Downed Bird Ditched and Twittered

January 25, 2009

In an unusual departure into uncharted waters (sic), both for me and US Airways Flight 1549, the recent air crash is an opportunity to discuss good news for a change. While an air crash may at first seem an extremely unlikely source of good news, in this instance it really is, since it is the first occasion in nearly half a century that an airliner has crash-landed onto water without fatalities. 

Widely dubbed in the media as ‘The Miracle on the Hudson’, the aircraft, a US Airways Airbus A320, ditched into the Hudson River shortly after taking off from LaGuardia Airport, New York, on route to Charlotte, North Carolina, after apparently colliding with a flock of geese. The ‘double bird strike’ caused the aircraft’s jet engines to fail and left the pilot with little option but to ditch into the river. Amazingly, all of the 155 people on board survived, despite the hazardous crash-landing in freezing conditions. 

What makes the event particularly interesting from a social media perspective is that news of the air crash was reported early by posts on Twitter. Often referred to as ‘micro-blogging’, Twitter refers to itself as ‘a real-time short messaging service that works over multiple networks and devices.’ 

This instant accessibility enables subscribers – the ‘Twitterati’ – to send and/or receive (highly abbreviated) updates from friends and family, and/or breaking world news. One such shining example is the remarkable image of the stricken aircraft in the water, which was posted onto Twitpic just five minutes after the plane crash-landed in the river, with the unavoidably concise but still informative message, There’s a plane in the Hudson. I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy.’ 

The implications for the media and the future of this ‘citizen journalism’ are profound, since it clearly demonstrates the power and immediacy of eyewitness reports over traditional media reporting. Simply by virtue of possessing an iPhone, a Twitter and Twitpic account, and close proximity to a happy/unhappy accident (depending upon where in the Hudson you were sitting at the time), a random individual found himself effectively the first journalist at the scene; an unwitting witness of the crash became an instant, accidental amateur journalist, making headlines worldwide. 

Some media commentators suggest that media reporting may never be the same again, as recognised in the recent BBC News Technology Blog article ‘Twitter and a Classic Picture’, which describes Twitpic as helping in the transformation of Twitter from a pared-down messaging tool into a multimedia service – and a great platform for citizen journalism.’

Fittingly, the pilot of the stricken aircraft has been commended universally for the skilful crash-landing, and in some quarters hailed as ‘the Hero of the Hudson’; Capt. Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger is a former US Navy pilot and was the last person to abandon the aircraft after checking for any remaining passengers or crew.

Of course, in these days of fevered speculation and scurrilous rumour that pass for news, we’re probably just hours (and a few ‘Tweets’) away from learning that he was in fact completely responsible for the disaster due to gross incompetence and chronic alcoholism…

Watch this (or that, or the other) space!


A Rumor of War*

January 16, 2009

In a ghastly confluence of political intransigence, ancient religious enmity and colliding cultures and ideologies, the Middle East is once again embroiled in bloody conflict and is currently choking messily on that hoary old (contradictory and counter-intuitive) chestnut of ‘fighting for peace’ in the Gaza Strip.

In a concerted effort to gain valuable ground in the virtual battlefield, both sides have eagerly grasped emergent social media technology in an attempt to broadcast their particular versions of the truth to a potential worldwide audience of billions; cyber-warriors (or ‘hacktivists’) on both sides are resolutely reinforcing the righteousness of their respective causes in a dogged attempt to manage the information (cyber)space, gain sympathetic media coverage and, ultimately, win the media war.

The founding fathers of the Internet and global social media phenomena/ephemera such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter may have earnestly intended their respective contributions to modern civilisation to facilitate the ‘democratisation of information’ (for example, YouTube’s motto: ‘Broadcast Yourself’ and Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life’) but, in an echo of the words of the celebrated science-fiction writer William Gibson, ‘The street finds its own use for things’  and perhaps never more so than in times of conflict.

The Internet is one of the foremost contemporary examples of this ‘repurposing’, otherwise known as the ‘law of unintended consequences’ (pace the acclaimed sociologist Robert K. Merton), and nowhere is safe in cyberspace – least of all such popular websites as Facebook, YouTube (which has been commandeered by the Israeli army; the first time a national army has created its own YouTube channel) and Twitter, which has hosted a press conference by the Israeli Consulate in New York.

But, as expressed in The Guardian’s recent article, ‘So what if Israel uses the internet?’ such ‘repurposing’ raises the sinister spectre of state-sponsored propaganda. Indeed, the dedicated blogger and commentator on the Arab-Israeli conflict Richard Silverstein brands the Israeli online campaign as ‘outright propaganda’ and ‘a cynical attempt to flood the web and news media with favourable flackery in a vain attempt to tilt public opinion toward Israel’.

Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear that both sides are making strenuous efforts to garner online support for their respective causes – ‘Gaza crisis spills onto the web’ and it is patently obvious that both sides are peddling (mis)information of dubious veracity to advance their highly politicised agendas.

As yet, neither side appears prepared to compromise, with both sides resolutely determined to play out their wearisome end-games, where the first casualty in any missile strike is, inevitably, the truth; all this and yet more tragedy to come in the (supposedly) traditional season of goodwill to all men – Happy Hanukkah!


* In ‘A Rumor of War’ author Philip Caputo provides an intimate portrait of the Vietnam conflict and documents both the brutality of war and the author’s experiences as an officer in the US Marine Corps, which serve as an indictment of the idiocy behind governments’ grand schemes and strategies and an appropriate warning from recent history (see also ‘A Bright Shining Lie’ by Neil Sheehan, which won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1989).


The Future is Now

December 30, 2008

Notwithstanding the utterly pointless production of ludicrous (so-called) technological ‘advances’, such as the aforementioned Microsoft Surface, the celebrated cyberpunk author William Gibson once stated famously, ‘The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.’

And it is undeniable; the future is now. In government and corporate laboratories all over the (developing?) world (but most likely in South Korea) nascent communications technologies abound, many of which are already here in embryonic form. Peering forlornly into a crystal ball to glimpse the future is (as ever) completely futile, for it surrounds us already: it takes little imagination to envisage mobile phones with instant messaging; file-swapping, wireless digital palm devices of ever-increasing speed and complexity; and greater interactivity from all media – known and unknown.

In his multi-award-winning debut novel ‘Neuromancer’, Gibson famously coined the term ‘cyberspace’, and uses it intriguingly to describe ‘a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions…’ Arguably, Gibson’s prescient concept of a visualised (hallucinatory?) worldwide communications network encouraged the dramatic real-world growth of virtual environments, and many credit the science-fiction writer with establishing the conceptual foundations of the Internet and the World Wide Web with all due respect of course to the real (not virtual) cyber (not punk) genius, Tim Berners-Lee.

Gibson’s works are often bleak, dystopian stories about the disturbing effects of cybernetics and computer networks on mankind, where ‘low-life meets high-tech’. In his writings, Gibson submits that societies invariably use new technologies in ways that their original developers never envisaged and, controversially, that emerging technologies are what shape future history, not politics, wars, religions or philosophies; in his (rather troubling) words, ‘The street finds its own use for things.’ In other words, dear reader, be afraid – and very, very careful what you wish for this festive season… Happy New Year!

Scratch the Surface

November 27, 2008

Increasingly innovative technologies that facilitate alternative expressions of social media present often-exciting prospects, promising much, but do they really deliver? What is the next (virtual) evolutionary step? From hand-delivered messages, carrier pigeons, pony express, telegrams telephones, radio and television, and ever onward through to the delights and infinite wonders of the wonderful worldwide web, the latest high-tech (?) wheeze from Microsoft is its massively over-hyped Microsoft Surface technology, as touted in the recent Bond movie, Quantum of Solace (and very similar in concept to that used in the earlier science-fiction film Minority Report).

With brazen (in)sincerity, Microsoft introduces the integrative, multi-touch sensitive, touch-screen, ‘new’ media technology as ‘representing a fundamental change in the way that we interact with digital content. Forget the mouse and keyboard, Microsoft Surface employs a camera-based vision system that lets users grab digital content with their hands and move information between objects with simple gestures and touches. With a 30-inch table-top display, users can get together to interact with digital information – and with each other.’ 

According to the company’s official press release, the launch of Microsoft Surface marks ‘the beginning of a new technology category and a user-interface revolution, and provides effortless interaction with digital content through natural hand gestures, touch and physical objects. Surface computing breaks down traditional barriers between people and technology, changing the way people interact with all kinds of everyday information — from photos to maps to menus.’  Hmmm, quite possibly, but so what?

While the device does appear to have potential applications in the hospitality sector, such as restaurants, hotels, retail establishments, and public entertainment venues, and maybe even in the military for tactical overviews, scratch the surface and you’ll discover that it is not really new, but simply a repackaging of old technology into a slightly newer format: Surface is essentially a Windows Vista PC placed inside a table, topped with a 30-inch reflective surface in a clear acrylic frame – hardly groundbreaking technology.

As pointed out succinctly in The Guardian article, Any ideas for Microsoft Surface apps?, ‘the most useful products usually come from identifying a problem and working out the technology to fix it – not coming up with the technology and then working out what to use it for.’ Is this now the (post-) modern definition of the term ‘reverse engineering’?

Shift Happens

November 16, 2008

Further to last week’s posting and the subject of change, growth and the development of digital media from infancy through to adolescence and maturity – also referenced in The Guardian’s recent article ‘That awkward teenage phase’ – there was a very interesting and entertaining YouTube video this week on PROpenMic, the worldwide social network website for public relations students, faculty and professionals.

Distilling the writings of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas Friedman, and particularly his international bestselling book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, which analyses the progress of globalisation, the latest ‘Did You Know?’ video from Karl Fisch cleverly illustrates the implications of powerful, potentially seismic political, economic, social and technological shifts across the globe, all set to the prescient soundtrack of Fatboy Slim’s ‘Right Here, Right Now’ – the video of which is itself a pertinent parody of the evolutionary process.

In his book, Friedman explores both the advantages and disadvantages of the latest developments in global communications, and contends that the proliferation of advanced digital technologies across the globe now means that previously disparate pools of knowledge and resources have connected suddenly all over the planet, levelling the previously unplayable field of play: the availability and popularity of blogs, podcasts, YouTube and MySpace now enable modern citizens of the world to broadcast their views to a potential audience of billions.

Which is all well and good (?), but what does it all mean? Unfortunately (but predictably), it’s not altogether clear to anyone, except to state (as it does unnervingly at the end of the original version of the ‘Did You Know?’ video) that ‘Shift Happens.’ Indeed it does. And now increasingly more frequently.

Party Poppers or Death Knell?

November 9, 2008

In the very same week that the Today programme broadcast its speculative discussion on ‘Has blogging had its day?’, it is (at least moderately) interesting to note that The Observer published an article sharply at odds with this, and the virtual obituary that Wired magazine sought to write in its article Twitter, Flickr, Facebook Make Blogs Look So 2004.

In contrast, The Observer article by John Naughton‘Happy birthday, dear bloggers…’ – was celebratory and congratulatory, marking the tenth anniversary of blogging with a veritable eulogy. The article catalogues some of the blogosphere’s greatest moments, such as that which precipitated the premature (but long overdue) resignation and ignominious downfall in 2002 of the controversial US senator Trent Lott and, in 2005, another high-profile victim in the form of Dan Rather, the renowned US journalist and former news anchorman for the CBS Evening News, whose casual dismissal of (what proved to be correct) criticism from blogs resulted in the abrupt termination of a long and illustrious career.   

What is (again, moderately) interesting to note is that in the very same week, while one powerful medium was speculating on the imminent demise of blogs, blogging and bloggers generally, another was virtually organising a birthday party in its honour – a birthday that blogging shares (approximately) with its now precocious and omnipotent sibling, Google.

Does this make Google and blogging twins separated at birth? Since they are clearly not identical twins in the (arguably) toothsome, all-American manner of the ubiquitous Olsen twins, then the implication is that they are conjoined twins, or perhaps even parasitic twins in the style of Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the popular 80s movie Twins – and no prize for guessing which of them is Arnie. However, it may be interesting (perhaps even more than just moderately) to see which of them (if either of them) actually survives adolescence and enters adulthood…  

Reveille, or Last Post?

October 31, 2008

Against my better judgement, and despite an inherent mistrust, distrust and general disdain for the rampant tyranny of social media, I now find myself a reluctant conscript contributor to the ‘tsunami of bilge’ (sic) to which the Today programme referred in its broadcast last week on ‘Has blogging had its day?’.

The tsunami reference originated in an article in Wired magazine, which intimated that blogging is now so, like, over, that it is virtually (if not actually) dead. Apparently, blogging has become an antiquated, dilapidated and fusty old pub, populated by inadequate, clumsy fuddies, in sharp contrast to the shiny, funky, chrome and steel cocktail bars with trendy names like Twitter, Flickr, and Facebook, where all the cool kids hang out.

Undeniably, the current trend is towards increasingly alternative expressions of social media, but with the demise of previously popular sites such as Friends Reunited serving as a cautionary tale, the big question is, what’s the next (virtual) evolutionary step? According to its website, Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: ‘What are you doing?’ To which the simple, logical, self-defeating answer is: ‘Replying to you, and wasting my/your/everybody’s time on pointless messages, obviously! Wanna see my super-cool Facebook page…?’