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Nothing challenges our understanding of infrastructure better than a crisis, and we have a big one now in Houston. We do with every giant storm, of course. New York is still recovering from Sandy and New Orleans from Katrina. Reforms and adaptations always follow, as civilization learns from experience.

Look at aviation, for example. Houston is the 4th largest city in the U.S. and George Bush International Airport (aka IAH) is a major hub for United Airlines. For the last few days traffic there has been sphinctered down to emergency flights alone. You can see how this looks on FlightAware’s Miserymap:

Go there and click on the blue play button to see how flight cancellations have played over time, and how the flood in Houston has affected Dallas as well. Click on the airport’s donut to see what routes are most affected. Frequent fliers like myself rely on tools like this one, made possible by a collection of digital technologies working over the Internet.

The airport itself is on Houston’s north side, and not flooded. Its main problem instead has been people. Countless workers have been unable to come in because they’re trapped in the flood, busy helping neighbors or barely starting to deal with lives of their own and others that have been inconvenienced, ruined or in sudden need of large repair.

Aviation just one of modern civilization’s infrastructures. Roads are another. Early in the flood, when cars were first stranded on roads, Google Maps, which gets its traffic information from cell phones, showed grids of solid red lines on the city’s flooded streets. Now those same streets are blank, because the cell phones have departed and the cars aren’t moving.

The cell phone system itself, however, has been one of the stars in the Houston drama. Harvey shows progress on emergency communications since Katrina, says a Wired headline from yesterday. Only 4% of the areas cells were knocked out.

Right now the flood waters are at their record heights, or even rising. Learnings about extant infrastructures have already commenced, and will accumulate as the city drains and dries. It should help to have a deeper understanding of what infrastructure really is, and what it’s doing where it is, than we have so far.

I say that because infrastructure is still new as a concept. As a word, infrastructure has only been in common use since the 1960s:

In The Etymology of Infrastructure and the Infrastructure of the InternetStephen Lewis writes,

Infrastructure indeed entered the English language as a loan word from French in which it had been a railroad engineering term.  A 1927 edition of the Oxford indeed mentioned the word in the context of “… the tunnels, bridges, culverts, and ‘infrastructure work’ of the French railroads.”  After World War II, “infrastructure” reemerged as in-house jargon within NATO, this time referring to fixed installations necessary for the operations of armed forces and to capital investments considered necessary to secure the security of Europe…

Within my own memory the use of the word “infrastructure” had spilled into the contexts of urban management and regions national development and into the private sector… used to refer to those massive capital investments (water, subways, roads, bridges, tunnels, schools, hospitals, etc.) necessary to city’s economy and the lives of its inhabitants and businesses enterprises but too massive and too critical to be conceived, implemented, and run at a profit or to be trusted to the private sector…

In recent years, in the United States at least, infrastructure is a word widely used but an aspect of economic life and social cohesion known more by its collapse and abandonment and raffling off to the private sector than by its implementation, well-functioning, and expansion.

As Steve also mentions in that piece, he and I are among the relatively small number of people (at least compared to those occupying the familiar academic disciplines) who have paid close attention to the topic for some time.

The top dog in this pack (at least for me) is Brett Frischmann, the Villanova Law professor whose book Infrastructure: The Social Value of Shared Resources (Oxford, 2013) anchors the small and still young canon of work on the topic. Writes Brett,

Infrastructure resources entail long term commitments with deep consequences for the public. Infrastructures are a prerequisite for economic and social development. Infrastructures shape complex systems of human activity, including economic, cultural, and political systems. That is, infrastructures affect the behaviour of individuals, firms, households, and other organizations by providing and shaping the available opportunities of these actors to participate in these systems and to interact with each other.

The emphasis is mine, because I am curious about how shaping works. Specifically, How does infrastructure shape all those things—and each of us as well?

Here is a good example of people being shaped, in this case by mobile phones:

I shot that photo on my own phone in a New York subway a few months ago. As you see, everybody in that car is fully preoccupied with their personal rectangle. These people are not the same as they were ten or even five years ago. Nor are the “firms, households and other organizations” in which they participate. Nor is the subway itself, now that all four major mobile phone carriers cover every station in the city. At good speeds too:

We don’t know if Marshall McLuhan said “we shape our tools and then our tools shape us,” but it was clearly one of his core teachings (In fact the line comes from Father John Culkin, SJ, a Professor of Communication at Fordham and a colleague of McLuhan’s. Whether or not Culkin got it from McLuhan we’ll never know.) As aphorisms go, it’s a close relative to the subtitle of McLuhan’s magnum opus, Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man (Berkeley, 1964, 1994, 2003). The two are compressed into his most quoted line, “the medium is the message,” which says that every medium changes us while also extending us.

In The Medium is the Massage: an Inventory of Effects (Gingko, 1967, 2001), McLuhan explains it this way: “All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive… that they leave no part of us untouched unaffected, unaltered… Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments.”

Specifically, “All media are extensions of some human faculty—psychic or physical. The wheel is an extension of the foot.The book is an extension of the eye. Clothing, an extension of the skin. Electric curcuitry, an extension of the central nervous system. Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptins. The extension of any once sense alters the way we think and act—the way we perceive the world. When these things change, men change.”

He also wasn’t just talking communications media. He was talking about everything we make, which in turn make us. As Eric McLuhan (Marshall’s son and collaborator) explains in Laws of Media: The New Science (Toronto, 1988), “media” meant “everything man[kind] makes and does, every procedure, every style, every artefact, every poem, song, painting, gimmick, gadget, theory—every product of human effort.”

Chief among the laws Marshall and Eric minted is the tetrad of media effects. (A tetrad is a group of four.) It says every medium, every technology, has effects that refract in four dimensions that also affect each other. Here’s a graphic representation of them:

They apply these laws heuristically, through questions:

  1. What does a medium enhance?
  2. What does it obsolesce?
  3. What does it retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does it reverse or flip into when pushed to its extreme (for example, by becoming ubiquitous)?

Questions are required because there can be many different effects, and many different answers. All can change. All can be argued. All can work us over.

One workover happened right here, with this blog. In fact, feeling worked over was one of the reasons I dug back into McLuhan, who I had been ignoring for decades.

Here’s the workover…

In the heyday of blogging, back in the early ’00s, this blog’s predecessor (at doc.weblogs.com) had about 20,000 subscribers to its RSS feed, and readers that numbered in up to dozens of thousand per day. Now it gets dozens. On a good day, maybe hundreds. What happened?

In two words, social media. When I put that in the middle of the tetrad, four answers that jumped to mind:

In the ENHANCED corner, Social media surely makes everyone more social, in the purely convivial sense of the word. Suddenly we have hundreds or thousands of “friends” (Facebook, Swarm, Instagram), “followers” (Twitter) and “contacts” (Linkedin). Never mind that we know few of their birthdays, parents names or other stuff we used to care about. We’re social with them now.

Blogging clearly got OBSOLESCED, but—far more importantly—so did the rest of journalism. And I say this as a journalist who once made a living at the profession and now, like everybody else who once did the same, now make squat. What used to be business of journalism is now the business of “content production,” because that’s what social media and its publishing co-dependents get paid by advertising robots to produce in the world. What’s more, anybody can now participate. Look at that subway car photo above. Any one of those people, or all of them, are journalists now. They write and post in journals of various kinds on social media. Some of what they produce is news, if you want to call it that. But hell, news itself is worked over completely. (More about that in a minute.)

We’ve RETRIEVED gossip, which journalism, the academy and the legal profession had obsolesced (by saying, essentially, “we’re in charge of truth and facts”). In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper, 2015), Yuval Noah Harari says gossip was essential for our survival as hunter-gatherers: “Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bisons.. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest and who is a cheat.” And now we can do that with anybody and everybody, across the vast yet spaceless nowhere we call the Internet, and to hell with the old formalisms of journalism, education and law.

And social media has also clearly REVERSED us into tribes, especially in the news we produce and consume, much of it to wage verbal war with each other. Or worse. For a view of how that works, check out The Wall Street Journal‘s Red Feed / Blue Feed site, which shows the completely opposed (and hostile) views of the world that Facebook injects into the news feeds of people its algorithms consider “very liberal” or “very conservative.”

Is social media infrastructure? I suppose so. The mobile phone network certainly is. And right now we’re glad to have it, because Houston, the fourth largest city in the U.S., is suffering perhaps the worst natural disaster in the country’s history, and the cell phone system is holding up remarkably well, so far. Countless lives are being saved by it, and it will certainly remain the most essential communication system as the city recovers and rebuilds.

Meanwhile, however, it also makes sense to refract the mobile phone through the tetrad. I did that right after I shot the photo above, in this blog post. In it I said smartphones—

  • Enhance conversation
  • Obsolesce mass media (print, radio, TV, cinema, whatever)
  • Retrieve personal agency (the ability to act with effect in the world)
  • Reverse into isolation (also into lost privacy through exposure to surveillance and exploitation)

In the same graphic, it looks like this:

But why listen to me when the McLuhans were on the case almost three decades ago? This is from Gregory Sandstrom‘s “Laws of media—The four effects: A Mcluhan contribution to social epistemology” (SERCC, November 11, 2012)—

The REVERSES items might be off, the but others are right on. (Whoa: cameras!)

The problem here, however, is the tendency we have to get caught up in effects. While those are all interesting, the McLuhans want us to look below those, to causes. This is hard because effects are figures, and causes are grounds: the contexts from which figures arise. From Marshall and Eric McLuhan’s Media and Formal Cause (Neopoesis, 2011): “Novelty becomes cliché through use. And constant use creates a new hidden environment while simultaneously pushing the old invisible ground into prominence, as a new figure, clearly visible for the first time. Every innovation scraps its immediate predecessor and retrieves still older figures; it causes floods of antiquities or nostalgic art forms and stimulates the search for ‘museum pieces’.”

We see this illustrated by Isabelle Adams in her paper “What Would McLuhan Say about the Smartphone? Applying McLuhan’s Tetrad to the Smartphone” (Glocality, 2106):

 

Laws of Media again: “The motor car retrieved the countryside, scrapped the inner core of the city, and created suburban megalopolis. Invention is the mother of necessities, old and new.”

We tend to see it the other way around, with necessity mothering invention. It should help to learn from the McLuhans that most of what we think we need is what we invent in order to need it.

Beyond clothing, shelter and tools made of sticks and stones, all the artifacts that fill civilized life are ones most of us didn’t know we needed until some maker in our midst invented them.

And some tools—extensions of our bodies—don’t become necessities until somebody invents a new way to use them. Palm, Nokia and Blackberry all made smart phones a decade before the iPhone and the Android. Was it those two operating systems that made them everybody suddenly want one? No, apps were the inventions that mothered mass necessity for mobile phones, just like it was websites the made us need graphical browsers, which made us need personal computers connected by the Internet.

All those things are effects that the McLuhans want us to look beneath. But they don’t want us to look for the obvious causes of the this-made-that-happen kind. In Media and Formal Cause, Eric McLuhan writes:

Formal causality kicks in whenever “coming events cast their shadows before them.” Formal cause is still, in our time, hugely mysterious. The literate mind finds it is too paradoxical and irrational. It deals with environmental processes and it works outside of time. The effects—those long shadows—arrive first; the causes take a while longer.

Formal cause was one of four listed first by Aristotle:

  • Material—what something is made of.
  • Efficient—how one thing acts on another, causing change.
  • Formal—what makes the thing form a coherent whole.
  • Final—the purpose to which a thing is put.

In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan writes, “Any technology gradually creates a totally new human environment”, adding:

Environments are not passive wrappings but active processes….The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure.

Thus railways were a formal cause that scaled up new kinds of cities, work and leisure.  “People don’t want to know the cause of anything”, Marshall said (and Eric quotes, in Media and Formal Cause). “They do not want to know why radio caused Hitler and Gandhi alike. They do not want to know that print caused anything whatever. As users of these media, they wish merely to get inside, hoping perhaps to add another layer to their environment….”

In Media and Formal Cause, Eric also sources Jane Jacobs:

Current theory in many fields—economics, history, anthropology—assumes that cities are built upon a rural economic base. If my observations and reasoning are correct, the reverse is true: that rural economies, including agricultural work, are directly built upon city economies and city work….Rural production is literally the creation of city consumption. That is to say, city economics invent the things that are to become city imports from the rural world.

Which brings us back to Houston. What forms will it cause as we repair it?

(I’m still not done, but need to get to my next appointment. Stay tuned.)

 

 

Nobody is going to own podcasting.990_large By that I mean nobody is going to trap it in a silo. Apple tried, first with its podcasting feature in iTunes, and again with its Podcasts app. Others have tried as well. None of them have succeeded, or will ever succeed, for the same reason nobody has ever owned the human voice, or ever will. (Other, of course, than their own.)

Because podcasting is about the human voice. It’s humans talking to humans: voices to ears and voices to voices—because listeners can talk too. They can speak back. And forward. Lots of ways.

Podcasting is one way for markets to have conversations; but the podcast market itself can’t be bought or controlled, because it’s not a market. Or an “industry.” Instead, like the Web, email and other graces of open protocols on the open Internet, podcasting is all-the-way deep.

Deep like, say, language. And, like language, it’s NEA: Nobody owns it, Everybody can use it and Anybody can improve it. That means anybody and everybody can do wherever they want with it. It’s theirs—and nobody’s—for the taking.

This is one of the many conclusions (some of them provisional) I reached after two days at The Unplugged Soul: Conference on the Podcast at Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, which I live-tweeted through Little Pork Chop and live-blogged through doc.blog at 1999.io.

Both of those are tools created by Dave Winer, alpha dad of blogging, podcasting and syndicating. Dave was half the guests on Friday evening’s opening panel. The other half was Christopher Lydon, whose own podcast, Radio Open Source, was born out of his creative partnership with Dave in the early chapters of podcasting’s Genesis, in 2003, when both were at Harvard’s Berkman (now Berkman Klein) Center.

One way you can tell nobody owns podcasting is that 1.5 decades have passed since 2003 and there are still no dominant or silo’d tools either for listening to podcasts or for making them.

On the listening side, there is no equivalent of, say, the browser. There are many very different ways to get podcasts, and all of them are wildly different as well. Remarkably (or perhaps not), the BigCo leaders aren’t leading. Instead they’re looking brain-dead.

The biggest example is Apple, which demonstrates its tin head through its confusing (and sales-pressure-intensive) iTunes app on computers and its Podcasts app, defaulted on the world’s billion iPhones. That app’s latest version is sadly and stupidly rigged to favor streaming from the cloud over playing already-downloaded podcasts, meaning you can no longer listen easily when you’re offline, such as when you’re on a plane. By making that change, Apple treated a feature of podcasting as a bug. Also dumb: a new UI element—a little set of vertical bars indicating audio activity—that seems to mean both live playing and downloading. Or perhaps neither. I almost don’t want to know at this point, since I have come to hate the app so much.

Other tools by smaller developers (e.g. Overcast) do retain the already-downloaded feature, but work in different ways from other tools. Which is cool to me, because that way no one player dominates.

On the production side there are also dozens of tools and services. As a wannabe podcaster (whose existing output is limited so far to three podcasts in twelve years), I have found none that make producing a podcast as easy as it is to write a blog or an email. (When that happens, watch out.)

So here’s a brief compilation of my gatherings, so far, in no order of importance, from the conference.

  • Podcasting needs an unconference like IIW (the next of which happens the first week of May in Silicon Valley): one devoted to conversation and forward movement of the whole field, and not to showcasing panels, keynotes or sponsoring vendors. One advantage of unconferences is that they’re all about what are side conversations at standard keynote-and-panel conferences. An example from my notes: Good side conversations. One is with Sovana Bailey McLain (@solartsnyc), whose podcast is also a radio show, State of the Arts. And she has a blog too. The station she’s on is WBAI, which has gone through (says Wikipedia) turmoil and change for many decades. An unconference will also foster something many people at the conference said they wanted: more ways to collaborate.
  • Now is a good time to start selling off over-the-air radio signals. Again from my notes… So I have an idea. It’s one WBAI won’t like, but it’s a good one: Sell the broadcast license, keep everything else. WBAI’s signal on 99.5fm is a commercial one, because it’s on the commercial part of the FM band. This NY Times report says an equivalent station (WQXR when it was on 96.3fm) was worth $45 million in 2009. I’m guessing that WBAI’s licence would bring about half that because listening is moving to Net-connected rectangles, and the competition is every other ‘cast in the world. Even the “station” convention is antique. On the Net there are streams and files:stuff that’s live and stuff that’s not. From everywhere. WBAI (or its parent, the Pacifica Foundation), should sell the license while the market is still there, and use the money to fund development and production of independent streams and podcasts, in many new ways.  Keep calling the convening tent WBAI, but operate outside the constraints of limited signal range and FCC rules.
  • Compared to #podcasting, the conventions of radio are extremely limiting. You don’t need a license to podcast. You aren’t left out of the finite number of radio channels and confined geographies. You aren’t constrained by FCC anti-“profanity” rules limiting freedom of speech—or any FCC rules at all. In other words, you can say what the fuck you please, however you want to say it. You’re free of the tyranny of the clock, of signposting, of the need for breaks, and other broadcast conventions. All that said, podcasting can, and does, improve radio as well. This was a great point made on stage by the @kitchensisters.
  • Podcasting conventionally copyrighted music is still impossible. On the plus side, there is no license-issuing or controlling entity to do a deal with the recording industry to allow music on podcasts, because there is nothing close to a podcasting monopoly. (Apple could probably make such a deal if it wanted to, but it hasn’t, and probably won’t.) On the minus side, you need to “clear rights” for every piece of music you play that isn’t “podsafe.” That includes nearly all the music you already know. But then, back on the plus side, this means podcasting is nearly all spoken word. In the past I thought this was a curse. Now I think it’s a grace.
  • Today’s podcasting conventions are provisional and temporary. A number of times during the conference I observed that the sound coming from the stage was one normalized by This American Life and its descendants. In consonance with that, somebody put up a slide of a tweet by @emilybell:podcast genres : 1. Men going on about things. 2. Whispery crime 3.Millennials talking over each other 4. Should be 20 minutes shorter. We can, and will, do better. And other.
  • Maybe podcasting is the best way we have to start working out our problems with race, gender, politics and bad habits of culture that make us unhappy and thwart progress of all kinds. I say that because 1) the best podcasting I know deals with these things directly and far more constructively than anything I have witnessed in other media, and 2) no bigfoot controls it.
  • Archiving is an issue. I don’t know what a “popup archive” is, but it got mentioned more than once.
  • Podcasting has no business model. It’s like the Internet, email and the Web that way. You make money because of it, not with it. If you want to. Since it can be so cheap to do (in terms of both time and money), you don’t have to make money at it if you don’t want to.

I’ll think of more as I go over more of my notes. Meanwhile, please also dig Dave’s take-aways from the same conference.

applebutton1The headline above came to me this morning after reading Walt Mossberg’s latest, titled The post-Jobs Apple has soared financially, but lacks a breakthrough product.

Because the main things Apple makes are extensions of ourselves. That’s what our phones and laptops have become. They are things we almost wear, like our clothing.

Is it just coincidental that Apple Stores inhabit shopping districts also populated by upscale clothing retailers? Or that Angela Ahrendts, who runs those stores, came to the company from Burberry? Or that its Watch, sold as what the fashion business calls an accessory, clearly matters far more to the company than what we used to call “peripherals” (screens, printers, drives, etc.) and that Apple hardly seems to care at all about the latter?

And is it coincidental that Apple has lately clarified how it differs from nearly every other tech company by caring almost absolutely about personal privacy?

Apple’s Jobsian obsession with design (and, one might say, fashion), while interesting, also misdirects attention away from the company’s deeper focus on enlarging its customers’ capacities in the world.

Dig this: Apple cares so much about the bodies using its products that Tim Cook recently said this to Rick Tetzeli of FastCompany: “When you look at most of the solutions, whether it’s devices, or things coming up out of Big Pharma, first and foremost, they are done to get the reimbursement [from an insurance provider]. Not thinking about what helps the patient. So if you don’t care about reimbursement, which we have the privilege of doing, that may even make the smartphone market look small.”

With all that in mind, it’s easy to understand why Apple’s product lineup looks stale. Shirts, skirts and hats are stale too. They’ve also been around for thousands of years, and we’ll never stop wearing them.

It took me a long time to come to this realization. Here’s what I wrote in Apple Rot, a post here in January 2013, and repeated in Proof that Steve Jobs is dead, posted May 2014:

…look at what Apple’s got:

  • The iPhone 5 is a stretched iPhone 4s, which is an iPhone 4 with sprinkles. The 4 came out almost 3 years ago. No Androids are as slick as the iPhone, but dozens of them have appealing features the iPhone lacks. And they come from lots of different companies, rather than just one.

  • The only things new about the iPad are the retina screen (amazing, but no longer unique) and the Mini, which should have come out years earlier and lacks a retina screen.

  • Apple’s computer line is a study in incrementalism. There is little new to the laptops or desktops other than looks — and subtracted features. (And models, such as the 17″ Macbook Pro.) That goes for the OS as well.

  • There is nothing exciting on the horizon other than the hazy mirage of a new Apple TV. And even if that arrives, nothing says “old” more than those two letters: TV.

Since then Apple has come out with the Watch (points for originality with that one), introduced the hardly-seen (but cool-looking) Mac Pro (now also very stale), killed its Thunderbolt display, held its Time Capsule to a paltry (and damn near useless) 3Tb, done little to improve its AirPort Wi-Fi base stations — and has iterated its desktops and laptops so minimally that you can get along for years without a new one. Kinda like a good pair of jeans.

So maybe all that matters for Apple is that it accessorizes its customers better than everybody else.

You can hear a hint toward that from Tim Cook in this recent FastCompany report: “Our strategy is to help you in every part of your life that we can…whether you’re sitting in the living room, on your desktop, on your phone, or in your car.”

Here’s betting Apple’s announcement on Wednesday will be all about stuff meant to be a part of you. And not much that sounds like the rest of the personal computer business. (Which, we might remember, Steve Jobs pretty much invented.)

2016-05-02berkman

This event is now in the past and can be seen in its entirety here.

Stop now and go to TimeWellSpent.io, where @TristanHarris, the guy on the left above, has produced and gathered much wisdom about a subject most of us think little about and all of us cannot value more: our time.

Both of us will be co-investing some time tomorrow afternoon at the @BerkmanCenter, talking about Tristan’s work and visiting the question he raises above with guidance from S.J. Klein.

(Shortlink for the event: http://j.mp/8thix. And a caution: it’s a small room.)

So, to help us get started, here’s a quick story, and a context in the dimension of time…


Many years ago a reporter told me a certain corporate marketing chief “abuses the principle of instrumentality.”

Totally knocked me out. I mean, nobody in marketing talked much about “influencers” then. Instead it was “contacts.” This reporter was one of those. And he was exposing something icky about the way influence works in journalism.

At different times in my life I have both spun as a marketer and been spun as a reporter. So hearing that word — instrumentality — put the influence business in perspective and knocked it down a notch on the moral scale. I had to admit there was a principle at work: you had to be a tool if you were using somebody as as one.

Look back through The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs, and you’ll see what I mean. Nobody was better than Ole’ Steve at using journalists. (Example: Walt Mossberg.) And nobody was better at exposing the difference between sausage and shit than Dan Lyons, who wrote that blog as Fake Steve. (Right: you didn’t want to see either being made. Beyond that the metaphor fails.)

Anyway, visiting the influence thing is a good idea right now because of this:

googletrends-influencer

And this:

googletrends-influencer-marketing

I call it a bubble and blame data. But that’s just to get the conversation started.

See (some of) you there.

(For a more positive spin, see this this bonus link and look for “We are all authors of each other.”)

 

 

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It didn't happen in 2010, but it will in 2016.

It didn’t happen in 2010, but it will in 2016.

This Post ran on my blog almost six years ago. I was wrong about the timing, but not about the turning: because it’s about to happen this month at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. More about that below the post.
_________________

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.

It’s pretty freaking amazing — and amazingly freaky, when you dig down to the business assumptions behind it. Here’s the gist:

The Journal conducted a comprehensive study that assesses and analyzes the broad array of cookies and other surveillance technology that companies are deploying on Internet users. It reveals that the tracking of consumers has grown both far more pervasive and far more intrusive than is realized by all but a handful of people in the vanguard of the industry.

It gets worse:

In between the Internet user and the advertiser, the Journal identified more than 100 middlemen — tracking companies, data brokers and advertising networks — competing to meet the growing demand for data on individual behavior and interests.The data on Ms. Hayes-Beaty’s film-watching habits, for instance, is being offered to advertisers on BlueKai Inc., one of the new data exchanges. “It is a sea change in the way the industry works,” says Omar Tawakol, CEO of BlueKai. “Advertisers want to buy access to people, not Web pages.” The Journal examined the 50 most popular U.S. websites, which account for about 40% of the Web pages viewed by Americans. (The Journal also tested its own site, WSJ.com.) It then analyzed the tracking files and programs these sites downloaded onto a test computer. As a group, the top 50 sites placed 3,180 tracking files in total on the Journal’s test computer. Nearly a third of these were innocuous, deployed to remember the password to a favorite site or tally most-popular articles. But over two-thirds — 2,224 — were installed by 131 companies, many of which are in the business of tracking Web users to create rich databases of consumer profiles that can be sold.

Here’s what’s delusional about all this: There is no demand for tracking by individual customers. All the demand comes from advertisers — or from companies selling to advertisers. For now.

Here is the difference between an advertiser and an ordinary company just trying to sell stuff to customers: nothing. If a better way to sell stuff comes along — especially if customers like it better than this crap the Journal is reporting on — advertising is in trouble.

Here is the difference between an active customer who wants to buy stuff and a consumer targeted by secretive tracking bullshit: everything.

Two things are going to happen here. One is that we’ll stop putting up with it. The other is that we’ll find better ways for demand and supply to meet — ways that don’t involve tracking or the guesswork called advertising.

Improving a pain in the ass doesn’t make it a kiss. The frontier here is on the demand side, not the supply side.

Advertising may pay for lots of great stuff (such as search) that we take for granted, but advertising even at its best is guesswork. It flourishes in the absence of more efficient and direct demand-supply interactions.

The idea of making advertising perfectly personal has been a holy grail of the business since Day Alpha. Now that Day Omega is approaching, thanks to creepy shit like this, the advertsing business is going to crash up against a harsh fact: “consumers” are real people, and most real people are creeped out by this stuff.

Rough impersonal guesswork is tolerable. Totally personalized guesswork is not.

Trust me, if I had exposed every possible action in my life this past week, including every word I wrote, every click I made, everything I ate and smelled and heard and looked at, the guesswork engine has not been built that can tell any seller the next thing I’ll actually want. (Even Amazon, widely regarded as the best at this stuff, sucks to some degree.)

Meanwhile I have money ready to spend on about eight things, right now, that I’d be glad to let the right sellers know, provided that information is confined to my relationship with those sellers, and that it doesn’t feed into anybody’s guesswork mill. I’m ready to share that information on exactly those conditions.

Tools to do that will be far more leveraged in the ready-to-spend economy than any guesswork system. (And we’re working on those tools.) Chris Locke put it best in Cluetrain eleven years ago. He said, if you only have time for one clue this year, this is the one to get…

Thanks to the Wall Street Journal, that dealing may finally come in 2010.

[Later…] Jeff Jarvis thinks the Journal is being silly. I love Jeff, and I agree that the Journal may be blurring some concerns, off-base on some of the tech and even a bit breathless; but I also think they’re on to something, and I’m glad they’re on it.

Most people don’t know how much they’re being followed, and I think what the Journal’s doing here really does mark a turning point.

I also think, as I said, that the deeper story is the market for advertising, which is actually threatened by absolute personalization. (The future market for real engagement, however, is enormous. But that’s a different business than advertising — and it’s no less thick with data… just data that’s voluntarily shared with trusted limits to use by others.)

[Later still…] TechCrunch had some fun throwing Eric Clemons and Danny Sullivan together. Steel Cage Debate On The Future Of Online Advertising: Danny Sullivan Vs. Eric Clemons, says the headline. Eric’s original is Why Advertising is Failing on the Internet. Danny’s reply is at that first link. As you might guess, I lean toward Eric on this one. But this post is a kind of corollary to Eric’s case, which is compressed here (at the first link again):

I stand by my earlier points:

  • Users don’t trust ads
  • Users don’t want to view ads
  • Users don’t need ads
  • Ads cannot be the sole source of funding for the internet
  • Ad revenue will diminish because of brutal competition brought on by an oversupply of inventory, and it will be replaced in many instances by micropayments and subscription payments for content.
  • There are numerous other business models that will work on the net, that will be tried, and that will succeed.

The last point, actually, seemed to be the most important. It was really the intent of the article, and the original title was “Business Models for Monetizing the Internet: Surely There Must Be Something Other Than Advertising.” This point got lost in the fury over the title of the article and in rage over the idea that online advertising might lose its importance.

My case is that advertisers themselves will tire of the guesswork business when something better comes along. Whether or not that “something better” funds Web sites and services is beside the points I am making, though it could hardly be a more important topic.

For what it’s worth, I believe that the Googles of the world are well positioned to take advantage of a new economy in which demand drives supply at least as well as supply drives demand. So, in fact, are some of those back-end data companies. (Disclosure: I currently consult one of them.)

Look at it this way…

  • What if all that collected data were yours and not just theirs?
  • What if you could improve that data voluntarily?
  • What if there were standard ways you could get that data back, and use it in your own ways?
  • What if those same companies were in the business of helping you buy stuff, and not just helping sellers target you?

Those questions are all on the table now.

___________________

9 April 2016 — The What They Know series ran in The Wall Street Journal until 2012. Since then the tracking economy has grown into a monster that Shoshana Zuboff calls The Big Other, and Surveillance Capitalism.

The tide against surveillance began to turn with the adoption of ad blockers and tracking blockers. But, while those provide a measure of relief, they don’t fix the problem. For that we need tools that engage the publishers and advertisers of the world, in ways that work for them as well.

They might think it’s working for them today; but it’s clearly not, and this has been apparent for a long time.

In Identity and the Independent Web, published in October 2010, John Battelle said “the fact is, the choices provided to us as we navigate are increasingly driven by algorithms modeled on the service’s understanding of our identity. We know this, and we’re cool with the deal.”

In The Data Bubble II (also in October 2010) I replied,

In fact we don’t know, we’re not cool with it, and it isn’t a deal.

If we knew, The Wall Street Journal wouldn’t have a reason to clue us in at such length.

We’re cool with it only to the degree that we are uncomplaining about it — so far.

And it isn’t a “deal” because nothing was ever negotiated.

To have a deal, both parties need to come to the table with terms the other can understand and accept. For example, we could come with a term that says, Just show me ads that aren’t based on tracking me. (In other words, Just show me the kind of advertising we’ve always had in the offline world — and in the online one before the surveillance-based “interactive” kind gave brain cancer to Madison Avenue.)

And that’s how we turn the tide. This month. We’ll prepare the work on VRM Day (25 April), and then hammer it into code at IIW (26–28 April). By the end of that week we’ll post the term and the code at Customer Commons (which was designed for that purpose, on the Creative Commons model).

Having this term (which needs a name — help us think of one) is a good deal for advertisers because non-tracking based ads are not only perfectly understood and good at doing what they’ve always done, but because they are actually worth more (thank you, Don Marti) than the tracking-based kind.

It’s a good deal for high-reputation publishers, because it gets them out of a shitty business that tracks their readers to low reputation sites where placing ads is cheaper. And it lets them keep publishing ads that readers can appreciate because the ads clearly support the publication. (Bet they can charge more for the ads too, simply because they are worth more.)

It’s even good for the “interactive” advertising business because it allows the next round of terms to support advertising based on tracking that the reader actually welcomes. If there is such a thing, however, it needs to be on terms the reader asserts, and not on labor-intensive industry-run opt-out systems such as Ad Choices.

If you have a stake in these outcomes, come to VRM Day and IIW and help us make it happen. VRM Day is free, and IIW is very cheap compared to most other conferences. It is also an unconference. That means it has no keynotes or panels. Instead it’s about getting stuff done, over three days of breakouts, all on topics chosen by you, me and anybody else who shows up.

When we’re done, the Data Bubble will start bursting for real. It won’t mean that data goes away, however. It will just mean that data gets put to better uses than the icky ones we’ve put up with for at least six years too long.

_________________

This post also appears in Medium.

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I didn’t know Dave Goldberg, but I can’t count all the friends and relatives who were close to him. By all their accounts, he was a brilliant and wonderful guy, much loved and respected by everybody who knew and worked with him.

Along with the rest of the world, I await word on what happened. So far that word hasn’t come. But it hasn’t stopped speculation. For example, this post by Penelope Trunk, which imagines a worst-possible scenario — or a set of them — on the basis of no evidence other than knowing nothing. And why do we know nothing? Put yourself in Dave’s wife’s shoes for a minute.

You’re a woman on vacation with your husband, to a place where nobody knows you. Then your husband, healthy and just 47 years old, dies suddenly for no apparent reason. What do you do, besides freak out? First you deal with the local authorities, which is rarely fun in the best of circumstances, and beyond awful in the worst. Then you give your family and friends the worst news they have ever heard. And you still don’t know why he died. What do you tell the world? In a word: nothing, until you know for sure. And even then it won’t be easy, because you want to retain a few shreds of privacy around the worst thing that ever happened to you — while doubled over with the pain of knowing that you and your kids now have holes in their hearts that will never go away.

Yes, I am taking some liberties with what I don’t know there, but all those liberties are in the direction of mercy toward the bereaved. While no good is done by speculating publicly about what happened, there is at least a small measure of good in cutting the bereaved all the slack we can. For more on that, some Shakespeare:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
(from The Merchant of Venice)

[Later…] @AdamLashinsky in @Fortune reports that Dave died while exercising. More from the New York Times. Calls to mind Douglas Adams, also beloved by many. He died at just 50, also after exercising. [Still later, same day…] More again from the Times. Leaning what happened makes it all even sadder.

 

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IIW XX, IIW_XX_logothe 20th Internet Identity Workshop, comes at a critical inflection point in the history of VRM: Vendor Relationship Management, the only business movement working toward giving you both

  1. independence from the silos and walled gardens of the world; and
  2. better means for engaging with every business in the world — your way, rather than theirs.

If you’re looking for a point of leverage on the future of customer liberation, independence and empowerment, IIW is it.

Wall Street-sized companies around the world are beginning to grok what Main Street ones have always known: customers aren’t just “targets” to be “acquired,” “managed,” “controlled” and “locked in.” In other words, Cluetrain was right when it said this, in 1999:

if you only have time for one clue this year, this is the one to get…

Now it is finally becoming clear that free customers are more valuable than captive ones: to themselves, to the companies they deal with, and to the marketplace.

But how, exactly? That’s what we’ll be working on at IIW, which runs from April 7 to 9 at the Computer History Museum, in the heart of Silicon Valley: the best venue ever created for a get-stuff-done unconference.

Focusing our work is a VRM maturity framework that gives every company, analyst and journalist a list of VRM competencies, and every VRM developer a context in which to show which of those competencies they provide, and how far along they are along the maturity path. This will start paving the paths along which individuals, tool and service providers and corporate systems (e.g. CRM) can finally begin to fit their pieces together. It will also help legitimize VRM as a category. If you have a VRM or related company, now is the time to jump in and participate in the conversation. Literally. Here are some of the VRM topics and technology categories that we’ll be talking about, and placing in context in the VRM maturity framework:

Note: Another version of this post appeared first on the ProjectVRM blog. I’m doing a rare cross-posting here because it that important.

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rn1There was a time when personal computer was an oxymoron: a contradiction in terms. That ended when personal computing got real in the ’80s.

There was a time when personal networking, where every person has status, reach and power equal to that of corporations and governments, was unthinkable. That ended when the Internet got real in the ’90s.

There was a time when putting both those powers, plus a zillion mobile apps, in everybody’s pocket, was a pie in the distant sky. That pie reached Earth in the ’00s.

There was a time when clouds were only corporate, and personal cloud was an oxymoron — or worse, just a new term for more data storage. That ends today.

Personal clouds level the market’s playing field by giving full agency to each of us: a place to stand where we can deal as equals with companies, governments, health care providers, lawyers, schools and everything and everyone else in the connected world. In your own ways, and on your own terms. They begin what @Petervan calls The Revolution of the Data Slaves.

You can self-host your cloud (which some also call a vault or a store), or use a Cloud Service Provider (CSP) that hosts your cloud it in an encrypted form that even they can’t see. Either way, your personal cloud (hashtags: #pcloud, #TakeBackControl) is an ideal box for any number of current and future VRM tools, including ones for:

Respect Network is has gathered together a bunch of Cloud Service Providers, along with other companies, development projects, organizations and individuals, for a world-circling launch tour that begins today in London. Tomorrow is an Immersion Day, for digging down into how personal clouds solve problems of privacy and personal empowerment. I’ll be at both, and giving the opening keynote tomorrow.

Next stops on the tour:

  • San Francisco — 30 June and 1 July
  • Sydney — 7 and 8 July
  • Tel Aviv — 14 July
  • Berlin — 21 July

The tour is also a campaign to sign up a million members, each claiming their own cloud name — a sovereign identity that’s yours alone. They explain:

The Respect Network is a collaboration of over 70 companies and open source projects from around the world who share this commitment:

  1. On the Respect Network, every member owns his/her private cloud and cloud name (your =name) that is completely portable for life and not dependent on any single CSP (cloud service provider).
  2. On the Respect Network every personal and business member agrees to respect each other’s privacy and digital freedom.
  3. On the Respect Network, you control your digital identity and relationships. You have the right to be forgotten—or remembered—by any other member.
  4. On the Respect Network you control when and where your personal data is shared and benefit directly from the value earned.
  5. On the Respect Network you are not the product, you are the partner—the network is supported directly by members investing in privacy for life.

I’ll add more here as the day goes on. It’s going to be an exciting one.

Turkey shut down Twitter today. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced, “We now have a court order. We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.” (Hurriyet Daily News) He also said Turkey will “rip out the roots” of Twitter. (Washington Post)

Those roots are in the Internet. This is a good thing. Even if Turkey rips the roots out of the phone and cable systems that provide access to the Net, they can’t rip out the Net itself, because the Net is not centralized. It is distributed: a heterarchy rather than a hierarchy. At the most basic level, the Net’s existence relies on protocols rather than on how any .com, .org, .edu or .gov puts those protocols to use.

The Net’s protocols are not servers, clouds, wires, routers or code bases. They are agreements about how data flows to and from any one end point and any other. This makes the Internet a world of ends rather than a world of governments, companies and .whatevers. It cannot be reduced to any of those things, any more than time can be reduced to a clock. The Net is as oblivious to usage as are language and mathematics — and just as supportive of every use to which it is put. And, because of this oblivity, The Net supports all without favor to any.

Paul Baran contrasted centralized systems (such as governments), decentralized ones (such as Twitter+Facebook+Google, etc.) and distributed ones, using this drawing in 1964:

Design C became the Internet. Except the Internet is actually more like D in this version here:

Because on the Internet you don’t have to be connected all the time. And any one node can connect to any other node. Or to many nodes at once. Optionality verges on the absolute.

The distributed model (C) appealed to military folks because it was the best design for surviving attack. Even in a decentralized system there are central points of vulnerability where a government could spy on traffic or knock out a whole service.

The “attack surfaces” of a distributed system are no larger than a single node or a single connection, so it’s much harder to bring the whole thing down. This is why John Gillmore says “The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

No doubt this is happening right now in Turkey, just as it is in China and other countries that block sites and services on the Net. It might not be easy, but it is do-able by design. That design is not about hard, fixed and administrated lines, but on voluntary connections, or what Bob Frankston calls ‘DIY connectivity’.

Twitter’s centralized nature makes it a dot in the star-shaped designs of A and B. That dot becomes a black hole when powerful actors like the Turkish and Chinese governments “eradicate” it. We need to bear this in mind when we design and use centralized systems — and even decentralized ones, such as we have with Twitter, Google, Facebook and other “social” walled gardens, which together comprise something that looks and works on the model of B rather than C. But it is also essential to understand that D is what we have underneath it all, and it is based on Paul Baran’s distributed model (C).

It also helps to recognize that some things — such as being social with each other — do not require centralized systems, or even decentralized ones. They can be truly distributed, heterarchical and voluntary. Just as we have freedom of speech and association in any free society, we should have the same on the Net. And, at the base level, we do.

But this isn’t easy to see, for five reasons:

  1. We do need centralized systems for doing what only they can do
  2. Existing building methods and materials make it easy
  3. The internet is also a “network of networks” which at the backbone and “provider” level (the one you access it through) is more like a combination of B and C — and, because you pay providers for access,  it’s easy to ignore C as the virtuous base of the whole thing
  4. After eighteen years of building centralized systems (such as Twitter) on the Net, it’s hard for most people — even geeks familiar with the Net’s base design — to think outside the box called client-server (and some of us call calf-cow)

A great way to avoid the black hole of centralization is to start from the fully distributed nodes that each of us are, designing and building first person technologies. And I have a specific one to recommend, from Customer Commons:

This is Omie:

She’s the brainlet of Customer Commons: She is, literally, a clean slate. And she is your clean slate. Not Apple’s. Not Google’s. Not some phone company’s.

She can be what you want her to be, do what you want her to do, run whatever apps you want her to run, and use data you alone collect and control.

Being a clean slate makes Omie very different.

On your iPhone and iPad you can run only what Apple lets you run, and you can get only from Apple’s own store. On an Android phone you have to run Google’s pre-loaded apps, which means somebody is already not only telling you what you must do, but is following you as well.

Omie uses Android, but bows to Google only in respect of its intention to create an open Linux-based OS for mobile devices.

So Omie is yours, alone. Fully private, by design, from the start.

Omie needs crowdfunding. More specifically, she needs somebody who is good at doing crowdfunding videos, to help us out. We have the script.  If you’re up for helping out, contact me. I can be DM’d via @dsearls, or emailed via my first  name @ my last name dot com. Thanks!

 

 

This post is a hat tip toward Rusty Foster’s Today In Tabs, which I learned about from Clay Shirky during a digressive conversation about the subscription economy (the paid one, not the one Rusty and other free spirits operate in), and how lately I’m tending not to renew mine after they run out, thanks to my wife’s rational approach to subscriptions:

  1. Don’t obey the first dozen or so renewal notices because the offers will get better if you neglect them.
  2. See if you miss them.
  3. If you don’t miss them, don’t renew.

While thinking about a headline for this post, I found that searches for theater and theatre are both going down, but the former seems to be holding a slight lead.

While at Google Trends, I also did a humbling vanity search. Trust me: it helps not to give a shit.

Other results::: tired is up… stupid still leads dumb, but dumb is catching up… Papua New Guinea leads in porn. And Sri Lanka takes the gold in searches for sex. They scored 100. India gets the silver with 88, and Ethiopia settles for the bronze with 87. Out of the running are Bangladesh (85), Pakistan (78), Nepal (74), Vietnam (72), Cambodia (69), Timor-Leste (67) and Papua New Guinea (66) — perhaps because porn is doing the job for them.

Michael Robertson continues to invent stuff. His latest is Clock Radio, a Chrome browser extension that lets you tune in, by genre or search, to what’s playing now on the world’s Internet radio stations. Links: bit.ly/ClockRadio & bit.ly/ClockRadioVideo. Here’s what mine looks like right now:

I’m not surprised (and I don’t know why) that most of the stations playing music I like are French.

David Drummond, SVP, Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer at Google, will talk about The Fight for Internet Freedom tomorrow at Stanford. Register by 5:30pm Pacific, today. @Liberationtech is hosting. Oh, and Google Fiber may be coming to your city.

George Packer says Amazon may be good for customers but bad for books, because Amazon is a monopoly in that category. Paul Krugman meanwhile says the same kinda thing about Comcast, and the whole cablecom biz. He’s not alone. Nobody likes the proposed Comcast acquisition of Time Warner Cable, other than Comcast, their captive regulators and their big-biz amen corner in what’s left of the press. (Watch: it’ll pass.) FWIW, Quartz has some nice charts explaining what’s going on.

What’s the word for a business nobody dominates because basically the whole thing, as we knew it, looks like Florida a week after Chicxulub? That’s what we have with journalism. The big reptiles are gone or terminal. The flying ones are gonna be birds one of these eras, but for now they’re just flying low and working on survival. For a good picture of what that looks like, re-dig A Day in the Life of a Digital Editor, 2013, which Alexis Madrigal posted in The Atlantic on March 13 of last year. In it he said,

…your total budget for the year is $12,000, a thousand bucks a month. (We could play this same game with $36,000, too. The lessons will remain the same.) What do you do?

Here are some options:

1. Write a lot of original pieces yourself. (Pro: Awesome. Con: Hard, slow.)
2. Take partner content. (Pro: Content! Con: It’s someone else’s content.)
3. Find people who are willing to write for a small amount of money. (Pro: Maybe good. Con: Often bad.)
4. Find people who are willing to write for no money. (Pro: Free. Con: Crapshoot.)
5. Aggregate like a mug. (Pro: Can put smartest stuff on blog. Con: No one will link to it.)
6. Rewrite press releases so they look like original content. (Pro: Content. Con: You suck.)

Don’t laugh. These are actual content strategies out there in the wilds of the Internet. I am sure you have encountered them.

Myself, I’m very partial to one and five. I hate two and six. For my own purposes here, let’s say you do, too, and throw them out.

That leaves three and four…

You’re reading #4. Flap flap flap…

Speaking of trash talk, Polygon says NBA 2K14 gives you a technical foul for swearing at the game.

I like the Fargo2 model:

Want to know where your Internet comes from? Look here. While it lasts. Because what that describes is infrastructure for the free and open world wide Internet we’ve known since the beginning. Thanks to the NSA spying, national leaders are now floating the idea of breaking the Internet into pieces, with national and regional borders. That seems to be where Angela Merkel is headed by suggesting a Europe-only network.

Progress: there’s an insurance business in protecting companies from data breaches. No, they’re not selling it to you, because you don’t matter. This is for big companies only.

Finally, because you’re not here — or you wisely don’t want to be here — dig what parking in New York looks like right now, after two weeks of snow, rain, freezing, melting and re-freezing:

parking in NYC

Let’s hope it thaws before alternate side parking goes back into effect.

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