Welcome to the Machine

January 16, 2010

With apologies to Pink Floyd

I’m going to be a little more philosophical than usual today, as a topical story has come up related to technology that I think is worth talking about. I’ll add an economic angle to it, thanks to the help of the good folks as BusinessWeek towards the end.

A friend of mine pointed me to an article on a book by Jaron Lanier, who among other things coined the term “virtual reality.” Sadly, I haven’t been able to find the specific article he gave me. (It was a print out that I recycled before deciding I was going to write about it.) There is a good summary of his topic in the New York Times book review.

In this new book, “You Are Not A Gadget,” Lanier argues against something called the technological singularity. This is a difficult term to define exactly, but in principle, I interpret it as the idea that technology will improve to such a point that humanity will become one with it. Also, humanity will augment themselves, or alternately be so immersed in technology that individuality will be insignificant. Anyway, that’s a lot to pack into a single term, so it’s easy to see why there’s a lot of confusion about it.

Most of the arguments I have seen on the singularity has always remarked that this is something to be embraced. It is the savior of humanity, and the one possible thing that will prevent us from annihilating ourselves.

Lanier, however, argues that technological singularity is something to be feared and not embraced. His book argues that as we increase our interconnected nature, we must necessarily decrease our individualism. He points to Wikipedia as an important example of this concept. Individual voices are pushed out for the good of the collective work. Even experts are disregarded in favor of a collective “hive mind” interpretation of articles.

He takes this argument to its logical conclusion that if this continues we will enter “a persistent somnolence” with no real culture to speak of, just the hive.

Certainly, I would argue that we have not reached that state, and there are definitely many other results that could come about, as the result of the hive mind. However, I think there is something to his argument, and this is a result that needs to be avoided.

How we do that is where the Business Week article comes in. Nanette Byrnes argues that people like Conan O’Brien and talented people as a whole are being severely undervalued. The “knowledge workers” of this age can suffer greatly at the hands of those managing them. Oftentimes, the management “hive mind” couldn’t replace the content that an inspired individual can create. This results in a weakened product that is less successful for everyone, both company and client.

This problem is where I think the question of the technological singularity’s effect will be answered. If individuality, talent and creativity can thrive then this will be a positive development. If these things fail or cease to grow, then this will be a negative development.

I hope to read Jaron Lanier’s book at some point, and if there is interest, I’ll write a follow-up.

Do you have any thoughts on this topic? Let me know if the comments.


The Year in Search

December 20, 2009

As the end of the year rolls around, I find it interesting to look at the things people have been searching for on the web. Each search engine has their own list, so let’s take a look at the data for 2009.

Google:

1. michael jackson
2. facebook
3. tuenti
4. twitter
5. sanalika
6. new moon
7. lady gaga
8. windows 7
9. dantri.com.vn
10. torpedo gratis

Yahoo!:

1. Michael Jackson
2. Twilight
3. WWE
4. Megan Fox
5. Britney Spears
6. Naruto
7. American Idol
8. Kim Kardashian
9. NASCAR
10. Runescape

Bing:

1. Michael Jackson
2. Twitter
3. Swine Flu
4. Stock Market
5. Farrah Fawcett
6. Patrick Swayze
7. Cash for Clunkers
8. Jon and Kate Gosselin
9. Billy Mays
10. Jaycee Dugard

The first thing that jumps out at me in this data is that the only item that transcended all three lists was Michael Jackson. Certainly part of this is the methodology that the search engines are using to tabulate this data, and all of them are using “trending” topics. As you might guess, searches for things like Youtube or pornography are going to have relatively consistent growth on a year to  year basis.

The terms that made two lists were Twitter and Twilight/New Moon. It is certainly remarkable the growth that Twitter has had this year. It has certainly created a lot of public awareness in a short time. It will interesting to see if it remains a trend in 2010.

One interesting difference between the Google and Bing lists are the number of tech-related searches on Google versus the number of “obituary”-related searches on Bing. Bing has four celebrities who had died in the past year on its list while Google has arguably 7 different technology related results. TechCrunch Europe has an interesting entry on why Sanalika appears. Tuenti is the Spanish version of Facebook. Dantri.com.vm is a Vietnamese newspaper. Torpedo Gratis is a Portuguese site that allows you to send free text messages.

One thing you can certainly take from Google’s list is it’s international appeal. Techcrunch also argues that most international users will simply use Google over the address bar or bookmarks to get to particular websites.

Are there any interesting trends or notes that you’ve spotted? Let me know in the comments.


Privacy Quest

December 12, 2009

There have been a couple of big announcements in the realm of privacy in the past couple of weeks, and I wanted to take this post to talk about the developments.

The first announced this week is that Facebook has updated its privacy functionality ostensibly in order to give you more control over the information that you give out through the service. However, as many people are commenting, a lot of the privacy protection that was previously available now is not.

Facebook is a business that is designed to have as much information available as possible as this makes it a much more interesting site for users, however, if people are not comfortable with how much information is available this sort of plan could backfire.

As you can see here, if you aren’t my friend, I have my privacy setting set at a very high level. You can’t even find me in a search if you don’t know me. (The profile with no data isn’t actually me. I’m not on there at all.) While that might seem a bit extreme for some, I’m perfectly happy with that level of privacy. This is a setting that is still available with the new Facebook privacy changes.

Now a company that is getting some praise for its latest move is Google. Google has created a new privacy dashboard, which, when signed in, allows you to look at all the data Google has compiled on you. More importantly, it has many setting that allow you to delete that information. So, if Google has your search history and there’s something on there that you don’t want, you can finally do something about it.

Ultimately, privacy needs to be something that users have control over and don’t feel that they are giving away to use the Internet. This is certainly a challenge for content providers as this is a key way to deliver relevant advertising. I do believe there is a happy medium between these two positions, and I hope the future has more and more powerful privacy controls.

Don’t forget if you have thoughts, throw them in the comments.

(Bonus points if you can identify the obscure mid-90’s TV show I referenced in the title.)


Making the Google News Loophole a Noose

December 5, 2009

This week Google announced a plan to prevent unlimited access to newspapers like the Wall Street Journal‘s complete content. Normally, non-subscribers would have limited access to the complete text of articles on these newspapers. However, using Google News and typing in the headline or the topic and source:Wall Street Journal, you could easily and reliably get access to the complete content.

The Wall Street Journal is getting the most attention in this matter as their owner, Rupert Murdoch, had previously threatened to remove all of their content from Google‘s search engine and go over to Microsoft’s upstart competitor Bing. (It’s kind of funny to consider Microsoft an upstart at anything nowadays, but so be it.) That didn’t materialize, at least not yet, but it is something Murdoch will continue to hold in his back pocket.

The new program Google has started is called the program First Click Free. Reports say that you’ll be able to use the loophole I’ve just described five time a day and then you’ll be treated as the non-subscriber that you are. I mention the reports because I don’t see the clearly described in Google’s blog entry on the subject.

Now, what is a Techeap user to do? There are a couple of options. The first and most obvious to me is to simply switch search engines. Google News is certainly not the only news aggregator that can use this technique. Bing has its own news aggregator and there are many others. If you are a technically savvy user, you could change your referer and tell the browser that you are coming from another site.

However, the problem for the Wall Street Journal and any other paper continues. Previously, I’ve talked about the problems that newspapers face, and those issues are still out there. The business model for online news has simply not been perfected and until that happens content creators are tasked with the difficult job of making more with less.

Do you have any ideas for fixing these problems? Let me know in the comments…or fix them and make a lot of money. 🙂


If You’ve Got Unlimited Texts…Use Them

September 26, 2009

Followers of this blog know that I am not a fan of text messages or more specifically the crazy rates cell phone companies charge for them. These 160-character (and by the way, when’s the last time you got a 160-character message from someone) communiqués can cost 20 cents a message.

However, some people have avoided this problem by getting unlimited text messaging. One option to take advantage of this is to send and receive massive amounts of messages, but that doesn’t show much creativity. One way to really take advantage of unlimited texting is a new service called DotGo, which I heard about here from the good folks at technologizer.com.

DotGo allows you to send the domain name of a website in a text message to them. The top-level domain (e.g. .com, .org. .edu) will determine the number that what number you use for the text message. The number is actually spelled out using the letter values on the number pad, (DOTCOM address go to the number 368266.) which makes it easy to remember.

You are then sent a text message with a description of how to interact with the website you’ve entered. When you use this website techeap.com, you’ll get a list of the last ten blog posts (in 3 separate messages) and if you wanted to read any of them you would just reply with the number for that entry. Dotgo would then send you a series of text messages until the whole article is sent.

While this may not be the most efficient way to read a website, many other website are much more optimized to use this technology. If you use enter Google or Yahoo and a search term, DotGo will return some of the top hits. There is a simulator on their website, but it was not working for me when I tried it.

One very useful integration for me was with NJTransit. You simply send them the message NJTransit and the locations you want to go between, (for example “njtransit nypenn woodbridge”) and they will send you back a schedule of trains.

Some queries got returned faster than others and my tests were mostly done during off-hours, but the service was pretty speedy overall. While this certainly will not replace browsing on a web-enabled cell phone, if you don’t have an advanced phone and you need a way to get information, this may be exactly what you need.

The service is free, but some of the sites it has integrated with will have ads embedded at the end of messages about them. They promise and I haven’t gotten any spam or other unrequested messages from them. All of the tests I did, did not have any ads, but I’m sure that will change as the service matures.

Is this something that you might use? Let me know in the comments.


The Redbox of Doom

September 12, 2009

It’s the cheapest legal way I know of to see one new DVD release and this, if you take their word on the subject, means doom for the movie industry.

In my area, it’s called Redbox, but other similar companies include DVDPlay, Moviecube and DVDXpress. The idea is that you pick a movie from the machine, put in your credit card and out pops a DVD. You are charged a low amount (usually $1) each day that you have it out. If you lose it, you are charged $25 for not returning it and that’s the end of the transaction.

These machines usually pop out around grocery stores and pharmacies, which are very happy to have people coming back to them every day with a chance of picking up a few extra items.

The machines make money because there is very little overhead and increasingly they are able to get DVDs at wholesale cost, so it takes very few rentals to make a profit. Finally, some of the owners of the machines sell the DVDs as used after they’ve been rented out for a while, so they make money on both ends of the arrangement. Consumers pay much less for renting the DVDs than they would from a rental store and much less for buying a used DVD then they would pay for it as new.

Of course, as the New York Times reports, not everyone is happy with this arrangement. 20th Century Fox, Universal and Warner Brothers are refusing to sell DVDs to Redbox until 28 days after a DVD has been released. The thinking goes that who will pay full price to buy a DVD or rent it from the cable company with the markup that they charge when they can get it from Redbox for a dollar.

Sony, who is one of the companies that has signed a deal with Redbox, got them to agree not to sell their DVDs as used and instead the destroy the DVDs after they left the boxes. This is probably one of the best solutions for both sides, as DVD rentals can still happen at a reasonable rate, but the movie companies won’t cannibalize sales of their DVDs.

It will be interesting to see the development of this market as Blockbuster plans to enter the market with their own line of kiosks.

Have you used these kiosks? Are they in your area? Let me know in the comments.


Some of the Surprising Results of Content Piracy

May 30, 2009

Content piracy is a very controversial topic, and as a blogger focused on getting stuff on the cheap, it seem like an appropriate area to look at and discuss. As I suspect most people are deep down, I am generally anti-piracy. I feel that intellectual property is a meaningful term, and that content creators should be able to market their wares for some value in order to create additional content. I do acknowledge that industry forces put a stranglehold on some content and put it at prices that are not sustainable in the marketplace.

My solution to that problem thus far has been to simply ignore that content, but there are many out there who fell justified to in a Robin-Hood-like mentality of taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Of course, there are other who simply feel that digital content should be free to sample and if you want to support a creator than you simply give them money directly in various ways.

I see value in both arguments, and I’m clearly not here to solve this issue today. Today, I want to talk about a couple of the interesting results of piracy and what effect it has a content creation and consumption. (I discuss torrents below, which are one of the most popular methods of content piracy) to find out more about this technology, check out this About.com tutorial.)

Slashdot had a very interesting post by a former indie-music producer who argues that The Pirate Bay (the most popular torrent tracker) hosting actually strengthens  the hegemony of the music industry. That is to say, piracy actually keep big industry content popular. I have heard arguments that content piracy is the best thing for independent artists because it gets more people to consume their content, but do these statistics prove the contrary. It is a difficult question, and I hope you check out the argument for more details.

One other interesting aspect of this discussion is the use of language by each side to describe its habits. Those who are using unauthorized content first called themselves file-sharers, casting themselves in a benevolent light. Then, the content industry labeled these people as pirates evoking greedy thieves, but this move backfired in the sense that these users took back the term to cast it in the positive ‘Disney-fied’ pirates as romantic, swashbuckling heroes. Things like The Pirate Bay and torrents (by definition, a turbulent, swift-flowing stream) evoke this romantic sense of the terminology. I look forward to seeing what the next volley in the language war will be.

As always, feel free to leave your thoughts on the topic in the comments.

Finally, on a completely unrelated note. Since one of my most popular stories last year was on the announcement by Apple of their by a computer get an iPod deal for students and educators, I wanted to mention that it has begun again this year. You can check out the details here.