30/9/2023

Excessive intelligence

The arrival of OpenAI’s ChatGPT in November 2022 was the beginning of a new gold rush.

Companies at the forefront of what is conventionally called “artificial intelligence” (AI), such as Google and Meta, until then did not risk putting unreliable chatbots and super powerful editing features in the hands of anyone.

OpenAI gambled, and ingrained itself into the popular imagination, forcing a change of course in much larger companies.

Google felt the heat and jumped the gun with Bard. The presentation of the chatbot, made in a hurry in last February, was a fiasco.

Since then, Google itself, Meta, Amazon, large companies and new startups have started to pour big money into the creation of AI-based commercial products.

In September, almost a year after ChatGPT replaced web3 and NFTs with AI as the new obsession in Silicon Valley, many of these products began to show up:

With so many companies that control our lives inebriated by AI, eager to push it to the public, it’s a good time to stop and think about why.

In a pragmatic sense, AIs help in brainstorming sessions, with first drafts, organizing and cleaning data, creating images.

Many of these applications raise relevant issues, such as the unethical use of other people’s material for training, the consumption of natural resources by the powerful servers used to train and respond to user requests, and the impacts on the labor market.

It is also debated whether the changes that the AIs promise (or threaten, depending on the point of view) will take place. It can be a revolution, it can end up going nowhere.

For companies, however, it is almost an “all or nothing” gambling. It’s not enough to use a chatbot to work. The future envisioned by them is one in which AI is present all the time in our lives.

For Meta, for instance, we will soon be able to play RPG with an AI Snoop Dogg or talk about last night’s game with a virtual replica of Tom Brady.

I watched the broadcast of Meta and Microsoft events. In both, I had a deep sense of isolation, an ethereal artificiality, more fictional than that of science fiction movies that strive to deliver what Mark Zuckerberg and Satya Nadella managed to show effortlessly.

We are on the brink of going from a stage in which we are isolated from each other, interacting only by screens, to isolate ourselves once and for all, too busy talking to machines that look more like human beings than our equals.

14/8/2023

God Google now demands sacrifices “in the name of SEO”

SEO, the set of optimization techniques for sites to rank better in Google search results, is a kind of religion for marketers and technocrats.

The god Google writes its crooked lines, with ethereal or banal tips and blurred guidelines, which are interpreted by the prophets — the so-called “SEO experts” — and applied on websites of the faithful, in the hope that this will revert into blessings in the form of good positions in the search engine index.

It is an exercise of faith, because no one can point out, with methodological rigor, the cause and effect relationship between SEO and results.

Believers follow Google’s religious precepts and have an only option — to believe. If they work, it is the definitive proof that SEO exists. If not, the problem was that I wrote 490 words instead of 500 and repeated the keyword five times instead of four; I didn’t believe enough.

The parallel became even stronger last Wednesday (9), when Gizmodo obtained an internal memo from Cnet in which the company warned employees that it was deleting thousands of old posts to “improve SEO”. The news was confirmed to the publication by a Cnet marketing director.

Now, god Google has come to demand sacrifices as a condition to pour his kindness on click-baiting sites.

The reasoning, according to the internal memo, is that deleting old content that does not generate traffic “sends a signal to Google that says Cnet is fresh, relevant and worthy of being placed higher than our competitors in search results”.

On social media, Google refuted the strategy. This does not mean much, because Google does not reveal the ranking algorithm of its search engine and, allegedly, does not even understand it completely. Therefore, it is not possible to rule out that, even if Google discourages the practice, under specific conditions it may have a positive outcome.

Cnet, let’s remember, was caught in early 2023 publishing texts written by ChatGPT with gross errors, only to attract unwary on Google willing to click on lucrative ads for financial loans and credit cards.

The prioritization of SEO is the infamous tail that shakes the dog. Aiming at good positions in the Google search engine should not, under any circumstances, overlap with editorial decisions, let alone justify the destruction of the archive of (supposedly) journalistic outlets.

However, this is what happens when the SEO theocracy, led by Google, takes the web by storm. Technological fundamentalism, robots above human beings, people reduced to clicks on ads.

6/8/2023

The Concretude of the Cloud

The word “cloud” was adopted by the tech industry to refer to the large realms of scalable servers.

Thanks to it, any company, startup or individual entrepreneur no longer needs to bear the high upfront infrastructure costs to launch a service on the internet. The cloud allows you to start small (and spending little) and grow continuously, according to demand, fast or slow.

It’s a brilliant model. No wonder, the industry leaders — Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure — have become huge players and are very profitable.

Like all transformative technology, we are fascinated by the good side of the cloud and forget the risks of market concentration, eventual unavailability, security and collateral costs, hidden by the shadow of the optimism that technological progress impregnates in itself. Rare and/or incipient, but still present, these risks in general reveal the physical nature of the cloud, built with many limited natural resources, such as rare metals, silicon, and water.

This Bloomberg report (no paywall) caught my attention showing regions that suffer from historical droughts and, at the same time, house large data centers of companies such as Meta, Microsoft and Amazon.

These data centers, the physical addresses of the “cloud”, consume huge amounts of water. One of Meta in Talavera de la Reina, Spain, still on paper, is expected to spend 665 million liters per year. At peak times, it will be 195 liters per second to cool machines that support the digital cloud.

Not by chance, they have generated dissatisfaction and dislike of people who live in the places where they are installed or intend to settle. Suddenly, they are forced to share the little water available with computers.

It is ironic that the “cloud” of the titans of technology behaves in the opposite way to that of nature: instead of bringing water, it consumes it. Unless it counts as “water” that rain noise from streaming apps, possible only thanks to the digital cloud.

27/7/2023

Thanks, Elon, for rebranding Twitter to X

It’s been a while that Twitter rots in public square town, sabotaged by its owner himself. Elon Musk’s latest great idea was to throw the “Twitter” brand away and rebrand the service as X. Yes, the letter X.

I was incredulous, as on many occasions since October 2022, when I heard about it. Today, I kinda like the change. It puts an end to the agonizing degradation of Twitter and helps to separate the legacy of a far from perfect company, but with its fair share of good ideas and intentions, from the absolutely chaos established by Musk.

The change is still ongoing, and this is also a huge mess. On Monday (24th), when it started, a crane stopped work halfway when it was dismantling the Twitter sign, at the company’s headquarters in San Francisco, because Musk had no license from the city hall to operate the machine.

The “X” brand, by the way, is already owned in the US, and not by a no-one: Microsoft has had the X brand for communication of its Xbox video game since 2003, and Meta, for an X in white and blue for areas that include software and social media.

Twitter’s rebranding has reached the service itself. The official handle, @Twitter, was exchanged for @X, which until Tuesday night (25th) was owned by photographer Gene X. Whang, who had had it for 16 years.

Whang got an email from Twitter, I mean, X, offering some swag (did not specify of which brand) and the opportunity to meet Musk’s gang. His new handle in the service is @x1234567998765.

Anyone who works in marketing, from first-year undergraduate students to the world’s greatest experts, will say that it’s crazy to retire a ubiquitous brand like Twitter.

“Tweet” became a verb, the Holy Grail of marketing.

This and other decisions by Musk are incomprehensible under rational arguments. It’s like he’s burning the USD 44 billion (which he didn’t have at hand) he paid for Twitter.

Is Musk crazy? I don’t think so. Or, at least, not for that reason. What is known is that he is a reactionary extremist who, before and after the acquisition of Twitter, has always disdained political agendas that were important to many people who use(d?) and made Twitter.

Seen through this lens, the acquisition of Twitter and the destruction to which it has subjected the company makes more sense. It’s, as Casey Newton put it in his newsletter, an act of cultural vandalism. In the eagerness to kill the “woke virus” (the kind of virus that people like Musk believe in), the billionaire is willing to kill the host. It’s already killed. RIP Twitter.

The official message, embraced by Linda Yaccarino, another crazy person who serves as fake CEO for Musk, the rebranding is the first step towards the creation of an “everything app” — social network, digital wallet, classifieds, job board.

This delusional promise is not new. Musk has been repeating it for a long time, inspired by the Chinese WeChat app. In the late 1990s, he tried something similar on PayPal, (bad) name X and everything else. Before being the richest person in the world and in a place where he did not hold 100% of the voting power, he was defeated.

Everyone dreams, even those who have everything that mere mortals dream of having. Dreams, however, are just dreams until they come true. Would anyone risk putting your credit card on a site that breaks every single day and is managed by a lunatic like Musk? Not me.

6/6/2023

In “Traffic”, Ben Smith Tells BuzzFeed's Origin, Rise And Fall Story

In June 2015, Jonah Peretti, founder of BuzzFeed, went to the headquarters of the New York Times to explain to the centennial newspaper how this internet thing worked.

In the words of Ben Smith, then editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed’s news arm, Jonah “was a mammal explaining to the dinosaurs how he had evolved beyond them.”

The excerpt is on a chapter of Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral, Ben’s new book that retells the origin, rise and fall of BuzzFeed.

For much of the 2010s, BuzzFeed seemed to be the future of journalism, the model of digital transformation to be followed by the traditional press, still clinging to the paper and practices of the 20th century.

At some point, however, the premises of BuzzFeed and his peers proved to be fragile, the big techs — especially Meta/Facebook — betrayed everyone and, in the end, it’s the media dinosaurs that will probably survive the yet to come extinction of BuzzFeed.

As in every good story, Traffic brings a range of characters with striking characteristics. Ben embodied Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker, a New York blogging network with a pledge for absolute transparency, Jonah’s antagonist in the billionaire race to which the book’s subtitle alludes.

Nick was pure instinct. Jonah, rational — the mad scientist exploring formulas to make content go viral on the internet. In common, both were obsessed with traffic, with raw audience numbers. She was the measure of success, the goal to be hit, everything that mattered.

The internet bought this narrative, which led BuzzFeed to reject a USD 450 million offer from Disney and, at some point, worth USD 1.8 billion after successive rounds of VC money.

But the promise that traffic would be the gold of the press in the internet era was not sustained for long. When the then Facebook discovered that it could profit much more by keeping the viral cycles within its domains, instead of opening the traffic firehose for the open web, the future of BuzzFeed and everything it represented was put in check.

Interestingly, according to Ben’s report, it was the biggest event in the history of BuzzFeed that turned on this light on Mark Zuckerberg’s head: “The Dress”, an uncompromising post that asked the audience the color of a black and blue (or was it white and gold?) dress, that got 37 million views alone.

Traffic, as they came to discover in the worst way that wave of progressive journalists and entrepreneurs, was fool’s gold. Worse than not paying the bills at the end of the month, the obsession with traffic generated questionable incentives and content.

It was not with Facebook, but before, still with Digg, that this strange alignment was apparent, as Ben says:

Digg’s power came from an opaque blend of community and algorithm, and it was beginning to shape not just what got read but how the news was written. The tail had begun to wag the dog; the story had begun to chase the traffic.

Perhaps who best understood the new dynamic on the internet was initially supporting figures in the story, such as Andrew Breitbart, Steve Bannon. and Benny Johnson. They participated, in some way, in the stories of BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post and Gawker. Years later, they used techniques similar to those employed by Jonah and Nick to radicalize the political debate and elect abject figures such as Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte. and Jair Bolsonaro.

In the book, Ben makes a big “mea culpa” in this regard:

At Donald Trump’s White House in 2019, right-wingers were celebrating the conversion of traffic not into money, as Jonah and Nick had imagined, but into raw political power.

The internet of 2023 is very different from the one that saw the empires of Nick and Jonah grow. The New York Times and other renowned newspapers learned to navigate the digital and made a bold bet — on paid subscriptions — that paid handsomely in 2016, when Trump arrived at the White House.

Gawker was decimated by Silicon Valley money. In a puppet process driven by Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea for an intimate video leaked by the vehicle, conservative mega-investor Peter Thiel threw some money to get Nick out of the game.

Jonah, by leaps and bounds, survived Facebook’s turn, which suddenly dried up the tsunami of traffic it sent to external sites — BuzzFeed among the biggest beneficiaries.

In December 2021, BuzzFeed went public in a SPAC, a financial instrument that facilitated many IPOs, although most were of bad papers. At that time, BuzzFeed was already a bad deal.

BuzzFeed’s market value, of USD 1.7 billion on its the IPO, plummeted already in the first week of trading. In May 2023, the value of the share fell below USD 1. If it not reverse this scenario by the end of the year, BuzzFeed will be delisted from Nasdaq.

After dissolving the award-winning journalism team and ending BuzzFeed News (ironically, days before Traffic’s release in the US), BuzzFeed’s new bet to become profitable is to use artificial intelligence to generate quizzes and travel guides in large volume at pennies.

Discuss @ Hacker News.

26/5/2023

20 Years of WordPress

In the early days, the web had many beautiful, romantic phases, in which things were simpler and people online, less prone to aggression, more innocent and/or prone to the good things in life.

In the early 2000s, the technical side of the web was also going through an interesting moment. Suddenly, sites went from being static to becoming dynamic.

Among the many systems of that period, on May 27th 2003, a small CMS for blogs called WordPress appeared. It was the beginning of — I think it’s safe to say — a revolution.

Few software has had such a profound impact on my life — that of millions of people — as WordPress.

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