The long-tail wagging the drugged out pooch?

Drugged out dogA few months ago the giant pharmaceutical company Pfiezer laid off 10,000 people, or about a tenth of its global workforce. There are many factors that are draining the industry of profits including the fact that patents eventually expire allowing generics to compete, it is extremely costly to develop new drugs, and the industry is caught in a vicious advertising/marketing arms race that is diverting significant percentages of development costs (in similar proportions to the marketing of a big budget Hollywood movie).

There is plenty to chew on here in terms of how intellectual property laws are impacting human rights (keeping lifesaving drugs out of many patient’s reach) and the notion that as “mission critical” drugs come out of patent, drug companies are busy inventing new “lifestyle illnesses” for which they conveniently sell the cure. The concept of illness has become a major US export, as the documentary Does Your Soul Have a Cold? begins to explore.

But what really caught my attention in this story is the idea that the pharmaceutical industry is witnessing a phenomena that is becoming familiar to the media/entertainment industry – the death of “hits” or the multi-billion dollar blockbuster.

As Henri Termeer, chief executive of Genzyme, a big biotechnology firm, argues, “the blockbuster model becomes less important over time as specialized therapies take off.”

As Chris Anderson describes:

The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of “hits” (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail.

Anderson does anticipate this economic trend extending beyond media and entertainment, but it is still a real trip imaging these forces playing out beyond the realm of information goods/services and in the realm of physical goods. I mean, I have often heard that media can be considered a drug, but the reverse is a bit harder to swallow – drugs as a form of media?

Of course, as I speculated when I was conjuring Free Energy if It really is derived from Bit then we shouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the economic forces that govern information systems also apply to physical goods. (You can probably arrive at a similar conclusion without resorting to quasi-mystical metaphysics, but I like invoking this perspective).

The forces at play in the world of pharma are actually strikingly similar to the entertainment world. Perhaps the rise of
genomics and personalized pills (not very far off) is equivalent to user created content on the internet.

Hit-driven economics is a creation of an age without enough room to carry everything for everybody. Not enough shelf space for all the CDs, DVDs, and games produced. Not enough screens to show all the available movies. Not enough channels to broadcast all the TV programs, not enough radio waves to play all the music created, and not enough hours in the day to squeeze everything out through either of those sets of slots.

This is the world of scarcity. Now, with online distribution and retail, we are entering a world of abundance. And the differences are profound.

It’s certainly a tall order to replace a multi-billion dollar pipeline overnight as a drug comes out of patent, but perhaps the end of the blockbuster, one-size-fits all drug will lead to a healthier world of personalized treatment tailored to an individual’s needs, not a lab rat’s.

The Organizational Digital Divide

ChasmAn emerging breed of collaboration tools, born and incubated in the free software world, is radically improving the ways that people work together. These aren’t just toys for techies anymore. Just as the word processor became an essential tool for every writer to master, the network is the new medium that advocates and activists need to embrace in order to be effective.

Organizations who fail to recognize this opportunity will waste valuable resources wrestling with the torrents of information they are responsible for managing. How many groups continue to collaborate on press releases or grant proposals by sending around multiple versions of word documents? How many organizations share a single email account to manage constituent relations and their common contact information? How many emails must be exchanged for a small group of people to schedule a meeting?

The “writeable web” has spawned a new generation of networked, web-based authoring environments that can significantly increase an organization’s ability to realize its goals. These environments are not a panacea – at best, they will catalyze and facilitate an improvement in communication and processes. While technology alone will not guarantee a change in a group’s culture, it can play an instrumental role raising the self-awareness around an organization’s processes, and in turn, help improve them.

These alternatives have the potential to help fulfill some of the Internet’s early promise by significantly improving the efficiency and productivity of non-profits, NGO’s and activist groups alike. Such tools can dramatically improve the management of knowledge, communities, and projects, and enable coordination and collaboration across thousands of participants. They are rapidly being adopted by corporations eager to move beyond the e‑mail inbox as the primary task management and collaboration platform. Organizations of all shapes and sizes need to evaluate and embrace these technologies, or risk falling behind in differential efficiency, victims of an organizational digital divide.

A simple mailing list combined with a wiki can thoroughly transform workflow and hierarchy within an organization. But this is just the start. Project management tools, collaboration platforms, and content management systems are transforming the functionality of intranets. By better balancing flows of communication and power, these collaboration tookits can boost an organization’s productivity, and increase the return on a philanthropic investment. With the proper tuning and
training , web-based collaboration tools can help an organization achieve important strategic objectives such as transparency, accountability, and sustainability.

Like the telegraph and the railroad in their time, the Internet has been heralded as the promoter of equality, freedom, and democracy. And like the technologies that preceded it, its impact will ultimately derive from the ways we choose to use it. We need to be more deliberate in our choices of communication technologies, since these tools shape the dynamics of the connections between us. Software has gone social, but it’s not just for socializing. There is important and hard work to be accomplished and we need to be using technology intelligently so that we
can communicate and act more purposefully and efficiently.
[I originally wrote this piece for an op-ed assignment in a class on Media and Rights in Development]

Second Life Political Rallies?

psychicGiven the Alchemist’s recent trackrecord of predictions, I am going to pass along another prediction that we came up with at lunch the other day.

The ’08 presidential campaign will witness political rallies, and probably counter-protests, inside of second life (for activists who don’t have a first life?)

We also wondered if the recent moves to restrict people’s right to assemble publicly in New York City (see Assemble for Rights) might carry over into cyberspace. No more than 50 avatars per server?

I’m not sure if even Gonzales would have the gumption to distort our constitutional right to assembly, but like with his recent frightening attack on habeas corpus, the constitution only states that “Congress shall make no law.. abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble,” – so executive orders or judicial rulings might be fair game?

He is the Law

killer_robot.jpgWhile we continue to arm the robots at an alarming rate, the real transition of power and control is far more subtle and insidious. Humanity is ceding power to the machines, but not at gunpoint. Rather, we are relinquishing our will to the machines through the kinds of bureaucratic machinery Max Weber and Terry Gilliam would have a hard time imagining.

I am talking about the reification of bureaucracy in the form of software – the rules that we all live by are being carved into stone, or more accurately, etched in silicon. Code == Law?

Some industries have already made this transition. From the sympathetic bartenders unable to extend happy hour a moment past 7pm, to the tele-tellers who inform the customer that “the system” will not allow them to exercise any judgment or compassion, some systems are already being governed by the machines. But this is just the start.

In the corporate world, IBM is banking on the tight relationship between software and processes. I recently attended a talk presented by their VP of Services, Stu Feldman, and he relayed an anecdote about certain contracts in the financial sector which are no longer governed by legal documents. The final word on maturation and vesting is expressed in a crufty old C program… Considering some of these deals are worth billions, the impact is suddenly more significant than an overpriced cocktail or an unwaied late fee.


The starkest example of this trend to date, is the recent announcement by the chinese government that software issue judgments in criminal cases. While they justify this system on the grounds that it will help eliminate the effects of corruption and bribery, reality’s reassemblance to pulp science fiction is growing by the day.

peer-to-peer pressure

history of peer to peerI had an interesting conversation with Brian Taptich, the VP of Business Development at and gained an insight into the machinations of the industry.

I learned that “Big Media” only now appreciates how good they had it back in Napster days, when every file download was logged and tracked through the central Napster server. Now that they are starting down the barrel of true peer-to-peer networking (which bittorrent — the protocol, not the company — affords), they have the perspective to appreciate in hindsight the benefits that omni-present surveillence provides for them.

You could even speculate that’s value proposition is to turn the bittorrent protocol, back into Napster. If they become the central clearinghouse of bittorrent seeds, they can (and will) keep records of all of the network activity. What files are being exchanged, and who is exchanging them.

In bittorrent, the seeds are the servers, and technically these seeds can be distributed all across the Internet. I was really surprised to learn that Brian was actually aware of an obscure branch of Austrian code for the PloneMultimedia product which auto-generates bittorrent seeds (which we helped merge into the trunk at the Big Apple Sprint). Apparently, The Lawyers were getting all antsy about the existence of tools which make seeding all too easy. Right now, it takes a degree of technical know how to create these ad-hoc bittorrent servers, but once the auto-generation tools make it out to the premier blog, wiki, and CMS platforms, there won’t be much stopping them.

The delicate balance between the overly concentrated power of centralized services vs. their practical usefulness is a theme I began to explore in my post on Serenity. I have also imagined other contexts (e.g. Creative Commons licensing) where simply landing an important feature in the top dozen authoring tools could really shift the scales in terms of adoption. I continue to actively wonder what features could be introduced to these tools to promote equality, democracy, and social justice.

Someone should tell the lawyers that the cat’s head has already wriggled out of the bag, and when she gets out she is going to teach her peers the same trick.

Turtle Totems

Seymor PapertSeymour Papert , the inventor of Logo, spoke at Teachers College on Monday April 10th. I was lucky enough to hear him talk in a standing-room-only event. My former employer, Idit Caperton
studied with Papert, and MaMaMedia incorporated many of the principles he advocated.

His ideas, once stated, are remarkably simple and obvious–usually a mark of the good ones. He thinks we are teaching mathematics ass-backwards, and that we ought to introduce it the way it came about in the history of humanity – engineering first. This approach will create and foster the demand for mathematics. Pyramids, navigation, astronomy, all drove the development of mathematics – and robotics and programming can provoke and instigate the need for mathematical abstraction in education. Sounds about right.

Interestingly, his experiments have led to anecdotal accounts of a reversal of the gender discrepancy in science/math. He claims with an engineering first approach, girls actually quickly excel beyond the boys, venturing beyond speed and destruction to the mastery of a much wider variety of skills with the systems.

He also demonstrated, in 10 minutes flat, how logo can be used to teach 2nd graders the notion of a mathematical theorem (in creating any closed shape, the turtle will rotate through a full 360 degrees – repeat N {fd 10 rt 360/N}) as well as how to introduce calculus (through the idea of the limit). He made the point that once a second grader is arguing — “that’s not a circle, its lots and lots of short lines”, you have already won…

If logo has a failing, its that it does not provide the necessary scaffolding for teachers other than Papert to effectively teach with it. I have been exposed to logo in the past, but never really understood its appeal until Seymour started turtling.

Interestingly, Logo is far from irrelevant. Mark Shuttleworth’s ClassroomCoders curriculum imagines a logo->squeak->python pipeline for educating the programmers of the future…

Seymour is also heavily involved in the $100 laptop project, a project which many consider to be one of the most important educational initiatives currently underway.

Is anyone watching grandma?

kino eyeOn Friday I had a chance to meet with a group of Artificial Intelligence researchers at Carnegie-Melon university. They demonstrated a working technology, Informedia, which I would have guessed was at least 3-5 years off.

What was most incredible about this demonstration was the vivid observation of the trenches in which the information war is being waged. Like any power, technology can bend towards good or evil, and as this post points out, Social Software can be understood as the purposeful use of technology for the public good.

The surveillance possibilities that machine based processing of video and film affords is mind-boggling and horrifying (for more on this angle, see my bioport papers or the Permanent Records presentation). At the same time, the kinds of research, machine based assistance, and even the ways in which this kind of technology would change journalism, could all be harnessed for the public good.

Is transparency, openness, and free culture our best bet for steering and harnessing these powers productively?

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