Are Science Fiction Fears About Technology Reasonable?

Science fiction offers strange futuristic views of technology. Some are positive, but most lean towards dystopia. Are technological fears portrayed in science fiction reasonable?

As a species, humans adapt technologies blindly with the hope of achieving promised benefits. We rarely consider societal impact. This is a huge issue, in my opinion. Technology itself doesn’t destroy or evolve societies, rather human use of advanced tools is the culprit.

Some science fiction books like Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 waver between utopian and dystopian views. Science fiction offers us the opportunity to debate whether or not we will destroy ourselves with technology.

Is such dialogue pure fear of change? Or do they remind that we always forget the lessons of the past?

In the case of robotics, the decades old dialogue started by Isaac Asimov’s robot novels has been greatly beneficial. We have been actively trying to build artificial intelligence that will become useful to society while not becoming malevolent a la The Terminator.

But we are not always so forward thinking. Applied to the Internet we do all sorts of neat things like give ourselves access to incredible amounts of information and publishing tools. Then we do things like strip away privacy and quantify human worth and status using tools like Empire Avenue and PeerIndex.

In my book Exodus, Book One of The Fundamentalists I began with a post-apocalyptic world decimated by a biotechnology terror, a direct result of weaponized viruses. This narrative device allowed me to create a world where people avoided technology and religion for centuries, in favor of an agrarian utopia. Throughout the trilogy I debate whether we as a species can use spiritual ideas and technology tools peacefully.

I have to tell you that by the end of the trilogy, technology makes a big come back as a means of defense against fundamentalism. Humans end up using both to create power structures to benefit themselves and dominate other people. And in other cases, people use these very different tools to help each other.

Because that’s who we are, at least right now. I really believe that a portion of the population will always fall to primitive negative actions, and others will rise above. The combination creates volatility.

Why do I have this view? Human beings are complicated, and create conflict. While some people are altruistic or generally good in design, we are all to some extent self-motivated. War itself is something that is a result of modern agricultural and political structures, say researchers. Even when we are not at war, we compete with each other, on an individual basis and with other nations to create the most prosperity and status.

Anyone who thinks the United States is not competing with China from a technological perspective is crazy. How many private incidents of cyberwarfare occur without our knowledge? It’s not like the Pentagon or major companies want to admit how often they are getting attacked.

Furthering blind adoption of tools, technology has proven to be a huge economic driver. Consider the way we encourage technological development in Silicon Valley and beyond? IPOs and acquisitions drive the the tech sector.

Just last month we saw Google purchase Nest for an astounding amount to empower the Internet of Things. Society will certainly reap the economic benefits of data. But are individuals and communities ready for a coming wave of metric-based vanity that determines their place in society?

So you see, I really do think the human application of technology is a worthwhile discussion. Without foresight, it can become quite destructive. What do you think?

Featured image by Mark Beemink. A version of this post ran originally on to read, or not to read.

Breaking Up Google

It may be time to break Google up. At a minimum, the Justice Department should consider taking up antitrust action against Google again.

The search monopoly impacts almost every part of the Internet, from content creation to email to data collection. Every small change it makes creates far-reaching ripples.

Google takes these actions to drive revenue for its advertising products. Revenue is derived from a wide array of advertising properties, including search, YouTube, ads in products like Gmail, and the far reaching AdWords network.

So what’s the hubbub about? Consider how the company uses data sourced from Google+, Android phones, Chrome browsers, organic searches and soon its sensors (via the Nest acquisition) to customize ads. Contextual and creepy at the same time, Google uses all of the data collected from products to serve the ad beast, which in turn suggests products from paying partners.

In doing so, Google pushes the boundaries of fair data use. Further, whenever it alters its search algorithms, Google creates tidal waves across the media industry, and impacts every single business with an Internet presence. Because of Google’s size, every business owner and media publisher must at a minimum pay attention to these changes, if not yield to them.

Google, The Data Bully

Google Searching
Image by Charles Ovens

Consider how Google pressures sites and companies to provide their data for free. When content owners and publishers say no, Google often replicates the data or it launches a competive product to replicate the creation of that data. This basically tells every data owner to you open their database to Google, or face competition from the Silicon Valley giant. Don’t be evil, indeed.

In many ways, Google’s creation of Google+ sought to replace paid access to Twitter and other social network sites that bar public search crawls. By making Google+ and Google Authorship components of its search algorithm, Google forced Plus upon content publishers and website owners. As a result, Google+ is actively marketed by millions of websites across the globe.

What would happen if the Justice Department acted and demanded that Google pay its competitors, and that Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn social data received equal weight in Google searches?

I’ll tell you what. Most content publishers would stop trying to make Google+ work. A vast majority of those G+ social buttons across the social web would disappear like outdoor Christmas lights retired in the midst of January.

Google+ would collapse. And maybe it should.

In its quest to ensure data quality and drive more revenue, Google consistantly pushes the boundaries of privacy. The list of privacy violations is significant (scroll to the end of this Huffington Post piece). You have to wonder what’s going to happen with data from Glass and Nest.

The search algorithm changes impact every media and business across the world with an Internet presence. You can see the panicked Hummingbird, Penguin and Panda update posts that dominated the marketing and publishing interwebs over the past two years.

Last year Google deployed filtered emails based on keywords and data to create a less spammy email experience. Even Gmail filter changes impacted millions of people and businesses alike. I wonder how many companies have to pay to have their products seen in email ads now? Personally, I’ve had a few emails unnecessarily buried by the new tabs.

With many of these actions, Google forces content creators and site publishers to choose between SEO and smart business. Consider the placement of no follow links in press releases and now guest blogs. Now you can’t transfer Google juice in what should be common sense business activities.

I value organic growth by attracting people to my site more than I care about search algorithms. So I tend to ignore some of the finer points (keyword placement, no follow links on guest blogs I accept, etc.) in favor of a good read, but Google’s changes make me consider each tactic.

Case in Point: Guest Blogs are More than SEO

Guestblog

I read Google Web Spam Leader Matt Cutt‘s arguments last week to eliminate guest blog links from Google’s search algorithm. While I am certain Google sees more blog spam than the average person does, the recommendation to cease guest blogging is a flawed one.

In particular these statements were erroneous: “Back in the day, guest blogging used to be a respectable thing, much like getting a coveted, respected author to write the introduction of your book. It’s not that way any more.”

Though Matt reversed his statement a bit with an amended title and a footnote at the end, this needs to be said loud and clear: Guest blogging is more than SEO.

Guest blogging is an attempt to introduce yourself (or a brand) and garner credibility with new audiences, the virtual road show if you would. In trade, you provide quality content. Even a respected author understands that.

Let me give you some examples:

I wrote a novel call Exodus last year that’s still realtively new. So I guest blogged last Wednesday on To Read, or Not to Read about the possibility of technology destroying us. It was a fun post that delved into post-apocalyptic narration and world building as storytelling devices. It also introduced the book to new audiences.

Then last Thursday I blogged about the coming Zombie Content Apocalypse on Copyblogger. Copyblogger is one of the top blogs in my business. It is always a great opportunity to offer a guest by-line there.

In both cases I delivered unique content to the sites. I believe the original content was useful and interesting to those communities. As a result, I gained a few new followers and contacts from these efforts.

If you told me I would be penalized by Google before I drafted the posts, it wouldn’t have stopped me. Guest blogs and articles remain a strong tactic. That is true with or without Google’s blessing.

This type of situation seems to happen with Google monthly, if not more frequently. And that is the problem with the Internet giant. Small moves create massive waves when you have all the power.

Google Is Threesome

GOOGLE-DRIVE-backgrounds-wallpaper

So how should Google be broken up? Personally, I think Google should be broken up into three companies to create a fairer Internet ecosystem.

The first is the search engine itself as a stand-alone product. When tied to other content elements on the Internet, Google search achieves insurmountable economies of scale. Google tends to leverage search, its various sepearate content mechanisms, and its software (Chrome and Android) for unfair advantages, most notably data mining and the weighting of Google+ in its search algorithm.

The second company would be software products, from Gmail to Android. Also included in this second company would be YouTube, Chrome, Feedburner, and other application elements. In many ways, search is search, and company x is content. We will call this company Google2.

Google3 would be comprised of the hardware companies. Glass, Motorola and Nest would be form Google3. Why seperate these companies from the group? Google clearly uses data to its advantage. Creating and acquiring new devices to capture data seems to be an evolving pattern here, and one that leads to a slippery slope. Separation creates a forced check and balance.

So there you have it, my vision for a safer Internet sans the Google Empire. Much like AT&T, the Baby Bells, and Lucent Technologies in the post telecom divestiture era, the three Google companies would all be very powerful in their own right.

Google Pays to Avoid Trust Busting

7985117705_7b6bb5f4c4_z

Like other big business lobbies, Google will likely avoid action or penalities for leveraging all of its business powers. Google pays to make sure its agenda is at the forefront of DC legislators’ and administrators’ minds. There are too many dollars at stake.

Washington, DC is a town built on special interest dollars. We all know this; the money involved is a central problem in today’s political gridlock.

Google was the largest tech lobbying company in DC in 2013 with $14 million spent. Ironically, this is a significant decrease over the prior year when Google faced antitrust action.

Though Google may be too powerful, it would take significant public outcry for Washington to act. Google knows the game and plays the system on every corner. We will have to continue dealing with Google’s data manipulation and Internet tactics.

It could be worse. While often overbearing in its moves, at least Google realizes that it can only grow by committing to better search, less spam, and useful information and data products. While I advocate for Google’s breakup, I’d much rather see this management team operating with these economies of scale as opposed to Facebook’s executives. That would be dangerous indeed.

What do you think? Should the government break Google up? Is the company too powerful?

Featured image via The Digital Reader. Capitol Building photo taken by me.

The Vanity of New Metrics

Digital metrics increasingly define us, creating a new way to value each other and ourselves. Big data, sensors and algorithms will fuel a new wave of vanity metrics that will further refine self-identity.

We got an early taste of this new digital vanity with Klout, Empire Avenue, PeerIndex and other influence metrics. But things are going to get worse (or better, depending on your perspective).

Consider the movement toward the Internet of Things and this week’s mega-acquisition of Nest. We are literally just at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to personal data. We’ll be able to see how many times a day we open the fridge, and for how long. What are our peak grazing periods, and which products do we reach for the most?

That kind of data creates statistics, lots of them.

Suddenly, every aspect of our lives will become a sabermetric, giving us the chance to optimize our lifestyle. You can see this already with leaderboards and badges for social giving, fitness apps, and more.

Performance will become a mantra for some more competitive and vain people.

It’s not hard to envision endless chatter at the coffee shop, the water cooler and the bar about how life is better thanks to xxx [data-drive] app. Even more amazing, will be the discussions about how xx is in the 95th percentile of powersavers in the neighborhood.

Impact

10279177113_0f9fb48ece_z

Now look, some people will take this more seriously than others, but we all know what a good portion of top performers do…

They put stickers on their car, “My Child is an Honor Roll Student.” Or badges on their blog. Or ribbons on their social network profile. Or include it in their bios. Whatever the statistic may be, we will hear endlessly about it from the more competitive and vain types.

Let’s be clear. The need to measure one’s performance — and in the most shallow and vain examples one’s self worth — existed well before Internet life. Consider school grades, attendance reports, boy and girl scout badges, colored belts for martial arts, etc. But in many of these cases we rewarded achievements.

Now we will reward arcane personal statistics.

In business, this metric based reality is inescable. The bottom line on any outcome measured by data is a merciless judge who has no defining characteristic other than success or fail. The application of metrics is the ultimate judge of any business person.

Marketers who value freedom and qualitative success above metric performance are having a hard time of it in this world where data drives everything. As Avinash Kaushik said this week, no one wants to hire a reporting squirrel. And can you blame companies? We know precision exists, and now brands are demanding it.

Are You a Metric?

The real concern is that we are conditioning ourselves to value statistical vanity and shallow egotism. The attention economy demands it. The proliferation of performance-bragging will become more and more commonplace. Welcome to the new rat race for many insignificant badges.

We see today’s conversations about self esteem and image, from the Dove Real Beauty campaign to online self worth to bullying conversations. Forthcoming vanity metrics will bring many new questions:

  • How are we going to deal with self image when so many people tie it to a metric?
  • How do you grapple with social climbers who will throw you under the bus in favor of appeasing the sensor or algorithm?
  • How will impact be defined in the future? Touching and changing people’s lives or breaking records in arcane communities that relish niche statistics?
  • What will we write on our gravestones in 50 years, a top ranked blogger who achieved a 16.7% lifetime share rate, or writer?

I don’t know about you, but I have many fears about this next wave of technology. Why? Consider how we as a species embrace technologies on a sociological level. Humans tend to adpat technologies blindly on hopes of achieving promised benefits. We rarely consider societal impact.

We’re already grappling with the ugly from social, and now we will see the ugly side of data metrics. While society will reap the economic benefits of data, expect shock from individuals and communities who are dismayed by the coming wave of metric-based vanity.

What do you think?

Featured image by Jo. Boy scout badges image by torbakhopper.