Category Archives: Culture

Ethan Zuckerman on the limits of interconnectedness

Ethan Zuckerberg at Northeastern on Wednesday.

Ethan Zuckerman at Northeastern on Wednesday

The promise of the Internet was that it would break down social, cultural and national barriers, bringing people of diverse backgrounds together in ways that were never before possible. The reality is that online communities have reinforced those barriers.

That was the message of a talk Wednesday evening by Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media. Zuckerman, who spoke at Northeastern, is the author of the 2013 book “Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection.” He is also the co-founder of Global Voices Online, a project begun at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society that tracks citizen media around the world.

I’ve seen Ethan talk on several occasions, and I always learn something new from him. Here is some live-tweeting I did on Wednesday.

One of the most interesting graphics Zuckerman showed was a map of San Francisco based on GPS-tracked cab drivers. Unlike a street map, which shows infrastructure, the taxi map showed flow — where people are actually traveling. Among other things, we could see that the African-American neighborhood of Hunters Point didn’t even appear on the flow map, suggesting that cab drivers do not travel in or out of that neighborhood (reinforcing the oft-stated complaint by African-Americans that cab drivers discriminate against them).

Since we can all be tracked via the GPS in our smartphones, flow maps such as the one Zuckerman demonstrated raise serious privacy implications as well.

We may actually be less cosmopolitan than we were 100 years ago.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg likes to show a map suggesting that Facebook fosters interconnectedness around the world. In fact, upon closer examination the map mainly shows interconnectedness within a country. The United Arab Emirates demonstrates the highest level of international interconnectedness, but that’s because the UAE has an extraordinary number of guest workers who use the Internet to stay in touch with people back home. That leads Ethan Zuckerman to argue that maps often tell us what their designers want us to believe.

This final tweet seems out of context, but I’m including it because I like what Zuckerman said. It explains perfectly why I prefer Twitter to Facebook, even though I’m a heavy user of both. And it explains why many of us, including Zuckerman, rely on Twitter to bring us much of our news and information.

The economics of crowdfunded potato salad

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I’m going to write a get-rich-quick book called “Finding Your Inner Potato Salad — And Making Your Financial Dreams Come True.” And, of course, I’ll fund it with a Kickstarter campaign. I’ll make that other Dan Kennedy look like an amateur.

Photo (cc) by Terry and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Myth, reality and Jay Parini’s life of Jesus

Jesus-FinalCover-Hi-ResOn a long drive over the holidays, I listened to the podcast of “On Point” host Tom Ashbrook’s recent interview with the poet and author Jay Parini. The subject was Parini’s new book, “Jesus: The Human Face of God” (Icons).

I was fascinated. Here was someone who described himself as a believer — an Episcopalian, the denomination of my youth, no less — who spoke of Jesus and Christianity in terms of myth and metaphor rather than as some sort of rigid, literal reality. I wanted to see how he brought the seeming contradictions of belief and mythology together.

Unfortunately, the book itself does not quite live up to the promise of Parini’s conversation with Ashbrook, mainly because he tries to have it too many ways — starting with what it means to be a believer. “In its Greek and Latin roots,” he writes, “the word ‘believe’ simply means ‘giving one’s deepest self to’ something.” And he quotes St. Anselm: “For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand.” To my way of thinking, that is putting the metaphorical cart before the metaphorical horse.

My principal unease with Parini, though, is that he writes about “remythologizing” Jesus without quite doing so. On the one hand, he suggests that the miracles Jesus performed and his resurrection are not meant to be taken literally. On the other, he does not rule out the possibility that they actually did happen. Parini doesn’t seem to think it matters all that much whether Jesus came back from the dead metaphorically or materially. Yet to me that’s the most important question.

I say that in full awareness of my own intellectual limitations. Like most people who were educated in a Western context, my thinking tends to be binary. My attitude toward religion is that it’s either literally true or it isn’t; and since it almost certainly isn’t, then it’s something I needn’t trouble myself with. Mind you, I have no patience for Christopher Hitchens-style atheism, and I’m intrigued enough by the whole notion of spirituality to attend a Unitarian Universalist church. But belief to me is a state of mind, based on provable facts, and not something I would give my “deepest self” to in the absence of such facts.

Still, there is much to recommend in Parini’s short biography. Parini is a warm and humane guide to the life of Jesus and the early roots of Christianity. He is especially valuable in explaining Jesus “the religious genius” who synthesized Jewish, Greek and Eastern ideas, especially in the Sermon on the Mount. Parini’s learned exploration of Jesus’ moral and spiritual teachings transcends the reality-versus-metaphor divide.

If you’re looking for answers, then “Jesus” is not for you. There are none, and Parini doesn’t pretend otherwise. But if you’re interested in a different way of thinking about Christianity, then Parini’s brief guide is a good place to start.

We have a pope

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Well, of course it was marketing. That’s my response to the complaints that burst forth on Wednesday when we learned that Pope Francis had been chosen as Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” rather than NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

But I think Time made the right call journalistically, too. The Snowden revelations have had an enormous effect on the way we think about government secrecy. But Francis is a larger, more forward-looking choice. His early papacy has been fascinating, even if his pronouncements on matters such as abortion and homosexuality have been more about atmospherics than substance.

As a non-Catholic and non-Christian, I find myself wanting to know more about Francis — and where he intends to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. For all his progressive-sounding rhetoric (my favorite: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”), it’s his recently announced initiative on the church’s child-rape crisis that will determine the fate of his papacy — and perhaps of the institution that he heads.

We hold these truths to be self-evident

Joseph Warren dying at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Painting by John Trumbull.

Joseph Warren dying at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Painting by John Trumbull.

One of my favorite Fourth of July traditions is reading the Declaration of Independence in The Boston Globe. It’s moved from print to the iPad, but the words ring just as clearly today as they did 237 years ago. (Believe it or not, the Declaration is behind the Globe’s paywall, but you can also read it here and in many other places.)

Every year I get something new out of it. I’m almost done with the audio version of Nathaniel Philbrick’s “Bunker Hill,” which — among many other things — documents the extent to which Boston’s Patriots put their faith in King George III while directing their wrath at his ministers.

Much changed between the Battle of Bunker Hill and the gathering in Philadelphia a year later. The Declaration includes a long bill of particulars against the king, preceded by this:

The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.

My reading of Philbrick is that the political bonds between Britain and the Colonies had essentially been severed long before Samuel Adams began agitating — but the emotional bonds, as embodied by the king, took a lot longer to break.

Happy Fourth!

Another way of thinking about the cost of free

Here’s more grist for the comment war that broke out over my Nieman Journalism Lab piece on photographer Gage Skidmore’s practice of giving away his pictures of Republican politicians, and thus theoretically harming paid photojournalists.

The New York Times reports on singer Amanda Palmer’s invitation to local musicians to join her on stage during her latest tour. The compensation: “joy and beer.” The Times blog post, by Daniel Wakin, continues:

Some musicians are enraged, flooding her Web site with angry comments saying that she should pay her backup band. At least one musicians union, Local 76-493 in Seattle, has been sending out Twitter messages denouncing the move and calling for people to post the comments.

Clearly there are some differences between the two situations, but what Palmer is doing raises a few of the same issues.

On the one hand, at a time when free is becoming an expectation in some parts of the economy, aren’t people like Skidmore and Palmer undermining folks who are trying to make a living as photographers, musicians, whatever?

On the other hand, why shouldn’t a creator have the right to give away his work if that’s what he wants to do? Why shouldn’t one musician be able ask others if they’d like to join her on stage without being denounced as a rapacious exploiter?