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Archive for the month “July, 2013”

Two thinkers that I want to investigate further

There are those who look at our business and technological climate and try to understand what will happen – and, more important, what should happen – in the future. Obviously I play at this a little bit, but there are certainly people who do a much better job at this than I do. Or at least they get paid more to do so.

Maria Bustillos summarizes the views of two of these thinkers, Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier.


Morozov is a noted critic and scholar whose influential 2011 book, The Net Delusion, took issue with the idea of the Internet as a tool for encouraging the spread of democracy. He made the useful point that the political dimensions of our new technologies can be as dangerous and as deceptive as they are liberating. Authoritarian regimes, for example, can use online tools to quash dissent quite as easily as dissidents can take to Twitter to organize and to disseminate their views….

To Save Everything, Click Here is a polemic against what Morozov calls “solutionism” and “Internet-centrism.” “Solutionism” is the tendency to assume that technology can solve any problem efficiently and free of unintended consequences (“an unhealthy preoccupation with sexy, monumental, and narrow-minded solutions”); “Internet-centrism” is the belief that “the Internet” will fix everything….


Lanier’s new book, Who Owns the Future? is rich in ideas, imagination and humanity. Despite quite a lot of loopy bits, this self-described “book of hypotheticals, speculation, advocacy” succeeds in proposing the beginnings of a possible—even practical—way out of the soup of wealth inequality and economic decline in which we have unhappily landed ourselves in the information age.

Such a simple idea: redesign the Internet so that all who participate, whether by providing personal data or by writing influential blog posts, make money by their participation. This would require implementing a system of universal micropayments to create what Lanier calls a “humanistic information economy.”

Our data has monetary value, Lanier argues; we should all be compensated for it. We’ve been tempted into contributing data and content for free, thereby enabling the development of massive online monopolies….

Bustillos’ article is not solely dedicated to summarizing the thoughts of these two authors; she also pokes holes in their thoughts; in the case of Morozov, she speaks with a few people who simultaneously agree with Morozov and don’t agree with Morozov. Sadly, Bustillos does not devote a great deal of time to Alexandre Koyré.

But the Bustillos article gave me a starting point to begin to read about both of the people she cited. Of course, it’s best to go to the original sources: Morozov is on Twitter, and Lanier used to write for the Huffington Post. (Presumably he decided that they weren’t paying him enough.)

If you thought potatoes had it bad in the 1840s…

Do you remember the Irish potato famine of the 1840s? Of course you don’t – I doubt that any of you are 170 years old.

But you’ve heard about it, I’m sure. It was caused by Phytophthora infestans – which is still around today, but in a different form. Homeland Security News Wire:

A North Carolina State University release reports that the researchers found that the genes in historical plant samples collected in Belgium in 1845 as well as other samples collected from varied European locales in the late 1870s and 1880s were quite different from modern-day P. infestans genes, including some genes in modern plants that make the pathogen more virulent than the historical strains….

An estimated $6.2 billion is spent each year on crop damage and attempts to control the pathogen….

As far as I know, Phytophthora infestans has not rendered entire regions potato-less. But the ongoing efforts to control it show that you can fight Mother Nature, but you can never win.

The American Enterprise Institute on the future of the middle class

A discussion on Google+ started with a link to a post on Simulacrum. The post began with a brief discussion of an “unconditional basic income,” in which all citizens/residents would receive some type of income, regardless of what they did or didn’t do.

As any right-thinking person knows, this is a Communistic idea that threatens the very principles upon which the United States was founded.

The author, Lui, believes that the implementation of an unconditional basic income is inevitable due to three reasons, the first of which is the freefall of the middle classes.

As Jaron Lanier points out, Kodak once provided 140,000 middle class jobs, and in the smouldering ruins of that company’s bankruptcy we have Instagram, with 13 employees. It’s an extreme example….

Perhaps an extreme example, but you see these types of dislocations everywhere, not only due to technological advances, but also due to offshore production.

And all the beads we made by hand
Are nowadays made in Japan

(Paul Revere and the Raiders, “Indian Reservation”)

And these days, even Japan is too expensive for manufacturing. And China’s beginning to get too expensive for manufacturing.

However, I wondered if the middle classes truly are in freefall. Yes, there’s a lot of economic dislocation today. In the past, when entire industries have disappeared, brand new industries have sprung up to employ the dislocated workers, and these new industries have been able to support middle class wages. Won’t the same thing happen now? Not necessarily, according to Arnold Kling of the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank that is demonstrably NOT a Communistic organization.

The economy today differs from that of a generation ago. Mortgage and consumer loan underwriters have been replaced by credit scoring. Record stores have been replaced by music downloads. Book stores are closing, while sales of books on electronic readers have increased. Data entry has been moved off shore. Routine customer support also has been outsourced overseas.

These trends serve to limit the availability of well-defined jobs. If a job can be characterized by a precise set of instructions, then that job is a candidate to be automated or outsourced to modestly educated workers in developing countries.

The result is what David Autor calls the polarization of the American job market.

What type of polarization? Well, in decidedly non-AEI terms, there is emerging a 99% and a 1%, with nothing in between.

Perhaps the middle-class affluence that emerged during the latter part of the industrial age is not going to be a feature of the information age. Instead, we could be headed into an era of highly unequal economic classes. People at the bottom will have access to food, healthcare, and electronic entertainment, but the rich will live in an exclusive world of exotic homes and extravagant personal services. The most popular bands in the world will play house concerts for the rich, while everyone else can afford music downloads but no live music.

Well, that’s enough for now. More later.

The reports of the typewriter’s death are greatly exaggerated

In 2011, I wrote an obituary for the typewriter.

In 2012, I wrote about people keeping old typewriters alive.

Now, there are reports of new demand for typewriters:

In the wake of recent NSA spy scandals, Russia’s Federal Guard Service has decided to revert to using more typewriters and paper documents, Izvestia reports….

“From the point of view of ensuring security, any form of electronic communication is vulnerable,” Nikolai Kovalev, an MP and former head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, tells Izvestia.

In which I apply the wisdom of 1998 to an old Salon article

On Thursday, Walter Hawn shared a December 1998 article from salon.com talking about a new search engine. The author, Scott Rosenberg, starts by declaring how unimpressed he is with the latest entry into the web wars:

I don’t know about you, but I simply cannot get excited about the much-ballyhooed arrival of Go.com — Disney’s new (and still “beta-testing”) entry in the portal wars. Just what the world needs: ANOTHER Web site that unites directory listings, news, weather, stock quotes, movie reviews, free e-mail, shopping and other online functions on one ugly-as-sin Web page — one that looks and behaves remarkably like its popular competitors.

At the time, those popular competitors included Excite, Lycos, AOL, MSN, and the big one, Yahoo. But Rosenberg speaks of a new entrant, one that just concentrates on making search better – Google.

As I continued to read the 1998 item that Hawn shared, it struck me how Google’s strategy was so unlike those of Yahoo, Disney, AOL, and the other leading firms. And I began to wonder – if I had been blogging in 1998 (I didn’t start blogging until 2003), how would I have reacted to the Salon article?

Bearing in mind the number of times that I’ve had to utter Jim Bakker’s “I was wrong” quote over the last 9+ years, I imagined that I would have written something like this (originally shared on Google+):

You’ll notice that there is no picture of this new search engine – with good reason.

While the author criticizes the “crowded, blinking arrays of commercial distractions” of the real portal sites, the fact remains that these home pages work. I can go to a site like Yahoo and immediately get to what I need.

I encourage you to go to the page of this new search engine that the author is all excited about. Yeah, go to it. THERE’S NOTHING THERE. It’s basically the name of the company, and a search box. I don’t care what algorithm those college guys are running under the hood – a web page that is so devoid of information is utterly useless.

Yahoo is much smarter about the whole thing. While the Salon article neglects to mention this, Yahoo is not just a manually-created catalog of websites. Yahoo also has a search engine under its hood called AltaVista, provided by the Digital Equipment Corporation. This, in my learned view, is the ideal way to go – let DEC worry about the search algorithms and stuff like that, while Yahoo takes care of the business end of things.

And if the rumors are true and if DEC is about to be purchased by Compaq, then AltaVista – and its partner Yahoo – will be unstoppable. It’s clear that Yahoo will continue to evolve, and will become the premier web destination of the 21st century.

Unless, of course, one of the other popular web destinations is able to overtake them – and America OnLine may very well do that. AOL is rapidly becoming a financial dynamo, and could very well be in the position to acquire a complementary company. Personally, I think that the most likely acquisition is Disney – not many companies can acquire a major media company, but AOL can. Imagine what would happen if all of those AOL subscribers were routed to the go.com domain!

But there are other candidates for an AOL acquisition. Take, for example, Time Warner – itself a huge conglomerate of everything from Ted Turner’s television stations to the WB Network to TIME magazine. Now marry that with the army of AOL subscribers, and you’ll have a true winner!

And meanwhile, this no-nothing from Salon is talking about something that’s only a search engine. Even if there weren’t these huge competitors like Yahoo/Altavista (Yahoo/Compaq?) and AOL (AOL/Disney?) who could easily crush this week startup, there is no way that a search engine is going to make any money.

This Google doesn’t stand a chance.

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