13 Thoughts on Apple for 2015

Much like the mechanical watches with which its newest product will compete, Apple is an organization in perpetual motion.  The Apple Watch launches in April 2015 as the company’s first foray into the wearables market.  The just-announced new MacBook, with a retina display and only two ports, joins it as a spring release.  An enterprise iPad Pro is expected to debut in the fall, and a rebranded Beats music streaming service and updated Apple TV are also forecasted to drop this year.  And let’s not even get into the Apple Car that’s purportedly in the works.

Here are thirteen thoughts, broken into four broad topics, about Apple’s product pipeline after its “Spring Forward” event last Monday.

1) The Apple Watch is already a success.
2) The Apple Watch Edition may have a minor Glasshole problem.
3) New Beats headphones will be important, and Jony Ive shouldn’t design them.

4) The Macbook is stunningly gorgeous and two years ahead of schedule.
5) Boost Mac sales by emphasizing Continuity with mobile platforms.
6) The entire iPad line should be consolidated and renamed.
7) What’s the future of the iPod?
8) HomeKit is the next big frontier, and Apple TV is the conduit.

Speculation and Hypotheticals
9) An Apple-Nintendo partnership won’t happen, but they would be a natural fit.
10) Could iTunes or Apple TV become a carte blanche media streaming service?
11) Tesla would be a synergistic feverdream, but CarPlay makes more sense.

The Big Picture
12) Diversity beyond the iPhone is critical.
13) Tim Cook is a better CEO than Steve Jobs.



1) The Apple Watch is already a success.

Full stop.  Without sales data, professional reviews, or market feedback, the Apple Watch is already a success.

Its criticisms are real and important to take into consideration: a slightly bulky frame, comparatively poor battery life, and high starting price relative to other Apple devices.  But these criticisms don’t matter in the context of this product launch.

The goal of the first generation Apple Watch is innovation informed by heritage.  Whereas other smartwatches are focused on technology, the Apple Watch is as much about fashion as it is computing – perhaps even more so.  It’s an exercise in expanding the concept of what should be expected from a digital watch.

This essay by Ben Clymer is my favorite evaluation of what Apple got right and wrong with the Watch.  It is remarkably balanced in its evaluation, and Clymer pinpoints why the Watch is so important:

Apple products have a way of making someone not want to live without them, and while I wasn’t able to fully immerse myself in the OS yesterday, what I saw was impressive. So while certainly not direct competition for haute horology watchmaking right now, the Apple Watch is absolutely competition for the real estate of the wrist, and years down the road, it could spell trouble for traditional watches even at a high level.

The Apple Watch is about setting the stage.  It’s about building that connection with customers and improving upon the current offerings in the smartwatch and entry-level luxury watch market.  “The overall level of design in the Apple Watch simply blows away anything – digital or analog – in the watch space at $350,” Clymer says.  He’s right, thanks to the relationship between form and function that Apple’s competitors have yet to attain.

Analysts are predicting that Apple will sell 12-15 million units in 2015 and nab half of the smartwatch market share.  That might be a high forecast, but Apple’s profits from the device, especially the Edition, should be significant even if fewer than 10 million units are sold.  And it will sell.  Customers will look past things like battery life because of the novelty factor.  Come for the hype, stay for the quality of apps and services that the platform affords – a far more robust infrastructure than any other smartwatch company by far.

The Watch will be a flop only if Apple fails to convince customers outside of Apple aficionados and the smartwatch market that the Watch is a valuable device by its next iteration.   This first generation Watch, flaws and all, just needs to generate enough electricity to get that conversation off the ground.  And by that metric, it’s already succeeded.

2) The Apple Watch Edition may have a minor Glasshole problem.

“Glasshole Syndrome” might be defined as when a product’s design language becomes synonymous with people who want a visible token of their superiority.  “Glasshole,” of course, refers to the early adopters of Google Glass, which became infamous for its stealth video recording capabilities, $1000+ price point, and embarrassing design.

The Apple Watch will not suffer criticisms for privacy invasion or poor design.  It is a beautiful machine whose utility and app ecosystem makes it a more worthwhile product right out of the gate.  But the Watch Edition, which starts at $10,000 and reaches $17,000 in its most expensive iteration, is ripe to become an iconic emblem of conspicuous consumption.  I fear this may unfairly tarnish the rest of the Apple Watch line.

In September 2014, John Gruber wrote about the Watch Edition’s price and its likely reception among the tech community:

Apple Watch is not a product from a tech company, and it will not be understood, at all, by the tech world. Apple creates and uses technology in incredible ways. The Apple Watch may prove to be the most technologically advanced product they’ve ever built. But again: Apple is not a tech company, and Apple Watch is not a tech product.

When the prices of the steel and (especially) gold Apple Watches are announced, I expect the tech press to have the biggest collective shit-fit in the history of Apple-versus-the-standard-tech-industry shit-fits. The utilitarian mindset that asks “Why would anyone waste money on a gold watch?” isn’t going to be able to come to grips with what Apple is doing here. They’re going to say that Jony Ive and Tim Cook have lost their minds. They’re going to wear out their keyboards typing “This never would have happened if Steve Jobs were alive.” They’re going to predict utter and humiliating failure. In short, they’re going to mistake Apple for Vertu.

Utter and humiliating failure are simply not in the cards.  Sales of the Watch Edition are going to match maximum production capacity.  The profit margin on each device is likely astronomical, and Apple is going to make a significant profit while establishing itself as a serious player in the luxury fashion market.

The Watch Edition will sell.  The question is: who will buy one?

prording to Ben Clymer, no one should buy one.  Clymer argues that for $10,000, the Watch Edition is simply a poor choice given the field of alternative options:

In addition to perceived value, mechanical watches are also priced by human value: how much of the work is done by hand (in many cases using 200-year-old methods). For example, a watchmaker named Philippe Dufour makes just 12 watches per year, alone in his one-room atelier in the mountains of Switzerland. A simple, time-only piece can cost $100,000. Whether the case is gold or platinum, the price of a Philippe Dufour watch remains (roughly) static — you are not paying for materials, you are paying for Mr. Dufour’s time and touch. The Apple Watch has minimal human value, and that is the biggest difference between it and its mechanical counterparts.

From $10,000 to $20,000, you are into the realm of watchmaking where everything you see is original and interesting — or at least should be. Consider fully ceramic chronographs,stunning hand-wound dress watches, or modern legends all fall within this range — all featuring truly in-house movements with a moderate amount of hand-finishing to internal components. These watches will be assembled by hand, completely in Switzerland and offer the incredibly low tolerances and extreme quality for which this industry is known.

Leave aside the (very good) utilitarian question of how someone could ever justify spending $10,000 for a watch when there are people dying of hunger around the world.  Assuming you have $10K to blow on a timepiece, why would you ever choose the Apple Watch Edition?  You’re not purchasing a stunningly unique style that will last your entire lifetime.  You’re not funding a the exquisite craftsmanship of a master engineer to produce a mechanical wonder.  You’re buying a product with the exact same functionality and design as its $349 sibling.

And that’s the point.  The people who buy the Watch Edition are buying it because it’s $10,000 worth of gold.  They want their wealth to be evident.   It’s tough for a non-watch expert to identify a Rolex from afar, let alone guess its exact cost.  The Apple Watch is designed to be iconic, and the Watch Edition’s price is its crown achievement.  You buy the Watch Edition so everyone knows that you spent exactly $10,000 on a watch.

Tim Lee believes that Apple is following Tesla’s lead in this regard.  He argues the Watch Edition’s high price is a means of generating a halo product for the smartwatch market, making it an enviable good:

It’s hard to remember today, but a decade ago electric cars didn’t have a great reputation. Carmakers had experimented with a few electric vehicles, but these had not been a commercial success… Tesla’s solution to this problem was to focus on the very high end of the market. The first Tesla car, the Roadster, cost $109,000.

This strategy of defying stereotypes about electric cars helped Tesla become one of the most prestigious brands in the auto industry. And as it has moved downmarket (the company introduced a $57,400 Model S in 2012 and is working on a vehicle that will cost $30,000), it has been buoyed by the luxury reputation the Roadster helped to establish.

Apple faces a similar challenge with its Watch. Smartwatches have a reputation as impractical devices for nerds. Apple’s strategy is to defy this stereotype by creating luxury smartwatches that (Apple hopes) people will pay $10,000 for.

I actually fear that the opposite of this scenario will emerge.  Instead of boosting the reputation of smartwatches, it’s easy to imagine how the clientele of the Apple Watch Edition might come to be the entire line’s defining characteristic: a product for rich Silicon Valley bros who want to flaunt their wealth in the easiest way possible.  As Racked and The Verge noted, “it was Apple fanboys who lined up to view the watch at Colette (a recent fashion show), not the fashion cognoscenti.”  That is a deathly blow for a device with aspirations of the highest fashion circles.

The Edition is, by definition, for the 1%, but it matters which people in the 1% it attracts.  It would be a shame to see this “halo” infect the rest of the Apple Watch line and make it an object of derision.  Though its capabilities are still comparatively limited, I trust Apple more than any other technology company to fully leverage the Watch’s potential as a useful, integral part of our daily lives.  Apple has largely sidestepped criticisms of conspicuous consumption by selling products at higher prices whose design and utility largely, if not wholly, justify the extra cost.  Owning an iPad or an iPhone 6 is a status symbol of relative material comfort, but that ownership extends beyond demonstration of financial wealth because of the function afforded by the device.  The burgeoning app store and the truly beautiful design of the Watch and Watch Sport suggest a promising value proposition in the same vein.   The same cannot be said of the Watch Edition, and it’s queasily easy to see it as a sort of Google Glass in vogue.

I hope I’m wrong about the arguments listed above.  In a certain sense, I’m glad Apple is going so aggressively after a slice of the luxury timepiece market, because it can put the profits earned from the Watch Edition to use in service of other world-changing technology.  And, realistically, the Watch Sport is going to be the most popular model that Apple sells; it will earn the lion’s share of market attention, making it unlikely the Edition’s aura will extend beyond the diamond wrists of the elite.

I just hope the Edition price point, and its clientele, don’t come to define the full product line and overshadow the legitimately groundbreaking work that was accomplished in creating this device.

3) New Beats headphones will be important, and Jony Ive shouldn’t design them.

If you haven’t already done so, go read the New Yorker’s profile of Jony Ive.  It’s an incredible, exhaustive look at the man behind Apple’s iconic products and the work his team does to make them a reality.

The emphasis here is on “exhaustive” in more ways than one.  From the opening paragraphs, it’s clear that Jony Ive is dead tired.  He owned the entire Apple Watch product build and he’s also responsible for design across the iPhone, iPad, and iOS.  That is a massive amount of oversight and work.

Jony Ive is synonymous with Apple.  If he retires in the near future, there might be even greater panic and uncertainty surrounding the company than in the wake of Steve Jobs’ death.

It’s a little surprising, then, that Apple hasn’t elected to give other members of his design team more high-profile platforms to discuss their work and create their own personal mythologies.  Deference to Ive is obviously warranted and justified, especially since he has given no indication of retiring anytime soon, but contingency plans are wise.

I’d like to see a couple of key figures from Ive’s team take charge of the Beats hardware division and update the product line in accord with Apple’s design philosophy.  In that New Yorker profile, Tim Cook makes it clear that Beats are currently an outlier amongst Apple’s computers and phones:

Would Jony have designed some of the products?” he said. “Obviously, you can look at them and say no… I want Beats to be true to who they are. I don’t want to wave the wand over them in a day and say, ‘You are now Apple.’ Down the road, we’ll see what happens.

Modifying a well-established brand is risky, and given Beats’ 60+% share of the premium headphone market, immediate changes run the potential of alienating Beats customers.  Much of Beats’ market penetration has been thanks to overwhelming advertising and genius marketing deals with famous athletes and stars.  Apple’s cash hoard guarantees Beats will never lose the ability to make those cultural cache deals, suggesting future changes to the product line could be conducted with minimum risk.

Why not let some of Ive’s team members take the lead on rethinking what Beats can be?  Perhaps retain current model stalwarts like Beats Studio and PowerBeats, but completely redesign Beats Pro and Mixr in accord with Apple’s design philosophy.  Introduce a new line that doesn’t fall victim to the classic Beats criticisms of ear-bloodying bass and muddy, subpar audio quality.  On the hardware development side, hire engineers from companies like Sennheiser and Audeze.  Oppo just introduced a $400 pair of planar magnetic headphones; Apple could easily introduce this kind of highest-end quality to the Beats line, and its marketing leverage (prime placement in Apple stores!) is a guarantee of huge volume and high margins.

Apple reportedly purchased Beats primarily for the streaming infrastructure and contracts of its music service.  If Apple is serious about expanding into wearables, it should look to leverage Beats hardware as another fashion item with untapped market potential.


4) The new Macbook is stunningly gorgeous and two years ahead of schedule.

Forget the Apple Watch pricing.  The most incredible parts of the March 9 keynote were ResearchKit and the new Macbook, and the latter is breathtakingly beautiful.  I thought the Dell XPS 13 gave Apple a run for its money a couple of months ago, but Apple once again blew its PC competitors out of the water with this new machine.

In terms of style, that is.  Functionality- and price-wise, the Macbook is a solid entry into the laptop market, but it’s not transcendent.  Though the retina display and weigh of the machine are attractive, the $1300 base price and the single port (!) mean that it’s primarily a device for early adopters at this point instead of the broad laptop market.

Which is as it should be.  The original Macbook Air was similarly criticized for shearing off too much too soon, but it looks prophetic in hindsight, having eliminated the CD drive before most other PCs made the leap.  The same is true for this Macbook.  With cloud storage becoming the go-to means of sharing files and Wifi available in more places than ever, Apple is ahead of the game once again.  Cutting out those extraneous ports is going to look like a smart move two years from now.  (Though an additional USB 3.0 port might be welcome.)

I can’t wait for the second-gen Macbook to lower the price on this first model.  In the meantime, I’d love to see some limited-edition color variations to the three currently offered – anodized white, rose gold, sandstone, or evening sky blue, perhaps?

5) Boost Mac sales by emphasizing Continuity with mobile platforms.

Apple sold 160 million iPhones and around 55 million iPads in Q4 2014.  In contrast, its Mac division generated around 20 million unit sales.

In 2014, Apple introduced Continuity for Mac, which allows users to swipe and send documents and files from an iPhone or iPad to a Mac in real time.  Similar capabilities also exist for Windows computers, but Apple has the benefit of a unified software ecosystem to make these transfers completely hassle-free.

Microsoft’s unpopular Windows 8 and forthcoming launch of Windows 10 gives Apple an enormous window to converting former Microsoft customers into new users.  The close integration of iOS with OS X is no doubt going to be a lynchpin of that pitch.

6) Consolidate and rename the entire iPad line.

Apple’s current iPad offerings include five different base models, each with multiple colors, storage options, connection capabilities, and price points.  At a glance, it’s difficult to tell how exactly they differ from each other, or whether they’re actually different at all.

The rumored 12.9” iPad Pro offers Apple the opportunity to slim down their iPad line and refresh the distinctions between each device.  If the Pro is launched alongside the 2015 refreshes for the line, it would be great to see a new nomenclature adopted for each category.

7) What’s the future of the iPod?

Apple’s iPod revenues have plummeted due to the popularity of the iPhone and iPad.  The company expected this self-cannibalization and appears inclined to let the iPod slowly fade away.

That’s probably the wisest course of action since it doesn’t make sense to invest in a product line that has seen its profits fall off a cliff in the last five years.  But the iPod does still have a dedicated customer base that could be well served with some incremental updates, especially since its current iPod offerings are overdue for a refresh.

Among the potential iPod revamps the company could pursue:

  • A bigger iPod Touch that aligns with the iPhone 6’s internal specs and size.
  • An iPod Pro with significant storage (possibly a hard drive?), sold at a premium to customers with enormous music collections. Essentially a replacement for the workhorse iPod Classic which was retired a while back.
  • A revamped iPod Nano that emphasizes fitness and exercise capabilities. The Apple Watch will likely fulfill this niche in a future iteration, but the Nano could be a lower-cost option that essentially replaces the iPod Shuffle as the entry Apple device.  (Either way, the Nano desperately needs to be redesigned; it’s easily the most visually unappealing product in Apple’s repertoire, an ugly mash of metal, glass, and an inferior iOS clone that looks like it’s from 2008.)

8) HomeKit is the next big frontier, and Apple TV is the conduit.

Smart household devices will become ubiquitous in the next few years – connected refrigerators, lighting systems, garage doors, etc.  Current iterations of those products usually include device-specific standalone apps for remote user access and control.

Standalone apps will increasingly become unviable as the volume of connected household items increases, and Apple’s HomeKit is positioned to become the conduit for collecting device controls.  It’s easy to imagine a scenario where an Apple HomeKit app aggregates each smarthome input and allows the user to manipulate each device from a central dashboard.

One sticking point is ensuring all devices are regulated by the same network to ensure they’re all properly synced for local and remote control via Apple devices.   Christopher Breen notes the importance of having a dedicated, centralized network for this purpose:

Wouldn’t it be better if each home had a small, power-efficient, always-on, platform-agnostic, Wi-Fi-enabled computer that could talk to your devices both remotely and over a local network?

If you haven’t yet glanced over at your Apple TV, now’s the time.

Apple TV is rumored to be receiving a substantial update later this year, which may include a hardware redesign and new content such as HBO’s streaming service.  The product has only received incremental updates since its launch eight years ago and has been largely eclipsed by Chromecast, Roku, and other streaming devices.

An Apple TV relaunch featuring full HomeKit integration would easily make Apple’s TV offering the most logical option on the market.   Robust streaming options plus full iTunes integration are an attractive proposition for Apple’s 100 million+ iTunes users, and having a centralized home base for device control and additional security only sweetens the deal.

Speculation and Hypotheticals

9) An Apple-Nintendo partnership won’t happen, but they would be a natural fit.

If Apple really wanted to own the living room beyond a relaunched Apple TV + HomeKit, it might also consider trying to acquire Nintendo.  This theory has been floated before and a deal is not going to happen, even though Apple easily has the cash to cover Nintendo’s $18 billion market cap and a purchase premium.

But what a win it would be for both parties!  Apple acquires Nintendo’s treasure trove of licensed characters and games.  On the mobile front, it essentially starts printing money by offering Nintendo classics on the App Store and perhaps reinventing the iPod as a game console a la the 3DS.  On the console front, it could offer a more powerful Apple TV Pro that competes with Sony and Microsoft as a complete living room entertainment hub.

Nintendo wins by earning a fat return for its investors and by attaining greater creative freedom than it has now.  Though its first-party games are constantly lauded for their quality, Nintendo has fallen victim to a conservative and confusing development cycle, where sequels and character appropriation replace new franchises and experiences.  The shortfall of cash generated by App Store sales and the reduced hardware development costs associated with an Apple purchase would ensure Nintendo has the financial footing to redouble its efforts to make world-class games.

10) Could iTunes or Apple TV become a carte blanche media streaming service?

Apple will reportedly price the revamped Beats streaming service at $7.99 per month and apparently has the enthusiastic support of major music labels.  The service is said to be outside the purview of iTunes, which will continue to sell music on a track-by-track basis.

Given Apple’s massive customer base and the fact that it succeeded in getting music executives on board with this price point, is it possible Apple might try to introduce the first cross-media streaming service under the iTunes brand?  Would you pay $40 a month for unlimited music streaming, unlimited television streaming, two free movie rentals of your choice, and a limited library of free eBooks?  I would in a heartbeat.

Apple has long talked about rethinking how television works as part of an Apple TV upgrade, and this would certainly qualify, especially if this “base” subscription package could also include additional bundles like HBO streaming or extra movie rentals for an additional fee.  Being able to consolidate media subscription services into one payment (combining Netflix, Oyster, Spotify, and HBO, for example) would be worth it for the convenience alone.

Again, this is not on the horizon, but it would be an absolute coup for Apple if it comes to pass.

11) Tesla would be a synergistic feverdream, but CarPlay makes more sense.

If Apple gets into the automobile manufacturing game, as recent rumors have suggested, all the more power to them.  It would be thrilling to see how Apple’s designers and engineers could rethink how we travel and engage with our vehicles.

Tesla has been cited as a potential acquisition for a couple of years now as part of that entry into the car market.  Of late, that talk has been supplanted by suggestions that the two companies are competitors, poaching each other’s employees with fat bonuses.

It’s tempting to envision a scenario where the two companies come together: Elon Musk on Apple’s board, an iPad replacing Tesla’s center console, Jony Ive designing the Model 3, Apple leveraging Tesla’s battery production process for its other devices.  But all signs point to Tesla’s continued independence.  Apple probably won’t acquire Tesla given this status quo.

That’s fine.  In the short to medium term, Apple’s CarPlay dashboard technology is a more promising avenue for immediate profits and widespread adoption.  If Apple acquired Tesla in the next year or two it would almost certainly not license CarPlay to other car manufacturers.  That would be forsaking a gold mine, given the 16.5 million cars sold in fiscal year 2014.

Apple is smart to seed CarPlay now.  If Tesla continues to expand in market share, Apple will no doubt have the cash to purchase it in the future.  And if Tesla stumbles along the way, Apple can swoop in and acquire it at a discount.

The Big Picture

12) All of this is to say that diversity beyond the iPhone is critical.

Apple’s sales figures suggest it will live and die by the iPhone.  The enormous success of the iPhone 6 has guaranteed the company stability for the next few quarters, and the likely improvements to the iPhone 6S (Force Touch, better battery, etc.) suggest the iPhone line will be a rock-solid profit generator at least through 2016.

That said, the pressure to continually produce an expectations-exceeding iPhone is immense.  I don’t doubt Apple’s ability in the slightest to amaze customers with whatever it introduces in the iPhone 7.  But if even one new iPhone model is a flop, Apple would lose a significant revenue source that would probably wreak havoc with its stock price.  (Not that stock fluctuations should matter too much, since it has hundreds of billions of dollars in cash on hand.)

2015 will be remembered as the year when Apple consolidated its mobile phone dominance with the iPhone 6 and also took the first steps to significantly expand beyond the iPhone.  It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if the Apple Watch is only the tip of the iceberg for new products released under Tim Cook’s leadership.

13) Tim Cook is a better CEO than Steve Jobs.

This is an admittedly tough claim to defend; Steve Jobs’ legacy speaks for itself.  But Tim Cook has already presided over some of the most important moments in Apple history, including its most profitable quarter ever and the launch of an entirely new product category.  And he has done so with poise, remarkable foresight, and efficiency.

Profiles of Jobs all lead to the same conclusion: he was a genius, a leader with unparalleled foresight, and, quite often, a horrible person to work for and with.  Cook retains Jobs’ passion without the tempermentality.  He is an exceptionally hard worker with one of the best leadership teams in the industry.  He is a man who deserves respect.

The good news is that Cook’s tenure has not shown any signs of heightened internal discord leading to a stagnant product pipeline.  On the contrary; if anything, there has never been a more exciting time to wonder what Apple has in store as its purview expands to home automation, automobiles, fashion, and untold product areas.

More than hardware and software development, however, has been the moral facet of Cook’s guidance.  Environmental responsibility has been a hallmark of his tenure; “If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock,” he famously told a group of shareholders last year.  Product (RED) offerings have continued uninterrupted.  And, most significantly, Cook has emphasized the importance of overseeing an ethical supply chain through the publication of Apple’s progress report earlier this year.

At best, Apple is an amoral amalgamation of inputs and outputs.  It creates exceptional products while undoubtedly engaging in questionable business practices that affect workers and the environment, primarily in developing countries.  Cook will probably not change this by mandating, for example, that all Apple suppliers offer their employees a living wage.  But he seems more cognizant than both Jobs and most other tech CEOs of Apple’s ability to shape just labor policies and supply chains.  That his tenure has already seen pledges for improvement in these areas suggests he is serious about Apple’s commitment to ethical production and product creation.

I’d love to see Apple make a push at developing markets with a low-cost iPhone, essentially selling it at cost to seed those customer bases for future iDevices.  Much of Apple’s revenue comes from selling expensive products to comparatively wealthy clientele, with the Apple Watch Edition representing the peak of Apple’s pursuit of the luxury market.  It would be good for Tim Cook’s Apple to counterbalance this trend by advocating for productivity and growth in markets that can’t afford a $700 unlocked phone.

Apple’s market share and singular vision suggests it can have the most substantial impact for the good in most of the areas it chooses to enter.  Let’s hope this will be put to good use going forward.  The future certainly looks bright.


On Prayer in a Connected World

Let’s recap a few of the headline events from Summer 2014:

  • The Israel-Gaza conflict resulted in over 2,000 deaths, including a substantial number of child casualties.
  • ISIS’ continued rise in Iraq yielded claims of genocide, extensive religious persecution, and almost unimaginable suffering and brutal torture.
  • A genocide continues unabated in Syria. New conflicts arose in Libya.
  • Ebola killed thousands of people and continues to affect thousands more.
  • Over five hundred innocent people were killed in the crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 77, which was likely caused by errant pro-Russian separatists in ongoing Russo-Ukrainian skirmishes.
  • Hundreds of people were killed in natural disasters in China and elsewhere around the globe.
  • The murder of Michael Brown sparked protests that escalated dramatically due to near-militarized dispersal tactics in Ferguson, Missouri.

2014 was one of the coolest summers in recent memory on the East Coast, but it felt like the world was coming to a grief-stricken boil.

Of course, we live in one of the most peaceful eras that our planet has ever seen. But the ways in which we consume news and information have attuned us to pain, sorrow, and violence. It’s easier than ever to get constant story updates and to learn the gritty details of murders, disasters, and death. We have access to an almost bewildering scope of coverage; thousands of sources are seconds away at our fingertips. And we have an increasing penchant for constantly checking these sources for new updates. We are reading more about more on a more frequent basis.

How has our heightened consciousness to what’s going on in the world affected the way we pray and our belief in the efficacy of prayer?

It’s a question I continue to ask myself, particularly when reflecting on the events described above. Our relationship with each other, and our cognizance of the “other,” has been fundamentally altered by technology’s broadening of the borders of our consciousness. We can access more experiences and existences than at any other point in human history, along with detailed high-level context about events and trends. This is a fairly obvious paradigm shift on the surface, but in many ways, it’s been neglected with respect to how we conceive of experiences and relationships with each other in prayer.

For much of human history, prayer was a personal activity with a communal scope wherein supplications were primarily made for family members or local peers. I’d imagine this was true even as newspapers became more popular and gave lower- and middle-class people an understanding of what was befalling their brothers and sisters around the world. Now, we don’t just pray for our communities or families. The Catholic Church, with its globe-hopping Pope, is a network of connections that span continents, languages, and governments. Our religious communities are rooted in the local but have international scope.

Technology has facilitated and forged these connections through prayer. It’s easier than ever for believers to connect, pray, and learn more about their faiths – and to question and adjust their beliefs as they acquire new information and perspectives.

But technology’s role in shaping how we consume information might be having a counterbalancing effect to this ability to connect. It’s easy to see how this increased access to news, with its constant emphasis on death and destruction, could significantly weaken our belief in prayer’s ability to enact real change. At one point in history, prayers of petition were used to request cures for local maladies, but now they’re employed in the service of a wide array of world conflicts. And it’s somewhat disheartening to wonder how the prayers of a single person can possibly address all of these awful things. Once people stop believing prayer is efficacious, it’s likely their faith will start to wane too.

Of course, it’s all a matter of what you pray for and how you approach prayer. To pray for general resolution to global problems is important, but there are other, arguably more effective ways of approaching prayer. For example, using prayer as a time for focused reflection on particular individuals and cultures may be one avenue to active, agapic prayer. Perhaps instead of asking God for peace in the Middle East, we might learn and recite Yazidi prayers as an act of spiritual solidarity; donate money to charities working with refugees; and read about the amazing life and faith of James Foley and the other people ISIS has taken prisoner.

It is easy to look at the news and despair. It is equally easy (and sometimes justifiable) to view prayer as a ridiculous endeavor that has no tangible benefits or outcomes. In light of these temptations, we should be cognizant of how prayer need not be a fleeting plea in a sea of nightmares, but an invitation to support, empathize, and grow as individuals and communities. Our connected world taketh away; our connected world giveth, too.



Heartbleed Gushes; How Will Republicans (and Democrats) React?

Bloomberg reports that the National Security Agency allegedly knew about the Heartbleed computer bug for almost two years and exploited its security flaws to collect “critical intelligence,” including passwords and internet records.  Heartbleed, which was revealed to the public on April 7, has been called one of the most significant security threats the internet has ever seen.

According to Bloomberg:

Putting the Heartbleed bug in its arsenal, the NSA was able to obtain passwords and other basic data that are the building blocks of the sophisticated hacking operations at the core of its mission, but at a cost. Millions of ordinary users were left vulnerable to attack from other nations’ intelligence arms and criminal hackers.

The NSA has come under heavy scrutiny in recent months due to Edward Snowden’s leaks on its data-collection activities.  If the Bloomberg report is true, the NSA will have to contend with allegations that it sacrificed the digital security of millions of American citizens in order to collect information on a small cadre of potential security concerns.  The NSA has already issued a statement denying Bloomberg’s claims.

It would be deeply troubling, to say the least, if any of Bloomberg’s assertions are corroborated by additional evidence or reporting.  That the NSA collected bulk quantities of phone records for purportedly defensive ends was and remains highly questionable, but to additionally put huge quantities of personal data at risk in the collection process is a horrifying prospect.  It is difficult to claim a moral imperative for protecting a country when said efforts directly lead to greater, tangible risk for its citizens.

Additional investigations will elicit more information about the NSA’s involvement in perpetuating Heartbleed’s security gap.  But they will also likely invite political commentary and spur a fresh cycle of debate over whether internet privacy and federal data collection have become too invasive.

What’s politically unique about this situation is that both Democrats and Republicans have been surprisingly fragmented in their views on national data collection over the last few months.  Neither party has seen a consensus in terms of a policy imperative going forward.  Huffpost Religion reported back in February:

The Republican National Committee and civil libertarians like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul have joined liberals like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren on one side of the debate — a striking departure from the aggressive national security policies that have defined the Republican Party for generations.

On the other side, defending surveillance programs created under the Bush administration and continued under President Barack Obama, are Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, Democratic former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the House and Senate leadership of both parties.

One might expect the Democratic Party to be the preeminent voice against data collection programs, but President Obama’s proposed security policies aim for cautious reform instead of a full rejection of the status quo.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, as stripping the entire program to the bone could impair key programs that do help prevent terroristic activities.  But the new Heartbleed allegations suggest even greater NSA influence than what was previously understood, and given the President’s figurehead role and current cautiousness in proposing new restrictions, Democrats may be handcuffed in how far they can push back against this kind of overreach.

This would, in theory, present Republicans with the opportunity to remake at least one facet of their national policy platform.  Internet security and “individual digital liberty” could become a significant plank in the GOP’s body politic as it looks to rebound and re-brand after a shellacking in 2012.  To champion individual rights online without government oversight or intervention could be the starting process in building a new coalition of voters, particularly those in the 18-35 range who would otherwise be turned away by the GOP’s current platforms.

The NSA leaks have yielded a Republican Party that has been surprisingly nimble in making that switch.  The Atlantic noted in January:

And is if to signify that the GOP establishment is changing along with its elected officials, the RNC voted in a winter meeting to literally renounce NSA domestic surveillance. “It was passed by a voice vote as part of a package of RNC proposals,” Benjy Sarlin reports. “Not a single member rose to object or call for further debate, as occurred for other resolutions.” That’s incredible, because it’s almost impossible to exaggerate how unequivocally the resolution condemns the NSA.

Of course, as noted above, there are still significant factions in the party that are opposed to how far these kind of condemnations should go.  That Atlantic article notes that Bush-era GOP architects fear that such a full-scale repudiation of the NSA will undo the national security gains made in the preceding decade.  The Huffpost article cited above paints a similarly conflicted perspective of the party as a whole, too, suggesting that things might not be as cut-and-dry as one RNC vote suggests.

Still, it’s striking to see just how far the Republican Party has changed course since President Bush left office in 2008.  Does this suggest the GOP will continue to pursue policies that protect technological liberty going forward?

Not quite, unfortunately.  Other individual-centric digital policies are being opposed by the GOP, and those kinds of policy measures negate credibility earned in opposing domestic surveillance.  For example, Republicans oppose recent FCC measures to re-instate net neutrality rules, arguing that they prevent internet service providers from fairly adjusting service prices based on consumption use.  That kind of policy makes sense from a pro-business perspective but comes at the expense of open, equal access for individuals.  One might say that pursuing such corporatist policies ahead of the interest of individuals will nullify the GOP’s chances to claim the mantle of deregulated, “for-the-people” internet use.  Businesses can be regulators just as much as governments.

The Snowden leaks and the Heartbleed allegations have presented the Republican Party with the opportunity to initiate a much-needed policy refresh.  Unfortunately, it looks like they won’t take that opportunity, at least not in full.  But it is good to see both Democrats and Republicans working together to tackle the problems raised by allegations of excessive data collection.  Hopefully these efforts will lead to both logical change in domestic policy in the short term and additional room for collaboration on other issues going forward.

Media Consumption Trends for 2014: The Rise of the Upgrade

Joshua Topolsky, editor-in-chief of The Verge, recently penned a column in which he argues that “we have now become defined by our penchant and desire for the upgrade.”  His thesis is that heightened consumer interest in technology initiatives across most major industries, including finance, transportation, science, food, and more, is fueling “a collective dream” of revolutionary, epochal change at a faster pace than ever before.

Topolsky’s large-scale envisioning of a coordinated push for a massive social and cultural “upgrade” seems a little too hyperbolic and optimistic.  On a smaller-scale, though, I think his use of “upgrade” as a talisman for 2014 is unintentionally prescient.  I predict the following three kinds of “upgrades” will gain increasing prominence in 2014 and will become central to our cultural economy over the next three to five years.   

1) Component Upgrades

Phonebloks, a modular phone concept created by Duth designer Dave Hakkens, attracted a social outreach of 36 million people in the last four months of 2013.  The Phonebloks device features a base motherboard that allows the user to “plug in” other components – the screen, battery, processor, camera, etc. – based on his/her preferences or needs.   Hakkens created the concept as an alternative to current phone and electronic manufacturing conventions, wherein one broken or outdated component requires scrapping the entire device.  His goal was to decrease needless electronic waste and allow for greater personal customization. 

Google and subsidiary Motorola liked what they saw.  In late 2013 they brought Hakkens on to their Project Ara team and announced that they were developing hardware to make his vision a reality. 

The powerful social and corporate response to Hakkens’ concept suggests there is substantial demand for technology that features easily upgradable components.  Hakkens correctly identified the financial and ecological inefficiencies in many of today’s products and his insight resonated with consumers- it really does cost a good deal of money to upgrade your phone, computer, tablet, game console, and other electronic devices every product cycle.  Creating devices that allow for lower-cost incremental upgrades is a logical and potentially profitable solution to this problem.

Other tech companies seem to agree.  Razer recently announced its Project Christine PC concept, which features similar swappable hardware modules designed to make modding or upgrading performance a hassle-free experience.  I wouldn’t be surprised if other tech firms hop on the component upgrade bandwagon over the next year, especially if Google is able to create enough buzz about Project Ara by previewing working prototypes.  Expect pushback from entrenched companies like Apple, but the swappable, component upgrade platform seems like a concept that’s going to become a prominent alternative pretty quickly.

2) Ownership Upgrades

The purchase of digital files and software is not the future of media ownership.  Billboard reports that music download sales fell 5.7% to 1.26 billion units in 2013.  eBook sales were only up 4.8% through the first eight months of 2013, compared to double-digit growth rates in previous years. 

The streaming database model is replacing the necessity to buy digital files.  Netflix, of course, is the company exemplar for why streaming is profitable, but other firms are starting to offer subscription services in additional media sectors.  Spotify is credited for the reduction of music download purchases in 2013 and recently received a fresh injection of $250 million in investment money.  eBook subscription services like Oyster and Scribd seem poised to attract new customers in 2014, especially if they can agree to licensing terms with additional publishing houses.  Microsoft’s push for Office to become a subscription, cloud-based service indicates that software ownership is trending away from the cyclical upgrade model too.  My guess is that video games are the next industry to take the plunge; perhaps Valve could negotiate some sort of a package “rental” service that gives gamers access to large swaths of its Steam catalog for a (relatively hefty) monthly fee.

The purchase of a digital file is increasingly a less preferential option for consumers, who can spend their money on supplementary services that offer equivalent accessibility and additional variety.  The concept of digital ownership will become increasingly unpopular as customers choose to upgrade to subscription models. 

3) Physical Upgrades

Of course, there are some products that simply won’t be available via subscription service- a given out-of-print album or a movie that’s not included in Netflix’s catalog.  In these cases, physical purchases will become an increasing norm instead of digital file purchases.  Look for publishers to increase the value that their physical products provide by offering additional services and benefits inaccessible in a digital subscription model. 

Vinyl sales were up by almost 33% in 2013 to 6 million units and account for 2% of album sales.  This is still far short of digital album sales at 40.6% of the market, but vinyl offers superior sound quality as well as the option for bonus physical products bundled with the music.  (CD sales allow for the same bonus packaging as vinyl, but their inferior sound quality makes it more likely that they’ll continue to bottom out in the forseeable future.)

Hardcover book purchases were also up by 10% in the first eight months of 2013.  As consumers spend more and more time working with screens and consuming content on mobile devices, there will be a market opportunity for print books to be a “digital overload alternative.”  Lavish book covers and high quality designs will allow for physical books to be reborn as luxury items that serve a decorative purpose beyond functional reading.

The popularity of subscription services presents an opportunity for publishers to show why their products are valuable enough to warrant a specific purchase.  In this sense, I am bullish on the prospects of print and physical sales as an alternate kind of upgrade to digital media purchases.


Taken together, these three trends suggest individuals will pursue consumption patterns that involve:

  • Pooled streaming software and content that involve higher recurring costs
  • Occasional physical purchases that supplement the streaming pool
  • Interchangeable hardware that features lower, more infrequent costs

Hardware will still be integral to consumer purchases, since the device is the medium to access the content, but it seems that the trend going forward will be decreased annual spending on hardware upgrades.  This decreased spending might instead flow towards software and content. 

Content subscription services are no sure thing, of course.  There is a wide discrepancy between Netflix’s soaring stock price and Spotify’s inability to turn a quarterly profit.  Sustained consumer interest in modular hardware is also not guaranteed, since there will always be demand for self-contained devices that guarantee form and content work in perfect synergy (such as the iPhone).  

Yet the relative affordability of subscription services (at least with respect to their marginal utility) coupled with increasing market permeation suggests that streaming companies are poised for significant expansion in the coming years.  And the significant interest in interchangeable hardware products indicates this is an avenue worth pursuing in the short term.  These kind of upgrades might not precede the macro technological revolution that Topolsky envisions, but they do promise more choices and easier information accessibility going forward.  That is cause for celebration and, indeed, (moderate) excitement.  

Amazon Should Acquire Barnes & Noble

You’ve got to hand it to Jeff Bezos. Amidst ongoing news coverage of Amazon’s popular Kindle Fire HDX, its online foray into Netflix-esque digital programming, and its familiar role as nexus of the online holiday shopping season, Bezos managed to pull yet another PR ace from his company’s burgeoning sleeve this past weekend with the announcement of Amazon Prime Air. The new service is expected to launch in 2015 and will supposedly deliver small packages via drone shipments within 30 minutes of placing an order.

It’s an amazing, terrifying idea, and one that will probably have to clear miles and miles of regulatory tape before any drone levitates a single inch off the ground of one of Amazon’s storage facilities. So what other aces can Bezos play in the meantime to keep up his company’s ever-increasing public profile?

Here’s one suggestion: acquire Barnes & Noble. My friend Jamie and I began talking about this idea about a month ago, and it’s increasingly clear that such a move would be a highly sensible avenue to buttress Amazon’s identity as a known and trusted brand.

The immediate impetus for this move would be to consolidate Amazon’s power as the largest market force in bookselling. Barnes & Noble is the last major challenger to Amazon’s cost-effective behemoth and absorbing it into the Amazon portfolio would give Amazon a great deal of additional power in controlling book marketplace standards. It would also remove the competition of B&N’s Nook which, although an increasingly marginal player in the e-reader and tablet market, still has a relatively robust digital infrastructure. Acquiring this infrastructure could have important implications down the road. Example: Microsoft owns a 10% stake in Nook and an Amazon purchase of the entire B&N brand would eliminate the potential of Microsoft adding a Nook-based reading application to Windows if and when Nook is spun off.

There would also be direct financial benefits from such a deal. Amazon can easily afford the $985 million market cap of Barnes & Noble as well as a hefty stock purchase premium. And given that B&N still earns $374 million in annual profits from its physical bookstores, it’s a deal that would eventually pay for itself.

More important than market share consolidation, however, is the new public narrative that Amazon can create from such an acquisition, as well as the previously untapped footholds it can gain in local communities. The conventional bookseller lament is that Amazon is destroying the joys of the physical book store with its soulless, algorithmic cost-slashing. In one acquisition Amazon becomes the cultural proprietor of the local bookstore, a global force that still cares about the benefits it can provide to local communities.

People like bookstores for a variety of reasons. They imbue a sense of spontaneity and discovery that online shopping will always have a hard time replicating. They’re a great place to wander through on rainy days while grabbing a coffee or pastry and enjoying extended previews of potential purchases. They’re a prime destination for picking up quick but thoughtful gifts. Most importantly, in many cases, they’re a sort of cultural hub for the community, hosting authors and other guest speakers that are open to the public, almost always free of charge.

Imagine how the noxious narrative surrounding Amazon would change if they purchased the largest bookseller and made a campaign of further promoting these public goods that bookstores provide. Not only would Amazon become a cultural touchstone in many communities, it would be seen as the savior of bookstores and a force that understands the communal value of reading.

How Amazon would operate a brick-and-mortar bookstore chain is open to interpretation, but I see the potential to combine the best of a library rental system with the benefits of immediate purchasing. Amazon would still offer books for sale, perhaps at a slight markup from their online counterparts, but customers would likely pay the premium for the immediacy of purchase. More importantly, Amazon could leverage its Prime program to create further purchasing incentives, in which anyone with online membership would receive perks or in-store benefits. Jamie suggested a bevy of avenues this kind of program could take: free coffee, sales discounts, or even participation in a library-esque book loan system.

Unlike Apple and Microsoft, Amazon does not have a dedicated physical space to demonstrate its wares. Its Kindle line is available in a number of retailers but is often displayed amidst a sea of other tablet options. Purchasing Barnes & Noble would give Amazon space for a devoted Kindle display in the most innocuous of atmospheres- surrounded by physical books! This space would also allow Amazon to publicize and promote any major, non-book online deals, letting customers test out key products that they might be reticent to purchase without trying beforehand. This kind of store setup would also facilitate the purchase of online products in-store. Most people go home from Barnes & Noble to buy a discounted or e-reader edition of what they saw in the store. Why not cut out the middleman and let people make those purchases directly from a store terminal?

A purchase of Barnes & Noble would have limited returns, to a degree. The single-floor B&N stores in malls throughout the country would not be conducive to this kind of plan; the main core of the deal would be access to the multi-tiered B&N megastores that dot select communities in major population zones. And, again, on the whole, this would be revenue-neutral for Amazon at best. Its margins are already slim or nonexistent in the online book business and any revenue gained from the stores would not generate net profit (due to the deal’s upfront expenses) in the immediate future.

But, as Jamie noted in our conversation: “Normally, this might be a pie in the sky scenario for a profit-maximizing corporation in Amazon’s shoes, but Amazon hasn’t ever cared about profits, and shareholders apparently don’t care that Amazon doesn’t turn a profit.”

The purpose of this deal is one of crafting a strategic PR narrative rather than strict accounting. Bookstores are not moratoriums for the dying print medium; they’re living, breathing communities where people go for diversion, enlightenment, and solace. Subsidizing this kind of experience is something Amazon can easily afford, while simultaneously eliminating its largest bookseller rival and creating a dedicated space to promote Amazon products. It’s a win-win-win for Amazon’s reputation, readers, and communities across the board. (Indie booksellers, not so much… but that’s why they should band together and create an online distribution network, as described here.)

Thanks to Jamie for the conversation and ideas that informed this post.

Imagining the Borgesian Hypertext

Almost every online news piece or blog post published today includes hyperlinks to either a source story or related articles.   Depending on the organization in question (and RM is no exception), these links are either listed peripherally to the body of the story or included in the text itself.  Links help drive traffic on the site by increasing the number of clickthroughs, and the reader benefits by having immediate access to a more thorough scope that print, radio, and television news cannot provide.

As we work to digitize all of our physical pieces of written information and scholarship, the hyperlink offers unique promise beyond simple references to other work.  The ability to connect a main body of writing with almost any other piece or format of information is an exciting development in connecting unorganized information.  Individual works are no longer isolated from the material from which they were composed, and further incorporation of links will eventually reduce cumbersome associations with variable keywords.  This possibility of establishing specific ties between related pieces for holistic analysis or consumption has the potential to shift how we read, study, and comprehend.

The evolution of the research paper and the bibliography is a case study in the practical possibilities of increased connection in scholarship.  Current medical and scientific journals reference previous studies as bases for their tests, but the print copies of these journals require readers to look up the studies to understand the experiment’s full context.  Theses and longer scholarly papers list hundreds of references or additional resources that, while of potential interest to the reader, are either difficult or time-consuming to acquire.  The bibliography or works cited page is a necessary summation of these references but often appears as an accessory to the work itself.

A thoroughly hyperlinked research paper or scholarly article creates a dynamic ecosystem of information to buttress the author’s thesis.  The ability to shift from article to article, study to study, allows for more immediate connection with previous scholarship.  The bibliography is now an integral part of the argument by showing readers how a given insight or point of argumentation was derived.  (Check out this recent JAMA article for an example.)  And should the reader not want to view all of the associated resources, they’re not mandatory viewing- the main narrative will still make sense despite the presence of links.  The ability to create this kind of cohesive backing network streamlines our ability to connect data and draw conclusions by allowing easy reference or comparison to related scholarship.

Beyond the applications for academic work, I’m particularly excited about the potential for hyperlinks to change how we experience literature on electronic readers.  The ability to reference other pieces of literature within a particular piece sounds ridiculous and unnecessary, especially since many readers value the immersion of a good book and wouldn’t want that spell broken with constant link-outs.  Taken to the extreme, though… that’s where things would get interesting.

I’m imagining a short story in which each word, phrase, or sentence links to another story or concept.  Even a story that’s ten pages long could have dozens of linked stories associated with a given paragraph.  Perhaps a link from the word “rhythm” would tell about how the protagonist’s band got its start at the Paradise Rock Club in 1982.  Or an entire sentence could link to another entirely unrelated story about a set of characters experiencing the same kind of situation under entirely different circumstance.  And all of these various linked stories or pieces would also be completely composed of links that present references to the same body of stories.  Think of it as a quilt of hundreds of stories all stitched together through different references and links.  The result would be a disorienting reading experience with few guidelines for best understanding the main narrative, but I would find the sheer depth of content (and the challenge of experiencing it all!) exhilarating.  Of course, the stories would have to be interesting for readers to make everything click.

I think of this kind of story as a Borgesian hypertext, a modern-day application of Jorge Luis’ Borges’ famed labyrinths.  Many of Borges’ stories, such as The Garden of Forking Paths, involve the fantastic interplay between multiple narrative levels (think Inception’s dream-within-a-dream concept but with more poetic subtlety and craftsmanship and fewer BWAAAAAAAH sounds).  The hypertext would combine this stacked narrative form with the idea of linguistic permutations and combinations Borges discusses in The Library of Babel and The Book of Sand.  The latter describes a text in which “the number of pages… is no more or less than infinite.  None is the first page, nor the last.”  In contrast, the hypertext narrative would be a minor self-contained infinity lacking a set beginning, end, or story arc.  It would ideally envelop readers in labyrinths of words, history, and perspectives and leave them trying to piece together a multi-dimensional narrative puzzle.  It’s impossible to do something like this in print text, but it would be one of the most unique developments in what an “eBook” can entail.

The ability to create this kind of a totally interlocking story has been possible for many years now; any website developer could have slapped hundreds of linked pages together in the last two decades.  So why is this concept particularly germane now?  There are a couple of basic reasons: improved design capabilities allow for greater cohesion, and the ability to experience this content on a tablet in a devoted app makes exploring the story a more immersive and easier-to-navigate experience.  These reasons inform my primary argument for the hypertext’s relevancy today: there’s finally a demand for its model of an evolutionary reading experience.  eBooks have opened the door to increased readership on computers and screens where the boundaries of print need not apply, and this new market for experiences that go beyond the traditional limited text is producing some amazing work.  I’m particularly interested in Invisible Islands, a text / app by Caden Lovelace and Laura Grace that the former calls “a map the size of the world, a ‘dream archipelago’ accessed via GPS, a topography laced with hidden stories.” This new method to tell stories is immensely exciting and the Borgesian hypertext slots neatly into the same market.

Is this hypertext a categorical model for what stories and reading should be like in the digital age?  Certainly not.  If anything, this concept would become tiring if applied to more than a handful of stories.  But it’s a novel imagining of what a “book” now entails, an initiative that has seen some amazing entries in the last five years and will continue to grow in the next decade.  Much credit should be given to those who are paving the way, and I look forward to seeing what’s on the horizon.

Reddit, the Boston Marathon Bombing, and Collective Online Moderation in Crisis Situations

In an extensive New York Times report, Jay Kaspian Kang examines Reddit’s reaction to the Boston Marathon bombing and how the site’s spread of misinformation affected the search for missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi.  Erroneous reports that Sunil was one of the bombers gained exponential attention on Reddit, which negatively impacted the Tripathi family’s efforts to search for their son.  Sunil’s body was found in a Providence river about one week after the bombing.

A large part of Kang’s article consists of a thorough overview of Reddit that most of RM’s readers will find superfluous.  But his profile of the Tripathi family is deeply affecting, as is his reporting of how the magnification of unsubstantiated online rumors had painful consequences for Sunil’s loved ones.  Sangeeta Tripathi, Sunil’s sister, had this to say about the aftermath of the negative coverage regarding Sunil’s supposed involvement in the attack:

Almost every news outlet that came to us said the same three things,” Sangeeta added. “The first was, ‘How was that night?’ The second was, ‘Is Sunny still missing?’ And the third was, ‘This is a silver lining because now you’re getting his name out.’ It was interesting to see how formulaically they processed that arc. The costs to somebody who is in a fragile state are immense and not undone by a casual apology,” she said. “This is precedent-setting for what will happen for other individuals.

The title of the article, “Should Reddit Be Blamed for the Spreading of a Smear?” belies the more pressing questions that the article raises.  It’s very difficult to assign meaningful “blame” to an anonymous collective group that, although acting with information later proven to be false, was legitimately trying to assist in catching the bombers.  But it is important to consider how the consequences of Reddit’s stumblings can shape future events in which the quality of available information is dubious.  This is applicable not just for Reddit but essentially any online community or forum.  How can incomplete or rash conclusions and their subsequent effects be avoided in times of crisis?

Mr. Kang notes that a number of efforts are already being taken to ensure this circumstance does not take place again:

Marcus DiPaola, a freelance journalist who happened to be on the ground in Cambridge and Watertown during the early morning hours of April 19, posted a set of journalistic guidelines that he hoped would help his fellow Redditors exercise more caution in the future. As of this printing, DiPaola’s guidelines are still the most upvoted comment in the thread.

This is a good start and one that will probably exert influence across subreddits beyond the specific thread in question.  But it doesn’t entail a top-down suggested set of standards for posters to follow when an event is still unfolding and information is scarce or volatile.  Reddit’s informal guidelines for posting lack specific standards for when events are occurring in real-time, and although another bullet point on their guide list isn’t an all-encompassing solution, it could help codify an attitude of caution and restraint.

The bigger issue that needs to be addressed is how we can effectively mediate online group mentalities that naturally arise when a threat is made manifest.   All online communities have the potential to devolve into echo chambers, especially when horrific events occur.  The subsequent feelings of unification that result generally preclude meaningful dissent, even if this dissent is emphatically warranted as a means to step back and examine the situation with level-headedness and a cool frame of reference.  Questions like “Should we really be progressing so quickly with the information we have at hand?” need to be asked and often aren’t.  It was inspiring and invigorating to see the nation’s collective resolve after 9/11, but this spirit likely facilitated some policy decisions that should have received greater critical analysis.  Twelve years later, real-time discussion allows for immediate commentary and reaction to events that can actually influence how those events proceed.  Restraint and moderation is all the more critical to ensure measured responses are taken.

Jaron Lanier, among other web commentators, argues that internet communities inherently encourage group-think mentalities that subjugate individual opinions and dissent.  I’m disinclined to believe this a categorical status quo, especially when online hubs like Reddit theoretically bring together diverse groups that can lead to opposing viewpoints and constructive problem-solving.  Kang correctly notes how Reddit acted as a critical forum for news and information about the Aurora movie theater shooting last year, and even more can be said of how Reddit provided a dedicated and comprehensive hub for news about the Boston bombings.  Online communities are not inherently the problem; excessive individual reactions, particularly in response to inflammatory events, encourage threads that seek retaliation.

Kang acknowledges that this is the case, and he contextualizes it in the debate over how media coverage plays out today in general:

To blame Reddit is to pretend that the platform is the problem. A hive mind may have existed on Reddit during the early days when the community was small and self-selecting, but now that traffic has reached 70 million visitors a month, asking “Reddit,” whatever that might mean, to police its own news content seems to misunderstand the problem. The Sunil Tripathi debacle isn’t really a “new media” problem, much as those who think of themselves as members of the “old media” might like to see it that way. This is what media is now, a constantly evolving interaction between reporters working for mainstream companies; journalists and writers compiling and interpreting news for online outlets; and thousands of individuals participating on their own in the gathering and assembling and disseminating of information. It’s a tremendously messy process, at times thrilling and deeply useful, and at times damaging in ways that can’t be anticipated. How it all gets straightened out, how some rules might become codified, is going to take a while.

I look forward to reading possible solutions to this problem from group psychology experts and net theorists who are much more informed on this topic than me.  But it does seem that a greater degree of self-awareness, especially when commenting on crisis situations, would do a world of good in ensuring tensions don’t escalate unnecessarily or misinformation is accelerated to other channels.  When I was browsing Reddit in the early morning of April 19, I was struck not only by the exhilaration that came from following the manhunt,  but by how many posts were self-congratulatory in nature, including ones that celebrated Reddit’s role in identifying Sunil as a suspect.  It seemed that a number of posters considered the thread as a narrative that played into their roles as commenters on Reddit rather than a way to better inform oneself in the story’s developments.  To my mind, this was exemplary of the most dangerous kind of echo chamber: where an information exchange devolves into self-congratulatory comments that makes the attitude of “We’re right!” the center of the discussion, rather than a drive to see how the community can assist in a cogent solution.

I’d like to emphasize once again that this attitude is not indicative of the greater Reddit community as a whole, nor of any particular online community that engages in discussions of hot-button issues.  It’s also an understandable byproduct of a live-action event whose uncertainty and unprecedented nature created a groundswell in fervor and support.  But this specific case demonstrates the need for tempered commentary and reactions in online settings, especially in those that have proven to be as powerful and influential as Reddit can now claim.  Credit to those Redditors who recognize this power and leverage it to try and right a collective mistake.

(Note: I believe the thread where Sunil’s name was originally mentioned has been made private, but I’ll gladly post the link if someone sends it in.  Jay Caspian Kang did an AMA about his article with some follow-up conversations that’s available here.)

Google’s Technocratic Aspirations?

Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen recently released The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, a roadmap for how the internet and technology can shape the development of global and local communities.  Schmidt and Cohen argue that technological innovation can bring powerful social and economic change to all peoples, especially the marginalized, and they make the case that governments must be well-versed in how technology can alter the political dynamic of how countries and communities operate.  The Guardian and Kirkus both gave the book positive, if largely unsubstantiated, reviews.

Julian Assange wrote a scathing review of the book in a recent New York Times article, arguing that Schmidt and Cohen present “a startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism.”  Assange argues:  “The New Digital Age” is, beyond anything else, an attempt by Google to position itself as America’s geopolitical visionary — the one company that can answer the question “Where should America go?”… Google, which started out as an expression of independent Californian graduate student culture — a decent, humane and playful culture — has, as it encountered the big, bad world, thrown its lot in with traditional Washington power elements, from the State Department to the National Security Agency.”

Assange’s commentary has looked increasingly prescient as Google’s relationship with the government has become more prominent in recent months.  The revelation of the PRISM program, with which Google has denied participation, raises the specter of a more extensive connection between the two than most people would have liked to imagine.  Schmidt led a delegation of U.S. diplomats to North Korea last January, arguing for increased adoption of internet resources for greater development.  (You can read his daughter’s fascinating write-up of the trip here.)  And the introduction of Google Glass has raised critical questions of public privacy, questions that will almost certainly lead to legal battles in the near future over covert video recording.

The Verge echoes Assange’s criticisms in their write-up for the book, casting the authors as businessmen looking for the next hot market instead of pursuing substantive change.  “It is a frustrating book. It’s the kind of book where the authors surveyed the sorry state of cellular connectivity in Baghdad… and could only conclude that ‘governments [are] dangerously behind the curve when it comes to understanding and implementing new technology.’  Which is true, if you only take it that far. But how narrow-minded do you have to be that you could look at war-torn Baghdad and only think that it would be a great place to introduce Android phones?”

Susan Davis, president of the largest NGO in the world, recently wrote about the ability for technology to actually make an impact on alleviating poverty.  Her takeaway: “The prospect of billions rising up from poverty with nothing more than gadgets is indeed a fanciful notion — and not a helpful one, either. But the evidence says that when we tether enthusiasm to reality, the reality starts to budge.”  Despite Assange’s fears of commercial imperialism, Google has the potential to be a major provider of basic equipment in this tethering process.  Davis’ suggestion to invest in local innovation, even for lower-tech problems, seems like a workable middle ground, in which Google could adapt its technology to the specific cultural environment of the community in need.