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Events

April 24, 2014
Blurred Lines
Finding the Boundaries in a Constantly Connected Society
ColoDLA, Lone Tree, CO

April 24, 2014
Ethics Matter
The Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs
Merrill House, NYC, 6p

May 1, 2014
DLDnyc
Business, Digital Culture and Innovation
New York City

May 6, 2014
“20/20 Vision”
Canadian Media Directors’ Council Conference
TIFF Lightbox, Toronto

May 6, 2014
Stream-Lecture: Present Shock
Orange Press

May 7, 2014
”Generation Like”
Screening and Q&A
Consumer Reports, Yonkers

 

Blog

Wednesday
Apr162014

Is Mike Judge's 'Silicon Valley' the End of Startup Mania?

This post originally appeared in RushkoffMail. Subscribe here.  

I've always credited 'Beavis & Butt-head' creator Mike Judge for bringing down MTV.

The simple cartoon, originally a short segment on late-night Liquid Television, consisted mostly of two teenage boys watching rock videos, making commentary about them, and then rejecting them: "this sucks, change it.” For me, the show was armchair media criticism - a lesson in deconstructing television. Where a rock video used to be able to lure a teenage boy with sexual imagery, it was a whole lot harder to fall into the spell with Beavis shouting “nice set!” No, it may not have been the sophisticated analysis of McLuhan, but it was at least as alienating an effect as Bertolt Brecht.

And MTV’s ratings went down, along with the ability of the network to pass off advertising as programming.

After watching Judge’s latest effort, a live-action tech industry satire on HBO called 'Silicon Valley,' I began to wonder if he might deflate another value-challenged culture as effectively as he took down MTV. It’s a buddy show along the lines of Entourage, except the lead is a geeky, horny developer instead of a handsome, horny movie star. But the potential brilliance of the series lies in Judge’s only slight exaggerations of the hypocrisy underlying the digital startup landscape: these are people claiming to be saving the world, when they’re really just the latest generation of desperate yuppies chasing capital and, in turn, reinforcing Wall Street’s monopoly over our society. Digital business is revolutionary only in the way it camouflages business as usual.

And while I’m pondering all this, the NASDAQ stock exchange has its worst decline since 2011 or maybe before, led down by the poster children of Silicon Valley excess: Facebook, Twitter, Tesla. Coincidence? Not really. For while there may be no direct cause and effect between the airing of a TV show and the immediate slide of the valuation of the companies satires, there is a sea change occurring.

It was significant enough for Silicon Valley hero billionaire Elon Musk, founder of Paypal and Tesla, to immediately criticize the program: “I really feel like Mike Judge has never been to Burning Man, which is Silicon Valley. If you haven’t been, you just don’t get it.” That Musk would credit Silicon Valley for Burning Man is kind of like crediting the Conquistadors for Quetzalcoatl - but that’s besides the point. What’s interesting is that he doth protest too much, which just underscores for me how important public perception is to an economic model based on hype.

Anyway, I’ll be glad to see the hype fade, as it has before, leaving those who truly love the possibilities of digital technology to keep on developing it - without the pressures of venture capital firms and their requirement to achieve spectacular results instead of good, sustainable ones.

Monday
Mar242014

Shareable.com - Democracy: There's an App for That

The best thing about Occupy Wall St. wasn't what it argued politically or accomplished legislatively, but what it modeled for us: a new way of engaging with issues, resolving conflict, and reaching consensus. It was a style of engagement that seemed like it could only happen in person, between young people willing to sit in a cold park all night until they could come to an agreement over an issue.

But now, a small collective in New Zealand has developed a digital platform through which any group - large or small, local or global - can take a page from the Occupier’s handbook. It’s called Loomio, and it’s already being used by civic activists in Ukraine, thousands of direct democracy advocates in Greece, municipalities in England, foundations, and credit unions.

It’s all based on what the Occupy movement called the General Assembly, an alternative to parliamentary procedure, borrowed from the Ancient Greek senate. It’s a deceptively simple (and easily satirized) process where the crowd waves their hands to indicate their approval or level of objection to a proposal. It may look a little silly, but it proved a valid or even superior method for forging consensus than traditional debate, where one side wins and the other, well, loses.

The problem with the general assembly, like representative democracy, is that it’s quite limited in scale. You can only have so many people engaging with one another, blocking motions, and making arguments. Plus, it just has to happen in person.

Well, now there’s an app for that. The first time I saw it in beta, I asked if I could be an advisor to the non-profit collective working on it. (They agreed.) And this week, they’re finally releasing the application and doing a Kickstarter campaign to develop it further.

Amazingly, there exists no great tool online for groups to make decisions. There are plenty of platforms on which to collaborate or work together. But the most complicated decisions most of us have made online deal with the time or location of a meeting.

The Loomio application lets members of a group offer proposals, discuss their merits, make changes, and register their feelings all along the way. By entering into this process in good faith, even large groups can steer towards outcomes that may not be perfect for everyone, but make the fewest people unhappy - and nobody too very upset.

It’s not much more than a pie graph with four buttons, but its simplicity (and privacy) is getting it positive attention from a broad cross section of people across the globe—from remote villages in India, community hospitals in Vietnam, to government departments and early childhood education centers. Even the Wellington City Council that 12 months previously had been trying to evict Loomio’s developers from the public square, is now using Loomio to collaborate with citizens in developing policy.

I can only wonder what would have happened if the recent controversy over installing a synthetic football field at the high school in my community had been conducted on platform like Loomio instead of at contentious town hall debates. I know people who still aren’t on speaking terms as a result of our all-or-nothing, winner-takes-all, scorched earth battle.

Likewise, as I ponder the inadequacy of a two-party political system hatched in the 1700’s, especially when its polarities are magnified by the spin cycle of 21st Century media and markets. What was supposed to be a way of generating multifaceted solutions has devolved into intransigence and extremism.

Debate itself is a form of combat, not an approach to reaching an agreement. It’s geared toward creating no greater number of winners than losers. That’s not what democracy was supposed to be about. As one of Loomio’s founders, Ben Knight explains, “Democracy is about collaboration - people coming together and making decisions. Democracy is not a scarce resource - it doesn’t need to be this abstract thing that we only get access to once every 4 years, managed by a professional class far away. With the right tools, it can be a skill that we practice together every day, in our schools, our workplaces and our communities.”


While Loomio might not replace representative democracy - nor should we necessarily want it to - it may take some of the pressure off our democratic institutions by giving people the ability to make a whole lot of decisions for themselves, and with one another. 

Saturday
Mar152014

Testament: New Price, Old Interview 

Jeff Newelt dug up this interview for Write Now! back in 2007, as a way of celebrating the release of Testament and its new discounted $12.99 pricetag for the whole series. 

Jeff's a good friend, so the conversation goes deeper than most. We talk about the comics writers and artists who influenced me while I was writing Testament, and the challenge of pitching stories as lurid as the Bible to modern-day publishers.

Interestingly, we spend a good deal of time talking about whether the Bible stories I "futurize" in Testament were still truly relevant to a 2007 audience. Little did we know that the markets were about to crash, and that cryptocurrency and deep government surveillance would become real phenomena at the center of the public conversation. 

Of course, that Biblical stories are timeless is actually the point. It's not just a portal to the past, but to the future and maybe more importantly, the present. 

Thanks to Danny Fingeroth and Two Tomorrows for letting us post the interview.

You can get the complete Testament Omnibus at Comixology

You can also read Jeff's original review of Testament for HEEB Magazine, here.

Wednesday
Feb192014

'Testament' Omnibus Edition Released

 

The comic series I wrote for DC Vertigo is now, finally, available in a digital, omnibus edition at Comixology. It's a retelling of the Bible in a near-future of crypto-currency, artificial intelligence, techno-mysticism, corporate militarism and sex magick.

The complete edition includes annotation to the entire text, as well as explanations of the mythologies on which characters and themes are based. The comic won best comic series from Rolling Stone, and a bunch of other accolades. But more importantly, it let me break some of the boundaries between the panels and page, human time and eternal time, kairos and chronos. It also let me show the sex magickal origins of the Torah, as well as the efforts to keep those aspects under covers. 

For more on what I was up to then, check out these other reviews and interviews. Or, get the complete omnibus here: Testament Omnibus at Comixology

 

Wednesday
Feb192014

Social Media and the Perils of Looking for 'Likes'

Living for likes makes a teen's social career a whole lot easier, in some respects. Now there's a number letting kids know how popular they are, how well a photo is resonating with their friends, or whether their video stands a chance of vaulting them into the professional world of singing, skateboarding or twerking.

What they may not understand, however, is that this game of likes is not taking place on a level playing field. It was constructed by companies whose multibillion-dollar stock valuations are depending on little more than generating traffic -- more likes, follows and favorites -- and then selling the data that can be gleaned from it.

In a sense, major parts of our economy (or at least the inflated valuations on the NASDAQ exchange) are now depending on the social media activity of kids. I'm not sure that's a pressure worth putting on them

On the surface, it all looks pretty empowering. For the MTV generation, changing the channel via remote control was about as interactive as mainstream media got -- and that only brought a kid from one corporate media conglomerate's commercial programming to another’s.

Clearly, the social media universe, with its countless Facebook pages, YouTube channels, Twitter feeds and Instagram photos, offers a whole lot more choice. Instead of watching a TV channel, today's teens get to watch each other. That in itself amounts to power, freedom and agency, right?

Maybe. For while all these clicks and keystrokes and photos and videos may be free, they come with a price. Kids aren't paying with money, but with their attention and their hours of meticulous profile tweaking. They're paying with their likes, their favorites, and their follows. And they get paid back with a new path to popularity or even fame.

Sometimes, the exchange is explicit. Brands from soft drinks to automobiles ask kids to like an ad or promotion, all for the chance to be liked back or re-tweeted by the brand to its millions of followers. The teen gets more of those coveted likes. The companies get a real-time portrait of their potential customers and influencers, as well as all their friends.

And this isn't just some virtual game. Likes really do matter out here in the real world, too. New musicians and new writers alike must demonstrate that they have social media followings in order to find distribution and sponsors.

A new kind of talent agency, The Audience, has arisen to help young up-and-comers cultivate a social media presence, and then sell that network of followers to the appropriate advertisers.

It's actually a science. Thanks to the immense data pools created by social media users, a firm like The Audience can find the overlaps between fans of a certain pop star and those who have interacted with particular brands. That little venn diagram is marketer's gold. And, to be fair, The Audience is helping young musicians build careers in a landscape where there are no record labels left willing to develop talent -- and no one buying music, anymore, anyway. By pairing talent with sponsors, The Audience creates a new revenue stream for artists, or at least the ones with the most viewed selfies.

But it does create an oddly circular culture: Kids develop social media audiences in order to become "stars," which really just means having enough social media followers to sell out to a brand for sponsorship. Perhaps more amazingly, none of them seem to mind. When I asked kids what they thought about "selling out" for my PBS documentary on social media, none of them could even tell me what "selling out" meant. They thought it had something to do with there not being any tickets left for a concert.

The language barrier aside, young social media users today draw no distinction between art and commerce, culture and advertising. While kids engaged with social media have the ability to express themselves and their values to pretty much the rest of the developed world, they seem unaware of the extent to which these platforms shape the values they choose to express.

As I learned from a 13-year-old skateboarder who calls himself Baby Scumbag, you get fewer likes for making videos of board tricks than you do for getting gorgeous girls to pose for you in the near nude, or just doing crazy antics in the street. He's a massive success on YouTube, where his videos often generate more than a million views.

Another teenager, a girl from near San Diego, started making videos of herself singing, but is quickly learning that shots of her in her bedroom, or full body, or in a bathing suit, get her more attention. Her videos no longer include her vocals.

That's the part I don't think most teens grasp. Nor do most adults have enough of a handle on this whole social media universe to fully articulate our misgivings. We know something is amiss, but saying it out loud feels so, well, out of touch.

The reality here, however, is that it's our young social media users who are out of touch -- or at least painfully oblivious to the way the tools and platforms they're using in turn use them. They grew up with this stuff in their lives, and they accept these tools at face value, as features of the natural landscape. Not so. They were made by companies whose interests go far beyond helping kids express themselves and make friends. Our kids are not the customers here; they are both the product and the unwitting labor.

Our social media platforms are embedded with values that shape our perspectives and our behaviors. If we live in the social media landscape without an awareness of what it really wants from us, no one is really being empowered at all.

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The Brockman Agency
212-935-8900
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