Thought Starters: self driving cars, Brexit and the US elections

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review and highlight some of the more  interesting research and opinions that I’ve read over the last few weeks. This edition looks at the evolution of self driving cars, the rise and fall of the Gülen movement, the impact of Brexit on the UK economy and the US elections which appear increasingly beyond parody.

A Be Heard Group survey of senior marketers and advertisers points to what some see should be the optimum marketing mix in our current age:
The new marketing mix

As more traditional marketing channels lose some of their lustre (despite the exhortations of the Ad Contrarian), one of the channels gaining ground is influencer marketing. The following figures from The Economist give a guide to what influencers are typically earning across YouTube, Facebook and Instagram:

Average earnings for influenver posts on selected social media platforms

Whilst the US has seen more than its fair share of innovations in virtual reality technology, The Economist points to China as being one of the leaders in its application with real estate and education leading the way:

Virtual reality headset shipments forecast

We’re living in an increasingly visual world with Instagram and Snapchat growing their hold on consumers’ attention. This is reflected in the growing in value of the image sensor market seen in figures compiled by Andreessen Horowitz although one of the interesting conclusions is the declining importance of the camera in a world where smartphones are everywhere:

Cameras in everything, except in cameras

Whilst venture capitalists have seemingly become the cool kids of the financial sector, figures from CB Insights and KPMG International point to VC investments in startups as having declined over the past four quarters:

Venture capital investments into start-ups have declined in the past four quarters.

One area that has seen considerable venture capital investment of late is in technologies around self driving cars. Tesla’s latest demonstration video (albeit in perfect conditions) points to the progress being made despite earlier hiccups. Tesla are apparently looking to charge owners between $8000-$10,000 for the service and it won’t be made available at least initially to owners looking to use it for ridesharing services:

Will Knight looks at Uber’s trial of self driving cars in Pittsburgh, contrasting the experience for passengers with those provided by human drivers and points to the barriers that will need to be overcome before we see more of these services on our streets:

So I catch a ride with a guy named Brian, who drives a beat-up Hyundai Sonata. Brian says he’s seen several automated Ubers around town, but he can’t imagine a ride in them being as good as one with him. Brian then takes a wrong turn and gets completely lost. To be fair, though, he weaves through traffic just as well as a self-driving car. Also, when the map on his phone leads us to a bridge that’s closed for repairs, he simply asks a couple of road workers for directions and then improvises a new route. He’s friendly, too, offering to waive the fare and buy me a beer to make up for the inconvenience. It makes you realize that automated Ubers will offer a very different experience. Fewer wrong turns and overbearing drivers, yes, but also no one to help put your suitcase in the trunk or return a lost iPhone.

China manufacturing sector has often been characterised in the past as a clone shop and Josh Horwitz’s coverage of the copying of the Stikbox Kickstarter campaign suggests that the country hasn’t outgrown this yet.  Keyboardio’s visit to Shenzen in China provides a more sympathetic view of the country pointing to how seemingly any electronic device can be purchased at a knockdown price.

Analysis from the Financial Times points to China as being the source of the greatest share of the world’s merger and acquisition flows:
China dominates M&A flows

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s crackdown after the attempted coup had me guessing that this was a false flag operation which Erdoğan was using as an opportunity to strengthen his hold on power. Dexter Filkin’s detailed profile of Fethullah Gülen and the Gülen movement suggests that Erdoğan’s claims weren’t simply hot air, although the impact has been to strengthen his hold on power:

The irony of the attempted coup is that Erdoğan has emerged stronger than ever. The popular uprising that stopped the plot was led in many cases by people who disliked Erdoğan only marginally less than they disliked the prospect of a military regime. But the result has been to set up Erdoğan and his party to rule, with nearly absolute authority, for as long as he wants. “Even before the coup attempt, we had concerns that the government and the President were approaching politics and governance in ways that were designed to lock in a competitive advantage—to insure you would have perpetual one-party rule,” the second Western diplomat said.

Like many Britons, I’ve been left trying to digest the impact that the Brexit referendum will have on our lives. Simon Head provides a valuable look at the financial fallout that will follow a hard Brexit that Theresa May is calling for:

It must now embark on a series of marathon negotiations with its EU ex-partners, certain only in the knowledge that the trading regime that will emerge from them may be far less favorable to business located in Britain than the one that exists now. It is hard to imagine a set of circumstances more likely to convince foreign businesses in Britain that they should act on their warnings to leave the country or reduce their presence there, and instead take up residence within the secure  confines of the Single European Market. The British economy and the British people will suffer the consequences.

Immigration proved one of the defining issues of the Brexit referendum. It’s interesting to compare foreign born population with those regions that chose to vote for leaving the European Union (no easy correlation):

Estimated population of the UK

The American elections are inevitably drawing comparisons with the Brexit referendum with the rise of a populist candidate whose campaigning clearly blurs the line between fact and fiction. Evan Osnos provides a look at what the world is likely to be facing should Donald Trump win the presidential election:

Modern Presidents have occasionally been constrained by isolated acts of disobedience by government officials. To confront terrorism, Trump has said, “you have to take out their families,” work on “closing that Internet up in some ways,” and use tactics that are “frankly unthinkable” and “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” General Michael Hayden, a former head of the C.I.A. and of the National Security Agency, predicts that senior officers would refuse to carry out those proposals. “You are required not to follow an unlawful order,” he has said.

One of the key characteristics of US politics over the last 20 years has been growing polarisation between Republican and Democrat supporters.  The media has had more than a hand in this election cycle with research from BuzzFeed pointing to hyperpartisan Facebook pages particularly from the right pushing untrue stories. Sarah Smarsh provides an alternative viewpoint, pointing to traditional media’s lack of sympathy for Trump supporters, compounding their alienation from mainstream politics:

The economic trench between reporter and reported on has never been more hazardous than at this moment of historic wealth disparity, though, when stories focus more often on the stock market than on people who own no stocks. American journalism has been willfully obtuse about the grievances on Main Streets for decades – surely a factor in digging the hole of resentment that Trump’s venom now fills. That the term “populism” has become a pejorative among prominent liberal commentators should give us great pause. A journalism that embodies the plutocracy it’s supposed to critique has failed its watchdog duty and lost the respect of people who call bullshit when they see it.

Research from Raj Chetty, David Cutler and Michael Stepner point to wealth as helping the rich afford more than just the finer things in life. There findings point to the richest 1% of U.S. males living 15 years longer than the poorest 1%:

Life Expectancy versus Household Income

Whilst we’re on the subject of human health, BBC’s The Inquiry podcast looks at the growing mess we’re in with the declining effectiveness of antibiotics – hardly a new story but an important reminder nonetheless. Unfortunately research from the European Medicines Agency points to the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in agriculture as continuing in Europe which will further compound the issue.

Another podcast I’d like to plug is Tyler Cowen’s interview with Vox founder Ezra Klein. Both commentators provide valuable coverage of the world we live in, the former through his blog Marginal Revolution and the latter through podcasts The Weeds (with Sarah Kliff, and Matt Yglesias) and the Ezra Klein Show.

The featured image at the top of the page is Silencio by Christian Riffel.

Thought Starters: Google’s AMP, FANG, unicorns and the decline of the car

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to look through the articles, research and opinion pieces I’ve read, highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in. In this week’s edition we look at Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), FANG, unicorns, the decline of the car and smartphones in Myanmar among other things.

App Annie’s analysis of mobile app usage points to Google Play downloads continuing to exceed iOS downloads but Apple’s App Store revenues comfortably exceeding Google’s. Just bear in mind that Google Play doesn’t currently operate in China (although it has plans to) with the majority of Android handsets running on a version of the Android Open Source Platform (AOSP):

Annual Worldwide App Revenue

Instagram has seen a substantial drop in both follower growth and engagement levels according to Locowise figures. Whilst both figures were higher than for Facebook and Twitter, the social network is looking less and less like a free lunch:

Instagram Growth & Engagement Rates

As noted in the previous edition of Thought Starters, Google and Apple have competing visions of how content should be distributed with Apple taking an app centric view with the enabling of in app ad blocking and the launch of Apple News. Google on the other hand is putting its weight behind the open web which is no surprise given its reliance on search for a large proportion of its revenues. Google’s key initiatives has been the launch of Accelerated Mobile Pages which will improve load times and provide a better experience for mobile users than the current set up.  Frédéric Filloux comments :

Privately, Google people make no mystery of their intention to clean the advertising mess. They want to get rid of the invasive formats that, by ruining the user experience, contributed to the explosion of ad blockers and threatened a large segment of the digital economy. To that end, the AMP ecosystem is their weapon of choice

Ben Thompson draws parallels in the business strategies of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google (FANG) pointing out how their stranglehold on a key access point has given them near insurmountable positions in the consumer economy:

None of the FANG companies created what most considered the most valuable pieces of their respective ecosystems; they simply made those pieces easier for consumers to access, so consumers increasingly discovered said pieces via the FANG home pages. And, given that Internet made distribution free, that meant the FANG companies were well on their way to having far more power and monetization potential than anyone realized.

Whilst there’s been a recent readjustment in the valuation of a number of tech startups, Spoke Intelligence and VB Profiles research calculates there’s still 208 startups that are worth more than $1bn and 21 worth more than $10bn:

Categorisation of startups with over a $1bn valuation

Europe has had some success with GP. Bullhound’s research pointing to 40 European startups reaching the $1bn valuation mark. Where the region falls short is in building these startups to the level of Facebook, Uber or Airbnb:

Cumulative Value of European unicorns

Adam Davidson looks at the phenomenon of corporations hoarding cash rather than using it to invest in acquisitions or return to shareholders:

Which leaves one last question: Why? The answer, perhaps, is that both the executives and the investors in these industries believe that something big is coming, but — this is crucial — they’re not sure what it will be.

Licensed drivers as a percentage of their age group

The automotive sector is beginning to enter a transition phase. New technologies are emerging (notably move to electric drive trains and self driving technologies) and consumers are beginning to think more in terms of transport solutions (eg Uber) rather than simply car ownership.

An interesting indication of change in the latter was a University of Michigan study of state driver’s licensing statistics that showed in the number of under 25 year olds applying for a driver’s license in the US.

Clive Thompson takes an interesting look at what the implications for cities where car ownership declines, aided by growing indifference to car use among the young and the growth of  ride sharing services.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that auto manufacturers are dead in the water. Automotive manufacturers are experimenting with service based models such as Ford’s FordPass and GM has recently made a large investment in Lyft. That being said, it wouldn’t surprise me if many of these firms increasingly get reduced to makers of commoditised hardware much like the PC manufacturers of today.

Tech in Asia figures point to the phenomenal growth in smartphone penetration in Myanmar (see below) as the country leapfrogs over the PC era. A useful complement to the Tech in Asia article is Craig Mod’s account of ethnographic research in Myanmar which looks at some of the fundamental differences in the way that smartphones and Facebook are used in developing countries:

Percentage of Myanmar population with cellular subscriptions

Consumers are spending more of their time with their smartphones, but the mobile user interface in its current form places limits (as well as advantages) in what users can do.  Scott Jenson looks at where mobile’s user experience falls short of the PC and provides some suggestions on how they could be addressed:

Most businesses still use desktops/laptops for the simple reason that people get more work done on them. If you say that “business use” no longer matters, you’re just confusing the new and old market effect. I’m not saying desktop will beat mobile. I’m also not saying we’ll have desktop computing forever. But there are nuanced differences between desktop UX and mobile UX, and they have important implications.

There’s more evidence of the shift in the global economy from emerging to developed world markets. Emerging markets experienced an estimated $735bn in net capital outflows last year with all but $59bn of that coming from China according to recently released figures from the Institute of International Finance:

Net capital flows to China

Timothy Taylor has pulled together data visualisations which allow readers to compare the relative strengths of different economies including this one from the How Much team:

The World's Economy Divided by Area

Oxfam released research during the recent World Economic Forum claiming that the world’s 62 richest individuals have same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorer half of humanity. There’s been some interesting critiques of Oxfam’s calculation, notably from Felix Salmon,  but I would argue the figures provide a valuable catalyst for conversations about the concentrations of wealth:

Share of global wealth

One illustration of the impact of growing concentration of wealth can be found in Jane Mayer’s profile of the Koch brother’s political campaigning in the US:

A new, data-filled study by the Harvard scholars Theda Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez reports that the Kochs have established centralized command of a “nationally-federated, full-service, ideologically focused” machine that “operates on the scale of a national U.S. political party.” The Koch network, they conclude, acts like a “force field,” pulling Republican candidates and office-holders further to the right. Last week, the Times reported that funds from the Koch network are fuelling both ongoing rebellions against government control of Western land and the legal challenge to labor unions that is before the Supreme Court.

Laurence Dodds profiles the Hatton Garden raid in London and suggests it may well be the end of an era as criminals look for new ways for parting people from their worldly possessions:

It doesn’t quite have the romance of Hatton Garden. But while the age of John Dillinger and the Great Train Robbery is over, a new, digital lawlessness has come into being which is every bit as lucrative. It has its own romantic myths, its own folk heroes, because as long as someone is getting away with what the rest of us can only dream of, the cult of the outlaw will stay alive — in whatever form it can.

PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman’s Reply All podcast is a regular appointment in my listening schedule providing an irreverent look at the internet. A recent episode looks at the lack of diversity in the tech world (coverage from 11:50) and how this ultimately handicaps their performance. Informative and entertaining.

The featured image is the mural Mr Rooster by Etam Cru, located on the corner of 8th and Wall in the downtown Flower District in Los Angeles and published in Sour Harvest.

Thought Starters: young people’s media and device use, Facebook Messenger’s evolution, grey zone conflicts and the gender pay gap

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.  Among the stories and research we look at in this edition are the habits of children and young adults, the growth of Facebook Messenger, grey zone conflicts, the gender pay gap and lots more.

There’s been growing speculation that Twitter may increase the character length of its posting as it looks to get ahead of Facebook in its user growth stakes (see below).  Shira Ovide gives a strong argument for retaining it as it is, although I would argue there’s definitely scope for excluding links, images and video URLs from tweets’ character limit:

Comparison growth monthly active users of Facebook and Twitter

Younger audiences given an indication of future habits of  the general population. Dan Kopf analysis young adults habits in the American Time Use Survey which unsurprisingly points to growing gaming, computer use and reading and decline in time spent watching television:

Which leisure activities are twentysomethings spending more time on?

Benedict Evans on the other hand has used Ofcom’s Children and parents: Media use and attitudes report to look at the habits of British children which points to the substantial transition to mobile phones and tablets:

What would children miss

Flurry has released their analysis of Europeans’ use of smartphones and tablets based on their app data which shows wide variations in device penetration as well as giving clues on how mobile devices are being used:

Smart device penetration in Europe

Facebook has done a great job of transitioning to a mobile world with 78% of its ad revenues now coming from mobile. Facebook though is not one to rest on its laurels, with Facebook Messenger seen as a key component in strengthening its hold on mobile consumers. Facebook has just published a review of highlights for Messenger from 2015 which gives an indication of the social network’s ambitions for the mobile messaging service:

Facebook Messenger 2015 highlights

As mobile phones approach market saturation in developed markets, consumer electronics brands are looking to new categories for a boost in their revenues. Unfortunately for the brands, Accenture‘s global research profiled by Matt Rosoff  suggests that consumers aren’t getting caught up in the hype for new products despite a growing array of offerings:

Consumers are bored with today's tech and nervous about tomorrow's

Gartner’s CMO Spend Survey points to growing marketing budgets and an emphasis on digital commerce, innovation, sales conversion and customer retention. You can find further analysis of the survey results from Simon Yates who points among things to the blurring distinction between offline and online marketing:

Marketing budgets continue to grow

Interested in knowing what jobs are likely to keep you employed into the future? The Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis has analysed employment and unemployment rates for jobs on the basis of how routinised and levels of cognition which might give you some pointers whether you need to be retraining:

Routine vs Non Routine Cognitive vs Manual EmploymentFigures from Bloomberg point to the substantial cuts in employment some banks have taken post financial crisis. It might be rather too optimistic to hope that those people whose actions fueled the crisis might have been among the first to leave:

Staff cuts at the World's biggest banks

Cass R. Sunstein profiles Gabriel Zucman’s The Hidden Wealth of Nations: The Scourge of Tax Havens, examining the growing role that tax havens play in enabling corporations and the wealthy to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. Zucman’s analysis provides a guide to the scale of the problem and also points to the successes and failures different institutions have had in addressing the problem of tax evasion:

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, you might expect that there would be an international crackdown on the use of tax havens, and as we shall see, international attention is indeed growing. But the numbers demonstrate that no crackdown has occurred. In Luxembourg, offshore wealth actually increased from 2008 to 2012 (by 20 percent). In Switzerland, the increase has been comparable; foreign holdings are now close to an all-time high. Disturbingly, the new wealth is coming mostly from developing countries, which poses a serious problem in light of the severe strains on their limited budgets.

China’s economy is going through a rough patch, with the share market in a nose dive.  Given the over inflated valuation of many of the assets. Given the overinflated value of many of the assets in the country’s equity markets, this trend is unlikely to change (unless the government chooses to prop it up):

China Battles to Shore Up World's Priciest Stock Market

High profile Silicon Valley venture capitalist Paul Graham’s recent blog posting in which he argues that income inequality per se is not a bad has inevitably kicked up a storm of reactions. Among the more nuanced responses is Ben Thompson’s analysis who points to the risks and benefits associated with a more deregulated economy and calls out for the need for a strong social safety net that is independent of our employers:

Technology is changing the world, and it is naive to not expect the world to begin to push back. Rather than always be reactionary, it is past time for the technology industry broadly and Silicon Valley in particular to get serious about what that world will look like in the future, especially given the fact there is actually a way forward that is a win for not just technology companies and their investors, but for those who are impacted — i.e. everyone. Just as we should separate the means by which Uber allocates drivers from the ability to pay for a ride, it makes sense to separate work from the provision of a social safety net, and those most able to capitalize on this new world order should be the most willing to pay.

The conflict in Syria and the resulting flood of refugees fleeing to Europe is unfortunately leading to an anti immigration backlash in many European countries. Victims aside from the refugees fleeing harm in the middle of a European winter include the Schengen Agreement which previously allowed the free flow of people across much of mainland Europe:

Recent changes to crossing Europe's borders

Peter Pomerantsev uses the examples of China in the South China Sea, Russia in Crimea and Syria and ISIS with its terrorist attacks to highlight the growing importance of messy grey zone conflicts around the world:

It’s a brave new war without beginning or end, where the borders of peace and war, serviceman and civilian have become utterly blurred—and where you and I are both a target and a weapon.

Whilst we’re on the subject of globalisation and its impacts, The Economist has updated its Big Mac Index, pointing to who is paying over the odds for their guilty pleasure:

The Big Mac Index

The Freakonomics podcast is one of my regular listening appointments and this week’s edition looking at the causes and effects of the gender pay gap is well worth downloading.

The featured mural is by eko from his Flickr page.

Thought Starters: the outlook for the global and the Chinese economy, India’s middle class, the growing importance of migration and publishing in the digital age

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 looks at forecasts for the year ahead, China’s economy and India’s middle class, migration’s growing role in contemporary societies, publishing in the digital age and lots more.

The Economist has published its forecast for the global economy which sees a further shift in momentum from emerging to developed markets, although India, China and Indonesia are seen as top performers:

Emerging markets losing their grips

Malcolm Scott takes a closer look at the slowdown in China’s economy, suggesting that it’s not nearly as significant as some of the more vociferous critics are suggesting:

China's slowdown in context

India as The Economist’s figures above suggest, is one of the powerhouses of the global economy and the country’s growing middle class is seen as providing enormous opportunities for local and international brands. The problem is there are wide variations in estimates of India’s middle class depending on the spending power you apportion to the Indian rupee as the Research Unit for Political Economy shows:

Some estimates of India's middle class

The Wall Street Journal in its profile of demographic trends has taken a closer look at the globe’s growing migrant population. Kim Mackrael and Charles Forelle in their broader analysis of immigration contrast Canada’s more assimilationist and economically driven policies with those of Europe. Whilst I’d argue that Europe is currently in a very different position to Canada due to its proximity to Syria, it does provide some valuable pointers as the continent faces an ageing population:

A growing migrant pool

Angus Hervey provides an important reminder that for many important human development indicators things are on the up (although this is certainly no argument for complacency). Among the indicators he points to are reductions in poverty, malnutrition, polio, infant mortality and AIDS deaths and improvements in universal education, internet access and financial inclusion:

Global poverty has reached a record low

Felix Salmon looks at the maturing of the fintech sector as it  focuses on providing tangible improvements on services offered rather than rhetoric about turning the financial sector upside down:

The problems such fintech companies are trying to solve aren’t the type that can be tackled by a few hyperactive coders in a garage. Rather, they require dozens of different skillsets, not to mention the ability to manage them all. In that sense, the startups are becoming much more like the banks they’re seeking to disrupt. That’s Lunn’s Great Convergence. No one believes the banks are going to solve these problems. The trillion-dollar question is, can the fintech companies do something important and socially useful before they, like the banks, become bogged down in regulation and bureaucracy.

Om Malik reports on how the movement towards a software enabled world has moved a lot of business categories into a winner takes all market (eg Amazon, Uber, Google). It’s also worth adding that innovations in technology and business strategy can see even these advantages quickly fall over time if management aren’t vigilant:

This loop of algorithms, infrastructure, and data is potent. Add what are called network effects to the mix, and you start to see virtual monopolies emerge almost overnight. A network effect occurs when the value of a product or service goes up with the number of people using it. The Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe called it Metcalfe’s Law. Telephone services, eBay, and Skype are good examples of the network effects at work. The more people who are on Skype, the more people you can call, and thus the more likely it is that someone will join.

While physical book sales in the US are on the up according to Nielsen BookScan figures, ebooks are heading in the opposite direction with a consolidation around the Kindle and Kobo platforms according to Michael Kozlowski’s report:

In a few short years most digital bookstores will be out of business and Amazon and Kobo will likely be the only players left standing.  The only digital bookstores that will survive will be companies offering both hardware/software solutions to encapsulate people into their walled gardens.  The destruction of the digital book market has already been set in motion and nothing will stop from the industry from collapsing.

In 2013 Amazon created a media storm by announcing they were working on drone delivery with commentators debating whether this was a real story or a public relations stunt. Two years on and the pathway to drone delivery looks clearer. Dan Wang looks at where drone logistics have proven successful and where we’re likely to see it make real inroads in the near future:

Amazon Drones vs Current Delivery Options

As we start a new year we’re seeing various commentators giving their prognosis for the year ahead. Fred Wilson and Bob O’Donnell make good starting points.

Finally, it’s worth watching Extra Credit’s review of China’s Sesame Credit which has seen the Chinese Government collaborate with Tencent and Alibaba on gamifying good behaviour by Chinese citizens. A case of Nudge theory heading in a distinctly dystopian direction:

The featured image is an INTI mural from the Artesano Project in Nagua, Dominican Republic.

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: decacorns, the iPad Pro opportunity and the implications of CRISPR

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.

CB Insights profiles the growing valuations of the “decacorns” (private companies valued at over $10bn). Fidelity’s recent markdown of investments in Dropbox and Snapchat could be simply related to these companies’ specific circumstances or potential sign of a market correction:

Deals to Top Private Company Unicorns Valued at Over $10bn

Apple’s hoping that the release of the iPad Pro will give its tablet offering a much needed boost and the product’s performance mean that the iPad will be seen increasingly as a device to create as well as consume as John Gruber comments:

“We’ve now reached an inflection point. The new MacBook is slower, gets worse battery life, and even its cheapest configuration costs $200 morethan the top-of-the-line iPad Pro. The iPad Pro is more powerful, cheaper, has a better display, and gets better battery life. It’s not a clear cut-and-dry win — MacBooks still have more RAM (the iPad Pro, in all configurations, has 4 GB of RAM, although Apple still isn’t publishing this information — MacBook Pros have either 8 or 16 GB), are expandable, and offer far more storage. But at a fundamental level — CPU speed, GPU speed, quality of the display, quality of the sound output, and overall responsiveness of interface — the iPad Pro is a better computer than a MacBook or MacBook Air, and a worthy rival to the far more expensive MacBook Pros.”

One of the trends driving growth in a new range of startups is the shift to smartphones which is profiled in these global figures from Creative Strategies:

Percentage of time spent by device

90% of the time consumers spend on smartphones is spent in apps according to Flurry figures with Facebook, Google and Apple dominating in terms of the reach of their apps according to comScore figures:

Top 15 Smartphone Apps

Britney Summit-Gil looks at how the internet has enabled consumers to be better informed on a whole host of issues, but has lagged when it comes to understanding their own communities:

Internet users say digital tech makes them better informed than 5 years ago

Online advertising has been criticised for providing metrics that fail to reflect audience exposure.  Seb Joseph explores The Economist’s move to offer attention metrics which will better reflect consumers’ actual exposure to advertising:

“Working with analytics partners Chartbeat and Moat Analytics, The Economist tracks active time view – only counting a view when an ad is in view and the reader is actively engaged, i.e typing or scrolling up and down the page. Only those impressions that generate over 5 seconds of active view time will count towards the attention buy.”

Before brands throw all their media budget behind these new online advertising opportunities, it’s worth considering GroupM research which points to television’s lead in generating short to medium term sales (bearing in mind the research was commissioned by TV marketing body Thinkbox):

“GroupM found that media account for on average 39% of sales in the short to medium term (within three months of a campaign finishing); 33% of these media-driven sales are from TV advertising, more than any other communication channel. Paid-for online search created 22%, online display 12%, affiliates 10%, print 8%, direct mail 8%, radio 3% and outdoor 1%.”

Online media also needs to contend with declines in referral traffic from Facebook according to a report from Matthew Ingram. It’s far from clear  whether this is a result of a content glut or Facebook dialing back traffic but it does highlight how vulnerable mainstream content providers are to changes by Facebook and other intermediaries:

“The other nagging fear for media companies is that Facebook is essentially engaging in a large-scale bait and switch, by encouraging them to host all of their output on its platform, but then gradually turning off the traffic tap so that their reach declines. At that point, the social network can recommend a number of ways to boost the reach again—including by paying for promoted posts and other forms of advertising. Facebook would no doubt protest that it is doing nothing of the kind, but the fear remains.”

Michael Specter profiles the growing opportunities to manipulate our DNA with CRISPR/Cas system whilst Erik Parens chooses to explore the ethical implications of gene editing:

‘That seemingly simple question takes us to the heart of a deep tension that decent parents have felt for a very long time, but that will become ever more intense if a technology such as CRISPR-Cas9 is in fact safe and effective. I refer here to the tension between the ethical obligation of parents to accept their children as they are, and their ethical obligation to shape them.”

Rising wages in China mean that the country is facing growing competition for the title of factory to the world with Mexico also benefiting from its close proximity to the US according to a report from Ana Campoy:

Productivity Adjusted Labour Rates

UNHCR figures put the sheer scale of Europe’s refugee crisis in perspective, with the problem unlikely to abate given conflict in Syria and Afghanistan:

Migrant arrivals via the Mediterranean

If you find yourself in London over the next month, I’d strongly recommend checking out Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors exhibition at the Brewer Street Car Park. A wonderful respite from the increasingly frenetic activity of central London in Christmas shopping mode.

The featured image is a Jessie and Katey mural on Ahui Street in Hawaii for the POW WOW festival.

Thought Starters: Facebook’s M, Privacy, Driverless Cars, the Dating Apocalypse and more

The following is a collection of articles and thought pieces highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in, with an emphasis on technology.

Research from Flurry profiled by Yahoo points to the dominant role that apps have in the mobile ecosystem. The following graph doesn’t tell the entire story given the ability to reach web pages within a mobile app but does show the comparatively marginal role of the mobile browser:

Time_spent_on_Mobile

Facebook has launched its M virtual assistant as part of its Messenger offering and was recently profiled in Wired.  It has been rolled out to only a limited audience at this stage and what’s particularly interesting about the service is its use of humans as the system’s artificial intelligence develops a robust knowledge base:

“In the larger world of AI-driven personal assistants, M may seem like a regression. And as Facebook tests the tool with the public, it’s unclear whether this human-machine partnership can keep pace as the project expands to an ever-larger audience. But in a counterintuitive way, M may actually be a step forward for AI.”

Instagram now offers consumers and brands the opportunity to share photos and videos that are rectangles and not simply the iconic squares that we’ve become so used to.  Advertising Age has a look at the likely impact for brands:

There has been an awakening… #StarWars #TheForceAwakens

A post shared by Star Wars (@starwars) on

WeAreSocial follow up their profile of China with a profile of the world’s other fast developing behemoth with topline digital, social and mobile statistics for India:

A lot of noise has been made by commentators and critics about the cost in privacy that consumers are paying for the free services provided by Facebook and Google (“If you’re not paying for it; you’re the product”). Andrew McAfee jumps to their defence arguing that consumers are getting a fair deal, particularly given the plethora of consumer information already available to marketers:

“It’s true that all the information about me and my social network that these companies have could be used to help insurers and credit-card companies pick customers and price discriminate among them. But they already do that, and do it within the confines of a lot of regulation and consumer protection. I’m just not sure how much “worse” it would get if Google, Facebook and others started piping them our data.”

Maxwell Wessel looks at how the introduction of driverless cars is likely to restructure the auto industry, with the car forecasted to become less of a personal luxury and more of a utility.

The launch of UberPool brings Uber into closer competition with public transport with users picked up along what are being labelled as Smart Routes.  Given this, it was encouraging to see Nate Silver and Reuben Fischer-Baum argue that Uber and public transport are complementary and will hopefully get more cars off the road in urban centres:

Uber and Public Transport versus the Car

China’s economy seems to have hit the skids recently with Tyler Cowen giving a good overview of some of the key reasons for the downturn.  The BBC put together the following infographic which show why China’s economy isn’t significant just for the Chinese and investors in the country’s economy:

China's central role in world trade

Nancy Jo Sales‘ report on the impact of Tinder on relationships kicked up more than its fair share of criticism. Moira Weigel rightly points out that there’s been a long list of societal and technological changes that have created significant changes in courtship rituals without human society falling apart. Looking at the issue from another angle, Jon Birger’s analysis points to imbalances in education levels among men and women as creating a source of growing tension in relationship patterns.

Europe’s refugee crisis has deservedly dominated news headlines recently and the following infographic from the Washington Post illustrates why the scale of the crisis in Syria is so tragic. Please show your support:

Syria_popIf you’re in London between now and the 20th of September, I’d recommend a visit to the Photographers’ Gallery where the Shirley Baker exhibition Women Children and Loitering Men is well worth a view:

Hulme, May 1965 © Shirley Baker Estate Courtesy of the Shirley Baker Estate

The feature image was produced by Eko and published in his Flickr stream.

Thought Starters: China, Twitter, startups and the role of food

The following is a collection of articles and thought pieces highlighting interesting trends and changes in the world you and I live in, with an emphasis on technology.

China’s digital media sector has developed its own distinct characteristics with unique properties and innovations that set it apart from many markets in the West. WeAreSocial profile key digital, social and mobile benchmark statistics for the Chinese that give a taste for the key players:

The markets have not responded kindly to Twitter’s performance with one of the company’s largest investors Chris Sacca pitching in with what he feels Twitter should be doing. James Gleich provides a contrasting opinion, suggesting that it’s doing a great job as it is and leadership should be wary of turning the service on its head (even if the returns don’t satisfy investors):

“Twitter doesn’t just want to make it easy for users to find tweets. They want to make it easier for marketers to find users. Everyone wants to know the secret of how to use Twitter to reach their million potential customers. I will tell you the secret. You can’t do it. Twitter is not a giant megaphone. There is no mouthpiece. Those 300 million people, that glistening prize, are not waiting for your message. They’re not tuning to your channels. They’re choosing their own.”

Research from Branch Metrics points to the benefits of contextual deep linking, something that will become increasingly important as we move more toward an app based world:

Advantages of Contextual Deep LinkingThere’s been growing speculation about Apple’s development of their own car as the company looks to expand its footprint outside its heartland of computers and portable devices. Benedict Evans takes  an  insightful look at the market opportunity for the likes of Apple and also how new technologies and business models are likely to see the market evolve.

Mark Suster looks at the dangers of pouring investment into early stage startups where capital inflows can undo the hunger that makes startups so dangerous to the status quo. An interesting complement to this is Andreessen Horowitz’s compilation of startup metrics which provide a guide for those of you looking to assess which opportunities are really in a healthy financial position.

There’s been a lot of talk about unbundling in the cable television industry, particularly in the US which will impact what shows are produced and how they’re distributed in the future. Jan Dawson looks at the factors which will impact on whether consumers will stay with the incumbents or move to the new players such as Netflix and HBO Now.

There’s no denying there’s been a real change in what media consumers are interacting with, particularly among the younger generations. David Pakman takes a closer look, pointing to the growth in media forms which enable self expression and communication:

Media Consump

Tim Wu writing for the New Yorker takes a closer look at the growing hours faced by America’s more educated, as the age of leisure moves further off into the distance:

“What counts as work, in the skilled trades, has some intrinsic limits; once a house or bridge is built, that’s the end of it. But in white-collar jobs, the amount of work can expand infinitely through the generation of false necessities—that is, reasons for driving people as hard as possible that have nothing to do with real social or economic needs.”

The jury is still out on the ultimate effect that the digitisation of culture is having on the careers of artists and other cultural makers. Steven Johnson provides a convincing case of the benefits for musicians, filmmakers and authors with a blurring of the boundaries between professionals and interested amateurs.

We’ve seen food’s profile grow in terms of contemporary culture providing an intersection of material and experiential culture. Eugene Wei profiles this move, drawing on a recent Econtalk podcast feature Rachel Laudan:

“Food has replaced music at the heart of the cultural conversation for so many, and I wonder if it’s because food and dining still offer true scarcity whereas music is so freely available everywhere that it’s become a poor signaling mechanism for status and taste.”

You can see this issue explored further with Joe Pinsker’s interview of Eve Turow focusing on the Millennials’ obsession with food in The Atlantic.

The featured image is Rage & Fury by Nootk! in Moscow, Russia.

Thought Starters

The following is a collection of articles and thought pieces highlighting interesting trends and changes in the world we live in.

Mobile messaging continues to grow as a communication format and as a platform which The Economist profiles in its latest issue. Mobile messaging sector has been given a boost  in the tech press by recent announcements at Facebook’s F8 Developer Conference which  has seen Facebook Messenger repositioned as the hub  for consumer’s smartphones. It’s an interesting strategic play by Facebook as it could potentially see the messaging platform become a gatekeeper across mobile regardless of which mobile operating system consumers are using.  I recommend checking out Benedict Evans and  Charlie Warzei’s take on things if you want to find out more.

Jay Z and friends have launched the Tidal streaming music service into what is an increasingly crowded market. Ben Thompson uses this as a starting point to look at how has the bargaining power in the music industry value chain…and he concludes that Tidal doesn’t have a particularly strong position.

Amazon Dash Button provides an interesting example of the changing face of marketing and Amazon’s move to bind consumers more closely to its ecommerce ecosystem. Eugene Wei has an interesting review of the service or for a more critical perspective, try Ian Crouch. I don’t think I’m ready to have little brand advertisements all around my home quite yet.

The popularity of UKIP and other parties hostile to immigration across Europe point to concerns about ‘job stealing foreigners.’ Adam Davidson provides a valuable retort to this view drawing on the Lump of Labour Fallacy.

The drop in global oil prices has helped and hurt different countries. Moisés Naím picks out who the winners and losers are.

Fareed Zakaria advocates the benefits of a liberal arts education pointing to the benefits it provides in enabling countries to be economically successfully and warns of the risks of putting too much emphasis on STEM  focused education.

There’s been a fair amount of talk recently of the impact that technology and automation is having on employment in the developed world. Noah Smith suggests that this argument is overstated pointing to the massive impact that China’s workforce is having on the global economy.

It’s worth checking out  Evan Osnos’ detailed profile of Chinese President Xi Jinping and his view of development which doesn’t include Western ideals of democracy and press freedom. One to watch given his role in shaping international relations in years to come.

Scott Harrison’s profile of  the Moscow apartment bombings of 1999 and Vladimir Putin’s alleged involvement paints the Russian leader in a much less flattering and ultimately rather scarey light.  Well worth a read, particularly in light of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine.

Who are the happiest people in Europe? The social democratic model appears to be working in Scandinavia whilst the economic crisis in Southern Europe appears to be dampening things according to Eurostat figures.

Qualityoflife

For those of you in the UK, you might want to check out Cambridge University research reported on in the Guardian which looks at which parts of the UK are the friendliest and most neurotic.

Featured image is a John-Thomas Nagel photo taken in Sao Paulo in Brazil published in Street Art Utopia.