The Giant Zero

The world of distance

Fort Lee is the New Jersey town where my father grew up. It’s at the west end of the George Washington Bridge, which he also helped build. At the other end is Manhattan.

Even though Fort Lee and Manhattan are only a mile apart, it has always been a toll call between the two over a landline. Even today. (Here, look it up.) That’s why, when I was growing up not far away, with the Manhattan skyline looming across the Hudson, we almost never called over there. It was “long distance,” and that cost money.

There were no area codes back then, so if you wanted to call long distance, you dialed 0 (“Oh”) for an operator. She (it was always a she) would then call the number you wanted and patch it through, often by plugging a cable between two holes in a “switchboard.”

Distance in the old telephone system was something you heard and paid for.

Toll-free calls could be made only to a few dozen local exchanges listed in the front of your phone book. Calls to distant states were even more expensive, and tended to sound awful. Calls outside the country required an “overseas operator,” were barely audible, and cost more than a brake job.

That’s why, to communicate with our distant friends and relatives, we sent letters. From 1932 to 1958, regular (“first class”) letters required a 3¢ stamp. This booked passage for the letter to anywhere in the country, though speeds varied with distance, since letters traveled most of the way in canvas bags on trains that shuttled between sorting centers. So a letter from New Jersey to North Carolina took three or four days, while one to California took a week or more. If you wanted to make letters travel faster, you bought “air mail” stamps and put them on special envelopes trimmed with diagonal red and blue stripes. Those were twice the price of first class stamps.

An air mail envelope from 1958, when the postage had gone up to 7¢. This one was mailed from a post office, where the sender paid an extra penny for the second green imprint on the left there.

The high cost of distance for telephony and mail made sense. Farther was harder. We knew this in our bodies, in our vehicles, and through our radios and TVs. There were limits to how far or fast we could run, or yell, or throw a ball. Driving any distance took a sum of time. Even if you drove fast, farther took longer. Signals from radio stations faded as you drove out of town, or out of state. Even the biggest stations — the ones on “clear” channels, like WSM from Nashville, KFI from Los Angeles and WBZ from Boston — would travel hundreds of miles by bouncing off the sky at night. But the quality of those signals declined over distance, and all were gone when the sun came up. Good TV required antennas on roofs. The biggest and highest antennas worked best, but it was rare to get good signals from more than a few dozen miles away.

In TV’s antenna age, you needed one of these if rabbit ears wouldn’t do. The long rods were for channels 2–6 (no longer in use), the medium ones were for channels 7–13, and the short ones were for channels 14–83 (of which only 14–50 are still operative). The pigeons were for interference, and often worked quite well.

All our senses of distance are rooted in our experience of space and time in the physical world. So, even though telephony, shipping and broadcasting were modern graces most of our ancestors could hardly imagine, old rules still applied. We knew in our bones that costs ought to vary with the labors and resources required. Calls requiring operators should cost more than ones that didn’t. Heavier packages should cost more to ship. Bigger signals should require bigger transmitters that suck more watts off the grid.

A world without distance

Everything I just talked about — telephony, mail, radio and TV — are in the midst of being undermined by the Internet, subsumed by it, or both. If we want to talk about how, we’ll have nothing but arguments and explanations. So let’s go instead to the main effect: distance goes away.

On the Net you can have a live voice conversation with anybody anywhere, at no cost or close enough. There is no “long distance.”

On the Net you can exchange email with anybody anywhere, instantly. No postage required.

On the Net anybody can broadcast to the whole world. You don’t need to be a “station” to do it. There is no “range” or “coverage.” You don’t need antennas, beyond the unseen circuits in wireless devices.

I’ve been wondering for a long time about how we ought to conceive the non-thing over which this all happens, and so far I have found no improvements on what I got from Craig Burton in an interview published in the August 2000 issue of Linux Journal:

Doc: How do you conceive the Net? What’s its conceptual architecture?

Craig: I see the Net as a world we might see as a bubble. A sphere. It’s growing larger and larger, and yet inside, every point in that sphere is visible to every other one. That’s the architecture of a sphere. Nothing stands between any two points. That’s its virtue: it’s empty in the middle. The distance between any two points is functionally zero, and not just because they can see each other, but because nothing interferes with operation between any two points. There’s a word I like for what’s going on here: terraform. It’s the verb for creating a world. That’s what we’re making here: a new world.

A world with no distance. A Giant Zero.

Of course there are many forms of actual distance at the technical and economic levels: latencies, bandwidth limits, service fees, censors. But our experience is above those levels, where we interact with other people and things. And the main experience there is of absent distance.

We never had that experience before the Internet showed up in its current form, about twenty years ago. By now we have come to depend on absent distance, in countless ways that are becoming more numerous by the minute. The Giant Zero is a genie that is not going back in the old bottle, and also won’t stop granting wishes.

Not all wishes the Giant Zero grants are good ones. Some are very bad. What matters is that we need to make the most of the good ones and the least of the bad. And we can’t do either until we understand this new world, and start making the best of it on its own terms.

The main problem is that we don’t have those terms yet. Worse, our rhetorical toolbox is almost entirely native to the physical world and misleading in the virtual one. Let me explain.

Talking distance

Distance is embedded in everything we talk about, and how we do the talking. For instance, take prepositions: locators in time and space. There are only a few dozen of them in the English language. (Check ‘em out.) Try to get along without over, under, around, through, beside, along, within, on, off, between, inside, outside, up, down, without, toward, into or near. We can’t. Yet here on the Giant Zero, everything is either present or not, here or not-here.

Sure, we are often aware of where sites are in the physical world, or where they appear to be. But where they are, physically, mostly doesn’t matter. In the twenty years I’ve worked for Linux Journal, its Web server has been in Seattle, Amsterdam, somewhere in Costa Rica and various places in Texas. My own home server started at my house in the Bay Area, and then moved to various Rackspace racks in San Antonio, Vienna (Virginia) and Dallas.

While it is possible for governments, or providers of various services, to look at the IP address you appear to be using and either let you in or keep you out, doing so violates the spirit of the Net’s base protocols, which made a point in the first place of not caring to exclude anybody or anything. Whether or not that was what its creators had in mind, the effect was to subordinate the parochial interests (and businesses) of all the networks that agreed to participate in the Internet and pass data between end points.

The result was, and remains, a World of Ends that cannot be fully understood in terms of anything else, even though we can’t help doing that anyway. Like the universe, the Internet has no other examples.

This is a problem, because all our speech is metaphorical by design, meaning we are always speaking and thinking in terms of something else. According to cognitive linguistics, every “something else” is a frame. And all frames are unconscious nearly all the time, meaning we are utterly unaware of using them.

For example, time is not money, but it is like money, so we speak about time in terms of money. That’s why we “save,” “waste,” “spend,” “lose,” “throw away” and “invest” time. Another example is life. When we say birth is “arrival,” death is “departure,” careers are “paths” and choices are “crossroads,” we are thinking and speaking about life in terms of travel. In fact it is nearly impossible to avoid raiding the vocabularies of money and travel when talking about time and life. And doing it all unconsciously.

These unconscious frames are formed by our experience as creatures in the physical world. You know why we say happy is “up” and sad is “down”? Or why we compare knowledge with “light” and ignorance with “dark”? It’s because we are daytime animals that walk upright. If bats could talk, they would say good is dark and bad is light.

Metaphorical frames are not only unconscious, but complicated and often mixed. In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson point out that ideas are framed in all the following ways: fashion (“old hat,” “in style,” “in vogue”), money (“wealth,” “two cents worth, “treasure trove”), resources (“mined a vein,” “pool,” “ran out of”), products (“produced,” “turning out,” “generated”), plants (“came to fruition,” “in flower,” “budding”), and people (“gave birth to,” “brainchild,” “died off”).

Yet none of those frames is as essential to ideas as what Michael Reddy calls the conduit metaphor. When we say we need to “get an idea across,” or “that sentence carries little meaning,” we are saying that ideas are objects, expressions are containers, and communications is sending.

So let’s look at the metaphorical frames we use, so far, to make sense of the Internet.

When we call the Internet a “medium” through which “content” can “delivered” via “packets” we “uploaded,” “downloaded” between “producers” and “consumers” through “pipes,” we are using a transport frame.

When we talk about “sites” with “domains” and “locations” that we “architect,” “design,” “build” and “construct” for “visitors” and “traffic” in “world” or a “space: with an “environment,” we are using a real estate frame.

When we talk about “pages” and other “documents” that we “write,” “author,” “edit,” “put up,” “post” and “syndicate,” we are using a publishing frame.

When we talk about “performing” for an “audience” that has an “experience: in a “venue,” we are using a theater frame.

And when we talk about “writing a script for delivering a better experience on a site,” we are using all four frames at the same time.

Yet none can make full sense of the Giant Zero. All of them mislead us into thinking the Giant Zero is other than what it is: a place without distance, and lots of challenges and opportunities that arise from its lack of distance.

Terraforming The Giant Zero

William Gibson famously said “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” Since The Giant Zero has only been around for a couple decades so far, we still have a lot of terraforming to do. Most of it, I’d say.

So here is a punch list of terraforming jobs, some of which (I suspect) can’t be done in the physical world we know almost too well.

Cooperation. Getting to know and understand other people over distances was has always been hard. But on The Giant Zero we don’t have distance as an excuse for doing nothing, or for not getting to know and work together with others. How can we use The Giant Zero’s instant proximity to overcome (and take advantage) of our differences, and stop hating The Other, whoever they may be?

Privacy. The Giant Zero doesn’t come with privacy. Nor does the physical world. But distance alone gives some measure of privacy in the physical world. We also invented clothing and shelter as privacy technologies thousands of years ago, and we have well developed manners for respecting personal boundaries. On The Giant Zero we barely have any of that, which shouldn’t be surprising, because we haven’t had much time to develop them yet. In the absence of clothing, shelter and boundaries, it’s ridiculously easy for anyone or anything to spy our browsings and emailings. (See Privacy is an Inside Job for more on that, and what we can do about it.)

Personal agency. The original meaning of agency (derived from the Latin word agere, meaning “to do”), is the power to act with full effect in the world. We lost a lot of that when Industry won the Industrial Revolution. We still lose a little bit every time we click “accept” to one-sided terms the other party can change and we can’t. We also lose power every time we acquiesce to marketers who call us “assets” they “target,” “capture,” “acquire,” “manage,” “control” and “lock in” as if we were slaves or cattle. In The Giant Zero, however, we can come to the market as equals, in full control of our data and able to bring far more intelligence to the market’s table than companies can ever get through data gathered by surveillance and fed into guesswork mills that: a) stupidly assume that we are always buying something and b) still guess wrong at rates that round to 100% of the time. All we need to do is prove that free customers are more valuable than captive ones — to the whole economy. Which we can if we build our own tools for both independence and engagement. (Which we are.)

Politics and governance. Elections in democratic countries have always been about sports: the horse race, the boxing ring, the knockout punch. The Internet changes all that in many ways we already know and more we don’t. But what about governance? What about direct connections between citizens and the systems that serve them? The Giant Zero exists in all local, state, national and global government contexts, waiting to be discovered and used. And how should we start thinking about laws addressing an entirely new world we’ve hardly built and are years away from understanding fully (if we ever will)? In a new world being terraformed constantly, we risk protecting yesterday from last Thursday with laws and regulations that will last for generations — especially when we might find a technical solution next Tuesday to last Thursday‘s problems.

Economics. What does The Giant Zero in our midst mean for money, accounting and everything in Econ 101, 102 and beyond? Today we already have Bitcoin and its distributed ledger, the block chain. Both are only a few years old, and already huge bets are being made on their successes and failures. International monetary systems, credit payment and settlement mechanisms are also challenged by digital systems of many kinds that are zero-based in several different meanings of the expression. How do we create economies that are both native to The Giant Zero and respectful of the physical world it cohabits?

The physical world. We live in an epoch that geologists are starting to call the Anthropocene, because it differs from all that preceded it in one significant way: it is altered countless ways by human activity. At the very least, it is beyond dispute that our species is, from the perspective of the planet itself, a pestilence. We raid it of irreplaceable substances deposited by life forms (e.g. banded iron) and asteroid impacts (gold, silver, uranium and other heavy metals) billions of years ago, and of the irreplaceable combustible remains of plants and animals cooked in the ground for dozens to hundreds of millions of years. We fill the planet’s air and seas with durable and harmful wastes. We wipe out species beyond counting, with impunity. We have littered space with hundreds of thousands of pieces of orbiting crap flying at speeds ten times faster than bullets. The Giant Zero can’t reverse the damage we’ve caused, or reduce our ravenous appetites for more of everything our species selfishly calls a “resource.” But it puts us in the best possible position to understand and deal with the problems we’re causing.

The “Internet of Things” (aka IoT) is a huge topic, even though most of the things being talked about operate in closed and proprietary silos that may not even use the Internet. But what if they actually were all to become native to The Giant Zero? What if every thing — whether or not it has smarts inside — could be on the Net, at zero distance from every other thing, and capable of interacting in fully useful ways for their owners, rather than the way they’re being talked about now: as suction cups on corporate and government tentacles?

Inequality. What better than The Giant Zero’s absent distance to reduce the distance between rich and poor — and to do so in ways not limited to the familiar ones we argue about in the physical world?

The unconnected. How do we migrate the last 1.5 billion of us from Earth to The Giant Zero?

A question

I could go on, but I’d rather put another question to those of you who have made it to the end of this post: Should The Giant Zero be a book? I’m convinced of the need for it and have a pile of material already. Studying all this has also been my focus for a decade as a fellow with the Center for Information Technology and Society at UCSB. But I still have a long way to go.

If pressing on is a good idea, I could use some help thinking it through and pulling materials together. If you’re interested, let me know. No long distance charges apply.

This piece is copied over from this one in Medium, and is my first experiment in publishing first there and second here. Both are expanded and updated from a piece published at on May 16, 2008. The drawing of the Internet is by Hugh McLeod. Other images are from Wikimedia Commons.


Tags: , , ,

What she does

Over the holidays I asked my nineteen-year-old son, a music maven, to name a tune he liked that I probably hadn’t heard. He quickly brought up “What You Don’t Do,” by Lianne La Havas:

llh-wyddBlew me away. Still does. Can’t get enough of it.

It’s not just her soulful voice and delivery, but the arrangement. Wow. Such a swingy groove, with a beat recalling Sly and the Family StonesHot Fun in the Summertime. Both are in 12/8 time, with piano chords pounding an eighth-note rhythm over rising bass notes. (See the opening sheet music here and here.)

And the changes… the changes. Wow. The lyrics, and her delivery, have this teasing peek-a-boo to them that’s like nothing else I know. (But hey, I miss a lot.)

I see she’s on tour and sold out across the States, but not yet in Europe. Catch her if you can.


At the uptown end of the 59th Street/Columbus Circle subway platform there hangs from the ceiling a box with three disks on fat stalks, connected by thick black cables that run to something unseen in the downtown direction. Knowing a few things about radio and how it works, I saw that and thought, Hmm… That has to be a cell. I wonder whose? So I looked at my phone and saw my T-Mobile connection had five dots (that’s iPhone for bars), and said LTE as well. So I ran @Ookla‘s Speedtest app and got the results above.

Pretty good, no?

Sure, you’re not going to binge-watch anything there, or upload piles of pictures to some cloud, but you can at tug on your e-tether to everywhere for a few minutes. Nice to have.

So I’m wondering, @TMobile… Are those speeds the max one should expect from LTE when your local cell is almost as close as your hat?

And how long before you put these along the rest of the A/B/C/D Train routes? (The only other one I know is at 72nd, a B/C stop.) Or the rest of the subway system? In Boston too? BART? (Gotta hit all my cities.)

Meanwhile, thanks for taking care of my Main Stop in midtown.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

He didn't say it, but let's look at why it's wrong anyway.

He didn’t say it, but let’s look at why it’s wrong anyway.

This is an improved edit of a post I made to a list I’m on. Rather than let it scroll off to oblivion, I decided to put it here as well. The other parties are in italics. I’m in plain text.

If you work in advertising or marketing, kill yourself – Bill Hicks

Brilliant bit. Watch it here. The dude was also deep.

…or, from The Economist in 2013, a wonderful article which draws attention to research which counters the common view about search engine advertising

(which says, among other things…)

…search ads appear to solve a puzzle that has preoccupied advertisers since John Wanamaker, the 19th-century founding father of marketing, reportedly declared: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

Two problems with that oft-quoted one-liner. One is that Wanamaker didn’t say it. From The Intention Economy:

While this line is customarily attributed to John Wanamaker, he was neither the first nor the only source. In The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006), Ralph Keys writes, ‘In the United States this business truism is most often attributed to department store magnate John Wanamaker (1838–1922), in England to Lord Leverhulme (William H. Lever, founder of Lever Brothers, 1851–1925). The maxim has also been ascribed to chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, adman George Washington Hill, and adman David Ogilvy. In Confessions of an Advertising Man (1963), Ogilvy himself gave the nod to his fellow Englishman Lord Leverhulme (Lever Brothers was an Ogilvy client), adding that John Wanamaker later made the same observation. Since Wanamaker founded his first department store in 1861, when Lever was ten, this seems unlikely. Fortune magazine thought Wanamaker expressed the famous adage in 1885, but it gave no context. While researching John Wanamaker, King of Merchants (1993), biographer William Allen Zulker found the adage typed on a sheet of paper in Wanamaker’s archives, but without a name or source. Wanamaker usually wrote his own material longhand. Verdict: A maxim of obscure origins, put in famous mouths.’

The other is that it isn’t true. In terms of direct effects (what direct response marketing wants, and the Economist piece concerns itself with), 99.x% of advertising is wasted. In terms of indirect effects (which old fashioned brand advertising wants), 100% might be effective.

In “The Waste in Advertising is the Part That Works,” (Journal of Advertising Research, December, 2004, pp. 375-390.), Tim Ambler and E. Ann Hollier say brand advertising has the effect of making a company familiar, whether the audience likes it or not, and that this is a requirement for any large company selling to a large market. You may never buy a Ford F-150 truck, but you’re damn sure going to know about it if you watch football on TV (and don’t skip the ads). In other words, it doesn’t hurt to have everybody know who you are and what you sell.

In terms of signaling theory in economics (for which Michael Spence won a Nobel prize), “the firm signals the quality of its product to consumers by its willingness to spend money on advertising.” (N. Gregory Mankiw: Principles of Economics, p. 401.)

This was taken for granted in the advertising business for generations. But today it’s being forgotten because advertising is also now digital, and leading the digital craze is the four dimensional shell game called adtech, which is thick with fraud, malware and world-class rudeness — such as planting tracking beacons on your digital person to follow you around the Net and report your activities to parties unknown, all the better to plant crosshairs on your eyeballs as you go about your private business.

The biggest problem with advertising today is that something that wasn’t advertising in the first place — direct response marketing, which includes both junk mail and spam — is now called advertising, because it looks the part. You don’t know whether the GMC ad you see on Huffington Post is there for every reader or just for you (because some tracking-based targeting mechanism has put it there for you).

Lately individuals have been putting a stop to all forms of advertising, with ad and tracking blockers. According to PageFair and Adobe, the number of people blocking ads passed 200 million worldwide last June, with increase rates in the prior year of 41% worldwide, 48% in the U.S. and 82% in the U.K. If this be a boycott, it’s the biggest in human history.

Most of the whining about ad blocking has been from those directly affected: publishers and ad agencies, since ad blocking costs them exposure and therefore income. Approximately no whining is coming from actual advertisers. (Who don’t call themselves that, by the way. They call themselves retailers, car makers, brewers and bankers.) For them advertising is just a line item on the expense side of the balance sheet. They can cut it or re-deploy it in other ways. For example, they can spend on the kind of old-fashioned non-tracking-based advertising they did before direct response marketing (best known as junk mail) body-snatched Madison Avenue, making it “digital” at all costs, including the good will of advertising’s consumers, who now have a valve to shut it off. (Or just to shut off the tracking. The valves are getting better every day.)

Naturally this has caused a “war” to break out. (FWIW, I’ve been covering this for some time. Here’s a list of posts and articles. Three of the most recent are in HBR, MIT Technology Review and Linux Journal.)

This conflation of direct response marketing with old fashioned Madison Avenue brand advertising has too many of us judging the latter by the metrics of the former. Among those is the author of this Economist piece. Let’s continue…

But new research shows that the simple measures often used to assess the impact of search ads may be exaggerating their effectiveness.

Again, while search ads are called ads, but they’re really direct marketing. They are data-driven, want to get personal, and are looking for a direct response. Brand advertising is also data-driven, but the data is always in aggregate form, because the targets are populations, not individuals. Brand advertising doesn’t want to get personal. That would be too expensive, might creep people out, and isn’t the idea anyway, because brand advertising isn’t looking for a direct response. All it wants is to make an impression. Not a sale.

Establishing cause and effect in offline advertising is hard. Ads are difficult to target: space on billboards and in newspapers is seen by lots of shoppers. Some of these eyeballs are worth spending money on; others, either because they belong to existing customers or to people who never will be, are not.

But the whole point of billboards is to be “the waste that works.” If you’re McDonalds (the biggest outdoor advertiser in the U.S.), you want every driver to know they serve more kinds of coffee now. If you’re Geico, they want to maintain top-of-mind consideration for when people (and not just you) get around to buying insurance again.

And even when big ad campaigns are followed by strong conclusion—that rising sales are the result of good budgets often rise in good times so that spending and sales grow together, even if the advertisements are useless. The ads and the sales have a common cause—strong demand—but may have no causal link.

Right. And that is not necessarily a problem if you’re McDonalds or Geico.

Internet advertising seems to offer a solution to both these problems.

Again, for brand advertising, those aren’t necessarily problems.

First, internet search ads are targeted: the links that search engines show are based on a combination of the search term a user has typed in and his browsing history. Second, because firms can track whether visitors to their websites come from search-engine links they have paid for, they can work out whether ads convert into sales…

The most tendentious adtech assumption is that everybody is buying something all the time. Most of the time we are not. When I looked up the Bill Hicks videos above, I wasn’t buying anything. In fact when I look through my browsing history over the past week, I find only one shopping example, and that was the exercise in futility that led me to post my buying intentions on my blog. So far the response has been nil. Nobody wants to fix a ten-year-old subwoofer, least of all from a company that’s out of business.

Now here’s what matters about brand advertising, and why the waste in it is the part that works: when replace my busted subwoofer, I am far more likely to be attracted to brands I know than to be swayed by advertising targeted at me because robots that follow me suspect I’m looking for a subwoofer at this moment in time. (None do, by the way. I’m seeing no ads anywhere for subwoofers.)

Another false adtech assumption is that “big data” can “know us better than we know ourselves.” This is worse than wrong: it is delusional and an insult to our sovereign humanity. All of us are not only different from each other, but from how we were ten minutes ago. To be fully human is to learn and change constantly. “I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by a carpenter’s compass,” Whitman writes. “I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood… I was never measured, and never will be measured… The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me. He complains of my gab and my loitering. I too am not a bit tamed. I too am untranslatable. I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

No direct response advertising system, no big data algorithms, can begin to comprehend the wild, free, untamed and untranslatable spotted hawk in each of us. But brand ads can still make us aware that Geico will save you 15% in 15 minutes.

(The next paragraph refers back to an earlier one I snipped.)

To test this problem of “activity bias”, the authors recruited volunteers online and split them into two groups. The first group watched a video promoting Yahoo, and the other group watched a political broadcast. The first group used Yahoo around three times more after seeing the ad, giving the impression it was very influential. But the control group—those subjected to a bout of politics but no Yahoo promotion—also used Yahoo a lot more. Both groups happened to be in an active period of internet use. This is why they were recruited in the first place and why they used Yahoo sense of advertising impact…

Three years ago I was invited to a Yahoo offsite in the Caribbean to give a talk to their biggest advertisers, plus a bunch of celebrities who came along for the junket. I told them the future was one of liberated individuals who would only increase their agency (the power to act with full effect in the world), and that they should place their bets on the side of those individuals, rather than only on adtech, which was all the rage at the time (and still is, although now it’s looking more like a cancer). I also pointed at the rise in ad blocking and its inevitable effect on Yahoo’s business. There was a lot of agreement, but no action. My influence on Yahoo, paid though it was, came to naught.

Bosses should still take Wanamaker’s fear seriously: a rise in sales after an ad campaign does not automatically mean that the ads worked. But it also shows how the online world is getting closer to solving the conundrum he posed. Far from being an industry where cause and effect remain murky, online advertising may yet become one area where the dismal science can predict how to get costs down and profits up.

It would have helped this piece if the signaling corner of the dismal science were sourced as well. So I advise The Economist and others covering advertising to look for signaling in the jewel case that is Don Marti’s blog. On the subject of advertising, there’s none better.

onix subwooferSo I’ve got this Onix x-sub subwoofer that doesn’t work. It’s the bass side of a Sonos ZP-100 system driving a pair of Cambridge Soundworks Newton MC300 speakers in our living room. Together the system sounds great. (Consistent with Tom Andry‘s review, which influenced my purchase back in ’06.)

The little green light in the back went out, and the fuse is fine. So it’s… what? Bad switch? Whole power supply? Whatever it is, I’d rather get it fixed than replace it, because we (meaning my wife) like the way it looks.

Onix and the company I bought the speaker from, AV123, are out of business. I’ve made a bunch of calls to possible repair sources here in Santa Barbara. No help so far.

So consider this an intentcast for help. Any takers? Or advice?

[Two days later…] Nope. Guess I’ll just get a new one. Oh well.


You won’t find an AM radio in a Tesla Model X. You also won’t find it in other electric cars, such as the BMW i3. One reason is that AM reception is trashed by electrical noise, which computing things constantly cause. Another is that the best AM reception requires a whip antenna outside the car: the longer the better. These days car makers hide antennas in windows and little shark fins on the roof. Another is that car makers have been cheaping out on the chips used in their AM radios for years, and the ones in home radios are even worse.

Demand for AM has been waning for decades anyway. AM doesn’t sound as good as FM or digital streams on laptops and mobile things. (Well, it can sound good with HD Radio, but that’s been a non-starter on both the transmitting and receiving sides for many years.) About the only formats left on AM that get ratings in the U.S. are sports and news, and sports is moving to FM too, even though coverage on FM in some markets, relatively speaking, sucks. (Compare WFAN/660am and 101.9fm, which simulcast.)

AM stations are back in the pack at best in the ratings. In Raleigh-Durham, WPTF/680 ruled the “the book” for decades, and is now the top of the bottom-feeders, with just a 1.0% share. KGO/810, which was #1 for a lifetime in the Bay Area, is now #19 with a 2.0% share. Much of KGO’s talent has been fired, and there’s a Facebook page for disgruntled fans. Not that it matters.

In Europe, AM is being clear-cut like a diseased forest. Norway ended AM broadcasting a while back. Germany killed all AM broadcasting at end of last year, just a few days ago. The American AFN (Armed Forces Network), which I used to love listening to over its 150,000-watt signal on 873Khz from Frankfurt, is also completely gone on AM in Germany. All transmitters are down. The legendary Marnach transmitter of Radio Luxembourg, “planet Earth’s biggest commercial radio station,” also shut down when 2016 arrived. Europe’s other AM band, LW or longwave, is also being abandoned. The advantage of longwave is coverage. Signals on longwave spread over enormous territories, and transmitters can run two million watts strong. But listening has gone steadily down, and longwave is even more vulnerable to electrical noise than MW. And running megawatt transmitters is expensive. So now Germany’s monster signal at 153KHz is gone, and France’s at 162KHz (one of 2 million watt ones) is due to go down later this year. All that’s keeping BBC’s landmark Radio 4 signal going on 198KHz is a collection of giant vacuum tubes that are no longer made. Brazil is moving from AM to FM as well. For an almost daily report on the demise of AM broadcasting around the world, read MediumWave News.

FM isn’t safe either. The UK appears to be slowly phasing out both AM and FM, while phasing in Digital Audio Broadasting. Norway is following suit, and killing off FM. No other countries have announced the same plans, but the demographics of radio listening are shifting from FM to online anyway, just as they shifted from AM to FM in past decades. Streaming stats are only going up and up. So is podcasting. (Here are Pew’s stats from a year ago.)

Sure, there’s still plenty of over-the-air listening. But ask any college kid if he or she listens to over-the-air radio. Most, in my experience anyway, say no, or very little. They might listen in a car, but their primary device for listening — and watching video, which is radio with pictures — is their phone or tablet. So the Internet today is doing to FM what FM has been doing to AM for decades. Only faster.

Oh, and then there’s the real estate issue. AM/MW and LW transmission requires a lot of land. As stations lose value, often the land under their transmitters is worth more. (We saw this last year with WMAL/630 in Washington, which I covered here.) FM and TV transmission requires height, which is why their transmitters crowd the tops of buildings and mountains. The FCC is now auctioning off TV frequencies, since nearly everybody is now watching TV on cable, satellite or computing devices. And at some point it becomes cheaper and easier for radio stations, groups and networks to operate servers than to pay electricity and rent for transmitters.

This doesn’t mean radio goes away. It just goes online, where it will stay. It’ll suck that you can’t get stations where there isn’t cellular or wi-fi coverage, but that matters less than this: there are many fewer limits to broadcasting and listening online, obsoleting the “station” metaphor, along with its need for channels and frequencies. Those are just URLs now.

On the Internet band, anybody can stream or podcast to the whole world. The only content limitations are those set by (or for) rights-holders to music and video content. If you’ve ever wondered why there’s very little music on podcasts (they’re almost all talk), it’s because “clearing rights” for popular — or any — recorded music for podcasting ranges from awful to impossible. Streaming is easier, but no bargain. To get a sense of how complex streaming is, copyright-wise, dig David Oxenford’s Broadcast Law Blog. If all you want to do is talk, however, feel free, because you are. (A rough rule: talk is cheap, music is expensive.)

The key thing is that radio will remain what it has been from the start: the most intimate broadcast medium ever created. And it might become even more intimate than ever, once it’s clear and easy to everyone that anyone can do it. So rock on.

Bonus links:


On Quora an anonymous somebody asked, My IQ is 131. Can I get into MIT?

Yeah, it’s easy to call that a dumb question. But it’s the kind of question you get from somebody trapped in a caste system that cries out for a larger perspective, such as this one:


Anyway, here’s my answer:

You don’t have an IQ. Nobody does, because intelligence isn’t a quotient. It is the most personal of all human characteristics, and is as different in all of us as our faces and voices.

For the nothing it’s worth, my known IQ scores have an eighty point range. (Got most of ’em from my Mom, who taught in the same school system.) All they measured, if anything, was how tired or awake I was, and how much I enjoyed or hated being tested at some point in time. And none of them mattered, except to those attempting to classify me — and all of them failed.

Remember, that’s what IQ tests are for: classifying people.

You are not a score. Listen to Whitman. I’ll translate him here into bulleted form:

  • Encompass worlds but never try to encompass me.
  • I was never measured, and never will be measured.
  • I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by a carpenter’s compass.
  • I know that I am august. I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood. I see that the elementary laws never apologize.
  • Long enough have you dreamed contemptible dreams. Now I wash the gum from your eyes. You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life.
  • Long have you timidly waited, holding a plank by the shore. Now I will you to be a bold swimmer, To jump off in the midst of the sea, and rise again, and nod to me and shout, and laughingly dash your hair.
  • I am the teacher of athletes. He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own proves the width of my own. He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.
  • The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me. He complains of my gab and my loitering. I too am not a bit tamed. I too am untranslatable. I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

IQ is a measure: a carpenter’s compass. Its orbit does not sweep what is august in your true self, which needs no vindication. Nor does it respect the elementary laws of your sovereign soul. It is just a plank you hold by the shore. Drop it, dive, swim and shout. Then honor Whitman’s style and respect the spotted hawk. Be your untamed, untranslatable self, and sound your barbaric yawp to MIT’s admissions system. If they don’t respect it, they don’t deserve you.

Hope it does some good.

Tags: , ,

Somebody280px-Do_not_disturb.svg on Quora asked, What is the social justification of privacy? adding, I am trying to ask about why individual privacy is important to society. Obviously it is preferable to individuals for a variety of reasons. But society seems to gain more from transparency.

Rather than leave my answer buried there, I thought I’d share it here as well:

Society is comprised of individuals, and thick with practices and customs that respect individual needs. Privacy is one of those. Only those of us who live naked outdoors without clothing and shelter can do without privacy. The rest of us all have ways of expressing and guarding spaces we call “private” — and that others respect as well.

Private spaces are virtual as well as physical. Society would not exist without well-established norms for expressing and respecting each others’ boundaries. “Good fences make good neighbors,” says Robert Frost.

One would hardly ask to justify the need for privacy before the Internet came along; but it is a question now because the virtual world, like nature in the physical one, doesn’t come with privacy. By nature we are naked in both. The difference is that we’ve had many millennia to work out privacy in the physical world, and approximately two decades to do the same in the virtual one. That’s not enough time.

In the physical world we get privacy from clothing and shelter, plus respect for each others’ boundaries, which are established by mutual understandings of what’s private and what’s not. All of these are both complex and subtle. Clothing, for example, customarily covers what we (in English vernacular at least) call our “privates,” but also allow us selectively to expose parts of our bodies, in various ways and degrees, depending on social setting, weather and other conditions. Privacy in our sheltered spaces is also modulated by windows, doors, shutters, locks, blinds and curtains. How these signal intentions differs by culture and setting, but within each the signals are well understood, and boundaries are respected. Some of these are expressed in law as well as custom. In sum they comprise civilized life.

Yet life online is not yet civilized. We still lack sufficient means for expressing and guarding private spaces, for putting up boundaries, for signaling intentions to each other, and for signaling back respect for those signals. In the absence of those we also lack sufficient custom and law. Worse, laws created in the physical world do not all comprehend a virtual one in which all of us, everywhere in the world, are by design zero distance apart — and at costs that yearn toward zero as well. This is still very new to human experience.

In the absence of restricting customs and laws it is easy for those with the power to penetrate our private spaces (such as our browsers and email clients) to do so. This is why our private spaces online today are infected with tracking files that report our activities back to others we have never met and don’t know. These practices would never be sanctioned in the physical world, but in the uncivilized virtual world they are easy to rationalize: Hey, it’s easy to do, everybody does it, it’s normative now, transparency is a Good Thing, it helps fund “free” sites and services, nobody is really harmed, and so on.

But it’s not okay. Just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done, or that it’s the right thing to do. Nor is it right because it is, for now, normative, or because everybody seems to put up with it. The only reason people continue to put up with it is because they have little choice — so far.

Study after study show that people are highly concerned about their privacy online, and vexed by their limited ability to do anything about its absence. For example —

  • Pew reports that “93% of adults say that being in control of who can get information about them is important,” that “90% say that controlling what information is collected about them is important,” that 93% “also value having the ability to share confidential matters with another trusted person,” that “88% say it is important that they not have someone watch or listen to them without their permission,” and that 63% “feel it is important to be able to “go around in public without always being identified.”
  • Ipsos, on behalf of TRUSTe, reports that “92% of U.S. Internet users worry about their privacy online,” that “91% of U.S. Internet users say they avoid companies that do not protect their privacy,” “22% don’t trust anyone to protect their online privacy,” that “45% think online privacy is more important than national security,” that 91% “avoid doing business with companies who I do not believe protect my privacy online,” that “77% have moderated their online activity in the last year due to privacy concerns,” and that, in sum, “Consumers want transparency, notice and choice in exchange for trust.”
  • Customer Commons reports that “A large percentage of individuals employ artful dodges to avoid giving out requested personal information online when they believe at least some of that information is not required.” Specifically, “Only 8.45% of respondents reported that they always accurately disclose personal information that is requested of them. The remaining 91.55% reported that they are less than fully disclosing.”
  • The Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania reports that “a majority of Americans are resigned to giving up their data—and that is why many appear to be engaging in tradeoffs.” Specifically, “91% disagree (77% of them strongly) that ‘If companies give me a discount, it is a fair exchange for them to collect information about me without my knowing.'” And “71% disagree (53% of them strongly) that ‘It’s fair for an online or physical store to monitor what I’m doing online when I’m there, in exchange for letting me use the store’s wireless internet, or Wi-Fi, without charge.'”

There are both policy and market responses to these findings. On the policy side, Europe has laws protecting personal data that go back to the Data Protection Directive of 1995. Australia has similar laws going back to 1988. On the market side, Apple now has a strong pro-privacy stance, posted Privacy – Apple, taking the form an open letter to the world from CEO Tim Cook. One excerpt:

“Our business model is very straightforward: We sell great products. We don’t build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers. We don’t ‘monetize’ the information you store on your iPhone or in iCloud. And we don’t read your email or your messages to get information to market to you. Our software and services are designed to make our devices better. Plain and simple.”

But we also need tools that serve us as personally as do our own clothes. And we’ll get them. The collection of developers listed here by ProjectVRM are all working on tools that give individuals ways of operating privately in the networked world. The most successful of those today are the ad and tracking blockers listed under Privacy Protection. According to the latest PageFair/Adobe study, the population of persons blocking ads online passed 200 million in June of 2015, with a 42% annual increase in the U.S. and an 82% rate in the U.K. alone.

These tools create and guard private spaces in our online lives by giving us ways to set boundaries and exclude unwanted intrusions. These are primitive systems, so far, but they do work and are sure to evolve. As they do, expect the online world to become as civilized as the offline one — eventually.

For more about all of this, visit my Adblock War Series.


That headline just came to me and I don’t want to lose it. So I’ll post it now and fill in the large blank below later.

While The Cluetrain Manifesto is best known for its 95 theses (especially its first, “Markets are conversations”), the clue that matters most is this one, which runs above the whole list:

we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers.
we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.


That was the first clue we wrote. And by “we” I mean Christopher Locke (aka RageBoy), who sent it to the other three authors in early 1999. At that time we were barely focused on what we wanted to do, other than to put something up on the Web.

But that ur-clue, addressed to marketers on behalf of markets, energized and focused everything we wrote on Cluetrain site, and then in the book.

But it failed. Are you hearing me, folks? It failed. For a decade and a half, Cluetrain succeeded as a book and as a meme, but it failed to make its founding clue true. Deal with this:

our reach did not exceed marketers’ grasp.
instead, marketers grasped more than ever, starting with our privacy.


As heedless of manners as a mosh pit on Ecstasy, the online advertising business went nuts with surveillance, planting cookies and beacons in people’s browsers and tracking them like animals, harvesting and shipping off personal data to who-knows-where, all for the dubious purpose of spamming them with advertising based on algorithmic guesswork about what people might want to buy. All this in spite of two simple facts:

  1. Nobody comes to a webstite for advertising. At most they just tolerate it.
  2. Most of the time people aren’t buying anything. That’s why people don’t click on ads at a rate that rounds to 100%.

For years we played nice, quietly purging cookies from our browsers’ innards, or just putting up with the abuse. For few years (2007-2012, specifically — see below), we put some hope in Do Not Track.

Then, when that failed (most dramatically in 2012), we started blocking ads, en masse:


More than 200 million of us are blocking ads now, and (in many or most cases) blocking tracking as well. This is great news for Cluetrain fans, because:::

blocking ads and tracking
are great ways to deal with marketers’ grasp.


Depending on marketers to stop bad acting on their own is putting responsibility in the wrong place. It’s our job to stop them. Besides, asking the online advertising business to reform is like asking Versailles to start the French Revolution. Writes Jessica Davies,

I was recently in front of about 400 advertisers talking to them about fraud, and they all nodded their heads and listened, but there was apathy. Behind the scenes I ask them what they’re doing about it and some of them shrug their shoulders…

The funniest conversation I’ve ever had with an agency was when I told them a campaign they had run was 90 percent fraudulent, and their reply was: ‘Oh, I know, but it really performed well. The click-through rates were phenomenal.’ I re-emphasized that those click-throughs were fraudulent; the ads weren’t seen by humans, and their response was ‘The client is happy. We’re renewing the contract.’

Here’s a fact about those clients: They don’t call themselves advertisers, and they don’t have to advertise. To them advertising is overhead. A discretionary expense. They can spend it other ways. I know this, because I was a partner in one of Silicon Valley’s top advertising agencies for the better part of two decades. And, because of that, I also know how well old-fashioned Madison Avenue advertising — the uncomplicated kind not based on tracking — can actually work, while sponsoring publishers and broadcasters of all kinds.

That kind of advertising, aka #SafeAds, is the best hope the online advertising industry and its dependents in publishing and broadcasting actually have — especially if future ad and tracking blockers permit those through while saying #NoAds to the rest.

Now let’s go back to dealing. What else, besides #SafeAds, can we get with leverage from blocking ads and tracking? Clue: it has to be good for both sides. That’s how business works at its best. Both sides win. We don’t need to reach for their privates just because they grasped our privacy.

How about this deal: better signaling between customers and companies than marketing alone can provide— especially when marketing today is mostly about grabbing for “net new” and flushing customers into “the pipeline” through “the funnel.”

We can help companies (and ourselves) a lot more if we have standard ways to connect with sales, service and product and service development functions — and they with us. Then “Markets are conversations” will finally mean what it’s failed to mean for the last sixteen years.

Bonus link: VRM development projects, many of which are already working on this.


« Older entries