Moon over San Francisco. Made with iPhone 12 Pro Max

While my week has been noticeably quiet here on my internet homestead, it has been quite the opposite for me out in the real world. 

I had to go to the dental surgeon to remove a couple of wisdom teeth that had become nuisances and were putting the entire neighborhood in distress. I recognize that it was a pretty minor procedure, but like any reasonable adult, I am scared shitless of visiting the dentist. I was in a state of panic for two days leading up to the event, unable to sleep and overcome with anxiety. 

On the day of the procedure, it all turned out to be relatively fast and straightforward — thanks in large part to the surgeon, who kept talking to me about photography and his love of Lindorf technical cameras. Of course, now he is a Canon man. (I wonder why the world still insists that dentists prefer Leica.) He gets full marks for keeping my focus on everything but the surgery as he extracted those getting the troublemakers out.

I was back home in just two hours, but that was followed by two days of pain. I used the prescription pills twice, but given their content (Hint: rhymes with “foxy”), I decided to switch to plain vanilla Tylenol. Between the headaches and the jaw aches, not to mention being restricted to eating only soft food, it hasn’t been fun. But I am feeling better today. Almost normal. I am even looking forward to eating a proper lunch. As I eat, I will likely mull over the question that’s been needling me: does wisdom go when the wisdom teeth do? (Let me know what you think, and the funniest answer will get tweeted on my Twitter.) 

One — and maybe the only — positive side effect of the surgery was that it gave me a lot of forced downtime to do a bunch of reading. I was able to get through both my Safari Reading List and my Pocket Reading Lists. I also got a chance to enjoy a handful of movies and some cricket. Given the mediocrity of the New York Yankees, cricket is proving to be a much-needed salve for my bruised baseball fandom. Due to injuries throughout the league, even my fantasy baseball teams are proving to be disappointments.

I wanted to share some gems I found on the Internet this week while laid out in bed, struggling to will away my aches and pains. These are some perfect time wasters:



Finally, here is what I said on Twitter this week: 

July 22: Washington often conflates “building more infrastructure” with “resilient infrastructure,” a risky proposition in a networked society, argues @ratulm of @intentionet, part of @trueventures community. @SenatorLujan should talk to experts like Ratul.

July 21: A team at Duke University implanted a new-generation artificial heart in a man, the first such procedure in North America. It is an implantable prosthetic that includes biological valves derived from bovine tissue & operates on an external power supply. https://buff.ly/36Rk6FK

July 20:  I wonder if Freud secretly haunts the corridors of Apple’s offices: space autocorrects to SPAC. 

July 19:  We live in a world where you have to (proverbially) scream to get attention & credit for your efforts. It is important to own your narrative. 


Jul 24, 2021, San Francisco 

Two folks, I follow on Twitter got into an exchange about media coverage of startup funding. The conversation caught my attention to the (somewhat rare) extent that I felt compelled to weigh in — mainly to offer some historical perspective from what I learned during my days as a professional blogger and journalist. 

The biggest change blogging brought to the media landscape was that it atomized news. What would previously have been a long news story got broken up into constantly updating components. One of these components was “funding news.” Other than acquisition, a possible public offering, or a new product launch, this was pretty much the only news that came out of startups. And no one covered pure funding news better than the folks at TechCrunch — quick, concise, and usually exclusive. That was what made them the first read for everyone.  

I told my tweeting colleagues that my approach back in the day was to think of funding news not just as a one-off event, but instead as an opportunity to dive deeper. I should admit that this was not necessarily a novel idea — I had learned it on the job. As I previously recounted in a many years-old post, when I was a young reporter, “my then editor would often chastise me for focusing too much of my time on investors. While investors & investment dollars are a good barometer when measuring the story worthiness of a startup, they aren’t the story, because what really matters is the company: its product, its technology, its founders, and the business they are trying to build.”

News flash: investors are never the story. (Not surprisingly, this is not the first time I have ranted about this topic.) 

Think of funding news as a notification on your iPhone: a chance to bring more attention to the startup. As a writer, you could dig into a company, what it does, why it matters, and how it redefines the competitive landscape. Money is just a means to an end. That end goal is what’s important.  Of course, this approach means that a writer has to really understand their coverage area — be it cloud, climate, online video, connected devices, the emergent web, or mobile ecosystems. 

Even today, whenever I see a news story about an event, I hope the story will inform and educate me about the company and its potential. Instead, I often get some meaningless drivel about the investors. The sad truth is that the “funding news” story as we know it has largely become a PR event. It’s just theater. In most cases, it isn’t even news — the funding likely happened many months ago. Furthermore, these days, media attention is more or less reserved for big funding rounds, focusing on how much cash some megafund puts into a company, how much the company is valued, and whether or not it is now a unicorn.  

To some extent, this is understandable. The sheer amount of money pumping into the ecosystem, and the gigantic scale of the startup ecosystem, means that the media folks have to use rough filters to focus their attention. Still, I will stand by my earlier argument: funding should be a trigger to tell a bigger story about the role of the company and the opportunity this event is likely to unlock. Additionally, by stepping back and paying attention to a range of funding news releases, a reporter can see common themes emerge, revealing shifts in the landscape and interesting market trends. This is fertile ground for finding optimism and excitement in the vast expanding technology landscape. 

The world as we know it stands on the precipice of massive change. We are transforming from an industrial society to a digitally enabled planet. How we live, work, consume, and create is changing. This shift has corporate and cultural implications. For instance, the workplace and the very definition of work is changing. Simultaneously, we are facing a planet-wide existential climate crisis. Against this backdrop of this change, we need to have optimism and enthusiasm for entrepreneurs and startups. To do so, we must go beyond the press release and the headline to determine the relevance of a startup to these pressing challenges.

Sometimes, funding news is not just funding news. 

PS: How to write a good blog post

July 12, 2021. San Francisco

Happy Sunday, everyone! I have slowly (and unintentionally) slipped into “summer mode.” I have been working only a little and reading quite a lot. Last week, I also met Ken Kocienda, a former Apple software engineer and designer, to talk about art, life, photography, and watches. 

I didn’t spend as much time on Twitter (either perusing or tweeting), so there isn’t a “Tweek” wrap-up for the week. But several articles caught my eye that I probably would have tweeted, and here they are: 

Vinyl Is More Popular Than Ever. Surprisingly, That’s a Problem

During the pandemic, vinyl sales in the U.S. exploded, growing 28.7% in 2020 to $626 million, even beating out CD revenues of $483 million. Vinyl sales have been growing steadily over the years. Everyone (and I mean everyone) is making and selling vinyl records, including Target and Walmart. The annual demand for vinyl is between 320-400 million albums, while the total manufacturing capacity is 160 million albums per year. That is a problem for small labels. And to think, we are in the golden age of streaming — even hi-res streaming! By the way, streaming revenues were up 13.4% to $10.1 billion in 2020.

Back to the Bad Old Days of the Web – Jorge Arango

Indeed, the bad old days of browser wars and conflicting corporate interests are back. 

NFT sales volume surges to $2.5 bln in 2021 first half 

Yes, crypto is hot. NFT is hotter. So is the planet. 

You really need to quit Twitter.

You might have already read this article. It is excellent writing and a good post for everyone to share. It was hard, but I got off Facebook and Instagram, and I even managed to limit my Twitter usage to less than 30 minutes a day. If you are a grown-up (like the author of this piece seems to be), you need to know how to exercise self-control and fight off the addictive tendencies that drive so much social media usage. 

Individuals Now Spend More Time On TikTok Than YouTube, Facebook, Netflix

In a recent report, App Annie, a mobile research and analytics company, points out that the average U.S. android user spent 24.5 hours per month on TikTok, compared with 22 hours on YouTube and 17.5 hours on Facebook. Like I’ve said before, TikTok is coming for YouTube in a big way. 

So Much Money Everywhere

Dan Primack notes many all-time records set in techlandia during the first half of 2021: 

  • VC dollars invested: $288bn 
  • VC dollars invested in U.S. startups: $140bn 
  • Startups sold: $232bn 
  • 410 companies went public (Thanks, SPACs) 
  • 5,248 PE/VC funds looking for $900bn

[Actually, I did tweet this one 🙂 ]

Walkover

I didn’t think the principled India of 1974 described in this article ever existed. That’s just one thing that makes this story so incredible. 

July 11, 2021, San Francisco

A connecting principle
Linked to the invisible
Almost imperceptible
Something inexpressible
Science insusceptible
Logic so inflexible
Causally connectible
Nothing is invincible

Synchronicity, The Police, 1983

Techmeme, reminded me that it has been ten years since the launch of Google+, the doomed-from-the-start social networking effort by Google, and a supposed competitor to Facebook. I was skeptical of the service at the launch, to put it mildly, but I totally understood why Google had to take a swing at it. Looking back, Google managed to deliver on the “why” of its goals, but not the “how.” 

Today, search is not just about pages, but also about people and the relevance of the information to them…Google needs to adapt, and getting social and location signals is important for the company. Search is now search relevant to you in the context of your world. 

My argument (even before the release of Google+) was that the only way for Google to beat Facebook was through Android, its mobile platform. Social networks were (and still are) all about communication, and communication tools are necessary for cementing relationships. Google, I thought, could create a platform of interactions that might give it a significant leg up on Facebook. 

To me, interactions are synchronous, are highly personal, are location-aware, and allow the sharing of experiences, whether it’s photographs, video streams or simply smiley faces. Interactions are supposed to mimic the feeling of actually being there. Interactions are about enmeshing the virtual with the physical.

Interactions were (and still are) a key part of what I have always thought to be what I called “alive web.” It was a shitty name, but it was getting at the idea that the network is all about “synchronicity.” We are moving ever closer to a “synchronous web.” Google’s original implementation of Hangouts had the makings of a platform that could enable constant interaction. Sadly, Google’s internal dysfunction relegated it to a dustbin of mediocrity.(The Verge has a good rundown of the mess that is Google’s communication strategy.)  It has been over a decade since I first talked about the “alive web.” The pervasive connectivity and increasing number of network connections excited me then (and still does). 

“Connectivity offers an opportunity to create a different kind of Internet experience that’s more immersive and interactive. And that persistent connection is what allows us to create and experience the Alive Web. I think Chatroulette was an early signal of the Alive Web, although the world instead focused on the vileness of its content. Seamless connectivity allows us to mimic many offline behaviors online, and interactions are part of that mega-trend.

On this new Alive Web, what we miss doesn’t matter. What matters is the connection and the interactions. We get online to socialize instead of posting status updates, just as we would when we would go to our favorite club or a neighborhood bar.

This new web is less about page views and it is more about engagement and the economics of attention, two topics I have written about in the past. As I start to look into the future, it is clear that services and apps need to optimize around attention.”

Long misunderstood for years, Snap is a good example of a company that is all about “interactions,” and that’s why it is remarkably different from its competitors. It is still not synchronous, but its core behavior revolves around communication between a small group. Standing in stark contrast, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are about “broadcasting” to the bigger world. 

Ten years later, it seems we are finally on the cusp of that communal, immediate, and synchronous web. In a podcast conversation (published today) with Stephen Robles of AppleInsider, I talked about why I am excited about SharePlay (and other such technologies.) The reason I keep going back to the real-time and synchronous internet is mostly because all great conversations happen in real-time. 

Clubhouse and all those who are cloning it are furthering the cause of this synchronous Internet. We used to like to watch TV together or listen to music. It was a communal experience. The Internet made it a solitary activity, and then social networks turned it into “media” that needed to be broadcast and monetized.

Thus, the current notion of the Internet is based on scale. But in a synchronous web, we don’t need megascale. Intimacy of the experience is a feature, and not a bug. This is about creating synchronized experiences.  So, when you have something like SharePlay, you can have a more personal, intimate experience. It becomes about friendships and family.  

Other services have offered such communal experiences, but the sheer scale of Apple’s ecosystem has a potential of turning Shareplay into a game-changer. This could eventually be a catalyst for needed change in social media, which is stuck in a traditional mode of broadcasting and monetizing through advertising. The long-term gift of the crypto (and blockchain) revolution is not going to be the amount of cash many will bank, but instead, it will allow for new internet (and network) behaviors to emerge. Monetization beyond advertising will lead to experimentation in enabling niche but dense community experiences. 

Looking back a decade ago, I was quite naive and optimistic about the emergence of the alive web. Perhaps, I am a bit over-optimistic still. But I don’t think so — the pandemic has exposed us to the magic of being together, both online and offline. We have started wanting more intimacy in our collaborative lives online. We have a generation that is visually native. Their communication default is something akin to FaceTime. And that’s good training for expecting a synchronous Internet.

I am dreaming of synchronicity because it is how we are meant to interact. Phone guys might not realize it, but synchronicity is the killer app of 5G (and beyond.)

June 29, 2021, San Francisco

Believe it or not, the harsh glare of scrutiny on big technology giants has kept them honest, more or less. Realizing how much of their present and future business depends on folks wanting to use their services, they work hard to protect data and privacy. (Like I said, more or less!) After all, our data is what they use to bundle and sell as services to their real customers: advertisers. In the case of Apple, the new marketing pitch is all about “privacy” and how they are not collecting tracking data — a handy way to distinguish themselves from Google and Facebook. I buy Apple products precisely for their stance towards privacy, at least in the U.S. In short, a noble ideology that also helps them sell more gear with fat margins—not that there’s anything wrong with it.

The companies we should be worried about are the many smaller and mid-sized companies that most of us have never heard about. Whether it is app developers surreptitiously selling information to third parties, data breaches at retailers (and their digital platforms), or data-brokers with security systems that have more holes than swiss cheese, these companies will continue to be the cause of most headaches in our digital lives. And they are the group more likely to take liberties with data and privacy. 

I began ruminating on this earlier in the week when I read this article about electric utilities resetting the smart thermostats inside residential homes in Houston in response to the rising demand for electricity due to record-breaking heat. This story is a harbinger of our future: what at first seems like some minor convenience and even a seemingly good deal becomes a major problem for those who don’t spend time reading the complicated terms of service documents — which is to say, just about everyone.

In this case, if a customer signed up for an offering called “Smart Savers Texas” from a company called EnergyHub (which is owned by Alarm.com, a seller of security services), they could be entered into sweepstakes. In exchange, they gave permission to EnergyHub to control their thermostats during periods of peak or extreme demand. 

This is yet another example of how, though we dread the future controlled by big technology companies, we will ultimately suffer most at the hands of what I call “non-technology” companies that now have access to our private data and control over our lives.  

And at the top of the list are companies that have always been hostile to their customers: telephone companies, electric utilities, insurance companies, for-profit hospital systems, big airlines, and other such organizations. They will only use “smart data” to amplify their past bad behavior. 

Dark patterns around offers like “Smart Savers Texas” make it virtually impossible for you and me to really discern what we might be signing up for. After all, no one sifts through the pages-long terms of service agreements. And I certainly don’t mean to pick on this one company — this “unclear” behavior is part of the entire digital ecosystem. 

Try getting out from under a contract at a health club or canceling your subscription to The New York Times. Good luck. In this digital age, these seemingly simple tasks have only gotten harder. I have been trying, without much success, to unsubscribe from emails from a publishing company for almost a decade. And this is neither the first nor the last time you are going to see “utilities” or other entities muck around with what you assume to be private spaces. 

What happened in Houston is among a rapidly growing list of incidents that make me pause about embracing the Smart Home, even though I was an early adopter. The safety of our “connected devices” is increasingly unclear. I have little trust in Amazon’s ability to police its digital shelves. What if the device we are buying is fake or is sending data surreptitiously to an overseas destination? I don’t know if you remember (or even read) this scary story in Vice about seemingly innocuous apps that collect personal data and sell it to anyone willing to pay. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. It is increasingly important to pause and consider: is cheap really cheap, or is there a bigger price to pay in the long term?

Belatedly, and thankfully, Apple has introduced AppTrackingTransparency (ATT), which will force apps to seek permission to track us and our activity across apps. Deservedly, many have written about the impact of this on Facebook, but it goes beyond that one company. Still, as EFF points out, it doesn’t do enough. 

“It doesn’t do anything about ‘first-party’ tracking, or an app tracking your behavior on that app itself,” EFF writes on its blog. “ATT might also be prone to ‘notification fatigue’ if users become so accustomed to seeing it that they just click through it without considering the choice. And, just like any other tracker-blocking initiative, ATT may set off a new round in the cat-and-mouse game between trackers and those who wish to limit them.”

And that’s the challenge. The pressure of protecting our digital sanctity is falling on consumers, not those who profit from it. Even Apple’s efforts shift the workload to ordinary people, and many of us are just not equipped to handle the cognitive load or don’t understand the impact. 

For nearly a decade, I have raised questions about an individual’s rights pertaining to how data is collected and used. In 2014, naively I wrote about something called “Terms of Trust,” in which companies explain what they would do with our data in plain language, instead of legalese. 

Eight years later, we are still stumbling through the fog — even in our own homes.

June 22, 2021, San Francisco