Category Archives: commentary

The Internet as fuel for the curious and the crazy

I’ve been thinking a fair amount about how the Internet has been such a boon for curious children, and adults for that matter. If you want to find out more about anything (quarks, volcanoes, bugs, Egyptology) there are resources galore at your fingertips. It’s a glorious age we live in that lets you satisfy any intellectual itch almost instantaneously (so long as you have a computer and connectivity, of course).

But there’s a flip side, too. The exact same tool broadcasts the voices of the ignorant, the paranoid, the prejudiced, the uncritically conspiratorial, and the straight-forwardly malicious among us. I was reminded of this by the response of reader G P Wiggins of Hopewell, NJ to Timothy Egan’s NYT column on Congressional Republicans (The Wrong Side of History) yesterday:

“You want to know how bad this craziness is? Google on the ‘secret plan’ by Obama to get a third and fourth term; and Google on all these recent acts of violence being ‘red flag’ events that the government is secretly behind. Millions of people believe this stuff. The Internet has played a still-under-appreciated role in this madness: you can now live in a paranoid echo chamber and believe that everyone thinks like you.”

Supposed experts aren’t always to be trusted and it’s good to offer a public publishing platform to all. And there are multiple communities of people (those with esoteric passions, retailers and purchasers of uncommon goods, the sufferers of rare medical conditions) who have been immensely enriched by the web’s ability to unite small but widely distributed groups.

But in the face of upended hierarchies of authority, we’ve yet to grapple with the shear weight of misinformed, unsourced, ill-intentioned, poorly argued, speculative, and plain crazy speech that we’ve also enabled and that has so easily conjoined into a sizable, self-supporting shadow-web of bogus guff.

That it’s out there has a lot to do with the origin of the Web in a culture that’s as interested in the statement, “I want to believe,” as, “I want to know.” Belief also drives visitor numbers, whether you’re interested in income or fame, while confirmed fact often does the opposite.

But it leaves us with a powerful nexus of information that is, paradoxically, also astonishingly untrustworthy, where the right answer can’t ever be trusted always to bubble to top. What’s interesting is to ask how could it be otherwise? What’s the best way to allow those right answers to make it through the powerful wish so many of us so often have that things might be other than they are?

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Why We Are Sad – Seven reasons why Steve Jobs is deeply mourned in Silicon Valley

By declaration of the Governor of California, today is Steve Jobs Day. A national memorial of sorts for him is being held about now at Stanford University. The degree to which Jobs’ death continues to affect people all over the world is remarkable. In Silicon Valley, though, we’ve felt – and continue to feel – his loss especially keenly. He was, after all, our very own global icon. But I don’t think that’s why a surprisingly large percentage of the people I know here took the time to visit his house in the days after his death. They weren’t feeling self-important, I think, or gawking . They were genuinely moved by the passing of a neighbor they didn’t know but to whom they wanted to pay their respects in some way, even if it was just to stop by for a few quiet minutes of witness.

The roots of our sadness are complex, I think. Here’s my attempt, though, to tease out some of the reasons for it.

– Firstly, it was because he was one of our own, by which I mean an entrepreneur, someone who took huge risks, who worked incredibly hard, who had huge belief in himself and the capacity of others. Even in his ego and his management foibles, he was an exemplary Valley figure.

– It’s because he was an outsider, too. Jobs managed to always stand as being with the people against The Man, even when he and his company were big enough to be the Establishment themselves. In addition, Jobs was not a technologist by training. What brought him prominence more than anything was the preeminence that he gave design – even his vaunted skills as a salesman were secondary to that. He didn’t have to sell snake oil, though, because he saw to it that the products he sold were simply beautifully – and brilliantly – put together. Even now, that deference to design is a path few here take. But this is also a land that loves mavericks – and so we admired Jobs’ difference, even as most of us have chosen much more conservative paths.

– It’s because he succeeded – Jobs was one of the greatest of all come back kids. And like all Americans, we love that story. He would have earned obituaries if he’d only founded Apple and then crashed out with Next. Or if he’d come back to Apple the second time, but blown it on his return. But he came back and rebuilt Apple into one of the most valuable companies in the world, even as he grew ever more sick. We revere that outrageous successes and mourn that we lost him at the top of his game.

– It’s also because he failed – in the end, of course, he wasn’t a come back kid. We were rooting hard for him to do it again and beat his cancer, too. We’re saddened and sorry that he couldn’t.

– It’s because he died young and in a place that doesn’t really know how to mourn. Seeing anyone die before their time has its own particular sadness. But in losing leaders from whom we still have more to learn, whom we feel would have inspired us yet more, that sadness is compounded. Silicon Valley remains a young place, too, and we face that loss without the rhetoric or rituals that have mollified the early loss of the great and good in other times and places. Perhaps because we’ve really only seen one great tech generation pass – that of the Hewletts, Packards, Termans and Noyces – we’ve yet to build death into our culture. We have no unique rituals to make sense of the passing of those who’ve most impacted our lives. Perhaps we never will – maybe that’s just antithetical to a community that is otherwise so relentlessly forward-looking. But without the ritual local comfort of an Irish wake, a New Orleans jazz cortege, or a Royal memorial mass, we’re left all the more bereft.

– It’s because Jobs acknowledged his mortality – Jobs had known he was very sick for years, as had we. He took that as a chance to meditate on his life path and to share the fruits of his mediation with the rest of us in his widely circulated Stanford graduation speech. His response to his sickness was to dedicate himself to two things only: his family and his work, both values that we profoundly share. But he did it in the context of his (and our) inevitable death. “Death,” he reminded his audience, “is the ultimate change agent.” And in that he broke a taboo we hold, despite our future-worship, against imagining our own demise, or perhaps he simply drew us out of our cultural immaturity. Again, he both exemplified our values and broke the Valley mold.

– Lastly, I think it’s because by his death Steve Jobs had become, somewhat surprisingly, the great living father figure of the Valley—and I think this is the ultimate root of our sadness. Jobs wasn’t the oldest of our billionaires, CEOs, former wunderkinds, or other local grandees and swells, nor was he the richest, or the most beloved. But – especially after the Stanford speech – he became our psychic taskmaster. We felt that if we knew him he’d only respect us if, like him, we reached for excellence too. If you take him at his word, and I see no reason not to, he wasn’t motivated by money, or power or glory. What drove him instead was a desire to fundamentally improve the world as best he could, and how he chose to lead was to try and inspire the same desire in others. In that he exemplified the hugely demanding but ultimately fair, strict but self-directed, bull-headed but in the end social-minded good father long mythologized in the American West. We might never have relished the idea of actually being his employee or child, just as few people ever really want to work for their dad. But fathers – and father figures – make indelible marks upon our lives and that, perhaps, explains more than anything why we morn the loss of our neighbor Steve Jobs to a self-surprising degree.

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Authenticity and the end of online anonymity

Just over a year ago I wrote a piece in the London Evening Standard that asked if it would soon be all-but impossible to be anything other than your true self online.

Those days, it seems, are fast approaching.  “Upending Anonymity, These Days the Web Unmasks Everyone,” announces a headline in today’s New York Times. Author Brian Stelter picks out several recent examples of people caught doing something unusual, illegal or embarrassing in public and then being swiftly identified through their online activities and social connections.

Another news item from today — detailing the arrest of an alleged member of the LulzSec hacker collective — suggests that even those who know their way around web anonymity are finding it hard to stay hidden.

Since I wrote the Standard piece, the financial information-sharing website that I featured, called Blippy, has gone under. At the time it looked likely to fail because relatively few people had taken their online self-revelations to the extreme that Blippy required to succeed. I was nevertheless interested in how the tell-all culture upon which Blippy was predicated was growing in strength, a development that I predicted would eventually spark suspicion of those who refused to share.

What I didn’t address was the idea that it’s also becoming ever-easier for one’s behavior, both online and off-, to be revealed even when you had an expectation of anonymity. But if we’ve reached that point too, as the Times article suggests we might have, then the same consequences hold: that we’ll likely feel ever greater pressure to be authentically ourselves whether we’re online or off, and that that pressure might in turn have us modifying our behavior in both spheres.

As I said in the article, “Maybe, as a result, we’ll all be inspired to lead more responsible lives in the future, figuring that since so much about our modern lives is searchable, we might as well just be good instead of worrying about looking good.”

The same caveats also hold, however. To live both publicly and safely requires a system that’s law-abiding, tolerant, open and totally accepting of its critics and malcontents. Unfortunately, that’s not something that our shifting ideas of authenticity and anonymity are likely to make it any easier for us to secure.

 

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It’s official — there’s no better place to live in America than Silicon Valley

According to this year’s Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index for the United States, Silicon Valley boasts the best quality of life in the entire country. The New York Times published a handy interactive map of the Index this weekend.

While the Times chose to review the results by state – where Hawaii comes out top – the results were actually compiled by congressional district. Of those, California’s district 14, which pretty much contains the entire Valley, was the highest ranked.

The Index was derived by aggregating measures of reported happiness, education, health insurance, job satisfaction, community safety and other factors that together make somewhere a good place to live.

To some of us who inhabit the Valley, our preeminence was a surprise. There’s really nowhere else better? In the entire nation? After all, the area is stupendously expensive. Try buying a house here. Or a tank of gas. And this is a place where everyone works insanely hard. They’re super-competitive. Commutes can be crazy. There’s very little job security.

But many of these negatives  reflect something that’s arguably also very positive about the place: that a lot of people here are very good at what they do. That means they get paid well, and wealth correlates very neatly with contributory factors to well-being such as access to housing, health care, good food, and clean air.

To be good at what you do also takes caring about your work. That can produce stress by the bucketful, but in the right environment it  promotes job satisfaction, too, and the flip side of the Valley’s poor job security is that its inhabitants feel free to leave any job, anytime, whenever they’re presented with a better opportunity.

Most crucially, then, the place offers – even in a recession – money and possibility, and maybe that’s what really puts us at the top.

The Valley remains full of people with new ideas, launching new ventures, making all kinds of deals every day with — and here’s the kicker — a small but genuine chance of actually succeeding. Plenty fail, for sure, but even that is understood as a learning experience here and not a judgement on your character for life. And that freeing, energizing potentiality rubs off even on those who simply service the more entrepreneurial among us.

Paul Graham, the founder of the startup incubator Y-Combinator, wrote an essay a few years ago entitled ‘How to Be Silicon Valley,’ that imagined what it would take to reproduce the Valley somewhere else. You’d need only three things, he argued: rich people, nerds, and a place they both want to live. Such a place would likely have a university, he suggests (nerds like to live among smart people), and also be “the kind of town where people walk around smiling.”

It’s a cute line but perceptive, too.

A smiling citizenry is either complacent or still hopeful about its future. We have plenty of wealthy people here who can afford complacence, but what’s remarkable is how many of them remain engaged as financial supporters of young people looking to make it themselves.

The rest of us, meanwhile, may not be rich enough to feel self-satisfied, but the sense of sheer possibility that permeates the culture in which we’ve chosen to live – for all that it makes the region a popular and thus breathtakingly expensive place to inhabit – is a great generator of grounded, realistic hopefulness. And isn’t that, in many ways, the ultimate marker of personal well-being?

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Do We Really Want Another Boom in Silicon Valley?

In the face of several recent reports about the currently dismal state of Silicon Valley, I just asked the above question over at the Silicon Valley Moms blog.

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Joe Wilson hires a professional tweeter

Not so long ago I wrote about ghost tweeting as a growth market for writers.

So it was interesting to see that pretty much as soon as US Representative Joe Wilson made a national name for himself by heckling the President last week, he went out and hired himself a ghost, or professional, twitterer.

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Food for journalistic thought

I’ve just found the set of radical ideas for improving journalism published by veteran Silicon Valley journalist Dan Gillmor last week.

If adopted, they’d truly create a very different-looking news experience.

One of the weird things about the  existential angst that’s currently afflicting journalism is how easily it’s become a debate about trying to save as much as we can of the old system — without acknowledging how the old system really hasn’t been serving readers as well as it can.

New technology is allowing news to be delivered in new ways.  If these new methods serve people better, I don’t see why they won’t pay for it.  And that, I think, suggests that we need to get away from the currently-dominant debate about how newspapers can survive in a world where people read their stories online for free and think more about how starting with a clean slate can create next-generation news organizations that serve us better than ever.

The solution won’t be simple.  Many of the changes Gillmor suggests would be easier to implement (and have more impact on readership and therefore revenue) at a local rather than a national level, for example.

But it will be people thinking like Gillmor, I suspect, who will be running the best and most successful news operations a decade from now.

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