Scarcity to abundance

After reading Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures for many years, I started also reading his partner Albert Wenger. He doesn’t blog as often as Fred, but when he does it’s at Continuations and its typically super insightful.

Albert’s writing helps provide insight into where we’re heading at the highest levels of society. The air can get a bit thin where Albert operates, but what he’s writing and thinking about are things that seemed destined to trickle down into mainstream social discussion and eventually the public policy arena.

His talk from the DLDconference gets into some of the themes he’s been writing about for a while. The biggest theme is that we’re transitioning from a world of scarcity to a world of abundance. In other words, from a world where “whenever you wanted more of something there was an additional cost” to a world of zero marginal cost.

He also touches on how transitioning to a world of abundance will intersect with public policy, specifically the idea that with fewer things to physically make, it might be necessary to “decouple income from work” through a basic income guarantee.

The lingering ethos of the Protestant work ethic might make this concept extremely difficult to implement here. But it might also be a much saner way to approach social security than the current hierarchical, bureaucratic central government model we rely on.

Agile storytelling

I wrote recently about how students can create platforms for storytelling in their communities through technology. After seeing this post from Om Malik I’ve been thinking along a similar thread, which is using technology for more agile storytelling.

We’re inching toward the 10 year mark since the birth of the iPhone and true mobile computing devices. There are still some industries that haven’t successfully transitioned into the mobile arena. Relative to most content creation, it’s still extremely difficult to create, produce, and package quality audio content on a mobile device. This impacts the relevancy and impact of audio as a form of media because the harder it is to get it into the world, the more likely it is to be stale when it arrives.

In terms of a platform addressing the problem of storing audio and making it accessible, SoundCloud is the emerging standard. I really hope it can become for audio what YouTube became for video. If you remember the world before YouTube, video on the internet was pretty much a complete mess. In so many ways, that’s still the case for audio. Easier to create than it was a few years ago, still very difficult to produce and distribute.

As Om points out, it looks like Shure’s forthcoming Motiv 88 and accompanying iOS app will help address this. It launches this spring, will cost $149, and is the first condenser mic that I’ve seen that plugs directly into an iOS device with a companion app for recording and production:

Designed to capture clear, high-quality stereo sound on the go, MV88 directly connects to any iOS device equipped with a Lightning® connector. The microphone element is mounted to a 90-degree hinge with built-in rotation that offers flexible positioning options, even in video applications. Access five built-in preset modes for voice and instruments using the ShurePlus™ MOTIV Mobile Recording App, which also offers real-time adjustments to gain, stereo width and EQ with 24-bit / 48 kHz recording.

We’re planning for the Penn State Media Alumni Interest Group to purchase at least one of these for the student broadcasters at The LION 90.7fm in State College. And I’m planning to use one to record and produce an audiobook version of Conserving Mount Nittany, which was already one of my planned projects for this year.

We tend to be transfixed by video, but we’re often more transported by audio. As a medium, it tends to be more intimate than any other because it’s often piped right into our heads through earbuds or noise canceling headphones.

Creating or capturing great audio will get easier because Shure and others will get better at miniaturizing the technology and creating a better software ecosystem for its production and distribution to the platforms that matter. As the production technology becomes more mobile, the impact of the content it enables will grow.

March for Life 2015

Yesterday I wrote about the concept of the Culture of Life at a pretty high level, and today I want to bring that to a practical level. I’m in Washington today for the March for Life, the annual day wherein people of pro-life persuasions gather from across the country to hear remarks on the National Mall before starting their cold march to the steps of the Supreme Court.

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Like so many social reform movements in America, the March for Life has an overwhelmingly Christian anthropology. There’s no getting past the fact that the pro-life instincts of so many are rooted in their understanding of what Christianity has to say about human dignity. So in that sense, the March is a fascinating thing to witness in a time when it’s fashionable to divorce “personal beliefs” from public expression.

I’m here today not for the March itself but rather to meet with Pennsylvania Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey. Each of them hosts constituency receptions as part of the March. With Gov. Tom Wolf having just taken office in the Pennsylvania, I think there’s a special chance to echo the worth of Gov. Wolf’s proposed moratorium on the death penalty in the state. So I’m here in the hopes of echoing the worth of that in whatever small way to Casey and Toomey as well.

Even more than that, I think Pennsylvania Democrats and Republicans can and should work together to be bolder by enacting a constitutional ban in Pennsylvania on the death penalty. We would be something like the 19th state to do this, and enacting a true ban rather than a temporary prohibition, Gov. Wolf would be following a national trend while making history for the state.

It’s the right thing to do, and it’s also an unusual area of opportunity for bipartisan action on a pro-life issue. I hope it happens.

Culture of Life

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It wasn’t long after Pope Francis’s ascent to the leadership of the Catholic community that he sat for an interview with America, a Jesuit magazine. In the course of the conversation with America he made some remarks that the New York Times and others reported on more widely. It seemed that Pope Francis was essentially repudiating Catholicism’s Culture of Life framework on challenging issues like contraception, marriage, abortion, etc.

That’s the way the New York Times reported the story, and that narrative persists. Pope Francis “made waves early on saying the church was placing too much emphasis on abortion and other divisive issues.” That’s the narrative.

As someone inclined toward the Culture of Life framework, and specifically as a board member of the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia, I follow Culture of Life issues and paid considerable attention to Pope Francis’s remarks. What he says:

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

“The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.

Translation: Catholic social teaching is rooted in the context of the Gospel and the moral theology that flows from the Gospel. This “context,” as Pope Francis describes it, explains why he warns against advocacy of “disjointed” aspects of moral theology by divorcing social issues from one another, or worse, into the arena of jocular political competition that minimizes the concrete impact of policy on the human person.

There very well may be “too much emphasis on abortion and other divisive issues”—but the question is, “too much emphasis” in relation to what? And Francis answers, “in relation to the Gospel and the moral theology that grounds guidance on divisive issues.”

There is a similar purpose in the holistic, comprehensive Culture of Life framework—to root a diversity of social issues within the context of moral theology that can be coherently expressed through philosophy and policy.

It’s worth distinguishing here between the concept of the “Culture of Life” framework and a person being “pro-life.” They’re not always synonymous. “Culture of Life” describes a comprehensive framework, rooted in moral theology, for the value of human life from conception to natural death. But a person might be “pro-life” in the sense of only supporting one aspect of the Culture of Life—for instance, opposing the death penalty while supporting abortion access.

There is obvious friction in our culture on the issues that the Culture of Life attempts to harmonize. This friction arises because there are competing visions for the sort of policy that is in the public interest.

Very broadly speaking, one vision elevates liberty, while the other elevates mutuality. The former is about absolute freedom of the individual apart from the wider social order, while the latter is about relationship and responsibility to one another as the foundation for social order in the first place.

Nothing here is meant as a personal apologia for my own Culture of Life perspective. In the future I might write about some of the basis for my support of the Culture of Life framework. But I’m writing on it at a high level here because I don’t see many people trying to explain some of these specific nuances of the wider cultural conversation to normal people.

I’ll leave it at this for now: I support a holistic Culture of Life framework for society because I think it is the most humane approach toward sustaining a healthy culture. I’m Catholic, and I think its moral theology basis for the Culture of Life framework is a logical, consistent, and elegant way to respect the grace and dignity of every person.

Yet the Culture of Life contains a philosophical approach that is accessible to anyone. When someone asks why I’m on the board of the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia, it’s because it’s an organization that embraces the comprehensive Culture of Life framework. And some of that framework is expressed specifically in supporting and advocating for things like:

  • protections for the life of the preborn child;
  • support for the life of the mother, father, and child ideally within the context of an intact family;
  • greater sophistication toward human sexuality and the value of chastity as a practice of self-governance;
  • an instinctual hostility toward human commodification in all its forms, from trafficking and slavery to exploitation through porn and prostitution;
  • antagonism toward the death penalty and policies that elevate the state above the person;
  • more human approaches toward infirmity, incapacitation, and old age with the goal of natural death with grace.

If you’re fascinated by the Culture of Life, these are some of the specific attitudes of that culture. If you’re inclined to agree with any of these attitudes, you can think of yourself at least in a limited way as pro-life.

A platform for storytelling

In late November I visited State College for Penn State’s final game of the season at Beaver Stadium against Michigan State. I wasn’t expecting a victory, and we didn’t get one. But it was the first time seeing Penn State play in-person for my brothers, and so it was a great experience nonetheless.

While in town for the weekend I also met up with Dave Cole and Tyler Ball. Dave is a Penn Stater living in Pittsburgh and works for Comcast and Pittsburgh magazine. Tyler is a junior and also president/general manager of The LION 90.7fm, the campus radio station. We met up because I had commissioned Dave to film a short documentary style film on Penn State student broadcasting and its continuing impact. I snapped the photo above of student Dan Balton during filming.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of The LION 90.7fm. It’s also significant because the station’s studio is moving from its current place in the HUB-Robeson Center to a newly expanded part of the student union building. I expect to be able to share the short film at some point in the spring. It’ll be a solid introduction for new students to the history and tradition of independent student broadcasting at Penn State, while also highlighting the potential of the medium heading into a new era.

I’ve stayed engaged with student broadcasting through the Penn State Alumni Association and the Penn State Media Alumni Interest Group. The Penn State Media Alumni Interest Group itself exists specifically for the purpose of student mentorship, support for student media leaders, and alumni engagement. So I keep an eye on what the students are up to, and think about student broadcasting as it fits into the larger media landscape that we live in. When we can (which isn’t yet as often as we’d like) we support the students strategically, operationally, or financially.

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On the topic of strategic support, this tweet caught my eye earlier this month. I agree with the students that the launch of their first iOS app for student broadcasting is a big deal. It’s a pretty rudimentary app right now, but it’s a great first step.

The key will be whether they can draft and execute a plan for its continuing development. Specifically, developing the app with an eye toward it becoming a valuable platform for Penn Staters and community members to engage in the stories of the area. What might that look like?

  • Enabling user account creation for tracking registered MAUs and analytics to separate compelling programming from stuff that should be cut or the stuff that just hasn’t yet found its ideal timeslot.
  • Functionality for push notifications for special broadcast events that can engage students and/or alumni. “Penn State Nittany Lions kickoff in one hour. Listen now for live Beaver Stadium pregame coverage.”
  • A membership program tied to registered accounts to covert something like 10% of the most engaged listeners to monthly recurring donors. Eventually push them to sustain their favorite programming.
  • Enabling users to submit their own recorded audio and video from around campus for featuring as part of the broadcast. SoundCloud is probably the most obvious and low-cost way to make this happen.
  • Creating audio channels separate from the live broadcast stream to let content partners produce what would functionally be podcasts, but promoted through the campus radio station’s brand and to its total audience.

The theme is positioning campus radio as a platform for storytelling throughout the community, and as much as possible using the technology to encourage UGC and finding new ways to create earned income.

I think student broadcasting as a medium is uniquely positioned to serve as the platform for storytelling, and their iOS app can serve as the primary means to build that platform. Bu it’s critical to own the platform that serves the community, and not simply exist as part of a larger a la cart approach to a student, alumnus, or resident’s information diet. Own the platform.

Advocacy journalism

I wrote yesterday about R.R. Reno’s talk and about the interplay between American and Catholic life. Something else that Reno touched on was his role at First Things as an advocacy journalist.

What is an advocacy journalism? It is when journalists “intentionally and transparently adopt a non-objective viewpoint” because they believe that “the public interest is better served by a diversity of media outlets with a variety of transparent points of view” rather than by the problematic concept of journalistic objectivity.

I believe that, at least in our present time, advocacy journalism is definitely the best way the fourth estate can serve the public interest. Here’s why Reno think so:

“We have to investigate. We have to analyze. We have to understand. These are usually important things, but I’ve come to realize that it’s more precious to love than it is to know. And I think that separates us from what I fear is a loveless desire to know that is characteristic of our secular culture more broadly and perhaps even the very best of secular journalism.”

If secular or mainstream journalism still embraces the principle of objectivity. In practice, it’s just feigned impartiality. I think the best descriptor for the principle of objectivity in journalism is nonpartisan journalism. But “Disinterestedness” is actually one of the synonyms for that notion of objectivity. That’s a terrible way to think about the role you’re playing in distilling complexity and imparting meaning to the public.

Why does Reno say it’s more precious to love than it is to know? Because an advocacy journalist acknowledges that it’s impossible to stand apart from what you’re reporting. Because an advocacy journalist embraces the essential role of reporting, which is to assist with the conservation, maintenance, and development of civic life in all its many expressions.

The ethereal notion of objectivity be damned. Help us build a better culture. Pursue excellence by developing a love affair with a subject intimately enough to want to see it get better, and then help it do so by sharing its story with the rest of us who can help make it happen.

A better class of advocacy journalists should have the effect of elevating a better class of nonpartisan journalists.

American Catholicism

R.R. Reno of First Things delivered a talk last month to St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers. The talk is “In the Service of the Word: The Catholic Media and the New Evangelization.” First Things is part of my daily media diet, and it’s got a rich history as an effort to connect the thinking of public intellectuals with a wider audience.

In their words they’re for cultivating a “religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.” First Things matters to me because it’s a place that takes an appreciative thinking approach to Catholicism, meaning it respects Catholic theology and is content with advocating and reporting on the best means to live the faith in a manner that respects its surroundings. Firm in the essentials, flexible in the various particulars.

Reno’s talk is a good one for understanding how First Things approaches Catholicism and how First Things tends to view Catholic’s position in contemporary American society. I particularly liked Reno’s comments in the last few minutes drawing out some of the characteristics of American Catholicism that are super important. They’re super important because they involve precise distinctions that are not often grasped:

“I think the Catholic Church has a charism in America that’s distinctive, that doesn’t fit easily into various party categories. The Catholic Church never has, and it shouldn’t. We’re capable of affirming patriotism without nationalism, without nativism, because we’re a global church. We also didn’t fit in for a long, long time, and felt what it was like to be accused of being anti-American or un-American… We can affirm capitalism without individualism—with a sense of our responsibility to the common good. That’s distinctive. We can affirm modernity’s strong emphasis on freedom, while still emphasizing the important central, fundamental role of responsibility.”

As an American Catholic I benefit from a double foundation for constructing my life. As an American, the foundation of the received wisdom of a revolution that sought to conserve the best aspects of democratic life within a system of Republican self-governance. As a Catholic, the foundation of a theology that provides both the source to govern my own life and the distance necessary to understand and to work toward the maintenance of a just social order.

George Washington instructed the young nation that “religion and morality are the essential pillars of civil society.” Americans have always been somewhat uncomfortable with the role that religion and morality have played in appealing to the better angels of our nature. But a certain lingering discomfort is part of the nature of a sustaining a conscience.

I hope the distinctive aspects of Catholicism that Reno outlines can continue to serve the role that Washington outlined, and help Catholics themselves make better sense of their place in society as people in this world but not of it.

Restoration

The NCAA has voided its historic sanctions on Penn State. This outcome was the result of a lawsuit from Pennsylvania State Sen. Jake Corman and Treasurer Rob McCord that evolved in its scope.

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Corman and McCord’s legal challenge ultimately called into question the entire basis and merit for the NCAA’s sanctions. Badly embarrassed during discovery (“I characterized our approach to PSU as a bluff…”), the NCAA’s voiding of its sanctions is a reminder that setting aside ethics for the sake of waging a public relations campaign untethered from an interest in the truth is simple bad governance. Meanwhile the entire Penn State/Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky/NCAA scandal is really a conglomeration of dozens of smaller scandals. Any failure as systemic as the Sandusky crimes is by its nature complex. I’m not going to get into all of that, but I do want to say a few things about this latest news and some of its implications.

First, it’s critical to understand that the NCAA has voided its entire sanctions package. This isn’t merely a restoration of Joe Paterno’s victories. It’s a comprehensive acknowledgement that the NCAA’s sanctions package was fundamentally without basis.

In parallel, it’s critical to understand that the Freeh Report is no longer credible. The basis for the mainstream criticism of the university’s handling of the scandal, it was so weak the NCAA could only rely on its as a bluffing instrument. Dick Thornburgh, ex-U.S. Attorney General, calls its presentment-style conclusions “raw speculation and unsupported opinion—not facts and evidence.” Without the Freeh Report as basis for the notion of an institutional cover up, or the NCAA sanctions premised on that conclusion, the popular narrative around Penn State’s role in the larger scandal will require reevaluation. This is what everyone from Bob Costas to Malcolm Gladwell has said for some time, but the NCAA’s latest decision concretizes this.

Second, the criminal trials of the three remaining administrators accused of attempting to bury knowledge of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes for the sake of Penn State’s overall or athletic reputation have yet to occur. Those trials start this year, and if the administrators are found not guilty, consequently any lingering pretense of Penn State institutional cover up vanishes. Paterno of course is dead, but his long term reputation and legacy as much as any of the living three administrators hinges on the fate of this impending criminal trial.

Third, this restoration is ultimately a recognition that Penn State’s “Success with Honor” approach was in fact worthwhile. Those with flawed understanding of the facts are likely to be very confused about the NCAA’s decision, unfortunately. It’s not clear that there’s any easy way to correct the meta-narrative for the sake of Penn State’s current student athletes let alone those who played for Joe Paterno over nearly half a century.

The NCAA’s decision to void its sanctions will become as much a story about Joe Paterno as anything else. It’s true that “409” became a rallying cry for both Joe Paterno’s Grand Experiment in academics and “Success with Honor” mantra in athletics. But it also came to stand as a signal rejection of the Freeh Report and NCAA implications about the character of the Penn State community.

Sen. Corman and Rob McCord’s role in this chapter of the story is a fascinating case study in achieving a consequential and unexpected victory. This development isn’t the result of Penn State leadership seeking to fight for its reputation. It’s the result of a lawsuit against both the NCAA and an unwilling university to challenge the basis of the most controversial sanctions in the history of collegiate athletics.

This is a lesson in the sometimes worth of standing in the difficult place of outsider for an institution unable to acknowledge its own best interests, challenging something few think impossible to change, and then winning.

Appreciative thinking

I’m a fan of appreciative rather than critical thinking. I think too often in the pursuit of knowledge, critical thinking approaches end up so deconstructing what is being studied that the result isn’t insight or knowledge but cynicism and disillusionment. It’s a more hopeful disposition, and I think a more practical one for approaching life.

Appreciative thinking has been my approach for most of my life, but I didn’t have the phrase to describe it until I encountered Seth Roberts’s thinking through Ben Casnocha at some point in the past few years. Seth Roberts died last April while on a hike near Berkeley, but his perspective on appreciative thinking will stay with me. So mostly because I’m not sure what might become of his site in the future, I’ll excerpt liberally from his post on appreciative thinking:

To learn appreciative thinking is to learn to appreciate, to learn to see the value of things. More or less the opposite of critical thinking.

That I had to make up a phrase shows the problem. I have complained many times about an overemphasis on critical thinking at universities. Sometimes I’d say, “Have you ever heard the term appreciative thinking? No? How many times have you heard the term critical thinking?”

When it comes to scientific papers, to teach appreciative thinking means to help students see such aspects of a paper as:

  • What can we learn from it? What new ideas does it suggest? What already-existing plausible ideas does it make more plausible or less plausible?
  • How is it an improvement over previous work? Does it use new methods? Does it use old methods in a new way? Does it show a better way to do something?
  • Did the authors show good taste in their choice of problem? Is this a problem both important and possibly solvable?
  • Are details done well? Is it well-written? Is the context of the work made clear? Are the data well-analyzed? Does it make good use of graphs? Is the discussion imaginative rather than formulaic?
  • What’s interesting or enjoyable about it?

That sort of thing. In my experience few papers are worthless. But I’ve heard lots of papers called worthless.

The overemphasis — the total emphasis — on critical thinking has big and harmful consequences on graduate students. At Berkeley, in a weekly seminar called Animal Behavior Lunch, we would discuss a recent animal behavior paper. The dozen-odd graduate students could only find fault. Out of hundreds and hundreds of comments, I cannot remember a single positive one from a graduate student. Sometimes a faculty member would intervene: “Let’s not be too negative. . . . ” But week after week it kept happening. Relentless negativity caused trouble for the graduate students because every plan of their own that they thought of, they placed too much emphasis on what was wrong with it. Trying to overcome the problems, their research became too big and complicated. For example, they ran control groups before obtaining the basic effect. They had been very poorly taught — by all those professors who taught critical thinking.

A commenter on Seth’s post makes this point: “The word “critical” has two meanings. In the phrase ‘critical thinking’ it means ‘with careful examination’, whereas the popular meaning of ‘critical’ is more along the lines of ‘finding fault’.” I think the problem is that “critical thinking” has been corroded so much that most would conflate both meanings into one framework of essentially tearing something down to its pieces.

A spirit of craftsmanship, an inclination for seeing beauty as redeeming ugliness, the pursuit of happiness, etc. These are approaches to life that each require “careful examination” and measured thinking, but I don’t think any of them are sustained without the sort of passion that comes from an essential love. And love starts with an appreciative disposition.

So I favor appreciative thinking because I think it’s the best approach for sustained success. For making an impact.

Forbes in Philadelphia

In 2014 Philadelphia played host to Forbes’ “30 Under 30 Summit.” I didn’t attend, but I did see it come up in a number of friend’s social feeds over the course of the multi-day event. Forbes released its annual 30 Under 30 list last week, and with it word that Philadelphia will be the permanent host of the annual summit.

This is another win for Mayor Nutter who apparently played a significant role in swaying Forbes’ decision. Obviously it’s a larger win for Philadelphia. Why?

  • “The October conference featured talks and appearances by big names from business and the political realm, including former America Online chairman Steve Case, Spanx founder-billionaire Sara Blakely, onetime White House intern-turned-scandal-figure Monica Lewinsky, and teenage Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai.”
  • “‘It reached 750 million people over social media,’ [Forbes editor Randall] Lane said – a measure that includes Twitter and Facebook shares.”
  • “…having successful young entrepreneurs from elsewhere make connections with local ones could pay off many times over if it leads to a local business’ growing or an outside one’s deciding to plant stakes in Philadelphia.”

I distinctly remember a conversation from 2011 with a friend who had just moved from Colorado. “Why,” he asked, “do so many people I meet here make a point of telling me they’re ‘natives’—not just of the city, but even of the county and town? I’ve never experienced that before.”

Anecdotally I think there’s a lot less mobility across Greater Philadelphia than in other major metro areas. And for a city its size, it has the challenge of a much higher rate of urban poverty than its peers. These things can create insularity, which among young people and professionals can lead to lowered ambitions simply because broader relationships might not form that otherwise would broaden personal and professional horizons.

Which is why maybe the greatest reason Forbes’ decision is promising is for this small note in the article: “Additionally, dozens of attendees – rather than only a handful last year – would be invited to speak at schools across the city.” I’m planning to attend this year.