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Cool Books


It turns out that the late Senator Ted Stevens was right: the internet really is “a series of tubes,” reports Dwight Garner in a New York Times review of Tubes by Andrew Blum (6/20/12). Senator Stevens was roundly mocked in 2006 for his ostensibly ludicrous metaphor, but Andrew makes the case that the senator was quite literally correct.

“There are tubes beneath the ocean that connect London and New York,” he writes. “Tubes that connect Google and Facebook. There are buildings filled with tubes and hundreds of thousands of
miles of roads and railroad tracks, beside which lie buried tubes.”

He continues: “Inside those tubes (by and large) are glass fibers … Inside those fibers is light. Encoded in that light is, increasingly, us.” Andrew supports his conclusion by taking a tubular trip around the world, “visiting vast data warehouses, which tend to be in the boonies, and giant internet exchanges where multiple networks meet.”

However, Andrew was also unsettled by the anonymity of it all, the idea that we don’t know who controls the tubes. At the same time, he acknowledges security issues, quoting an engineer at a data center in Milwaukee as saying, “All this talk about Homeland Security, but look at what someone could do in here with a chain saw.” Ultimately, he concedes the banality of it all, describing a visit to a Frankfurt internet “nerve center” as “like visiting Gettysburg: It’s just a bunch of fields.” Or tubes.


3M’s willingness to take 12 years before making Post-It Notes commercially available affirms the wisdom of waiting, reports Christopher F. Chabris in a Wall Street Journal review of Wait, by Frank Partnoy (6/23/12).

Originally, the inventors of the adhesive that makes Post-It Notes special envisioned a new kind of bookmark. Management thought otherwise — believing that “the bookmark market was too small to pursue.”

In the meantime, 3M employees “started using the sample ‘bookmarks’ for writing notes — completing the creative act by discovering a valuable purpose for the invention.” The real lesson, according to Frank, is that 3M was “willing to keep the project alive in hopes that something would come of it.”

Frank advises that “waiting until the last possible moment to make decisions or take positions” usually works out for the best because “waiting gives you the benefit of all the time you possess, allowing ideas to form and thoughts to coalesce.” Procrastination, then, can be a good thing, because “the task we avoid” can turn “out to be less important than the one we choose to focus on.”

The Intention Economy

Doc Searls says “a revolution in personal empowerment is underway — and buying will never be the same again” (The Wall Street Journal, 7/21/12). Doc is author of The Intention Economy, and describes “a new field called VRM, for Vendor Relationship Management,” in which the customer manages the vendor instead of the other way around.

“VRM works on the demand side of the marketplace: for you, the customer, rather than for sellers and third parties on the supply side,” he writes. This turnabout, says Doc, is made possible by the internet, which empowers consumers to take greater control over their vendor relationships.

Until now, it’s been just the opposite. Big business, says Doc, “believes that a free market is one in which customers get to choose their captors.” He also blasts the notion that “the best way to get personal with customers on the internet is with ‘big data,’ gathered by placing tracking files in people’s browsers and smartphone apps without their knowledge.” This won’t end, says Doc, until customers “start showing up as human beings and not just cattle to be herded.”

VRM will allow consumers to establish their “own policies, preferences and terms of engagement.” They will also be able to “knit together their apps,” and in so doing, demonstrate “value as independent customers to the whole marketplace.” VRM, says Doc, will be reality relatively soon, predicting that by 2022, the demand side will dominate and “everyone will understand that free customers are more valuable than captive ones.”

SEPTEMBER / OCTOBER 2012 | PDF | Subscribe | Home