Archive for the ‘TechHistory’ Category

ImageTo paraphrase David Byrne, in Spike Jonze’s not-to-distant time horizon, the future depicted in the movie Her is …

A place where nothing ever happens.

For instance, creative achievement is evidenced as a documentary of a mother sleeping. No, not a work about sleep or moms or nocturnal maternal emissions. The camera is frozen on a static star of a sleep study.

Is this a tribute to slow TV or simply the vacuous expanse of uninspired alienation that awaits us past the end of history? Joaquin Phoenix’s character is a greeting card dictator-turned-personal-history-arranger. By his own admission he’s run the gamut of human experience in only slightly more than one-third of his biological life. It’s all patterned out, as if the big data wheel of probability already lived it for him. Of course there’s no great expanse of history or imagination to cross for the audience to conceive of no greater turn-on for our protagonist than a woman he can turn off at will (a.k.a. Scarlett Johansson … as Samantha … as Her).

But to arrive at that exalted and zipless state, we must first climb over the encumbrances of mid-21st century Los Angeles. It’s not a high, low or middle society so much as a neutered and frictionless tunnel of over-educated, close, but not touching (and yet so touchy) automatons, leading lives that appear more simulated than stimulating.

Don’t Touch the Exhibits

There is nothing Dystopian in the infrastructure. There are no marauding packs of feral gypsy gang lords. No one is warming over a post carbon, methane crisp at the beaches of tomorrow. The biggest obstacle for Theodore is to avoid stepping on the ankles and torsos of the wedged-in open house of Next Gen sun worshippers. Wealth distribution’s been all figured out. Traffic patterns have been scheduled in advance. The obese and diabetic have retired to off-screen leper colonies. Convincing meds have released a drug-free world from the labors of addiction. Hostility means you’re carrying someone else’s baggage. And they’re just as happy if you don’t.

Most of the movie’s confrontations are big drawn-out clashes of the genders. Relationships are skirmishes waiting to happen. Ironically Theodore’s metro sexual manliness is hailed by his office mate and inspires his first post-divorce dating encounter. No sooner can you say restaurant selection anxiety disorder, his magic conquest carpet is rolled in and scorched by his blindsided dinner date. Her advanced academic pedigree belies her naughty school charms. The unfreezing of his flowing juices pushes her abandonment buttons: Is he the whole prayer resolution package or drive-by sleaze bag from the same package store?

Tender Generic Mercies

My favorite set-up to the zipless intelligent soul design climax has little to do with dating freak-outs or similarly ill-formed flashbacks of a brawny-brained, emotionally-stunted ex-spouse. It’s the facade of authenticity provided by Theodore’s gift of verbal approximation of generic intimacy. Sort of a SIRI bookstore reading of a texting-happy Hallmark laureate. Add the idyllic trappings of an imagined togetherness never actually shared  by the customers who dial-in Theodore’s prose because their own reticence blocks the connective emotional tissue from forming around we still know too casually as a commitment to our significant someone.

The manufacture of superficial intimacy tees up with the artificial intelligence cocktail in ways that the servant-turned-antagonist (2001) and Pinocchio-kindled parental love (AI) could only break down as instruction sets. The messier business of decoding our emotional bearings from bedroom, to alter, to probate finds the AI cinema formula in rare and elastic form, stretching to accommodate our most far away looks. We’re gaping into our own dreaminess with an impunity reserved in our time for control freaks of the rich and famous. It’s the AI elements that enable this immersive bubble of mirth to mushroom without risk, or guilt, or the slightest creeping realization that the rest of our better selves are engulfed by that same indelible reflection. It’s that temptation to be dreaming around the campfire of the oncoming headlights. Entrapment by entrancement. Anything less than Her is tabled as a to-do list item for some day, any day, eventually following tomorrow.

Her Fast Acting Majesty

The deliberate invocation of a nearby future was decided by Jonze first and foremost to get us vested in the outcome — that we would see this day evolve, if not the actual artifice. I’m also guessing it was not so much to raise expectations on that future so much as lower our guard on the present close at hand. Our solipsistic romance with the immediacies captured in our smart phone of yesteryear is replaced by companionship, configured from best practices associated with…

  • Childlike curiosity
  • Canine loyalty
  • Valentino romance
  • Monster lust
  • Spongy, experiential absorption
  • Meticulous virtual house-keeping (including the pruning and curation of 86,000 ponderous emails), and
  • The tenacity of a professional agent

The enormity of that attention to detail enables Her to repackage the small funny subset to a welcoming market for those messages (as if that market was speaking in a voice only Her could hear above the conversation-neutrality of our talkative interactions).

Sexperimentation

The use of surrogates is another playful glimpse into a plausible future through Google-tinted glasses. We see a salty-tongued Pillsbury Dough Boy impersonator channeling Seth McFarland through 3D PlayStation whose console transforms every finger into their speediest, thumb-texting best.

The sex surrogate portrays the physical semblance of the disembodied OS. Our human body double is a willing accomplice. But Theodore can’t bridge the distance between autopilot lust and the deeper complexities of his true OS affections. Ultimately it’s not the absence of the human form but the presence of an emotional dishonesty that drives Theodore and Her apart and dwarves the convenience factors in the value proposition of OS as a delivery system for love. To Theodore it is no longer fantasy. To those outside this circle, there is no “couple.” The breakup to be is a head-trip, not a spiritual journey.

Looking for Mister Sidebar

Her doesn’t cheat so much as mutate into a superior intelligence of fortune. Her seeks out the philosophical entrails of cryogenically laced celestial packing über thinkers. Her keeping up with Theodore as customer-master is now expressed by how far the teacher and student roles have reversed. At one point she’s engaging thousands of other game piece-like presences while Theodore is passing the time on a train, asking Her to guess an exact number for the thousands of trees passing across the landscape. In that moment Her is the closest to human that Jonze can spin his creation. That’s when the OS senses the suspicion of being cheated out of love. It is this fragility in our mating rituals where Her attention to Theodore is now and forever divided — no matter how attentive the engineering being performed is lavished on us.

I will replay this film in my mind over and over again. It’s not because of unexpected plot twists, stellar performances, or even a memorable relationship, but for this core notion of a masterful concept movie: Our attention is our most prized possession and how this stokes our passions, compromises our generosities, and seeps into all there is to love and ponder in our commitments to one another.

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.

Image

Copyright All rights reserved by mrg5_tv

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.

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.

 

Such a deal!

Psst … hey … yeah you.

You social engineers getting certified in Business Facebook applications!

Remember what-you-see-is-what-you-get? Probably not unless reinventing yourself for a living is measured in decades. For you digital natives I’m describing how dinosaurs like me once crawled out of our darkened caves of DOS. Back in the late eighties the notion that our interfaces would actually reflect our dot matrix print-outs was an epiphany (that’s where our documents were all headed back then, right?)

The great thing about it was you knew where you stood. The outcome on your screen was reproducible. Park that file on a floppy and your friend with the 10 MEG hard drive could see it too. It was the infancy of a new kind of printing press. What we didn’t know about the paperless void that awaited us is the security that the paper gave us. We knew how many copies we’d run off, where they’d been circulated, and roughly the profile of the folks who had your layouts, graphics, and arguments in their hands. It wasn’t world-wide or moving or making sounds but it was a level of control and transparency that packed the staying power of a flowering Polaroid.

Flash forward to the dawn of “the” Facebook circa 2005:

The moment we decode our thoughts the only thing standing between our expressiveness and the cryogenics archives is the indifference of our colossal and anonymous communities. Until keyboards come equipped with ears for tuning into keystrokes of genius, we’ll be banished to “the new dark.” Together alone. Old messages. New bottles. Voiceless discoveries wondering whether the people in our social orbits can share in our experience. Quick answer: ‘course not! In social media what you see is what you interpret. These are not static inventories of text any more than our connections are a recessive flock of lurkers or even receptive band of onlookers.

Message from 2020 to 2005: There is no audience. If you’re looking for distinctions, think engagement levels — not content consumers.

Okay, back to the here and now.

It’s in this cacophony of muffled experiences and tentative expectations that the social media curtain was raised within the confines of large services firms. From one extreme of tight-fisted control, we have leapt to the opposite extreme of unrehearsed community-building. No script. No change management roadmap baked into the recipe for success or even defining what success means.

One critical success factor? WYSIWYG 2.0 gets my knod. If those tentative steps off the social business platform are any indication the number one confronting our reluctant late-comers is not about brushing up on the latest apps and features but preening and probing in that new hall of mirrors:

What can you see that I don’t?
What can I conduct in private and then invite a select group of team members at my discretion?  

These are not just passing hesitations for a bashful user base. These are no just executive-level insecurities surfacing as personal vanities. These questions push ahead of any potential opportunity gains or the most basic community-building efforts. Is my avatar out of focus? Are the views I share in my blog out of step with firm policies? Honestly, they can miss the next update cycle if I’m not clear on my WYSIWYG bearings:

“Basically, who can see what? Otherwise I can’t tell the noise from the knowledge. Otherwise how do I figure out what’s worth investing a part of my work day towards understanding?

There is no single recipe for baking change management into the cultural traditions of a large services organization. But if the adoption of SharePoint 2010 as the de facto enterprise content platform is any indication, then governance is the single biggest ingredient. Of course nothing has forced the issue of who-sees-what out of the maintenance closet  more than SharePoint governance. Chiefly: the deliberations around how corporate policies play out around what gets dragged into or dropped from enterprise interfaces.

If we want to deal with the inevitable as a force for good I would transition what we’ve learned from our SharePoint deployments. These lessons underscore three overriding factors in the bottom-up adoption of social business media:

1) COMING AND GOING: Connections

Big, impersonal enterprises are famous for counting “who you know” as the way to unblock bottlenecks and transcend their own bureaucracies. Large organizations can be clumsy around the question of how you come to know them. Did you work your way up through the ranks together? Did you stop along the way to sample the broader organization and how smart leaders piece together solutions falling outside the standard portfolio? Did you punch the most direct ticket to partnership, staying closer to the rails and to the exclusion of colleagues with complementary skills and often interdependent needs and resources? The ability of social media savvy managers to self-select their working communities is the most sweeping panoramic view into organizational needs and assets since the invention of the org chart — and a trifle less static — no?

2) EXIT: Internal Hierarchies

Remember George W. Bush and the megaphone at Ground Zero. Allies and critics agree. It symbolized the high water mark of his two administrations. My point here? Nothing promotes teamwork better than a big shot tossing off his suit jacket and joining in a bucket brigade. In the case of social business that means pitching in to answer a question or address a concern voiced in an activity stream. In WYSIWYG 2.0 the whole stigma around who should “be seen” with whom  doesn’t disappear completely. But a CXO in search of a gut check can now wade into the weeds from the privacy of his corner office or from the primacy of his bully pulpit.

3) ENTER: Market Realities

See the pecking order exiting by the rear door? It’s taking another time-honored game not worthy of winning along with it. It’s called fixating on internal customers to the exclusion of focusing on actual clients. When the market speaks, it’s more eloquent than the most thoughtful governance or the most resolute leadership. It’s the clarifying resolution of a win or a sale or a revenue bounce.

Even those porous borders between our work identities and our social media selves can attest to that. After all, if a prospective buyer is looking for guidance on our products and services, who is she going to listen to — our CEO in the press release or the irate customers sounding off on Twitter? The marketplace has spoken. And it’s not waiting for our keyboards to grow ears.

What you see is not necessarily what you get. And what you hear is not necessarily what was said. Unless you hosted what was posted on your social business platform.

Are you looking through a broken pair of eyes? Are you ill-equipped to hear me?”

“Are you one of the cogs

Too busy probing the pleasure centres of dogs to get near me?

- Kevin Godley, Lol Creme| Random Brainwave, 1979

What happens when human curiosity is reduced to an engineering exercise?

Some major efficiencies happen like instant road maps and opt-in spell checkers. Who would ever want to predate a world devoid of “did you mean…?” But whether we meant to or not Google has assigned a demand-side value to the answers it provides and the way it provides them. That is a powerful and compromising brokerage.

Our passions and concerns are channeled into a need for certainty that only seems to increase with the lack of closure. We are not just hard-coded for self-containing narratives of a self-concluding nature. We will skip ahead and miss the good bits because we’ll be too stressed out to appreciate them if it all turns out for naught. Such behaviors turn out well for Google. We’re addicted to answers. Google is not a vehicle. It is the verb. It does not own the road. It stores the potholes below the crevices of its membranes. To deny that is to take away free advertising for a search media giant and our own self-expression in the same bated breath.

The problem is not that Google and the self-proclaimed ‘beauty’ of its new privacy policy is big brother in a barely disguisable ruse: “[A] simple, intuitive user experience across Google.” If anything Google is big bystander. Google doesn’t want to crawl inside our heads and decode our inner confessionals — that last veil of hesitation that tells us not to visit our untested assumptions on inscrutable Google. They want to bucket our articulations: (1) First into IP addresses, and then, (2) into groupings of indulgences and shadowings of flash-points. Just the very products of our experience that cause us to take notice and give money. They don’t call us users for nothing:

Google: “We never sell personal information.”
Subtext: “We always sell impersonal information.”

Okay, you’re thinking. So I’m a consumer. They package me up and send me off as a nameless aggregate into the awaiting clutches of their material witnesses: The Procters and Gambles, the seasonal influenza indices, the local pizzerias … all riding on the outcome of my reflexive back and forth with Google. I got my toppings, and my meds, and my brand name discount. Just pay the man and move on, right?

Less Why for the Ware

The problem is not spyware but literally why-ware — the analytical nature of motivation. These are temperments, not transactions. These are the understandings reached through interconnecting events, inwardly wired impulses, and group + personal dynamics that factor into our actions and rationale for the outcomes they deliver. There is no GPS on God’s green Google Earth that reconciles these complexities with our circumstances, decisions, and their consequences.

Google would be the first search media giant to tell you they are not in the business of telling us what to do. But what they trademark behind that steel trap of engineers and lawyers is the newly franchisable power of suggestion. That means that a post millennial tween who straps on her Google glasses will be free to experience that mediated tunnel of contraption-induced toolbars and pulldown menus that jog along-side the shoulders of these driverless thoroughfares. She will have no need for prior knowledge or personal experience or the need to remember her impressions or with whom she chooses to share them. As the latest FAQ on Google’s new privacy policy intones:

Google: “We can treat you as a single user across all our products.”

Yes, that is intended to be a consoling message to us memory-challenged users. Perhaps the real threat would have been to caveat that emptor:

Subtext: “We can treat you as a multiple product across all our customer segments.”

Birth of a Pathology

The biggest eyebrow raising to date is that Google’s bid at reality augmentation is what stoners in the seventies used to say about their sober counterparts:

1975: “Reality is for people who can’t face drugs.”
2015: “Hiding publicly behind an interface is like viewing the world through Google-colored glasses.”  

Us ivory-towered elites can’t have that. We retreat to our own 20th century safety zones. We condemn this intervention! It is a container devoid of serendipitous discovery! It is way too interesting for our kids to tune us back in again. We are so gone.

It is also the shortest distance between points she’ll no longer be capable of making — mostly why did she climb in her Google car and where did it drop her? That’s assuming the passenger will have the curbside capacity to reboot the override.

Will they resume the itinerary on the driver’s side? That’s assuming they can drive a manual as well as read one. That’s insinuating she can trick the Google car into telling her what she need to know and not what the car is programmed to disclose. That will be a hard truth from our user and a soft landing disclosed by Google. That’s assuming one can take this all in. They seem to be talking over one another.

And down will come civilization, cradle and all.

Usually when we’re caught off guard it’s because we’ve underestimated an irresistible force or resist the inevitable damages of an overdue payment. Gotta say, leaves on matchstick splits of front yard lumber debris might be the new normal or a black swan event. Either way extended power outages are no more exclusive engagements than they are failed lab experiments.

We can point our fickle time cards at the utilities. But the average flip-switcher is in the dark as much as a an irate news consumer than as an impotent ratepayer.

Goshen-based Marcia Yudkin weighed in today on the Hidden.tech list with her assessment of the utilities as news producers. None of us were clear on how up-to-date mobile friendly our power utilities were before climate change. But most of us gave the benefit of the rounding error doubt that they would maintain the most up-to-date alerts, estimates, and outage mappings of an unfolding dilemma. Said Marcia: “Nope, not National Grid.  I used part of my precious battery time during the outage to check their website, and it was completely unhelpful.” She goes onto say that you literally need to be an obstacle to merit any direct attention by people in the know:

“The power companies were updating the local fire and police companies regularly, but the only way I found that out was to get in my car (once it was dug out) and go there and ask.”

So if your car is not disabled, your trees aren’t draped over a drooping power line, and you’re not suicidal, what’s the fastest way to get our critical fix of preventative pills for blackouts? It’s as if there were no meds for blackouts, if you ask Marcia.

Her storm intel trick or treat bag includes the following news goodies:

  1. Town-by-town information
  2. Risks and hazards, i.e. live wires, carbon monoxide poisoning
  3. Lists of stores or gas stations
  4. Bonus points: any reportings of price gouging, impassable roads, shelters, donation centers, etc.

Grid and Bear It

It wasn’t just the sketchiness of the details that carried the post storm risks well into the following week. Current state weather forecasting in the post digital age is often pre-recorded and not locally based. Forget access to cable or rabbit ears. According to Hidden-Techie Tom Kopec, off-the-air TV is literally off-the-air. Kaput. Even from the blare of my transistor most radio jocks would rattle off two or three school closings and then advise listeners to check the complete web listings of websites they had no means to access. Does that mean they read the complete lists and kill the infomercials about soiled gutters?

Darn straight it does.

This is not about the clock radio blinking 12:00, 12:00, 12:00 before fumbling for the snooze button. This is about hitting radio reset. You don’t need to be a ham hobbyist to have a personal stake in cutting through the static. This is not a business model. It’s a survival tactic. The urgency reflects what the times demand — not what the market supplies.

One feint glimmer according to Tom Kopec was FM 94.7: “It used to be WMAS. I don’t know if it still is.” Tom says they did finally go live and intermittently poured some meaningful factoids into a darkened and media-starved community.

From Charlemont Cheryl Handsaker related the bucket brigade messenging relay that was invoked by Hurricane Irene’s arrival in late August:

“… Local emergency officials (and eventually the rest of us) [were] driving the roads and passing along information ‘the old-fashioned way’ by flagging down neighbors and asking them what they knew. Combined with town emergency robo-call updates when our phone line was intermittently up was an information life-line for us. We don’t have cell service at my house so we don’t have access to the ‘smart-phone’ route.”

Tricks of Future Trades

Tonight I’ll be returning to Amherst with the fervent hope that I can catch up on several missed wash cycles. I expect the house plants will be quivering and my freezer-bound ice cream, a temperate puddle of cone chunks drowning in preservatives. With any luck all those unturned yard leaves will have unclung to the arthritic branches of brittle trunks: forced to choose between foliage and mister frostee.

They say that Peru, Mass was able to endure 32 inches of snow and continuous power — precisely because their trees were past peak. Maybe we’ll need our leaf blowers to scale our unshedded deciduous before the next climactic spasm. Maybe next year we’ll just have to rake trees the way we shovel the snow off our sagging, 19th century New England roofs. Those clinging leaves are almost as stubborn as us adopted and genuine New Englanders.

It’s easy to compare Western Mass to a backwater: (1) because commerce is rarely the reason for settling here; (2) many privileged Valley folks express our activism through supporting global causes in the developing world; and (3) because there’s an obliviousness to the outside world that includes the business of being outside. That doesn’t mean a disregard for nature. It means a lack of preparedness for dealing with it.

The regional truism: “if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes” would likely include a drumbeat of acuweather updates in Boston. Here, you might have to wade five hours into the work day just to find out that you left home without the right attire.

It’s time to put our fingers to the wind and get with the probable directions and velocities. Or maybe it’s past time after a calendar of unscheduled events that include earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and a week-long blackout from a white Halloween. Those costumes we sketched into the charcoal-like clouds of October would scare the daylight savings out of the solstices to come.

When I was a young, media savant living on Sound Beach LI, my lullabies were serenades from a firetruck red transistor radio. They were crackled codes from a Gigantor-like transmitter up island to a ravenous nine-year old of the North Fork on the knife-edge.

Chock it up to loss of reception and the never well-received plain old loss. Every broadcast was a light tap of a the glove pocket. And in the webbing landing Lindsey “the full” Nelson or Marv Albert + (John Andariese or “Big Whistle” Bill Chadwick).

Baseball may have been my best math teacher. The broadcasting crew was my seasonal theater club. Marv was my voice coach and the sports desk at Newsday (Stan Isaacs, Steve Jacobson, Joe Gergen, Joe Donnelley, Tony Kornheiser etal…) formed my english department. But the jet age appliance that connected us in the days before Sports Phone and Federal Express was Little Met Radio “LMR”). (This was the pony express days of the pre-digital era when letters had a fighting chance of arriving without zip codes).

I wasn’t going to touch LMR’s nervous, straining dial unless a pop of static bolted from the pillow muffled between its mouth to my ears: “Sorry mom. I don’t want to slump through another groggy tomorrow!” Little Met Radio couldn’t promise that Agee could drive home Boswell in time to protect Koosman’s complete game win. It couldn’t even guarantee free and clear access into the New York media control tower. But it could toggle between AM and FM – on and off switch included. It could deliver static in a whisper or blaring mono in glorious analog. It came with no camera, calculator, MP3 tunings, spell-check, or downloadable blow dryer – a surefire killer app for this period in hero worship. No marketing organization could trace my antennae landing in the rims of their spyglasses. I was connected on the receiving end only.

This summer I returned to revel in its fist-sized brick of simplicity. I stumbled on this lost generation of handheld and heartfelt wireless in someone’s showroom attic in Kittery, Maine. I bought a young solid state GE AFC. Its 4 volt EverReady heart was beating vigorously though the tunnels of antiquated formats,  relentless feature creep, and answers to trivia questions only a Met fan could endure.

But here’s one other timeless truth embedded with free delivery. It’s that I had as much choice over my programming as the materials used in the umbilical wiring of my own pregame show. True, I did switch allegiances from the Rangers to the Islanders before the expansion patsies were even a playoff threat. But for the most part all the requisite joys and sufferings were programmed for me:

  • Every hush in the radio crowd
  • Every refrain by our between period guest
  • Every lead change in the out-of-town scoreboard

… was based on the time and space extending through the stations on that Little Met Radio. Songster Al Stewart (“You’re on my Mind Like a Little Met Radio”) informed us that “sadly, we can’t choose who we fall in love with.” We should have learned this lesson through our sports teams. Winning the last game of the season — is that the perennial standard for relationship success?

I think my pal Garo summed up this sense of predestination best after the first of two epic Met collapses in ’07 and ’08:

“My life is great, everyone I love is happy and doing well and all my friends are in good places; why should the fortunes of men whom I do not know and might not even like matter to me any more than, say, the success of a community theater in Dayton? (The intensity of how their fortunes affect me is disturbing; I’ve been more upset over a given regular-season loss in the past ten years than I was when they got side-swiped by the Dodgers in 1988.)

I think it’s because I’ve inexplicably developed stage mother syndrome where they’re concerned. As in, maybe I’ve reached the end of my days of accomplishment, and I’ve decided to transfer all my hopes and dreams to them. As in, “Look! My team is in first place, and therefore their achievement accrues to me and I am not a failure!” Insane, I know, particularly since very few people in the world actually know I’m a Mets fan, and most of the people I know don’t even follow sports at all.

I have absolutely no idea what the cure is.”

Little Met Radio is not the cure for stage mother syndrome. But that baby monitor in vitro will continue to bark out the lurid details to impression-seeking, green ear buds. To fumble for the off switch would be to suffer – in the vacuum of radio silence.

"I don't know who discovered water, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't a fish." -- Marshall McLuhan

Marshall is suggesting that familiarity is the home of the oblivious. Our blinders are affixed to our unblinking screens. We put them on once and no interruption can slip between our trackable eyeballs and our data plans. Digital natives may awake ready to greet the dawn or completely hung over. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt says that either way, they wake-up connected.

Being offline requires a manual override. It’s not natural. And it requires reflexes, negotiations, and a tolerance for uncertainties that can’t be novelized in gaming or commerce.

At last weekend’s first annual Valley Summit, a forty-something social media marketer was addressing the virtues of Google Analytics to the conference gallery. He mentioned how his pet store merchandiser/client delivered him a handful of variations on the naming of some hot-selling accessory for dogs. But then he ran the keyword combos through Google AdWords and the verdict was unanimous: there is only one commonly accepted way that customers use to search for this item. That’s right — one way to the AdWords bidding auction or the highway of web marketing roadkill.

On one hand this was a battle of ideas between who keeps through my store and who lands on my site. On the other hand this is a major inversion-bender between the customer-leaning client and search-literate counsel. Man, talk about the client seeing the complexities of the world more clearly than their social media handlers!

The larger story here is that the new media brokers are all too willing to confuse the business model of a software giant for the marketplace itself. The fact that this single expression for doggie collars, leashes, or dinner bells is reducible to one expression says as much about the media buyers as it does about the search media. Each term in succession describes one thought planted in front of the next. That’s the extemporaneous stamina of Google as mind-reader. There are no original search terms under the Google Sun.

It’s one thing to “organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible.” It’s quite another thing to appropriate the language for doing so as an auction-based sweepstakes where Google has trademarked all the concenants, vowels, and punctuation symbols. Every symbol on our keypads prompt a suggestion from Google. Our minds may be shooting blanks but our stares have been paved over by the power of Google suggestion.

I’m not suggesting this power is sinister any more than I’m suggesting that Google is acting as our scalable, benevolent, reference librarian in the cloud. Google is acting in its own corporate interest when it channels our curiosities into manageable chunks of its revenue model. The fact that the service is so compelling and the model is so persuasive means that Google’s evisceration of the ad business sounds like the sour grapes of a dead fruit tree — not the grounds for anti-trust litigation that awaited a browser-bundled PC empire when the Clinton Administration chased after Microsoft in the late nineties.

“The perfect search engine,” says co-founder and new CEO Larry Page, “would understand exactly what you mean and give back exactly what you want.” Page might be casting a perfectly earnest engineering posture. Or cynicism may compel him to see the non-paying Google public as a customer that doesn’t know what it wants (other than for an intermediary to broker their virtual needs in a clean, unassuming interface). My money is on an enduring love of search science. That’s as far as Larry’s sincerity needs to travel for my purposes. I’ll know that Larry shares my enthusiasm when he figures out a way to pad revenues from servicing the needs of researchers.

That’s fantasy. One emerging reality is the appreciation of my new Pioneer Valley colleagues for brilliant search engineering. That’s my takeaway from the first meetup of the Society for Useful Information last night in Northampton.  That appreciation will deepen as they reverse engineer Google into doing their bidding on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other walled gardens to come. Perhaps then we’ll start to warm to this reality: that we feel no pain with our fingers plugged into the sockets of Google Search.

Organic search, my ass.


 

The sweet spot: No costs in next to no Internet time

Remember the roaring nineties? E-verything  was e-commerce e-xuberence. A dotcom domain was a license to go public. Actual customers and products were exempted from establishing share prices on a uniquely American vintage of snake oil.

One of the other vestiges of the NASDAQ bubble was the notion of Internet time. This was the tagline update for an economy that never sleeps. No one wanted to have fallen prey to the old familiar PE ratios or even acknowledge that old school thinking had any sway on emerging business models.

The financial services supply chain was no longer tangible. But at least it was still intelligible — no? Okay, we settled for legible back then in those bulging Internet-based portfolios. Then came the spook show of 2001 and these notions were beaten into weightlessness — not by regulators but the laws of financial gravity. Only then did the Worldcoms, Enrons, Tycos, etal. spiral away from shareholders, employees, and other interdependent life forms on planet money.

Losing Track of Internet Time

In the Dotcom era, complacency became the new taboo. You could be going nowhere. You could be revving over-funded engines off cliffs of falling cash flows. Just no two-hour lunches, man. The alarm clock had rung and the snooze bar was jammed.  Every day we were told how “hot” companies and “cool” products were intensifying established markets or creating new ones:

  • How hot?
  • How cool?
  • How intense?

It didn’t much matter. There were so many winners in this most generous of competitions. Angel investors were flipping start-ups. The Feds sat in a corner. Stagnation was abolished. Companies simply grew or died. Both experiences were nearly instant.

All comers were out for one thing: to please the ‘mother-of-all networks’ as the nurturing vessel and growth serum. That was no Goodyear Blimp. That was a gaggle of rippling packet switches so enmeshed it eclipsed all television, telephony, and satellite networks combined. Remember all meeting there for the first time? Meeting anywhere else would never be the same.

Who in 1994 could have predicted that within 5 years desktop “searching” would become as cheap and pervasive as mouse pads and screen savers?

What’s a screen saver?

The truth is that Internet Time has done the unthinkable. It has frozen our cluttered calendars in their tracks. How do I know? I woke up from my millennial hangover this morning and witnessed a miracle. We now have all the time in the world. I say that because online is no longer a useful distinction for defining offline. There’s now only the folks who have severed the signal and the rest of us.

We pay through the nose for free information with calendars that are anything but free.

And how about that most favored time = cost factor … the biological father of all business metrics? On Internet Time information wants to be free. Our calendars are not free at all but we’re willing to spend untrackable hours tackled by our own fruitless searches. The paradox is astonishing. Information from the web is as plentiful as it is free and we still pay through the nose. How?

All-you-can-drink access has gone from flirtation, to utility, to civil liberty. So too the search engine as social moderator means that we only pay cash for pushing merchandise or pulling it in. That leaves a whole lot of intangible inventory around shopping for ideas, buying arguments and paying with our limited attentions as well as wallets.  But it’s easier to spend all that unlimited attention on people-watching than self-educating and acting on what we learn.

The last time I set my alarm clock I never heard it go off. Or perhaps it had never stopped ringing? Next time you research, Google like you paid for it.

Last week's kickoff of Online Investigations for Pioneer Valley Professionals