The rumors are flying about Apple rolling out a game-changing TV, because of Walter Isaacson quoting Jobs as saying ‘I cracked it’. Some level of reserve is appropriate, I guess considering how old and entrenched the TV industry is. But, isn’t that a perfect recipe for disruption?
I’ve been talking about Apple’s push to win ‘the battle for the livingroom’ for years. Given Apple TV, and the rise of the post-PC world, Apple will obviously continue the push into the living room. Apple TV is to the next Apple Television as Newton was to the iPad. A foray, an exercise: a hobby, as Jobs said.
- Seth Godin, Cities don’t die (but corporations do)
Cities do die, actually, but very slowly. Usually cities decline when there is a cultural collapse, or when the cost of rebuilding aged infrastructure is more expensive than migrating.
However, Seth’s real point is that cities are more resilient than companies. And this is true because companies select people that fit in and reject those that don’t. Cities work the opposite way: people elect to live in specific cities, and they do so for their own reasons. They make the city fit their needs, and they become part of a myriad of semi-independent social scenes.
Cities are connectives, with people headed in many directions, loosely cooperating — obeying the traffic rules, and paying taxes — while companies are collectives, where people must subordinate themselves to a strategy and the strong ties of an organization. Cities are more resilient, flexible, and cheaper to operate than companies. Cities are superlinear and companies are sublinear.
And, as a result, the larger cities get, the more productive they become, the more responsive and adaptable they become: which is the opposite of companies, which become slower, less adaptable, and less productive (per capita) as they become larger.
- Richard Florida, The Spread of Start-Up America and the Rise of the High-Tech South
Florida is making a super weak argument here. The entire south — southeast and south-central states, and Texas — collectively raised about $2B in venture in 2010, which is the same as New York City.
Besides, innovation culture is an emergent property of cities, not broad geographic regions. Would be much more useful to see this broken out by cities, where I am sure that the Geoffrey West superlinearity equation — Y(0) = N0Y(t)B — would predict that a city of 2 million will get 1.15 times as much as a city of one million, on average, because B ≈ 1.15.
The debate about tools like Twitter Trends is, I believe, a debate we will be having more and more often. As more and more of our online public discourse takes place on a select set of private content platforms and communication networks, and these providers turn to complex algorithms to manage, curate, and organize these massive collections, there is an important tension emerging between what we expect these algorithms to be, and what they in fact are. Not only must we recognize that these algorithms are not neutral, and that they encode political choices, and that they frame information in a particular way. We must also understand what it means that we are coming to rely on these algorithms, that we want them to be neutral, we want them to be reliable, we want them to be the effective ways in which we come to know what is most important.
Twitter Trends is only the most visible of these tools. The search engine itself, whether Google or the search bar on your favorite content site (often the same engine, under the hood), is an algorithm that promises to provide a logical set of results in response to a query, but is in fact the result of an algorithm designed to take a range of criteria into account so as to serve up results that satisfy, not just the user, but the aims of the provider, their vision of relevance or newsworthiness or public import, and the particular demands of their business model. As James Grimmelmann observed, “Search engines pride themselves on being automated, except when they aren’t.” When Amazon, or YouTube, or Facebook, offer to algorithmically and in real time report on what is “most popular” or “liked” or “most viewed” or “best selling” or “most commented” or “highest rated,” it is curating a list whose legitimacy is based on the presumption that it has not been curated. And we want them to feel that way, even to the point that we are unwilling to ask about the choices and implications of the algorithms we use every day.
Peel back the algorithms, and this becomes quite apparent. Yes, a casual visit to Twitter’s home page may present Trends as an unproblematic list of terms, that might appear a simple calculation. But a cursory look at Twitter’s explanation of how Trends works – in its policies and help pages, in its company blog, in tweets, in response to press queries, even in the comment threads of the censorship discussions - Twitter lays bare the variety of weighted factors Trends takes into account, and cops to the occasional and unfortunate consequences of these algorithms.” —
Gillespie pulls back the curtain and shows the little man working the levers and knobs that control the public face of the great impartial oracle that we seem to want the web to be. However, the ‘reality’ that Twitter’s trending topics or Tumblr’s Explore shows is the result of conscious algorithmic and curatorial decisions that shape the results. And that shaping is not just one of emphasis, but of exclusion and censorship.
We are confronting a serious issue of public discourse, one that has been with us for hundreds of years, since Gutenberg: those that control the presses, control public discourse.
Increasingly, as we move out of the industrial, modern era, that control is shifting from corporate media companies — TV, magazine, and newspaper companies — into a web-based, post-modern, post industrial time. The rise of search and social tools has raised up companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google, and our notions of relevance — and our beliefs and values — are directly influenced by the mazes that these companies have built.
Our social discourse has migrated online: first, in the early ’00s, to a constellation of blogs, but now we have migrated into social territorial explicitly owned and managed by web companies.
This is a direct analogue of the growing ownership of US public space by retailers, landlords, and developers. We live in a world of malls, private parks (like Zucotti Park, strangely enough), and other semi-public, privately controlled environments. These are not places solely under the jurisdiction of our civil laws: they are subject to arbitrary controls by their owners. (Paradoxically, it is the fact that Zuccotti Park is not a New York City park that allows protestors to sleep their over night.)
Can we rely on the corporation interests — or whims — of entrepreneurs to control public discourse?
Or more centrally: Is there actually an alternative? If I am interested in seeing what is most relevant to me when I turn on my device, some software has to run, some agency is needed to filter through petabytes of blurbage to pick out the snippets I can read over breakfast. If not this system of Twitter, Flipboard, News.me, and Summify, then what? Are all curation and algorithmic filtering inherently censorship?
I think the answer is yes and no. Yes, any system to filter — either by social curation or algorithmic analysis — will impose some worldview to determine what factors should go into excluding some stories and surfacing others. But, no, that worldview should not be intentionally ideological, imposing an extremist viewpoint. Or perhaps, in the perfect world, we could imagine that the worldview would be something like our own, and potentially even accessible to users.
When a long list of complex factors are smooshed together, and these companies have to decide how things will be filtered and float, the last thing any user wants is a system skewed to sell more soap. The interests of the individual and the public should predominate.
Just as the government has stepped in to stop unscrupulous advertising in the industrial era (like claims that cigarettes aren’t dangerous) we will likely have to regulate the degree to which web media services factor in commercial interests to their inner machinery.
Just because a restaurant is private property does not mean the laws of the land don’t apply. This is why the challenge against Jim Crow laws started with lunch counters: to challenge the notion that owners could pick their clientele, and make their own laws.
We are likely to see a new sort of rights movement: not a civil rights movement, but a social rights movement.
Tim De Chant comments on a 2009 research paper by Marcus Hamilton and colleagues which explores the mathematics of population density when humans first started moving out of Africa, around 50,000 years ago.
Tim De Chant, Density solidified early human domination
Our predisposition to living densely, they suppose, may have contributed to our stunning success beyond the savannas of Africa.
A sublinear relationship between population size and home range size—meaning that larger groups live at higher densities—imparts special advantages for species that can deal with the twin burdens of density, overshoot and social conflict. Overshoot describes a population that overwhelms its habitat, devouring all available food and otherwise making a mess of the place. Social conflict is as it sounds, where tight proximities provoke fights between individuals. Together, those snags can bring a once booming population to it’s knees.
But social animals are uniquely adapted to cope with those problems. For one, social behavior soothes tensions when they do rise. And when it comes to the necessities of life, density conveys a distinct advantage for social species—resources, chiefly food, become easier to find. Larger, denser populations squeeze more out of a plot of land than an individual could on his or her own.
Density itself wasn’t directly responsible for the first forays out of Africa. Those groups were were too small and dispersed to receive a substantial boost from density. They faced the worst the natural world had to offer, and many probably couldn’t hack it.
Where population density conferred its advantages was when subsequent waves of colonizers followed. Density allowed those people to thrive. They joined the initial groups, growing more populous and drawing more resources from the land. This made groups more stable both physically and socially—full bellies lead to happier and healthier people. As each group’s numbers grew larger, their social bonds grew stronger and their chances of regional extinction plummeted. In other words, once people worked together to establish themselves, they were likely there to stay.
It’s a heartwarming story the scientific paper tells in the unsentimental language of mathematics. It implies that the essential success of our species can be boiled down to one variable, β, and one value of that variable, ¾. The variable β is an exponent that describes how populations scale numerically and geographically. Its value of ¾ is significant. When β equals one or greater, each additional person requires the same amount of land or more—the group misses out on density’s advantages. But when β is less than one—as it is in our case—then a population becomes denser as it grows larger.
The degree of our sociality has allowed us to bend the curve of population density in our favor. If early humans had been an entirely selfish species—each individual requiring as much or more land than the previous—β would be equal to one or greater. We wouldn’t have lived at higher densities as our populations grew, and early forays beyond the savanna might have petered out. Instead of conquering the globe, we’d have been a footnote of evolution.
And here is where we can consider how this affects our modern lives. Population density may have aided our sojourn out of Africa, but it’s clear there are limits. Hunter-gatherer populations appear to be limited to around 1,000 people, depending on the carrying capacity of the ecosystem. Technology has raised carrying capacities beyond that number—as evinced by the last few millennia of human history—but we don’t know it’s limits. A scaling exponent equal to ¾ may have helped our rise to dominance, but it also could hasten our downfall. Technology may be able to smooth the path to beyond 7 billion, but what if it can’t? What if ¾ is an unbreakable rule? What happens if we reach a point where density can no longer save us from ourselves?
I am betting that social tools — based on liquid media — and new levels of urban living will enable us to push β past 3/4. My prediction is that we will pass over a new threshold when 90% of the world’s population is living in urban settings, and 90% of the world is cooperating and collaborating through online social tools. In effect, we will change the equation by allowing higher degrees of social density while managing contention for resources through lower cost cooperative techniques.
Some friends have said that I set the target too high, others said my video was too long: whatever. It looked pretty clear that with 9 days left and only $2100 so far, I am unlikely to hit $10,000. So I am shelving the Liquid City kickstarter project.
However, I am going to write the book, anyway.
Things will be slightly different. I won’t be setting up an elaborate gated community on Squarespace, so community participation will be more haphazard and open. But I am going to set up a dedicated site for my monthly ruminations, which will — as before — culminate in a monthly essay.
And each month, I will sell the essay for the princely sum of $1. The final book will be $10, comprising 10 essays, an intro and an outro. I may do webinars, if enough people sign up for them. On that, more to follow.
Essays will include these:
The Rise Of Liquid Media
The Architecture of Cooperation
The Social Revolution: It’s Not Democratic, It’s Neo-Tribal
Social Cognition: Your Thoughts Are Not Your Own
Social Density, Influence, And Social Scenes
Privacy versus Publicy: Identity Politics and Social Contracts
Webbed And Urban: Supercharging Superlinearity?
I think I will start with The Architecture of Cooperation, since that is the subject of the TEDxMidAtlantic talk I am presenting in a few weeks.