Category Archives: Week 11

How blackboxing inhibits design options

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My inspiration this week comes from a comment made by my fiancee about her new work team’s homepage.

Her complaint had to do with the uninviting nature of a webpage meant to serve as a landing page for Global Specialty Markets, featuring picture after picture of white men. The displaying of a white man’s headshot as the featured image for an article about a WaterAid project in Rwanda seemed at best tone deaf to socio-cultural expectations, and a bit too in line with stereotypes of the insurance industry.

To her, a standard user of the web based interfaces, this looked like a pretty glaring failure on the part of the marketing department. The degree of tone-deafness by the presumably capable marketing and communications team made me wonder what obstacles might lay in their path to amend these photos to more representative images.

The Website Architecture

Having been involved in the design of a new website featuring employee news articles for my last company, I remember learning about one of the key constraints put on us by our web design contractors. All articles were fundamentally linked to individual user accounts who were designated as Authors, these author accounts were incorporated into the metadata of the published pieces. Visitors to the page could search for pieces by particular authors and would see their name under the article heading, which would serve to as a link to their author profile.

The Socio-Cultural History of News

This whole system as an outsider seems very simple to work with and aligned well with what we expected based on our consumption of traditional print newspapers. Authors are always listed along with articles and inform our understanding of the point of view of the article. Their history as an author can be illuminating to the article at hand. As our employees were authors who could publish their articles through the website management portal, it made sense to tie their employee information, including their photos, to their user/author profile. This photo and biographical data would also be included in the About Us section of our website.

Well Thought Out Affordances

Thankfully for my team, we made abundantly clear with the builders of our website that we would like to have control over the photos that appeared with the articles. What we learned once we started using the system, however, is that appropriately accessing, storing, and displaying photos is not as easy as we had imagined. My fiancee’s employer seems to have made the decision to simply display the author photos with their particular publications, avoiding some of the complexities of managing a website.

Media Storage, Attribution, and Compatibility

The headshots of the employees are tied directly to their author profiles which then automatically are attached to their articles. The website engineers who designed this function simply take the corporate headshots, for which the company would have full licensing for use and would have stored in a company repository of owned images, and resizes each of them uniformly to fit into the allocated dimensions of the article boxes in the website architecture. This manual resizing step would only need to be performed once for each new photo. The resized photo would then be duplicated from the company servers and loaded onto the servers that host the website. These photos would take up space on the hosting servers. When a visitor accesses the website, these photos are sent as a sub-group of the data packets that inform the visitor’s computer what to display at that particular website address. The photos will appear as intended with perhaps slight alterations based on the size of screen/window the viewer is using. This is all a relatively contained system. But what if the marketing team wanted to display a more appropriate image?

While the company may own a set of either stock photos or company produced photos, let’s imagine they receive the photos from a 3rd party or find them online. Now each photo will need to be formatted and resized to match the receiving space within the website framework. This process is becoming easier as website management platforms improve their user friendliness, but for a complex corporate website this task will likely need to be done by a member of the website management team. Given that, this is the likely process for each additional photo:

  1. Marketing team selects photo based on internet search of usable photos.
  2. Image is downloaded as a group of data packets to the storage system on their individual computer from whichever website’s servers the image taker has selected to store and display their photo.
  3. The employee’s computer translates the data packet from origination to understandable format for the employee system.
  4. Image is transferred to company server by marketing employee, or is emailed to website IT team who then save it to the company server.
  5. The marketing employee also communicates the attribution requirements for the image (a step removed if the company owns the rights to the image).
  6. The IT team resizes the image and links it with the appropriate article, and publishes article to the website, hosted on yet another server.
  7. Viewer sees final product through their computer, including attribution information.

The Caveat

While all of this certainly adds more step to the article publishing process than currently exist with the use of the authors photo, that may be acceptable for the benefits. However, what if during the design of the website, the decision was made to always display whatever photo was tied to the author’s profile? If so, then doing this would require a redesign of this particular website feature, making this a much more significant demand on the IT process. While it may be a simple change, there is always a risk with integrated website design that something else breaks in the process.

So What?

The design of the features of the larger internet provide us with many apparent affordances. We often feel that if we can imagine how something should look, implementing it should be as simple as drawing it out on a piece of paper. However, on top of the various rules in place at a base level that enable so much freedom, there are rules computer engineers place on websites, software, and hardware that limit this blank space of options. Just because I can imagine displaying a different image for the article header doesn’t mean I can just snap my fingers and make that change, even if I had access. Because design inherently must provide various limitations and parameters on the affordances of the product, it is important to think about the larger ramifications of those design choices. In addition, designing systems for modularity helps improve the ability to make changes to systems and products after realizing the initial design was flawed.

De-productizing the Internet

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De-productizing the internet and the websites created for it has caused an interesting question of what it means to be on and use the internet. As a highly black-boxed system it is very easy to associate the internet with one’s preferred server, however, this is detrimental to one’s understanding of the sociotechnical systems that influence the internet. Acknowledging that the internet is designed with affordances and constraints helps to distance the internet from it’s totalized identity that has been developed and normalized by society.

The initial recognition that the internet is modular completely deconstructs the notion that the internet is a singular system. Policy, content, industry and software are all basic modules that are integral to the structure and use of the internet. Further analyzing these systems, it is clear that the structure and appearance of the internet exists because of international standards for the system architecture and the devices designed by the computer industry, digital media content providers and many other systems. This knowledge alone can change a users perspective from “the internet did something” to “designed systems have allowed me to access this information on the internet”. Basic identification of the large scale and storied sociotechnical systems is the start to understanding the complexity and invisibility that has been included in the design of the internet. Acknowledging that the internet is, as described by Arthur, an example of cumulative orchestrated combinatoriality helps to remove the agency of the internet. This understanding  contingent upon the assignment of agency and thought to the designers and principles which have lead to the current appearance and functionality of the internet.

De-productizing the internet is another way to remove agency from websites and the internet because it clarifies the fact that the page has been designed. Acknowledging that Google is a company and the leaders at Google have their own motivations behind the site, shows that the internet is not a democratized free flow of information. Google has shareholders, governments and international relations that need to be maintain in order to keep the business profitable. If the executives at Google did not have these external demands and codependencies, the information that users find on Google Chrome and through Google searches would likely be much different.  The internet and websites on it were designed intentionally which is often hard to see because the system’s interface has been made simplistically. However, comparing one brand of internet browser to another can help users to the differences in function and structure, this may also cause users to recognize the fact that the information that users have access to has been curated for them




Headspace as a Sociotechnical System

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A sociotechnical system is any system that “considers requirements spanning hardware, software, personal, and community aspects” to inform its design decisions (“What Are Socio-Technical Systems?”n.d.). Within this framework, almost any contemporary smartphone application could be considered a sociotechnical system. What’s more, these apps, which are functionally sociotechnical systems, are nestled in systems of sociotechnical systems. Using the meditation app Headspace as an example, I’ll reveal how a software application is a sociotechnical system.

Internet Infrastructure (including ISPs and International Standards and Protocols)

As Dr. Irvine’s essay made apparent, the internet is not necessarily a fixed, monolithic entity as much as it is a moving system of interconnected engineering requirements and social intersections: a sociotechnical system.

Because Headspace delivers its content to a user through streaming and internet enabled downloads, Headspace must cooperate and work within the designed sociotechnical system of the internet. Thus, as the relational nature of a network implies, as Headspace is part of the internet, the internet is a part of Headspace.


While Headspace gives some content to its users for no charge, a vast majority of Headspace’s content library is behind a paywall. Because Headspace is a company that collects money and sensitive information from its customers, Headspace must cooperate with rules, regulations and norms that go with the collection of money. More basically, Headspace must be part of a society in which money is agreed to have value in the first place.

Multimedia Companies for Animation and Recording

While most of Headspace’s content is audio, some meditations – and all of its advertising and branding – have a distinctly designed animated aesthetic. Headspace must work with these digital animators to create this content that corresponds with its meditations.

Organized Religion (Buddhism)

A large draw to Headspace is the charismatic expertise of its founder, Andy Puddicombe. Andy is the voice who leads you through most of the meditations on Headspace. After studying with Buddhist monks around the globe, Andy himself was ordained as a monk. The system of organized Buddhism allows Andy to draw perceived authority and authenticity to his experience. Consequently, Headspace becomes a part of, and thus gains authenticity, from that networked connection (“Guided Meditation for Everybody – About Headspace,” n.d.)

Software for User Experience

Without a designed user experience, users wouldn’t be able to interact with the meditations on Headspace. Designers must draw on past affordances and design schema, as well as the technical requirements and limitations of the current operating systems, to create a user experience within the app that allows a user to intuitively understand how to navigate the app.

Computer and Smartphone Industry

The main channel to access Headspace is through smartphone apps. To exist, Headspace is dependent on the design, development and production of smartphones. When new phones are designed, Headspace must update its design specifications so that it matches and runs on the new devices.


Works Cited

“Guided Meditation for Everybody – About Headspace.” Headspace, The Orange Dot,


“What Are Socio-Technical Systems?” The Interaction Design Foundation, The Interaction Design Foundation,


Brief analysis of the Internet

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People nowadays use the Internet all the time. There was an activity in my undergrad communication class, where the professor asked us to take a challenge and not using internet for 24 hours, and take down the experiences. The initial purpose of this activity was to let us feel the real life and be grateful to what nature offers us. It was shock to see how helpless us modern human were living without the Internet. We couldn’t see how important it is in our lives until we live without it. The whole world, all the information and knowledge is a easy click away.

We as users and consumers of Internet, see the Internet, or the web, as a totalized entity as it ought to be. But, as Professor Irvine argued in the instruction essay, “the design of the internet as a complex, modular, scalable, and extensible system”. Which,  “provides our best case study for understanding a complete sociotechnical system by using “design thinking” and “system thinking” (Irvine, 2).” In sociotechnical perspective, the Internet is a complex system, which including different layers of modules and combined by different subsystems and elements, rather than a simple, singular interface. Though for the easy of using experience, the complexity is always designed to be hidden.

The Internet is formed by both hardwares as well as softwares. As listed in Irvine’s article, the major interdependencies of sociotechnolocial system of internet includes computer industry, which is the devices and PCs; digital media companies who provides the media services; telecommunication policies and regulations that rule and manage data. Which is another suggestion of the complexity of the Internet.

Graphic: Martin Irvine, 2017

Shifting and analyzing the Internet in a architecture point of view, as Schewick introduces, the Internet is designed in “abstraction layers“, that there are two classes of components of network architecture, “the computers or devices that are ‘on’ or ‘attached to’ a network and those that are ‘in’ a network (Schewick, 50).” By saying so, the devices are “on” the network are those who use the service of internet to communicate with others; while for those who are “in” the network are those who “implement” or build the network, as a connection between computers and the network. Based on the observation above, internet is never a simple totalized technology, but a combination of modules and systems.

Martin Irvine, The Internet: Design Principles and Extensible Futures

Barbara van Schewick, Internet Architecture and Innovation. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012.

Week 11- Reading Response

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Through all the previous discussions upon design principles, the most impressive one I’ve learned is “the invisible things are often the most powerful.” The design principles for “abstraction” and “black-boxing” in a complex system works on the internet as well. “The difficulty in learning the key design principles of the Internet is that the complexity of the system is hidden both by design and by platforms.” Indeed, most of us are passive internet users, merely knowing how to use it rather than actually understanding how it works. Understanding how it works is not that necessary though. After all, the internet is just another human artefact that serves all the uses of our symbolic media systems, not being designed to reveal its mechanisms. But learning itself does benefits to understanding the whole socio-technical system from a macro perspective and further equipping ourselves with a mind of designing thinking.

Instead of being a bubble cloud in my mind, through the reading I realize the Internet is just a wire buried in the ground. Two computers directly connected to this wire can communicate. Basically, a server is a special computer connected directly to the internet and the web pages are files on that page’s hard drive. Every server has a unique internet protocol address. Similar to the postal address, internet protocol address help computers find each other. What we are using as internet applications-e.g. Google, YouTube, Facebook-are the names of their protocol addresses. Our personal computers are not directly connected to the so-called internet, they are not servers but clients which are connected to the internet indirectly through internet providers.

Checking and sending e-mail, for instance, is something routine in daily life but we rarely think about how it works. I use my Gmail account—my email client– to send a message to my friend’s email address at, another email client. Once I clicked “send”, would send the email to Then the message would be uploaded to the SMTP–Simple Mail Transfer Protocol–waiting in the outgoing mail queue while the SMTP server communicates with the DNS–Domain Name Server, which works like a phone book for domain names and IP addresses—to find out where is my friend’s email server. If SMTP can’t find the recipient’ server, I will get a “mail failure” notification in my inbox. If it finds the recipient’s server, then my friend can retrieve the message in his/her inbox. Whenever an email picture or webpage travels across the internet, computers break the information into smaller pieces, which are packets. When information reaches its destination, the packets are resembled in their original order to make a picture, message, web page, etc.

“The internet is enacted and performed as an ‘orchestrated combinatorial complexity’ by many actors, agencies, forces, and design implementations in complex physical and material technologies.”. When we view the internet from an engineering perspective as technical layers for networking millions of computers, the internet would not be that complex. As a designed sociotechnical system, it confronts with international political-economic issues. Power is exercised through this internetworked world. It is justified to claim that internet mediates different telecommunications regimes in different countries. In China, most internet users in the mainland cannot access most of the U.S.-based websites like Google (which I remember was accessible when I was a kid), YouTube, Facebook or Twitter. Users basically get information from Chinese-based websites like Sina, Baidu, etc. Online searchers and social media postings are strict. Words that is determined as sensitive or controversial to the government are filtered or deleted immediately right after they are being posted. Mostly either due to the fact that some of the servers are not kept in China (like Google or YouTube), or because of “objectionable” content that the government feels is misleading, or both. After all, whoever is in power determines what is valuable—what the internet is for.


Credits to:

Martin Irvine, The Internet: Design Principles and Extensible Futures

Ron White, How the Internet Works.” Excerpt from How Computers Work. 10th ed. Que Publishing, 2015.

Weekly Writing for Week 11

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Huazhi Qin

We access the Internet every day. Nearly all apps in our electronic devices build up connections with the Internet and incorporate it as a part of their functionalities. However, most of the users merely consume the “content” on it, such as all kinds of media, including messages, videos, texts, and images, displayed on the apps or online platforms. As what Professor Irvine said, the internet or web for most people is simply what is experienced on, and through, screens and graphical interfaces – the “content” that they can access or transmit, and have it display or play through a network equipped device. (Irvine) In short words, these apps we use are all blackboxed products with a network of interdependencies.

Take Spotify as an example. Spotify provides digital music streaming services. Users can get access to millions of songs, podcast, and videos from artists all over the world. It is a proprietary multimedia application streaming servers to stream audio and video to their users. The permission from the major record labels to use their tracks has been done before users access to it. Also, it uses digital rights management (DRM) protection to those copyrighted works. In addition, it lists terms and conditions to regulate users’ behaviors.

Besides, Spotify builds its own infrastructure based on a collection of tech stack. For instance, it uses Java as its language, Cassandra for the database, Pingdom for website monitoring, as well as Google Cloud Dataflow, Docker, Helios and so forth. (The whole tech stack can be seen at

Furthermore, when users use it on different devices, they usually find it provides some services. However, Spotify has to make adjustments to different standards. For instance, the audio settings will be adjusted based on different platforms, devices or network connections.


In addition, according to Spotify itself, it has now built up a community of 191m users, including 87m subscribers, across 78 markets. The Internet mediates different telecommunications regimes in different countries, conflicts in private and governmental investment and ownership of network infrastructure, agreements on standards, market and business rivalries, intellectual property regimes and control of content, and policy and regulatory issues. Until now, it is still unavailable in China.


“Spotify – Spotify Tech Stack.” StackShare,

Martin Irvine, The Internet: Design Principles and Extensible Futures.


Reflect Essay of the Internet

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I did not realize how amazing of the statement that one of the utilitarian desires of the Internet was to make readily available the world’s store of knowledge (Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray, 2014) and Vannevar Bush’s concept of “memex” – the device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications with exceeding speed and flexibility –  until learning the motive of Google was to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. The correspondence was not a coincidence.

When Google Search first launched in 1997, it was initially a search engine that used links to determine the importance of individual pages on the World Wide Web. It seems to be taken for granted now that when using the Internet, we intend to search or connect with information – when opening a browser, the first thing comes out is always the search engine asking you to search something – since information would be merely data if isolated but would be far more powerful if connected. What built Google was the eager to link the knowledge all around the world as well as the technical affordances to networking any kind of computer on the network with no single point of failure and with multiple paths of transmission. (Irvine)

Google Search is not only where information flows, but also a place money flow, in and out. The main revenue of Google is advertisement, where information flows in. Google Ads is one of the core business of Google. Briefly, it is the advertisement shown next to the user’s search results. Say technology companies such as Microsoft and Dell pay for the keywords they want those ads associated with, when someone enters those keywords in Google, they will see Microsoft and Dell’s webpages on the top. (As demonstrated in previous week, Google Map also makes profits in this way.)


Additionally, Google Adsense is another important part of the revenue of Google. It is a program website where the owner of the website, i.e. the publishers are able to gain profits by running the highest bid advertisements, which are Google-branded.

Resources: Google Adsense (

Google Search provides a huge amount of information flow out. According to Google Economic Impact Report of 2016, Google helped provide 2.23 billion dollars of economic activity for Washington, D.C. businesses, website publishers, and non-profits.

Without the Internet, Google is nothing, or so to say, Google will not even born. The Internet and Web have created a giant ecosystem that mediates and link thousands of network. Google Search becomes the most powerful search engine in the world because it accomplished the simplest and toughest thing – connecting.


Martin Irvine, The Internet: Design Principles and Extensible Futures (Why Learn This?)

Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray. Personal Computers and the Internet, excerpt from Computer: A History Of The Information Machine. 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2014.

Barbara van Schewick, Internet Architecture and Innovation. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012.



Weekly Writing for Week 11

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Banruo Xiao

According to Barbara van Schewick, some computers and devices are “on” or “attached to” network, while others are “in” networks. He says: “computers “on” the network support users and run application programs.” User can use the services of the network to communicate one another, to surf the Internet and to send and receive emails. These are all example by meaning of “on the Internet.” In general, computers on the network are the destination of data.

“Computers “in” the network form or implement the network,” Schewick further mentions. They are more like hidden behind the network, connecting computers attached to the network, and including the cable modem termination system to give the users access to the Internet. It also includes the routers that network providers use to forward Internet data from one physical network to another. Computers in the network are the data flows, while computers attached to the network are the origins of data.

Indeed, the Internet is not an integrated product. Instead, there are many layers and modules working for different objects and purposes behind the interface we usually see to form the whole Internet. Indeed, modularity, layering and end to end arguments shape the architecture of Internet, and the consideration under the principles is to make the components more independently but can work together.

Modularity employs abstraction, information hiding and a strict separation of concerns to make the Internet more users friendly. More specific, modularity separate visible information and hidden information that users only need to see the visible information to fulfill their purpose, while designers can access to the hidden information to develop their modules.

At the same time, layering is a special form of modularity which constrains the dependency among modules. Lower layers can only interact with its neighbors and provide service to the higher layer. At the same time, higher layers are protected from changes in lower layers. Layering helps reduce complexity of the network. And end to end argument places the functionality of each layer.

Overall, the design of Internet is really a complex work composed by modules, layers and functions in each layer. Although it seems complicated, the components actually work together to reduce the complexity and make the network stable.

The Internet of Thinking

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After reading this week’s assigned articles, I realized that I truly never did understand the concept of the internet and the difference between that and the web. Kind of surprising given that I had to learn how the internet works and the various design layers for 506. The internet, according to Khan, originated with the word “inter-networking”. Every computer and device are connected to the network interface to communication with the local network’s backbone- most likely through Wi-Fi radio signals. They are all communicating data in the form of a message from one device to another (White, p. 256).

The internet is an invisible giant at veils anything digital that carries information for the purposes of connecting everything together to transmit information, messages, content- basically anything. At first I thought of the internet as our constitution given that the constitution, even though physical, is the very foundation of the rules and laws that bind all U.S. citizens. It is an interface in a certain way that is also, like the internet, malleable. It is never truly finished since politicians can amend/ ratify articles within the constitution. Much in the same manner, the internet “follows extensible design principles that are open to future technical and social developments. The internet will never be finished: the design and architecture is generative for continually enabling new combinations and technical dev elopements for further features, services and access to ubiquitous data and information” (Irvine, p. 10). After further consideration, the internet can also be likened to water or air. Both are necessary foundations for life itself, in which various productions of services and features are possible.

To answer the question posed by Professor Irvine, “what does it mean to be on the internet?”, I think we are always on the internet given that our whole life revolves around digital devices. We watch TV- on the internet; on iMessage, on the internet; listening to Spotify- on the internet. It’s almost like we are all under a bubble where without it, we would be unable to do daily activities. It enables a type of thinking that allows us to look at information through 4D vision, we can see anything and have access to everything.


Martin Irvine, The Internet: Design Principles and Extensible Futures

Ron White, How the Internet Works.” Excerpt from How Computers Work. 10th ed. Que Publishing, 2015.

Internet of Things and its Applications

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Tianyi Zhao

There were many myths in my understanding on Internet previously, like “the Internet is the computer” and “the network refers to a single identity.” However, the Internet is performed as an “orchestrated combinatorial complexity” with multilateral involvers including actors, agencies, forces, etc. in complex physical and material technologies. (Irvine 9) Thus, “on the Internet” means that I am taking part in a “network of networks” and through my online activities I am calling upon different actors in a complex network that is mediating and transmitting information for me. Reviewing the history of the Internet and technical parts, I am more interested in the future application of it on sociotechnical system. Besides connecting computers, what else can Internet combine together?

My internship in SAP acquainted me with Internet of Things (IoT), an emerging field that builds a network of physical devices, vehicles, home alliances, etc., which enables them to collect and exchange data. It is a typical and clear explanation of how the Internet works, complex and multi-layered. The application of IoT is various, including smart home, smart healthcare, building automation and farming automation. China, as a rising country with booming economy and modernization, dedicates in applying IoT technology on urban management. Indeed, IoT has provided strong technical support on urban public affairs management, including real-time monitoring, risk management, and emergency prediction. It becomes more convenient to acquire real-time information. In Beijing, IoT has been widely applied to and plays a significant role in parking and lighting management. Specifically, urban public affairs management can leverage with IoT to carry out refined management of a certain block or even a certain road. The department is empowered to supervise the sprinkler operation remotely by installing all kinds of sensing equipment on the sprinkler trunk. In other words, the total amount of water sprinkling today and the number of roads being sprinkled can be viewed in real time, which not only improves work efficiency but also helps in resource conservation. Many cities in China—such as Wuxi, Hangzhou and Chongqing—have already issued related policies to promote development and application of IoT technology in urban management.

Figure 1. IoT Application for Smart City



Furthermore, IoT is still on the way of evolving, which is divided into different branches for now. First, the launching of smart speaker points out a new direction on which IoT has been combined with artificial intelligence. Smart speaker is replacing the significant place of wireless router and smart phones, establishing a new channel for human to give order to and interact. The second one is driverless vehicles. The robot cars can automatically navigate appropriate paths and drive the passengers to the destination. It is worthy expecting the coming Waymo, the first driverless car service, which is going to be launched by Google next month. Moreover, Internet of Everything has been raises as an extension of IoT, connecting human, procedures, data and things to make networked connections more relevant and valuable.

Figure 2. How Waymo’s Self-Driving Car Works




Works Cited

Irvine, Martin. “The Internet: Design Principles and Extensible Futures.” 2018.

Peter, Craig Martell. Great Principles of Computing. MIT Press, 2015

Corbett, Erin. “Waymo Could Launch Its First Driverless Ride Service in December.” Fortune, Nov. 13, 2018.