If you’ve read Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism, you likely agree that the most important asset for a data-driven advertising platform is consumer engagement. That engagement throws off data, that data drives prediction models, those models inform algorithms, those algorithms drive advertising engines, and those engines drive revenue, which drives profit. And profit, of course, drives stock price, the highest and holiest metric of our capitalistic economy.
So when an upstart company exhibits exponential growth in consumer engagement – say, oh, 3,000-percent growth in a matter of two months – well, that’s going to get the attention of the world’s leading purveyors of surveillance capitalism.
A new year brings another run at my annual predictions: For 17 years now, I’ve taken a few hours to imagine what might happen over the course of the coming twelve months. And my goodness did I swing for the fences last year — and I pretty much whiffed. Batting .300 is great in the majors, but it kind of sucks compared to my historical average. My mistake was predicting events that I wished would happen. In other words, emotions got in the way. So yes, Trump didn’t leave office, Zuck didn’t give up voting control of Facebook, and weed’s still illegal (on a federal level, anyway).
Chastened, this year I’m going to focus on less volatile topics, and on areas where I have a bit more on-the-ground knowledge — the intersection of big tech, marketing, media, and data policy. As long time readers know, I don’t prepare in advance of writing this post. Instead, I just clear a few hours and start thinking out loud. So…here we go.
Facebook bans microtargeting on specific kinds of political advertising. Of course I start with Facebook, because, well, it’s one of the most inscrutable companies in the world right now. While Zuck & Co. seem deeply committed to their “principled” stand around a politician’s right to paid prevarication, the pressure to do something will be too great, and as it always does, the company will enact a half-measure, then declare victory. The new policy will probably roll out after Super Tuesday (sparking all manner of conspiracies about how the company didn’t want to impact its Q1 growth numbers in the US). The company’s spinners will frame this as proof they listen to their critics, and that they’re serious about the integrity of the 2020 elections. As with nearly everything it does, this move will fail to change anyone’s opinion of the company. Wall St. will keep cheering the company’s stock, and folks like me will keep wondering when, if ever, the next shoe will drop.
Netflix opens the door to marketing partnerships. Yes, I’m aware that the smart money has moved on from this idea. But in a nod to increasing competition and the reality of Wall St. expectations, Netflix will at least pilot a program — likely not in the US — where it works with brands in some limited fashion. Mass hysteria in the trade press will follow once this news breaks, but Netflix will call the move a pilot, a test, an experiment…no big deal. It may take the form of a co-produced series, or branded content, or some other “native” approach, but at the end of the day, it’ll be advertising dollars that fuel the programming. And while I won’t predict the program augurs a huge new revenue stream for the company, I can predict that what won’t happen, at least in 2020: A free, advertising-driven version of Netflix. Just not in the company’s culture.
CDA 230 will get seriously challenged, but in the end, nothing gets done, again. Last year I predicted there’d be no federal data privacy legislation, and I’m predicting the same for this year. However, there will be a lot of movement on legislation related to the tech oligarchy. The topic that will come the closest to passage will be a revision to CDA 230 —the landmark legislation that protects online platforms from liability for user generated content. Blasphemy? Sure, but here we are, stuck between free speech on the one hand, massive platform economics on the other, and a really, really bad set of externalities in the middle. CDA 230 was built to give early platforms the room to grow unhindered by traditional constraints on media companies. That growth has now metastasized, and we don’t have a policy response that anyone agrees upon. And CDA 230 is an easy target, given conservatives in Congress already believe Facebook, Google, and others have it out for their president. They’ll be a serious run at rewriting 230, but it will ultimately fail. Related…
Adversarial interoperability will get a moment in the sun, but also fail to make it into law. In the past I (and many others) have written about “machine readable data portability.” But for the debate we’re about to have (and need to have), I like “adversarial interoperability” better. Both are mouthfuls, and neither are easy to explain. Data governance and policy are complicated topics which test our society’s ability to have difficult long form conversations. 2020 will be a year where the legions of academics, policy makers, politicians, and writers who debate economic theory around data and capitalism get a real audience, and I believe much of that debate will center on whether or not large platforms have a responsibility to be open or closed. As Cory Doctorow explains, adversarial interoperability is “when you create a new product or service that plugs into the existing ones without the permission of the companies that make them.” As in, I can plug my new e-commerce engine into Amazon, my new mobile operating system into iOS, my new social network into Facebook, or my new driving instruction app into Google Maps. I grew up in a world where this kind of innovation was presumed. It’s now effectively banned by a handful of data oligarchs, and our economy – and our future – suffers for it.
As long as we’re geeking out on catchphrases only a dork can love, 2020 will also be the year “data provenance” becomes a thing. As with many nerdy topics, the concept of data provenance started in academia, migrated to adtech, and is about to break into the broader world of marketing, which is struggling to get its arms around a data-driven future. The ability to trace the origin, ownership, permissions, and uses of data is a fundamental requirement of an advanced digital economy, and in 2020, we’ll realize we have a ton of work left to do to get this right. Yes, yes, blockchain and ledgers are part of the discussion here, but the point isn’t the technology, it’s the policy enabling the technology.
Google zags. Saddled with increasingly negative public opinion and driven in large part by concerns over retaining its workforce, Google will make a deeply surprising and game changing move in 2020. It could be a massive acquisition, a move into some utterly surprising new industry (like content), but my money’s on something related to data privacy. The company may well commit to both leading the debate on the topics described above, as well as implementing them in its core infrastructure. Now that would really be a zag…
At least one major “on demand” player will capitulate. Gig economy business models may make sense long term, but that doesn’t mean we’re getting the execution right in the first group of on demand “unicorns.” In fact, I’d argue we’re mostly getting them wrong, even if as consumers, we love the supposed convenience gig brands bring us. Many of the true costs of these businesses have been externalized onto public infrastructure (and the poor), and civic patience is running out. Plus, venture and public finance markets are increasingly skeptical of business models that depend on strip mining the labor of increasingly querulous private contractors. A reckoning is due, and in 2020 we’ll see the collapse of one or more larger players in the field.
Influencer marketing will fall out of favor. I’m not predicting an implosion here, but rather an industry wide pause as brands start to ask the questions consumers will also be pondering: who the fuck are these influencers and why are we paying them so much attention? A major piece of this — on the marketing side anyway — will be driven by a massive increase in influencer fraud. As with other fast growing digital marketing channels, where money pours in, fraud fast follows — nearly as fast as fawning New York Times articles, but I digress.
Information warfare becomes a national bogeyman. If we’ve learned anything since the 2016 election, it’s this: We’ve taken far too long to comprehend the extent to which bad actors have come to shape and divide our discourse. These past few years have slowly revealed the power of information warfare, and the combination of a national election with the compounding distrust of algorithm-driven platforms will mean that by mid year, “fake news” will yield to “information warfare” as the catchphrase describing what’s wrong with our national dialog. Deep fakes, sophisticated state-sponsored information operations, and good old fashioned political info ops will dominate the headlines in 2020. Unfortunately, the cynic in me thinks the electorate’s response will be to become more inured and distrustful, but there’s a chance a number of trusted media brands (both new and old) prosper as we all search for a common set of facts.
Purpose takes center stage in business. 2019 was the year the leaders of industry declared a new purpose for the corporation — one that looks beyond profits for a true north that includes multiple stakeholders, not just shareholders. 2020 will be the year many companies will compete to prove that they are serious about that pledge. Reaction from Wall St. will be mixed, but I expect plenty of CEOs will feel emboldened to take the kind of socially minded actions that would have gotten them fired in previous eras. This is a good thing, and likely climate change will become the issue many companies will feel comfortable rallying behind. (I certainly hope so, but this isn’t supposed to be about what I wish for…)
Apple and/or Amazon stumble. I have no proof as to why I think this might happen but…both these companies just feel ripe for some kind of major misstep or scandal. America loves a financial winner — and both Amazon and Apple have been runaway winners in the stock market for the past decade. Both have gotten away with some pretty bad shit along the way, especially when it comes to labor practices in their supply chain. And while neither of them are as vulnerable as Facebook or Google when it comes to the data privacy or free speech issues circling big tech, both Apple and Amazon have become emblematic of a certain kind of capitalism that feels fraught with downside risk in the near future. I can’t say what it is, but I feel like both these companies could catch one squarely on the jaw this coming year, and the post-mortems will all say they never saw it coming.
So there you have it — 11 predictions for the coming year. I was going to stop at 10, but that Apple/Amazon one just forced itself out — perhaps that’s me wishing again. We’ll see. Let me know your thoughts, and keep your cool out there. 2020 is going to be one hell of a year.
This is an edited version of a series of talks I first gave in New York over the past week, outlining my work at Columbia. Many thanks to Reinvent, Pete Leyden, Cap Gemini, Columbia University, Cossette/Vision7, and the New York Times for hosting and helping me.
If you’re read my rants for long enough, you know I’m fond of programmatic advertising. I’ve called it the most important artifact in human history, replacing the Macintosh as the most significant tool ever created.
So yes, I think programmatic advertising is a big deal. As I wrote in the aforementioned post:
“I believe the very same technologies we’ve built to serve real time, data-driven advertising will soon be re-purposed across nearly every segment of our society. Programmatic adtech is the heir to the database of intentions – it’s that database turned real time and distributed far outside of search. And that’s a very, very big deal. (I just wish I had a cooler name for it than “adtech.”)”
But lately, I’m starting to wonder if perhaps adtech is failing, not for any technical reason, but because the people leveraging are complicit in what might best be called a massive failure of imagination.
I’m about to go on a rant here, so please forgive me in advance.
But honestly, who else out there is sick of being followed by ads so stupid a fourth grader could do a better job of targeting them?
Case in point is the ad above. I took this screen shot from my phone this past weekend while I was reading a New York Times article. The image – of a robe Amazon wanted me to buy – was instantly annoying, because I had in fact purchased a robe on Amazon several days before. Why on earth was Amazon retargeting me for a product I just bought?!
But wait, it gets worse! As I perused the next Times article, this ad shows up:
You might think this ad makes more sense. If the dude buys a robe, makes sense to try to sell him a new pair of slippers, no? Well, sure, but only if that same dude didn’t buy a new pair of slippers two weeks ago. Which, in fact, I did just do.
So, yeah, this ad sucks as well. Not only is it not useful or relevant, it’s downright annoying. The vast machinery of adtech has correctly identified me as a robe-and-slippers-buying customer. But it’s failed to realize *I’ve already bought the damn things.*
Is it possible that adtech is this stupid? This poorly instrumented? I mean, are programmatic buyers simply tagging visitors who land on ecommerce pages (male robe intender?) without caring about whether those visitors actually bought anything?
Are the human beings responsible for setting the dials of programmatic just this lazy?
I’ve been a critical observer of adtech over the past ten or so years, and one consistent takeaway is this: If there’s a way for a buyer to cut corners, declare an easy win, and keep doing things they way the’ve always been done, well, they most certainly will.
But why does it have to be this way? Digging into the examples above yields an extremely frustrating set of facts. Consider the data the adtech infrastructure either got *right* about me as a customer, or could have gotten right:
I am a frequent ecommerce customer, usually buying on Amazon
I recently purchased both a robe and some slippers
I am reading on the New York Times site as a logged on (IE data rich) customer of the Times‘ offerings
These are just the obvious data points. My mobile ID and cookies, all of which are available to programmatic buyers, certainly indicate a high household income, a propensity to click on certain kinds of ads, a rich web browsing history reflecting a thickly veined lodestar of interest data, among countless other possible inputs.
Imagine if a programmatic campaign actually paid attention to all this rich data? Start with the fact I just purchased a robe and slippers. What are products related to those two that Amazon might show me? Well, according to its own “people who bought this item also bought” algorithms, folks who bought men’s robes also bought robes for the women in their life. Now there’s a cool recommendation! I might have clicked on an ad that showed a cool robe for my wife. But no, I’m shown an ad for a product I already have.
I’ve got a few calls in to verify my hunch, but I suspect the ugly truth is pure laziness on the part of the folks responsible for buying ads. Consider: The average cost for a thousand views (CPM) of a targeted programmatic advertisement hovers between ten cents (yes, ten pennies) to $2. With costs that low, the advertising community can afford to waste ad inventory.
Let’s apply that reality to our robe example. Let’s say the robe costs $60, and yields a $20 profit for our e-commerce advertiser, not including marketing costs. That means that same advertiser is can spend upwards of $19.99 per unit on advertising (more, if a robe purchaser turns out to be a “big basket” e-commerce spender). So what does our advertiser do? Well, they set a retargeting campaign aimed anyone who ever visited our erstwhile robe’s page. With CPMs averaging around a buck, that robe’s going to follow nearly 20,000 folks around the internet, hoping that just one of them converts.
Put another way, programmatic advertising is a pure numbers game, and as long as the numbers show one penny of profit, no one is motivated to make the system any better. I’ve encountered many similar examples of ad buyers ignoring high-quality data signals, preferring instead to “waste reach” because, well, it’s just easier to set up campaigns on one or two factors. Inventory is cheap. Why not?
This is problematic. What’s the point of having all that rich (and hard won) targeting data if buyers won’t use it, and consumers don’t benefit from it? An ecosystem that fails to encourage innovation will stagnate and lose share to walled gardens like Facebook, Google, and others. If the ads suck on the open web (and they do), then consumers will either install ad blockers (and they are), or abandon the open web altogether (and they are).
The Los Angeles Times was the first newspaper I ever read – I even attended a grammar school named for its founding family (the Chandlers). Later in life I worked at the Times for a summer – and found even back then, the great brand had begun to lose its way.
I began reading The Atlantic as a high schooler in the early 1980s, and in college I dreamt of writing long form narratives for its editors. In graduate school, I even started a publication modeled on The Atlantic‘s brand – I called it The Pacific. My big idea: The west coast was a huge story in desperate need of high-quality narrative journalism. (Yes, this was before Wired.)
I toured The Washington Post as a teenager, and saw the desks where Bernstein and Woodward brought down a corrupt president. I met Katherine Graham once, at a conference I hosted, and I remain star struck by the institution she built to this day.
And every seven days, for more than five decades, Time magazine came to my parents’ home, defining the American zeitgeist and smartly summarizing what mattered in public discourse.
Now all four of my childhood icons are owned by billionaires who made their fortunes in technology. History may not repeat, but it certainly rhymes. During the Gilded Age, our last great era of unbridled income inequality, many of America’s greatest journalistic institutions were owned by wealthy industrialists. William Randolph Hearst was a mining magnate. Joseph Pulitzer came from a wealthy European merchant family, though he came to the US broke and epitomized the American “self made man.” Andre Carnegie, Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., and Henry Flagler all dabbled in newspapers, with a healthy side of politics, which drove nearly all of American publishing during the Gilded Age.
Which brings us to the Benioffs, and to Time. This week’s announcement struck all the expected notes – “The Benioffs will hold TIME as a family investment,” “TIME is a treasure trove of the world’s history and culture,” “Lynne and I will take on no operational responsibility for TIME, and look only to be stewards of this historic and iconic brand.”
Well to that, I say poppycock. Time needs fixing, not benign stewardship. While it may be appropriate and politic to proclaim a hands-off approach, the flagship brand of the former Time Inc. empire could use a strong dose of what the Benioffs have to offer. Here’s my hot take on why and how:
Don’t play down the middle. What the United States needs right now is a voice of reason, of strength, of post-Enlightenment thinking. Not a safe, bland version of “on the one hand, on the other hand” journalism. As Benioff well knows, politics is now the biggest driver of attention in the land, and taking a principled stand matters more than ever.
Learn from Bezos. Sure, the richest man in the world didn’t mess with the editorial side of the house, but then again, he already had an extraordinary leader in Marty Baron at the helm. But Bezos did completely shift the business model at the Post, implementing entirely new approaches to, well, pretty much every operating model in the building. New revenue leadership, new software platforms and processes, even a new SaaS business line. He thoroughly modernized the place, and if ever a place needed the same, it’s Time.
Invest in the product – editorial. But thoughtfully. First and foremost, the Benioffs should force the Time team to answer the most important question of any consumer brand: Differentiation that demands a premium. Why should Time earn someone’s attention (and money)? What makes the publication unique? What does its brand stand for, beyond history and a red band around the cover? What mission is it on? If anyone understands these issues, it’s Marc and Lynne Benioff. Don’t hold back on forcing this difficult conversation – including on staffing and leadership (I’ve no bone to pick with anyone there, BTW). American journalism needs it, now. I can imagine a Time magazine where the most talented and elite commentators debate the issues of our day. And what issues they truly are! But to draw them, the product must sing, and it must also pay. Abolish the practice of paying a pittance for an argument well rendered. It’s time.
Related, rethink the print business. Print isn’t dead, but it needs a radical rethink. There isn’t a definitive weekly journal of sensible political and social discourse in America, and there really should be. The New Yorker is comfortably highbrow, US News is a college review site, Newsweek is rudderless. Time has a huge opportunity, but as it stands, it plays to the middle far too much, and online, it tries to be everything to nobody. Perhaps the hardest, but most important thing anyone can do at a struggling print magazine is to cut circulation (the base number of readers) and find its truly passionate brand advocates. The company already did this a year ago, but it may not have gone far enough. Junk circulation is rife in the magazine business. It’s also rampant online, which leads to…
Please, fix the website. A site that has a nearly 10-month out of date copyright notice at the bottom is not run like a lean product shop. Time online is a poster child for compromised business decisions driven entirely by acquiring junk audience (did you know that Time has 60mm uniques? Yeah, neither do they). Every single page on Time.com is littered with half a dozen or more competing display banners. The place stinks of desperate autoplay video, programmatic pharmaceutical come ons, and tawdry link bait (there are literally THREE instances of Outbrain-like junk on each article page. THREE!). Fixing this economic and product mess requires deep pockets and strong product imagination. The Benioffs have both. Invent (and or copy) new online models where the advertising adds value, where marketers would be proud to support the product. I’ve spoken to dozens of senior marketers looking to lean into high-quality news analysis. They’ve got very little to support at present. Time could change that.
Move out of Time Inc’s headquarters. Like, this week. The original Time Inc. HQ were stultifying and redolent with failure, but even the new digs downtown bear the albatross of past glories. It’s soul crushing. As an independent brand, Time needs a space that reclaims its pioneer spirt, and encourages its staff to rethink everything. Move to Nomad, the Flatiron, West Chelsea – anywhere but a skyscraper in the financial district.
Finally, leverage and rethink the cover. One of the largest single losses in the shift from analog to digital publishing was the loss of covers – the album cover (and its attendant liner notes), the book cover (and its attendant social signaling), and the magazine cover (and its attendant declarative power). The magazine cover is social artifact, editorial arbiter, cultural convener. The digital world still lacks the analog cover’s power. Time should make it a priority to invent its successor. Lock ten smart humans in a room full of whiteboards and don’t let them out till they have a dozen or more good ideas. Then test and learn – the answer is in there somewhere. The world needs editorial convening more than ever.
There’s so much more, but I didn’t actually set out to write a post about how to fix Time – I was merely interested in the historical allegories of successful industrialists who turned to publishing as they consolidated their legacies. In an interview with the New York Times this week, Benioff claimed his purchase of Time was aligned with his mission of “impact investing,” and that he was not going to be operationally involved. Well, Marc, if you truly want to have an impact, I beg to differ: Please do get involved, and the sooner the better.
Much of the Republican debates have been expendable theatrics, but I watched this weekend’s follies from South Carolina anyway. And one thing has struck me: The ads are starting to get better.
This season’s debates have had the highest ratings of any recent Presidential race, and they’re attracting some serious corporate sponsorship. One spot in particular caught my eye:
This ad looks like a lot of others I’ve noticed coming out of large companies these days — dramatic, driving music, compelling fast frame visuals, an overarching sense that something important and world changing is going on.
The spot has one purpose: To make us wonder if a business can be alive. Here’s the ad copy:
Can a business have a mind?
A power to store every experience, and call upon it through something called intuition.
Can a company have reflexes.
A nervous system.
The ability to react, precisely and correctly, faster than the speed of thought.
Can an enterprise have a sixth sense. A knack for predicting the future.
Can a business have a spirit?
Can a business have a soul?
Can a business be…alive?
THE ANSWER IS SIMPLE. THE ANSWER IS SAP HANA
Given our cultural fascination with evil, AI-driven corporations, I have to wonder how stuff like this gets through any big company’s Fear of Looking Scary filters, right? I mean, does the agency not watch Mr. Robot?
But somehow the spot resonates — if you work in a large company, don’t you want that company to be … alive? Don’t you want it to be fast, and smart, and nimble, and … soulful? Don’t you want to be part of something powerful and vibrant?
Clearly, the ad is working for SAP, they’ve been running it for well over a year, and they (or their agency) felt it was appropriate for the 13+ million folks watching the Republican debates on Saturday night. The ad leaves a pretty clear premise for the viewer: If you want your company to be alive, install our software!
But it begs a larger question: what is the role of corporations in our society going forward, if we’ve begun to accept that they are in fact alive? (And have the rights of people, to boot!)
I’d be curious if folks out there are buying this whole narrative. What do you think?
Only Apple – Daring Fireball – Regardless of how the company markets itself, if you don’t read John Gruber on all things Apple, you’re not getting the full scoop. Of course, he’s in the tank, but he’s smart nevertheless on the heels on WWDC, a must read.
Today Digiday published a piece I wrote about the lack of context in the display advertising marketplace. Check it out, I’ve posted it below as well for posterity.
Before the rise of programmatic buying and “audience retargeting,” most quality brand media was purchased based on a very particular contextual signal –- even if the market didn’t really call it that. Back then, “context” was code for a publication or television program’s brand, and for the audience that brand attracted. If you wanted to reach moms at home, for example, you’d buy Ladies Home Journal or the soap operas. If you wanted business executives, you’d put Fortune or Forbes on your plan, maybe with a dose of golf or baseball broadcasts.
Fast-forward to today, and programmatic has torn audience away from its contextual roots. Using programmatic tools, a media buyer can identify almost any audience segment they want with pinpoint precision – down to the exact cookie or data segment that matches a customer target. And for various reasons, including price, those audience members are targeted mainly on who they are, independently of what they are doing. Put another way, we buy audiences, but we aren’t buying the show they’re watching – we’re ignoring where that impression is served.
This is nuts.
After 20 years of chasing click through rates as a core metric for branded display advertising, we’re finally realizing that CTR is a race to the bottom. The ecosystem optimizes for clicks, and we lose the value of branding in the process. We’re making a similar mistake with audience buying. Exercised without context as a key signal, it’s a bad habit, one we need to change if we’re going to build brands using programmatic media.
Here’s why. When readers or viewers come to a site or app, they come for the experience – what I call “the show.” That show provides context to the reader – if they’re on a business site, they are there in the context of being a businessperson. If they are watching a home improvement video, they’re in the context of being a homeowner. They don’t know, and they don’t care, that they may also be carrying a cookie that identifies them as a “business executive” or a “stay at home mom.” Our current adtech ecosystem is stripped of most editorial context and driven by retargeting which focuses (for the most part) only on the cookie. So that person watching a video about business may get an ad for diapers if she’s visited a parenting site previously. And that woman watching the home improvement video? If she’s been segmented as an auto intender, she may get an ad from Ford.
This seems upside down.
Wouldn’t it be better if the ads matched the content? Or, at the very least, if the ads about diapers or cars understood the environment in which the ad was being shown, and adapted their creative accordingly (“Ford Trucks: Built for Home Improvement,” or some such).
That’s how it used to be, back when ads were bought and sold in a bespoke fashion by publishers’ ad sales forces competing on the quality of their content and the audience it attracted. And it’s how it could be again, given the wealth of contextual information available to marketers today. It’s not an either/or choice: It should be both. It’s well within the programmatic ecosystem’s reach to surface contextual information. Innovation is happening in the market with terabytes of data that allow readers from a situational as well as categorical basis. Soon we’ll be able to match the creative content with the context of the article –- think about the Ford example above where the ad could be served to the reader who was interested in home improvement — but we aren’t there yet.
Programmatic has forced a separation of editorial and ad space, and we’ve lost context as a result. It’s time to get it back – it’ll be good for quality publishers, good for brand marketers, and great for our industry.
Transparency Reports Database – Silk A roundup of the ever increasing number of transparency reports from digital companies subpoenaed by the US government. This promises to be one fat file a year from now.
Every good story needs a hero. Back when I wrote The Search, that hero was Google – the book wasn’t about Google alone, but Google’s narrative worked to drive the entire story. As Sara and I work on If/Then, we’ve discovered one unlikely hero for ours: The lowly banner ad.
Now before you head for the exits with eyes a rollin’, allow me to explain. You may recall that If/Then is being written as an archaeology of the future. We’re identifying “artifacts” extant in today’s world that, one generation from now, will effect significant and lasting change on our society. Most of our artifacts are well-known to any student of today’s digital landscape, but all are still relatively early in their adoption curve: Google’s Glass, autonomous vehicles, or 3D printers, for example. Some are a bit more obscure, but nevertheless powerful – microfluidic chips (which may help bring about DNA-level medical breakthroughs) fall into this category. Few of these artifacts touch more than a million people directly so far, but it’s our argument that they will be part of more than a billion people’s lives thirty years from now.
There is one exception. The artifact we’re investigating is already at massive scale, driving billions of dollars in revenue and touching every person whose ever used the Internet. That artifact is currently called “programmatic adtech,” and it is most famously illustrated by Terry Kawaja’s Lumascapes (and less famously, my own “Behind the Banner” visualization).
Yes, this is the infrastructure that allows a pair of shoes to chase you across the web. How can it possibly be as important as, say, a technology that may cure cancer? Because I believe the very same technologies we’ve built to serve real time, data-driven advertising will soon be re-purposed across nearly every segment of our society. Programmatic adtech is the heir to the database of intentions – it’s that database turned real time and distributed far outside of search. And that’s a very, very big deal. (I just wish I had a cooler name for it than “adtech.” We’re working on it. Any ideas?!)
Think about what programmatic adtech makes possible. An individual requests a piece of content through a link or an action (like touching something on a mobile device). In milliseconds, scores of agents execute thousands of calculations based on hundreds of parameters, all looking to market-price the value of that request and deliver a personalized response. This happens millions of times * a second,* representing hundreds of millions, if not billions, of computing cycles each second. What’s most stunning about this system is that it’s tuned to each discrete individual – every single request/response loop is unique, based on the data associated with each individual.
Let me break that down:
1. A person indicates a request: a desire, an intent, a preference – The Request
2. Billions of compute cycles and sh*tons of data are engaged to process that desire – The Process
3. A personalized response is generated within 100-250 milliseconds. – The Response
At present, the end result of this vastly complicated “Request Process Response” system is, more often than not, the proffering of a banner ad. But that’s just an artifact of a far more interesting future state. Today’s adtech has within it the glimmerings of a computing architecture that will underpin our entire society. Every time you turn up your thermostat, this infrastructure will engage, determining in real time the most efficient response to your heating needs. Each time you walk into a doctor’s office, the same kind of system could be triggered to determine what information should appear on your health care provider’s screen, and on yours, and how best payment should be made (or insurance claims filed). Every retail store you visit, every automobile you drive (or are driven by), every single interaction of value in this world can and will become data that interacts with this programmatic infrastructure.
OK. Let’s step back for a second. When you think of this infrastructure, are you concerned? Good. Because it’s imperative that we consider the choices we make as we engage with such a portentous creation. This year alone, each human on the planet will create about 600 gigabytes of information, and that number is growing rapidly. What are the architectural constraints of the infrastructure which processes that information? What values do we build into it? Can it be audited? Is it based on principles of openness, or is it driven by business rules and data-structures which favor closed platforms? Will we have to choose between an oligarchy of “RPR vendors” – Google, Facebook, Microsoft – or will we take a more distributed approach, as the original Internet did?
These questions have been raised, and continue to be well articulated, by Lessig, Zittrain, Wu, and many others. But we’re entering a new, more urgent era of this conversation. Many of these authors’ works warned of a world where code will eventually augur early lock down in political and social conventions. That time is no longer in the future. It’s now. And I believe as goes adtech, so goes our social code.
“Adtech” is a very important, very large application we’ve built on top of the platform we call “the Internet.” It’s driven by the relentless desire of capitalism to turn a profit, yet (so far) it has leaned toward the Internet’s core values of openness and interconnectivity. Thanks to that, it’s suffering some endemic maladies (fraud comes to mind). It’s still a very young, relatively immature artifact. But so far, it’s more open than not. I’m not certain that will always be the case.
My argument boils down to this: What we today call “adtech” will tomorrow become the worldwide real-time processing layer driving much of society’s transactions. That layer deserves to be named as perhaps the most important artifact extant today.
Given adtech’s rise, let’s not forget its atomic unit of value: the oft-derided banner ad. In time the banner as we know it will most likely fade away, but its place in history is certain. One generation from now, we may not “click” on banner ads, but we’ll always be pulling into traffic, filing health insurance claims, buying clothes in retail stores, and turning up our thermostats. And those myriad transactions will be lit with data and processed by a real time infrastructure initially built to execute one pedestrian task: serve a simple banner ad.