Seven or so years ago, a famous VC penned a manifesto of sorts. Writing at a time the world was still skeptical of the dominance to which his industry has now ascended (to think, such a time existed, and so few years ago!), Marc Andreessen had a message for the doubters, the naysayers, and the Wall St. analysts who were (credibly!) claiming that his investments amounted to not much more than a bubble:
Seven years later, no one can dispute Andreessen’s prescience. The man was right: If you had purchased a basket of his favorite stocks back then – he name-checked Apple, Amazon, and Facebook directly – you’d be up at least 10X, if not more. Software, it seems, has indeed eaten the world, and those smart (and rich) enough to put money into technology, as Andreessen has been, have done very, very well for themselves.
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.
Last Sunday was Father’s Day, and I never thought I’d say this, but I was glad to get a tie, because my wife knew I would need it (it’s been literally over a decade since I’ve worn one). Today I was called to testify before a Senate Commerce committee hearing on Facebook and the role of data in society. Apparently they’ve been reading my work and, well, that landed me in DC. My full written testimony, replete with dozens of links to my previous work and coming in at 2500 or so words, is published on Searchblog. Below is what I read into verbal testimony before the Senators got into a couple hours of questioning, which, by they way, I found to be well informed and enlightened.
God, “innovation.” First banalized by undereducated entrepreneurs in the oughts, then ground to pablum by corporate grammarians over the past decade, “innovation” — at least when applied to business — deserves an unheralded etymological death.
It’s somehow fitting that today, May 25th, marks my return to writing here on Searchblog, after a long absence driven in large part by the launch of NewCo Shift as a publication on Medium more than two years ago. Since then Medium has deprecated its support for publications (and abandoned its original advertising model), and I’ve soured even more than usual on “platforms,” whether they be well intentioned (as I believe Medium is) or indifferent toward and fundamentally bad for publishing (as I believe Facebook to be).
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.
Look out Marketing Industry, You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet
The marketing communications industry has always worked with a high level of data. But over the last decade, it’s been transformed by a new degree of granularity — the number of data streams available, new insights, and the ability to take action on those insights. We’re now working with up to 10 to 50 times the amount of data we had access to before, and it has the potential to unleash a new level of understanding, creativity, consumer value, and monetization.
Of course, there are a few pitfalls, which fall primarily into three categories.
The first has to do with understanding privacy rights: making sure everyone knows how their personal and consumer data will be used. Ideally, marketing creates a value exchange — providing benefit to consumers in exchange for collecting their information for the purposes of targeting media or custom messages.
This is what online services like Google and Facebook would argue they already do — free services in exchange for data collection and targeting. There is no true corollary for offline media at present, but when you look at the mergers of Time Warner and ATT, and the future direction of Comcast, both companies plan to inject as much data as they can into their advertising delivery and distribution vehicles. Over the Top (OTT) television offerings, and apps which enable a direct to consumer relationship between broadcast companies and consumers are also an example of media companies trying to simultaneously reclaim their relationship with the viewer and inject data into their targeting and sales approaches.
Welcome to our second edition of NewCo Shift Weekly Newsletter, a roundup of top NewCo Shift stories. Remember to follow us on Medium to receive real time notification from all our stories as they’re published. And let us know what you’re interested in us covering: firstname.lastname@example.org.
And Valerian debuts, plus a plutocrat calls out his kin
Well, here’s a pickle for you, if you happen to be the President of the United States. On the one hand, you want law enforcement to have sweeping powers over all data sources in the country, so you can, you know, keep America safe from terrorists, criminals and scoundrels. On the other hand, it turns out that some of that data could implicate you and your campaign in a major investigation being chaired by, well, the folks in charge of law enforcement.
The investigation? Russian meddling in US elections. The data? Use of Facebook’s advertising and promotion tools to boost Russian fake news stories. And the big question? Did the Trump campaign actively work with Russian operatives to promote newsfeed stories that helped Trump’s cause, and harmed Hilary Clinton’s campaign?
Facebook so far has a half-answer to that question: “We have seen no evidence that Russian actors bought ads on Facebook in connection with the election.” Perhaps, but what is known is that Trump’s campaign bought a ton of those ads — so many, in fact, that Facebook staff worked “alongside” Trump’s team, helping guide the campaign’s strategy (such coordination is not unusual for a large client). If a significant portion of that spend went to support the Russian fake news campaign, well, that certainly would be suspicious.