Harvesting our amygdalas? Or trying to make the world a better place?

Jim Stogdill at O'Reilly Radar writes about Facebook and how they're actually farming our amygdala for information about our preferences and future actions.

Your mind is advanced enough to experience a self, a self that you think has intrinsic value. But that's just a construction in your head. Your actual extrinsic value, I'm sorry to say, is just the sum of your known behaviors and the predictive model they make possible. The stuff you think of as "your data" and the web thinks of as "our data about you — read the ToS," is the grist for that mill. And Facebook's shiny front room is just a place for you to behave promiscuously and observably. While you're farming, well, fake carrots or something, they are farming your amygdala.

It's a cool idea. Yes, our preferences are being recorded and mined. But I don't dig the sentiment that absolutely and necessarily a bad thing. How about saving us time, money, and effort? Isn't that the point of technology anyway?

At the risk of sounding like some sort of technological libertarian... well, yes, there is a certain invisible hand here that guides our actions and aligns our incentives. Clearly as human beings, we DO STUFF. And if the tools (whether Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, or some other communication facility) help us do that stuff faster, better, and for cheaper, then by all means.

We are still adjusting to the advent of new communication technology. Every major advance will result in a backlash. While new communication technology can be used to surveil and control people, I hardly think this is the aim of Facebook or any other innovator here.

The smarter systems get, the better we live. That's the point of technology. Lets not tilt at imaginary windmills. Especially if those windmills are out to get us.

Robert Thurman says we can find enlightenment through the interconnectedness brought to us by computers

Photo by Edward Burtynsky

Professor Robert Thurman gave an amazing TED lecture years ago that I recently rewatched. The topic: We can be Buddhas. We can find enlightenment. But one piece of it caught my eye. This quote:

"...all the interconnectedness of all the computers and everything, it's the forging of a mass awareness, of where everybody can really know everything that's going on everywhere in the planet."

Who is to say the time we spend in front of a computer does not promote deeper, real relationships? We are more connected with people than ever. And future generations will be even more so. I get that there's a general sentiment that spending more time on Facebook or Twitter isn't valuable "real people time." This sentiment is wrong.

I can take a small step into other people's minds and experiences when I dip into my activity streams. I found out minutes ago that an old friend of mine may become vegan because of an indie movie he saw. That's a tiny slice but it lets me step out of my own world. Ideas, experiences, slices of life, sent around the world and shared instantaneously for anyone who happens to be listening. And listen they do -- in the dozens, the hundreds, the thousands, the millions. 

Chris Sacca often gets asked how to get more followers for themselves, complaining of having only a couple hundred. He has millions. In the past, he's replied: Have you ever had to give a speech to a wedding reception? Say of 100 people, even. Most people would be scared to death. But that's what you can do for no cost at all to you. You can speak to a hundred people at any time at your every whim. That's powerful. 

Robert Thurman goes on though. There are consequences to this transparency. This new and possibly limitless interconnectedness. 

And therefore it will become intolerable -- what compassion is, is where it will become intolerable for us, totally intolerable that we sit here in comfort and in pleasure and enjoying the life of the mind or whatever it is, and there are people who are absolutely riddled with disease and they cannot have a bite of food and they have no place, or they're being brutalized by some terrible person and so forth. It just becomes intolerable. With all of us knowing everything, we're kind of forced by technology to become Buddhas or something, to become enlightened.

  ...

  Because our egocentric perception -- from the Buddha's point of view, misperception -- is that all we are is what is inside our skin. And it's inside and outside, self and other, and other is all very different. And everyone here is unfortunately carrying that habitual perception, a little bit, right? You know, someone sitting next to you in a seat -- that's OK because you're in a theater, but if you were sitting on a park bench and someone came up and sat that close to you, you'd freak out. What do they want from me? Like, who's that? And so you wouldn't sit that close to another person because of your notion that it's you versus the universe -- that's all Buddha discovered. Because that cosmic basic idea that it is us all alone, each of us, and everyone else is different, then that puts us in an impossible situation, doesn't it? Who is it who's going to get enough attention from the world? Who's going to get enough out of the world? Who's not going to be overrun by an infinite number of other beings -- if you're different from all the other beings?

  So where compassion comes is where you surprisingly discover you lose yourself in some way: through art, through meditation, through understanding, through knowledge actually, knowing that you have no such boundary, knowing your interconnectedness with other beings. You can experience yourself as the other beings when you see through the delusion of being separated from them. When you do that, you're forced to feel what they feel. 
...

  But apparently, this is a strange paradox of life. When you're no longer locked in yourself, and as the wisdom, or the intelligence, or the scientific knowledge of the nature of the world, that enables you to let your mind spread out, and empathize, and enhance the basic human ability of empathizing, and realizing that you are the other being, somehow by that opening, you can see the deeper nature of life, and you can, you get away from this terrible iron circle of I, me, me, mine, like the Beatles used to sing.

Mirror neurons strike again. Empathy. We must step out of ourselves, our ego, our own tiny worlds. Through that, we find enlightenment. 

It is an amazing time to be alive, to be able to participate in some small part of this... this next evolutionary step in human society. Of enlightened, interconnected experience.

Who knew? Powerline adapters push 50Mbps+ connectivity through your wall outlets these days.

This is one of the least talked-about things in tech... Probably because for most people, internet connectivity isn't a problem. 802.11n is pretty amazing. But it sucks for larger houses or those with a lot of walls. Like where I moved recently.

Luckily after some research, I think we found our solution. Powerline adapters! Whereas 802.11n will get severely limited by walls and distance, powerline stuff seems to hold pretty steady even at long distances.

Someone even did full benchmarks on it.

Technology marches on steadily, and I am heartened. Ten years ago this tech was pretty worthless. Now it looks like a real viable option.

If you own the infrastructure you get to charge rent: What Apple's 30% charge teaches us about the attention economy

Most businesses on the Internet are just like business everywhere else. You make something people want, then sell it. Stalwarts from Amazon and eBay to the hottest startups of today like AirBnb, Etsy and ModCloth all can be classified as fundamental marketplaces bringing people and goods/services together. Content sites are just classic media -- they make money on ads. Apps have driven the computing landscape forever -- you pay for software that does things you need. All of these endeavors convert the raw resource of attention into dollars. That's the simplest and most direct way to profits on the Internet. To turn water into wine, if you will.

Google, Facebook, Apple, and other fundamental pieces of the attention infrastructure are different. They make money with a fundamentally different mechanism, and mint profits dramatically. Why? They get to charge every other business on the Internet. 

  • Google practically owns TWO pillars of these: organic search (SEO) and paid search (SEM) -- every online business pays attention to these two channels.
  • Facebook and Twitter essentially control the Social Media attention infrastructure. Further, Facebook has one of the most sophisticated targeting technologies for ads ever created. Some retailers can make 2x-4x returns on their ad spend. That's real.
  • Apple has created its own form of infrastructure through their app stores. They've essentially created new attention marketplaces for both content and applications. With today's news, they are cashing in. 
  • Yahoo was once the darling of attention infrastructure in its hey day. Because the Internet was so new and uncharted, Yahoo was modeled after the OLD RL infrastructure -- Madison avenue and big media. 

What happens when you own infrastructure? You get to charge rent on all the other businesses. Since the Internet is entirely attention-based, you can't really make money on the Internet if you don't spend some money to get that attention. That's why virtually every savvy Internet retailer has segmented their marketing departments into the infrastructure triad of SEM, SEO, and Social Media. In Apple's case: Apps can't sell without a marketplace. 

In the 1800's, the advent of the railroad changed American society fundamentally. You could ship things long distances for the first time. What that allowed railroad companies to do is not that different from what attention infrastructure players can do today. They can charge whatever they want. And railroad industry barons did -- arbitrarily charging farmers more than their industrialist friends from big oil. Farmers had to band together in movements like the Grange movement to fight for their rights. The difference today is that technology moves so fast that the government can't possibly regulate it. 

Thankfully, since innovation can happen fast, alternatives have and will continue to appear. Imagine how much of a bind app developers would be in if Android didn't exist yet. Now seems like a good time to be betting long on the open and free nature of the Android App Store. User experience problems can be solved with money. Last I heard, Google had some. 

What can startup entrepreneurs learn from this framework? 

Attention infrastructure companies are structurally very different from fundamental businesses. They: 

  • Require significant capital infusion and management of fundraising to avoid dilution -- look at how closely the creators of all of these infrastructure players especially recently (Facebook, Google, Twitter) have had to manage their fundraising
  • Are much riskier but provide much bigger reward: Many try and fail, but winners take all -- it's much hard to actually become infrastructure. For every big player, there are inumerable failures. The juice is worth the squeeze, though. 
  • Created by technologists -- this is where hackers shine. The attention economy happens at the cutting edge of where technology meets society. Turns out people who are good with blades are the right people to build these things. 

Fundamental businesses, on the other hand:

  • Earn money immediately -- can start with little capital! ModCloth started as a side project of two brilliant CMU students just selling vintage dresses, a redux of the eBay for pez dispensers story a decade earlier. 
  • Less risk up front  -- because you make money right away. It's easier to know you have something people want if you can test it on a hourly/daily/weekly basis, especially if you're a marketplace.
  • Can still go huge -- can use the virtuous cycles of the attention infrastructure to grow, sometimes exponentially. Every time you put a dollar into Google at positive ROI, you get more dollars back. So if you keep feeding dollars into the machine, you'll end up with some big numbers. That's one hell of a money machine.

This turns out to be a valuable framework for identifying viable Internet startup ideas. Are you building something that could become infrastructure? Or are you building a fundamental value-generating business that uses the infrastructure? Both are amazing business models, but have radically different risk profiles. But as Apple has reminded us today -- it's good to be king. 

The tyranny of incentive structures gone awry: How Google Wave failed

Anonymous user on quora writes:

Part of the deal initially was that Wave would be compensated much like a startup, base salaries were supposed to be low but with heavy performance linked bonuses which would have made the Wave team rich upon Wave's success.

During the course of negotiations and building the Wave product, the "heavily reward for success" part of the equation remained but the "punish upon failure" got gradually watered down into irrelevance, making the entire project a win-win bigger proposition.

Because large parts of the performance bonus were tied to intermediate performance goals, the Wave team was more motivated to hit deadlines than to ship good product. Product began to suffer as the team pushed to fill in a feature checklist on time.

Reflecting on my own time as a program manager at Microsoft early in my career, I have to say the push to ship intermediate milestones and hit dates can have some serious unintended consequences.

The classic software project management quandary rears its ugly head again, over and over, and seemingly everywhere.

Quality, scope, or shipping on time: Choose two.

One thing I disliked about being a PM at Microsoft was how one of the main things we ended up having to do was punt bugs in order to ship on time. We were implicitly and systematically reducing quality and scope in order to ship on time.

If you don't sacrifice quality, then you're sacrificing scope. And doing that mid-stream for a project is often death by a thousand paper cuts, especially for user experience. Product teams end up spending as much time designing to duct tape together incomplete features and broken scenarios as building them in the first place.

And when you don't scale back scope, you sacrifice quality and end up with Google Wave. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

May regime change come to Burma too

Tonight Steph and I watched a documentary that tells a story that needs to be heard. It is the story of underground video journalists in Burma during the Saffron rebellion of 2007 in Burma. Untold thousands were jailed and killed. They too shut down the Internet that September.

Yet the regime persists. You don't appreciate the freedoms you have until you realize how few people in the world actually have them too.

Moving on and thanks

Just as Posterous has prospered, grown and changed, so to is it time for me to evolve my role. Effective today, I'm ending my day-to-day development with Posterous and moving into an advisory role. Though my day-to-day may change, my faith in the team and the product is unchanged and unwavering. Posterous is in good hands and on the right track to fulfilling its potential. I am proud of what we've built together and look forward to the future with anticipation to see where the team and you, the users, take this very special community. 

My greatest passions lie with the early stage of building world-changing consumer products. To that end, I've decided to join the team at Y Combinator as a designer-in-residence and help the dozens of top pre-seed startups in the newest Winter 2011 batch reach their potential through excellent user experience.

I am greatly thankful to our team, investors and most of all our users for all the amazing work and adventures. Thanks for all of your support.  

Content should be experienced by relevance and importance and interestingness, not chronologically

On Hacker News today, someone posted a Page-Rank-resorted listing of all of Paul Graham's essays. The content itself I'm pretty familiar with since we are acolytes of the Y Combinator school. 

The #1 thing I am struck by here is that even though I am familiar with most of the content and have read most of them already -- it serves as an amazing reminder of what is important and notable. In a glut of information, the most important and scarce resource is attention. 

Luckily computers are quite good at processing large amounts of information. Algorithms like Page Rank let smart programmers make sense of the world. Facebook is one of the few other sites that have realized this and are actively incorporating it into their product in the form of edge rank

If chronological sort is dead, why is the default sort of almost everything else on the web pretty much chronological? It is certainly easy to do. ORDER BY created_at is probably the most used SQL query there is ont he web. Clearly there is a problem here -- and people are rushing in to solve it. 

Some friends of mine from Anomaly Innovations created The Cadmus, a twitter client that shows your twitter feed via relevance instead of chronological. They found in AB testing their relevance algorithm that they could increase engagement by 40%! This seems so compelling I'm rather blown away Twitter hasn't done anything in this area yet. Other groundbreakers to watch out for in the space include Chris Dixon's incredible team at Hunch, YC-backed Directed Edge, and Louis Gray's my6sense.

While there are leaders in the pack, the relevance space is littered with failures and false starts -- so much so that there is a bit of a stigma with being another one of those 'relevance and machine learning' startups. 
With good reason. Many fail.

This form of social-oriented content relevance is a tough nut to crack. It's fundamentally different from traditional Netflix-style machine learning since the number of watchable movies in the world is very much a finite set. In contrast, the amount of interesting content on the web is essentially infinite. The field is still a bit wide open because few people have both the dataset to work and test on, AND the financial backing to see the project all the way through. 

I know this: The future of the web does not include chronological sort as the default view. In the next few years, the frontier of this will be pushed by smart and winning teams that will figure out a way to productize interestingness and provide it on tap. We're only in year 20 of building Vannevar Bush's memex -- a world of human-computer-symbiosis. Conquering the chronological problem is the next logical step.