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else 1.13: “Keep the instrument in its place”

By - January 13, 2014

This week, we look at more applications machine learning, new wearables from CES, and some visions for the coming year. 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!

How Google Cracked House Number Identification in Street View  — MIT Technology Review
Interesting details into the development of the neural network  that’s helping to identify distorted street numbers picked up by Street View images.

Pinterest, Yahoo, Dropbox and the (kind of) quiet content-as-data revolution — GigaOM
A nice rundown of the acquisitions that point to movement in machine learning and parsing of text and image content for consumer social platforms.

Sony’s new Core fitness tracker will be the ‘heart’ of its wearable experience (hands-on) — The Verge
Among the many wearables featured at CES, Sony is experimenting by drawing together activity trackers and life loggers, combining self-quantification and journaling features into one consolidated device and application combo.

This Clear, Flexible Electronic Circuit Can Fit on the Surface of a Contact Lens — Smithsonian Magazine
Flexible, printed circuits “one-sixtieth as thick as a human hair” are are the near-future of wearable sensors.

Bitcoin’s Incredible Year — Forbes
Kashmir Hill offers a thorough overview of the last year in bitcoin, which started in January valued at $13.50.

Portraits From Clips and Bytes – NYTimes
Interesting profile of data artist R. Luke DuBois who uses “technology to expose something about a subject that is not normally visible.”

Where Do We Go From Here? 8 Hypotheses About Tech in 2014 — The Atlantic
Alexis Madrigal has a nice take on the technoanxiety of the last year that has left us all a little skeptical and jaded. Happily, there are a lot of overlaps with where we have been focusing our attentions for the book.

Big Data and Its Exclusions — Stanford Law Review
Big data isn’t just about the privacy risks of inclusion by capturing data. This paper looks at who is excluded from an emerging data-driven ecosystem, and suggests a way to reconcile the data haves and have-nots with a “data antisubordination” doctrine.

Machine envy — Aeon
A nice history of science case for continued hypothesis-driven science, and the instruments that support it in an age of Big Data correlation.

Please enjoy this video of dancing drones — Engadget
Just for fun, watch this video of drones dancing like some retro-futuristic mash up of Daft Punk and Busby Berkeley.

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else 1.6: “Ghosts in the machine”

By - January 06, 2014

Back from the holiday break, we look at data’s influence on culture; glass, both as a material for transmitting bits, and as a wearable interface; and the (im)permanence of data.

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!

 

How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood — The Atlantic
Alexis Madrigal and Ian Bogost do a little datamining to uncover the grammar of Netflix: 76,897 combinations of overly specific genres to tailor to every taste. It’s a great story of data journalism, and of the emerging influence of data on our culture. And they even built a generator from the data, which offered me “Hitman Coming of Age Stories.” Read through for the Perry Mason puzzle at the end: “The more complexity you add to a machine world, you’re adding serendipity that you couldn’t imagine. Perry Mason is going to happen. These ghosts in the machine are always going to be a by-product of the complexity. And sometimes we call it a bug and sometimes we call it a feature.”

netflix the atlantic

Data Broker Was Selling Lists Of Rape Victims, Alcoholics, and ‘Erectile Dysfunction Sufferers’ — Forbes
If you’re in the camp that says “what’s the worst that could happen if brokers are selling your data for advertising,” this list of vulnerable categorizations could change your mind.

The Postmodernity of Big Data — The New Inquiry
Getting a little heavy on the theory, but this is a nice start tying together big data, postmodernism and skepticism.

Kanye West Now Has His Own Cryptocurrency and It’s Called Coinye West — TIME
Amid the Bitcoin hype, new currencies like Coinye West and Dogecoin are cropping up, testing out the fundamentals of the cryptocurrency model.

The spread of glass — Benedict Evans
A concise and interesting metric about the spread of glass as the transit for our bits: “It’s all just glass with a data connection.”

I, Glasshole: My Year With Google Glass — Wired.com
Some interesting observations from a guy who wore Glass for an entire year – namely that he grew to really hate having to look at his smartphone. As for me, I’m compiling a list of all the places I consider briefly but decide not to wear Glass out.

One code to rule them all: How big data could help the 1 percent and hurt the little guy — Salon
This offers a nice discussion of the tension between algorithmic regulation (that is, putting regulation into programmable machines, such as Youtube DMCA takedowns) and the problem of regulating the algorithms themselves.

Do We Want an Erasable Internet? — WSJ.com
Do we assume the permanence of data, or not? This discusses the differences between a “forever internet” versus “erasable internet.”

Target confirms breach: 40 million accounts affected — ZDNet
This story got a lot of coverage over the holidays, but the most interesting thing here is that Target apparently stored CVV codes, which shows that if the data can be stored it will be stored, even if it’s not supposed to be.

Hyping Artificial Intelligence, Yet Again — The New Yorker
John Markoff’s front page discussion of deep learning seemed a little vague and hype-y to us,  though we’ve been paying close attention to latest AI surge, too. The New Yorker offers a little historical context.

We need to talk about TED — Benjamin Bratton
Criticism of TED talks oversimplification of complex issues and memification of ideas isn’t new, but it has never taken the form of TED talk before… #meta.

Edward Snowden, Whistle-Blower — The New York Times
The New York Times editorial board came out in support of classifying Edward Snowden as a whistle-blower (as opposed to a traitor) and calls for clemency. We tend to agree.

else 12.16: “It’s not entirely rational”

By - December 16, 2013

This week, Google is on our minds and in the news, cookies are used for surveillance, the ephemeral web isn’t so ephemeral, and we’ve got more friends thinking about our emerging Data Society.

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!

 

Google’s Road Map to Global Domination – NYTimes
A long read on Google’s continued efforts to map the world. We’ve seen how important the map is to the success of the self-driving car. But is this a question of the map and the territory? “It’s not entirely rational to build a map like Google has.” Includes obligatory Borges reference, of course.

Google Adds to Its Menagerie of Robots – NYTimes
Google is acquiring Boston Dynamics, robotics firm responsible for animal-like robots in BigDog. The company also has ties to DARPA. And the autonomous plot thickens…

Google Removes Vital Privacy Feature From Android, Claiming Its Release Was Accidental – EFF
Seems like a privacy-enhancing feature that blocked apps from collecting personal data like location information was accidentally released in a recent version of Android.

NSA uses Google cookies to pinpoint targets for hacking – Washington Post
Slides suggest GooglePREFID cookies are used to identify surveillance targets. And that seemingly innocuous advertising use of cookies bleeds into more problematic uses.

4 Reasons Why Apple’s iBeacon Is About to Disrupt Interaction Design – Wired
Bluetooth Low Energy will bring us contextual information, tying content to the physical world around us.

State of Deception: Why won’t the President rein in the intelligence community? – The New Yorker
Details the political challenge weighing privacy and security against each other. The interesting takeaway for me was about the illusion of oversight: “People get on this committee and the first thing the intelligence community tries to do is get them to be ambassadors for the intelligence community rather than people doing vigorous oversight. The intelligence community basically takes everybody aside and says, ‘Here’s the way it works. . . .’ There’s no discussion about privacy issues or questions about civil liberties—those usually get thrown in afterward.”

Surveillance: Cozy or Chilling? – NYTimes
This piece explores the bodily metaphors we use to understand legal precedents for surveillance. “This framing question of ‘expectation of privacy’ is how courts currently determine what government behavior is permissible. And surely our metaphors for new technologies are vital to explaining what we ‘expect’ in terms of privacy.”

On Second Thought … Facebook wants to know why you didn’t publish that status update you started writing.  – Slate
The status updates you abandon are still being watched – if not the content then at the very least the occurance. A new study reveals self-censorship patterns on Facebook.

Disruptions: Internet’s Sad Legacy: No More Secrets – NYTimes
Even the services we thought were bringing us the emphemeral web are not as temporary as we might have expected. It is safer to assume everything is stored.

Computer Algorithm May Soon Be Picking Hipsters Out Of The Crowd – Red Orbit
Visual sorting algorithm tells the difference between hipster and goth style, binning “urban tribes.” Even if you wouldn’t call yourself a hipster, this algorithm can spot your beard.

Data & Society
danah boyd et al. are launching Data & Society, a new think/do tank addressing “social, technical, ethical, legal, and policy issues that are emerging because of data-centric technological development.” We’re excited to see more activity like this—keep an eye on this space!

12.9 else: “The most mericful thing in the world”

By - December 09, 2013

This week, the tension between industry, governments, and regulation gets hashed out over the NSA, drones, bitcoins, and DNA databases; bots are running research on our behalf, and I became “postdigital.”

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!

 

Tech Giants Issue Call for Limits on Government Surveillance of Users – New York Times
Coordinated efforts by industry leaders push back on surveillance standards. Seems like a good first step towards an open dialog between industry and government to talk more openly about their data relationships.

Amazon Drones Are Part of Jeff Bezos’s Pre-Lobbying Strategy – New York Magazine
The drone announcement is more than a PR stunt, it’s “charmware,” laying the  groundwork to get regulators on the side of progress. “And while these companies haven’t always mastered the regulation surrounding their chosen targets…they have found that charmware can be an effective technique for ­getting what they want. Making tantalizing preview videos, conducting social-media campaigns, and telling consumers how much better their lives will be when—not if—these products are legalized have become central to their business plans.”

DNA Testing Is Not Why 23andMe Is in Trouble – Motherboard
The FDA’s shutdown of 23andMe isn’t as much about individual consumers’ access to personal health information, as it is about the subsidized genomic dataset that the company is building and its future potential value.

Bitcoins: The second biggest Ponzi scheme in history – The Daily Dot
Gary North makes the case that bitcoins are not stable enough to be considered “money” and don’t provide consumer value otherwise.

For Bitcoin, a Setback in China and an Endorsement on Wall Street - New York Times
Interesting attempts at characterizing and comparing bitcoin, to Tulip bubbles and commodities trading.

Sentient code: An inside look at Stephen Wolfram’s utterly new, insanely ambitious computational paradigm – Venture Beat
Offers a look inside Steven Wolfram’s vision for smarter programmable knowledge to provide answers to complex questions. And it has a lot to do with autonomous coding: “What we’re trying to do is that the programmer defines the goal, and the computer figures out how to achieve that goal,” he said.

This Landmark Study Could Reveal How The Web Discriminates Against You – Forbes
Researchers are sending bots out to run comparative analysis on discrimination through personalization around the web, potentially offering some transparency to an otherwise opaque and individualized process.

Heartbreak and the Quantified Selfie – New York Magazine
Personal data gets really personal. Lam Thuy Vo explores using data as self-help/therapy to cope with a divorce. There are some interesting visualizations and personal meaning making of data, even if we’re not 100% sold on the neologism of the “quantified selfie.”

3D Me – Sara’s blog
I visited the Out of Hand exhibit this weekend in New York, and got Shapeways 3D scanned with a Microsoft Kinect device. It’s a novelty self portrait in this instance, but it demonstrates how easy it’s getting to scan things in the physical world, turn them into data, and spit them back out into the world as printed objects. I have been “materialized as the postdigital!”

My Shapeways scan, ready for 3D printing.

Can Ad Tech Really Change the World? – Digiday
Following on John’s post last month, Digiday explores some novel applications of adtech for data exchange. “Millions of dollars have been spent on technologies that allow advertisers to chase consumers across the Web in order to sell them shoes and insurance. But what if those same technologies could one day help cure cancer, eliminate car crashes or mitigate global warming?”

HP Lovecraft on Big Data – The Atlantic
Food for thought in the age of big data correlations, surfaced by Alexis Madrigal: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”

The Artful Accidents of Google Books – The New Yorker
Blogs are collecting (and fetishizing) the traces that reveal the physical form of the book as it becomes digitized in scanning efforts, including marginalia, library records, and the hands caught scanning pages.

else 12.2: “Anchoring digital existence in the physical world”

By - December 01, 2013

This week we get creative with 3D self-portraits, drones deliver in 30 minutes or less, we play Moneyball with job performance, 23andMe’s FDA troubles point to emerging data literacy problems, and language artifacts emerge. Because internet.

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!

Look at This Lady’s Amazing 3-D Printed Selfie – Wired
Artists take up 3D printing as the latest medium for self portraiture. The artist’s statement resonates with some of the themes we are exploring in the book: “I wanted to explore our transition between both the material and immaterial world and the traces we leave…With 3-D printers, we are no-longer limited by our screens, the digital world begins to merge and integrate itself into physical existence.”

Lorna Barnshaw’s 3D printed self-portrait

Amazon Unveils Futuristic Plan: Delivery by Drones – 60 Minutes
Last night Charlie Rose was taken by surprise with Bezos’ thinly veiled press release plan for drone delivery via Amazon Prime Air “octocopters.”

They’re Watching You at Work and Your Job, Their Data: The Most Important Untold Story About the Future - The Atlantic
The Atlantic magazine has a big feature about the ways employees are being monitored in the workplace, the ultimate in the latest development of managerial science and Tayloristic quantification. Alexis Madrigal puts it in perspective, but takes a more skeptical view: “when we look back in 20 years about what has changed in our lives, we will be able to find this thread of data-driven personnel decision making as the thing that’s changed people’s lives the most.”

23andMe Is Terrifying, But Not for the Reasons the FDA Thinks – Scientific American
The FDA letter halting 23andMe’s marketing of direct-to-consumer genetic tests hinges around the ability (or lack thereof) for consumers to understand and digest risk-based projections of genetic predispositions toward disease. To me, this is a story about data legibility, and the increased need to develop new literacies as consumers of data. But as this article argues, the more pressing concern lies with the subsidization of the test itself in order to gather a massive genetic database of all its customers/donors. It’s hard for the FDA to know how to regulate these hybrid entities that handle our data in new and interesting ways.

Bra Sensors Could Monitor Overeating – Mashable
Interesting combination of live sensor data and research-based intervention to combat stress-related overeating. The protoype tracks”heart rate and respiration with an EKG sensor, skin conductance with an electrodermal activity sensor, and movement with an accelerometer and gyroscope.”

With Flexible Circuits, Wearable Electronics Gain Uses – Singularity Hub
Sure, it starts with high-performance athletic tracking, but these flexible sensors look promising for more integrated and less invasive wearables.

English Has a New Preposition, Because Internet – The Atlantic
We’ve been toying with the idea that  language is one of the ultimate cultural artifacts. As a former English major, the recognition of “because” as a preposition, or the “because-noun,” is a really interesting example of how quickly usage patterns change with a mass-medium like the internet. But I’m also interested in how a construction like this forecloses reasonable discussion, because it stands in for something taken for granted as an all encompassing explanation for something, like “Because science.” And now that your attention has been drawn to it, you will see it everywhere. Because internet.

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.”

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.

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.