Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Steve Jobs & the Third Eye

Anyone who questions the value of long form magazine journalism should read Frank Rich's article in the October New York magazine. Rich, who knows as much as anyone about Theatrics, Politics, and the Big Lie, has put his finger on the historical and psychological implications of the so-called class warfare championed by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

He touched on the apparent paradox of OWS participants constructing  memorials for Steve Jobs and even offering a moment of silence. After all, wasn't Jobs one of the 1% monied crowd who hadn't even joined Gates and Buffett in giving something back to the country that made him wealthy.

Understandably, our 24/7 news cycle necessitates more attention to the shadow side of the man within days if not hours of the biography's publication. The narrative goes something like this: sure the man was a genius but aren't Apple products produced in factories in Southern China where health and labor violations are well-known. And don't most of the Apple jobs remain in China? 

Having visited more electronics factories in Southern China than I care to remember, I understand this narrative. But the storyline loses some power when we acknowledge that a lot components for tablets, ereaders and smartphones are manufactured in the same region of China. This doesn't take away the brown cloud of manufacturing gloom that hangs over this region of China. It just deflates the issue, at least for the time being. Digital still has footprints.

Biographer Walter Isaacson suggested on Good Morning America this week that Jobs' life struggle was between the poet and the geek, and this dialectic colored all his decisions whether imagining the iPad or looking for alternatives to treating pancreatic cancer. Technology has come a long way from William Blake's "mind forged manacles," at least outside the factory zone.  

This narrative is not necessarily a linear extension of struggles we find in Tracy Kidder's marvelous book, The Soul of the New Machine, in which Data General attempts to bring microcomputers to market in record time. The battle cry is: "There's so much Goddamn money to be made" although the skunkworks drama foreshadows later Silicon Valley triumphs.  Still, the Dinosaurs seem to be alive and well in any age. The poet, no-so-much.

Now back to the Jobs' paradox. Why did the OWS protestors differentiate between Steve Jobs and the objects of their wrath. Rich refers to Regis McKeena, a Silicon Valley marketing executive, to explain Jobs genius which was "to strip away the excess layers of business, design, and innovation until only the simple elegant reality remains".

Conversely, Wall Street did exactly the opposite piling on layer after layer of business innovation until reality is distorted and obscured. In other words the derivatives market that was the primary reason for the financial collapse.

William Blake spoke of a Three-Fold Vision and seeing with the Third Eye.

Jobs had one.

Friday, October 21, 2011

China & the Culture of Censorship

A Chinese friend who was educated in the states and now teaches American literature and culture in Shanghai, has an interesting take on the current Republican Presidential primary campaign. To paraphase from his email: "It's as if the candidates have created the political equivalent of William Faulker's fictional Yoknapatawpha County where anti-intellectualism and mendacity rule. In China the government tries to build a firewall around our speech. Your candidates seem to use religion and nativism to limit conversation."

I laughed and thanked him for not finding a political equivalent of Faulker's Snopes families in his political observations, though some of the candidates don't seem too far away from dragging their knuckles over a scorched earth of their own making. I reminded my friend that with all our political primitivism we still have the NYT, Gooogle and a Twitter that is free enough to follow aging dictators down rats holes or into sewer pipes.

It is something of a 21st century paradox that China, a country in which censorship is deep, structural, and aided by advanced technology, largely from the West, can continue to outperform America economically and even in some tech areas, including green technology. Countries need a compelling narrative and if we are to believe the Republican candidates, the story line they propose is a muscular, frontier narrative in which citizens should pick themselves up by their bootstraps and excel. In psychological terms this narrative is called an archetype, reflecting a set of values that might be commonly shared. It can be equally true that an archetype, if used as an actual legislative course or a hammer, rather than as an informing principle, might describe the mess in Washington DC or some other apocraphal end game.

China has been very adept at developing its narrative and this deftness was in display during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. I was in China at the time and was impressed the way the government harnessed accoutrements of an earlier dynasty to provide a theme and the remarkable graphics of the opening ceremony. This was public relations at its finest with China reminding its citizens and the world that the country indeed had a history and the horrors of 1948 or so were a mere blip. Even though the Communist Party had done everything in its power to eliminate all vestiges of the past, at times theatrics are in order. But the Central Committee knew this dance and flourish represented a remaking of a culture for political purposes. And it worked.

When the PRC came into being more than sixty years ago the central government gave to each of the thirty-four provinces a newspaper, magazine and radio station with Beijing getting the cream of the crop. While China media has undergone profound changes since that time especially with the impact of a modified capitalism in the media space, the basic tenets of this sixty year old decision are still in place, updated for a nation of 500 million Internet users who just like the rest of the world want their dating sites, their games and their porn.

I have said and my business friends have said at least for the last twenty years that it is culturally, psychologically and economically impossible for China to become a world power if it continues a policy of universal censorship. We were wrong. And if our more recent fantasy was that the Internet and microblogging sites such as the very popular Sina Weibo would be too complex and fast-moving for the authorities to keep up, we are wrong again.

A popular fiction, often encouraged by government officials, is that censorship is in the hands of a senior group of bureaucrats in Beijing who more often than not wait for citizens to report media infractions. Actually, there is some truth to this but the government's first line of defense is self-censorship, an art that is alive and superbly practiced by both domestic and international publishers. This is not to say that Chinese media, especally newspapers have been completely tamed. The government routinely looks the other way when newspapers and magazines, like the first-class Caijing, go after corrupt businessmen and shoddy business practices, though Communist Party malfeasance is out-of-bounds. And the government is becoming adept at using the Internet to its governing advantage. In keeping with the schizophrenic system journalists often go into the adjoining provinces to find misdeeds, a way to avoid upsetting neighbors and benefactors. The central government provides a large enough sandbox for enterprising journalists to play in.

But the real censorship is hidden behind the Great Internet Firewall of China, which is presented in sophisticated layers. According to the Open Net Initiative the first layer of Internet censorship is at the router level that is designed to screen out offensive URLs and keywords. This effort is reinforced by filtering software deployed at the backbone to filter political content. The Human Rights Watch has suggested China goes farther than most repressive countries in that it prevents ISPs, many privately-held and some with foreign investments, from hosting what they consider politically objectionable content. Furthermore, Internet Content Providers, that provide platforms, chat rooms and the like for text and video sharing must get a license to operate and are held liable for web site material. As Google found out, this is very serious business in China.

China has about 100,000 Internet "cafes" that provide its growing community of Netizens an access point. I've heard there are more than 70,000 Internet police that keep an eye on the local proceedings. This is the order of the day rather than an exception. Austin Ramzy blogging at Time.com's 'Wired Up" earlier this year writes that that Sina Weibo, the microblogging site, "employs up to 700 censors," as well as software that monitors sensitive words.

As Ramzy notes, Sina Weibo still represents an advance in China as social media is by definition dynamic and happening in real time. Furthermore this site seems more technologically advanced than Twitter and the very compactness of the Chinese language allows one to say more than in 140 characters in English. But don't search for Gadhafi or the Arab Spring anytime soon.

Conventional wisdom about censorship in China is that it is a long-term dance with technology pushing forward and the central government pushing back. This is a confortable model and a dialectic that has historical antecedents. So it might well be true. But I wonder.

The West tends to take greater umbrage at censorship than the hundreds of Chinese I have spoken to over the years. Some of this is generational. I've read research that indicates that Chinese high school and college students tend to have little interest in or knowledge of the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989. Of course, if a subject is not part of the curriculumn, it will likely be forgotten by a generation that is tasting the sweets of very impressive economic success. It might be great fun for a foreign journalist to conduct a web search for Falun Gong, Tibetan independence or Noble Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, but from my experience this is not top of mind in China.

As my friend in Shanghai has asked me, "You have open access to the Internet so why do so many Americans refuse to believe in evolution, global warming, and the fact that the first human can be traced to China and not Africa."

When I was with Scientific American  magazine I argued the last point at the Chinese Minstry of Science in Beijing where the Chinese evolution narrative was well-formed. 

But no Chinese Eden. Yet.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Demand Media

I own no Demand Media stock but was nonetheless disappointed, though not surprised, when Business Insider wrote today that the "company's stock has completely collapsed, closing yesterday at $5.60 a share". This slide has been widely attributed to changes in Google's Panda algorithm and internal problems at their eHow site. Presumably the former, rather than the latter, had more to do with this slide.

My publishing background includes about a dozen years editing special-interest magazines at Rodale, including Bicycling, Mountain Bike, Scuba Diving, Organic Gardening and others. I came to believe that special-interest magazines in particular had a powerful bond with readers and a utility and this compact could not be easily replicated. I admit there was some arrogance on my part that often flew in the face of market research and what proved to be excellent advice from the direct marketing and single copy sales folks. And editing a special-interest magazine is not exactly rocket science. It took me too long to realize that a tomato could be an Organic Gardening cover subject month after month without the business collapsing or me losing my bonus.

I have written positively about Demand Media at this blog and at  http://www.magazine.org/, for both strategic and business reasons. I saw the company as a disruptor while acknowleding that it could still be a race to the bottom. I recall presenting Demand executives at a magazine industry event more than a year ago and fondly recall some of the venim displayed. Later I spent an afternoon at their LA offices and received a lesson in how a data and research-driven content company could work. Much as it might make us uneasy, magazines can probably learn from an intense data-rich approach that is almost pathologically reader-centric. This was SEO on steroids.

Of course, every company has a shadow side and contains the seeds of its own destruction. After all, how many useful 500-word articles can one write about screwing in a lightbulb, an exercise that becomes an joke before the word limit is met. I saw logs of some writers who has written more than 5,000 articles for Demand. Somehow that seems more like a lifetime of work and probably feels like it too. We are all in trouble when a point-of-view is lost and we are reduced largely to nouns, verbs and meta-data.  

But I have been struck at how good some of the writing has been and Demand's ability to bring in a crop of impressive freelancers, a task certainly aided by the current business cycle.  Editors of special-interest magazines have long known that their deeply engaged readers can know as much about a subject than the inside editorial team. I think International Data Group computer titles have exploited this reality for a powerful business advantage, monetizing the writings of the experts among them. And this advantage helped IDG move from a print-centric company to a more robust digital media company. In my opinion they have done this as well as anyone.

Demand has been trying to move up the content food chain so they won't be as vulnerable to changes in the Google algorithm and suffer the requisite scorn from the producers of serious content.  I suggested some time ago they move into the health, fitness and medical fields, in particular, as these sectors seem evergreen and attract consumers who tend to pay for content. But whether they can move "uptown" and bring their low-cost content model with them remains to be seen.

I have been reading an interview by Eric Enge with Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google (www.stonetemple.com/search-algorithms-with-google-directors). I think everyone at Demand Media might want to read this as it's a fascinating look at how search is evolving and the technology approaches that are driving it. Enge notes that "Google tests tens of thousands of algorithm changes per year, and make one to two changes every day. Test is layered, starting with a panels of users comparing current and proposed results, perhaps a spin through the usability lab at Google, and finally with a live test with a small subset of actual users." 

Business Insider notes that Demand Media "has begun to focus on creating less and higher-quality content and on trying to develop social and direct distribution to reduce it's dependence on search." In the above interview Director Novig says,"the Google you're using this year is improved quite a bit from the Google of last year, and the Google you're using now is radically different from anything you used ten years ago."   

If there is time, Demand Media is probably smart building a business that is less reliant on the vicissitudes of search.


Friday, October 14, 2011

The Expanding Device/Content Eco-System

It's quite remarkable how much the device landscape has change in the last two years and how important premium content is to the eco-system. Perhaps the Kindle Fire's slogan says it all: "All the content, Ultra-fast web browsing." As John Gruber notes in his daringfireball blog, "It's all about the content." And this is something Motorola, Samsung, and RIM seem to have missed. "They seem to be chasing the iPad on specs, building the best tablet they can manage at the same starting price of around $500. But they have no clear message telling people what you can do with them". (http://daringfireball.net/2011/09/amazons_new_%20kindles?)

I recall introducing to publishing groups in mid-2009 examples of the new devices coming to market. Magazine publishers were already looking over the Kindle's shoulder for color display technology that would be appropriate for their rich media. Plastic Logic (Que) got some attention because it was thin, lightweight, attractive and about the same size of a standard magazine. But publisher did not like to hear that color for this device would be two years out. But this device seemed like progress, nonetheless.

I also brought in Mary Lou Jepsen, CEO of Pixel Qi and formerly CTO of One Laptop Per Child, an organization that focused on getting computers in the hands of student in developing countries.  Dr. Jepsen is all about utility and building on existing technologies.  She spoke of combining existing LCD displays with her transreflective technology that provides the benefit of low-power consumption and sunlight readability; combining an e-paper look with rich color and video. The sample screen she showed the group interested them but didn't have the eye-popping saturated color to win them over. And in less than a year the iPad came to town and profoundly disrupted the device and content space.

The Pixel Qi blog reports that to date three million screens have been shipped with tablet and netbooks for a variety of uses, for soldiers jumping out of planes to educational uses in the developing world. Recently it has been widely reported that Pixel Qi has received investment from 3M and formed partnerships with Shanghai's Shizhu Technology to develop a number of multi-media devices and with the Southern Media Group for content for the China market.

This is a movement upward into premium markets and demographics.

As Apple and Amazon have shown us, it is not enough to have great technology and a ton of content; it's also essential to have a narrative that consumers can identify with.