Every so often I get an idea for a new website or service. I imagine you do as well. Thinking about new ideas is exciting – all that promise and potential. Some of my favorite conversations open with “Wouldn’t it be cool if….”
Most of my ideas start as digital services that take advantage of the internet’s ubiquity. It’s rare I imagine something bounded in real space – a new restaurant or a retail store. I’m an internet guy, and even after decades of enshittification, I still think the internet is less than one percent developed. But a recent thought experiment made me question that assumption. As I worked through a recent “wouldn’t it be cool” moment, I realized just how moribund the internet ecosystem has become, and how deadening it is toward spontaneous experimentation.
This past Monday NewsGuard, a journalism rating platform that also analyzes and identifies AI-driven misinformation, announced it had identified hundreds of junk news sites powered by generative AI. The focus of NewsGuard’s release was how major brands were funding these spam sites through the indifference of programmatic advertising, but what I found interesting was how low that number was – 250 or so sites. I’d have guessed they’d find tens of thousands of these bottom feeders – but maybe I’m just too cynical about the state of news on the open web. I have a hunch my cynicism will be rewarded in due time, once the costs of AI decline and the inevitable economic incentives that have always driven hucksters kick in.
Given 250 is a manageable number for a mere mortal, I decided to ask the good folks at NewsGuard, where I’m an advisor, for a copy of their listings. Nothing like a tour through the post-apocalyptic hellscape of our AI future, right?
Well that was something. Yesterday the Center for AI Safety, which didn’t exist last year, released a powerful 22-word statement that sent the world’s journalists into a predictable paroxysm of hand-wringing:
“Mitigating the risk of extinction from A.I. should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks, such as pandemics and nuclear war.”
I’ve been thinking about retirement lately. I’m not retired, at least I don’t think I am, though moving on from The Recount has left me uncertain about how to answer the inevitable “so what do you do” questions – the ones that anchor nearly every social gathering I attend:
Person I Just Met:So what do you do besides hang out at dinner parties?
There’s probably a name for it, but I can’t conjure the word: When you’ve been doing something a long, long time, then realize you’ve pretty much been doing it all wrong. That’s the case with me and the drums – an instrument I picked up a dozen years ago but only recently have come to understand as infinitely intricate.
I can’t explain why I started playing, I got the bug when my good friend Jordan insisted I sit down and attempt to bang out a rhythm one very late night. He was re-familiarizing himself with his guitar and wanted a co-conspirator, he happened to have a kit collecting dust in his garage. I was in my mid forties and pretty lost in my career, and I had just moved to a new town. We had a blast making noise that first night – I recall the police coming after multiple complaints, and I woke up afterwards with my face stuck to the snare. After that I built a band room in an out building on my property, found some more guys to play with, and we formed what could pass for a band.
I’ll see if, in a few minutes, I can get at least the outlines of a rant out. I’ve got to get to an appointment in half an hour, but I just saw today’s Dealbook newsletter, which focuses on the demise of BuzzFeed News. “Why BuzzFeed News folded” it promises, then goes on to willfully fail to answer the question – in much the same fashion every other story has noted the latest catastrophe in what used to be called “the news business” these days.
Buzzfeed “failed to go public well,” it “didn’t focus on profitability” soon enough, it “depended on social networks too much.” That’s like analyzing an open wound by stating “it’s bleeding too much” and “the skin was too ruptured” and “the band aid failed to stay on.” True, but wrong.
Only when we are willing to acknowledge the cause of the wounds will we start to address them. And right now, it’s as if the very same journalists whose professions are imperiled can’t see the damn forest for the trees.
Would you pay $200 a month for generative AI services? It may sound crazy, but I think it’s entirely possible, particularly if the tech and media industries don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.
Think back to the last time you decided to fork over a substantial monthly fee for a new technology or media service. For most of us, it was probably the recent shift to streaming services. If you use more than a few, that bill can add up to nearly $100 a month. But streaming is a (not particularly good) replacement for cable – it’s not a technological marvel that changes how we live, work, and play. To find a new service that rises to that level, we have to go back to the introduction of the smart phone – a device we were willing to spend hundreds of dollars to obtain and an average of $127 a month to keep.
Of all the structural problems “Web 2” has brought into the world – and there are too many to list – one of the most vexing is what I call the “meta-services” problem. Today’s commercial internet encourages businesses and services to create silos of our data – silos that can not and will not connect to each other. Because of business model constraints (most big services are “free,” revenues come from advertising and/or data sales), it’s next to impossible for anyone – from an individual consumer to a Fortune 50 enterprise – to create lasting value across all those silos. Want to compare your Amazon purchase history to prices for the same goods at Walmart? Good luck! Want to compare the marketing performance of your million-dollar campaigns between Facebook and Netflix? LOL!
For the past 15 or so years, I’ve written about a new class of “meta-services” that would work across individual sites, apps, and platforms. Working on our behalf, these meta-services would collect, condition, protect, and share our information, allowing a new ecosystem of services and value to be unlocked. OpenAI’s recent announcement of plugins, along with their already robust APIs, has brought the meta-service fantasy tantalizingly close to reality. But it’s more likely that, just as with the “open internet,” the fantasy will remain just that. Internet business models have been built to collect short term rent. Truly open systems rarely win over time – regardless of whether the company uses the word “open” in its name.
Once again, Google and Microsoft are battling for the AI spotlight – this time with news around their offerings for developers and the enterprise*. These are decidedly less sexy markets – you won’t find breathless reports about the death of Google search this time around – but they’re far more consequential, given their potential reach across the entire technology ecosystem.
Highlighting that consequence is Casey Newton’s recent scoop detailing layoffs impacting Microsoft’s “entire ethics and society team within the artificial intelligence organization.” This team was responsible for thinking independently about how Microsoft’s use of AI might create unintended negative consequences in the world. While the company continues to tout its investment in responsible AI** (as does every firm looking to make a profit in the field), Casey’s reporting raises serious questions, particularly given the Valley’s history of ignoring inconvenient truths.
Last week, while working on a post about what the ads might look like inside chat-based search, I got a surprising note from the communications team at Google. I had emailed them asking for comment on ads inside Bard, which Google had announced earlier in the month. To be honest, I was expecting the polite “no comment” I ultimately did receive, but I also got this clarification:
[We] wouldn’t have anything additional to share from the Search POV, as Bard is a standalone AI interface and doesn’t sit within Search.