Whither Middlemen?

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Is a world without middlemen really a good thing?

A recent piece in the Harvard Business Review entitled The Promise of Blockchain Is a World Without Middlemen lays out the case for decentralized networks in evangelical language. As the author writes, “Decentralization offers the promise of nearly friction-free cooperation between members of complex networks that can add value to each other by enabling collaboration without central authorities and middle men.”

But is it a given that such a world is what customers really want?

“Novgorod Marketplace”, a painting by Appolinary Vasnetsov (1856–1933)

The Job of the Middleman

Middlemen make for an easy target for disgruntled customers and observers of the economy. At times it can be unclear how they are adding value to a transaction. Sometimes it looks like middlemen are simply inserting themselves into a transaction to increase costs and take a cut.

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Experiments in Alternate Democracies

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Photo by Anthony Garand on Unsplash

‘[I]t is not enough for democracy to be radical; it must be revolutionary’ argues Wayne Price

One of Winston Churchill’s most notable lines was:

No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

At the turn of the 20th century, there were fewer than ten democracies in the world. By the turn of the 21st, that number had reached 80, with half of humanity governed by some form of democracy. Yet, we’ve grown astutely aware of the flaws in the system in the past two years, with some calling for an end to democracy.

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Goodbye, Bay Area. Hello, New York!

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Sometimes you have to just shake it up a bit. Or a lot.

(cross posted from Searchblog)

I first moved to the Bay area in 1983. I graduated from high school, spent my summer as an exchange student/day laborer in England (long story), then began studies at Berkeley, where I had a Navy scholarship (another long story).

1983. 35 years ago.

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Note to Self: Remember to Answer the Senators’ Followup Questions.

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Following my Senate testimony last month, several Senators reached out with additional questions and clarification requests. As I understand it this is pretty standard. Given I published my testimony here earlier, I asked if I could do the same for my written followup. The committee agreed, the questions and my answers are below.

Questions for the Record from Sen. Cortez Masto (D. Nevada)

Facebook Audits

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The Dawn of Digital Switzerlands

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Photo by Derek Thomson on Unsplash

The tech behemoths’ role in nation-states is evolving

The biggest US tech companies now have powers which challenge the primacy of governments in many domains. In many cases they also have capabilities not available to nation states. We touched on these issues, and the notion of “corporate foreign policy” in one of the previous issues of my weekly newsletter Exponential View.

Last year, Microsoft’s Brad Smith argued that — at least in the realm of cybersecurity — “the global tech sector needs to operate as a neutral Digital Switzerland. We will assist and protect customers everywhere.”

Now in the Pennsylvania Law Review, Kristen Eichensehr looks at the issue of Digital Switzerlands in greater depth, 66 pages of it to be precise. We’ve summarized parts of it here. One key distinction between large corporations and nation states is that they lack territory, control of state-violence, and have very different governance mechanisms to nation-states. But that is as true for many supranational bodies as well.

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Whose Data, Which Commons, What Tragedy?

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Facebook may dominate the news, but it’s only a symptom of a far larger trend.

Before, and after?

(originally posted at Searchblog)

A theme of my writing over the past ten or so years has been the role of data in society. I tend to frame that role anthropologically: How have we adapted to this new element in our society? What tools and social structures have we created in response to its emergence as a currency in our world? How have power structures shifted as a result?

Increasingly, I’ve been worrying a hypothesis: Like a city built over generations without central planning or consideration for much more than fundamental capitalistic values, we’ve architected an ecosystem around data that is not only dysfunctional, it’s possibly antithetical to the core values of democratic society. Houston, it seems, we really do have a problem.

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Twitter’s Nuclear Option

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If Twitter’s countermeasures fail in the run up to the mid-term election, they should prepare a nuclear option.

Russian intelligence distorted the democratic process of the 2016 Presidential Election by manipulating social media, and perhaps more. A tech backlash is in full swing, where the power of unintended and intended (ads) consequences wielded by platforms will be curbed. The management of these platforms has failed to self-regulate to date.

Twitter’s countermeasures have reduced the number of bot fakesters, and it does feel like there is less toxicity in the personalized feed. But in this information war there will always be new attack vectors on the attention and divisive outrage of the electorate. The same hacks are already happening to ready disinformation dumps.

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Google Discovered the Highest Performing Teams Have These Two Characteristics

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What makes a high-performing team? It’s not intelligence. It’s not seniority.

Google recently discovered that the highest performing teams are the ones with two characteristics:

  1. Individuals are able to sacrifice something they want for the good of the team.
  2. Each person feels safe to speak what’s on their mind.

Hidden underneath all of this is the foundation that makes it all possible: trust.

If a team lacks trust, everything else is impossible.

Think about your team. Think about each person on your team. Do you trust them?

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Are Shorter Stories Shallowing Our Minds?

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Complex ideas take time — and we no longer have any. Shrinking attention is changing the kinds of stories we can tell. This has already dumbed down our entertainment. We could be next.

Photo by Bruno Gomiero via Unsplash

Deep thought may be our defining capacity as a species. Like any capacity, it can get stronger with practice or weaker with neglect. The stories we tell and ideas we give our attention to, shape our collective thoughts and minds.

Stories are the connective tissue of society.

Movies used to be central to our zeitgeist. They were the big stories that connected whole Generations. They struggle to claim that kind of cultural prominence now. People have less time. There are too many options at the box office and on other media.

The Godfather is one of the best films ever made. If you want to watch it, you need to set aside 3 hours. Many classics require a similar investment.

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WTF is SMA?!

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Social Media Amplification unites social with paid media. It’s crazy that we haven’t done this already.

For all its promise, digital marketing remains an unfortunately siloed business. Nearly every brand invests in both social media — teams of people who agonize about what content to place and promote on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms — as well as paid media — the ads you see across the “rest of the web.”

And here’s the crazy part: In most marketing departments, the teams who run social rarely, if ever work, closely with the teams who create traditional paid media. If that sounds crazy, well, you’re right. It is.

Although the metrics can be quite different, the goals of these tactics are essentially the same: Creating awareness and conversions against targeted audiences, building relationships with current and new customers, and driving engagement for the brand overall. Put another way, social media and paid media teams have the same goal: engaging customers and driving interest in purchase.

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