Thought Starters: the move to mobile, Oculus Rift, post Arab Spring and experiments with universal basic income

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to look through articles, research and opinion pieces, highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in. This edition includes a look at the growing importance of mobile, questions about Oculus Rift, coverage of Middle East post Arab Spring, Finland’s experiment with the universal basic income and much more.

The International Telecommunications Union’s Measuring the Information Society Report provides a valuable collection of telecom statistics with an accompanying webpage enabling users to quick compare different countries and regions. What becomes quickly apparent in some of the statistics is how less developed countries have skipped of fixed telecoms as they make the transition directly to a mobile world:

ICT access by development status

Whilst the move to mobile is particularly apparent in many developing countries, figures from Enders Analysis point to UK’s own transition to mobile in internet use, ecommerce and online advertising:

Monetisation of mobile devices

Taking this further, Benedict Evans puts forward 16 hypotheses on how mobile has reshaped the technology landscape. Well worth spending time with this and the his accompanying articles.

Neural nets are one of the areas where we’re seeing significant advances in artificial intelligence.  Steven Levy has an entertaining profile of the work Alexander Mordvintsev and his attempts to understand how these neural nets work which has led to computationally produced images that are probably best described as psychedelic:

Inside Deep Dreams: How Google Made Its Computers Go Crazy

Oculus Rift has become the poster boy for the virtual reality community but Jason Pfaff suggests the need for expensive goggles tethered to a powerful Windows PC and poor user experience could see it quickly disrupted:

Which brings me to Oculus, and their flagship product, the Rift.  Today, as anyone with an Oculus development kit (DK2) will tell you, the experience provided by the hardware is like nothing you’ve ever experienced.  It is pure, blissful magic.  But, and this is key, to get to that experience you have to do a few things you haven’t done in a long time.  For starters, you need to buy a premium and Windows based PC.  Then, you have to find a massive file on an online store and wait minutes for it to download and eat large swaths of your memory.  Then you go into Windows Explorer, paste it from your download folder to the folder Oculus will read from, and then you extract the files.  Think about that.  Then you crack open that folder to find the one that launches it, then you click, then you wait, and then you hope.  And if it doesn’t work, you try another folder or another file, or look for another file called “Direct to Rift mode” to see if that forces the app through to the display.  This is repeated for every app, piece of content or game you want to display on your Rift. A lot of friction.

The media sector continues to evolve as consumers move their content consumption online and content producers find their access to consumers increasingly dictated by social media. The Nieman Foundation has asked a long list of opinion makers what they think are the important issues and trends for journalism in 2016.

Consumers are moving to non linear television with the use of PVRs (eg Sky+HD box), catch up television services (eg BBC iPlayer) and subscriptions to streaming video services (eg Netflix). James Poniewozik looks at what this means for the makers and consumers of television programmes:

HBO series like “Deadwood” — which jettisoned the ad breaks and content restrictions of network TV — have been compared to Dickens’s serial novels. Watching a streaming series is even more like reading a book — you receive it as a seamless whole, you set your own schedule — but it’s also like video gaming. Binge-watching is immersive. It’s user-directed. It creates a dynamic that I call “The Suck”: that narcotic, tidal feeling of getting drawn into a show and letting it wash over you for hours. “Play next episode” is the default, and it’s so easy. It can be competitive, even. Your friends are posting their progress, hour by hour, on social media. (“OMG #JessicaJones episode 10!! Woke up at 3 a.m. to watch!”) Each episode becomes a level to unlock.

With those new mechanics comes a new relationship with the audience. Traditional television — what the jargonmeisters now call “linear TV” — assumes that your time is scarce and it has you for a few precious hours before bed. The streaming services assume they own your free time, whenever it comes — travel, holidays, weekends — to fill with five- and 10-hour entertainments.

Tom Mitchell and Patti Waldmeir look at the massive growth in China’s  business elite and the growing tension with the ruling Communist Party which has seen the temporary disappearance of a number of business leaders:

The number of dollar billionaires in China

Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf is about to come out of copyright in Germany which has prompted The Economist to look at the shadow Nazi rule casts on contemporary German society:

If a country can ever be said to be good, Germany today can. And yet Germans know that whenever others are angry with them, they will paint a Hitler moustache on posters of their chancellor. Many Germans are fed up with this—with being “blackmailed”, as Bild, the leading tabloid, complained this spring, when Greece unexpectedly brought war reparations into negotiations about bail-outs in the euro crisis. Other Germans, mainly on the left, fret about a new “post-post-nationalism”, as Germany tentatively articulates its self-interest abroad. For most countries, this would count as normal. For Germany, it remains complicated.

Gilbert Achcar and Nada Matta look at the more recent legacy of the Arab Spring five years on from its beginnings in Tunisia, and they point to why some countries where more successful in their transitioning than others:

Five years into the uprisings, however, counterrevolutionary forces composed of the old regimes and Islamic fundamentalist forces have regained the political initiative, and are now violently vying for control. Egypt is under a worse dictatorship than before its uprising, and civil wars have broken out in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Hundreds of thousands have died, and many millions have been displaced.

It’s also well worth reading Scott Atran’s detailed analysis of the rise of ISIS in which he draws parallels with earlier revolutionary movements and the conviction of its members which is in stark contrast to much of its opponents:

Civilisations rise and fall on the vitality of their cultural ideals, not their material assets alone. History shows that most societies have sacred values for which their people would passionately fight, risking serious loss and even death rather than compromise. Our research suggests this is so for many who join ISIS, and for many Kurds who oppose them on the frontlines. But, so far, we find no comparable willingness among the majority of youth that we sample in Western democracies. With the defeat of fascism and communism, have their lives defaulted to the quest for comfort and safety? Is this enough to ensure the survival, much less triumph, of values we have come to take for granted, on which we believe our world is based? More than the threat from violent jihadis, this might be the key existential issue for open societies today.

There’s been a lot of talk about a movement from corporate to self-employment. For those people whose skills are in demand, this can offer substantial benefits but for the less in demand, the transition to the freelance economy can pose significant challenges to individuals financial security. One of the solutions being suggested to this problem is the introduction of a universal basic income, guaranteeing all members of society an income regardless of their situation. Ben Schiller covers Finland’s experiment with the model, with the country seeing real potential benefits in terms of security, incentives to work and reduced bureaucracy:

The Finnish government likes the concept, and it’s putting serious resources behind a national experiment. Starting in 2017, up to 100,000 Finns could get up to 1,000 euros a month, in lieu of other benefits. These lucky souls won’t have to work. They won’t have to prove they’re in poverty to get the money. For two years, they’ll get a fixed amount to do with what they will.

The featured image is a mural produced by 108 for Bien Urbain in Besancon, France and found on ekosystem.

Thought Starters: the rise of artificial intelligence, a look at YouNow, what’s going on in content marketing and a climate change update

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to look through articles, research and opinion pieces, highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in. This edition includes signs of growing interest in artificial intelligence, a profile of the YouNow live streaming service,  a review of the UK’s content marketing sector, a look  at climate change post COP21 and lots more.

Artificial intelligence has been one of those innovations that’s often talked about but rarely seen but there are signs this is beginning to change.  Jack Clark profiles recent developments which provide indicators of the technologies readiness to move out of the laboratory:

AI Learns to Pin the Tail on the Donkey

Another technology that is apparently gaining traction are virtual assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana. MindMeld’s research points to a substantial uptake in usage in the last six months (tipping point?) although as a provider of such services, MindMeld is not exactly a neutral voice:

When did you first start using voice search:commands?

Digital audio landscape  has continued to evolve as we move from an ownership to an increasingly streaming based model. Parviz Parvizi has looked to map out the current landscape (see below) and also suggests where we’re likely to see a blurring of boundaries in the near future as the market continues to evolve:

Digital Audio Landscape

I’ve been an avid follower of the Tumblr platform for some years, with the service fitting very much into a space which users broadcast their identity and interests. It will be interesting to see whether the platform’s launch of messaging provides a catalyst for communities of interest among strangers:

Unlike Facebook Messenger or services like WhatsApp, Karp says this is a tool for connecting people who actually don’t know each other in the real world. They may have the same interests and often reblog each other’s work, but have never met in real life.

Ofcom recently released its annual International Communications Market Report,  providing a valuable collection of media and communication statistics. Statistics typically cover UK, France, Germany, Italy, USA, Japan, Australia and Spain , but also include Sweden, Poland, Singapore, South Korea, Brazil, Russia, India, China and Nigeria for some data sets:

Checking smartphone at the start of the day

Amanda Hess profiles rapidly emerging livestreaming platform YouNow which is apparently making an impression on teenage audiences:

“…on YouNow, you don’t see what the broadcaster sees—you see the broadcaster himself. You click into a stream and stare into his eyes. YouNow’s camera is always set, by default, to selfie mode. The whole site is designed to create personalities and foster fandoms around them.

Consumers are spending more time in app on their mobile phone. Unfortunately for retailers this doesn’t mean that developing an app is necessarily the road to success, with comScore research from the US pointing to 51% of users having three or less retail apps. That doesn’t leave much space for an app from your local craft beer emporium:

How many mobile retail apps do you currently have on your smartphone

Content marketing is definitely having its moment in the sun with organisations seeing it as a valuable means of getting their story across to consumers and organisations. Unfortunately this also means that it’s harder to get yourself noticed in an increasingly crowded field. The Content Marketing Institute has released its report looking at what British brands are doing to get themselves noticed:

China was seen by many international brands as the land of opportunity driven by strong economic growth and a population seemingly infatuated with international brands. Angela Doland’s profile of China now suggests the honeymoon might now be over as as competition increases and the economy slows, but the sheer size of the market means that it’s still very hard to ignore:

By 2030, 66% of the world’s middle class will be in Asia, according to Brookings Institution calculations. Only 21% will be in North America and Europe combined. “From a marketing perspective, that statistic tells the whole story of what the challenge is,” Mr. Dumont said. “Asia is the future, and with the world’s largest middle class, China is at the center of it.”

China’s slowing down economy is also having a substantial flow-on effect on global commodity prices, the majority of which now down on where they were a year ago:

Commodity Carnage

Another field apparently in decline is the American middle class. Pew Research Center’s research points to a growing polarisation in household income levels:

Share of adults living in middle-income households is falling

Brad Plumer’s analysis of the recent climate change conference in Paris suggests that it will be some years before we really get an indication on whether it was a success on addressing the issue of global warming.  What is reassuring is seeing research pointing to a reduction in CO2 emissions driven by a fall in the emissions intensity of GDP and a drop in China’s CO2 emissions attributed to a drop in coal consumption. This is a trend we’ll need to see continue if we’re to see the rise in global temperature come down to manageable levels:

Global CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel use and industry since 1990 and emissions intensity CO2/GDP

London’s skyline has seen a lot of changes over the last 10 years as the City of London Corporation has liberalised height restrictions in the City. Oliver Wainwright and Monica Ulmanu’s review of the recent and proposed changes and the article’s accompanying visualisations are well worth reading if you have more than a passing interest in London’s architecture and urban landscape:

All lines lead to St Paul’s

As the process of gentrification continues in the heart of many of the world’s great cities, Jordan Fraade considers whether we’re likely to see the suburbs get the same cultural treatment as areas like Brooklyn and Hackney:

Despite all that ink spilled about repurposed lofts and bike lanes, it’s quite likely that if you’re scraping by as a graphic designer, writer or even nonprofit employee in a big city, you’re going to end up in the ‘burbs after all. What does that mean for our suburbs? Will millennials remake them in their image? Is America destined to become a country of “Hipsturbia?”

The featured image is a Farid Rueda mural in Uruapan, Mexico published in StreetArtNews.

Thought Starters: a look at where startups are at, approaches to self driving cars, the decline of peak oil and the impact of an ageing population

The following is a look through articles, research and opinion pieces highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in, with an emphasis on technology.

First Round Capital have just released their State of Startups research profiling the opinion of startup founders. Among the findings are that 73% of founders believe we’re in a bubble and that they expect to see a shift in power from startups to funders:

73% of startup founders say we're in a bubble

On the subject of bubbles, Abbas Gupta looks to sort out the unicorns from the donkeys by looking at the ratio of a startup’s lifetime value of customer compared to the cost of customer acquisition.

Kickstarter has become an important source of funding for creators and makers, particularly when founders don’t have a proven track record that enables them to tap more traditional sources of financing. Ben Einstein compares the pros and cons of pre-sales (eg Kickstarter), factory financing, purchase order financing and venture debt for entrepreneurs. For consumers, it’s worth considering that 9% of Kickstarters fail to deliver rewards, so get behind interesting projects but be aware that things don’t always go to plan.

Adam Satariano’s research reveals Apple spends a considerably smaller proportion of its revenue on R&D than its technology competitors. Apple’s position is boosted by the company’s large revenues and its ability to leverage innovations from its array of suppliers and partners:

Tech R&D Spending Comparison

Airbnb has been criticised for driving up property prices and in the process, making homes increasingly unaffordable for local residents. The company has defended itself, claiming that the majority of visitors are staying in properties only occasionally available to let but Ben Popper’s analysis of Airbnb’s data from New York doesn’t quite match the company’s claims.

Adrienne LaFrance contrasts the different approaches of Google, Uber, Apple and the major auto manufacturers in moving towards self driving vehicles and points to the hazards of the halfway house:

The question of which path to take to full autonomy, a ground-up approach or a more gradual semi-autonomous one, is at the center of many debates about the technology. A more pressing question in the short-term is this: How much does a person’s perception of the computer’s job make a difference? “This intermediate area where it may not be clear—is the vehicle responsible, or am I responsible?—is a hazardous place,” Gerdes told me. “There’s room for confusion that could reduce safety instead of increasing it.”

Peak oil is a spectre that has haunted the petroleum industry in the past but new discoveries, talk of a decoupling of energy use and economic growth and concerns about climate change have seen these concerns recede. Liam Denning looks at how this changed environment is forcing the hand of OPEC and how this could potentially damage the renewable energy sector:

Peaking Out

Credit Suisse research provides further evidence of the rising labour costs for manufacturers in China which is likely to see it the made in China tag appear less. No surprise then that the country is looking to invest more in robotics and automation:

Comparing manufacturing costs in Mexico Brazil and China

The recent pictures of pollution in Beijing were alarming. Unfortunately citizens in some of India’s cities face even worse pollution levels according to figures from the World Health Organisation reported in the Guardian:

Worlds most polluted cities

The recent terrorist attack in Paris provided a boost to Front National during France’s recent regional elections. It’s important to understand the party’s success is not a one off blip, with Julia Amalia Heyer charting Marine Le Pen’s move to reform the party and broaden support among the wider French public. Worth reading for anyone interested in the rise of nationalism and xenophobia in European politics.

Greg Ip profiles the ageing population of many western societies and the challenges and opportunities this poses for their economies. The Wall Street Journal article is well supported with graphs and interactive infographics charting the changes and forecasts for the future:

Social Security Enrollment

For something rather different, Priceonomics‘ profile of Richard Prince makes for an interesting read charting how his photographs of photographs became some of the most coveted prizes of the contemporary art world.

If you find yourself at a loose end in London between now and the end of February, it’s worth checking out the Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House. It kind of feel like a walk through of an issue of Wired, but it’s great to see data science get its place in the spotlight with the many benefits and challenges it poses for today’s society.

The feature mural is Eva & Ave by Hazulfrom Loures, Portugal and published in StreetArtNews.

What I’m reading…favourite blogs and websites

You’ll find a list of some of my favourite blogs and websites below. There’s plenty more I could add but the quality of content for these is generally consistent and I’d argue worth adding to your RSS feed.

TECHNOLOGY

AsymcoHorace Dediu’s blog which focuses on mobile and Apple. Great for taking the wind out of the sails of Apple’s enemies.

Recent favourite: Desktop Computer takes an irreverent looks at the evolution of Apple’s computer offering.

Benedict Evans: blog of Andreessen Horowitz partner Benedict Evans focusing on technology on technology and mobile. Great for a window into where technology is heading.

Recent favourite: Mobile, ecosystems and the death of PCs looks at the growth of the mobile ecosystem and the key differences from the PC ecosystem that preceded it.

Continuations: blog for Union Square Ventures partner Albert Wenger providing a look into trends in technology and the startup sector and venturing out to broader societal trends.

Daring Fireball: blog focusing on consumer electronics, focusing on the world of Apple as John Gruber sorts the wheat from the chaff.

Recent favourite: Bloomberg: Apple gets more bang for its R&D buck

Digits to Dollars: blog for the D2D Advisory providing analysis and commentary on the technology, communications and the startup space.

Recent favourite: The Consumerization of the Automobile Supply Chain looks at automobile industry’s move to an increasingly software driven model which is undermining the position of the market incumbents.

Learning by Shipping: blog of former president of the Windows Division of Microsoft and now Andreessen Horowitz partner Steven Sinofsky focusing on development and management within the tech space.

Recent favourite: Frictionless Design Choices looks at the importance of reducing the energy required by an experience when designing a product (not to be confused with reducing the surface area of an experience).

Stratechery: freemium blog produced by Ben Thompson focusing on the intersection of technology and media. Whilst the website has a subscription offering, Ben provides a weekly posting which I would suggest is a must read.

Recent favourite: Beyond Disruption takes critical look at Clayton Christensen’s theory of market disruption -it’s not all about disruptive or sustaining innovation.

MARKETING

Inside Intercom: Intercom is marketing automation and customer service platform which publishes a valuable collection of content focusing on how to improve customer experiences.

Recent favourite: Our New Book: Intercom on Customer Support profiles the release of their latest best practice guide – informative and readable.

Occam’s Razor: blog for Google Digital Marketing Evangelist Avinash Kaushik. Whilst the blog is no thing of beauty, Avinash’s data driven approach to marketing provides a refreshing scientific view on how to engage and sell.

Recent favourite: How To Suck At Social Media: An Indispensable Guide For Businesses looks critically at the role of social media in B2B and B2C marketing.

WeAreSocial: blog of the high profile social media agency of the same name. The blog provides a valuable weekly roundup of interesting product launches and case studies and the regional roundups of digital and social statistics.

Recent favourite: Digital in Southeast Asia in 2015 provides statistics on internet, social media and mobile usage in in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Philippines, Brunei, Cambodia Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and East Timor.

JOURNALISM AND SOCIETY

Longform: blog providing a heads up on interesting longform journalism as well as profiling their podcast which I would also firmly recommend checking out.

Longreads: operating like the Longform blog, providing recommendations for stories worth adding to your Pocket account.

Marginal Revolution: blog of the American academic economist Tyler Cowen. A great source of information for new research, shedding light on different corners of the society we live in.

Recent Favourite: Shipping storage cost sentences to ponder pointed out how ridiculously low shipping costs are at present.

Remains of the Day: Eugene Wei’s blog where he highlights interesting content he’s found online with an emphasis on technology, the internet,  filmmaking, photography, and pop culture.

Recent favourite: Crime and Punishment looks at the mismatch between crime and punishment in the US.

CREATIVE

The Inspiration: blog pulling together a collection of visually led creative which includes but is not limited to content from the marketing and advertising sector.

CR Blog: blog providing a showcase for some of the great content in the Creative Review magazine.

Recent favourite: Cassetteboy on making mash-ups, helping David Cameron get piggy with it, and the joy of Sony Vegas

StreetArtNews: regular publisher of street art from around the world.

MUSIC

FACT: website that’s closest to my own musical orientation with its concentration on  bleeps, beats and breaks. I’ve got a particular soft spot for their Friday rundown of the best free mixes available online.

Pitchfork: whilst Pitchfork’s indie heartland isn’t quite my thing, the site’s coverage of other genres is more than enough to keep me coming back for more.

Resident Advisor: my days of clubbing seem to be something of a distant memory now, but I still like to keep an eye on the sounds that used to make me move.

CYCLING

As Easy As Riding A Bike: tireless blog by Mark Treasure campaigning for a safer cycling  with focusing on issues affecting London.

Recent favourite: Cycling Needs a Backlash points out that the increasingly public backlash against cycling points to

Inner Ring: professional cycling has become my guilty pleasure following critics pontificating on the season’s races, cyclists, teams and industry machinations. Inner Ring has it covered.

Recent favourite(s): Highlights of the Season – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5 covering the most entertaining moments in this year’s cycling season.

CyclingTips: another site providing coverage of professional cycling as well as the competitive end of recreational cycling with a recently launched companion site covering women’s cycling. The site’s Daily News Digests gives a great rundown of the day’s major news but it’s the site’s use of photography that really makes it for me.

Recent favourite: Roadtripping Iceland provides an introduction to cycle touring the backroads of Iceland.

While Out Riding: Cass Gilbert’s online journal as he takes the road less travelled by fat bike.  Photography is enough to make you want to jump on the next plane to Bolivia/Patagonia/Columbia.

Recent favourite: Mongolia… coming soon

Bikepacking.com: website dedicated to the growing field of bikepacking. It’s the site’s route guides which are particularly enticing providing you with the why and how for planning your next expedition.

Recent favourite: Bikerafting Alaska’s Lost Coast, Yakutat-Glacier Bay.

Let me know if you think there’s other blogs and websites you think I should be adding to the list.

The featured image is an Alexey Luka mural in Košice, Slovakia