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

The on-demand economy has been getting a lot of attention lately as Uber, Lyft and Postmates among others expand their market share. There could be a fly in the ointment if drivers and other providers of services are redefined as employees.  Kashmir Hill explores lawyer Shannon Liss-Riordan’s efforts move to change the balance of power.

We’re moving increasingly towards a software driven world where it’s less about the physical and more about the digital guts. John Deere have used these changes to claim that purchases of their tractors amounts to implied license rather than ownership. As you can imagine, this hasn’t gone down well among John Deere customers.

John Deere 8760 farm tractor with a folded farm tractor disc attached driving down a country road in Indiana.

Moore’s Law recently reached its 50th anniversary. Arnold Thackray, David Brock and Rachel Jones look at the history of the theory whilst The Economist looks at whether it’s forecast of constantly increasing power and decreasing costs still stands in the present day.

MooresLaw Whilst the rapidly evolving world of cryptocurrencies receive growing attention in the media, it’s interesting to have a look at the history of earlier digital currencies. Jake Halpern’s takes a look at the ups and downs of Liberty Reserve.

Felix Salmon uses Nathaniel Popper’s book Digital Gold as a starting point to highlight the huge gender imbalance in the Bitcoin world and looks at how this is likely to hold back the cryptocurrency’s development.

Benedict Evans looks at Google’s strategy in a world where the growth of mobile is making the world it operates in, increasingly complex:

The key change in all of this, I think, is that Google has gone from a world of almost perfect clarity – a text search box, a web-link index, a middle-class family’s home – to one of perfect complexity – every possible kind of user, device, access and data type. It’s gone from a firehose to a rain storm. But on the other hand, no-one knows water like Google. No-one else has the same lead in building understanding of how to deal with this.

Mobile phones’ reach is constantly expanding. Pew Research Center reports on the growing impact of mobile in Africa, illustrating why services like M-Pesa have such huge potential as business categories are reimagined with new technology.

Mobile Africa

Things do Jobs brings together a strong collection of images that illustrate how our smartphones are much more than phones:

Things to Do

Changes within the music industry have raised the spectre of the disintermediation of record labels as musicians gain a more direct channels for communicating with their fans. Zack O’Malley reports on how the major labels have looked to future proof their position by gaining a growing share of music startups which could well see them survive long into the future.

Music has often been associated  rightly or wrongly with youthful rebellion and politics. David Stubbs argues that politics was more of a sideline and suggests today’s musicians are in many cases as active as those of their forebearers

Eben Weiss (aka Bike Snob NYC) gives an impassioned call for a transport system in the Washington Post that better respects the interests of cyclists – an interest close to my heart.

If you find yourself at a loose end in London, you could do worse than checking out Carol Bove’s exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery.

Carol Bove

The featured image is a MOMO piece at Ace Hotel Palm Springs, California


Thought Starters

Content that has caught my eye recently or got me thinking. I particularly recommend Tim Urban’s article on artificial intelligence.

WeAreSocial provide their wrap up of key digital up of key digital, social and mobile statistics for 30 key global markets as well as regional overviews – a valuable reference source:

Flurry’s mobile statistics point to lifestyle & shopping as growing rapidly in consumers’ use of mobile, providing a stark contrast to the more well established mobile gaming:

Time Spent Mobile

Whilst global tablet penetration continues to grow, we’re seeing a drop in the phenomenal growth rates of earlier years according to eMarketer’s forecast:


Joichi Ito compares and contrasts the development of the internet with bitcoin,  providing a valuable lens in which to understand the fundamentals of the cryptocurrency and how it may develop in the future.

Steven Levy looks at how Google adapted its business strategy to better accommodate an increasingly mobile driven world:

Knowledge Graph structures the world’s information in a vast database. Voice Search incorporates spoken language into Search. Google Now tells what people want to know before they ask. All three, not coincidentally, are tied to Google’s focus on mobile. Though certainly not an exhaustive list, those components — and the way they work together— have helped transform Google Search in the past three years, from a delivery system of “ten blue links” into something almost psychic: a system that doesn’t behave like a computer but an intelligent hive of knowledge that wisely interprets and satisfies your information needs. And it did it all when you weren’t looking.

Benedict Evans similarly looks at how Google adapted Android and Apple adapted iOS to changing market environment and capabilities. Whilst in some respects, their positions are closer now than they were in the past, the companies strategy are based on fundamentally different underpinnings.

Nick Bilton profiles Snapchat Stories and how it fits in to the increasingly diverse range of communication channels available to consumers and particularly teenagers and young adults. Snapchat is looking to sell the service to advertisers, big question is whether it’s asking too much for the service with commentators both for and against.

Microsoft publicly revealed their HoloLens offering, taking the concept of enhanced eyewear a stage beyond Google Glass. It’s a fascinating project although it will be interesting to see if Microsoft does a better job than Google in overcoming consumers misgivings about wearing a computer on their face. Read a first hand experience of using the eyewear over on Wired:

Tim Urban profiles the growth of artificial intelligence, profiling the transition from Artificial Narrow Intelligence to Artificial Superintelligence and the innovations that are likely to enable this:


The Verge highlights the role of British based Gamma Group International in supporting Bahraini regime through spyware enabling the surveillance and hacking of activists digital communications. Given the more insidious uses that surveillance can be put to, I’m not a fan of David Cameron’s proposal for backdoor access to digital communications and also given the damage this could do to the UK’s digital sector as covered by Cory Doctorow.

Raffi Khatchadourian looks at Affectiva’s move to digitally read consumers’ emotions through the tracking of facial expressions. Obvious implications for measuring the impact of marketing communications but it’ll be interesting to see how it gets used for other purposes.

LSE Cities has pulled together a data visualisation illustrating how much population densities vary among the world’s major cities and published in Vox.

City Pop Density

Aaron Sankin looks at racial preferences among users of OkCupid and Tinder which points to biases among different ethnic groups, including among those who typically claim otherwise.

The featured image is mural by Nelio and Simek in Lyon.

Thought Starters

I have recently taken on full time work on top of other commitments, so I’m finding my time to blog is less than I have had in the past. Find below content recently that has caught my attention.

I’ve seen my own consumption of podcasts increase sharply over the last year, so it’s great to see NY Magazine profile this burgeoning media format:

“Radio has been saved the disruption that has happened to other media. It’s been frozen in time for 50 years,” Blumberg said. “Now that everyone is walking around with a radio in their pocket at all times, and now that all cars are going to be connected, the form can flourish again.”

Recent figures point to Facebook as doing a great job in muscling in on Youtube’s role as host of online video according to Comscore figures:

Online Video Comscore Benedict Evan’s Mobile is Eating the World presentation provides a valuable look at how mobile is coming to dominate the consumer technology landscape:

Evans’ view is further backed up by John Lewis whose recently released retail report points to mobile overtaking desktop for online traffic:

Mobile vs PC

There’s a looming battle in the US in the mobile payments space between Apple Pay and the retailer backed CurrentC. Reports that CurrentC has been hacked before it has fully launched and reports of the system’s poor user experience suggest it might be a one horse race:

When it comes to actually paying, the system gets even more cumbersome. CurrentC describes the process on its support site: You need to select a “Pay with CurrentC” option on the register, activate your phone, open the CurrentC app, enter a four-digit passcode, press the “Pay” button, “either scan the Secure Paycode that the cashier presents (default) or press the Show button at the bottom of your screen to allow the cashier to scan your Secure Paycode,” select the account you want to pay with, and then press a “Pay Now” button.

Whilst mobile payments is in its relative infancy at the moment, the indifferent attitude that many millennials have to cash points to this space as being increasingly important in years to come:


Ben Thompson looks at the media sector, analysing which elements are extracting the most value, drawing an analogy with the iPhone and its components manufacturers:

The Smiling Curve for publishing

John Kirk takes a critical look at market research and points to it as providing a much better source of insights in enhancing existing products rather than providing guidance on new product categories:

We’re very, very good at explaining why things won’t work. We’re not nearly as good at imagining creative new ways things might work.

A look at the quality of life index by The Economist point to a rapidly narrowing gap between rich, emerging and poor countries:

Quality of Life The Economist takes a valuable look at Iran pointing to a country that is becoming less radical and more secular:

The regime may remain suspicious of the West, and drone on about seeding revolutions in oppressor countries, but the revolutionary fervour and drab conformism have gone. Iran is desperate to trade with whomever will buy its oil. Globalisation trumps puritanism even here.

I am a strong believer in the view that climate change is one of the major issues that needs to be addressed now if we’re to have a real chance of living comfortably on this planet going forward. The following graph from Bloomberg gives me some hope although the inconsistency of supply and issues of storage means that we’re not likely to see a wholesale switch to solar in the immediate future:

Solar Energy If you’ve ever wondered how hard it would be to pick up another European language, the following visualisation should provide a useful guide, found on Etymologikon:

LanguageI recently discovered the Earth View from Google Maps Chrome extension which provides a view of Earth each time you open a new tab – certainly beats the traditional blank screen:

Google Earth

The featured image is GoddoG’s piece from the Festival K-live in Sète, France.