February 2012 Articles

“It’s 1983. You want to know the population of Pittsburgh, so instead of waiting six years for the web to be invented, you head to the library,” Weinberger begins.

What follows next is the elaboration of the deeply material processes through which even seemingly simple facts are assembled — from the decision made by you, the curious researcher, to look the answer up in an almanac in a public library, all the way back to the public agencies, research funding mechanisms, and publishing-industry processes that allowed the population of the greater Pittsburgh metropolitan area to be certified as 2,219,000 souls. This story provides us a key insight into the nature of facts: they are constructed, yes, but they are not simply constructed out of thin air, and they are certainly not constructed out of words or digital links. Money and materials, documents and discourse, all go into making facts “facts.” In the words of Michael Fortun, an associate professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, facts are made, but they are not made up.

On Super Bowl Sunday, January 22, 1984, Apple ran one of the most famous TV advertisements of all time. It opened with a gray theater full of people with shaved heads, wearing gray jumpsuits, staring expressionlessly at a large screen. From the screen, an Orwellian “Big Brother” intoned, “We are one people, one whim, one resolve, one course. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death, and we shall bury them with their own confusion. We shall prevail.” As he spoke, an athletic young blonde woman in a blinding-white tank top and bright orange running shorts ran into the theater and down the center aisle, carrying a sledgehammer. She threw it at the screen, and the screen exploded. An off-camera voice declared, “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.” Today, more than two decades later, the message remains tremendously powerful: innovative technology in the hands of brave people can free us all from tyranny. Apple updated the commercial for its January 2004 MacWorld Expo, adding an iPod and earbuds to the outfit of the sledgehammer-wielding athlete.

The following month, a Tunisian lawyer and human rights activist named Riadh Guerfali, known publicly before his country’s 2011 revolution only by his pseudonym, Astrubal, uploaded a mash-up of the ad onto the video-sharing platform Dailymotion. He replaced the onscreen Big Brother with video of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. After the athlete sledgehammers the screen, the screen goes white and the video cuts to a Tunisian girl with her eyes shut. She opens her eyes, as if waking from a bad dream. The video ends. Guerfali’s video was part of a broader digital activism campaign that he and a group of Tunisian activists launched in 2002, before YouTube was invented and before Facebook and Twitter were even twinkles in their creators’ eyes. Their strategy was to counter the constant stream of government propaganda with clever antigovernment “propaganda” of their own.

In response, the Tunisian government developed the Arab world’s most sophisticated censorship regime. But censorship was not the only way in which the Tunisian people’s digital rights were regularly and systematically violated. Digital surveillance in Tunisia was even more pervasive than in Egypt. Progovernment hackers attacked dissident websites with aggressive “denial of service attacks” and took them offline. Government-controlled companies that provide Internet service to offices and homes used “deep packet inspection” technologies to track and filter everything passing through their networks. Government-employed geeks hacked into activists’ computers and stole information, intercepted and even altered people’s emails, and took over activists’ Facebook accounts by intercepting their passwords.

…But there’s a new, alternative narrative out there that can be summarized in one word: leapfrogging. The leapfrogging argument takes off where the stalemate between the infrastructure pessimists and the entrepreneurial optimists ends. It is rooted in the notion that infrastructure can be hacked.

In much the same way that Africa’s lack of significant telecom capacity was a boon rather than a hindrance to the emergence of mobile telephony, its lack of legacy infrastructure for everything ranging from waste management to energy utilities could provide the appetite – non-existent in the West – for genuinely transformative, future-friendly reconceptualization of the very notion of infrastructure.

We’re told that services like Findings and Readmill “make reading social.” Both sites encourage members to post quotations from what they’re reading to share with other members. They’re similar in purpose, though Readmill places its chief emphasis on books — and is heavily invested in the iPad as a reading platform — while Findings feels more browser-centric and encourages its users to clip from online text of all kinds. So do these sites “make reading social”? Well, it depends on what you mean by “reading” and what you mean by “social.”

We grew up with the Internet and on the Internet. This is what makes us different; this is what makes the crucial, although surprising from your point of view, difference: we do not ‘surf’ and the internet to us is not a ‘place’ or ‘virtual space’. The Internet to us is not something external to reality but a part of it: an invisible yet constantly present layer intertwined with the physical environment. We do not use the Internet, we live on the Internet and along it. If we were to tell our bildnungsroman to you, the analog, we could say there was a natural Internet aspect to every single experience that has shaped us. We made friends and enemies online, we prepared cribs for tests online, we planned parties and studying sessions online, we fell in love and broke up online. The Web to us is not a technology which we had to learn and which we managed to get a grip of. The Web is a process, happening continuously and continuously transforming before our eyes; with us and through us. Technologies appear and then dissolve in the peripheries, websites are built, they bloom and then pass away, but the Web continues, because we are the Web; we, communicating with one another in a way that comes naturally to us, more intense and more efficient than ever before in the history of mankind.

I spent much of my childhood looking at Los Angeles through car windows. I grew up at the suburban edge of Santa Monica, and as one parent or the other toted me from ballet classes to piano lessons, I stared out at the gnarled coral trees, the serious drivers in other cars, the lit-up storefronts, and the endless traffic lights. It was a view of the city at a remove, not unlike the way most tourists encounter it when they first arrive, driving the web of freeways unsure where to go, enduring the legendary traffic as they gravitate toward the standard attractions featured in brochures, such as the Sunset Strip, Muscle Beach, and Disneyland. What they often see is the L.A. they know from TV and films–a city decked out in a spangly dress, serving drinks with tiny neon umbrellas to the throngs. Fun, playful, shallow.

I now live in the Hollywood area, and have for more than 12 years. After I finished grad school and returned to L.A., I wanted to live closer to the central part of the city (though L.A. notoriously has no center). But even here, in a neighborhood suited to walking, I still have to drive a lot. There are many pleasures to be derived from driving–cultivating the contemplative internal space that you experience while staring out those windows, listening to great NPR shows, and having total flexibility in your daily comings and goings. It is a form of freedom, a built-in four-wheeled escape, available at any moment.

But it also insulates you from the urban community. To really know L.A., you have to get out of your car. Stepping away from the wheel isn’t a natural impulse in a place so dominated by automobiles; more than 1,000 miles of electric streetcar railway crisscrossed Southern California for half a century, but it was all ripped up by the early ’60s. Now we have freeways. I had to be taught to appreciate L.A. sans car…

In writing Passion and Purpose, I learned that smart, well-intentioned individuals have a destructive tendency to oversimplify their passions and dreams, distilling them down to a series of these “one things.” I saw a young accountant’s elaborate plan to land his dream job of becoming CEO of a professional services rm, else be considered a failure. I witnessed one of my peers who, just days after her wedding, became absolutely angst-ridden about whether she had married her one universal soul mate. Still others oat from job to job, from life tragedy to triumph, in the never-ending quest to discover their one purpose.

This morning, if you opened your browser and went to NYTimes.com, an amazing thing happened in the milliseconds between your click and when the news about North Korea and James Murdoch appeared on your screen. Data from this single visit was sent to 10 different companies, including Microsoft and Google subsidiaries, a gaggle of traffic-logging sites, and other, smaller ad firms. Nearly instantaneously, these companies can log your visit, place ads tailored for your eyes specifically, and add to the ever-growing online file about you.

Luck in business can be cultivated, through the combination of what we call a lucky attitude and a lucky network. A lucky attitude is a disposition open to serendipity and, well, luck. A lucky network is a wide network of relationships that may at first have little to do with any business objective, but somehow later come into great relevance.

Imagine that you wanted a new home theater system. But instead of spending hours in Best Buy or on Amazon comparing configurations and assembling the parts you needed, you could signal what you wanted and a company would create it for you. You might simply Pinterest the elements you liked, including information about your space or noise limitations (“One-bedroom apartment on busy street in New York,” or “suburban space that needs stuff protected from little kids”), and then have a retailer give you a personalized, optimal configuration.

…But the social era can – and will – be more than that. It will help us decide what we make, how much we make, and how we finance that production. While social media doesn’t shift Porter’s model, the social era surely does.