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  • feedwordpress 16:24:01 on 2020/03/25 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , , Technology,   

    Will The Coronavirus Save Big Tech? 


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    Who’s Really Behind That “Death of the Techlash” Narrative?

     

    One of my least favorite kinds of journalism is the easy win. It’s the kind of story that just lands in your lap. It feels immediately counter intuitive and of the moment, and  it simply writes itself. It’s the kind of editorial sin most often committed by columnists facing immutable deadlines, and a perfect example can be found in the Wall St. Journal last week. “OK, Fine, Let’s All Get Back on Facebook,” the headline read. The subhead explains further: “All it took was a pandemic to make Facebook’s privacy-challenged products seem highly appealing.”

    Couched as a review of Facebook products helpful in our current era of social distancing and mandated work from home, the column may well stand as a turning point in what was once knows as the “techlash.” Has the coronavirus pandemic earned the world’s most powerful purveyors of surveillance capitalism a collective pass from the press?

    It certainly seems that way. A rash of articles over the past few days have picked up this narrative – and the comms teams at Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon would be fired for malpractice for not stoking it. A good crisis must not be wasted, after all.

    But as the Journal columnist noted later in her piece, the reasons underlying society’s broad misgivings around Big Tech remain. With that prophylactic caveat duly administered, the columnist then profiled her own usage of Facebook’s services- and declared them a trend. Before COVID, the company’s many privacy missteps had led her to back away. But now that everyone she knew was stuck inside, she found herself once again checking her feeds, monitoring her neighborhood Facebook groups, and even pointing a Portal camera at her son.

    This narrative isn’t making it into the press without a bit of help. Facebook’s been quite public about the fact that people just like our columnist are in fact flocking to its products. “Facebook Is ‘Just Trying to Keep the Lights On’ as Traffic Soars in Pandemic” crows a recent Times piece. That headline quote comes from Facebook’s famously media-trained CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, who hasn’t exactly made a practice of calling the press and offering offhand observations these past few years.

    It’s always instructive to note when the company actively participates in stories, and when it declines comment. Lately, there’s been plenty of open lines of communication. The Times further wonders if “Big Tech Could Emerge From Coronavirus Crisis Stronger Than Ever.” And somehow (I can’t imagine how), an “internal report” from Facebook made its way into yet another Times reporter’s hands, leading to this chef kiss of a headline: ‘The Coronavirus Revives Facebook as a News Powerhouse.” Over at Wired, Facebook author Steven Levy asks “Has the Coronavirus Killed the Techlash?” He explains: “Facebook has gotten rare kudos for its responses to the pandemic, and perhaps even more significantly, more people are using it for the kinds of meaningful interactions that Zuckerberg has been promoting for a long time. Could this be a turning point?”

    Well, yes, but I certainly hope it’s not the kind implied by present day reporting. Again, the issues our industry struggled with Before Covid won’t disappear After Covid simply because the public is thankful for services (and business models) to which we’ve already become addicted. Perhaps instead, this pandemic could offer more of a step-change opportunity, one that might just offer us new approaches to connecting to others, buying shit we need (and don’t), and staying informed. I can see those new habits already starting to form, and I certainly hope they won’t be limited to Instagram dance parties. More on those in future posts, I hope. For now, back to work.

     
  • feedwordpress 02:52:58 on 2020/01/06 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , , , Technology, ,   

    Predictions 2020: Facebook Caves, Google Zags, Netflix Sells Out, and Data Policy Gets Sexy 


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    A new year brings another run at my annual predictions: For 17 years now, I’ve taken a few hours to imagine what might happen over the course of the coming twelve months. And my goodness did I swing for the fences last year — and I pretty much whiffed. Batting .300 is great in the majors, but it kind of sucks compared to my historical average. My mistake was predicting events that I wished would happen. In other words, emotions got in the way. So yes, Trump didn’t leave office, Zuck didn’t give up voting control of Facebook, and weed’s still illegal (on a federal level, anyway). 

    Chastened, this year I’m going to focus on less volatile topics, and on areas where I have a bit more on-the-ground knowledge — the intersection of big tech, marketing, media, and data policy. As long time readers know, I don’t prepare in advance of writing this post. Instead, I just clear a few hours and start thinking out loud. So…here we go.

    1. Facebook bans microtargeting on specific kinds of political advertising. Of course I start with Facebook, because, well, it’s one of the most inscrutable companies in the world right now. While Zuck & Co. seem deeply committed to their “principled” stand around a politician’s right to paid prevarication, the pressure to do something will be too great, and as it always does, the company will enact a half-measure, then declare victory. The new policy will probably roll out after Super Tuesday (sparking all manner of conspiracies about how the company didn’t want to impact its Q1 growth numbers in the US). The company’s spinners will frame this as proof they listen to their critics, and that they’re serious about the integrity of the 2020 elections. As with nearly everything it does, this move will fail to change anyone’s opinion of the company. Wall St. will keep cheering the company’s stock, and folks like me will keep wondering when, if ever, the next shoe will drop. 
    2. Netflix opens the door to marketing partnerships. Yes, I’m aware that the smart money has moved on from this idea. But in a nod to increasing competition and the reality of Wall St. expectations, Netflix will at least pilot a program — likely not in the US — where it works with brands in some limited fashion. Mass hysteria in the trade press will follow once this news breaks, but Netflix will call the move a pilot, a test, an experiment…no big deal. It may take the form of a co-produced series, or branded content, or some other “native” approach, but at the end of the day, it’ll be advertising dollars that fuel the programming. And while I won’t predict the program augurs a huge new revenue stream for the company, I can predict that what won’t happen, at least in 2020: A free, advertising-driven version of Netflix. Just not in the company’s culture. 
    3. CDA 230 will get seriously challenged, but in the end, nothing gets done, again. Last year I predicted there’d be no federal data privacy legislation, and I’m predicting the same for this year. However, there will be a lot of movement on legislation related to the tech oligarchy. The topic that will come the closest to passage will be a revision to CDA 230 —the landmark legislation that protects online platforms from liability for user generated content. Blasphemy? Sure, but here we are, stuck between free speech on the one hand, massive platform economics on the other, and a really, really bad set of externalities in the middle. CDA 230 was built to give early platforms the room to grow unhindered by traditional constraints on media companies. That growth has now metastasized, and we don’t have a policy response that anyone agrees upon. And CDA 230 is an easy target, given conservatives in Congress already believe Facebook, Google, and others have it out for their president. They’ll be a serious run at rewriting 230, but it will ultimately fail. Related…
    4. Adversarial interoperability will get a moment in the sun, but also fail to make it into law. In the past I (and many others) have written about “machine readable data portability.” But for the debate we’re about to have (and need to have), I like “adversarial interoperability” better. Both are mouthfuls, and neither are easy to explain. Data governance and policy are complicated topics which test our society’s ability to have difficult long form conversations. 2020 will be a year where the legions of academics, policy makers, politicians, and writers who debate economic theory around data and capitalism get a real audience, and I believe much of that debate will center on whether or not large platforms have a responsibility to be open or closed. As Cory Doctorow explains, adversarial interoperability is “when you create a new product or service that plugs into the existing ones without the permission of the companies that make them.” As in, I can plug my new e-commerce engine into Amazon, my new mobile operating system into iOS, my new social network into Facebook, or my new driving instruction app into Google Maps. I grew up in a world where this kind of innovation was presumed. It’s now effectively banned by a handful of data oligarchs, and our economy – and our future – suffers for it. 
    5. As long as we’re geeking out on catchphrases only a dork can love, 2020 will also be the year “data provenance” becomes a thing. As with many nerdy topics, the concept of data provenance started in academia, migrated to adtech, and is about to break into the broader world of marketing, which is struggling to get its arms around a data-driven future. The ability to trace the origin, ownership, permissions, and uses of data is a fundamental requirement of an advanced digital economy, and in 2020, we’ll realize we have a ton of work left to do to get this right. Yes, yes, blockchain and ledgers are part of the discussion here, but the point isn’t the technology, it’s the policy enabling the technology. 
    6. Google zags. Saddled with increasingly negative public opinion and driven in large part by concerns over retaining its workforce, Google will make a deeply surprising and game changing move in 2020. It could be a massive acquisition, a move into some utterly surprising new industry (like content), but my money’s on something related to data privacy. The company may well commit to both leading the debate on the topics described above, as well as implementing them in its core infrastructure. Now that would really be a zag…
    7. At least one major “on demand” player will capitulate. Gig economy business models may make sense long term, but that doesn’t mean we’re getting the execution right in the first group of on demand “unicorns.” In fact, I’d argue we’re mostly getting them wrong, even if as consumers, we love the supposed convenience gig brands bring us. Many of the true costs of these businesses have been externalized onto public infrastructure (and the poor), and civic patience is running out. Plus, venture and public finance markets are increasingly skeptical of business models that depend on strip mining the labor of increasingly querulous private contractors. A reckoning is due, and in 2020 we’ll see the collapse of one or more larger players in the field.
    8. Influencer marketing will fall out of favor. I’m not predicting an implosion here, but rather an industry wide pause as brands start to ask the questions consumers will also be pondering: who the fuck are these influencers and why are we paying them so much attention? A major piece of this — on the marketing side anyway — will be driven by a massive increase in influencer fraud. As with other fast growing digital marketing channels, where money pours in, fraud fast follows — nearly as fast as fawning New York Times articles, but I digress. 
    9. Information warfare becomes a national bogeyman. If we’ve learned anything since the 2016 election, it’s this: We’ve taken far too long to comprehend the extent to which bad actors have come to shape and divide our discourse. These past few years have slowly revealed the power of information warfare, and the combination of a national election with the compounding distrust of algorithm-driven platforms will mean that by mid year, “fake news” will yield to “information warfare” as the catchphrase describing what’s wrong with our national dialog. Deep fakes, sophisticated state-sponsored information operations, and good old fashioned political info ops will dominate the headlines in 2020. Unfortunately, the cynic in me thinks the electorate’s response will be to become more inured and distrustful, but there’s a chance a number of trusted media brands (both new and old) prosper as we all search for a common set of facts.
    10. Purpose takes center stage in business. 2019 was the year the leaders of industry declared a new purpose for the corporation — one that looks beyond profits for a true north that includes multiple stakeholders, not just shareholders. 2020 will be the year many companies will compete to prove that they are serious about that pledge. Reaction from Wall St. will be mixed, but I expect plenty of CEOs will feel emboldened to take the kind of socially minded actions that would have gotten them fired in previous eras. This is a good thing, and likely climate change will become the issue many companies will feel comfortable rallying behind. (I certainly hope so, but this isn’t supposed to be about what I wish for…)
    11. Apple and/or Amazon stumble. I have no proof as to why I think this might happen but…both these companies just feel ripe for some kind of major misstep or scandal. America loves a financial winner — and both Amazon and Apple have been runaway winners in the stock market for the past decade. Both have gotten away with some pretty bad shit along the way, especially when it comes to labor practices in their supply chain. And while neither of them are as vulnerable as Facebook or Google when it comes to the data privacy or free speech issues circling big tech, both Apple and Amazon have become emblematic of a certain kind of capitalism that feels fraught with downside risk in the near future. I can’t say what it is, but I feel like both these companies could catch one squarely on the jaw this coming year, and the post-mortems will all say they never saw it coming. 

    So there you have it — 11 predictions for the coming year. I was going to stop at 10, but that Apple/Amazon one just forced itself out — perhaps that’s me wishing again. We’ll see. Let me know your thoughts, and keep your cool out there. 2020 is going to be one hell of a year. 

     
  • feedwordpress 18:08:18 on 2019/12/27 Permalink
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    Predictions Review: Optimism Failed in 2019 


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    This past year, I predicted the fall of both Zuck and Trump, not to mention the triumph of cannabis and rationale markets. But in 2019, the sociopaths won – bigly.

    Damn, was I wrong.

    One year ago this week, I sat down to write my annual list of ten or so predictions for the coming twelve months. And before I was even halfway through, I’d already listed and then summarily dismissed the two most significant American sociopaths of our generation.

    Despite my glancing protestations (#2 and #4, below), Mark Zuckerberg and Donald Trump did not go gently into the good night of 2019. And believing they might only proves both my naiveté and our collective challenge: If we truly want a better world, we need to reform not just the technology industry, but the steroid-fueled version of capitalism that has captured it. If I’ve learned anything from this annual process of critically reviewing my predictions, it’s this: the fusion of unrestrained capitalism with unaccountable technology has become the playground of sociopaths. And this past year, the best sociopaths won. Bigly.

    And while I’m tempted to pen a rant pointing out the eerie similarities between Zuck and Trump’s character, ascendance, and current chokehold on power, I’ll leave that for another day (though as a teaser, you really should watch this clip, especially the last few seconds…). Over the past 16 years, this post has evolved into a rather light-hearted scorecard, after all. Forgive me if I’m in a grimmer mood as we get started. But I did pick a doozy for my first prediction last year:

    1/ Global warming gets really, really, really real. Honestly, I don’t know how anyone could argue 2019 was exactly the year things got way, way too real. Given my American bias and unforgiveable (if twisted) optimism, I predicted we’d have some kind of a Hurricane Sandy like event that slapped some sense into the United States. While that didn’t exactly happen (we got lucky with Dorian and others, though the Bahamas certainly didn’t), there were so many terrifying climate-related news events in 2019, it’s impossible to imagine 2019 as anything other than a turning point in the climate change narrative. First off, we had the single largest set of mass protests on any issue, ever – and of course, Greta Thurnberg as Time’s person of the year (which of course our president mercilessly and predictably mocked). We had news that the Arctic’s permafrost is melting, releasing a vicious cycle of carbon into the atmosphere. Bloomberg counted up our climate disasters in 2019, and found we had at least one every week. We had more devastating fires in California, we had a heat wave in Greenland (and Europe), we had massive waterfalls of melting ice, we had scientists freaking out that their most dire predictions are now looking too conservative. Nearly 10 million people were displaced by climate change in 2019. A huge swath of the Amazon was on fire this past year – spewing yet another continuous torrent of carbon. So yeah, the US was comparatively spared, but damn, things got really, really real this past year. I’m not happy about it, but I think I got this one at least partially right.

    2/ Mark Zuckerberg resigns as Chairman of Facebook, and relinquishes his supermajority voting rights. Related, Sheryl Sandberg stays right where she is. Ok, this was one of several predictions where I was really hoping to be right, but as I copped in the introduction, I simply should have known better. 2019 was certainly a year where plenty of tech lords were taken down a notch (see #8 below), but not at Facebook, which saw its stock rally to near record highs. Scandal, fraud, whistling past democracy’s graveyard – none of it mattered in 2019. And way will a founding CEO get taken down a notch in that scenario, ridiculous governance structures be dammed. Man, did I whiff!

    3/ Despite a ton of noise and smoke from DC, no significant federal legislation is signed around how data is managed in the United States. This played out exactly as I predicted. And to be honest, I don’t expect much to come in 2020, either, despite the fulminations of legislators across both parties. Why? See #2, and for that matter, this next doozy…

    4/ The Trump show gets cancelled. Nope. Just like Facebook, Trump’s stock is near an all time high – his approval ratings actually increased during the impeachment hearings. This despite the fact that 55% of the American public now wants him out of office. So yes, Trump will still be in power come New Year’s, and that means I was hopelessly wrong. I suppose I could claim some kind of win given the House did cancel his loathsome reality show, but it takes two chambers of Congress to remove a president. Just like Zuck, I’m left realizing that if I want to be more accurate in my predictions, I should stop wishing for things that make sense, but would cost kingmakers either their money or their power. Another whiff.

    5/ Cannabis for the win. Yikes. What kind of idiot predicts the federal legalization of cannabis in a world controlled by Trump? This looked promising at mid year, with a number of legislators holding “historic” hearings on the subject. The issue could have gained traction from there, and we might have had a bipartisan bill by the end of the year, had Trump not needed to play to its base as impeachment seized the narrative. So alas, it was not to be. Despite huge support from the American public, Republicans in Congress managed to actually set the movement back, killing common sense legislation that would have unshackled entrepreneurs who are attempting to create a safe and stable industry (caveat: I’m invested in many of them). The fact is, this past year the black market for cannabis kicked the legal market’s ass. Another whiff, and not the kind any of us would enjoy.

    6/ China implodes, the world wobbles. Ah, well, this almost happened. All year long, the headlines augured the collapse of China’s potemkin economy, as Trump’s trade war seemed poised to tilt the globe into recession. Here are a few: Beware of Tremors in China’s Commercial Property Market; China’s Inward Tilt Could Cripple It; China’s Yuan Falls Past Key Level of 7 to the Dollar; on and on the headlines went, warning of a China implosion. But it was not to be. I was a year early and 10 trillion dollars short here. Whiff.

    7/ 2019 will be a terrible year for financial markets. Lordy. Just. So. Wrong. Again, I bet against a president and a set of market makers utterly set on ensuring their own power. Damn Fool. Whifferoo.

    8/ At least one major tech IPO is pulled, the rest disappoint as a class. If nothing else, here’s proof I should stick to my own lanes. Thanks WeWork, for pulling your IPO and proving that at least I’ve still got tech prediction chops. And yes, the rest of the class didn’t do so great either – Slack, Uber, Lyft have all disappointed. There were some bright spots – Pinterest, Zoom and Cloudflare among them. But it wasn’t the year the tech industry had hoped for, by a long shot.

    9/ New forms of journalistic media flourish. This one was kind of a ringer – I knew we’d be launching The Recount by summer, and indeed we did. But it was also a proxy for what I hoped would be a resurgence in journalism across the board. And while I can’t prove this statistically, 2019 did feel like a year journalism got some of its mojo back. Non-profit models seemed to strengthen, subscription revenue continues to eclipse advertising at quality outlets like The New York Times, and innovative newsletters like The Hustle and The Skimm prospered. Maybe “flourish” was too optimistic (like most of my 2019 predictions), but at least this one wasn’t a total whiff.

    10/A new “social network” emerges by the end of the year. Well, umm…does Tik Tok count?! Not really, at least, not if you read the fine print in my prediction, where I reasoned that private social chat would be the most likely place for new entrants to emerge. And it seems Facebook agreed – announcing in March a “pivot to privacy” focused on group chat that all but destroyed any investment in the space. Later in the year, Automattic, the relatively unknown company whose WordPress platform powers nearly a third of the Internet, bought Tumblr, a once-important gateway drug that later ceded primacy to Twitter and Instagram. The combination set tech hearts aflame with speculation that a Facebook competitor was in the works. But as far as I can tell, no such plans exist. So yeah, we did see important gains for private social chat this past year, but by year’s end, the Valley’s still stuck in Facebook’s grip, and everyone’s still debating if we’ll ever emerge from it. Me, I’m not so optimistic anymore.

    And that, friends, caps what is likely the worst year of predictions I’ve ever reviewed. By my count I only got three of ten defensibly correct in 2019, with a couple pushes and five miserable whiffs. Not a good scorecard going into 2020, but hey, at least I learned something. In an era dominated by Trump and Zuck, it’s best to check your optimism before wading into prognostication. But hell, I’ve still got a few days before I plan on writing my predictions for 2020. Irrational optimism is a hard habit to quit. Maybe it’ll make a comeback next year….


    Previous predictions:

    Predictions 2019

    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 18:22:38 on 2019/09/13 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , , Technology,   

    Why Politics, Why Now? 


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    Last week an email hit my inbox with a simple powerful sentiment. “I miss your writing,” it said. The person who sent it was a longtime reader of this site.

    I miss writing too. But there’s a reason I’ve been quiet here and on other platforms – I wrote a very short post about that earlier this summer. To summarize, last year I decided to take the leap, for the seventh time, and start a company with my dear friend and frequent co-conspirator John Heilemann. John and I have worked on projects for the better part of three decades, but we’d never started a company together. Now we have: Recount Media is an entirely new approach to video about politics. And the truth is, Recount Media not only requires all of my time, it’s also in fields that seem pretty orthogonal to my previous career trajectory.

    That reader’s email reminded me: I’ve not really explained the connection between what I “used to do” – write about the impact of tech on society, advise startups, work on boards, start or run tech-related media companies – and what it is I’m doing now. Turns out, the two are deeply connected. Explaining why takes a bit of exposition – hence this longish post. But in short, the idea is this: The tech story is now a political story, and the political story is, well, a mess. I’m motivated by creating companies and media around consequential, messy stories. Tech used to be the biggest and most poorly covered of the bunch. But now, I’m convinced politics holds that honor.

    This post is my attempt to tie together my past, rooted mostly in the West Coast technology culture, with my present, now based in New York and focused almost entirely on politics and video. I hope by thinking out loud here, I might help make it make sense for not only you, my readers, but also for myself as I continue on this journey.

    On its face it doesn’t make much sense. A guy who has made his living writing – either coding words into posts, or starting companies that, in essence, were word factories (Wired, The Standard, Federated Media, etc.) – is now co-founder of a company that makes only video. A guy who has specialized in reporting on and sense making around technology is now deep in the utterly foreign world (for me, anyway) of politics. What gives?

    I realized that the tech story had morphed into something else back in 2015, when I was running an events business called NewCo. To support that business, I decided to create a small publication focused on the intersection of technology, policy, and business. We called it Shift. To launch that brand, I wrote “The Tech Story Is Over,” a framework of sorts for why I thought the biggest story in our economy had moved from “tech” to the wholesale reinvention of capitalism. From that piece:

    Tech hasn’t gone mainstream — it is the mainstream. It’s our cultural dowser, our lens for interpreting an increasingly complex society.Our new cultural heroes are Internet billionaires; our newly minted college graduates all want to start tech companies.

    All of which leaves me wondering : What’s the next big story on the horizon, the narrative most people are missing that will shape our future just as technology did for the past 30 years?

    I think the answer lies in the reinvention of capitalism. 

    While tech had been the defining story of the past few decades, I argued that the story of the next few would be how our society rethought the rules governing corporations. And once you start thinking about the way corporations were governed, your attention naturally turns to politics. Politics, after all, is how we collectively determine the rules of the road.

    At the same time we launched Shift, we also started a new conference of the same name, dedicated to convening a fresh conversation about business and politics. I asked Heilemann to bring his deep understanding of Washington to the stage each year. John curated the political piece, I ran the business programming. The event was very well received, and we both noticed how engaged folks were around the political conversation in particular. The first Shift event was one week after Trump’s inauguration, and nearly every business and tech leader was leaning into issues they had previously ignored or, in some cases, actively ducked. It was clear: Politics was on its way to permeating every aspect of our society, and business was a leading indicator of that trend.

    We increased the amount of political programming in the second Shift event, and once again, folks loved it. By now I was certain that the tech and business narrative I’d been chasing for so many years had grown stale – the changes wrought by tech were no longer the story – now the story was how we as a society would respond. And just as with business, that response requires wading directly into the world of politics.

    It was after the second Shift conference that I decided to move to New York. The Bay area is a lovely, inspirational place, but the conversation was dominated by entrepreneurship, and it was beginning to feel like a monoculture. I wanted to live in a place where the conversation had more hybrid vigor. I called my friend John to let him know about the move, and, turns out, he had an idea about starting a political platform devoted to covering US politics in a new way. We spent a week talking about it over the summer, got pretty excited about where it might go, and … well, that’s how we got to now.

    In the past year, I’ve come to realize that while I thought I was pretty well informed about how our political system worked, I was in fact wandering in the dark. I had spent nearly my entire career in media and tech in the Bay area, but I had managed to fundamentally avoid engaging in the national political discourse. I don’t think I’m alone – the past few years have delivered a crash course in political realities for the entire technology industry – and for business overall. When hundreds of leading CEOs sign a letter claiming profit will no longer be the true north of their firms, something pretty fundamental has shifted.

    We announced Recount Media’s public beta this past July, and we’ll have a lot more to announce later this Fall, including dates for two new Shift events, which are now part of our new company. I’m excited about the work we’re doing, and I hope those of you who’ve followed my journey from Wired through to NewCo will come along for the ride with The Recount. You can sign up for our beta newsletter here. Thanks for reading, and thanks for all your comments and encouragement along the way.

     
  • feedwordpress 15:06:48 on 2019/02/25 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , tech industry, Technology, ,   

    Our Industry Is Failing. Will We Fix It? 


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    If the latest tech revelations have proven anything, it’s that the endless cycle of jaw-dropping headlines and concomitant corporate apologetics has changed exactly nothing.

    Over and over, the pattern repeats. A journalist, researcher, or concerned citizen finds some appalling externality associated with one of our largest technology platforms. Representatives from the indicted company wring their hands, take down the offending content and/or de-platform the offending accounts, all the while assuring us “we actively police violations of our terms of service and are always looking to improve our service.”

    And then it happens again. And again. And again.

    Let’s look at this past week’s YouTube debacle as an exemplar.

    Day one, a former YouTuber posts a video and commentary on Reddit laying out how YouTube’s recommendation algorithms have enabled pedophiliacs to thrive on the platform.

    Day two, a handful of advertisers declare their shock, pulling ads from the platform.

    Day three, YouTube issues a statement: …”we have clear policies prohibiting this on YouTube….We enforce these policies aggressively, reporting it to the relevant authorities, removing it from our platform and terminating accounts. We continue to invest heavily in technology, teams and partnerships with charities to tackle this issue.” The company also deletes hundreds of accounts and tens of millions of pedophilic comments.

    Advertisers shrug, wait for the controversy to die out, then renew their buys. According to industry publication Digiday, most advertisers simply ignored the issue altogether. “YouTube is such a brand-unsafe environment. But it works. They give you the views, they give you the conversions,” is how an advertising agency executive responded to the story.

    “It works.”

    That simple phrase explains the root problem with all our tech platforms, whether it’s Uber hollowing out our public infrastructure, Facebook hollowing out our civic discourse, Instagram hollowing out our children’s self esteem and civility, Amazon hollowing out our commercial marketplaces, or Airbnb (yes, sorry, same business, better branding) hollowing out our cities’ economic and cultural diversity. These platforms *work* for their intended constituents – whether they be advertisers, consumers, or shareholders (especially shareholders). They are radically efficient artificial business intelligences doing exactly what they’ve been programmed to do. They work.

    These are our most celebrated economic successes, paragons of a forty-year march of neoliberal economic theory in lock step with automated, data-driven technologies. They are uniquely American – prizing the convenience, liberty, and agency of the individual (and the shareholder) above all else.

    And we are finally realizing they – and by extension we – are destroying our social fabric.

    After years of growing dissent, a burgeoning coalition of academics, policymakers, journalists and yes, even a few techno-capitalists have come to realize that it’s time to change our definition of what “working” really means.

    It won’t be easy. We Americans prize convenience and winning over pretty much everything else. Amazon, Google, Facebook, Uber – these companies are massively convenient winners – at least by the definitions that have framed the American political economy these past four decades. Forcing this change will test our society’s ability to work together toward a common good. But if our industry doesn’t change – fundamentally – I’m increasingly convinced it will fail – slowly first, then all at once. More on that in the next post.

     
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