I have a long review of Jaron Lanier’s You Are not a Gadget in the works. For those not in the know, he is a pioneer of virtual reality who now works as a consultant for Microsoft. The piece should provide a lot of background to some of my crazy rants. In the meantime, Lanier continually makes public appearances that always yield a good quote or two for the tech-savvy Luddite. This is from a talk last week at the SXSW festival, the same event, incidentally, in which homeless people were hired as wireless hotspots. The following quote provides a glimpse into how revolutionary the second wave of social media will be:
One of the problems is that if you say advertising is the only official business plan for open information, you’re inviting everything to turn into bullshit. You know, over time. It’s just a fact. What I’ve noticed with Silicon Valley start-ups is that there is this ideal time after they start when they have good information. At first, they’re just too small. They don’t have enough good information. And then they get flooded with bullshit and then their value goes down. Like, three or four years after something starts, then there’s good information. A year or more later, it’s all crap. That’s just the way it is. I’ve seen that in Google search results. Since I work with Microsoft, I shouldn’t… but in a way, it’s true.
They get gamed. It’s what happens. The thing is, uhm. Uhhh, God! It’s weird with network effects! The validity of the information doesn’t matter so much as lock-in. I’ll give you an example of this. I’m on this committee at UC Berkeley where we evaluate the business plans of graduate students in engineering. Because we want them to be entrepreneurs and show up with their start-up at "South By," right? A couple of years ago, we had these guys show up and they said: “We have this great idea for a start-up! And here’s how it works. We’re going to have a mobile app where a guy is in a bar. He sees all these attractive, unattached women and he’s going to enter all this information for his friends, so that they can come in and find these girls.” And I’m like: “Is there even the slightest chance, EVER, that this thing will have any good data on it? Will anyone ever do this?” And they looked at me and said: “No, of course not! This whole thing is based on hope. We’re just going to sell liquor ads. We don’t expect there to be good data ever. It’s all based on fantasy.” They got an A-plus.
So the thing is these business plans don’t depend on real information. And that’s a problem for society.
One of the advantages of making information be real and grown-up and consequential, which means there’s money behind it and people are making a living and that someone is responsible for it, is that it will become less junky.The fascinating thing is that the mobile app where you sit and get information about the degree of hotness of the women sitting at the bar evokes Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story. In the proximate future imagined by Shteyngart's comic novel, people's mobile phones immediately rank everyone else on the basis of physical attraction, credit rating, and money in savings account. So immediately when you walk into a bar, for example, your smartphone tells you that you are the fifth hottest male with the thirteenth best credit rating and fourteenth insofar as money in the bank is concerned.
Now notice that I am not saying that Lanier's example means "Oh my God! Shteyngart's dystopian future is coming true." Don't be stupid. You're better than that and that's why you read this blog. The reality is worse than the bad future where we are all reduced to vulgar hotness and credit ratings. In Shteyngart's future (circa 2020), the data on which these ratings are based is of a high quality. In our real near future (i.e., the one suggested by Lanier's example), you will have the information that at O'Neill's Pub in central Madrid there is a group of three unaccompanied female sevens and two eights, but this information will have been uploaded by the bar owner, a liquor company or who knows who the hell else. It will be junk information, like the junk we currently get on Facebook and Twitter.
At least in Shteyngart's nightmare, the data we use to discriminate against each other is accurate.
Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. He has worked as a translator for Goldman Sachs, the US Government's Open Source Center, and H.B.O. International. To contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. You can also join his LinkedIn network by visiting the profile or follow him on Twitter.