The New York Times’ Lens blog is a gem, and it proves it again with this latest post, about photojournalist Bryan Denton’s experience in Libya. Okay, so, most of the post is written by C. J. Chivers, which is like cheating—Chivers is one of the ten best reporters in the world right now—but even so, the whole package is emblematic of what Lens has been able to do consistently: go deep, really deep, into the real craft of reporting.
Here’s one part that really struck me. This…
Denton: We departed from Benghazi on April 13 [aboard a Greek ferry that had been pressed into evacuation service]. The trip lasted about 16 hours. There was evidence of artillery impacts on some of the structures in the port, so we knew that the area had come under fire. The entire trip between disembarking and arriving at our safe house was probably an hour. As with other stories in the past, it was one of the more stressful periods, primarily because you are new on the ground and haven’t yet picked up on how things work yet. I often equate conflict with music and dancing. It takes a little while to figure out the rhythm. But once you do, you can start to dance.
…followed by this:
Denton: [C. J. Chivers] has been great to work with on this story because, as a former Marine with many years of war reporting under his belt, he has a great deal of experience and perspective on how battlefields work and shift.
In Misurata, a great deal of planning and thought went into each story before we reported it; finding out what exactly was happening at the locations we were planning to report from, how we were planning on moving there and how much time we wanted to spend on the ground. Misurata is not a place where you want to hang around on the street and wait for stuff to happen.
Whenever we were outside of the compound we were staying in, we were wearing full body armor, including eye protection. We carried personal medical kits, including tourniquets, in case one of us was wounded while reporting. We’d check with each other periodically, and when it was decided that both of us had what we needed for the story, we’d pull back to our safe house, and get to work on filing the day’s story.
I like the demystification there. War reporting isn’t some magical, macho art form; it’s a sequence of decisions that you make very, very carefully. Yes: courage is a prerequisite. But like most reporting, this is a craft. It’s something that can be learned. It’s something that a person can practice and get better at—under the tutelage, say, of a master like Chivers.
I really highly recommend the entire post: it’s at once totally harrowing—horrifying, really—and surprisingly cool, collected, cautious. This is the world of the war reporter. This is the world of the craftsman.
This New York Times piece on Paddy Chayevsky’s archive is amazing. The NYT seems really way out ahead of the field in terms of presenting primary sources online; I mean, just look at this document viewer. It’s awesome.
Here’s a highlight: Chayevsky created an entire programming grid for UBS—the network in “Network”—with shows like “Lady Cop,” “Death Squad,” and the one-two punch of “Celebrity Canasta” and “Celebrity Mahjong.”
I so dearly wish this pilot existed:
In 1968, he started writing a pilot script for a comedic series he called “The Imposters” or “There’s No Business,” about subversives who infiltrate a television network and undermine it from within.
And finally, you can count on Aaron Sorkin for the kicker:
Sorkin, however, spoke for “Network” fans who respond to it as a devastating media-industry critique—one whose author never saw television devolve into a vast wasteland of reality programming and political partisanship, but who after 35 years is still shouting just as loudly about the dangers of crass, pandering content.
“If you put it in your DVD player today you’ll feel like it was written last week,” Mr. Sorkin said. “The commoditization of the news and the devaluing of truth are just a part of our way of life now. You wish Chayefsky could come back to life long enough to write ‘The Internet.’ ”
[…] it essentially comes down to the now standardized model that exists for how to build a large, behemoth, words-based content website. It’s sort of easy? Create a huge mountain of garbage statistics of audience and inventory, and then place a tablecloth of seemingly intelligent content to cover it like a veil.
“Words-based content website.” Yikes.
How great was Tim Maly’s month of cyborgs? I liked it not only because I like Tim, and not only because I like, um, cyborgs; I liked it because it seemed to play into the events-as-future-of-media model, and to deepen it. It seemed to suggest a new way of both producing and presenting ideas.
Bruce Sterling said this about Tim’s undertaking:
[It is] a project with an extremely heavy science-fictional tinge that is in fact quite remote from science fiction. It lacks the look, feel, extrapolative techniques and sense of wonder payoff of science fiction. There’s no fiction in it, and it has scarcely a whiff of science. Basically, it’s a large clique of obviously intelligent and creative people who all more or less know each other through the Internet, and are all loosely riffing about cyborgs, and what-cyborg-means-to-them. A cultural artifact of this kind could not have existed without collapsed barriers-to-entry in publishing.
And it’s not even dull, fannish, or self-indulgent. It’s a little overwhelming in its volume and its focussed erudition, but it’s a very readable and illuminating “project” (whatever a “project” is). Certainly it’s far more interesting and gets much more to the core of the matter than, say, a commissioned science fiction anthology titled “Cyborg!” which might have had fifteen science fiction stories about cyborgs. Even if they’d been great science fiction stories by top sci-fi authors with lots of gosh-wow and plot twists, they wouldn’t have torn into the depths of the subject in this remarkable way.
Emphasis mine; I think that line sets up such a revealing comparison. It ought to make anybody in the anthology business pause and ask themselves if they’re using the right tool for the job. It makes me think, for instance, of New Liberal Arts; how might that project have been different if we’d thought of it as a slow-burning event—an internet-powered lecture series—instead of as a static body of work that we rushed to complete and then release whole?
And maybe this is noteworthy, too: I read perhaps 25% of all the cyborg posts. First of all: that’s a way better ratio than any anthology I’ve ever picked up. Second: maybe this is an important new technique! You want to get an idea out into a big, busy world? Don’t just take one shot. Instead, refract the idea through dozens of different minds; send it ricocheting through dozens of different niches. Blast it out like grapeshot. Modernist poetry fans? We got ya. Kanye West fans? We got ya.
It’s not just grapeshot across, like, idea space, either; it’s grapeshot across time. Stringing the project out over a whole month gave Tim and all his contributors more opportunities to talk about it. It gave readers more time to discover it and get excited about it.
There’s a lot to chew on here if you’re a media maker or a media inventor. I’m eager for a post-mortem from Tim himself; I’d love to know, from his perspective, what worked, what didn’t, and what surprised him.
In the meantime, here’s Alexis Madrigal’s capstone to the project: an interview with the man who coined the word cyborg in the first place. Click over for the context, and stick around for the kicker; I guarantee it will make you smile.
So, I love Tim Maly’s kickoff post: What’s a cyborg? It’s fun, revelatory, provocative, and it uses design to tell its tale. (You know I love that.) Tim laces the post with striking images, and he labels them: This is a cyborg. This is not a cyborg.
But I think he misses one.
Because this is a cyborg, too.
I’m not saying that because of the sampler on the pedestal or the vocoder attached to the microphone (although somebody could do a great #50cyborgs post about the recent robotization of pop vocals). I’m talking about the frame itself. About the image of a star on stage in front of 11 million people. About the digital distribution of that image to screens and eyeballs around the planet. And, most importantly, about the fact that Kanye West has the media muscles to make that happen.
Isn’t there such a thing as a media cyborg?
After you read Tim’s post, you start to see cyborgs all around you. It’s not just people with, you know, gun-legs; it’s anybody who uses a cell phone or wears contact lenses. It’s anybody who brings a tool really close in order to augment some capability.
Aren’t there people who have brought media that close? Aren’t there people who manipulate it, in all its forms, as naturally as another person might make a phone call, or speak, or breathe?
When you think of someone like Kanye West or Lady Gaga, you can’t think only of their brains and bodies. Lady Gaga in a simple dress on a tiny stage in a no-name club in Des Moines is—simply put—not Lady Gaga. Kanye West in jeans at a Starbucks is not Kanye West.
To understand people like that—and, increasingly, to understand people like us (eep!)—you’ve got to look instead at the sum of their brains, their bodies, the media they create, and the media created by others about them. All together, it constitutes a sort of fuzzy cloud that’s much, much bigger than a person.
This hits close to home for me. In fact, it’s the reason I do a lot of the things that I do. At some point in your life, you meet a critical mass of smart, fun, interesting people, and a depressing realization hits: There are too many. You’ll never meet all the people that you ought to meet. You’ll never have all the conversations that you ought to have. There’s simply not enough time.
You know those movie scenes where two characters miss each other by just a fraction of a second, and how it’s so frustrating to watch? You want to reach into the screen and go: Hey, stop! Just slow down. He’s coming around the corner! Well, that’s life—except in life, it’s multiplied a million-fold in every dimension. You can miss somebody not just by a second, but by a century. You can miss somebody not just by a couple of steps, but by the span of a continent.
Media evens the odds.
Media lets you clone pieces of yourself and send them out into the world to have conversations on your behalf. Even while you’re sleeping, your media —your books, your blog posts, your tweets—it’s on the march. It’s out there trying to making connections. Mostly it’s failing, but that’s okay: these days, copies are cheap. We’re all Jamie Madrox now.
Okay, let’s keep things in perspective. For most of us, even the blogotronic twitternauts of the Snarkmatrix, this platoon of posts is a relatively small part of who we are. But I’d argue that for an exceptional set of folks—the Kanyes, the Gagas, the Obamas—it is a crucial, even central, component.
Maybe that sounds dehumanizing, but I don’t think it ought to be. We’re already pretty sure that the mind is not a single coherent will but rather a crazy committee whose deliberations get smoothed out into the thing we call consciousness or identity or whatever. Use your imagination: what if some of that committee operates remotely? If 99.99% of the world will only ever encounter Kanye West through the bright arc of media that he produces—isn’t that media, in some important way, Kanye?
Again: I don’t think it’s dehumanizing. I don’t think it’s dystopian. Any cyborg technology has a grotesque extreme; there are glasses and there are contacts and there are these. So it’s like that with media, too. We all do this; we all use media every day to extend our senses and our spheres of influence. At some scale, sure, things gets weird, and you lose track of you, and suddenly you’re being choked to death by your own robotic arm. But way before you get to that point, you get these amazing powers:
- The power to reach beyond yourself, outward in space and forward in time.
- The power to have conversations—really rich, meaningful conversations—with more people than you could ever break bread with.
- And, increasingly, the power to get reports back from your little platoon—to see how your media is performing.
We’re all media cyborgs now.
P.S. Don’t miss Kevin Kelly’s contribution to #50cyborgs!
Look at this photo of (an approximation of) Gutenberg’s press that Tim posted over at Kottke’s site. Hmm, where did Johann get that neato screw? Sure is handy to have a piece of simple machinery that can exert pressure evenly across a flat plane…
It’s from a wine press! How great is that? The booming wine industry provided Gutenberg with one of the pieces he needed to hack together a printing press. This would have been on the cover of MAKE Magazine if they’d had it in 1440.
So the Old Spice campaign was funny, surprising, and perfectly-calibrated. These would be reasons enough to like it. But I’m not going to let you stop there. Here’s how I think the campaign establishes an important new precedent—not for online advertising, but for online storytelling across the board.
Here’s where I think it could take us.
Start here: as it became apparent that this wasn’t just a one-time media drop, but instead an ongoing live performance—a spectacle in progress—I was reminded of something that I heard Rex Sorgatz say years ago. I’ll paraphrase, broadly: blogs are actually more related to live theater than they are to, say, newspapers. The things that make a blog good are almost exactly the things that make a live performance good—and the most important, the magic catalyst, is the interplay with the audience.
So extend that beyond blogs, to Twitter feeds and Kickstarter projects and ARGs and whatever it is that Old Spice just did. I really believe in the analogy.
How do you square the appeal of super-high production values with the reality that, on the internet, what tends to work is lots and lots of content? (See: Demand Media, Huffington Post, YouTube, etc.)
Is it crazy to say that this ad campaign from Old Spice suggests a possible solution?
Wieden+Kennedy is producing super-short, snappy videos—all in basically the same format—in response to @replies on Twitter and comments on YouTube. You can click through to watch a bunch of them here. They’re funny, and I like the length; they’re video popcorn. (Er. I just watched five.)
Why isn’t there more video like this? Imagine a tumblr that posted three or four new videos every day, of about this length, at about this quality. Always the same characters, always the same background—easy to set up! Maybe it’s fictional; maybe it’s not. Maybe the videos respond directly to The Internet the way this Old Spice campaign does; maybe they don’t. Over time, it builds up a blog-like archive of hundreds, eventually thousands, of super-consumable little snippets. It also builds up a voice, tone, and style—a familiar, comfortable universe—in exactly the way a good blog (or webcomic) does.
What do you think? Plausible? Has it been tried before? (Don’t say The Show with Ze Frank; though sublime, it was a very different format. Each episode was a multi-minute, highly-edited bespoke daily creation. Too much work for not enough content!)
Is this related to what’s next for TV?
Back in college, the Atlantic was basically my introduction to the world of ideas. I still remember reading this classic article by James Fallows and feeling whole new lobes of understanding come online. This was policy, not politics. Macro, not micro. Oh. That’s how the world works.
(As an aside: I have a vivid memory of reading a printout of that Fallows article in my freshman year dorm room. But that’s not possible; it was published during my senior year. Harumph.)
I also loved Robert Kaplan’s tales of global unrest—and even though he sometimes creeps me out these days, there’s no denying that his super-macro view was hugely influential.
Anyway, I haven’t read an issue of the Atlantic in a long time, and I am only an occasional consumer of the Atlantic’s site—usually thanks to links that Tim and Matt post here. (There have been a few exceptions.)
But the Atlantic is resurgent. I feel it. They’ve got a credible web strategy that manages to leverage the physics of the web without sacrificing sophistication, and it’s paying dividends:
On top of that, they just hired Alexis Madrigal. What a coup.
I like what Ryeberg is up to: it’s a blog of short essays or meditations on YouTube videos or (even better) juxtapositions of YouTube videos.
I mention it now because they’ve just posted two winners in a row: