Friday Five: bots, media and offices

Remember how when you were young Friday took forever to roll around? Well, I must be getting old, because now it leaps out at me before I realize it’s not Monday anymore… Anyway, here you have a roundup of interesting articles from the week:

— x —

Bots, the next frontier – from The Economist

Just when you thought that you’d gotten your head around apps, you find out that apps are so yesterday. The thing to focus on now is bots: automated text-based services that can do just about everything from helping out (“book me a flight tomorrow morning to Amsterdam”) to entertaining (“did you hear the one about the Englishman, the Irishman and the Scotsman that walked into a bar?”).

“Users should find bots smoother to use, which explains another of their monikers: “invisible apps”. Installation takes seconds; switching between bots does not involve tapping on another app icon; and talking to bots may be more appealing than dealing with a customer-support agent of a bank or airline, for example.”

Apart from the novelty, bots do offer advantages over apps and service desks. Enhanced interaction will benefit the brand. And, the relatively low cost compared to apps, the cloud-based flexibility, and the ease of use should benefit both users and developers. Yet the business model is still unclear:

“No guarantee exists, however, that the bot economy will be as successful as the app one, which has created 3.3m jobs just in America and Europe, according to the Progressive Policy Institute, a think-tank. The economics for developers are not obviously attractive: if bots are easier to develop, that means more competition. Consumers could, again, be overwhelmed by the cornucopia of services and ways of interacting with them. And designing good text-based interfaces can be tricky.”

— x —

Enchanting scenes that you just want to get lost in. By David Brodeur, via Colossal.

By David Brodeur, via Colossal (click to see more images)

By David Brodeur, via Colossal (click to see more images)

By David Brodeur, via Colossal (click to see more images)

By David Brodeur, via Colossal (click to see more images)

by David Brodeur, via Colossal (click to see more images)

By David Brodeur, via Colossal (click to see more images

— x —

How can Africa master the digital revolution? – by Calestous Juma, for the World Economic Forum

Here we have a pragmatic look at the use of the Internet in Africa, which bypasses the feel-good and optimistic projections of its impact, and focusses on the obstacles in the way and on ways to overcome them.

“The digital revolution is not just about communication. It is about recognizing that information is the currency of all economic activities.”

And it’s about laying down the infrastructure to be able to use that information. A currency that doesn’t have “rails” on which to move is not very useful.

Once the infrastructure is there, people need to be trained to use it. It’s not as obvious or intuitive as it seems. And the nature of the training is key: it’s not just about messaging and web pages. Information-powered tech can do so much more.

— x —

Working for yourself is not freedom – by Jon Westenberg, via Medium

A refreshing look at what being an entrepreneur is really like. It’s hell. The stress, the hours, the uncertainty, the problems. But, it’s exhilarating. Empowering. Intensely satisfying.

I worry about all the young things starting out on the startup journey with stars in their eyes and a dream in their heart. I worry about them hitting their very first big brick wall, and thinking that they failed. I hope that articles like these open eyes and lower expectations, to reinforce determination. It’s a marathon, and it requires more toughness than you ever thought you had. But if you want a challenging, evolving life, then being an entrepreneur is the path for you. Just don’t expect it to be fun.

— x —

If Work Is Digital, Why Do We Still Go to the Office? – by Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudel, for HBR

The intersection of technology and the way we work is a well-trampled subject, but this article deviates from the typical discussion of flexibility and always-on easy access, to focus on the physical role of our offices. With the means at our disposal to work at a distance – from home, from the beach, from a mountaintop – why do we still go to the office?

My answer would be that it’s because companies are slow to adapt. But that’s because I actually really enjoy working from home. Just taking into account the time I save on the commute… But, the article argues that we continue to go into the office because we enjoy seeing other people. I can’t argue with that. Interaction is indeed constructive, and relationships are hard to build via a screen.

“What early digital commentators missed is that even if we can work from anywhere, that does not mean we want to. We strive for places that allow us to share knowledge, to generate ideas, and to pool talents and perspectives. Human aggregation, friction, and the interaction of our minds are vital aspects of work, especially in the creative industries. And that is why the quality of the physical workplace is becoming more crucial than ever — bringing along watershed changes.”

If I didn’t like working from home, I would choose one of the many co-working spaces that seem to be spreading like mushrooms. The ones that I know are attractive, peaceful and yet stimulating. Relaxed and yet motivating.

“As they strive to engineer creativity, coworking space providers are also experimenting with quantifying human interactions. And this is where they may have the biggest influence on how offices are eventually designed. Understanding how the workforce connects within a flexible working environment is crucial for designing and operating next-generation offices.”

The old long-corridor, name-on-the-door approach to working spaces is obviously very last century. The new offices are turning work into a much more social activity. And in the process, helping us to refine what we actually mean by “work”.

“Far from making offices obsolete, as the digital pioneers of the 1990s confidently predicted, technology will transform and revitalize workspaces. We could soon work in a more sociable and productive way, and not from the top of a mountain. The ominous “death of distance” may be reversed with the “birth of a new proximity.””

— x —

With new roadblocks for digital news sites, what happens next? – by Ken Doctor, for Nieman Lab

You thought that legacy media had it hard? Well, they do, no doubt about that. But new digital media is suffering, also. Not so much in traffic figures – they seem to be doing pretty well. But in income. Buzzfeed, Mashable, The Huffington Post, and other big-name new media businesses have all been reducing staff and diversifying income streams, in a relatively strong economy. What will they do when the economy starts to turn down again and Trump is no longer so interesting? (And yes, that will happen – please God.)

“If people expect these companies to have figured out how to replace the legacy news companies and navigate this new world, they’ve got to think again. There is no secret sauce in news publishing.”

It seems that the new media format that everyone wants is video. Could it be that we are giving up reading?

“What we have gained: a wealth of new national news and analysis, often spirited, occasionally groundbreaking, and instructive to a news craft that needs shaking up. Most of that remains in place, and we can hope it will continue to do so.

But overall, we’re seeing the economics of text-based (not print, but text) content turning more generally dismal. Well-funded startups like Vox Media and Mic have all been talking up video, or even TV itself.”

It turns out that it’s not so much the audience demanding video. It’s that the ad rates are much better. (Although why would they be better if the audience isn’t demanding video?)

“Now, all that audience growth must turn into money, into some kind of sustainable profit over time. Almost universally, those running these newer companies say, when asked about their profitability: “We could be profitable if we wanted to be.” That sounds silly, but it offers the ring of truth. Translation: If we stopped plowing all this money into international expansion or video build-out, we could turn nicely into the black.”

— x —

A summary of climactic cinematic moments. Completely unrelated to anything tech, but surprisingly fun (or maybe not so surprisingly – who doesn’t like cheesy one-liners??). Is your favourite in there? Mine is:

Witch King: “You fool. No man can kill me! Die now.”

Eowyn (ripping off her helmet): “I. Am. No. Man!”

Brilliant.

Have a great weekend!

Friday Five: coding, privacy and math

Some of the most interesting articles I came across this week:

— x —

Why Learning To Code Won’t Save Your Job – by Douglass Rushkoff, for FastCompany

We hear so much about the importance of teaching people to code – it will guarantee them a job in this increasingly automated world that we live in, right? Wrong.

“Although I certainly believe that any member of our highly digital society should be familiar with how these platforms work, universal code literacy won’t solve our employment crisis any more than the universal ability to read and write would result in a full-employment economy of book publishing.”

It’s not just that code-writing and automization is obviously going to reduce the need for human labour. And those that don’t will fade away due to lack of funding, since they’re not “efficient”.

“Most of the technologies we’re currently developing replace or obsolesce far more employment opportunities than they create. Those that don’t—technologies that require ongoing human maintenance or participation in order to work—are not supported by venture capital for precisely this reason. They are considered unscalable because they demand more paid human employees as the business grows.”

It also turns out that even coding is at risk of being automated away.

“As coding becomes more commonplace, particularly in developing nations like India, we find a lot of that work is being assigned piecemeal by computerized services such as Upwork to low-paid workers in digital sweatshops.”

— x —

This is why I love travelling at night:

by Azul Obscura, via My Modern Met

by Azul Obscura, via My Modern Met

(Click on the photo to see more of the breathtaking photographs.)

— x —

Technology, the Faux Equalizer – by Adrienne France, for The Atlantic

A cold look at the utopian hype of technology being the great equalizer, bringing knowledge and opportunity to all. Why do we assume that it will?

“Technological transitions often entail enormous social and cultural tension. There is hand-wringing about the loss of previously established customs, there is job displacement, there is inequality. “New technologies are for the elite who can afford them,” said Judith Donath, the author of The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online.”

Technology is a tool, that does what the people who wield it want it to. And unfortunately not everyone wants it to level the playing field. What would a level playing field mean, anyway, for social politics? Economics? Capital flows?

“There’s real danger in framing technological progress and social progress as mutually inclusive.”

And what technology are we talking about, anyway?

“Consider, for instance, that it wasn’t Gutenberg’s printing press alone—remarkable though it was—that made books available to the masses; but the eventual production of books made from cheap paper and wood pulp in the 19th century. (And that occurred in tandem with, as Rumsey pointed out to me, the development of technologically enhanced distribution systems like railroads.)”

A thought-provoking article that I’d like to see continued. Adrienne, more along this line, please?

— x —

A hypnotic mix of paint, oil, milk and soap liquid, by Thomas Blanchard (via Colossal):

Memories of Paintings from Thomas Blanchard on Vimeo.

— x —

With Privacy, you can create virtual debit cards to protect your online payments – by Romain Dillet, for TechCrunch

This sounds like a really good idea: a “burner” credit card that connects directly to your bank account, for online purchases. You can create as many as you like, and de-activate each one after use. You can use assumed names on the card itself, so the commerce in question can’t see who you are (if necessary the purchases can be tracked, but it’s a much more private transaction than a simple credit card).

— x —

How to Give a Robot a Job Review – by Michael Schrage, for HBR

If you thought that it was hard to manage people, how about managing robots?

“Put bluntly, executives who can’t get their robots to do a better job may lose their own. Empowering smart machines to — pun intended — live up to their potential may well become the essential new 21st-century leadership skill.”

— x —

This war on math is still bullshit – by Jon Evans, for TechCrunch

Brilliant. Jon Evans delivers a few more left hooks on the encryption debate. (See his previous punches here.)

“The day Apple allows any government to insist on back doors is the day every remotely competent bad actor in the world switches to third-party encrypted apps which require their own separate access codes. (The non-remotely-competent ones, by definition, can be caught without resorting to back doors.) This will immediately put them out of the reach of that “lawful access.” Any attempt to fight encryption with back doors is Whack-a-Mole with an infinite number of moles, unless the powers that be are willing to expand it into an all-out war on general-purpose computing.”

True, encryption, internet security and cryptography are complicated issues, not easy for the layman to understand. But the media’s scare-mongering (and in many cases, complete lack of comprehension) doesn’t help with stimulating reasoned debate, and instead appeals to emotions of fear and encourages the rush to the superficially secure option.

“Let us focus on that unfortunate but inarguable truth. Let us not talk about government overreach, or technology trumping law, or libertarianism, or the crypto wars of the 90s. Let’s focus on how encryption is merely math, which anyone can do, and let’s explain how world-class “military-grade” implementations of that math are already available, for free, to anyone and everyone. Whether you like it or not, that djinn is well and truly out of its shattered bottle, and no “elegant solution” might squeeze it back in. No one can win a war on math, so please let’s not start one. Everyone will lose.”

— x —

Have a great weekend! Beautiful temperatures here in Madrid. We might have gone straight from winter to summer…

It’s Not Information Overload That’s the Problem: It’s Attention Overload

We’ve all been there: trying to complete a task while being bombarded with pings and buzzes and emails and texts. The screen lights up. Distraction (maybe it’s important). The screen doesn’t light up. Distraction (has the battery run out?). Without even realising it, we try to squeeze more and more into our day, by multitasking, by responding immediately and by breaking our actions down into tiny blocks. And by the time evening rolls around, we’re too tired to even wonder why we’re exhausted.

Is it trying to do too much that exhausts us? Or is it the constant drip of claims on our attention? Could the two one and the same?

information overload

by Pavan Trikutam for Unsplash

There is no doubt that the huge advances in communication technology have helped our careers. We have more information at our fingertips than we could possibly consume. We have more access to connections than ever before. We have app-based help in managing our schedules and our lives. And we can keep in touch with colleagues as well as with friends and loved ones with just a few taps to the screen. We are more productive.

Yet the same advances in communication technology are throwing obstacles in our path, obstacles that weaken our productivity in ways that we are often not aware of. Our attention is stretched, our ability to think clearly is compromised, and the self-imposed need to respond to demands on our time creates stress levels that end up having serious health consequences.

Much is written and said about the “information overload”. Yet that focusses on the wrong target. In an information economy, complaining about information overload is pointless. We want there to be vast amounts of good information out there, not just for our own benefit and interests, but because it furthers culture and thinking, it underlines continuous education and it opens doors for economic development. When we complain about information overload, we’re not unhappy about the amount of information that we have access to. What we are really unhappy about is “attention overload”.

Before the era of email and smartphones, the claims on our attention didn’t have the same access to it as they do now. Colleagues, friends and family couldn’t reach you 24/7. You had access to less news and fewer articles, so you agonized less over what to read. There was much less social pressure to be aware of the latest trends, memes and hot topics. There wasn’t the (usually self-imposed) imperative to answer emails right away, and there weren’t quite so many cat videos to share. Today, there are too many things vying for our attention.

And we seem to like it that way. We are in thrall to the power of always-on connection, and with good reason. Information is addictive, candy to the brain, and we can’t always control where our desire for another hit will lead us. A click here, a click there, and we feel satiated with inspiration and knowledge, either deep or trivial, but we wonder where the time went.

We tend to deal with email and messages right away, because the rush we get when we solve problems and get things done encourages us to jump at the next chance of interaction. And all those demands on our time make us feel wanted and needed. Dealing with them makes us feel busy and productive. According to Pew Internet Research, 67% of us check our phones for messages or alerts even when there hasn’t been a ping or a buzz. If that isn’t a sign of a semi-addiction to being available, I don’t know what is.

But the cost is more expensive than we know. Gloria Mark of the University of California discovered that interruptions, even short ones, increase the total time required to complete a task by a staggering amount. After stopping work on a report to take a phone call or to send an email, it can take an average of 23 minutes to get back “on track”. Sophie Leroy of the University of Washington continues with this argument: jumping rapidly from one task to another also reduces efficiency because of “attention residue”. The mind continues to think about the old task even as it jumps to a new one. I find that even when I decide to delay answering an email because it will distract me too much from what I’m working on, it niggles away in the back of my mind.

So, the danger is not information overload. It’s the pull on our attention that the vast amounts of interesting stuff out there exerts. Throw into the mix the easy access of emails, texts and always-present phones, and you have a stew of distraction and stress.

Professor and writer Clay Shirky put it beautifully in a talk (well worth watching) a few years ago: “It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.” Information overload has always been present, he argues, ever since the invention of the printing press. What is new is the expectations we place on our filters.

Pre-internet, the main filters were access, affordability and physical space. You couldn’t find all the books you wanted, not all newspapers were available in every town, and (public libraries aside) you had to pay money for them. Now, those barriers are pretty much gone.

But we have access to new filters. Our email settings can be tweaked. Our newsletter pushes can be purged. Our phones can be set to Do Not Disturb, or even to Airplane Mode. But here’s the thing: filter technology has been getting rapidly better over the years. And yet we feel more overwhelmed than ever. Part of it may be self-fulfilling: we talk about it more, so we feel it more. And part of it may be because the growth and spread of great information is accelerating beyond what the filters can handle. But, I believe that a big part of the problem is that we’re not really applying the filters with rigour. I know I’m not. I assumed that signing up for curation newsletters that send me links to the articles I need to read in my areas of interest, would save me time and free me from the “oooh, that looks interesting” distractions. You know, a few clicks on appealing links and suddenly you find yourself reading a list of what successful people have for breakfast. And you don’t remember how you got there.

So I thought that curation newsletters would be a good idea. So much so that I now get 47 of them. Every day. I need a filter for my filters.

And, I almost always have my phone on silent, and face down. But there’s still the WhatsApp buzz. Which is probably not important, right? But what if it is? What if it’s my son texting from University saying that he urgently needs to talk? How bad would I feel if I missed that? I’ll never forget the day that, in distraction desperation and with a deadline looming, I left my phone off and in my bag, on the other side of the room. When I went to retrieve it, there were 7 missed calls from the school nurse. (Just a cut that needed stitches. But still, you can imagine how guilty I felt.)

So, it’s difficult. Very difficult. There are so many demands on our time and pulls on our attention. And even just figuring out what is important and what can be shelved requires time and attention that we probably don’t have to give. Just figuring out the filters that technology offers us isn’t always as easy as it seems. And, our interests and priorities tend to shift. So our filter use needs to shift also. And that takes even more effort.

Yet, it is important, for our productivity, and for our health. We need to pay attention to our attention.

In the end, the filters have to be ourselves. The silent function on phones and the curation services help, and I recommend their use. But in the end, relying on them is just “kicking the can down the road”. In the end, the solution lies with us. We have to decide what gets through, and when. We have to decide what can’t be interrupted, and why. We have to design our own filters, probably using a combination of technological and physical methods. And then we have to implement the measures that will enforce them. Because “going with the flow”, giving up your autonomy and sacrificing your attention without even realising why, all carry a significant cost in what we all have so little of: time. We owe it to ourselves to spend that as wisely as we can.

Sunday Seven: work, startups and ether commerce

So I think I finally have this blog migrated to self-hosting, although there are still a few (cough, several) glitches to work out. Thanks for your patience, and any constructive suggestions are welcome!

Some of the most interesting articles and ideas from the past week:

After The Gold Rush – by Jon Evans, for TechCrunch

The always brilliant Jon Evans calls the end of the tech bubble.

“The startup gold rush of the last ten years is over. Sorry.”

Why? Because of too many startups, too many VCs, too many unicorns…

“…the more the startup ethos — MVP, “disrupt,” etc — becomes conventional wisdom, the less effective it is. The day we reached a consensus that “startups will define the future” was the day it ceased to be true. Innovations rarely come from mindsets adopted by the mainstream; you can’t be revolutionary when everyone else is trying to be revolutionary in exactly the same way.”

Yet there are still fields where new entrants can do real good:

“Tech giants may have adapted (somewhat) to the startup threat, but there are other fields — healthcare, for instance — still trying to adjust to last decade’s technology. These will remain fertile ground for some time yet.”

And bitcoin, blockchain, augmented reality, virtual reality and IoT still have a ways to run. Niche apps might get some focussed traction. But the startup sector’s buzz is gone. Which will hopefully curb the egos.

— x —

Slack, I’m Breaking Up with You – by Samuel Hulick, via Medium

Image via Medium

Image by buchino, via Medium

This entertaining article will have you nodding your head in agreement and fighting the urge to rush outside and look at some nature. (It’s Sunday, why fight it?). Even if you’re not a Slack user (and it appears that most of us are these days), you’ll be familiar with the overwhelm, the creep of helplessness, the sense of sacrifice for the Greater Good.

“Then, out of nowhere, here you come riding into my life like a goddamned Clint Eastwood straight out of Bridges of Madison County. The personality! The colors! You were all promises, rose petals, and sex appeal. And SO much more responsive to my needs.

Soon, we were messaging every day. It wasn’t long until it was hard to think of a time I’d ever gotten things done without you.

And that, really, was where things began to unravel for us.”

Samuel lays bare his lack of commitment to the relationship, citing the “clingyness” of the fun user interface and the intrusion of the conversation drip.

“I may have been fooling myself when we were still in the honeymoon phase, but when there was all the talk of you killing email, I have to admit I thought it was the email problem you were attacking, not just the email platform.

Which is to say, I thought you were providing some relief from the torrential influx of messages, alerts, and notifications I was receiving on a daily basis. “Me + Slack = Fewer distractions and more productivity,” I thought at the time. I have to say, though, that I’ve since found it to be the opposite.”

While the article is a good read, it overlooks the fact that people’s expectations of how you are going to behave are generally based on how you behave. Extrapolation. You don’t want to have to be on Slack all the time, don’t be on Slack all the time. If it’s to gain productivity, your team will understand. I love Slack for the amount of email it cuts down on, and how it makes distance work relationships feel more face-to-face. And I’m on the platform maximum 1 hour a day.

That said in Slack’s defense, Samuel does hit home with some very good points:

“I wonder if conducting business in an asynchronish environment simply turns every minute into an opportunity for conversation, essentially “meeting-izing” the entire workday.”

“Everything is scattered, and the mental load that comes with it is real. Linda Stone calls this perpetual, shallow quasi-presence “continuous partial attention”, and this makes each conversational thread, almost by definition, a loose one.”

There is always a backlash when something becomes so popular. And it’s important that we question what holds our attention. Of course Slack is not the perfect solution. Conversation itself is not the perfect solution. It’s complicated, messy and distracting. Yet it is productive. Slack is a step towards putting warmth back into virtual work conversations, and the juggling of channels and threads is no different to the fragmented reality of office life. And anything that reduces chain emails is, in my opinion, A Very Good Thing.

— x —

 

Code is political – by Julianne Tveten, for Motherboard

In case you didn’t have enough to worry about, I present to you: the politicisation of code.

“Historically, programming languages have lain on structures of domination. Software engineering consists of one agent (the programmer) giving commands, and another (the computer) receiving and, unless there’s an error, obeying them.

To make a programming language feminist… would require shifting to a collaboration-based structure.”

What?

““Just because certain forms are technical, it doesn’t mean they don’t have social or political influence. Computation can’t have this pure, objectified, position-from-nowhere objectivity. Objectivity is marked in influence specifically by who you are and where you are and what you’re bringing to it.””

I have no idea what that means.

A programming language has been developed in Arabic “to challenge the anglocentric nature of computer science” (although it will have a hard time interacting with, um, 100% of other languages out there).

Taking issue with the binary dominance of 1s and 0s, TransCoder – a “queer programing anti-language” developed by digital artist Zach Blas – introduces a whole new set of, well, statements.

“For instance, running the matrimonial function “iDo” causes a computer to self-destruct, while “metametazoan” deletes all language “that is representative of gender binaries” and “sets everything in the program equal to itself.””

I just might take up farming.

— x —

The Next Amazon (Or Apple, Or GE) Is Probably Failing Right Now – by Ben Casselman, for FiveThirtyEight

Known for its strong grasp of statistics, FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of the startup scene in the US eloquently sheds light on trends most of us were probably unaware of.

First, that entrepreneurship has been in decline in the US for the past 30 years. (What?). In 1980, 450,000 new businesses were started in the US. In 2013, 400,000, even though the US population was 40% larger.

“The startup drop-off has corresponded with a decline in other measures of economic dynamism — Americans are changing jobs less often, for example, and are moving across the country less frequently — leading economists to worry that the U.S. as a whole has become more risk-averse.”

via FiveThirtyEight

via FiveThirtyEight

But new research shows that the narrative is not that simple. There are fewer new businesses, but amongst those 400,000 are opportunities with greater potential.

“Startups as a whole may be declining, they find, but the kind of entrepreneurship that economists care the most about — fast-growing, innovative companies like Amazon — hasn’t shown the same downward trend; in fact, in the past few years, those kinds of startups have surged in number.”

Yet those kinds of startups are having a harder time in creating sustainable growth and jobs.

“The U.S.’s problem is less a failure to create enough new businesses and more a failure to help those businesses grow…Restarting that engine is key because historically, nearly a fifth of all new jobs each year have been created by new companies.”

It turns out that most entrepreneurs don’t want to build an empire. And the problem has been, how does the system identify those that do? A new study claims to be able to do just that.

“Ambitious startups share certain qualities. Their names, for example, tend to be shorter and are less likely to include the founder’s name. They tend to be set up as corporations, not limited liability companies, and they are often incorporated in Delaware, a state known for its business-friendly regulations.”

So far so good, right? No. The study goes on to show that, once identified, the “high potential” startups have a much lower chance of success than, say, 20 years ago. And those that do manage to grow are not adding jobs as quickly as their predeccesors. Tech efficiencies and scalability (more sales with less staff), offshoring and globalization, contract workers and the freelance economy… The forces at work holding job creation back are a potent mix of economics and culture, fostered by tech companies themselves.

— x —

The Music Startup Meltdown – by Cortney Harding, via Medium

This is not unique to the music industry. The startup world is very, very hard. The general rule is that 2 out of 10 startups “make it”. Courtney does add the valid point that startups are now a riskier place than ever from which to launch your career.

“Now, that’s par for the course in startups, and really in most businesses. But up until now the rotating door of companies was spinning — you could easily move from startup to startup without much disruption. But now all the VC money that was greasing the doors has dried up, and people are stuck — there’s just nowhere to go.”

Articles like this one serve as healthy reminders that we are all susceptible to survivorship bias: those that do well or get media coverage do not represent the sector. We tend to not hear about the ones that don’t get off the ground, or that do but then fizzle out. So we get brainwashed into thinking that technology and a good idea will bring riches and a dynamic lifestyle.

“Being in the middle of the music startup meltdown right now is terrible, full stop. It’s never fun when people lose jobs and companies close, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better, and the next few quarters are going to reveal even more turmoil in the sector. But it’s not like the internet is going to be turned off for all time; plenty of startups rose out of the web 1.0 collapse, and just as many good ones will come in the future.”

Slumps, especially of the meltdown variety, teach us that having a good idea is not enough. Having an identified and unattended market is not enough. Even getting a lot of funding is not enough. The current change in atmosphere is sad – it’s never fun to see so many dreams crumble. But it is a wake-up call, a reality check and hopefully a return to fundamentals, which will lead to stronger innovation and healthier investment. If only we can be sure we won’t forget again, like we’ve done before.

 

— x —

 

Amazon Edges Closer to Fully Automated Retail – by Ian Bogost, for The Atlantic

This article is not so much about Amazon, as about the creep of “ether commerce”, or commerce that happens without us really being in control.

“This is commerce sublimated into the secret recesses of ordinary life rather than commerce conveniently accessible from the computer. And not digital commerce, either, the comparatively easy domain of digital downloads and in-app purchases. Ether-commerce winds its way around you, invisible, like an H.P. Lovecraft monster.”

We’re talking about product-specific digital commerce, such as the buttons that Amazon is distributing that allow you to re-order supplies as soon as the idea pops into your head.

“The ultimate endpoint of ether-commerce is full automation: purchasing things without even really buying them.”

Since we end up paying, this can sound very frightening. And the cultural and psychological shift – and let’s not even talk about the business side – is deep.

“Those of us who are shackled to our smartphones might wonder: Why not just use the Amazon app to order a new carton of Huggies or box of Larabars? But from this perspective 1-Click doesn’t make sense either—the shopping-cart checkout process isn’t so laborious, after all; consumers just become less tolerant of any inconvenience as new conveniences arise.”

Ok, let’s talk about the business side. The participating brands gain marginal revenue, but at significant logistical cost. Enter the network effect: delivering a box of detergent to your front door is not a problem if I’m going by there anyway. And with the ecommerce or ether commerce or whatever boom, chances of that are high. But even having to stop the van, haul the detergent out of the back, walk it to the front door and wait for someone to answer has a cost. Is the small additional amount earned on that sale worth it?

It seems that the answer is yes. Volume, from both a mindshare point of view (why would I buy another brand of detergent when this one is sooooo convenient?) and from a logistics perspective (more deliveries = each delivery costs less!) is the holy grail of big-brand ecommerce. Which makes Amazon the ideal partner for the big consumer brands.

Just wait until the Internet of Things goes mainstream. You won’t even need to push a button to order your staples. Our agency in the running of our household will be pushed even further into the background. Convenience? Or the relinquishing of control?

— x —

Is the meaning of work about to change? – by Rick Goings, for The World Economic Foundation

Being told that your job is in danger is beginning to sound old. Still scary, but old. The WEF presents here a concise and blissfully easy to understand summary of the main causes for the radical change in the employment outlook, and a recipe for turning this ship around.

“It’s increasingly clear to me that creating more jobs is not enough, nor is it the real solution. This solution is based on a big misunderstanding. To tackle this crisis cubed, we need to focus on not just jobs but on people earning incomes. This requires us to develop a new model of work.

What is clear is that the transformations that are now taking place worldwide, resulting in the loss of jobs, are caused by forces we cannot alter. The disruption of our world of work is the result of a tectonic shift just as dramatic as industrialization and urbanization – and it occurs along three fault lines:”

Those fault lines are technology (automation reducing the need for people), talent (a skills gap), and Millenials (who want different things from their employment, such as meaning and a healthy work-life balance).

“Neither governments nor companies can become sustainable engines of job creation. But then this crisis is not actually about “jobs”.”

The new model of work mentioned above?

“Take away the hierarchies of today’s corporations and what are we left with? At their core, companies are a collection of people engaged in collaborative efforts. It is this collaboration that is at the heart of our new model of work.”

This sounds like the spread of the entrepreneurial mind-set, even within big corporations, at every level. Slack-connected teams, on-demand platforms and a re-thinking of what work means are both symptoms and causes of the shift. The difference between “work” and “a job” is becoming glaringly vague. The fragmentation of large entities, both locally and internationally through globalization and outsourcing, is changing what we understand by “corporation”. And the quantification of “trust” through platforms and ratings is shifting professional relationships into a looser, more superficial structure.

“So to survive, corporations have to reinvent themselves as conveners of collaborators. That is their new template. They have to morph into collaborative ecosystems – with their own rules and community ethos – in which individuals can plug in their skills. The collaboration economy can be our new model of work.”

— x —

This opens your eyes to the power of context.

“A photograph is shaped more by the person behind the camera than by what is in front of it.”

— x —

Two things I enjoyed this week:

Rain Fall, by Barry Eisler (inexplicably republished as A Clean Kill in Tokyo). Not exactly high literature, but very enjoyable, morally dubious, satisfyingly complex and exotically detailed. And, in my opinion, very well written. It’s about a half-Japanese, half-American assassin based in Tokyo, who unravels the fallout of his latest kill.

rain-fall-by-barry-eisler-isbn-0451

A MOOC on Coursera from Yale University on The Global Financial Crisis. It’s just started, but so far it’s totally compelling. Get this, one of the professors is Tim Geithner! In the first week he’s already talking about what they did wrong.

 

Sunday Seven: teams, timing and terror

An abbreviated list of the most interesting articles of the week:

What’s Next in Computing? – by Chris Dixon, via Medium

Venture capitalist Chris Dixon gives us a concise overview of technology product evolution over the past few decades, and a glimpse of what is just down the road…

“If the 10–15 year pattern repeats itself, the next computing era should enter its growth phase in the next few years. In that scenario, we should already be in the gestation phase. There are a number of important trends in both hardware and software that give us a glimpse into what the next era of computing might be.”

Gestation phase advances in both hardware and software will soon make car technology, drones, the Internet of Things, wearables, virtual and augmented reality a part of our daily life, each giving rise to further innovation.

“I tend to think we are on the cusp of not one but multiple new eras. The “peace dividend of the smartphone war” created a Cambrian explosion of new devices, and developments in software, especially AI, will make those devices smart and useful. Many of the futuristic technologies discussed above exist today, and will be broadly accessible in the near future.”

— x —

Take a look at the finalists for this year’s Smithsonian Annual Photo Contest:… Amazing…

by Wan Shun Luk for The Smithsonian

by Wan Shun Luk for The Smithsonian

— x —

What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team – by Charles Duhigg, for The New York Times

This article is not as much about Google as the title would have you believe. It’s actually a fascinating psychological profile of team dynamics, which highlights the complex layers of interaction and personality. I promise you, it’ll make you re-think how you work.

“We want to know that work is more than just labor.”

And who you work with. While there seems to be no “formula” for successful teams, the research stresses that psychological safety is an essential factor. Look around you, and back at your work history, and you’ll be amazed at how often this is overlooked.

“Project Aristotle is a reminder that when companies try to optimize everything, it’s sometimes easy to forget that success is often built on experiences — like emotional interactions and complicated conversations and discussions of who we want to be and how our teammates make us feel — that can’t really be optimized.”

— x —

The Deactivation of the American Worker – by Carter Maness, for The Awl

I do seem to be focussing on the workforce this week… Here Carter Maness takes on the role of social media and work tools in our relationship with work. Especially in the termination of that relationship. New platforms – Slack, Zenefits, any of the “market economy” apps – make it easier than ever for employers to sever agreements, and for employees to move somewhere else.

““Is my Slack down or am I fired?” is a good joke in a Freudian sense because it reveals a deeper truth about how tenuous jobs have become… As the open office, with its cacophonous lack of privacy and false promise of improved collaboration, is replaced by a virtual one running on labor and benefits platforms like Slack and Zenefits (lol), the American employee is increasingly no longer an employee at all, but someone granted the privilege to work by a network administrator, an opportunity just as easily revoked.”

Platforms are streamlining a firm’s relationship with an employee. Or, an employee’s relationship with his or her firm. Employees are easier to hire, and certainly to fire, which pushes them closer to commodities in terms of flexibility. Replace, re-assign, remove – it’s almost as if employees themselves are becoming apps, to be slotted in where applicable.

“Job security will be left to decay in the supply closets of skyscrapers. The future office space is within a chat application; future departments are virtual rooms where work is transparently archived for future versions of you. This means job roles take on a more concrete meaning while the person doing the job is less important than ever.”

— x —

I dared two expert hackers to destroy my life. Here’s what happened. – by Kevin Roose, for Fusion

This is very frightening. Deep respect to the author for putting himself through this. Read it, and tighten up your passwords.

— x —

Google Unveils Neural Network with “Superhuman” Ability to Determine the Location of Almost Any Image – from MIT Technology Review

geoguessr

Have you ever played Geoguessr? Huge amounts of fun, and an ideal way to armchair travel. I’ve seen quite a bit of the world, and I’m terrible at it, but I love the guessing and the imagining. So with interest I clicked on the above headline…

…and read about how PlaNet, the neural network developed by a Google team, can predict with “superhuman accuracy” the location of any image. It gets the location correct to city-level accuracy 10% of the time, and to country-level accuracy 28% of the time.

“In total, PlaNet won 28 of the 50 rounds with a median localization error of 1131.7 km, while the median human localization error was 2320.75 km.”

Wait a minute… So the PlaNet won just over half the games? With a standard margin of error, that’s almost a draw. And it gets 70% of country locations wrong? Apparently it gets the continent right 48% of the time… That’s the same as saying that it gets it wrong more often than it gets it right. And they call that superhuman? Really? I’m confused.

Ok, I get it, it’s a start. And with each iteration, the machines will get smarter. The neural net’s search function is pretty impressive. We don’t know what it can be used for yet (other than to play Geoguessr), but that’s not important. We had no idea what computers would be used for when they hit the shelves.

But I take issue with the misleading headline. And the fact that no author was cited for the article is suspicious. Marketing is important, but overstating and partial reporting in a scientific technology publication doesn’t help anyone.

— x —

LinkedIn and the Golden Age of American Eduction – by Ryan Craig, for TechCrunch

Yet another article touting the advantages of online education. It’s accessible to anyone, real time. It enables a more in-depth focus on result. It’s quantifiable.

“It is a fair bet that employers will be enthusiastic at the prospect of data-driven-based hiring, rather than relying on opaque degrees in order to qualify candidates.”

I am a self-confessed (and happy) MOOC addict. Yet I strongly disagree that online education solves hiring difficulties.Treating us as widgets with numbers attached to our profile does not solve the problem, or the necessity, of pulling together a team that works well, that can get things done and can solve problems. Scores don’t help with that. As we say from the article on Google teams above, the psychological profile of candidates is very, very important. For most jobs, anyway. If all we need to do is perform a function, then a score should be good enough to indicate whether or not we can fulfil the requirement. But if we are expected to be part of a team, to react and to create, then much more than a score is in play. Employers know this, which is why I doubt very much that they will eagerly embrace data-based hiring. I don’t think they ever relied on opaque degrees, either.

“Employees will celebrate, as well. For the first time, they will have a GPS for their own human capital development. Students will be able to ascertain which educational programs are likely to pay off. Those that don’t, will fail.”

Just because you’ve taken an online course, doesn’t mean that you know the stuff. Online exams are SO much easier than classroom, no-textbooks-or-calculators-allowed ones.

And while online courses are making huge advances in the class interaction component, it is still sorely lacking compared to the physical equivalent. No-one can argue that your classmates aren’t an important part of the learning experience.

— x —

Two things I enjoyed this week:

· A crazy but beautiful video of a crazy man creating beautiful patterns in the snow. Why? No idea. But it’s amazing.

· The Geoguessr game I mentioned above. It’s an ideal time waster, because you come back to the now with the feeling that you’ve travelled the world.

geoguessr2

Sunday Seven: Reading, reality and inequality

For the first Sunday Seven of the year, I’ve tried to stay away from the typical “best of” and “trends for” lists, there are so many of them, and few are worth more than a passing glance (the ones I’ve most enjoyed so far are this one from Wired on upcoming TV, games and music, and this engrossing one from Longreads on the best longform journalism of 2015). Here are some links to articles and ideas I’ve enjoyed this week:

— x —

The deep space of digital reading – by Paul La Farge, for Nautilus

by Irene Rinaldi for Nautilus

by Irene Rinaldi for Nautilus

Paul La Farge gives us an eye-opening stroll through the history of reading that debunks the accusation that technology is making us dumber.

“The fear of technology is not new. In the fifth century B.C., Socrates worried that writing would weaken human memory, and stifle judgment.”

Tackling Nicholas Carr’s accusation that we’ve lost the ability to “deep read”, as in to read a book from cover to cover without getting distracted, Lafarge points out that we never really had it. The table of contents, the index and footnotes are there to distract us, to add side texts, to make it easier to weave in and out of a narrative. The only books that we enthusiastically read from beginning to end are novels, for we don’t want to miss part of the plot.

“The Internet may cause our minds to wander off, and yet a quick look at the history of books suggests that we have been wandering off all along. When we read, the eye does not progress steadily along the line of text; it alternates between saccades—little jumps—and brief stops, not unlike the movement of the mouse’s cursor across a screen of hypertext. From the invention of papyrus around 3000 B.C., until about 300 A.D., most written documents were scrolls, which had to be rolled up by one hand as they were unrolled by the other: a truly linear presentation. Since then, though, most reading has involved codices, bound books or pamphlets, a major advantage of which (at least compared to the scroll) is that you can jump around in them, from chapter to chapter (the table of contents had been around since roughly the first century B.C.); from text to marginal gloss, and, later, to footnote.”

And the overwhelming flood of stuff to read is not new, either. Ever since the printing press was invented, mankind has been churning out more books than anyone can read in a lifetime. The scale is completely different now. But then again, more people than ever are readers.

Lafarge also brings up the intriguing question of why we find scrambled texts, disjointed ideas and general absurdity more fun. As education experts can tell you, we learn more when we’re having fun. So, surely text riddled with hyperlinks, and fractured reading, help us to learn more, not less? It could well be that our lower learning scores are because of haste imposed by expectations, both ours and society’s, rather than the style of the text. That is not (directly, anyway) technology’s fault.

This also hints at the success of the new literary media of video games. Apart from the technological wizardry and fantastic art, the interrupted story lines that wait for our input make us part of the narrative, increasing our emotional investment and empowering our search for more.

After reading this article you’ll feel more relaxed about the digital encroachment, and more of a participant in a fundamental cultural and even biological shift. Our brains are being rewired, yes, but not as a shocked response to sudden changes in media. Rather, we are all part of a continuous rewiring that is and always has been necessary to adapt to the technological evolution that propels us forward.

In lamenting the impact of new technologies, we join the ranks of great philosophers throughout history. But an open mind presents opportunities, and some historical perspective gives confidence, opens up curiosity and hands us better questions.

— x —

The Value In Virtual And Augmented Reality – by  Linc Gasking, for TechCrunch

I’m excited about virtual reality, and augmented reality, and how it will change the experience of watching, learning, playing and doing. This article nimbly skips across the surface of the potential, and in so doing conveys an understanding of why so much is being written in the tech press about the developments. Skeptics say that it’s a “flash in the pan”, that the enthusiasm will die out as we discover that the headsets are too clunky, too expensive and/or too isolating. I don’t agree, I believe that the genie is out of the bottle as far as the technology is concerned. The emotional impact is real, and thoughout time we have shown that we are willing to pay for that. If the headsets aren’t comfortable enough, we will come up with something better.

It’s a concept that is hard to understand without experiencing it, and I speak as someone who has not yet tried out “the real thing” and who doesn’t yet fully grasp the impact beyond the “cool” factor. But that doesn’t mean that I’m unable to imagine the implications. Articles like this struggle to do it justice. As Chris Milk said in an entertaining TED talk about the subject: “Talking about virtual reality is like dancing about architecture.”

— x —

The Victoria & Albert’s Design-A-Wig

From those masters of silliness, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, this is crazy fun.

design a wig

— x —

Who controls your Facebook feed – by Will Oremus, for Slate

As Facebook has grown from a way of keeping in touch to a global newspaper, it’s important to have a think about the control it has over what we see. You may think that you’re seeing updates from your friends and from the companies and media that you follow, but you’re wrong. You’re seeing a very limited selection. And who selects? Glad you asked.

You no doubt already know that it’s an algorithm. This gripping article goes deep on how the algorithm works, why, and how it came to be. It is relevant even if you don’t use the social platform, as it speaks to the increasing control that algorithms have over what we see. The author is actually present at an algorithm tweak.

For now, we can put aside our fears of a Facebook-friendly artificial intelligence:

“Facebook’s algorithm, I learned, isn’t flawed because of some glitch in the system. It’s flawed because, unlike the perfectly realized, sentient algorithms of our sci-fi fever dreams, the intelligence behind Facebook’s software is fundamentally human.”

On the ingenuity of the Like button:

“The like button wasn’t just a new way for users to interact on the site. It was a way for Facebook to enlist its users in solving the problem of how best to filter their own news feeds. That users didn’t realize they were doing this was perhaps the most ingenious part. If Facebook had told users they had to rank and review their friends’ posts to help the company determine how many other people should see them, we would have found the process tedious and distracting. Facebook’s news feed algorithm was one of the first to surreptitiously enlist users in personalizing their experience—and influencing everyone else’s.”

I came out of reading this both worried and relieved. Worried that so much information and power is in the hands of a computer program. And relieved that we won’t be depending on it any time soon, either for controlling our feed with intent, or for accurate filtering. It turns out that the algorithm is still very dependent on us humans, and we are a confusing and unpredictable bunch.

— x —

The triumph of email – by Adrienne Lafrance, for The Atlantic

I love the opening:

“Email, ughhhh. There is too much of it, and the wrong kind of it, from the wrong people. When people aren’t hating their inboxes out loud, they are quietly emailing to say that they’re sorry for replying so late, and for all the typos, and for missing your earlier note, and for forgetting to turn off auto-reply, and for sending this from their mobile device, and for writing too long, and for bothering you at all.”

Given how important email is in (most of) our lives, it’s surprising that more isn’t written about it, more studies aren’t done, more philosophical analysis is not performed. Or maybe it is but we just don’t hear about it, and that’s surprising, too. This article is an illuminating and at times discomforting look at an intimate part of our lives: our relationship with the barrage and the variety of the messages arriving daily in our inbox.

Here’s the crux of the problem:

“Email works just the way it’s supposed to, and better than it used to, but people seem to hate it more than ever.”

Why do we hate it? Because of the hijacking of our attention and our time. I get at least 100 emails a day, many of which I absolutely have to read, a good chunk of which I’d like to read, and a big chunk of which are automatic notifications from sites I don’t even remember looking at. Stuart Butterfield, the founder of email-killer Slack (which I use for one of my projects, and it works, email relating to that project is way down) tells us that 80% of the email we receive was not even generated by a human being. Glancing at my inbox, I have a feeling that it’s even more.

And the outlook is not good:

“If email represents one kind of “notification hell,” push notifications are the next circle of it… Push notifications are the natural extension of email, and with the rise of wearables and Internet-connected-everything, it’s only going to get worse.”

Help. I would be so happy if I got much less email. Or would I? Most of the email I receive is because I asked to receive it. Newsletters, curated lists, notifications… I asked for them. If I didn’t get them, I’d feel less informed. But probably less overwhelmed, too. My project for the rest of the day is to reduce my inbox from 1300 emails to just 700. And to watch the Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks film “You’ve Got Mail” with my 13-year-old daughter, at her request. She’s entranced by the bookshop. She won’t even recognize their courtship medium as being close to what we still use today.

— x —

52 places to go in 2016 – via The New York Times

I invested wasted so much time fantasising my way through this list. My top 3: Malta, Japan and San Sebastián. Yours?

sansebastian-landscape-1800

by Daniel Rodrigues for The New York Times

— x —

Economic inequality – by Paul Graham

Paul Graham’s meandering response to the “economic inequality is bad” argument reads as a self-absorbed overreaction, which assumes that we all are against all inequality, and that we don’t understand economics at all. While I assume that he has his reasons for taking this so personally, I am confused as to the logic.

Mr. Graham is one of the founders of startup incubator Y Combinator, and as he himself says:

“I’ve become an expert on how to increase economic inequality, and I’ve spent the past decade working hard to do it. Not just by helping the 2500 founders YC has funded. I’ve also written essays encouraging people to increase economic inequality and giving them detailed instructions showing how.

So when I hear people saying that economic inequality is bad and should be decreased, I feel rather like a wild animal overhearing a conversation between hunters.”

Without even going into the implication that if only we were all capable of following his “detailed instructions” we too would be able to contribute to economic equality, let’s go straight to why his comments are an overreaction.

People are not against economic inequality per se. We enjoy the choice that our economic system gives us, and accept that full equality is not a feature. Yet, that does not mean that we are comfortable with the economic equality excesses that we see around us all the time. Most of us are against extreme inequality that weakens our communities, tugs at our heartstrings and makes us question what it means to be a human being. We see extravagant waste, and we see children go hungry. We see narcissistic splurging, and we see people unable to pay for medical treatment. Very few of us are comfortable with that. That does not mean that we want a complete redistribution of wealth. Incentive is good, and success, talent, hard work, and even luck should be rewarded. But fairness, backed up by the fiscal system, judicial support and social benefit is good, too.

Most of us are not at all against startups. Sure, there may be some complaints against startup excess and resulting price bumps (not to mention the hype). But startups aren’t what causes inequality. Successful startup founders create value, employment and technological advances, and deserve the wealth they accumulate. Several of them have taken significant and admirable steps to redistribute a good portion of that.

And the rambling about the pie fallacy and how kids grow up believing in the zero-sum game stretches credibility. Really, children do not grow up believing that for them to do well, someone else has to do badly. Their social instincts are generally more advanced than that, even at a very young age.

But it’s ok, because Mr. Graham isn’t defending all types of wealth:

“I’m all for shutting down the crooked ways to get rich. But that won’t eliminate great variations in wealth, because as long as you leave open the option of getting rich by creating wealth, people who want to get rich will do that instead.”

Ah, so the rich criminals are really all just startup founders who chose an easier way? And if that way is closed off to them, they’ll just go and set up a few companies? Got it.

Mr. Graham’s conclusion is perplexing, somewhat incoherent, and not particularly sensitive, coming from a white male working in Silicon Valley:

“If our goal is to decrease economic inequality, then it is equally important to prevent people from becoming rich and to prevent them becoming poor. I believe it’s far more important to prevent people becoming poor. And that therefore decreasing economic inequality should not be our goal.”

Um.

— x —

Two things I’ve really enjoyed this week:

  • A Christmas present from my husband: Laphroaig 10-year-old Scotch whisky. An ideal end to a blustery day.

Laphroaig

  • Building a Lego Minecraft house with my daughter. I think I enjoyed it more than she did, and all I did was hand her the pieces. If anyone wants to know what to get me for my birthday, a Lego spaceship, please.

lego minecraft

Friday five: comments, co-working and cute

Annotation, from the Washington Post

One of the things I like best about Medium and Quartz (apart from the excellent writing, of course) is the possibility of annotating or commenting on individual paragraphs, individual sentences, even. In the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza claims that annotation is the future of journalism (not all journalism, but a good chunk of it), as it allows depth, clarification and engagement.

“It gives us the chance to play a role as tour guide through a chosen field (politics, music, art, etc.) while simultaneously listening to the questions and insights from our tour group. It’s journalism as a collective community effort where people other than the reporters feel invested in (a) getting it right and (b) making it as smart, thoughtful and approachable as possible.”

Annotation has its downside, too, as Chris points out. Inane comments, trolls, the “cesspool” that the comments sections ended up becoming. He believes that this can be solved by upvoting the best annotations, Reddit-style. It might work.

— x —

Reimagining a classic, from The Verge

Speaking of annotations, Apple is launching enhanced, digital versions of the Harry Potter books, with animated illustrations and annotations by J. K. Rowling herself.

potter_ibooks.0

— x —

A brief history of the demise of comments, via Wired.

And continuing on the theme, a timeline of the death of the comments section.

— x —

Passwords are dying. Let them – from PYMNTS.com

Passwords are dying? Thank God. With hundreds of sign-ins under our belt, it’s logical that we end up duplicating passwords, because how is someone supposed to remember so many? Lastpass helps, a lot, but it doesn’t cover all situations, and for some inexplicable reasons I have three or four different entries on LastPass for the same IP.

So if passwords are out, what’s in? Biometrics. Touch, eyes, facial recognition. Yes. Bring it on.

— x —

Coworking, from Shareable

I work from home, and I love doing so. I’m never lonely, since my husband also works from home for half of the day (we occasionally meet in the kitchen for coffee), and two of my immediate neighbours with whom I’m on very good terms also work from home, so we sometimes nip down to the bar on the corner for more coffee. And I love the comfort, convenience, and being here when my daughter comes home from school.

But I love the idea of co-working spaces. I’ve visited several here in Madrid, with neutral but quirky decoration and a creative atmosphere of concentration.

This article about the origins and growth of the movement (can you believe it’s 10 years old?) sheds light on several aspects that I hadn’t considered. One, that it’s considered a movement. Two, that it’s global. Even in Antarctica, the few huts the scientists share can be considered co-working spaces.

Coworking seems to bring about a sense of community and human connection, so at odd with the “isolation” and “breakdown of empathy” that we were assured greater online dependence would bring.

I really liked this description, by Ashley Proctor, Executive Producer of GCUC Canada:

“Coworking is absolutely not about desks or wi-fi or coffee—most of us have access to a desk and wifi and coffee at home. Coworking is truly about being surrounded by a diverse group of peers. Many of our coworking members, myself included, are independent by nature and we are extremely passionate and dedicated to our work. It’s so easy to become isolated when we work long hours for ourselves, and it’s important to find balance. Coworking helps us to balance personal and professional, work and play, independence and collaboration.

By working together, we build a strong vibrant community, and a network of support. We share resources and we share contacts. We make friends and important connections. We are leading by example—we are building a workspace that we want to be a part of and we are shaping the future of work.”

It’s not actually a work thing. As Tony Bacigalupo, co-founder of New Work City, says:

“The irony of all this is that most of us don’t need an office at all. The vast majority of work being done now can get done from anywhere with a signal. We don’t go to these new workplaces because we need an office; we go because we need what happens in the office.”

For some it’s the added productivity of not having the TV, the fridge or the bed to distract us. For most, it’s the social connection and the friendships that develop. I personally love how it’s changing the nature of work into something more collaborative – individuals working together, independents incorporating the suggestions of others, freelancers helping out peers for free. Gone is the tribal and competitive atmosphere of the office. In comes a new system that emphasises collaboration and curiosity. Will it still be tribal? Will we “band” with our co-working peers? Or are we ushering in a whole new mentality of open-minded acceptance?

— x —

The new Pixar film

Really, tell me you not just a little bit excited about this:

— x —

Have an amazing weekend!!

Apps to solve home-grown poverty

The world of apps is often accused of frivolity and superficiality. There are a few services that will let you hire a private jet with only a few hours’ notice. You can enjoy on-demand butler services and beauty treatments. There’s even a delivery service that can get you condoms within the hour (with discrete delivery, whatever that means).

apps that deliver condoms

Thinking that this is what apps focus on, though, is in itself superficial. There is nothing wrong with making apps for people with money. And apps that focus on the frivolous do serve a valuable function in improving efficiency and developing culture. Some will do well, others won’t.

Beneath the frivolous surface is a sea of apps that do social good, redistributing wealth, helping people connect, opening up opportunities… Most aim to help individuals in developing nations survive disasters or start businesses. Apps for crowdfunding, microloans, healthcare advice or financial management for those without bank accounts aim at bringing scale to phones (smart or regular) in remote places, opening up access to services and information that emerging economies have little experience with.

Yet here comes a new segment: apps aimed at alleviating poverty in the first world. Poverty is always a complex issue, even more so in the developed world, where measuring standards are confusing and sometimes non-existent. Unicef recently published a report estimating the number of children living in poverty in rich countries to be over a staggering 76 million. The 2011 US Census found that 15% of adults and 22% of children live in poverty. Take a look at this eye-opening report by National Geographic.

While in no way implying that helping out with poverty in our comfortable back yard is more worthy than feeding an entire family far away, below-subsistence incomes in first world economies is a big problem that we can’t ignore, especially when we see so much waste around us all the time. Tackling third world poverty through technology is vital to the world economy. And being poor in the US is very different, for example, from being poor in Zimbabwe. Yet the homeless people on the corner, the kids whose parents are working four jobs just to pay for groceries, the handicapped or ill whose benefits have run out, they deserve efficient and useful help, beyond the coins that we hand over when we see them on the street and we’re in the right mood. It has often been the case is that it is simply easier to donate to people far away, with a few taps and a swipe on our screen. But more and more apps are working on changing that, with a simple concept and a good interface.

A few ingenious solutions:

Handup uses crowdfunding to fight urban poverty by connecting the homeless with those who want to help. The beneficiaries don’t even need to own a phone or have access to a computer. A network of partners such as grocery stores, clothing retailers, shelters, etc., will help them create their “project” (such as a week’s groceries, clothing to go back to school, baby supplies, medical treatment, a laptop), and will allow them to redeem donations for food or services. Handup has also launched a gift card service, actual physical cards that can be redeemed at participating retailers, that you can hand to someone you want to help. A plus: Google is matching the cards dollar for dollar.

Food re-distribution has huge potential. Restaurants and retailers throw away tons of food every day, and truckers are often left with pallets of produce that they can’t deliver. The Food Cowboy app alerts a network of food banks and charities when a restaurant, retailer, wholesaler or catered event has surplus food to donate. The charities organize pickup, sometimes for a small fee to cover costs. Feeding Forward will send a “food hero” to pick up surplus food to distribute to San Francisco’s food banks. ZeroPercent does something similar in Chicago. Hundreds of similar initiatives operate around the world with similar intentions – on an app, the distribution and tracking gets more efficient and transparent.

apps that help distribute food

Benevolent is a crowdfunding platform aimed at helping low-income US-based individuals fund an item or a project, such as bus passes, a computer, a refrigerator, a business course… Youcaring helps with medical expenses. KhanAcademy gives free educational videos to anyone with access to a tablet, smartphone or PC.

Even the Collaborative Economy plays an important part. Platforms like TaskRabbit, Handy, Instacart and NeedTo allow those with virtually no assets or training to help out in exchange for cash. While not exactly on the same level of poverty alleviation as donations, they are anti-poverty apps in that anyone who wants to work, can get paid for doing something. Dog walking, photo labelling, house cleaning, grocery delivery… Notice that I haven’t mentioned Uber, the “sharing economy” star, since you apparently have to actually have a car. Or Airbnb, since you apparently have to have a room to let. For many in the sector, though, you just need hands, legs, eyes and a brain. The catch is that you do need to have a smartphone, preferably also a computer, not always accessible to those below the poverty line.

The app Even will turn your uneven (and presumably low) stream of freelance or by-the-hour earnings into a steady income. Even calculates your average pay based on the last few months’ data, and pays you that amount each month. If you make more, it saves it for you. And if you make less, it’ll make up the difference. The app’s objective is to take some of the stress out of money management, and to help those with uneven incomes establish a “regular” lifestyle and to live within their means. Does this help with poverty? It certainly can make income fluctuations a bit less terrifying. Volatility is not limited to those near or below the poverty line, but that is where it hits hardest.

apps that help with financial stability

Poverty is a huge subject and one that humanity needs to work on solutions for. In no way do I pretend to be able to even scratch the surface of the problem by talking about apps, and in no way do I expect to be able to do justice to the many apps out there that are tackling hard problems. I do want to point out that innovation is paying attention to helping others, and that with technology, we can reduce barriers to development, donations and decisions. It’s a slow process, unfortunately, as we struggle to develop solutions and then to achieve reach and impact, none of which are easy. We make mistakes along the way, we sometimes hit insurmountable barriers, and we sometimes need to withdraw and re-think. But we are thinking about this, and while apps for the rich will continue to flood the app stores, we are seeing more and more apps that want to change the economic balance in the world, spreading wealth, education and opportunity to new areas, full of hope and potential.

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.”

— x —

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

— x —

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.

— x —

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.

— x —

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).

— x —

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.

— x —

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:

from www.sanger.dk

from www.sanger.dk

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

Where are we and where are we going?

As promised, a deeper look at KPCB’s much-awaited annual survey of Internet trends. Every year partner Mary Meeker produces a summary and analysis of Internet usage, development and impact, with interesting insights and good graphics. Virtually all the tech publications summarize and synthesize, reproducing the slides that they thought were more important. Here’s mine:

Opportunities in healthcare and education

marymeekerinternet 1

There has been a considerable amount of innovation in the healthcare sector: wearables, virtual clinics, crowdsourcing… But this chart shows that it’s just getting started. That’s exciting.

I was surprised at the impact of the Internet on education, I would have expected it to be much higher. Everywhere I look schools are talking about iPad adoption, flipped classrooms, virtual learning, etc. But, it seems that so far it’s mainly talk, not as much implementation as you might think.

Reading on mobile

marymeekerinternet 5

Again, I’m surprised to see that the proportion of us that read digital media on our mobiles is only just over half. With so much “mobile first” hype out there, I would have expected it to be more. I still maintain that reading news on the phone is frustrating, I usually read on my iPad, if I’m travelling or I feel like curling up in an armchair. Otherwise, I prefer the laptop, which lets me have a ton of windows open simultaneously. So all of those tempting hyperlinks don’t make me lose my original place, and I can bring my train of curiosity back to its origin.

The force of habit

marymeekerinternet 6

This slide shows the power of inertia. Why are businesses spending so much on print advertising when that’s not where the readers are? Because it’s what they’re used to doing. Check out the imbalance in mobile advertising, which has a much lower portion of advertising spend than it should, given its pull as a media source. Personally, I love that my phone is relatively ad-free. But realistically, those days are numbered. We’re all still figuring out how to push ads onto mobile, but I expect the creativity here to be surprising.

New ad formats

marymeekerinternet 2

Such as, carrousels… Video clips… Geotargetting…

Connecting people

marymeekerinternet 4

This powerful slide shows with simplicity and poetry the mind-blowing concept of targeted communication and access. Messaging is something we all take for granted. But imagine travelling back in time 20 years and trying to explain this interactive real-time reach to someone from back then.

Would they even be able to imagine a service being both personal and mainstream? How can something be both instant and secure? Casual and professional? That these apparent contradictions seem so normal to us now shows how profoundly the new connection technologies have changed our understanding of service and culture.

Why do we work?

marymeekerinternet 7

My favourite: here we see how motivations have changed over one generation. Managers think that what motivates millennials is money. It’s not, what motivates them is meaningful work. Fortunately, technology-generated efficiencies make meaningful work more prevalent, by eliminating or transforming basic and menial functions. It also, however, reduces the number of non-tech jobs available, while at the same time broadening the opportunities for flexible, market-based work.

In the short-term…

marymeekerinternet 8

Which brings us to the overall theme of the presentation this year: the empowerment of consumers and workers, and the spread of freelance or on-demand economic activity. Carrying mini-computers around with us in our pockets gives us access to online platforms that are changing the way that we think about work. That, combined with a cultural shift in values, means that more young professionals and/or craftsmen (or craftswomen, of course) are not as worried about lifetime earnings progression as their parents are. What matters more to them is flexibility, independence and meaning. These motivations lead to more questioning, more creative thinking and more risk-taking. The flow of innovative ideas is becoming a torrent, and will accelerate the transformation of commerce, education, culture, even policy. Which will, in turn, encourage even more creativity and innovation. It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch.