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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.

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

By - November 13, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

By - November 11, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

A Metal Gun, Made from Digital Bits

By - November 08, 2013

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

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

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

else 11.4: “Where’s the rage, man?”

By - November 04, 2013

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

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

nsa_smiley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poll: What’s On the Google Barge?

By - October 31, 2013

USATodayPicGoogleBarge(image USA Today) I’m fascinated by this “Google Barge” story. It reminds me of the Google container stories of years past, which first sparked all manner of speculation, but turned out to be pretty mundane – a portable, water cooled data center, as I recall.

But their appearance in the San Francisco Bay, as well as off the coast of Maine, is laden with the echoes of science fiction blockbusters. As in alien spaceships mysteriously appearing over major capitals around the world.

It may be that this latest apparition will turn out to be hopelessly uninteresting. That’s certainly what most folks are speculating. But what the heck, it’s Halloween, so why not speculate wildly for a moment: What might be the purpose of these barges? What’s inside them? And why are they here, now?

Put your thoughts in the comments. I’ll publish the best answers in a followup post.

Update:

Here’s some funny tweets in response:

else 10.28: “Merging with the technology”

By - October 28, 2013

This week in our news round up: artists play with the possibilities of the 3-D printing medium, the lines between the digital world and the physical world of drones and dating blur, and Silicon Valley is getting more overtly political. 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.

Artists Take Up Digital Tools – NYTimes
“Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital” at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York explores 3-D printers as tools for new art. “In recent years I’ve seen a shift in thinking from ‘What can the machine do?’ versus ‘How can I use this as part of the tool kit to achieve what I want to do?’ ” The New Yorker has a nice slideshow.

3-D Printed Untitled #5 by Richard Dupont at “Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital.”

There Is No Difference Between Online and ‘Real-Life’ Dating – NYMag
The line between online and offline is blurring as we all use the internet as a tool for meeting and staying in touch with people.

Confessions of a Drone Warrior – GQ
This personal account from retired Predator drone pilot has got us more emotionally involved in the ethical concerns around drone warfare and its human impacts.

Thousands gather in Washington for anti-NSA ‘Stop Watching Us’ rally – The Guardian
Protesters from the right, left, and center come together to protest mass surveillance.

Silicon Valley Attempts to Install Its First Federal Candidate – Valleywag
Congressional candidate Ro Khanna signals Silicon Valley’s foray into fixing government inefficiencies.

Is Google building a hulking floating data center in SF Bay? – CNET
Highly speculative, but could Google be working on a floating data center? This is both technically and politically interesting, given surging libertarian interest in seasteading.

Why Facebook Is Teaching Its Machines to Think Like Humans – Wired
“Deep learning” algorithms try to parse vernacular language to find more meaning in phrases like “off the hook.” On Facebook, all the language data is there, we just need better means to make sense of it.

Where Humans Will Always Beat the Robots – The Atlantic
MIT’s Rob Miller believes that for certain kinds of tasks, humans will always be better than machines. But he’s using computing scale to crowdsource those tasks with Mechanical Turk.

Automatic’s quantified car device debuts in Apple stores – Gigaom
Placing this data pulling device in Apple retail stores brings automotive stats–and quantified driving–to the masses.

What Do Drones Mean for Humanity?

By - October 23, 2013

predator-firing-missile4(Image) One of the “artifacts” that Sara and I are paying close attention to as we work on the book is “the drone.” Drones ply the liminal space between the physical and the digital – pilots fly them, but aren’t in them. They are versatile and fascinating objects – the things they can do range from the mundane (aerial photography) to the spectacular – killing people, for example. And when drones kill – well, what does it mean, to destroy life, but to not be physically present while doing it?

Until today, drone warfare for me has been a largely intellectual concept: I followed the political and social issues closely, but I avoided emotional engagement – most likely because I knew I hadn’t quite worked out my point of view on the ethical issues. But after reading Matthew Power’s Confessions of a Drone Warrior, I can no longer say I’m not emotionally involved.

The article profiles Brandon Bryant, a retired Airman  trained to pilot Predator drones above Iraq and Afghanistan. Bryant’s story frames all that we’re struggling with as a nation, as citizens, and as human beings when it comes to this new technology. As Powers writes:

…the very idea of drones unsettles. They’re too easy a placeholder or avatar for all of our technological anxieties—the creeping sense that screens and cameras have taken some piece of our souls, that we’ve slipped into a dystopia of disconnection. Maybe it’s too soon to know what drones mean, what unconsidered moral and ethical burdens they carry. Even their shape is sinister: the blunt and featureless nose cone, like some eyeless creature that has evolved in darkness.

Bryant understood that his job probably saved lives, on balance, but over time his ambivalence grew.

Often he’d think about what life must be like in those towns and villages his Predators glided over, like buzzards riding updrafts. How would he feel, living beneath the shadow of robotic surveillance? “Horrible,” he says now.

By the time he left the service, Bryant had aided in killing, or directly killed, more than 1600 human beings. That’s a heavy burden. He fell apart, and was diagnosed with PTSD. I found this passage particularly difficult to internalize:

Forty-two percent of drone crews reported moderate to high stress, and 20 percent reported emotional exhaustion or burnout. The study’s authors attributed their dire results, in part, to “existential conflict.” A later study found that drone operators suffered from the same levels of depression, anxiety, PTSD, alcohol abuse, and suicidal ideation as traditional combat aircrews. These effects appeared to spike at the exact time of Bryant’s deployment, during the surge in Iraq. (Chillingly, to mitigate these effects, researchers have proposed creating a Siri-like user interface, a virtual copilot that anthropomorphizes the drone and lets crews shunt off the blame for whatever happens. Siri, have those people killed.)

Existential conflict. I think there’s a very important concept to explore in those two words, one that is highlighted by the proposed remedy: To give technology – a non human actor – the agency of a human being, so that we can transfer the conflict we feel about killing to a machine.

It makes me wonder how much of that we do in everyday life already, on a far less dramatic scale. In any case, it’s clear that killer drones are not going away. The real question is how we as a society will internalize what they mean for our humanity. Bravo to GQ for publishing such a thought provoking piece of journalism. And to Bryant for being willing to speak out.

else 10.21: Are Drones Over Burning Man “Evil”?

By - October 21, 2013

This week we pondered how Google defines norms, how we understand ourselves through technology, and how our present technical reality moves faster than speculative fiction.

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.

What Is ‘Evil’ to Google? – The Atlantic
Ian Bogost asks “what counts as ‘good things,’ and who constitutes ‘the world?’” according to Google’s norms, values, and ideas of progress

Quadcopter demos in the desert. (Fast Company)

The Drones Of Burning Man – Fast Company
Was Burning Man the test bed for how drone flight might be regulated elsewhere? Complete with some great images of hobbiest drones from the festival.

Think You Can Live Offline Without Being Tracked? Here’s What It Takes – Fast Company
The lengths we have to go to now, even in the physical world, to live outside the data-tracked world.

My Selfie, Myself – New York Times
How we come to know and express ourselves through technology. And taken to the artistic end, we have a National #Selfie Gallery.

What Life Will Be Like in the Cities of the Future – Time
As more sensors give us real time feedback, how do our urban environments change and adapt?

10 Things I Think I Think on Bitcoin – David Lee
Bitcoin points to an emerging “multipolar” global economic system, and first mover standards (like TCP/IP and SMTP were) seem like a good bet.

7 Supposedly Futuristic Technologies From Dave Eggers’s The Circle That Already Exist – The Atlantic
The artifacts of the future are already here, it’s not just speculative fiction. Sorry, Eggers.

 

A World Lit, Literally, By Data

By -

data bulbsAs you work on a book, even one as slow to develop as if/then, certain catch phrases develop. People ask you what the book is about, or the shape of its core argument, and some of the descriptions start to stand out and  hit home. One of those is “a world lit by data,” an idea I’ve been toying with for some time now. It’s a metaphor that’s not entirely worked out, but it seems to get the job done – it paints a picture of a time when everything of value around us – everything we “see” – has a component of data to it. In a world lit by data, street corners are painted with contextual information, automobiles can navigate autonomously, thermostats respond to patterns of activity, and retail outlets change as rapidly (and individually) as search results from Google.

The tortured bit of the metaphor is in asking you, the reader, to believe that we will live in spaces full of data, just as we live in spaces filled with light (be it natural or man made). Everyone understands the idea of light as metaphor. But data? Well, to my mind, they are quite connected. Without light, we can’t (easily) take in information about our physical surroundings. In darkness there is far less data. Equating “light” with “data” isn’t too much of a stretch.

Now, the interplay of light and “information” is dangerous but well-trodden ground. After all, in the Old Testament, the first thing God did after creating the physical (Heavens and Earth) was to turn on the lights. And after further contemplation, Christians decided that before Light, there was The Word, which was God’s will made flesh (John 1). Since then, of course, “the word” has come to mean, well, encoded information, or data. Loosely put (and I know I’m on thin ice here) – first we establish the physicality of that which we don’t fully understand, then we bathe it in light, hoping to understand it the best we can.

Given this metaphor, it was fun to see this headline in Quartz: A plan to turn every lightbulb into an ultra-fast alternative to Wi-Fi. The recent “li-fi” spec sends data utilizing the same frequency as light – literally, it uses a light bulb as a carrier of information. Seems my “world lit by data” metaphor is getting quite real, indeed.