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:

— x —

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.”

— x —

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

— x —

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.

— x —

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.

— x —

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.””

— x —

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.”

— x —

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!”


Have a great weekend!

Friday five: comments, co-working and cute

Annotation, from the Washington Post

One of the things I like best about Medium and Quartz (apart from the excellent writing, of course) is the possibility of annotating or commenting on individual paragraphs, individual sentences, even. In the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza claims that annotation is the future of journalism (not all journalism, but a good chunk of it), as it allows depth, clarification and engagement.

“It gives us the chance to play a role as tour guide through a chosen field (politics, music, art, etc.) while simultaneously listening to the questions and insights from our tour group. It’s journalism as a collective community effort where people other than the reporters feel invested in (a) getting it right and (b) making it as smart, thoughtful and approachable as possible.”

Annotation has its downside, too, as Chris points out. Inane comments, trolls, the “cesspool” that the comments sections ended up becoming. He believes that this can be solved by upvoting the best annotations, Reddit-style. It might work.

— x —

Reimagining a classic, from The Verge

Speaking of annotations, Apple is launching enhanced, digital versions of the Harry Potter books, with animated illustrations and annotations by J. K. Rowling herself.


— x —

A brief history of the demise of comments, via Wired.

And continuing on the theme, a timeline of the death of the comments section.

— x —

Passwords are dying. Let them – from

Passwords are dying? Thank God. With hundreds of sign-ins under our belt, it’s logical that we end up duplicating passwords, because how is someone supposed to remember so many? Lastpass helps, a lot, but it doesn’t cover all situations, and for some inexplicable reasons I have three or four different entries on LastPass for the same IP.

So if passwords are out, what’s in? Biometrics. Touch, eyes, facial recognition. Yes. Bring it on.

— x —

Coworking, from Shareable

I work from home, and I love doing so. I’m never lonely, since my husband also works from home for half of the day (we occasionally meet in the kitchen for coffee), and two of my immediate neighbours with whom I’m on very good terms also work from home, so we sometimes nip down to the bar on the corner for more coffee. And I love the comfort, convenience, and being here when my daughter comes home from school.

But I love the idea of co-working spaces. I’ve visited several here in Madrid, with neutral but quirky decoration and a creative atmosphere of concentration.

This article about the origins and growth of the movement (can you believe it’s 10 years old?) sheds light on several aspects that I hadn’t considered. One, that it’s considered a movement. Two, that it’s global. Even in Antarctica, the few huts the scientists share can be considered co-working spaces.

Coworking seems to bring about a sense of community and human connection, so at odd with the “isolation” and “breakdown of empathy” that we were assured greater online dependence would bring.

I really liked this description, by Ashley Proctor, Executive Producer of GCUC Canada:

“Coworking is absolutely not about desks or wi-fi or coffee—most of us have access to a desk and wifi and coffee at home. Coworking is truly about being surrounded by a diverse group of peers. Many of our coworking members, myself included, are independent by nature and we are extremely passionate and dedicated to our work. It’s so easy to become isolated when we work long hours for ourselves, and it’s important to find balance. Coworking helps us to balance personal and professional, work and play, independence and collaboration.

By working together, we build a strong vibrant community, and a network of support. We share resources and we share contacts. We make friends and important connections. We are leading by example—we are building a workspace that we want to be a part of and we are shaping the future of work.”

It’s not actually a work thing. As Tony Bacigalupo, co-founder of New Work City, says:

“The irony of all this is that most of us don’t need an office at all. The vast majority of work being done now can get done from anywhere with a signal. We don’t go to these new workplaces because we need an office; we go because we need what happens in the office.”

For some it’s the added productivity of not having the TV, the fridge or the bed to distract us. For most, it’s the social connection and the friendships that develop. I personally love how it’s changing the nature of work into something more collaborative – individuals working together, independents incorporating the suggestions of others, freelancers helping out peers for free. Gone is the tribal and competitive atmosphere of the office. In comes a new system that emphasises collaboration and curiosity. Will it still be tribal? Will we “band” with our co-working peers? Or are we ushering in a whole new mentality of open-minded acceptance?

— x —

The new Pixar film

Really, tell me you not just a little bit excited about this:

— x —

Have an amazing weekend!!