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  • feedwordpress 18:19:42 on 2021/12/27 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , carbon, , , , , Discord, disinformation, , , , , , , regulation, , , SPAC, stock markets, , , ,   

    Predictions 2021: How’d I Do? Pretty Damn Well. 


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    As has been my practice for nearly two decades, I penned a post full of prognostications at the end of last year.  As 2021 subsequently rolled by, I stashed away news items that might prove (or disprove) those predictions – knowing that this week, I’d take a look at how I did. How’d things turn out? Let’s roll the tape…

    My first prediction: Disinformation becomes the most important story of the year. At the time I wrote those words, Trump’s Big Lie was only two months old, and January 6th was just another day on the calendar.  A year later, that Big Lie has spawned countless others, culminating in one of the most damaging shifts in our nation’s politics since the Civil War. The Republican party is now fully captured by bullshit, and countless numbers of local, state, and national politicians are busy undermining democracy thanks to the Big Lie’s power.  A significant percentage of the US population has become unmoored from truth – and an equally significant group of us have simply thrown our hands up about it. Trust is at an all time low. This Barton Gellman piece in The Atlantic served as a wake up call late in the year – and its conclusions are terrifying: “We face a serious risk that American democracy as we know it will come to an end in 2024,” Gellman quotes an observer stating. “But urgent action is not happening.” I’m not happy about getting this one right, but as far as I’m concerned, this is still the most important story of the year – and the most terrifying.

    My next prediction: Facebook’s chickens come home to roost…2021 will be a dismal year for Facebook.  Oh my, was it ever. Facebook’s year was so terrible, the company decided to change its name as a result. Because I took notes all year, here’s a brief review of Facebook’s 2021:

    I’ve left off dozens of ugly narratives while compiling this list – and admittedly, I’ve also left off a fair number of pro-Facebook responses  as well.  But overall, I think this particular prediction was pretty spot on. Let’s call it a win and move on…

    My third prediction: AI has a mid-life crisis. This one bears a bit more explanation. From my post: “2021 will be the year society takes a step back and thinks hard about where this is all going … by year’s end, the AI narrative will be as much about hand wringing and regulatory oversight as it is about revolutionary breakthroughs.” I think I got this right as well, but I can’t prove it. The year started with a leading AI researcher calling the entire space a “dumpster fire.” Numerous fatal crashes with Teslas in self driving mode gave observers pause – perhaps this technology was not as ready as Elon Musk had claimed (and who the fuck is stupid enough to sleep in the back seat of a driverless Tesla, but…people are stupid sometimes). Furthermore, AI’s great proof – that it was better at reading X-rays than trained radiologists – was debunked. Academic journals continued to question whether “super intelligence” can ever be contained. Meanwhile, the bloom came off the “smart home” rose – “Alexa has turned out to be a voice-activated clock/radio with low retention” quips noted tech analyst Benedict Evans.  This AI stuff is hard – and while the tech is hard enough, the policy issues are even harder. 2021 was the year legislators were pummeled with Silicon Valley lobbying around how China is about to kill the US with its insurmountable lead in artificial intelligence. (And hey, China’s got the Minority Report market in the bag!) But it certainly wasn’t the year legislators did anything about AI, other than voice concerns. So, yes, we got the hand wringing and the focus on policy, but it’s a bit of a push on the prediction overall. Not enough proof points to give myself either a passing or a failing grade.

    Prediction #4: A wave of optimism around tech-driven innovation takes root. Yep, it’s pretty bold to predict a rebound in tech optimism when Big Tech is taking heavy fire, but I think I got this one right as well, thanks in large part to the world of crypto. It’s been three decades since I’ve seen an outburst of pure technology euphoria like the vibes coming off the crypto/web3/blockchain space. I’ve been monitoring crypto for years (one of my 2018 predictions was “Crypto/blockchain dies as a major story”), and went pretty deep this past 18 months or so. I am a cautious proponent of crypto’s technology,  philosophy, and new governance models, but there’s a hell of a lot of bullshit in there as well. Then again, the same was true three decades ago, back when the web was young. The difference this time? Scale. In the early 1990s, the web was an anomaly, and you could count its adherents in the tens of thousands. It took five years for that to scale to tens of millions, and the industry represented a tiny percentage of overall GDP. But in 2021, web3 scaled to impressive (some might say scary) numbers. Total cryptocurrency holdings rocketed from roughly $500 billion to more than $3 trillion this year. Crypto wallet Metamask, often (roughly) compared to the Netscape browser of Web 1, zoomed from half a million monthly active users to more than 21 million.  And NFTs – the web3 equivalent of dot com stocks – grew into a massive market as well, clocking more than $10 billion in purchases last quarter. The overall vibe of the crypto space is summed up in one catchphrase: “We’re all going to make it (WAGMI).” Perhaps (and yes, I do see a crash in our future), but if WAGMI doesn’t reflect a “wave of optimism,” I don’t know what does.

    Prediction #5: Google does in 2021 what I predicted it would in 2020: It zags. And what does a zag look like? From my piece: “Google will make a deeply surprising and game changing move.” And in fact, Google made two game changing moves in 2021, either of which might defend my assertion. In March, the company announced it would, as the WSJ covered it: “stop selling ads based on individuals’ browsing across multiple websites, a change that could hasten upheaval in the digital advertising industry.” This was a major shift in how the world’s largest advertising platform plied its trade, and while I’ll leave it to others to opine on the impact (and timing, which remains in flux), the reasoning behind it is crystal clear. As I wrote in my prediction “Google is fighting off a terrifying array of massive regulatory actions, and desperately needs to avoid looking like Facebook in the eyes of its employees, consumers, and business partners.” Changing the core of its data policies is a move designed to do just that.

    The second big move targeted Apple. In March the company lowered some fees that developers pay to use its Play store. And in October, it slashed all fees in half, effective next week. This is a major ecosystem shift – one that may well drive new and existing developers into building for Android first. And again, it positions Google to be the good guy in the eyes of developers, customers, and critically, regulators, who have been sizing up Apple for its monopolistic control of the iOS app store.

    My sixth prediction? Nothing will get done on tech regulation in the US. This one was far too easy to get right – with a pandemic raging, Congress deadlocked, and an agenda that included multiple trillion-dollar pieces of legislation, there was no way tech legislation would have passed this year. The Biden administration did heavy up on anti-Big Tech talent (Khan, Wu, et al), but they’ve not had either the time or the support to get much done, yet.

    Lucky #7:  A “new” social platform breaks out in 2021. I’ll admit, I was scratching my head around this one for months, nervous I’d take a whiff here. But then I got on Discord. From my original prediction: “Given the handcuffs 2021 will place on the traditional players in Big Tech, this coming year presents a perfect opportunity for a breakout player to redefine the social media category… It won’t be some ripoff version of what already exists. I’d either look to something like an evolved Signal, an app that already has a growing user base, or a from-nowhere startup that gets super hot, super fast.” Discord is kind of a combination of the two – a six-year-old startup with a dedicated user base that is focused on communications. The platform rethinks nearly everything about the “social graph,” and yes, it’s kind of a hot mess. But by summer of this year, Discord had reached 150 million daily users, putting it within spitting distance of Twitter (200m+) in terms of size. Discord is now valued at $15 billion – and it does not take advertising. For a deep dive on the company, I recommend reading Casey Newton and Packy McCormick.

    Unlucky #8: The markets take a breather, and SPACs get a bloody nose. Well, I was right on the latter, but wrong on the former. The markets only got hotter all year long, taking only the shortest of breaks to dip and then roar right back. But SPACs most definitely got bloodied – as early as as February, I noticed the concern in the financial press, and that narrative built all year long, with many high profile SPACs either failing or limping across the finish line. When the bright spot in the SPAC world is Donald Trump’s mostly fictional “social media company” – and that deal draws the interest of the SEC – well, the space ain’t exactly crushing it. But as I said, the markets did not take a breather – the Dow Jones and the S&P delivered nearly 20 percent gains. So I got one part right, and one part wrong. A push.

    Prediction #9: 2021 will be prove to be the last year of growth in gas-powered automobiles. Well, there’s no way I can prove this until the numbers come in for 2022, so I won’t bother trying to grade myself on this one. Call it a push, but I’ve been monitoring related news, and I’d say the prediction is certainly on trend. As usual, the Nordic countries led the way. In Norway, EV sales now account for an astounding 90+ percent of new car sales. Cities around the world are banning new gas stations. And GM, one of the largest automakers in the world, announced it will phase out the combustion engine by 2035.  NB: One of the best places to get and stay smart on EVs and de-carbonization in general is Azeem’s Exponential View. 

    Proving I should really stay away from geopolitics, Prediction #10: Africa rising, China…in question. I got the headline right – Africa is certainly rising, and China is a big question mark – but my detail was very wrong: “the breakout continent of 2021 will be Africa, home to many of the fastest growing countries in the world, and the focus of years of Chinese investment and diplomacy. After four years of US neglect, the Biden administration will realize it’s dangerously close to losing Africa altogether, and announce a massive investment in the continent.” Nope, did not happen. In fact, Biden decided to counter China in Africa with…an initiative in South America. Whiff. Moving on to my last, and possibly most depressing prediction:

    Prediction #11: Everyone loses their shit, in a good way. This was my way of saying that we’d get through the pandemic, and we’d all party like we deserve to party after 18 months of isolation and fear. We had the “hot vax summer” memes but….Delta and vaccine hesitancy killed that cold, then Omicron smacked us once more, even as we looked forward to what could have been a relatively normal holiday season. Ending on a rough note, but – this one was a whiff as well. I’m optimistic we’ll get through this, but I’m done trying to predict the course of this wily virus.

    So that’s the scorecard: Two whiffs, three pushes, and six scores. Not bad, in fact better than my average over these past 17 years. Maybe I should do this again. Look for my 2022 musings sometime later this week. And have a happy, safe, and sane New Years everybody. Thanks for reading.

     


     

    Previous predictions:

    Predictions 2021

    Predictions 2020

    2020: How I Did

    Predictions 2019

    2019: How I did

    Predictions 2018

    2018: How I Did

    Predictions 2017

    2017: How I Did

    Predictions 2016

    2016: How I Did

    Predictions 2015

    2015: How I Did

    Predictions 2014

    2014: How I Did

    Predictions 2013

    2013: How I Did

    Predictions 2012

    2012: How I Did

    Predictions 2011

    2011: How I Did

    Predictions 2010

    2010: How I Did

    2009 Predictions

    2009 How I Did

    2008 Predictions

    2008 How I Did

    2007 Predictions

    2007 How I Did

    2006 Predictions

    2006 How I Did

    2005 Predictions

    2005 How I Did

    2004 Predictions

    2004 How I Did

     
  • feedwordpress 02:36:10 on 2018/10/22 Permalink
    Tags: , , data portability, , , , , regulation   

    Instead of Breaking Up The Tech Oligarchs, Let’s Try This One Simple Hack 


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    Social conversations about difficult and complex topics have arcs – they tend to start scattered, with many threads and potential paths, then resolve over time toward consensus. This consensus differs based on groups within society – Fox News aficionados will cluster one way, NPR devotees another. Regardless of the group, such consensus then becomes presumption – and once a group of people presume, they fail to explore potentially difficult or presumably impossible alternative solutions.

    This is often a good thing – an efficient way to get to an answer. But it can also mean we fail to imagine a better solution, because our own biases are obstructing a more elegant path forward.

    This is my sense of the current conversation around the impact of what Professor Scott Galloway has named “The Four” – the largest and most powerful American companies in technology (they are Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook, for those just returning from a ten-year nap).  Over the past year or so, the conversation around technology has become one of “something must be done.” Tech was too powerful, it consumed too much of our data and too much of our economic growth. Europe passed GDPR, Congress held ineffectual hearings, Facebook kept screwing up, Google failed to show up…it was all of a piece.

    The conversation evolved into a debate about various remedies, and recently, it’s resolved into a pretty consistent consensus, at least amongst a certain class of tech observers: These companies need to be broken up. Antitrust, many now claim, is the best remedy for the market dominance these companies have amassed.

    It’s a seductive response, with seductive historical precedent. In the 1970s and 80s, antitrust broke up AT&T, ultimately paving the way for the Internet to flourish. In the 90s, antitrust provided the framework for the government’s case against Microsoft, opening the door for new companies like Google and Facebook to dominate the next version of the Internet. Why wouldn’t antitrust regulation usher in #Internet3? Imagine a world where YouTube, Instagram, and Amazon Web Services are all separate companies. Would not that world be better?

    Perhaps. I’m not well read enough in antitrust law to argue one way or the other, but I know that antitrust turns on the idea of consumer harm (usually measured in terms of price), and there’s a strong argument to be made that a free service like Google or Facebook can’t possibly cause consumer harm. Then again, there are many who argue that data is in fact currency, and The Four have essentially monopolized a class of that currency.

    But even as I stare at the antitrust remedy, another solution keeps poking at me, one that on its face seems quite elegant and rather unexplored.

    The idea is simply this: Require all companies who’ve reached a certain scale to build machine-readable data portability into their platforms. The right to data portability is explicit in the EU’s newly enacted GDPR framework, but so far the impact has been slight: There’s enough wiggle room in the verbiage to hamper technical implementation and scope. Plus, let’s be honest: Europe has never really been a hotbed of open innovation in the first place.

    But what if we had a similar statute here? And I don’t mean all of GDPR – that’s certainly a non starter. But that one rule, that one requirement: That every data service at scale had to stand up an API that allowed consumers to access their co-created data, download a copy of it (which I am calling a token), and make that copy available to any service they deemed worthy?

    Imagine what might come of that in the United States?

    I’m not a policy expert, and the devil’s always in the details. So let me be clear in what I mean when I say “machine-readable data portability”: The right to take, via an API, what is essentially a “token” containing all (or a portion of) the data you’ve co created in one service, and offer it, with various protections, permission, and revocability, to another service. In my Senate testimony, I gave the example of a token that has all your Amazon purchases, which you then give to Walmart so it can do a historical price comparison and tell you how much money you would save if you shopped at its online service. Walmart would have a powerful incentive to get consumers to create and share that token – the most difficult problem in nearly all of business is getting a customer to switch to a similar service. That would be quite a valuable token, I’d wager*.

    Should be simple to do, no? I mean, don’t we at least co-own the information about what we bought at Amazon?

    Well, no. Not really. Between confusing terms of service, hard to find dashboards, and confounding data reporting standards, The Four can both claim we “own our own data” while at the same time ensuring there’ll never be a true market for the information they have about us.

    So yes, my idea is easily dismissed. The initial response I’ve had to it is always some variation of: “There’s no way The Four would let this happen.” That’s exactly the kind of biases I refer to above – we assume that The Four control the dialog, that they either will thwart this idea through intensive lobbying, clever terms of service, and soft power, or that the idea is practically impossible because of technical or market limitations. To that I ask….Why?

    Why is it impossible for me to tokenize all of my Lyft ride data, and give for free it to an academic project that is mapping the impact of ride sharing on congestion in major cities? Why is it impossible for a small business owner to create an RFP for all OpenTable, Resy, and other dining data, so she can determine the best kind of restaurant to open in her neighborhood? I’m pretty certain she’d pay a few bucks a head for that kind of data – so why can’t I sell that information to her (with a vig back to OpenTable and Resy) if the value exchange is there to be monetized? Why can’t I tokenize and sell my Twitter interactions to a brand (or more likely, an agency or research company) interested in understanding the mind of a father who lives in Manhattan? Why can’t I tokenize and trade my Spotify history for better recommendations on live shows to see, or movies to watch, or books to read? Or, simply give it to a free service that’s sprung up to give me suggestions about new music to check out?

    Why can’t an ecosystem of agents, startups, and data brokers emerge, a new industry of information processing not seen since the rise of search optimization in the early aughts, leveraging and arbitraging consumer information to create entirely new kinds of businesses driven by insights currently buried in today’s data monopolies?

    Such a world would be fascinating, exciting, sometimes sketchy, and a hell of a lot of fun. It’d be driven by the individual choices of millions of consumers – choosing which agents to trust, which tokens to create, which trades felt fair. There’s be fails, there’d be fraud, there’d be bad actors. But over time, the good would win over the bad, because the decision making is distributed across the entire population of Internet users. In short, we’d push the decision making to the node – to us. Sure, we’d do stupid things. And sure, the hucksters and the hustlers would make short term killings. But I’ll take an open system like this over a closed one any day of the week, especially if the open system is governed by an architecture empowering the individual to make their own decisions.

    It’s be a lot like the Internet was once imagined to be.

    I’ve been noodling on such an ecosystem, and I’m convinced it could dwarf our current Internet in terms of overall value created (and credit where credit is due, The Four have created a lot of value). It’d run laps around The Four when it comes to innovation – tens of thousands of new companies would form, all of them feeding off the newly liberated oxygen of high quality, structured, machine readable data. Trusted independent platforms for value exchange would arise. Independent third party agents would munge tokens from competing services, verifying claims and earning the trust of consumers (will Walmart really save you a thousand bucks a year?! We can prove it, or not!). Huge platforms would develop for the processing, securitization, permissioning, and validation of our data. Man, it’d feel like…well, like the recumbent, boring old Internet was finally exciting again.

    There’s no technical reason why this world doesn’t exist. The progenitors of the Web have already imagined it, heck, Tim Berners Lee recently announced he’s working pretty much full time on creating a system devoted to the foundational elements needed for it to blossom.

    But until we as a society write machine-readable data portability into law, such efforts will be relegated to interesting side shows. And more likely than not, we’ll spend the next few years arguing about breaking up The Four, and let’s be honest, that’s an argument The Four want us to have, because they’re going to win it (more money, better lawyers, etc. etc.). Instead, we should  just require them – and all other data services of scale – to free the data they’ve so far managed to imprison. One simple new law could change all of that. Shouldn’t we consider it?

    *In another post, I’ll explore this example in detail. It’s really, really fascinating. 

     
  • feedwordpress 14:20:27 on 2018/10/17 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , regulation,   

    Facebook Can’t Fix This. 


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    The last 24 hours have not been kind to Facebook’s already bruised image. Above are four headlines, all of which clogged my inbox as I cleared email after a day full of meetings.

    Let’s review: Any number of Facebook’s core customers – advertisers – are feeling duped and cheated (and have felt this way for years). A respected reporter who was told by Facebook executives that the company would not use data collected by its new Portal product, is now accusing the company of misrepresenting the truth  (others would call that lying, but the word lost its meaning this year). The executive formerly in charge of Facebook’s security is…on an apology tour, convinced the place he worked for has damaged our society (and he’s got a lot ofcompany).

    In other news, Facebook has now taken responsibility for protecting the sanctity of our elections, by, among other things, banning “false information about voting requirements and fact-check[ing] fake reports of violence or long lines at polling stations.”

    Yep, a company that, in its core business, is currently charged with evasion, misstatements, and putting growth above civic duty is somehow still solely responsible for fixing the problems it’s created in our civil discourse and attendant democracy.

    Does this feel off to anyone else?

    We’ve had nearly two years of congressional hearings, nearly two years of testimony and apologies and “we must do better-isms.” While the company must be commended for actually making several things better (the ad transparency platform, for example), the fact that we continue to believe that the appropriate remedy for what ails us is to let the fox fix the holes in our chicken coop is downright….baffling.

    I guess this is what you get when the folks in power are happy with the results of our elections.

    But here’s my prediction, and it won’t take long for me to be proven right or wrong: Should the Democrats take control of the House, things are going to change. Quickly. Sure, with only the House, the Democrats can’t actually force any new regulation, nor can they command any cabinet level policy shifts.

    But as Trump well knows (and fears), a subpoena is a powerful thing.

    Now, if the Democrats don’t win the House, well, that’s another column.

    (cross posted from NewCo Shift)

     
  • feedwordpress 14:20:01 on 2018/08/27 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , , regulation   

    The Accountable Capitalism Act: It’ll Never Happen, But At Least Now the Conversation Will 


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    The past week or so has seen a surge in commentary on the role of corporations in society, a theme familiar to readers of this site. While it might be convenient to peg the trend to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s newly minted Accountable Capitalism Act (more on that in a second), I think it’s more likely that – finally – our collective will is turning to our most logical and obvious instrument of social change, namely, the instrument of business.

    We humans like to organize ourselves into social units. They range from the informal (pickup basketball games) to the elaborately structured (Senate hearings). Our ability to harness collective will is unsurpassed in the animal kingdom, it’s one of our key evolutionary adaptations, driving the success of our species across the globe.

    As I’ve argued elsewhere, one of our most sophisticated social structures is the corporation, which has co-evolved with our various systems of government over the past half millennium or so. The very first corporations were in fact formed (or chartered) by governments – the Dutch East India Company is the most common example of this. In the past century, however, corporations have largely sought to shake the yoke of government regulation – and nowhere have corporations won more freedoms than in the United States, where firms are now considered legal persons with an unrestrained right to “free speech” (IE, the ability to fund political positions).

    So this is where we are today: Large corporations have the legal right to exercise unlimited influence over our political sphere, and the commercial imperative to control (and profit from) nearly all our society’s data. That kind of power will necessarily produce a backlash, on that’s found an articulate, but highly unlikely, argument in Senator Warren’s proposed legislation. From the release announcing the Accountable Capitalism Act:

    For most of our country’s history, American corporations balanced their responsibilities to all of their stakeholders – employees, shareholders, communities – in corporate decisions. It worked: profits went up, productivity went up, wages went up, and America built a thriving middle class.

    But in the 1980s a new idea quickly took hold: American corporations should focus only on maximizing returns to their shareholders. That had a seismic impact on the American economy. In the early 1980s, America’s biggest companies dedicated less than half of their profits to shareholders and reinvested the rest in the company. But over the last decade, big American companies have dedicated 93% of earnings to shareholders – redirecting trillions of dollars that could have gone to workers or long-term investments. The result is that booming corporate profits and rising worker productivity have not led to rising wages.

    Additionally, because the wealthiest top 10% of American households own 84% of all American – held shares-while more than 50% of American households own no stock at all – the dedication to “maximizing shareholder value” means that the multi-trillion dollar American corporate system is focused explicitly on making the richest Americans even richer. 

    Here are a few of the act’s key proposals:

    • Companies with more than $1 billion in revenues must register with, and agree to be regulated by, a new Federal oversight body known as the Office of United States Corporations.  By registering, firms are obliged to “consider the interests of all corporate stakeholders – including employees, customers, shareholders, and the communities in which the company operates.” This enshrines what is often called a “multi-stakeholder philosophy,” the underpinning of B Corps like Patagonia and Kickstarter, into federal law.
    • A corporations’ workers would be empowered to elect at least forty percent of their firms’ board of directors.
    • Long term restrictions on the sale of stock by board directors and corporate officers – three years for stock buy backs, and five years for everything else. This is to insure that a large firms’ managers plan for the long term.
    • A prohibition on political spending of any kind without approval from 75 percent of both directors and shareholders.

    There’s more, but I think you’ve got the point – this is a sweeping and presently impossible piece of legislation that radically rethinks the governance of our most powerful corporations. It guts corporate political spending, upends business’s current compensation structure (often based on stock grants), radically reshapes board governance (giving a near majority control to workers), and creates a massive conservative bogeyman in the form of yet another Federal government oversight entity. In today’s political environment, Warren’s legislation is DOA.

    But in tomorrow’s? Quite possibly not. Senator Warren is widely considered a front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2020, and her initial opponent won’t be Trump – it’ll be Bernie Sanders, whose supporters likely will find plenty to love in Warren’s new plan.

    Regardless of whether the act has any chance of passing without a strong Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, Warren has smartly identified a central issue in our country’s political conversation, and declared it to be fundamental to the Democrats’ platform for 2020. It’s about time someone did.

    More recent reading on the role of capitalism in our society: 

    Louis Hyman: It’s Not Technology That’s Disrupting Our Jobs

    L.M. Sacasas: Technopoly and Anti-Humanism

    Tom Wheeler: Time to Fix It: Developing Rules for Internet Capitalism

    Neil Irwin: Are Superstar Firms and Amazon Effects Reshaping the Economy? 

     

     

     

     
  • feedwordpress 22:31:56 on 2016/02/03 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , regulation, traffic, , waze   

    The Waze Effect: Flocking, AI, and Private Regulatory Capture 


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    The post The Waze Effect: Flocking, AI, and Private Regulatory Capture appeared first on John Battelle's Search Blog.

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    A couple of weeks ago my wife and I were heading across the San Rafael bridge to downtown Oakland for a show at the Fox Theatre. As all Bay area drivers know, there’s a historically awful stretch of Interstate 80 along that route – a permanent traffic sh*t show. I considered taking San Pablo road, a major thoroughfare which parallels the freeway. But my wife fired up Waze instead, and we proceeded to follow an intricate set of instructions which took us onto frontage roads, side streets, and counter-intuitive detours. Despite our shared unease (unfamiliar streets through some blighted neighborhoods), we trusted the Waze algorithms – and we weren’t alone. In fact, a continuous stream of automobiles snaked along the very same improbable route – and inside the cars ahead and behind me, I saw glowing blue screens delivering similar instructions to the drivers within.

    About a year or so ago I started regularly using the Waze app  – which is to say, I started using it on familiar routes: to and from work, going to the ballpark, maneuvering across San Francisco for a meeting. Prior to that I only used the navigation app as an occasional replacement for Google Maps –  when I wasn’t sure how to get from point A to point B.

    Of course, Waze is a revelation for the uninitiated. It essentially turns your car into an autonomous vehicle, with you as a simple robot executing the commands of an extraordinarily sophisticated and crowd-sourced AI.

    But as I’m sure you’ve noticed if you’re a regular “Wazer,” the app is driving a tangible “flocking” behavior in a significant percentage of drivers on the road. In essence, Waze has built a real time layer of data and commands over our current traffic infrastructure. This new layer is owned and operated by a for-profit company (Google, which owns Waze), its algorithms necessarily protected as intellectual property. And because it’s so much better than what we had before, nearly everyone is thrilled with the deal (there are some upset homeowners tired of those new traffic flows, for instance).

    Since the rise of the automobile, we’ve managed traffic flows through a public commons – a slow moving but accountable ecosystem of local and national ordinances (speed limits, stop signs, traffic lights, etc) that were more or less consistent across all publicly owned road ways.

    Information-first tech platforms like Waze, Uber, and Airbnb are delivering innovative solutions to real world problems that were simply impossible for governments to address (or even imagine). At what point will Waze or something like it integrate with the traffic grid, and start to control the lights?

    I’ve written before about how we’re slowly replacing our public commons with corporate, for-profit solutions – but I sense a quickening afoot. There’s an inevitable collision between the public’s right to know, and a corporation’s need for profit (predicated on establishing competitive moats and protecting core intellectual property).  How exactly do these algorithms choose how best to guide us around? Is it fair to route traffic past people’s homes and/or away from roadside businesses? Should we just throw up our hands and “trust the tech?”

    We’ve already been practicing solutions to these questions, first with the Web, then with Google search and the Facebook Newsfeed, and now with Waze. But absent a more robust dialog addressing these issues, we run a real risk of creating a new kind of regulatory capture – not in the classic sense, where corrupt public officials preference one company over another, but rather a more private kind, where a for-profit corporation literally becomes the regulatory framework itself – not through malicious intent or greed, but simply by offering a better way.

    The post The Waze Effect: Flocking, AI, and Private Regulatory Capture appeared first on John Battelle's Search Blog.

     
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