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As Long As It’s Legal, Corporations Will Act Selfishly

By - December 11, 2012

(image) There’s a hubbub in the press this week about Google employing a “Double Irish – Dutch Sandwich” tactic to funnel profits from Europe over to Bermuda, where there is no corporate income tax. Reuters reports that the company saved around $2 billion in taxes by employing the structure, which, as far as I can tell, is perfectly legal.

Of course, there’s a difference between that which is perfectly legal and that which seems, well, unseemly. Creating multiple shell companies across four nation states so as to avoid paying taxes may make shareholders happy, but it sure has pissed off a bunch of (revenue starved) countries in the EU. The article mentions the UK, France, and Italy as all investigating Google (and Facebook, among others) for potential abuse of the tax code.

To which I must say this: What else did you expect?!

Corporations will act exactly in their own best interest, period end of sentance. When it comes to saving billions of dollars, corporations won’t “do the right thing” or “step up and pay their fair share” – certainly not if there is *any* legal possibility that they can get away with avoiding doing so.

I very much doubt anything is going to change here, for any number of complicated reasons. The Irish have their own competitive reasons for ignoring US IP transfer law, the Dutch have similar reasons for allowing their corporate structures to exist. And Bermuda? Please. Google (and many other companies like it) is simply acting like a corporation – which at times feels like an excuse for a bunch of humans to act in very un-human like ways. Behold what we have created, and wonder.

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Another Thoughtful Personal Essay: Fragile

By - December 06, 2012

You know that phenomenon that happens – right after you first notice a pattern, you then start seeing it everywhere? Well, here’s another wonderful personal essay, again by a young(er) author (Nathan Kontny) involved in the tech world, this time about losing a friend with whom he worked. Also part of the pattern: It’s on the SVBTLE platform, which is clearly finding great new voices.

The piece is called “Fragile” and it connects our often-unconsidered compulsion with taking care of our expensive devices to the fact that perhaps we are not taking the same care of ourselves or our relationships to others. Wonderful stuff. From it:

But what’s crazy is, as I look at all this care and attention I spend on this phone, I can’t help find myself now asking:

Do I spend this kind of time and attention caring for myself or the people in my life that I obviously love infinitely more than this electronic device?

Am I taking enough care of my body?

Am I taking care of my knees? As my mother in law with two recent knee transplants would attest, those are some pretty valuable tools to walking that can grossly deteriorate later in life, but I take for granted today.

Am I taking care of my brain? Am I sleeping enough? Am I drinking alcohol too often?

Am I taking care of my heart? Am I eating well? Am I working out enough?

Am I working on things a future me will be proud of or am I wasting time and missing opportunities I’ll regret because I spent too much time waiting for something.

One might argue that the author is going through what many of us do as we hit our thirties – we realize we’re not immortal, we reconsider how we live our lives, we rethink our priorities. Yes, we do. It’s nice to be reminded of that, and to know it’s happening and appreciated in the culture of our industry, as well.

Locked and Bloated

By - December 05, 2012

(image Vator News) Companies get big. Companies gain market dominance. Companies slowly pivot from their original values. Companies justify those shifts with nods to shareholder value, or consistent user experience, or inconsistent implementations of their platforms by (former) partners.

It happened to Sun. To Microsoft. To Apple. To Google. It happened in the entertainment business, it’s happening in agriculture, for goodness sake.  Now it’s happening to Facebook and Twitter. (The latest example: Instagram CEO feels Twitter card removal is the correct thing…).

I don’t have any problem with any of that, it is to be expected. The services all these companies provide are great. They’re simply wonderful. And as they get big, they get public, protective, and defensive.

I just wish these companies all had one thing consistently in common: That they let us get our data, our content, and ourselves out of their platforms if we wanted to, in a painless, one click fashion.

Imagine a world where that was possible.

A long, long time ago, at least in Internet years, I wrote a piece called It’s Time For Services on The Web to Compete On More Than Data. This was almost five years ago – January of 2008. I was contemplating the rise of Facebook and the social graph, and Google’s nascent response. In the post I argued that Facebook should let us all take our social graph wherever we want, because the company will win not on locking us in, but in servicing us better than anyone else.

Oh, how utopian that all sounds.

Now, pretty much every major Internet player is scrambling to lock us into a cloud commit conundrum. Even Twitter, in certain ways – it wants content viewed on its platform, not others’.

Again, imagine a world where coming and going as a consumer was a given, a right. Imagine that when I left Apple’s iPhone for Google’s Nexus 4, all my iTunes purchases followed me (and yes, I mean apps too). Is that too much to ask for? Really? Then you must not be an entrepreneur, because this kind of lock-in is ripe for disruption.

Five years ago, I predicted that Facebook would fail if it insisted on locking our social graph into its service:

With one move, Facebook can change the face (sorry) of this debate by making it falling-down easy to export your social graph. And I predict that it will.

Why? Because I think in the end, Facebook will win based on the services it provides for that data. Set the data free, and it will come back to roost wherever it’s best used. And if Facebook doesn’t win that race, well, it’ll lose over time anyway.

Time is ticking. It won’t be this year, it won’t be next. But the day will come when differentiation is based on service, not data lock in.

Writing Every So Often: The Personal Essay Makes A Comeback

By - December 04, 2012

Browsing Hacker News, which I’ll admit I don’t read very closely (because, well, I’m not a hacker), I saw an interesting headline: I quit Twitter for a month and it changed my thinking about mostly everything. Well, that’s going to get my attention.

I clicked through and noted the author’s name: Adam Brault. I don’t know Adam Brault (at least, not well enough to recall reading him before), but with a headline like that, I sure wanted to read the piece. It’s quite a thoughtful rumination on his snap decision to stop using Twitter for the month of November.

Some of what Brault said didn’t resonate with me, not because I disagreed, but because it’s clear he uses Twitter in a very different manner than do I. He follows people closely and feels a connection to them that I rather envy. I follow more than 1200 people, and I’ve become a bit inured to the resulting torrent.

For me, Twitter provides a first level filter, and I then use various second-order services to tame my feed. Those filters (news.me, Percolate, Flipboard, even TechMeme) depersonalize my consumption habits. No one human voice regularly makes it into my second-order filters (but a lot of publishing brands do). In short, I don’t have much personal social capital invested in Twitter, even though it’s a very important part of my life.

Brault, on the other hand, noticed that he had perhaps too much personal investment in the people he followed in Twitter. From his essay:

I had one moment of weakness last month, when I logged into my other, private Twitter account, just to check in on what the 20 people I follow on that account had been up to recently. Within minutes I felt depressed, as I learned there was a conference canceled because people attacked it as a sexist speaker lineup and the organizers just folded rather than wade through the deluge of attacks or try to fix things… I just felt horrible for those organizers… and there was nothing I could actually do other than feel bad. It served no one any benefit and it just derailed my evening….

…I’ve realized, Twitter is outsourced schizophrenia. I have a couple hundred voices I have consensually agreed to allow residence inside my brain.

Reading that passage, I felt something – I empathized with Brault. I remember what it felt like to be connected like that. And I realized I have never been connected in that way through my “new” social media. Facebook has always been a wipeout for me, LinkedIn a utility. The only “social media” I’ve ever deeply cared about are personal blogs – which for most folks younger than 30, are usually understood to be artifacts of a pre-Facebook, pre-Tumblr, pre-Twitter era.

Writing out loud on a regular basis is not for everyone. It takes a fair bit of focus and commitment to maintain a site where you write essays for public consumption. Brault mentions that it took him at least three hours to finish his post. In the early days, tons of folks took to the blogging medium, but over time, many burned out. But I sense people are coming back to this form, because it’s a pleasure to write out loud  every so often. It needn’t be a chore, in fact, it should be joyful. I’m guessing Brault – a software and web developer by trade – has taken true pleasure in the social expression his essay has allowed.

Call it a hunch, but I think a new generation of creators are realizing that if something is really important to them, then it’s worth taking the time to write a longform essay – one that best resides on a site that is theirs.

In the blog-only era of the early 2000s, folks like me had our personal site, and we also watched a set of sites that we truly followed. RSS was our Twitter, and we carefully pruned a list of other folks who we’d check each day. I let about 40 or so “voices into my brain” each day, and those voices mattered to me, a lot. Most of us even created “blogrolls” – links to folks we felt were worthy of attention (really – remember those?!). And when someone wrote something noteworthy, others in the network might write a response, always with a link back.

This pattern still happens, of course – that’s what I’m doing now. But it happens far less regularly, and without the clear social network that used to define communities of blogs. Those early communities have been eclipsed by professionalization (I remember following what Mike Arrington wrote each day, before it turned into TechCrunch The Site, for example), but also by burnout and by the easy dopamine hits of Facebook and Twitter. Add to this the lightweight reblogging ethos of Tumblr, and the recent rise of bespoke platforms like Medium or SVBTLE, and we no longer have robust communities of individuals calling and responding in bursts of essays, each emanating from a unique, independent place on the web. I think the world’s a bit poorer for that loss, even as it has become a far richer place overall.

Reading Adam’s essay, I mourned a little for the way it used to be. I’m keenly aware that I’m sounding like a nostalgic, but I take heart in this rising class of “every so often publishing.” If only there were a better way of surfacing all this good stuff….hmm.

Meanwhile, Brault’s essay had another wonderful insight worth repeating:

It’s pretty simple: if I have my email turned off and I set aside a day with no meetings and no commitments other than to the work that’s on my mind, I am going to do very good work, using my best creativity, and will produce in good volumes.

In a day with even one simple standup meeting, I feel like the entire day’s focus has a layer of thought dedicated to that meeting—light stress and perhaps some preparation fills up more than the specific calendared time slot….

…I used to believe that time was the most important thing I have, but I’ve come to believe differently. The single most valuable resource I have is uninterrupted thought.

That’s how everything I’ve ever felt was meaningful about my entire life came to be—either people I’ve come to know, things I’ve learned, or stuff I’ve created.

I feel exactly the same way. If I have just one call on a day I’ve cleared for writing, the day feels tainted. It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

Circling back to the point of this post, I believe that the personal-site-based essay is making a comeback. I’m finding all manner of great pieces of writing lately, stuff that’s just too good to simply retweet and forget. Like this from Vibhu Norby (I promise to write a response soon, it’s an important topic). It was on a personal site that I rediscovered Craig Mod. When I did, I added his feed to my creaky old RSS reader. I just did the same for Norby. That made me think of Matt Haughey, one of the more wonderful early bloggers. Turns out, he still writes every week or two on his site. But, far as I can tell, Matt’s site has no RSS feed. Adam Brault is on Tumblr, so no RSS there either, at least that I can find. I’ll do my best to visit from time to time, but man, I’d sure rather have all his stuff pushed my way.

Of course, the debate about whether or not blogging and RSS is a dead medium has been raging for years. Clearly, RSS is no longer a universal standard. Regardless, I find it comforting that when someone with a truly unique point of view has something important to say, they often return to their own site to say it there. I hope they all keep writing. I’ll be listening.

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.

In a Nutshell, The Android Problem: Totally Forked

By - November 20, 2012

(image) I’m a fan of “open.” Anyone who knows me, knows this about me.

But I’m also a fan of “easy.” And of “good design.” So, for the past couple of years, I’ve been an iPhone user, mainly because it was easy, and had better design than any alternative. Also, my company supported the iPhone, even though it was terrible for calendar, contacts, email, you know, pretty much everything that mattered to me.

But because I’m no longer day to day at my company, I’ve been eager to move away from the iPhone, for many reasons, including the extraordinarily awful experience I recently had, chronicled here.  And I really like the philosophy of Android. It’s open, it’s hackable, it’s generative in all the right ways.

However, it’s also a utterly confusing mess. Alas, this seems to be the price of “open” – chaos.

There are something like 800 versions of Android, a developer who I was interviewing for my book told me today. EIGHT HUNDRED! And every one of them might change at any time. There’s versions modified by all the carriers around the world (stuffed with crapware, bloatware, portalware). Versions modified by all the handset makers – one for each phone, sometimes (same crap). Versions for televisions (I hear the new Samsung TVs are utterly borked with unchangeable bullsh*t). Versions that are specific to Google’s “own” products. And versions that have been so forked as to be spoons, like what Amazon’s done with Kindle.

This is not a new complaint. To those of you out there who are sophisticated, it’s terribly naive. You’ve spent your 72 hours deciding which one to buy, setting it up, working out the kinks, and now it works great for you (or maybe your IT department did that work for you). Congratulations. I wish I had the time. But if that’s what it takes to make a damn smart phone “smart”, I want something better.

I’m not afraid to admit it: I want an Android phone, I’m willing to spend lavishly to get the best one, but after hours of research, I’m utterly f*cking confused about which product to buy. One thing I do know – once I buy it, I don’t want to spend three days figuring out how to make it work.

Is anyone else having this issue? Any suggestions?

Meanwhile, I recall that one of my predictions for last year was this: “Google will focus on providing a clear, consistent experience through Android for tablets and mobile, but it will take a third party to unify the experience. I don’t see that happening this year.”

Yeah, it didn’t happen in 2011. And it’s not happening this year, though I can *feel* the pain at Google HQ as the folks there watch Android splinter into a million hamfisted pieces of forkin’ crap. Is this why they bought Motorola? One wonders.

Can Google put all the pieces together again? I certainly hope so. But there has to be a better way. Do you remember the Blackberry? Remember how magical that was? God, I sound old. And yes, I hear the Windows phone is really cool. But I’ve only heard that once.

Meanwhile, which phone should I buy? I mean, really, which one? HTC? Nexus 4? Galaxy S3?  Motorola Razr (holy shit, really!???!) Help!

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.

At Google Zeitgeist: Theoretical Physics and Astronauts, Unite!

By -

Earlier in the week I traveled to the annual Google Zeitgest conference, where I’ve been honored to be a moderator for the past few years. This year I was given the challenge of tacking a 90-minute block on “The World We Dream,” which featured an extraordinary set of speakers. The session included a short interview with two impressive folks: Ron Garan, a NASA astronaut who has spent 180 days in space, and Lisa Randall, a celebrated theoretical physicist and author. I’ve never spent as much time prepping for a 20-minute interview as I did for this – in part because the Higgs Boson is not that easy for the laymen to grok, nor is the concept of floating around in space. If you are so inclined, enjoy:

 

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.