Why I don’t like the political conventions

Note: I originally posted this on my WordPress.com blog.

Against my better judgement, I’ve found myself tweeting about the Republican and Democratic conventions over the past week. My tweets on the subject are usually sarcastic and/or attempts to be humorous, so I want to explain in a bit more detail why I think these are inane and even poisonous events.

2008 Republican convention

2008 Republican convention – Courtesy PBS NewsHour

Conventions are a shining example of the broken political system

Political conventions are a blatant reminder that most of American politics is not about governing, or innovating, or moving our society forward, but rather is about the two parties grappling for power, or attempting to hold onto power. As somebody who is not a member of either party, I find this shameless acknowledgement of the endless power struggle to be incredibly depressing.

Gary Vaynerchuck once said that one of the problems with America is that people put more effort into their weddings than their marriages. The same is true for politics: Governing is hard, messy, and wrought with failure; campaigning brings the glow of attention and the ability to say anything without consequence. Conventions celebrate the former excessively while completely ignoring the latter.

Conventions are insanely self-centered

No other segment of American life – not sports, not celebrity, not even business – spends as much time explicitly celebrating itself as the two main political parties (and their politicians) do during their conventions. As citizens, many of us are gleefully complicit, praising the days of empty rhetoric, self-serving video productions and ignoring the complete lack of substance or self-reflection. If you doubt that, watch as pontificating speeches about personal experiences are praised – and then the praise is praised!

Conventions bring out the worst in spectators

Like a YouTube video of bystanders idly filming a crime instead of attempting to intervene, I feel like people are at their most viciously partisan during conventions, whether it be predictably attacking every scrap of their opponents’ convention, or blindly celebrating every aspect of their own party’s event. The denial of reality and the refusal to be honest is established as a tone by the conventions, and then perpetuated by partisans.

What to do

To start, the conventions should no longer be given airtime on major networks. It’s ridiculous that major broadcast networks continue to provide prime-time air to the conventions In a time of hundreds of news and entertainment sources available across every possible medium and device providing years of coverage of every detail of the campaign.

Parties have the resources and the technology available to broadcast the conventions on their own – they no longer need or deserve the media frenzy supported by prime time air time.

In an ideal world, I’d love it if both parties retired the outdated and increasingly absurd tradition and replaced it with a new kind of event that placed integrity above pageantry. Give up the meaningless (and sometimes corrupt) nomination process and replace at least some of the endless cavalcade of speeches with honest assessments of the candidates’ records, plans, and promises.

Warm as you write

From this fascinating Paris Review interview, Ernest Hemingway on creativity and the wring process:

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

Mike Daisey and this American denial

Image from Public Theater website

Two things are really bothering me about today’s news that monolougist Mike Daisey fabricated portions of his hit performance piece “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”

Let me get something out of the way out front: I’ve known Mike since about 1996. He was an advisor/supporter of my high school’s speech & debate team, of which I was a member. I got to know him and I considered him a mentor. Critics can easily point to that fact as an invalidation of what I have to say – go ahead; I don’t really care. In fact, this whole thing is about critics and how they use the weapons of rhetorical misdirection to further their cause (or in this case, obscure the cause of the other).

The first thing that bothers me is the terrible news that by making up portions of his theatrical piece — and then letting, and helping, that theatrical piece spread to the media, where he reported it and let it be reported as individual facts — Mike has undermined the essential, and incredibly relevant, truth of the situation. No, not the truth that Apple is evil, or the people of China are being subjicaded by an industrial complex that places profit value over human rights.

I’m talking about the truth that as our craving for an ever-increasing schedule of cheap gadgets increases, we go into deeper and deeper denial about exactly how those gadgets arrive here so quickly and so cheaply.

Why are we in so much denial about our insatiable desire for the next? Why does our pride flow so freely at the release cycle of electronics, but ebb so violently at the simple truth about the conditions under which those electronics are produced? That, folks, is the world’s finest example of shame. It’s shame on a grand, hypocritical, American scale. The irony is that it would be even more American to own up to the reality and, for lack of a better word, embrace it. No, it’s the absolutely insane cycle of cover-ups, denials, misdirections, and attacks that really has me baffled.

Predictably, widely-respected Apple blogger John Gruber is the one of the loudest of all Daisey’s critics today. Mr. Gruber remained comparatively silent on the topic of Apple’s supply chain even as it blew up into a two-month-long major national news story and ensuing conversation about an essential element of the company that is his sole beat. As he notes himself, he wrote only one piece – all of one paragraph – about Daisey’s appearance on This American Life; I can find only two other mentions on his site of the conversation around Apple’s manufacturing processes since the story broke in January. In one, Mr. Gruber calls the story “Apple’s biggest challenge.” Note the choice of words: This isn’t an issue for us to face as a nation of consumers; this is a “challenge” for Apple to overcome.

With that perspective, it’s no wonder Mr. Gruber came out swinging today. Since the news broke this afternoon that NPR’s This American Life program is retracting its “Agony and the Ecstacy” themed episdode, Mr. Gruber has now run five six items (to date — it’s only 8:15pm EST as I write this) condemning Daisey.

In one item, Mr. Gruber declares that the only reason he’d been quiet on this issue (prior to today, obviously) is because he credits his “spidey sense” for alerting him to the fact that Daisey lied. Mr. Gruber didn’t share this insight at any point as the story exploded; he was so busy keeping his mouth shut, he couldn’t even be bothered to publicize his suspicions about the #1 critic of the company he works so admirably to defend and promote. That’s not shame; that’s shameless.

The other thing that bothers me about this news isn’t about the universal implications of a society that can’t be honest with itself. It’s about Mike. What a shame for a thinker and performer so incredibly gifted with the ability to see into us and come up with some simple truths, present them in a compelling way, and move onto something entirely different just as we wanted more.

I truly hope Mike can, unlike so many other people who fail notably and publicly, actually learn from this experience to create a message that is tighter and more trustworthy. Every artist makes a pact with his audience; Mike’s pact is that he helps us question and understand the hard truth about ourselves. If he wants to regain our trust as an entertainer, he should keep up his end of that bargain.

In the meantime, our appetite for gadgets spins madly on. Apple’s latest iPad became available last night at midnight, with the corresponding (and by accounts deserving) adulations following dutifully.

Along with that product launch comes the news that Apple’s stock price is over $600 per share. As a proud capitalist through and through, I couldn’t be happier for them, for our economy, and for the positive outlook made possible by their success. But at least I’m damn fine with the truth about why, and how, they earned it.

Critics like Mr. Gruber — and there are many others — are celebrating today’s news not because it proves Apple is right and Mike Daisey is wrong. Rather, they’re insanely relieved that the painful, potentially embarrassing journey to the truth — not about Apple, but about ourselves — might actually, finally, be cut short. Once we do stop, it will be much harder to get back on that path.

Mike, you almost brought us there. I’m just sorry it will be your fault if we don’t quite make it.

Bangor Daily News blurs the line between news and advertising

The Bangor Daily News is back at it with more ethically-questionable practices on its website, this time in the form of its new “BDN Marketplace News” section which attempts to disguise advertisements as news headlines.

A screenshot of the BDN Marketplace News section

A screenshot of the BDN Marketplace News section

What’s Going On?

At the bottom of article pages, the “BDN Marketplace News” appears directly under a larger “Similar Articles” heading, and uses the same font styles and layout as article headlines. Most deceptive, though, is the inclusion of the word “News”, clearly meant to suggest to visitors that those headlines are news.

This approach goes even beyond the practice employed by some other news websites that place advertisements within a “Related Sites” or “Around the Web” element; in those cases the elements are clearly marked as “Sponsored” or “Advertisements”, or they actually point to relevant articles, not to ads.

What’s the Problem?

It should be pretty clear: The “BDN Marketplace News” advertising element is intentionally designed to deceive visitors; that kind of attitude towards the people who give you traffic and ad revenue is a short-sighted and doomed strategy which absolutely threatens the paper’s long-term health. Combined with my coverage of the BDN’s deceptive “ad bar” back in January 2011, this creates a disturbing pattern of disrespect for visitors that should be addressed immediately.

What can they do?

The Bangor Daily News should immediately revise the “BDN Marketplace News” section to include a clear disclaimer that the links are “Advertising” or “Sponsored Listings” or similar language. To go one step further, they should also link the disclaimer to a page with more information about the Marketplace and how listings are added. This kind of update wouldn’t put them ahead of the pack on ethics, but it would bring them in line with current standards in the newspaper industry.

In the rush to shore up revenues, it can be easy to clutter up a website with a variety of “innovative” advertising placements, but a company that cares about its audience and is interested in long-term growth over short-term fixes can and should be held to a higher standard.

 

Let’s see more context-aware design touches

I hope, and I predict, that we’ll start to see more of a trend in web and software development in the coming months and years that probably already has a great name, but since I don’t know it, for now I’m giving it my own name: context-aware design.

Loosely, I define context-aware design as a principle where an interface offers up specific information geared to that particular unique situation — either some customized data, navigation, or other existing element that’s loaded up at just the right time when it might benefit the user most.

I noticed a subtle but great example of it today when looking for a post on 37signals’ blog Signals vs. Noise. It was hidden in an often-overlooked and under-designed area that most blogs have: category archive pages. On Signals vs. Noise, if you click a category archive link (“Business”, in this example), you don’t just see what you’d expect from most blogs: the typical reverse-chronological list of blog posts from the Business category. Instead, you’re greeted with a nice bit of context-aware design right at the top of the screen:

A screenshot of the “Business” category of posts on the 37signals blog Signals vs. Noise

See the “Popular” box at the top right under the page title? It’s a simple concept: For folks browsing that category, why not show them the 10 most popular posts, right off the bat? If they’re deep diving for a particular item or topic (rather than searching), there’s a good chance one of the popular posts is the one they’re looking for — and if they’re just perusing, showing the most popular posts is a simple but effective approach to showing what types of content are in that category.

The “Popular” box shows off what makes context-aware design such a benefit for both developers and users: It’s simple to implement — most blog software will readily serve up popular content in a widget — and it’s the type of spontaneous experience that creates and builds trust. It adds up to less cost and more time spent with the interface.