free html hit counter John Battelle's Search Blog | Page 14 of 544 | Thoughts on the intersection of search, media, technology, and more.

With Google’s 2012 Zeitgeist, You Won’t Learn Much. Why?

By - December 13, 2012

Guess what? This guy was big this year. Really!

I think readers know that on balance, I’m a fan of Google. I recently switched to the Nexus 4 (more coming on that front as I settle into really using it). I believe the company has a stronger core philosophy than many of its rivals. Overall, given that it’s nearly impossible to avoid putting your data into someone’s cloud, I believe that Google is probably the best choice for any number of reasons.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t criticize the company. And every year about this time, I end up doing just that.

Because the annual Google Zeitgeist came out this week, and I’ve spent a bit of time digging into it. And once again, I’m pretty disappointed.

In the past I’ve criticized Google for failing to ask interesting questions of the massive amount of data it collects on search patterns each year. Once again, this lament applies. I honestly do not care what top ten TV Shows, Sports Stars, Songs, or even People we collectively care about, because there is *never* a surprise in those results.

But Google knows so much more….and could really tease out some insights if it cared to. Imagine if Google took its massive search query database and worked with some of the leaders in the open data movement to mine true insights? Sure, Google would have to be careful about how it released the data, but the output would be extraordinary, I’d warrant.

Instead, we find out that Gangnam Style was a big deal this year. No shit!?

But it gets worse. Not only is Zeitgeist rife with pop culture fluff, as you drill down into it by country, eager perhaps to find something interesting, it turns out Google has chosen to eliminate certain potentially sensitive categories altogether.

For the US and most other countries, for example, there is a “What is….” category, which shows the top search queries that start with “What is…” For the US, the answers are

  1. What is SOPA
  2. What is Scientology
  3. What is KONY
  4. What is Yolo
  5. What is Instagram
  6. What is Pinterest
  7. What is Lent
  8. What is Obamacare
  9. What is iCloud
  10. What is Planking

But is there a “What Is…” for Saudi Arabia? Nope. China? Uh-uh. The United Arab Emirates? No sir. Egypt? Move along.

Hmmm.

Oddly, Google did provide “What is…” was for Singapore, where people living under that “benign dictatorship” were interested in the same things as the US –  ”What is SOPA”,  ”What is Scientology” and, for politicians, who is “Mitt Romney.”

For the US only, you can drill down into all manners of other categories past the main page, including News, Science, Tech, Humanities, and Cities. Those are pretty interesting categories, but Google only provides them for the US, which is a shame.

Furthermore, I find it interesting that Google, with all of its translation technology, does not have a translation button on the results pages for countries where the majority of the searches are in languages other than English. This is most likely due to political sensitivities, because if you run some of the results through Google Translate (do you believe I had to do that?!), you get some stuff that I am sure does not please the regimes of countries like China, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

For example, here are some of the top searches for Saudi Arabia, translated (roughly I am sure) by the Google Translate service:

Student outcomes Arab Idol insurance Ramadan Series 2012 Mohamed Morsi explosion Riyadh Burma Free Syrian Army Shura Council tornado Sandy

But again, you aren’t going to get much more insight into what Saudi folks are *really* thinking about, because Google failed to ask the interesting questions, like those it has in the “News” section of the US Zeitgeist. I’d sure be interested in “Political Gaffes,” “Election Issues,” and “News Sources,” in Saudi Arabia, China, or the UAE.

In fact, for Saudi Arabia, Google has ommitted the “Top News Searches” box that is on several of the other country pages (even Egypt). Instead, the topics for Saudi Arabia (besides trending searches and people) focus on sports and entertainment stars, fashion designers, TV shows, and the like. Deep, Google. Thanks.

Now, the datasets are different for each country, and it may be that Google simply didn’t have enough trending data to surface interesting political insights for these controversial countries.

Somehow, though, I don’t buy that. This set of lists feels extremely human vetted – I’m guessing an awful lot of hand wringing went into chosing what to show and what might prove problematic to Google’s best interests were it to see the light of day.

If that is the case, I urge the company to have more courage. I bet if Google open sourced its query data sets (eliminating any chance of PII getting out, of course), I bet academics, data scientists, and just plain interested folks would let loose an explosion of insight. Pop up the rainbird of data, Google, and let the ecosystem flourish. We’d all be the richer for it.

  • Content Marquee

For Microsoft, The Worm Turns Through Apple

By - December 11, 2012

(image) Wow. That’s about the sum of my initial reaction to this story from ATD: Exclusive: Microsoft Pressing Apple to Take a Smaller Cut on Sales Inside Office for iOS.

The wow isn’t that Microsoft is trying to reduce the 30% cut Apple takes on every dollar that flows through the iOS ecosystem. That’s to be expected, though I very much doubt it will happen.

The wow, to me, is how massively the world of software has changed, in particular as it relates to Apple and Microsoft.

I started covering this space in 1987, when Apple was a heroic underdog and Microsoft ruled the world. Apple built bespoke computers that struggled for marketshare in the face of the Windows hegemony. Microsoft, on the other hand, eschewed hardware but built lots and lots of software. Its core profits came from the PC software and OS businesses, but it also had a small division that made Macintosh applications. Because Microsoft’s Windows OS was a major competitor to Apple, we reporters would constantly speculate that Microsoft was was close to pulling its support for the Apple platform, just to  hasten the demise of Apple’s competing offering.

In fact, at one critical juncture in Apple’s history, Steve Jobs practically begged Bill Gates to keep making software for the Mac, then cut an investment deal with him which kept Apple in business.

But regardless of whether you bought a Mac or a PC, once you had your computer, you then bought applications for it – separately, and without any platform tax. The PC and the Mac were what Jonathan Zittrain calls generative ecosystems – anyone could build a business on top of IBM or Apple’s computers, and Microsoft certainly did.

If you had told me back in 1987 that within one generation, Microsoft would be forced to give Apple a 30% cut of its software revenue just to be available on the iOS platform, well, I would have told you to step away from the bong. What a ridiculous notion!  But that’s the way the worm has turned – Microsoft is now at the mercy of Apple, and is playing a high-stakes game of chicken. On the one hand, it needs to distribute its apps on iOS devices (iOS is particularly important to Microsoft’s cloud ambitions, and that is at the heart of this dispute). On the other, Microsoft’s DNA – remember Ballmer has been there since 1980 – is violently opposed to Apple’s pay-to-play business model.

It’s actually possible that Microsoft could abandon its commitment to building for Apple – but for entirely different reasons than any of us might have imagined some 25 years ago. Fascinating stuff.

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

By -

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

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

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

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

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

Another Thoughtful Personal Essay: Fragile

By - December 06, 2012

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

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

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

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

Am I taking enough care of my body?

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

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

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

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

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

Locked and Bloated

By - December 05, 2012

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

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

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

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

Imagine a world where that was possible.

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

Oh, how utopian that all sounds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Every So Often: The Personal Essay Makes A Comeback

By - December 04, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Less iPhone Purchased: Day One With The Nexus

By - December 01, 2012

I finally did it – I slipped the sim from my failing iPhone 4 into a shiny new Google Nexus last night.

And damn, the thing just worked. And it’s So. Much. Better.

But….there are things I wish it had. I figure I’ll take notes here, so folks can both learn from my experience, as well as tell me what an idiot I am help me out.

Here are the things I really like:

- Much better screen, faster, etc. There are tons of reviews that go over all of this, so I’ll not belabor the point. This is a way better device in tons of ways than the iPhone 4. And my son has a iPhone 5, and it’s bigger, and frankly looks nicer as well.

- All my stuff from Google automatically just…works on the phone. I logged in via my main Gmail account, and all my cloud-based stuff with Google showed up. All my photos on Picasa, all my contacts via Gmail (I’ve been using Gmail as a way to bypass Apple’s terrible contact “solution,” all the apps I had already downloaded when I set up my Nexus 7 tablet a while ago. It was very, very slick, and it makes me both trust the service, and want to feed it more of my data. While I am wary of having my data on any one provider, as I have written before, Google’s commitment to “data liberation,” which is enforceable via the FTC, gives me far more comfort than Apple’s closed world. And, as far as I can tell from my family’s experience with Apple’s approach to the cloud…well, Apple is terrible at it.

- The camera is ridiculously better than anything I’ve ever had.

- Most of the apps are clean and work very well. Google search is really, really good in voice mode. Google Calendar works seamlessly as well. Twitter is elegant. Etc.

Now, here’s the thing I really, really don’t get about the Nexus 4: Why on earth, when I plug it into my computer, doesn’t Google Play come up, so I can manage my phone from my Mac?

I know, that’s how the iPhone works, but it’s a very good way to manage the device, and I don’t understand why Google wouldn’t take the same approach. Google Play is turning into a pretty good App Store, and I’d prefer to use it on a bigger screen (the PC web) as I manage all my Android apps.

Anyone have a good reason for why Google hasn’t pulled the switch on that?

I’m running into any number of minor irritations with the phone – there are a few apps I use a lot from the iPhone that I have to figure out how to connect to my new Android world, but I am sure I’ll get there.

In short, I think this phone is for real. It’s gotten me off the iPhone, and I couldn’t be happier about that.

So what apps should I use? What are your favorites? Any tips and tricks?

UPDATE: Thanks for reminding me about wireless updates, no need to plug into a computer. And thanks for all the tips, keep them coming. One irritation I have found in the following day or so of use is the way Android handles text manipulation. I don’t find it easy to insert the cursor where I want to, for example. I’m sure I’ll figure it out…

Can The Future Be Perfect? It Can Certainly Be Better

By - November 29, 2012

As my 2011 review of his Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation proves, I am a Steven Johnson fan. So it was with relish that I settled in to read his latest release: Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age.

Steven had already told me the premise of his book – the first he’s written since moving to my neck of the woods in Marin, California (I hope we can keep him from going back to Brooklyn, but we’ll see…).

In short it’s this: the evidence has become overwhelming that a new form of political expression is developing, an expression deeply informed by the gravitational pull of the Internet (for more on that, see Steven’s piece in the Times: The Internet? We Built That).

Johnson sought for years to give this concept a name, and last year settled on “peer progressive.” He describes how he came to the term:

Slowly but steadily, much like the creation of the Internet itself, a growing number of us have started to think that the core principles that governed the design of the Net could be applied to solve different kinds of problems— the problems that confront neighborhoods, artists, drug companies, parents, schools. You can see in all these efforts the emergence of a new political philosophy, as different from the state-centralized solutions of the old Left as it is from the libertarian market religion of the Right. The people behind these movements believe in government intervention without Legrand Stars, in Hayek-style distributed information without traditional marketplaces. Ron Paul’s rallying cry was too simple; progress is not just a question of choosing between individuals and the state. Increasingly, we are choosing another path, one predicated on the power of networks. Not digital networks, necessarily, but instead the more general sense of the word: webs of human collaboration and exchange…

…We believe in social progress, and we believe the most powerful tool to advance the cause of progress is the peer network. We are peer progressives.

Johnson’s use of the term “Legrand Star” is a reference to one of two consistent tropes throughout the book: A “Legrand Star” is a centralized, hierarchical approach to problem solving or decision making (named after the French rail system, which ran out to the country in direct lines from Paris). A “Baran Web” is a decentralized, peer network approach (named after Paul Baran, an early Internet pioneer).

As Johnson notes in the book, Future Perfect is something of a career-long work – his examples all stem from things he’s noticed over the course of more than a decade of writing books. It’s as if he had a big folder of anecdotes gathered over the past 15 years, each labeled “This must mean something,” all patiently waiting to be turned into this book.

Like many of us (I will admit an easy attraction), Johnson has for years felt disconnected from the political process. The polarization of political discourse seemed detached from what many of us were feeling on the ground – example after example of good things getting done by networks of diverse people working toward common goals. In Future Perfect Johnson organizes proofs of such work, some well known (Wikipedia), others surprising (he reinterprets the “Miracle on the Hudson” river landing as the work of an extended peer network. You’ll never think of frozen chickens in the same way again).

In this book Johnson acts as something of a peer progressive Johnny Appleseed, each new narrative another seed which plants the concept more firmly in a reader’s mind. Employee-owned companies perform better than Wall St. driven firms – peer networks for the win. Prize-driven, open-source advancement of science births commercial space aviation, and may solve even larger issues like our society’s approach to pharma research – again, peer nets FTW. Our cities are clogged with traffic, peer networks can re-route our transportation grid. Our news is Legrandian, but peer networks can not just save journalism, but improve it to the point of far higher value to each citizen, down to the hyperlocal level. Patents are a blight on true innovation, peer networks are helping us clear our intellectual property acne – peer networks FTW!

Toward the end of the work, Johnson writes a passage that sounds absolutely radical, if taken out of context:

The modern regime of big corporations and big governments has existed for the past few centuries in an artificial state that neglected alternative channels through which information could flow and decisions could be made. Because we were locked into a Legrand Star mind-set, we didn’t build our businesses and our states around peer networks that could connect us to a much more diverse and decentralized group of collaborators. Instead, we created a mass society defined by passive consumption, vast hierarchies, and the straight lines of state legibility. It didn’t seem artificial to us, because we couldn’t imagine an alternative. But now we can.

But after reading Steven’s book, and living through many of the same stories as has he, I have to say, I wholeheartedly agree.

Other works I’ve reviewed:

Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel by Gary Shteyngart (review)

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers by Tom Standage (review)

Year Zero: A Novel by Rob Reid (review)

Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman (review)

Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.0 by Larry Lessig (review)

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Vintage) by Jaron Lanier (review)

WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency by Micah Sifry (review)

Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It by Larry Lessig (review)

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

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

The Corporation (film – review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (review)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Must All Grasshoppers Die?

By - November 28, 2012

I’ve been reading a lot lately – and the topics have been pretty diverse. Popular science fiction from ten years ago (Outerland), political commentary from last month (Future Perfect), seminal computing tracts from the 1990s (Mirror Worlds), and just published manifestos on synthetic biology (Regenesis).

It is a luxury to read this much, even if it’s also not exactly pleasurable (memo to Dr. Church: Most of your readers do not have college degrees in organic chemistry…). But it does change how you think.

Last night I came home early from my writing retreat. I wasn’t happy about doing so, but life sometimes conspires to force you off plan. Yesterday was not a good day – any number of projects in which I’m involved unexpectedly demanded attention, and I failed to say no to their requests. I also contracted a swell case of poison oak. As I completed my tenth conference call – at a writing retreat in which I was supposedly to focus only on writing – I looked up and saw this:

Had I not looked up, I’d have missed it entirely. Five minutes later, it was dark. I packed my bags, locked the door behind me, and drove home.

When I got there, my wife introduced me to a dying grasshopper, a bright green declaration of life poking feebly at an impervious ceramic wall of white. Somehow, it had gotten into our house and ended up in our bathtub. There it lay, slowly tapping out what seemed a last message, scraping its minute grasshopper claw against an unfeeling bed of marble.

I’d like to say that I gently lifted that grasshopper from the tub and lay it on a pillow of leaves. That I googled “how to nurse a grasshopper back to life” and concocted just the right nectar to  revive the tiny beast. But I didn’t. Like most of us would, I looked away. I was sad but I was caught up in my own shit. That grasshopper was running on fumes, it was out of gas. And when a grasshopper runs out of gas, well, that’s it, ain’t it? Perhaps I should have placed it outside, to die in situ. But it was warmer inside…and…well. Make a your sign over it, say a few words after life retreats.

As a culture, two classes of animated beings populate our lives. One are living – people, pets, E Coli, grasshoppers. The other are machines – computers, leaf blowers, automobiles. Each type requires fuel. But only machines can lay dormant for a long period of time between hitting the gas station.  The machines. We envy them, then we remind ourselves that we are alive – we are sentient, living beings. We die, yes, but that’s worth the trade, right?

I wanted nothing more than to pull that dying grasshopper into a QuikStop. Well, no, that’s not true. What I wanted more was to look away, because I knew no such thing exists.

What I’ve noticed, as I’ve been on my journey of reading, is that as a society, we are beginning to have a grand conversation about what it means to rethink the idea of being alive. I’m not just talking about robots that act human, or the synthetic creations of Craig Venter. But really, what does it mean to be animate? Can we separate life from machines? Can we give them life?

To live has been forever defined by the idea of death. A grasshopper that never dies is not alive, is it? It must be, instead, a creation of life, but not living itself. It’s a machine.

These boundaries are going to be pushed in the next 30 years. This is not hype, it’s simply true. We are drawing close to understanding the machinery of life and death. At least, as a culture, we believe we are close. It’s all over the books I’ve been reading.

I wonder, what will come of all of it? Any thoughts?

Meantime, I’m just glad I looked up and saw that sunset before I left yesterday. It reminded me that  there’s still a fair bit of wonder in the world. And that helps put the whole day in perspective.

Dave Pell on Facebook’s Gift to Itself

By -

I enjoy NextDraft, an email newsletter penned by Dave Pell each day. I value point of view and voice in any medium, and Dave’s got it. I think Searchblog readers would appreciate this item, so I’ve reposted it here. Dave, I hope you don’t mind…

The Gift of Data

Facebook knows a lot about you. But there are a couple things that would make its collection of personal data a whole lot more valuable: Your home address and your credit card number. In addition to having a big revenue potential, Facebook’s new birthday gift store could lead to a data treasure trove (and herald a new era when just typing “Happy Birthday” when prompted is no longer enough).