Technology Awards for 2012

It is time to end this year by giving out technology awards! This post contains a baker’s dozen. They go to firms and managers who took notable actions in technology markets in 2012.

There are no fixed categories of awards. Some categories are recycled from last year’s awards, but some are new. Just like last year’s awards, there are three criteria. The winner had to do something in 2012. The action had to involve information and communications technology. It had to be notable.

The awards come with plenty of sarcasm and it does not come with a statue. The prize is a virtual badge called a “Sally,” affectionately named for Sally Field, famous for her flying nun and her cry at the Oscars, “You like me, you really like me!”

If you do not like this year’s awards, please use the commentary section to make additional suggestions.

Also, one last note: None of this should be taken seriously. Most of these awards are given with tongue firmly in cheek. The exceptions come near the end, in awards 11 and 12, which contain a preachy tone. Sorry, but not all of life is fun.

Let’s get started:

1.Lost in Space award. The first Sally goes to Apple for the mess it made for itself by releasing an inaccurate map and making it the default. There is nothing wrong with experimenting with new software utilities, as long as the company calls it beta. Apple did not use that label. It just released this software and let users find all the mistakes. To make matters worse, Apple did not arrange for alternatives from other map makers (Google, in particular), even though those alternatives could have been available had the others been given enough notice. This came across as an arrogant and selfish and incompetent attempt to crowd-source corrections from the army of loyal iPhone users. Tim Cook deserves every ounce of criticism for presiding over such a mess, and he deserves lots of credit for reversing course quickly. His actions became a study in listening to his users, taking responsibility for the mistake by firing the executive who managed this release, and for openly apologizing to users.

2.Best foreign film. The winner of the Sally goes to the Gangnam video on YouTube. It has acquired a place in the history of popular culture as the first video to achieve one billion views. This award also comes with some disappointment and a measure of resignation. It is no surprise that somebody would reach one billion views. For many years there have been predictions that the global diffusion of information technology would lead to the organic emergence of a global culture, a blending of images from many lands and a shared experience cutting across borders. Call me an idealist, but somehow I always had imagined this moment differently. I had imagined a video that would combine the best of world cultures. It would begin with someone like Susan Boyle singing soft sweet Irish melody, then Kabuki actors would join her and sing a Mozart opera aria. That would segue into a rhythmic Balinese rendition of the Ramayana, and finally end with a soulful saxophone from John Coltrane. As it turns out, however, the first video to gain a billion views does none of that. Instead, it draws from the lowest common denominator. It is a ridiculous K-pop video laced with garish wardrobe choices, herky-jerky dancing, and attention-deficit issues. *sigh*

3. Amateur video with the most punch. The Sally this year has to go to the film recording of Mitt Romney making his remark about the “47 percent” of America. More than most amateur online videos, this one was an excellent study in how to use the Internet’s buzz to maximal destructive effect. That was, after all, the intent of Mother Jones, the left-wing organization who released it. No, really, it does not take a paranoid right-wing conspiracy theorist to see a conspiracy behind these events. The video had been taken when Romney made the remarks in the spring, but did not get circulated until September. Deliberate timing? Of course. Surely somebody sat on it for a while in order to find a moment to maximize the impact. They released it just a few weeks after the political conventions were done, but far enough in front of the election to make an impression. Boy, did it ever make an impression.

4. Best new reality show online. Speaking of manipulated events online, the Sally goes to Reddit for sponsoring the interchange between Barack Obama and a bunch of questioners in August. Don’t get me wrong. It was breathtaking to behold. It started this way: “Hi, I’m Barack Obama, President of the United States. Ask me anything. I’ll be taking your questions for half an hour starting at about 4:30 ET.” Then the site offered proof it was Obama by linking to his twitter feed… Can we all just pause for a moment and recognize this milestone? A sitting president answered questions in real time on an online site. Wow, what an interactive experiment in mass democracy! Having said that, let’s also take a moment to criticize the Obama campaign staff for treating the masses like a bunch of dolts. They released a photo of Obama sitting at a computer, which makes it appear as if he is some regular Joe (in a white shirt and tie, sleeves partially rolled up), doing his own typing, thinking his own thoughts. Ya, right. And we are supposed to believe this is not staged? As if he is all alone? Please. How many dozens of advisers stood just a little off-camera, providing suggestions on how to answer questions, checking off the key talking points?

5. Speaking of the presidential campaign, the next award is for “experience triumphing over hope.” This year Nate Silver receives the Sally for recognizing the biases in many overnight presidential polls. It seems that many polls kept showing that the race would be neck-and-neck until the end and genuinely did not forecast what actually happened, that it did not turn out to be close. Silver repeatedly forecast these problems. To his credit, he did not let hope interfere with hard-nosed analyses. He looked at the biases in several previous elections and examined the methods that produced those biases. He said many standard polls oversampled certain demographics, who tended to vote Republican, and undersampled certain demographics, who tended to vote Democrat. What does this have to do with IT, you may ask? It has everything to do with IT! For one, it is already challenging to get an accurate reading of who will vote and who they will vote for, but, it has gotten harder in recent times. A large and ever-growing fraction of young and mobile Americans lack landline phones, and, therefore, cannot be easily polled using traditional methods. In other words, if a poll-designer takes the easy-way-out and only uses listed phone numbers to make an overnight poll, then they will not get a representative sample. Getting a representative sample has become hard and expensive, and no single strategy works. It requires finding, for example, the mobile over-educated work force, and the English-as-a-second-language work force, and adults in several other demographic categories as well, all of whom rely on their cell phones exclusively. This mistake seems to have affected several national polling organizations, including Gallup and others. Hmmm, makes one wonder about many commonly cited polls, no?

6. That observation leads to our next Sally, which is award for letting “hope triumph over experience.” The award goes to Karl Rove, who had staked his reputation on the aforementioned biased polls. It led to one of the most remarkable events of election night. Live, on the air, he openly disagreed with the Fox News Desk, who had called the election. All viewers got to see a confrontation between the most prominent strategist in Republican circles and the statisticians of Fox News, strategist versus statistician. This type of debate normally takes place behind the scenes. Wow. More to the point, like other organizations, Fox had polled voters who had just left the voting booth, and that was definitely more accurate. Yet, bowing to Rove’s reputation and outburst, for a few minutes Fox’s anchors questioned the call of the presidential election – which, it should be noted, put them at odds with all the other major news broadcasters in the country, so the pressure was on them to either declare or recant. As it turned out, that confrontation did NOT reach “Dewey Defeats Truman” for major screw-ups in national news, because (as we now know) the professionals at the Fox News Desk stuck to their guns, and told Rove to bug off. They were certain their data was accurate. So, instead, this confrontation goes down in history merely as an extraordinary moment on national television, not an iconic mistake. Oh, what a relief.

7. Best supporting actor in an online protest. The Sally goes to Wikipedia for joining seven thousand web sites shutting down for a day in order to protest the SOPA/PIPA legislation. The protest led to something rather extraordinary for US politics: Normally Hollywood gets whatever it wants in copyright legislation. Instead, in a few days the whole process supporting SOPA/PIPA stopped, and then evaporated. It was amazing to watch all the scared representatives just walk away from the bills, even some of those who had put their names on the bills as sponsors (Talk about friends who will not stick around when the going gets tough). Anyway, the fallout is rather amazing. Acquaintances of mine in legal circles received emails and letters from shell-shocked lobbyists for movie studios, who have tried to make nice, as part of strategy to open a dialogue with those who opposed them. Such a dialogue would be in everyone’s interest, but would have been unthinkable a year ago. Let’s hope it happens. Copyright holders have legitimate commercial concerns, but they have never been in the habit of making room for the legitimate commercial concerns of others. Making copyright policy so it considers all such concerns would be a new change in US policy making. (Moreover, SOPA/PIPA were just badly written). Here is what I suggest: How about a meeting in neutral territory between Hollywood and Silicon Valley, like in the middle of the California? Perhaps, somebody should hold a meet-and-greet on Pismo Beach next to a beach bar-b-que, roasting marsh-mellows (Can you smell the smores?). Not the right style? Alright, then follow it up with a catered reception at Hearst’s Castle (Can you say, “Rosebud”?). What do you say, guys? Can you work out your differences ahead of time, so the Internet’s popular sites will not go down for a day ever again?

8. The empire strikes back. This year the Sally for empire striking goes to the International Telecommunications Union, which met in Dubai, and tried to adopt passages in a treaty that would take the first steps towards letting old-fashioned international organizations intervene in aspects of the Internet’s governance. The US resisted this effort, and so did many western countries, as well as a few allies from around the world. Underscoring how important this is, many governments around the world were willing to see a treaty fall apart over this seemingly simple detail. Does any friend of today’s Internet really think a slow slide into international bureaucratic supervision will be good for the Internet and world freedom? If the Internet ever gets to that place, please beam me up Scotty.

9. Most audacious actions by private enterprise. Each year there are always many nominees, but this year the Sally goes to Space-X for successfully putting rockets into space for commercial flights. Look, this has nothing to do with IT, and the business model is all about careful engineering designed to bring down operational costs on a hugely expensive activity. So why give Space-X the award? Because it is just real cool.

10. The most amazing statistic. The Sally this year goes to the statistic about the source of the highest fraction of traffic. For most of the last decade that peer-to-peer traffic has dominated backbone statistics. It mostly involves traffic for pirated movies in a bit-torrent format. But this year Netflix traffic overtook it, according to Sandvine, and accounts for a third of all downloading traffic at peak times (Bit-Torrent still dominates uploading traffic). In the wireless world, by the way, the related and analogous distinctions go to YouTube (downloading) and Facebook (uploading). Those statistics points to a very different future, as the Internet changes from one set of dominant applications to another.

11. Crass behavior award. This Sally goes to the photographer who climbed a tall utility tower and used high-powered cameras to take long-distance photos of Kate Middleton sunbathing topless. Leaving no doubt about the crassness of his actions, he then sold those photos to the French tabloid, which then put those photos on the cover of its publication. If that was not bad enough, many guys then pasted those pictures on the Internet for everyone outside of France to see. Didn’t you just want to yell at these people? “Dude, leave her alone!”

12. Speaking of lack of privacy, this next Sally is for “What was he thinking?” It goes to the FBI agent who investigated Paula Broadwell. Why does he get an award? Because the official explanations for his actions have never held up to scrutiny. According to official news accounts, Jill Kelly went to an FBI agent, who was a friend, because she received some harassing emails. He was taken off the case, and others investigated the emails for evidence of cyber-stalking. Not to minimize Jill Kelly’s concerns, but cases of cyber-stalking can involve hundreds of emails coming from a deranged person who threatens family members, and in bad cases it can happen repeatedly over many months. It is just awful. By comparison, Kelly received a couple of weird emails, accusing her of doing inappropriate things with Petraeus. Eventually (and not widely noted) no charges were filed, underlying something that most Internet legal experts recognize, namely, from the outset this investigation was based on mild legal grounds. Pretext in hand, however, the investigation then became very invasive. Broadwell went to some lengths to hide her identity in a Gmail account. Undeterred, the FBI agent got a warrant, linked Broadwell to the emails by affiliating the IP address with the Gmail account.That led the agents to “discover” that Broadwell was receiving email from another anonymous person, who “appeared” to be acting like the director of the CIA. According to the official account, this anonymous person also had a Gmail account hiding his identity. The FBI agent worked around the IP address, just as before, and unmasked Petraeus’ identity. According to official accounts, with all those dots connected, evidence in hand, the FBI then followed standard procedures for making it public, albeit, they gave everyone advanced warning, so Petraeus could first go to Obama and resign in advance of the inevitable publicity. You all know the rest.…. Doesn’t something seem wrong with this official account? Stepping back from that sequence, it does not take any paranoia to find it plausible that from the beginning the FBI agent who started the investigation had a pretty good suspicion about what and who he was going to find, and said so to others. He likely got that tip from Kelly, who probably had suspicions herself, because, after all, she was in the same social circles as Petraeus and Broadwell. That is why the FBI went to so much trouble. . In short, from the outset this was not about cyber stalking, or that was merely a pretext; rather, it was about bringing down a CIA director, who was having an affair. Finally, an additional observation seems to have escaped notice and deserves attention. Consider what the FBI would have done in the past with that information about Petraeus’ private life. In J. Edgar Hoover’s time, the information would never have gone public; Hoover would have kept it to himself and blackmailed the director of the CIA. But not the modern FBI, thank you. They cannot keep a secret and abuse it. That counts as progress. Oh, the irony.

13. Award for best casting. Let’s end on a lighter note. This Sally goes to whoever cast Sally Field as that feisty Mrs. Lincoln in the movie Lincoln. To be sure, Daniel Day Lewis put on an amazing performance, but so what? Please, please, please, members of the academy, give her an award. We all want to hear her reach the stage and say “You like me again, you really like me again.” Wouldn’t that be so sweet?

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