Friday Five: bots, media and offices

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

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Bots, the next frontier – from The Economist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brilliant.

Have a great weekend!

Sunday Seven: data, surveillance and compulsion

As of next week, I’m going to go back to publishing the round-up on Friday, with a digital art piece on Sunday. Why? Because I miss it. And I think a shorter round up (Friday Five instead of Sunday Seven) will be easier to digest. It will be harder to choose only five items to share, but you’ve probably noticed that I’ve never been a stickler for keeping to the numbers anyway, so… you know, who’s counting?

Anyway, here you have some of the most interesting articles found this week:

If you are reading this, we might be in the same news bubble – by CJ Adams and Izzie Zahorian of Jigsaw, via Medium

unfiltered

And now for a totally amazing twist on the power that algorithms and filters, even the self-imposed ones, have on the information and ideas that we see.

“Search engines, social media and news aggregators are great at surfacing information close to our interests, but they are limited by the set of topics and people we choose to follow. Even if we read multiple news sources every day, what we discover is defined by the languages we are able to read, and the topics that our sources decide to cover. Ultimately, these limitations create a “news bubble” that shapes our perspective and awareness of the world. We often miss out on the chance to connect and empathize with ideas beyond these boundaries.” “It’s a common lament: Though the Internet provides us access to a nearly unlimited number of sources for news, most of us rarely venture beyond the same few sources or topics. And as news consumption shifts to our phones, people are using even fewer sources”

Launched by Jigsaw, the tech incubator formerly known as Google Ideas, Unfiltered shows what topics are popular in certain regions of the world, and which ones are being under-reported. A very cool bubble interactive graphic (visual pun noted) shows what is being covered in different parts of the world, and what is being covered elsewhere but not in your region. Furthermore, you can click on any subject displayed to find out more about the type of coverage that it is receiving. You can also see how coverage of a topic has changed over time.

“Even with the power of the internet, it can be surprisingly difficult to explore the diversity of global perspectives. Technology has made it easier for everyone share information, but it hasn’t made us better at finding viewpoints that are distant from our own.”

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The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism – by Shoshanna Zuboff, for Frankfurter Allgemeine

This isn’t from the past week, but I’m breaking the rules here because 1) I only came across it last week, and 2) it’s such a gob-smacker of an article that it deserves to be shared, whenever. Shoshanna Zuboff of Harvard Business School writes in Frankfurter Allgemeine about the new type of capitalism brought on by our active online lives. We’ve heard the term “info-capitalism” before, but she calls it “surveillance capitalism”, a much more unsettling name. The effect is no doubt intentional.

“Some attribute the assault to an inevitable “age of big data,” as if it were possible to conceive of data born pure and blameless, data suspended in some celestial place where facts sublimate into truth… I’ve come to a different conclusion:  The assault we face is driven in large measure by the exceptional appetites of a wholly new genus of capitalism, a systemic coherent new logic of accumulation that I call surveillance capitalism.”

Our activity online creates data. Even Google, back in the early days, discarded this data, not realising that it would become the backbone of its lucrative business. The generated information, or “behavioural surplus”, is the basis of surveillance capitalism, and raises all sorts of thorny issues such as privacy, independence and free will.

“We’ve entered virgin territory here. The assault on behavioral data is so sweeping that it can no longer be circumscribed by the concept of privacy and its contests.  This is a different kind of challenge now, one that threatens the existential and political canon of the modern liberal order defined by principles of self-determination that have been centuries, even millennia, in the making.”

The “efficiencies” of online business create new mechanisms of distribution and profit generation which, data protection laws aside, are largely unregulated. And why regulate something that people in general aren’t even aware is happening? Without regulation, it will be difficult to develop an antidote, or to at least channel them towards humanity-enhancing freedoms.

“Mass production was interdependent with its populations who were its consumers and employees. In contrast, surveillance capitalism preys on dependent populations who are neither its consumers nor its employees and are largely ignorant of its procedures.”

Ms. Zuboff likens surveillance capitalism to a coup, “an overthrow of people’s sovereignty”, which challenges our principle of self-determination. And it’s happening without our realising. We don’t realise what we are consenting to.

“It’s happened quickly and without our understanding or agreement. This is because the regime’s most poignant harms, now and later, have been difficult to grasp or theorize, blurred by extreme velocity and camouflaged by expensive and illegible machine operations, secretive corporate practices, masterful rhetorical misdirection, and purposeful cultural misappropriation.”

The conclusion is powerful, eye-opening and beautifully put. The emphasis is mine, and calls into question what exactly is this utopia we are striving to achieve?

“The bare facts of surveillance capitalism necessarily arouse my indignation because they demean human dignity. The future of this narrative will depend upon the indignant scholars and journalists drawn to this frontier project, indignant elected officials and policy makers who understand that their authority originates in the foundational values of democratic communities, and indignant citizens who act in the knowledge that effectiveness without autonomy is not effective, dependency-induced compliance is no social contract, and freedom from uncertainty is no freedom.”

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Your Data Footprint Is Affecting Your Life In Ways You Can’t Even Imagine – by Jessica Leber, for FastCoExist

Not quite as gut-punching as the previous article, this one continues on the riff of the burning question: how much control over our lives have we given up, without even realising?

“Predictions about you (and millions of other strangers) are starting to deeply shape your life. Your career, your love life, major decisions about your health and well-being, and even if you end up in jail, are now being governed in no small part by the digital bread crumbs you’ve left behind—many of which you don’t even know you’ve dropped in the first place.”

Behind-the-scenes algorithms of dating sites, commerce, civic interaction and crime prevention are ostensibly there to help us, to improve our quality of life, to prevent bad things from happening. But how much is cause, and how much is effect? To what extent are the predictions self-fulfilling, further entrenching future assumptions?

“When you rely too much on data—if the data is flawed or incomplete, as could be the case in predictive policing—you risk further validating bad decisions or existing biases.”

Are prediction algorithms enablers, freeing up valuable time and producing end results that we’re happy with? Or are they taking our way our agency and our free will? Would you have bought that vase if your feed hadn’t shown it to you? Would you have gone on a date with that person if an algorithm hadn’t decided for you that he or she was a good fit?

“Even major life decisions like college admissions and hiring are being affected. You might think that a college is considering you on your merits, and while that’s mostly true, it’s not entirely. Pressured to improve their rankings, colleges are very interested in increasing their graduation rates and the percentage of admitted students who enroll. They have now have developed statistical programs to pick students who will do well on these measures.”

Personal finance, college admissions, hiring decisions are all becoming increasingly based on predictive assumptions, tweaked to emphasize factors that optimize outcomes. This sounds efficient. But is it fair?

“What happens when a computer says you’re likely to commit a crime before you do it, and, worse, what if the data underlying that prediction is wrong and you can’t do anything about it? What happens when a dating program is slowly pushing us to a more segregated society because it shows us the people it thinks we want to see? Or when personalized medicine can save lives, but because it is based mainly around genomes sequenced from white people of European descent, it’s only saving some lives?”

And yet, the possibilities are huge, and important. Information leads to insight which leads to fixing problems or improving outcomes.

“On the other hand, big data does have the potential to vastly expand our understanding of who we are and why we do what we do. A decade ago, serious scientists would have laughed someone out of the room who proposed a study of “the human condition.” It is a topic so broad and lacking in measurability. But perhaps the most important manifestation of big data in people’s lives could come from the ability for scientists to study huge, unwieldy questions they couldn’t before.”

So the issue revolves around the quality of the data, and its end use. Life has always been based on assumptions, so we can´t ban those. Predicting is a human trait that goes back to pre-history. And the collection of data isn’t going anywhere, it is becoming an increasingly significant factor in daily interactions and that trend will be very difficult to stop. But, we can at least start to ask the questions about the potential negative outcomes, rather than gleefully rush into the imagined utopias of all-seeing, all-knowing code that makes our lives more pleasant, but at the same time, less free and less human.

“And while it’s true that analytics can already make smarter guesses than humans in many situations, people are more than their data. A world where people struggle to rise above what is expected of them—say a college won’t admit them because they don’t seem like someone with a good chance of graduating—is a sad world. “There’s this danger we lose our identity as people and we become categories,” says Dhar.”

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The Value of Using Podcasts in Class – by Michael Godsey, for The Atlantic

I don’t want to become known as “The Podcast Girl” (although I can think of worse titles), but I do find them fascinating as a medium and as a content generator. They “reach the parts that other media don’t reach”, to paraphrase an iconic Carlsberg ad. But I confess that I haven’t yet given much thought to their usefulness in the classroom. I had thought that podcasts were for personal time, and classroom interaction was teacher-student.

But, why not? Group listening brings out the social aspect of podcasts, making them the most communal of media. I would argue that they are even more “social” than video, since with visual you are both listening and watching. With audio you’re just listening, and can interact with your fellow listeners with your eyes and your voice.

“Earlier this week, I asked each of my own students to write down what they’d honestly like to do for the rest of the semester: read a good book together, listen to another podcast, or listen to a podcast with the words on the screen. Sixty-two voted for the latter, while just two voted for podcasts alone, and one for reading alone.”

I did think it strange that reading books is being pushed aside in favour of reading transcripts. And this would definitely validate Nicholas Carr’s theory that the internet makes us “dumber” by eroding our ability to deep read. But, as the author points out, some reading is better than no reading. And the juxtaposition of transcripts and podcasts, of audio and text, is going to create new synapses, new learning experiences and perhaps even new media. It would be premature to dismiss it as less “meaningful”, until we try it out, and see what effect this combination has on learning.

“The reasons were as varied as they were compelling. Many of them said that reading along with the audio helped with their focus and kept them from “spacing out” while listening. Others, paradoxically, wrote that they were able to multi-task—they could take notes or write on their worksheets and could keep up with the story even with their eyes off the screen. Some explicitly recognized that they could look back and re-read something they didn’t understand when they first heard it; others said they read slightly ahead and then could write down a quote while they listened to it. A student with eyesight problems said he appreciates the ability to take reading breaks without stopping his enjoyment of the story. A few students learning English as a second language wrote that they like how they can read the words and—as one student put it—promptly “hear how they’re supposed to sound.””

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Things Organized Neatly: A New Book of Compulsively Organized Things by Austin Radcliffe – via Colossal

image via Colossal

image via Colossal

I’m a bit concerned about how much I love this: OCD turned into art. Does that mean I might have compulsive tendencies? No, you should see my office. But the photo of the cars and containers stacked up? That was my recurring nightmare when I was a little girl – I couldn’t get my toy cars to stack up. So, maybe… Whatever, these photos are amazing.

image via Colossal

image via Colossal

image via Colossal

image via Colossal

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What Happens When We Become A Cashless Society? – by Charlie Sorrell, for FastCoExist

Is cash becoming obsolete? This article cites the growing encroachment of electronic commerce on our daily lives to argue that yes, we don’t need it any more.

“The promise is that banning cash would end black markets, but for honest citizens, the end of paper cash brings many unsettling downsides. Credit card transactions are already trackable, and electronic cash could bring that lack of anonymity to every single transaction you make.”

As a society, are we comfortable with that level of scrutiny? Governments around the world are trying to curtail the use of cash, to reduce fraud, money laundering and to lower the costs of producing and handling the stuff. Could part of their motivation be to reduce the anonymity that cash gives us?

“While anonymous digital cash is technically possible, governments are unlikely to pass up the chance to have all currencies tracked as they move through the system (like with credit card transactions), or with new digital currency that carries a record of its own history along with it. Once this information exists, it will become a target of government agencies such as the police and intelligence services and trafficked to insurance companies, tax collectors, fraud squads, and even marketers.”

And if you look around, you can see that it’s already happening.

“The end of cash may seem like fancy thinking, but look at how money has changed since credit and debit cards started to usurp cash. We already route money around with bank transfers enacted from our tablets, we pay for Uber cars with the convenience of a phone app, and we travel abroad without even thinking about buying foreign currency before we go. And PayPal, the original cashless payment system, turned 18 years old this year. Cash is already on its way out.”

Technologically, it’s both disconcerting and very interesting. Would better data give governments stronger control over the economy? Could money be programmed to only be spent in certain sectors? And with more payment-like data flying around the ether, security will become even more of an issue than it already is. While cash is not exactly secure, at least we know when we have it.

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Things I enjoyed this week:

· You’ve Got Mail: Just the sweetest film, with an excellent, retro soundtrack, and nostalgic dial-up interfaces.

youve-got-mail-movie-poster

· A new MOOC on cryptography by Stanford University. Dense, and hard work, but exciting.

coursera cryptography

Virtual reality and the news

Imagine this: you get a buzz on your phone that alerts you to the “breaking news” of a fire in a downtown warehouse. You drop what you are doing, grab your headset, plug it into your phone, and a couple of taps later you are standing outside the safety cordon, looking around at the spraying water and the stunned spectators. An ambulance screeches to a halt to your left. You turn to watch the medics jump out and set up the stretcher. A policeman emerges to your right and urges you to move away. You turn your head just in time to see part of the building collapse.

You’ve no doubt seen the scuba-diving-like goggles covering people’s rapt faces in images from Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress this week. Perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to try some of these VR headsets yourself. Whether you’ve taken them for a spin or not, it isn’t hard to appreciate the awesome potential of visual experience that you actively participate in. We are so used to sitting and watching a flat screen that our neural wires have configured themselves to assume that that is “viewing”. External visual stimulation is in two dimensions. Even the awkward 3d movies that require special glasses… well, however clever, it’s still based on a flat screen in front of you.

virtual reality journalism

image via Wired

But a visual experience that you actually form part of? That you can influence? In which you can affect what you see? That level of interaction is already commonplace in gaming, but with virtual reality it takes on a whole new dimension (literally and figuratively). Being able to affect the experience just by turning your head is a totally different sense of empowerment. Imagine a virtual reality movie (or maybe you’re one of the lucky few who’s already seen one) – your line of sight becomes part of the plot, and since you control that, you yourself play a part in the experience.

What does all this have to do with the news? With media outlets constantly searching for ways to engage their audience, and with the tech constantly seeking out new use cases, it was inevitable that the two would meet. And in the process, raise more fundamental questions than either party expected. More on this later.

The development is still new, the projects are still limited in number and reach, and the technology is far from perfect. But stuff is happening in the sector, and some interesting projects are attracting attention. Back in late 2014, digital artist and filmmaker Chris Milk (I’ve written about his amazing work often before) set up Vrse, a production company for VR documentaries. Among its early projects were a film about the Millions March in New York, produced with Vice, and an emotional piece on the plight of children in refugee camps, produced with the United Nations. Waves of Grace, another collaboration with Vice, documented life in an Ebola camp.

virtual reality journalism

image from Clouds Over Sidra

Production company RYOT has a history of VR documentaries, and has partnered with organizations such as The Huffington Post and Associated Press. AP just last week announced a new partnership with chip maker AMD to launch a VR news channel.

At the end of last year The New York Times gave away Google’s cardboard VR viewer to its readers, so that they could enjoy the documentary “The Displaced”, about children in refugee camps, on its new VR app. Since then the company has released several more VR documentaries, including one on the US presidential campaign and the vigils after the Paris attacks.

virtual reality journalism

Fusion, the digital news outlet funded by Univision and Disney, announced in August of last year the creation of a virtual reality unit. ABC, the news division of Disney, recently demonstrated virtual reality reporting on its show Good Morning America.

These are not isolated examples. The list of news organizations experimenting with this format is growing almost weekly, and the storytelling potential is being harnessed by other institutions with stories to tell, such as NGOs.

Why? Because the emotional impact is significant, and all journalists and story tellers want to connect emotionally with their audience. By “placing them at the centre of the action”, they can draw the audience in, convey more than words can, and create a lasting memory. They can stimulate the imagination, and most importantly, generate empathy. This empathy can transform initiatives, and motivate people to learn more, to think, even to help. The power of the immersion has producers and journalists excited over the possibilities and the potential impact. Note the shift from storytelling to story experiences.

And yet, the empathy quotient – while most likely higher than for flat-screen viewing – is still limited. Visually, the experience is very cool. But the technology is not yet perfect, what you see does not look real. Almost, but in most films you can see the joining lines, and unless your headset is very good, there is some distortion. And your experience is limited to vision, which not the only sense used in experiential empathy. The technology does not yet take into account important details such as smell, sound, temperature, wind, dust, moisture… Full immersion it is not.

Note that none of VR news examples seen so far are breaking news stories. They are documentaries. While definitely an important part of journalism, can documentaries be considered news? Or are they more in the category of education? It’s just a short step from documentary-style virtual reality reporting to VR in the classroom. Getting the next generation to empathise with world crises (refugee migration, climate change) and historical situations (social development, military strategy) will have a significant impact on the comprehension of cause and effect, while stimulating even more creativity in communication. The boundaries between journalism and education begin to blur.

It could be argued that the technology limits the potential application for VR news reporting. The need for special equipment to enjoy the experience is a barrier. Google’s Cardboard viewer is cheap and very cool but flimsy and a bit clunky. Higher-quality headsets are expensive, and not yet widely available. But prices are coming down and more variety is entering the market. And the films generally can be viewed on a flat screen, using the mouse or your finger to turn around.

virtual reality journalism

image from Waves of Grace

And at the moment each VR film takes up considerable time and expense. Breaking news coverage would require a logistical and editorial scramble. That will probably change, though, as the technology gets more accessible, and more creatives come up with fresh ways to use it. Giroptic sells its tiny 360º camera – with native YouTube support – for under $500. At the Mobile World Congress this week both Samsung and LG launched 360º cameras, which will make it easier than ever for anyone to film and upload virtual reality footage.

Citizen journalism itself raises many issues. Combine that with the as-yet-untested impact of immersion reporting, and the subject gets complicated. Which brings us to the deeper questions that we referred to earlier.

Here we go:

To what extent can we let the news become entertainment? Seeing a disaster unfold before our very eyes is compelling, but to a generation that grew up with video games of intense but lifelike situations, the divorce between reality and immersive screen can get fuzzy.

Are we fooling ourselves that empathy can come from a video? Being able to control your line of sight is cool, but does it really make you feel like you are there? How much can you feel part of a war-torn slum when you’re in your sanitized, comfortable and clean living room? How much can you experience the chill of the mountain when you’re slumped on your sofa in a T-shirt? Are the characters in the film actually part of your life? Is a memory from a VR experience the same as a memory from a real life encounter? And to what extent can we smugly believe that we understand when we can turn off the VR at any time?

Does the growth of VR make us even more vulnerable to media manipulation, this time on a deeper, more sensory level? Given the (relative) intensity of the experience, do we not need to be even more careful about the messages that get through? If so, who decides what gets through and what doesn’t? Is it ok to include commercial advertisements in such a deep, visceral experience? Where is the line between neutral and biased reporting? When does a message become propaganda? And although in VR you have the impression that you are controlling what you see, in reality your set of potential experiences is chosen and limited by the storyteller, by the director and the production team. To what extent are we living their experience, along with their interpretation and biases?

Will this become mainstream? VR is still a very niche experience, accessible to those with a headset (expensive) or a Cardboard viewer (cool, cheap and clunky). But this will change, as the New York Time’s viewer giveaway introduced hundreds of thousands to the concept for the first time, and Samsung gives away VR headsets with pre-orders of its new S7 phone. As prices come down and the technology improves, VR headsets will become more accessible, but will they become ubiquitous? The cool factor is huge. But is it enough to overcome expense, logistics and discomfort?

These questions are important, and we can’t let the excitement over the technology whisk us along without a thought for the possible consequences. But nor can we let fear of the consequences stop the development. Virtual reality’s potential is breath-taking, in so many fields, including those we haven’t even thought of yet. The aesthetics, the reach and the connection with our innate curiosity can transform experiences for all ages and professions.

As usual, philosophy, ethics and legislation are way behind reality. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t marvel at the technology’s accomplishments, ­­­test the limits of its reach and enjoy the creativity behind the material. And above all, find new ways to tell stories, because there are so many stories to tell.

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

humans of new york 1

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!