Sunday Seven: search, podcasts and responsibility

Some interesting articles and ideas from the past few days:

Hacking the technology boys’ club – by Anna Wiener, for The New Republic

With her evocative and intriguing article about the tech scene in San Francisco, past and present, Anna Wiener opens up the possibilities of a more tolerant and open Internet ecosystem.

 “Code is not neutral. It can’t be; it’s a creation. “The engineer’s assumptions and presumptions are in the code,” the writer and programmer Ellen Ullman wrote in a 1995 essay published in Harper’s. “The system reproduces and re-enacts life as engineers know it: alone, out of time, disdainful of anyone far from the machine.””

The article is not so much a portrait of programmer and writer Ellen Ullman as a simultaneously affectionate and scathing description of the current boom.

According to Ullman:

““If the first boom was like a disobedient band of dreamers and hackers, the new boom is more like a well-drilled army on maneuvers…They want to change the world, but they work all the time. So what exactly do they know about the world except as it is presented inside the cloisters of VCs and startup culture?””

The limitations of the tech culture shape the opportunities it hands us. The real opportunity lies in opening it up, increasing diversity, toning down the hype and going back to the revolutionary roots of potential that making and breaking things implies.

“White men still dominate the industry, as do white interpretations of diversity. Technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum, however, and it would look very different if it contained the “assumptions and presumptions” of multiple demographics. Software products would be more powerful, more accessible, and more democratic—Twitter, for example, would look a lot different today if it had been built by people for whom online harassment is a real-life concern.”

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3d calligraphy, by Tolga Girgin. So very cool. Talk about words that jump out of the page at you! Via Colossal.

by Tolga Girgin, via Colossal

by Tolga Girgin, via Colossal

by Tolga Girgin, via Colossal

by Tolga Girgin, via Colossal

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So, Like, Why Are We So Obsessed with Podcasts Right Now? – by James Wolcott, for Vanity Fair

You know that podcasts have gone mainstream when they’re featured in Vanity Fair, and by none other than James Wolcott. Funny, informative and insightful, he lays out the state of the sector by focussing on personal experience and tastes, and in so doing gets us eager to find our own. I’ve been a podcast addict for years now, but James showed me that my “expertise” is limited and not very relevant. For that I am grateful. Podcasting has broken out of the geeky subsegment (my speciality) and is now Culture-with-a-capital-c.

James has managed to increase my excitement and my sense of overwhelm at the explosion of this new art form, which isn’t actually new. The spoken word has held rapt attention for millennia. I suspect, though, that it has never been this varied. Or this good.

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Lists are the new search – by Benedict Evans

Benedict turns is attention to the problem of lists, curation and search:

One of the things I love about Benedict’s articles is how he points out what we feel like we knew all along, only we didn’t know it. It’s obvious, but we didn’t see. He does it here with the conundrum of search vs. curation, which is really the age-old pull between massification and selectivity, volume and quality, fame and privacy.

“I wonder, as ecommerce matures, how much will be carved out into exactly the kind of spectrum of large and small retail beyond the big aggregators, and how far this removal of geographic constraint might make it easier rather than harder for them to take sales from the giants, in part by removing that density problem. That is, there might be a lot more lists, they might be hard to find, and not be part of some global aggregator, and that might be OK.”

We seem to be realizing more and more that we don’t want access to everything, just the good stuff. And search can let us down on that. Lists are much more efficient, interesting and educational. But how to find the lists?

“The problem with using a list instead of a searchable database is how you get to scale – or perhaps, what kind of scale you can have. … But if the list is shorter (that is, more aggressively curated as opposed to just compiled and catalogued), then who’s doing the curation, and more importantly, how do you find the list in the first place?”

Suggest something, please.

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How Two Guys Built the Ultimate GIF Search Engine – by Adam Satariano, for BloombergBusiness

Like emojis on steroids, gifs distract, sure, but they also enhance communication, filling in the non-verbal cues and the virtual wink that text can’t convey.

The ability to find all of this in one place is partially the result, of course, of alcohol.

giphy dog

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So long social media: the kids are opting out of the online public square – by Felicity Duncan, for The Conversation

This gels with what my daughter’s friends tell me: Facebook is boring and not clique-y enough. It is much easier to keep up with friends on messaging platforms. Instagram and WhatsApp are their playgrounds of choice, and most have their Instagram profiles set to private (where they can choose who gets access to their updates). According to Felicity Duncan, more and more teens are relying on “narrow broadcast” platforms such as Messenger and WeChat to reach just the people they want to reach. “Public” broadcasting does not seem to be for them.

“Today, however, the newest data increasingly support the idea that young people are actually transitioning out of using what we might term broadcast social media – like Facebook and Twitter – and switching instead to using narrowcast tools – like Messenger or Snapchat. Instead of posting generic and sanitized updates for all to see, they are sharing their transient goofy selfies and blow-by-blow descriptions of class with only their closest friends.”

So, as Facebook’s demographic gets older, and Twitter’s reach gets narrower, what does that say about the breadth of connection and the extension of world awareness that public streaming media was going to open up for today’s youth? If most of their interaction is reduced to their narrow world, how will that shape their outlook on life? Is it a version of reverting to the familiar in times of stress? Or is it a normal part of growing up?

“As more and more political activity migrates online, and social media play a role in a number of important social movement activities, the exodus of the young could mean that they become less exposed to important social justice issues and political ideas. If college students spend most of their media time on group text and Snapchat, there is less opportunity for new ideas to enter their social networks.”

Social media has gone so far beyond connecting people, that it’s losing younger users. Which could well mean that the valuations – based on mass reach that looks like it isn’t so mass after all – are at risk. Could the younger generation’s messaging habits end up breaking the tech bubble?

“We may be seeing the next evolution in digital media. Just as young people were the first to migrate on to platforms like Facebook and Twitter, they may now be the first to leave and move on to something new. This exodus of young people from publicly accessible social media to messaging that is restricted to smaller groups has a number of implications, both for the big businesses behind social media and for the public sphere more generally.”

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It’s not Cyberspace anymore – by danah boyd, via Medium

Another insightfully disconcerting (and disconcertingly insightful) article by danah boyd (no capitals), about shiny new toys and how all is not well in the tech world.

“Shifting from “big data,” because it’s become code for “big brother,” tech deployed the language of “artificial intelligence” to mean all things tech, knowing full well that decades of Hollywood hype would prompt critics to ask about killer robots. So, weirdly enough, it was usually the tech actors who brought up killer robots, if only to encourage attendees not to think about them. Don’t think of an elephant. Even as the demo robots at the venue revealed the limitations of humanoid robots, the conversation became frothy with concern, enabling many in tech to avoid talking about the complex and messy social dynamics that are underway, except to say that “ethics is important.” What about equality and fairness?

…We all imagined that the Internet would be the great equalizer, but it hasn’t panned out that way.”

It’s not so much that the current ecosystem fosters inequality (because that’s debatable). It’s that the power has shifted to the outsiders, who are losing track of what they started out believing in.

“There is a power shift underway and much of the tech sector is ill-equipped to understand its own actions and practices as part of the elite, the powerful. Worse, a collection of unicorns who see themselves as underdogs in a world where instability and inequality are rampant fail to realize that they have a moral responsibility.

They fight as though they are insurgents while they operate as though they are kings.”

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Two things I really enjoyed this week:

  • An offsite meeting in beautiful Barcelona. Interesting people, breathtaking train ride, great cava, long post-meeting walks…

IMG_1654 Barcelona

  • My favourite cocktail at the moment is the Negroni: 1 part gin + 1 part red vermouth + 1 part Campari + a tiny bit of soda water + a slice of orange or a strip of orange peel. Not too sweet, not too bitter, and very soothing.


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Enjoy your Sunday! There aren’t enough of them!

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