Don’t Say That

Things people say that make me want to punch them in the face:

“I’m a multitasker.”
Generally speaking, nobody can do more than one thing at a time (unless you count walking and chewing gum). You can switch between several individual tasks, but it’s not like you’re doing multiple things simultaneously. Juggling multiple duties is part of the modern condition. Every human is required to do it.

“I can’t describe what I want it but I’ll know it when I see it.”
Skill comes with being able to describe it. Everybody knows what they want when they see it.

“I’m a very visual person.”
Everyone likes pretty pictures better than ugly, nasty words and numbers (especially two-year-old children, incidentally).

“I don’t have ‘math smarts’ but I’m good with art/literature/writing/whatever.”
In other words, “I’m not smart”.

“I’m such a nerd.”
No, you’re not. Real nerds rarely refer to themselves as such, and few possess the obsessive dedication to a craft required to obtain nerd status. Somewhere along the line it became fashionable to be a nerd, so people like to declare themselves nerds as a form of faux self-deprecation. You might be a dork, though.

“See, me? I’m the type of person that….”
Just stop right there. You’re not special. Get over it.

Don’t Say That

Human After All

Science fiction is replete with stories questioning what it means to be human. If it looks like a human and acts like a human, is it human? Artificial lifeforms are perfect vehicles for exploring the human condition. Look no further than Asimov’s The Bicentennial Man or the Star Trek episode, The Measure of a Man, for a thorough examination of the subject.

In the stories, androids struggle to be recognized as people, but in reality it will be humans struggling to withhold that recognition. We already show compassion for machines of every sort, from automobiles to space shuttles. Heck I get sentimental about old computers and clock radios.

Won’t I thank the android that hands me a beer?

Human After All

Vive le Twitter

We all had a good laugh at France’s new law forbidding mention of Twitter or Facebook over the air, ostensibly because doing so promotes corporate interests and serves as “clandestine advertising” for those two companies.

Naturally the internet erupted with scorn. Many observers attributed the new law to some mix of protectionism, Luddism and spite, and they were probably correct. However, there’s another message here that I think is worth considering–Twitter and Facebook are private entities, and to a degree the French regulators are right that mentioning their names over the air is, in fact, advertising, and promotes their interests to the exclusion of other competing services.

The fact that so much of our lives is entrusted to these two private companies seems to be an uncomfortable truth for most people. We prefer to think of Twitter and Facebook as ever-present and eternal, but either company can, if they choose, cease operations at any time and make your digital life vanish. While this extreme is unlikely, less drastic scenarios such as radical changes to functionality, alterations of privacy policies, etc. can and do happen frequently. It’s their world, you’re just playing in it.

Twitter and Facebook are great, but what I really like are the concepts of one-to-many messaging and social networking/online sharing. I’m optimistic that open standards will take root and a federated social web will thrive, though I don’t imagine Twitter and Facebook will wish to accelerate this process.

Vive le Twitter

Never Saw It Comin’

The state of technology and the internet in 2010 turned out a bit different than what I envisioned back in ’90s. Here are a few things I never saw coming:

Apple vs. Amazon
It’s no great surprise to me that the tablet form factor has finally been realized in Apple’s iPad, but I would never have predicted that Amazon (basically just an online bookstore at the time) would enter the hardware game with the Kindle, nor would I have expected Apple to become an influential media company.

Apple vs. Google
When Google came around in the late ’90s they provided a fast, superior alternative to Altavista, the market leader at the time. Did any of us foresee their rapid expansion into cloud computing, their ascension to total dominance in the world of advertising, or their emergence as a top provider of mobile operating systems? I sure didn’t.

Never-Ending Browser Wars
In 1996, Netscape was the only browser that mattered. Internet Explorer arrived, grew in popularity, and eventually became dominant. I guess I always assumed there would be one dominant browser, or at least that web standards would be so ingrained that web pages would render the same on all browsers. Now we have at least five viable browser options, each with their own rendering quirks: Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, Chrome, and Opera, to say nothing of the numerous other Webkit and Mozilla browsers currently available.

Infinite Scroll in Web Pages
This is just one of those things I didn’t anticipate, but I really should have considering it’s been used in desktop applications like Excel and Quicken for a long time.

Facebook Domination
I clearly underestimated people’s desire to publish. Easy website creation tools have existed since the birth of the web, and blogging tools came around shortly after, but neither provided the type of safe, closed system that Facebook offers. Photo sharing tools and private discussion groups existed as well, but they didn’t give you the satisfaction of publishing to an audience. Facebook provided the best of both worlds – the ability to publish without fear of exposure to the public at large.

There are more but I’ll stop here lest I further betray my lack of foresight (obviously I should never try getting into the venture capitalism game). What are some technological or cultural developments that took you by surprise?

Never Saw It Comin’

Internet on Training Wheels

Facebook is popular not because it “connects” people with friends, but because it offers a platform for establishing an internet identity. It gives its users a microphone with which to broadcast their personalities to a safe and forgiving audience. I addressed this aspect of Facebook in a previous diatribe, but at the time I only perceived it as a component of Facebook’s appeal, not the whole of it.

It’s pretty obvious that Facebook is more about narcissism than “sharing” or “connecting”:

– The web has offered innumerable ways to share information since long before Facebook was created. You can have discussions in Google Groups or post photos to Flickr, yet people chose not to use these services in the pre-Facebook era. They didn’t care about sharing until it became an element of a comprehensive online identity.

– Dialogue doesn’t really exist on Facebook. Comment threads rarely go beyond one or two comments before the discussion dies. People don’t want to have conversations on Facebook, they want to say “Look at me!”

– After deleting my Facebook account, certain people (mostly childhood acquaintances) with whom I interacted regularly on the service disappeared from my life. Guess we weren’t really “friends” after all, huh?

I suppose this is why most web savvy people I know don’t use Facebook; they already have online identities in the form of websites, blogs, and other online communities which they’ve been using for years. What does Facebook have to offer them?

Internet on Training Wheels

Out of the Beige

When I began my career in web design, a device like this could be only be found in the world of science fiction. Actually, the iPad, which became available for pre-order this morning, makes Captain Picard’s PADD devices seem clunky and antiquated by comparison.

The iPad’s imminent release, along with the 10th anniversary of NASDAQ’s peak at the height of the dot-com bubble, made me wax a little nostalgic about the “good ol’ days” of the late 90s and early 2000s. The internet was becoming mainstream and computers were gaining wider use. A brand new web design industry was born and I was privileged to be a part of it.

It was a fun era, and while I sometimes miss the adventure of it all, there are a lot of things I’m happy to leave in the past. Here are just a few:

CRT Monitors
These hulking beasts can still be found in many offices and homes, but they are becoming extinct as LCD screens have become more affordable. Moving these things around is real pain in the biceps, and if you stare at them long enough you can almost feel your eyeballs melting.

Floppy Disks
Slow, noisy floppies hold a measly 1.4 megabytes of data. They were basically useless for shuttling large graphic files around, forcing us to use larger capacity ZIP disks (or, god forbid, JAZ disks) because CD writing drives were still pretty pricey.

Until Gmail came along in 2004, unsolicited “spam” email was just something I lived with. When you receive 50-100 spams a day, the “new message” alert loses all meaning. Sure, there were client-side spam filters, but they needed to be “trained” for several months, and they were far from perfect. Gmail’s sophisticated spam filter restored that little bit of glee at receiving a new message in my inbox.

Beige Boxes
For a time I actually enjoyed tinkering with home-built PCs (though I often enlisted the help of my unofficial AV/IT guy, Voidious) but eventually I’d had enough. I remember the exact night, in fact. It was 3:00 in the morning on a very hot summer evening and my machine was in pieces. Sweat dripped from my brow as I struggled to troubleshoot a hard disk issue. Or was it a power supply problem? Either way, I was done with that shit.

Video Plug-Ins
Remember RealPlayer? Before Youtube and Flash video, we needed specific browser plug-ins to watch video onilne. It was slow, buggy, and the picture sucked. Incidentally, I recall my buddy Chuck experimenting with using Flash for video sometime in ’03 or ’04. At the time I thought it was radical and a little crazy. Guess I was wrong. 🙂

There was a time when security holes in browsers and operating systems were so rampant that it was practically inevitable your computer would become infected. Some of this malicious software was so insidious–actually, wait, some of you are still using Windows and Internet Explorer, aren’t you? Ugh, this is awkward. Yeah, nevermind, I guess this one isn’t a thing of the past just yet. 😉

Out of the Beige

Buzzing Into the Future

It’s doubtful that “Buzz”, Google’s newly announced social component of Gmail, will pose any significant threat to Facebook’s dominance. I was nonetheless gleeful at the prospect of a having a viable alternative to the world’s largest “social network”.

My excitement about Buzz correlates precisely to my increasing disillusionment with Facebook. What once seemed like a dynamic social forum is actually just a stream of disconnected, shallow, narcissistic chunks of bullshit from people I sorta know. There is no dialogue on Facebook, only monologue. Like most Facebook users, I only interact with a small percentage of my “friends”, while the majority are more like an audience than a group of people with whom I wish to converse (or who wish to converse with me).

Buzz, by contrast, should consist of people I do wish to engage in conversation, since the friend list is based on my email communications. It supports existing services (such as Picasa and Twitter) without any need for clunky applications and APIs. And best of all, I won’t have to sift through dozens of game results, horoscopes, and notices about people joining cleverly named groups. Incidentally, the people who join these groups will never actually participate in them. They simply join as another means of expressing their individuality.

Facebook offers the promise of socialization, but it is really just a platform for self-expression. It’s like blogging on training wheels. We get to “publish” our thoughts to a safe audience, free from fear of exposure to the entire internet. Unfortunately that safety is derived from the fact that most of your “friends” don’t care about your musings and won’t even read them, much less comment on them. So Facebook fails both as a social network and as a mechanism for public expression.

Now, mockery would not be be an unreasonable response to my complaints about Facebook. Indeed, accusations of hypocrisy would be quite justified. If I’m so dissatisfied with this “social network” then why don’t I just delete my account? Why do I persist with logging in each day, sharing links and photos, and commenting on people’s posts?

I guess the answer is that, like many people, I enjoy socializing online. Sadly, Facebook leaves me feeling hollow. It fails to deliver on the promise of a true social network.

I simply refuse to accept that Facebook is the future of the web. A buggy, walled-in platform can’t be the answer to sharing and socializing on the web. If I want conversation, I’ll use email, chat, Twitter, or hopefully Buzz. If I seek an audience, I’ve got my website and blog.

People may not leave Facebook in droves and flock to Buzz, but if Google’s new foray into social networking lives up to its promise, I certainly will.

Buzzing Into the Future