Tag Archives: technology

Misaligned Interests

Did you happen to hear about (or read!) the NY Times article on how a young man got “sucked into the vortex” of radical videos on YouTube? It’s an interesting and scary read. It’s about how a person goes to YouTube to watch a video on one thing and ends up multiple videos later watching something completely different and often dangerous.

As the article says:

YouTube has been a godsend for hyper-partisans on all sides. It has allowed them to bypass traditional gatekeepers and broadcast their views to mainstream audiences and has helped once-obscure commentators build lucrative media businesses.

As usual, we’re not here to rant about the politics of these videos. It’s just as easy for the videos to be dangerous and non-political and even though YouTube specifically bans harmful or dangerous content, they can’t catch everything.

The real issue here is YouTube’s – and many other platforms’ – business model. They make money by keeping you engaged and the way that they do that is often via a recommendation engine. That engine uses an algorithm that rewards videos that have lengthy watch times by promoting them more often. Of course, the more engaged you are, the more ads you’ll see and that’s really the problem. Most of the popular platforms follow that business model and their interests don’t necessarily align with yours. They all have some sort of algorithm which on YouTube, as the article says, is

the software that determines which videos appear on users’ home pages and inside the “Up Next” sidebar next to a video that is playing. The algorithm is responsible for more than 70 percent of all time spent on the site.

Of course, you can turn off the recommendations. You can also delete your search history, pausing it going forward, and your watch history which will prevent the algorithm from determining what you usually watch. If you haven’t hidden the video suggestions (it’s in your settings) at least you’ll see lots of pretty neutral offerings. More importantly, you’ll take back control and realign their interests with yours.

It would be easy for YouTube and others to prevent a host of problems by killing off the recommendation engine but they never will because it’s the thing that drives their business model. In a perfect world, every business’ interests would align perfectly with those of their customers. Maybe it’s because the big platforms are out of alignment with us that there is so much anger directed toward them?

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Filed under digital media, Huh?

We’ve Been Robbed

An important, thought-provoking piece today from Roger McNamee in the NY Times. It’s entitled A Brief History of How Your Privacy Was Stolen and it raises some disturbing issues which concern – or should concern – us all. Mr. McNamee is a long-time tech investor and author. “Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe” is his book and I think the title gives you a sense about his concerns, especially since he was an early investor in and advisor to Facebook.

This is the gist of his position:

Why it is legal for service providers to comb our messages and documents for economically valuable data? Why is it legal for third parties to trade in our most private information, including credit card transactions, location and health data, and browsing history? Why is it legal to gather any data at all about minors? Why is it legal to trade predictions of our behavior?

Good questions, and if you’re not concerned by the answers or the implications of the questions themselves, here are a few things to consider. First, go to Facebook, click under “settings” and look at the “Ads” tab. Scroll down a bit and open up the line that says “advertisers and businesses.” There you will see a list of all the companies that uploaded your email or phone onto Facebook so they could serve you ads. The companies listed have run ads in the last 7 days containing your information. Scroll down and keep opening the “see more” rows. I quit when I got over 500 companies. Most were companies – car dealers and realtors – with which I’d had no dealings. Why do they have my information? Of course, I’m aware of list brokers but why would a car dealer in Arizona pay for my information? That’s their issue; mine is that they have it.

I’m willing to bet that you’ve given Facebook and others way more information than I have. I use the DuckDuckGo search engine so my search history is private. I’ve locked down my browser so the “bugs” from Facebook, Twitter, and others don’t follow me. You can start by disabling the “ad settings” on the Facebook “ad” tab you’re on. That’s only a small part of the issue.

Anyone who is paying attention to China has seen the rise of a totalitarian “Big Brother” state built around constant surveillance. In 2015, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security announced it was looking to implement an “omnipresent, completely connected, always on and fully controllable” network using facial recognition systems and CCTV hardware. It’s largely in place. What does this have to do with you?

Google, Facebook, and others know pretty much everything about you. Where you’ve been, your friends, your shopping habits, etc. McNamee’s point that “Platforms are under no obligation to protect user privacy. They are free to directly monetize the information they gather by selling it to the highest bidder” underscores the problem. What happens when the highest bidder has nefarious intent? What if it’s the government? What if your insurance company wants to raise your rate because you’re buying fast-food and cookies?

I make it a point to do unpredictable things every so often to mess with whatever algorithm is paying attention. That can be as simple as shopping for products in which I have no interest or “liking” something that I really don’t. Sometimes I wish that we could put the tech genie back in the bottle, even if it’s a bottle I had a hand in opening in some small way.

Read the McNamee piece and tell me what you think, ok?

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Filed under digital media, Huh?, Reality checks

Sharing Isn’t Caring

Suppose you are depressed or maybe you want to quit a bad habit – smoking, for example. Well, of course, there are apps to help you fight depression or to quit smoking. Maybe you want a discount on your car insurance so you agree to install what the industry calls a “telematics device.” As one report explained, these things report when the car was used, distance driven, and time spent driving. They also want to know how fast a driver typically drives and any incidents of hard braking, both of which are indicators that the driver takes risks and doesn’t pay attention. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, the devices can track a car’s location.

Since you’re a fairly literate person, digitally speaking, you know the apps collect some data and obviously so does a tracking device. What you don’t know is what happens to the data that the apps collect. If you go through the app’s privacy policies (you know – the thing you clicked through when you signed up), you’ll probably find that the developer might share data with third parties. And, in fact, a study just released shows that of 36 top-ranked apps for depression and smoking cessation available in public app stores, 29 transmitted data to services provided by Facebook or Google, but only 12 accurately disclosed this in a privacy policy.

Does this concern you? It should. It is not difficult at all for someone who has “non-PII” – anonymized personal information – to trace it back to a real person with a name, address, and other information. How many auto insurance companies also offer life insurance? How many share data – even anonymized data – with health insurers. And wouldn’t those health insurers love to know if you think you’re depressed, as would a life insurance company? Am I paranoid? Yes indeed, and you should be too.

As it turns out, while many of us are more wary about what companies are doing with our data, we’re still not DOING much about it. As eMarketer reports, Internet users are clearing cookies and sharing less on social media. Ad blockers continue to gain popularity. But nearly one-third of US internet users are still willing to sacrifice privacy for convenience.

Clearing cookies, using a VPN, making sure that apps don’t get permissions that they don’t need (why does a flashlight app need your contacts?), and other things can help but at the core of this issue is many companies’ philosophy to beg forgiveness than to ask permission. They have a laser-focus on making money and are woefully blind to their users’ concerns. That’s what really concerns me. You?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Huh?, Reality checks

I Think We Failed

I’ve been doing “digital” as a business since the mid-1990s. Back then it was a bunch of walled gardens that featured mostly text-only content. Those gardens also suddenly made email widely available and I, like many, was really optimistic about the potential the coming digital world would hold in terms of communication and information. The Information Age was dawning, right?

The walls came down from around those gardens and the open internet bloomed. Soon everyone had email and nearly everyone began spending time catching up with old school chums and distant family via this thing called social media. Every content provider had a website, and many people would read the newspaper or a magazine off of a screen rather than off a sheet of paper in their hands. Video soon entered the mix as the pipes got bigger and the devices faster. Today pretty much everyone carries a powerful computer/communications tool/web device in their pockets and are connected non-stop. Technology has become ubiquitous, just as many folks envisioned.

Except that we failed. Social media is anti-social. Many of my friends and I suspect of yours spend hours arguing about things they have little or no ability to change. Of more concern is that their arguments are often based on sketchy facts that they found in their digital travels. Kids sitting at the same table don’t look at one another and would rather Snapchat one another than talk face to face. We don’t have relationships with people because relationships need to have a face-to-face component in my opinion. If you believe what you see in your news feeds, everyone’s life is fabulous and fun yet we know everyone has the same problems from time to time. Their kids aren’t perfect, their meals aren’t all perfect-looking, almost everyone has worries of some sort (yes, non-political ones!), and not every day is spent traveling to exotic locations.

I think we failed. I don’t think most of us appreciated the dangers inherent in the overuse of technology until the last couple of years. We’ve become less social, less open to thinking that doesn’t mirror our own, and too connected to the screen world in front of us while we’re disconnecting from the fabulous world beyond our screens. We’ve learned to code and we’ve not learned history. We go to concerts and watch them through a screen while shooting a video instead of losing ourselves in the music. We text our kids to come to dinner and don’t make them put down the phone and talk, mostly because we’re catching up on our own social streams.

I don’t know if I have a point today because I don’t know that this is “fixable.” We live in a world of surveillance capitalism and the companies that profit from it not only aren’t going to go away any time soon but are aggregating into a very few behemoths that know everything about us. What have we done?

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Filed under Huh?, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

Grinding Your Own

It’s Foodie Friday and the topic is ground beef. I try, whenever possible, to grind my own beef and the thinking behind that is also thinking that can be used in business decision-making.

You can walk into any supermarket and purchase ground beef. In fact, you can be very specific about chuck vs. sirloin, the percentage of fat in the mix and often grass-fed vs. non. That’s great in my mind when you are making chili or meatballs or some other dish requiring that the beef cooks for quite a while. For burgers, however, I’m grinding my own. I’ll generally grind a mix of chuck, brisket, and short rib and I’ll usually grind some parboiled bacon into the meat both for fat and for flavor. The biggest reason I take the time to do this, however, isn’t the flavor. It’s food safety. I like to eat my burgers on the rare side and ground beef from a store is generally not safe to eat unless it’s cooked more than I like it to be. I know what’s in my mix and that it’s safe to eat when cooked to less than 165 degrees.

Is it a pain to clean the grinder? Yes. Does it take more time than just opening a package from the store? Of course. But the results are much better and exactly what I want even if it costs a bit more and take more time. That’s exactly the process any business goes through when making a “build vs. buy” decision. Let me run you through the steps.

First, you need to validate that you actually need the technology you’re considering. In burger terms, I’m hungry so I need food. I have a legitimate need. In considering tech, you need to figure out if you’re finding a solution without a problem existing. Next, you need to pull together core business requirements. My burger must be safe to eat when rare, it must hold together on a grill, etc. You need to involve anyone whose business is affected by the proposed tech to be sure all constituents weigh in on requirements.

The technical architecture requirements come next. If you’re looking outside, can the product fit in with your existing infrastructure? Does it meet whatever standards your business has already? It’s only after the above steps have been taken that you can start to evaluate build vs. buy. In my case, I have a need, my requirements are clear, I’ve asked my dinner guests if they like burgers, how they want them cooked, and what they put on them. I figured out I’m building the beef but buying the rolls, mayo, pickles, onions, and tomatoes even though I could also build them.

The final steps in the evaluation concern costs and support but you get the point. Some managers start evaluation solutions before they pull together requirements and the overview of the environment in which the solution will live. While it was an easy decision for me to grind my own beef, few business decisions are as easy and require planning and forethought. Make sense?

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Filed under Consulting, food

Break Up Facebook

I’m a capitalist. I’m a big believer that the free enterprise system should be left to work pretty much without outside interference. We can have a lively discussion as to whether that really ever happens (I don’t think it does) but I think we can agree that where the free enterprise system needs to have some controls imposed are when the system results in anticompetitive and/or anticonsumer behavior. Historically, the government takes action at that point, as it did with Standard Oil and with original AT&T. I think we’re at that point again with Facebook and I think the company needs to be broken up.

Many of you don’t remember the old AT&T. It controlled local phones, long-distance services, and the manufacture of most telephone equipment. You can read a detailed explanation of the hows and whys of the breakup here but the net result was that phone services got more competitive, equipment improved, and the number of wireless services and broadband providers we have now is a result. AT&T was a  monopoly, and when its monopoly power was removed, it struggled.

Facebook is a monopoly. They’ve become so massive that you can’t escape their data collection system. They’ve bought any company that seems as if it might become competitive. They aren’t “winning” because they have a better product; they’re doing so because we don’t really have a choice or because they’ve cheated. Facebook bases its business model on anti-consumer behavior and, frankly, lying. They lied to publishers. They lied to video creators.  They lied to the government about data collection and the role they played in spreading misinformation and propaganda while accepting money to do so. They’ve lied to you. Think about the number of times you’ve read about some horrible thing the company has done only to promise it won’t happen again and they’ll be better. Until the next time.

Germany just did something that could show us the way. Germany’s antitrust regulator has told Facebook it must stop forcing users to allow it to collect and combine their data from sources outside Facebook. Among such sources are Facebook-owned apps like WhatsApp and Instagram as well as third-party websites that include Facebook features like the “share” button. Since Facebook derives 99% of its revenue from advertising based on that data collection, this is a great first step.

The last straw from me was the realization that Facebook is monetizing data from people who don’t even have a Facebook account. When people navigate around the internet, sites that use Facebook’s advertising pixel or other social APIs linking back to Facebook (like the “Like” button) send data about those site visits back to Facebook. Facebook collects that data on everyone who visits these sites, whether they’re a registered user or not. You might not be on Facebook but that doesn’t stop them from selling your data. It’s also why any ad-based digital publishing business is probably going to have to survive on crumbs since Facebook scarfs up most of the ad dollars since they have most of the data. Yes, I know Google grabs just as much but it’s a different business model. Search isn’t display.

Break up Facebook. The digital world needs its walls to crumble so that new businesses – better and more ethical businesses – can survive. Start by breaking off Instagram and What’s App. Don’t let them make any new acquisitions of competitors. That’s where I’d begin. You?

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Filed under Huh?, Thinking Aloud

Lucky Or Good

I have a rant for you today and I’m going to say upfront that it is not political in nature although as you read it you might think that it’s my intention to make it so.

One of the things I’ve noticed in business is that we tend to put people who are rich or successful (and usually both) on a pedestal. We assume that they know a heck of a lot more than we do because they are rich or successful. We listen to them give speeches and prognosticate on business and the world. The reality is that more often than not they’re more the beneficiaries of “right place, right time” than they are smart.

You think I’m exaggerating? Let’s take a few examples in tech. The founders of Google at one time said they’d never take ads because it might throw in to question the purity of their search results. It took a non-founder, a person you probably have never heard of, to convince them that great computer science is one thing but running a business that has investors is quite another. Advertising is what makes Google profitable. Are the founders smart or lucky?

Think of all of Google’s products or Facebook’s for that matter. Besides the “core” product, what have they invented that demonstrate that they’re not just a one-trick pony? YouTube? Instagram? What’s App? Sorry, all acquisitions. Most of the features or products they have were created elsewhere and either bought or copied. Think about how many failed products or features those companies have produced. I’d suggest that they, like many in tech, we much luckier than they were good and yet we venerate many of them as if they were Einstein.

Then there are those in business who were born on third base. These are the ones who came from money and often are working in a family business. The positions they’re in can command respect but unlike those people who advance into those positions via hard work and demonstrating talent, these folks are often unsuited for jobs several levels below where they are. I’ve encountered several of them in my career and did my best to avoid them in business dealings.

Would I rather be lucky than good? I often say exactly that, mostly after a wayward golf shot hits something and ricochets back into a good spot. Studies have shown that we can create luck by being extroverted, observant, and positive It also helps to have perfect timing as many of those who got rich in the early internet days did. The really smart ones got out, recognizing that when a rogue wave throws you out of the ocean rather than drowning you, use the dry land to run away.

This isn’t prompted by anything other than a two-hour car drive which afforded me some time to think. I’ve been both lucky and, I think, pretty good. Life isn’t a zero sum game and I don’t begrudge these charlatans their success. I do, however, wish some of them would stop confusing their success or the jobs they hold with who they are as people and what skills they possess. Hopefully, none of us are doing that, right?

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Filed under Reality checks, Thinking Aloud