No, I haven’t broken my 2014 resolution of severing my ties to Amazon.com before the new year has even begun. Nonetheless, things have become interesting in the weeks since my last post. No sooner had I cancelled my Chase Amazon credit card with thoughts of quitting Amazon cold, when a great friend of mine gave me a wonderful birthday present: a Kindle Paperwhite — Amazon’s newest reader.
At first the dilemma gripped me. How can I be honestly grateful for this gift when I’d sworn off shopping at Amazon?
That’s when my wife, who has a knack for thinking far more practically than me, suggested the middle path: use it to read library books.
Luckily, I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, which believes in libraries so truly that it’s building new ones in Gaithersburg (opens this weekend) and Silver Spring. In addition to making investments in libraries for the next two generations, the county’s library system makes it easy to borrow digital books by downloading them temporarily onto Kindle.
Long story short, it looks like I’ll be doing some business on Amazon in 2014–just not the kind in which my bank account diminishes. Granted it may be tough to avert my eyes from all that customized product placement, so I’m sure updates to this post will follow.
The first book I intend to read on Kindle: The Circle by Dave Eggers.
Meanwhile, I have every intention of continuing to read paper books from the library. Just tonight, I finished reading The Unwinding by George Packer, which is due on Saturday and should be in someone else’s hands by early next week.
Long live libraries! In this age of digital pocket-drain, we need these public institutions more than ever.
Dean Kamen, founder of DEKA Research and Development, holder of 440 patents, inventor of the Segway, and member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, thinks deeply about invention and what it takes to be an inventor. He shared these gems at the Time Future of Invention forum held at the Newseum in Washington, DC, Nov. 21, 2013.
“Government plays a critical role in invention at the highest level of abstraction. They fund public education. Without tools, it’s pretty hard to turn some great abstract idea into reality. If you don’t have a little math, and a little physics, and a little electrical engineering, you can have great ideas, but they are just ideas.”
“Teaching is sort of the antithesis of inventing because teaching is all about analysis. They teach you how to break something down based on the experience of people before you. That’s how you learned algebra and trigonometry, with the answers in the back of the book. You’re learning what people have done, what’s in the past. So you’re learning what’s here. Invention is not analysis, breaking things down. Invention is synthesis. It’s putting things together in a way they were never put together before. You rarely get to do that in school. In fact, when you do it the way it was never done before you get an F.”
“You probably remember the story of David and Goliath. As a little kid, I heard that story and maybe it proves I was born a geek because the moral of that story…is that technology is cool.” (In reference to the Slingshot water purifier, on which DEKA will partner with Coca-Cola to bring clean water to villages around the world)
“Ultimately, inventing is not a committee activity.”
“Inventing is seeing the same problem that everyone around the world is seeing, but looking at it differently.”
“If we don’t redouble our efforts to increase incentives for invention, this country’s going to lose its edge.”
The modern concept of project management, the art and science of ‘getting it done,’ sprang to life in the 1940s with the $2 billion Manhattan Project. Since then, project management has grabbed an increasing share of mankind’s activity. Sometimes projects are executed superbly, and tend to be taken for granted; others get derailed disastrously—as the headlines about healthcare.gov attest and anyone familiar with the Silver Spring Transit Center will tell you.
Here are a handful of facts about project management that PM novices (like me) might find surprising:
1) A quarter of the earth’s gross domestic product gets spent each year on projects of all kinds according to the Project Management Institute (PMI)*. That’s 18 trillion USD using the 2012 World Bank global GDP estimate. In terms of the animal kingdom, that puts us humans on par with beavers for project-focus.
2) The ranks of professional project managers are growing explosively. Back in 1993, there were only around 1000 certified Project Management Professionals (PMP). By 2011 there were 467,000. Globally more than 16 million people call themselves project managers. Fewer than half of U.S. companies had a project management office in 2000, and now more than 80 percent do.*
3) Project management success rates resemble batting averages in baseball. For IT project management, the best work tracking this phenomenon is done by the Standish Group, which produces the CHAOS report, the first iteration of which found that only 16.2 percent* of IT projects succeeded. Things have improved since then with the rise of project management science. Still, more than half the time, PMs cannot balance the “triple constraint” of scope, time, and cost. Incidentally, the Standish Group has some wise thoughts about the healthcare.gov debacle on their blog.
4) Sometimes projects are delivered within the triple constraint, but the deliverables get scrapped anyway. The $34 million Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan made headlines this summer when it was completed. Three years ago a general tried to stop construction of what was to become the “Taj Mahal” of US command centers, reportedly saying “I don’t want it, don’t build it, I won’t use it. So stop construction,” but the project continued regardless. Neither the US nor the Afghan military plan to use the base as intended.
5) Even for the experts, it’s hard to maintain success rates and quality. An internal audit at the World Bank found that performance on projects such as roads and schools has been declining for a decade despite amplified investments to counter the global financial crisis.
In other words, if you work with a project manager or a PM team, and they are delivering the goods as specified, on time, and as budgeted, respect is due.
*Schwalbe, K. Information Technology Project Management, 7e
Like me, Washington DC’s Metrorail subway system was born in 1976. Also like me, it is starting to show its age. This was never clearer than in the June 2009 Fort Totten train collision that killed 9 people, injured 80 and kept passengers trapped for hours. Since then the system has been a joke by international standards, with single-tracking and multiple station closures common—especially over weekends.
Decades of delayed maintenance due to the chronic underfunding driven by the system’s fractured governance have finally caught up. The endless outages have settled over the city like a rain cloud that never leaves. Blogs like Unsuck DC Metro have gained big followings by serving as a conduit for rider rage. It’s been so bad for so long that any positive stories about the system are liable to be held forth for universal ridicule.
But in a sneaky way, a lot of nifty improvements are cresting on the horizon. Here are three reasons for cautious optimism:
1) The silver line will be an equal partner to the old-school color lines (orange, blue, red, green, and yellow). When the Washington Post published the new system map this week, designed by Lance Wyman, the same man who designed the original map 37 years ago, I was relieved to see the silver line shooting all the way through town. Previous maps had the line ending at East Falls Church, raising the annoying prospect of needing to transfer to get downtown in an encumbered and jet-lagged state after touching down at Dulles Airport.
2) The new rail cars will be made by Kawasaki, a Japanese company. Having lived in Japan, I can attest to the quality of Japanese rail systems. The 1976 models designed by an Italian firm, still in use, will one day be a topic for nostalgia. However, I don’t think they’ll be missed. The prototype from two years ago of the 7000-series, which will replace more than half of the system’s cars within the next five years, pointed to some cool features such as video panels. When these cars start to roll out, I’m certain that folks will notice the almost-four-decade design difference. At the very least, the new cars promise to not have such consistent air conditioning problems.
3) You’ll be able to pay your fare using a smartphone. Buried in a recent Post article was the following bit of news:
“[Metro’s General Manager Richard] Sarles said the agency also had decided to buy new fare gates that will allow riders to pay as they enter with a SmarTrip card, a credit card or a smartphone. The stainless steel gates will be installed throughout the Metrorail system and will replace the 1970s-era gates. Riders should begin seeing the new fare gates next year, officials said.”
This is the logical evolution of Metrorail’s SmarTrip card system, reducing the need for smartphone owners to carry around yet another plastic card.
Cloud computing can be that alternative. Consider:
Data centers require a lot of energy, but Iceland has a steady supply of thermal energy—enough to power the centers entirely through natural energy.
Data centers use less energy when the ambient temperature is lower and Iceland’s name says it all. The year-round climate is chilly. Combined with the steady energy supply, those cooler temperatures ensure further energy efficiency.
For security and risk mitigation reasons, data centers are best situated in sparsely populated areas. Iceland is one of the world most sparsely populated countries.
A Rapidly Expanding Market
According to the technology research company Gartner, the market size of public cloud services in 2013 is $131 billion and its 2013 growth rate will be 18%. The same study found infrastructure as a service as (IaaS) the fastest-growing component of the cloud market. IaaS grew 42.4 percent in 2012 to $6.1 billion. This year the increase is predicted to be 47.3 percent.
Cloud computing, particularly IaaS, represents a good opportunity for return on capital invested by any entity. Yet Iceland has significant advantages that would make its return on investment greater than competitors in other counties. Those advantages are natural geothermal energy and an environment conducive to both greater efficacy and better security, factors described below.
Cloud computing is also a better alternative than the recent explosion of aluminum smelter operations in Iceland—an industry that already consumes five-times the amount of electricity as Iceland’s residents. As the financial crisis taught, over-reliance on one industry creates significant risk. Cloud computing can be a balancing factor that will reduce this risk.
Solving Cloud Computing’s Energy Crisis
Not only would Iceland’s economy benefit from a major investment in cloud computing, the cloud computing market would benefit greatly. This is because the data centers that make cloud computing possible use vast quantities of electricity. By one estimate, a typical server farm uses the same amount of power as 180,000 homes. Iceland’s historic investment in capturing geothermal energy has paid tremendous dividends. Currently 25% of electricity usage in Iceland is from geothermal, with almost all of the balance coming from hydro-power. This gives data center operations in Iceland four distinct energy advantages:
Abundant, cheap power
Power derived from a source unlikely to fail suddenly
Cooler ambient temperatures that reduce the need to use power to cool servers, making data centers more efficient
If the data revolution continues to grow exponentially within a context of worsening global environmental problems such as climate change, companies around the world will be under pressure to find eco-friendly solutions for cloud computing. Some companies are already showing the way in Iceland. An Icelandic startup called Greenqloud offers a “sustainable public compute cloud that is 100% carbon neutral.” They have been joined by Verne Global, a British company that offers similar 100% renewable-energy services.
Yet one big potential disadvantage to making Iceland “cloudland” must be mentioned: Iceland’s abundant geothermal power comes from the island’s volcanic character. A major eruption could wipe out one or more centers. This risk can be mitigated by locating all data centers in areas far from the ridges on which Iceland’s volcanos rise and seeking protective land formations that would shield from lava flows such as natural or man-made caves.
In the past Iceland has been the victim of its unforgiving geography, which is not conducive to farming or dense population. The era of big data could flip this reality, making Iceland’s low temperatures and abundant natural energy the nation’s signature assets.
A review of Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? (2013) Simon & Schuster
By Dan Wilcock
In early 2013, IBM made the mind-boggling claim that 90% of the data in the world had been created in the previous two years alone. Facebook, which crested one billion users in October 2012, is but one of many platforms elevating Big Data’s exponential growth curve.
Big Data—the vast digital Sahara of trillions of aggregated binary-code sand grains—may well be this century’s fulcrum of wealth and power. The data centers that comprise “the cloud” are now arguably as central to global commerce and security as the hubs of the petroleum industry. The recent revelations about NSA internet surveillance are further confirmation that a new era has dawned.
And no matter how many people unplug their Facebook accounts, as I did shortly after reading Who Owns the Future?, we can’t go back to a pre-networked world. Short of some kind of unwanted cataclysm that knocks us off our current course, the momentum is just too strong. New developments in networking, such as the ‘internet of things’ which harnesses data and internet connectivity to make our cars, homes, and appliances ‘smarter,’ portend almost limitless network growth.
Nor can we erase the data we’ve already created. “The option to ‘delete’ data is largely an illusion,” write Google executives Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen in their book The New Digital Age, published less than two weeks before Who Owns the Future?
Lanier’s bookpresents a caustic but indispensable minority report to such Silicon Valley triumph literature. It takes companies like Google and Facebook to task for driving a new economic order in which wealth and power are consolidated where entrepreneurs, the best computers, and best computer scientists converge to harvest Dig Data. The list of industries being disrupted grows each day.
As a minority report, it also sketches an alternative vision of new economic system in which individuals get paid for the data they generate. There are some problems with this idea, which I’ll detail below, but his aim is respectable. He wants ordinary people to survive and thrive in the new era. He calls himself a “humanist softie,” which I think is an admirable position to take.
The Rise of the Siren Servers
This moment of ascendant power has long been the dream of technology companies. Lanier identifies himself as someone who helped build today’s commercial and academic internets. The dust jacket calls him a co-creator of “start-ups that are now part of Oracle, Adobe, and Google: and the recipient of a lifetime career award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
Lanier writes about how the progressive vision of a humanistic digital economy imagined by internet pioneers such as Ted Nelson, whose writings in the 1960s presaged today’s digital sharing and the use of hyperlinks, has been clouded by the rise of what he calls “siren servers.” These he defines as: “an elite computer, or coordinated collection of computers, on a network. It is characterized by narcissism, hyperamplified risk aversion, and extreme information asymmetry.”
He puts this in slightly simpler terms in the following paragraph:
Siren servers gather data from the network, often without having to pay for it. The data is analyzed using the most powerful available computers, run by the very best available technical people. The results of the analyses are kept secret, but are used to manipulate the rest of the world to advantage.
To what advantage do today’s tech giants slice and dice our data? Riches for company founders and an increasing pile of advertising revenue from companies vying to grab more market share. For companies, the servers offer the ability to get precise and immediate feedback on customers, to whom they sell products and services more efficiently (with fewer employees). For government security agencies, the analysis yields a gold mine of previously-unavailable mission-critical information about threats.
Who Could Argue with “Free?”
Big Data is provided to siren servers “for free” because users get a “free service” in return. Google brings us to the information we need faster. Facebook gives us a window into the unfurling lives of remote family and friends. Skype allows us to video chat without paying them, and thus we can save hundreds of dollars in international long-distance charges in the process.
The word free above is placed in quotations because the exchanging information for a service means the service isn’t really free. The fact that something is provided without cost usually just means that you, as the user, are not the customer. You are the product. You are being sold. The implication from Lanier’s book is that you are increasingly being ripped off.
He points to musicians who now have to sing for their supper each night because they no longer can rely on support from labels and translators whose works get fed into online translation engines without consent. Technology and the lure of free content make it tough for some folks to make a living these days, and Lanier argues that the ranks of such people will continue to grow as servers advance in developing artificial intelligence.
Lanier doesn’t bring them up, but the infamous instant messages sent by Mark Zuckerberg to a friend that describe Facebook’s early users as “dumb fu*ks,” for trusting him with their information confirms the suspicion that the mega servers are conceptually designed to rip people off. But Lanier doesn’t spend time blaming the owners of siren servers for taking their opportunities:
And it’s not Facebook’s fault! We, the idealists, insisted that information be demonetized online, which meant that services about information, instead of the information itself, would be the main profit centers.
Instead of people getting paid, they get pumped for data for which, by express consent in the user agreements that everyone signs without reading, they are blocked from seeking payment. Lanier writes:
Even the most ambitious outcomes in the most fabulous futures articulated in the moneyed dreamspace of Silicon Valley, those where the world isn’t utterly wrecked by nuclear war or some other disaster, tend to leave people behind. Even the optimism is dismal for people. People will be suppressed and left behind.
The Experimental Path Away From Creepiness
My own decision to quit Facebook had been brewing for some time. I absolutely hated the AT&T ad campaign that launched the Facebook Phone, which in one ad featured dancing freaks on an airplane and a smirking guy who keeps using his phone to “like” things after the flight attendants tell him to turn off his phone. It reminded me of all the idiots who can’t stop using Facebook, even when they are behind the wheel.
Then Facebook started using friends’ faces on advertisements for Amazon.com and other companies. It exemplified what Lanier calls the creepiness of siren servers:
Creepiness is when information systems undermine individual human agency. It happens when you feel violated because the flow of information disregards your reasonable attempts to control your own information life.
At the book’s conclusion, Lanier makes the following suggestion for anyone beginning to have doubts about the value of siren server services like Facebook:
My suggestion is, experiment with yourself. Resign from all the free online services you use for six months to see what happens. You don’t need to renounce them forever, make value judgments, or be dramatic. Just be experimental. You will probably learn more about yourself, your friends, the world, and the Internet than you would if you never performed the experiment.
I took Lanier up on this suggestion with regard to Facebook. This kind of decision is just a part of a larger technology-related journey on which most people are traveling these days. As a master’s degree student in technology management at Georgetown University, part of my aim has been to learn how to manage technology and not be managed by it. This is just part of my journey.
Lanier’s Economic Model and the Porn Problem
Enough about me, and back to the book (and I’ll explain what the latter part of the above sub-headline is about in short order). Lanier’s book isn’t merely an accusation. It also points toward what he thinks would be a better way for our economy.
In a nutshell, Lanier wants to foster an expanding economy based on humanist values rather than what he perceives to be a contracting economy characterized by disruption of middle class livelihoods and wealth consolidation. In the long run, he argues, both people and businesses will be better off with a system that helps ensure broad-based prosperity and rewards individuals for bringing value to the digital marketplace.
Lanier’s website contains a useful four-point condensation of this plan:
All information is valued, and valued in connection with the people who enabled it to exist
Individuals are 1st class participants, just like big players
Two way links; no copies needed
The fourth point refers again to tech visionary Ted Nelson, who argued that hyperlinks should be read in both directions. Links should do more than point. They should also record what is pointing at them. Thus there is more historical accountability to how the original content gets used and there’s less need for mindless copying. Lanier calls his model “Nelsonian” in tribute.
He admits that he doesn’t have the technical expertise to fully formulate this plan and that implementing it would entail a lot of painful trial and error. I’d like to see him team up with a cogent economist and produce a sequel to this book that would spell out how it all might work.
Yet a couple of problems spring to mind that I’m sure Lanier has thought of (his imaginativeness is his great strength—he refers in several places to the outlandish sci-fi-type projects he works on for Microsoft Research). My guess is that he didn’t want to unwind these balls of string. The first might be called the “porn problem.” If universal micropayments are made and all information is valued based on usage patterns, adult-film industry workers might become phenomenally wealthy.
The other, perhaps more elementary, problem is that such a system of micropayments might reward many people for ‘being,’ rather than ‘doing’—an inversion of classic values (at least in America) An example of this might be the rise of digital loafers who make a career of gaming the payment system (wait, on second thought, I realize that SEO analysts and social media experts are already pioneering this space).
In order to provide commensurate payments for online activity that really advances humanity, the market and civil society will need to make judgments. Yet there is deep precedent for exactly that—extending back to John Locke’s version of utilitarianism that placed higher values on certain moral outcomes.
Conclusion: Will We Be Reading This Book in 20 Years?
My guess is that Lanier the internet futurist is again ahead of the times. He’s seen the writing on the wall, and he cares enough about fellow human beings to initiate a conversation about how to build a more productive alternative the emerging era of winner-take-all server wars. Time will tell if the book will be as important as Silent Spring was for environmentalism. The geeky aspects of the book may be a strike against him in this regard, but there’s a strong chance that this minority report will increasingly win converts.
This is a challenging book for anyone immersed in today’s data-driven world (perhaps especially for anyone who loves their Facebook account). Many people may not care about the implications of using social media or Google’s “free” tools. They just want their free stuff. This book isn’t for them. Others, when confronted with issues such as the government’s online surveillance, may find the need to take nuanced positions. This book may help think through the implications of Big Data.
It’s not about purism or self-righteousness. Almost everyone uses Google tools every day and I don’t see a good alternative coming about any time soon even though I realize their business model is very similar to Facebook’s. There’s no escape from Big Data short of moving to rural Bhutan.
Thus I highly recommend this book, which I think of as Big Data’s humanist manifesto—it’s hard to imagine a recent book more relevant to the future of information technology.
The 70 to 36 decision by faculty members at Amherst against accepting an invitation to join EdX, a pioneer in the field of massive online open courses (MOOCs), signals to me that there’s some hope for higher education.
EdX is good at making education more widely available. For millions of people around the world who might not otherwise be able to catch a glimpse of a Harvard classroom, much less matriculate in Cambridge, MOOCs offer the educational equivalent of window shopping. It will never be like sitting in the classroom and interacting with the professor, but you can see what the class has to offer. Even if you never “own” the class in the form of a something that will add up to a degree, you can be get the gist of a topic and self-study your way to mastery.
I think the profs at Amherst, one of America’s best liberal arts schools, placed the right bet. MOOCs are part of the pattern that Jaron Lanier describes in Who Owns the Future?, a fantastic book published this month, in which “ordinary people will be unvalued by the new economy, while those closest to the top computers will become hypervaluable.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education article cited above states that EdX, which was founded by Harvard and MIT, has only 12 partner institutions, but has received membership inquiries from 300 colleges and universities. A lot of schools want to get on this bandwagon. Yet Amherst, when offered a coveted seat “closest to the top computers” (to use Lanier’s terms), it did two remarkable things:
It put the choice to a real vote among the faculty
It allowed faculty members, many of whom have clearly thought through the implications of building a video database that may threaten their livelihood and those of their peers, to frame the debate
This example of democracy and public reasoning leading to a rejection of a coveted invitation from Harvard/MIT to join the shiny-new-cloud solution to higher education is refreshing to witness. The faculty committee is correct to observe that MOOCs will “enable the centralization of American higher education.” Whether MOOCs will “create the conditions for the obsolescence of the B.A. degree,” is something I’m not qualified to judge, but viewing the stakes starkly demonstrates wisdom. Putting lectures in the cloud may seem smart today, but when thousands of professors start to get laid off it will be clear exactly whose lives the technology intended to disrupt.
I don’t support the educational bloat and skyrocketing tuition that have led to the educational bubble, but I also don’t support laying off massive numbers of people who are central to America’s character. When the bubble pops, the MOOCs will be a convenient cost-cutting tool. In the Amherst committee’s language, I sense they are proactively voting in solidarity with professors across the country.
As I wrote before, I don’t think MOOCs spell the end of higher ed. Amherst’s wisdom makes me more confident in my prediction.