Current Affairs

  • February 20, 2018
  • I’ve been a user of social media for more than 10 years and I was among the first to write about its potential long before there were social media products. The original research on 5 degrees of separation and the Kevin Bacon game that illustrated the power of social networking fascinated me. I started writing about it and even wrote a paper in about 2002-03 that called for social networking and analytics to become part of the CRM suite. I was a fan of James Surowiecki’s classic, “The Wisdom of Crowds” and thought that was a prescription for settling many tricky research questions. But now nearly 20 years later, I’m dismayed by what social media has become and I find myself calling for its abolition.

    Ok, social media isn’t going anywhere. The freedom of speech embedded in western democracies will ensure that even to the point that social media is eroding the very freedom of discourse that supports it. But that only places more responsibility on each of us to ensure that this class of products is used appropriately and not as a force for good.

    Revelations about Russian social media use to worsen domestic political arguments among Americans and influence political discourse leaves me shaken. But so does the advertising model and profit motive that drives it. They’re really two sides of the same coin. Social media’s primary product is the user and the products do a great job of gathering crowd data and statistically analyzing it to feed recommendations back to advertisers. It is not wrong to say that we are enabling it to help in force-feeding the consumer culture.

    Surely there must be a higher calling for the great technology that we’ve midwifed in the last few decades?

    A tsunami of negative press is evolving about social media and the ways Russian intelligence services subverted it to sway America during the last election cycle and even today. I am not using any weasel words to suggest that Russian intelligence purportedly or ostensibly hacked the election. The election scandal walks like a duck and it quacks and with two sources of verification I’m calling it. For back-up the Mueller team issued a 37-page indictment against 10 people and 3 organizations alleging it.

    Consider a recent New York Times article, “To Stir Discord in 2016, Russians Turned Most Often to Facebook” by Sheera Frenkel and Katie Benner. It says in part,

     In 2014, Russians working for a shadowy firm called the Internet Research Agency started gathering American followers in online groups focused on issues like religion and immigration. Around mid-2015, the Russians began buying digital ads to spread their messages. A year later, they tapped their followers to help organize political rallies across the United States.

    The social media instruments of choice? Facebook and its photo-sharing cousin, Instagram.

    Facebook and Instagram were mentioned 41 times in the 37 page indictment which charged the Russians with “executing  a scheme to subvert the 2016 election and support Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign.”

    Now, Facebook and all the other social networks are not charged with any wrong-doing; they are, at least for now, the unwitting dupes of a sophisticated and well-planned effort. Fine, I get it. My dis-ease with Facebook (and Twitter) was summed up well by Jonathan Albright, research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism who is quoted in the Times article saying,

    “Facebook built incredibly effective tools which let Russia profile citizens here in the U.S. and figure out how to manipulate us,” Mr. Albright said. “Facebook, essentially, gave them everything they needed.”

    If that’s true, and it seems hard to dispute, can social networking tools be unquestioningly used for good ever again? Are they, like fire arms, inherently dangerous and only capable of one use?

    Call me bad names if you wish but as bad as that is, it is the thought that the big social networks like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others as well as Google and Amazon all capture a raft of information about us for the purpose of force feeding us things that advertisers desperately want to sell.

    How effective are their tools and techniques? A separate article, also from the Times, shows a small sample of the online ads that the Russians used during the election that pick at the scabs of our society.

    There’s one designed to fan Southern animosity using a Civil War theme,

    There are also ads that tell African Americans not to bother voting or that suggest that the white government is against them. Another showing a picture of Hillary Clinton with an X across it and the caption “Hillary Clinton is the co-author of Obama’s anti-police and anti-Constitutional propaganda.” It goes on and on.

    You don’t have to like Clinton or Trump to understand that these things erode our democracy because they make it harder to have dialog between opposing parties and without dialog there is no compromise. But by extension, if social media can be successfully used against us in an election, and Facebook admits that such ads reached 150 million Americans during the 2016 election, this stuff can and is being turned against all of us in every day commerce.

    They’re still at it,

    Another article in the Times (Feb 19, 2018) “After Florida School Shooting, Russian ‘Bot’ Army Pounced” by Sheera Frenkel and Daisuke Wakabayashi offered this chilling summary,

    One hour after news broke about the school shooting in Florida last week, Twitter accounts suspected of having links to Russia released hundreds of posts taking up the gun control debate.

    The accounts addressed the news with the speed of a cable news network. Some adopted the hashtag #guncontrolnow. Others used #gunreformnow and #Parklandshooting. Earlier on Wednesday, before the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., many of those accounts had been focused on the investigation by the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

    The bots owners don’t care which side of any debate they take and seem to prefer running both sides to ensure divisive reactions. Karen North, a social media professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism summarized the situation,

    The bots are “going to find any contentious issue, and instead of making it an opportunity for compromise and negotiation, they turn it into an unsolvable issue bubbling with frustration,” said. “It just heightens that frustration and anger.”

    My take

    Mostly I am disappointed that social networking isn’t really living up to what we envisioned. It’s a realization of social networking that each of us, according to the theory, is no more than 5 touches from any other person on the planet and for most connections it’s fewer.

    The practical application of social networking has to do with Dunbar’s Number. Robin Dunbar was a British anthropologist who observed that humans can maintain stable social relationships with about 150 other humans. The number puts a practical limit on all kinds of things that depend on close relationships. For instance a military company is comprised of not more than 150 individuals for reasons of cohesion. The company is the building block of all military units because every member has every other member’s back and they all know it because they have personal relationships.

    In the middle ages, monasticism spread for similar reasons. Civilization was saved in Western Europe because whenever a monastery grew above Dunbar’s number, extra members were sent out to establish another miles away. This happened naturally mind you, not because someone had an algorithm but because organizations just got too big for comfort.

    Social networking today has blown up Dunbar’s number. While I wouldn’t suggest that I can have anything like a relationship with the few thousand poor souls who follow me, I can at least keep them interested by occasionally flicking off a crumb of my existence for their consumption. But it’s pointless and all indications are that it’s harmful for multiple reasons to the body politic.

    So I’ve quit Facebook. Actually, they don’t let you quit, they deactivate your account so that you can come back. I really hope I don’t back slide though. I never got much from facebook and the harm it does to society weighs heavily on me. I’m just one person with an opinion but it would be wonderful if other people did the same.


    Published: 4 weeks ago


    Some of the global leaders attending WEF in Davos.

    The just concluded World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, was a time for world political and business leaders to come together to think bigly. But it would be a mistake to think that a confab of leaders would produce the last word on anything though you can certainly see the outlines of the future from what they all said.

    From another perspective though, Davos, looks like an echo chamber of the bright and the powerful talking about what would be good for them, not necessarily what would be good for the global community. An article  from the conference by Joe Kaeser, president and CEO of Siemens, AG provides a synopsis of the meet-up and its ideas giving a strong and unintentional implication of what could go wrong.

    He begins with a big idea percolating at the conference, the Fourth Industrial Revolution:

    Although we have only seen the beginning, one thing is already clear: the Fourth Industrial Revolution is the greatest transformation human civilization has ever known. As far-reaching as the previous industrial revolutions were, they never set free such enormous transformative power.

    This would be the first time a revolution of this type was telegraphed in advance. Usually they are discovered by historians and other social scientists trying to figure out how we got here. Kaseser implies we know where we’re going and we do but only in a general sense. We need to maintain some respect for randomness as expressed by Ian Malcolm, the character in “Jurassic Park”. Malcolm was always reminding us to consider the unknown unknowns. For him it was living things mutating, for us it’s the free market, mutating. As for great transformations, let’s not forget inventing agriculture and civilization back in the Bronze Age.

    Kaeser’s piece is really a self-serving paean to technology, which his company knows a thing or two about. But it should not be taken as a recipe for future success. He writes,

    If we get the revolution right, digitalization will benefit the nearly 10 billion humans inhabiting our planet in the year 2050. If we get it wrong, societies will be divided into winners and losers, social unrest and anarchy will arise, the glue that holds societies and communities together will disintegrate, and citizens will no longer believe that governments are able to fulfill their purpose of enforcing the rule of law and providing security.

    Acknowledging there will be 10 billion of us on this tiny planet by mid-century is good. But it would be better if he acknowledged that there are more than 60 million people on the run from their countries according to the UN, because they are (mostly) climate refugees. Another 780 million people live on less than $1.90 per day. Provisioning for these, and other, classes of unfortunate people, classes that are likely to grow by 2050, should be something that Siemens and the other engineering and tech companies at Davos will of necessity have a hand in. Absent that the descendants of the politicians in attendance will have some harsh conflicts to settle one way or another.

    Last week the New York Times ran a story that could easily foreshadow a more dystopian world at mid-century. In “Warming, Water Crisis, Then Unrest: How Iran Fits an Alarming Pattern,” Somini Sengupta writes of the devastating affect climate change has on the world community,

    Nigeria. Syria. Somalia. And now Iran.

    In each country, in different ways, a water crisis has triggered some combination of civil unrest, mass migration, insurgency or even full-scale war.

    It traces how declining water resources turn farms to wasteland incapable of producing crops to feed domestic populations. Sengupta writes of Syria,

    Its drought, stretching from 2006 to 2009, prompted a mass migration from country to city and then unemployment among the young. Frustrations built up. And in 2011, street protests broke out, only to be crushed by the government of Bashar al-Assad. It piled on to long-simmering frustrations of Syrians under Mr. Assad’s authoritarian rule. A civil war erupted, reshaping the Middle East.

    The Syrian mess, along with Nigeria, Somalia, and the potentially nuclear tipped Iran, could give very different meaning to Kaeser’s trope “If we get it wrong, societies will be divided into winners and losers, social unrest and anarchy will arise.” By the way, that’s not even all of the bad news. The Times article also offers this,

    The World Resources Institute warned this month [January 2018] of the rise of water stress globally, “with 33 countries projected to face extremely high stress in 2040.”

    You can count China and India in that group right now. Both countries have nukes and they might also have the wherewithal to escape that eventuality but others might not be so lucky.

    My take

    It’s great that Davos turned its attention to the world at mid-century. But it would be greater if they and we didn’t stride around thinking that we have it all figured out. We don’t. The free market and human behavior can assure us of this. The problem of too many people and not enough resources should be top of mind in a gathering like this for if we can’t discuss these hard issues at Davos, where can we discuss them? And if the answer is that we can’t discuss them anywhere then what’s the point of rich people swarming over the Swiss Alps in winter like ants at a picnic?

    Discussing 4IR in mostly technological and economic terms short-changes everybody. It frames a discussion of the future that only extends the current technology paradigm but doesn’t replace it. The paradigm has served us well but the demands of the future include more jobs and more resources to support more people, not automation and commoditization. They are polar opposites.

    But the free market is operating just fine. Next year virtually every carmaker on the planet will begin bringing out electric vehicles in quantity. That is a signal event that will transform the world creating new market demands and reshaping the world. It will help to determine, what we make and how we sell it and where and how we live. That’s a revolution. Davos will catch up but as a fast follower and not as the innovator it fancies itself.


    Published: 2 months ago

    Is Bitcoin just another scam? Why find out the hard way?

    Bitcoin’s end may be forecasted in its recent price run up (I intentionally didn’t say value because it has no intrinsic value). Late last week the digital currency traded above $20,000 for the first time according to an article in the New York Times. That article also noted that the crypto currency started the year below $1,000 and as recently as this October coins could be had at a now very attractive $5,000 each.

    The Times article said the factor driving the new interest is the increasing interest from Wall Street and for good financial reasons,

    At the current cost, the value of all Bitcoin in circulation is about $300 billion. To get a sense of how big that is, all the shares of Goldman Sachs are worth about $90 billion.

    But the only comparison should be with other currencies like the dollar. Bitcoin’s price is tiny compared to the M1 money supply, a measure of dollars in circulation. M1 is hovering near $3.6 trillion according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

    M1 is a good jumping off point because it reminds us that real money is regulated by something other than the marketplace and that regulation is much more transparent. Every major country and currency has its own version of such an index except in Europe where some countries use the Euro but the principle is still the same. In contrast, Bitcoin has Coinbase, a San Francisco company providing brokerage services. We should note that Coinbase’s systems went kaput for an afternoon last week. That’s not exactly something to make you warm and fuzzy.

    But the valuation (ok, I said it) is like blood in the water for Wall Street. Hedge funds and brokerages are lining up to trade in Bitcoin. Said the Times,

    Coinbase now has more account holders than Schwab, and it has struggled to keep up with the growth.

    But more troubling is the looming trouble that Bitcoin could deliver the the financial system,

    The path for large investors has been smoothed by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Chicago Board Options Exchange, which have been racing to roll out Bitcoin futures contracts. Most banks are already signed up with these exchanges and consequently can immediately begin trading the contracts. The options exchange has said it plans to start trading on Sunday [December 10].

    My friends involved in this say that Bitcoin and other crypto currencies provide a measure of freedom from government regulation, which is more conducive to doing business. But all of this freedom only reminds me of the words of Anatole France, an early 20th century poet, novelist and journalist, and Nobel Laureate, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

    I see this run up as potentially destabilizing to the global financial system and quite possibly the black swan that the Trump administration didn’t see coming that produces its first real test. The fall out from the test might turn out to be worse than the crash.




    Published: 3 months ago

    Richard Branson, the business icon and entrepreneur extraordinaire is back on the bookshelves with another autobiography, “Finding My Virginity,” which, um, bookends a shelf of previous autobiographies like, “Like a Virgin,” The Virgin Way,” and “Losing my Virginity.” Branson’s appropriation of virginity was mildly shocking once but in these times, it serves well to describe a man who admittedly knew very little about many of the endeavors he embarked upon but who also proved to be a remarkably quick study on the way to amassing a fortune estimated at $6 billion at one point.

    “You can only lose your virginity once.” he writes in the prologue. “But in every aspect of my life—building businesses, raising my family, embarking upon adventures—I try to do things for the first time every day.” In other words, he is a serial virginity loser, which helps explain his success.

    Branson’s daring, impulsivity and ability to take a hit and keep on functioning have made him a legend, a fortune, and at least once saved his life but as is often true of the great ones it’s the failures that tell much more. For instance, there was a New Yorker article a few years back that described his death defying attempts (yes there was more than one) to circumnavigate the earth in a helium balloon. The first attempts ended in oceans and with introductions to some very nice navy and coast guard types but the attempt that sticks is the one that made it, naturally.

    But there was a more harrowing experience in which Branson and his wife were sailing in the Caribbean with another couple when the boat’s mast broke. They were by Branson’s estimate miles from land and the foursome had to decide whether to stay with the wreck or swim. Branson and his wife didn’t think twice and made a swim for it. The other couple was never heard from again. It could have easily gone the other way, but it didn’t.

    Closer to the present, I started following Branson’s career in earnest about ten years ago when he offered a prize of $25 million of his own money for a method that in prototype could absorb one billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere per year for ten successive years and keep it out. Branson’s thinking was that such a demonstration would likely scale up to a level sufficient to help ease the planet’s problem with carbon pollution. As an owner of airlines he felt some responsibility for finding a solution.

    Naturally, there was news coverage. In my book, “The Age of Sustainability” I quote headlines in the New York Times including, “A Cool $25 Million for a Climate Backup Plan,” in the Science Times section on February 13, 2007, above a story by John Tierney. Referring to global warming at that announcement, Branson said, “Man created the problem, therefore man should solve the problem.”

    No matter that what Branson wanted was a way to un-smoke a cigarette, he compared his Virgin Earth Challenge to the quest to discover a method for determining longitude at sea which was inspired by the 1714 Longitude Act of the British Parliament.

    But four years later another Times story, “Cash Prize for Environmental Help Goes Unawarded,” told a very different tale. Branson and his team had reviewed more than 2,600 challenge submissions and found none of them worthy. What happened in the intervening four years is a lesson in large-scale research, development, international cooperation, invention, and expectation setting. In short, Branson’s discovery that at least some of the solutions required tampering with earth’s natural systems, and violated various international treaties poured cold water on the effort. Then too, many of the solutions simply didn’t work for various reasons. Solving the problem would require international cooperation at the level of nation states, an area where Branson’s expertise was, and still is, virginal.

    Today the Virgin Earth Challenge is in a state of suspended animation, no prize has been awarded but people are definitely working on projects and no one is very concerned. After all, solving the longitude problem took up most of the 18th century and the productive lives of those who chased the dream which culminated when a self-taught clock maker, John Harrison, produced the first true marine chronometer which enabled mariners to compare the time at a home port (later the prime meridian at Greenwich, UK) with the local time derived from celestial observations. After that, a simple calculation could tell you where you were.

    In all of this Branson has played the role of catalyst providing capital but also, and more importantly, vision and encouragement derived from a belief that problems have solutions. In essence this divides the world into two camps engineers who can figure out solutions to problems, and those who dream quixotically of doing the impossible, like repealing the law of gravity. Branson is many things but he is not, contrary to the image, quixotic.




    Published: 4 months ago

    Author Samuel Longhorne Clemens, better known under his pen name, Mark Twain. (AP Photo, File)

    In Letters from the Earth written in 1909, rather late in his life, Mark Twain took the voice of the archangel Satan (before the fall) writing home to his peers Gabriel and Michael about a visit to earth to observe the human condition. Satan’s greatest finding and source of consternation was that humans imagined a heaven devoid of sex. There were plenty of white robes, harps, singing, and what not, but it represented an eternity without sex. Twain’s Satan thought this odd.

    Twain died in 1910 and the book was only published in 1962, long after relatives, who strongly objected that the book would do nothing to embellish Twain’s reputation, were gone from the scene. I stumbled upon Letters as a young man, a halfhearted student of American literature, and have kept it in my mind for all these years. It’s not the heaven and sex that makes the book memorable but the apparent ability of the novelist to, as Scott Fitzgerald once noted, keep two distinct ideas in mind and still be able to think that impressed me.

    Letters and CRM were in my mind over the weekend as a demonstration and counter-demonstration in Charlottesville disintegrated into murder and mayhem. You might think there’s no connection between CRM and the bigotry most Americans denounced whole heartedly the day of the incident (okay, there was one holdout in a high office) but I think there is and not only that but the modern CRM orientation dooms the bigots.

    CRM is all about enhancing the free market and removing barriers so that it can do what it does best, matching buyers and sellers. It’s an unwritten rule in CRM that there should be no barriers and that transparency is king. Vendors who forget this inevitably suffer the slings and arrows of fickle customers. But as long as a vendor keeps in mind that the business serves the customer all can be well. Imagine the opposite, that the vendor controlled the customer. It wasn’t that long ago that such was the case, that information was tightly controlled and doled out by the vendor and its agents on an as needed basis. In some ways, it’s a world that the haters in Charlottesville would like us to return, but we won’t. We can’t.

    The internet changed all that by democratizing information which caused vendors to compete on things other than information control. At first it was ugly as vendors increasingly competed on price, which ultimately drove more than a few out of business. But it also caused many to rethink their business models and how they compete and that directly drove greater adoption and further evolution of CRM.

    In the wake of Charlottesville we’re beginning to see headlines like, “Ridgeville man out of a job following photo next to Charlottesville murder suspect in The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) and from the New York Post, “Family disowns racist outed at Charlottesville rally.”

    The torchlight procession of hate on Friday night made smartphone filming and later identifying the marchers trivial and many similar headlines are circulating. So the tools of the internet, social media and mobile computing, that CRM has made integral have also become integral to the blowback to hate.

    One thing the haters didn’t figure on is that hate requires a great deal of infrastructure and organization as well as labor to support it. Who would build and pay for the infrastructure of their demented dreams and who would man the barricades? Most importantly, who would be left to do the things that make our society strong?

    The history of America is one of occasional flirtations with authoritarianism that fall of their own weight. As time races ahead the romances become briefer as they are more easily consumed by the lightness of democracy (and our increasingly powerful ability to communicate). There might be little we can do to disabuse haters of their hate and in our democracy it’s their right to hold whatever opinions they choose. Satan was here on Saturday but he left early with little to report. As our experience with CRM and recent headlines show, there’s no need to tolerate the vendors of hate and the marketplace of human ideals continues to advance.



    Published: 7 months ago