The Internets

Sep 11

In the Plex, by Steven Levy

I really liked this look at Google by Steven Levy — I’ve always liked his insights about the company — he’s had extraordinary access, and I loved the stories about when Google was less gigantic & earth-encompassing. Was fun to read about the exploits of an awesome group of people just out and about and trying things.

Google’s obviously going through periods of intense change now, and I think that a few years from now this book will feel like it describes a completely different company — and, really, it maybe already does.

But it was fun to read about so many of my friends and colleagues and what they went through, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone in the industry.

Jul 11

Screens, Storage & Networks

I’ve been thinking a bunch about platforms lately, and how they’re evolving very very quickly. Generally, there are two categories of thing that people talk about as platforms. Traditionally, they’ve been computer operating systems: Windows, OS X & Linux, now iOS & Android. Lately people are talking about cloud platforms: services like EC2, but also web services with APIs that other apps are built to integrate with.

But more and more, that’s not the way I’m thinking about my own systems; as devices proliferate at my own home, and as I tend to use tiny connected computers in more numerous and varied contexts.

I’ve been interested in what I call “4 screen & a cloud” products for a while: products that help us unify and take advantage of our laptop + phone + tablet + tv — but it all became a little clearer to me a few weeks when a wave of devices entered the house all at the same time. In the space of a few weeks, I upgraded to an iPad2, got a Samsung Tab to experiment with Android Tablets, got an Android phone in addition to my iPhone, and got a WebOS phone from the D9 conference. So we had all those devices in the house, plus our iMac, Kathy’s set of devices, and my mom’s as well, since she was visiting. Oh, and 3 Kindles between the three of us. Screens were everywhere.

Now, I’m the first to recognize that we’re somewhat atypical in our technology consumption in normal times; add to that the devices that I’ve picked up lately because of work and my house is a jumble of operating systems, devices and power adapters. Exciting!

When you get that many screens and devices, what happens is interesting: when you want to do something, communicate with someone, remember something, schedule an appointment, read a book, or whatever, you just pick up whatever screen is nearest to you and work from that.

Well, you do that if you can. Because in our current platform chaos, not all devices are fungible, not all activities are available from all platforms.

So that got me thinking some about what I need, and where, and in what contexts and on what devices, and now I think about platforms this way: I have a set of screens, a set of stuff, and a set of people that I want to do things with — and I want those sets available to me wherever & whenever I am.

By screens, I mean something more than just pixels: I really mean input & output systems, of which screens are the most visible parts; really it should probably be screens, sensors & speakers. In other words, it’s the displays of each system, the audio systems, and the ways that we indicate intent, be it typing, swiping, speaking, remote-button-puching, smiling, waving, running, or just being.

By storage, I mean something more than just bits: while Dropbox and iCloud and Clouddrive are important, I want to do more than just store and share my files with others. It’s about more than having a place to put my music. It’s about having the context of my life: my apps, my reading material, my history of shopping & interest intent. It’s really the things I’m creating, consuming, sharing, saving, working on and just thinking about. One of the things that’s probably non-obvious about this formulation is that for this to work, the storage is going to be pretty keyed to my identity. Without knowing something about who I am, it won’t work.

And by network, I mean something more than just my Facebook graph: what’s becoming clear is that we’ve all got many and diverse groupings in our lives, ranging from the very intimate groups of a nuclear family to the wide-ranging groupings of Twitter followers. The short version, though, is that it’s becoming increasingly clear that, just like in the offline world, people online want to do things with each other. Shocking, I know.

That’s the definition of platform that’s relevant to me: a combination of screens, storage and networks that help me do my work and live my life. The companies that see that true platforms transcend any one particular technology stack will be the ones that prosper — you can already see some interesting ones emerge.

As a side note, I think screens, storage & networks is one way to look at the landscape of the giants competing: it’s where Apple, Google, Facebook & Amazon are slugging it out (and to some extent it’s the evolution now of my old stomping ground, Mozilla). I would argue that each of the giants has a super strong position in 1 or 2 of the three areas, but none has a lock on all three, and most of the interesting initiatives of each are about strengthening the places where they’re historically weak.

Apple is obviously terrific at screens, okay at storage, and not very good at networks.

Google’s now strong at screens (although probably not as strong as Apple) and could be great at storage, and finally has a credible start on networks.

Facebook is incredibly strong at networks, has some weakness in screens, and is pretty good with storage (at least for things like photos).

And Amazon is very strong on storage, weak at networks, and weak (at the moment) on screens.

I’d argue that their relative strengths and weaknesses are  important for startups to understand as well, as that gives you a bit of a map of one set of opportunities.

Anyway, that’s how I’m thinking about things lately. What do you think?

Jul 11


Yesterday my Twitter follower count ticked over 50,000 for the first time. And while I wouldn’t exactly call that a lifetime achievement or milestone, it has caused me to reflect a little bit on Twitter specifically and the Internet more generally, so I thought I would write down some of those thoughts here.

Off the top, let me say this: I really love Twitter. A lot. I use it every day — I don’t always post things (although most times I do), but I always read and discover new things — it’s become integral to me in a bunch of ways. I share interesting articles about technology and startups and politics and literature that I find. I link to my blog posts like this one. I ask questions, mostly about travel and technology. I vent about things (I’m looking at you @unitedairlines). I talk about TV and music that I like. I track a bunch of my friends and coworkers and how they’re doing. And I make a lot of dumb jokes.

What’s clear at this point is that I’m not a particularly typical Twitter user. As services evolve, they find their main use cases, their reasons for existing. You’ve got Facebook for interacting with friends in symmetric ways; you’ve got Quora for getting high quality answers to questions; you’ve got Tumblr for expressing a synthesis of media that in aggregate represents you.

Twitter has evolved, I think, into essentially a celebrity broadcast medium. Now, I’m using the term ‘celebrity’ a little broadly — there are the Biebers and Gagas, of course, but there are also the CNNs and NPRs of news, and the Saccas of the tech world, and the long middle part of the curve of bands and critics and pundits that have tens or hundreds of thousands of followers. It seems obvious to me at this point that this is really what Twitter is for: tracking our mega and mini broadcasters, being able to follow along in real time to see what they’re doing, writing and what they’re amplifying from others.

That’s part of how I use it, but I think that my use case is somewhat more complicated, which makes my tweets pretty atypical. My tweet stream is more like a mix of broadcasting, retweets, active conversations with friends, debates with other techies, and a bunch of snarky jokes.

I think there are a few reasons for this.

First, because I’m more of a “Twitter native” — that is, someone who’s been active on the system since the first million users, I’ve been part of the ‘figuring out’ conversations that have happened, mostly as a user. So I’ve gone through several generations of the product before it landed on celebrity broadcast as the center, and some of those generations of use case have really stuck with me.

Second, I developed a bunch of my patterns while I worked at Mozilla, a uniquely open organization where Twitter really fit. Because we don’t have a ton of internal systems for closed communications by design, we like to have conversations in the open, on public wikis, on open IRC channels, and on Twitter. And because I had management responsibility of a distributed, global organization, it helped me to kind of keep track of folks I wasn’t able to see every day. Beyond that, it let me have some interactions in a public way with people that I could model so that others would see them and (maybe) learn from them. In a lot of ways, I think of it as the modern equivalent of Managing by Walking Around, popularized by Hewlett-Packard long ago. It’s easy to brush off this use case as not real, but I really did use it a lot for helping to manage at Mozilla.

And while Mozilla is obviously unique in its openness, in a lot of ways the Silicon Valley ecosystem shares some of the characteristics, with lots of actors who are decentralized and distributed, working in different ways but able to share public communication channels like this.

The third reason I’m quirky in my use, I think, is that I make so many jokes on it. I’ve always been a guy that’s most comfortable at the back of the classroom making jokes. It’s not necessarily the part of my personality I’m most proud of, but it’s what I do. I’m happiest in the back, scribbling semi-related ideas to what’s going on, making jokes to myself or friends. Twitter gives me a pretty good way to do that sort of thing without being disruptive, and it’s fun for me.

I guess last is the fact that a lot of close friends also spend a fair amount of time on it, so keeping up with them and interacting with them there is fun and rewarding.

As I’ve moved up to 50k followers and past, I think it’s going to start changing how I use it a bit, for better or worse. It’s becoming somewhat more of a broadcast/audience thing and less of a group-of-friends thing. It remains extremely useful and integral to me, but probably will be so in different ways.

Anyway, enough for now — just thought I’d capture a few thoughts here that wouldn’t fit in 140 characters. 🙂

Jun 11

Alone Together, by Sherry Turkle

I’ve always found Professor Turkle, from MIT, to be both thoughtful and thought-provoking — she’s spent her career observing and learning about and thinking about how we interact with technology, and how that interaction shapes us as a society. It’s interesting stuff that I wish more people paid more attention to, so I was happy to read this book about how a couple of types of technology are changing us.

The first part of the book I was a little ambivalent about; it focuses on how we interact with what I’ll call robots: physical machines in our environment, more or less humanoid. Lots of good experiment-based reflection on how we interact with objects, and I think significantly deeper and more nuanced than, say, Cliff Nass’ work a decade or so that he wrote about in The Media Equation. (Admittedly, we’re a lot further down the road now than when Nass wrote that, but even when it had just come out, I found it to be an extremely superficial analysis.)

The second half of the book is what I really wanted to get into: how are we changing the way we relate to other actual human beings as we moderate more and more interactions through electronic media. In lay terms: how are digital social networks affecting the way we communicate, experience, and live our lives, both with those who are physically with us and those who aren’t.

I thought Turkle did a good job with a bunch of this topic, with one proviso: the technology and products we use are now evolving so quickly that it seems to me that any clinical, experimental understanding of what’s going on is going to necessarily be years out of date, even for highly motivated, diligent, and speedy researchers.

I think there weren’t a ton of clear conclusions in the book, but much that we should all think about more deeply, so I’ll leave you with a few of Professor Turkle’s passages. If you care about understanding what’s changing and why in our communications and interpersonal interactions, you should read this book. A few quotes:

“Networked, we are together, but so lessened are our expectations of each other that we can feel utterly alone. And there is the risk that we come to see others as objects to be accessed—and only for the parts we find useful, comforting, or amusing.”

“The media has tended to portray today’s young adults as a generation that no longer cares about privacy. I have found something else, something equally disquieting. High school and college students don’t really understand the rules. Are they being watched? Who is watching? Do you have to do something to provoke surveillance, or is it routine? Is surveillance legal? They don’t really understand the terms of for Facebook or Gmail, the mail service that Google provides. They don’t know what protections they are “entitled” to. They don’t know what objections are reasonable or possible. If someone impersonates you by getting access to your cell phone, should that behavior be treated as illegal or as a prank? In teenagers’ experience, their elders—the generation that gave them this technology—don’t have ready answers to such questions.”

“The networked culture is very young. Attendants at its birth, we threw ourselves into its adventure. This is human. But these days, our problems with the Net are becoming too distracting to ignore. At the extreme, we are so enmeshed in our connections that we neglect each other. We don’t need to reject or disparage technology. We need to put it in its place. The generation that has grown up with the Net is in a good position to do this, but these young people need help. So as they begin to fight for their right to privacy, we must be their partners. We know how easily information can be politically abused; we have the perspective of history. We have, perhaps, not shared enough about that history with our children. And as we, ourselves enchanted, turned away from them to lose ourselves in our e-mail, we did not sufficiently teach the importance of empathy and attention to what is real.”

Great stuff. Read it. 🙂

Nov 10

My Talk at the House of Commons

I’m currently in the middle of an extremely interesting trip called Silicon Valley Comes to the UK, which Sherri Coutou and Reid Hoffman have organized for several years. it’s a fantastic trip so far, and I’ll write more about it, but wanted to share this.

Yesterday we were invited to the House of Commons here in London, and after a short speech by the Speaker of the House of Commons, 5 of us participated in a panel on the impact of digital technology on the future of democracies. About 100 people attended, including several MPs and members of the House of Lords, plus people involved in running the government and figuring out what to do with technology.

It was moderated by Jon Drori (fantastic job, and fantastic guy), and the Silicon Valley folks who participated were: Reid Hoffman, Megan Smith, Joi Ito, Nancy Lublin and myself. Each of the 5 of us started by giving a 5 minute ‘provocation’ to consider, then we ran it as a more traditional panel.

I’ll write more soon; for now, my provocation follows. Would love to hear what you think. 🙂

As I started preparing my remarks, I knew that I wanted to talk, in the main, about how technology can make our democracies better. But here, in the heart of British government, it’s impossible for me not to think about a couple of British authors and imaginers of future dystopias: George Orwell and Aldous Huxley.

With these 2 especially, it seems a particular talent of the British to imagine horrible dysfunctional futures. Orwell in his 1984, of course, with nightmares of totalitarian control and surveillance, and oppressive government imposed on unwilling citizens. Huxley, by contrast, in Brave New World, painted a completely different picture: a citizenry of sheep happily gorging themselves on the trivial, on entertainment — with no Orwellian Ministry of Information needed at all.

In a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death, an American named Neil Postman figured out nearly 30 years ago that what we were going to get wasn’t Orwell’s world at all, but rather a version of Huxley’s. And while the British seem to be adept at imagining dystopias, I have to say that we Americans seem to be pretty handy at creating them. In the US now, we clearly live in Huxley’s world: news has become entertainment; political discourse, when not an oxymoron, tends to be shallow. So many of the institutions and processes that have served us well for hundreds of years are breaking down.

Much of this is due to the nature of digital technology and the Internet, allowing massive amounts of new conversation, of news without context. The thing that digital technology is best at is closing gaps: in time, in space, in relevance — and that has put real stress on our institutions. Technology is not neutral — it makes many things easier, but also many things more difficult. There are winners and losers.

Clay Shirky, writing on the massive dislocations occurring today in the newspaper industry wrote: “That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in place.”

And things do feel broken today, in many ways — the forces of dystopia seem to be on the rise.
But even so, there is a lot — A LOT — to be optimistic about. The hints of a positive future show all around us. The seeds of utopia are in the ground, so to speak.

So clearly there are real opportunities here, shaped by the natural affordances of Internet and digital technology.

What we know from the work we’ve done at Mozilla on Firefox and other open source projects, is that the way we organize, the technology we use, and the customs we support — what Tim O’Reilly has called “architectures of participation” — matter greatly. Architectures of participation, like technologies themselves, aren’t neutral. Projects like Wikipedia and Mozilla Firefox have architectures that are designed to bring in collaborators from everywhere, at every level. We have very serious contributors who spend most of their time working on the core. We have nearly 100 teams working on localizing Firefox into their own language. We have entrepreneurs building companies based on extensions to the browser. We have tens of thousands of people who test our browser each night and report issues. And we have hundreds of millions of users. We’ve built architectures of participation to get people engaged in as many ways as we can.

So what’s the future utopia that’s possible with digital technology? Ideally what we get — what we create — is a system where citizens are engaged, where they feel valued and connected with their governments and each other. Where our leaders are accountable — and desire to be accountable. It’s a future where it’s just as easy to help your neighborhood as it is to help your country or your planet.
To get there, we’ll need to architect with a few key principles in mind:

  1. Transparency – where most of today’s efforts are, and critical to how we start
  2. Clarity – flip side of scale – not the same as transparency — often, transparency of information can overwhelm — without a narrative, without intent, it’s very difficult to understand the implications of the transparency itself
  3. Engagement – get everyone more educated and informed and contributing – get subject experts involved
  4. Scale – must consider neighborhood government to municipal to national to transnational
  5. Heterogeneity – life is increasingly cross-border, in all senses – trans-national – trans-company – mixture of public and private life

So my provocation turns out to be more of an exhortation, a call to action. As technologists and entrepreneurs and leaders of government, it’s our opportunity — and our responsibility — to imagine and articulate good, positive architectures of government, to engage with our colleagues and neighbors and coworkers and constituents to envision robust models for the future, in the context of ubiquitous, cheap, immediate information technology — and then to get on with making the world the way we want it.