Category: Journalism

In which I may have played a bit part in the inspiration for Youtube

vintage television

I’m currently in Poland, where I’m giving a talk to Blog Forum Gdańsk, the city’s annual confab of the country’s bloggers and youtubers. While having lunch with Arlena Witt — who runs a terrific channel explaining the cryptic nuances of English pronunciation — I told her the story of how I may have played a small bit role in inspiring the creation of Youtube.

It begins back in January 2005, when I published in Wired a profile of Bram Cohen, the creator of Bitorrent. Jawed Karim, one of Youtube’s cofounders-to-be, read the Wired piece — and what happened next is recounted in an old Gigaom story:

Karim traces the idea for YouTube to a Wired Magazine article about BitTorrent by Clive Thompson in the magazine’s January 2005 issue. The story included the calculation that 867,000 people watched Jon Stewart’s brilliant on-air harangue against Crossfire, while three times that many saw it online. Karim, recounting the online reach of the Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” and camcorder/cameraphone videos of that winter’s Asian tsunami, says he was captivated by the idea of an emerging clip culture.

Heh. So, if you’ve wasted half your workday today watching cat videos, you can, in part, blame me. (Personally, I prefer to waste my workday watching faked UFO videos. Speaking of which: Man, the quality of the homebrew CGI in those things has become superb! Industrial-Light-And-Magic quality, my friends. I also love the fact that there are now Youtube tutorials on making your own fake UFO video.)

By the way, it’s worth noting the other two Youtube cofounders — Chad Hurley and Steve Chen — tell a very different story, one where Karim’s role isn’t so important. (They say the idea began after “they had trouble sharing videos online that had been shot at a dinner party at Steve’s San Francisco apartment.”) Karim soon left Youtube to go to grad school, and didn’t become as famous as the other two. The origins-of-Youtube tale has thus become a peculiarly modern trope: The memetic war over who controls a company’s mythic origin-tale. Joseph Campbell arrives in Silicon Valley.

Either way, there’s a lovely irony at the end:

Once they had the site up and running, Karim and partners Steve Chen and Chad Hurley set about pitching the site to every Wired writer they could find. Nobody bit.

How Ursula Franklin made me a technology journalist

Ursula Franklin

Ursula Franklin is a Canadian scientist, philosopher, feminist, and a thoroughly remarkable person. As Robinson Meyer described her over at the Atlantic web site …

The 92-year-old metallurgist pioneered the field of archeometry, the science of dating archaeologically discovered bronzes, metals, and ceramics. Her research into spiking levels of radioactive strontium in baby teeth factored heavily into the U.S. government’s decision to institute a nuclear test ban. She delivered the Massey Lectures—an important, annual series of talks delivered by Canadian public intellectuals—in 1989, and she was the first woman to be named University Professor at the University of Toronto, the university’s highest position.

She was also born in Munich in 1921, and was imprisoned in a Nazi work camp for the last 18 months of the war.

As it turns out, Franklin also completely changed the arc of my writing career. She’s why I write the journalism that I do.

I recently talked about this with Suw Charman-Anderson on the debut episode of her new Ada Lovelace Day podcast! It’s here if you want to hear it — I’m on at the 25:00 point:


But if you prefer scannable text, here’s the short version of how Franklin changed my life:

I decided in high school that I wanted to be a journalist. Though I’d been a nerd child who tinkered with computers, I didn’t think I’d ever write about that stuff. A real journalist wrote about serious things … which meant, well, politics, right?

So I went to the University of Toronto and did a major in English with a minor in Political Science, the latter at which I was pretty dreadful. Which ought to have been some sort of warning sign, yes? But on I persisted. I learned journalism by getting deeply involved in the campus newspapers, writing and editing a bazillion stories, and training myself to be — my top aspiration at the time — a city hall reporter for the Toronto Star. (A job I never actually got, since my proffered resumes and clips were met with the sound of crickets.) But anyway, that was the goal: To write about politics — municipal, provincial, federal, international, what have you. I kept all the nerd stuff in check. Nobody, I thought, gave a toss about that stuff.

Then in August of 1990 I picked up a copy of Franklin’s book The Real World of Technology. It was a print-up of her “Massey Lectures,” an annual series broadcast by a notable Canadian thinker on the CBC.

In brief, the book pointed out how technology was increasingly affecting the warp and woof of everyday life. She lays it out crisply on her opening, comparing technology to a house in which we all live …

A page from Ursula Franklin's "The Real World of Technology"

As the book goes on, Franklin elegantly used then-contemporary examples to show how technology was tweaking the ways we related to each other — and particularly how digital tools were being used to centralize power. One lovely example is her discussion of credit-card-style keycards to unlock doors. Back around 1990 they were a hot new tech, but as Franklin pointed out, they weren’t just a “better” key. They were a different key, with new abilities. A regular metal key can let you in a room. But a credit-card key can gather information on how often you access that room, reporting back to the building-owner on your comings and goings. Or the owner can, on the fly, reprogram the lock from afar to suddenly lock you out. High-tech keys conferred new powers on those who owned the locks.

When you read the book today, it’s astonishing how forward-looking it is. That discussion of locks feel like she’s writing about Facebook or GPS chips in phones.

The point is, as a 22-year-old kid in 1990, I had never thought about technology in this way. I was completely ignorant of the tradition of philosophers who scrutinized the social, political and cultural effects of technology — from Harold Innis to Lewis Mumford to Jacques Ellul and many others, all of whom with Franklin herself was deeply familiar. But once she’d opened the door, I could see everything that lay within that room. I could see how my interest in politics and culture overlapped with my interest in computers.

And I decided, pretty much upon putting down the book, what I was going to do with the rest of my life: To report on technology’s impact on everyday life. How weird new tools were changing the way we talk to each other, learn new things, waste time, work, and play.

So that’s what I’ve done, for 25 years. It’s all due to Franklin.

The life-changing magic of being a total slob: My Wired column

cat lying on a desk
When I read Marie Kondo’s hit book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I thought it was terrific — but not quite right. She argues that cleaning up will leave you with your mind and spirit clear, which is correct; but it can also leave you with your mind empty. That’s because, as I’d found in reading years of social science about the way we organize our desks, sometimes mess can be useful for sparking new ideas.

So I wrote my latest Wired column about this. Several friends emailed me in horror after reading it. “I’m never going to let my kids read this story,” they said, “because then they’ll use it as an excuse not to clean their rooms.”


Put Down the Broom: Why Tidying Up Can Hamper Creativity
by Clive Thompson

If clutter drives you nuts, you’re in good company. There’s been a burst of excitement recently about neatness, propelled by The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo’s best-selling guide that urges us to toss out anything that doesn’t “spark joy.” If we can succeed at decluttering, Kondo says, we will feel pure bliss. “The lives of those who tidy thoroughly and completely,” she writes, “in a single shot, are without exception dramatically altered.” As the biggest neatnik and picker-upper in my casually messy family, I thrill to this idea.

But one kink, though. A strand of recent research suggests that mess can, counterintuitively, sometimes be useful.

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