Fundamental technology, artificial intelligence, blockchain, social media and the music industry

Find some of the stories that have caught my eye over the last fews weeks below reflecting current events and wider trends and changes:

Digits to Dollars looks at the challenges in launching a fundamental technology as opposed to those for which there’s already a proven market:

One of the hardest problems faced by such companies is that not only do they lack for customers, they lack for partners. Typically, they need a whole ecosystem of partners and developers to make their technology viable. For a start-up this often translates into a vast amount of time spent doing custom work and educating partners. These other parties are always larger which means they are going to make the start-up jump through hoops. Every start-up faces this when selling to enterprises, but here the challenged is doubled. Just to get to a working product means working with large, hard-to-work-with partners and only then selling to large, hard-to-work-with customers.

For all the talk of the machines are coming to get you, there are some interesting examples of where artifical intelligence falls short including GPT-3’s pick up lines and OpenAI’s image recognition tool being fooled by text.

It has been interesting watching the growing environmental criticisms of proof of work as a foundation for consensus in blockchain technologies. Whilst advocates have pointed to the option of using renewable energy, this is arguably simply displacing consumption from arguably more productive economic activities. As Noah Smith comments:

This spiraling resource consumption indicates a basic weakness in the technology that supports Bitcoin. For most financial assets, like gold, the cost of storage doesn’t go up much as the price goes up; it’s just about as easy to guard the world’s gold at $2,000 an ounce as at $200 an ounce. And for most currencies, transactions are super cheap. Because people already trust banks and the government, these centralized institutions can handle massive amounts of transactions with near-costless efficiency. Bitcoin’s decentralized trust, in contrast, keeps getting more expensive as Bitcoin gets more valuable.

You can tell Facebook is in damage control mode when it’s advertising for internet regulations on high profile podcasts. Another facet of Facebook’s attempt to control the narrative is its launch of an Oversight Board although it’s not without its criticisms as Pema Levy reports:

“What I worry is going to happen here is that there’s this kind of theater around the board’s decision that is entrenching the notion that it’s the content moderation decision that matters,” says Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “It’s much, much less important than all these design decisions”—algorithms that sort people into filter bubbles and amplify hate, for example—”that Facebook isn’t talking about, that Facebook doesn’t want anyone to talk about. And that Facebook will never turn over to the board, because those design decisions are what ultimately determine whether Facebook makes money or not.” 

Lee Vinsel provides a rather different framing of the power of social media, not exactly excusing them but warning against making them out to be worse than they are:

To be clear, I am NOT saying that there’s nothing to worry about or study when it comes to how social media use shapes behavior. There are many things to be concerned about and try to better understand, including misinformation, radicalization, the formation of mobs through online platforms, and more. There are also plenty of reasons to question Facebook’s, Google’s, and other firms’ monopolistic powers and potentially even to break them up. But none of these problems or our criticisms of them have anything to do with social media companies being able to control our minds.

Therapy on demand sounds like a dream come true. Molly Fischer’s look into the growth of startups therapy providing therapy online provides a much more mixed picture with providers struggling to meet demand and concerns about the quality of care:

But chatbots and mood scores aren’t generally what people are imagining when they say, for example, that their ex needs therapy. “Therapy” here conjures an intervention to fix the personality and save the soul. Different people want different things from therapy. They want to break bad habits, work through trauma, vent about their boss, their boyfriend, their mom. They want to feel better (always easier said than done). They want someone to talk to, and they want some tools. When I resumed seeing my longtime therapist over video, I wanted her to tell me whether the problem was my brain or the pandemic — I needed someone I trusted to judge the situation. That is to say, I wasn’t sure what I needed, but I wanted the help of someone who knew better. And this — expert counsel in the palm of your hand — is what the high end of an emerging class of therapy apps claims to deliver.

Mark Leopold drawing on his research into the life of Idi Amin points to benefits of political buffoonery with obvious parallels with some of our contemporary politicians:

1) It leads opponents to underestimate the ability and intelligence of the buffoon.

2) It provides deniability— “it was only a joke.”

3) It appeals to core supporters (many Africans loved Amin’s teasing of the former colonial masters).

4) It serves as a distraction from the more serious, perhaps frightening or incompetent, actions of the leader, what we now call the “dead cat” tactic.

5) It leads to ambiguity (was it a joke or not?), producing confusion and uncertainty about how to respond.

Musicians are one of the parts of society most hurt by the coronavirus pandemic and will be among the last to see a return to “normal.” David Dayen in his look at the music market points to musicians as being increasingly powerless particularly in the US where they are at the mercy of a consolidated network of distributors, venues and ticketsellers:

This has severed the traditional relationship between musicians and commerce. Artists used to rely on labels, and while that could get antagonistic, the labels still needed hit music to stay alive. “Apple stepped in, if they abandoned music tomorrow, it wouldn’t change their bottom line,” said Damon Krukowski. “They’re not a music company, Spotify is not a music company, YouTube is not a music company. None of them need me, but I need them. That is unsustainable for music.”

A recent addition to my podcast feed is Aubrey Gordon and Michael Hobbes’s Maintenance Phase. It describes itself as “debunking the junk science behind health fads, wellness scams and nonsensical nutrition advice” and is great for reframing issues of body image.

Providing a good complement to the podcast is the Shimano sponsored film All Bodies on Bikes. The video follows Kailey Kornhauser and Marley Blonsky, a couple of self described fat women on their two wheeled adventure. It provides a refreshing look at an activity that all too often fetishes suffering rather than having fun.

Cover photo is Walala Parade by designed by Camille Walala in Leyton. You can find more photos here

Thought Starters: mobile’s evolution, the gang of four, sadness on Tumblr and Brexit

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to look through the articles, research and opinion pieces I’ve read, highlighting the more interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in. This edition looks at the evolution of mobile, Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook’s stranglehold on media and technology, Tumblr’s role among teens and the upcoming Brexit referendum among other things. Happy reading. 

With the Mobile World Congress on in Barcelona, Benedict Evans looks back at how we’ve got to today’s mobile ecosystem and how various incumbents were wrongfooted by these changes:

It’s always fun to laugh at the people who said the future would never happen. But it’s more useful to look at the people who got it almost right, but not quite enough. That’s what happened in mobile. As we look now at new emerging industries, such as VR and AR or autonomous cars, we can see many of the same issues. The big picture 20 years out is actually the easy part, but the details are the difference between Nokia and DoCoMo ruling the world and the world as it actually happened. There’s going to be a bunch of stuff that’ll happen by 2025 that we’d find just as weird.

The recent launches of Facebook’s Instant Articles and Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages aim to get content to consumers faster on their mobile phone (as well as keeping content within their respective domains). The following graph should give you an idea of why load times are so important for consumers:

Cognitive load associated with stressful situations

Bruce Schneier gives a valuable defence of Apple’s refusal to handover the ‘keys’ to the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone. I am not so sure if it’s quite as cut and dry as Schneier makes out but there’s a strong case for not opening back doors given that there are plenty of people whose governments are less benevolent than are own:

What the FBI wants to do would make us less secure, even though it’s in the name of keeping us safe from harm. Powerful governments, democratic and totalitarian alike, want access to user data for both law enforcement and social control. We cannot build a backdoor that only works for a particular type of government, or only in the presence of a particular court order.

NYU Stern Professor Scott Galloway provides a rapid fire look at the growing stranglehold that Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google have on the media and technology sector – entertaining and informative:

A valuable companion to Galloway’s video is The Guardian’s presentation on key trends in the media sector focusing on where consumers are spending their time, emerging media models and podcasting among other things:

Whilst Tumblr might not be living up to Yahoo’s expectations with its monetisation, theres’ no denying its cultural impact. Elspeth Reeve provides a window into where Tumblr fits into teens’ digital lives:

Wong explained that teens perform joy on Instagram but confess sadness on Tumblr. The site, he said, is a “safe haven from their local friends. … On Tumblr they tell their most personal stories. They share things that they normally wouldn’t share with their local friends because of the fear of judgment. That has held true for every person that I’ve met.”

The IAB UK is pushing the importance of online advertising in the living room, pointing out that television isn’t the only game in town if you want consumers’ attention:

“Second screening is ingrained to such a degree that all screens are now equal, there’s no hierarchy, only fragmentation of attention – actually switch-screening is a much more accurate term,” says Tim Elkington, the IAB’s Chief Strategy Officer. “Furthermore, entertainment is only a small part of the living room media activity. It’s now a multifunctional space where people jump between individual and group activities, be it shopping, social media, emails, work or messaging.”

Ben Carlson explores why bear markets are so painful for consumers and businesses (and it’s not just the hole it leaves in their pockets):

One of the reasons for this is because of the difference between the nature of bull and bear markets. There’s an old saying that stocks take the escalator up but the elevator down. Bull markets are fairly slow and methodical. Bear markets are violent and come in waves. Bull markets take time to climb the wall of worry while bear markets can wipe out a decent amount of those gains in a hurry.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has provoked renewed interest in the issue of income inequality. Dr Max Roser’s analysis points to rising inequality in English speaking countries which contrasts with the other developed economies profiled:

Share of Total Income going to the Top 1%

Britain is now in Brexit fever as debates  rage over whether the country should leave the European Union following the announcement by Prime Minister David Cameron of a referendum in July. The Economist has done a quick roundup of some of the arguments those for and against Brexit are pushing:

Arguments for and against Brexit, according to the main campaigns

One of the big uncertainties is the impact that Brexit will have on the UK’s economy. Chris Giles looks at three possible scenarios, a Booming Britain, a Troubled Transition and a Disastrous Decision.

The Economist point to the importance of education as key arbiter in determining Briton’s perceptions of Brexit. Tertiary education in particular providing a different filter to view these changes as well as increasing the potential benefits from being part of the European Union:

In the long term, this bodes well for pro-Europeans. University attendance has exploded, which suggests that Britain will become more internationalist and comfortable with EU co-operation. Yet in the meantime it seems the country will be increasingly polarised: liberal, Cambridge-like places on the one side; nationalist, Peterborough-like ones on the other and an ever-shrinking middle ground between the two, as the population bifurcates into those whose skills make them globally competitive and those who must compete with robots and the mass workforces of the emerging economies. Democracy—especially in a system as centralised and majoritarian as that of Britain—assumes some common premises and experiences, a foundation that thanks to the great educational-cultural divide is now at risk. Eventually Britain will look more like Cambridge than it does today. But until then decades of division and mutual alienation await.

Another country that is having a rather mixed relationship with the European Union is Poland. Christian Davies follows Jarosław Kaczyński and the Law & Justice party’s rise to power and concerns about growing nationalism and authoritarianism:

Commonly labelled conservative or nationalist, Law and Justice blends the religious and patriotic rituals of Poland’s long history of resistance to foreign oppression with hostility to free-market capitalism and a heavy dose of conspiracy regarding the machinations of Poland’s enemies. It is the vanguard of a movement that goes far beyond the party itself, supported by sympathetic smaller parties, ultra-Catholic media, nationalist youth organisations and an assortment of cranks and cynics who share a hostility to liberalism in all its guises. As foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski told the German tabloid Bild, his government “only wants to cure our country of a few illnesses”, such as: “a new mixture of cultures and races, a world made up of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy and who battle all signs of religion … What moves most Poles [is] tradition, historical awareness, love of country, faith in God and normal family life between a woman and a man.”

Valentine’s Day this year was awash with media coverage of online dating and the impact it is having on relationships. It’s interesting to look back on how people have met their other halves in the past. These figures might not be right up to date (certainly pre Tinder) but they do give a valuable indicator of changing social trends:

How heterosexual US couples met their romantic partners 1940-2009

The featured image is a Hitotzuki mural from the POW! WOW! festival in Hawaii and published in Arrested Motion.