Category: technology

2017, a tipping point and a new mindset

A massive correction is coming to the tech sector, resulting in the end of the second digital gold rush and a return to the fundamentals. Tech companies are increasingly disconnected from what people really need, hardly any meaningful innovation is coming out of those mega structures who, from startups, now look more and more like the monopolies they promised to displace.

The tech industry’s center of gravity is slowly moving towards Asia and Europe. When it comes to Asia, the culture barrier saves us from having to face the fact that Chinese and Korean services are more advanced than ours. When it comes to Europe, the world is starting to take notice after the Euro zone economy outperformed the US in Q1 2017.

The efforts to take humans out of the loop will fail: we will not run out of jobs. Technology destroys occupations, not jobs! And we are pretty good at finding new ways to keep ourselves busy. What I see is a re-emergence of non-technological innovation, long term thinking, in person interactions, and more sustainable values.

What now?

It is time to reframe how we think, so I tried to put words on this new mindset. I believe we need to:

  • Understand that life goes beyond data, that many things are invisible, intangible and unmeasurable: knowledge, intuition, reputation, motivation, identity, leadership, etc . These might very well be the most important things of all, because they are what can’t be put into code.
  • Understand that some innovations are better not used. The only intelligent way to deal with atomic bombs is to learn not to use them. Perhaps some digital technologies deserve the same treatment.
  • Understand that technology is here to serve and augment humans, not replace them.
  • Understand that it’s not about wiping up the past, but taking what’s good from both the past and the future to build a desirable present.
  • Understand that innovation is collective and not individual, that every new idea is built on top of centuries of wisdom and achievements like roads, processors, communication networks, laws, books.
  • Understand that the only way to succeed is to bring both the digital and the “real” world together.
  • Understand that there are no shortcuts, that innovation is hard, slow, and always triggers resistance. That the key is to find the questions first, the answers second.
  • Realize that success is multidimensional and personal. Multidimensional because about more than exits and magazine covers: health, legacy, quality of life, contribution to the advancement of society. Personal because each and every one of us has to define what’s important for her or him, without being overwhelmed by the pre-cooked models of success we are served by the hype.

I believe mixing the values of our “old continent” with the zeitgeist can bring a much needed perspective that will help us move past the notion of innovation, back to the more noble idea of progress.

The gafa convergence

Sometimes I wonder if Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft all have the same innovation guru calling the shots. I’m pretty sure there is a 65y old guy somewhere in the Silicon Valley that organizes secret retreats with Zuckerberg, Bezos, Cook and co. I mean, these companies are converging on so many themes: social, cloud, search, mobile, gaming, advertising, voice, smart assistants, now VR headsets. I guess the good news if you are Microsoft is that you seem to be pushing hard to make GAFA more like GAFAM…

Fear of technology in the 19th century

The New York Times’ assessment of the telegraph in 1858: “Superficial, sudden, unsifted, too fast for the truth, must be all telegraphic intelligence. Does it not render the popular mind too fast for the truth? Ten days bring us the mails from Europe. What need is there for the scraps of news in ten minutes? How trivial and paltry is the telegraphic column?”

Amazing how each new technology brings a sense of fear and nostalgia to human beings. The article also mentions fears about the telephone (will make you deaf, 1904), radio (so much loud and unnecessary noise, 1924) and TV (people reported being spied on by their TV, 1937).

If it’s free you’re the product (1973 version)

Nothing is really new, sometimes to the point where you end up wondering why it’s worth trying to have new ideas and pushing things forward… Have you heard this famous quote that has been touring the web for the past three years, “if it’s free you are the product”. Well, this is what a friend saw this week-end at a Lausanne museum: a 1973 video saying this exact same thing about the media that, at the time, was becoming mass: television.

Full video is here:

This reinforces the theory I developed in my recent TEDx talk, that to understand the future you need to look at the past. How did we survive becoming the product of TV? Well, we developed new cognitive capacities like ignoring advertising messages, and remote controls were invented to switch channels when commercial messages came up. Ads did not become irrelevant, instead a balance appeared, a consensus in which all parties’ interests were taken into account. Everybody way happy enough. This is what will happen on the web in the coming years. We might be products, but products with enough creativity and power to fight back and force a new balance to appear.

Securing ATM operations

Researching how people use financial services, I stumbled on these pictures of (older) people “securing” their ATM operations. Beyond the fun factor, it’s a reminder of how hard some of us struggle to integrate new technologies into our daily lives.

Openness does not scale

When I founded Lift back in 2005, it was nothing more than an abstract idea, an event that *might* happen. There was no value in being associated with it, other than true passion to contribute to the original vision.

Because I had no event organization experience, I made the conference preparation process completely open. On the event’s blog I would ask questions like “how long should the breaks be” or “who would you like to invite to speak?”

It was co-creation, crowdsourcing, radical openness; call it what you like. It worked wonders, helped create a unique event while involving the nascent community, and giving its members a sense of ownership and identity. The best possible scenario.

Then the event got noticed, and things changed. Lift became something, it had an aura, people wanted to be associated with it. From a few suggestions a month, I started to receive 10-15 emails a day, people proposing to “build synergies”, speak at the event, telling me that the format should change to this or that.

That is when I learned openness and success are not compatible. Openness does not scale, no matter how hard you try.

From a strength, being exposed to external inputs became a weakness. Some synergies were taking focus away from the core goals. I was receiving as many speakers suggestions a week as I had speakers slots for a year. People I had to turn down felt rejected. Format suggestions were often contradictory, and going into a direction was making one person happy, two others unhappy.

This is a well known problem. Let’s look at the Pirate party: as Ben Mason writes in Guernica: “a couple of radical principles is fine for a fringe group”, less “once [you] start winning seats”.

Pirate policies cannot be imposed from above, they must be determined by consensus of members; so if the base has not come to an agreement on an issue, the leaders have no opinion. The party convention in December [2012] was supposed to solve this by setting policy, but it failed embarrassingly: since each of the two thousand members who came had equal right to speak, long lines formed behind the microphone and they got through only half of the weekend’s agenda. So to many questions the answer remained: “We have no policy on that.”

Link

What worked for a few hundred pirates doesn’t work when the party grows and starts to have success.

Same for Wikipedia: the organization that represents openness in everybody’s mind is now a mature project, and the movement towards more structure is very apparent. It started in 2005, when users were first forced to register. Restrictions and rules have grown ever since. So much that they have now started to impact the number of contributors, which went from 50’000 in 2006 to 35’000 today. From a recent report by A. Halfaker, R. Geiger, J. Morgan and J. Riedl:

[…] several changes the Wikipedia community made to manage quality and consistency in the face of a massive growth in participation have ironically crippled the very growth they were designed to manage. Specifically, the restrictiveness of the encyclopedia’s primary quality control mechanism and the algorithmic tools used to reject contributions are implicated as key causes of decreased newcomer retention.

Link

From my experience it seems all open organizations follow the same path:

  • At the beginning, a small, consistent and aligned community of people start a project in a fully transparent and open way
  • The project grows, others are joining. Participants’ objectives start to differ more, the alignment level goes down
  • Processes and hierarchies are put in place to formalize things that were previously happening informally
  • As problems continue to grow, openness is scaled back and more restrictions are put in place
  • Early adopters leave out of frustration, referring to the old days as much better
  • A certain level of maturity is reached, made of a mix of open and formal processes

Openness/crowdsourcing/co-creation has been praised as the solution to almost everything. It makes products better by involving final users into the design process. It makes launches less risky as problems have been anticipated. But it is a process that needs to be managed smartly. The key: balance between openness and control.


Ron Lambert, ‘Object for Perpetual Openness’ 2007

From my years of experience, here are a few advices:

  • Set the right expectations from the start. You know you will have to add restrictions down the road, so make it clear as early as possible. This way when new rules are installed, frustration will be less important. Don’t let contributors feel that their feedback results in actions from you 100% of the time, even if it can be true in the early days of a project.
  • Be transparent about the difficulties. Once in the post conference survey we asked “would you like shorter or longer breaks?”. The result: 50% shorter, 50% longer. Make the call, and explain why you could not use feedback in that particular case.
  • Learn to gracefully say no. Consensus is harder to find as a community grows, saying no is a normal and healthy thing. But find a way to not turn your fans against you in the process. This is a really hard thing, but people can understand that all their inputs can not be taken into account if you explain respectfully and carefully.
  • Openness only works with the right people, so think about the incentives you are using to grow your community. It is the same problem with Facebook pages: if you recruit new fans via give-aways, you will not have the same quality of people than if you had been patient, only popping up on the radar of those genuinely interested in what you do.
  • You do not have to choose between two extremes (open vs closed), but to position yourself on that axis in the best possible way, knowing than moving in one direction or the other is always possible. Balance is the key.

Touchscreens are so yesterday

A couple of new technologies will save screens from greasy fingers. No need to touch with eyeSight‘s fingertip tracking technology and the leap motion.

Just like when mobile phones created hordes of people seemingly talking to themselves in the street, expect a new generation of weird behaviors coming once gesticulating in front of a screen becomes a good way to control your computer.

I wonder if one day we will be able to talk to our machines in sign language, and turn that into text. Would be very useful for people with disabilities.

Lawyers rejoice: more copyright fights coming thanks to 3D printing

There is a lot of ground to cover before being able to print your iphones at home. But 3D printing is really raising big questions, none bigger than the intellectual property of objects.

Just like the music industry lost its power (and business model) once it lost the capacity to lock its content into objects (tapes, CDs, etc), makers will be challenged as circulating objects will be as easy as passing a file from one printer to the other.

Before long, many of us will be able to print physical objects as easily as we once burned DVDs. And just as the Internet made trading MP3 music files and ripped movies a breeze, downloading 3D images to print on your shiny new MakerBot printer will be as easy as torrenting “The Hurt Locker.”

Last week, HBO sent a cease-and-desist letter to Fernando Sosa asking him to stop selling a 3D printed iPhone dock he modeled after the Iron Throne chair from the popular HBO TV series Game of Thrones.  Even though Sosa designed the dock himself in Autodesk Maya, HBO owns the rights to the show, its characters, and apparently the inanimate objects that appear onscreen.

Link (via 3D printing)

If you have kids about to choose what to study, direct them to law. There will be a lot of work in the coming decades ;)

Betrayed by your wireless meters

“Smart” meters to monitor water and electricity consumption, sounds like a good idea right? No need to be at home when the inspector from the utility company visits, he can just get the data from outside the door, faster than ever. We save time, utilities save money, what’s not to like? Well, the meters are not really secured. $1000 worth of open-source radio equipment, information available through online tutorials, and anybody can read the meter without your consent, and know if you are home or not.

When the technology that should help us actually hurt us: “Wireless meters tell snoopers when you are not home”

Criminals no longer need to stake out a home or a business to monitor the inhabitants’ comings and goings. Now they can simply pick up wireless signals broadcast by the building’s utility meters.

In the US, analogue meters that measure water, gas and electricity consumption are being replaced by automated meter reading (AMR) technology. Nearly a third of the country’s meters – more than 40 million – have already been changed. The new time-saving devices broadcast readings by radio every 30 seconds for utility company employees to read as they walk or drive around with a receiver. But they are not the only ones who can tune in, says Ishtiaq Rouf at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, and his colleagues.

The team picked up transmissions from AMR meters – operated by companies that they did not name in their paper – and reverse-engineered the broadcasts to monitor the readings. To do this they needed about $1000 worth of open-source radio equipment and information available through online tutorials.

Link (top image from CyBlog)