Interactive history: the evolving art of the documentary

The new type of reporting: article? documentary? film? web page?

For a while now I’ve been fascinated by the rapidly evolving art of the documentary. I’ve shared with you several examples that I consider game-changers: enthralling, media-rich, web-centered stories, which bowl you over with the choreography and the layers, as well as with the relevance and weight of the subject.

I’m convinced that it’s not so much the information that the film is imparting that matters, but how the information is presented. And new platforms and software and styles make interactive, media-rich presentations less expensive to construct. They’re not easy, but they are easier than they used to be, which leaves more scope for creativity and message.

first world war

These early examples of new media (and let’s call them “new” media because they don’t really fit into any of the pre-established categories – they’re part film, part interactive web page, part pamphlet, part textbook) are ground-breakers, showing future documentarists the possibilities, giving them creative blocks on which to build, and providing glimpses as to how far this transformation could go.

The example I want to show you today is a report by the The Guardian newspaper, on the First World War. Technically brilliant, visually poignant and sweeping in its coverage, it goes into detail that is difficult to transmit in traditional textbooks or linear films. It’s not exactly reality, but the interactivity does make you feel as if you can poke around, ask questions, interview people. Documentaries like this may be expensive to produce, for now. But hopefully we will start to see more in this style, enthralling students of all ages, opening us up to historical experience and piquing interest in live heritage. The end result will be a deeper knowledge and broader interest in what humanity, past and present, has to offer.

first world war 2Check out the entire report-documentary-film-article-whateveryouwantocallit here.

 

Friday five: Trends, disruption, and refreshing outlooks

The Internet’s State of the Union, via Techcrunch and Kleiner Perkins  

I have to open this summary with Mary Meeker’s Internet report, a compelling where-are-we-and-where-are-we-going snapshot of the Internet business world. Marketing, hardware, usage, …. She covers most trends with interesting graphics and pithy insights. TechCrunch had a good summary, although they missed some gems (inevitable, the full thing is 196 slides!), which I will try and show you over the next couple of days. If you want to see the original deck, you can do so here.

marymeekerinternet 4

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How to untangle a necklace, from Medium

A delightful read, on focus, productivity, and being a woman…

“Still, nothing unperplexes easy. And the nature of the tangled necklace is that you’ll forget what you know about its not being tangled. You’ll lose patience. You will in fact knot before you unknot — and, if you’re like me, you’ll reknot everything because you can’t forgive yourself. The necklace will come to represent your internal mystification. What’s worse, it will represent your drive to deepen your own mystification, and make it permanent.

The good news is that a countervailing drive will kick in immediately. Never will you want something more than to untangle the necklace. You will hate the chain, you will break the chain, rather than let it lie. You will move heaven and earth.”

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An oasis with aeroplanes, via Quartz

For those of you that travel a lot, how’s this for an airport? Singapore’s Changi Airport has orchids, a butterfly garden and 500,000 plants…

image via Quartz

image via Quartz

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Enough startup hype, we have a business to run – via Medium

Finally, an article that de-mythifies the startup hype, by someone who should know…

“‘Startups’ have become a commodity in an industry of startup conferences, websites, courses and competitions. As founders of young organisations, we struggle to distinguish genuine guidance and support from the distracting pizzazz of the startup industry, where we’re just the product, not the customer. Lured by the lights, we spend valuable hours crafting slide decks, jumping on planes, giving presentations and filling out entry forms, almost always so that someone can sell tickets to the show.”

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Some stuff you learn in business school… and in life – from Inc.com

Not a bad list… It brings a bit of perspective.

Some of my favourites:

  1. Don’t run out of cash.
  2. Think deeply about how you can empower those around you to be successful.
  3. Just be a decent human being. Oh, and listen more than you talk.
  4. Ask questions to learn different perspectives–inquiry vs. advocacy.
  5. Identify your sources of happiness and protect them.
  6. The job is not as important as the rest of my life.
  7. It’s never too late to turn back, change directions, or start anew.

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What is “disruption”, anyway? – from Techcrunch

A refreshing look at the ultimate objective of startups, and how the culture of “killing it” and “disrupting” misses the point:

“Sure, a good startup should make people sweat. It should cause a lot of scrambling and soul searching among the inefficient, the outdated, and the complacent.

But in the end, instead of destroying and recreating a profitable industry, a successful startup aims to modernize it, up the game of the current players, while fundamentally improving the customer experience. I’m not saying there won’t be some casualties, but I’d like to focus on making things better for people, not killing something. And by giving the end consumer better information and the power to use that information, you make the current industry fundamentally better.”

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Stunning drone footage, via Wired

If the heat is starting to get to you, here’s something refreshing…

Truly beautiful, inspiring, and relaxing. I want to go. Watch on full screen if you can.

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Save our World one scoop at a time, via Mashable

And speaking of freezing, the new ice-cream flavour from Ben and Jerry’s made me smile. Called “Save our Swirled”, or “SOS”, it mixes raspberry ice-cream with marshmallow, jam and dark and white fudge ice-cream cones. The slogan is “If it´s melted, it’s ruined”. Gimmicky, sure, but I like it.

image via Mashable

image via Mashable

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Have a refreshing weekend!!

Who needs the Internet when you have Facebook?

“What do you mean, it’s not the same thing?”

More people in the world have access to Facebook than have access to the Internet.

“But how can that be?”, you ask. Well, it can’t. So, the statement is not true, technically. However, in a recent survey sponsored by Quartz, approximately 11% of Facebook users in Indonesia and 9% of Facebook users in Nigeria claim that they don’t use the Internet. It turns out that they don’t know that they have access to the Internet, because all they use is Facebook. And it never occurred to them to look any further.

That makes Facebook the ultimate “walled garden”, the generic term for a mega-platform that tries to get you to never leave. They’re obviously pretty good at it, and they’re getting even better.

hands texting with mobile phones in cafe

Consider:

Facebook pages were launched in 2007 to pre-empt the posting of external links by businesses trying to promote themselves on the growing social media channel. Why to to the company’s site when Facebokk is easier to navigate?

Facebook video was rolled out in 2013 to prevent users from having to click on a YouTube link (embedded or not), and to pre-empt the YouTube ads before and after. The engagement with videos is massive: approximately 4 billion videos are seen on Facebook every day.

Facebook commerce: the “buy” button on some Facebook ads means that you don’t have to, ugh, go to another page and fill out all those online forms. Two to three clicks and your impulse purchase is on its way. And you haven’t lost your place in your social feed. What’s more, you haven’t had to wade through pages and pages of e-commerce images. Facebook knows what you like.

Facebook news: Earlier this year, Facebook announced deals with major media companies (The New York Times, National Geographic, The Atlantic, and others) to publish “instant articles” on the platform. No more slow loading times and distracting links to the publisher’s web. Now their articles are published directly on Facebook.

Facebook payments allows people to send money via the Messenger App. Sure, you could leave Facebook and go into Venmo or whatever mobile payments platform you use to send money. But why would you want to when paying on Facebook is as easy as tapping the dollar sign in the message window? At the moment Facebook has rolled out its payment platform in a few cities, as of yesterday including New York, and at the moment it is only for payments to Facebook friends, not businesses – but it looks set to expand.

All this can be seen as the ultimate in convenience. Yay, I don’t need to leave Facebook to talk to my friends/pay my bills/read my news/do my homework/order my food/buy my clothes.

Give me space

Or, it can be seen as a bit sinister. Just think what Facebook knows about you. A lot. Even if you don’t update often, it knows who your friends are and what they’re doing. It knows what you do in all the sites for which you use your Facebook login. I got a bit freaked out this morning when Facebook reminded me of an event that I have today. I have no recollection of signing up for or even commenting on that event on Facebook.

Right now, the convenience seems to be winning. We are, on the whole, lazy, and we choose the easy option (the most popular password is still “password”). Because we have nothing to hide, right? Nothing to fear? And that Zuckerberg seems like a nice guy. But let’s think a bit further down the road. What if one day he no longer runs Facebook? Or, say, Facebook is hacked by identity thieves? Or, say, Facebook and the [insert tax authority here] do a lucrative deal in which Facebook no longer pays taxes in exchange for testing a new illicit-economic-activity algorithm? Carry on down this road, and you begin to see the dangers of having so much of your data within one walled garden.

And let’s take a quick look at some of Facebook’s recent acquisitions:

Instagram (what are you doing when you’re not on Facebook?), Face.com (facial recognition software, so it’s easier to identify who you’re with in your Instagram and Facebook photos), Whatsapp (who are you talking to when you’re not using Facebook Messenger, and what about?), TheFind (a personalized shopping search engine – what are you interested in buying?), Wit.ai (speech recognition – possibly for voice search, for a Siri-like personal assistant, or perhaps for more data gathering when Facebook enters the mobile or desktop internet voice communication sector), Jibbigo (speech recognition and machine translation – it knows what you’re saying in many languages), ProtoGeo Oy (an app that can track where you are and what you’re doing). There are many, many more, but you get the picture.

It’s for your own good, really

Now, Facebook provides a great service. It connects people that would otherwise lose touch, and connections are a good thing. It facilitates communication, it helps you to reach out, and it provides community and company when needed. But no-one can deny these days that data is power, and that Facebook has a lot of both. And we all know that too much power is very dangerous.

Consider again:

It’s convenient getting your news on Facebook. But has anyone wondered to what extent Facebook influences what news we see? Yes, you can set certain parameters. But, ultimately, Facebook controls the algorithm that pushes the stories to your screen. Another question is to what extent Facebook SHOULD act as censor, to respect local laws or cultural sensibilities. Or maybe even its own self-interest, who knows… Would it allow news articles that criticize Facebook?

Facebook is far and away the leader in social media, something that mobile operators are beginning to use in their marketing. In India you can get a Facebook-only mobile data plan that costs a quarter of what the general Internet access plan costs. This will further entrench the idea that Facebook is the Internet, especially in the younger, lower-income groups that could most benefit from broader access to education services and information. US operator Sprint also offers a Facebook-only plan, or a Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest-only plan, for just $12. Sprint claims that this is to offer more choice to its users. I’m not sure if the irony is intentional.

internet org

screenshot from Internet.org

And for the good of the world

Now for a more insidious development:

For several years now Facebook has been developing Internet.org to bring Internet access to those living in rural areas in emerging economies, with no phone cables and limited infrastructure. This service is currently available in Zambia, Tanzania, Malawi, Kenya, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Colombia, Guatemala, Panama, the Phillipines, and today Facebook announced the launch in Pakistan. The platform is based on agreements with local mobile operators, and offers free connection to Facebook, Facebook Messenger and a limited selection of local sites such as job search, health information, etc.

Generally, among the available web services, Facebook wins hands down in terms of usability. As it well should, given the fortunes it has spent on testing and iterating the ideal user experience, something the local sites have probably not been able to do. So it’s logical to expect that the vast majority of the time the new users spend online will be on Facebook, especially if Facebook also starts to offer the same useful local information. Bundling other non-Facebook sites into the offer could well end up being just window-dressing.

internet org app

The free access part does sound good, making access affordable to millions for the first time. And most of the Internet.org users also have access to Wikipedia and Google Search results. But clicking through on a search result is not free, that requires a mobile data plan, something that most of these users don’t have and can’t afford.

And the very name itself confuses the users. When they use internet.org, obviously they think they’re using the Internet. After all, it’s in the name, right? But they’re not, they’re accessing a limited number of walled gardens. It’s not the same thing at all, and encouraging them at their first access to equate Facebook with the Internet, is not exactly in line with the saving-humanity message that accompanied the app’s launch.

The mobile carriers partner with Internet.org and allow free access to Facebook’s selection of services because they hope that the additional users will before long sign up for data packages to use the rest of the Internet. And that may happen, and I hope that it does, but Facebook is getting very good, as I said before, at keeping people in. It’s relatively well-designed, it’s convenient and it’s familiar. It doesn’t want anyone to leave. The local operators are hoping that it fails at that.

The underlying business model of the project, which seems to want to blur the distinction between the promotor and the Internet, is finally and understandably coming under considerable scrutiny. In India, several of the companies originally slated to participate withdrew in protest over the potential danger to net neutrality. And an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg from 67 human rights groups around the world, ironically enough published on Facebook, makes several compelling points about the negative impact on net neutrality and the worrying precedent that these agreements set:

“…we are deeply concerned that Internet.org has been misleadingly marketed as providing access to the full internet, when in fact it only provides access to a limited number of internet-connected services that are approved by Facebook and local ISPs. In its present conception,   Internet.org thereby violates the principles of net neutrality, threatening freedom of expression, equality of opportunity, security, privacy and innovation.”

And,

“Facebook is partnering with ISPs around the world to offer access to certain Internet applications to users at no cost. These agreements endanger freedom of expression and equality of opportunity by letting service providers decide which Internet services will be privileged over others, thus interfering with the free flow of information and people’s rights vis-a-vis networks.”

The signatories support the idea, but not the implementation:

“We have always sought to provide non-discriminatory access to the full open Internet, without privileging certain applications or services over others and without compromising the privacy and security of users.”

You can see the entire text here.

So, are these millions that Facebook is hoping to reach going to be connected to the Internet, with all the empowering access to information and learning that that implies? No, they’re going to be connected to Facebook. This is undoubtedly going to push upwards the percentage of Facebook users that don’t realise that they are using the Internet, that there’s more to it.

Is someone from Facebook going to educate them about data protection? It’s unlikely. And while many of the targeted areas have stable governments, not all do. Facebook and the ISP operators are going to have a lot of data about private individuals who don’t understand the economic or even the political risks. It’s easy to understand the concern of the human rights organizations.

Facebook’s main interest may well genuinely be to bring the advantages and empowerment of the Internet to places where it is sorely needed. We can all agree that that would be a good thing. However, it’s worth noting that Internet.org is not a non-profit project. It is part of Facebook, which is definitely a for-profit organization. And unless Facebook is careful and back-tracks on the walled-garden strategy, perhaps itself paying for greater access for the developing world (a fair exchange, given the profitable data it will be gathering), too much data and too much influence will begin to attract unwanted attention from activists and even anti-monopoly governing institutions. Facebook’s reach is currently so great that it is very unlikely that any one governing institution could by itself do it harm. But Facebook’s influence rests on its users. A skilled handling of abuse-of-power stories by influential media could spook users enough for them to either insist on a change in policy, or to vote with their fingers.

Facebook is powerful, for now. But public opinion is fickle, and loyalty these days is so easy to lose. It is a business, it has a right to do what it needs to do to grow. But as Spiderman said: “With great power comes great responsibility.” And I’m sure that Facebook will find that goodwill, generosity and humility are a very good investment.

Digital art reaches Eurovision

So, are you nursing a post-Eurovision hangover today? I confess that I am, a bit, the delightfully exuberant watermelon daiquiris that we felt would do the spectacle justice were a tad too delicious. And they had sparkly pompom stirrer sticks, and everything. The celebration went on for a while afterwards, too, since it was the first time I actually agreed with the outcome! Yay, Sweden!

Sweden Eurovision

The main reason I was rooting for Sweden was the digital effects. I’ve written before about the use of digital art in music performance, and while it wasn’t the most slick of backgrounds (and somewhat incongruous), Mans Zelmerlow’s rendition wasn’t bad, especially when you take into account that we’re talking about Eurovision. And the song wasn’t too terrible, either, at least not compared to the other entrants.

Here, see for yourself:

I imagine that, in part because of this victory, we’ll be seeing a lot more of this performance technique: the mix of human and digital and music. That’s exciting, the creativity and ingenuity should be quite something.

Friday five: coding, calendars and canals

This week I had the priviledge of attending The Next Billion conference in London, organized by Quartz, about the potential impact on the world when the next billion internet users log on. It was fascinating, impressive speakers in an impressive setting. So much conviction and curiosity. Hope, construction, communication. It was smooth, it was tech, it was human. I’m looking forward to the next one.

We can’t let the robots take over, from The New York Times

An encouraging call to trust human ability, from Nicholas Carr.

“Every day we’re reminded of the superiority of our computers. Self-driving cars don’t fall victim to distractions or road rage. Robotic trains don’t speed out of control. Algorithms don’t suffer the cognitive biases that cloud the judgments of doctors, accountants and lawyers. Computers work with a speed and precision that make us look like bumbling slackers.

It seems obvious: The best way to get rid of human error is to get rid of humans.”

Carr goes on to cite examples of how human reaction and creativity solved problems and saved lives, and how reliance on computers is often what makes humans lazy and unprepared. It may be that humans made mistakes, but they made them because the technology had made them lazy.

This ties in with Carr’s other writings, most of which share the theme that the ubiquity and relatively low cost of technology today are making us dumber and less independent. He may have a point, but I don’t think that it would be very difficult to come up with a counter-example for each of the instances he cites, in which spectacular human error could have been avoided with better data or enhanced control. Basically, the data will tell us what we want to see. That doesn’t necessarily make it the truth.

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A mesmerising sculpture of concrete and glass by Ben Young, which while solid and cold, reminds me of waves crashing on the beach…

by Ben Young, via My Modern Met

by Ben Young, via My Modern Met

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Learn to code, it’s important – from Quartz

Sure, maybe it’s too technical for some. Sure, not everyone wants to or needs to become a programmer. But learning at least the basics of programming is, I believe, essential. Maybe kids will try it and decide that that’s what they want to do. That would be good, they’ll probably have no trouble getting a well-paid job after graduation, which is more than can be said for many. But even if it’s not for them, they should still be exposed to the skills. It’s not so much the learning how to program that’s important, it’s understanding what programming is. It changes your way of thinking. It teaches you to break problems down into little pieces, a good life skill, right? It shows you possible solutions that, if you didn’t have a grasp of programming notions, you might never come up with. It opens up processes, and building blocks, and scaling, useful tools in any profession.

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The canal walkways in London now have a duck lane. Let’s hope they respect it.

via LikeCool

via LikeCool

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The chokehold of calenders, via Medium

In my experience, most people don’t schedule their work. They schedule the interruptions that prevent their work from happening…

I’ve yet to see a résumé—and I hope I never do— that lists “attends meetings well” as a skill. Yet attending meetings ends up being a key component of many jobs. And it’s stupid.

Yes, yes and yes.

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Email pain, from Harvard Business Review

I’ve been out of town for three days, and my inbound email tray has been flooded with at least another 250 entries. None of them are crucially urgent, but many of them are important. Although the word important is part of the problem: I can delete the uninteresting ones right away. But are the interesting ones important, because they’re interesting? There are several that need my attention and response, but urgently – however, as a matter of principal I really try to respond to every email within 24 hours. I find it rude when others don’t, and I don’t want to fall into that bucket. So, they, too, are important? And there’s the news summaries and Google alerts that I can’t erase without skimming, because there might be a VERY IMPORTANT STORY tucked away in those lists. So, they, too, are important. In the end, it turns out that of the 250 or so new entries, at least 150 are important. And that’s just crazy.

So with hope and gusto I read Harvard Business Review’s article this week on email management.

“But no one solution is likely to cure your email woes, because email angst isn’t just one problem: it’s several. It’s the problem of how to cope with the volume of incoming messages, compounded by our fear of missing out on something and by our anxiety about staying in the loop. Writing and replying to messages incorporates our insecurities about written communication and any fears of miscommunication. And perhaps most of all, it’s the problem of how to balance work and personal time, which is bound up with our desire to be both a great professional and a great parent/partner/friend/human.”

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by Samsofy Pardugato, via Bored Panda

by Samsofy Pardugato, via Bored Panda

I love Lego, what can I say… Check out more fun scenes by Samsofy Pardugato, on Bored Panda.

by Samsofy Pardugato, via Bored Panda

by Samsofy Pardugato, via Bored Panda

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Focus on the possibility, via Medium

A beautiful article, written with perspective, a positive outlook and a fair amount of research. Inspiring. Who says we can’t do it? Maybe it’ll be harder than if we were white males. So? Let’s try anyway. We can either spend our time whining about how life isn’t fair, or we can just get to work, do well, and set an example.

“More universally, all tech entrepreneurs, not just female ones, encounter bias. Be it gender, age or business model, people make judgments about us as we pitch our vision long before we have data. Beyond biases, we face mixed data signals every day as we keep iterating between vision and reality over months and years. Were we to yield to stats or all the negative signaling, no one would ever start a company. But as a startup community, our most universal bias is towards possibility.”

The author embarked on a comprehensive survey of successful female tech entrepreneurs (230, a substantial number). Some interesting discoveries:

  • While we acknowledge the importance of STEM, it is very possible for women who do not hail from STEM to start tech. Some 16 percent of our respondents came from STEM undergraduate programs, while 84 percent did not.
  • The “entrepreneur gene” seems to run in our families.
  • Men have played an important role as professional mentors for most of us.
  • Women venture capitalists appear to be disproportionate supporters of female entrepreneurs.
  • Almost half of us — 43 percent — have had children while running our companies
  • About 86 percent agree that women are judged differently than men, with the most common issues cited around perceptions of our “aggressiveness” against expectations of “likeability,” and general unconscious bias within our culture.
  • Tenacity/Resilience, Drive/Passion and Work Ethic rank among the Top 3 traits cited by this group as most attributing to our success.

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3d-printed eyeglasses, via Design Milk

MONO-Eyewear-3D-Printed-to-fit-Your-Face-7-600x400

I am so not interested in fashion – a comfy T-shirt, jeans, flat shoes and I’m happy. But I think that these 3-d printed eye-glasses are cute. And I really like the idea of them being comfortable. My current ones invariably end up precariously perched on the bottom of my nose within 5 minutes of putting them on. I dunno, though… a bit geeky, perhaps?

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Have a great weekend! Local elections here in Spain, quite exciting… And, of course, the Eurovision Song Contest. Frivolous and flamboyant fun.

Shedding some light on smart lightbulbs

We’ve been putting up with a broken pendant light above our kitchen table now for a few days. We have two, equally spaced lights hanging from the kitchen ceiling, and the other day one of the bulbs stopped working. So much for long-life LEDs. I have a good stock of extra lightbulbs, just not that exact kind. I should have known that a standard lightbulb just wouldn’t do, right? And of course, our local store doesn’t carry that particular model. Which is why we are still illuminating the kitchen cyclops-style, with just one pendant working. Being a positive kind of person, I’m focussing on the romantic touch of the dim glow.

Then again, what is the standard, anyway? I was in the supermarket recently, stocking up on extra lightbulbs (just, as I said, not the right kind), and I found the selection thoroughly confusing. Different wattages, the round or the curly, pointy, flat, halogen, led… 4200K, 2700K, 15W, 20W… I felt like a 10-year-old trying to make sense of algebra.

So I decided to try to shed some light on the subject (sorry). I had seen smart lightbulbs mentioned in the press occasionally, but I confess, in spite of my fascination for the Internet of Things, I had never actually read the articles. Now I have, and this is what I now know…

ilumi smartbulbs

That it’s even more confusing still. Confusing, but exciting, and it seems like new innovations are appearing every other week. I can’t wait for the dust to settle and start using the things.

So what is a smart lightbulb? A lightbulb that you can control from your smartphone. You turn them on and off from your screen, you can dim them, in many you can control the tone (warm light? cool?) or even the colour. They can also be pre-scheduled to switch on an off at certain times, to welcome you, wake you up, or make it look like you’re home when you’re not.

Not just a light, no sir

Some, like Stack’s Alba, respond to the light levels in the room (automatically adjusting), noise (turning on if there’s a commotion), movement (it knows when you’ve walked in), time of day (it can be used as a luminous, silent alarm clock), mood (changing from white light to warm light). Misfit’s Bolt integrates with your sleep trackers to know at which point in your REM cycle to turn on. Oh, and you can choose from millions of colours for just the right ambience. Or, choose a combination of tones that replicate the atmosphere in a certain photo.

misfit bolt

Sengled’s Boost is a lightbulb and a wifi repeater in one, and costs less than the wifi repeater I installed in my home office a few months ago. The Snap (also by Sengled) is not only a lightbulb but also a camera, microphone, facial recognition and motion sensor in one. That’s kind of freaky. On the one hand, it’s unlikely that a burglar is going to be squinting at your lightbulbs looking for a webcam. On the other, it’s disconcerting to know that you could be watched in your own home by a hacker or a sinister landlord.

Sengled, MiPow and Lightfreq make speaker lightbulbs. Yes, lightbulbs that are also Bluetooth speakers for your music, podcasts or whatever. They can reproduce playlists, or stream online, and some can also act as an intercom, so you can talk to a room even when you’re not at home. That won’t be weird at all. And with Lightfreq, the music will follow you when you leave one room and walk into another. Now you know what to get for that friend who has everything…

Beam is both a lightbulb and a projector. With speakers, of course. It can project whatever is on your phone to any flat surface. Which could, when you think about it, revolutionise office space. Or home entertainment.

Beam

The field is getting crowded: Phillips, Osram, Belkin, Cree, Misfit, TCP, LIFX, Avea, Ilumi, SMFX, General Electric, Lümen, Lumini, Stack, Emberlight (more a smart socket than a smart lightbulb), Lightfreq, mimoodz… There’s even a website that just reviews smartbulbs, called (you guessed it) SmartbulbReviews.com. Some bulbs require a hub to work, others don’t. Some connect easily, others don’t. Some lightbulbs have geofencing capability, which means that when you are almost home, or approaching your front door, the lights turn on without you having to do anything at all. How do they know? They track the location of your phone.

Next step?

The potential for interaction with wearables is interesting. It could extend the geofencing that we talked about earlier by detecting proximity and turning on and off accordingly (useful if you live alone, probably annoying if you don’t.) Soon you will be able to turn Misfit’s Bolt bulb on and off by simply tapping the Misfit activity tracker on your wrist. Some smartbulb manufacturers are working on watch apps which allow you to activate the light by swiping.

The potential for data collection is huge, as there are generally more bulbs in any given space than other “connected” gadgets. Stack already has sensors incorporated into their wiring. It’s a small step to collect movement data, activity levels, behaviour patterns… Combine smartbulb apps with other apps (using If This Then That, for example) and your lights can tell you what the weather is outside, when you’ve been tagged in Facebook, what the main colour tone is in the latest photo in your Instagram feed, which team won the football game (by changing colour to their logo), when your kids have fallen asleep…

What happens if you lose your smartphone? It wouldn’t leave you in the dark, the lights can be turned on and off with the traditional switch. No playing with the colours or intensity, though, and if it’s off at source, your app controls won’t work. I have been wondering how it would work for multi-person household in which more than one person wants to control the ambience. Could there be a market for “dedicated” smartphones just for gadget control, that never leave the front hall table?

avea lightbulb

Worth it?

The smartbulbs sound amazingly flexible, and the cool factor is through the roof. But, let’s face it, opening an app to control your lighting is nowhere near as easy as flipping a switch. Why fuss with several taps when simply pressing a button on the wall will do? And let’s assume that everything connects automatically and there’s no connection outages.

Is this a fad? Will the connectivity hassle overcome the cool factor? I think not. Our mindset is changing. No longer do we just accept the off-the-shelf technology, now we want to configure and control our tools. Personalization is everything, and that mindset will be hard to dislodge. Before long, very soon in fact, traditional, simple on-off lightbulbs will seem primitive, and the shrinking difference in price between connected lightbulbs and normal LED bulbs will make the decision to go smart even easier. The technology will continue to improve, and we probably will see dedicated Internet of Things controllers replace the smartphone as the control of choice.

And, the economics look good. Yes, these bulbs are more expensive than traditional ones – generally ranging from between $20 to $400. But the energy savings are significant, and assuming that the bulb lasts even just half of what the manufacturers say, they will pay for themselves. Which means less bulb shopping. Which sounds like a very good thing to me. And, the overall reduction in energy consumption as this rolls out across the developed world could end up having a material impact on, well, just about everything.

And now for the joke: How many people does it take to screw in a smart lightbulb? One, but he or she’s going to need to be pretty smart themselves.

Pine Point: A beautifully poignant digital narrative

Pine Point is another spectacular production of the National Film Board of Canada (see here for the moving interactive documentary “Bear71”), which conveys a complete re-imagining of the idea of the photo album as a way to preserve memory. It shares with us the heart and soul of a town, now closed, and questions what nostalgia is for. When something is gone, is it really gone?

pine point

This amazing digital narrative is about detail and sentiment, going back and moving forward, memory and community. The story is charming, the script (if you can call it that) very well crafted, but what blew me away was the role of the images. At times still and poignant, at other times playfully floating or falling, they add another layer to the tale, as if they, too, were a narrator. As with a photo album, the question arises: are the images the protagonist, or the people in them? Is the town the protagonist, or are its citizens?

pine point 2

The images are enchanting. Sometimes bleak, sometimes beautiful. Sometimes sad, sometimes joyful. And always, arranged in a way that draws you even more into the story. The mixture of stills, vintage-style video and drawing is graceful and theatrical without being intrusive, and the interaction of type and voice together telling the story is engrossing and complex without being distracting. The end effect is touching, innovative and beautifully executed.

pine point 3

The narrative is steeped in nostalgia and even melancholy, but also in love and appreciation. Watch it and you find yourself not feeling sad that the town’s gone, but glad that it existed. As far removed as it may be from your world, it represents something to everyone: a sense of community, the bond of shared history, and the comfort that even when parts of our past are no longer physically there, we can still go back and reminisce. It’s just a mining town, a closed one at that. But here we have a beautiful example of the power of something small to show us something big.

pine point 7

pine point 8

Towards the end of the narrative, the screen displays this text: “What remains of Pine Point is an unfinished sentence.” You hope it never gets finished.

pine point 1

Friday Five: Future Cities, ATMs and Digital Natives

Digital Natives, Yet Strangers to the Web – from The Atlantic

One of the most resonating articles I’ve read in a long time. If you have teens or pre-teens, or if you teach, read it, really!

“According to Loewy, this dichotomy amounts to a major missed opportunity. Kids not only need to be proficient in how to use digital technology, becoming savvy coders and prolific ebook readers, he explains—they also need to deeply, holistically, and realistically understand how the digital world works behind the scenes. And that doesn’t only mean realizing that sexting is a victimizing and punishable offense with long-term repercussions. Or that social media can be addictive and full of predators. While it’s undoubtedly important to keep kids safe when they’re online, these focuses give kids “a distorted view of the digital world,” Loewy writes. “It is a view that reflects the fears of adults rather than the aspirations of youth.” “

and…

“Loewy half-jokingly compares the state of digital learning in America’s schools to that of sex ed, which, as one NYU education professor describes it, entails “a smattering of information about their reproductive organs and a set of stern warnings about putting them to use.” “

Sad, or hopeful? A pet store put price tags on rescue animals to see if potential owners would be more interested knowing that they cost money. It worked. The store didn’t take the money, and the animals got a home. Happy ending. But still…

Sad, or hopeful? A pet store put price tags on rescue animals to see if potential owners would be more interested knowing that they cost money. It worked. The store didn’t take the money, and the animals got a home. Happy ending. But still… (via MyModernMet)

Mobile payments – why waiting is no longer an option, from WIRED

The payments sector is getting very crowded. And interesting.

For virtually anyone interested in making money from the growth in smartphones, mobile payments make sense. Transaction fees trump online content as a means of generating profit — and as time goes on, a larger percentage of customers both online and at the cash register will be expecting the ability to pay through their smartphone. The question is, which direction should merchants take to position themselves for mobile payments?

 

An awesome project: a group of teenagers create a mobile ecological village for the homeless. Via MyModernMet

An awesome project: a group of teenagers create a mobile ecological village for the homeless. Via MyModernMet

The Disruption of ATMs… They’re going to need to evolve, and fast – from Quartz

The poor, overlooked and under-appreciated ATMs are due for a serious overhaul if they want to survive. These days we only use cash, in general, for small purchases such as a coffee or a taxi ride. Digital money aims to make cash unnecessary even for those. So, why will we need ATMs? Because they don’t just dispense cash.

“In Latin America, the typical ATM has 50 to 75 features, compared with 25 in the US, says Mattes. It allows people to pay water, phone, and electricity bills, and even to pay to view a soccer match on their televisions at home. In the UK, people can top up their phone balance or contribute to charity via cash points. New machines being trialled by UBS in Switzerland will allow people to open bank accounts; instead of cash, they spit out a brand new debit card. “A new machine can do 95% of what a human teller can do,” says Mattes. That includes easy things like bank transfers and accepting cash, but also things like sanctioning car loans.”

Skeletal leaf bowl sculptures, by Kay Sekimachi - via Colossal

Skeletal leaf bowl sculptures, by Kay Sekimachi – via Colossal

The State of the Newspaper Industry, from Nieman Lab

More on the relentless march of mobile. Pew Internet has just published their 2015 media report, always worth a good read. In this report, Nieman Labs highlights the main points, pulls out the best graphs, and leaves us with the foreboding feeling that the ad revenue decline for physical newspapers isn’t going to end just yet.

It’s not just physical papers that are being threatened. As of January 2015, 39 of 50 online newspapers had more mobile visitors than desktop readers. Yet, websites hold the reader’s attention for longer than their mobile versions.

Oh, and podcasting continues to grow in popularity. Yay. And, may I add, in quality.

Tesla batteries are sold out until 2016 - via Curbed

Tesla batteries are sold out until 2016 – via Curbed

The Tyranny of Constant Contact, from The New York Times

I am spending almost an hour a day clearing out emails, which is ridiculous.

In my own effort to stay afloat the data surf, I subscribe to two policies. First, if it takes me more than 24 hours to respond to an email, I’ll apologize to the sender; after a day, the failure to respond betrays disinterest, concern or alcohol poisoning.

Second, in the intimacy-based communications hierarchy (with a face-to-face meeting or a phone call being at the top, and tying a message to a rock and then burying the rock in the dirt being at the bottom), I try always to meet the incoming vehicle at its level or higher. You can’t answer a phone call with a message on FarmVille.

Smart Cities and Security, from The Guardian

future cities

The idea of Smart Cities is fascinating and exciting – I’m auditing a MOOC called “Future Cities” from the ETH Zurich and loving it, the field of urban design is quite breathtaking these days. And an extra plus, the course is helping me appreciate the city I live in even more than I already did.

But, the article raises a worrying and valid point, in that the more connected our city infrastructure, the more vulnerable to hacking. Sensors, power meters, street lights can all be hacked for information and/or personal use. That’s not new. What is new is the increasing interconnectivity, which leaves entire areas vulnerable to anything from seriously inconvenient pranks to large-scale attacks.

“A city has plans for earthquakes or floods in some areas, but I don’t think many cities have any plans for cyber attacks.”

For more on the future of our cities, I have a new Flipboard magazine:

flipboard future cities

Have a great weekend! Ask difficult questions!

Who needs cash, anyway?

Have you ever thought to count how many coins and bills pass through your washing machine every year? You know, the €5 note scrunched into a pocket, the coins embedded deep into the corners… I have come up with a rough estimate that over the past 12 months, at least €115 that I know of has been washed and even tumble dried in my house (plus two iPods, but we won’t go into that… ok, let’s go into that, how hard can it be to empty out your pockets before you chuck your jeans in the wash?).

Which has led me to wonder why we still use cash. These days, with contactless, mobile and electronic payments becoming more prevalent and easy to use, is cash on its way out? Most of us still carry hefty purses or wallets with us as we head out the door. And most of us pay for small items, and some big items with bills and coins. But that does seem to be a generational instinct. Citibank recently did a survey asking about payment methods for small purchases. Over half of the over-50s but only 30% of the under-30s said cash.

Pound-Coins-2

Why cash?

Cash is comforting. Cash is convenient. Cash is reliable. But, the use of cash costs the US economy approximately $200 billion every year, according to a study from Tufts University, in ATM fees, security costs, handling time… Another report states that it costs UK businesses more than £17.8 billion per year just to handle cash. So it’s no wonder that the idea of no longer having to is attracting interest.

And as for its advantages, are they really that?

We think that cash is comforting. Yet almost $40 billion was stolen from banks in the US alone in 2011, and the Tufts study estimates that another $40 billion is stolen in cash from retail businesses annually. If we lose our wallet, we never expect to get it back with the cash still in it. Retail outlets spend upwards of $20 billion a year to protect their cash, and that doesn’t take into account the time spent in lines waiting to deposit lesser amounts. Comforting? And let’s not even think about the germs that passing cash can spread.

Is cash convenient? Its physical characteristic that people find convenient is actually one of its biggest drawbacks. You can only reliably exchange cash face-to-face. You’re at the restaurant, or the store, and you physically hand over your cash to the waiter or the check-out person. Counting out change takes time. Lugging around hefty purses or wallets full of coins is a nuisance. And its physicality makes cash simply not viable for the increasing percentage of household and business spending that is no longer done in person.

Is cash reliable? Counterfeiting of notes is a huge business. In 2011, $231 million in counterfeit cash was removed from circulation. We can assume a whole lot more wasn’t. If the medium were reliable, our stores and restaurants wouldn’t need to spend on fake note detection tools.

One big advantage of cash that is more difficult to argue with is its anonymity. A dollar bill does not care who is holding it. Electronic transfers leave a trail. I get that the right to privacy is important, and I can see some instances in which even non-criminals would want an above-the-board transaction to not be traceable, but is this the advantage that we should be focussing on? And, Bitcoin – to give one example – does protect the user’s identity, while at the same time leaving a verifiable trace.

Less cash

Today, the growth of ecommerce and the increasing ease of electronic payments are reducing our dependence on physical bills and coins. While many ecommerce purchases here in Spain are paid for “cash on delivery”, as in the client hands cash to the delivery courier, that preference is declining, and is virtually unknown in other countries. Ecommerce purchases, on the whole, are paid for by electronic transfer.

E-payments are getting easier to use. I can now make App purchases on my phone with my thumbprint. I pay for my groceries by waving my credit card at a screen. E-payments are also getting cheaper. The high commission or transfer fees on the electronic transfer of small amounts made them relatively uneconomic. Now, with digital wallets and virtual currencies, the handling costs are very small. Electronic micropayments are now possible, and convenient.

Mobile_payment

A study recently released showed that cash payments in Denmark have fallen from 80% of total transactions in 1990 to just 25% in 2012. 40% of Danish adults hardly ever use cash, and the Danish government has announced its intention to allow retail establishments to refuse payments in physical currency, with the aim of reducing costs and boosting economic growth. Mastercard estimates that 60% of payments in Singapore, Netherlands, France, Sweden and Canada are done with non-cash methods. Card use in Iceland is the highest in the world, with almost 99% of private transactions being done on plastic.

Curiously enough, as the European economies improve, cash should become even less important. The two main user groups of cash today are the elderly, and low-income families who use cash as a budget management tool (when the jar is empty, it’s empty). Fewer families subsisting on marginal incomes, and more businesses being able to afford the (decreasing) cost of adapting will accelerate the transition. Non-cash transactions will get the double boost of higher transaction values (due to the economic recovery) and a higher percentage of transactions overall (due to increased adoption of electronic and mobile payments).

The impact of mobile

Mobile payments have for years been substituting cash in developing economies. Kenya, for example, sees 34% of its national payments and 66% of transaction volumes go through mobile phones. 22% of Bangladesh’s adult population use mobile payments. In December alone, a total of $7.5 billion was transacted globally through mobile money systems, and Forrester Research estimates that in-person mobile transactions will reach $34 billion annually by the end of the decade. That’s only in five years. That’s huge.

Smartphones and tables can also be used to accept credit card payments with a little device, called an mPOS terminal, which makes it much easier for small retailers and itinerant sellers to reduce their dependence on cash. In Stockholm, some unemployed people selling street magazines now accept electronic payments.

The entrance of new players

In Europe, the main providers of payment solutions have up until now been the traditional banks. Our online transfers are done through our banks, and contactless payments are so far controlled by the banks. Paypal only accounts for 20% of total online payments in Europe. Fintech startups and even the big Internet providers and tech companies are moving into this sector: Apple, Google and Facebook are just some of the names gearing up for a battle over our online and mobile wallets.

The EU directives on e-money and payment services have created a legal framework that regulates the payments sector and encourages innovation, in that the regulation increases consumer trust and thus makes it less risky to introduce a new idea. Payments are “hot”, according to venture capital and angel investors, and judging from the number of startups vying to make transactions easier.

And then there’s the role of crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin and Litecoin (just two examples, there are many), and the effect they will have on international payments. Although they are struggling to gain mass acceptance, it’s early days yet, but I believe that they will end up being an important part of the payments scene.

Decreasing risk

Yes, online banking and mobile transfers do have some element of risk. Smartphones with embedded wallets can be stolen, payment information can be hacked. But cash has considerable risks, too, such as the untraceable theft and counterfeiting that we’ve already talked about. And technological advances are reducing the threat of fraud in e-money. Secure servers and two-step verification are becoming the norm. The awareness of the need for password protection is becoming more prominent. Soon our phones will be able to biometrically verify that it is us who is asking for the transfer, by scanning your iris or mapping your voice.

True, criminals are ingenious, and there probably already is a hefty black market for false contact readers or mobile credit card scanners. But as they adapt, so do we, and security will continue to become easier and more reliable. Yes, there is some risk, but less, and decreasing.

The outlook

As more outlets accept and encourage non-cash payments, more consumers will try them out. As more consumers are comfortable with the new payment mechanisms, more outlets will adapt. And the cycle will lead us all towards a more convenient but probably more fragmented payments scenario.

We’re not going cashless any time soon. But it will happen, most likely before my 12-year-old graduates from university. Personally, I’m not going to miss scrambling after dropped coins or unfolding wrinkled bank notes. I concede that, except for the having to carry it, cash is convenient. You hand some over, you get some back, no hassle. But e-money is becoming increasingly convenient, too. It will end up being very easy to use, from your phone or your watch or your fitness tracker. And it reduces cost and increases efficiency for the businesses that receive it, which allows for higher profit margins and/or lower prices for us.

Governments spending less on note printing and coin minting… Businesses saving on security and handling costs… Individuals having more streamlined wallets and more information on where the monthly budget went… All that sounds like a win-win idea to me. Could the replacement of cash end up being the main “disruption” of our era?

Friday five: u-turns, polls and no more cash

The usual roundup… No pretence at limiting myself to five any more…

Back at ya, babe… The push web – from Techcrunch

uturn-e1430431626124

This is actually pretty huge: we don’t need to search for information quite so much anymore. It comes to us. Customize goods, minimize waste. Retail, manufacturing media are trying to anticipate our needs. It’s not that personalization is back, it’s that personalization is everything.

“In order for companies to survive in this new custom-everything world, they need to both co-exist with current aggregators and harness the data they collect within their own user platform to get direct, one-to-one connections to their customers. Rather than rely solely on the few successful, third-party power aggregators like Facebook, for the sake of fair competition, companies should invest in retaining control over their own data and customer experiences. From there, any connected device can serve as a conduit for one-to-one communications. The smaller the screen and more personal the customer experience, the more opportunity there is for the push web to thrive.”

 

Don’t trust the polls – from Politico

So, in spite of the polls yesterday showing a resounding Labour victory, the Conservatives won. I don’t live in the UK, and I can’t vote there, but my parents do and so it does matter. It’s relevant, too, since we have elections coming up in Spain soon, with certain tenuous similarities. I can’t vote here, either, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to get excited…

This is the best analysis of the UK elections that I’ve seen so far.

 

Who needs cash, anyway? – from Quartz

The boost to business from a cash-less society: less need for security (lower operating costs), less time spent counting out change (better labour efficiency), fewer black-market transactions (better deficit balance and greater possibility of reducing taxes)… and let’s not even start on the health cost of germs the coins and notes carry (yes, tongue-in-cheek). Last year the Danish Central Bank announced that it would stop printing currency, and many bank branches (themselves heading for extinction) no longer carry cash.

And, Denmark is following the other Nordic countries’ lead. It’s creeping south, people!

denmark-cash-money

 

Crowdfunding pushing out the VCs (to some extent, anyway) – from TechCrunch

I wrote last week about crowdfunding pushing out some traditional VC business. Here’s more, focussed on the hardware startup segment:

“Of 128 companies that had campaigns that broke the $100,000 threshold used in this analysis, 65 percent were hosted on Kickstarter and 35 percent were on Indiegogo. The gap between the two platforms is quickly shrinking, and while Kickstarter captured the majority of the dollars thanks to a single blockbuster campaign, the median dollars raised on Indiegogo were actually higher. In other words, the long tail of Kickstarter is longer than that of Indiegogo but the fat tail isn’t as pronounced as it once was.”

 

The fintech revolution – from The Economist

Yes! Yes! Very exciting… Most of this could have been written a year ago, but still, welcome.

“This kind of data-driven lending has clear advantages over decisions based on a single credit score or meetings between banker and client. Humans are more prejudiced than algorithms: Italian banks charge female owners of small businesses more than male owners, even though the women have lower failure rates. The cost of relationship lending encourages bankers to chase big customers rather than small ones. For young businesses and borrowers on the fringes of the banking system, risk assessment that scours the online world for information is better than a loan officer in a branch.”

Really???? Women business owners get charged more than male ones??? Even though they have lower failure rates???

 

In Code We Trust – from The New York Times

What do we mean by “money”, anyway?

“They do their best to hide it, but today the world’s central bankers are in something like a state of panic. Money is, quite clearly, uncontrollable. This manifests in large ways — like the six years of continuous crisis that have roiled the eurozone — but also in smaller, more technical matters. For example, the Federal Reserve has no idea how much money is out there, at least in all its digital forms, or how fast the overall supply is growing. This is alarming, because the whole concept behind the Fed is to monitor and control the money supply. That was a much easier task in an era of physical banks and highly regulated savings accounts. But today, each of us has the power to increase the money supply by simply carrying a balance on a credit card. (If you ever meet a central banker and want to get her stammering, ask this question: “How much money is there, precisely?”)”

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An original success checklist – from TechCrunch

I really hate “how to be successful lists”, because, you know, if it were that simple… But this is one of the more original ones I’ve seen (I love #1, “No assholes allowed”), and has a few gems that I haven’t seen before and hadn’t thought of.

Startup marketing is all about experimentation and educated guesses. It’s also about constant iteration. Everything from product pricing to the color of the free download button on your website can be tried, tested and changed based upon feedback. Don’t tell others you’re experimenting; that sounds indecisive. Say you’re running a pilot; it sounds better.

 

It was never a dress – from MyModernMet

This is refreshingly in-your-face: a new interpretation of the traditional bathroom signs!

NeverADress2

 

An extraordinary animation…   

…with pins and thread, set to Son Lux’s “This Moment Changes Everything” (via Colossal)

 

Have a great weekend!