NDN Blog

Thursday New Tools Feature: Google Universe

Today's brief Google outage notwithstanding, it's pretty good these days for people who like finding things on the internet.

In its ongoing quest to index the universe, Google has just announced several advanced new search features. The most immediately obvious for Google users is the new “Show Options” feature, which allows you to refine your search results in real-time, instead of doing a separate advanced search. It also includes several ways to view your search and related searches, including the “magic wheel,” pictured here, and "timeline" views. They are also working on some experimental features, including “Google Squared,” which returns your results in tables, the most important information coupled with each result.

Google isn't the only one making it easier to quickly find what you're searching for. Twitter's search feature has undergone some improvements over the last few months, making it much easier to pick the social network's collective brain. And cool new tools like Twitscoop allow a virtual real-time cross-section of what people on the world's third-largest social network are thinking and talking about.

Instant access to so much information, and along with it the ability to have one's own voice heard by others around the world, have already altered politics forever, making it easier both to be informed and to participate, which is one of the biggest arguments that NDN and the New Politics Institute have been making for years.

But these developments are not just changing our politics -- they're changing us, too. A recent article in The American Scene, "Your Brain is an Index," explores the way that instant searchable access to so much information is rewiring our neurons. Citing the same Atlantic article by Nicholas Carr I wrote about a few weeks ago, the author of the American Scene piece speculates that,

Reading on the web is almost certainly affecting the way we process information, but it’s not making us stupid. Instead, it’s changing the way we’re smart. Rather than storehouses of in-depth information, the web is turning our brains into indexes. These days, it’s not what you know — it’s what you know you can access, and cross reference.

The comments at the bottom are are pretty great. Some of my favorites:

"I could barely get to the end of this article before Tweeting and sending some emails. True Story and great read."

"This reminds me of a Richard Feynman anecdote. I don’t recall all the details (though I could look them up!) but basically he was auditing a graduate-level biology class and did a presentation on some topic of anatomy. He got a lukewarm response because it turns out he was just presenting a bunch of info that the “real” bio students had already had to memorize. His reaction was basically that it seemed like a waste of brain cells to memorize stuff that’s just as easily looked up."

Kevin Drum from Mother Jones is less optimistic, saying that he likes this argument, but,

...unfortunately, I can't think of any evidence at all to suggest it's true. Understanding "broader categories" — the context into which individual pieces of knowledge fit — requires you to read books. Full stop. Maybe someday it won't, but it does now...I'd love to be wrong about this. But I'm not. If you want to understand the world, not just collect endless factlets, you still need to read books. If you do, the internet makes you smarter. If you don't, it makes you dumber.

I think both sides of this argument have some merit. I definitely agree that constantly searching for indexed information can make it harder to focus on single topics for sustained periods, but I also think the benefits probably outweigh the costs. Furthermore, there isn't really anything about the physical, bound-paper book that possesses magical intelligence-imbuing properties; Devices like Amazon's new, larger Kindle, which will be used to display textbooks as well as newspapers and blogs, may be a sign of where learning is headed in the digital age.

One thing is for sure. There is no use railing against this trend; rather, we need to work to better understand it and how it is changing our minds, our societies, and our politics. I'll close with a quote from the most recent New Yorker about the rise of "neuroenhancing" study drugs:

...But it’s not the mind-expanding sixties anymore. Every era, it seems, has its own defining drug. Neuroenhancers are perfectly suited for the anxiety of white-collar competition in a floundering economy. And they have a synergistic relationship with our multiplying digital technologies: the more gadgets we own, the more distracted we become, and the more we need help in order to focus.

Simon on Huffington Post Front Page

Simon has a great new post today on the shift in the economic conversation in America. It's currently featured on the front page of the Huffington Post. Check it out!

Morley and Mike Featured on Front Page of SF Chronicle Today

In addition to their Op-ed in Sunday's LA Times, NDN's Morley Winograd and Mike Hais were featured in an excellent front-page story by Carla Marinucci in today's San Francisco Chronicle. The article, entitled "Is Meghan McCain the New Face of the GOP?", looks at how Republicans can appeal to Millennial voters. From the article:

The 24-year-old daughter of U.S. Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential candidate, is a regular political blogger and most certainly not her mother Cindy's serene, St. John-suit-wearing stereotype of a Republican woman.

In brash blog posts on the Daily Beast - "The GOP doesn't understand sex" - and outpouring of posts on Twitter, she has described herself as a pro-sex, "pro-life, pro-gay-marriage Republican," one who experts say may be at the forefront of a new GOP breed: the "Meghan McCain Republican."

That GOP faction is younger and interested in fiscal responsibility and less government involvement in people's lives, while supporting environmentalism and civic engagement. They're part of the millennial generation, the largest and most diverse generation in American history, whose voters - born starting in the early 1980s - cast ballots for Barack Obama by a more than 2-to-1 ratio.

"That's the kind of positioning it will take to appeal to more millennials," says author Mike Hais, a fellow with NDN, the Washington think tank formerly known as the New Democrat Network. And the party will be in a stronger position "to the extent that Meghan and others will find a way to appeal to Republicans by de-emphasizing the extremes on social issues."

NDN fellow Morley Winograd, who along with Hais co-authored "Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube and the Future of American Politics," says the younger McCain's growing following underscores an "underlying conflict" in the party - between opposing forces and generations. The co-authors will speak tonight at an NDN seminar in San Francisco that will examine the effects of the millennial vote. Winograd says that vote will determine the GOP's future "for the next 20 years," when the generation will comprise 1 out of every 3 American voters.

Monday Buzz: Much Ado about Millennials, Heritage Disagrees with Us (gasp!), and More

NDN fellows Morley and Mike had a big week in the media leading up to tomorrow's event in San Francisco, "The Progressive Politics of the Millennial Generation." They had a major op-ed published in Sunday's Los Angeles Times, entitled "The Republican Party Ignores Young 'Millennials' at Its Peril." It begins:

If the Republican Party thinks it has problems now, just wait. The party's incredibly poor performance among young voters in the 2008 election raises questions about the long-term competitiveness of the GOP.

The "millennials" -- the generation of Americans born between 1982 and 2003 -- now identify as Democrats by a ratio of 2 to 1. They are the first in four generations to contain more self-perceived liberals than conservatives.

Morley and Mike were quoted in the Boston Phoenix and the New York Observer on millennials. Here's an excerpt from the Phoenix:

Conventional wisdom suggests that getting bogged down over environmental legislation would distract Democrats from important issues like the economy and foreign policy. But that shows how little politicians have taken to heart the importance of the Millennials, say Michael Hais and Morley Winograd, co-authors of Millennial Makeover.

To this generation, this fight is not only about climate change — it is about creating green jobs and increasing national security by reducing dependence on foreign oil.

Simon's piece in the Huffington Post from last week had a particularly long tail, and was picked up by blogs on the left and the right, appearing in both MyDD and the Heritage Foundation's blog, "the Foundry."

Thursday New Tools Feature: The New Politics Institute New Tools Kit

Just a brief new tools update for today (I'm busy working on an exciting project for NDN, to be revealed soon!). NDN and NPI created the New Tools series as an easy-to-understand crash course in new media for progressives of all stripes. With that in mind, we have assembled all of our New Tools papers in one place, organized by subject, to make things even easier. You can now find them all at newpolitics.net/toolkit

On a related note, we're updating and expanding the New Tools series for 2009. In addition to revisiting some of our older papers, we'll be adding a few to the roster. We've got some ideas, but we'd also like to know: what new media tools are you most interested in learning about or using more effectively? Please send your ideas for the next generation of new tools papers to dboscov-ellen@ndn.org, or leave them as comments below this post, and help us help progressives stay ahead of the curve!


Monday Buzz: Obama @ 100, the Honeymoon Continues, Cable Chatter, more

It was a strong week for NDN in the news. Simon had an op-ed which led on the Huffington Post front page about why Congress should pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform this year. His argument was quickly picked up in a range of blogs, and even in an internationally syndicated Associated Press analysis of how Justice Souter's retirement might reignite debate over social issues:

On immigration, some mainstream Democratic activists have joined Latino groups in urging Obama to get the legislative process moving soon. Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, says there are several reasons to tackle the difficult issue this year. They include better pay scales for blue-collar workers if employers cannot exploit illegal immigrants, and better U.S. relations with Latin American countries.

Simon was also quoted in Politics Daily on Senator Specter's party switch:

Specter's latest swivel can be seen as a potent symbol of the Republicans' fast-dwindling political base through the Northeast. Pennsylvania now has two Democratic senators for the first time in 62 years. "This is further evidence that there is a major realignment taking place," said Simon Rosenberg, the president of the center-left New Democratic Network. "But Specter's shift also has other major implications. It puts more pressure on the congressional Democrats to deliver on President Obama's agenda."

Morley and Mike had a piece published in the Huffington Post this week, entitled "The Honeymoon Isn't Over Until the Public Sings." They were also quoted in a San Francisco Chronicle story on Obama's 100 Days:

Morley Winograd and Mike Hais, co-authors of "Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube and the Future of American Politics," say Obama's buoyant numbers are pegged in large part to a demographic marker - his continued appeal to millions of so-called "millennial" voters.

"They think he's honest, straightforward and transparent. ... They have not lost any of their enthusiasm for him - and they drove the election in 2008," said Hais, who notes that the millennials "accounted for about 80 percent of the (Obama) margin over John McCain," and voted for Obama by a 2-to-1 ratio.

These younger voters represent the largest and most diverse generation in American history and are still the focus of intense political outreach by Team Obama, the authors say.

Morley and Mike also spoke to Politics Daily about Obama's distaste for cable news:

There is also a strong generational component to Obama's seeming contempt for cable. Veteran Democratic strategist Morley Winograd, the co-author of "Millennial Makeover" that shrewdly anticipated Obama's appeal to young voters, points out, "Division and confrontation are not what the millennial generation believes in. They believe in social networks, not cable news. You don't shout on social networks."

In unrelated news, NDN's Rob Shapiro went on Fox News last week to discuss the GM bailout plan. I think it's safe to say that he owned it:

Lastly, the Huffington Post posted an abbreviated version of UK Secretary of State for International Development Douglas Alexander's address to NDN at the Harvard Club in New York last week. Check it out!

Thursday New Tools Feature: Twitter Tracking

It's been a big few weeks for Twitter, which the New York Times technology section yesterday called "the new killer app, the new cool kid on the block," in an article about Facebook having "Twitter Envy."

Last week, San Francisco Mayor and friend of NDN Gavin Newsom announced his candidacy for Governor of California via a tweet from his iPhone before announcing on YouTube or Facebook. Newsom already had 240,000 followers on Twitter at the time of his announcement; he now has 332,000. Here's what Simon had to say in the San Francisco Chronicle about Newsom's tweet:

"The way that Gavin Newsom announced will become standard practice in the post-Obama era of politics," said Simon Rosenberg, who heads NDN, which studies Democratic policy issues. "We're seeing a reinventing of politics ... and in a state as wired as California, and a campaign as expensive as this one will be, the candidates who can figure out how to tap into the power and passion of their supporters will have an advantage."

Oprah also joined Twitter last week, raising traffic 43 percent and almost instantly bringing more than a million new users to the service.

Twitter's also been gaining some attention this week in connection with the swine flu; I wrote earlier this week about how Twitter was being used to track the spread of the virus, and today the top 3 terms on Twitter are Swine Flu, #swineflu, and H1N1. This is not just a gimic, either; real-time monitoring can make a big difference in preparedness and early detection, so this is one case where I think Twitter is a legitimately useful tool. A quick example of how keeping track of what people are talking about helps in these kind of situations -- Wired today reports that, had they been looking for it, Google could have caught the swine flu before the news broke in the media:

Google’s search data may have been able to provide an early warning of the swine flu outbreak — if the company had been looking in the right place.

Last week, at the request of the Centers for Disease Control, Google took a retroactive look at its search data from Mexico. And there the team found a pre-media bump in telltale flu-related search terms (you know, “influenza + phlegm + coughing”) that was inconsistent with standard, seasonal flu trends.

However, even given its meteoric rise in popularity, and its interesting potential applications, many remain ambivalent towards Twitter. I've written before about how I myself am of two minds about this trend, and that seems to an attitude reflected in many other places, from the Daily Show and Colbert Report to Wired and the New York Times; last week, on the same day, in the same section, there were articles in the Times entitled "What Annoys Me About Twitter" and "Why I Am Obsessed With Twitter." The day before, Maureen Dowd wrote an especially snarky column in which she stated that she would "rather be tied up to stakes in the Kalahari Desert, have honey poured over [her] and red ants eat out [her] eyes than open a Twitter account."

Interestingly, at the same time as all this Tweeting was taking place, Adbusters was having "Digital Detox Week," where it encouraged readers to

...do the unthinkable: unplug. Say good-bye to Twitter and Facebook. Turn off your TV, iPhone and Xbox. For seven days, reconnect with the natural world and the people around you. You’ll be amazed at how the magic creeps back into your life. Don’t be afraid and don’t find excuses, just take the plunge and see what happens.

To convince people to do so, Adbusters cited a fascinating article about how the internet is rewiring our brains. I don't want to spoil the article for you, because it's really good and you should actually read it (in its entirety!), but here's a snippet:

We used to have an intellectual ideal that we could contain within ourselves the whole of civilization. It was very much an ideal — none of us actually fulfilled it — but there was this sense that, through wide reading and study, you could have a depth of knowledge and could make unique intellectual connections among the pieces of information stored within your memory. Foreman suggests that we might be replacing that model — for both intelligence and culture — with a much more superficial relationship to information in which the connections are made outside of our own minds through search engines and hyperlinks. We’ll become “pancake people,” with wide access to information but no intellectual depth, because there’s little need to contain information within our heads when it’s so easy to find with a mouse click or two.

I don't consider myself a luddite, and I spend a lot of my time here explaining how technology can make our lives better, but we do now spend one third of our lives in front of a screen, and I certainly notice the effects myself; I find it much harder to read full books or even long passages than I used to. While I agree with Simon that Twitter has great potential for politics, and is quickly becoming an essential part of the New Tools toolkit, I also worry that it exemplifies and magnifies many of the negative qualities of an always-on, technology-obsessed culture that craves instant gratification.

Dr. Rob Talks About the GM Rescue Plan on Fox News' "Happening Now"

Rob Shapiro, the Chair of NDN's Globalization Initiative, has a great essay today on the Administration's GM rescue plan. He hit similar notes yesterday on Fox News' "Happening Now." Check it out below:

New Tools Update: A Tweet Pandemic

I've written before on my ambivalence about Twitter; in my last post on the subject, I worried that it might be harming our ability to think meaningfully about things (and it turns out I'm not the only one that thinks this). However, while I still reserve the right to question the value of a constant feed of celebrities' vapid musings, dietary details, and other such minutia, I also admit that Twitter has great potential for innovative applications.

In my last post, I talked about the Twitter Vote Project. Now, Twitter is also helping to track the spread of the swine flu. From an MSNBC story about the project:

"Our site used to update every hour," said John Brownstein, a physician at Children's Hospital Boston who, along with fellow CHB computer scientist Clark Friefeld, created the HealthMap swine flu tracking service, which was recently modified to include Twitter updates. "But that was too slow for the amount of information we've been accumulating, so we had to switch to a Twitter feed instead."

You can also check out the CDC Emergency feed on Twitter here for constant updates about the swine flu.

Reminder: UK Secretary of State for International Development Live Web Cast Today, 12 p.m. ET

Remember to watch today's live Web cast of UK Secretary of State for International Development, Douglas Alexander, as he gives a major address on the relationship between conflict, fragility and development. Click here for more information about the event. The Web cast will begin at 12:15 p.m. ET.

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