Protection Racket

On Thursday, Google launches a new service called Contributor that Gigaom bills as “a crowdfunding platform for publishers.” According to Gigaom, the program is “designed to allow web users to pay sites that they visit a monthly fee, and in return see no Google ads when they visit those sites.”

Google still takes a cut of that revenue, so now they get their money either way. In other words, the lack of click throughs become irrelevant. Readers see a thank you message or, possibly, no ads at all.

In what way is this “crowdfunding”? It’s simply a subscription model, only worse. Google are heavily responsible for the web being filled with the cruft of their poorly designed ads. Now publishers have an incentive to fill their pages with more of them, just so users will pay to turn them off.

Think of the reverse-UX behind that for a moment: “We know these ads are annoying, but instead of making them less annoying, we see an opportunity to charge people for ignoring them.” Of course, they’ll get some useful data out of that too.

It’s a protection racket. “Nice webpage you’re reading here, pal. It would be a shame if someone filled it with ads.”

Mapping The Entertainment Ecosystems

Mapping The Entertainment Ecosystems has already been blogged by John Gruber so you have already read it, so this is more for my own reference as anyone else’s.

In case you haven’t already seen it, Mapping The Entertainment Ecosystems of Apple, Microsoft, Google & Amazon maps the entertainment ecosystems – Music, Movies, TV Shows, eBooks and App stores – of Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon across the planet with some nice interaction HTML5 maps.

It makes for interesting reading/viewing. Note how absent Africa is from most of the maps apart from eBooks and Apps and North Africa is pretty much absent from all of them.

(And if you find that interesting, you’ll love Worldmapper – one of my favourite sites to explore data cartographically).

Chrome Experiments

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Josh Nimoy has made a version of his (unpleasantly named) Ball Droppings piece for Google’s Chrome Experiments site. Simple and addictive, you basically draw lines and adjust the dropping rate to set the balls in bouncy, musical motion. The Javascript version doesn’t work in Safari (sigh), but Firefox on the Mac does the job.

The whole Chrome Experiments site is worth poking around – there are some nice interactive toys there. Casey Reas’ Twitch is a fun set of little challenges that move from browser window to browser window:

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Christoph Résigné’s Amiga Workbench Emulator is ridiculous, but very well done too.

Browser Ball is a ball that you can throw around different browser windows. Its author, Mark Mahoney asks, “If I tell you it’s less lame than it sounds, will you give it a shot?” It is, indeed, less lame than it sounds and strangely compelling (though it send my CPU crazy).

There are plenty more of these little experiments with the technology. It will be great to see if Google Chrome is actually any good once it comes to the Mac (I haven’t tried it in BootCamp yet), but many of these experiments work in other browsers.

Exploring these ideas will, no doubt, lead to some interesting applications, but they’re fun in their own right too, so take them in that spirit. The comments say it all:

By Bill the non computer geek on April 01, 2009
Saw the demo. So just what does this do? I see a ball bouncing to different windows……so?

By sam on April 29, 2009
you shouldnt be here

(Thanks to Rachel for the heads up).

How To Get…

It all started with someone just Twittering “Type ‘How to get…’ into Google”.

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Google has a pre-search auto suggestion system already bringing up the most popular search terms. Looks like a lot of teenagers have a lot of questions.

Google SearchWiki

Google have just launched an additional service called SearchWiki for those with a Google account. Basically you get to add notes to search results or move around search rankings. Google will remember them when you search again and you are logged into your account. That is, you won’t see them if you’re not logged in and your changes make no difference to what others see, unless they ask to see what notes other people have made.

It’s an interesting development for search because it will not only mean you can use notes to remember things for later, but also improve Google’s ranking and searching ability. I feel sure that the notes or amount of notes or something similar will eventually feed into Google’s own algorithms. So, not only will people be complaining that Google is making us dumber, but also that we’re making Google smarter.

You can also have a look at how SearchWiki works.

Google isn’t making us dumb, but ‘smart’ is changing

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It started with Asi’s comments on Nicholas Carr’s Is Google Making Us Stupid? article. Forty-five minutes later I had Googled through laterally-related sites, read several blog posts – one or two both considered and longlistened to a lecture and found a book I hadn’t known about but will probably read.

Has any of that made me dumber? No. Does it conform to what we have been taught to consider smart? Probably not. And there’s the problem. Carr is looking through the telescope from the wrong end. It’s not that Google is making us dumb, it’s just that what we used to think of as ‘smart’ probably wasn’t that smart after all.

The main thrust of Carr’s piece is that the web encourages us to skim and is re-wiring our brains so much that we’re unable to read and concentrate deeply anymore. Moreover, this fuelled by Google’s desire to earn click revenue from this kind of behaviour – this was the conspiracy theory aspect that Asi felt was a step too far, whilst he identified with the skimming behaviour.

Carr draws upon the work of developmental psychologist, Maryanne Wolf, to explain that, “Reading is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’s not etched into our genes the way speech is.” Except that speech probably isn’t etched into our genes in that way. According to Steven Pinker and others, the form of language arises from the way with conceive of and perceive the world, not the other way around as Linguistic Determinism would have us believe.

Carr quotes a study from University College London that examined how users use a database of journal articles, e-books and other written material:

“Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it.”

(Carr doesn’t provide a reference, by the way, but you can find a PDF of the report from the British Library and download the full study from UCL).

Underlying all of this is the notion that deep reading of long passages is inherently ‘smarter’ reading than skimming, browsing, clicking and hopping. This goes hand in hand with the idea that retaining information makes us smart. It’s no wonder – the way we are educated places great emphasis on the ability to regurgitate information in exams, but that, as many educators know, tends to encourage surface as opposed to deep learning.

Very crudely, surface learning is about learning facts and ideas uncritically and deep learning is about tying ideas and concepts together and making links between them. Which one of those sounds more like reading online? (In case it’s not obvious to you ‘dumb’ people out there – I’m suggesting it’s the latter.)

As Asi points out, del.icio.us is a kind of repository of stuff that I may never go and read again, as is the “To Read” folder permanently on my desktop. But these are like über notes – rather than my scrawled lines, I have a link to the original material, some of which makes it into my own personal databases.

As is often the case with notes, I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now. The act of saving the article or posting it to del.icio.us helps me remember that it exists at all. Not only that, but it helps me find other links to material I never knew about, which is largely Steven Johnson’s point about serendipitous learning (the ultimate in serendipity has to be StumbleUpon).

Bear in mind that the study Carr quotes was in partnership with the British Library and that studies often ‘find’ what you are looking for in the first place. This part of the report that looks at the truth in the ‘Google Generation’ myths stuck out for me:

They prefer quick information in the form of easily digested chunks, rather than full text

Our verdict: This is a myth. CIBER deep log studies show that, from undergraduates to professors, people exhibit a strong tendency towards shallow, horizontal, `?icking’ behaviour in digital libraries. Power browsing and viewing appear to be the norm for all. The popularity of abstracts among older researchers rather gives the game away. Society is dumbing down.

Hang on. It’s quite a leap to say that ‘power browsing’ means society is dumbing down. Do they really mean that all those students, postgraduates and professors are dumber? It’s not easy to get a professorship or a postgraduate degree (which tend to be the most research intensive). My experience and impression is that it is often much harder than it used to be.

Could it not be that the ‘older researchers’ research differently because that’s simply what they are used to? Or maybe they haven’t ‘smarted up’ yet. The study notes this ‘pre-digital’ memory as being a factor in the different styles.

I think people use Google not just because it’s easier, but it fits the way with think better than most research library databases, which tend to have dreadful interfaces and force researchers to think like a database programmer, not like a person.

The ‘smart’ that the study defines is really about knowing the foibles of these systems; it’s got little to do with actual learning. The study notes this: “young people do not ?nd library-sponsored resources intuitive and therefore prefer to use Google or Yahoo instead”.

The problem isn’t the dumbness of the searchers, it’s the dumbness of the interface. Academic databases are really quite rigid and linear as research tools and they don’t encourage much in the way of joined-up, linked and network thinking.

Knowing how to apply and connect knowledge and information is a much more important (and future-proof) skill than simply knowing the information, but most educational institutions are used to being guardians of knowledge and information, which is why they’re panicking. What we used to think of as smart may not be anymore (and it’s probably why hot-housing your kids doesn’t work).

Ironically, given Carr’s reading of Google through the lens of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s industrial efficiency, it is precisely this Industrial Revolution style of thinking that we’re moving away from. Pat Kane argues the point in The Play Ethic:

“[F]or the culture of industrialism, in which an individual’s submission to routine is what is most valued, a network society is something of a disaster. The industrial mindset is too brittle to cope with the way that networks operate.”

What we are seeing in the transformation of media, advertising and marketing, learning and teaching, and culture in general is that the way we used to measure the value of any of those things no longer works the way it used to. It’s not that those things suddenly have less value or are dumbed down, but that we’re not measuring them fairly or correctly. (For a brilliant treatise on this, see Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good For You.)

Reading a book is a different experience than surfing the web, but you’re in dangerous and murky Andrew Keen territory to make the qualitative judgements Carr comes up with, as Asi notes. Reading a long, linear book is no guarantee that it’s automatically a deeper, more learned experience. (Have these people ever read John Grisham?).

So, I’ve just spent nearly two hours putting together this post – reading lots of material and becoming aware of a great deal more that I’ll look up when I need it, just as Einstein did. I’m reasonably sure he wasn’t that dumb. Am I?

Google and UNEP Map Environmental Change

Deforestation of Rondonia in the Amazon

Google and the United Nations Environmental Programme last week launched an addition to Google Earth called the Atlas of Our Changing Environment, which allows people to view images of environmental change and information overlaid onto the satellite images.

You can access them from the ‘Featured Content’ section of Google Earth, or you can look at the web version.

I find this convergence of interaction/information design and environmental/sustainability issues really interesting because a large part of the problem is making this stuff meaningful and visible to everyday people and hooks into the work we’re trying to do at the Omnium Creative Network. It goes to show that good visual design (and of course the data) can really have an impact.

I’ve known about the scale of deforestation in the Amazon for years, all the stats on football pitch sized patches being destroyed every hour, etc. But it’s not until you see an image like this (and you can get the 1970’s image overlaid too, to compare) that you really appreciate how awful it is. Most of these images from Rondônia are from about 500 miles up too. From the overlay info:

In 1975, the region was still relatively pristine, with much of the forest intact. By 1989, the distinctive fishbone pattern of forest exploitation had appeared and by 2001 had expanded dramatically.

Shocking. As are almost all of the before and after images.

Google Flight Sim

Me flying over South London somewhere...

Okay, so once again I’m so far behind the curve on this one I’ve wrapped around and am in front again (I reckon). Mark Caswell-Daniels’ Goggles – a flight sim using Google Maps is up there on my list of “things I wish I had done” (which is getting rather long these days).

It feeds into my slight obsession with Google Earth/Maps and some kind of God-complex I’m sure.

It’s a portfolio piece for Mark, so go visit his folio and someone give him some work. The bandwidth is costing him a fortune.

(Thanks to Iain at Crackunit for this one.)