Is US Culture Veering Toward The Dark and Deadpan?

NSA_Logo_Prism_Floor_640_1_s640x427(image) According to Wikipedia, “deadpan” is a uniquely American neologism less than a century old. The term arose from the slang term “pan,” for face: “Keep a dead pan,” a gangster told an associate in 1934’s The Gay Bride. In other words, don’t show your cards.

“Deadpan humor,” of course, is playing a joke straight, pretending you’re unaware of the punchline. It’s often related to “dark” or “black” humor, which makes light of otherwise serious situations, often with a cynical or satirical tone.

Why am I on about this now? Because I think as a society we’re rapidly shifting into a dark, deadpan culture, driven almost entirely by revelations around the NSA’s PRISM and related programs. We know we can’t pretend we’re not being monitored – so we resort to deadpan humor to handle that new reality.

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else 8.19: Why We Should Replace the Turing Test

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(image) Among many other things (we usually add 20-30 items into our book’s Evernote account each week), this past week we read about developments in brain-computer interfaces, and how connecting smart devices introduces new vulnerabilities. We also read about how policy and ethics questions need to catch up with technology that makes surveillance easier. If you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS.

 

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Thoughts on Ford’s OpenXC: In The Future, Brands With Open Data Will Win

Ford Open XCI spent today at the first-ever Boing Boing Ingenuity, a two-day hackathon cum “vaudeville show” – truly Boing Boing brought to life. It made me so proud to see the essence of conversational marketing at work – a major brand adding deep value to a community, an independent publisher realizing its dream of celebrating its voice and community through a unique event that built up online over many months.

Here’s the Twitter stream. It was really great. And the main insight I took away was this: Brands will soon have no choice but to become data (because we are all becoming data, after all). A car creates tons of data every mile it is driven, for example. Faced with this fact, how might a car brand respond? It could see that data as its private asset, put up fences around it, and make that data really difficult for the driver (and society at large) to access. Or, it could act like Ford did, and tack in the direction of openness.

Ford has created a platform called OpenXC that opens APIs into 50 or so data streams coming out of your car. On the first day of Ingenuity, teams of makers, hackers, and regular folks came up with amazing ideas that leveraged Ford’s innovative platform. For example, one team built an app that senses when a pet or child is in your car, then monitors the car’s internal temperature. If it gets too hot, this app can lower the windows, turn on the AC, and text the car’s owner. I mean, how cool is that?!

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The debut of “else”: Surveillance Everywhere and the Technological Wild West

As we’re working on the book, Sara and I are planning on sharing some of the news items and blog posts that catch our attention each week. We’ll also plan on talking through some of the things we’re reading and working on in this space. In keeping with boolean condition logic of the if/then working title for the book, we’ll be tagging these posts as “else.” Links aren’t necessarily endorsements, but they do point to ideas that got us thinking this week.

If you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the ELSE feed, either as an email newsletter (coming soon) or through RSS.

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This week we look at challenges in the using quantified self data, developments in the NSA surveillance coverage, and round out with a few throwbacks to the Victorian age of technology. On to the links:

Inside the Nike+ Accelerator: Fueling the quantified-self movement – Engadget

TechStars accelerator working on Nike+ to build innovation on the Nike platform. Article talks a lot about the importance of opening up the Nike+ API for development innovation (right now it’s only open to these ten accelerator companies).

Why The Quantified Self Needs A Monopoly – ReadWrite

Highlights one of the big barriers to consumer adoption right now, that is correlating all these quantified self data sources into one, meaningful view. To do that you need to a) be able to get the data into one place, b) have it speak to each other, and c) know what you are looking at once you can see it all in one place. We might argue that you don’t need an Apple or Microsoft monopoly for that necessarily. But we will need tools that pull this together; maybe something more along the lines of Mint.

The Public-Private Surveillance Partnership – Bloomberg

Bruce Schneier walks us through the implicit business models that got us into the current surveillance state: “Imagine the government passed a law requiring all citizens to carry a tracking device. Such a law would immediately be found unconstitutional. Yet we all carry mobile phones.” [Incidentally, Schneier is also a Fellow at the Berkman Center this year along with Sara].

This Recycling Bin Is Stalking You – The Atlantic Cities

Recycling bins in London are tracking MAC addresses from passing smartphones and Wifi-enabled devices, essentially bringing tracking cookies from the internet into the physical world. Turns out this might actually be illegal.

The Atlantic Cities

 

A Cheap Spying Tool With a High Creepy Factor – NYTimes

Security researcher Brendan O’Connor uses cheap Raspberry Pi devices to monitor Wifi signals, proving that conducting surveillance is becoming easier, no matter who you are.

Other Agencies Clamor for Data N.S.A. Compiles – NYTimes

Once the data is in a format where it can be activated, others will find new uses for it.

Searching Big Data for ‘Digital Smoke Signals’ – NYTimes

The United Nations Global Pulse team is using sentiment analysis and mobile data to catch early signals for global economic trends to develop faster, more adaptive and responsive aid programs.

Why the Sun is Setting on the Wild West of Ride-Sharing – Wired

Car sharing dropoffs at airports are started to see a crackdown in SFO. Policies still protect taxi and limo service domain here and new regulations requiring insurance companies could increase operating costs. This could slow down the markets where consumers are taking underused assets and making them liquid. John recently wrote about how Uber saved the day in a recent travel snafu.

3-D Printing the 19th Century – NYTimes

Martin Galese is bringing back patents from a bygone era, 3-D printing them in all their beautifully-designed glory. Some of these designs might not have been easily manufactured in their time.

Last week Sara was reading Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. The book looks at the historical context around Muybridge’s photographic technology developments that increased the shutter speeds and introduced the ability to almost slow down time into smaller knowable bits. These developments paved the way for modern cinema, but also ran parallel to Victorian explorations of scientific discovery. Sara wrote about some interesting parallels with Muybridge’s body movement studies and the Quantified Self movement; film allowed us to slow down and dissect the bodies’ gate; sensors like the Fitbit allow us to track a walking gate all day long.

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Four Minutes on the Future of Marketing

Earlier this year I sat down with a videographer at the Bazaarvoice Summit in Austin. He asked me about the future of marketing, in particular as it related to data and consumer behavior. Given what I announced earlier this morning, I thought you might find this short video worth a view. Thanks to Ian Greenleigh for doing all the work!

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Liquid Markets Win: On Boats, Planes and Automobiles

Marthas_1775_Blask-wbOne of the key themes in our upcoming book has to do with the interaction of information and the physical world – in particular, how all things physical become “liquid” when activated by just the right information. But when you’re writing (and thinking out loud) about this topic, it’s easy to fall into an academic cadence, because information theory is a thicket – just try reading “The Information” in one sitting, for example.

So I’ve found it’s best to just tell stories instead (and to be honest, I’d wager that nearly all information theory should be reduced to narrative, because narrative is how we as humans make sense of information, but I digress). Here’s a story that happened just this past weekend.

If you’ve been reading for more than a year, you know that I spend a good part of August working on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. It’s a special place where my great grandmother settled in the 19th century, the kind of place where you visit graveyards with your kids to remind them of their own history, then hit a carousel and ice cream shop in the afternoon.

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An Afternoon at the Media Lab: Where The Lines Between Physical and Digital Are Permeable

IcanHasHOloYesterday I took my son to the MIT Media Lab, hallowed ground for me, as reading Stewart Brand’s 1988 “The Media Lab” propelled me toward helping to create Wired magazine, where I edited the founding Director of the Lab, Nicholas Negroponte, for five years (he wrote the back column of the magazine).

For this visit, I met up with David Kong, one of the lab’s alumni wizards, who took us on a whirlwind tour of the place (David’s work on microfluidics is, I believe, some of the most important stuff being done today, but more on that in another post). I spent a day there last summer with Director Joi Ito, and it’s amazing to see how much progress can be made in a year.

Instead of describing everything, I think I’ll let video do the work – one of the Lab’s core values is to always be demo’ing, and my son and I saw half a dozen incredible projects, all demo’d by the people who created them.

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The PRISMner’s Dilemma

prismSometimes when you aren’t sure what you have to say about something, you should just start talking about it. That’s how I feel about the evolving PRISM story – it’s so damn big, I don’t feel like I’ve quite gotten my head around it. Then again, I realize I’ve been thinking about this stuff for more than two decades – I assigned and edited a story about massive government data overreach in the first issue of Wired, for God’s sake, and we’re having our 20th anniversary party this Saturday. Shit howdy, back then I felt like I was pissing into the wind –  was I just a 27-year-old conspiracy theorist?

Um, no. We were just a bit ahead of ourselves at Wired back in the day.  Now, it feels like we’re in the middle of a hurricane. Just today I spoke to a senior executive at a Very Large Internet Company who complained about spending way too much time dealing with PRISM. Microsoft just posted a missive which said, in essence, “We think this sucks and we sure wish the US government would get its shit together.” I can only imagine the war rooms at Facebook, Amazon, Google, Twitter, and other major Internet companies – PRISM is putting them directly at odds with the very currency of their business: Consumer trust.

And I’m fucking thrilled about this all. Because finally, the core issue of data rights is coming to the fore of societal conversation. Here’s what I wrote about the issue back in 2005, in The Search:

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Hasta La Alta Vista, Baby.

I just saw the news that Yahoo! is “sunsetting” Alta Vista, one of the first “good” search engines. This makes me a little misty, as Alta Vista was the search engine I used BG – Before Google – and it had a real shot at *being* Google, had its various owners not utterly screwed it up over the years. Did you know, for example, that at one point Alta Vista was the largest and most widely used search tool on the web? Its driving force, Lois Monier, once told me “search should be a pencil” – he was adamant that Alta Vista not become a portal.

But Alta Vista was owned by DEC, a now dead computer company, which was bought by Compaq, another now dead computer company. And they made it a portal. And through the now defunct Overture, the assets of Alta Vista made their way to Yahoo!, a still alive portal. But now, Alta Vista is going to truly be dead.

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The Book Lives On

Faithful readers will recall that about three months ago, I announced my return to FM as CEO. I also mentioned that the projects I’d been working on – notably OpenCo and The Book, would have to be retooled given my new commitment to the company I started back in 2005 (when I last wrote a book). In the post, I wrote:

I love the book I’m working on, and I don’t plan to abandon it (I’m bringing on a co-author). And I love the conferences I do, and I’ll still be doing them (though I’ll be hiring someone to run them full time). But my first love is the company I started in 2005, whose story is not only unfinished, it’s at the height of its running narrative.

I’m very, very pleased to announce that I’ve found that co-author – her name is Sara M. Watson, and she’s simply the perfect partner for me to be working with on this book. You can read her post about it here. Sara and I met over Twitter, after she noticed the theme of the CM Summit – “Bridging Data and Humanity.” We spoke on the phone and I learned that the intersection of society and data was her passion – and that her background was an awful lot like mine. She started her career as a liberal arts major from Harvard (during the time Facebook was just a dorm room project), toiled in the narrative fields of enterprise IT, became fascinated with the story of information, and decided to head to graduate school to study it (she’ll finish her Masters from Oxford in a few months). After Oxford, Sara has some amazing plans lined up (I can’t talk about them yet) that dovetail perfectly into our shared work.

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