Xark began as a group blog in June 2005 but continues today as founder Dan Conover's primary blog-home. Posts by longtime Xark authors Janet Edens and John Sloop may also appear alongside Dan's here from time to time, depending on whatever.
Non-professional-writer friends who ask me to read behind them tend to be surprised -- perhaps even disappointed -- by my minimalist response to their prose. This is when I wind up explaining what I consider to be a simple truth: Good writing is clear, effective writing. If you've clearly communicated what you're trying to say, and you've done so in a way that's appropriate to your medium and audience, then you've done your job.
This is not to confuse good writing with great writing, but I would argue that great writing isn't a valuable goal for most projects. Cormac McCarthy is a great writer, but if the job at hand was explaining a group workflow in a new software platform, Cormac's MFA English would flat piss me off.
So while good writing isn't exactly common, neither is it all that rare. Good thinking is the commodity we lack, and clearly communicated but fundamentally shallow thoughts aren't improved by tweaking a preposition here and there. This is a problem for many classically trained wordsmiths (of which there is a sudden glut), because they're basically selling the proposition that a professional writer/editor is worth the investment. That's generally true, but good writing is a lousy deodorant for weak bullshit.
Fortunately, there is a corollary at work here. Clear thinkers tend to produce relatively clear communication, regardless of their ability to write standard English, but poor thinkers can be identified rapidly by the intellectual-dwarf-on-stilts quality of their writing. A few buzz terms, a lot of jargon, big words inserted where small ones would do.
Which brings us to a special case: What happens when the goal of communication is not to illuminate, but to motivate? I come from a tradition that admires the ability to speak plainly, yet plain truth is often bad business. Writing that reveals, that explains, that communicates the core truth of a given subject can hurt stock value, undermine sales, even lead to lawsuits. Before you jump on this statement with booted feet, remember that the context here is a competitive one. Would we admire a football coach for telling a pre-game TV interviewer that his quarterback's shoulder is so sore that they've had to remove all the "out-routes" from their playbook? Of course not.
But pumping perfume over a big smelly truth only inspires skepticism, and no amount of copy editing will change that. The solution is better thinking -- focus on what you want to communicate rather than what you're trying to hide -- and a willingness to speak directly and openly about whatever your situation allows (here's a hint: If your situation is so dire that you really can't speak openly about anything, your image problem should be the least of your worries).
This, then, is the value of the voice I hope to preserve in my friends' entirely adequate prose. There are a thousand right ways to communicate a good idea, and the best one is the one that expresses your identity as well. Character is destiny, and voice is one of the ways character is revealed. For better or for worse.
As January slips away, I'm pressing one of my most important deadlines: Advising Alpha Female Sue Polinsky on the state of the tech political agenda in 2010. This is part of a plan for a ConvergeSouth panel next fall that will include several politicians.
So I've been reading, but reading only fills me in on what I know to look for, and when it comes to the scope of the tech agenda, what I don't know surely exceeds what I do. From bandwidth regulation to net neutrality to tariffs and copyright reform, the political decisions that will shape our technological landscape (and overwrite our ideas about media) are both obvious and oblique. Some of these most relevant questions might not even be tech-oriented at this point. And I don't want to miss those.
So here's my question: To what political and regulatory issues should the tech community be paying the most attention in 2010 and 11? What reforms (or assaults on our freedoms) should we view with the greatest wariness?
Answers, please, in comments. Or on Twitter. Or Facebook. Just communicate your thoughts to me, that's all.
I think I get it. The "uproar" over Sen. Harry Reid's "racist" statements about President Obama is a calculated episode of Republic rage designed to assert a passionate proxy claim: that Republicans have for years caught media hell for statements about black people, and now they want the same standard applied to Democrats.
So let's set aside Reid's remarks and deal with the GOP grievance for which this controversy is a stand-in. Does the mainstream media apply a double standard on race when it comes to Republicans and Democrats?
Answer: I think so.
But here's the difficult part for Republicans. It's not a context-free double standard, and it's probably not going to go away until party leaders establish a sustained public track record of confronting the racist-wacko wing of the GOP. There are clearly party officials who find this corner of the conservative base frightening and offensive, but political calculus has long required that they trend lightly on their neo-Bircher constituents.
Is it fair to tar all Republicans with this brush? No. Think back to the conservatives who confronted the extremists at various campaign rallies in 2008, or even to McCain trying to correct statements made by audience members at town hall gatherings. I'm no fan of Michael Steele, but I certainly don't think he's a black-on-black racist.
So if you Republicans want an apology for Trent Lott, here's mine. Lott shouldn't have had to resign his Senate leadership post for those comments he made to Strom Thurmond. Dumb? Yes. Firing offense? No. I suspect Lott was just trying to say something nice on the man's100th birthday and probably wasn't thinking too clearly about the fact that he had just publicly endorsed an explicitly racist campaign platform from 1948. Mistakes were made.
But here's the part I wish more Republicans would get. Lott was sacrificed for your party's collective sins since the middle of the 20th century, and the sins of the father will continue to be visited on his children until you confront the cynical political calculus that keeps nine out of 10 black voters in the Democratic camp.
The deep irony here is that in setting the racism bar so low for Reid, Steele and the Republicans are laying a trap for the next ill-equipped white guy from their party who says something quasi-stupid. As a liberal I can't say I'm upset about that, but my agenda here is pretty simple. In the same way that only Nixon could go to China, only the Republican Party can push the die-hard remnants of white racism out of the mainstream once and for all.
Consider it a practical quest. I sure wouldn't want to be known as the "white party" in a country with our current demographic trends.Not a good long-term branding solution.
*(For the record -- and so as not to hide behind the view-from-nowhere -- I don't consider what I read of Reid's remarks to be racist, or anything
less than candid truth. But racism is, like obscenity, in the eye of
the beholder... which is part of what makes it such a tiresome subject.)
About once a month, generally late in the evenings, my Bonnie and I will snuggle up on the couch and engage in a two or three hour marathon viewing of country music videos. It’s odd when it happens, as neither of us listens to much country music on a regular basis (although we each certainly have our favorites); on the other hand, it also feels perfectly natural to be drawn to the most popular manifestations of a genre that was vaguely in the air in both of our hometowns as we grew up. As with all music, we like some and dislike some, but the real fun for each of us comes from looking at the video images that are reimaginings of the songs. In my mind, there is no better place to begin an interesting conversation about culture than in the landscape that makes up Great American Country.
I want to focus here, however, on one particular video as an example of a wider visual phenomenon that I've recently witnessed (or imagine that I have); I have no idea if this is "new" or ongoing, although I would tend to guess the latter.Rather than lay out my thesis, it might be more fun to have you simply watch the starkest example and see if the same idea strikes you.Our case study, then, is Randy Houser’s Whistlin’ Dixie (it’s only three minutes; give it a whirl):
The song is one of those somewhat standard "Southern and proud of it" country rockers; to be honest, there is a part of me that always loves these songs despite a simultaneous political discomfort that comes along for the ride. Indeed, this particular manifestation of the "Proud Southerner" song has a lot of the visual and lyrical panorama that you would expect from the title "Whistlin’ Dixie": honky tonk dancing, Appalachian-lookin' camaflouged kids sitting on the backs of pick up, old rural shacks, trucker hats, a naked woman in a trailer, gun imagery, grills, and so forth. And again, I find myself alternatively amused, entertained, angered, embarrassed and mystified by these images.
Here's the catch with this one, however (and again, I don't think this is unique to this video): just when you think you've got the song figured out (i.e., "Oh, it's about redneck pride"), just when you think you know the characters who make up this community (i.e., "It's a bunch of racist southern boys"), BOOM, it turns out that they have African American friends--friends they eat with, dance with, smoke with. Indeed, what I see in this video is something that might be called the inoculation of southerm pride through the inclusion of African American bodies (it would be nice to come up with something snappier, of course, but this is a first pass). Take a look at that honky tonk: there are a number of African Americans dancing there. When the catfish is cooking, it's African Americans doing the cooking. When Houser sings about smoking, he has an African American stand in for him.
While there is no rule that says that the video should feature a completely white cast, there is something about the music itself, and the remainder of the images, that makes the scenery seem somehow less than inviting for anyone but a white population (and honestly, most of the tourist honky tonks in Nashville are bereft of anyone but white people even when the songs are mostly covers of Taylor Swift and Tim McGraw). Again, I want to stress: I'm not saying that the images don't represent one version of a reality, or that "the south is all racist" (heck, as a proud Southerner, I despise that stereotype); I'm more simply pointing out that the characters drawn by the song and the accompanying images wouldn't normally lead me to expect the inclusion of African American characters in these roles. And while one thesis might be that I'm simply completely out of touch and have no clue what I'm talking about, if you check out some of the racist comments about the video on YouTube, you'll see that there are some viewers who neither expected it nor liked it (although, to be fair, most people either didn't notice or simply didn't mention it).
At any rate, given that I'm a person who would certainly be pleased with a world that is more inviting of everyone--more egalitarian, I'm intrigued by the images in this video. On the one hand, as I've noted, there is something odd afoot here--the inclusion of African Americans sticks out, seeming somehow unrealistic. One function they serve--intentionally or not--is making it difficult to say "Randy Houser" or even fans of this song, are racist, or, even more generally, the images are protection against the claim that the video shows that country music itself is racist. "Heck," the images say, "You can be southern, you can love shotguns, you can live in a trailer, you can shout about southern pride and still live in a culture of racial equality."
And you know what, you can. Or rather, you should be able to. The fact that these ideas are rarely articulated--at least so rarely that the images seem uncomfortable together--doesn't mean that it's not possible.
As always, the more I think about this, the more questions I'm left with. In essence, I don't know whether I should applaud the images or be very skeptical about them. That is, if critical thinking demands reactions, should mine be: "The record company included African Americans in this video to simply make it difficult to accuse everyone involved of racism?" Or should I look at these images, and the ways they don't necessarily fit, and applaud them for helping me imagine a different kind of world, a different kind of articulation. But just what kind of articulation is it that I'm applauding, if I do so?
So here on the first day of this new decade, I'd like to say a couple of things.
First, even though the future-of-media topic features exciting and frightening new trends in information and culture and learning and communication and authority, it's important to remember that this is a story about money. I'm happy The Tower is falling, but it's not falling because it sucked so bad for so long. It's falling because it's not profitable anymore. That's all.
Second, if your idea for the future of journalism doesn't propose either a new subsidy for the profession or a new concept of "content" that has a market value independent of what advertisers will pay for it, then I'm not likely to be interested. This doesn't mean that your idea is without merit -- we're headed toward a complex 21st century media ecosystem, not a new mass-media monoculture, and there are all sorts of new things we'll have to make for that ecosystem. It's just that ideas based on old assumptions about content probably aren't helping us derive the shape of the next media economy.
Most of our new-media ideas still assume that the future of journalism is inextricably linked to advertising, and since the television-industrial complex is failing, their prescription is typically just a variation on the idea of ever-less-expensive content costs. Others ignore sustainability and propose a non-profit future. If you're comfortable with those limits, you're in a great big club, because this is where most of our discussions are taking place today.
I'm not comfortable with it. I worked in the business for 20 years, and I don't see any way around this observation: Quality is expensive, and crap has diminishing returns. So whether you're telling me that the future is social media, or iPhone apps, or paid content schemes, or search optimization, or niche aggregation -- whatever -- unless you're changing the game, you're still talking about 21st century iterations of 20th century media. You're part of a race to the bottom.
I suspect that the changes we'll experience in the next decade will make what we saw in the past 10 years look mild by comparison. I suspect that companies will develop profitable ways to configure and package information that cannot be appropriated, re-Tweeted, copied or pasted. Not stories per se, but something deeper. In other words, a news-media future that's based on the creation of lasting value instead of the renting of ephemeral attention.
The pieces of that future exist today. Knitting them together won't be simple.
Then again, things always look simpler looking back from the end of a decade. And won't that be fun?