Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Origin of the "Streisand Effect": Tales of the Chopper

Many articles came out last week about Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury book ...

... and some are referencing the boost that can happen when an uber-celebrity's office threatens all manner of legal mayhem to shut down a publishing project, because it's such an invasion of privacy, etc.:

Said Jimmy Kimmel: "Threatening the writer with legal action is literally the dumbest move you can make if you want to keep it on the down-low.”"

The White House refuses to blame itself for any of this, saying press coverage of the book is solely responsible. 

Such marketing bonanzas are now called the Streisand Effect.

It's named for this case: in 2003, celebrity Barbra Streisand sued to remove an aerial photo of her Malibu coastal estate linked to a public-interest website (the California Coastal Records Project). That website had been set up to host thousands of coastline photos. The intent was to harness citizen action to protect California shores from illegal development. Ms. Streisand considered it an invasion of privacy.

Ms. Streisand not only failed to win her $10 million suit and get the photo blocked, she had to pay her opponents' legal fees.

Worse, from her perspective, the suit transformed the offending photo into a worldwide phenom. As in: the photo had been clicked on only six times before the legal filing, and two of those hits were from Ms. Streisand's law firm. Within a month, hits on the photo exceeded 400,000.

World media picked up the story as well. This from Japan Times: "She would clearly have done better to say nothing." 

It's earned a place in the list of unwanted results.

Here's the photo that caused all the buzz; it offended the plaintiff because she had selected her property for the seclusion it offered in those pre-drone days. It was essentially unviewable from the road, or from houses on either side.

The photographer was Kenneth Adelman, and along with thousands of other coastal photos, he took it from a Robinson 44 helicopter piloted by his wife.

In 2005, as part of my book on the social history of helicopters, The God Machine, I was writing a chapter about eyes in the sky. I came across the story, and got in touch with Mr. Adelman. Here's info from our email interview.

Q. Why use a helicopter? 

A: The helicopter is slower and more maneuverable than a light plane, and the removable door is a great help.

Q. What's a good setup for such photography? 

A. An altitude of 500 feet, and an airspeed of 50-60 knots, works well, with an occasional hover with a pedal-turn. 

Q. Did any other celebrities or coastal-estate owners sue him, or otherwise give him grief about taking photos of their property? 

A: No.

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