Why we need to rebuild the internet

In life and in business I believe in a few guiding principles. Two I like in particular are very common across cultures:

  1. Create more value than you extract.
  2. Treat people the way you’d like to be treated.

I imagine everyone reading this would agree. Now let’s consider this juxtaposition:

What a CEO says: “We want to build a more open and connected society”

What a CEO does: Buy the 4 houses surrounding his in order to protect his own privacy.

Someone who sells privacy for a living, often without permission and tricks his customers into giving up more than they understand, wants to protect his own. The fact that I don’t need to mention the person’s name is telling. Well, you might say it’s not a fair comparison between how someone behaves in their digital and offline lives. Fair call, but consider the fact that up until last week the person in question could delete private messages from another person’s private inbox, after the messages had been sent to and received by the other party. A privacy feature he wasn’t generous enough to give to his users. Oh, by the way, I can think of another industry where ‘dealers’ call their customers ‘users’. We both get our minds messed with in ways we can’t understand and end up addicted and worse off.

It’s a well known technological trope that data is the new gold, an entirely new class of asset. And that’s where the problem lies. This asset class is so new, few people understand it. We could liken this to the age of discovery when imperialists took control of abundant natural resources, resources which were viewed by the conquered as something no one could really own or control.

The net result is that the greatest wealth creation event in the history of humanity. The Internet has resulted in a massive centralisation and control, and spawned the era of the data imperialist. Even those who understood the power of data have far less chance of leveraging it on their own, because of the dramatic impact of network effects, and zero cost digital transfers both have in creating a winner takes all economy. To quantify: the net worth of the 4 founders of the top 3 technology companies since the dot com era have a collective net worth of $281 billion dollars as of today.

The internet needs saving.

What started out in all probability as altruism – the dream of a free web funded by advertising, has become a nightmare panopticon and it’s time we pushed back. Hard.

Technology stalwart and all round good guy Jaron Lanier says we can no longer call these companies Social Networks, but ‘Behaviour Modification Empires’. Services which use algorithms to make us stay longer by giving us sugar hits of fear, jealously and other powerful negative emotions. Lanier also says that we can’t have a society where if two people want to communicate, it can only happen if it is financed by a 3rd party or corporation selling advertising. It’s worth investing 15 minutes of your time to hear him talk about it here.

But I will add a little more to his talk… the missing piece.  Personally, I hope Facebook isn’t fixed. It’s only when something stays broken that we get a chance to put something better in its place. For me that would be a social network that no one owns or controls – something funded by the people using it, without a financial corporate imperative shaping our most valued human asset – our interactions.

We need each other, Steve.

Why the book is always better than the movie

This week one of my favourite fiction books ever got released as a movie – Ready Player One. While I haven’t seen it yet, I already know the book was better. It always is.

“The movie was better” – said no one ever.

If you’ve ever read a book that got turned into a movie, you know this is true. But why?

The movie steals away our imagination. We always overlay a story with our own personal experience. Our own layer of what something should look and feel like. When we hand this over to someone else, such as a movie director, much of what we saw turns out different. It’s an inevitable reality of all creative interpretations. We always prefer our imagined version better, as we should.

This gets interesting given much of what we learn today is through video. We are now far more likely to watch a video to learn about something, than to read about it. Even less likely to read it off screen.

Reading ‘the book’ however, gives us a sense of depth and personal interpretation which just isn’t possible with audio visual. Our brains just don’t have to work as hard to paint a picture of what is, and what could be when it is delivered in full form. Ironically, the benefit of new cheap educational technology delivering quick video on anything, makes the book more valuable than ever. Part of the benefit of the slow version is that it demands we stay inside the idea longer. Reading a book offline, requires us to to change gears mentally and do more than a shallow scan. We have longer to postulate the ideas being presented, more time for our own experiences to mash up and interpret the subject at hand. While video can do that, I don’t think it can do it as well. Maybe there’s now a case for slow ideas, just like there was for slow food?

In a world where most people prefer fast and shallow, the big opportunity has opened up for those prepared to stay longer, explore a little deeper and do the work.

Steve. 

Here comes the Lab Burger

In 2013 Dr Mark Post made the world’s first lab burger. It came in at a cost of $330,000.

Now this isn’t wasn’t some kind of meat substitute, but actual meat, grown from cell cultures, extracted from the animal itself. The way it is done is by harmless extraction of stem cells muscle tissue from the ‘source animal’. They then take the sample, place a special gel around it, from which myotubes are grown to look and taste exactly like the meat – because it ‘is’ the meat. Scientists have coined the term ‘clean meat’ to describe it, though in classic form, the incumbent cattle industry are lobbying for the term meat to be disallowed to describe it.

Since that time the cost of production of ‘lab meat’ has declined significantly. Today it costs around $6000 for a quarter pound of beef and by 202o, it is estimated that the cost of a meat patty will be around $10 each – not far off what people pay for gourmet burgers these days. Eventually lab grown meat will be cheaper than any farm can produce. With hundreds of millions being invested in the technology by the likes of Bill Gates, it may be sooner than we think.

This isn’t just a quirk of technology, a novel form of food production, it has important environmental considerations we should all be very pleased with. Let’s consider the facts:

  • This process is possible with any type of meat
  • It involves no animal cruelty
  • Production uses 80% less water
  • It has 96% less greenhouse emissions

This last bit is what matters most, because surprisingly, livestock contributes to more greenhouse emissions than cars, trucks and planes combined according to the Scientific American. What we eat has a bigger impact on the environment than what we drive. So if you’re a Hummer Driving vegetarian, you can now be forgiven!

Now before you claim that such meat sounds disgusting, it’s worth remembering that at the dawn of the agricultural revolution farm grown meat was once considered disgusting. How could animals we farm, be as good as meat we catch? In any case I’m sure a trip down to your local abattoir will give you a new light on what is and isn’t, disgusting. Now, while I’m the furthest thing from being a vegetarian, I’ll put my hand up high for any use of technology which improve the world – and lab meat is high on my list. A world where we can create ‘nature identical food‘ and reduce our environmental impact, is something we should collectively encourage. And if you think you wouldn’t eat such a thing, ask yourself if you really know what you’re eating now?

I recently discussed the topic on radio, which freaked some people out. Click here to listen.

We need each other,
Steve. 

The technology shifts you need to focus on in 2018

I’ve always believed the technology shifts we ought focus on shouldn’t be the abrupt, but changes in the tide of consumer behaviour and the economy. The reasons shifts are more important than definitive events is that we have time to react to them, build around the movement and benefit from the change. Disruptive events are all too often the story of yesterday. With that in mind, here’s some thought starters on where we might focus our businesses in the coming year.

Typing to talking: After investing 20 years in being found on the screen, a list, the list will start to evaporate and be replaced with a singular verbal response. There won’t be a first page, just a recommendation. With Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and others investing heavily in voice activated devices the battle for the home, the fridge and entertainment devices will shift from typing to talking. This is a basic requirement before any serious IoT can be deployed, and will also forge a core component of the autonomous transport revolution. If any business relies on the SEO now, then it’s time to start working on Voice Engine strategy for a very fast approaching tomorrow.

Drone Logistics: While the big players have been the core promotors of drone possibilities, expect to see a pivot where a ‘Jo Nobody’ local business starts the process of real deliveries via drone. While regulations are moving fast, the risk for a small local outfit to deliver something just a few km’s away, while illegal, is often palatable to entrepreneurs. I expect V1 drone logistics to be built underneath the radar (surely you liked that pun). The first regular outside of line of sight deliveries will occur while no one is watching this year. Small efforts by micro businesses where both the deliverer and deliveree benefit. The real innovations are less about press releases of possible future innovation and more about two parties solving each others problems using the technology, mostly without permission.

Pop up bots: While bots pervade our every internet moment and make most of the technology we touch, we can expect bots to pop up where humans once stood this year. It won’t be a swarm, but we can expect to see a few humanoid style robots stand where people recently have, doing the repetitive task they did. At first it will be a curiosity, a marketing bit, some retail theatre, but it will be real. When robots can do backflips, it wont be long before they pull long macchiatos. Maybe your business can get the lead and win the early PR race – which is what it will be in 2018 at a commercial level for those not actually manufacturing the bots.

Crytpo Bubble Expands: Bitcoin had a year of growth to rival any financial bubble in history, at one point the rise was 20 fold in 12 months. I’ve been a believer in crypto currency for a long time. And I still am, but the underlying value of any product, service, asset class, or investment does not preclude it from getting overpriced (read bubble). The problem isn’t the price itself though, bitcoin could end up worth a million each for all i know, but that rapid adoption creates a rush at the door, and inevitably not everyone can get in or out – it creates a natural bottle neck of supply – the asset ends up with rapid confidence gains and losses, and sometimes it falls rapidly and doesn’t recover. Remember currencies are based on trust. My view is that bitcoin has shifted from a currency to a store of value – for now. So here’s the prediction bit. The crypto mania will continue into this year, and given those pushing up the price are generally people afraid of missing out, the rush will shift from being about bitcoin to about whichever currency ‘seems cheap’. It’s impossible to price an asset which has no yield and is based only on confidence and demand. Expect to see Ethereum, Ripple, Litecoin, Monero and others experience similar gains this year to bitcoin last year in a dotcom style boom. And just like that boom, a crash will happen, though I’m not sure when. The FOMO investors will exit, and crypto currency will re-emerge some years later and create the revolution it promised. Probably with some new coins, and some of the stalwarts. Side note: it took Amazon until 2007 before got back to  it’s year 2000 dotcom boom share price and now it’s on its way to be a trillion dollar company. The core skill we need in times like this is understanding if we are investing or speculating – both of which can be valid, so long as we know which game we’re playing. In the interim, we can expect to a serious shift of focus into the importance of the underpinning technology of the blockchain.

BlockChain technology pivot: Businesses will start to understand that blockchain technology can do much more than cryptographically track currency. It’s the equivalent of a 1989 internet era for blockchain, and the time is now to experiment with the technology and build something using it. The Google search you need to make is here: “How Blockchain technology can be used in [insert your industry]” – The more you dig into it, watch videos and understand the technology, you’ll see it has the potential to reframe the internet in many ways – and we need that to challenge the current internet oligopoly, and their quasi-unauthorised privacy trading market. A blockchain knowledge upgrade is a journey worth taking. I agree with Nic Hodges that we’ll see innovation on it this year outside of currency.

Regulation not a dirty word: People will start to realise that regulation is not the enemy, but an absolute requirement for a civilised and opportunity based capitalist economy. Here I’d like to make the delineation that there is good and bad regulation:

Bad regulations: Ones which protect industries and companies.

Good regulations: Ones which protect people.

It’s easy to forget that regulation can create entire industries and new revenue streams, open closed industries and allow for increased competition. Think work place health and safety – it not only made life better and safer for working people, but forced innovation in many realms. Opportunities to protect consumers against the big 4 are starting now – via regulation and via those prepared to innovate against their failings.

Virtual reality & Augmented Reality B2B pivot:  While the leaps being made in virtual and augmented reality are astounding and create incredible possibility, the big companies investing in the technologies (Microsoft / Facebook) will realise it will be many years before we have any serious adoption of these at the consumer level. Google’s move to warehouses and factories with Google Glass will be the start of these technologies infiltrating work as we know it. The beauty of this shift is it gives humans an upper hand against independent AI. We will become the technology and work with it. Expect to see people working in all areas from retail to manufacturing to distribution wearing various forms of facial augmented technology. We’ll also see the start of augmentation centres pop up – places we go to to get work done, or be entertained using high end AR & VR rigs – even Haptic Conferencing. Don’t expect to see it any time soon in anyones kitchen or lounge room. I believe this is the realm of ambient computing, and we should never forget a new technology needs a substitute, and I can’t see us substituting our current in home behaviour to don tech rigs at home. It will first need to infiltrate our worlds of work first – just like most technologies do. (Yes, we’ll still see VR / AR in basements with gamers!)

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If you want to get your year off motivated and creating an independent future – check out my latest book, The Lessons School Forgot – I promise you’ll dig it. 

Have a great 2018, and go make something rad,

Steve.

What won’t change in 2018

There’s lots of predictions every year of what will happen. But before we do that, it’s worth considering some things that won’t change in 2018.

  1. People will continue to use Facebook, and hand over the almanac of their lives, despite its lack of responsibility, and refusal to invest in stopping inappropriate use of their platform. It will continue to create deep echo chambers and division in society. Its leader Zuckerberg will continue to believe that Facebook is, and should be the internet. Remember they’re not a media business, but a technology company, right?
  2. The 4 monopolists (Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple) will continue to dominate the internet and be joined by a couple of others, possibly Netflix. They’ll continue to point out their small market share in their revenue arenas, while their share of digital infrastructure use and attention will grow further. Their power will increase, with the convenience they provide blinding the populace to the longer term externalities.
  3. Brands reliant on these new infrastructure providers above will continue to take the short term revenue solutions provided (foolishly growing their vegetables in someone else’s garden), while handing over direct connections to their own customers – which they could instead build with some effort.
  4. The jobs and growth narrative corroborated by Government and large corporations will continue to allow them to write laws and tax breaks which suit these new masters of the universe. Like last year, there won’t by any trickle down.
  5. Leading edge thinkers, will continue another year of educating the populace on the current problems and future problems being caused by the above behaviours and that the internet needs saving. These will gain momentum, but probably won’t change consumer behaviour much in the coming 12 months. There will be change, but not until the full cost of these behaviours becomes more evident. Only once events caused by the big few hurt the general population will there be action.
  6. Some big fines will be given to the above companies for violations (Think in billions) but unfortunately they’ll be financial rounding errors against their free cashflow.

Wow – that was dark and semi-apocalyptic – but watch out for tomorrow where I turn this reality into a set of positive actions and prognostications for the future. The year 2018 will be a good one for those who choose it to be, but before anything can ever be improved, we must first admit where we are… a good news post to follow 🙂

Have a great year, Steve.

The new global language we’re already writing

A global economy ends up with many pieces of global infrastructure. Communications system, social networks, sans-nation-state currencies, political forums, international transport to name a few. We are currently in the middle of the transition to a global language, the written version at least. Something seemingly childish is about to entirely transform the written word: emojis.

Before you laugh and close this tab, let’s remember that they were the Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year in 2015, Their usage has resulted in arrests, and we already have 2666 emojis in the Unicode standard. To read at university level in Chinese, one only needs to understand 3000 or so characters. In order to understand this premise more deeply, a revisit of the history of written language is informative, and it will uncover why this claim isn’t all that outlandish.

Our first attempts of written communication as a species started with pictographs on cave walls. The visual below is from Volltorta Gorge, Spain. Some cave paintings with similar pictographs date as far back as 71,000 years ago. The very first analogue emojis. The word emoji incidentally is a literal translation in Japanese meaning Picture Letter.

For much of human history, the written form was visual, obvious and static. This was largely due to the limitations of communication technology at the time. Our tools were limited to cave walls, painted with clay earth pigments. Back then, we used what we had, and had to ensure meaning could be transmitted without a spoken narrative to accompany it. But as our communications technology improved, the written form escaped the cave and millennia of evolution ensued. We used clay tablets and cuneiform script during the Sumerian era. This facilitated transportation of writing. Hieroglyphs in ancient Egypt followed the same pattern evolving from pictographs, as did Chinese scripture. Both are shown below.

 

As literacy levels increased, writing morphed – became simplified and deviated further from their pictorial origins. They became easier to draw, quicker to create and less detailed visually. This made them more transferable, flexible and increased the mobility of the content. More people, traders and merchants with average dexterity could draw the symbols and participate in written communications. Eventually, the methods of written communication became algorithmic collages of characters and alphabets to spell out the spoken word with more breadth. It became more exacting in its representation of the verbal form. In all probability, the written form probably evolved to match the technology of the day, papyrus, ink, and later, the printing press.

But since digital communications and tools have proliferated visual language has made a radical comeback. Via a weird combination of globalization, short form communication platforms and the need for expediency, we are now partially moving back to a world of interpretive pictographs. Now that the technology exists where the click of a single button can be translated into an entire sentence or deep emotion, our species has taken to the form with abandon. It is truly a wonderful iteration of the written form. I’m even wondering if we’ve subconsciously found a way to find a written form which can cross language barriers without realising it. An emergent phenomenon designed out of global necessity? While this isn’t the first time we have seen a shared character base which result in different words, (we have this in Chinese and Japanese), it is the first time we’ve seen a global omni-language written version.

The beautiful thing about emojis is that they don’t just translate, they also have a certain malleability and ability to create variety in tone. They can create a sentence structure. But more than anything, they’re a great reminder that language is itself also a technology. The tools we invent have the ability to change the reason we invented them and be repurposed with substitute inputs. The smart phone has the capacity to carry a new set of characters with the rare combination of visual accuracy and simplicity in distribution. The advantage they have is a new type of immediate and mutual understanding which can cross borders. It’s this that makes the switch to an entirely new global form of writing entirely possible. While it might take generations, it isn’t without precedent.

If you liked this post, you’ll dig my new book – The Lessons School Forgot – a manifesto to survive the tech revolution. 

The NBN is bigger than the internet as we know it

The number of people who want slower internet in Australia is exactly zero. The speed we need data transfers to occur at is much fast than our politicians think. The reason for that is simple, we haven’t even invented the technology or industries which will be underpinned by the required connectivity. This is merely the start of the revolution, we are only 20 years into the digital age, and thinking we can even conceptualise how data will be used in the future, and how much of it we’ll need is at best ignorant and in all probability conceited.

Consider this, when oil was first discovered bubbling out of a creek in Pennsylvania in 1859, we had no idea how this material might be used. Maybe for lanterns or heating or maybe even in some machines could use it instead of steam? But the airline industry? That was impossible to conceive as a use case for oil, as was personal locomotion and the plastics industry. Today the airline industry employs over 12 million people directly, and is an important conduit to global commerce.

The NBN is a non-polluting oil well of the future. It should be the conduit to the data economy in Australia. Transfer of data is core to any economy wishing to participate in modernity. Yet, in Australia the NBN has become a political football which is literally risking the financial future of every Australian. I’m flummoxed to hear that the CEO Bill Morrow has claimed that the average Australian (what is average anyway?) wouldn’t require download speeds of greater than 25 Mbps! Either he is deluded, he lacks understanding of exponential technology or he’s towing a political line. Data isn’t about being a techie or young, it’s akin to running water or electricity – In fact, it will probably become a vital remote health care ingredient for our ageing society. Here’s a few things we ought consider, and then start screaming loudly about relating the future of our economy and the technological infrastructure we ought be provided with:

  1. The Governments job isn’t to make a profit out of infrastructure. They should realise that they will profit from new industries built atop of it. They seem to forget the tax we pay (30% min for business) is a quasi joint venture they are the beneficiaries of. They benefit from innovation on platforms, but only when they have the quality the future requires. Besides, it is our money they are already investing on our behalf. Profit centricity is a flawed approach.
  2. Rich Countries are built on rich infrastructure. In less developed nations, the common element is crumbling or barely existent infrastructure. Low quality roads, tangled electrical grids, insufficient education, marginal hospitals. We are squandering the shift as developing nations take their chance and ensure they use connectivity to redefine their economies. Just Google internet speeds by country and see where we rank and some of the surprising speeds of developing markets.
  3. We’ve opened the door to Curve Jumps. There’s a chance that 5G mobile networks will be faster than the jumbled mix of FTTP, FTTN and FTTC NBN Co is now building. The network may obsolete before it’s completed, or even worse, a national infrastructure play could end up being served by global technology conglomerates: Google, Facebook and Space X with their various internet service projects. It’s also possible that 5G mobile networks will circumvent the NBN in cost & speed. By trying to save money, the entire project is at risk.
  4. The future economy lives on the meta-structure. The amount of data we are creating is already doubling every 18 months and we are at the start of the start. All the important innovations of the future will depend on the robustness of technological infrastructure, and will create a new meta -structure of virtual business models which live at a meta level a above the concrete and steel. The trillion sensor economy of the IoT, Desktop manufacturing and 3D printing, Drone based logistics and Virtual Roadways in the sky. All these things require faster than we imagine internet access, unlimited imagination and an ‘over investment’ in the infrastructure.

If we want equal economic opportunity around our big land, then it requires a strong national network, where our regional areas have the opportunity to build a location independent future. Everything humans and governments have ever built that mattered involved taking leaps of faith and investing more than we need now, so we can all benefit tomorrow.

You can listen to my thoughts on the NBN here. And be sure to tune in to 3AW every Monday at 4.30pm as I take on a topic that matters for our future with Tom Elliot.

If you liked this post – you’ll dig my new book – The Lessons School Forgot – a manifesto to survive the tech revolution.