Social media: Is it the new coffeehouse?

Last Sunday Tom Standage had an opinion piece in the Review section of the New York Times in which he posits blogging, Twitter, Facebook, etc. as the modern equivalent of the 17th century coffeehouse.  An interesting comparison, but the two are not really the same.  I think that the coffeehouse was more conducive to the development of ideas through dialogue.  Face to face is often better than typing by yourself on a keyboard or phone or however you post.  Let’s look at what Standage says.

SOCIAL networks stand accused of being enemies of productivity. According to one popular (if questionable) infographic circulating online, the use of Facebook, Twitter and other such sites at work costs the American economy $650 billion each year. Our attention spans are atrophying, our test scores declining, all because of these “weapons of mass distraction.”

Yet such worries have arisen before. In England in the late 1600s, very similar concerns were expressed about another new media-sharing environment, the allure of which seemed to be undermining young people’s ability to concentrate on their studies or their work: the coffeehouse. It was the social-networking site of its day.

Like coffee itself, coffeehouses were an import from the Arab world. England’s first coffeehouse opened in Oxford in the early 1650s, and hundreds of similar establishments sprang up in London and other cities in the following years. People went to coffeehouses not just to drink coffee, but to read and discuss the latest pamphlets and news-sheets and to catch up on rumor and gossip.

Coffeehouses were also used as post offices. Patrons would visit their favorite coffeehouses several times a day to check for new mail, catch up on the news and talk to other coffee drinkers, both friends and strangers. Some coffeehouses specialized in discussion of particular topics, like science, politics, literature or shipping. As customers moved from one to the other, information circulated with them.

And he gives some examples.

But what was the actual impact of coffeehouses on productivity, education and innovation? Rather than enemies of industry, coffeehouses were in fact crucibles of creativity, because of the way in which they facilitated the mixing of both people and ideas. Members of the Royal Society, England’s pioneering scientific society, frequently retired to coffeehouses to extend their discussions. Scientists often conducted experiments and gave lectures in coffeehouses, and because admission cost just a penny (the price of a single cup), coffeehouses were sometimes referred to as “penny universities.” It was a coffeehouse argument among several fellow scientists that spurred Isaac Newton to write his “Principia Mathematica,” one of the foundational works of modern science.

Coffeehouses were platforms for innovation in the world of business, too. Merchants used coffeehouses as meeting rooms, which gave rise to new companies and new business models. A London coffeehouse called Jonathan’s, where merchants kept particular tables at which they would transact their business, turned into the London Stock Exchange. Edward Lloyd’s coffeehouse, a popular meeting place for ship captains, shipowners and traders, became the famous insurance market Lloyd’s.

And the economist Adam Smith wrote much of his masterpiece “The Wealth of Nations” in the British Coffee House, a popular meeting place for Scottish intellectuals, among whom he circulated early drafts of his book for discussion.

It seems to me that this is fundamentally different from a Tweet which is often sent out into cyberspace usually without response or any real conversation.  It may or not be read.  The object is to be clever or to publicize something longer one might have written, but, again, one has no way of knowing if that link has been clicked.  Facebook, among my relatively small circle of friends, is a place to share picture, family news, and what you think of things.  I don’t “friend” anyone I don’t actually know.  (My blog posts are also on Facebook.)  More often than with Twitter, there are comments and occasionally an interesting discussion which I have often wished we could be having in person.  And this blog of many years is primarily a means of self-expression:  It’s history of what was catching my fancy at a particular moment.  FortLeft has, in rare moments, inspired some discussion and I have commented and had some discussions with other bloggers, but none of us have written the equivalent of the “Wealth of Nations” based on what we have written on our blogs – at least not the ones I follow.  (And, yes, I know that several of you have written books and if you circulated drafts through you posts, I’d be interested to know how that worked out.)

First page from Wealth of Nations, 1776 London...

First page from Wealth of Nations, 1776 London edition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is comes down to, I guess,  is that I was educated at St. John’s College (Annapolis) where a great deal of what we did was talk.  In the coffee shop, on the quad, in seminar, in class, in the dorms.  As in the coffeehouses Standage describes a lot of our talk was of trivia and gossip, but we did talk seriously and express our opinions and had opinions expressed back at us.  It is easier to refine an opinion when you are talking to someone in person and you have to explain it and defend it than it is writing stuff on Facebook.

Current Johnnies still talk.

Current Johnnies still talk.

What I do love about Facebook, Twitter, and live blogging is the speed at which one can get information, not that they create meaningful discussion.  That may change.  Standage points out

The use of social media in education, meanwhile, is backed by studies showing that students learn more effectively when they interact with other learners. OpenWorm, a pioneering computational biology project started from a single tweet, now involves collaborators around the world who meet via Google Hangouts. Who knows what other innovations are brewing in the Internet’s global coffeehouse?

There is always an adjustment period when new technologies appear. During this transitional phase, which can take several years, technologies are often criticized for disrupting existing ways of doing things. But the lesson of the coffeehouse is that modern fears about the dangers of social networking are overdone. This kind of media, in fact, has a long history: Martin Luther’s use of pamphlets in the Reformation casts new light on the role of social media in the Arab Spring, for example, and there are parallels between the gossipy poems that circulated in pre-Revolutionary France and the uses of microblogging in modern China.

As we grapple with the issues raised by new technologies, there is much we can learn from the past.

Who knows where technology will lead us?  But we still need to talk – face to face.  I’m not sure that digital interaction via any form of social media can talk the place of sitting with someone with a cup of coffee, glass of wine, over a meal or in a real classroom.

Photograph:  Students at seminar from the St. John’s College Website.

Official end to California’s Prop 8

I woke up this morning to this news from the New York Times

Gay Couples Who Sued in California Are Married

Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, who have been together for more than 15 years and have four sons, were married at San Francisco City Hall by Attorney General Kamala Harris on Friday.

Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, who have been together for more than 15 years and have four sons, were married at San Francisco City Hall by Attorney General Kamala Harris on Friday.

The two couples who sued to overturn California’s ban on same-sex marriage were married late Friday afternoon, just hours after the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, lifted the stay that had been in place.

The court had stopped same-sex marriages while the case wound its way through the Supreme Court, which issued its decision to clear the path for same-sex marriages in California on Wednesday.

Attorney General Kamala Harris rushed to San Francisco City Hall within minutes of the ruling to perform the wedding for Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, who have been together for more than 15 years and have four sons.

And in LA

Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, on his last workday in office, officiated at the Friday evening wedding of Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo, the two other plaintiffs in the case. Until Friday afternoon, they had no idea when their marriage could take place.

“Nobody really knew; that’s what our lawyers are there for. We don’t really care about any of that at this point, but we’re on our way to see the mayor,” Mr. Zarrillo told KCRW, a public radio station in Los Angeles.

The pair were stuck in traffic en route from their home to the county office to obtain their marriage license and then to City Hall downtown. But by 6:30 they walked in front of dozens of television cameras, kissed Mayor Villaraigosa and were pronounced married.

“Your relationship is an inspiration to us all,” Mr. Villaraigosa said. “Today, your wait is finally over.”

“Equal feels different,” Mr. Katami said. Mr. Zarrillo added, “Equal feels good.”

The Ninth Circuit acted with unusual speed.

Many legal experts and advocates had expected the court to wait for an official decision from the Supreme Court, as is the normal practice. But after the initial ruling was issued on Wednesday, Ms. Harris urged the Circuit Court to act immediately and said she would ensure that all counties in the state were prepared to issue licenses to same-sex couples.

Just after 3 p.m. Friday, the three-judge panel issued a one-sentence ruling lifting the stay on a district judge’s injunction to not enforce the ban on same-sex marriages.

Gov. Jerry Brown issued a statement late Friday afternoon saying that he had directed the state’s Department of Health to notify all 58 counties in the state that “same-sex marriage is now legal in California and that marriage licenses must be issued to same-sex couples immediately.”

I know there had been some confusion about the impact of the Supreme Court decision.  Some thought it would only apply to the plaintiff, but since the District and Appeals courts had already ruled Prop 8 unconstitutional it turns out that only the stay had to be lifted.

From Massachusetts:  Welcome to Marriage Equality, California!  And an aside to the opponents – don’t worry, the sky will not fall.  This is number 13.  Which state will be next?

Photograph:  Jim Wilson/The New York Times

The BSO and the Red Sox

I loved Seiji Ozawa when he was the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and part of what I loved was that he was a regular part of Boston life, including going regularly to Red Sox games.  The new music director, Andris Nelsons has indicated that he would like to see a Bruins game – being from Latvia I would guess that ice hockey would be his thing – but one can’t say he isn’t game.

27namespedro1 Nelsons who said he had only seen a few baseball games threw out the first pitch Tuesday night.

The first pitch at Fenway capped a full day for Nelsons.  The Globe story had the details

As night fell, Nelsons headed into Gate C at Fenway for perhaps his most difficult assignment.

Early in the morning, over breakfast, he told Volpe he had watched some baseball but was concerned. He didn’t know how he was going to throw a pitch past a batter. Volpe explained that nobody would be at the plate except a catcher.

Later, while chatting with BSO concertmaster Malcolm Lowe, Nelsons made two different throwing motions, one sidearm, one more overhand.

“It is this way or this way?” Nelsons asked as he made a pair of throwing motions.

At Fenway, after getting a uniform with number 15, Nelsons ran into Red Sox great Pedro Martinez, who offered advice.

“Just don’t bounce it,” he said, smiling.

Nelsons didn’t. A few minutes later, on the mound and in uniform, the maestro let the ball go hard. It sailed through the air, arcing a good 25 feet over the catcher and into the hands of a photographer.

“At least he didn’t bounce it,” Red Sox executive vice president Charles Steinberg chuckled as fans cheered, another signal the Nelsons era had begun.

I suppose we have strange rituals here in Boston where our symphony music directors are initiated by throwing out the first pitch at Fenway, but Andris Nelsons seems to be adapting.  I haven’t seen him conduct yet, but as a BSO subscriber I’m sure I will soon.  And I love the fact that Pedro is back with the Sox.  I wonder if he can still pitch and fill in for Clay Buchholz.

Photograph: Stu Rosner

Someone has always been watching

The June 24th issue of the New Yorker has an excellent short history of privacy and surveillance by Jill Lepore.  You should try to read the entire article either online (I can’t remember what rules the New Yorker has about access) or get a copy of the magazine.  For my purposes today, I am going to concentrate on the story of Giuseppe Mazzini.  Never heard of him before?  Me either, but his story is instructive.

An extraordinary fuss about eavesdropping started in the spring of 1844, when Giuseppe Mazzini, an Italian exile in London, became convinced that the British government was opening his mail. Mazzini, a revolutionary who’d been thrown in jail in Genoa, imprisoned in Savona, sentenced to death in absentia, and arrested in Paris, was plotting the unification of the kingdoms of Italy and the founding of an Italian republic. He suspected that, in London, he’d been the victim of what he called “post-office espionage”: he believed that the Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, had ordered his mail to be opened, at the request of the Austrian Ambassador, who, like many people, feared what Mazzini hoped—that an insurrection in Italy would spark a series of revolutions across Europe. Mazzini knew how to find out: he put poppy seeds, strands of hair, and grains of sand into envelopes, sealed the envelopes with wax, and sent them, by post, to himself. When the letters arrived—still sealed—they contained no poppy seeds, no hair, and no grains of sand. Mazzini then had his friend Thomas Duncombe, a Member of Parliament, submit a petition to the House of Commons. Duncombe wanted to know if Graham really had ordered the opening of Mazzini’s mail. Was the British government in the business of prying into people’s private correspondence? Graham said the answer to that question was a secret.

Sound familiar?

Questions raised this month about surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency have been met, so far, with much the same response that Duncombe got from Graham in 1844: the program is classified. (This, a secret secret, is known as a double secret.) Luckily, old secrets aren’t secret; old secrets are history. The Mazzini affair, as the historian David Vincent argued in “The Culture of Secrecy,” led to “the first modern attack on official secrecy.” It stirred a public uproar, and eventually the House of Commons appointed a Committee of Secrecy “to inquire into the State of the Law in respect of the Detaining and Opening of Letters at the General Post-office, and into the Mode under which the Authority given for such Detaining and Opening has been exercised.” In August of 1844, the committee issued a hundred-and-sixteen-page report on the goings on at the post office. Fascinating to historians, it must have bored Parliament silly. It includes a history of the delivery of the mail, back to the sixteenth century. (The committee members had “showed so much antiquarian research,” Lord John Russell remarked, that he was surprised they hadn’t gone all the way back to “the case of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, who opened the letters which had been committed to his charge, and got Rosencrantz and Guildenstern put to death instead of himself.”)

The report revealed that Mazzini’s mail had indeed been opened and that there existed something called the Secret Department of the Post Office. Warrants had been issued for reading the mail of the king’s subjects for centuries. Before Mazzini and the poppy seeds, the practice was scarcely questioned. It was not, however, widespread. “The general average of Warrants issued during the present century, does not much exceed 8 a-year,” the investigation revealed. “This number would comprehend, on an average, the Letters of about 16 persons annually.” The Committee of Secrecy was relieved to report that rumors that the Secret Department of the Post Office had, at times, sent “entire mail-bags” to the Home Office were false: “None but separate Letters or Packets are ever sent.”

“Secresy is an instrument of conspiracy,” Jeremy Bentham argued, in an essay called “Of Publicity,” first published in 1843, a year before the Mazzini affair. “It ought not, therefore, to be the system of a regular government.” By “publicity,” Bentham meant what is now usually called transparency, or openness. “Without publicity, no good is permanent: under the auspices of publicity, no evil can continue.”

In 1844, during the parliamentary debate that followed the report issued by the Committee of Secrecy, some members, believing, with Bentham, that publicity is the enemy of secrecy, suggested that it was fine for the government to open people’s mail, as long as the recipients of the mail were notified that it had been read. (Disraeli said that he would be only too happy to hand over his mail to the Home Office: “They may open all my letters, provided they answer them.”) In “Letter-Opening at the Post-Office,” Mazzini revealed just how much the debate had been informed by Bentham’s arguments about publicity. Diplomats might have their secrets, he granted, but postmen? “Why, who are these men who treat as enemies their fellow subjects of the realm?” he asked. “For public servants, we want responsibility and responsibility cannot be obtained without publicity. Secrecy is but another word for fear. MYSTERY was the name of the beast in the revelations. The great monster by which was typified all the civil and ecclesiastical corruptions of the earth, had on its forehead a name written and that name was MYSTERY.”

There is a delicate balance between privacy and surveillance.  Is it  OK for the government to collect all the metadata but not look at content without a warrant so long as we know that is what is happening?  And who keeps an eye on the FISA court?

In 1890, two Boston lawyers, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, published an article in the Harvard Law Review called “The Right to Privacy.” Warren was a Boston Brahmin, but Brandeis’s parents were Eastern Europeans who had supported a failed uprising in Austria in 1848—the very revolution that, four years before, had been anticipated by the Austrian Ambassador who persuaded the British Home Secretary to read Giuseppe Mazzini’s mail. The suppression of the uprising had been followed by a wave of anti-Semitism, leading to the Brandeis family’s decision to emigrate to the United States. Louis Brandeis was born in Kentucky in 1856. In the eighteen-seventies, he and Warren were classmates at Harvard Law School (Brandeis helped found the Harvard Law Review); after graduation, they opened a law firm together. Warren married Mabel Bayard, a senator’s daughter, in 1883. As the legal scholar Amy Gajda has shown, nearly sixty articles of gossip about the Warren-Bayard family appeared in newspapers between 1882 and 1890—including front-page stories, two weeks apart, about the funerals of Mrs. Warren’s mother and sister. Warren was infuriated. His household had been violated; his family’s privacy, like a letter, had been purloined. (A great many ideas about privacy have to do with hiding women and families.)

In “The Right to Privacy,” Warren and Brandeis argued that there exists a legal right to be let alone—a right that had never been defined before. Their essay lies at the heart of every legal decision that has been made about privacy ever since. The right to privacy, as they understood it, is a function of history, a consequence of modernity. Privacy, they argued, hadn’t always been necessary; it had become necessary—because of the shifting meaning and nature of publicity. By the end of the nineteenth century, publicity, which for Bentham had meant transparency (the opposite of secrecy), had come to mean the attention of the press (the opposite of privacy). Making public the deliberations of Congress was a public good; making public the names of mourners at Mrs. Warren’s mother’s funeral was not. (The same distinction informed the debate that resulted, in the eighteen-eighties and nineties, in the adoption of the secret ballot. Citizens vote in private; legislative votes are public.)

But with blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other new media, those of us who post and tweet want people to read what we say and when we do so we should be aware that we are being public.  Email, however, is the new version of writing a letter and the government reading email is like reading Mazzini’s mail.  There is a very fine line between collecting email records and looking at content and many wonder if we can actually trust the government to honor the distinction.  With cell phones and GPS, our whereabouts can also be tracked. (I’m a fan of NCIS and love the way McGee can locate the bad guys – and sometimes the good ones – using a cell phone number.)  It seems that we are beginning, if we haven’t already, accepted that a lot of our private lives are now public because we put them out there.  We are not like the Warren family who did not want a list of the mourners at a funeral made public.

It is likely that someone has always been watching and it is clear that we still haven’t figured out that troublesome line between public and private.

Here is an old New Yorker cartoon from around 1973.

Bugging

Markey v. Gomez: The Massachusetts Senate Race

With a few days left to go, this race is officially a snoozer.  Ed Markey is a fine Representative and will make a fine Senator but somehow I can’t work up any enthusiasm.  You know, if you read this blog with any regularity, that I am a campaigner and it is a measure of something that I haven’t done much of anything for Ed except throw him a few bucks and vote in the primary where he was unopposed.  I think the race would have been a lot more exciting if someone like Mike Capuano were running, but too late for that.  Maybe we should just feel sorry for these guys since after the Elizabeth Warren – Scott Brown tussle almost anything would seem dull.  This is the assessment of the race from the Daily Kos Election update for June 21.

MA-Sen: Gabriel Gomez has gotten some “next Scott Brown” hype, to the extent that he’s a moderate Republican who’s a fresh face and running in a Massachusetts Senate special election (which will be held next Tuesday) against a charisma-challenged Democrat. However, there’s one important element that seems missing: the ability to mount a late surge and actually win the race, at least if the newest public poll is any indication. UMass Lowell, on behalf of the Boston Herald, gives Ed Markey his biggest lead of any pollster who’s looked at the race so far: among likely voters, Markey leads Gomez 56-36 (and 53-32 among all registered voters). This is the pollster’s first look at the race since the primary; they did poll the general way back in early March, and found an almost identical margin (47-28 for Markey).

Most pollsters have shown a closer race, usually in the high single digits, although the last couple public polls (from UNH for the Boston Globe, and from Harper Polling) both had it in the low teens; only one recent poll (a Suffolk poll with a 17-point margin in early May) had anything similar to this one.   And then there’s the GOP internal pollsters, who continue to see the race within low single digits; the most recent of these came out Thursday from McLaughlin, with Markey up 47-44. That follows a McLaughlin poll from two weeks ago with Markey up 45-44 (on behalf of donor John Jordan), in addition to two OnMessage polls directly on behalf of Gomez, one from less than a week ago with Markey up 47-40, and one from early May with Markey up 46-43. It’s not clear what the GOP hopes to gain from constantly leaking those polls, since most observers know that leaked internal polls usually overstate support for their candidate and none of these best-case-scenarios still manage to have Gomez winning.   The 47-44 topline is all that McLaughlin leaked to Politico, but Dave Weigel seems to have gotten his hands on the crosstabs, which show Gomez’s favorables falling from 48/27 to 41/35, while Markey’s are up a little, from 42/42 to 47/40. Again, not a sign of progress for Gomez, though maybe the GOP thinks the toplines are enough to convince donors that it’s not entirely a lost cause. (Although donations at this point would probably arrive too late to do anything other than last-minute GOTV.)

As for the original Scott Brown, the ex-Senator had publicly said that he was willing to campaign for Gomez as his schedule permitted, but so far he hasn’t done anything (apparently impeded by his busy dual careers of lobbying and appearing as a Fox News analyst). Well, he is finally popping up: he’ll be appearing at a rally with Gomez on Monday night, the night before the election. Is it really a case of a busy schedule, or just not wanting to let Gomez’s likely loss appear to be a referendum on Brown himself (especially considering that he may still get in to the Massachusetts gubernatorial race… or the New Hampshire Senate race)?

And if you’ve gotten the impression that Massachusetts voters are responding to the Ed Markey vs. Gabriel Gomez special election with a collective yawn, now we’ve gotten some quantitative proof. Absentee ballot requests are down significantly from the 2010 special election that elected Scott Brown; only 49.7K ballots have been requested, compared with 63.6K at the comparable point in 2010. The absentee ballot application deadline is on Monday, one day before the election.

This photo provided by WGBH shows U.S. Senate candidates, Republican Gabriel Gomez, left, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, right before a debate moderated by R.D. Sahl, center, Tuesday at WGBH studios in Boston. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

This photo provided by WGBH shows U.S. Senate candidates, Republican Gabriel Gomez, left, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, right before a debate moderated by R.D. Sahl, center, Tuesday at WGBH studios in Boston. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

I won’t be home on Tuesday so I’ve already voted absentee – for Markey.

As an aside:  I believe this is my 600th post.  When I started posting in July 2008, it was as a lark.  I write mostly for myself about what interests me which sometimes interests others.  I’ve had periods of inactivity and have a small, but faithful  following.    If you read FortLeft, thank you!

The Secretaries Kerry

No.  That isn’t a typo.  I’m sure that you know about John Kerry.  He’s the still pretty new Secretary of State.  But you probably don’t know about Cameron Kerry.  Cameron is your acting Secretary of Commerce and John’s younger brother.  This is the first time that brothers have been in the cabinet at the same time.  It won’t last long:  Penny Pritzker will be confirmed one day and Cameron will go back to being General Counsel at Commerce.

The Boston Globe notes

The history-making move is also proving that, well, having two Secretary Kerrys can get quite confusing.

In the Commerce Department, where officialdom prohibits first name usage, staffers have started referring to John Kerry as “the other Secretary Kerry.” When appointments are made at the White House Mess, they now have to specify which Secretary Kerry the reservation is for – and, when paying, Cameron Kerry has been tempted to simply say, “Just put it on his tab.”

Last week, Cameron and John Kerry both signed off on a diplomatic cable to be sent to missions overseas that house employees of both the Commerce and State Departments. The cable said, in all caps, it was from “Secretary Kerry and Acting Secretary of Commerce Kerry.”

“Which is going to confuse the hell out of some people in missions abroad,” Cameron Kerry said.

But as Joe Biden says “Two Kerrys are better than one.”

Cameron Kerry

Cameron Kerry

Photograph: Drew Angerer for the Boston Globe