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

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

Authors of The Age of Cryptocurrency, Michael  Casey and Paul Vigna talk about how Bitcoin is no longer being seen as a novelty in the world’s financial system.

Leslie Berlin provides a valuable account of the history of Silicon Valley, pointing to the technical, cultural, and financial forces that have shaped its growth.

Silicon Valley
Santa Clara Valley before it became Silicon Valley, OSU Special Collections.

Amazon recently released its financial results which broke out figures for its AWS cloud computing offering for the first time. Ben Thompson profiled the growth of Amazon and the increasingly important role that AWS now plays for the tech juggernaut, fueling the company’s forays into new markets. Jan Dawson on the other hand takes a critical look at some of Amazon’s forays into foreign markets which have met with mixed success and suggests that the company should double down on those markets where it has critical mass.

Amazon Services
Amazon’s array of services with Jan Dawson arguing that the company should concentrate on depth rather than reach.

Elon Musk’s launch of Tesla Energy has raised a lot of comments about the disruption of the electricity sector. Davide Castelvecchi takes a more critical view

Senior fellow at the Centre for Global Development, Michael Clemens argues the case for opening Europe’s doors to immigration, providing a marked contrast to politicians response in the European Union.

The UK election has come to a close and I can’t claim to be happy with the result. The Financial Times has some valuable data visualisations which allow readers to quickly grasp trends in voting.

Screen Shot 2015-05-09 at 10.55.28

Want to know where you’re likely to find racism? PLOS ONE used Google’s search data, providing a source of information that’s free of some of the biases traditionally associated with survey data on racism:

Google Racism

Ryoji Ikeda’s Supersymmetry exhibition at the Vinyl Factory’s Brewer Street Car Park space is well worth a visit for fans of digital art at a more visceral level.

The featured image is 1010 piece in Fondi, Italy for Memoire Urbane and published in StreetArtNews.

Thought Starters

A mixed collection of materials looking at societal trends and the impact of technology on the way we live.

Despite the growth of the internet, television continues to retain a strong hold on our media habits, but what is changing is how we watch it. Figures from GlobalWebIndex point to younger cohorts moving towards online viewing, something that’s even more prevalent in developing markets:

Traditional vs Online TV

Statistics from Britain’s Office of National Statistics point to continuing growth in broadband, mobile internet and provide information on what consumers are doing online:

Internet Activities

Ethan Zuckerman takes a critical look at the growth of the advertising funded internet. He points to consumers’ loss of privacy as businesses look to capture more elaborate collections of data to enable the more sophisticated targeting of online advertising:

Once we’ve assumed that advertising is the default model to support the Internet, the next step is obvious: We need more data so we can make our targeted ads appear to be more effective. Cegłowski explains, “We’re addicted to ‘big data’ not because it’s effective now, but because we need it to tell better stories.” So we build businesses that promise investors that advertising will be more invasive, ubiquitous, and targeted and that we will collect more data about our users and their behavior.

The mobile app industry has seen rapid growth over the last five years, but commentators and analysts are pointing to a maturing of the sector with the Financial Times taking a more detailed look:

Yet amid the apparent wealth, the mood is gloomy among the independent coders and small businesses that make most of the apps now available for Apple and Google devices.

Luc Vandal, founder of Montreal app shop Edovia, sums up the feeling of many: “Let’s face it, the app gold rush is over.”

Smartphones have traditionally provided  a more secure environment aided by the more restricted environment that software works in when compared to the traditional PC. Unfortunately this may not be enough with John McAfee warning that security is becoming increasingly threatened by mobile apps which carry malicious payloads.

The open source nature of the Android ecosystem has fostered a broader array of devices when compared to the more closed environment of Apple’s iOS. OpenSignal have updated their report looking at the fragmentation within the Android ecosystem profiling both the range of devices as well as the operating system versions employed:

Android FragmentationAnother interesting chart from OpenSignal’s presentation looks at the growing array of sensors in Samsung’s Galaxy smartphone, confirming the devices role as more than just a phone (loss of temperature and barometer sensors presumably  to enable S5’s water resistance):

Sensor Fragmentation

eMarketer’s forecast for the UK market point to  Android and iOS continuing to dominate with BlackBerry and Symbian falling off rapidly and WindowsPhone coming up a distant third:

MobileOS Market Share

Amazon has moved into the mobile payments market with its Amazon Local Register offering with pricing that is designed to grab marketshare from Square and PayPal Here. Whether we’ll see this being a big money earner for Amazon remains to be seen although the company is well known for taking a long term view when it comes to new market opportunities:

I’ve spent many hours listening to Soundcloud with favourite contributors including 99% Invisible, Andreessen Horowitz and The Fader among many others.  So it’s with interest and concern that I’ve greeted Soundcloud’s latest announcement to commercialise it’s streaming audio service:

Now SoundCloud has decided it is time to grow up. On Thursday, as part of a new licensing deal with entertainment companies, SoundCloud will begin incorporating advertising and for the first time let artists and record labels collect royalties. Eventually, it plans to introduce a paid subscription that will let listeners skip those ads, as they can with Spotify and other licensed services.

As consumers spend more time on their smartphones, Facebook has provided a growing array of services for consumers to spend their time either through acquisition (eg Instagram) or in house development (eg Poke, Slingshot). Mark Milian charts Facebook’s mixed results in developing its own solutions but goes on to suggests that they may be on to a winner with Bolt:

Bolt

Facebook provide a great means of establishing maintaining ties with friends irrespective of location. A contrasting approach is the social network Nextdoor which looks to foster networks among local communities with The Verge describing it as the ‘anti Facebook.’

nextdoorThere’s been some pointed commentary lately contrasting the Twitter and Facebook’s approach to their respective newsfeeds. Facebook’s algorithmically  driven newsfeed has been criticised for the  ducking of harder news (eg Ferguson) whilst focusing its coverage on more light hearted viral content (eg Ice Bucket Challenge) .

Twitter’s approach is often characterised as being great for more advanced users with its unedited stream of content,  but the onboarding process has long been criticised as bewildering for newer users. Twitter is experimenting with a move that will see it injecting  content into the newsfeeds of users that it believes they will like, a move that hasn’t been welcomed by some users:

Twitter pollutes

Consumers are spending time on a broadening array of media with newspapers and online news portals no longer monopolising consumer’s attention when it comes to news coverage. Mathew Ingram looks at how news media are using a growing array of channels to reach consumers with NowThisNews’ Snapchat on Ferguson given as an example of where things might be heading:

As ridiculous as the updates posted to Snapchat may look, with poorly handwritten text superimposed on newsy images, NowThis News has gotten something right that many media outlets continue to struggle with: namely, that if it is to be effective, news needs to reach people where they are, not sit on a home page somewhere waiting for people to show up.

Technology report Chris O’Brien’s departure from Silicon Valley has prompted him to look at the region’s ups and downs. Among the greatest opportunities he sees is the Maker movement which PSFK have recently launched a profile of:

Another tech hub which is growing in international prominence is Shenzen in China. The  city provides an important incubator for hardware innovations with Joichi Ito  of MIT’s Media Lab writing a fascinating profile of this exotic ecosystem for LinkedIn.

Much has been made of the way that new technologies and processes have enabled consumers to escape the confines of a traditional 9 to 5 employment. But the benefits are not equally distributed. The New York Times points to the burden that scheduling software is placing on families and  David Mayer criticising the lack of protection for participants in the on demand workplace.

The Brookings Institute takes a closer look at inequality and social mobility, highlighting the effect that education, marital status and race have on people’s attempts to move up the socioeconomic ladder:

The featured image is of a Hannah Stouffer creation for Sea Walls: Murals for Oceans – Mexico Expedition in Isla Mujeres, Mexico and reported in Arrested Motion.

 

 

Thought Starters

New Geography has produced a ranking of the most influential cities. For the moment, the ranking is dominated by the old world with London, New York and Paris on top but Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Dubai and Beijing all make the top 10.

Silicon Valley retains its position as the epicentre of the technology world but growing costs mean that the region see it taking on a role of growing startups rather than initiating them according to Armando Biondi:

Or getting teams from 10 to 1,000 people, that’s hard. And that’s what Silicon Valley does best and is most excited about. And, coincidentally, that’s also where most of the company value is generated. The consequence? Silicon Valley is no longer the best place to start a company (unless you’ve already been living there for a while now, of course) because everywhere else is. And “everywhere else” is the rest of the world — with cheaper talent, lower cost of living, and good access to initial capital as well — but also the rest of the U.S. outside of the tech hubs.

Technology has long history of disrupting employment and current developments in software look like more than continuing this trend going on the following video:

Researchers at Oxford Martin School at Oxford University have looked at the effect of computerisation in more detail with 47% of current jobs potentially at risk over the next 10-20 years. For those with a shorter attention span, you can find an abbreviated version at Gizmag:

Susceptible to ComputerisationNielsen’s reporting on American’s media consumption habits point to smartphone and online video usage growing rapidly with a decline in traditional television viewing:

Growth Mobile Phone Usage

Research from GlobalWebIndex provides a more international view, with  European consumers spending more time with traditional media than their Asian equivalents:

Online vs Traditional MediaProviding further fuel to the argument that not all global consumers are the same is the following graph from Benedict Evans pointing to the variation in market share for mobile operating systems:

Smartphone OS

Steven Sinofsky looks at the key characteristics of the mobile operating system which differentiate it from  to the PC model. A valuable lesson in some of the factors that are reshaping the technology landscape.

Farhad Manjoo looks at the limitations of the smartphones and their shortcomings in providing a more personalised and contextually based experience to consumers:

Like a bumbling concierge, your phone often tries to assist you without pausing to consider any of the basic information it collects about your life. For instance, your phone has access to your calendar, and it also knows your physical location. So why isn’t it smarter about sending you the right notification at the right time — for instance, not during a first date? Why can’t it prioritize alerts from your wife and your boss over notifications for tweets from your high school pals?

David Holmes contrasts coverage of the Ferguson riots on Twitter and Facebook, with the algorithmic based approach of the latter providing less opportunity for hard news to get through for those who are interested:

Twitter, on the other hand, with the exception of the occasional promoted tweet, presents a raw feed of the people you follow, nothing more, nothing less. Users can carefully select the people they follow, so if you’re the type of politically-minded news junkie who wants to know the latest in the Michael Brown killing or any other major news story, you can curate the accounts you follow accordingly. That’s why no matter how hard Facebook tries to be akin to your daily newspaper, it’s still got nothing on Twitter when it comes to news.

Holmes goes on to suggest that this situation may change over time as Twitter looks to adopt a  more filtered approach to the feed it presents to consumers.

There’s been a lot of talk about email becoming marginalised in the home and work environment with the growth of mobile messaging and collaboration platforms such as Slack. Alexis C Madrigal presents a convincing counterargument pointing to the unbundling of email as increasing its relevance to modern consumers:

The metaphor of electronic mail never fully fit how people use e-mail. But, now, perhaps it might. Email could become a home for the kinds of communications that come in the mail: letters from actual people, bills, personalized advertisements, and periodicals. 

An interesting lens in which to view American society through is mentions of bacon and kale in social media which apparently correlates with state’s political leanings. A high indexing for kale correlates with a liberal, whilst high indexing on bacon correlates with a conservative bias.

Kale-Vs-BaconIf you have more than a passing interest in Russian society, the Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia exhibition on at the Photographer’s Gallery in London is well worth a look. Interesting window into Russia at the turn of the century as well as Soviet ruling elite’s move to control how Russian society was portrayed.

Varvara Stepanova Red Army Men

The featured image is a Cinzah Merkens piece for the  Sea Walls: Murals for Oceans – Mexico Expedition in Isla Mujeres, Mexico and covered in ArrestedMotion.

Thought Starters: Content that has got me thinking 21

A mixed collection of materials looking at societal trends, the role of technology and specifically smartphones, and its impact and a look at Pinterest and its impact among other things.

 Wall Street Journal’s analysis of employment starkly illustrates the process of deindustrialisation in the US and the growth of the service economy and in particular, healthcare.

Work Then and Now

Mathematical analysis of the prevalence of smoking point to the importance of individualism in the spread of social epidemics.  Sweden with its collectivist society was slower to start smoking and slower to stop compared to the US.

An interview with Intel Labs Director Genevieve Bell looks at  how technology is shaping the world we live in in an interview with the New York Times.

Benedict Evans’ analysis of tablet sales goes on to suggests that tablets’ key competitor is the smartphone rather than laptops and desktops.

Device Sales An interesting companion to this analysis is Evan’s report on the transformative power of the smartphone which isn’t necessarily reflected in a simple comparison of device sales.

When you pull these strands together, smartphones don’t just increase the size of the internet by 2x or 3x, but more like 5x or 10x. It’s not just how many devices, but how different those devices are, that has the multiplier effect

Whilst we are seeing the smartphone transform many areas of today’s economy, the mobile app development sector is becoming increasingly competitive. Max Child looks at how app developers can look  look to differentiate themselves:

Charge them for something that helps them make money.
Charge them for an emotional experience.
Don’t charge them, charge someone else for helping that someone else make money.

As the world takes a more critical view of the role of the tech sector, it’s interesting to see The Atlantic comparing  Wall Street with Silicon Valley.

A new tech bubble is inflating, as anyone living in the Bay Area can attest. But no tech company is too big to fail, at least not by Wall Street standards. Why? The tech giants are exactly the opposite of heavily leveraged. One of their core strengths is how much cash they generate and save. It’s immense.

Comscore’s analysis of US consumers’ consumption of digital media point to rapid growth of mobile app use, less growth in mobile web usage and a moderate decline in desktop usage.

Digital Media

Horace Dediu’s figures point to the smartphone sector continuing to experience strong growth particularly within the other category – something we’re likely to see more of with the growing emergence of new brands selling Android handsets in developing markets. Smartphone Sales

Adobe’s Social Intelligence Report points to Pinterest leading the social field for revenue per visitor in the UK.

Social RPV in U.K.

The Atlantic’s interview with Pinterest’s co-founder Evan Sharp, provide pointers to the social network’s past and future.

Bryan Mealler’s feature article on the fracking boom in South Texas provides an engaging tale of the winners and losers when regions are faced with a resource boom.

Texas

Finding Vivian Maier provides a fascinating look at one of the pioneers in street photography.

The featured image is a piece by Nosego in Los Angeles photographed by Birdman and found on StreetArtNews.

Thought Starters: Content that has got me thinking 2

There has been some interesting analysis surfacing looking at the different mobile and tablet platforms and their respective audiences. Benedict Evans raises the important point that Android tablets encompass a broad array of devices making comparisons between Android and iOS tablets very difficult. Daniel Eran Dilger expands on this, pointing to IDC, Gartner and Strategy Analytics’ failure to properly unpick the tablet and smartphone market leading to a situation where apples (iPads and iPhones) are compared with oranges (low spec Android phones and tablets). The ecosystem of mobile apps and their respective community of developers has a vital role to play in the success of any mobile operating systems (no apps > no sales). In North America and Western Europe, iOS dominates the developer community, but Mark Wilcox points out that this isn’t the case for Asia and Latin America. Something to bear in mind as Asia becomes a growing source of innovation in the mobile sector.

Global Platform Preferences

Ben Thompson has taken a valuable look at the different channels consumers are using to interact with online. It’s well worth reading his commentary on the roles of the different channels.

Social Communication Map

Whilst Silicon Valley may no longer have a near monopoly on startups, it still provides one of the driving forces for the tech sector. In this presentation, Loic Le Meur looks at some of the organisations and innovations that have gained a profile in the region. Wearable computing has been getting some renewed attention with a preview of the Glass Development Kit for developers. Thomas Claburn explores some of the myths currently associated with the wearable computing sector. The Guardian continue their great work on data visualisations with a look at which corporations have made a major contribution towards global warming.

The Guardian Contributors to Global Warming

I moved from an iPhone to an Android device a couple of years ago. Whilst the Android app ecosystem is moving towards parity, every so often you come across an app that you wish there was an Android equivalent. The latest one is I PIXEL U which enables users to pixelate particular aspects of their photographs.IPIXELU_COVER2

Google has created a charming pair of binoculars to celebrate the Sydney Opera House’s fortieth anniversary, giving consumers a window to other inspirational places.

24 hour music video has been created to support Pharrell Williams’ song Happy. Beautifully executed promotion of music outside your standard Youtube container. Google profile Doctor Who with their latest doodle and when activated, leads users through to an online game. Find out more about the Whodle over at the Guardian.

Doctor Who Google