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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.

 

 

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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….

 

An Afternoon at the Media Lab: Where The Lines Between Physical and Digital Are Permeable

By - July 29, 2013

IcanHasHOloYesterday I took my son to the MIT Media Lab, hallowed ground for me, as reading Stewart Brand’s 1988 “The Media Lab” propelled me toward helping to create Wired magazine, where I edited the founding Director of the Lab, Nicholas Negroponte, for five years (he wrote the back column of the magazine).

For this visit, I met up with David Kong, one of the lab’s alumni wizards, who took us on a whirlwind tour of the place (David’s work on microfluidics is, I believe, some of the most important stuff being done today, but more on that in another post). I spent a day there last summer with Director Joi Ito, and it’s amazing to see how much progress can be made in a year.

Instead of describing everything, I think I’ll let video do the work – one of the Lab’s core values is to always be demo’ing, and my son and I saw half a dozen incredible projects, all demo’d by the people who created them.

First up was the Opera of the Future group, which evolved out of the HyperInstruments lab. Akito Van Troyer gave us a tour of the components used in the recently staged “Death and the Powers” piece, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer in music.  Here’s some video of that performance:

Akito also turned us onto a very cool beat machine he built as a side project, a hack based on actuators and tempo that turns anything into a percussion instrument. Here’s a video of that I found on YouTube:

After that we went to see Xiao Xiao, who works in the Lab’s Tangible Media group (this is the part of the Lab most directly connected to the themes of the upcoming book). She showed us the MirrorFugue, which is just amazing, in particular, to sit down at the keyboard as it’s playing. It’s magical, which is pretty much the goal of the entire Lab. Here’s a video of that:

MirrorFugue III from Xiao Xiao on Vimeo.

You can probably sense a theme by now – all this work is about blurring the lines between physical and digital, atoms and bits. An extraordinary world is soon to be settled by pioneers in this space, and we’re all of us fascinated by it – it’s why we love the idea (if not necessarily the look) of Google Glass, or 3D printing (I met the co-founder of FormLabs while at the Lab), or cool gadgets like the NFC ring.

The Media Lab is a place where folks are actively creating the future. Over and over, I heard this refrain: “I took some off the shelf parts, hacked them together, and wrote some code.” Simple, right?

One example: Makey Makey, which went viral earlier this year with the “banana piano.” The idea is bigger than turning fruit into keyboards, however. It’s about making nearly anything physical a portal into the digital world, and bringing the digital right back into the physical. I met with Eric Rosenbaum, one of the creators, in his lab, which is called “Lifelong Kindergarten” (yeah, I know.) Here’s a short video about Makey Makey:

As the border between physical and digital gets more permeable, a new kind of literacy emerges. And that literacy is built on a foundation of code – whether it’s the codes of letters and words, or the code of bits and algorithms. Rosenbaum showed me Scratch, a graphical programming language used by hundreds of thousands of kids across the world. I’m determined to learn how to code, at least enough to be dangerous (I took classes in Pascal about 30 years ago…). Maybe Scratch is where I’ll start.

Next up I met Dan Novy, from the Lab’s Object-Based Media Group. He showed us a number of great projects he’s working on, including holo-presence (with a sense of humor, see photo at top) and new forms of augmented experience. Check out this video about redefining the home entertainment experience:

Dan also took us into a small room with a voice aware projection device in the center. Using his voice, Dan told a children’s story, and the four walls of the room lit up with visual images related to the storybook. It’s early days, but we discussed what might happen when this device is miniaturized and connected to consumer “narrative catchers” like Facebook, Path, Google Glass, and the like. Also next to the projector was an object – what it is, it doesn’t matter, but for this example it was a bottle of perfume – and when you pick up that object, “memories” related to that object are projected onto the walls. So imagine what might happen when you pick up that ornament from Christmas three years ago and hang it on the tree, and images from that Christmas past flash onto your home’s walls….

The last demo we saw was perhaps the most well known of Dan’s group’s work. In essence, they turned a basketball net into a data collection device, so as to measure the force of a slam dunk. The technology is amazing, watch Dan talk about it here:

The Media Lab is truly an extraordinary place, and seeing it with my son made it even more magical. I’ve toured it a few times now, but I’ll never tire of coming back. The work happening there is helping to define the world all our kids will be living in soon.

The PRISMner’s Dilemma

By - July 16, 2013

prismSometimes when you aren’t sure what you have to say about something, you should just start talking about it. That’s how I feel about the evolving PRISM story – it’s so damn big, I don’t feel like I’ve quite gotten my head around it. Then again, I realize I’ve been thinking about this stuff for more than two decades – I assigned and edited a story about massive government data overreach in the first issue of Wired, for God’s sake, and we’re having our 20th anniversary party this Saturday. Shit howdy, back then I felt like I was pissing into the wind –  was I just a 27-year-old conspiracy theorist?

Um, no. We were just a bit ahead of ourselves at Wired back in the day.  Now, it feels like we’re in the middle of a hurricane. Just today I spoke to a senior executive at a Very Large Internet Company who complained about spending way too much time dealing with PRISM. Microsoft just posted a missive which said, in essence, “We think this sucks and we sure wish the US government would get its shit together.” I can only imagine the war rooms at Facebook, Amazon, Google, Twitter, and other major Internet companies – PRISM is putting them directly at odds with the very currency of their business: Consumer trust.

And I’m fucking thrilled about this all. Because finally, the core issue of data rights is coming to the fore of societal conversation. Here’s what I wrote about the issue back in 2005, in The Search:

The fact is, massive storehouses of personally identifiable information now exist. But our culture has yet to truly grasp the implications of all that information, much less protect itself from potential misuse….

Do you trust the companies you interact with to never read your mail, or never to examine your clickstream without your permission? More to the point, do you trust them to never turn that information over to someone else who might want it—for example, the government? If your answer is yes (and certainly, given the trade-offs of not using the service at all, it’s a reasonable answer), you owe it to yourself to at least read up on the USA PATRIOT Act, a federal law enacted in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy.

I then go into the details of PATRIOT, which has only strengthened since 2005, and conclude:

One might argue that while the PATRIOT Act is scary, in times of war citizens must always be willing to balance civil liberties with national security. Most of us might be willing to agree to such a framework in a presearch world, but the implications of such broad government authority are chilling given the world in which we now live—a world where our every digital track, once lost in the blowing dust of a presearch world, can now be tagged, recorded, and held in the amber of a perpetual index.

So here we are, having the conversation at long last. I plan to start posting about it more, in particular now that my co-author Sara M. Watson is about to graduate from Oxford and join the Berkman Center at Harvard (damn, I keep good company.).

I’ve got so many posts brewing in me about all of this. But I wanted to end this one with another longish excerpt from my last book, one I think encapsulates the issues major Internet platforms are facing now that programs like PRISM have become the focal point of a contentious global conversation.

In early 2005, I sat down with Sergey Brin and asked what he thinks of the PATRIOT Act, and whether Google has a stance on its implications. His response: “I have not read the PATRIOT Act.” I explain the various issues at hand, and Brin listens carefully. “I think some of these concerns are overstated,” he begins. “There has never been an incident that I am aware of where any search company, or Google for that matter, has somehow divulged information about a searcher.” I remind him that had there been such a case, he would be legally required to answer in just this way. That stops him for a moment, as he realizes that his very answer, which I believe was in earnest, could be taken as evasive. If Google had indeed been required to give information over to the government, certainly he would not be able to tell either the suspect or an inquiring journalist. He then continues. “At the very least, [the government] ought to give you a sense of the nature of the request,” he said. “But I don’t view this as a realistic issue, personally. If it became a problem, we could change our policy on it.”

It’s Officially Now A Problem, Sergey. But it turns out, it’s not so easy to just change policy.

I can’t wait to watch this unfold. It’s about time we leaned in, so to speak.

Fred Wilson and I In 18 Minutes

By - July 13, 2013

I had a chance to be interviewed with Fred Wilson by Dave Morgan of Simulmedia (and Tacoda and and and…). The video is fun and ranges around from OpenCo to the future of the Web, so I thought I’d share it here:


A Social, Elastic Model for Paid Content

By - July 10, 2013

esquirepieceI was interested to read today that Esquire is currently experimenting with a per-article paywall. For $1.99, you can read a  10,000-word piece about a neurosurgeon who claims to have visited heaven. Esquire’s EIC on the experiment: “…great journalism—and the months that go into creating it—isn’t free. So, besides providing the story to readers of our print and digital-tablet versions of the August issue, we are offering it to online readers as a stand-alone purchase.”

I predicted that payment systems and paid services/content were going to take off this year (see here), but this isn’t what I had in mind. But it did get me thinking. What if you added social and elastic elements to the price? For example, the article would initially cost, say, $1.99, but if enough people decided to buy it, the price goes down for everyone. The more people who buy, the cheaper the price gets. It’d never go to zero, of course, but there’d be some kind of a demand/price curve that satisfies the two most important things publishers care about: readership (the more, the better) and revenue (ideally, enough to cover the costs of creation and make a fair profit).

The tools to do this already exist. There are plenty of sites that crowdsource demand to create pricing leverage, and sites like Kickstarter have gotten all of us used to the idea of hitting funding goals. And the social sharing behaviors already exist as well: Nearly all content has social sharing widgets attached these days. Why not combine the two? Those who initially paid the highest price – $1.99 say – would be motivated to share a summary of the article with friends and encourage them to buy it as well. They are economically incented to do so – the more friends who buy, the greater the chance that their initial $1.99 charge will decrease. And they’re socially incented to do so – perhaps they could get credit for being one of the early advocates or tastemakers who recognized and surfaced a great piece of content before anyone else did.

Let’s break down the economics to see how it might work. A really great piece of long form journalism in a magazine like Esquire pays around $15,000 (sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on the author, subject, length, and title). But for this model, let’s say the payment to the journalist is $15K. Then you need to factor in the cost of the editor, copy editor, production, sales and design, as well as general overhead of the publication per piece. Let’s call that another $5K per piece (I’m spitballing here but probably not too far off). So for this article to make a profit, it needs to make $20,000 – or sell roughly 10,000 copies. Of course, the article is also monetized through the regular magazine and tablet editions, so the real number it has to hit is probably far less – let’s cut it in half and say it’s $10,000. Now to clear a profit, the article really just needs to sell 5,000 copies at $1.99.

Let’s not forget that Esquire also shows advertising against its articles. If it maintains a healthy $25 CPM, and shows two “spread”  (two-page) ads between those 10,000 words, that’s roughly  $100 per 1000 readers that Esquire can make. If it indeed does sell 5,000 copies of that article, that’s $500 of advertising revenue earned. And if it gets more readers, it can earn more advertising revenue – and decrease the paid content price in some correlated fashion. (No matter what, Esquire wants more readers – both to increase its advertising revenue, but also to accomplish its journalistic mission – all authors want more readers).

Perhaps a model could work like this: The piece costs $1.99 for the first 5,000 articles sold, garnering $10,000 in revenue (Ok, $9,500 for you sticklers). Once that threshold hits, the price adjusts dynamically to maintain at least $10,000 in overall revenue, but adjusting downward against the paying population as more and more readers commit (which also earns Esquire additional advertising revenue). A “clearing price” is set, perhaps at 50 cents, after which all profits go to Esquire. In this case, the clearing price kicks in at 20,000 copies sold – everyone would pay .50 at that point, and it’s a win win win for all.

Just spitballing, as I said, but I think it’s a pretty cool idea. What do you think?