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Well, something is broken This week TechCrunch columnist Jon Evans wrote a much-discussed column misleadingly titled “Facebook is Broken.” In the column, Evans is careful to point out that many of the societal problems blamed on Facebook (polarization, fake news, etc.) are actually worse among older people who are less likely to use social media. However, Evans points out that Facebook has certainly done nothing to mitigate these problems and that their algorithmic recommendation of content may actually make the problem worse. To take one example: let us imagine you are a fifty year old white male with a vague sense that things used to be better when you were younger. You click on an article on your Facebook feed that seems to confirm that belief. Facebook’s algorithm then kicks in and starts feeding you similar stories. Within a couple months, your entire feed is filled with doom and gloom stories about Sharia law and violent crime. Someone might try to tell you that violent crime is actually down (it is) or that most quality of life measures for working class middle aged white men are actually up (they are), but you’ve been gorging on a steady diet of algorithmically delivered pessimism for months. Is it Facebook’s fault that a person who is naturally inclined towards pessimism seeks out information that confirms their biases? Not particularly. Whether we like it or not there is a marketplace for ideas and people have every right to believe any kind of nonsense they like. Why does this matter? The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan memorably opined: “you have the right to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” While I would dearly love to live in a country with a shared set of facts, I cannot imagine a way to police such a policy. The late 20th Century may go down as a golden age of journalism in which civic-minded news institutions committed themselves to reporting the facts without bias or prejudice (mostly). But nowadays Breitbart can make money by reporting stories that are factually untrue and repeating them ad nauseum. Can you arrest Breitbart for making money off the gullibility of the right wing? Is that democracy? I would appreciate it if Google and Facebook were at least civic minded enough to weigh publications for veracity in their search results and feed. But I am uncomfortable with rhetoric in which we blame technology companies for larger problems in our society. One can hope that there will be some sort of marketplace correction where sources that deliver fake news will be devalued and distrusted. But the cat is out of the bag on lying to the American public. There’s money in telling people what they want to hear. In a nutshell: Don’t blame Facebook for your crazy uncle. Read More Pied Piper, but IRL You are either watching HBO’s Silicon Valley or you are a bad person. Sorry. That’s just how I feel. So (as you good people already know) in this season Richard Hendricks has attempted to pivot his startup Pied Piper again. This time they are working on using his revolutionary compression algorithm to power a new internet using people’s smartphones. The internet right now is mediated by large companies that decide what you see and how much you can access. But our phones (and computers and connected devices) have a huge amount of excess capacity we aren’t using that could be resold to other users. This concept actually exists in technology. It’s called a mesh network. The way the internet and most networks work right now is that you make a request to a server located in some server farm somewhere and the content you requested is routed back to you through your web browser. But, given the amount of computing power sitting idle all around us at any given time, that feels somewhat inefficient. After all, there isn’t much practical difference between a connected device and a web server. In a mesh network, every connected device acts as a relay for every other connected device. Unfortunately, people who have tried to build mesh networks have realized it actually uses up a lot of battery life on people’s phones. There’s also the issue of sending packets through a mesh network. Either you use a routing technique, which uses shortest path bridging to make a quick connection from one user to another. Or you use a flooding technique in which every connected device attempts to share the packet with all of its neighbors, essentially sending multiple redundant packets in the hopes that one will get through. Both methods have their issues. The probably use case for a mesh network is as an addendum to existing cellular or wifi networks. Basically, you can borrow a small amount of connection from other phones when your signal is weak. Why does this matter? It’s a really funny show. But that’s not why mesh networks matter. Mesh networks have appeal because the promise of the internet, which is open access to information is being routinely compromised by a lot of the big players. ISP’s throttle your usage and under-deliver on throughput speeds. Facebook tries to create a walled garden. Google spies on your activity. The information utopia of committed technologists is always being messed up by the profit motive. People trust other people more than they trust large companies and the idea that we could all collaborate to build a shared internet is a nice idea. Unfortunately, (as a recent Wired article points out) other people aren’t always so great either. Imagine you allow people to store encrypted files in your excess computer memory, as the startup Storj allows you to do. Well, there’s no guarantee that what they’re storing isn’t kiddie porn. That’s a sobering thought. In a nutshell: Just watch the show. Start at the beginning. Read More Mary Meeker speaks Every year Mary Meeker of venture capital powerhouse Kleiner Perkins publishes her deck of internet trends. It is a perennial must-read. This year is no different. 355 pages of facts, charts and figures serving as the definitive guide to what’s hot, what’s cooling, and what’s ice-cold in the world of digital. If you have not already read it, I encourage you to do so now. (link below.) If you have, I’d like to focus specifically on the section concerned with interactive gaming as a motherlode of tech innovation. If you are one of those people who dismisses gaming and gamers as a crowd of neckbeards eating Cheetos in their parent’s basements then you are missing a serious opportunity. It is well established at this point that gamers are older, better educated and more globally distributed. Interactive gaming continues to gain share against other entertainment options. And gaming serves as a model for how to challenge and reward users in an interactive relationship. But Meeker is making the point that interactive gaming is actually a way to strive for human excellence through goal setting, collaboration and practice. Why does this matter? It is common to dismiss new technological innovation as “just a toy.” I would completely agree with this statement. Except there is nothing “just” about a toy. For many years interactive gaming has driven a huge amount of technological innovation that belatedly comes to the enterprise. The graphics chips Nvidia created to aid gamers have become the foundation of much of our machine learning innovations. When AR eventually lands on your desk at work, it will be entirely due to innovation in the interactive gaming industry. Ignoring interactive games is a foolish decision for any executive who is serious about tech. You don’t need to play the games (full disclosure: I do not.) But you do need to pay very close attention to what people are doing. In a nutshell: Don’t just skim the online advertising section of Meeker’s presentation and call it a day. Read it all. Especially the part about interactive gaming. Read More

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