Friday five: Twitter, bubbles and liquid clocks

Twitter as a global town square – by Kalev H. Leetaru for The Atlantic

I’ve written before about the impact of Twitter on the news (and confessed that it’s one of my go-to news sources). But this article in the Atlantic has opened my eyes to how limited it is as a reliable information medium.

“…if Twitter is indeed a global town square, it’s one that most of the town hasn’t entered yet—and one where the townsfolk who have entered seem to be doing more listening than talking these days. This reality has broader consequences for the promise of social media as a platform for hearing from and engaging with the world in unprecedented ways.”

While the number of Twitter users has increased by 100 million over the past two years, the number of tweeters has remained more or less stagnant. Which means that more and more are signing up to be “observers”. The article uses this fact to question Twitter’s relevance as a news communicator. But I think it validates it. Observers use Twitter as a news source, which gives weight to those that are communicating, and encourages others to do so. And one day these observers could well step in with something useful.

It does seem, however, that Twitter is not the grass-roots agitator that its reputation claims. Most tweeting is done from urban locations, where news coverage is not exactly scarce. Information from remote, uncovered areas is still scarce.

“…rather than growing outwardly and spreading to new regions, Twitter is largely growing inwardly and intensifying its coverage of locations where it was already popular, including the United States, Indonesia, and Japan.”

This questions its usefulness as a communicator of otherwise unreported news, some of which could have significant impact. We as yet still are not getting a worthwhile stream of tweets from rural Latin America, most of Africa and Central Asia and southern India, regions that do play an increasingly important role in determining the direction of capital and human movement, and the world economy. So how useful, then, is Twitter?

Interest in Twitter as a social network is nowhere near that of other platforms, with Facebook servicing 5 times more monthly users. The “walled garden” analogy that the author uses is confusing, though, likening Twitter to a “fire hose” and Facebook to an “email service”.

“People currently seem to be gravitating toward social networks that emphasize control over message distribution, with a bias toward circumscribed communication rather than broadcasting to the entire world.”

Personally, I don’t agree. On Twitter, I choose who I follow, and if they tweet boring stuff, I unfollow them. On Facebook I get so many sponsored messages and in such a long format that it feels much more fire hose-y. But then again, I’ve been using Twitter for a long time now, and it could well be just be that I’ve gotten used to it.

I stand by Twitter as a news source. I find it much easier to skim than Facebook, much less distracting and time-sucking, and much more social in that people whose views and writing I respect “introduce” me to others that I also find fascinating. I don’t expect it to come up with profound insights into uncovered areas, but I do rely on it to show me stuff that I wouldn’t otherwise see. In an easy-to-skim real-time stream, as well. List format. Which digs up gems such as this:

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An honest guide to the San Francisco startup life – via Medium

A hilarious tongue-in-cheek account of startup life, with jibes at standing desks, San Francisco streets and scalding coffee.

“Driving in SF is like a theme park ride — the cars move bumper to bumper, the terrain is alpine, and the people around you have the temper of 10-year-olds.”

“Here is a pop-quiz — Which one’s an SF road and which one’s a roller-coaster?”

image via Medium

image via Medium

“Our office, like most modern startup offices, has an open floor plan. In an open floor plan, desks are organised like tables in a college cafeteria. However, instead of food and noise, you have computers, food, and noise.”

A fun, glad-I’m-not-there read.

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Offline communities from online connections – via The New York Times

This is a charming anecdote of how online networks can create social structure and connections, building a sense of community offline through interaction online. A new arrival in an Italian neighbourhood felt disconnected and left out, and created a Facebook group for his street. He posted flyers advertising the group, others joined, and soon the whole neighbourhood was meeting for drinks, lending each other tools, helping each other out with fixes and chores.

“Almost two years later, the residents say, walking along Via Fondazza does not feel like strolling in a big city neighborhood anymore. Rather, it is more like exploring a small town, where everyone knows one another, as the group now has 1,100 members.”

“The idea, Italy’s first “social street,” has been such a success that it has caught on beyond Bologna and the narrow confines of Via Fondazza. There are 393 social streets in Europe, Brazil and New Zealand, inspired by Mr. Bastiani’s idea, according to the Social Street Italia website, which was created out of the Facebook group to help others replicate the project.”

I think I’ll propose one of these at my next resident’s meeting.  :)

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TV programming for 2020, via Quartz

If you’ve been following the state of online media and the scramble to find a business model that works, you’ll find this funny.

via Quartz

via Quartz

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The upside of a downturn in Silicon Valley – by Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times

“Bad times feed good ideas, which in turn lead to good times, which breed complacency, waste and lots of bad business plans.”

A sobering reflection from Farhad Manjoo on how an extension of the startup “bubble” would not be a good thing for business. All those writing articles (which I’m collecting) declaring that we’re not even in a bubble, that this valuation exuberance is quite normal and reasonable, should take note.

“The boom has made Silicon Valley soft: Companies are spending too much, investors are funding too many me-too ideas, and most founders have never had to confront any limits to their overweening ambitions. Venture capitalists won’t quite say they are looking forward to a correction, but some do say that a bust could toughen up the place.”

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A liquid clock, via Dezeen

image via Dezeen

image via Dezeen

A clock. Made with no moving parts, only liquid magnets. Really.

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Have a great weekend, everyone, and thank you for reading! I’m torn between feeling a bit sad that August is almost over, and excited about September. A good place to be, right?. :)

Driverless cars go easy on the accelerator

“I am never getting into one of those things!” My mother, never an early adopter, plans to be a never-adopter of a technology that I personally am very much looking forward to. If there were such a thing as a pre-early adopter on this, that would be me. But it is a concept that not only divides families, but society as a whole, with technologists, corporatists, entrepreneurs, law-makers and sociologists all weighing in. There’s a lot going on in the field of driverless cars.

Far from being just science fiction, most of the big tech companies and auto makers have invested small fortunes in developing this technology which is already tootling around on public streets. Google has been working on driverless cars for over 15 years. They unveiled a steering wheel-free prototype at the end of 2014 which began testing on public roads in San Francisco in early 2015, and they plan to make them available to the public by 2020. That’s only five years away.


Mercedez Benz self-driving car prototype

It was confirmed last week that Apple are trying to catch up, scouting out testing sites near their headquarters in California and hiring auto-industry executives and researchers. Earlier this year Mercedes Benz unveiled its futuristic model (pictured above) and Audi embarked on a cross-US test drive of its first driverless car across the US, which it expects to be able to release to the public in two years. Tesla cars will start self-driving this year through a software update and appear on track to have fully autonomous vehicles in a few years. BMW has teamed up with Chinese tech giant Baidu to develop a self-driving car which they plan to release by the end of 2015. Nissan plans to launch autonomous vehicles by 2020, and will introduce self-driving on highways in some of its models next year. Honda has begun testing, and Volvo plan to start testing self-driving cars with real customers in 2017. The list of participants and investors is long.

Are governments allowing this, given the risks? In many states and countries around the world, yes. Some are not only allowing it, but actively investing in the concept. UK Driverless cars are being tested this year in the UK towns of Milton Keynes, Bristol, Greenwich and Coventry, funded by the government which is investing over £19m directly in the technology, with a further £100m in grants pledged to match private investment.

A driverless car in Milton Keynes, UK

A driverless car in Milton Keynes, UK

In the US California, Nevada, Michigan and Florida have passed bills allowing public testing, and in Europe so have Spain, Germany and the Netherlands. The European Commission has selected five cities (in Belgium, Italy and France) to be used as guinea pigs.

And it turns out that the risk is pretty low. Google, the farthest along in testing by far, has acknowledged that their driverless cars have been involved in 15 minor accidents, caused by being rear-ended or side-swiped by human-driven vehicles, or by human error while in manual mode. That’s in spite of having driven almost 2 million kilometres in autonomous mode.

These are the kinds of crashes that usually don’t even get reported.  In the US alone, over 30,000 people a year die in car crashes. Driverless cars will bring that figure way, way down. Computers don’t get drunk or text while driving. And sensors will be able to detect hidden dangers, such as another car speeding up at the perpendicular intersection just the other side of the hedge, or the cyclist coming up in our blind spot on the right.

One of the Google driverless car prototypes

One of the Google driverless car prototypes

Apart from saving lives, driverless cars could usher in significant cost savings. According to a 2010 US government study, crashes cost the economy about $242 billion per year in medical bills, lost productivity, legal bills, insurance administration, property damage and congestion. Crashes in which police indicate that at least one driver was exceeding the legal speed limit cost $52 billion. Crashes in which at least one driver was identified as being distracted cost $40 billion. And on a daily, individual level, fewer accidents means lower insurance premiums.

The environmental impact sounds impressive. The cars are electric, so fewer emissions. With controlled and orderly traffic, there would be less din, no honking horns or motor rumblings. Fewer swear words shouted in frustration.

(what busy intersections could look like with autonomous cars)

And the freed-up resources: on average, cars spend 95% of their time parked. Inactive. Taking up space, doing nothing. Self-driving cars can be put to work, driving other people around, running errands, making deliveries, whatever. Load-based management, sub-renting or time-sharing could reduce costs and optimize use. Space previously occupied by parked cars could be taken over by street cafés, trees, benches, or space to walk. (Unless, of course, we need the extra space for the extra convenience-induced traffic.) And really, will anyone miss parking tickets?

Stressful, hour-long commutes will be a thing of the past. No more time wasted looking for city parking spaces. True, driverless cars will go slower, so the A to B time will probably be longer. But it’s time that can be spent legally texting, reading, watching videos. And, computer-driven cars would know where other cars are, and automatically take the least congested route to the destination.

Furthermore, we won’t need a license to ride in one. That makes them ideal for transporting kids and the elderly. I would love to be able to put my daughter in a driverless car to send her off to school in the morning. And of course she would use the time to study, rather than watch YouTube.

Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that she’ll be well done with school by the time this becomes a reality. If ever. Governments allowing testing and encouraging research is not the same as allowing consumer use, and there are significant legal obstacles to overcome before we can cruise one out of the dealership. Law makers have their work cut out for them in terms of defining responsibility in case of incident. Is it the passenger’s fault? Or is it the software? Or the car maker? Or maybe the city and their inaccurate sensors or illegible signs?

Updating legacy infrastructure will be a significant hurdle. Cities will have to invest a small fortune in new signage, sensors and traffic flows. Will traffic lights still be necessary? What will happen to pedestrian crossings? Even the testing has a long way to go still. How would driverless cars fare in a snowstorm?

The potential loss of insurance premiums will galvanize a powerful lobby. The economic and social cost of millions of taxi, truck and bus drivers, and driving academy employees out of work is frightening. The ripple effects on other areas of social activity – shopping (more convenient deliveries will reduce the need for supermarkets), work (the incentive to stagger commutes for traffic’s sake would be another tick in favour of working from home), family (if our kids don’t depend on us to ferry them around, what will that do to the family connection?) – will be huge but difficult to quantify.

And driver resistance is a powerful barrier. My mother is not the only one to unreasonably view the idea of electric “people movers” with fear. Behind the wheel, we feel in control. It’s a psychological thing. We develop an emotional bond with our car. We’ve been through some stuff together, that brings us closer. Giving up the sense of freedom and autonomy that owning a car bestows is going to be tough for many, impossible for some. Unfortunately, the idea of cleaner air and more parks will probably not be enough to sell it. And government-mandated change brings political risks that few politicians will be willing to take on. Heavy subsidies will help, but combined with the cost of street and highway adaptation, will be difficult to finance, both economically and politically. The cost savings and environmental impact mentioned earlier will take years to become obvious. And governments, by electoral necessity, tend to think short-term.

And yet technology marches on, and works its way into our lives in such a way that we go from thinking “I don’t need one” to “What did I ever do without it?” without us even noticing. Think PCs, smartphones, online banking. Our cities will be able to cope with a combination of autonomous cars and the complicated, loud human-controlled models. Soon these will seem old-fashioned, and social pressure and the evolution of taste and priorities will swing in favour of driverless models, especially for city driving. Autonomous cars will become a status symbol, just as electric cars are becoming today. High-end cars already have strong autonomous functions, such as automatic parking, lane detection, adaptive cruise control, automatic braking if the car in front slows down…

Car driving will not disappear, just as horse riding hasn’t. It will become an activity practised for fun rather than necessity, with clubs and courses and communities of like-minded enthusiasts. And for those who long for the thrill of dashing down obstacle-ridden city streets, the soon-to-be-ubiquitous virtual reality headsets will deliver an adrenalin-pumping version of Grand Theft Auto or similar.

grand theft auto

So, it will happen. But slowly, as it should. Mobility is an integral part of what it means to be human, and freedom of choice is core to our understanding of democracy. Yet we are capable of profound cultural change. Mass adoption of driverless cars will take time to become an acceptable concept, in spite of the obvious advantages. Yet we are already seeing signs of the necessary mind-shift in the growth of the Sharing Economy, in which access trumps ownership in terms of efficiency. It’s slow, but it’s happening. By the time the next generation takes the wheel, so to speak, choosing a hands-on car will seem like a radical, frivolous decision. While we will always be territorial animals, our collective drive (ok, I’ll stop) will lean more towards quality of life for our family and community, than for our own personal gratification. Connected cars will help us to become more civic-minded, more patient and more interested in things other than status and speed. It will take a generation, at least. Such profound cultural change needs to introduced slowly and encouraged carefully. But we will get there.



Japanese video dance

I’ve written before about the impact of video backdrops on stage performances, and the technology and the techniques seem to be getting better and better.

Here’s a very cool example I came across this morning, from 2011:

“Kagemu” is the name given to the duo comprised of video artist Nobuyuki Hanabusa and dancer Katsumi Sakakura. Surprising, original, supremely creative, and it’s easy to see how the duo have been an inspiration to so many video artists and performers.

Friday five: ads, pools and the history of garbage

Ad blockers and the new marketing – by Farhad Manjoo, for The New York Times

The scourge of the online media industry? Or a permanent barrier that will force the ad industry to re-invent itself?

“But in the long run, there could be a hidden benefit to blocking ads for advertisers and publishers: Ad blockers could end up saving the ad industry from its worst excesses. If blocking becomes widespread, the ad industry will be pushed to produce ads that are simpler, less invasive, and are far more transparent about the way they’re handling our data — or risk getting blocked forever if they fail.”

Just as we (all of us content producers) have been “forced” to write better content if we want to get ranked in the search engines (no more keyword stuffing, yay!), ad producers should be held to the same standards. No more flashing rectangles or startling bursts of video. We don’t mind attractive, unobtrusive ads, really, but we’re on the page because we want to read the article. Distract us from that, and we’ll resort to ad blockers. Let us read, and we’ll get around to noticing your pitch.

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Not into Instagram? Not important. These images by Tanaka Tatsuya are totally captivating.

tanaka tatsuya

from Tanaka Tatsuya’s Instagram account (@tanaka_tatsuya)

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Innovators under 35 – from MIT Technology Review

Just skimming this list is enough to ramp up your optimism levels. Even if only a fraction of these moon-shots come true, the future will be safer, healthier, more inclusive, more efficient and more connected.

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Now THIS is a swimming pool.

image via The Verge

image via The Verge

Part of an apartment complex under development in Battersea, in London, it should be completed by the end of 2015. (via The Verge)

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What to do about garbage – from CityLabs

The visuals of this concise history of recycling are stunning, an example of a new reporting style that incorporates scrolling into the storyline and draws on the power of infographics to paint a picture.


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Vehicles that own themselves – by Ushi Shoham Krausz, via TechCrunch

image via TechCrunch

image via TechCrunch

I’m working on a post about driverless cars, so this futuristic vision of public vehicles that not only drive themselves but also own themselves was fascinating. I’m not sure if the concept is more an extremely helpful Internet of Things or a slightly sinister Artificial Intelligence, but the mind-blowing economics could make us re-think our relationship with our independence, our environment and possibly even our social structure.

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Starting over – by Stephanie Rice, via Medium

A lovely article which points out the negatives and helps you feel the positives. Determination, hope and an unwillingness to settle will get her through, however scary it gets. I can relate, I’m on my second start-over now (embarking on my third career), and I would encourage anyone who can to consider having at least two careers. Our time here is short – wouldn’t it be great if we could enjoy more than one type of life?

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Have a GREAT weekend everyone! Here in Madrid it should be our last quiet weekend before the streets fill up again, parking spaces are scarce and bustle returns downtown, as next weekend is the seasonal Return from Holiday.

A book what?

I’m not going to be able to put up a full post today (where did the week go???), so I’ll leave you with a fun video instead. I’m not endorsing Ikea (although I confess that I like their catalogues), but this video is blissfully creative and subtly mocking. Or maybe not so subtly…

Punching holes with swirling lines

An amazing interactive screen app by the artist LIA which lets you think you’re controlling the image, but you’re actually only influencing it. Move your mouse around the screen and watch the hypnotic lines follow and swirl. Hold the mouse still for depth. Press the “a” or the “f” keys to go faster or slower. Click on the screen to erase and start again. Absolutely enthralling.

From - withoutTitle

From – withoutTitle (click to launch app)


Friday five: machines, meltdowns and malfunctions

Some of the best reads of the week:

When Success Leads to Failure – by Jessica Lahey, via The Atlantic

A searing indictment of the pressure to quantify and to compete at school.

“We taught Marianna that her potential is tied to her intellect, and that her intellect is more important than her character. We taught her to come home proudly bearing As, championship trophies, and college acceptances, and we inadvertently taught her that we don’t really care how she obtains them. We taught her to protect her academic and extracurricular perfection at all costs and that it’s better to quit when things get challenging rather than risk marring that perfect record. Above all else, we taught her to fear failure. That fear is what has destroyed her love of learning.”

The praise that we heap on good grades and the implication that our kids need to get them to be “successful” in the long run (and the not-so-long run) puts the label before the content and renders the opportunity irrelevant. I wrote about this a while ago, after coming back from the school “Prize Giving” in which 99% of the class are repeatedly told “you’re not the best, you don’t get our applause”. I worry about the constant comparing of grades and status, of the rankings based on spot evaluations, and of the lack of encouragement to go off the established curriculum to tread a new path. Schools in general are still stuck in a “follow the curriculum, learn the stuff in the textbooks and you’ll do well”. Where’s the innovation that us grown-ups say is necessary for success in the new economy?

“With a little luck, they will look back on their childhood and thank us; not just for our unwavering love, but for our willingness to put their long-term developmental and emotional needs before their short-term happiness. For our willingness to let their lives be just a little bit harder today so they will know how to face hardship tomorrow.”

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via Design Milk

via Design Milk

Yarn as a metaphor for music? Actually, it’s more like yarn “representing music in its physical form”. Probably something that needs to be experienced to be appreciated, but the idea is intriguing, and the installation – by architecture graduates Toluwalase Rufai and Khai Grubbs – is mesmerising. (Via Design Milk.)

via Design Milk

via Design Milk

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The Tinder meltdown – via Wired

Surely you’ve heard of the Tinder meltdown on Twitter, in reaction to an article in Vanity Fair that points out how callous and lacking in intimacy sex has become for the millennial generation. Priceless. Their tweets aren’t bad, their objections seem heart-felt, but the medium was wrong. Had they collated the tweets and posted them as an article on Medium, we would now be talking about what an emotional response, good for them. As it is, their reaction is being referred to as “losing it”. This version of the storm in Wired is a bit biased (pro-Vanity Fair, anti-tweetstorm), but very entertaining.

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Will machines eventually take on every job? – by Rachel Nuwer, for the BBC

Writer Rachel Nuwer talks about the impact of automation on the jobs of tomorrow. It’s not a new debate, but her clarification and her ideas are refreshing, especially when she points out that all this hand-wringing and doom-saying is not new.

“Machines have been taking our jobs for centuries. “Market economies are never sitting still,” says David Autor, a professor of economics at MIT. “Industries rise and fall, products and services change – and that’s been going on for a very long time.” “

Ms. Nuwer seems more practical than many I’ve read on the subject, pointing out that new technologies is not just about job destruction. New jobs are being created all the time, with potentially deeper meaning and satisfaction than most of those being replaced.

“Indeed, for all of the career doors technology shuts, there will also be a wave of new professional paths for people to create and explore. Just as some of today’s jobs – social media community manager, app designer, green funeral director – would have been impossible to imagine in 1995, we cannot definitively predict what new types of work will emerge in the future. But we can make educated guesses based on data and social trends. Sander envisions a future in which genetic counsellors, software debuggers, biobankers, augmented reality authors, anti-ageing specialists and urban natural disaster mitigation experts all occupy hot sectors of the economy. As more people move into cities, she also predicts jobs like urban farmers, anxiety counsellors, clutter consultants and even pet psychologists will become more favourable.”

Change is inevitable and not necessarily undesirable. The author points out that the transition is unlikely to be smooth, and that we need to come up with provisions and solutions for those who are displaced. Training will be very important, through a combination of courses, apprenticeships and corporate technology campuses. We also need to ask ourselves how we can better prepare the young for the jobs they’ll hold when they graduate.

Few doubt that the efficiency and productivity advances gained from the new technologies will lead to higher income overall. With a re-distribution of labour, and people learning new skills, finding more meaningful work and working fewer hours… Is that really so dystopian? Sure, it won’t be easy, and those especially resistant to change will probably experience loss and displacement. But change is inevitable, and it’s human nature to look for optimization of resources, especially that oh-so-precious one of time.

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stik-skyline (1)

Cities as platforms – by Gerard Grech, for TechCrunch

I overheard in a podcast the other day that cities were made up of “bricks, mortar and information”. While I would point out that glass and metal were also quite important – not to mention people – the phrase stuck with me, as the sheer amount of information gathered every second by sensors, cameras and other recorders is still nothing compared to the potential. As I wrote about last week, even just a city’s garbage cans can be important sources of data, which when correctly used, can improve not only the lives of the inhabitants of a city, but can also teach us much about human behaviour.

“With more people now living in cities than ever before in history, we are placing ceaseless demands on public transportation, housing and public spaces. Far from alluring sites of opportunity and cultural exploration, the cities we inhabit are becoming microcosms of the most extreme impacts of human activity.

To evolve, cities must be viewed as platforms, with populations encouraged to utilize technology to creatively disrupt and redefine core functionalities.”

The author proposes a “Digital Social Contract” in which we contribute our data to a city in exchange for efficiency and transparency. An interesting concept, that on first glance would benefit most (except perhaps those displaced by the move to greater efficiency).

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Welcome to 2015 where tech can make everything terrifying – by Alex Hern, for the Guardian

I’m a fan of Alex Hern: I read his articles, I enjoy his appearances on the Guardian Tech Podcast. And this article is, as usual, interesting, well-written and perceptive. Here’s is tongue-in-cheek take on software vulnerabilities:

“The human body has a long-running unpatched vulnerability which means that being hit by two tonnes of metal travelling at 35 miles per hour can cause a permanent loss of data.”

Yet Alex himself is being drawn into the media hype (of which he is a part) in assuming that sensationalistic danger-filled tech headlines represent the bulk of bad news:

“Vulnerabilities now occur less because of what an individual does, like giving away bank details to a phishing email, and more because of a failure in the services we rely on. Spotting where the weaknesses will occur is impossible.”

This is like complaining that it’s difficult to expect the unexpected. Stuff happens. Machines go crazy. Things break. But bottom line, most tech errors are human-based. Service failures will happen, they always have (hands up who hasn’t suffered from cancelled flighs or trains). Alex’s solution to this vulnerability is to propose that we depend less on the technology, as if that would make us less vulnerable.

“Face it: software sucks and so there will always be vulnerabilities for hackers, and we have to live with that. As a result, maybe it’s worth dialling back our reliance on it just a little bit, so the next time you’re complaining about something crashing for some unfathomable reason, you can console yourself that it’s your computer – and not your car.”

Easier said than done. As with science (of which software and technology are an extension), if it can happen, it will happen.

Just because we don’t get it right the first time doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep on working at getting it right. Of course we will always be vulnerable: we always have been. And just because software isn’t impregnable, doesn’t mean it sucks. Still, an excellent article that does us the valuable service of pointing out that the civilization-reforming technological advances are to be handled with caution.

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Have a GREAT weekend, everyone. There’s not much of the summer left, it’s important to enjoy it. I leave you with one of the silliest and most adorable websites ever:



Seriously, click on the link. And relish how clean your screen will be.

Twitter and the new news

Disclosure: I get my news from Twitter. Also from Quartz, the New York Times and the Financial Times, but I only check those sites once a day (and sometimes not even that). Twitter I (generally) check a few times a day, skimming for articles relevant to my work and for breaking news headlines.

The idea that Twitter is a major source of news is nothing new. A Pew Research Center survey in early 2015 showed that 11% of Americans got their news from the social channel. That may not sound like much, until you take into account that a similar survey at the end of 2014 put the figure at 8%. That’s almost a 40% increase. And 63% of Twitter users say they use the platform to stay informed on current events. Break it down by generation, and the figures are even more striking: 33% of millennials get their news from Twitter. And since they will define the evolution of media models in the years to come, this is worth thinking about.

twitter news

image from Death to the Stock Photo

What is new is the effect that this trend is having on the packaging of the news. Instead of reading articles or listening to reports, we see 140-character summaries. Headlines, if you will. Bite-sized current events, which keep us up to date without filling our heads with unnecessary detail.

Which is fine. Enjoyable, even. Interesting headlines give us an adrenalin rush. Especially when there’s another one coming soon.

We have always known the emotional, attention-grabbing effect of “BREAKING NEWS” (notice how it’s almost always in capitals?) splashed across the screen, and spoken with urgent gravity by the newsperson. Now we can get our breaking news all day, not just when we’re in front of the TV. Dan Gillmor in his book Mediactive suggests that the 24-hour news cycle is too slow.

“Even an hourly news cycle is too long; in an era of live-TV police chases, Twitter and twitchy audiences, the latest can come at any minute. Call it the 1,440-minute news cycle.”

We crave our updates, our hit. That’s why we check our messages, our emails, our feeds with such frequency. Surely something interesting must have happened since the last time I checked?

twitter breaking news

Why do we care? Psychologists have long struggled to answer this question. What is the news really for?

It used to be largely about “keeping up”, about “being well-informed”. To some extent, it still is. We feel that it is our civic duty to know what’s happening in our area, country, world. For many, it’s a social imperative. We want to impress our friends, acquaintances and colleagues about our knowledge of current events, and we love it when we know stuff that they don’t.

All of that still holds true, at least partially. But more and more of us are recognizing and confessing that we enjoy keeping up with the news because it’s interesting. It entertains us, it distracts us from our daily boredom.

And this is especially relevant when we get our news real-time, frequently, and through headlines. With so much information to scroll through, a headline will stick if it is interesting enough. BREAKING NEWS on Twitter would not have the same high-octane impact as on the TV, since most tweets are breaking, ephemeral, now-or-never.

twitter news

So, how does this trend – of more and more people getting their news on Twitter – impact our understanding of the news? Obviously our “knowledge” of current events is going to be more superficial than if we read a newspaper cover to cover, or religiously watch the lunch-time news reports on the television. Those of us who are interested can click on the links that are usually included with the aim of enticing you to the news media´s website. And we’re generally not afraid of searching for more information if we want it.

There’s the key: if we want it. We are more in control now of the news that we “consume” (I hate that term, but I haven’t managed to come up with a better one). We choose, select and filter, whereas until recently we were told what was important, and we were fed the information that the media thought we should have. Now, we choose what’s important to us. That’s a huge change. Before, we always had the option of skipping articles. But we knew they were there. And it was a conscious choice. Now, skipping is so ubiquitous that it has become the norm. It has to, for us to be able to cope. Imagine if you read every link that passed in front of you on your Twitter feed. Even if you only follow 50 sites (and most of us are some multiple of that), it would take all day. So, not skipping becomes the choice activity. And we find ourselves limiting our reading (of more than 140-characters) to subjects that we are interested in.

That sounds efficient, right? Unless you believe that the purpose of the news is to inform us of what’s happening, not just what’s happening within our interests. This is where the consumption of news verges on civic duty. But also on a sense of belonging. Back when the news media was much more concentrated, we more or less, as a community, were united in front of the same news stories. Our reactions were collective although possibly also private and varied. Now, with so many news outlets catering to so many styles and objectives, each is hearing about his or her particular niche, in the style that he or she selected.

That’s for when we care enough to go deeper. And the news companies want us to care enough to go deeper. So, to get us to care, what must a news company do?

Present the news in a way that encourages us to care. More “breaking news” headlines, more click-bait style “you won’t believe what happened in…”, more “this affects you because…”.

As Alain de Botton said in his wonderful book “The News: A User’s Manual”:

“[the news media now have] a goal higher still than accuracy: the hope of getting important ideas and images across to their impatient and distracted audiences.”

Yet with more attention-grabbing tactics, our attention dilutes. We only have so much to go around, and even BREAKING NEWS in big capital letters doesn’t set our hearts racing as before. The stakes are high. Again from Alain de Botton’s “The News”:

“…when news fails to harness the curiosity and attention of a mass audience through its presentational techniques, a society becomes dangerously unable to grapple with its own dilemmas and therefore to marshal the popular will to change and improve itself.”

This “unbundling” of headlines and content provides a service, in that it allows us to skim the news much more efficiently. But it comes at the price of giving us control over what we care about. In an industry structure based on traffic and advertising revenue, the aim of the online news media is to get as many visitors as they can. There is a strong economic incentive to write about what most people are interested in, which will be celebrity gossip, sports, perhaps cat videos. True, “general interest” is not the same as “news”. Yet most news sources now feature both, and a click is a click.

This trend is, unfortunately, unstoppable. As always, it comes down to free will, and I think that we can all agree that no-one can or should be forced to read or watch the news. As choice becomes more important, the selection of content is broadening and at the same time deepening. For those of us who just want Game of Thrones updates and information on the weather, we’re in luck. For those of us who want additional insight, long-form journalism seems to be enjoying a resurgence (or overload, depending on your point of view), as new media models make it easier for us to find good articles that teach and inspire.

As someone who loves long-form and who has little interest in “trending topics”, I do sometimes worry about becoming too narrow. I don’t just get my news on Twitter, only clicking on articles within my field or that catch my eye for some reason. I also read general-interest magazines and some online media. But for elective long-form, I do go narrow. Which is why I’m excited about the roll-out of, with its curated but not interest-specific short daily list of 5 articles worth reading, according to the editorial team. Not interest-specific. But interesting.

As with most technology, Twitter not only facilitates but also influences our behaviour. As we let brief headlines channel our interest, so too do we start to think of the news that way. We all know the power of the sound bite. Twitter takes that to print form. The news reduced to 140 characters, or even fewer if there’s an image or a link attached. Like sound bites: attention-grabbing and brief.

Brevity is not a friend of thoroughness. And if we choose brevity over thoroughness, how does that shape our view of the world? We snatch at generalization and hypothesis, and think that we are well-informed.

And perhaps we are, but in a different way. Are we 100% sure that the “old” way of getting the news, by reading print and by watching reports, was better? Skimming Twitter, I get my headlines and my breaking news, but I also get a feel for trends and moods and what people find funny. According to Science Daily, half of the most popular items on Twitter – the “trending topics” – don’t make it to the mainstream news. Does that mean they are unimportant? For some, certainly. But for others, this freedom to express oneself and choose paths is perhaps more liberating than stultifying, and can open up inventiveness and connections that end up creating more value for society than in-depth knowledge. It’s really too soon to condemn one form of “keeping up” as dumb and the other as smart, when I imagine that they are both a bit of each.

We’re redefining the role that news has in our lives. And we’re definitely redefining the way we access it, just as news organizations and media startups are scrambling to give us, and to influence, what we want. We have never been so spoiled for choice when it comes to staying informed, just as we have never had so much opportunity to participate in the spread of the news, in its interpretation and its consequences. These are exciting times, and also a bit scary in that this shift may seem superficial, but it’s not. It affects our relationship with the big world that we live in, which until recently was largely through the barrier of the TV screen or the newspaper. Now we “live” through dramatic situations by reading live tweets and by hitting “refresh” frequently. With the incorporation of live-streaming videos from Periscope, Meerkat and the like, our engagement is deeper. We experience events albeit remotely, we share them by re-tweeting, we participate by commenting.

This adrenalin-producing participation is addictive. The news is all around us now, and it’s mixed in and shaken up with popular culture, trending topics and collective trends. It’s complicated and it’s real, and rather than pronouncing the change “good” or “bad”, it’s important to understand the difference between now and then, and to accept that with change comes opportunity. In this case, the opportunity that we have is to embrace the new definitions, whatever they are. And to adapt them to suit our own priorities.


Reflektor: an interactive video of light and meaning

This is absolutely amazing, both technologically and creatively. Director Vincent Morisset and Aaron Koblin at Google team up with Arcade Fire (who also collaborated on The Wilderness Downtown) to create a hypnotic mix of sinister and irreverent, with exuberant joy and desperate colour, hopeful faces and shielding costumes.


(from Just a Reflektor)

The novelty of Just a Reflektor is largely in the interaction between your phone and your computer screen. You get access to the desktop web via a code you type into your phone, which you then hold up to the computer’s camera. For the first part of the video, your phone is “beaming” light and clarity at the image. Move your hand holding the phone, which has to be facing the screen, and what you see changes, it becomes more lucid or even switches image. For the second part of the video, after the mirror (= reflector!!) scene, your phone shows a different segment. Very, very cool.

(from Just a Reflektor)

(from Just a Reflektor)

The song is perfect for the video, or the video for the song, as it talks about the technological age and how it comes between real human connections:

“I thought I found a way to enter
It’s just a reflector
I thought I found the connector
It’s just a reflector.”

A thought-provoking song which makes us reflect (yes) on relationships and reality, especially when you realize you’re experiencing it via not one but two screens. And the especially cool part of the experience has to do with reflections, of light and of images.

“Now the signals we send
are deflected again.
We’re so connected,
but are we even friends?”

Is deflected the same as reflected?

(from Just a Reflektor)

(from Just a Reflektor)

The irony comes in with the presence of passion. For passion you need connection, not reflection. At the beginning of the video, the faces are remarkably passionless, but as the story unfolds, passion becomes a protagonist, along with it’s main fuel source, light.

In this case, reflected light.

“Trapped in a prison,
in a prism of light.
Alone in the darkness,
a darkness of white.
We fell in love,
alone on a stage,
in the reflective age.”

Light can blind (the darkness of white), literally and figuratively. With so much media in our lives (a prism of light), can we be free to really connect?

Which brings us to the last part of the video. The image on your phone doesn’t match the image on the screen. Until you turn your phone to face the screen. Again, you’re watching through two screens. And controlling. The screens are connecting. Is that the way we break free?



Friday five: definitions, stereotypes and trust

Yes, more than five, I know… I’ve been away for a while, so I’m allowed, right?

You May Have Seen My Face on Bart – via Medium

How to turn public embarrassment into a hashtag, a website and a social movement. A fascinating story, a worthwhile cause, and an original media spin. Worthy.


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A new Devil’s Dictionary for our age – via The Verge

A very tongue-in-cheek, sardonic, cynical, and sometimes sarcastic dictionary of relevant terms, there are some gems here:

album (n.): An antiquated custom in which musicians would bundle 2-5 functional songs with 5-10 sub-prime factory remnants.

angel (n.): (1) A winged paragon of supernatural power. (2) A mortal who writes large checks to children wearing flip-flops.

binge watch (v.): To marinate the brain in preparation for a post-embodied future.

bubble (n.): What bubble?

clickbait (n.): A headline that tricks someone into fulfilling their own desires.

cyber- (prefix): (1) A linguistic cue informing the reader that the meaning of the word to follow should only be construed in the context of vaguely imminent threats and the need for more federal funding. (2) Something “computery.”

dating (n.): To receive unsolicited pornography.

ebook (n.): A technophobic regression from the codex to the scroll.

hacker (n.): Anybody who understands computers more than you do. 

hype (n.): Obsequious devotion to something that does not yet exist.

i- (prefix): Nobody knows what this means.

You get the idea… Worth looking through.

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My kids always told me that my baking was “out of this world” – so we all loved these quirky and creative photographs by artist Dina Belenko, featured in Wired.

(image by Dina Belenko, via Wired)

(image by Dina Belenko, via Wired)

Check out her portfolio in 500 for some breath-takingly inventive creativity.

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The Smartphone is the new sun – by Benedict Evans

Put all your other gadgets on the shelf. The smartphone is now the center of your universe. And the shift probably happened without your even noticing.

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Media literacy and Internet truth – via Quartz, by David Webber

According to Pew Internet Research, over 70% of search engine users expect the answers to their typed-in questions to be true. Which is a bit frightening, when you think about the sheer amount of false information that is out there. From biased reporting to unusual interpretations of science, we tend to believe what we read. I mean, they wouldn’t publish it if it weren’t true, would they? Frightening.

Should we insist that our search engines provide truthful answers? Or should we learn to choose sources that we trust, and to check with other sources anyway? As Ronald Reagan said: “Trust, then verify.”

“Google’s a business and we have to be careful about who is managing truths. If you put too much power in the hands of a private company, that’s very dangerous. Google should not be in charge of what is true today or what is true tomorrow.”

“…Yet we users treat digital search as though it were designed to provide the truth.”

So we need to arm ourselves with tools that help us to figure out if a source is credible. Does it have a good reputation? Are all quotes and facts sourced? If the article’s information seems to come from reputable people or places, the credibility increases. What is this article’s purpose? Is it to inform, or to persuade? Is there a declared bias? An implicit one?

It’s a sea of information out there. Sending people, especially our young ones, to navigate these waters without learning the basics of navigation and good rowing practices is verging on irresponsible. The thing is, no-one taught us. But we do need to come up with guidelines to help students of any age to learn well and to research carefully. Because Mr. Webber is right: we should never completely trust a source to tell us the truth. A superficial trust and a grain of salt are worthy tools.


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Offices aren’t designed for women in general – via City Labs

Let me just say that I do NOT miss working in an office. At all. Working from home I get to open the window when I’m warm, hustle to the cupboard to pile on more jerseys when I’m cold, I have great coffee on tap, healthy snacks in the fridge, and I don’t waste time on a commute. Articles like this make me realise (even more than I already do) just how lucky I am.

(Did you know that one possible solution for the airconditioning battle of the sexes in the modern office space – with more women than men complaining about the over-enthusiastically low temperatures – is that we wear shirts that don’t show cleavage? I bet you didn’t think of that. At least I hope you didn’t.)

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A spectacular work of pyrotechnic art on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, by the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, via Colossal.

by Cai Guo-Qiang, via Colossal

by Cai Guo-Qiang, via Colossal

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Government data and the Uber question – via TechCrunch

Duh. It’s all about the data. Apart from the service, the value of Uber, Airbnb and similar is in the data. This data not only helps their own operations become more efficient, but it can help cities better allocate resources. This is data that would be very expensive for the municipalities to gather for themselves. So they could “buy” it from these new services that have been ruffling the established interests’ feathers, for… I dunno, permissions and concessions, maybe? A good deal for all?

“The common denominator in all of this [change] is data. And not just public sector data. Today’s opportunity lies in combining public, private and nonprofit data to create a new “golden triangle” of information — one that helps mayors get a complete handle on how their cities live, breathe and move. It’s this information mashup that has the potential to dramatically change how cities govern, moving from political decision-making to data-driven decision-making.

We’re now at the dawn of a new data revolution, one in which governments, private companies and nonprofits have the the opportunity to collaborate and truly make their cities better places to live.”

This really is becoming the data economy.