Tag Archives: Silicon Valley

My Story at PandoDaily: “The Internet’s Own Boy”

The Internet's Own Boy

At PandoDaily I reviewed the new documentary “The Internet’s Own Boy.” It’s a new documentary about Aaron Swartz, the 26-year old activist and hacker who hanged himself last year just before he was to stand trial for downloading millions of academic articles.

The government’s case against Swartz involved the download of millions of articles from an academic database called JSTOR. In September 2010, Swartz began using a newly purchased laptop, a Python script, and MIT’s open network—which granted its users free access to JSTOR—to grab the articles. Once MIT and JSTOR administrators realized what was happening, the University installed a hidden camera in the unlocked wiring closet where Swartz had stationed his computer. Days later, Swartz was caught on the surveillance camera swapping a new hard drive. He was then swarmed by police, arrested, and eventually indicted on 13 felony counts.

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How To Make War on Patent Trolls

Author Tim Wu argues for policy reform on our patent system in the New Yorker’s Elements blog.

Patent infringement is easy to allege and expensive to disprove. The problem is compounded by the excessive leniency with which patents have been issued over the past two decades, particularly for software and high technology. That creates ripe and lucrative opportunities for blackmail and extortion. One recent study suggests trolling costs the U.S. economy close to thirty billion dollars a year. The mathematics of deterrence suggests that the government needs to make the life of a troll miserable instead of lucrative.

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Zuckerberg’s FWD Raises Criticism

Somini Sengupta and Eric Lipton Report in the New York Times

“Fwd.Us, the new nonprofit advocacy group created by Mr. Zuckerberg and several technology executives and investors to push for an overhaul of immigration law, has bankrolled television ads endorsing the conservative stands taken by three lawmakers, prompting an outcry from liberal groups and a call to withhold advertisements from Facebook.”

The group is engaging in a kind of lobbying that works like this: when senators and congresspeople support FWD’s policies on immigration reform, FWD then promises to help these representatives on other issues, unrelated to immigration. As Sengupta and Lipto go on to say:

The group has faced the most vocal criticism for television advertisements sponsored by its two subsidiaries, which are known as Americans for Conservative Action and Council for American Job Growth. One of those spots takes swipes at President Obama’s health policies. Another lauds the Keystone XL pipeline, fiercely opposed by many environmental groups.

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From Spaceships and Sagan to Mobile Apps and Zuckerberg: The Limits Of Venture Capital

Josh Lerner writes in MIT’s Technology Review:

But claims that venture capital is a driver of true innovation, or even of positive financial returns to investors, face some hard questions. With the industry facing a hangover from its recent flurry of social-media investing and the disappointing stock-market performance of firms such as Groupon, Zynga, and Facebook, the skeptics have been rarely been as loud as they are today.

Quoting the power investor, Peter Thiel, Mr. Lerner reflects on the state of innovation and investment: “We wanted flying cars. Instead, we got 140 characters.” Citing the concentration of investment in narrow market-categories, the frenzy to invest in fad industries (social media), and the short-sightedness and volatility of public markets, Mr. Lerner argues that venture capital is not the spark of innovation that we think it is.

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Airtime’s Folly: The Awkward Technology Of People Discovery

In Hollywood lexicon a meet cute is the serendipitous crash between strangers. Usually a man and a woman, the chance encounter ignites the plot and the ensuing laughter and romance. Jack stumbled upon a wilting Rose moments before she leapt off the (then intact) Titanic. Harry initially met Sally in need of a ride to New York City. And Sean Parker spawned his longtime business partnership with Shawn Fanning discussing computer security in a chat room.

The universe has an affinity for coincidence. So why not cull this cosmic co-mingling through technology? By matching strangers based on similarities and interests, companies like Mr. Parker’s Airtime hope to harness serendipity.

Equal parts Skype and Zuckerberg, with a hint of eHarmony, Airtime hopes to expand and explode the social graph. Where social networks remain remarkably confined to coworkers, classmates and college buddies, people discovery offers a way of interrupting routine by using the gravity of shared interest rather than geographic contingency.

Airtime introduces us to “Talk to Someone.” This novel feature pairs up fresh faces using criteria like interests, location, and acquaintances. To protect against the wrong kind of people (think Chatroulette) and to ensure a healthy amount of privacy (you probably shouldn’t be using this), users remain anonymous to each other until an “+Add” request is sent and an acceptance made.

But isn’t “expanding the social graph” just a clumsy way of saying meeting new people? Aren’t people discovery apps, the ones that tell you if like-minded users are nearby, just a creepy kind of ice-breaker? (Text message: “Hey! My ambient GPS mobile technology is telling me that you are also at this conference, let’s bust open our social graphs together…what’s your name?”)

To paraphrase the Easter egg at the beginning of Fight Club: couldn’t all this be replaced by walking up to a person and starting a conversation?

For the timid and the less extroverted, perhaps this kind of unplugged boldness is frighteningly difficult. But to sell an Apple-esque chatting service as a ticket to whimsical friendship seems misguided. The random delight of misadventure, the kind of accidental spark that we crave in monotonous modernity is precisely the kind of thing people discovery is not. In the process of gaining the digital grip, we simultaneously lose our human touch.

Still, Airtime, Highlight, Foursquare, and the Facebook-acquired Glancee, shouldn’t be seen as digital shields against rejection. That would be too harsh. The concept of social discovery—the exposure to things that fascinate—works quite well. When the discovery aspect turns on cultural and commercial products, as in Pandora, Netflix, StumbleUpon, and Twitter, users are willing to take risks, step outside ready-made preferences and cultivate an authentic taste.

But when the thing that is discovered is not a thing at all, but a human relationship, something like happenstance isn’t fostered. Rather, it is a contrived politeness like the paralyzing inauthenticity of a bad first date.

Marketed as if a bubbly Alexia Tsostis or a BFF Justin Timberlake is just waiting for you to sign on, reality reminds us to expect a sea of woozy, disembodied, unflattering faces. As the editors of the literary magazine, N+1 point out, it is impossible to maintain eye contact using video chat.

In the provocative and much talked about documentary, Catfish, the nether realm of the internet persona is explored. The Facebook meet cute swiftly spirals downward, resembling a strange, perverse nightmare. More than one character realizes that to look at a person’s pixelated flesh is far from gazing into their eyes.

While people discovery may satisfy some urge to connect, the kind of serendipity they promise will rarely be found behind a screen.

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