I enjoy NextDraft, an email newsletter penned by Dave Pell each day. I value point of view and voice in any medium, and Dave’s got it. I think Searchblog readers would appreciate this item, so I’ve reposted it here. Dave, I hope you don’t mind…
The Gift of Data
Facebook knows a lot about you. But there are a couple things that would make its collection of personal data a whole lot more valuable: Your home address and your credit card number. In addition to having a big revenue potential, Facebook’s new birthday gift store could lead to a data treasure trove (and herald a new era when just typing “Happy Birthday” when prompted is no longer enough).
In my continuing quest to reflect on books which I have found important to my own work, I give you a work of fiction, first published in mid-2011: Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel, by Gary Shteyngart, an acclaimed writer born in Russia, now living in the US. This is my first read of Shteyngart, known also for his previous works Absurdistan and Russian Debutante’s Handbook, both of which established him as an important new literary voice (Ten Best Books – NYT, Book of the Year – Time, etc. etc….). Of course, I was barely aware of Shteyngart until a friend insisted I read “Super Sad” and I will forever be grateful for the recommendation.
Based in a future that feels to be about thirty years from now (the same timeframe as my pending book), Shteyngart’s story stars one Lenny Abramov, a schlumpy 39-year-old son of Jewish Russian immigrants who lives in New York City. Abramov works at a powerful corporation that sells promises of immortality to “High Net Worth” individuals. But he’s not your typical corporate climber: The book begins in Italy, where Abramov has taken a literary vacation of sorts – he’s left an America he no longer loves to be closer to a world that he does – a dying world of art, literature, and slower living. But Abramov’s duty to his parents and his need for money drive him back to America, where most of the action occurs.
It turns out the future hasn’t been very kind to America. Just about every possible concern one might have about our nation’s decline has played out – the economy is in a death spiral, the Chinese pretty much control our institutions, large corporations control what the Chinese don’t, books and intelligent discourse have disappeared, shallowness and rough sex are glorified, and the Constitution has pretty much been suspended. Oh, and while the book doesn’t exactly put it this way, Facebook and Apple have won – everyone is addicted to their devices, and to the social reflections they project.
A glimpse of some of the thinking I’ve been doing about the impact of “data” on our culture. I am close (so damn close) to sealing myself off and into only thinking about this, for my book (OpenCoSF is my last big project till I do). But thanks to the Vibrant Data project for taking an interview I did at TED earlier this year, and making it into something that almost makes me look like I have my shit together. I attest, I do not. I hope soon, I will.
So what’s my thesis? It starts with one of the key takeaways from Gleick’s book, which is that we are, as individuals and a society, becoming information. That might seem a rather puzzling statement, because one could argue that we’ve always been information, it’s only recently that we’re realizing that fact. So perhaps a better way of putting it is that we’re exploring the previously unmapped world of information. In the 1400s, the physical world was out there, much as it is today (perhaps it had a few more glaciers…). But we hadn’t discovered it, at least, not in any unified fashion. Now that we’ve discovered, named, and declared the outlines of most of the physical world, we are rapidly moving into a new era, one where we are coloring in the most interesting bits of information in our world with what we now call “data.”
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about data recently. It’s not just reading books like The Information or Mirror Worlds (or Super Sad True Love Story, a science fiction novel that is both compelling and scary), it’s my day to day work, both at FM (where we deal with literally 25 billion ad calls and associated data a month), and in reporting the book (I’ve been to MIT, Yale, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and many other places, and the one big theme everyone is talking about is data…).
We are, as a society and as individuals, in the process of becoming data, of describing and detailing and burnishing our dataselves. And yet, we haven’t really joined the conversation about what this all means, in the main because it’s so damn abstract. We talk about privacy and fear of big brother, or big corporations. We talk about Facebook and whether we’re sharing too much. But we aren’t really talking – in any scaled, framed way – about what this means to being humans connected in a shared society, to be in relationships, to be citizens and consumers and lovers and haters….
There are so many wonderful micro conversations going on about this topic, spread out all over the place. I’m hoping that when my book appears, it might be a small step in joining some of these conversations into a larger framework. That’s the dream anyway.
Early last month I wrote a piece entitled Do Not Track Is An Opportunity, Not a Threat. In it I covered Microsoft’s controversial decision to incorporate a presumptive “opt out of tracking” flag in the next release of its browser, which many in the ad industry see as a major blow to the future of our business.
In the piece, I argued that Microsoft’s move may well force independent publishers (you know, like Searchblog, as well as larger sites like CNN or the New York Times) to engage in a years-overdue dialog with their readers about the value exchange between publisher, reader, and marketer. I laid out a scenario and proposed some language to kick that dialog off, but I gave short shrift to a problematic and critical framing concept. In this post, I hope to lay that concept out and offer, by way of example, a way forward. (Caveat: I am not an expert in policy or tech. I’ll probably get some things wrong, and hope readers will correct me if and when I do.)
The “concept” has to do with the idea of a first-party relationship – a difficult to define phrase that, for purposes of this post, means the direct relationship a publisher or a service has with its consumer. This matters, a lot, because in the FTC’s recently released privacy framework, “first-party marketing” has been excluded from proposed future regulation around digital privacy and the use of data. However, “third-party” marketing, the framework suggests, will be subject to regulation that could require “consumer choice.”
Look, I’m not exactly a huge fan of grimy greenbacks, but I do feel a need to point out something that most coverage of current Valley darling Square seems to miss: The “Death of Cash” also means the “death of anonymous transactions” – and no matter your view of the role of government and corporations in our life, the very idea that we might lose the ability to transact without the creation of a record merits serious discussion. Unfortunately, this otherwise worthy cover story in Fortune about Square utterly ignores the issue.
And that’s too bad. A recent book called “The End of Money” does get into some of these issues – it’s on my list to read – but in general, I’ve noticed a lack of attention to the anonymity issue in coverage of hot payment startups. In fact, in interviews I’ve read, the author of “The End of Money” makes the point that cash is pretty much a blight on our society – in that it’s the currency of criminals and a millstone around the necks of the poor.
Call it a hunch, but I sense that many of us are not entirely comfortable with a world in which every single thing we buy creates a cloud of data. I’d like to have an option to not have a record of how much I tipped, or what I bought at 1:08 am at a corner market in New York City. Despite protections of law, technology, and custom, that data will remain forever, and sometimes, we simply don’t want it to.
A funny thing happens to me after each Web 2 Summit – I tend to curl up for a week or two and shut down my idea receptors. It takes a ton of output to curate the show, and then running it for three straight days is rather like running an intellectual and social marathon. You’re “on” the whole time, scrambling backstage, pretending to have it together onstage, greeting amazing minds, cheering them on, delivering what I hope will be thought provoking interlocution, and, of course, remembering to thank everyone for giving so generously of their time and treasure.
So when people ask me what I thought of the show, or what the key themes were, I usually have something of a blind spot. I can remember everything up to the start of the event – all the preparation, preproduction interviews, the endless research, etc. But once we kickoff (in this case, with an interview with Sean Parker), it goes kind of black. My next memory is usually the final cocktail party on day three. I know my Dad and my wife are usually there, and I know I have a fine bourbon in my hand. And I’m happy. And I want to sleep.
Which I’ve done a lot of these past two weeks. But this last show was too rich to not review a bit, in particular for themes that should inform our collective decisions as we move our industry forward. In this post and I hope in others this Fall, I hope to outline some of those themes.