Thanks to Brian Solis for taking the time to sit down with me and talk both specifically about my upcoming book, as well as many general topics.
Earlier this week I participated in Google’s partner conference, entitled Zeitgeist after the company’s annual summary of trending topics. Deep readers of this site know I have a particular affection for the original Zeitgeist, first published in 2001. When I stumbled across that link, I realized I had to write The Search.
The conference reminds me of TED, full of presentations and interviews meant to inspire and challenge the audience’s thinking. I participated in a few of the onstage discussions, and was honored to do so.
I’d been noodling a post about the meaning of Google’s brand*, in particular with respect to Google+, for some time, and I’d planned to write it before heading to the conference, if for no other reason than it might provide fodder for conversations with various Google executives and partners. But I ran out of time (I wrote about Facebook instead), and perhaps that’s for the good. While at the conference, I got a chance to talk with a number of sources and round out my thinking.
I also got the chance to ask Larry Page a question (video is embedded above, the question is at 19.30). In essence, my query was this: For most of Google’s history, when people thought about Google, they’d think about search. That was the brand: Google = search. For the next phase of Google’s life, what does Google equal?
I asked this question with an answer in mind (as I said, I’d been thinking about this for some time), but I didn’t get the answer I had hoped for. What Page did say was this:
“I’d like the brand to represent the things I just spoke about (for that, see the video) … it’s important that people trust the brand…that we’re trustworthy…and I think also it should stand for a beauty and technological purity…innovation, and things that are important to people, driving technology forward.”
The text above doesn’t really do Page’s answer justice, because somehow when he said “beauty” – a word I was surprised to hear – he delivered it with a sincerity that I and others at the conference found…almost Apple-like.
Then again, Page didn’t directly answer the question, at least from a marketing standpoint. In 2009, Google’s brand = search. That kind of clarity and consistency is what every marketer seeks to define in their brand.
At the moment, Google’s brand is a bit confusing. Google equals Chrome. And YouTube. And Android. And Google Docs. And Gmail. And Maps, Places, Voice, Calendar….and self driving cars, and investments in energy research, and antitrust hearings, and Adwords, and of course search. Not to mention Google+.
Oh, and Motorola.
One can forgive the average consumer if he or she is a bit confused about what Google really means.
In conversations with various Google executives over the past few weeks, including leaders in product, marketing, and search, it’s clear that the company is well aware of this problem, and is focused on finding a solution. And while most have seen Google+ as the company’s answer to Facebook’s social graph, I now see it as something far bigger.
In short, Google+ = Google.
Google VP of Product Bradley Horowitz, who I know well enough to know he doesn’t say things without thinking about them a bit, recently told Wired as much, but the context was missing. To wit:
Wired: How was working on Google+ different from working on the company’s previous offerings?
Horowitz: Until now, every single Google property acted like a separate company. Due to the way we grew, through various acquisitions and the fierce independence of each division within Google, each product sort of veered off in its own direction. That was dizzying. But Google+ is Google itself. We’re extending it across all that we do—search, ads, Chrome, Android, Maps, YouTube—so that each of those services contributes to our understanding of who you are.
Horowitz is making an important point, but the interview moved on. It should have lingered. In those conversations with Googlers over the past month, I’ve heard one consistent theme: Larry Page is obsessed with Google+, and not just for its value as a competitor to Facebook. Rather, as I wrote earlier this month, Google+ is the digital mortar between all of Google’s offerings, creating a new sense of what the brand *means*.
So what is that meaning? I’d like to venture a guess: one seamless platform for extending and leveraging your life through technology. In short, Google = the operating system of your life.
At the moment, there are really only three serious players who have the technological, capital, and brand resources to stake such an audacious claim. Of course, they are Apple, Microsoft, and Google (Amazon seems on the precipice of becoming the fourth). Of the three, Apple has the best handle on its brand. And Microsoft made its brand in the operating system world, so it has at least pitched its tent in the right part of our collective mindspace.
But Google? Well, Google’s got some brand work to do. Google’s products don’t all work together in a seamless way, and at first glance, don’t seem to all speak to the same brand experience. Google+ is the company’s attempt to address that problem, such that every experience with Google “makes sense” from a brand perspective. Which is to say, from the customer’s point of view. As a very senior Google marketing executive recently told me: “There’s a reason it’s called Google….plus!”
If this is correct, then the stakes of ensuring that Google+ succeeds are raised, significantly. Google has twice tried to out-social Facebook (Buzz, Orkut), and neither quite worked. But this time, Google’s not just trying to beat Facebook. It’s being far more ambitious – it’s trying to redefine what happens inside your brain when you consider the concept of “Google.” Part of that is social, sure. But far more of it has to do with being the brand to which you entrust nearly every technology-leveraged part of your life.
If that indeed is what the company is trying to do, I’m more certain that Google+ will succeed. Why? Because it means the company is committed in a new way to a singular purpose. It means it will cut new kinds of deals so as to compete (like bringing Cityville to Google+, or undermining Facebook’s Skype partnership through Hangouts, or, soon, bringing media and marketing into Google+). It means tying Google+ to its core promotion engine of search (which it most certainly has). And it means, as Horowitz told Wired, “extending (Google+) across all that we do.” I recently asked Google’s head of local, Marissa Mayer, what percentage of her products were integrated with Google+. Five or so percent, she told me. But she quickly added: That’s going to change, and fast.
At Zeitgeist, when Page answered my question about the brand, he answered mostly with meaning – innovation, trust, beauty. But Larry spoke for twenty or so minutes prior to my asking him that question, and he mentioned Google+ over and over, pressing how important the project was, and how excited he was about it. So come to think of it, maybe his first response to me – I’d like the brand to represent the things I just spoke about - was all the answer we really needed.
(image) Recently I was in conversation with a senior executive at a major Internet company, discussing the role of the news cycle in our industry. We were both bemoaning the loss of consistent “second day” story telling – where a smart journalist steps back, does some reporting, asks a few intelligent questions of the right sources, and writes a longer form piece about what a particular piece of news really means.
Instead, we have a scrum of sites that seem relentlessly engaged in an instant news cycle, pouncing on every tidbit of news in a race to be first with the story. And sure, each of these sites also publish smart second-day analysis, but it gets lost in the thirty to fifty new stories which are posted each day. I bet if someone created a venn diagram of the major industry news sites by topic, the overlap would far outweigh the unique on any given day (or even hour).
This is all throat clearing to say that with the Facebook story last week, I am sensing a bit more of a “pause and consider” cycle developing. Sure, everyone jumped on the new Timeline and Open Graph news, but by day two, I noticed a lot more thought pieces, and most of them were either negative in tone, or sarcastic (or both.) Exmples include:
Can Facebook Become the Web? (Fortune)
Analysis of F8, Timeline, Ticker and Open Graph (Chris Saad)
All of life has been utterly… (Dan Lyon)
Now, I am not endorsing all these pieces as perfect second day posts, but collectively, they do give us a fairly good sense of the issues raised by Facebook’s big news.
I’d like to add one more thought. Perhaps this might be called a “second week” post, given it’s been four or five days since the big news. In any case, the thing I find most interesting about the new approach to sharing and publishing on Facebook lies in what Mark Zuckerberg said his new product would deliver: “The story of your life.”
Now, long time readers know where I stand when it comes to telling the “story of your life.” I’m firmly in the camp that believes that story belongs to you, and should be told on your own domain, your own terms, and with a very, very clear understanding of who owns that story (that’d be you.) And this applies to brands as well: Your brand story should not be located or dependent on any third party platform. That’s the point of the web – anyone can publish, and no one has rights over what you publish (unless, of course, you break established law).
It was our inherent desire to tell “stories of our lives” that led to the explosion of blogging ten or so years ago. And crafting a rich narrative is just that, a craft (some elevate it to art). Yet Facebook’s new timeline, combined with the promiscuous sharing features of the Open Graph and some clever algorithms, promises to build a rich narrative timeline of your life, one that is rife with personal pictures, shared media objects (music, movies, publications), and lord knows what else (meals, trips, hookups – anything that might be recorded and shared digitally).
Now, I don’t find much wrong with this – most folks won’t spend their days obsessing over their timelines so as to present a perfectly crafted media experience. I’m guessing Facebook is counting on the vast majority of its users continuing to do what they’ve always done with Facebook’s curation of their data – ignore it, for the most part, and let the company’s internal algorithms manage the flow.
But our culture has always had a small percentage of folks who are native storytellers, people who do, in fact, obsess over each narrative they find worthy of relating. And to those people (which include media companies and brands falling over themselves to integrate with Open Graph), I once again make this recommendation: Don’t invest your time, or your narrative exertions, building your stories on top of the Facebook platform. Make them elsewhere, and then, sure, import them in if that’s what works for you. But individual stories, and brand stories, should be born and nurtured out in the Independent Web.
I’ve got plenty of philosophical reasons for saying this, which I wont’ get into in this post (some are here). But allow me to relate a more economic argument: At present, there’s no way for our story tellers to make money directly from Facebook for the favor of crafting engaging narratives on top of the company’s platform. And from what I can divine, Facebook plans to make a fair amount of money selling advertising next to these new timeline profiles. As they get richer and more multi-media, so will the advertisements. Do you think Facebook intends to cut its 800 million narrative agents into those advertising dollars? I didn’t think so.
Which is just fine, for most folks – for people who don’t see the “stories of their lives” as a way to make a living. But if crafting narrative is your business, or even just a hobby that brings in grocery money, I’d counsel staying on the open web. (BTW, crafting narratives is *every* brand’s business.) For you, Facebook is a wonderful distribution and community building platform. But it shouldn’t be where you build your house.
(image) As I posted earlier, last week I had a chance to sit down with Twitter CEO Dick Costolo. We had a pretty focused chat on Twitter’s news of the week, but I also got a number of questions in about Twitter’s next generation of ad products.
As usual, Dick was frank where he could be, and demurred when I pushed too hard. (I’ll be talking to him at length at Web 2 Summit next month.) However, a clear-enough picture emerged such that I might do some “thinking out loud” about where Twitter’s ad platform is going. That, combined with some very well-placed sources who are in a position to know about Twitter’s ad plans, gives me a chance to outline what, to the best of my knowledge, will be the next generation of Twitter’s ad offerings.
I have to say, if the company pulls it off, the company is sitting on a Very Big Play. But if you read my post Twitter and the Ultimate Algorithm, you already knew that.
In that post, I laid out what I thought to be Twitter’s biggest problem/opportunity: surfacing the right content, in the right context, to the right person at the right time. It’s one of the largest computer science and social engineering problems on the web today, a fascinating opportunity to leverage what is becoming a real time database of folks’ implicit and explicitly declared interests.
I also noted that should Twitter crack this code, its ad products would follow. As I wrote: “If Twitter can assign a rank, a bit of context, a “place in the world” for every Tweet as it relates to every other Tweet and to every account on Twitter, well, it can do the same job for every possible advertiser on the planet, as they relate to those Tweets, those accounts, and whatever messaging the advertiser might have to offer. In short, if Twitter can solve its signal to noise problem, it will also solve its revenue scale problem.”
Well, I’ve got some insights on how Twitter plans to make its first moves toward these ends.
First, Dick made it clear last week that Twitter will be widening the rollout of its “Promoted Tweets” product, which pushes Tweets from advertisers up to the top of a logged-in user’s timeline (coverage). Previously, brands could promote tweets only to people who followed those brands. (This of course drove advertisers to use Twitter’s “Promoted Accounts” product, which encouraged users to follow a brand’s Twitter handle. After all, if Promoted Tweets are only seen by your followers, you better have a lot of them).
Just recently, Twitter began to allow brands to push their Promoted Tweets to non-followers. This adds a ton of scale to a product that previously had limited reach. Remember, Twitter announced some pretty big numbers last week: more than 100 million “logged in” users, and nearly 400 million users a month on its website alone. Not to mention around 230 million tweets generated a day. All of these metrics are growing at a very strong clip, Twitter tells me.
All this begs we step back and ask an important question. Now that advertisers can push their Tweets to non-followers, how might they be able to target these ads?
Twitter’s answer, in short, is this: We’ll handle that, at least for now. The first iteration of the product does not allow the advertiser to determine who sees the promoted tweet. Instead, Twitter will find “lookalikes” – people who are similar in interests to folks who follow the brand. Characteristically, Twitter is going slow with this launch – as I understand it, initially just ten percent of its users will see this product.
(The implication of Twitter finding “lookalikes” should not be ignored – it means Twitter is confident in its ability to relate the interest graphs of its users one to another, at scale. This is part of the issue I wrote about in the “Ultimate Algorithm” post, a major and important development that is worth noting).
Now, I’ve spent many years working with marketers, and even if Twitter’s lookalike approach has scale, I know brands won’t be satisfied with a pure “black box” answer from the service. They’ll want some control over how they target, who they target to, and when their ads show up, among other things. Google, for example, gives advertisers an almost overwhelming number of data points as input to their AdWords and AdSense products. Facebook, of course, has extremely rich demographic and interest based targeting.
So how will Twitter execute targeting? Here are my thoughts:
- Interest targeting. Twitter will expose a dashboard that allows advertisers to target users based on a set of interests. I’d expect, for example, that a movie studio launching a summer action film might want to target Twitter users have shown interest in celebrities, Hollywood, and, of course, action movies.
How might that interest be known? There are plenty of clear signals: What a user posts, of course. But also what he or she retweets, replies to, clicks on in someone else’s tweet, or who they follow (and who that followed person follows, and, and….).
- Geotargeting. Say that movie is premiering in just ten cities across the country. Clearly, that movie studio will want to target its ads just in those regions. Nearly every major advertiser demands this capability – consumer packaged goods companies like P&G, for example, will want to compare their geotargeted ads to “shelf lift” in a particular region.
Twitter has told me it will have geotargeting capabilities shortly.
- Audience targeting. I’d expect that at some point, Twitter will expose various audience “buckets” to the marketer for targeting based on unique signals that Twitter alone has views into. These might include “active retweeters,” “influencers,” or “tastemakers” – folks who tend to find things first.
- Demographic targeting. This one I’m less certain of – Twitter doesn’t have a clear demographic dataset, the way Facebook does. However, neither does Google, and it figured out a way to include demos in its product line.
- Device/location targeting. Do you want your Promoted Tweets only on the web, or only on Windows? Maybe just iPads, or iOS more broadly? Perhaps just mobile, or only Android? And would you like location with that? You get the picture….
Given all this targeting and scale, the next question is: How will advertisers actually buy from Twitter? I think it’s clear that Twitter will adopt a model based on two familiar features: a cost-per-engagement model (the company already uses engagement as a signal to rank an ads efficacy) and a real-time second-price bidded auction. The company already exposes dashboards to its marketing partners on no less than five metrics, allowing them to manage their marketing presence on Twitter in real time. And its recently announced analytics product only adds on to that suite. Twitter has also said a self-serve platform will be open for business shortly, one that will allow smaller businesses to play on the service.
Next up? APIs that allows third parties to run Promoted Tweets, as well as help marketers manage their Twitter presence. Just as with Facebook and Google, expect a robust “SEO/SEM” ecosystem to develop around these APIs.
The cost per engagement model is worth a few more lines. If an ad does not resonate – is not engaged with in some way by users – it will fall off the page, an approach that has clearly worked well for Google. The company is very pleased with its early tests on engagement, which one source tells me is one to two orders of magnitude above traditional banner ads.
Finally, recall that Twitter also announced, and couched as very good news, that a large percentage of its users are “not logged in,” but rather consume Twitter content just as you or I might read a blog post. Fred writes about this in his post The Logged Out User. In that post, he estimates that nearly three in four folks on Twitter.com are “logged out.” That’s a huge audience. Expect ad products for those folks shortly, including – yes – display ads driven by cookies and/or other modeling parameters.
In short, after staring at this beast for many years, I think Twitter is well on its way to cracking the code for revenue. But let’s not forget the key part of this equation: The product itself. Ad product development is nearly always in lockstep with user product development.
Twitter recently surfaced a new tab for some of its users called “Activity”, and I was lucky enough to get it in my stream. It makes my timeline far better than it was. The “Mentions” tab (which we see as our own handle) is also far richer, showing follows, retweets, and favorites as well as replies and mentions. But there’s much, much more to do. My sense of the company now, however, is that it’s going to deliver on the opportunity we’ve all known it has ahead. It’s mostly addressed its infrastructure issues, Costolo told me, and is now focused on delivering product improvements through rapid iteration, testing, and deployment. I look forward to seeing how it all plays out.
I could not make Twitter’s press event today, but I did get a chance to sit with CEO Dick Costolo (the Web 2 Summit dinner speaker this year) yesterday afternoon, and got a chance to do a deep dive on today’s news. I’ll write up more on that as soon as I can, but the recap:
100 million active users around the globe turn to Twitter to share their thoughts and find out what’s happening in the world right now. More than half of these people log in to Twitter each day to follow their interests. For many, getting the most out of Twitter isn’t only about tweeting: 40 percent of our active users simply sign in to listen to what’s happening in their world.
This is from their blog post, but there are a lot more stats to share (400 million people visit Twitter.com each month, for example), as well as insights and thoughts from our conversation yesterday. Stay tuned.
August is a month of vacation, of beaches, reading, and leisure….unless you happen to work with me creating the program for the eighth annual Web 2 Summit this October. Each year, my “summer vacation” turns into a “working vacation” as my team and I spend hours massaging more than 50 speakers into a tightly choreographed program running over what always turns out to be an extraordinary three days. I must be a masochist. Because I always love how it turns out.
This year, as I wrote earlier, our theme is “The Data Frame.” And this year’s program hews more tightly to our theme than any before it. Just about every speaker will be presenting on some aspect of how data changes the game in our industry. From policy to tech, art to retail, we’ve got one of the most varied lineups ever. You can see it here, but remember, these are extremely volatile times. In other words, the lineup might change a bit in the next six weeks. I’m just glad I didn’t ask Carol Bartz to come back, but then again, that would have been fun, no?
Web 2 is a year book of sorts, a stake in the ground where our industry has some of its most important conversations. This year we are taking a new tack – eliminating panels altogether, and focusing on our trademark conversations, as well as short, high impact presentations.
Here are a few I’m really looking forward to.
We’ll start day one with Mark Pincus, CEO of Zynga. Mark has been busy, in particular given both the growth of Zynga and the recent turmoil in the financial markets, which plan on welcoming his company to public status at some point in the near future. But Mark is just the starting gun of an amazing opening session, one that will include John Donahoe, CEO of eBay, Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, Paul Otellini, CEO of Intel, Dennis Crowley, co-founder of foursquare, Ross Levinsohn,
EVP Americas at Yahoo!, and Reid Hoffman, founder and Chair of LinkedIn, the public market’s current darling.
Of the group, I’m particularly pleased to welcome Ron Wyden, Senator from Oregon. This will mark Web 2′s first ever visit from a sitting senator, and our industry will have plenty to discuss with him – he’s the man who has taken stands on COICA and its cousin Protect IP, controversial (and many would say flawed) pieces of legislation that may have significant impacts on how the Internet works.
After cocktails we’ll sit down to dinner, and I’m very pleased to announce that our dinner conversation with be with Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, a man who would win any “funniest CEO” competition. running away. Be prepared to snort wine through your nose.
Day two opens with Dell CEO Michael Dell, who will have plenty to say about the moves of his competitors HP, Apple, and Samsung. We’ll get our first taste of a new program element – “Pivot” – short presentations tailored to shift your thinking in five minutes or less. You’ll hear Pivots from Tony Conrad (about.me),Chris Poole (Canv.as, 4chan), Bill Gross (uber media), Aileen Lee (KPCB), David Hornik (August Capital) and many more.
This brings me to another important point – with data, all companies must become Internet companies. John, Dan, Alison, and Frank will bring that point home. As will Michael Roth, CEO of IPG, one of the largest advertising holding companies on the planet.
And of course we’ll hear from Mary Meeker, in her eighth appearance at Web 2. But this time, I’ve given her enough time to both do her “capital markets roundup,” as well as sit down with us and discuss her new role as partner at Kleiner Perkins.
A highlight of Day Two will be Thomas Drake, who used to work at the NSA on a forward-looking data surveillance program called ThinThread. While there, he uncovered facts about how the NSA was conducting surveillance which he believed was illegal. He blew the whistle, was charged with espionage, and lived to tell the tale.
Rounding out Day Two will be Jack Tretton, President and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment of American, Tim Westergren, founder of Pandora, and Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft.
But wait…there’s more! Sprinkled throughout the three days will be our trademark “High Order Bits” – shortform presentations designed to amaze, inspire, and even perplex. We’ll hear from voices as varied as Genevieve Bell, in house anthropologist at Intel, Peter Vesterbacka, the “Mighty Eagle” of Rovio,
Alex Rampell, CEO of TrialPay, Mike McCue, CEO of Flipboard, Bret Taylor, CTO of Facebook, Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, Susan Wojcicki, SVP at Google, Deb Roy, Founder of Bluefin, Richard Rosenblatt, CEO Demand Media, Mike Olson, CEO of Cloudera, and even MC Hammer.
That’s a lot of names, and we’re not close to being done. Highlights of day three include James Gleick, who has written one of the most important books about data in recent years (“The Information”), and a passel of Facebook alums: Sean Parker, who has yet another startup to discuss, Dave Morin, of Path, and Charlie Cheever together with his co-founder Adam D’Angelo, of Quora. More High Order Bits will come from Hilary Mason, of bit.ly, Jeremie Miller, of Singly, and Josh James, of Domo.
Rounding out the day are Andrew Mason, of Groupon fame, and Vic Gundotra, the man behind Google+.
Whew. And that’s not even all the great folks who are coming. It’s going to be a spectacular three days. I hope you’ll join us!
My deepest thanks go out to my Web 2 Advisory Board, which gave me a lot of great input on the program, and to the teams at O’Reilly, Techweb, and FM. As well as all our amazing sponsors, of course, and my producer extraordinare, Janetti Chon. It’s almost showtime!
PS – Look for our announcement next week about the new “Data Layer” on our “Points of Control” map. It’s going to rock!
Thomas J. Watson, legendary chief of IBM during its early decades and the Bill Gates of his time, has oft been quoted – and derided – for stating, in 1943, that “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Whether he actually said this quote is in dispute, but it’s been used in hundreds of articles and books as proof that even the richest men in the world (which is what Watson was for a spell) can get things utterly wrong.
After all, there are now hundreds of millions of computers, thanks to Bill Gates and Andy Grove.
But staring at how things are shaping up in our marketplace, maybe Watson was right, in a way. The march to cloud computing and the rush of companies building brands and services where both enterprises and consumers can park their compute needs is palpable. And over the next ten or so years, I wonder if perhaps the market won’t shake out in such a way that we have just a handful of “computers” – brands we trust to manage our personal and our work storage, processing, and creation tasks. We may access these brands through any number of interfaces, but the computation, in the manner Watson would have understood it, happens on massively parallel grids which are managed, competitively, by just a few companies.*
It seems that is how Watson, or others like him, saw it back in the 1950s. According to sources quoted from Wikipedia, Professor Douglas Hartee, a Cambridge mathematician, estimated that all the calculations required to run in England would take about three “computers,” each distributed in distinct geographical locations around the country. The reasoning was pretty defensible: computers were maddeningly complex, extraordinarily expensive, and nearly impossible to run.
Right now, I’d wager that the handful of brands leading the charge to win in this market might be Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, and….IBM. About five or so. Maybe Watson will be proven right, even if he never was wrong in the first place.
* Among other things, it is this move to the cloud, with its attendant consequences of loss of generativity and control at the edges, which worries Zittrain, Lanier, and others. But more on that later.
I was excited to read the book, because Kaku is a well regarded physicist, and that’s a field that I know will inform what’s possible, technologically, thirty or so years from now. I will admit I did not read the reviews of the book before hitting “purchase” on my Kindle. The topic alone made it worth my time, and the book was on the NYT bestseller list for five weeks, after all. Turns out, the book was worth the time….but perhaps I should have read the reviews so my expectations were more properly set.
I thought I was going to learn some fundamentals about what’s possible in the next few generations, and if you work hard enough, you will learn some of that. But the book reads more like a string of popular science articles meant for a *very* broad audience, and far less like a serious investigation of how physics might inform our world in the coming decades.
The New York Times’ review might sum it best (and I know, it’s a cliche to depend on the Times, but…it pretty much sums up my thoughts on the book):
“…Mr. Kaku thinks in numbers better than he thinks in words, which is a problem only in that he’s written a book and not a series of equations….This is not boring stuff, and it all somewhat makes me wish that I (born in 1965) were going to be around to witness it all. In terms of data delivery, “Physics of the Future” gets the job done. But airplane food gets the job done, too, and airplane food — bland and damp — is what Mr. Kaku’s prose too often resembles.”
Ouch. I hope I never get a review like that. But then again, I rarely think in numbers.
Kaku does not lack for ambition – he sets out to explain, in great detail, how we will live in 2100, and how we’ll get there. But he often uses the conditional tense, and swaps between “this might happen” to “this will certainly happen,” sometimes on the same page. It makes for a general lack of trust when it comes to whether or not you want to buy into his proclamations. He also leans heavily on a thesis he calls “The Cave Man Principle,” which, to simplify, says that we are still pretty much driven by the same impulses we had when we lived in caves. The idea gets old and is often used as a salve when the future starts to get hard to predict. He also loves to drop pop culture references – in particular to sci fi movies – as a way to explain how things might shape up. I’m not sure I’d want Hollywood to loom that large in *my* future…
Still, if you are looking for a relatively fast read that covers a lot of ground around flying cars, the Internet on contact lenses, and palm sized MRI machines, this book is worth a look, despite the sometimes artless prose. Better yet, however, I’d recommend you watch a few of Kaku’s television shows (he’s made a number of them for Discovery Channel, among others), and we’ve enjoyed watching those as a family.
I’m still reading Kevin’s “What Technology Wants,” which so far I’m really enjoying. Hope to write about that shortly.
Other books I’ve reviewed recently:
Alone Together by Sherry Turkle
The Information by James Gleick
In the Plex by Steven Levy
The Future of the Internet (And How to Stop It) by Jonathan Zittrain
The Next 100 Years by George Friedman
The subject of “owning your own domain” has been covered to death in our industry, with excellent posts from Anil Dash and others (Fred) explaining the importance of having your own place on the web. I’ve also weighed in on the importance of “The Independent Web,” where creators have control, as opposed to the Dependent Web, where platforms ultimately control how your words, data, and expression are leveraged.
But not everyone gravitates toward having their own, independent site – at least not initially. Even those who do have sites don’t necessarily see those sites as the best place to express themselves. I was reminded of this reading a Quora thread over the weekend entitled “What’s it like to have your film flop at the box office?” (The subtitle of the thread is hilarious: “Don’t they know how bad it is before it comes out?”)
The question elicited a well written, funny, and informative post by one Sean Hood, a professional “fixer” of scripts who had worked on the recent “Conan the Barbarian” movie – apparently a big-time summer flop.
It’s clear that Hood was inspired to write a wonderful post not because he wanted to muse out loud on his own blog (he does, it turns out, have one), but because of something particularly social in nature about Quora.
The same, I’d wager, can be said of Google+, where a lot of folks, including well know “traditional bloggers” like Robert Scoble are content to post at length, regardless of the fact that Google+, unlike blogging software like WordPress, is not a platform that they “control.” Ditto places like the Huffington Post, Facebook, ePinions, Amazon Reviews – you get the picture. The web is full of places where the value is created by authors, but control and monetization accrues, in the main, to the company, not the individual.
Scoble, who is paid by the hosting company Rackspace to be nearly omnipresent, is clearly an edge case. He’s a professional blogger, but he doesn’t really care where his words live, as long as they get a lot of attention. Traditional authors, like, for example, the folks behind Dooce or The Awl, are far less likely to leave their core value – their words – all over the web, and in particular, they don’t see the point of given that value away for free, when their own sites provide their economic lifeblood (both sites are FM partners, but there are tens of thousands of others as well.).
The downsides of not owning your own words, on your own platform, are not limited simply to money. Over time, the words and opinions one leaves all over the web form a web of identity – your identity – and controlling that identity feels, to me, a human right. But unless you are a sophisticated netizen, you’re never going to spend the time and effort required to gather all your utterances in one place, in a fashion that best reflects who you are in the world.
Every site has a different terms of service – rules which guide what rights you have when you post on the site. I haven’t read them all (most of us don’t), but I’d imagine most of the would allow you to take your own words and cut and paste them on your own site, should you be so inspired. On his personal blog, Sean Hood, the film writer, has linked to many of his past answers on Quora. But he hasn’t “re-posted” them – which I think is a shame. Because while Quora is a great service, should it go dark, Sean’s words will be lost.
Earlier in the year I wrote a piece called “The Rise of Meta Services,” in which I posited that we need a new class of services that help us make sense of the fractured nature of all the sites, apps, and platforms we’re using. I’d wager there’s a great opportunity to create such a service that follows individuals around the web, noting, indexing, and reposting everything he or she writes back to his or her own domain.
Or maybe there’s already a WordPress plugin for that?!
Last week I finished reading Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together“, and while I have various disagreements with the work (I typed in more than 70 notes on my Kindle, even with that terribly tiny keyboard), I still found myself nodding in agreement more than I thought I would.
In her book, Turkle explores our relationship with technology, in particular what she calls “sociable robots” (toys like the Aibo or My Real Baby), as well as with email, IM, and shared virtual spaces like Second Life and Facebook.
Turkle is one of the most important sociologists of technology working today, and her new book reads like a personal field notebook, rife with anecdotes about how children and teens, in particular, are responding to these new technological artifacts.
I came to “Alone Together” a skeptic – it was clear from almost the first page that Turkle is troubled by what her field work yielded. Children projecting “life force” onto robots, adults fretting about the morality of robots caring for their failing elders, parents so distracted by their smart phones that they lose connection with their kids. That’s the framing of most of her reviews, and it was the framing I’ll admit I had when I began reading.
The book has a clear posture about our collective abilities to fend off seductive but ultimately damaging technological crutches – and that posture is that as we engage with machines, we’re losing important parts of our humanity. And Turkle is clearly worried about that.
When it comes to our relationship to technology, I tend not to be a worrier. My early marginalia on Turkle’s pages included “false premise!” and “what is the problem here?” and “so is a damn teddy bear!” (that last one in response to Turkle’s fretting about a child’s conception of whether a Tamagotchi is “alive.”)
The reason for my skepticism is simple: As Turkle describes page after page of people losing “true connectedness” in their lives and falling instead for the false thrill of tech, I keep thinking: Our tools have not caught up with our brains, and vice versa. We have shaped technology, and now it is shaping us – sure – but we can keep shaping it till we get the feedback loop right. So far, we simply have not – the music ain’t flowing, so to speak. In our relationship to what Kevin Kelly* calls the technium, we’re awkward pre-teens.
Or put another way, this cake ain’t baked. I mean, think about it. Facebook: Not quite right. Smart phones? Not quite right. Desktop computing? Even though we’ve had nearly three decades of interaction, it’s still not quite right.
One of “Alone Together’s” greatest failings for me – or perhaps it’s a lesson of sorts – was the parade of examples based on technological products which, after an initial period of cultural uptake, have been discarded or marginalized over time. Tamagotchis, Teddy Ruxpins, My Real Babies, Second Life, Blackberries, even, dare I say it, Facebook, are ephemeral in the sweep of a generation or two (or in some cases, in a year or two). We shouldn’t draw stern conclusions from our pre-teen love affairs, so to speak. We are learning, failing, trying again.
However, as the book unfolded, and I thought more personally about the issues Turkle raises, I began to agree with some of her concerns. We’re only on this earth for a short time, and the time we lose to poor relationships with technology is time we can’t get back. When Turkle describes a young parent pushing his child on a swing while checking email on his Blackberry, I saw myself as the CEO of The Standard back in the 1990s, and I winced. I think I was a pretty good Dad to my kids when they were young, but I do mourn the time I lost to my obsession with …. well, not technology, to be honest. But my work, and my career. Then again, for me, anyway, that career has been about technology…
So as I get a bit older, I do feel a need to reflect on how and whether my impulse to connect is impairing my most important relationships. And that’s a fair and good reflection to take.
After reading “Alone Together,” I happened to be watching television late one night with my wife, and while flipping around, we found the last half hour or so of Bladerunner. This 1982 film, based (loosely) on Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”, is both lovely and a bit over the top. Turkle cites it near the end of her book. Its core question is simply this: What is it to be human, and when might machines reach that threshold? And…then what?
As I watched the film for what must have been the hundredth time, I found myself certain that this question will be central to our experience over the next generation or two (not a new thought, of course, but still…). I feel better prepared to debate the answer having read Turkle’s book.
* NB: I am reading Kevin’s excellent “What Technology Wants” right now. I got about a third of the way through it when it came out, but was not in “deep reading” mode then, and wanted to do it justice. With an extraordinary crew of thinkers, dreamers, and makers, Kevin and I worked together to bring Wired to life from its inception in 1992 to1997, when I left to start The Standard. Turkle devotes the conclusion of her book to what amounts to an argument with Kevin’s premise in “What Technology Wants.” I emailed Kevin and asked him about it. Turns out, the two are close friends, which, of course, I should have known. By disagreeing, debating, conversing, and resolving, we become better people, more connected. More on Kevin’s book soon.
Other books I’ve reviewed recently:
The Information by James Gleick
In the Plex by Steven Levy
The Future of the Internet (And How to Stop It) by Jonathan Zittrain
The Next 100 Years by George Friedman