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The Audacity of Diaspora

By - May 13, 2012

Last Friday Businessweek ran a story on Diaspora, a social platform built from what might be called Facebook anti-matter. It’s a great read that chronicles the project’s extraordinary highs and lows, from Pebble-like Kickstarter success to the loss of a founder to suicide. Given the overwhelming hype around Facebook’s IPO this week, it’s worth remembering such a thing exists – and even though it’s in private beta, Diaspora is one of the largest open source projects going right now, and boasts around 600,000 beta testers.

I’ve watched Diaspora from the sidelines, but anyone who reads this site regularly will know that I’m rooting for it. I was surprised – and pleased – to find out that Diaspora is executing something of a “pivot” – retaining its core philosophy of being a federated platform where “you own your own data” while at the same time adding new Tumblr and Pinterest-like content management features, as well as integration with – gasp! – Facebook.  And this summer, the core team behind the service is joining Y Combinator in the Valley – a move that is sure to accelerate its service from private beta to public platform.

I like Diaspora because it’s audacious, it’s driven by passion, and it’s very, very hard to do. After all, who in their right mind would set as a goal taking on Facebook? That’s sort of like deciding to build a better search engine – very expensive, with a high likelihood of failure. But what’s really audacious is the vision that drives Diaspora – that everyone owns their own data, and everyone has the right to do with it what they want. The vision is supported by a federated technology platform – and once you federate, you lose central control as a business. Then, business models get very, very hard. So you’re not only competing against Facebook, you’re also competing against the reality of the marketplace – centralized domains are winning right now (as I pointed out here).

It seems what Diaspora is attempting to do is take the functionality and delight of the dependent web, and mix it with the freedom and choice offered by the independent web. Of course, that sounds pretty darm good to me.

Given the timing of Facebook’s public debut, the move to Y Combinator, and perhaps just my own gut feel, I think Diaspora is one to watch in coming months. As of two days ago, the site is taking registrations for its public debut. Sign up here.

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Larry Lessig on Facebook, Apple, and the Future of “Code”

By - May 09, 2012

Larry Lessig is an accomplished author, lawyer, and professor, and until recently, was one of the leading active public intellectuals in the Internet space. But as I wrote in my review of his last book (Is Our Republic Lost?), in the past few years Lessig has changed his focus from Internet law to reforming our federal government.

But that doesn’t mean Lessig has stopped thinking about our industry, as the dialog below will attest. Our conversation came about last month after I finished reading Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2. The original book, written in 1999, is still considered an authoritative text on how the code of computing platforms interacts with our legal and social codes. In 2006, Lessig “crowdsourced” an update to his book, and released it as “Version 2.0.” I’d never read the updated work (and honestly didn’t remember the details of the first book), so finally, six years later, I dove in again.

It’s a worthy dive, but not an easy one. Lessig is a lawyer by nature, and his argument is laid out like proofs in a case. Narrative is sparse, and structure sometimes trumps writing style. But his essential point – that the Internet is not some open “wild west” destined to always be free of regulation, is soundly made. In fact, Lessig argues, the Internet is quite possibly the most regulable technology ever invented, and if we don’t realize that fact, and protect ourselves from it, we’re in for some serious pain down the road. And for Lessig, the government isn’t the only potential regulator. Instead, Lessig argues, commercial interests may become the most pervasive regulators on the Internet.

Indeed, during the seven years between Code’s first version and its second, much had occurred to prove Lessig’s point. But even as Lessig was putting the finishing touches on the second version of his manuscript, a new force was erupting from the open web: Facebook. And a year after that, the iPhone redefined the Internet once again.

In Code, Lessig enumerates several examples of how online services create explicit codes of control – including the early AOL, Second Life, and many others. He takes the reader though important lessons in understanding regulation as more than just governmental – explaining normative (social), market (commercial), and code-based (technological) regulation. He warns that once we commit our lives to commercial services that hold our identity, a major breach of security will most likely force the government into enacting overzealous and anti-constitutional measures (think 9/11 and the Patriot Act). He makes a case for the proactive creation of an intelligent identity layer for the Internet, one that might offer just the right amount of information for the task at hand. In 2006, such an identity layer was a controversial idea – no one wanted the government, for example, to control identity on the web.

But for reasons we’re still parsing as a culture, in the six years since the publication of Code v2, nearly 1 billion of us have become comfortable with Facebook as our defacto identity, and hundreds of millions of us have become inhabitants of Apple’s iOS.

Instead of going into more detail on the book (as I have in many other reviews), I thought I’d reach out to Lessig and ask him about this turn of events. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our dialog. I think you’ll find it provocative.

As to the book: If you consider yourself active in the core issues of the Internet industry, do yourself a favor and read it. It’s worth your time.

Q: After reading your updated Code v2, which among many other things discusses how easily the Internet might become far more regulated than it once was, I found myself scribbling one word in the margins over and over again. That word was “Facebook.”

You and your community updated your 1999 classic in 2006, a year or two before Facebook broke out, and several years before it became the force it is now. In Code you cover the regulatory architectures of places where people gather online, including MUDS, AOL, and the then-hot darling known as Second Life. But the word Facebook isn’t in the text.

What do you make of Facebook, given the framework of Code v2?

Lessig: If I were writing Code v3, there’d be a chapter — right after I explained the way (1) code regulates, and (2) commerce will use code to regulate — titled: “See, e.g., Facebook.” For it strikes me that no phenomena since 2006 better demonstrates precisely the dynamic I was trying to describe. The platform is dominant, and built into the platform are a million ways in which behavior is regulated. And among those million ways are 10 million instances of code being use to give to Facebook a kind of value that without code couldn’t be realized. Hundreds of millions from across the world live “in” Facebook. It more directly (regulating behavior) than any government structures and regulates their lives while there. There are of course limits to what Facebook can do. But the limits depend upon what users see. And Facebook has not yet committed itself to the kind of transparency that should give people confidence. Nor has it tied itself to the earlier and enabling values of the internet, whether open source or free culture.

Q: Jonathan Zittrain wrote his book two years after Code v2, and warned of non-generative systems that might destroy the original values of the Internet. Since then, Apple iOS (the “iWorld”) and Facebook have blossomed, and show no signs of slowing down. Do you believe we’re in a pendulum swing, or are you more pessimistic – that consumers are voting with their dollars, devices, and data for a more closed ecosystem?

Lessig: The trend JZ identified is profound and accelerating, and most of us who celebrate the “free and open” net are simply in denial. Facebook now lives oblivious to the values of open source software, or free culture. Apple has fully normalized the iNannyState. And unless Google’s Android demonstrates how open can coexist with secure, I fear the push away from our past will only continue. And then when our i9/11 event happens — meaning simply a significant and destructive cyber event, not necessarily tied to any particular terrorist group — the political will to return to control will be almost irresistible.

The tragedy in all this is that it doesn’t have to be this way. If we could push to a better identity layer in the net, we could get both better privacy and better security. But neither side in this extremist’s battle is willing to take the first step towards this obvious solution. And so in the end I fear the extremists I like least will win.

Q: You seem profoundly disappointed in our industry. What can folks who want to make a change do?

Lessig: Not at all. The industry is doing what industry does best — doing well, given the rules as they are. What industry is never good at (and is sometimes quite evil at) is identifying the best mix of rules. Government is supposed to do something with that. Our problem is that we have today such a fundamentally dysfunctional government that we don’t even recognize the idea that it might have a useful role here. So we get stuck in these policy-dead-ends, with enormous gains to both sides left on the table.

And that’s only to speak about the hard problems — which security in the Net is. Much worse (and more frustrating) are the easy problems which the government also can’t solve, not because the answer isn’t clear (again, these are the easy problems) but because the incumbents are so effective at blocking the answer that makes more sense so as to preserve the answer that makes them more dollars. Think about the “copyright wars” — practically every sane soul is now focused on a resolution of that war that is almost precisely what the disinterested souls were arguing a dozen years ago (editor’s note: abolishing DRM). Yet the short-termism of the industry wouldn’t allow those answers a dozen years ago, so we have had an completely useless war which has benefited no one (save the lawyers-as-soldiers in that war). We’ve lost a decade of competitive innovation in ways to spur and spread content in ways that would ultimately benefit creators, because the dinosaurs owned the lobbyists.

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I could have gone on for some time with Lessig, but I wanted to stop there, and invite your questions in the comments section. Lessig is pretty busy with his current work, which focuses on those lobbyists and the culture of money in Congress, but if he can find the time, he’ll respond to your questions in the comments below, or to me in email, and I’ll update the post.

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Other works I’ve reviewed: 

You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier (review)

Wikileaks And the Age of Transparency  by Micah Sifry (review)

Republic Lost by Larry Lessig (review)

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

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

The Corporation (film – my review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (my review)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jaron Lanier: Something Doesn’t Smell Right

By - May 08, 2012

Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget has been on my reading list for nearly two years, and if nothing else comes of this damn book I’m trying to write, it’ll be satisfying to say that I’ve made my way through any number of important works that for one reason or another, I failed to read up till now.

I met Jaron in the Wired days (that’d be 20 years ago) but I don’t know him well – as with Sherry Turkle and many others, I encountered him through my role as an editor, then followed his career with interest as he veered from fame as a virtual reality pioneer into his current role as chief critic of all things “Web 2.0.” Given my role in that “movement” – I co-founded the Web 2 conferences with Tim O’Reilly in 2004 – it’d be safe to assume that I disagree with most of what Lanier has to say.

I don’t. Not entirely, anyway. In fact, I came away, as I did with Turkle’s work, feeling a strange kinship with Lanier. But more on that in a moment.

In essence, You Are Not A Gadget is a series of arguments, some concise, others a bit shapeless, centering on one theme: Individual human beings are special, and always will be, and digital technology is not a replacement for our humanity. In particular, Lanier is deeply skeptical of any kind of machine-based mechanism that might be seen as replacing or diminishing our specialness, which over the past decade, Lanier sees happening everywhere.

Lanier is most eloquent when he describes, late in the book, what he believes humans to be: the result of a very long, very complicated interaction with reality (sure, irony alert given Lanier’s VR fame, but it makes sense when you read the book):

I believe humans are the result of billions of years of implicit, evolutionary study in the school of hard knocks. The cybernetic structure of a person has been refined by a very large, very long, and very deep encounter with physical reality.

Lanier worries we’re losing that sense of reality. From crowdsourcing and Wikipedia to the Singularity movement, he argues that we’re starting to embrace a technological philosophy that can only lead to loss. Early in the book, he writes:

“…certain specific, popular internet designs of the moment…tend to pull us into life patterns that gradually degrade the ways in which each of us exists as an individual. These unfortunate designs are more oriented toward treating people as relays in a global brain….(this) leads to all sorts of maladies….”

Lanier goes on to specific examples, including the online tracking associated with advertising, the concentration of power in the hands of the “lords of the clouds” such as Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and even Goldman Sachs, the loss of analog musical notation, the rise of locked in, fragile, and impossibly complicated software programs; and ultimately, the demise of the middle class. It’s a potentially powerful argument, and one I wish Lanier had made more completely. Instead, after reading his book, I feel forewarned, but not quite forearmed.

Lanier singles out many of our shared colleagues – the leaders of the Web 2.0 movement – as hopelessly misguided, labeling them “cynernetic totalists” who believe technology will solve all problems, including that of understanding humanity and consciousness. He worries about the fragmentation of our online identity, and warns that Web 2 services – from blogs to Facebook – lead us to leave little pieces of ourselves everywhere, feeding a larger collective, but resulting in no true value to the individual.

If you read my recent piece On Thneeds and the “Death of Display”, this might sound familiar, but I’m not sure I’d be willing to go as far as Lanier does in claiming all this behavior of ours will end up impoverishing our culture forever. I tend to be an optimist, Lanier, less so. He rues the fact that the web never implemented Ted Nelson’s vision of true hypertext – where the creator is remunerated via linked micro-transactions, for example. I think there were good reasons this system didn’t initially win, but there’s no reason to think it never will.

Lanier, an accomplished musician – though admittedly not a very popular one – is convinced that popular culture has been destroyed by the Internet. He writes:

Pop culture has entered into a nostalgic malaise. Online culture is dominated by trivial mashups of the culture that existed before the onset of mashups, and by fandom responding to the dwindling outposts of centralized mass media. It is a culture of reaction without action.

As an avid music fan, I’m not convinced. But Lanier goes further:

Spirituality is committing suicide. Consciousness is attempting to will itself out of existence…the deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by illusions of bits.

Wow! That’s some powerful stuff. But after reading the book, I wasn’t convinced about that, either, though Lanier raises many interesting questions along the way. One of them boils down to the concept of smell – the one sense that we can’t represent digitally. In a section titled “What Makes Something Real Is That It Is Impossible to Represent It To Completion,” Lanier writes:

It’s easy to forget that the very idea of a digital expression involves a trade-off with metaphysical overtones. A physical oil painting cannot convey an image created in another medium; it is impossible to make an oil painting look just like an ink drawing, for instance, or vice versa. But a digital image of sufficient resolution can capture any kind of perceivable image—or at least that’s how you’ll think of it if you believe in bits too much. Of course, it isn’t really so. A digital image of an oil painting is forever a representation, not a real thing. A real painting is a bottomless mystery, like any other real thing. An oil painting changes with time; cracks appear on its face. It has texture, odor, and a sense of presence and history.

This really resonates with me. In particular, the part about the odor. Turns out, odor is a pretty interesting subject. Our sense of smell is inherently physical – actual physical molecules of matter are required to enter our bodies and “mate” with receptors in our nervous system in order for us to experience an odor:

Olfaction, like language, is built up from entries in a catalog, not from infinitely morphable patterns. …the world’s smells can’t be broken down into just a few numbers on a gradient; there is no “smell pixel.”

Lanier suspects – and I find the theory compelling – that olfaction is deeply embedded in what it means to be human. Certainly such a link presents a compelling thought experiment as we transition to a profoundly digital world. I am very interested in what it means for our culture that we are truly “becoming digital,” that we are casting shadows of data in nearly everything we do, and that we are struggling to understand, instrument, and respond socially to this shift. I’m also fascinated by the organizations attempting to leverage that data, from the Internet Big Five to the startups and behind the scenes players (Palantir, IBM, governments, financial institutions, etc) who are profiting from and exploiting this fact.

But I don’t believe we’re in early lockdown mode, destined to digital serfdom. I still very much believe in the human spirit, and am convinced that if any company, government, or leader pushes too hard, we will “sniff them out,” and they will be routed around. Lanier is less complacent: he is warning that if we fail to wake up, we’re in for a very tough few decades, if not worse.

Lanier and I share any number of convictions, regardless. His prescriptions for how to insure we don’t become “gadgets” might well have been the inspiration for my post Put Your Taproot Into the Independent Web, for example (he implores us to create, deeply, and not be lured into expressing ourselves solely in the templates of social networking sites). And he reminds readers that he loves the Internet, and pines, a bit, for the way it used to be, before Web 2 and Facebook (and one must assume, Apple), rebuilt it into forms he now decries.

I pine a bit myself, but remain (perhaps foolishly) optimistic that the best of what we’ve created together will endure, even as we journey onward to discover new ways of valuing what it means to be a person. And I feel lucky to know that I can reach out to Jaron – and I have – to continue this conversation, and report the results of our dialog on this site, and in my own book.

Next up: A review (and dialog with the author) of Larry Lessig’s Code And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.

Other works I’ve reviewed:

Wikileaks And the Age of Transparency  by Micah Sifry (review)

Republic Lost by Larry Lessig (review)

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

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

The Corporation (film – my review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (my review)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get Ready for Some Pictures, Folks

By - April 30, 2012

A wine we enjoyed last weekend.

I’ve become increasingly troubled by the “data traps” springing up all over AppWorld and the Internet, and while I’ve been pretty vocal about their downsides, I also use them quite a bit – especially for photos. That, I hope, is about to end.

However, I’m afraid it means you, dear reader, are going to be seeing a few more pictures of Mount Tamalpais and my favorite wines here on Searchblog.

Allow me to explain. I have done a pretty good job of partitioning my life digitally, posting utterances and stories that I’m happy to share with anyone on Twitter, leaving a few sparse comments and “Likes” on Facebook (I’m not a huge user of the service, I’ll be honest), and sending any number of photos to thousands of “followers” on Instagram and Tumblr.

The fact is, none of these services comprise what I call the Independent Web, as I describe it in this post: Put Your Taproot Into the Independent Web. And over time, it’s come to bother me that my content and my usage has been aggregated into a deal that feels out of balance. These companies are getting huge valuations (and exits) on the back of our collective usage (often with little or no revenue model). And what are we getting back? A free service. One that is constantly taking data from our interactions, and leveraging that data for ever higher valuations.

The Lobby of AT&T, where I visited last week

If you’re a professional content creator, as I am, there’s only so long you can go without feeling a bit…used.

I’d be OK with this tradeoff if these services made it easy to export my data outside of their walls, but so far, that’s not been the case. I’ve got hundreds of shots stuck on Twitpic, for example (and I know, you can runs some kind of script, but I’m not really going to figure out how to do that). And about that many on Instagram. Plus scores on Tumblr, which I used, briefly, as a kind of photo blog (the 500K image limit in email stopped that habit).

So as a way of putting my money where my mouth is, I’m going to start sending all photos that I care to share publicly to this site. WordPress has a new version of its app that promises to make photo uploads pretty easy from my phone (fingers are crossed, I haven’t used it yet). Consider the shots “Unicorn chasers,” if you will, respites between my half-baked predictions, long rants on identity, or musings on antiquities from the future. If the spirit moves me, I’ll then push those same photos to Tumblr or Instagram (or whatever comes next). At least this way, the photo “lives” on my site, and whatever initial pageviews and data is created stays on this site, where I can leverage it to support my work (IE, show ads next to them, and/or understand consumption in some way that helps me create a better site).

Mount Tamalpais from Bald Hill, Marin County - quite literally my backyard.

This approach, for example, will allow me to “pin” these photos to Pinterest, and any traffic from Pinterest will come back to this site, rather than Instagram or Tumblr.

Now, I can’t exactly replicate what Twitter and Facebook have created here on this blog, so I’ll continue to use those platforms as I have in the past. For me, I mostly use social services to point to things I think my “followers” may find interesting out there on the web. Going forward, that will include my public photos – on my own site.

I hope seeing the odd photo now and again – even if they’re a bit out of context – won’t turn you off as a reader. I figure I’ll only post shots that I’d be happy to send to Twitter anyway, where I have a very large and very vocal audience in any case. As always, tell me what you think….and forgive my technical lameness as I get started. I’m working out the kinks (anyone know how to make sure I get proper right margins on photos in WordPress, and stylized captions?!).

 

Does the Pebble Cause a Ripple In Apple’s Waters?

By - April 27, 2012

Ever since the Pebble watch became an cause célèbre in tech circles for its kickass Kickstarter moves (it’s raised almost $7mm dollars and counting), something’s been nagging me about the company and its product.

It’s now Valley legend that the company had to turn to Kickstarter to get its working capital – more than 46,000 folks have backed Pebble, and will soon be proudly sporting their spiffy new iPhone-powered watches as a result. Clearly Pebble has won – both financially, as well as in the court of public opinion. I spoke to one early investor (through Y-Combinator) who had nothing but good things to say about the company and its founders.

But why, I wondered, were mainstream VCs not backing Pebble once it became clear the company was on a path to success?

The reasons I read in press coverage – that VCs tend to not like untested hardware/platform plays, that retail products have low margins, etc., all sounded reasonable, but not enough. In this environment, there had to be more going on.

Now, I don’t know enough to claim this as anything more than a theory, but it’s a Friday, so allow me to speculate: Perhaps one reason VCs don’t want to invest in Pebble is because they fear Apple.

Here’s why. If you watch the video explaining Pebble, it become pretty clear that the watch is, in essence, a new form factor for the iPhone. It’s smaller, it’s more use-case defined, but that’s what it is: A smaller mirror of your iPhone, strapped to you wrist. Pebble uses bluetooth connectivity to access the iPhone’s native capabilities, and then displays data, apps, and services on its high-resolution e-paper screen. It even has its own “app store” and (upcoming) SDK/API  so people can write native apps to the device.

In short, Pebble is an iPhone for your wrist. And Apple doesn’t own it.

If we’ve learned anything about Apple over the years, it’s that Apple is driven by its hardware business. It makes its profits by selling hardware – and it’s built a beautiful closed software ecosystem to insure those hardware sales. Pebble forces an interesting question: Does Apple care about new form factors for hardware? Or is it content to build out just the “core” hardware platform, and allow anyone to innovate in new hardware instances? Would Apple be cool with someone building, say, a larger form factor of the iPhone, perhaps tablet-sized, driven by your iPhone?

I don’t know the answer to that question (and doubt Apple would answer my call asking such a question), so I’ll toss it out to you. What do you all think? Is Pebble playing with fire here? Would Apple ever change its developer terms of services to cut the new company off?

A Coachella “Fail-ble”: Do We Hold Spectrum in Common?

By - April 18, 2012

Neon Indian at Coachella last weekend.

 

Last weekend I had the distinct pleasure of taking two days off the grid and heading to a music festival called Coachella. Now, when I say “off the grid,” I mean time away from my normal work life (yes, I tend to work a bit on the weekends), and my normal family life (I usually reserve the balance of weekends for family, this was the first couple of days “alone” I’ve had in more than a year.)

What I most certainly did not want to be was off the information grid – the data lifeline that all of us so presumptively leverage through our digital devices. But for the entire time I was at the festival, unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened – to me, and to most of the 85,000 or so other people trying to use their smartphones while at the show.

I’m not writing this post to blame AT&T (my carrier), or Verizon, or the producers of Coachella, though each have some part to play in the failure that occurred last weekend (and most likely will occur again this weekend, when Coachella produces its second of two festival weekends). Rather, I’m deeply interested in how this story came about, why it matters, and what, if anything, can be done about it.

First, let’s set some assumptions. When tens of thousands of young people (the average age of a Coachella fan is in the mid to low 20s) gather in any one place in the United States, it’s a safe bet these things are true:

– Nearly everyone has a smartphone in their possession.

– Nearly everyone plans on using that smartphone to connect with friends at the show, as well as to record, share, and amplify the experience they are having while at the event.

– Nearly everyone knows that service at large events is awful, yet they hope their phone will work, at least some of the time. Perhaps a cash-rich sponsor will pay to bring in extra bandwidth, or maybe the promoter will spring for it out of the profit from ticket sales. Regardless, they expect some service delays, and plan on using low-bandwidth texting services more than they’d like to.

– Nearly everyone leaves a show like Coachella unhappy with their service provider, and unable to truly express themselves in ways they wished they could. Those ways might include, in no particular order: Communicating with friends so as to meet up (“See you at the Outdoor stage, right side middle, for Grace Potter!”), tweeting or Facebooking a message to followers (“Neon Indian is killing it right now!”), checking in on Foursquare or any other location service so as to gain value in a social game (or in my case, to create digital breadcrumbs to remind me who I was once in hit dotage), uploading photos to any number of social photo services like Instagram, or using new, music-specific apps like TastemakerX on a whim (“I’d like to buy 100 shares of Yuck, those guys just blew me away!”). Oh, and it’d be nice to make a phone call home if you need to.

But for the most part, I and all my friends were unable to do any of these things at Coachella last weekend, at least not in real time. I felt as if I was drinking from a very thin, very clogged cocktail straw. Data service was simply non existent onsite. Texts came in, but more often than not they were timeshifted: I’d get ten texts delivered some 20 minutes after they were sent. And phone service was about as good as it is on Sand Hill Road – spotty, prone to drops, and often just not available. I did manage to get some data service while at the show, but that was because I found a press tent and logged onto the local wifi network there, or I “tricked” my phone into thinking it was logging onto the network for the first time (by turning “airplane mode” off and on over and over again).

This all left me wondering – what if? What if there was an open pipe, both up and down, that could handle all that traffic? What if everyone who came to the show knew that pipe would be open, and work? What kind of value would have been created had that been the case? How much more data would have populated the world, how much richer would literally millions of people’s lives been for seeing the joyful expressions of their friends as they engaged in a wonderful experience? How much more learning might have countless startups gathered, had they been able to truly capture the real time intentions of their customers at such an event?

In short, how much have we lost as a society because we’ve failed to solve our own bandwidth problems?

I know, it’s just a rock festival, and jeez Battelle, shut off your phone and just dance, right? OK, I get that, I trust me, I did dance, a lot. But I also like to take a minute here or there to connect to the people I love, or who follow me, and share with them my passions and my excitement. We are becoming a digital society, to pretend otherwise is to ignore reality. And with very few exceptions, it was just not possible to intermingle the digital and the physical at Coachella. (I did hear reports that folks with Verizon were having better luck, but that probably because there were fewer Verizon iPhones than those with AT&T. And think about that language – “luck”?!).

Way back in 2008, when the iPhone was new and Instagram was a gleam in Kevin Systrom’s eye, I was involved in creating a service called CrowdFire. It was a way for fans at a festival (the first was Outside Lands) to share photos, tweets, and texts in a location and event specific way. I’ve always rued our decision to not spin CrowdFire out as a separate company, but regardless, my main memory of the service was how crippled it was due to bandwidth failure. It was actually better than Coachella, but not by much. So in four years, we’ve managed to go backwards when it comes to this problem.

Of course, the amount of data we’re using has exploded, so credit to the carriers for doing their best to keep up. But can they get to the promised land? I wonder, at least under the current system of economic incentives we’ve adopted in the United States. Sure, there will always be traffic jams, but have we really thought through the best approach to how we execute “the Internet in the sky?”

Put another way, do we not hold the ability to share who we are, our very digital reflections, as a commons to which all of us should have equal access?

As I was driving to the festival last Saturday, I engaged in a conversation with one of my fellow passengers about this subject. What do we, as a society, hold in commons, and where do digital services fit in, if at all?

Well, we were driving to Coachella on city roads, held in commons through municipalities, for one. And we then got on Interstate 10 for a few miles, which is held in commons by federal agencies in conjunction with local governments. So it’s pretty clear we have, as a society, made the decision that the infrastructure for the transport of atoms – whether they be cars and the humans in them, or trucks and the commercial goods within them – is held in a public commons.Sure, we hit some traffic, but it wasn’t that bad, and there were ways to route around it.

What else do we hold in a commons? We ticked off the list of stuff upon we depend – the transportation of water and power to our homes and our businesses, for example. Those certainly are (mostly) held in the public commons as well.

So it’s pretty clear that over the course of time, we’ve decided that when it comes to moving ourselves around, and making sure we have power and water, we’re OK with the government managing the infrastructure. But what of bits? What of “ourselves” as expressed digitally?

For the “hardwired” Internet – the place that gave us the Web, Google, Facebook, et al, we built upon what was arguably a publicly common infrastructure. Thanks to government and social normative regulation, the hard-wired Internet was architected to be open to all, with a commercial imperative that insured bandwidth issues were addressed in a reasonable fashion (Cisco, Comcast, etc.).

But with wireless, we’ve taken what is a public asset – radio spectrum – and we’ve licensed it to private companies under a thicket of regulatory oversight. And without laying blame – there’s probably plenty of it to go around – we’ve proceeded to make a mess of it. What we have here, it seems to me, is a failure. Is it a market failure – which usual preceeds government action? I’m not sure that’s the case. But it’s a fail, nevertheless. I’d like to get smarter on this issue, even though the prospect of it makes my head hurt.

As I wrote yesterday, I recently spent some time in Washington DC, and sat down with the Obama administration’s point person on that question, FCC Chair Julius Genachowski. As I expected, the issue of spectrum allocation is extraordinarily complicated, and it’s unlikely we’ll find a way out of the “Coachella Fail-ble” anytime soon. But there is hope. Technological disruption is one way – watch the “white spaces,” for instance. And in a world where marketing claims to be “the fastest” spur customer switching, our carriers are madly scrambling to upgrade their networks. Yet in the US, wireless speeds are far below those of countries in Europe and Asia.

I plan on finding out more as I report, but I may as well ask you, my smarter readers: Why is this the case? And does it have anything to do with what those other countries consider to be held in “digital commons”?

I’ll readily admit I’m simply a journeyman asking questions here, not a firebrand looking to lay blame. I understand this is a complicated topic, but it’s one for which I’d love your input and guidance.

What Doesn’t the Valley Understand About Washington?

By - April 17, 2012

A few weeks ago I ventured to our nation’s capital to steep in its culture a bit, and get some first hand reporting done for the book. I met with about a dozen or so folks, including several scholars, the heads of the FCC and FTC, and senior folks in the Departments of Commerce and State. I also spoke to a lobbyist from the Internet industry, as well as people from various “think tanks” that populate the city. It was my first such trip, but it certainly won’t be my last.

Each of the conversations was specific to the person I was interviewing, but I did employ one device to tie them together – I asked each person the same set of questions toward the end of the conversation. And as I was on the plane home, I wrote myself a little reminder to post about the most interesting set of answers I got, which was to this simple question: What doesn’t the Valley understand about Washington?

It’s not a secret that the Valley, as a whole, has an ambivalent attitude toward DC. Until recently, the prevailing philosophy has trended libertarian – just stay out of the way, please, and let us do what we do best. Just about every startup CEO I’ve ever known – including myself – ignores Washington in the early years of a company’s lifecycle. Government is treated like plumbing – it’s dirty, it costs too much, it’s preferably someone else’s job, and it’s ignored until it stops working the way we want it to.

SOPA and PIPA is the classic example of the plumbing going out – and the Internet’s response to it was the topic of much of my conversations last month. Sure, “we” managed to stop some stupid legislation from passing, but the fact is, we almost missed it, and Lord knows what else we’re missing due to our refusal to truly engage with the instrument of our shared governance.

To be fair, in the past few years a number of major Internet companies have gotten very serious about joining the conversation in DC – Google is perhaps the most serious of them all (I’m not counting Micrsoft, which got pretty serious back in 1997 when it lost an antitrust suit). Now, one can argue that like Microsoft before it, Google’s seriousness is due to how interested Washington has become in Google, but regardless, it was interesting to hear from source after source how they respected Google for at least fully staffing a presence in DC.

Other large Internet companies also have offices in Washington, but from what I hear, they are not that effective beyond very narrow areas of interest. Two of the largest e-commerce companies in the world have a sum total of eight people in DC, I was told by a well-placed source. Eight people can’t get much done when you’re dealing with regulatory frameworks around fraud, intellectual property, international trade, infrastructure and spectrum policy, and countless other areas of regulation that matter to the Internet.

In short, and perhaps predictably, nearly everyone I spoke to in Washington told me that the Valley’s number one issue was its lack of engagement with the government. But the answers were far more varied and interesting than that simple statement. Here they are, without attribution, as most of my conversations were on background pending clearance of actual quotes for the book:

– The Valley doesn’t understand the threat that comes from Washington. Put another way, our industry figures it out too late. The Valley doesn’t understand how much skin it already has in the game. “When things are bent in the right direction here, it can be a really good thing,” one highly placed government source told me. Washington is “dismissed, and when it’s dismissed you neither realize the upside nor mitigate the downside.”

– When the Valley does engage, it’s too lightly, and too predictably. Larger Valley companies get an office on K Street (where the lobbyists live) and hire an ex-Congressperson to lobby on that company’s core issues. But “that’s not where the magic is,” one source told me. The real magic is for companies to use their own platforms to engage with their customers in authentic conversations that get the attention of lawmakers. This happened – albeit very late – with SOPA/PIPA, and it got everyone’s attention in Washington. Imagine if this was an ongoing conversation, and not a one-off “Chicken Little” scenario?  Counter to what many believe about Washington, where money and lobbying connections are presumed to always win the day, “Fact-based arguments matter, a lot,” one senior policymaker told me. “Fact-based debates occur here, every day. If you take yourself out of that conversation, it’s like going into litigation without a lawyer.” Internet companies are uniquely positioned to change the approach to how lawmakers “hear” their constituents, but have done very little to actually leverage that fact.

– The Valley is too obsessed with the issue of privacy, one scholar told me. Instead, it should look to regulations around whether or not harm is being done to consumers. This was an interesting insight – and perhaps a way to think about protecting our data and our identities. There are already a thicket of regulations and law around keeping consumers safe from the harmful effects of business practices. Perhaps we are paying attention to the wrong thing, this scholar suggested.

– The Valley assumes that bad legislation will be rooted out and defeated in the same way that SOPA and PIPA were. But that’s a faulty assumption. “The Valley is techno-deterministic, and presumes ‘we can engineer around it,'” one scholar told me. “They don’t realize they’ve already been blinkered – a subset of possible new technological possibilities has already been removed that they are not even aware of.” One example of this is the recent “white spaces” spectrum allocation, which while promising avenues of new market opportunity, was severely retarded by forces in Washington far more powerful than the Internet industry (more on this in another post).

– The framework of “us vs. them” is unproductive and produces poor results. The prevailing mentality in the valley, one well-connected scholar told me, is the “heroic techie versus the wicked regulator…Rather than just having libertarian abstractions about regulations versus freedom,” this source continued,  “it’s important to realize that in every single debate there are… regulations that strike better or worse balances between competing values. You just have to engage enough to defend the good ones.”

Put another way, as another senior government official told me, “The Valley doesn’t understand there are good and decent people here who really want to get things done.”

If I were to sum up the message from all my conversations in Washington, it’d be this: We’re here because as a society, we decided we needed people to help manage values we hold in common. Increasingly, the Internet is how we express those values. So stop ignoring us and hoping we’ll go away, and start engaging with us more. Decidedly better results will occur if you do.

I don’t pretend that one trip to DC makes me an expert on the subject (it surely does not), but I left DC energized and wanting to engage more than I have in the past. I hope you’ll feel the same.

(image: traveldk.com)

If-Then and Antiquities of the Future

By - April 03, 2012

Over the past few months I’ve been developing a framework for the book I’ve been working on, and while I’ve been pretty quiet about the work, it’s time to lay it out and get some responses from you, the folks I most trust with keeping me on track.

I’ll admit the idea of putting all this out here makes me nervous – I’ve only discussed this with a few dozen folks, and now I’m going public with what I’ll admit is an unbaked cake. Anyone can criticize it now, (or, I suppose, steal it), but then again, I did the very same thing with the core idea in my last book (The Database of Intentions, back in 2003), and that worked out just fine.

So here we go. The original promise of my next book is pretty simple: I’m trying to paint a picture of the kind of digital world we’ll likely live in one generation from now, based on a survey of where we are presently as a digital society. In a way, it’s a continuation and expansion of The Search – the database of intentions has expanded from search to nearly every corner of our world – we now live our lives leveraged over digital platforms and data. So what might that look like thirty years hence?

As the announcement last year stated:

WHAT WE HATH WROUGHT will give us a forecast of the interconnected world in 2040, then work backwards to explain how the personal, economic, political, and technological strands of this human narrative have evolved from the pivotal moment in which we find ourselves now.

That’s a pretty tall order. At first, I spent a lot of time trying to boil any number of oceans – figuring out who to talk to in politics, energy, healthcare, technology, and, well, just about every major field. It quickly became quite evident that I’d end up with a book a thousand miles wide and one inch deep – unless I got very lucky and stumbled upon a perfect narrative actor that tied it all up into one neat story. Last time Google provided me that actor, but given I’m writing a book about how the world might look in 30 years, I’m not holding my breath waiting for another perfect protagonist to step out a time machine somewhere.

But what if those protagonists are already here? Allow me to explain…

For the past few months I’ve been stewing on how the hell to actually write this book I’ve promised everyone I would deliver. The manuscript is not actually due till early next year, but still, books take a lot of time. And every day that goes by without a clear framework is a day partially lost.

A couple of months ago, worried that I’d never figure this thing out (but knowing there had to be a way), I invited one of  my favorite authors (and new Marin resident) Steven Johnson over to my house for a brainstorming session. I outlined where I was in my thinking, and posed to him my essential problem: I was trying to do too much, and needed to focus my work on a narrative that paid off the promise, but didn’t read like a textbook, or worse yet, like a piece of futurism. As I said to Steven, “If I write a book that has a scene where an alarm clock wakes you up on a ‘typical morning in 2045,’ please shoot me.”

It’s not that I don’t appreciate futurism – it’s just that I truly believe, as William Gibson famously put it, that the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. If I could just figure out a way to report on that future, to apply the tools of journalism to the story of the future we’re creating, I’d come up with a book worth reading. Of course, it was this approach we took in the early years of Wired magazine. Our job, as my colleague Kevin Kelly put it, was to send writers off in search of where the future was erupting, with instructions to report back.

To find that future, we asked our writers (and editors) to look hard at the present, and find people, places or things that augured what might come next. Hence, issue one of Wired had articles about the future of war, education, entertainment, and sex, based on reporting done in the here and now. While we didn’t call it such, over the years we developed an “If-Then” approach to many of the stories we’d assign. We’d think out loud: “If every school had access to the Internet, then what might change about education?” Or, “If the government had the ability to track everything we do both offline and on, then what might our society look like?” The conditional “If” question followed with a realistic “Then” answer provided a good way to wrap our heads around a sometimes challenging subject  (and for you programmers out there, we’d also consider the “ands” as well as the “elses.”)

Next, we’d ask a reporter to go find out all he or she could about that scenario – to go in search of artifacts from the future which told a story of where things might be going. (Wired, in fact, later created the popular “Found: Artifacts from the Future” series in the pages of the magazine.)

As an early reader and contributor to Wired, Steven knew all this, and reminded me of it as we spoke that day at my house. What if, he asked me, the book was framed as a series of stories about “future antiquities” or “future relics” (I think he first dubbed them “Magic Coins”)? Could we find examples of things currently extant, which, if widely adopted over the next generation, would presage significant changes in the world we’ll be inhabiting? Why, indeed, yes we could. Immediately I thought of five or six, and since that day, many more have come to mind.

Now, I think it bears unpacking this concept of what I mean by “widely adopted.” To me, it means clearing a pretty high hurdle – by 2045 or so, it’d mean that more than a billion people would be regularly interacting with whatever the future antiquity might be.  When you get a very large chunk of the population engaged in a particular behavior, that behavior has the ability to effect real change on our political, social, and cultural norms. Those are the kind of artifacts I’m looking to find.

As a thought experiment, imagine I had given myself this assignment back in the early 1980s, when I was just starting my love affair with this story as a technology reporter (yes, there’s a symmetry here – that’s 30 years ago – one generation past). Had I gone off in search of digital artifacts that presaged the future, ones that I believed might be adopted by a billion or more people, I certainly would have started with the personal computer, which at that point was counted in the high hundreds of thousands in the US. And I also would have picked the Internet, which was being used, at that point, by only thousands of people. I’d have described the power of these two artifacts in the present day, imagined how technological and social change might develop as more and more people used them, and spoken to the early adopters, entrepreneurs, and thinkers of the day about what would happen if a billion or more people were using them on a regular basis.

An antiquity from the 1980s, with its future descendant (image from machinelake.com)

Pushing the hypothetical a bit further, I imagine I’d find the Dan Bricklins, Vint Cerfs, Ray Ozzies, and Bill Gates of the day, and noticed that they hung out in universities, for the most part. I’d have noticed that they used their computers and online networks to communicate with each other, to share information, to search and discover things, and to create communities of interest. It was in those universities where the future was erupting 30 years ago, and had I been paying close attention, it’s plausible I might have declared email, search, and social networks – or at least “communities on the Internet” – as artifacts of our digital future. And of course, I’d have noticed the new gadget just released called the mobile phone, and probably declared that important as well. If more than a billion people had a mobile phone by 2012, I’d have wondered, then what might our world look like?

I’m pretty sure I’d have gotten a lot wrong, but the essential framework – a way to think about finding and declaring the erupting future – seems a worthy endeavor. So I’ve decided to focus my work on doing just that. It helps that it combines two of my favorite approaches to thinking – anthropology and journalism. In essence, I’m going on a dig for future antiquities.

So what might some of today’s artifacts from the future be? I don’t pretend to have an exhaustive list, but I do have a good start. And while the “If-Then” framework could work for all sorts of artifacts, I’m looking for those that “ladder up” to significant societal change. To that end, I’ve begun exploring innovations in energy, finance, health, transportation, communications, commerce – not surprisingly, all subjects to which we have devoted impressive stone buildings in our capital city. (Hence my trip to DC last week.)

Here’s one example that might bring the concept home: The Fitbit. At present, there are about half a million of them in the world, as far as I can tell (I’m meeting with the company soon). But Fitbit-like devices are on the rise – Nike launched its FuelBand earlier this year, for example. And while the first generation of these devices may only appeal to early adopters, with trends in miniaturization, processing power, and data platforms, it’s not hard to imagine a time when billions of us are quantifying our movement, caloric intake and output, sleep patterns, and more, then sharing that data across wide cohorts so as to draw upon the benefits of pattern-recognizing algorithms to help us make better choices about our behavior.

If that were to happen, what then might be the impact on our healthcare systems? Our agricultural practices and policies? Our insurance industries? Our life expectancies? I’m not entirely sure, but it’d sure be fun to try to answer such questions.

I won’t tip my hand as to my entire current list of Future Antiquities, but I certainly would welcome your ideas and input as to what they might be. I’d also like your input on the actual title of the book. “What We Hath Wrought” is a cool title, but perhaps it’s a bit….too heady. Some might even call it overwrought. What if I called the book “If-Then”? I’m thinking about doing just that. Let me know in comments, and as always, thanks for reading.

Architectures of Control: Harvard, Facebook, and the Chicago School

By - April 02, 2012

Early in Lessig’s “Code v2,” which at some point this week I hope to review in full, Lessig compares the early campus networks of two famous educational institutions. Lessig knew them well – in the mid 1990s, he taught at both Harvard and the University of Chicago. Like most universities, Harvard and Chicago provided Internet access to their students. But they took quite different approaches to doing so. True to its philosophy of free and anonymous speech, Chicago simply offered an open connection to its students – plug in anywhere on campus, and start using the net.

Harvard’s approach was the polar opposite, as Lessig explains:

At Harvard, the rules are different….You cannot plug your machine to the Net at Harvard unless the machine is registered – licensed, approved, verified. Only members of the university community can register their machines. Once registered, all interactions with the network are monitored and identified to a particular machine. To join the network, users have to “sign” a user agreement. The agreement acknowledges this pervasive practice of monitoring. Anonymous speech on this network is not permitted – it is against the rules. Acceess can be controlled based on who you are, and interactions can be traced based on what you did.

In the preceding paragraph, change “Harvard” and “university” to “Facebook” and – there you have it. Facebook was the product of a Harvard mindset – and probably could never have come from a place like Chicago or Berkeley (where I taught).

I called up Harvard’s IT department to see if the policy had changed since Lessig’s experiences in the 1990s, or Mark Zuckerbeg’s six or so years ago. The answer was no – machines still must be registered, and all actions across Harvard’s network are trackable.

There are many benefits associated with a “real names” identity policy, including personalized services and a far greater likelihood of civil discourse. But the reverse is also true: without the right to speak anonymously (or pseudonymously), dissent and exploration are often muted. And of course, there’s that tracking/monitoring/data issue as well…

In Code, Lessig goes on to predict that while the original Internet began with a very Chicago-like approach to the world, architectures of regulation and control will ultimately end up winning if we don’t pay close attention.

He wrote the original Code in 1999, and updated it in 2006. The word Facebook is not in either version of the text. Just thought that a curious anecdote worth sharing.

China To Bloggers: Stop Talking Now. K Thanks Bye.

By - March 31, 2012

(image) Yesterday I finished reading Larry Lessig’s updated 1999 classic, Code v2. I’m five years late to the game, as the book was updated in 2006 by Lessig and a group of fans and readers (I tried to read the original in 1999, but I found myself unable to finish it. Something to do with my hair being on fire for four years running…). In any event, no sooner had I read the final page yesterday when this story breaks:

Sina, Tencent Shut Down Commenting on Microblogs (WSJ)

In an odd coincidence, late last night I happened to share a glass of wine with a correspondent for the Economist who is soon to be reporting from Shanghai. Of course this story came up, and an interesting discussion ensued about the balance one must strike to cover business in a country like China. Essentially, it’s the same balance any Internet company must strike as it attempts to do business there: Try to enable conversation, while at the same time regulating that conversation to comply with the wishes of a mercurial regime.

Those of us who “grew up” in Internet version 1.0 have a core belief in the free and open exchange of ideas, one unencumbered by regulation. We also tend to think that the Internet will find a way to “route around” bad law – and that what happens in places like China or Iran will never happen here.

But as Lessig points out quite forcefully in Code v2, the Internet is, in fact, one of the most “regulable” technologies ever invented, and it’s folly to believe that only regimes like China will be drawn toward leveraging the control it allows. In addition, it need not be governments that create these regulations, it could well be the platforms and services we’ve come to depend on instead. And while those services and platforms might never be as aggressive as China or Iran, they are already laying down the foundation for a slow erosion of values many of us take for granted. If we don’t pay attention, we may find ourselves waking up one morning and asking…Well, How Did I Get Here?

More on all of this soon, as I’m in the midst of an interview (via email) with Lessig on these subjects. Once I’ll post the dialog here once we’re done.