Big Data: Magic Bullet or Loaded Gun?

In the article, “We’re going to tell people how to interview databases;” The rise of data (big and small) in journalism, author Viktor Mayer-Schönberger reflects on his new book, Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think.

On the bright side, big data seems incredibly tantalizing. Having access to vast amounts of information will change the way we live, and especially the way journalists do their jobs. It can help editors discover the information that their audiences crave and dig for online. He suggests that algorithms might better know what readers may want to read than editors, and that’s a bitter pill for some “high priests of mainstream media.”

Also in the “pro Big Data” column, you might consider the fact that this data, when used effectively, can help back up the instincts of journalists, and even shed new light on what might be popular with readers.

“I recognize that in some ways I have good instincts, but in some ways I am blindfolded. I am not going to blindly accept the data, but I’m not going to be blind to it either,”  “Big Data,” co-author Kenneth Cukier imagines some editors commenting.

This is also why he proposes the idea that in the future journalists will not only be taught how to interview people, but also how to interview big data banks. This seemingly less than human “informational science” may be an irresistible and illuminating beacon that can shed new light on very human behaviors and trends that people will want to know about.

However, Big Data has its dark side, of which everyone should be wary of, and one that is very concerning. Once data falls into the wrong hands, or is abused by an authoritarian government, the situation looks dire.

When talking about the “dark shadows where big data can lead us,” Mayer-Schönberger makes a familiar sounding comment: “The culprit is not big data itself, but how we use it.”


This statement reminds me of the NRA and gun lobby’s favorite saying…”Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” So if big data isn’t the culprit but those who abuse it are potential culprits, how can we be assured that our data will be safe from those who may invade our privacy, or do us harm?

Who is protecting our privacy from big data? Who controls the data banks, and how can we control what data about us is shared? These are questions you’re not likely to get answers to in big data’s data banks.

But they’re questions that every person should be asking.

Caroline O’Donovan, We’re going to tell people how to interview databases;” The rise of data (big and small) in journalism, Nieman Lab, March 8, 2013.

Second thoughts on the First Amendment

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The Statue of Liberty once welcomed immigrants to our shores with a plaque reading…”give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” Soon they may be greeted with…”give me your cell phone, your log in ID and your passwords…”

According to recent reports, the Department of Homeland Security may start forcing immigrants and refugees to hand over their social media login details at the country’s borders. Once the “Land of Liberty,” is America on the road to becoming “Land of Invaded Privacy?”

Possibly.  This is exactly what the new administration is looking into as part of its “extreme vetting” campaign for immigrants and refugees from the seven “banned” Muslim majority countries named in Trump’s travel restrictions. The proposed action would force these people to be vetted further at the border when entering the US. If they refuse to cooperate, they would be refused entry.

Supporters say that this action is necessary to keep America safe from “bad hombres” and  terrorists who may pose a threat to the country. Critics say that these practices violate the basic human rights of these foreigners. The right to privacy is protected in US Constitution. Some see it as a blatant form of racism against Muslims, which is prohibited in the First Amendment.

Some opponents say that any new immigrants and refugees already go through intense scrutiny before even being allowed to board a flight for the US. But the DHS doesn’t think they have enough information and are seeking to add additional layers of security.

The Obama administration had already proposed a plan to access social networking sites to vet applicants, and dropped it in 2015. However, this new Trump plan pushed the idea further by denying entry right at the border.

To me, this extreme vetting seems like extreme stupidity. First of all, these newcomers should be thoroughly scrutinized before appearing at the border. And from some accounts they are. But secondly, if they were really evil doers intent on committing acts of terrorism, they probably wouldn’t be carrying such information on their cellphones as they tried to enter the US.

ISIS and other terror groups have demonstrated their digital sophistication and mastery of the internet through their global recruitment efforts on the web. So they are keenly aware that you could easily set up fake social media accounts to get around the vetting at the border. Only the most hapless and careless of criminals would be detained and denied entry. (Although some “lone wolf” terrorists have demonstrated extreme stupidity – like the “pressure cooker” bomber who used his cell phone as a detonation device, complete with his selfies and fingerprints all over it).

I believe America needs to defend itself from militant ideologies. But if America compromises its founding principles and rights to thwart anyone who could be a suspected terrorist, does it weaken the very thing that America stands for?   When I think of the First Amendment, I think our forefathers got it right the first time.  No second thoughts required.






Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Internet

Screen Shot 2017-02-10 at 6.37.20 PM.pngWhen Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence in 1776 he declared that all men had an “unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”

But if the world wide web had been around back then, chances are Jefferson might have googled “egalitarianism.” And he could have concluded that “internet access” is a basic human right, given its potential to provide higher levels of education, wealth, well being, and well – happiness.

Did our founding fathers have the internet in mind when they designed the US Constitution to be a “living document” that could be amended to adapt to the needs of future generations? Not likely. But if Jefferson and his pals were alive today, perhaps they would consider access to internet a basic human right.


The Digital Divide. The gap between the internet haves and have nots is huge. Those developed, industrialized nations that have the wealth, adequate telecommunications structure, literacy/education and ability to access the internet have a higher standard of living than those without.

Even within a country like the United States several social factors, like age, income, education and even race divide the internet haves and have not. Those who are wealthy enough to afford internet access, have a distinct advantage over those who cannot afford it. These individuals have access to information, knowledge and jobs that those without internet do not.

The internet also provides an outlet for freedom of expression, that is a hallmark of a true democracy. So not only does the user have access to information, but they have a voice in society that can be expressed through social networking sites and blogs. On the internet anyone can participate in democracy and can become true digital citizens.

So is internet access a basic human right? Perhaps. If it is, what can we do about it?

That’s a head scratcher!

Well, for starters, we can make the internet accessible to everyone. Many towns offer free wifi. Most libraries offer basic civic internet service already. But not everyone can get there. How about those with disabilities? Don’t they have a right to internet access? And for those who have a fear of technology or resist participating as a personal choice, we can also improve understanding of the benefits of the internet, by improving education and training.

In the international community, the challenge is much greater. How do you bring internet to the far reaches of the globe? Is it even possible? Do they even want it? For developing nations, perhaps the United Nations could help sponsor programs for infrastructure.

There are independent sources as well. Like the One Laptop per Child organization ( Its aim is to bring computer literacy to children in underdeveloped nations by providing. low power, low-cost computers. OLPC has received praise and even criticism from officials in some countries who feel other basic needs should come first.

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Politicians often say, “there’s more that unites us than divides us.” Perhaps we can unite behind a basic human right to information and participation via the internet, and close the digital divide.

I think Mr. Jefferson would be proud.

Where do old websites go when they die? Ask Mr. Peabody.


Since the dawn of the digital age, billions and billions of web pages have populated Internet websites. This week we have shared snapshots of several current social networking sites, and studied the “Conversation Prism” constructed by Brian Solis, which maps hundreds of the most popular social networking sites. Last week, we wrote obituaries for websites that are now defunct.

But where does all this data go when these websites have their servers severed? Does it drift off into cyberspace and get sucked into a black hole, like George Clooney in Gravity? Does it get stored in an aircraft carrier-sized warehouse like the Ark of the Covenant in “Raiders of the Lost Ark?”



Perhaps Mr. Peabody knows.

He’s the historian, time-traveling talking dog in the 1950’s TV cartoon, “Peabody’s Improbable History.” Along with his sidekick, Sherman, Mr. Peabody traveled back in time in his “Wayback Time Machine” to preserve history the way it is written in history books. Peabody’s machine inspired the “Wayback Machine” an ambitious digital archive of the internet created by the Internet Archive, a not for profit group based in San Francisco.

The Internet Archive is a free online storehouse of digital media and gets 2 to 3 million visitors a day to its website. Sign up for a free “virtual library card” and you can be one of those visitors. The incredible “Wayback Machine” contains over 450 billion webpages. Yes that’s billion, with a “b.” And it’s growing every day.

Mr. Brewster Kahle is the mastermind behind this project and like Mr. Peabody he is out to preserve history. Mr. Kahle developed software that crawls the web and pulls in snapshots of pages that are available to the public. The Wayback Machine’s mission is to capture and archive content that otherwise might be lost when a site is changed or closed down. His modest goal is to archive the entire Internet. (Hmm, suddenly my goals seem embarrassingly inadequate.)

Try as he may, however, it’s an impossible task. Not every website has been saved in the library. It does not include data that’s restricted by its publishers and the archive respects the rights of owners who opt for the date not to appear in search results or cached.

But you will find an overwhelming amount of internet information, including now defunct sites like…JenniCam (1996-2004) the first really successful “lifecasting” website, (1998-200), one of the first online fashion retailers, even “nupedia” (2000-2003) the precursor to Wikipedia.

The Internet Archive’s latest focus has been on archiving hundreds of thousands of news reports, music libraries, concerts, political advertising, even television shows.

Ironically, you can even find the movie version of Mr. Peabody & Sherman. Hopefully, the old cartoon series will be located somewhere in cyberspace and added here too!

Has social media made us more or less social? Discuss amongst yourselves.


On one of Saturday Night Live’s classic sketches (SNL – for you millennials), Linda Richmond, played by Mike Meyers, hosts “Coffee Talk” (Pronounced Cawfee Tawk). In the show, Linda and friends discuss their “dogs, daughters” and life in general. “No big whoop.” The talk often gets emotionally charged to the point of where Linda has to take a “time-out” because she is “verklempt.” Translation: emotionally spent.

It’s hard to imagine an exchange in an internet chat room, or discussion board reaching that emotional state. Or is it? Political or personal chats and blogs can get highly charged, even crossing lines of civility, judging from the escalating language I see on Facebook, twitter and other social media sites.

It begs the question: Has the internet and social media made us more or less social? More or less “human?” These were questions raised in our most recent class, and it takes some examination to reach a conclusion.

Grab a “cuppa cawffee” and let’s discuss.

More social:

What could be more social than having access to a network of friends 24/7 where you can ask questions, share your thoughts and perspectives on just about anything on your mind? You can decide to chat with a confidante, a group of close friends or hold an open discussion with hundreds and thousands on Facebook. Society is at your fingertips. Right?

Less social:

Well, some would argue that true connection with friends only happens in person, on a human level, where you can see, touch, understand and judge the feelings being expressed. How often have emails or IM’s been misinterpreted, causing you to react entirely differently than you might have in person? And have you ever had dinner with someone who’s constantly texting and checking emails on their cell phone? What could be more annoying or disrespectful? Suddenly that person in cyberspace is more important than the one sharing your real space. Also, the echo chamber effect on media sharing sites often feeds you the kind of information that agrees with your viewpoints, and seldom challenges you.

More social:

Taking classes on the internet allows a student to meet and exchange ideas with classmates all over the country. Having access to the internet and social media sharing sites like Facebook and Twitter allows us to see and ponder other viewpoints. But…

Less social:

…Taking classes on the internet loses the personal experience of sharing a classroom with others and devalues our university campuses which are greenhouses for education and growth.

More or Less Social?

It can be argued either way. And people of different ages may have completely different points of view. The fact is, the internet and social media have changed the definition of social forever, and will continue to challenge and change traditional values, replacing them with new beliefs.

When I posed the question, “Does social media make us more or less social” to a friend…he pondered the question and answered…”Yes!”




BREAKING NEWS, this exclusive report is completely fabricated…

Can you choose the real news account from the three choices below?

1)“BREAKING: ‘Tens of thousands’ of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse.” The Christian Times

2) These Reports allege Trump has deep ties with Russia.”

3)  Ten times Trump spread fake news” The New York Times

These three headlines represent a spectrum of news stories ranging from “admittedly false” and published by a guy  on a website he purchased from for $5  (The Christian Times),  to an “unverified report” by a fast growing but irreverent website ( known for such newsworthy articles as…”50 puppies to help you get through work today,” to “fact searched” by a seemingly trusted news institution founded in 1851  (The New York Times).

The fake news epidemic is sure to shake the faith of readers in our journalistic institutions and believability of the free press. It’s enough to make the average reader cynical and distrusting of any news source.  So how does an “informed” reader differentiate between the credible and the incredible?  The fact-checked and the fabricated? The authentic versus click bait?

Simple. Develop media literacy. How? In Media and Culture: Mass Communications for the Digital Age we are given a critical process to help us decide what is real, and what is not.  First you must realize that culture is complex. Then you must put your personal biases, preferences and prejudices aside. Next, follow the steps below:

  1. Description:  Take notes on the content, the descriptions, the interviews, the conflicts, the topics, the themes. Anything sound fishy here?  Red flag!
  2. Analysis:  Look for any key patterns that may exists, the number of quotes, sources given or verified reasons to believe the article may be true…or not.
  3. Interpretation: The most important stage where you must ask the question, “So what?”  And “What does this mean?”
  4. Evaluation: You be the judge, and decide if this sounds like a credible hypothesis, or argument. But put your personal tastes, biases and prejudices aside…if you can.
  5. Engagement: Take action on what you’ve seen or heard and make your voice known.  Take part in discussions on websites, write a letter to the editor, challenge the status quo, don’t be passive or silent.

Being mediate literate means having a critical perspective to judge whether a news article should be trusted or trashed.

Oh, by the way, if you answered 3) to the first question of this blog, you might just be correct!