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March 22 2013

19:53

Google Trust

Screen Shot 2013-03-22 at 3.40.34 PMI run my business largely on Google's platform: email, files, calendar, my telephone number and easy syncing across multiple devices. I'm also a power user of Google's Android mobile operating system - it's my choice for both phone and tablet. Of course, Google is my default search engine and mapping program. And like many journalists, academics, and information obsessed geeks, I organized the RSS feeds from blogs and news sites that I followed with Google Reader.

Last week in my Forbes column, I joined the general din of outrage among hard-core Reader users when Google announced it was killing the service.

Does Google understand the concept of corporate social responsibility? That seems to be the basic question around the company’s strange decision to shut down a tiny service that serves as a major audience conduit for many thousands of bloggers, citizen journalists, and self publishers.

Google’s announcement today that it is destroying Google Reader, the most popular RSS syndication tool was a massive blow to the blogging community – and to most of those speaking out tonight via social media, an entirely unnecessary attack on an important corner of the public Internet by a company with more than $50 billion in revenue and a newly-won reputation as a tech giant on the move.

Don't forget, Google launched Reader to gain an important niche in the news world - and because of its dominance in search and email, Reader quickly became the largest RSS outlet in the world. But Google seems obsessed with its failed social media platform G+ and is apparently interested in competing with Amazon and Apple on paid magazine and news subscriptions. So Reader became a cost center of limited value....or so the Google chieftains believed.

In fact, the decision to shutter Reader has been a disaster for Google because the company alienated that key user base so completely (and cluelessly, if you ask me). For the couple million it probably saved in not maintaining Reader, it lost many untold millions in social capital and negative publicity, threatening the reception of its upcoming Glass product - and leading most of the tech press to mock this week's release of its new note-taking product, Google Keep.

The headlines told the story - nobody trusts Google to keep a service, even if its successful in winning adoption.

Google Keep? It'll probably be with us until March 2017 - on average

Google Keep Arrives, But For How Long?

Google Keep: The Next New Service to Die

A matter of trust: Will Google Keep stick around?

Om Malik was particularly tough - and on point:

Sorry Google, but you might not realize that you are acting like the company you wanted to replace: Microsoft. The Barons of Redmond used to float products into the market — smart displays and weird stuff — that companies like Samsung and LG would put out in the market, only to yank them later. In the end, I stopped believing in Microsoft and shifted my dollars and attention to other brands.

And so on. It really is a matter of trust, and that's something that co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin don't seem to understand. Sure, they're great at innovation for a large company. But where's the sense of common cause, the recognition that social capital actually matters over the long term.

Maybe Dave Winer is right: maybe Google really is no good at being evil.

Postscript: I'm trying Feedly as my new RSS reader. It's pretty good. A little too "magazine" like compared to Reader's spare stack of links, but I'll keep it for a while and see.

June 05 2011

00:16

Let's Link to the Salt of the Earth

The annual Personal Democracy Forum unfurls its banner of Internet freedom and open digital communications this week at NYU, convening transparency geeks and "we-government" advocates from around the world for two days of wifi-powered gab and jab. I'll be there and look forward to the immersion in the networks and back-channels that powered, for example, the recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.

In an interesting post on his Buzz Machine blog, one of PDF's perennial voices, Jeff Jarvis, sagely scrapes the wired government question to its core: sovereignty. To what extent can governments, elected and otherwise, yield power and legal oversight - and indeed, public citizen participation itself - to the borderless, socially-networked digital polity?

As is his wont, Jeff props up an adversary to pummel in his ferocious Fight Club sparring and yeah, he's French:

The e-G8 was government’s opening volley against the internet as its agent of disruption. Oh, yes, the gathering was positioned as exactly the opposite: We come in peace, said Nicolas Sarkozy. After hearing him speak to the thousand net, corporate, technology, and government machers he’d assembled in Tuileries tents, I tweeted that I felt like a native of the Americas or Africa watching colonists’ ships sail in, thinking, this can’t end well.

I rewatched Sarkozy’s welcoming address and heard him alternately begging to be invited to the cool kids’ party–and warning them of trouble if he isn’t. “As long as the internet is part and parcel of the daily lives of our citizens, it would be a contradiction to leave government out of this massive discussion,” he said.

Then he asserted: “No one should forget that governments in our democracies are the only legitimate representatives of their citizens.” Really, Mr. President? Tell that to the people of Tahrir Square. The citizens of Egypt found their true voice apart from the government of their so-called democracy. Spring is not only overtaking the Middle East. In Spain, too, citizens are speaking for themselves, because they can. Where else will it spread?

Jeff didn't drop in the reference to the Tuileries lightly - it's pretty easy to cast a scripted old-school pol like Sarkozy as a modern Louis XVI, defensively awaiting the mobs in his garden, and he's quite right about the connected nature of the Tahrir Square crowds. But there are two aspects of  the Jarvis post that I might take issue with.

The first relates to style and culture, to the idea so resident among - well - tech machers that they're the beans on the vines of the rest of the world's population. They are not. Indeed, "tech cool" has become such a mass consumer brand proposition - the linked sans serif world of Apple and Google and Twitter - that there's no exclusivity at all, hence no "cool kids party." Take it from someone who wrote that "the big boys don't get it" in one of the early proto-blogs in 1995 that the big boys do indeed get it - indeed the big boys are it (more on this in a moment). Techno-hip is the default culture, not the province of the vanguard. Google is Wal-Mart, Apple is McDonald's, Twitter is Target and Facebook really is your father's Oldsmobile.

Yet the idea of an elite persists, even in the hallways of PDF, where organizers Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej go to long lengths to ensure a broad, diverse and grounded level of discourse. In part, it relates to the anti-government attitude so prevalent in Silicon Valley, where "self-regulation" in industry is not greeted with the peals of laughter the concept receives in the rest of the world. The great new social networks we rightly celebrate for their role in democratic movements are themselves controlled by a corporate few. For better or worse, our technology industry does think of itself as undeserving of intervention by the elected representatives of the citizenry and has often attempted to set up its own governance. So when Jarvis sets up Sarkozy as an old dude grasping for membership in the "cool kids" club, he's positioning democratic heads of of state outside the digital elite - which in fairness to Jeff, doesn't just mean the big business CEOs, venture capitalists, and A-list digerati but also the new leaders on the world stage using connected technologies to build movements.

Yet here's the rub: there should be no digital elite if this thing goes the way we'd all like it to go. Not in Egypt or Tunisia. Not in Silicon Valley. Not in Foggy Bottom. Not under house arrest in Norfolk, England. Certainly not among the anarchist hackers who attack privacy and speech. I have no interest in creating a new power structure defined by control over digital assets and audiences.

And that's my second point: I refuse to yield my rights as a citizen of the United States to any digital plebiscite, or any appointed committee of self-appointed "industry leaders" ...  or to lay down for the bullying wired brownshirts for that matter.

Sarkozy's point about democratic governments being "the only legitimate representatives of their citizens" was clumsily expressed. It implies a yolk of obedience to the state, while ignoring the vital concept of civic duty that has always been at the core of Jeffersonian democratic principles. That is to say simply: democracy is, and should be, a two-way street. Despite the failings of American government and political leaders - a constant since the founding of the Republic - that push and pull still exists, in my view. And it  defines legitimacy and undergirds sovereignty.

The rise of networks, while an annoyance to those in power at times, should actually work to legitimize elected government by connecting groups of citizens and lessening the distance between the government and the governed.

Those who believe in democracy online, and the strong worth of social media tools in both demanding representation and strengthening its every day expression, should recoil at the shenanigans of some who posture to attack the legitimacy of the elected - whether it's the Tea Party, the hard-core followers of WikiLeaks, or the digitial mobs who threaten cyber-death to any who disagree with their ever-changing demands and manifestos.

The argument that the Internet comprises a new borderless polity is strong one. Jeff Jarvis argues: "many of us — net people — have a new loyalty that inevitably undercuts old, national authority." Yet in that brave new world, where do I vote? Whom can I impeach? And where are my rights when the principles of Jefferson and the ideals of Emerson lay trampled in the digital gutter in a virtual world where coding might equals moral right?

And yet we cannot look away from the power of self organization and activism - of new alliances - partially empowered by digital networking tools. Sociologist blogger Zeynep Tufekci, who was on  PDF's WikiLeaks panel with me last December, has a great post up on the mood in post-Mubarek Egypt, and she goes inside the organizing structure - only to immediately encounter that tension between radical change powered by self organization ... and self determination powered by the the institutions of democracy. This snippet captures the essential friction of transition:

The organizers were identified with orange badges and took turns manning (and womanning as females were searched by women volunteers) the many entrances. At my last entrance, the polite young woman doing the search apologized to me, as she seemed to do to everyone she had to search, even as she did a fairly good job of looking through my small purse. Unlike regular police, she was not socialized into the idea that there is nothing disturbing about treating people as if they may do something wrong before they’ve done anything wrong. She did her job diligently, knowing it needed to be done, but also clearly uncomfortable with her role as treating people as presumed troublemakers. It was as if she symbolized the tense transition facing the idealist street activists of Cairo who are now struggling with questions of governance, of organization, how to contest elections and how to deal with the myriad of powerful forces from the Army to others.

That "tense transition" is what I'm hoping to hear more about at NYU this week. In a post previewing PDF, Micah Sifry wrote that he was looking forward to hearing Tunisian activist Sami Ben Gharbia of Nawaat.org  and Global Voices - and points to his long essay on digital activism in the Arab world. The essay is startling, but perhaps it shouldn't be. In arguing that nascent democratic movements in the Middle East and North Africa need, more than anything else, their independence from the influence of western governments and NGOs, Ben Gharbia is mirroring an American ideal, even while opposing American influence - and his goal is to "prevent digital activism in the Arab world from losing its most genuine and cherished characteristic which is its autonomy."

While it may look easy to grasp, digital activism is a complex multi-faceted movement, varies strongly from one country to another, and changes over the course of time. It’s always evolving by adopting new tools and tactics and through a constant adjustment of its strategies of resistance and actions.

[snip]

Caught in the middle between authoritarian regimes aggressively engaged in repression, Internet filtering and monitoring on the one side, and growing attention from Western public agencies and associated NGOs on the other, digital activists and online free speech advocates in the Arab world are going through one of the most challenging phases of their short history that could alter their ecosystem dramatically.

That challenge is theirs, as it should be. There is no "8th continent" or new government of the Internet. There are lands and there are peoples and there are myriad interlocked cultures. If you would not challenge the hard-won rights and sovereignty of a Northern African democratic movement in its infancy, please don't challenge mine. After all, thanks to the ever-growing growing network of networks, my democracy grows more responsive and transparent daily....doesn't it?

December 27 2010

17:30

Book of the Year: You Are Not A Gadget

"Think For Yourself" would have been an apt subtitle for Jaron Lanier's You Are Not A Gadget, my pick for non-fiction book of the year and the most important piece of writing on technology and communications to be published in 2010. Instead, Lanier and his publishers went with "A Manifesto" and it certainly is all of that - bright, opinionated, often meandering, occasionally pedantic, happily confrontational and in its totality a bold red stop sign in the path of wired society's long march toward a thin, common identity.

Not that I wanted to stop at that particular intersection.

My 2008 book CauseWired chronicled the rise of online social activism and presented a generally (but not entirely) rosy outlook for a socially-networked world with access to information and the digital tools needed to change society. I chose to focus on the development of positive, collaborative platforms like Kiva, Change.org, GlobalGiving and DonorsChoose and the creation of networks to fight poverty, disease and genocide. And I saw the ascendancy of vast social applications like Facebook and Twitter as generally benevolent to the movement for social change; greater participation could yield more democratic structures, more authentic power from below - and if more individuals could see a wider view of the injustice in the world, more of them would organize to fix it.

Yet I've never embraced techno-utopianism or served time as a social media triumphalist; back in the 90s Jason Chervokas and I would regularly rail in @ny against a form of cyber-libertarianism that argued for a self-regulated technology industry and no societal restraint on anything digital. Where some treated "information wants to be free" as a physicist's formula, we saw it as a political slogan. Chervokas and I recognized that that the "freedom" some technologists were arguing for was merely a cover for seeking power; in a new world ordered by technology, who would be in charge? Fast forward to the socially-networked Internet of 2010, and it's no surprise that a few powerful players now control vast amounts of our identities and our content.

Nonetheless, You Are Not a Gadget was a head-snapper for a me. And the intellectual whiplash was worth the collision.

The central tenet of Lanier's manifesto is the idea that humanistic values are too often lacking in widely-adopted digital technology - that in using online services driven by algorithms and marketing (and what's better for the programmer and the advertiser), users naturally adopt a less complex online personality, a less nuanced identity. In CauseWired, I relayed the wisdom of my then-16-year-old daughter, who explained that Facebook wasn't your actual self, it was "your best you."

Fitting neatly into a Facebook profile is reductive, argues Lanier, who wonders "whether people are becoming like MIDI notes - overly defined and restricted in practice to what can be represented in a computer." Twitter limits in another way, by placing severe strictures of the actual form of communications. With each message limited to 140 characters (much less with a link and a hashtag or two) it often removes the gray space. The big issues can be reduced to a half sentence and a link, really very little more than a click on the Facebook "like" button. It becomes a fantastic echo chamber, a vast din of repetition with easily-delineated sides like a soccer match. No wonder every single politician and celebrity gravitates to Twitter - the control over the messaging is fantastic (indeed, the comical early mistakes some pols made on Twitter were the exceptions that proved the rule). Marketers now understand the on/off MIDI-like notational quality of short messages - they're paying six-figures for so-called "promoted" tweets and trends, which are just a fancy and expensive method for Twitter to lie to the very userbase that built the service. Or as Lanier puts it in discussing social networks like Twitter: "Am I accusing all those hundreds of millions of users of social networking sites of reducing themselves in order to be able to use the services? Well, yes, I am."

Lanier's point is that by reducing personality and the wide sweep of human thought into chunks that can fit easily into databases and digested through clever widely-popular front end designs, the possibility for horrific "crowd-sourced" activity is that much greater. To put it simply, the good guys don't always win. Throughout history, they've often been shouted down by crowds. While it's impossible to argue with the sunny opening lines of the introduction to Yochai Benkler's seminal Internet text The Wealth of Networks - "Information, knowledge and culture are central to human freedom and human development" - and to sympathize with a point of view that argues that great access to those qualities improves the lot of mankind, Lanier's warnings also seem in tune with the times.

It's not crazy to worry that, with millions of people connected through a medium that sometimes brings out their worst tendencies, massive, fascist-style mobs could rise up suddenly. I worry about the next generation of young people around the world growing up with internet-based technology that emphasizes crowd aggregation, as is the current fad. Will they be more likely to succumb to pack dynamics when they come of age?

That kind of thinking flies in the face of a more utopian view of free information, embodied in hacker philosopher Richard Stallman's famous '90s proclamation that when "information is generally useful, redistributing it makes humanity wealthier no matter who is distributing and no matter who is receiving." I'd naturally ask "what does generally useful mean?" and Lanier goes a step further, noting that the free flow of information also brings large-scale vitriol to arguments between semi-anonymous actors on the Net. "What's to prevent the acrimony from scaling up? Unfortunately, history tells us that collectivist ideas can mushroom into large-scale social disasters."

Lanier's "digital Maoism" may be the intellectual equivalent of crying "fire!" in a crowded theater, especially one filled with venture capital-backed tech companies, media conglomerates and telecommunications outfits all mining profits from the social gold rush (not to mention the trade press that loves them). And Lanier's is a particularly well-aimed attack on geek culture: "The new twist in Silicon Valley is that some people - very influential people - believe they are hearing algorithms and crowds an other internet-supported nonhuman entities speak for themselves. I don't hear those voices though - and I believe those who do are fooling themselves."

You Are Not A Gadget also warns against an Internet-based democracy, a world of governing chaos in which "superenergized people would be struggling to shift the wording of the tax code on a frantic, never-ending basis." The remedy is our current actual democracy - "the slower processes of elections and court proceedings" - which are like calming bass waves in Lanier's musical metaphor. They reduce "the potential for the collective to suddenly jump into an overexcited state when too many rapid changes coincide in such a way that they don't cancel one another out." It's dull and it doesn't make a handy retweet. And it also argues against some of the aspects of the latest techie cause célèbre - Wikileaks, a secretive organization that claims it represents the interests of more open government but renounces public accountability. Three weeks ago, I wrote that I didn't think "Wikileaks advances the cause of more accessible government or international justice." And Lanier didn't win too many allies with his essay in The Atlantic last week that argued for more skepticism toward Julian Assange and his shadowy organization, while taking "nerd supremacy" to task for the near lock-step support of Wikileaks at the cost of traditional avenues of trust:

"The strategy of Wikileaks, as explained in an essay by Julian Assange, is to make the world transparent, so that closed organizations are disabled, and open ones aren't hurt. But he's wrong. Actually, a free flow of digital information enables two diametrically opposed patterns:  low-commitment anarchy on the one hand and absolute secrecy married to total ambition on the other."

In a spirited Atlantic response to Lanier's piece, Zeynep Tufekci (who by chance I happened to sit next to on the stage for our panel at the Personal Democracy Forum's Wikileaks symposium on Dec. 11) argued that he "makes the fundamental conceptual mistake of conflating individual human beings and powerful institutions, like governments and corporations." In other words, those large organizations stand opposed to individual liberty - which the free flow of information can help to guarantee. And that idea also infused some of the criticism of You Are Not A Gadget, especially reactions to Lanier's dystopian view of a purely crowd-sourced social commons, his somewhat alarmist suggestion that "collectivist ideas can mushroom into large-scale social disasters."

Frankly, it's part of the deeply romantic view that so many technologists hold of the Internet (I'm not immune to this) and it's an especially American viewpoint. We tend to view corporations and big organizations and "the state" as monoliths, rather than collections of many individual humans working toward a loose common cause - and we tend to welcome the new frontier than disintermediation brings. In 1997, in a column for The New York Times, Chervokas and I wrote:

For more than 200 years Americans have been driven by the myth of the frontier, the feral, boundless space beyond known civilization where opportunities are infinite, where homesteaders can discard identities of birth and inhabit instead their own identities of mind, and where law is what you make it. This libertarian, romantic myth has informed a lot of the national discourse about the Internet -- America's new "freer, vast, electric world," to borrow a phrase from Walt Whitman.

That "freer, vast, electric world" still holds tremendous promise, in my view. Questioning our direction does not mean losing that promise or ending the Internet experiment. Yet Lanier's point of tends to get lumped into naysayer's category. In a tweet today, NYU press watcher Jay Rosen posited that as they age, digital people tend toward the insight that "de-excites." Some keep going, he wrote, while others "become professional debunkers." Challenged by Jeff Jarvis, he named Jaron Lanier as one of the latter - but I think that's a bit off the mark. If you dig into You Are  Not A Gadget, the sense of wonderment at the possibilities of this digital age remains intact. Lanier is more than a professional debunker. And in my view, the very questioning of the impact of crowds and networks on the social commons is welcome.

"Next to the many problems the world faces today, debates about online culture may not seem that pressing," writes Lanier. "We need to address global warming, shift to a new energy cycle, avoid wars of mass destruction, support aging populations, figure out how to benefit from open markets without being disastrously vulnerable to their failures, and take care of other basic business. But digital culture and related topics like the future of privacy and copyrights concern the society we'll have if we can survive these challenges."

I agree. You Are Not A Gadget didn't change my thinking, but it made me a think a lot more. It's the book of the year for 2010.

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