Nearly 30 Years In Less Than an Hour

Pinch me: Last week I gave a “distinguished” lecture in Engineering at Berkeley. It was an honor to do so – I don’t really see myself as distinguished in any academic sense – and certainly not when it comes to engineering. (I do think my greying temples are starting to look distinguished, if I do say so….) Anyway, it was a lot of fun – in particular because my hosts asked me to spend a bit of time reviewing the past 30 or so years of my own work. Should you want to take a spin through the early days of Macweek, Wired (and HotWired), The Industry Standard, Web 2 Summit, my last book, the launch of and present adtech resurgence of FM, as well as the next book – well, here ya go. Bonus: I had a cold, so I was totally hopped up on Actifed.

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Ubiquitous Video: Why We Need a Robots.txt For the Real World

illustration_robotLast night I had an interesting conversation at a small industry dinner. Talk turned to Google Glass, in the context of Snapchat and other social photo sharing apps.

Everyone at the table agreed:  it was inevitable – whether it be Glass, GoPro, a button in your clothing or some other form factor – personalized, “always on” streaming of images will be ubiquitous. Within a generation (or sooner), everyone with access to mass-market personal electronics (i.e., pretty much everyone with a cell phone now) will have the ability to capture everything they see, then share or store it as they please.

That’s when a fellow at the end of the table broke in. “My first response to Glass is to ask: How do I stop it?”

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It’s…A Marketing Barge?!

google_barge_map_103113(image CBS KPIX) The #googlebarge meme has taken a very strange turn.

A rather welcome diversion from our industry’s endless NSA revelations, the enigmatic barge floating off Treasure Island had been widely assumed to be a floating data center of some kind. But today a local CBS station is reporting that the massive box is custom built for….marketing. No one suggested *that* when I asked for wild speculation yesterday. Answers ranged from “a place to store Google’s cash” to “a hide out for Microsoft’s next CEO,” but “a seaworthy rival to Apple’s retail stores”? Nope, no one was that drunk on Halloween.

From the CBS story:

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A World Lit, Literally, By Data

data bulbsAs you work on a book, even one as slow to develop as if/then, certain catch phrases develop. People ask you what the book is about, or the shape of its core argument, and some of the descriptions start to stand out and  hit home. One of those is “a world lit by data,” an idea I’ve been toying with for some time now. It’s a metaphor that’s not entirely worked out, but it seems to get the job done – it paints a picture of a time when everything of value around us – everything we “see” – has a component of data to it. In a world lit by data, street corners are painted with contextual information, automobiles can navigate autonomously, thermostats respond to patterns of activity, and retail outlets change as rapidly (and individually) as search results from Google.

The tortured bit of the metaphor is in asking you, the reader, to believe that we will live in spaces full of data, just as we live in spaces filled with light (be it natural or man made). Everyone understands the idea of light as metaphor. But data? Well, to my mind, they are quite connected. Without light, we can’t (easily) take in information about our physical surroundings. In darkness there is far less data. Equating “light” with “data” isn’t too much of a stretch.

Now, the interplay of light and “information” is dangerous but well-trodden ground. After all, in the Old Testament, the first thing God did after creating the physical (Heavens and Earth) was to turn on the lights. And after further contemplation, Christians decided that before Light, there was The Word, which was God’s will made flesh (John 1). Since then, of course, “the word” has come to mean, well, encoded information, or data. Loosely put (and I know I’m on thin ice here) – first we establish the physicality of that which we don’t fully understand, then we bathe it in light, hoping to understand it the best we can.

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Here Are the Companies I Chose For OpenCo SF This Year. Damn, That Was Hard

opencosfI spent about an hour today choosing which companies I plan to visit during next week’s OpenCo. And I have to say – despite my obvious bias as a founder of the event – the difficulty I had deciding only gets me more excited about participating. There are just so many great organizations opening their doors during this two-day festival, and it makes me so proud that this thing is, well, happening. I mean, it’s really happening – 135 or so companies are letting the public come inside, and they’re talking about what makes their  organization special, what makes it tick. And for two days, I get to hang out in their space, take notes, get inspired. It’s just…really cool.

I like this so much more than hanging out in yet another ballroom at a tech industry confab. I mean, I love those conferences. It’s great to see all my pals and meet new people. But OpenCo really is different. The serendipity of each company’s vibe, the instant social network that forms around each session (“So why did you come to see Rock Health?!”), the seemingly endless choices. Nearly 2500 people have registered, and we expect to break 3,000 by the end of the week. You can’t fit 3,000 people in the ballroom at The Palace Hotel. But the city will welcome us all next week. It’s just … cool.

So here are the companies I chose, and why:

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Search and Immortality

google.cover.inddFunny thing, there I was two days ago, at Google’s annual conference, watching Larry Page get asked questions so pliant in nature they couldn’t be called softballs. They were more like tee balls – little round interrogatives gingerly placed on a plastic column for Page to swat out into the crowd. Not that we would expect anything else – to be clear, this is Google’s event, and I see nothing wrong with Google scripting its own event. I had moderated the final session of the day, but Larry was the final speaker. Perhaps wisely, Google brought  someone else on to “grill” Page – those were his words as the interview started. (You be the judge –  a sample question: “What are your thoughts about tablets in schools?”)

Anyway, I was certainly not the right choice to talk to Larry. I know the folks at Google well, and have tons of respect for them. We both know I would have insisted on asking about a few things that were, well, in the news at the moment of that interview on Tuesday. Like, for example, the fact that Google, on the very next day, was going to announce the launch of Calico, a company seeking to solve that “moonshot” problem of aging. Oh, and by the way, current Apple Chair and former Genentech CEO Arthur Levinson was going to be CEO, reporting to Page. Seems like pretty interesting news, no? And yet, Larry kept mum about it during the interview. Wow. That’s some serious self control.

And yet I think I understand – each story has its own narrative, and this one needed room to breathe. You don’t want to break it inside an air-conditioned ballroom in front of your most important clients. You want to make sure it gets on the cover of Time (which it did), and that the news gets at least a few days to play through the media’s often tortured hype cycle. It’s grinding its way through that cycle now, and I’m sure we’ll see comparisons to everything from Kurzweil (who now works at Google) to Bladerunner, and beyond.

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The Best Platform for Incubation Is the Web

egg_20hatch1(image) Yesterday in the course of my seemingly endless attempt to stay current in this industry, I came across this article on VentureBeat: Searching for the next Zuckerberg: A day in the life of a Lightspeed Fellow. It chronicles the experiences of the chosen few who have made it into a VC-backed incubator, focusing on two Stanford students who are trying to create a new sensor for lap swimming.

I recently took up the sport, and find the gadget interesting. But what really struck me was the casual use of Zuckerberg’s name in the headline, and how it was used in context of the ecosystem that has sprung up in the past five or so years around entrepreneurship. Don’t get me wrong, I think incubators and accelerators are important components of our business ecosystem. But I’ve always liked the fact that anyone with a great idea, access to the Internet, and an unrelenting will can spark a world beating company simply by standing up code on the Internet, and/or leveraging the information and relationship network that is the web.  That’s how Facebook started, after all. And Google, and Amazon, Twitter and eBay, and countless others. No gatekeepers, no contests, no hackathons or pre-seed rounds. A great idea, and a great platform: the Web.

I wonder if the next Larry Page or Mark Zuckerberg would ever start at Lightspeed, Y Combinator, or TechStars. Certainly amazing companies and ideas have come from inside those estimable establishments, and more will come in the future. But the peculiar fire which drives folks who are truly “the next Zuckerberg” – I wonder if that fire needs stoking from anything else than the Internet itself. If we institutionalize that fire, I think we lose something. A simple page on the open web, offering a service, waiting to be engaged with, to learn from that engagement, to rapidly iterate and grow, to fall down and fail and try again.

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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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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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