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Why The Banner Ad Is Heroic, and Adtech Is Our Greatest Artifact

By - November 17, 2013

hotwiredbanner

Every good story needs a hero. Back when I wrote The Search, that hero was Google – the book wasn’t about Google alone, but Google’s narrative worked to drive the entire story. As Sara and I work on If/Then, we’ve discovered one unlikely hero for ours: The lowly banner ad.

Now before you head for the exits with eyes a rollin’, allow me to explain. You may recall that If/Then is being written as an archaeology of the future. We’re identifying “artifacts” extant in today’s world that, one generation from now, will effect significant and lasting change on our society. Most of our artifacts are well-known to any student of today’s digital landscape, but all are still relatively early in their adoption curve: Google’s Glass, autonomous vehicles, or 3D printers, for example. Some are a bit more obscure, but nevertheless powerful – microfluidic chips (which may help bring about DNA-level medical breakthroughs) fall into this category. Few of these artifacts touch more than a million people directly so far, but it’s our argument that they will be part of more than a billion people’s lives thirty years from now.

There is one exception. The artifact we’re investigating is already at massive scale, driving billions of dollars in revenue and touching every person whose ever used the Internet. That artifact is currently called “programmatic adtech,” and it is most famously illustrated by Terry Kawaja’s Lumascapes (and less famously, my own “Behind the Banner” visualization).

lumascapedisplayYes, this is the infrastructure that allows a pair of shoes to chase you across the web. How can it possibly be as important as, say, a technology that may cure cancer? Because I believe the very same technologies we’ve built to serve real time, data-driven advertising will soon be re-purposed across nearly every segment of our society. Programmatic adtech is the heir to the database of intentions - it’s that database turned real time and distributed far outside of search. And that’s a very, very big deal. (I just wish I had a cooler name for it than “adtech.” We’re working on it. Any ideas?!)

Think about what programmatic adtech makes possible. An individual requests a piece of content through a link or an action (like touching something on a mobile device). In milliseconds, scores of agents execute thousands of calculations based on hundreds of parameters, all looking to market-price the value of that request and deliver a personalized response. This happens millions of times * a second,* representing hundreds of millions, if not billions, of computing cycles each second. What’s most stunning about this system is that it’s tuned to each discrete individual – every single request/response loop is unique, based on the data associated with each individual.

Let me break that down:

1. A person indicates a request: a desire, an intent, a preference - The Request

2. Billions of compute cycles and sh*tons of data are engaged to process that desire - The Process

3. A personalized response is generated within 100-250 milliseconds. - The Response

At present, the end result of this vastly complicated “Request Process Response” system is, more often than not, the proffering of a banner ad. But that’s just an artifact of a far more interesting future state. Today’s adtech has within it the glimmerings of a computing architecture that will underpin our entire society. Every time you turn up your thermostat, this infrastructure will engage, determining in real time the most efficient response to your heating needs. Each time you walk into a doctor’s office, the same kind of system could be triggered to determine what information should appear on your health care provider’s screen, and on yours, and how best payment should be made (or insurance claims filed). Every retail store you visit, every automobile you drive (or are driven by), every single interaction of value in this world can and will become data that interacts with this programmatic infrastructure.

OK. Let’s step back for a second. When you think of this infrastructure, are  you concerned? Good. Because it’s imperative that we consider the choices we make as we engage with such a portentous creation. This year alone, each human on the planet will create about 600 gigabytes of information, and that number is growing rapidly. What are the architectural constraints of the infrastructure which processes that information? What values do we build into it? Can it be audited? Is it based on principles of openness, or is it driven by business rules and data-structures which favor closed platforms? Will we have to choose between an oligarchy of “RPR vendors” – Google, Facebook, Microsoft – or will we take a more distributed approach, as the original Internet did?

These questions have been raised, and continue to be well articulated, by LessigZittrainWu, and many others. But we’re entering a new, more urgent era of this conversation. Many of these authors’ works warned of a world where code will eventually augur early lock down in political and social conventions. That time is no longer in the future. It’s now. And I believe as goes adtech, so goes our social code.

“Adtech” is a very important, very large application we’ve built on top of the platform we call “the Internet.” It’s driven by the relentless desire of capitalism to turn a profit, yet (so far) it has leaned toward the Internet’s core values of openness and interconnectivity. Thanks to that,  it’s suffering some endemic maladies (fraud comes to mind). It’s still a very young, relatively immature artifact. But so far, it’s more open than not. I’m not certain that will always be the case.

My argument boils down to this: What we today call “adtech” will tomorrow become the worldwide real-time processing layer driving much of society’s transactions. That layer deserves to be named as perhaps the most important artifact extant today.

Given adtech’s rise, let’s not forget its atomic unit of value: the oft-derided banner ad. In time the banner as we know it will most likely fade away, but its place in history is certain. One generation from now, we may not “click” on banner ads, but we’ll always be pulling into traffic, filing health insurance claims, buying clothes in retail stores, and turning up our thermostats. And those myriad transactions will be lit with data and processed by a real time infrastructure initially built to execute one pedestrian task: serve a simple banner ad.

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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.

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.

 

It’s…A Marketing Barge?!

By - November 01, 2013

google_barge_map_103113(image CBS KPIX) The #googlebarge meme has taken a very strange turn.

A rather welcome diversion from our industry’s endless NSA revelations, the enigmatic barge floating off Treasure Island had been widely assumed to be a floating data center of some kind. But today a local CBS station is reporting that the massive box is custom built for….marketing. No one suggested *that* when I asked for wild speculation yesterday. Answers ranged from “a place to store Google’s cash” to “a hide out for Microsoft’s next CEO,” but “a seaworthy rival to Apple’s retail stores”? Nope, no one was that drunk on Halloween.

From the CBS story:

The project, which has been in the planning stages for more than a year, was created at Google[x], the secret facility that Google reportedly runs near its corporate headquarters in Mountain View. It is personally directed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin and is Google’s attempt to upstage rival Apple and its chain of popular retail stores, sources said.

A source who has been onboard the vessel, which is moored off San Francisco’s Treasure Island under tight security, told KPIX 5 the first three floors are designed to serve as “dazzling showrooms” that can be outfitted with chrome features and floor lighting. There is an upper “party deck” meant to feature bars, lanais and other comforts so Google can fete its upscale customers.

The barge can reportedly be taken apart quickly and shipped to anywhere in the world.  Like, say, Davos. The thing’s apparently one huge, mobile marketing stunt.

Kind of makes sense, no?

A World Lit, Literally, By Data

By - October 21, 2013

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.

 

 

Here Are the Companies I Chose For OpenCo SF This Year. Damn, That Was Hard

By - October 01, 2013

opencosfI spent about an hour today choosing which companies I plan to visit during next week’s OpenCo. And I have to say – despite my obvious bias as a founder of the event – the difficulty I had deciding only gets me more excited about participating. There are just so many great organizations opening their doors during this two-day festival, and it makes me so proud that this thing is, well, happening. I mean, it’s really happening – 135 or so companies are letting the public come inside, and they’re talking about what makes their  organization special, what makes it tick. And for two days, I get to hang out in their space, take notes, get inspired. It’s just…really cool.

I like this so much more than hanging out in yet another ballroom at a tech industry confab. I mean, I love those conferences. It’s great to see all my pals and meet new people. But OpenCo really is different. The serendipity of each company’s vibe, the instant social network that forms around each session (“So why did you come to see Rock Health?!”), the seemingly endless choices. Nearly 2500 people have registered, and we expect to break 3,000 by the end of the week. You can’t fit 3,000 people in the ballroom at The Palace Hotel. But the city will welcome us all next week. It’s just … cool.

So here are the companies I chose, and why:

Thursday, Oct. 10

9am: San Francisco Symphony (City Center). Whaaat? The symphony is an OpenCo? I know, that’s what I thought. But OpenCo Advisor Nancy Hellman Bechtle has brought many key arts players into the OpenCo fold, including American Conservatory Theatre, the American Institute of Architects, the California College of the Arts, Alonzo King LINES Ballet, the San Francisco Jazz Organization, the Children’s Creativity Museum, the San Francisco Opera, and SF MOMA. How many opportunities do you get to go hear from the leaders of these vibrant cultural institutions? Very, very cool.

Companies also going off at 9 am that I wish I could see: Event Brite, AIA, Google, and IFTTT (it was sold out already, damnit). 

wework10:30 am: WeWork SOMA (SOMA area). There are about half a dozen collaborative workspaces that will be opening their doors next week, but I chose WeWork because I liked the vibe of their mission: “Do what you love.” A focus on “beauty” in workspace seems to drive their approach, and I want to see that up close. The company has workspaces in many cities around the country, I’m hoping they’ll all be OpenCos someday.

Companies also going off at 10:30 that I wish I could see: SoundCloud (full already), Presidio Trust, Rackspace.

12:00 pm: High Fidelity, Inc. (SOMA area) Philip Rosedale’s at it again, this time with a head trip of a company that is pioneering a new approach to, well, time and space. (Rosedale founded the way-ahead-of-its-time Second Life). They’re re-imagining reality, based on, I kid you not, “sparse voxel octree data structures.” I gotta see this.

Companies also going off at 12:00pm that I wish I could see: Superfly Presents (my pals behind Bonnaroosfly and Outside Lands), Lit Motors (FULL!), Granicus, Rickshaw Bags, twofifteenmccann (did our logo design for OpenCo among other things!).

1:30 pm:  TechShop (SOMA/Downtown area). The concept of sharing resources is tearing up the old economy and making new kinds of innovation possible. I want to see it in action. From TechShop’s description: “Part fabrication and prototyping studio, part hackerspace and part learning center, TechShop provides access to over $1 million worth of professional equipment and software.” I’m in.

Companies also going off at 1:30pm that I wish I could see: Wired (for old times’ sake, but it’s already FULL), Dandelion Chocolate (more chocoloate in the world is a good thing), Net Power & Light, Ridepal….there are so many….

proj frog 23:00pm: Project Frog (Mission). By this point in my schedule, I’m starting to realize how many great companies I’m missing, but … chose we must. I liked Project Frog’s description – I’d never heard of it before. “Since 2006, Project Frog has been on a mission to revolutionize the way buildings are created by applying technology to overcome the inefficiencies of traditional construction.” When on earth am I ever going to get a chance to grok that idea in action? Apparently, next week! Cool.

Companies also going off at 3:00pm that I wish I could see: Dropbox (FULL!), the Kite Pitch Doctor, Exygy (I want to work with these guys!),  Innovate SF (Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation – a great partner!), Stamen (love their work). 

 4:30pm: SF MOMA (Embarcadero). OK, I know what you’re saying. Opening with the Symphony, closing with MOMA? Well, yes. I don’t really engage with these amazing institutions in my day to day life, and I want to change that. The director of SF MOMA will present in a “on the go” space at Pier 24, because the museum is closed (it’s undergoing a massive expansion.) This is a chance to hear what’s happening at a world-class museum, from the person who’s running it. Hell yes I’m going.

Companies also going off at 4:30pm that I wish I could see: The Slanted Door  (yes, the restaurant group!), HomeJoy (starting a movement to change cleaning! I love it), Twyxt (cool service for couples), WideOrbit (adtech/platform). 

jawbone

And that’s just day 1.

Day 2, Friday Oct. 11, rolls like this:

9 am: Federated Media Publishing (Embarcadero). Well, I’m actually giving the presentation for this one, so I better have it on my sked, no? I’m really looking forward to participating as an OpenCo after helping to found OpenCo. How great is that? I’ll be talking about connecting data and publishing, because I believe independent publishers must understand their data to thrive in today’s Internet ecosystem.

Companies also going off at 9 am that I wish I could see: ACT, Jawbone (FULL!), Salesforce (FULL!), NextDoor.

10:30 am: Inner Circle Labs (SOMA). This firm specializes in PR for innovative companies in SF, and is bringing in a great panel of its own clients. I think the professional services that help startups are an underappreciated part of our landscape, and I’m looking forward to learning more about this firm.

Companies also going off at 10:30 am that I wish I could see: RocketSpace, Instructables, SV Angel  (FULL, damn you David and Ron, open more space!), gitHub.

12:00pm: Scoot Networks (SOMA). “Combining battery-powered scooters with smartphone technology, Scoot allows for quick, affordable, one way trips around San Francisco.” Enough said. I love the city bike share nets that are popping up all over the world, but in SF, sometimes you need a battery! Hey Scoot, we should do something to get folks around OpenCo, no?!

crave toysCompanies also going off at 12:00pm that I wish I could see: SF OperaTCHO (FULL!), Crave (sex toys with data!!!), CleanTech GroupGirl Ventures.

1:30 pm: Mad ValleyThis agency-driven incubator is having a lot of success lately, and though I’ve been to the space many times to see clients, I’ve never heard the pitch. I am really looking forward to getting smart on a venture I’ve been close to, but never really seen.

Companies also going off at 1:30pm that I wish I could see: Imagine H2O, Code for America (went last year!), Hotel Tonight

3:00 pm: yerdle. Look, how much stuff do you have sitting in your house that plagues you with guilt – it has value, but you’re not using it? But it’s too much work to figure out how to get it to a useful place in the universe, right? Enter yerdle – a way to share or give stuff you’ve got to those who want or need it. Love this idea.

Companies also going off at 3:00pm that I wish I could see: Bloomberg (FULL!), Viglink, isocket

4:30 pm: 99 Designs. This site has taken off, helping connect creatives and those looking for creative inspiration. I want to see what makes it tick.  I also want to learn how to become a good client of its services.

everlane

Companies also going off at 4:30pm that I wish I could see: Everlane (bespoke and transparent!), SEAGLASS, Hightail, IDEO (Full, DAMNIT).

Well, that’s it. A dozen amazing experiences await me next week, a dozen new groups of people, a dozen founders, idealists, and entrepreneurs telling their stories for us to hear.

I. Am. Stoked. Thanks to American Express OPEN Forum, Yahoo!, IPG/MediaBrands, the Mayor’s office, SFBIG, and the team at OpenCo (and all our wonderful partners) for making this possible. What an honor to say I was there at the founding of the OpenCo movement. If you’ve gotten all the way to this point in my post, GO REGISTER, IT’S FREE! 

See you out in the modern working city!

Search and Immortality

By - September 19, 2013

google.cover.inddFunny thing, there I was two days ago, at Google’s annual conference, watching Larry Page get asked questions so pliant in nature they couldn’t be called softballs. They were more like tee balls – little round interrogatives gingerly placed on a plastic column for Page to swat out into the crowd. Not that we would expect anything else – to be clear, this is Google’s event, and I see nothing wrong with Google scripting its own event. I had moderated the final session of the day, but Larry was the final speaker. Perhaps wisely, Google brought  someone else on to “grill” Page – those were his words as the interview started. (You be the judge –  a sample question: “What are your thoughts about tablets in schools?”)

Anyway, I was certainly not the right choice to talk to Larry. I know the folks at Google well, and have tons of respect for them. We both know I would have insisted on asking about a few things that were, well, in the news at the moment of that interview on Tuesday. Like, for example, the fact that Google, on the very next day, was going to announce the launch of Calico, a company seeking to solve that “moonshot” problem of aging. Oh, and by the way, current Apple Chair and former Genentech CEO Arthur Levinson was going to be CEO, reporting to Page. Seems like pretty interesting news, no? And yet, Larry kept mum about it during the interview. Wow. That’s some serious self control.

And yet I think I understand – each story has its own narrative, and this one needed room to breathe. You don’t want to break it inside an air-conditioned ballroom in front of your most important clients. You want to make sure it gets on the cover of Time (which it did), and that the news gets at least a few days to play through the media’s often tortured hype cycle. It’s grinding its way through that cycle now, and I’m sure we’ll see comparisons to everything from Kurzweil (who now works at Google) to Bladerunner, and beyond.

But what I was reminded of was the very end of my book on search, some 8 years ago. I was trying to put the meaning of search into context, and I found myself returning again and again to the concept of immortality.  This was my epilogue, which I offer here as perhaps some context for Google’s announcement this week:

“Search and Immortality”

On a fine sunny morning in 2003, not long after the birth of my third and most likely final child, I typed “immortality” into Google and hit the “I’m feeling lucky” button. I can’t explain why I turned to a search engine for metaphysical comfort, but I sensed the search might lead me somewhere—here I was writing a book about search, but what did it matter, really, in the larger scheme of things?

In an instant, Google took me to the Immortality Institute, an organization dedicated to “conquering the blight of involuntary death.”

Not quite what I was looking for. So I hit the search again, but this time I took a look at the first ten results, etched in blue, green, and black against Google’s eternal white.

Nothing really caught my eye. Cryonics stuff, a business called Immortality Inc., pretty much what you might expect. I couldn’t put what I was looking for into words, but I knew this wasn’t it.

Then I noticed the advertising relegated to the right side of the screen. There were four ads, each no more than three lines of text. The first was someone who claimed to have met immortal ETs. Pass. The third and fourth were from eBay and Yahoo Shopping. These megasites had purchased the immortality keyword in some odd and obliquely interesting hope that people searching for immortality might well find relief through . . . buying shit online. (In fact, what Yahoo and eBay were doing was the equivalent of search arbitrage— buying top positions for a search term on Google and then creating a link to the exact same search term on their own sites, in the hope of capturing high-value customers).

Interesting, but I wasn’t looking to buy the concept of immortality; I wanted to understand it. I took a pass on those as well. But the second paid link pointed to the epic Gilgamesh, which I hazily recalled as the first story ever written down—in Sumerian cuneiform, if memory served. I clicked on the link, earning Google a few pennies in the process, and landed on an obscure bookseller’s page. The epic of Gilgamesh, the site instructed me, recounts mankind’s “longing stretch toward the infinite” and its “reluctant embrace of the temporal. This is the eternal lot of mankind.”

Bingo. I didn’t quite know why, but this was the stuff I was looking for. My vague desire to understand the concept of immortality had brought me to the epic of Gilgamesh, and now I was hooked. My search was bearing fruit. But I didn’t want to buy a book and wait for it to come. I was in the moment of discovery, the heat of possible consummation. I wanted to read that epic, right now.1 So I typed the title itself into Google, and once again found myself larded with options.

But this time the organic results (the search results in the middle of a Google page, as opposed to the ads on the right) nailed it: the first two offered direct translations of the stone tablets upon which the epic is written. Clicking on the first link, I found a Washington State University professor’s summary of the Gilgamesh story. It read:

Gilgamesh was an historical king of Uruk in Babylonia, on the River Euphrates in modern Iraq; he lived about 2700 b.c. Although historians . . . tend to emphasize Hammurabi and his code of law, the civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates area, among the first civilizations, focus rather on  Gilgamesh and the legends accruing around him to explain, as it were, themselves. Many stories and myths were written about Gilgamesh, some of which were written down about 2000 b.c. in the Sumerian language on clay tablets which still survive . . . written in the script known as cuneiform, which means “wedge-shaped.” The fullest surviving version, from which the summary here is taken, is derived from twelve stone tablets . . . found in the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria, 669–633 b.c., at Nineveh. The library was destroyed by the Persians in 612 b.c., and all the tablets are damaged. The tablets actually name an author, which is extremely rare in the ancient world, for this particular version of the story: Shin-eqi-unninni. You are being introduced here to the oldest known human author we can name by name!

In my search for immortality, I had found the oldest known named author in the history of Western civilization. Thanks to the speed, vastness, and evanescent power of Google, I came to know his name and his work within thirty seconds of proffering a vaguely worded query. This man, Shin-eqi-unninni, now lived in my own mind. Through his writings, with an assist from Google and a university professor, he had, in a sense, become immortal.

But wait! There’smore. Gilgamesh’s story is one of man’s struggle with the concept of immortality, and the story itself was nearly lost in an act of literary vandalism—the destruction of a great king’s library. As I contemplated all of this, sensing that, just possibly, I had found a way to explain why search was so important to our culture.

I read the first tablet’s opening lines:

The one who saw all (Sha nagba imuru) I will declare to the world, The one who knew all I will tell about [line missing] He saw the great Mystery, he knew the Hidden: He recovered the knowledge of all the times before the Flood. He journeyed beyond the distant, he journeyed beyond exhaustion, And then carved his story on stone.

What does it mean, I wondered, to become immortal through words pressed in clay—or, as was the case here, through words formed in bits and transferred over the Web? Is that not what every person longs for—what Odysseus chose over Kalypso’s nameless immortality— to die, but to be known forever? And does not search offer the same immortal imprint: is not existing forever in the indexes of Google and others the modern-day equivalent of carving our stories into stone? For anyone who has ever written his own name into a search box and anxiously awaited the results, I believe the answer is yes.

Something to think about, anyway. Good luck, Mr. Levinson and Mr. Page. I’m cheering you on, even if I can’t quite explain why. Maybe it’s that missing line from Gilgamesh we’re all trying to find….

*Hat tip to one of my editors Bill Brazell, for pinging me as I was writing this about this very news.

The Best Platform for Incubation Is the Web

By - September 10, 2013

egg_20hatch1(image) Yesterday in the course of my seemingly endless attempt to stay current in this industry, I came across this article on VentureBeat: Searching for the next Zuckerberg: A day in the life of a Lightspeed Fellow. It chronicles the experiences of the chosen few who have made it into a VC-backed incubator, focusing on two Stanford students who are trying to create a new sensor for lap swimming.

I recently took up the sport, and find the gadget interesting. But what really struck me was the casual use of Zuckerberg’s name in the headline, and how it was used in context of the ecosystem that has sprung up in the past five or so years around entrepreneurship. Don’t get me wrong, I think incubators and accelerators are important components of our business ecosystem. But I’ve always liked the fact that anyone with a great idea, access to the Internet, and an unrelenting will can spark a world beating company simply by standing up code on the Internet, and/or leveraging the information and relationship network that is the web.  That’s how Facebook started, after all. And Google, and Amazon, Twitter and eBay, and countless others. No gatekeepers, no contests, no hackathons or pre-seed rounds. A great idea, and a great platform: the Web.

I wonder if the next Larry Page or Mark Zuckerberg would ever start at Lightspeed, Y Combinator, or TechStars. Certainly amazing companies and ideas have come from inside those estimable establishments, and more will come in the future. But the peculiar fire which drives folks who are truly “the next Zuckerberg” – I wonder if that fire needs stoking from anything else than the Internet itself. If we institutionalize that fire, I think we lose something. A simple page on the open web, offering a service, waiting to be engaged with, to learn from that engagement, to rapidly iterate and grow, to fall down and fail and try again.

In the past few years, entrepreneurship seems to have become a profession, like acting or sales or architecture. On the one hand, that’s a good thing, it means more companies, more jobs, and more great ideas. On the other, something about it strikes me as a bit …forced. I can’t put my finger on it, quite yet, but it centers around the idea that we’re credentializing innovation.  That feels somehow off. The beauty of the innovation that flows from the open web is that no one has to ask for permission, get a credential, or win a Disrupt or Launch award to go prove their idea is worthy. They just…put up a page on the web, iterate, iterate, iterate…and eventually, a Facebook emerges.

I may be just an old school dude, reacting to how the kids are doing it now. Maybe – but I never saw starting companies as a career path. I saw it as something I just had to do – the only thing I could do. I plan to spend more time at these incubation spaces, to check my gut and see what I might be missing. Consider this some out loud thinking for a late Tuesday night. What do you think?

 

Is US Culture Veering Toward The Dark and Deadpan?

By - August 22, 2013

NSA_Logo_Prism_Floor_640_1_s640x427(image) According to Wikipedia, “deadpan” is a uniquely American neologism less than a century old. The term arose from the slang term “pan,” for face: “Keep a dead pan,” a gangster told an associate in 1934′s The Gay Bride. In other words, don’t show your cards.

“Deadpan humor,” of course, is playing a joke straight, pretending you’re unaware of the punchline. It’s often related to “dark” or “black” humor, which makes light of otherwise serious situations, often with a cynical or satirical tone.

Why am I on about this now? Because I think as a society we’re rapidly shifting into a dark, deadpan culture, driven almost entirely by revelations around the NSA’s PRISM and related programs. We know we can’t pretend we’re not being monitored – so we resort to deadpan humor to handle that new reality.

Over the past few months, on the mailing lists and sites I read, and in the personal conversations I’ve had, the NSA keeps coming up as a deadpan or black humor punchline. On scores of conference calls and Google Hangouts, someone has joked about the government listening in. One time, while discussing a sensitive issue around use of data in our industry, one of my colleagues asked if anyone was taking notes. “Don’t worry, the NSA’s got that covered,” another colleague deadpanned. This kind of humor seems to be spreading all over our culture.

I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Black and deadpan humor is usually a response to an overwhelming sense of powerlessness – it thrives in  authoritarian states or  in places encountering deep turmoil (East Germany, RussiaSyria, Egypt).

I’m not sure we want to join those ranks. Do you see this happening as well?

Liquid Markets Win: On Boats, Planes and Automobiles

By - July 30, 2013

Marthas_1775_Blask-wbOne of the key themes in our upcoming book has to do with the interaction of information and the physical world – in particular, how all things physical become “liquid” when activated by just the right information. But when you’re writing (and thinking out loud) about this topic, it’s easy to fall into an academic cadence, because information theory is a thicket – just try reading “The Information” in one sitting, for example.

So I’ve found it’s best to just tell stories instead (and to be honest, I’d wager that nearly all information theory should be reduced to narrative, because narrative is how we as humans make sense of information, but I digress). Here’s a story that happened just this past weekend.

If you’ve been reading for more than a year, you know that I spend a good part of August working on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. It’s a special place where my great grandmother settled in the 19th century, the kind of place where you visit graveyards with your kids to remind them of their own history, then hit a carousel and ice cream shop in the afternoon.

Anyway, this year my time on the island is unfortunately brief, what with my coming back to FM and various other entanglements. So every day “on island” is a precious one. Last week my son and I went on an East Coast college tour, driving from Washington DC (Georgetown, American) through Pennsylvania (Bucknell, etc) to Boston (Northeastern, BU, etc). After touring MIT on Friday, we decided to come to the Island a day early, on Sat. That way we could open up the rental house, get the car, and prepare for the rest of our family – my wife and two daughters –  who were flying in on Sunday.

On Sunday my son and I were settled into our rental, eagerly awaiting Mom and sisters’ arrival. They landed in Boston just fine, but hit a major hitch with their connection on a tiny airline called Cape Air. Now Cape Air’s largest plane seats about 8 people, as they specialize in one thing – hopping from Boston down to the Islands. Apparently some cross winds and rain fouled up the routes, and long story short, my family’s flight was delayed for two hours, then cancelled altogether (oh, and they lost my wife’s luggage too). By then, it was almost 9pm, and too late to drive the 80 miles down from Boston to the ferry in Falmouth, which is the only other way to get to the island. (The last ferry leaves at 9.45 pm).

We were all distraught – there they were, just 80 miles away, but with no way to get to us. We were going to lose one of our precious days on the island, and it just stunk.

Then a fellow stranded passenger mentioned a possible solution to my wife: There was a service in Falmouth that aggregated private commercial boats for use as water taxis. Maybe they’d be able to help?

My wife mentioned this to me, and sure enough, a quick Google search found them. At 8.30 pm I called the service and “Captain Jim” hooked me up with another lobster boat captain ready to take my family across the sound, even late at night. Awesome!

But we still needed to get the girls that 80 miles down to Falmouth, and it was past “business hours.” I’ve used a lot of car services in my business life, and I know that they are not exactly very flexible – you have to make a reservation well in advance, and they cost a lot of money for long drives. I wasn’t expecting much, but I started calling as many as I could find, asking if they had any cars near Boston’s Logan airport *right now*.

The car services I called acted exactly as one might expect. Two put me on interminable hold while the “checked to see if they had a car near the airport.” A third flat out refused to try. A fourth asked me to put the girls into a taxi and send them back into downtown Boston, where they might have a car. And so on.

That’s when I tweeted this out:

 

And this is when the story starts to get interesting, in terms of liquid, information-driven markets interacting with the physical world. It turns out, Uber *does* have the ability for someone to drop a pin remotely, I just didn’t know it – I didn’t have *the information* I needed. Twitter solved that in an instant, as one of my followers quickly clued me in about how to do it. In two minutes I was called by an Uber driver at the airport, who was ready to whisk my family down to the waiting lobster boat. An hour and a half later, I picked them up on a private dock near the house. What the private boat service and Uber did was take inactive, physical objects, in this case a Lincoln towncar and a fishing boat, and turn them into kinetic, liquid, real-time addressable assets. And the main reason this was possible? Information cycling through a digital foundation of cell phone towers, Google, and apps like Uber.

What’s even more interesting about this story are the economics: The cost to fly three people via Cape Air to the Island was nearly 25% *more* than taking Uber and the chartered water taxi. Add to this the fact that the Uber driver was far more friendly and eager to please than your typical car service guy, and the water taxi was both fun and nearly twice as fast as the ferry.

In short, having the a liquid, information-driven market of cars and boats created a cheaper, faster, and way more enjoyable experience for my family. That’s a great thing, to my mind, and it makes me optimistic about the coming liquid economy. But if I operated Cape Air or Carey Limousine, I’d be more than nervous right about now….