“On This Day” or, Take My Life, Please

The author, en fuego in '09

The author, en fuego in ’09

Remember when Facebook was still new?

The novelty of being able to keep tabs on everyone, like e-mail on amphetamines, with pictures (and now, video, and all the other things we can incorporate instead of actually living life moment by moment) was, naturally, addictive.

I loved it, then, and still (mostly) love it, now, because I –and, I’m sure, you– can attest to the non-superficial ways it enables one to stay in touch: to be informed, to engage and be engaged, to eavesdrop, to laugh, “like” and mostly scroll past. I see people now I’ve not talked to in person for months, or years, and still feel like I’m up to speed on the important things: what they’re doing, how their kids are, what silly things their pets have done, what friends or relatives they’ve lost, which movies and albums and books they’re enjoying (or hating), how incredible their meals are on aesthetic levels, etc.

We’re all, also, guilty of the alternately transparent, amusing and pitiable spectacle of the ways we manufacture our reality for public consumption.

Who can blame us?

With great power comes great responsibility, right? (By power I mean the capacity, with a flick of the keyboard, to assume the mildly divine authorial license to craft our own narrative. By great responsibility I mean editing the unflattering pictures and ever-present danger of TMI.)

We probably all do –and should– process these narratives, equal parts hopeful, trusting, resentful, with more than a shovel full of salt; we know most of us are obeying the 21st Century impulse to put our best face forward, literally and figuratively. In a way, the people ostensibly leading the healthiest and most satisfying lives — the ones who’ve sucked so much marrow out of life it’s oozing onto their wrinkle-free smirks — are sadder than the handful of friends we all have who use social media as a ceaseless cri de coeur: the people who are seeking sympathy might well receive a portion of solidarity that Facebook can provide (if a paltry consolation for that human touch, a few thumbs up, shout outs and, in extreme cases, direct messages, it’s definitely better than nothing). Those golden gods and goddesses, on the other hand, likely aren’t looking for approbation so much as attempting to quell their own fears of inadequacy or unhappiness. Of course, there are also the folks who really do work hard, stay in shape, raise wonderful children, love their partners, glow with salubrity in every selfie, and generally have karmic insect repellent for all the world’s pesky problems. Fuck them. (Just kidding, mostly.)

All of which is to say, I do my best, most days, to moderate my mostly good-natured envy and use it as inspiration (sleep and procrastinate less, be kinder, care less about how much everyone cares about everything, etc.), and I try to, as the kids say, keep it real. Certainly, I’m mostly trying to respect the self-imposed social media contract by keeping the more unsavory aspects to myself, and the motivation there is both benevolent and selfish. The nitty-gritty of life’s rich pageant is best left to journals, texts and long-suffering spouses.

I think a great deal about the information overload we all attempt to navigate, and as an insatiable consumer of all-things-cultural, my issue is less with filtering out the crap and trying to keep up with the authentic and irresistible. I’m of the opinion that one can never be too informed, so the bizarre mixed-blessing of having so many intelligent and diverse friends (thanks, all) is the luxury, the exorbitance of incredible content. (One reason I still don’t subscribe to any podcasts, regardless of how much I know I’d adore some of them, is I don’t have the time; I already lament the hours I used to dedicate to reading books, writing about them and trying to write them, not to mention the endless struggle to not be fixated on a handheld device (our poor eyes) every waking second. It’s another reason I seldom surf Twitter; it’s too much. Yes, there’s a plethora of easily ignorable effluvia in those tweets, like so many digital dust mites, but it requires time and effort to scroll past them; the real issue is all the amazing links to columns, interviews, video clips (sigh) and insights that, without question, will make the lucky reader more aware and alive. The thing is, it’s too much of a good thing: keep up or die trying. And that shit will kill you.)

Perhaps the notion of info-overload is particularly top of mind as it’s the impetus (if not specific subject) of my next novel, now officially a work-in-progress. I’ve written a great deal about the uneasy intersection of technology and life (politics, art, creativity, commerce) as a poor man’s industry analyst; I’d like to explore, through autobiographical fiction, the ways these pressures and the urgent pursuit of some undefined, evanescent ecstasy are shaping our behavior, on macro and especially micro levels. In other words, the same stuff every novelist writing about the times in which they live attempts to do.

But mostly, I’m reflecting today on the unanticipated and often illuminating gift Facebook provides, via its “On This Day” back-to-the-future feature. Old posts, including the comments, pictures, and videos, are a reminder, however pleasant or painful, where we were a year, or two, or –in this case– eight years ago. Among other things, these reminders are undeniable snapshots of where (and who) we were. Have we grown, in both the good and bad ways (guilty of the latter; hopeful about the former)? Are we keeping our promises to each other, and ourselves? Are we at once the same and different in all the right ways? Is this magical online diary of our journey telling the story we want others to hear? Most importantly, is it, with its pixels and opinions and portents, corroborating the story we need to tell ourselves?

I think, and hope, the most honest answer is: To Be Continued.

Here’s what I had to say, eight years ago, when responding to the viral (“tag, you’re it”) entreaty of posting 25 “random facts” about myself. I enjoyed reading what my friends wrote, then, and I’d enjoy revisiting them, now. I’m mostly content that I’d stand by just about all of the things Murph, aged 38, had to say for himself. Not sure if they’re flattering or implicating, but they’re definitely true.

The author in '09: not a rock star then or now

The author in ’09: not a rock star then or now

1. OK: I just spent some serious time crafting my list and I felt pretty good about the way it turned out. And as I went to post it, my page “timed out” and I lost it. There has to be a lesson in there somewhere.

2. I crave time by myself, and I seldom feel alone.

3. By far the most difficult thing I’ve endured to this point is watching my mother fight–and ultimately lose–her 5 year battle with cancer. By far the most humbling, and inexplicably amazing experience was being there with her (and my family) the entire time.

4. Ever since my mom died, I’ve gotten together every Tuesday night with my old man for dinner. I call it “pops night” and with very few exceptions, we have not missed a week since 2002.

5. I haven’t been to church in many years, but I have no regrets about being raised Catholic (for one thing, it has provided ceaseless writing material) or being exposed, at an early age, to the the complicated powers of a ritual.

6. Making new friends is a great way to keep the heart and mind engaged; maintaining old relationships is all about the soul.

7. I realized, as I genuinely enjoyed seeing and reconnecting with people at my recent 20 Year High School Reunion, how fortunate I am. I understand that those formative years are difficult, even horrible for many people, and I’ll never take for granted that I was very lucky in many ways. (Incidentally, can you imagine if we’d had email or cell phones in high school? Me neither.)

8. My miniature schnauzer Leroy Brown is one of the miracles in my life, and I’m going to have a very tough time when he goes.

9. I used to spend unhealthy amounts of time agonizing over how to rank my favorite bands, or songs, or albums. Or how, say, a list of the Top 100 songs of all time would look. Unhealthy amounts of time.

10. I kept a journal, starting in 5th grade (props to Mr. Taliaferro!), through high school and after. I seldom, if ever, revisit those old spiral notebooks, but it’s good to know they are there, just in case.

11. If I never drive cross country I’ll have a hard time forgiving myself. (To his credit, Matt Gravett tried to convince me, several times, to accompany him when he made the journey. Rain check!)

12. As soon as I discovered The Beatles in 3rd grade, that was that.

13. Apparently, I’m difficult to reach on the phone.

14. Watching my friends become parents has enriched me in direct proportion to how much I’ve seen it enrich them.

15. Seeing my niece slowly turn into my sister has provided me more amusement than it should. And the teenage years have not even begun yet. Ha!

16. I viscerally detest violence, yet I always enjoy hockey fights. (Thoughts?)

17. It actually infuriates me that “True West” is not available on DVD (“True West” is a remarkable play by the brilliant Sam Shepard that was filmed for TV and shown, on PBS, in the early ’80s. It stars a young John Malkovich before he became John Malkovich and Gary Sinise before he became…whatever he became. But seriously, it’s intolerable that this masterpiece is not easily available for people to discover and fall in love with. Until I hear a better reason, I’ll remain convinced that it’s just a plot to piss me off, as I seem to be the only person who has ever seen it!)

18. Every year I tend to care less about college sports (except for GMU basketball!), and even certain pro sports. And yet, I somehow found the time to buy the Red Sox season package last year. So…if anyone needs to catch a game between April and October, holler at your boy.

19. I’ve never played a flute in my life, but I’m reasonably certain that, if provided one, I could play much of Jethro Tull’s catalog on it. In fact, the first time I saw Tull live (’89) I was convicing people all around me that I was Ian Anderson. But that might have been the mushrooms.

20. It’s certainly a cliche, but still: if everyone in the USA had to wait tables for one week (or more) before turning 21, our country would be infinitely more progressive, tolerant and equitable.

21. The recent (and ongoing) financial meltdown–and the obvious, predictable ways it unfolded–have, against all probability, made me even more steadfast in my left-leaning views. Also: while the concept of Hell has for quite some time seemed rather childish to me, I would love for it to actually exist, if for no other reason than to eternally house (among other worthy candidates for admission) the richest of the rich who actively and with impunity disenfranchise others in the sole pursuit of further enriching themselves.

22. Whoever dies with the most toys spent entirely too much time accumulating a lot of useless shit.

23. Mozart, Symphony 41. It’s all in there.

24. Having people confide in you is sustenance for your soul.

25. I’m pretty much exactly who I want to be. But I’m still working on it.

 

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Streaming Services: Savior or Disruption? (Revisited)

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Last week I had the opportunity to speak with good friend and industry veteran Jason Herskowitz (more about him HERE).
In my capacity as an industry analyst at the Consumer Electronics Association, I’ve followed the developments of this changing landscape –what I refer to as the democratization of content– with keen professional as well as personal interest.
Jay and I talked about these trends, with a focus on streamed services and whether or not they are saviors or disruptors of the music industry (spoiler alert: it’s a bit of both, but mostly the former, according to us).
Some key takeaways include the one indisputable fact that streaming services and innovation have permanently changed the music industry. As such, we tried to provide some historical perspective in order to better understand the present –and suggest what the future may hold. Some other takeaways include:
  • Recording and selling music doesn’t require studio time and a fleet of trucks and trains anymore. A laptop and Internet connection does the job much cheaper and easier.
  • What has happened to the music industry is similar to the innovations we have seen in traditional news and publishing. Bloggers and independent authors can find audiences and compete with big established players.
  • Social media makes everyone a Program Director.
Enjoy the video and let us know what you think via the comments section.
In terms of this topic and our conversation, the status is definitely “To be continued…”

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Talking Tech with Eric Taub

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Eric Taub has been writing about the tech industry for more than two decades.

His new book, Does This Plug into That?, is a tremendous and overdue public service. In readable, relatable prose, he deconstructs –and demystifies– the myriad ways technology makes our lives more complicated while ostensibly making everything easier and more convenient.

Tackling everything from what TV to buy, the efficacy of universal remotes, setting up a web connection, installing a home network or even the future of light bulbs, Taub offers practical, easy-to-understand advice and insight. As someone who has followed, and written about, the technology industry for over a decade, I can honestly say I’m glad I read this book, and would suggest it to anyone. The one exception might be anyone who can read (or who has ever written) a user manual. Then again, Taub talks about the myriad ways even those jargon-laden, perhaps intentionally impenetrable tomes could do with some editing for clarity, concision and value!

I was happy to have a chance to speak with Eric at the 2014 CES: video of our conversation is below.

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Streaming Services: Savior or Disruption?

Last week I had the opportunity to speak with good friend and industry veteran Jason Herskowitz (more about him HERE).
In my capacity as an industry analyst at the Consumer Electronics Association, I’ve followed the developments of this changing landscape –what I refer to as the democratization of content– with keen professional as well as personal interest.
Jay and I talked about these trends, with a focus on streamed services and whether or not they are saviors or disruptors of the music industry (spoiler alert: it’s a bit of both, but mostly the former, according to us).
Some key takeaways include the one indisputable fact that streaming services and innovation have permanently changed the music industry. As such, we tried to provide some historical perspective in order to better understand the present –and suggest what the future may hold. Some other takeaways include:
  • Recording and selling music doesn’t require studio time and a fleet of trucks and trains anymore. A laptop and Internet connection does the job much cheaper and easier.
  • What has happened to the music industry is similar to the innovations we have seen in traditional news and publishing. Bloggers and independent authors can find audiences and compete with big established players.
  • Social media makes everyone a Program Director.
Enjoy the video and let us know what you think via the comments section.
In terms of this topic and our conversation, the status is definitely “To be continued…”

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Technology and Privacy, Cont’d…

The ongoing controversy surrounding Edward Snowden has reminded me that the issues of privacy are not recent. Indeed, the notion of “other people” knowing what you are doing at all times was very much a 20th Century concern, albeit a mostly analog one. Certainly the advent of the Internet and sites like Facebook have made “big data” a complicated issue: we tend to embrace innovation when it suits us and resist—or fear—it when we see potential threats.

It obliges questions like, what is Big Data and how is it used? Is it mostly good or entirely bad? What, for that matter, is privacy as it relates to our personal lives in the new millennium? It is also imperative to recognize that technology is never a static phenomenon; by the time we grapple with one aspect of a particular product or progression, it often has already mutated, improved or become something else altogether. I spent the summer of 2010 puzzling over the facts, figures and opinions in a piece for our annual Five Technology Trends To Watch.

One thing is certain: the intersection between the private and the public when it comes to data collection is never simple and at best is always uneasy. The debate about privacy—collective and individual—is ultimately an issue of control. The reality, which is good, bad and ugly (or all three depending upon your perspective) is that we reside in an odd era where we at once have as much and as little autonomy as any time in history. How you process this ostensible contradiction will likely determine how troubled, or not, you are by recent events.

The concept of privacy and technology is nothing if not complicated, intriguing and, importantly, ever-changing. As is always the case, before we can predict with any hope of accuracy what the future will look like, we need to adequately understand both the present and the past. Any conversation about Big Brother running roughshod over our privacy rights needs to acknowledge that this is not remotely a new phenomenon. For an artistic meditation on the paranoia the Watergate scandal begat, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation is essential viewing. For a more contemporary take on professional surveillance, David Simon—creator of The Wire—has an enlightening and provocative piece available on his blog.

To be certain, the idea of the most powerful government in the world snooping on a citizen’s online activity is something out of an Orwell novel. Indeed, the entire notion of online activity would be something even Orwell could never have conceived. As always, there is a flip side to every innovation: as the Internet has empowered individuals to write, speak, and shop, it also extends the possibility of these endeavors being overseen. What is undeniable is that when it comes to privacy (online or otherwise) it’s very often only the occasional abuses or oversights that catch our attention.

For instance, consider the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon. Less than a decade ago a tragedy of this magnitude might have left us paralyzed: with fear, misinformation and false leads. Of course, with technology and the expertise with which everyday Americans utilize it, pictures, social media and cooperation by diverse communities enabled the perpetrators to be identified—and captured—in remarkably short order. It always raises eyebrows and elicits skepticism, but it’s difficult to deny that the government has used techniques—however controversial—to foil terror attacks and yes, keep us safe. Accepting and/or endorsing this does not require providing an apathetic blank check to the powers that be.

We need to keep our public officials as accountable, and ensure that incompetence—or worse—does not occur on our watch, in our names. On the other hand, we have to be cognizant that a million spies with a million hours could scarcely begin to keep track of all the correspondence occurring every minute via email, Facebook and Twitter. Privacy itself may seem a quaint or antiquated notion, but the truth is, we live in a very different, very digital world. What we do know might unnerve us, but what we do not know is capable of damage that extends beyond privacy concerns.

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Selling The Stories Of Our Lives: Technology and Privacy (Part Two)

PRIVACY VERSUS PROFIT: THE NEXT BIG DEBATE

Not many people would oppose the proposition that consumers enjoy convenience and appreciate value. As the Internet has expanded and advanced, free content is increasingly available—and expected. Most of us seem to be aware that the corresponding proliferation of pop-ups and full-screen advertisements is the “price” we pay for this unfettered access. In fact, free information has, in some regards, been a victim of its own success: many people now see the advertisements as a distraction and an imposition. Of course, few of them would prefer a scenario where sites withdrew the ads but began charging for content. Magazines, newspapers and popular reference sites like dictionary.com all rely on revenue from advertisers in order to remain mostly or entirely free.

If the quid pro quo of enduring minor annoyance for free information seems like yesterday’s news, that’s because it is. The latest and more profound controversy revolves around the ways companies are now using user’s personal data. In July The Wall Street Journal published a study entitled “What They Know”, containing a series of articles detailing the history, practices and implications of the “cutting-edge uses of Internet-tracking technology.” This investigation adds to a growing number of similar features, no doubt inspired at least in part by the recent Facebook controversies—and founder Mark Zuckerberg’s less than impressive response to the outcry.

The reactions, once people get a better grasp on what exactly is going on, are often (and understandably) emotional. Personal information turned into salable data is, after all, about as intimate as it gets when one considers ostensibly private and/or secret preferences and behaviors being scrutinized, tracked and ultimately sold. It is, then, perhaps fair and appropriate to further contemplate the “strictly business” rationale which posits these developments as almost entirely positive signals of progress and mutually profitable engagement.

The debate, in starkest terms, seems to revolve around the issue of free-will versus awareness. Certainly, it is fair to suggest that virtually all non-business related online behavior is voluntary. Thus, it is ultimately the individual’s responsibility to understand the risks as well as the rewards associated with web-surfing, online purchases and the dissemination (however unintentional) of personal information. A strictly business advocate might make the analogy of whether or not it is acceptable for a citizen to press charges against an establishment serving drinks that impaired their driving ability. The complicated converse of this already controversial scenario is how quickly the culpability changes if it turns out the bartender had placed undetectable alcohol in someone’s iced tea. All of a sudden, the balance of blame is considerably altered. It would not be sufficient, legally or morally, to assert that the mere act of entering a bar compels an individual to be aware of any possible repercussions.

The deeper issue, in other words, extends beyond personal choice. Facebook, to be certain, allows users to utilize an opt-in agreement for sharing certain information. In this regard, users are obliged to be informed and accountable—which is one reason the recent attention Facebook’s privacy policies are getting is undeniably a positive development. On the other hand, companies should not require federal regulation (or even public outcry) to create clear and upfront messaging regarding the data they collect and the way(s) in which they intend to use—and profit from—it.

INTERNET TRACKING: SPYING OR STRICTLY BUSINESS?

In a piece for The Wall Street Journal’s series entitled “It’s Modern Trade: Web Users Get As Much As They Give”, Jim Harper (director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute) feels the rewards considerably outweigh the risks. He suggests that “data gleaned from (our) communications and transactions grease the gears of modern commerce.” While acknowledging the legitimacy of online privacy concerns, he strongly admonishes Web users to arm themselves with information to better protect their interests. There is little question that this is the first crucial step anyone should take, but it inexorably shifts the entire burden of responsibility to consumers.

Harper rather disingenuously compares online privacy to smoking: it is a personal matter and it’s up to the individual to ascertain the dangers. As it happens, the comparison is, perhaps unintentionally, apt: we now know that for decades cigarettes were not only considered harmless, substantial sums of money got spent promulgating positive, even healthy associations between smoking and lifestyle. Once contrary evidence inevitably emerged, inconceivable amounts of dollars were allocated to try and suppress or discredit these findings. All of which is to suggest that there is a fine line between caveat emptor and the emperor’s lack of clothes.

Today it would be unfair, even reckless, to imply that consumers are—or should be—fully aware of what they do (and have “done” to them) online, particularly when substantial money is at stake to keep these seemingly innocuous business practices surreptitious (as the Zuckerberg debacle illustrated). In a companion piece entitled “Tracking Is An Assault On Liberty With Real Dangers”, Nicholas Carr (author of The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains) recalls a Sun Microsystems chief executive, who in 1999 blithely explained “You have zero privacy. Get over it.” Carr then offers the examples, from 2006, of a team of scholars from the University of Minnesota, who “noted that most Americans can be identified by name and address using only their ZIP Code, birthday and gender—three pieces of information that people often divulge when they register at a website.”

According to a recent study of 1,000 U.S. adults, to date around one third (39%) of consumers admit to having posted personal contact information such as phone number, e-mail and mailing address, etc., online. Understandably, consumers have concerns regarding their privacy as it relates to their online information and activities. Over half (55%) of adults expressed concern about their privacy in relation to activities such as information, comments or opinions posted on social networking sites.

MEDICINAL PURPOSES

The stakes get more serious, and potentially far-reaching, when we consider the momentum behind making medical records available electronically. Heralded as a mutually beneficial advancement for both the industry and the consumer, the practical implications of a widespread transition are now being more closely scrutinized. For more than fifteen years, enterprising computer experts have exposed how easy it actually is to uncover an individual’s most private and sensitive information. Back in the ‘90s, medical data was aggregated (for research purposes) after being “scrubbed” of personal information such as names, addresses and social security numbers. Unfortunately, it has been proven that “87 percent of all Americans could be uniquely identified using only three bits of information: ZIP Code, birth date and sex” (Nate Anderson, 9-08-09).

When asked, seven in ten (72%) of adults expressed concern involving the use (and potential misuse) of their online medical records; ranking third among concerns such as identity theft and security of financial transactions.

For seemingly unobjectionable items such as photos or online movie reviews, there is the aforementioned caveat emptor element involved. When it comes to medical records (think diagnoses, prescriptions, family histories, etc.) the potential repercussions are almost indescribable. To be certain, much of the impetus behind making previously private (and in most cases, safeguarded) files more accessible is driven by the notion of patient empowerment. Many people have a legitimate and understandable desire for free and unencumbered access to their own health histories. This inclination is exacerbated by growing opinion that some doctors (and/or hospitals) have a guarded interest in making this information difficult to obtain.

Of course there are also undeniable practical considerations: just as e-books are environmentally friendly and potentially cost-efficient, much of the paper and proverbial red tape is eliminated once files are transferred online. It is then easier to imagine a best case scenario involving increased efficiency and more affordable health care. Or does it?

Obviously there is considerable up-front cost involved that will presumably equate to significant savings down the road, once the paperwork and administration costs are largely eliminated. Yet being compelled to comply with new procedures (overseen by the Health and Human Services Department) may prove onerous to smaller practices. Federal funding is available, which indicates the level of seriousness—and amount of deliberation—this project has already generated. Not surprisingly, widespread consumer acceptance and utilization of this development will require each individual to measure the rewards (easier access to one’s files) versus the risks (a computer glitch that with one errant keystroke could publish highly personal information). If people don’t (yet) take their Internet habits seriously enough, almost everyone has vested interest in their health. As such, public sentiment on this matter will be measured slowly over the next several years.

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Selling The Stories Of Our Lives: Technology and Privacy (Part One)

*Recent events reminded me that the issues of privacy are not recent. Indeed, the notion of “other people” knowing what you are doing at all times was very much a 20th Century concern, albeit a mostly analog one. Certainly the advent of the Internet and sites like Facebook have made “big data” a complicated issue: we tend to embrace innovation when it suits us and resist –or fear– it when we see potential threats. It obliges questions like, what is Big Data and how is it used? Is it mostly good or entirely bad? What, for that matter, is privacy as it relates to our personal lives in the new millennium? I grappled with some of these issues in a piece written almost three years ago, which proves on one hand that these concerns are practically antiquated, in Internet terms, and also that they were, and are, always developing. One thing is certain: the intersection between the private and the public when it comes to data collection is never simple and at best is always uneasy. More on this topic to come. For now, here is the large piece, in three parts, that I spent the summer of 2010 puzzling over.

***

In a recent issue of Esquire there is a humorous feature entitled “Help Us Serve You Better!” which imagines a series of correspondence from various companies. The consumer to which these missives are directed is offered, in not very subtle terms, a variety of “helpful” suggestions. For instance, he is reminded of the items he searched for before choosing the sale item (cheapskate!), he is pressured into upgrading the bouquet of flowers he sent his mother, he is “thanked” for buying a pair of shoes that had languished for months in the warehouse (fashion faux pas!), and then he is sardonically asked about the success of his “business trip” in Thailand. Finally, one site suggests some self-improvement books to ameliorate his work and relationship issues.

While this scenario is amusingly over-the-top, and of course could never play out as depicted, many people might be surprised—and mortified—to discover how much information regarding their personal lives is readily available, and how easy it is to draw accurate (and potentially embarrassing) conclusions based on relatively minimal amounts of data.

The concept of privacy and technology is nothing if not complicated, intriguing and, importantly, ever-changing. As is always the case, before we can predict with any hope of accuracy what the future will look like, we need to adequately understand both the present and the past. It is also imperative to recognize, or accept, that technology is never a static phenomenon; by the time we grapple with one aspect of a particular product or progression, it has already mutated, improved or become something else altogether.

This is not to suggest that one can’t hope to become familiar with the processes and behind-the-scenes methodologies that transform ideas into innovations. Indeed, whether we are talking about home audio, portable video or eReaders, most of these products have discernible histories that illustrate how they evolved. Speaking of the Internet (in general) and concepts like cookies, aggregated information, behavioral targeting and data exchange (in particular) is, understandably, more problematic. A recent study in this series closely examined specific elements of this technology story (“The Future Has Already Arrived: The Localization of the Internet”, 5 Technology Trends to Watch 2008).

Most of us are reasonably familiar with the technologies—or at least their existence—that sites utilize to store and share the data we provide. Cookies, for instance, refer to text files websites store on your PC: they are used for such commonplace, and innocuous tasks as automatically recalling passwords and auto-populating previously sent information (a shipping address or friend’s e-mail address). Cookies are also used for more sophisticated purposes, such as compiling data based on where we go and what we do (each day; over time) on the Internet. The concept of cookies, and the ways in which they have been utilized, informs any discussion about Internet privacy. Before we contemplate the implications of tomorrow’s experience, let’s briefly take stock of how far—and fast—we’ve arrived where we are today.

THE FACEBOOK PHENOMENON

Anyone who has spent any time on a social networking site likely has personal experience with a 21st Century dilemma we’ll call “poster’s remorse”. This is a subtle but potentially catastrophic derivation of what is commonly referred to as buyer’s remorse. Poster’s remorse involves the ill-advised, mistaken or accidental disclosure of information and its aftermath. This information, sent innocently, unknowingly or while in an impaired state, with one click of the mouse becomes public knowledge. Examples range from the relatively harmless to the profound and permanent. The former might involve the inadvertent announcement (or uploaded pictorial evidence) of one’s whereabouts: for instance, being at one friend’s party and not out of town—the excuse used to get out of the other friend’s party. The latter could include a Facebook update, or picture, sent in retaliation (divorce lawyers are now happily incorporating these types of disclosures into their cases). Finally, there are the sorts of indicting evidence that an employer can see, situations that tend to end badly.

An important distinction here is that all of the above examples typify shared information (however unfortunate or regrettable) that the individual involved is aware of. What about the ease with which we can—unknowingly, maliciously or even with genuinely good intentions—share information about someone else? A twitter update, or a re-tweet the person may have intended (however naively!) for a limited audience, or the old-fashioned forwarded e-mail are all exemplify ways we have less control than we might prefer regarding what the world knows about us. Perhaps the most complicated contemporary dilemma is the ability of relatives, friends and even (or especially) mere acquaintances to post and tag photos on Facebook.

Lest this sound straightforward or even simple, the implications are actually deep and ever-expanding. It is, for instance, now common practice for HR departments to compile what amounts to a personal dossier of any given applicant’s online history. This would include anything from the obvious social networking posts to the type of interaction many would assume is safe or anonymous, such as blog posts or participation in discussion groups or forums. Even the more savvy Internet users who actively control and limit the people who can “see” them may find that their very lack of transparency arouses suspicion. It can become a Catch-22 revolving around the inference that if you’ve done nothing “wrong” you have nothing to hide. A blocked or inaccessible identity might, in some eyes, be as provocative as having shared too much information.

We already have had widespread disenchantment regarding Facebook’s less than transparent privacy policies, and the site’s increasing popularity will be the front line of this debate—in its myriad facets—for the foreseeable future. Indeed, as this piece was being written a fresh controversy erupted concerning “Facebook Places”—the new geo-location feature (similar to the incredibly successful foursquare, which enables people to “check in” from any location). Ostensibly these services are opt-in and self-serve, but consistent with the less savory implications of photo-tagging, people may find their whereabouts being broadcast to unwanted parties (think everything from potential burglars to stalkers). Because of the remarkable influence of these services, it seems likely that only eventual hassles ending with legal consequences will inspire concerted efforts to educate and even regulate their use, especially for minors.

Once we begin to acknowledge the ways our activity (and the activity of those in our close and extended networks) can have far-reaching and unintended effects, the whole notion of what we do online becomes more intricate, and serious. Then when we consider the fact that our personal data is being tracked and sold, the situation becomes more than a little problematical.

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Technology and Entertainment: The Evolution of Audio, Part Four

Build It and They Will Come

If it is true that history tends to be written by the winners, it is also a fact that the most successful ideas, in hindsight, seem logical.

Pocket-sized devices that store entire record collections, portable PCs that can perform in practically any location, and designer headphones that cost as much as—or more than—small TVs all would no longer be depicted as visionary so much as inevitable creations. Predictably, with these products securely established in the marketplace the question arises: What’s next?

Not so fast. Certainly, forward-thinking minds are undoubtedly designing new devices that we may well consider essential five years from now. On the other hand, that is—and always has been—the essential component of progress we associate with the CE industry. Perhaps the more important proposition, for today, is how much presently-untapped potential still exists. For the foreseeable future, companies can, and should, take full advantage of the incredible window of opportunity surrounding the audio sector. Put simply, anything associated with a tablet or smartphone has the attention of a possibly unprecedented audience.

“You figure out a way to connect yourself to these products,” says Al Baron, who has been a Product Line Manager for the majority of his 25 year tenure at Polk Audio. Having been intimately involved with the audio space for so long, one might assume Baron retains a fondness for a simpler time when audio ruled. This is not the case (which speaks volumes about why Polk remains very relevant in a category that has undergone so many changes). “There is a larger demographic than ever prepared to spend money on audio-related products.”

Obviously a company like Polk is well-positioned, having built up credibility over a long period of time. Nevertheless, the rules of engagement have changed, a development that is not lost on Baron. “Whatever you design and develop today has to be aesthetically compelling and attractive—as well as functional.” Understanding the cultural elements informing that high-end headphones explosion has proven an invaluable blueprint. As such, Polk has a revamped design center where considerable attention is being given to detail and style. There is undeniably a fashion-related aspect involved with appealing to today’s consumer that was not nearly as pronounced or definable a short time ago. “More people shop with their eyes as much as their ears,” Baron suggests. “To even be considered you must pass a certain muster that is, in many ways, higher than it’s ever been.”

Baron’s impressions are consistent with those of another industry veteran, Petro Shimonishi, who manages Denon’s headphones line, and has immersed herself in the audio sector from both a product and marketing persepective. “It’s all about integration,” she claims. “Headphones, for instance, need to cater to the types of solutions consumers are seeking.” An example she gives is the Denon Sport App, which enables the user to track their workouts, computing metrics—in short, doing things that used to be possible only on computers.

“Consumers expect devices to be smarter and smarter these days,” she says. Echoing Al Baron’s observation, she suggests that naturally products need to look appealing, but the more accessible and functional they are, the better. The key term is lifestyle: products that can seamlessly incorporate a consumer lifestyle will be more compelling. In today’s market, that might mean—unlike what we’ve seen with displays or even last generation’s home audio products—smaller is better. “Today’s receivers have better performance, but the form factors are also evolving. Design has a huge impact here.” This insight reaffirms the primary trend in contemporary CE: modern consumers put a priority on products that are both connected and portable.

This trend is unlikely to change anytime soon. CEA recently found that 39 percent of the Internet population listened to online streaming content in the last 12 months and 42 percent listened to MP3 files. Internet radio has become more of a destination than an alternative. Once again, this content—all kinds of it—is prevalent and easier than ever to access. The onus, then, is on manufacturers (including software companies) to continue creating, and refining, products consumers will use to enjoy this entertainment. Just as it has arguably never been a more encouraging time to be a content receiver, it is likewise an advantageous time to be in the position of designing and/or delivering content.

Innovation coupled with the freedom of choice has always been the lifeblood of the CE industry. The chief beneficiary of these advancements has been the consumer. Hardware manufacturers continue to bolster their products and services, progressive business models are thriving in a less constrained environment, and we have every reason to anticipate a dynamic market where performance and agency remain unfettered.

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Technology and Entertainment: The Evolution of Audio, Part Three

(Re)Defining the High-End Audio Experience

For practical purposes, the authentic high-end audio tag applied to products that sold for thousands, not hundreds of dollars. As such, it seems safe to suggest that the market for this obsession has typically catered to a wealthier, if passionate minority. The good news is, as we observe time and again, ceaseless innovations in CE result in optimal quality at lower prices.

In a roundabout way, the same device that initially stole audio’s thunder may become a vital battleground for future sales. Even as digital displays get bigger and better (with price points dropping correspondingly) and we eagerly anticipate the advances 4K should deliver, at a certain point sound quality will once again become a coveted feature of the “full” home experience.

“Now is the time for CE manufacturers to make great audio the selling point,” opines Paul Geller, SVP at Grooveshark. “I wish my wonderful new display with a 60Hz refresh rate had better speakers. I like 60Hz, but I needed to get a soundbar!”

Soundbars, initially embraced as a cost-efficient alternative to more expensive, and bulky, surround-sound systems, are now genuine solutions in themselves. Still affordable, there are also a variety of more robust models with higher price points and improved performance. Soundbars offer a less complicated, virtually wireless solution and CEA expects sales to increase year-over-year through 2016.

Another excellent example of technology meeting (or creating) consumer demand is the advent of high-performance receivers that integrate connectivity. We may not be able to wrest the MP3 player or smartphone from a would-be-customer’s hand, but there is now a best-of-both-worlds scenario: a receiver that allows us to “plug and play” at home.  Certainly, the image of anyone listening to digital files through home speakers is anathema to the old-school audiophile, but those consumers were never part of the equation in the first place. These home audio products specialize in being multi-functional, and the implementation of MP3 capability, along with Ethernet and HDMI integration enables a greatly enhanced in-home listening experience. Between improved amplifiers, soundbars and these more robust receiver capabilities, the previously dubious proposition of better audio in the home is now not only feasible, but affordable.

A Case Study: Headphones

If we do not already do so, we will someday regard premium headphones as the category that provided a gateway to higher quality audio—and a salvation of sorts for the entire industry. Anyone who has been paying attention understands that headphones sales are not expected to slacken anytime soon. It is instructive to consider that ten or even five years ago the suggestion that headphones, much less designer headphones, could be profitable with price points in the hundreds of dollars would be dismissed as outlandish. And yet, at least in hindsight, it not only makes sense, it seems inexorable.

People have increasingly plugged into their devices during their commutes, in their cubicles, while they exercise or relax on the couch. There was, quite simply, a market demand for ways to bolster these experiences and headphones met—even exceeded—this desire. It remains remarkable (even if it now feels predictable) that devices being given away for free on airplanes could be transfigured into high(er) end audio solutions as well as fashion accessories.

In fact, the cultural cachet of premium headphones represents a marketing goldmine. It is, for example, all but impossible to see professional athletes entering a stadium without their ever-present headsets. The authoritative case study here, of course, involves the earth-shaking success of Andre “Dr. Dre” Young’s collaboration with Monster Cable. The brand Beats by Dr. Dre became arguably the most successful and high-profile celebrity-endorsed (and, in this case, created) product of the 21st Century.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Dr. Dre should be as flattered as he is wealthy: other headphone brands have hastily been formed, and existing manufacturers have sought luminaries to associate themselves with. Now we have Soul by Ludacris, The House of Marley and Lady Gaga, just to name three of the better known entities competing for share in a seller’s market.

The phenomenal sales can certainly be attributed in part to a very American attraction to icon-driven product placement: seeing athletes and rock stars wearing (not to mention designing or endorsing) headphones anyone can purchase serves as an irresistible enticement. But aside from the social and cultural implications, these products have been advertised, ingeniously, as superior solutions. Not long ago, high-end headphones were catered to audiophiles or frequent travelers in search of the best noise-cancellation options. Dr. Dre’s promise to deliver the type of sound quality producers hear in the studio proved to be marketing catnip. The products were hip, but they also allegedly supplied the type of sound quality never attainable in the past. We now see manufacturers like Skullcandy forging a lifestyle connection catering to the skateboarding and sporting community, which is 180 degrees apart from the old Bose target audience.

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Technology and Entertainment: The Evolution of Audio, Part Two

The Day The Music Died

Back in 2011 Jon Bon Jovi accused Steve Jobs (in Britain’s Sunday Times) of being “personally responsible for killing the music business.”

Unlike his rock and roll compatriots from Metallica, who infamously went on an anti-Napster crusade in 2000, or underground prog-rock avatar Steven Wilson, who loathes digital files on purely aesthetic principles, Bon Jovi was lamenting the halcyon days of vinyl. (He may not have been aware that LP and turntable sales had experienced a resurgence in recent years.) This notion—that the digitization of music has indelibly impacted the medium for the worse—is neither a new nor particularly original proposition. In successive decades it was initially cassettes, then compact discs that, according to self-appointed experts, were certain to devastate the integrity of organic sounds. Peripherally, industry honchos fretted that the ability to record (and later, burn) content would have a deleterious impact on sales. These concerns proved unfounded, to put it mildly.

“Independent of overall industry sales—of which you could point to the disaggregation of the album into individually available songs as having a bigger direct impact than being digital—more music is consumed today than ever before,” according to Jason Herskowitz, co-founder at Tomahawk. “We’ve now moved into an era of the disaggregation of streams, where artists offer different content across promotional platforms like Official.fm and SoundCloud, video platforms like YouTube, and subscription services like Spotify and Deezer. Tomahawk provides fans a single interface into all of their own unique available music sources—along with programming, curation and translation layers across the top of them all.”

Take My Content, Please!

In reality few did, or should have, shed tears for the ways digital files altered the music scene. In fact, downloadable content liberated artists and helped audiences procure more content for less money. This brave new model defied initial fears and expectations and actually enabled savvy artists to accrue potentially greater profits. Online exposure benefits artists, and if this concept was once controversial, it is now conclusive. True, the mechanisms for “stealing” music remain rampant. On the other hand, artists receive invaluable—and heretofore inconceivable—exposure by presenting samples of their work online or at social networking sites. For every pirated album, there are dozens (or thousands, and possibly millions) of eyes and ears that might stumble upon a band’s work on YouTube or Rhapsody.

“Technology has drastically altered the landscape for musicians in the production and distribution of their music. In the past it required hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment in studio time and the shipping and stocking of plastic discs all around the world,” Herskowitz says. “Now it only requires a computer, an Internet connection and some spare time.”

Technology and innovation have undoubtedly bestowed unique blessings on musicians. Without the marketing incentives inherent in digital content musicians could not create, distribute and control their intellectual property. (This process used to entail considerable investment and kept bands beholden to record labels that did not always have their best interests in mind.)

In sum, we have heard—and likely always will hear—alarmist rhetoric about how some new development signals the death knell for so-called business as usual. Follow the money: anytime new solutions threaten to change the world as we know it, this is invariably a positive development for consumers.

The Democratization of Content

It is not necessary, in the final analysis, to debate whether Steve Jobs killed or saved music. The inescapable fact is that he did as much as any single entity to change how we listen to music. The pay-as-you-go model of iTunes did more to empower—and enrich—musicians as anything the most well-meaning purists could have managed, or imagined. The trajectory from the Wild West chaos of Napster to the more structured system of iTunes took a while to sort itself out, but finally certain mechanisms were set in place. The subsequent popularity of streaming services, like Rhapsody and Pandora, represent another positive advance for consumer, artist and industry. 2012 signals the first year that consumers will spend more money on digital music than CDs and other physical formats (source: Strategy Analytics). The appeal of subscription-based services delivers a diverse quantity of music in an organized and regulated format.

From Napster to MySpace, everything about music – from creation to marketing to distribution – has come almost full circle, albeit in a way that fully embraces the technological advances digitized content enabled. Perhaps the most vivid way to comprehend what is happening in the music space is to consider what has already happened in the print sector.

Not all that long ago blogs were dismissed (often by the very folks now finding themselves caught up in cutbacks at shrinking newspapers), but have developed into a viable – and profitable– alternative to traditional media. The same principle applies to readers of newspapers and magazines: if content can be found online for free, who is going to pay for it? (The reason this content is even available online is because once the balance of power in terms of readership transferred, the mainstream outlets followed the advertising dollars.) Today, writers with popular blogs are making the type of money from advertisers that newspapers and magazines once took for granted. E-readers (and tablets), obviously, represent an entirely new frontier in terms of how we engage with “old school” media. Claiming any one individual is responsible for destroying, or salvaging, the music industry is not unlike suggesting the Internet devastated printed publishing. Certainly, a narrow and short-sighted case could be made, but the reality is that the Internet and all manner of digital content has vastly expanded the options and possibilities.

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