Projecting the future – Big Data

control room

Read (or at least skim) this Politico article:

Commercial data brokers know if you have diabetes. Your electric company can see what time you come home at night. And tracking companies can tell where you go on weekends by snapping photos of your car’s license plate and cataloging your movements.

Private companies already collect, mine and sell as many as 75,000 individual data points on each consumer, according to a Senate report. And they’re poised to scoop up volumes more, as technology unleashes a huge wave of connected devices — from sneaker insoles to baby onesies to cars and refrigerators — that quietly track, log and analyze our every move. . .

At home, smart meters can tell whether you have a plasma TV and what time you cook dinner. (Or even, perhaps, whether you’re growing marijuana in the basement.)

If you take more conventional prescription drugs, your pill bottles may soon email your doctor to let him know if you’ve been taking your medication.

Your car may let your mechanic know that your tires need rotating.

Your TV’s set-top box may soon be able to sense what you’re doing while you’re watching a show — snacking? snuggling? mopping? — and broadcast ads appropriate to the situation.

 

My question: when is the Orwell or Bradbury of our time going to write the next great dystopian novel already?

The time is ripe. Big Data is watching. But perhaps we aren’t scared enough yet.

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Book Review: The Shallows

NOTE: This post marks the end of my longest blogging drought since starting this blog a little more than a year ago. For more than a month, I posted nothing. That’s unacceptable, but there’s no point in self-flagellation. What matters is that I’m back with another book review.

Yeah, it feels good to write again. On with the review:

About a year ago, I noticed an odd irony about my college experience. When I looked back to high school and compared my study habits, classes, and the things I remembered then to my college classes right now, I found that I was much sharper in high school. I remember being much more focused and engaged when I memorized biology terms as a high school freshman than when I studied Hegel in Intro to Philosophy last semester. I have no doubt that I’m smarter and more informed than at any other point in my life, so how could this be? (aside from sleep deprivation)

I found the answer in Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.” Few books have shaken up my thinking like this one. It will probably end up changing the long-term course of my intellectual life. Here’s why:

As the subtitle implies, Carr’s argues in “The Shallows” that the internet is changing our brains. It is shaping the way we think largely without anyone realizing it. This happens at the neurological level. The more we do certain activities, the better we become at them because our brains forge new circuits to make us more adept and sensitive. This applies to motor skills like playing the piano as well as more abstract thinking like reading a book. The more we practice a certain pattern of thinking, the more our brain map makes space for it.

This process also works in reverse. When we don’t practice certain things, those neural pathways start to go away. In people who become blind, for example, the neural paths that the brain once used for sight are rewired to enhance other senses like hearing and touch.

The implication of this is, as Carr quickly points out, is that technology ends up shaping and even controlling us much more than we might like to think. In the case of the internet, it trains our minds to be distracted. We jump from one thing to another within seconds—always shifting and moving and consuming. . . without really retaining. And with the sheer volume of information out there, we hardly have a choice. Between RSS feeds, Facebook status updates, Tweets, email, and instant Google searches, no one can afford to read anything anymore.

At least, we don’t read in the same sense that we traditionally mean when we “read” a book.

At this point, Carr treads with care. As a technology writer who has written for publications like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Wired, he has a pretty good understanding of the power of the internet to process information, mine data, and help us live better, more productive lives. He shows us how the internet has wrought an irreversible change on humanity, but demonizing the web is the last thing he wants to do. It is not inherently good or bad. And Google in particular is neither God nor Satan–although many people see it as one or the other. Even though the impact of the internet is unique, technology has always changed the way we think. Continue reading →

Political Journalism and Lolcats–Together?

Politico writer Ben Smith made waves last week when news broke that he was leaving most of his duties at the young political news site to head up a new  team of journalists at BuzzFeed, a website devoted to distributing popular social content across the Web. The editorial team, Smith said, will cover traditional beats like sports and politics plus other, “non-traditional” news categories.

On the surface, it seems like an odd move. In the world of elite political news coverage, Politico is where it’s at. Everyone in Washington, DC reads it. It’s one of three things that former president George W. Bush reads every morning (the other two are the Bible and the Wall Street Journal). When I spent a semester in DC, the first journalist I met had some advice for me: read Politico–every day.

BuzzFeed, by contrast, collects and promotes anything that lots of people are clicking on, seeking to provide “the viral world in real time.”  It is thus geared toward everyone on the Web; we all know the posters and gag videos that come up on such sites. I do not frequent either of the two sites myself these days, but from what I know of the two, I would have no qualms about spending a few hours a week reading Politico.

BuzzFeed? It hosts a weekly battle to choose the “best”, most time-wasting flash game and makes lists of top viral videos.

So why did Smith make the switch? Clearly he has an entrepreneurial spirit, but I think he realizes something more. Simply put, the internet is powerful. Some have called it the “Second Gutenberg Moment,” and I don’t think that is much of an exaggeration. Those who learn to tap into this power have the potential to gain a lot of influence in a short amount of time. I doubt that Smith hopes to become the next Drudge or Zuckerberg, but as many articles about the move have pointed out, BuzzFeed’s CEO Jonah Peretti is a co-founder of the successful HuffingtonPost. Peretti knows how to work the web better than most, and it appears he hopes to duplicate his success with BuzzFeed (although he refuses to speak directly about comparisons between the two). Continue reading →

A New New-Media Strategy

Everyone knows that traditional print is in decline, but as I was reminded over and over again during my semester at the Washington Journalism Center, journalism isn’t going away, it’s just evolving.

Several months ago, the New York Times started charging for online subscriptions. That sent plenty of waves through the industry, but now, two newspapers in Philadelphia are adapting to the evolution of new media in a much more creative way. The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, which share Philly.com as part of Philadelphia Media Group, are now offering their paid subscribers an Android tablet at a discounted price. The details of the deal, like pricing and length of subscription needed to get the deal, are still to be announced.

Apparently this is the first time that any publication has bundled a device with its content. It seems like an idea that should be very effective at sustaining paper readership, even if it only ends up being a smaller yet more dedicated core. I think it’s a brilliant way to ensure subscribers for at least the foreseeable future. The genius of it is that it preserves the paid subscriptions. Unlike most publications which have released almost all of their content for free online, this deal would break readers of the “free-app/free-website” model and bring them back to a more traditional model of reading the paper.

My main question is sustainability. Greg Osberg, CEO of Philadelphia Media Group, predicts that the program will cost his company six figures. This is all fine and good for now, but will they continue to offer this deal to all potential subscribers in the future? For a paper that just recovered from bankruptcy, is such a deal economically viable over the next few years?

If not, then this seems to be little more than an effort by the papers to delay their own destruction. You can bet that a lot of papers in the mid-market range will be watching the deal’s beta test this august and debut on Black Friday with great interest.

Is 3D too real?

Dr. Grant Horner discusses the recent “fad” of 3D films and says why they’re bound to fail.

I’m not a huge fan of 3D. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen any films in their 3D form aside from attractions at amusement parks, so perhaps I’m not qualified to judge whether 3D is better or not.

But when I think about the thrust of Horner’s argument, it makes sense. We listen to stories to escape from reality. Film lets us to step into another universe as a “fly on the wall.” Do we really want to enter a world with as much depth and realism as our own? My first thought is “yes, of course,” but art is imitation, not reproduction. Maybe if we try to imitate too much, we lose the appeal.

Of course, you also have folks like James Cameron who think 3D is the future of the industry. No matter how you feel about Cameron, you have to admit that he knows something about making appealing films too.

For Those Who Still Really Really Want to Read the New York Times on the Cheap

Business Insider tells us how we can still read the New York Times online for free. Apparently if you find the headline you want you can copy it into an search engine, click the first hit, and read the whole thing for free.

Better yet, the article puts my conscience at ease about the “loophole” by noting that many publications are aware of it but don’t have problems with it. They know most of their readers are too lazy to use the copy-search method anyways. You can read the Wall Street Journal without a subscription, for instance, using the same method.

The Times did say that it would place a five-articles-per-day limit on referrals from Google (and only Google, so far), but who’s going to read more than five stories online in a day anyways?

The Times, it is a-Changing

As of today, The New York Times is now offering a digital subscription.

We talked about this last fall in the journalism program I did in Washington, DC. Lots of people saw it coming, so it’s not so much unexpected as significant. This just might be the model of the future that publications use to help fund themselves.

As an aspiring journalist and someone who tends to have a little more sympathy for the media, I support the Times’ decision. The news and media world is in flux right now. With the rise of the internet, we’re getting used to more and more free information, but “free” isn’t going to sustain much quality journalism. Even with advertisements, newspapers need more funding to continue operating at a high level. Pay-per-story is one solution that I thought could work quite well. Online subscriptions is another. We’ll see if it works out for the Times. If it does, expect a lot of other papers to start heading that direction.

Personally, of course, I’m not as much of a fan of this move because it means I can only read 20 articles a month before I have to cough up $15 for the minimum monthly plan. And as a poor college student, I think I’m going to content myself with the 20 stories. That’s about one story a day on weekdays.

Though come to think of it, when you put it that way I guess it’s not too bad.