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.

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.

Thought Starters: social media, Apple, banking and changes to employment and income

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 the competing social media platforms and their roles, whether Apple can innovate, banking and its relationship with fintech and changes in employment and income among other things. 

Robinson Meyer revisits Reid Hoffman’s look at social networks and the parallels he draws between them and the seven deadly sins:

“Social networks do best when they tap into one of the seven deadly sins,” the LinkedIn co-founder and venture capitalist said. “Zynga is sloth. LinkedIn is greed. With Facebook, it’s vanity, and how people choose to present themselves to their friends.”

Research from Social Fresh, Firebrand Group and Simply Measured points to Facebook being comfortably ahead of other social media platforms in terms of ROI:

Social Media Platforms that Produce the Best ROI According to Social Media Marketers Worldwide March 2016

Whilst Snapchat is making growing inroads among younger audiences in the US, Instagram for the moment is proving a more popular medium for advertisers according to L2 Think Tank’s research:

Snapchat vs Instagram Adoption Among Brands Worldwide by Industry

Twitter recently reclassified its mobile app as a news service rather than social media in Apple’s App Store. Pew Research’s recent findings point to how the services have a different relationship with news content with Facebook driving more traffic whilst users referred by Twitter typically spending more time with the visited content:

On cellphones more visits come from Facebook

Given the increasingly important role that Facebook plays in distributing content, it’s no surprise that commentators cried foul when Gizmodo reported that Facebook was suppressing conservative news. A more careful reading of the news by Tyler Cowen and Ben Thompson suggests this isn’t quite as significant as the headlines suggest:

This, then, is the deep irony of this controversy: Facebook is receiving a huge amount of criticism for allegedly biasing the news via the empowerment of a team of human curators to make editorial decisions, as opposed to relying on what was previously thought to be an algorithm; it is an algorithm, though — the algorithm that powers the News Feed, with the goal of driving engagement — that is arguably doing more damage to our politics than the most biased human editor ever could. The fact of the matter is that, on the part of Facebook people actually see — the News Feed, not Trending News — conservatives see conservative stories, and liberals see liberal ones; the middle of the road is as hard to find as a viable business model for journalism (these things are not disconnected).

James Allworth profiles Apple’s business strategy and suggests that the company’s success is one of the key things holding the company back:

And it appears that Apple has fallen into exactly the same trap. Rather than start anew — with a beginner’s mind—what the above reveals to me is that they’ve tried to take the last paradigm and just jam it into the new one. The old has bled into the new. The result, at least as it stands now: just like Microsoft did, Apple knows what needs to be built — a phone-disrupting device. It’s just that they can’t bring themselves to let go of the past in order to do the job properly.

Whilst the Apple Watch hasn’t proved the breakthrough success for Apple that the iPhone provided, Neil Cybart’s analysis of Apple’s R&D expenditure points to something big coming soon:

Apple R&D Expense (Annual)

At the more nascent end of the technology ecosystem, Jared Friedman’s analysis of applicants to the Y Combinator programme provides a valuable window into the type of startups we’re likely to see more of in the very near future. Think more apps, SAAS businesses and platforms based on messaging, Slack and virtual reality among other things:

Messaging & Communications

For those of you working in startups looking to improve your product and people management, you’d be well advised to read Mike Davidson’s account of life as Vice President of Design at Twitter. He covers a lot of ground so I’m not going to try and summarise it, but it’s well worth checking out.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a more nuts and bolts approach to improving your digital presence, Nick Kolenda’s 125 easy tweaks provides a good starting point, even if you don’t agree with everything he has to say.

The banking sector won no popularity contests over the last  9 years with its practices fueling the global financial crisis. James Surowiecki reviews moves to reform the sector suggesting improvements have been made but there’s still some way to go:

Of course, there’s much about Wall Street that Dodd-Frank has not changed. Bankers still make absurd amounts of money. Hedge-fund and private-equity managers still benefit from the carried-interest tax loophole. The big banks, though smaller, are still too big. “If you wanted financial reform to radically downsize the financial sector, or thought it was going to make a major dent in income inequality, you’re bound to be disappointed,” Konczal says. And Dodd-Frank’s work is still unfinished: many of the rules it authorized have yet to be written, and the banks are lobbying to have them written in their favor. As Ziegler told me, “The progress that’s been made is precarious. It can be unravelled.” But precarious progress is progress. Regulation involves a constant struggle to keep rules in place and to enforce the ones that are there. Dodd-Frank shows that that struggle is not necessarily a futile one: sometimes government really does regulate business, and not the other way around.

In Fintech circles there’s a lot of talk about the power of startups to disrupt the banking sector but Josh Constine suggests that these startups may actually strengthen rather than undermine your relationship with your bank:

But what many of these startups have in common is that they all rely on connecting to your existing bank to fund your accounts with them or receive money. Rather than shun the startups, the incumbents have built bridges to let you hook fintech products into your bank accounts.

The result is that while banking is changing rapidly, you might be more reluctant to change which bank you use, according to several fintech founders and VCs I spoke to.

There’s been increasingly vociferous discussions  about the impact that automation will have on employment over the long term. Josh Zumbrun’s analysis of US figures provides an indication of where things are heading.  Employment among knowledge workers and non-routine manual workers is proving much less susceptible to automation and is showing much stronger rates of growth compared to employment with routinised workflows:

The Rise of the Knowledge Worker

Pew Research figures point to the polarisation of wealth in American society as not simply coming from growing income and assets among the wealthiest but also due to the relative decline of the country’s middle-income households:

The middle class is shrinking nearly everywhere

Ed Hawkins’ data visualisation of climate over the last 150 years provides a valuable reminder that now is not the time for us all to put our heads in the sand:

Global temperature change (1850-2016)

Elisabeth Zerofsky’s profile of Marine Le Pen provides a reminder of the growing tide of nationalism in European politics and attempts to try provide a more “palatable” face on a movement that was previously at the fringe of European politics.

I am keen to hear your thoughts any of the above, whether you vehemently agree or disagree, so please don’t hesitate to use the comments field.

The featured image is a MOMO piece commissioned by the City of Sydney.

Thought Starters: ubiquitous smartphones, post-PC and universal basic income

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 the transition from a PC to a smartphone-dominated world, the story behind financial results from Apple and Facebook, the growth of Sci-Hub and a closer look at the universal basic income model among other things:

Benedict Evans profiles the increasingly ubiquitous smartphone and how the mobile market is changing as the technology becomes increasingly commodified:

Smartphones have unique scale for tech

Steven Sinofsky moves to an iPad Pro for his daily computing requirements and shares his experiences. As the PC loses its hegemony, raises new challenges and opportunities for businesses and entrepreneurs:

The shift to this new form factor and new platform will bring with it cultural changes that take advantage of what are perceived as disadvantages. As makers, being early is essential, otherwise you are late.

For more on the topic of post-PC world, I’d suggest reading Paul Thurrott’s reluctant forecast of the demise of Microsoft’s Windows and Steven Sinofsky and Benedict Evans rounding out their thoughts on the a16z podcast:

The release of quarterly results has provided a valuable window into the ups and downs of some of the world’s tech giants. Neil Cybart’s analysis of Apple’s financial results suggests we’ve reached peak iPhone, with sales hit by longer upgrade cycles and fewer easy growth opportunities:

iPhone Unit Sales Growth (trailing 12 months)

Apple CEO Tim Cook has emphasised the company’s service offerings in recent announcements. It’s worth having a read of Ben Thompson’s analysis of this move as the company looks to avoid being typecast as simply a maker of beautiful devices:

With regards to the iPhone, it’s hard to see its record revenues and profits ever being surpassed by another product, by Apple or anyone else: it is in many respects the perfect device from a business perspective, and given that whatever replaces it will likely be significantly less dependent on a physical interface and even more dependent on the cloud (which will help commoditize the hardware), it will likely be sold for much less and with much smaller profit margins.

Facebook had more joy with its financial results growing monthly and daily active users and mobile’s share of traffic although growing presence in developing markets is dragging down its average revenue per user. Whilst recent research suggests that people might be increasingly wary of sharing their personal thoughts on Facebook, the social network maintains a strong role as onramp to many consumers’ digital world as Will Oremus comments:

The company has reinvented itself in two distinct ways. First, Facebook as a platform has been quietly evolving into something different than a social network—something less personal, but no less useful. Second, Facebook as a company has been furiously hedging its bets on the future of technology and social media, to the point that it is no longer properly described as merely a social network—no more than Alphabet (né Google) is properly described as a search website.

So what has the Facebook app and site become, if not a social network? The answer is rather obvious when you watch how people use it. It has become a personalized portal to the online world.

Whilst tech unicorns have typically avoided the scrutiny of the stock market by staying private, analysis of sales of ping-pong tables in Silicon Valley suggest that venture capital funding might not be as free flowing as it once was:

Sales of ping-pong tables to companies at a Silicon Valley store correlate with venture-capital deals made during the same quarter.

Whilst we’re on the subject of startups, it’s worth reading Chris Dixon’s call for entrepreneurs to look broadly to better understand future threats and opportunities, namechecking automation of logistics, apps, video and voice services:

Think of the internet economic loop as a model train track. Positions in front of you can redirect traffic around you. Positions after you can build new tracks that bypass you. New technologies come along (which often look toy-like and unthreatening at first) that create entirely new tracks that render the previous tracks obsolete.

The American IAB has released research tracking consumers’ use of smartphones and tablets when shopping, pointing to the ways different age categories use their devices. This providing both a threat and an opportunity for traditional bricks and mortar retailers:

Smartphone as Shopping Assistant

John Bohannon profiles the growth of Sci-Hub which offers users a means of accessing copyrighted academic research regardless of whether people have the necessary institutional resources. The service provides a valuable source for researchers in less well-funded institutions, but usage statistics suggest that users include plenty of people with the necessary credentials and are simply looking for more user-friendly alternatives:

Server log data for the website Sci-Hub from September 2015 through February 2015

With predictions of automation threatening employment across an increasingly broad spectrum of jobs, there’s been growing calls for the introduction of universal basic income. This would essentially provide a guaranteed income to all regardless of employment status and has gained an interesting collection of supporters from both ends of the political spectrum. It’s something I am expecting to hear a lot more about in the coming months and you get an introduction to the concept from Tim Harford (shorter version), Andrew Flowers (longer version) and the Freakonomics team (podcast version).

The featured image is a Nerone mural from Bordeaux, France published in ekosystem.

Thought Starters: A look at Facebook, Snapchat, hidden truths and London

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review and highlight the more important or interesting research and opinions that I’ve read over the last week or so. This edition looks at adtech bloat, Facebook and Snapchat’s role in the social media landscape, the truth behind the statistics and London’s changing economic landscape. 

There’s been a lot of coverage about the growing adtech bloatware face and the countervailing rise of ad blockers as consumers look to improve their user experience and increase their privacy. I have considerable sympathy for the media sector which is in many cases scrabbling for a decent revenue model. But the situation doesn’t look great when consumers end up footing the bill with growing data chargers as highlighted by Rob Leathern:

When I cover deceptive ad practices/fraud, some people find it interesting, sure, but when I have explained how mobile websites are making far less money from ads than you’re paying in mobile data… People. Got. Pissed.

A recent report in The Information (paywall) points to consumers using Facebook less to share their personal thoughts, although figures from GlobalWebIndex indicate these might be part of a broader trend:

Decline in personal sharing on social networks

Ben Thompson puts Facebook’s position in the context of the broader social media landscape, contrasting it with the more personal mediums such as Snapchat (see below). Facebook’s launch of Moments and Facebook Live suggest it’s not happy being typecast in just this role:

It is increasingly clear that there are two types of social apps: one is the phone book, and one is the phone. The phone book is incredibly valuable: it connects you to anyone, whether they be a personal friend, an acquaintance, or a business. The social phone book, though, goes much further: it allows the creation of ad hoc groups for an event or network, it is continually updated with the status of anyone you may know or wish to know, and it even provides an unlimited supply of entertaining professionally produced content whenever you feel the slightest bit bored.

The phone, on the other hand, is personal: it is about communication between you and someone you purposely reach out to. True, telemarketing calls can happen, but they are annoying and often dismissed. The phone is simply about the conversation that is happening right now, one that will be gone the moment you hang up.

The growth of smartphones has had more than a helping hand in the growth of sexting among teenagers. This has raised serious questions for lawmakers who face criminalising teenagers using child pornography laws that were designed with different situations in mind and risk compounding the problem as Madeleine Thomas reports:

“You can allow them, or you can prohibit them, but [teens] are going to sext and they are going to have sex regardless,” Hasinoff says. “The potential for harm that technology creates is legitimately new, but the way we’re dealing with it is just completely the wrong approach. If you think you can stop it by criminalizing consensual sexters, it just doesn’t make any sense.”

Snapchat is one of the platforms most closely associated with sexting with figures from comScore showing the disproportionately high share of younger age categories when compared to other social networks in the US:

Demographic Composition % of Major Social Networks

Snapchat’s recent launch of an updated version of its mobile messaging platform with a richer range of features again put it in the spotlight and left many marketers wondering how they can get onboard. Dakota Shane Nunley does his bit to pour cold water on some of this excitement pointing out there are plenty of situations where Snapchat simply doesn’t make sense:

Snapchat is not for:

  1. Big brands looking to be “relatable” (unless those brands are buying space on Discover, Filters, or paying Influencers)
  2. Businesses not based around an individual or personality
  3. People without a social following elsewhere
  4. Most small to mi-sized businesses

The commercial launch of Oculus Rift has left many commentators wondering whether virtual reality is the next big thing. The platform’s hardware costs mean that it’s not going to challenge the smartphone for the foreseeable future but that will change over time. For a closer look, it’s worth having a read of Benedict Evans’ look at the different development paths and the relationship with its cousin, augmented reality:

If one can answer those questions, then AR has the potential to be a new computing platform in a way that VR cannot – AR can be with you everywhere whereas VR needs a room, and so AR could be the next universal computing platform after mobile. 

The transition from physical to digital distribution of music has been a far from smooth one with no shortage of musicians complaining that the shift to a streaming model is leaving them out in the cold. Figures from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry suggest the industry may have now turned a corner with the fastest revenue growth since 1998 – whether that money reaches musicians remains to be seen:

Music sales growing at fastest rate since 1998

The Guardian is one of my go to news sources even if I am not always in sync with their view of the world and their drift to a more lifestyle format. Given this, I was disheartened to read Michael Wolff’s analysis of the organisation’s management under Alan Rusbridger which suggests it may face the same fate of other newspapers struggling to make the transition to a digital world:

Alan Rusbridger’s disciples consider him a visionary, but the former Guardian editor oversaw enormous losses, a huge fall in circulation and a ruinous faith in free content. Now, as he returns as chairman of its parent company, has his legacy of unchecked idealism condemned the iconic brand to terminal decline?

Right through my university career I identified as politically correct reflecting strongly held views on the sexism, racism and homophobia of various aspects of contemporary society. Given this, I’ve watched with considerable interest recent debates around political correctness particularly in American universities of today with commentators pointing to activists overreaching and the silencing of broader debates. Whilst I feel too far removed to give a considered judgement, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s article in The Atlantic and Lauren Modery’s commentary on Medium gave me plenty of food for thought.

Tim Harford has become one of my favourite commentators, separating the truth from fiction in news reports via the More or Less radio show/podcast and his regular column in the Financial Times. A recently penned feature article profiles the distortion of statistics and outright lies by politicians looking to shore up support among the general public – something well worth reading as UK approaches the Brexit referendum and the US head towards their presidential elections:

Perhaps the lies aren’t the real enemy here. Lies can be refuted; liars can be exposed. But bullshit? Bullshit is a stickier problem. Bullshit corrodes the very idea that the truth is out there, waiting to be discovered by a careful mind. It undermines the notion that the truth matters. As Harry Frankfurt himself wrote, the bullshitter “does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

Whilst we’re on the subject of politics and its impacts, CEPR have had a look at the economic impacts of Brexit and it’s unsuprisingly not positive:

The economic consequences of leaving the EU will depend on what policies the UK adopts following Brexit. But lower trade due to reduced integration with EU countries is likely to cost the UK economy far more than is gained from lower contributions to the EU budget.

Even setting aside foreign investment, migration and the dynamic consequences of reduced trade, we estimate the effects of Brexit on trade and the UK’s contribution to the EU budget would be equivalent to a fall in income of between 1.3% and 2.6%. And once we include the long-run effects of Brexit on productivity, the decline in income increases to between 6.3% and 9.5%. Other possible political or economic benefits of Brexit, such as better regulation, would have to be very large to outweigh such losses.

Diet is one area where we’ve seen the media and public opinions shaped by evidence that often falls well short of gold standard in scientific research. Ian Leslie’s fascinating coverage of attitudes to sugar points to a situation where strong scientific wasn’t enough to change societal norms with personal politics getting in the way of the truth (see below). Unfortunately many countries are now paying the price with growing obesity rates:

It is a familiar complaint. By opening the gates of publishing to all, the internet has flattened hierarchies everywhere they exist. We no longer live in a world in which elites of accredited experts are able to dominate conversations about complex or contested matters. Politicians cannot rely on the aura of office to persuade, newspapers struggle to assert the superior integrity of their stories. It is not clear that this change is, overall, a boon for the public realm. But in areas where experts have a track record of getting it wrong, it is hard to see how it could be worse. If ever there was a case that an information democracy, even a very messy one, is preferable to an information oligarchy, then the history of nutrition advice is it.

There’s been growing awareness of discrimination faced by women in the workplace, reflected in the lack of women in leadership roles and the gender pay gap. Whilst a lot of attention focuses on the need for flexibility in the workplace and familial demands, research from ICEDR suggests that what thirtysomething women are really interested in is better pay:

The top 5 reasons people in their 30s leave companies

London has long had a character that set it apart from the rest of the UK both in terms of its international character and its economic output. One of the more recent consequences of this is the growing squeeze on poorer residents, reflected in the decline in the number of children eligible for free school meals as London’s central boroughs increasingly gentrify (see below). It’s no surprise that first time buyers are finding it increasingly hard to get on the property ladder compared to the rest of the country with regulation compounding the problem of population pressures:

Free school meal eligibilitySilicon Valley with its sea of office parks provides a rather different development model to London. Hunter Oatman-Stanford provides a fascinating look at the growth of this suburban corporate campus model as companies looked to flee inner cities. Unfortunately by sealing themselves off from the rest of society, businesses risk losing touch with the noisy and chaotic world they’re in many cases trying to serve:

While many modern office developments specifically include lounges or multipurpose zones where employees might randomly interact with one another, these spaces are entirely limited to office staff—with the aim that conversations would further relationships or spark ideas beneficial to the business. “I look at Apple’s Norman Foster building, and it’s 1952 all over again,” Mozingo says. “There’s nothing innovative about it. It’s a classic corporate estate from the 1950s, with a big block of parking. Meanwhile, Google is building another version of the office park with a swoopy roof and cool details—but it does nothing innovative.”

Online dating is reshaping the way people meet their flings / boyfriends / girlfriends / future partners. You can see this in Michael J. Rosenfeld and Reuben J. Thomas’s research from the US (see table below). The 2009 cut off date suggests the graph is substantially underreporting the current situation given the growing penetration of smartphones, services such as Tinder and growing social acceptance of online dating.  Alex Mayyasi reports on some of the consequences of this trend including a likely growth in assortative mating which is ultimately likely to undermine social mobility:

How straight couples met their partner

Whilst we’re on the subject of relationships, it’s worth reading Gay Talese’s account of one motel owner’s voyeurism. You might not learn a whole lot about human relationships, but it does makes for an entertaining read.

The featured image is a GoddoG mural from Bordeaux published in ekosystem.

 

Thought Starters: innovation, intellectual capital & circular economy

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review and highlight the more important or interesting research and opinions that I’ve read over the last week or so. This edition looks at questions over the pace of innovation, the growing portability of intellectual capital, the American presidential nominations and the circular economy among other things, all making for great weekend reading.

David Rotman profiles the work of economist Robert J. Gordon who takes a relatively dim view of the productivity gains over the last ten years. A valuable perspective although one focusing on economic gains doesn’t necessarily encompass other benefits enabled by new technologies and innovations:

Peak innovation

An interesting complement to the Rotman’s article is Prashant Gandhi, Somesh Khanna and Sree Ramaswamy’s review of the levels of digitisation across different parts of the US economy. Information technology inevitably leads the charge but it’s more valuable to look at the laggards where we’re likely to see considerable changes and innovations in the coming years:

How Digitally Advanced is your Sector?

One area that we have seen substantial advances recently is technologies that enable remote teams to more readily collaborate (eg Slack). Samuel Hammond points to a world where intellectual capital is increasingly portable even if immigration barriers mean that this mobility is more virtual than actual:

Consistent with the premature futurism thesis, smart writers have been predicting large and looming social implications from telecommuting and remote work for decades, only to have their visions stymied by some unforeseen technical or psychological barrier. While hiring international freelancers has gotten a lot easier, for many jobs people just prefer face to face contact. Yet we seem to be finally reaching a critical point where video streaming, virtual reality, and collaboration tools are converging to make even the most complex team production viable across borders.

Uber is one of the shining stars of the startup sector with its growth and funding leading many entrepreneurs to pitch their business as ‘Uber for ____’. Farhad Manjoo points out that we should be wary of trying to draw direct parallels between Uber and other business use cases given the particular characteristics the ridesharing:

But Uber’s success was in many ways unique. For one thing, it was attacking a vulnerable market. In many cities, the taxi business was a customer-unfriendly protectionist racket that artificially inflated prices and cared little about customer service. The opportunity for Uber to become a regular part of people’s lives was huge. Many people take cars every day, so hook them once and you have repeat customers. Finally, cars are the second-most-expensive things people buy, and the most frequent thing we do with them is park. That monumental inefficiency left Uber ample room to extract a profit even after undercutting what we now pay for cars.

But how many other markets are there like that? Not many. Some services were used frequently by consumers, but weren’t that valuable — things related to food, for instance, offered low margins. Other businesses funded in low-frequency and low-value areas “were a trap,” Mr. Walk said.

Dan Lyons’ rather humourous account of joining HubSpot provides a valuable antidote to some of the overinflated hubris sometimes associated with startups:

The truth is that we’re selling software that lets companies, most of them small businesses like pool installers and flower shops, sell more stuff. The world of online marketing, where HubSpot operates, though, has a reputation for being kind of grubby. Our customers include people who make a living bombarding people with email offers, or gaming Google’s search algorithm, or figuring out which kind of misleading subject line is most likely to trick someone into opening a message. Online marketing is not quite as sleazy as Internet porn, but it’s not much better either.

A lot of noise has been made about younger consumers fleeing Facebook for the newer social media platforms but comScore data from the US points to the platform maintaining its appeal among millennials – suggest we’d  see teenage audiences telling a rather different story:

Age 18-34 Digital Audience Penetration vs Engagement of Leading Social Networks

Snapchat updated its mobile messaging platform recently providing a richer range of features for users as well as changing its privacy policy which is likely to see a broader array of targeting options for Snapchat advertisers. It’s worth reading Ben Thompson’s piece on Snapchat if you want to take a broader look at how the platform has evolved since its launch in 2011.

Virtual reality is now well and truly out in the open with Oculus Rift now available to the general public. Brian X. Chen’s review of the headset suggests that in its current state, it’s one for the early adopters:

The Rift’s graphics, sound and head tracking, which is the device’s ability to follow where the viewer looks, do feel like something out of science fiction. While the system’s setup is somewhat complex, the smoothness of the graphics and the high-quality design of the headgear make virtual reality feel ready for prime time.

And yet there may be a higher reward for those who wait to buy the Rift.

Soundcloud Go launched on the 29th of March in the US, adding to the list of streaming providers that are offering a subscription service for music consumers. Another route to monetise content might sound great for musicians but Dave Wiskus’ review of the service suggests something much more insidious:

You can slice it, package it, or spin it however you like, but the bare fact is that you’re making money off of songs you aren’t paying for. Worse, you’re doing it while perpetuating an air of exclusivity around the concept of making money. All while you’re pretending to be a friend to the little guy. There’s nothing artist-friendly about this approach.

Sven Skafisk’s overlaying of smartphone sales on top of traditional camera sales illustrates how much mobile phones have come to dominate how the majority of consumers experience photography – click through for the full length chart which really puts things in perspective:

CIPA camera production

The success of Amazon’s Alexa highlights the significant market opportunity for user friendly smart home solutions, which has even led to religious authorities offering advice on its use during Shabbos. What consumers may be less aware of is that in many cases they are buying into a service rather than a piece of hardware with the demise of Revolv leaving consumers in the lurch (although it looks like Nest may be stepping in to address some of these concerns now).

With the release of the Panama Papers, it’s worth revisiting which countries enable financial secrecy. One of the interesting insights to come out of the reports is the relatively limited number of Americans caught up in reports reflecting relatively lax controls in some states. The US falls in third place in the Tax Justice Network’s Financial Secrecy Index.

NPR’s Planet Money (well worth subscribing to their podcast) has looked at the changing structure of employment in the US where you can see changes both in terms of the number of jobs and as percent of the total. No huge surprises but it will be interesting to see how the chart changes as machine learning and artificial intelligence make inroads into white collar professions which have traditionally proven more immune to automation:

The Decline of Farming and the Rise of Everything Else

Another podcast worth recommending is Vox’s The Weeds, providing a valuable window into American politics and policy. A recent episode looks at the tax implications of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’ policies (from 34:20). One of the interesting conclusions is how comparatively robust both Democratic candidates proposals are compared to the leading Republican candidates despite Clinton and Sanders taking rather different policy approaches:

One area where Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump do seem to have something in common is their relatively protectionist approach to trade. Whilst I am all for ensuring employees gets appropriate protection around the world, it could put a real dampener on emerging markets’ economies as Jordan Weissmann points out:

With those last few words, Sanders has effectively written off trade with any country that is not already rich and prosperous—which is simply inhumane.

Encouraging the circular economy is likely to be a more appropriate way of encouraging local employment. Walter R. Stahel profiles this closed loop approach to production which offers benefits in terms of reduced emissions, increasing in employment and reduction in waste:

Closing Loops

As UK fast approaches the Brexit referendum, immigration and the country’s health system lead concerns facing Briton’s – issues not unrelated given the reliance Britain’s NHS has on foreign born staff:

What do you see as the most important issues facing Britain

Potentially allaying the concerns of immigration opponents is research from Mette Foged and Giovanni Peri in Denmark which points to the benefits of immigration, even for the low skilled populations:

Instead of a small negative effect on the local native-born — as most studies in the U.S. tend to find — Foged and Peri found a positive effect. That’s right — low-skilled immigrants actually raised the wages of their less-educated native-born counterparts in the surrounding area. The data followed the native-born workers for a long time, letting the authors confirm that the change was durable.

The featured image is a Nelio mural made for the Marion gallery in Panama.

Thought Starters: look at AMP, Amazon’s dominance, corporate profits & music industry

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review the research and opinions that I’ve read over the last week or so. This edition looks at the launch of Accelerated Mobile Pages, Amazon’s growing dominance in the digital world, rising corporate profits, the declining fortunes of the music industry and terrorism among other things.

Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages is now out in the open. Alex Bauer profiles what it offers mobile internet users and also what is going on behind the scenes:

AMP isn’t actually new technology. In fact, AMP is what the web could have been all along, if it had been originally designed with nothing but mobile device performance in mind. This “mobile-only” approach is important because one of the ways AMP achieves its blazing-fast performance is by completely ignoring any device that is not small enough to fit in your pocket. AMP is emphatically not about making desktop websites look good on phone screens, but rather a totally separate, alternative presentation of the same content. It’s the web we already know, except stripped back to the bare essentials and then subjected to aggressive validation and rendering controls.

Alex Muir points to Facebook’s Hydra like offering as something any entrepreneur should consider as a competitor before launching a business into the B2C space:

Today, **if you’re building a service for communities or individuals then Facebook is almost certainly your biggest competitor. ** B2B: Excel, B2C: Facebook.

Ben Thompson recently profiled how Amazon is leveraging its scale in ecommerce and cloud computing to gain a near insurmountable competitive advantage. Eugene Kim’s collection of charts profiling Amazon provides a valuable complement to Thompson’s words illustrating what a behemoth the organisation present (at least in the US):

Amazon's long term growth

Bastion of free market economics, The Economist has made a convincing argument that the US economy needs more competition (and regulation) pointing to growing concentration and rising profits among the country’s leading firms:

Even better at making money

Scott Santens joins the chorus of voices raising concerns about the threat automation poses to employment with Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo illustrating the major advances in artificial intelligence capabilities which could upturn society as we know it:

No nation is yet ready for the changes ahead. High rates of labor force nonparticipation leads to social instability, as does a lack of consumers within consumer economies. It turns out, humans are good at designing things, but not so great at picturing a world that their technology will create. What’s the big lesson to learn, in a century when machines can learn? Maybe it is that jobs are for machines, and life is for people.

Ben Sisario and Karl Russell profile the declining fortunes of the music industry over the last ten years with growth streaming services and vinyl sales failing to fill the hole left by declining CD sales. Whilst the figures don’t allow for revenues from other revenue streams such as concerts, sponsorship and branded content initiatives, overall, the picture isn’t particularly healthy: 

Music industry revenues

An interview with Michael Rosenfeld sheds some light on how online dating is (and isn’t) changing the nature of relationships in the 21st century:

I don’t think that that theory, even if it’s true for something like jam, applies to dating. I actually don’t see in my data any negative repercussions for people who meet partners online. In fact, people who meet their partners online are not more likely to break up — they don’t have more transitory relationships. Once you’re in a relationship with somebody, it doesn’t really matter how you met that other person. There are online sites that cater to hookups, sure, but there are also online sites that cater to people looking for long-term relationships. What’s more, many people who meet in the online sites that cater to hookups end up in long-term relationships. This environment, mind you, is just like the one we see in the offline world.

The rise of Donald Trump is one of the more interesting (and scary) phenomenons in the US’s current election cycle. Clare Malone looks at where Trump’s support comes from:

The Upshot’s look at the geography of Trumpism showed a number of variables linked to areas of deep Trump support — counties where a high proportion of the population is white with no high school diploma, where there are large numbers of mobile homes, and where there is a poor labor-force participation rate. Political scientists Michael Tesler and John Sides recently pointed to new research that shows “both white racial identity and beliefs that whites are treated unfairly are powerful predictors of support for Donald Trump in the Republican primaries.”

Whilst playing to race is an important part of Donald Trump’s success, changing demographics point to a strategy of appealing to America’s white population as becoming increasingly untenable in the future according to Pew Research forecasts:

The changing face of America

The recent terrorist attack has led to an inevitable concerns among Europeans about their personal safety. Annalisa Merelli’s analysis of deaths and injuries from terror attacks in Western Europe point to the region being no more dangerous than in the recent past although digital media is no doubt amplifying current fears:

Dead and injured in terror attacks in Western Europe

The featured image shows a Hazul Luzah mural from Underground Paris’ interview with the Portuguese artist.

Thought Starters: mobile internet, adblockers, sexism in the workplace and the developing world

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to look through the articles, research and opinion pieces I’ve read over the last week or so, highlighting the more interesting trends, developments and changes in the world we live in. This time we’re looking at the growth of mobile, the role of adblockers, the impacts and origins of sexism in the workplace and the internet in the developing world among other things. Happy reading.

The growth of mobile has seen the emergence of a whole new range of digital channels, but Visual Capitalist’s research points to the largest platforms all being controlled by Microsoft, Google or Facebook. That being said, there are range of platforms (WeChat, Snapchat, Slack, Netflix, Spotify) that fall short of a billion users but dominate within their respective sectors or geographies and could present a challenge to the market incumbents:

Apps or programmes with more than one billion active users

The IAB (US) recently released research which profiles how American consumers are using their PCs and smartphones. What is apparent is the continuing move to mobile  although the same research points to computers still registering a higher volume of internet views pointing to the different ways these devices are used:

Nearly Two-Thirds of All Internet Time is Spent on a Mobile Device

Google and Facebook have responded well to consumers’ growing use of smartphones, taking more than half of the available mobile ad revenues and leaving the remaining players fighting over the scraps in the US. eMarketer’s forecast suggests this isn’t going to change any time soon:

Net US mobile ad revenue share by company forecast

A continuing note of concern for media operators is the growth of adblocking with 22% of Britons using the software with this rising to 47% among 18-24 year olds according to Internet Advertising Bureau (UK) commissioned research.

Dean Dubley’s analysis suggests the introduction of mobile adblocking services won’t decimate the online media sector but is likely to further strengthen the hand of Google and Facebook:

The bottom line is that screaming headlines in stories like those from ZeroHedge (link) about “the risk to Internet companies’ business models” are nonsense. Ironically, it’s Google and Facebook’s approach to advertising that is safe. Small online publications using other advertising channels may not be so lucky. I noticed this tweet referencing mobile advertising growth forecasts from Goldman Sachs (link) which seems to suggest that Wall St is sanguine about the adblocking “threat” and that rapid growth in revenues will continue.

Among the likely responses by media operators to growing adblocker usage is a growing reliance on native advertising which is reflected in Enders Analysis’ recent forecast for Yahoo:

Forecast for the growth of native advertising in Europe

Whilst a few apps such as Facebook are nearly universal in their appeal, others give a clearer indicator as to who the user might be. Researchers have looked to profile the correlation between the ownership of different mobile apps and various demographic characteristics and income to develop profiles of mobile users. You can check out who they think you are in quiz – they got my gender and age wrong (I’m definitely male and over the age of 32) although I’m guessing not being a US resident probably didn’t help the profiling process.

Slack has been touted as the solution to the problem of information overload in the workplace with over 2 million daily active users. Samuel Hulick provides a more sceptical view warning that this “asynchronish” is in many cases compounding rather than addressing the problem:

Maybe you will say I’m afraid of commitment, but I’m just not interested in a relationship that seems to want to swallow up more and more of my time and attention, and demand that more and more of my interactions with other people go through you first.

Jeff Goodell has written an extended feature article on artificial intelligence and machine learning. Worth a read if you’re keen to get up to speed with what’s happening in the sector:

Despite advances like smarter algorithms and more capable robots, the future of superintelligent machines is still more sci-fi than science. Right now, says Yann LeCun, the director of Facebook AI Research, “AIs are nowhere near as smart as a rat.” Yes, with years of programming and millions of dollars, IBM built Watson, the machine that beat the smartest humans at Jeopardy! in 2011 and is now the basis for the company’s “cognitive computing” initiative. It can read 800 million pages a second and can digest the entire corpus of Wikipedia, not to mention decades of law and medical journals. Yet it cannot teach you how to ride a bike because its intelligence is narrow – it knows nothing about how the world actually works

Developments in software technology including artificial intelligence are rapidly expanding the scope of what computers can do. Nathaniel Popper profiles Kensho’s role in automating some of Goldman Sach’s research roles, highlighting how automation is increasingly emerging as a threat to white collar jobs:

The lead author on the Oxford paper, Carl Benedikt Frey, told me that he was aware that new technologies created jobs even as they destroyed them. But, Frey was quick to add, just because the total number of jobs stays the same doesn’t mean there are no disruptions along the way. The automation of textile work may not have driven up the national unemployment rate, but vast swathes of the American South suffered all the same. When it comes to those A.T.M.s, there has, in fact, been a recent steady decline in both the number of bank branches and the number of bank tellers, even as the number of low-paid workers in remote call centers has grown.

This points to a disconcerting possibility: Perhaps this time the machines really are reducing overall employment levels. In a recent survey of futurists and technologists, the Pew Research Institute found that about half foresee a future in which jobs continue to disappear at a faster rate than they are created.

Virtual reality is another technology that’s spilling out of the lab. Whilst it’s great to see the technology in the real world, Daniel Harvey profiles how a lack of diversity is leading to accidental sexism reflecting wider problems in the tech sector:

Based on that pattern it should come as no surprise that VR suffers from much the same. Motion sickness in VR has plagued the format since its inception. Women have shown a greater tendency toward VR-induced nausea than men. But why? It’s all about unconscious bias and technology’s notorious self-selection bias.

Discrimination is certainly not something exclusive to the tech sector. The absence of women in the boardrooms of many FTSE 100 or Fortune 500 companies reflects a range of barriers and will hold back their performance given they’re less able to reflect the needs of half the world’s consumers. It’s worth heading over to The Economist site where you can play with an interactive version of the following:

http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2016/03/daily-chart-0?fsrc=scn/tw/te/bl/ed/thebestandworstplacestobeaworkingwoman&%3Ffsrc%3Dscn/=tw/dc

Facebook recently released its State of Connectivity report which profiles barriers to internet access for the developing world as part of its internet.org initiative. The key barriers to access highlighted in the report are the state of connectivity, availability of infrastructure, affordability, relevance and readiness of the population:

Barriers to internet access for developing world consumers

A valuable complement to Facebook’s report is Pew Research Center’s recently released research which looks at smartphone ownership and internet usage around the world including developing countries:

Percent of adults who use the internet at least occasionally or report owning a smartphone

With Britain’s Brexit referendum coming up on the 23rd of June, The Economist has profiled the regions that are europhile and eurosceptic:

UK regions' attitudes to Brexit

Whilst Europe is generally becoming more urbanised, this process (like technology) is unevenly distributed with different cities experiencing significant growth (Istanbul, Brussels, Amsterdam) or decline (Katowice, Ruhr, Katowice, Ostrava, Bucharest):

Europe cities growth and decline

Claire Cain Miller and Quoctrung Bui profile changes in patterns of relationships and marriage in the US, highlighting the role of assortative mating in reinforcing social class and undermining social mobility:

Assortative mating is the idea that people marry people like themselves, with similar education and earnings potential and the values and lifestyle that come with them. It was common in the early 20th century, dipped in the middle of the century and has sharply risen in recent years — a pattern that roughly mirrors income inequality in the United States, according to research by Robert Mare, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. People are now more likely to marry people with similar educational attainment — even after controlling for differences between men and women, like the fact that women were once less likely to attend college.

The featured image is a mural by ecb / Hendrik Beikirch for the St+Art India event in New Delhi and published in StreetArtNews

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.

Thought Starters: Moore’s Law, Snapchat, questions about online advertising and the perils of Donald Trump

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 Moore’s Law, the ins and outs of Snapchat, some of the questions being raised out online advertising and the threat Donald Trump poses to politics among other things.

Nature recently published an article profiling Moore’s Law and how semiconductor manufacturers are looking at avenues beyond simply adding more  transistors to chips. It’ll be interesting to see how the technology industry adapts given the cornerstone that Moore’s Law and the associated industry roadmap of innovation has provided in enabling the computing infused world we live in today.

One of the challenges the semiconductor industry has had to face is the transition from PC to mobile which can be clearly seen in the following graph from Creative Strategies’ Ben Bajarin with the rapid growth of Android, iOS and AOSP:

Platform installed base

Quartz’s recent release of a mobile app provides an interesting example of publishers adapting to mobile, offering a stripped back feed of notifications and advertising, familiar to anyone using mobile messaging services:

Quartz mobile app

Snapchat can prove baffling for the uninitiated, with a user interface and visual language that sets it apart from the more traditional social networks (I’m looking at you Facebook and Twitter). Ben Rosen provides a handy guide, drawing on sage advice from his 13 year old sister:

Snapchat Filters

Whilst mobile, PCs and tablets are the dominant paradigms, we’re also beginning to see the emergence of a growing array of new devices blurring the boundaries of what a computing device is. The Amazon Echo is one of the more interesting devices to hit the market recently with the Uber integration providing an indication that the world envisioned in Her isn’t as far off as some people would have you believe:

The online advertising industry has been one of the clear winners over the last ten years with Google and Facebook in particular coming out ahead according to analysis from the Be Heard Group:

Net change in global ad spend / revenue

That’s not to say the online advertising industry is away laughing. The sector has come under growing scrutiny for failing to deliver for advertisers with Bloomberg last year pointing to growing click fraud with some advertising networks clearly dominated by bot rather than human traffic.

Another key metric is advertising viewability – there’s no point serving an advert to a human if the creative can’t be seen. Research from Meetrics points to a large proportion of European advertising not meeting IAB and the Media Rating Council (MRC) viewability, food for thought for media buyers:

Number of ads that are viewable (%)

Ben Thompson in a recent posting points to the stranglehold that Facebook and Google have on the online advertising market, offering greater effectiveness, reach, and ROI than their smaller competitors:

Here’s the kicker, though, and the big difference from the era of analog advertising: the Facebook and Google platforms turn TV and radio’s disadvantages on their head:

  • Facebook and Google have the most inventory and are still growing in terms of both users and ad-load; there is no temporal limitation that works to the benefit of other properties (and Facebook in particular is ramping up efforts to advertise using Facebook data on non-Facebook properties)
  • It is cheaper to produce ads for only Facebook and Google instead of making something custom for every potential advertising platform
  • Facebook and Google have the best tracking, extending not only to digital purchases but increasingly to off-line purchases as well

Facebook doesn’t always get its way with the recent judgement by the Indian Government’s blocking the social network’s Free Basics service. A case of neocolonialism by a hungry multinational or an honest attempt to widen internet access to the digitally excluded? I’ll let you be the judge.

Another social network that’s taken a hit recently is Twitter. Whilst the company has been  improving its monetisation of traffic, latest figures point to negative user growth which definitely takes some of the shine off things for investors:

Twitter user growth goes negative

Twitter isn’t the only tech company that’s taken a battering of late with talk of a popping of the tech bubble. A more careful examination of stock performances suggest that investors’ FoMO (Fear of Missing Out) has fueled the valuation of some companies well above what they were worth, whilst the fundamentals of others hold up to closer scrutiny:

Stock Performance Since October 5th 2015

Donald Trump’s run for president has kept many of us well entertained over the last few months but Ezra Klein gives a pointed reminder of why we shouldn’t be taking his candidacy lightly:

Trump answers America’s rage with more rage. As the journalist Molly Ball observed, “All the other candidates say ‘Americans are angry, and I understand.’ Trump says, ‘I’M angry.'” Trump doesn’t offer solutions so much as he offers villains. His message isn’t so much that he’ll help you as he’ll hurt them.

As Britain’s decision on Brexit looms, President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz provides an impassioned defence of British membership of the European Union:

Dan Fox provides a valuable defence of pretentiousness in The Guardian, suggesting that it typically says more about the accuser than the accused:

Being pretentious is rarely harmful to anyone. Accusing others of it is. You can use the word “pretentious” as a weapon with which to bludgeon other people’s creative efforts, but in shutting them down the accusation will shatter in your hand and out will bleed your own insecurities, prejudices and unquestioned assumptions. And that is why pretentiousness matters. It is a false note of objective judgment, and when it rings we can hear what society values in culture, hear how we perceive our individual selves.

The featured image is a GoddoG mural from LED Thionville in France.