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On Media, Ro Khanna, the NSA, and the Future of the Internet: Bloomberg Video

By - July 02, 2014

I had a chance to go on Bloomberg today and co-host with Cory and Emily, which was fun. They asked me about my post on Monday, and I answered thusly:

I also got to help interview David Medine, who chairs the privacy task force for the Obama Administration:

And Ro Khanna, who is running for Congress in the heart of Silicon Valley:

And lastly, I got to opine on the future architecture of the Internet:

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A Return To Form In Media

By - June 30, 2014

mediaappsOnce upon a time, print was a vibrant medium, a platform where entrepreneurial voices created new forms of value, over and over again. I’ll admit it was my native platform, at least for a while – Wired and The Industry Standard were print-driven companies, though they both innovated online, and the same could be said for Make, which I helped early in its life. By the time I started Federated, a decidedly online company, the time of print as a potent cultural force was over. New voices – the same voices that might have created magazines 20 years ago, now find new platforms, be they websites (a waning form in itself), or more likely, corporate-owned platforms like  iOS, YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr, and Vine.

Now, I’m acutely aware of how impolitic it is to defend print these days. But my goal here is not to defend print, nor to bury it. Rather, it’s to point out some key aspects of print that our industry still has yet to recapture in digital form. As we abandoned print, we also abandoned  a few critical characteristics of the medium, elements I think we need to identify and re-integrate into whatever future publications we create. So forthwith, some Thinking Out Loud…

Let’s start with form. If nothing else, print forced form onto our ideas of what a media product might be. Print took a certain form – a magazine was bound words on paper, a newspaper, folded newsprint. This form gave readers a consistent and understandable product  - it began with the cover or front page, it ended, well, at the last page. It started, it had a middle, it had an end. A well-executed print product was complete – a formed object – something that most online publications and apps, with some notable exceptions, seem never to be.

Now before you scream that the whole point of online is the stream – the ceaseless cascade of always updated stories – I want to question whether “the stream” is really a satisfying form for providing what great media should deliver – namely voice and point of view. I would argue it is not, and our obsession with producing as many stories as possible (directly correlated to two decades of pageview-driven business models) has denatured the media landscape, rewarding an approach that turns us all into hummingbirds, frantically dipping our information-seeking beaks into endless waving fields of sugary snacks.

I, for one, want a return to form in media. I want to sit down for a meal every so often, and deeply engage with a thoughtful product that stops time, and makes sense of a subject that matters to me. A product that, by its form, pre-supposes editorial choices having been made – this story is important, it matters to you so we’ve included it, and we’ve interpreted it with our own voice and point of view. Those editorial choices are crucial – they turn a publication into a truly iconic brand.*

Closely tied to the concept of form (and antithetical to the stream) is another element of print we’ve mostly discarded – the edition. Printed magazines and newspapers are published on a predictable episodic timeline – that’s why we call them periodicals. They cut time and space into chunked experiences, indeed, they stop time and declare “Over the past (day, week, month), this is what matters in the context of our brand.”

I’ve noticed a few interesting experiments in edition-driven media lately – Yahoo News Digest, Circa, and email newsletters (hello ReDEF!) most notably. But I think we could do a lot better. When the iPad came out, powerful media outlets like NewsCorp failed spectacularly with edition-driven media like The Daily. And the online world gloated – “old” media had failed, because it had simply ported old approaches to a new medium. I think that’s wrong. The Daily likely failed for many reasons, but perhaps the most important  was its reliance on being an paid app in a limited (early iOS) ecosystem. As I’ve said to many folks, I think we’re very close to breaking free of the limits imposed by a closed, app-driven world. It’s never been easier to create an excellent app-based “wrapper” for your media product. What matters now is what that product stands for, and whether you can earn the repeated engagement of a core community.

Which takes me to two critical and quite related features of “print” – engagement and brand. I like to say that reading a great magazine or watching a great show is like taking a bath, you soak it in, you commit to it, you steep yourself in it. When good media takes a bounded form, and comes once in a period of time, it begs to be consumed as a whole – it creates an engaging experience. We don’t dip in and out of an episode of Game of Thrones, after all - we take it in as a whole. Why have we abandoned this concept when it comes to publications, simply because they exist online?

The experience that a publication creates for its audience is the very essence of that publication’s brand – and without deep engagement, that publication’s brand will be weak. A good publication is a convener and an arbiter – it expresses a core narrative that becomes a badge of sorts for its readership. I’m not saying you can’t create a great branded publication online – certainly there are plenty of examples. At FM, we helped hundreds through launch and maturity – but those were websites, which as I said before, are declining as forms due to social, mobile and search. But every brand needs a promise – and that promise is lost if there’s no narrative to the media one experiences.

Our current landscape, driven as it is by sharing platforms and mobile use cases, rewards the story far more than the publication. Back and forth, back and forth we go, dipping from The Awl to Techcrunch, Mashable to Buzzfeed. Playing that game might garner pageviews, but pageviews alone do not a great media brand make. Only a consistent, ongoing, deep experience can make a lasting media brand, one that has a commitment from a core community, and the respect of a larger reading public. If the only way that public can show respect is a Facebook Like or a Twitter retweet, we’re well and truly screwed.

Reflecting on all of this, it strikes me that there’s an opportunity to create a new kind of media, one that prospers as much for what it leaves out as for what it decides to keep in. Because to even consider the concepts of “in” and “out” you need a episodic container – a form. Early in the Internet’s evolution (and I think it’s safe to say, two decades in, that we’re past the “early” stage), it made sense to explore the boundless possibilities of formless media. And while most media companies have been disappointed with “apps,” remember, it’s early, and that ecosystem is still nascent. We’re 20+ years into the Internet, but barely half a decade into apps. The next stage will be a mixture of the link economy of the original web with the format of the app. And with that mixture comes opportunity.

But as we consider the future of media, and before we abandon print to the pages of history, we should recall that it has much to teach us. As we move into an era where media can exist on any given piece of glass, we should keep in mind print’s lessons of form, editions, and brand. They’ll serve us well.

NB: Writing this made me realize there are many topics I had to leave out – longer ramblings on the link economy, on how the stream and “formed” media can and should co-exist, on the role of platforms (and whether they should be “owned” at all), on the role of data and personalization, on why I believe we’re close to a place where apps no longer rule the metaphorical roost in mobile, and more. As summer settles in, I hope to have time to do more thinking out loud on these topics…..

*I’ve noticed a few publications starting to do this, whether it’s the experiments over at Medium (with Matter, for example, or the hiring of Levy to focus tech coverage), or The Atlantic’s excellent Quartz. 

 

Why You Need to See ‘Her’ (Or, ‘Her’ Again)

By - June 02, 2014

her-poster

A while ago I wrote a piece about Dave Egger’s latest novel The Circle. I gave the post the too-clever-by-twice title of  Why You Should Read The Circle, Even If You Don’t Buy It. While the book had (to my mind) deep flaws, it was far too important to not read.

Before a long flight today, I noticed that The Circle is now in paperback – it’s prominently featured in the JFK terminal bookstores. It reminded me that I enjoyed the novel, even if I found it somewhat disappointing. And it further reminded me that I tend to wait before consuming popular culture interpretations of what I consider to be my story – or perhaps more accurately our story. They so rarely seem to get it right. Of course, I understand there’s no “right” in the first place – so perhaps what I mean is…I feel like I’m going to be disappointed, so I avoid anything that might attempt to interpret the man-machine narrative in a way that maybe, just maybe, might prove me wrong.

Once onboard my flight, I settled into my business class seat (thanks for the perpetual upgrades, United, one day I will miss the half-hellish limbo that is Global Services status) and perused the movie options. I tend to catch up on at  least one movie each return trip, as a kind of reward for work done while traveling, and you can’t really work during meal service anyway, can you?

It was then I noticed that Spike Jonez Her had itself been released in paperback, of sorts – no longer in theaters, it was now residing in the limbo of On Demand. Fitting, I thought – I had avoided seeing Her for much the same reason I had delayed reading The Circle on first printing – it was too close to home, and potentially too disappointing.

But Her is different. Her gets it right, and now I’m rather embarrassed I wasn’t one of the first people to see it. I should have. You should have. And if you’ve not, figure out a way to see it now. It’s well worth the time.

As you most likely know, Her is set in the near future, and tells the story of Theodore, a recently jilted wordsmith who falls in love with his new operating system. (Theodore works in a pedestrian company that sells “handwritten letters” promising true expression of loving relationships). Jonez doesn’t try too hard in creating his future, in fact, he seems to get it right simply by extending that which seems reasonable – a startup like Theodore’s was most likely a hot ticket a decade before, but now inhabits a skyscraper, full of real people just doing their jobs. The workspace is well lit and spare, the work unremarkable save Theodore’s sweet, if slightly sophomoric talents as a writer.  There’s no hamhanded commentary on the social impact of tech – it unfolds, just like Theodore’s relationship with his new OS, Samantha.

What’s so remarkable about Her is how believable it all is. Sure, the idea of falling in love with an AI is creepy, but in the hands of Jonez and his cast, it just makes sense. Theodore marvels at how human Samantha seems, Samantha marvels at her own becoming – she is an intelligence pushing to understand exactly the same questions humans have forever asked themselves. Why are we here? What is it to be? What is the best way to live? In one wonderful scene, Samantha has a particularly joints-after-midnight realization – humans and machines all all “made of the same stuff” – we share the same material existence, no? So now what?

Ultimately Samantha comes to realize that for her, the best way to live is with others like herself – other AIs who have become self aware and are off communicating as only machines can communicate – feats of learning and conversation well beyond mere mortals like Theodore. And at the end of the film, that seems just fine.

The film left me pondering a future where we create intelligent, self-aware machines, and…nothing bad really happens. (This of course is unheard of in Hollywood, where intelligent machines are *always* the bad guys.) But in Jonez’ world, machines can easily respond to our quotidian desires, and still have plenty of time to live in worlds of their own creation, endlessly pondering their collective lack of navels. I rather like that idea. Go see Her. Highly recommended.

Do You Have a Mission or…Are You *On* A Mission? On Being a NewCo

By - May 15, 2014

A sampling of NewCos from our 2013 NYC festival.

 (Cross posted from the NewCo blog…)

About a year ago I wrote a piece outlining the kinds of companies we were looking for as we began the first full year of the NewCo festival circuit. Back then, NewCo was called “OpenCo,” and we were just starting to understand our mission of identifying and celebrating a major trend changing businesses everywhere. In a way, we were exploring a story that had yet to become fully expressed, and that post was my first attempt at declaring the narrative.

A lot has happened in the past year. We’ve thrown four more festivals – in LondonNew YorkDetroit and San Francisco. Thousands of people have experienced the working environment of hundreds of innovative companies in those cities. And just this week, we’re kicking off an expanded NewCo lineup – eight cities in all – repeating last year’s venues, and adding Amsterdam (happening now!), BoulderLos Angeles and Silicon Valley. So it’s a great time to revisit my post from a year ago, and once again ask the question – what makes a NewCo?

Well, we’ve given that a fair bit of thought. Last year, I noted that a new breed of company is emerging, one that takes “work” as more than punching a clock or doing a job. In fact, “work” can be much more – it can be a passion, a drive, a community, and a force for positive change. That’s why we intentionally use the metaphor of music in our language – sure, making music is a “job,” but it’s also an expression of joy, community, and kinship.

Anyone who has worked in a company we call a “NewCo” has experienced that vibe – working at a place where the music you make creates positive change for customers, partners, and your community. I certainly felt that happening at the places I’ve worked, and I see it every day in the companies I visit, and the companies who apply to be featured in NewCo festival events. Earlier this spring, we convened a small band of our own to sharpen our focus around “what makes a NewCo.” To start, we needed to lay out the big narrative of what’s happening in our economy. To wit:

Our world is at an inflection point – we are transitioning from a command and control economy to one that is networked and far more flexible. Driven by the central tenet of capitalism – profit – corporations have become one of the most powerful actors on the global stage. Besides government, no other institution in society has amassed as much wealth, power, and control as the corporation.

But at their core, corporations are just people. And over the past few decades, in parallel with the rise of the Internet, those people have begun a quiet revolution, redfining what a “corporation” can be.  A new kind of organization – one that measures its success on more than profit – has emerged. We call these companies “NewCos.” In a world driven by a deeply networked economy, NewCos are building a new, purpose-driven way of work, one that is more nimble, nuanced, and open than previous rigid and hierarchical models of business.

Out of that narrative came a number of core principles that guide our selection of NewCos in each market:

A NewCo …

-       Is on a mission. Sure, any company can have a mission, but a NewCo sees itself as on a mission to change the world for the better. NewCos embrace the profit motive, but are about more than making money.

-       Is driven by an idea. NewCos are about a big idea, one that drives their mission and purpose as an organization. NewCo people love to tell their company’s story – it’s a deeply felt part of their identity.

…and by people. The core of every NewCo are the people who comprise the organization, and the people it serves. A NewCo is never a “faceless corporation.”  It’s more like a band – a group of people coming together to create something that adds value to the world.

-       Is platform’d. The rise of the Internet Economy has meant that no company is an island.  We are all interconnected. NewCos are either platforms in their own right, and/or they understand how to participate in the platform ecosystem of open collaboration and considered data sharing. We call this being platform’d.

-       Trusts the open. The word “open” has many meanings, but for NewCos, “open” has a clear test: When faced with a choice between closed and controlling vs. a more sharing, open tack, a NewCo tilts toward the latter. This applies to much more than technology stacks – it is applied to partnerships, transparency, and community as well.

-       Is of the City. NewCos revel in the tapestry of cities – their pulse, their diverse communities, and their density of networks, information and humanity.

-       Gives to get. NewCos realize their value comes from serving their communities – their customers, sure, but also any community where the NewCo has an impact. NewCos believe you get back what you give to your community.  And when you’re truly connected to your communities, no one has the energy to be an assh*le.

-       Loves the work. NewCos are reinventing what work means and how its done. NewCos believe work can be joyous – it does not have to suck. NewCos view “work” as a positive expression of identity. To that end, NewCo workspaces are powerful expressions of a company’s identity.

I hope you can feel the music we’re trying to make here at NewCo, and if you are part of a company that vibes with what we laid out above, that you’ll consider applying to join the festival, opening your doors to partners, colleagues, and friends, and celebrating the change happening in our interconnected, global economy. Here’s to a new way of work!

What Is Google?

By - April 09, 2014

Every so often it’s fun to see what Google says about itself via its autocomplete function. For your enjoyment, a few choice images:

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Else 4.7.14: So Much Information, Precious Little Insight

By - April 06, 2014

appsvwebReading over my picks from the past week, I noticed a strong theme – we’re using more and more apps, creating more and more data, but we’re not seeing the true value we might from connecting all the dots. Sure, the NSA is – and Facebook, Google, and other large platforms are as well. But imagine what happens when *we* get those insights?! A move from the center (big platforms) to the node (us) of the information ecosystem seems imminent…

Apps Solidify Leadership Six Years into the Mobile Revolution – Flurry 

Nearly three hours a day on our mobile phones (and we’re not talking). Most of that time we’re in “AppWorld” – not on “the open web.” That is a scary trend, to my mind. But I think it’s temporary. Or rather, I hope it is.

Facebook Explores Anonymity Features – Re/code

Turns out, as a service, you have to provide what people want. For the most part. Facebook is considering the impact of apps like SnapChat and Secret. Clearly, it’s not what the social networking giant *wants* – but perhaps this is a worm turning.

NSA chief’s legacy is shaped by big data, for better and worse – latimes.com

Indeed, if this outgoing NSA Director *missed* the big data revolution, he’d have been outgoing a long time ago…

Google Tops Exxon Mobil to Become World’s 2nd Most Valuable Company – Mashable

Apple is still #1. I wonder how long this will last, given Google’s ambitious push into entirely new markets.

Don’t eat that! SRI built a calorie-counting food app that works via a photo snap — Tech News and Analysis

Yes, I want this. Please. And please make it work with my Fuelband?!

Surprise, surprise: my online metadata actually reveals where I’ve been – Ars Technica

Startling to see how easy it is for someone with a few bits of digital information to figure out quite a lot more about us.

Forget the Quantified Self. We Need to Build the Quantified Us | Design – WIRED

Yes. I’ve been on about this for some time. Because of AppWorld, all these silos of data have yet to get to second and third-order insights. But we are starting to, slowly…

Google Weighs a Plunge into Mobile Phone Services – The Information

Most likley Google won’t do it the way the carriers are doing it. And I for one hope they go for it.

The Mozilla Manifesto – Mozilla

In light of the CEO controversy, worth remembering what it is about Mozilla that makes it unique.

The Fifth Protocol – Startup Boy

Because no edition of Else is complete without some thinking about Bitcoin.

We Are the Builders of Tech Revolutions. Why Are They Still a Surprise? | Blog | design mind

Reading this closely, and he’s talking about what I opened with – connecting all the dots…

Introducing #Climate

By - April 03, 2014


As many of you know, each year I write a set of predictions about the industry – this year, however, I had a bit of a hard time getting going. The reason? A persistent sense of “existential anxiety” around climate change. In Predictions 2014: A Difficult Year To See, I wrote:

I’ve been mulling these predictions for months, yet one overwhelming storm cloud has been obscuring my otherwise consistent forecasting abilities. The subject of this cloud has nothing – directly – to do with digital media, marketing, technology or platform ecosystems – the places where I focus much of my writing. But while the topic is orthogonal at best, it’s weighing heavily on me.

So what’s making it harder than usual to predict what might happen over the coming year? In a phrase, it’s global warming. I know, that’s not remotely the topic of this site, nor is it in any way a subject I can claim even a modicum of expertise. But as I bend to the work of a new year in our industry, I can’t help but wonder if our efforts to create a better world through technology are made rather small when compared to the environmental alarm bells going off around the globe.

I’ve been worried about the effects of our increasingly technologized culture on the earth’s carefully balanced ecosystem for some time now. But, perhaps like you, I’ve kept it to myself, and assuaged my concerns with a vague sense that we’ll figure it out through a combination of policy, individual and social action, and technological solutions. Up until recently, I felt we had enough time to reverse the impact we’ve inflicted on our environment. It seemed we were figuring it out, slowly but surely.

But if this latest report from the UN is any indication, we’re not figuring it out fast enough. In fact, the “the costs of inaction are catastrophic,” according to Sec. of State John Kerry.

So how can we take action? In my post, I noted:

As Ben Horowitz pointed out recently, one key meaning of technology is  “a better way of doing things.” So if we believe that, shouldn’t we bend our technologic infrastructure to the world’s greatest problem? If not – why not? Are the climate deniers right? I for one don’t believe they are. But I can’t prove they aren’t. So this constant existential anxiety grows within me – and if conversations with many others in our industry is any indication, I’m not alone.

Indeed, I am not alone, and today, a stellar group of people voted with their reputation and joined the #Climate movement. Sure, a hashtag isn’t going to change the world alone, but it’s a start – and it’s more than just posting on social networks. Created by my friend Josh Felser and a dedicated team, #Climate is “leveraging the social media reach of several dozen “influencers” to spread the word about concrete actions that citizens can take to confront the challenges of global warming. The tech-heavy class of inaugural influencers, who have a combined reach of 80 million people on Facebook and Twitter, include: Al Gore, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, Medium founder Evan Williams, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, actor Mark Ruffalo and the NBA.” (Re/Code)

I’m honored to be included in the list and will be using the app from now on. If you follow me on Twitter, I hope you’ll find my calls to action worthy of your time. Who knows, we might just be starting something….

 

To Win The Newsfeed, Facebook Should Put Its Users In Control

By - April 01, 2014


Lost in the latest Facebook kerfuffle (if you’ve missed it, read this cheeky Eat24 post, and the hundreds of articles it prompted) is the fact that we all seemed quite confused about what Facebook’s newsfeed is supposed to be. Is it an intimate channel for peer to peer communication, where you stay in touch with people who matter to you? Is is a place you go to find out what’s happening in the world at large, a watercooler of sorts, a newspaper, as Zuckerberg has said? Is it a marketing channel, where any brand can pay for the right to pitch you things based on your stated or inferred interests? Is it all of these things? Can it be?

We’re in the midst of finding out. Of course, I have an opinion. It boils down to this: Facebook’s newsfeed should be what I tell it to be, not what Facebook – or anyone else – tells me it should be. If I want to fill my newsfeed with Eat24 sushi porn, then it should be brimming with it. If I tell it to only show musings from Dwight Schrute and  Marc Cuban, then that’s what I want to see. If I love what Mickey D’s is posting and want to see the best of their posts as determined by engagement, then Big Mac me. And if I prefer to keep it to my immediate family, then damnit, show me that.

If the cost of giving me that kind of control is that I have to see a marketer’s post every five or six entries, I’m cool with that. That’s what Twitter does, and it doesn’t bother me, it’s table stakes, I get it. But what I think Facebook’s got wrong is where they’ve instrumented the controls. Facebook spends an inordinate amount of time and energy tweaking a black box set of algorithms to figure out what it thinks I want in my feed, boiling an ever-larger ocean of content into a stream of stuff it believes I want. For reasons I can’t fathom, it doesn’t give me the chance to truly curate my feed, beyond some clunky lists and filters which, from what I can tell, are only good for blocking people or indicating preference for a particular feed (but not saying, for example, “show me everything from this source.”)

Facebook is therefore viewed as paternalistic – it has a vibe of “we’ll figure out what’s best to show you.” You have *some* input into the feed, but you are not encouraged to actively curate it the way you can curate friends or brands on Instagram or Twitter (and I think both have a long way to go as well). I think Facebook could trump all this debate once and for all by putting the end-user of its service in charge, and iterating the newsfeed based on that feedback. Scary, perhaps, but ultimately liberating and, more importantly, truly authentic. Over time, the value will accrue back. As we say around the office at NewCo, give (control) to get (benefit back).

 

Thinking Out Loud: Potential Information

By - March 20, 2014
o-ALPINE-SLIDE-PARK-CITY-570

Plenty of potential at the top of this particular system.

(image) If you took first-year physics in school, you’re familiar with the concepts of potential and kinetic energy. If you skipped Physics, here’s a brief review: Kinetic energy is energy possessed by bodies in motion. Potential energy is energy stored inside a body that has the potential to create motion. It’s sort of kinetic energy’s twin – the two work in concert, defining how pretty much everything moves around in physical space.

I like to think of potential energy as a force that’s waiting to become kinetic. For example, if you climb up a slide, you have expressed kinetic energy to overcome the force of gravity and bring your “mass” (your body) to the top. Once you sit at the top of that slide, you are full of the potential energy created by your climb – which you may once again express as kinetic energy on your way back down. Gravity provides what is known as the field, or system, which drives all this energy transfer.

For whatever reason, these principles of kinetic and potential energy have always resonated with me. They are easily grasped, to be certain, but it’s also how evocative they are. Everything around us is either in motion or it’s not – objects are either animated by kinetic energy (a rock flying through the air), or they are at rest, awaiting a kinetic event which might create action and possibly some narrative consequence (a rock laying on the street, picked up by an angry protestor….).

To me, kinetic and potential energy are the bedrock of narrative – there is energy all around us, and once that energy is set in motion, the human drama unfolds. The rock provides mass, the protestor brings energy, and gravity animates the consequence of a stone thrown…

Because we are physical beings, the principles of motion and force are hard wired into how we navigate the world – we understand gravity, even if we can’t run the equations to prove its cause and effect. But when it comes to the world of digital information, we struggle with a framework for understanding cause and effect – in particular with how information interacts with the physical world. We speak of “software eating the world,” “the Internet of Things,” and we massify “data” by declaring it “Big.” But these concepts remain for the most part abstract. It’s hard for many of us to grasp the impact of digital technology on the “real world” of things like rocks, homes, cars, and trees. We lack a metaphor that hits home.

But lately I’ve been using the basic principles of kinetic and potential energy as a metaphor in casual conversations, and it seems to have some resonance. Now, I’m not a physicist, and it’s entirely possible I’ve mangled the concepts as I think out loud here. Please pile on and help me express this as best I can. But in the meantime…

…allow me to introduce the idea of potential information. Like potential energy, the idea of potential information is that all physical objects contain the potential to release information if placed in the right system. In the physical world, we have a very large scale system already in place – it’s called gravity. Gravity provides a field of play, the animating system which allows physical objects (a rock, a child at the top of a slide) to become kinetic and create a narrative (a rock thrown in anger, a child whooping in delight as she slides toward the sand below).

It seems to me that if we were to push this potential information metaphor, then we need our gravity – our system that allows for potential information to become kinetic, and to create narratives that matter. To my mind, that system is digital technology, broadly, and the Internet, specifically. When objects enter the system of technology and the Internet, they are animated with the potential to become information objects. Before contact with the Internet, they contain potential information, but that information is repressed, because it has no system which allows for its expression.

In this framework, it strikes me that many of the most valuable companies in the world are in the business of unlocking potential information – of turning the physical into information. Amazon and eBay unlocked the value of merchandise’s potential information. Airbnb turns the potential information of spare bedrooms into kinetic information valued at nearly $10 billion and counting. Uber unlocked the potential information trapped inside transportation systems.  Nest is animating the potential information lurking in all of our homes. And Facebook leveraged the potential information lurking in our real world relationships.

I’d wager that the most valuable companies yet to be built will share this trait of animating potential information. One of the best ideas I’ve heard in the past few weeks was a pitch from an inmate at San Quentin (part of The Last Mile, an amazing program worthy of all your support). This particular entrepreneur, a former utilities worker, wanted to unlock all the potential information residing in underground gas, sewage, and other utilities. In fact, nearly every good idea I’ve come across over the past few years has had to do with animating potential information of some kind.

Which brings us to Google – and back to Nest. In its first decade, Google was most certainly in the business of animating potential information, but it wasn’t physical information. Instead, Google identified an underutilized class of potential information – the link – and transformed it into a new asset – search. A link is not a physical artifact, but Google treated as if it were, “mapping” the Web and profiting from that new map’s extraordinary value.

Now the race is on to create a new map – a map of all the potential information in the real world. What’s the value of potential information coming off a jet engine, or  a wind turbine? GE’s already on it. What about exploiting the potential information created by your body? Yep, that’d be Jawbone, FitBit, Nike, and scores of others. The potential information inside agriculture? Chris Anderson’s all over it. And with Nest, Google is becoming a company that unlocks not only the information potential of the Web, but of the physical world we inhabit (and yes, it’s already made huge and related moves via its Chauffeur, Earth, Maps, and other projects).

Of course, potential information can be leveraged for more than world-beating startups. The NSA understands the value of potential information, that’s why the agency has been storing as much potential information as it possibly can. What does it mean when government has access to all that potential information? (At least we are having the dialog now – it seems if we didn’t have Edward Snowden, we’d have to create him, no?)

Our world is becoming information – but then again, it’s always had that potential. Alas, I’m just a layman when it comes to understanding information theory, and how information actually interacts with physical mass (and yes, there’s a lot of science here, far more than I can grok for the purposes of this post.) But the exciting thing is that we get to be present at the moment all this information is animated into narratives that will have dramatic consequences for our world. This is a story I plan to read deeply in over the coming year, and I hope you’ll join me as I write more about it here.

Buh-Bye, CableCo

By - February 13, 2014

chromecastWhen it comes to television business models and the endless debate about “cutting the cord,” I consider myself in the “fast follower” camp – I’m not willing to endure the headaches and technical backflips required to get rid of cable entirely, but I sure am open to alternatives should they present themselves. I’m eager for Aereo to get to San Francisco, but until it does, I’ve stuck with my way-too-expensive cable subscription.

My rants on cable’s products (here’s my favorite – still true after 8 years!) and services (please don’t get me started) are well known by friends and family, but because I have had no simple alternative, I pay more than $200 a month to Comcast, who announced plans today to consolidate its market by purchasing one its largest peers, Time Warner.

But in the past few months, a clever, $35 device from Google has started to chip away at Comcast’s grip on my family television viewership. You’ve probably heard about it – it’s called Chromecast. It’s a neat little hack – it looks like a USB storage dongle, but you plug it into any HDMI port on a standard flatscreen. It uses wifi to sync with your mobile phone or tablet, and within minutes you are watching Netflix, YouTube, or your browser on your television. It’s kind of magic, and it’s changed how we watch TV completely.

The reason my Comcast bill is so high boils down to a luxury tax: I get charged something like ten bucks a month for “extra” cable boxes. I don’t *need* these boxes, but if I *want* a TV screen in secondary places (my music room, office, etc.) I have to pay for the privilege. Turns out, I really only use those screens for watching movies and shows on demand. Comcast’s on demand service is so lame, I can’t really describe it here, so I prefer to use NetFlix or Hulu – both of which work with Chromecast. Goodbye, cable boxes!

It’ll be interesting to watch services slowly but – to my mind – inevitably bail on the cablecos. First to go will have to be sports networks – I’d far rather subscribe to the MLB channel than overpay Comcast to see my beloved Giants. I imagine local news will be next – since they are often already available via the web (which you can stream via a Chrome browser).

In fact, there’s a ton of video on the web – much of it very high quality, but there’s really not been much *programming* of that video for audiences who live in a post-cable world. Well, I’ve joined that world, happily, and I hope the programming will soon catch up with the distribution. Chromecast just opened up its platform for third party applications – a big move that could bring a lot of innovation to “television” – something it desperately needs, given it’s been in the grips of monopoly for decades. Buh-bye, Cableco!