As has been my practice for nearly two decades, I penned a post full of prognostications at the end of last year. As 2021 subsequently rolled by, I stashed away news items that might prove (or disprove) those predictions – knowing that this week, I’d take a look at how I did. How’d things turn out? Let’s roll the tape…
My first prediction: Disinformation becomes the most important story of the year. At the time I wrote those words, Trump’s Big Lie was only two months old, and January 6th was just another day on the calendar. A year later, that Big Lie has spawned countless others, culminating in one of the most damaging shifts in our nation’s politics since the Civil War. The Republican party is now fully captured by bullshit, and countless numbers of local, state, and national politicians are busy undermining democracy thanks to the Big Lie’s power. A significant percentage of the US population has become unmoored from truth – and an equally significant group of us have simply thrown our hands up about it. Trust is at an all time low. This Barton Gellman piece in The Atlantic served as a wake up call late in the year – and its conclusions are terrifying: “We face a serious risk that American democracy as we know it will come to an end in 2024,” Gellman quotes an observer stating. “But urgent action is not happening.” I’m not happy about getting this one right, but as far as I’m concerned, this is still the most important story of the year – and the most terrifying.
Never in my five-plus decades has a year been so eagerly anticipated, which makes this business of prediction particularly daunting. I’m generally inclined to be optimistic, but rose-colored glasses stretch time. Good things always take longer to emerge than any of us would wish. Over 18 years of doing this I’ve learned that it’s best to not predict what I wish would happen, instead, it’s wise to go with what feels most likely in the worlds I find fascinating (for me, that’s media, technology, and business, with a dash of politics given my last two years at The Recount). As I do each year, I avoid reading other folks’ year-end predictions (though I plan on getting to them as soon as I hit publish!). Instead, I just sit down at my desk, and in one rather long session, I think out loud and see where things land.
Google’s (and now Alphabet’s) CEO opines in the FT (sub required) on why AI needs to be regulated, joining the chorus of tech leaders who have taken the apparent high road when it comes to regulation, even as governments around the world have shown next to no ability to actually regulate anything (well, I guess the Chinese have certainly regulated tech…in a not so great way). Astute readers will note that an op-ed in a paywalled publication, on a holiday no less, is not exactly placed to go viral. However, look a bit deeper, and you’ll realize that the Financial Times is very well read by Wall St., number one, and number two, it ain’t a holiday in Europe, where the most powerful people on the planet are gathering for Davos this week. Indeed.
While most of the op-ed is pretty weak sauce, a predictable call for governments to “work together” to “harness this technology for good,” I found this quote the most interesting: “Companies such as ours cannot just build promising new technology and let market forces decide how it will be used.” I wish Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple had that point of view before they built the AI-driven system we now all live with known as surveillance capitalism.
Else is back after an extended summer hiatus – thanks for taking the time off with me. I wasn’t sure if I was going to return to this newsletter, but its a good ritual for me to condense and annotate my daily and weekly reading habits, and enough of you have subscribed that I figured you might be missing the updates. I kind of was.
Before a long flight today, I noticed that The Circle is now in paperback – it’s prominently featured in the JFK terminal bookstores. It reminded me that I enjoyed the novel, even if I found it somewhat disappointing. And it further reminded me that I tend to wait before consuming popular culture interpretations of what I consider to be my story – or perhaps more accurately our story. They so rarely seem to get it right. Of course, I understand there’s no “right” in the first place – so perhaps what I mean is…I feel like I’m going to be disappointed, so I avoid anything that might attempt to interpret the man-machine narrative in a way that maybe, just maybe, might prove me wrong.
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.
(image) If you’re a reader of this newsletter, you’re in elite company. Each week I chose ten or so stories from the score or so that I save to Evernote, and I annotate them after about three glasses of wine on a Sunday night. I make no pretense to be Jason or Dave, instead, this is a way to remember the most important stories of the past week through the filter of “the book.” And when I say “the book,” I mean That Project That Has Haunted Me For More Than Five Years But Is Increasingly Becoming Real. In other words, if you read this newsletter (or post), you’re a true fan of my work. And for that, I am thankful.
This past week was full of gems. The New Yorker reminded us how poignant digital life can be. We struggled with the ethics of 3D printing, even as we reveled in its power to save lives. Oh, and then there’s the singularity, and protecting us from the same. An epic Facebook rant, more Bitcoin, more brain-twisters about who’s a person, alive, dead, or corporate, in our increasingly mashed up world. To the links…
The week was dominated by Google related stories, but the top dialog had to do with the Internet itself. I’m sensing something of a shift in society’s beliefs about the Internet’s central role in our humanity. Five years ago, no one wanted to talk about Internet access as a basic human right. In 2012, the UN called it exactly that. With access consolidating into what looks like a natural monopoly, might regulation as a utility be far behind?
Real Time (Medium) Another, denser version of previous essays asking whether it isn’t time to call the Internet a basic utility. “..the immaterial organisation of the internet has now become the most dominant force on this side of the planet...” Unfortunately, this piece is too dense. Try this one instead: The Internet Is Fucked (TechCrunch) in which the author enjoins: “Go ahead, say it out loud. The internet is a utility.There, you’ve just skipped past a quarter century of regulatory corruption and lawsuits that still rage to this day and arrived directly at the obvious conclusion.” Of course, that created a rejoinder: More? – “The Internet is an incredibly useful tool in modern society, but it isn’t essential to the basic functioning of society. Utilities are.” My take: The Internet is a basic need now for the info-organism we are all becoming. So I’m leaning toward the utility camp, I’m afraid. There’s a new book on the subject, should you be interested.
The Monuments of Tech (NYTimes.com) A meditation, with far too photos, on the meaning of the campuses built by Google, Twitter, Apple, Facebook. Have you read The Circle yet? Read The Circle. Then read this.
This week looked at convergence in wearables, how we live with technology today and in the near future, and the possibility that reality is just a mathematical model. As always 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. And tweet us links!
The Plus in Google Plus? It’s Mostly for Google — NYTimes
Even if Plus isn’t where you spend your time, it’s the basis for a consolidated view of your activity across Google. That will become even more important with time. “With a single Plus account, the company can build a database of your affinities.”
This week, we were thinking about data post-language, reading the tea leaves of algorithms, and wondering how to protect the first principles of the web. As always, 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. And tweet us links!
We’re Leaving — The Bygone BureauI like this take on the discussion of the “post-verbal” in Her as suggesting a time when data supplants language. It was a very brief moment in the movie, but I think it’s at the crux of how we will relate to our machines going forward.