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.
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.
(Image) One of the “artifacts” that Sara and I are paying close attention to as we work on the book is “the drone.” Drones ply the liminal space between the physical and the digital – pilots fly them, but aren’t in them. They are versatile and fascinating objects – the things they can do range from the mundane (aerial photography) to the spectacular – killing people, for example. And when drones kill – well, what does it mean, to destroy life, but to not be physically present while doing it?
Until today, drone warfare for me has been a largely intellectual concept: I followed the political and social issues closely, but I avoided emotional engagement – most likely because I knew I hadn’t quite worked out my point of view on the ethical issues. But after reading Matthew Power’s Confessions of a Drone Warrior, I can no longer say I’m not emotionally involved.
The article profiles Brandon Bryant, a retired Airman trained to pilot Predator drones above Iraq and Afghanistan. Bryant’s story frames all that we’re struggling with as a nation, as citizens, and as human beings when it comes to this new technology. As Powers writes:
As 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.
As we’re working on the book, Sara and I are planning on sharing some of the news items and blog posts that catch our attention each week. We’ll also plan on talking through some of the things we’re reading and working on in this space. In keeping with boolean condition logic of the if/then working title for the book, we’ll be tagging these posts as “else.” Links aren’t necessarily endorsements, but they do point to ideas that got us thinking this week.
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 (coming soon) or through RSS.
This week we look at challenges in the using quantified self data, developments in the NSA surveillance coverage, and round out with a few throwbacks to the Victorian age of technology. On to the links:
TechStars accelerator working on Nike+ to build innovation on the Nike platform. Article talks a lot about the importance of opening up the Nike+ API for development innovation (right now it’s only open to these ten accelerator companies).
Highlights one of the big barriers to consumer adoption right now, that is correlating all these quantified self data sources into one, meaningful view. To do that you need to a) be able to get the data into one place, b) have it speak to each other, and c) know what you are looking at once you can see it all in one place. We might argue that you don’t need an Apple or Microsoft monopoly for that necessarily. But we will need tools that pull this together; maybe something more along the lines of Mint.
Bruce Schneier walks us through the implicit business models that got us into the current surveillance state: “Imagine the government passed a law requiring all citizens to carry a tracking device. Such a law would immediately be found unconstitutional. Yet we all carry mobile phones.” [Incidentally, Schneier is also a Fellow at the Berkman Center this year along with Sara].
Recycling bins in London are tracking MAC addresses from passing smartphones and Wifi-enabled devices, essentially bringing tracking cookies from the internet into the physical world. Turns out this might actually be illegal.
Car sharing dropoffs at airports are started to see a crackdown in SFO. Policies still protect taxi and limo service domain here and new regulations requiring insurance companies could increase operating costs. This could slow down the markets where consumers are taking underused assets and making them liquid. John recently wrote about how Uber saved the day in a recent travel snafu.
Martin Galese is bringing back patents from a bygone era, 3-D printing them in all their beautifully-designed glory. Some of these designs might not have been easily manufactured in their time.
Last week Sara was reading Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. The book looks at the historical context around Muybridge’s photographic technology developments that increased the shutter speeds and introduced the ability to almost slow down time into smaller knowable bits. These developments paved the way for modern cinema, but also ran parallel to Victorian explorations of scientific discovery. Sara wrote about some interesting parallels with Muybridge’s body movement studies and the Quantified Self movement; film allowed us to slow down and dissect the bodies’ gate; sensors like the Fitbit allow us to track a walking gate all day long.
Faithful readers will recall that about three months ago, I announced my return to FM as CEO. I also mentioned that the projects I’d been working on – notably OpenCo and The Book, would have to be retooled given my new commitment to the company I started back in 2005 (when I last wrote a book). In the post, I wrote:
I love the book I’m working on, and I don’t plan to abandon it (I’m bringing on a co-author). And I love the conferences I do, and I’ll still be doing them (though I’ll be hiring someone to run them full time). But my first love is the company I started in 2005, whose story is not only unfinished, it’s at the height of its running narrative.
I’m very, very pleased to announce that I’ve found that co-author – her name is Sara M. Watson, and she’s simply the perfect partner for me to be working with on this book. You can read her post about it here. Sara and I met over Twitter, after she noticed the theme of the CM Summit – “Bridging Data and Humanity.” We spoke on the phone and I learned that the intersection of society and data was her passion – and that her background was an awful lot like mine. She started her career as a liberal arts major from Harvard (during the time Facebook was just a dorm room project), toiled in the narrative fields of enterprise IT, became fascinated with the story of information, and decided to head to graduate school to study it (she’ll finish her Masters from Oxford in a few months). After Oxford, Sara has some amazing plans lined up (I can’t talk about them yet) that dovetail perfectly into our shared work.
I’m about to go onstage and give a talk about the themes of the upcoming book at Time Warner, and one thing I’m going to show is this video from Oblong Industries, an OpenCoSF participant company founded by the folks behind all the amazing UI stuff in Minority Report:
I’m also showing that stuff like this is getting very real – Leap Motion is taking orders for an entirely new way to interact with computers:
What with the proven success of Microsoft’s Kinect, and some of the stuff I’ve seen in labs at MIT, Microsoft Research, Google, and other places, it strikes me that in the not too distant future, it’ll be pretty natural to come into a room that is “data lit” – a room that is “lit up” with sensors and connected to the cloud, such that you can exchange information inside that room using your body, your voice, and your hands. It’ll be as natural as expecting a room to be “wifi lit” now. Or, 25 years ago, as natural as expecting that a room be lit with computer projection, or 50 years ago, with a phone – and of course, 100 years ago, with light itself.
Family, colleagues, and friends knew this day was coming, I knew it was coming, but here it is: I’ve rented a new place to write, a small, remote house directly on the beach, about 12 miles as the crow flies from my home in Marin county. It’s not a direct 12 miles – that crow would have to fly up about 2500 feet so as to clear the peak of Mt. Tamalpais. And that mountainous impediment is intentional – it takes close to the same time to ride a mountain bike from my home to this office as it does to drive one of several winding routes between here and there. I’m hoping that will spur me to take my commute by bicycle. I won’t be here every day, but I certainly hope to spend a fair bit of time here over the coming months.
I’ve added this new address to my long list of offices for one reason: To complete the book I’ve been talking about for nearly half a decade. That book began as an idea I called “The Conversation Economy,” but grew in both scope and ambition to encompass a much larger idea: an archaeology of the future, as seen through the digital artifacts of the present. Along the way, it’s changed a lot – 18 months ago, its title was “What We Hath Wrought.” Now, I’m thinking it’ll be called “If/Then.” I may yet call it “If/Then…Else” – or, as I wander through this journey, it might end up as something entirely different.
At this moment, I’m not certain. And that’s a bit scary.
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.