Inrupt, the NYTimes and agenda-setting

In the 30-something years since Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, waves of change have swept through the mass media. In the last week, I’ve discovered one thing that hasn’t: The New York Times still sets the agenda for what the world knows about at any given moment.

Perhaps you’re thinking about Donald Trump, the electoral college and the riot/insurrection or whatever else you want to call what happened in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021. That story would likely dominate the front page in any country with a free press. Where the Times really makes its mark is in the less spotlighted areas.

Witness last Sunday (January 10, 2021), when the paper ran a story by Steve Lohr on a relatively new project from the very same Tim Berners-Lee (paywall) I mentioned in the lead paragraph. Google News flagged this story for my attention. I didn’t get it read right away. The next day, when I posted here, I noticed that traffic here at Notes had bumped up considerably, and the people were coming to read this story I’d written at Inrupt’s launch two years ago! (Thanks to all of you, BTW.)

If you want to know more about Inrupt, Lohr’s piece is a good place to start, but here’s a rough timeline.

The story spreads

Google News not only showed me the Times story, but had one of those lovely “full coverage” links, indicating that multiple media outlets were covering Sir Tim and his startup. The curious thing is that most of the stories predate the Times piece.

Oh, but within a few days, we also see stories covering Inrupt in places like the India Times, a reprint in the Charlotte Business Journal, TelecomTV, the youth citizen-journalism site Unilad in the UK, EMTV in Papua New Guinea

Two days after the Times runs its story (hmm…coincidence?), Berners-Lee speaks at the Reuters Next conference sponsored by the Thomson Reuters news service and covers many of the same points.

Then comes the commentary

As for me, I’m optimistic but realistic. Reviewing my original thoughts on Berners-Lee and Inrupt, I regret suggesting that Sir Tim was trying to cash in. Inrupt has so far succeeded in building up the Solid Project, at least to the point where The New York Times and Reuters are bringing the message to a broad audience. I’m looking forward to hearing more about Inrupt’s pilot projects at the British National Health Service, Flemish government and the BBC.

The idea behind Solid is important. Using both old and new web standards to share what we want — and only what we want — with giant corporations and governments is something we have a right to expect. I look forward to getting some practice using my Solid pod.

What do you think?

Book Review: Beyond the Valley

Beyond the Valley: How Innovators around the World Are Overcoming Inequality and Creating the Technologies of Tomorrow, by Ramesh Srinivasan (2019, The MIT Press)

Beyond the Valley is an important look at what’s wrong with the internet’s control by Big Tech. UCLA information studies professor Ramesh Srinavasan also offers practical examples of possible remedies.

How it’s all gone wrong

The first part of the book is all about the disasters we’ve uncovered in recent years. Remember these lowlights?

  • When right-wing political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica took data generated from millions of Facebook “personality tests” to develop profiles for micro-targeted advertising. Those profiles then helped Brexit campaigners in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump in the US.
  • Google’s journey away from its original “don’t be evil” motto
  • Amazon’s bullying of vendors, union-busting activities and tax evasion
  • Apple’s attempts to dominate how you listen to music
  • A variety of problems with artificial intelligence

Srinavasan warns that the technology companies will always choose profits over people. The history to date has not been positive.

As robots replace more workers, companies have no interest in how those replaced workers will survive. He suggests that a universal basic income (UBI) such as that proposed by 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang may mitigate the problem.

Perhaps you read about Amazon’s Rekognition facial recognition software. The ACLU of Northern California compared a database of criminal mugshots with photos of members of Congress. Srinavasan writes “For Congress as a whole the error rate was 5 percent, but for nonwhite members of Congress the error rate was 39 percent.”

Problems with technology and the internet aren’t limited to North America, of course. Repressive regimes use a variety of techniques and policies to enforce their rule. Srinavasan especially attacks China’s surveillance state and its social credit regime. The latter is the government’s policy of monitoring people’s behavior online and assigns “credit scores” to determine how well you contribute to society. Cross the government too often, or associate with people who do, and suddenly you can’t ride the bus as often.

Srinavasan explains: “A poor credit score that comes from expressing ‘bad’ speech online, smoking cigarettes, or playing too many video games could result in a range of punishments, from losing one’s freedom to travel, to public humiliation.”

Hope for the future?

Beyond the Valley isn’t all gloom and doom. The last part of the book looks to a variety of potential solutions, and alternative visions, to promote democratic control of the internet.

Among the options described:

Those of us who have been watching the movement for a (re)decentralized internet know that some enthusiasm for this idea comes from Libertarian circles, who hope to finance (and profit from) a decentralized web on the blockchain.

Srinavasan and journalist Adam Reese collaborated on a chapter about blockchain. They describe several projects and conclude (like me) that “We have no illusions about blockchain saving the world. All the same, these networks’ decentralized architectures make them potentially valuable tools for building grassroots solutions that support the needs of ordinary users. … we’ll keep our eyes open for emerging voices and continue to listen to those who talk past the hype.”

As with any academic work, Beyond the Valley is extensively documented with books, articles (both journalistic and scholarly), and web links (though I wish he had included more links to the projects and organizations he’s covered). Yet it is easy enough to read for most people.

Srinavasan doesn’t offer any panaceas, but some hopes for the future. . If you have any curiosity about how to solve the problems and inadequacies of the internet, it’s worth reading. I expect to be mining that bibliography for a while.

15 Years on WordPress

Word cloud of terms related to net neutrality

Happy New Year! It’s got to be better than 2020, doesn’t it?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

In making plans for 2021, relaunching Notes from the Metaverse was definitely on my list. Then I got a reminder from a past self (aka my to-do list) that I started blogging on WordPress.com on January 4, 2006, and I should write about that. That first post wasn’t much, evidenced by the title, “Hello World (again).”

In late February, the Internet Archive first found this version of the home page, with enough posts to make me look busy, but still had “Hello World (again)” at the bottom.

Internet Archive image of Notes from the Metaverse in February 2006
Part of the home page, February 2006

Over the years, the topics covered here have varied, as have the frequency of the posts. Overall, the focus here has been on technology, both how I’ve become more proficient at using it (aiming to help all of you get better at it too) and how tech has affected our lives.

A little over three years ago, I wrote a series of posts on the progress toward a decentralized web, a movement aimed at taking power away from Big Tech corporations and giving it back to you and me. The underwhelming response to those posts discouraged me from blogging altogether.

It’s time to get back in the saddle.

What’s Coming?

The more observant around you might notice a bit less content in the sidebar on the right. I think it’s better stuff, though. I’ve cleared some stuff that simply no longer applies. My Twitter Timeline works again (or at least it should), do have a look, and follow me if you’re so inclined.

More importantly, I’ve pruned the list of links. I fear that widget hasn’t been touched in a decade or so. Even finding where the Admin page stored those links was a challenge! While still a little repetitive in terms of categories, all the links work now. Soon I will point you to more how-to resources for WordPress and openSUSE Linux, I also hope to give you links to energize you toward using the Open Web to build a more democratic world.

I may give Notes a new paint job (theme) as well, but that’s probably down the road a bit.

But you never came here just for the sidebar, you probably want to know if there’s going to be interesting reading too. Once again, topics may vary from week to week, but will still generally focus on technology topics — it is what I know. I’ve gotten more involved in the openSUSE community in the last few months, so I’ll have something to say about that.

I’m aiming to throw myself back into the WordPress world too. I’m learning more about web coding these days and trying to get better at using the no-longer-new WordPress editor.

Right now, I’m working on a book review of a really useful book by Ramesh Srinavasan, Beyond the Valley: How Innovators around the world Are Overcoming Inequality and Creating the Technologies of Tomorrow. That’s what’s coming next.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve seen my work before. So if there’s something about any of the above topics you want to know more about, leave a comment. Let me know if there’s a technology-related issue that has you puzzled, perhaps I can explain what’s going on. Leave a comment!

Thanks for your attention!

Book Review: How the Internet Happened

Word cloud of terms related to net neutrality
Cover of "How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone" by Brian McCullough.

How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone (2018: Liveright) is the result of Brian McCullough’s researching and hosting the Internet History Podcast for the last few years.

The book’s subtitle tells you a little bit of what the book does and doesn’t cover: This is not about building the network and connecting the academics in the 1960s and 1970s. It is not a social history of the Internet, nor does it cover much of the open-source movement that underlies so much of what the internet is today.

What you will get in this book is a clear sense of how a military/academic network of mainframe computers and terminals familiar to very few became an essential part of most people’s lives. The narrative is often informed by the people at the center of the transformation. Among the topics covered:

  • The transition from proprietary commercial online services to the open World Wide Web
  • The browser wars of the 1990s
  • How the mainstream media botched online news in the early days
  • Amazon, eBay and the birth of online commerce
  • How we began to think of the internet as the “New Economy,” immune from business cycles, and how that bubble burst
  • The origins of online search
  • The birth of digital music and the copyright wars that ensued
  • The rise of blogging and social media after the bubble burst
  • A brief history of how Apple went from near-bankruptcy to being the wealthiest corporation on Earth

McCullough also tells us how Google managed to survive the dot-bomb crash of 2000-01 to become one of today’s dominant companies. This happened almost by accident.

The new version of AdWords had advertisers bid against competitors’ ads, but Google’s system was not simply pay-for-placement. Ever enamoured with math and the power of algorithms, Google ingtroduced an important new ranking factor for the ads it called a “Quality Score.” In essence, Google’s system took into account how often that ad was actually clicked on, in addition to how much an advertiser was willing to pay per click. … Over time, more money would come in from a 5-cent ad that was clicked on 25 times—than from a dollar ad that was only clicked on once.

Brian McCullough, How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone p.230

What this means is that Google discovered the importance of learning everything about its users (meaning: you and I), because they could make money from that knowledge. To fully understand, you should check out Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. I’m reading that now, and will probably have a lot to say about it when I finish. Right now, I can tell you it succeeds in altering one’s perception of what’s wrong with Big Tech.

McCullough is more interested in the businesses that built the web, you’ll get a lot of stock prices, investment numbers, and net worth of the founders. If you liked the National Geographic Channel series, “Valley of the Boom,” you will enjoy the more detailed stories. All the main subplots get at least a mention. If the docudrama elements turned you off, you’ll appreciate the research and storytelling that McCullough delivers.

What scares me most about this book is that, for better or worse, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg comes off the best of all the book’s founders, as the person who (accidentally) really had the purest vision. Once he figured that out, he refused to sell out. That worked out, didn’t it?

I’ve read a lot about the history of the internet, and How the Internet Happened is one of the better ones. I started listening to McCullough’s podcast, which continues on, as a result of this book, and learned a bit from both the source interviews and the collected text. You likely will too.

Book Review: Guy Kawasaki’s “Wiseguy”

Disclaimer: This week marks the publication of Guy Kawasaki’s 15th book, Wiseguy: Lessons from a Life. Having read a few of his previous books, including The Art of Social Media and What’s The Plus? (his guide to the soon-to-be-disappeared Google Plus social network), I jumped at the chance to read an advance copy of this part-memoir, part-advice book.

Cover of "Wiseguy: Lessons from a Life" by Guy Kawasaki
Book cover, Wiseguy by Guy Kawasaki

tldr; Wiseguy is entertaining, but the wisdom isn’t very deep.

Stories

Chances are you’ve heard of Kawasaki through his long association with Apple or from his extensive participation on Twitter and other social media (see the book I mentioned in the disclaimer). Both of these facets of Kawasaki’s life are on display in Wiseguy, but this isn’t really about either. In the very first paragraph of the preface, he describes his intent: “it is a compilation of the most enlightening stories of my life.”

Yes, Steve Jobs makes multiple appearances, but the hardest hitting comment Kawasaki makes is that “it wasn’t easy to work for him; it was sometimes unpleasant and always scary, but it drove many of us to do the finest work of our careers.”

The most interesting bits of this book are the personal ones: growing up in Hawaii as the son of a politician. How he quit law school during orientation week. His various sporting pursuits: Playing football in high school. Falling in love with hockey (as a fan and player) in his 40s, and then taking up surfing in his 60s after his daughter went crazy for the sport.

Guy Kawasaki in the penalty box with Hockey Hall of Famer Eric Lindros.
Kawasaki with Hockey Hall of Famer Eric Lindros

The surfing stories also highlight another theme of the book: the amazing luck Kawasaki has had in meeting the right people at the right time. His surfing teachers include some of the most famous surfers ever (not that I would know, but he doesn’t hesitate to tell us).

Among the stories he tells is his accidental ride in a military fighter jet, arranged after a presentation to the Pentagon Mac Users Group. How he got to be a “brand ambassador” for Mercedes-Benz. How he tweeted his way to an evangelist job at Canva.

Wisdom

After each story, Kawasaki offers us the “wisdom” he gained from the story he’s just told. All these stories are meant to explain how he got to be a “wiseguy.”

Now there’s nothing wrong with the advice he shares. There’s some important ideas in here. For me, the problem is that it’s just not unique. If you’ve read even one self-help book in your life, you’ve probably encountered most of these. After reading the stories, Kawasaki doesn’t offer something he learned that seems counter-intuitive. or different.

Wiseguy: Lessons from a Life is a quick, entertaining read. It might inspire you to do great things. I am going to put one more book on my to-read list after Kawasaki recommends it three times in this 236-page book: If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. See how that goes.