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

Art for art’s sake? An amazing exhibition website design example.

This is one of the rare examples of an exhibition website that seem almost more art-worthy than its content… (I don’t mean to editorialize, just to point out that the design of the website is pretty amazing.)

zero

Zero showcases the 2015 exhibition at the Guggenheim museum in New York on modern art from the 50s and 60s. The works are accessed via a clock-like menu, with instant views on mouse-overs. You can view themes or individual pieces, with zoom and more information available.

zero1

Whether you like that style of art or not, the web is worth taking a look at for the stunning design. Very clean, playful and luminous.

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.

— x —

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

The changing podcast experience: podcast tech for listeners

You’d think that the podcast scene was new, with all of the amazing innovation that’s going on in the space. Well, it’s not really, podcasts have been around since the early 00’s. The thing is, back then they were very, very niche, and clunky. Digital distribution, production technology and the viral effect has pushed podcasts (and podcasting) into the mainstream, sort of, which in turn sets off a chain reaction in innovative startups and services that hope to make the medium even more efficient and accessible.

While there’s plenty going on behind the microphone, so to speak, today I want to look at innovation on the user’s side. Production is key: the easier podcasts are to make and distribute, the greater the quality and selection available. The greater the quality and selection available, the broader the appeal. And the broader the appeal, the more funding for the production. But, digging deeper, the impact of a broad appeal is coming up against some obstacles. Or rather, new distribution and production technologies have made podcasting one of the most exciting mediums available. But there are still some important barriers that impede an even wider fan base, barriers that get in the way of the user experience and discovery. If we can solve those, podcast growth will accelerate.

Enter: a few new startups and services that hope to do just that.

Let’s look at the problems one by one, and at their potential solutions.

  • Podcasts are very platform-centric.

Apple’s podcast app, which comes bundled into all recent versions of IOS, dominates podcast reproduction, with about 70% of the market. But it’s unlikely that they’ll hold onto that market dominance for long. Rumours abound that Google is about to launch its own native podcast player which will be included in newer versions of Android. Meanwhile, apps such as Stitcher, Pocket Casts and Podcast Addict help Android users to find, store and reproduce episodes. Spotify now includes podcasts in its (relatively) new “Shows” section which went live this January, and Pandora is moving into podcasts with the streaming of Serial’s second season. Easier access will spread mobile podcast listening to other devices and platforms.

podcast tech

screenshot from Pocket Casts

  • Podcasts are very mobile-centric.

Edison Research’s recent report on podcast consumption points out that 64% of respondents listened to podcasts on their mobile devices in the first two months of this year, up from 55% for the same period last year. While the growth is impressive, the figure still looks low to me. One of the most attractive things about podcasts, in my opinion, is the ability to listen to them while on the move: heading to meetings, doing the grocery shopping, walking the dog. Audio is one of the few mediums you can enjoy while “on the move”, so mobile devices are the perfect hardware for transmission.

Those who don’t listen on the mobile get their audio from the desktop, a legacy habit which may sound strange until you realise that iTunes Podcast player has only been around for 10 years (and has only been bundled in the operating system since IOS8). Of course, when cars get in-built podcast platforms, with easy access and selection (so far listening in your car involves flaffing about with BlueTooth connections, or quite a lot of search-and-click-and-repeat), “mobile-centric” will take on a new meaning.

  • Podcast content is not searchable.

Type a search term in Google, and you get access to articles, websites and even research papers about your chosen topic. Given that podcasts offer such an increasing breadth and depth of interesting information, wouldn’t it be great to be able to search their content as well? Chapters lets podcasters add content identifiers, sort of like an index, to their podcast, which makes it so much easier to find the bit that you’re interested in. Smab, a startup (still in beta) based in my home country of Spain, transcribes podcasts into searchable text. If the podcast and text files are hosted on Smab’s platform, a user can click on a word in the transcribed text, and be taken directly to that point in the podcast.

podcast tech smab

screenshot of smab.audio

Pop Up Archive will convert any uploaded podcast into time-stamped text, tag it, and allow editing. The texts can be embedded alongside the podcast itself, and easily shared on Twitter. The company has created Audiosearch to archive text versions of audio content, and to bundle that with iTunes charts and download figures to create a comprehensive data source of podcast content and reach. DeepGram’s audio search completely bypasses the need to transcribe (although it can do that, too) and uses artificial intelligence to recognize speech, pulling out from video and audio the spoken word that you’re looking for.

podcast tech transcripts

screenshot of Pop Up Archive

  • Podcast content is not shareable.

Back in the day, YouTube content was available on YouTube. Now, most video viewing is done through embeds, with users accessing YouTube’s platform without leaving the social media/chat/blog post that they happen to be on. When we have a similar function for podcasts, the potential spread of the medium will extend to all web users. Right now it’s relatively simple to share an entire podcast, but not snippets. Clammr hopes to change that, with its record function which lets users share clips of up to 24 seconds long on social media, via email or embedding into webs and posts. Soundclouds’ embed feature makes podcasts more shareable, and has recently been extended to include audio clips. The platform goes further by including its commenting feature, through which podcast listeners can comment at any point in the audio they wish.

Some podcast producers are experimenting with tweeting clips or embedding podcasts on Facebook (as a shareable static video). But the clips are not user-generated, the sharing is orchestrated by the network. WYNC has been experimenting with “audiograms”, which turn podcast clips into a video file with a static image. These can then be easily shared on social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

  • Podcasts are not interactive.

True, most shows are on-demand, and audio-only, which makes interaction impossible (or at best, impractical). As with all things media, however, innovative ideas are running with the notion that we need to interact and giving us the tools to do so.

ZCast is the first example I’ve seen that allows live listener interaction. The platform allows you to stream your podcast as you’re recording it, and listeners can chime in via chat. Direct, live interaction.

Anchor, which launched just over a month ago, takes the interaction a step further, by inviting listeners to chime in with their voice. Anyone with a smartphone can record a 2-minute clip, and start a debate that other users can continue with their own audio clips. Almost like a Twitter for audio? Not really, more like a public conversation. Here’s an engrossing example, on the resurgence of vinyl LPs:

Podcast tech Anchor

screenshot from Anchor

Remarks (also released a few weeks ago) lets users comment and interact around any podcast, via messages, links or even gifs, and gives the host a forum to chat directly with listeners.

  • Podcasts and multimedia don’t mix.

Do you know the concept of the “second screen”, where fans of a TV series can interact on a website with each other as well as with the series’ stars and producers, and have access to additional info? Something similar is being played with in the podcast space. The ultra-famous podcast Serial has gone as far to commission special artwork for each episode in its currently-running second season, and posts these, along with relevant texts, photos and other audio files, on the show’s website. An iconic podcast becomes a full-immersion media experience.

podcast tech multimedia Serial

artwork from Serial

TapeWrite, still in beta, not only hosts your podcast, but allows you to add visuals and text at certain points along the track. These appear as a type of “card”, adding multimedia context.

podcast tech

screenshot of TapeWrite

— x —

I’m sure that there are even more problems that I haven’t thought of, and solutions that deserve a mention. I’ll come back to this topic as I learn more, but for now I leave you with a glimmer of awe for the potential usefulness, enjoyment and creativity surrounding the audio sector. And hopefully with a sense of excitement at having been there when podcasts took off.

Sunday Seven: payments, pops and lols

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

— x —

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

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

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

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

— x —

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

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

lol nothing matters

— x —

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

More popping of bubble stuff.

via Quartz

via Quartz

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

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

— x —

The Thing About Cycles – by Michael Eisenberg, via TechCrunch

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

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

— x —

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

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

via Motherboard

via Motherboard

Envious?? No, of course not.

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

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

Enter, you guessed it, the blockchain.

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

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

— x —

Reimagining Money – by Douglas Rushkoff, for The Atlantic

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

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

— x —

Reparations, One Meal at a Time

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

— x —

Stuff I really enjoyed this week:

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

murillo de gallego

Whisper in my ear: The intimacy of podcasts

…and the monetization of relationships

Podcasts. I’ve written about them before, and I’ve recommended them to just about everyone I talk to.

A couple of years ago I wrote about how they can improve your quality of life, filling in the “dead” moments of going to the grocery store, working out at the gym, folding the laundry… Filling them in with conversation, ideas, information, humor, debate, stories and fun. But I realise now that back then I missed the point. Yes, you do get all those things. But you also get something else really important, that as human beings we seem to want.

Podcasts fill in the gaps in your days with intimacy.

Of all the media available at the moment, podcasting is the most like a relationship. Yes, even more than YouTube. When you read, it’s your voice in your head. And the written word, while very stimulating, does not have the same level of immediacy as the spoken word. It’s not nearly as intimate. Compare receiving a letter from a loved one. Lovely, emotional perhaps, but not nearly as immediate and heart-warming as an actual conversation. With podcasts, you have someone murmuring things in your ear, or you have people chatting and laughing around you. And we tend to listen to podcasts while we are doing other things: driving, cooking, ironing, doing sit-ups… Podcasts accompany us on our daily activities, and that creates an even deeper intimacy.

Furthermore, they lack the “neediness” of text-based media and video. To read something, you have to be still, and you have to focus. Try reading something while walking the dog. It ends up being an unsatisfactory experience for you, and probably for the dog as well. Video watching may require less concentration (although it seems to hold our concentration pretty well), but you still have to be still. I once tried watching a movie while running on the treadmill. I got nauseous.

And there’s the comfort level. Audio is arguably the medium for which humans are most naturally wired – we were listening long before we were reading, and the oral tradition is still strong in most cultures. Listening feels good, it’s soothing and comforting. And easy.

podcasts

by London Scout, for Unsplash

With conversation, there is so much more going on in terms of tone and nuance. Text tends to be black and white, with the occasional blue hyperlink. Audio provides subtle cues and human idiosyncrasies, quirks that we can relate to and become fond of. Imperfections, subtext and unspoken emotion add layers of understanding which further deepen the relationship.

It feels personal. Our favourite podcasts become our favourite because there’s a connection. We enjoy the podcaster’s sense of humour, tempo, voice. We become friends, in a non-creepy way.

And therein lies the real economic value of podcasts. The monetization of that relationship.

Remember Kevin Kelly’s 1000 true fans theory? How all a creator really needs is 1000 true fans to be able to make a living? In the podcast world the figure is probably higher than that, but with a relatively small audience (compared to online media, anyway), the opportunities are there.

First, the ads. In the world of digital media, podcast ads are a different breed. There does not exist yet (that I know of), an adblocker that can stop audio. And fast forwarding just the right amount is tricky and usually not worth it – I’ve tried, and I always end up overshooting.

Furthermore, most podcasts don’t have advertisers so much as sponsors. The podcaster at some point in the show thanks the episode’s sponsors, and talks about them a bit. Since you have a “relationship” with the podcaster, you’re more likely to listen to him or her than if it were a generic ad. Some manage to make the ad interesting and fun. I was listening to an episode of Sampler the other day, sponsored by Sabra guacamole (a guacamole brand sponsoring a podcast??? whatever), in which the producer challenged the podcaster to find it in the supermarket. They actually recorded the challenge in the supermarket. It was entertaining. And I would happily listen to anything that Roman Mars of 99% Invisible reads. Really, anything.

The extra attention and personalisation is why podcast ads (or sponsorship announcements) command a much higher price than their two-dimensional equivalent. Web ads can go from $4/cpm (clicks per 1000 prints) to $11 for targeted ads. Podcast ads tend to average around $25/cpm, and some can go as high as $100. According to media agency Midroll, podcasts that get 25,000 downloads a month can pull in between $60,000 and $100,000 a year. Those that make it into the iTunes top 100 can make at least four times that amount.  Not bad for a medium that has relatively low production costs.

Second, there’s the ticket sales for the live events. Podcasters with a certain following can (and most of them do) announce a live chat, interview or recording. Top shows almost invariably sell out.

podcast events

Tim Ferriss and Shaun White

Why would we pay to go? Because we know this guy or gal, we want to go and hang out with him or her for a while. It’s very similar to paying to see a band you like play live, only you have no idea what the content will be. But it doesn’t matter, you’re there for the conversation, even if you don’t get to participate a whole lot. Media company Slate has had such success with the live shows of its podcasts that it started selling tickets to live cocktail sessions with the hosts prior to the recordings. They usually sell out within minutes.

And, of course, there’s the merchandise. Top podcasts generate such a loyal following that we want something that indicates that we “belong”. A Nerdist t-shirt, a WTF mug, a Planet Money canvas bag

podcast merchandise

Some podcasts are experimenting with “memberships”, which give us access to sneak previews, premium episodes, live chats with the host, behind-the-scenes videos – all designed to make us feel even more part of the show, even more “connected”, even more “friends”.

The relationship of podcasters to their audience is totally different to that of text media. And this changes the monetization mentality. Obviously podcasters deserve to be paid for their work, time and talent. But there does seem to be a shift from putting a price on your attention, to creating a relationship of value.

Perhaps this is where media is headed. There is so much content out there vying for our scant attention that the way forward could well be through a lasting relationship, which is extraordinarily difficult to achieve with the click-and-you’re-gone technology that is the internet. Even the stars of YouTube with their loyal fans know that the experience is full of distractions, with pre-roll video ads and a column of me-too recommendations. YouTube wants to hold you with more and more videos that you will watch and share and like and pay for with your attention. It is a relationship based on distraction, perhaps ideal for the younger audience at which it is aimed. While podcasting is a business, the emphasis is very much more on intimacy, and the grown-up type of loyalty that that engenders.

True, podcasting is a new sector, and the struggle of monetization is ripe for innovation. Radio is essentially the same medium, and we all hate radio ads, with the sudden increase in volume, the cheesy jingles and the overly cheerful voices. Could advertising on podcasts go the same way? I very much doubt it, simply because we, the listeners, prefer the subtlety of a voice that we know and trust murmuring in our ear. And the metrics will show – once we figure out how to collect them – that the intimate approach works better.

The implicit relationship is why podcasts will continue to enjoy steep growth in offer, demand and potential. New platforms are springing up all over the place to make podcasts easier to listen to, share and monetize. The technology still needs work, but more platforms means more metrics, and more metrics means more finely-tuned delivery and marketing. Which should increase profitability for some, partially level the playing field for others and increase the (already high) level of professionalism in the sector. And along the way, nudge us into re-thinking what we want from our media, our relationship with advertisers, and how we can improve the overall digital content experience.

(This article also appeared on Medium. I’m experimenting with publishing there as well as here. What do you think?)

Sunday Seven: work, startups and ether commerce

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

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

After The Gold Rush – by Jon Evans, for TechCrunch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— x —

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

Image via Medium

Image by buchino, via Medium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— x —

 

Code is political – by Julianne Tveten, for Motherboard

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

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

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

What?

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

I have no idea what that means.

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

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

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

I just might take up farming.

— x —

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

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

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

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

via FiveThirtyEight

via FiveThirtyEight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— x —

The Music Startup Meltdown – by Cortney Harding, via Medium

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

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

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

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

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

 

— x —

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— x —

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new model of work mentioned above?

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

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

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

— x —

This opens your eyes to the power of context.

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

— x —

Two things I enjoyed this week:

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

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

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

 

An Interactive Garden of Earthly Delights

hieronymous bosch

“The Garden of Earthly Delights”, by Hieronymus Bosch

I was at the Prado recently with my son (quality of life: I live within 15 minutes of three of the world’s greatest art museums – jealous yet?), and we stood transfixed in front of this painting for what turned out to be almost an hour. I so wish I’d discovered this interactive version first – the painting’s hypnotic craziness would have made more sense. Although I’m not sure that “sense” is something that you want to have in mind when looking at Bosch’s paintings.

Close-up of "The Garden of Earthly Delights", by Hieronymus Bosch

Close-up of “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, by Hieronymus Bosch