Tuesday, July 12, 2016


[ed. This, in a nutshell, is what Duck Soup is all about (except with more of an insouciant approach to cultural ephemera and dumb jokes). It's interesting that both sites started with a similar idea - posting thought-provoking and informative pieces without a lot of editorializing (letting the posts speak for themselves). I wasn't aware of 3QD before starting Duck Soup, but in the natural course of curation stumbled across it and found a kindred soul. I've even corresponded with Abbas on matters of copyright law; he was very gracious. So do yourself a favor and check out 3QD. You'll always find something interesting to read.]

On July 31st 2004, Abbas Raza began to curate the internet. On his first day, he posted links to the Cavafy poem, ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, a New Scientist article on the possibilities of extra-terrestrial contact, ‘Is it Art, Or is it Arab Art?’, two obituaries of Francis Crick, a primer on how to avoid copyright litigation and a curious piece in theIndependent on Mike Tyson’s short-lived comeback. An undoubtedly dizzying range of subjects.

Almost twelve years later, on June 23, 2016, 3QuarksDaily, or 3QD for short, is still going strong. The latest contents include an analysis of the immigration concerns around Brexit, a book review of American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper, the ever entertaining Slavoj Žižek, an article titled ‘Should ethics professors observe higher standards of behaviour?’, and a Caravan feature on the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. While a majority of people might see this as a vertigo-inducing list of esoterica, to thousands of intellectual omnivores (including Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, David Byrne and Mohsin Hamid) who subscribe to the site, it’s a vantage point. They, like me, have become overawed by the vastness of the internet’s moving feast. One that is increasingly so filled with food that there’s no place to manoeuvre around the table. So we find ourselves malnourished while choking on delicacies. As Raza put it, the “overload is something of a cliché by now but that doesn’t make it any less real”.

The need for filters, aggregators and curators to navigate the web isn’t new. Arts and Letters Daily, the inspiration for 3QD, was founded by the late Denis Dutton way back in 1998. It in turn was inspired by the news aggregator, Drudge Report, which started in 1995. But each of these had their own niche (literary humanities and conservative politics respectively) while Raza envisioned something more all-embracing – which ironically turned out to be a niche of its own. His plan was to “collect only serious articles of intellectual interest from all over the web but never include merely amusing pieces, clickbait, or even the news of the day… to find and post deeper analysis… and explore the world of ideas… [to] cover all intellectual fields that might be of interest to a well-educated academic all-rounder without being afraid of difficult material… [and to] have an inclusive attitude about what is interesting and important and an international outlook, avoiding America-centrism in particular.”

In practice, this elaborate vision looks deceptively simple. According to Morgan Meis, one of the editors of 3QD, all you had to do was “get a few reasonably smart people together, have them create links to the sorts of things they would want to read across the web, on any given day. Voila! You’ve got an interesting website. Then, don’t fuck that simple formula up. Don’t get cute. Stay the course.”

As Raza figured, an editorial team of ‘reasonably smart people’, by dint of their own diverse interests, would automatically bestow the site with a broader perspective. Currently this team, apart from Raza and Meis, consists of Raza’s old friend, Robin Varghese, his two sisters, Azra and Sughra Raza, poetry editor, Jim Culleny and assistant editor, Zujaja Tauqeer.

The power of the curator

Varghese and Raza met at Columbia University in 1995 while they were both graduate students. Varghese, who posts much of the political content on 3QD, was pursuing a doctorate in political science while Raza had taken up philosophy after studying engineering as an undergraduate. Varghese still lives in New York and works in the development space while Raza currently lives with his wife in Brixen, a small town in the Italian Alps, where his major occupation, apart from running the website, is cooking elaborate North Indian and Pakistani style meals.

Azra, a practising oncologist and cancer researcher in New York, doesn’t seem like the kind of person who has the time to post one (or two) articles on science (or literature) every day for twelve years. She assures me that she’s missed around seven days during that time but I can’t be sure it wasn’t a ruse to seem less superhuman. Sughra, a radiologist and professor at Harvard Medical College, apart from posting articles, also links to images of visual art in a weekly column titled ‘Perceptions’.

As the only two people without South Asian heritage, Culleny and Meis bring valuable diversity to the team. Culleny has been, at various times, an art teacher, social worker, columnist, radio host, carpenter, designer, builder and grandfather. As well as a rockabilly and jazz musician and singer who arrived at poetry through songwriting. Meis, in contrast, tells me he’s never had a ‘real job’. He studied philosophy at graduate school like Raza but never sought a career in the field. After numerous adventures that included starting a successful arts collective in New York and living “in the middle of nowhere in Sri Lanka for a year doing very close to nothing”, he currently finds himself in the position of an award-winning critic of art and culture.

The site grew rapidly from its humble origins. Within the first seven months, it reached a thousand posts. Within three and a half years, it hit ten thousand. By their tenth anniversary, it was almost at thirty-five thousand. In that decade, they had only ever missed one day for reasons that, like most things on the internet, involved a cat. Over these years, the internet and the process of wrestling with it changed in small ways. The editors gradually withdrew more and more from commenting on what they were sharing. “We moved”, says Varghese, “in a direction opposite to blogging, meaning we moved towards some virtual self-abnegation in favour of just letting the piece speak for itself. So much of blogging was and is about the blogger’s take on things.” Today, a post contains nothing more than a headline, a block quote from the article, an image and a link to the original publication.

Yet this seemingly spartan layout belies the fact that curation is authorship, just not of the texts themselves. Maria Popova, whose blog ‘Brainpickings’ was made a part of the Library of Congress permanent archive as a resource for researchers of the future, has become an unofficial spokesperson for the community on this issue. “If information discovery plays such a central role in how we make sense of the world in this new media landscape,” she wrote in an essay for Neiman Lab, “then it is a form of creative labour in and of itself. And yet our current normative models for crediting this kind of labour are completely inadequate, if they exist at all.”

Today, information discovery comes in all shapes and sizes – from the New Yorker Minute that does a number on the New Yorker, to Amazon’s book recommendation behemoth. There isn’t a doubt that the latter is a remarkable feat of software engineering, as are the algorithms employed by Netflix, Spotify, Facebook and Google. Netizens depend on these wonders – relying on them to suck in chaos and spit out order.

Yet these same sites are also examples of total moral capitulation. Underlying the logic of many algorithms is the idea that to find what people want, we need only look for what similar people have wanted. Apart from engendering near total surveillance, a mechanism built around the urgency of giving people what they want ignores the importance (or even the existence) of a responsibility to give people what they might need. This isn’t a surprising stance for profit-driven corporations to take. However, as citizens who value democratic access to resources and knowledge, it’s dangerous to allow ourselves to become complacent with gatekeepers who don’t acknowledge their own roles as stewards or see their power as weighted by responsibility to the community. It’s the logic of giving people what they want that’s made virality the metric for deciding what makes the news and triggered the current race for the bottom that has marked the new culture wars.

by Thomas Manuel, The Wire |  Read more:
Image: 3 Quarks Daily