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Aral Balkan is doing a bang-up job getting Indie rolling as an adjectival meme. He’s doing it with his Indie PhoneIndie Tech Manifesto and a talk titled Free is a Lie.

To put the Indie movement in context, it helps to realize that it’s been on the tech road at least since 1964, when Paul Baranone of the Internet’s architects, gave us this design for a network:

Meaning the one on the right. The one on the left was common in those days and the one in the middle was considered inevitable. But the one on the right was radical. First, it reduced to one the “attack surface” of the network. Take out one node or one link and the rest stayed up. Second, it also served as the handy design spec for the protocols that now define the Internet. Aral, the Indie Phone and the IndieManifesto are all about the one on the right: Distributed. So, for that matter, is The Cluetrain Manifesto. For example:

That was Chris Locke’s line. ”Markets are conversations” (one of my lines) and “Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy” (one of David Weinberger’s) also come from the same spot.

Marketing comes from A and B. Never C. Thus, as Jakob Nielsen told me after Cluetrain came out, “You guys defected from marketing. You sided with markets, against marketing.” Meaning we sided with individual human beings, as well as society in general. But certainly not with marketing — even though all three of us made a living in marketing. Perhaps not surprisingly, Cluetrain became, and remains, a favorite of marketers, many of which continue to defect. (Bonus link.)

Independent, sovereign, autonomous, personal and heterarchical are all adjectives for what one gets from a distributed network. (This may call forth an acronym, or at least an initialism.) By whatever name it is an essential camp, because each of us is all six of those things (including distributed). We need tech that enables those things and gives us full agency.

We won’t get them from the centralizers of the world. Or decentralizers that don’t go all the way from B to C. We need new stuff that comes from the truly personal side: from C. It helps that C — distributed — is also central to the mentality, ethos and methodologies of hacking (in the positive senses of the word).

Ever since the Net went viral in the mid-’90s, we’ve built out “solutions” mostly on the models of A and B: of centralized and decentralized. But too rarely all the way to C: the fully personal. This is understandable, given the flywheels of industry, which have the heft of Jupiter and have been spinning ever since Industry won the Industrial Revolution.

But one fully personal exception stands out: the browser. It was born to be the best instrument of individuality we could have, even though it has lately become more of a shopping cart than a car. (That was one point of Earth to Mozilla: Come back home.) If we want the browser to be fully personal (e.g. private) again — as it was in the first place, before commercial imperatives were laid upon it, and the Web looked like a library (which one would browse) rather than a shopping mall — Mozilla is our best hope for making that happen. There are no other candidates. And it’s clear to me that they do want to work toward that goal.

We won’t get rid of centralization and hierarchy. Nor should we, because there are many things centralization and hierarchy do best, and we need them to operate civilization. Our personal tools also need to engage with many of them. But we also can’t expect either centralization or decentralization to give us distributed solutions, any more than we can get government or business to give us individuality, or for hierarchy to give us heterarchy. The best we’ll get from them is respect: for us, and for the new tools we bring to the market’s table.

Aral is right when he tweets that Mozilla’s dependence on Google is an elephant in the room. It’s an obvious issue. But the distributed mentality and ethos is alive and well inside Mozilla — and, for that matter, Google. I suspect it even resides in some corner of Mark Zuckerberg’s cerebrum. (He’s too much of a hacker for it not to be there.) Dismissing Mozilla as a tool of Google throws out babies with bathwater — important and essential ones, I believe.

Meanwhile we need a name for the movement that’s happening here, and I think Aral’s right that “Indie” might be it. “Distributed” sounds like what happens at the end of a supply chain. “Heterarchical” is good, but has five syllables and sounds too academic. “Sovereign” is only three syllables (or two, depending) and is gaining some currency, but it more commonly applies to countries than to people. “Personal” is good, but maybe too common. And the Indie Web is already catching on in tech circles. And indie itself is already established as a nickname for “independent.”  So I like it.

I would also like to see the whole topic come up at VRM Day and IIW, which run from 5 to 8 May in Mountain View. The links for those:

http://VRMday2014a.eventbrite.com

http://iiworkshop.org (register at http://bit.ly/1hWpNn5)

Here is my short list:

  1. Larry Josephson
  2. Howard Stern
  3. Bob Grant
  4. Bob & Ray
  5. Barry Gray
  6. Bob Fass
  7. Steve Post
  8. Rush Limbaugh
  9. Alex Bennett
  10. Allan Handelman

And here are my qualifications: a) the performer has to do (or have done) a show that runs daily (or close),  b) the listener has to sense that they are missing something if they’re not listening, and c) I need to have been a listener.

I bring this up because in January I heard Howard Stern speak regretfully — and movingly — about how Bob Grant was something like “the greatest broadcaster who ever lived,” and how he (Howard) blew the chance to say that to Bob directly while the old guy was still alive. Bob died on New Years Eve at age 84. (Later Howard was not only reminded that he did say kind things to Bob, but somebody produced recorded evidence. Apparently Howard is correct that his memory sucks.)

I first heard Bob in the early ’70s, when he came to WMCA in New York from KLAC in Los Angeles. (Staying at the same spot on the dial, since both were on 570am.) WMCA had dropped its Top 40 format (conceding that ground to WABC and the FM band) and became the first full-time talk station in New York. I agreed with very little that Bob espoused, but found the show highly entertaining, especially when some dumb caller made no sense and Bob yelled “Get off the phone!”

But Howard is by far the best radio performer, ever. There’s nobody close. He’s funny as hell and his celebrity interviews are masterful to an extreme nobody will ever exceed. All his shows are longer than Gone With The Wind, filled with original comedy bits and supported by a veteran and gifted staff of interesting characters who are themselves sources of entertaining studio encounters. On days Howard’s not on, the re-runs — both from the past few days and from archives that stretch back a quarter century — are also brilliant. The show is blue, but I enjoy that. Life fucks itself all the time, or none of us would be here.

I put Larry Josephson ahead of Howard because I’ve never loved a morning host more than I loved Larry. Back when he was on WBAI in the ’60s and early ’70s, my daily life was anchored in Larry’s show. Larry spoke frankly about his personal life, and flouted just about every morning-host formalism you can list. (As Howard still does. But Larry was first.) He’d show up late, eat on the air, and take calls during which you heard nothing of the person at the other end. He was funny (among other things, like me, he was a sucker for puns), wickedly smart, hugely informed, and deeply interested in big issues of many kinds. Years later he leveraged all that into the public radio shows Modern Times and Bridges. I still have many recordings of both on cassettes in my garage. After leaving the air Larry made a living selling recordings of Bob & Ray (next on my list), who were two of the funniest guys in radio, from the fifties into the seventies. Find those and other goodies (including What is Judaism and Only In Amercia) from Larry at RadioArt.org. Meanwhile, also dig what Larry is doing today at An Inconvenient Jew: My Life in Radio. A better biography than this one or Wikipedia’s is here.

Bob & Ray are next on my list because they were the funniest radio comics of their time. Both had warm baritone voices, which hardly changed whether they were playing characters young or old, male or female. Their humor was droll and dry and played for irony at many levels. Buy some samples from Larry.

I’ve got Barry Gray next because he was — at least for me — the father of all the radio talk shows that followed. His slot from 11pm to 1am on WMCA seemed highly anomalous, given WMCA’s role as one of New York’s Top 40 music landmarks. But for me as a kid growing up in the 50s and early 60s, it was a window on the intellectual and cultural world, giving me lots of stuff to talk and think about the next day. I liked Barry Farber too (they were both pioneers, and Farber is still at it today) but to me, growing up, the better Barry was Gray.

I put Bob Fass and Steve Post next because they were Larry Josephson’s teammates on WBAI during the station’s heyday, and I loved all three of them (and some others I hate not mentioning, but I’m trying to keep this from getting too long). Bob Fass’s Radio Unnameable was required late night radio listening in The Sixties, and had enormous influence on the spirit of that time, including too many events and personalities to mention. I recall Steve as WBAI’s smart and witty utility infielder and team captain. He was more than that, both for WBAI and later for WNYC, where he was active while I was elsewhere. Mostly I enjoyed listening to him whenever he was on.

I put Rush Limbaugh next because he is just so damn good at what he does. For many years I enjoyed listening to him, even though I mostly disagreed with his politics. He was tuned in to a sensibility that I knew well, and in many ways he understood the political left better than it understood itself. Maybe he still does. I’m just so tired of right wing talkers at this point that I don’t listen to any of them. But I want to give credit where due, and Rush deserves plenty.

I first heard Alex Bennett on WMCA in the late ’60s, and followed him to WPLJ while I was still living in New Jersey. Later I picked him up again in the Bay Area when he was on a variety of stations there. Alex was at his best (for me at least), when he brought comedians into the studio to hang out. I’m sure Alex played a key role in the surge in comedy clubs that happened in the 1980s. (Wow, I just learned that Ronni Bennett is Alex’s ex. Guess I missed that.)

Allan Handelman is the only guy on this list (and I regret that they are all guys) who has had me as a guest on the air. It was in the early ’80s on WPTF in Raleigh, to talk about radio, like I am now. I first heard Allan when he was on a little FM station in Farmville, North Carolina. I was 100+ miles away, in Chapel Hill, but had a big antenna on my roof that I would aim east to get Allan’s signal, amazed at the guests he would get to come on. Most notable among those was Frank Zappa. Allan’s discussions with Frank are among my treasured radio memories.

So that’s it for now. I started to write this in January and decided to finally throw a few more sentences in, and liberate it from the Drafts folder. If you care, tweet or comment on your own faves. One I would volunteer for a slightly different category (such as “uncategorizable”): Phil Hendrie.

Turkey shut down Twitter today. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced, “We now have a court order. We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.” (Hurriyet Daily News) He also said Turkey will “rip out the roots” of Twitter. (Washington Post)

Those roots are in the Internet. This is a good thing. Even if Turkey rips the roots out of the phone and cable systems that provide access to the Net, they can’t rip out the Net itself, because the Net is not centralized. It is distributed: a heterarchy rather than a hierarchy. At the most basic level, the Net’s existence relies on protocols rather than on how any .com, .org, .edu or .gov puts those protocols to use.

The Net’s protocols are not servers, clouds, wires, routers or code bases. They are agreements about how data flows to and from any one end point and any other. This makes the Internet a world of ends rather than a world of governments, companies and .whatevers. It cannot be reduced to any of those things, any more than time can be reduced to a clock. The Net is as oblivious to usage as are language and mathematics — and just as supportive of every use to which it is put. And, because of this oblivity, The Net supports all without favor to any.

Paul Baran contrasted centralized systems (such as governments), decentralized ones (such as Twitter+Facebook+Google, etc.) and distributed ones, using this drawing in 1964:

Design C became the Internet.

It appealed to military folks because it was the best design for surviving attack. Even in a decentralized system there are central points of vulnerability where a government can spy on traffic or knock out a whole service. The “attack surfaces” of a distributed system are no larger than a single node or a single connection, so it’s much harder to bring the whole thing down. This is why John Gillmore says ”The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” No doubt this is happening right now in Turkey, just as it is in China and other countries  that block sites and services on the Net. It might not be easy, but it is do-able by design. That design is not about hard fixed administrated lines, but voluntary connections, or what Bob Frankston calls ‘DIY connectivity’.

Twitter’s centralized nature makes it a dot in the star-shaped designs of A and B. That dot becomes a black hole when powerful actors like the Turkish and Chinese governments “eradicate” it. We need to bear this in mind when we design and use centralized systems — and even decentralized ones.

It helps to recognize that some things — such as being social with each other — do not require centralized systems, or even decentralized ones. They can be truly distributed, heterarchical and voluntary. Just as we have freedom of speech and association in any free society, we should have the same on the Net. And, at the base level, we do.

But this isn’t easy to see, for five reasons:

  1. We do need centralized systems for doing what only they can do
  2. Existing building methods and materials make it easy
  3. The internet is also a “network of networks” which at the backbone and “provider” level (the one you access it through) is more like a combination of B and C — and, because you pay providers for access,  it’s easy to ignore C as the virtuous base of the whole thing
  4. After eighteen years of building centralized systems (such as Twitter) on the Net, it’s hard for most people — even geeks familiar with the Net’s base design — to think outside the box called client-server (and some of us call calf-cow)

A great way to avoid the black hole of centralization is to start from the fully distributed nodes that each of us are, designing and building first person technologies. And I have a specific one to recommend, from Customer Commons:

This is Omie:

She’s the brainlet of Customer Commons: She is, literally, a clean slate. And she is your clean slate. Not Apple’s. Not Google’s. Not some phone company’s.

She can be what you want her to be, do what you want her to do, run whatever apps you want her to run, and use data you alone collect and control.

Being a clean slate makes Omie very different.

On your iPhone and iPad you can run only what Apple lets you run, and you can get only from Apple’s own store. On an Android phone you have to run Google’s pre-loaded apps, which means somebody is already not only telling you what you must do, but is following you as well.

Omie uses Android, but bows to Google only in respect of its intention to create an open Linux-based OS for mobile devices.

So Omie is yours, alone. Fully private, by design, from the start.

Omie needs crowdfunding. More specifically, she needs somebody who is good at doing crowdfunding videos, to help us out. We have the script.  If you’re up for helping out, contact me. I can be DM’d via @dsearls, or emailed via my first  name @ my last name dot com. Thanks!

 

 

The power is out and won’t be back for awhile. That’s what the guys in the hard hats tell me, down where they’re working, at the intersection where our dead-end street is born. Many trucks are gathered there, with bright night-work lights illuminating whatever went wrong with the day’s power pole replacement job. The notices they left on our doors said they’d be done by five, but now it’s eight and I’m sitting in a house lit by candles, working on the nth draft of a writing assignment, in the absence of a steady flow of electrons off the power grid. Also in the absence of connection except to the physical world alone. Connectivity = 0. My laptop is good for another four hours or so, but without a connection I lack the building materials I need for constructing the piece. So I’m writing this instead.

Some other utilities are unaffected by the power outage, of course. I have matches, and can fire up the gas stove. Water runs, cold and cold. It also drips out of the little motel-grade refrigerator upstairs, defrosting itself into towels I’ve fed under it. The freezer in the kitchen remains closed, to keep whatever is in there from thawing and requiring use in the next couple days. What I’m witnessing is a gradual breakdown that is easy to imagine accelerating fast, especially if I was coping instead with a wildfire or an earthquake.

Three interesting facts about California and the people who — like me — choose to live here:

  1. The state tree is the California redwood. What made these things evolve into groves of spires with thick bark, standing at heights beyond three hundred feet, with branches in mature specimens that commence a hundred or more feet above the ground. I say they are adapted to fire. A cross section of a mature redwood will feature black edges to rings spaced thirty, fifty, two hundred apart, all marking survival of wildfire at a single location.
  2. The state flower is the California poppy. Here is what makes poppies thrive in dry rocky soils that are poor for agriculture but rich with  freshly exposed minerals: they are adapted to earthquakes. More than any other state, except maybe Alaska, California is a product of recent earth movement. Imagine looking at the southern Appalachians in the U.S. or the Blue Mountains of Australia, two million years ago. It’s not hard: they would pretty much like they do now. If you looked at the site of the future California from anywhere two million years ago, you would recognize nothing, unless you were a geologist who knew what to look for. All of California has been raised up or ferried in by tectonic forces that have been working at full throttle for a couple hundred million years, and aren’t moving any slower today.
  3. Neither of those facts teaches caution to human beings who choose to live here. For example, the home where I write this, in Santa Barbara, has been approached, unsuccessfully, by two wildfires in recent years. The Tea Fire in November 2008 burned 210 homes and the Jesusita Fire in May 2009 burned other 80 more. The Tea Fire came straight at us, incinerating everything but rocks and soil for a mile in its path before stopping a quarter mile and ten houses short of where I’m sitting right now. (Here is my report on the aftermath.) The Coyote Fire in September 1964 burned the same area, and much more. The Sycamore Fire in 1979 came even closer, burning houses just up the street from here.

“We live in the age of full convenience,” John Updike wrote, at a time when it made sense to think copiers and fax machines marked some kind of end state.* But the lessons that matter at the moment arise from the absence of the two most essential utilities in my life, and probably yours too: the electric grid and the data network. (Yes, I can get on the Net by tethering my laptop to my mobile phone, but both use batteries that will run out, and the phone is down below 20% already anyway.) So here are three lessons that come to me, here in the dark, all of which we are sure to continue ignoring::::

  1. Civilization is thin. A veneer. Under it nature remains vast, violent and provisional. In the long run, which may end at any time for any of us, nature will prove no easier to tame than the tides. For three great perspectives on this, I highly recommend John McPhee‘s The Control of Nature. The title is taken from a plea to students, carved into sandstone over the door of a building at the University of Wyoming in Laramie: STRIVE ON — THE CONTROL OF NATVRE IS WON, NOT GIVEN. (I also recommend this blog post, by Themon The Bard, who went to UW and provides a photo.) Its chapters are “Iceland versus the volcanoes,” “Los Angeles versus the San Gabriel Mountains” and “The Army Corps of Engineers versus the Mississippi River.” The New Yorker re-ran a set piece from the third of those, right after Hurricane Katrina, which produced what New Orleans natives call “The Flood.” In it McPhee describes what would happen to New Orleans when a levee is breached. Here is the original, published years before reality certified true McPhee’s prophesy.
  2. Humanity is insane. A good working definition of psychosis is disconnection of the mind from reality. As a species we have proven ourselves nuts for the duration, as the examples above attest. Present company included. (Further proof: war, genocide.) It should be clear by now that humanity is not merely at the top of the food chain around the world, but a pestilence to everything God (or whatever) put in position to be exploited in the short term, regardless of the obvious fact that it took approximately forever to put those resources in place, and how much of it cannot be replaced. While it’s true that in the very long run (a billion years or few), the aging Sun will cook the planet anyway, we are doing our best to get the job done in the geologic present. This is why many geologists propose renaming our current epoch “Anthropocene.” Bonus question: Why do political conservatives care so little about the long-term conservation of resources that are, undeniably, in limited supply and are clearly bound for exhaustion at any consumption rate? Before categorizing me, please note that I am a registered independent, and in sympathy with economic conservatives in a number of ways (for example, I do like, appreciate and understand how the market works, and in general I favor smaller government). But on environmental issues I’m with those who give a shit. Most of them happen to be liberals (or, in the current vernacular, progressives). George Lakoff provides some answers here (and in several books). But, while I love George, and while he has probably influenced my thinking more than any other human being, it still baffles that opposing conservation of resources fails to seem oxymoronic to most avowed conservatives.
  3. The end is in sight. Somewhere I’ve kept a newspaper story that did a great job of listing all the resources our species is bound to use up, at current rates of exploitation, and how long that will take. On the list were not only the obvious “reserves,” such like oil, gas, coal and uranium, but other stuff as well: helium, lithium, platinum, thorium, tungsten, neodymium, dysprosium, niobium… stuff we use to make stuff that ranges from balloons to hard drives to hybrid car engines. Many of the heavier elements appear to have been deposited here during bombardments by asteroids several billion years ago, when the Earth has hard enough not to absorb them. Helium, one of the most abundant elements in the universe, is produced on Earth mostly by decay of radioactive elements in certain kinds of natural gas. Much of the world’s helium comes from the ground here in the U.S., where our enlightened congresspeople decided a few decades back to hand the reserves over to private industry, where “the market” would decide best how it would be used. So, naturally, we are due to run out of it within maybe a couple dozen years, and have not yet found a way to replace it. Read on.

[Later...] I wrote this three nights ago, but didn’t put it up until now because I was already way overdue on the  writing assignment I mentioned up top, and I had to deal with other pressing obligations as well. So I just went through the post, copy-edited it a bit and added some links.


* Special thanks goes to anybody who can find the original quote. I’ve used it so often on the Web that I’ve effectively spammed search results with unintended SEO. The closest thing I can find is this from Google Books, which fails to contain the searched-for nugget, but still demonstrates why Updike’s criticism earns the same high rank as his fiction.

Fort Lee has been in the news lately. Seems traffic access to the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee was sphinctered for political purposes, at the spot marked “B” on this map here:

The spot marked “A” is the site of my first home: 2063 Hoyt Avenue. Here’s how it looked in 1920:

My grandfather, George W. Searls, built it in 1900 or so. He and grandma, Ethel F. (née Englert) Searls, raised thee children there: Ethel M. Searls, born in 1905, Allen H. Searls (my father), born in 1908, and Grace (née Searls) Apgar, born in 1912. Grandpa died in 1935, but Grandma and Aunt Ethel lived here until 1955, when I was eight years old.

It was in a fine old neighborhood of similar mansard-roofed homes, most of which were built before the George Washington Bridge showed up and became the town’s landmark feature. Pop, who grew up climbing the Palisades and had no fear of heights, helped build the bridge, mostly by rigging cables.

Not long after finding a place to stay in New York in Fall of 2012, my wife and I took a walk across the bridge to visit the old neighborhood. I knew the old house was gone, the land under it paved over by Bruce Reynolds Boulevard. What I didn’t expect was finding that the entire neighborhood had been erased. See the brown area on the map above, between the highway and Main Street? That was it. Palisade Avenue, behind Hoyt, is now a house-less strip of rotting pavement flanked and veined by wild grass. The only animal life we spotted was a large groundhog that ran to an old storm drain when we approached.

Little of the Fort Lee I knew as a kid is still there. The only familiar sights on Main Street are City Hall and the old fire station. Dig this: City Hall also shows up in the background of this shot of Mom with my cousin Paul and I, when we were both a few months old, in April 1948. This street too has been obliterated: replaced by stores and parking lots, with no trace of its old self.

When I was a kid in the ’50s, my grandparents’ generation — all born in the second half of the 19th Century — was still going strong. One relative I remember well was great-aunt Eva Quackenbush, Grandpa Searls’ older sister. Here she is with Mom, and the baby me. Eva was born in 1853, and was twelve years old when President Lincoln was shot — and event she talked about. She visited often from her home in St. Louis, and died just a few days short of 100 years old, in 1953. Living long is a Searls family trait. Grandma made it to 107 and Aunt Grace to 101 (she passed just last month, fun and lucid to the end).

So to me the world before cars, electricity and other modern graces was a familiar one, because I heard so many stories about it. Grandma grew up in The Bronx, at 742 East 142nd Street, when it looked like this:

Today, according to Google’s StreetView, it looks like this:

The red A marks 732. On the left, behind that wall, is a “towed car” lot. It sits atop a mound of rubble that was once “old Lincoln Hospital”:

According to the Wikipedia article on Lincoln Hospital, “In 1895, after more than half a century of occupying various sites in Manhattan, the Board of Trustees purchased a large lot in the South Bronx—then a semi-rural area of the city—at the corner of 141st Street and Southern Boulevard.” This is a morning view, lit from the southeast, looking north across 141st Street. Grandma’s place was on the back side of the hospital. Amazing to think that this scene came and went between the two shots above it.

Grandma’s father, Henry Roman Englert, was the head of the Steel and Copper Plate Engravers Union in the city. His trade was also destroyed by industrial progress, but was an art in its time. Here he is, as a sharp young man with a waxed mustache:

Henry was a fastidious dude who, on arriving home from work, would summon his four daughters to appear and stand in a row. He would then run his white glove over some horizontal surface and wipe it on a white shoulder of a daughter’s dress, expecting no dust to leave a mark on either glove or girl. Or so the story went. Henry was the son of German immigrants: Christian Englert and Jacobina Rung, both of Alsace, now part of France. They were brewers, and had a tavern on the east side of Manhattan on 110th Street. Jacobina was a Third Order Carmelite nun, and was buried in its brown robes. Both were born in 1825. Christian died in 1886 while picking hops in Utica. Jacobina died in 1904.

Grandma met Grandpa in 1903, when she was twenty and he was forty. She was working as a cleaning woman in the Fort Lee boarding house where Grandpa lived while he worked as a carpenter. One day she saw him laying asleep, and bent down to kiss him. He woke, reached up, and kissed her back. Romance commenced.

Grandma didn’t like to admit having done cleaning work, insisting always that she was “lace curtain Irish,” to distinguish her family from “shanty Irish.” When ethnic matters came up in conversation over dinner, she would often say “All for the Irish stand up,” and everybody would rise. In fact she was only half Irish. Her mother, Catherine “Kitty” Trainor, died in her thirties. Henry later married an Italian woman and produced more progeny, only one of which was ever mentioned by Grandma. That was Harry, who died at age five. The largest framed photograph in Grandma’s house was one of Harry, looking up and holding a toy.

Kitty’s dad was Thomas Trainor, who came over from Ireland in 1825 at age 15 to escape England’s harsh penal laws. (He shipped out of Letterkenny with an uncle, but the Trainors were from south of there. Trainor was anglicized from the Gaelic Tréinfhir, meaning “strong man.”) Thomas worked as an indentured servant in the carriage trade, and married Catherine McLaughlin, the daughter of his boss. Thomas then prospered in the same business, building and fixing carriages at his shop at the south end of Broadway. His two daughters were Kitty and “Aunt Mag” Meyer, whom Grandma often quoted. The line I best remember is, “You’ve got it in your hand. Now put it away.” Mag taught Grandma how to walk quietly while large numbers of other people in the house were sleeping. Grandma passed the same advice to her grandkids, including me: “Walk on the balls of your feet, toes first.” The Trainors also had a son, who ran away to fight in the Civil War. When the war ended and the boy didn’t come home, Thomas went down to Washington and found his son in a hospital there, recovering from a wound. The doctors said the boy would be home by Christmas. And, when Christmas came, the boy indeed arrived, in a coffin. Or so the story went.

An interesting fact about Fort Lee: it was the original Hollywood. The Searls family, like most of the town, was involved. Grandpa was D.W. Griffith’s head carpenter, building film sets such as this one here. Here he is (bottom right) with his crew. Here’s a link for the Fort Lee Film Commission, featuring samples of the silent movies made there. Among the extras are family members. Lillian Gish and Lon Chaney both boarded upstairs at 2063 Hoyt. So did the dad of the late Elliot Richardson, a cabinet member in the Nixon and Ford administrations.

Time flies, and so do people, places and memories. My parents’ generation is now gone, and family members of my own generation are starting to move on. I can count ten places I used to live that are now gone as well, including my high school. Kevin Kelly told me a couple years ago that none of us, even the famous, will be remembered in a thousand years. I’m sure he’s right.

But I still feel the urge to pour as much as I can of what I know into the public domain, which is what you’re witnessing now, if you’re still with me at the bottom of a long post. I believe it helps to see what was, as well as what is.

For example, this view up Hoyt Avenue from the site of the old Searls place, in 2012, is now filled with a high-rise that is almost complete. The little bridge-less town where my grandparents met and my father and his sisters grew up is now a henge of high-rises. Fort Lee itself is now also known as Fort Lee Koreatown. In this constantly shifting urban context the current scandal seems a drop in the bucket of time.

 

I took my first job in radio at WSUS in Franklin, New Jersey, in 1973. The station at the time consisted of a run-down ranch house at the top of Hamburg Mountain, overlooking the central valleys of Sussex County, a square of farms and forests at the northern point of the state. The house was at the end of a steep road that was more rocks than dirt. Beside it stood a 240-foot tower from which the station radiated a light-bulb powered signal: just 360 watts, on one of the channels reserved in the U.S. for local stations. But, since signals on FM tend to reach what can be seen from the antenna, the station’s coverage was greater than its only competition in the county. Also, since hills and mountains shadowed Sussex County from New York’s FMs, WSUS had a big competitive advantage as FM inevitably overtook AM in popularity.

The new owner was Peter Bardach, a first-rank media guru working for Doyle Dane Berbach, the advertising agency in New York that led the creative revolution of the 1960s. Peter’s specialty was forecasting the successes and failures of TV shows, and his predictions for Fall seasons  were featured annually in TV Guide. His smart bets with WSUS were on both FM and Sussex County, which at the time was said to have more dairy cows than human beings — but was sure to have a growing economy in the years ahead.

Peter bought the station in 1971 for $75,000 from Lou VanderPlate, who named it WLVP when he launched it in 1965. Its format was Christian music, mostly, and failed. Peter took possession through a new company he called Sussex County Stereo, even though the station remained mono until long after I moved on. I often told Peter he should make it stereo, but he insisted on keeping it mono because he believed the station’s weak signal would be made weaker if it were stereo. He had a partial case: the signal-to-noise ratio of stereo signals is worse than mono; but at the time there were many receivers that defaulted to stereo-only, and already car radios were getting good at gradually shifting from stereo to mono with weak signals.

Peter didn’t run the station, though. That job went to James Edward Normoyle, whose professional name was Jay Edwards. (That was his handle as a disc jockey when he worked at 1010 WINS, the Top 40 pioneer in New York.) They made an amazing team. Peter was quiet and polite while Jay was loud and brash. Both urged me to push the envelope of my nascent talents, which I did as a jack-of-all-trades at the station. While I was paid to sell ads, I was also the news director and a part-time engineer and disc jockey.

Back then we were the underdog station in the region, which had long been super-served by WNNJ (now WTOC) in Newton, the county seat. WNNJ was a small daytime-only station at 1360am, but it was an excellent “full service” local institution. (Its FM sister, radiating from the same tower near downtown Newton, was WIXL/103.7, which played what was then called “beautiful music” It radiated with plenty of wattage, but the low tower height limited coverage and wasn’t much competition.) This was in the days of great radio rivalries, and it was fun to go head-to-head with an old established station as a newcomer.

Our format was “town and country” — a mix of Top 40 and country music. We literally had two stacks of 45rpm records feeding two turntables: one for “town” and one for “country.” It was weird but fun.

Not long after I got there we moved the studio and offices to downtown Franklin, but Peter’s heart was still up on the mountain. That was where Jean Babcock lived. Jean was the station’s most passionate groupie and eventually Peter’s wife. (His obituary below says otherwise, so I don’t know the real story there. Maybe somebody can fill me in.)

In 1974 I moved to North Carolina and went to work for WDNC and WDBS there, and gradually lost touch with most of the WSUS crew. I heard many years later that Jay had died (long after he bought WSUS from Peter for a good price and sold it years later for a better one). Bob O’Brien, another friend from those days, is gone too. So yesterday I found myself wondering, out of the blue, about Peter. I looked him up and found that my intuition was correct. He died on November 30. Here is the gist of his obituary from the Panama City, Florida News Herald:

Peter Michael Bardach (1929 - 2013)


Mr. Bardach, of Lynn Haven, Fla., and Newton, N.J., died November 30, 2013. Peter Michael was preceded in death by his longtime partner and companion, Mrs. Gene Babcock of Lynn Haven and Franklin, N.J., and his partner Priscilla Miller of Lynn Haven. He leaves behind Priscilla’s children, Brad, Paul, Dusty, Howard, Pat, Barbara, Susan and Lynn.Prior to his retirement in 1993, Mr. Bardach enjoyed a lengthy career in the fields of advertising and broadcasting. He was employed for 25 years by Foote, Cone and Belding in New York, where he served as Senior Vice President Broadcasting. In 1972 he founded WSUS FM in Franklin, N.J., which later expanded into television WUSU Video 8. In 1987 he founded WRBA, Bay 96 Radio, in Panama City, Fla.During his retirement, and up to the time of his death, he was an active volunteer at WKGC Public Radio at Gulf Coast Community College. He produced and broadcast the weekly “Showcase of Show Tunes,” “WKGC On Stage,” “Peter Michael’s Place,” and was co-producer and host for “Emerald Coast Studio.”

I’m glad to know Peter continued to invest his interest in radio, and lived a full long life. My best wishes to all who loved him.

Other links:

I’d also like to shout out to three good friends from those days: Donna Sooley (née Flory), Stan Olochwoszcz (aka Lee Ryder) and Bob Morris (aka Forrest Greene). The first two (especially Stan) are still on my radar, but Bob has dropped off. He was last heard from on the late WERA in Plainfield, New Jersey. If you’re out there, Bob, get in touch.

[Later...] Just learned that the great Larry Lujack, a Top 40 disc jockey who played in its peak years for WLS in Chicago, has died. Here’s the first installment of a TV special on Larry, shot back in the biggest-hair era of American History. And here is Eric Rhoads’ tribute — not just to Larry, but to a whole generation of what Eric calls “communicators.” I believe there are more of those than ever now. They’re just not on old-fashioned radio.

Obamacare matters. But the debate about it also misdirects attention away from massive collateral damage to patients. How massive? Dig To Make Hospitals Less Deadly, a Dose of Data, by Tina Rosenberg in The New York Times. She writes,

Until very recently, health care experts believed that preventable hospital error caused some 98,000 deaths a year in the United States — a figure based on 1984 data. But a new report from the Journal of Patient Safety using updated data holds such error responsible for many more deaths — probably around some 440,000 per year. That’s one-sixth of all deaths nationally, making preventable hospital error the third leading cause of death in the United States. And 10 to 20 times that many people suffer nonlethal but serious harm as a result of hospital mistakes.

The bold-facing is mine. In 2003, one of those statistics was my mother. I too came close in 2008, though the mistake in that case wasn’t a hospital’s, but rather a consequence of incompatibility between different silo’d systems for viewing MRIs, and an ill-informed rush into a diagnostic procedure that proved unnecessary and caused pancreatitis (which happens in 5% of those performed — I happened to be that one in twenty). That event, my doctors told me, increased my long-term risk of pancreatic cancer.

Risk is the game we’re playing here: the weighing of costs and benefits, based on available information. Thus health care is primarily the risk-weighing business we call insurance. For generations, the primary customers of health care — the ones who pay for the services — have been insurance companies. Their business is selling bets on outcomes to us, to our employers, or both. They play that game, to a large extent, by knowing more than we do. Asymmetrical knowledge R them.

Now think about the data involved. Insurance companies live in a world of data. That world is getting bigger and bigger. And yet, McKinsey tells us, it’s not big enough. In The big-data revolution in US health care: Accelerating value and innovation (subtitle: Big data could transform the health-care sector, but the industry must undergo fundamental changes before stakeholders can capture its full value), McKinsey writes,

Fiscal concerns, perhaps more than any other factor, are driving the demand for big-data applications. After more than 20 years of steady increases, health-care expenses now represent 17.6 percent of GDP—nearly $600 billion more than the expected benchmark for a nation of the United States’s size and wealth.1 To discourage overutilization, many payors have shifted from fee-for-service compensation, which rewards physicians for treatment volume, to risk-sharing arrangements that prioritize outcomes. Under the new schemes, when treatments deliver the desired results, provider compensation may be less than before. Payors are also entering similar agreements with pharmaceutical companies and basing reimbursement on a drug’s ability to improve patient health. In this new environment, health-care stakeholders have greater incentives to compile and exchange information.

While health-care costs may be paramount in big data’s rise, clinical trends also play a role. Physicians have traditionally used their judgment when making treatment decisions, but in the last few years there has been a move toward evidence-based medicine, which involves systematically reviewing clinical data and making treatment decisions based on the best available information. Aggregating individual data sets into big-data algorithms often provides the most robust evidence, since nuances in subpopulations (such as the presence of patients with gluten allergies) may be so rare that they are not readily apparent in small samples.

Although the health-care industry has lagged behind sectors like retail and banking in the use of big data—partly because of concerns about patient confidentiality—it could soon catch up. First movers in the data sphere are already achieving positive results, which is prompting other stakeholders to take action, lest they be left behind. These developments are encouraging, but they also raise an important question: is the health-care industry prepared to capture big data’s full potential, or are there roadblocks that will hamper its use

The word “patient” appears nowhere in that long passage. The word “stakeholder” appears twice, plus eight more times in the whole piece. Still, McKinsey brooks some respect for the patient, though more as a metric zone than as a holder of a stake in outcomes:

Health-care stakeholders are well versed in capturing value and have developed many levers to assist with this goal. But traditional tools do not always take complete advantage of the insights that big data can provide. Unit-price discounts, for instance, are based primarily on contracting and negotiating leverage. And like most other well-established health-care value levers, they focus solely on reducing costs rather than improving patient outcomes. Although these tools will continue to play an important role, stakeholders will only benefit from big data if they take a more holistic, patient-centered approach to value, one that focuses equally on health-care spending and treatment outcomes.

McKinsey’s customers are not you and me. They are business executives, many of which work in health care. As players in their game, we have zero influence. As voters in the democracy game, however, we have a bit more. That’s one reason we elected Barack Obama.

So, viewed from the level at which it plays out, the debate over health care, at least in the U.S., is between those who believe in addressing problems with business (especially the big kind) and those who believe in addressing problems with policy (especially the big kind, such as Obamacare).

Big business has been winning, mostly. This is why Obamacare turned out to be a set of policy tweaks on a business that was already highly regulated, mostly by captive lawmakers and regulators.

Meanwhile we have this irony to contemplate: while dying of bad data at a rate rivaling war and plague, our physical bodies are being doubled into digital ones. It is now possible to know one’s entire genome, including clear markers of risks such as cancer and dementia. That’s in addition to being able to know one’s quantified self (QS), plus one’s health care history.

Yet all of that data is scattered and silo’d. This is why it is hard to integrate all our available QS data, and nearly impossible to integrate all our health care history. After I left the Harvard University Health Services (HUHS) system in 2010, my doctor at the time (Richard Donohue, MD, whom I recommend highly) obtained and handed over to me the entirety of my records from HUHS. It’s not data, however. It’s a pile of paper, as thick as the Manhattan phone book. Its utility to other doctors verges on nil. Such is the nature of the bizarre information asymmetry (and burial) in the current system.

On top of that, our health care system incentivizes us to conceal our history, especially if any of that history puts us in a higher risk category, sure to pay more in health insurance premiums.

But what happens when we solve these problems, and our digital selves become fully knowable — by both our selves and our health care providers? What happens to the risk calculation business we have today, which rationalizes more than 400,000 snuffed souls per annum as collateral damage? Do we go to single-payer then, for the simple reason that the best risk calculations are based on the nation’s entire population?

I don’t know.

I do know the current system doesn’t want to go there, on either the business or the policy side. But it will. Inevitably.

At the end of whatever day this is, our physical selves will know our data selves better than any system built to hoard and manage our personal data for their interests more than for ours. When that happens the current system will break, and another one will take its place.

How many more of us will die needlessly in the meantime? And does knowing (or guessing at) that number make any difference? It hasn’t so far.

But that shouldn’t stop us. Hats off to leadership in the direction of actually solving these problems, starting with Adrian Gropper, ePatient Dave, Patient Privacy RightsBrian Behlendorf, Esther Dyson, John Wilbanks, Tom Munnecke and countless other good people and organizations who have been pushing this rock up a hill for a long time, and aren’t about to stop. (Send me more names or add them in the comments below.)

With Comet Ison on the horizon (but out of sight until it finishes looping around the Sun), I thought it might be fun to re-run what I wrote here in 1997 (in my blog-before-there-were-blogs), about the last great comet to grace Earth’s skies. — Doc


 

Ordinary Miracles:
Start Your Day With Comet Hale-Bopp

Hale-Bopp

Graphic by Dr. Dale Ireland, whose excellent comet page is here.


By Doc Searls
March 6, 1997

It’s 5:15AM as I write this. A few minutes ago, after the kid woke us for his breakfast, I walked to the kitchen to fetch a glass of water. When I arrived at the sink, I looked up and saw the most amazing thing: Hale-Bopp, the comet, brighter than any star, hanging from the Northeast sky over San Francisco Bay.

I’ve seen five comets in my life. None have been more spectacular than this one is, right now. It’s astonishing. Trust me: this one is a Star of Bethlehem-grade mother of a comet.

Considering the comet’s quality, publicity has been kind of weak. Which makes sense, since I have noticed an inverse relationship between comet quality and notoriety.

KahoutekThe most promoted comet in recent history was Kahoutek, in 1971. Kahoutek was supposed to be the biggest comet since Halley last appeared in 1910. But after all the hype, Kahoutek was nearly invisible. I can’t even say I saw it. At least I can say Ilooked and that maybe I saw something. (But hey, I lived in Jersey at the time. Whaddaya ‘spect?)

Comet WEstIn fact, Kahoutek was such a big no-show that when Comet West appeared in 1975, it received almost no publicity at all. But it was a wonderful comet. First it appeared as a morning star with a bright little tail about one moon long, above the Eastern horizon. Then, after it whipped around the Sun and flew back out toward its own tail, the comet spread into a wide V that graced the evening sky like God’s own logo. At the time I lived in a rural enclave outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and every night for several weeks a few of us would wander out and marvel at the show.

HalleyThe next comet was Halley, in 1986. Astronomers had rightly mixed feelings about Halley. On the one hand, they knew this would be one of Halley’s least visible visits. On the other hand, they knew it would raise interest in astronomy. Well, Halley was nearly as big a bust as Kahoutek. At best the “Great Comet” was a tiny smudge in the sky. Can you see it in this picture? Right. My friend Jerry Solfvin and I had about the same luck when we joined a 3AM traffic jam of about 10,000 people who went to the far side of Mt. Diablo to look at this. By the way, this picture is from the Hyuktuke Gallery at the NEFAS (Northeast Florida Astronomical Society) site.

Comet Hyuktake showed up about a year ago, and enough time had passed since the Halley disappointment to allow the new comet a fair measure of publicity. And Hyuktake was a beauty. When it skirted the North Star, the comet’s tail stretched across a sixth of the sky. The best image I’ve found is this cool 3-D number by Dave Crum. Click on it to visit a larger version at the NEFAS site.

And now we have Hale-Bopp. Although Hale-Bopp won’t come nearly as close to Earth as Hyuktake did, it’s putting on a bigger show, mostly because it’s a bigger comet. lot bigger. This thing is more than 200 times larger than Halley: about 40km across. You can actually see some shape to it, even with the naked eye. To spot it, look to the Northeast in the early morning, when it’s still dark. You’ll see it below and to the left of Cygnus (the Northern Cross), pointing straignt down toward the horizon. It’ll be brighter than any other star in the sky, and with a tail that stretches across the Milky Way. On the 6th you’ll also see the last sliver of moon down to the East, and on succeeding days the moon will move out of the way long enough for a great view.

Finally, let’s not forget the kid, who was born between Hyuktake and Hale-Bopp. In this context the miracle of his arrival (to parents our age) seems almost ordinary.

Anyway, it might be fun to find the publicity coefficient of modern comets that at least get a little press. If the relationship is inverse, as I suspect, consider this modest page a bit of publicity prosthesis.

And don’t miss it. This may be the last comet you ever see.


Bonus links from the present:

Grandma Searlsfootstone says “1882 -  ” and is hardly and overstatement. She died pushing 108 in 1990, and was lucid, loving and strong in all the ways that matter.

She was one of four sisters in her family. That’s them, with their dad, on the left. Grandma is the one on the bottom right.

My father was one of three sibs, with two sisters, Ethel and Grace. My mom was one of three sisters and one brother. My wife is one of six sisters, plus two brothers. All those women were, and are, strong too. (Grace is now 101 and doing great.) My sister (Commander in the U.S. Navy), daughters and granddaughter too. Love ‘em all.

It’s Grandma’s birthday tomorrow, her 131st. It’s my wife’s birthday today. My daughter’s was yesterday. (Also JP Rangaswami‘s and RageBoy‘s.) So here’s a toast to all of them — and especially to the strong women who have been raising me all my life.

car radio

Radio’s 1.x era is coming to an end. Signs and portents abound. The rise and decline of AM radio just ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, hometown paper for KDKA, the granddaddy of AM radio in the U.S. In AM/FM Radio Is Already Over, And No One Will Miss ItAdam Singer writes,

Radio advertisements are an awful, intrusive experience and universally despised

Most passionate music fans have held disdain for radio since the advent of portable music. It’s not just a dated medium, it tries to prop up a legacy generation “winner take all” of the most banal / manufactured “hits” as opposed to the meatier middle and tail of music where the quality content is (and where artists take chances and push the envelope creatively).

AM / FM radio djs and personalities are really the only thing left, and they should abandon radio now because they would benefit greatly by setting up shop online. Whether their own blog / podcast, app, or even experimenting with video (which is still a chance to be a pioneer). Even if they aren’t totally ready to abandon it yet, they should start to funnel their audiences to a digital community of some sort where they can grow over time in a platform agnostic way. This way they’re prepared for a digital future.

The notion of terrestrial analog content via AM/FM is quaint in a digital society and has reached an inevitable end. The technology itself is done. The good news is the personalities and content can not just survive, but thrive in a much higher quality environment. Further, digital provides a better experience for  audiences and sheds legacy baggage / a model that pushes aside quality and creativity for profit. Advertisers and technology providers will benefit here too: the modern device landscape provides a much better experience from a measurement, content serving, customization, and brand perspective (and so much more).

No doubt in our lifetime AM/FM will completely go away, perhaps only existing as emergency frequency. But everyone: consumers, advertisers, artists and personalities win by embracing digital. You’re fighting the future to ignore this and that’s never a way to succeed.

Yet people still listen to streams of audio, which is all radio ever was. Most of that audio is now digital, and comes to us over the Internet, even if some of it also still streams out over analog airwaves. Naturally, it’s all merging together, with predictable combinations of hand-wringing and huzzahs.

In How Tesla Changes Radio, B. Eric Rhoads reports on both:

Most in our industry are responding like any industry that’s challenged: defending the status quo and finding all the reasons consumers won’t change. And it might even be true, in radio’s case. But how likely is that? The questions all radio broadcasters need to be asking themselves now is how they can develop listener loyalty and cement their brands so deeply that listeners will seek out their favorite stations even when they have a choice of 75,000 stations from all around the world. Though you’ll still be available on the local AM FM dial, you need to assume people embracing online radio may only seek out stations in an online environment.

And, speaking of the status quo, dig “Fixing” AM Radio Broadcasting, Parts I, II and III, by Old Curmudgeon of LBA Group. There you will find perhaps the only useful way to bring a 1920′s-vintage transmission system into the next millennium. And it may well work, even though the result will still suffer from a bug what was once a feature. I explain what I mean by that in a comment under Part III:

Last year, after failing to find a useful radio at Radio Shack, my teenage son asked me a question that spoke straight to the obsolescence of radio as we know it: “What is the point of ‘range’?” In other words, why is losing a signal while driving away from town a feature and not a bug? When I explained some of the legacy technical and regulatory issues behind ‘range’, he asked, “What will it take to save radio?”

I like your answers.

In this series you frame the problems well and pose a good solution that I think will work by providing a technical and regulatory bridge from analog to digital and from 1925 to 2015. I hope regulators and broadcasters both take your proposals seriously.

Meanwhile, both the radio industry and the FCC are in denial of what’s actually happening with the “millenial” generation to which my son belongs. These people are Net-based. They assume connectivity, and zero functional distance between themselves and everyone and everything else in the networked world. They are also remarkably unconcerned with threats to the Net and therefore that model, from phone and cable companies, and captive regulators.

Hollywood in particular has known since 1995 that all of broadcasting and content distribution is being absorbed by the Net. With phone and cable companies — with which Hollywood is increasingly integrated vertically — they are desperate to find ways to continue controlling that distribution — preferably on models just as old as AM radio. Billing especially is a key issue. Phone and cable companies are billing systems as well as communications ones. Terrestrial TV and radio are not, which is one reason they care little about saving them.

So, to me at least, the parallel challenge to saving AM (and FM) radio, is keeping incumbent giants and their captive regulators from from stuffing the Internet’s genie back in the bottles of Business as Usual.”

In You Must Be HD to Compete in the Dash, RadioINK interviews Bob Struble (@rjstruble), CEO of iBiquity, the company behind HD Radio, which I love because it cleans beat-up FM and AM signals, more than for its other virtues. An excerpt:

…take my new Sequoia as an example. It has one screen layout that is the same for all audio services — Sirius, Pandora, iHeart, iPod, and analog or digital AM/FM. The screen has all my presets, from any source, on one side, and the content screen on the other side. Like all the digital services, HD Radio technology allows a station to fill that screen. There is an album cover or station logo in the middle of the screen, there are indicators that there is an HD2, HD3, or HD4 station available, there is song and artist info, there is an iTunes Tagging button to store song info for later purchase. Overall, it looks and feels like an audio service should in the digital age.

Hmm: “audio service.” I think that’s Radio 2.0, which here I call the “holy grail.”

All this will be front & center at the Dash Conference next week in Detroit. I’ll be there in spirit while my butt is at IIW in Silicon Valley (which I co-organize). This means I’ll be watching Twitter and blogs for reports on progress. In other words, I’ll stay tuned.

A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization. — Samuel Johnson

Hart Island

Visitors to New York’s Orchard Beach (at the top of the photo above) probably don’t know that the low wooded island offshore will, at the current rate, contain a million buried human bodies, if it doesn’t already.

The site is Hart Island (aka Hart’s Island), and it is New York’s Potter’s Field: where the city’s “unclaimed and indigent” dead are buried by inmates of the Department of Corrections, which also controls the island. Visitors are not welcome.

I knew nothing about Hart Island until I found myself looking at the picture I shot of the place, above, while seeking information about something else. Though bleak, the stories of the place are fascinating — and, it seemed to me, far too important to leave as far out on the margins of consciousness as they are of the City. So I compiled a list in a Fargo outline, which I’ve arranged below.

One item I’ll pull out of the list to start with is The Hart Island Project, by Melinda Hunt (@hartisland) and a team of collaborators. Melinda has been leading a steady effort to open up the island to visitors and to humanize and modernize the records kept of persons buried there. Her constituency includes all who reside in what we might call the Mass Grave of the Barely-Known Outcasts — and too few of the living, so far. So dig:

In fact Hart Island is New York’s ninth Potter’s Field. Writes Melinda Hunt,

A few of these early potters fields remain in the public domain as smaller parcels of land now known as Madison Square Park (1794), Washington Square Park (1797), Bryant Park and the Public Library (1823). Except for the last potter’s field in Manhattan, located at the current Waldorf Astoria Hotel (1836), no records exist of the bodies being moved elsewhere. At all other sites, parks were created after the cemeteries, parade grounds, and the reservoir closed. Once the city expanded beyond 50th Street, the East River became a more convenient route for transporting the bodies. Potter’s fields opened briefly on Randalls Island (1843) and Wards Island (1846) before moving much further out to Hart Island.

It’s a haunting history. Another excerpt:

  The burial records show an ever-changing pool of immigrants, diseases and disabilities administered to by a range of institutions. It remains too mixed and varied to become the darling of any special interest group. Genealogists that I have spoken with claim that most families with immigrant roots in New York City probably have lost relatives buried on Hart Island. As one recently told me: “People come to me hoping to discover ‘nobility’ in their ancestry, but the missing people usually turn out to have had alcohol problems or mental illness and were buried in Potter’s Field.”

In New York City, the combined nine potter’s fields have close to one million burials. An immense amount of history is associated with these places. Yet, there is almost no academic or institutional interest in the public cemeteries. Most of the writing about Hart Island takes the form of journalism documenting specific events. Distinctive in these accounts is the unanswered question of why such a place continues to exist. Most other American cities cremate the unclaimed and unwanted. If burials are provided they are in more accessible places. Chicago has a potter’s field with mass graves as part of a private cemetery. New York City offers burial assistance to families who organize an application. Nonetheless, the burials continue to number two to three thousand a year. Even with the twenty-five year time limit, the northern 45 acres of Hart Island named Cemetery Hill is full. Current burials have moved to the shallow grounds south of the workhouses.

New York City has a long-standing policy of respecting diverse religious practices. Many religions do not permit cremation. Until recently Catholics buried on Hart Island were placed in separate “consecrated ground.” In 1913, “baby trenches” were separated from “adult trenches.” Starting in 1935, “catholic babies” had separate trenches from “regular babies.”

Incredible care and expense goes into conducting the burials. In 1990 the cost of flowers, tools, heavy equipment, parts to repair equipment, general maintenance equipment, fuel and inmate labor, at thirty-five cents per hour, drove the cost of each burial to $346. In addition, the city provides for free exhumation if family members claim a body within seven years of burial.

During the first fifty years of Hart Island burials, “unclaimed” people were buried in single graves. Only the “unwanted” whose relatives assigned them to a public burial were in mass graves. Today, all bodies are carefully organized into a grid. The ends of trenches are marked by a number pressed into a concrete block. Re-excavations require locating the designated body within this numbered scheme.

Perhaps it is the abstraction of human lives into trench numbers and statistics that is most disturbing about the potter’s field. I was impressed by the fact that the burial records from the nineteenth century contain full names, causes of death and countries of origin. In this century the names of babies up until 1940 are strictly female; each child’s identity is linked exclusively to the mother. She is the person forever associated with the potter’s field. After 1940, only surnames are listed. By 1955, the causes of death for children are uniformly listed as “confidential.” By 1970, the category “cause of death” is left blank. That the island is prohibitively difficult to visit adds another level of removal.

Then there is this, from Thomas Badhe, in a Common Place essay,” The Common Dust of Potter’s Field: New York City and its bodies politic, 1800-1860″:

The first Potter’s Field burial ground in New York City was located at the site of what would become the militia parade ground and city park at Washington Square. On this nine-and-a-half-acre plot, at the city’s pastoral northern edge, lay the densely packed corpses of about 125,000 “strangers,” many of whom had died during two separate yellow-fever epidemics between 1795 and 1803. Not surprisingly, local residents who had fled crowded lower Manhattan for country estates in the region came to find in Potter’s Field an intense nuisance. Whatever sympathy anyone had for the anonymous dead did not supersede wealthy New Yorkers’ sense of entitlement when it came to their comfortable insulation from the city’s darker side. In a letter to the Common Council, they wrote, “From the rapid Increase of Building that is daily taking place both in the suburbs of the City and the Grounds surrounding the field alluded to, it is certain that in the course of a few years the aforementioned field will be drawn within a precinct of the City.” Within the first two decades of the nineteenth century, their prediction had been realized, and the Potter’s Field began a lengthy series of migrations in a vain effort to stay a step ahead of the city’s relentless growth.

In 1823, the city moved Potter’s Field to an empty lot at the corner of Forty-ninth Street and Fourth Avenue—what would then have been the far northern reaches of the metropolis. This place served as the Potter’s Field until the 1840s when, as the city grew northward, it was relocated once again to Randall’s Island in the East River. Cast off the Island of Manhattan like so many family farms, Potter’s Field would no longer clash with the New Yorkers’ Victorian sensibilities or inhibit the Manhattan real-estate boom.

Just south of Randall’s Island, separated by a treacherous, narrow channel known as Little Hell’s Gate, was Ward’s Island, the site of another Potter’s Field in the mid-1850s. Both Randall’s and Ward’s Islands already housed other city institutions for the indigent, including the Emigrant Refuge and Hospital, the State Inebriate Asylum, the juvenile branch of the Almshouse Department, and the headquarters for the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents. As one guide to New York and its benevolent institutions observed, “multitudes of persons went from the dram-shop to the police-station, and from the police courts to the Workhouse from whence, after a short stay, they returned to the dram shop . . . until they at length died on their hands as paupers or criminals, and were laid in the Potter’s Field.” For most of New York’s institutionalized underclass, there was literally a direct path from the door of the asylum or workhouse to the Potter’s Field.

Relocating the city’s cemetery from Manhattan’s urban grid to an island in the East River did not put an end to the city’s problem with the indigent dead. In 1849, the Daily Tribune reported on the political and legal wrangling between the governors of the Almshouse and the Common Council (the nineteenth-century name for the City Council), the former seeking to wrest authority over Potter’s Field from the latter. The governors cited the poor management of the paupers’ burial ground, which the Tribune referred to as “that den of abominations,” as evidence that the Common Council was unable to manage the Potter’s Field. “We do sincerely trust somebody will shoulder the responsibility of the Potter’s Field,” the Tribune pleaded, “and rid the Island of the abomination before the advent of another warm and perhaps an epidemic season.”

The Common Council and the Governors of the Almshouse traded letters, pleas, and vitriol for the better part of a decade. In May of 1851, the Governors warned the Common Council that, “the land now appropriated [for the Potter’s Field] is now nearly full, and the small space left for further interment (which now average upwards of one hundred per week), renders prompt action necessary.” Four years later, it was still unclear who had control over the Potter’s Field, and conditions were worsening. By this time, there were two burial grounds for paupers: the primary site on Randall’s Island and a smaller one on Ward’s Island to the south. The Board of Governors proposed to expand the Ward’s Island site in 1854, and the Times supported the proposition, suggesting that “it is time that the remains of paupers were interred in some quarter better fitted for their last resting-place than the one now used on Randall’s Island.” In their reports to the Board of Health and the Common Council, the Governors of the Almshouse urged that, “humanity, a due regard for the living, and a sense of proper respect for the dead” be part of any effort “to remedy the existing and impending evils.”

In the meantime, the disinterment of bodies at the old site on Fourth Avenue aroused its own controversy. In 1851, a plan was adopted by the Common Council to expand Forty-ninth Street through the old Potter’s Field, which required the disinterment of thousands of bodies. This project stretched on for nearly the entire decade, accompanied by foot-dragging and corrupt contractors. Commenting on the enormity of the project, the Times reported in the spring of 1853 that “the City Authorities are cutting a street through the old Potter’s Field . . . where so many victims of the Cholera were hurriedly interred in 1832. The coffins were then, in many instances, stacked one upon another; and now, in digging through the hill, the remains of twenty coffins may be seen thus piled together.”

As with the active Potter’s Field, the old paupers’ burial ground aroused no small amount of controversy. In the summer of 1858, the Timesagain reported on the work, claiming that “within three weeks past about 3,000 skeletons have been exhumed from the old Potter’s Field . . . and removed to Ward’s Island.” The winter of 1858-59 passed without any further exhumation, and “meantime the thin layer of earth which covered some hundred half-decayed coffins has fallen away, and . . . crowds of urchins assemble there daily and play with the bones of the dead; troops of hungry dogs prowl about the grounds and carry off skulls and detached parts of human bodies.”

Many of the old potter’s fields became parks. Washington Square is said to have twenty thousand bodies beneath it. Yet today it seems no more haunted than is Paris by its Catacombes, which I visited and wrote about three years ago, and which contains a population of dead that outnumber the city’s live citizens. The real haunting, I believe, is within our culture and its institutions. On that I’ll give Thomas Badhe the last words:

Having strolled through the rural cemeteries, we can better appreciate why the piles of moldering coffins exposed to the public in the 1850s caused New Yorkers to question their city’s claims to “civilization.” But the Potter’s Field was not only the antithesis of the rural-cemetery ideal (as well as a failure of municipal administration); it was also a site of spiritual death, obliterated social identity, and the graveyard of vice. If, as one proponent of rural cemeteries claimed in 1831, “the grave hath a voice of eloquence,” the Potter’s Field spoke in a dark chorus about the failures of democracy and civilization, the stark and messy exigencies of urban inequality, and thousands of individual lives wrecked on the shores of the great metropolis.

My sister Jan — student of history, Navy vet and a Wise One — sent me an email a couple days ago that I thought would make a good guest post. She said yes to that suggestion and here it is…

Is the new born-in-connectivity generation going to re-define privacy?   They may try — from the comfort of their parents’ homes or the cocoon of youth — but first they have to understand what constitutes privacy.  They are going to learn, albeit the hard way, that what you make available is no longer private and therefore you cannot expect it to be protected by the norms of privacy.  The norms of privacy, however, aren’t universally understood.

America is one of the few — perhaps the only if we’re talking large scale — modern countries that was created though one people’s individual exploration and individual settlement into an ever-moving frontier.  After initial sputtering wealth-seeking attempts, the true settlement along the coast line of north America was primarily under private sponsorship rather than military incursion.   It was “relatively” benign colonization in that the goal was not to annihilate, enslave or ‘save’ the indigenous people through religious conversion or education.  The arriving colonists primarily sought freedom to work and worship and the opportunity to better their lives and raise their social standing.  The principal asset needed to obtain those goals was land, which was seen as limitless and free for the taking provided the native population withdrew beyond the frontier and one had the strength and determination to tame the land as needed.

The leading edge of this frontier movement started with those who built the original settlements in the early 17th century and continued to move out in the lower 48 until the mid-20th century and in very remote areas continues still.  The “frontier” society was composed of people who took the initiative and individually ventured into new areas where there was little law, oversight or judgement.  Although they brought morals and manners of every social strata, they also had to rely on each other and build some form of community where ever they settled in order to survive and thrive.  But in the frontier, in the place of established laws, there were protocols — unwritten codes of correct conduct — born of common consent and enforced by common acceptance  that enabled the community to function, grow and improve.  These protocols became the societal norm for most of the expansion into the US as it is today.

In the rest of the world connected by the major trade routes during this same period, societies grew and countries were formed primarily from the top down by gathering like together, or by force, and they were ruled through laws and protocols that came into being to enable financial investors, religions or conquerors to subjugate and /or extort populations.

But America came into existence and continued to expand as one contiguous country because the key unifying principle was individual liberty, and our legal and societal norms developed to support that principle.  This is what made America so singular as a nation in it’s early days. This is at the heart of what some call exceptionalism today.  Exceptional may be an egotistical term for it — as Putin just called it and as the push-backers deny — if one interprets exceptional as being “above average,” or “extraordinary” or any other superlative.  But America is exceptional if one uses the term in the context of “deviation from the norm.”

Now overlay this frontier concept onto the development of the Internet and our other networking systems.  How were they developed?  Was it by governments pushing out into or conquering a new frontier with laws and protocols in hand or was it by individuals determining the most effective protocols that would help them solidify what they had achieved and enable them to push the frontier borders out further, wider and deeper?

A unique concept of individual privacy was part of America’s frontier society;  it wasn’t a place of one’s past but rather a place of new starts, of re-creation, a place where a person made themselves anew, a place where it didn’t matter where or what you came from but rather where you were going and what you would do.  Therefore individual privacy became an expectation rather than an exception in the country that frontier society created.

However, that ingrained individualism is not the norm in the rest of the world, a world that technology has rapidly connected.  As of today, the concept of individual privacy is not universally understood, now that online, networked and connected  technology is at a confluence of cultures.  Because of the universality of the usage of connective technology, privacy is going to need a universally accepted definition.  And at the heart of privacy is the idea of identity:  is it vested in the individual or the collective?

In this comment and this one under my last post, Ian Falconer brings up a bunch of interesting points, some of which are summarized by these paragraphs from his first comment…

Here in the UK most people over 40 will remember placing calls via a human operator. A real life person who had a direct interaction with both caller and receiver when reversing the call charges. In smaller towns and villages this meant that the operator knew who was phoning who, when and often, given their overarching view, could assume why.

This was socially accepted as the operators were usually local and subject to the same social norms as the friends and neighbors they ‘surveilled’.

But they were also employees of the GPO (General Post Office) with a national security obligation and had a direct reporting route into the national security apparatus, so that, if they felt that something fishy was afoot (especially in times of war), they were assumed to be both reliable and honest witnesses.

No-one assumed secrecy in an operator-mediated system. They assumed discretion on the part of the operator.

Is an ISP any different just because the data is package-based rather than analogue ? It conducts all the same functions as the old operator.

The shift from public ownership to private and from land-lines to mobile has not changed the underlying model of presumed access (as far as teleco users are concerned) and assumed responsibility (on the part of the national security apparatus). And though both are now legally defined under the license terms of privatised telecos, few of the UK’s public know how their comms systems actually work, so often assume a similar design ethos to the US, where constitutionally defined rights are a starting point for systems organisation.

That British Telecom evolved from the GPO is no accident, but neither is it necessarily a designed progression intend on increased surveillance.

… and these from his second:

Against most evidence US Congress doesn’t set UK law. The EU & UK governments do that. And against most evidence the US doesn’t set global social norms. So while I’m not saying Brits explicitly like spies and respect code breakers, there is a history here that forms a backdrop to the national mind set and it looks towards Bletchley Park, Alan Turing & James Bond rather than The Stasi, Senator McCarthey or Hoover’s G-Men.

The time and place to look for a failure of oversight is the sale of rights to spectrum access but a global technological fix for a perceived lack of communicational security, especially a US-led one, seems unlikely. The righteous indignation with respect to Huwei hardware looks like a starting point rather than an end point right now.

To me these events and discoveries more likely to work to fragment the rough and ready constellation of networks into national gardens once more. This would force comms through regulated conduits making in-out surveillance even easier and I tentatively suggest that in the legislation of whatever-comes-next those carrying out oversight do a better job, if legally-enshrined privacy is their aim.

I am somewhat familiar with the UK, having spent a number of years consulting BT. I have also spent a lot of time in the EU, mostly studying and collaborating with VRM developers, a large percentage of which are located in the UK and France.

Here in the U.S. many of us (me included) still had “party lines” and required operator assistance for long-distance calls as recently as the mid-’70s. With party lines phone connections were shared by as many as six other homes, and people could listen in on each other easily. Operators could listen to anything, any time. Thus, as Ian says, discretion rather than secrecy was assumed.

And discretion is The Thing. As it was with the old phone system it also was with spying, which every government does, and we have always assumed was going on — much of it outside the laws that apply to the rest of us — and hopefully for some greater good. Thus whatever we end up with on the Internet will rest on a system of manners and not just of laws and technologies.

Ideally law, technology and manners work in harmony and support each other. What we have had so far, in the era that began with personal computing and grew to include the Internet and smart mobile devices, has been a disharmonious cacophony caused by technology development and adoption with little regard for the incumbent systems of manners and law. And it is still early in the evolution of all three toward working harmony such as we have long experienced in the physical world.

Of those three, however, manners matter most. It seems no accident, to me at least, that the Internet is defined by protocols, which are nothing more than mannerly agreements between network operators and among the human and organizational operators of the network’s billions of end points.

Security of the telco-like centralized locked-down sort was never in the DNA of the Internet Protocol, which is one reason why it never would have been invented by the very companies and governments through whose local, national and international networks the Internet connects us all.

So it should be no surprise, aside from all the privacy concerns currently on the front burner of popular consciousness, that telcos, cablecos, national governments and institutions such as the ITU have busied themselves with stuffing the Internet, in pieces, back inside the regulatory, billing and nationally bordered bottles from which it more or less escaped, at first un-noticed, in the 1980s and early 1990s.

J.P. Rangaswami, when he was at BT, famously noted that a telco’s main competency was not communications but billing. It still is. China’s censored national subset of the world wide Internet is for many countries a model rather than an aberration. And the drift of Net usage to cellular mobile devices and networks has re-acclaimated users to isolated operation within national borders (lest they suffer “bill shock” when they “roam” outside their country) — something the landline-based Internet overcame by design.

All these things play into our evolution toward privacy in the virtual world that is recognizably similar to what we have long experienced in the physical one.

National mind sets are important, because those embody manners too. Public surveillance is far more present, and trusted, in the U.K. than in the U.S. I also sense a more elevated (and perhaps evolved) comprehension of privacy (as, for example, “the right to be left alone”) in Europe than in the U.S. I am often reminded, in Europe, of the consequences of detailed records being kept of citizens’ ethnicities when WWII broke out. Memories of WWII are much different in the U.S. We lost many soldiers in that war, and took in many refugees. But it was not fought on our soil.

There is also in Europe a strong sense that business and government should operate in symbiosis. Here in the U.S., business and government are now posed in popular consciousness (especially on the political and religious right) as opposing forces.

But all these things are just factors of our time. What matters most is that the whole world will need to come to new terms with the three things I listed in my earlier Thoughts on Privacy post: 1) ubiquitous computing power, 2) ubiquitous Internet access, and 3) the unlimited ability to observe, copy and store data. All these capacities are new to human experience, and we have hardly begun to deal with what they mean for civilization.

I suspect that only the generation that has grown up connected — those under, say, the age of 25 — begin to fully comprehend what these new states of being are all about. I’ve been young for a long time (I’m 66 now), but the best I can do is observe in wonder those people who (in Bob Frankston‘s words) assume connectivity as a natural state of being. My 16-year old son feels this state, in his bones, to a degree neither I nor my 40-something kids don’t. To us elders, connectivity is an exceptional grace rather than a natural state.

Manners among the connected young, however, have barely evolved past the reptile stage. In Report: Every Potential 2040 President Already Unelectable Due To Facebook, The Onion was not fully joking (it never is) when it said “A troubling report finds that by 2040 every presidential candidate will be unelectable to political office due to their embarrassing Facebook posts.”

I just hope that the laws we are making today (protecting yesterday from last Thursday, as all new laws tend to do) will be improved by new generations made wiser by their experiences with technologies made ubiquitous by their elders.

On February 25, 2008, the FCC held a hearing on network management practices in the Ames Courtroom at Harvard Law Schoolhosted by the Berkman Center. In that hearing David P. Reed, one of the Internet’s founding scientists, used a plain envelope to explain how the Internet worked, and why it is wrong for anybody other than intended recipients to look inside the contents of the virtual envelopes in which communications are sent over the Internet. It was a pivotal moment in the debate, because the metaphor illustrated clearly how the Internet was designed to respect privacy.

Respect, that is. Not protect.

In the early days of postal communications, the flaps of envelopes were sealed with blobs of wax, usually imprinted by the sender with a symbol. These expressed the intent of the sender — that the contents of the letter were for the eyes of the recipient only. Yes, a letter could be opened without breaking the seal, but not without violating the wishes of the sender.

The other day I wrote, ”clothing, for example, is a privacy technology. So are walls, doors, windows and shades.” In the physical world we respect the intentions behind those technologies as well, even though it might be easy to pull open the shirts of strangers, or to open closed doors without knocking on them.

The virtual world is far less civilized. Proof of that is in the pudding of privacy rights violations by agencies of the U.S. government, which is clearly acting at variance with the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which says,

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

I see three ways to approach these violations.

One is to rely on geeks and whistleblowers to pull the pants down on violators. In Welcome to the end of secrecy says the very openness that invites privacy violations is our best protection against the secrecy concealing those violations.

Another is through the exercise of law. In The Only Way to Restore Trust in the NSA, security guru Bruce Schneier writes, “The public has no faith left in the intelligence community or what the president says about it. A strong, independent special prosecutor needs to clean up the mess.” And that’s on top of moves already being made by legislators, for example in South Africa. Given the scale of the offenses now coming to light, we’ll see a lot more of that, even if no special prosecutors get appointed. The law of the jungle will give way to a jungle of new laws. Count on it.

The third is through business — specifically, business modeled on postal services. For many generations, postal services have respected the closed envelope as a matter of course. Yes, we knew there were times and places when mail could be inspected for legitimate reasons. And there were also many things it was not legal to do, or to send, through postal systems. But, on the whole, we could trust them to keep our private communications private. And we paid for the service.

The Googles of the world — companies making their money on advertising — aren’t likely to take the lead here, because they have too much invested in surveillance (of the legal sort) already. But others will step forward. The market for privacy is clear and obvious, and will only become more so as the revelations of abuse continue to pour out.

Perhaps the businesses best positioned to offer secure communications are the postal services themselves. They’ve already been disrupted plenty. Maybe now is the time for them to do some positive disruption themselves.

 

 

In , opens with this sentence: “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” Sixty-four years have passed since White wrote that, and it still makes perfect sense to me, hunched behind a desk in a back room of a Manhattan apartment.

That’s because privacy is mostly a settled issue in the physical world, and a grace of civilized life. Clothing, for example, is a privacy technology. So are walls, doors, windows and shades.

Private spaces in public settings are well understood in every healthy and mature culture. This is why no store on Main Street would plant a tracking beacon in the pants of a visiting customer, to report back on that customer’s activities — just so the store or some third party can “deliver” a better “experience” through advertising. Yet this kind of thing is beyond normative on the Web: it is a huge business.

Worse, the institution we look toward for protection from this kind of unwelcome surveillance — our government — spies on us too, and relies on private companies for help with activities that would be a crime if the  still meant what it says. ( more than two years ago.)

I see two reasons why privacy is now under extreme threat in the digital world — and the physical one too, as surveillance cameras bloom like flowers in public spaces, and as marketers and spooks together look toward the “Internet of Things” for ways to harvest an infinitude of personal data.

Reason #1

The was back-burnered when  (aka ) got baked into e-commerce in the late ’90s. In a single slide  summarizes what happened after that. It looks like this:

The History of E-commerce
1995: Invention of the cookie.
The end.

For a measure of how far we have drifted away from the early promise of networked life, re-read ‘s “Death From Above,” published in January 1995, and his “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” published one year later. The first argued against asymmetrical provisioning of the Net and the second expressed faith in the triumph of nerds over wannabe overlords.

Three years later  was no less utopian. While it is best known for its 95 Theses (which include “” and ““) its most encompassing clue came before of all those. Chris Locke wrote it, and here’s what it says, boldface, color and all:

if you only have time for one clue this year, this is the one to get…
we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.

Note the first and second person voices, and the possessive case. Our reach was everybody’s. Your grasp was companies’.

Fourteen years later, companies have won. Our reach has not exceeded their grasp. In fact, their grasp is stronger than ever.

Another irony: the overlords are nerds too. And  they lord over what Bruce Schneier calls a feudal system:

Some of us have pledged our allegiance to Google: We have Gmail accounts, we use Google Calendar and Google Docs, and we have Android phones. Others have pledged allegiance to Apple: We have Macintosh laptops, iPhones, and iPads; and we let iCloud automatically synchronize and back up everything. Still others of us let Microsoft do it all. Or we buy our music and e-books from Amazon, which keeps records of what we own and allows downloading to a Kindle, computer, or phone. Some of us have pretty much abandoned e-mail altogether … for Facebook.

These vendors are becoming our feudal lords, and we are becoming their vassals. We might refuse to pledge allegiance to all of them – or to a particular one we don’t like. Or we can spread our allegiance around. But either way, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to not pledge allegiance to at least one of them.

Reason #2

We have loosed three things into the digital world that we (by which I mean everybody) do not yet fully comprehend, much less deal with (through policy, tech or whatever). Those are:

  1. Ubiquitous computing power. In the old days only the big guys had it. Now we all do.
  2. Ubiquitous Internet access. This puts us all at zero virtual distance from each other, at costs that also veer toward zero as well.
  3. Unlimited ability to observe, copy and store data, which is the blood and flesh of the entire networked world.

In tech, what can be done will be done, sooner or later, especially if it’s possible to do it in secret — and if it helps make money, fight a war or both. This is why we have bad acting on a massive scale: from click farms gaming the digital advertising business, to the NSA doing what now know it does.

Last month I gave a keynote at an  event in New York. One of my topics was personal privacy, and how it might actually be good for the advertising business to respect it. Another speaker was , a “gentleman hacker” and CEO of WhiteOps, “an internet security company focused on the eradication of ad fraud.” He told of countless computers and browsers infected with bots committing click-fraud on a massive scale, mostly for Russian hackers shunting $billions from the flow of money down the online advertising river. The audience responded with polite applause. Privacy? Fraud? Why care? The money’s rolling in. Make hay while the power asymmetry shines.

Just today an executive with a giant company whose name we all know told me about visiting “click farms” in India, which he calls “just one example of fraud on a massive scale that nobody in the industry wants to talk about.” (Credit where due: the IAB wouldn’t have had us speaking there if its leaders didn’t care about the issues. But a .org by itself does not an industry make.)

Yet I’m not discouraged. In fact, I’m quite optimistic.

These last few months I’ve been visiting dozens of developers and policy folk from Europe to Australia, all grappling productively with privacy issues, working on the side of individuals, and doing their best to develop enlightened policy, products and services.

I can report that respect for privacy — the right to be left alone and to conceal what one wishes about one’s self and one’s data — is far more evolved elsewhere than it is in the U.S. So is recognition that individuals can do far more with their own data than can any big company (or organization) that has snarfed that data up. In some cases this respect takes the form of policy (e.g. the EU Data Protection Directive). In other cases it takes the form of advocacy, or of new businesses. In others it’s a combination of all of those and more.

Some examples:

 is a policy and code development movement led by Ann Cavoukian, the Information & Privacy Commissioner of Ontario. Many developers, enterprises and governments are now following her guidelines. (Which in turn leverage the work of Helen Nissenbaum.)

, the Fondation Internet Nouvelle Génération, is a think tank of leading French developers, scientists, academics and business folk, convened to guide digital transformation across many disciplines, anchored in respect for the individual and his or her full empowerment (including protection of privacy), and for collective action based on that respect.

 is a Fing project in which six large French companies — Orange, La Poste, Cap-Digital, Monoprix, Alcatel-Lucent and Societe Generale — are releasing to 300 customers personal data gathered about those customers, and inviting developers to help those customers do cool things on their own with that data.

The  in the UK is doing a similar thing, with twenty UK companies and thousands of customers.

Both Midata and Etalab in France are also working the government side, sharing with citizens data collected about them by government agencies. For more on the latter read Interview with Henri Verdier: Director of Etalab, Services of the French Prime Minister. Also see Open Data Institute and PublicData.eu.

In Australia,    and  are working on re-building markets from the customer side, starting with personal control and required respect for one’s privacy as a base principle.

In the U.S. and Europe, companies and open source development groups have been working on personal data “stores,” “lockers,” “vaults” and “clouds,” where individuals can harbor and use their own data in their own private ways. There is already an  and a language for “” and “pclouds” for everything you can name in the Internet of Things. I posted something recently at HBR about one implication for this. (Alas, it’s behind an annoying registration wall.)

On the legal front, Customer Commons is working with the  at the Berkman Center on terms and privacy requirements that individuals can assert in dealing with other entities in the world. This work dovetails with , the  and others.

I am also encouraged to see that the most popular browser add-ons and extensions are ones that block tracking, ads or both. AdblockPlus, Firefox’s Privowny and  are all in this game, and they are having real effects. In May 2012,  a 9.26% ad blocking rate in North America and Europe. Above that were Austria (22.5%), Hungary, Germany, Finland, Poland, Gibraltar, Estonia and France. The U.S. was just below that at 8.72%. The top blocking browser was Firefox (17.81%) and the bottom one was Explorer (3.86%). So it was no surprise to see Microsoft jump on the Do Not Track bandwagon with its latest browser version. In sum what we see here is the marketplace talking back to marketing, through developers whose first loyalties are to people.

(The above and many other companies are listed among developers here.)

More context: it’s still early. The Internet most of us know today is just eighteen years old. The PC is thirty-something. Pendulums swing. Tides come and go. Bubbles burst.

I can’t prove it, but I do believe we have passed Peak Surveillance. When Edward Snowden’s shit hit the fan in May, lots of people said the controversy would blow over. It hasn’t, and it won’t. Our frogs are not fully boiled, and we’re jumping out of the pot. New personal powers will be decentralized. And in cases where those powers are centralized, it will be in ways that are better aligned with individual and social power than the feudal systems of today. End-to-end principles are still there, and still apply.

Another reason for my optimism is metaphor, the main subject in the thread below. In , George Lakoff and Mark Johnson open with this assertion: The mind is inherently embodied. We think metaphorically, and our metaphorical frames arise from our bodily experience. Ideas, for example, may not be things in the physical sense, but we still talk of “forming,” “getting,” “catching” and “throwing out” ideas. Metaphorically, privacy is a possession. We speak of it in possessive terms, and as something valuable and important to protect — because this has been our experience with it for as long as we’ve had civilization.

“Possession is nine-tenths of the law” because it is nine-tenths of the three-year-old. She says “It’s mine!” because she has hands with thumbs that give her the power to grab. Possession begins with what we can hold.

There is also in our embodied nature a uniquely human capacity called indwelling. Through indwelling our senses extend outward through our clothes, our tools, our vehicles, to expand the boundaries of our capacities as experienced and capable beings in the world. When drivers speak of “my wheels” and pilots of “my wings,” it’s because their senses dwell in those things as extensions of their bodies.

This relates to privacy through exclusion: my privacy is what only I have.

The clothes we wear are exclusively ours. We may wear them to express ourselves, but their first purpose is to protect and conceal what is only ours. This sense of exclusivity also expands outward, even though our data.

 ”the Internet is a copy machine.” And it is. We send an email in a less literal sense than we copy it. Yet the most essential human experience is ambulation: movement. This is why we conceive life, and talk about it, in terms of travel, rather than in terms of biology. Birth is arrival, we say. Death is departure. Careers are paths. This is why, when we move data around, we expect its ownership to remain a private matter even if we’re not really moving any of it in the postal sense of a sending a letter.

The problem here is not that our bodily senses fail to respect the easily-copied nature of data on networks, but that we haven’t yet created social, technical and policy protocols for the digital world to match the ones we’ve long understood in the physical world. We still need to do that. As embodied beings, the physical world is not just our first home. It is the set of reference frames we will never shake off, because we can’t. And because we’ve had them for ten thousand years or more.

The evolutionary adaptation that needs to happen is within the digital world and how we govern it, not the physical one.

Our experience as healthy and mature human beings in the physical world is one of full agency over personal privacy. In building out our digital world — something we are still just beginning to do — we need to respect that agency. The biggest entities in the digital world don’t yet do that. But that doesn’t mean they can’t. Especially after we start leaving their castles in droves.

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In mass this morning only two words the priest said during the homily stuck in my mind: it’s alright.

Because they called ZZ Top to mind. Specifically, the song Legs. It beginsShe’s got legs. She knows how to use them. Then the boys sing a bunch of other stuff over this repetitive throbbing riff that sounds like it’s made by thousand-pound bees. At the end of the first verse they sum things up with this: yeah, it’s alright.

A few months back I turned my sixteen year old son on to ZZ Top, starting with Legs, and he got a huge laugh out the alright thing. It might not be deep, but it’s still cool. Meaning: it’s alright.

Here’s the original music video, just so ya’ll know what MTV looked like, back in the decade.

Bonus link.

@BlakeHunskicer has a kickstarter project, Fleeing the War at Home: An interactive documentary introducing the crisis in Syria through the personal histories and dreams of Syrian refugees, with a few days and a few thousand dollars left to go.

Blake is one of the graduate students I got to know this last year as a visiting scholar in @JayRosen_NYU‘s Studio20 (@Studio20NYU) class at NYU. He’s a terrific journalist and photographer already, and will put both skills to good use for a good cause. Join me in helping him make it happen.

In Bubkes, Stephen Lewis has lately been blogging with depth and insight on many topics — music, architecture, culture, infrastructure and events historic and current — in two cities with which he is intimately familiar: Istanbul and Sofia.

In Taksim Underpass: Ask Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Parker, Jane Jacobs, and Robert Moses, he writes,

By itself, the Turkish government’s plan to shunt traffic under and past Taksim Square might indeed lessen vehicular congestion, thus freeing this iconic location from dominance by motor vehicle traffic. In conjunction with the plan to replace all of Taksim Square and Gezi Park with a massive complex of shopping mall, mosque, and fantasy reconstruction of a 19th-century military barracks, however, the underpass will instead deliver more automobile traffic into the urban core, a further step toward transforming a vital, unplanned, dense, “legacy” urban agglomeration into just another suburb.

In Istanbul Conflicts From Afar: Issues and Aspersions, Headscarves and Rambo, he visits specious tales by the Turkish Prime Minister and his sympathizers, of protestors “harassing pious Muslim women and tearing off their headscarves” (among other offenses for which there is no confirming hard evidence), and compares them to equally wrong tales from the Vietnam War era. That was when “US antiwar activists were stigmatized — and crocodile tears poured forth — over reports that US soldiers returning from tours duty in Vietnam were being spit upon by opponents of the war.  Not a single person, however — neither spitter, spat upon, nor witness thereto — ever stepped forward to confirm any such attack.” In support of this he recalls an On the Media program confirming the purely propogandized nature of the claim. I just did some digging and found the program transcript. Here it is.

In Sofia, Bulgaria: From Protest to Protest to Protest, Steve visits “the Balkan blurring of what is said and what is, and what is and what could or should be” and how in Bulgaria “nothing is what is seems to be at first glance, and words, no matter how clear, often refer to alternate realities (click here for my long-ago online discourse on the wisdom and convenience of the oft-heard Bulgarian-language phrase po printsip, tr. ‘in principle‘).” His next post, Plovdiv, Bulgaria, 1997: Musicians Marching in Protest, recalls an earlier protest, again accompanied by an excellent photo.

In Istanbul: Water, Fountains, Taksim, and Infrastructural Tourism, Steve reports on joining a colleague in visiting “the layers of infrastructure — including Ottoman-era fountains — that have served Istanbul over centuries past and during its ten-fold growth in population during the twentieth.” I share with Steve a passion for what he and his colleague call “infrastructural tourism” — a practice which, he adds, “appears already to be underway, albeit searching for its own content and method, as per this report at Design Observer.” Wonderful link, that one. Go read that too.

In From the Archives: Fading Fragments of Legacy Infrastructure, he begins,

Two decades ago, I began to photograph the historic water fountains (çeșme) and water kiosks (sebil) of Istanbul.  I began, not with the grand and monumental, but with obscure and abandoned — those in backstreets, alleyways, and courtyards, functioning and non-functioning fragments of legacy urban infrastructure, overlooked by scholars,  their features surrendered to the elements, decay, and neglect. The forgotten origins and gradual disappearance of many of these structures seemed symbolic of larger urban processes of decline and abandonment — processes that are as central to the functioning and continuity of cities as are restoration and (re)development.

I’ve been doing something similar in New York and New Jersey, where I grew up. A few days ago, driving back to Manhattan from a meeting in Edgewater, New Jersey, I found myself following Google Maps’ navigation to the George Washington Bridge, turning onto Bruce Reynolds Boulevard before bearing right onto a ramp leading into the toll lanes. Paused at a light,  I saw on the right an old street sign marking the late Hoyt Avenue, and realized I was exactly where my parents lived when I was born: at 2063 Hoyt. Ninety-three years earlier, this was the view from that very same spot. (And here’s the larger photo set, with shots old and new. Credit for the old ones goes to my late father and to his little sister Grace, now 101 years old and doing fine.) I hope, when Steve next returns to New York (his home town), we can do some infrastructural touring together, cameras in hand.

Bonus link: Steve’s latest, Further to “Istanbul Conflicts From Afar:” Kudos, Mentions, and “Great Expectorations”, which cites this post as well.

The title of this post, Rebuilding the Future, is one I came up with back when I read Steve’s Taksim Underpass piece, and I wanted to post thoughts about the ironies that always surround the civic graces — especially infrastructure — that we choose to keep using (often for new purposes), or just to preserve, for generations to come. I didn’t go there, because I’ve already said enough and I’d rather that readers get into what Steve is writing and sharing. But I still kinda like the headline, so I’m letting it stand.

Los Angeles at nightFirst, time.

Earth became habitable for primitive life forms some 3.X billion years ago. It will cease to be habitable in another 1 billion years or less, given the rate at which the Sun continues to get hotter, which it has been doing for the duration.

Species last, on average, a couple million years. Depending on where you mark our own species start, we are either early or late in that time span.

If you mark our start from the dawn of the Anthropocene — now being vetted as a name for the geological epoch in which human agency is as obvious as that of other natural agents in Earth’s story, such as asteroid collisions, volcanic outpourings and radical weather changes — we’re about ten thousand years into this thing. We’ve done a lot in not very long.

From a pained perspective, the Anthropocene is a time of pestilence by a single species — one with an insatiable hunger for what that species calls “natural resources.” To test that pain, give a listen to “When the music’s over,” on the Strange Days album by The Doors. In it Jim Morrison sings,

What have they done to the Earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravaged and plundered and
Ripped her and bit her.
Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn and
Tied her with fences and
Dragged
Her
Down.

From a disinterested perspective, dig Robinson JeffersThe Eye, written during World War II from Tor House, his home in Carmel overlooking the Pacific:

The Atlantic is a stormy moat; and the Mediterranean,
The blue pool in the old garden,
More than five thousand years has drunk sacrifice
Of ships and blood, and shines in the sun; but here the Pacific–
Our ships, planes, wars are perfectly irrelevant.
Neither our present blood-feud with the brave dwarfs
Nor any future world-quarrel of westering
And eastering man, the bloody migrations, greed of power, clash of
faiths–
Is a speck of dust on the great scale-pan.
Here from this mountain shore, headland beyond stormy headland
plunging like dolphins through the blue sea-smoke
Into pale sea–look west at the hill of water: it is half the
planet:
this dome, this half-globe, this bulging
Eyeball of water, arched over to Asia,
Australia and white Antartica: those are the eyelids that never
close;
this is the staring unsleeping
Eye of the earth; and what it watches is not our wars.

There is also this, from Jeffers’ “The Bloody Sire” :

Stark violence is still the sire of all the world’s values.

What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine
The fleet limbs of the antelope?
What but fear winged the birds, and hunger
Jewelled with such eyes the great goshawk’s head?

Our teeth, right now, wing limbs and jewell eyes we will never see.

And the life here will end, perhaps in less time than has passed since the planet made half the rocks in the Grand Canyon‘s layer cake.

Now, space.

Astronauts speak of the “Overview_effect” that leaves them changed by seeing Earth from space.

I’ve made do with what I can see from the stratosphere while flying in commercial aircraft. It was from that perspective, for example, that I’ve documented effects of strip mining in the Anthropocene.

Ironies abound. My photo series on coal mining in the Powder River basin has been used both for pro-environmental causes and to promote business in Wyoming.

I’ve got more on this, but neither time nor space for it now.

Bonus link.

And more on the Anthropocene:

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I’m in Boston right now, and bummed that I can’t attend Start-up City: An Entrepreneurial Economy for Middle Class New York, which is happening today at New York Law School today.

I learned about it via Dana Spiegel of NYC Wireless, who will be on a panel titled “Breakout Session III: Infrastructure for the 21st Century—How Fast, Reliable Internet Access Can Boost Business Throughout the Five Boroughs.” In an email Dana wrote, The question for the panel participants is how fast, reliable internet access can boost business throughout NYC.” The mail was to a list. I responded, and since then I’ve been asked if that response might be shared outside the list as well. So I decided to blog it. Here goes:

Fast and reliable infrastructure of any kind is good for business. That it’s debatable for the Internet shows we still don’t understand what the Internet is — or how, compared to what it costs to build and maintain other forms of infrastructure, it’s damned cheap, with economic and social leverage in the extreme.

Here’s a thought exercise for the audience: Imagine no Internet: no data on phones, no ethernet or wi-fi connections at home — or anywhere. No email, no Google, no Facebook, no Skype.

That’s what we would have if designing the Internet had been left up to phone and cable companies, and not to geeks whose names most people don’t know, and who made something no business or government would ever contemplate: a thing nobody owns, everybody can use and anybody can improve — and for all three reasons supports positive economic externalities beyond calculation.

The only reason we have the carriers in the Net’s picture is that we needed their wires. They got into the Internet service business only because demand for Internet access was huge, and they couldn’t avoid it.

Yet, because we still rely on their wires, and we get billed for their services every month, we think and talk inside their conceptual boxes.

Try this: cities are networks, and networks are cities. Every business, every person, every government agency and employee, every institution, is a node in a network whose value increases as a high multiple of all the opportunities there are for nodes to  connect — and to do anything. This is why the city should care about pure connectivity, and not just about “service” as a grace of phone and cable companies.

Building a network infrastructure as neutral to purpose as water, electricity, roads and sewage treatment should be a top priority for the city. It can’t do that if it’s wearing blinders supplied by Verizon, Time Warner and AT&T.

Re-base the questions on the founding protocols of the Net itself, and its city-like possibilities. Not on what we think the carriers can do for us, or what we can do that’s carrier-like.

I came to the realization that networks are cities, and vice versa, via Geoffrey West — first in Jonah Lehrer’s “A Physicist Solves The City,” in the New York Times, and then in West’s TED talk, “The Surprising Math of Cities and Corporations.” West is the physicist in Lehrer’s piece. Both are highly recommended.

Bonus link.

In How podcasting got its name, Dave nicely outlines the derivation of the terms podcast and podcasting.

That last link goes to the Wikipedia page, because pretty much any other link I put in there has a greater risk of breaking. And that’s what’s at issue here.

Dave was able to date usage in part because others, including yours truly, knew that history was being made, live, at the time. My contribution was DIY Radio with PODcasting, on a Linux Journal blog called IT Garage, on 28 September 2004. In it I wrote this linky passage:

But now most of my radio listening is to what Adam Curry and others are starting to call podcasts. That last link currently brings up 24 results on Google. A year from now, it will pull up hundreds of thousands, or perhaps even millions.

Which it did, and still does.

But what matters here is that Linux Journal has kept IT Garage up on the Web, even though it has long since run its course.

In The Web We Lost and How We Lost the Web, Anil Dash describes the slope down which we have collectively slid over the last decade or so, as more and more of our documents and activities online have become streams instead of pages, and locked up in what Bruce Schneier calls a feudal world of walled POPS: Privately Owned Public Spaces.

I saw the streamed world emerging when my son Allen predicted the “Live Web” in 2003. I thought that was an amazing insight, especially since the Web of pages we had known since 1995 was fundamentally a static one. My first substantive piece about the Live Web was probably this one in 2005. My last was this one in 2011. More recently Phil Windley has run with it, which I like because he’s a real developer and not just a writer/instigator like me.

We can find these historic details because links have at least a provisional permanence to them. They are, literally, paths to locations. Thanks to those, we can document the history we make, and learn from it as well.

Links also, as David Weinberger has always put it so well, subvert hierarchy. There is something about the loose joining of our small pieces that keeps the big centralizers from turning everything we do into snow on the water.

Yesterday, when Anil Dash (@AnilDash) spoke about The Web We Lost at Harvard, I took notes in my little outliner, in a browser. They follow. The top outline level is slide titles, or main points. The next level down are points made under the top level. Some of the outline is what Anil said, and some of it is what I thought he said, or thought on my own based on what he said, and then blathered out through my fingers. Apologies to Anil for what I might have heard wrong. Corrections invited.

David Weinberger also blogged the event This wasn’t easy, because David also introduced Anil and moderated the Q&A. His notes are, as always, excellent. So go read those first.

You can also follow along with this photo set.

Here goes:

POPS — Privately Owned Public Spaces

A secretive, private Ivy League club.

  • Facebook was conceived as that.

Wholesale destruction of your wedding photos

  • We hear stories about this, over and over, when a proprietary silo — even a POPS — dies, gets acquired or otherwise goes poof
  • Think of what matters. (e.g. wedding photos) Everything else you own is just: stuff
  • The silo makers are allowed to do this, because they have one-sided and onerous terms of service. For example:

Apple’s terms for iOS developers

  • Amazing: “We view apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store.”

There is a war raging against the Web we once had.

  • “Being introduced as a blogger is like being introduced as an emailer”

They are bending the law to make controlling our data illegal

  • Watch what’s happening. We won SOPA/PIPA, but that was just one thing. Are we going to do that twice? The same way?

Metadata is dying. And we didn’t even notice.

  • Compare Flickr (old Web) and Instragram (new Web), which has no metadata
  • Props to Berkman for doing the right thing by RSS

Links were corrupted. Likes are next.

  • Economics are getting divorced from original contexts.
  • Remember Suck.com? It was all about linking outward. (See David Weinberger on hyperlinks subverting hierarchy)
  • Now links (at pubs and ad-supported sites) go to internal aggregation pages. SOA.
  • Google converted the meaning of links from the expressive to the economic. (Or, to an economic statement.) Link-spam went viral in less than six months.
  • Facebook has what they call Edgerank. “Likes” at first were an expression of intent. Now they are fuel for advertising. We’re seeing “like fraud.”
  • On Flickr, favorites are still favorites because they aren’t monetizable. Thus Flickr has remained, relatively speaking, blessedly uncorrupted

They are gaslighting the Web.

  • Note how unevenly Facebook places warnings. “Please be careful…” they say, about clicking on a non-Facebook facebook link. You see this on many non-BigCo sites that use Facebook logins. But…>
  • With big Facebook partners you don’t get the message. Coincidence
  • >Also, sites that register with them get the warning, while those that don’t register don’t have the message, even though they are less trustworthy. (Do I have that right? Not sure.)
  • This is not malicious. It’s well-intended in its own pavement-to-hell way.>

In the best case, we’re stuck fixing their bugs on our budgets

  • In the worst case, they’re behaving badly
  • This is true for all the things that compete with the Web

Ideas get locked into apps that will not survive acquisition

  • Content tied to devices dies when those devices become obsolete

We’ve given up on formats. We lost.

  • Watch out for proprietary and under-documented formats
  • Exceptions are .jpg and .html.

Undocumented and non-interoperable are now too common.

  • There is an intentional pulling away from that which lowers switching costs, and creates public spaces.
  • “Town halls” in POPS are not happening in public spaces. Example: the White House “town halls” on Facebook

TOS + IP trumps the constitution

  • Everything you say can be changed on FB and they would be within their rights to do that

It’s never the Pharoah’s words that are lost to history

  • POPS and walled gardens are not level playing fields
  • Ordinary people’s interactions are being lost.
  • Can’t we just opt out? What does that cost?
  • There are opportuity and career costs
  • Can I meaningfully expand my sphere of opportunities in a silo’d world run by pharoahs?
  • “If I hadn’t participated in the blogosphere I wouldn’t be here today”

Our hubris helped them do this.

  • We, the geeks of the world, the builders of public spaces, created non-appealing stuff. It didn’t compete. (e.g. OpenID)
  • Thus we (i.e. everybody) are privileging prisons over the Web itself.
  • We (geeks) did sincerely care
  • We were so arrogant around the goodness of our own open creations that Zuck’s closed vision seemed more appealing
  • That Z’s private club was more appealing says something.
  • How we told the story, how we went about it, also mattered. We didn’t appeal. We talked to ourselves.
  • It’s not just about UI, though we did suck at that too. It was about being in tune with ordinary non-geeks
  • If we had been listening more… and had been a little more open in self-criticism…

Too much triumphalism in having won SOPA and PIPA.

  • Can we do that again? Our willingness to pat ourselves on the back isn’t helpful.
  • The people we count on to rally behind our efforts may not show up again

The open web faded away was not for lack of a compelling vision.

  • We were less inclusive than Facebook and Apple.

But it’s only some of the Web, right?

  • We built the Web for pages
  • Then we changed from pages to streams… narrow single column streams
  • Yahoo is now a stream too. See recent changes there. The Web is now more like radio. Snow on the water.
  • These streams feel like apps. But users are chosing something different.
  • (Shows a graph.)
  • Half the time we spent in 2010 was already in a streaming experience. The percentage is much higher now.
  • These streams are controlled-access. They are limited-access highways. This is part of the mechanism for constraining the conversation. A mismatch between the open web advocacy community and what people do. These others have a much more

Geeks always want to fight the last battle.

  • What they need is a new kind of stream compelling enough for normal people to use.
  • Mozilla is an exception, thanks to Microsoft being evil and IE bad.

So, what do we do?

  • Are FB, LI and TW the new NBC, ABC and CBS?
  • The web follows patterns.
  • The pendulum swings
  • Google is trying to be the evil empire now (whether they know it or not), overreaching, making us feel itchy the way Microsoft did in ’97.

Policy works. Fighting Microsoft helped.

  • Reality is: public policy can be an effective
  • Policy is coming around social networking. Count on it. Facebook’s overreach has that effect
  • There are apps that want to do the right thing. (Anil, for example, is doing ThinkUp)
  • The open web community mostly makes science projects and tool kits. Not enough.
  • Are you being more sensitive to what users want than Zuck is?
  • Item: it’s very hard to learn the history of the software industry, even here. How did software impact culture? How did desktop office suites affect business? The principal actors are still here. They have phones and email addresses. Yet we can’t seem to learn from them.

There are insights to be gleaned from owning our data.

  • Can’t imagine a less attractive name for something than Quantified Self; but the movement matters
  • This stuff that is already digital we pay no attention to. Instead we (companies) rely on marketing reports.
  • Odd: it’s much easier to track my heart rate than how often I visit Twitter.
  • These are the vectors for displacement, e.g. Google on meaning, emotion, expression… We have to be able to do better than them.
  • Think about it: if you allow one more color than blue you’re ahead of Facebook

There are institutions that still care about a a healthy web.

  • The White House has a podcast
  • The Library of Congress? (not clear about the reference here)
  • Facebook terms of service had a conflict with federal law
  • Would hve been fun to see them shut down the White House Facebook account.
  • Terms of service aren’t laws. Break them sometimes.

PR trumps ToS 10 times out of 10

  • Look at our culture as being negatively affected by ToSes
  • Look at Facebook’s ToS the same way we look at public laws. They even eliminated the token effort.
  • Look at YouTube. “No infringement intended.”
  • The people have already chosen a path of civil disobedience
  • A Million Mixer march happens every day

Bonus links: Bruce Schneier in the Q&A brought up his Feudal model, which he talked about on Thursday in conversation with Jonathan Zittrain. And this very thoughtful piece by

6:42am — Flights are starting to land at JFK, I see by Flightaware. Not yet at LGA, EWR or the New England airports. More links:

It’s getting light out, and the snow has stopped.

6:10am — Dig:

5:58am — Fittingly (given the local coverage concentration below), Maine appears to be hardest hit, though farthest from news outside the area. CNN and The Weather Channel are all about Boston, Providence, Hartford and New York.

5:30am — Looking for live local coverage from TV stations. Here’s what I’ve found so far:

That’s it. One in New York, one in Hartford, none in Boston and three in Portland. Maine wins! Corrections, of course, are welcome.

Also: the NYTimes and the Wall Street Journal have both dropped their paywalls for storm coverage. The Boston Globe‘s is still up.

03:30am — This is as quiet as New York gets. No traffic flowing. No horns blowing. No jets on approach to anywhere, or taking off. From our encampment in “upstate” Manhattan, there is just the sound of snowplows scraping Broadway clean.

The Weather Channel (aka Weather.com, aka TWC on my Dish Network channel list, aka @WeatherChannel), calls the storm #Nemo, as they said they would last Fall. The National Weather Service, aka Weather.govisn’t playing along. Neither is AccuWeather.

They should. I’m sure the success of the Nemo nickname has their sphincters in a knot, but they should loosen up. This isn’t just another nor’easter. For parts of Connecticut and Massachusetts, it might be the biggest storm since the last glaciation, named after Wisconsin. (Probably not, but still.) Earthquakes get named after epicenters. And hey, we live in networked times. These days the vernacular wins, fast. Best to get ahead of that curve.

Here’s a view of aviation, as of 3:00am this morning:

Normally thin anyway at this hour, it’s absent in the Northeast entirely. The nearest named flight is a United one inbound to Dulles (UAL981). An un-named plane is passing over Philadelphia, and another over Binghamton. That’s it. (The green color is not for rain, by the way. It’s precipitation density. That’s snow there.)

I came late to personal computing, which was born with the MITS Altair in 1975.

The first PC I ever met — and wanted desperately, in an instant — was an Apple II, in 1977. It sold in one of the first personal computer shops, in Durham, NC. Price: $2500. At the time I was driving one of a series of old GM cars I bought for nothing or under 1/10th what that computer cost. So I wasn’t in the market, and wouldn’t buy my first personal computer until I lived in California, more than a decade later.

By ’77, Apple already had competition, and ran ads voiced by Dick Cavett calling the Apple II “The most personal computer.”

After that I wanted, in order, an Osborne, a Sinclair and an IBM PC, which came out in ’82 and, fully configured, went for more than $2000. At least I got to play with a PC and an Apple II then, because my company did the advertising for a software company making a game for them . I also wrote an article about it for one of the first issues of PC Magazine. The game was Ken Uston’s Professional Blackjack.

Then, in 1984, we got one of the very first Macs sold in North Carolina. It cost about $2500 and sat in our conference room, next to a noisy little dot matrix printer that also cost too much. It was in use almost around the clock. I think the agency had about 10 people then, and we each booked our time on it.

As the agency grew, it acquired more Macs, and that’s all we used the whole time I was there.

So I got to see first hand what Dave Winer is driving at in MacWrite and MacPaint, a coral reef and What early software was influential?

In a comment under the latter, I wrote this:

One thing I liked about MacWrite and MacPaint was their simplicity. They didn’t try to do everything. Same with MacDraw (the first object- or vector- based drawing tool). I still hunger for the simplicity of MacDraw. Also of WriteNow, which (as I recall) was written in machine, or something, which made it very very fast. Also hard to update.

Same with MultiPlan, which became (or was replaced by) Excel. I loved the early Excel. It was so simple and easy to use. The current Excel is beyond daunting.

Not sure what Quicken begat, besides Quickbooks, but it was also amazingly fast for its time, and dead simple. Same with MacInTax. I actually loved doing my taxes with MacInTax.

And, of course, ThinkTank and MORE. I don’t know what the connection between MORE and the other presentation programs of the time were. Persuasion and PowerPoint both could make what MORE called “bullet charts” from outlines, but neither seemed to know what outlining was. Word, IMHO, trashed outlining by making it almost impossible to use, or to figure out. Still that way, too.

One thing to study is cruft. How is it that wanting software to do everything defeats the simple purpose of doing any one thing well? That’s a huge lesson, and one still un-learned, on the whole.

Think about what happened to Bump. Here was a nice simple way to exchange contact information. Worked like a charm. Then they crufted it up and people stopped using it. But was the lesson learned?

Remember the early Volkswagen ads, which were models of simplicity, like the car itself? They completely changed advertising “creative” for generations. Somewhere in there, somebody in the ad biz did a cartoon, multi-panel, showing how to “improve” those simple VW ads. Panel after panel, copy was added: benefits, sale prices, locations and numbers, call-outs… The end result was just another ugly ad, full of crap. Kind of like every commercial website today. Compare those with what TBL wrote HTML to do.

One current victim of cruftism is Apple, at least in software and services. iTunes is fubar. iCloud is beyond confusing, and is yet another domain namespace (it succeeds .mac and .me, which both still work, confusingly). And Apple hasn’t fixed namespace issues for users, or made it easy to search through prior purchases. Keynote is okay, but I still prefer PowerPoint, because — get this: it’s still relatively simple. Ugly, but simple.

Crufism in Web services, as in personal software, shows up when creators of “solutions” start thinking your actual volition is a problem. They think they can know you better than you know yourself, and that they can “deliver” you an “experience” better than you can make for yourself. Imagine what it would be like to stee a car if it was always guessing at where you want to go instead of obeying your actual commands? Or if the steering wheel tugged you toward every McDonalds you passed because McDonalds is an advertiser and the car’s algorithm-obeying driver thought it knew you were hungry and had a bias for fast food — whether you have it or not.

That’s the crufty “service” world we’re in now, and we’re in it because we’re just consumers of it, and not respected as producers.

The early tool-makers knew we were producers. That’s what they made those tools for. That’s been forgotten too.

I wrote that in an outliner, also by Dave.

Interesting to see how far we’ve come, and how far we still need to go.

Bonus link, on “old skool”.

I’m on a list where the subject of patents is being discussed. While thinking about how I might contribute to the conversation, I remembered that I once cared a lot about the subject and wrote some stuff about it. So I did some spelunking through the archives and found the following, now more than twelve years old. It was written during Esther Dyson‘s PC Forum, and addressed via blog to those present there. So, rather than leave it languishing alone in the deep past, I decided to run it again here. I’m not sure if it contributes much to the patent debate, but it does surface a number of topics I’ve been gnawing on ever since. 

— Doc


I think I could turn and live awhile with the animals…
Not one is demented with the mania of owning things.

Walt Whitman


PC Forum 2000,
Phoenix, AZ. March 15, 2000.

Source Coders

Six years ago, at PC Forum 94, John Gage of Sun Microsystems stood on stage between a twitchy Macintosh Duo and a huge projection screen, and pushed the reset button on our lives.

He showed us the Web.

It was like he took us on a tour of the Milky Way — a strange, immense and almost completely alien space. With calm authority and the deep, warm voice of a Nova narrator, he led us from the home page of a student in Massachusetts to a Winter Olympics report archive in Japan, then to a page that showed everything useful piece of data about every broadcast satellite, compiled and published by a fanatic in North Carolina.

We all knew it was fabulous, but why? How could you make money in a world of ends where nobody owns the means? How could you make sense of a network that is nobody’s product and everybody’s service? And where the hell did it come from?

  • Not Compuserve, AOL, Prodigy or any of the other online services
  • Not Novell, 3Com, Crisco, or any of the infrastructure companies
  • Not AT&T, MCI, Nortek or any of the phone companies.
  • Not Microsoft, Apple, Sun or any of the other platform companies.

Sure, it ran on all of them; but it belonged to none of them. And since they couldn’t own it, they never would have made it. So who the hell did make it?

In a word, Hackers. Programmers. Guys who were real good at writing code. Lots of those guys worked for companies, including the companies we just listed. Lots more worked in the public sector, for schools and government organizations. What they shared was a love of information, and of putting it to work. They put both passions into building the Net, working cooperatively in what Eric Raymond calls a “gift culture,” like Amish farmers raising a barn.

Hackers didn’t build the Net for business. They built it for research. They wanted to make it easy for people to inform each other, no matter who or where they were.

Several days ago Tim O’Reilly and I were talking about information, which is a noun derived from the verb to form. We use information, literally, toform each other. So, if we are in the market for information, we are asking to be formed by other people. In other words, we are authors of each other. It follows that the best information is the kind that changes us most. If we want to know something — if we are in the market for knowledge — we demand to be changed.

That change is growth. Our identity persists, yet who-we-are becomes larger, because we know more. And the more we know, the more valuable we become. This value isn’t a “brand” (a nasty word that comes to us from the cattle industry). It’s reputation.

What these hackers made was an extraordinarily vast and efficient market for knowledge — a wide-open marketspace for information — where everybody gets to participate, to contribute, to grow, and to increase the value of their own reputations.

Utopia

It turns out that the Net is also good for business, even though it was not written for business. In fact, “good” is too weak a word. The Net is a Utopia for business.Think about it. This is a place where —

  • The threshold of enterprise is approximately zero.
  • All you need to get millions of dollars is an idea that looks like it could be worth billions more.
  • You can create those billions of dollars in value just by impressing people with your idea.
  • The value of your idea can grow from zero to billions in a matter of hours.
  • You see investment as income, because you’re obligated to burn it, and you don’t need to hock your house or your car to get it.
  • Promise of reward far out-motivates fear of punishment, because there is no punishment.
  • Failure informs and therefore qualifies you for more money to fund your next idea, because both your knowledge and your reputation have grown in the process

To succeed in this world, your business only needs to be Utopia-compatible. That is, your people need to be in the market for information — or, in the parlance of The Cluetrain Manifesto — in the market for clues.

Yet many companies, especially traditional industrial ones, are not in the market for clues. They neither supply nor demand them. They put up a Web site, strictly as a pro forma measure. The corporate face is blank, the voice robotic. David Weinberger writes, “Companies that cannot speak in a human voice make sites that smell like death.”

The medium is the metaphor

Their problem is conceptual. They literally concieve markets — including the vast information market of the Net — in obsolete terms. They see them as real estate, as battlefields, as territories, as theaters, as animal forces. And none of those metaphors work for the Net.

Three years ago, at PC Forum 97, George Lakoff told us how metaphors work (a good source is his 1980 book, Metaphors We Live By). We were taught in school that metaphors were poetic constructions. In fact, metaphors scaffold our understanding of the world. Conceptual metaphors induce the vocabularies that describe every subject we know.

Take life. In a literal sense, life is a biological state. But that’s not how we know life. If we stop to look at the vocabulary we use to describe life, we find beneath it the conceptual metaphor life is a journey. We cannot talk about life without using the language of travel. Birth is arrival. Death is departure. Choices are crossroads. Troubles are potholes or speed bumps. Mistakes take us off the path or onto dead end streets.

Take time. Our primary conceptual metaphor for time is time is money. We save, spend, budget, waste, hoard and invest it.

Conceptual metaphors are equally ubiquitous and unconscious. They are the aquifers of meaning beneath the grounds of our consciousness. Think about how we turn what we mean into what we say. When we speak, we usually don’t know how we will finish the sentences we start, or how we started the sentences we finish. Think about how hard it is to remember exactly what somebody says, yet to know exactly what they mean. Conceptual metaphors are deeply involved in this paradox. They help us agree that we all understand a subject in the same metaphorical terms.

Now lets look at markets. This morning Steve Ballmer told us that Microsoft’s first principle was “to compete very hard, do your best job, study ideas, move forward aggressively.” What is the conceptual metaphor here? Easy: markets are battlefields. There are two sets of overlapping vocabularies induced by this metaphor: war and sports. So you can talk about “blowing away” competition and “level playing fields” in the same sentence. (Microsoft’s problems derive from a confusion between the war and sports metaphors. “All’s fair” in war, but not sports.)

There are related metaphors. One is markets are real estate. By this metaphor, companies can own market territory, or lease rights to it. To a large extent, both the battle and playing field metaphors derive from the real estate metaphor.

There are unrelated metaphors. One is markets are beings. The investment community describes markets as bullsbears, and invisible hands. They growand shrink. They have moods. They get nervouscalm or upset. Another is markets are theaters. Companies perform there, for audiences, who they would like to enjoy a good experience.Another is markets are environmentsIn The Death of Competition, James Moore speaks of markets as ecosystems where companies and categories evolvecompete in a habitat, for resources like plants and animals, and evolve or become extinct.

So what the hell is a market, really? The answer isn’t complicated when we subtract out all the modern metaphors.

Markets are markets

The first markets were markets. They were real places where people gathered to talk about subjects that mattered to them, and to do business. Supply and demand, selling and buying, production and consumption, vendor and customer —all those reciprocal roles and processes that describe market relationships — were a handshake apart. Our ancestors’ surnames — Smith, Hunter, Shoemaker, Weaver, Tanner, Butcher — derived from roles they played in marketplaces. They were literally defined by their crafts.

Yet the balance of power favored the buy side: the customers, buyers and consumers who were one and the same. The noun “market” comes from the Latin mercere, which means to buy. That’s why we call malls “shopping centers.” Not “selling centers.”

The industrial revolution changed everything. Our ancestors left their farms and shops and got jobs in the offices and factories of industry. On the sell side, they became labor, and on the buy side they became consumers. As the Industrial Age advanced, the distance between production and consumption grew so wide that we came to understand business itself in terms of a new metahor: business is shipping. Now we had content that we loaded into a distribution system or a channel, and addressed for delivery to an end user or a consumer. Eventually, industry came to treat market as a verb as well as a noun. Marketing became the job of moving products across the complex distribution deltas that grew between a few suppliers and vast “markets,” where demand was perceived categorically, rather than personally. Every categorical subject or population — consumer electronics, cosmetics, yachting, 18-34 year old men, drivers, surfers — were all “markets.”

My work as a journalist flanks twenty-two years in marketing, advertising and public relations. These are professions which, in spite of good advice of gurus from Theodore Levitt to Regis McKenna, conceived marketing as the military wing of industry’s shipping system. Marketing’s job was to develop “strategies” for “campaigns” to wage against “targets” with munitions called “mesages” which would succeed by “impact” and “penetration. Those targets were not customers, but “consumers,” “eyeballs” and “seats.” There was no demand by those people for messages, but that didn’t matter because those people were not paying for the messages we insisted on lobbing at them.

So, by the end of the Industrial Age, we had not only forgotten what a market really was, but we had developed new and often hostile meanings for both the noun and the verb. We also understood both in terms of conceptual metaphors that were far removed from markets as places and as activities that defined those places.

Around the turn of the 90s, I began to float a new metaphor: markets are conversations. I liked it for two reasons: 1) it worked as a synonmym (try substiting conversation for market everywhere the latter appears and you’ll see what I mean); and 2) every other metaphor — with the notable exception of markets are environments — insulted the true nature of markets, especiallly in a networked world built by a gift economy, where product categories and their competing occupants all grow, often at nobody’s expense.

The idea didn’t catch on until it was put to work as Thesis #1 in The Cluetrain Manifesto. Now it’s all over the place. But it also has a long way to go. Conceptual metaphors such as markets are battlefields are huge reservoirs of bad meaning. Even highly clueful e-businesses make constant use of them.

Which brings us to patents, which operate on the conceptual metaphor inventions are property. This metaphor worked, more or less, through the entire Industrial Age; but it runs into trouble with the Net. While patents and properties may have been involved in the development of the Net, we don’t see them among the credits. As Larry Lessig puts it, the Net grew in the context of regulation, but regulation that broaded access to the very limits of plausibility, essentially by making cyberspace a form of public property — or, more accurately, nobody’s property.

But when we frame the argument over patents in terms of property, we must use the conceptual metaphor on which patents depend, and which also that deny the nature of the Net. We will also argue in terms of market metaphors that employ property concepts: war, games, real estate, theater, and shipping. We will not talk in terms of knowledge, information and conversation.

The challenge

This is where we found ourselves today, when Larry Lessig spoke to us. He said,

“…In the context of patents, the passion to regulate rages. Some 40,000 software patents now float in the ether; a new industry of patent making was launched by a decision of the federal circuit in 1998 — the business method patent. Gaggles of lawyers, my students, now police the innovation process in Internet industry. 5 years ago, if you had a great idea, you coded it. Today, if you have a great idea, you call the lawyers to check its IP.

“This change is the product of regulation. And while in principle, I’m in favor of patents, we should not ignore the nature of the change that this creates. Unlike open access, the regulations of patent don’t decentralize the innovative process. They do the opposite. Unlike open access, the regulations of patent don’t increase the range of those who might compete; for the most part, they narrow it. Unlike open access, patents don’t broaden the architecture of innovation. They narrow it. They are part of an architecture — a legal architecture — that narrows innovation.” (You’ll find this and many other speeches at his site.)

A year ago I defected from marketing. I went over to the other side, joining markets in their fight against Business as Usual. That’s why I write for Linux Journal. It’s also why I co-wrote The Cluetrain Manifesto.

Linux is the Amish barn operating system. It was conceived and built on the same principles as the Net. Not surprisingly, much of what we see on the Net is served up by Linux and other software described as “open” and “free.”

Cluetrain insists that we start to understand the Net on its own terms. This means we have to go back to our founding hackers and look at the virtues embodied in the Utopia donated to business by the hackers’ gift culture.

I suggest we start with these three:

  • Nobody owns it
  • Everybody can use it
  • Anybody can improve it

Eric Raymond suggests many more. So do Bryan Pfaffenberger (who also writes for Linux Journal), Larry LessigRichard Stallman,Tim O’Reilly,James Gleick and Dave Winer, to name just a few.

Let’s start there.

If we start with the industrial world, we’ll stay there. And we can kiss Utopia good-bye.

Geologists have an informal name for the history of human influence on the Earth. They call it the Anthropocene. It makes sense. We have been raiding the earth for its contents, and polluting its atmosphere, land and oceans for as long as we’ve been here, and it shows. By any objective perspective other than our own, we are a pestilential species. We consume, waste and fail to replace everything we can, with  little regard for consequences beyond our own immediate short-term needs and wants. Between excavation, erosion, dredgings, landfills and countless other alterations of the lithosphere, evidence of human agency in the cumulative effects studied by geology is both clear and non-trivial.

As for raiding resources, I could list a hundred things we’ll drill, mine or harvest out of the planet and never replace — as if it were in our power to do so — but instead I’ll point to just one small member of the periodic table: helium. Next to hydrogen, it’s the second lightest element, with just two electrons and two protons. Also, next to hydrogen, it is the second most abundant, comprising nearly a quarter of the universe’s elemental mass.  It is also one of the first elements to be created out of the big bang, and remains essential to growing and lighting up stars.

Helium is made in two places: burning stars and rotting rock. Humans can do lots of great stuff, but so far making helium isn’t one of them. Still, naturally, we’ve been using that up: extracting it away, like we do so much else. Eventually, we’ll run out.

Heavy elements are also in short supply. When a planet forms, the heaviest elements sink to the core. The main reason we have gold, nickel, platinum, tungsten, titanium and many other attractive and helpful elements laying around the surface or within mine-able distance below is that meteorites put them there, long ago. At our current rate of consumption, we’ll be mining the moon and asteroids for them. If we’re still around.

Meanwhile the planet’s climates are heating up. Whether or not one ascribes this to human influence matters less than the fact that it is happening. NASA has been doing a fine job of examining symptoms and causes. Among the symptoms are the melting of Greenland and the Arctic. Lots of bad things are bound to happen. Seas rising. Droughts and floods. Methane releases. Bill McKibben is another good source of data and worry. He’s the main dude behind 350.org, named after what many scientists believe is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: 350 parts per million. We’re over that now, at about 392. (Bonus link.)

The main thing to expect, in the short term — the next few dozen or hundreds of years — is rising sea levels, which will move coastlines far inland for much of the world, change ecosystems pretty much everywhere, and alter the way the whole food web works.

Here in the U.S., neither major political party has paid much attention to this. On the whole the Republicans are skeptical about it. The Democrats care about it, but don’t want to make a big issue of it. The White House has nice things to say, but has to reconcile present economic growth imperatives with the need to save the planet from humans in the long run.

I’m not going to tell you how to vote, or how I’m going to vote, because I don’t want this to be about that. What I’m talking about here is evolution, not election. That’s the issue. Can we evolve to be symbiotic with the rest of the species on Earth? Or will we remain a plague?

Politics is for seasons. Evolution is inevitable. One way or another.

(The photo at the top is one among many I’ve shot flying over Greenland — a place that’s changing faster, perhaps, than any other large landform on Earth.)

[18 September...] I met and got some great hang time with Michael Schwartz (@Sustainism) of Sustainism fame, at PICNIC in Amsterdam, and found ourselves of one, or at least overlapping, mind on many things. I don’t want to let the connection drop, so I’m putting a quick shout-out here, before moving on to the next, and much-belated, post.

Also, speaking of the anthropocene, dig The ‘Anthropocene’ as Environmental Meme and/or Geological Epoch, in Dot Earth, by Andrew Revkin, in The New York Times. I met him at an event several years ago and let the contact go slack. Now I’m reeling it in a bit. :-) Here’s why his work is especially germane to the topic of this here post:  ”Largely because of my early writing on humans as a geological force, I am a member of the a working group on the Anthropocene established by the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy.” Keep up the good work, Andy.

The Web as we know it today was two years old in June 1997, when the page below went up. It lasted, according to Archive.org, until October 2010. When I ran across it back then, it blew my mind — especially the passage I have boldfaced in the long paragraph near the end.

The Internet is a table for two. Any two, anywhere. All attempts to restrict it and lock it down will fail to alter the base fact that the Net’s protocols are designed to eliminate the functional distance, as far as possible, between any two points, any two devices, any two people. This is the design principle for a World of Ends. That last link goes to a piece and I wrote in 2003, to as little effect, I suspect, as @Man’s piece had in 1997. I doubt any of the three of us would write the same things the same ways today. But the base principle, that table-for-two-ness, is something I believe all of us respect. It won’t go away. That’s why I thought it best to disinter @Man’s original and run it again here.

I have another reason. Searching for @Man is Michael O’Connor Clarke‘s last blog post before falling ill in June. I don’t know who or where @Man is today. I did correspond with him briefly when we were writing The Cluetrain Manifesto in 1999, but all my emails from that time were trashed years ago. So I’m clueless on this one. If you’re out there and reading this, @Man, get in touch. Thanks.


Attention, Fat Corporate Bastards!

by @Man

Attention, Fat Corporate Bastards!
Attention, Fat Corporate Bastards in your three piece suits!

Attention Fat Congressional Bastards!
Attention, Fat Congressional Bastards in your three piece suits!

We know about your plans for the Internet. Although you won’t listen, we would like to point out how wrong you are now, so we can point out gleefully how right we were later.

According to a presentation given by Nicholas Negroponte at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Toronto, called “The Information Age: Transforming Technology to Strategy,” here is what you Fat Corporate Bastards think we want:

  1. Movies on demand (94% executive approval)
  2. Home shopping (89% approval)
  3. On-line video games (89% approval)

Here’s what you think we don’t want:

  1. educational services
  2. access to government information

Here’s a clue: you can stick the first set up your bum, sideways.

Here’s what we really want. Don’t bother paying attention; I want you to learn the hard way, by wasting lots of time and money.

Desired Internet Service Attributes:

  1. Cheap, unlimited flat-rate international communication
  2. Hands off: No censorship, no advertisements, no lawsuits
  3. Respect
  4. Privacy

Desired Internet Services:

  1. Email, WWW, Usenet, IRC, FTP
  2. Explicit adult material
  3. Access to government and corporate information for oversight purposes
  4. Educational services
  5. Free networked multiplayer games

Guess what? We already have all the things we want. As soon as we’re ready for something new, we get it – for free. Why? Because the traditional consumer/producer relationship doesn’t exist on the Internet. Don’t you think that if we really wanted the things you think we want, we would have already developed them some time in the past 20 years for free? Free! Free! It’s so much fun to be able to use that word you hate. Take your margins with you and stick to trying to shove ads onto PBS and NPR.

You almost certainly think of the Internet as an audience of some type–perhaps somewhat captive. If you actually had even the faintest glimmering of what reality on the net is like, you’d realize that the real unit of currency isn’t dollars, data, or digicash. It’s reputation and respect. Think about how that impacts your corporate strategy. Think about how you’d feel if a guy sat down at your lunch table one afternoon when you were interviewing an applicant for a vice-president’s position and tried to sell the two of you a car, and wouldn’t go away. Believe it or not, what you want to do with the Internet is very similar. Just as you have a reasonable expectation of privacy and respect when you’re at a table for two in a public place, so too do the users of the Internet have a reasonable expectation of privacy and respect. When you think of the Internet, don’t think of Mack trucks full of widgets destined for distributorships, whizzing by countless billboards. Think of a table for two.

If you don’t understand right now, don’t worry. You’ll learn it the hard way. We’ll be there to help you learn, you filthy corporate guttersnipes.

With bile and premonitions of glee,

@Man


@Man, World-Class Data Snuggler

I fired up Searls.com in early 1995, and began publishing on it immediately. A lot of that writing is at a subdomain called Reality 2.0. Here is one piece from that early list, which I put up just days before Bill Gates’ famously (at the time) “declared war” on the browser market (essentially, Netscape). Interesting to look back on what happened and what didn’t. — Doc


THE WEB
AND THE NEW REALITY
By Doc Searls
December 1, 1995 

Contents


Reality 2.0

The import of the Internet is so obvious and extreme that it actually defies valuation: witness the stock market, which values Netscape so far above that company’s real assets and earnings that its P/E ratio verges on the infinite.

Whatever we’re driving toward, it is very different from anchoring certainties that have grounded us for generations, if not for the duration of our species. It seems we are on the cusp of a new and radically different reality. Let’s call it Reality 2.0.

The label has a millenial quality, and a technical one as well. If Reality 2.0 is Reality 2.000, this month we’re in Reality 1.995.12.

With only a few revisions left before Reality 2.0 arrives, we’re in a good position to start seeing what awaits. Here are just a few of the things this writer is starting to see…

  1. As more customers come into direct contact with suppliers, markets for suppliers will change from target populationsto conversations.
  2. Travel, ticket, advertising and PR agencies will all find new ways to add value, or they will be subtracted from market relationships that no longer require them.
  3. Within companies, marketing communications will change from peripheral activities to core competencies.New media will flourish on the Web, and old media will learn to live with the Web and take advantage of it.
  4. Retail space will complement cyber space. Customer and technical service will change dramatically, as 800 numbers yield to URLs and hard copy documents yield to soft copy versions of the same thing… but in browsable, searchable forms.
  5. Shipping services of all kinds will bloom. So will fulfillment services. So will ticket and entertainment sales services.
  6. The web’s search engines will become the new yellow pages for the whole world. Your fingers will still do the walking, but they won’t get stained with ink. Same goes for the white pages. Also the blue ones.
  7. The scope of the first person plural will enlarge to include the whole world. “We” may mean everybody on the globe, or any coherent group that inhabits it, regardless of location. Each of us will swing from group to group like monkeys through trees.
  8. National borders will change from barricades and toll booths into speed bumps and welcome mats.
  9. The game will be over for what teacher John Taylor Gatto labels “the narcotic we call television.” Also for the industrial relic of compulsory education. Both will be as dead as the mainframe business. In other words: still trucking, but not as the anchoring norms they used to be.
  10. Big Business will become as anachronistic as Big Government, because institutional mass will lose leverage without losing inertia.Domination will fail where partnering succeeds, simply because partners with positive sums will combine to outproduce winners and losers with zero sums.
  11. Right will make might.
  12. And might will be mighty different.

Polyopoly

The Web is the board for a new game Phil Salin called “Polyopoly.” As Phil described it, Polyopoly is the opposite of Monopoly. The idea is not to win a fight over scarce real estate, but to create a farmer’s market for the boundless fruits of the human mind.

It’s too bad Phil didn’t live to see the web become what he (before anyone, I believe) hoped to create with AMIX: “the first efficient marketplace for information.” The result of such a marketplace, Phil said, would be polyopoly.

In Monopoly, what mattered were the three Ls of real estate: “location, location and location.”

On the web, location means almost squat.

What matters on the web are the three Cs: contentconnections and convenience. These are what make your home page a door the world beats a path to when it looks for the better mouse trap that only you sell. They give your webfront estate its real value.

If commercial interests have their way with the Web, we can also add a fourth C: cost. But how high can costs go in a polyopolistic economy? Not very. Because polyopoly creates…

An economy of abundance

The goods of Polyopoly and Monopoly are as different as love and lug nuts. Information is made by minds, not factories; and it tends to make itself abundant, not scarce. Moreover, scarce information tends to be worthless information.

Information may be bankable, but traditional banking, which secures and contains scarce commodities (or their numerical representations) does not respect the nature of information.

Because information abhors scarcity. It loves to reproduce, to travel, to multiply. Its natural habitats are wires and airwaves and disks and CDs and forums and books and magazines and web pages and hot links and chats over cappuccinos at Starbucks. This nature lends itself to polyopoly.

Polyopoly’s rules are hard to figure because the economy we are building with it is still new, and our vocabulary for describing it is sparse.

This is why we march into the Information Age hobbled by industrial metaphors. The “information highway” is one example. Here we use the language of freight forwarding to describe the movement of music, love, gossip, jokes, ideas and other communicable forms of knowledge that grow and change as they move from mind to mind.

We can at least say that knowledge, even in its communicable forms, is not reducible to data. Nor is the stuff we call “intellectual property.” A song and a bank account do not propagate the same ways. But we are inclined to say they do (and should), because we describe both with the same industrial terms.

All of which is why there is no more important work in this new economy than coining the new terms we use to describe it.

The Age of Enlightenment finally arrives

The best place to start looking for help is at the dawn of the Industrial Age. Because this was when the Age of Reason began. Nobody knew more about the polyopoly game — or played it — better than those champions of reason from whose thinking our modern republics are derived: Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

As Jon Katz says in “The Age of Paine” (Wired, May 1995 ), Thomas Paine was the the “moral father of the Internet.” Paine said “my country is the world,” and sought as little compensation as possible for his work, because he wanted it to be inexpensive and widely read. Paine’s thinking still shapes the politics of the U.S., England and France, all of which he called home.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the first rule of Polyopoly: “He who receives an idea from me receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”

He also left a live bomb for modern intellectual property law: “Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.” The best look at the burning fuse is John Perry Barlow’s excellent essay “The Economy of Ideas,” in the March 1994 issue of Wired. (I see that Jon Katz repeats it in his paean to Paine. Hey, if someone puts it to song, who gets the rights?)

If Paine was the moral father of the Internet, Ben Franklin’s paternity is apparent in Silicon Valley. Today he’d fit right in, inventing hot products, surfing the Web and spreading his wit and wisdom like a Johnny Cyberseed. Hell, he even has the right haircut.

Franklin left school at 10 and was barely 15 when he ran his brother’s newspaper, writing most of its content and getting quoted all over Boston. He was a self-taught scientist and inventor while still working as a writer and publisher. He also found time to discover electricity, create the world’s first postal service, invent a heap of handy products and serve as a politician and diplomat.

Franklin’s biggest obsession was time. He scheduled and planned constantly. He even wrote his famous epitaph when he was 22, six decades before he died. “The work shall not be lost,” it reads, “for it will (as he believed) appear once more in a new and more elegant edition, revised and edited by the author.”

One feels the ghost of Franklin today, editing the web.

Time to subtract the garbage

Combine Jefferson and Franklin and you get the two magnetic poles that tug at every polyopoly player: information that only gets more abundant, and time that only gets more scarce.

As Alain Couder of Groupe Bull puts it, “we treat time as a constant in all these formulas — revolutions per minute, instructions per second — yet we experience time as something that constantly decreases.”

After all, we’re born with an unknown sum of time, and we need to spend it all before we die. The notion of “saving” it is absurd. Time can only be spent.

So: to play Polyopoly well, we need to waste as little time as possible. This is not easy in a world where the sum of information verges on the infinite.

Which is why I think Esther Dyson might be our best polyopoly player.

“There’s too much noise out there anyway,” she says in ‘Esther Dyson on DaveNet‘ (12/1/94). “The new wave is not value added, it’s garbage-subtracted.”

Here’s a measure of how much garbage she subtracts from her own life: her apartment doesn’t even have a phone.

Can she play this game, or what?

So what’s left?

I wouldn’t bother to ask Esther if she watches television, or listens to the radio. I wouldn’t ask my wife, either. To her, television is exactly what Fred Allen called it forty years ago: “chewing gum for the eyes.” Ours heats up only for natural disasters and San Jose Sharks games.

Dean Landsman, a sharp media observer from the broadcast industry, tells me that John Gresham books are cutting into time that readers would otherwise spend watching television. And that’s just the beginning of a tide that will swell as every medium’s clients weigh more carefully what they do with their time.

Which is why it won’t be long before those clients wad up their television time and stick it under their computer. “Media will eat media,” Dean says.

The computer is looking a lot hungrier than the rest of the devices out there. Next to connected computing, television is AM radio.

Fasten your seat belts.

Web of the free, home of the Huns

Think of the Industrial world — the world of Big Business and Big Government — as a modern Roman Empire.

Now think of Bill Gates as Attilla the Hun.

Because that’s exactly how Bill looks to the Romans who still see the web, and everything else in the world, as a monopoly board. No wonder Bill doesn’t have a senator in his pocket (as Mark Stahlman told us in ‘Off to the Slaughter House,’ (DaveNet, 3/14/94).

Sadly for the the Romans, their empire is inhabited almost entirely by Huns, all working away on their PCs. Most of those Huns don’t have a problem with Bill. After all, Bill does a fine job of empowering his people, and they keep electing him with their checkbooks, credit cards and purchase orders.

Which is why, when they go forth to tame the web, these tough-talking Captains of Industry and Leaders of Government look like animated mannequins in Armani Suits: clothes with no emperor. Their content is emulation. They drone about serving customers and building architectures and setting standards and being open and competing on level playing fields. But their game is still control, no matter what else they call it.

Bill may be our emperor, but ruling Huns is not the same as ruling Romans. You have to be naked as a fetus and nearly as innocent. Because polyopoly does not reward the dark tricks that used to work for industry, government and organized crime. Those tricks worked in a world where darkness had leverage, where you could fool some of the people some of the time, and that was enough.

But polyopoly is a positive-sum game. Its goods are not produced by huge industries that control the world, but by smart industries that enable the world’s inhabitants. Like the PC business that thrives on it, information grows up from individuals, not down from institutions. Its economy thrives on abundance rather than scarcity. Success goes to enablers, not controllers. And you don’t enable people by fooling them. Or by manipulating them. Or by muscling them.

In fact, you don’t even play to win. As Craig Burton of The Burton Group puts it, “the goal isn’t win/win, it’s play/play.”

This is why Bill does not “control” his Huns the way IBM controlled its Romans. Microsoft plays by winning support, where IBM won by dominating the play. Just because Microsoft now holds a controlling position does not mean that a controlling mentality got them there. What I’ve seen from IBM and Apple looks far more Monopoly-minded and controlling than anything I’ve seen from Microsoft.

Does this mean that Bill’s manners aren’t a bit Roman at times? No. Just that the support Microsoft enjoys is a lot more voluntary on the part of its customers, users and partners. It also means that Microsoft has succeeded by playing Polyopoly extremely well. When it tries to play Monopoly instead, the Huns don’t like it. Bill doesn’t need the Feds to tell him when that happens. The Huns tell him soon enough.

market is a conversation

No matter how Roman Bill’s fantasies might become, he knows his position is hardly more substantial than a conversation. In fact, it IS a conversation.

I would bet that Microsoft is engaged in more conversations, more of the time, with more customers and partners, than any other company in the world. Like or hate their work, the company connects. I submit that this, as much as anything else, accounts for its success.

In the Industrial Age, a market was a target population. Goods rolled down a “value chain” that worked like a conveyor belt. Raw materials rolled into one end and finished products rolled out the other. Customers bought the product or didn’t, and customer feedback was limited mostly to the money it spent.

To encourage customer spending, “messages” were “targeted” at populations, through advertising, PR and other activities. The main purpose of these one-way communications was to stimulate sales. That model is obsolete. What works best to day is what Normann & Ramirez (Harvard Business Review, June/July 1993) call a “value constellation” of relationships that include customers, partners, suppliers, resellers, consultants, contractors and all kinds of people.

The Web is the star field within which constellations of companies, products and markets gather themselves. And what binds them together, in each case, are conversations.

How it all adds up

What we’re creating here is a new economy — an information economy.

Behind the marble columns of big business and big government, this new economy stands in the lobby like a big black slab. The primates who work behind those columns don’t know what this thing is, but they do know it’s important and good to own. The problem is, they can’t own it. Nobody can. Because it defies the core value in all economies based on physical goods: scarcity.

Scarcity ruled the stone hearts and metal souls of every zero-sum value system that ever worked — usually by producing equal quantities of gold and gore. And for dozens of millennia, we suffered with it. If Tribe A crushed Tribe B, it was too bad for Tribe B. Victors got the spoils.

This win/lose model has been in decline for some time. Victors who used to get spoils now just get responsibilities. Cooperation and partnership are now more productive than competition and domination. Why bomb your enemy when you can get him on the phone and do business with him? Why take sides when the members of “us” and “them” constantly change?

The hard evidence is starting to come in. A recent Wharton Impact report said, “Firms which specified their objectives as ‘beating our competitors’ or ‘gaining market share’ earned substantially lower profits over the period.” We’re reading stories about women-owned businesses doing better, on the whole, because women are better at communicating and less inclined to waste energy by playing sports and war games in their marketplaces.

From the customer’s perspective, what we call “competition” is really a form of cooperation that produces abundant choices. Markets are created by addition and multiplication, not just by subtraction and division.

In my old Mac IIci, I can see chips and components from at least 11 different companies and 8 different countries. Is this evidence of war among Apple’s suppliers? Do component vendors succeed by killing each other and limiting choices for their customers? Did Apple’s engineers say, “Gee, let’s help Hitachi kill Philips on this one?” Were they cheering for one “side” or another? The answer should be obvious.

But it isn’t, for two reasons. One is that the “Dominator Model,” as anthropologist (and holocaust survivor) Riane Eisler calls it, has been around for 20,000 years, and until recently has reliably produced spoils for victors. The other is that conflict always makes great copy. To see how seductive conflict-based thinking is, try to find a hot business story that isn’t filled with sports and war metaphors. It isn’t easy.

Bound by the language of conflict, most of us still believe that free enterprise runs on competition between “sides” driven by urges to dominate, and that the interests of those “sides” are naturally opposed.

To get to the truth here, just ask this: which has produced more — the U.S. vs. Japan, or the U.S. + Japan? One produced World War II and a lot of bad news. The other produced countless marvels — from cars to consumer electronics — on which the whole world depends.

Now ask this: which has produced more — Apple vs. Microsoft or Apple + Microsoft? One profited nobody but the lawyers, and the other gave us personal computing as we know it today.

The Plus Paradigm

What brings us to Reality 2.0 is the Plus Paradigm.

The Plus Paradigm says that our world is a positive construction, and that the best games produce positive sums for everybody. It recognizes the power of information and the value of abundance. (Think about it: the best information may have the highest power to abound, and its value may vary as the inverse of its scarcity.)

Over the last several years, mostly through discussions with client companies that are struggling with changes that invalidate long-held assumptions, I have built table of old (Reality 1.0) vs. new (Reality 2.0) paradigms. The difference between these two realities, one client remarked, is that the paradigm on the right is starting to work better than the paradigm on the left.

Paradigm Reality 1.0 Reality 2.0
Means to ends Domination Partnership
Cause of progress Competition Collaboration
Center of interest Personal Social
Concept of systems Closed Open
Dynamic Win/Lose Play/Play
Roles Victor/Victim Partner/Ally
Primary goods Capital Information
Source of leverage Monopoly Polyopoly
Organization Hierarchy Flexiarchy
Roles Victor/Victim Server/Client
Scope of self-interest Self/Nation Self/World
Source of power Might Right
Source of value Scarcity Abundance
Stage of growth Child (selfish) Adult (social)
Reference valuables Metal, Money Life, Time
Purpose of boundaries Protection Limitation

Changes across the paradigms show up as positive “reality shifts.” The shift is from OR logic to AND logic, from Vs. to +:

 

Reality 1.0 Reality 2.0
man vs nature man + nature
Labor vs management Labor + management
Public vs private Public + private
Men vs women Men + women
Us vs them Us + them
Majority vs minority Majority + minority
Party vs party Party + party
Urban vs rural Urban + rural
Black vs white Black + white
Business vs govt. Business + govt.

The Plus Paradigm comprehends the world as a positive construction, and sees that the best games produce positive sums for everybody. It recognizes the power of information and the value of abundance. (Think about it: the best information may have the highest power to abound, and its value may vary as the inverse of its scarcity.)

For more about this whole way of thinking, see Bernie DeKoven’s ideas about “the ME/WE” at his “virtual playground.”]

This may sound sappy, but information works like love: when you give it away, you still get to keep it. And when you give it back, it grows.

Which has always been the case. But in Reality 2.0, it should become a lot more obvious.

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My sister and I received a durable lesson in generosity in the summer of 1963, in the heart of Iowa. That was where our family’s 1957 Ford Country Sedan station wagon, towing our Nimrod pop-up camper trailer, broke down.

It was on a Sunday morning in late June, heading south from Des Moines on I-35 when the engine made a loud bang, and there was smoke and steam everywhere. We pulled over to shoulder and sat there for a long time while the engine cooled off and the day heated up. Then we topped off the radiator with some of the water from our cache, started the car back up and knew right away that the engine was in very bad shape. Pop figured that fewer than car’s straight-six engine’s cylinders were working, and that water was leaking through the head gasket  (since steam as well as smoke and unburned gas fumes were coming out the exhaust). There was no traffic to flag down on the highway, which was still new.  So all we could do was limp on, while limping was all the car could do.

At the top of the first exit was a sign that pointed west to St. Charles, and east to St. Mary’s. The former was closer, it said, so we turned right. We pulled up in front of a general store with some old guys on the porch out front, and asked if there was a service station nearby.

“Deane fixes cars,” one of them said, and told us which house was Deane’s. It was down the road on the left.

Turns out this was Deane Hoskins, a master mechanic with a complete garage in his garage. His day job was working for GM’s diesel division in Des Moines. His wife was Arlouine, a teacher like Mom. They also had a bunch of kids: Carolyn, Linda, Janet, Karen and Robert. All were friendly and eager to help. Deane told us to pull in. So Pop and I disconnected the camper, left it in the street, and went up the driveway to help Deane as best we could while he tore down the broken engine.

At the peak of the Hoskins garage’s roof, facing down the driveway, was a thermometer in the shape of a big clock. It said 112°. Sweat poured off Deane’s nose and chin. I remember that his eyes were blue, though one was a mix of blue and brown. The whole time he talked to us about engine design, how they worked, and what they were built do do. This Ford, he explained, was built to fail.

The policy was called “planned obsolescence,” and you could see it in the cooling tubes in the engine block, flanking the cylinders. Water cooled by the radiator flows through these tubes, keeping an engine from overheating. The pistons in the first and sixth cylinders looked fine. The ones in the second and fifth were pitted on the top. The pistons in the third and fourth cylinders had holes blown through their tops. That was because the cooling tubes flanking the third and fourth cylinders had metal plugs in them, causing the pistons to overheat and eventually fail. The plugs were the opposite of necessary, unless the necessity was a blown engine, eventually. In our case the eventuality was sixty thousand miles.

This was a huge blow to Pop, a committed Ford Man. This wagon was the first new car he had ever bought, and it had been nothing but trouble from Day One. Even before this last failure he figured the car cost $60 per month on average to fix, and this was in 1950s dollars. It was also clear and present evidence of customer-hating corporate venality. To this day it amazes me to see nothing written about Ford’s (or anybody’s) practice of plugging an engine block’s cooling tubes. Were all of Ford’s inline-6 blocks crippled like this? Or was this an experiment by Ford with just a few engines to see what happened? How could a worker in good conscience have put the plugs in there, when the result would obviously be a short life span for the engine?

Deane drilled out the plugged tubes, removed the bad pistons, honed out the two center cylinders, called up a friendly Ford dealer, and drove us over to pick up some new pistons and a fresh head gasket. The dealer was closed on Sunday, but opened up just for us. On the way over we went through a covered bridge, one of those later made famous by The Bridges of Madison County.

By evening Deane had the engine back together, and the car running fine. We spent the night as the Hoskins’ house guests, and in the morning went on our way. For years Mom kept up with the Hoskins family through Arlouine. It was what moms did in those days. Mom was from a small town two states away: Napoleon, North Dakota. St. Charles and its friendly ethic was familiar to her.

Pop’s partisan loyalties were simple and clear. Three of the biggest were to the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Ford Motor Company and the Republican Party. So this was the second time he felt betrayed. The first was when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. The third was Watergate.

Leaving St. Charles on Monday morning, we drove west. In Griswold, barely bigger than St. Charles, we found a Chevy dealer. It wasn’t that Pop was suddenly a believer in Chevy, but that he had become a disbeliever in Ford. He also took Deane’s word that GM didn’t play the planned obsolescence game. There were just two new cars in the showroom: a minimal white Biscayne and a  blue Bel-Air. Pop and Mom wanted to get the Biscayne, but my sister and I talked them into getting the Bel-Air, which had a 283 v-8 rather than the Biscayne’s straight six. Better for pulling the trailer, we argued, successfully. Pop’s compromise was to make sure the car had no radio and no air conditioning. That car was almost trouble-free until the transmission went, at 125,000 miles — a lot in those days. That’s when we sold it, in 1969.

And that’s Griswold, above. I spotted it last week while looking out the window of the plane from Newark to Los Angeles. It doesn’t look much different from above than it did on the ground forty-nine years ago. The dealer was small, with just two cars in the showroom: our Bel-Air and the Biscayne. No Impalas. I don’t remember the name, but there are no Chevy dealers in Griswold today.

I see that Deane died in 1991 and Arlouine in 2005. And, at the second link, that Linda is also gone. But our encounter with the Hoskins family isn’t forgotten, half a century later. To me the “flyover” states are places where good people live and lucky people drive through. Turns out our bad luck in St. Charles with a bum Ford was the best thing that could have happened.

 

 

Making the rounds is , a killer essay by in MIT Technology Review. The gist:

At the heart of the Internet business is one of the great business fallacies of our time: that the Web, with all its targeting abilities, can be a more efficient, and hence more profitable, advertising medium than traditional media. Facebook, with its 900 million users, valuation of around $100 billion, and the bulk of its business in traditional display advertising, is now at the heart of the heart of the fallacy.

The daily and stubborn reality for everybody building businesses on the strength of Web advertising is that the value of digital ads decreases every quarter, a consequence of their simultaneous ineffectiveness and efficiency. The nature of people’s behavior on the Web and of how they interact with advertising, as well as the character of those ads themselves and their inability to command real attention, has meant a marked decline in advertising’s impact.

This is the first time I have read anything from a major media writer (and Michael is very much that — in fact I believe he is the best in the biz) that is in full agreement with The Advertising Bubble, my chapter on this very subject in The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge. A sample:

One might think all this personalized advertising must be pretty good, or it wouldn’t be such a hot new business category. But that’s only if one ignores the bubbly nature of the craze, or the negative demand on the receiving end for most of advertising’s goods.  In fact, the results of personalized advertising, so far, have been lousy for actual persons…

Tracking and “personalizing”—the current frontier of online advertising—probe the limits of tolerance. While harvesting mountains of data about individuals and signaling nothing obvious about their methods, tracking and personalizing together ditch one of the few noble virtues to which advertising at its best aspires: respect for the prospect’s privacy and integrity, which has long included a default assumption of anonymity.

Ask any celebrity about the price of fame and they’ll tell you: it’s anonymity. This wouldn’t be a Faustian bargain (or a bargain at all) if anonymity did not have real worth. Tracking, filtering and personalizing advertising all compromise our anonymity, even if no PII (Personally Identifiable Information) is collected.  Even if these systems don’t know us by name, their hands are still in our pants…

The distance between what tracking does and what users want, expect and intend is so extreme that backlash is inevitable. The only question is how much it will damage a business that is vulnerable in the first place.

The first section of the book opens with a retrospective view of the present from a some point in the near future — say, five or ten years out. A relevant sample:

After the social network crash of 2013, when it became clear that neither friendship nor sociability were adequately defined or managed through proprietary and contained systems (no matter how large they might be), individuals began to assert their independence, and to zero-base their social networking using their own tools, and asserting their own policies regarding engagement.

Customers now manage relationships in their own ways, using standardized tools that embrace the complexities of relationship—including needs for privacy (and, in some cases, anonymity). Thus loyalty to vendors now has genuine meaning, and goes as deep as either party cares to go. In some (perhaps most) cases this isn’t very deep, while in others it can get quite involved.

When I first wrote that, I said 2012. But I decided that was too aggressive, and went with the following year. Maybe I was right in the first place. Time will tell.

Meanwhile, here’s what Michael says about the utopian exhaust Facebook and its “ecosystem” are smoking:

Well, it does have all this data. The company knows so much about so many people that its executives are sure that the knowledge must have value (see “You Are the Ad,” by Robert D. Hof, May/June 2011).

If you’re inside the Facebook galaxy (a constellation that includes an ever-expanding cloud of associated ventures) there is endless chatter about a near-utopian (but often quasi-legal or demi-ethical) new medium of marketing. “If we just … if only … when we will …” goes the conversation. If, for instance, frequent-flyer programs and travel destinations actually knew when you were thinking about planning a trip. Really we know what people are thinking about—sometimes before they know! If a marketer could identify the person who has the most influence on you … If a marketer could introduce you to someone who would relay the marketer’s message … get it? No ads, just friends! My God!

But so far, the sweeping, basic, transformative, and simple way to connect buyer to seller and then get out of the way eludes Facebook.

The buyer is a person. That person does not require either a social network or absolutely-informed guesswork to know who she is or what she wants to buy. Obviously advertising can help. It always has. But totally personalized advertising is icky and oxymoronic. And, after half a decade or more at the business of making maximally-personalized ads, the main result is what Michael calls “the desultory ticky-tacky kind that litters the right side of people’s Facebook profiles.”

That’s one of mine on the right. It couldn’t be more wasted and wrong. Let’s take it from the top.

First, Robert Scoble is an old friend and a good guy. But I couldn’t disagree with him more on the subject of Facebook and the alleged virtues of the fully followed life. (Go to this Gillmor Gang, starting about an hour in, to see Robert and I go at it about this.) Clearly Facebook doesn’t know about that. Nor does any advertiser, I would bet. In any case, Robert likes so many things that his up-thumb has no value to me.

I have no interest in Social Referrals, and if Facebook followed what I’ve written on the subject of “social” (as defined by Facebook and its marketing cohorts), it wouldn’t imagine I would be interested in extole.com.

I’m 64, but married. “Boyfriend wanted” is a low-rent fail as well as an insult.

I get the old yearbook pitch every time I go on Facebook, which is as infrequently as I possibly can. (There are people I can only reach that way, which is why I bother.) I don’t even need to click on the the ad to discover that, as I suspected, 60s.yearbookarchives.com is a front for the scammy Classmates.com.

I’ve never been fly flishing, and haven’t fished since I was a kid, many decades ago.

And I don’t want more credit cards, of any kind, regardless of Scoble’s position on Capital One.

In a subchapter of  titled “A Bad Theory of You,”  calls both Facebook’s and Google’s data-based assumptions about us “pretty poor representations of who we are, in part because there is no one set of data that describes who we are.” He also says that at best they put us into the  — a “place where something is lifelike but not convincingly alive, and it gives people the creeps.” But what you see on the right isn’t the best, and it’s not uncanny. It’s typical, and it sucks, even if it does bring Facebook a few $billion per year in click-through-based revenues.

The amazing thing here is that business keeps trying to improve advertising — and always by making it more personal — as if that’s the only way we can get to Michael’s “sweeping, basic, transformative, and simple way to connect buyer to seller and then get out of the way.” Three problems here:

  1. By its nature advertising — especially “brand” advertising — is not personal.
  2. Making advertising personal changes it into something else that is often less welcome.
  3. There are better ways to get to achieve Michael’s objective — ways that start on the buyer’s side, rather than the seller’s.

Don Marti, former Editor-in-Chief of Linux Journal and a collaborator on the advertising chapters in my book, nails the first two problems in a pair of posts. In the first, Ad targeting – better is worse? he says,

Now, as targeting for online advertising gets more and more accurate, the signal is getting lost. On the web, how do you tell a massive campaign from a well-targeted campaign? And if you can’t spot the “waste,” how do you pick out the signal?

I’m thinking about this problem especially from an IT point of view. Much of the value of an IT product is network value, and economics of scale mean that a product with massive adoption can have much higher ROI than a niche product…. So, better targeting means that online advertising carries less signal. You could be part of the niche on which your vendor is dumping its last batch of a “boat anchor” product. This is kind of a paradox: the better online advertising is, the less valuable it is. Companies that want to send a signal are going to have to find a less fake-out-able medium.

In the second, Perfectly targeted advertising would be perfectly worthless, which he wrote in response to Michael’s essay, he adds this:

The more targeted that advertising is, the less effective that it is. Internet technology can be more efficient at targeting, but the closer it gets to perfectly tracking users, the less profitable it has to become.

The profits are in advertising that informs, entertains, or creates a spectacle—because that’s what sends a signal. Targeting is a dead end. Maybe “Do Not Track” will save online advertising from itself.

John Battelle, who is both a first-rate journalist and a leader in the online advertising industry, says this in Facebook’s real question: What’s the native model?:

Facebook makes 82% of its money by selling targeted display advertising – boxes on the top and right side of the site (it’s recently added ads at logout, and in newsfeeds). Not a particularly unique model on its face, but certainly unique underneath: Because Facebook knows so much about each person on its service, it can target in ways Google and others can only dream about. Over the years, Facebook has added new advertising products based on the unique identity, interest, and relationship data it owns: Advertisers can incorporate the fact that a friend of a friend “likes” a product, for example. Or they can incorporate their own marketing content into their ads, a practice known as “conversational marketing” that I’ve been on about for seven or so years (for more on that, see my post Conversational Marketing Is Hot – Again. Thanks Facebook!).

But as many have pointed out, Facebook’s approach to advertising has a problem: People don’t (yet) come to Facebook with the intention of consuming quality content (as they do with media sites), or finding an answer to a question (as they do at Google search). Yet Facebook’s ad system combines both those models – it employs a display ad unit (the foundation of brand-driven media sites) as well as a sophisticated ad-buying platform that’d be familiar to anyone who’s ever used Google AdWords.

I’m not sure how many advertisers use Facebook, but it’s probably a fair guess to say the number approaches or crosses the hundreds of thousands. That’s about how many used Overture and Google a decade ago. The big question is simply this: Do those Facebook ads work as well or better than other approaches? If the answer is yes, the question of valuation is rather moot. If the answer is no…Facebook’s got some work to do.

But Facebook isn’t the real issue here. Working only the sell side of the marketplace is the issue. It’s now time to work the buy side.

The simple fact is that we need to start equipping buyers with their own tools for connecting with sellers, and for engaging in respectful and productive ways. That is, to improve the ability of demand to drive supply, and not to constantly goose up supply to drive demand, and failing 99.x% of the time.

This is an old imperative.

In , which Chris Locke, David Weinberger, Rick Levine and I wrote in 1999, we laid into business — and marketing in particular — for failing to grok the fact that in networked markets, which the Internet gave us, individuals should lead, rather than just follow. So, since business failed to get Cluetrain’s message, I started in mid-2006 at Harvard’s Berkman Center. The idea was to foster development of tools that make customers both independent of vendors, and better able to engage with vendors. That is, for demand to drive supply, personally. (VRM stands for .)

Imagine being able to:

  • name your own terms of service
  • define for yourself what loyalty is, what stores you are loyal to, and how
  • be able to gather and examine your own data
  • advertise (or “intentcast”) your own needs in an anonymous and secure way
  • manage your own relationships with all the vendors and other organizations you deal with
  • … and to do all that either on your own or with the help of that work for you rather than for sellers (as most third parties do)

Today there are dozens of VRM developers working at all that stuff and more — to open floodgates of economic possibility when demand drives supply personally, rather than “socially” as part of some ad-funded Web giant’s wet dream. (And socially in the genuine sense, in which each of us knows who our friends, relatives and other associates really are, and in what contexts our actual social connections apply.) I report on those, and the huge implications of their work, in The Intention Economy.

Here’s the thing, and why now is the time to point this out: most of those developers have a hell of a time getting laid by VCs, which on the whole have their heads stuck in a of the Web, and can’t imagine a way to improve the marketplace that does not require breeding yet another cow, or creating yet another ranch for dependent customers. Maybe now that the bloom is off Facebook’s rose, and the Filter Bubble is ready to burst, they can start looking at possibilities over here on the demand side.

So this post is an appeal to investors. Start thinking outside the cow, and outside the ranch. If you truly believe in free markets, then start believing in free customers, and in the development projects that make them not only free, but able to drive sales at a 100% rate, and to form relationships that are worthy of the word.

Bonus links:

HT to John Salvador, for pointing to Life in the Vast Lane, where I kinda predicted some of the above in 2008.

Independent commercial alternative rock radio in Boston is heading to the grave. The Boston Phoenix‘ WFNX has been sold to Clear Channel, which — says the press release — will expand its “footprint” in Boston. (Bambi vs. Godzilla comes to mind.) Boston Business Journal suggests the signal’s fate will be to carry country music or Spanish programming. But it doesn’t matter. FNX is done.  In Thanks For The Memories You’re Fired, Radio INK puts the end this way:

Independently owned WFNX has been competing in the Boston market for nearly 30 years. Until yesterday that is, when Stephen Mindich notified his staff he was selling to Clear Channel. He then fired 17 of the 21 employees. Mindich said, “Despite its celebrated history, its cutting edge programming , its tradition of breaking new music, its ardent fans among listeners and advertisers, for some time it has been difficult to sustain the station  — especially since the start of the Great Recession.”

NECN reports,

The sale also means 17 of the 21 people working at FNX were suddenly let go Wednesday. The remaining three full-timers and one part-timer will keep the station on air until the sale goes through in next couple of months.

WFNX Program Director Paul Driscoll said, “I think of it as a two month Irish wake, so we’re going to send this legendary station off the right way.”

That will mean celebrating the station’s roots and its 29 year run – one that had a hand in bringing groups like Nirvana and Pearl Jam to wider audiences.

Driscoll said, “The community, the artists that we’ve developed relationships with, the listeners, it’s more than just a spot on the FM dial.”

No doubt the change has been coming for a long time. WBCN went away (actually to an HD subchannel, which is pretty much the same thing) a couple years back after 41 years as one of the country’s landmark rock stations. FNX was always more alternative than BCN. WBOS and WAAF still fly the rock flags; but there was only one FNX, and now it’s headed out the door.

Since coming to Boston in ’06 I’ve been surprised to see FNX continuing to make it. The ratings in both March and April had dropped to nil (literally, nada). You can’t sell advertising with that.

The signal is also sub-second-tier. Licensed to Lynn as a Class A station (maximum of 3000 watts at 300 feet above average terrain), it radiates with 1700 watts at 627 feet (equivalent to 3000 watts, trading watts for height), from atop One Financial Center, but with far less power in most directions other than north:

Meanwhile, most competing Boston commercial stations are Class B: 50,000 watts at 500 feet, or the equivalent. (Most radiate with fewer watts at higher elevations, on either the Prudential Building or out at Boston’s antenna farm in Needham, where a collection of towers exceed 1000 feet in height.)

Presumably WFEX, which simulcasts WFNX from Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire, will also go to Clear Channel. (See the engineering and ownership details here.)

There’s a lot of tweeting on the matter. The most poignant so far is this one from David Bernstein (@dbernstein):

Why #WFNX mattered (photo taken by @CarlyCarioli) http://pic.twitter.com/dIjOjsfT

Make that minus seven now.

[Later...] The sale price is $14.5 million.

Okay, my foursquare experiment is over. I won, briefly…

4sq… and, about 24 hours later (the second screenshot) I was back in the pack somewhere.

So now I’m done playing the leaderboard game. I’d like to say it was fun, and maybe it was, in the same way a hamster in a cage has fun running in its wheel. (Hey, there’s a little hamster in all of us. Ever tried to “win” in traffic? Same game.)

The experiment was to see what it would take to reach #1 on the leaderboard, if only for a minute. The answer was a lot of work. For each check-in I needed to:

  1. Wake up the phone
  2. Find foursquare (for me it’s not on the front page of apps)
  3. Tap the app
  4. Dismiss the “Rate foursquare” pop-over window
  5. Tap on the green “Check In” button
  6. Wait (sometimes for many seconds) while it loads its list of best guesses and actual locations
  7. Click on the location on the list (or type it in, if it’s not there)
  8. Click on the green “Check In Here” button
  9. Take a picture and/or write something in the “What are you up to?” window
  10. Click on the green “Check In” button, again.

And to do that a lot. For example, at Harvard Square a few days ago, I checked in at the Harvard Coop, Radio Shack, Peets Coffee, the Cemetery, Cambridge Common and the Square itself. For just those six places we’re talking about 60 pokes on the phone. (Okay, some of the time I start at #5. But it’s still a lot of pokes.)

To make sure I had the poke count right, I just did it again, here at the Berkman Center. Now my phone says, “Okay. We’ve got you @ Berkman Center for Internet & Society. You’ve been here 45 times.”

Actually, I’ve been here hundreds of times. I only checked in forty-five of those times. The difference matters. What foursquare says in that statement is, If you haven’t checked in on foursquare, you haven’t really been there. Which is delusional. But then, delusion is part of the game. Being mayor of the 77 bus (which I have been, a number of times) confers no real-world advantages to me at all. I even showed a driver once that I was mayor of the bus. She looked at my phone, then at me, like I was a nut case. (And, from her perspective, I surely was.) Being the mayor of some food joint might win you a discount or a freebie if the establishment is so inclined. But in most cases the establishment knows squat about foursquare. Or, if it does know something, squat might be what it does.

That was my surreal experience after checking in at a Brookstone at Logan Airport last October. I coudn’t miss the large placard there…

… and asked the kid at the cash register what the “special” would be. He replied, ”Oh, that’s just a promotion.” At the other end of the flight, while transferring between concourses in Dallas-Fort Worth, I saw this ad on the tram:

On my way to the next plane I checked into as many places as I could, and found no “great deals.” (Here is my whole mini-saga of foursquare screenshots.)

But, credit where due. An American Express promo that I ran across a number of times at SXSW in Austin earlier this year provided $10 off purchases every place it ran, which was more than a few. (Screenshots start here.) We also recently got a free upgrade from Fox, the car rental company, by checking in with foursquare. And I agree with Jon Mitchell of RWW, in What Is the Point of… Foursquare?, that the service has one big plus:

Isn’t Foursquare just for spamming Twitter and Facebook with what Geoloqi’s Amber Case calls “geoloquacious” noise about your trip to the grocery store? It can be, and for too many users, it is.

But turn all that off. Forget the annoying badges and mayorships, too. There’s one useful thing at which Foursquare is very, very good: recommendations.

So I’ll keep it going for that, and for notifying friends on foursquare that I’m in town, and am interested in getting together. (This has worked exactly once, by the way, with the ever-alert Steve Gillmor.)

But still, you might ask, why have I bothered all this time?

Well, I started using foursquare because I like new stuff and I’ve always been fascinated by the Quantified Self (QS) thing, especially around self-tracking, which I thought might also have a VRM benefits, somewhere down the line. I’m also a born geographer with a near absolute sense of where I am. Even when I’m flying in the stratosphere, I like to know where I am and where I’ve been, especially if photography is also involved. Alas, you can’t get online in the air with most planes. But I’ve still kept up with foursquare on the ground, patiently waiting for it to evolve past the hamster-wheel stage.

But the strange thing is, foursquare hasn’t evolved much at all, given the 3+ years they’ve been around. The UI was no bargain to begin with, and still isn’t. For example, you shouldn’t need to check in always in real time. There should be a setup that keeps track of where you’ve been, without the special effort on your part. If there are specials or whatever, provide alerts for those, on an opt-in basis.

But evolution is planned, in a big way. Foursquare Joins the Coupon Craze, a story by Spencer E. Ante last week in The Wall Street Journal, begins with this:

Foursquare doesn’t want to be another popular—but unprofitable—social network. Its new plan to make money? Personalized coupons.

The company, which lets users alert their friends to their location by “checking in” via smartphone from coffee shops, bars and other locations, revealed for the first time that it plans to let merchants buy special placement for promotions of personalized local offers in July in a redesigned version of its app. All users will be able to see the specials, but must check into the venue to redeem them.

“We are building software that’s able to drive new customers and repeat visitors to local businesses,” said Foursquare co-founder and Chief Executive Dennis Crowley.

This tells me my job with foursquare is to be “driven” like a calf into a local business. Of course, this has been the assumption from the start. But I had hoped that somewhere along the way foursquare could also evolve into a true QS app, yielding lat-lon and other helpful information for those (like me) who care about that kind of thing. (And, to be fair, maybe that kind of thing actually is available, through the foursquare API. I saw a Singly app once that suggested as much.) Hey, I would pay for an app that kept track of where I’ve been and what I’ve done, and made  that data available to me in ways I can use.

Meanwhile, there is one big piece of learning that I don’t think anybody has their head fully wrapped around, and that’s the willingness of people to go to all this work, starting with installing the app in the first place.

Back in the early days of ProjectVRM, it was taken as fact amongst developers that anything requiring a user install was problematic. Now most of us have phones with dozens or hundreds of apps or browser extensions that we’ve installed ourselves. Of course Apple and the browser makers have made that kind of thing easier, but that’s not my point. My point is that the conventional wisdom of today could be old-hat a year from now. We can cite example after example of people doing things which, in the past, it was said they were unlikely to do.

A few days ago RadioInk reported that WTOP, the all-news radio station in Washington, D.C., is now the top-billing station in the nation. Two surprising things there. One is that Washington is the #7 market (behind New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston-Galveston), and that in the latest ratings WTOP is #2 overall, behind WAMU, the top local public station. (WAMU gets an 8.2% AQH, or Average Quarter Hour share, to WTOP’s 6.9%,)

One non-surprise is new competition, from WNEW — “all-news 99-1,” created by CBS, which owns the top news stations in New York (WCBS and WINS), Chicago (WBBM), Los Angeles (KNX and KFWB), San Francisco (KCBS) and elsewhere. Of the ten top billing stations (according to that same RadioINK story), five are all-news, and all but WTOP are owned by CBS. So clearly CBS would like to compete in a town that makes more news than any other.

So far, however, WNEW has been all but nowhere in the ratings. WTOP has slipped a bit (a month earlier it was #1 with a 7.5% AQH share), but WNEW went from 0.3% to a “-”. Not good. Still, according to this piece by Ben Fischer in the Washington Business Journal, CBS says things are going “according to plan.”

wnewAs an old radio guy with a transmitter obsession that I’ll never fully repress, I’m wondering if the signal is an issue. WNEW, which is licensed to Annapolis, transmits from a tower in the woods near near Patuxent River Park, between Bowie and Crofton, in Maryland, about four miles east of the 197 exit off the Baltimore-Washington Expressway (295). The maxium power allowed for FM stations in the Northeast is 50,000 watts at 500 feet (above average terrain), and WNEW puts out the equivalent of that with 45,000 watts at 515 feet. (Coverage results from a combination of power and height. You need less power at higher antenna heights to achieve the same coverage. Most FM stations in New York radiate from atop the Empire State Building with 6,000 wats at 1361 feet.)

Could be the idea is to cover both Washington and Baltimore, which it does, as you can see from the Radio-Locator.com map on the right. The red line is the calculated extent of strong signal coverage. But signal strength still falls off with distance from the transmitter, and it helps to be in the middle of town, as WTOP is.

Recently I drove around both cities, and WNEW sounded fine there in a car. Homes and offices are another matter, though. Car radios tend to be pretty good. Home radios and portables much less so. On a kitchen radio in Baltimore, about the same distance from WNEW as, say, Arlington, Virginia, WNEW was all but inaudible.

Some history.

WTOP began life at 1500 on the AM dial, with a powerful directional signal pumped out by its three-tower 50,000-watt facility in Wheaton, Maryland. The signal on the ground covered most of the metro area by day, though it left out places to the west, especially at night. (Thanks to the reflective qualities of the ionosphere at night, the station could also be heard well from North Carolina to the Maritimes.) The Washington Post, the primary owner of the station back then, made WTOP all-news in the mid-1960s. (Around that same time, the Post also made a royally dumb decision to donate its FM station, on 96.3fm, to Howard University, where it thrives today as WHUR — because the Post didn’t believe people were going to listen much to FM.) Then, to make a long story short, the station went through a series of ownership changes and facilities proliferations until it arrived at this current state (first links go to coverage maps):

  • WTOP, the namesake, radiates on 103.5fm, with 44,000 watts at 518 feet above average terrain, from the American University tower it shares with WAMU, WKYS, WMMJ and WPFW. This is equivalent to the legal maximum of 50,00o watts at 500 feet; except that the station has a directional signal, with a dent to about half that power in the Baltimore direction.
  • WTLP, on 103.9, with 350 watts at 950 feet above average terrain, on a ridge alongside Gambrill Park Road, overlooking Frederick, Maryland.
  • WWWT, on 107.7, with 29,000 watts at 646 feet, also equivalent to the legal max of 50,000 watts at 500 feet. on a hill overlooking Warrenton, Virginia.
  • W282BA, on 104.3, a 100-watt translator on a tower in downtown Leesburg, VA.
  • All four simulcast and identify as WTOP.

Meanwhile the old signal on 1500 is now WFED, called FederalNewsRadio. It is simulcast on WWFD on 820am in Frederick, MD. That transmitter is a two-tower rig, alongside I-70 just west of Frederick. It’s 4,300 watts by day and 430 watts at night, when its signal is aimed east over Frederick. Both WTOP and WFED are owned by Hubbard Broadcasting, which recently bought them from Bonneville.

Maybe CBS will buy up a fleet of secondary stations around the edge of the market(s), like WTOP did. That might help. Meanwhile, I think that signal is a problem.

I could say more, but I’d rather just put this up. It’s been languishing in my pile of drafts for long enough, waiting for me to say more. Rather than that, I’ll just leave the rest of that up to those of you who care.

Newspapers got off on the wrong foot when they started publishing on the Web, by giving away what was valuable on the newsstand, and charging for last year’s fishwrap. That is, they gave away the news and charged for the olds.

This was understandable, because the papers wanted to participate in this new Web thing, which was very live and now and all that; and the Joneses they needed to keep up with were mostly doing the same thing. And, since selling archives had been a business all along — though not a very big one — they stuck with charging $2.95 or $3.95 for, say, a sports story from 1973.

Now the big papers, led by the The New York Times, are charging for at least some of the news in their digital versions, but also still charging for the old stuff. So they’re not quite charging for the news and giving away the olds (as I recommended back in 2006), but they seem to be moving slowly in that direction. More about that later. What I’d rather talk about first is their bait-and-switch game. It’s not bait-and-switch by the letter of the law, but the spirit is there, because the true costs are hidden.

Today, for example, the Times announced it will be cutting in half the number of articles readers on the Web can view for free in a given month, starting on April Fools Day. The old number was twenty. The new one is ten. Specifics for non-subscribers:

  • Get 10 articles each month on NYTimes.com, as well as access to the home page, section fronts, blog fronts and classifieds.
  • Articles, blog posts, slide shows, video and other multimedia will continue to count against your free monthly limit.
  • If you’ve already read your 10 free articles, you can still read our content through links from Facebook, Twitter, search engines and blogs.

Digital subscribers will —

  • Enjoy unlimited access to the full range of reporting from the world’s most respected journalists in their fields.
  • No limit on the number of articles, videos, blogs and more on your computer, smartphone or tablet.
  • Access to 100 Archive articles every four weeks.
  • Access to Election 2012, our exclusive politics app for iPhone and Android as well as The Collection, our fashion app for iPad — depending on the subscription you choose.

Home subscribers get free digital access.

The boldest print on that same page says “pay just 99¢ for your first 4 weeks.” That’s your bait. Below that it says “subscription options,” which links to this page here. Nowhere on either page does it say what happens after those first four weeks. For that info you need to select a button next to one of the three 99¢ choices, then click on the “GET UNLIMITED ACCESS” button. This takes you to the order page where you enter your credit card info. There it also says,

TRY IT TODAY FOR JUST $0.99  NYTimes: All Digital Access Unlimited access to NYTimes.com, and the NYTimes smartphone and tablet apps.* $0.99 for your first 4 weeks ($8.75 / week thereafter)

The asterisk is unpacked at the bottom of the page, where the it says,

Your order (applicable taxes may be added)
First 4 Weeks $0.99
Thereafter $35.00 every 4 weeks

So the real price is about $455 per year, after that first month. (Math: $8.75 x 52 weeks.) It’s an old game, and lots of sellers play it, but it’s still icky. If the Times is bold enough to be blunt about the value it’s subtracting from its free product, why not be bold enough to say the price goes up $35.01 after the first $.99?

Maybe because they’ve had that same pitch for awhile, and it’s working fine. In this Poynter storyAndrew Beaujon writes, “The New York Times Media Group says it has ‘approximately 454,000 paid subscribers’ to its digital products.” That comes to about $206,570,000 per year, after the first month. Pretty good. I have no problem with that, if the market bears the cost, which it seems to be doing. And maybe now more subscribers will get tired of being cut off after 10 views, or using multiple browsers to get around the limit a bit.

But why keep charging for the old stuff — especially the really old stuff? Wouldn’t it be a Good Thing make all of it easily reachable?

Well, they do, to some degree. Here are the details from the Times‘ digital archive page:

Accessing and Purchasing Articles

Digital Subscribers:

  • — 1923–1986: Your digital subscription includes 100 archive articles every four weeks in this date range (from January 1, 1923 through December 31, 1986). After you’ve reached the 100-article limit for the month, articles from 1923 through 1986 are $3.95 each.
  • — Pre-1923 and post-1986: Articles published before January 1, 1923 or after December 31, 1986 are free with your digital subscription and are not limited in any way.

Learn more about digital subscriptions »

Nonsubscribers:

  • — 1923–1986: Articles in this date range (from January 1, 1923 through December 31, 1986) are available for purchase at $3.95 each.
  • — Pre-1923 and post-1986: Articles published before January 1, 1923 or after December 31, 1986 are free, but they count toward your monthly limit.

Learn more about your monthly limit as a nonsubscriber »

I don’t know how much the Times makes on $3.95/article for the 1923-1986 time frame, but I suspect it’s not much. Why not make everything before (pick a date) free, each with a permanent link? This would throw off many scholastic, cultural and economic benefits. On the economic front, it would draw more inbound traffic to the Times‘ site, with lots of opportunities to advertise to visitors. In fact, I’ll bet the paper would make more off advertising to traffic arriving at archived articles than it makes off those $3.95 purchases.

But, maybe I’m wrong. Corrections welcome.

In any case, I’m not yet in the market. I love the Times, and often buy it on the newsstand. But $455 per year is steep for me. Plus, I’m already paying the Times‘ parent company for my printed copies of the Boston Globe. I’d like to read the digital edition of that too, because it’s free for print subscribers; but the login/password thing has yet to work for me.

Off the top of my head, here are some other paid subscriptions around here:

  • Consumer Reports
  • The Wall Street Journal (both print and online)
  • Forbes
  • Fortune
  • Bloomberg BusinessWeek
  • The Economist
  • Vanity Fair
  • Vogue
  • The Sun
  • The New Yorker
  • Linux Journal (which I get free, actually, because I write for it)

All but The Sun have digital editions, and I read those as well. The only one I don’t read digitally, so far, is the Globe. I’ll try to fix that again tomorrow and see where it goes. I’ll let you know.

Meanwhile, I urge all those pubs to make the old stuff free on the open Web, while we still have one. It’ll help.

 

Check the Arbitron radio listening ratings for Washington DC. You have to go waaaay down the list before you find a single AM station that isn’t also simulcast on FM. But then, if you go to the bottom of the list, you’ll also find a clump of Internet streams of local radio stations.

You’ll see the same pattern at other cities on this list from Radio-Info.com. FM on top, AM below, and streams at the bottom.

Together these paint an interesting picture. At the top, Innovators, at the bottom, Dilemma. (Some context, if the distinction isn’t obvious.)

Note that Pandora, Spotify, SiriusXM and other radio-like streaming services are not listed. Nor are podcasts or anything else one might listen to, including stuff on one’s smartphone, ‘pod or ‘pad. If they were, they’d be way up that list. According to Pandora CEO Joseph Kennedy (in this Radio INK piece),

…we have transitioned from being a small to medium sized radio station in every market in the U.S. to one of the largest radio stations in every market in the country. Based on the growth we continue to see, we anticipate that by the end of this year, we will be larger than the largest FM or AM radio station in most markets in U.S. As a consequence, our relevance to buyers of traditional radio advertising in skyrocketing. We have already begun to see the early benefits of this dramatic change. Our audio advertising more than doubled to more than $100 million in fiscal 2012.

Back when I was in the biz, public radio was a similar form of dark matter in the ratings. If you added up all the stations’ shares, they came 10-13% short of 100%. If one went to Arbitron’s headquarters in Beltsville, Maryland (as many of us did) to look at the “diaries” of surveyed listeners, you’d find that most of the missing numbers were from noncommercial stations. Today those are listed, and the biggest are usually at or near the top of the ratings.

But today’s dark matter includes a variety of radio-like and non-radio listening choices, including podcasts, satellite radio, and what the industry calls “pure-play streamers” and “on-demand music services.” Together all of these are putting a huge squeeze on radio as we knew it. AM is still around, and will last longest in places where it’s still the best way to listen, especially in cars. In flat prairie states with high ground conductivity, an AM station’s signal can spread over enormous areas. For example, here is the daytime coverage map from Radio-Locator.com for 5000-watt WNAX/570am in Yankton, South Dakota:

WNAX Daytime coverage

And here’s the one for 50000-watt WBAP/820 in Dallas-Fort Worth:

WBAP coverage

No FM station can achieve the same range, and much of that flat rural territory isn’t covered by cellular systems, a primary distribution system for the data streams that comprise Internet radio.

True, satellite radio covers the whole country, but there are no local or regional radio stations on SiriusXM, the only company in the satellite radio business. To some degree rural places are also served by AM radio at night, when signals bounce off the ionosphere, and a few big stations — especially those on “clear” channels — can be heard reliably up to several thousand miles away. (Listen to good car radio at night in Hawaii and you’ll still hear many AM stations from North America.) But, starting in 1980, “clears” were only protected to 750 miles from their transmitters, and many new stations came on the air to fill in “holes” that really weren’t. As a result AM listening at night is a noisy mess on nearly every channel, once you move outside any local station’s immediate coverage area on the ground.

Even in Dallas-Fort Worth, where WBAP is the biggest signal in town (reaching from Kansas to the Gulf of Mexico, as you see above), WBAP is pretty far down in the ratings. (Copyright restrictions prevent direct quoting of ratings numbers, but at least we can link to them.) Same for KLIF and KRLD, two other AM powerhouses with coverage comparable to WBAP’s. News and sports, the last two staple offerings on the AM band, have also been migrating to FM. Many large AM news and sports stations in major metro areas now simulcast on FM, and some sound like they’re about to abandon their AM facilities entirely.WEEI in Boston no longer even mentions the fact that they’re on 850 on the AM dial. Their biggest competitor, WBZ-FM (“The Sports Hub”) is FM-only.

But while FM is finally beating AM, its ratings today look like AM’s back in the 1950s. FM wasn’t taken seriously by the radio industry then, even though it sounded much better, and also came in stereo. Today the over-the-air radio industry knows it is mightily threatened (as well as augmented, in some cases) by streaming and other listening choices. It also knows it’s not going to go away as long as over-the-air radio can be received in large areas where data streams cannot. It’s an open question, however, whether broadcasters will want to continue spending many thousands of dollars every month on transmitters of signals that can no longer be justified financially.

One big question for radio is the same one that faces TV. That is, What will ESPN do?

ESPN is the Giant Kahuna that’s keeping millions of listeners on AM and FM radio, and viewers on cable and satellite, that would leave if the same content were streamed directly over the Net.

Right now ESPN appears to be fine with distributing its programming through cable and local radio. But at some point ESPN is likely to go direct and avoid the old distribution methods — especially if listeners and viewers would rather have it that way.

On cable ESPN’s problem will be that the distribution will still largely be through cable and phone companies that will wish to be paid for the carriage. That’s a two-sided model that applies now only for TV and satellite radio, but not for anything traveling over the Net, which the cable folks call “Over The Top,” or OTT. (I’m guessing that ESPN already pays for that, in a limited way, through Akamai, Level 3, Limelight and other Content Distribution Networks, or CDNs, which serve a role you might call, in broadcast terms, of local transmitters. Some cable companies, I am sure, do the same. It’s a complicated situation.) If, say, Comcast and Verizon start offering mobile Internet services that are just Facebook, Google+, Twitter and ESPN, they will have kept ESPN from going OTT, and brought Facebook, Google+ and Twitter into the bottom. And, in the process, we will have moved a long way toward the “fully licensed world” I warned about, two posts back. (Interesting that ESPN and others want Arbitron to do “cross-platform measurement”, even as it continues to help make the case for AM and FM radio.)

Regardless of how that goes, AM and FM are stuck in a tunnel, facing the headlights of a content distribution train that they need to embrace before it’s too late.

I own a lot of books and music CDs — enough to fill many shelves. Here’s just one:

They are relatively uncomplicated possessions. There are no limits (other than mine) on who can read my books, or what else  I can do with them, shy of abusing fairly obvious copyright laws. (For example, I can’t plagiarize somebody’s writing, or reproduce whole chapters of a book I’m quoting.) Music is a bit more complicated, but not to the degree that I stop assuming that I own and control the CDs on my shelves (even when they’re copied onto a hard drive, or stored in a cloud). The same even goes for the videocassettes and DVD of movies I’ve purchased. They are mine. I own them.

But books, music and movies from Amazon, Apple and other BigCos aren’t really sold. They are licensed. Take Amazon’s terms of use for e-books. They say this:

… the Content Provider grants you a non-exclusive right to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Kindle or a Reading Application or as otherwise permitted as part of the Service, solely on the number of Kindles or Other Devices specified in the Kindle Store, and solely for your personal, non-commercial use. Digital Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider.

Pretty clear. That stuff ain’t yours. All you get is some downloaded data and a highly restricted set of permissions for where and how you use that data, mostly within within the walled gardens provided by Amazon and the Content Providers. So it’s really more like renting than buying. (And not from friendly competitors, either.)

What’s more, the seller can also change the licensing terms at will. For example, in Apple’s terms for iTunes, it says “Apple reserves the right to modify the Usage Rules at any time.” Somewhere deep in the 55-page terms of use for the iPhone it says the same kind of thing. This is why your ownership of a smartphone is far more diminished than your ownership of a laptop or a camera. That’s because our phones are members of proprietary systems that we don’t operate. This is why the major operators (e.g. Verizon, AT&T) and OEMs (e.g. Apple and Google) are at liberty to reach into your phone and turn stuff on and off. (MVNOs such as Ting distinguish themselves by not doing that.)

Same with TV. Nothing you watch on your cable or satellite systems is yours. In most cases the gear isn’t yours either. It’s a subscription service you rent and pay for monthly. Companies in the cable and telephone business would very much like the Internet to work the same way. Everything becomes billable, regularly, continuously. All digital pipes turn into metered spigots for “content” and services on the telephony model, where you pay for easily billable data forms such as minutes and texts. (If AT&T or Verizon ran email you’d pay by the message, or agree to a “deal” for X number of emails per month.)

Free public wi-fi is getting crowded out by cellular companies looking to move some of the data carrying load over to their own billable wi-fi systems. Some operators are looking to bill the sources of content for bandwidth while others experiment with usage-based pricing, helping turn the Net into a multi-tier commercial system. (Never mind that “data hogs” mostly aren’t.) And mobile carriers are starting to slice up the Web itself. In All Mobile Traffic Isn’t Equal — As ‘Net Neutrality’ Debate Swirls, Wireless Carriers Start Cutting Special Deals , Anton Troianovski writes this in the Wall Street Journal:

One of Europe’s biggest wireless companies recently started offering a new plan in France: For less than $14 a month, customers could get unlimited Web browsing on their phones.

The catch—the Internet was limited to Twitter and Facebook. Every 20 minutes spent on any other website cost nearly 70 cents.

France Telecom SA’s Orange Group is one of several wireless carriers around the world experimenting with slicing up the Web into limited offerings and exclusive deals they hope will bring marketing advantages or higher profits.

In Turkey, mobile operator Turkcell lets users pay a flat fee to access Facebook, but not competing Turkish social networks. Polish carrier Play has offered free access to a handful of sites including Facebook but charged for the rest of the Web. And AT&T Inc. now says it’s planning to let app developers subsidize U.S. subscribers’ use of services.

Such tests remain the exception not the rule. Still, they show that the “open Web” ideal that has long governed Internet use is starting to break down as more and more surfing takes place on mobile devices.

Telecom executives, tired of being the “dumb pipes” through which valuable Internet traffic flows, say they need to cut such deals to make investing in expensive mobile-data networks worthwhile. But entrepreneurs seeking to devise new mobile offerings worry the shifting rules of the game will favor well-heeled companies that can afford carriers’ new terms.

Thus turning the mobile Web into something more like TV.

Meanwhile, back on the book and music front, publishers already have the Amazon and Apple content sphincters in place, on the iPads, iPhones and Kindles that are gradually marginalizing our dull old all-purpose desktop and laptop computers.What used to be radio is gradually turning into a rights-clearing mess. You like Spotify? Read Michael Robertson on how hard it is for Spotify and other radio-like music services to make money, or for the artists to make much either. You like to hear music on the radio, either over the air or over streams? Read David Oxenford’s report on how complicated that’s getting. Stopping SOPA was indeed an achievement by advocates of a free and open Internet.  But that was like stopping one goal in a football game after the other side already built up a 100-to-0 lead.

So, while BigCo walled gardeners such as Apple and Amazon continue to convert things that could be owned in the physical world (starting with music and books) into what can only be licensed in the virtual one, the regulatory framework around the Internet is ratcheting in an ever more restrictive direction, partly at the behest of regulatory captors such as the phone, cable and content companies (all getting more and more vertically integrated), and partly at the behest of countries that want the UN and the ITU to help them restrict Net usage inside their borders.  The latter is less about licensing than about pure politics, but it’s still at variance with the free and open marketplace the Net opened up in the first place.

John Battelle has long been observing this trend, and contextualizes it in a post titled It’s not whether Google’s threatened. It’s asking ourselves: What commons do we wish for?, The gist:

What kind of a world do we want to live in? As we increasingly leverage our lives through the world of digital platforms, what are the values we wish to hold in common? I wrote about this issue a month or so ago:  On This Whole “Web Is Dead” Meme. In that piece I outlined a number of core values that I believe are held in common when it comes to what I call the “open” or “independent” web. They also bear repeating (I go into more detail in the post, should you care to read it):

No gatekeepers. The web is decentralized. Anyone can start a web site. No one has the authority (in a democracy, anyway) to stop you from putting up a shingle.

An ethos of the commons. The web developed over time under an ethos of community development, and most of its core software and protocols are royalty free or open source (or both). There wasn’t early lockdown on what was and wasn’t allowed. This created chaos, shady operators, and plenty of dirt and dark alleys. But it also allowed extraordinary value to blossom in that roiling ecosystem.

- No preset rules about how data is used. If one site collects information from or about a user of its site, that site has the right to do other things with that data, assuming, again, that it’s doing things that benefit all parties concerned.

- Neutrality. No one site on the web is any more or less accessible than any other site. If it’s on the web, you can find it and visit it.

- Interoperability. Sites on the web share common protocols and principles, and determine independently how to work with each other. There is no centralized authority which decides who can work with who, in what way.

I find it hard to argue with any of the points above as core values of how the Internet should work. And it is these values that created Google and allowed the company to become the world beater is has been these past ten or so years. But if you look at this list of values, and ask if Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and the thousands of app makers align with them, I am afraid the answer is mostly no. And that’s the bigger issue I’m pointing to: We’re slowly but surely creating an Internet that is abandoning its original values for…well, for something else that as yet is not well defined.

This is why I wrote Put Your Taproot Into the Independent Web. I’m not out to “save Google,” I’m focused on trying to understand what the Internet would look like if we don’t pay attention to our core shared values.

What’s hard for walled gardeners to grok — and for the rest of us as well  — is that  the free and open worlds created by generative systems such as PCs and the Internet have boundaries sufficiently wide to allow creation of what Umair Haque calls “thick value” in abundance. To Apple, Amazon, AT&T and Verizon, building private worlds for captive customers might look like thick value, but in the long run captive customer husbandry closes more opportunities across the marketplace than they open. Companies do compete (as do governments), but the market and civilization are both games that support positive sum outcomes for multiple players. The free and open Internet is the game board on which the Boston Consulting Group says a $2.1 trillion economy grew in 2010, on a trajectory to reach $4.2 trillion by 2016. That game board is also a commons, and it’s being enclosed. (Lewis Hyde, author of Common as Air, calls it the “third enclosure.”)

By losing the free and open Internet, and free and open devices to interact with it — and even such ordinary things as physical books and music media — we reduce the full scope of both markets and civilization.

But that’s hard to see when the walled gardens are so rich with short-term benefits.

[Later...] I should make clear that I’m not against silos as a business breed, or vertical integration as a business strategy. In fact, I think we owe a great deal of progress to both. I think Apple actually opened up the smartphone market with the iPhone, and its vertical private marketplace. The concern I’m expressing in this post is with the fractioning of the commercial Web, as we experience it, and of much else that happens on the Net, into private vertical silos, using proprietary gear that limits what can be done to what the company owning the whole market allows. The book business, for example, largely happens inside Amazon, as of today. I think this is good in some ways, and worse in others. I’m visiting the worse here.

 

Reality 2.0 was my original blog: a pile of stuff I wrote before there were blogs. All of it is old now, but some of it still rings new. Since Reality 2.0 is deep in the Searls.com basement, I’ve decided to surface some old pieces that might be interesting, for whatever reason. The one below was first written on April 16 1998, about a year before Chris Locke, Rick Levine, David Weinberger and I put up The Cluetrain Manifesto, and updated one year later to recognize Cluetrain’s successful launch on the Web that month. It was still nearly a year before Cluetrain appeared in book form, and a decade before the 10th Anniversary Edition.

Never mind that Lycos, HotBot, Tripod and WhoWhere are blasts from the past. Note instead that these are zombies that were once hot stuff, and led by CEOs that talked very much like the CEOs walking around today. Note also how little progress we’ve actually made toward Cluetrain’s ideals.

Here goes:

Listen up

“All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, I’m a human being, goddammit! My life has value! So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’”

— Howard Beale, in Network, by Paddy Chayevsky


Bob Davis is the CEO of Lycos, Inc., whose growing portfolio of companies (excuse me, portals) now includes Lycos, Hotbot, WhoWhere and Tripod. I’m sure Bob is a great guy. And I’m sure Lycos is a great company. A lot of people seem to like them both. And you have to admire both his ambition and his success. To witness both, read his interview with PC Week, where he predicts that the Lycos Network (the sum of all its portals) will overtake Yahoo as “#1 on the Web.”

Lycos will win, Davis says, because “We have a collection of quality properties that are segmented into best-of-breed categories, and our reach has been catapulting.”

I can speak for Hotbot, which is still my first-choice search engine; but by a shrinking margin. I often test search engines by looking for strings of text buried deep in long documents on my own site. Hotbot always won in the past. But since Lycos bought it, Hotbot has become more of a portal and less of a search tool. Its page is now a baffling mass of ads and links. And its searches find less.

In today’s test, Infoseek won. Last week, Excite won. Both found pages that Hotbot seems to have forgotten.

Why? Bob Davis gives us a good answer.

“We’re a media company,” he says. “We make our money by delivering an audience that people want to pay for.”

Note the two different species here: audience and people. And look at their qualities. One is “delivered.” The other pays. In other words, one is cargo and the other is money.

Well, I don’t care if Lycos’ stock goes to the moon and splits three times along the way. The only #1 on the Web is the same as the only #1 on the phone: the people who use it. And the time will come when people will look at portals not as sources of “satisfying experiences” (another of Davis’ lines) but as useless intermediaries between supply and demand.

 Words of Walt

You there, impotent, loose in the knees,

open your scarfed chops till I blow grit within you.

Spread your palms and lift the flaps of your pockets.

I am not to be denied. I compel.

It is time to explain myself. Let us stand up.

I know I am solid and sound.

To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow.

I know that I am august,

I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself

or be understood.

I see that the elementary laws never apologize..

Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself

“Media company” guys like Davis are still in a seller’s market for wisdom that was BS even when only the TV guys spoke it — back when it literally required the movie “Network.” That market will dry up. Why? Because we’ve been mad as hell for about hundred years, and now we don’t have to take it anymore.

Three reasons.

  1. Humanity. This is what Walt Whitman reminded us about more than a hundred years ago. We are not impotent. Media companies may call us seats and eyeballs and targets, but that’s their problem. They don’t get who we are or what we can — and will — do. And the funny thing is, they don’t get that what makes us powerful is what they think makes them powerful: the Internet. It gives us choices. Millions of them. We don’t have to settle for “channels” any more. Or “portals” that offer views of the sky through their own little windows. Or “sticky” sites that are the moral equivalent of flypaper.
  2. Demand. There never was a demand for messages, and now it shows, big time. Because the Internet is a meteor that is smacking the world of business with more force than the rock that offed the dinosaurs, and it is pushing out a tsunami of demand like nothing supply has ever seen. Businesses that welcome the swell are in for some fun surfing. Businesses that don’t are going to drown in it.
  3. Obsolescence. Even the media guys are tired of their own B.S. and are finally in the market for clues.

Alvin Toffler had it right in The Third Wave. Industry (The Second Wave) “violently split apart two aspects of our lives that had always been one… production and consumption… In so doing, it drove a giant invisible wedge into our economy, our psyches … it ripped apart the underlying unity of society, creating a way of life filled with economic tension.” Today all of us play producer roles in our professions and consumer roles in our everyday lives. This chart shows the difference (and tension) between these radically different points of view — both of which all of us hold:

Producer view
Consumer view
Metaphor Business is shipping (“loading the channel,” “moving products,” “delivering messages”) Business is shopping (“browsing,” “looking,” “bargaining,” “buying”)
Orientation Business is about moving goods from one to many (producers to consumers) Business is about buying and selling, one to one
Markets Markets are shooting ranges: consumers are “targets” Markets are markets: places to shop, buy stuff and talk to people
Relationships Primary relationshiphs are with customers, which are more often distributors & retailers rather than consumers Primary relationships are with vendors, and with other customers

These are all just clues, which are easily deniable facts. Hence a line once spoken of Apple: “the clue train stopped there four times a day for ten years and they never took delivery.” But Apple was just an obvious offender. All of marketing itself remains clueless so long as it continues to treat customers as “eyeballs,” “targets,” “seats” and “consumers.”

For the past several months, I have been working with Rick Levine, David Weinberger and Chris Locke on a new railroad for clues: a ClueTrain.

Our goal is to burn down Marketing As Usual. Here is the logic behind the ambition:

Markets are conversations

Conversations are fire

Marketing is arson

The result is here — in what The Wall Street Journal calls “presumptuous, arrogant, and absolutely brilliant.”

Take a ride. If you like it, sign up. Feel free to set fires with it, add a few of your own, or flame the ones you don’t agree with. What matters is the conversation. We want everybody talking about this stuff. If they do, MAU is toast.

Here is my own short form of the Manifesto (inspired by Martin Luther, the long version has 95 Theses). Feel free to commit arson with (or to) any of these points as well.


Ten facts about highly effective markets:

  1. Markets are conversations. None of the other metaphors for markets — bulls, bears, battlefields, arenas, streets or invisible hands — does full justice to the social nature of markets. Real market conversations are social. They happen between human beings. Not between senders and receivers, shooters and targets, advertisers and demographics.
  2. The first markets were markets. They were real places that thrived at the crossroads of cultures. They didn’t need a market model, because they were the model market. More than religion, war or family, markets were real places where communities came together. They weren’t just where sellers did business with buyers. They were the place where everybody got together to hang out, talk, tell stories and learn interesting stuff about each other and the larger world.
  3. Markets are more about demand than supply. The term “market” comes from the latin mercere, which means “to buy.” Even a modern market is called a “shopping center” rather than a “selling center.” Bottom line: every market has more buyers than sellers. And the buyers have the money.
  4. Human voices trump robotic ones. Real voices are honest, open, natural, uncontrived. Every identity that speaks has a voice. We know each other by how we sound. That goes for companies and markets as well as people. When a voice is full of shit, we all know it — whether the voice tells us “your call is important to us” or that a Buick is better than a Mercedes.
  5. The real market leaders are people whose minds and hands are worn by the work they do. And it has been that way ever since our ancestors’ authority was expressed by surnames that labeled their occupations — names like Hunter, Weaver, Fisher and Smith. In modern parlance, the most knowledge and the best expertise is found at the “point of practice:” That’s where most of the work gets done.
  6. Markets are made by real people. Not by surreal abstractions that insult customers by calling them “targets,” “seats,” “audiences,” “demographics” and “eyeballs” — all synonyms for consumers, which Jerry Michalski of Sociate calls “brainless gullets who live only to gulp products and expel cash.”
  7. Business is not a conveyor belt that runs from production to consumption. Our goods are more than “content” that we “package” and “move” by “loading” them into a “channel” and “address” for “delivery.” The business that matters most is about shopping, not shipping. And the people who run it are the customers and the people who talk to them.
  8. Mass markets have the same intelligence as germ populations. Their virtues are appetite and reproduction. They grow by contagion. Which is why nobody wants to admit belonging to one.
  9. There is no demand for messages. To get what this means, imagine what would happen if mute buttons on remote controls delivered “we don’t want to hear this” messages directly back to advertisers.
  10. Most advertising is unaccountable. Or worse, it’s useless. An old advertising saying goes, “I know half my advertising is wasted. I just don’t know which half.” But even this is a lie. Nearly all advertising is wasted. Even the most accountable form of advertising — the junk mail we euphemistically call “direct marketing” — counts a 3% response rate as a success. No wonder most of us sort our mail over the trash can. Fairfax Cone, who co-founded Foote Cone & Belding many decades ago, said “Advertising is what you do when you can’t go see somebody. That’s all it is.” With the Net you cango see somebody. More importantly, they can see you. More importantly than that, you can both talk to each other. And make real markets again.

 

Hassle House poster panel

That’s what many thought when they first saw the poster for Hassle House, in Durham, North Carolina, back in ’76 or so. As soon as any of the posters went up, they disappeared, becoming instant collectors’ items. At the time, all I wanted was to hire the cartoonist who did it, so he could illustrate some of the ads I was creating for a local audio shop. That cartoonist was the polymath Ray Simone, who went on to become the creative leader of Hodskins Simone & Searls (HS&S), the advertising agency I co-founded with Ray and David Hodskins, in 1978, and which thrived in North Carolina and Silicon Valley for the next two decades.

When I put up Remembering Ray, which (among much else) expressed my wish to re-surface the Hassle House poster, Jay Cunningham said in a comment that he could scan his copy. Which he did, and the results are here. In another comment Rob Gringle gives more of the back-story than I had known at the time.

Before HS&S, David and Ray were both with a small “mutilple media studio” called Solar Plexus Enterprises, which grew out of the Duke Media Center. Also there was Helen Hudson Whiting, who was a first-rate epicure as well as the fastest and most capable typesetter I had ever known. I just looked Helen up and found this nice write-up from Duke Magazine Books:

In Helen’s Kitchen: A Philosophy of Food


By Helen Hudson Whiting. Regulator Bookshop, 2000. 241 pages. $17.95.

In the text below is this:

Helen Hudson Whiting ’75 was, among other things, a bookseller and co-owner of Durham’s Regulator Bookshop, a reader, a writer, and an amateur chef. For nineteen years, she wrote food commentaries for Triangle area publications: first for WDBS-FM’s The Guide, and then for The Independent.

In Helen’s Kitchen, organized posthumously and edited by her friends and colleagues, features an eclectic selection of these columns, as well as remembrances from people who knew Whiting and cherished her enterprising, adventurous culinary attitude and her zest for pleasure and her keen intellect.

I worked with Ray, Helen and David at Solar Plexus before we founded HS&S, and Helen continued to work alongside the new agency, doing most of our typesetting. So she became a good friend as well.

But that’s not my point here. My point is that ours was a special community, and at the beginning of many things, although we didn’t know it at the time.

At Ray’s memorial gathering in Pacifica last Sunday, Steve Tulsky made that point beautifully. He said our artsy-hippie community in Durham and Chapel Hill back then was a special group. Much was born there, in music, art, performance, writing, publishing, business, events, and other fields. The Independent, modeled by The Guide, is still going strong. So is the Regulator Bookshop. WDBS is long gone. So are WQDR and WRDU (as what they were then, anyway), which carried forward the radio torch WDBS lit when it went on in 1971. But their spirits survive in Good Radio everywhere. The Festival for the Eno, still going strong, began as the Folklife Festival, in 1976, on the country’s bicentennial. WDBS was highly involved, as the station broadcasting the many musical acts playing there. (Perhaps some old tapes still survive.)

While I was working with David, Ray and Helen at Solar Plexus in ’77, I also worked with the Psychical Research Foundation, which studied scientifically evidence for life after death, and was located at Duke University. The PRF spun off of the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man, led by J. B. Rhine, who launched the whole parapsychology field out of research he conducted at Duke in the 1930. Among the many decendents of that work is the Institute of Noetic Sciences, headed by Marilyn Schlitz, another member of our community back in the decade.

Here’s another weird connection. One of the central institutions of that time in Durham was the Durham Bulls single-A baseball team, which played at an old athletic field surrounded by brick tobacco warehouses. It was a special team at a special time and place. You might remember the movie about it.

Anyway, I just wanted to bring back to the foreground some of what we’ve lost or forgotten from that wonderful formative period in so many lives, and in so many ways.

I got to know Judith Burton when she was still Judith Clarke and Senior VP Corporate Marketing for Novell, in 1987. Novell had just bought a company called CXI, which had been a client of Hodskins Simone & Searls, the Palo Alto advertising agency in which I was a partner. By that time HS&S had come to specialize in communications technology clients, and the chance to do something with Novell as well seemed more than opportune, since it was clear that Novell was smarter about comms than just about anybody at that time.

So David Hodskins came up with the idea of putting together a “connectivity consortium” made up of Novell and several other HS&S clients. In seeing connectivity as a hot topic on the horizon, David was way ahead of everybody’s time. But that made it perfect for the two most forward-thinking minds at Novell: Judith and Craig Burton, who would later become her husband.

I didn’t know Craig before I pitched Judith on the connectivity consortium idea — and she took the bait. She brought Craig to our first meeting, and the two of them together blew my mind. Judith saw no boundaries to what could be done with marketing, and Craig saw the Big Picture of connectivity better than anybody I had ever met, before or since.

In the short term, over subsequent conversations and meetings, I saw how it was that Novell changed the networking conversation so quickly and completely. It was during these learnings that I came up with the “markets are conversations” line that became the first thesis of The Cluetrain Manifesto, more than a decade later. Because Novell was busy proving it, more than any other company in technology at that time.

Just a few years earlier, the network conversation was mostly about “pipes and protocols.” Data Communications and Communications Week were the leading trade pubs in the space, fat with stories and ads that pushed and compared the virtues of Ethernet vs. Token Ring and bus vs. ring vs. star topologies. Every vendor sold whole networks from the wires on up, including everything that ran on those wires, file servers, network interface cards in the backs of PCs, and applications. If you bought a Sytek or a Corvus network, you couldn’t use anybody else’s hardware, software or wiring. Every vendor had its own silo (or, in some cases, such as IBM’s, an assortment of silos). And it occurred to almost nobody that there should be a choice other than silos and lock-ins.

It was Craig Burton’s idea make Novell’s NetWare a “Network Operating System” (NOS) that could run on everybody’s hardware and wiring. NetWare thus became a new platform for network services that could run everywhere, starting with group file storage (the first local “cloud,” you might say), and printing.

But nobody talked about networking on Novell’s terms until Judith Clarke literally invented whole new venues for network conversations. These included a magazine (LAN Times), a trade show (NetWorld), a reseller channel and a class of networking professionals (Certified Netware Engineers, or CNEs). By the end of the Eighties the world talked about networking in terms of capabilities and services rather than of pipes and protocols.

One move that stands out for me was Novell’s decision to drop its grandfathered position at the center of the Comdex show floor (this was when Comdex was one of the biggest trade shows on Earth) and rent ballroom space next door on the ground floor of the Las Vegas Hilton. So rather than show stuff off on the floor with everybody else, Novell set up a storefront and business meeting space right where the traffic was thickest. And it worked.

As Craig put it to me a few days ago, ”She changed the industry in the way she approached people and ideas, taking a podunk company in Provo and making it look like it owned the planet — which, in many ways, it did. And she unselfishly gave credit to everybody else all along the way.”

Novell began to slide after Judith and Craig left the company, in 1989. With the Burtons gone, Novell forgot where it came from. While Judith and Craig liked to zig where Microsoft zagged, and to embrace Microsoft’s — and everybody else’s — platforms and technologies, Novell CEO Ray Noorda preferred to attack Microsoft head-on, by acquiring already-lame competitors (remember WordPerfect?) and failing over and over to make a dent in Microsoft’s hull. It was sad to watch.

For reasons I forget, the connectivity consortium didn’t happen, but I got to be close friends of both Judith and Craig, and have remained so ever since. I also consulted the couple after they left Novell to co-found The Burton Group with Jamie Lewis, another brilliant Novell veteran.

A few years later Judith and Craig moved on to consulting on their own. (Under Jamie’s continued leadership The Burton Group was sold to Gartner a couple years ago.) Craig especially has been a steady source of original thinking on countless subjects. Judith sometimes participated in projects with Craig, but mostly focused on philanthropic and civic projects, and time with family. (Here is her Linkedin profile.)

On Tuesday of this week she collapsed at her home, and died later in the hospital. Her death is a shock to everybody. Even though she hit a few medical bumps this past year, she seemed to be doing better. And she was just 66. Being 64 myself, I consider that age way too young for life’s end.

My heart aches for Craig, and for Judith’s kids and grandkids, whom she adored. In my own memory, her amazing blue eyes, bright smile and sweet voice persist. She was a beautiful woman, as well as a smart, creative and loving one. The picture above gives just a hint toward all of that.

It does bother me a bit that her death has not made bigger news. If she had passed during her heyday at Novell, the news would have been huge. But then, the news ain’t what it used to be, and will continue to evolve away from the old top-down few-to-many systems. The Internet is everybody’s connectivity consortium now.

We didn’t end up needing Data Communications, Comms Week, LAN Times, NetWorld, Comdex or countless other once-sturdy institutions that were obsoleted by something Craig and Judith both saw coming long before it arrived: the ability of anybody to connect with anybody, outside of any one company’s system for trapping customers and users.

Judith’s work back in the decade helped make the future in which we now all live and thrive. We’ll miss her, but we won’t miss each other. To Judith, all of us were the people networks were for. And now we have that, regardless of how hard any company or government works to lock us back into silos or limit what we can do in them. Had she been less loving, I doubt she would have seen that, or worked so well at what she did for all of us.

[Later...] Here is an email from Jamie Lewis that fell through the cracks when it arrived (apologies for that):

I first met Judith in 1984, when I was working for a publication for PC retailers. I was writing about PC networking, so I inevitably met both her and Craig in my coverage of Novell. I started getting to know Judith in 1985, when the magazine I was working for folded, and Novell offered me a job in the corporate marketing department.

As many people know, there’s a very long list of things Judith did in making Novell the company it was in its hey day. She founded the LAN Times, a corporate newspaper devoted to networking. (Yes, it sounds obvious today. But in 1983, not so much. And there are more than a few technology writers still working today that earned their chops writing for the LAN Times.) She created the NetWorld tradeshow. (Again, obvious or even antiquated in today’s context, but then, it was the first of its kind.) She built a PR and marketing machine, complete with relentless press tours, events, and other efforts to get the NetWare word out.

The list goes on. But that list is just that—a list. While most, if not all, of the stuff on that list was important, innovative, and impactful, it really doesn’t do the woman justice to simply enumerate things on a list. She was more than the sum of the items on that list.

If you look the word “dynamic” up in the dictionary, you’ll find Judith’s picture there. When she walked into the room, the room changed. She commanded attention. She ran the show. She exuded authority and confidence. This could rub some people the wrong way, but it is what made her successful. That she accomplished what she did in a time and place that wasn’t exactly ideal for a career-oriented woman says a lot about her resolve.

And that gets to the most important thing I learned from her, something that I think was at the heart of why Novell did so well during her tenure. Simply put, it’s this: Have the balls to act like who or what you want to become. If you wait until you are that to start acting like that, you’ll never be that.

It’s clear how this approach worked so well for Novell. When I joined, Novell had about 250 employees. Its revenues were microscopic in comparison to the “big guys” – IBM, Digital Equipment and, later, Microsoft – that it was challenging while simultaneously doing battle with a host of similarly sized companies on the other.

But I can’t tell you how many times I heard people say, “Wow, I thought Novell was a lot bigger than that,” when they heard how many employees we had, or what annual revenues were at the time. Novell in every way looked and behaved like it belonged in the big leagues—like a much bigger company—due in large part to Judith’s skills in marketing and communications. It’s a mistake to underestimate how important this was to Novell’s success.

The fact that NetWare was a great product certainly helped. But we all know that the information technology market is littered with the corpses of companies that had great technology but didn’t know how to market it or sell it. Judith’s ability to position Novell played no small part in ensuring the success of what was a very good product. Because Novell acted like it belonged in the big leagues, it did belong. This raised the customers’ comfort level, making it easier for them to bet on a small company for such an important product. It also forced much larger companies, such as DEC and IBM, to treat Novell as a peer.

I can distinctly remember when I realized how important this was. We were in final competition with DEC for a very large deal with a very large company. A Fortune 200 company. If we got the business, it would be a major win, a win at the “corporate standard” level, the kind of win that would be a major milestone. During the final stages of the competition, DEC issued a 30-page white paper that we later subtitled “why NetWare causes cancer in rats”. The sales person on the account phoned me in an absolute panic. The paper was full of misinformation, she said, and she was afraid the customer was going to believe it. I told her that we first needed to thank DEC for establishing Novell as a legitimate competitor in the eyes of the customer. We would respond to the paper, I said, but would be careful not to spoil the big favor DEC had just done for us. We did respond, but in the high road fashion that Judith (and Craig) established as our modus operandi, the approach that drove my initial answer to the call. And we won the business.

That positioning also made Novell look superior in comparison to the companies that were much closer to it in size and revenue. 3Com was our nemesis, the one company that everyone in our company loved to hate. Yes, 3Com was hardware to Novell’s software, which is why NetWare prevailed. But NetWare also succeeded because Judith was so good at positioning Novell, establishing software as the issue in the market and forcing 3Com (and later Microsoft and IBM) to fight on Novell’s terms.

There were, of course, a very large number of people responsible for making Novell what it was. It’s also nice to be on the right side of the issue, and there’s no question that Novell and NetWare were in the right place at the right time. But the attitude, the positioning, and the messaging that was Novell’s essence during that amazing run in the 80s and early 90s, that was all Judith. Novell wouldn’t have been the same company without her efforts. That win over DEC, for example, wouldn’t have happened without the months and years of relentless and effective marketing that preceded it. And I don’t think the correlation between Judith’s personality and Novell’s was any coincidence. Novell had the audacity to act like it belonged because Judith did.

Years later, at Burton Group, whenever I heard people say they thought we were bigger than we actually were, I never failed to think of Judith. We carried that same attitude, a willingness to believe and act like we belonged. I learned a great deal from Judith, but it’s that lesson that had the biggest impact. She and Craig took a chance on a journalism major that had never written a line of code, and for that I will be forever grateful. She inspired and drove those around her to be better, to be what they aspired to be. I think I can speak for all of the people who knew and worked with her when I say she’ll be missed, and that we appreciate what she did for us, and for the industry she played such a large part in creating.

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Among friends and relatives there is an unusual concentration of birthdays in November. For example, the 12th, 13th and 14th are birthdays of my wife, my daughter (plus Chris Locke and JP Rangaswami) and my grandmother, respectively.

That’s Grandma Searls, on the left. Born in 1882, she would have been 129 years old today. She died in 1990, just short of 108. Her daughter Grace Apgar, my aunt, will be 100 next June.

I like this picture of Grandma, because that’s how I remember her best. The shot was taken in Ju;y, 1953. Grandma was 70 at the time.

It’s a close-up from this group shot, at her little summer place back in the woods of South Jersey. Our little summer place was at the other end of a winding path through the blueberries. The third point of our summer home triangle was Aunt Florence and Uncle Jack Dwyer‘s place. Paths led from both of the other houses to that one. Aunt Florence was Grandma’s younger sister. Uncle Jack took the picture with one of those large-format bellows cameras. I’m the curly-headed kid in the front row with the beer. I turned six at the end of July, the month this was shot.

Grandma was the third of the four Englert Sisters, all of whom were also in fine health then (and lived many more years as well). Here they are as kids, with their dad, Henry Roman Englert, then head of the Steel & Copperplate Engravers Union in New York. Here they are again, that same summer of ’53, at the beach.

Grandma grew up at 732 E. 142nd Street in The Bronx, which looked like this in 1885 and is today a parking lot. The house where Grandma raised three kids in Fort Lee, New Jersey, at 2063 Hoyt Avenue, is also gone. In fact, the whole street is wiped out. Too close to the George Washington Bridge, which my father helped build, as a cable rigger. All three of our summer places are gone too, replaced by a bank and a shopping center.

But what lives is the love. Grandma was one of the most loving people I’ve ever known. Pop told me she was a tough mom when he was growing up, but for us grandkids she was a saint. She loved kids totally, always welcomed and fed us, loved to read us stories (in her warm Bronx accent) and tuck us into bed when we spent the night (which was always a treat). She never had a critical word to say, and was always full of encouragement and support.

This is all strong in my mind right now as my own two grandkids sleep upstairs in their house here in Baltimore, where I’ve been visiting.

Grandparenting is different than parenting. Even these many years later, Grandma is still teaching me that.

So I’m writing about financialization. Kevin Phillips‘ prophetic book on the subject, Bad Money, is open on my desk. (He published it in early 2007, in advance of The Crash.) But it doesn’t contain the definitional quote that I need. So I turn to Wikipedia. There, in the Financialization entry, we are treated to this quote:

Financialization may be defined as: “the increasing dominance of the finance industry in the sum total of economic activity, of financial controllers in the management of corporations, of financial assets among total assets, of marketised securities and particularly equities among financial assets, of the stock market as a market for corporate control in determining corporate strategies, and of fluctuations in the stock market as a determinant of business cycles” (Dore 2002)

Nice, but there is no citation for Dore; just some “further reading”:

Dore, R (2000). Stock Market Capitalism: Welfare Capitalism: Japan and Germany vs. the Anglo-Saxons. Oxford: Oxford University PressISBN 0-19-924061-2.

So I go look that up, find it on Amazon, and look inside. I choose to search for “determinant,” a fairly rare word, and get five results. None are what’s quoted in Wikipedia. But, since Ronald Dore is a scholar, I figure he must have written that definition somewhere. But when I go to look, the results are a cascade of Wikipedia citations. Not the original Dore.

This drives me just as nuts as I get when I go to look up, say, a geographical feature and get pages of commercial businesses associated with the feature, but not the feature itself. Google Maps is one offender here. Look up “Comb Ridge”, and you get this: http://g.co/maps/syspr. (Here are my own many shots of Comb Ridge.) The difference in this case is that I can still find Comb Ridge, while the provenance of the original Dore quote remains a mystery to me.

And, since I want to finish my book today, I’m not going to fool around any more with it. I’ll find some other definition. Still, I need to gripe a bit. Sloppy citing is a curse that keeps on cursing. Or causing it, anyway.

I just ran across some research I did in December 2008, while working on the 10th Anniversary edition of The Cluetrain Manifesto:

  • Google Book Search results for cluetrain — 666[1]
  • Google Book Search results for markets are conversations — 2610
  • Google Web Search results for cluetrain — 394,000
  • Results for Web searches for markets are conversations — 626,000

[1] Increasing at more than one per day. The numbers were 647 on November 15, 2008 and 666 on December 1, 2008. Results passed 600 on September 30, 2008.

Here are the results today:

I added two more, with quotes, because I’m not sure if I used quotes the first time or not, for that phrase. I would like to have the exact URLs for the earlier searches too, but I don’t. To get useful, non-crufty URLs this time, I needed to fire up a virgin browser and scrape out everything not tied to the search itself (e.g. the browser name, prior searches, other context-related jive irrelevant to this post).

Of course, Google guesses about most of this stuff. (Though possibly not for the first item: a word in a book). Not sure how much any of it matters. I just thought it was interesting to share before I wander off and forget where I found these few bits of sort-of-historical data.

Bonus link (found via a Twitter search for #cluetrain): Jonathan Levi‘s The Cluetrain Manifesto — Manifested Today.

Bookmarking the past

I’ve been digging around for stuff I blogged (or wrote somewhere on the Web) way back when. After finding two items I thought might be lost, I decided to point to them here, which (if search engines still work the Old Way) might make them somewhat easier to find again later.

One is Rebuilding the software industry, one word at a time, in Kuro5hin. (And cool to see that Kuro5hin is still trucking along.) The other is Cluetrain requires conversation. Both are from early 2001, more than ten years ago. A sample from the former:

I went through my own head-scratching epiphany right after the Web got hot and I found my profession had changed from writer to “content provider.” What was that about? Were my words going to be shrink-wrapped, strapped on a skid and sold in bulk at Costco?

No, “content” was just a handy way to label anything you could “package” and “deliver” through the “vehicle” of this wonderful new “medium.” Marketers were salivating at the chance to “target,” “capture” and “penetrate” ever-more-narrow “audiences” with ever-more-narrow “messages.” Never mind that there was zero demand at the receiving end for any of it. (If you doubt the math, ask what you’d be willing to pay to see an ad on the Web. Or anywhere.)

Soon I began to wonder what had happened to markets, which for thousands of years were social places where people got together to buy and sell stuff, and to make civilization. By the end of the Industrial Age, every category you could name was a “market.” So was every region and every demographic wedge where there was money to be spent. Worse, these were all too often conceived as “arenas” and “battlefields,” even though no growing category could be fully described in the zero-sum terms of sports and war metaphors.

And from the latter:

Cluetrain talks far less about what markets need that about what they are. The first thesis says Markets are conversations. Not markets need to be conversations. Or people need the right message. In fact, we make the point that there is no market for messages. If you want to see how little people want messages, look at the MUTE button on your TV’s remote control. Sum up all marketing sentiment on the receiving end and you’ll find negative demand for it.

There’s nothing conversational about a message. I submit that if a message turns into a conversation, it isn’t a message at all. It’s a topic.

Not many people noticed (including me, until Jakob Nielsen pointed it out) that The Cluetrain Manifesto was written in first and second person plural voices, and was addressed not by marketers to markets, but by markets to marketers. It said —

if you only have time for one clue this year, this is the one to get…

Chris Locke wrote that in early 1999. Marketing still doesn’t get it. Maybe it can’t.

And, because marketing (and the rest of business) didn’t get it, I started ProjectVRM, and am now finishing a book about customer liberation and why free customers will prove more valuable than captive ones.

This stuff seems to be taking awhile. But hey, it’s fun.

“When I’m Sixty-Four” is 44 years old. I was 20 when it came out, in the summer of 1967,  one among thirteen perfect tracks on The Beatles‘ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. For all the years since, I’ve thought the song began, “When I get older, losing my head…” But yesterday, on the eve of actually turning sixty-four, I watched this video animation of the song (by theClemmer) and found that Paul McCartney actually sang, “… losing my hair.”

Well, that’s true. I’m not bald yet, but the bare spot in the back and the thin zone in the front are advancing toward each other, while my face continues falling down below.

In July 2006, my old friend Tom Guild put Doc Searls explains driftwood of the land up on YouTube. It’s an improvisational comedy riff that Tom shot with his huge new shoulder-fire video camera at our friend Steve Tulsky’s house on a Marin County hillside in June, 1988. It was a reunion of sorts. Tom, Steve and I had all worked in radio together in North Carolina. I was forty at the time, and looked about half that age. When my ten-year-old kid saw it, he said “Papa, you don’t look like that.” I replied, “No, I do look like that. I don’t look like this,” pointing to my face.

Today it would be nice if I still looked like I did five years ago. The shot in the banner at the top of this blog was taken in the summer of 1999 (here’s the original), when I was fifty-two and looked half that age. The one on the right was taken last summer (the shades on my forehead masking a scalp that now reflects light), when I was a few days short of sixty-three. By then I was finally looking my age.

A couple months back I gave a talk at the Personal Democracy Forum where I was warmly introduced as one of those elders we should all listen to. That was nice, but here’s the strange part: when it comes to what I do in the world, I’m still young. Most of the people I hang and work with are half my age or less, yet I rarely notice or think about that, because it’s irrelevant. My job is changing the world, and that’s a calling that tends to involve smart, young, energetic people. The difference for a few of us is that we’ve been young a lot longer.

But I don’t have illusions about the facts of life. It’s in one’s sixties that the croak rate starts to angle north on the Y axis as age ticks east on the X. Still, I’m in no less hurry to make things happen than I ever was. I’m just more patient. That’s because one of the things I’ve learned is that now is always earlier than it seems. None of the future has happened yet, and it’s always bigger than the past.

Last week we spent a lot of time here, in Venice:

Bancogiro, Rialto Mercado, Venice

The triangular marble plaza on the edge of the Grand Canal of Venice is known informally as Bancogiro, once one of Italy’s landmark banks, and now the name of an osteria there. The plaza is part of Rialto Mercado, the marketplace where Marco Polo was based and prospered when he wasn’t out opening trade routes to the east. It’s also where Shakespeare set The Merchant of Venice, and where Luca Pacioli studied double entry bookkeeping, which he described in Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionalità (Venice 1494), one of the first textbooks written in the vernacular (rather than Latin), and an early success story of the printing press.

Here’s a photo set of the place.

Here’s a 360° view. (While it’s called “Fondamenta de la Preson,” that’s just the cockeyed white building in the map above — a former womens prison — in the corner of the plaza.)

Note that Google Maps tells us little about the location, but plenty about the commercial establishments there. When I go for a less fancy view, the problem gets worse:

Bancogiro, Rialto Mercado, Venice

In that pull-down menu (where it says “Traffic”) I can turn on webcams, photos and other stuff from the Long Tail; but there’s no way to turn on labels for the Grand Canal, the Bancogiro plaza, the Rialto Mercado vaporetto (water bus) stop, the Rialto Mercado itself, the Fondamenta de la Preson (women’s prison, labeled, sort of, in the upper view but not the lower), or even the @#$% street names. The only non-commercial item on the map is the Arciconfraternita Di San Cristoforo E Della Misericordia, which is an organization more than a place.

(My wife just said “You know those hotel maps they give away, that only show hotels? It’s like that, only worse. The hotel maps at least give you some street names.”)

For example, try to find information about the Bancogiro: that is, about the original historic bank, rather than the osteria or the other commercial places with that name. (Here’s one lookup.) For awhile I thought the best information I could find on the Web was text from the restaurant menu, which I posted here. That says the bank was founded in 1157. But this scholarly document says 1617. Another seems to agree. But both are buried under commercial links.

The problem here is that the Web has become commercialized at the cost of other needs of use. And Google itself is leading the way — to the point where it is beginning to fail in its mission to “organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

This is understandable, and easily rationalized. Google is a commercial enterprise. It makes money by selling advertising, and placing commercial information in settings like the ones above. This has been good in many ways, and funds many free services. But it has subordinated purely useful purposes, such as finding the name of a street, a canal, or a bus stop.

There are (at least) two central problems here for Google and other giants like it. One is that we’re not always buying something, or looking only for commercial information. The other is that advertising should not be the only business model for the likes of Google, and all who depend on it are at risk while it remains so.

One missing piece is a direct market for useful information. Toward that end I’ll put this out there: I am willing to pay for at least some of the information I want. I don’t expect all information to be free. I don’t think the fact that information is easily copied and re-used means information “wants” to be free. In other words, I think there is a market here. And I don’t think the lack of one is proof that one can’t be built.

What we need first isn’t better offerings from Google, but better signaling from the demand side of the marketplace. That’s what I’m try to do right now, by signaling my willingness to pay something for information that nobody is currently selling at any price. We need to work on systems that make both signaling and paying possible — on the buyer’s terms, and not just the seller’s.

This is a big part of what VRM, or Vendor Relationship Management is about. Development is going on here. EmanciPay, for example, should be of interest to anybody who would like to see less money left on the market’s table.

Bonus link.

 

Ford River Rouge plant

Got my first good clear look at Detroit and Windsor from altitude on a recent trip back from somewhere. Here’s a series of shots. What impressed me most, amidst all that flat snow-dusted spread of city streets, a patch of grids on the flatland of Michigan and Ontario, flanking the Detroit River and its islands, was what looked like a dark smudge. Looking at it more closely, and matching it up with Reality, I discovered that this was Ford’s famous River Rouge Complex in the city of Dearborn.

Says Wikipedia,

The Rouge measures 1.5 miles (2.4 km) wide by 1 mile (1.6 km) long, including 93 buildings with nearly 16 million square feet (1.5 km²) of factory floor space. With its own docks in the dredged Rouge River, 100 miles (160 km) of interior railroad track, its own electricity plant, and ore processing, the titanic Rouge was able to turn raw materials into running vehicles within this single complex, a prime example of vertical-integration production. Over 100,000 workers were employed there in the 1930s.

As an inveterate infrastructure freak, I would love to see this thing sometime.

Royal pains

The Royal Wedding Not the Royal Weddingisn’t my cup of tedium, but olde blog buddies Eric and Dawn Olsen will be covering the show for The Morton Report, so I urge you to follow it there. I’ll do my best as well.

Not speaking of which, I am old enough to remember the last Royal Wedding, which happened on my birthday in 1981. What sticks most in my mind about that event is an exceptionally funny send-up of the whole thing: a book titled Not the Royal Wedding, by Sean Hardie and John Lloyd. My sister, who (I’ll let her explain) served “on the personal staff of the  Commander-in-Chief, US Naval Forces Europe as the Protocol Officer, living in a mews flat in Chelsea, working on Grosvenor Square and having the best time of my life”, brought the book back to the states, and I laughed my rocks off reading it, even though I’m sure many of the jokes sailed past me. One item that stands out is a large spread on the royal silverware, including a “bitchfork.” The price on Amazon at that last link is also pretty good: “5 used from £0.01″, it says.

What started as plain old Web search has now been marginalized as “organic”. That’s because the plain old Web — the one Tim Berners-Lee created as a way to hyperlink documents — has become commercialized to such an extent that the about the only “organic” result reliably rising to first-page status is Wikipedia.

Let’s say your interest in “granite” and “Vermont” is geological, rather than commercial. The first page of Google results won’t help much if your interest goes beyond visiting a headstone mineSame goes for Bing. I notice this change because it’s becoming harder and harder for me to do casual research on geology (or most other topics that interest me) on the Web.

Yesterday Vivek Wadhwa tweeted a perfect line: “Google is paying content farms to pollute the web”. This is true, yet the problem is bigger than that. The Web is changing from a world wide library with some commercial content to a world wide mall with intellectually interesting publications buried under it, in virtual catacombs. Google’s mission of “organizing all the world’s information” is still satisfied. The problem is that most of that information — at least on the Web — is about selling something. The percentage of websites that are Web stores goes up and up. SEO only makes the problem worse.

The Berkman Center has a project that should encourage thinking about solving this problem, along with many others. Specifically,

The Berkman Center and Stanford Law School are pleased to announce a new initiative in which we invite the world to submit their ‘Ideas for a Better Internet.’ We are seeking out brief proposals from anyone with ideas as to how to improve the Internet. Students at Harvard and Stanford will work through early next year to implement the ideas selected. Interested parties should submit their ideas at http://bit.ly/i4bicfp by Friday, April 15. Please spread the word far and wide, and follow us on Twitter at http://twitter.com/Ideas4BetterNet.

So get your ideas in by Tax Day.

is ahead of his time again.  nailed computing as a utility, long before “the cloud” came to mean pretty much the same thing. His latest book, , explored the changes in our lives and minds caused by moving too much of both online — again before others began noticing how much the Net was starting to look like a handbasket.

Thus The Shallows comes to mind when I read Alice Gregory’s in . An excerpt:

I have the sensation, as do my friends, that to function as a proficient human, you must both “keep up” with the internet and pursue more serious, analog interests. I blog about real life; I talk about the internet. It’s so exhausting to exist on both registers, especially while holding down a job. It feels like tedious work to be merely conversationally competent. I make myself schedules, breaking down my commute to its most elemental parts and assigning each leg of my journey something different to absorb: podcast, Instapaper article, real novel of real worth, real magazine of dubious worth. I’m pretty tired by the time I get to work at 9 AM.

In-person communication feels binary to me now: subjects are either private, confessional, and soulful or frantically current, determined mostly by critical mass, interesting only in their ephemeral status. Increasingly these modes of talk seem mutually exclusive. You can pull someone aside—away from the party, onto the fire escape—and confess to a foible or you can stay inside with the group and make a joke about something everyone’s read online. “Maybe you keep the wrong company,” my mother suggests. Maybe. But I like my friends! We can sympathize with each other and feel reassured that we’re not alone in our overeager consumption, denigrated self-control, and anxiety masked as ambition.

Here’s Nick:

On the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from tap to tap. We transfer only a small jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream.

Psychologists refer to the information flowing into our working memory as our cognitive load. When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to process and store it, we’re unable to retain the information or to draw connections with other memories. We can’t translate the new material into conceptual knowledge. Our ability to learn suffers, and our understanding remains weak. That’s why the extensive brain activity that Small discovered in Web searchers may be more a cause for concern than for celebration. It points to cognitive overload.

The Internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it. There’s the problem of hypertext and the many different kinds of media coming at us simultaneously. There’s also the fact that numerous studies—including one that tracked eye movement, one that surveyed people, and even one that examined the habits displayed by users of two academic databases—show that we start to read faster and less thoroughly as soon as we go online. Plus, the Internet has a hundred ways of distracting us from our onscreen reading. Most email applications check automatically for new messages every five or 10 minutes, and people routinely click the Check for New Mail button even more frequently. Office workers often glance at their inbox 30 to 40 times an hour. Since each glance breaks our concentration and burdens our working memory, the cognitive penalty can be severe.

The penalty is amplified by what brain scientists call . Every time we shift our attention, the brain has to reorient itself, further taxing our mental resources. Many studies have shown that switching between just two tasks can add substantially to our cognitive load, impeding our thinking and increasing the likelihood that we’ll overlook or misinterpret important information. On the Internet, where we generally juggle several tasks, the switching costs pile ever higher.

The Net’s ability to monitor events and send out messages and notifications automatically is, of course, one of its great strengths as a communication technology. We rely on that capability to personalize the workings of the system, to program the vast database to respond to our particular needs, interests, and desires. We want to be interrupted, because each interruption—email, tweet, instant message, RSS headline—brings us a valuable piece of information. To turn off these alerts is to risk feeling out of touch or even socially isolated. The stream of new information also plays to our natural tendency to overemphasize the immediate. We crave the new even when we know it’s trivial.

And so we ask the Internet to keep interrupting us in ever more varied ways. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the fragmentation of our attention, and the thinning of our thoughts in return for the wealth of compelling, or at least diverting, information we receive. We rarely stop to think that it might actually make more sense just to tune it all out.

Try writing about the Net and tuning it out at the same time. Clearly Nick can do that, because he’s written a bunch of books about the Net (and related matters) while the Net’s been an available distraction. Meanwhile I’ve spent most of the past year writing just one book, fighting and often losing against constant distraction. It’s very hard for me to put the blinders on and just write the thing. In the last few months what I’ve succeed in doing, while wearing the blinders and getting most of my book writing done, is participating far less in many things that I help sustain, or that sustain me, including projects I’m working on, time with my wife, kids and grandkids, and this very blog. (Lotta white spaces on the calendar to the right there.)

On the whole I’ve been dismissive of theories (including Nick’s) about how the Net changes us for the worse, mostly because my own preoccupations, including my distractions, tend to be of the intellectually nutritive sort — or so I like to believe. That is, I’m curious about all kinds of stuff, and like enlarging the sum of what I know, and how well I know it. The Net rocks for that. Still, I see the problem. I can triangulate on that problem just from own struggles plus Alice’s and Nick’s.

used to say, “Great minds discuss ideas, mediocre minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people.” (Attributed, with some dispute, to Eleanor Roosevelt.) The Net feeds all three, but at the risk of dragging one’s mind from the great to the small. “What else are we doing on the internet if not asserting our rank?” Alice writes. (Would we ask the same about what we’re doing in a library?) Later she adds,

Sometimes I can almost visualize parts of myself, the ones I’m most proud of, atrophying. I wish I had an app to monitor it! I notice that my thoughts are homeopathic, that they mirror content I wish I weren’t reading. I catch myself performing hideous, futuristic gestures, like that “hilarious” moment three seconds into an intimate embrace in which I realize I’m literally rubbing my iPhone screen across his spine. Almost every day at 6 PM my Google Alert tells me that an “Alice Gregory” has died. It’s a pretty outdated name, and most of these obituaries, from family newsletters and local papers, are for octogenarians. I know I’m being tidy-minded even to feel a pang from this metaphor, but still . . .

It’s hard not to think “death drive” every time I go on the internet. Opening Safari is an actively destructive decision. I am asking that consciousness be taken away from me. Like the lost time between leaving a party drunk and materializing somehow at your front door, the internet robs you of a day you can visit recursively or even remember. You really want to know what it is about 20-somethings? It’s this: we live longer now. But we also live less. It sounds hyperbolic, it sounds morbid, it sounds dramatic, but in choosing the internet I am choosing not to be a certain sort of alive. Days seem over before they even begin, and I have nothing to show for myself other than the anxious feeling that I now know just enough to engage in conversations I don’t care about.

The internet’s most ruinous effect on literacy may not be the obliteration of long-format journalism or drops in hardcover sales; it may be the destruction of the belief that books can be talked and written about endlessly. There are fewer official reviews of novels lately, but there are infinitely more pithily captioned links on Facebook, reader-response posts on Tumblr, punny jokes on Twitter. How depressing, to have a book you just read and loved feel so suddenly passé, to feel—almost immediately—as though you no longer have any claim to your own ideas about it. I started writing this piece when the book came out at the end of July, and I started unwriting it almost immediately thereafter. Zeno’s Paradox 2.0: delete your sentences as you read their approximations elsewhere. How will future fiction work? Will details coalesce into aphorism? I wonder if instead of scribbling down in my notebook all the familiar aspects of girls I see on the street, as I used to, I’ll continue doing what I do now: snapping a picture and captioning it, in the words of Shteyngart, “so media.”

I’ll grant that we have problems here, but is literacy actually being ruined? Is long-format journalism actually obliterated? The New Yorker is as thick as ever with six to eight thousand word essays. Books still move through stores online and off. Our fourteen year old kid still reads piles of books, even as he spends more time online, watching funny YouTube videos and chatting with a friend three time zones away. Is he worse for that? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Not yet, anyway.

What I am sure about is this: Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr are temporary constructions on the Web, like Worlds Fairs used to be, when we still had them. The Internet is a world where all four seasons happen at once. New sites and services are like plants that germinate, grow, bud, bloom and die, over and over. Even the big trees don’t grow to the sky. We need their fruit, their shade, their wood and the humus to which they return. Do we need the other crap that comes along with it those stages? Maybe not, but we go for it anyway.

Last Tuesday gave an excellent Berkman Lunch talk titled Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity and Self-Branding in Web 2.0. The summary:

In the mid-2000s, journalists and businesspeople heralded “Web 2.0” technologies such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook as signs of a new participatory era that would democratize journalism, entertainment, and politics. By the decade’s end, this idealism had been replaced by a gold-rush mentality focusing on status and promotion. While the rhetoric of Web 2.0 as democratic and revolutionary persists, I will contend that a primary use of social media is to boost user status and popularity, maintaining hierarchy rather than diminishing it. This talk focuses on three status-seeking techniques that emerged with social media: micro-celebrity, self-branding, and life-streaming. I examine interactions between social media and social life in the San Francisco “tech scene” to show that Web 2.0 has become a key aspect of social hierarchy in technologically mediated communities.

I’ve been in and out of that scene since 1985, and I know personally a large percentage of Alice’s sources. One of them, , provided Alice with some terrific insights about how the status system works. Tara also punched out of that system not long ago, moving to Montreal and starting a company. She has also been very active in the development community, for which I am very grateful. She’s on a helluva ride.

Listening to the two Alices,  comes to mind:

A Route of Evanescence,
With a revolving Wheel –
A Resonance of Emerald
A Rush of Cochineal –
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts it’s tumbled Head –
The Mail from Tunis – probably,
An easy Morning’s Ride –

Speaking of which, here’s Bill Hicks on life’s ride:

The World is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real, because that’s how powerful our minds are. And the ride goes up and down and round and round, and it has thrills and chills and is very brightly colored, and it’s very loud. And it’s fun, for a while.

Some people have been on the ride for a long time, and they’ve begun to question, ‘Is this real, or is this just a ride?’, and other people have remembered, and they’ve come back to us and they say ‘Hey, don’t worry. Don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.’ and we KILL THOSE PEOPLE.

“Shut him up! We have alot invested in this ride! SHUT HIM UP! Look at my furrows of worry. Look at my big bank account, and my family. This has to be real.”

It’s just a ride.

But we always kill those good guys who try and tell us that. You ever noticed that? And let the demons run amok. But it doesn’t matter, because … It’s just a ride.

And we can change it anytime we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money. A choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear wants you to put bigger locks on your door, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love, instead see all of us as one.

(Watch the video. It’s better.)

Social media, social networking — all of it — is just practice. It’s just scaffolding for the roller coaster we keep re-building, riding on, falling off, and re-building. That’s what we’ve been making and re-making of civilization, especially since Industry won the Industrial revolution. (That’s why we needed world’s fairs,  to show off how Industry was doing.)

You go back before that and, on the whole, life didn’t change much, anywhere. Most of our ancestors, for most of the Holocene, lived short, miserable lives that were little different than those of generations prior or hence.

Back in the ’70s I lived in a little community called Oxbow, north of Chapel Hill. My house was one off whats now called Wild Primrose Lane, in this map here. In those days the bare area in the center of that map was a farm that was plowed fresh every spring. One day while we were walking there, I picked up a six-inch spear point that looked like this one from the (one county over):

(Hmm… I’ve been wondering what happened to the one I found. Could this be it? The more I look at it, the more I think so.) Anyway, I brought it to friends in the anthropology department at UNC — associates of the great Joffre Coe — who told me it was a Guilford point, from the Middle Archaic period, which ran from 6000 to 3000 B.C. (The original color was gray, as you can see from the chipped parts. The surface color comes from what’s called patination.)

What fascinates me about this date range, which is similar to the range for other kinds of points everywhere in the world, is how little technology changed over such a long period of time. Generation after generation made the same kinds of stone tools, the same way, for thousands of years. Today we change everything we make, pretty much constantly. There was no operating among the Guilford people, or anywhere, in 5000 B.C. Today Moore sometimes seems slow.

I don’t have a conclusion here, other than to say that maybe Nick and both Alices are right, and the Net is not so ideal as some of us (me especially) tend to think it is. But I also think the Net is something we make, and not just something that makes us.

Clearly, we could do a better job. We have the tools, and we can make many more.

 

Over on Facebook, and friends have been pondering the provenance of Invention is the mother of necessity. Writes Don, “… heard that once from Doc Searls – I think its an original. Seems more true everyday. (think facebook, smartphones, the internet, computers).” So I responded,

Back in the ’80s, I had a half-serious list of aphorisms I called “Searls’ Laws.” The first was “Logic and reason sit on the mental board of directors, but emotions casts the deciding votes.” The second was, “Invention is the mother of necessity.”

There were others, but I forget them right now. One, from my high school roommate (now the Episcopal Bishop of Bethlehem, PA — who blogs, in a fashion, here), was “Matter can be neither created nor destroyed. It can only be eaten.” He was sixteen when he said that.

Anyway, one day I laid my second law on the CEO of our ad agency’s top client at the time, a company called Racal-Vadic. The CEO was Kim Maxwell, who taught at Stanford before kicking ass in business, and has since moved on to other things.) He replied, “Ah, yes. Thorstein Veblen.”

I thought, wtf? So I looked it up, and sure enough, Thorstein Veblen uttered “Invention is the mother of necessity” about a century before I made it one of my laws.

Anyway, my point in using it remained the same: Silicon Valley was built on inventions that mother necessity (from ICs to iPhones) at least as much as it was built on necessities that mother invention.

Just thought I’d share that out here in the un-silo’d non-F’book world.

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[This piece was written for (in Raleigh, North Carolina ) and published twenty-five years ago, on February 10, 1986. Since it might be worth re-visiting some of the points I made, as well as the event itself, I decided to dust off the piece and put up here. Except for a few spelling corrections and added links, it's unchanged. — Doc]

I can remember, when I first saw the movie , how unbelievable it seemed that and could fly their spacecrafts so easily. They’d flick switches and glance knowingly at cryptic lights and gauges, and zoom their ways through hostile traffic at speeds that would surely kill them if they ran into anything; and they’d do all this with a near-absolute disregard for the hazards involved.

That same night, after I left the movie theatre, I experienced one of the most revealing moments of my life. I got into my beat-up , flicked some switches, glanced knowingly at some lights and gauges, and began to zoom my way through hostile traffic at speeds that would surely kill me if I ran into anything; and I did all this with a near-absolute disregard for the hazards involved. Suddenly, I felt like Han Solo at the helm of the . And in my exhilaration, I realized how ordinary it was to travel in a manner and style beyond the dreams of all but humanity’s most recent generations. I didn’t regret the likelihood that I would never fly in space like Han and Luke; rather I felt profoundly grateful that I was privileged to enjoy, as a routine, experiences for which many of my ancestors would gladly have paid limbs, or even lives.

Since then I have always been astonished at how quickly and completely we come to take our miraculous inventions for granted, and also at how easily we use those inventions to enlarge ourselves, our capabilities, and our experience in the world. “I just flew in from the Coast,” we say, as if we were all born with wings.

I think this “enlarging” capacity, even more than our brains and our powers of speech, is what makes us so special as creatures. As individuals, and as an entire species, we add constantly to our repertoire of capabilities. As the educator said, our capacity to learn is amplified by our ability to develop skills. Those skills give us the power to make things, and then to operate those things as if they were parts of ourselves. Through our inventions and skills, we acquire superhuman powers that transcend the weaknesses of our naked, fleshy selves.

One might say that everything we do is an enlargement on our naked beginnings. That’s why we are the only animals that not only wear clothes, but who also care about how they look. After all, if we were interested only in warmth, comfort and protection, we wouldn’t have invented push-up bras and neckties. Or other non-essentials, like jewelry and cosmetics. It seems we wear those things to express something that extends beyond the limits of our bodies: the notions of our minds, about who we are and what we do.

But clothes are just the beginning, the first and most visible layer in a series that grows to encompass all our tools and machines. When we ride a bicycle, for example, the bike becomes part of us. When we use a hammer to drive a nail, we ply that tool as if it were an extra length of arm. Joined by our skills to tools and machines, our combined powers all but shame the naked bodies that employ them.

I remember another movie: a short animated feature in which metallic creatures from Mars, looking through telescopes, observed that the Earth was populated by a race of automobiles. Martian scientists described how cars were hatched in factories, fed at filling stations, and entertained at drive-in movies.

And maybe they were right. Because, in a way, we become the automobiles we drive. Who can deny how differently we behave as cars than as people? It’s a black that cuts us off at the light, not Mary Smith, the real estate agent. In traffic, we give vent to hostilities and aggressions we wouldn’t dare to release in face-to-face encounters.

Of course, we have now metamorphosed into entities far more advanced than automobiles. As pilots we have become airplanes. As passengers we have become creatures that fly great distances in flocks.

If those Martian scientists were to keep an eye on our planet, they would note that we have now begun to evolve beyond airplanes, into spaceships. In their terms we might note the Tragedy as the metallic equivalent of a single failure in the amphibians’ first assault on land. Evolution, after all, is a matter of trial and error.

But as we contemplate the price of our assault on the shores of space, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions. For example: is the Challenger tragedy just a regrettable accident in the natural course of human progress, or evidence of boundaries we are only beginning to sense?

On January 28th, Challenger addressed that question to our whole species. We all felt the same throb of pain when we learned how, in one orange moment, seven of our noble fellows were blown to mist at the edge of the heavens they were launched to explore.

Most of us made it our business that day to visit the TV, to watch the Challenger bloom into fire, and to share the same helpless feeling as we saw the smoking fragments of countless dreams rained down in white tendrils, like the devil’s own confetti, to the ancestral sea below. The final image — a monstrous white Y in the sky — is permanently embossed in the memories of all who witnessed the event.

It was so unexpected because the shuttle had become exactly what NASA had planned: an ordinary form of transportation, a service elevator between Earth and Space. NASA’s plan to routinize space travel succeeded so convincingly that major networks weren’t even there to cover the Challenger liftoff. Instead they “pooled” for rights to images supplied by Ted Turner‘s Cable News Network. Chuck Yeager, the highest priest in the Brotherhood of The Right Stuff, voiced the unofficial NASA line on the matter. “I see no difference between this accident and any accident involving a commercial or military aircraft,” he said.

Would that it were so.

“Fallen heroes” is not a term applied to plane crash victims. In fact, the technologies of space travel are still extremely young, and the risks involved are a lot higher than we like to think. “Since NASA made it look so easy, people thought it would never happen. Those of us close to the program thought it could happen a whole lot sooner. We’re glad it was postponed this long,” said , a former astronaut and pilot of the .

The fact that the shuttle program was so vulnerable, and we failed to recognize the fact, says unwelcome things about our faith in technology, and now is when we should listen to them. Because the time when flying through space becomes as easy as flying down the road, or even through the air, is still a long way off. In the meantime, it might be best to leave the exploring to guys like Lousma, who are blessed with the stuff it takes to push the risks out of the way for the rest of us.

And we’re talking about the kind of risks that were built into the shuttle from its start.

Consider for a moment that the shuttle program is, after all, the bastard offspring of a dozen competing designs, and constrained throughout its history by a budgetary process that subordinates human and scientific aspirations to a variety of military and commercial interests. And consider how, as with most publicly-funded technologies, most of the Shuttle’s components were all produced by the lowest bidder. And consider the fact that many of the Shuttle’s technologies are, even by NASA’s admission, obsolete. If we had to start at Square One today, we’d probably design a very different program.

A new program, for example, would probably take better account of the Perrow Law of Unavoidable Accidents. A corrolary of Murphy’s Law — “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” — the Perrow Law is modestly named after himself by , Professor of Sociology and Organizational Analysis at Yale University. According to Perrow, the shuttle program has succeeded mostly in spite of itself. Its whole design is so detailed, so complex, so riddled with interdependent opportunities for failure, that we’re lucky one of the things didn’t blow up sooner, or worse, suffer a more agonizing death in space.

“The number of interconnections in these systems is so enormous,” he says, “that no designer can think of everything ahead of time. It may be that this was one major valve failing on one of the tanks, but I rather suspect that that’s not the case. NASA tests and is very concerned about those valves. They have back-ups for every major system. The problem is more likely to have been a number of small things that came together in a mysterious way — a way that we may never learn about.”

He continues, “The chances for an accident will be only marginally reduced if we find the cause of this, and harden something or increase the welds, and eliminate this one thing as a source of an accident. But right next to it will be a dozen other unique sources of accidents that we haven’t touched. But by touching the components next to it, we may increase the possibility of other accidents.”

, who wrote , and invented the term, suggests that NASA may have snowed itself into believing that space travel is past the pioneering stage, and that, as a concept, the shuttle’s “coach & freight service — a people’s zero-G express” was premature. Of the martyred teacher, , he says “Her flight was to be the crossover, at last, from a quarter of a century in which space had been a frontier open only to pioneers who lived and were willing to die by the code of ‘the right stuff’ — the Alan Shepards, s and Neil Armstrongs — to an era when space would belong to the entire citizenry, to Everyman. The last role in the world NASA had in mind for Crista McAuliffe and the rest of the Challenger crew was that of pioneer or hero.”

This was because NASA had labored long and hard to break the political grip of what Wolfe calls “Astropower,” the “original breed of fighter-pilot and test-pilot astronaut — the breed who had been willing, over and over again, to sit on top of enormous tubular bombs, some 36 stories high, gorged with several of the most explosive materials this side of nuclear fission, and let some NASA GS-18 engineer light the fuse.”

The fact was, Wolfe suggests, that McAuliffe and her companions “hurtled for 73 seconds out on the edge of a still-raw technology” before they perished. Which is why he asks “If space flight still involves odds unacceptable to Everyman, then should it be put back in the hands of those whose profession consists of hanging their hides, quite willingly, out over the yawning red maw?”

If the answer is yes, then what will need to happen before Everyman is really ready to fly the zero-G express?

In a word, simplification. Right now there is no way for a single pilot’s senses to stretch over the entire shuttle system, and operate it skillfully. A couple of years ago, the Director of Flight Operations for NASA said “this magnificent architecture makes it that much harder to learn to use the system.” According to Professor Perrow, “because the Shuttle system was designed in so many parts by a phalanx of designers, when it’s all put together to run, there is nobody, no one, who can know all about that system.”

Perrow says “It requires simplification for a single person, a pilot, to know everything that’s happening in such a hostile environment as space.” One of the great simplifications in aviation history was the substitution of the jet engine for the piston engine. That’s what we need to make space travel agreeably safe.”

It is ironic that on the day the Challenger blew up, , a space industry consultant and a former NASA administrator, was about to mail the first draft of a commission report to the president on the future of the U.S. space effort. That report advanced two recommendations: 1) a unmanned cargo-launching program to deliver cargo to space at a fraction of current shuttle costs; and 2) an improved shuttle or a new-generation system like the “hypersonic transportation vehicle” the Air Force has wanted ever since NASA beat the rocket airplane into space. The hypersonic transport would simply be an airplane that can fly in space. By contrast, the shuttle is a spacecraft that can glide to earth. Already, hypersonic transport technology has been around for years. Reports say the first “space plane” could be ready to fly in the 1990s. The thing would cruise along at anywhere from Mach 5 to Mach 25, which would mean, theoretically, that no two points on the earth would be more than three hours apart.

But it will have to fight the inertia behind the shuttle program, which is substantial, and slowed only momentarily by the Challenger explosion.

I fear we can only pray that future missions will continue to dodge Murphy’s law.

Over time, however, our sciences will need to face Perrow’s Corollary more soberly. We need to recognize that there are limits to the complexities we can build into our technologies before accidents are likely to occur. Thanks to Fail Safe, Doctor Strangelove , and other dramatic treatments of the issue, we are already familiar with (and regretably taking for granted) the risks of nuclear catastrophe to which we are exposed by our terribly complicated “defensive shields.”

And this hasn’t stopped us from committing to even more dangerous and complicated “defensive” projects, the most frightening of which is the euphemistically titled , better known by its nickname: Star Wars. Professor Perrow says “Star Wars is the most frightening system I can think of.” In fact, Star Wars is by far the most complex technology ever contemplated by man. And possibly the most expensive.

There are cost projections for Star Wars that make NASA’s whole budget look like pocket change. Portentiously, the first shuttle experiment with Star Wars technology failed when shuttle scientists pointed a little mirror the wrong way. We can only hope that the little mirrors on Soviet Warheads are aligned more cooperatively.

Complexity is more than a passing issue. It is science’s most powerful and debilitating intoxicant. We teach it in our schools, confuse it with sophistication and sanction it with faith. In this High Tech Age, we have predictably become drunk on the stuff. And, as with alcohol and cocaine, we’ll probably discover its hazards through a series of painful accidents.

Meanwhile, there is another concern that ironically might have been illuminated by a teacher, or better yet a journalist, in space. Its advocates include a recently-created organization of space veterans whose non-political goal is to share their singular view of our planet. That view sees a fragile ball of blue, green and brown, undivided by the lines that mark the maps and disputes on the surface below. It is an objective view, and we need it badly.

The implications of that view are made more sober by recent discoveries suggesting limits to the viability of human life in the environments of space. Outside the protective shield of our atmosphere, travelers are bombarded constantly by cosmic radiation that produces cancer and other ailments.

Weightlessness also has its long-term costs. While there may be ways to reduce or eliminate the risks involved with space travel, we are still, at best, in the zygote stage of our development as space creatures. It might be millennia before we are finally ready to leave Earth’s womb and dodge asteroids in the manner of Han Solo.

Until then, it would be nice if we didn’t have to discover our limits the hard way.

Al Jazeera story

Cable companies: Add Al Jazeera English *now* Jeff Jarvis commands, correctly, on his blog — and also in , under the headine . For me now was a few minutes ago, when I read both items on the family iPad, which has been our main news portal since the quit coming and I suspended my efforts to reach them by Web or phone. (The Globe also wants a bunch of ID crap when I go there on the iPad, so they’re silent that way too.) So I went to the App store, looked up , saw something called Al Jazeera English Live was available for free, got it, and began watching live protest coverage from Cairo.

We don’t have cable here. We dumped it after network news turned to shit, and we found it was easier to watch movies on Netflix. We still like to watch sports, but cable for sports alone is too expensive, because it’s always bundled with junk we don’t want and not available à la carte. (You know, like stuff is on the Web.) When we want TV news, we go online or get local TV through an gizmo plugged into an old Mac laptop. Works well, but it’s still TV.

And so is Al Jazeera on an iPad/iPhone, Samsung Wave or a Nokia phone. (See http://english.aljazeera.net/mobile/for details. No Android or Blackberry yet, appaerently.) The difference is that real news s happening in Egypt, and if you want live news coverage in video form, Al Jazeera is your best choice. As Jeff puts it, “Vital, world-changing news is occurring in the Middle East and no one — not the xenophobic or celebrity-obsessed or cut-to-the-bone American media — can bring the perspective, insight, and on-the-scene reporting Al Jazeera English can.”

And it’s very good. , “If you’re watching Al Jazeera, you’re seeing uninterrupted live video of the demonstrations, along with reporting from people actually on the scene, and not “analysis” from people in a studio. The cops were threatening to knock down the door of one of its reporters minutes ago. Fox has moved on to anchor babies. CNN reports that the ruling party building is on fire, but Al Jazeera is showing the fire live.”

In fact six Al Jazeera journalists are now being detained (I just learned). That kind of thing happens when your news organization is actually involved in a mess like this. CNN used to be that kind of organization, but has been in decline for years, along with other U.S. network news organizations. As Jeff says, “What the Gulf War was to CNN, the people’s revolutions of the Middle East are to Al Jazeera English. But in the U.S., in a sad vestige of the era of Freedom Fries, hardly anyone can watch the channel on cable TV.”

And that’s a Good Thing, because cable is a mostly shit in a pipe, sphinctered through a “set top box” that’s actually a computer crippled in ways that maximize control by the cable company and minimize choice for the user. Fifteen years ago, the promise of TV was “five hundred channels”. We have that now, but we also have billions of sources — not just “channels” — over the Net. Cream rises to the top, and right now that cream is Al Jazeera and the top is a hand-held device.

The message cable should be getting is not just “carry Al Jazeera,” but “normalize to the Internet.” Open the pipes. Give us à la carte choices. Let us get and pay for what we want, not just what gets force-fed in bundles. Let your market — your viewers — decide what’s worth watching, and how they want to watch it. And quit calling Internet video “over the top”. The Internet is the new bottom, and old-fashioned channel-based TV is a limping legacy.

A few days ago, President Obama spoke about the country’s “Sputnik moment”. Well, that’s what Al Jazeera in Egypt is for cable TV. It’s a wake-up call from the future. In that future we’ll realize that TV is nothing more than a glowing rectangle with a boat-anchor business model. Time to cut that anchor and move on.

Here’s another message from the future, from one former cable TV viewer: I’d gladly pay for Al Jazeera. Even when I can also get it for free. All we need is the mechanism, and I’m glad to help with that.

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The question on Quora goes, What lessons can be learned from the first browser war between Microsoft and Netscape?

I covered that war when it broke out, more than fifteen years ago. No magazine was interested in my writing then. Blogging was several years off in the future. All we had were websites, and that was good enough. The following is what I put up on mine — in as much of the original HTML as can survive WordPress’ HTML-rewriting mill. I’ll continue below the piece…


MICROSOFT+NETSCAPE

WHY THE PRESS NEEDS TO SNAP OUT OF ITS WAR-COVERAGE TRANCE

By Doc Searls
December 11, 1995

Outline

Wars?

Am I wrong here, or has the Web turned into a Star Wars movie?

I learn from the papers that the desktop world has fallen under the iron grip of the most wealthy and powerful warlord in the galaxy. With a boundless greed for money and control, Bill Gates of Microsoft now seeks to extend his evil empire across all of cyberspace.

The galaxy’s only hope is a small but popular rebel force called Netscape. Led by a young pilot (Marc Andreesen as Luke Skywalker), a noble elder (Jim Clark as Obi-wan Kanobe) and a cocky veteran (Jim Barksdale as Han Solo), Netscape’s mission is joined by the crafty and resourceful Java People from Sun.

Heavy with portent, the headlines tromp across the pages (cue the Death Star music — dum dum dum, dum da dum, dum da dummm)…

  • “MICROSOFT TAKES WAR TO THE NET: Software giant plots defensive course based on openness”
  • “MICROSOFT UNVEILS INTERNET STRATEGY: Stage set for battle with Netscape.”
  • “MICROSOFT, SUN FACE OFF IN INTERNET RING”
  • “MICROSOFT STORMS THE WEB”

The mind’s eye conjures a vision of The Emperor, deep in the half-built Death Star of Microsoft’s new Internet Strategy, looking across space at the Rebel fleet, his face twisted with contempt. “Your puny forces cannot win against this fully operational battle station!” he growls.

But the rebels are confident. “In a fight between a bear and an alligator, what determines the victor is the terrain,” Marc Andreessen says. “What Microsoft just did was move into our terrain.”

And Microsoft knows its strengths. December 7th, The Wall Street Journal writes, Bill Gates “issued a thinly veiled warning to Netscape and other upstarts that included a reference to the Pearl Harbor attack on the same date in 1941.”

Exciting stuff. But is there really a war going on? Should there be?

are the facts?

After reading all these alarming headlines, I decided to fire up my own copy of Netscape Navigator and search out a transcript of Bill’s December 7th speech.

I started at Microsoft’s own site, but got an “access forbidden” message. Then I went up to the internet level of the site’s directory, but found the Netscape view was impaired. (“Best viewed with Microsoft Explorer,” it said.) I finally found a Netscape-friendly copy at Dave Winer’s site. It appears to be the original, verbatim:*

MR. GATES: Well, good morning. I was realizing this morning that December 7th is kind of a famous day. (Laughter.) Fifty-four years ago or something. And I was trying to think if there were any parallels to what was going on here. And I really couldn’t come up with any. The only connection I could think of at all was that probably the most intelligent comment that was made on that day wasn’t made on Wall Street, or even by any type of that analyst; it was actually Admiral Yamomoto, who observed that he feared they had awakened a sleeping giant. (Laughter.)

I see. The “veiled threat” was Bill’s opening laugh line. Even if this was “a veiled threat,” it was made in good humor. The rest of the talk hardly seemed hostile. Instead, Bill showed a substantial understanding of how both competition and cooperation work to build markets, and of the roles played by users, developers, leaders and followers in creating the Internet. In his final sentence, Bill says, “We believe that integration and continuity are going to be valuable to end users and developers…”

Of course, I wish he’d pay a little more attention to Macintosh users and developers, but I don’t blame him for avoiding them. I blame Apple, which dissed and sued Microsoft for years, to no positive effect. Apple played a zero-sum game and — sure enough — ended up with zero. Brilliant strategy.

Think how much farther along we would be today if this relationship was still Apple plus Microsoft, rather than Apple vs. Microsoft.

The truth is that the Web will be better served by Microsoft plus Netscape than by Microsoft vs. Netscape. Plus is what most of us want, and it’s probably what we’ll get, regardless of how the press plays the story.

give a big AND to the Web

So what is the best way to characterize Microsoft, if not as the Heaviest of Heavies?

I think Release 1.0‘s Jerry Michalski gets closest to it when he says: “Microsoft thinks more broadly than any other company about what it’s doing. Its plans include global telecommunications, information creation, applications — even community building.” That tells us a lot more than “Microsoft goes to war.”

Markets are more than battlefields. The OR logic of war and sports get us excited, but tells us little of real substance. For that we also need the AND logic of cooperation, choice, partnership and working together. What we all want most — love — is hardly an OR proposition. Imagine a lover saying “there’s only room in this relationship for one of us, baby.”

But the press is caught in an OR trance. Blind to the AND logic that gives markets their full color, the press reduces every hot story to the black vs. white metaphors of war and sports. Why cover the Web as the strange, unprecedented place it is, when you can play it as yet another story about two guys trying to beat the crap out of each other? Especially when the antagonists are little good guy and a big bad guy?

Look, the Internet didn’t take off because Netscape showed up; and it wasn’t slowed down because Microsoft didn’t. It took off because millions of people added their creative energies to something that welcomed them — which was mostly each other. Death-fight competition didn’t make the Web we know now, and it won’t make the Web that’s coming, either.

That’s because every site on the Web is AND logic at work. So is every vendor/developer relationship that ever produced a product or created a market. So is the near-infinite P/E ratio Netscape enjoys today.

, what IS Microsoft doing?

“Embrace and extend,” Bill Gates called it in his December 7 talk. That’s what he said Microsoft will do with products from Oracle, Spyglass, Compuserve and Sun. Is this an AND strategy? Or is it yet an other example of what Gary Reback, Judge Sporkin and other Microsoft enemies call a “lock and leverage” strategy, intended to drive out competition and let Microsoft charge tolls to every traveler on the Information Highway?

We’ll see.

It should be clear by now that the Web does not welcome OR strategies. Microsoft Network was an OR strategy, and it didn’t work. If history repeats itself (as it usually does with Microsoft), the company will learn from this experience (as Apple learned earlier from its eWorld failure) and move on to do the Right Thing.

Not that most of the press would notice. To them Microsoft is The Empire and Bill is its gold-armored emperor. But reporters are the ones putting clothes on this emperor. To the people who make Microsoft’s markets — the users and developers — “billg” is as naked as a newborn.

Take away the war-front headlines, the play-by-play reporting, the color commentary by industry analysts, the infatuation with personal wealth — and you see Bill as an extremely competitive guy who’s also trying to do right by users and developers. And hiding little in the process. Is he a bully? Sometimes. Is this bad? No, it’s typical of big companies since the dawn of business. It looks to me more like a personality trait than a business strategy. And what makes Microsoft win is far more strategic than personal.

George Gilder puts it this way in Forbes ASAP (“Angst & Awe on the Internet“):

Blinded by the robber-baron image assigned in U.S. history courses to the heroic builders of American capitalism, many critics see Bill Gates as a menacing monopolist. They mistake for greed the gargantuan tenacity of Microsoft as it struggles to assure the compatibility of its standard with tens of thousands of applications and peripherals over generations of dynamically changing technology.

to win users and influence developers

How does Bill express that tenacity? As Dave Winer puts it in “The Platform is a Chinese Household,” Bill “sends flowers.” Bill courts developers and delivers for customers, who return the favor by buying Microsoft products.

Markets are conversations, and there isn’t a more willing conversational participant than Bill. That’s why I’m not surprised when Dave says “the only big company that’s responsive to my needs is Microsoft.” And Dave, by the way, is a pillar of the Macintosh community. To my knowledge, he hasn’t developed a DOS-compatible product since the original ThinkTank.

Users and developers don’t need to hear vendors talk about how much their competition sucks. No good ever comes of it. Is it just coincidence that Microsoft almost never bad-mouths its competition? Though Bill is hardly innocent of the occasional raspberry, he’s a long way from matching the nasty remarks made about him and his company by leaders at Sun, Apple, Netscape and Novell, just to name an obvious few.

It especially saddens me to hear competition-bashing from Guy Kawasaki, whose positive energies Apple desperately needs right now. As a customer and user of both Apple and Microsoft products, I see Guy’s “how to drive your competition crazy” rap as OR logic at its antiproductive worst.

At the opposite end of the diplomacy scale, I like the way Gordon Eubanks of Symantec has consistently been fair and constructive in his public remarks about Bill and Microsoft (and has reaped ample rewards in the process).

What makes markets work is a combination of AND and OR processes that deserve thoughtful and observant journalism. They also call for vendors who can drop their fists, open their minds and look at opportunities from users’ and developers’ points of view. This is how Microsoft came to change its Internet strategy. And this is what makes Microsoft the most adaptive company in the business, regardless of size. No wonder the laws of Darwin have been kind to them.

new breed of life

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance…
Always substance and increase,
Always a knit of identity… always distinction…
Always a breed of life.
—Walt Whitman

Where the language of war fails, perhaps the language of Whitman can succeed.

By the great poet’s lights, the Web is a new breed of life. An original knit of identity. Its substance increases when opposite equals like Netscape and Microsoft advance out of the dimness and obey their procreant urges — not their will to kill.

The Web is a product of relationships, not of victors and victims. Not one dime Netscape makes is at Microsoft’s expense. And Netscape won’t bleed to death if Microsoft produces a worthy browser. The Web as we know it won’t be the same in six weeks, much less six months or six years. As a “breed of life,” it is original, crazy and already immense. It is not like anything. To describe it with cheap-shot war and sports metaphors is worse than wrong — it is bad journalism.

A week after this experience, I went back to Microsoft site and found its whole Internet Strategy directory much more Netscape-friendly and nicely organized. Every presentation is there, including all the slides. Though the slides are in PowerPoint 4.0 for Windows, my Mac is able to view them with the Mac version of the program. [Back to *]

George Gilder’s Forbes ASAP article archives are at his Telecosm site.

Dave Winer’s provocative “rants” come out every few days, and accumulate at his DaveNet site. Check out “The User’s Software Company,” which inspired this essay.


One might look back on this and say “Yeah, but Microsoft still killed Netscape.” I don’t think so. Netscape had many advantages, including one it tried too late to save the company — but not too late to save the browser and keep it competititve: open-sourcing the Mozilla code. Five years after I wrote the above, I wrote a piece in Linux Journal describing Netscape’s mistakes:

For a year or two, Netscape looked like it could do no wrong. It was a Miata being chased down a mountain road by a tractor trailer. As long as it moved fast and looked ahead, there was no problem with the truck behind. But at some point, Netscape got fixated on the rear-view mirror. That’s where they were looking when they drove off the cliff.

Why did they do that?

  1. They forgot where they came from: the hacker community that had for years been developing the Net as a free and open place—one hospitable to business, but not constrained by anybody’s business agenda. The browser was born free, like Apache, Sendmail and other developments that framed the Net’s infrastructure. The decision to charge for the browser—especially while still offering it for free—put Netscape in a terminal business from the start.
  2. They got caught up in transient market’s fashions, which were all about leveraging pre-Web business models into an environment that wouldn’t support them. Mostly, they changed the browser from a tool of Demand (browsing) to an instrument of Supply. They added channels during the “push” craze. They portalized their web site. They turned the location bar into a search term window for a separate domain directory, to be populated by the identities of companies that paid to be put there (a major insult to the user’s intentions). Worst of all, they bloated the browser from a compact, single-purpose tool to an immense contraption that eventually included authoring software, a newsgroup reader, a conferencing system and an e-mail client—all of which were done better by stand-alone applications.
  3. They became arrogant and presumptuous about their advantages. At one point, Marc Andreessen said an OS was “just a device driver”.
  4. Their engineering went to hell. By the time Netscape was sold (at top dollar) to AOL, the dirty secret was that its browser code was a big kluge and had been for a long time. Jamie Zawinski (one of the company’s first and best-known engineers) put it bluntly: “Netscape was shipping garbage, and shipping it late.” Not exactly competitive.
  5. They lost touch with their first and best market: those customers who had actually paid for that damn browser.

So, back to the original question. What have we learned, now that IE is still around, and most of its competitors are either open source or based on open source code? Here’s a quick list:

  1. The browser was never a product in the sense that it’s something that can be charged and paid for as a scarce good. It wanted to be open source in the first place.
  2. The war metaphor is distracting and misleading, even when it’s appropriate.
  3. No browser is even close to perfect, and none will ever be.

Feel free to add more of your own, here or on Quora. (I’m very curious to see how Quora evolves.)

Tags: , , , , , , ,

So I’m in the midst of my first encounter with PeerIndex, which I found through this Petervan’s Blog post. I’d been pointed to PeerIndex before, and to other services like it, and have always found them aversive. But this time the lead came from a friend and business associate, so I thought I’d check it out.

While it’s kinda creepy using Facebook Connect and other means of dumping one’s online life into a service one does not yet understand, much less trust, I don’t have any secrets at any of those data sources, so I gave it a try. Here’s the result, in graphical form:

peerindex

Here’s how Peter explains this:

Peerindex helps you understand and benefit from your social and reputation capital online. How much is your online reputation worth ? PeerIndex is a web technology company that is algorithmically mapping out the social web.

The way we see it, the social web now allows everyone endless possibilities in discovering new information on people, places, and subjects. We believe that the traditional established authorities and experts – journalists, academics, are now joined by a range of interested and capable amateurs and professionals. As this locus of authority shifts, many new authorities emerge. PeerIndex wants to become the standard that identifies, ranks, and scores these authorities — and help them benefit from the social capital they have built up

Btw, my Peerindex is 60. That’s based on my digital footprint on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and my blogging activities. It is obvious to see that this number “60” may one day translate into some virtual social currency.

Friends, this is high school with a business model.

While our value in the marketplace depends on our reputations, we are not reducible to “captial,” “assets,” “currency” or any other measure.

What I write on this blog, what I tweet, what I share through LinkedIn and Facebook, is not for an “audience.” I have readers here. That’s who I write for. While my services, whatever they are, have value in the marketplace, and I get paid for some of them, that’s not why I write what I write—here, in Twitter or anywhere other than in private correspondence that concerns actual business.

Somewhere back in the early days, this blog plateau’d at about 20,000 regular readers. It’s still there, I’m sure, though I haven’t checked in years. On Twitter I’ve got about 12,000 followers, who I suspect are a subset of my blog readers. That’s fine with me. I’m not looking for more. And I don’t care if I have less. I write stuff that I think is worth sharing, mostly on the old Quaker maxim of not speaking unless you can improve on the silence. Shouting louder isn’t my style. Joking around is. Saying too much or too little is. Being myself is.

Somewhere in the oeuvre of Kurt Vonnegut is a line I can’t find on the Web, but remember going like this: “High school is the core American experience.”  [Later... Mike Warot found the original. Very cool.] I think this is true. And I think that’s what this kind of stuff, as otherwise well-intended as it may be, appeals to.

In his first World Entertainment War album, Rob Breszny pauses in the midst of a wacky narrative to offer a multiple choice question for which the correct answer is this: “Burn down the dream house where your childhood keeps repeating itself.”

Wishing for popularity and approval is a mark of adolescence, a term invented to describe a normative high school condition—specifically, one in which childhood is prolonged. The best cure I know is chug down some Whitman. Here’s a sample:

In all people I see myself, none more
and not one a barleycorn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.

I know I am solid and sound.
To me the converging objects of the universe
perpetually flow.
All are written to me,
and I must get what the writing means.
I know I am deathless.
I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept
by a carpenter’s compass,

I know that I am august,
I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself
or be understood.
I see that the elementary laws never apologize.

I exist as I am, that is enough.
If no other in the world be aware I sit content.
And if each and all be aware I sit content.

One world is aware, and by far the largest to me,
and that is myself.
And whether I come to my own today
or in ten thousand or ten million years,
I cheerfully take it now,
or with equal cheerfulness I can wait.

My foothold is tenoned and mortised in granite.
I laugh at what you call dissolution,
And I know the amplitude of time.

I am a poet of the body,
And I am a poet of the soul.

I am the poet of the woman the same as the man.
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.

I chant a new chant of dilation and pride.
We have had ducking and deprecating about enough.
I show that size is only development.

Have you outstript the rest? Are you the President?
It is a trifle.
They will more than arrive there every one,
and still pass on.

I am he that walks with the tender and growing night.
I call to the earth and sea half-held by the night.

Smile O voluptuous coolbreathed earth!
Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!
Earth of the departed sunset!
Earth of the mountains misty topt!
Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon
just tinged with blue!
Smile, for you lover comes!

Prodigal! you have given me love!
Therefor I give you love!
O unspeakable passionate love!
Thurster holding me tight that I hold tight!

We hurt each other
as the bridegroom and the bride hurt each other

You sea! I resign myself to you also…
I guess what you mean.
I behold from the beach your crooked inviting fingers.
I believe you refuse to go back without feeling of me.
We must have a turn together.
I undress. Hurry me out of sight of the land.
Cushion me soft. Rock me in billowy drowse.
Dash me with amorous wet. I can repay you!
Howler and scooper of storms!
Capricious and dainty sea!
I am integral with you.
I too am of one phase and all phases.

I am the poet of common sense
and of the demonstrable and of immortality.
And am not the poet of goodness only.

What blurt is it about virtue and about vice?
Evil propels me, and reform of evil propels me.
I stand indifferent.
My gait is no faultfinder’s or rejecter’s gait.
I moisten the roots of all that has grown.

Did you fear some scrofula out
of the unflagging pregnancy?
Did you guess the celestial laws are yet
to be worked over and rectified?

I step up to say what we do is right,
and what we affirm is right,
and some is only the ore of right.
Soft doctrine a steady help as stable doctrine.
Thoughts and deeds of the present
our rouse and early start.

This minute that comes to me over the past decillions.
There is no better than it and now.

Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs,
a cosmos.
Disorderly fleshy and sensual…
eating, drinking and breeding.
No sentimentalist… no stander above men and women
or apart from them… no more modest than immodest.

Whoever degrades another degrades me.
And whatever is done or said returns at last to me.
And whatever I do or say I also return.

Through me the afflatus surging and surging.
Through me current and index.

I speak the password primeval.
I give the sign of democracy.
By God, I will accept nothing which all cannot have
their counterpart on the same terms.

Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the generations of slaves,
of prostitutes and deformed persons,
f the diseased and despairing,
of thieves and dwarves.
Of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars
– and of wombs, and of the fatherstuff,
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the trivial and flat and foolish and despised,
Of the fog in the air and beetles rolling balls of dung.

Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts. Voices veiled,
and I remove the veil.
Voices indecent are by me clarified and transfigured.
I do not press my finger across my mouth.
I keep as delicate around the bowels
as around the head and heart.

Copulation is no more rank to me than death is.

I believe in the flesh and the appetites.
Seeing hearing and feeling are miracles,
and each part and tag of me is a miracle.

Divine I am inside and out;
and make holy whatever I touch or am touched from;
The scent of these armpits is aroma finer than prayer
This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds.

If I worship any particular thing it shall be some
of the spread of my body.
Shared ledges and rests, firm muscular coulter,
it shall be you.
Breast that presses against other breasts, it shall be you.
Mixed tussled hay of head and beard and brawn
it shall be you.
Sun so generous it shall be you,
Vapors lighting and shading my face it shall be you.
Winds whose soft-tickling genitals
rub against me it shall be you.
Hands I have taken, face I have kissed,
mortal I have ever touched, it shall be you.

I dote upon myself. There is that lot of me,
and all so luscious,
Each moment and whatever happens thrills me with joy.

I cannot tell how my ankles bend…
nor whence the cause of my faintest wish.

A morning glory at my window
satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books.

To behold the daybreak!
The little light fades the immense and diaphanous shadows.
The air tastes good to my palate.

Hefts of the moving world turn on innocent bearings,
silently rising, freshly exuding,
Scooting obliquely high and low.

Something I cannot see puts upward libidinous prongs.
Seas of bright juice suffuse heaven.

The earth by the sky staid
with the daily close of their junction.
The heaved challenge from the east that moment
over my head,
The mocking taunt, See then whether you shall be master!

Dazzling and tremendous how quick
the sunrise would kill me
If I could not now and always send sunrise out of my self.

We also ascend dazzling and tremendous as the sun.
We found our own way my soul in
the calm and cool of the daybreak.

My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach.
With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds
and volumes of worlds.

Speech is the twin of my vision…
it is unequal to measure itself.
It provokes me forever.
It says sarcastically, Walt, you understand enough –
why don’t you let it out then?

Come now, I will not be tantalized.
You make too much of articulation.

Encompass worlds but never try to encompass me.
I crowd your noisiest talk by looking toward you.

Writing and talk do not prove me.
I carry the plenum of proof and everything else
in my face.
With the hush of my lips I confound the topmost skeptic.

All truths wait in all things.
They neither hasten their own delivery nor resist it.
They do not need the obstetric forceps of the surgeon,
The insignificant is as big to me as any.
What is less or more than a touch?

Logic and sermons never convince.
The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul.

Only what proves itself to every man and woman is so.
Only what nobody denies is so.

I think I could turn and live awhile with the animals.
They are so placid and self-contained.
I stand and look at them sometimes half the day long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition.
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.
Not one is dissatisfied.
Not one is demented with the mania of owning things.
Not one kneels to another nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago.
Not one is respectable or industrious over all the earth.

I am a free companion. I bivouac by invading watchfires.

I turn the bridegroom out of bed and stay with the bride myself,
And tighten her all night to my thighs and lips.

My voice is the wife’s voice,
the screech by the rail of the stairs,
They fetch my man’s body up dripping and drowned.
I understand the large hearts of heroes.
The courage of present and all times.
I am the man. I suffered. I was there.

I am the hounded slave. I wince at the bite of the dogs.

Agonies are one of my changes of garments.

I do not ask the wounded person how he feels.
I myself am the wounded person.
My hurt turns livid upon me as I lean on a cane
and observe.

Distant and dead resuscitate.
They show as the dial or move as the hands of me…
and I am the clock myself.

The friendly and flowing savage: who is he?
Is he waiting for civilization or past it and mastering it?
Behavior lawless as snowflakes. Words simple as grass.
Uncombed head and laughter and naivete.
They descend in new forms from the tips of his fingers.
They are wafted with the odor of his body and breath.
They fly out of the glance of his eyes.

You there, impotent, loose in the knees,
open your scarfed chops till I blow grit within you.
Spread your palms and lift the flaps of your pockets.
I am not to be denied. I compel.
I have stores plenty and to spare.
And anything I have I bestow.

I do not ask who you are. That is not important to me.
You can do nothing and be nothing
but what I will infold you.

I seize the descending ;man.
I raise him with resistless will.

O despairer, here is my neck.
By God, you shall not go down.
Hang your whole weight upon me.

I dilate you with tremendous breath. I buoy you up.
Every room of your youse do I fill with an armed force.

The weakest and shallowest is deathless with me.
What I do and say the same waits for them.
Every thought that flounders in me
the same flounders in them.

I know perfectly well my own egotism.
And I know my omnivorous words,
and cannot say any less.
And would fetch you whoever you are flush with myself.

I do not know what is untried and afterward,
But I know it is sure and alive and sufficient.

It is time to explain myself. Let us stand up.

I am an acme of things accomplished,
and I an encloser of things to be.
Rise after rise bow the phantoms behind me.
Afar down I see the huge first Nothing,
the vapor from the nostrils of death.
I know I was even there.
I waited unseen and always.
And slept while God carried me
through the lethargic mist.
And took my time.

Long I was hugged close. Long and long.
Infinite have been the preparations for me.
Faithful and friendly the arms that have helped me.

Cycles ferried my cradle, rowing and rowing
like cheerful boatmen;
For room to me stars kept aside in their own rings.
They sent influences to look after what was to hold me.

Before I was born out of my mother
generations guided me.
My embryo has never been torpid.
Nothing could overlay it.
For it the nebula cohered to an orb.
The long slow strata piled to rest it on.
Vast vegetables gave it substance.
Monstrous animals transported it in their mouths
and deposited it with care.

All forces have been steadily employed
to complete and delight me.
Now I stand on this spot with my soul.

I know that I have the best of time and space.
And that I was never measured, and never will be measured.

I tramp a perpetual journey.
My signs are a rainproof coat, good shoes
and a staff cut from the wood.

Each man and woman of you I lead upon a knoll.
My left hand hooks you about the waist,
My right hand points to landscapes and continents,
and a plain public road.

Not I, nor any one else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it for yourself.

It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born
and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.

Shoulder your duds, and I will mine,
and let us hasten forth.

If you tire, give me both burdens and rest the chuff of your hand on my hip.
And in due time you shall repay the same service to me.

Long enough have you dreamed contemptible dreams.
Now I wash the gum from your eyes.
You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life.

Long have you timidly waited,
holding a plank by the shore.
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,
To jump off in the midst of the sea, and rise again,
and nod to me and shout,
and laughingly dash your hair.

I am the teacher of athletes.
He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own
proves the width of my own.
He most honors my style
who learns under it to destroy the teacher.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then. I contradict myself.
I am large. I contain multitudes.

I concentrate toward them that are nigh.
I wait on the door-slab.

Who has done his day’s work
and will soonest be through with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me.

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me.
He complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed. I too am untranslatable.
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me.
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any
on the shadowed wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the desk.

I depart as air.
I shake my white locks at the runaway sun.
I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt and grow
from the grass I love.
If you want me again look for me under your boot soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean.
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless.
And filtre and fiber your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged.
Missing me one place search another
I stop some where waiting for you.

Today, this is that place.

[Later...] @PeerIndex responded with a generous and non-defensive tweet. As I tweeted back, hats off.

woman, dog, car

The Kid has been scanning archival family photos and I’ve been uploading them to Flickr (where I have now passed 39,000 shots in that one site alone). Many of these photos are well over a hundred years old. Most are about eighty years old, give or take a decade or two. They’re from the collection of Grace Apgar, my father’s sister, who is now 98 and doing fine. She’s been putting corrections and contexts into the comments. (There is a lot of longevity here. Grace’s mom, my grandmother, lived almost to 108.)

The shot above has me intrigued, because I’m curious to know what kind of car that is. Here’s another shot, of my father and a buddy, with a different car. That shot has a date, but the car’s identity isn’t clear to me yet. There are more car shots here and here.

So, just some fun stuff on a weekend, identifying old things.

My great uncle Jack Dwyer worked in the shipping and steamship business through the first half of the last century. He also took a lot of pictures, including my favorite family photo of all time. (I’m the kid with the beer.) I was going through a bunch of these on Flickr yesterday, when I noticed the name of a ship launched in Biloxi, in 1919. It was the Elizabeth Ruth. Look closely and you can see the ship is wooden. In fact it was one of the last of the masted schooners on which Biloxi specialized.

Thanks to Google Books and the Library of the University of Michigan, we have an account of the Elizabeth Ruth’s launch, in March 1917, in Volume 35 of The Rudder, edited by Thomas Fleming Day (in a day when using full names was still as current as sails on ships). Writes Day, “The Mississippi Shipping Corporation, at Biloxi, put out Elizabeth Ruth, of the Schooner type, one of the prettiest little vessels ever built in the United States, of 1400 tons cargo capacity.”

So I wondered whatever happened to the Elizabeth Ruth. And I quickly found out. From Papers Past, we have this account:

Sez the About page:

Papers Past contains more than one million pages of digitised New Zealand newspapers and periodicals. The collection covers the years 1839 to 1945 and includes 61 publications from all regions of New Zealand.

New Zealand. I just love that. Here I am, wanting to know what may have happened to a minor ship, built and launched from a minor port on one continent ninety-two years ago — that I have just learned about from a book scanned in Michigan and probably not cracked open in the library stacks there except to get scanned — and I get the answer from a scanned strip of equally old print, kindly curated by  archivists half a world away.

That just rocks. Hats off to librarians, archivists and their technical facilitators everywhere, doing the good work of opening up history and letting the world have at it.

Bonus link. Another.

The summary paragraph of a great column by Tom Friedman:

A dysfunctional political system is one that knows the right answers but can’t even discuss them rationally, let alone act on them, and one that devotes vastly more attention to cable TV preachers than to recommendations by its best scientists and engineers.

Here’s a link to Rising Above the Storm, the study Tom cites. There is a free download routine that requires giving ID information, though what you say is up to you.

Tags: ,

For folks interested in what makes Steve Jobs and Apple (same thing) tick, Being Steve Jobs’ Last Boss, in the current Bloomberg Businessweek, is helpful reading. It’s an interview of John Sculley by Leander Kahney of Cultofmac.com. Sculley had been a very successful president of Pepsico when he was recruited as CEO of Apple in 1983, essentially to serve as Steve Jobs’ adult supervisor. While Sculley oversaw much growth at Apple in the following decade, mistakes were made (including the ousting of Steve), and Sculley himself was ousted after a decade on the job.

The encompassing statements:

Steve had this perspective that always started with the user’s experience; and that industrial design was an incredibly important part of that user impression. He recruited me to Apple because he believed the computer was eventually going to become a consumer product. That was an outrageous idea back in the early 1980s. He felt the computer was going to change the world, and it was going to become what he called “the bicycle for the mind.”

What makes Steve’s methodology different from everyone else’s is that he always believed the most important decisions you make are not the things you do, but the things you decide not to do. He’s a minimalist. I remember going into Steve’s house, and he had almost no furniture in it. He just had a picture of Einstein, whom he admired greatly, and he had a Tiffany lamp and a chair and a bed. He just didn’t believe in having lots of things around, but he was incredibly careful in what he selected.

Everything at Apple can be best understood through the lens of designing. Whether it’s designing the look and feel of the user experience, or the industrial design, or the system design, and even things like how the boards were laid out. The boards had to be beautiful in Steve’s eyes when you looked at them, even though when he created the Macintosh he made it impossible for a consumer to get in the box, because he didn’t want people tampering with anything.

And,

The reason why I said it was a mistake to have hired me as CEO was Steve always wanted to be CEO. It would have been much more honest if the board had said, “Let’s figure out a way for him to be CEO.”

As I wrote to Dave (in September 1997, after Steve came back to Apple),

The simple fact is that Apple always was Steve’s company, even when he wasn’t there. The force that allowed Apple to survive more than a decade of bad leadership, cluelessness and constant mistakes was the legacy of Steve’s original Art. That legacy was not just an OS that was 10 years ahead of the rest of the world, but a Cause that induced a righteousness of purpose centered around a will to innovate — to perpetuate the original artistic achievements. And in Steve’s absence Apple did some righteous innovation too. Eventually, though, the flywheels lost mass and the engine wore out.

In the end, by when too many of the innovative spirts first animated by Steve had moved on to WebTV and Microsoft, all that remained was that righteousness, and Apple looked and worked like what it was: a church wracked by petty politics and a pointless yet deeply felt spirituality.

Now Steve is back, and gradually renovating his old company. He’ll do it his way, and it will once again express his Art.

These things I can guarantee about whatever Apple makes from this point forward:

  1. It will be original.
  2. It will be innovative.
  3. It will be exclusive.
  4. It will be expensive.
  5. It’s aesthetics will be impeccable.
  6. The influence of developers, even influential developers like you, will be minimal. The influence of customers and users will be held in even higher contempt.

And here we are.

Bonus link.

Several pieces worth noting.

From back in February, The Smarter You Are, the Less You Click, in ReadWriteWeb. It begins,

If the latest numbers from online ad network Chitika are anything to go by, then we may well be on our way to the world of Idiocracy. According to the study, which compared click through rates to college education, the less educated your audience, the more likely they are to click through on an advertisement.

While this may be good news for some, it certainly seems to spell doom for supporting intelligent content through advertising.

From almost ten years back, Andrew Odlyzko’s Content is not king. Way ahead of its time, even if current winds continue to blow against his vectors. Andrew concludes,

General connectivity is likely to lead to demands for symmetrical links on the Internet. Hence fiber to the home may be needed sooner than is generally expected.

Whether content is king or not has direct relevance for the question of whether the Internet will continue to be an open network, or whether it will be balkanized. If content were to dominate, then the Internet would be primarily a broadcast network. With value proportional to the number of users, there would be few inherent advantages to an open network. The sum of the values of several completely or partially separate networks would be the same as of a unified network. On the other hand, if point-to-point communications were to dominate, and if Metcalfe’s Law were to hold, there would be strong economic incentives to a unified network without barriers. This is considered more fully in Section 4 of [Odlyzko3]. The general conclusion there is that even though Metcalfe’s Law is not fully valid, the incentives to maintain an open network are likely to be very strong. This will be largely because content is not king, and effective point-to-point communication will demand easy interconnection.

An extreme form of the “content is king” position, but one that is shared by many people, and not just in the content industry, was expressed recently by the head of a major music producer and distributor:

“What would the Internet be without “content?” It would be a valueless collection of silent machines with gray screens. It would be the electronic equivalent of a marine desert – lovely elements, nice colors, no life. It would be nothing.” [Bronfman]The author of this claim is facing the possible collapse of his business model. Therefore it is natural for him to believe this claim, and to demand (in the rest of the speech [Bronfman]) that the Internet be designed to allow content producers to continue their current mode of operation. However, while one can admire the poetic language of this claim, all the evidence of this paper shows the claim itself is wrong. Content has never been king, it is not king now, and is unlikely to ever be king. The Internet has done quite well without content, and can continue to flourish without it. Content will have a place on the Internet, possibly a substantial place. However, its place will likely be subordinate to that of business and personal communication.

From GBN: The Evolving Internet: Driving Forces, Uncertainties and Scenarios to 2025. Specifically,

One scenario describes a familiar roadmap in which the Internet continues on its trajectory of unbridled expansion and product and service innovation. The other three challenge that future, and in the process illuminate various risks and opportunities that lie ahead for both business leaders and policy makers. These scenarios are:

Fluid Frontiers: The Internet is pervasive and technology makes connectivity and devices more and more affordable.

Insecure Growth: Users—individuals and business alike—are scared away from intensive reliance on the Internet as cyber-attacks and security lapses proliferate.

Short of the Promise: Prolonged economic stagnation and protectionism slow the Internet’s spread and potential.

Bursting at the Seams: The ubiquitous Internet is a true success story…until capacity bottlenecks create a gap between big expectations and a more modest reality of Internet use.

I had more on this list, but somehow the post got truncated, and I’m too busy now to find Humpty’s parts. So this will have to do.

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I’ve been so heads-down working on a book, and prepping  for this this week’s workshop, that I haven’t blogged anything in a while. Normally blogging is a steam valve for my work, but tweeting does more of that now. (Which is too bad, because tweets are snow on the water. Or at least it seems that way when I go back looking for what somebody said.) So the blog(s) get neglected.

Anyway, I want to share my affection for two new books that blowing my mind, page after page. One is Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants. The other is Lewis Hyde’s Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership. Both authors worked for years on these books, and it shows in the depth of their scholarship and the polish of their prose.

Both are not merely important, but essential. Kevin’s breaks new ground in all directions one must travel to understand what technology is, and its relationship with human nature and work. Lewis does a complete re-think of “intellectual property,” and in the process re-grounds our understanding in an abundance of history — too much of which has been long (and selectively) forgotten. I can’t find a review of What Technology Wants yet, so I’ll link to what Craig Burton said here a while ago. Common as Air got a huge thumbs-up from Robert Darnton this past Sunday in The New York Times’ Sunday Book Review. Go read it. I’m getting back to work.

I recently realized that the line “Markets are conversations” (familiar as the first thesis in The Cluetrain Manifesto) was born at least partly from my experience as a resident of many forums on Compuserve, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was on Compuserve that I learned the differences between flaming, trolling and plain old heated discussion. While I wasn’t a full-time sysop (discussion leader) I often came off the bench as a back-up, and learned a lot about good sysop practices from forums devoted to the subject.

Perhaps the most cardinal among rules enforced by syops was this one: no personal attacks. (Wikipedia agrees.) Personal attacks were a broad category that included unwelcome characterizations, ad hominem arguments and various forms of passive aggression. Most often, however, they could be flagged by the pronoun you. Written or spoken in the second person singular, you tends to provoke a defensive response, especially if it implies a state of being. When A says to B, “You are wrong,” A is not making a statement about what B has said, but rather about B himself or herself.

Conversations risk going south when one person characterizes the other’s very being as “wrong” — even though the phrase “You’re wrong” could hardly be more common.

This fact came to mind today when I read The Evolution of Society, Madness and Social Media, by Tac Anderson. In it Tac says this:

Anytime I have a visceral reaction to something, I’ve learned that it’s usually because there’s some truth to the statement that threatens my own closely held beliefs. This kind of fear is rooted one of two concerns: a) The truth is misrepresented and misleading or b) the truth is right and that means that I’m wrong (for the record it’s almost always that they’re wrong).

All of which is something of a corollary to a bit of wisdom I often give my 13-year-old son: “Being right is overrated.” We’re here to learn, I tell him. Not just to score points in a game that others aren’t also playing.

The trick in conversation is not just to listen, but to do two things that come hard for people with an unhealthy need for being in a state of rightness. One is to respect the other person as an original source of interesting (if not necessarily correct) things to say. The other is weigh without prejudice the substance of what the other person is saying. Neither, of course, comes easy. Both, however, are helpful.

The case Tac brings up is his own aversion to Nicholas Carr and two items for which Nick is lately best known. One is an Atlantic article titled, Is Google Making Us Stupid? The other is The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, a book that enlarges on the article, about which Tac says, “…once you take away his intentionally provocative title and approach, for the most part I think he’s right – about the facts at least.” Tac goes on to say,

The Internet, like every other technological advancement, is changing the way we think, live and work. But where I disagree with Carr, is that the Internet is not making us stupid. Instead I believe the Internet is making most of us smarter. But there is a consequence to this evolution: Not everyone evolves.

Tac adds a number of points that I agree or disagree with to varying degrees. Here is what I would like him, and anybody else who is interested, to think about: What if the Internet does not persist as an environmental condition?

It certainly won’t persist in the forms we know it best right now. Phone and cable companies, by whose graces most of us access the Internet, have self-serving ambitions for the Net that are at variance from the ideals of the Net’s founding protocols. Phone companies, especially mobile ones, want to bring the Net inside their billing systems, with metered charges for data use and national boundaries across which customers pay huge additional fees for “roaming.” Cable companies wish to become “content providers”, as publishing, broadcast and entertainment goods move from paper, airwaves and cable channels to new all-digital forms that display on glowing rectangles of all kinds.

In other words, I wonder if the world in which Tac and others like him (including myself) find themselves adapting so well isn’t doomed to become Business As Usual 2.0. That’s what Jonathan Zittrain warns in his book The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It. As Jonathan sees it, the Internet was designed to be generative. That is, it encourages originality and productivity for everything it runs on and that it supports — not just for the companies and technologies that “carry” it. (By the way, the old sysops forum on Compuserve was run for many years by Jonathan, who later co-founded the Berkman Center.)

I think the Net will get worse before it gets better. But I think we need to consider seriously whether it will get better at all. Recent defeats of the FCC by carriers make clear who holds the cards. (And I’m not saying that the FCC was right. I’ve always felt that “Net Neutrality” was more effective as a red flag for carriers than for helping its proponents’ legislative and regulatory agendas.)

Here’s what I believe, at least for now. The Internet, as the open and generative thing its protocols like to support, is good for humanity, for human evolution, for society and for business. I would like that to be right, but it might be wrong, and I’m open to hearing that.

Meanwhile, I don’t think we’ve had enough time to prove anybody’s case. And evolution will prove more patient than any of us.

Ancestral bonus links here, here and here.

Immigrants and Crime: Time for a Sensible Debate is a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Francis Fukuyama with the subhead, The gardeners and maids who cross the border illegally are very different from the tattooed Salvatrucha gang member who lives by extortion and drug-dealing.

Here’s the gist:

There is indeed a huge problem of crime originating in Latin America and spilling into the United States. This is almost wholly driven by the enormous demand for drugs from the U.S. There are many things we can and should do to mitigate this problem, but it will persist as long as that demand remains high.

But the problem of gangs and drug violence should not be confounded with the behavior of the vast majority of illegal immigrants to the U.S., who by and large are seeking the same thing that every immigrant to America has wanted since the time of the Mayflower: to better their condition and that of their families. They are not criminals in the sense of people who make a living by breaking the law. They would be happy to live legally, but they come from societies in which legal rules were never quite extended to them. They are therefore better described as “informal” rather than “illegal.”

Understanding this distinction requires knowing something about the social order in Latin America or, for that matter, in many other developing countries. These societies are often characterized by sharp class distinctions between a relatively small, well-educated elite and a much broader and poorer population.

Note how this re-framings the problem.

Fukuyama goes on to unpack what he means by “informal”:

The rule of law exists in places like Mexico, Colombia and El Salvador; the problem is that access to the legal system tends to be a privilege of the well-to-do. The vast majority of illegal immigrants to the U.S. come from poor rural areas, or shantytowns in large cities, where the state — in the form of courts, government agencies and the like — is often absent. Registering a small business, or seeking help from the police, or negotiating a contract requires money, time and political influence that the poor do not possess. In many Latin American countries, as much as 70%-80% of the population lives and works in the informal sector.

The lack of legal access does not make everyone in these regions criminals. It simply means that they get by as best they can through informal institutions they themselves create. The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has written extensively about the lack of formal property rights, not just in his own country but throughout the developing world. The poor do not hold legal title to their homes, despite having lived in them for years, because of the insuperable barriers the system throws up to formal registration. So they squat in their homes, constantly insecure and unable to use their property as collateral.

The poor are entrepreneurial and form businesses like restaurants and bus companies, but they are unlicensed and don’t conform to official safety rules. They and everyone else would be much better off if they could be brought into the formal legal system, but it is a dysfunctional political system that prevents that from happening.

This is a beautiful linguistic hack, right out of the George Lakoff rulebook. Fukuyama pays respect to bedrock concepts of conservative thinking: rule of law, property rights, entrepreneurship, self-reliance… and disdain for dysfunctional political systems. But he also borrows another rightward concept — formal (a cousin to law), and pulls all wannabe law-abiding imigrants into that frame, but as informal. Subtract the in and your problem is solved.

This artful play by Fukuhama is especially interesting to me, because I think we have been having the wrong debates about the Internet and how to improve it. Carriers vs. Neutralists only amps up the politics. Hand-wringing about lack of rural broadband only plays on the left. The idea of re-classifying the Net as a breed of telecom is a clever regulatory hack by the FCC, but it has shifted debate back into lobby politics, which the agency’s friends and enemies of the moment — Google and the carriers — are good at playing. Jonathan Zittrain’s arguments favoring generativity are good ones, and he’s right that hope lies with users; but the pro-business case isn’t quite there.

I want to make that case. This piece by Francis Fukuyama is a good model for How It’s Done.

Now what I want to see is if his strategy works. If we’re talking about “informal immigrants” in a year, the answer will be yes.

Bonus link.


While walking around Paris for the last month, I’ve been fascinated by the highly fossiliferous limestone that comprises so many of its iconic structures. At one point I thought, Hmm… The City of Light is built with materials of death. I had no idea how much farther that thought would take me.

Without abundant death we wouldn’t have asphalt, concrete, marble, travertine, chert, oil, coal or countless other graces of civilization. Still, there seemed to be an unusual abundance of limestone in use here, and I wondered where it came from. Naturally, from my 21st century perspective, I assumed that all the stone had been quarried in some other place: hills outside of town, perhaps. (Lutetian limestone, it’s called, and it’s a relatively new rock: only only a few dozen million years old. Younger than dinosaurs. It’s also known as “Paris stone”, and has become quite the fashion item lately.) What I hadn’t figured was that nearly all of this building stone, for many centuries, was extracted from beneath Paris itself.

I didn’t learn that fact until we visited the Catacombes a couple days ago.

The Catacombes are bone banks called ossuaries. They occupy abandoned quarries beneath Paris and contain the remains of more than six million people. Many of the deceased are surely the same men (and women? probably) who carved out the quarries, mostly in the first several centuries of the last millennium. It must have been quite a project, since they withdrew enough rock to assemble Notre Dame, thousands of other churches large and small, bridges, city walls and homes — and left beneath the streets of Paris more than 300 kilometers (100 miles) of tunnels, including rooms and vaults that together comprise a vast man-made cave system. Top to bottom, a vertical cross-section of Paris looks like this:

  • Surface — streets, buildings, parks
  • Metro tunnels
  • Sewers
  • Quarries

Fossils are bones of stone, I explained to my kid. And limestones are stones of bone. Here in the Catacombes, down hallways that go on and on and on and on, the bones of dead Parisians are stacked into walls, with an artistry that makes one wonder what was going on in the heads of the masons. The walls facing the halls and passing visitors are built mostly with femurs and skulls. The femurs are stacked and interlocked, with the knee knuckles outward, course after course forming a pattern like stitches in a cloth. These are interrupted by horizontal lines of skulls, and usually topped with a final row: a crowning course of human heads. Here and there some arm bones might be used, but femurs and skulls were clearly the preferable building material. Behind these walls behind lie the rest of the bones: remains of remains.

The masons were priests. The bones were gathered from the city’s cemeteries, which had become rotten with an abundance of corpses as the end of the 18th century approached. That’s when it was decided to move the bones down into deeper graves. The quarries were empty, so the bones came down. The whole project went in stages, running from the late 1700s to the middle 1800s. The priests, whose jobs already required exceptional respect for the dead, were conscripted for the work.

The pictures in my collection (such as the one above) aren’t the best I’ve taken. Most of the light was provided by dim illumination in the catacombes itself, or by cell phones. If you wish to know more (and I recommend it), here are a pile of fascinating links:

Since one walks through the tunnels in the company of others, it is less creepy than you might think. After a while, endless aisles of bones also tend to make the bones themselves ordinary. Yet one wonders: Is this skull Robespierre’s? Danton’s? Both lost their heads at the guillotine, but down here all heads are equally ordinary and anonymous, fully respected, but still just building material.

A lesson: different as we all are in life, we are remarkably identical in death. Skulls tend to all look the same. So do other bones. One can say, These were babies once. Then laughing children. They grew up, learned about life, and lived long enough to produce more babies and get work done. And what they’ve left is no different than what everybody else leaves.

What makes us animals is that we eat other living things. (We need their carbon.) We live on things that lived. And we build with them too. Death supplies us. In turn, we supply as well. And all our turns will come.

What makes us different is who and what we are, and what we do, when we’re alive. Life is for the living. And so, it turns out, is death.

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There’s only one way to justify Internet data speeds as lopsided as the one to the left.

Television.

It’s an easy conclusion to draw here at our borrowed Parisian apartment, where the Ethernet cable serving the laptop comes from a TV set top box. As you see, the supplier is FreeSAS, or just http://free.fr.

I don’t know enough French to interpret that page, or the others in Free’s tree, but the pictures and pitches speak loudly enough. What Free cares about most is television. Same is true for its customers, no doubt.

Television is deeply embedded in pretty much all developed cultures by now. We — and I mean this in the worldwide sense — are not going to cease being couch potatoes. Nor will our suppliers cease couch potato farming, even as TV moves from airwaves to cable, satellite, and finally the Internet.

In the process we should expect the spirit (if not also the letter) of the Net’s protocols to be violated.

Follow the money. It’s not for nothing that Comcast wishes to be in the content business. In the old cable model there’s a cap on what Comcast can charge, and make, distributing content from others. That cap is its top cable subscription deals. Worse, they’re all delivered over old-fashioned set top boxes, all of which are — as Steve Jobs correctly puts it — lame. If you’re Comcast, here’s what ya do:

  1. Liberate the TV content distro system from the set top sphincter.
  2. Modify or re-build the plumbing to deliver content to Net-native (if not entirely -friendly) devices such as home flat screens, smartphones and iPads.
  3. Make it easy for users to pay for any or all of it on an à la carte (or at least an easy-to-pay) basis, and/or add a pile of new subscription deals.

Now you’ve got a much bigger marketplace, enlarged by many more devices and much less friction on the payment side. (Put all “content” and subscriptions on the shelves of “stores” like iTunes’ and there ya go.) Oh, and the Internet? … that World of Ends that techno-utopians (such as yours truly) liked to blab about? Oh, it’s there. You can download whatever you want on it, at higher speeds every day, overall. But it won’t be symmetrical. It will be biased for consumption. Our job as customers will be to consume — to persist, in the perfect words of Jerry Michalski, as “gullets with wallets and eyeballs.”

Future of the Internet

So, for current and future build-out, the Internet we techno-utopians know and love goes off the cliff while better rails get built for the next generations of TV — on the very same “system.” (For the bigger picture, Jonathan Zittrain’s latest is required reading.)

In other words, it will get worse before it gets better. A lot worse, in fact.

But it will get better, and I’m not saying that just because I’m still a utopian. I’m saying that because the new world really is the Net, and there’s a limit to how much of it you can pave with one-way streets. And how long the couch potato farming business will last.

More and more of us are bound to produce as well as consume, and we’ll need two things that a biased-for-TV Net can’t provide. One is speed in both directions: out as well as in. (“Upstream” calls Sisyphus to mind, so let’s drop that one.) The other is what Bob Frankston calls “ambient connectivity.” That is, connectivity we just assume.

When you go to a hotel, you don’t have to pay extra to get water from the “hydro service provider,” or electricity from the “power service provider.” It’s just there. It has a cost, but it’s just overhead.

That’s the end state. We’re still headed there. But in the meantime the Net’s going through a stage that will be The Last Days of TV. The optimistic view here is that they’ll also be the First Days of the Net.

Think of the original Net as the New World, circa 1491. Then think of TV as the Spanish invasion. Conquistators! Then read this essay by Richard Rodriguez. My point is similar. TV won’t eat the Net. It can’t. It’s not big enough. Instead, the Net will swallow TV. Ten iPad generations from now, TV as we know it will be diffused into countless genres and sub-genres, with millions of non-Hollywood production centers. And the Net will be bigger than ever.

In the meantime, however, don’t hold your breath.

I came late to love math. Not sure why, but my grasp of the concepts (which is far from great) is not matched by skill or speed at calculation. There always seemed to be teeth missing in the gears of my mind. Give me a short column of two-digit numbers and I’m likely to give you three answers in three tries.

Still, I’ve long appreciated what the human mind could do with math (which is approximately everything, if you want a working civilization), thanks not to any teachers of the subject, but rather to Martin Gardner of Scientific American. He made math fun, even when I didn’t get where he was going with it. He even played a small role, I think, in getting me my first (and pretty much only) writing gig for a major magazine.

Alas, he died yesterday, at age 95. Here’s a profile of him, from 1995.

Thanks to @dpentecost for the heads-up.

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Until her Supreme Court nomination turned Elena Kagan into big-time news fodder, there was not an abundance of great pictures of her to be found on the Web. Among the better ones to be found were a couple I had posted on Flickr a couple years ago, when she was still Dean of Harvard Law School. Here’s one. Here’s another.

The second of those (cropped a bit) was put up on Wikimedia Commons, and for awhile accompanied her Wikipedia entry, and continues to be used in a number of places.

Both shots have a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 license, meaning anybody can use it, and should also give me credit for having shot it. And both shots have appeared since then in many publications. Some, like Wikipedia, do a good job of following the license. Some, for example Outside the Beltway — in this piece stirring the shit about Ms. Kagan while accusing CBS and other news organizations of bad journalistic practices — do not.

None of that is troubling, or even very interesting. Instead what prompts this post is a comment under one of the two photos, from an entity called TEA PARTY LEADER. It’s a diatribe that verges on hate speech, but (in my amateur judgment) doesn’t quite cross the line. The question for me, when I saw the comment, was Should I kill it?

My photo pile on Flickr isn’t a public space. It welcomes comments to the degree that it simply allows them. It has no rules (of my own or defaulted by Flickr) regarding comments, beyond the ability Flickr provides for editing or deleting them.

I asked fellow Berkman Fellows list for their thoughts, and those went both ways. Some said the space is mine to manage, and if somebody is rudely spamming the premises I should feel free to delete their icky work. Others said doing so indeed would violate free speech principles, even if I would be within my rights in doing so. I was also probed with questions about whether I would delete the comment if its positions were more agreeable to me — though with manners just as rude.

I’ve been inclined from the start toward leaving it up, and that’s where I’m staying. But in the meantime I thought I’d pass along the same questions.

What would you do, and why?

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…in the mid-Atlantic and New England states between 1800 and 1830, turnpike companies accounted for 27 percent of all business incorporations.

That’s from Turnpikes and Toll Roads in Nineteenth-Century America, by Daniel B. Klein, Santa Clara University and John Majewski, University of California Santa Barbara. A long entry in EH.net, an encyclopedia of economic history, it unpacks a remarkable but mostly-forgotten stage of business growth in North America. In reading it I wonder what relevance it might have to the current problems regarding the financing, deployment and running of Internet infrastructure, especially for rural areas that are outside the geographic scope of telephone and cable company ambitions. Take this paragraph, for example:

For Americans looking for better connections to markets, the poor state of the road system was a major problem. In 1790, a viable steamboat had not yet been built, canal construction was hard to finance and limited in scope, and the first American railroad would not be completed for another forty years. Better transportation meant, above all, better highways. State and local governments, however, had small bureaucracies and limited budgets which prevented a substantial public sector response. Turnpikes, in essence, were organizational innovations borne out of necessity – “the states admitted that they were unequal to the task and enlisted the aid of private enterprise” (Durrenberger 1931, 37).

The operative phrase is in the first sentence: better connections to markets. These were markets of the literal sort: places where people gathered to carry out business and other social activities. Most of the civilized world was country then. The most common business was farming. As farming spread farther from cities, the largest of which were ports with harbors or astride navigable inland waters, means had to be found to finance the building and operating of roads. Another two paragraphs:

Throughout the nineteenth-century, the United States was notoriously “land-rich” and “capital poor.” The viability of turnpikes shows how Americans devised institutions – in this case, toll-collecting corporations – that allowed them to invest precious capital in important public projects. What’s more, turnpikes paid little in direct dividends and stock appreciation, yet still attracted investment. Investors, of course, cared for long-term economic development, but that does not account for how turnpike organizers overcame the important public goods problem of buying turnpike stock. Esteem, social pressure, and other non-economic motivations influenced local residents to make investments that they knew would be unprofitable (at least in a direct sense) but would nevertheless help the entire community. On the other hand, the turnpike companies enjoyed the organizational clarity of stock ownership and residual returns. All companies faced the possibility of pressure from investors, who might have wanted to salvage something of their investment. Residual claimancy may have enhanced the viability of many projects, including communitarian projects undertaken primarily for use and esteem.

The combining of these two ingredients – the appeal of use and esteem, and the incentives and proprietary clarity of residual returns – is today severely undermined by the modern legal bifurcation of private initiative into “not-for-profit” and “for-profit” concerns. Not-for-profit corporations can appeal to use and esteem but cannot organize themselves to earn residual returns. For-profit corporations organize themselves for residual returns but cannot very well appeal to use and esteem.

The Internet is to commerce today what the oceans were two centuries ago: essential means for connecting between distant places and moving goods. While physical goods must still move by physical means, digital goods and the digital communications surrounding them move via the Internet, which connects over a variety of wired (copper, fiber) and wireless paths. Every town and district with absent or small data transport capacities today faces the same kinds of choices that were met by the toll roads two hundred years ago.

In the long run toll roads proved a temporary solution to a permanent problem that could be solved other ways. But I wonder what we still might learn from them, at least for regions where the problems are similar, and the solutions likely to be just as temporary.

Last July I explained Why WQXR is better off as a public radio station. One hundred and twelve comments followed, the last posted in January of this year. Far as I know, that’s a record for this blog.

Background: when WQXR, which had been New York City’s landmark classical music station since the Roosevelt Hoover administration, was sold by the New York Times to WNYC, it went through two huge changes. First, it went up the dial from 96.3 to 105.9, while dropping to about 1/10th the wattage of its old signal. Second, it changed from a commercial station to a noncommercial one. Those opposed to the moves predicted failure on both accounts.

Instead, WQXR is a success. It’s ratings briefly tanked during the transition last October, then bounced back to their old levels:

Since then WQXR has run neck-and-neck with its parent’s main station, WNYC-FM (which has a signal identical to the old WQXR, coming from the same master antenna on the Empire State Building):

(Source for both: Radio-Info.com. Click on the images for details.)

Those three columns are for January, February and March of this year. The February number, 834,400, was reportedly tops in all of public radio. That’s what Elizabeth Jensen wrote in yesterday’s Classical Music’s Comeback, on Public Radio, in the New York Times. She says WQXR is a financial as well as a ratings success, and typical of successful transitions by other classical stations from commercial to noncommercial business models, in some cases with lesser signals as well.

So, all ends well that starts well.

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We’ve seen this movie: the one where a big company takes over a whole market ecosystem. There was IBM with mainframes, Microsoft with operating systems, Apple with pocket music players (and now apps for phones and tablets).

But there’s another movie too. That’s the one where the big company fails. IBM did that with PCs. (They started the ball rolling, but no longer even make the things.) Apple did it with PDAs, when the Newton flopped. And Microsoft, even in its glory days, failed at a lot of things.

One big one was directories. All but lost in the sands of time is Netscape’s lone victory over a Microsoft move to make everybody in the world use Active Directory. That story was told by Craig Burton in an Interview I did for the late Websmith (later merged into Linux Journal) fourteen years ago this month.

Another was identity, and single sign-on. Microsoft tried that with Hailstorm, and flopped.

And now comes Facebook with social graphs, which Barrett Sheridan calls a Play to Take Over the Entire Internet, and Mark Zuckerberg (two links back) says is the “next version of Facebook Platform,” which he says “puts people at the center of the web.”

Right. Sez Mark,

We think that the future of the web will be filled with personalized experiences. We’ve worked with three pre-selected partners—Microsoft Docs, Yelp and Pandora—to give you a glimpse of this future, which you can access without having to login again or click to connect. For example, now if you’re logged into Facebook and go to Pandora for the first time, it can immediately start playing songs from bands you’ve liked across the web. And as you’re playing music, it can show you friends who also like the same songs as you, and then you can click to see other music they like.

We look forward to a future where all experiences are this easy and personalized, and we’re happy today to take the next important step to get there.

Of course, then we no longer have the Web. We have the Union of Soviet Social Graph Vendors.

This will fail, of course. Commercial containers for the Web (social or otherwise) are limited. They have rules. They are the Great Indoors, which can neither control nor compete with the Great Outdoors which is the Web itself.

But discovering this plain fact will take some time. Or, more to the point, waste it. The hard way.

As usual, Dave Winer nails the diagnostics, with Will this loop ever end? Sez Dave,

Facebook is hot now, but history has shown that being a hotbed doesn’t scale. That eventually these companies have to tap into the general talent pool and they end up achieving the same level of mediocrity as the previous dominant one. It happened to IBM, the minicomputer companies, IBM again, Microsoft, now it’s Google’s turn, and soon it will be Facebook’s.

Let’s go back to Microsoft and Hailstorm. It’s important to remember the hysteria surrounding that move. Many thought that this was The End. Here is what I wrote at the time on my blog. I just copied and pasted the html below (from Google’s cache, while the archive was offline…  somehow the bold-faced search terms give it a little extra punch, so I’m leaving them in)…

Trojan Storm

The storm has arrived, and the peerage is weighing in with its reactions.

When I first read about Hailstorm, it scared the shit out of me. (As it also did to Joel Spolsky, who gives us a fine tech-level explanation of exactly why.)

But at a deeper level — the social level where the Net connects us — I have complete faith in forces more powerful than any monopoly’s wet dream. And that’s the Net.

The Net is ours. Not Microsoft’s. Hailstorm is heavy weather, but the Net is geology. Our geology. It’s us, not just me (pun intended).

Computing isn’t personal any more. It’s social. Microsoft understands that, but it’s not where they come from. Where they come from is the desktop. Always have, always will. It’s not for nothing they’re called Microsoft.

With Hailstorm, Microsoft is doing a beautiful job of being itself. As always, they’re draping users in bountiful benefits, whether those users want them or not). That’s just what Microsoft does. They can’t help it. They come from the desktop, just like Apple comes from art and Nordstrom comes from shoes.

And they sound very convincing, because they’re busy advocating the user. You can’t go wrong there, can you?

O yeah. You always go wrong when you characterize competent human beings as weak and helpless — and then tell them your stuff is their only hope. That’s exactly what Microsoft does in the very first line of Building the User-centric Experience:

    Users are definitely not in control of the technology that surrounds them.  Asked to adapt to the differences between the way they interact with local programs and sites on the web, asked to cope with doing things completely differently on their cell phone, their PC, and any other device they have, users are generally frustrated and confused.

Like moths in a lampshade. How sad. And whose fault is that?

    If you want to enter a friend’s new phone number into your PC, you use a keyboard and a piece of software like Microsoft Outlook to do it using a particular sequence of keystrokes and mouse clicks.  But to enter that same information into your Palm Pilot, you need to learn a completely new interface – right down to relearning how to draw the letters of the alphabet!

Oh! It’s Palm’s fault! That OS is so hard to use. Not easy like Outlook, which is so encrusted with options that few users ever figure the damn thing out. (To say the least of it.) The insults continue:

    This environment, in which users are forced to adapt to technology instead of technology adapting to users, creates significant restrictions on how effective any application or Web site can be, and ultimately hinders the acceptance and adoption of not only the technologies themselves, but also the real-world products and services that might be best offered to a user in the context of the things they do online.

The environment we’re talking about here is called a market. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, it’s full of choices that don’t agree with each other. But it’s the natural habitat for business. It’s also networked to the gills. That network is where users live. Not just Windows. Not just .Net, whatever it becomes.

The Trojan Storm here isn’t Windows or even .Net. It’s Internet Explorer.

The Net is ours, indeed. But most of us interact with it through a Microsoft browser. That browser is about to get a lot fatter. That’s the only way to interpret this:

    HailStorm services are oriented around people, instead of around a specific device, application, service, or network.  They put the user in control of their own data and information, protecting personal information and making user consent the basis for who can access it, what they can do with it, and for how long they have that permission.

It’s time for us to stop acting like an audience and start acting like a market. For that we need to do three things:

  1. Work with the hackers to make Mozilla the best possible alternative to Internet Explorer — and fast.
  2. Start paying more attention and respect to other developers who are working together to make the Net something that works better for all of us (and that includes interested developers inside Microsoft — it’s a big company).
  3. Expose Hailstorm for what it is: yet another attempt by Microsoft to collapse the Net into its own service framework. And to say this won’t work because the Net’s context is bigger than any vendor, no matter how privileged they are with “critical mass.”

It’s important to remember that this is not just about Microsoft’s napoleonic corporate personality, which is equally real and beside the point, making it the biggest red herring in business history.

It’s about building out the Net’s infrastructure. .Net doesn’t do it. Hailstorm doesn’t do it. Java doesn’t do it. No “solution” controlled by one vendor will do it.

You can’t privatize what only works because it’s public. Microsoft hasn’t learned that lesson yet. Let’s help them.

And we did. Mozilla succeeded, and so have other browsers. Identity still isn’t a solved problem and may never be — at least not in the simple way one gets when the Eye of Sauron rules the world. But the very fact that good people are working on identity and related problems out in the open is endlessly encouraging.

Speaking of which, the 10th Internet Identity Workshop is happening in Mountain View next month. Micrtosoft is a sponsor, as are many other companies and organizations, some of which (Information Card Foundation, Open ID Foundation) grew directly or indirectly out of IIW conversations. In fact, Microsoft’s good identity work (started by Kim Cameron and colleagues there) would not have happened without Hailstorm’s failure.

If Facebook and Twitter are smart (and listen to their elders), they’ll skip the loop. Burn the movie. Get Net- and Web-compliant. Because that’s where nature will takes us in the long run anyway. Let’s not keep making that run longer than it needs to be.

I’ll be giving a talk by the title above, at 4pm in the conference room of the Berkman Center, 23 Everett Street in Cambridge. The occasion is the regular bi-weekly meeting of our Infrastructure Group — an informal collection of folks interested in the topic. The group was gathered by Christian Sandvig, an authority on the topic. (Christian gave a great talk last week in the Berkman luncheon series. Check it out.)

Infrastructure has long been a focus of my work as a fellow with the Center for Information Technology & Society at UCSB, although at this stage I’m still more of an observer of the topic than an authority on it. You’ll find lots of photos tagged with “infrastructure” in my Flickr stream (now more than 34,000 shots long), plus more at the Berkman Infrastructure Group’s own Flickr site. I’ll be leveraging some of those, and putting what I’ve gathered into the helpful contextprovided by Stewart Brand‘s great book, How Buildings Learn — What happens after they’re built (which was later made into a BBC series you can watch on Google Video).

Look forward to seeing some of ya’ll there.

At 11:30pm on April 22, 1978 Saturday Night Live opened with Paul Schaffer, made up to look like music promoter Don Kirshner (whose show ran in most markets right after SNL). What followed was a lesson in branding that we’re still learning. Here’s  how it looks in the show’s transcript (sorry, the original isn’t on YouTube):

Don Kirshner…..Paul Shaffer
Jake Blues…..John Belushi
Elwood Blues…..Dan Aykroyd

[ open on Don Kirschner ]

Don Kirschner: I’m Don Kirschner, and welcome to “Rock Concert”. In 1969, Marshall Checkers, of the legendary Checkers Records, called me on a new blues act that had been playing in a small, funky club on Chicago’s South Side. Today, with the help of Jerry Erdegan, and the staff of Pacific Records, their manager, Morey Daniels, and with the support of fellow artists Curtis Selgado and the Cray Band, they are no longer an authentic blues act, but have managed to become a viable commercial product. So now, let’s join “Joliet” Jake and his silent brother Elwood — The Blues Brothers.

[ pan down and dissolve to Jake and Elwood Blues, the Blues Brothers, performing on the stage below ]

That was the first the world saw of the Blues Brothers: two actors who parlayed ironic comedy into a successful movie, in which the layers of irony piled higher and higher. All those layers speak volumes about “branding” — the reality, not the buzzword. What they say (or can’t un-say) is that the Blues Brothers are a commercial product.

Coming off my flight to London the other day I was caught in the crunch to leave the plane, in that spot near the door where the two aisles squeeze into one for the jetway. There I found myself in the passing company of two passengers talking about “personal brands” and how “social media” is good for them. I wanted to say “brands are boring” to them, but decided to blog about it instead. Hence the post by that title at the last link.

Since then I’ve been pointed to various writers and posts that put nice paint jobs on the cattle-burning practice that “branding” was originally — and still, in spite of all marketing spin to the contrary, remains. This here cartoon for example, which got me boiling again.

So I decided to have another go at it, partly because I don’t want the topic to die (until “branding” is exposed for the shallow thing it too often is), and partly because I just read Brand Rehab, the Schupeter column in the April 10, 2010 issue of The Economist. Like too much of everything else, it’s about Tiger Woods. But, being the Economist, it’s about the money, which always focuses matters. For example,

Tiger Woods’s penchant for cocktail waitresses and porn actresses ended up costing an astonishing amount of money: two economists at the University of California, Davis, have calculated that his biggest corporate sponsors, such as Nike and Gatorade, saw as much as $12 billion wiped off the value of their shares in the wake of the scandal.

That’s twelve billion. With a B.

One company that took a huge hit, of course, was Accenture. Dig Guanabee’s Worst Tiger Woods Accenture Ads for a reminder of what all of us heavy travelers saw printed on back-lit plexiglass displays in airport concourses over the years leading up to revelations about Tiger’s personal life, after which they all disappeared. (Except, of course, on the Web.) One sample:

Accenture failed here by assuming that Tiger wasn’t human. Which is close enough to true, if you’re just looking at Tiger as a golfer. The man is not only the closest any golfer has ever come to walking robotics, but his whole golf persona has always been remarkably mechanical as well.

Turn a person into a brand, and what do you get? Something incomplete at best, and fake at worst. Borrow that human brand to represent your company, and you take some risks. Your branded celebrity might actually be a fine human being. Or they might be a philandering scumbag. Either way, the brand is a paint job. It’s not real except in the commercial dimension, and only in a narrow way even there.

The only advertiser that has stuck with Tiger since the bimbo bombs started going off is another landmark brand: Nike. The latest Nike/Tiger ad features the golfer’s sad face, staring at the camera, while the voice of his dead father speaks. “I want to find out what your thinking was,” Earl Woods says.”I want to find out what your feelings are. And did you learn anything.” Well, one thing the rest of us learned was that Tiger was with one of his mistresses on the night he got word that his father had died.

Nike, the brand, famously supports its sponsored athletes because the company is about athletes and athletics. Which is all fine. What matters is what the athletes do on the field, on the court, on the golf course. Sure. But what matters more is what these companies actually do.

Here in Reality, companies buy Accenture’s services. Individuals buy Nike’s shoes. None of what customers buy from either company gets an ounce of substantive worth from Tiger Woods, or from anything those companies do with their “branding” strategies, no matter how much those strategies serve to help sales and stock prices.

We live in an age when we can kick tires hard. Accenture’s and Nike’s tires are not Tiger Woods. And Tiger Woods, even if he’s long been a lying sack of shit, isn’t a tire either. He’s a human being, and that’s what makes him interesting. Not what his golf game says about companies that pay him.

In his comment below my Brands are boring post, Chris Carfi pointed to this post on BlogHer in which Yvonne, a blogger there, unloaded on people who insist she act like a blogging brand, rather than the human being she’s been all along:

Blogging as I know it has changed.

Woman with Mouth Stitched Shut

And I just can’t keep up. Because this blog isn’t a business. My blog is personal.

I just want to keep writing about my life. About my kids. About my struggles with health and weight and body image. I just want to write.

I feel like a complete misfit in blogging, which is so weird because I’ve been doing this since 2002 and what the hell?

Blogging is a business! Build your brand! YOUR BRAAANNNNNDDDD!

There’s no denying that I’ve been given some pretty amazing opportunities through blogging. (Interviewing the cast of New Adventures of Old Christine. Meeting Tony Hawk.) And that still amazes me. But that’s not WHY I do it. That will never be why I do it.

And suddenly, it feel like — if that’s not why I’m doing it, why even bother?

I used to be able to sit down and write a post about the most trivial things — like my trip to the doctor’s office yesterday, for example — hit publish, enjoy the comments and move on to the next post. Now I doubt every post. “This isn’t good enough.” “No one will care about that.” “People are writing about HEALTH CARE REFORM AND YOU’RE WRITING ABOUT PEEING WHILE YOU SNEEZE YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG.”

I also used to be able to write about important things, like depression or body image and feel safe. Feel like it mattered. Like by writing my story I was helping people and that people were helping me by reading, by sharing their stories. I know that is still true, but sometimes? I feel like the stories aren’t being heard because we’re all too busy about traffic and page views and twitter followers and OUR BRRRANNND.

And that’s fine! It’s wonderful that women are finding success because of their blogs — I mean it, it makes me so proud. But also? A little sad. Sad that those of us who are just here for the writing, for the stories, for the good content are feeling so out of place and irrelevant.

I don’t even know where I’m going with this anymore other than to say I’m struggling with blogging right now and I hope that by writing this out I will be able to make some sort of peace with it all and stop over thinking this shit and JUST START WRITING AGAIN BECAUSE I MOTHER FUCKING LOVE TO WRITE.

Amen, sister.

David Siegel, author of the excellent new book Pull, shares with me an abiding frustration with all major camera makers — especially the Big Two: Canon and Nikon: they’re silos. They require lenses that work only on their cameras and nobody else’s. In Vendor Lock-in FAIL David runs down the particulars. An excerpt:

If you have a Canon body, you’re probably going to buy Canon lenses. Why? Not because they are the best, but because they are the only lenses Canon bodies can autofocus. Canon keeps this interface between body and lens proprietary, to keep Canon owners buying more Canon lenses and prevent them from using third-party lenses. A company called Zeiss makes better lenses than Canon does, but Canon won’t license the autofocus codes toZeiss at any price, because Canon executives know that many of their customers would switch and buy Zeiss lenses and they would sell fewer Canon lenses. The same goes for Nikon. And it’s true – we would.

I didn’t know that Canon froze out Zeiss. Canon doesn’t freeze out Sigma and Tamron, both of which make compatible lenses for both Canon and Nikon (many of them, in fact).  Zeiss makes three lenses for Sony cameras but none for Canon and Nikon. I had assumed that Zeiss had some kind of exclusive deal with Sony.

In any case, photographers have long taken camera maker lock-in for granted. And there is history here. Backwards compatibility has always been a hallmark of Nikon with the F-mount, which dates back to 1959. Would Nikon photographers want the company to abandon its mount for lens compatibility with Canon and others? I kinda think not, but I don’t know. I’ve been a Canon guy, like David, since 2005. I shoot a lot, but I don’t have a single lens that a serious photographer would consider good. For example, I own not one L-series lens. (Those are Canon’s best.) All my lenses I bought cheap and/or used (or, in one case, was given to me).  I was a Nikon guy back in the 70s and 80s, but my gear (actually, my company’s gear, but I treated it like my own) all got stolen. Later I was a Pentax guy, but all that stuff got stolen too. Then I was a Minolta guy, and which I stayed until Minolta went out of business (basically getting absorbed into Sony, a company that could hardly be more proprietary and committed to incompatibility). I decided to dabble in digital in 2005, with a Nikon point-and-shoot (the CoolPix 5700, which had great color and an awful UI). I went with Canon for my first (and still only) SLR, an EOS 30D. (I also use a full-frame EOS 5D, but I won’t consider it mine until I’m done paying for it. Meanwhile none of my old lenses work right on it –they all have vignetting — another source of annoying incompatibility.)

Anyway, I do sympathize with David here:

While Nikon and Canon will both say they need to keep their proprietary interfaces to make sure the autofocus is world-class, they are both living in an old-world mentality. The future is open. Some day, you’ll be able to put a Canon lens right on a Nikon body and it will work fine. And you’ll be able to put a Zeiss lens on and it will work even better. But that day is far off. It will only come when the two companies finally realize the mistake they are making with their arms race now and start to talk openly about a better long-term solution.

Stephen Lewis (who is a serious photographer) and I have talked often about the same problem, [later... he says I got this (and much else) wrong, in this comment)] and also look toward the future with some degree of hope. As for faith, I dunno. As companies that are set in their ways go, it’s hard to beat the camera makers.

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I just learned by Eric Martindale’s comment to my Borg’s Woods post in February that the March 13 storm knocked down many of the trees in the old growth urban forest that was our neighborhood playground when I was a kid. For more here’s a post in the NJUrbanForest blog, and here are some pictures as well.

Storms are as much a part of nature as old growth forests, even when the former reduces the latter. Sad to read, however, that mosquito abatement has involved the draining of the woods’ pond, where generations of kids learned to skate in a beautiful setting.

For perspective perhaps it is helpful to note that the boggy parts of Borg’s Woods are among the few vernal remnants of glacial Lake Hackensack, which pooled over most of the Hackensack River watershed when the last ice age began to end around 15,000 years ago. The lake lasted several millennia, then drained around 11,500 years ago, when the terminal moraine near Perth Amboy broke. Back then the sea was still far outside the current borders of New York and New Jersey. Only when the rest of the ice cap melted did the oceans reach their current level — which, as we know, is still rising.

Four years and one day ago, we took a trip aboard a sailboat captained by our friend John Pfarr (who a few days later would later sail the same vessel to Hawaii, the South Seas and back — the dude is a serious sailor). Our modest destination was the string of oil platforms that rise above the coastal waters off Santa Barbara. These are now familiar landmarks, and are regarded with both loathing and affection, the latter especially by he sea (most obviously seal) life that abounds on the platforms’ pylons and girders, above and below the waterline.

As always, I took a lot of photos, one of which now also graces the poster for Oil + Water: The Case of Santa Barbara and Southern California, which will take place April 8 – 10, 2010 in the McCune Conference Room, 6020 HSSB, at UCSB. Specifically,

This conference will explore the ways in which oil and water have created and transformed the history and culture of Santa Barbara and Southern California. Topics will include the Santa Barbara oil spill; the impact of oil on Hollywood; agriculture and marine life; the Owens River Valley; the Salton Sea; cars and car culture; and environmental histories and their lessons.

Important stuff, and highly recommended.

Earlier this year the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Elon University conducted research toward The Future of the Internet IV, the latest in their survey series, which began with Future of the Internet I – 2004. This latest report includes guided input from subjects such as myself (a “thoughtful analyst,” they kindly said) on subjects pertaining to the Net’s future. We were asked to choose between alternative outcomes — “tension pairs” — and to explain our views. Here’s the whole list:

  1. Will Google make us stupid?
  2. Will we live in the cloud or the desktop?
  3. Will social relations get better?
  4. Will the state of reading and writing be improved?
  5. Will those in GenY share as much information about themselves as they age?
  6. Will our relationship to key institutions change?
  7. Will online anonymity still be prevalent?
  8. Will the Semantic Web have an impact?
  9. Are the next takeoff technologies evident now?
  10. Will the Internet still be dominated by the end-to-end principle?

The results were published here at Pew and Elon’s Imagining the Internet site. Here’s the .pdf.

My own views are more than well represented in the 2010 report. One of my responses (to the last question) was even published in full. Still, I thought it would be worth sharing my full responses to all the questions. That’s why I’m posting them here.

Each question is followed by two statements — the “tension pair” — and in some cases by additional instruction. I’ve italicized those.

[Note... Much text here has been changed to .html from .pdf and .doc forms, and extracting all the old formatting jive has been kind of arduous. Bear with me while I finish that job, later today. (And some .html conventions don't work here in WordPress, so that's a hassle too.)]


1. Will Google make us smart or stupid?

1 By 2020, people’s use of the Internet has enhanced human intelligence; as people are allowed unprecedented access to more information, they become smarter and make better choices. Nicholas Carr was wrong: Google does not make us stupid (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google).

2 By 2020, people’s use of the Internet has not enhanced human intelligence and it could even be lowering the IQs of most people who use it a lot. Nicholas Carr was right: Google makes us stupid.

1a. Please explain your choice and share your view of the Internet’s influence on the future of human intelligence in 2020 – what is likely to stay the same and what will be different in the way human intellect evolves?


Though I like and respect Nick Carr a great deal, my answer to the title question in his famous essay in The Atlantic — “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” — is no. Nothing that informs us makes us stupid.

Nick says, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” Besides finding that a little hard to believe (I know Nick to be a deep diver, still), there is nothing about Google, or the Net, to keep anyone from diving — and to depths that were not reachable before the Net came along. Also, compare using the Net to TV viewing. There is clearly a massive move to the former from the latter. And this move, at the very least, requires being less of a potato.

But that’s all a separate matter from Google itself. There is no guarantee that Google will be around, or in the same form, in the year 2020.

First, there are natural limits to any form of bigness, and Google is no exception to those. Trees do not grow to the sky.

Second, nearly all of Google’s income is from advertising. There are two problems with this. One is that improving a pain in the ass does not make it a kiss — and advertising is, on the whole, still a pain in the user’s ass. The other is that advertising is a system of guesswork, which by nature makes it both speculative and inefficient. Google has greatly reduced both those variables, and made advertising accountable for the first time: advertisers pay only for click-throughs. Still, for every click-through there are hundreds or thousands of “impressions” that waste server cycles, bandwidth, pixels, rods and cones. The cure for this inefficiency can’t come from the sell side. It must come from the demand side. When customers have means for advertising their wants and needs (e.g. “I need a stroller for twins in downtown Boston in the next two hours. Who’s coming through and how”) — and to do this securely and out in the open marketplace (meaning not just in the walled gardens of Amazons and eBays) — much of advertising’s speculation and guesswork will be obsoleted. Look at it this way: we need means for demand to drive supply at least as well as supply drives demand. By 2020 we’ll have that. (Especially if we succeed at work we’re doing through ProjectVRM at Harvard’s Berkman Center.) Google is well positioned to help with that shift. But it’s an open question whether or not they’ll get behind it.

Third, search itself is at risk. For the last fifteen years we have needed search because Web grew has lacked a directory other than DNS (which only deals with what comes between the // and the /.) Google has succeeded because it has proven especially good at helping users find needles in the Web’s vast haystack. But what happens if the Web ceases to be a haystack? What if the Web gets a real directory, like LANs had back in the 80s — or something like one? The UNIX file paths we call URLs (e.g. http://domain.org/folder/folder/file.htm…) presume a directory structure. This alone suggests that a solution to the haystack problem will eventually be found. When it is, search then will be more of a database lookup than the colossally complex thing it is today (requiring vast data centers that suck huge amounts of power off the grid, as Google constantly memorizes every damn thing it can find in the entire Web). Google is in the best position to lead the transition from the haystack Web to the directory-enabled one. But Google may remain married to the haystack model, just as the phone companies of today are still married to charging for minutes and cable companies are married to charging for channels — even though both concepts are fossils in an all-digital world.


2. Will we live in the cloud or on the desktop?

1 By 2020, most people won’t do their work with software running on a general-purpose PC. Instead, they will work in Internet-based applications, like Google Docs, and in applications run from smartphones. Aspiring application developers will sign up to develop for smart-phone vendors and companies that provide Internet-based applications, because most innovative work will be done in that domain, instead of designing applications that run on a PC operating system.

2 By 2020, most people will still do their work with software running on a general-purpose PC. Internet-based applications like Google Docs and applications run from smartphones will have some functionality, but the most innovative and important applications will run on (and spring from) a PC operating system. Aspiring application designers will write mostly for PCs.

Please explain your choice and share your view about how major programs and applications will be designed, how they will function, and the role of cloud computing by 2020.

The answer is both.

Resources and functions will operate where they make the most sense. As bandwidth goes up, and barriers to usage (such as high “roaming” charges for data use outside a carrier’s home turf) go down, and Bob Frankston’s “ambient connectivity” establishes itself, our files and processing power will locate themselves where they work best — and where we, as individuals, have the most control over them.

Since we are mobile animals by nature, it makes sense for us to connect with the world primarily through hand-held devices, rather than the ones that sit on our desks and laps. But these larger devices will not go away. We need large screens for much of our work, and we need at least some local storage for when we go off-grid, or need fast connections to large numbers of big files, or wish to keep matters private through physical disconnection.

Clouds are to personal data what banks are to personal money. They provide secure storage, and are in the best positions to perform certain intermediary and back-end services, such as hosting applications and storing data. This latter use has an importance that will only become more critical as each of us accumulates personal data by the terabyte. If your home drives crash or get stolen, or your house burns down, your data can still be recovered if you’ve backed it up in the cloud.

But most home users (at least in the U.S. and other under-developed countries) are still stuck at the far ends of asymmetrical connections with low upstream data rates, designed at a time when carriers thought the Net would mostly be a new system for distributing TV and other forms of “content.” Thus backing up terabytes of data online ranges from difficult to impossible.

This is why any serious consideration of cloud computing — especially over the long term — needs to take connectivity into account. Clouds are only as useful as connections permit. And right now the big cloud utilities (notably Google and Amazon) are way ahead of the carriers at imagining how connected computing needs to grow. For most carriers the Internet is still just the third act in a “triple play,” a tertiary service behind telephony and television. Worse, the mobile carriers show little evidence that they understand the need to morph from phone companies to data companies — even with Apple’s iPhone success screaming “this is the future” at them.

A core ideal for all Internet devices is what Jonathan Zittrain (in his book The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It) calls generativity, which is maximized encouragement of innovation in both hardware and software. Today generativity in mobile devices varies a great deal. The iPhone, for example, is highly generative for software, but not for hardware (only Apple makes iPhones). And even the iPhone’s software market is sphinctered by Apple’s requirement that every app pass to market only through Apple’s “store,” which operates only through Apple’s iTunes, which runs only on Macs and PCs (no Linux or other OSes). On top of all that is Apple’s restrictive partnerships with AT&T (in the U.S.) and Rogers (in Canada). While AT&T allows unlimited data usage on the iPhone, Rogers still has a 6Gb limit.

Bottom line: Handhelds will no smarter than the systems built to contain them. The market will open widest — and devices will get smartest — when anybody can make a smartphone (or any other mobile device), and use it on any network they please, without worrying about data usage limits or getting hit with $1000+ bills because they forgot to turn off “push notifications” or “location services” when they roamed out of their primary carrier’s network footprint. In other words, the future will be brightest when mobile systems get Net-native.


3. Will social relations get better?

1 In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the Internet has mostly been a negative force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.

2 In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the Internet has mostly been a positive force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.

3a. Please explain your choice and share your view of the Internet’s influence on the future of human relationships in 2020 — what is likely to stay the same and what will be different in human and community relations?

Craig Burton describes the Net as a hollow sphere — a three-dimensional zero — comprised entirely of ends separated by an absence of distance in the middle. With a hollow sphere, every point is visible to every other point. Your screen and my keyboard have no distance between them. This is a vivid way to illustrate the Net’s “end-to-end” architecture and how we perceive it, even as we also respect the complex electronics and natural latencies involved in the movement of bits from point to point anywhere on the planet. It also helps make sense of the Net’s distance-free social space.

As the “live” or “real-time” aspects of the net evolve, opportunities to engage personally and socially are highly magnified beyond all the systems that came before. This cannot help but increase our abilities not only to connect with each other, but to understand each other. I don’t see how this hurts the world, and I can imagine countless ways it can make the world better.

Right now my own family is scattered between Boston, California, Baltimore and other places. Yet through email, voice, IM, SMS and other means we are in frequent touch, and able to help each other in many ways. The same goes for my connections with friends and co-workers.

We should also hope that the Net makes us more connected, more social, more engaged and involved with each other. The human diaspora, from one tribe in Africa to thousands of scattered tribes — and now countries — throughout the world, was driven to a high degree by misunderstandings and disagreements between groups. Hatred and distrust between groups have caused countless wars and suffering beyond measure. Anything that helps us bridge our differences and increase understanding is a good thing.

Clearly the Internet already does that.


4. Will the state of reading and writing be improved?

1 By 2020, it will be clear that the Internet has enhanced and improved reading, writing, and the rendering of knowledge.

2 By 2020, it will be clear that the Internet has diminished and endangered reading, writing, and the intelligent rendering of knowledge.

4a. Please explain your choice and share your view of the Internet’s influence on the future of knowledge-sharing in 2020, especially when it comes to reading and writing and other displays of information – what is likely to stay the same and what will be different? What do you think is the future of books?

It is already clear in 2010 that the Net has greatly enhanced reading, writing, and knowledge held — and shared — by human beings. More people are reading and writing, and in more ways, for more readers and other writers, than ever before. And the sum of all of it goes up every day.

I’m sixty-two years old, and have been a journalist since my teens. My byline has appeared in dozens of publications, and the sum of my writing runs — I can only guess — into millions of words. Today very little of what I wrote and published before 1995 is available outside of libraries, and a lot of it isn’t even there.

For example, in the Seventies and early Eighties I wrote regularly for an excellent little magazine called The Sun. (It’s still around, at http://thesunmagazine.org) But, not wanting to carry my huge collection of Suns from one house to another (I’ve lived in 9 places over the last ten years), I gave my entire collection (including rare early issues) to an otherwise excellent public library, and they lost or ditched it. Few items from those early issues are online. My own copies are buried in boxes in a garage, three thousand miles from where I live now. So are dozens of boxes of photos and photo albums. (I was also a newspaper photographer in the early days, and have never abandoned the practice.)

On the other hand, most of what I’ve written since the Web came along is still online. And most of that work — including 34,000 photographs on Flickr — is syndicated trough RSS (Really SimpleSyndication) or its derivatives. So is the work of millions of other people. If that work is interesting in some way, it tends to get inbound links, increasing its discoverability through search engines and its usefulness in general. The term syndication was once applied only to professional purposes. Now everybody can do it.

Look up RSS on Google. Today it brings in more than three billion results. Is it possible that this has decreased the quality and sum of reading, writing and human knowledge? No way.


5. Will the willingness of Generation Y / Millennials to share information change as they age?

1 By 2020, members of Generation Y (today’s “digital natives”) will continue to be ambient broadcasters who disclose a great deal of personal information in order to stay connected and take advantage of social, economic, and political opportunities. Even as they mature, have families, and take on more significant responsibilities, their enthusiasm for widespread information sharing will carry forward.

2 By 2020, members of Generation Y (today’s “digital natives”) will have “grown out” of much of their use of social networks, multiplayer online games and other time-consuming, transparency-engendering online tools. As they age and find new interests and commitments, their enthusiasm for widespread information sharing will abate.

5a. Please explain your choice and share your view of the Internet’s influence on the future of human lifestyles in 2020 – what is likely to stay the same and what will be different? Will the values and practices that characterize today’s
younger Internet users change over time?

Widespread information sharing is not a generational issue. It’s a technological one. Our means for controlling access to data, or its use — or even for asserting our “ownership” of it — are very primitive. (Logins and passwords alone are clunky as hell, extremely annoying, and will be seen a decade hence as a form of friction we were glad to eliminate.)

It’s still early. The Net and the Web as we know them have only been around for about fifteen years. Right now we’re still in the early stages of the Net’s Cambrian explosion. By that metaphor Google is a trilobyte. We have much left to work out.

For example, take “terms of use.” Sellers have them. Users do not — at least not ones that theycontrol. Wouldn’t it be good if you could tell Facebook or Twitter (or any other company using your data) that these are the terms on which they will do business with you, that these are the ways you will share data with them, that these are the ways this data can be used, and that this is what will happen if they break faith with you? Trust me: user-controlled terms of use are coming. (Work is going on right now on this very subject at Harvard’s Berkman Center, both at its Law Lab and ProjectVRM.)

Two current technical developments, “self-tracking” and “personal informatics,” are examples of ways that power is shifting from organizations to individuals — for the simple reason that individuals are the best points of integration for
their own data, and the best points of origination for what gets done with that data.

Digital natives will eventually become fully empowered by themselves, not by the organizations to which they belong, or the services they use. When that happens, they’ll probably be more careful and responsible than earlier generations, for the simpler reason that they will have the tools.


6. Will our relationship to institutions change?

1 By 2020, innovative forms of online cooperation will result in significantly more efficient and responsive governments, businesses, non-profits, and othe mainstream institutions.

2 By 2020, governments, businesses, non-profits and other mainstream institutions will primarily retain familiar 20th century models for conduct of relationships with citizens and consumers online and offline.

6a. Please explain your choice and share your view of the Internet’s influence upon the future of institutional relationships with their patrons and customers between now and 2020. We are eager to hear what you think of how social, political, and commercial endeavors will form and the way people will cooperate in the future.

Online cooperation will only increase. The means are already there, and will only become more numerous and functional. Institutions that adapt to the Net’s cooperation-encouraging technologies and functions will succeed. Those that don’t will have a hard time.

Having it hardest right now are media institutions, for the simple reason that the Internet subsumes their functions, while also giving to everybody the ability to communicate with everybody else, at little cost, and often with little or no intermediating system other than the Net itself.

Bob Garfield, a columnist for AdAge and a host of NPR’s “On The Media,” says the media have entered what he calls (in his book by the same title) The Chaos Scenario. In his introduction Garfield says he should have called the book “Listenomics,” because listening is the first requirement of survival for every industry that lives on digital bits — a sum that rounds to approximately every industry, period.

So, even where the shapes of institution persist, their internal functions must be ready to listen, and to participate in the market’s conversations, even when those take place outside the institution’s own frameworks.


7. Will online anonymity still be prevalent?

1 By 2020, the identification ID systems used online are tighter and more formal – fingerprints or DNA-scans or retina scans. The use of these systems is the gateway to most of the Internet-enabled activity that users are able to perform such as shopping, communicating, creating content, and browsing. Anonymous online activity is sharply curtailed.

2 By 2020, Internet users can do a lot of normal online activities anonymously even though the identification systems used on the Internet have been applied to a wider range of activities. It is still relatively easy for Internet users to
create content, communicate, and browse without publicly disclosing who they are.

7a. Please explain your choice and share your view about the future of anonymous activity
online by the year 2020

In the offline world, anonymity is the baseline. Unless burdened by celebrity, we are essentially anonymous when we wander through stores, drive down the road, or sit in the audience of a theater. We become less anonymous when we enter into conversation or transact business. Even there, however, social protocols do not require that we become any more identifiable than required for the level of interaction. Our “identity” might be “the woman in the plaid skirt,” “the tall guy who was in here this morning,? or “one of our students.”

We still lack means by which an individual can selectively and gracefully shift from fully to partially anonymous, and from unidentified to identified — yet in ways that can be controlled and minimized (or maximized) as much as the individual (and others with which he or she interacts) permit. In fact, we’re a long way off.

The main reason is that most of the “identity systems” we know put control on the side of sellers, governments, and other institutions, and not with the individual. In time systems that give users control will be developed. These will be native to users and not provided only by large organizations (such as Microsoft, Google or the government).

A number of development communities have been working on this challenge since early in the last decade, and eventually they will succeed. Hopefully this will be by 2020, but I figured we’d have it done by 2010, and it seems like we’ve barely started.


8. Will the Semantic Web have an impact?

By 2020, the Semantic Web envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee and his allies will have been achieved to a significant degree and have clearly made a difference to the average Internet users.

2 By 2020, the Semantic Web envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee will not be as fully effective as its creators hoped and average users will not have noticed much of a difference.

8a. Please explain your choice and share your view of the likelihood that the Semantic Web will have been implemented by 2020 and be a force for good in Internet users?

Tim’s World Wide Web was a very simple and usable idea that relied on very simple and usable new standards (e.g. HTML and HTTP), which were big reason why the Web succeeded. The Semantic Web is a very complex idea, and one that requires a lot of things to go right before it works. Or so it seems.

Tim Berners-Lee introduced the Semantic Web Roadmap (http://www.w3.org/DesignIssues/Semantic.html) in September 1998. Since then more than eleven years have passed. Some Semantic Web technologies have taken root: RDFa, for example, and microformats. But the concept itself has energized a relatively small number of people, and there is no “killer” tech or use yet.

That doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Invention is the mother of necessity. The Semantic Web will take off when somebody invents something we all find we need. Maybe that something will be built out of some combination of code and protocols already laying around — either within the existing Semantic Web portfolio, or from some parallel effort such as XDI. Or maybe it will come out of the blue.

By whatever means, the ideals of the Semantic Web — a web based on meaning (semantics) rather than syntax (the Web’s current model) — will still drive development. And we’ll be a decade farther along in 2020 than we are in 2010.


9. Are the next takeoff technologies evident now?

1 The hot gadgets and applications that will capture the imagination of users in 2020 are pretty evident today and will not take many of today’s savviest innovators by surprise.

2 The hot gadgets and applications that will capture the imagination of users in 2020 will often come “out of the blue” and not have been anticipated by many of today’s savviest innovators.

9a. Please explain your choice and share your view of its implications for the future. What do you think will be the hot gadgets, applications, technology tools in 2020?

“The blue” is the environment out of which most future innovation will come. And that blue is the Net.

Nearly every digital invention today was created by collaboration over the Net, between people working in different parts of the world. The ability to collaborate over distances, often in real time (or close to it), using devices that improve constantly, over connections that only get fatter and faster, guarantees that the number and variety of inventions will only go up. More imaginations will be captured more ways, more often. Products will be improved, and replaced, more often than ever, and in more ways than ever.

The hottest gadgets in 2020 will certainly involve extending one’s senses and one’s body. In fact, this has been the case for all inventions since humans first made stone tools and painted the walls of caves. That’s because humans are characterized not only by their intelligence and their ability to speak, but by their capacity to extend their senses, and their abilities, through their tools and technologies. Michael Polanyi, a scientist and philosopher, called this indwelling. It is through indwelling that the carpenter’s tool becomes an extension of his arm, and he has the power to pound nails through wood. It is also through indwelling that an instrument becomes an extension of the musician’s mouth and hands.

There is a reason why a pilot refers to “my wings” and “my tail,” or a driver to “my wheels” and “my engine.” By indwelling, the pilot’s senses extend outside herself to the whole plane, and the driver’s to his whole car.

The computers and smart phones of today are to some degree extensions of ourselves, but not to the extent that a hammer extends a carpenter, a car enlarges a driver or a plane enlarges a pilot. Something other than a computer or a smart phone will do that. Hopefully this will happen by 2020. If not, it will eventually.


10. Will the Internet still be dominated by the end-to-end principle?

1 In the years between now and 2020, the Internet will mostly remain a technology based on the end-to-end principle that was envisioned by the Internet’s founders. Most disagreements over the way information flows online will be resolved in favor of a minimum number of restrictions over the information available online and the methods by which people access it.

2 In the years between now and 2020, the Internet will mostly become a technology where intermediary institutions that control the architecture and significant amounts of content will be successful in gaining the right to manage information and the method by which people access and share it.

10a. Please explain your choice, note organizations you expect to be most likely to influence the future of the Internet and share your view of the effects of this between now and 2020.

There will always be a struggle to reconcile the Net’s end-to-end principle with the need for companies and technologies operating between those ends to innovate and make money. This tension will produce more progress than either the principle by itself or the narrow interests of network operators and other entities working between the Net’s countless ends.

Today these interests are seen as opposed — mostly because incumbent network operators want to protect businesses they see threatened by the Net’s end-to-end nature, which cares not a bit about who makes money or how. But in the future they will be seen as symbiotic, because both the principle and networks operating within it will be seen as essential infrastructure. So will what each of does to the help raise and renovate the Net’s vast barn.

The term infrastructure has traditionally been applied mostly to the public variety: roads, bridges, electrical systems, water systems, waste treatment and so on. But this tradition only goes back to the Seventies. Look up infrastructure in a dictionary from the 1960s or earlier and you won’t find it (except in the OED). Today are still no institutes or academic departments devoted to infrastructure. It’s a subject in many fields, yet not a field in itself.

But we do generally understand what infrastructure is. It’s something solid and common we can build on. It’s geology humans make for themselves.

Digital technology, and the Internet in particular, provide an interesting challenge for understanding infrastructure, because we rely on it, yet it is not solid in any physical sense. It is like physical structures, but not itself physical. We go on the Net, as if it were a road or a plane. We build on it too. Yet it is not a thing.

Inspired by Craig Burton’s description of the Net as a hollow sphere — a three-dimensional zero comprised entirely of ends
— David Weinberger and I wrote World of Ends in 2003 (http://worldofends.com). The purpose was to make the Net more understandable, especially to companies (such as phone and cable carriers) that had been misunderstanding it. Lots of people agreed with us, but none of those people ran the kinds of companies we addressed.

But, to be fair, most people still don’t understand the Net. Look up “The Internet is” on Google (with the quotes). After you get past the top entry (Wikipedia’s), here’s what they say:

  1. a Series of Tubes
  2. terrible
  3. really big
  4. for porn
  5. shit
  6. good
  7. wrong
  8. killing storytelling
  9. dead
  10. serious business
  11. for everyone
  12. underrated
  13. infected
  14. about to die
  15. broken
  16. Christmas all the time
  17. altering our brains
  18. changing health care
  19. laughing at NBC
  20. changing the way we watch TV
  21. changing the scientific method
  22. dead and boring
  23. not shit
  24. made of kittens
  25. alive and well
  26. blessed
  27. almost full
  28. distracting
  29. a brain
  30. cloudy

Do the same on Twitter, and you’ll get results just as confusing. At this moment (your search will vary; this is the Live Web here), the top results are:

  1. a weird, WEIRD place
  2. full of feel good lectures
  3. the Best Place to get best notebook computer deals
  4. Made of Cats
  5. Down
  6. For porn
  7. one of the best and worst things at the same time
  8. so small
  9. going slow
  10. not my friend at the moment
  11. blocked
  12. letting me down
  13. going off at 12
  14. not working
  15. magic
  16. still debatable
  17. like a jungle
  18. eleven years old
  19. worsening by the day
  20. extremely variable
  21. full of odd but exciting people
  22. becoming the Googlenet
  23. fixed
  24. forever
  25. a battlefield
  26. a great network for helping others around the world
  27. more than a global pornography network
  28. slow
  29. making you go nuts
  30. so much faster bc im like the only 1 on it

(I took out the duplicates. There were many involving cats and porn.)

Part of the problem is that we understand the Net in very different and conflicting ways. For example, when we say the Net consists of “sites,” with “domains” and “locations” that we “architect,” “design,” “build” and “visit,”we are saying the Internet is a place. It’s real estate. But if we say the Net is a “medium” for the “distribution” of “content” to “consumers” who “download” it, we’re saying the Net is a shipping system. These metaphors are very different. They yield different approaches to business and lawmaking, to
name just two areas of conflict.

Bob Frankston, co-inventor (with Dan Bricklin) of spreadsheet software (Visicalc) and one of the fathers of home networking, says the end-state of the Net’s current development is ambient connectivity, which “gives us access to the oceans of copper, fiber and radios that surround us.” Within those are what Frankston calls a “sea of bits” to which all of us contribute. To help clarify the anti-scarce nature of bits, he explains, “Bits aren’t really like kernels of corn. They are more like words. You may run out of red paint but you don’t run out of the color red.”

Much has been written about the “economics of abundance,” but we have barely begun to understand what that means or what can be done with it. The threats are much easier to perceive than the opportunities. Google is one notable exception to that. Asked at a Harvard meeting to explain the company’s strategy of moving into businesses where it expects to make no money directly for the services it offers, a Google executive explained that the company looked for “second and third order effects.”

JP Rangaswami, Chief Scientist for BT (disclosure: I consult BT) describes these as “because effects.” You make money because of something rather than with it. Google makes money because of search, and because of Gmail. Not with them. Not directly.

Yet money can still be made with goods and services — even totally commodified ones. Amazon makes money with back-end Web services such as EC2 (computing) and S3 (data storage). Phone, cable and other carriers can make money with “dumb pipes” too. They are also in perfect positions to offer low-latency services directly to their many customers at homes and in businesses. All the carriers need to do is realize that there are benefits to incumbency other than charging monopoly rents.

The biggest danger for the Net and its use comes not from carriers, but from copyright absolutists in what we have recently come to call the “content” industry. For example, in the U.S. the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act), passed in 1998, was built to protect the interests of copyright holders and served as a model for similar lawmaking in other countries. What it did was little to protect the industries that lobbied its passing, while at the same time hurting or preventing a variety of other industries. Most notable (at least for me) was the embryonic Internet radio industry, which was just starting to take off when the DMCA came along. The saga that followed is woefully complex, and the story is far from over, but the result in the meantime is a still-infant industry that suffers many more restrictions in respect to “content” than over-the-air radio stations. Usage fees for music are much higher than those faced by broadcasters — so high that making serious money by webcasting music is nearly impossible. There are also tight restrictions on what music can be played, when, and how often. Music on podcasts is also essentially prohibited, because podcasters need to “clear rights” for every piece of copyrighted music they play. That’s why, except for “podsafe” music, podcasting today is almost all talk.

I’ll give the last words here to Cory Doctorow, who publishes them freely in his new book Content:

… there is an information economy. You don’t even need a computer to participate. My barber, an avowed technophobe who rebuilds antique motorcycles and doesn’t own a PC, benefited from the information economy when I found him by googling for barbershops in my neighborhood.

Teachers benefit from the information economy when they share lesson plans with their colleagues around the world by email. Doctors benefit from the information economy when they move their patient files to efficient digital formats. Insurance companies benefit from the information economy through better access to fresh data used in the preparation of actuarial tables. Marinas benefit from the information economy when office-slaves look up the weekend’s weather online and decide to skip out on Friday for a weekend’s sailing. Families of migrant workers benefit from the information economy when their sons and daughters wire cash home from a convenience store Western Union terminal.

This stuff generates wealth for those who practice it. It enriches the country and improves our lives.

And it can peacefully co-exist with movies, music and microcode, but not if Hollywood gets to call the shots. Where IT managers are expected to police their networks and systems for unauthorized copying — no matter what that does to productivity — they cannot co-exist. Where our operating systems are rendered inoperable by “copy protection,” they cannot co-exist. Where our educational institutions are turned into conscript enforcers for the record industry, they cannot co-exist.

The information economy is all around us. The countries that embrace it will emerge as global economic superpowers. The countries that stubbornly hold to the simplistic idea that the information economy is about selling information will end up at the bottom of the pile.


But all that is just me (and my sources, such as Cory). There are 894 others compiled by the project, and I invite you to visit those there.

I’ll also put in a plug for FutureWeb in Raleigh, April 28-30, where I look forward to seeing many old friends and relatives as well. (I lived in North Carolina for most of the 20 years from 1965-1985, and miss it still.) Hope to see some of ya’ll there.

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Some encouraging words here about Verizon’s expected 4G data rates:

After testing in the Boston and Seattle areas, the provider estimates that a real connection on a populated network should average between 5Mbps to 12Mbps in download rates and between 2Mbps to 5Mbps for uploads. Actual, achievable peak speeds in these areas float between 40-50Mbps downstream and 20-25Mbps upstream.The speed is significantly less than the theoretical 100Mbps promised by Long Term Evolution (LTE), the chosen standard, but would still give Verizon one of the fastest cellular networks in North America.

No mention of metering or data caps, of course.

Remember, these are phone companies. They love to meter stuff. Its what they know. They can hardly imagine anything else. They are billing machines with networks attached.

In addition to the metering problems Brett Glass details here, there is the simple question of whether carriers can meter data at all. Data ain’t minutes. And metering discourages both usage and countless businesses other than the phone companies’ own. I have long believed that phone and cable companies will see far more business for themselves if they open up their networks to possibilities other than those optimized for the relocation of television from air to pipes.

Data capping is problematic too. How can the customer tell how close they are to a cap? And how much does fearing overage discourage legitimate uses? And what about the accounting? My own problems with Sprint on this topic don’t give me any confidence that the carriers know how gracefully to impose data usage caps.

There’s a lot of wool in current advertising on these topics too. During the Academy Awards last night, Comcast had a great ad for Xfinity, its new high-speed service, promoted entirely as an entertainment pump. By which I mean that it was an impressive piece of promotion. But there was no mention of upstream speeds (downstream teaser: 100Mb/s). Or other limitations. Or how they might favor NBC (should they buy it) over other content sources. (Which, of course, they will.)

Sprint‘s CEO was in an another ad, promoting the company’s “unlimited text, unlimited Web and unlimited calling…” Right. Says right here in a link-proof pop-up titled “Important 4G coverage and plan information”, that 4G is unlimited, but 3G (what most customers, including I, still have) is limited to “5GB/300MB off-network roaming per month.” They do list “select cities” where 4G is available. Here’s Raleigh. I didn’t find New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Boston on the list. I recall Amarillo. Can’t find it now, and the navigation irritates me too much to look.

Anyway, I worry that what we’ll get is phone and cable company sausage in Internet casing. And that, on the political side, the carriers will succeed in their campaign to clothe themselves as the “free market” fighting “government takeovers” while working the old regulatory capture game, to keep everybody else from playing.

So five, ten years from now, all the rest of the independent ISPs and WISPs will be gone. So will backbone players other than carriers and Google.  We’ll be gaga about our ability to watch pay-per-view on our fourth-generation iPads with 3-d glasses. And we won’t miss the countless new and improved businesses that never happened because they were essentially outlawed by regulators and their captors.

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After visiting the Titan Missle Museum in Arizona, Matt Blaze wrote, How did we keep from blowing ourselves up for all those years?

Good question.

Take a listen the next time you hear somebody say “Good question.” It means they don’t have the answer. Maybe it also means the best questions are unanswerable.

But maybe we also need to keep asking them anyway, for exactly that reason. This was a lesson I got a long time ago, and reported in 2005, in this post here:

About ten years ago I took a few days off to chill in silence at the New Camaldoli Monastery in Big Sur. One of the values the White Monks of the monastery share with Quakers in Sunday meeting is confinement of speech to that which “improves on the silence”. (Or, in the case of the monks, fails to insult the contemplative virtues of silence.) It was there that I had an amazing conversation with Father John Powell, who told me that any strictly literalist interpretation of Christ’s teachings “insulted the mystery” toward which those teachings pointed — and which it was the purpose of contemplative living to explore. “Christ spoke in paradox”, he said. Also metaphor, which itself is thick with paradox. Jesus knew, Father Powell said, that we understand one thing best in terms of another which (paradoxically) is literally different yet meaningfully similar.

For example, George Lakoff explains that we understand time in terms of money (we “save”, “waste” and “spend” it) and life in terms of travel (we “arrive”, “depart”, “fall off the wagon” or “get stuck in a rut”). For what it’s worth, George is Jewish. Like Jesus.

The greatest mystery of life, Father Powell explained, isn’t death. It’s life. “Life is exceptional”, he said. For all the fecundity of nature, it is surrounded by death. Far as we can tell, everything we see when we look to the heavens is dead as a gravestone. Yet it inspires the living. “Life”, he said, sounding like an old rabbi, “is the mystery”.

I was a kid in the fifties, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were busy not talking to each other while planting thousands of nuclear-tipped ICBMs  in the ground, pointed at each other’s countries. They were also sending thousands of additional warheads to sea in nuclear submarines. Every warhead was ready obliterate whole cities in enemy territory. Our house was five miles from Manhattan. We had frequent air raid drills, and learned how to “duck and cover” in the likely event of sudden incineration. Like many other kids in those days, I wished to enjoy as much of life as I could before World War III, which would last only a few hours, after which some other species would need to take over.

I was no math whiz; but I was an authority on adults and their failings. I could look at the number of missles involved, guess at all the things that could go wrong, and make a pretty good bet that something, sooner or later, would. I wasn’t sure we would die, but I was sure the chances were close to even.

In his new book The Dead Hand, Washington Post reporter David E. Hoffman explains exactly how close we came:

At 12:15 A.M., Petrov was startled. Across the top of the room was a thin, silent panel. Most of the time no one even noticed it. But suddenly it lit up, in red letters: LAUNCH.

A siren wailed. On the big map with the North Pole, a light at one of the American missile bases was illuminated. Everyone was riveted to the map. The electronic panels showed a missile launch. The board said “high reliability.” This had never happened before. The operators at the consoles on the main oor jumped up, out of their chairs. They turned and looked up at Petrov, behind the glass. He was the commander on duty. He stood, too, so they could see him. He started to give orders. He wasn’t sure what was happening. He ordered them to sit down and start checking the system. He had to know whether this was real, or a glitch. The full check would take ten minutes, but if this was a real missile attack, they could not wait ten minutes to nd out. Was the satellite holding steady? Was the computer functioning properly?…

The phone was still in his hand, the duty ofcer still on the line, when Petrov was jolted again, two minutes later.

The panel ashed: another missile launched! Then a third, a fourth and a fth. Now, the system had gone into overdrive. The additional signals had triggered a new warning. The red letters on the panel began to ash MISSILE ATTACK, and an electronic blip was sent automatically to the higher levels of the military. Petrov was frightened. His legs felt paralyzed. He had to think fast…

Petrov made a decision. He knew the system had glitches in the past; there was no visual sighting of a missile through the telescope; the satellites were in the correct position. There was nothing from the radar stations to verify an incoming missile, although it was probably too early for the radars to see anything.

He told the duty ofcer again: this is a false alarm.

The message went up the chain.

How many other events were there like that? On both sides?

I think there lurks in human nature a death wish — for others, even more than for ourselves. We rationalize nothing better, or with more effect, than killing each other. Especially the other. Fill in the blank. The other tribe, the other country, the other culture, the other religion, whatever.  “I’ve seen the future,” Leonard Cohen sings. “It is murder.” (You can read the lyrics here, but I like the video version.)

Yet we also don’t. The answer to Matt’s question — How did we keep from blowing ourselves up for all those years? —is lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov, and others like him, unnamed. Petrov had the brains and the balls to say “No” to doing the crazy thing that only looked sane because a big institution was doing it.

We’re still crazy. You and I may not be, but we are.

War is a force that gives us meaning, Chris Hedges says. You can read his book by that title, (required reading from a highly decorated and deeply insightful former war correspondent). You can also watch the lecture he gave on the topic at UCSB in 2004. The mystery will be diminished by his answer, but not solved.

Still, every dose of sanity helps.

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spypondhockey

For most of Winter in the Northeast, skating is possible only during the somewhat rare times when the ice is thick and not covered with snow or other unwelcome surface conditions. And bad skating has been the story, typically, for most of this Winter around Boston. After an earlier snow, there were some ad hoc skating rinks cleared by shoveling, but those were ruined by rains, more snow, more rains, and intermittent freezes that made a hash of the surface. But recent rains and hard freezes have formed wide paths between remaining islands of ruined snow. On most ponds there aren’t enough open spaces for real hockey games, but there’s plenty enough for skating, and for hockey practice, anyway. (A note to newbies and outsiders: nearly all lakes here are called ponds. Dunno why yet. Maybe one of ya’ll can tell me. Still a bit of a noob myself.)

Hockey practice is what I saw when I paused to take a sunset shot with my phone at Spy Pond, which I passed it late this afternoon on a long walk along the Minuteman Bikeway, which is one of my favorite walking paths (and thoroughfares — at least when it’s warm and clear enough to bike on). As it happens, Spy Pond ice has some history. There was a period, in the mid- to late-1800s, after railroads got big, but before refrigeration came along, when New England was a source for much of the world’s shipped ice. And Spy Pond itself was one of the most productive sources. This picture here…

spypond_history2

… shows ice being harvested for storage in ice houses beside the railroad which is now the Bikeway. I stood near the left edge of this scene when I took the picture at the top, and the boy and his dad playing hockey were about where at the center left, where a horse is shown pulling what looks like a man with a plow. (That last shot is from this historical display alongside the bikeway.)

The brainfather of Boston’s ice industry was Frederic Tudor, about whom I have learned a great deal from The Ice King: Frederic Tudor and His Circle. Highly recommended, if you’re into half-forgotten New England history. The book came as a bonus with membership in Mystic Seaport, a terrific maritime museum down the road on the Connecticut coast.

[Later...] The industry you see depicted above can also serve as a metaphor. For that a hat tip goes to Robin Lubbock (@RLma), New Media Director of WBUR, who pointed me to this piece by Michael Rosenblum. Nails it. (I also love Rosenblum’s Maybe monetizing is not the answer and Edward III, Crecy and Local TV Newsrooms, also via Robin.)

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