Archive for the ‘conflict of interest’ Category

2014-06-14 15.02.05 (463x640)Was Richard Nixon a father figure?
That’s the first questions everyone asks me
Stay turned for something even bigger
All the President’s Men on All in the Family.

When I was growing up I had met the enemy and his name was President Nixon. I never actually met Nixon but I knew my parents voted for the other guy. He was enamored with power, tormented by insecurity, and kept his own enemies list, featuring some personal public heroes of mine who cared a lot more about consequences, than the powers which wield them.

Nixon also had a brilliant young communications strategist named Patrick Buchanan who saw the tie-dye and the free love and the picket signs and new that the young lefties were even less connected to their parents in their need for recognition than any single pronouncement, political stance, or pill you really needed to try. Buchanan saw the baby boomers need for attention as the single biggest reason to reject whatever injustice or misguided policy they were drawing attention to.

Hence, he hatched the silent majority — those middle-Americans with the honest day’s work, the shared sacrifice of national service, traditional values, and mortgages nearly paid off on homes well above the pay grades of their own parents. They would sooner bring comfort to the enemy than bring attention to themselves. Translation: Greatest Generation to Baby Boomers: shut-up, sit down, and get a haircut. Oh, and just because you never saw the dark times we endured doesn’t diminish your own privileged lives.

Generation Landslide

The generational divide was not the only wedge issue played masterfully by the same re-election team. Perhaps too well when you consider the mix of hubris and paranoia that sealed the doom of said administration. No matter, the idea that a group of radical lefties could be dressed down by the cold stares of the so coined silent majority by Buchanan was real. That ’72 landslide might have been a bad trip. But it was no hallucination.

Flash forward to today and middle America is softer around the middle only. Society is still going to hand basket Hades but now Pat Buchanan is hailing the moral rectitude of Vladimir Putin as a beacon for traditional values in the moral vacuums of today. What could be a clearer affirmation that our gridlocked politics bespeaks a right-leaning electorate than a sincere admiration for unapologetic authoritarians like Putin? And where are those proud and incensed majorities that go about their quiet lives? They’re no longer in the majority and they’re certainly not keeping faith with institutions or silence about their indignation.

And they make up in message volume what they’re losing in members. And they’re channeling their resentments into a bullhorn as well-funded as it is thunderous in the rejection that we still shoulder a common set of sacrifices for a country the self-made masses once aspired to call home.

Perhaps it’s the impending loss of our majorities that makes the new face of Caucasian male America the stand your ground, pack and carry commando. We can’t get our women to produce more babies. So Bubba who comes running to protect our porous borders when the invaders are the peasant children of Central American refugees, and not the imagined red menaces of yore.

And what about our own kids?  Our kids are both coddled and incarcerated. That’s because we boomer parents broke the central tenet of all intergenerational understandings with the current crop of vegan-leaning, grade-inflated, prospect averse, loan indebted, and great recession-spooked millennials. We not only raised, clothed and fed them — we made them our best friends. How’s that for a conflict of interest when you’re trying to balance the merits of eating meat with flipping burgers? How’s that for getting them launched when we’re just going to fix the first unscripted misfortune they encounter outside the nest? It’s easier if we do it.

It’s now the official policy of our government that corporations are people and money is speech. The wealthier you are, the chattier you can afford to be. Freedom is pursuit of the impulse by-lined in the late David Brinkley’s bio as “Everyone is Entitled to My Opinion.” If speech is money does that make destitution a form of censorship? If corporations are people does that mean that corporate people get to vote twice?

What money ceases to be in the age of the noisy minority is time. Time is only money when you’re working across the clock. Elites are untethered from the gravitational pressures of the billing cycle. They are getting in front of an issue just as we are falling behind on our payments. It’s only when free speech is financed by the expenses we can’t afford. Only then do we see the spike in attention known as a backlash.

Mostly though us non-elite majorities are too busy pedaling against our own hamster wheels to connect the prearranged dots of the message offensive. Free has a pleasing simplicity to libertarian frontierists as in free markets: me = “free” and you = “markets.” Given the balancing of power (tilting heavily to the speechifiers) and the balancing of payments (leaning heavily taxpayer here) it’s in the campaign underwriters’ interests to blur and obfuscate the common rally points for the distracted and disenfranchised receivers of free speech.

Throwing red meat to the base is one intended outcome. Another is that the same agitations fogs the rhetoric for the less impassioned, blurs distinctions between candidates, and severs the connection between a negative (the advertising) and a positive (citizen participation in the electoral process). But there’s another new and less understood connection between noisiness of the political classes and the ensuing silence of the apolitical majorities.

More and more messages are silent as well, resistant to the shrill, incendiary nature of institutional grandstanding and political confrontation. It’s easy to tune out free speech. What’s not so easy to muffle is one’s online history — where attentions veer to issues of credibility with much more scrutiny and sincerity than exposing which specific corporate interests are fronting smear campaigns in the name of free speech as an unimpeachable offense.

Like anyone with a phone between the ears I store my memory cramps in a Google loophole. What tropical storm am I referencing in the story about my friend’s father’s hip replacement? Was it Sandy? Irene? Was there an actual name for that ice storm in ’96? No, that was the wedding party you held for your second marriage to wife #2. My story banks are saturated and even Google does not map to that level of storm damage.

Obscurity as the New Human Right

It’s curious that we were raised on memory rights. Usually these were preserved to uphold the heroism of our forebears. Typically it was dedicated to the valor they displayed in defending abstract, universal concepts like freedom, justice, and the American way? Am I being cranky and defiant to suggest that American way lost its way during my generation’s occupancy in the power seats of the social strata? No matter, a generation later the battle has shifted to more tangible and personal territory — my past history as Google headline in perpetuity.

The NSA may know how many times I back scratch a mutual admirer with an Arab-sounding name during Ramadan. But that message board where I was flamed in the early 2000s should go up in fumigated smoke.

As we’ve crashed over the boundaries of middle-aged I’m wondering how many of us have fossilized the images of our former selves into the present. By that I mean our sense of what’s right with the world lives resiliently in the past. I’m referring to behavior that any of us might have regarded in our former days as ‘stodgy.’

Nostalgia is an intoxicant that preys on the brain’s inclinations to move on — for my circuits that means remembering the good, discarding the painful, and carrying enough scars to appreciate the healing power of time. The older one gets those nostalgia notions multiply, even take over the present with their promise of certainty and metastasize on our destinies with each ensuing loss of control.

Where does the bias of experience take us the further out we play our likely scenarios? The optimism we need for the future is stuck at that inflection point where we lost our power. Perhaps it’s a bad guy whose rise to power usurped our own. Maybe it’s more personal than that, coiled tightly in strong emotional memories of negative events? Katty Kay and Claire Shipman write in last month’s Atlantic that women in particular: “We seem to be superbly equipped to scan the horizon for threats.”

But hunkering down tilts the bias of experience towards resistance to new experience. And where does it take us? To settle where all I-know-better are leaning: to the defense of the self-serving argument. Talk about leaping to conclusions!

Circular logic is not only self-referential but it tends to impede our ability to cope outside that disappearing comfort zone — the vestige of grumpy, embittered middle-age people. The same arms-folded folks that appeared so recalcitrant and intolerant to me as a youth when I heard tin soldiers and Nixon coming. And I clamored for a world where we were less silent – especially about how we all had something to discuss among our majority selves.

 

Last week Jerry Seinfeld performed a killer rant on Jimmy Fallon about the ritual of the Post Master General coming hat-in-hand to congress to close the latest loophole in the postal service budget. The critique of the post office as the public face of government dysfunction is especially spot-on after a week of having my mail service suspended because my mail carrier refuses to get out of his truck when the pile-up of mid-winter snow prevents him from providing drive-through service.

Seinfeld connects antisocial smart phone etiquette with the temptation to treat the listening-back side of conflict resolution as an antiquated nicety that’s been marginalized by the self-selecting way we choose not to engage directly in disagreements — especially when those disagreements may cost lenders and issuers money as well as attention to customers without risk management operations of their own.

The I-could-have-called-you-and-I chose-not-to option is how VISA apparently resolves its one-sided dialoging of credit card disputes these days. Only they don’t email or text either. The U.S. postal service is the vehicle of choice for phantom, unilateral negotiations already rigged in favor of the risk management services wing of America’s prospering financial services sector — the same industry that hemorrhages our identities and personal fiscal affects at checkout registers from coast-to-coast.

They rely on the US postal service — the same  channel both clogged and sustained by retailer offers for their plastic. Then the too-big-to-fail folks carve out a tiny window to respond to this post resolution second round of paperwork. I heard a muted apology over the phone last week that this window lasts for ten  days. That’s almost the duration I’ve been without mail service during our recent winter storm surge.

Actually, ‘tiny’ may be too large an opening for what they provide when the consumer doesn’t even know that window has been opened, or reopened in this case. That’s because in the interest of fairness I asked for one-half of the dispute to be re-credited to my account. After attempting to contact the merchant and filling the necessary paperwork my card issuer, TD Bank did exactly that. Only they put the charges back. An unannounced debit to my account surfaced 10 days ago: the amount of days to resolve a dispute by VISA’s watch and four months after I filed my original dispute with the merchant.

In the letter I filed last fall with TD Card Services I documented my communications with ABV Kayak and Excursions on the Riviere Rouge in the town of Grenville, about 50 miles northwest of Montreal near Parc du national Mont Tremblant. The business consists of a website, Facebook page, a school bus, van, some kayaks, crash helmets, paddles, rubber suits, contractor-instructors, and a bucket of suds that the guests use to wash the bodily fluids from the prior wet suit occupants.  If you believe the marketing this shadow operation has escorted 150,000 auteur kayakers down river from their rented rec hall in the splendors of the Laurentians since 1981.

When I first contacted the marketing arm, the sales associate informed me that a full day trip would be broken into two parts, with lunch in between. I told her we weren’t sure that we wanted to do a full day of rafting. She assured me that the variety of currents, peak season scenery, and topography would make the full day trip well worth it.

However, when we got there, ABV informed us that the afternoon part would merely duplicate the morning run, and pass the exact same portion of the exact same river as in the morning run. We did not want to do the same trip twice and were mislead by the merchant’s misrepresentation that the full day excursion had different morning and afternoon parts.

We took only the morning part of the trip. ABV’s representative asked us to call the office the following Monday, and inform the office staff. He said that ABV Kayak Excursions would refund the unused afternoon portion of our trip, which is $244.23. I did try to reach the ABV office upon return. No one responded, We were mislead into booking a full day excursion, did not in fact take a full day excursion, and do not believe we should have to pay for a full day excursion.

It would appear that TD Bank agreed as well. These were the details that prompted the partial refund. As for putting them back on my card I’ll say this: I would answer for the counterclaims that ABV made on its own behalf except that TD Services now refuses to share them with me.

It must be something about the foregone closure of those tiny windows where dispute resolutions tend to dissipate in the bank’s favor. I suppose if Seinfeld was mocking the kangaroo court of hearing out its customers, he might say that our credit institutions and banks had come to an executive decision before this dispute ever arose:

“I decided I only want to hear my half of the conversation. This is what I have to say…

I think we’re done here.”

Syria nerve gasBefore last Friday an Imperial-leaning President was expected to take Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out to the woodshed. He was to brandish the whip of American missile bruising with the reluctant enforcer’s decree that this corporal spanking was going to hurt him more than it hurts Assad. And before Labor Day he would have been right. But now we know better.

Obama needed Congress like a hole in the head. Then the British Parliament silenced the alarm clock before Prime Minister Cameron could set it. No point in going it alone when the constitution provided ample cover in the form of a full up or down vote. Regardless of how the votes line up, it is a remarkable thing. The public has so little appetite for war now that it’s no longer relevant whether the investigations prove that the evidence was cooked or credible unlike the run up to those elective American wars when it was theories in heads and not facts on grounds that justified the propping up of dictators, dominos, or pipelines.

But the queasy factor hastens another more welcome removal from Congressional deliberations and that’s the middle-man who brokers the retail side of a political system that sends anyone who can’t afford a lobbyist to the black market for political favors. That’s the up-and-up about having the straight up-and-down. There will be no horse trading. We’re filibuster free. It is as close to a politically neutral political act that we’re likely to see on this side of any foreseeable cycles to come. That’s what happens when support for bombing Syria is running neck and neck with Congressional approval ratings. You get one rep, one vote. You get the House leaders voting with their conscience, not with blocs, or caucuses, or factions, or any groups that would threaten not to have them as a member. That’s not a character assassination, a smear campaign, or the guy further to the extreme in the next primary. That’s the clout our leaders have when casting a vote for or against this evolving role of American leadership.

President Obama has decided to externalize the arguments in his head, making us all raging argumentarians. Buffering the time-span between the atrocity, the debate, and the pending response could drag on all the way through the upcoming debt threshold season. We may have to DVR those episodes while we stay glued to this wider and more unscripted stage. And here are the fall previews as channeled through a South Park chorus of militant-leaning Sims family combat scenarios:

  • Are we only implicated when the shooter takes out our loved ones?
  • Does self-interest reside closer to the speculations of cavorting diplomats?
  • Are these future gassings are any more predictable if we do the unpredictable and stand down?
  • We can’t nurse our veterans or feed our hungry. Can we really afford this? (Queue debt ceiling…)

The President is drawing this out for a reason. He’s dragging the entire cast across that red line which marks all borders, colors, and demarcations. He drew that red line in response to having no response for the first hundred thousand or so Syrians being taken at the hand of their fellow Syrians. He drew it on the calculation that he wouldn’t need to honor it. It was an election year placeholder. Perhaps a posturing he didn’t expect to hold? After all, why would a despot invoke sarin pellets on oxygen-consuming civilians?

Certainly the Iranians who knew the open air gas chambers unleashed by Saddam Hussein in 1980 have a closer affinity to the Auschwitz death camps than any rationale for the one visited on the Damascus suburbs last week. Perhaps these are remnants of the same caches that were used on the holocaust-denying Iranians? In both cases the U.S, turned a blind eye to these weapons of gas destruction. Red lines tend to be made on shifting red sands it seems.   

But argumentation is cheap and Obama spends lavishly, knowing that a week buys him a maelstrom of speculation from decampments of munitions deployed within Syrian population centers to a Republican party united in blame only. If there is to be blood the new calculations on circumscribed warfare is not over munitions, territories, natural resources, or even casualties, but on whose hands their blood will be stained.

During the summer recess Obama was going to be impeached for implementing Obamacare. Now he’s melting our soft civil war for the harder one waging on in a fractured, displaced, and stressed out corner of a global neighborhood the “right side of history” was never supposed to enter.

The terms of that entrance will be diluted by the party line progressives (formerly “pinkos”) once, if ever, such a resolution passes the house. And Obama will be publicly circumspect and privately delighted by those constraints. It may sound devious to foes and shrewd to benefactors. But it’s certainly a lot less abstract than gassing one’s “own people.” And it’s a lot more achievable than any notions of victory in Syria — for anyone.

 

Twitter, Facebook, Google – none of the big three content aggregators are pledging net neutrality when it comes to sending and receiving news feeds outside their site domains.

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In the past two years they’ve all rejected that tireless and under-appreciated workhorse of boundary-free newsfeeds – RSS. All three have removed the ability to consume their feeds (or anyone else’s) via the open standard of RSS in favor of proprietary formats written to their own APIs.

Logging out of the RSS loop has a lot more to do with shuttling web traffic than shuttering the need for open content standards. In a world of cost-free information, RSS has managed to outlive its market without outlasting the need for it.

In his article Embrace, Extend, Extinguish: How Google Crushed and Abandoned the RSS industry, Ed Bott documents the decade long demise of Google Reader from up and comer to down for the counter:

“In an era of mobile devices, where synchronizing content and settings between multiple locations is a crucial feature, losing Google’s sync platform is literally a killer.”

Oh my. Why is it that every trade opinion that passes as critical thought is based on the viability of an existing business model? The writing on that prophetic wall is this: If it’s too small for Google to keep the lights on, why still carry that RSS torch?

Bott concedes the point that RSS is still a viable channel for content delivery but not without the ping tone required in its consumption by mobile devices:

“Of course, Twitter and Facebook made a very large dent in the usage of RSS, but there’s still a market there. A big one, in fact, if measured by the standards of a business that’s not Google-sized. And now, with Google abandoning that service, any business that uses RSS gets to go back to the glory days of 2006. Ugh.”

As a business model it seems that RSS is a victim of its own success. An open standard co-opted into the activity streams of big social media. Leave smart phones out of it and you still have a surefire standard for delivering pull-based newsfeeds. That’s the stuff we know we’ll want to read in advance. RSS eliminates step one: the need to track it down before the more essential step: catching up to it within a sea of distractions and unfiltered merchandising.

The problem in a post Web 2.0 world there is at best a casual relationship between the utility of a technology and its commercial viability. RSS was invented at a time where content was still a monetizable notion. The investment lights have dimmed now that connection’s been severed by big social and search media.

The rationale in question starts with the assumption that:

  • RSS is useful
  • It should be upheld as a delivery standard; and thus,
  • A bankable asset for any apps outfit that knows how to thread the name-dropping needle so that subscribers can track topics and ideas as easily as they can follow celebrities and human train wrecks.

After all, how could 5.3 million Delicious users go wrong? Easy. The ping tone went dead years ago on Google Chrome itself which never saw an RSS feed it failed to render correctly.

The result is that we early adopters and independent sorts face a new bait and switch dilemma: Take what big search and social media serve up for exploratory grabs but follow the money before you trust your intuitions for there is no free Google lunch. And we might do well to cast a wary eye beyond next gen beta pilots but something as basic as blocking sites in Google search results.

Writing in the Washington Post Ezra Klein writes that such untimely shutdowns…

“…[A]ll have me questioning whether I want to keep investing time and energy in ‘free’ Google products or whether I need to start looking for paid services that are explicitly making money off the thing I am paying them to do.”

In 2013 aggregators still haven’t figured out pull media. Until someone can aim news products at content consumers as well as friend updates on Facebook it appears that RSS will be relegated to hobbyist -journalists like Klein and the Atlantic’s James Fallows. As one of those pariah-researcher types I’d rather entrap my information than line the sights of would-be Ad Words sponsors.

RSS is one of those private label markup languages that’s been branded as an activity stream by the social media creature elites. But if your primary goal is to make plausible contacts instead of instant monetization, there’s a lot more to be done than hear first about how a friend-imposter’s posted their latest bowl of snacks to their daily food updates.

The easiest way to round up to the most active feeds is to browse (not search) major news sites for their RSS sections. That’s because there’s no standard way that webmasters work this into their architectures. Here are a few examples:

You could parse this out with a splash of Google syntax + semantics:

inurl:rss “(monitor | track | discover | uncover | reference)(startups | companies | sales | leads)” “subscribe to”

Here are a couple of suggestions for embracing RSS even when big search and social are backing away:

1) Know your news flow:

The news volume of newsfeeds are erratic at best. Some channels are spam channels, a fool’s errand of cross-posted press releases that should never rise from the cutting room trading floor. Others may have lofty and expansive labels like WSJ.com: Deals & Deal Makers. But if you sample the stream you’ll see a trickle. There’s a world of difference between trying to tap a definitive source of transactional details versus a “word on the street” describing one subjective take on yesterday’s foot traffic. It’s actually more promising to start with the fire-hose (e.g. WSJ.com: US Business) and then reign it in with filtering that reflects your information-seeking priorities.

2) Know your aggregator:

At first blush a dedicated RSS engine like Fresh Patents (http://tgs.freshpatents.com/search-rss.php) looks promising. The content’s fact-based, plentiful, and non-commercial, (i.e. uncontaminated by search media spam). However, if your goals are marketing or sales-related, you might as well go back to school for your engineering degree. ‘Launch’ refers to “a launch and disconnect clutch for the electric motor of a P2 hybrid powertrain.” ‘Startup’ is not about fledgling bootstrap firms hoping to turn the corner on their latest angel round but a literal key turning inside a literal ignition: “During startup of a DC/DC converter.” You get the picture.

3. Know that RSS is transactional:

One reason RSS is oversold and underperforming is this notion it’s like another communications channel (something you turn on and off). It’s not the definitive response to fruitless searches or the final word on being up-to-date. It’s a rapid-fire trail of updates crunched together in the form of news articles, database results, or changes to a list, i.e. most emailed stories. At its most passive, setting up an RSS feed is a three-step process: (1) picking your feeds; (2) filtering them down to a manageable size; and (3) trapping results that are in useful enough form to act on directly in the form of a lead or a contact or a list of references.

One answer to the limits of RSS is to forsake it completely in cases where you already know what you’re looking to track. For example if you have a finite number of search targets to track, you can set up camp outside specific customer and/or competitor websites and be alerted to specific page changes at WebSite-Watcher (http://www.aignes.com).

If you’re still game for proper RSS feeding here’s a simple, unchanging success factor: Your reader or the interface you use to review, flag, track, search, and ultimately transform into your own priorities. There will always be a need for a world-class RSS reader, if not a market.

ImageThe New Year greeted me with a blog post from Dan Tunkelang, chief information scientist at LinkedIn. I’m guessing based on earlier blips across my radar that Tunkelang serves as the chief big data officer for B2B behaviorists.

It’s Tunkelang’s responsibility to place a cap and plug or two on the fire hose of information. It’s still not drinkable for the average consumer but the spray alone can irrigate quite a few promising fields (or what Tunkelang might call data products – the ability to exploit a recurring experience that can be enhanced, neutered, or packaged into some new mutation).

This is heady stuff. Owning the formula for rationalizing the collective cognitive sensation of the online clickstream on earth and what’s worth noticing is not just for disciples of the Patriot Act. Figuring out an explanation for what happens between when we land on a page and what compels us to hit <send> is the cosmic mystery of our commercial age.

In the piece Tunkelang begins to unpack Abraham Maslow’s polemic on human motivation as a hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s work was not inspired by traffic patterns between servers or calls to databases but was engineered through his chosen field of psychology. Maslow concluded with an ideal – not a data product. Self-actualization was not premised on field studies or repeatable experimentation. He knew it when he saw it … in Einstein, Thoreau, Jefferson, Huxley, Jane Adams, and other high thinking boundary crashers.

It’s interesting that Tunkelang would recast a foundation as broad as human motivation on the subjective grounds of Maslow’s work.  Maslow had personality analysis and his intuitions. Tunkelang has petabytes to evidence his computer models. One perspective based on a rich, interior life; the other one patterned off the hall of social media mirrors we hold to our surface reflections and virtual connectedness. Perhaps these differences are not conflicting and take a backseat to the core of this framework:

These people were reality-centered, which means they could differentiate what is fake and dishonest from what is real and genuine.  They were problem-centered, meaning they treated life’s difficulties as problems demanding solutions, not as personal troubles to be railed at or surrendered to.  And they had a different perception of means and ends.  They felt that the ends don’t necessarily justify the means, that the means could be ends themselves, and that the means — the journey — was often more important than the ends.

Tunkelang sees self-actualization as a tool for framing perception. This harkens back to a time of professional distance objectified by the late 20th century mass journalism ideal of bias-free reporting. We’ve gone well past what sociologists like Daniel Boorstin proclaimed in The Image, his ground-breaking pre-McLuhan polemic. Borstin argued that most events were no longer spontaneous but orchestrated as pseudo-events and confused for public changes to the private world that concern me, a.k.a. news.

Fifty years on we don’t question that perception is reality. We’re no longer starved for information. Our hunger is for absolutes. Our excuse for inaction forms not from a lack of information but resolve on what to do with it, a.k.a. uncertainty. Our bias today is not red state, blue state 1-2-3. It’s that our forebears could afford more daring as if they came from a surplus of certainty – the biggest rear view distortion of all historic fictions.

Perhaps Tunkelang’s choice of Maslow is to guide an awkward baby giant like big data through the earnest compass of the self-actualizers Maybe the thicket of IP addresses, browser versions, and click patterns that tangle through a congestion of transactions is what tomorrow’s information scientists can use to define reality, or at least clarify the boundaries that encircle it? We’re now finally getting to where we can assess the reality of the perception.

What Tunkelang refers to as how we interact with and benefit from data is every bit as subjective as Maslow’s basis for a centered reality:

“Indeed, data scientists like my team at LinkedIn spend most of our time converting massive volumes of data into useful information — not just for people to consume directly, but also to power other analyses and products.”

The corollary here: what users consume indirectly are the analytics that LinkedIn processes from information products composed exclusively of these same people. Of course I’m not an insider B2B guy slaving over an arsenal of social media stockpiles. I teach outsiders how to make information work for them without getting too attached to the sources or the labeling or the Darwinian edict of a digital economy that one person’s content is another party’s revenue.

But forget about the free labor that stokes the Facebook furnace. Forget the Pavlovian insistence of Google Suggest. Attention factories treat human curiosity as a natural resource – even when we gorge on an unhealthy appetite of self-selecting rationales of our own reality-making.

How does Tunkelang view the realities of big data? One unflattering view is of its bulky and yet porous nature — a mostly dormant black hole that belies any golden opportunities to exploit it for material, academic, or community gain. In 2013 we are staring blindly into an ever-cascading  information surplus that operates inside a vacuum of understanding? The scarcity of our sense-making surfaces in our BS detectors, our acceptance of vocal minorities, and in the shouting matches that result. We don’t ask why. We mask our confusions through the distractions of texting and email.

We used to have professional attention managers like TV networks and newspapers. Today we’re no closer to managing our attentions as we are to deal with financial planning, hanging plasma screens, family smart phone packages, or disabling JavaScript.

Tunkelang models a world of attention managers as a community of trust-seekers. It’s not just whether a piece of evidence smells right but our own particular fragrance. After all, we are “often producers of information ourselves,” he points out: “We have an interest in establishing our own trustworthiness as sources.”

Tunkelang defines trust as the communion of authority (reliable provider) and sincerity (good faith provider). The rationale is that you’ll know my beef on Yelp is for real because I’ll get worked up in the future about the same beefy grievances. The problem is that the arms’ length relationship of authority to evidence is in fundamental conflict with the intimacy of direct experience. Our need for self-preservation reduces our ability to represent the collective interest. A blending of the two might be an aspiration but belies the algorithms and trust serums that can be teased out of big data or injected into the conversations of big networks.

That elevated wisdom would bind credibility and authenticity in a state of integrity. In such a state experience informs the voice of authority. That’s an authenticity which may still bring human trust into our digital age.

In this latest Presidential race we can be sure about three things:

1) We’re about to elect a Harvard-educated and aloof technocrat more comfortable with crunching the numbers than pressing the flesh.

2) He will claim a mandate to represent all Americans in order to implement an unspecified agenda (even though he’s not on speaking terms with roughly half the country).

3) Privately neither candidate is too optimistic or delusional to believe they can reconcile their campaign rhetoric with the business of governing over a house divided on every major issue except one: let someone else (besides our soldiers) take the hit for a growing government supported by a dwindling tax base.

Pity our next President-elect. They need to suppress their better angels and the notion of a shared sacrifice, lest they’re booted from the beltway by the same people that hoisted them to victory.

Pity our citizen-voters. They missed out on the boom-boom Bush years and the hush-hush Obama-Bush sequel. There are scores to settle that make the middle class squeezes of the past feel like a hot compress in business class.

But there is a way to restore credibility to the electoral process.

There is a way to give political candidates the breathing room they’ll need in order to fix stuff, i.e. raise taxes and lower services, without being impeached by the alienated opposition.

There is a way to impose certainty on the tentative nature of change as in: “I’m certain I’ll be paying more for less and won’t insist our politicians pretend it away.” The return of animal spirits awaits the bravado of certainty in the bag. Without our reliable strut, we’re in the same rut.

Most pointedly, how do our deplorable political parties fight their way back to respectability? How do they wear their vested interests proudly? How do they dismiss bipartisanship with the straight face of tomorrow and not the smirk of today?

The check’s in the early balloting mail

They can rally support, not with platitudes and empty promises, but with cash paid out to the non-party members who matter: people who can’t decide who to vote for.

Surely this is illegal, right? Well, the 24th Amendment bans poll taxes but says nothing about direct marketing to electorates or the setting of voting prices. To liberals this may sound like another cynical ploy to kick self-interest up another discouraging notch. The death knell for the commonweal and the greater good.

But let’s think this through. The act is genuine. It’s an investment by political parties and their donors. Here’s how we speak directly to a polarized and cynical people. We channel cash to those unregistered Americans who decide elections through their indecision.

Why steal an election?

Why steal an election when you can buy one fair and square?

Paying for votes can mean a lot of stops on the low road to dysfunctional government. Is this what George W. Bush called “fuzzy math” without taking exception to the numbers in his opponent’s budget plan? Is this a basic deduction one can make around the political meme-seekers trying to rationalize the downhill momentum of Citizens v. United, voter fraud, or those impending fiscal cliffs? Is this the new normal depicted last month in Bill Clinton’s convention speech as basic arithmetic?

Paying for votes could put to rest all this talk about voter fraud and all the latest court challenges to voter ID. There won’t be any checks drawn on the accounts of the deceased once all those on-shore voters cash in on the action. Direct payments to voters will have the same impact on public apathy as robotic cars will have on the speeding ticket industry. It will obliterate negative campaigning for good. In the meantime, all those moochers, freeloaders, and deadbeats can do something constructive while biding their time for the next great wave of American prosperity to kick in.

What is the color of your skin in the game?

Whether you count yourself as a 99 percenter or a jet-setter, or the 47% on autopilot for an entitled silver spoon feeding, there’s one group that we can all set our growth beams on — that’s the unwashed and unvanquished object of those Super Pac spoils: the undecided voter. But would those undecideds be a vanishing breed if the Coche brothers and the George Soroses, and the casino kingpins could cash out directly? That’s right. They could pay directly for those votes instead of roulette-wheeling their dealings to local broadcasters in swing states.

Direct is a form of both payment and marketing. Why not a form of government? After all, our elected officials spend a good 70% of their time fetching for dollars when their only real conviction is to be re-elected. Who has the time for convictions when they may need to replace them in the interest of unexpected events or languishing sound bytes caught on tape? What’s the difference between an elected official on the take and the “takers” who vote them up or down from office? The difference is that representatives get rewarded for keeping themselves in power while their constituents get the spoils of free speech piling up on their cable screens and in-boxes.

Payouts are the new rebates

But paying  for votes is not just limited to electorates. We pay our kids to attend school. We pay farmers not to grow food. We pay food companies to market diabetic-inducing groceries for the express lane. We subsidize oil exploration so Exxon Mobil can super-size our addiction to oil. Actually We pay that one out twice before pausing to fill our tanks. That second hit happens when our taxes confront the debt our Chinese suitors assumed to underwrite our military occupations. What occupy movement is this? Those countries with high concentrations of hostility that invade our embassies, dis Israel, or worse, threaten to choke our economy.

And therein lies the choke hold. Us decided voters hold as few surprises as we do cards for deciding elections. Show me a reliable party line voter and I’ll show you an oblivious politician. Exhibit A: the 41 states without battleground status. A counted vote is as worthless to the voter as it’s money in the bank for the candidate — a blank check for spending political capital on carving out electoral districts, complicating the tax code, or even settling personal scores.

The transparency of market-based democracy

The sincerity of a bribe might smell bad to some but it’s a lot more understandable than the slippery abstractions that pass for campaign promises: putting us back to work? Change we can believe in? How about payments we can deposit? Who needs to pander when we’ve got a budget that operates below the radar of campaign ads, let alone media scrutiny? Delivering votes by channeling campaign funds to voters means that capitalism is hard at work, even if our politics are too fractured to lift a tiny compromising finger.

What if we put our votes on the auction block? The true undecideds and even us softer core fence-sitters? How would this all work then? And what would that do to the Australian ballot? That’s our right to vote without personalizing the transaction. Why would the major parties want to invest in the American voter when we’re protected against needing to account for our ballot choices? Here’s how that could play out:

1) Voter puts opening bid up on their social media page

2) Voter bundles bid with other undecideds in their districts

3) Voting brokers increase buying power of these undecided blocs (and takes a cut of the buy-off)

4) Parties examine registration history and make their pitch to the aggregator (READ: Google, FaceBook, Twitter, etal.)

5) Bloc members vote to accept winning bid from said party and sign contract binding them legally to (a) vote; and (b) reflect the endorsed party positions and candidates

What’s a little pressure among peers?

Does that mean we still vote by secret ballot? Absolutely.

Want to spell the difference between the uncertainty of polling data and the final vote count? It’s the sound of that pay-for-vote check being cashed at the corner ATM. That’s when the party can enforce the voters’ contractual obligations. It’s the line crossed once the volume of accepted bids eclipses the margin of error from the last election cycle.

Baring an onslaught of legalized immigrants, the entrenched turnouts of both parties will shine in glaring relief the tendencies of those bankrolled voters to stick or stray. If the backed party candidate loses, is it because the opposition lured in more voters? Doesn’t matter.

My brilliant strategist buddy Canuck surmises that future payments will freeze up should this doubt persist. Someone on the losing side didn’t pull his lever weight. They ruined it. For everybody.

Jeez, talk about disenfranchisement.

ImageThere’s a new storyteller on the horizon of human discourse. In May’s Wired, The Rise of Robot Reporters, Steven Levy chronicles the first tentative steps of a Chicago-based start-up called Narrative Science to dis-intermediate a news media in decline. Narrative Science, says board member and former Doubleclick CEO David Rosenblatt, is a “company that turns numbers into words.” What it does with that contrivance is the news room equivalent for turning the post Gutenberg belief in movable typefaces into delusions of pure wish-fulfillment — and profit.

Why Narrative Science?

It’s cheaper to manufacture  stories by tweaking algorithms. How does Levy rationalize that “Ninety percent of a news” will be baked in huge software ovens by 2027? Intelligence engines like those of Narrative Science will expand the sense-making machinery of the market — not displace the last journalists standing. But what happens when the robonews creates press accounts of events now off the official storytelling radar? Will we cast ourselves as the protagonists in stories of our own making? In a customized news product will we even feign an interest in outcomes that don’t include us or the generic abstractions that fill up the media calendars of today? Think consumers, voters, fans, parishioners, and the faceless legions that don’t really “get us.”

And when our self-interested leaders and blowhard media step over the line, they lump us into these groups and we get defensive. Sometimes we even tune out at not-so-subtle recent suggestions that bad news made a personal appearance in places and people we know and love.

So we sequester ourselves in experiences we control. And in a market of one we prefer to curate our own media pages from a source that will remain blameless: It earns our trust by presenting our own acceptable truths within worlds of our choosing. And if Narrative Science releases an insemination product we are no longer mere readers, listeners, or viewers but receivers to signals we were born to host. We can we can select spheres of our influencing too. That’s something no self-respecting journalist could deliver without compromising personal dignity and the professional reputation needed to stay employed: their power to persuade.

Why the News Media?

They can only shrink to a former glory profile that cuts a running hum of temporal impressions. What does persuasion look like to the reporter in the street today? It’s a sharp elbow above our personal radars and into the realm of foreground noise. But do we really need the paparazzi in camouflage for celebrity safari? Do we care that news organizations are in the business of embedding their checkbooks into an improvised explosive called the corporate news exclusive? When the competition for attention shifts to sports, who’d really pine for the locker-slamming platitudes of the post game show? Do the players long to justify their mistakes to sensation-seeking error-prone reporters? The fantasy league stats can speak for themselves.

Why us?

It’s not that we can’t handle the truth. And it’s not that we turn away from bad news. It’s that we prefer not to face someone else’s truth — especially the kind that means bad news for us. How is this behavior written into code? Levy writes about a strict adherence to data patterns as a perceived bug in the program:

“[N]ot long after the contract began, a slight problem emerged: The stories tended to focus on the victors. When a Big Ten team got whipped by an out-of-conference rival, the resulting write-ups could be downright humiliating. Conference officials asked Narrative Science to find a way for the stories to praise the performance of the Big Ten players, even when they lost.”

In other words the new black media box couldn’t read the social cues. It couldn’t weight the institutional pecking order of big amateur athletics: that the elites lost to the lesser-thans. Other rewrites don’t address hierarchies but the airbrushed portraits of our personal histories:

“Likewise, when the company began covering Little League games, it quickly understood that parents didn’t want to read about their kids’ errors.”  

The Serialization of Personal Reality

So how does artificial news tune out the necessary realities? According to Levy all it takes is for a battery of meta-writers to “educate the system.” Meta-writers are the human-based interpreters who devise the templates for pre-assembling the scripts that the algorithms follow to spawn these production bylines:

  1. From the blatantly transactional: What are the best restaurants in X city?
  2. To the slightly obtuse: What are the best private tutors for my kid needing help in Y so she can get into $?
  3. To the downright conceptual: Do I let Z medication run its course or elect to do the surgery?

Having addressed human events the real growth in the twenties will hinge on accounts of events without direct human intervention. Think about a camera crew assigned to your fantasy league. Imagine a press junket angling to photo-op their way into the gamifications of your choosing? What may have passed for myopic in a lapsed media age will set the standard for the new authenticity. What could be more sincere than to place our own creations on news platforms staged by the likes of Narrative Science?

Authenticity needs to act in cahoots with a disinterest and elevated credibility in order to be taken seriously outside our own orbits. That’s where our flights of fancy are grounded in a fact base, no matter how self-selecting those data sets:

“They put a box core and play-by-play into the program, and in something close to 12 seconds it drew examples from 40 years of major league history, wrote a game account, located the best picture, and wrote a caption.”

Headless hedders. Scoops without digging. Instant analytical gratification. Sounds like these alternative realities are being packaged to go. And no one’s going to miss the classifieds.

Artificial News, Real Growth

The market potential for artificial news manufacture is limited less by 20th Century conventions like the public interest or journalism ethics than by legalities — specifically the likelihood of fraud that manifests in our unwillingness to think for ourselves. Here are three hypotheticals:

1) Synthetic People. Narrative Sciences can juice the Klout scores of skin deep fabrications. That means the marketers don’t have to pony up actual perks for the drones who tweet their praises.

The temptation to generate celebrity mannequins could falsify outcomes as much as personal appearances. Hammond foresees an appetite to flesh out the statistical accounts with off-the-field developments like player injuries or legal problems.” That’s right. The very thing purged from the news cycles of the little league press becomes fair game once the merchandise becomes eligible for demotions, endorsements, and all forms of a professional sport referred to by the Roberts Court as “free speech.” Factoring in these frailties may create a better system: (1) for not only detailing but (2) analyzing our games, and conversely (3), gaming these very same systems by tossing a single grenade-like insinuation into the contagions of tomorrow.

2) Markets of One. The self-selecting machinery will reference a breadth of experience so shallow and constrained as to make our present day cable news echo chamber sounds as “fair and balanced” as the carnival barkers would have us believe:

“[T]he low cost of transforming data into stories makes it practical to write even for an audience of one.”

In today’s media climate all the pandering and hubris and alarmist jive in those opposition camps has been reduced to background noise. But there is no house divided in an audience of one. There are no deals to strike. There are no hard feelings to patch up. There is no further filtering or curatorship required. Our Google glasses have already filtered out all aspects of reality that hold no claims on us. And our narrative headsets bleed into our ears and bake a reaffirming acceptance into our tuning sections.

3) Disconnects. It’s one thing to draw from forty years of big major league data records to depict or simulate an event. It’s quite another to outsource its meaning — how it connects to us. To Hammond that’s the highest potential growth area — not recaps of little league games but packaging management reports or handicapping empty prophesies like this blog post for example.

Then again if we lose our independent streak, could we also lose some of our misplaced anxieties about a world too big to fathom, let alone shape? This may be just what the national health plan doctor ordered, whether through our own initiative or underwritten by our bankrupt Nanny State.

The real story behind Narrative Science isn’t about health care politics. It isn’t that robonews will replace journalists but that it will sell us on the worlds we don’t need to be sold on — the ones of our own design — until we can no longer detect where the authoring ends and our imaginings begin. No longer alerted, confused, entertained, or merely informed, we will be entranced. And it will take narcotics stronger than tomorrow’s news to distract us from the stories we’re told.