I thought I would share some interesting reading that I've come across recently. First, here are a couple of great posts from Julian Sanchez on the underlying BS being used to justify the arguments.

First is a recent post, How Copyright Industies Con Congress, where he talks about the illusory accounting used to calculate the "cost of online piracy". Linked in that post is an older post, 750,000 lost jobs? The dodgy digits behind the war on piracy, that he published in 2008 on Ars Technica as earlier legislation on this same topic made its way through the congressional kitchen.

Continuing on that theme, here's a great post, Forget SOPA, Hollywood Already Had a Field Day with the Justice System by Andrew Bridges over on Pando Daily. As per the post, the author is an attorney over at Fenwick & West who "has handled many important high-stakes and cutting-edge cases for tech, Internet, and consumer-focused industries, starting with the defense of the first MP3 player (the Diamond Rio PMP 300), which the RIAA tried to ban as a “piracy” device."

The really interesting thing about the Bridges post is not just the difference in scale in terms of damages being applied for "piracy" as opposed to other, similar crimes, it's the way that he talks about the use of terminology by the motion picture industry. Here's an excerpt:
It’s a great example of the way Hollywood chooses its words very carefully in constructing its propaganda wars. The old-fashioned and accurate word is “infringement,” but that word doesn’t create the visceral responses that “theft” does. So the bills refer almost exclusively to “theft.”

The trigger for this was Hollywood’s frustration several years ago that “file sharing” didn’t sound bad.  After all, we learned in kindergarten that “sharing” is a good thing.  The motion picture industry’s lead spokesperson, Jack Valenti, hated the term. He liked to compare a chocolate cake to files on the Internet: if you share some of your cake, you’re not supposed to still have all your cake, but when you share a file you still have the file. Thus, he argued, it’s not “sharing” at all. Of course, his inability to distinguish between chocolate cake and information — which is what music stored as bits really is – resembles Hollywood’s profound misunderstanding of the Internet today. One can indeed share information while keeping it.

Over the last ten years I have watched Hollywood loyalists, undoubtedly responding to some coordinated industry messaging directive, start talking exclusively about “theft” when they refer to infringement. One can tell who has signed on as a Hollywood partisan in the current debates by seeing who now uses the loaded term “theft” instead of the accurate term “infringement.” The facts that the bills overflow with references to “theft,” and that many government officials have changed their vocabularies to use the new, industrially correct language, reveal a lot about Hollywood’s capture of government... more
It's a great read -- check it out.

Politics and the Psychology of Marketing Spin
As you read the posts that I've linked to here, you'll find some classic examples of how the interests behind these issues use marketing techniques to drive opinion. From the selective use of vocabulary to color the issue to anchoring numbers that they use to inflate estimations of the scale of the problem, it's hard to imagine the average "constituent" not being pushed and manipulated by these techniques. This is how "no big deal" gets transformed into a crisis.

But imagine the politicians behind this legislation. What would you bet that some of them have infringed upon a copyright? Maybe used an image that they didn't have permission to? Maybe used some music that they didn't pay for? How many do you think have relatives that might have downloaded some content that they didn't pay for? Maybe it's just that the stuff that comes through their tube is all free.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Criminal Irony of SOPA: Broadcast Referrals vs Online Referrals

Over the weekend, I happened to catch one of those commercials where they advertise gold collector coins. The commercial lists a "$50 coin" covered in "the purest gold". Whether you've seen the commercial or not, you can probably imagine the flow of the spot. Basically, they talk about this coin with descriptors that make it sound like it was gold coin that the government issued, then changed their minds. Based on the size and weight, it would probably be worth a lot if it were solid gold coin (a conclusion that the commercial tries to lead you to make), but it is a plated coin with no description of how thick or how much gold is in the coin. And, just in case you didn't think you were getting over on them with the gold coin part, they'll sell you this "$50 coin" for $10.

Of course, most of us are not foolish enough to purchase these items, but deep down we have a pretty good sense of who the ads are targeted at. While it may not constitute fraud, you can bet that the people who wind up buying these coins probably were confused and didn't know any better.

Like snake oil of old or the "natural herbal male enhancement products" of a more recent era, the sellers are profiting on a product that they know will not meet the purchaser's expectations. You know it, I know, and the broadcast companies know it. So why do they run the ads?

This is the irony that occurred to me over the weekend. Nobody suggests that Comcast should be liable for all of the people that lose money buying these "gold collector coins". Caveat Emptor, right? And yet, here they are, profiting on selling a pointer to a bogus deal that skirts the edges of fraud.

Contrast that with the online world, SOPA, and the laws that Hollywood and the media companies are driving through Congress. That law essentially hopes to "turn off the channel" on a site that links to content with reported copyright violating content. Imagine if you could call Comcast and force them to take down a channel because they ran one of those "natural male enhancement" ads.

The difference is that, if you send money to the coin seller, that's your money. The broadcasters don't care about your money. The media companies look at the copyright material online and they see their money. If they have somebody willing to buy broadcast ad space (and they can get their money), they could care less about the other side of the transaction.

In what might even be a greater irony, Google is probably more conscientious about advertising content -- kind of funny when you think about how the media companies behind SOPA characterize the search engine giant as the bad actor.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Giant Hairballs of Corporate Bureaucracy: The Problem With Teams

One of my favorite books about creativity is Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving with Grace. For me, it's a great book about creativity under the corporate umbrella. The title of this post is an allusion to the book, but the issue that I'm writing about today doesn't directly relate.

Recently, I came across an interesting document. It was a process diagram, charting the workflow of a business process. As someone who has occasionally found myself wearing something like an IT hat, it's not unusual for me to have a hand in these kinds of things, but what struck me about this one was the process description. Within the process description, there were details like, "and then the form goes into the green folder". In all, there was a surprising level of detail mandating minor aspects of the process.

Several years ago, this process came under management scrutiny for taking way too long. As part of a reform effort, a team was formed to review the process and streamline it. After several weeks of study, review and effort, the team produced this multi-page flowchart diagramming the process. As for restructuring, they proposed adding a step with a pre-process screening to determine whether projects would go through a light version, a medium version, or the full version of the process.

The Myth of Collaborative Reform
This story is just one example of conventional wisdom that suggests that if you put a bunch of people together in a room with an overall objective, that those people will work together to achieve the objective. In the previous example of process reform, each of the members of the team were stakeholders and streamlining the process would mean losing some element or aspect that they had established -- letting go of their good idea.

Democracy. It's a great idea. But if "one man, one vote" holds true in process reform, then "the green folder" may hold the same importance as an actual processing step.

In the case of the process above, one of the key failures took place during the process mapping. Beyond the "what do you do" questions, they didn't effectively capture the why. How is the product of your step used? What are you trying to accomplish in this step? How is your step important in the overall process?

Often, an entrenched process starts out as a rule to achieve a specific objective. Then, over the course of time, the rule is taught to others who don't understand the objective but accept the rule as dogma. Eventually, the dogma of the rule becomes the objective. By this time, the the zealots and the process fundamentalists will argue the importance of adhering to the rule, even when the entire context for the rule has shifted. What happens when your culture is no longer a nomadic populace wandering the desert? More importantly, what happens to "the green folder" when the process becomes electronic?

I know it sounds crazy, but these are issues that you often have to deal with when you try to change things or "move the cheese." Questioning the "why" is a fundamental part of the design process. But often, people don't like to question the why, because explaining the why is a good way to show that you don't really know. It's the difference between learning and memorization. So questioning the why can be a threat to some people.

If you don't understand why, then you can't really reform. You can't simplify because you don't really know what is important -- whether it's process steps, product features, or sales collateral.