…though it does have its own special power

Media | Access/Network
The following statement appeared in a leaked memo from a Deputy Managing Editor of the most obsessed-about newspaper in the country:

"People can use it any way they want to. It has no inherent ethical or moral quality, though it does have its own special power."

I invite you to come up with a possible explanation of what "it" is:

a) Wikipedia
b) a blog
c) a Colt .45
d) the new Oral-B computerized toothbrush
e) the 82nd Airborne Division

The apparent answer, at least in the leaked memo from the New York Times, is (b). Though note that they’ve also apparently forbidden their reporters from using (a) as a research tool (via another leaked memo). No word on (c) or (d), neither of which are standard issue.

Let me try rephrasing it this way:

"Special power, without inherent ethical or moral qualities is…"

a) …along the lines of what Uncle Ben warned Peter Parker about before the kid became Spiderman.
b) …dangerously close to what the foreign policy of our country is these days.
c) …taken for granted, so let’s outsource the whole matters of values to the academics.

The trouble with handwaving the questions about ethics and morals– right vs. wrong– is that often helps brush aside any questions about values, which deal with much wider concerns. I had the great opportunity in college to sit in on a seminar led by Helen Nissenbaum on values and technology, where she demonstrated how to reveal the value choices made in the design of software. Choices of names; scales of metrics; directionality of metrics. The name of this feature that Landman was introducing– the movie-themed "Red Carpet" will likely convey a sense that they’re on it and you’re not. Will it provide any more simulcra of access than Joan Rivers? I can’t say. More importantly, it helps a syndicated personality to make David Carr as the "Carpetbagger" blogger. What defines blogs as a medium is not an elaborate comment/feedback system (it is not even corrective as advertised) but it enables the auteur to be a star in ways that prior online formats did not. Whether that is a good thing or not– well, that’s a moral judgment. But suffice to say it’s aim is to play catch-up with the personality-centered media. It’s also the case that the Red Carpet section is actually the work of many, but it’s the CarpetBagger as a "blog" which only supports the direct comments.

Technological choices are not just limited to digital media; they are made as part of the production process of the print. Consider: The Times Magazine breaks up its articles through ads; the New Yorker does not. Which conveys a greater intimacy with their readers? Then again, the Magazine’s cover stories are unstoppable; each of these writers has profoundly affected my thinking: Lisa Belkin, Michael Lewis, Michael Pollan, Jon Gertner, Matt Bai. And for the last few years, it’s been nicee to see Rob Walker’s "Consumed" and Randy Cohen’s "Ethicist" keep William Safire’s "On Language" company, along with the occasional "Domains" and "Idea Lab." But since the September 16th "Bono" issue, the appetizers have been fattened to include the serialized "Funny Pages." The Sunday paper is thick enough, they have to make the magazine thicker. But the whole point of this was to justify the new ads in the magazine. These now have their own story lines, practically.

Well, maybe those are the values that matter.

It’s not just the Times– I’ve zeroed in on the values of blogs before. Anyone who brushes aside the questions about values either hasn’t through about it– or simply doesn’t care.

I don’t want to single out Wikipedia either. But still one must pause to consider the values issues. Hmm– encyclopedia which can be edited by anyone. Anonymously. And if we have to decide whether it’s good or it’s bad, we may err on the side of trust or of caution, without asking the truly necessary question. If we wanted to design an online encyclopedia to have certain values, would we design it differently?

On the topic of values, I’m behind on my Times 2.0 series. This piece will ultimately fit in. But this is a piece to draw in comments as well– and I’m just about finished restoring the viewpoints feature to Drupal 4.6.

Update, January 12, 2006:  this is crap. I should have just emailed the top quote and gone to bed. I’m ashamed.