Top 10 Things in 2014 that made me optimistic for the future

In 2014, we witnessed many tragic events, from Ebola deaths to the attacks on schools in Nigeria and Pakistan, but there were also glimmers of hope for the future. Some of the events that spelled the most promise for the future were the following:
  1. Medical 3D-printing – With the breakthroughs in the use of 3D-printing for medical purposes, the potential for breakthroughs in healthcare is huge, and could radically lower healthcare costs over time.
  2. Rosetta’s Philae comet landing – The landing of the small Philae probe on its moving target, comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, was a nice step forward for space exploration, and gave us some much needed hope in terms of how we can start to explore space again.
  3. Big data silver lining in Ebola outbreak – With all the terrible news coming out of the Ebola-affected countries, it was nice to see at least a little bit of silver lining from this outbreak – a number of organizations were able to use big data from e.g. mobiles to help map the outbreak. This kind of use case will hopefully help stem future outbreaks.
  4. VR Tech – After decades of false promises, the advent this year of Oculus Rift and Magic Leap seems to suggest that we are finally seeing breakthroughs in the field of virtual reality. Having tested the first version of Oculus Rift, it’s easy to see why Mark Zuckerberg was so excited about non-gaming uses of Oculus for all kinds of purposes, from social interactions, to travel and medicine.
  5. Modi – The election of Narendra Modi this year has potentially the highest multiplier effect of any elected politician. Given the enormous population of India and the large percentage of them that live in extreme poverty, if Modi can change their lives just with a sliver, the resulting effect would be the largest upgrade of human quality of living since the early days of China’s rise under Deng Xiaoping.
  6. Climate deals – Recently emboldened President Obama’s climate deal with China, and the global deal that it facilitated are reasons to cheer. They are not enough, but it is still a huge step forward for the world to have a global deal in place. Although it is not enough to prevent temperature rises that will affect millions of people, the fact that there is a framework in place gives me hope that it can be built upon, and have measures added to it, both for climate change prevention, and climate change reversal.
  7. Google’s self-driving cars – With the success of Google’s experiments with autonomous vehicles, and those of other car manufacturers joining the fray, such as Sweden’s Volvo, a future where we can read books while being driven to our location of choice seems just a matter of time.
  8. Tesla – The huge success of Tesla this year gives me hope that electric cars can become mainstream, they just need the right branding and performance. Hopefully the new battery factory can help spread the revolution.
  9. Disruptive technology in the universe of atoms as well as bits – For most of the digital revolution, disruption has happened in the universe of bits only, i.e. it has been only digital functions that have seen change. Now, however, we are increasingly seeing the application of data in real life, changing the functions of analogue, tangible functions. For example, Waze is revolutionizing how we navigate traffic, based on vast amounts of data and payments are becoming digitized with Bitcoin and Apple Pay. This will change our lives to an even greater degree than the bits disruptions.
  10. Sleep Science – More and more studies from sleep scientists are coming out that show that the circadian rhythms of most people would be better suited for a workday that starts and ends later. I don’t expect to see a change soon, but these kinds of recommendations, long seen as mumbo jumbo, are finally getting  some traction. Perhaps we can all soon sleep in just a little bit longer, which would add tremendously to our cumulative world happiness.

Top 10 Fails of the Year

  1. Google Glass – Very disappointingly, Google Glass seems to have become a failure. There are still a few reports of it getting new usage in various industrial settings, but Google seems to have stopped promoting it. But then again, it’s early days for this kind of revolutionary technology, so we don’t know yet if this was a Newton or an iPhone 1.
  2. Twitter changes – In their new shape as a public company, Twitter has been forced to make a number of moves that potentially can bring in more revenue. Unfortunately, most of these changes also tend to upset the existing core users, as Twitter becomes more and more like Facebook and loses a bit of its individual identity.
  3. Abenomics – Japan’s GDP figures are just getting worse and worse, and it’s now back in recession. This is hardly the outcome that Abe was envisioning, and the reason can’t be as simple as the consumption tax or his failure to shoot his third arrow (the regulatory one), it must speak to the momentous task of turning around a moribund economy with an aging population (while turning off nuclear power)
  4. Hedge Funds – Hedge Funds have underperformed significantly this year (again). It seems the old idea that hedge funds would benefit from volatility does not apply to volatility that is actually unpredictable.
  5. Chuck Hagel – Chuck Hagel failed to make a dent in the enormous behemoth that is the Department of Defense and failed to deliver a succinct Middle East policy. Hopefully Carter can improve on his performance.
  6. Iran nuclear deal – The extension to the Iran nuclear deal feels like a cop-out. It goes to show that the negotiators do not actually represent the actual power bases in their respective countries (Congress, Khomeini).
  7. The New Republic – I actually admired Chris Hughes when he bought the failing classic title that is The New Republic, but it seems that was shortsighted of me, he did not seem to have the best of the magazine at heart. Yes, it’s great to be a vertically integrated digital media business, and yes, it is hard, nigh impossible to run a traditional media business these days, but still…TNR is TNR. Or was.
  8. Facebook’s psychology experiments – This year, Facebook’s users learned that they are indeed the product, as Facebook revealed running large-scale tests designed to impact users’ moods. On the one hand, the necessary A/B testing of a data company, on the other hand, never felt more like a guinea pig.
  9. Brazil’s World Cup performance – Rarely, even including England’s constant self-flagellating pre-tournament hubris, has there been such a disconnect between the performance of a team forecasted to win the tournament by everyone and their dog before the tournament, and the actual performance in a game.
  10. Failing itself – This year, we were inundated with a flurry of articles proclaiming the necessity of failure itself. Most of this Silicon Valley-led effort, which might as well have been funded by a SuperPAC-equivalent of VC firms, failed to mention the difficulties of failure and the low success rates.

Is the proliferation of apps getting out of control?

 

With the news of yet another Facebook stand-alone app, Moments, it seems the trend of breaking down the mobile experience in more and more apps is going strong. Facebook’s latest two experiments – Paper and Slingshot – have not picked up that many users. The stand-alone Messenger app obviously has many users, since Facebook forced its users to download it to send messages, but it doesn’t seem that people are happy with it.

New York Times is following the same strategy, with NYT Now, and NYT Op-Ed being spun off as separate apps. These are all nice apps, but it seems to go against the findings that people don’t like to use that many apps. Recent findings showed that people do not download many apps after the first months of usage, many in fact download none.

Facebook’s latest results were stunning in terms of mobile revenue, so perhaps having multiple apps creates an automatic uptick in advertising impressions. However, one would hope that the future of mobile advertising revenue does not lie solely in impressions, but in deeper engagement. If it will be the latter, having complete apps that fulfill all the users’ needs would be a better solution.

Can Republicans own innovation?

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Never thought I would say this, but I actually like this piece from Grover Norquist on Reuters. His idea is that Republicans should use the sharing economy to take back the urban demographic from the Democrats. It’s worth reading.

It is not on the strength of the argument that I would advocate looking at the piece – his basic argument is that the sharing economy is created by democrats in the Bay Area, a classic Democratic area, and it will clash with unions, another strongly Democratic group. This sounds like it could be a clash, but it probably won’t happen, since neither the Democrats in California nor the young liberals using Uber and Airbnb would turn against the Democrats in the short term even if Lyft doesn’t get a license in all cities.

The aspects which I find more interesting with the piece is that of the politics of tech. Tech and Silicon Valley were apolitical for a long time, churning out new products and not getting involved in the politics of the Hill. This started to change a few years ago, with armies of Google and Facebook lobbyists descending on DC to lobby for skilled immigration and driverless cars regulation.

Tech and innovation present a new way for Republicans to create a new interesting narrative for themselves. Republicans have for the last few years moved away from their historical role of being the party of intellectual leadership and become the anti-intellectual party instead. The role of defender of innovation on philosophical grounds could be a fruitful path to connect with young voters on a deeper level.

Innovation is tightly linked to free markets, and the lack of unnecessary regulation. We all want to the future where we read a book while being driven to work by our driverless car and get our sandwiches delivered by Amazon Prime Air drones. And with the Democrats being tied down to a lot of status quo-keeping regulation, that future is probably more of a Republican future.

Twitter is not a “social network”

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So the long-awaited day came when all of the IPO coaching from Goldman could no longer hide the truth, and the people who’ve been saying that Twitter is overvalued rushed to sell.

It naturally was overvalued, so a correction was of course due, but the metric that drove the sell-off was the wrong one. User growth for Twitter should not be the governing metric. Twitter will never reach the 1.2 billion users of Facebook. Neither should they. This is what happens when all “social networks” are put in one pile and measured against each other. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat are fundamentally different products. Twitter is not a “social network” – it is a media company. It is used by people who would earlier have gotten their news from TV or print. As many have pointed out, it is not a mass product. It is not as crowd-pleasing and easy-to-get as e.g. the photos on Instagram.

Twitter has lots of interesting initiatives coming up, and will be a sure revenue-generator through advertising revenue and media tie-ins. Its valuation should be more that of a robust and growing media company, with revenue growth the metric to look at. The main worry then with the report was the fall in timeline views. That’s the one we need to keep an eye on.

We need Apple to create the iHome in order for the Internet of Things to go mass market

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Every major disruptive innovation we’ve had over the last decades has started as a walled garden.

The Web started with AOL and Compuserve building their own closed off small corners of web pages. Reuters’ open-system financial terminals never stood a chance against the sleek Bloomberg terminals. Smartphones and tablets didn’t take off until Apple took out all the unnecessary fluff and designed a sleek user experience, heavily controlled in terms of content. Social media didn’t fully take off with MySpace‘s messy, do-what-you-want interface, but rather with the heavily locked-down interface of Facebook.

It seems that it’s a necessary trade-off to do in the first stages of a new technology, sacrificing functionality for usability. Then, after the initial walled garden has existed for a few years, successful, “messier” options can succeed.

Once users have gotten used to the gist of the service, and a need has been established, then they start venturing out for more options. Now for example, after 6 years with iOS, the messier, customizable Android has now become the dominant driver of smartphone innovation.

Even for the Internet as a whole, it seems people now want their own “splinternets”. The much-faster, university-only Internet 2 was hyped for a long time, and now of course, in the wake of Snowden, Brazil and other countries want their own Internets.

Now, it seems we need the same thing for the Internet of things. Products run on a number of different standards, products don’t talk to each other if they’re from different manufacturers, and setting everything up can get really complicated. A lot of functionality exists, but it’s often pointless, like the washing machine discussed the other day on the O’Reilly Radar podcast that is somehow Internet-enabled, but doesn’t actually do anything useful with that connection.

Further, security is an issue. As Stacey Higginbotham discussed the other week on the GigaOm Internet of Things podcast, the way it is today, someone could hack into your coffeemaker and wreak every-day havoc.

We therefore need Apple to step up to the plate and play its role of chief technology simplifier and beautifier. Don’t let Nest beat you to it (or these guys). Imagine a sleek iHome console that cuts out unnecessary functionality and delivers a seamless experience. That would rejuvenate my hope in Apple.

Life after death in the digital era

Among the Toraju tribe in Indonesia, the dead stay with the living. Literally. Until the family can afford the extensive and expensive burial rites, which lasts several days at least, the dead person stays in the house. And once the burial has taken place, the dead person will still stay with their former family, in the form of a wooden effigy. It all amounts to a very close relationship between the dead and the living. In many ways, it seems quite healthy, and, one would imagine, leading to less of a fear of death.

Now, with the rise of social media, Westerners are creating their own effigies. We heard this week the sad, but in a way uplifting, BBC story about parents who put pictures of their stillborn children on YouTube. On Facebook, the pages of the dead are turned into living shrines, with their friends writing to them long after their death. Funeral companies are developing new products, for example events on death anniversaries, where family and friends gather every year on the anniversary of the death to celebrate their loved one, or tombs with digital touches.

As much as one could see could see these new practices as weird, and unusual from our Western perspective, perhaps we’re moving towards the closer relationship with death that many other cultures have long had. Unless these new digital estate companies manage to convince us all to sign up for our social media presences being taken down after we die, we can all live on in perpetuity on social media.

For a Western culture obsessed with the fear of dying (even if it has led to fantastic works of art), that can only be a good thing.

Image: Sangita Pujara, under Creative Commons.

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How technology changes our reading habits

Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...

Amazon Kindle

 

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Photo credit: popturfdotcom

 

Technology has always shaped the way we read books, from Gutenberg to Kindles, but it feels like the pace of changes is speeding up in recent times, and in some very positive ways.

 

One of the big enablers has been the application of big data and better analytics to books, book reviews and data on reading. Amazon‘s recommendations are getting better and better. Now Goodreads, picked up by Amazon earlier this year, is proving to be a really useful platform. It is not always spot on in terms of recommendations, and they keep sending me emails about books from the Young Adult section, but having a social network based on reading is quite nice. It does yield a lot of good ideas for new books to read, as well as new appreciation the hidden literate depths of one’s more peripheral Facebook friends!

 

BookVibe is a new fun book discovery tool, which picks books to recommend based on what books are discussed in my Twitter and Facebook feeds. My current list of recommendations include everyone from the expected (Carl Sagan, Freakonomics, Sherry Turkle), to more unexpected books about Dungeons and Dragons or something called “The Harbinger”.

 

There’s also Booklamp.org, which aims to be the Pandora of books, by defining and matching the “genome” of books. For fiction, the results are not that convincing (I get better recommendations from Amazon). It works better for non-fiction, but it seems the DNA of a book is still fairly elusive.

 

The other big change we’ve witnessed recently is the time-shifting of reading. After watching TV content was  inexorably changed by Tivo, and later Netflix, timeshifting has moved to reading, with all the wonderful tools we now have at our disposal. I can no longer live without Instapaper and Pocket. I also love the Longform app’s curated take on articles. Om Malik discusses how he uses Pocket here.

 

Even if it’s an age of TL;DR, in which we have ever less time to read, it seems these innovations are at least helping us make the most of what we read.

 

More Twitter pre-IPO experimentation

Following my post on Twitter’s upcoming IPO yesterday, there were several good articles today on how they’re going about preparing for it. FT reported that Twitter had appointed their first head of commerce, to generate revenue from e-commerce, probably driven by the “cards” they use already. The Washington Post had an article on how Facebook’s stock price resurgence has opened the door to Twitter and how Twitter will be judged by Wall Street in a similar way as Facebook (i.e. the slightly formulaic if you don’t have mobile revenue, your stock is worth less than a cup of coffee).

Another story that shows further experimentation with Twitter as a media channel came on The Next Web, which described an experiment that the Times is running, of letting users tweet specifically chosen highlights from a story. This kind of ready-made tweet has long annoyed me on other websites, since it never seems to say the same thing that I’d like to say. It’s a diametrically different approach to the one I mentioned earlier that Gawker was testing out, of letting the users even change the headline of the story as they forward it. Both might be valid for different kinds of stories, however. The only thing that is for sure is that we’ll continue to see a lot of experimentation from Twitter in the lead-up to the IPO.

If you have any other examples of interesting Twitter experiments you’ve seen, please let us know in the comments. Follow me on Twitter (of course) for more updates.

Twittered away with an IPO

There was a wonderful piece in the Economist the other week, which detailed the largest Twitter spike in volume ever, and its reasons. Apparently all the Super Bowl wardrobe malfunctions and royal or reality TV-royal babies have nothing on the dedication of Japanese Miyazaki fans (the director of Spirited Away). The spike in volume came from them all simultaneously tweeting a spell at the corresponding time in the movie Castle in the Sky.

Cover of "Spirited Away"

Spirited Away

So we knew already that Japanese fans are extremely dedicated to their anime, and like to do things in a coördinated fashion, but why is Twitter telling us this? According to the Economist’s corresponding Babbage podcast, it’s Twitter bragging about its capability to handle the huge amount of tweets (143,000 in a second!), to show that it’s overcome its earlier capacity issues (the beloved fail whale) in anticipation of its upcoming IPO.

There are a couple of privately held tech companies (Spotify, Airbnb, etc) out there who are getting very valuable and who should be on the verge of doing their IPOs soon. Facebook just surpassed its offering price. In a normal world, that would hardly be a cause for jubilation, but given how much beating that stock has taken, apparently just getting your initial money back is a good thing. Facebook being under water has acted as a barrier keeping all these other companies from proceeding with their IPOs.

English: Tweeting bird, derived from the initi...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Now Spotify for example should get their IPO done as soon as possible, before someone else eats their lunch, and would probably only be useful for both shareholders and users, but the inevitable Twitter IPO might turn out to be an unfortunate thing for users. As was argued a while ago, Twitter is a completely unique media channel, and is practically a global public good in its distribution of news more than just another social media “network”. No other channel distributes news so equitably (a Middle Eastern activist has the same voice as a Middle Eastern President), and so rapidly (where else can you get informed second-by-second of events anywhere in the world?)

There is a legitimate worry that an IPO would damage that. The need to monetize the user base might over time decrease the simplicity that makes Twitter so useful all over the world. So far additions have been hit-or-miss (sponsored tweets annoying / related articles illuminating), so I really hope that they can explore subscription and sponsorship models that don’t interfere with the clean user experience.