Webheads for Africa

This is an aside but today’s market rally (Dow +936) was astounding. I barely made any money though (sadface) because most of the move was on a gap up and I think you would’ve had to be suicidal to buy on Friday to hold over the weekend. To be honest I don’t know what the market will do next. I’m not sure the US has taken any moves to make the system more structurally sound. They’re just trying to recapitalize it.

So recently some web experts (inspired by Tim O’Reilly’s keynote at Web 2.0 New York) have been talking about how the community needs to start designing applications that matter; that is, not beer-drinking or sheep-slinging apps for the iPhone but apps for poor people in Africa.

Any time you hear this kind of stuff, watch out. It’s just either guilt or self-righteousness talking. The idea that some developer in San Francisco is going to make some app that Africans (the poorest of whom have slow data connections, no security, unstable food supplies, little defense against disease, et al will want more AJAX is absurd.

In fact this “help the dark-skinned people” is the same philosophy that’s been pushed in international development for the last few decades. It led to technocrats enforcing strict, paternal structural adjustment programs on countries that just don’t seem to get this whole free market thing. It led to flooding money to leaders who realized they just had to say they were trying to reform while in truth they used the money to keep themselves in power. It led to thinking that persists today that Africa is a backwards place that will never sort itself out.

The truth is that the American web folks should keep doing exactly what they’re doing: working on open standards and protocols and authentication systems that allow us to share data without compromising passwords so that we can ensure data control and privacy. That seems to be the big thing we need to work on, along with moving the tools into business and government. And you know what? That stuff will migrate immediately to African platforms and sites when they need it. What? Do webheads know the first thing about HIV prevention programs and deployment, agricultural productivity, or conflict management?

Right now I’m reading a lot more Africa blogs and it sounds like they’re developing their own culturally relevant tools. Could they use technical help? Sure, we all could. But they’re not sitting around waiting for the web experts to swoop in and bless them with tools that will lift them out of poverty.

So can we drop that canard now? It seems like the World Bank, IMF, and other international agencies have, and look! Things have quickly improved in developing nations worldwide.

[addendum: Tim Berners-Lee recently sensibly announced the World Wide Web Foundation, which I think has a more realistic approach for getting everyone wired and collaborating.]

Optimism

So the G7 is meeting up with Dubya this weekend and so far nothing substantial has been announced. These people are useless. Dubya gets wheeled out to give a clueless speech that inspires no confidence. If anything, it encourages fear. Fear that we have no leadership to help us fix these problems. McCain for his part offers this fucking stupid platitude that Americans are the hardest-working people in the world, EVER. How banal.

Last week’s stock market action was unlike anything I’ve ever seen — relentless selling every day for the last few months. This made 2001 look like a cakewalk.

This in turn caused the web crowd to froth itself into a tizzy talking about the coming Silicon Valley slowdown. Led by Sequoia Capital, the clarion call is for cutting costs, firing employees, reducing burn rate, and trying to extend runway.

I guess my question is: if you’re a start-up, you’re already concerned about bootstrapping every nickel. Why wouldn’t you be relentlessly cutting costs before this crisis even started? Doesn’t this suggest there’s some bloat in the web space right now, a lot of people who are just dragging down companies with salary, ideas that don’t add value to the value chain, etc.?

So isn’t this a good thing?

I tend to be optimistic about this downturn, personally. Then again, I’m a wannabe entrepreneur who is still safe within the confines of grad school. I have less than a year now before I’ll be looking for a job so this will directly impact me.

There’s reason to be optimistic. Check out what Gary Vaynerchuk says about advertising, for example, in this totally awesome video:

“ROI. I am talking about Return on the Investment of your advertising dollar. Traditional media advertising is incredibly expensive and doesn’t provide nearly the rate of return you can derive from intelligent web-based marketing campaigns in 2008 and beyond.”

His point is that those who will be truly hurt by the downturn will be newspaper, magazine, and TV advertisers. Smart advertisers will move more and more towards Google Adsense and online marketing. It’s a lot cheaper and you’ll get a lot more bang for your buck.

The underlying point is that there’s still a lot going on on the internet. There’s projects created by love and collaboration that will continue to grow while the economy reorients itself towards the internet model. The shakeup in the workforce will reorient workers towards better ideas, letting bad ideas die. I still think good ideas will be funded by angels since the startup costs are so low.

Even if the good ideas aren’t profitable, they’ll still thrive through word of mouth and love online. At least in this way, the downturn will resemble 2001’s bubble burst: the internet will continue to evolve.

The good news for me I think is that layoffs might make it easier for me to find coders who want to help me build a reputation management platform for persistent identities. So far I haven’t had much luck.

The only thing I’m really looking for in terms of something negative looking forward is policy or legislative change. In the same way that we need structural changes worldwide to fix the financial system, Congress or the EU or the incoming president (doubtful if it’s Obama since he has a great tech policy lined up) could pass laws that fuck things up for the internet.

Meetings

After experiencing a lot of bureaucracy when I was younger, I promised myself that if I ever ran a company, I would never have meetings.

Now obviously this is unrealistic, but I think it illustrated some awareness of the uselessness of certain types of meetings. There are great meetings: you bring in a group of people who really click together and immediately start crafting a strategy or fixing a large systemic problem. It’s a way to bring together participatory involvement.

And then there are bad meetings: the arbitrary weekly meetings that are held at a bad time (i.e. Monday morning, first thing), don’t get anything done, and mainly recap what different teams have been doing (i.e. this is why we’re behind on our deliverables).

The Army loves meetings whether they are weekly update meetings, morning/afternoon/evening formations, weekly barracks cleaning meetings, chew-your-ass meetings, whatever.

I have a weekly meeting with my fellow Yahoo! fellows, which is quite good because each meeting we end up pushing our methodologies and frameworks further, thanks to the senior fellow who is doing an excellent job. I also meet weekly with my partner on a development consultancy project in which we discuss strategy and reaching the next milestone.

Anyway, this is all beside the point of this post. I’ve found through my recent research that Twitter and Facebook’s News Feed are built perfectly for reducing the our most useless meetings’ impetus: explaining why the project is behind.

These tools promote lifestreaming or passive sharing, where each person gives microupdates on what he’s doing, and other people can tune in to what he’s doing instead of having to waste the time of asking. Certainly conversation is good for catching up, but within a workplace, it may be that you do not know what many other departments outside yours are doing.

With lifestreaming within the organization, you could get “just published” updates on a great report on mobile penetration released from the R&D department, even if you work in the product design department. This information flow promotes internal innovation and knowing what the other hand is doing.

I think what’s coming is the maturation of these tools from something that even my friends scoff at as being completely useless and narcissistic towards something that increases innovation and collaboration and organizational identity.

And that means better-prepared, more interesting meetings. And not the complete lack of meetings that I’d originally envisioned!

Amazon as an Investment

Back in 1999 I bought a lot of AMD on the basis of their developing a chip, popular among overclockers and DIY builders, that would be superior to Intel’s. The market hadn’t picked up on this superior product yet. Later, when the market finally got wise, AMD stock went from something like $10 to $60, before the bubble popped; eventually of course Intel’s superior warchest of resources punished AMD again, and almost a decade later, AMD stock is under $5.

In 2006 I invested my Iraq blood money into Nintendo on the basis of the new Wii being a sleeper hit with gamers. I was right. Its stock went from the low teens to $77, so I made a killing.

After I sold my Nintendo, I looked for another stock to invest in and couldn’t find anything. Apple had already made its run, and Google’s stock had been stagnating for a year.

The IPO market is pretty dry and there’s not really any web companies that are currently private that would be screamers if they IPO’d. I mean, would Facebook be able to justify a high valuation?

That should have been a sign to me that a bull market was taking a break…   I love to study tech and web stuff and I couldn’t find a single stock worth investing in with expectation of a large gain. There are great tech companies of course but they’ve matured to the point where they won’t have screaming stock prices.

The closest contender I can find is Amazon. Even the daytraders right now are not clued in to what Amazon is doing these days. Most think Amazon is just selling books and CDs online still. But they’re doing so much more.

It’s not just the Kindle, which is the first of the gadgets that will end up turning books into nostalgia purchases. It’s also the massive cloud of computers Amazon, using Amazon Web Services, built in order to handle their order processing and database calls so that you get pages of books displayed on your screen.

Now they are letting other companies buy time on their cloud or grid to borrow process time for their own web sites, database queries, and sales. Imagine you have an online retail company: you can use Mechanical Turk to get bored programmers to construct parts of your site for you. You can use Amazon’s database format to save some of your inventory list of stock. You can use Amazon’s front-end order processing system so that people can easily buy your goods.

In other words, Amazon is making money multiple times off the same hardware and software that it runs to manage its own inventory system. They make money off you vacuuming up books and magazines into your Kindle (since it’s so easy for you to acquire new reading through the Kindle now).

And there is a perception gap: most people do not know Amazon is doing this, even though they are by far the leaders in providing cloud services. Most people doubt the Kindle will succeed also, even though the paper book is doomed once e-readers can add more utility like pull out your favorite quotes and publish them online, fully search books on the fly, etc.

An e-reader will be a killer app one day. (but probably as part of a multi-use device)  The Kindle will take off in its next iteration or two, if Amazon can improve the look and versatility of the device (although this potential re-design for Kindle 2.0 isn’t what I was hoping for…).

I’m not naive enough to think Amazon will do well in the current environment. Both weakness in retail (consumer confidence is low and there’s less perception of disposable income) and stock market pressure on tech stocks will drive (and have driven) AMZN down. Here’s a chart:

Costs are also dropping so fast that margins will decrease on sales of media as well as on processor time.

But if I had to bet on any stock out there to be low risk, high reward, I think Amazon is the play. I haven’t bought it yet, for full disclosure.  Given that the market is in danger of crashing, AMZN’s stock could very well get crushed as well.  If macroeconomic factors take precedence, stock price means nothing.  So I’m watching, but wary.

Amazon is one of the nimblest companies out there right now and Jeff Bezos knows how to manage his resources. He’s at the forefront of the companies exploring the future of the Internet.  He has a good architecture in place; certainly we do not know what the future will look like, but the companies with the smartest people and the best tools will be the ones who will recognize it before the rest.

That’s my best bet right now.  What do you think?

Developing Nations and Leapfrogging

In Prof. Nelson’s “What’s Shaping the Internet” class yesterday, one of our colleagues gave a good presentation on broadband in Africa.  We discussed a new backbone cable that will go live soon in Africa as well as the new O3b project to provide satellite service to the other 3 billion global citizens without internet access.

Our Yahoo!/ISD senior fellow, Gaurav, is auditing the class.  He stated that in India, where he’s from, they find mobiles to be the preferred form of access to the internet and to their social networks.  Broadband penetration is extremely low.  Contrast this with the US, where we have grown up with the internet, tethered to it by slow modem, slow DSL, slow cable, all the way up to where we are now.  And now devices like the iPhone and Blackberry are familiarizing us with using the internet on a handheld.  But we think of mobile as an add-on to our hardwired world.

The context and culture in which countries and cultures think and will think about mobile vs. hardline greatly varies.

This made me think about how in Africa, penetration is also low while download costs are still prohibitively expensive.  It will likely be decades before Africa is hardwired, if at all.  Geographic constraints and population dispersion may make it uneconomical.  However, submarine cables will bring in bigger pipes for a continent that has shown itself to be ravenous for collaboration, communication, and awareness of the outside world, while WiMAX-like wireless broadband to the last multimiles.  Have you seen the rise in Africa blogs (see White African, found through Kevin Donovan), the success of mobiles (as a result of lower costs for building cell tower infrastructure than for laying cable), and a more optimistic GDP growth estimate now that Africa is emerging from the IMF’s and WB’s disastrous indentured servitude period?

How will developing nations think about their relationship to the internet?  Americans think of broadband as a Comcast coax that goes into their modem.  Mobile access to the internet is somewhat of a luxury.  What will Africa or India think about hardwired broadband?  Will they understand it in ways significantly different than their relationship with mobile internet?

Will there be more pressure on spectrum policy than there is in the US as a result of more reliance on wireless access?  Will the absence of legacy standards and outmoded ways of thinking help developing nations reach high-speed access faster?  What will the internet look like in Africa?

There is convergence in my studies on tech policy, African economic development, international development program design, and fanatical use of the internet, and I don’t think this is coincidence.

My hunch is that Africa’s cataclysmic decline after independence came as a result of external factors, and that it will surprise the developed world in its future growth.  I also think the conditions are right, along with breakthroughs in participatory and collaborative processes, and a developmental move towards good governance, to encourage a groundswell of a lot of the next century’s ideas and inventions to come out of Africa’s diverse (how many countries are there again, all of them different?), untapped base of knowledge and experience.  Already, success in mobile networking and remittances and payment has come out of Africa.  What will be likely to happen next?  I intend to research all this for a 15-page paper in my African development class.

[Funny that as I wrote this, one of my classmates sent out a message promoting the first event for GAIN, the Georgetown Africa Interest Network.  Contact me for more details about getting in touch with them.]

Am I being optimistic?  Certainly.  Africans and development practitioners have their hands full with various poverty traps and tenuous stability.  Movements in Africa have failed many times.  But some of the larger structural barriers are being mitigated (trade regimes, misguided economic theory from development programs, etc.), allowing for humans’ natural tendency to self-organize to emerge once again.

What Next?

What’s most distressing about this whole financial mess is that very few people seem to understand what’s going on. This of course greatly reduces the quality of the options that we will choose from in order to get out of trouble. As poor choices are implemented and then do not work out as intended, people become even more confused about what’s actually going on.

So when I hear the sentiment that we should let the banks fail, all sorts of red flags go off in my head. Everyone is confused.

One, the banks are not like failed web startups. They weren’t bad ideas with no monetization potential. They actually hold peoples’ money and lend out money for investment. Finance allocates capital for businesses to operate.

Two, there is danger in ascribing punishment onto the market for its “sins” so that it can learn a lesson instead of profiting from gaming morally hazardous opportunities. In my opinion it is a fundamental misunderstanding of capitalism to assume that businesses will be morally responsible. Businesses are required to make as much money as possible. If regulations and laws allow a company to do things that are morally questionable, they will still do those things unless the CEO/board has some belief that certain moral principles actually lead to more profit.

That is to say, the “lessons learned” and avoiding moral hazard are tasks of the government. Laws and regulations should be crafted in such a way so as not to impede business or tempt government interests, but to allow for a fair market. In the financial sector, this is even more important because of the large gains to be made by gaming the system. Past loosening of restrictions allowed for sub-prime mortgage disasters, and now the government is trying to fix it by restricting of short sales and mark-to-market accounting. The sense one gets from these actions is that those making the laws have no understanding of the sector they’re trying to regulate.

Right now we’re on the precipice and it’s unclear to anyone whether we’ll get out of this okay — anyone who says differently must remember acts like Smoot-Hawley (in which govt. fucked up) or the 1987 crash (in which govt. did nothing) as counter-examples to each other.

So what happens next? People are confused: some say that this is the end of radical free-market capitalism. Some say that this is another attempt to grab power from the people and return it to government. While Naomi Klein in “The Shock Doctrine” argues that this fits within the context of Milton Friedman’s desire to prey upon disasters and instability

“Only a crisis, real or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

— in order to implement a completely free market, I recently read an article that argued that socialists operate within the same mentality. So the two opposite ends of the spectrum accuse each other of the same thing.

That is some scary shit. The implication is that certain ideologies are waiting for weakness in order to implement programs that run completely counter to the wishes of a democratic state — that is, the will of the people. If these ideas were valid in the first place, one wouldn’t have to wait until the people are mortally afraid to get them to agree. The ideas could be worked into the political debate normally.

Let me provide a more optimistic take on what happens next.

It is true that Congress is unlikely to have the vision to institute the proper reforms and regulations needed. So money flows will fall into the next scam that will probably affect the poor and the taxpayer.

It is also true that a lot of companies will go out of business due to lack of capital and demand.

Also true is that the common American is not yet pissed off enough that he’s protesting in Washington about the nation’s conditions.

So large change is not likely to take place structurally.

But I do believe Obama getting voted in (which is a lock after this recent mess…sorry Republicans, but you blew it) will provide more stability and maturity to our policies.

I also believe that the internet’s rise is the first glimpse of a new future economic reality, one where barriers to entry in many productive enterprises will approach a cost of zero. Publishing is easy. Financial transaction and data and idea diffusion is almost instantaneous. Information can be duplicated without degradation for near free. Processing power is exponentially growing to the point where complicated tasks will cost near nothing to compute. If we are able to capture solar power efficiently enough, an internet-like upheaval of old economic principles with regards to energy costs will occur.

So the old oligopolies will be forced to change or die. Large record labels can’t exploit musicians and buyers by limiting distribution. Newspapers will have to compete with a fluid sea of small publishers. Oil companies will need to change their face considerably.

At this point, we may be able to see Muhammad Yunus’s desire for the social business, a business whose stated goal is not to make profit for investors, but for reinvestment to solve social problems. Such a business is largely untenable right now, but that’s because the costs and stakes are too high to operate a business.

In this new economy, the internet model will make sense financially. Customers and clients will be able to reward internet-model companies in different ways than they are able to now, because they will be rewarding business goals other than shareholder profit.

Reduce costs enough and people will help others instead of just exploit them since their reputations will become their key metric for income. Traditional businesses of course will continue to be a major force, but for the rest of us, when we’re at work or not at work, we’ll be able to monetize our productivities in other ways beyond just showing up at a desk job every day.

I know this is optimistic and takes a long-term view, but I see the ground being laid quietly for a new infrastructure, as the old companies die out and as people continue to argue about socialism versus radical free markets. Remember 2001-2003? People predicted the end of the internet as a business opportunity after the stocks blew up, and meanwhile it was quietly building upon itself and growing up.

Implications of Amazon's Mechanical Turk

I got this link via Waxy of Waxy.org.  In it, he writes about how he needs to transcribe an interview he recorded onto MP3 files.  He decided to use Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which is a service that lets people post micro-jobs for other people to do in exchange for micropayments.

He set up small jobs for people to transcribe the MP3s for him. He posted them before he went to sleep, and when he woke up, other people had completed his task for him for less than $16.

What are the implications of this system?  Well, so far it is being used by what seem to be spammers, using humans to describe images to beat security systems or to collect data for use in spamming.

But being able to pay others to do menial tasks has precedent — outsourcing to a surplus of labor, this time online.  Obviously it’s as prone to slave/poor labor abuse as gold farming in multiplayer online games is.

But on the positive side, it might allow us to tackle problems more quickly, such as allowing non-programmers to build applications by outsourcing small tasks of writing small code for them.  I know I could use it right now, but I’m not sure what I need yet.

The problem of translating/transcribing videos and audio used to be monetized by translation companies who charged a fortune to do it — now it can be done on the cheap online.  Companies that properly use this service could put a lot of tasks out online and let their employees work on more important things.  One problem of course is that one is limited in the data he can send to Mechanical Turk — he couldn’t let someone else work on his internal databases or phone registry, for example.

So it has its limitations.  But it’s a fluid, transparent system, isn’t it?  Who knows what will come out of it?

It reminds me of a different approach that uses games to get users to voluntarily — and for fun — label and classify photos and words:

I haven’t looked into other speculation about possible applications, but the Wikipedia page should continue to be updated with the more interesting of them.

My Paper on American and Japanese 3G Networks

I wanted to post the paper I wrote for my “political economy of international communications policy” class last semester (Spring, ’08).  The topic of my research was how the build-outs of the networks in the US and Japan along with cultural differences led to the uses of cell phones and bandwidth that we can currently observe.  I then looked forward into the future to see which country might provide a better operating environment for my web service, Galapag.us.

Here is the link (Microsoft Word .doc, no viruses):  http://benturner.com/other/3GComparison.doc

Sharing

A few weeks ago, there was an excellent article in the NYTimes about online ambient awareness.  This article was immediately influential — it was quoted and passed around by a lot of blogs and readers, and I got personal e-mails saying that it reminded them of my Galapag.us project.

An excerpt:

But as the days went by, something changed. Haley discovered that he was beginning to sense the rhythms of his friends’ lives in a way he never had before. When one friend got sick with a virulent fever, he could tell by her Twitter updates when she was getting worse and the instant she finally turned the corner. He could see when friends were heading into hellish days at work or when they’d scored a big success. Even the daily catalog of sandwiches became oddly mesmerizing, a sort of metronomic click that he grew accustomed to seeing pop up in the middle of each day.

This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating. The ambient information becomes like “a type of E.S.P.,” as Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life.

“It’s like I can distantly read everyone’s mind,” Haley went on to say. “I love that. I feel like I’m getting to something raw about my friends. It’s like I’ve got this heads-up display for them.” It can also lead to more real-life contact, because when one member of Haley’s group decides to go out to a bar or see a band and Twitters about his plans, the others see it, and some decide to drop by — ad hoc, self-organizing socializing. And when they do socialize face to face, it feels oddly as if they’ve never actually been apart. They don’t need to ask, “So, what have you been up to?” because they already know. Instead, they’ll begin discussing something that one of the friends Twittered that afternoon, as if picking up a conversation in the middle.

I’ve met a lot of new people since coming to Georgetown, and they’re more wired than many of my friends in the military, who are for the most part still not publically online yet.  Combine this with work commitments and trying to get myself enmeshed in the startup/web2.0/online communities, and I get inundated with a lot of information flows.

This is not to say they’re more important than my friends and my family, but it did get me to start thinking about passive communication.

A lot of people are still not contributing information to the internet.  They write some e-mails, they view some web sites, and that’s about all they have time for.  This is fine, and is to be expected.

But for people like me, I share quite a bit of my life and opinions online and anyone who was even vaguely interested in keeping up with what I do would be able to without really knowing me.  This could potentially be bad, but if you were to total it all out in the long run, it’s probably more beneficial towards me and my reputation (my brand, as it were) to share.

But most of my friends and family do not share.  At least not in a way that is captured easily.  So I am learning how to allow for passive participation but it needs to be reciprocated.

More people need to contribute, even if only a little.  Perhaps this is why Twitter has done so well.  It allows for 140-character updates.  So you don’t feel burdened by writing a lot.  Just a little note to say what you’re up to.

Let’s do this…it makes for sharing what’s on all our minds easier.  You may have great ideas and thoughts, but how will people know about them unless they directly ask you?

“I don’t understand how this stuff works.”  Well, like e-mail and the web, you’ll be using it eventually.  Stop fighting it and learn.  Certainly find what makes the most sense to you, but don’t write it off.  It might be that you’ll end up having to use it at work, so see it as an investment in your communications education.

Said Tim Berners-Lee, father of the web:

Letting your data connect to other people’s data is a bit about letting go in that sense. It is still not about giving to people data which they don’t have a right to. It is about letting it be connected to data from peer sites. It is about letting it be joined to data from other applications.

It is about getting excited about connections, rather than nervous.

And Jan Chipchase, Nokia ethnographer, said:

Whilst sharing music, video, intimate details is both inherently human and mostly positive – we have to recognise that when the default is to share then it creates significant social pressure on those that prefer not to since the question of opting out of adopting a technology becomes one whether to opt out of society. You can see it today with late adopters who are pressured by relatives or their employer’s [sic] into carrying a mobile phone, but the same applies to any mainstream connected technology.

If everyone I knew contributed, it would certainly make my life easier…and I’d be able to keep tabs on what everyone’s doing without being a burden.

And while nothing beats a phonecall or personal visit, those aren’t always realistic options.

Stop being stingy!

Tim O'Reilly on Priorities

Good video from the Web 2.0 conference in NYC. O’Reilly refers back to the divergence between what software developers are working on (silly Facebook apps) and all the major problems in the world which they are NOT addressing.

As a development student with a tech background, I see this first-hand. Hell, that’s why I went into development in the first place, despite my interests in other areas like counter-terrorism and foreign policy. What are we going to do about the bottom billion, or the increasing income gap?

However, I think it would be unrealistic to ask programmers to have much of an impact in Africa or among the most disconnected poor…

Still, worth watching:

http://www.web2expo.blip.tv/#1283514