Can The Expert Survive?

Uber has been in the news quite a bit lately, mostly for reasons that cast doubt on its long-term viability. Tone deaf comments from CEO Emil Michael about spying on journalists who had unflattering things to say about the company to reports about the company’s valuation alternately set at anywhere from $17B to $40B have kept the glare of the spotlight on the ridesharing service. The company often butts up against municipal regulations that they seek to address AFTER entering a new market. Their “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude seems ill-suited to sustainability, but I will leave that to others to analyze.

 

 

No, the news story that caught my eye dealt with how Uber is putting downward pressure on the cost of medallions in taxi-friendly cities like New York, Boston and Chicago. (Medallions are essentially the operating license one needs to legally operate a cab.) Medallions ain’t cheap- in New York, Uber is thought to have depressed the price of a medallion 17% to $872,000.

If the barrier to entry to become a driver is so low, and the cost to the passenger for the Midtown to JFK trip at 5pm is a fraction of a yellow cab, why would anyone ever drive or hail a cab again?
Why, indeed?
To me, the troubling trend at play here is one that I have been tracking since 2009 when I wondered “how good is good enough?” Long about 2006 or so, I began to notice a trend away from specialization in video production. The rise of the prosumer camera and cheap laptop editing software made anyone a producer. But, at what cost? Quality and experience began their inexorable decline into relative irrelevance.
The news business similarly eroded when reporters were now forced to both report on and take pictures (and maybe video of) the stories they covered. They might also be charged with writing both a print and web version of those same stories. The work of several specialists was now distilled down to one (likely underpaid) generalist.
“Hey,” I can hear you say, “you need to cut costs to respond to market pressure and increase value.” Or I can hear you saying, “how hard is it to drive a cab?” Perhaps, although I’m not sure that argument would have as much weight in London or Los Angeles where knowledge of one’s surroundings literally takes a lifetime to learn.
And that’s just the point: what value do we place on expertise and experience? I would say the the answer increasingly is “not much.”
So what?
Is good enough good enough? How do you value those hard-won life skills? And what happens when there’s no one around with the perspective, background and experience to make decisions?
It’s one thing to be a well-rounded individual who knows a little something about a lot of things. But I wonder if we haven’t made the expert extinct at an incalculable cost as we continually belittle and devalue their contributions.
We see it all areas of life: the big box store that offers every imaginable item from oranges to orange carpet to books on William of Orange; that newspaper (remember those?) reporter who now must report, take a picture of and edit the video of the news while posting it twitter and Facebook; or the company that can no longer afford to be the best at one thing but, instead, has to be passably decent at a lot of things.
Good enough is good enough. Until it isn’t.

US Internet service sucks…and that’s a problem

Let’s face it: Internet service, Internet access and Internet speeds in the US are really bad and really expensive. When you step outside your nice warm WiFi cocoon at home or at work, that’s when the point really gets driven home. And if you travel domestically, well, we’ve all been there. Hotel WiFi is usually some combination of bad, expensive, unavailable or unreliable. Why do you get charged $15/day to go online? Do you get charged every time you flush the toilet or turn on a light?

Before you accuse me of prattling on about a distinctly First World problem, keep your powder dry. The Internet is not a luxury. It is a utility like water, gas or electricity. We are rapidly reaching the point in society where you simply cannot live your life without the Internet.

How did we get here? I’ll tell you in a minute.

What can we do about it? I have to say, I really don’t know. Any suggestions?

First, how did we get here.

If we can agree that access to the Internet is no different than access to running water or electricity, then this little bit of history is instructive. In the 1880s, electric companies were privately owned and, logically, went to where the money was: big cities and the homes of the wealthy. The rest got spotty service, or none at all. By the 1920s, nearly 90% of the electricity distribution in the US was controlled by a very few companies, who provided crappy service while gouging their customers. (Is this starting to sound familiar?)

Communities across the country began to form their own local utilities and now electricity is a regulated public utility, and no one longs for the days when only big cities and rich people could turn the lights on and off.

So what happened to the Internet? Since 1996 it has been a deadly combination of lack of foresight, lack of regulation and lack of competition. The FCC, at one time, felt that deregulating communications in all its forms (cable TV, cellphones, satellite, land line phones) would open the way to competition, lower prices and better services. And for a little while, they were right. But a big problem in the US is infrastructure. Sometimes being first can hurt you. (What’s the joke about a pioneer being the guy with the arrows in his back? Something like that.) While we laid miles of copper wiring and phone lines to bring service to our homes at huge expense during the mid-20th century , many nations did not. Many so-called Third World (and even some First World ones) laid out on the whole copper wire thing, and when fiber became available, they leap frogged onto this new technology.

The end result is the US is saddled with aging infrastructure that is prohibitively expensive to upgrade.

On the competition side of things, well, there basically isn’t any. Just like electricity in the 1880s, so went Internet access in the 90s and up to today. The great myth in our country is that anyone can start a business and compete with the big guys. Really? So where are the community-based ISPs? Yes, I know they exist, but not on a level that makes any kind of difference to the majority of Americans. With the completion of the Comcast-NBC merger, you now have the “communications equivalent of Standard Oil.” It is the country’s largest cable operator, largest high-speed (ahem) ISP, third largest phone company, owner of 11 regional sports networks and now the owner of NBC-Universal and their cable and broadcast networks, 25 TV stations, 7 production studios and various online properties. So now the biggest service provider of content also creates and owns that content and decides how and when you get access to that content. It’s the Golden Rule: whoever has the gold, makes the rules.

I have no hope that Google’s efforts to lay fiber in Kansas City will move much beyond that test market. As a nation, we do not seem to understand or care that information and connectivity are the economic drivers of the foreseeable future. It is just simply not a priority, and all of us suffer. How many times have you heard someone say that they never make phone calls anymore? Everything is email or text or some other type of post to a shared online network? Well, that requires access and reliability. For readers old enough to remember when we all had land lines only, the one thing you could say about them was that you never lost service. When was the last time you felt that way about your internet or cell phone service?

I am wary of suggesting that the government get more involved in regulating this utility the way they regulate the others. But something needs to be done if we don’t want to fall further behind, because make no mistake- we are falling behind. Shitty internet is a non-trivial problem and the sanctioning by Congress and the FCC of monopolies like Comcast only exacerbates the problem. For all those who love to say things like, “America has the best (fill in the blank) in the world,” how can we stand for this? Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Latvia and Romania are the 5 fastest. The US hovers somewhere around 14th. Yes, we have a greater land mass, yes, we have more rural areas, yes, yes, yes, excuse, excuse, excuse.

If you had to pay extra for electricity and water every time you checked into a hotel, or if you only got service if you lived in New York, LA or some other big city, you wouldn’t stand for it, would you? We have the horrible combination of lack of real competition, lack of regulation, and lack of reliable service.

I started this post by saying I don’t know what the answer is  to this problem. Do you? I would love to hear them.

Sources: Captive Audience by Susan P. Crawford: http://amzn.com/B00AMYGFXK

US Internet Users Pay More for Slower Service: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-12-27/u-s-internet-users-pay-more-for-slower-service.html

The Ongoing Online Privacy War

I love keeping my eyes open for changing trends in behavior, especially online behavior.

The battle to maintain one’s privacy in a world of socially mediated publicness is a topic well picked over. Both celebrities and folks of less renown have all had a digital mishap, whether it’s the mistaken click on “Reply all” or the R-rated photo that ends up in the wrong hands.

The message of “the internet is forever” is probably as firmly embedded in the consciousness of folks young and old, just like “look both ways before you cross the street.” Not that people always heed the good advice they hear.

Into the breach have stepped several apps and services designed to anonymize your activity online. Wickr, Snapchat and the Silent Circle products are just a few examples of companies trying to help you keep your private life private.

 Wickr offers “military-grade encryption of text, picture, audio and video messages.” Yikes!

Snapchat is a photo-only service (for now) that allows you to put a time limit on how long the picture will display on the recipient’s device, up to 10 seconds. I gather this one is popular with the younger crowd.

The Silent Circle family of products were created by a “mix of world-renowned cryptographers, Silicon Valley software engineers…and former US Navy SEALs and British Special Air Service security experts.” They even offer a feature called “Burn Notice.” Too much time watching USA Network?

All kidding aside, it appears that the time is right for options like these, for various reasons. While no one is FORCING you to post a status update on Facebook or check in on Foursquare, none of us ever feel totally confident that what we try to keep private actually remains that way. Our website visits are tracked by advertisers or your ISP, our emails and texts logged, phone conversations recorded. There is no digital equivalent to the Mafia movie scenes where the  two guys walk outside amid traffic noise, and far from wiretaps, to have a private conversation.

Nowadays, closing the door to your office has no digital equivalent.

All of us have had that slightly queasy feeling that everything we do might someday be a part of the public record. I’m not positive that even these three services can successfully wipe the digital slate clean. It seems to me that communications sent from your phone, across a network to someone else’s device must be stored SOMEWHERE. Do your research.

Too often the argument for more privacy online (or off)  is attacked with the tired argument of “well, if you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t be worried.” That is so stupid on its face I won’t comment further. Smart people do dumb things, to be sure, but there are few justifications for the level of invasiveness granted to corporations, public utilities, your employer, etc. And there are times when you might like to talk to someone about something, and not have the whole world potentially know about it.

This is not some unhinged Libertarian rant against Big Brother, but I wonder if we are not seeing some push back in an area that all of us have probably felt some prior discomfort.

Plus, getting to play “Mission: Impossible” with your phone could be kind of fun. “This text will self-destruct in five seconds…”

What do you think? Do you think these kind of apps are responding to a real need? Would you sign up for one of them? Post a comment.

Can you protect your kids online?

The concept of regulation, especially when modified by the word “government,” often produces a knee jerk reaction among many who feel that if the government is involved, things can only end badly.

About this time last year, I wrote about the well-meaning but impossibly overmatched Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) passed in 1998, at a time when the internet did not even bear a passing resemblance to today’s internet.  [Click here to read that post.] The focus of that post was largely about parents and other authority figures encouraging kids to lie to get around Terms of Service agreements. Today, the FTC is attempting to strengthen COPPA in  a futile attempt to deal with data mining and behavioral targeting.

Naturally, this effort to redress the shortcomings of a law passed in the internet Stone Age is being met with opposition. I think it’s always useful to examine exactly WHO is against any kind of regulatory change as a good first step towards parsing whether that change is good or bad.

In this case, the charges of “get government off my back” are coming from the likes of Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and twitter, not to mention television networks, app platforms and advertising trade groups.

I am not making any earth-shattering observation when I say that kids, especially pre-teens and teenagers, do not spend a lot of time thinking about the long-term consequences of online behavior. (Heck, neither do a lot of adults.) An innocent upload of a picture so they can see themselves on their computer screen next to a Disney character or battling robots inside of an app seems, to them, like no big deal.

Businesses survive by cultivating new customers, and with kids flocking to the internet in droves, they go to where the prospects are. I’m not convinced that any regulation, no matter how well-intentioned, can stanch the flow of data mining and behavioral targeting. The internet did not kill privacy, as fashionable as it is sometimes to take that position.

The only real alternative is to discuss internet safety and internet smarts with your kids. Many parents feel ill-equipped to do so because they themselves feel like they are unaware of how best to act online. The fact is, being online is not that much different than being out in the world, and you should govern yourself accordingly. It is neither reasonable nor feasible to opt out of the internet, just like you cannot opt our of society in general. A little common sense will always carry the day.

And keep an eye on who is for and who is against some of these things. That ought to scare you more than the possibility of your kid being served an advertisement for chocolate covered Doritos.

What do you think? Can anything really be done to protect kids from being marketed to and having their data collected? Leave a comment in the comments section.

What is truth?: The controversies around Kony2012 and This American Life

Like just about everyone else with an internet connection, I am aware of both the video and the “controversy” surrounding the video Kony2012. I first saw it posted on a friend’s wall with the comment that her 12-year old son had made HER aware of it.

That is how it started: young people sharing it with other young people until it became one of the most viral videos of all time.

Before I even watched the video, however, I felt a combination of emotions because of what my immediate reaction was to learning of its very existence. My very first thought was, “Who is going to try and poke holes in this video?”

We live in a “Prove it!” age where seemingly everything can be faked and there are competing industries of content creators and content disprovers. I’m not sure what makes me more sad: that our willingness to believe what we see has been decimated by those who would prey on our trusting nature, or that there are so many out there who prey on our trusting nature.

Before I was even finished writing this blog post, another “truth” controversy was unearthed, this time by the producers at American Public Media’s This American Life. A recent episode devoted to Mike Daisey’s one-man show “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”  was their most downloaded episode ever.  Then it was revealed that the actor had taken a few liberties with the facts, throwing big parts of the story into question.

What these two episodes share is the now common tendency to play fast and loose with the truth. Both the Kony video and the “Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” get both stories mostly right, but the liberties taken with some details immediately call into question the whole narrative.

Or do they?

There was a time when it meant something to be a journalist, and there are still legions of ink-stained wretches (can you still say that in a digital age?) who do their damnedest to get it right. But neither Jason Russell nor Mike Daisey are journalists, they’re storytellers. My question is: Can simplifying complicated stories in the service of a larger goal ever be excused? Much of the criticism leveled against both the Kony video and Daisey’s “This American Life” interview had more to do with what screenwriters or authors might term creating a “composite” character. Kony2012 has been accused of, among other things, being oversimplified. Not false, mind you, just oversimplified. Well, as someone once said, complexity is complicated.

Daisey, for his part, recounts an incident where some Chinese Foxconn employees were poisoned due to exposure to a chemical but, in his account, he claimed it happened in one factory in China when it, in fact, happened in a different one. I’m just not sure how this blows up his whole story. With more than a little indignation, Bob Garfield noted in his essay on On the Media, “…facts in and of themselves do not constitute truth. They can be selected and arranged any which way, intentionally or unintentionally, to distort truth and turn it upside down. That is precisely how political consultants earn a living: assembling nominal facts to tell big, fat lies.”

Fair enough, but a lot of this seems like hair splitting to me. No one can deny that Kony is an evil guy. No one can deny that Apple, and every other electronics manufacturer on planet Earth, exploit lax Chinese labor laws and low prices in order to give us the shiny gadgets we all want. Now, because of Daisey and others, they are trying to clean up their act, the way Nike did 15 years ago. And the whole world knows about Joseph Kony.

But it still gnaws at me, this idea of getting things MOSTLY right in the service of another goal. It’s OK as long as you agree with that larger goal, right? But what if you don’t? And where are the ethics?

Nicholas Kristof wrote an OpEd in the New York Times on March 15. Since getting behind the Times’ paywall is becoming less and less of a trivial matter, here is the takeaway:  Kristof, who has probably seen more of mankind’s atrocities than any living journalist, delivered a point-by-point rebuttal to the early Kony backlash.

“It’s true that indignation among Americans won’t by itself stop Kony. Yet I’ve learned over the years that public attention can create an environment in which solutions are more likely.

I asked Anthony Lake, now the executive director of Unicef who was President Clinton’s national security adviser during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, whether a viral video about Rwanda would have made a difference then. “The answer is yes,” he said. He suggested that this kind of public attention would also have helped save more lives in Darfur and in Congo’s warring east.

In 1999, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright paid a brief visit to war-ravaged Sierra Leone and was photographed with a 3-year-old girl whose right arm had been chopped off. The photograph, widely circulated, helped galvanize outside powers to crush the militias. Sierra Leone is now at peace, and that girl is studying in the United States.

I asked Albright, who later led a task force on preventing genocide, what she thinks of the Kony video.

“Shining a light makes a lot of difference,” she said, adding that Kony’s prospects are probably less good now than before the video came out.

The bottom line is: A young man devotes nine years of his life to fight murder, rape and mutilation, he produces a video that goes viral and galvanizes mostly young Americans to show concern for needy villagers abroad — and he’s vilified?

I don’t know if this initiative will make a difference. But if I were a Congolese villager, I would welcome these uncertain efforts over the sneering scorn of do-nothing armchair cynics.”

Buckminster Fuller’s Fly’s Eye Dome

We have worked with Design Miami/ and Art Basel Miami Beach since 2005, first helping them get introduced to the South Florida market and, in recent years, telling their story of phenomenal growth.

This year, we created a fun time lapse video of the installation of Buckminster Fuller’s Fly’s Eye Dome. The video was picked up by the New York Times, and can be seen here:

Design Miami: Back to the Future

The 24-foot, monohex, geodesic Fly’s Eye Dome, patented in 1965 by R. Buckminster Fuller as a futuristic, low-cost shelter, was one of the renowned inventor/architect/environmentalist’s most iconic structures, and one that he wrote would “be highly efficient in its use of energy and materials.”  He envisioned the structure would be used as a beautiful, fully-equipped, air-deliverable dwelling machine that would weigh and cost about as much as an automobile.

Time lapse videos are fun, and this one is particularly cool. Hope you enjoy it.

Right-brainers and a Start Up mindset

On May 30, 2011 I had the unique honor of giving the Commencement address at St. Mark’s School in Southboro, MA. I graduated from there in 1984, so I was humbled (and maybe a little freaked out) to have been selected to be the speaker.

In it, I talk about the need to have a start-up mentality in order to succeed today, how right-brainers will carry the day, and I may have even squeezed in a golf anecdote or two. I decided to release it as a podcast, since I have been somewhat remiss in podcasting this year. (Podcast link here) Also, Thomas Friedman’s recent column basically stole everything I talked about during my address six weeks ago, even though I did not notice him in the audience takin notes. (Just kidding, I realize it’s just a coincidence but it begs the question, “Where’s MY NY Times column?”)

Would love to hear your comments and if you agree or disagree with my overall thesis. Oh, and I’ll try to be better about podcasting…

TV is still King, and the Internet is an enabling Prince

I have written in this space (too many times to link to) about the absurd and reductive tendency on the part of the media and others to anoint “killers” every time a new piece of technology or social media platform comes out: iPhone killers, Kindle killers, TV killers, and on it goes.

 

Despite cratering ratings of many TV shows, TV still rules the roost and social media and the Internet actually enable and help to grow audiences, rather than be the oft-predicted TV killer. The 70,000 twitter posts per hour during last week’s Oscars telecast probably had something to do with its strong ratings showing.

Just as social media can help level the playing field allowing smaller brands, retail outlets, restaurants or mom & pop stores to have a fighting chance against household names, the same holds true for TV. David Carr’s March 15 piece in the NY Times quoted the GM of Oxygen Network who credited the popularity of “Bad Girls Club” to social media. The show “is knit so tightly into the social media system that on nights it is on, its characters and plot make up 5 of the top 10 topics on Twitter.” (We will leave out any discussion of the relative quality of programming for now.) For live programming, such as the Oscars, social media can be an even bigger boon. New services such as Hot Potato offer a foursquare-style ability to “check in” to a particular live TV program (think the NCAA basketball tournament or CNN) and let friends socialize and comment in real time.

All of these trends help stanch the ratings hemorrhaging that has been afflicting TV for some time now.

Methinks the web-fearing TV exec doth protest too much.

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Social Media is STILL Stupid

About one year ago, I wrote a tongue in cheek post entitled Social Media is Stupid. (Click the link to refresh your memory. Go ahead, I’ll wait…it was a short post.)

The inspiration for the post was from the inimitable Sarah Perez of ReadWriteWeb back in May 2008 where she outlined how social media could be used to support social causes such as the victims of the Chinese earthquake, tornado victims in Corvida, charities, social causes, news gathering and social good.

Well, the stupidity of social media is rearing its head once again, this time in Iran. Iranians inside the country, and millions around the world who support those who challenge the recent elections, are blogging, posting to facebook and using twitter to coordinate their protests.  By using the hashtag #iranelection, all tweets on this topic can be organized and searched on a moment’s notice. (Go to search.twitter.com and enter #iranelection to see how it works.) Even though the government has attempted to shut down texting and internet access, enterprising citizens have figured out a way around the roadblocks.

The next time you hear someone who has never used twitter, or any other new media tool for that matter, but who has a fully formed opinion peppered with such enlightened observations like, “Why do I care what you had for lunch today?”, fill them in on what I’ve written about here.

We are in the middle of a worldwide communications revolution, folks. facebook and twitter may not be the standard bearers on into the future, but how much more proof do you need that things have changed forever?

Social Media, the State Department…and you

One of the goals I have always tried to pursue with this blog is showing how new media and/or social media are making inroads in places where you might not expect. I also endeavor to give you a reason to care. It’s great that everyone is on Twitter, but so what? Facebook is growing faster than the population. And?

So with that in mind, and marrying technology with my other great interest-politics, I bring you today’s item of interest.

Obama gets all the credit for making this the most technologically savvy campaign and Administration ever, right? But there have been things going on at the State Department for awhile now that are worth noting. The Office of eDiplomacy is been around since 2003 with a mandate to improve communication inside and oustide the State Department. They have been blogging since 2007, at the unfortunately named Dipnote, and are active on Twitter. (As a nice feature, they show who is manning the Twitter feed at any given time. When I checked in at around 9:30pm, Daniel was holding down the Twit fort.)

So, is anyone paying attention? Apparently so. Blog visits are up 100% from 10,000 to 20,000 per day, Twitter followers have tripled since Inauguration Day, and they have 2 1/2 times the number of Facebook friends. So I guess I am not the only techno-politico geek out there.

OK- so what? The last election and the massive mobilization of voters directly because of their ability to get, share and create infomation online was the beginning of a significant shift in the relationship that we all could (and many of us do) have with the government. The traditional focus, especially at the State Department, has been from government to government. But what if that focus shifted to government to people, people to government and people to people? There is too much going on on the international stage and the stakes are too high. Many people are not content to be spectators anymore. Previously disenfranchised people or those of us who felt helpless to effect change now have a way of networking with one another as well as back to Foggy Bottom. As Secretary Clinton recently pointed out, “…[this] is the heart of smart power. This changing landscape requires us to expand our concept of diplomacy.” She went on to cite the example of the Columbia grads who used the Million Strong Against the FARC Facebook group “to organize 14 million people in the largest anti terrorism demonstrations in the world. In a few short weeks, their actions did as much damage to the terrorist networks as years of military action.”

Pretty strong stuff. The power of social media helped get at least one guy elected, a lesson probably not lost on Mrs. Clinton.

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