Political Technology

Friday New Tools Feature: Augmented Reality Is Now a Reality

Augmented reality tech is one of the most intriguing new spaces in mobile technology. If you look it up in Wikipedia, you will learn that augmented reality is "a field of computer research which deals with the combination of real-world and computer-generated data (virtual reality), where computer graphics objects are blended into real footage in real time." That's a bit vague, however, and doesn't really capture the excitement and the promise of AR technology, which is going to be a really big deal in the near future (and if you don't have a smartphone yet, maybe this will push you over the edge).

Back when Google Latitude first launched, I wrote about how location-aware mobile technology was going to have a big impact on the way we navigate the world around us. Augmented reality provides a striking example of what I meant. Check out this video of the iPhone 3GS running the AcrossAir app, which shows you the nearest subway stops and their lines in a really useful and innovative way:

But say you're not just visiting the area, and want to find a place to stay long-term. Yes, there is an app for that too (though Layar's not on the iPhone yet):

Or, you are addicted to Twitter and want to see a live view of the recent tweets around you and where they're coming from - check out TwittaRound:

Augmented reality doesn't just have to be used with your mobile location, either; check out this AR business card (sure to get someone's attention better than an ordinary piece of paper):

There are already lots of other applications of AR under development, including an app that will help blind people navigate by sensing objects and obstacles in the environment around them. And the possibilities are almost endless. This app, which combines facial recognition with AR and social networking, is just a concept right now, but it's probably not as far off as you might think.

There are some hurdles: right now, there are a limited number of handsets with the hardware to support augmented reality, and although the iPhone can (as these videos demonstrate), Apple's API does not allow developers to fully take advantage of AR. Eventually, that will probably change, and with the slew of new Android phones about to hit the market that support AR, I think this technology is going to become much more mainstream over the next year to 18 months. Despite the usual lag time in technological adoption in politics, AR has an incredible variety of potential applications for politics; it's only a matter of time until a full-featured campaign app appears which takes advantage of AR to help canvassers perform their jobs more efficiently (for example). If you can think of other ways to use AR for politics, get moving fast enough and you might be the next app developer success story.

TODAY: Simon Rosenberg Presents The New Dawn

Please join us Thursday, August 27, at 12:15pm for a presentation of "Dawn of a New Politics" by Simon Rosenberg.

This engaging presentation makes a big argument on how politics is changing in America today, and offers ideas and strategies for how progressives can replicate our 20th century success in this new and dynamic century.

Simon has delivered his presentation "Dawn of a New Politics" all across the country over the past several years: At the DNC in Denver, twice for the House Democratic Caucus, on the Google campus, and recently before members and staff of the DSCC and DAGA, among many other gatherings.

We cordially invite you to join us-- either here in our event space, or via Web cast-- to watch and engage with this revamped presentation.

If you plan to have lunch and watch the presentation at NDN, please RSVP.

If you can't have lunch at NDN, have lunch with NDN by watching live online here.


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Friday New Tools Feature: Will Journalism Find Itself in the Obituaries?

There have been a plethora of pieces written this year about the impending death of journalism as we know it. Most of us are familiar with the general story-line - newspaper subscriptions are in decline, reporters are being laid off in droves, and nobody can figure out how to make money in online journalism. The Daily Show recently ran an amazing bit where Jason Jones asked a New York Times editor, "What's black and white and red all over?" The answer to the riddle, according to Jones? "Your balance sheets." 

But if journalism as we know it really is dying, what will come next? It's a question that no one has really figured out how to answer. At a panel at this year's Personal Democracy Forum Conference, Frank Rich and others discussed the future of journalism; Rich, one of my favorite MSM columnists, reiterated points from an article he wrote in May:

...News gathering is not to be confused with opinion writing or bloviating — including that practiced here. Opinions can be stimulating and, for the audiences at Fox News and MSNBC, cathartic. We can spend hours surfing the posts of bloggers we like or despise, some of them gems, even as we might be moved to write our own blogs about local restaurants or the government documents we obsessively study online.

But opinions, however insightful or provocative and whether expressed online or in print or in prime time, are cheap. Reporting the news can be expensive. Some of it — monitoring the local school board, say — can and is being done by voluntary “citizen journalists” with time on their hands, integrity and a Web site. But we can’t have serious opinions about America’s role in combating the Taliban in Pakistan unless brave and knowledgeable correspondents (with security to protect them) tell us in real time what is actually going on there. We can’t know what is happening behind closed doors at corrupt, hard-to-penetrate institutions in Washington or Wall Street unless teams of reporters armed with the appropriate technical expertise and assiduously developed contacts are digging night and day. Those reporters have to eat and pay rent, whether they work for print, a TV network, a Web operation or some new bottom-up news organism we can’t yet imagine.

...It’s all a matter of priorities. Not long ago, we laughed at the idea of pay TV. Free television was considered an inalienable American right (as long as it was paid for by advertisers). Then cable and satellite became the national standard.

By all means let’s mock the old mainstream media as they preen and party on in a Washington ballroom. Let’s deplore the tabloid journalism that, like the cockroach, will always be with us. But if a comprehensive array of real news is to be part of the picture as well, the time will soon arrive for us to put up or shut up. Whatever shape journalism ultimately takes in America, make no mistake that in the end we will get what we pay for.

I think that in most respects, Rich is basically correct, but on this issue he didn't nail it as well as he normally does - the picture he paints is really only part of the story. At PDF, Rich tried to illustrate this point by referencing his colleague, Roger Cohen, who was reporting from Iran. In a column, Cohen himself echoed Rich's earlier argument, explaining that

To bear witness means being there -- and that's not free. No search engine gives you the smell of a crime, the tremor in the air, the eyes that smolder, or the cadence of a scream.

No news aggregator tells of the ravaged city exhaling in the dusk, nor summons the defiant cries that rise into the night. No miracle of technology renders the lip-drying taste of fear. No algorithm captures the hush of dignity, nor evokes the adrenalin rush of courage coalescing, nor traces the fresh raw line of a welt.

Yet by far the most compelling, accurate, and up-to-date account of the Iranian uprising came not from Cohen, but from the Huffington Post's Nico Pitney, assisted by citizen journalists using Twitter, YouTube, and email (see our video of Nico speaking to these issues from this Wednesday). Arianna Huffington herself took on Cohen's assertions:

How bizarre is it that Cohen chooses to attack the tools of new-media-fueled reporting by citing the very event that highlights the power of those tools -- and the weakness of his argument?

Indeed, search engines, news aggregation, live-blogging, and "miracles of technology" such as Twitter, Facebook, and real-time video delivered via camera phones, played an indispensable part in allowing millions of people around the world to "bear witness" to what was happening in Iran.

The truth is, you don't have to "be there" to bear witness. And you can be there and fail to bear witness.

Both Rich and Huffington are correct in their own way; professional investigative journalism is vital to a functioning democracy, and the lack of good journalism can have disastrous consequences (see the Iraq war). However, the news-industrial complex already does a pretty dismal job of actually informing us about the world around us, and has for a long time (to see just how bad things have been for a long time in the corporate-run media universe, read Chomsky's classic "Manufacturing Consent" or watch the documentary). Citizen journalism has the potential to be a powerful corrective to corporate censorship and its feigned objectivity - a potential it began to realize in the 2008 elections and now in Iran.

It's true that the investigative journalism of the future will have to be paid for somehow, and aggregation is not the same thing as creation. But to survive and thrive in this new age, journalists will have to embrace the decentralization and dehierarchicalization of the internet age - and that's a good thing.

The Global Media Revolution: Don't Forget About Television

Tomorrow NDN hosts an intriguing  discussion, on Twitter, Iran, and More: Impressions from the Front Lines of the Global Media Revolution. Being 3000 and some miles away, I can’t come. So I thought I’d throw a thought across; which is not to forget about television, still the heart of most of the world's media revolt.

Twitter's final impact on Iran’s election protests remains in dispute. Andrew Sullivan first talked it up about a month ago. Various academics, including Harvard's John Palfrey, have since gently talked it down again, pointing out that the service has limitations as a truly revolutionary technology: its format is too brief to be meaningful, it's too easily censored (when the regime wakes up to its existence), and it's only used by a tiny minority. Twitter probably played some part in organising the protests: 2,024,166 tweets in 18 days surely had an effect, even if most came from outside Iran. But it became the story because of its novelty, not its utility—it was a technology many people in the west had only just heard of—and became it, in turn, was a useful way of telling the revolt's story.

In one sense this didn't matter. Increasing access to free media is an important part of the broader story of "the rise of the rest" which will play as background music throughout Obama's presidency. Twitter told that story in the context of Iran. But a number of dangers still lurk. The most obvious is that we associate new media with freedoms. An obvious counter-example over the last week has come from China, following last week's uighur riots. The west worries the Uighurs are unjustly treated, but so i'm told even when one takes into account that truly liberal voices aren't encouraged, the vast majority of China's online voices thinks the government hasn't punished the Uighurs enough. Free expression tends to go hand in hand with political freedom, but it's only a general rule.

Just as dangerous would be to expect a new technology, like Twitter, to accompany along with each protest and revolt. Often the most important democratic technologies, and the ones that the west can do most to spread, are the most obvious. Take Pakistan, which I visited a few months back. The country has dropped off the agenda a bit for the last month, pushed off first by Iran, then China, then Obama's Russia visit, and now by fighting in Afghanistan. But it remains America's geo-strategic priority. And the opinions of its people — do they support the Taliban, how critical they are of the United States, how angry they are about the latest drone strikes — will likely be more important to US foreign policy over the next 12 months than any other single population on earth.

Pakistan doesn't seem to have taken to Twitter. The army's violent retaking of the Swat valley last month went entirely uninterrupted by short messages, or news stories with blue birds. And while its blogging community has some influence, its suffers many of the limitations as newspapers in a country where only half the population can read, and many fewer have internet access. But what Pakistan does have is television; a massive explosion in domestic television channels, going from only 1 station about a decade ago to more than 100 today.

The channels are free of government control, increasingly professional, and hugely politically influential. Most are run in Pakistan (although some are based in Dubai), but they broadcast to Pakistanis in the US, and the UK. They have broken social taboos on everything from religious talk shows, to dating and marriage—while also playing a big role in recent pro-democracy protests. Without anyone really noticing in the west these channels (and their largely liberal, western-educated owners) have been influential in pushing Pakistan public opinion against the Taliban over the last couple of months. And most Pakistanis watch TV news - in the tens of millions. It's an old technology, but it's by far the most important way of expressing the aspirations of Pakistan's people. With luck, someone might even Twitter about it during tomorrow's discussion.

The Limits of the Digital Revolution

I write a lot about the potential of technology to improve people's lives and open up politics here and around the world. We have just seen this play out in dramatic fashion in Iran. Although it remains unclear that the technologically-supported resistance there will ultimately be successful, the impact of tools like Twitter and YouTube on the Iranian uprising is undeniable - we have the Huffington Post's Nico Pitney, who has done an unbelievable job covering Iran, coming to discuss it next Wednesday, so make sure to check out our webcast if you can't make it in person.

Yet we must remember that the transformative power of tools has everything to do with access and availability. Iran is the third-largest blogger country in the world, and has an internet penetration of around 35% - much lower than Israel's 74%, but enough to make a difference. They also have a 60% mobile phone penetration.

Contrast this with Honduras, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, which has internet penetration of just 4.5%. When Zelaya took office, 70% of Hondurans lived below the poverty line. He managed to bring that number down considerably, but it is still well over 50%, and Honduras still has the highest income inequality in Central America. Protesters in Honduras therefore have much less ability to make their voices heard - and if history is any guide, the world at large is also less likely to care. U.S. coverage of the crisis in Honduras has been far weaker than coverage of Iran.

Of course, some of this also has to do with ideology. Still, the situation there is undeniably similar to Iran; the state has seized control of the media, there have been large popular protests, and peaceful protesters fighting for their legitimate democracy have been murdered in cold blood. One of the big differences, unfortunately, is that many of President Zelaya's supporters belong to the 70% of Honduras's population living below the poverty line. They are not nearly as technically literate or privileged as Iranian university students. Nor do they have access to the hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. aid that the Iranian resistance has had - indeed, the United States has been funding opposition groups in Honduras for years. As human rights lawyer Eva Golinger pointed out after the coup,

The majority of the recipients of [US AID] in Honduras, which comes in the form of funding, training, resources, strategic advice, communications counseling, political party strengthening and leadership training, are organizations directly linked to the recent coup d'etat.

The situations in both places have yet to play out, so we will see what happens. But it's good to remember that these events never take place in a vacuum - and if you want to know what our real foreign policy priorities are, democratic rhetoric aside, a good start is to follow the money and the media coverage.

July 15: Twitter, Iran and More: Impressions from the Front Lines of the Global Media Revolution

NDN and the New Politics Institute are excited to announce a cutting-edge event – an examination of how Twitter and the new media landscape are drastically changing government and journalism both in the United States and around the world, creating the possibility of a more bottom-up politics.

TwitterJoining NDN President Simon Rosenberg to discuss these seismic shifts will be Eric Jaye and Theo Yedinsky of Storefront Political Media and Nico Pitney of the Huffington Post. Jaye and Yedinsky are the new media masterminds behind Gavin Newsom’s pioneering gubernatorial campaign. Using Twitter as never before, they have helped Gavin accrue more than 700,000 followers, up from 250,000 just ten weeks ago. This explosive growth is raising questions about whether the model pioneered by Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election has already become obsolete.

Twitter is also having a profound impact on politics around the world. Staying connected through Twitter and other new media, Nico Pitney has been providing real-time coverage of what has been happening inside Iran, and becoming himself a witness to the historic uprising there. His work, which quickly became the “blog of record” on Iran and has been closely followed by millions around the world, is an inspiring example of the paradigm shift that is now occurring in journalism. In a recent press conference, President Obama answered a question from Nico, a question he passed along from a reader inside Iran. The State Department even asked Twitter to postpone their scheduled maintenance to allow the Iranians to keep speaking to the world.

We hope you will be able to join us next Wednesday, July 15, at 12 p.m. Lunch will be served. Space is limited, so please click here to RSVP. For those unable to join us in person, the live webcast of the event will begin at 12:15 p.m. ET.

Will Young People Unite to Save the World?

Seventy percent of Iranians are under 30.

These young people have twice the presence in the population of that country as America's largest generation, Millennials (born 1982-2003), has in ours.

In the immediate aftermath of Iran's disputed presidential election, text messages became the tool for organizing post-election protests. Hundreds of thousands of tweets provided more, if not clearer, information about what was happening each day than traditional media. Opposition and government Facebook pages poured out dueling messages on the Internet. It suddenly seemed as if not only had American democratic values erupted on the barren landscape of a theocratic society, but also that young people's technological capabilities might produce a regime change that no one anticipated. Clay Shirky announced, "This is it. This is the big one.  This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media." And the notion that this was a "Twitter Revolution" quickly became the meme for the entire series of post-election events.

But then the entrenched establishment fought back using the very same Internet-enabled technologies to isolate, spy on, and ultimately shut down the resistance.  Thanks to new capabilities recently acquired from two European telecom companies-Nokia and Siemens-as part of their country's upgrade of its mobile networks, the Iranian government was able to monitor the flow of online data in and out of sites like Twitter and Facebook, from one central location. The Iranians deployed a technology called deep packet inspection, first created to put a firewall around President Clinton's emails in 1993, to deconstruct digitized packets of information flowing through the government's telecom monopoly that might contain what they considered to be seditious information before reconstructing and sending it on to destinations they were also able to track and monitor. The result was a 90% degradation in the speed of Internet communications in Iran at the height of the unrest, and a previously unseen capability to determine who the government's enemies were down to the individual IP address level.

Once again the world learned that technology does not arrive with a built-in set of values that makes it work either for good or evil. Even though Internet technology has many virtues, it is not inherently liberating or enslaving. Instead how it is used is determined by the values of those who access it.  Libertarians celebrate the individual empowerment that the Internet makes possible.  But even though Ron Paul supporters used the technology to take on the Republican establishment in 2008, the end result that year was the election of a group-oriented, civic-minded candidate, Barack Obama, whose campaign used the very same technology to guide millions of people to undertake a collective agenda of change that Libertarians certainly did not "believe in."

The difference between what libertarians wanted and what Obama achieved came from the generational attitudes and beliefs of Millennials, Obama's key supporters, not from the technology that generation was so adept at using.

One of the founders of generational theory, Neil Howe, points out that the under-30 population of Iran grew up during a religious awakening in the Islamic world that came later than America's "cultural revolution" of the 1960s. As a result, Iranian youth resembles Generation X, Americans now in their 30s and 40s.  Like our own Gen X, these young Iranians are "pragmatic, individualistic, commercial, and anti-ideological (which is why they hate Ahmadinejad so much)."

Those values make them anti-establishment in the current crisis. We are fortunate that they feel deeply enough about the potential of democracy to risk their lives to "tear down that power structure," to paraphrase what President Ronald Reagan, Generation X's political hero, said in a different context.  But now the central task of our government must be to translate that democratic impulse into a deeper belief in Millennial Generation values, such as the power of consensus, the peaceful resolution of differences and the need to find win-win solutions to our problems.

That is why the President Barack Obama's recent Cairo speech should be the bedrock on which America continues to engage large young Muslim populations throughout the world, including Iran:

"No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

This statement has the potential to become a governing creed for a new generation of young Muslims. If they come to have, as President Obama does, "an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose," then the power of 21st century technologies will be used to advance the cause of freedom in Iran, rather than suppressing it. But tweeting those words won't make it happen.  Believing in them will.



Thursday New Tools Feature: Wave Goodbye to Old Methods of Communication and Collaboration

At Google's recent "I/O" developer conference in San Francisco, the company unveiled an intriguing new tool called Wave, which Google deems its attempt to "reinvent email for the 21st century." That is, however, an inaccurate and outdated way of thinking about what Wave really is. Wave is a web-based, open-source platform that is designed to seamlessly integrate communication and collaboration. That may sound a little vague, so take a look at it in action:

This is only a preview of the developer version, so it is likely to evolve significantly from where it is right now. But even in this early stage, it shows a huge amount of potential. Sometimes, Google releases things that elicit a brief "oh, cool" reaction but then fade from the radar screen. I think Wave will be different for a number of reasons, but the biggest is that it allows users to take advantage of the internet in a more natural and organic way, a way more in tune with the nature of the internet itself. After seeing the demo, Joe Trippi tweeted "Just posted the Google Wave demo on my blog - definitely check it out if you haven't yet. What do you think? Game changer?" and then later, "More on Google Wave. Did they just reinvent online communication?" The people at ReadWriteWeb, after doing a hands-on trial, write:

What we have seen so far is only the tip of the iceberg, but we can already envision how this could replace our internal chat room here at RWW, and how it could revolutionize the way employees in a company communicate. Wave definitely takes some getting used to, but once you get into the flow of things, regular email suddenly feels stale and slow.

While Google is busy reinventing how we collaborate together on the web, the White House is busy trying to bring these kinds of innovations into government. As part of the Open Government Initiative, which I blogged about a few weeks ago, the Obama Administration held a "Brainstorm" using IdeaScale. Once again, I like the top entries (athough they will, of course, be ignored), but this time the IdeaScale thing is just one part of a three-phase process which also includes a discussion phase, where users discuss the ideas brought up in the brainstorm, and then a "draft" phase where users will "Collaborate on crafting constructive proposals to address challenges from the Discussion phase." It's an ambitious evolution of the Administration's efforts in this sphere, and we'll be keeping a close eye on it. 

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