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A World Lit With Sensors and Clothed in Data

By - October 25, 2012

I’m about to go onstage and give a talk about the themes of the upcoming book at Time Warner, and one thing I’m going to show is this video from Oblong Industries, an OpenCoSF participant company founded by the folks behind all the amazing UI stuff in Minority Report:

I’m also showing that stuff like this is getting very real – Leap Motion is taking orders for an entirely new way to interact with computers:

What with the proven success of Microsoft’s Kinect, and some of the stuff I’ve seen in labs at MIT, Microsoft Research, Google, and other places, it strikes me that in the not too distant future, it’ll be pretty natural to come into a room that is “data lit” – a room that is “lit up” with sensors and connected to the cloud, such that you can exchange information inside that room using your body, your voice, and your hands. It’ll be as natural as expecting a room to be “wifi lit” now. Or, 25 years ago, as natural as expecting that a room be lit with computer projection, or 50 years ago, with a phone – and of course, 100 years ago, with light itself.

Just stoning out while I wait to go on stage…

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Time To Begin, Again

By - October 19, 2012

Family, colleagues, and friends knew this day was coming, I knew it was coming, but here it is: I’ve rented a new place to write, a small, remote house directly on the beach, about 12 miles as the crow flies from my home in Marin county. It’s not a direct 12 miles – that crow would have to fly up about 2500 feet so as to clear the peak of Mt. Tamalpais. And that mountainous impediment is intentional – it takes close to the same time to ride a mountain bike from my home to this office as it does to drive one of several winding routes between here and there. I’m hoping that will spur me to take my commute by bicycle. I won’t be here every day, but I certainly hope to spend a fair bit of time here over the coming months.

I’ve added this new address to my long list of offices for one reason: To complete the book I’ve been talking about for nearly half a decade. That book began as an idea I called “The Conversation Economy,” but grew in both scope and ambition to encompass a much larger idea: an archaeology of the future, as seen through the digital artifacts of the present. Along the way, it’s changed a lot – 18 months ago, its title was “What We Hath Wrought.” Now, I’m thinking it’ll be called “If/Then.” I may yet call it “If/Then…Else” – or, as I wander through this journey, it might end up as something entirely different.

At this moment, I’m not certain. And that’s a bit scary.

I’ve made many false starts at this book, and I’ve failed on more than one occasion to truly commit to it. There are many reasons why, but I think the main one is that I believe this project requires that I place it first, ahead of anything else. And until recently, that’s simply been impossible. As readers know, up until this year, I ran the Web 2 Summit, which I put on hiatus this year so I could focus on the book. I’m also founder and Executive Chair of an Internet media startup, now in its seventh year. Federated Media Publishing has undergone many changes since 2005, and doubtless will see many more as it navigates what is an exciting and tumultuous media market. And because I’m a founder, I’ve always placed FMP ahead of anything else – even as I handed over CEO duties to a far more competent executive than myself 18 months ago.

In the past few months, I’ve been getting ready to put the book first, and it’s not an easy thing to do.  Not just because of the rapid evolution in the media business  (for more on that, see my “Death of Display” post), but because committing to a book project is an act of faith – faith that isn’t necessarily going to be rewarded.

Staring at a blank screen, knowing you have things to say, but not being certain how to say them, that’s just hard. I’ve been practicing for nearly a year. It’s time to get in the game.

I’ll still be a very active Chair at FMP, and I’ve got a few more long-planned trips to take, but for the most part, my calendar is cleared, and I’m ready to start. I’ve already spent the past year doing scores of interviews, reporting trips, and research on the book. I’ve got literally thousands of pages of notes and clips and sketches to go through. I’ve got many, many drafts of outlines and just as many questions to answer about where this book might take me. And of course, I’ll be writing out loud, right here, as I wander in the woods. I hope you’ll come along for the trip.

Super Sad True Love Story: A Review

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In my continuing quest to reflect on books which I have found important to my own work, I give you a work of fiction, first published in mid-2011:  Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel, by Gary Shteyngart, an acclaimed writer born in Russia, now living in the US. This is my first read of Shteyngart, known also for his previous works Absurdistan and Russian Debutante’s Handbook, both of which established him as an important new literary voice (Ten Best Books – NYT, Book of the Year – Time, etc. etc….). Of course, I was barely aware of Shteyngart until a friend insisted I read “Super Sad” and I will forever be grateful for the recommendation.

Based in a future that feels to be about thirty years from now (the same timeframe as my pending book),  Shteyngart’s story stars one Lenny Abramov, a schlumpy 39-year-old son of Jewish Russian immigrants who lives in New York City. Abramov works at a powerful corporation that sells promises of immortality to “High Net Worth” individuals. But he’s not your typical corporate climber: The book begins in Italy, where Abramov has taken a literary vacation of sorts – he’s left an America he no longer loves to be closer to a world that he does – a dying world of art, literature, and slower living. But Abramov’s duty to his parents and his need for money drive him back to America, where most of the action occurs.

It turns out the future hasn’t been very kind to America. Just about every possible concern one might have about our nation’s decline has played out – the economy is in a death spiral, the Chinese pretty much control our institutions, large corporations control what the Chinese don’t, books and intelligent discourse have disappeared, shallowness and rough sex are glorified, and the Constitution has pretty much been suspended. Oh, and while the book doesn’t exactly put it this way, Facebook and Apple have won – everyone is addicted to their devices, and to the social reflections they project.

It doesn’t take long for a reader to realize Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel is also a work of science fiction, but somehow, that construct doesn’t get in the way. In fact, it’s rather fascinating to watch an accomplished literary novelist tackle “the future,” and do a pretty damn good job at it. I’m no science fiction expert, but Shteyngart projects our present day obsessions with devices, data, social networking, and the like into a dystopia that feels uncomfortably possible. Everyone is judged by their credit scores, their youthful appearance, and their ability to gather attention from denizens of an always on, always connected datasphere (those that are particularly good at getting attention are dubbed “very Media!”). Shteyngart is clearly working fields well sown by Dick, Gibson, Stephenson, Doctorow, and many others, but it works for me anyway.

The story is indeed a love story – an improbable and poignant one at that – between Lenny, a middle-aged man beset by insecurities, and a young Korean woman caught between familial duty and the pointless, consumer-driven world of shopping and social networking. The narrative is driven by America’s collapse into a security state, and I won’t give away any more of the plot than that. I’ll leave it here: By the end of this often hilarious novel, you will feel super sad, and you may also come to question the path we are on as it relates to data. I know that’s a pretty odd thing to say about a love story, but data, in fact, plays a central role in the novel’s meaning.  Here are a few of the passages I highlighted:

“Shards of data all around us, useless rankings, useless streams, useless communiqués from a world that was no longer to a world that would never be.”

“I’m learning to worship my new äppärät’s screen, the colorful pulsating mosaic of it, the fact that it knows every last stinking detail about the world, whereas my books only know the minds of their authors.”

“Streams of data were now fighting for time and space around us.”

“And all these emotions, all these yearnings, all these data, if that helps to clinch the enormity of what I’m talking about, would be gone.”

“I wanted to be in a place with less data, less youth, and where old people like myself were not despised simply for being old, where an older man, for example, could be considered beautiful.”

That last passage is from near the end of the book, when the fate of our protagonist has resolved – I won’t tell you how, in case you haven’t read the book. And if that is the case….I certainly recommend that you do.

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Other works I’ve reviewed:

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)

 

At Google Zeitgeist: Theoretical Physics and Astronauts, Unite!

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Earlier in the week I traveled to the annual Google Zeitgest conference, where I’ve been honored to be a moderator for the past few years. This year I was given the challenge of tacking a 90-minute block on “The World We Dream,” which featured an extraordinary set of speakers. The session included a short interview with two impressive folks: Ron Garan, a NASA astronaut who has spent 180 days in space, and Lisa Randall, a celebrated theoretical physicist and author. I’ve never spent as much time prepping for a 20-minute interview as I did for this – in part because the Higgs Boson is not that easy for the laymen to grok, nor is the concept of floating around in space. If you are so inclined, enjoy:

 

Help Me Stop HubAdverts Dot Com!

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I’ve been working with my site design partner Blend to try to track down a spammer who has taken my entire site and repurposed it as their own, replete with tons of ads and a clear intent to draft off Searchblog’s quality content (if I do say so myself) and, most likely, its pagerank as well.

The site is “hubadverts.com” and no, I’m not going to link to it. Each of my posts is ripped off as a URL including that domain – if you click on the domain, you get a scammy feeling ecommerce site. But at “hubadverts.com/on-data/” for example, you will see a recent post of mine, scraped in its entirety.

The funny thing about this site it that it scrapes my full text RSS feed, then rebuilds my site. Then it has spammy sites trackback to the rebuilt site, and leave comments there. Oddly, those trackbacks and comments are emailed to me as if I was the WordPress administrator of the site. Of course, the last thing I am going to do is try to log into the back end of the site, because that would give the spammers access to the backend login information of my own site. It’s phishing and blackhat SEO all rolled into one!

The “news hub” where my ripped-off posts reside includes an ad urging folks to “Unblock the Pirate Bay,” which concerns me, because just writing this post probably is inviting a DDOS attack. But I don’t think ripping off my site and damaging my reputation is defensible, and I’m speaking up about it.

I emailed Toni Schneider, the CEO of WordPress, for advice, and he suggested I change my RSS feeds so the scrape includes attribution. I did so, and sure enough, now the spam site attributes Searchblog and links back to it. (I am very fortunate to have Toni as a colleague!). However, while this proved the site was scraping my RSS feed, it doesn’t solve the problem. Toni suggested some other remedies, which we are looking into, but he also suggested I do what I’m doing now: Public shaming. After all, the site is violating my non-commercial Creative Commons license, and quite possibly damaging my own pagerank – Google doesn’t like it when spammy sites are seen as linking to you, and it hates duplicate content.

So I want it stopped. But a lookup of the site’s owners show the listing is private – I don’t have anyone to go after. And the site itself is an endless mousetrap of scammy ecommerce sites, among other things.

Hence, I’m asking you, the Searchblog readers, who are always smarter than I, to help me figure out a way to make this right. Any ideas?

OpenCoSF Storified

By - October 13, 2012

Yesterday I participated in OpenCoSF. After weeks of preparation, we really had no idea how it was going to turn out, but to judge from the Twitter buzz, it seems folks had a really good time, and the vibe of open collaboration, rapid iteration, and “run with it” mentality really took over. Thanks to everyone involved. Below is my “Storified” version of the day:


On Data

By - October 11, 2012

A glimpse of some of the thinking I’ve been doing about the impact of “data” on our culture. I am close (so damn close) to sealing myself off and into only thinking about this, for my book (OpenCoSF is my last big project till I do). But thanks to the Vibrant Data project for taking an interview I did at TED earlier this year, and making it into something that almost makes me look like I have my shit together. I attest, I do not. I hope soon, I will.


Check Out The OpenCoSF Lineup

By - October 04, 2012

I’m getting really excited about OpenCoSF, which we’ve managed to spin up in record time. It’s truly an example of collective good intent in action. More than 80 wonderful companies are now participating, each opening their doors to the public and presenting their own stories, in situ. On Friday, Oct. 12, more than 1000 folks will be combing San Francisco’s SOMA, Mission, Mid-Market, Embarcadero, and Dogpatch neighborhoods, checking out the special sauce that makes innvative businesses tick. Check out the lineup so far (I only wish we could every single company that applied – next year!). You can register for free here. We’ll be launching the “lineup picker” very soon!

 

Data Wildcatters on the Wild Swiss Range

By - October 02, 2012

You want to put your sensor *where*?!!!!!

(image shutterstock) I’ve been watching the news for tidbits which illuminate a thesis I’ve been working up for my book. Today the New York Times provided a doozy: Swiss Cows Send Texts to Announce They’re in Heat. As James Gleick, author of The Information, noted in a Twitter response to me: That’s one heckuva headline.

So what’s my thesis? It starts with one of the key takeaways from Gleick’s book, which is that we are, as individuals and a society, becoming information. That might seem a rather puzzling statement, because one could argue that we’ve always been information, it’s only recently that we’re realizing that fact. So perhaps a better way of putting it is that we’re exploring the previously unmapped world of information. In the 1400s, the physical world was out there, much as it is today (perhaps it had a few more glaciers…). But we hadn’t discovered it, at least, not in any unified fashion. Now that we’ve discovered, named, and declared the outlines of most of the physical world, we are rapidly moving into a new era, one where we are coloring in the most interesting bits of information in our world with what we now call “data.”

As we survey, chart, and claim this new territory, a truth is emerging: when we discover some set of information might be valuable, we turn that information into data. Information is a slippery concept – one that gives Gleick “the willies.” But data? That’s information we can manipulate.

So here’s my thesis:  We create new data wherever we can find value. Put another way: If it’s valuable to know, new data will flow. Not to everyone, of course – as with oil, control of data is power. But the world is hell-bent on finding new data resources that unleash value. We’ve got wildcatters, we’ve got Exxon/Mobiles (think Facebook, Google, Amazon, the NSA, etc.), we’ve got pipes. And we’ve got incredible stories of the things folks will do to unlock the value of data.

Which takes us back to the cows of Switzerland. As the Times’ piece explains, a Swiss research team has created a system, comprised of implanted sensors and radio beacons, that measures a cow’s movement and internal body temperature. It converts these measurements into data, runs the data through an algorithm, and when the resulting computation indicates the cows are in heat, it sends a text message to the rancher. The net result: The rancher has a better chance of getting that cow pregnant (er, that didn’t quite come out right – but you know what I mean).

Net net: a  pregnant cow is a more valuable cow. And to get a cow pregnant more reliably, one needs the data. Previously, that data was buried in a bovine’s unexplored nether regions (literally – the sensor is placed in the cow’s genitals). But given the value that data carries, these Swiss data wildcatters have tapped a new gusher. This data exploration is now happening over and over, in nearly every imaginable corner of our world. We’ve just tapped the tip of this data iceberg, of course; we’re just stepping onto the shores of the New World. We’d be wise to remember that as we move forward.

OpenCoSF – A New Kind of Event

By - October 01, 2012

I’m very excited to announce that registration is now open for OpenCoSF, a new kind of event that I’m helping to bring into the world.

Registration is free and open to anyone who’s interested in innovation in the Bay area. You can sign up here. Already about 1,000 people have expressed interest in coming, and I think we’ve got room for another 500 or so, if my math is correct.

So what is OpenCo? Well, it’s one the “seeds” that’s been germinating since I wrote the It’s Hard to Lay Fallow post back in the early summer. A few months before that, I took a mountain bike ride with one of my pals in the business, Magna Global managing partner Brian Monahan. Brian is on the board of sfBIG, a large Bay area marketing and Internet organization. At a recent meeting, the board was tossing around ideas for how to shine a brighter light on the unique culture of  innovation here in San Francisco and beyond. The idea of an event came up, and knowing my experience with the Web 2 Summit (now on hiatus)  and Federated’s Signal series, Brian asked my advice.

As we climbed up a particularly steep part of the Marin Headlands, Brian posited a new approach to conferences: an “open studio” of sorts, where conference attendees ventured out into the world to see entrepreneurs and leaders in their native environment. I found the idea compelling, if logistically terrifying. It’s one thing to ask a thousand or more folks to gather in one place. It’s quite another to ask them to spread out across an entire city.

The ever-expanding lineup of companies participating in OpenCoSF.

But there was something about Brian’s excitement, and the core of his idea, that really stuck with me. If you’ve read my  The Power of Being There post, I think you know where I’m going with this. For more than 15 years, I’ve been running conferences where hundreds of folks gather in a dark, windowless ballroom to hear from leaders of innovative companies. There’s a lot to be said for this model, but the idea of people actually visiting those companies, in their native environment, just felt right.

I began to develop the idea, producing an overview model and description. I figured we’d execute the first “Open Innovation Studios” (our early name) in the Spring, which gave us enough time to secure the partnerships necessary to get a new event launched. I figured it’d run for three days, with a headquarters in the center of the city, and a plenary conference to kick it off on day one.

Then I ran into the Mayor  of San Francisco at  a cocktail party at Ron Conway’s house. Ever the connector, Ron told the Mayor about our idea, and the Mayor told me he was planning to announce October as Innovation Month in San Francisco. Could we perhaps do our event then?

And off we went. In less than three months, an extraordinary coalition of the willing has come together to produce the first ever OpenCoSF. Our first iteration is a pilot of sorts – we’re limiting the participating companies to 75 or 80, and we’re running the open studios for just one day, Friday, October 12. We’ll be kicking things off with a short plenary and cocktail party the evening of the 11th (Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, Github CEO Tom Preston-Werner, and Conway will be speaking, along with the Mayor).

Even though it’s a pilot, the response so far has been overwhelming. Companies hosting OpenCo sessions include leaders like Twitter, Salesforce, Zynga, Yammer, Adobe, Jawbone, and Google, as well as well known startups such as airbnb, Hipmunk, HotelTonight, Nextdoor, Cloudera, and scores more. And it’s not just tech or Internet – we’ve got chocolate startup TCHO, grilled cheese innovator The Melt, hospitality leader Kimpton, and UCSF, which is a leader in biomedicine. Silicon Valley Bank and The Interpublic Group – in particular its Universal McCann, IPG Mediabrands, and 215McCann agenies – have lent their time and treasure to the effort. AnthemWW has lent a big hand, as has sf:citi and of course sfBIG. Federated Media Publishing is providing a venue for day one, as well as a number of key staff resources. And more companies and sponsors are in the works in the coming days.

OpenCoSF is a prime example of the collaborative spirit that makes San Francisco great. It’s indicative of a desire to share our stories, celebrate our culture, and strengthen our community. If you sign up, you’ll notice that the site acts a lot like a music festival – you’ll see a “lineup” and in a few days we’ll be launching a “company picker” – where you’ll be able to schedule your company visits by timeslot and “stage” – our name for neighborhoods like the Mission, SOMA, or the Financial District. The lineup app is thanks to our partnership with DoStuff Media – the folks powering sites for  music festivals like Outside Lands and Lollapalooza. And OpenCoSF is certainly a festival, a celebration of the innovative ecosystem that makes a city like San Francisco special. I hope you’ll join us!