Now that I’ve written my commuter’s paean to Waze, allow me to get a bit journowonky now and examine some of the lessons newspapers should learn from the success of the service:
1. Waze built a platform that lets the public share what it knows without the need for gatekeepers or mediators — that is, media. That’s how it keeps content costs at a minimum and scales around the world.
2. Waze does that first by automatically using the technology in our pockets to — gasp! — track us live so it can tell how fast we are going and thus where the traffic jams are. And we happily allow that because of the return we get — freedom from traffic jams and faster routes to where we’re going.
3. Waze does that next by easily enabling commuters to share alerts — traffic, stalled car, traffic-light camera, police, hazard, etc — ahead. It also lets commuters edit each others’ alerts (“that stalled car is gone now”).
4. Waze rewards users who contribute more information to the community — note I said to the community, not to Waze — by giving them recognition and greater access to Waze staff, which only improves Waze’s service more quickly.
5. Waze lets users record their own frequent destinations — work, home, school, and so on — so they can easily navigate there.
6. This means that Google as Waze’s new owner will now reliably know where we live, work, and go to school, shop, and so on. We will happily tell Waze/Google this so we get all of Waze’s and Google’s services. Google will be able to give us more relevant content and advertising. We will in turn get less noise. Everybody happy now?
How could, say, a local newspaper company learn from this?
1. Use platforms that enable your communities to share what they know with each other and without you getting in the way.
2. Add value to that with functionality, help, effort (but not articles).
3. If you knew where users lived and worked and went to school — small data, not big data — you could start by giving them more relevant content from what you already have.
4. You could give them more relevant advertising — “going to the store again? here are some deals for you!” — increasing their value as a customer by leaps and dollars.
5. You could learn where you should spend your resources — “gee, we didn’t know we had a lot of people who worked up there, so perhaps we should start covering that town or even that company.”
When I say that news should be a service and that the news industry should be a relationship business and that we should act as platforms for our users and that small data about people can lead to more relevance and greater value … this is what I mean.
So now go ask Waze how to get there. Oops. Too late. Google got there first. Again.
I’ve had to learn to trust Waze in a few traffic jams. Now every time Waze tells me to turn, I turn. I’ve missed horrendous traffic jams that way. I’ve learned new routes to work and home I’d never imagined. I’ve seen parts of the countryside that are new to me. Waze is wonderful. Here’s hoping that Google keeps and nurtures every bit of wonderfulness.
More than a dozen years ago, I wrote a business plan for a Waze-like social traffic service. Our local traffic services sucked; still do. A long-ago colleague of mine said his rule was to go wherever the radio traffic reports said there was a jam because (a) by the time they found out about it, the jam was gone and (b) every other idiot was listening to the radio and avoiding that spot themselves. He was right.
I envisioned a service in which commuters would program our routes in and then report on how long it took them and also alerted the system to jams — all via cell phone calls (mind you, this was before smart phones). The more data you contributed, the more points you earned to get alerts back for free. If you freeloaded, you paid (see, I wasn’t against pay walls). It wouldn’t have worked then. No $1 billion for me.
Waze built that social notion and more, outdoing Google in finding the means to listen to and learn from the public to both feed in automatic data on traffic speed — your phone knows how fast you’re going — and alert the service to jams and other problems as well as errors in maps. It’s brilliant: a platform for shared knowledge.
One concern I have with Google buying it is that if *everyone* ends up using the service, then does *everyone* take the same alternate routes and then they get crowded and my old colleague’s rule comes into force again? Nah. Google and Waze are a helluva lot smarter than anybody on radio.
Congratulations, Waze. May you grow and prosper and get me home sooner.
I was about to sit down and write an aria of praise to living the Google life, now that I have transitioned fully from my iPhone, iPad, and Mac and functioned fully for a few months with Android, Chrome, and services from Gmail to Google Calendar to Google Now to Google Reader on my Nexus 4, Nexus 7, Chromebook and now Chromebook Pixel.
But this turns into a cautionary tale as well with the news last night that Google is killing Reader. Godogle giveth, Godogle taketh away. This is the problem of handing over one’s digital life to one company, which can fail or unilaterally kill a service users depend on. Google has the right to kill a shrinking service. But it also has a responsibility to those who depended on it and in this case to the principle of RSS and how it has opened up the web and media. I agree with Tim O’Reilly that at the minimum, Google should open-source Reader.
The killing of Reader sends an unfortunate signal about whether we can count on Google to continue other services we come to need. Note well that what drove me to Google hardware was Google’s services — and now I depend on them even more. I have relied on Gmail and especially its Priority Inbox for ages. Once I finally shifted to Google Calendar et al, I found them awkward on the iPhone and so I moved to Android to try it out; there, I stayed. When the $249 Samsung Chromebook came out, I realized that I was doing most of my work only on the web, and so I decided to try to move entirely to Google Drive and Chrome. I found both transitions surprisingly easy, including working in Drive and Gmail offline. With one small and one large exception, I haven’t touched a Microsoft application for months.
The large exception is Skype, which Microsoft happens to own now. There is no Chrome app for it. I still need Skype to be on This Week in Google. So when I last went to Europe, I had to lug both my Chromebook and my Macbook with me.
But that problem was solved last night. Thanks to a helpful Google+ user, Michael Westbay, and through Kevin Tofel and Liliputing I managed to install Ubuntu Linux on the Google Chromebook so with one button I can switch from one to the other. Insert Tarzan yell here. Skype never looked better on TWiG. See for yourself:
Now to the details. Let’s start with the Chromebook Pixel. I have a review unit from Google. I so fell in love with it that after 24 hours I ordered my own — the high-end with LTE built in, for there’s nothing better than being away from wifi and suddenly finding oneself connected to the world. The screen is magnificent, which is soothing wonder to my old and hobbled eyes. The keyboard is pure butter; I only wish I could write as smoothly as I can type now. It’s fast. The machine is solid — physically and in its operation. The battery life could be better but I’m finding it does last the full five hours.
I had been managing fine on the Samsung Chromebook. But it was tinny. The screen wasn’t gorgeous. There was too little memory, which caused web pages to refresh too often. Still, for $249, I had little basis for complaint. This is a wonderful machine for students and travelers; I’d recommend it. I took it on trips as my only machine and did fine. As long as I remembered to open and refresh Drive and offline Gmail app while I was still connected, before getting on the plane, I could work when offline. The experience certainly showed me how I could live in the browser. But I wanted a slightly better machine. Then came the Pixel; it is a vastly better machine. For me, the Samsung was the gateway drug to the Pixel.
Both machines give me more Drive storage than I could possibly use. Except for one hiccup this week, Drive works well. The only other time I’ve had to use a Microsoft product was when I had to format a work document in Word. I am not sure about writing something book-length in Drive; it’s not easy to move around a large manuscript. But those things aside, it works for most anything I need to do, even presentations.
The Pixel also runs Netflix beautifully. I need to play with more Chrome apps to edit photos and video. But I tell you truthfully that I’m now not even taking my office Mac out of the drawer. I’m living in Chrome.
I’m similarly satisfied with Android, though I wish the two would integrate more and now that both are under the same leader, I hope that will happen. That Google Now will reportedly be available in both Android and Chrome is the first substantial bridge between the two. Gmail, Calendar, Maps, Voice, Google+, and Currents all operate wonderfully on my Nexus 4 and Nexus 7.
I kept playing with the idea of trying a Note II to replace both Nexus devices. I bought an unlocked AT&T model on eBay but still haven’t actually used it, as I will probably resell it. I like the size of the Nexus 4 for everyday use. I also like reading the paper and watching Breaking Bad on the Nexus 7 when I’m riding trains and airplanes.
Getting a new machine is pretty wonderful. When I turn on a new Chromebook and sign in, all my apps, bookmarks, and preferences are loaded in a minute or two. When I switch phones, I can transfer any app (though I wish I could just replicate my last phone). I am living in an ecosystem that makes sense.
So with the not inconsiderable caveat above, I’m living in Googland and happy there. Yes, at $1,500 the Pixel is expensive, but keep in mind — justification coming — that I don’t need to buy software for it. My Nexus 7 is cheaper than an iPad. My Nexus is only $300 and it’s unlocked. So I figure I also save money. I have fewer computer hassles. I can get to my data from anywhere. Come on in. The water’s fine.
Meanwhile, I bid a fond farewell to my iLife. Like an ex-girlfriend, I loved these machines in their time. I still admire them. But I don’t miss them.
From the headline to the lede to the chosen sources to the writing to the page-one placement, today’s New York Times coverage of Google’s $7 million settlement for the drive-by capture of wifi data is one-sided, shallow, and technopanicky.
First, let’s remind ourselves of the facts. Google’s Street View cars captured wifi addresses as they drove by as a way to provide better geolocation on our phones (this is why your phone suggests you turn on wi-fi when using maps — so you can take advantage of the directory of wifi addresses and physical addresses that Google and other companies keep). Stupidly and for no good reason, the cars also recorded other data passing on *open* wifi networks. But that data was incredibly limited: just what was transmitted in the random few seconds in which the Google car happened to pass once by an address. There is no possible commercial use, no rationally imagined nefarious motive, no goldmine of Big Data to be had. Nonetheless, privacy’s industrial-regulator complex jumped into action to try to exploit the incident. But even Germany — the rabid dog of privacy protectors — dropped the case. And the U.S. case got pocket lint from Google.
But that didn’t stop The Times from overplaying the story. Neither did it stop a CNN producer from calling me to try to whip up another technopanic story about privacy; I refused. I won’t pay into the panic.
Let’s dissect the Times story from the headline down:
* The Times calls what Google did “prying.” That implies an “improper curiosity” and an intentionality, as if Google were trying to open our drawers and find something there. It’s a loaded word.
* The lede by David Streitfeld says Google “casually scooped up passwords, e-mail and other personal information from unsuspecting computer users.” Later in the story, he says: “For several years, the company also secretly collected personal information — e-mail, medical and financial records, passwords — as it cruised by. It was data-scooping from millions of unencrypted wireless networks.”
The cars recorded whatever data was passing on these — again — *open* and *public* networks, which can be easily closed. Google was obviously not trying to vacuum up passwords. To say “unsuspecting computer users” is again loaded, as if these were victims. And to list particularly medical and financial records and not mention bits employed in playing Farmville is loaded as well.
* Here’s the worst of it: Streitfeld says unnamed “privacy advocates and Google critics characterized the overall agreement as a breakthrough for a company they say has become a serial violator of privacy.” A “serial violate or privacy”? Really? Where’s the link to this long and damning rap sheet? Facebook, maybe. But I doubt even Google’s vocal and reasonable critics would characterize the company this way. If Streitfeld found someone who said that, it should be in quotes and attributed to someone, or else he and the paper are the ones issuing this judgment.
* If anyone would say such a thing, it would certainly be the people Streitfeld did quote in the story, for he sought out only the worst of the company’s critics, including Scott Cleland, “a consultant for Google’s competitors” [cough] and Marc Rotenberg, self-styled protector of privacy at the so-called Electronic Privacy Information Center. Streitfeld also went to the attorneys general and a former FTC bureaucrat who went after Google. Nowhere in this story is there any sense of another side, let alone of context and perspective. That’s just not good reporting.
I have made it clear that I’m generally a fan of Google; I wrote a book about that. Nonetheless, I have frequently called Google’s recording of this data as its cars passed by — and this is my technical term — a fuckup. It was stupid. It was damaging to Google’s reputation. It played into the hands of the critics. That’s what I can’t stand.
I’m tired of media’s and governments’ attempts to raise undue panic about technology. Look at the silly, preemptive, and panicky coverage of Google Glass before the product is even out. A Seattle dive bar said it would ban Glass and media picked it up all over (8,000+ references at last check on Google News) — though the bar admitted, as any fool could see, that it was just a publicity stunt.
There are plenty of serious issues to discuss about protecting privacy and there is certainly a need to educate people about how to protect their privacy. But this simplistic, biased, anti-technology, panicked coverage does neither. I might expect this other outlets. But I’m sad to see The Times join in.
Note that as part of its settlement, Google will educate people to close their open wifi networks. The Times found someone to ridicule even that when its ink would have been better put to telling people how to close their networks.
Google Glass isn’t available yet. Even so, the technopanic it’s inspiring is rising to full swivet. But I say there’s no need to panic. We’ll figure it out, just as we have with many technologies—from camera to cameraphone—that came before.
The greatest compilation of worries to date comes from Mark Hurst, who frets: “The most important Google Glass experience is not the user experience— it’s the experience of everyone else. The experience of being a citizen, in public, is about to change.” [His typography]
This is the fear we hear most: That someone wearing Glass will record you—because they can now—and you won’t know it. But isn’t that what we heard when cell phones added cameras? See The New York Times from a decade ago about Chicago Alderman Edward Burke:
But what Mr. Burke saw was the peril.
“If I’m in a locker room changing clothes,” he said, “there shouldn’t be some pervert taking photos of me that could wind up on the Internet.”
Accordingly, as early as Dec. 17, the Chicago City Council is to vote on a proposal by Mr. Burke to ban the use of camera phones in public bathrooms, locker rooms and showers.
His fear didn’t materialize. Why? Because we’re civilized. We’re not as rude and stupid—as perverted—as our representative, Mr. Burke, presumed us to be.
How will we deal with the Glass problem? I’ll bet that people wearing Glass will learn not to shoot those around them without asking or they’ll get in trouble; they’ll be scolded or shunned or sued, which is how we negotiate norms. I’d also bet that Google will end up adding a red light—the universal symbol for “You’re on!”—to Glass. And folks around Glass users will hear them shout instructions to their machines, like dorks, saying: “OK, Glass: Record video.”
That concern raised, Hurst escalates to the next: that pictures and video of you could be uploaded to Google’s servers, where it could be combined with facial recognition and the vastness of data about you. Facebook can’t wait to exploit this, he warns. But this is happening already. Every photo on my phone is automatically uploaded to Google; others do likewise to Facebook, each of which has facial recognition and information about us. Hurst acknowledges that we’re all recorded all day in public—remember: it is public—by security cameras. But the difference here, he argues, is that this data is held by a companies. Big companies + Big Data = Big problems, right? That’s the alarm Siva Vaidhyanathan raises:
But what’s to investigate? Should governments have investigated Kodak cameras when they came out? Well, Teddy Roosevelt did briefly ban cameras in Washington parks. In 2010, Germany’s minister of consumer protection, Ilse Aigner, decreed that tying facial recognition to geolocation would be “taboo”—though one could certainly imagine such a combination being useful in, for example, finding missing children. To ban or limit a technology before it is even implemented and understood is the definition of short-sighted.
Hurst also fears that the fuzz and the Feds could get all this data about us, these days even without warrants. I fear that, too—greatly. But the solution isn’t to limit the power of technology but to limit the power of government. That we can’t is an indication of a much bigger problem than cameras at our eyelids.
I agree with Hurst that this is worth discussing and anticipating problems to solve them. But let us also discuss the benefits alongside the perils, change to welcome balancing change we fear—the ability to get relevant information and alerts constantly, the chance to capture an otherwise-lost moment with a baby, another way to augment our own memories, and other opportunities not yet imagined. Otherwise, if we manage only to our fears, only to the worst case, then we won’t get the best case. And let’s please start here: We are not uncivilized perverts.
Yes, I’m dying to get a Google Glass and get my head around it and vice versa. But rest assured, I will ask you whether it’s OK to take a picture of you in private—just as I ask whether it’s OK to take or share your picture now or to tweet or blog something you say to me. We figured all that out. We will figure this out. We have before. No need to technopanic.
LATER: A good post from Jürgen Geuter that raises the point I also wrote about in Public Parts: let’s concentrate on the use over the gathering of data; if we do the latter, we regulate what we’re allowed to know.