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From Issue #13 March 28, 2013

Editor’s Note

The surveillance state expands to encompass the view from the air and individual peeping.

By Glenn Fleishman Twitter icon 

We already live in a fishbowl, and we’re getting more gawkers, writes Eli Sanders in his article, “Ground Control,” told in three parts in this issue of The Magazine. Eli explains how crowded it is about to get, with throngs peering in through our glass walls, due to the near-term and long-term growth in the United States of the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or “drones”) by both hobbyists and governmental agencies. The regulatory and legal framework hasn’t kept up. We’re in the infancy of this technology, which soon could be in the hands of every person — or law-enforcement body — who wants it.

This isn’t a blip on the horizon. Rather, surveillance drones are already multiplying at a staggering rate, and are part of an assault on our privacy and anonymity in public and private spaces. The previous debate, still ongoing, has been about personal, commercial, and governmental video monitoring and recording in public spaces and private venues — as well as about facial recognition technology employed alongside.

Drones take this a step further, with the current regulatory framework preventing us from expecting privacy from aerial observation even in our backyard, whether from a nosy neighbor or the police. Understanding the practical, technological, legal, and extralegal shape of our fishbowl is increasingly meaningful to every citizen — in every country. The United States is just the canary in the coal mine due to our early-adopter obsession with technology.

Eli’s 7,500-word article comes with a few of its own stories. The first is about its length. We aim to publish five articles every other week of about 1,200 to 2,000 words long. The length, frequency, and variety were set to make the odds high that most subscribers would like at least two (and possibly all five) features in each issue.

That makes it risky to go with one long piece. Publications like the Atavist and Byliner regularly produce “long-form” stories of 10,000 to 20,000 words sold in the form of one-off purchases as ebooks or as part of an ongoing subscription to those two sites. Electronic publishing may save “long-form” features, which even as recently as the 1990s appeared in the hundreds every year (in the United States alone) across an array of magazines, such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly.

Many of those magazines have shut down or switched to shorter articles to ensure enough variety in each issue. Ebooks and other digital-reading options seem to fit the long form well, where the economics of writing and producing align with the size of audience willing to pay for such work. This may help revive the form.

This story was so compelling, and so obviously appeals to what we know of our subscribers, that we decided to break the mold for this issue. We’re running this long feature (equivalent to about three or four of our routine articles) and two at our regular length. Another publication assigned the piece, but was unable to run it as planned. We snapped it up.

The second story is about the author. Eli is a reporter and associate editor at a Seattle weekly newspaper, The Stranger, once called the alternative paper. It still publishes much that is drawn from outside so-called mainstream culture — hard to pin down in Seattle, where I live, too — as well as absurd, improbable, and obscene features and columns. I love all that about it, as well as its voter’s guide.

But it has simultaneously increasingly improved its reputation over the last decade for solid local news coverage, especially regarding city politics and crime. During that time one daily newspaper shut down, the surviving daily got much smaller (in staff, size, and scope), and the “mainstream” weekly is a shadow of itself after terrible decisions by a series of owners of the chain of which it is part.

I’ve been reading Eli for years, and it wasn’t too much of a surprise when, a year ago, he received a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. The award came for an article about a brutal attack on two women that ended in murder. The piece in question, “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” arose from the survivor’s testimony during the trial. The perpetrator was found guilty on all counts.

The survivor praised Eli’s story: “His writing brought humanity to my personal horror, and I will always be grateful to have been interpreted by his honest voice,” she said in an essay she wrote for The Stranger in which she revealed her name publicly for the first time. She wrote that it has allowed her some peace in advancing in her own life.

I recommend the story, although it’s a hard one to read: The scenes of personal violence depicted are beyond most people’s worst nightmares. Have tissues and a favorite stuffed bear or compassionate person nearby, and don’t start it before going to bed.

The third story is about “Droney,” the lovable bomb-dropping mascot who appears at the top of the first section of “Ground Control” and in a cartoon split among the article’s parts. Anyone politically minded should recognize the comic stylings of Tom Tomorrow (the nom de cartoon of Dan Perkins), the long-time creator of This Modern World. Dan is either the father of or one of a few who match a paternity test for modern independent (or alt) editorial cartooning.

Decades ago, Dan brought together a critique of mainstream politics and the style of art found at that time mostly in zines, truly alternative newspapers, and indie comic books. When he started, no mainstream newspaper would have run him. Now, he’s appeared in The Nation, The New York Times, The Economist, and many others. Just a few weeks ago, Dan was awarded the prestigious Herblock Prize for editorial cartooning. (Herbert Block was arguably the most subversive mainstream editorial cartoonist across his long career; he coined the term “McCarthyism.”) Last year was the first time an alternative cartoonist won; this year marks a trend given how few editorial artists there are remaining employed at newspapers and magazines.

Dan leaped to mind the instant I read Eli’s draft. This Modern World introduced Droney in 2011 and he’s made a few appearances since then in panels, as well as on a T-shirt. We licensed the strip and larger illustration from Dan, who we are delighted to have in our electronic pages.

We’d love your feedback about the article and long-form journalism.

Glenn Fleishman is the editor and publisher of The Magazine, and contributes reguarly to the Economist, Boing Boing, TidBITS, and Macworld. The father of two, Glenn won two episodes of Jeopardy! in 2012, and he won't let you forget it.

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