Thought Starters: the move to mobile, Oculus Rift, post Arab Spring and experiments with universal basic income

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to look through articles, research and opinion pieces, highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in. This edition includes a look at the growing importance of mobile, questions about Oculus Rift, coverage of Middle East post Arab Spring, Finland’s experiment with the universal basic income and much more.

The International Telecommunications Union’s Measuring the Information Society Report provides a valuable collection of telecom statistics with an accompanying webpage enabling users to quick compare different countries and regions. What becomes quickly apparent in some of the statistics is how less developed countries have skipped of fixed telecoms as they make the transition directly to a mobile world:

ICT access by development status

Whilst the move to mobile is particularly apparent in many developing countries, figures from Enders Analysis point to UK’s own transition to mobile in internet use, ecommerce and online advertising:

Monetisation of mobile devices

Taking this further, Benedict Evans puts forward 16 hypotheses on how mobile has reshaped the technology landscape. Well worth spending time with this and the his accompanying articles.

Neural nets are one of the areas where we’re seeing significant advances in artificial intelligence.  Steven Levy has an entertaining profile of the work Alexander Mordvintsev and his attempts to understand how these neural nets work which has led to computationally produced images that are probably best described as psychedelic:

Inside Deep Dreams: How Google Made Its Computers Go Crazy

Oculus Rift has become the poster boy for the virtual reality community but Jason Pfaff suggests the need for expensive goggles tethered to a powerful Windows PC and poor user experience could see it quickly disrupted:

Which brings me to Oculus, and their flagship product, the Rift.  Today, as anyone with an Oculus development kit (DK2) will tell you, the experience provided by the hardware is like nothing you’ve ever experienced.  It is pure, blissful magic.  But, and this is key, to get to that experience you have to do a few things you haven’t done in a long time.  For starters, you need to buy a premium and Windows based PC.  Then, you have to find a massive file on an online store and wait minutes for it to download and eat large swaths of your memory.  Then you go into Windows Explorer, paste it from your download folder to the folder Oculus will read from, and then you extract the files.  Think about that.  Then you crack open that folder to find the one that launches it, then you click, then you wait, and then you hope.  And if it doesn’t work, you try another folder or another file, or look for another file called “Direct to Rift mode” to see if that forces the app through to the display.  This is repeated for every app, piece of content or game you want to display on your Rift. A lot of friction.

The media sector continues to evolve as consumers move their content consumption online and content producers find their access to consumers increasingly dictated by social media. The Nieman Foundation has asked a long list of opinion makers what they think are the important issues and trends for journalism in 2016.

Consumers are moving to non linear television with the use of PVRs (eg Sky+HD box), catch up television services (eg BBC iPlayer) and subscriptions to streaming video services (eg Netflix). James Poniewozik looks at what this means for the makers and consumers of television programmes:

HBO series like “Deadwood” — which jettisoned the ad breaks and content restrictions of network TV — have been compared to Dickens’s serial novels. Watching a streaming series is even more like reading a book — you receive it as a seamless whole, you set your own schedule — but it’s also like video gaming. Binge-watching is immersive. It’s user-directed. It creates a dynamic that I call “The Suck”: that narcotic, tidal feeling of getting drawn into a show and letting it wash over you for hours. “Play next episode” is the default, and it’s so easy. It can be competitive, even. Your friends are posting their progress, hour by hour, on social media. (“OMG #JessicaJones episode 10!! Woke up at 3 a.m. to watch!”) Each episode becomes a level to unlock.

With those new mechanics comes a new relationship with the audience. Traditional television — what the jargonmeisters now call “linear TV” — assumes that your time is scarce and it has you for a few precious hours before bed. The streaming services assume they own your free time, whenever it comes — travel, holidays, weekends — to fill with five- and 10-hour entertainments.

Tom Mitchell and Patti Waldmeir look at the massive growth in China’s  business elite and the growing tension with the ruling Communist Party which has seen the temporary disappearance of a number of business leaders:

The number of dollar billionaires in China

Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf is about to come out of copyright in Germany which has prompted The Economist to look at the shadow Nazi rule casts on contemporary German society:

If a country can ever be said to be good, Germany today can. And yet Germans know that whenever others are angry with them, they will paint a Hitler moustache on posters of their chancellor. Many Germans are fed up with this—with being “blackmailed”, as Bild, the leading tabloid, complained this spring, when Greece unexpectedly brought war reparations into negotiations about bail-outs in the euro crisis. Other Germans, mainly on the left, fret about a new “post-post-nationalism”, as Germany tentatively articulates its self-interest abroad. For most countries, this would count as normal. For Germany, it remains complicated.

Gilbert Achcar and Nada Matta look at the more recent legacy of the Arab Spring five years on from its beginnings in Tunisia, and they point to why some countries where more successful in their transitioning than others:

Five years into the uprisings, however, counterrevolutionary forces composed of the old regimes and Islamic fundamentalist forces have regained the political initiative, and are now violently vying for control. Egypt is under a worse dictatorship than before its uprising, and civil wars have broken out in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Hundreds of thousands have died, and many millions have been displaced.

It’s also well worth reading Scott Atran’s detailed analysis of the rise of ISIS in which he draws parallels with earlier revolutionary movements and the conviction of its members which is in stark contrast to much of its opponents:

Civilisations rise and fall on the vitality of their cultural ideals, not their material assets alone. History shows that most societies have sacred values for which their people would passionately fight, risking serious loss and even death rather than compromise. Our research suggests this is so for many who join ISIS, and for many Kurds who oppose them on the frontlines. But, so far, we find no comparable willingness among the majority of youth that we sample in Western democracies. With the defeat of fascism and communism, have their lives defaulted to the quest for comfort and safety? Is this enough to ensure the survival, much less triumph, of values we have come to take for granted, on which we believe our world is based? More than the threat from violent jihadis, this might be the key existential issue for open societies today.

There’s been a lot of talk about a movement from corporate to self-employment. For those people whose skills are in demand, this can offer substantial benefits but for the less in demand, the transition to the freelance economy can pose significant challenges to individuals financial security. One of the solutions being suggested to this problem is the introduction of a universal basic income, guaranteeing all members of society an income regardless of their situation. Ben Schiller covers Finland’s experiment with the model, with the country seeing real potential benefits in terms of security, incentives to work and reduced bureaucracy:

The Finnish government likes the concept, and it’s putting serious resources behind a national experiment. Starting in 2017, up to 100,000 Finns could get up to 1,000 euros a month, in lieu of other benefits. These lucky souls won’t have to work. They won’t have to prove they’re in poverty to get the money. For two years, they’ll get a fixed amount to do with what they will.

The featured image is a mural produced by 108 for Bien Urbain in Besancon, France and found on ekosystem.

Thought Starters: the fallacy of maximising shareholder value, the impact of climate change on your wallet and our responses to ISIS

The following is a look through articles, research and opinion pieces highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in, with an emphasis on technology.

The following figures presented by DoubleLine Capital’s Jeffrey Gundlach point to the fact that the global economy isn’t out of the woods yet:

Global nominal GDP growth

Steve Denning uses Roger L. Martin’s analysis in Fixing the Game to point out how management’s focus on maximising shareholder value comes at the expense of long term value creation and ultimately society:

“In today’s paradoxical world of maximizing shareholder value, which Jack Welch himself has called “the dumbest idea in the world”, the situation is the reverse. CEOs and their top managers have massive incentives to focus most of their attentions on the expectations market, rather than the real job of running the company producing real products and services.”

Om Malik covers the release of the latest Ericsson Mobility Report, highlighting growing penetration of different technologies (smartphones, mobile internet etc) and the regions where we’re forecasted to see  particularly strong growth:

Connected devices forecast

We’re seeing technology have an increasingly significant role in the employment landscape as machine learning, robotics and a growing array of sensors expand the range of tasks we can automate. The Bank of England’s Chief Economist, Andrew G Haldane recently gave a speech where he explored these changes and their implications which can be found in an abbreviated form on re/code:

Average probability of automation by occupation

Chris Field and Katharine Mach profile the work of Marshall Burke, Solomon Hsiang, and Edward Miguel who have researched the economic impacts of climate change. With the Paris Climate Change Conference fast approaching, now is an important time to make your concerns known about global warming to your local government – not one to stand on the sidelines for:

“Their conclusion delivers two blockbusters. First, in contrast to past studies, they argue that 21st century warming could lead to huge global-scale macroeconomic impacts. The best estimate from Burke and colleagues is that business as usual emissions throughout the 21st century will decrease per capita GDP by 23% below what it would otherwise be, with the possibility of a much larger impact.

Secondly, they conclude that both the size and the direction of the temperature effect depend on the starting temperature. Countries with an average yearly temperature greater than 13°C (55°F) will see decreased economic growth as temperatures rise.”

Before you suggest the issue of climate change is too difficult, it’s worth reviewing research at the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University which points to the feasibility of a move to a society that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels: 

“In a few decades, the world could be powered by nothing but wind, water, and sunlight. That’s the conclusion of a new study released just before world leaders head to Paris to strike a climate deal.

“These are basically plans showing it’s technically and economically feasible to change the energy infrastructure of all of these different countries,” says Mark Z. Jacobson, director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University, who worked with University of California colleagues to analyze energy roadmaps for 139 countries.”

Chain founder Adam Ludwin is interviewed for Andreessen Horowitz’s podcast focusing on the growing world of blockchain innovation. Among the subjects covered are the merging cultures of finance and tech, the price of bitcoin, the importance of blockchain (rather than bitcoin) and a review of  private and permissioned blockchains and uses for colored coins and sidechains:

Michael Vakulenko looks at at how the movement to self driving cars is likely to unseat traditional manufacturers’ position in the car market. Among the particular technologies and innovations he points to as catalysing change are services and apps, transportation platforms, fleet routing and navigation:

“It’s still too early in the game to say which companies will dominate the future transportation market. One thing is a safe bet: The future transportation ecosystem will look very different from the existing automotive industry. It will resemble modern technology ecosystems with their platform business models, permissionless innovation by developers, and domination of software-centric companies.”

Technology based disruption hasn’t received the same level of media attention in education as it has in other sectors with the possible exceptions MOOCs reflecting a more constrained funding pool and the comparatively complex web of different stakeholders. The NMC Horizon Report: 2015 K-12 Edition provides a valuable review of emerging innovations in the primary and secondary education sector, with technologies typically augmenting rather than replacing current ways of working:

Edtech Trends

The New York Times‘ experiment with Google Cardboard has gained lots of plaudits for pushing the boundary for online journalism at scale. Whilst the experiment has catalysed interest in these new formats, Will Smith stresses the need for fully featured virtual reality platforms such as Oculus Rift to differentiate themselves from Google Cardboard:

“In the meantime, if you enjoyed your first taste of VR, courtesy of Cardboard and 360 video, that’s great! Welcome to the future! But if that first taste of VR turned your stomach, please know that it doesn’t have to be this way. The problems that affected you have been solved—you just need better hardware than comes free with the Sunday paper.”

Steve Albini wrote the essay The Problem with Music in 1994 critiquing the music industry and its ability to both give musicians money and then take it back with a litany of expenses. Albini gave an update of sorts last year at the Face the Music conference where he saw musicians as now being in a better position to take control of their own destiny:

The Socio-Economic Segregation in European Capital Cities project has been looking at levels of inequality and the proximity of the rich and poor in 12 different cities across Europe. Richard Florida’s summary of the research points to a general trend of increasing income inequality (measured by Gini coefficient) and residential segregation (measured by index of dissimilarity) across Europe, although Tallinn and Oslo make for interesting outliers:

European Cities Economic Segregation and Inequality

ISIS’ attack on Paris on the 13th of November was a tragedy which has led to some important discussions about how we deal with the threat of terrorism. The Economist’s look at global deaths from terrorism puts the deaths in perspective, pointing to how much the West has in many cases been spared the worst effects of terrorism:

Global deaths from terrorism

The attacks have led to renewed calls for backdoors in secure products and encryption software. Kim Zetter provides a valuable rebuttal starting with the lack of evidence to support the view that the terrorists used encryption technology.  She then goes on to point out that there will always be homebrewed encryption alternatives, encryption doesn’t hide metadata and weakening existing products ultimately makes everyone vulnerable:

“If Snowden has taught us anything, it’s that the intel agencies are drowning in data,” EFF Attorney Nate Cardozo says. “They have this ‘collect it all mentality’ and that has led to a ridiculous amount of data in their possession. It’s not about having enough data; it’s a matter of not knowing what to do with the data they already have. That’s been true since before 9/11, and it’s even more true now.”

Adam Shatz writing for the London Review of Books reports more broadly on ISIS’ aims with the terrorist attacks and the options the West has in reducing chances of future incidents:

“Now IS is unrivalled among jihadist groups, and no one knows quite what to do that won’t make the problem worse. Anything that can be done now risks being too little, too late. It’s true that IS is no match, militarily, for the West. The attacks of 13 November were in the anarchist tradition of the ‘propaganda of the deed’, and we shouldn’t fall for it: the social order of Europe isn’t in jeopardy. But it would also be a mistake to underestimate the problem. IS has managed to insert itself, with no small amount of cunning, and with acute sensitivity to feelings of humiliation, into two of the most intractable conflicts of our time: the relationship of European societies to their internal, Muslim ‘others’ and the sectarian power struggles that have engulfed the lands of Iraq and Syria since 2003.”

One of my real concerns is that the attacks could further marginalise Muslim populations already living in Western Europe and USA and lead to the closing of borders to refugees fleeing turmoil in places like Syria and Afghanistan. By doing this, the West would essentially be handing ISIS a victory of sorts as Adam Taylor reports:

“The very same refugees entering Europe are often the very same civilians who face the indiscriminate violence and cruel injustice in lands controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (though, it should be noted, many in Syria are also threatened by the brutal actions of the Syrian government). Globally, studies have shown that Muslims tend to make up the largest proportion of terror victims, with countries such as Syria and Iraq registering the highest toll.

If Muslim refugees come to Europe and are welcomed, it deeply undercuts the Islamic State’s legitimacy. Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has helpfully catalogued some of the Islamic State’s messages on the refugees pouring into Europe from the Middle East. The messages give the impression of deep discomfort and even jealousy that the Muslim population the Islamic State so covets for its self-proclaimed “caliphate” would rather live in “infidel” Western lands.”

The Economist’s analysis of health spending and life expectancy point to the fact that there’s a far from direct correlation between the two with the United States’s poor performance in particular standing out:

Health spending and life expectancy at birth

Raffi Khatchadourian has written a thought provoking profile of Nick Bostrom for the New Yorker profiling the latter’s research into whether developments in artificial intelligence and other technologies will lead to human extinction. His approach is definitely more thoughtful than your average Hollywood blockbuster.

The featured image is Phoenix by DALeast in Penang, Malaysia and published in StreetArtNews.