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Archive for the ‘Innovation’ Category

A Zittrain Dilemma: Appliances, the iPhone, and the Solidification of National Boundaries

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 12, 2008

I just finished reading Jonathan Zittrain’s book “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It” (click here for Zittrain’s weblog of the same name)  … and now wish we could turn back the clock.

Zittrain’s thesis is that the internet has come to a turning point at which the collaborative and open and “generative” nature of the Net is being undermined by bad code, increasing complexities, and greater and lesser cyber-crime.   Fear of all three drives many of us to turn towards “applianced” devices in which a  trusted vendor controls hardware, software, and … content.  In the “generative” world we are threatened by malevolent outlaws, in the “applianced” world by monopolists and potential dictators.

Apple’s iPhone is a paradigmatic  “appliance.”  Apple ensures that the  iPhone’s physical form and the software that animates it unite into an powerful, capable, and aesthetically pleasing whole.  Apple also ensures and protects the safety of the device … albeit by controlling sources of content and deciding which applications can run on an iPhone and which cannot.

Apple also controls the iPhone’s connectivity.  In each national market in which the iPhone is sold it is permanently “SIM-locked” to the network and policies of a single “telco” thus depriving users of the possibility of switching SIM cards (i.e. the very “souls” of their phones) and, as a result, their carriers. To those who rarely travel or who live in large countries this is no tragedy.  Within each country, carriers’ price plans, coverage, and quality balance out more or less.  But in an international context, chaining users to a single provider prevents them from switching cards and carriers when crossing borders, thus holding them captive to roaming charges that are astronomical for voice calls and cataclysmic for data traffic.

The effect on monthly phone bills of overseas data roaming and push email is so extreme that even Apple’s US iPhone partner AT&T now posts on its website a warning advising customers to turn off the data and email capabilities of their iPhones when traveling abroad.  This spares customers the shock of outlandish bills but it also defeats the integration of capabilities and seamless connectivity that is the supposed hallmark and benefit of the iPhone.  The only alternative for loyal or compulsive iPhone users is the purchase of additional iPhones for each and every one of the countries they visit or work in.

Thus, the iPhone (and the manner in which it is brought to market and made connective) is so “applianced” that its forces users to conform to the arbitrary national boundaries we inherit from the 19th and early-20th centuries.  The irony: Within national markets the iPhone is a device that optimizes connectivity; seen internationally, however, the distibution and connectivity of the iPhone lead us on a retreat from the universality and border-transcending interconnectedness that many of assumed the merger of telecommunications and the internet would enable.

Posted in Books, Infrastructure, Innovation, Internet, National Identity, Telecommunications | 2 Comments »

Grandmother S. Redux: The Benefits of Early-Morning Schnapps and Mega-Doses of Red Wine

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 4, 2008

A couple of summers ago, I wrote a newspaper piece about my former summertime host and guru, Grandmother S. of the Black Sea village of K. in northeast Bulgaria, and the lessons I learned in her garden (click here for the full text and photos). Grandmother S. was well into her 80s at the time and still worked non-stop at subsistence farming. Her secret? Every morning at sunrise she drank a full-to-the-brim juice glass of homemade grape brandy on an empty stomach. “Styefko,” she used to tell me, “my brandy will give you the energy to work and will disinfect your stomach as well. But,” she advised, “drink it in the morning; morning drinking is good for the health, evening drinking is for alcoholics only.”

So, I took Grandmother S. up on her challenge. For three months, I arose at dawn and, before I allowed water, coffee, oatmeal, or yogurt to touch my lips, I downed a juice glass of Grandmother S.’s best homemade grape brandy (made with no seeds and with no sugar added to kick-start fermentation). The daily schnapps made me feel full of energy and raring to go. The only problem: I couldn’t think. Turning off the brain might help when faced with a day of hoeing vegetables but it can get in the way of writing, photographing, and even consulting.

I am reminded of Grandmother S.’s advice by Doc Searls’s link to this article in the New York Times announcing that red wine may be “potent” (sic) in preserving human longevity. Apparently, laboratory mice do better on treadmills when dosed with the equivalent of 35 bottles of red wine and humans may prolong their lives by drinking four five-ounce glasses of red per day. The article does not say whether the four glasses should be downed morning or night — but ever since the Judith Miller and Jason Blair affairs, I’ve tended to trust Grandmother S. more than the “newspaper of record.” From tonight on, I’ll keep my corkscrew next to my alarm clock.


Click here for a taste of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross’s famed song Gimme that Wine. And, as the chorus of the song goes: “Unhand that bottle!”

Posted in Bulgaria, Commentary, Food, Health Care, Innovation, Links, Media, Music, Work | Leave a Comment »

Oxford and “VRM”: Diabetics and Phone Subscribers, Megaphones and Cudgels, Privacy as Currency, Automobiles and Electron Microscopes, Aggregation and Open Source

Posted by Stephen Lewis on July 25, 2007

Earlier this month I spent a week in London and Oxford, including a day at the Oxford University Internet Institute attending a meeting and work session of web and tech specialists active in giving voice to something called Vendor Relations Management (VRM).


The Oxford meeting was spearheaded by Doc Searls, co-author of “The Cluetrain Manifesto,” senor editor at Linux Journal,and research fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Institute for the Internet and Society. Doc is a pioneer in the development of VRM, which he calls ” … the reciprocal of CRM (Customer Relations Management).” VRM, it seems, is envisioned as an Internet-based means to enable people to cease being mere “consumers” of what companies and institutions offer and aggressively market. Instead, VRM aims to turn ordinary people into active co-determinants of the goods and services markets and societies produce and offer. To accomplish this, VRM entails compiling, managing and “broadcasting” the aggregations of data that comprise one’s online identity or publicly visible persona — a continuous transmission, so to speak, of “lifestyle-,” preference-, and needs-based “RFPs” (requests for proposals).

Concepts into Projects

One of the best ways to clarify and test concepts is to translate them into prototypes and pilot projects. The thrust of the Oxford meeting was to create such existential definitions of VRM by momentarily pushing philosophizing aside and seeking to give shape to VRM by coming up with a set of feasible, fund-able, bench-scale projects with “real world” applications and relatively high chances for success.

Diabetics and Phone Subscribers

Two projects emerged from the meeting. One, conceived by marketing specialist Alan Mitchell, would involve setting VRM to work in the service of a discrete demographic group with clearly defined, urgent needs — in this case diabetics, a population that is skyrocketing as diabetes increases at epidemic rates throughout the industrialized, processed-food- and sugar-consuming world. The proposed project would be implemented in association with one or more UK-based diabetes associations and would enable diabetics to maintain and chart data pertinent to the course of their medical treatment and self-care. Bundling of data by voluntary organizations serving diabetics would also feed into medical research and public policy formation. In a broader societal context, the project would also constitute a step towards getting diagnostic and treatment data out of the propretorship of physicians and insurers and into the hands of individuals. The second pilot project, proposed by Iain Henderson of QCI, would serve the needs both of a major company and of its legacy customers by attempting to put individualized and collective “faces” on British Telecom’s fixed-line customers. The latter are still seen by the former state telecommunications monopoly as “subscribers” identified by phone numbers alone, rather than as multifaceted individuals, families, and companies with variegated communications needs, needs, profiles, and budgets.

An Immense Megaphone and a Hefty Cudgel

My own metaphor for Vendor Relations Management is that it would give individuals the cyberspace equivalents of an immense megaphone and a hefty cudgel. The VRM “megaphone” would enable individuals to make their needs and preferences heard over the noise and artificial categories of marketing-driven product development and corporate branding. As a “cudgel,” VRM would cluster individual’s needs and demands so as to give them the clout to awakening providers of goods and services to the real individuals who make up the collective abstractions we call markets. VR-based “megaphones” and “cudgels” could work equally well to ensure responsive, effective government.

Privacy as Currency

As saloon-goers used to say in 19th-century New York: “There is no free lunch.” Similarly, on the 21st-century internet there will be no free VRM. “The currency for VRM is privacy,” according to Oxford meeting participant Graham Sadd. In other words, to the degree that one wants to make markets responsive to one’s needs and desires, one must also selectively release information about one’s self and, unavoidably, compromise one’s privacy proportionally. There is no way out of this; the alternative is to avoid engaging in any and all informational transactions or, as Graham puts it, “… to withdraw from the world and sit on a mountain top.”

I agree with Graham. I am puzzled by the extreme preoccupation with keeping one’s data private that many internet activists seem to have. Such preoccupation can block the development of empowering innovations such as VRM. Indeed, the point VRM is to make one’s “data” resonate throughout the marketplace. I’ve posted about this before (see the closing paragraphs of this entry) and will return to the subject in the future. My own take is that those obsessed with web privacy might lack faith in their own efficacy to control or influence the societies inwhich they live. They may also be afraid of taking calculated risks — risk-taking being an unavoidable ingredient of innovation and change. (For more on the courage to take risks and the social importance of risk-taking listen to Norman Mailer in his June appearance with Günther Grass at the New York Public Library). A frequent underpinning of the privacy argument is the fear of misuse of data by governments. Interestingly, the terror apparatuses of the major totalitarian regimes of the 20th century may have relied less on sophisticated data gathering than on sheer brutality and, even more important, on social anomie, atomization, and the inculcation of a culture of betrayal and denunciation (see, for example, Eric Johnson’s “The Nazi Terror,” London, 2000) just as, in a far more tentative way, the US had during the McCarthy era and the years of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam-War movements. Following the Oxford workshop, I had a chance to chat with Berkman Fellow Mary Rundle whose in-depth work on the internet and government I look forward to reading to inform and balance my future comments on this subject.

Automobiles and Electronic Microscopes, Aggregation and Open Source

On my last day in Oxford I had breakfast with Albert “Rick” Lawrence of the Electron Microscopy Department of the University of California at San Diego. As I was describing VRM, Rick pointed out, using the example of automoble manufacturers, that many manufacturers are actually aggregators of systems and of parts. This led me to posit that VRM may have the potential of enabling end-users to exert more influence over aggregation and, figuratively, to move the point of aggregation much closer to their own needs, specifications, and control. Referring to his own field, Rick added that suppliers are sometimes hampered in implementing customers’ needs because their software lags behind that of their customers, not infrequently because such suppliers rely on Microsoft-based platforms rather than on customizable open source software. Rick’s comments on gaps between suppliers and customers highlights a link between the open source movement and the concept and implementation of VRM.

Posted in Identity, Innovation | 2 Comments »

Singing Cowboy and Early-Adopter, Movie Idol and Media Mogul

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 8, 2007

Singing cowboy Gene Autry was an icon of the early years of commercial country music, 1930’s and 40’s Hollywood, and the so-called “golden ages” of radio and of television. But Autry was also an entrepreneur with a keen eye for new media, even before their business models became clear. An early investor in television broadcasting, what would Autry have made of the internet? For Autry’s life story, interspersed with excerpts from his songs and a film soundtrack lament for his dying horse “Champion,” go to the May 1st edition of WNYC New York’s Soundcheck. For those interested in the roots of R&B and rock-and-roll, I’d also recommend recent Soundcheck broadcasts on Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the cross-over gospel and R&B vocal and electric guitar great who inspired Elvis Presley, and Doc Pomus, a New York Jewish kid invalided with polio who was a popular blues musician amongst black audiences in Brooklyn during the 1940s and who went on to become one of the famed pop music writers at the Brill building on Broadway in the early-1960s. Finally, to bring us back full circle to the realm of tech innovation, do listen to Sara Fishko’s recent broadcast about the Theremin, the Science-Fiction-like musical instrument that was a creation of 1920s Soviet science and later gave mid-twentieth-century American Sci-Fi movies their characteristically Sci-Fi sound.

Posted in Innovation, Media, Music, Popular Culture | 1 Comment »