Sunday, October 25, 2020

The Digital Divide is 25

Since the start of the pandemic, the phrase "digital divide" has probably been used more times than in its entire prior history. For too many people, it seems like the virus was the first to reveal it.

Actually, the concept was introduced during the Clinton administration. Since then, cascades of auspicious government programs have spent billions of dollars to resolve it. Yet the divide remains. In some cases, no different than in 1995.

The current fix is called The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). Its second funding phase takes place on October 29, 2020. As stated on the FCC website, 386 Applicants May Bid for Up to $16 Billion in Support to Bring Broadband to Up to 10.25 Million Unserved Americans.

Introduced about six months before Covid-19 first hit the US, the RDOF will award an unprecedented total of $20 billion over various project stages. Yet despite the broadband deficits exposed by the pandemic, there is no good reason to believe this fund will finally be the one that fills the gap.

The state of US telecommunications access is like a mountain of twisted old-time phone chords with an earpiece trapped somewhere inside. Legislation, technology, public funding, corporate interests, and essential human needs are a scrambled maze of demand with no immediate solution but plenty of opportunity for lucrative obfuscation.

Under the control of a select few mega-media players such as Comcast NBCUniversal, the telecom industry has routinely buried any reference to its concerted heist of a public resource.

One of the more fortunate consequences of the pandemic, though, is that "we the people" are again appreciating the democratic architecture of the pre-corporate Net and the vision Harley Hahn so reverently described in his 1994 Complete Reference to the Internet.

In learning how to use the Internet, you are embarking upon a great adventure. You are about to enter a world in which well-mannered people from many different countries and cultures cooperate willingly and share generously. They share their time, their efforts, and their products. (And you will, too.)

...Thus, the Internet is much more than a computer network or an information service. The Internet is living proof that human beings who are able to communicate freely and conveniently will choose to be social and selfless.

The computers are important because they do the grunt work of moving all the data from place to place, and executing the programs that let us access the information. The information itself is important because it offers utility, recreation, and amusement.

But, overall, what is most important is the people. The Internet is the first global forum and the first global library. Anyone can participate, at any time: the Internet never closes. Moreover, no matter who you are, you are always welcome. You will never be excluded for wearing the wrong clothes, having the wrong colored skin, being the wrong religion, or not having enough money.

The Internet was designed, developed, and implemented with US taxpayer funding.
We the People just need to be clear about our right to own it.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Monetizing Like Minds - Index

...the pressure to monetize data at tech companies is ceaseless. Facebook didn’t grow from a website connecting college kids into a purveyor of user profiles and predilections worth $478 billion by walling off personal data.
Palantir Knows Everything About You - Bloomberg

This series covers the evolution of the Internet from technical, cultural and economic perspectives. Following are links to the entire article and also to individual sections.  

Monetizing Like Minds - Section 01

...the pressure to monetize data at tech companies is ceaseless. Facebook didn’t grow from a website connecting college kids into a purveyor of user profiles and predilections worth $478 billion by walling off personal data.
Palantir Knows Everything About You - Bloomberg


I’ve never liked Facebook. But my aversion wasn't prompted by particular concerns about privacy and data sales. It was the “feel” that repelled me. I’ll get to that in a bit. First some pertinent history.

Ways to circumvent digital privacy were being developed from the earliest days of the Internet. In 1999, Scott McNealy, then CEO of Sun Microsystems, was rebuked by his peers when he dared to admit that consumer privacy issues are a "red herring”. "You have zero privacy anyway," he told a group of reporters and analysts..."Get over it"

Data-enhanced marketing and advertising began stoking our consumption economy well before computers arrived. Edward Bernays, father of Public Relations (PR) and nephew of Sigmund Freud, codified the methodology in his book, Propaganda, in 1928.
In theory, every citizen makes up his mind on public questions and matters of private conduct. In practice, if all men had to study for themselves the abstruse economic, political, and ethical data involved in every question, they would find it impossible to come to a conclusion about anything. We have voluntarily agreed to let an invisible government sift the data and high-spot the outstanding issues so that our field of choice shall be narrowed to practical proportions.
As Bernays suggested, with only human effort available to aggregate and evaluate data, it was a tedious and often mistaken effort at best. But a few decades later, after successfully decrypting Germany’s Enigma machine in World War II, Alan Turing invented the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) which happened to bring Bernays’ data dilemma a critical step closer to resolution. Machines could "sift the data and high-spot the outstanding issues" for us. 

Then, on October 29, 1969, two advanced versions of these computational machines communicated with each other directly. This breakthrough led to the creation of the first computer network, called ARPANET. And as a result, our power to gather, sort, and analyze data rose exponentially. 


Section Index<<<>>>Section 02

Monetizing Like Minds - Section 03

Skin in the Game

“The real question is not whether machines think but whether men do. The mystery which surrounds a thinking machine already surrounds a thinking man.”
B.F. Skinner Contingencies of Reinforcement, 1969
Meanwhile, in the emerging field of Behaviorism, B.F. Skinner went beyond Ivan Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning study, eliciting saliva from his now famous dog. Instead, Skinner built a box that gathered data on how rewards and punishments could create, modify, and reinforce voluntary actions. And this historic intersection of human/computer innovation would eventually reward us with the uber-addictive Facebook “Like” button.
We're entering the age of Skinnerian Marketing. Future applications making use of big data, location, maps, tracking of a browser's interests, and data streams coming from mobile and wearable devices, promise to usher in the era of unprecedented power in the hands of marketers, who are no longer merely appealing to our innate desires, but programming our behaviors.
Skinner Marketing: We're the Rats, and Facebook Likes Are the Reward
Bill Davidow, The Atlantic, June 2013
WebTrends, one of the first website analytic tools, still uses Cookies to record as much data as possible about a website’s user traffic -- what pages are popular, how long visitors stay, what links from other sites led them there, and so on. A marketing website is designed to imperceptibly lead a site user toward the marketer’s objective. Usually referred to as “User Experience” (UX), this is technology engineered and optimized around human behavioral psychology. Like the title of this aptly named book written in 2000, Don’t Make Me Think, the most successful commercial websites seem as though they are anticipating your needs while actually, they are creating and shaping them.

In contrast to the cyber-utopian “Information SuperHighway” for all - a utility that was funded and developed as public infrastructure - the corporate commercial Net Vision was more akin to Cable Television’s Home Shopping Network (HSN). On the ideal HSN version of the Internet, a viewing audience would simply feed their shopping addiction from a Naugahyde recliner with a built-in “buy” button. The only real challenges to achieving this goal were inadequate bandwidth and no secure system for accepting personal financial transactions. The Telecom industry, however, convincingly assured venture capitalists that this was only a minor setback.

After Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications act of 1996 into law, the deregulated Telecom Titans were expected to fulfill their promise of providing high speed fiber optic Internet access to the front door of every American household. Instead, AT&T and the Cable companies battled each other to become King of “Cyberspace” while investment banking bottom feeders gorged on the spoils. All slicked up in bespoke suits, these financial “advisers” preyed particularly hard on rural areas that struggled (as many still do) to get Internet service into the farthest reaches, or so-called “Last Mile”, of an area. The Touch America bankruptcy scandal, a country-bumpkin-esque swindle concocted by Enron and Goldman Sachs, was a prime-time example of these outright robberies. Even Sixty Minutes was impressed.


Section 02<<<>>>Section 04

Monetizing Like Minds - Section 02

The Cost of a Free Cookie

By the 1980’s, with guidance and funding from the National Science Foundation, ARPANET was expanded into the Internet (contraction of Interconnected Network) with a global presence in universities, research institutes and even corporations. Under the official rubric of Data Science, this web of nodes led to the creation of Neural Networks and the capacity to undertake data mining. The race to dominance, particularly on the part of the US, was evident even in the language of the culture with the phrase, "master-slave", used as the preferred description for network database architecture.  

Feeding on bits, nibbles, and bytes, these networks have been likened to living organisms that can learn and grow without human intervention. Under the debatable guise of increased accuracy, their growth was encouraged to include exponential amounts of data. (“Garbage In Garbage Out”). Indeed, the liveliest debate around data gathering on the early Web was about how Cookies - bits of code that track your behavior - got that name (from Fortune Cookies, Sesame Street Cookie Monster, or Unix Magic Cookies?), not whether the code should even be used.
The commercial Web’s early retailing successes - notably Amazon and eBay - remain sturdy exemplars of selling online done well. A key to their continued success is personalization, made possible by something called the “cookie”: a small text file, placed in your browser by the Web site...that tracks your activities as you go about your business on the Web, reporting back what it has found to one or more among thousands of advertising companies, most of which you’ve never heard of.
The Intention Economy
Doc Searls - Harvard Business Review Press 2012
Influenced by the insights of Norbert Wiener, a mathematical genius and founder of cybernetics, first generation Netizens in the 1980’s and 90’s were playful and somewhat naive (myself included). They were cybernauts not cryogenic oligarchs. They created an Open Source model of software development that encouraged code sharing. They constructed a dutiful Gopher that assisted Archie, Jughead, and Veronica in searching vast data libraries on our behalf. From a cybernaut perspective, the humane potential of the World Wide Web was as unlimited as its name suggests. The opening paragraphs of Fred Turner’s essay, Machine Politics, in Harper’s January 2019 edition recounts the hopeful exuberance of the time.
“The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip,” Ronald Reagan said in 1989. He was speaking to a thousand British notables in London’s historic Guildhall, several months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Reagan proclaimed that the world was on the precipice of “a new era in human history,” one that would bring “peace and freedom for all.” Communism was crumbling, just as fascism had before it. Liberal democracies would soon encircle the globe, thanks to the innovations of Silicon Valley. “I believe,” he said, “that more than armies, more than diplomacy, more than the best intentions of democratic nations, the communications revolution will be the greatest force for the advancement of human freedom the world has ever seen.”

At the time, most everyone thought Reagan was right. The twentieth century had been dominated by media that delivered the same material to millions of people at the same time—radio and newspapers, movies and television. These were the kinds of one-to-many, top-down mass media that Orwell’s Big Brother had used to stay in power. Now, however, Americans were catching sight of the internet. They believed that it would do what earlier media could not: it would allow people to speak for themselves, directly to one another, around the world. “True personalization is now upon us,” wrote MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte in his 1995 bestseller Being Digital. Corporations, industries, and even whole nations would soon be transformed as centralized authorities were demolished. Hierarchies would dissolve and peer-to-peer collaborations would take their place. “Like a force of nature,” wrote Negroponte, “the digital age cannot be denied or stopped.”
From the egalitarian open-source worldview of Netizen economics, “free” was the only appropriate admission fee to charge for the benefits of cyberspace. But this zero price point did not deter marketing types who well understood that “free” can also be an irresistible lure. From a capitalist ROI (Return On Investment) perspective, free gifts were a sure way to acquire hordes of loyal customers. So, a technology intended as a communications defense in war time became a corporate marketing offense in peacetime.


Section 01<<<>>>Section 03

Monetizing Like Minds - Section 04

The Opportunity in Chaos

By the end of the twentieth century, rapacious mega-mergers and leveraged buyouts created more chaos than even Titans could withstand. Adequate bandwidth and user-friendly payment solutions did not arrive in time. The gushing froth of Dot Com Venture Capital peaked on the NASDAQ at 5048.62 and burst on March 10, 2000. Yet, seeing beyond the carnage of irrational exuberance, Intel’s Andy Grove encouraged us to Believe in the Internet More than Ever. And we did.

Written just three months prior to 9/11, his advice became prescient as a result of that tragedy. In the aftermath of 9/11, Internet adoption soared because it proved to be the most robust two-way communication conduit for both government entities and the general public. Though there was still some corporate skepticism about the Internet becoming a viable cash cow, the post 9/11 surge of general public adoption did rejuvenate investment in building public/private fiber optic networks. For good measure, a Web 2.0 re-brand launched a fresh opportunity to make it profitable.

...the Pew Internet Project survey provides evidence about how some Internet users have changed their online behavior in the year since the 9/11 attacks.
  • 19 million Americans rekindled relationships after 9/11 by sending email to family members, friends, former colleagues and others that they had not contacted in years. Fully 83% of those who renewed contact with others have maintained those relationships through the past year.
  • Notable numbers of American Internet users say they are using email more often, gathering news online more often, visiting government Websites more often, giving more donations via the Internet, and seeking health and mental health information more often because of the 9/11 attacks.
One year later: Sept 11 and the Internet
Pew Internet Life - Sept 2002


Section 03<<<>>>Section 05

Monetizing Like Minds - Section 06

Doing an AboutFace

It was through this eBusiness productivity craze that I first encountered the word, “facebook”. But it had no connection to Zuckerberg’s leviathan. As early as 2000, a company called AboutFace promoted an online “Employee Facebook” directory with the following tagline, “Foster community, and ensure security, within your organization with an online facebook”.

I discovered the AboutFace “facebook” while evaluating the latest selection of online directory tools for my employer. The immediate downside of AboutFace, though, was that it wasn’t free, a kiss of death in a world of no-cost competitors. The raison d'ĂȘtre for eBusiness was cutting expenses, not adding to them. So I didn’t spend much time with the AboutFace “facebook”, but the name lodged in my brain.

Meanwhile, as old-school executive types were learning to sound all eBusiness savvy about cost reduction, CyberPirates started disrupting corporate copyrights. A digital tsunami of personal BitTorrent servers made “sharing” the new rally cry of Netizen economics.

Although file sharing had been a staple of the Internet from the start, with services like Usenet and the playful Gopher I mentioned earlier, it was mostly hard core technical types who engaged in it. That situation quickly changed when simpler tools like Napster, Grokster and LimeWire granted file sharing to the masses with just a mouse click. Homegrown freebooters began to seriously undermine the copyright royalty income of media behemoths like Time Warner and Twentieth Century Fox by sharing their corporate “properties” for free on platforms such as Friendster, MySpace, and YouTube.


Section 05<<<>>>Section 07