Spence Green

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I work at Lilt. In addition to computers and languages, my interests include travel, running, and scuba diving. more...

Weird, but Interesting

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‘The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.’ -William Gibson

Non-technical people typically cannot hold a technical audience. But Tim O’Reilly’s talk on November 20th was not typical. Entitled ‘Watching the Alpha Geeks’, O’Reilly explained the ‘secret sauce’ that has accounted for his company’s singular success in the computer publishing industry: regarding hackers, and their interests, as the vanguard of technology. O’Reilly follows ‘Alpha Geeks’, or persons so comfortable with technology that vendors cannot constrain them. Through a series of examples–most notably the ‘Open Source’ movement–O’Reilly showed how trends in the alpha community ultimately shaped mainstream behavior. In the late 90’s, for example, many of the key figures in the OSS world such as Larry Wall, Eric Raymond, Linus Torvalds did not know each other. A 1998 O’Reilly Media conference organized to facilitate introductions, and give the trend a name, marked the inconspicuous start of what has by now spread to every corner of the software world. This, conveniently, is O’Reilly’s Big Hairy Audacious Goal (see Good to Great): ‘Change the world through the spread of knowledge.’

The meat of the talk consisted of ‘Ten Ideas that Will Rock Your World,’ the first of which was ‘harnessing collective intelligence.’ Any service that improves as it is used falls into this category. O’Reilly quickly blunted any opportunities to use the hapless moniker ‘Web 2.0’ in this context. ‘2.0 is not a version number,’ O’Reilly said, ‘The term was meant to represent a renaissance or second coming of the web after the post-bubble malaise.’ Collective applications are epitomized by Google’s products, which locate value in unstructured data. In particular, O’Reilly discussed the following applications:

  • AdWords – Uses clickstream data to select auction winners. Google will sell a keyword to a lower bidder if it expects that bidder to generate more revenue.
  • GOOG411 – Do not look for altruism here. Google uses this service to build a speech data corpus for the development of more sophisticated applications.
  • Flu Trends – Combine search term frequency with approximate geographical location and voila! a map of the flu.

As if to subvert another buzz word, O’Reilly admitted his pessimism about the ‘Semantic web’, predicting that it would die the same protracted death as traditional AI. The ‘Google revolution’ has not yet reached its apex, O’Reilly predicted, and it will be some time before raw data becomes a commodity.

The next few ideas could be characterized as new beginnings: technology for social action, the end of the relational database paradigm, and cleantech. Of the first and third, the now-pedestrian observation was made: there is nothing new about social enterprise. Did not Henry Ford improve the world, and his bank account, by making the car affordable? ‘Social enterprise’, a concept that floats on  cheap money, seems destined for the same rubbish bin that recessions create for other excesses. But what of the relational database? I confess enthusiasm at its demise. Costly, complicated, and without respect for standards, the RDBMS is the archetype for the vendor traps from which OSS seeks to liberate the world. A rescript of the standard data model will simplify the development of distributed applications, which remains an art.

O’Reilly then addressed the end-user, forecasting tools for better government oversight and business auditing. He discussed a site that helps Joe the Plumber dissect government appropriations legislation and remonstrate with his representative (assuming that Joe the Plumber’s civil involvement has continued after the election carnival). O’Reilly’s enthusiasm for this idea was evident; mine was not. It is in the nature of governments to waste, and it is in the nature of the citizenry to hope for better government, so let us move on.

The remainder of the talk was auspicious for the electrical engineers and hardware designers in the audience. O’Reilly observed that hacking was ‘becoming physical again’ as a direct result of consumer fatigue. Hackers want to differentiate their gear from the sea of mass-produced goods. As a result, they only buy tools at Wal-Mart. Everything else–lathes, saws, old vacuum cleaners, disk drives, lights, used engines, old circuit boards–is readily available on eBay. With ingenuity as the glue, these disposable goods can be used to assemble all sorts of machines. This ‘re-mix culture’ will enter the mainstream through avenues that are already becoming popular: open source hardware, the computer modding community, and DIY products and manuals. O’Reilly noted that some companies are already changing their product lines to accomodate this tinkering. At Autodesk, for example, the design-and-build model has given way to a process of scanning real things and designing from them. The beige box is in its death agony.

This re-made world will become increasingly instrumented. O’Reilly pointed to the astounding utility of accelerometers in the iPhone as proof that new kinds of sensors will change human-machine interaction. ‘Typing on a keyboard and reading output from a monitor is not the future,’ O’Reilly said.

In closing, O’Reilly discussed an idea that he found ‘weird, but interesting’: body and mind hacking. He presented 23andMe, a Silicon Valley startup that can tell you surprising things about your DNA, as an example. Sergey Brin, an investor in this company whose wife is also a founder, once called the genome a data analysis problem. O’Reilly believes that this view has merit, and that a number of innovations will result from it.

After the talk, one audience member questioned the O’Reilly’s utopian creed about spreading knowledge: if you really want to make knowledge available, then why do you lock it inside Safari? O’Reilly was unapologetic. The traditional publishing model no longer works–book purchasing has been declining for several years now–nor do a number of other approaches that O’Reilly Media has tried. O’Reilly discussed several of the ‘open source’ books that his company has attempted. Audiences may appreciate free books, but authors want to get paid. O’Reilly Media encountered difficulty in locating writers who would invest the sustained effort necessary to write a book without the promise of compensation. ‘A better way may exist,’ O’Reilly admitted, ‘but we haven’t found it.’

Another person asked O’Reilly to discuss the notion of ‘cognitive surplus’. A recent book (whose title did not make it into my notes) claimed that the man-hours invested in Wikipidia’s creation equates to that spent on World of Warcraft each week. Is it possible to harness this energy? A vigorous round of conjecture and speculation ensued with no tangible outcome. Perhaps this energy is wasted, but then again, what is more valuable: a bucket of mud or an ounce of gold? So long as the world’s Mozarts, Brins, and Steinbecks are not mired in inane pursuits, the human project will march onward.

Written by Spence

December 29th, 2008 at 11:54 am

Posted in Tech Trends

2 Responses to 'Weird, but Interesting'

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  1. I think the book whose title didn’t make it into your notes is Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky. At least I heard him use the same idea in a talk he gave a year ago.


    7 Oct 09 at 06:58

  2. superb hair-styling methods

    Weird, but Interesting | Spence Green

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