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: growth of Substack, dominance of NY Times and China vs USA

A look at some of the stories that have caught my eye over the last couple of weeks. These include the impacts of the coronavirus, the growth of Substack email newsletter platform and competition between China and the USA.

It’s no secret that the coronavirus has seen ecommerce experience something of a purple patch in 2020. Benedict Evans does a good job of pulling figures together from the UK and the US. It will be interesting to see what happens when lockdowns ease and fears of infection subside:

Substack is the new kid on the block providing a new outlet for journalists and commentators to reach audiences and earn a crust. Clio Chang looks at the opportunities it provides but also suggests that it doesn’t necessarily upend barriers to new voices emerging:

Substack, established in 2017 by three tech-and-media guys—Chris Best, Hamish McKenzie, and Jairaj Sethi—is a newsletter platform that allows writers and other creative types to distribute their work at tiered subscription rates. Newsletters go back at least as far as the Middle Ages, but these days, with full-time jobs at stable media companies evaporating—between the 2008 recession and 2019, newsroom employment dropped by 23 percent—Substack offers an appealing alternative. And, for many, it’s a viable source of income. 

You can find more commentary and writings about Substack here. Among the writers who have joined Substack recently is ex Vox editor Matthew Yglesias who writes about the dominance of the New York Times in the US media ecosystem:

But fundamentally the digital media startup dream of obtaining massive scale and disrupting the incumbents hasn’t really worked. So we’re left with a giant that’s incapable of self-scrutiny, because that might lead to implosion, paired with a set of institutions that increasingly all reflect the same worldview and do so in very strange ways.

Language is often not as neutral as we would like it to be and the technology sector is certainly no exception. The NYT Open Team look at what theyre doing to create more inclusive language in the way they talk about technology:

Whether it’s terminology like “master” or “blacklist,” words with harmful connotations have been baked into tech communication for decades. Words like these bring with them the weight of slavery and discrimination, and signal that those who have held power in the tech industry have had the privilege to ignore the impact of these antiquated terms. People of color are still underrepresented in tech, and the industry’s continued use of these terms acts in direct opposition to an inclusive and equitable culture.

America’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic hasn’t exactly done wonders for the country’s international reputation. Despite this, Tyler Cowen still sees the country in a favourable position when compared to its key global competitor, China:

Overall, it would be a mistake to be pessimistic about China. Its on-the-ground campaign against Covid-19 was very effective, its leadership pays great heed to science, it just signed on to a large Asia-Pacific trade deal, and its economic growth has resumed. Chinese supply chains proved remarkably robust through the major global crisis of the pandemic.

Still and all, the fact remains: When it comes to the ideas and the people that matter, America and the West are not losing the lead.

US government imposed restrictions on the supply of technology to Huawei have exposed how vulnerable elements of China’s economy is to global supply chains. Pranay Kotasthane and Rohan Seth take a look at the challenges the Chinese government faces in developing a semiconductor sector that would free it from the dependence on US technology:

Does this silicon rush mean that China will become self-sufficient in semiconductors soon? Not quite. China’s state-backed funds may well spur private investment, even producing a few champions, but such moves are unlikely to result in a self-sufficient Chinese semiconductor industry any time soon.

The Republican Party has traditionally been happier to cosy up with big business. Given this, it’s interesting to read research which suggests American CEOs are increasingly favouring the Democratic Party in a trend that pre dates the arrival of Donald Trump. I like to think we might see a growing counterbalance to the likes of the Koch Brothers and other associated libertarian and conservative voices:

We demonstrate that since the early 1990’s, it is becoming increasingly common for firms to be run by CEOs who are aligned with the Democratic Party, which we refer to as the blue trend. We find evidence that at least one factor driving this trend appears to be the rise of the role of women, who tend to have values that align with the Democratic Party. Further, we find that the blue trend is stronger in industries that are more considerable to women as a source of employees or customers (e.g., hospitality, computers, etc.).

The rise in Donald Trump, Brexit and various other contentious subjects has not always helped in the fostering of intelligent debate. Paul Graham’s hierarchy of disagreement provides a valuable way of filtering out those critics who are well off the mark:

I have found debates over Corbyn’s sacking and reinstatement both interesting and tricky given the need to differentiate between anti semitism and criticism of Israel’s policy towards Palestinian territories. I found this post definitely saw me take a more critical stand towards Corbyn and David Schneider’s write up helped in understanding where lines are that should probably not be crossed:

It’s obviously not my place to tell Palestinians how they should define their oppression, but for the rest of us, people need to be able to criticise Israel and Jews need to be reassured at a time of rising antisemitism.

With careful language, we can do both.

Sarah Zhang provides a thoughtful look at the introduction of widespread prenatal testing for Down Syndrome in Denmark. This has seen the condition become increasingly scarce among the country’s children:

Denmark is unusual for the universality of its screening program and the comprehensiveness of its data, but the pattern of high abortion rates after a Down syndrome diagnosis holds true across Western Europe and, to a somewhat lesser extent, in the United States. In wealthy countries, it seems to be at once the best and the worst time for Down syndrome. Better health care has more than doubled life expectancy. Better access to education means most children with Down syndrome will learn to read and write. Few people speak publicly about wanting to “eliminate” Down syndrome. Yet individual choices are adding up to something very close to that.

Any media consumption now has to compete with our ever present smartphones for attention. Kyle Chayka points to Emily in Paris as an example of the growth of ambient TV thats designed to complement the distracted viewer rather than require close attention.

But all of that barely matters. The purpose of “Emily in Paris” is to provide sympathetic background for staring at your phone, refreshing your own feeds—on which you’ll find “Emily in Paris” memes, including a whole genre of TikTok remakes. It’s O.K. to look at your phone all the time, the show seems to say, because Emily does it, too. The episodic plots are too thin to ever be confusing; when you glance back up at the television, chances are that you’ll find tracking shots of the Seine or cobblestoned alleyways, lovely but meaningless. If you want more drama, you can open Twitter, to augment the experience. Or just leave the show on while cleaning the inevitable domestic messes of quarantine. Eventually, sensing that you’ve played two episodes straight without pausing or skipping, Netflix will ask if you’re still really watching. Shamed, I clicked the Yes button, and Emily continued being in Paris.

Header image: Mural by Thierry Noir by Zetland House in Shoreditch, London

Thought starters: gatekeepers, the spread of Covid-19 and the growth of ecommerce

Coronavirus lockdown and the American elections are dominating the headlines and these are some of the stories that have caught my attention recently.

There were rumours circulating on social media that there was a large story about to land that would seriously damage American presidential candidate Joe Biden’s campaign. Ben Smith reports on how the Donald Trump’s campaign tired and failed to seed the story with the Wall Street Journal and sees it as a strong argument for the continuing role of journalists as gatekeepers:

The media’s control over information, of course, is not as total as it used to be. The people who own printing presses and broadcast towers can’t actually stop you from reading leaked emails or unproven theories about Joe Biden’s knowledge of his son’s business. But what Mr. Benkler’s research showed was that the elite outlets’ ability to set the agenda endured in spite of social media.

England is heading into lockdown after some dangerous procrastination on the part of the government. El Pais’ data visualisations provide a handy review of the imporance of social distancing:

For more coronavirus related visualisations, check out the New York Times’ look at how face masks reduce the spread of the pandemic:

One of the more thoughtful commentators on how to slow the growth of the coronavirus pandemic was sociologist Zeynep Tufekci. As attention moves to the Amercian elections, her analysis on the limitations of election forecasting provides a useful antidote to some of the wilder predictions:

This is where weather and electoral forecasts start to differ. For weather, we have fundamentals — advanced science on how atmospheric dynamics work — and years of detailed, day-by-day, even hour-by-hour data from a vast number of observation stations. For elections, we simply do not have anything near that kind of knowledge or data. While we have some theories on what influences voters, we have no fine-grained understanding of why people vote the way they do, and what polling data we have is relatively sparse.

Benedict Evans looks at some of the implications of recent changes in the retail landscape catalysed by the coronavirus pandemic. These changes aren’t just limited to the retail sector with flow on effects in the shape of our urban landscape and in how brands develop relationships with consumers:

Physical retail itself has been a ‘boiling frog’ for 20 years. Every year ecommerce gets a little bigger and the problem gets a little worse, but the growth in any given year was never big enough for people to panic, and you could always tell yourself that sure, people would buy that other industry’s product online, but not yours. I think we all now understand that anyone will buy anything online, given the right experience, and if your retail model is based on being an end-point to a logistics chain then you have an existential problem. 

For more of Benedict Evans with co-host Toni Cowan-Brown, check out Another Podcast, looking at tech’s impact on society we live in.

I remember fondly trips to Amsterdam’s supermarkets some years ago where conveyor belts would swallow up used packaging, providing consumers with a credit and brands with their packaging for reuse. Trips to Britain’s supermarkets even now feel like a step back with their tendency to wrap everything in plastic and limited attempts to close the loop. It’s no surprise to find UK near the top of the podium when it comes to the use of plastics according to reports in The Guardian:

Music is one of those passions I’ve held close to me through the years. My music collection started as CDs, flirted with MiniDiscs and migrated with time to MP3/AAC/FLAC. The impending demise of Google Play has seen me scrabbling towards Double Twist’s CloudPlayer but I’ve always been fascinated by people’s obsession with vinyl. The format struck me as a retrograde step but there’s a lot to be said for a record’s role as a cherishable artifact in your hand. I enjoyed Adam Gonsalves’ descriptions of the ups and downs of vinyl for the listener:

The vinyl LP is a format based on technology that hasn’t evolved much over the last six decades: in some ways, it’s the audio equivalent of driving a Ford Pilot. Sonically, vinyl has both strengths and weaknesses compared to digital files, just as movie buffs have argued over the pros and cons of 35mm film against 4K digital.

Header image: Mural by Iker Muro in Stratford, London for London Mural Fest

Thought Starters: Britishness, Trump goes AWOL and Black Lives Matter

Laurie Penny explores the notion of Britishness in a country that seems increasingly wrapped up in nostalgia:

But there is a narrative chasm between the twee and borderless dreamscape of fantasy Britain and actual, material Britain, where rents are rising and racists are running brave. The chasm is wide, and a lot of people are falling into it. The omnishambles of British politics is what happens when you get scared and mean and retreat into the fairytales you tell about yourself. When you can no longer live within your own contradictions. When you want to hold on to the belief that Britain is the land of Jane Austen and John Lennon and Sir Winston Churchill, the war hero who has been repeatedly voted the greatest Englishman of all time. When you want to forget that Britain is also the land of Cecil Rhodes and Oswald Moseley and Sir Winston Churchill, the brutal colonial administrator who sanctioned the building of the first concentration camps and condemned millions of Indians to death by starvation. These are not contradictions, even though the drive to separate them is cracking the country apart. If you love your country and don’t own its difficulties and its violence, you don’t actually love your country. You’re just catcalling it as it goes by.

Fintan O’Toole profiles Donald Trump and his divergence away from Americas traditional democratic norms:

All of these historical surpluses—the afterlives of slavery, of the deranged presidency, and of the threat of terrorism as permission to set aside legal and democratic rights—have raised the stakes in the present struggle. This mass of unresolved stuff is being forced toward some kind of resolution. That resolution can come in only one of two ways. What has come to the surface can be repressed again—but that repression will have to be enforced by methods that will also dismantle democracy. Trump’s boast that he can do whatever he wants will have to be institutionalized, made fully operational, and imposed by state violence. Or there will be a transformative wave of change. All of this unfinished business has made the United States semidemocratic, a half-and-half world in which ideals of equality, political accountability, and the rule of law exist alongside practices that make a daily mockery of those ideals. This half-life is ending—either the outward show of democracy is finished and authoritarianism triumphs, or the long-denied substance becomes real. The unconsumed past will either be faced and dealt with, or it will consume the American republic.

As Black Lives Matter focuses increasing scrutiny on American police, David Brooks explores how their record differs so much from other developed economies:

We’re tracing the etiology of dehumanization here, the gradual closing-off of natural sympathy between one person and another. Almost all cops resist this pressure most of the time, and we owe them our respect, honor, and gratitude. Many of us know warm and compassionate police officers, who have rejected the worst parts of their environment—but the cultural pressures are there, nonetheless.

The Slate’s visualisation provides a strong indication of the scale of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Recent unemployment figures from the US suggested that Donald Trump had me concerned that he might be spared the wrath of voters come in November. America’s failure to deal with coronavirus paints a rather different story and suggests the country may be faced with a U rather than V shaped recovery.

New confirmed cases of Covid-19 in United States, Brazil, Russia, Mexico, India and Pakistan

These figures from Reuters whilst not comparing apples with oranges, do give a clear indication of the generational divide between podcast and radio listeners.

Proportion that used a podcast in the last month and radio news in the last week by age

On a similar note, Benedict Evans looks at the growth and the more recent decline of the newspaper sector, rattled by decline consumption and advertising revenues…a point of real concern if we are expecting the fourth estate to keep a check on power.

US newspaper industry metrics

Of long been fascinated by cities, their form and how they’ve evolved to what we’re presented with today. Colouring London provides a great opportunity to explore one of the world’s great cities with overlays for age, construction, streetscape, sustainability and more.

Colouring London: age overlay

I was one of those people that happily fled the suburbs for the inner city…Ian Bogost reviews the role of suburbs in the age of coronavirus suggesting that it has strengthened their hand although this is the quote that stuck in my mind:

The tax base that suburbia generates often can’t support the infrastructure required to sustain it—roads, sewers, schools, emergency services, and all the rest. Along with federally backed mortgages and mortgage-interest deductions, the suburban lifestyle amounts to an enormous government subsidy, or else it slowly decays into disrepair.

Header image: Photo taken on visit to Heatherwick Studio during Open House London in 2019.

Thought starters: Coronavirus, where we’re heading and music from the fringe

The world feels like a rather different place from when I last posted here as coronavirus reshapes the world we are living in. I am now on furlough as my employer looks to look at ways to chart a new course in a world where social distancing has become the norm.

I have also watched with dismay as various governments have resorted to finger pointing and disinformation rather than collaborating on addressing this global problem.

Below are some of the coronavirus and non coronavirus related content that has shed some interesting light on the world we live in since I last posted.

Much was made by British PM Boris Johnson of the country’s science led approach to coronavirus . Jonathan Calvert, George Arbuthnott and Jonathan Leake’s report provides a rather different point of view suggesting that the government’s intransigence cost the nation precious time in addressing the crisis.

It has been interesting exploring the different approaches countries have taken to coronavirus pandemic given that decisions have been made under a situation of considerable uncertainty. One of the outliers has been Sweden and while it’s far from clear as to whether they’ve taken the right approach, it’s interesting to read an interview with the strategy’s author, Anders Tegnell:

It’s still too early to say whether Stockholm’s policy will turn out to be a success story or a blueprint for disaster. But, when the microbes settle, following the global crisis, Sweden may be able to constitute a kind of control group: Did other countries go too far in the restrictions they have been imposing on their populations? Was the economic catastrophe spawned globally by the crisis really unavoidable? Or will the Swedish case turn out to be an example of governmental complacency that cost human lives unnecessarily?

Scott Alexander takes a critical look at the failure of politicians and journalists to address threat posed by coronavirus in a situation of uncertainty:

People were presented with a new idea: a global pandemic might arise and change everything. They waited for proof. The proof didn’t arise, at least at first. I remember hearing people say things like “there’s no reason for panic, there are currently only ten cases in the US”. This should sound like “there’s no reason to panic, the asteroid heading for Earth is still several weeks away”. The only way I can make sense of it is through a mindset where you are not allowed to entertain an idea until you have proof of it. Nobody had incontrovertible evidence that coronavirus was going to be a disaster, so until someone does, you default to the null hypothesis that it won’t be.

I am acutely aware of the health impacts of coronavirus after hearing about the death of close friends’ father and colleague. But as the days wear on, we are likely to see a growing economic and social cost, particularly in sectors where face to face contact is a core part of delivering goods or services. Torquil Campbell points out the impact that changes necessitated by coronavirus are going to have on musicians who have become increasingly dependent on live music for their income.

But then came the virus. No amount of hype, no amount of press adoration or zeitgeist-defining hipness could protect us from the chilling effects of it on our business. The customers we count on to come out and spend some money at night were told they should not do so—even that they must not. And we have no idea when or if they will ever be told that going out the way they used to is okay again.

It has been heartwarming to see how communities have responded to in supporting vulnerable members of the community in the UK with the setting up of mutual support groups. The government has provided additional funding to support third sector organisations working directly in coronavirus related areas. That being said, many third sector organisations will increasingly struggle to make ends meet as they cope with growing demands for social services, sickness based absences and declining fundraising revenues. This is on top of cuts that many providers have faced by government funding cuts over the last 10 years.

The Economist looks at how coronavirus is forcing many companies to innovate taking on changes that would be unlikely to be adopted under normal business conditions:

But the defining feature of the latest innovation revolution is breakneck speed. Companies are being forced to raise their corporate metabolism and overcome “analysis paralysis”, an affliction caused by top managers having pored over the same irrelevant case studies at business school. In a recent briefing consultants at Bain urged companies to throw out old data, test quickly and often, and assume you will be in testing mode for some time to come.

Benedict Evans’ weekly newsletter provides one of the more insightful sources for news in the technology sector . A recent newsletter included his presentation Standing on the shoulders of giants looks at likely changes including the increasing importance of regulation as tech becomes more like other business sectors.

John Luttig suggests that startups faced with declining growth rates across different tech categories are unlikely to see the furious growth rates of old. In this world, organisations are likely to place more attention on marketing and sales rather than research and development that previously dominated:

Like any mature industry, Silicon Valley must battle to maintain growth in the face of immense economic gravity. For the first time in Internet history, startup growth will require a push from the company and not a pull from the market. Unlike the organic pull that drove many of the dotcom-era successes, today’s Internet startups need to fight for growth by investing more heavily into sales, marketing, and operations.

Many years ago I studied Public Policy at a time when a lot of questions were being asked about the role of the state in New Zealand where I was studying at the time. My interest in the role of public provision continues with America’s health system often striking me as painfully wasteful with its high per capita costs and its delivery of poor overall health outcomes. Scott Alexander’s look at how the Amish operate within this framework makes for an interesting read and a valuable lens to examine the wider US health system:

The National Center For Health Statistics says that the average American spends $11,000 on health care. This suggests that the average American spends between five and ten times more on health care than the average Amish person.

Ezra Klein takes a broader view in his look at both the public and private sector indicting the former for its vetocracy and the latter for its short termism. The article is definitely based on the experiences of the US but many of the conclusions could just as easily be transferred to the UK and other societies:

Here’s my answer: The institutions through which Americans build have become biased against action rather than toward it. They’ve become, in political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s term, “vetocracies,” in which too many actors have veto rights over what gets built. That’s true in the federal government. It’s true in state and local governments. It’s even true in the private sector.

I can remember catching Jace Clayton (aka DJ Rupture) play in London in 2006 after avidly following his writings on the intersection between music, technology and non Western music. I finally got round to picking up his book Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture which provides a welcome look at various traditionally out of sight corners. On a similar tip, I enjoyed Paula Erizanu and Livia Ștefan Martin’s look at manele music in Romania for the Calvert Journal, looking again at the intersection of music and culture:

For manele’s critics then, perhaps it’s time to focus their energies towards analysing and improving the cultural, economic, and political context that created the genre’s get-rich values they so disapprove of. In the meantime, it’s time to dance and let dance — while acknowledging and paying dues to the complicated history of both manele and lautareasca.

Header image: Bridget Riley from her 2019 show at the Hayward Gallery

Thought Starters: decline of retail, deadly algorithms & changing political landscape

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 looks at the decline in the American retail sector, concerns about an algorithm led world, the development of augmented reality and the changing political landscape in a number of countries among other things:

The bricks and mortar retail sector is not doing well in the US and it looks like a trend that’s likely to continue with growing ecommerce (with Amazon taking a disproportionate share) and a glut of retail space:

The shuttering of US retail stores

Will Knight points to the risks of handing over tasks to algorithms when you don’t understand what’s going on under the hood:

The mysterious mind of this vehicle points to a looming issue with artificial intelligence. The car’s underlying AI technology, known as deep learning, has proved very powerful at solving problems in recent years, and it has been widely deployed for tasks like image captioning, voice recognition, and language translation. There is now hope that the same techniques will be able to diagnose deadly diseases, make million-dollar trading decisions, and do countless other things to transform whole industries.

But this won’t happen—or shouldn’t happen—unless we find ways of making techniques like deep learning more understandable to their creators and accountable to their users. Otherwise it will be hard to predict when failures might occur—and it’s inevitable they will. That’s one reason Nvidia’s car is still experimental.

Benedict Evans looks at the way augmented reality is likely to develop as it moves out of the development lab and into the mainstream:

This touches on a related question – do AR and VR merge? It’s certainly possible, and they are doing related things with related engineering challenges. One challenge of doing both in one device is that VR, to place you into another world, needs to black out everything else, so the glasses need to be sealed around the edges, where AR does not need this. In parallel, the whole challenge of AR is to let the world through while occluding what you don’t want (and it’s probably not great in bright sunlight for a while), where VR wants to start with a black screen.

A lot has been made of the potential for disruption in the automotive industry with the move to electric drivetrains, ridesharing services and self driving technology providing substantial opportunity for new competitors to enter the market. Navigant Research’s analysis on the other hand suggests that the market incumbents may well have a head start in the race towards self driving cars:

Navigant ranking of self driving programmes

One of the car manufacturers’ frenemies is Uber which has been having a rough time lately for its attitudes to diversity and allegations that it has been engaging in intellectual property theft. This is all helping fuel concerns that Uber is overvalued, helped by the fact that it doesn’t face the financial scrutiny of being a publicly traded company.

While the Brexit referendum pointed to a slim majority for a split with the European Union, there is considerable ambiguity as to what this actually means although polls point to few Britons wanting a hard Brexit:

Britain's attitudes to soft and hard Brexit

The election of Donald Trump has renewed attention focused on America’s white working class. Among the symptom of societal distress is the growing opioid epidemic which has particularly impacted white urban and suburban populations in the US:

How Bad Is the Drug Overdose Epidemic?

The French presidential elections are fast approaching, and whilst the sidelining of Geert Wilders in the Dutch elections has given more liberal voices some hope, Marine Le Pen should not be taken lightly as Roger Cohen suggests:

Her path to victory runs roughly like this. She qualifies for the second round with about 24 percent of the vote. Macron is her opponent, with about the same score. The more right-wing Fillon supporters migrate to Le Pen. Supporters of the far-left candidate, Mélenchon, refuse to vote for Macron; they’ve had it with so-called “useful votes” and they believe Macron, for all his talk of being a progressive, will pursue “neoliberal” global capitalism. Some Hamon supporters also refuse to back Macron. The abstention rate soars. Le Pen squeezes past 50 percent and becomes president.

Patrick Collison interviews one of my favourite commentators, Tyler Cowen covering a wide range of issues including the health of economics, pitfalls of globalisation (“monoculture of extreme diversity”), Donald Trump and the importance of Twitter:

https://soundcloud.com/conversationswithtyler/patrick-collison-stripe-cowen

If you find yourself in London in the coming weeks, I would definitely recommend a visit to the Photographer’s Gallery. The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize has some great work from Sophie Calle, Dana Lixenberg and Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs, but the real treat is Roger Mayne’s photos from Britain in the 1960s and 70s:

Man leaving a factory by Roger Mayne

The featured image at the top of the page is Strook’s contribution to The Crystal Ship Festival in Ostend, Belgium.

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: post carbon futures, social class and Brazil

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 venture capital, Uber’s valuation, mobile commerce, innovations in the telecom and the energy sector, social class and Brazil among other things.

Benedict Evans has written a valuable overview of the venture capital sector, pointing to the importance of winning big rather than winning often, with failure a necessary part of the equation for investors if they really want to get ahead:

There are no 10x deals

Uber has been one of the darlings of the startup sector with its position further strengthened by the sale of its Chinese subsidiary which was proving a drain on its finances. Steve LeVine has looked to pour some cold water on Uber’s current valuation suggesting that the brand is not necessarily the sure thing that some investors would have you believe:

With Uber, you have a singular brand with a credible story. The question is whether that brand and that credibility, plus the other assets on Uber’s balance sheet, add up to $62.5 billion. Here is a business under siege by rivals big and Lilliputian, in the midst of a cannibalistic pricing race to the bottom, bleeding cash and losing money while battling well-heeled, technologically savvy incumbents displaying every intention of owning the space themselves.

Ofcom released its annual Communications Market report, providing a whole host of benchmark statistics for the UK across television, online video, radio, telecoms and the internet. Well worth bookmarking:

Household take-up of digital communications/ AV devices: 2006-2016

Mobile commerce is definitely on the rise as we spend more and more time glued to our smartphone screens. What’s interesting is that for all the talk of the opportunities of mobile apps, browser based purchasing dominates with a lead that’s growing according to Andy Favell:

Access Method for Mobile Shoppers

Federic Filloux looks at how the traditional media players have been sidelined by the news aggregators (primarily Facebook and Google) and newer media outlets more attuned to the rapid fire news cycles of the current age:

For the news industry, this huge economic gap carries two likely consequences: internet giants and digital native news outlets will have tremendous financial firepower to do whatever it takes in terms of marketing or their ability to go further into the general information segment (cf. Snapchat); and the network effect will apply even further when advertising dollars keep drying up for what will be increasingly seen as niche media.

More broadly, except for the old, educated and affluent segment of the population, the vast majority will be informed by a rapid-fire of superficial and shallow contents spat by the social firehose. Expect more Brexit hurricanes and Trump floods in the future.

Self driving cars are reshape our relationship with the automobile but it’s not just the driver who will be impacted by these changes as Robin Chase explores:

We’re at a fork on that roadmap. One direction leads to a productive new century where cities are more sustainable, livable, equitable, and just.

But if we take the wrong turn, we’re at a dead end. Cities are already complex and chaotic places in which to live and work. If we allow the introduction of automated vehicles to be guided by existing regulations we’ll end up with more congestion, millions of unemployed drivers, and a huge deficit in how we fund our transportation infrastructure. We will also miss an opportunity to fix transportation’s hereto intractable reliance on liquid fossil fuels (and their associated pollution).

There’s no disputing the fact that mobile is reshaping the world we live in with data via hardwired, mobile and wifi networks fueling the growth in an ever expanding range of devices (smartphones, sports trackers etc) and services (mobile messaging Shazam etc). Our current infrastructure isn’t really built for these growing demandsJeff Hecht looks at what providers are doing to future proof our telecoms infrastructure:

Bottleneck Engineering

The energy sector is facing growing calls to switch away from fossil fuel based energy given the growing threat from climate change. Renewable energy has traditionally been handicapped by intermittent supply and the costs of energy storage whilst nuclear is costly and has a rather mixed safety record. Tim Harford points to the potentially valuable role of price signals in getting the energy market to travel in the right direction:

Overall, there is little prospect of running out of fossil fuels, and it seems unlikely that alternative energy sources will outcompete them. And yet we must make the shift, or risk catastrophic climate change. Our reserves of fossil fuels may be no constraint but the atmosphere’s capacity to safely absorb carbon dioxide is.

There is some space for optimism. Renewable energy sources are no longer impossibly costly. Nor is nuclear power, even though the costs have moved in the wrong direction. We cannot wait for the market to make the switch unaided — but the gap is no longer so wide that sensible policy cannot bridge it. The centrepiece of such a policy would be to raise the price of carbon dioxide emissions, using internationally co-ordinated taxes or their equivalent. Such a tax would make renewable energy sources more attractive — as well as encouraging energy efficient technologies and behaviour. Market forces can do the rest. Low carbon energy is not free — but it is worth paying for.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard points to innovations in energy storage as giving more than a helping hand,  changing what is economically viable and potentially making Hinkley Point look like something of a white elephant:

This transforms the calculus of energy policy. The question for the British government as it designs a strategy fit for the 21st Century – and wrestles with an exorbitant commitment to Hinkley Point – is no longer whether this form of back-up power will ever be commercially viable, but whether the inflection point arrives in the early-2020s or in the late 2020s.

Simon Hattenstone  has taken a critical at meritocracy in the UK in light of Theresa May’s recent cabinet appointments which are less dominated by Etonians than her predecessor David Cameron. This raises the question will we see real change or more of the same?

Lee Elliot Major of the Sutton Trust, talks of an academic arms race. “Every time opportunities widen for those from less privileged backgrounds, the middle classes find some way of defining merit to their advantage again. Never underestimate the skills and the tenacity of the middle classes to reinforce their privileged position in society. So there was a university expansion, but if you look at the more prestigious universities, there’s still a stark gap in terms of those from more advantaged backgrounds versus those from disadvantaged backgrounds. And increasingly you’re seeing post-graduate degrees.”

The rise of Donald Trump has prompted much soul searching among political commentators in the US pointing to it as a symptom of the growing social inequality. Research from Gallup provides a more nuanced analysis as Max Ehrenfreund and Jeff Guo report:

According to this new analysis, those who view Trump favorably have not been disproportionately affected by foreign trade or immigration, compared with people with unfavorable views of the Republican presidential nominee. The results suggest that his supporters, on average, do not have lower incomes than other Americans, nor are they more likely to be unemployed.

Yet while Trump’s supporters might be comparatively well off themselves, they come from places where their neighbors endure other forms of hardship. In their communities, white residents are dying younger, and it is harder for young people who grow up poor to get ahead.

Alec MacGillis looks more broadly at the growth of a white underclass in the US which has  provided a fertile ground for Trump’s more xenophobic view of the world:

So why are white Americans in downwardly mobile areas feeling a despair that appears to be driving stark increases in substance abuse and suicide? In my own reporting in Vance’s home ground of southwestern Ohio and ancestral territory of eastern Kentucky, I have encountered racial anxiety and antagonism, for sure. But far more striking is the general aura of decline that hangs over towns in which medical-supply stores and pawn shops dominate decrepit main streets, and Victorians stand crumbling, unoccupied. Talk with those still sticking it out, the body-shop worker and the dollar-store clerk and the unemployed miner, and the fatalism is clear: Things were much better in an earlier time, and no future awaits in places that have been left behind by polished people in gleaming cities. The most painful comparison is not with supposedly ascendant minorities—it’s with the fortunes of one’s own parents or, by now, grandparents. The demoralizing effect of decay enveloping the place you live cannot be underestimated. And the bitterness—the “primal scorn”—that Donald Trump has tapped into among white Americans in struggling areas is aimed not just at those of foreign extraction. It is directed toward fellow countrymen who have become foreigners of a different sort, looking down on the natives, if they bother to look at all.

Reflecting the current race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, The Economist suggests that politics will increasingly be about open versus closed models rather than the traditional battles between left and right:

Left, right, left, right

The Rio Olympics has put Brazil in the spotlight during a tumultuous period in its political history. Franklin Foer has a valuable piece that provides a valuable background to recent events:

But the public’s understandable despair isn’t wholly shared by the experts I spoke with. Stepping back, they saw unlikely causes for hope. Impeachment revealed the worst about Brazilian democracy—and the worst wasn’t so terrible. There’s no talk of returning to dictatorship, no real fear of a Hugo Chávez–like figure clouding the sky. Impeachment was a poor showing of democracy, but it was still democracy. Even with all the budgetary turmoil, Bolsa Família remains firmly ensconced. Austerity will whack the poor, yet Lula’s evolution of Brazilian social democracy won’t reverse course. Most important, the Petrobras scandal is so spectacular that its grasp on the popular imagination doesn’t seem to be slipping. Indeed, Temer’s impeachment gambit has yet to slow the Moro investigation. Brazil has a once-in-a-generation chance to untether its politics from its debilitating state of codependence with the big firms. Hosting the Olympics was never going to bring Brazil the national greatness Lula advertised. Freeing its democracy and economy from the plague of corruption could.

Saudi Arabia feels for many of us like a different world given the way that religion shapes everyone’s lives. Studio D’s research into the lives of young Saudi’s provides a valuable window of how people adjust and if that whets your appetite, it’s also worth reading Jessi Hempel’s coverage of the research process:
For Saudi female youth the smartphone is the great liberator
The featured image is a Gue mural photographed by Angelo Jaroszuk Bogasz at the Altrove Street Art Festival in Catanzaro, Italy and published in StreetArtNews.

Thought Starters: ubiquitous smartphones, post-PC and universal basic income

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 the transition from a PC to a smartphone-dominated world, the story behind financial results from Apple and Facebook, the growth of Sci-Hub and a closer look at the universal basic income model among other things:

Benedict Evans profiles the increasingly ubiquitous smartphone and how the mobile market is changing as the technology becomes increasingly commodified:

Smartphones have unique scale for tech

Steven Sinofsky moves to an iPad Pro for his daily computing requirements and shares his experiences. As the PC loses its hegemony, raises new challenges and opportunities for businesses and entrepreneurs:

The shift to this new form factor and new platform will bring with it cultural changes that take advantage of what are perceived as disadvantages. As makers, being early is essential, otherwise you are late.

For more on the topic of post-PC world, I’d suggest reading Paul Thurrott’s reluctant forecast of the demise of Microsoft’s Windows and Steven Sinofsky and Benedict Evans rounding out their thoughts on the a16z podcast:

The release of quarterly results has provided a valuable window into the ups and downs of some of the world’s tech giants. Neil Cybart’s analysis of Apple’s financial results suggests we’ve reached peak iPhone, with sales hit by longer upgrade cycles and fewer easy growth opportunities:

iPhone Unit Sales Growth (trailing 12 months)

Apple CEO Tim Cook has emphasised the company’s service offerings in recent announcements. It’s worth having a read of Ben Thompson’s analysis of this move as the company looks to avoid being typecast as simply a maker of beautiful devices:

With regards to the iPhone, it’s hard to see its record revenues and profits ever being surpassed by another product, by Apple or anyone else: it is in many respects the perfect device from a business perspective, and given that whatever replaces it will likely be significantly less dependent on a physical interface and even more dependent on the cloud (which will help commoditize the hardware), it will likely be sold for much less and with much smaller profit margins.

Facebook had more joy with its financial results growing monthly and daily active users and mobile’s share of traffic although growing presence in developing markets is dragging down its average revenue per user. Whilst recent research suggests that people might be increasingly wary of sharing their personal thoughts on Facebook, the social network maintains a strong role as onramp to many consumers’ digital world as Will Oremus comments:

The company has reinvented itself in two distinct ways. First, Facebook as a platform has been quietly evolving into something different than a social network—something less personal, but no less useful. Second, Facebook as a company has been furiously hedging its bets on the future of technology and social media, to the point that it is no longer properly described as merely a social network—no more than Alphabet (né Google) is properly described as a search website.

So what has the Facebook app and site become, if not a social network? The answer is rather obvious when you watch how people use it. It has become a personalized portal to the online world.

Whilst tech unicorns have typically avoided the scrutiny of the stock market by staying private, analysis of sales of ping-pong tables in Silicon Valley suggest that venture capital funding might not be as free flowing as it once was:

Sales of ping-pong tables to companies at a Silicon Valley store correlate with venture-capital deals made during the same quarter.

Whilst we’re on the subject of startups, it’s worth reading Chris Dixon’s call for entrepreneurs to look broadly to better understand future threats and opportunities, namechecking automation of logistics, apps, video and voice services:

Think of the internet economic loop as a model train track. Positions in front of you can redirect traffic around you. Positions after you can build new tracks that bypass you. New technologies come along (which often look toy-like and unthreatening at first) that create entirely new tracks that render the previous tracks obsolete.

The American IAB has released research tracking consumers’ use of smartphones and tablets when shopping, pointing to the ways different age categories use their devices. This providing both a threat and an opportunity for traditional bricks and mortar retailers:

Smartphone as Shopping Assistant

John Bohannon profiles the growth of Sci-Hub which offers users a means of accessing copyrighted academic research regardless of whether people have the necessary institutional resources. The service provides a valuable source for researchers in less well-funded institutions, but usage statistics suggest that users include plenty of people with the necessary credentials and are simply looking for more user-friendly alternatives:

Server log data for the website Sci-Hub from September 2015 through February 2015

With predictions of automation threatening employment across an increasingly broad spectrum of jobs, there’s been growing calls for the introduction of universal basic income. This would essentially provide a guaranteed income to all regardless of employment status and has gained an interesting collection of supporters from both ends of the political spectrum. It’s something I am expecting to hear a lot more about in the coming months and you get an introduction to the concept from Tim Harford (shorter version), Andrew Flowers (longer version) and the Freakonomics team (podcast version).

The featured image is a Nerone mural from Bordeaux, France published in ekosystem.

Thought Starters: integrations, chatbots and the content glut

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 integrations as a means of reaching consumers, the growing hype around chatbots, a critical look at content marketing, growing income inequality among other things:

Ofcom has released the latest edition of its Adults’ media use and attitudes providing a window into consumers’ use of technology and media in the UK. It’s a great reference document that’s well worth bookmarking for future reference, particularly given its inclusion of longitudinal and demographic data:

Device used most often for specific online activities

With the growth of smartphones, the development of mobile apps has became one of the dominant paradigms for reaching and engaging with consumers. Unfortunately, seemingly every other business has had the same idea but the development of a growing array of integrations opens the door for new channels which Hugh Durkin explores:

Native apps are perfect for these frequent, heavy use jobs. But that doesn’t mean you need a mobile app for every product or service. Ask yourself — will people really want to put your icon on their homescreen?

That’s why companies like Uber are looking beyond homescreen icons. Instead of asking users to come to them — download and install an app — they’re deeply embedding their services where users already spend their time.

Chat bots are being increasingly talked up as the next big route to market for businesses with the recent Facebook Developer Conference seeing a lot of this attention focusing on Facebook Messenger’s growing capabilities:

If you want a more balanced view of the opportunities for chat bots, I’d suggest giving Benedict Evans and Connie Chase a listen on Andreessen Horowitz’s podcast:

A valuable complement to the a16z podcast is Dan Grover’s article where he looks at the success of WeChat in China and suggests that it’s less about chatbots and more about a better user experience:

The key wins for WeChat in the above interaction (compared to a native app) largely came from streamlining away app installation, login, payment, and notifications, optimizations having nothing to do with the conversational metaphor in its UI.

Whilst artificial intelligence and machine learning are expanding the capabilities of chat bots and virtual assistants, there are plenty of situations where humans continue to offer a better experience. Ellen Huet explores the services that are relying on the human touch (for the moment):

A handful of companies employ humans pretending to be robots pretending to be humans. In the past two years, companies offering do-anything concierges (Magic, Facebook’s M, GoButler); shopping assistants (Operator, Mezi); and e-mail schedulers (X.ai, Clara) have sprung up. The goal for most of these businesses is to require as few humans as possible. People are expensive. They don’t scale. They need health insurance. But for now, the companies are largely powered by people, clicking behind the curtain and making it look like magic.

Much of the attention in the West has focused on the dominance of WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, but many Asian markets have seen the development of their own indigenous platforms. This can be seen most vividly in China as detailed by TechinAsia:

China's most popular mobile apps March 2016

Rex Sorgatz provides a very personal account of a return to his old home town of Napoleon, North Dakota. Whilst many of aspects of the town have remained unchanged in 25 years, Sorgatz explores how the internet has changed the experience of teenagers living at the geographic periphery of American society:

I cannot shake the sentence, which seems to contain between its simple words a secret key, a cipher to crack my inquiries into technology and change. Napoleon didn’t have a drive-in in the 1950s, or a mall in the 1980s, but today it definitely has the same social communications tools used by every kid in the country. By that fact alone, the lives of teenagers in Napoleon must be wildly different than they were 20 years ago. But I lack the social research finesse of Boyd, who could probably interrogate my thesis about technology beyond anecdote. So I change the topic to something I know much better: television.

Ezra Klein interviews one of my favourite media and technology commentators Ben Thompson, providing a valuable guide to how he views the world:

https://soundcloud.com/panoply/ben-thompson-on-how-the-media-business-is-changing

Inbound marketing has gained a bit of unwanted courtesy of Dan Lyon’s book Disrupted with its first hand account of his time working for HubSpot. Alexandra Samuel looks at the broader social costs associated with pumping an endless stream of unwanted content out into the internet:

But from a personal perspective, it sucks. For every email newsletter you’re genuinely thrilled to receive, you likely have dozens that merely clutter up your inbox, where they linger unread. To get to the Facebook posts that have been shared by the actual genuine human beings you know, you have to plough through a feed that’s cluttered with posts that somebody paid to put there. (A problem that’s only going to get worse, now that Facebook has given its official blessing to branded content on verified pages.) And unless you read blog posts while wearing glasses that block your peripheral vision, you’re likely to get sucked into clicking on one of the irresistible headlines that now frame nearly every page of content on the Internet — headlines that somebody paid to put there, and which almost always lead to something way less interesting than the headline suggests.

Tom Whitwell explores what is almost certainly the most neglected member of the marketing mix, price:

Price is the crudest, and most subtle, message you can send about your product, so it’s worth getting it right.

Amazon is one of the behemoths of the tech world and it’s the company’s AWS which is likely to prove its brightest star. AWS’s revenue growth points to the opportunities in selling the 21st century equivalent of shovels in a gold rush, particularly when you get it right:

AWS is the fastest growing enterprise technology company ever

Cade Metz looks at how data center operating systems (DC/OS) are enabling more efficient use of data centres which fuel the internet with adoption rapidly spilling outside Google where the technology was originally developed:

But this also is about improving the lives of software engineers. Any company that hits 50 to 100 engineers, Stoppelman says, almost has to embrace this kind of container architecture. It must break down its software into tiny pieces that can by run across myriad machines. Otherwise, things get too unwieldy. Tools like DC/OS and Kubernetes make it far easier to build that kind of distributed software. And the importance of this should not be underestimated. After all, software that runs across dozens or even hundreds of machines—think Google and Twitter and Apple Siri—drives the modern world.

We’ve seen a lot of hot air come out of the startup sector over the last six months with a drop in their valuations and entrepreneurs becoming more cautious about raising funds. Venture capitalist Bill Gurley reviews what this means for founders, investors and employees alike:

As we move forward, it is important for all players in the ecosystem to realize that the game has changed. Equally important, each player must understand how the new rules apply to them specifically. We will start by highlighting several emotional biases that can irrationally impact everyone’s decision making process. Next we will highlight the new player in the ecosystem that is poised to take advantage of these aforementioned changes and emerging biases. Lastly, we will then walk through each player in the ecosystem and what they should consider as they navigate this brave new world.

Markus Poschke and Barış Kaymak look at the reasons for the growing concentration of wealth in the US, concluding that technology is the main driver, followed by tax cuts and more generous public transfers:

Top 1% wealth and income shares, 1960-2012

Daniel Knowles profiles Sub-Saharan Africa’s economic ups and downs for The Economist. Whilst much of the recent success has been driven by commodity exports, there are signs of a broadening economic base which will be sorely needed given Africa’s young and rapidly growing population:

Average annual % change in GDP and Exports in Sub-Saharan Africa

Richard Wike teases out some of the cultural differences between the US and Europe including attitudes to individualism, free speech, religion and adultery. One of the interesting pointers is that richer countries tend to be less religious, with the US being an outlier in this general trend:

Generally, poorer nations tend to be religious; wealthy less so, except for the US

The recent waves of refugees arriving in Europe has put wind in the sails of many nationalist groups seen very recently in the Austrian elections, with employment high on supporters list of concerns. Given this, it’s interesting to see Hu, Chen and Singh among the most common surnames of Italian company founders in a country not particularly known for its ethnic diversity:

Most common surnames of Italian company founders Jan-Aug 2015

The featured image is a Claudia Walde aka MadC mural photographed in London by Marco Prosch and published in WideWalls.