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Designing Software, Wings and Your Life

Yahoo’s Tumblr, Google’s Makani and Noah Cross’s Future

by ALREDO LOPEZ

Toward the end of Roman Polanski’s masterpiece “Chinatown” an exchange takes place between “hero” Jake Gittes and the super-rich Noah Cross when Gittes finally realizes that Cross has seized control of Los Angeles’ water supply.

“I just wanna know what you’re worth,” Gittes explains. “More than 10 million?

“Oh my, yes!” Cross says with a laugh.

“Why are you doing it?” Gittes asks incredulously. “How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?”

Cross’s answer: “The future, Mr. Gittes! The future.”

The “buzz” of the moment in tech circles is the purchase, by Internet colossus Yahoo, of a service called “Tumblr”. There’s also a bit of “burr” about Google buying a company that is trying to make wings that generate power.

Both acquisitions left pundits and analysts scratching their heads but, when probed under the surface, these moves give us a glimpse into these corporate giants’ intent and their thinking about our “future”.

The $1.2 billion Tumblr purchase was announced by Yahoo’s Exec Marissa Meyer last week and the reaction from the tech media reflected curiousity and confusion more than anything else. Try as she did through press briefings and public fanfare, Meyer didn’t really answer the question in most analysts’ minds: Why in the world would Yahoo purchase something like Tumblr?

For those unfamiliar with the service — if you think its name is a typo — Tumblr is one of the smaller siblings in the family of prominent “Social Networking” services. Founded by a 26-year-old enterprising and now wealthy techie named David Karp, Tumblr calls itself a “micro-blogging and social networking service”. Essentially, it’s a cross between Facebook and Twitter. People establish a “blog” and post anything they want — text, photos, graphics or videos. Through a “dashboard”, you can repost, link to, comment on or “like” anything anybody else has posted.

It’s dizzyingly busy, colorfully designed and virtually without censorship. Its average user is young — between 18 and 26 — and there are over 108 million blogs and about 50 billion posts on it right now. It’s not as large or age-diverse as Facebook or Twitter but of credible size and, most importantly, very concentrated demographics. The Tumblr experience is not unlike a public park the day after final exams; everybody gathered is capable of real thinking and pround discussion but few are interested in doing that right now. In fact, Tumblr is to a real blog what an erector set is to a construction company. The “blog” is just a space on which to post things under your name. The “dashboard” is nothing more than a few links to interact with others. The culture is quick, short, and irreverent.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that in and of itself. Young people are, after all, young and they have a culture that reflects that time of life and the way our society treats it. In a world where young people are constantly being chased and chastised, a welcoming Internet place for them is a great thing. But a company like Yahoo doesn’t spend $1.3 billion for something because young people need it. It’s got to yield a profit and that’s the issue the tech media can’t figure out.

Groping for some logic, some writers speculated that Tumblr’s fairly loyal user base may give Yahoo some new options [1]. It can link Tumblr to its many services, build advertising revenue and make a stride toward “cornering” a lucrative demographic. Meyer herself stressed these possibilities in her “media conference call” — one of those “invitation only” events executives use to bless certain media as “important”. She explained that, while Yahoo intends to leave Tumblr’s functionality (and its management team) intact, there are lots of “cross-over opportunities” like charging more for a Yahoo ad that’s also displayed on Tumblr.

In polite terms, that’s highly questionable [1]. Although Tumblr is brilliant technologically, it doesn’t come close to making enough to cover the huge investment Yahoo has made; its design doesn’t allow room for much advertising. What’s more, Tumblr users don’t spend much money because, at this life stage (and in these times), they don’t have that much to spend. Finally, although having a Facebook-like offering is good for Yahoo, Tumblr has about 10 percent of the users Facebook has. So Meyer is saying that she intends to cover her purchase by offering advertising from a site that doesn’t have room for it, catering to a demographic that doesn’t spend much money and linking Yahoo’s services to a Social Networking site that is a small compared to the leading sites of that type.

That nonsense led some analysts to question whether Meyer has gobbled too gluttonishly. After all, they reason, Yahoo’s history is littered with remarkably dumb acquisitions [2] whose history is written in red ink. It spent $3.6 billion to purchase Geocities, the first service to let people develop and maintain their own website for free, just as web technology caught up, surpassed and buried it. It made a $5.7 billion investment in Broadcast.com, a start-up on-line radio system that never really started up. The list of goofs is long, expensive and humiliating. It’s one reason why Yahoo hired Meyer and that’s the problem with the suspicions that she goofed. Meyer was hired because she doesn’t.

She definitely has a plan. It may not be one of those plans corporate executives announce to share-holders with very specific goals and carefully measured “outcomes”. Meyer doesn’t think that way. She believes a successful technology company finds a way to lock onto a market and then follows that market through its life, changing technologies being offered and carefully managing its customers’ use of Internet technology.

In short, Marissa Meyer wants to grow old with you, to accompany you on your life journey as your technological companion. It sounds almost New Age in its “touchy-feely” goodwill but Meyer probably gives the quality and depth of your life little thought. She wants your business: every single penny you spend on the Internet and the money paid for the advertising you see there.

The problem is that marketing strategies often have a social impact, a path toward a particular kind of society and Yahoo’s actions represent yet another step along the path of control.

From the moment of our birth, we are involved in the process of developing our culture and that process involves choices. While there are a plethora of definitions of culture, one useful one is that culture comprises the forces that define our relationship and interaction with each other. In that sense, the battle over culture rages from the moment we’re born. We live in a society that urges and pressures us to ignore the power everyone else has over our life. We are urged to believe that ideas can be original, our lives are outcomes of our individual efforts and achievement is the product of our individual abilities and work. None of which is true. All of which alters our understanding of how we live and how we need to live.

In reality, we get our thinking from the rest of the world and, as we process what we’re getting, we give it back. That’s the way we survive and acknowledging that is the “push-back” against social pressures toward individualism. The Internet is the technological embodiment of that process and it demonstrates the untruth in all those “accepted” individualistic perceptions of our lives. Not only does it provide a living example of how collaborative our intelligence is, it teaches us to use that intelligence, to openly show our thinking with confidence that our thinking can be important to others, to become the analysts and intellectuals we have been taught to admire from afar.

But to get to that point, to fully avail ourselves of the Internet’s potential and power, we need to be exposed to it and services like Tumblr train users, through superficial communication and controlled interaction, to limit communications to what occurs in the moment. Its hidden message is that profound communication is still restricted to a few “intellectuals” and, to boot, it’s pretty boring. The very culture of the service reduces self-expression to a series of pictures and paragraph-long statements. The creativity young people may have during their teen and early adult years is literally squished into quick impressions and one-liner comments with fan-like reactions that aren’t much more revealing.

The Internet’s potential, among others, is to show us how strong our thinking can be, how applicable our experiences are to others and how much our lives have in common (both positive and negative) with everyone else on earth. It’s supposed to be an argument for saving the human race.

Tumblr’s picture of the human race is what we can see on the surface in others and ourselves and its design and technology doesn’t really let users go much deeper. It claims to be the most democratic of services; it’s actually a viciously elitist experience allowing most of us only superficial relationships and product consumption. The user that pops out of that experience is tailor-made for introduction to the rest of Yahoo’s services and that’s what Meyer’s Yahoo has in store. Yahoo doesn’t want Tumblr users to do anything more than what they’re doing. Some of us see young people, who are taking over this world, as critical to its survival; Yahoo sees them as slowly growing dollar signs. For a company like Yahoo, truly productive use of the Internet is not only irrelevant, it’s disruptive.

What Yahoo is doing with this purchase is acquiring a kind of “training” program, teaching young people to scale down their use of the Internet and the value it places upon their thinking. It’s a developmental strategy, a shrinking of expectations and its brilliance, in that sense, is dazzling and frightening. Marissa Meyer sees the future and it’s not the one most people reading this want to see.

Meanwhile, Meyer’s former employer, Google, released a bit of startling news this past week [3]. It purchased a company called Makani Power that is building a power generation system based on flapping wings. The wings flap rapidly and, when they reach a certain speed (and height), they begin generating power. The brilliance, and potential, of this technology is astounding because it can bring power generation to private homes, farms, businesses and all kinds of local and personal existence.

The question that pops into any mind: Why is an Internet company, famous for searching the web for just about anything that enters your mind, investing millions of dollars in flapping wings?

The answer can be found in a place called Google (x), a highly secretive research facility [4] occupying two buildings about a half mile from Google’s main campus in Mountainview, California. Its role is to work on technology of all types and that means virtually anything. On occasion, the facility lets us know what it’s working on. We know it’s developing a car that drives itself and, of course, those Google glasses that allow the bespectacled person to see the entire Internet (literally) before his or her very eyes.

But we have no idea what else is being cooked up there because most of the over 100 projects the place is working on are, like the staff and offices, kept under the tightest security.

Few would say that a company as rich as Google should not be working on future technology. It is, after all, a great way to use those spectacular profits being collected through Google’s ever-expanding businesses. What’s more, Google CEO Eric Schmidt has a great interest in alternative power so the acquisition of Makani (in which Google has been investing for a while) makes a lot of sense.

The real question is why do it so secretly and possessively. If you’re going to do research for the future, after all, wouldn’t the right thing be to do your research in an open environment allowing everyone else capable of doing that research to collaborate? That is, after all, how the Internet itself developed.

Over the years, those of us who have publicly voiced suspicions that Google’s intent is to control human communications were often criticized as “paranoid”. Recent developments show that our paranoia was, if anything, restrained. But Google X ups the ante. It appears that Google isn’t satisfied with controlling communications; it wants to control human culture. And “control” is the appropriate word. Why else would it adopt the “top-secret” culture of a spy agency?

“For every person online, there are two who are not,” Google CEO Eric Schmidt tweeted in April [5]. “By the end of the decade, everyone on Earth will be connected.” And who, many of the tweeting responders asked, will do the connecting and control it?

Not to say that Google’s executives want to control culture just for the sake of controlling the future. Again, like Yahoo, they probably don’t think that way. Like Cross, they want to explore the possibilities, seize the most critical technologies (like power-generation), brilliantly expand them and then sell them to us. Or maybe, given Google’s uncomfortably cozy relationship with our government and the role of some its top executives as Obama Administration advisors, they are doing some things under government contract.

One can only speculate about the nature of the rest of Google X’s projects but we know this company is investing huge amounts of money into this research and Google makes investments only when they jibe with a larger set of corporate “goals” that can be summarized in two words: make money.

Google and Yahoo, locked in a battle for your heart, mind and bank account, certainly view their war as a normal competition for business, an ever-present function of capitalism. But such functioning goes beyond that. Corporations aren’t just businesses, they are institutions that try to form our culture, affect our thinking and define our relationships. Google and Yahoo have already limited the average user’s vision of what the Internet is, how we can benefit from it and how it benefits from what we do with it. The purchases made this week reveal those patterns as intentional and aggressive. Corporations, in seeking to control markets, become the custodians and designers of our culture and our future.

For them, the future is a communication limited to outbursts and pithy comments, a data-base that includes all our personal information available to governments who request it or advertisers who pay for it and lives that are, in large part, directed toward consumption.

Noah Cross would be proud.

ALFREDO LOPEZ is a member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent three-time Project Censored Award-winning online alternative newspaper.