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: 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.