On The Death of Newspapers

The hot topic lately among the local blogs and news media is the death of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as we know it. It’s looking likely that the organization will keep a small staff and move to a controversial online-only format that will include aggregation.

Back in January, Erica C. Barnett wrote some smart remarks on SLOG about how frustrating it is to repeatedly hear the same alarmist voices about the death of newspapers. That blog posting really struck a chord with me. Barnett makes a moderate prediction on how the whole “real journalists vs amateur bloggers” debate will eventually shake out. She seems to keep the focus, though, on questions of quality and professionalism. But I think what people don’t talk directly enough about are the particular interests that are inevitably at stake in different venues of reportage.

I was reminded of this again recently with this week’s On the Media program on NPR about how ethnic newspapers are thriving. That show really gets it right. It points out how the ethnic composition of society has been rapidly changing while mainstream newspapers have remained stubbornly focused on their target demographic of the suburban white middle-class.

The death of newspapers isn’t about the triumph of new media, no matter what people may say. When people argue that newspapers have been vital to democracy, I can’t help but laugh. When have mainstream newspapers ever been venues for populist voices or organs for the oppressed? In actuality, they’ve tended to be ideological proponents of middle class values and maintainers of the status quo.

No, what this is all about is the growth of new social classes: vital immigrant populations, younger generations who refuse the strict divisions of being either a consumer or producer, previously “fringe” groups eager for publishing/interactive venues to develop their own social and political interests and subcultures. It is these new social classes, and not simply the new publishing opportunities of the web (which, alone, are inert), that threaten the hegemony of traditional journalism. I think a lot more needs to be said about what kinds of stories and information the so-called “new media” as well as the alternative print press are producing in the age of the newspaper’s death. What new interests are we seeing at work in blogs? Who gets to have a voice now, and who is still left out? How is all of this redefining what counts as worthwhile or credible stories or events? These are the real questions of substance—with real implications for democracy—that will determine what the death of newspapers will ultimately mean.

On Programmer Insecurity: Is it Personality or the Market?

Here’s a wonderful blog post by Ben Sussman-Collins, “Programmer Insecurity”, to which Jesse Noller has responded with “Programmer Insecurity and Mea Culpa”. (I don’t know either of these folks, I just follow their blogs in my RSS reader.) Ben talks about the need for more transparency, communication, and iterative growth in a programmer’s development:

Be transparent. Share your work constantly. Solicit feedback. Appreciate critiques. Let other people point out your mistakes. You are not your code. Do not be afraid of day-to-day failures — learn from them. (As they say at Google, “don’t run from failure — fail often, fail quickly, and learn.”) Cherish your history, both the successes and mistakes. All of these behaviors are the way to get better at programming. If you don’t follow them, you’re cheating your own personal development.

At the moment, I’m lucky to have fairly down-to-earth colleagues who generally foster these principles, but overall, this sort of perspective is sadly all too rare.

I don’t think it’s purely a matter of personality peculiar to programmers, or as Ben suggests, just “human nature” to fear embarrassment. I mean, sure, to an extent… but the fear is also fostered by a competitive labor market that values personal marketing over personal growth.

That’s why there are so many “best practices” blogs, vanity websites boasting of track records, and heated religious arguments about almost anything pertaining to code. The market has created a culture of showing off. And if you can demonstrate you are more “perfect” than the next guy or gal, you’ll impress the interviewer and land the job or the gig. One might argue, rightfully, that these are not great places to work. But places like Google where there is a generous philosophy of employee growth are probably the exception rather than the rule.

I can remember a time when things were different.

The Uses of Torture

Discussions about torture in the public sphere seem like a classic case of people talking past one another. Military and government officials assert that torture is justified because it’s effective, an argument that the mainstream left refuses to directly engage with. In typical self-righteous fashion, lefties go for the moral, ethical, and legal arguments against the use of torture.

And I agree that torture is unethical. But I think it’s worth asking, is torture really that effective?! The very possibility of a “yes” makes the question offensive to most people, but it’s actually a pretty interesting one to ponder. I think the answer depends on what it’s supposed to be effective for.

It seems pretty stupid to torture someone to get information. I don’t have reports, statistics, or historical evidence to back this up. It just seems like common sense: push a human being right up to their threshold of withstandable pain and the brink of insanity, and you know, they might get a little disoriented. I wouldn’t bet my life on the names, dates or locations screamed out by someone in an oxygen-deprived state trying to avoid death by drowning. That’s just me. Maybe the military has different standards for information quality.

If torture doesn’t work, is it good for anything else? Sure, lots of things!

It’s good for putting the fear of God in your darker-skinned enemies. It’s good for quenching the populist thirst for revenge. It’s good for creating jobs for private security contractors while people back home can barely scrape by. In short, it’s good for distracting Americans from the real political and economic problems of the day. Problems that will impact ordinary people’s lives much more directly than any crazed terrorist ever will.