Friday Five: media, social and dropping out

Some interesting articles from the past week:

Off the Grid – by Stephen Fry

British writer, actor and comedian Stephen Fry lets rip on his vision of an unplugged life for today’s young:

“Signing off and logging out may seem to some like a move back, a fatuous attempt to disinvent the wheel, a modern equivalent of The Good Life, digging up Wikipedia and planting cabbages over it or steampunking the new to create a simulacrum of the old, but what I am talking about is a move forward for those who have never known anything but the digital world. Generation Z (it brings vomit to the gorge even to type that) must invent their own reality, not replay mine. No, this is not about the retro chic of analogue, it is about forging a new reality outside the – for want of a better word – matrix.”

Whether you agree with him or not (and he doesn’t expect you to), this is a great read, full of wit and hope.

“But first, what would motivate any young person today to pull the plug?

Well maybe they should consider this for a moment. Who most wants you to stay on the grid? The advertisers. Your boss. Human Resources. The advertisers. Your parents (irony of ironies – once they distrusted it, now they need to tag you electronically, share your Facebook photos and message you to death). The advertisers. The government. Your local authority. Your school. Advertisers.”

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No, this isn’t an oil painting by an abstract artist. It’s an image of Australia taken by a satellite for the US Geological Survey.

image via artnet

satellite image of Australia, via artnet

You can see a collection of some of the most beautiful ones at their website, and at Artnet News.

earthasart contrails

satellite image of California, via artnet

satellite image of Australia, via artnet

satellite image of Australia, via artnet

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How Uber Conquered London – by Sam Knight, for The Guardian

A searing mix of personal struggle, entrepreneurial determination, history and philosophy gives us a gripping tale of how Uber launched in London and went on to change how the city moves. We meet the first London employee, the first driver, and, of course, Kalanick himself. And we get a glimpse of how a city’s transformation began, one driver at a time.

“Liquidity used to be something you associated with the stock market, he explained. But now sharing networks such as Uber and Airbnb are making assets and labour available to consumers in ways that were simply not possible before.”

A long read, but worth it.

“It takes a moment for this notion to sink in: that with more drivers competing for cheaper fares, everybody can still come out on top. (American drivers have begun to call this “Uber math”.)… The only trouble with “Uber math” is how it feels to be part of the labour force that delivers it.”

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Your Media Business Will Not Be Saved – by Joshua Topolsky, via Medium

The problem with today’s media is that…. it’s different. Things that used to work don’t work anymore. And the media, the “old” media, doesn’t seem to know what to do about it.

“So over time, we built up scale in digital to replace user value. We thought we could solve with numbers (the new, seemingly infinite numbers the internet and social media provides) what we couldn’t solve with attention. And with every new set of eyeballs (or clicks, or views) we added, we diminished the merit of what we made. And advertisers asked for more, because those eyes were worth less. And we made more. And it was less valuable.”

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Check out these stunning light portraits by Eric Paré.

by Eric Paré, via Bored Panda

by Eric Paré, via Bored Panda

Light-painting-fantasies-5721bf04abe20__880

by Eric Paré, via Bored Panda

by Eric Paré, via Bored Panda

by Eric Paré, via Bored Panda

There’s more on Bored Panda.

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How social entrepreneurship is making a difference in the world – by Bérénice Magistretti, for TechCrunch

Banish the do-gooder condescension that most Silicon Valley types bestow on third world problems (although usually with very good intentions). Here we have some examples of clever ideas that are actually making a difference in quality of life. Tackling sanitation, healthcare, waste recycling and education, good ideas and smart management can make local impacts that have the potential to scale.

I dislike the label “social entrepreneurship” – it’s too limiting and misleading. I mean, Facebook and Instagram can be considered cases of social entrepreneurship, right? “Constructive” entrepreneurship doesn’t work, either. The closest I can come up with is “make-the-world-a-better-place entrepreneurship”, which is just not going to catch on. Maybe just “better place entrepreneurship”?

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Have a great weekend, wherever you are. I came to London this week expecting dire weather – the forecast said rain, sleet and even snow! The same forecast as the last time I was here. And yet again, beautiful sunny weather. Cold, though. But lovely.

Friday Five: books, bubbles and boats

A roundup of some of the more thought-provoking articles from the week:

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Boaty McBoatface and the False Promise of Democracy – by Uri Friedman, for The Atlantic

For the record: Boaty McBoatface is a brilliant name.

The UK Coast Guard decided to try out this thing called “social engagement” by opening up the naming of its new vessel to the community at large. It would let the public nominate and vote on potential names. What could go wrong?

Well, what could go wrong is that the Science Minister didn’t like the winner. Boaty McBoatface won by a huge margin, as it should have. But that entry has been disqualified. Why? Because the name is not “serious enough”.

The US Republican Party should take note: apparently you don’t have to abide by the rules of democracy if the people’s choice is not “serious enough”. Just sayin’.

“What happened to disapproving of what you name your boat, but defending to the death your right to name it? Is democracy a lie?”

A good article, which points out that the futility of democracy does not end with a ship.

“By voting, you can play some role in electing your member of Congress. But you have far less control over which policies that member supports once in office, let alone which policies the government as a whole pursues. Similarly, you can cast a ballot for Boaty McBoatface and help shoot the name to the top of an online poll. But you’re pretty powerless when it comes to what the science minister does with that information.”

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Very, um, festive? Fun? Quirky? A kinetic toy installation made with Hoberman Spheres (I want one!), by artist Nils Volker. Via Colossal.

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Silicon Valley’s unicorn fantasy is collapsing in on itself – by Alison Griswald for Quartz

I include an article about an article, which I normally don’t like to do, but in this case you’ll thank me – the original article, by tech investor Bill Gurley, is reaaaaally long. The Quartz summary is more readable, in my attention-deficit opinion, and highlights the scarily relevant points.

It goes a bit beyond the now-usual “the bubble is bursting” commentary to talk about how Silicon Valley hubris is bringing the roof down on their own heads. On the one hand, it’s a pity, as so many young dreams will be washed away. On the other hand, you would think we’d learn from past mistakes, no? According to Bill, the four main factors in the VCs’ and founders’ own way are:

– emotional biases (the overwhelming desire to be a paper billionaire),

– greedy VCs with more ambition than ethics (who get unrealistic guarantees in the contract, which deters further funding),

– inscrutable financials (greater transparency in the numbers would lead to better decisions and less blind hype) and

– too much money looking for a high return.

“The pressures of lofty paper valuations, massive burn rates (and the subsequent need for more cash), and unprecedented low levels of IPOs and M&A, have created a complex and unique circumstance which many Unicorn CEOs and investors are ill-prepared to navigate.”

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I love this floor:

Image by Bernhard Strauss, via Designboom

Image by Bernhard Strauss, via Designboom

Made with poured resin, by Peter Zimmerman. Via Designboom.

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What books can learn from the Web / What the Web can learn from books – by Hugh McGuire, via Medium

Here we have an interesting look at the difference between books and the web. “Boundedness” on the one hand. “Unboundedness” on the other. Is there a way to bring them together?

“If …

The Web is the most efficient technology we have for creating and distributing information …

And if …

The web is the most efficient technology for organizing connections between bits of information …

And if …

The Web is an open platform on which we can build new tools and services …

And, further, if …

Books represent the (arguably) the most important single nodes of information from human minds …

Then …

Why doesn’t the content inside of books live on the Open Web — where it can more easily be found, shared, read, and built upon?”

We have unlimited information on the Internet, which allows us to build connections, to adapt and to innovate. A book’s reassuring limitations concentrate our attention but at the same time block the creativity of immediate interaction. Online books, without the physical heft, offer the same restrictions.

“So we moved from paper books to digital books, but rather than embracing digital fully, we instead built a system that tries to mimic the limitations of paper. In fact the ebook system we have built in many ways imposed new restrictions: on ownership (since you don’t own your ebooks, you license them from wherever you bought them), and use (you can’t easily lend your ebooks, or give them away; you might be able to highlight and take notes on your books — but there isn’t anything useful we can do with those notes).”

So is there a way that books can retain their advantages, set in the beginning of printing-press time, while joining the connectivity revolution?

“Books can learn from the web how to be bounded and unbounded at once: to keep the circumscribed, portable integrity of discrete content; but to open that content to the platform of the Web. To open the reading experience to being built upon… But I think there is power in the notion of a book, its thingness, and the Web can perhaps learn how to encapsulate, in the way a book does, a discrete thing, a bounded set of ideas.”

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A brief roundup (you’re probably grateful, right?), but it’s been a crazily busy week. Glad it’s Friday. You too, I hope!

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…

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.

Friday Five: robots, music and digital feminism

As I mentioned last week, I’m going back to the Friday round-up instead of the Sunday round-up. It just feels right – Friday seems like a better day for a round-up. And that way I can also go back to throwing some digital art at you over the weekend. I hope that you like it.

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Why Quartz’s news app is so much bigger than news – by Tom Popomaronis, for TechCrunch

quartz-app-featured-image

image via TechCrunch

I am a fan of the Quartz app. And the Quartz news site, the newsletter, and the events. And I’m sad that The Atlantic are considering selling them, as it may affect their independence and/or style. The app is the only news app I haven’t gotten bored of. It delivers the news in chat format, informal, with gifs and emojis. You control the flow of the conversation.

The author seems to share my opinion on the app. And in this riveting article, takes the inference a step further.

“In other words, I was engaged in large part because I knew an immediate response would follow. It satisfies the “instant gratification” check box. And the medium is familiar — it mimics texting, which is how we spend much of our modern lives.

That’s when it hit me: The magnitude of what I was experiencing was much bigger than simply news-based interactive texts. In fact, it’s likely just the beginning. Here’s why:

It’s poised to send shock waves through the live-chat industry.”

It would be amazing to connect or dial in for support, and be greeted with an amusing, personable “conversation”. Or, imagine the now-boring FAQ page format enlivened by a bot chat.

image via TechCrunch

image via TechCrunch

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What is a robot? – by Adrienne LaFrance, for The Atlantic

Speaking of live chat support: the land line at our apartment has been out for a few days now. Each time I call the phone company to report it, I am asked to choose a series of paths (“please press 1 if you are calling about a technical difficulty”) and to perform a series of tasks (“please input the number you are calling about”). I file the complaint, and I get a reassuring message on my mobile. I have not spoken to a human.

In this article, Adrienne LaFrance points out that we interact with machines more often than ever, sometimes without even realising. Which begs the question, what is a robot, anyway?

“Just as “robot” was used [in the past] as a metaphor to describe a vast array of automation in the material world, it’s now often used to describe—wrongly, many roboticists told me—various automated tasks in computing. The web is crawling with robots programmed to perform tasks online, including chatbots, scraper bots, shopbots, and twitter bots. But those are bots, not robots. And there’s a difference.”

The difference is important, because it represents the growing “disappearance” of robots in our lives. “Robots have a tendency to recede into the background of ordinary life.” Technically, a washing machine is a robot. But, it doesn’t look like what we think a robot should look like.

Which is what, exactly?

““When you ask most people what a robot is, they’re going to describe a humanoid robot,” Wilson, the novelist, told me. “They’ll describe a person made out of metal. Which is essentially a mirror for humanity. To some extent a robot is just a very handy embodiment of all of these complex emotions that are triggered by the rate of technological change.””

Would we find it easier to tolerate the presence of robots that are cute? Or would their cuteness evolve into their control over us? Could you bring yourself to dismantle a robot that seemed “humanoid”? I’m pretty sure that I couldn’t. And if you can’t, isn’t that the same as giving them control?

“Robots are everywhere now. They share our physical spaces, keep us company, complete difficult and dangerous jobs for us, and populate a world that would seem, to many, unimaginable without them. Whether we will end up losing a piece of our humanity because they are here is unknowable today. But such a loss may prove worthwhile in the evolution of our species. In the end, robots may expand what it means to be human. After all, they are machines, but humans are the ones who built them.”

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Tell me you don’t have some sort of sympathy for this robot…

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In Shift to Streaming, Music Business Has Lost Billions – by Ben Sisario and Karl Russell, for The New York Times

Finding music seems to be easier than ever. Discovery and access is getting more creative almost by the day. And more and more musicians seem to be making a living outside the traditional label scene. Income is down, though. Does this mean the end of the industry as a viable business proposition? Or is this the next stage of the revolution?

“There is plenty of good news in the music industry’s latest sales report released this week. Streaming is up. Vinyl has continued its unlikely renaissance. And did we mention that streaming is up?

But a closer look shows that the big sales numbers that have sustained the recorded music business for years are way down, and it is hard to see how they could ever return to where they were even a decade ago.”

Get this: vinyl records earn more money for the music industry, today, than music on YouTube. That’s crazy. Vinyl?? It’s all about the margins.

“CDs and downloads have been gradually abandoned as streaming has become the platform of choice. The result is that the music industry finds itself fighting over pennies while waving goodbye to dollars.”

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The trigger for electronic cash comes from the Underbanked – by Bernard Lunn, for Daily Fintech

A fairly good explanation of why electronic cash will find its way into the western psyche, via the developing world.

“Electronic cash is simply the venerable stored value card gone to a mobile phone. Mobile wallets are just electronic Fiat cash with no regulatory issue (unlike Bitcoin) and no single company like Vodafone calling the shots (like Mpesa). Sometimes simple is best. Expect this to reach the West via Refugees who cannot use ATMs or Credit Cards.”

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Feminism is in the details – by Nogah Senecky, for TechCrunch

Could the subliminal gender divide in tech be blurring? The hacking of “traditional” games such as Zelda, a subtle change in Facebook’s friends logo, the unrealistic portrayal of women in stock photos, and the sass of the (female) virtual assistants Cortana and Siri are taking small steps towards levelling the reinforcement of stereotypes and cultural tropes.

Tech feminism is not just about getting females to stay in tech jobs, in spite of harassment and ceilings.

“The topic of women in tech … is also about developing technology that can help us make this world kinder to women, by offering solutions to problems that have to do with women’s health, safety and career dilemmas. And not last nor least, it is about how the information we consume and are exposed to influences the representation (or, once again, the lack thereof) of women everywhere.”

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Have an amazing Spring weekend!

spring weekend

Sunday Seven: bubbles, progress and celebrity

There were a ton of great articles this week, so many that I had to arbitrarily choose which made it into this summary. Not an easy choice. I’ll be tweeting the rest over the next few days, so follow me on Twitter at @noelleinmadrid. (And I’m still trying to figure out WHAT is going on with the formatting here… Several posts seem to have disappeared from the feed, along with my sidebar. Working on it…).

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Secondary Shops Flooded With Unicorn Sellers – by Connie Loizos, for TechCrunch

Is that the popping of the bubble that we hear? This may be premature, but if you take the jug of cold water that this article delivers in terms of evidence that unicorn valuations are falling fast, and combine it with increasing and vocal concern about the state of the world economy, you may start to hear that much-feared (but probably inevitable) sound.

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Not Another African Tech Article – by Clinton Mutambo, for TechCrunch

image via TechCrunch

image via TechCrunch

Speaking of popping bubbles, I finally found an article that questions the tech world’s interest in Africa and points out how hard it will be for us from the “western world” to apply what we know to their circumstances. See? Even that sentence sounded a bit condescending. Clinton recommends that we stop thinking that they need our help, and just step back and watch them grow their own way.

“The lack of data and “exotic charm” of Africa makes it an easy target for baseless, heavily flawed or downright ridiculous content. This benefits no one, as it has the effect of painting a false picture about the continent and each of its 54 diverse states. Everyone from potential investors to collaborators is made more ignorant by most articles.”

As Clinton points out, “technology doesn’t operate in a silo”, and the evolution of the sector is inextricably entwined with its cultural, social and economic development. And that needs to be left up to the Africans. We should try to avoid the colonialist mistakes of the previous century.

“There shouldn’t be a tug of war this time around. Extending perceptions of such only advances exploitative tendencies that have contributed toward the challenges in Africa.”

And enough with the paternalistic articles that treat Africa as one entity. It isn’t.

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The highly profitable, deeply adorable, and emotionally fraught world of Instagram’s famous animals – by Corinne Purtill, for Quartz

hedgehogs

Ok, so I’m including this article mainly because of the adorable pictures. However, its tongue-in-cheek take on the role of social media is worth reading.

“The pet world on Instagram is as stylized and edited as the human one. Fur looks pristine. There are no litter boxes in sight. The lighting is perfect. Even animals on social media live better than you do.”

There is actually a celebrity dog management agency. Not kidding.

All this leaves me with the feeling that Instagram is replacing TV in the crazy fame stakes.

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The financialization of news is dimming the lights of the local press – by Ken Doctor, for NiemanLab

An in-depth and penetrating macro, big-picture article on the news industry and the decline of print publishing. Ken starts by painting a relatively apocalyptic picture of the world economy:

“The data points have been coming at us increasingly rapidly. What had been just a long downward slide is now getting wacky. Erratic behavior on one side of the country is quickly trumped by weirder happenings on the other, until even more befuddling news makes us forget the oddities of last month. These are all signs of a deeper reckoning than all the reckonings we’ve so far seen. And as bad as it the U.S. right now, also consider the deepening plight of our northern neighbors in Canada and the tinderbox that Europe is becoming.”

… and continues with the demise of local and print news:

“Print is dying, and that’s not news — it’s just news that the news industry itself shies away from publishing, believing the nonsense that publishing the truth is a main cause of the decline. It’s not news reading that’s going away, though: that’s grown by leaps and bounds. It’s still the great digital disruption of local newspapers’ monopoly businesses that has caused the major impacts — impacts greatly exacerbated, sadly, by publishers’ own inability to reinvent themselves for the new age.”

The “financialization” of the press – the running of media companies on a profit basis – is inevitable in this disruptive, fail fast, media-as-an-investment cycle. But it is also gutting the spirit of reporting, and commoditizing our attention even further.

“Yes, money matters, but it’s that beating heart of the business — creating news that local citizens need to run their governments and better their lives — that still has to be an antidote to the single-minded financial view of local news. (If “the market” won’t support local news, many have said to me, than maybe it isn’t needed. I ask them: If the same were true of education, the arts, or even roads, where would our struggling democracy be?)”

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A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace – by John Perry Barlow

This is absolutely not from the past week, it’s from 1996, but it should be taken out, dusted and re-read every now and then. It may sound a bit dated, but it’s surprising how still relevant it is, and it’s fascinating to see how far the internet world has veered from its initial libertarian motivation of sharing information.

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks.”

Apart from the sentiment which will make your heart beat just a little bit faster, the declaration contains stunning (if at times grandiloquent) language:

“You are terrified of your own children, since they are natives in a world where you will always be immigrants. Because you fear them, you entrust your bureaucracies with the parental responsibilities you are too cowardly to confront yourselves… In our world, all the sentiments and expressions of humanity, from the debasing to the angelic, are parts of a seamless whole, the global conversation of bits. We cannot separate the air that chokes from the air upon which wings beat.”

While awakening the debate about regulation/safety vs. decentralization/freedom (reminiscent of the debates around bitcoin), Barlow does point out that the Internet exists in and because of the physical world, that it is not completely separate.

“Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.”

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The chips are down for Moore’s law – by M. Mitchell Waldrop for Nature

Moore’s Law is reaching its natural end? Now what?

“Every time the scale is halved, manufacturers need a whole new generation of ever more precise photolithography machines. Building a new fab line today requires an investment typically measured in many billions of dollars — something only a handful of companies can afford. And the fragmentation of the market triggered by mobile devices is making it harder to recoup that money.“ As soon as the cost per transistor at the next node exceeds the existing cost,” says Bottoms, “the scaling stops.””

So, this is where ingenuity and innovation take over.

“At least some industry insiders, including Shekhar Borkar, head of Intel’s advanced microprocessor research, are optimists. Yes, he says, Moore’s law is coming to an end in a literal sense, because the exponential growth in transistor count cannot continue. But from the consumer perspective, “Moore’s law simply states that user value doubles every two years”. And in that form, the law will continue as long as the industry can keep stuffing its devices with new functionality.

The ideas are out there, says Borkar. “Our job is to engineer them.””

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What will the bank of the future look like? – by Taavet Hinrikus, via the World Economic Forum

Maybe I’m obsessing a bit too much over banks this week, but there are some interesting ideas worth thinking about. Banks are changing, that’s obvious. As they should, that’s pretty obvious, too. Or is it? And what do we want them to change into?

“The most important result will be the true democratisation of finance. The nature of the current “bundled” model of banking is fundamentally unfair. The costs of the system and the profits of the banks are overwhelmingly accrued from fees and charges that hit the poorest hardest.”

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2 things I really enjoyed this week:

· A classic from the Ink Spots, circa 1940 – “Whispering Grass”. Just listen to the words. It’s not often you hear a crooning song about “babbling trees”.

· A hypnotic and truly inspiring book: Humans of New York. If you don’t follow the account on Tumblr, you should. The book is a collection of some of the more interesting anecdotes (although how he can choose is beyond me, they’re all really interesting), each one showing the incredible variety and creativity of the human spirit. I plan to look at this again and again and again.

humans of new york

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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.

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· 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!