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What Role Government?

By - November 04, 2011

(image) As I begin to dig into the work of my next book, I’ve found myself thinking about politics and government far more than I anticipated. (For initial thoughts and stats, see Government By Numbers: Some Interesting Insights).  While the body politic was always going to be one of the main pillars of the book, I didn’t expect it to push itself to the foreground so quickly. Certainly the Occupy Wall St. movement is partially responsible, but there’s more going on than that.

Well before #ows became shorthand for class disparity in the United States, I began to formulate a hypothesis on the role of government in our lives. (I focus on the US for this exercise, as I am writing from my own experience. I’d be very interested in responses from those living in other countries).

The headline: Over the past five or six decades, we’ve slowly but surely transitioned several core responsibilities of our common lives from government to the private sector. Some shifts are still in early stages, others are nearly complete. But I’m not sure that we have truly considered, as a society, the implications of this movement, which seem significant to me. I’m no political scientist, but the net net of all this seems to be that we’re trusting private corporations to do what, for a long, long time, we considered was work entrusted to the common good. In short, we’ve put a great deal of our public trust into a system that, for all the good it’s done (and it’s done quite a lot), is driven by one core motivation: the pursuit of profit.

A corollary to this hypothesis is that this shift has been made – and possibly engendered – by the ever increasing role of digitized information as the central driver of our society. But that’s probably another post.

Now before you start calling  me an aging, anti-corporate hippie, remember that I’ve started several companies, consider myself a free market capitalist, and I’ve done pretty well so far. I’m simply pointing something out here, not making any judgements (at least, not yet).

So let’s consider some key areas:

Identity. We are increasingly going to the Web/Interent as the platform for our lives. There, our identity is not managed by the government. It’s managed – in the majority – by Facebook. When we buy things, our identity is managed by PayPal, Amazon, and Amex/Visa/Mastercard, not to mention a raft of pretenders to our identity throne, including Facebook, Google, and startups like Square. All of these are private corporations. None of them ask us for our government issued identity cards before allowing us to make a purchase. Some do ask for our SSN, of course. But online, the “government layer” is melting into the background of our identity – rather like DOS melted into the background of Windows 3. I expect this to be the source of some serious conflict in the coming decade(s).

Control. It used to be the only entity that was legally allowed to track citizens on a regular basis was law enforcement – agents of our government. Now, of course, we happily leave digital breadcrumbs everywhere, and private corporations, driven by profit, are far more advanced than the government at profiling and tracking us. Again, I expect this fact to be a source of conflict in the future.

Delivery/Communication. For most of the past couple of centuries, you’d use a government agency if you wanted to get something important – either information, goods, or money – from one place to another in our country. That agency was called the United States Postal Service, and it worked really, really well, considering all it had to do. Now, the Postal Service is broke, and we use  UPS or FedEx for physical goods, and the Internet for information. While the government built the infrastructure for all these companies (airports, roads and Interstate highways, DARPAnet, commonly owned airwaves), it has now receded DOS-like into the background, and we now entrust the function of delivery to private corporations driven by profit.

Investment. Do any of you remember when your grandparents would give you a government bond as a birthday gift? Or when people actually believed that they could retire on the government-mandated benefits of Social Security? I do. I have two parents who are drawing on those programs right now. But as the economy has turned to one driven by information and financialization, we’ve entrusted our retirement and our investment to private corporations as well.

Education. Once almost entirely the realm of the government, we’ve watched our public education system crumble, and we’re still not really sure what to replace it with. However, one could reasonably argue that private companies will take this over in due time. Some – like Edison and Phoenix – are already well on the way.

Healthcare. The US has always shied from government-run healthcare, and some might say “Obamacare” is proof we’re moving in the opposite direction from the other trends I’ve outlined. But I’m not so sure. I have a gut feeling the numbers – in terms of Medicare etc. – may prove something different, and as I understand it, the recent legislation was, in the main, about regulating the private industry, not creating a government alternative. I have a lot more to learn here.

Security. This is the one area of government that we all seem to agree should stay in government hands. However, even this realm has been increasingly privatized – from private prisons to vast armies of outsourced mercenaries and support teams for our military.

I could go on, but instead I’d rather that you do, in comments. What other aspects of our lives did we once entrust to government, but now entrust to private corporations?

No matter what your politics, it seems clear to me that most of us no longer trust our government to do anything particularly well. In short, as a culture we seem to be punting on doing anything well if it doesn’t have a profit motive. We are very good at is making corporations that are very good at making money. Is that enough? I don’t  know.

I am not judging this trend, but rather pointing it out. It’s something I plan to lean into as I write the book, and I am simply a curious amateur when it comes to understanding the space of government and the commons. To that end your input and suggestions as to sources and readings are gratefully welcomed.

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Government By Numbers: Some Interesting Insights

By - October 28, 2011

As part of the work I’m doing for my book, I’ve been working with my research manager, LeeAnn Prescott, staring at various charts and graphs related to how we’ve funded our “Commons” over the past half century or so. I’ve got a working hypothesis that we are in the process of transitioning very important portions of our “public lives” to private corporations, and that this transfer is related to our adoption of digital technologies and platforms. Examples include identity (from driver’s licenses and SSNs to Visa, MasterCard, Amex, and Facebook), delivery of important information and items (from the Post Office to Telcos, Internet, and FedEx and UPS), and protection (outsourcing both prisons and military jobs to private companies). Not to mention retirement (from Social Security to 401ks, etc.).

Of course, were such a hypothesis true, one might imagine that the over percentage of GDP represented by government workers would have gone *down* over the past few decades. However, as this chart shows, that’s not the case:

If we’re depending on government less and less, as I hypothesize, how on earth could government employees go *up* by ten percent in the past six decades?

Either my hypothesis is wrong, or there are devils in the details. And indeed, as you drill down further, some interesting things start to pop up.

For example, check out this chart of what’s growing in our government, and what’s not:

Aha! Turns out, the Federal Government has actually shrunk by more than half, but we, as a society, have simply moved the burden to State and Local Governments. I wonder how the folks at the Tea Party HQ would respond to this data: They spend an awful lot of time talking about Big Government, but they seem overly focused on the Big Bad Feds. They might take aim at their own backyards instead.

Let’s take a look at some detail:

Ahh….Education. Very interesting. As local governments have taken over the once Federally run education system, payroll there has skyrocketed (has performance? Nope. But that’s another story).

Also interesting to note how dramatically our Military spending has dropped, but, given we’re comparing to Cold War, Korean War and WWII eras, that’s not too surprising.

Now let’s compare Government as a percent of GDP to private Industry. If my hypothesis is to hold water, I’d wager that private industry is taking over more and more of our GDP over time. Is it? Yep.

As one might expect, the numbers show the rise of the services industry, and the decline of manufacturing in our economy. But they also show a rise in percent of GDP by government, due in the main to state and local increases.

Here is more detail by industry on what’s growing and shrinking:

Check out that first item: Financial services has nearly doubled and now leads our nation in terms of contribution to GDP. No wonder 2008 was such a (continuing) disaster.

But it’s clear to me we have an education and healthcare problem on our hands (quite a surprise, eh?). Now, education is, in the main, a government enterprise. Healthcare, not so much (Obama’s plan is in essence private, folks). So the question then becomes, will education make the transition from public to private sector in the digital era, and might Healthcare move the other way? I can imagine an argument for both. I post these charts not to draw conclusions, but to open debate.

One last chart of detai on how our Federal Government spends money:

Huh. Social security has risen a lot. So has Treasury and Health. One might reasonably conclude that 1. Our population is aging, creating the demand for more Social Security services. And the two dominant private industries in our country – finance and health – require significant regulation, hence the rise of Treasury and Health.

But I’m not a government economist, so I’m just guessing. I look forward to interviewing many of them as I dig in. Meantime, I just thought it’d be fun to share these data points with you. Enjoy.

 

 

 

Slice – A Step Toward Metaservices That Matter

By - October 25, 2011

Readers will recall my multiple calls for “metaservices” that begin to unify our disparate online worlds of data. Today’s announcement of Slice, which does just that for online purchases, albeit through an email hack, is a step in that direction. Readers will also recall that “Purchases” are one of the key fields in my “Database of Intentions” graph. I wish Slice worked because Amazon and others provided us our data easily through an API, but hey, that will come, I think. For now, the email approach is an elegant workaround.

More at TNW. Interesting to note that Eric Schmidt, Exec. Chair of Google, is an investor.

A Big Issue: Taking Control of Your Own Identity and Data – Singly Founder Responds

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If there was a theme to Day One at Web 2 Summit, it was this: We have to start taking control of our own identity and data. And this is not just because we might be worried about how the government or large platforms might use our data (though both issues certainly came up in talks with Chris Poole, Senator Ron Wyden, Genevieve Bell, and Sean Parker, among others). But also because of the value and benefits that will accrue to us and to society in a culture that values individual control of data. Problem is, it’s not simple or natural to do so….yet.

This reminded me of a post I did a couple of weeks ago, called I Wish “Tapestry” Existed. It elicited a very thoughtful response from Jason Cavnar, co-founder of the important Lockers Project and Singly, the startup which hopes to drive this trend forward. So for a bit of light reading, go back to that link and peruse my musings, then read this, which Jason was kind enough to write up based on the points I made (in bold) and agree to let me post:

JB: Services don’t communicate with each other; and # of services (apps) we use is skyrocketing
Cavnar: they don’t talk to each other, but what all apps do talk to, is you. You should be the protocol around which those things are built and data flows.

Also important: data doesn’t do us justice. This is about LIFE. Our lives. Or as our colleague Lindsay (@lschutte) says — “your story”. Not data. Data is just a manifestation of the actual life we are leading. Our data (story) should be ours to own, remember, re-use, discover with and share.

JB: Cool idea…but Tapestry would be hard to do b/c of policy, not tech
Cavnar: the technology actually isn’t trivial – most startups are spending 3-6+ months just doing data aggregation and cleaning — creating common reference points between data sets; (we have talked to 3 dozen + startups about this including sophisticated folks like the people down at SRI). More important than data reclamation and organization would be: how it gets stored; where it gets stored; who do you trust to hold onto it; ensuring the format “operable” (can developers do things with that data?) no matter where it lives; etc. The Locker Project (a placeholder name) is a community that will make sure the data structure gets figured out — the standards for “me” data. Singly is going to be the storage and access brand that you trust to store and empower you with your digital life.

JB: Tapestry = snapshot of what Dr. J is up to; Dr. J doesn’t use social services b/c value doesn’t exceed time invested
Cavnar: the point about Dr. J using those services more if Tapesty existed is very true and interesting — I wish more people recognized that; Also cool: if Dr. J were assured permanence of the data he is creating, he would likely create more liberally.

JB: I have only 5 social platforms
Cavnar: a ton of the data we create as individuals doesn’t take place on those 5 platforms first. The growth of apps is outpacing the growth of those platforms. Ex: most of my photos on Facebook are now originating from Instagram. My listening on Rdio/Spotify. My location data takes place at the service provider level (ATT, Verizon) first. Health Data…Car data…purchase data, etc.

What I really hear you asking are these questions:

Where do we combine and take with us all of our data?
Where is our data home? (a phrase coined by @mdzimm)
What will be our data address?
Shouldn’t that address be mine?
How is that related to our identity?
Shouldn’t the life I lead wind up with all of it’s memories stored in my home?
Shouldn’t someone provide me with home security?
Who is watching the kids when they are home alone and someone (app) wants to borrow milk (data)?
Does the proverbial USPS decide who I am? Or do they just ensure I can be found and send/receive?

JB: An option = pour all of this into Facebook
Cavnar: the problem is not just that it isn’t under your control, but that a 3rd party with interests other than solely and objectively empowering us then dictates how that data is structured and re-used, if at all. Should we, as a society, around such an important issue (our lives), trust a single company to decide / perform those functions? We haven’t, as a society, decided to all live within the same planned communities, home models and use the same interior decorators.

Tapestry can only be built if Facebook decides to enable them to develop it’s own feel/look/value. And you’d only be able to instrument Tapestry to you to the degree that Facebook decided. IE: not developers and not the end user. No home remodeling allowed. Facebook wants to empower developers and is grappling with how to create a win-win for developers and FB. As an industry, we’re at a point where we need to start thinking about win-win-wins (companies with data, developers and you/me/us). Your Tapestry example is one of thousands.

JB: If Tapestry gains traction, I’m worried Facebook would ban it
Cavnar: A few thoughts:

1) Facebook has actually expressed (including this year at f8) their conviction that people own their data. (Mark Zuckerberg’s blog post). John Doerr at KPCB (a Facebook investor) reiterates this belief (37:20) Facebook allows people to download their data from them because of this belief, and their TOS is a license of your data. And there will be more solutions they can offer people coming into play that will let them live out this belief even more elegantly.

2) Ecosystems win: Given that Dr. J, and a lot of other people don’t use Facebook zealously, would Tapestry suffer without Facebook as an experience? And if Tapestry took off, or Dr. J uses Facebook more because of Tapestry, won’t it behoove Facebook to be a part of that experience rather than absent from it?

3) Empowerment wins: once each of us have a digital home, and Tapestry is built on top of that data, along with a whole world of useful, personalized apps, this worry fades. What Jeremie experienced with Jabber is not dissimilar. Utility and empowering people to do more, connect more, etc will win the day and I don’t see Facebook ignoring the AOL history lesson, especially after they go public. Their leadership is sharp.

4) Inalienable rights win: I refuse to believe we are at a point in history where it is a forgone conclusion that people aren’t fundamentally entitled to the data they create. At the foundation of our country’s heritage is the Lockean notion of “Lives, Liberties and Property which Men have in their Persons as well as Goods”. In a worse case scenario, this issue goes to Washington. The folks there are deeply aware of people’s rights in this space. Look no further than Aneesh Chopra and Danny Weitzner and you find people who truly “get it”. Not just on a policy level but an innovation/economic opportunity/systemic problem-solution level.

5) We’re in this together: the leaders of our industry are decent people. We innovate because we care about people’s stories. And making the world better through technology. We are all part of a narrative far greater than those spelled out in Terms of Service. Not only has Facebook said people own their data, but of course Google is starting to make that easier (Takeout) and Dick Costolo tonight reaffirmed Twitter’s core belief that people should have a copy of their Tweets and it’s simply a matter of time to get the history off disk.

6) Innovation wins: Nobody in the business of innovation and human advancement/potential would argue that innovation takes place at the edge of the network. Closest to people. From mainframes to PCs. From landlines to smartphones. The closer to people that you put information, processes (apps), and power (tech), the more creative and economically productive we get. It’s that simple. We need our data. Closest to us. Apps, running on that data. Building Tapestry shouldn’t be hard. Tapestry existing makes the world a better place. Again, Terms of Service cannot argue with that narrative.

What’s Next:
Let’s suspend belief for a minute that we all got a digital home. What we then need is:

– a standard way to organize our data (this is why Singly is open source – so structure isn’t a point of control)

– a place to store all of our data (a home) that we trust and who is aligned to protect us, not use our data for other means. This doesnt have to be a single company, by any means.

– a medium you trust through which you can transmit the data

– a platform that can “address” your data home and mine all the same no matter where we choose to host it, so that Tapestry can have both of us as users and neither of us have to be locked into a single storage choice. Don’t trust Apple anymore? Cool, go to Singly. Don’t trust Singly? Go host your Data on your home server. Etc.

– a rich developer ecosystem adding value time and time again both to the underlying core software, as well as at the application layer.

Help Me Interview the Founders of Quora (And Win Free Tix to Web 2)

By - October 11, 2011

cheever.jpegNext up on the list of interesting folks I’m speaking with at Web 2 are Charlie Cheever and Adam D’Angelo, the founders of Quora. Cheever and D’Angelo enjoy (or suffer from) Facebook alumni pixie dust – they left the social giant to create Quora in 2009. It grew quickly after its public launch in 2010, inspiring some to claim it was the best structured Q&A site ever. They’ve also snagged funding led by Benchmark. As far as I know, this is the duo’s first major on stage interview together.

I’ve used Quora, a bit, and probably will be using it a lot as I start researching my book in earnest. But I’m curious as to how the service scales beyond its current place as a repository of quality – yet incomplete – knowledge. I’m also curious about its business model.

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Help Me Interview Ross Levinsohn, EVP, Yahoo (And Win Free Tix to Web 2)

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rossl.jpegPerhaps no man is braver than Ross Levinsohn, at least at Web 2. First of all, he’s the top North American executive at a long-besieged and currently leaderless company, and second because he has not backed out of our conversation on Day One (this coming Monday). I spoke to Ross yesterday, and wanted to wait on asking your input on what I should ask him till we had spoken.

On stage next week, Ross and I will have to discuss Yahoo’s top leadership, or lack thereof, save Ross and his interim-CEO boss Tim Morse, who was Yahoo’s CFO up until the abrupt firing of Carol Bartz late this summer.

Since that time, the daily rumor mill has swirled around the company (it was only weekly before that). Today’s news, for example, was that Yahoo stock is up, because potential buyers are “circling” the Internet giant. One of those buyers is Alibaba, the Chinese giant, another is Newscorp, where Ross worked in another life. A third is private equity, which would mean Yahoo ceases to be a public company, at least for a period of time. A long shot fourth is Microsoft, but we’ll get a chance to ask Steve Ballmer about the on Day Two….

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I Just Made a City…

By - October 10, 2011

FM on the map.png

…on the Web 2 Summit “Data Frame” map. It’s kind of fun to think about your company (or any company) as a compendium of various data assets. We’ve added a “build your own city” feature to the map, and while there are a couple bugs to fix (I’d like to be able to add my own icon, for example), it’s pretty fun to do.

I built a city for Federated Media, naturally. Given our acquisitions of Lijit, Foodbuzz, TextDigger, and BigTent, as well as our organic growth, we’ve actually accumulated quite a bit of Interest, Search, Content, and Wildcard data. It’s fun to see the city take shape in real time. Give a spin for a company you like!

Help Me Interview Vic Gundotra, SVP, Google (And Win Free Tix to Web 2)

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gundotra.jpegNext up on Day 3 of Web 2 is Vic Gundotra, the man responsible for what Google CEO Larry Page calls the most exciting and important project at this company: Google+. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve heard as varied a set of responses to any Google project as I have for Google+. Traffic is up in a huge way, state many reports, then, no, it’s down as much as 60%. Google + is the best thing since the slicing of bread, Google+ is a waste of time.

I honestly don’t think the folks at Google care about week to week traffic fluctuations, or initial reviews by the blogerati. The company is in it for the long haul this time. And Google+ marks a shift in how the Google brand is expressed, what it actually means in the minds of its customers. (Here’s my post on that idea).

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I Wish "Tapestry" Existed

By - October 07, 2011

tapestry03lg.jpeg

(image) Early this year I wrote File Under: Metaservices, The Rise Of, in which I described a problem that has burdened the web forever, but to my mind is getting worse and worse. The crux:

“…heavy users of the web depend on scores – sometimes hundreds – of services, all of which work wonderfully for their particular purpose (eBay for auctions, Google for search, OpenTable for restaurant reservations, etc). But these services simply don’t communicate with each other, nor collaborate in a fashion that creates a robust or evolving ecosystem.”

I noted that the rise of AppWorld only exacerbates the problem (apps rarely talk to each other or share data).

This must change. Not due to my philosophical problems with a closed web (though I do have that problem) but because yesterday, while driving back from an afternoon in the Valley, I had an idea for a new service, which for now I’ll call Tapestry, for lack of a better name. And then I got depressed: I figured making such a service would be really, really hard to do. And it shouldn’t be. And I hate getting depressed so quickly after having a fun idea.

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