Tag Archives: Google

Escalating Ignorance in the Information Age

Oxymoronic?  Perhaps, but true.  The more ‘information’ that we have produced in the past forty years of networked information systems and the internet, the less we seem to know or trust. We are in an era of information entropy in which more is less.

I remember six years ago when an acquaintance of mine mentioned that she did not have cable t.v.  I wondered how she could possibly keep informed of current events.  Two years later, I dropped it myself, never regretting my ‘loss’.  Subsequently, I have become progressively more selective in my reading, particularly on the web, finding  that much of what I have consumed provides less insight.

The information age has provided a wealth of data, but not a corresponding wealth of insight. Why is that? Let’s review.

  1.  Reality is changing at warp speed. Yesterday’s facts and truisms are being rapidly  rendered obsolete. This ain’t your granddaddy’s nothin’!
  2.  We are producing mountains of data, but proportionately less ‘information’ (remember: data and information are not the same) .
  3.  The information that we do produce from the data  is often without meaningful context or perspective, and therefore of limited utility, relevance or reliability in a world where context can change as quickly as facts, and perspectives proliferate.
  4.  The institutions and information intermediaries (the press, government, academia, science, professions , unprofessional organizations such as Facebook and Google) that we depend upon for reliable and trustworthy information have almost all been diminished by scandals as they have become ‘monetized’, or otherwise compromised directly or indirectly by economic forces which have bent their values to serve other objectives.
  5. Concerted efforts to distort or undermine or repudiate otherwise valid information have been refined and deployed with devastating effectiveness.
  6. We have become conditioned, if not programmed, to suspend, if not avoid, critical thinking in preference to simple or comforting dogmas, also known as ‘thought on auto-pilot’.  We have willingly become prisoners of our own illusions, or those which too many are willing to sell us, in a world where there are now too many factoids to make sense of very much for very long.

One of the interesting consequences of all this is that in many subtle ways we take more time to do things that once seemed so simple, or to make decisions that are now more difficult in an increasingly complex world. I remember standing in the soap isle of the local supermarket gazing at the various offerings of dishwasher detergent.  There before me was New and Improved, Extra New, Super Improved, and You Won’t Believe Your Eyes, all in similar but different containers by the same manufacturer, all at nearly the same price. Along came a lady who engaged in the same exercise as I.  After a few minutes, we looked at each other and asked ‘What’s the difference?’.  I could just grab one off the shelf and be done, but I’ve been programed to optimize; best value for the price. Ultimately, I just grabbed one off the shelf.  Now multiply this simple example across the plethora of shopping transactions. Recognize that this phenomenon applies to information as much as dishwasher soap. The default for decision gridlock is snap judgment which often leads to the unintended consequence of buyer’s remorse, and the oft resultant lament: ‘What was/were I/they thinking?’

At a higher level of consequence, business and governmental decisions become similarly captive of a world that is devolving from long assumed perceptions of homogeneity to ever more complex and finite sub-groups, sub-cultures, sub-markets, sub divisions; each with their peculiarities and potential risks to the unwary, and few of which we really understand.  Middle east peace? Climate Change? Healthcare policies? Renewable energy strategies? Transportation strategy? Tax reform? Nuclear energy?

So here we are at the pinnacle of the data-pile at which our economic elite, blessed with all the raw data and algorithms they possess, are risk averse to investing their parked trillions for fear of risks they cannot effectively define, and therefore cannot effectively hedge.

And our ‘intelligence services’ with their army of server farms cannot pro-act with reliability; only react once the threat has manifested itself.  You don’t need big data to set up a sting for the witless.  But all their data isn’t helping them to preempt the wily.

And government, which is more reactive than proactive by nature, works on old and fragmented systems evolved from  the vastness of its enterprise and the granularity of its operations as defined by ever more complex regulations; systems which are too big, too complex to upgrade, but too critical to let die.  This also applies to large corporations, which are bureaucratically not too far removed from government.

I do not consider myself an information Luddite.  By virtue of the very nature of my profession, I love good data; I crave good data; I pine for good data; but I also distrust all data until its reliability can be proven.  More is not necessarily better.

Our data and its infrastructure is steadily holding us captive while we perpetuate the delusion that it is setting us free.  Unwilling to accept this possibility, we double down on our bet on artificial intelligence (AI) as the means to master the data-pile and set us free. No doubt, AI will bring many advantages.

But it also holds the risk that in seeking to outsource our thinking and judgements to so-called sentient machines, we are inviting a concentration of power (think Amazon, Facebook and Google) and a potential for manipulation that enslaves rather than liberates us.  Given our own individual and collective imperfections as citizens, professionals and societies, is it reasonably plausible that we can create AI that transcends our manifest imperfections and biases, but is vastly more capable of the harm we can already do without AI’s assistance? Stated more simply, can imperfect humans create perfect machines, or merely machines more capable of leveraging our imperfections to greater consequence?

We need not look far to preview the risks. Darkness is descending as the Trump administration seizes the reins of power and systematically draws the shades on the windows of government.  Today it seeks to withhold information; to render us less informed. Today, as it has for the past two years, it perpetrates blatant lies, increasingly devoid of any subtlety, to propagate its world view.  Imagine what it might do once it has implanted its partisans where all the levers of information creation or influence are located.  Consider a modification of the adage: ‘To err is human; to really screw up takes a computer’.

The possibilities are exponential.

Happy Presidents’ Day.  Better ones are coming. Hopefully.




Data Tyranny – Through the Looking Glass

At the end of a long week last week, I needed a spark of humor to get me over the Friday afternoon finish line.  And here it is:

It was reported that Mark Zuckerberg has taken President Obama to task over governmental spying and subversion of privacy on the internet. Either the lad’s brain is hermetically sealed in his own fantasy world of ‘specialness’, or he has single-handedly recalibrated the dimensions of chutzpah.  Frankly, I think that he is such an exceptional personage that he is fully capable of both. As are so many of his peers in the Enchanted Valley.

Honestly, would you buy a used car from Mark, or Eric Schmidt over at the other Data Death Star?  Or a new car, for that matter? Think about Google’s track record of ‘experimenting’ with new services only to drop them in an instant once some child genius gets bored.  Imagine yourself tooling down the boulevard in your auto-piloted Google-mobile, having an otherwise delightful conversation with Siri (or not, from what I’m told), when all of a sudden the Google mother-ship decides to do an app tweak on the autopilot.  Ooooops.

But I digress.  The real focus of this rant is the issue of data and personal privacy in the age of Mad Max and the self-styled buccaneers of free enterprise.

Am I worried, as a citizen, about the NSA?  Yeah.

Do I fear institution of a totalitarian regime by my government?  Not tomorrow morning, and probably not next week; but its excesses could conceivably lead to such, if not for its own apparent incompetence.  An organization with such loose internal security is a diminished threat in its capacity to effectively project AND sustain tyranny.

Does the NSA require greater transparency? No, stupid! It’s a spy agency!

Does the NSA require greater oversight and checks and balances?  Absolutely!

And how about Facebook and Google?  Yeah, them too. And let’s throw in Amazon and Apple and Yahoo while we’re at it.  Because these various data pimps and the galaxy of private sector John’s they service (insurance, finance, employment and recruiting, retail) can and do support a subtle tyranny of manipulation and exclusion that is perhaps more immediate and pervasive and subversively disruptive to the greater society than anything that is likely to emanate from Fort Meade any time in the foreseeable future.

But what oversight do we have on them? What oversight SHOULD we have on them?  If Google and Facebook are the data-mart of choice for our esteemed NSA for ‘shoplifting’, what does it offer its paying customers, whose profit driven endorphins seek the same data for more predatory purposes? Let’s have that conversation too, Mr. Mark.

Big Data and its twin, Analytics, most definitely have a place in our evolving society. We have a lot to learn about ourselves and our world for positive outcome. But the Googles and Facebooks are not being driven by the search of insight and wisdom.  They are being driven by the search for profits, which is not, in itself, a bad thing.  But at what expense and whose expense do they derive their profits and to what end?

If Facebook and Google, et al, are data pimps, and the various buyers are Johns, who are the prostitutes in this analogy?  You guessed it.  You and me.  We aren’t even selling anything.  We’re givin’ it away for free.  For free information, free music, free video, free books, free porn, soft and hard, and not thinking twice about who’s looking back at us from behind the screen, and with what intent.

The truly amusing part of this is that we have no concept of the potential consequences of data tyranny, although we should by now.  We simplistically think ‘I know everything there is to know about me. I’ve got nothing to hide’.  But that’s not how it will work.

Big data may store and regurgitate the bits and bytes of your digital life on demand for the select few (who are willing to pay) to see.  But then the fun begins with the ANALytics.

Analytics are tools that theoretically enable us to compile big data into big insights. They can assemble huge amounts of data never before possible, and present it in various dimensions and perspectives. They can slice and dice the mountain in ways we might not achieve in a couple of lifetimes.

But Analytics are not simply about compiling data.  Analysis is ultimately about perspective (how you choose to approach it) and judgment (what you deem relevant and important).  Perspective and importance are ultimately the system designer’s choice; not the machine’s. Therein lies the potential for good and evil.  It’s not merely the factoids of our lives; its the perspective and value judgements applied to them by people or institutions in positions of power.

Analytics become ANALytics when we use these tools to substitute for critical thinking, to ‘cut to the chase’ as we love to say in business, to bang through the ‘clutter’ and get to the market’s ‘sweet spot’, and ya-di-ya-di-ya. ANALytics are when lazy people in positions of influence let the machine do the thinking for them. There are an incredible number of highly paid, lazy people in positions of influence.

I’ve watched ANALytics at work on a modest scale in the medical field as a casual observer.  In three family situations over three decades, I’ve watched medical science throw barrages of tests at patients, only to come up empty of useful insights. In many cases, it took an exceptional doctor to look beyond what the test data was telling her/him for what it was NOT telling hem, and then make an informed judgment (guess) as to what course of action might be productive.  In the most troubling of instances, a doctor, operating on the ‘big data’ of his time, made a judgment that the life in question was probably not worth the surgery that was necessary. Fortunately, other doctors who stuck their necks and their careers out as a matter of principle and humanity, chose not to write off that life based on ‘the odds’.  There were too many other unknowns to be so glib and callous.

Thirty years later, the same profession contemplates investing in a simple surgery with potentially devastating consequences and costs to prolong a life that by all reasonable measures was nearing its inevitable conclusion. What was lacking was not data, but perspective. Ultimately, judgment was exercised which required more perspective than data, and the patient was spared one week of agony to pass in relative peace to a place that was destined; a place that too may medical folks fear to accept.  Data does not always = Reality.

But these are matters of life and death.  What relevance to the everyday mundane world of marketing, employment, credit, access to services, access to get back in the country?

If the NSA and Homeland Security can access the Facebook and Google factoid factories and draw erroneous conclusions from data viewed under a distorted lens of dubious values, why can’t all other more anonymous, but no less consequential, johns in the information data-mart do the same with similar consequences?  What prevents the trolls in the political arena from cherry picking a wealth of factoids and mis-representing them into another swift-boating assault on an otherwise worthy candidate for public office.  The original Swift-boaters were a bunch of unsophisticated hacks.  Imagine what you could do with the benefit of DATA and a dossier built on factoids carefully cherry-picked and cooked to perfection.

And what might stop a high-powered executive from digitally knee-capping a competitor for the corner suite with the same dis-information campaign?  Or an academic for that prized Chair. (As Kissinger correctly noted, few can fight so hard for so little as academics.)

Whereas Eric Schmidt and Mark Zuckenberg and Princess Marissa would like you to believe that their messianic quest to order the world in their vision will be a force for good, it is in fact far more dangerous than the NSA. In their universes, there is no presumption of democratic rule and oversight.  Just their whim of the moment, and the opportunities of their market place, in which you and I ARE NOT the buyers or sellers.

The age of information tyranny, institutional and freelance, has arrived.  And its implementation will be so subtle, the redneck devotees of the NRA won’t know who to shoot.



The Price of ‘Free’

Hi, my name is Sid. I’m a technological Neanderthal.

I have an iPhone 4, and I’m not likely to trade it in for the latest, not even if Apple’s new Marketing wiz comes out with a new model in Burberry plaid.

I don’t have an iPad because the form factor isn’t worth the price of a good laptop when I’m more about information creation than information consumption.

And now I read that Apple has a new Microsoft Killer strategy to give away software because ‘it’s all about the hardware’. A lot of media Toadies appear eager to peddle this nonsense as the new received wisdom.  After some contemplation and a reasonable period of gestation to allow appropriate fermentation in my primitive brain, my considered response is: ‘You people are on CRACK!’ But that’s just my personal opinion.

Actually, it may be the case that the real news is that Apple has finally priced a product for what it is worth in the case of iWorks: nothing. But Apple’s give-aways and their implications for Microsoft are not the real story.  The more interesting one is the battle between hardware and software, and another story, the Price of ‘Free’.

The hardware vs. software story goes back to the late 70s when IBM’s dominance in Big Iron was coming under question. Two things were occurring in tandem.  Mini-computers were arising from the technological primordial slime to challenge the Big Blue Boxes behind the glass walls.  As these less powerful but tactically more relevant platforms made their way into the hands of mere mortals, software packages evolved that were closer to needs of end users.  IBM, which was known for its less than engaging software (think of it as the Microsoft of its time), was beginning to feel the pain. But it adapted, because its dominance was eroding.  IBM may have been big and clumsy, but it wasn’t dumb. It entered and survived and ultimately dominated the mini-computer field.  And with time and patience and the arrival of the Web, IBM lived to see the return of what it knew and loved most: Big Iron.  But gradually, IBM, being a learning organization, realized that a computer is just a dumb, expensive box. It’s only worth what it can do. And software defines what it can do more than hardware. It’s the software, Stupid!

It’s next flash of insight was to sell not just software but service, the gift that keeps on giving. Kind of like a blood transfusion in reverse.  Steadies the revenue stream and keeps the i.v. line open for injection of new services and extraction of new revenues.  This model has now made its way to Microsoft and Adobe who offer subscription software with automatic updates in place of ‘buy and bye’.

I thought that IBM was crazy to sell its PC business, which it was never fond of from the beginning. But it was actually smart. It foresaw the PC business becoming a commodity business, and didn’t want any part of that.

So when I see Microsoft now entering the personal information appliance hardware business in competition with Apple and Samsung and LG and whomever, I wonder if it hasn’t lost its way.  Google and Amazon are peddling cheap devices to hook you into their services; similar strategies for different reasons. Google wants all your information so they can pimp your profile to the world for profit. Amazon wants to install that reverse i.v. so they can suck every possible sale out of your aspirational little soul.

Apple has similar aspirations to Amazon, but not nearly on as grand a scale.  It’s all about entertaining you.  Making you feel empowered and special. And the hardware does that just fine.  And the software does that o.k. because Apple has trained you to not be too demanding.  That wouldn’t be cool! And because it extracts a hefty price for its very sleek hardware with its modest software that makes you feel good,  now it’s giving you the software free out of the goodness of its corporate heart.

So the notion that Apple’s free iWorks et al is going to be a Microsoft killer is about as dumb as the notion that tablets and smartphones are going to kill desktops and laptops.  There is a place for desktops and laptops where people do work. Tablets are accessory to them in the workplace, and have more value in personal information consumption: PIMs on steroids. The current turnover in sales is more a product of marketing once again convincing us that we need the newest of something we already have because we need the newest for our self-esteem.  (Logic would posit that I still have an iPhone 4 as proof that I have no self-esteem. Whatever!)

*  *  *

Let us conclude with ‘free’.  ‘Free’ is a pricing and marketing gimmick.  Always has been. Always will be.  Everything costs, and somebody has to pay. Somehow. We have been brainwashed to expect free without considering the price. In a supposedly sophisticated society we are programmed to salivate at the sight of ‘Sale’ in the Pavlovian fashion.

The demise of Penney’s campaign to replace false sales with low prices speaks to the degree of our social programing in ways that we do not seem to appreciate or want to confront. And as I write this, we are just one month away from our annual celebration of human debasement known as Black Friday.  It will be interesting to see what kind of firepower manifests at the mall on November 29th, particularly in Florida where ‘stand your ground’ still lives and dies. ‘Black Friday’ may take on another meaning. (What we need are more ‘good guys with guns at the Mall’, the NRA will say).

Everything has a price, a cost and a value. Price is supposed to reflect value, and does not always suggest cost.

When the price is free, what does that say of the value?

When the price is free, who’s really bearing the cost? And what is it?  Ask Google, and Facebook, and Amazon, and Apple and Yahoo. They know.

By the way, what would you pay for an Apple roadster in Burberry?  How ’bout with autopilot software thrown in for ‘free’? It’s all about the hardware.



Too Big To Succeed

It should be obvious by now that the only thing as bad as Big Government……is Big Business. We suffer both because there are certain things that only big organizations can do effectively.  But the lie that Big Government is inherently evil, corrupt and inefficient, while Big Business is inherently all-knowing, all-capable, and virtuous should be self-evident by now.

My personal list of Too Big To Succeed (TBTS) would include the following: AT&T, BP, Citibank, GE, Google, HP, JP Morgan, Microsoft, United Airlines. Some of these, such as GE and JP Morgan might draw challenges regarding basis for inclusion. They seem healthy outwardly, but I suspect that they, like many of their brethren on the list are traveling on inertia.  That is the saving grace for many large organizations.  What saves them from dramatic death is the sheer momentum of their enterprise. A body in motion stays in motion; a body at rest stays at rest. But where is the motion taking them? is there a direction? A destiny? Or just a glide through the void of space until they happen into the gravitational pull of a greater star and become consumed or dismembered by it?

TBTS is not just a syndrome of size alone.  Any organization can succumb to TBTS when its size, by whatever measure, exceeds the philosophical and systemic capacity of its governance structure to direct it.

HP may be a perfect example, and by no means an exception. A recent article suggests that it is having a ‘bad year’.  How about a bad decade? It all began with Carly Fiorina.  Unfortunately, it did not end with her.  Like the Energizer Bunny, it went on and on and on….and it raises the question: If not Carly, who do we hang?  How about the Board, not as specific individuals, but as a dysfunctional institution transcending individuals?

That’s the funny thing about TBTS. The syndrome defies definition on an individual level. Maybe Mitt Romney was right after all in a contorted kind of Mitt Romney way, and not one of his intent.  Corporations are (like) people.  They take on personalities over time that transcend their theoretical corporate masters, kind of like HAL in 2001 AD – A Space Odyssey.  Maybe Jamie Dimon isn’t such a bad dude after all; he’s merely a captive of an institutional poltergeist that transcends his mortal powers.

I recently had the experience of hearing an exchange between two people waiting to take an employment exam for positions in state government.  One of them, who apparently was working for a major state organization of notorious and long-standing reputation for incompetence, was heard to lament: ‘Honestly, I’m not a bad person. I didn’t even want to work at Agency X. They (HR, presumably) put me there!’.  It was as if she felt branded by the very identification with an organization whose reputation defies transformation and redemption.  Is there an equivalent in Big Business? Wal-Mart, perhaps? BP? Goldman Sachs?

Big corporations are every bit like big government.  They are brittle bureaucracies that evolve cultures which too often transcend the powers and tenure of any individual leader, no matter how capable or committed, to bend or break their destructive behavior.  It would be o.k. if that behavior could lead to self-destruction with minimal collateral damage, but that is often not the case, as we saw with GM.

GM is in fact an interesting case in point.  It is too early, in my view, to regard GM as ‘healed’. But it took virtually the exorcism of senior management and the near death experience of bankruptcy to create the possibility of a resurrection. And there are still puffs of arrogance emanating from the corporate tower to suggest that its cultural cancer may be more dormant than dead.  Time will tell.

Ford avoided following in GM’s footsteps by bringing in a CEO from outside the industry; a radical, but apparently beneficial, step in an industry as in-bred as the auto industry. Interestingly, Alan Mulally came from an industry as in-bred as autos. So he had the benefit of a transferable skill-set, but detachment from the specific culture.

Chrysler seems to be pretty much business-as-usual. Slip-sliding away, slowly, gradually, largely unnoticed, carried downstream by the current with little apparent sense of navigation.

If there is a corporate leader of merit in the world of TBTS, it would be Louis Gerstner. In teaching the IBM elephant to dance, he not only rescued it from itself, but set it on a sustainable path that few organizations of comparable size and rigid culture have been able to achieve. But Gerstner was apparently a rare talent, and IBM a rare case. I do not expect that HP will be as lucky.

That brings us back to the fundamental question of what causes TBTS. I would suggest that there are two causes: corporate governance at the board level, and the capitalist mantra and mythology of perpetual growth.

Corporate governance at the board level is the bigger problem, and succumbs to the second when the board members, individually and collectively, are not independent of management and independent in their thinking about corporate strategy.  If they are incapable or unwilling to challenge management, then they have created an environment in which a storied company like HP can descend into the depths of self-destruction, driven by executive hubris. If they are incapable or unwilling to challenge cherished assumptions about the organization’s context and strategy, no matter how successful they may have been in the past, then they have created an environment in which a GM will descend into the depths of self-destruction, driven by executive myopia, and ratified by its board.

The capitalist mantra of perpetual growth is the ideal pablum for an unthinking board and has led too many organizations to  the TBTS graveyard. With size comes inherently more complex and less sustainable management infrastructure to manage the size.  Organizations too often enter into an ‘arms race’ with themselves to control the beast they are creating, only to watch it morph before their eyes into a hydra that creates its own imperatives. Size becomes its own imperative, almost like a philosophical drug, that demands more overhead to manage itself, which demands greater size to carry the greater overheads, which demand greater yields from the business when expansion is not possible, which demands………. ‘Just one more acquisition. Honest, then we’ll be ‘right-sized’ . I promise.’  We all have our drug of choice.

It is a rare board, or corporate CEO or government chief executive who has the wisdom to  recognize this syndrome and the courage to address it.  In the end, we all pay the price.



Great Expectations…

…are not always good expectations. The word 'significant' might be more appropriate in the current circumstances.  Here are a few thoughts on the prospects for the year ahead, and the decade it heralds.

The year and decade ahead will be one of transition. It will not necessarily be worse, and will not likely be better, but it most definitely will be different, cutting both ways with opportunities and threats of equal magnitude. Generally, we do not do transitions well, but that, like many items below, is a subject for future blogs.

Let's take this platitude down to specifics.

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Random Reflections on: Space Junk and Earth Junk


I’m a little behind the news on this one, but the One Eyed Monster reported tonight on recent developments in Google’s challenge to private sector entrepreneurs to put a working lunar lander on the Moon. This was first announced on or about 2007, Sept. 13.  A total purse of $30 million has been established for distribution according to various mileposts of accomplishment. One of the mileposts is for the new space junk to send back photos of space junk previously deposited by governments.

This is what happens when too much money lands in too few hands. Google has announced a number of initiatives to spur technological creativity, many of them more down-to-earth in locus as well as relevance.  But this one and its predecessor, the Ansari X prize of $10 million for private sector suborbital flight, prompt a number of questions.

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2007/11/04 Random Reflections on…voting our conscience

….Breaking the Hillary Lock
….Breaking the Guiliani Lock
….The Walmart Way

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During this week’s Democratic Presidential Candidate debates, Barach Obama declared his willingness to meet face to face with the Iranian leadership to find a resolution to our issues.   No doubt some people will call this approach naive.  Some people will call this approach weak.  Some people will call it pointless because the Iranians are too stubborn and close-minded to negotiate anything with anything but a bomb.  They’re not like our President!  I have a slightly different take.

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