MOMO mural from Sicily

Thought Starters: Uber, Machine Learning, “Alt-Right” Democracy and Globalisation

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review and highlight some of the more  interesting (and hopefully well informed) opinions that I’ve read over the last few weeks. This edition is dominated by the fallout from the American elections with people looking at the reasons for the rise of such an unconventional candidate and a look at what we might expect from Donald Trump’s presidency:

Is the tide turning on Uber? There’s no disputing that the ridesharing model has become a key plank of our transport infrastructure. Question is will Uber’s pool of cash be enough to keep the company going until self driving cars arrive? Yves Smith and Eric Newcomer weigh in:

Published financial data shows that Uber is losing more money than any startup in history and that its ability to capture customers and drivers from incumbent operators is entirely due to $2 billion in annual investor subsidies. The vast majority of media coverage presumes Uber is following the path of prominent digitally-based startups whose large initial losses transformed into strong profits within a few years.

This presumption is contradicted by Uber’s actual financial results, which show no meaningful margin improvement through 2015 while the limited margin improvements achieved in 2016 can be entirely explained by Uber-imposed cutbacks to driver compensation. It is also contradicted by the fact that Uber lacks the major scale and network economies that allowed digitally-based startups to achieve rapid margin improvement.

Benedict Evans released the latest version of his Mobile is Eating the World presentation which looks at the growing synergies between mobile and machine learning, with a particularly focus on retail or automotive:

Lighting everything up with machine learning

Benedict’s presentation points to mobile apps as the dominant means for consumers to interacting with the digital world. As mobile becomes ubiquitous, we’re seeing consumers sticking to the apps they know according to research from Adobe in the US:

App abandoment is on the rise as consumers stick to the apps they know

Amazon is taking advantage of mobile technology to further automate the process of shopping with their soon to launch AmazonGo offering. Better experience for consumers, less employment for retail workers:

As mobile matures, we’re seeing the next gold rush emerging in machine learning. Sam DeBrule has pulled together a valuable collection of information sources if you’re keen to track developments in the sector as they increasingly spill over into the real world:

Machine Intelligence Startups & Tools

Providing a counterpoint to Silicon Valley boosterism is Om Malik’s column warning that technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum and that the startup sector needs to be more aware of these changes if it’s to avoid a major backlash:

“It is not just Facebook. It is time for our industry to pause and take a moment to think: as technology finds its way into our daily existence in new and previously unimagined ways, we need to learn about those who are threatened by it. Empathy is not a buzzword but something to be practiced. Let’s start by not raging on our Facebook feeds but, instead, taking a trip to parts of America where five-dollar lattes and freshly pressed juices are not perks but a reminder of haves and have-nots. Otherwise, come 2020, Silicon Valley will have become an even bigger villain in the popular imagination, much like its East Coast counterpart, Wall Street.”

Ryan Broderick tracks the rise of the “alt-right” in the US and Europe and how social media provides fertile ground for its growth.

“Facebook doesn’t want to challenge you, they don’t want to upset you, because they know that if you’re challenged on their platform, you wouldn’t want to use it as much,” Derakhshan said. “The very fact that you cannot show your reaction to anything you see on Facebook by saying that you agree or disagree or that it’s true or false and you can only show your emotions to it is very telling.”

UK’s telecommunications regulator regularly releases research looking at Britons’ use of media and technology. Their most recent report covers media use and attitudes among children and young people aged 5-15, providing a valuable window into where media is heading in the future:

Media used by children aged 5-14 at home

Pew Research’s research from the US point to ebooks market share as stabilising with a similar story for printed books. Another valuable finding is that consumers are now increasingly reading e-books on tablets, PCs and smartphones rather than just dedicated e-book readers:

Print books continue to be more popular than e-books or audio books

Americans have traditionally been strong believers in economic progress with the expectation that they will be better financially positioned than their parents. Research from Raj Chetty profiled by David Leonhardt points to this no longer being the case, a situation which is presumably leading to growing dissatisfaction with the political status quo:

Chance of making more money than your parents by age cohort in the US

Much has been made of Donald Trump’s call for bringing manufacturing back to the US with suggestions that he’ll bring in more protectionist trade policy. Mark Muro in his coverage of the American manufacturing points to how automation is seeing the sector become increasingly divorced from its blue colour labour roots:

More Output, Less Employment

Another initiative Donald Trump has been touting is investment in America’s infrastructure which is one area where the Democrats and Republicans could potentially find common ground…but the devil is in the details. Ronald A Klain’s analysis of the initiative suggests that it’s more likely to line the pockets of those already working on projects rather than providing a boost to employment:

First, Trump’s plan is not really an infrastructure plan. It’s a tax-cut plan for utility-industry and construction-sector investors, and a massive corporate welfare plan for contractors. The Trump plan doesn’t directly fund new roads, bridges, water systems or airports, as did Hillary Clinton’s 2016 infrastructure proposal. Instead, Trump’s plan provides tax breaks to private-sector investors who back profitable construction projects. These projects (such as electrical grid modernization or energy pipeline expansion) might already be planned or even underway. There’s no requirement that the tax breaks be used for incremental or otherwise expanded construction efforts; they could all go just to fatten the pockets of investors in previously planned projects.

China’s economic growth is unprecedented, but a darkening political climate has led to growing suggestions that this trend may be derailed in the future as the country adopts a more authoritarian stance:

% of world GDP from year 1700 to 2008

The rise of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Marie Le Pen among others points to a backlash against globalisation, but analysis from The Economist point to this trend not being shared by all countries:

Attitudes towards globalisation against change in GDP per person

Amanda Taub profiles Yascha Mounk’s research pointing to declining support for democracy among many developed countries, coinciding with the growth of the “Far Right”…Although Erik Voeten’s analysis suggests it’s not quite as severe as the graph below suggest:

Percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy

Given the rise of the far right, Yale history professor Timothy Snyder’s 20 lessons from 20th century provides valuable advice on fighting a rise in authoritarianism  (even if it is aimed at an American readership):

1. Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

The Danish concept of hygge has become very much of the moment with its harking back to a simpler age but Charlotte Higgins suggests that the UK’s reinterpretation of the idea is not quite so healthy:

If, for Danes themselves, hygge has an element of fantasy – through the way it draws back from difficulties, difference and debate – then the British import is a fantasy of a fantasy. Hygge may be quintessentially Danish, but there is something utterly British about the nostalgic longing for the simple accoutrements of an earlier time – especially if it can be bought. At the same time, it is hard to deny that just at the moment, the most natural thing in the world is to want to huddle round the fire and wish the outside away. Settle in: it’s going to be a long winter.

The featured image is a MOMO mural from Sicily.

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