free html hit counter May 2017 - John Battelle's Search Blog

Is Humanity Obsolete?

By - May 31, 2017

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Upon finishing Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus, I found an unwelcome kink in my otherwise comfortably adjusted frame of reference. It brought with it the slight nausea of a hangover, a lingering whiff of jet exhaust from a hard night, possibly involving rough psychedelics.

I’m usually content with my (admittedly incomplete) understanding of the role humanity plays in the universe, and in particular, with the role that technology plays as that narrative builds. And lately that technology story is getting pretty damn interesting — I’d argue that our society’s creation of and reaction to digital technologies is pretty much the most important narrative in the world at present.

But as you consider that phrase “digital technologies,” are you conjuring images of computers and iPhones? Of “the cloud” and Google? Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Netflix, Slack, Uber? I’ve always felt that this group of artifacts — the “things” that we claim as digital — the companies and the devices, the pained metaphors (cloud?!) and the juvenile apps — these are only the most prominent geographic features of a vaster and more tectonic landscape, one we’ve only begun to explore.

Harari would ask us to explore that landscape with a new state of mind — to abandon our human-centered biases — our Humanism — and consider what our embrace of technology may augur for our species. Yet through most of the book, he failed to push me from my easy chair. It was comforting to nod along as Harari argued that the devices — the computers, the platforms and the networks — are nothing more than the transit layer in humanity’s inevitable evolution to a more god-like species. And cognizant of the inescapable baggage of the “digital technologies” tag, Harari has gifted his new state of mind with a name: Dataism. More on that in a minute.

Homo Deus is the possibly too-clever-by-half continuation of the author’s masterstroke bestseller Sapiens, which the New York Times, despite crowning it as a runaway hit, acidly derided as “tailor-made for the thought-leader industrial complex.” If that made you snort the literary milk out your erudite nose, just wait for the other whiteshoe to drop: The same Times review charitably credited Homo Deus with having “the easy charms of potted history.”

Oh, Snap!

And look, the decidedly humanist Times is right to be offended by Harari’s assertions. For they are utterly unsettling, in particular to those most content in the warm embrace of Humanism, which Harari dismisses as a state of mind already past its prime. Dataism is its replacement — a reductive religion of algorithms, both biological and digital, driven by intelligence but decoupled from consciousness. It is therefore unconcerned with experience, the very bread which feeds humanist mythos. Net net: Let’s just say Dataism could really give a fuck about people in the long run. Harari’s money quote? “Homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm.”

So yeah, the ideas prosecuted in the pages of these two works, which run collectively just under 900 pages, are unsettling. But unlike the Times reviewer, I’m not ready to dismiss them as so much armchair pottery. It’s not often a work of literary merit (and this is certainly that) forces our vaunted industry to consider itself.

And did our industry consider it? After all, this is the follow on to Sapiens, a book celebrated by Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Barak Obama, for goodness sakes.

Turns out, our industry has pretty much ignored Homo Deus. Ezra Klein did have a thing or two to say about it in a podcast, but…crickets from most everywhere else.


Technology is having a crisis of self reflection. It’s understandable — we’re not the types to think too hard about the impact of our actions, because we’ve already anticipated them, after all. Creating new behaviors is the business we’re in, so we’re not surprised when they actually happen. We’ve developed a super-fast creative process on top of digital technologies — we come up with new plans as quickly as the old ones fail, and the act of doing this just proves our world view correct: We have a thesis, we prosecute it, and as we collect more data — including and especially data about our failure — we stare at it all, we rethink our approach, and we deftly devise a new algorithm to navigate around the damn problem. The better the acuity of our data, the more responsive our tools, the better the outcomes. Even when most of us lose, we’re always winning! Failure is just more data to fuel an eventual, inevitable victory.

This approach to life and business doesn’t reward deep reflection. And we know it. That’s why we’re so damn obsessed with meditation, with yoga (guilty), with flying to South America and doing strange psychedelic drugs. But so far all those reflections center on the me, and not on the us, on the society we are building. How often do we — the Royal Technology We — consider the butterfly effects of our work? And don’t tell me Zuck did it for us with that manifesto. That thing could have used a touch more psilocybin, amiright?

Perhaps Harari strikes us as a lecturing harridan — we know we have more homework to do. We understand we now rule the world, but we are reluctant leaders, because our industry has forever been in opposition, forever carrying a torch for a future state of humankind that the noobs and the squares and the company men didn’t get.

Only, we’ve won. So now what?


Well, that gets us to purpose. Why are we here? Why are you here? Why am I here? What are we here for?

Remember when you were a kid, in that kid-like state of mind, when you whispered to a friend, a confidante — “Where’s the wall at the end of universe?” And if they bit, if they acknowledged there might be an end to it all, a place where the universe ebbs to finality, you ask them this: “Well, then, what’s on the other side of the wall!?”

Remember that little pre-adolescent mind hack? Yeah, we’re about at that point now, Technology Industry. It’s time for us to come up with a better answer.

My favorite response to this paradox is: “The unimaginable.” That’s what’s on the other side of the wall. The only boundary in the universe, for Homo sapiens anyway, is the fact that we need a boundary in the first place. We understand so much, but at the end of that understanding we face the unimaginable. In that dark gravity we first populated gods, then God Himself, then Science and its attendant Humanism, and now….well, Harari makes the case that our digital technologies have hastened our transition us to a new era — one in which we “dissolve within the data torrent like a clump of earth within a gushing river.”

OK, I’m out of my armchair now. If all biology is algorithms, and science certainly believes this is so, then our fate is to join the church of pure information processing, driven by the inescapable end game of evolution.

Checkmate! Humanity exists because algorithms exist, algorithms that predate us, algorithms that will outlive us, and algorithms that exist for one reason: to solve problems. If we embrace this, then perhaps we stand at the cusp of solving our biggest problem ever: ourselves.

I”m not sure I buy all this — and even Harari, at the very end of his book, admits he’s not sure either (that felt like quite a hedge, to be honest). But the issues he raises are worthy of deeper debate — in particular inside our own industry, where self-reflection is far too absent.

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The Internet Big Five Is Now The World’s Big Five

By - May 17, 2017

Back in December of 2011, I wrote a piece I called “The Internet Big Five,” in which I noted what seemed a significant trend: Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Facebook were becoming the most important companies not only in the technology world, but in the world at large. At that point, Facebook had not yet gone public, but I thought it would be interesting to compare each of them by various metrics, including market cap (Facebook’s was private at the time, but widely reported). Here’s the original chart:

I called it “Draft 1” because I had a sense there was a franchise of sorts brewing. I had no idea. I started to chart out the various strengths and relative weaknesses of the Big Five, but work on NewCo shifted my focus for a spell.

Three years later, in 2014, I updated the chart. The growth in market cap was staggering:

Nearly a trillion dollars in net market cap growth in less than three years! My goodness!

But since 2014, the Big Five have rapidly accelerated their growth. Let’s look at the same chart, updated to today:

Ummm..HOLY SHIT! Almost two trillion dollars of market cap added in less than seven years. And the “Big Five” have become, with a few limited incursions by Berkshire Hathaway, the five largest public companies in the US. This has been noted by just about everyone lately, including The Atlantic, which just employed the very talented Alexis Madrigal to pay attention to them on a regular basis. In his maiden piece, Madrigal notes that the open, utopian world of the web just ten years ago (Web 2, remember that? I certainly do…) has lost, bigly, to a world of walled-garden market cap monsters.

I agree and disagree. Peter Thiel is fond of saying that the best companies are monopolists by nature, and his predictions seem to be coming true. But monopolies grow old, fray, and usually fail to benefit society over time. There’s a crisis of social responsibility and leadership looming for the Big Five — they’ve got all the power, now it’s time for them to face their responsibility. I’ll be writing much more about that in coming weeks and months. As I’ve said elsewhere, in a world where our politics has devolved to bomb throwing and sideshows, we must expect our businesses — in particular our most valuable ones — to lead.

Dear Facebook…Please Give Me Agency Over The Feed

By - May 07, 2017

(cross posted from NewCo Shift)

Like you, I am on Facebook. In two ways, actually. There’s this public page, which Facebook gives to people who are “public figures.” My story of becoming a Facebook public figure is tortured (years ago, I went Facebook bankrupt after reaching my “friend” limit), but the end result is a place that feels a bit like Twitter, but with more opportunities for me to buy ads that promote my posts (I’ve tried doing that, and while it certainly increases my exposure, I’m not entirely sure why that matters).

Then there’s my “personal” page. Facebook was kind enough to help me fix this up after my “bankruptcy.” On this personal page I try to keep my friends to people I actually know, with mixed success. But the same problems I’ve always had with Facebook are apparent here — some people I’m actually friends with, others I know, but not well enough to call true “friends.” But I don’t want to be an ass…so I click “confirm” and move on.

On my public page, I post stuff from my work. I readily admit I’m not very good at engaging with this page, and I feel shitty whenever I visit, mainly because I don’t like being bad at media (and Facebook is extremely good at surfacing metrics that prove you suck, then suggesting ways to spend money to fix that problem). But, if you want to follow what I’m up to — mostly stuff I write or stuff we post on NewCo Shift, well, it’s probably a pretty decent way to do that.

However, on my personal page, I’m utterly hopeless. Except for the very occasional random post (a picture of my drum kit? a photo of my kids here and there to appease my guilt?), I don’t view Facebook as a place to curate a “feed” of my life. The place kind of creeps me out, in ways I can’t exactly explain. It feels like work, like a responsibility, like a drug I should avoid, so I avoid it. I’ve had enough work (and drugs) in my life.

But unlike me, most of true friends put a lot of care and feeding into their Facebook pages. It’s become a place where they announce important milestones, like births, graduations, separations, deaths, the works. These insanely important moments, alas, are all interspersed with random shots of pie, flowers, cocktails, sunsets, and endless, endless, endless advertisements for shit I really don’t care about.

Taken together, the Facebook newsfeed is a place that I’ve decided isn’t worth the time it demands to truly be useful. I know, I could invest the time to mute this and like that, and perhaps Facebook’s great algos would deliver me a better feed. But I don’t, and I feel alone in this determination. And lately it’s begun to seriously fuck up my relationships with important people in my life, namely, my…true friends.

I won’t go into details (it’s personal, after all), but suffice to say I’ve missed some pretty important events in my friends’ lives because everyone else is paying attention to Facebook, but I am not. As a result, I’ve come off looking like an asshole. No, wait, let me rephrase that. I have become an actual asshole, because the definition of an asshole is someone who puts themself above others, and by not paying attention to Facebook, that’s what I’ve become.

That kind of sucks.

It strikes me that this is entirely fixable. One way, of course, is for me to just swallow my pride and pick up the habit of perusing Facebook every day. I just tried that very thing again this weekend. It takes about half an hour or more each day to cull through the endless stream of posts from my 500+ friends, and the experience is just as terrible as it’s always been. For every one truly important detail I find, I have to endure a hundred things I’d really rather not see. Many of them are trivial, some are annoying, and at least ten or so are downright awful.

And guess what? I’m only seeing a minority of the posts that my friends have actually created! I know Facebook is doing its best to deliver to me the stuff I care about, but for me, it’s utterly failing.

Now, it’s fair to say that I’m an outlier — for most people, Facebook works just fine. The Feed seems to nourish most of its sucklers, and there’s no reason to change it just because one grumpy tech OG is complaining. BUT…my problem with my feed is in fact allegorical to what’s become a massive societal problem with the Feed overall: It’s simply untenable to have one company’s algorithms control the personalized feeds of billions of humans around the world. It’s untenable on so many axes, it’s almost not worth going into, but for a bit of background, read the work of Tristan Harris, who puts it in ethical terms, or Eli Parser, who puts it in political terms, or danah boyd, who frames it in socio-cultural terms. Oh, and then there’s the whole Fake News, trolling, and abuse problem…which despite its cheapening by our president, is actually a Really, Really Big Deal, and one that threatens Facebook in particular (did you see they’re hiring 3,000 people to address it? Does that scale? Really?!)

It’s time for the model to change. And I have a modest and probably far too simple proposal for you to consider.

This proposal breaks all manner of Silicon Valley product high holy-isms, but bear with me. I think at the end of the day, it’s what we need to get beyond the structural limitations of trusting one company with so much power over our informational diets.

The short form version of my solution is this: Give me filter control over my feed. I know — this probably breaks Facebook’s stranglehold on our attention, and therefore, impacts their business model in unacceptable ways. But I could argue the reverse is true (but this is already getting long, and that’s another post.)

So, when I come to Facebook, here’s what I’d love: Ask me what I’m looking for, and present me with simple ways to filter by the things I want to see. As far as I can tell, the only way to filter your Feed today is to toggle between “Top Stories” and “Most Recent.” That’s lame. Here are some possible additions:

  • Close Friends. Let me see just posts from folks I’m truly close to. Facebook already lets you tag people as “close friends,” but you can’t see only what they post and nothing else. You can “see first” people, but that feels like a half measure at best.
  • Key Moments. Let everyone tag posts they believe are truly important — the deaths, the births, the divorces, the new job, the graduations. Sure, there will be spammers, but hell, Facebook’s good at catching that shit. I know Facebook lets you tag your posts as “Life Events” (did you know that?! I just found out…), but… why can’t you filter the Feed so you only see the ones that matter?
  • Outrage. This is a kind of a joke, but with a purpose: let me see just posts that are political rants. This kind of content has overtaken Facebook, so why not give it a filter of its own so you can see it when you want, or filter it out if you don’t?
  • Kittens. This is the fluff setting. Users, posters, and Facebook’s own AI/Algos can identify this stuff and filter it into a category of its own. This is where the funny videos and pictures of pets go. This is where the endless stream of food porn goes. This is where most of the content from Buzzfeed goes.
  • Bubble Breaker. Show me posts that present views opposite my own, or that force me to engage with ideas I’ve not considered before. This could become an incredibly powerful feature, if it’s done right.

There are probably tons more, and most likely these examples aren’t even the best ones to focus on. And I am sure the smart folks at Facebook have considered this idea, and determined it’s a terrible one for all manner of fine reasons.

But my point is this: Facebook does not really allow us to decide what the Feed is feeding us, and that’s a major problem. It leaves agency in the hands (digits?) of Facebook’s algorithms, and as much as I’d like to believe the company can create super intelligent AIs that nourish us all, I think the facts on the ground state the opposite. So give us back the power to determine what we want to see. We might just surprise you.

Ads. Grrr.

By - May 03, 2017

(Cross posted on Medium)

I honestly didn’t want to say this, but. I did have other things to do tonight than write about advertising. Again. But g’damn, folks. Can we get our shit together?

I know Google thinks it is doing something about it. But that Chrome feature you call ad blocking? Well, OK, there’s some good in it — it even addresses the issue I’m on about right now, sort of*. But come on. It has no power unless you block ads in Facebook’s feed, amiright?!!! (Wink!)

Anyway, just now, five minutes ago, I was grokking Sam Harris’ latest podcast, featuring a very controversial intellectual by the name of Charles Murray (long, looooong fucking story). Yeah, I’m late to the podcast game. It’s been NetFlix, music, sports and Stern during Normal Podcast Times, so I kind of side-stepped that resurgence for the past few years till recently.

And Harris’ interview with Charles Murray this week was, well, a revelation in a couple ways. First….two hours? On an intellectual tempest that underpins a fair amount of the shit going on in our country today? What a … novelty, right? And second…damn! I knew the Bell Curve was a major thing, but…Harris *really* put his reputation on the line here, and, that makes for some good baseball, no matter your point of view.

Anyway, I’ve spent enough time around ideas and the folks who create them to know there’s always more to the story, so after listening, I googled around (yes Google, I did that on purpose, sorry, but it’s lower case usage for you from now on, please block Facebook ads in your Chrome extension that would be such a cool dust up to watch okthanksbye) to find out who might disagree with the cautious but still high-on-camaraderie conversation I had just ingested.

That’s when I found this extremely contrarian post on a site I’d never heard of (which is quite normal for me. The independent web is huge and growing. Don’t believe the hype that says the platforms have won — it’s plain wrong). I still haven’t grokked *the site itself*, though I did read the post. And that’s not because I didn’t want to (I do, I always do), but because midway through my focused read of the post itself, the site did something that will forever place it on my shit list: It forced a pop-under ad into (well, under) my browser, which then autoplayed, quite loudly, commercial audio that interrupted a particularly wonderful passage in “Dawned on Me” from Wilco’s The Whole Love, the album I had chosen as my companion for my minor but heretofore pleasant intellectual journey.

And that is some Serious Bullshit. Some serious, serious bullshit. As I immediately said on Twitter (because, really, the best and first use of Twitter is to mutter like an old man to the sympathetic person you imagine is in the room with you, right?):

“It used to be, when you visited a site, you’d learn something about it from the ads. Now you just learn what the ads think of you.”

What I learned was that the ads (and by extension, the site) had exactly zero interest in my current state of mind, despite the fact that the content I was consuming was entirely about influencing my state of mind. Nope, the site said, all we care about is that you’re *paying attention.* That can be arbitraged for a twelve-dollar CPM! So fuck you, reader. I’ll take the cash.

These asshats crashed my Wilco-enhanced journey of intellectual advancement. That kind of pisses me off. Maybe I’m wrong to assume I have a right to that journey. I understand. (But honestly, fuck you.)

I think we can do better.

So, sorry, site, I’m done with you, despite your best efforts to change my mind about Sam Harris and Charles Murray, or to inform what may or may not be a rational point of view about the critical issues I am attempting to consider (and damn, they are pretty damn critical right about now).

So. Here’s my conclusion. We need a place to discuss ideas that is absent the dark gravity associated with this kind of advertising.

This seems to me a rather urgent thing to build. Remember “We Must Fix This Fucking Mess”? That.


*And Google, as much as I’d love you to top-down this problem, that’s not how we fix it. We fix it through culture and community, not by fiat.