Category Archives: Twitter

In- Consequence (We) Shall…

Recently, a good friend and I exchanged links to stories about the sinister underbelly of our On Demand culture. And in case you missed it, the iPhone 5 was released to the frenzied fanfare that greets many Apple products nowadays. It is hardly surprising that the former stories seem destined to be emptied from the recycling bins of history permanently, while the latter event was greeted, by some, as a national holiday

By On Demand culture, I mean a lot of things. It’s an amalgamation of the greater interconnectedness that the Internet has allowed, more powerful technology, mobile computing, and globalization. It is a culture in which thousands of users produce millions of by-the-second, 140-character messages on Twitter, creating a living, breathing stream of consciousness for the world. It’s a culture in which 955 million active Facebook users share minute-by-minute details of their social lives. It’s a culture in which Google has made any answer to any question available in seconds. It’s a culture in which an almost unfathomable amount of consumer goods are available on Amazon.com, and elsewhere, ready to ship to your front door in two days. Perhaps most tellingly, it’s a culture in which all of these things are available on a $600 mobile device, just an app and a tap away. The On Demand culture is the sense of immediacy we have about the world around us. Actually, it’s more than that. It is the expectation of immediacy we have about the world and our collective exasperation when that expectation is not met. Louis C. K. does this funny joke about people visibly frustrated by their cell phones not doing a task as fast as the user wants; paraphrasing, the punch line is: “That’s right, it’s only sending information through the air to a satellite thousands of miles in space, and it’s taking five seconds to do that. Stupid cell phone.”

In a world like this, it’s not hard to see how stories like the ones I mentioned at the beginning can be easily forgotten. In fact, the On Demand world is designed precisely so that they are forgotten.  

The first story takes place at a thinly-disguised Amazon mega-warehouse. The reporter goes undercover as a warehouse picker, the person responsible for locating and packing the thousands of products stored in the massive facility, in middle of nowhere America. “Well, it’s a job,” you may think, “and one in America at that.” This much is true. But it’s a job with a temporary staffing agency so that the employee does not receive benefits and the retailer does not have its name associated with the absurdly demanding conditions under which the workers are employed. The employees are paid $11 an hour. It is estimated that, in a day, they walk across 12 miles of pure concrete, bending, reaching, and stretching for items in ways that would give OSHA executives nightmares. They have insane time targets for locating items in this massive expanse of concrete and steel – targets provided by electronic scanners that monitor every move they make. Supervisors threaten that if they don’t meet the targets they will be replaced by one of the hundreds of other people who want the same job. If they are absent in their first week for any reason at all, they are fired immediately. If there are subsequent shortcomings or, for lack of a better word, demerits with respect to their work, the employee accumulates negative points. 6 ½ points and you are terminated without exception. My last Amazon order was an extra-large beach umbrella for $49.98 with free two-day shipping.

The second story also takes place, not coincidentally, in the world of massive, anonymous, industrial boxes – this time filled not with mountains of consumer goods but rather with rows and rows of computer servers. Yes, computer servers, the little boxes that power Internet giants like Facebook and Google and Yahoo. “What’s so wrong with computer servers?” you might ask. Nothing per se. Except there are thousands and thousands of warehouses filled with computer servers – so-called data centers, which sounds so clean! – just sucking energy off the grid to the tune of 30 billion watts of electricity, or the equivalent of the output of 30 nuclear power plants. It is estimated that 90 percent of the energy used by data centers is wasted because companies run their servers at full capacity in the off chance that there is a large increase in traffic to their website. As a further precaution, the companies use backup generators to make sure the sites never go down, even when the power goes out. These generators emit diesel exhaust, causing many data centers to appear on something called the Toxic Air Containment Inventory. Why the need for all this juice? According to the New York Times:

The inefficient use of power is largely driven by a symbiotic relationship between users who demand an instantaneous response to the click of a mouse and companies that put their business at risk if they fail to meet that expectation.

Eight people liked my post today.

My friend and I had a brief conversation about these two stories. I explained that I had never read Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food (it is on my reading list), but I imagine that the book makes a point about consumer decision making with respect to food similar to this: As long as the chicken breast is $1.29/pound at the local supermarket, the consumer doesn’t really care where it came from or how it got there. (Pollan, I am guessing, argues this is a very dangerous phenomenon). My friend suggested that if America were not so large, geographically, there might not be enough anonymous places to hide these activities from the consumer’s view. I thought that was an interesting perspective, and that she was right, except for the places to hide them in China. That’s where this factory, which makes many Apple products, is located. Apple products like, say, the iPhone 5. In a facility described as military-like and authoritarian. Where workers receive no benefits and are forced to work overtime assembling technological marvels for the rest of the world.   

In business school, we occasionally talked about externalities – costs outside of the traditional supply/demand, price/purchase economic models, costs usually born by third-parties. Air pollution is the classic example. It’s a cost associated with buying a car or most manufacturing activity that is not reflected in the price of the good itself. It’s basically a hidden cost. Our On Demand culture has become particularly adept at creating and hiding externalities, things like inhumane working conditions or energy-sucking computer complexes (or, Pollan would say, disgusting industrial food facilities). We don’t really have the time or desire to think about them. 

We don’t like consequences. We hide them away in massive, anonymous, industrial boxes, and we hope no one will notice that they are there.

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On Convergence, Bill Simmons and Twitter

I first heard the word “convergence” 10 years ago. Actually, 10 years is probably my personal form of anchoring bias around even, neat-sounding time frames. It could have been 7 years ago. It could have been 15. There would be a way to pinpoint it – the exact first time I heard the word convergence – by researching the history of consumer technology. I could Google mobile technologies or search the digital archives of Wired to find the exact moment when convergence started becoming completely plausible and stopped sounding completely insane, which is how it sounded when I first heard the word.

Convergence is the concept of separate mediums or forms of telecommunication merging onto the same platform or same device. Today, the novelty of that idea is as interesting as listening to Congress debate raising the debt ceiling. But at the time, at the time I heard convergence described for the first time, it was completely insane, I promise you. Why would I want to watch TV on my computer? My TV was for watching South Park and The Daily Show. My computer was for bloodlusting Ogres… or was it downloading MP3s? There was no way I would want to watch TV on my computer. They were separate things. One was kept in the living room and one in the office. Not only were they separate physically, but I thought about them as separate things, each with its own place and function. In fact, I would say I probably wanted to keep them separate altogether… or so I thought.

You can’t do much of anything today without encountering convergence. Watching TV on your computer is pedestrian. You can surf the Internet on your TV. You can watch TV AND surf the Internet on almost every commercially-available cell phone, excuse me, smartphone. Movies are delivered seamlessly over high-speed cable lines into homes – sometimes before they are even released in theaters (and really, how long will those be around?) – or streamed through video game systems, or even picked up at vending machines in grocery stores? I can’t imagine what “convergence is completely insane” me would have said about movies in grocery stores. WHY would I want movies in a GROCERY store?

If you think about convergence on a grander scale – cosmically speaking, if you will – we have far exceeded even those basic notions of the concept. Facebook is the convergence of the Internet with real-life social interactions. Same with Foursquare. Twitter is the convergence of newspapers (what are those again?), or at least newsgathering, with text-messaging, itself the convergence of instant messaging and cell phones. And Google is the convergence of the Internet with literally everything.

For a while now one of my favorite writers has been Bill Simmons, formerly of ESPN.com, now of the more expositional Grantland.com. I admire his glib sense of humor and sports fan sensibilities as much his self-made career; he started his own website long before the convergence between newspapers and the Internet was inevitable or even probable. I think if someone were to ask Simmons why he has been so successful (and for non-sports fans, he has achieved tremendous success), he would answer because he was among the first to write from the perspective of the sports fan rather than the sports reporter people grew up reading. I’m pretty sure Simmons has said as much in one of his columns or one of his two books. I have a different take though. Simmons has been successful because of convergence. He was smart enough to realize the convergence between sports and pop culture, and savvy enough to capitalize on it long before Emmitt Smith appeared on Dancing With The Stars. He was a part – some part – of the shift from the passive, sit on the couch, watch the game, read the next day’s newspaper sports fan to the active, write about the game, bypass traditional media outlets sports fan. And that has been a huge convergence, not just in sports. Joe Public is no longer a passive receiver of telecommunications; he has become an active broadcaster and participant. That is where we are going – as a society, and in this column.

I recently got the fancy new Droid cellphone from Verizon, complete with 4G data speeds, an AMOLED touch screen, an 8-megapixel camera, 32GB of on-board memory and voice recognition. I say “navigate home” and it does. It’s about 10 times more powerful than any computer “convergence is completely insane” me ever owned or used. I joked to a friend that with all that technology I could practically run a television studio with it. What struck me most about the phone, though, was just how quickly it tracked the digital imprints of my life and embedded them in the device like electronic branding. Within a matter of seconds, my work email, calendar, and contacts, Google email, calendar, and contacts, Facebook friends, newsfeed, and pictures, Foursquare check-ins, and Twitter feeds and hashtags collided in a maelstrom of convergence. Everything was right there, in my hand, a swipe away. Now, even these new technologies, things that themselves were the products of technological convergence, were converging into this universal, all encapsulating, multi-platform message machine. Now these things that I had encountered separately, that I had thought of and learned about separately, were merged into one, inexorable stream of collective consciousness. Did I need my Facebook newsfeed and Foursquare check-ins in the same place? Did I want my Facebook status updates and personal tweets to be the same? Were they not different platforms with different purposes? Shouldn’t they be separate? Or… should they?

I’m a new Twitter user (follow me @cosmicspeaking, thanks), mostly because, for the longest time, I could not discern the difference between tweets and Facebook status updates. The lone exception, as far as I could tell, was that you could follow famous people on Twitter, which I did not care about doing. Or that’s what I thought when I first heard about Twitter. What I’ve discovered, however, is that all my interests are congregated in one place – it’s interest convergence, if you will. I follow my Top Chef/Food Network people, my poker people, my ESPN reporters, my Bill Simmons crew, my Boston-centric gang, my general news sites and my finance/investing prognosticators. I can go to Twitter and within a few moments, more or less, catch up on almost everything that interests me. There is no boundary between transmission and reception (it’s a fluid, ever-changing conversation), no boundary between user (passive) and content-creator (active), no boundary between Joe Public and Tom Hanks. For these reasons, Twitter is the penultimate convergence experience. Millions of its users self-select these worlds of intersecting interests, receiving messages, videos and pictures across mobile and desktop platforms, usually from complete strangers, and sometimes broadcasting the same back. Twitter is the ultimate aggregator, a perfect tool for a world in which convergence is ubiquitous.

As a social phenomenon of some import, Twitter is clearly here to stay in some form. The number of Twitter followers a user has is currently the ultimate form of social currency. The business side of the picture is less clear for Twitter (and Facebook and Foursquare and other convergence-based ideas). How to turn all of those aggregated eyes, aggregated messages, and aggregated content into aggregated dollars is a problem without a perfect solution as of yet. That means the future of convergence is equally unclear. Real social currency? Perhaps. Maybe, it won’t be long until someone actually is broadcasting television from their mobile supercomputer. Whatever happens with convergence from here on out though, it certainly won’t be completely insane. Almost anything seems entirely possible. Ten years ago, I never would have thought that.

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