It’s somehow fitting that today, May 25th, marks my return to writing here on Searchblog, after a long absence driven in large part by the launch of NewCo Shift as a publication on Medium more than two years ago. Since then Medium has deprecated its support for publications (and abandoned its original advertising model), and I’ve soured even more than usual on “platforms,” whether they be well intentioned (as I believe Medium is) or indifferent and fundamentally bad for publishing (as I believe Facebook to be).
So when I finally sat down to write something today, an ingrained but rusty habit re-emerged. For the past two years I’ve opened a clean, white page in Medium to write an essay, but today I find myself once again coding sentences into the backend of my WordPress site.
Searchblog has been active for 15 years – nearly forever in Internet time. It looks weary and crusty and overgrown, but it still stands upright, and soon it’ll be getting a total rebuild, thanks to the folks at WordPress. I’ll also be moving NewCo Shift to a WordPress site – we’ll keep our presence on Medium mainly as a distribution point, which is pretty much all “platforms” are good for as it relates to publishers, in my opinion.
Walking around Disneyland with my daughter the other night, I found myself face to face with one of our country’s most intractable taboos.
(Disneyland is still awesome for me, as a kid from 1970s LA. Truly magical.)
If you’re an observer of crowds, one of the more prominent features of the Disneyland crowd is how generally overweight our country has become (I live in the Bay area, and readily admit my interaction with folks on most days is not representative of a broad cross section of our population). I’d estimate at least a third of the folks at Disney are seeing Mike and Molly-level images in the mirror — and about 2–3% or so have more weight than they can carry around, and have therefore graduated to “mobility scooters.”
This is my 14th annual predictions post. And as I look back on the previous 13 and consider what to write, I’m flooded with uncertainty. That’s not like me. Writing these predictions is something I’ve always looked forward to – I don’t prepare in any demonstrable way, but I do gather crumbs over time, filing them away for the day when I sit down and free associate for however long it takes me to complete this post.
But this time, well, for the first time ever I have very little idea what’s about to come out of the keyboard. Honestly, when I consider the coming 12 months, so much feels up for grabs that I wonder whether it’s wise to prognosticate. Then I remember, it’s all of you reading these words who keep me writing in the first place – your encouragement, your wise (and sometimes cutting) commentary, and your willingness to spend a little time with me and my thoughts. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to write more – it’s always been how I make sense of the world, and this year, the world feels like it needs a lot more sense making. So I’ll be writing at least a few times a week going forward, starting with this uncertain post.
Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few is a readable rant that – should you disagree with Reich’s central premise – will elicit eye-rolls and summary dismissal. But while his well-known political ideology (he served as Secretary of Labor under Clinton) is on constant display, I found Reich’s book both timely and important.
I am drawn to any work that posits a better way forward, and as you might expect, I agree with Reich far more often than not. You have to be willfully ignorant to pretend our current economic system is equitable (Reich argues we’re in the “second Gilded Age“) or capable of creating long-term increasing returns. And while many in our industry cling to libertarian fantasies in which technologic silver bullets solve our every social need, back here on earth we need to do better than pine for the singularity. Fixing income inequality and the loss of the middle class requires hard policy choices and a re-framing of the problems at hand.
Reich’s compact book lays out a strong prescription for what he feels is ailing our capitalist system. Anyone in tech should pay attention: Reich lumps the tech elite right alongside bankers, big pharma, and agribusiness as the new monopolists, and argues that if our capitalist society is to truly prosper, some pretty fundamental changes have to occur in both our economic policy as well as the structure, practices, and purpose of the companies we build.
(image) From time to time a piece reminds us that we are in a slow, poorly articulated struggle over what we hold as a public commons. That was the case with Vanity Fair’s Man and Uber Man, a profile of Uber’s Travis Kalanick by Kara Swisher. Swisher deftly captures Kalanick’s combative approach in prosecuting what he calls Uber’s “political campaign” to beat established regulated markets in transportation, a campaign he believes he must win “98 to 2” – because the candidate is a product, not a politician. In short, Uber can’t afford to win by a simple majority – this is a winner takes all scenario.
This gives me pause, and I sense I’m not alone. On the one hand, we praise Uber for identifying a huge market encumbered by slow moving bureaucracy, and creating a service markedly better than its alternatives. That’s what I’ve called an “Information First” company. On the other hand, we worry about what it means when something that was once held in public commons – the right to transportation – is increasingly pushed aside in favor of private alternatives. Messy as it may be, our public transportation system is egalitarian in its approach, non-profit at its core, and truly public – as in, bound to the public commons through government regulation.
(image) This past week saw a significant increase in society’s willingness to have a deeper conversation about what it means to Become Data. The Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that may well supplant the Betamax case in import. And the FCC stepped in it, big time, while pals at O’Reilly opinined for a world where the Internet of Things remains open and transparent. Not to mention, my own ramblings on what it means to truly disappear, and why Google does what it does. To the links….
(image) My daily reading took me to two places today – to Compton, California, well-known for its crime to anyone who grew up in LA (as I did), and to this NYT piece, which muses that the city, once the place we went to disappear, is likely to be the first place where anonymity is no longer guaranteed. (Not coincidentally, Pell found both pieces as well in his excellent NextDraft).
The Compton story informs us that for one month in 2012, the LA police department – not exactly a bastion of trustworthy behavior – surveilled the troubled district of Compton from the air, creating a 24-7 record of everything that was “publicly” viewable from the air. This piece chills me on a number of fronts: average citizens do not presume they are being watched from above, first of all. Secondly, do we want a society where such surveillance is presumed (read a bit of science fiction if your answer is yes)? And thirdly, this “wide net” of proactively collected data creates a record of actions that can be “rewound” and used as evidence after the fact – opening a raft of unsettling questions. It reminds me of one of Eric Schmidt’s creepier utterances (also known as the “nothing to hide” argument): “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
The debate around privacy is nuanced and complex, I don’t intend to litigate it here. But as I read the Compton piece, it struck me that this particular genie is fast escaping the bottle. The Compton experiment was conducted using an airplane, but if you think police departments in major cities aren’t adopting far less expensive drone-based programs, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you…
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.
This week we read about reverse engineering algorithms for dates, anticipatory algorithms, and more social weirdness with Google Glass. 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!