Thought You Should See This, June 1st, 2012

This week’s update from the innovation/design-themed blog I write. Pretty flimsy this week (short week and I’m just back from England and walloped by jetlag. Well, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it.)

Above is a great TED talk by Sebastian Deterding, who discusses the morality and ethical choices embedded in every design decision. Definitely worth taking the 12 minutes to watch.

Design collective Pentagram turned 40
, and created a geniusly clever video featuring much of their work to celebrate. 

Security technologist Bruce Schneier has a new book out. In Liars & Outliers, he takes on the all-important topic of trust, in all its many manifestations. I can safely say his is the most entertaining opening to a non-fiction book I’ve read in forever. 

Who says finance can’t be funny? This animation by political cartoonist Mark Fiore works perfectly as a parody of both the ongoing insanity of the financial industry—and the wincingly twee aphorisms of so much modern advertising. “Just because it’s your fault doesn’t mean others can’t suffer for you.” Ouch. 

File under hard to believe: The Nook version of War and Peace changed every instance of the words “kindle” and kindled” into “Nook” and “Nookd.” Both a funny story of the perils of the find-and-replace function–and an unnerving reminder of the silent power wielded by our digital overlords.


Thoughts on Amina, the Straight Man in Scotland

In 2009, I wrote a piece for BusinessWeek‘s innovation blog that told the tale of a guy based in Chicago who tapped his social network for money to help a friend in trouble. He raised $12,000 overnight, and I wrote a story about how amazing it was that such largesse could be harnessed in such a short period of time and how lovely that such generosity and humanity lurked amid the bits and bytes.

Most people agreed. Then a guy called Mark popped up in the comments section. Mark thought the whole thing was a crock, and that I had done BusinessWeek readers an enormous disservice by not traveling to Chicago to verify that the woman existed and was indeed in need.

I asked a senior editor at the magazine what he thought. I mean, our online department had the budget of a gnat. There was no way I’d have been able to travel from New York to Chicago to verify the story. I knew the guy raising the money pretty well and had quoted him in stories before. I trusted him. And anyway, I wasn’t endorsing the fundraising; I was merely reporting on a new phenomenon enabled by the connective tentacles of the Internet and technology. My excuses stuttered on, and the editor fixed me with a look. “Two words,” he said, tartly. “Bernie Madoff.” And with that, he plunged a dagger into my heart and I relearned the unimaginably important lesson at the heart of all journalism: question everything, and then question it again.

It’s a lesson that came to mind with the revelation that Amina, the Gay Girl in Damascus wasn’t anything of the sort (in fact, she was the invention of an American Man in Scotland.) Amina came to the attention of the world’s media after “she” wrote a blog post back in April. In My Father the Hero, she outlined the story of how her father had shamed some thugs who came to their house in the middle of the night to arrest her. The story was raw, powerful and emotional. I cried when I read it, and promptly sent on the link via Twitter, with, I might add, a disclaimer: “No idea if it’s true.”

And, indeed, it turns out the story wasn’t true. After stories about Amina’s situation were featured in the world’s press, it turns out that she was the invention of one Tom MacMaster, a man who says he was raising real issues and meant no harm. (Note: the blog itself has now been closed.) Now many people are furious about being misled. Some in Syria are incandescent with rage that they put their own lives at risk for an idiot with a vivid imagination and a laptop.

Ethan Zuckerman, founder of Global Voices, writes a thoughtful take on the real issues at stake here. Not least, he writes, that MacMaster’s duplicity serves as “a caution to all news outlets that seek to use citizen voices to tell stories in the future. That’s a serious problem.” That’s for sure. MacMaster may not have wreaked the financial havoc of Bernie Madoff, but he’s unwittingly outlined the challenge of verification and identification that faces media companies and journalists looking to use the platform of the Internet to cover global news stories in a timely, useful and accurate manner.

As it stands, news systems using the Internet are at very real risk of being duped by schemers building their very own Ponzi schemes of manipulation and misinformation. And while some organizations, such as the BBC, have extensive policies in place for vetting information coming from social media, it’s clear that the entire platform can get shaky, fast. We imagine the system is built according to our own personal moral code; it’s worth remembering that it’s really not.

The digital age has afforded an astonishing disruption of the news industry. New formats and connectivity have upended what used to be a fairly well understood process of gathering and disseminating news. We’ve all become used to getting instant reports and insights from those on the scene at the time. It’s super exciting to witness the various experiments underway, not to mention painful to witness the inept responses of so many of the incumbent players. Yet as consumers and producers, we’ve become steadily less attuned to judging whether something is fact or fiction, news or opinion. This isn’t merely an abstract issue. On the contrary, it’s too meaningful to allow simply to shake out in the grand scheme of things.

Most often, I write about design. One of my pet peeves is that designers rarely seem able to articulate their value to non-designers. It strikes me now that this is true of journalists too. Journalists (and publishers) have been appallingly bad at explaining why there’s such a process to what they do (or even that there is one.) Instead, they have systematically undermined their own behaviors and fundamental practices in order to try and compete in the new environment. Yet too often, they choose to compete in the most defensive manner imaginable. Too often, online operations of the mainstream press are viewed as the Junior Varsity version of the print-based mother ship, with blogs or Twitter feeds seen less as the front lines of reporting and more as repositories for the breadcrumbs of print stories. Meanwhile, the economics of the new world remain entirely uncertain even as the business model of the old one teeters.

Yet one thing is clear. Both as producers and consumers, we all need to remember to be hypercritical in our thinking and reading and aware that the new sources and resources available are as unsettling as they are exciting. Amina the Straight Man is a timely reminder and a warning of the potential Ponzi scheme that lies directly beneath our fingertips. And these days, we clearly can’t rely on journalists to question everything for us; we must all remember to do the same.

Google Made Me Late. Twice.

What’s wrong with this picture, an accurate looking, detailed snapshot of a Google Map of a perfectly charming neighborhood in Manhattan? Let me tell you. It isn’t accurate. The subway information is wrong. And how do I know this? Because I trusted it was correct and ended up whizzing right past Christopher Street on the 2 train and having to do the panic-stricken reverse local train ride of shame familiar to anyone who’s ever taken the subway in NYC.

Now I’m perfectly prepared to admit that I am often directionally and public transitly challenged. That is *precisely* why I still consult a map, eight years after moving to live here. But this is the second time this has happened to me in recent weeks. I had ended up being wildly, mortifyingly late to hear Jake Barton talk about his work on the National September 11 Memorial Museum. That time, again after consulting Google Maps, I took the N train to City Hall, only to end up chugging over the bridge into Brooklyn. And that time I thought I must have simply read the map wrong or that perhaps recent changes to the line had made things screwy.

But this latest incident sent me back to check. And sure enough, Google has the N train serving City Hall. The MTA does not.

Now, I know, I know. It’s a free service and it’s really amazing and Google Earth is fantastic and look, I can see the house I grew up in and I’m sure there’s some perfectly reasonable explanation for the error. But I am a picky, demanding, unforgiving 21st century type, and now I’m suspicious of Google Maps and I suspect that their accurate-seeming information is actually baloney. And as we all know, trust is the currency of the age and once it’s gone it’s ever so hard to win back. So, dear Google. Don’t make me frown at you and wonder if you mean what you say. Please fix your map and don’t make me late again.