Thought Starters: digital landscape, journalism, virtual reality and globalisation in a changing world

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review and highlight some of the more important or interesting research and opinions that I’ve read over the last week or so. This edition looks at views on the evolving digital landscape, journalism’s changing role, naysayers on virtual reality and the impact of globalisation among other things:

Mary Meeker has released her annual Internet Trends presentation providing a valuable look at the intersection of technology and commerce. You can catch videos of Mary Meeker’s presentation along with those from Jeff BezosBill and Melinda Gates, Elon Musk, Sundar Pichai among others from the recent Code conference:

Providing something of an antidote to Meeker and friends’ boosterism are Nitasha Tiku’s and Emily Bell’s analysis of the conference and the less desirable impacts of our move towards an increasingly technology mediated world:

A fascinating aspect of the Kleiner Perkins ritual is how the extremely detailed and comprehensive slide deck leaves unsaid the important extrapolations that can be made from it. There is no room here for a mention of Peter Thiel, the billionaire investor who secretly funded Hulk Hogan’s devastating lawsuit against gossip and news site Gawker, and the subsequent debate about the controls on and role of free speech in a powerful commercial sphere. Population and employment trends are nodded to without a discussion of how every job we currently hold is going to be done better by a robot. There is a celebration of listening devices, and “audio search”, and an unrelated chart about how people feel about privacy and data without an explicit link being made between the two.

LUMA’s State of Digital Media offers another tech positive look at the way the internet is evolving, although as the name suggests, the presentation narrows its view to the world of digital media:

Much has been made about the risks and opportunities presented by ad blocking services. Unfortunately despite all the talk, there’s far from a consensus on how widespread their use actually is as Jessica Davies shows:

Ad blocking rates in Europe and US

Ben Matthews has pulled together a typology of the online video sector for those of you looking to get your head around the different players:

Online video ecosystem

The Economist looks at how Europe’s tighter regulatory environment has stunted the growth of internet based platform companies but goes on to suggest China and USA are likely to follow a similar path in watching over their digital giants in future:

Market capitalisation of platform companies

Facebook is one of the platform companies that appears pretty unassailable at present and it’s using its chokehold on consumers’ media consumption to dial back the content reaching consumers according to Hannah Kuchler’s report:

Media companies publishing to Facebook are reaching 42 per cent fewer people with each story since January, a new report claims, putting pressure on the social network to explain how it has changed its algorithm.

Stories posted to Facebook reached an average of 68,000 users in May, down from about 117,000 in January, according to SocialFlow, a platform used by publishers to post half a million stories to Facebook and other social media sites each month.

Twitter has become something of a whipping boy for tech journalists with Paul Smalera highlighting the platform’s abuse problem aided and abetted by the relative anonymity provided to Twitter users (vis-à-vis Facebook):

Today, Twitter is in desperate need of a similarly elegant solution to its abuse problem. Jack Dorsey may have to take a hit to the company’s growth and its stock price, to fix things. But our real world and online identities have merged. And people don’t like to feel unsafe or subject to anonymous attack. If Twitter keeps shedding users who refuse to tolerate hate speech, Dorsey won’t have to worry about Twitter’s viability and future for too much longer, anyway.

Speaking of journalists, Jessica Conditt’s profile of US Bureau of Labour statistics points to the massive decline in people working for America’s newspapers with some of the slack being picked up by internet publishing and broadcasting:

Employment in selected information industries, seasonally adjusted

Whilst we’re on the subject of journalism, it’s been fascinating and concerning watching the debates around Peter Thiel’s support for legal action against Gawker. I’d support the view that Gawker regularly overstepped lines of decency. That being said, I’d hate to see publishers change their reporting practices based on the fear of legal action from a few wealthy individuals as reflected in Nicholas Lemann’s musings:

The Republican candidate for President, for whom Thiel plans to serve as a California delegate, has said, “I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money”—meaning, he’ll do what he can to overturn the Sullivan standard. The Gawker case may be only the first in a string of lawsuits that unleash a generation’s worth of resentment against the uniquely legally privileged position of the American press, at a moment when the press is far more vulnerable, economically and culturally, than it used to be. Journalists and their lawyers ought to be arming themselves for a protracted war.

Ericsson has updated its Mobility Report providing statistics on the growth of mobile telecommunications and use of mobile data including coverage of the Internet of Things:

Subscriptions/lines, subscribers (billion)

Is virtual reality at the top of the hype cycle? There’s no doubt that there’s huge potential for immersive virtual experiences but questions remain as to whether current offerings have mass market potential. Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick has questioned whether there is much of a market for a $2000 system (although this will inevitably come down). Probably more concerning is Steve Baker’s critique of the technical limitations of the current platforms which are likely to limit longer periods of use:

I’ve been working with these displays – both the $80,000 kind and the $500 kind – for years. Almost everyone can tolerate wearing them for several minutes before getting sick. About half of people feel sick after a few minutes – and (maybe) half of them get so sick that they have to take off the goggles ASAP. Anecdotal evidence – sadly.

Most of the demo’s that are given at trade shows and other industry events are just a few minutes long. I don’t know whether that’ s intentional or not…but it explains why so many people THINK that they’re going to love VR – sadly, they won’t realize the problem until AFTER they’ve splurged $500 on one of these gizmos.

 “It’s way too expensive right now,” Zelnick said at the Cowen and Company Technology, Media & Telecom Conference, “There is no market for a $2000 entertainment device that requires you to dedicate a room to the activity. I don’t know what people could be thinking. Maybe some of the people in this room have a room to dedicate to an entertainment activity, but back here in the real world? That’s not what we have in America.”

Labour productivity is an important indicator of the future health of countries’ economies and despite all the talk of automation and robot apocalypse, recent figures from Steven Rattner don’t look encouraging:

Labour productivity growth in G7 countries

Vincent Bevins looks at the rise of presidential candidates taking a critical view on international trade at a time when the US is doing rather well out of the process of globalisation (although the benefits are often very unequally distributed):

Indeed, down here this seems like an especially odd moment for the United States to complain. China is again an exception, but in developing countries, globalization often meant giving up on financial controls and the long-held dream of producing anything more advanced than raw materials. The logic of comparative advantage dictated that from South America to South Africa, poorer countries would either rip stuff out of the Earth and sell it abroad, or allow their people to provide cheap labor.

For a brief, shining moment in the first decade of the century, it seemed like this was kind of working. We spent time lamenting the environmental and human impact, but we also celebrated that there were at least revenues. The BRICS acronym came to symbolize the power these countries might (again) have a chance to attain. The 2008 implosion of the world economy—caused by the United States—offered a space for them to occupy, or so it seemed. But the last four years have brought a brutal reversal. Commodities prices were dependent on Chinese growth, and when they dropped, along with the price of oil, countries relying on this model saw their entire economic and political systems disrupted. Meanwhile, the United States is again ascendant, having once more proved its ability to reinvent itself as the dominant global power.

The United States is still by far the richest large country on the globe. So why is the boss of the world whining about globalization?

The RSA hosts some great talks providing windows into our current society and where it’s heading. A recent highlight was Parag Khanna’s recent talk examining the world’s evolving geographical landscape in a digital age where connectivity increasingly transcends sovereignty:

Yale’s Environmental Policy Index provides a valuable measure of which countries are doing well in addressing the world’s many environmental problems. Not too many surprises but it’s worth reading the full report for a more detailed analysis across nine different categories:

Global Environmental Performance Index results

Cigarette smoking is declining as a health issue across much of the developed world as it gets sidelined by regulations and controls. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for many developing countries where the tobacco industry is making inroads according to WHO figures:

Where did smoking rates rise between 2000 and 2015?

Social media and cultural tribes can sometimes make interesting bedfellows. Tasbeeh Herwees provides a  colourful look at the growth of shoplifting communities on Tumblr as American teenagers look for new outlets for their rebellion:

Barbie and Unicorn-Lift abide by a prevailing rule in the lifting community, one of many informal commandments shared among the bloggers: Thou shalt not rip off mom-and-pop shops.

The impact statement from Brock Allen Turner’s rape victim provides a first hand account of why intoxication doesn’t provide any justification for non consensual sexual intercourse. Difficult but important reading:

I was pummeled with narrowed, pointed questions that dissected my personal life, love life, past life, family life, inane questions, accumulating trivial details to try and find an excuse for this guy who had me half naked before even bothering to ask for my name.

The featured image is Gaze, an installation by STFNV in Tbilisi, Georgia for the 4GB music festival and published in StreetArtNews.

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