Every year I write predictions for the year ahead. And at the end of that year, I grade myself on how I did. I love writing this post, and thankfully you all love reading it as well. These “How I Did” posts are usually the most popular of the year, beating even the original predictions in readership and engagement.
What’s that about, anyway? Is it the spectacle of watching a guy admit he got things wrong? Cheering when I get it right? Perhaps it’s just a chance to pull back and review the year that was, all the while marveling at how much happened in twelve short months. And 2018 does not disappoint.
Those of us fortunate enough to have lived through the birth of the web have a habit of stewing in our own nostalgia. We’ll recall some cool site from ten or more years back, then think to ourselves (or sometimes out loud on Twitter): “Well damn, things were way better back then.”
Then we shut up. After all, we’re likely out of touch, given most of us have never hung out on Twitch. But I’m seeing more and more of this kind of oldster wistfulness, what with Facebook’s current unraveling and the overall implosion of the tech-as-savior narrative in our society.
Yesterday, I lost it over a hangnail and a two-dollar bottle of hydrogen peroxide.
You know when a hangnail gets angry, and a tiny red ball of pain settles in for a party on the side of your finger? Well, yeah. That was me last night. My usual solution is to stick said finger into a bottle of peroxide for a good long soak. But we were out of the stuff, so, as has become my habit, I turned to Amazon. And that’s when things not only got weird, they got manipulative. Sure, I’ve been ambiently aware of Amazon’s algorithmic pricing and merchandising practices, but last night, the raw power of the company’s control over my routine purchases was on full display.
There’s literally no company in the world with better data about online purchasing than Amazon. So studying how and where it lures a shopper through a purchase process is a worthy exercise. This particular one left a terrible taste in my mouth – one I don’t think I’ll ever shake.
Way back when — well, a few years back anyway— I wrote a series of posts around the idea of “metaservices.” As I mused, I engaged in a bit of derision around the current state (at that point) of the mobile ecosystem, calling it “chiclet-ized” — silos of useful data without a true Internet between them. You know, like individually wrapped cubes of shiny, colored gum that you had to chew one at a time.
I suggested that we needed a connective layer between all those chiclets, letting information flow between all those amazing services.
I just opened an email on my phone. It was from a fellow I don’t know, inviting me to an event I’d never heard of. Intrigued, I clicked on the fellow’s LinkedIn, which was part of his email signature.
That link opened the LinkedIn app on my phone. In the fellow’s LI feed was another link, this one to a tweet he had mentioned in his feed. The tweet happened to be from a person I know, so I clicked on it, and the Twitter app opened on my phone. I read the tweet, then pressed the back button and….
This quote, from a piece in Motherboard, hit me straight between the eyeballs:
Facebook…will not let you unFacebook Facebook. It is impossible to discover something in its feeds that isn’t algorithmically tailored to your eyeball.
“The laws of Facebook have one intent, which is to compel us to use Facebook…It believes the best way to do this is to assume it can tell what we want to see based on what we have seen. This is the worst way to predict the weather. If this mechanism isn’t just used to predict the weather, but actually is the weather, then there is no weather. And so Facebook is a weatherless world.”
The short piece notes the lack of true serendipity in worlds created by algorithm, and celebrates the randomness of apps (Random) and artists (like Jib Kidder) who offer a respite from such “weatherless worlds.”
The world’s most fascinating story kept time this past week – cord cutting beat rabbit ears, Google took some punches, and billion-dollar companies pondered their fate once the bloom starts to fade. 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, 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.