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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 publius.cc on May 16, 2008. The drawing of the Internet is by Hugh McLeod. Other images are from Wikimedia Commons.

 

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subway-speedtest

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.

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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.

I’ll be on a webinar this morning talking with folks about The Intention Economy and the Rise in Customer Power. That link goes to my recent post about it on the blog of Modria, the VRM company hosting the event.

It’s at 9:30am Pacific time. Read more about it and register to attend here. There it also says “As a bonus, all registered attendees will receive a free copy of Doc’s latest book, The Intention Economy: How Customers Are Taking Charge in either printed or Kindle format.”

See/hear you there/then.

 

 

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Sacramento SunriseMade a dawn run to the nearby Peets for some dry cappuccinos, and was bathed in glow on my return by one of the most spectacular sunrises I have ever seen. It was post-peak when I got back (to the place where I’m staying in Gold River, California), but with some underexposure and white balance tweaking, I was able to get the shots in this set here.

Alas, the shot above is not in that set. It’s a screen shot I took of an adjusted raw file that Adobe Photoshop CS6 simply refused to save. “The file could not be created,” it said. No explanation. I checked permissions. No problem there. It just refused. I just checke, and the same thing happens with all files from all directories on all drives. Photoshop is suddenly useless to for editing RAW files. Any suggestions?

[Later…] An Adobe forum provided the answer here. All better now.

The rap on Apple for years was that it made gear just for hipsters and schools. But that’s no longer the case. yourbizhere copyIt’s kicking ass in business now too, and in a way that may end up being more dominant than IBM and Microsoft ever were.

A refresher…

From the mid-’80s to the mid-’00s, Microsoft and Windows ruled the business world. To a huge extent they still do. A Windows box is to a corporate desktop today what an IBM 3270 Display terminal was to the same in the Mainframe Age. And countless ATMs, airport displays and PoS (Point-of-Sale) systems run on Windows.

But executives like their Macs and their iOS mobiles, and both kinds of devices are now becoming common, if not quite ubiquitous, on corporate desktops, in the hands of waiters in restaurants and workers in the field — and even at PoS locations.

And Apple has the huge advantage of total vertical integration: they make and run the hardware, the software, the app platform and the company store. Not saying that’s a good thing, but it is a major thing.

The iPad Pro has the look and feel of a design machine: it’s easy to work on, especially with its Pencil, and has a beautiful screen and UI. But it’s also good just for display. And will be handy in the field both for doing business work and for showing that work off.

Any company dealing in stuff that needs to look good to B2B clients or B2C customers will find the iPad Pro is an invention that mothers necessity: now ya gotta have one. Or a few.

I mean, they’re so much better than whipping out a laptop. There’s something about opening one’s laptop for others that feels like you’re letting them into your bedroom, with all this personal stuff laying around. It’s not pretty. Or easy. Or simple. On a slab like the iPad, drilling down to the pix you want is almost artful.

Anyway, watch the space. It’s a lot bigger than it used to be.

And think twice before buying the current inaugural model. Always best to wait for the next version, which will have lots of V1bugs and design errors worked out.

 

 

reader-publisher-advertiser-safeadsTake a look at any ad, for anything, online.

Do you know whether or not it’s meant for you personally — meaning that you’ve been tracked somehow, and that tracking has been used to aim the ad at you? Chances are you don’t, and that’s a problem.

Sometimes the tracking is obvious, especially with retargeted ads. (Those are the shoes or hats or fishing poles that follow you to sites B, C and D after you looked at something like them at site A.) But most of the time it’s not.

Being followed around the Web is not among the things most of us want when we visit a website. Nor is it what we expect from most advertising.

Yet much of today’s advertising online comes with privacy-invading tracking files that slows page loads, drives up data use on our mobile devices and sometimes carries a bonus payload of malware.

So we block ads — in droves so large that ad blocking now comprises the largest boycott of anything in human history.

Reduced to a hashtag, what we say with our ad blockers is #NoAds. But even AdBlock Plus (the top ad blocker and the most popular* add-on overall), whitelists what its community calls “acceptable ads” by default.

So there is some market acceptance, if not demand, for some advertising. Specifically, Adblock Plus’s Acceptable Ads Manifesto whitelists ads that:

  1. are not annoying.
  2. do not disrupt or distort the page content we’re trying to read.
  3. are transparent with us about being an ad.
  4. are effective without shouting at us.
  5. are appropriate to the site that we are on.

Those are all fine, but none of them yet draws a line between what you, or anybody, knows is safe, and what isn’t.

In Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff, I draw that line between ads aimed at populations and ads aimed at you (because you’re being tracked). Here’s one way of illustrating the difference:

wheat-chaff-division2

As Don Marti puts it in Targeted Advertising Considered Harmful, #SafeAds carry a signal that personally targeted ads do not. For one thing, they don’t carry the burden of requiring that every ad perform in some way, preferably with an action by you. He explains,

Richard E. Kihlstrom and Michael H. Riordan explained the signaling logic behind advertising in a 1984 paper.

When a firm signals by advertising, it demonstrates to consumers that its production costs and the demand for its product are such that advertising costs can be recovered. In order for advertising to be an effective signal, high-quality firms must be able to recover advertising costs while low-quality firms cannot.

Kevin Simler writes, in Ads Don’t Work that Way,

Knowing (or sensing) how much money a company has thrown down for an ad campaign helps consumers distinguish between big, stable companies and smaller, struggling ones, or between products with a lot of internal support (from their parent companies) and products without such support. And this, in turn, gives the consumer confidence that the product is likely to be around for a while and to be well-supported. This is critical for complex products like software, electronics, and cars, which require ongoing support and maintenance, as well as for anything that requires a big ecosystem (e.g. Xbox).

In my wheat & chaff post, I said,

Let’s fix the problem ourselves, by working with the browser and ad and tracking blockers to create simple means for labeling the wheat and restricting our advertising diet to it.

So this is my concrete suggestion: label every ad not aimed by tracking with the hashtag “#SafeAd.”

It shouldn’t be hard. The adtech industry has AdChoices, a complicated program that supposedly puts you “in control of your Internet experience with interest-based advertising—ads that are intended for you, based on what you do online.”

Credit where due: at least it shows that advertisers are willing to label their ads. A #SafeAd hashtag (and/or some simple code that speaks to ad and tracking blockers) would do the same thing, with less overhead, with a nice clear signal that users can appreciate.

#SafeAds is the only trail I know beyond the pure-prophylaxis #NoAds signal that ad blocking sends to publishers and advertisers today. So let’s blaze it.

* That’s for Firefox. I can’t find an equivalent list for other browsers. Help with that is welcome.

no-ads-trackingHere is a list of pieces I’ve written on what has come to be known as the “adblock wars.” That term applies most to #22 (written August of ’15) those that follow. But the whole series works as a coherent whole that might make a good book if a publisher is interested.

  1. Why online advertising sucks, and is a bubble (31 October 2008)
  2. After the advertising bubble bursts (23 March 2009)
  3. The Data Bubble (31 July 2010)
  4. The Data Bubble II (30 October 2010)
  5. A sense of bewronging (2 April 2011)
  6. For personal data, use value beats sale value (13 February 2012)
  7. Stop making cows. Quit being calves. (21 February 2012)
  8. An olive branch to advertising (12 September 2012, on the ProjectVRM blog)
  9. What could/should advertising look like in 2020, and what do we need to do now for this future? (Wharton’s Future of Advertising project, 13 November 2012)
  10. Bringing manners to marketing (12 January 2013 in Customer Commons)
  11. Thoughts on Privacy (31 August 2013)
  12. What the ad biz needs is to evict direct marketing (6 October 2013)
  13. We are not fish and advertising is not food (23 January 2014 in Customer Commons)
  14. Earth to Mozilla: Come back home (12 April 2014)
  15. Why to avoid advertising as a business model (25 June 2014, re-running Open Letter to Meg Whitman, which ran on 15 October 2000 in my old blog)
  16. Time for digital emancipation (27 July 2014)
  17. Privacy is personal (2 July 2014 in Linux Journal)
  18. On marketing’s terminal addiction to data fracking and bad guesswork (10 January 2015)
  19. Thoughts on tracking based advertising (18 February 2015)
  20. Because freedom matters (26 March 2015)
  21. On taking personalized ads personally (27 March 2015)
  22. Captivity rules (29 March 2015)
  23. Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff (12 August 2015)
  24. Apple’s content blocking is chemo for the cancer of adtech (26 August 2015)
  25. Will content blocking push Apple into advertising’s wheat business? (29 August 2015)
  26. If marketing listened to markets, they’d hear what ad blocking is telling them (8 September 2015)
  27. Debugging adtext assumptions (18 September 2015)
  28. How adtech, not ad blocking, breaks the social contract (23 September 2015)
  29. A way to peace in the adblock war (21 September 2015, on the ProjectVRM blog)
  30. Beyond ad blocking — the biggest boycott in human history (28 Septemper 2015)
  31. Dealing with Boundary Issues (1 October 2015 in Linux Journal)
  32. Helping publishers and advertisers move past the ad blockade (11 October on the ProjectVRM blog)
  33. How #adblocking matures from #NoAds to #SafeAds (22 October 2015)
  34. How Will the Big Data Craze Play Out (1 November 2015 in Linux Journal)
  35. Ad Blockers and the Next Chapter of the Internet (5 November in Harvard Business Review)
  36. At last, Cluetrain’s time has come (5 December 2015)
  37. The End of Internet Advertising as We’ve Known It (11 December 2015 in MIT Technology Review)
  38. More thoughts on privacy (13 December 2015)
  39. Why ad blocking is good (17 December 2015 talk at the U. of Michigan)
  40. What we can do with ad blocking’s leverage (1 January 2016 in Linux Journal)
  41. Rethinking John Wanamaker (18 January 2016)

There are others, but those will do for now.

ripping up a contractLet’s reset our thinking to what a user’s expectations are, when operating a browser and interacting with pages and sites.

In my browser, when I visit a page, I am requesting that page. I am not requesting stuff other than that page itself. This is what the hypertext protocol (http) provides.

(Protocols are ritualized manners, like handshakes, bows and smiles. They also scaffold the social contract.)

Likewise, when I visit a site (such as a seller) with a service on the Web, I am not requesting stuff other than what that site presents to me in text and graphics.

So, for example, when I go to some-publisher.com, I expect the browser to display that page and its links, and nothing more. And when I go to seller.com, I expect the browser to display the index page of the site — and, if I have some kind of relationship with that site, recognition that I’m a returning visitor or customer.

In neither of those cases do I expect tracking files, other than those required to remember state, which was the original purpose of Lou Montouli’s magic cookie, way back in ’94. Now known as just “the cookie,” it is in ubiquitous use today. In  Lou’s detailed history of that creation he writes, “The goal was to create a session identifier and general ‘memory’ mechanism for websites that didn’t allow for cross site tracking.”

Now let’s look at how we read a newspaper or a magazine here in the physical world. This time I’ll use my sister as an example of a typical reader. She’s a retired Commander in the U.S. Navy, and organized in the way she interacts with what we generally call “content.”

When a newspaper arrives, she “field strips” it. If it’s the Sunday paper, she pulls out all the advertising inserts and either throws them away or sets them aside, depending on whether or not they contain coupons that might interest her. Then she strips out sections that don’t interest her. The Travel section might go on one Sunday, the Sports section on another.

Then, when she reads the paper, she ignores most of the ads. One exception might be the magazine section, which tends to contain full-page brand ads by companies like Apple and Toyota. Those she might notice and like at some level. It all depends

My point is that she consciously blocks some ads and allows some others, some of which she pays attention to, but most of which she does not.

This kind of interaction is what the user expects the hypertext protocol (http) and good manners on the part of websites and services will provide. Websites that spy on users outside of their own domains (or use third parties to do the same) break the social contract when they do that. It’s that simple.

Yes, cases can be made for innocent forms of tracking, such as anonymized data gathering for analytics that improve what websites do. But they should be opt-in for users, not opt-out. Alas, that kind of tracking is a baby in the blocking bathwater. (The EFF’s Privacy Badger blocks many of these by default, and provides sliders for degrees of opting in or out of them.)

How did we get from the online world Lou Montouli sought to improve in ’94 and the one we have today? Check the metaphors for what we had and what we’ve lost.

Back in the mid-’90s we called the browser our car on the “information superhighway.” Cars, like clothing and shelter, are privacy technologies. They give us ways of operating in the world that conceal our most private spaces — ones where others are not welcome, except by invititation.

But, thanks to Zuboff’s Laws, our browsers became infected with spyware. Here is what those laws say:

  1. Everything that can be automated will be automated.
  2. Everything that can be informated will be informated.
  3. Every digital application that can be used for surveillance and control will be used for surveillance and control.

Sure, some of adtech’s surveillance is meant to give us a “better advertising experience” or whatever. Buy that’s beside the main point: it breaks the social contract in both the letter and the spirit of hypertext protocol. It gives us what none of us asked for and what most of us don’t want.

A few years ago, we tried to send a message to publishers and advertisers with Do Not Track, but it was fought, mocked and ignored by those to whom it spoke.

Fortunately, browsers support add-ons and extensions, so we took actions that can’t be ignored, by installing ad and tracking blockers. In doing so we acted as free and independent agents, just as we do in the everyday world with our clothing, our shelter and our cars.

What we need next are ways for us to engage constructively with publishers, in alignment with well-understood social contracts long established in the everyday world, and embodied in the hypertext protocol.

Engagement will also give us scale. As I explain in A Way to Peace in the Adblock War,

Some on the advertising side want to engage, and not to fight. In Dear Adblocking community, we need to talk, Chris Pedigo of Digital Content Next recognizes the legitimacy of ad blocking in response to bad acting by his industry, and outlines some good stuff they can do.

But they also need to see that it’s no longer up to just them. It’s up to us: the individual targets of advertising.

The only way engagement will work is through tools that are ours, and we control: tools that give us scale — like a handshake gives us scale. What engages us with the Washington Post should also engage us with Verge and Huffpo. What engages us with Mercedes should also engage us with a Ford dealer or a shoe store.

If we leave fixing things up to publishers and the adtech industry, all of us will be given different prosthetic hands, each of which will interact in different ways that are not of our choosing and give us no scale. In fact that is what we already get with the DAA’s Ad Choices and Ghostery’s massive opt-out list. We see how well that worked.

The road to personal independence and engagement scale is a long one.

In The Cluetrain Manifesto, we said,

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

Except in 1999, when we wrote that, we didn’t yet have the reach. We just knew we would, sooner or later, as a native entitlement of the Net.

In The Data Bubble, I said,

The tide turned today. Mark it: 31 July 2010.

That’s when The Wall Street Journal published The Web’s Gold Mine: Your Secrets, subtitled A Journal investigation finds that one of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on consumers. First in a series. It has ten links to other sections of today’s report.

In fact it the tide didn’t turn, because we didn’t yet have the tools to turn it. The Journal’s series, titled “What They Know,” is still at http://wsj.com/wtk. The last entry is in 2013. They should fire it up again.

Because now, in late 2015, we have the first of those tools, with ad and tracking blockers.

But we have to do better. And by “we” I mean us human beings — and the developers working on our side for the good of everybody.

Note: This is the sixth post in a series covering online advertising, starting on 12 August. Here are the first five:

  1. Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff
  2. Apple’s content blocking is chemo for the cancer of adtech
  3. Will content blocking push Apple into advertising’s wheat business?
  4. If marketing listened to markets, they’d hear what ad blocking is telling them
  5. Debugging adtext assumptions

Bing’s image search now has a #HowOldRobot that appears when you mouse over an image in the results. Click on it, and you get an age. Here’s one of Catherine Deneuve:

Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 1.11.15 PM

Interesting that most of the guesses for her are on the low side. (One, for Catherine as a mature adult, guesses she’s 14.)

Here’s one for Michelle, and one for Carl. (Chose those because they didn’t tend to bring up lots of shots of just one celeb.)

Ones for me tend to guess high. Sucks, but what the hell. If you don’t mind being judged by a machine that’s wrong most of the time, and your image is splattered around online, give it a whack.

And see if you don’t like Bing’s image search better than Google’s.

The big advantage for me is that clicked images open in another tab automatically. But there’s stuff I like in Google’s image search too, such as the “View more” gallery.

I use both, of course. Just wanted to point out this somewhat new Bing Thing.

 

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