Results tagged “monoculture”

Three's a Trend: The Decline of Google Search Quality

January 3, 2011

Noticing a pattern here?

Paul Kedrosky, Dishwashers, and How Google Eats Its Own Tail:

Google has become a snake that too readily consumes its own keyword tail. Identify some words that show up in profitable searches -- from appliances, to mesothelioma suits, to kayak lessons -- churn out content cheaply and regularly, and you're done. On the web, no-one knows you're a content-grinder.

The result, however, is awful. Pages and pages of Google results that are just, for practical purposes, advertisements in the loose guise of articles, original or re-purposed. It hearkens back to the dark days of 1999, before Google arrived, when search had become largely useless, with results completely overwhelmed by spam and info-clutter.

Alan Patrick, On the increasing uselessness of Google:

The lead up to the Christmas and New Year holidays required researching a number of consumer goods to buy, which of course meant using Google to search for them and ratings reviews thereof. But this year it really hit home just how badly Google's systems have been spammed, as typically anything on Page 1 of the search results was some form of SEO spam - most typically a site that doesn't actually sell you anything, just points to other sites (often doing the same thing) while slipping you some Ads (no doubt sold as "relevant").


Google is like a monoculture, and thus parasites have a major impact once they have adapted to it - especially if Google has "lost the war". If search was more heterogenous, spamsites would find it more costly to scam every site. That is a very interesting argument against the level of Google market dominance.

And finally, Jeff Atwood, Trouble in the House of Google:

Throughout my investigation I had nagging doubts that we were seeing serious cracks in the algorithmic search foundations of the house that Google built. But I was afraid to write an article about it for fear I'd be claimed an incompetent kook. I wasn't comfortable sharing that opinion widely, because we might be doing something obviously wrong. Which we tend to do frequently and often. Gravity can't be wrong. We're just clumsy … right?

I can't help noticing that we're not the only site to have serious problems with Google search results in the last few months. In fact, the drum beat of deteriorating Google search quality has been practically deafening of late.

From there, Jeff links to several more examples, including the ones I mentioned above. As Alan alludes to in his post, the threat here is that Google has become a monoculture, a threat I've written about many times.

Now, is all this anecdotal evidence reliable? Perhaps not. What is worth noting now is that, half a decade after so many people began unquestioningly modifying their sites to serve Google's needs better, there may start to be enough critical mass for the pendulum to swing back to earlier days, when Google modified its workings to suit the web's existing behaviors.

Further Reading

Monoculture Is Bad For Business

January 5, 2009

It's been demonstrated over and over again, but businesses refuse to learn the lesson: Homogeneity is its own punishment in the world of business. From the Washington Post today:

[T]he experience of the past year suggests that we desperately need to bring more women into leadership positions on Wall Street, in politics, in regulatory bodies and in American life generally. For decades, corporations and financial firms have sponsored expensive training programs to promote more women into their ranks. They have launched much-needed maternity policies and flexible work arrangements. Most of these initiatives, however, have been pursued to make life easier for the women involved — or, more cynically, to remove the threat of lawsuit or adverse publicity for the firms.

The financial crisis has exposed a quieter but equally pressing concern: We need women in leadership positions not only because they can manage as well as men but because they manage differently than men; because they tend — over time and in the aggregate — to make different kinds of decisions and to accept and avoid different kinds of risk. We need women who will say no to bad decisions based on male-dominated rivalries and clubby golf course confidences. We need women to blow the whistle when risks explode and to challenge the presumptions that too many men, clustered too closely together and sharing a common worldview, can easily indulge.

As the constant wail from Wall Street should remind us, diversity isn't just nice in theory. It makes for better business.

There's a related question here which no one is asking, which is whether the economic catastrophe facing the global marketplace is a result of a failure of white culture in America. The media is always quick to ask whether problems like violence plaguing minority communities are symptoms of a toxic culture in that community, but I haven't seen any questions to that effect in regard to this financial meltdown.

I've written a good deal about monoculture on this site over the years; The correlation between diversity and success has been repeatedly demonstrated.

A First-Generation American

March 14, 2008

I love it when technologists write about the human side of the geekery, and Giles Bowkett's post about Rubyfrom a few months ago, which I just got sent a link to this week, captures some beautiful truths that exist in both code and in culture.

Harmony and balance make you feel good. American Rubyists frequently take up all the points of Ruby's power, expressiveness, and efficiency, but they don't seem to register the point that Ruby was designed to make you feel good. Even Rubyists who want to explain why Ruby makes them feel good often fail to mention that it was expressly designed for that exact purpose. ...

JRuby is a first-generation American - a child born here of one foreign parent, Ruby itself. I'm a first-generation American too, and even though I have two human, English parents, rather than one Japanese parent made of code, I think I feel JRuby's pain here. So I'm just going to tell you - every first-generation American sees this happen all the time. Some idea from another country or culture disappears like mist scattered by winds unless Americans already have a synonym for it. If they don't have a word for it, they don't have a box to put it in, and the idea just falls through the cracks.

Religious wars over programming languages are just silly. The messianic zeal of Christianity's shameful Crusades a thousand years ago still lingers on in Western culture, and one glaring example is the ludicrous idea that there should be one true language or one true editor, or one ring to rule them all. It's much better when programmers can work in multiple languages, multiple editors, and multiple environments. Diversity is healthy for ecologies. This is a point Neal makes in his podcast - he calls it polyglot programming, which is to say multilingual programming. He calls it a positive trend, and I agree.

Whether you call it diversity, competition, or a lack of monoculture, I believe in it. And I do think it's a fundamental requirement for a healthy culture, whether in society or in technology.

Freedom From Choice

September 27, 2007

A.J. Jacobs, master of the year-long book stunt, spent a year trying to live by all the rules dictated in the Bible. As stunts go, it's not that interesting to me ("Hey, I grew a beard!"), but one of the lessons he mentioned learning in this Newsweek interview indicates he really did go in with an open mind:

We all talk about freedom of choice, but there’s something very attractive about freedom from choice. Religion provides structure, mooring, anchoring. Should you covet? No. Should you give 10 percent to the needy? Yes. It really structures your life. After my year I felt unmoored, overwhelmed by choice. I have adjusted, but I’m still overwhelmed by choice, as we all are in America.

There's an analogy here about why those who preach simplicity in the realm of technology sound so much like they're preaching religion, and why those who agree with them often take on a near-religious fervor, but I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

The Internet Is Where The Truth Is

March 15, 2007

The exact thing you are looking for is out there on the Internet, if you just know where to look. So here are some hints.

  • The Wall Street Journal alludes to Google's biggest weakness -- the lack of transparency around the AdWords/AdSense/PageRank market. It works like this: Sites can't predict how they'll rank in search results, but some sites depend on that traffic for their business to grow. To scale up a business requires managing risk and volatility, and having a key factor to growth be largely opaque increases risk greatly, limiting investment and confidence and making it impossible to plan. So sites that aren't can't reach scale without relying on search traffic have a limit on the maximum growth they can achieve in a PageRank-based economy.
  • Todd Levin acerbically points out what's wrong with SXSW. He alludes to many of the reasons I didn't go this year, but I am pretty conflicted about getting easy laughs by tearing down something that other people enjoy. Would be a lot more impressive to get laughs by praising the conference for what it does well.
  • Susan Rogers was getting her PhD to understand "whether the human mind is specialized for music [and] how musical training shapes your auditory memory and cognitive abilities". But I just love her for being Prince's long-suffering engineer during the best and most productive years of his career. I kind of have an affinity for her because her story stuck with me during a much more emo period in my life.

The Essentials of Web 2.0 Your Event Doesn't Cover

February 23, 2007

Do you want to learn about the future of web applications? If so, when choosing an event, you might want to make sure it's one that cares about including speakers based on merit, instead of based on arbitrary gender qualifications. I judge merit to be those who meet these criteria:

1. They've already been successful
2. They have done something innovative and unique
3. They are well-known names who will draw an audience and make the event compelling
4. Their work impacts a large audience, or has great influence on the space

Caveats: This list took about 15 minutes for me to make, and I had a little bit of help from Caterina. It's also skewed towards women whom I know well or whom I have already seen speak. But in 15 minutes, I was able to construct a set of theoretical sessions that you won't see at events that specifically exclude women, or that make sure not to reach out to them.

  • danah boyd: The younger generation of web users have different definitions of "public" and "private" than you do.
  • Mitchell Baker: How to take something from being an interesting technology to being a mainstream tool
  • Caterina Fake: How to get things done even within the constraints of a big company
  • Mena Trott: How to design an application that delights its users, instead of confounding them
  • Liza Sabater: Your project won't succeed unless you reach people who are different from you
  • Amy Jo Kim: How best practices from game design can make your web applications like crack
  • Linda Stone:What we will be paying attention to in the future
  • Kathy Sierra: How to design products that make your users smarter, sexier and hungry for more
  • Heather Armstrong, Meg Frost, and Gina Trapani: One person can be a successful media outlet
  • Lynne Johnson: How to credibly bring new media to an old-media company
  • Jane Pinckard: Anybody with half a brain could have seen that the Wii was going to win, but you were busy bickering about the Cell processor
  • Meg Hourihan: A real mashup: How to combine technology with something you love
  • Heather Champ: How to manage a web community shitstorm with grace and tact
  • Susannah Fox: You talk about "accessibility", but what do you know about people who are sick, old, or disabled?
  • LeeAnn Prescott: Everybody talks about traffic and stats -- what about someone with actual data?
  • Charlene Li: What are the criteria by which real-world analysts create their make-or-break analyses?

I could go on and on, but I know the obvious question: Where are the men? Well, don't worry -- the door is open to them. As soon as one of you has done something with the impact of Flickr, something that has the number of users of Firefox, made something that's used by the elderly or the young or by someone different than you, you can participate. Hell, if you make something that makes half as many people smile as Heather, Meg, and Gina's work does, you can send along a proposal to our imaginary event.

To conference organizers: If you haven't heard of these people or their work, or you think that Yet Another Bookmarking To-Do List Guy is more important, perhaps you owe some refunds. At this event, nobody would even notice if the wifi went out.

The Old Boys Club is for Losers

February 23, 2007

A few months ago, I spent a lot of time trying to show the tech community I belong to that diversity is essential to our survival. Not just to the Web 2.0 world being healthy and thriving, but as a matter of life and death.

Unfortunately, my diatribe on the topic was boring and thus unpersuasive. Jason Kottke kicked off another conversation about the paucity of female participants in some of the higher-profile technology conferences. I agree with Jason's point, but am disappointed that his preference for rationality and logic led to him using numbers and statistics to justify the idea: The responses quickly devolved into the expected defensive numbers game.

One bright spot is that at least some of the people on the defense are smart guys whom I respect and like. Because, while they're wrong, at least I can debate them in good conscience without feeling bad. I would have felt bad if I only linked to defensive rationales foisted by those who I think are malicious and idiotic.

So, the good guys on the wrong side of this debate include, first Eric Meyer:

In my personal view, diversity is not of itself important, and I don't feel that I have anything to address next time around. What's important is technical expertise, speaking skills, professional stature, brand appropriateness, and marketability. That's it. That's always been the alpha and omega of my thinking, and it will continue to be so the next time, and time after that, and the time after that.

You'll note that nowhere in that list do you find gender, race, creed, or any other such parameter. Those things are completely unimportant to me when organizing a conference. (Or, really, when I'm doing almost anything.)

In a similar vein, John Gruber:

It's not because of a lack of opportunity or aptitude; it's a lack of interest.

So the issue here isn't why there aren't more women speaking at web conferences, but why there aren't more women interested in web nerdery.

Eric and John are both good guys who mean well, but that two people who are smart, forward-thinking, and open minded are still unaware of the limits and constraints imposed by their own shortsightedness is disappointing. Eric: Are you saying that it's your explicit desire to only make a conference that's marketable to the audience you already have? Because that seems so boring and unambitious that it feels like you're saying "we're only in it for the money".

Unless I'm going strictly out of obligation, I go to events to learn things, to have my mindset challenged. Being presented with familiar, unchallenging ideas just so someone can make a buck is the equivalent of junk food. Don't get me wrong -- I'm a fan of pop music, so junk food has its place. But I expect better of those who are seen as leaders.

And John, to fall into the laziest, least persuasive argument of all leads me to believe you're being almost willfully naive. "Women aren't in these disciplines because they aren't interested?" Really? There's a simpler explanation, which falls under the heading of "I know where I'm not welcome." This kind of bias isn't new; Guys are almost always unable to see the barriers they construct.

Let me put this into terms your respective audiences can better understand:

  • Limiting the speaker list of an event to those that appeal to your existing audience will yield diminishing returns as your attendees tire of seeing the same voices over and over. And in the meantime you will make less and less money.
  • Saying that you want to design an event to appeal to the audience that you already reach is like making a web page to work with only the browsers that can already see your site. Do you believe in open standards and accessibility when it matters, and when it's not easy, and when it's not merely a technological problem?
  • It's foolish to think that the feedback loop of a strong network effect doesn't act as an enormous barrier to new audiences. If you are an Apple fan, do you think that merely touting one's own technological superiority is sufficient? Or does it make sense to accommodate those who aren't yet part of the community by being able to run their applications, get the same economies of scale from processors and peripherals, and improving distribution and retailing? If you do, then you're saying it takes more than opening up the door -- it requires welcoming the audience you haven't yet reached.

And in passing, I am not surprised that those who advocate yelling at their customers tend to get very defensive about their lack of ambition. It is a fitting punishment that the web of some people's "future" only includes more boys like themselves, progressing further and further into a rounded-corner of irrelevance.

That brings me to my final point, which I'll explain more in my next post: Those of you who are defending this status quo are defending a culture of failure.

And that's the most important thing to remember: Those who are reaching out to include all members of their community, who are seeking out new ideas and voices, are not only winning, they're the only ones who will continue to win. You may succeed in defending the boys-only nature of your treehouse. But you'll be dooming yourselves to irrelevance.

Holding a gun to Dick Clark's head

February 20, 2007

There's no shortage of animosity towards the mainstream record industry from its customer base, but the RIAA's thug mentality's become brutally obvious of late. The major labels have relied on DJ mixtapes to scout new talent and promote the most popular artists on their rosters, expending significant resources to fund their efforts. And now they've turned on mixtape DJs, supporting the efforts of Federal authorities to raid prominent studios merely for doing the work the labels paid them to do.

Fifty years ago, the equivalent would have been for the labels to tell the FBI to kick down the doors at American Bandstand, and lead Dick Clark off in shackles for promoting their records.

I'd heard mention of the story a few weeks ago on most of the music news and hip hop sites I follow, but the best explanation was Jay Smooth's video on

Then, this Sunday's New York Times covered the story of DJ Drama's arrest and the raid on Gangsta Grillz in depth:

Drama and Cannon’s studio was not a bootlegging plant; it was a place where successful new hip-hop CDs were regularly produced and distributed. Drama and Cannon are part of a well-regarded D.J. collective called the Aphilliates. Although their business almost certainly violated federal copyright law, as well as a Georgia state law that requires CDs to be labeled with the name and address of the producers, they were not simply stealing from the major labels; they were part of an alternative distribution system that the mainstream record industry uses to promote and market hip-hop artists. Drama and Cannon have in recent years been paid by the same companies that paid Kilgo to help arrest them.

What's happening, in short, is exceptionally underhanded and despicable, even by the standards of the recording industry. Every major label uses underground mixtapes to promote their work -- whether it's the ceaseless parade of MCs dissing each other, new artists getting their big break by dropping a few verses on someone else's track, or major artists testing out new singles and sounds by giving a taste to the mixtape crews first, this is an essential and integral part of contemporary music promotion. And it has, of course, been part of hip hop culture since the very earliest days.

And just like Dick Clark's early popularity in the 50s and 60s, this channel has grown in popularity due to sheer necessity. A vital, evolving musical scene needs a champion who has the credibility of being close to the street while also having the reach and distribution to catch the attention of a wider audience. Major artists like Lil Jon and T.I. have gotten their start or gotten a big push from Gangsta Grillz mixtapes. And now DJ Drama, the driving force behind Grillz, has spent time in jail at the behest of those he was helping.

How bad does it get? Check out this definitive example of shoddy local news reporting -- The Fox affiliate in Atlanta manages to get an R.I.A.A. spokesperson acting typically shady, and a law enforcement officer pointing out that "no drugs or weapons were found this time". (Hint to the Feds: The really huge drug stashes are in the offices of the actual record labels.) To be clear: The R.I.A.A. is implying that their distribution, promotion, and A&R partners are drug dealers with stashes of illegal weapons. Of course, they already think their customers are criminals, but this must mark a new milestone.

The overall cluelessness and lack of literacy about Atlanta's own local music scene in this TV report should be shocking, but sadly, it seems inevitable.

A note to Matthew Kilgo: These people you're calling criminals are fundamental to generating the income that your salary is leeched from. The only positive effect that might come from your efforts is that you might stop feeding the stream of money that lets you keep your job.

South Korea's Infertile SEED

January 29, 2007

Gen has captured the cost of monoculture with his excellent look at the unfortunate result of some technology choices made in South Korea years ago:

This nation is also a unique monoculture where 99.9% of all the computer users are on Microsoft Windows. This nation is a place where Apple Macintosh users cannot bank online, make any purchases online, or interact with any of the nation's e-government sites online. In fact, Linux users, Mozilla Firefox users and Opera users are also banned from any of these types of transactions because all encrypted communications online in this nation must be done with Active X controls.

Where is this nation?

South Korea.

The constraints on web culture in South Korea are a result of the adoption of SEED, an essentially proprietary cryptographic cipher mandated by the Korean government. The Wikipedia page, in typical geek fashion, describes the technology but not its social implications. The official page for the technology, in typical governmental fashion, has a skin of friendliness tautly stretched over an underlying hostility.

Speaking to Grantmakers

January 24, 2007

This morning, I had the opportunity to speak to the Northern California Grantmakers' meeting, which was a fantastic chance for me to speak to a group of people who really help make society better.

Among the many warm, intelligent people I met this morning was Lucy Berhholz. She very kindly blogged a lot of my presentation, but also made me really happy by pointing out a horrible cultural assumption I made while talking:

on timeframes and multi-tasking. His example: being in a meeting getting interrupted by an email newsletter that breaks his train of thought about the email he was looking for. Most of the audience is of a generation that uses email to be less intrusive than the phone.

Lucy's post is great, it even includes audio of the presentation. I pride myself on trying to not talk about things that are too insular or too geeky for an audience, but here I revealed myself for the geek I am. These reminders are really helpful if you're trying to not simply talk to people who are just like yourself.

Monoculture Mania!

December 21, 2006

Okay, I've been mumbling about the threat of monoculture for months now, but what's really gratifying is how much attention the idea has gotten in many of the year-end roundups that are saturating the press. Even better, the people who've been thinking about this a lot longer than me are doing a great job of explaining the ideas.

The New York Times Magazine's "Year In Ideas" issue had a few nods to the importance of cultural diversity online; Homophily is a great piece from Aaron Retica, pegged to Nat's post on O'Reilly Radar from back in October.

This year, other academics have cited homophily in elucidating everything from why teenagers choose friends who smoke and drink the same amount that they do to “the strong isolation of lower-class blacks from the interracial- marriage market.” Researchers at M.I.T. even published “Homophily in Online Dating: When Do You Like Someone Like Yourself?” which showed that you like someone like yourself most of the time, online or off. So much for “opposites attract.”

In the same issue of the Times Magazine, Steven Johnson covered Digital Maoism, Jaron Lanier's long-time meme (first introduced in his Edge essay) which shows the dangers of a tyrannical majority in many situations. (Steven also contributes a cogent assessment of Web 2.0 for Time.) Jaron's argument is summarized succinctly:

But all the hype over the powers of the so-called hive mind was bound to provoke a reaction, and in May of this year, it arrived in the form of a thoughtful — though controversial — essay by the artist and computer scientist Jaron Lanier. “What we are witnessing today,” Lanier wrote on, “is the alarming rise of the fallacy of the infallible collective. Numerous elite organizations have been swept off their feet by the idea. They are inspired by the rise of the Wikipedia, by the wealth of Google and by the rush of entrepreneurs to be the most Meta. Government agencies, top corporate planning departments and major universities have all gotten the bug.” Lanier dubbed this newthink “digital Maoism.” Against this collectivist mythos, Lanier tried to carve out a crucial space for the insight and creativity of the individual mind.

Jaron shows up in Time's year-end YouTube lovefest, too. "Beware the Online Collective, he exhorts:

One of the most wonderful things about the rise of the Web and other Internet-based communication schemes is how anti-mob they have been. I was in heaven 10 years ago watching millions of people build web sites for the first time as a form of expression. I'm just as excited today when I run across a creative web page, MySpace site, YouTube video or whatever. There are zillions of people out there who are developing themselves, reaching out to others, becoming more creative, better educated, and richer than they otherwise would have been.


So what's wrong with this pretty picture? All too many entrepreneurs seem to think that if you reduce the human element, the scheme will become more efficient. Instead of asking people to create videos or avatars, which require creativity and commitment, just watch their clicks, have them take surveys, have them tweak collective works, add anonymous, unconsidered remarks, etc. This trend is lousy, in my opinion, because it encourages people to lose themselves into groupthink.

All well worth the read. Now we just have to see which meme naming will win, "homophily", "digital maoism", or "monoculture". Because all that's missing so far is a Long Tail-style name for the idea for it to really take off.

Kramer, Please!

November 22, 2006

If you follow pop culture, it's been almost impossible to miss Michael Richards' astounding racist flame-out and subsequent requisite soul-searching televised mea culpa.

If you're a long-time reader of my site, you can probably guess my take: This is another example of the impedance mismatch between white and black culture in regard to social standards in public settings. Put more succinctly, Michael Richards lost his shit for the same reason white people always get mad when black people talk at the movies. It's about control, and who sets the standards, and clearly Richards is someone who gets filled with rage when he's not in control.

Now, to those of us who aren't black or white, this stuff is usually just an academic argument. It's a source of amusement, or maybe even a source of hope that someday while everyone else is arguing over this, we'll get some hispanic and asian people on TV or even into the White House.

But the fundamental issue here is that there's a significant tradition in many African American communities to see entertainment venues as a forum for interaction, as a place for dialogue and conversation inspired by, or even directly in response to the performance. Whether it's call-and-response in church or at a hip hop show, it's not merely acceptable to be talking or reacing, it's expected. Would showtime at the Apollo be as fraught without that expectation?

Conversely, a lot of white culture places an expectation on respect for the performance. There's a standard of reverence for the person on stage, or the film being screened. And there's an underlying sense of value: Hey, we all paid to be here, so be quiet!

Both positions are completely understandable, completely defensible, and valuable in their context. Hell, I usually feel both motivations at once when I go to events. But they're largely incompatible, and are especially hard to reconcile in a context that's weighted by the history and tension of race.

So, when a white comedian is heckled by a black audience member? It's a threat to Richards' values, and he reverts to the worst, most violent response possible: Lynching. I like to think of myself as jaded, but I was still astounded that Richards literally referenced lynching as his very first response to the challenge from the audience. For those arguing (probably correctly) that there are racist tendencies buried in us all, I'd like to offer a correction: This shit was not buried in Richards, it was sitting right there at the top of mind.

The eye of pop culture will move on to something more scandalous, or something more comfortable than confronting racism. But there is still a desperate need for people in America to understand the various cultural norms that inform their expectations of behavior, and to start embracing that variety.

Still curious about this? I wrote about white and black folks at the movies over four years ago:

My experience has been that white people at a movie see black patrons' interaction with the screen as being rude or inappropriate, and that black audiences see the white objectors as mostly frustrated by the fact that a black person has control over their ability to enjoy a movie in the manner to which they're accustomed. They're both right, of course.

Shortly after that, more movie stuff:

America, wake up... not everyone acts the way you do, and not everyone has the same expectations, wants, and desires that you do. If it's an orchestral performance, then shut the fuck up. If it's a funk concert, then get off your ass and jam. Somewhere in between? Then figure it out. But don't expect that everyone around you will arrive at the same conclusion.

Some other relevant links:

The construct for “Seinfeld,” like so many other comic teleplays and films, is a monochromatic world where White People are central, and people of color — if they appear at all — are simply used as accessories, as added “color” for a scene.

  • I recycled the same snowclone in this post's title in my earlier ruminations on Digg, for no reason at all.

I'm Just Making Stuff Up

November 10, 2006

Features that didn't make the cut for Windows Vista. For those of you who already think I'm too much of a Microsoft fanboy, check out the list. My favorite is "Safe Delete":

Clicking this button would instantly delete all of the files shown in the window permanently from the system, overriding every confirmation, bypassing the recycle bin, and also zeroing out the space on the disk that the files used to occupy (hence the "safe" name).

  • Still not sick of my months-long rant about monoculture? Witness Ryan Naraine's insightful look at the One Laptop Left Behind program:

If the plan is perfectly executed, Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child project will deploy 100 million laptops in the first year. In one fell swoop, the nonprofit organization will create the largest computing monoculture in history.

Wary of the security risks associated with a computing monoculture—millions of machines with hardware and software of identical design—OLPC foundation officials are seeking help from the world's best hackers to review the full specifications of the $100 laptop's security model.

  • On a completely un related note, from one year ago, What it's like at Web 2.0. It's like that, but more so, now. I think the event was a success, and have nothing but respect for the people behind it, but the standout panel was the one where they ask kids how they use technology. I think it's called something like "Talking to Teens", and I'm always shocked how out of touch the audience is with young people -- they treat 15 year olds like they're from the moon. Interestingly, this panel could also have been called "Talking to People of Color", and been used for the same poke-them-with-a-stick anthropological purposes. Good thing cultural diversity isn't a life-or-death issue for our industry. Oh, whoops.

Darwin: I Think

  • This is a segue about natural selection. It's Safe Delete for bad ideas.

Life or Death for Web 2.0

October 16, 2006

A month ago, I began a series of posts outlining some common themes:

  • Any system faces danger when it becomes a monoculture
  • Diversity offers many broad-ranging and sometimes unexpected benefits
  • There are many parallels between biological systems and technological networks like social software on the Internet.

In this context, "Web 2.0" isn't an overhyped and under-defined buzzword, but rather an umbrella term describing all of these kinds of social software that make use of Ajax-style design patterns to serve a useful, meaningful purpose.

Today, most individuals and companies making social web applications are existing in a monoculture that robs them of the broad perspectives, influences, and understanding necessary to create a community that's sustainable over the long term. In short:

The lack of diversity in Web 2.0 poses a life-or-death threat to its viability.

Petri DishIf the success and influence of the social web is to continue, we must make it a priority to include the cultures and communities that we've been ignoring, overlooking, or excluding. A failure to broaden our view will ultimately be fatal if uncorrected. How could this be true? To start, let's look at some of the ideas that inform this view, taken from a variety of disciplines including astronomy, biology, sociology and even cooking.

Some Background

No community can thrive without the perspectives of outsiders, especially if it's trying to serve those outsiders. The key to getting good results is understanding the importance of the variety of cultures available. We've all seen that communicating using all the tools of social media can make people's lives better. The reality is, those benefits can apply just as much to one's professional life as to one's personal life.

But the thing that strikes me as equally important is remembering that even the most powerful, influential, or pervasive lines of business are always in a tenuous position. You can have the power of the legal system at your hands, or the ability to talk to almost everyone in the country at home or in their cars, and still end up in a defensive position if you're not able to have a dialogue with your community.

PizzaIn the real world outside of Silicon Valley, people are busy solving problems that we often overlook, trivialize, or deliberately ignore. It's instructive to be immersed in a culture outside of the one where we create new technologies. For us, encouraging everyone to take advantage of social media is a fundamental necessity.

Hundreds or thousands of years ago, the greatest danger that faced societies was the introduction of a foreign culture's physical threats... the greatest threat to cultures today comes from not intermingling. Whether it's expressed in agriculture ("hybrid vigor"), or in the context of a cocktail party (being a "social butterfly"), making an effort to avoid cultural isolation is rewarded by making an individual or a society more healthy. That's not to mention the bonus potential of additional opportunities, higher potential for recognition, a larger market for trade or commercial interests, and a broader audience for communication of messages.

In biology, species with little genetic variation -- or "monocultures" -- are the most vulnerable to catastrophic epidemics. Species that share a single fatal flaw could be wiped out by a virus that can exploit that flaw. Genetic diversity increases the chances that at least some of the species will survive every attack. Building an industry around a monoculture places the entire economy in danger from unanticipated threats. And it's only the adoption and embrace of a broader range of cultures that can help an industry protect itself from that danger, or sustain itself when facing a downturn.

Planet EarthIt leaves me struck that something as big as, well, the whole world can look fragile if you step back far enough to really look at it. And a work that took enormous resources to support, unbelievable imagination to create, and true courage to execute can seem downright ordinary once it becomes ubiquitous.

The Good News

So, are we doomed? I don't think so. It turns out, this kind of groupthink or myopia is actually pretty common, or at least common enough that it can make the news today. From this morning's Washington Post, Shankar Vedantam's article says:

While the instinct for homophily in politics and other areas seems hard-wired, technology may be fueling our nature. Cable television and the Internet have allowed enormous numbers of people in distant areas to form virtual groups that are very similar to what you see in the office cafeteria.

...While there is nothing wrong with being around others who are similar to yourself, both Smith-Lovin and Small said that people and organizations pay a price for homogeneity. In politics, for example, the fact that people rarely have friends with different views makes it difficult to seek common ground or to examine one's positions closely.

So why all these words? Is a post with pics of a petri dish, a pizza pie, and a planet going to help? Well, the truth is, telling people to be more inclusive just because it's the right thing to do just plain doesn't work. I'm hoping that explaining that our self-absorption presents a mortal danger is enough to get people to do the right thing out of enlightened self interest. Fortunately, some people have already made some great steps forward.

When I wrote about what it's like at the Web 2.0 conference last year, I had despaired somewhat, thinking things could never change. Today, they still mostly haven't. But while I was complaining again, some other conversations popped up that started to give me a little bit of hope. "Be the fucking role models the situation calls for." "monocultures produce monotonous culture." "We should be learning from it and improving ourselves, not using the rhetoric of the past to brush off criticisms we're just too lazy or unwilling to deal with."

The people who are most likely to be threatened or insecure about the embrace of diversity are recognizing not just the opportunity of a broader view, but the necessity of it. Sometimes good ideas do rise to the top. All of us who've been in groups that were outside the monoculture have been aware of this danger, but now those on the inside are aware as well. That's real progress, and real cause for optimism.

The truth is, we need to fight monoculture for the same reason many of us abhor DRM, or fight sterile GMO crops, or argue in favor of Creative Commons licenses. The tools of expression, of communication, must be able to reach everyone, they must be able to bear fruit for those who would reuse or recontextualize them, and they must be available for anyone to expand on or build on.

The people in our communities who are most likely to make an unexpected leap, or to add value that we didn't anticipate, are the people who we aren't even making part of our communities. And it's not too late to include them. But if we keep thinking that diversity or rejection of monoculture can wait for version 3.0, we're dooming all of Web 2.0 to fail.


Most of the content for this post came from my own earlier posts on these topics over the past few weeks. See:

  • A Very Small Planet: Covers Jack Schmitt's remarkable "Blue Marble" photo of the Earth, also seen in this post.
  • Pizza Requires Culture talks of Jeff Varasanos' amazing, obsessive pizza recipe, from which the pizza photo above is taken. A key to his success is in understanding various yeast cultures.
  • Lawyers, Broadcasters, and Bloggers ... Oh My! Talks about some of the audiences outside of the tech world that I've been trying to talk to.
  • Hit the Road is about creating events for non-technical professionals to learn about social media online.
  • The Threat of Extinction previews Steven Johnson's Ghost Map, as well as a host of other books about plague and epidemics. This also inspired me to include Jack Mottram's petri dish photo, which is Creative Commons licensed.
  • Revising the Software Monoculture gives an update on Dan Geer's seminal look at software monoculture.
  • Monoculture Considered Harmful gives some background on the boll weevil infestation that devastated the cotton monoculture of the American South.

Monoculture Considered Harmful

October 2, 2006

On our last episode, we revisited Dan Geer's analysis of software monoculture. Let's switch back to true biological monocultures again. Monoculture Considered Harmful is a paper published by John S. Quarterman in First Monday in January of 2002. The abstract gets to the heart of the matter:

Monoculture cotton crops and the economy they supported proved susceptible to a small insect in the early 20th century. There may be parallels in the Internet in the early 21st century.

The insect Quarterman refers to is the boll weevil, a small beetle that had the power to devastate the entire U.S. cotton crop in the early 1900s. Only relatively recently have efforts to eradicate it had any success, with programs being established in Texas and Oklahoma (where the weevil first had an impact) as well as North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

Most remarkable is the USDA's assessment of the impact of boll weevils:

Many experts consider the boll weevil second only to the Civil War as an agent of change in the South. Over the years, estimates of yield losses and control costs due to the boll weevil total more than $22 billion.

...The year before boll weevils marched into Georgia in 1915, the state produced 2.8 million bales of cotton. Less than 10 years later, Georgia's annual cotton production had fallen to 600,000 bales. By 1983, Georgia cotton production was down to 112,000 bales harvested from 115,000 acres.

The southern farming economy didn't even begin to recover from the economic impact until farmers began to cultivate other crops, including (most notably) the peanut. So why was the argicultural industry in the south so susceptible to attack from boll weevils? Because nearly all the cotton being grown was of a single species.

I have a long, long list of other faults of the cotton industry that are far more egregious than their choice of crop species, but it's simply impossible to ignore the lessons that were plainly spelled out by the devastating impact of boll weevils. Building an industry around a monoculture places the entire economy in danger from unanticipated threats. And it's only the adoption and embrace of a broader range of cultures that can help an industry protect itself from that danger, or sustain itself when facing a downturn.

Revisiting the Software Monoculture

September 21, 2006

Three years ago, Dan Geer led a team of security experts in authoring a paper about the threat of a software monoculture. The paper, entitled "CyberInsecurity: The Cost of Monopoly" received a tremendous amount of attention, praise, and criticism for its detailed description of the threat posed by the ubiquity of Microsoft's Windows operating system.

In addition to garnering all this attention, the paper resulted in Geer being fired from his position. Wired News covered the story well:

"No matter where I look I seem to be stumbling over the phrase `monoculture' or some analog of it," Geer, 53, said in a recent interview in his Cambridge home.

In biology, species with little genetic variation -- or "monocultures" -- are the most vulnerable to catastrophic epidemics. Species that share a single fatal flaw could be wiped out by a virus that can exploit that flaw. Genetic diversity increases the chances that at least some of the species will survive every attack.

"When in doubt, I think of, `how does nature work?'" said Geer, a talkative man with mutton chop sideburns and a doctorate in biostatistics from Harvard University.

"Which leads you -- when you think about shared risk -- to think about monoculture, which leads you to think about epidemic," he said. "Because the idea of an epidemic is not radically different from what we're talking about with the Internet."

Because the paper was so provocative, influential, and insightful, I was glad to see Geer's ideas, and the threat of technological monoculture revisited with great effect recently by eWeek's Ryan Naraine, in "Microsoft Monoculture Myopia". (The piece is also pleasing because it has a sort of b-movie horror flick title to it.)

I found this article to be among the more exceptional bits of journalism that eWeek has done, so I emailed Ryan to ask him some questions about how the article came to be. I was also curious what inspired the magazine to revisit a topic that was initially raised three years ago but has been, to some degree, forgotten by a lot of the trade press.

Q: What inspired you to revisit the Geer report now? Was this an editorial assignment delivered to you, or something you wanted to follow up on yourself?

RN: I covered the fallout from the original report three years ago and have always been very interested in this topic. Late last year, in an essay published at Login, Geer did his own follow-up and I got the idea to wait for September and do an anniversary-type piece. I pitched it to my editors and they liked it enough to put on the eWEEK cover.

Q: This is a pretty controversial topic -- partisans on both sides of the debate can get pretty strident about the conversation. Is that a positive or a negative trait for a story?

RN: Even in the research stage, I'm hoping to find people to disagree and get into a debate so I can fully understand all sides. From that standpoint, it's a positive trait. Most times, it becomes a bitter "he-said, she-said" and people get entrenched and stops listening to each other. That can be aggravating and can sometimes leak into the reporting. My favorite interview for this piece was the Continental Airlines guy (Andre Gold) who was able to explain the risks of both sides without being a 'fence sitter'.

Q: Both Geer's paper and your article make explicit comparisons to biological monocultures, and the parallels between a software virus and a literal virus. Have you thought about the parallels to a sociological monoculture?

RN: One of the guys I interviewed (report co-author John S. Quarterman) raised this fleetingly but it wasn't something we spent much time discussing. John talked about the societal downsides of everyone listening/wearing/watching/doing the exact same thing. He also pointed me to the devastating effects of the Boll Weevil in the early 20th century that was caused entirely by monoculture.

Q: Are there any other similar monocultures in technology that you'd want to write about in the future?

RN: Yeah, the blog echo-chamber. :) Not really, I haven't given much thought to it. I write entirely about security so my focus these days is very narrow.

Thanks to Ryan for taking the time to comment on the article. I found the entire discussion to be a very useful way of re-engaging in the topics raised by the original Cyberinsecurity paper. The one line that lingers with me is Geer's comment from the Wired News story: "Genetic diversity increases the chances that at least some of the species will survive every attack."

What it's like at Web 2.0

October 13, 2005

A couple years ago, when I was on the other side of the continent from all the Silicon Valley/San Francisco events, I wanted to know what it was like to attend the West Coast conferences. Now that I've been to a bunch, I figured it might be a good chance to fill everybody else in. The good news is the news that everybody reads about, new products and ideas and people meeting each other and connecting. The other parts don't get talked about are interesting, too, though.

It's especially important to note some of these things because most attendees seem to forget that the overwhelming majority of people who are interested in the topics discussed aren't present at these events. What's more, there's no reasonable way they could attend, due to expense and geography and family/work obligations.

Last week, I got a chance to swing by the Web 2.0 conference. Lots has been written about the product launches, acquisitions, and the perpetual "how do you define Web 2.0?" question, but I thought, now that a lot of roundups of the event have been written, it might make sense to talk about some things that are invisible unless you actually attend the conference.

Continue reading What it's like at Web 2.0.