"digital" entries

New ethics for a new world

The biggest threat that a data-driven world presents is an ethical one.

Since the first of our ancestors chipped stone into weapon, technology has divided us. Seldom more than today, however: a connected, always-on society promises health, wisdom, and efficiency even as it threatens an end to privacy and the rise of prejudice masked as science.

On its surface, a data-driven society is more transparent, and makes better uses of its resources. By connecting human knowledge, and mining it for insights, we can pinpoint problems before they become disasters, warding off disease and shining the harsh light of data on injustice and corruption. Data is making cities smarter, watering the grass roots, and improving the way we teach.

But for every accolade, there’s a cautionary tale. It’s easy to forget that data is merely a tool, and in the wrong hands, that tool can do powerful wrong. Data erodes our privacy. It predicts us, often with unerring accuracy — and treating those predictions as fact is a new, insidious form of prejudice. And it can collect the chaff of our digital lives, harvesting a picture of us we may not want others to know.

The big data movement isn’t just about knowing more things. It’s about a fundamental shift from scarcity to abundance. Most markets are defined by scarcity — the price of diamonds, or oil, or music. But when things become so cheap they’re nearly free, a funny thing happens.

Consider the advent of steam power. Economist Stanley Jevons, in what’s known as Jevons’ Paradox, observed that as the efficiency of steam engines increased, coal consumption went up. That’s not what was supposed to happen. Jevons realized that abundance creates new ways of using something. As steam became cheap, we found new ways of using it, which created demand.

The same thing is happening with data. A report that took a month to run is now just a few taps on a tablet. An unthinkably complex analysis of competitors is now a Google search. And the global distribution of multimedia content that once required a broadcast license is now an upload. Read more…

Comments: 4

The miracle of a thumbnail image from Mars

The Curiosity rover marked its Mars landing with a small photo. Think about all the work that went into that one shot.

Last night, I stayed up late to watch the NASA livestream of the Curiosity rover landing. It seems to have been an unmitigated success: each step of the entry and landing process, even that crazy sky-crane maneuver, was performed flawlessly.

As Travis Beacham put it on Twitter:

Although there were tearful hugs and high-fives and all manner of cheering when “Touchdown!” was called, the wonderment built to a real climax when the first thumbnail image came through. It was small, in black and white, and showed the Martian horizon in the background, with the wheel of the rover in the foreground.

Shortly thereafter, a slightly larger version was displayed: still black and white, but with enough resolution to show dust on the glass. A second one followed a few minutes later, showing the rover’s shadow on the ground. Cue the “pics or it didn’t happen” jokes, as well as the rapid proliferation of Photoshopped spoofs.

Image from the Curiosity rover on Mars
One of the first images from the Curiosity rover.


In our micro-culture of the moment, obsessed with photo sharing and images, this tiny thumbnail still seemed like a miracle (albeit a required one). A picture really is worth a whole lot of words. But have you ever stopped to think about what it takes to plan for that from Mars?

Read more…

Comments: 4
State of the Computer Book Market, part 5: Wrap-Up and Digital

State of the Computer Book Market, part 5: Wrap-Up and Digital

A look at top tech authors, the growth of ebooks and the effect of direct distribution.

The fifth and final post in the 2011 "State of the Computer Book Market" report examines digital content purchase patterns and e-distribution channels.

Comments: 3
Now available: "Breaking the Page" preview edition

Now available: "Breaking the Page" preview edition

The big question: How do we make digital books as satisfying as their print predecessors?

The three chapters in the free preview edition of "Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience" focus on browsing, searching, and navigating.

Comment: 1
Reports of marginalia's demise have been exaggerated

Reports of marginalia's demise have been exaggerated

Digital didn't kill marginalia. In fact, digital could turn it into a revenue source.

As The New York Times bemoans the death of marginalia, forward thinking members of the publishing community have visions of a new digital revenue stream.

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The chaos and the opportunity in Arab publishing

Egyptian publishing is far more chaotic than its Western counterparts. ISBNs are used fleetingly and book rights are a moving target. But that same chaos also breeds opportunity, particularly in the mobile and digital publishing spaces. Ramy Habeeb, director and co-founder of Kotobarabia, sat down with us at TOC 2010 to discuss the current state of Arab publishing as well…

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Amazon's Physical vs. Digital Dissonance

In March of 2008, I wrote about the frustrating experience of trying to get this blog added to Kindle. Fourteen months later, apparently that “rather large ingestion queue” is still full, because the blog never showed up, and I never heard another peep about it. (There is now a self-publishing feature for blogs, but as with their self-publishing book feature (known as DTP), the standard terms of service you must accept to participate aren’t something many commercial publishers will be willing or eager to swallow.)

Comments: 4

Good Company Culture Comes in Small Packages

Small publishers' culture of experimentation-by-necessity gives them a leg up on the large publishing "dinosaurs."

Comments: 8

The Economic Realities of Digital-Only Newspapers

Alan Mutter has an incisive analysis explaining why an all-digital strategy would be unacceptably painful for the majority of established newspapers: Because newspapers on average derive approximately 90% of their sales from print advertising, the only ink-on-paper newspapers that can afford to attempt digital-only publishing are the ones that are irreversibly losing money. Moving to digital publishing is the…

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"None of this is good or bad; it just is"

Lev Grossman takes a pragmatic look at the changing state of authors, readers, and the definition of publishing: Self-publishing has gone from being the last resort of the desperate and talentless to something more like out-of-town tryouts for theater or the farm system in baseball. It's the last ripple of the Web 2.0 vibe finally washing up on publishing's…

Comments: 3