Science moves forward, verdicts on BoJo, Trump and Amazon

Lucy McLauchlan mural in Leytonstone for London Mural Fest

A look at some of the stories that have caught my eye over the last couple of weeks. These include science’s impact on the coronavirus pandemic, verdicts on the leadership of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump and a closer look at tech giant Amazon.

Ed Yong looks at the scientific research community’s successes and occasional failures in addressing the coronavirus pandemic:

The scientific community spent the pre-pandemic years designing faster ways of doing experiments, sharing data, and developing vaccines, allowing it to mobilize quickly when COVID‑19 emerged. Its goal now should be to address its many lingering weaknesses. Warped incentives, wasteful practices, overconfidence, inequality, a biomedical bias—COVID‑19 has exposed them all. And in doing so, it offers the world of science a chance to practice one of its most important qualities: self-correction.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the difficult but necessary decision of “cancelling Christmas” this year. Despite this, it’s hard to feel too sorry for him given the lack of leadership shown in managing the pandemic as ably described by Andrew Rawnsley:

The coronavirus crisis could not have been more cunningly engineered to expose Mr Johnson’s flaws. He was made prime minister not because anyone thought that he was a cool and decisive head with the leadership skills and moral seriousness required to handle the gravest public health emergency in a century. He was put there because he was a successful representative of the entertainer branch of populist leadership that prospered in the pre-virus era. “We elected him to be a ‘good times’ prime minister,” comments one senior Tory. “His curse is to be prime minister in bad times.”

Few of his strengths as a politician have been of much utility in this emergency. All of his weaknesses have been searingly exposed. A man who spent his career ducking responsibility was suddenly confronted with a challenge that could not be run from, though that didn’t stop him vanishing at the outset when he went missing from critical meetings. In the coronavirus, he met an opponent impervious to glib slogans and empty promises. Here was a disease posing hideous and inescapable dilemmas that confounded the “have your cake and eat it” philosophy by which he had lived his life.

Being single during the coronavirus pandemic left me reflecting on how rules and regulations have predominantely been designed for couples/families rather than the growing number of people living alone. Megan Nolan provides a personal take on how “lockdown life” has hampered her and many other singles natural quest for intimacy:

Mostly, the government here in Britain — as in many other places — pretended that sex doesn’t take place except between cohabiting couples. When public health advocates have brought themselves to allude to the existence of sex, the advice is usually unrealistic and inadequate, instructing couples who don’t live together to meet up outside and not touch. News releases from sex toy companies began filling my email inbox, advertising remote-controlled vibrators, as though the loss of physical connection was purely about missing an orgasm.

There has been no serious effort to confront the particular challenges of what it is to be single — to be alone — in 2020. There have been no major harm-reduction initiatives, just the deluded implication that all of us who failed to partner up by March 2020 should live without meaningful connection until there is a vaccine.

Despite Donald Trump’s loud protestations, he’s going down as one of the most inept American presidents of all time. Given this, it’s interesting to read David Frum pointing (through clenched teeth) to 12 achievements that Trump has made during his time in power:

Yet nobody does nothing as president, not even someone who watches television for five or six hours a day. There were achievements in the Trump years, and even if they hardly begin to compare to Jimmy Carter’s, they are still worth noting as this presidency comes to an end. 

Anne Helen Petersen looks at the financially precarious position of many people in the American middle class which she describes as the hollow middle:

Forty years ago, the term “middle class” referred to Americans who had successfully obtained a version of the American dream: a steady income from one or two earners, a home, and security for the future. It meant the ability to save and acquire assets. Now, it mostly means the ability to put your bills on autopay and service debt. The stability that once characterized the middle class, that made it such a coveted and aspirational echelon of American existence, has been hollowed out.

It has been over 13 years since the launch of the first iPhone and the various iterations on the smartphone has changed the world we now live in. Benedict Evans looks at what technologies are likely to make an outsize impact in the coming years but also forecasts that the smartphones will continue to drive plenty of changes in years to come:

Amazon like many of the tech giants has seen its market position strengthen during the coronavirus pandemic as more people push their shopping online. Dana Mattioli examines how Amazon’s intense competitive spirit has increasingly brought it to the attention of both competitors and market regulators:

He still exhorts employees to consider Amazon a startup. “It is always day one,” he likes to say. Day two is “stasis, followed by irrelevance, followed by excruciating, painful decline, followed by death.” Mr. Bezos originally considered calling his company Relentless, and www.relentless.com still redirects to Amazon’s site.

Providing an interesting compliment to Mattiolis’ piece is Logic’s interview with an anonymous Amazon employee. There’s plenty of coverage of Amazon’s efforts to provide a secure environment for its web services. Where I found it particularly interesting was its commentary on Amazon as a workplace, particularly as it compared to the other tech giants:

I think your question kind of misses the forest for the trees. For most people at Amazon, glancing at the Apple News feed on their iPhone is about as much of the discourse as they consume. They don’t care about the news. It doesn’t contribute anything to their life. There are colleagues I’m friends with who don’t really know who ran for president. They figure it’s all going to be the same anyway, so why bother.

But by the same token, if they hear someone criticize Amazon, they’re not inclined to be super defensive. There aren’t a lot of intense loyalists. People at Amazon are mercenaries. The company doesn’t have great benefits. Office life kind of sucks and it’s not that fun of a place to work. It’s a grind. People work there because it pays a little bit better than the competition and it looks good on a resume. They can go in, do their job, go home, spend time with their kids, watch sports. That’s the good life.

Amazon has around a million employees worldwide. The majority work in shipping and logistics and delivery. There are maybe eighty thousand corporate employees. And I would estimate that fewer than two thousand of them have participated in discussions around organizing.

Joe Cascarelli looks at the world of music fandom which reflects the increasingly polarised world of politics:

n what is known as Stan Twitter — and its offshoots on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Tumblr and various message boards — these devotees compare No. 1s and streaming statistics like sports fans do batting averages, championship wins and shooting percentages. They pledge allegiance to their favorites like the most rabid political partisans or religious followers. They organize to win awards show polls, boost sales and raise money like grass roots activists. And they band together to pester — or harass, and even dox — those who may dare to slight the stars they have chosen to align themselves with.

Thought Starters: the rise of artificial intelligence, a look at YouNow, what’s going on in content marketing and a climate change update

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to look through articles, research and opinion pieces, highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in. This edition includes signs of growing interest in artificial intelligence, a profile of the YouNow live streaming service,  a review of the UK’s content marketing sector, a look  at climate change post COP21 and lots more.

Artificial intelligence has been one of those innovations that’s often talked about but rarely seen but there are signs this is beginning to change.  Jack Clark profiles recent developments which provide indicators of the technologies readiness to move out of the laboratory:

AI Learns to Pin the Tail on the Donkey

Another technology that is apparently gaining traction are virtual assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana. MindMeld’s research points to a substantial uptake in usage in the last six months (tipping point?) although as a provider of such services, MindMeld is not exactly a neutral voice:

When did you first start using voice search:commands?

Digital audio landscape  has continued to evolve as we move from an ownership to an increasingly streaming based model. Parviz Parvizi has looked to map out the current landscape (see below) and also suggests where we’re likely to see a blurring of boundaries in the near future as the market continues to evolve:

Digital Audio Landscape

I’ve been an avid follower of the Tumblr platform for some years, with the service fitting very much into a space which users broadcast their identity and interests. It will be interesting to see whether the platform’s launch of messaging provides a catalyst for communities of interest among strangers:

Unlike Facebook Messenger or services like WhatsApp, Karp says this is a tool for connecting people who actually don’t know each other in the real world. They may have the same interests and often reblog each other’s work, but have never met in real life.

Ofcom recently released its annual International Communications Market Report,  providing a valuable collection of media and communication statistics. Statistics typically cover UK, France, Germany, Italy, USA, Japan, Australia and Spain , but also include Sweden, Poland, Singapore, South Korea, Brazil, Russia, India, China and Nigeria for some data sets:

Checking smartphone at the start of the day

Amanda Hess profiles rapidly emerging livestreaming platform YouNow which is apparently making an impression on teenage audiences:

“…on YouNow, you don’t see what the broadcaster sees—you see the broadcaster himself. You click into a stream and stare into his eyes. YouNow’s camera is always set, by default, to selfie mode. The whole site is designed to create personalities and foster fandoms around them.

Consumers are spending more time in app on their mobile phone. Unfortunately for retailers this doesn’t mean that developing an app is necessarily the road to success, with comScore research from the US pointing to 51% of users having three or less retail apps. That doesn’t leave much space for an app from your local craft beer emporium:

How many mobile retail apps do you currently have on your smartphone

Content marketing is definitely having its moment in the sun with organisations seeing it as a valuable means of getting their story across to consumers and organisations. Unfortunately this also means that it’s harder to get yourself noticed in an increasingly crowded field. The Content Marketing Institute has released its report looking at what British brands are doing to get themselves noticed:

China was seen by many international brands as the land of opportunity driven by strong economic growth and a population seemingly infatuated with international brands. Angela Doland’s profile of China now suggests the honeymoon might now be over as as competition increases and the economy slows, but the sheer size of the market means that it’s still very hard to ignore:

By 2030, 66% of the world’s middle class will be in Asia, according to Brookings Institution calculations. Only 21% will be in North America and Europe combined. “From a marketing perspective, that statistic tells the whole story of what the challenge is,” Mr. Dumont said. “Asia is the future, and with the world’s largest middle class, China is at the center of it.”

China’s slowing down economy is also having a substantial flow-on effect on global commodity prices, the majority of which now down on where they were a year ago:

Commodity Carnage

Another field apparently in decline is the American middle class. Pew Research Center’s research points to a growing polarisation in household income levels:

Share of adults living in middle-income households is falling

Brad Plumer’s analysis of the recent climate change conference in Paris suggests that it will be some years before we really get an indication on whether it was a success on addressing the issue of global warming.  What is reassuring is seeing research pointing to a reduction in CO2 emissions driven by a fall in the emissions intensity of GDP and a drop in China’s CO2 emissions attributed to a drop in coal consumption. This is a trend we’ll need to see continue if we’re to see the rise in global temperature come down to manageable levels:

Global CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel use and industry since 1990 and emissions intensity CO2/GDP

London’s skyline has seen a lot of changes over the last 10 years as the City of London Corporation has liberalised height restrictions in the City. Oliver Wainwright and Monica Ulmanu’s review of the recent and proposed changes and the article’s accompanying visualisations are well worth reading if you have more than a passing interest in London’s architecture and urban landscape:

All lines lead to St Paul’s

As the process of gentrification continues in the heart of many of the world’s great cities, Jordan Fraade considers whether we’re likely to see the suburbs get the same cultural treatment as areas like Brooklyn and Hackney:

Despite all that ink spilled about repurposed lofts and bike lanes, it’s quite likely that if you’re scraping by as a graphic designer, writer or even nonprofit employee in a big city, you’re going to end up in the ‘burbs after all. What does that mean for our suburbs? Will millennials remake them in their image? Is America destined to become a country of “Hipsturbia?”

The featured image is a Farid Rueda mural in Uruapan, Mexico published in StreetArtNews.

Thought Starters: Content that has got me thinking 17

A lot of noise is being made about the rapid growth of ecommerce and the  effect this is having on bricks and mortar retail. Forrester analyst Sucharita Mulpuru provides an alternative view,  pointing to the continuing growth in the traditional retail sector and the need to distinguish between retailers making the right (and wrong) decisions.

Geoffrey Moore gives a rather sobering view on the effect that technology is having on America’s middle class and suggests some potential avenues to address this.

Marc Andreessen is interviewed in the Washington Post providing commentary on the impact of revelations on NSA surveillance, net neutrality and bitcoin. His commentary on the latter is particularly interesting and marks out why Andreessen Horowitz are investing heavily in the sector.

E-commerce would’ve gotten built on top of this, instead of getting built on top of the credit card network. We knew we were missing this; we just didn’t know what it was. There is no reason on earth for anybody to be on the Internet today to be typing in a credit card number to buy something. It’s insane, because — which is why you have all these security problems, the Target hack and all this crazy…. And these high fees, this high fraud rate. It doesn’t make sense online to have a payment mechanism that requires you to hand over your credentials to make a payment. That’s just an invitation to fraud and identity theft. It’s just stupid.

But we didn’t have the better way of doing it. So we didn’t know what else to do, and now we have the better way of doing it. Now, it’s going to take time. We’re quite confident that when we’re sitting here in 20 years, we’ll be talking about Bitcoin the way we talk about the Internet today. We just need time for it to play out.

Moving customers over to a subscription model of payments may provide companies with a valuable regular income stream but Brian S Hall points out that this is   not necessarily in the consumer’s best interests.

Timothy B Lee looks at the New York Times’s Innovation report which identifies new disruptive players, but also suggests that the organisation like many incumbents is poorly placed to meet the challenge of new entrants.

Game Oven recently wrote a piece looking at the difficulties in writing software for Android given the fragmented hardware and software environment. Benedict Evans built on this post , pointing to the problems of Android fragmentation but also suggesting that the movement to a more cloud based environment may alleviate many of the current problems associated with developing for Android.

Deloitte has released its latest Media Consumer report looking at changes in media consumption patterns in the UK. Among the areas covered are device ownership, television consumption, trust in journalism, use of social media, cinema viewing, gaming and streaming of music.

Percentage of households that have at least one of these devices

 Julie Ask looks at the role of disintermediaries in an increasingly mobile centred environment, with social media, mapping, entertainment, commerce and payments growing in strategic importance.

Today, a third crop of platforms are laying the groundwork to step into the powerful position of “owning the customer,” by serving them in mobile moments. Consumers expect to be able to get what they want in their immediate context and moment of need. They will reach for their phone for information and services. The issue is, most brands aren’’t yet there for their customers in this moment, challenged to even get customers to visit their mobile website or download the brand’s mobile app.

That’s where the platforms that dominate minutes of use, such as popular messaging and social media apps, come into play. It’s not hard to imagine a future where a small set of highly contextual and curated disintermediaries offer consumers a portal to the universe of services on mobile devices. Companies should consider the possibility of a future where their access to consumers is through this small set of disintermediaries

JWT Intelligence has a look at the mobile payments sector which is encumbered by the chicken and egg scenario. Consumers won’t use a service if they’re not familiar with it but retailers won’t invest in a platform if it’s not widely adopted. Efforts are being made to increase adoption and Apple is a potentially disruptive player waiting in the wings.

A growing amount of attention has been given to the mobile messaging sector lately, particularly in light of Facebook’s recent acquisition of WhatsApp. Line and WeChat are similar (provide text and photo messaging but different from the more traditional mobile messaging players  with Mark Bivens and Jerry Yang comparing the two Asian powerhouses on Bivens’ blog.

I am a strong believer that we will see some version of enhanced eyewear make inroads in the future  but Matt Lake’s review points to  Google Glass being some way from the medium’s end goal.

There’s been a lot of talk lately of a cooling in tablet sales with commentators suggesting that the smartphone can more than adequately fulfill many of the use cases. Providing a counterpoint to these suggestions is research from Flurry which point to growing usage by tablet owners.

Tablet usage

Matthew Yglesias looks critically at the content that Facebook looks to share among its users following Director of Product at Facebook’s recent rant about the state of the media.

Relationship status is one of those sensitive areas that users aren’t always willing to make public on Facebook. In an attempt to overcome consumers’ reluctance (and provide another data source), Facebook is providing consumers with the opportunity to directly ask fellow users what their current relationship status is.

Relationship Status

Facebook has added song and television show identification (à la Shazam) to its iOS and Android app, providing the opportunity to further enrich its collection of consumer data.

Facebook Music and TV Id

Whilst digital technologies such as HTML5 and WebGL are enabling a richer array of experiences online, the majority of online spend is still very much on direct response advertising in the US according to eMarketer figures.

Digital Ad Spending ShareThe featured image is Reliefs by Evgeniy Dikson