PRISMatic Misdirection

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. PRISM is scary. Really fucking scary. It is especially scary to realize the level of cooperation that government surveillance agencies received from all our favorite tech companies — Google, Apple, etc.

Still, I think Gabe Weatherhead’s knee-jerk response is misguided:

The danger of ad companies like Google and Facebook isn’t that they are selling aggregated personal data. The danger is that they are aggregating unprecedented amounts of information. I applaud Google for fighting against the Justice Department but the problem, as The Guardian has shown, is that Google will lose much more than they will win.

The problem is with the prominent mention of “ad companies”, which suggests that the scariness has to do with ads versus no ads. It doesn’t. Collection and analysis of user information is nothing new. Yes, Google and Facebook do it to serve targeted ads. But Amazon and Target do it too to sell more things. Indeed, one of the scariest part about PRISM concerns the data from phone carriers. Phone carriers are, of course, user-supported and not ad-supported.

Best Things I Read This Week

George Packer of The New Yorker follows up on Silicon Valley values.

As Alec MacGillis of The New Republic points out, it’s a bit rich for Apple to argue — as Steve Jobs did for years — that the company needs more visas and green cards for foreign engineers, since there aren’t enough qualified Americans to fill tech jobs, while Apple does its damnedest to keep its contribution toward federal education aid as paltry as possible. This is an example, so blatant I couldn’t have dreamt it up, of the self-deception that exists alongside the hard work, idealism, and engineering brilliance of Silicon Valley. It’s the kind of blind spot to which young, self-confident, super-successful industries are especially prone.

It’s not surprising that Silicon Valley has come to believe that — as Khoi Vinh summarizes — “it can better the world by looking after itself first and last, effectively shirking any broader civic obligations, and that it generally regards government as a ruinous wasteland to be avoided and routed around, rather than as a means for social good.” It is a little surprising that this value is also permeated throughout the tech-centric blogs run by people outside of the Silicon Valley — the people who are indirectly damaged by Silicon Valley’s shirking of civic obligations. “Well, it’s within the current limits of the law” is an excuse, not a justification.

Mike Lacher of McSweeney’s gives the perfect parody of the the start-up culture ethos — that government regulations exist only to be “disrupted”.

The same way that Uber disrupted and revolutionized the way you hail a cab, we’re going to disrupt and revolutionize the way you get organ transplants. […] Worried our transplanters aren’t totally qualified? Just check their star ratings. When transplanters give great service, maybe by removing a tumor they find during the transplant, or by offering an iPhone charging station in the operating facility, our users will give them great ratings. Similarly, if a transplanter gives not-so-great service, by arriving late or abandoning the user in a bathtub full of ice with two large incisions marking where their kidneys once were, our users will give them just one or two stars. When you’ve got our star rating system, you don’t need some wall full of diplomas to know your transplanter will take good care of you. That’s the beauty of the crowd.

The Appleverse likes to say you shouldn’t wear Google Glass because you’d look silly. That is a dumb reason. A couple of psychologists have given, at The New York Times, a better reason for not wearing Google Glass: your attention span can’t handle it.

Heads-up displays like Google Glass, and voice interfaces like Siri, seem like ideal solutions, letting you simultaneously interact with your smartphone while staying alert to your surroundings. If your gaze remains directed at the world, then presumably if something important happens in your field of vision, it will capture your attention and take over your consciousness, letting you respond to it quickly.

The problem is that looking is not the same as seeing, and people make wrong assumptions about what will grab their attention.

ACCORDING to the results of two representative national surveys we conducted, about 70 percent of Americans believe that “people will notice when something unexpected enters their field of view, even when they’re paying attention to something else.”

Yet experiments that we and others have conducted showed that people often fail to notice something as obvious as a person in a gorilla suit in situations where they are devoting attention to something else. Researchers using eye-tracking devices found that people can miss the gorilla even when they look right at it. This phenomenon of “inattentional blindness” shows that what we see depends not just on where we look but also on how we focus our attention.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.

The Case Against Community

In The New Yorker, psychologist Paul Bloom made a somewhat surprising case against empathy:

Empathy has some unfortunate features — it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it.

Drawing on decades of psychological research, Bloom articulates the problems with using empathy as a guide to how we ought to interact with others. As a matter of fact, we tend to empathize with the people who are near us, close to us, and similar to us. Consequently, empathy directs our attention to that one single baby who fell down the well but away from millions who are dying in a genocide, and empathy makes us take out our wallet for that one terminal cancer patient we know while ignoring so many others with treatable conditions who will die due to inadequate medical resources. Many of the worst problems in modern society don’t come from an insufficiency of empathy, but from an overload of empathy.

Empathy is the micro foundation for the macro structures of community. At the macro level, then, the problems of empathy becomes the problems of community.

Sure enough, the existence of a community has upsides. It’s what makes us pour our heart out to a baby who fell down the well — because she is one of us. But the existence of a community also has downsides that are arguably more severe. It’s also what makes us turn our heads away from millions who are dying in a genocide — because they are not part of our community.

Of course, we inevitably find ourselves as members of various communities. However, given how parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate a community can make us, we’re often at our best when we are smart enough to rise above it.

Over at 512 Pixels, Matt Alexander recently extolled the virtues of the Appleverse community:

[…] we read, link, joke, and support each other online — regardless of readership or Twitter follower counts — because this is a community built organically upon compassion and shared beliefs.

The problem of community, as you might have guessed, is that same support given to the insiders can quickly turn into vitriol thrown at outsiders. Will Kujawa found this out when he leveled some mild criticisms at the new The Loop iOS magazine. As he puts it,

This automatic tendency to support each other, while mostly good, unfortunately leads to suspicion when it’s suggested I spend money on something a friend or colleague of theirs is selling — whether it’s a book, an app or a magazine subscription — as they’re not always the most balanced source when it comes to the overall quality and value.

It’s probably a sisyphean task to completely rise above our communities. I won’t pretend that I have. Still, I think it’s worth trying.

If we can get part-way there, then maybe we can stop the talk about perceptions, press releases, and commercials, and just talk about interaction design, file architecture, and other far more interesting and actually substantive things. Maybe we can even worry less about who is right and wrong but instead more about what is right and wrong. And maybe, just maybe, we can try to interact with others as not insiders or outsiders of a community, but just people with some things to say.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.

An Audacious Proposal: Parity VC

A modest proposal is one that is so absurd that no one should want to implement it. An audacious proposal is one that is so reasonable that everyone should want to implement it, but still no one is doing so. I have an audacious proposal.

Starting Point 1: Silicon Valley’s diversity problem. This problem has been well documented. In fact, it is so bad that CNN Money had a hard time getting any straight data from some of the biggest tech companies like Apple and Google. Despite some valiant efforts, the problem remains as glaring as ever.

Starting Point 2: Morgan Stanley’s new investment initiative. As the New York Times reports,

Morgan Stanley’s wealth management division is starting a new portfolio which seeks to invest in companies that have demonstrated a commitment to including women on their corporate boards. The strategy, known as the parity portfolio, is scheduled to get going on April 1.

In a report last summer, Credit Suisse’s research institute found that over a six-year period, companies with “at least some” women on their boards did better, in terms of share price, than those with none.

[…] The strategy seeks to encourage companies to think deeply about the gender makeup of their boards. Only companies with at least three women board members will be included in the portfolio.

Why couldn’t there be something similar in tech?

My Audacious Proposal: An analogous parity venture capital fund that only funds startups with a diverse makeup. Of course, there can be reasonable disagreements about how to best operationalize the requirement. Perhaps it means that at least 50% of the founders need to be women. Perhaps it means that at least 40% of the engineers need to be women or other underrepresented minorities. Let us not quibble about detail for now.

A parity venture capital fund is potentially good business too. Morgan Stanley is no charity; there is a clear economic motivation behind its new initiative. There is some, though by no means conclusive, evidence that boards with some women simply perform better. Similarly, given what we know about gender and race’s power to bias people’s evaluations (previously discussed on this blog), it would be unsurprising if it turned out that startups with a diverse makeup are currently systematically overlooked. A parity venture capital fund would then be in a perfect position to exploit this market inefficiency.

So what say you, angels of the world?

(Or maybe the white dudes can all pitch before lunch?)

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.

How Not to Argue Against Google

The impending death of Google Reader predictably set off a wave of fury amongst infovores. Anger is, after all, an important part of the five stages of internet grief. I get that; I’m angry most of the time. Unfortunately, frequent byproducts of anger are unreasonable charges and illogical arguments.

Among these are: Matt Alexander calling what Google did with Reader in the RSS space “anti-competitive”, Marco Arment saying that Google engaged in “predatory pricing”, and of course all the usual people pointing to the fact that Reader was free to be the root of all evil.

The predatory pricing charge is strange. As the Wikipedia article Arment himself linked to explains, the predatory part of predatory pricing comes from the fact that a company uses low prices to gain a large market share… so that it can then raise the prices to an unreasonable level.

Clearly, that’s not what happened here. Yes, Google Reader did essentially own the RSS space. No, Google Reader never charged anyone a cent. The fact that Google is shutting down Reader makes it clear that predatory pricing is not even part of what Google wanted to do with Reader.

So what, you say. Arment may be a lesser Wikipedia economist than me, but Reader had a monopoly on the RSS market anyway. And everybody knows that monopoly = anti-competitive practices — even if “predatory pricing” turns out to be the wrong word.

Not so fast with that equal sign. Monopoly denotes a kind of outcome. Anti-competitiveness denotes a kind of practice. Not all monopolies result from anti-competitive practices. A natural monopoly is a kind of monopoly that results from an efficient market rather than any anti-competitive practices.

As far as I can see while scanning Wikipedia’s list of anti-competitive practices, Google Reader did nothing of that sort. Its pricing, as I said, was not predatory. Users were free to choose other services. There was no collusion. Users weren’t compelled to use Reader if they used other Google products.

Instead, Reader’s dominance of the RSS space looks to be to be a textbook example of a natural monopoly.

It’s so easy to forget now, but as Khoi Vinh reminded us, Google Reader was (and still is) a damn fine service.

Google Reader didn’t beat every other feed reader purely because it was free. Google Reader won because it was an extremely well-executed example of interaction design.

The technological superiority is even more apparent under the hood. Google Reader was (and still is) fast, powerful, and good at solving not-so-obvious problems like getting feeds from sites that don’t obviously have one. IT SYNCS. As many developers are discovering, Google Reader’s background plumbing is not easy to replicate now. It certainly was even harder to do then, when Google Reader came to its RSS dominance.

Finally — and this is the key — arguably it’s inefficient for the market to have many competing RSS plumbing services doing all the things that Google Reader does; it’s much more efficient for developers to build apps and secondary services on top of one. Indeed, that’s arguably what actually happened.

Be angry if you want. But let’s not distort the economic terms or revise history just to make irrational arguments that fit an agenda.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.

Thoughts about the Death of Google Reader

Because everyone on the internet has got to write one, right? Google’s official announcement is here.

  • There seems to be some confusion about who the users of Google Reader are. They’re not just “tech” people, whatever that means. They’re infovores — people who just love to consume content. That group includes some tech people (but not others), and also many academics and journalists, among others.
  • Aside: What is going to happen to all the RSS sponsorship deals? I know that RSS will live on, but you have to wonder about the audience numbers.
  • On Quora, Brian Shih (former Google Reader product manager) gives an opinionated but informative overview of the history of Google Reader and why it had to die.
  • Like many others, I’m investigating alternatives. I switched to The Old Reader briefly, a while back, but found its RSS crawling wanting. I’m no engineer, but I can’t imagine doing crawling and syncing at scale is all that easy. That’ll be the number one challenge for Google Reader replacements.
  • Speaking of replacements, here are some that I’ve come across and will be trying: the aforementioned The Old Reader, Newsblur (which seems overwhelmed right now), Feedly (which promises a “seamless transition”), Fever (which is not for the non-tech infovores)… others?
  • Even if some of these alternatives end up flourishing, I’m afraid we’ll never get back the golden age of Google Reader, when social tools like sharing and commenting were in full effect. The joy of consuming content together is only possible when other people are on the same platform. For me, what was great about Google Reader is that I can talk tech with tech people, politics with politics people, and so on. The inevitable fragmentation after the death of Google Reader will make consuming content together practically impossible for a long time. Best case scenario is that we get little enclaves for different topics.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.