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Can The Future Be Perfect? It Can Certainly Be Better

By - November 29, 2012

As my 2011 review of his Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation proves, I am a Steven Johnson fan. So it was with relish that I settled in to read his latest release: Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age.

Steven had already told me the premise of his book – the first he’s written since moving to my neck of the woods in Marin, California (I hope we can keep him from going back to Brooklyn, but we’ll see…).

In short it’s this: the evidence has become overwhelming that a new form of political expression is developing, an expression deeply informed by the gravitational pull of the Internet (for more on that, see Steven’s piece in the Times: The Internet? We Built That).

Johnson sought for years to give this concept a name, and last year settled on “peer progressive.” He describes how he came to the term:

Slowly but steadily, much like the creation of the Internet itself, a growing number of us have started to think that the core principles that governed the design of the Net could be applied to solve different kinds of problems— the problems that confront neighborhoods, artists, drug companies, parents, schools. You can see in all these efforts the emergence of a new political philosophy, as different from the state-centralized solutions of the old Left as it is from the libertarian market religion of the Right. The people behind these movements believe in government intervention without Legrand Stars, in Hayek-style distributed information without traditional marketplaces. Ron Paul’s rallying cry was too simple; progress is not just a question of choosing between individuals and the state. Increasingly, we are choosing another path, one predicated on the power of networks. Not digital networks, necessarily, but instead the more general sense of the word: webs of human collaboration and exchange…

…We believe in social progress, and we believe the most powerful tool to advance the cause of progress is the peer network. We are peer progressives.

Johnson’s use of the term “Legrand Star” is a reference to one of two consistent tropes throughout the book: A “Legrand Star” is a centralized, hierarchical approach to problem solving or decision making (named after the French rail system, which ran out to the country in direct lines from Paris). A “Baran Web” is a decentralized, peer network approach (named after Paul Baran, an early Internet pioneer).

As Johnson notes in the book, Future Perfect is something of a career-long work – his examples all stem from things he’s noticed over the course of more than a decade of writing books. It’s as if he had a big folder of anecdotes gathered over the past 15 years, each labeled “This must mean something,” all patiently waiting to be turned into this book.

Like many of us (I will admit an easy attraction), Johnson has for years felt disconnected from the political process. The polarization of political discourse seemed detached from what many of us were feeling on the ground – example after example of good things getting done by networks of diverse people working toward common goals. In Future Perfect Johnson organizes proofs of such work, some well known (Wikipedia), others surprising (he reinterprets the “Miracle on the Hudson” river landing as the work of an extended peer network. You’ll never think of frozen chickens in the same way again).

In this book Johnson acts as something of a peer progressive Johnny Appleseed, each new narrative another seed which plants the concept more firmly in a reader’s mind. Employee-owned companies perform better than Wall St. driven firms – peer networks for the win. Prize-driven, open-source advancement of science births commercial space aviation, and may solve even larger issues like our society’s approach to pharma research – again, peer nets FTW. Our cities are clogged with traffic, peer networks can re-route our transportation grid. Our news is Legrandian, but peer networks can not just save journalism, but improve it to the point of far higher value to each citizen, down to the hyperlocal level. Patents are a blight on true innovation, peer networks are helping us clear our intellectual property acne – peer networks FTW!

Toward the end of the work, Johnson writes a passage that sounds absolutely radical, if taken out of context:

The modern regime of big corporations and big governments has existed for the past few centuries in an artificial state that neglected alternative channels through which information could flow and decisions could be made. Because we were locked into a Legrand Star mind-set, we didn’t build our businesses and our states around peer networks that could connect us to a much more diverse and decentralized group of collaborators. Instead, we created a mass society defined by passive consumption, vast hierarchies, and the straight lines of state legibility. It didn’t seem artificial to us, because we couldn’t imagine an alternative. But now we can.

But after reading Steven’s book, and living through many of the same stories as has he, I have to say, I wholeheartedly agree.

Other works I’ve reviewed:

Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel by Gary Shteyngart (review)

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers by Tom Standage (review)

Year Zero: A Novel by Rob Reid (review)

Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman (review)

Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.0 by Larry Lessig (review)

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Vintage) by Jaron Lanier (review)

WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency by Micah Sifry (review)

Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It by Larry Lessig (review)

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (review)

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (review)

The Corporation (film – review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (review)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (review)

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Must All Grasshoppers Die?

By - November 28, 2012

I’ve been reading a lot lately – and the topics have been pretty diverse. Popular science fiction from ten years ago (Outerland), political commentary from last month (Future Perfect), seminal computing tracts from the 1990s (Mirror Worlds), and just published manifestos on synthetic biology (Regenesis).

It is a luxury to read this much, even if it’s also not exactly pleasurable (memo to Dr. Church: Most of your readers do not have college degrees in organic chemistry…). But it does change how you think.

Last night I came home early from my writing retreat. I wasn’t happy about doing so, but life sometimes conspires to force you off plan. Yesterday was not a good day – any number of projects in which I’m involved unexpectedly demanded attention, and I failed to say no to their requests. I also contracted a swell case of poison oak. As I completed my tenth conference call – at a writing retreat in which I was supposedly to focus only on writing – I looked up and saw this:

Had I not looked up, I’d have missed it entirely. Five minutes later, it was dark. I packed my bags, locked the door behind me, and drove home.

When I got there, my wife introduced me to a dying grasshopper, a bright green declaration of life poking feebly at an impervious ceramic wall of white. Somehow, it had gotten into our house and ended up in our bathtub. There it lay, slowly tapping out what seemed a last message, scraping its minute grasshopper claw against an unfeeling bed of marble.

I’d like to say that I gently lifted that grasshopper from the tub and lay it on a pillow of leaves. That I googled “how to nurse a grasshopper back to life” and concocted just the right nectar to  revive the tiny beast. But I didn’t. Like most of us would, I looked away. I was sad but I was caught up in my own shit. That grasshopper was running on fumes, it was out of gas. And when a grasshopper runs out of gas, well, that’s it, ain’t it? Perhaps I should have placed it outside, to die in situ. But it was warmer inside…and…well. Make a your sign over it, say a few words after life retreats.

As a culture, two classes of animated beings populate our lives. One are living – people, pets, E Coli, grasshoppers. The other are machines – computers, leaf blowers, automobiles. Each type requires fuel. But only machines can lay dormant for a long period of time between hitting the gas station.  The machines. We envy them, then we remind ourselves that we are alive – we are sentient, living beings. We die, yes, but that’s worth the trade, right?

I wanted nothing more than to pull that dying grasshopper into a QuikStop. Well, no, that’s not true. What I wanted more was to look away, because I knew no such thing exists.

What I’ve noticed, as I’ve been on my journey of reading, is that as a society, we are beginning to have a grand conversation about what it means to rethink the idea of being alive. I’m not just talking about robots that act human, or the synthetic creations of Craig Venter. But really, what does it mean to be animate? Can we separate life from machines? Can we give them life?

To live has been forever defined by the idea of death. A grasshopper that never dies is not alive, is it? It must be, instead, a creation of life, but not living itself. It’s a machine.

These boundaries are going to be pushed in the next 30 years. This is not hype, it’s simply true. We are drawing close to understanding the machinery of life and death. At least, as a culture, we believe we are close. It’s all over the books I’ve been reading.

I wonder, what will come of all of it? Any thoughts?

Meantime, I’m just glad I looked up and saw that sunset before I left yesterday. It reminded me that  there’s still a fair bit of wonder in the world. And that helps put the whole day in perspective.

On Open Platforms, Wifi, Home Automation, and Kitty Litter

By - November 26, 2012

At least this platform is open….

(image Shutterstock)

The world needs more open platforms. The term is  loaded, but it’s worth unpacking. To me, an open platform is a consistent opportunity space where anyone – without prior permission – can attempt to create value, and the market gets to vote on that attempt.

When the Clinton administration declared the Internet a “free trade zone” in 1997, it helped create one of the most powerful open platforms in the history of business. Anyone could set up a website, sell their services, wares, or their snake oil, and the market sorted out the winners and the losers.

But an open platform doesn’t necessarily mean a free one. The last time I checked, Comcast is still charging me $65 a month for my “high-speed business” Internet connection. Once I pay that fee, I am free to launch any site I want and consume any content I desire. Comcast has no say in the matter (so far).

Another wonderful example is the Global Positioning System (GPS), once the realm only of the United States military, but now the driver of countless commercial opportunities around the globe (again thanks to decisions made during the Clinton administration).  Anyone can access civilian GPS data – it’s open and free to all. Had this system not been in place, my weekend would have been less interesting – I could not have tracked my family’s hike across a mountain in Marin, checked into my writing retreat this morning on Foursquare, or effortlessly mapped my route to the new restaurant where I met a dozen friends last Saturday night.

Over the years we’ve seen the rise of semi-open communications-driven platforms, some of which have been built on top of the Internet (think Facebook), others which were built on top of regulated, oligarchical networks like those of the cell phone carriers (think iOS ). These systems are open to developers, but subject to stricter rules and oversight by corporations (Facebook and Apple, for example).

But sometimes platforms rise out of unexpected places. That’s the story I want to tell today.

This tale is based on an open platform of sorts – or at least, re-imagining an existing platform. In this case, that platform is the home – and in particular, the wifi-enabled home.

A report issued earlier this year found that 25% of homes worldwide have wifi installed. In the US, that figure is much higher – 61% of US homes are lit by the airborne Internet. That’s a pretty astonishing number, and it continues to climb. Wifi-lit homes are now a platform waiting for innovative ideas to hatch. Last week I got a chance to chat with someone behind one of them.

Kevin Ashton is best known as an RFID pioneer, and for coining the terms “The Internet of Things.” But what many may not know about the British-born engineer and entrepreneur is his current work on home automation. Two years ago he sold his cleantech startup Zensi to Belkin International, a 30-year old computer networking and accessory firm in Los Angeles. Belkin’s a pretty traditional company, to be honest, but that may be about to change.

Zensi specialized in monitoring a building’s electrical information, tapping into the structure’s electronic grid and sampling the “voltage noise” that spikes across the wires. That noise turns out to be pretty valuable information – every electronic gadget has a signature, and by paying close attention, Ashton’s startup could reliably determine the energy use of every node node on a building’s electronic network. That energy “can be presented to the energy user in a way that can be very beneficial,” Ashton told me.

Ashton’s first customers wanted some pretty simple data. “Nothing more than knowing the total energy consumed in the building,” he says. But Ashton knew a lot more could be done with the information, if he could just open the platform up a bit, and instrument it with a few more useful appendages.

That’s what he and his team have been up to over the past two years at Belkin. This past summer Belkin introduced WeMo, a home automation system that plugs into any outlet and allows you to control electronic devices over the Internet. The system consists of a plug, a motion sensor, and an iOS app. It’s pretty rudimentary – you plug any device you want to control into the WeMo outlet, and that device becomes controllable via the iOS app. But add in the motion sensor and you  combine the ability to turn things on and off based on the ability to “know” some action has occurred. That’s when things get interesting. Now portions of your home have remote eyes and hands, in a limited sense. WeMo’s sensors  can “see” motion and “act” on what they see by turning things off and on.

Belkin’s promotional site for WeMo shows all kinds of uses for the system: keeping your dog off the couch while you are at work, easing your mind about whether or not you turned off that curling iron before leaving the house, automating when heaters or lights are turned off and on, etc. It’s all very cool, but it suffers from the same problem that plagues all early platforms: Early adopters and hackers love the system, but most consumers aren’t going to go to the trouble of buying, coding, and installing the Wemo system just so they can turn the lights off and on, or ease their mind about an errant curling iron.

What WeMo needed was the power of an open platform, and a community that could come up with uses for the device that the company never imagined.

When WeMo launched, Ashton told me, “we didn’t have many good ideas what people would do with it.” Ashton and his team knew that “lighting up” a home with new sensory appendages could ignite a big change in how people interacted with their living spaces, but instead of taking a proprietary approach to innovation on Belkin’s new platform, they created a free, open API for Wemo, and partnered with IFTT (If This Then That), an internet service that enables anyone to create rules-based actions triggered by data from any number of sources. A simple example of an IFTT “recipe” is this: “If (I post a photo to Instagram) then (put a copy of it into my Dropbox).”

IFTT is a small but thriving community of tens of thousands of folks weaving new kinds of connections between our digitally disparate lives, and Ashton’s team figured tapping into this group might provide Belkin with some novel ideas for WeMo.

They were right. There are nearly 200 WeMo recipes on the IFTT site, ranging from “Text me if my door opens!” to “Post a Facebook status message anytime someone reaches for the cookie jar.” But the one that really got Ashton’s attention is this: “Tell me when it’s time to clean up the litter box.” It’s one of WeMo’s most-used recipes (and it turns out, it did come from within his team, but not until the IFTT connection was established).

“When we were developing (WeMo),” he told me, “there was absolutely no way that anybody – in a focus group or in our think tank – was going to come up with that as an application. If they did, we didn’t think it would be meaningful.”

At the moment, the number of people who have employed the kitty litter recipe can be counted in the dozens. But that’s a function of WeMo’s total installed base, which is still small. That base will likely remain small until a few inter-related things change: First, WeMo-like sensing needs to get cheaper and more accessible. For now, fitting out your house with a full complement of WeMo devices runs upwards of $1000, and the devices are used mostly by a small group of motivated hobbyists (not unlike 3D printing or the Arduino platform). But if sensing devices are built into electrical outlets as a matter of course, and/or are easily retrofitted into existing homes, the presumption that your home is “smart” could tip in a matter of years.

Also, consumers must begin to expect WeMo-like functionality from their homes and devices. The kitty litter recipe is a small but leading indicator of such a shift. Ashton tells me, for example, that he already has inquiries from pet lovers about promoting WeMo – just for its role in helping humans take care of their cats. As the number of hacker-driven recipes for WeMo uses multiplies and device prices and ease of installation diminish, the home sensing revolution could be right around the corner.

Thirdly, the platform wants more data – the more, the better. Imagine if WeMo also had access to all that energy sensing data built into Zensi’s original products. Because the Zensi technology “knows” the signiature of every electrical device on the home network, it “knows” when you’re watching TV, or using the microwave, working at your computer, or firing up the oven. Making all that data “knowable” opens all manner of innovative applications, again, most of which Belkin alone couldn’t dream up all by itself.

But if all this is to happen, it’s critical that access to home automation devices and data remain on an open platform, where innovation can occur unimpeded by conflicting commercial or regulatory imperatives. At the moment, anyone can create a recipe for WeMo, without Belkin’s approval. Ashton says he’s committed to that philosophy – one that he hopes informs far larger issues than curling irons and kitty poop. “We are open to anything that adds value to the system for our users,” Ashton told me.

It wasn’t a natural act for Belkin to open up the WeMo platform.  The company’s CEO has run the company for 30 years, and has never done anything like the IFTT experiment. He took a risk by allowing Ashton’s team to create an API. It’s not a bet the company move, but Ashton believes it augurs a larger change happening across many industries. (GE, for example, is embracing this idea, as are IBM and many other large companies).

“If you can create a business in which other people’s business is adding value to your product, more people will buy your product,” Ashton says. He compares that to traditional, vertically integrated companies that try to control every aspect of their product’s expression (like most automobile manufacturers.) Ashton predicts that all industries will eventually tip toward a more horizontal, open platform approach to business. “In one generation,” he asserts, “this model will win.”

All this reminds me of a book I recently finished – Steven Johnson’s Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age. I’ll be reviewing that work shortly, but Johnson’s point is simple: if we are to solve our largest societal problems, we need to take a more peer-driven, open-platform approach to business, politics, and culture. With WeMo, Belkin’s taken one small step in that direction. I expect many more will follow.

A World Lit With Sensors and Clothed in Data

By - October 25, 2012

I’m about to go onstage and give a talk about the themes of the upcoming book at Time Warner, and one thing I’m going to show is this video from Oblong Industries, an OpenCoSF participant company founded by the folks behind all the amazing UI stuff in Minority Report:

I’m also showing that stuff like this is getting very real – Leap Motion is taking orders for an entirely new way to interact with computers:

What with the proven success of Microsoft’s Kinect, and some of the stuff I’ve seen in labs at MIT, Microsoft Research, Google, and other places, it strikes me that in the not too distant future, it’ll be pretty natural to come into a room that is “data lit” – a room that is “lit up” with sensors and connected to the cloud, such that you can exchange information inside that room using your body, your voice, and your hands. It’ll be as natural as expecting a room to be “wifi lit” now. Or, 25 years ago, as natural as expecting that a room be lit with computer projection, or 50 years ago, with a phone – and of course, 100 years ago, with light itself.

Just stoning out while I wait to go on stage…

Time To Begin, Again

By - October 19, 2012

Family, colleagues, and friends knew this day was coming, I knew it was coming, but here it is: I’ve rented a new place to write, a small, remote house directly on the beach, about 12 miles as the crow flies from my home in Marin county. It’s not a direct 12 miles – that crow would have to fly up about 2500 feet so as to clear the peak of Mt. Tamalpais. And that mountainous impediment is intentional – it takes close to the same time to ride a mountain bike from my home to this office as it does to drive one of several winding routes between here and there. I’m hoping that will spur me to take my commute by bicycle. I won’t be here every day, but I certainly hope to spend a fair bit of time here over the coming months.

I’ve added this new address to my long list of offices for one reason: To complete the book I’ve been talking about for nearly half a decade. That book began as an idea I called “The Conversation Economy,” but grew in both scope and ambition to encompass a much larger idea: an archaeology of the future, as seen through the digital artifacts of the present. Along the way, it’s changed a lot – 18 months ago, its title was “What We Hath Wrought.” Now, I’m thinking it’ll be called “If/Then.” I may yet call it “If/Then…Else” – or, as I wander through this journey, it might end up as something entirely different.

At this moment, I’m not certain. And that’s a bit scary.

I’ve made many false starts at this book, and I’ve failed on more than one occasion to truly commit to it. There are many reasons why, but I think the main one is that I believe this project requires that I place it first, ahead of anything else. And until recently, that’s simply been impossible. As readers know, up until this year, I ran the Web 2 Summit, which I put on hiatus this year so I could focus on the book. I’m also founder and Executive Chair of an Internet media startup, now in its seventh year. Federated Media Publishing has undergone many changes since 2005, and doubtless will see many more as it navigates what is an exciting and tumultuous media market. And because I’m a founder, I’ve always placed FMP ahead of anything else – even as I handed over CEO duties to a far more competent executive than myself 18 months ago.

In the past few months, I’ve been getting ready to put the book first, and it’s not an easy thing to do.  Not just because of the rapid evolution in the media business  (for more on that, see my “Death of Display” post), but because committing to a book project is an act of faith – faith that isn’t necessarily going to be rewarded.

Staring at a blank screen, knowing you have things to say, but not being certain how to say them, that’s just hard. I’ve been practicing for nearly a year. It’s time to get in the game.

I’ll still be a very active Chair at FMP, and I’ve got a few more long-planned trips to take, but for the most part, my calendar is cleared, and I’m ready to start. I’ve already spent the past year doing scores of interviews, reporting trips, and research on the book. I’ve got literally thousands of pages of notes and clips and sketches to go through. I’ve got many, many drafts of outlines and just as many questions to answer about where this book might take me. And of course, I’ll be writing out loud, right here, as I wander in the woods. I hope you’ll come along for the trip.

Super Sad True Love Story: A Review

By -

In my continuing quest to reflect on books which I have found important to my own work, I give you a work of fiction, first published in mid-2011:  Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel, by Gary Shteyngart, an acclaimed writer born in Russia, now living in the US. This is my first read of Shteyngart, known also for his previous works Absurdistan and Russian Debutante’s Handbook, both of which established him as an important new literary voice (Ten Best Books – NYT, Book of the Year – Time, etc. etc….). Of course, I was barely aware of Shteyngart until a friend insisted I read “Super Sad” and I will forever be grateful for the recommendation.

Based in a future that feels to be about thirty years from now (the same timeframe as my pending book),  Shteyngart’s story stars one Lenny Abramov, a schlumpy 39-year-old son of Jewish Russian immigrants who lives in New York City. Abramov works at a powerful corporation that sells promises of immortality to “High Net Worth” individuals. But he’s not your typical corporate climber: The book begins in Italy, where Abramov has taken a literary vacation of sorts – he’s left an America he no longer loves to be closer to a world that he does – a dying world of art, literature, and slower living. But Abramov’s duty to his parents and his need for money drive him back to America, where most of the action occurs.

It turns out the future hasn’t been very kind to America. Just about every possible concern one might have about our nation’s decline has played out – the economy is in a death spiral, the Chinese pretty much control our institutions, large corporations control what the Chinese don’t, books and intelligent discourse have disappeared, shallowness and rough sex are glorified, and the Constitution has pretty much been suspended. Oh, and while the book doesn’t exactly put it this way, Facebook and Apple have won – everyone is addicted to their devices, and to the social reflections they project.

It doesn’t take long for a reader to realize Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel is also a work of science fiction, but somehow, that construct doesn’t get in the way. In fact, it’s rather fascinating to watch an accomplished literary novelist tackle “the future,” and do a pretty damn good job at it. I’m no science fiction expert, but Shteyngart projects our present day obsessions with devices, data, social networking, and the like into a dystopia that feels uncomfortably possible. Everyone is judged by their credit scores, their youthful appearance, and their ability to gather attention from denizens of an always on, always connected datasphere (those that are particularly good at getting attention are dubbed “very Media!”). Shteyngart is clearly working fields well sown by Dick, Gibson, Stephenson, Doctorow, and many others, but it works for me anyway.

The story is indeed a love story – an improbable and poignant one at that – between Lenny, a middle-aged man beset by insecurities, and a young Korean woman caught between familial duty and the pointless, consumer-driven world of shopping and social networking. The narrative is driven by America’s collapse into a security state, and I won’t give away any more of the plot than that. I’ll leave it here: By the end of this often hilarious novel, you will feel super sad, and you may also come to question the path we are on as it relates to data. I know that’s a pretty odd thing to say about a love story, but data, in fact, plays a central role in the novel’s meaning.  Here are a few of the passages I highlighted:

“Shards of data all around us, useless rankings, useless streams, useless communiqués from a world that was no longer to a world that would never be.”

“I’m learning to worship my new äppärät’s screen, the colorful pulsating mosaic of it, the fact that it knows every last stinking detail about the world, whereas my books only know the minds of their authors.”

“Streams of data were now fighting for time and space around us.”

“And all these emotions, all these yearnings, all these data, if that helps to clinch the enormity of what I’m talking about, would be gone.”

“I wanted to be in a place with less data, less youth, and where old people like myself were not despised simply for being old, where an older man, for example, could be considered beautiful.”

That last passage is from near the end of the book, when the fate of our protagonist has resolved – I won’t tell you how, in case you haven’t read the book. And if that is the case….I certainly recommend that you do.

—–

Other works I’ve reviewed:

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers by Tom Standage (review)

Year Zero: A Novel by Rob Reid (review)

Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman (review)

Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.0 by Larry Lessig (review)

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Vintage) by Jaron Lanier (review)

WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency by Micah Sifry (review)

Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It by Larry Lessig (review)

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (review)

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (review)

The Corporation (film – review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (review)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (review)

 

On Data

By - October 11, 2012

A glimpse of some of the thinking I’ve been doing about the impact of “data” on our culture. I am close (so damn close) to sealing myself off and into only thinking about this, for my book (OpenCoSF is my last big project till I do). But thanks to the Vibrant Data project for taking an interview I did at TED earlier this year, and making it into something that almost makes me look like I have my shit together. I attest, I do not. I hope soon, I will.

Data Wildcatters on the Wild Swiss Range

By - October 02, 2012

You want to put your sensor *where*?!!!!!

(image shutterstock) I’ve been watching the news for tidbits which illuminate a thesis I’ve been working up for my book. Today the New York Times provided a doozy: Swiss Cows Send Texts to Announce They’re in Heat. As James Gleick, author of The Information, noted in a Twitter response to me: That’s one heckuva headline.

So what’s my thesis? It starts with one of the key takeaways from Gleick’s book, which is that we are, as individuals and a society, becoming information. That might seem a rather puzzling statement, because one could argue that we’ve always been information, it’s only recently that we’re realizing that fact. So perhaps a better way of putting it is that we’re exploring the previously unmapped world of information. In the 1400s, the physical world was out there, much as it is today (perhaps it had a few more glaciers…). But we hadn’t discovered it, at least, not in any unified fashion. Now that we’ve discovered, named, and declared the outlines of most of the physical world, we are rapidly moving into a new era, one where we are coloring in the most interesting bits of information in our world with what we now call “data.”

As we survey, chart, and claim this new territory, a truth is emerging: when we discover some set of information might be valuable, we turn that information into data. Information is a slippery concept – one that gives Gleick “the willies.” But data? That’s information we can manipulate.

So here’s my thesis:  We create new data wherever we can find value. Put another way: If it’s valuable to know, new data will flow. Not to everyone, of course – as with oil, control of data is power. But the world is hell-bent on finding new data resources that unleash value. We’ve got wildcatters, we’ve got Exxon/Mobiles (think Facebook, Google, Amazon, the NSA, etc.), we’ve got pipes. And we’ve got incredible stories of the things folks will do to unlock the value of data.

Which takes us back to the cows of Switzerland. As the Times’ piece explains, a Swiss research team has created a system, comprised of implanted sensors and radio beacons, that measures a cow’s movement and internal body temperature. It converts these measurements into data, runs the data through an algorithm, and when the resulting computation indicates the cows are in heat, it sends a text message to the rancher. The net result: The rancher has a better chance of getting that cow pregnant (er, that didn’t quite come out right – but you know what I mean).

Net net: a  pregnant cow is a more valuable cow. And to get a cow pregnant more reliably, one needs the data. Previously, that data was buried in a bovine’s unexplored nether regions (literally – the sensor is placed in the cow’s genitals). But given the value that data carries, these Swiss data wildcatters have tapped a new gusher. This data exploration is now happening over and over, in nearly every imaginable corner of our world. We’ve just tapped the tip of this data iceberg, of course; we’re just stepping onto the shores of the New World. We’d be wise to remember that as we move forward.

Tweets Belong To The User….And Words Are Complicated

By - September 06, 2012

(image GigaOm) Like many of you, I’ve been fascinated by the ongoing drama around Twitter over the past few months (and I’ve commented on part of it here, if you missed it). But to me, one of the most interesting aspects of Twitter’s evolution has gone mostly unnoticed: its ongoing legal battle with a Manhattan court over the legal status of tweets posted by an Occupy Wall St. protestor.

In this case, the State of New York is arguing that a tweet, once uttered, becomes essentially a public statement, stripped of any protections. The judge in the case concurs: In this Wired coverage, for example, he is quoted as writing “If you post a tweet, just like if you scream it out the window, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.”

Twitter disagrees, based on its own Terms of Service, which state “what’s yours is yours – you own your Content.”

As the NYT puts it:

Twitter informed the (Occupy protestor) that the judge had ruled his words no longer belonged to him: (he) had turned them over to Twitter, in other words, to be spread across the world.

(Twitter’s) legal team appealed on Monday of last week. Tweets belong to the user, the company argued.

I find this line of argument compelling. Twitter is arguing that its users do not “turn over” their words to Twitter, instead, they license their utterances to the service, but retain rights of ownership, those rights remain with the person who tweets. It’s a classic digital argument – sure, my words are out there on Twitter, but those are a licensed  copy of my words. The words – the ineffable words –  are still *mine.*  I still have rights to them! One of those rights may well be privacy (interesting given Twitter’s public nature, but arguable), but I can imagine this builds a case for other ownership rights as well, such as the right to repurpose those words in other contexts.

If that is indeed the case, I can imagine a time in the not too distant future when people may want to extract some or all their tweets, and perhaps license them to others as well. Or, they may want to use a meta-service (there’s that idea again) which allows them to mix and mash their tweets in various ways, and into any number of different containers. Imagine for a minute that one of those meta services gets Very Big, and challenges Twitter on its own turf. Should that occur, well, the arguments made in this Manhattan case may well come into very sharp focus. And it’s just those kind of services that are nervous about where Twitter is going.

Just noodling it out. I may be missing some key legal concept here, but this strikes me as a potentially important precedent. I plan to speak with folks at Twitter about all this soon, and hopefully, I’ll have some clarity. Stay tuned.

The Victorian Internet – The Technology That Started It All

By - September 01, 2012

I’m at least three books behind in my reviews, so I figured I’d bang out a fun one today: The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers by Tom Standage. This 1998 book is now a classic – written as the Web was exploding on the scene, it reminded us that this movie has run before, 150 years in the past, with the rise of the telegraph. He writes:

The rise and fall of the telegraph is a tale of scientific discovery, technological cunning, personal rivalry, and cutthroat competition. It is also a parable about how we react to new technologies: For some people, they tap a deep vein of optimism, while others find in them new ways to commit crime, initiate romance, or make a fast buck age- old human tendencies that are all too often blamed on the technologies themselves.

Standage chronicles the history of the telegraph’s many inventors (Morse was just the most famous “father” of the device), and the passions it stirred across the world. Nowhere, however, did the invention stir more excitement (or bad poetry) than in the United States, where it can be convincingly argued that the telegraph’s ability to conquer distance and time almost perfectly matched the young country’s need to marshall its vast geography and resources. Were it not for the telegraph, the United States may never have become a world power.

Expansion was fastest in the United States, where the only working line at the beginning of 1846 was Morse’s experimental line, which ran 40 miles between Washington and Baltimore. Two years later there were approximately 2,000 miles of wire, and by 1850 there were over 12,000 miles operated by twenty different companies. The telegraph industry even merited twelve pages to itself in the 1852 U.S. Census. “The telegraph system [in the United States] is carried to a greater extent than in any other part of the world,” wrote the superintendent of the Census, “and numerous lines are now in full operation for a net-work over the length and breadth of the land.” Eleven separate lines radiated out from New York, where it was not uncommon for some bankers to send and receive six or ten messages each day. Some companies were spending as much as $1,000 a year on telegraphy. By this stage there were over 23,000 miles of line in the United States, with another 10,000 under construction; in the six years between 1846 and 1852 the network had grown 600-fold.

Standage writes with the amused eye of a British citizen – he currently works for the Economist as digital editor. One can sense a bit of English envy as he tells the telegraph’s tale – just as with television, the telegraph had early roots in his native country, but found its full expression in the United States. Thomas Edison started his career as a “telegraph man,” Alexander Graham Bell was inspired by the invention, the Associated Press grew out of the telegraph’s impact on newspapers, “e-commerce” was invented across the device’s wires, and huge corporations were born from its industries – Cable & Wireless, for example, began as a company that sourced insulation for telegraph lines.

The Victorian Internet is a must read for anyone interested in the history of technology, and in the cycles of hype, boom, and bust that seem to only quicken with each new wave of innovation. Highly recommended.

Other works I’ve reviewed:

Year Zero: A Novel by Rob Reid (review)

Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman (review)

Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.0 by Larry Lessig (review)

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Vintage) by Jaron Lanier (review)

WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency by Micah Sifry (review)

Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It by Larry Lessig (review)

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (my review)

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (my review)

The Corporation (film – my review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (my review)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (my review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (my review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (my review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (my review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (my review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (my review)