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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Archive for June, 2007

Perception Trumps Reality: “Getting It,” Spin, Branding, and Reputation Management

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 30, 2007

I smiled when I read Dean Landsman’s recent short post on “Who Gets What?” Phrases such as “he gets it” or “you just don’t get it” seem to be a new refuge for people who cannot explain what they mean or who push partially-formed ideas. The thrust: “If you don’t understand what I’m saying, it’s your fault not mine.” And, thanks, Dean, for coining the word “Get-itude.”

Low on “Get-itude”

It is no coincidence that “getting it” peppers the speech of supporters of the Bush administration and its policies. Like many other ordinary people who had devoted some time to reading Middle Eastern history or who had worked or traveled in the region, I was opposed to the Iraq War from the start and quite easily foresaw the chaos, destruction, and human and financial calamities the war would bring to Iraq, the entire Middle East, and the economy and world standing of the US. Back in 2003, some months into the war, I ran into an acquaintance who is a senior US diplomat. When I told him I was against the war he replied that he supported it and ended our conversation with a smug: “You just don’t get it, do you?” No arguments, no facts, no persuasion, just a few condescending words of dismissal.

“Getting It,” John Calvin, and the Revival Tent

The rise of “getting it” is symptomatic of the conflation of politics, discourse, and fundamentalist religion in the US over the past three decades. Partisans divide the world into those who “get it” and those who don’t with a self-satisfaction not unlike that of Calvinists who assumed themselves to be amongst the “elect” or the “saved” and others amongst the damned. Epistemologically, “getting it” conjures up nineteenth-century revival tents, fictional Elmer Gantrys, and real-life Amy Sempel McPhersons. “Getting” or “not getting” implies that knowledge is revealed and that belief, conversion, prophetic vision and the ineffable are more important than understanding or dialogue. Saint Augustine, by the way, wrote that faith precedes understanding; he never wrote that faith replaces it.

From Snake Oil to Soft Focus to Spin

19th-century country-fair hucksterism entered the American mainstream long-ago, as did the unreality of Hollywood. In the realm of public affairs this meant, in essence: Don’t change what is, tinker with perceptions instead!

During the 1970s, I was a graduate student and researcher in public policy at the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School for Social Research (today the Milano Center). The Center and its students were dedicated to reality and to change — be it shepherding New York City into economic revival and fiscal stability or, as Lower East Side leftist novelist Mike Gold (“Jews Without Money”) once put it, to make New York “… into a garden for the human spirit.” In fact, it was one of our fellow graduates — Alan Brouwer, if I remember correctly — whose discovery and analysis of the misuse of New York’s capital budget to cover deficits in its expense budget first brought to the public eye the City’s legendary impending bankruptcy.

The 1970s, however, also saw the rise of the word “Spin” (as in political PR, not as in the French acronym for AIDS) and the associated appearance of professional (Gott hilf uns!) “Spinmeisters.” In the end, Spin won out over policy analysis and set a method and tone that are with us until today, with the discredited Bush administration still pushing fairy-tales of victory in Iraq and economic growth in America in the face of patent disasters on both fronts.

By the way, for a passionate take on politics in the days when government meant providing real solutions to real problems, read John Updike’s cautionary comments on revisionist takes on FDR and the New Deal in this week’s New Yorker. Also, for a powerful analysis of the use of spin by the Bush administration to fabricate grounds and conjure up support for the war in Iraq — and for the sad tale of the gullibility and connivance of much of the US press in the face of such heavy-handed cynicism and betrayal of the public trust — watch this recent broadcast from Bill Moyers (also available as a podcast).

Branding vs. Content

The ultimate substitution of perception for reality was “branding,” the private-sector equivalent of spin. The concept of branding was simple: to create differing images for products and organizations between which there were no real differences at all. I had the dubious fortune of being present at what may have been the birth of modern branding. This occurred during the so-called “accountancy wars” of the 1980s when the internationalism of business and the rise of uniform auditing and reporting requirements in the European Community led US “Big Eight” accountancy practices to build multinational partnerships and to seek to differentiate themselves through advertising, something that accountants (and doctors, lawyers, and engineers too) once considered a crass betrayal of professionalism.

In fact, there were no differences between any of the top accounting companies at the time. Partners and clients jumped from one company to another and international member firms switched alliances regularly. A Peat Marwick audit was little different from an Arthur Anderson audit, just as Price Waterhouse tax advice was the same as advice from Grant Thornton. The only real differences were in personal relationships and the prices and approaches to specific engagements. But, in the end, accountancy firms squandered fortunes trying to create the same ephemeral advertising-based identities as brands of soap and cigarettes. Sour grapes on my part? Maybe. At the time I was a “hired-gun” proposals-management specialist for KMG (the European-based ancestor of present-day KPMG) charged with crafting real, project-based, individualized responses to actual needs of clients operating in specific real world environments — a task and approach irrelevant to branding and to identities based on manipulation of perception.

Reputation Management: Flim-Flam or Foundation for Change?

For the last several years, I’d kept a distance from the world of marketing communications and PR. As a result, my shock was all the greater when I recently became aware of the new game of “Reputation Management” — branding and spin tidily spruced-up and repackaged under a new name. Reputation Management has all the pitfalls of its predecessors, i.e. a focus on manipulation of perception rather than on development and improvement of products and services. But … maybe the idea of Reputation Management is not completely a sham after all. Maybe reputations could be created and managed in ways other than spinning and branding. My own approach might sound a bit medieval and redolent of craftsmanship and guilds, i.e. to provide goods and services of the highest quality and to gear them to what customers actually require and demand. Doing so would require that companies, institutions, and governments make a 180° shift in their approach to communications, i.e. to be willing to be party to communication from without as much or more as the communicate from within.  The challenge: To carefully and accurately listen to and articulate the wishes and needs of the individuals that comprise the market place and to form missions and strategies, develop and implement products and services, and shape, staff and motivate organizations accordingly. Doing so just might do away with the need to manipulate and in the end might create reputations far more powerful than those based on perception alone.

Footnote and disclaimer: Could my irritation at some of the glib phrases mentioned in this post partly be a function of my advancing age? Maybe. I’ll admit that I’m old enough to associate “cool” with early Miles Davis and to describe some of the things I like best as being, well … “Boss”!!!

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Posted in Change, Commentary, Identity, Language, Media, Popular Culture | Leave a Comment »

Library Access, the Limits of the Web, and the Shelling of Sarajevo

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 19, 2007

national-library-sarajevo.jpg
The Moorish-Revival style facade of the fire-gutted former National and University Library building, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

In a June 1 commentary, Doc Searls objected to the high annual user-fees ($500 and up) that American universities such as Stanford and Harvard charge outsiders to use their libraries. Doc cautioned: “The (inter)net is a bigger library than all … university libraries put together, and it’s not exclusive. This is a fact of life (or death) for libraries and those of us who continue to care deeply about them.”

The Poorly-Stocked Web

My own take is that while the web might theoretically have the potential of providing more shelf space than all libraries combined, in reality it is quite far from being as well stocked. Indeed, only a small portion of the world’s knowledge is available online. The danger is that as people come to believe that the web is the be-all and end-all source of information, the less they will consult or be willing to pay for the off-line materials that continue to comprise the bulk of the world’s knowledge, intellectual achievement, and cultural heritage. The outcome: the active base of knowledge used by students, experts, and ordinary people will shrink as a limited volume of information, mostly culled from older secondary sources, is recycled and recombined over and again online, leading to an intellectual dark-age of sorts. In this scenario, Wikipedia entries will continue to grow uncontrolled and unverified while specialized books, scholarly journals and the world’s treasure troves of still-barely-explored primary sources will gather dust. Present-day librarians, experts in the mining of information and the guidance of researchers, will disappear. Scholarly discourse will slow to a crawl while the rest of us leave our misconceptions unquestioned and the gaps in our knowledge unfilled.

The challenge is either – or both – to get more books, periodicals, and original source materials online or to prompt people to return to libraries while at the same time ensuring that libraries remain (or become) accessible. Both tasks are dauntingly expensive and, in the end, must be paid for, whether through taxes, grants, memberships, donations, or market-level or publicly-subsidized fees. What the exact cost models could or will be is part of a larger conversation on the infrastructure of the internet that Doc and I have kicked-off privately and will at some point bring online. It is also part of ongoing conversations on future models for the publishing industry and intellectual property laws.

Digitization of the contents of libraries, by the way, is a highly complex affair, especially when dealing with older books and with original, fragile archival materials. The goal is to reproduce such materials in a non-destructive manner, at a sufficiently high quality, and in a manner that is searchable. Indeed, the ability to search within and across documents is one of the ultimate benefits of digitalization and one of main promises of interconnected on-line libraries.

A War Against Archives

Just about the time when Doc was preparing his June 1 posting I was standing in front of the former National and University Library in Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The building – constructed in the last quarter of the nineteenth century soon after the transfer of control of Bosnia from the Ottoman Empire to the Austro-Hungarian Empire– originally served as Sarajevo’s town hall. The edifice is an archetypical example of so-called Moorish Revival architecture, a style that may have been propogated as a non-Ottoman but still (stereotypically-) oriental “national” style for the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s newly-annexed Muslim-populated Balkan territories. (More on Moorish Revival architecture and contrived national identities and national styles on my alter-ego weblog Bubkes.Org later this summer).

In August of 1992, during the Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo, the National Library building was set ablaze. This resulted in the loss of more than two million books, periodicals, and archival documents. The attempted destruction of the library was part of a concerted attempt to wipe out the historical memory and cultural heritage of Muslim Bosnia, a correlate of the attempt to delegitimize the presence of, and ultimately physically eliminate, its inhabitants. Fortunately, many of the library’s rare manuscripts had been smuggled out of the library building and hidden elsewhere in Sarajevo in anticipation of the attack.

The internet has a long way to go as a home for irreplaceable historical archives and documents. Such primary sources form the basis for original research and for refreshing our understanding in many fields. The rarity and fragility of archival documents makes them worthy of digitization and web-based archiving and distribution. At the moment, archival materials are under-represented among the corpus of information in cyberspace. This causes them to slip out the ken of popular recognition as well as beyond the reach of specialists without the resources to travel to and work where they are stored. In the case of Sarajevo, a valuable part of the cultural heritage of the Balkans might have been saved in virtual form had the potentials of digitation and the web been available and utilized at the time. More recently, the Bush administration’s ill-considered war and occupation in Iraq was based on pathetically inadequate research and a total misunderstanding of the country, its history, and the peoples that comprise it. Indeed, much of the history of Iraq and its antecedents – as of much of the Mid-East, North Africa, and the Balkans – stills lays buried amongst the millions of pre-1923 Ottoman documents stored in the Turkish national archives in Istanbul and Ankara. This is all the more reason to ensure that, whatever the cost model, more of the world’s printed and written heritage is brought online and that until then we continue to turn to libraries and keep in mind that there are “far more things in heaven and earth” than are now contained on the internet.

(Digital Photo © Stephen Lewis, 2007)

Posted in Architecture, Commentary, Digitization, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Libraries | 8 Comments »

Singing Cowboy and Early-Adopter, Movie Idol and Media Mogul

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 8, 2007

Singing cowboy Gene Autry was an icon of the early years of commercial country music, 1930’s and 40’s Hollywood, and the so-called “golden ages” of radio and of television. But Autry was also an entrepreneur with a keen eye for new media, even before their business models became clear. An early investor in television broadcasting, what would Autry have made of the internet? For Autry’s life story, interspersed with excerpts from his songs and a film soundtrack lament for his dying horse “Champion,” go to the May 1st edition of WNYC New York’s Soundcheck. For those interested in the roots of R&B and rock-and-roll, I’d also recommend recent Soundcheck broadcasts on Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the cross-over gospel and R&B vocal and electric guitar great who inspired Elvis Presley, and Doc Pomus, a New York Jewish kid invalided with polio who was a popular blues musician amongst black audiences in Brooklyn during the 1940s and who went on to become one of the famed pop music writers at the Brill building on Broadway in the early-1960s. Finally, to bring us back full circle to the realm of tech innovation, do listen to Sara Fishko’s recent broadcast about the Theremin, the Science-Fiction-like musical instrument that was a creation of 1920s Soviet science and later gave mid-twentieth-century American Sci-Fi movies their characteristically Sci-Fi sound.

Posted in Innovation, Media, Music, Popular Culture | 1 Comment »

Technorati Authority, Google Juice, and a Hand-Painted Piece of Peach-Shaped Soap

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 6, 2007

This spring, an acquaintance who is a specialist in weblogging and web-identity ran a search on technorati for my long-running weblog Bubkes.Org, a site that platforms my still photography and my subjective comments on historical and aesthetic coincidences. The results were (and still are) grim. At the time, Bubkes.Org barely tipped the technorati scales with an “authority” rating of only 5 and a ranking of about 1,000,000th amongst the weblogs in what technorati calls the “known universe.” My acquaintance’s conclusion: “On the web, you and Bubkes.Org do not even exist!” Well, since then, I have learned otherwise, Bubkes.Org and I still display vital signs and I’ve come to realize that there are other universes and forms of web identity that are beyond the ken of technorati and that defy description in terms of links and clicks alone. A partial proof: Bubkes.Org was recently awarded a lovely piece of hand-painted, peach-shaped, genuine Turkish soap! An explanation follows…

Edirne

Hand-painted, fruit-shaped soap is the traditional tourist souvenir of the Turkish city of Edirne – ancient Adrianopolis, the capital of the Ottoman Empire prior to the 1453 conquest of Constantinople, and today a romantic and somewhat sleepy city nestled against the Turkish-Bulgarian-Greek border at the junction of the rivers Meriç, Tunca, and Arda. A month ago, I was in Edirne with a group of colleagues from my alternate world of architectural, urban, and Ottoman history. We had gathered there for a drive across the rich agricultural land of Turkish Thrace up into the sparsely-populated Stranca Mountains to Demirköy (the “Iron Village”) the site of a nineteenth century iron ore mining and smelting site now under excavation by the Netherlands Institute in Turkey.

Tea Gardens and Cyberspace

Some of my colleagues in the world of Ottoman history are just as puzzled by my interest in web-related issues as some of my colleagues in the web, tech, and telecom worlds are by my interests in the infrastructures of past ages. For me, however, the infrastructures of the physical world of the past and the web of the present can be placed on the same continuum. Ottoman roadways and caravanserais, bathhouses and fountains, tea gardens, coffee houses and bozahanes (gardens for drinking boza, a tart beverage of fermented millet) formed networks and nodes for the movement and interchange of goods and information.  Not least, Ottoman public works and tax and tax-exemption systems may prove to provide models relevant to contemporary issues of web governance and ownership. (More on this in subsequent entries).

“We Met On the Web”

My work in history and in web identity/infrastructure often collide. On the way back to Edirne from Demirkoy, during a stop at a tree-shaded tea garden in the town of Kirklareli (Ottoman Kirk Kelise and Byzantine Sarante Eklesiai, i.e. the town of the Forty Churches or of the Church of the Forty Saints — this in itself a study in mutations of identity), I struck up a conversation with one member of our group, a graduate student at the University of Thrace. When the student told me that she was writing her dissertation on the surviving Ottoman monuments of present-day Bulgaria I suggested she look at Bubkes.Org. As I began to spell out the URL, she cut me short: “Bubkes! Of course I read it! And you must be Stephen Lewis Hoca; I’ve used your work in my dissertation!” (Hoca, by the way, is a Turkish honorific for both secular and Koranic teachers.) It was only then that I noticed that she was wearing a t-shirt decorated with a silk-screened drawing of two smiling spiders and the caption: “We Met On the Web” — apropos apparrel for a chance encounter of two web acquaintances in a traditional Turkish meeting place. Later that day, back in Edirne, she presented me a piece of hand-painted soap in the shape of a partially sliced peach, thus initiating, as it were, a new rating system that transcends the limitations of technorati.

(Actually, the student’s recognition of Bubkes was only one in a series of such events. The more I move away from my desk and computer and out into face-to-face encounters in the worlds I post about on Bubkes.Org, the more I encounter people who know and use both the site and the links it provides and who thank me for both.)

The One-Way Web Still Exists

The point of all this is not that Edirne soap outweighs technorati authority but, rather, that there may be measures of web impact and web identity other than how frequently one’s weblog is mentioned or linked to from the weblogs of others. There may even be measures of identity and worth other than the Google paradigm of searchable terms and the number of clicks a URL receives. Quality and importance of material and the impact that material has on the lives and work of others might provide alternative definitions of web identity and the worth of weblogs and websites.

There are many bloggers and users of the web who are more interested in generating, spreading, and gathering worthy material and solid information than in posting and gleaning links or engaging in closed-end meta-discussions. There are also many people who still use the web as one source amongst many and who manifest their identities and engage in conversations in more traditional offline forums — print publications, meetings and conferences, and within the contexts of their individual work, peer group and personal relationships — as well as online. Some do this by choice and others by necessity. The further one moves away from North America, Western Europe, and the wealthier countries and cities of Asia, the fewer the numbers of people who do or can blog or who even have access to serviceable internet connections enabling them to interact on the web. Even in an economic powerhouse such as Turkey, few students have direct or frequent internet access; most are dependent on short trips to crowded, noisy, and uncomfortable internet cafes more conducive to IM chats than to research, reflection, and serious writing.

Cultural Barriers

Cultural barriers also play a role in restricting online feedback and conversations and in confounding any measures of the impact of websites and weblogs. When I asked the Turkish graduate student why she never submitted comments on any of the Bubkes.Org entries germane to her dissertation topic and why she never emailed to ask me for photos, she replied: “But you are Lewis Hoca and I am just a graduate student.” The student did not picture me outside of the rigid Turkish educational hierarchy nor magine my personal commitment to the web-ethos of making knowledge and work public and “open source.” At first she did see me as a peer, a fellow (albeit perpetual) student who requires intelligent feedback to refine ideas, verify and expand knowledge, and make the good editorial choices. Still, by presenting me with a piece of genuine fruit-shaped Edirne soap, the graduate student provided me with a far better incentive for continuing Bubkes.Org than even a mega-leap in my technorati rating would have ensured!

Posted in Commentary, Identity | 3 Comments »