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.