Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Siren Song of Digital Mediocrity

I just finished Jaron Lanier's You Are Not A Gadget, and found its cultural hypothesis interesting and applicable to a whole bunch of undercurrents moving through the real and digital world. The book is swollen with ideas that range from creatively insightful to verging-on-batshit-crazy, but I'll pull out two that I particularly liked (that aren't in the latter category). First is the notion that technology users in general -- and internet/software uses in particular -- should be mindful that our tech-centric culture is increasingly vulnerable to "lock-in," a process whereby the sweet web tools and gizmos we rely on are handicapped by the skills and choices of the programmers who must, necessarily, create them. Put another way, the complexity of modern software may lead designers and programmers to make arbitrary choices that, because ideas can quickly go viral and generate large network effects, become locked in and go on to limit design flexibility in the future.

Lanier offers the example of MIDI, an interface used to synchronize electronic music components. MIDI was originally created to synch up multiple synthesizers, and didn't include parameters such as note phrasing, intensity, and all of the ineffable elements of performance that make music so unique to each musician. A guy just wanted to connect some synths, so all he needed was the equivalent of "note on" and "note off." Well, MIDI caught on in a huge and international way, and became the standard for electronic music. And while some artists have used music technology to create some very bodacious stuff (I'm partial to Aphex Twin myself), they're limited in their expression by the arbitrary-yet-intentional programming of the original author. This larger idea has cultural as well as philosophical significance; here's Lanier early on, on page 10:
Lock-in removes ideas that do not fit into the winning digital representation scheme, but it also reduces or narrows the ideas it immortalizes, by cutting away the unfathomable penumbra of meaning that distinguishes a word in natural language from a command in a computer program.
For those digital companies looking to build market share (and maximize the network effect), the best choice is to simplify and homogenize our interfacing with their software. So all topics we don't understand fall into their respective Wikipedia entries; all movies must somehow be shoehorned into Netflix's five-star rating system; and our personas too often stand upon a rigidly-defined profile and database of connections on Facebook. This is not to say that these digital services and others can't be or aren't great -- they are! Yet they are only models of a particular idea or relationship, and they can be shoddy and inadequate. For all the attention (mine included) that Facebook siphons from other activities, it's really one of the least innovative services out there and grants very little room to paint your own little corner of the site.

We should imagine, then, that Facebook's banality should give free license to those would-be competitors who can dream up something better and more respectful of the individual's digital "right" to flexible self-definition. Things haven't turned out this way. Yes, MySpace is out there, but even people with MySpace pages had better damn well have a complementary Facebook profile lest their friends and family think they're antisocial weirdos. The unique ability of the Internet to lock in and propagate mediocrity brings me to the second, more important and overarching point that I drew from Lanier's book: the "wisdom of crowds" ideology.

Mr. Lanier addresses this issue within the context of the Web 2.0 leadership. In a nutshell, a major part of this new technological religion (which Lanier frequently refers to as "cybernetic totalism," although I'm not sure how much sex appeal and staying power that has) is the worship of the "hive mind" -- the collective intelligence represented by our individual minds all connected in cyberspace -- over the works of individual minds. It almost recalls that most horrible word of corporate jargon, synergy. As if combining the efforts of individual humans we will somehow transcend our own humanity. This is cult-ish stuff, but since technology is cool and useful we tend to give it a free pass (sort of like we did for finance over the last 25 years). Besides, we only catch glimpses of it in oblique ways. "Information/content wants to be free." (Tell that to those who have to create it.) "The Web is an idealization of democratic values." (Maybe, but that brings with it all of the pandering to selfish wants of the lowest common denominator that political democracy has. Based on Web usage, that probably means we should be focusing most of our innovative efforts on porn and piracy.)

The hive mind's elevation of collective intelligence is visible both in the world of software and of wetware. Online, the most dominant service is Google's search engine, whose algorithm bases its search results hierarchy for a given word or phrase based on how often it is linked to. Sometimes this is useful, but it (a) does not attempt to understand the semantic intent of the searcher, but assumes that the hive will take care of that itself, and (b) subjects itself to lock-in. On the latter point, Wikipedia is the easy example. As more and more people use Wikipedia and link to it, the Wikipedia entry for a given search phrase is invariably the top-ranked search result. Google co-founder Larry Page has said that the engineering challenge of search is essentially the most important one to solve, because the best tool we can create is one that points us to the correct answer for every possible question. This rings true, but a search algorithm that brings me straight to Wikipedia every time clearly signals complacency in the engineering pursuit that Google most prides itself on.

In the real world, the wisdom of crowds fetish has preceded the denigration of authors and editors. So goes the increasingly conventional wisdom: Newspapers are dead. I'll just search for news online. Books are dead. I'll get my information from other sources. Albums are dead. I'll download the single I'm looking for and that's it. This kind of thinking assumes that our culture's institutions survive and progress on the wheels of some abstract motor of crowdthink, rather than through the vision and willpower of individuals. This is a reversal of the previous synergy idea: the pieces are all that matter, not the whole presentation, and those pieces have many (and free) substitutes. But there is professional editorial and artistic value in the whole, and dissecting it not only removes the authors' intentional form, but often undermines the economic viability of the work for its creators. It is the training, experience, intuition, wisdom, and creativity of individual people across disciplines that has given us the rich cultural mosaic that many now see fit to push off into digital obsolescence. If the hive-minders think we can replace these people and their work with the crap that makes up 95% of YouTube and Facebook, they need to unplug for a bit to reconsider.

(Actually, the digital world itself offers one of the best examples of a mensch who reshapes the world through individual creativity. Steve Jobs' repeated successes has prompted discussion about the usefulness, at times, of closed culture in innovation.)

So those are two of Jaron Lanier's (many) ideas that I found most exciting in his new book. One, be wary of lock-in, and understand that the design of the software tools that everyone seems to use aren't necessarily the best or even that good. Consequently, we as users need to demand (and create!) better tools with more flexibility wherever we can, rather than simply debasing our own standards. Second, be wary of the dehumanizing "wisdom of crowds" ideology, which neglects the value of individual experience and effort that goes into our cultural artifacts and institutions. Together, these two principals seem to cry out, Authorship Matters! That is true of the software engineers and the newspaper editors alike, and both should be held to a high standard. And we should be looking for digital design methods that foster community and interoperability without devaluing creative and/or professional work.

I recommend checking out Jaron Lanier's book for the other interesting things he has to say, as well. At times it feels like he could have used a wise editor of his own to reign in his scatterbrainedness, but perhaps, like some other mad geniuses out there, that is simply an integral part of his charm and value.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Return of the Pay Wall

Today the New York Times announced that it will reconstitute a pay wall for its online content, something it tried unsuccessfully to do years ago. Here's the plan:
Starting in early 2011, visitors to will get a certain number of articles free every month before being asked to pay a flat fee for unlimited access. Subscribers to the newspaper’s print edition will receive full access to the site without extra charge.
According to the Times, the pay wall that existed from 2005 to 2007 attracted 210,000 subscribers paying $50 a year. Considering that the paper has a monthly readership of 17 million, that's a highly insignificant number of people who are willing to pay for full access. However, the original pay wall applied only to certain content, notably Op-Ed pages. Perhaps readers will be more willing to pony up for the full assortment of articles and archives, but that stuff is free now, and Felix Salmon has already attempted to break down the economics of the idea to show that the article gate (which closes after the ambiguous "certain number of articles") is an unwise proposal. But the Times is giving itself a year to figure out the logistics.

For those that don't follow the ongoing discussion about online news, the problem is not that people are no longer reading the news -- 17 million unique visitors is material -- but that online advertising brings in only a minor fraction of what print advertising does. Readers are just too finicky online, and don't page through news like their hard-copy counterparts. So newspapers will have to start getting compensated by their online viewers somehow or else significantly scale back their reporting efforts. The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times both have pay walls in place already, and seem to be doing ok. But theirs are niche business readers with similar interests, income and levels of sophistication. The Times' audience is assuredly more diverse and harder to target ads to.

I share the conviction of others I've read today that a pay wall as it is currently imagined will probably drive large numbers of readers to other news sources that are free online, or perhaps look to bloggers to post longer source quotes. Even if these alternative sources are of lesser quality than the Times, their substitution is understandable in some ways. Subscribing to a bunch of newspapers and magazines is tedious to keep track of, and differs from our experience with other types of media. When we buy a book, movie, CD, or iTunes mp3, we are purchasing an experience that can be repeated or at least drawn out. But buying news is closer to the transient experiences of cable TV, magazines, and the internet: we are paying for a constant stream of new content with a relatively short shelf life, to be experienced and then discarded. As such, people are less inclined to make impulse buys. That n+1 article which suddenly requires a subscription would have to feel awfully valuable for me to buy it.

Since most online content seems to have this transient feel, viewers and readers may be more inclined to pay if the payment mechanism was closer to a utility bill, like cable and internet. Rather than taking an a la carte approach, media providers could create or support media "utility companies" that allowed for monthly budgeting, bundling, and billing. For instance, maybe I decide that I will budget $60 per month for major newspapers, and that grants me access to any article at the NYT, WSJ, or FT websites as well as delivered to my tablet reader. And then I put up another $20 for magazines, and I'm given the choice of any articles from 10-20 magazines that month. And so on to get access to TV networks' full series, movies on-demand, etc. But all of it would be allocated and paid for through a single entity. The goal is to pay for the convenience of constantly refreshed net content, like we pay to have things piped into our TVs and cable modems -- with an all-in-one budget -- instead of managing dozens of individual subscriptions.

Such an approach would require cooperation between and within industries, and already we have seen coordinated efforts to build new viewing and payment platforms in the cases of Hulu, iTunes, and the ongoing effort to make DVD purchases portable. Tablet readers and similar viewing devices will also make the digital reading experience much more pleasurable and comparable to print. The point, then, is that a combination of a new payment mechanism and technology (devices) can force a rethink for consumers about how they consume digital media. (The iTunes example shows that with enough convenience and quality consistency, people will gladly pay for what they used to expect for free online.) Newspapers like the Times should work with competitors and technologists to build a platform that improves and redefines the experience of digital content, smoothing readers' transition to paying for it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Do The Right Thing, Google

It looks like Google may have found a reason to backslide (for ungated, try NYT) on one of its (only) stupid commitments: providing search in China at the expense of censoring some searches the Chinese government deems too morally offensive for consumption. Like Tiananmen Square.

Google's servers came under heavy cyber attack from Chinese sources, including efforts to hack the Gmail accounts of human rights activists in the country. Additionally, attempts were made to steal information from 34 other companies, many of which hail from Silicon Valley. Now Google is saying it will desist in censoring content on its China affiliate,, and may exit the country altogether. Unsurprisingly, some of this news was itself censored in China.

This newfound backbone toward China is admirable, even if it comes after an initial cave-in to Chinese censors in 2006. But the backbone is also necessary for business. As Google has told numerous people, its business model becomes untenable the instant people no longer trust the company with oodles of personal data. For Chinese activists, the dissemination of such information could easily lead to their arrest and imprisonment.

But even if their is a sensible economic reason for leaving China, that fact should not erode the superior value of the moral reason. Here's a quote from the initial Times article:

“The consequences of not playing the China market could be very big for any company, but particularly for an Internet company that makes its money from advertising,” said David B. Yoffie, a Harvard Business School professor. Mr. Yoffie said advertising played an even bigger role in the Internet in China than it did in the United States.
And the WSJ also makes sure to give a sense of China's strategic importance:
Google's revenue in China is relatively small, with analysts estimating only a few percentage points of Google's nearly $22 billion in 2008 revenue came from the nation. But the country's massive number of Internet users has made it strategically important for Google, as it tried to extend its dominance in search and search advertising around the globe.
No surprises here: China has a billion-plus people, who will be increasingly linked in to the web and in need of search services (although Baidu currently has a massive market share there). That is, there are a billion-plus potential advertising consumers to be tapped. So what. It is about time for the worldwide business class to decelerate the growing wave of Sinophilia. We know, guys, you're enamored with the country's explosive growth rate -- assuming the numbers aren't too manufactured -- and deep market for future goods and services. But forget illiberal democracy; China has a straight-up authoritarian regime that imprisons human rights proponents and is happy to endorse genocidal/authoritarian states like Sudan if it means access to natural resources. (In all fairness, so does the United States.) If non-Chinese companies choose not to bless the Chinese government with everything necessary to build its rich-authoritarian economic utopia, so be it.

There will be consequences to a Google withdrawl. Chinese citizens will lose access to the most efficient aggregator of information the world has ever known. But Google -- unlike most international companies -- had to break its hallowed "Don't Be Evil" mission statement and sell part of its idealistic soul to operate there. It's about time China stops getting everything it wants by virtue of its economic potential and starts giving a little. Perhaps Google-like exits by other companies -- such as those that came under assault last week --  will further couch personal and economic choice arguments within the higher aspiration of human rights. The more China grows, the more inextricable these aims become.

Monday, January 4, 2010

New Tricks for Old Media

New York Times media columnist David Carr has a wish list for the Apple e-reader tablet alleged to be announced this month (to be called the iSlate). The device would provide readers with a lightweight, color version of a Kindle. Why does Carr find the digital tablet to be so revolutionary? Here's his admittedly optimistic view:
The tablet represents an opportunity to renew the romance between printed material and consumer. Think of sitting in your living room, in your bed or on a plane with a publication you really adore nestled into your lap. Since print was first conceived, people have had an intimate relationship with the text, touching, flipping and paging back and forth.
The tablet, properly executed, will be an iPhone on steroids, and anybody who has spent any time with that device knows that much of its magic lies in replicating that intimate offline navigation. It is a very human, almost innate, urge — readers want to touch what they are seeking to learn.
I'm skeptical that a digital reader can truly replicate the Old World intimacy of print media (even if a computer purrs and warms your lap), but his point is compelling. Other than retina burn, the least satisfying part of reading on a computer is being unable to lay back and flip through the text. There's a charming serendipity to catching a newspaper or magazine article buried in the midde of an issue, one that you surely wouldn't have caught as links blazed past you on the webpage. A digital tablet may let these lucky finds continue, and allow a greater immersion and interactivity with topics by connecting them with other media, be it video, images, or web links. But where Carr really thinks something like the iSlate can be useful is in resuscitating the revenue streams of old media companies.
But even if I am right, what good does that do print providers? Well, for one thing it helps magazines and newspapers enter a world where they can measure consumer engagement with ads, which is pretty much the only game in town going forward. But even so, why would people suddenly be compelled to pay for something that they’ve gotten for free? That’s where Apple comes in. A simple, reliable interface for gaining access to paid content can do amazing things: Five years ago, almost no one paid for music online and now, nine billion or so songs sold later, we know that people are willing to pay if the price is right and the convenience is there.
So whereas a static print advertisement relays no information as to how useful consumers found it, a clickable (or touchable) tablet ad can provide deeper insight into its consumption for the purposes of viewer targeting. But I don't see how this is a game-changer for print providers. Their problem isn't information on engagement with a particular ad, it's that print media has come to rely on advertising as its primary source of funding content, rather than asking readers to chip in more than a nominal amount. (Most of my magazine subscriptions come to around a dollar or two an issue, if that.) So while an Apple e-reader signals progress for readers of digital content -- with a reading experience that more closely approximates print -- it doesn't solve the issue of adequately compensating the creators of that content. It just makes for more enjoyable online reading.

Note: I'm not going to discuss it here (yet), but this article about portable movie files also appeared in today's NYT and is certainly germane to the new media discussion. More to come...