Superliteracy Redux

April 29, 2010

The following item is reprinted from “Living Off the Grid,” a protoblog that ran on Hyperstand, the website of NewMedia magazine, in 1998.


Now that my newsgroup program maxes out at 16,000 group discussions before it’s even reached the T’s, it may be time to take another look at the Superliterate Manifesto, first published in 1979:

The history of all hitherto existing computerized communication and information systems is the history of elite access.

Those with the technical and literary skills to pay for “time” continue to perpetuate their elitist status, while the proletariat gets folded, spindled, stapled and mutilated. At best, the masses can play Pong or program their microwave ovens, while at worst their privacy is invaded with computer-generated junk mail, and their credit card accounts are forever wrong.

All human beings, regardless of class, want and need some human contact, some sense of being connected to the human race. Computerized communications systems offer a special kind of superconnectivity to old and young, “handicapped” minorities and hunt-and-peck typists alike.

All sentient beings have the inalienable right to:

A computer terminal
A private account on a communications system
Clear and well-indexed instructions on how to use that system
A telecommunications network local dial-up number
An uninterruptible power supply
A secretary of the opposite sex to organize and file the output
And three square messages a day

This document is excerpted from the Omnicon conference on “superliterate societies” that ran on the old Electronic Information Exchange System (EIES) computer network in the fall of 1979. I have always believed its author, although he would never cop to it (EIES allowed the use of pseudonyms), was J. Christopher Wells, a remarkable visionary who first swam into my ken as one of an extraordinary group of people who came and went and sometimes even took up residence at Kurt von Meier’s Diamond Sufi ranch in Napa Valley, California.

Kurt taught (and still teaches) art history and mythology at the California State University at Sacramento. In the 1970s, he rented a ruined estate in Oakville, right on the Napa river in the center of the valley, where beer barons once bred quarter horses, and at the turn of the century, John McLaren, designer of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, laid out and planted a magic garden of palms, cactus, eucalyptus and giant bamboo. To this center in the ’70s came a good cross-section of the freer spirits of the day: scientists, flute-makers and crafts people of all sorts, students, academics, artists and others who refused to let discipline blind them to the pleasures of ordinary life. Kurt set a good table, and you never knew who was going to amble down the grand but hopelessly potholed avenue of eucalyptus, ready to enjoy the quiet, beautiful ambiance of Napa Valley.

Chris was one such visitor, a rangy blond from Southern California — karate black belt, computer programmer and soi-disant “cognitive poet” who read Dante for insight into languages, both machine and natural. Upon discovering that I had written about semiconductors and computer design for Electronics magazine, he correctly assumed I would be interested in the ways computer applications affected publishing. I began to get articles in the mail: clippings, drafts of papers, and once, a transcript of an exchange about Jacques Vallée’s early computer conferencing system, Planet.

Kay Shows the Way

I found all this very interesting, but at the time I was not working in publishing and viewed all this computerization as not that much of an improvement over Telex. Then Chris took me to Xerox PARC, which I knew nothing about. Nor had I heard of Alan Kay — not since his Quiz Kid days, anyway. So, as you might imagine, I got my digital socks knocked off. Kay was our guide, and I never found out how Chris arranged that: Two bozos off the street, we were piggybacked with a German delegation and got a full tour of PARC, including demos of the Alto and an early incarnation of Ethernet, and lunch at a first-rate Palo Alto Chinese restaurant.

The clarity of Kay’s vision and the incredible progress PARC had made on the Dynabook project rekindled my interest in computers, particularly as a communication medium. And Chris was the one who made me aware of these and other possibilities. Therefore, when he raised the idea of Omnicon, an online computer conference on “superliterate societies,” I was an eager collaborator.

The idea of superliteracy demands some explanation. The name is ironic: It was not meant to imply anything superior about the practitioners of what we playfully called superliteracy. Rather, we were referring to the reality (of the time) that folks with computer terminals and dial-up connections had tools that were not then generally available to the rest of the conventionally literate public.

It was Chris who found the perfect medium for the project: Murray Turoff’s pioneering EIES network at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. EIES was a technical marvel, a self-documenting conferencing system that was exhaustively documented online. In addition, a kind of online ski patrol was always available for help. EIES had a clunky line editor and operated at 300 baud (three times as fast as telex!), but it was infallible: It never went down, and it had so many features that only Turoff knew them all. Except for graphics capability, there is nothing available on the Internet today that you couldn’t get on EIES in 1979, including voting, threaded discussions and online credit exchange. An account cost $66 per month, plus $3.75 per hour for connect time via the old Telenet.

Omni Pays the Bill

Physicist-turned-computer-scientist Turoff designed EIES and, with his collaborator, sociologist Starr Roxanne Hiltz, wrote the seminal book Network Nation, which explained the mechanisms and rewards of computer-based communication. An editor at Omni magazine read the book and convinced the Guccione empire to sponsor Omnicon — that is, pay the phone bills — in return for first crack at the transcript. Chris recruited the conferees: Ted Nelson, bard of the home-computer revolution; Wilfrid Lancaster, designer of the CIA’s SAFE system for information analysis and author of a book about it called Toward Paperless Information Systems (Academic Press, 1978); Ron Rice of Stanford and Jack Nilles of the University of Southern California, who made computer communication and personal computers their academic focus; Hiltz and Turoff, of course; and Charlton Price of the EIES development team — plus the two of us, who got free seats at the table. The assignment was to spend 10 weeks or so online, discussing the implications of the then-infant process of computer communications.

Omnicon’s entire transcript, which runs well over 100,000 words, touched on such themes as terminal access, interface, costs, bandwidth and privacy, all of which are still being discussed today. The tone was set by the Manifesto. In the continuing discussion, Hiltz warned that have-not kids would be culturally barred from using a technology that required them to type; Lancaster pointed out that remote users would eventually have a wealth of information at their fingertips; Nelson lamented that “only in games arcades do we see truly interactive computers”; Wells predicted the formation of “secure virtual organizations” that would be formed from close electronic alliances; Rice came up with the alternate notion of “superconnectivity” (rather than superliteracy); and Nilles wondered when we would see “the first telephone exchange crash because of N people playing intergalactic Dungeons and Dragons simultaneously.” Turoff recalled for us a historical example of how a new technology, the chimney flue, had helped stratify society by making it possible for lords and ladies to have private apartments instead of gathering around the common hearth. Kurt von Meier, using my account and writing under a pseudonym, offered the following trenchant example of how technical advances interact with art and commerce:

…in Florence, dateline A.D. 1401, Lorenzo Ghiberti submits a panel of bronze in the competition for the commission to do the north doors of the baptistery. Big job, half a dozen of the best artists competing. Brunelleschi designs a superior panel but uses the old technology; his cast bronze figures of Abraham and Issac have to be bolted on. Ghiberti develops a new technique, casting the whole panel all at once, thereby saving much bronze. Make ’em cheaper. So Ghiberti gets the job. Question — who is paying for it? Same-o, same-o, this Omnicon and much of the rest of the shebang. Answer: the doors were paid for by the guild of Florentine merchants, Arte di Calimala, one of the most rich and powerful, then as now. Not the church; that’s why it was the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance.

Except for Kurt’s comment, which provides the always surprising reminder that there is nothing new under the sun, we find nothing surprising in Omnicon today. We’re all superliterate now; our greatest needs are bandwidth, storage and speed, not basic services. Electronic alliances are common. No one types any more, they click and drag. A communications elite is definitely emerging. The amount of information available online makes remote research an adventure. And interactivity now extends across networks.

Enter the Marketing God

Although it correctly identified the issues, Omnicon missed the boat in one major respect: We did not see that as superliteracy, or superconnectivity, became pervasive, the Network Nation would be eclipsed by the Global Market. You may be superliterate, Bunky, but to us you’re a supercustomer — a particularly well-heeled one, in fact, with your own special demographics (which we can document to several decimal places).

Information has been part of the marketplace at least since the time of Hermes (inventor of dice and patron of gamblers and thieves) ruled both information and commerce from Mount Olympus. The theme that linked these elements had to do with setting up shop at a crossroads, ancient Greek for a network node. Today, it’s not just information, it’s intellectual property, and somebody owns it — maybe Bill Gates, maybe even you or me.

And superliteracy — that just gives you the right to roll the bones.

Chris Welles, who disappeared into the cybermist several years ago (though this report may smoke him out, breathing fire at seeing his concepts mangled thusly), fingered both aspects of online communications in Omnicon. None of us paid much attention to Welles’ “secure virtual organizations” at the time — the phrase had a pulp-fiction ring to it — but it’s clear that his vision of online commerce was on target.

Yet as the Manifesto puts it, “Computerized communications systems offer a special kind of superconnectivity,” and one has to believe that this kind of connectivity can be exploited at least as cleverly as the market. E-mail has already supplanted paper mail in many environments. And local or interest-specific bulletin boards and special-purpose networks such as the Institute for Global Communications (which gives thousands of political and ecological activists a community press) have made fostering interconnectivity their main focus. The wildly successful Usenet newsgroups have shown all types of the fruits of connectivity, from the useful and comic to the inane and borderline insane. Despite the torrent of commercial messages in which they swim, today’s superliterates are well aware that they’re superconnected as well.

The Communication Gap

Yet there has to be more. Wilf Lancaster’s paperless information systems are as far as ever from implementation outside of small secure groups. Just as businesses today are investing time, personnel and money to develop new forms of online commerce, others out there are looking to develop connectivity and communications. We have still, for instance, to see the first independent news organization. And few people are looking for ways to link network and offline communications, though these would be extremely helpful as we wait for the rest of the world to get wired and superliterate.

Communication, by its nature, requires at least two people — a concept that bears analysis. I was chagrined to find that my favorite dictionary (the American Heritage) challenges that fact. As it, in my opinion wrongly, defines the word, communication means “to convey information about, make known.” It goes on to define communication as “transmission.”

This is indeed common usage, and as lexicographers, the editors of the dictionary had no choice but to report it. They might well, however, have submitted this item to their language experts, who at various places do their bit to stem the tide of word corruption. Because anyone can see from the root, common, that at least two entities must be involved. Communication is the act of making something common.

Maybe we need a new Omnicon for the ’90s on superconnection and supercommunication. Now that we’re all — or at least the more privileged among us — wired up, who are the folks creating new forms? Nominations for participants in such an online conference are welcome at this address. Let’s smoke out some new action.


July 15, 2009

Newspaper Daze

By Cliff Barney

For the first time since I became literate, I don’t have a daily paper to read. My parents took two papers, the Providence Journal and its sibling, the Evening Bulletin; and I learned to read as I followed along while my father explained the comics and recounted the adventures of Peter Rabbit. I read those papers all through my youth and even had the Bulletin, which had better comics, mailed to me at camp in Maine in the summer.

Later the newspaper became a daily ritual; I enjoyed the layout and the headlines and the matter-of-fact writing, and I was fascinated by the scope and regularity of the coverage. Few Rhode Island sparrows fell without the J-B knowing; the papers had a bureau in every hamlet and a Washington bureau as well, and reported regularly from abroad. The newspaper gave me everything in a single venue; and it had some delightful quirks, such as the Journal’s habit of giving us two copies of the paper on holidays, when the Bulletin didn’t publish.

As an adult, I made a point, when traveling, to get the local paper and see how they did it. There was nothing that epitomized a city like its paper; they all looked different, yet they all, for better or worse, used the same matrix of news, sports, features, funnies, business, women (sorry), ads. So bewitched, I inevitably drifted into journalism myself and spent more than a dozen years working for the dailies, both big city papers (the New York Daily News, the old Annenberg version of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hearst San Francisco Examiner); a foreign stint for Stars and Stripes in Germany; the Journal-Bulletin after it sold itself to a Texas publisher; and the small-town Pawtucket (R.I.) Times, where I broke in. (The Times didn’t even try to compete with the Journal, but existed under the radar on a diet of local events, Rotary meetings, and bowling scores, where even the Journal couldn’t venture.)

The Daily Miracle

Although I began as a sports reporter, I spent most of my time on these papers as copy editor, news editor, and makeup supervisor. I learned how the paper was put together, and how it got out every day – the daily miracle, we used to call it, without affectation. It was a miracle, the process of putting together all of the pieces that made a newspaper, doing it every day, not to mention the constant remaking of each edition throughout a day.

It took hundreds of people to put out the Inquirer, gathering and editing news, casting it into type, getting that type wrapped around a press, distributing 600,000 copies – a million on Sundays – spread over five editions a day. Today (though no one would seriously try this except as a stunt), a single person could do most of the job: collect stories, write heads, design pages, get them onto a press. Only actual news, now abstracted as “content,” remains intractable; someone needs to go to the council meeting. Publishers are discovering, however, that there are ways around that problem; and as for actually getting the paper out, digital technology, accompanied by global hi-speed communications and some clever software, has leapfrogged print. The printers, in fact, have vanished; their union, the International Typographical Union, founded in 1852, later to become the main force behind the acceptance of the 40-hour work week, dissolved in 1986.

All of this has saved publishers a great deal of money, and yet they are not happy; the same process that has made it possible for newspapers to do without the printers has made it possible for the public to do without newspapers. News is available online 24/7, and you don’t have to recycle the medium. The uniqueness of newspapers has eroded.

The Shrinking Press

Even more important, the consolidation of ownership in all media, with attendant increase in the importance of shareholder profit, has weakened news coverage to the point where it no longer seems so consequential. Chain-owned newspapers began cost-cutting and offering staff buyouts in the 1990’s, while they were still making profits of well over 25 percent. In the glare of this relentless focus on the bottom line, journalism itself seems to be vanishing. Your paper is thinner in more ways than one.

Today, newspapers are shrinking — literally, in terms of the size of the page and the news hole, numerically, in terms of employees, and lately financially, leading to the failure of some well-established papers. Since my stint there, the Inquirer has lost half of its circulation and most of its reporters, and been sold from one stable to another like Black Beauty.

That’s why I don’t have a daily paper any more. I live within twenty miles of two dailies, both of them, as it happens, published by the same corporation, which operates more than fifty dailies in eleven states. One of the nearby dailies is a small-town paper that was sold by its local owners to the chain a few years ago. The other is the shell of a onetime major large-city paper, part of yet another chain, that was sold off as its corporate ownership floundered. Neither paper now delivers on its promise – neither small-town intimacy and sense of community, nor big-city scope and resources. They are more or less the same now, same typefaces, same features and comics, same bland local coverage.

Moving On

So I don’t subscribe, and surprisingly, I am finding that I don’t care. Though it be heresy among my journalist friends, I really don’t miss the paper. I read the news online, subscribe to a few magazines for perspective, and buy crossword puzzles by the book. With a few other journos of my generation, I swap horror stories by email of the death of print and reading; but I don’t join in the general hand-wringing. I am not convinced that either of print journalism’s plagues, economic or technical, is necessarily permanent so far as its readers are concerned.

Because in a sense, anyone with Internet access now owns a press, invigorating A.J. Liebling’s dictum that freedom of the press means most to someone who owns one. Anyone can publish today; and while the immediate result of this capability has been the bloviations of the blogosphere, one may expect that out of this great churn of independent, untrained reporters and writers will surely develop new cadres of a new journalism.

So far, most of the ventures into electronic journalism have turned on aggregating information obtained cheaply or for free elsewhere, presented according to algorithmic decision processes, and distributed by cleverly manipulated web searches. Once real journalists, such as those now being graduated from J-schools with no place to practice their skills, create their own online centers, that situation will change. I suspect that what’s next will surprise us, that blogging and twittering are nonce phenomena that will go away, or at least exist mostly as pure entertainment, and be replaced by a multiform, flexible media environment that can incorporate both affairs of state and the bowling scores. The new network and social connections that make this possible will make the old-fashioned newspaper irrelevant. I may never have a daily paper again, but its replacement could be equally as diverting.


Fire Engine Read

June 20, 2009

Fire Engine Read

By Cliff Barney

The story of the City of Pawtucket’s new fire engine was one of the great sagas of the 1950’s, at least in the pages of the Pawtucket Times, the small Rhode Island daily on which I broke into the news business.

The Times lived under the shadow of the neighboring Providence Journal, subsisting on a fine-grained coverage of local events that even the heavily staffed Journal did not deign to pursue. We included Rotary Club meetings, church socials, and four-generation parties as part of the regular beat system, right up there with the City Council and the police and fire departments. Our attention to schoolboy sports was unmatched. The Women’s Department (lately called “Lifestyle,” of course, though still headed by a female) offered a lavish smorgasbord of weddings and bake sales. All in all, one of the most boring publications I ever worked for; and yet in retrospect I can see that it offered something that its modern equivalents do not: a coherent, if limited, view of what local citizens were actually doing.

The news engine

Even for the Times, the fire engine odyssey was something special. I watched with amazement, from a safe perch in Sports, as it unrolled, canto by canto, over the course of more than a year, chronicling the entire story, from a request by the chief for a new hook-and-ladder, to rollout and engagement in battle. Our local Homer was a news hound who first tumbled to the opportunity from an item at a City Council meeting, the budget submitted by the Fire Department. A new engine today will run a city close to half a million dollars; even at less than a tenth of that, in the Fifties, the item stood out.

The reporter wrote a Council sidebar about the fire engine, and followed it up with a backgrounder a few days later on what fire engines cost and how long they lasted (ten or twenty years, I think). He coasted for a while with weekly updates as the council debated the matter and then broke loose when they voted to go ahead with the project.

He produced a weekly series of articles on specifications, tradeoffs, and funding; when these were settled and bids were solicited (big story), we got profiles of the various companies that made fire engines, plus a retrospective on where the city’s current fire engines had come from. Eventually a winner was selected (front page), the award was appealed (another page 1 piece), there were new hearings and discussion, all grist for the mill; and then a final award was made.

Fit Tab A into Slot B

That brought about what I think was the peak achievement of the series: the Times bought the reporter a train ticket and sent him to visit the manufacturer and write a vivid, nuts–and-bolts description of how the engine was actually being built. It took up most of a page the first day and trailed off in a series that ran throughout the week.

There ensued a period of marking time, as the delivery date was delayed, the city protested, and the matter was hashed out in the Council, all events worth noting; and then, finally, there was the actual delivery, a two-parter that began with an advance piece on the day before the engine arrived, and climaxed with a satisfying story on the rollout of the machine and the turning over of the keys.

And it still wasn’t over; the reporter had arrows left in his quiver for the testing of the vehicle, its delivery to a home station, and a follow-up on what happened to the machine it replaced. The end of the tale, its mustering for a first call to fight a real fire, was almost anticlimactic.

But though I mock the process now – and to be honest, may exaggerate it somewhat – I can see that it provided a kind of continuity that must have been reassuring to the burghers of Pawtucket. Very few of the subscribers can have read every installment but most of them surely must have noticed, over time, that the city was acquiring a major piece of equipment. There was no scandal connected with the story, no kickbacks, no crowds with pitchforks at City Hall, only a continuous stream of narrative that, while it may have lacked vitality or surprise, at least gave a sense that someone was paying attention.

All news is local

That’s a civic service that is being lost in the continuing diminuendo now playing in the daily press. Much handwringing accompanies the possible fate of the flashy exposes that newspapers pride themselves on: a Watergate story, the unraveling of government secrets, Presidential sex, Iran-Contra. These – most of them anyway – are indeed valuable; but I think that even more than so-called investigative reporting, it is the constant flow of neighborhood news that has sustained local newspapers for most of the last century. Henry Beetle Hough, the legendary editor of the Vineyard Gazette, who knew how to write stories directly on the linotype if he needed to, is recorded to have blessed an edition of his weekly with the remark, as it rolled off the press, “Once more, the Thunderer greets the world”; it was an ironic invocation of the then august LondonTimes, but it nonetheless carried some weight, in that the people on Martha’s Vineyard paid attention when the Gazette came out. That was true in Pawtucket, too, where the paper’s circulation, over 40,000, was half the city’s population.

The Times has fallen on difficult times since its days as a chronicler of fire engines; it now sells fewer than 9,000 papers daily, and the former owners have sold it to something called the Rhode Island Media Group. I doubt then that it covers the Rotary Club any more, since the only reason we did during my stint there was that the owner was a member. It certainly would not devote such attention to a single vehicle, not even one painted red, not unless the mayor had been caught joyriding in it, drunk, with the assistant principal of Tolman High School, and been rewarded with a gig on American Idol.

In itself, this is no great loss; the paper now has the Pawtucket Red Sox, a Boston Triple-A farm club, to feast on, and City Hall continues to provide weekly examples of political progress. Our old nemesis, the Journal, has been sold to some Texans.

But there’s a reason that the circulation has shrunk so greatly, and I suspect that it has something to do with the abandonment of the old press mantram, that news was whatever happened locally.  Today news is “content,” something to separate the dwindling blocks of advertising. That, I would say, is the real cause for alarm.

The Theater of the News at 28

June 7, 2009

The Theater of the News at 28

By Cliff Barney

It was at the very beginning of the Reagan administration that Lewis Lapham analyzed the process by which the nation’s press had become mixed with television, film, and pop culture to comprise “media,” an amorphous social entity that gave a continuous performance of what Lapham called “the theater of the news.” Himself a veteran of years in the editorial trenches at daily newspapers before becoming editor of Harper’s magazine, Lapham knew from his own experience that much of what eventually got into the paper was molded to fit an unspoken but agreed-on story of the day. His shining example was a Washington Post story about an 11-year-old African-American heroin addict, a piece that had the misfortune to win a Pulitzer Prize, leading to the revelation that no such 11-year-old existed. The prize had been given (and the story published), Lapham pointed out, because the story confirmed what the prize committee and the editors believed about African-Americans.

The Theater of the News, to call it by name, with capitals, is not always so lurid as the Post’s tale of race, childhood, and addiction. Lapham cites its persistence in the taking of “Third World” as the name of a real place as well as a convenient symbol, and in network television’s never-ending “troupe of celebrities [news anchors] transported with the ease of a Shakespearean scene change to Dallas, Vietnam, Chicago, Vienna, Washington, and the Afghan frontier. The technical and lighting effects were astonishing, the verisimilitude of the characters so startling as to make them seem almost lifelike.” This was in 1981; today’s digital phantasmagoria and breathless bloggery is even more hyperreal.

Staying with the Program

In effect, Lapham says, the news process has changed from one of saying “Here are the facts; what story do they tell?” to “Here is our story; what facts do we have that tell it?” And so today we are treated to routines showing Joe Biden as a blithering idiot, Sonia Sotomayor as racist/not a racist, depending on your allegiance, single payer health care as “off the table” and so needing no coverage. Jon Stewart and the Daily Show have a great deal of fun ridiculing these stories, but for all that, they continue. The issue is no longer what happened (what used to be called “news”); it is how what happened fits the current narrative.

Even in 1981, Lapham saw that the technological revolution was beginning to fragment the audience: “…instead of bringing people together, the sophistication of the new technologies has forced them farther apart and deprived them of the capacity to speak a common language.” This is a critical point, I think, and it is more so today, when the Internet and the blogosphere have multiplied the number of information sources. The fabled granularity of digital transmission has transformed us each into an audience of one, and I am encouraged to log in to “My Yahoo” or “” or my special version of any act in the continuing news/entertainment vaudeville. This being the case, citizens are given no common vision, however accurate or inaccurate, of their society. Instead, Lapham concludes, we are “forever suspended in the revolving light show of names, issues, events, votes, hearings, treaties, wars, scandals, and final scores.”

Amateur Hour

It is for these reasons, for the fact that, as Lapham elsewhere puts it, that “news has moved out of the newspapers,” that, I think, newspapers are failing – not that they are being marginalized by blogs and free information. It is really absurd, when you think about it, that a major industry could be taken down by a ragtag bunch of amateurs – blogista writers who can barely write, reporters who do not bother reporting, there being no editors to urge them on, and a couple of smart-cookie digerati who saw quickly how they could give away what had previously been charged for. Against them newspapers could have marshaled a trained editorial army of many thousands. Yet, incredibly, these veterans have been fired and bought out, and newspapers have shrunk in every dimension in a relentless campaign to cut costs and maximize profits. With a few gallant exceptions, publishers have abandoned center stage and contented themselves with printing the playbill.

In the face of this near-collapse of a once fairly responsible press, Lapham himself has thrown up his hands and retreated to the bastion of the elite, rather like the nobles who shut themselves up in a castle and told each other stories while the Black Death raged among the population outside. One can hardly blame him, since the very nature of the Theater of the News makes any given publication just another act. Lapham’s castle emits a kind of modern Decameron every ninety days, the lavish Lapham’s Quarterly, in which a hundred sages and screwballs of all eras challenge the blogosphere in a collection of their pithier observations as they bear on contemporary issues, accompanied by illustrations so good that one can’t just glance at them. A noble effort, though clearly caviar to those with a taste for it.

However new forms are required, I think, for the mass of people wistful for a press that more accurately reflects their needs and desires. Newspapers are expanding their online activities, with varying degrees of success. It’s still not clear how reporting and editing staffs will be affected by this transition, or whether an independent press will be able to stand apart in the ongoing Theater of the News. There is a new cast of thousands waiting in the wings – the generation of young journalists with no place to go, who have matured just as their industry has been dying. One can hope at least that we are in for an exciting second act.


The Pleasures of Age: Ambition fades

March 30, 2009

Being an only child, I was never really ambitious; but I did suffer from the idea that I probably should be, which may be more invidious than raw ambition itself. Ambition at least has the energy of desire behind it; but that other sense, of someone over my shoulder prodding me to get competitive before it was too late, gave me nothing but agony. I was grateful when I learned, finally, to joke with this fellow and take him less seriously. Read the rest of this entry »

The Pleasures of Age: Don’t mind him, he lives here

March 30, 2009

                  One of the great surprises of aging is that I have become invisible. I can go a couple of days without shaving, wear old clothes, and walk down the street, and you won’t see me. I can put on a suit and attend the opera and no one notices. I blend in. No one is aware of the apocalyptic thoughts percolating through my brain; no one checks my math as I see whether one license plate number is divisible by another. No one suspects I am Joseph K., desperately seeking a path through an imaginary legal labyrinth.

No, I am not the Shadow, the old radio hero who had “the power to cloud men’s minds,” and who knew what evil lurked in the heart of man.  Nor am I a Ninja warrior, practiced in the art of concealment, on a secret mission from Sufi central. I am not even a spy cloaked in that secret new fabric that bends light around it instead of reflecting it. I am simply another old fart, taking a stroll in the sunshine. Invisible. Read the rest of this entry »

The Pleasures of Age: Who Knew?

March 30, 2009

As one who has from the beginning taken the part of the grasshopper against the ant, I had never given much thought as to what it would be like to be old.  There is a huge literature about it, but in it you might read almost anything, all sorts of conflicting accounts and recommendations. It’s like a chorus of the blind describing not an elephant, but an entire universe. From many reports, the place seems to be filled with tribulation: aches, pains and diseases, loneliness, ungrateful or addicted children, penury, incontinence, loss of independence. Age, Matthew Arnold wrote, is not golden, but cold. Why borrow trouble? Since one would eventually, if one were lucky, see for one’s self what this universe is like, there was little point in speculating about it.

Age actually arrived, of course, as a total surprise. I remember the moment exactly: Read the rest of this entry »

Observing Up Close: A Walk Through Salvadoran Democracy

March 23, 2009



By Cliff Barney 

(The writer, a journalist based in Santa Cruz, CA, spent ten days in January 2009 in El Salvador as an observer of the legislative and municipal elections, in which the leftist FMLN, the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, increased its parliamentary lead and laid the foundation for an eventual capture of the presidency in March.  Here is his report on the electoral process. He can be reached at

Read the rest of this entry »