July 30, 2005
Haven't been feeling much on the music tip lately, rather think about the bicycles its seems (Pogliaghi, Nagasawa, and 3Rensho that's that fire for real). But god damn, that Boyz N Da Hood record makes me want to get an iPod.. They might be gangster, but lord they sound like they just plain are having fun. The crunk and screwed are fast becoming cartoons, and LA, NY is strictly professionals, 'playing the game' industry style. But these cats, man they sound like they just love to rhyme, sort of revolutionary, no?
July 28, 2005
In what might just a fit of self-parody Wired's latest issue uses the anniversary of the Netscape's IPO to launch a retrospective, 10 Years That Changed the World (perhaps better stated as 10 Years of Ecommerce?). The usual Wired hype and wide eyed optimism applies, but the fact is they have a right to gloat a bit. They got some things right. Technology is powerful, and while most of the Wired crowd seems to suffer from an inability to think critically about any of it, they were right about the impact. Make enough positive predictions and some are bound to come true.
The first time I really grasped the breadth and potential impact of the web was in 1994. I was in a computer lab, staring at Mosaic or Netscape, probably reading about obscure electronic music or printing directions to a full moon party in the high Mohave desert. The kid next to me, who I just barely recognized, sees the browser, a goes "so your into marching bands too?!" I turned to him a bit mystified and realized, that his internet was a whole different world then mine. We sat side by side, lived on the same campus, ate in the same cafeteria, but other then these few words basically lived in completely different worlds.
This is wasn't new to the internet of course, cities are filled will buildings of strangers whose lives intersect only in the elevators. Colleges filled with kids who share four years together and nothing else. But the internet took these striations and blew them the fuck apart while simultaneously weaving together new strands across the globe. Trains, telephones and mass media had been pushing and pulling at the geographical basis of culture for over a century, but the internet is what truly took it over the threshold and into a new phase state, a world of global microcultures. Unlike Wired I'll try to pass on judging it bad or good, more likely its both, but either way it sure has changed things...
July 27, 2005
The one thing that surprised Norquist about Soros's [sic] appearance, he told me later, what the revelation that Soros had spent only twenty-seven million dollars during last year's election. "That is so goofy," Norquist said. "The guy is worth, what seven billion dollars, and he tried to buy the Presidency on the cheap. He should have been in for two and a half billion dollars, for crying out loud. Twenty-seven million dollars--that should have been ante money. What were they thinking?"
- from "The Ringleader" by John Cassidy in the August 1, 2005 New Yorker (print version only)
so sad and so unfortunately true...
July 26, 2005
"These days, folks are building companies to sell them to Yahoo, Google, and MSFT. It's good to have three options ... more like five, really, with AOL and IAC. Picasa, Keyhole, Konfabulator, Bloglines...." -John Battelle
Been stressing this sort of movement for a while, and now its seems its accelerating. What's at stake is information itself, and increasingly its getting concentrated into the hands of a few companies. I'd add Amazon, Apple and Ebay to Battelle's list, and there are a few others as well. Most of the old media companies are players in this, AP, New York Times, etc, and there are a few young upstarts as well, SixApart, Technorati, Skype, Weblogsinc... All the leverage is in Battelle's first three though, as he well knows, content generation and ownership is not where the real control over information lies. The real power lies in extracting meaning from the information itself, in search.
Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have the algorithms and databases necessary to turn strings of words into meaningful results. And they control what those results might be. This gives them power over words themselves. A subtle twist of algorithm can change results radically. Searches for Iraq can be tweaked to show only positive reports, or only negative. A search for Chardonnay might rank California producers over French. A search for John Roberts could weigh right wing blogs over left.
The examples so far are somewhat innocuous, an anti Scientologist site blocked in Google via lawsuit, Nazi memorabilia blocked in France. Right now the companies are trying to win trust, refine their algorithms and build databases. Watch their purchases and new products and you can see them suck in any information they can grab. Blogs, email, satellite maps. Yahoo's latest, Konfabulator makes desktop widgets that connect to the web. Like Google's desktop search tool it gives Yahoo a hook into the information on a users personal computer. These are companies devouring information, sucking it into their databases and digesting it for meaning.
The approach is radically different then the old line media companies, newspapers, tv and the like. The old line wanted quality, and sometimes even got it. Focused information, written, directed and edited by professionals. The new line wants quantity, as much as they can get, filtering is a job for the microchips. They lose some of the style an class of say the New York Times or Economist, but they gain it back in speed, mass and flexibility. The amount of discrete information they control dwarfs any old media, and the audience rivals the largest masses gathered by TV networks and blockbuster movies.
Battelle was one of the first people to fully realize that returning high in a Google search was far more important then a url. Every person online has their own little neighborhood. Websites whose url they can remember, rss feeds they subscribe to, sites they have bookmarked. This is a finite space, there is only so much information people can manage in this manner. Wander through your own online neighborhood and you can find roads to other places, paths towards more information. But its a slow process and in the scope of human daily existence and functionally finite space.
The search engines are the real information superhighways, or perhaps jet engines. In order to get to information outside of your information neighborhood you need to use a search engine. Which means the search engines have a degree of control over where you can go online. Essentially they can function as border guards, screening and watching where people go. They control the flow of information outside of peoples personal information hoods. Right now they mainly let things flow freely although they are collecting an awful lot of more information in the process. In the future they have the power to be customs agents, border guards, and executioners of information. We have given them the power and now must trust they do the right thing...
July 24, 2005
There are taggers and then there are tag voyeurs. There are those that make the tags and use them to navigate the tagged information and then there are those that are interested mainly in tags themselves as an end. The tag itself becomes the relevant information, rather then the original tagged data. This takes us to the realm of the professional voyeur, the sociologists and market researchers, anthropologists and pundits, psychologists and intelligence officers.
In my previous post on tagging I focused on the taggers and the tag users. This post is about the tag watchers. They too are tag users, albeit in a slightly less seemly (but perhaps far more interesting) manner. And in this excellent post by Tom Coates its quite clear that tagging is becoming useful to these voyeurs. Rather then using tags to add meaning to existing information, the tags themselves become the information, information ideally suited for discreetly watching and analyzing at a distance.
Tagging is great for the voyeurs because it lowers the threshold for the generation of discrete information. Discrete information is different from just plain information in how neatly bounded and transportable it is. The information in say an apple tree is not discrete at all. There is a massive amount of data, on how to make more apples, on the state of the soil, on the winds in the area, the length of the winters, etc. But its exceedingly difficult to unlock this info and share it. In contrast a word on a web page is quite discrete, it can be copied, added to a database, compared to other words, its letters counted and quantified, its uses watched and tracked by machines.
Ajax is a telling example, its the hottest and most exciting thing in web development at the moment, but its also a very clear marker of the stratification of the internet. Making an Ajax powered site is a professional only job. Sure an amateur or two will make one or two, but compared to wide open playing field of html or even Flash, there is no contest. Its been a long time coming, and Ajax is only the latest of many steps, but to have a legitimate web presence now almost always requires some sort of professional help. You can use Blogger, Flickr and their ilk on the low end, or you can have a professional build you something, but successful hand built by amateur sites are getting pretty rare.
Tag voyeurism points to a much scarier potential striation of the internet, a striation between those that can watch the information and those that create it without knowing. This has existed for a long time in one area, those that run the servers can see far more then those that just use them. Google is similar, it provides information to its users, but it extracts far more then it gives out. If tags really take off its just another striation, another divide in which one side gains more than the other, another asymmetrical exchange of information.
Tagging is not particularly new, in internet time at least. This is tagging as a digital process we are talking about, not the far more exciting (from a participants viewpoint) process of graffiti tagging. The hype has been building for over a year, and I've been holding back comment mainly because I was never sure what to make of it. It works ok at say organizing your own information, ala del.icio.us, one of the main inventors/innovators of tagging, but would still work once spammers got into it? In other words, can tagging scale?
Now a year after tagging got hype enough to have a hideous jargon term attached to it, the future potential of tagging is finally starting to clarify. Remember keywords? Those magic things you where supposed to embed into webpages to make your site show up in search engines. That's what tags are, rebranded keywords. Remember how bad the search engines that relied on keywords, the search engines before Google that is, remember how bad they were? If you remember then you can why I'm a bit skeptical about tags.
The results are about as bad as a pre-Google search engine aren't they? Maybe that's why I can't remember a single tag article I've read talking about actually using the tags...
That's a bit harsh of course. Tags are a variant of keywords, but they are not identical. The main difference is in the interface. Flickr and del.icio.us in particular have produced interfaces that make tagging ridiculously simple. Which means they've made generating metadata an extremely simple act, something of a holy grail among information theorists hence the hype surrounding the concept. In contrast adding keywords to a website was an annoying process that required you modify the source code of a web page. The difference between a keyword and a tag is primarily a difference in the posting threshold, a shift in how much work it takes to create the metadata.
Keywords were a failure in a large part because the posting threshold fell at a particular point where it was worth it for spammers and search engine optimizers to do the work, but not most people creating legitimate and useful information. The big question for tagging becomes, has the posting threshold shifted enough that meaningful tags will significantly outweigh the spam tags?
If the threshold shift is large enough then yes, tagging can scale. But if it can't its use lies mainly at the individual and small network level. Its a nice interface for adding metadata to your own information ala del.icio.us and perhaps to your personal network, ala Flickr, but its larger use ala Technorati is still up in the air. Does tagging add signal, or does it add noise?
July 02, 2005
Dark Star Safari (bottom up)
I use Amazon's wish list feature not to wish but to remember. Its a viciously effective form of enhanced memory, any book you ever noticed can get entered into a corporate database and linger. I've long since forgotten why and how Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari ended up in my wish list, but technology it seems occasionally works and I wound up walking out the library with a book I wanted but had no recollection why.
Theroux funnily enough wrote the book precisely to escape this sort technology. Overland from Cairo to Capetown is the subtitle and its a journey that purposely took Theroux some of the most forgotten and dangerous parts of Africa. Theroux wanted to disappear, to be unreachable, no phone, no email, just gone. He had been a Peace Corp worker in Malawi in the 60's, kicked out helping a political dissident escape the country. Now a successful travel writer and novelist this was his return journey.
The Africa Theroux finds is far worse for the wear, although its never 100% clear if this a function of him being a cranky aging asshole he makes a pretty good case. And fitting of the times (the book was published in 2003) what comes out is a 'bottom up' argument, although Theroux seems to prefer the term 'bare-assed'. Its an argument Theroux borrows from Graham Hancock and Michael Maren, authors of two anti aid books, and makes part of his character. Aid doesn't work is the line, the money goes into everyone's pockets except those that need the aid, and when aid does show up it just leads to dependency among the recipients.
Its a classic anti government argument, too corrupt and too slow the learn from mistakes. In Africa it may well be spot on, Theroux certainly is won over to the line. But half his argument seems to stem from the fact that the aid workers in white Land Cruisers never pick him up on the side of the road. The other half is interesting though, and fuels the stories that make this book quite an entertaining read. Only in the deep country, the bush mainly, does Theroux find the honest Africans he seeks, the cities in a classical theme are pits of corruption and thieves, the relief heavy countryside the same. That's a pretty blunt reading, but their is little subtlety to Theroux's opinion, he pushes to the back country to find what he wants, never it seems really pushing to find the urban upsides. It makes for a good set of adventure tales that way, dugout canoe down the rivers, "chicken bus" death trap rides, dodging "shifta" gunshots. "There are bad people out there".
All the adventure and gusto that launch the journey begin to twist turn and fade as Theroux gets deeper in and more disillusioned. By the end he's riding luxury South African railcars and describing his first class dinners. Like the corrupt politicians he rails against he's quite happy to leave African's "bare-assed". This is bottom up thinking at its lowest, "sink or swim". Theroux gets their by being burned, the school he taught at 30 odd years before is a decaying wreck, and the people suffering harder then his memories.
"Sink or swim" is also a favorite of a breed of conservatives, the pro business libertarians of America come to mind. One wonders what would happen if they where left in the midst of a dark star safari, would they see only corrupt governments, or would they realize just how much their prosperity depends on the stability of civic society? Are the tribal warfare and massacres that mar the worst of the news from Africa bottom up or top down? What could be more bottom up then baling out and letting people figure things out for themselves? Its exactly what Theroux advocates for Africa, but has it ever worked else where. Does running away make history disappear? Or does history just disappear when people's lifespans drop to African levels. The Africa of Theroux's 60's experience it seems is almost gone, but to get it back, and why for that matter remain unanswered.