Archive for March, 2007
Ted Halstead heads the non-partisan thinktank New America Foundation. This interview was conducted in the wake of the November 2006 elections, but before the last Senate races were decided, giving the Democrats control of both branches of Congress. It was obvious that in Washington people were already looking towards 2008. It is suprising in retrospect to see that there was hope the Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq would provide a dignified way to alleviate our issues there.
My latest Prototype column, How to Improve It? Ask Those Who Use It, in the New York Times looks at the impact ordinary customers have on product design, and whether that’s likely to become a dominant force for innovation.
A friend sent me Emily Nussbaum’s trenchant piece Say Everything from New York magazine’s February 12th issue.
Nussbaum’s piece is a lovely look at the generation gap, but I think she’s wrong about tech having replaced music as the demarcator of generational behavior. In fact, her article evokes “La Dolce Viva,” a piece about one of Warhol’s starlets that New York ran back in 1968. Tech hasn’t killed shame; it’s just made it easier for lots of people to know you’re young and stupid.
Nussbaum makes what is essentially an anthropological argument that because tech is so widespread, concepts like shame and privacy have become defamiliarized. In fact, it seems to me that younger people spend more time creating things for MySpace and YouTube simply because they can, not because they’re less moral than the generations that preceded them. Broadband is the main reason why Paris Hilton’s home sex tapes are more notorious than Pamela Anderson’s were (and they’re not that much more notorious). The youth in Say Everything have nothing on Karen Finley, the performance artist.
It reminds me of the Twain comment on murder: If the desire to kill and the opportunity to kill came always together, who would escape hanging? (thanks to www.twainquotes.com).
Kids today have the opportunity to post pretty much anything they desire on the Web. They’re going to. That’s not new.
But I’ve read with interest a series of articles about a local state representative, Scott Brown, who spiced things up at a local high school when he read verbatim posts from places like MySpace about his family (his daughter is former American Idol contestant Ayla Brown). Brown did not delete the expletives, and he named the authors, and people were embarrassed. The fallout – the school wants an apology — has been going on for several weeks now. I’ll bet at least some of the kids he named have changed their posting habits. And what about those kids who feel offended and betrayed when their parents read their online posts? That sounds like people who haven’t figured out that posting is public, not people who’ve lost their sense of shame.
Nussbaum argues for a certain vision of a personal media society, one in vogue in tech circles now. But the future is likely to get both more personal and more private, along the lines of what Michael Dertouzis envisioned back in the 1990s. Why wouldn’t people shift toward putting their most revealing moments on chips embedded in cell phones or wallets or glasses or clothes or even implanted in some part of their bodies, something they control access to?
It’s also inevitable that jamming technologies will be developed, be they cloaking or blocking or biometric passwords or what have you (for an example, see Limor Fried’s MIT master’s thesis; the abstract is here).
There is also the assumption that stuff will stay online forever, as if the Web is some sort of open-ended, endlessly searchable attic. Sure, storage is cheap. But will it make sense even for Google to store personal stuff for 20 years or 50 years? Yes, there is the Wayback machine, but what if MySpace becomes unprofitable?
Ezra Vogel, the Harvard sociologist, is legendary in Japan. His 1979 book Japan as No. 1 set sales records in Japan when it was published; no other foreigner’s non-fiction book has ever sold as well in Japan
I interviewed him by telephone; the septuagenarian was in China doing research. Japanese seem to feel their old advocate Vogel is more interested in China than Japan these days, a blow to Japanese pride.
It’s a terrible pun. But I am jolly to be named a Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion for 2007. I’m also humbled to be on such an impressive list of journalists.
National Geographic’s February issue has what is the best interview I’ve seen with Francis Collins, a leading scientist whose professed Christianity makes him much despised by scientists who fear religion. There is, for instance, no discussion of Collins’ conversion experience while hiking, which was obviously powerful for him but doesn’t translate so well for those of us who weren’t there (at least, it doesn’t translate well for me). Instead, the interview presents Collins as a thoughtful, humorous man who struggles with difficult issues like free will, and how we can tell when God is present.
He also, in response to a question on neurotheology, gives an answer that shows why science and faith have felt tension since the ancient Greeks invented reason:
I think it’s fascinating but not particularly surprising. We humans are flesh and blood. So it wouldn’t trouble me—if I were to have some mystical experience myself—to discover that my temporal lobe was lit up. That doesn’t mean that this doesn’t have genuine spiritual significance. Those who come at this issue with the presumption that there is nothing outside the natural world will look at this data and say, “Ya see?” Whereas those who come with the presumption that we are spiritual creatures will go, “Cool! There is a natural correlate to this mystical experience! How about that!”
I had lunch this week with the CEO of a mid-sized Silicon Valley-based security company. At one point, we started talking about identity theft, and he surprised me by telling me that his identity had been stolen, by a gang of Bay Area fraudsters who use the data from their victims to buy big ticket items that they then sold at area flea markets. I then told him my tale, which involved a bookkeeper at TechTV, where I worked briefly in late 2001 and early 2002, in the depths of the media depression. Her favorite trick was to create an extra paycheck for some executive and funnel it to an account she had set up, and it worked well: she took nearly $700,000, and nobody ever caught the extra money.
In my case, she used a different technique: she created a fake employee with my home address but not quite my name and not quite my security number, and paid that ‘person’ about $75,000, all after I had left the company. Eventually, the IRS came calling me for unpaid taxes, and I had to jump through a few hoops to prove that I wasn’t at fault. I went through less pain than my CEO lunchmate, who estimates he, his wife and his assistant spent close to 200 hours cleaning up his problem, mostly trying to cancel and replace credit cards (some stores simply refused to let him open a new one, even though he was not at fault).
I was reminded of another recent conversation, with a woman whose children go to the same childcare as my kids. Someone was using her online banking account to pay bills that weren’t hers, and she was having to get that straightened out. It seems to me that it won’t be long before we’ll use our various ID theft experiences as chit chat when we run out of things to say at parties.
Robert Shiller is both a thoughtful macroeconomist and a clever entrepreneur. I interviewed him on both aspects of his working life for Diamond Weekly on Labor Day 2006. Among other things, he was pessimistic about the U.S. economy, and suggested that it might well enter recession by 2008. But he was also clear that the U.S. housing market of the last decade has no parallel in our history — and that Americans will always look for the next quick buck.
Our surveys show that people expect to get rich from some investment. It does tend to alternate between stocks and housing, and that’s been true for a long time. The stock market boom of the 1920s ended in 1929. Then there was a boom from 1933 to 1937, and that was followed by a housing boom in the ‘40s and early ‘50s. Then it was back to the stock market in the mid-1950’s.