The Contemplative Edge

Or the mental ramble that followed the Gigaom shutdown.

Try as I might I can’t remember when I first heard of Om Malik. In my mind he’s associated with names like Zack Exley, Micah L Sifry, Danah Boyd and Esther Dyson but that can’t be because they are in the realm of digital inclusion and empowerment and Om Malik is about cutting edge innovation and commercial reality. So when was it?

My first strong memory of GigaOm was ‘back in the day’, as everybody on the podcast keeps saying, when Chris Albrecht and Tom Krazit did the Gigaom Show. From there I began to listen to Kevin C. Tofel and Janko Roettgers on cord cutting and Chrome; then there was Derek Harris and Barb Darrow whose insanely bad podcast intros prefaced great in depth interviews on cloud and big data and finally my favourite, everybody’s favourite tech Mom, in reality the very clever Stacy Higginbotham (not forgetting her dog, her eight year old – who must be nine now – and her bemused husband). These people have accompanied me in the car, to the gym and around the house then all of a sudden there they were: gone!

I have chased around in search of information: I have checked Twitter feeds, I have read Howdy y’all Stacey Higginbotham’s blog on http://staceyhigginbotham.com , I have caught up on Mathew Ingram’s Flipboard pages Media Past and Future but right now these are like echoes; Gigaom has gone and I’m going to miss it.

Which makes me think: why did I like it so much? Entertainment apart it was a source of information, good, detailed tech stories. These I could reference in my own personal blog which was where I organised my thoughts. Take for example “Never Say Never” which I posted in February; it was Derek Harris who mentioned the NVIDIA Tesla K-series GPU Accelerators and it was one of Stacey Higginbotham’s guests, Hiliary Mason, of Fast Forward Labs who talked about algorithms which can sort millions of data items in just a few processor cycles. All of which made me think about our dependence on current cloud technology to make our smart things smart and yet technology moves inexorably to the edge. Isn’t there a future conflict of interest there? When technology allows Google Translate to sit on my smart phone without a data link or central processing where is Google’s business model?

My personal ramblings are not cutting edge, they are what I call contemplative edge. Now I’m no longer involved in digital anything as a way of making a living I don’t have to scan the tech blogs and news feeds for the latest thoughts and ideas but I still do because I have the space to think about these things.

Despite what you may have read or heard England is not a cutting edge economy. We survive on a service based economy with some manufacturing (we do very good very expensive cars) and we have a lot of people in minimum wage zero hours employment. There are a few, small innovative companies but on the global scale of things they are very small. We are digital consumers; our measure of digital inclusion is based on how much we consume and how many services we access. Right now the Internet of Things is only just emerging in popularist news stories. The Insurance industry has been complaining that smart vehicles will reduce accidents and also insurance premiums; how will they make money? The white goods retail industry has been sounding warnings that smart appliances will lengthen the replacement cycle and that will hit profits. I spotted a set top box only this week which advertised itself as being able to make your TV a Smart TV – nonsense but you can get away with that sort of thing in the UK because the vast majority of people are not digital savvy, they are just consumers which is all they need to be.

What has this to do with Gigaom? Like I said at the beginning these are ramblings. Gigaom brought insight into a fast moving, technically advanced, disruptive world. Without the likes of Gigaom we will understand less. While other tech blog sites will continue they will have that geeky edge that Gigaom managed to avoid which is what made its stories so accessible and because of that we are potentially less well informed. In a few months time technology products branded for the Internet of Things will find their way into UK stores and we will consume them, as we do. We will not pause to consider the infrastructure of the cloud, the implications of big data or the cul de sac of development into which we will be driven so that we can be Smart. Gigaom could never influence the actions of nations but it could, and it did, inform those people who wished to keep thinking about what all of this might mean.

Gigaom I will miss you.

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Closer To The Edge

I once had a teacher who would say to me “Everything matters Nash, but nothing matters that much!”. Back in the day, in the 1960’s that may well have been the case but network effects were less palpable then, less obvious. Today, in our networked society everything matters an awful lot because you never know what will ripple through the nexus of connections and make an impact. The law of unexpected consequences has never been more apparent.

If you had pulled together all of the world’s top ophthalmic surgeons in 1950 and asked them to describe the perfect surgical tool not one of them would have described the laser; and yet in 1960 when Theodore Maiman launched the ruby laser into the world he had created not just such a tool but also the basis of our modern day communications – in fact the fabric of the network itself. We feel the impact of the laser today because it is pervasive: you can buy a laser at your local DIY store. The laser has made it way to the edge and so we find it not just in the surgeon’s hand but also as part of our every day existence.

3D printing matters and it matters a great deal: right now, for the majority of people 3D printing is cute. It produces weirdly coloured often strangely finished everyday things in plastic and we all go “Ahhh, isn’t that amazing”. It is confined to a small group of enthusiasts and it sits on the periphery of becoming main stream. I read just this week that Hewlet Packard is planning to get into the retail 3D printer market. Already there are some serious 3D prototyping machines; 3D printers have made it into medicine and they are being used to print high precision parts for NASA. Earlier this week, Wired reported that a German company has figured out how to print cars. 3D printing is making its way to the edge sure enough but the impact will not be in the way we conveniently repair broken plastic components or entertain ourselves with tasteless coloured op art. The real impact of 3D printing will be on logistics.

Whatever we buy these days has to be made, stored, distributed, displayed, advertised and either collected or delivered. Take two examples: a set of mugs and a car. The lifecycle of a mug is interesting; often designed in one country, manufactured in another, packed and wrapped in a third (using packaging from a fourth) and then delivered, advertised and sold in a fifth. This is a huge logistics industry made possible because of our networks.

I couldn’t design a decent mug if my life depended upon it and I want something more than an off white vessel with a handle from which to drink my morning coffee. Whether I buy my mugs from a shop or an online website or even from a catalogue what if the final step in the purchase was to go home and see them print out? That means that everything from the design process onwards in the current system would become redundant: no overseas trade, no containers full of mugs and packaging, no labels in different languages no packing machines and so on. In energy terms it’s marvellous but what about all of that employment both here and in the emerging economies? Possible now? I would say so.

When I had my last car I ordered it 12 weeks before I could collect it. That was fine and it worked for me. On the day I ordered it I sat there while the salesman placed the order on the system in Germany where the car was built, with my name on it to my specifications and shipped to England where 12 weeks later I collected it from the showroom. What if nothing was shipped except the raw materials and the power unit? What if, as the order was placed, the production line of 3D printers swung into action in the workshop at the back of the showroom with just a few people to monitor the process and to do the pieces of assembly that the robots couldn’t manage? Possible now? I think not but within twenty years, almost certainly.

As 3D printing moves from the world of the enthusiast to the economic edge we need to plan for the change it will bring in how we are employed and educated but also in how our tastes change and the way we value things. I suspect that everyday items will be things we value for their convenience – value in use but there will be an increased value in things that are crafted, by us and by individuals – value in personalisation perhaps.

Never Disagree With An Idiot

George Carlin, the American stand up comedian said: “Never disagree with an idiot. He will bring you down to his level and then beat you with experience”. He came to mind this week when I was reading the reports of Apple CEO, Tim Cook’s response to criticism of Apple’s aggressive tax avoidance tactics. It’s not our tax avoidance that’s the problem he said it’s your tax regime (I’ve paraphrased but you get the gist). That same “bubble” mentality was evident in an Observer piece on Sunday: “How Silicon Valley tech elite’s wealth created a world apart” by Rory Caroll. This was very much a populist piece, by which I mean it wasn’t world shattering investigative journalism, but it highlighted a way of thinking. In summary this was a description of how employees from companies like Google, Apple, EA and Twitter are setting themselves apart from the people who live in the same geographical location. They travel in their own buses, they create their own gated communities and they create a sense of taking much and giving back little. They deny it, of course, with statements which reflect a view of San Francisco as a dirty city with poor schools to which the elite come to create wealth regardless. One reflects that they can’t understand people’s criticism; after all they are helping people to share.

Of course, as an outsider looking in, you can see that from Tim Cook to the unnamed developer they’re missing the point. We can apply Apple’s logic to any number of laws that we don’t happen to like; it’s not that I broke the speed limit, it’s just that you set the limit too low; likewise the tech employee community cannot see the difference between doing for and doing with.

Was any technology truly disruptive that didn’t move things closer to the edge? For example, the personal computer, the private car, the smart phone, Mpeg compression or the internet? Surely the disruption comes because the means of consumption or production becomes increasingly divorced from the core and choice is placed in the hands of the individual. We can see a cycle in which a new development triggers a market change, the old core responds first with negative publicity and then with attempts at regulation; then there is adaptation, new market models arise and it starts again. Old companies disappear or change and new ones grow up to replace them, better suited to the new environment.

This begs a question: what is the role of the Cloud? Think before you answer! On the one hand the cloud (let’s not get into the argument about what the cloud physically is; I know it isn’t a “the” but as a concept it’s out there, it’s working and like it or not most of us use it. We can think of it as a great facilitator, no cloud no smart phone for instance. We can see it as a great benefit; the Internet of Things is unlikely to function without the Cloud, there is going to be no Drop Box, Netflix will struggle and the low cost, fast running start up will, well it will not start up!

What of the cloud as an aggregator, a consumer of very big data, about us? Where does the wealth on which all of those unpaid taxes accrue get created? Isn’t it based on the analysis of that eye watering collection of data about us? Up to a point I accept the argument that nothing in this world is free; I don’t get to use my smart phone for all of those personalised services for nothing. In return I give up data about me, my contacts and my life. At what point do I, or any of us for that matter, decide that the cost is too high?

I am a great admirer of Jarond Lanier; not just because of his achievements but because of his ability to  set out the world from his point of view. While he is great at identifying trends he’s not so hot on the solutions and his latest book “Who owns the future” is a case in point. His argument for humanistic economics sounds okay but it’s based on an old idea of value; that of value in ownership. The economics of the digital realm comes from value in use. Without the cloud my smart phone may be an aging design icon but it’s also just a lump of useless alloy and glass. The value lies not in ownership but in use. Right now that value is created for me in time I will need that value to be created with me – and the digital network will allow that process of co-creation to happen. If it doesn’t then the price I am currently paying to realise that value will be deemed too high (I believe I will not be alone) and I will go elsewhere and do things other ways. Two things flow from this, firstly the developers that are setting up their world apart in the dirty city will have to start to do things with their neighbouring community and not exist in the belief that they are doing things for otherwise things will fall apart very quickly. Secondly that data of mine that you are taking in payment for services is generating a lot of money – much more than I think the services are worth – so give something back Mr Cook, pay your damn taxes.

As a final thought I firmly believe that cloud technology will eventually move to the edge where it will become truly disruptive. This will be because of resource demands and as every network architect knows the closer to the edge the less resource dependent it is; where we are now is unsustainable. I predict a period of negativity, followed by regulation (presumably in return for paid taxes) and then adaptation and a new business model – it will take time, but it will happen.

I didn’t vote for that, did you?

What comes first the business magnate or the politician? Does success in one field naturally lead to an involvement in the other? I ask this because I’m fascinated by the parade of successful business leaders entering Ten Downing Street (sometimes by the back door) and I can understand the desire of Governments to court investment and expertise. I am disturbed, however, when the pronouncements of the business world both in private and public emerge as political rhetoric and public policy.

Politics, Technology and The Internet are conjoined and difficult to separate. I imagine most people who read this blog will know Joe Trippi’s “The Revolution Will Not be Televised Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything” and “Learning from Obama” by Colin Delany. As nothing succeeds like success we are accustomed to receiving our political messages through a range of media; witness the successful use of Social Media by the Labour MP Tom Watson.

There is the promise of the empowered masses as set out in “Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens when people Come Together” by Clay Shirky and “We Think: Mass innovation, not mass production” by Charles Leadbeater. The Arab Spring is held aloft as an example of populations engaged, empowered and active in establishing democracy with the help of social media sharing.

What happens when these two ends of the political spectrum become entwined; when the successful business leader seeks to influence government and promotes the ideas through those channels of influence? You may endorse the meritocracy and argue that it’s a natural progression but I find myself thinking: “I didn’t vote for that; did you?”

As a case in point Marc Zuckerberg recently launched FWD.us a lobby group promoting immigration reform in the US. This group has the support of some high profile tech names not least Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer in addition to Marissa Mayer and Eric Schmidt. FWD.us has come in for some criticism not least from Om Malik founder of GigaOm  who has questioned the objectives and reasoning of the organsiation in terms of its underlying philosophy and its suitability to take a political stance, not least on the thorny subject of immigration. He questions Zuckerberg’s standing on privacy he also questions the perceptions of the supporting Silicon Valley crowd.

Steve Lehar has written about whether the world we see is real or simply a copy created by our brain in “The World in Your Head: A Gestalt View of the Mechanism of Conscious Experience” This idea of a perception bubble is used to describe a situation where people become disconnected from the real world and they see it in terms of the shared values of themselves and their close circle. An example would be the people we choose to follow on Twitter or Facebook because they reaffirm our beliefs about the world in which we live; those who don’t we choose to ignore. There’s an interesting piece on Gigaom Research by Derrick Harris.

So what! I hear you shout. Well The New York Times highlighted recently FWD.us has run into trouble already: Its subsidiaries have taken a swipe at Obama’s Healthcare strategy and has promoted a controversial oil pipeline currently attracting environmental objections. I can understand if people write this off as an American phenomena but I’m not so sure. In 2011 Eric Schmidt made a quiet entrance to Downing Street to “talk business with the Government” the discussions reportedly involved economic growth in the UK and the role technology could play. Shortly thereafter Schmidt gave a speech on the importance of developing programming skills in school age children in preparation for the future. On the face of it you can’t argue with that and I for one would subscribe to the inclusion of programming skills in a National Curriculum. However, move forward a little over 12 months and we get: “Coding essential to future curriculum, says Michael Gove”  A Speech by the Education Secretary following the government’s ditching of the national curriculum programme for ICT. The speech included the quote: ““For children who have become digital natives and who speak fluent technology as an additional language, the ICT curriculum was clearly inadequate,” said Gove. Having spent many years working in the field of digital inclusion I have all sorts of questions about “digital natives” and the speaking of “fluent technology” by young people across the spectrum. In asking those questions I am mindful of other thinkers in the world of digital society such as Sherry Turkle in “Alone Together”, Evgeny Morozov “The Net Delusion” and Jarond Lanier “You Are Not A Gadget”. An education for a digital age is more than an ability to programme.

Do we draw a red line and say thus far and no further? Where do we draw that line? Maybe we should look out of our perception bubbles and see where we are in relation to the real world. I’m curious as to what FWD.us means; is a shortening of Forward or does it stand for Facebook World Domination? Probably neither but it does make you think doesn’t it?

If Data Is Currency Then Who Is The Bank?

In 2003 I was fortunate to partner with colleagues at Birmingham City to participate in the Digital Challenge. We made a bid to create a means of delivering public services in a personalized way to individuals through channels of choice; does that sound familiar? In 2003 there was no ubiquitous smart phone so we faced up to the challenge of creating our vision with the technology of the day. It was the journey not the outcome that mattered though at the time we were focused on winning the challenge. An important debate considered how much information we were prepared to forego in order to receive the services we wanted; we questioned how widely shared those values were and how much that value derived from the benefits we envisaged. We were ahead of our time in our thinking but the technological challenges were too great and our ability to sell the idea missed the mark.

The GigaOm podcast on Monday 22nd April on the importance of mobile to retail featured Dr Phil Hendrix and Doug Stephens. I will leave the podcast to speak (no pun intended) for itself; it’s well worth a listen but it was the quote “If data is currency then who is the bank?” that caught my attention. Our online identities reside in a number of places but will they ever be aggregated? Will one identity become more important than the others? We don’t hear as much about identity as we used to; at one time there was a lot of discussion about single, transferable identity hence we can now “log in” to different sites with our Facebook ID, or our Twitter ID or our Google ID.

But all is not well in data land because along with that shared login comes personal information and that personal information is being harvested.

I’ve read two different views of this recently: Tom Cochran writes in the All Things D blog Where he highlights the benefits in exchange for service argument. Nothing is free and if we want to enjoy personalized information, any time anywhere access to relevant information and the convenience of the cloud combined with shared access across different devices then there is a cost; that cost is the personal information that service providers harvest when we use those “free” services. Cochran’s view is that it’s worth it, he writes:

“There is a zero-sum relationship between personalization and privacy”

A case in point is put forward by Mathew Ingram who writes in GigaOm about his experience with Google Now:

“There’s no question the kind of data collection Google has to do in the background to power its Google Now service can be a little intrusive — perhaps too intrusive for some. But it also makes the results extremely useful.”

Om Malik takes up the contrary argument in his piece on the recently announced Facebook Home in which he argues that it “…destroys any notion of privacy”. In his piece “Why Facebook Home Bothers Me” Malik argues that the genie is out of the bottle and that “it’s too late to debate” but his concern is that:

“…. Facebook is going to use all this data — not to improve our lives — but to target better marketing and advertising messages at us”.

What we need is a more purposeful use of data; what Derrick Harris describes as “…a data democracy, not a data dictatorship” . This is something that I’ve argued for on a number of occasions.

When we sat and debated the use of personal data back in 2003 we did so with the mindset of a benign dictator giving to those who we deemed ready to receive; in our defense our motives were of the best kind. Ten years on we have moved on from our pioneering spirit and we have learned, just as the technology has moved on and changed in ways we couldn’t even imagine then enabling our vision. People have the right to empowerment through digital inclusion it is not the place of a minority to decide nor is it their place to take that data and use it to profit themselves without due consideration of the rights of the majority.

In “Who Owns The Future” Jarond Lanier argues that the disparity between those who harvest data and those who give it for free contributes to inequality in society. We should listen to him and when we give our data in return for a “free service” we should consider the cost.