Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Darkest [K]night

I use an iPad app called Newsify to gather the news of the day.  This morning it tells me that I have 1500 stories waiting for my attention.  In addition, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal both pop up on my screen every morning.  But, you see, I teach about technology and the Internet.  So naturally, I have set the "preferences" on all those news sources to focus on those kinds of stories.  The algorithms on each site then "refine" my preferences to make sure that I know immediately if the hiring requests by the Foxconn factory in China prove that Apple is rushing a new, smaller iPad to market.  My eyes, and the myriad "brain bots" of my aggregator apps, ceaselessly scour the Internet for any tiny techie tidbit that might be useful for my students.  I cannot remember the last time I did something so mundane as "watch the news" or read the local paper.  Maybe when I retire.  But not now, I have "more important" things to do.

That precision of focus may explain, but cannot not forgive, the fact that a full day passed before I learned that a deranged young man had walked into a crowded theater and pulled out an AR-15 assault rifle, a Remington 12-gauge shotgun and a couple of .40 caliber Glock handguns.  When he finished shooting, 12 people had been slaughtered, and dozens more lay injured. The shootings occurred outside Denver, just down the road from another icon of contemporary tragedy, Columbine High School.  This time the innocents had gathered for the midnight premiere of  The Dark Knight Rises, the Nolan brothers' latest somber Batman homage.  No doubt an endless parade of posts and tweets, blogs and bits and bytes will fill our screens trying to again make sense of the senseless, to separate irony from insanity, to decide whether the guns or the shooter were culpable.  I wish us well in those endeavors.

I, however remain shaken that, despite the fact that I  live much of my life immersed in contemporary 15-second news cycle,  I simply missed this.  Today Colorado is a nanosecond from Carolina.  In digital time, 24 hours is an eon.  There is something broken in the media environment, in the preferences, in the algorithms and spiders and bots that present me with Foxconn as informational wheat, and winnows Denver out as chaff.  As our "search profiles" become more and more "refined" by our own hand, and by the increasingly insistent nudges from our various digital assistants, those preferences become more blinders than guides.   I am distressed that as people died and their families mourned, I did not even share with them the moment of transient sadness that seems to pass for grief these days.

I'm sorry.  I didn't know.  I just didn't know.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Getting The Cart Before the Mouse

My mornings begin with a blend of old and new technology.  The "old" piece is that I read a couple of newspapers over breakfast - a browse through both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Old school liberal and old school conservative, just to keep a balanced perspective.  The "new" piece is that I read them both both on my iPad.  Nice and tidy, no stacks of paper growing out in the garage.

Recently the Wall Street Journal has been the more depressing of the two.  The combination of genuinely disappointing business news and Murdock's political desire to make it seem even more so, can really bring you down.  However, today it was the usually more upbeat Times dishing out the gloom and doom.  Two stories caught my eye for all the wrong reasons.  The first was about the F.D.A. spying on its own scientists.  The backstory had to do with a long standing fight within the Agency about breast cancer treatment recommendations.  Today's story discussed how the Agency shadowed the scientists who were opposed to the company line:

"The agency, using so-called spy software designed to help employers monitor workers, captured screen images from the government laptops of the five scientists as they were being used at work or at home. The software tracked their keystrokes, intercepted their personal e-mails, copied the documents on their personal thumb drives and even followed their messages line by line as they were being drafted, the documents show."

The story goes on to point out that while federal agencies do have wide ranging power to monitor employee behavior, this crosses the line - to the extent that The White House "reminded" the F.D.A. that they were acting improperly.  Well, I should hope so!

The second story was lighter in tone but equally, if not more disturbing.  In this story Lee Siegel describes how LinkedIn sent him an invitation to "connect" with his mother because “Building these connections can create opportunities in the future.”  Lee's mother had died three years ago.  Exploring further, Siegel discovered that LinkedIn had gained access to his email address book and sent "connect invitations" to 974 people and businesses with whom he had corresponded over the years.  And yes, this is the same LinkedIn who had "inadvertently" shared my password with hackers a month or so ago. They recommended I "change that password on all accounts and applications" and apologized for any "inconvenience."

Stories such as these make me worry that the technology app cart has gotten out so far ahead of the horse that the horse has no idea where it is heading.  Technology has, historically speaking, most often succeeded in the marketplace when it improved the human condition.  True, there have been the occasional glitches - like that whole splitting the atom thing.  But I have always clung to the notion that progress, albeit spastic, does in the final analysis serve the greater good.

These two stories take a bit of the shine off my sanguine attitude.  I wonder what type of relationships have grown up between management and labor at the F.D.A. that spyware to monitor employees became a valuable product and rational management option?  And then I answer my own question: the software evolved from the same kinds of realities that have forced me to ban all electronics from my face-to-face classrooms because students - even very good students - cannot leave Facebook and Twitter alone for an hour unless they realize their grade in the course will suffer if they go online during class. So adult employees too, no doubt get distracted by their digital world.  But this smacks of Big Brother.  .  .  And, LinkedIn?  What kind of company thinks it is all right to delve into my personal data and use it for their own marketing purposes? Oh, wait - that's right, all of them!

The old saw of innovation in business used to be "Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door!"  Software and app developers seem to still be out there building mousetraps.  But increasingly it seems that we are the mice.  A vital part of the economic equation seems to have been broken, and perhaps my friends over in the business school can clarify it for me.  Time was when a product was designed to serve the needs of customers.  You built a better mousetrap and folks would buy your mousetrap. Customers were happy and you made a good profit. Great news for everyone but the mice.

Nowadays it seems that the relationship between product and customer is incidental.  The vital relationship appears to be between company and shareholder.  Which is fine if you control a hedge fund or work for one.  Not so good if you're an average Joe or Jane.  Think about Facebook - you know, that LinkedIn on steroids.  Somewhere close to a billion users who can't let 20 minutes go by without checking Facebook to see if some incredibly important event has occurred.  Seems like there is a pretty broad path being beaten to that door, must be a good mousetrap, right?  Then why has the IPO become a punchline on the talk shows?  Why can't the stock rise above its initial price?  How did that happen?  Oh, right.  We aren't really customers because Facebook and most of the other little icons on our phones and pads and tablets are "free."  We pay with our information, our data, which is probably why LinkedIn and the rest of our apps feel entitled to dip into our data whenever they want. Facebook's mousetrap is supposed to push advertising to the mice, and to do that you need to know what the mice want to buy!

So where does this "essay-turned-rant" lead?  Actually, to yet another story in today's Times.  In this story, Alina Tugend reports on some studies that reveal that if people are required to be "offline and out-of-touch" for a set period of time, they become more relaxed, more productive and happier.  I think there is a vital extension to that assertion.  It seems to me quite possible that if we consciously choose to spend more time "digitally disconnected," we may begin to get a better idea of what we want technology to do for us when we are online.  And if we make those desires known, at work, at play - god forbid, even on Facebook, maybe entrepreneurs will once again begin to make mousetraps we actually want, and for which we would be willing to pay.  Perhaps then we could get the horse back before the cart carrying the mousetrap and I could settle on a single metaphor!