free html hit counter November 2013 - John Battelle's Search Blog

else 11/25: The Collective Hallucination of Currency

By - November 25, 2013

This week, bitcoin seems to have gotten the thumbs up for innovation despite some shady origins, lots of background details came out about the circumstances that approved NSA dragnet, and privacy is declared an anomaly. As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS. And tweet us links!

 

Bitcoin mining operation

Senate Committee Listens to Bitcoin Experts, Expresses Open-Mindedness – On Bitcoin
This does a good job summing up the week’s news around how the US is approaching new developments in Bitcoin. Namely, comparing it to the early internet, and echoing the importance of not stifling innovation with overly restrictive policy.

Bitcoins Bitcoins Everywhere – Brad Feld
On the heels of the bitcoin hype of this week, Feld offers a helpful deconstruction: “It’s possible to separate the functions of value store, unit of account, and transaction mechanism. They fit together neatly and are systemically related, but they’re three different things…As a software person, I think of this as a platform. A new electronic payment platform that may have significant advantages over most of the existing ones.”

The Myth of Virtual Currency – Cyborgology
“Calling Bitcoins ‘virtual currency’ is nonsensical because all currencies are virtual in that they are ‘collective hallucinations’ about measurement of worth, and they are all equally physical because they are held, exchanged and produced in very tangible ways with equally tangible consequences.”

Congress and Courts Weigh Restraints on N.S.A. Spying – NYTimes
How to handle critical response to the NSA is becoming messy, a challenge from the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed directly to the Supreme Court is turned away. It argued that the NSA “exceeded its statutory jurisdiction when it ordered production of millions of domestic telephone records that cannot plausibly be relevant to an authorized investigation.”

Fisa court order that allowed NSA surveillance is revealed for first time – The Guardian
Revealing that the “novel use” of surveillance technology made bulk collection hard to compare to previous precedents. “These definitions do not restrict the use of pen registers or trap-and-trace devices to communication facilities associated with individual users, it is finding that these definitions encompass an exceptionally broad form of collection.”

N.S.A. Report Outlined Goals for More Power – NYTimes.com
On the “golden age of Sigint”: “To be ‘optimally effective,’ the paper said, ‘legal, policy and process authorities must be as adaptive and dynamic as the technological and operational advances we seek to exploit.'”

Google’s chief internet evangelist says ‘privacy may actually be an anomaly’ – The Verge
Vint Cerf takes a historical view of privacy being relatively novel, the result of the anonymizing affordances of urban living. His important point: that we are still figuring out “social conventions that are more respectful of people’s privacy.”

Things You’re Not Supposed to Do With Google Glass – Google Glass Dating – Esquire
A.J. Jacobs did everything you are not supposed to do—including reading, getting outside help at poker, and playing Cyrano—to amusing ends.

If this doesn’t terrify you… Google’s computers OUTWIT their humans – The Register
Despite the link-baity headline, pretty interesting to think about when we can no longer understand how our algorithms work…”This means that for some things, Google researchers can no longer explain exactly how the system has learned to spot certain objects, because the programming appears to think independently from its creators, and its complex cognitive processes are inscrutable. This ‘thinking’ is within an extremely narrow remit, but it is demonstrably effective and independently verifiable.”

A Palimpsest of Code – Snarkmarket
The Google books ruling is all about turning the physical into digital: “Similarly, Google Books is also transformative in the sense that it has transformed book text into data for purposes of substantive research, including data mining and text mining in new areas, thereby opening up new fields of research. Words in books are being used in a way they have not been used before.”

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else 11.18: “We can see it, we can feel it, because we’re already almost there.”

By - November 18, 2013

This week, we talk about rights to data, nuance in the tech debate, and some interesting developments in the wearable sensor world. As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS. And tweet us links!

Trying to Outrace Scientific Advances – NYTimes
Almost Human, which premiered Sunday night, draws inspiration from existing DARPA technology and deals in social robot relations. And my fellow Berkman fellow Kate Darling (Media Lab researcher mentioned in the article) is talking about her robot ethics work Tuesday live streamed at 12:30 ET.

You Are Your Data, And you should demand the right to use it. – Slate
I propose a “right to use” our data, arguing that ownership and property rights framings don’t quite cut it. This follows on some of my thesis work on the Quantified Self communities interests in their data.

“I should be able to access and make use of data that refers to me.”

Secularizing the Tech Debate – Dissent
Offers a good summary of the fraught but important contributions of Lanier and Morozov to discussion about society’s relationship to data and the firms that control it. Both books reviewed here are important reads.

The Disconnectionists – The New Inquiry
On the moral panics about connectivity, authenticity, and the pathologizing effects of digital detoxing. [Social theory warning! But it's a good read.]

Looking for a Little Nuance – Sara’s Blog
After attending a polarizing talk last week pitching utopic and dystopic futures against each other, I ask if there’s room for nuance in our discussion about technology. We’re aiming to offer some in the book…

The Case for Secrecy in Tech – The Atlantic
Google[x] makes the case for experimenting behind closed doors. Sure expectations run high when here what moonshots Google is working towards next, but it also leaves them less accountability. Especially when seemingly altruistic projects like Loon also turn out to have patentable lucrative applications.

Bitcoin Companies and Entrepreneurs Can’t Get Bank Accounts – Forbes
Banking outside a central authority is tough for bitcoin entrepreneurs, which could be the next hurdle blocking bitcoin adoption.

IBM to Announce More Powerful Watson via the Internet – NYTimes
IBM is offering up its semantic computing powerhouse, Watson, for rent. Sadly, no relation.

Quantifying my dogs: Four weeks with Whistle’s canine activity tracker  – Gigaom
The dog-tracking Whistle sensor is as much for owner accountability and interaction as it is for the dog.

Under Armour Opens Up Wearables With MapMyFitness Buy – ReadWrite
Interesting moves, bringing a data company and a high-performance sporting goods brand together, noticeably with no special sensor devices outside a cell phone in the mix yet…

Scanadu scores $10.5M and paves the way for FDA trials – Gigaom
Interesting discussion of the FDA route to market to make this body scanner a real healthcare device, unlike most QS devices currently. It will be a barrier to speed, but result in more impactful applications?

Why The Banner Ad Is Heroic, and Adtech Is Our Greatest Artifact

By - November 17, 2013

hotwiredbanner

Every good story needs a hero. Back when I wrote The Search, that hero was Google – the book wasn’t about Google alone, but Google’s narrative worked to drive the entire story. As Sara and I work on If/Then, we’ve discovered one unlikely hero for ours: The lowly banner ad.

Now before you head for the exits with eyes a rollin’, allow me to explain. You may recall that If/Then is being written as an archaeology of the future. We’re identifying “artifacts” extant in today’s world that, one generation from now, will effect significant and lasting change on our society. Most of our artifacts are well-known to any student of today’s digital landscape, but all are still relatively early in their adoption curve: Google’s Glass, autonomous vehicles, or 3D printers, for example. Some are a bit more obscure, but nevertheless powerful – microfluidic chips (which may help bring about DNA-level medical breakthroughs) fall into this category. Few of these artifacts touch more than a million people directly so far, but it’s our argument that they will be part of more than a billion people’s lives thirty years from now.

There is one exception. The artifact we’re investigating is already at massive scale, driving billions of dollars in revenue and touching every person whose ever used the Internet. That artifact is currently called “programmatic adtech,” and it is most famously illustrated by Terry Kawaja’s Lumascapes (and less famously, my own “Behind the Banner” visualization).

lumascapedisplayYes, this is the infrastructure that allows a pair of shoes to chase you across the web. How can it possibly be as important as, say, a technology that may cure cancer? Because I believe the very same technologies we’ve built to serve real time, data-driven advertising will soon be re-purposed across nearly every segment of our society. Programmatic adtech is the heir to the database of intentions – it’s that database turned real time and distributed far outside of search. And that’s a very, very big deal. (I just wish I had a cooler name for it than “adtech.” We’re working on it. Any ideas?!)

Think about what programmatic adtech makes possible. An individual requests a piece of content through a link or an action (like touching something on a mobile device). In milliseconds, scores of agents execute thousands of calculations based on hundreds of parameters, all looking to market-price the value of that request and deliver a personalized response. This happens millions of times * a second,* representing hundreds of millions, if not billions, of computing cycles each second. What’s most stunning about this system is that it’s tuned to each discrete individual – every single request/response loop is unique, based on the data associated with each individual.

Let me break that down:

1. A person indicates a request: a desire, an intent, a preference – The Request

2. Billions of compute cycles and sh*tons of data are engaged to process that desire – The Process

3. A personalized response is generated within 100-250 milliseconds. – The Response

At present, the end result of this vastly complicated “Request Process Response” system is, more often than not, the proffering of a banner ad. But that’s just an artifact of a far more interesting future state. Today’s adtech has within it the glimmerings of a computing architecture that will underpin our entire society. Every time you turn up your thermostat, this infrastructure will engage, determining in real time the most efficient response to your heating needs. Each time you walk into a doctor’s office, the same kind of system could be triggered to determine what information should appear on your health care provider’s screen, and on yours, and how best payment should be made (or insurance claims filed). Every retail store you visit, every automobile you drive (or are driven by), every single interaction of value in this world can and will become data that interacts with this programmatic infrastructure.

OK. Let’s step back for a second. When you think of this infrastructure, are  you concerned? Good. Because it’s imperative that we consider the choices we make as we engage with such a portentous creation. This year alone, each human on the planet will create about 600 gigabytes of information, and that number is growing rapidly. What are the architectural constraints of the infrastructure which processes that information? What values do we build into it? Can it be audited? Is it based on principles of openness, or is it driven by business rules and data-structures which favor closed platforms? Will we have to choose between an oligarchy of “RPR vendors” – Google, Facebook, Microsoft – or will we take a more distributed approach, as the original Internet did?

These questions have been raised, and continue to be well articulated, by LessigZittrainWu, and many others. But we’re entering a new, more urgent era of this conversation. Many of these authors’ works warned of a world where code will eventually augur early lock down in political and social conventions. That time is no longer in the future. It’s now. And I believe as goes adtech, so goes our social code.

“Adtech” is a very important, very large application we’ve built on top of the platform we call “the Internet.” It’s driven by the relentless desire of capitalism to turn a profit, yet (so far) it has leaned toward the Internet’s core values of openness and interconnectivity. Thanks to that,  it’s suffering some endemic maladies (fraud comes to mind). It’s still a very young, relatively immature artifact. But so far, it’s more open than not. I’m not certain that will always be the case.

My argument boils down to this: What we today call “adtech” will tomorrow become the worldwide real-time processing layer driving much of society’s transactions. That layer deserves to be named as perhaps the most important artifact extant today.

Given adtech’s rise, let’s not forget its atomic unit of value: the oft-derided banner ad. In time the banner as we know it will most likely fade away, but its place in history is certain. One generation from now, we may not “click” on banner ads, but we’ll always be pulling into traffic, filing health insurance claims, buying clothes in retail stores, and turning up our thermostats. And those myriad transactions will be lit with data and processed by a real time infrastructure initially built to execute one pedestrian task: serve a simple banner ad.

Nearly 30 Years In Less Than an Hour

By - November 15, 2013

Pinch me: Last week I gave a “distinguished” lecture in Engineering at Berkeley. It was an honor to do so – I don’t really see myself as distinguished in any academic sense – and certainly not when it comes to engineering. (I do think my greying temples are starting to look distinguished, if I do say so….) Anyway, it was a lot of fun – in particular because my hosts asked me to spend a bit of time reviewing the past 30 or so years of my own work. Should you want to take a spin through the early days of Macweek, Wired (and HotWired), The Industry Standard, Web 2 Summit, my last book, the launch of and present adtech resurgence of FM, as well as the next book – well, here ya go. Bonus: I had a cold, so I was totally hopped up on Actifed.

TWITTER ADS ARE GETTING, UM, MORE NOTICEABLE

By - November 14, 2013

Note: Somehow this post was deleted from my CMS. I am reposting it now.

Two of my favorite companies in the world are Twitter and American Express. I have literally dozens of good pals at both. So this is said with love (and a bit more pointedly at Twitter than Amex, which is just one of many advertisers I’ve encountered in the situation described below. And Amex is one of the most innovative marketers on the planet, so again, much respect).

But here goes: I’m seeing too much image-heavy promoted tweets in my feed when I first come to the service. Here’s a picture:

prmotedtwtr

Seeing a big display ad (because let’s be clear, that’s what this is) is fine the first few times I come to the site. But after a while, it gets in the way – especially if it’s  inconsistent with my expectations of the service. The tweet above was first posted on November 4th – more than a week ago. Twitter is all about what’s happening now – it’s not about an ongoing promotion with reach and frequency goals. This is probably the fifth time I’ve seen this ad, and that’s not good for anyone – not the publisher, not the platform, and not the user. Now, if the creative had changed, that’s something to talk about. And if it was relevant to what was happening now…even better. But the same message, five times in ten days? That’s an old model that doesn’t translate so well to Twitter, I’d warrant.

Just making an observation – I know the algorithms – and the content creators – are hard at work fixing this problem. What do you think?

Ubiquitous Video: Why We Need a Robots.txt For the Real World

By - November 13, 2013

illustration_robotLast night I had an interesting conversation at a small industry dinner. Talk turned to Google Glass, in the context of Snapchat and other social photo sharing apps.

Everyone at the table agreed:  it was inevitable – whether it be Glass, GoPro, a button in your clothing or some other form factor – personalized, “always on” streaming of images will be ubiquitous. Within a generation (or sooner), everyone with access to mass-market personal electronics (i.e., pretty much everyone with a cell phone now) will have the ability to capture everything they see, then share or store it as they please.

That’s when a fellow at the end of the table broke in. “My first response to Glass is to ask: How do I stop it?”

The dinner was private, so I can’t divulge names, but this fellow was a senior executive in the banking business. He doesn’t want consumers streaming video from inside his banks, nor does he want his employees “Glassing” confidential documents or the keys to the safe deposit boxes.

All heads at the table nodded, as if this scenario was right around the corner  – and the implications went far beyond privacy at a bank. Talk turned to many other situations where people agreed they’d not want to be “always on.” It could be simple –  a bad hair day – or complicated: a social pariah who just wanted to be left alone. All in all, people were generally sympathetic to the notion of “the right to be left alone” – what in this case might be called “the right to not be in a public stream.”

But how to enforce such a right? The idea of banning devices like Glass infringes the wearer’s rights, and besides, it just won’t scale – tiny cameras will soon be everywhere, and they’ll be basically imperceptible. Sure, some places (like banks, perhaps), will have scanning devices and might be able to afford the imposition of such bans. But in public places? Most likely impossible and quite possibly illegal (in the US, for instance, there is an established right to take photographs in public spaces).

This is when my thoughts turned to one of the most powerful devices we have to manage each other: the Social Contract. I believe we have entered an era in which we must renegotiate our contract with society – that invisible but deeply powerful sets of norms that guide “civil behavior.” Glass (among other artifacts) is at the nexus of this negotiation – the debate laid bare by a geeky pair of glasses.

Back at the table, someone commented that it’d be great if there was a way to let people know you didn’t want to be “captured” right now. Some kind of social cloaking signal*, perhaps. Now, we as humans are damn good at social signaling. We’ve built many a civilization on elaborate sets of social mores.  So how might our society signal a desire to not be “streamed”? Might we develop the equivalent of a “robots.txt” for the real world?

For those of you not familiar with robots.txt, it’s essentially a convention adopted early in the Web’s life, back when search became a powerful distributor of attention, and the search index the equivalent of a public commons (Zittrain wrote a powerful post about it here). Some sites did not want to be indexed by search engines, for reasons ranging from a lack of resources (a search engine’s spiders put a small tax on a site’s resources) to privacy.  No law was enacted to create this convention, but every major search engine obeys its strictures nevertheless. If a site’s robots.txt tells an indexing spider to not look inside, the robot moves along.

It’s an elegant solution, and it works, as long as everyone involved keeps their part of the social contract. Powerful recriminations occur if an actor abuses the system – miscreants are ostracized, banned from social contact with “good” actors.

So might we all, in some not-so-distant future, have our own “robots.txt” – a signal that we can instrument at will, one which is constantly on, a beacon which others can pick up and understand? Such an idea seem to me not at all far fetched. We already all carry the computing power and bandwidth on our person to effect such a signal. All we need is a reason for it to come online. Glass, or something like it, may well become that reason.

The instrumentation of our new social contract is closer at hand than we might think.

*We already have  deeply a meaningful “social cloaking device” – its called our wardrobe. But I’ll get into that topic in another post.

 

else 11.11: “You can’t let the algorithms take over”

By - November 11, 2013

Last week there was a lot to say about Twitter and bitcoin, and the Guardian offered some reflections on what the NSA revelations mean to the average Joe. As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS.

That Goddamned Blue Bird and Me: How Twitter Hijacked My Mind – New York Magazine
On the occasion of the IPO, a thorough contemplation of the ups and downs of writing and thinking with Twitter. “Collectively, the people I follow on Twitter — book nerds, science nerds, journalists, the uncategorizably interesting — come pretty close to my dream community.”

NSA Files: DECODED – The Guardian
The Guardian puts out a great multimedia package about what the NSA revelations mean to individuals, including descriptions about metadata and the real scale of a “three hops” network.

My three hops network is larger than the population of Australia.

My three hops network is larger than the population of Australia.

The Rise and Fall of the World’s Largest Bitcoin Exchange – Wired
The business of bitcoin and currency exchange is pretty complicated. Wired attempts to tell Mt. Gox’s story.

Nest’s Tony Fadell on Smart Objects, and the Singularity of Innovation – NYTimes
Fadell talks about the balance in designing algorithms to address your interests and needs without ending up in an echo chamber: “You can’t let the algorithms take over, because people will geek out on that one dimension.”

In Argentina, there’s a gorgeous apartment for sale and it only costs 409 Bitcoins  – Quartz For now anyway. The way bitcoins are going…it’ll be 205 soon.

Big Data’s Little Cousin  – NYTimes An eyeroll for “hyperdata” but the crowd-sourced real-time price analysis is interesting.

Google tech duo thank Snowden for revealing snooping, issue the NSA ‘a giant f*** you’ – The Next Web Somehow it’s comforting to know engineers inside Google feel this way.

Bitcoin – The Internet of Money  – Startup Boy A good primer if you’re looking to get smarter on the bitcoin phenom.

Self-driving cars are a privacy nightmare. And it’s totally worth it – Washington Post There’s always a tradeoff. This piece argues it’ll be worth it, and we tend to agree.

 

 

More than 200,000 Minutes of Engagement, and Counting

By - November 08, 2013

BehindBannerScreenShot

Some of you may recall “Behind the Banner,” a visualization of the programmatic adtech ecosystem that I created with The Office for Creative Research and Adobe back in May. It was my attempt at explaining the complexities of a world I’ve spent several years engaged in, but often find confounding. I like to use Behind the Banner in talks I give, and folks always respond positively to it, in particular when I narrate the story as it plays.

I realized yesterday that I didn’t know how many people had actually viewed the thing, and naturally as a creator I was curious. So  I pinged my colleague at Adobe, who of course are analytics pros, among many other things. What came back was pretty cool: The visualization has been viewed nearly 50,000 times, with an average time spent of well over 4 minutes per view. That’s more than 200,000 minutes of engagement, or more than one-third of a year! It’s certainly got nothing on the Lumascape, but it’s neat nonetheless.

The version above is really a “beta” – we all wanted to do so much more, but we had to ship it in time for the CM Summit this past May. I’m eager to make it better – create an embeddable version, lay down a narrative track, add more companies and richer detail, fix things folks feel need fixing. If anyone out there is game to help, let me know. It’d be a fun project to work on!

(PS – we found out last week that Behind the Banner has been shortlisted for the Kantar Information Is Beautiful awards. Hurrah!)

A Metal Gun, Made from Digital Bits

By -

3D-Printed-Metal-Gun-Components-Disassembled-Low-Res-300x225One of the artifacts we’re considering for our book is the 3D printer – not only the MakerBot version, but all types of “bits to atoms” kinds of conversions. The advances in the field are staggering – it is now possible to print human tissue, for example. Every so often, however, there’s a milestone that brings things into dramatic focus. That’s how I felt when I saw this story: First 3-D-Printed Metal Gun Shows Tech Maturity.

The company behind the gun, Solid Concepts, has a federal license to make guns, so what they’ve done is not illegal. Rather, they argue in a blog post, they want to prove the efficacy of the approach they’ve taken. A firing test seems to prove them have.

What I find fascinating about 3D printers is the how they tie together a physical object with a digital description. More as we get into this chapter, but for now, just worth noting the milestone.

else 11.4: “Where’s the rage, man?”

By - November 04, 2013

This week, we dig deeper into the political implications of NSA revelations, we think about how we live with technology, note that self-driving cars are safe but driving under the influence of Glass is not, and bitcoin goes mainstream as a transaction protocol.

As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS.

nsa_smiley

NSA infiltrates links to Yahoo, Google data centers worldwide, Snowden documents say – Washington Post
It just keeps getting worse…this time with a cheeky emoticon smiley.

It’s time for Silicon Valley to ask: Is it worth it? – Pandodaily
Evoking David Foster Wallace’s question: “Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it?” we have to wonder where these trade offs between security and privacy and overly broad law leave us.

The Real Privacy Problem – MIT Technology Review
Passing privacy legislation won’t solve the real civic problem, argues Evgeny Morozov. “How can we make sure that we have more control over our personal information?—cannot be the only question to ask. Unless we learn and continuously relearn how automated information processing promotes and impedes democratic life, an answer to this question might prove worthless, especially if the democratic regime needed to implement whatever answer we come up with unravels in the meantime.”

Data transparency effort – successful in U.K. – to be tested in U.S. – Knight Foundation
Tim Berners-Lee and the Knight Foundation bring UK experiment the Open Data Institute to the US, advocating data standards to improve transparency.

Waiting for the Next Great Technology Critic – The New Yorker
On the event of Pogue’s and Mossberg’s respective departures from their papers, Matt Buchanan explores the kind of consumer tech criticism we need now that goes beyond describing consumption of beautiful gadgets: “The questions that consumers face, in other words, are less about what to buy than about how to live.”

Data Shows Google’s Robot Cars Are Smoother, Safer Drivers Than You or I – MIT Technology Review
Google is beginning to share data on how its self-driving cars are better drivers than humans. That same data will likely be used to change how liability gets determined: “We don’t have to rely on eyewitnesses that can’t act be trusted as to what happened—we actually have the data…The guy around us wasn’t paying enough attention. The data will set you free.”

California Woman Gets the First Ticket for Driving with Google Glass – Glass Almanac
Existing laws bump up against new technology. The California law bars video devices “at a point forward of the back of the driver’s seat, or is operating and the monitor, screen, or display is visible to the driver while driving the motor vehicle.”

Bitcoin Pursues the Mainstream – NYTimes
Entrepreneur Jeremy Allaire enters the bitcoin ring with his latest start up, Circle, and calls Bitcoin as significant as the web browser.

Bitcoin as Protocol – Union Square Ventures
Bitcoin’s is changing the way transactions are represented in a “distributed public ledger.” Much like HTTP, TCP/IP and DNS, this protocol will be a building block for further innovation.

Finally, an Art Form That Gets the Internet: Opera – The Atlantic
The challenge of depicting drama as a digital media is taken on in this Opera, Two Boys. “This is an opera that is essentially set on the Internet,” says Mark Grimmer. “And we don’t know what the Internet really looks like.”