In the iconic climax of the 1976 Academy Award winning film, Network, CEO Arthur Jensen captivates the “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves,” Howard Beale, with a powerful sermon in a darkened boardroom calculated to enlist Beale’s assistance to win favorable public opinion about an important business deal that was getting gummed up by meddling politicians in Washington.
"Why me?" the awestruck Beale asks his new master.
Because you’re on social media, dummy.
"Because you’re on television, dummy," is Jensen’s flat reply. "60 million people watch you every night of the week, Monday through Friday."
Robert Scoble may not be reaching sixty million nightly viewers, but this modern mad prophet of the intertubes, who seemingly can’t be photographed anymore without a networked computer wrapped about his head, has amassed enough influence with the right audiences to have been anointed by Silicon Valley to preach the gospel of the First Coming of the “Age of Context,” which is about to be, we are told in Scoble’s new book of the same name, inevitably and unapologetically unleashed upon the world.
Riding the ever thinning line between journalism and corporate cock sucking, Scoble and public relations practitioner, Shel Israel, have teamed up to write “Age of Context” to evangelize about the benefits of living in a completely networked world. The Age of Context, in case you hadn’t heard yet, is a Brave New World where information is constantly and effortlessly collected from you and me and then magically sold back to us at just the right time without us having to ask.
Wallets in every Silicon Valley venture capitalist boardroom are throbbing at the prospect of mounting this new cash cow. They know there are truckloads of money to be made collecting, transmitting, storing, analyzing, repackaging and reselling data on just about every facet of your life. No dummies, they are also keenly aware that they are driving their cash laden trucks directly over regulatory and public relation minefields. They are on a mission is to minimize public blowback, warm people up to the idea plugging in and avoid regulations they might view as detrimental to their business plans.
So they’ve turned to Scoble end Israel to help sell their bill of goods. They tell us in unflinchingly optimistic, breathless terms how wonderful our lives will be once the technology is adopted. Employing this so-called “contextual technology” will improve your health, thwart crime, cure diseases, transform entire economies, and even tackle that pesky problem of making advertisements a desirable intrusion into your life. Chapter after chapter catalogs a list of companies and technologists who are working behind the scenes to bring us that much closer to an Arthur Jensen-like vision of a world where “all necessities [are] provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.”
It’s not until the last chapter that Scoble and Israel focus on the very messy implications over the collection and sharing of data about the most intimate parts of our lives. Interestingly, they lead the last chapter off with a statement saying they didn’t even intend to address the potential pitfalls of the technology. They must have eventually figured out, correctly, that any book that ignored the controversial nature of the technology wouldn’t be taken seriously. But there is still an obvious giveaway that “Age of Context” is little more than a tool to help tech companies open new markets and smooth the way for their wares. The giveaway is that government regulation is not even mentioned as a possible solution to any of the problems. In fact, Scoble and Israel paint the government as untrustworthy by mentioning the recent revelations about NSA surveillance practices. And a search of the entire book reveals that the word “regulation” is mentioned only three times and then only obliquely in reference to driverless cars.
So what, then, is the solution to the rats nest of issues? Like good, upstanding corporate shills, Scoble and Israel posit that the free market will take care of that problem by punishing untrustworthy companies. Of course, this “solution” neatly sidesteps the issue of the damage untrustworthy companies will do. And what about the trustworthy companies who later decide more money can be made selling the trust they have garnered down the river?
So my advice to any reader of “Age of Context” is to take the book for what it is, a piece of corporate propaganda. The book is the collective vision of CEOs who have found a couple of willing mouthpieces in Scoble and Israel to help them deliver a message. To their credit, the very first part of the book lists the corporate sponsors who apparently financed the two author’s eight month effort to write the book. Rackspace, Scoble’s corporate employer, is an unabashed cheerleader for the cloud computing revolution they hope will fatten their bottom line.
Perhaps the real genius of the book is how the Silicon Valley visionaries are managing to get people to pay to read their propaganda by passing it off as a serious piece of journalism. No one said these tech executives weren’t smart. But I’m sure glad I waited until they decided to put the book on sale for 99 cents before buying it.