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:

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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.”

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.””

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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.”

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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!

Active furniture and the Internet of Things

Very cool, very strange, very hypnotic and potentially practical. How do you add motion to a table? How can you send messages using furniture? How can you actively interact with hard surfaces?

Transform, a project of the MIT Media Lab, blends technology and design to turn a solid, static object into a dynamic, active participant. Surprising, a bit noisy, and quite mind-blowing… Is it just me, or does it also bring to your mind the concept of furniture as a pet?

 

Sunday Seven: payments, pops and lols

I’ve been out for part of the week, speaking at a Digital Media Congress in the north of Spain on new media business models, so this round-up is a bit choppier than usual.

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Are payments necessary? – by Christoffer O. Hernæs, via TechCrunch

One of the purposes of the aforementioned conference was to explore ways that media can become and stay profitable, which is more and more difficult in this age of dwindling print revenues, resented paywalls and online ad blockers. Could invisible payments be part of the answer?

“In the future, there will not be one universal way to pay as we are used to with traditional cash and plastic cards. Payment options will be context-based, and in many cases payments will become “invisible” and integrated into services.”

Uber, Amazon’s Dash buttons, restaurant apps – platforms in which you don’t even have to pull out a credit card are carving out an ever-larger niche, in which payment becomes synonymous with experience and the concept of value changes. How can we incorporate this into media?

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How ‘LOL’ Became a Punctuation Mark – by Megan Garber, for The Atlantic

An excellent article on the mutability of language and need for humanizing punctuation. Seriously, read it. It’ll make you laugh, nod sagely, possibly weep and definitely think twice about the abbreviations we think convey emotion we’re not really feeling.

lol nothing matters

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Startup funding is drying up and fintech is no exception – by Ian Kar, for Quartz

More popping of bubble stuff.

via Quartz

via Quartz

And it seems like fintech is the next sector the media is gunning for.

“Meanwhile, traditional financial institutions say they can best startups by digitizing their own businesses. “I think the banks are pretty good at using digital technology to make it easier for customers…It will be a challenge for anyone to be better, faster, cheaper than us,” JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said in a recent interview with Bloomberg.”

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The Thing About Cycles – by Michael Eisenberg, via TechCrunch

An anti-anti-bubble piece. Bubbles are opportunities, especially when they pop.

“Just like Unicornism was a herd, and the up market in late-stage funding was a herd, as pessimism grabs hold, it too will become a herd.”

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(I featured this in my bitcoin roundup this week, but it’s also applicable to tech in general.)

My Wet and Wild Bitcoin Weekend On Richard Branson’s Island Refuge – by Hannes Grassegger, for Motherboard

via Motherboard

via Motherboard

Envious?? No, of course not.

Apart from descriptions of the amazing sunsets and drunk lemurs, the article does raise some interesting ideas:

“Poverty, according to the theory that brought [Hernando] de Soto international fame, is not exploitation, but exclusion. In other words, people are unable to participate in capitalism because they have nothing to bargain with. Slum residents, for example, build huts but cannot own them, as there is no place and no law that will register them. If they had some kind of official paper, a certified claim to the property, a title, the hut would be worth something. They could sell it, or take on debt to start a business. To raise people out of poverty, therefore, their valuables must somehow be linked to them as individuals. They must have property rights.”

Enter, you guessed it, the blockchain.

“The blockchain would, in essence, allow capitalism to more fully move into the realm of the internet. This has always failed in the past, because in digital environments, everything is so easy to copy. Therefore nothing is scarce, which is why digital content, like music, images, and text, is almost always free, or extremely protected. The blockchain’s comprehensive ability to allocate each piece of code within its system could completely eliminate the possibility of copying a song, for example, because who has which digital copy when would be traceable. A digital magazine based on the blockchain system would have unique copies, just like a printed magazine. It could be bought and sold like a physical object.”

An insight into the power that is either all-in or poking around the bitcoin space, this article leaves you with the feeling that the sector is disorganized, creative and the harbinger of a new world order. Perfect fodder for an elite meeting on a tropical island.

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Reimagining Money – by Douglas Rushkoff, for The Atlantic

I am a fan of the concept of bitcoin (and write about it here), but love that this article shows some other currency possibilities and how their value goes beyond that of simple exchange.

“In important ways, Bitcoin transposes some of the shortcomings of traditional currency onto the digital realm. It ignores a whole host of questions about the potential to reimagine what money can be designed to emphasize: What sorts of money will encourage admirable human behavior? What sorts of money systems will encourage trust, reenergize local commerce, favor peer-to-peer value exchange, and transcend the growth requirement?”

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Reparations, One Meal at a Time

Have you seen this? If not, take a look, it’s an excellent send-up of the startup pitch: Equipay  – Comedy Hack Day SF 2016 Grand Prize Winner

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Stuff I really enjoyed this week:

Aimlessly wandering around the breathtaking beauty of northern Spain. Stunning. Nice people. Good food. Great hotel (Real Posada de Liena, in Murillo de Gállegos). Really lovely.

murillo de gallego

Sunday Seven: filters, floating and finance

Some interesting tech articles and ideas from the past week:

Here’s What’s Wrong With Algorithmic Filtering on Twitter – by Matthew Ingram, for Fortune

While ostensibly about Twitter, this article is really about the role that algorithms play in the world that we live in, sorry, I mean the news that we see.

“In a nutshell, the problem with filtering is that the algorithm — which of course is programmed and tweaked by human beings, with all their unconscious biases and hidden agendas — is the one that decides what content you see and when. So ultimately it will decide whether you see photos of refugees on the beach in Turkey and shootings in Ferguson or ice-bucket videos and photos of puppies.

Does that have real-world consequences? Of course it does, as sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has pointed out in a number of blog posts. It can serve to reinforce the “filter bubble” that human beings naturally form around themselves, and that can affect the way they see the world and thus the way they behave in that world.”

Are you ok with only seeing what someone else wants you to see? The problem is, with so much out there, we need filters, it’s just not manageable otherwise. Even if we choose to design our own filters, is that not self-limiting? What impact will this have on ideas and discourse?

“By definition, algorithmic filtering means that you are not the one who is choosing what to see and not see. A program written by someone else is doing that. And while this may be helpful — because of the sheer volume of content out there — it comes with biases and risks, and we shouldn’t downplay them. As social platforms become a larger part of how we communicate, we need to confront them head on.”

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One of the craziest music videos I’ve ever seen – by OKGo

Whatever you think of OKGo’s music (this song’s not bad but will never make my all-time favourite list), the art here is the video. It’s crazy fun, very clever and quite unforgettable.

If you’ve ever wondered what opening a piñata in zero gravity would be like, watch this.

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What Would Actually Happen If We Broke Up The Banks? – by Michael Maiello, for Rolling Stone

I include this article because the structure of banks going forward will have so much influence on the role of money in society, and on the rollout of alternative forms of financing. We’ve all grown up in an era of Big Banks, and we lived through a Big-Bank-initiated recession. And while regulation has tightened and the IPO market has lost its allure, the overall structure of our main financial institutions has not changed much.

As this article points out, fintech companies are encroaching onto the bank’s territory. But most, especially P2P lenders, are struggling to be true to the initial calling, which is peers lending to peers.

“After the financial crisis, the banks shied away from making consumer and small-business loans. Some online start-ups like Lending Club and OnDeck entered the scene, as a way for people to lend money to each other directly, without going through a bank. But that model didn’t quite work. Matching up a guy who needs $10,000 to buy a pizza oven with a willing lender is rough work. Enter hedge funds, which are now increasingly buying the loans that Lending Club and OnDeck make.”

Yet once (ok, if) we achieve bank fragmentation, then smaller challengers will have more of a chance to innovate, to create new services and to capture market share. Size used to be the ultimate goal, the only way to achieve uniform customer service quality and scaled efficiencies. Yet today metrics and agility make client retention a matter of analysis and design. And as what we ask of our banks changes, so should their focus and priorities. The fragmentation of banks would both increase their value as a whole, and generate a new field of finance for the new business world we live in.

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A Look at the Marketplace Lending Originator Ecosystem – by Michael Gilroy, for TechCrunch

Speaking of the difficulties that marketplace lenders are having, here is a look at the “commoditization” of their product. P2P loans have gone from being a finance disruptor and an innovation that will revolutionize the banking sector, to a replicable product. The swashbuckling romance is gone. Now, selling alternative finance is a question of packaging and pricing.

“On the surface, e-commerce and marketplace lending are two incredibly different types of businesses. One has disrupted stores like Macy’s and Sears by selling anything from underwear to couches in a regulation-lite environment. The other disrupted massive banking institutions such as Wells Fargo and Bank of America by selling highly regulated loans.

However, when you peel back the layers, MPLs and e-commerce platforms provide a relatively fungible product, where differentiation comes down to customer experience and price, in markets that breed increasingly low barriers to entry.”

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Information Overload and the Tricky Art of Single-Tasking – by Alina Selyukh

A radical idea – stop multitasking???? really???? – that has turned out to be surprisingly refreshing. I’ve tried it, and life is better when you 1) accept that you’re not going to be able to read everything and connect to everyone that you want to in the course of the day, and 2) that doesn’t make you less of a person.

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How ‘Aggregation Theory’ is Fueling a Multi-Trillion Dollar Technology Revolution – by Tikue Anazodo, via Medium

Product distribution used to be a relatively monopolistic endeavour, with profitability and reach going to the largest players. Not anymore. Now, anyone can distribute.

“Over the last two decades, the distribution chain for most goods and services have been redefined end-to-end. The distributor’s role in the chain has been commoditized. ‘Makers’ can now bring their goods and services direct to consumers.

This turned out to be both good and bad.

Good in the sense that makers can essentially become their own distributors by creating their own websites and distributing to consumers directly through their own channels. They get to choose what, when, where and how to distribute.

Bad in the sense that because all makers were given the ability to create independent outlets for distribution, discovery became exponentially more complex for the demand side of the equation i.e. consumers would effectively have to navigate millions of independent outlets to find goods, services and content.

Enter the ‘aggregators’.”

Tikue then goes on to list the largest 10 (by market capitalization) public consumer internet companies. Guess what? They’re all aggregators. Interesting.

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My Little Sister Taught Me How To “Snapchat Like The Teens” – by Ben Rosen, for BuzzFeed

via BuzzFeed

via BuzzFeed

Much more riveting than it has any right to be, this “how-to” on Snapchat turns out to be more about teen culture and the role media plays in the social scene. Surprising, disconcerting and slightly awe-inspiring.

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Things I’ve been enjoying this week:

· This

Really, it’s a service that’s actually called “This”, and it sends you a daily email with 5 recommended reads from around the web. What I love about it is that it gets me reading things outside my circle of interest. There’s no way I can keep up with all the great media sites out there, I barely manage to keep up with my sector. This broadens my scope and introduces me to great journalists that I might otherwise never come across. And it keeps me from becoming boring. I hope.

this 2

· The History of the Internet

As an example of how boring I could become if left to my own devices, the other thing I’m geeking out over this week is a MOOC on Coursera called “Internet History, Technology and Security”, from the University of Michigan. Seriously interesting and very well done, it includes relaxed and enthralling lectures by Charles Severance, and interviews with the people who developed the Internet! It’s half way through, but the videos are worth watching even if you don’t take the course, especially the ones in weeks 5 and 6 that explain how the whole thing works.

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I hope that you’re enjoying your weekend!