On Writing about the NSA and Terrorism on September 11, 2001

The proliferation of cell phones, e-mail and faxes is making the hunt for terrorists increasingly more difficult. Security agencies have literally billions of messages to sift through every day — many with encryptions that make it impossible for anyone other than the intended recipient to read. — From the opening of “Hiding Like Snakes in the E-Grass” on Wired.com on Sept. 14, 2001.

Throughout the years, I’ve been haunted by two stories that I worked on while at Wired.com. The first story was never published. ((In the days after one of the early 9/11 commission reports in 2002, the Wired.com journalists poured through the document. While most people gravitated to the larger stories. I was intrigued by a few throwaway lines about vulnerability of the power grid because of old and failing sensors. After 3 weeks of reporting, I was ready to file my stories when I decided to leave the company during a round of layoffs. I left my notes with an editor, but I turned my attention to my own book. In August 2003, the New York City power grid went down for precisely the reasons outlined in the report and my reporting.)) This is the story of the second one, which which came out in the days after September 11.

As the nation tried to collect itself in the hours, minutes, and days after the terrorist attacks, our president rightfully spent a great deal of time and energy reassuring the public. While I didn’t vote for President George W. Bush, I’ve always believed that as an American it’s our duty to support and back our leader (even if we respectfully disagree.) I have little tolerance for those who find it appropriate to cast insults. As such, I appreciated the president’s steadfast and earnest compassion that he showed on those workers who were on the ground. ((He always seemed much better when he was ‘hanging out’ than when we was reading speeches.))

What I didn’t believe, though, was the insistence that we could adequately monitor digital communications in order to find out if there were looming threats.

As a technology journalist, I was dubious. Such a system was simply not possible unless you believed the rumored capacity of Echelon really existed or you believed backdoor technologies like the Clipper chip had been secretly deployed. Short of that, you simply couldn’t monitor every IM, chat, and private conversation in a meaningful, real-time way back then.

I began reporting my story on September 12. I called security experts, analysts, academics, and scientists while trying to wrap my head around just what we could and couldn’t realistically accomplish in terms of monitoring communications.

“What’s Next?”

Lately I’ve been asking myself a simple question: “What’s next?”

I go through these moments of self reflection as I near the end of a large project. In this case, I’m in the final stages of rewriting Dungeons & Dreamers after several years of on-again/off-again work with my friend and co-author John Borland. The book is now with the copy editor, marketing plans are underway, and we’re just waiting for the last screws to be tightened.

Certainly my time has already been taken up with other activities: So Far Appalachia is underway, my teaching at Ball State continues, and a semi-secret project at the university continues.

But those are projects I’m doing. They aren’t the answer to “What’s next?”

As I’ve reflected on that question, I’ve skimmed an article penned by my former boss.Writing in MIT’s Technology Review, editor Jason Pontin argued “Why We Can’t Solve Problems” in today’s technological world. The premise: We once tried to land on the moon; we now try to make the best software app. We have stopped trying to solve big problems because they are hard.

He talked about this dilemma at the TED conference:

For the past few years, I’ve been aimlessly searching for the Big Problem that I want to work on. As it stands, I’m starting to get the sense of what the problem is. It’s been percolating in my head for a few years, but I’ve not moved forward on it in any meaningful way.

SXSW Accelerator: An Evolution of Business

SXSW AcceleratorIn 2009, the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive coordinators decided to carve out a corner of the conference where those people interested in start-ups, emerging technology, and entrepreneurship could gather.

At the time, this wasn’t necessarily a popular move. For years the conference focused on emerging technologies, media, and creative endeavors. The thought of turning SXSW into a business conference concerned some long-time attendees.

As part of that move SXSW quietly launched Accelerator, a program in which early-stage companies from across the globe would compete to convince a panel of venture capitalists, media experts, and business leaders that their idea was worth funding.

Early on there wasn’t much promotion. It was a mad scramble just to pull everything together in a professional manner. To do the heavy lifting, Hugh Forrest tapped Chris Valentine, who then set about creating the program, organizing the logistics, and working with sponsors.

Since I knew my way around the conference and was readily accessible, I was asked to co-emcee the all-day event. My job was simple: shepherd the start-up companies on and off stage, keep the show running on time, and make sure that all of our judges and co-emcees had the chance to ask questions.

Six years later the Accelerator has grown into an amazing part of the SXSW Interactive universe. Some 56% of the companies that participated have received funding, and all told those companies have raised $587 million, including companies such as Klout and (now Apple’s) Siri.

Whenever people ask me what I do at SXSW these days, this is the story that I tell.

2009

Brad and Guy 2In our first year my co-emcee was Guy Kawasaki, who started at Apple in 1983 before leaving to become a technology evangelist.

While our program started small, Guy’s participation and insights helped generate a great deal of buzz around the program. In between sessions, people lined up to get a few moments with him (and our winners were more than stoked to have the chance to get a picture).

A Very SXSW Interactive 2013 Recap

Every year, South by Southwest Interactive changes for me.

When I first started coming in the mid-1990s, I wrote about music and stumbled upon technology. By 1998, I’d largely abandoned the music conference for what we now call Interactive. I was a journalist, then a moderator, then a panelist, and now I’m a mixture of all three when I emcee the SXSX Accelerator finals.

What hasn’t changed for me, though, is that every year SXSW is the most intense, most humbling, and most accessible learning space that I have. Within 10 days, I have the opportunity to fill up on bits of information that I’ll spend much of the next year processing.

This year, I decided to stay out of the mix, and just listen to the summaries that filtered up to me. Here’s what I learned:

2013 is the year of hardware:

A few years ago, I had a conversation with some of the SXSW organizers about the proliferation of social media types. I was concerned that we were seeing a shift from hackers and makers to talkers, and that technological acumen was being pushed aside by second-class punditry.

This year, SXSW leaped that chasm and the hackers and makers re-emerged in a public way (although I’m sure there are still a plethora of the talkers). Nowhere was the more present than with the concept of 3d printers, which was trumpeted by MakerBot’s kickoff presentation and MakieLab’s 3d printed toys project that won the SXSW Accelerator Entertainment Technologies competition.

Build, Build, and Make:

The Relatively of Wrong, or How I Evaluate Technology

This well-written piece by the New York Times Nick Bilton, “Disruption: When Sharing on Facebook Comes at a Cost” came across my feed this morning. Bilton does an excellent job dissecting the problem of trying to build a business model using Facebook. Entrepreneurs of all levels should read it.

However, Bilton’s analysis isn’t a surprise. In fact, this is the inevitable architecture of Facebook, which was always been built upon the idea of private networks, limited interaction, and hidden messages.

I. Technology As Distrust

One of the reasons I decided to (re)-pursue my teaching career after 12 years as a journalist was my realization that the industry wasn’t solving its most basic problem: understanding technology.

When I started my career in 1995 as a news aide at Cincinnati CityBeat, a local weekly, my then-boss refused to allow me to telnet into the Cincinnati Public Library to do our daily research. Instead of allowing me to access and print the files she needed (while she sat across from me), she made me trudge a few blocks down the road so that I could physically sit in the building.

When I asked why, she said she didn’t trust that what I was getting was the same as what was in the library.

In many ways, I would have that exact conversation in news rooms throughout the next decade. As new technologies emerged that were built on the increasingly user-friendly Web platform, the possibilities for its use seemed both endless and untrustworthy.

The platform was too good. The possibilities too great. Surely, the reasoning went, nobody could understand how to use these, and so those new tools were relegated to a pile in the corner, one that future generations could sort through.

II. What You Don’t Actually Know

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