Saturday, October 29, 2005

Communications: production

A person's influence on society is heavily dependent on his ability to communicate with the general public. If we wish to improve our ability to communicate with the public, we can increase our effectiveness in producing media, distributing media, or consuming media. Below are a number of ideas and resources intended to help a regular person produce media--starting from the development of an idea until it is ready for public consumption.

Ideas and information can be packaged into several forms of media: speech, writing, music, drawings, and any number of combinations or derivative forms. As you may have guessed, my favorite medium is the written word, so I'll focus the most on that, but try to provide whatever information I can on those other media.


The Internet provides all types of resources to help individuals improve their writing. At the most basic level, one can get free word-processing software, such as Open Office. Also, before writing, it is good to consider tips that can help in writing, such as Fifty (50!) Tools which can help you in Writing.

Once the first draft has been written, an editor can do wonders for improving it. Not only do editors improve the particular piece of writing that they are evaluating, but they also improve an author's writing skills. The Internet should make it easier for authors to work with editors, but I'm not aware of any system that matches amateur authors with editors. At the very least, an author can recruit someone with a shared interest to edit his work, and they can easily exchange material by email. A writer can also evaluate his work using automated readability tests.

The Online Writing Lab at Purdue has a number of resources for writing, including tips for editing and proofreading. As a final note, I think that the most important thing for a writer to do is keep his goals in mind, and put his ego aside and do what is necessary to accomplish those goals.


Cartoons are a great way to communicate to a large audience, especially if the message is simple or emotional, or the audience is not very literate. Cartoons also tend to be more fun than written works, which can encourage readers to show the cartoons to their friends.

I'm not an artist, so I can't recommend tips for making cartoons. All I can do is point to an example of how cartoons are being used to promote economic reform.


Even better than cartoons (sometimes) are animated cartoons. I've never made an animated cartoon, but I've seen some cool stuff and it apparently isn't too difficult to produce animations in Flash. We've seen what has been done by JibJab(This land), NoMediaKings (Time management for Anarchists), and some egg lover.

Unfortunately, it seems that the official software that produces Flash animations costs a few hundred dollars, but free alternatives are available: OpenOffice can export its "slide-show" presentations in Flash formats; Open Source Flash maintains information about open-source Flash projects, which seems to focus upon Eclipse (tutorial); there's also the proprietary but free, PowerBullet.

I'm no musician, but I have edited some audio files using Audacity, and am pretty impressed with it. You can see a list of items that have been produced with Audacity. The rather new practise of podcasting has made it a lot easier to distribute audio to your audience.

Finally, once you've put together your content, you have to make it available to the public. The traditional way to do this is to publish flyers and newsletters. Publishing in these formats is easier than ever, but it is even easier to send out an email or set up a web-page.
Probably the easiest way to web publish is to use a blog. I've been happy with the free service provided by Blogger, and have found that their help files are rather comprehensive. Here are some tips on designing a weblog.

Once you've produced your media, you have to get it into the hands of the consumer. I'll address that in a future post. Stay tuned!
(subscribe to my XML feed using your feed reader)

Note: if this topic is interesting, you may be interested in my previous post on Thinking for Ourselves.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Forcing freedom on the Afghanis

More than three years after the American military intervened in Afghanistan's civil war, the Afghanis have voted on a president and a parliment. According to some, the ability to place your mark on a ballot is the definition of freedom.

Still, a person who speaks out on religious matters is at risk of being executed by the state (not to mention the other gangs out there). I'm not saying that the Afghanis aren't more free now than they were under the Taliban, and I'm not saying that we should not have intervened in Afghanistan -- after all, our primary purpose wasn't to liberate the Afghanis.

I just want to point out that we can't impose freedom on a foriegn country, despite the common opinion of Bush's supporters. This idea that foreign forces can transform domestic political culture at will is pure megalomania. Not only is this notion at odds with most of our experience, but it is logicaly self-contradictory: FREEDOM CANNOT BE FORCED. Our military interventions have rarely changed the domestic political culture, and when it has, it was in the context of a larger war (the Cold War) where the subjected country needed our patronage to protect them from foreign invasion.

Thanks to Dadahead for the pointer

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Corruption: the relationship between official power and personal power

The Xpatriated Texan provides some additional insights on the incentives behind corruption. He considers the position of individuals who are entrusted with extensive power in their official role, but are not given much personal power (in the form of a high salary). This can be especially important in the case of old-fashioned graft, but I think it is less important with respect to the more subtle forms of corruption that I emphasized in my earlier post on How Power Corrupts.

Apparently, in New Jersey, a member of the legislature oversees the disbursement of billions of dollars, but has an income that is less than the median income of the state. Here in PA, the legislature gets a handsome compensation, so I didn't think that this was a problem for them. However, I've long thought that this disparity was important when it comes to the officials who actually implement the law--such as the cops. Here in Pittsburgh, I've gotten the impression that cops can be a bit resentful of the wealthier citizens of the community--especially the proto-professionals at Carnegie Mellon University. It seems obvious that a person's salary should be proportionate to that person's power.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Improving communication

Social influence (and power) depends upon the ability to recruit the aid of others for your projects. In turn, the ability to recruit others begins with the ability to communicate with them. In the USA, a person's ability to get a message to others is heavily dependent on how much money that person is willing to spend on getting that message out: meaning that we have to "pay to play" in the broader society. This condition has corrupted our politics, our economics, and our culture--making everything dependent on money.

Fortunately, us regular folk have recently made great advances in our ability to communicate with others, but we still need more tools and we need to make better use of the tools that already exist. In future posts to this blog, I will provide an overview of the tools that we can use to increase our ability to communicate, but first I want to provide a very brief analysis of social communication systems, and my (non-expert) view of how these systems have changed throughout history.

Producers, distributors, and consumers

There are three roles in a social communication system: producers, distributors, and consumers. Producers assemble various bits of information into a coherent and self-contained structure (speech, article, movie, advertisement, etc.), while consumers receive and interpret this information. Distributors connect producers with consumers.

According to my layman's understanding of history, the relative importance of these three roles has changed drastically over time, and we are currently experiencing another drastic change.

In the most primitive societies, the only communication technologies are speech and gestures. For all practical purposes, this creates a symmetrical system: if a person can interpret the message, then that person can also create the message. The only difference is that some individuals are be better speakers than others. Almost all communication are directly between the producer and consumer. The only distributors ("middlemen") are minstrels, chiefs, or sages, who either repeat works produced by others or tell one person to go speak with another person.

The development of writing changes things a little, but not much. Writing is still a symmetrical communication technology; if a person can read, that person can probably write. However, if only a small fraction of a society is literate, then those members can take the role of distributing communication. The literate class is able to record the speech of others, store it or transport it, and then transform the writing back into speech. This increases the influence of literate individuals. For example, consider clerics in medieval society.

Printing really changes things--no longer does the ability to interpret a message go along with the ability to create a message. Print publications (newspapers) become central institutions in society, and the expense of publication means that the producers need to collect considerable revenues from their activities. The shift from reader-supported publications to advertiser-supported publications means that the producers of media content become a rather small elite, while the rest of the people becoming passive consumers of information.

This concentration of power is amplified by radio and television. Not only does the production process increasingly expensive, but the nature of the broadcast technology limits the number of potential competitors. In the USA, the Federal government even took the unprecedented step of regulating what could be said "in the interest of the community," since the radio spectrum is a valuable public resource. By 1990, this was the boring, exclusive, and controlled communication system that dominated our society and inspired the angst-driven movie Pump Up the Volume (brief review of this movie at the end of this post).

Finally, we (the general public) discovered the Internet. Computer networking returned us to a more balanced state, wherein a person who has the ability to receive a message also has the ability to produce a similar message. The main limitation at the moment is the difficulty in setting up a web-server, but if you have enough money to go to the movies once a month, you have enough money to hire someone to provide a web server for you. Now that the technical limitations of many-to-many communication have essentially disappeared, we only need to set up the appropriate social structures. I'll address that in future posts.

Stay tuned (subscribe to my XML feed using your feed reader!)

Extra content:

You may be interested in the Wikipedia article on Communication; it's poorly written (at the moment), but contains a lot of information. It seems that Marshal McLuhan (this Wikipedia article is well-written) made a lot of contributions to the study of communications, so perhaps he'd be a good read also.

If you're looking for a movie, I recently saw the Christian Slater move Pump Up the Volume, about a high-school student in the early 90's who broadcasts a pirate radio program. It's a well-done movie, but an adult can only find so much value in a movie centered around teen-angst. Still, it's an interesting view of how our access to information (or lack thereof) affects our behavior.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

See Marginal Revolution: A Bush plan for avian flu

The NYTimes reports that Bush is considering imposing a military lockdown on the country should we have another flu outbreak. Just a few weeks ago, Bush was talking about using the military to control natural disaster areas, and now this. Wow.

Anyway, Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution has some good commentary on this. Basically, he proposes a decentralized, voluntary, and effective response to contagious disease outbreaks.

I suspect that Bush has proposed this centralized, heavy-handed response simply because it is what he is capable of ("if your only tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail"). However, I'm starting to get the impression that he's just looking for any excuse to declare martial law.