Adversarial design

The first time I heard the term “adversarial design”, a chess board came to mind. A game based on faceless, angular pieces of descending size, lined up confrontationally across from similar pieces in a contrasting colour, sounds like a design that’s pretty adversarial, right? But adversarial design doesn’t have anything to do with game theory, at least not directly. It does have to do with conflict, and challenge. It refers to design that is meant to change behaviour through provocation.


The term was coined by Georgia Tech’s Carl DiSalvo in the seminal work of the same name for MIT Press. I confess that I haven’t read it, so I can’t summarise the concept with any authority whatsoever. But I thought that the idea was fascinating, wanted to find out a bit more, and have come across some strange examples that you’ll probably find interesting, too. You may not like them, but that’s “adversarial” for you…

Now, all design is supposed to influence us in one way or another, right? The aggression of the red hexagon in a STOP sign makes us take notice. Placing candy at the checkout counter leads to impulse purchases. Advertising persuades, fonts convince and colours reassure. Adversarial design aims to influence on a much less superficial level. It aims to change behaviour permanently, by affecting how we see something. We’re looking at an entirely different level of manipulation.

Let’s consider a harmless example. Look at something near you, on your desk, say, or on the table by the sofa. A lamp, for example. Now, imagine that same, sturdy, unchanging lamp with two big eye stickers on it. Suddenly the lamp has a personality. It’s got these big eyes looking at you. Now, imagine that you have left the lamp on too long, or you have too many lamps on in the house. So the eyes change shape ever so slightly to look really sad. Maybe the eyes on your lamp could even tear up a bit. You’re wasting electricity, and that’s tragic. How heartless. Because of those big eyes, you’d probably find yourself rushing to turn it off. Anything to stop it from being unhappy. You might even find yourself apologizing to your lamp, because it has feelings, after all.


German electricity company E.On is using adversarial design to reduce energy consumption in Sweden. In an ingenious campaign designed by Forsman and Bodenfors, E.On is distributing consumption apps, in which a cute furry creature will thrive or waste away according to your usage. Or, if cute furry creatures don’t do anything for you (hunh?), a fashion designer will play the drums well or badly, or a comedian will either be funny or yell at you. Design influencing behaviour.

DiSalvo’s original concept revolved around the potential impact on political discourse and democratic thinking, and put design smack in the middle of the debating process. Obviously here I’m talking about a much more superficial interpretation, but one which could end up having a much deeper influence on our behaviour and on our relationship to technology. No-one can argue that computers, tablets and phones are getting sleeker and easier to use. To what extent is that conditioning us to use them more? I can’t deny that my iPhone’s curves, the texture of the matt casing, the colour and resolution of the buttons and graphics all conspire to get me to fondle and tap away much more than I actually need to.

So, we’re being manipulated. But before we decry the role of technology and design in a nefarious attempt to take away our humanity, let’s go back to basics. If we don’t water a plant, it dies. Dead plants are not attractive. Therefore, we have an incentive to water them. Babies are adorable, and their chubby cheeks, toothless grins and perfect little fingers trigger a desire to take care of them and make them happy. Adversarial design? No, just nature, in its intelligent, manipulative glory.

We are aesthetic creatures, visuals matter and motivation is a complex system that, in general, can be harnessed for good. It doesn’t hurt, though, to be aware of the impact that design – either by nature or by engineers – can have on our conscious and not-so-conscious decisions. It’s ok to let ourselves be manipulated, as long as we are comfortable with the potential outcome. Saving electricity, taking care of things, performing tasks have positive or at worst benign results. We need to be aware, though, that adversarial design may one day end up having a different connotation.

Google Street View and Art is a fascinating collection of images from Google Street View, compiled by photographer Jon Rafman. We have here a scrapbook of shots from his virtual travels, a twist on the typical exotic location photographs so often used in portfolios.



Rafman didn’t take the photographs, but he chose them, he curated this exhibition for us to enjoy. Is that art? Well, what is art if not an expression of the artist’s thoughts, ideas, tastes? Why can’t curation itself be an art form?



The images are occasionally beautiful, often disturbing, and all have a voyeuristic sense of impermanence. I love the irony of using images taken by a robot to show humanity and nature in candid reality. And, of course, the idea that art is everywhere.


Street art and the sharing economy

I’ve written about the so-called sharing economy before, and how it’s not really about sharing but more about connecting. Here is an unusual example I came across this morning. It’s one of those slap-on-forehead, why-didn’t-I-think-of-it examples that in retrospect seems more obvious than unusual, but I still think it’s original, creative and cool.

Color Plus City

For all you graffiti artists out there, Color Plus City pairs you with someone who has a wall you can paint on. No more jumping train tracks and dodging the anti-graffiti police. The initiative’s base and concentration is in Sao Paolo (almost 3000 participating walls!), which has a legacy of amazing street art – colourful people adding life to relatively grey city. Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte are in second and third place, and smatterings of activity are popping up in other cities all over the world. No participating walls in Madrid yet (come on, guys!), but Cuenca has stepped up to the plate, with one “donated” wall currently being painted.

In the same vein, if you haven’t seen Google’s Street Art Project, take a look. It maps street art around the world, and takes you there, virtually. I’ve spent ages on this, it’s hypnotising.

Google's Street Art Project

I love street art (you can see my Pinterest board here): the colour, the creativity, the brightness and movement it gives drab surfaces. I’m fascinated by the fact that, where some see a wall, others see a canvas. Decorating our environment is an instinct that goes back to the caves. Even back then, did we all want to draw on the cave walls, or was it only some of us? Will we ever know? I like to think that we all have that creative instinct, that we are all capable of making anything more beautiful once we’re given the freedom to do so. Webs like Color Plus City are expanding the freedom of graffiti artists, by making it easier to find appropriate surfaces, and by encouraging this art form.


Home run for digital narrative: Bottom of the Ninth

If you enjoy comics, art, music, baseball, animation, science fiction, traditional Americana, futurism… any of those, really… then download this amazing graphic novel to your iPad or iPhone. If you don’t have one, and can’t borrow one, then you can see it online, but the experience isn’t quite the same. Still awesome, but not quite the same.

bottom of the ninth

Bottom of the Ninth”, by Ryan Woodward, is about perception, stereotypes, and media. The story itself is not that remarkable, and it ends with a “to be continued”. The genius is in the programming. To call it an “animated comic” doesn’t do it justice, it has many more layers than just that. The music is part background, part protagonist. The layout is fascinating. The animation is charming. Sometimes all the frames have movement, sometimes only one. Sometimes the movement is automatic, sometimes you have to launch it. Sometimes you just tap on the screen and something happens.

bottom of the ninth 2

Is it the future of comics? I don’t think so, but it is a welcome addition to the possible formats. Instead of a comic on the web, a comic for the web. The drawings, the acting, the choreography and the charming story line knock this graphic story line out of the ball park.

Online dating as a competitive sport

Since it’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow, we are all no doubt about to be bombarded with starry-eyed analyses of the dating scene, and how technology is playing an increasingly dominant role (dominant as in principal, not dominant as in 50 Shades of Grey, which I haven’t seen yet and hope to avoid). This report will be slightly different, as in no stars in eyes. True, there may be a dash of “Gee, things sure are different now” and a good dollop of “Things are getting interesting”, although my more literate colleagues will no doubt end up saying it better. My reaction – and while I’m sure I’m not alone in this, it is not the bemused, tech-centric view of most – is “When did dating get so competitive?”.

screenshot from Tinder

screenshot from Tinder

Online dating used to be something that we were embarrassed about. Surely we must be pathetic human beings if we have to advertise ourselves online to find a date, right? Even back then I always thought that it was seriously brave, figuring out what you wanted and then taking steps to increase your chances of getting it, however uncomfortable it made you. Now, it seems that everyone’s doing it. According to Pew Research, 60% of Americans believe that online dating is a good way to meet people, up from 45% in 2005.

In sync with the anthem “Love is a Battlefield”, online daters in general are in it to win. Obviously each has his or her own definition of winning, but the amount of time spent crafting the ideal profile and choosing the right platform, not to mention the sifting through the options and then filtering the actual dates… it all adds up to a significant investment. Which, obviously, needs to be profitable. An entire ecosystem has sprung up around these sites to help you “be a better you”, to hone your marketing, and to develop a strong strategy. It’s a competitive business. In spite of sites like Plenty of Fish implying by their name that there’s no rush, whatever, you know, we all deep down know that the good catches are going to be snapped up, so you have to get-your-game-on-get-on-the-ball-and-get-out-there, in the most likeable, attractive and interesting way possible.

It’s competitive. And articles with titles such as “How To Beat Your Online Dating Competition and Get To Him First”, “8 Genius Tips for Taking the Perfect Online Dating Profile Photo”, or “5 Data-Backed Tips to Boost Your Online Dating Game”, all try to show you that the secret to being successful at online dating is just knowing how. Get the formula, and stick to it. Earlier this month saw the launch of Ignite Your Match, a business whose purpose is to help users with their online dating profiles.

With so many “how to game the system” articles, you may be forgiven for thinking that it’s all about the data. Obviously, love isn’t about data. But online dating is. It’s about tweaking the photo, using the right keywords, controlling the amount of information you give. It’s about mathematical equations. Some dating sites, such as OK Cupid and eHarmony rely on algorithms to match you with someone with similar interests, based on questions you answer when you sign up.

So if it’s about data, and data can be manipulated, obviously the system can be manipulated. Amy Webb wrote a book – “Data, A Love Story” – about her (successful!) attempts to manipulate the online dating game, and you can see her very entertaining and recommendable TED talk on the subject here (“How I Hacked Online Dating”). Tales abound of studies done on the impact of one photo over another, or what happens when the photos are removed from the equation. Dating app Willow doesn’t show the photo first, as most do. First, you start a conversation based on questions submitted by other users. If you like the conversation, then you can go on to see a photo. OK Cupid tried a “blind date” experiment in which it removed the photos from its site for a few hours. It found that the number of messages sent plummeted to about a fifth of the typical level. Further experiments show a level of superficiality that could lead you to despair for the human race: the near-perfect correlation, for example, of personality ratings and looks ratings. We may despair, but how much of that is really a surprise?

image from

screenshot from

With manipulation part of the game, and with so many platforms to compete on, it does seem to many that online dating is becoming a competitive sport. It’s a numbers game, it’s a race against time, it’s becoming a social barometer against which to measure yourself. How are you doing compared to your peers? Not too well? Tweak your approach. Test. Iterate.

With so many individuals taking online dating seriously, it’s no wonder that new opportunities are springing up almost weekly. The competition is not just between daters, but also between platforms. It’s a huge and crowded space. Back in 2012, Online Dating Magazine (of course there’s a magazine exclusively about this enormous part of our single* lives), estimated that there are over 5,000 dating sites world-wide. IBISWorld gives the number of companies running dating platforms as 3,500, and several of those companies are running more than one site. Forbes refers to estimates of over 8,000 competitors worldwide (although it doesn’t give the source for those estimates).

(*Apparently as many as 40% of dating app users are married. Yikes.)

Given that the current market size is over $2 billion and is expected to continue to grow over the next five years, that’s a lot of reward for the few that make it. According to Forbes, only around 1% will be successful. But who will that be? As with most start-up sectors, it will be those with the largest user pool and/or the best user experience.

The top five are OKCupid, Plenty of Fish, Match, eHarmony, and Tinder. They have size going for them. But new, interesting models are showing up almost weekly. Bumble is like Tinder, only ladies make the first move, and it has to be within 24 hours. HowAboutWe asks users to post a date idea, to which other users can then opt in. Grouper takes shyness out of the equation by asking you to bring along two friends and then pairing you with another group of three. lets you date Brandon Scott Wolf of Brooklyn, New York. Extra points for sense of humour.

As for the business models, they’re generally either advertising-based, or freemium-based (free for general use, you pay for extra functionality like an “undo” button in the case of Tinder, deeper statistics in the case of Plenty of Fish).

The success of Tinder and Happn show that there is a trend towards location-based matching, but the sector is also seeing some new activity in relationship-based introductions. Back in the old days, you used to rely on your friends to introduce you to friends of theirs that you might like. That’s not necessary any more, apps are springing up (Coffee Meets Bagel and Hinge are just two) to take the pressure off. These apps use your Facebook profile to see who you know, and who those people know, and who of those people might you be interested in.

The niche players could also have a lucrative idea. DateMyPet matches pet owners (we all know how important it is that your potential partner love your pet). Tastebuds compares iTunes playlists and introduces you to people who share your taste in music. helps you to meet other single parents in Ireland.

Some niche players are downright weird. There’s a dating site for clowns, the real kind. There’s a dating site for sea captains. There’s a dating site for moustache lovers, for My Little Pony Fans, and for those who like people in uniform. There’s even a dating site for people who work in the funeral sector. Mingle with your own, I suppose.

screenshot from

screenshot from

With over half of the over-16 population in England and in the US single, the potential market is huge, and the demand for the no-commitment I’m-just-looking approach to dating is growing. Competition is fierce, not just between platforms, but also within them. The number of how-to books and advice sites that have hit the market recently feed our feelings of urgency and inadequacy, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some dating sites start to “rate” the dates according to their intelligence, kindness, looks, and how good they are at, um, conversation. At what stage will it stop being fun? When does too much pressure make it impossible to have a good time? What kind of dating scene do you want for your children, and what do you want them to think that relationships are for? Important issues, and food for thought. I believe that the proliferation of online dating platforms is empowering, but also belittling. However, the technology-enabled freedom of choice and an online voice that allows us to call out abuse and bad behavior make the incursion of the personal into the public realm a positive development, as long as we can keep the pressure down. Meanwhile, it’s certainly going to be interesting to watch.

Now I have to go and convince my husband that the dating sites that he caught me looking at earlier were entirely for research purposes.

And I’d wish you a Happy Valentine’s Day, but that would be pandering to the commercial conceit that love needs to be celebrated on a specific day, instead of every single day that we can. So, instead, I’m going to wish you a happy and heart-filled February 14th.

(This post appears in Spanish here.)

Now, look here: the implications of eye-tracking

The thrills and the dangers of eye-tracking technology.

Look here. Now look there. Registered.

If you haven’t experienced eye-tracking software yet, you’re in for an eye-opener (sorry). The startup scene has many companies working on the technology, which is getting more sophisticated and cheaper by the day. And the implications are huge.

Your smartphone probably already has eye-tracking capability. Israeli startup uMoove has developed a software-based eye tracker that follows your gaze with your phone camera. I downloaded their concentration-training app uHealth (iOS) which asks you to “aim” your gaze at yellow and blue birds. Ok, I couldn’t get it to work (it wanted me to respond to voice cues I couldn’t hear), but the concept is amazing. They have demoed a game in which you direct your avatar with your eyes. Very cool. I don’t know how reliable it will turn out to be, or whether wearing glasses will affect the outcome, but it is very cool.


from the uHealth app

Technology company Tobii is also exploring eye control in gaming, but with an external tracking device. This promo video gives you an idea of some of the possibilities:

This video from Tobii gives a deeper idea as to the potential for really innovative game development:

The new Assassin’s Creed for PC due out in March (“Rogue”) will incorporate eye-tracking controls via an external tracker. Understandably, the gaming sector is pretty excited. The scene changes according to what you’re looking at. Move your eyes left, and the field of vision on the screen moves left. Look away, and the game pauses.

screenshot from Assassin's Creed: Rogue

screenshot from Assassin’s Creed: Rogue

It sounds exciting. But is that much “reality” in a game a good thing? Might the boundaries between our real world reactions and motor skills start to blend with our reactions and motor skills in front of a screen? Might we not start to “see” our eyes as just another tool, necessary for manipulating our environment? In an interview, the producer declared “It gives you such a good control over the game, and you’ll feel so inside the game, that you’ll never want to use something [sic] else.” And that is a good thing, how? Substitute the word “game” for “experience”, and you’ll see where this is heading.

Tobii has also developed eyeglasses that track the movements of your pupils. This is a marketer’s dream, to know how the viewer’s eyes move over the screen and where they linger, to quantify which positions are optimal for ads. Offline, as well. The glasses record the movement of your eyes over the merchandising, which could take the design of physical stores to a new level of efficiency. Usability testing for webs or physical machines could become more detailed and powerful than ever. Just think how this technology could improve the setting up of IKEA furniture…

… or learning how to cook. Combine the eye tracking glasses with dedicated cooking apps that read you the instructions and measurements as you move around the kitchen, and following recipes becomes, cough, a piece of cake. The same concept could make setting up the DVD or the wireless stereo so much easier.

I imagine that it’s a question of time before eye-tracking software gets incorporated into car windshields. The car you’re driving slows to a crawl if you’re not looking at the road, and gently pulls over if your eyes close for more than a second.

Just think of the effect it could have on how we read: no more pressing of a button or swiping to move on to the next page. Would that affect our concentration? Our understanding? Flipping pages has long been the percussion in our reading. It marks the pace, it signals a new beginning, it sounds like advancement. Take away that percussion, and reading becomes a continuous flow of words. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with that, but it will change the reading experience, which could end up having an impact on how we learn and think.

In education, the teacher can more closely follow student’s comprehension of a subject by seeing where their eyes linger, and where their eyes completely skip over an object on the page. The teacher can also more accurately tell if the student is paying attention. Or, more importantly, the teacher can tell what does attract the student’s attention. Learning materials can be re-designed with that information in mind.

As far as we know, the uses that are being investigated have convenience and efficiency as the main goal. It’s possible that reading will be a more enjoyable experience if we don’t have to put down our cocktail to turn the page. And more efficient marketing will lead to more efficient use of media and space, a benefit which could end up offsetting the increased possibility that we end up buying something or subscribing to a service that we didn’t absolutely need. As far as we know, the end uses are relatively benign.

screenshot from uMoove

screenshot from uMoove

For now. But in the rush to accumulate data on everything that we do, isn’t following our eye movements moving dangerously near the territory of tracking what we think? UMoove practically says so on its website: “Eyes are the window to the brain… Track the eye, track the brain.” Do we want that much data about our thoughts and instincts to be tracked and recorded? Controlling our eye movements is extremely difficult, and they often wander to the rhythm of our subconscious. Just as gazing into someone’s eyes is the height of intimacy, the idea that third-party trackers know where our eyes go makes me a bit uncomfortable. It’s too personal.

However, it obviously is a technology that needs further development. For a person who cannot move his or her arms or legs, being able to turn a page with your eyes would fill an unfairly limited existence with intellectual promise and potential. And giving us an extra “limb” with which to activate certain actions would make high-stress, precision tasks such as surgery, engineering or even combat less restricted by our physical limitations.

Eye-tracking is yet another example of the double-edged sword of technological advancement. Huge leaps forward in productivity and experience, with new doors opening to control and manipulation. Where is the line that separates the useful from the dangerous? And even if it were possible to know that, who would be in charge of deciding where it was? Personally, I’m very excited about where we’re heading. The knowledge, the efficiencies, the solutions… And yet, too much tracking, too much information about our activities, habits, even thoughts, makes us vulnerable. No one knows where the tipping point is going to be. And will we even notice once we have passed it?

Fear of failure

A flimsy solution to the wrong problem

The Spanish press this weekend talked about a new online initiative to “banish the fear of failure”, in a bid to stimulate entrepreneurship. The European Commission is financing FACE Empreneurship, a digital platform that will encourage entrepreneurship through seminars and activities both online and offline, designed to help would-be entrepreneurs overcome their fear of failure. No, I’m not joking, I wish I were. €1.5 million is about to be spent on “fixing” the fear of failure.

Photo by Casey Fyfe for Unsplash

Photo by Casey Fyfe for Unsplash

Personally, I don’t see much evidence of a crippling fear of failure, certainly not one that warrants that much money thrown at it. The start-up scene, at least here in Spain, is bustling with good ideas that deserve success. We all know that they don’t all achieve it.

So, say we reduce the fear of failure and more entrepreneurs pile in with their startup ideas. Are these “additional” (as opposed to the startups that would have launched anyway) businesses going to make it? Will there be a noticeably higher number of successful startups because of this initiative? Let’s assume that some of them do survive. We’re still increasing the number of failed startups. But that’s ok, right? At least we’re no longer afraid of failure. Bring it on.

Seriously, in what way is increasing the overall number of failed attempts good for the economy? For the net affect to be positive, we would need to target the percentage of new businesses that make it. And for that, we need a different type of initiative. Obviously I’m not implying that, to make sure there are no failures, we should not allow any new businesses. The point that I’m trying to make is that the initiative is misdirected. Fear of failure is not the main barrier to success.

I know several entrepreneurs who did not have a knockout success the first time around, and yet are still willing to try again. They are willing to talk about it, too. That is a giant step in the right direction, that we see real examples of inspiring people not ashamed of failure. Strong people, willing to ignore the social stigma, and to use their experience to help others get through bad times. Entrepreneurship is very, very hard. Few fulfil their dreams. Most give up and go and get a stable, salaried job. Some pick themselves up and keep on trying. As Winston Churchill said, “Success is going from failure to failure without ever losing your enthusiasm.”

Did failure make these men and women stronger? No. They were strong to begin with. They learnt a lot, obviously – you learn so much more from bad times than from good times. But failure is something you survive, and these entrepreneurs were strong enough to do so. Most aren’t. Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone, and failure can ruin lives.

So, should we remove the fear of failure? Isn’t fear, in general, a good safety mechanism? We’re not talking about not being able to quit smoking, or failing to get into the university you wanted. The kind of failure that we’re talking about can obliterate family savings, it can even cause people to lose their homes. And sometimes, there’s no climbing back from that, because of unforgiving structural factors that have nothing to do with psychology.

If we want to bridge the startup gap between Europe and the US, we should be focussing on reducing the consequences of business failure. Would we not be less afraid, if the consequences weren’t so severe? Should we not be doing more to help those who do fail, to pick up and start again? A focus on helping entrepreneurs to rebuild, the development of support systems to help them to do so, and the removal of the social stigma that accompanies failure in Europe, would do so much more to reduce the fear. I don’t believe that it’s the fear of failure itself that paralyzes, rather the fear of facing its consequences.

I’m going to assume that the objective is a higher number of successful startups, not just a higher number of startups, irrespective of whether they’re successful or not. So, to achieve the objective, aren’t there more effective things that we can do? Like, make it easier and less costly to hire people? More tax breaks? Better access to training, export finance and low-interest loans? Fewer laws that penalize investments in startups? An even better way of reducing the fear of failure is to reduce the risk of it happening.

Seminars, inspiring talks and interactive exercises will not doubt be motiving and possibly even fun. But, good for the economy? I doubt it. Increased risk is great for the winners. It’s not for the losers. And there are always many more losers than winners in this game.

And I seriously doubt that the main barrier to more successful entrepreneurship in Europe is a fear of failure. The European Commission should be focussing its euros and its time on encouraging structural change, not placating psychological blocks that could well turn out to be a good thing.

When will someone ask why European entrepreneurs are more afraid of failure than their counterparts in other continents? Once we figure that out, and once we start to deal with this fear at its source, then maybe we can get somewhere.

Bear 71

A new form of transmitting information

A staggeringly beautiful documentary produced by the National Film Board of Canada, with interactivity, embedded videos, amazing graphics, a moving script, a lovely voice doing the narration… It’s 20 emotional minutes that will make you want to go hiking, with care and empathy… Even if nature is not your thing, this is so worth watching, just for the format.

Bear 71 - click to go to documentary

screenshot from Bear 71 – click to go to documentary

screenshot from Bear 71 - click to go to documentary

screenshot from Bear 71 – click to go to documentary

More crowdsourced Lego, with a twist

Remember the very cool Lego ideas I showed you a few months ago? More cool ideas are on the way. Pley is a Lego-sharing site, in which for $10 a month, you get a different Lego set to play with every 30 days or so. After a month has passed, you send it back and receive another one. That in itself sounds like so much fun, but it gets even more interesting and creative. Pley has launched Pleyworld, a crowdsourcing platform in which users upload their ideas for Lego sets, the community votes, and once the idea accumulates 5,000 approvals, Pley will manufacture the set and put it up for rent or sale. The objective is to set up an ideas site that is faster and more agile than the Lego crowdsourcing platform, in which ideas can take months to get manufactured, if they pass the rigorous selection process.

lego couch set

So who holds the copyright to the designs? The designer? The manufacturer? Lego? It turns out that the copyright on the majority of Lego’s bricks has expired, so 3d printers can cheerfully churn them out as much as their filaments can handle. And Lego is not bothered by this, according to Pley’s founder Ranan Lachman, the two companies have a good relationship. Pley, the manufacturer, is content with the income it will get from the rent or sale of the 3d-printed sets. The original designer keeps the copyright.

lego ugly duckling

Which is just as well, since the creator does not get a cut of the income from his design. And Pley expects this to work? Where’s the motivation? It turns out, go figure, that people don’t play with Lego for money, nor do they feel the need to get paid for their Lego-based ideas. It turns out, who would have guessed, that sometimes people create for fun.


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For more on Crowdsourcing, visit my Flipboard magazine “Sharing economy + crowdsourcing

View my Flipboard Magazine.

Is it a bank? Is it a tech company? No, it’s… not quite sure

A few months ago I heard Francisco González, the head of BBVA, say at a conference: “We are not a bank. We are a tech company.” And that at the time blew me away, because I hadn’t realized up until then that what the big banks deal in these days is not money, but data. Ok, so the data represents money. But actual cash? No, most of what they’re moving around is bit and bytes.

This morning the Financial Times published on its front page excerpts from an interview with Ana Patricia Botín, her first interview since she took over from her father as Executive Chairman of Santander Group. The main surprise announcement was that her bank, Santander, is going to offer cloud storage to its corporate clients. A bank, a very big one at that, is going into the data storage business.


image by Anders Jildén via Unsplash

Now, all this talk about data and money may sound not very exciting. Until you start to think about the blurring lines. And what money actually is. And what data actually is. And then you get dizzy and have to go and sit down for a while.

Now, I’m not a banking analyst, but I am a bit puzzled as to why Ms. Botín feels that she has to compete against what she terms “the big four guys”, Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook. They pose a threat, she says. To what? Her quest for world domination? (I’m not saying she has such a quest, I am merely wondering what she thinks they might take away from her.) Ah, it turns out that it’s about market capitalization. She goes on: “It is not the banks, it is these four large tech companies that are worth more than us.”

She’s actually not just talking about market cap. Her bank is a business, which needs clients. And it’s understandable that she worries about the big four taking clients away from her. Apple Pay is a financial service. Amazon issues credit cards and gives loans. Facebook is developing an e-currency and is moving into online transfers. And Google seems to be looking into moving into just about everything.

But, the difference in market cap between the banks and the “big four” is actually about data. What do the big four have that justifies their staggering combined market value? Loads and loads of data, about us.

Santander, being a global bank, also has lots of data. It knows when we take out money, it has access to our credit card transactions. But there are gaps in its knowledge, and the rise of alternative online payment platforms is keeping valuable consumption information away from the banks’ servers. And with increasingly innovative competition flourishing in the lending sector, the big banks understandably see a threat to their knowledge of what we are spending on and investing in.


The big four have more data. That makes them more valuable. Because data is what counts, now. Most purchases are handled by data, not by “real” money. Cash transactions have dropped to about 40% of consumer spending, and that amount looks set to fall rapidly over the next few years as ecommerce continues to grow (powered by Amazon and possibly soon Facebook), and new payment platforms (including those owned by Apple, Google and possibly soon Facebook) make mobile transactions easier and cheaper. And that’s not taking into account the emergence of digital currencies.

Banking is not so much about money any more. It’s about data. So, instead of storing money, banks store data. Santander has invested over £230m in a huge new data storage facility in Leicester. And it plans to offer surplus storage space to its corporate clients, to take advantage of the rapid migration to cloud computing. As far as I can gather, it’s not clear whether this will be a separate income-generating division, or simply a “sweetener” to retain or attract corporate accounts.

The puzzling part is the need to go after the “big four”, as Ms. Botín puts it. “I don’t think of us as defending ourselves. I think of us as a challenger, an attacker.” Why tackle such a steep mountain, with so many threats nibbling away at Santander’s already steep base? Does she really think that she can overtake the tech giants? Unlike Santander, Google and Facebook are exclusively in the data business. Of course they’ll always have more data to store. And Apple and Amazon reach parts of the earth that Santander cannot reach. Of course they’ll always process more transactions.

Maybe it is a bit about world domination. Does Santander really expect to end up with the same number of clients as Apple, the same number of users as Google, the same amount of transaction data as Amazon or the same amount of personal information as Facebook? And if so, how are they going to go about that? And how comfortable are you with the idea of a bank having that much influence?

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