Ideas

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“Influence” is hot shit these days. Linkedin 0cde531has been making a big deal about it; and it seems to be working, according to Dharmesh Shaw, a Linkedin Influencer:

First of all, there’s the sheer power and reach of the platform. When I write on my personal blog (which is reasonably popular) an article will get roughly 5,000-10,000 views. If it turns out to be popular and is widely shared on social media, that number can spike to 50,000+ views. That’s pretty good. It makes my day when it happens.

But let’s compare that to how my content performs on the LinkedIn platform. I’ve posted 30 articles as an Influencer. The average number of views across those articles? 123,000!

The most popular article I’ve written has received 1.2 million views and 4,200 comments (whew!) That’s heady stuff.

And it’s also fun. I enjoy the opportunity to write about a broader range of topics. Obviously I write about issues that are important to startups, but I also get to write about building a company you love, andpersonal branding, and even extremely broad themes like the qualities of truly confident people.

I’m sure the same leverage also comes through publishing in Medium, Forbes, The Atlantic, HuffPo and other big Web publishers that pump lots of content. I’m happy for Dharmesh and other writers in those pubs. Hell, I may end up writing for one or more of them as well. Who knows. But meanwhile, as a writer, I have three problems with them.

First is that they’re all silos. This was unavoidable in in the physical world — every publisher needed their own platform; but on the Net and the Web, we already have a platform for all of us. We shouldn’t have to only write for the big publisher to be heard. This is why I’d rather write here, where I’ve got my own press and I’m free and fully in control, rather than in one of these big silos.

Second is that they don’t pay me. When one does, I’ll be glad to write for them.

Third is noise. A lot of stuff published on these sites is damn good. But all of the publishers are pumping as much as they can in front of as many eyeballs they can for as many advertisers as they can. Which is cool (provided the advertising is of the old-fashioned brand kind, and not of the surveillance-fed kind). But the volume of it tends to make everything into Snow on the Water. I also have little faith that the links won’t rot.

But here’s the bigger thing: being useful has more leverage, and more substance, than just being influential. In fact, I think being useful might be the most highly leveraged human virtue, other than love. Without it, we wouldn’t have civilization. And being useful makes you influential anyway.

So here are two ways to make yourself useful: tag eveything you can and use permissive Creative Commons licenses. Lets start with the effects of these things, for me, and work back to causes.

Look at these links:

 

All of them feature a photo by me. I did nothing to put those there beyond tagging uploaded photos “anthropocene” and licensing them to only require photo credit (“Attribution CC BY“). So, whenever somebody writes about the Anthropocene Epoch (a durable topic that deeply matters), and wants to use a photo without any copyright friction, there is a high chance that one of my photos tagged “anthropocene” will illustrate the piece, with credit. Same thing happens with:

Photos generously licensed also tend to show up in Wikipedia, by way of Wikimedia Commons, which has a palette of graphic elements that writers can raid when editing Wikipedia articles. As of today 490 of my photos are in Wikimedia Commons. Many (perhaps most) of them also show up in Wikipedia, again with credit. I did nothing to put any of those photos in either Wikimedia Commons or Wikipedia. I simply made them useful.

It helps, of course, to have dozens of thousands of photos up on the Web, but that matters less than the motivation behind them — the same motivation one can put behind anything: make it useful.

Two more bits of advice: say interesting stuff, and link a lot. We can see the effects of both in Echovar‘s blog post, Mind the Gap: You are as You are Eaten. In it he takes something I said, then follows three links in it to three different blog posts, writing deeply about all of them in ways I had not anticipated.

Were those posts influential, useful or both? Probably both, but either way, useful came first.

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I’ve been asked how EULAs — End User License Agreements — might affect the Internet of Things, now becoming better known as the IoT. Good question. The topic is hot:

google-iot-trend

Development, however, is another story. There we are headed straight into a log-jam that Phil Windley calls the Compuserve of Things. In the 80′s and early ’90s, Compuserve was as close as any of us could get to experiencing the real Internet (which was available only to a limited selection of governments, universities and big companies). Compuserve’s competitors were AOL (originally America OnLine), Prodigy, MSN and a few others not worth mentioning.

The problem was that all online services were closed and proprietary. Communication between them was difficult or impossible. Your Compuserve email only worked with other Compuserve members. Same with your Prodigy and AOL mail. Same with instant messaging (which retains its old proprietary problems even to this day.)

Where we are headed today is not the Internet of Things, but the Google of Things, the Apple of Things, the Microsoft of Things, and low-effort sports and war stories in the media misdirecting attention away from the real Internet and toward fights between giants.

Also evolving away from the Net will be the Every-BigCo-of-things, and their suppliers of proprietary platforms. (Let’s call that one EBCoT.) Every one of these, of course, will have its own EULA.

The Internet has no EULA. It just has an A, for Agreement. That’s because the Internet is defined by protocols, which are manners — agreements — among the things it connects.

For the trillions of things in the world to work in the actual Internet, they need be subject to that same agreement (and others like it, tuned for things other than computers), but not licenses from controlling parties, because that would not be the Internet.

EULAs suck already anyway, for two legacy reasons: 1) they are one-sided and coercive; and 2) nobody reads them other than the lawyers who write them. Let’s unpack both problems.

Most EULAs are what legal folk call “contracts of adhesion.” That term was coined by Friedrich Kessler in 1943, at the apex of the Industrial Age (when Industry was causing, fighting and winning WWII). Adhesive contracts, Kessler said, were the only way any one company could achieve legal scale with masses of customers and users.

But what worked as an upside for industry had a downside for everybody else, because adhesive contracts came at a cost. Freedom of contract, long a form of vernacular law in everyday life, was shoved aside by industrial expedience.

What Kessler saw as both an efficient hack and a moral drag became more of both in the Information Age in which we live today. And it be a far bigger drag if it encumbers every Thing we want to put on the Internet.

Most of us don’t read EULAs, or the privacy policies that often accompany them, because to do so is both useless and time consuming. They are useless because they exist mostly to scrape off liability and other inconveniences on the customer or user. And they suck up time because they are written in legalese, by and for lawyers, rather than the rest of us.

So: what can we do? I’ll take that up in the next post.

Bonus link: Tony Faddel on Nest’s independence from Google and why he doesn’t like “Internet of Things” as a label.

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)

Inmoz her blog post explaining the Brendan Eich resignation, Mitchell Baker, Chair of the Mozilla Foundation, writes, “We know why people are hurt and angry, and they are right: it’s because we haven’t stayed true to ourselves.” In Mozilla is HumanMark Surman, Executive Director of the Foundation, adds, “What we also need to do is start a process of rebirth and renewal. We need to find our soul and our spirit.”

That spirit is embodied in the Mozilla Manifesto. But it goes deeper than that: all the way back to Mosaic, the ur-browser from which Firefox is descended by way of Netscape Navigator.

Neither Mosaic nor Navigator were instruments of the advertising business. They were boards we rode to surf from site to site across oceans of data, and cars we drove down the information superhighway.

But now all major browsers, Firefox included, have become shopping carts that get re-skinned at every commercial site they visit, and infected at many of those sites by cookies and other tracking files that report our activities back to advertising mills, all the better to “personalize” our “experience” of advertising and other “content.”

Economically speaking, Firefox is an instrument of advertising, and not just a vehicle for users. Because, at least indirectly, advertising is Firefox’s business model. Chrome’s too. (Apple and Microsoft have much smaller stakes in advertising, and offer browsers mostly for other reasons.)

This has caused huge conflicts for Mozilla. On the one hand they come from the users’ side. On the other, they need to stay in business — and the only one around appears to be advertising. And the market there is beyond huge.

But so is abuse of users by the advertising industry. This is made plain by the popularity of Adblock Plus (Firefox and Chrome’s #1 add-on by a huge margin) and other instruments of prophylaxis against both advertising and tracking (e.g. Abine, Disconnect, Ghostery and Privowny, to name a few).

To align with this clear expression of market demand, Mozilla made moves in February 2013 to block third party cookies (which Apple’s Safari, which doesn’t depend on advertising, does by default). The IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) split a gut, and began playing hardball. Some links:

That last item — an extensive bill of particulars — featured this sidebar:

The link goes to An Open Letter to the Mozilla Corporation.

So Mozilla looked for common ground, and they found it on the advertising side, with personalization. Near as I can tell, this  began in May 2013 (I’m told since I wrote this that work began earlier), with Jay Sullivan‘s Personalization With Respect post. In July, Justin Scott, then a Product Manager at Mozilla Labs, vetted A User Personalization Proposal for Firefox. The post was full of language straight out of the ad industry songbook: “favorite brands,” “personalized experience,” “increased engagement,” “stronger loyalty.” Blowback in the comments was fierce:

JS:

I don’t care what publishers want, or that they really like this new scheme to increase their marketing revenue. Don’t add more tracking.

I’m beginning to realize that Mozilla is working to make Firefox as attractive to publishers as possible, while forgetting that those eyeballs looking at their ads could be attached to people who don’t want to be targeted. Stop it. Remember your roots as a “we’ll take Mozilla’s code, and make a great thing with it”, and not as “Google pays us to be on the default toolbar”.

Dragonic Overlord:

Absolutely terrible idea.

The last thing the internet needs is more “personalization” (read: “invasion of my privacy”). All your marketing jargon does nothing to hide the fact that this is just another tool to allow advertisers, website owners, the NSA, and others to track users online habits and, despite any good intentions you might have, it’s rife with the potential for abuse.

Tracy Licklider:

Bad idea. I do not want it. I think you misstate the benefits of the Internet. One of the most salient benefits of the Internet is for web sites, advertisers, and ISPs who are able to build dossiers about individuals’ private lives/data, generally without most users being aware of the possibility and generally without the users’ consent.

One of the main reasons Firefox has succeeded is that it, unlike all the other browsers, was dedicated to users unfettered, secure, and as private as possible use of the Internet.

User:

If this “feature” becomes part of FireFox you’ll loose many users, if we wanted Chrome like browser we wouldn’t have chosen FireFox. We chose FireFox because it was DIFFERENT FROM Chrome but lately all I see is changes that make it similar and now you want to put spyware inside? Thanks but no thanks.

A follow-up post in July, by Harvey Anderson, Senior VP Business and Legal Affairs at Mozilla, was titled Up With People, and laid on even more of the same jive, this time without comments. In December Justin posted User Personalization Update, again with no comments.

Then in February, Darren Herman, Mozilla’s VP Content Services, posted Publisher Transformation With Users at the Center, introducing two new programs.  One was User Personalization. (Darren’s link goes Justin’s July piece.) The other was something called “directory tiles” that will appear on Firefox’s start page. He wasn’t explicit about selling ads in the tiles, but the implication was clear, both from blowback in the comments and from coverage in other media.

Said Reuters, “Mozilla, the company behind the Firefox Internet browser, will start selling ads as it tries to grab a larger slice of the fast-expanding online advertising market.”

Romain Dillet in TechCrunch wrote, “For the last couple of years, Mozilla and the advertising industry have been at odds. The foundation created the do-not-track feature to prevent targeted advertising. When users opt in, the browser won’t accept third party cookies anymore, making it much harder to display targeted ads around the web. Last year, Mozilla even chose to automatically block third-party cookies from websites that you hadn’t visited. Now, Mozilla wants to play ball with advertisers.”

The faithful didn’t like it. In Daring Fireball, John Gruber wrote, “What a pile of obtuse horseshit. If you want to sell ads, sell ads. Own it. Don’t try to coat it with a layer of frosting and tell me it’s a fucking cupcake.”

Then Mitchell issued a corrective blog post, titled Content, Ads, Caution. Here’s an excerpt:

When we have ideas about how content might be useful to people, we look at whether there is a revenue possibility, and if that would annoy people or bring something potentially useful.  Ads in search turn out to be useful.  The gist  of the Tiles idea is that we would include something like 9 Tiles on a page, and that 2 or 3 of them would be sponsored — aka “ads.”  So to explicitly address the question of whether sponsored tiles (aka “ads”) could be included as part of a content offering, the answer is yes.

These sponsored results/ ads would not have tracking features.

Why would we include any sponsored results?  If the Tiles are useful to people then we’ll generate value.  That generates revenue that supports the Mozilla project.   So to explicitly address the question of whether we care about generating revenue and sustaining Mozilla’s work, the answer is yes.  In fact, many of us feel responsible to do exactly this.

Clearly Mozilla wants to continue down the advertising path, which many of its most passionate users don’t like. This position makes sense, given Mozilla.com‘s need to make money — somehow — and stay alive.

By becoming an advertising company (in addition to everything else it is), Mozilla now experiences a problem that has plagued ad-supported media for the duration: its customers and consumers are different populations. I saw it in when I worked in commercial broadcasting, and I see it today in the online world with Google, Facebook, Twitter… and Mozilla. The customers (or at least the main ones) are either advertisers or proxies for them (Google in Mozilla’s case). The consumers are you and me.

The difference with Mozilla is that it didn’t start out as an advertising company. So becoming one involves a change of nature — a kind of Breaking Bad.

It hurts knowing that Mozilla is the only browser-maker that comes from our side, and wants to stay here, and treat us right. Apple clearly cares about customers (witness the success of their stores, and customer service that beats all the competition’s), but its browser, Safari, is essentially a checkbox item. Same goes for Microsoft, with Explorer. Both are theirs, not ours. Opera means well, but it’s deep in fifth place, with a low single-digit market share. Google’s Chrome is a good browser, but also built to support Google’s advertising-based business model. But only Mozilla has been with us from the start. And now here they are, trying their best not to talk like they’ve been body-snatched by the IAB.

And it’s worse than just that.

In addition to the Brendan Eich mess, Mozilla is coping with losing three of its six board members (who left before Brendan resigned). Firefox’s market share is also declining: from 20.63% in May 2013 to 17.68% in February 2014, according to NetMarketShare.com. (Other numbers here.)

Is it just a coincidence that May 2013 is also when Jay Sullivan made that first post, essentially announcing Mozilla’s new direction, toward helping the online advertising industry? Possibly. But that’s not what matters.

What matters is that Mozilla needs to come back  home: to Earth, where people live, and where the market is a helluva lot bigger than just advertising. I see several exciting paths for getting back. Here goes.

1) Offer a choice of browsers.

Keep Firefox free and evolving around an advertising-driven model.

And introduce a new one, built on the same open source code base, but fully private, meaning that it’s the person’s own, to be configured any way they please — including many new ways not even thinkable for a browser built to work for advertisers. Let’s call this new browser PrivateFox. (Amazingly, PrivateFox.org was an available domain name until I bought it last night. I’ll be glad to donate it to Mozilla.)

Information wants to be free, but value wants to be paid for. Since PrivateFox would have serious value for individuals, it would have a price tag. Paying for PrivateFox would make individuals actual customers rather than just “users,” “consumers,” “targets” and an “audience.” Mozilla could either make the payment voluntary, as with public radio and shareware, or it could make the browser a subscription purchase. That issue matters far less than the vast new market opportunities that open when the customer is truly in charge: something we haven’t experienced in the nineteen years that have passed since the first commercial websites went up.

PrivateFox would have privacy by design from the start: not just in the sense of protecting people from unwelcome surveillance; but in the same way we are private when we walk about the marketplace in the physical world. We would have the digital equivalent of clothing to hide the private parts of our virtual bodies. We would also be anonymous by default — yet equipped with wallets, purses, and other instruments for engagement with the sellers of the world.

With PrivateFox, we will be able to engage all friendly sites and sellers in ways that we choose, and on terms of our choosing as well. (Some of those terms might actually be more friendly than those one-sided non-agreements we submit to all the time without reading. For more on what can be done on the legal front, read this.)

(Yes, I know that Netscape failed at trying to charge for its browser way back in the early days. But  times were different. What was a mistake back then could be a smart move today.)

2) Crowdsource direct funding from individuals.

That’s a tall order — several hundred million dollars’ worth — but hey, maybe it can be done. I’d love to see an IndieGoGo (or equivalent) campaign for “PrivateFox: The World’s First Fully Private Browser. Goal: $300 million.”

3) Build intentcasting into Firefox as it stands.

Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) calls it “broadcast shopping”. He explains:

Shopping is broken. In the fifties, if you wanted to buy a toaster, you only had a few practical choices. Maybe you went to the nearest department store and selected from the three models available. Or maybe you found your toaster in the Sears catalog. In a way, you were the hunter, and the toaster was the prey. You knew approximately where it was located, and you tracked it down and bagged it. Toasters couldn’t hide from you.

Now you shop on the Internet, and you can buy from anywhere on the planet. The options for any particular purchase approach infinity, or so it seems. Google is nearly worthless when shopping for items that don’t involve technology. It is as if the Internet has become a dense forest where your desired purchases can easily hide.

Advertising is broken too, because there are too many products battling for too little consumer attention. So ads can’t hope to close the can’t-find-what-I-want gap.

The standard shopping model needs to be reversed. Instead of the shopper acting as hunter, and the product hiding as prey, you should be able to describe in your own words what sort of thing you are looking for, and the vendors should use those footprints to hunt you down and make their pitch.

There are many ways of doing this. More than a dozen appear under “Intentcasting” in this list of VRM developers. Some are under wraps, but have huge potential.

Intentcasting sets a population comprised of 100% qualified leads loose in the marketplace, all qualifying their lead-ness on their own terms. This will be hugely disruptive to the all-guesswork business that cherishes a 1% click-through rate in “impressions” that mostly aren’t — and ignores the huge negative externalities generated by a 99+% failure rate. It will also generate huge revenues, directly.

This would be a positive, wealth-creating move that should make everybody (other than advertising mill-keepers) happy. Even advertisers.  Trust me: I know. I co-founded and served as Creative Director for Hodskins Simone & Searls, one of Silicon Valley’s top ad agencies for the better part of two decades. Consider this fact: No company that advertises defines themselves as “an advertiser.” They have other businesses. Advertising might be valuable to them, but it’s still just a line item on the expense side of the balance sheet. They can cut or kill it any time they want.

“Buy on the sound of cannons, sell on the sound of trumpets,” Lord Nathan Rothschild said. For the last few years advertising has been one giant horn section, blasting away. If online advertising isn’t a bubble (which I believe it is), it at least qualifies as a mania. And it is the nature of manias to pass.

Business-wise, investing in an advertising strategy isn’t a bad bet for Mozilla right now. But the downsides are real and painful. Mozilla can reduce that pain by two ways:

  1. Join Don Marti, Bob Hoffman (the Ad Contrarian) and others (myself included) who are working to separate chaff from wheat within the advertising business — notably between the kind of advertising that’s surveillance-based and the kind that isn’t. Obviously Mozilla will be working on the latter. Think about what you would do to fix online advertising. Mozilla, I am sure, is thinking the same way.
  2. Place bets on the demand side of the marketplace, and not just — like everybody else — on the supply side.

Here on Earth we have a landing site for Mozilla, where the above and many other ideas can be vetted and hashed out with the core constituency: IIW, the Internet Identity Workshop. It’s an inexpensive three-day unconference that runs twice every year in the heart of Silicon Valley, at the Computer History Museum: an amazing venue.

Phil Windley, Kaliya Hamlin and I have been putting on IIW since 2005. We’ve done seventeen so far, and it’s impossible to calculate how far sessions there have moved forward the topics that come up, all vetted and led by participants.

Here’s one topic I promise to raise on Day One: How can we help Mozilla? Lots of Mozilla folk have been at IIWs in the past. This time participating will have more leverage than ever.

I want to see lots of lizards and lizard-helpers there.

[Later...] Darren has put up this insightful and kind post about #VRM and The Intention Economy (along with @garyvee‘s The Thank You Economy). I’ve also learned that lizards will indeed be coming to both VRM Day and IIW. Jazzed about that.

 

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!

 

 

For many years I’ve wanted glasses that would help me observe and record what I see and hear in the world — but in a polite way that wouldn’t freak people out. Since nobody has made anything like that (that I know of) I decided to publish my idea. I call it Searls Glasses, because the first four letters of my surname, as luck has it, combines “see” and “hear” (or “ear”) — and because they’re still glasses as well.

And, since Google Glass is all the rage (in more than one meaning of the word), I decided to have some fun comparing my fantasy with Google’s reality. And hey, if somebody wants to make what I’m wire-framing here (pun intended), let me know. I’d like to see these things made, no matter who makes them. (And, if somebody is already making them, that’s cool too.)

I’ll run down the features first:

  1. First-person rindicator (a light indicating a state of willingness to relate, or presence of a relationship)
  2. Second/third person rindicator (a light indicating a state of relationship with a nearby second or third party).
  3. Binocular (3D) cameras.
  4. Off/on light. Green means it’s not recording. Red means it is recording.
  5. Binaural microphones (one in each tyne) and electronics section, plus all the other required circuitry (recording, bluetooth, battery).
  6. Earphones.

Rindicators (#s 1 and 2) are what we’ve been calling “r-buttons” in the VRM development community. I just re-named them, here on the plane where I just cooked up this whole idea and am writing it down. How they work and what they symbolize are still up in the air. UI elements that indicate actions and/or states of relating are essential, I believe — not just here, but in countless other kinds of hardware and software.

Binocular cameras (#3) are way cooler than the usual monocular ones (such as Google Glass’s). Hey, our eyes and glasses are already 3-D. Why not the cameras we wear on our heads? These, however, have an additional feature: they look for second-party signals of privacy policies. So, for example, if Searls Glasses see somebody wearing one of these Customer Commons buttons —

— with a QR code in the middle, and the scanned QR code  says “don’t take my picture or video-record me,” that wish will be respected. Same goes for a button like that containing a near-field transmitter that says the same thing. This is an example of something Google Glass apparently lacks at this stage: Privacy By Design. (For more context, see Big Privacy, a paper highly influenced by work many of us have been doing with VRM.)

The on-off light (#4) tells others whether the cameras are on and recording what they see.

I am amazed, now that headphones are at high fashion ebb, that we don’t hear much about binaural sound, and no smartphones or tablets feature them yet. Maybe Searls Glasses can change that. In the meantime, find some binaural sound recordings and listen to them. They are much different than conventional stereo recordings, because only two microphones are used, and they are located on a bust — a mannequin head — in the positions of human ears. That way they record what a person hears, rather than what a sound engineer puts together with a mixer. The effect is the aural equivalent of 3-D images: the whole “sound stage” is very much a you-are-there experience. With Searls Glasses, you can make your own binaural recordings, thanks to binaural microphones over the ears (#5). Lights on the tynes will also tell others whether or not you are recording: another example of privacy by design.

I think the best way to record, and to manage everything Searls Glasses make possible, is with a smartphone or tablet app, connected by bluetooth.

As a bonus, Searls Glasses should also pick up low-energy bluetooth signals, and radiate them as well. Much has been said and written lately about these. (By my friend Robert Scoble especially.) Instead of thinking about how marketers can use these beacons, however, think about what you can do with them. For example: sending signals of your own interest in some product or service — or your disinterest in being followed right now.

Since I’m writing all this on a plane, and want to get it up as soon as possible after I land,  it will be relatively link-less at first, and a lot more linky (and otherwise improved) once I’m settled somewhere.

Meanwhile, lemme know what you think.

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.

Cities aren’t simple, especially mature ones. They are deep and complicated places that require equally deep attention to appreciate fully.  That’s what I get from Stephen Lewis‘ insights about the particulars of present and past urban scenes and characters in Sofia, New York, Istanbul and other cities he knows well. His latest post, titled  The Women’s Market, Sofia, Bulgaria: The Endurance of the 19th Century, Layers of Unwarranted Blame, and the Virtues of Slow Lenses, goes even deeper than most — accompanied, as always, by first-rate photography that speaks far more than words in any sum can tell. A sample passage:

The endurance of the 19th century

In a lifetime of working in and observing cities throughout the world, I’ve noticed that late-nineteenth century neighborhoods are amongst the last to be regenerated.  This is due in part to the resilient endurance of their economic and social functions throughout the twentieth century and into the early-twenty-first.  In such neighborhoods, cheap rents and high vacancy rates in storefront occupancy enable the provision of inexpensive goods to those whose budgets constrict their choices.  The same interstice of factors offers opportunities for marginal entrepreneurship and a shot at mobility to those who might otherwise fall outside of the economy.  The low profit-margins inherent to such entrepreneurship, however, can make for dubious goods and equally dubious practices.  Thus, shopping in the Women’s Market calls for a taste for sharp-tongued banter and a quick eye ever on the lookout for rigged scales and for good looking produce on display but underweight and damaged goods placed in one’s shopping bag.  Still, where else can one buy, for example, persimmons or grapes, albeit on the last legs of their shelf-lives, for a third of the price of elsewhere and serviceable tomatoes for even less?

To live is to change — and eventually to die. Yet cities are comprised of many lives. They are always an us and never just a me, even if we don’t get along. Who we are changes as well, and that too is a subject of Steve’s attention. For example:

Layers of unwarranted blame

There is a fine ethnic division of work and functions at the Women’s Market.  Meat, cheese, and fish  kiosks, and stands offering wild herbs and mushrooms, are run by Bulgarians. Fruit and vegetable stands and peripatetic bootleg cigarette operations are run by Roma (Gypsies).  Storefronts in adjacent streets include honey and bee keeping supply stores run by Bulgarians and rows of “Arab” shops — halal butchers, spice stores, barbers, and low-cost international telephone services — run by and catering to increasing numbers of legal and illegal immigrants from Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Turkey, Central Asia, and Afghanistan. Many Bulgarians, their weak self esteem shakily bolstered by contempt for “others,” blame the shoddier commercial practices of this wonderfully vibrant marginal neighborhood on the presence and “inferiority” of such outsiders.

Blaming others may be among our most human of tendencies. I have often thought that the human diaspora, wandering out of Africa and across oceans and forbidding landscapes, was caused by disaffection between tribes — the dislike, subjugation or dehumanizing of others, and the construction of specious narratives that rationalize a simple urge to blame. In known history there have been countless migrations, some for opportunistic reasons, but many more simply to escape misery. (Or, in the case of slavery, in states of misery dismissed by traders who regarded their captives as mere property.)

Yet cities, perhaps alone among human institutions, invite and thrive on human diversity. What hope I have for our species I get more from living in cities than from being anywhere else, no matter how pleasant. Steve’s photos and essays don’t always give me more hope, but they always give me more understanding, which is the better deal.

Bonus postings:

 

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?

@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.

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