Opinion

Jack Shafer

Don’t fear the Internet of things

Jack Shafer
Jan 10, 2014 21:43 UTC

Novelist Philip K. Dick anticipated by four decades the Internet of Things, a phenomenon touted loudly by the press from this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Internet-aware automobilestoothbrushesmattressesinfant monitorsfitness trackerspet collarstennis racketslightbulbstoiletsbathroom scales“wearable” techtricorder-like medical sensors, and more have arrived or are on their way.

Dick, ever the dystopian, recognized that one man’s technological boon is inevitably another’s bane, and expressed this view most bleakly in his Ubik. The novel, published in 1969 but set in the early 1990s, posits a world populated with nearly sentient appliances. Joe Chip, the novel’s protagonist, is so broke he’s in arrears with the robots that clean his apartment, and they have reported him to a credit agency as a deadbeat. One morning, upon attempting to exit his apartment, the smartdoor blocked him, saying “Five cents, please.”

“I’ll pay you tomorrow,” Chip promised after searching his empty pockets.

The door isn’t having it, and refused to open. “What I pay you,” Chip said, “is in the nature of a gratuity; I don’t have to pay you.”

“I think otherwise,” the door said. “Look in the purchase contract you signed.” Chip did as told, retrieving the contract and reading it.

“You discover I’m right,” said the door in a smug voice.

Using a knife as a screwdriver, Chip started to unscrew the bolt assembly.

“I’ll sue you,” the door said as the first screw fell out.

“I’ve never been sued by a door. But I guess I can live through it,” Chip responded.

Of media typhoons and media tycoons

Jack Shafer
Sep 20, 2013 21:24 UTC

In the 1993 debut issue of Wired magazine, founding editor Louis Rossetto predicted that the media and other industries would be whipped like a “Bengali typhoon” by digital change. As it turns out, Rossetto underestimated the impending mayhem. The ruins of the newspaper industry, music business, and the book trade smolder beneath us, with newspaper companies selling for pennies on the dollar they commanded when Rossetto wrote. Madison Avenue and the retail industry stagger about like cattle just shot to the head with a stun bolt. If re-writing his manifesto today, Rossetto might want to compare the coming gale not to a typhoon but to the solar super-storm of 1859, which made telegraph machines spit fire, turned night into aurora-lit day, and encouraged some to think the end times had arrived.

The digital revolution has yet to turn our skies crimson, but Moore’s law and its codicils have not finished with the news media business. If you seek to identify the future victims of the digital typhoon, do what Rossetto did, and point your finger at the current incumbents. The organizations at the top — heavily invested in older technology, wedded to waning ideas, beholden to existing revenue streams, haunted by yesterday’s successes, and possessed by fantasies of invulnerability — are always the best targets.

My incumbents list includes but is not limited to the Huffington Post, Politico, Atlantic Wire (and its sister-site, Quartz), Business Insider, Bleacher Report, BuzzFeed, The Verge, and Gawker Media. All of these organizations raced from almost nothing to something big in a relative hurry. HuffPo was just six years old when it sold to AOL for $315 million in 2011. Bleacher Report, born in 2007, sold to Turner Broadcasting System for almost $200 million in 2012. As a point of comparison, the Washington Post, first published in 1877, just went to Jeff Bezos for $250 million.

Is this story less than the Summly of its parts?

Jack Shafer
Mar 26, 2013 22:58 UTC

Like children at bedtime, news consumers love nothing more than to be told the same story again and again. Oh sure, they need the names of the principals to change, the location to vary, and the supporting cast of characters to shift. But the closer the popular press can come to retelling a vital and engaging Ur-tale as opposed to building a new one from scratch, the happier readers tend to be.

If today’s coverage of Yahoo’s $30 million acquisition of Summly — maker of a  news-condensing app developed by  London schoolboy Nick D’Aloisio — fit the tech-acquisition news template any more snuggly, it would be the first layer of news epidermis. The company’s founder  is all of 17 years old, a fact that earns prominent mention in the opening sentences of the accounts in the New York Times (Page One), the Washington Post, Bloomberg News, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, and practically everywhere else.

The story of the child prodigy excelling in any field is sucker-bait for readers. No matter how many times they’ve been told the story, they still thrill to the exploits of an extraordinarily gifted young person writing brilliant poetry, solving complex mathematical theorems, destroying chess grandmasters, composing symphonies … and writing successful software. D’Aloisio is so young, the Times marvels, that he “wasn’t even born when Yahoo was founded in 1994.” He was building apps at 12, Bloomberg reports.

Don’t fear the Web

Jack Shafer
Feb 29, 2012 23:49 UTC

Does the Internet make you anxious? Do you lie awake nights worrying that Russian hackers are turning your children into sex slaves? Have you had the feeling that your iPhone is spying on you?

You’re not alone, Adam Thierer of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, would have you know. In a working paper he posted on the Web yesterday titled “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle,” Thierer outlines the dread that many have for the Web. The fears are real, of course. People do get robbed on the Web. Individuals have lost their privacy on the Web. Companies and governments have been hacked by thieves and foreign agents.

But surveying the hacks and rip-offs, Thierer finds that for reasons both psychological and political, the severity of most intrusions has been exaggerated. Attributing the overreactions to “moral panics” linked to new technology (“technopanics”), he writes convincingly that “there is no evidence that the Internet is leading to greater problems for society than previous technologies did.” That’s not to say that you’ve got no right to be flipped out about apps pinching your address book or your photos without your express permission, or about Facebook accessing your phone’s text messages without explicitly saying so, or about Google using a browser flaw to bypass your privacy settings, or about Google and 104 other companies tracking you as you pad around the Web.

  •