Hello good readers! It is time once again for a retrospective look at the top ten digital events of 2016. And what a year it was – elections, political intrigue, hacking, and more! Some very impressive people and action deserve their just rewards, i.e., fifteen seconds of snarky comments.
The award is called a Sally. Why? It is named for Sally Field, a.k.a., the flying nun, who used that start on television to gain more serious movie roles. She eventually won an academy award, and famously said, “You like me, you really like me.” All that – you might have noticed – has absolutely no relationship with digital technology. Which is the point. Nobody should take this too seriously. It is just a blog and we are here to have fun.
As in the past, winning an award generates nothing of any material significance for the winner except a little sarcasm (and in some cases a lot of sarcasm). This time we have sarcasm and snark ready for the most original scripts, best explosions, best animation, best drama, and best monster merger, and more! With that, let’s get started…
Most original non-fiction. The first Sally goes to Twitter for sponsoring the 18 month series titled “The twitter election.” Even though we would like to wake up from this nightmarish plot, who could forget the plot? A nearly bankrupt messaging service turned out to be an effective vehicle for delivering messages that never would have gotten through the mainstream newspaper editorial filter. And look what happened? Both established political parties lost the presidential election! How did that happen? Well, put down your beer and pay attention to these details, people: it all started when a reality TV celebrity with a history of supporting the birther movement decided to take the next step and run for senior class president. He did it with the ethical self-restraint of a conman, without any apparent ability to study facts or prepare for a debate, and with the help of a self-image that knows no shame or reflection even in the presence of obvious error. What a way to manipulate the news cycle! For some voters the appeal was authenticity, because, as it turns out, a fraction of US voters enjoy listening to boorish putdowns, denials of climate change, and racist opinions. Once the momentum got rolling, another fraction signed on, because they hated the opposing candidate with an irrational foam-in-the-mouth passion bordering on suicidal nihilism, and they just needed a constant stream of inconsistent half-thoughts to stir up their resentment. The big surprise was the last part of this coalition, the modest mid-western sensible folk who usually favored guns and god, and dutifully tuned into debates. It turned out that just enough of them were willing to overlook three terrible debate performances, and the seventy years of living without a moral compass – but only because the debate opponent was an overqualified woman and the sins came from a Republican. Sad. *Sigh*
Best explosions. Let’s take a break from the presidential election and turn to smart phones. This year a special Sally goes to Samsung for designing and producing a phone that catches fire, which could be very handy if you took your smart phone on a camping trip and you wanted to start a forest fire! Not only did Samsung completely bungle the recall, but they received help destroying their brand from the FAA, who required the offending product to be turned off before takeoff. You know your brand is in trouble when every day and every hour, across thousands of flights, passengers hear a safety message reminding them that one of Samsung’s phones is at risk to take down the plane. Only terrorists use them now, because what does the potential highjacker say? “I am taking command of this plane, and if anybody puts up resistance I will turn on this smartphone!” Most remarkable of all, as yet, no CEO has been fired.
Field of dreams award. The Cubs win the World Series! Holy Cow! Cubs win! Cubs win! Cubs win! Hard to believe, but the 108 year drought ended with the best ever seventh game of a world series – extra innings, a rain delay to stretch out the agony, and enough heartbreak and tension to make Harry Carry turn in his grave! It involved a contest between the two longest losers in professional baseball, transferring the record from the Cubs (108 years) to the Indians (68 years and still counting). Alright, alright, why does this deserve a Sally? The award goes to the Chicago Mayor’s Office for exaggeration. Check out the online reports, which state that five million people celebrated in Chicago on a beautiful Friday in early November. Yes, you read that correctly. On a Friday a lot of people showed up for the parade. Indeed, holding the parade on a workday did not deter the turnout. (No parade would ever be held on a Saturday, because – oh, no – then the police would have to be paid overtime.) According to online lists, the celebration was the seventh largest gathering in human history, right behind the pope’s visit to the Philippines and the funeral for the Ayatollah Khomeini. Alright, look up from your beer and get a grip on the truth. News reports at the time of the parade estimated the gathering at much lower levels. All day long the announcers kept saying three and half million people had come out to fill Grant Park and Michigan Avenue. (How do I know that? Heck, my children skipped school, and my wife took them to the parade. I watched online.) But after a few days the numbers in news reports seemed to grow and grow, egged on by the Mayor’s office. Why? Because the Mayor’s office knew that five million just sounded better, and the Internet likes a round number. Come on people, it is ok to be proud of three and a half million! And there is nothing wrong with being the eighth largest gathering. Sheesh. Such exaggeration. How do such falsehoods survive on the Internet?
Most original fiction. Speaking of false facts, this Sally goes to all the fake news that illustrated Mark Zuckerberg’s tin ear. What is a fake news story? These are stories invented by writers solely for the purposes of generating advertising dollars in the Facebook ecosystem, usually by writing a fantasy story with made-up facts that played to reader’s biases. For example, apparently somebody wrote a story that the Pope endorsed Donald Trump, and even though that is completely implausible, a million people passed it along. Sad. Alright, put down your beer again, and let’s walk through the details. It all started simple enough, when Facebook decided to rely on its algorithms to favor stories that other friends favor, and refused to put a human in there to eliminate the junk. That meant that Kardashians and Caitlyn Jenner moved up, and so did news that Chelsea Clinton had given birth to a space alien. Sure enough, very soon some entrepreneurial kids in Macedonia and Bulgeria — who were just trying to earn a few dollars, after all — learned the first lesson of grocery store tabloids: An invented story always beats a real one. So they just started inventing stuff that got passed around, especially stories about Donald Trump, which seemed to attract outrageous attention. The algorithm did not know the difference, so true and fake stood next to one another on Facebook, blending the New York Times with juicy click-bait. After the election, reporters started asking questions about whether all that fake stuff had any consequences on the election. Demonstrating conclusively that he lives in a bubble, Zuke expressed skepticism that unverified click bait could sway 2% of the voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida. Ha, ha. Real funny, Mark. We know you were just kidding. The adults still on the platform have a message for you: we can put up with the Kardashians and even an occasional piece of fiction about Area 51, but not with blatantly false facts about public matters. Fix this now. If you don’t, then don’t be surprised if adults get disgusted and decide to leave for another platform. And remember, adults all have an example. After all, we could just follow our teenage kids, who have already left Facebook for Snapchat.
Best hacking by a minor character in a James Bond movie. Every year a Sally goes to someone for the best hacking story. This year all the runner-ups for this award sound like rejected plots from an rejected script for a 007 movie. After all, the first runner up is North Korea’s (apparent) attempt to take one billions dollars from banks in the Philippines and Bangladesh by manipulating the SWIFT interbank–transfer system. If they had succeeded, it would have yielded a sum equal to ten percent of North Korea’s GDP. The next runner up comes from our friends at Yahoo, who have now discovered that their emails systems were hacked – not once, but twice (!) – of half a billion passwords in 2014 and also a billion passwords in 2013. Too bad for them that Verizon has hired some lawyers to renegotiate the purchase price… The third runner up is the hack of the Democratic headquarters. It revealed the shocking (!) fact that professional politicians talk about politics in their email. This does not win an award because it generated a public request from Trump that the Russians hack HRC. That was disgraceful and out of bounds, and does not deserve even the meager sarcasm of this blog. The last and final runner up is the hack of the Panamanian law firm who did all the sleazy legal work to hide money. It shamed a few politicians and international business folks from corrupt countries. It would have generated far more outrage, but the US presidential election exhausted everyone instead.…. So… the award must go to the Russians who hacked Colin Powell’s account. Why? Because it revealed that Powell, who was a model citizen of restraint as a public servant, actually has sharp thoughts in private. The emails reveal that he thinks Trump is a national disgrace and HRC acts with too much hubris, which – come to think of it – are pretty accurate statements. More to the point, the hack left most people waiting for more (I am looking at you, Russian hackers). Everyone wants to know: what sort of emails did Powell send after it was discovered that the CIA gave him incorrect intelligence about WMDs in Iraq? And what does Colin Powell think of the emperor of hubris, Donald Rumsfeld? Now that would be something to read.
Most Original Lawsuit. Normally the award for a lawsuit goes for a patent dispute (i.e., Oracle and Google have won this for several years in a row), but this year the most original lawsuit came from an unexpected litigant….. The Sally goes to Peter Thiel. Yes, that Peter Thiel, the billionaire who helped fund Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker. Why did he do it? Time to put down your beer, once again, and pay attention to details. Thiel got angry about some gossip written about him, sponsored by the parent company, which used to run a caustic gossip sheet called ValleyWag. So he funded the Hulk Hogan trial, which essentially weighed two sides. On the one hand, Gawker tried to mimic real journalists, tried to expose serious stories, ask illuminating questions, and shed light on the less apparent aspects of the scene. On the other hand, it also did so with no restraining moral floor, never hesitating to publish sex tapes and other lurid gossip. And the verdict favored the side that got outraged, proving once again that billionaires who love the rough and tumble of free speech will abandon their principles when it involves their own interests. Let’s take a step back from this specific episode and reflect on why Thiel deserves this award. Here it is: Thiel was the only major Silicon Valley titan to endorse Trump, and Thiel never called out Trump for using free speech to lie incessantly, and insult and ridicule his opponents, and shamelessly cite false facts without any moral floor. Think about it, people. That would be ironic if it were not so tragic. Sad. Again.
Best animation. This year the Sally for animation goes to Pokemon Go! How could a top ten list not find a way to mention these crazy virtual creatures with aspirations to augment reality? The craze became massively popular. Many otherwise perfectly sane adults were spotted wandering in random public parks trying to catch rare virtual creatures. Really. This actually happened. It was not a fake story for Facebook. Now, here is the real challenge: Try to explain this to a six year old child without laughing. Oh, by the way, it also sold well, so expect many more. Coming to an app store near you.
Most original drama. This Sally goes to Tim Cook for telling the FBI that it had overstepped its rights by asking Apple to build a backdoor to the iPhone of the San Bernadino terrorist. That took real guts. Even though the actual situation makes me rather squeamish, I have to admire Tim Cook, who is the rare CEO who knows how to take a stand. Indeed, he appears to have a more consistent moral compass than Thiel, and a more grounded sense of reality than Zuckerberg, and the backbone to live by the courage of his convictions. Alright, alright, look up from the beer, and try to pay attention to the details. As insiders knew, the FBI was full of bluster. Building such a door was unlikely to yield much useful information. Of course, that was not the point. US law enforcement had been trying to get legal rights to obligate firms to provide backdoors for a while, so the FBI pressed their legal rights in the terrorist case because the events provided a good excuse, and had a better chance of winning in court. This was just part of a long term FBI strategy to gradually move the legal boundary over time. The FBI was surprised to find Apple calling its bluff. Cook merely pointed out that the FBI did not have the right to get inside every phone, and it should not assume that such backdoors are safe. Tim Cook had listened to most experts, who said that, once found, backdoors tend to spread to bad actors, such as totalitarian governments, eventually corrupting all other products. As it turned out, neither side got to go to court, as the FBI found someone who was willing to show it a trick to getting inside. In case you missed the implication, this means there will be sequel. So stayed tuned.
IT servers as a McGuffin. Every other year somebody earns an award for an object or device in a movie or a book that serves as a trigger for a convoluted plot, a.k.a., a McGuffin. This Sally goes to “The Private Email Server” that cost Hillary the election. In case you missed it (and if you did miss it, where have you been the last six months?), here is a synopsis. Yes, put down the beer again and pay attention: Like most sixty year old women with a new job in 2009, Hillary tried to set up an email account. Unfortunately, she had taken a job with a government that had an email system only a third world country would admire. Following the example set by her predecessor, Colin Powell, she set up a private email server, which turned out to be more efficient and more secure than government systems (e.g., see the subsequent hacking at the IRS and all personnel records for federal employees). Ah, but did she get credit for that? Heck no. It did not deter her political opponents from smelling a faux scandal after failing to find one during the Bengazi investigation. As it happened, like most people, she used the system for personal matters too. When she left office she knew the work emails were public record, but the private ones were not. So she hired a law firm to delete all the personal messages, such as the oh-so-scandalous discussions between her spouse and daughter about who not to invite to her daughter’s wedding. That attracted the attention of Congress and the direct intervention of the FBI director, James Comey – who took time out from his fight with Apple. He was brought into the picture because, of course, he knew the subtle differences between browser-based email and server-based email. In July the director failed to surprise a single expert, and concluded that Hillary did not break any law. From there the story just got hysterical (in many senses of the word except those relating to humor). Breaking with decades of precedent, a week before the election Comey chose to remind everyone that a few rogue agents at the FBI did not agree with the announcement in July. As it turned out, these agents were trying hard to find a stray illegal email on the laptop of the husband of an aide. (The husband is Anthony Wiener and he was being investigated for soliciting sex with a minor.) At the time Comey claimed he did not believe the timing of his action could lead 2% of the voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida to switch their votes. Listen up Republican Senators with integrity: That makes Comey either a lying partisan director or just a plain naïve one, and in either case it undermines his authority with approximately 48.2 percent of the voting adults in the country. Which is not good for the long term institutional integrity of the FBI, which (surely) has more important things to worry about than emails on laptops. Anyway, what is the biggest surprise? Speaking as an IT expert, I would like to note that this might be the first time ever that a mediocre IT decision cost somebody the CEO job.
Best monster merger. The awards have gone on for too long, so it is time to finish with the worst merger of the year. Every year there are many good runner-ups. First runner up is Microsoft’s purchase of Linked-in for 26 billion dollars. What does Linked-in have to do with Skype and Outlook? How is Microsoft ever going to get a return on its purchase? Which is worse? Being recruited while writing emails? Or Skyping with recruiters you do not want to hear from? The second runner up is AT&T’s proposed purchase of Time Warner. This will create a firm with every incentive to deny its assets to competitors, and use their own assets to gain advantage over others. And why doesn’t antitrust just kill this immediately? Because there already is one monster (i.e., Comcast and NBC/Universal), and the lawyers are hoping to argue that one bad merger justifies another. Anyway, the winner of the Sally for worst merger is much smaller and insignificant, and, thus, illustrates all the malevolence of a merger that eliminates competition. That’s right: the Sally goes to Fandango for its purchase of Rotten Tomatoes! Never heard of them? OK, time again to put down the beer, and pay attention to details. This merger involved two firms who operate two competing web sites. The first one, Fandago, is a heavily biased web site which sells theater tickets. Given the incentives that come from those sales, no movie ever gets a bad rating. Specifically, no review ever falls below three (Yes, this is a fact. You can look it up). The site they purchased, Rotten Tomatoes, does not sell tickets. Accordingly, its ratings display more integrity, and, frankly, more honesty. It gives bad movies bad ratings, as they deserve! Hey wait a minute, does that mean the dishonest and commercial web site bought the honest and independent one? Yes, people, it does! Isn’t there a law against this sort of thing? No, people, there is not. Because, you know, entry is easy on the Internet, and in a few years maybe another unbiased site might emerge to fill this space. Or not. And, frankly, the FTC has better things to do with its time than police movie reviews online. So the quality of online information will erode ever so gradually, as we slouch closer to the end of the world. But don’t you worry, people, the end of the world can’t happen unless pigs learn to fly, the presidency is handed to a man-child, and the Cubs win the World Series. Oh, wait a minute….
We have gone through all ten awards, and now it is time give a special Lifetime achievement award. The Sally goes to the wizards at Industrial Light and Magic for recreating life itself. Specifically, they used CGI to bring Peter Cushing back to life as General Tarkin in the movie Rogue One, whose plot falls between Star Wars III and IV, with more weight going to IV. Call it Star Wars 3.9. Anyway, you read that right. Cushing died in 1994, but he shows up in a 2016 movie with his suave voice issuing orders to kill cities and planets with the Death Star. Needless to say, this is very difficult to explain to a thirteen year old, but just try to do so without pausing to consider how extraordinary that is…. Hey, wait, wait, wait, something is not right here. Only those who have mastered the dark side of the force could have found a way to live forever. Oh, no, George Lucas, say it ain’t so…
And now we are done. Cue in the closing song…
The preceding is republished on TAP with permission by its author, Professor Shane Greenstein, Harvard Business School. “Top Ten Digital Events of 2016” was originally published on Digitopoly on December 26, 2016.