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.
Young adults are hungry for the ad industry to be better. They are right.
“I block ads because I believe ads can be so much better.”
This was a direct quote from an advertising student at the University of Texas. I visited campus recently and had the opportunity to talk informally with advertising students from the Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations. What I learned affirmed my faith in the future of advertising. I also walked away with a strong sense that these young students, if given the chance to practice the craft the way they see it, would upend the whole industry.
The Industrial Revolution is the most transformative event in human history. It is the true Singularity — and you’re living through it.
In recent years a bunch of technologists have pushed a once fringe idea into the mainstream. That idea is the Singularity.
For most in Silicon Valley and beyond, the Singularity has come to mean one thing: a future event in which humankind merges with artificial superintelligence, sparking a new era for us as a species that is definitively different from anything that has come before.
By creating a Data Commons, our tech giants could help save the innovation economy, and possibly our democracy
In my last column, Data, Power, and War, I argued that the four largest tech companies have cornered the market on the data, processing, and human capital required for our society to truly understand itself. And I warned that such a concentration of power is both unhealthy and dangerous. It also puts the Four on an inevitable collision course with Big Government.
We’ve built a power structure that leaves the public good begging at the door. This must change.
Over the past few years I’ve been looking for a grand unifying theory that explains my growing discomfort with technology, an industry for which I’ve been a mostly unabashed cheerleader these past three decades.
I think it all comes down to how our society manages its most crucial new resource: Data.
So as to be clear, what’s going on here is this: AccuWeather was sharing its users’ anonymized data with a third-party company for profit, even after those same users seemingly opted out of location-based data collection.
I’m consider myself lucky that I’ve been able to call many places home over the years — Utah, California, Maryland, and DC. I recently had a chance to go back home to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) where I received my undergraduate degree and spend time with the students and faculty. And I’ll be honest, it was awesome.
Not just because UCSD was also nice enough to give me an award (because I’m the one should be thanking them), but there’s something about being able to visit a campus where so much of your early thinking is framed (especially with your kids in tow). For example, meeting the students reaffirmed my faith that we’re on an awesome path forward if we keep investing in the future. The next generation of scientists, innovators, and artists are breaking new ground in ways that I could have never anticipated (there are also many more people skateboarding on campus which I fully endorse!). And here are my thoughts that stuck with me:
We need make opportunities available for everyone
There’s nothing like being part of the club called being an alumni, but what about those that didn’t even get a chance to try? What about their shot?
We need to think about our education system with greater flexibility. And I’m a prime example, when I first graduated from high school, I wasn’t ready for college. Lucky for me, I had a great community college that got me ready by teaching me how to write and set me up for a love of math and getting ready to make the most of UCSD. There are too many people out there who need a shot. Their access to opportunity shouldn’t be determined by the zipcode they were born in. The answers to these issues aren’t easy. We need to be aggressive and have the courage to make provide opportunities for everyone. As a country we’re a team; and a good team never leaves a teammate behind.
Trumpcare needlessly cedes US leadership in data, science, and health
Over the past two years, as the Chief Data Scientist for the U.S., I’ve had the opportunity to look over the horizon and see what’s coming in advancements to medicine. First off, I couldn’t be more bullish. The costs of genetic testing continues to drop and is increasingly used to address diseases like cancer. We also now have a wide array of new sensors to understand the impact of our environments both around us (e.g., air quality) and inside us (e.g., our microbiome). These combined with with advancements of data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence (AI) have laid the foundation to revolutionize how we treat disease.
“There will always be plenty of things to compute in the detailed affairs of millions of people doing complicated things.” — V. Bush
Quiet magic happens when an at-scale platform emerges unexpectedly — things previously thought impossible, or more aptly, things never imagined become commonplace faster than we can get used to them. Think of your first Google search. Your first flush of connection on Facebook. The moment a blue dot first guided you to a red destination. Coding before GitHub. Taxis before Uber. AR before Pokemon Go.
When a platform is built that allows for unexpected adjacencies, magic is unleashed and the world sparkles for a moment or two.
The Only Rule Is It Has To Work, by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller
NewCos are data-driven as much as gut-driven, and so are the many sports teams operating in the “moneyball” era popularized by sabermetric pioneer Bill James and then really popularized by Michael Lewis’s book of the same name. But the term “moneyball” suggests that you have money to work with; you just use it wisely. So how do you play moneyball with hardly any money? Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, the former and current editors in chief of sabermetric publication of record Baseball Prospectus, found out when the Sonoma Stompers, a team with one of the lowest payrolls in the Pacific Association, a professional baseball north of San Francisco, gave the two of them a chance to run its baseball-operations department. Their The Only Rule Is It Has To Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Teamisn’t just a sports book. It’s a funny, instructive, self-aware, and surprisingly soulful look at what it takes to make change when imagination and energy dwarf budget and surprises along the way make the pair rethink what can work. What’s best about the book is it shows how much people on different sides — the old guard and the data-driven evangelists — have to learn from each other. The innovations come when all sides can weigh in. Their conclusion, as summarized in a recent op-ed by Miller, is that data can tell a persuasive story untellable in other ways. But it’s not the only story. And the data only serves the organization if its leaders integrate it with the other stories in the air.