Will Kindle 3 End the Printed Book Era?

In Book End: How the Kindle Will Change the World, Jacob Weisberg suggests how the new iteration of Amazon’s reading device will start the fire that ends the Gutenberg era:

I’m irksomely enthusiastic about my cool new literature delivery system. Like the early PCs, the Kindle 2 is a primitive tool. Like the Rocket e-book of 1999 (524 titles available!), it will surely draw chuckles a decade hence for its black-and-white display, its lack of built-in lighting, and the robotic intonation of the text-to-voice feature. But however the technology and marketplace evolve, Jeff Bezos has built a machine that marks a cultural revolution. The Kindle 2 signals that after a happy, 550-year union, reading and printing are getting separated. It tells us that printed books, the most important artifacts of human civilization, are going to join newspapers and magazines on the road to obsolescence…

The Kindle is not better than a printed book in all situations. You wouldn’t want to read an art book, or a picture book to your children on one, or take one into the tub (please). But for the past few weeks, I’ve done most of my recreational reading on the Kindle—David Grann’s adventure yarn The Lost City of Z, Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home, Slate, The New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, and the New York Times—and can honestly say I prefer it to inked paper. It provides a fundamentally better experience—and will surely produce a radically better one with coming iterations.

The notion that physical books are ending their lifecycle is upsetting to people who hold them to be synonymous with literature and terrifying to those who make their living within the existing structures of publishing. As an editor and a lover of books, I sympathize. But why should a civilization that reads electronically be any less literate than one that harvests trees to do so? And why should a transition away from the printed page lessen our appreciation and love for printed books? Hardbacks these days are disposable vessels, printed on ever crappier paper with bindings that skew and crack. In a world where we do most of our serious reading on screens, books may again thrive as expressions of craft and design. Their decline as useful objects may allow them to flourish as design objects.


Obama is open for questions

President Barack Obama continues to want to engage “folks” online, this time with a new service called Open For Questions:

Despite continued criticism of the bailouts, it takes a brave guy to still want to “experiment” and reach out to so many angry people.

As of this writing, 7,451 people submitted 7,706 questions and cast 261,052 votes.

Some random ones:

“Mr. President, my husband and I are on the verge of losing our home to foreclosure due to no work for over a year. Why is there absolutely NO help for those of us who have little to no income but are good people who want to stay in our homes??”
Yvette, Vermont

“You say ‘I am as angry as anybody’ about AIG bonuses & ‘we are all in this together’. Why is money being loaned to huge corporations rather than to small biz citizens? I don’t understand how we are all in this together. I’m sacrificing, they’re not.”
Darla B, Los Angeles CA

“I bought my first new home a year ago. I did not over-reach and bought a sensible home within my means. I was recently laid off and my home is now worth less than I paid if I were to try to sell. What options are available to folks like me?”
David L., Maineville, OH

“Why don’t you let the economy crash and then we can start rebuilding it, why are you putting these billions of dollars into the economy and just prolonging the inevitable?”
kevinmaks, chatsworth, CA

Shooting Shirky

After reading Shirky today, I can see editors lining up with their shotguns and shouting in unison — “Pull!”.

Again Clay, in his usual cerebral way, has taken the complex and reduced it to simple cold, hard facts, weaving in his wikipedian understanding of the Internet and making news owners seem like grumpy old men stuck in the mud and missing targets.

Sometimes he loses me — perhaps this simple mind can’t seem to grasp at the core of his message — but thank god for the webbiness of random access and infinite repetition and Google and YouTube. I can read and watch him again and again to finally Get It.

To appreciate the genius of Shirky, you need to step back to his 2005 TED talk on Institutions vs Collaboration.

Then listen to his entertaining “cognitive heatsink” theory at the Web 2.0 Expo: Part 1 | Part 2


This is something that people in the media world don’t understand. Media in the 20th century was run as a single race–consumption. How much can we produce? How much can you consume? Can we produce more and you’ll consume more? And the answer to that question has generally been yes. But media is actually a triathlon, it ’s three different events. People like to consume, but they also like to produce, and they like to share.

And what’s astonished people who were committed to the structure of the previous society, prior to trying to take this surplus and do something interesting, is that they’re discovering that when you offer people the opportunity to produce and to share, they’ll take you up on that offer. It doesn’t mean that we’ll never sit around mindlessly watching Scrubs on the couch. It just means we’ll do it less.

And this is the other thing about the size of the cognitive surplus we’re talking about. It’s so large that even a small change could have huge ramifications. Let’s say that everything stays 99 percent the same, that people watch 99 percent as much television as they used to, but 1 percent of that is carved out for producing and for sharing. The Internet-connected population watches roughly a trillion hours of TV a year. That’s about five times the size of the annual U.S. consumption. One per cent of that is 100 Wikipedia projects per year worth of participation.

I think that’s going to be a big deal. Don’t you?

Then go back and re-read Shirky firing away at the clay pigeons falling from the sky:

When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times. One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.

The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!” The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes (save the unthinkable one) was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift. As a result, the conversation has degenerated into the enthusiastic grasping at straws, pursued by skeptical responses.

“The Wall Street Journal has a paywall, so we can too!”(Financial information is one of the few kinds of information whose recipients don’t want to share.)
“Micropayments work for iTunes, so they will work for us!” (Micropayments only work where the provider can avoid competitive business models.)
“The New York Times should charge for content!” (They’ve tried, with QPass and later TimesSelect.)
“Cook’s Illustrated and Consumer Reports are doing fine on subscriptions!” (Those publications forgo ad revenues; users are paying not just for content but for unimpeachability.)
“We’ll form a cartel!” (…and hand a competitive advantage to every ad-supported media firm in the world.)

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.

With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem…

…When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie.


Separated at birth: Madoff-Palpatine?

Mind-blowing TED demo of sixth sense wearable tech

Out-of-this-world demo at TED by Pattie Maes and her brilliant student Pranav Mistry on the possibilities of wearable tech.

Maes and Mistry put together a crude US$350 device made with off-the-shelf parts that acts as an intelligent sensor cum projector and showed how you could project a calculator on your hand or use the numbers to make a call.

The device can sense what you are reading – a newspaper story triggers a related video off the Internet and projects it directly on the paper, a page in a book brings additional info on the author. At a supermarket, the device can detect the eco-friendly product versus the one that isn’t. The airport ticket can pull up info on whether the flight has been delayed.

Meanwhile David Merrill demos his Scrabble tiles on steroids called Siftables that is likely to make a killing in the toy market soon.

Watch on TED.com:
Pattie Maes & Pranav Mistry: Unveiling the “Sixth Sense,” game-changing wearable tech
David Merrill: Siftables, the toy blocks that think
or on YouTube:
Pattie Maes & Pranav Mistry
Pranav’s videos
David Merrill’s siftables

Wolfram Alpha: Google + Wikipedia?

There is buzz about genius entrepreneur Stephen Wolfram’s unveiling of Wolfram Alpha in May, 2009. Nova Spivack who was privy to a private demo reveals on TechCrunch some details on the “computational knowledge engine” he touts will be The Next Big Thing:

It doesn’t simply return documents that (might) contain the answers, like Google does, and it isn’t just a giant database of knowledge, like the Wikipedia. It doesn’t simply parse natural language and then use that to retrieve documents, like Powerset, for example. Instead, Wolfram Alpha actually computes the answers to a wide range of questions — like questions that have factual answers such as “What country is Timbuktu in?” or “How many protons are in a hydrogen atom?” or “What is the average rainfall in Seattle?”

Think about that for a minute. It computes the answers. Wolfram Alpha doesn’t simply contain huge amounts of manually entered pairs of questions and answers, nor does it search for answers in a database of facts. Instead, it understands and then computes answers to certain kinds of questions.

Wolfram Alpha is a system for computing the answers to questions. To accomplish this it uses built-in models of fields of knowledge, complete with data and algorithms, that represent real-world knowledge.

For example, it contains formal models of much of what we know about science — massive amounts of data about various physical laws and properties, as well as data about the physical world.

Based on this you can ask it scientific questions and it can compute the answers for you. Even if it has not been programmed explicity to answer each question you might ask it.

But science is just one of the domains it knows about — it also knows about technology, geography, weather, cooking, business, travel, people, music, and more.

It also has a natural language interface for asking it questions. This interface allows you to ask questions in plain language, or even in various forms of abbreviated notation, and then provides detailed answers.

The vision seems to be to create a system wich can do for formal knowledge (all the formally definable systems, heuristics, algorithms, rules, methods, theorems, and facts in the world) what search engines have done for informal knowledge (all the text and documents in various forms of media).

In his own blogpost, Wolfram describes what he was trying to achieve:

Fifty years ago, when computers were young, people assumed that they’d quickly be able to handle all these kinds of things.

And that one would be able to ask a computer any factual question, and have it compute the answer.

But it didn’t work out that way. Computers have been able to do many remarkable and unexpected things. But not that.

I’d always thought, though, that eventually it should be possible. And a few years ago, I realized that I was finally in a position to try to do it.

I had two crucial ingredients: Mathematica and NKS. With Mathematica, I had a symbolic language to represent anything—as well as the algorithmic power to do any kind of computation. And with NKS, I had a paradigm for understanding how all sorts of complexity could arise from simple rules.

But what about all the actual knowledge that we as humans have accumulated?

A lot of it is now on the web—in billions of pages of text. And with search engines, we can very efficiently search for specific terms and phrases in that text.

But we can’t compute from that. And in effect, we can only answer questions that have been literally asked before. We can look things up, but we can’t figure anything new out.

So how can we deal with that? Well, some people have thought the way forward must be to somehow automatically understand the natural language that exists on the web. Perhaps getting the web semantically tagged to make that easier.

But armed with Mathematica and NKS I realized there’s another way: explicitly implement methods and models, as algorithms, and explicitly curate all data so that it is immediately computable.

It’s not easy to do this. Every different kind of method and model—and data—has its own special features and character. But with a mixture of Mathematica and NKS automation, and a lot of human experts, I’m happy to say that we’ve gotten a very long way.

But, OK. Let’s say we succeed in creating a system that knows a lot, and can figure a lot out. How can we interact with it?

The way humans normally communicate is through natural language. And when one’s dealing with the whole spectrum of knowledge, I think that’s the only realistic option for communicating with computers too.

Of course, getting computers to deal with natural language has turned out to be incredibly difficult. And for example we’re still very far away from having computers systematically understand large volumes of natural language text on the web.

But if one’s already made knowledge computable, one doesn’t need to do that kind of natural language understanding.

All one needs to be able to do is to take questions people ask in natural language, and represent them in a precise form that fits into the computations one can do.

Of course, even that has never been done in any generality. And it’s made more difficult by the fact that one doesn’t just want to handle a language like English: one also wants to be able to handle all the shorthand notations that people in every possible field use.

I wasn’t at all sure it was going to work. But I’m happy to say that with a mixture of many clever algorithms and heuristics, lots of linguistic discovery and linguistic curation, and what probably amount to some serious theoretical breakthroughs, we’re actually managing to make it work.

Pulling all of this together to create a true computational knowledge engine is a very difficult task.

It’s certainly the most complex project I’ve ever undertaken. Involving far more kinds of expertise—and more moving parts—than I’ve ever had to assemble before.

And—like Mathematica, or NKS—the project will never be finished.

But I’m happy to say that we’ve almost reached the point where we feel we can expose the first part of it.

It’s going to be a website: www.wolframalpha.com. With one simple input field that gives access to a huge system, with trillions of pieces of curated data and millions of lines of algorithms.

We’re all working very hard right now to get Wolfram|Alpha ready to go live.

Wolfram Alpha computes to factual questions. This is going to be big.
Wolfram|Alpha is coming
God, Stephen Wolfram and Everything Else

Return to The Cluetrain Manifesto

Re-reading the iconic Cluetrain Manifesto and discovering the gems there-in. David Weinberger’s Chapter 5 still resonates:

Modern business almost universally has chosen a particular type of togetherness: a hierarchy. There are two distinguishing marks of a hierarchy: it has a top and a bottom, and the top is narrower than the bottom. Power flows from the top and there are fewer and fewer people as you move up the food chain.

This not only makes the line of authority crystal clear, it also enhances the allure of success by making it into an exclusive club. As La Rochefoucauld once said, “It is not enough that I succeed. It is also necessary that my friends fail.”

No wonder so many of us stare at our bare feet in the morning and wonder why we’re putting on our socks.

A couple of other points about business hierarchies:

First, they assume — along with Ayn Rand and poorly socialized adolescents — that the fundamental unit of life is the individual. This is despite the evidence of our senses that individuals only emerge from groups — groups like families and communities. (You know, it really does take a village to raise a child. Just like it takes a corporation to raise an ass kisser.)

But the Web obviously isn’t predicated on individuals. It’s a web. It’s about the connections. And on the World Wide Web, the connections are hyperlinks. It’s not just documents that get hyperlinked in the new world of the Web. People do. Organizations do. The Web, in the form of a corporate intranet, puts everyone in touch with every piece of information and with everyone else inside the organization and beyond.

The potential connections are vast. Hyperlinks are the connections made by real individuals based on what they care about and what they know, the paths that emerge because that’s where the feet are walking, as opposed to the highways bulldozed into existence according to a centralized plan.

Hyperlinks have no symmetry, no plan. They are messy. More can be added, old ones can disappear, and nothing else has to change. Compare this to your latest reorganization where you sat down with the org chart and your straightedge and worried about holes and imbalances and neatness for heaven’s sake! A messy org chart is the devil’s playground, after all.

Second, business hierarchies are power structures only because fundamentally they’re based on fear.

Org charts are pyramids. The ancient pharaohs built their pyramids out of the fear of human mortality. Today’s business pharaohs build their pyramidal organizations out of fear of human fallibility; they’re afraid of being exposed as frightened little boys, fallible and uncertain.

To be human is to be imperfect. We die. We make mistakes.

Sometimes we run from our fallibility by being decisive. But doubt is the natural human state, and decisiveness — more addictive than anything you might shoot into your veins — is often based on a superstitious belief in the magic of action.

Within the pyramid we have defined roles and responsibilities. We tell ourselves that this is so the business will run efficiently, but in fact having a role brings us the great comfort of having a turf where we’re pretty confident we’re not going to be shown up… except maybe by that ambitious jerk on the fourth floor, but we’ve figured out a way to hook his brains out through his nose, which should delay him at least for a little while.

Of course, dividing the business up into fanatically defended turfs doesn’t really protect anyone from fallibility and uncertainty, the very things that mark us as humans.

So, here’s some news for today’s business pharaohs: your pyramid is being replaced by hyperlinks. It was built on sand anyway.

The Web liberates business from the fear of being exposed as human, even against its will. It throws everyone into immediate connection with everyone else without the safety net of defined roles and authorities, but it also sets the expectation that you’ll make human-size mistakes rather frequently. Now that you’ve lost the trappings of authority, and you find yourself standing next to the junior graphic designer for gawd’s sake, and you can’t hide behind your business card, what the hell are you going to do?

You’re going to talk with her. You’re going to have a conversation. And if you harrumph and try to make sure she knows that you’re Very Important by the power vested in you by the power that vested in you, well, she’s going to laugh once out loud and five times in e-mail and tell everyone else what an asshole you are.

You see, the hyperlinks that replace the org chart as the primary structure of the organization are in fact conversations. They are the paths talk takes. And a business is, more than anything else, the set of conversations going on.

Business is a conversation because the defining work of a business is conversation — literally. And “knowledge workers” are simply those people whose job consists of having interesting conversations.

“Can I super-size that?” “Have it on my desk by the morning,” “There’s no I in Team,” and laughing at your manager’s unfunny jokes are not conversations. Conversations are where ideas happen and partnerships are formed. Sometimes they create commitments (in Fernando Flores’ sense), but more often they’re pulling people through fields of common interest with no known destination. The structure of conversations is always hyperlinked and is never hierarchical:

To have a conversation, you have to be comfortable being human — acknowledging you don’t have all the answers, being eager to learn from someone else and to build new ideas together.

You can only have a conversation if you’re not afraid to be wrong. Otherwise, you’re not conversing, you’re just declaiming, speechifying, or reading what’s on the PowerPoints. To converse, you have to be willing to be wrong in front of another person.

Conversations occur only between equals. The time your boss’s boss asked you at a meeting about your project’s deadline was not a conversation. The time you sat with your boss’s boss for an hour in the Polynesian-themed bar while on a business trip and you really talked, got past the corporate bullshit, told each other the truth about the dangers ahead, and ended up talking about your kids — that maybe was a conversation.

Conversations subvert hierarchy. Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy. Being a human being among others subverts hierarchy.


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