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Else 9.22.14: Good Design Trumps Good Code

By - September 21, 2014

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This week’s Else is brought to you by good design, which trumps good code any day. And by the Alibaba IPO, which kind of pissed me off (see below). Enjoy the links!

The UX App That’s Driving Design Everywhere, From Airbnb to Zappos – WIRED

When I read this I thought – “Of course there’s an app for that.” And then I thought – “I gotta use this app!”

Pranking My Roommate With Eerily Targeted Facebook Ads  – My Social Sherpa

This is just so good, so rich, so fun. If you work in media or marketing, a must read.

Why Is Our Sci-Fi So Glum About A.I.? - NYTimes.com

Yes, my point exactly when I wrote my review of Her, which does not hew to the Hollywood narrative of AI Will Kill Us All.

Apple will no longer unlock most iPhones, iPads for police, even with search warrants – The Washington Post

Bravo, Apple, a huge play to push the data control off platform and into the hands of everyone. BRAVO.

Tim Cook Interview: The iPhone 6, the Apple Watch, and Being Nice – Businessweek

If you want to understand the new guy running Apple, this is the place to start.

Amazon Tops List of Google’s 25 Biggest Search Advertisers – Advertising Age

I wonder why? Hmmmmmmmmmm.

The $3.2 Billion Man: Can Google’s Newest Star Outsmart Apple? | Co.Design

I don’t think Tony Fadell thinks his job is to “outsmart Apple” but then again, it makes for a good headline. And the profile is good too.

Yahoo Stock Crashes As Alibaba IPOs – Business Insider

Ah yes – Alibaba. It’s not that Yahoo! exactly crashed (down 5%), but that it’s really worth very little were it not for the Alibaba holdings. That simply doesn’t make any sense.

Thoughts On Alibaba (Searchblog)

In which I think out loud about Alibaba. I am pretty sure I will piss a few folks off with this one. Sorry.

Venture Capitalist Sounds Alarm on Silicon Valley Risk – WSJ

Bill Gurley may well also have pissed some folks off, but in the end, I think he’s right in the thesis that too many companies are burning too much cash.

 

 

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Thoughts On Alibaba

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(image WSJ)

A caveat before I think out loud, quite possibly getting myself into a running battle I know I can’t win: I’m not a public market stock investor, I’ve never been one, and take the following ruminations at the price they’re offered: IE, free.

But this Alibaba stock debut doesn’t smell right to me, and it’s not the company- which is certainly a huge success story inside China, driven by a scrappy founder with a laudable (if manicured) personal narrative.

That said, Alibaba’s star turn smells of collective greed, with a hefty side of whistling past the graveyard.

I wouldn’t be writing this post if I didn’t have some knowledge around the deal, at least as it relates to the culture of access enjoyed by those with relationships to investment firms. I’ve missed a TON of great deals over my career, mainly due to my being a journalist (or acting like one, as it relates to holding stock) for a large percentage of my working life. But over the past few years I’ve carefully gotten into investing, mainly in early stage startups. I don’t look to invest in IPOs, but every so often, about twice a year, they get offered to me.

This is what happened with Alibaba. I was given the opportunity to – possibly – invest a small sum in Alibaba about a month ago. I figured it was a no-lose deal, so I said “sure” and I didn’t give it much more thought.

But as the IPO drew near, I reconsidered that decision. Not because I thought the stock was going to tank right after the IPO  – I knew there was far too much money at stake, at least in the short term, for that to happen. No, I second guessed myself because I realized I honestly don’t understand the company, or the powers that control it. I pinged the fellow who had offered me the chance to invest, so as to recant my investment. But in the end, it didn’t matter. His fund didn’t end up getting an allocation of precious “at the open” stock anyway.

I can only imagine what it must have been like running that allocation, deciding who amongst all the wealthy, connected individuals and firms would get Alibaba stock at the opening price. It’d be like doling out rigged lottery tickets – everyone’s a winner! One thing I am sure of – it wasn’t a fair process, and I almost ended up benefitting from it by happenstance. So here’s why I am concerned about Alibaba, in no particular order:

1. Greed. The company was considered, by everyone I’ve spoken to, a “sure bet” that would “pop at the open” just like the Internet stocks of old (and it did!).  And yet, everyone that I have spoken with also believes that Alibaba is an offering that encourages the kind of negative Wall Street behavior none of us really want to see happen again. The book closed early. The stock priced above its initial range and moved up by nearly 40% on its first day of trading. Financial institutions, uncertain if they were going to get the allocations they wanted, started currying favor and hustling and pleading and whining. There was a frenzy of money making activity going on, and it felt like…pure greed. Alibaba is the ultimate insider’s stock – pedestrian retail investors did not get access to shares at the opening price, and most likely they will be the sheep to whom the wolves of Wall Street quickly sell (if they haven’t already). Insiders – wealthy people with access to early distribution of IPO shares at the open, have already made their fast buck. And the ultimate insiders have made a huge killing: a consortium of big banks poured $8 billion into Alibaba this June at a $50 price, a quid pro quo if ever there was one for giving a Chinese company access to the US markets. This kind of behavior adds questionable value to our society. I don’t doubt that everyone who held pre-IPO or at-the-IPO shares will make money, in fact, I’m sure of it. And that smells of a rigged game.

2. Shallow understanding. If you’re reading this, and you bought the stock at $93 (roughly the price of its first public trade, up from $68), tell me – have you ever used Alibaba’s services? Do you really understand the company? I doubt it, because Alibaba is a Chinese company. Most of us here in the US don’t speak Chinese, or have a reason to use Alibaba’s services. But for some reason we all seem willing to buy into the “Chinese eBay,” or the “Chinese Facebook,” as if throwing those successful public companies’ reputation over Alibaba’s frame somehow equates to quality. It’s a “bet on China,” as most of the press puts it. Certainly that sounds good, given the country’s growth and early stages, but it leads me to wonder… will most analysts who are covering the stock have done core due diligence on Alibaba – the kind where you go to the market in question and talk to customers, suppliers, and regulators? That would mean they have access and understanding of the culture that controls Alibaba, and I’m pretty sure that culture will not ever allow such diligence to occur (more on that below). What bankers and analysts will tell you is they’ve run the numbers that Alibaba has given them, and they are fantastic. Then again, so are the numbers on Chinese GDP growth – and most well informed people I’ve spoken to say those numbers are unreliable. (Oh, and by the way, if you think the $81 billion China just injected into its own economy was a shrug, I guess you should buy Alibaba without concern). Which leads to…

3. Controlled by a corrupt government. Do you know how China works? I don’t, but I’ve talked to enough folks who have lived and worked in China to get a pretty clear picture: The economic and government culture does not hew to US standards, to put it mildly. And like every other company in China, Alibaba is ultimately controlled by the whims of the Chinese government. It’s something of an open secret that Chinese corporate culture is definitionally corrupt by US standards. So…does listing it on the US stock markets change this fact? I could be wrong (see my caveat at the top), but I don’t believe it does. At least when companies are corrupt in the United States, we have a free and open press, and a democratic rule of law, to keep them in check.  One could reasonably argue that it’s a supreme proof of our capitalist system that now Alibaba is public in the US, so it will now have to play by US regulations. I wish I could buy into that narrative, but I sense all we’ll really get is a company well versed at playing our game, rather than a company that is an active builder of value in our society and in other free markets.

Let me put this another way: Here are a list of Internet leaders who decided to forego China, because the government has made it nearly impossible for them to do business in the way that built our capital markets: eBay, Yelp, Twitter, Google, Facebook….and that’s just off the top of my head. So by buying into Alibaba, we’re buying into a system that has, through government fiat, denied innovative US companies growth in the world’s largest market, then capitalized that fiat into a stock it’s now selling back to us. Again, that just seems wrong.

4. Hazy growth outside core markets. Many observers are expecting Alibaba to come into the US and other large markets, and either buy or compete its way in, so as to fuel its long term growth. This I find to be difficult to believe, on many levels. Sure, Alibaba could try to buy…Yahoo!, Yelp, Twitter, hell, maybe even Box or Square or one of the other heavily funded “unicorns.” But…does anyone really believe it can *manage* those companies to success post transaction? To get a sense of how odd that sounds, imagine Google or Facebook buying a slate of Chinese companies and then managing them well. Sounds pretty risky to me.

Anyway, I’ve gone on long enough, and undoubtedly I’ve managed to piss off any number of friends and colleagues across multiple industries. So let me repeat: I’m no expert in Chinese markets, nor am I a professional public market stock investor. I’m just an industry observer, making industry observations. Caveat emptor.

A Print Magazine Launch? What?!!! California Sunday Is Coming

By - September 15, 2014

CaliforniaSundayMag_Logo_JPEGA year or so ago Chas Edwards, a colleague, pal, and member of the founding team at Federated Media, came to my office for a catch up. I had heard he was cooking up a new venture, but I didn’t know the details.

Little did I know what Chas and his new partner Douglas McGray had up their sleeve – a new *print* magazine built specifically for California.

But…print is dead, right? Apparently not. Chas and MacGray have a thesis that California is ready for a well-written, beautifully designed print publication, and all that was standing in their way was the cost of circulation, a major impediment in today’s market. They solved that issue with a clever hack of today’s newspapers – California Sunday is distributed free inside selected California newspapers. In essence, they’re piggybacking the launch of their brand, adding a valauble new product to what is a staid and attenuated newspaper brand.

But that’s not the only asset the team is bringing to bear. California Sunday also has a successful event strategy – it’s folding McGray’s popular “Pop Up Magazine” series into the company as well. And it has built a studio to help brands execute content marketing inside the magazine’s pages. Oh, and it has some of the best talent in the state, from Michael Pollan to Farhad Manjoo, as contributors.

Back in 1991, I prototyped a magazine called “The Pacific” based on similar goals to California Sunday. Ten years later, I taught a course in magazine publishing with Clay Felker, the late publishing legend who retired to Northern California and always dreamt of creating a pan-state publication (he tried, and failed, with New West). Now Chas and Douglas are giving it a go, and I think they have more than a fair shot at making it work. And yes, I’m an investor!

California Sunday launches October 5. You can read more about the publication here, and follow its Twitter feed here.

Else 9.15.14: Ma, Thiel, Apple Pay, and Minecraft

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Apple-Pay-main1I’m easing back into this weekly Else column, or put another way, I missed last week’s Else due to preparations for NewCo SF, which I’m proud to say was a huge success. This week is Detroit, then New York, London, Boulder, LA, Palo Alto, but I get ahead of myself. For today, I’ll just focus on the best stories of the past 14 or so days. Much has happened in that time period, including Microsoft buying Minecraft, Alibaba filing for an IPO in the US, and yet another Apple announcement. I like the watch best, but in the shorter term, I think Apple Pay is the first mover. Bigger iPhones? Been there.

Why Apple Pay could succeed where others have had underwhelming results (ars) It all comes down to timing and getting the back end players to play nice. Apple most likely will have a hit on its hands – once they update the OS with the service.

A Cambrian Explosion In AI Is Coming (TC) THe author, former CEO of what is now Apple’s Siri service, predicts a new marketplace beyond search and the App store. Sounds like  a place I’m interested in, given this: Early Lessons From My Mobile Deep Dive: The Quickening Is Nigh.

We’re Innumerate, Which Is Why We Love Visualizations (Searchblog) A short piece thinking out loud about innumeracy.

After Selling Out to Microsoft, Minecraft and Its Founder Write the World’s Best Press Releases (re/code) Minecraft is a phenomenon. I hope Microsoft doesn’t screw it up, but I have my doubts.

Should We All Take a Bit of Lithium? (NYT) The article does not answer the question. Which is a shame. I have a long history with the drug, not personally, but through a close relative. Too much is too much, not enough, a problem. I’m curious to learn more.

Programmatic bidding: Buy, buy, baby  (The Economist) A short intro to the practice, a longer overview of the online advertising model, with attendant concerns over privacy and surveillance, is in the print version (and behind paywall online).

Utilities of the Future (Forbes) In which a rather contra-Forbesian case is made for turning nearly the entire current sharing economy into some kind of utility.

One man willingly gave Google his data. See what happened next. (ORR) Not what you might expect. In fact, this doubter was turned into a believer that Google’s not as bad as we might fear.

The surveillance society is a step forward. But one that harkens back to our deep forager past. (Praxtime) An expansive essay about the public/private debate. Really worth the read.

Who is Jack Ma, the man behind the largest ever tech IPO? (Telegraph) Good question. Turns out, as you might expect, he’s something of a character.

Peter Thiel disagrees with you (Fortune) As long as we’re going with profiles of larger than life characters, this one is very worthy as well.

Life Break: Go See “Take Me To The River”

By - September 10, 2014

It’s rare I write about things not directly related to the Internet industry, but the film Take Me To The River, a multi-year project helmed by my friend and colleague Martin Shore, is certainly worthy of a detour. If you love music, any kind of music, this film is a must.

Martin first told me about this project more than five years ago, back then, it was going to be an album bringing together R&B legends with emerging rap artists from the Memphis area. But as he began to produce the tracks, a film emerged, one that not only tells the extraordinary musical stories, but also the story of America itself, an America that still struggles with issues of race and inequality.

Memphis is the heart of American music, from its fertile and conflicted soils have sprung some of the most influential artists in rock and roll – from Elvis to Britney, Al Green to Isaac Hayes, Booker T to the Staples Singers. But Memphis is also a network, an ecosystem, and a feeling – a place that created Stax Records, the Royal Studios, Zebra Ranch, and “the Memphis sound”, and a place where America experienced the most jolting pain of its ever-present race issue – the murder of Martin Luther King, to name only the most poignant milestone in Memphis’ history.

But if you are concerned the film might be preachy or dull, you’re entirely mistaken. Instead it is uplifting and emotional. If you ever wondered how Snoop Dogg gets his chops on, you’ll see it in this film, as he executes an impromptu duet with legend William Bell on Bell’s classic “I Forgot To Be Your Lover.” And you meet deeply soulful characters like Skip Pitts, one of the most celebrated blues guitarists in the world, as he interacts with Little P’nut, a young rap star. The result is both funny and touching, I choked up when the film noted Skip’s passing just months after recording that final session for the movie. In fact, several other Memphis legends passed away in the year between the film’s shooting and its final cut. Driven by an internal urgency that I could always sense each time I saw him over the past few years, Shore has managed to capture a piece of American music history that will live forever. The final scene – a collaboration between quintessential blues/gospel singer Mavis Staples and the genius talents of young musicians Luther and Cody Dickinson, is just brilliant and joyful. It left me happy to be alive.

Take Me to the River is debuting in San Francisco this Friday, and from there it opens across the States. Every once in a while a film comes along that reminds us why we care so much about human connections. This is one of them. Highly recommended.

 

PS – For a taste of the Zebra Ranch, here’s notes from my only visit to the place, with Martin, back in 2007. 

A Big Day For The Internet

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Today scores of big companies are taking symbolic action to defend the essential principles of an open Internet, and I support them. That’s why, on your first visit here today, you’ll see the “spinning ball of death” up on the right. For more information about the Internet Slowdown, head here.

Early Lessons From My Mobile Deep Dive: The Quickening Is Nigh

By - September 06, 2014
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Do you really want to eat them one at a time? Me, I prefer mashing ‘em up.

Recently I began a walkabout of sorts, with a goal of ameliorating my rather thin understanding of the mobile marketplace. If you read me closely, you know I’ve been more than frustrated with what I call the “chicletized world” of disconnected mobile apps. It’s rise was so counter to everything I loved about the Internet, I’m afraid as a result I underestimated its impact on that very world.

My corrective starting point – the metaphorical bit of yarn upon which I felt compelled to tug  – was the impact of “deep linking” on the overall ecosystem. The phrase has something of a  “dark pool” feel to it, but it’s actually a rather mundane concept: Developers tag their mobile apps and – if relevant – their complementary websites – with a linking structure that allows others to link directly into various points of entry into their applications. This is why, for example, you can jump from a Google search for “Tycho” on your phone to the “Tycho” page inside your Spotify app.

So far, I’ve had more than a dozen or so meetings and phone calls on the subject, and I’ve begun to formulate some working theses about what’s happening out there. While my education continues, here are some initial findings:

1. Deep linking is indeed a Very Big Deal. Nearly all the folks I spoke with believed deep linking in mobile was the beginning of something important, something I’ve started to call…

2. The Quickening… which I believe is nearly upon us. Mobile app developers are humans driven by business goals. If the business opportunity is large, but proscribed by narrow rules, they will follow those rules to gain the initial opportunity. For example, when the convener of a new market (Apple) imposes strict rules about how data is shared, and how apps must behave with regard to each other, app builders will initially conform, and behaviors will fall narrowly in line for a cycle or two (in this case, about five years). However, once those rules prove burdensome, businesses will look for ways around them. This is happening in mobile, for reasons that come down to new competitive players (primarily Android) and to a maturation in distribution, revenue, and engagement models (more on that below). The end result: The market is about to enter a phase of “quickening” – a rapid increase in linking between apps and web-like backends, harkening a new ecosystem in which both foreseeable and unforseen “life” will be created.

2. App Installs Rule. Till They Don’t. The market for mobile apps is – predictably – driven by app installs. And unless you’re the teen viral sensation of the moment, the only reliable way to get app installs is to buy them – almost exclusively via advertising on mobile devices. Facebook figured this out, and holy cow, did the market love that. But app makers are now realizing they have to do more than get their app installed. It’s actually just as critical to get their current installed base to actually engage with their app – lest it be forever relegated to the dustbin that is our current (deeply crappy) mobile desktop metaphor.  Hence the rise of  “re-engagement advertising,” which is serving as something akin to search-engine marketing (SEM) in the desktop web.  Several folks I spoke to told me that 80% of the money in mobile advertising is in app installs, but they quickly cautioned that installs are a house of cards which will not be sustained absent the rise of re-engagement advertising.

3. We’ve Seen This Movie. Which got me thinking. Jeez, have we ever seen this movie before. It’s called publishing. You can buy crappy circulation, crappy audiences, and crappy one-time visitors, and you can also buy great audiences, but the true gauge of a publication, a service, or an app is whether folks keep coming back. And even if you have a great app/service/publication, you need to remind them of your existence more than a few times before they are hooked (this is why classic magazine circulation has three phases – marketing, sampling, and conversion). The link-economy of the open web allowed this process to happen rather naturally, but there is no such economy in mobile, at least not yet. Thanks to early decision made by the conveners of the mobile ecosystem, mobile is deeply shitty at providing business owners with a way of reminding consumers about the value of their proposition, which is why they are frantic for some kind of channel for doing just that. This leads me to hypothesize that…

4. The App Store’s Days Are Limited. Remember when Yahoo! owned Web 1.0, because it had the entire Web in its directory? Or when Google owned Web 2.0, because it put the entire web in RAM? Yep, both those models created massive companies, along with massive ecosystems, but neither hegemony lasted forever. Apple’s App Store (and Google’s) are subject to the same forces. The model may be dominant, but it’s not going to last. As one senior executive in mobile media put it: “The app store is a weigh station, not an end point.” What might replace the App Store as a model for distribution? That’s a fine question, and one I don’t have a strong opinion about, at least not yet. But I sense the Quickening will lay the groundwork for new vectors of app adoption and engagement, similar – but not identical  – to the link economy of the web. Which is why I believe…

5. Re-engagement ads open the door to new topologies (and economics) across mobile. A pretty obvious point, if you’ve managed to stay with me to this point, but one I think is worth restatement and elaboration. Re-engagement advertising is driven by a fundamental business (and consumer) need, and Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Yahoo!, and Google are all responding with deep linking topologies that enable re-engagement. This is a relatively new development, and it’s hard to predict where it might go. But one thing’s for sure – deep linking is good for both the developer and the consumer. It’s just a better experience to go directly into the exact right place inside an app that’s already on your phone. And for marketers, deep linking enables far superior “landing pages” inside their apps, driving a conversion path that is measurable and repeatable. It’s not hard to imagine that re-engagement is the beginning of a more robust economic model for mobile, one that will re-integrate much of the goodness we created when the Web broke wide open ten or more years ago. And that makes me wonder if….

6. The home screen of “chiclets” is mutable. Broadly established consumer engagement models don’t shift rapidly, and the colorful, 16×16 sudoku model of App World isn’t going away anytime soon.  But do we really believe we’ll be poking at squares representing apps forever? I don’t. A more fluid experience based on declared and modeled intent makes a lot more sense – one in which we flow seamlessly from need to need, serviced in each state by a particular application without having to pull back, chose a new app, and then dive back in. I’ve not yet spoken to many UX/UI folks, but I sense this is coming, and deep linking is a first step in enabling it. Somehow, I sense that…

7. Search is key to all of this. Hey, this is Searchblog, after all. It strikes me that search on mobile is pretty broken, because it forces the entirety of the web onto a model that has far more specific – and useful – parameters to work with. The signals emanating from a mobile phone give search entirely new use cases, but so far, we’ve got precious little to show for it. This can’t stand for long.

I’ve got a lot more thinking going on, but it’s too nascent to be of much use at the moment. Topics I’m also thinking about include mapping the dependencies of the mobile ecosystem, grokking the concept of “agency” and how it relates to search and mobile data,  the role of programmatic in mobile, and understanding the flow of money between the big platforms and the little guys.

As you can probably tell, my comprehension of this space is still very limited, but I hope this update sparks some of your own thinking, and that you might share those insights with me in comments or via email or other forms of media. I will continue my walkabout in coming weeks, and I’ll keep writing about it here. Thanks for reading.

And thanks to the many folks I spoke with so far, many of whom are working on stealth projects or agreed to our conversations on background. Hence, I’ve not quoted anyone directly, but again, thanks, and you know who you are!

We’re Innumerate, Which Is Why We Love Visualizations

By - September 02, 2014

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This weekend I reviewed my notes from a few weeks of late summer meetings, and found this gem from a  conversation with Mike Driscoll, the CEO and co-founder of data analytics firm MetaMarkets. MetaMarkets helps adtech firms make sense of the reams of data they collect each day (hour, minute, second…). Most of this data is meaningless without some kind of pattern recognition and interpretation, Driscoll told me. He then used a great metaphor, one that resonated given my post earlier last week that Writing is Code, Reading Is Visualization.

When we read, Driscoll noted, we both ingest the words and simultaneously “see” a story. Stories, of course, are how we understand the world. Reading pre-supposes that a story is being told – we don’t read texts full of random words and letters, literate texts are formed so as to impart knowledge. Reading presupposes literacy. We read the text and, assuming the writer is reasonably skilled, we “see” what the author intended – a narrative story is delivered and received.

Numbers, however, are different. Very  few of us are highly numerate – we can’t “read” numbers and see stories from them in our heads. In short, most of us are innumerate – we can’t see a story by looking at numbers. Computers are excellent at reading numbers, of course, but they are terrible at telling stories. This is why people who can do both at the same time – like the cast of The Matrix,  the “Rain Man,” or advanced mathematicians of any stripe – seem so cool and alien to us.

Alas, for the rest of us, we don’t “see” much of anything when we look at a text made up of hundreds or thousands of numbers. Numbers on a page are mute. But once those numbers are run through a visualization filter, they transform into stories – visual narratives that, with a bit of practice, become highly informing. And this is why “data scientist” and “data visualization” are two of the most promising careers these days. We’re awash in data, but we lack the code to make meaning from it.

As you can tell from the graphic below, there’s an extraordinary amount of information in the programmatic adtech ecosystem – orders of magnitude more than in our current financial system.  Driscoll’s firm turns that raw information into meaningful narratives for his clients. I have a feeling that’s a very good business to be in going forward.

 

MetaMarkets Adtech Data vs. Financial Markets

Programmatic marketing is “the most complex marketplace the world has ever created, in terms of both transactional scale and richness,” says Mike Driscoll, CEO MetaMarkets.


Else 9.2.14: Don’t Worry, The Robots Are Our Friends. But the People?

By - September 01, 2014
Blade-Runner_610

“All these moments…will be lost in time…”

Else is back after an extended summer hiatus – thanks for taking the time off with me. I wasn’t sure if I was going to return to this newsletter, but its a good ritual for me to condense and annotate my daily and weekly reading habits, and enough of you have subscribed that I figured you might be missing the updates. I kind of was.

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The pieces I most enjoyed over the past week or so certainly had a theme: How will we resolve our increasingly uneasy relationship to the technology we have embraced? From automated newsfeeds to drones to AI, this stuff isn’t science fiction anymore, and the consequences are getting very real. To the links….

“Facebook Is a Weatherless World” (Searchblog)

In which I think about automated newsfeeds and a world without agency.

Inside Google’s Secret Drone-Delivery Program (The Atlantic)

Well, not exactly  secret anymore, as Google certainly wanted this particular story to get out, as it’s in a mad scramble for the future of “everything delivery” with Amazon and others. Still and all a fascinating look into one of Google’s many strange and disparate moonshots.

Robots With Their Heads in the Clouds (Medium)

Berkeley prof. Ken Goldberg lays out the quickening sparked by the combination of cloud compute and intelligent on the ground (or in the air) robots.

Wednesday Aug. 20, 2064 — What’s Next (Medium)

One of my favorite writers (Paul Ford) imagines what it might be like if all these drones and robots actually work in an optimistic scenario feature driverless cars, compostable made to order clothing, and, of course, budding romance.

Will artificial intelligence destroy humanity? Here are 5 reasons not to worry. (Vox)

It’s not easy to be human, so relax. The AI-driven roboto-verse will serve us, in the main.

ICREACH: How the NSA Built Its Own Secret Google (The Intercept)

Then again, we might want to worry about our own power structures. Imagine how the NSA might use the fantasy infrastructure that Ford creates in Medium. Yikes.

Why Uber must be stopped (Salon)

A few things about this piece. First, the headline is wrong. It’s not about stopping Uber, it’s about understanding the role of regulation when capitalism otherwise goes unchecked. Second, it appropriately wonders what happens when capital (Uber’s $1.5billion from Google, Goldman, et al) is used to crush competition, in particular, when the company that is doing the crushing has, as its end game, control of our automated transportation system (there are those dern robots again). A theme for our coming age. It’s not the cars, the drones, the tech – it’s the people behind their use. But sometimes, the way a society regulates people is to regulate the tech they employ.

SHOULD TWITTER, FACEBOOK AND GOOGLE EXECUTIVES BE THE ARBITERS OF WHAT WE SEE AND READ? (The Intercept)

Should journalists use all caps in headlines?! Apparently yes. This story is consistent with the others in this issue of Else, the debate is in full throat. See also The Atlantic’s The New Editors of the Internet.

The Facebook-ification of everything! Sex, authenticity and reality for the status update era (Salon)

Continuing my headline clickbait complaint, this headline is a total misfit for the unfortunately dry story, written by noted informational academic Lucian Floridi. He’s got a new book out, the 4th Revolution, which I plan to read. Then again, I have five books ahead of his…

Supercomputers make discoveries that scientists can’t (New Scientist)

See, we’ve found a great use for computers: Reading the stuff too dry to read ourselves.

Seeing Through the Illusion: Understanding Apple’s Mastery of the Media (9-5Mac)

My first job as a reporter was in 1987 covering Apple. For more than a decade after, I continued covering the company, through Jobs’ return. It never wavered in its philosophy around how it treated the press – as a nuisance and a threat. I’ve always thought Apple could have done better. This multi-part post fails to go as deep as I’d like, but it’s a decent overview of how Apple’s PR machine works.

Minecraft players build working hard drives (Cnet)

Minecraft has been on my “watch this closely” list for about a year. Here’s another reason why.

The Matter With Time (NY)

If you like your inside baseball with a side of dish, here’s a great read about the travails of Time Inc., the once great publishing house.

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“Facebook Is a Weatherless World”

By - August 30, 2014

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This quote, from a piece in Motherboard,  hit me straight between the eyeballs:

Facebook…will not let you unFacebook Facebook. It is impossible to discover something in its feeds that isn’t algorithmically tailored to your eyeball.

“The laws of Facebook have one intent, which is to compel us to use Facebook…It believes the best way to do this is to assume it can tell what we want to see based on what we have seen. This is the worst way to predict the weather. If this mechanism isn’t just used to predict the weather, but actually is the weather, then there is no weather. And so Facebook is a weatherless world.”

- Sean Schuster-Craig, AKA Jib Kidder

The short piece notes the lack of true serendipity in worlds created by algorithm, and celebrates the randomness of apps (Random) and artists (like Jib Kidder) who offer a respite from such “weatherless worlds.”

What’s really playing out here is a debate around agency. Who’s in control when you’re inside Facebook – are we, or is Facebook? Most of us feel like we’re in control – Facebook does what we tell it to do, after all, and we seem to like it there just fine, to judge by our collective behaviors. Then again, we also know that what we are seeing, and being encouraged to interact with, is driven by a black box, and many of us are increasingly uneasy with that idea. It feels a bit like the Matrix – we look for that cat to reappear, hoping for some insight into how and whether the system is manipulating us.

Weather is a powerful concept in relation to agency – no one controls the weather, it simply *is*. It has its own agency (unless, of course, you believe in a supreme agent called God, which for these intents and purposes we can call Weather as well.)  It’s not driven by a human-controlled agency, it’s subject to extreme interpretation, and it has a serendipity which allows us to concede our own agency in the face of its overwhelming truth.

Facebook also has its own agency – but that agency is driven by algorithms controlled by humans. As a model for the kind of world we might someday fully inhabit, it’s rather unsettling. As the piece points out, “It is impossible to discover something in its feeds that isn’t algorithmically tailored to your eyeball.” Serendipity is an illusion, goes the argument. Hence, the “I changed my habits on Facebook, and this is what happened” meme is bouncing around the web at the moment. 

It’s true, to a point, that there’s a certain sterility to a long Facebook immersion, like wandering the streets of Agrestic and noting all the oddballs in this otherwise orderly fiction, but never once do you really get inside Lacy Laplante’s head. (And it never seems to rain.)

The Motherboard article also bemoans Twitter’s evolution toward an algorithmically-driven feed – “even Twitter, that last bastion of personal choice, has begun experimenting with injecting users’ feeds with “popular” content.” Close readers of this site will recall I actually encouraged Twitter to do this here: It’s Time For Twitter To Filter Our Feeds. But How?.

The key is that question – But How?

To me, the answer lies with agency. I’m fine with a service filtering my feeds, but I want agency over how, when, and why they do so.

I think that’s why I’ve been such an advocate for what many call “the open web.” The Internet before Facebook and mobile apps felt like a collective, messy ecosystem capable of creating its own weather, it was out of control and unpredictable, yet one could understand it well enough to both give and receive value. We could build our own houses, venture out in our own vehicles, create cities and commerce and culture. If anything was the weather, it was Google, but even Google didn’t force the pasteurized sensibility one finds on services like Facebook.

As we like to say: Pray for rain.