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Else 3.24.14: “In front of us are two roads – which way are we going to go?”

By - March 24, 2014

Back in the saddle after missing a week of Else (sorry about that). The best stories from the past two weeks are below, and you’ll note a bit of TED, which ran last week, as well as a fair amount of Google, which is hard to avoid given the focus of this newsletter: If you’re going to cover “becoming data” it’s best you get used to hearing about Google.

Larry Page: Where’s Google going next? – TED

Page does not do public speaking events very often, both because of his voice condition, and because it’s just not who he is. But this TED conversation with Charlie Rose offers insights into Page’s thinking on a range of issues, in particular, on privacy, where he moved the needle, in my estimation.

Richard Ledgett: The NSA responds to Edward Snowden’s TED Talk – TED

Ledgett is the Deputy Director of the NSA. He is responding to Snowden’s much covered video conference with TED curator Chris Anderson.  It’s rare to have someone like Ledgett respond so quickly, it’s a worthy half hour, despite the predictable bromides.

Algorithms will do more and more of the thinking in the world – Gigaom

A video and short article, taking up the fact that decisioning by machines is simply winning for most complex markets, in particular finance and marketing. Featuring Quid founder and CTO Sean Gourley.

Quirky and GE cook up a smarter, prettier air conditioner  – Engadget

As I read about this “smart” AC from GE, I thought to myself  “Huh, now Google and GE are competing (via Google’s acquisition of Nest).” Interesting.

Thinking Out Loud: Potential Information – Searchblog

In which I muddle through an idea that’s been pulling at my brainstrings for quite some time.

The Rise of Anti-Capitalism – NYT

Jeremy Rifkin is back with an essay arguing that many information-based goods are approaching the cost of “free” – raising the question of whether capitalism will continue as we know it.

How Google Does Fundamental Research Without a Separate Research Lab –  MIT Technology Review

Step one: Tie research to actual product groups. Step Two: Bring in the academics, lots of them. Step Three: Add (piles of) money.

A Missing Jet in a World Where No One Gets Lost — Daily Intelligencer

A meditation on why the lost aircraft disturbs us so – in a world where data about our every move seems ubiquitous, how can something so “large” get lost?

The era of Facebook is an anomaly – The Verge

A profile of Microsoft researcher (and teen social expert) danah boyd, whose new book It’s Complicated recently came out.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee: World wide web needs bill of rights– BBC News

“It’s time for us to make a big communal decision,” says Berners-Lee. “In front of us are two roads – which way are we going to go?”

 

 

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Thinking Out Loud: Potential Information

By - March 20, 2014
o-ALPINE-SLIDE-PARK-CITY-570

Plenty of potential at the top of this particular system.

(image) If you took first-year physics in school, you’re familiar with the concepts of potential and kinetic energy. If you skipped Physics, here’s a brief review: Kinetic energy is energy possessed by bodies in motion. Potential energy is energy stored inside a body that has the potential to create motion. It’s sort of kinetic energy’s twin – the two work in concert, defining how pretty much everything moves around in physical space.

I like to think of potential energy as a force that’s waiting to become kinetic. For example, if you climb up a slide, you have expressed kinetic energy to overcome the force of gravity and bring your “mass” (your body) to the top. Once you sit at the top of that slide, you are full of the potential energy created by your climb – which you may once again express as kinetic energy on your way back down. Gravity provides what is known as the field, or system, which drives all this energy transfer.

For whatever reason, these principles of kinetic and potential energy have always resonated with me. They are easily grasped, to be certain, but it’s also how evocative they are. Everything around us is either in motion or it’s not – objects are either animated by kinetic energy (a rock flying through the air), or they are at rest, awaiting a kinetic event which might create action and possibly some narrative consequence (a rock laying on the street, picked up by an angry protestor….).

To me, kinetic and potential energy are the bedrock of narrative – there is energy all around us, and once that energy is set in motion, the human drama unfolds. The rock provides mass, the protestor brings energy, and gravity animates the consequence of a stone thrown…

Because we are physical beings, the principles of motion and force are hard wired into how we navigate the world – we understand gravity, even if we can’t run the equations to prove its cause and effect. But when it comes to the world of digital information, we struggle with a framework for understanding cause and effect – in particular with how information interacts with the physical world. We speak of “software eating the world,” “the Internet of Things,” and we massify “data” by declaring it “Big.” But these concepts remain for the most part abstract. It’s hard for many of us to grasp the impact of digital technology on the “real world” of things like rocks, homes, cars, and trees. We lack a metaphor that hits home.

But lately I’ve been using the basic principles of kinetic and potential energy as a metaphor in casual conversations, and it seems to have some resonance. Now, I’m not a physicist, and it’s entirely possible I’ve mangled the concepts as I think out loud here. Please pile on and help me express this as best I can. But in the meantime…

…allow me to introduce the idea of potential information. Like potential energy, the idea of potential information is that all physical objects contain the potential to release information if placed in the right system. In the physical world, we have a very large scale system already in place – it’s called gravity. Gravity provides a field of play, the animating system which allows physical objects (a rock, a child at the top of a slide) to become kinetic and create a narrative (a rock thrown in anger, a child whooping in delight as she slides toward the sand below).

It seems to me that if we were to push this potential information metaphor, then we need our gravity – our system that allows for potential information to become kinetic, and to create narratives that matter. To my mind, that system is digital technology, broadly, and the Internet, specifically. When objects enter the system of technology and the Internet, they are animated with the potential to become information objects. Before contact with the Internet, they contain potential information, but that information is repressed, because it has no system which allows for its expression.

In this framework, it strikes me that many of the most valuable companies in the world are in the business of unlocking potential information – of turning the physical into information. Amazon and eBay unlocked the value of merchandise’s potential information. Airbnb turns the potential information of spare bedrooms into kinetic information valued at nearly $10 billion and counting. Uber unlocked the potential information trapped inside transportation systems.  Nest is animating the potential information lurking in all of our homes. And Facebook leveraged the potential information lurking in our real world relationships.

I’d wager that the most valuable companies yet to be built will share this trait of animating potential information. One of the best ideas I’ve heard in the past few weeks was a pitch from an inmate at San Quentin (part of The Last Mile, an amazing program worthy of all your support). This particular entrepreneur, a former utilities worker, wanted to unlock all the potential information residing in underground gas, sewage, and other utilities. In fact, nearly every good idea I’ve come across over the past few years has had to do with animating potential information of some kind.

Which brings us to Google – and back to Nest. In its first decade, Google was most certainly in the business of animating potential information, but it wasn’t physical information. Instead, Google identified an underutilized class of potential information – the link – and transformed it into a new asset – search. A link is not a physical artifact, but Google treated as if it were, “mapping” the Web and profiting from that new map’s extraordinary value.

Now the race is on to create a new map – a map of all the potential information in the real world. What’s the value of potential information coming off a jet engine, or  a wind turbine? GE’s already on it. What about exploiting the potential information created by your body? Yep, that’d be Jawbone, FitBit, Nike, and scores of others. The potential information inside agriculture? Chris Anderson’s all over it. And with Nest, Google is becoming a company that unlocks not only the information potential of the Web, but of the physical world we inhabit (and yes, it’s already made huge and related moves via its Chauffeur, Earth, Maps, and other projects).

Of course, potential information can be leveraged for more than world-beating startups. The NSA understands the value of potential information, that’s why the agency has been storing as much potential information as it possibly can. What does it mean when government has access to all that potential information? (At least we are having the dialog now – it seems if we didn’t have Edward Snowden, we’d have to create him, no?)

Our world is becoming information – but then again, it’s always had that potential. Alas, I’m just a layman when it comes to understanding information theory, and how information actually interacts with physical mass (and yes, there’s a lot of science here, far more than I can grok for the purposes of this post.) But the exciting thing is that we get to be present at the moment all this information is animated into narratives that will have dramatic consequences for our world. This is a story I plan to read deeply in over the coming year, and I hope you’ll join me as I write more about it here.

We Have Yet to Clothe Ourselves In Data. We Will.

By - March 12, 2014

SenatorTogaWe are all accustomed to the idea of software “Preferences” – that part of the program where you can personalize how a particular application looks, feels, and works. Nearly every application that matters to me on my computer – Word, Keynote, Garage Band, etc. –  have preferences and settings.

On a Macintosh computer, for example, “System Preferences” is the control box of your most important interactions with the machine.

I use the System Preferences box at least five times a week, if not more.

And of course, on the Internet, there’s a yard sale’s worth of preferences: I’ve got settings for Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, Evernote, and of course Google – where I probably have a dozen different settings, given I have multiple identities there, and I use Google for mail, calendar, docs, YouTube, and the like.

preferencesAny service I find important has settings. It’s how I control my interactions with The Machine. But truth is, Preferences are no fun. And they should be.

The problem: I mainly access preferences when something is wrong. In the digital world, we’ve been trained to see “Preferences” as synonymous with “Dealing With Shit I Don’t Want To Deal With.” I use System Preferences, for example, almost exclusively to deal with problems: Fixing the orientation of my monitors when moving from work to home, finding the right Wifi network, debugging a printer, re-connecting a mouse or keyboard to my computer.  And I only check Facebook or Google preferences to fix things too – to opt out of ads, resolve an identity issue, or  enable some new software feature. Hardly exciting stuff.

Put another way, Preferences is a “plumbing” brand – we only think about it when it breaks.

But what if we thought of it differently? What if managing your digital Preferences was more like….managing your wardrobe?

A few years back I wrote The Rise of Digital Plumage, in which I posited that sometime soon we’ll be wearing the equivalent of “digital clothing.” We’ll spend as much time deciding how we want to “look” in the public sphere of the Internet as we do getting dressed in the morning (and possibly more). We’ll “dress ourselves in data,” because it will become socially important – and personally rewarding –  to do so. We’ll have dashboards that help us instrument our wardrobe, and while their roots will most likely stem from the lowly Preference pane, they’ll soon evolve into something far more valuable.

This is a difficult idea to get your head around, because right now, data about ourselves is warehoused on huge platforms that live, in the main, outside our control. Sure, you can download a copy of your Facebook data, but what can you *do* with it? Not much. Platforms like Facebook are doing an awful lot with your data – that’s the trade for using the service. But do you know how Facebook models you to its partners and advertisers? Nope. Facebook (and nearly all other Internet services) keep us in the dark about that.

We lack an ecosytem that encourages innovation in data use, because the major platforms hoard our data.

This is retarded, in the nominal/verb sense of the word. Facebook’s picture of me is quite different from Google’s, Twitter’s, Apple’s, or Acxiom’s*. Imagine what might happen if I, as the co-creator of all that data, could share it all with various third parties that I trusted? Imagine further if I could mash it up with other data entities – be they friends of mine, bands I like, or even brands?

Our current model of data use, in which we outsource individual agency over our data to huge factory farms, will soon prove a passing phase. We are at once social and individual creatures, and we will embrace any technology that allows us to express who we are through deft weavings of our personal data – weavings that might include any number of clever bricolage with any number of related cohorts. Fashion has its tailors, its brands, its designers and its standards (think blue jeans or the white t-shirt). Data fashion will develop similar players.

Think of all the data that exists about you – all those Facebook likes and posts, your web browsing and search history, your location signal, your Instagrams, your supermarket loyalty card, your credit card and Square and PayPal purchases, your Amazon clickstream, your Fitbit output – think of each of these as threads which might be woven into a fabric, and that fabric then cut into a personalized wardrobe that describes who you are, in the context of how you’d like to be seen in any given situation.

Humans first started wearing clothing about 170,000 years ago. “Fashion” as we know it today is traced to the rise of European merchant classes in the 14th century. Well before that, clothing had become a social fact. A social fact is a stricture imposed by society – for example, if you don’t wear clothing, you are branded as something of a weirdo.

Clothing is an extremely social artifact –  *what* you wear, and how, are matters of social judgement and reciprocity. We obsess over what we wear, and we celebrate those “geniuses” who have managed to escape this fact (Einstein and Steve Jobs both famously wore the same thing nearly every day).

There’s another reason the data fabric of your life is not easily converted into clothing – because at the moment, digital clothing is not a social fact. There’s no social pressure for your “look” a certain way, because thanks our outsourcing of our digital identity to places like Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, we all pretty much look the same to each other online. As I wrote in Digital Plumage:

How strange is it that we as humans have created an elaborate, branded costume culture to declare who we are in the physical world, but online, we’re all pretty much wearing khakis and blue shirts?

At it relates to data, we are naked apes, but this is about to change. It’s far too huge an opportunity.

Consider: The global clothing industry grosses more than $1 trillion annually. We now spend more time online that we do watching television. And as software eats the world, it turns formerly inanimate physical surroundings into animated actors on our digital stage. As we interact with these data lit spaces, we’ll increasingly want to declare our preferences inside them via digital plumage.

An example. Within a few years, nearly every “hip” retail store will be lit with wifi, sensors, and sophisticated apps. In other words, software will eat the store. Let’s say you’re going into an Athleta outlet. When you enter, the store will know you’ve arrived, and begin to communicate with your computing device – never mind if its Glass, a mobile phone, or some other wearable.  As the consumer in this scenario, won’t you want to declare “who you are” to the retail brand’s sensing device? That’s what you do in the real world, no? And won’t you want to instrument your intent – provide signal to that store that will allow the store to understand your intent? And wouldn’t the “you” at Athleta be quite different from, say, the “you” that you become when shopping at Whole Foods or attending a Lord Huron concert?

Then again, you could be content with whatever profile Facebook has on you, (or Google, or ….whoever). Good luck with that.

I believe we will embrace the idea of describing and declaring who we are through data, in social context. It’s wired into us. We’ve evolved as social creatures. So I believe we’re at the starting gun of a new industry. One where thousands of participants take our whole data cloth and stitch it into form, function, and fashion for each of us. Soon we’ll have a new kind of “Preferences” – social preferences that we wear, trade, customize, and buy and sell.

In a way, younger generations are already getting prepared for such a world – what is the selfie but a kind of digital dress up?

Lastly, as with real clothing, I believe brands will be the key driving force in the rise of this industry. As I’m already over 1,000 words, I’ll write more on that idea in another post. 

*(fwiw, I am on Acxiom’s board)

Else 3.10.13: Satoshi, Snowden, Google, And The Meaning of it All

By - March 10, 2014

nweekbitcoincover

The past week spun with controversy and breaking news around many of our society’s most interesting conversations: The elusive founder of bitcoin was identified, or perhaps not, Edward Snowden popped up at SXSW (by video, of course) and submitted testimony to the EU, the Aereo case is on its way to the Supreme Court (and launched in Austin at SXSW, of course), and in the end, we all long for something more. To the links….

The Face Behind Bitcoin – Newsweek The week’s most sensational story, which created a backlash worthy of the story’s claim.

Google’s Game Of Moneyball In The Age Of Artificial Intelligence – ReadWrite If the future of everything is tied to how we manipuate information through algorithms, then it makes sense to get as many of the brightest minds on your team. Also from ReadWrite:  Google At SXSW: The Internet Is Accelerating Social Change On A Global Scale In which Chair Eric Schmidt and Ideas Director Jared Cohen opine on the role of technology in autocracies (uncertain it’s a positive force, this is a shift from early techno optimism, I’d warrant).

Snowden Gives Testimony To European Parliament Inquiry Into Mass Surveillance, Asks For EU Asylum – TechDirt A nice overview of Snowden’s recent written testimony to the EU Parliament. Most interesting was his documentation of how the NSA plays one European country off the other to gain access to a plurality of data in each.

The Aereo Case Isn’t About Aereo, But About The Future Of Cloud Computing And Innovation – Techdirt An interesting argument about the nature of property and media rights – much more is at stake than simply whether Aereo is in fact legal.

Strictly algorithm: how news finds people in the Facebook and Twitter age – theguardian.com How do ideas find the public in the age of inscrutable algorithms? I find myself wishing for better tools to find good news stories – I’ve been using Circa lately and met with its CEO at SXSW. It’s a promising start.

A vast hidden surveillance network runs across America, powered by the repo industry | BetaBoston If there’s a profitable way to tag something of value, it’ll get tagged. That’s the lesson behind this story on the automobile repossession industry, which most has tagged your car at some point in the past year or so.

The question big data can’t answer: why? – FierceBigData Lots of data helps us understand how and what, but people are best at figuring out why.

The Internet is ready for a new cultural shift. Discuss. – gapingvoid – Hugh senses a wave forming in the Internet seas, one that will value signal over noise. I’m all in favor, but this initial essay feels more like a plea than a formed idea; still and all, I agree.

Else 3.3.14: Is The Internet A Utility?

By - March 02, 2014

elecutilThe week was dominated by Google related stories, but the top dialog had to do with the Internet itself. I’m sensing something of a shift in society’s beliefs about the Internet’s central role in our humanity. Five years ago, no one wanted to talk about Internet access as a basic human right. In 2012, the UN called it exactly that. With access consolidating into what looks like a natural monopoly, might regulation as a utility be far behind?

Real Time (Medium) Another, denser version of previous essays asking whether it isn’t time to call the Internet a basic utility. “..the immaterial organisation of the internet has now become the most dominant force on this side of the planet...” Unfortunately, this piece is too dense. Try this one instead: The Internet Is Fucked (TechCrunch) in which the author enjoins: “Go ahead, say it out loud. The internet is a utility.There, you’ve just skipped past a quarter century of regulatory corruption and lawsuits that still rage to this day and arrived directly at the obvious conclusion.” Of course, that created a rejoinder: More? – “The Internet is an incredibly useful tool in modern society, but it isn’t essential to the basic functioning of society. Utilities are.” My take: The Internet is a basic need now for the info-organism we are all becoming. So I’m leaning toward the utility camp, I’m afraid. There’s a new book on the subject, should you be interested.

The Monuments of Tech  (NYTimes.com) A meditation, with far too photos, on the meaning of the campuses built by Google, Twitter, Apple, Facebook. Have you read The Circle yet? Read The Circle. Then read this.

Welcome to Googletown (The Verge) As long as we’re talking tech monuments, here’s a full blown deep dive into the relationship between Google and its Silicon Valley home, Mountain View. As one might expect, it’s fraught. But I’ve spent time in Mountain View before Google got there. Not that much has changed, outwardly. If Google keeps growing the way it’s planning to grow, that won’t be the case.

Are the robots about to rise? Google’s new director of engineering thinks so (The Guardian) Part of me wonders why they let Ray Kurzweil out of the building at Google. But this is worth reading in any case. Related: Kurzweil’s review of Spike Jonze’ Her. 

When quantified-self apps leave you with more questions than answers (The Daily Dot ) Something of a takedown on admittedly kludgy first generation self trackers. “I tweet a lot, but it’s mostly nonsense. I don’t have a whole lot of use for “data” about myself.” I just started using the Nike Fuelband. I’ll post plenty about that I’m sure, as the first week has proven interesting.

Can Privacy Be Saved? (The New York Review of Books) Don’t you love articles that ask questions, then fail to answer them? Me too. This is a review of various government reports and Presidential speeches arising from the Snowden revelations. The essay makes a strong case for – making a stronger case for privacy. It ends by citing Orwell, Dick, and Bradbury. It does not answer the question – which may well be the answer after all.

To Be Clear: Do Not Build Your Brand House On Land You Don’t Own (Searchblog) In case you missed it, a small reminder about the perils of building on rented land.

else 2.24: “This is how revolutions begin”

By - February 24, 2014

This week we thought about paid peering, fiber, and privacy in a lot of different contexts. 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!

 

Inside The Netflix/Comcast Deal and What The Media Is Getting Very Wrong — Streaming Media
Dan Rayburn clarifies some of the bad reporting on the Netflix Comcast deal: “it simply comes down to Netflix making a business decision that it makes sense for them to deliver their content directly to Comcast, instead of through a third party” and adding that Comcast guarantees certain quality by an SLA.

Comcast is definitely throttling Netflix, and it’s infuriating
Matt Vukas tries to parse what’s going on with Comcast’s alleged throttling of Netflix traffic, playing around with encrypted VPN that masks the video traffic, and pinging the traceroute to see where is packets are coming from. His follow up post describes how hard it is for consumers to understand what’s going on with their internet traffic, especially when CDN peering relationships are part of the problem.

ajblum_house of cards

Exploring new cities for Google Fiber — Google Blog
Google expands its experiments in Kansas City and Austin to a few major cities including Portland and the Research Triangle area. This is certainly an interesting step forward, especially as the natural monopoly of cable internet providers expands. So how do we feel about Google controlling the pipes and the content?

In Pricey Facebook Deal for WhatsApp, Two Strong-Willed CEOs — WSJ
Real names or not, the value is in the usage metadata. But WhatsApp will continue to operate independently from Facebook.

Can Someone Explain WhatsApp’s Valuation To Me? — LinkedIn
danah boyd (whose new book on teens social media use just came out!) walks through the logic for WhatsApp’s value when most of what it’s solving for is “carrier stupidity.”

Glass, Darkly — MIT Technology Review
Another in depth review on Glass likes the possibilities, “But for many, I think, Glass faces an insurmountable problem. It’s impossible to miss.”

Whose Life is it Anyway? — Bookforum
Clive Thompson’s review of Julia Angwin (formerly of the Wall Street Journal’s What They Know Series) details the arduous process of becoming truly secure online.

Data pioneers watching us work — FT
Mining for efficiency and effectiveness gains, but it all sounds a little creepy, too. Steelcase is even putting sensors into furniture.

else 2.17: “Drag the future here and see if we want it”

By - February 17, 2014

This week looked at convergence in wearables, how we live with technology today and in the near future, and the possibility that reality is just a mathematical model. 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!

 

The Plus in Google Plus? It’s Mostly for Google — NYTimes
Even if Plus isn’t where you spend your time, it’s the basis for a consolidated view of your activity across Google. That will  become even more important with time. “With a single Plus account, the company can build a database of your affinities.”

The Dash Builds Wearable Fitness Sensors Into The Headphones You’re Using Anyway — Techcrunch
We’re starting to see the convergence of wearable sensors with other standard purposes. These Kickstarter Bluetooth headphones also track your workout.

Apple’s hiring spree of biosensor experts continues — Network World
Lots of Apple speculation here, but it’s certainly interesting to see all the biosensor expertise in these recent hires.

When Silicon Valley Met the NSA — The Information
Key members of industry meet with the NSA under the Enduring Security Framework program.
“It’s to build a relationship so that when we’re in a state of war, we’re already going to have operational agreement of how you support us and help us.” [Pay wall]

When You Fall in Love, This Is What Facebook Sees — The Atlantic
Facebook data scientists offer insights into patterns in the days leading up to making a relationship Facebook official. What they do with those insights is another story

A review of Her by Ray Kurzweil — Kurzweil AI
Father of AI and the singularity argues that Her falls short because it pits us against technology, instead of exploring a more integrated future. “It will not be us versus the machines (whether the machines are enemies or lovers), but rather, we will enhance our own capacity by merging with our intelligent creations.”

Intel’s Sharp-Eyed Social Scientist — NYTimes
Anthropologist and social scientists at Intel  are looking into the ways we live with technologies that we already have and thinking about how emerging technologies will integrate into our daily lives. Bell notes, “I am firmly in the present…But, sometimes, I want to drag the future here and see if we want it.”

Ad Infinitum: ‘Our Mathematical Universe’ — NYTimes
Toying with the possibility “that reality itself is a mathematical structure.” “Math is so effective in describing the world, he says, because physical reality is a mathematical structure. He calls it the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis (M.U.H.).” Does it follow that the world is already data?

Netflix Is Building an Artificial Brain Using Amazon’s Cloud — Wired
Recommendations algorithms aim to get even more advanced with deep learning applications.

 

else 2.10: “Information that was never designed for a human to see”

By - February 10, 2014

This week, we were thinking about data post-language, reading the tea leaves of algorithms, and wondering how to protect the first principles of the web. 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!

 

We’re Leaving — The Bygone BureauI like this take on the discussion of the “post-verbal” in Her as suggesting a time when data supplants language. It was a very brief moment in the movie, but I think it’s at the crux of how we will relate to our machines going forward.

Your Eyes or My Words — Joanne McNeil
In a talk she gave at Lift, Joanne McNeil explores reading the “tea leaves” guess work of understanding algorithms. “Sometimes the information was surprising and made you wonder why that person spends so much time thinking of you. This is information that was never designed for a human to see.”

You Can Now Edit Your Cheesy Facebook “Look Back” Video — Slate
Facebook’s look back videos were poignant and nostalgic, but sometimes the algorithms were missing the mark, so it exposed the ability to edit. This is what happens when we let algorithms tell our stories for us.

How Facebook Has Changed in 10 Years — Courtesy of an Ex-Employee —Re/code
There were plenty of retrospectives celebrating Facebook last week, but this insight from a former employee exploring the “capital-R rules” shows exactly how much the normative rules of a system evolve in the span of ten short years. “No, you can’t let moms join Facebook because Facebook is for students.” to “No, you can’t allow anonymity because Facebook is built on real identity.”

Attempting to Code the Human Brain — WSJ.com
Facebook-backed Vicarious is teaching algorithms to imagine the shape of cows. “If you invent artificial intelligence, that’s the last invention you’ll ever have to invent.”

As Technology Gets Better, Will Society Get Worse? — The New Yorker
Tim Wu questions what “progress” means if it results in comforts that eventually kill us.

Tim Berners-Lee: we need to re-decentralise the web — Wired UK
Post-NSA, TBL warns against localized internet: “I want a web that’s open, works internationally, works as well as possible and is not nation-based.”

#recap: Defending an Unowned Internet — Cyborgology
Whitney Erin Boesel posted a nice recap of this Berkman talk discussing the consolidation of most of the web into corporate ownership (ex AWS). Video from the conversation is here in full.

We Are Not Google, Therefore, We Are

By - February 06, 2014

RubiconS1If you read me regularly, you know I am a fan of programmatic adtech. In fact, I think it’s one of the most important developments of the 21st century. And over the past few quarters, adtech has gotten quite hot, thanks to the recent successes of Rocket Fuel (up to 50 and holding from its open at 29), Criteo (trading above its already inflated opening price of 31), and, by extension, Facebook and Twitter (don’t get me started, but both these companies should be understood as programmatic plays, in my opinion).

But while I like all those companies, I find Rubicon’s recent filing far more interesting. Why? Well, here’s the money shot of the S-1:

Independence. We believe our independent market position enables us to better serve buyers and sellers because we are not burdened with any structural conflicts arising from owning and operating digital media properties while offering advertising purchasing solutions to buyers.

Ah, there it is, in a nutshell: “We are not Google, therefore, we are.” Rubicon uses the words “independent” or “independence” more than a half a dozen times in its S1, about the same number of times the word “Google” is invoked.

I am in full support of an independent adtech ecosystem. It’s vitally important that the world have options when it comes to what flavor of programmatic infrastructure it uses to transact – and when I say the “world” I mean everybody, from publishers to advertisers, consumers to service providers. Criteo and Rocket Fuel are important companies, but they don’t directly compete with Google – their business leverages buying strategies to maximize profits. Rubicon, on the other hand, has a full adtech stack and is focused on publishers (and yes, that’s what sovrn is as well).

Over time, we won’t be talking about “publishers” and “advertisers,” we’ll be talking about “consumers” and “services.” And the infrastructure that connects those two parties should not be a default – it should be driven by competition between independent players.

So bravo, Rubicon, for making that statement so clearly in your S-1. I wish you luck.

How Facebook Changed Us, and How We Might Change Again

By - February 05, 2014

keep-calm-and-love-data-2(image) If you weren’t under a rock yesterday, you know Facebook turned ten years old this week (that’s a link to a Zuckerberg interview on the Today Show, so yep, hard to miss). My favorite post on the matter (besides Sara’s musings here and here – she was at Harvard with Zuck when the service launched) is from former Facebook employee Blake Ross, who penned a beauty about the “Rules” that have fallen over the past ten years. Re/code covers it  here, and emphasizes how much has changed in ten years – what was once sacred is now mundane. To wit:

– No, you can’t let moms join Facebook because Facebook is for students.

– No, you can’t put ads in newsfeed because newsfeed is sacred.

– No, you can’t allow people to follow strangers because Facebook is for real-world friends.

– No, you can’t launch a standalone app because integration is our wheelhouse.

– No, you can’t encourage public sharing because Facebook is for private sharing.

– No, you can’t encourage private sharing because Facebook is moving toward public sharing.

– No, you can’t encourage public sharing because Facebook is moving toward ultra-private sharing between small groups.

And this one’s a snapchat with about 3 seconds left, so hurry up and bludgeon someone with it:

– No, you can’t allow anonymity because Facebook is built on real identity.

None of these pillars came down quietly. They crashed with fury, scattering huddles of shellshocked employees across watering holes like dotted brush fires after a meteor strike.

Re/code ends its post with “makes you wonder what might change in the next 10 years.” Well yes, it certainly does.

A close read of Ross’ post leaves me wondering about “informational personhood.” He considers all the change at Facebook, and his role in it as an sometimes frustrated employee, concluding that what he got from the experience was perspective:

It took me probably half a dozen meteoric nothings before I learned how to stop worrying and love the bomb. A congenital pessimist, I gradually began to see the other side of risk. Now, when the interns wanted to mix blue and yellow, I could squint and see green; but I thought the sun might still rise if everything went black. I felt calmer at work. I began to mentor the newer hires who were still afraid of meteors. Today I watch Facebook from a distance with 1.2 billion other survivors, and my old fears charm like the monster under the bed: I couldn’t checkmate this thing in a single move even if I wanted to. But even now, I know someone over there is frantically getting the band back together.

Fortunately, this blossoming resilience followed me home from work:

My very chemistry has changed. In relationships, hobbies, and life, I find myself fidgeting in the safe smallness of the status quo. I want more from you now, and I want more from myself, and I’m less afraid of the risks it’ll take to get there because I have breathed through chaos before and I believe now—finally—that we’ll all still be here when the band stops playing.

This is, of course, just a staple of adulthood. It’s what we were missing that night when meteors left us crater-faced for senior prom and we all thought our lives were over. It’s called perspective, and it’s the best thing I got from growing up Facebook.

Hmmm. So many things to ponder here. The constant renegotiation of the rules at Facebook changed his “very chemistry.” A fascinating observation – heated debate about the rules of our social road made Ross a different person. Did this happen to us all? Is it happening now? For example, are we, as a culture, “getting used to” having the policies around our informational identities – our “infopersons” – routinely renegotiated by a corporate entity?

I think so far the answer is yes. I’m not claiming that’s wrong, per se, but rather, it is interesting and noteworthy. This perspective that Ross speaks of – this “growing up” – it bears more conversation, more exploration. What are the “Rules” right now, and will they change in ten years, or less? (And these “Rules” need not be only internal to Facebook – I mean “Rules” from the point of view of ourselves as informational people.)

Some that come to mind for me include:

– I don’t spend that much of my time thinking about the information I am becoming, but when I do, it makes me uneasy.

– I can always change the information that is known about me, if it’s wrong, but it’s a huge PITA.

– I can always access the information that is known about me, if I really want to do the work (but the truth is, I usually don’t).

– I know the information about me is valuable, but I don’t expect to derive any monetary value from it.

– It’s OK for the government to have access to all this information, because we trust the government. (Like it or not, this is in fact true by rule of law in the US).

– It’s OK for marketers to have information about me, because it allows for free Internet services and content. (Ditto)

– I understand that most of the information that makes up my own identity is controlled by large corporations, because in the end, I trust they have my best interests at heart (and if not, I can always leave).

What rules do you think much of our society currently operates under? And are they up for renegotiation, or are we starting to set them in stone?