Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Googling Serendipity

Twelve years ago, when I was reporting on the pending Microsoft antitrust case, I learned that what was really at stake wasn't immediately apparent in the legal briefs. It wasn't the browser market (remember Netscape?) or whether Windows should be able to run somebody else's word-processing program. Rather, it was how control was exercised over the places where we learned, created and engaged in critical thought.

One of the best thinkers on the topic was Ben Shneiderman, founding director of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland. He told me at the time that the critical question for Microsoft was not whether the company encouraged innovation -- it did -- but rather how financial pressures dictated which innovations it adopted and which it let wither. The Microsoft software suite, he noted, wasn't very accessible to people with learning disabilities or those with low incomes.

Fast-forward to 2010, and now we hear from Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, another powerful technology company that controls the tools of creativity and expression. Schmidt recently talked to the Wall Street Journal about the potential for applying artificial intelligence to search, suggesting that the search engine of the future would figure out what we meant rather than find what we actually typed.

Schmidt seems to be pushing the idea that the future -- or, more accurately, each of our individual futures, interests and passions -- all can be plotted by algorithm from now until our dying day. The role of serendipity in our lives, he said, "can be calculated now. We can actually produce it electronically."


According to Webster's, serendipity is "the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for." So if the essence of serendipity is chance or fortune or chaos, then by definition, anything that a search engine brings to you, even on spec, isn't serendipitous.

I don't know whether Schmidt's comments should be chalked up to blind ambition or to quant-nerd naivete. But it's troubling that Schmidt seems to discount the role that human nature plays in our everyday lives and, ultimately, in guiding our relationships with technology.

It might be that Schmidt's vision for the search engine of the future would serve us well in finding a new restaurant, movie or book. But if Google really wants to take the guesswork out of our lives, we should be asking the same question that Shneiderman put to Microsoft. How might financial pressures shape Google's "serendipity algorithm"? What content -- journalism and otherwise -- will it push our way that will shape our worldview? And, to Shneiderman's point, what limits does it impose?

I think it's safe to say that some good ideas don't lend themselves to being monetized online -- witness the rise of nonprofit startups in bringing us investigative, public affairs and explanatory journalism. How might they fare in Schmidt's world order?

I caught up with Shneiderman on Monday, and he agreed that this is one of the key questions that should be debated as we depend more and more on a "recommender system" in which companies like Google or Amazon use massive databases to anticipate our needs and wants. Public interest groups and other nonprofits that can't afford the right keywords could be most vulnerable in these systems, Shneiderman said. "How far down the list do the concerns of civic groups get pushed?" he asked.

It's fair to ask companies what considerations and factors might be weighted in their search formulas, Shneiderman said, but it isn't clear what level of transparency should be expected. "What is a reasonable a request to make without exposing their algorithm and their business practices?" he said.

I can't say either. But I do think there are some lessons that Google can take from the history that Microsoft has helped write.

One lesson is that what's good for the bottom line doesn't always jibe with what's best for consumers. A dozen years ago, the Netscape browser was regarded by many as more as more functional, but Microsoft saw it as a threat. So it bundled its own Explorer browser in its operating system and effectively priced Netscape out of existence.

Another lesson is that it isn't always possible to divine what people will want in the future based on a profile of what they (or people like them) have wanted it the past. Indeed, some of the most successful technology companies -- Google included -- have succeeded precisely because their vision for the future was radical, new and compelling. Microsoft once played that role to a monolithic IBM. But today, as Microsoft's market valuation has been eclipsed by that of Apple, it has become debatable whether Microsoft remains a consumer-driven company.

None of this should be interpreted as an anti-capitalistic rant. We're all better off for Google's search box, and it'll be interesting to see where Schmidt's vision takes the company.

Rather, it is a suggestion that even the most elaborate algorithms and high-touch e-marketing can't address every human need.

One of the best vacations I ever took was when I pulled out of my driveway in Raleigh in late August 1991 with no particular destination. Two days later, I found myself in North Dakota, discovering places I never would have appreciated based on my past interests or those of my friends and peers. The experience was so compelling to me precisely because it was serendipitous.

That trip has served as an important reminder to me ever since. When we don't know what we want, sometimes what we really need is to figure it out for ourselves.

Monday, August 16, 2010

NPR's Folkenflik on Texas Tribune

NPR's David Folkenflik checked in on the progress of Texas Tribune in a profile that was aired on Weekend Edition yesterday.

The transcript doesn't quite capture the full experience -- including David's attempt to make the pop-up thought-bubble noise from the Trib's "Stump Interrupted" feature -- but it's a quicker read if you're in a hurry.

Some of the most interesting comments come from the editors of newspapers that now are partnering with Texas Tribune.

"We are picking up their stories and publishing them in the print newspaper because it gives us another well of political content," says Christopher Lopez of the El Paso Times.

Not long ago, no self-respecting newspaper editor would publish statehouse coverage from what would appear to be a competitor. Now, it's standard operating procedure.

My, how attitudes have changed.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

ProPublica's 990: A Closer Look

ProPublica posted its Form 990 report to the IRS on Monday and -- predictably -- the only Google-able coverage, which comes courtesy of New York Fishbowl, zeroes in on the salaries paid to Paul Steiger, the organization's president and editor in chief.

Yes, Steiger made a lot of money -- $571,687 -- but this isn't news: This is essentially the same salary that Steiger made and disclosed the year before. We can argue (again) over whether that's appropriate at a nonprofit -- he probably made lots more than that at the Wall Street Journal -- but it's hard to summon outrage at this late date.

Potentially more interesting was the schedule of contributors included in the filing. Among other things, it shows that the Sandler Foundation, controlled by ProPublica founders Herb and Marion Sandler, kicked in just $4.5 million last year -- far short of the $10 million they had offered to front.

But there's no change in the Sandlers' rolling $10 million-per-year commitment, GM Dick Tofel explained in an email.

"We just came into the year with a lot of cash, requiring less during the year," he wrote. "The Sandlers’ commitment is unchanged."

Other big donors include the Knight Foundation ($985,000), the MacArthur Foundation ($500,000) and board member Mary Graham ($208,000 worth of Washington Post Co. Class B stock).

There's still work to be done filling out ProPublica's donor pyramid, however.

After Graham, the next-biggest contribution came from the Kohlberg Foundation ($50,000), meaning that ProPublica's five biggest donors accounted for 98 percent of the organization's $6.36 million in total revenues.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Rick Edmonds: Newsweek as a Nonprofit

A few days ago, Poynter's Rick Edmonds put up a thoughtful post on the possibility that Newsweek magazine might be converted to a nonprofit by its new owner, 91-year-old Sidney Harman.

He makes a compelling case. Among other things, he cites Harman's interest in Newsweek as a "national treasure" and Harman's close relationship with Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute and a former editor of Time.

My only nit to pick with Rick's argument is that he says "a nonprofit would provide continued subsidies and a commitment to a public service mission."

Public service mission, yes, but subsidies, no.

The state-of-the-art models are all predicated on the notion that foundation money is seed money to build a business that can be sustained by diversified sources of revenue, including events, memberships and other means of revenue generation. Subsidies aren't part of the plan for those thinking long-term.