Digital Nostalgia

Digital technology has a wonderful way of allowing that which was lost to re-emerge. Before we had the ability to make and publish whatever we please, tastemakers always focused on the next new thing, obsessed with selling to the ‘youth market’. Yesterday’s ideas would make their way from the shelf to the bargain bin, and finally be consigned to our fond, yet fuzzy, memories. Nostalgia used to be a few dusty ideas in sepia confined to an antique shop. Fast forward to 2018 and nostalgia is ironically, very now. It’s attracting big bucks from the people who have it, and it might just be the biggest marketing opportunity for people and brands with the wisdom to see it.

We entering an era I call the Dichotomy-Economy. Many markets are splitting into two clear juxtaposed segments: Fast food and Slow food, Discounters and Luxury brands, and to the growing list we we can add Neo and Nostalgia. Never have we seen such a rapid uptake of new technology in history. While we love it, it’s an exhausting, never-ending journey just to keep up. That’s where nostalgia comes in. It’s the metaphorical roadside rest area in an era of exponential change. The panacea we need to a future moving at light speed.

Ask anyone older than the ‘Snapchat demographic’ and it’s a world of old VHS tapes uploaded to YouTube, digital pictures of analogue photos scanned onto social media and Google searches of that thing you loved growing up that you just have to find now. There’s nothing grownups (as my kids call us) love more than buying the things we grew up with or the fantasy toys we could never afford. Notable nostalgia plays from the mainstream, including:

And if they aren’t cool enough for you, check out my 80’s TV, a simulated TV channel taking shows uploaded from the web and creating an actual 80’s TV channel with news sport, advertisements you name it. Just choose your year and off you go.

My friend Scott has tapped into the cult of 1970s and 1980s Aussie Rules footy by running an art-meets-ecommerce project – a limited edition run of old style lace-up footy jumpers. And it’s booming.

This is exactly the point. The reason nostalgia can make such a big comeback (pun intended) is that we have the tools at our disposal to promote something, we can outsource manufacturing and a connected world means that the niche can often survive with thin, yet global distribution.

If you’re a company, brand or individual looking for a high margin future, then maybe it’s the past you should look into.

Equity, tokens and working for free

Ten years ago I used to get offered equity to work for free, now I get offered tokens in upcoming ICO’s. I used to say yes to many equity offers if:

(A) I liked the project

(B) I liked the people

As you can imagine most of these projects never went anywhere. I’ve now got many 1% shares in imaginary companies that no longer exist. I’d hazard to guess many ICOs are also going to end up as Imaginary Cash Only.  So should you accept such an offer from some cool people? Well, it really depends on why you’re doing the work. If it’s for experience, then why not? Think of it as part of your ‘free education’ in industry XYZ. Many of the most valuable things I’ve done in my career started out in the free zone.

My approach today however, is a little different. Here’s how a decide whether or not to work for non cash payment:

If I wouldn’t invest my own money in that startup or activity, then I wont accept non-cash payments. Why – because they are essentially the same thing. We are handing over money to the project or company.

Another thing worth considering is why the person on the other side of the equation would give away equity for labour. If they truly believe in their project, why are they so eager to give up equity? It’s certainly worth asking them that question.

In my experience smart entrepreneurs ask for money, not free labour. Especially when money follows good ideas, strong teams, and that managing free labour adds friction and complexity to the project or startup itself.

Your work is worth more than you think, Steve. 

What unions should do to survive the future

In a largely information-based work society, it’s easy to forget the important role unions have played in creating a civilised society. Things we take for granted like reasonable work hours, fair wages, workplace health and safety and even low cost retirement superannuation programmes. I’ve never been a part of a union – my work has typically never had union representation. But I’m starting to wonder if they’ll even exist in the near future. These numbers are very telling:

Union membership in steep decline – less than 15% of workforce currently:

  • In 1960 it was 60%
  • In 1980 it was 43%
  • In 1990 it was 34%
  • In 2000 it was 24%
  • In 2010 it was 18%.
In the private sector only 10% of workers are members of a union and with manual labour declining due to automation, it is difficult to see a future for unions. That is of course, unless they start doing what all of us have to do: reinvent themselves and pivot to providing something non-union workers will need in the future.
The shift unions are missing:
Unions should start focusing on new types of labour – information workers and the gig economy. One of the biggest changes about to occur in our economy is the shift from employee to freelancer. Freelance work is no longer the stuff of the creative class, those who do weird and wonderful things no company needs day to day. We’ll all be doing freelance work in the near future. As employment ‘friction’ is rapidly being removed by technology, work will become more fluid. The growth of platforms to both display our credentials and help us connect with each other for projects is creating an inevitable and new work structure. This structure and the efficiencies it allows may well out perform the 200 year dominance of the firm. The latest ABS data shows that 30% of adults did some freelance work this month. And it is predicted that by 2027 there will be more independent workers than PAYG wages earners in Australia. It’s here we need to remember that back in the 1600s, fewer than 1% of workers the world over were employees – we all worked for ourselves. Employment may well be a temporary 200 year blip in the evolution of work as we return to the way it always was, as ‘the factory’ disappears from our lives.
The real opportunity for unions isn’t just to come in to negotiate conditions and wages for people. In all probability our market economy doesn’t want or need that. Instead, the opportunity for unions exists in becoming a quasi HR department for independent and freelance workers, to manage many of those things that we once had taken care of by employers when working inside a large corporation. They need to become a career partner in helping their members become more valuable. Demanding wage alone increases will only expedite the penetration of A.I and remove many of the members altogether.
Here’s some areas unions must address if they want to even exist 20 years from now:
The Gig Economy:
Sure, it used to be easier to gather the workers outside of a giant factory and convince them that they could better leverage their power to negotiate for better working conditions as a group, rather than as individuals. This can surely be done in a gig economy too. If Uber can aggregate labour, so can unions. They just need to modernise their recruiting techniques in the same way the gig economy startups have.
The Quasi HR department:
In the emerging gig and freelance economy, one of the major complaints is the benefits they lose as ‘non employees’. Think annual leave, safety regulations, work conditions, training and superannuation being organised on their behalf. Unions can fill this void. It may not be a traditional role for unions, but it is a protective and guiding role – and within the realms of what unions ought to do. It’s also possible that they could influence legislation for this purpose. Unions could teach freelancers how to price themselves (freelance workers are generally worth more than they think and undersell themselves by pricing too low). They could also invoice on behalf of freelancers to ensure they’re paid quickly. Freelancers could allocate to unions some of their income to organise their training, superannuation, tax and insurance. This would create a ‘float’ of money the unions could use to train and future-proof workers. Unions could create competitive digital products against the tech giants (Uber?) that their gig economy workers could own. Why give Uber 20% of every ride when gig economy workers could create a digital commons version of it they own?  Blockchain, anyone?
Re-define Blue Collar:
Part of unions problem is their myopic view of labour which requires their representation, especially with white collar labour. In this arena unions generally only represent publicly funded or regulated industries including education and health sectors. They barely exist in media, finance, technology and other professional services. They should closely look at retail, call centres, and entry level corporate work. Salary workers have become the new Blue Collar – we could frame them as the White Collar Underclass. Most salary workers get paid for 40 hours of labour, yet work well over 60 hours per week. Examples of this include non-commission sales roles, administration, interns and pretty much all office-based entry-level work, even for university graduates.
Data As Labour:
And finally the biggest opportunity of all – data as labour. If you’re on the internet, you’re creating data. And that data, even if you see it as leisure or entertainment, it’s a form of labour. It’s work that you have done and it has significant value. It has created the fastest growing corporations in history, and now represents 5 of the 10 biggest companies in the USA. Anyone creating data is working for free and creating largesse for a few tech titans. Starting to gain traction is a movement whose philosophy is: “Our data is our labour and it shouldn’t be taken for free.” We’ve all been tricked into giving value away in exchange for access to human connection. If there was every an opportunity to redefine a market – then this is it.
In closing, unions need a startup mentality – find and disrupt new industries so they can help workers maximise the value they create. If they don’t, then it’ll just be another tragedy of the commons. I recently discussed this on radio – you can listen to it here.
– – –
If you want to future-proof yourself  – then you might want to check out my latest book: The Lessons School Forgot.

Our future depends on showing up

Turning up is way more important for our future than we’d imagine. Maybe it’s 50% of success, maybe much, much more. But showing up isn’t just about attending that event, the gym or night school, it’s really about how it impacts the mind. It gives us a chance to experience what progress feels like and then goes about inventing the belief that we can grow. We realise small consistent investments in ourself really add up over time, especially when most people fail to make any effort. The reason that it creates such an advantage is that is that while every one can, very few people will. Maybe that’s why we call it will power?

Showing up is making uncomfortable phone calls to pitch your ideas.

Showing up is reading the book on that new technology impacting your industry.

Showing up is learning the new skills long after you graduated from school.

Showing up is working that project nights and weekends while others watch cooking shows.

Showing up is supporting the projects of those you care about, helping them.

Showing up is doing more preparation than you need, just in case.

Showing up is doing that thing we know we should…

But mostly showing up teaches us that raw talent matters far less than doing the work. Showing up proves to ourselves that effort goes further than talent and miracles. If there’s ever been a time to show up, it’s when the world changes rapidly and everything is up grabs, like now.

Keep moving, Steve. 

Why E-Sports might just help your career

“Hey kids, get out inside out of that fresh air, stop exercising and start playing some video games why don’t you!” – Said no parent ever, maybe they should?

On my weekly radio spot this week I spoke about video games, or E-sports as it’s known. I proposed that gaming is a valid use of kids spare time, and could even help them in later life and their careers. My mum, with good intentions hated my going to the ‘dodgy’ video arcade, and later despised the time I spent gaming on my TRS-80 (yes my dude was a block, but I have a good imagination). But, it did lead me to a lifetime of interest in technology, and now that’s become a career. Occasionally we need to open our minds enough so that we can reframe an outdated perception. And maybe even back it up with some facts, so here’s a few about the E-Sports industry worth considering:

Economics: Video game sales (think hardware and software) is more than twice the size of the movie industry world wide. it will near $130 billion in 2018. The Pro E-Sports industry is estimated to be $1.5 billion this year with over $100 million in prize money, and has over 385 million annual viewers. Yes – people watching people play video games – both on line and live. In fact, the biggest ever crowd at a video game tournament was 52,000 people in a stadium in Germany.

Careers: There is currently 13,000+ professional E-Sports players. While the average annual pay packet is relatively small at $4500 a year, the top player earnings are right up there with with more traditional sports. Kuro Takhasomi took home a handy $3.5m last year and more than 200 players earned more the $100,000 for playing ‘games’.

Skills: Like any sport, there’s a natural hierarchy and not all hopefuls will make it to the elite level. Though, there is something different about E-Sports – they prepare us for the emerging world in ways few traditional sports can. Studies show they are good for rapid problem solving, brain speed, memory, algorithm awareness and management and even fine motor skills. They’ve been used to train soldiers, pilots, surgeons and it’s fair to assume their use in pre-career simulations, will continue and even extend through the use of VR and AR.

In any case, it does seem that the correlation between gamers and a desire to learn the underpinning technology is high. Surely this gives gamers an advantage in future proof technological career paths.

Social: When I mention to people I regard E-Sports as a ‘real sport’ it is often met with scepticism, and even ridicule. At which time I often remind people how ridiculous grown ups chasing dead animals filled with air to kick them through big white sticks is. All games are silly by definition, and they often take generations on the fringe before they enter mainstream culture. But after a couple of generations of computer games, I feel we are on the precipice of that shift right now. The spectator side of the industry is real, and will have wider career and industry opportunities than many people imagine.

So is it a sport? Well that depends on how you view things. Here’s one definition of Sport: “An activity involving physical exertion or skill in which an individual or team compete against one another or for others entertainment.” It fits as far as I can tell. And if you’re worried it will make society more obese than it already is, don’t fret too much. It’s only a matter of time before these games involve players in haptic suits running around on fields shooting up people somewhere on the other side of the globe.

Click here to here me discuss Gaming on 3Aw with Tom Elliot. And be sure to tune in at 4.30pm every Monday for your Future Fix.

Go play, Steve. 

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.