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'American Journalism in Digestive Tract of Disinfotainment'
Howard Rheingold warns Stanford communication grads of emerging perils and responsibilities
Howard Rheingold (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2004-06-18 14:22 (KST)   
This is a graduation speech Howard Rheingold gave to the class of 2004 of the Department of Communication at Stanford University on June 12.

At this moment, all across the land, a thousand old guys like me are dispensing platitudes to graduates and their parents. It's natural -- and a good idea -- to take the advice commencement speakers dispense with a large grain of salt. Occasionally, however, one of us stumbles upon a clue that might actually be useful to you. I hope I can deliver one of those elusive clues, because I believe deeply and passionately that one of you or some of you or even all of you just might help the rest of us through the next few years.

I am convinced that the last time young communicators faced this degree of excitement, peril, opportunity, uncertainty, and responsibility was 1776. Don't forget that James Madison founded the American Whig Society as a college student and helped enscribe history's most important social software at thirty-six.

If your passion is to create culture -- if you are a writer, a musician, a creator of video or videogames, a programmer of software, an instigator of online community -- you face a legal, political, and technical assault on your right to innovate. But at the same time, you have the use of the most powerful tools for cultural production since the Gutenberg revolution.

If your calling is journalism, you enter the job market at the same time that that the long and honorable history of American journalism is traveling through the digestive tract of the disinfotainment industry. But at the same time, you arrive on the scene just at the moment something broader, faster, and perhaps more democratic than the invention of journalism is emerging.

To those engaged in cultural production: thanks to your education, I don't have to detail what I mean about the assault on your right to innovate. The extension of copyright law at the expense of the public domain and the tradition of using culture to create culture. The use of digital rights management to protect old businesses from new means of expression. The instantiation of tight surveillance and control of innovation in the "trusted computing" technologies that are being planned for the next generations of chips and PCs. The regulation of the electromagnetic spectrum according to the laws of the 1920s and the wishes of the incumbent license holders. All these regulatory battles are not so much about protecting property as they are about controlling innovation.

There is your peril and your responsibility. Will your generation be able to create new industries, new artforms, new communication media? Or will you have to work for an existing company and sign away your rights in order to innovate?

To those of you who aspire to journalism: Don't get me wrong on this -- there are still journalists of great courage, integrity, and inventiveness, and they make a difference every day. But their editors and publishers are caught in a situation not of their making. A couple of months ago, I was invited to participate in one of those old media meets new media discussions that have become fashionable lately. All the usual suspects were there -- the household names of newspaper, newsmagazine, radio, and television. Not the reporters, but their bosses. These are people who are deeply worried about the future of their businesses. When I had the opportunity to speak up, I acknowledged that I understand from personal experience that if you can't stay in business, other issues are moot. Then I reminded them that their product is different from the other widgets that their corporate parents produce.

There is a long and deep connection between the growth of journalism on this continent and the history of the American experiment in democracy. An older James Madison emphasized that connection when he wrote, in a letter to W.T. Barry in 1822, words that are carved in marble at the Library of Congress today: "A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

I reminded the assembled managers of profit centers for content conglomerates that there would be no newspaper business today to worry about its future if the US Post Office had not subsidized the "penny press" at the beginning of the 19th century. So although I never want to dismiss the importance of worrying about a business model that is under attack from all sides, I do feel it's important for everyone in the journalism business to consider, from time to time, their responsibility to citizens of a free society.

I managed to repeat this message in different ways three or four times during this seminar on the future of news media. And every time I piped up, the assembled group looked at me as if I had just bitten off the head of a live chicken. They just didn't want to think about what they were hearing. And I don't mean to assign blame. From online advertising to the cost of paper to the decline in young subscribers, this group have been given a lot of cause to worry about their future.

So far, I've talked about the serious challenges you -- and the rest of us -- face. But there's another side to this turbulent moment in the history of communication. While all these attacks on expression are underway and barriers to communication are being put in place, people around the globe are making entirely new kinds of art and journalism. Young people in every part of the world are using and inventing blogs, wikis, mobile messaging, desktop video, digital music, online animation, social software. I will leave you with two brief examples: Wikipedia and OhmyNews.

Wikipedia is a website that anyone can edit. Anyone who registers can create or correct or extend an article about any subject they want. Since 2001, thousands of people have created half a million articles in more than fifty languages. And although anyone can vandalize what others have written, many more people have the power to undo the damage. The mean time between such an attempt at damage and its repair is under four minutes. The knowledge in Wikipedia is published under a license that allows anyone anywhere to use it online, to print it out, to sell it or give it away. The Encyclopedia Brittanica spent millions of dollars and many more years to put around 60,000 articles online. Although it remains to be seen whether the accuracy and integrity of public knowledge created in this way will improve or deteriorate over time, Wikipedia most certainly is an example of the kind of radical innovation people can accomplish these days.

OhmyNews is a website in South Korea that employs 26,000(*) citizen-reporters. Those citizen-reporters and their readers vote on which articles should appear on the front page. It's wildly popular, particularly among the young cybergeneration. Earlier this year, OhmyNews did something remarkable. The candidate that was favored by many of their readers and reporters was behind in the polls in the days before Korea's Presidential election, and the exit-polls in the early hours showed him losing. A call to action on OhmyNews led to readers sending nearly a million emails to their friends, urging them to get out and vote, along with an uncounted number of text messages to their friends' telephones. That unprecedented online get-out-the-vote effort tipped the election -- and the first interview President-elect Roh gave was to OhmyNews.

I know that your education, the tools you have available, and most of all, your determination and enthusiasm constitute a formidable counter-force to the walls that are being built around creativity and discourse. I count on you to get out there and create. You can -- you MUST -- innovate faster than your ability to innovate can be enclosed by laws, regulations, and technological fences.
*OhmyNews currently has 33,000 Korean citizen reporters. -- Ed.
©2004 OhmyNews

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