A break from the Friday Fives…

You may have noticed that I haven’t done a Friday Five this week. I’m going to put them on hold for a while, and while I will continue writing here (I love it!), it will be with less frequency.

Why? I need to focus even more now on my new world of bitcoin and the blockchain (about which I write over at fintechblue.com). I have so much to learn, and am so certain that I want that to be the focus of my next career. I’m also starting work on a book, more about that soon.

You know the saying “If you chase two rabbits, both will escape”? I’m going to focus on one rabbit now, but without losing touch with the general exploration that I’ve enjoyed here. ‘Nuff said.

Friday Five: coding, privacy and math

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

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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.”

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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.)

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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?

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

Memories of Paintings from Thomas Blanchard on Vimeo.

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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).

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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.”

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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.”

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

Philosophy and the Dress

The colour of uncertainty

So, what colour was the dress? Unless you live in a cave, you probably saw the striped photo and argued with those around you and scratched your head in bewilderment at how others can’t see what to you is so obvious. Surely colour is something so unambiguous that there can’t be any debate? And yet there was, a lot. It began to dawn on us that maybe what we’re certain that we see, is not so black and white (or gold and blue) as we thought. Maybe, quite simply, things aren’t what they appear to be after all. The internet meme of 2015 made the world doubt its eyes.

the dress

And that’s a good thing. We were all so certain of what we saw, because seeing is the only real truth, right? You can’t really “know” anything unless you’ve seen it first hand, because everything else is based on hearsay and trust. Everyone says that such and such happened. But how do we know this? Because someone trusted someone who trusted someone who trusted someone who was actually there and saw the whole thing. “Knowing” that something happened without having seen it happen requires faith that we are being told the truth, faith in reporters’ integrity, faith in writers’ honour, faith in test results, faith in scientific methods and accurate measurement.

Philosopher Bertrand Russell put it beautifully in “The Problem with Philosophy”:

“Philosophy… removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled to the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by sowing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.”

The region of liberating doubt… Without going into deep abstraction here (although that would be fun), it is worth taking a look at how important it is to realize that certainty is a relative thing. What does it even mean? My online dictionary gives the definition as “firm conviction that something is the case”. Conviction is “a firmly held belief or opinion”. Belief or opinion. Neither of those words claim to know the truth. And yet we associate certainty with the truth. That is wrong. We can believe that what we know is the truth. But we can’t really be sure. What we think we know to be true, may not be.

by Greg Rakozy for Unsplash

by Greg Rakozy for Unsplash

A saying that I’ve often heard, so often that it seems to have lost its attribution, is: “If you’re sure, you’re wrong”. Have you ever felt frustrated in a debate with someone so certain that he or she wouldn’t contemplate another point of view or a fact that didn’t fit? Have you ever felt uncomfortable in the presence of dogmatism? Have you ever wondered how fundamentalists can be so sure that they are correct and everyone else is wrong? I fully support sticking up for your beliefs, arguing for them and taking steps to do what you feel is right. But we need to realize that we are not in possession of facts, just firmly held convictions. Personally, I find that the older I get, the fewer of those I have, but at the same time, the clearer things are.

Bertrand Russell again:

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts.”

Doubts are not the opposite of clarity. Accepting that you have them opens up possibilities and enhances potential. Accepting that you may be wrong puts things into perspective, and highlights the value of having an opinion anyway. If it turns out that you are wrong, it’s easier to forgive yourself if you didn’t expect a perfect score anyway. And it’s easier to accept and understand those who don’t agree with you.

Another of my favourite sayings, which lays bare this complicated world that we live in: “If you think you fully understand something, chances are you don’t have all the information.” The intricacies and nuances of issues both big and small are beautiful. And embracing the complexity of life can leave us in awe at the fact that we’re here at all.

Asking questions is a very human act. But living with questions is uncomfortable. The unknown is dangerous, so it makes sense to pretend it’s not there. But nothing much will get done. Even our prehistoric ancestors knew this. To survive, we need comfort. But to prosper, we need to leave our caves and brave the elements and the dangerous creatures that are out there. We need to see what’s on the other side of that mountain, because it might be better than this side.

We need answers to feel secure. Our need for answers is what has propelled human ingenuity forward, and is what has given us not only virtually all major scientific discoveries but also the methods to find more. Doubt and questions are the motor of progress. And yet as a society we seem to value certainty above all.

Politicians preach certainty. Why do we vote for those who seem the most sure that they’re right, rather than those who are most interested in finding balanced answers? Schools teach certainty. Why do we get graded on correct answers, rather than on our ability to ask the right questions? Parents pretend that certainty is part of being a grown-up. Those of you with kids will recognize the frustration of the incessant “Why?”. In cutting off the annoying stream of questions, we implicitly teach them to stop asking. Just as we were taught.

In this era of dangerous fundamentalism and epochal change, questions are more important than ever. Uncertainty is not paralyzing, it is motivating. It’s uncomfortable, true, and as humans we like comfort. But it only takes a skim of the newspaper, in both the national and international sections, to see where “comfortable” conviction gets us. Anyone will tell you that on a micro, daily, transactional and personal level, knowledge is empowering. But zoom out, and it becomes obvious that questions are more so.

Back to the dress. Why did it impact our media-heavy, visually-oriented western culture so much? For the surprise (what do you mean it’s not gold and white??). For the shock (you gotta be kidding me). For the curiosity (how is this possible?). And for the lasting awe at the complexities of nature. Once we realise that things are not necessarily what they seem, maybe we’ll be less hasty with conclusions. Maybe we’ll keep a more open mind, maybe we’ll realize that truth is very rarely obvious. Maybe we’ll move from accepting the status quo to questioning why things are the way they are. Maybe we’ll learn to ask better questions. And in so doing, take the first step to finding better answers.

Sorry, but I think you must be kidding?

I’m all for technology helping us to communicate better and connect more effectively. But this is crazy.

Just Not Sorry is a Chrome extension which will edit your emails for you, to make sure that you are only using strong, assertive language. No more of this “female speak”. Apparently we are too self-effacing, unassertive and apologetic in our business correspondence.

photo by Paul Green

photo by Paul Green

We say “sorry” way too often. We use “I think” more than we should. “We hope to” is for uncertain wimps. “Did that make sense?” is the death-knell for a well-reasoned argument. What we need to do, say experts, is transmit more confidence, never apologize, and remove all “weak-sounding” language from our communications.

This is going to extremes, and while it may seem like a way to help women achieve success and equality in the business world, it actually perpetuates stereotypes while ignoring the underlying barriers.

I do agree that almost all of us can use a bit of help on our persuasion skills. From those who are too deferent to those who are too aggressive, most of us fail to realize the power of words and phrasing to set a tone, transmit a message and win people over. Writing or speaking with confidence and brevity is a skill that is usually not given enough attention in education, in spite of its importance and proven impact.

And, I do agree that there is such a thing as “too deferent”, and that it is usually women who fall into that negative habit. On my last trip to London a young woman seated across from me gave up her seat so a guy could sit next to his girlfriend. And she apologized while doing so. A very nice person, obviously. But it struck me then that she really didn’t need to be apologizing for anything at that particular point in time. She should have been saying “you’re welcome”.

But that doesn’t mean that an email from her would be less interesting or worthy than one with shorter, more impactful sentences. Her niceness could well be the breath of fresh air that the reader’s day needed, her politeness could make her communication stand out from the others. In a room full of assertion, isn’t a gracious and respectful voice more likely to be noticeable? Isn’t someone who seems to accept doubt more likely to have a thoughtful opinion?

For all its processes, objectives and metrics, business is about people. And people like “nice”. People like understanding and respect. Efficiency is important. But so are relationships and trust, even in this technological and networked age. If people like you and see you as a “good person”, they’re more likely to want a relationship with you, and to trust you. I’ve found that politeness opens doors, smooths professional interaction, and encourages others to respond in kind.

Having made the case for politeness, let’s go deeper. What web apps or services like Just Not Sorry want to do, beyond pointing out the “weaker” words and phrases in your email, is to help you to write more assertively. It highlights words or phrases that it considers “weak”, so that you can re-think them, change your wording, use tougher language. In other words, write more like a man.

Do we really need to sound more like a man to be taken seriously? Do we need to act less like women to achieve gender parity? Isn’t that a bit like assuming that our main problem in the business world is that we’re not more masculine?

And I can think of few things more certain to weaken your confidence in your communication than a ton of red underlines – very similar to the spelling and grammar correction suggestions that most email services helpfully offer – indicating where you “went wrong”. Except perhaps feeling pressured to write something that doesn’t sound like you at all. Ironic for an app that aims to boost your (apparent) confidence.

That said, I thoroughly encourage brevity of language (although, as anyone who corresponds with me regularly knows, not necessarily of thought). “I think” is removed, not because it’s “weak” but because it’s obvious. The same with “just”, it’s usually unnecessary. Too many “ums” in a speech drive me mad (and men are just as guilty of those as women are).

Confidence is important in the business world and in life, for both men and women. But so is tone. And so is authenticity. Just Not Sorry may have its uses, and some may find it helpful. But it seems to me like another case of the Internet trying to fix something that isn’t broken.

Do we really want to live in a society in which “too polite” is regarded as a fault?

Sunday seven: universities, notebooks, mobile and journalism

So perhaps I don’t reach the target of seven great tech articles to share with you today, but I spend pretty much all day yesterday at an amazing wedding and I have a hangover. It’s not so much that coherent thought is a problem this morning, it’s more that I can’t get the dance floor song “I Will Survive!” out of my head…

What happened to universities? – via the LA Review of Books

A powerful article describing the decreasing importance of knowledge and understanding, and the disservice this does to the students. A long read, but worth it.

“If you think I overstate the matter, consider this: I know of faculty members who have been summoned by student services staff members to “discuss” a grade with which one of their students was unhappy. Never mind that grades are not designed to make students happy but rather to encourage them to grow intellectually by setting goals just beyond their reach; and never mind also that in the university, students are considered adults who are required as a matter of policy to take their complaints directly to their professors. Partially educated student services staff members are able to intervene in academic matters for which they have no qualifications because the institution in which they work allows them to do so. As a result of their actions, your sons and daughters may well feel happy and empowered and valued in their programs. What they won’t be, however, is educated — the only true and lasting way really to experience these sentiments.”

I’ve heard professor friends say the same, although perhaps not quite so eloquently. That the reason most of their students are there is that they need to have somewhere to be. We all know that’s not right. That it’s not fair to students, teachers or society. That there is so much at stake. But, not much seems to be done to change the situation.

“Why was it impossible to educate my students, in any meaningful sense of the word, when we (me, my colleagues, even some administrators) knew perfectly well how to do so? It was like wondering why that sweaty, panting guy in the gym clothes standing next to the fountain with a cup in his hand refuses to drink.

But then I had an epiphany. It occurred one evening while I was giving a seminar to a small group of students from a large first-year course I was coordinating at the time. If all the financial, physical, and intellectual equipment necessary to educate these people were present, and yet they remained uneducated even after spending five or even six years in our classrooms, then the problem was not that we were unable to cultivate their intelligence but that we did not want to, and that participation in the world we had created for them somehow did not require it of them either.”

I was at a business lunch last week at which the table conversation revolved around everyone agreeing that our kids should leave Spain to go and study and/or work abroad if they possibly can. I am also guilty of encouraging my kids to do the same. But no-one could explain to me what was being done about this. Why we encouraged the young to leave is fairly obvious: “lack of opportunity”. But what would it take to change that? Why are we accepting that this is the situation, rather than fighting to change it? What do we need to do for Spain to become a brain magnet, rather than suffer from brain drain? How do we inject the opportunity back in to our society? No-one at the table had ever given this any thought.

“The worst fate for our children, yours and mine, is that because their education has been about little more than fun, self-affirmation, and “skills acquisition,” when the easy pleasures of youth run out and self-affirmation is all they’ve got left, because the student services cheerleaders aren’t around any longer to reinforce that particular illusion, what will remain for them is not just bad work, unappetizing fare, and the dreary distractions of the modern entertainment industry — all of which can be tolerated, as bad as they may be — but the absence of something to live for, the highest and most beautiful activity of their intelligence. To cheat them of that is the real crime, and the most profound way in which modern universities have betrayed the trust of an entire generation of young people.”

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The whole-brain notebook – via Design Milk

I don’t subscribe to the right-brain/left-brain school of thought (he he, see what I did there?). But I do have two separate notebooks, one for tech-related stuff and one for mind wanderings. So you can understand why I covet this notebook.

via Design Milk

via Design Milk

And even more so, these (Moleskin notebooks covered in fabric! – on my Christmas list – if I’m going to have two Moleskins on the go, one has to be different, right?):

via Design Milk

via Design Milk

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16 mobile theses – by Benedict Evans, via a16z

Benedict Evans’ thoughts on mobile technology are worth reading. He has a knack for putting things into perspective, for making far-reaching ideas seem obvious and for delivering complex opinions with a down-to-earth humour.

His walk-through of the mobile scene brings up such surprising nuggets as:

“We should stop talking about ‘mobile’ internet and ‘desktop’ internet –  it’s like talking about ‘colour’ TV, as opposed to black and white TV. We have a mental mode, left over from feature phones, that ‘mobile’ means limited devices that are only used walking around. But actually, smartphones are mostly used when you’re sitting down next to a laptop, not ‘mobile’, and their capabilities make them much more sophisticated as internet platforms than the PC. Really, it’s the PC that has the limited, cut-down version of the internet.”

“Mobile isn’t about small screens and PCs aren’t about keyboards – mobile means an ecosystem and that ecosystem will swallow ‘PCs’.”

“…talk of standards for IoT misses the point – ‘connected to a network’ is not any more a category’ than ‘contains a motor’, and there will be many different platforms and standards. More important is that, especially in the enterprise, this explosion in sensors means an explosion in data – we’ll know far more about far more, and that allows fundamental system redesign.”

What I most love about Benedict’s writing is that he shows you unexpected conclusions in a straightforward way that takes you back a bit, turns you around to face another way, gives you new ground to stand on, and makes you feel like you were there all along.

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A web for photos and videos taken by drones. Totally spectacular. Taking photography to new heights (sorry).

by Zayedh, via Dronestagram

by Zayedh, via Dronestagram

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Predictions for journalism 2016 – via Nieman Lab

Nieman Lab’s usual annual round-up of predictions for journalism is an inspiring read at any time of year. I still dip into their 2015 version every now and then. This collection will also n o doubt become a classic.

The collection covers live journalism, platform wars, monetization, frictionless video, local news, distraction, indie publishers, virtual reality, design, comments, chat, measurement, empathy and much, much more…

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Vertical dwellings inside test tubes – via Colossal

I’m not sure why I find these totally fascinating. The encapsulation of life? The working around nature? The freezing of time? Or the hypnosis of miniaturization?

by Rosa de Jong, via Colossal

by Rosa de Jong, via Colossal

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Huge MIT Media Lab inventions that transformed our world – via Wired

The MIT Media Lab sounds like a pretty cool place to work. An inspirational video that leaves you wondering what they’re not telling us.

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The rise of self-help tech – via TechCrunch

image via TechCrunch

image via TechCrunch

An overview of the growing market for and selection of self help apps for the on-demand user. Mental health guidance in your pocket. Wisdom at an affordable price. Technology as guru? How will this change our relationship with our mobile devices?

And, what about the data the ecosystem collects?

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Drones in dance – via FastCoDesign

So that’s what else drones can be used for. This totally extraordinary ad for a fashion market in Japan relies on drones to keep it, um, safe for work. You have to admire the drones’ precision.

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Two things I’m enjoying this week

(although it’s such a great time of year that the list could easily grow ten-fold):

1) While in Copenhagen a few weeks ago with my daughter, we bought what must be one of the craziest advent calendars ever: the Lego Star Wars Advent Calendar. And it is so much fun. Every day in December you open a little flap to extract a tiny Lego Star Wars character or accessory. You click the pieces together, you perch them on the edge of your bookshelf and you hope that the rambunctious dog doesn’t knock them over.

star wars lego advent calendar

star wars lego advent calendar 2

2) A friend of mine runs a game every Christmas. Anyone who wants to can play, the scoring is done on Facebook, and the winner is the last one to not hear the song “The Little Drummer Boy”. When you hear it, the honour system requires you to publicly disqualify yourself. Personally, I love the song, so I’m quite happy to lose. This is the best version I’ve heard: Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing a beautiful duet. Two amazing voices, two very different styles and a cosy Christmas setting.

The Vanguard of Technology (or, The Worst Title Ever)

Yesterday I had to speak at a conference entitled The Vanguard of Technology. You can roll your eyes now. Ok, I didn’t “have” to, I chose to, because I have a huge respect for the organizers, I’ve worked with them before. And I would like to point out that they did not choose the title, it was imposed on them by the main sponsor who was very keen to show everyone how they were way ahead of everyone else when it comes to knowing about technology. You’ll notice that I’m not naming names, and that will continue.

I do want to take the opportunity to talk about how the choice of this title indicates (alright, “in my opinion”) a complete lack of understanding of how profound societal change takes place. Not that I know much more, you understand, but I am aware that using words like “vanguard” is a step in the opposite direction.

by Mikkel Schmidt for Unsplash

by Mikkel Schmidt for Unsplash

“Vanguard” means, according to Google definitions, “a group of people leading the way in new developments or ideas”, or “a position at the forefront of new developments or ideas”. Which is fine, you go ahead and blaze the trail and hack through the undergrowth and forge a new path (and any other metaphor you care to add), and let me know when it’s safe to follow. You’re smarter and braver than I am. In case it’s not obvious, I find that word condescending and elitist, when applied to technology. And especially to conferences.

Why? Three main reasons: 1) it creates an “us” vs “them” mentality. I’m vanguard, you’re not, and you’re lucky to have me to test the way. If that doesn’t sound slightly arrogant, what does? What are you trying to achieve? Were those that imposed this title trying to get more people to join the vanguard? But then it stops being the vanguard. You can’t have a heavily populated vanguard. Vanguard, by its very definition, is elitist and excluding – “leading the way”, “forefront”, etc. It’s more likely that what they were trying to achieve is to show everyone how some people are more aware, smarter and ahead on the innovation curve than everyone else. While that may be true (although I am certain it’s totally relative), it does entrench the digital divide: those that are inventing and implenting, vs. those that are not. Those that are aware of the potential impact, vs. those that are not. The divide exists, I’m not pretending that it doesn’t. But isn’t it our obligation to show people how the new technologies can improve their efficiencies and overall quality of life? Isn’t it our obligation to engage everyone in dialogue, to identify risks, use cases and emotional barriers to adoption? How are we going to do that if we are already labelling our knowledge and research as “vanguard”?

2), it simplifies and reduces the definition of “technology”. There was no mention in the conference of medical technology (except an interesting discussion of the potential damage connected medical devices could wreak), engineering technology, and quantum physics exploration. “Technology” has been reduced to the Internet. That is what technology is, according to the new use of the word. All recent progress that has to do with the new communication and the new connectivity is “technology”. We’re losing sight of the fact that a book is the result of technology, a pencil is the result of technology, the key that opens your front door is the result of technology. I’ve been to so many conferences to hear inspiring talk about the technology that delivers oranges directly from the tree to your front door, to give one example, but by “technology” they don’t mean the van that actually does the delivering, or the lift that helps the delivery person get it from the entrance to the door of your apartment. The agricultural innovations that reduce the use of toxic pesticide and help to improve the picking conditions aren’t even mentioned. No, the “technology” that they’re talking about is the web page on which you can place your order or sign up for a subscription or whatever. It possibly also refers to the handheld devices that receive the order and set it up for processing. But the systems, processes and hardware that make the product and the delivery possible are usually beyond (or beneath?) the scope of conferences like this. Possibly because it’s not “vanguard” enough?

And 3), it overlooks the fact that we don’t need to spread the word about “vanguard”. In fact, we shouldn’t. Because then it stops becoming vanguard. And it misses the point. We need to talk about how this can improve your life, and the risks involved. We need to talk about how you can subtly or radically change some processes, at whatever pace suits your budget or your requirements, and enjoy the increased efficiency and connectivity. We need to talk about whether a certain technology offers more than it takes away. We need to talk about you and how this change can affect you.

Ok, true, there is a certain research and entrepreneurial elite that is at what we could call the vanguard. Oodles of respect, hats off, applause and accolades, because society needs innovators, inventors, blue-sky thinkers and those that do crazy things and often open the door to new inventions and innovations. And because of their creativity and intelligence, they will probably always be ahead of the adoption curve. But they do what they do to make the world better for us. I am sure that they would love to see their ideas adopted by the masses, because that would be a validating technological leap forward. I’m sure that they dream of profound positive societal change thanks to their work. But I’m also sure that they know, as do you, that profound positive societal change requires the participation of not the vanguard, but of everyone else.

So, a more inclusive and interesting conference would be called “The potential of tomorrow”, “New technologies and new horizons”, or “What’s next in technology?”. Those are fairly banal titles, true, but they cover the same broad swathe of concepts as the Vanguard option and they sound more inclusive, more interesting and less condescending. Even better, in my opinion, would be more a specific focus, such as “The impact of new technologies on our relationships”, “Will technology steal your job?”, or “Why new technologies scare you”. Sector-specific implementations would also have huge potential in terms of interest and significance: “Smart cities and you”, “The Internet of Things and the world of finance”, or “The impact of new technology on media”.

I have the deepest respect for the technological vanguard of our society. Brilliant people, to whom our generation and those that follow have a huge debt. But we can’t sell “vanguard” as a concept, not with a straight face, and certainly not in conferences aimed at a wide audience. Not if we want people to accept the idea of change, to be willing to try new processes and ways of doing things, and at the same time to keep a cynical and critical eye on where we’re going, why and how.

Some changes!

I noticed that you seemed to prefer the “Sunday Seven” over the “Friday Five” (not that the numbers were ever strictly adhered to, but never mind), so I’ll switch to that format. Bring on Sundays.

And you may have noticed (or maybe you didn’t!) that my longform articles are no longer weekly. I so wish that I had time to make them weekly, and I hope to return to that blissful state once November and December have passed, but other work interferes and I would rather not publish incomplete drivel just for the sake of getting something up.

You may remember that I used to publish something related to technology and art on Sundays. That fell due to time constraints, but I’m going to bring it back, just not on a regular schedule. There’s some amazing stuff out there that I’d love to show you. To keep things simple, I’ll probably include fewer words. You can thank me later.

As an aside, I do love writing here. It helps me to consolidate what I don’t know into a concrete project, and I am almost always surprised by where the article takes me. Usually I’m not even aware of what I think about something until I start writing about it. And I’m excited about all that I have yet to learn. It is a privilege to have the excuse to wallow in the shifting sands of cultural change. (Oh, wow, did I just say that? Cripes. I need to go for a walk.)

Have a great weekend, everyone. Thanks for reading.


Friday five: drones, whistle-blowers and literature

A selection of the articles that grabbed my attention this week:

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The Drone Papers – via The Intercept

This is going to be huge:

“The Intercept has obtained a cache of secret slides that provides a window into the inner workings of the U.S. military’s kill/capture operations at a key time in the evolution of the drone wars — between 2011 and 2013… The source said he decided to provide these documents to The Interceptbecause he believes the public has a right to understand the process by which people are placed on kill lists and ultimately assassinated on orders from the highest echelons of the U.S. government. “This outrageous explosion of watchlisting — of monitoring people and racking and stacking them on lists, assigning them numbers, assigning them ‘baseball cards,’ assigning them death sentences without notice, on a worldwide battlefield — it was, from the very first instance, wrong,” the source said.”

the drone papers

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The benefits of getting comfortable with uncertainty – via The Atlantic

“In our everyday lives, we might avoid a lot of anxiety and jumping to wrong conclusions by accepting that sometimes people do feel two ways at once. Things can be similar without being exactly the same. Some things we can never know.”

Certainty is not what we think it is. And it’s not even necessarily a good thing. Go figure. I’m relieved, I’ve always wondered how people can be so sure of things. You need an opinion (in my opinion), but it’s important to realize that you may be wrong.

“We always think we’ve settled into ourselves and we’re always wrong.”

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How the Internet is uniting the world – via Medium

A bit utopic perhaps, but with some good points about the massive impact that fast connections and public communication have had on our sense of humanity. I thoroughly agree that too much communication has its downsides, but the upsides are so much more important and are having a much greater impact on how we see ourselves in relation to our fellow humans.

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The first great works of digital literature are already being written – via The Guardian

image from the game Journey, via The Guardian

image from the game Journey, via The Guardian

“Your experimental technological literature is already here; it’s the noise you’re trying to get your children to turn down while you pen your thoughts about the future of location-based storytelling.”

Naomi Alderman of The Guardian gives us a brief overview of video games that verge on literature. Don’t roll your eyes, these games are works of art, not only visually but also in terms of story line. What lifts them to a new level is the interaction of the story with the visual, and the role that you, the player, have in the development and the overall effect.

And I say this as someone who does not particularly enjoy video games, with a couple of notable exceptions (I’ve raved written about The Stanley Parable and Monument Valley before), but who loves to try the new ones just to see where they fit into my particular spectrum of new media. We are re-inventing story telling, not to replace the old, traditional way, but to bring new possibilities into the mix, to stimulate mind-blowing creativity and to push the boundaries of what is considered art. In my mind, video games definitely are.

“To pick just 10 examples from recent years, it’s hard to imagine how you could opine on the future of literature without having played the brilliantly characterful and fourth-wall breaking Portal, the sombre and engrossing Papers, Please, or the dazzlingly surreal exploration of the American subconscious, Kentucky Route Zero. Are you interested in discussing experimental “read it in any order” literature? Then for goodness’ sake, play the mystery narratives of Her Story andGone Home and the hilarious and unsettling The Stanley Parable. If you want to talk about how writers can engage with politics, capitalism, or the environmental movement, you’ll be showing your ignorance if you haven’t played Oiligarchy.

Interested in how storytellers can engage with themes of mortality? You’ll want Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, or Jason Rohrer’s short, powerful gamePassage, or the sublime Journey. Each of these games could – and probably should – be taught in schools to inspire the next generation of creators.”

A similar article appeared in Quartz this week.

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You are not a brand, you are a person – via Medium

I gave a talk in Bilbao a couple of weeks ago about whether a personal brand was necessary for a leader, or for anyone, really. My message was “No, it isn’t.” Not everyone needs to be strong online to be employable. Often it’s enough to be good at their job and to have an excellent reputation. And let’s face it, not everyone is good at the whole social media thing. If you’re not good at it, it’s better to not do it than to subcontract it out. Find another way to cultivate your market. A personal brand is not obligatory, and the attempt to convince us that it is piles on unnecessary additional pressure, which we really don’t need.

And I say that as someone who does have an online brand, and who enjoys it. I just don’t see why we should expect everyone to spend valuable time communicating to a vague market on channels that they don’t have the time to understand.

“But maybe I wanted to tweet a picture of my cat. Or maybe I wanted to rant about some political thing I had an opinion about. And maybe I wanted to use the word “fuck” in a blog post. How does that fit in? Wouldn’t that muddy my personal brand?

“… Maybe. But I think inconsistency is part of human nature, and what are social media users but human? Heck, even brands on Twitter and Facebook are run by humans.”

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A choreagraphed dance of 100 Sphero balls

This isn’t an ad for Sphero, the programmable robot ball. Ok, maybe it is, sort of, but I want to show it to you anyway because it’s quite charming, and it involves the programming of 100 Sphero balls! 100! I have one at home, I love it, and having to program a hundred of them sounds like so much fun.

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Have an amazing, stimulating but at the same time relaxing weekend! Do something new, surprise yourself.

The launch of fintechblue, about Bitcoin, P2P lending and payments

Posting has been sporadic lately, which I’m not happy about, but I’ve been working flat out on a technology development project (maybe I’ll tell you more about that later), and the launch of my Bitcoin and fintech blog. It’s called fintechblue and you can see it here.


I’m not rolling those posts into this blog because the seriously nerdy depth of detail is not appropriate for a general technology commentary. And once I find a rhythm I’m comfortable with, I’ll go back to posting like crazy here, too. I miss it, actually – I have a bunch of posts half-finished, just aching for an insightful and hopeful conclusion. I have no problem with the hopeful, but I have over the past few weeks struggled with finding the head-space for insightful.

Tomorrow I’m off to give a talk in Bilbao on how technology as affected the growth of personal branding and the importance of the “company”. Then London for a few days for meetings. Then back to work, hopefully this time with insight, early next week.

Until then!

Friday five: bacon, clocks and comments

We live in a weird, wondrous world that never ceases to surprise me…

So, dating just got weirder – via TechCrunch

The impact of the Internet on dating is fascinating. I wrote about it here, and I’m realizing that I barely scratched the surface. With the news that Oscar Mayer is launching a dating app for bacon-lovers (called Sizzl, really), I’m not sure if it’s getting silly, or deep. Maybe a bit of both. Will other brands take note? If so, which would you consider using?

image via TechCrunch

image via TechCrunch

I wonder why Nespresso hasn’t thought of this… A Nutella dating site would probably do quite well, too…

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The sharing economy is dead – from Fast Company

An excellent article about good intentions and resistance to change. The sharing economy was going to make us all more efficient and empathetic, sharing our goods and our time and receiving like in return. And the connections would make us feel more in touch with our environment and our community…

Most of the sharing economy businesses born in the flurry of the mid-2000s are now closed, largely because of what the author calls “a discomforting incongruity between enthusiasm for the concept and actual use”. Is it really worth sacrificing a chunk of our day to go and pick up and then return a drill that we rent for $15, when we can get a cheap one at the department store or on Amazon for $30?

Personally I think that yes, there are many who would. And maybe the drill renter lives across the hallway. I think that the barriers of hassle and time are an important factor, but not quite as much as the mental barrier of changing our ways. Improved usability will help – more than 3 clicks and it’s easier to turn to Amazon. But mainly, it will take some time for the idea of sharing and relying on others to sink in. It’s a big leap, not to be underestimated. But I think that it will happen. The first flurry of sharing economy startups were probably too soon. More will follow, and will most likely do better. Especially if they stop using the term “sharing economy”.

“But the real sharing economy is dead.

It was a beautiful idea that struck hard, but when it died, nobody seemed to notice… And nobody seemed to ask the question of how an idea that everybody loved so much, an idea that made so much sense on a practical and social level, morphed into the pure capitalism that it is today.”

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#IstandwithAhmed – via Wired

I confess that when I first saw this story yesterday, I thought it sounded a bit like a hoax. Because, well, um…. I still find it baffling.

image vs Wired

image vs Wired

Wired’s spin on the tale, including tweets of support from tech dignitaries, is quite charming. What a way to reach celebrity. And what a way to raise awareness for the coolness that is robotics.

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To comment or not to comment? – from Nieman Lab

This article is a long read, but it turned me around on an issue, which is why I want to share it with you.

I read a lot of media on the web. News, creative journalism, research, opinion pieces… and the comments. I often find myself learning as much from the comments as from the original piece. While reading a beautifully crafted opinion piece that I totally agree with, the comments show me other aspects of the situation, new arguments that give depth to whatever understanding I might think I have.

So it was with dismay that I noticed that many of my favourite sites were turning off the comments section. I thought it was a bad idea, that it would reduce overall engagement, that readers would spend less time on the site. But then I read this article in Nieman Lab.

I’m still not convinced it was the right thing to do, but at least I see the strong arguments in favour now. I get the need to broaden engagement on other social platforms. I understand the drain on resources posed by trolls and idiots non-sensible commenters. But the “we need to go where the readers are”? We’re on your site! Yes, Twitter has a broader reach. But it is feasible to cultivate both the commenters and the tweeters. Sometimes they’re the same person. It’s possible to comment on an article, and then tweet about the comment. A couple of strategically placed buttons would make that even easier.

Sure, moving comments threads to dedicated forums or even Facebook pages will increase activity in those groups. But if I read an article and have an idea I’d like to share, I’m not going to go somewhere else to do so. If it isn’t super-easy and intuitive, I’m not going to bother.

But, the explanations given by The Verge, Popular Science,  do make sense. Mobile audiences, the need to focus on social media, anonymous comment abuse, lack of resources for moderation… I do hope this trend doesn’t extend to all online media, though… I would miss the debate.

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To Uber or not to Uber? – by Enrique Dans

Yes!! Innovation: 1, Entrenched interests: 0. Uber is illegal in my city of Madrid, Spain, although the European Court of Justice is reviewing the case. And I hope that the European Courts lean the same way as the New York courts that Enrique Dans talks about in this article.

“Any expectation that the medallion would function as a shield against the rapid technological advances of the modern world would not have been reasonable.”

I understand the plight of the licensed taxi drivers, faced with reduced return on the outrageous investment required for a license. In return for the additional tax income the government would get with a broader use of alternative taxi services (Uber’s price point is in between taxis and public transport), perhaps they could find a way to reduce the financial burden on taxi drivers?

“Quite simply, the financial interests of some do not take precedence over the right of consumers to choose how they wish to be transported. The public cannot be denied a service they have clearly shown a preference for and that manifestly lacks any pernicious effect over other alternatives, just because a few people’s investment might depreciate as a result. The fact that some sectors in society do not want things to change doesn’t mean that things won’t change or shouldn’t change.”

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Things ain’t what they seem – via The Atlantic

Noooooo! It can’t be!!! My life has been a lie!!! My beloved London underground map…

image via The Atlantic

image via The Atlantic

…in reality looks like this:

image via The Atlantic

image via The Atlantic

This is too much for me to take. I need to go and lie down.

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Have a great weekend, everybody! Oh, and by the way, I’ve started writing about bitcoin over at fintechblue… It’s early still, so don’t check it out yet, but… well, soon, okay? And I will keep on writing here as well!