Google Maps: Confusing Time & Place

One of the most incredible pieces of software developed in the past few years in Google Street View. The notion that you can use your computer to see what a neighborhood looks like is literally magic. What’s more, you can virtually drive through the neighborhood, experiencing it like a local.

I mean, a person had to drive a car to take that photo, a machine had to stitch all those photos together and it’s now available to you anywhere you can get a decent web connection.

The mind boggles.

What’s even more mind boggling to me is that sometimes your linear trip down the street turns into a trip down memory lane. As you seamlessly slide your “drive” from place to place along the street you suddenly find yourself whisked through time. Drivers change, leaves fall off trees – but more interestingly, sometimes entire cityscapes change.

A building disappears and its replacement reappears or you change an angle and suddenly there’s a construction site.

This happened to me recently looking at New York’s Astor Place.

I wanted to see the new building that’s going to house IBM’s Watson group. Here is it, looking from Astor Place & Lafayette:

Watson BuildingI drove my virtual car across Lafayette so that I could get a closer look:

Missing Building

But wait; what building is that? That yellow building wasn’t there a second ago…

Let’s drive a bit further and look backwards:

Watson Building Under ConstructionTime has shifted yet again and now we see the building under construction.

On the one hand the techie in me thinks there’s nothing interesting here: Google’s servers will update their imagery over time and eventually become consistent.

The romantic in me likes to imagine a scenario where the algorithm occasionally burps and historical images begin to appear when you least expect them. 25 years from now you’re trying to find a place on the map when suddenly a long-vanished building appears only to disappear when you turn the virtual vehicles view.

Or perhaps there’s a new feature that turns Google Maps into a virtual version of Ed Ruscha’s All The Buildings on the Sunset Strip.

He’s been going back every few years to the strip to update the photos but now Google will have done it globally on a regular basis. You’ll literally have a map of all places in the world for regular intervals since 2005.

SIM As A Service

One of the things that interests me in 2014 is whether or not T-Mobile is going to be sold. I work at a company that, among other things, runs a virtual network on top of TMUS’s network-so I’m definitely interested in what might happen.

I keep thinking though, who else might want to buy T-Mobile’s network?

The one dark horse I keep imagining is Amazon (this might be bias induced by the fact that I both live in Seattle and my wife works there-although she’d know nothing of their telecom plans).

Now, why on earth would AMZN buy TMUS?

First thought: Prime.

You could imagine a world where being a Prime customer means that your Kindle Fire comes with unlimited Prime video anywhere in North America. Ditto for Amazon music served up by the cloud. Partner with Facebook for them to make their messenger app free.

Yet another way to get people to pay $79 a year.

Plus it also facilitates the launch of a Kindle phone (which could also include a free amount of minutes/data as part of a Prime membership).

But what about existing T-Mobile customers?

Simple: make them an MVNO. Rather than converting them all to Amazon, sell the T-Mobile brand and customer base to their management team and let them run it.

But Amazon could take it further: offer SIM as a service via AWS.

Amazon could create a new category for data-driven devices that piggyback off its existing infrastructure.

Want to create a network of sensors that measure air quality across your city? No problem, just buy 500 SIMs from AWS and their pay-as-you-consume data service can be added to each unit.

Cost too much? Just call up the console to shut off a couple of units.

And data is free if you pass it inside the AWS cloud.

Amazon could literally open up an entirely new category of services and end up owning the Internet of Things – even though all they set out to do was let people watch video for free.

Let’s see what happens to TMUS.

Things Are Getting Faster

One of the common themes of life today is that it’s getting faster. It’s not that time has actually sped up, rather the rate of change in society has sped up.

This is really happening; it’s not just crotchety old men pining for the days of martini lunches. One way to measure this trend is through technology adoption rates.

This chart from somewhere on the Internet shows how long it took for different technologies to reach the same portion of America’s population:
You don’t have to be a genius to see that it’s getting faster.

If you’re a science fiction fan, the acceleration continues inexorably until it’s infinite and we hit something called The Singularity. Who knows what happens then; perhaps we turn into pure energy (Didn’t realize Powder was a documentary) or we all upload our brains to computers and colonize the stars. Or maybe the rate of change stabilizes and we just end up in a period of constant – but not accelerating – change (I’ll bet on that).

This trend has some unique implications. We see, for instance, that it’s harder to stay successful. How many overnight Internet celebrities have appeared over the past few years? Similarly, the Fortune 500 lost is turning over faster then ever. Glory is increasingly fleeting.

Some more evidence of this:

  • ebooks-a category that basically didn’t exist six years ago-have almost stopped growing. We went from no one having them to saturation in the blink of an eye
  • Apple’s iPad sales are flat; they’re selling tons but the rate’s not accelerating. It may be that everyone who needs a super high end tablet has one-and it only took 3 years

I find this fascinating. You’d think the iPad is a growth hit that you could take to the bank for 10 years; now it looks like some dramatic rework is required. Ditto if you’re Amazon with your Kindles.

What I take away is that we’re in an era where we can’t rest on our laurels and we’ll have to constantly adopt new ideas and learn a lot of new things. In fact, resistance to new ideas (or at least technology) could potentially become a leading indicator of future o failure.

I’ve given up trying to predict what I’ll be doing in five years time and instead focus on learning lots of new things and meeting interesting people. We’ll see where the journey goes.

We Live In The Future

When I was a kid, there was this elusive thing called The Future. It was this beacon visible just over the horizon where things would be different. Technology would bring knowledge and power to the masses. Poverty would disappear. We’d have lots of leisure time. Or maybe the world would collapse into a dystopian nightmare powered by that same technology.

But there was no date when this would arrive. Authors and actors provided the imagery (a lot of white and robots) but there was no ETA or it was so far in the future that it was laughable.

Over the last few years, I’ve come to believe that we’re living in The Future.

I’m writing this blog post on a wireless keyboard that’s communicating with a tablet that’s connected to billions. If I desired, I could reach out to most of those people. I can order a near infinite number of physical goods to my house from any connected place on the planet; and I can get an update on where the good is every step of its journey to me. If I didn’t want to wait, I could order a design instead and print or mill the good myself with only the push of a few buttons. If I hunt around, I can watch or listen to almost any popular music or video ever created.

I can turn the lights of my house on and off from this tablet; ditto for adjusting the temperature. If I wanted, I could connect multiple cameras to watch live what’s happening in my backyard. Or I could use a $200 robot controlled by this tablet to be my camera instead.

I can go to work in a fully electric, zero emission car. I can pull out my phone and, with one tap, summon several different types of cars to my current location and not have to pull out cash or card to pay. Several billionaires are competing to get me into space at an affordable price. I can purchase a kit that lets me build a basic brain-controlled robot. And there’s a revolution in biology underway that could redefine how we think of the living world (think heartier crops that use less water and personalized medicine).

Plus this world isn’t restricted solely to the rich West. The recent rise of Indian and China has brought The Future to literally billions (and done more to alleviate poverty than anything else in history). And they’re building their own version of The Future.

But this blog post isn’t meant to be some hagiography of technology and capitalism. The combination of pollution, inexorable warming and increasing wealth inequality (despite rising absolute standards of living for everyone) means that The Future is not guaranteed to be all unicorns and rainbows. I worry about governments spying on everyone and armed drones are truly terrifying; it’s also not clear what social compact we’ve created by trading entertainment for privacy with large corporations.

In fact, The Future is a lot messier than what was promised by those actors and authors mentioned earlier. Their future was a beacon that shone because it had emerged from a world that did not exist. There was no path from the then-world to that future; it was more like a schism had occurred and a new, shinier, better future had emerged from some void.

But real life doesn’t work like that. We’re surrounded by 500 year old buildings and crappy condos just went up and be antiquated in 25 years. We have wireless broadband but can’t always get the physical kind. Regulations can mean that inventions stop at a an artificially created physical border. The Future emerges from what exists today; it evolves.

The Chinese never actually had a curse that said “may you live in interesting times” but we really do. I, for one, relish it. I love living in The Future even if I don’t fully know what it’s going to bring. In fact, I know that as I write this more of it’s arriving; I just don’t know what it is yet. And I can’t wait to see it.

Everything Old Is New Again: Vol. 47

I was reading an old (1966!) New Yorker interview with Buckminster Fuller when I came across this gem:

…”But, of course, the university itself won’t be anything like what it is now. We’ll get rid of all the teachers who are just holding on to their jobs in order to eat—all the deadwood, which is the biggest problem in a university anyhow. The deadwood will get fellowships to study or work on their own, and TV will come in to take over most of the actual teaching. There will be a large technical staff making documentary movies. The university is going to become a really marvellous industry, with tools like individually selected and articulated two-way TV that will permit any student anywhere in the world to select from a vast stockpile of documentaries on any subject and watch it over his own TV set at home. The individual is going to study mainly at home. And the great teachers won’t have to spend their time delivering the same lectures over and over, because they’ll put them on film. The teachers and scholars will be free to spend their time developing more and more knowledge about man’s whole experience—past, present, and future.”

“But what about the students?” I asked. “How will they react to being cast adrift in a world of impersonal educational machinery? Isn’t part of the answer implied in the recent disorders at modern multiversities such as U.C.L.A.?”

Fuller considered the question. “You know, young people sometimes have an infallible sense about these things,” he said, at last. “In my youth, we used to talk about ‘square shooters.’ Today, when a student calls somebody a ‘square’ he means something entirely different. It doesn’t imply that he’s lost respect for integrity, or anything like that. A ‘square’ these days is somebody who’s static, immobilized, obsolete—as obsolete as the square box in architecture. Today’s student knows instinctively that his world is dynamic, not static, and that the normal state of affairs is constant change and evolution.

Fuller describes what we’re seeing now with MOOCs, only he got the technology wrong (he thought TV). Once again, everything old is new again…