Brief review of “Autonomous” by Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous is a just-released and consistently interesting near-future dystopian science fiction novel set about 120 years in the future at the intersection of robotics, AI and biotech.

Newitz, the author (with whom I went to grad school many years ago), has created an intriguing world that combines golden age science fiction tropes about robots (think Asimov’s “I, Robot”) and self awareness with more recent cyberpunk (Neal Stephenson’s “Snowcrash”) and biotech fiction (the recent Daniel Suarez book “Change Agent”).

Newitz creates a deep, fully-realized world where robots are self-aware but only some are autonomous. In a disturbing parallel, while most humans are enfranchised many are indentured servants. The technology pervades the story at a kind of fractal level, with bioluminescent and self-healing wall paint scaling up to robots who switch bodies over the course of their lives and humans who mod their own bodies in ways ranging from subtle to grotesque. Throughout, Big Pharma with its expensive, copyrighted drugs is in tension with the work of Free Labs that give drugs away.

Judith “Jack” Chen, one of several protagonists, is a pharma pirate who steals drugs from Big Pharma, reverse engineers them and then releases them on the black market. Other protagonists include Paladin, a self-aware “biobot” with an auxiliary human brain, and Medea “Med” Cohen, a robot scientist who was created to be autonomous and grew up nurtured by a human family.

The plot is spritely — I read the book cover to cover in a day and a half — with engaging characters and a consistently compelling world. The plot McGuffin wasn’t a big surprise, but it was still satisfying.

This is a strong recommend for science fiction lovers, particularly fans of Stephenson, Cory Doctorow, and William Gibson, all of whom contributed enthusiastic blurbs to Autonomous.

From the archives: the Amazon Tip Jar

My Amazon obsession is longstanding, as evidenced by this piece from way back that I stumbled across today. The date was October 6, 2009, and the original title was “Open Letter to Jeff Bezos: Please Create an Amazon.com Tip Jar.” If you want to see the original context and comments you can find it here via the Internet Wayback Machine. By the way, Amazon never responded to this idea.

Dear Jeff,

I’m a fan, a BIG fan, both of you and of Amazon.com. Want specifics? I got the very first Kindle and later the Kindle Dx. Love ‘em, and sometimes buy the same book in digital AND hardcover formats… both from Amazon. I’m a Prime member and think it’s the best $79.00 I spend each year. I prefer to buy mp3s via Amazon over iTunes, bought-and-downloaded the entire second season of Mad Men through your Unbox interface to watch on plane rides. I could go on, but I won’t, because I want to get to the point of this letter quickly.

Jeff, I’m begging you to create an Amazon Tip Jar that happy Amazon customers like me can use to reward the independent bookstores that Amazon is, quite simply and inarguably, killing dead dead dead. “Tip,” here means both the “ooooh, thanks for the recommendation” sort of tip and also the “here’s a few bucks for good service” tip. Your doing this will be good for the Amazon brand, good for the world, the right thing to do, and technologically easy– combining your existing Associates program and Gift Card program.

Why should you do this? Here’s one story that, I hope, will make my point.

My guilty moment
About a year ago I was chatting with the proprietors at The Mystery Bookstore in Westwood, California (wonderful place: you ought to visit, here’s a map), where over the years I’ve happily spent a lot of money and, more importantly, received a ton of high-quality, personalized book recommendations that trump the “Frequently Bought Together” and “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” advice from your ecommerce algorithms.

On this fateful day, the nice lady at the register suggested Gregg Hurwitz’s terrific mystery “The Crime Writer” and made it sound fascinating (it is!).

I could have spend $14.00 plus tax right there in the store, but instead I covertly checked my Kindle, found it and later bought it on that platform for $9.99. Why? My Kindle was relatively new, and I wanted to see if I could fall into a mystery on that platform (yup, sure could).

But man, I felt guilty. Later, after I finished The Crime Writer, I wanted to give the folks at The Mystery Bookstore a reward, a bounty, if you will, for such a great recommendation. I wanted to hand them $5 — yes, the book is THAT good — but I didn’t, in part because I couldn’t face the perp walk of shame to the register to confess that I took their recommendation and bought it for the Kindle, and in part because I couldn’t imagine what they would DO with five bucks. There’s no “random money” entry in most cash registers, and many people would simply pocket the money rather than have to figure out what to do with it.

Jeff, help me assuage my guilt! 
You can solve this problem: with an Amazon Tip Jar I could decide to reward The Mystery Bookstore later by sending them a thank you tip for the Hurwitz tip. All I’d need to do is click on the “Send a Tip!” link at Amazon.com, enter the email address or physical address of the tip-receiver, choose my dollar amount, and then go through the usual, expedient Amazon buying process.

This would be entirely voluntary for the customer — which means it might fail — but tipping at restaurants is voluntary and most of us do it.

If I browse a copy of Michael J. Mauboussin’s “Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition” (it’s on my Amazon wish list) at the local independent bookstore and later choose to save $10.18 by buying it through Amazon, I could send $1.99 — the cost of an episode of most TV shows at Amazon or iTunes — as a tip to the local shop… that means I still save $8.19, which is a lot.

Think of the positive brand exposure for Amazon! You could even make actual little glass jars that a store could have next to the register with signs that read, “Tip Jar: See something here that you’re gonna buy from Amazon? Tips appreciated!” and have the store’s email address on the jar. And it doesn’t need to be limited to bookstores (although that’s what started me down this chain of thought): if a blogger represents a book, I could say thank you. If a speaker at a conference mentions a book and I buy it, I could say thank you.

Nobody would respect a $1.99 gift certificate, but a tip? Who wouldn’t smile at that and think, “gosh, that’s nice… thanks!”

Amazon is the undisputed king of ecommerce, the cradle of the long tail, the enabler of authors to get their books in front of people in a hurry, but what Amazon doesn’t do well is have a real-time conversation… the one when how the customer’s eyes light up while she talks about one book sparks another title in the mind of the merchant. Independent bookstore owners do that very  well. You can help keep them around.

Please think about it.

Sincerely from a fan and loyal Amazon customer,

Brad Berens

Email: a modest proposal

Here’s a sentence that I have yet to hear: “Y’know, I just don’t get enough email.”

I do hear the opposite quite a bit. “Dear Lord, I’ll never get through all this email.” “I have 7,000 unopened messages.” “I want to declare email bankruptcy and just start over.”

Occasionally, some optimistic soul achieves the Nirvana of inbox zero for a blessed moment and, triumphant, posts about it on Facebook…only to watch the counter start clicking skywards again as more email arrives.

Thus is hubris punished, because the only way to receive fewer emails is to send fewer emails, and if you do methodically whittle your inbox down to zero, then in the process of doing so you’ve sent out attention-seeking messages to the world, and the world will respond with email.

Lots of it.

From time to time when I give talks I ask the audience, “how do you feel about email?” The response is a weary chorus of groans.

Forget FOMO (or “Fear of Missing Out”) on social media: the real anxiety-producing, never-ending scourge in our lives is email.

I don’t just have anecdotal evidence and heartburn about email: for years in our Surveying the Digital Future Survey we’ve asked respondents how quickly they feel they ought to reply to online messages: the urgency has grown steadily.

Back in 2003, only 17 percent of Americans thought that people should reply to emails as soon as possible. In the intervening years that 17 percent grew to 43 percent– a nearly 250 percent increase.

Here’s a sample chart from our recent 2017 Digital Future Report:

How quickly should one reply to a personal message received online?
(Internet users)

A tax on our attention

In previous columns, I’ve written about how we need to budget our attention in order to accomplish the things we care about. Famously, this is why Steve Jobs wore his black turtleneck and blue jeans outfit and why Barack Obama only wore blue and grey suits as president: both men did not want to squander attention on, to them, unimportant decisions like clothing.

But you can’t budget attention for email, because it’s like an exam you can’t study for. It’s always a pop quiz: you never know when it will arrive, how many other emails will come along with it, and how much of a homework assignment each email will be for you.

If attention is a currency, then email is a tax on that currency. Moreover, email is often cognitive taxation without representation. As my friend Adam Boettiger has observed, email is “postage due communication.” I can spend thirty seconds writing an email that will cost you an hour of your life: there’s no symmetry or balance. This is one reason why I find myself reaching for the phone more often these days: at least if we’re on the phone together then you and I are spending the same amount of time on a topic.

(By the way, in this column I’m only talking about the proper uses of email. I’m not, for example, addressing the email abusers who recklessly CC or BCC people, the people who violate the prime directive and fail to change the subject line when they change the topic in a thread, or the sneaky marketing messages that start arriving when you’ve asked only for a newsletter.)

The reason why we all send and receive too much email is clear: it’s free for us, private individuals, to send as many emails as we want. (If you’re running a business or a publication then different, commercial email rules apply.)

And that’s the problem: once I’ve paid for my internet connection and logged into my free email account, then it doesn’t cost me anything beyond my compositional time to send you an email that will — at minimum — steal a little bit of your attention as you look at the subject line in order to decide whether or not to open it.

I have an idea about how to reduce the number of emails we send and receive.

A modest proposal

It shouldn’t be free for you to send me email, and the reverse is also true. I should pay to send you email.

It’s not free to send a paper letter via the Post Office, so why should it be free to send a digital letter? Obviously, the logic that we have collectively agreed on since the dawn of email is that since a person doesn’t have to buy an envelope and a stamp, and another person doesn’t have to deliver the letter to your mailbox later, there’s no cost to email.

But this mistakes the paper vehicle of “snail mail” for the actual goal of sending a letter. I’m not sending a physical letter because I have too many pieces of paper and stamps lying around. I’m investing my money and effort in getting your attention.

With email, that investment disappears, leaving only the effort, which isn’t much, but the communication is still attempting to get my attention.

I propose that the fine people at the United States Postal Service (who already have this expertise and need new revenue streams) create a subscription-based platform where each individual sets a rate of how much it will cost anybody — a person, a business — to send that person an email.

If I want people to be able to reach me easily, then I’ll only charge a penny. On the other hand, if I want to minimize the attention tax I have to pay every time I receive an email, then I’ll charge a higher fee: ten cents, a quarter, a dollar… although only after I’ve paid for my own sent emails first.

While this could turn email into an unethical or just-plain-rude profit center, any email recipient concerned about this sort of thing could simply donate all email-gleaned funds to charity.

There should be no exceptions to this rule, just as there are no exceptions at the Post Office for sending physical mail. Companies spend lots of money on postage for brochures, catalogs and other promotions. Publications spend money on postage for magazines. The same should be true of email.

At your job, even inter-office mail should require a fee — companies should give each employee a budget for email the way that many companies pay for an employee’s mobile phone. This is the only way to give the reckless reply-all correspondent pause before sending the same message to 53 recipients when only two people need it.

In 1971, the great polymath Herbert Simon observed, “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” Making email fee-based rather than free would both reduce the amount of email that we receive and also reduce the cost of the attention we spend on the emails that remain.

If we reduce the amount of information flooding into our awareness every waking minute, then perhaps we can stop being paupers in our attention.

[Cross-posted at the Center for the Digital Future.]

Why is “me too” happening now?

It’s challenging to go onto Facebook and Twitter right now and face the ever-swelling river of “me too” posts from women sharing their horrible stories of sexual harassment. It’s good that these posts are happening, good that it’s challenging. Part of what I find challenging is that I don’t know how to respond other than to bear witness.

The spark that started “me too” is Harvey Weinstein’s despicable, sexually predatory behavior — as reported by both The New York Times and The New Yorker. It’s a good thing that this has come to light and that the entertainment industry is exiling him.

And it’s shocking that he got away with it for decades.

Actually, it’s not shocking at all, which is the real problem.

What I don’t understand — what I find curious — is why “me too” is happening now.

Please don’t get me wrong: it’s terrible that — near as I can tell — every woman I know has been sexually assaulted — and it’s courageous and admirable that they are sharing these terrible experiences with the world.

What I’m wondering is why “me too” didn’t happen, say, after the Bill Cosby stories came out. I grew up in Southern California in the 1970s and 1980s, and the child of a celebrity once  mentioned that Cosby was a known philanderer, but I never heard stories of him drugging women and raping them. Hannibal Buress started talking about Cosby as a rapist onstage in 2014 — and it’s fucked up that it took a man talking about it for this to become a thing — and after that women started to come forward to share their horrible Cosby experiences.

But the Cosby stories did not create “me too,” where women all over the world are sharing their stories of sexual harassment by men who aren’t famous.

Nor did the Access Hollywood, Donald Trump, “pussy-grabbing” story — the story that shockingly failed to derail his candidacy — create “me too.”

Perhaps the Cosby stories seemed too bizarre. Although countless women have been drugged or plied with alcohol and then raped, maybe the scenario of the most famous screen dad in the world slipping rufies into the drinks of young actresses didn’t resemble the experiences of other women enough to create “me too.”

In contrast, maybe Harvey Weinstein’s behavior, although profoundly weird, sounded like the experiences most other women have had with a lot of other men, making “me too” less of a leap.

Maybe the rapid succession of Cosby, Trump, Ailes and O’Reilly stories made it possible for women to create “me too” once the Weinstein story broke.

It’s good that “me too” is happening.  Why is it happening now?

Shortly after the “pussy-grabbing” story, Eugene Wei posted a remarkable piece called, “The Age of Distributed Truth,” in which he talks about Cosby, Justin Caldbeck, Trump and Susan Fowler’s post about the toxic bro culture at Uber. Wei then talks about Michael Suk-Young Chwe’s book “Rational Ritual,” and Chwe’s notion of “Common Knowledge”–

Knowledge of the message is not enough; what is also required is knowledge of others’ knowledge, knowledge of others’ knowledge of others’ knowledge, and so on — that is, “common knowledge.”

By this logic, after the New York Times article — followed quickly by the New Yorker article — it was impossible not to know that others knew about Weinstein, which made “me too” possible.

But that still doesn’t explain why it was the Weinstein story that provoked “me too.”

I don’t have an answer, and my question is far from the most important question about me too.

If you have an answer, please share it.

What comes after smartphones?

With all the press and the inescapable ads for new iPhones, Samsung Galaxy, Google Pixel and other snazzy devices, it’s hard to think of the smart phone as a transitional technology.

But it is.

Here are three recent indicators:

Apple and Facebook share a hypothesis that life contains moments when lugging a smartphone is a drag. The Apple Watch commercials feature active people running with just the Watch and wireless ear buds. (I’m not sure why VR is less alluring with a smartphone unless one plans to be naked and therefore pocketless in real life while visiting virtual life.)

You might be wondering about that third indicator. How does the death of non-internet-connected iPods suggest that smartphones — the technology that replaced the iPod — are going away?

What happened to the iPod will happen to the iPhone.

Once smartphones took off after 2007, Apple cannily realized that this new wave of devices was going to absorb the customer base for listening to digital music from the iPod. Who wants to carry around a smartphone and an mp3 player when the smartphone can play mp3s just fine and sounds the same?

What both iPod and iPhone owners care about is listening to music, not the device. If anybody was going to cannibalize Apple’s iPod customers, the company thought, then it should be Apple.

As I look at technology and behavior trends, one of my axioms is that verbs are more important than nouns.

People want to take pictures, and most people prefer the fastest and easiest option for doing so. Devoted photographers still use single lens reflex cameras — either film or digital — but (as the Kodak company learned to its dismay) most people don’t want the hassle and expense of getting film developed, so instead they just whip out their phones. In our latest Surveying the Digital Future survey, for example, we found that 89 percent of Americans take pictures with their mobile phones.

It’s important to focus our analytical attention on the activity — taking pictures — rather than the device the people use to do the activity, because behavior is liquid and can be poured from one container into another.

None of the actions people perform with smartphones are limited to smartphones, and that means that the smartphone won’t be with us forever.

What will this post-smartphone future look like?

Computing power is increasing, as is the ubiquity of wifi and other over-the-air internet connections. Cloud Computing, where the heavy lifting of computation happens online instead of on a computer, means that smaller and smaller devices will have greater and greater processing power.

There’s a common cliché that today’s smartphone is more powerful than the computer that landed the Apollo 11 on the moon. In a few short years, a device the size of a pea will connect to processing power a thousand times greater than today’s smartphone.

So, instead of smartphones in our pockets or purses as our single, do-everything devices, we’ll have Personal Area Networks (PANs)– clusters of devices worn on different parts of our bodies or hovering nearby.

Instead of the glass-and-metal rectangle of today’s smartphone, we might have the computer guts of our PANs in the shape of a silver dollar, or distributed across a series of beads worn as a necklace.

Both in the data from our Future of Transportation project and in watching the uptake for Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and the Google Assistant, we see voice interfaces rising in popularity, so it’s likely that the main PAN input will be our voices.

For output, PAN we will receive information both via the voice of the digital assistant (“turn left here, Brad”) and also via Augmented Reality (AR) glasses like the rumored-to-forthcoming Magic Leap technology. Eventually, these will evolve into contact lenses.

If we need to type, we’ll have a virtual keyboard projected onto our AR vision, and we’ll type on any flat surface– the way we type on touch interfaces today. Likewise, we might wear barely-there connected gloves for input. Or, we might carry around a small stylus for sketching in AR or VR, or even a fancy pen that works on real paper as well as virtual paper.

The cutting-edge health sensors in the latest Apple Watch will seem Flintstonian in comparison to the distributed sensors in clothing as well as implanted in our bodies, continually sharing health information with our CPUs.

What stands in the way of this Post Smart Phone future?

Two things are standing in the way of the brave new world of PANs, one technological and one cultural.

The technological obstacle is battery life. Nobody wants to plug in a dozen or more devices (CPU, glasses, stylus, shoes and socks, underwear, pants, shirt, hat…) every night at bedtime, so battery technology will need to improve and the power-consumption demands of the devices will need to become more efficient.

Electric vehicle manufacturers like Tesla are paving the way for better batteries for cars, and eventually that technology will shrink and trickle down to micro devices.

On the cultural side, if you’re wearing a screen on your face and the processing power is in a silver dollar in your pocket, then how do you take a selfie?

While some people make fun of selfie-obsessed youth (not that young people have any monopoly on either narcissism or the ongoing high-tech curation of it through selfies), as my friend Jill Walker Rettberg compellingly argued in her book Seeing Ourselves Through Technology, selfies are an important emergent genre of self-expression — one that is here to stay.

I predict that many of us will carry a selfie-specialized, lightweight, thin, credit-card sized screen that will have both a powerful camera and high-definition resolution. If you look at the new Google Clips camera announced last week and imagine it even smaller, more powerful and with a display, then you’ll see what I mean.

With increased battery life, some of us will also have selfie drones that will take off and orbit us whenever we simply think about taking a selfie, since we’ll have small sensors affixed to or implanted in our skull paying attention to how our brain waves change when we’re thinking about particular things.

Focus on content, not containers

The death of the smartphone is hard to imagine today.  But when the iPod debuted in 2001, it was hard to imagine that it would be displaced just six years later with the arrival of the iPhone.

The moral of this story is not that we’ll all someday soon be even more wired up and connected than we are today (although we will).

Instead, the important take-away idea is that the smartphone (a noun) is a container for a series of activities (verbs), and that the container is distinct from the content.

Don’t mistake the glass for the wine.*

[Cross-posted on the Center for the Digital Future site and elsewhere.]

* For a sci-fi, near-future dystopian version of some of these interactive technologies, you might enjoy my 2011 novel, Redcrosse.

Brief Rant about Email: Change the Topic, Change the Subject Line

Look, you’re busy. I know you’re busy. I’m busy too.  We’re all busy.

But there’s one inviolable rule of email communications — the prime directive, the Federation’s highest law — and it’s simple.

If you change the topic of an email thread, then you have to change the subject line too.

That is, you have to do this if you want people to read your emails.

Just moments ago, an email correspondent sent a reminder to everybody on an email thread that a component of a project is due today. That part is good.

The bad part is that my correspondent sent this reminder by replying to an email request for a meeting that happened YESTERDAY.

That is mind-numbingly stupid.

At least half the time, email threads continue long after anything that looks like a Brad-shaped action item has long receded in the rear-view mirror, so the likelihood that I will read them promptly if at all is dim. I’m not alone in this.

More importantly, if there’s a new request about an unrelated or adjacent piece of business buried in a reply to a reply to a reply on an old thread that started a while back about something entirely different, then you have only yourself to blame if your request goes unanswered.

Yes, I’m talking to you.

Email is a scourge and a tool. You can make it more tool-like by using it intelligently.

Rant over.

Car ownership is changing, not dying (yet)

On Monday, Business Insider published an article with the headline, “Uber and Lyft could destroy car ownership in major cities.” It’s a provocative headline, but it misrepresents the carefully worded findings of a recent study by researchers at the University of Michigan, Texas A&M and Columbia.

The study took shrewd advantage of a “natural experiment” that happened when Uber and Lyft, protesting new municipal legislation, stopped operating in Austin, Texas, in May of 2016. A few months later, the study authors surveyed a representative sample of Austin residents who had formerly used Lyft and Uber to see how their transportation habits had changed.

The most interesting findings from the study were that after Uber and Lyft drove out of town, 1) only 3% of respondents switched to public transportation (the technical term for this is “bad news”), and 2) that respondents who switched back to using a personal vehicle were 23% more likely to make more trips than when they’d used Lyft and Uber, increasing congestion for everybody else.

The study authors were careful not to extrapolate beyond the Austin city limits, so the Business Insider headline is overblown in its end-of-days rhetoric. It reminds me of the “Bring Out Your Dead” scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where a plague victim isn’t quite dead, but that situation is inconvenient for the person carrying him to a wagon full of corpses:

It’s not only fans of Lyft and Uber who overstate the impact of these services.

In an HBR interview, Nissan Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn — when asked about Uber and other such services cutting into car buying — replied, “I’m not worried. By our estimates, the industry sold 85 million cars worldwide in 2016 and is moving towards 87 million this year– both industry records.”

That is a nonsensical response: it’s like being confronted with a giant asteroid hurtling towards the Earth and replying, “but it’s so sunny outside!”

What’s really changing about transportation

In our work at the Center’s Future of Transportation project, we see a two-stage revolution in transportation that is just beginning.

In the first stage, what we call “Get-a-Ride Services” (or GARS) like Uber, Lyft, Car2Go, Zipcar and others make it thinkable for Americans to give up their own cars, but the move from just thinking about it actually to giving up a car is going to take time.

It’s a good news/bad news/more good news scenario.

We asked a representative sample of all Americans if they’d consider not having their own cars: 80% of respondents said no. That’s good news for car manufacturers– only 20% of Americans will let go of the steering wheel.

The bad news is that when we zoomed in on people who use GARS either frequently or sometimes that 20% consideration doubled to 40%– so use of GARS creates an immense flexibility in how Americans think about transportation.

Then there’s the additional good news: only 16% of Americans use GARS frequently (2%) or sometimes (14%); 17% use them once in a while; 67% never use them. (I discuss this at greater length in this column about liquid behavior.)

Car manufacturers, in other words, don’t have to worry about massive car-buying declines in 2018, but I wouldn’t be optimistic about 2020. We see a slow erosion in car buying, but more importantly we see change within the cars being purchased.

The people who choose to own cars will have more specialized needs (more on this below), and this means that manufacturers will need to customize their vehicles to a greater extent than they do today. That’s grim for mass scale where, for example, Toyota sells a few million Camrys that are all pretty much the same.

On the other hand, new production technologies — like the adjustable drive train from Faraday Futures — will make this customization cheaper for manufacturers. The last stage of production for your next car might happen at the dealership, via a gigantic 3D printer.

The second stage of the transportation revolution is all about self-driving cars, and you can’t find a better overview of why driverless cars will change everything than in this column by Center founder Jeffrey Cole.

Self-driving cars are no longer the stuff of science fiction. This week the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on “a sweeping proposal to speed the deployment of self-driving cars without human controls and bar states from blocking autonomous vehicles, congressional aides said,” according to Reuters.

But even if this legislation magically passed from House to Senate to the president’s desk and received approval in 24 hours, it will still be years before self-driving cars are everywhere. As science fiction author William Gibson famously quipped in 1993, “the future is already here: it’s just very evenly distributed.”

Tomorrow’s car buyer

The national — even global — fascination with self-driving cars is understandable, but it’s also a distraction from important changes in transportation, the first stage of the revolution, that will hit home a lot sooner.

To see this, let’s zoom in on one chart from our forthcoming Future of Transportation report. We asked people who used to have a car but had given it up this question, “Do you miss anything about having access to a car?” Here are the top five answers:

The most interesting answer is the fourth: 31% of respondents miss being able to keep their stuff in a car. The flip side of this, of course, is that 69% of people don’t give a hoot about using a personal car like a high school locker.

This suggests that for the vast majority of people there is no specific, concrete reason to own a car. “Convenience” is vague, and most people will trade convenience for cash much of the time. Independence, the fun of driving and not having to rent a car to go on a long drive, are similarly vague.

But being able to keep things in a car is concrete, and from that we can draw some tentative conclusions about who will own cars in the future.

Parents of very young children — babies these days need approximately a ton of plastic crap that poor Mom and Dad have to lug around — will find it inconvenient to have to install a car seat every time they drive somewhere. Likewise, parents with more than two children won’t want to play Uber-Roulette and risk having to squeeze five plus bodies into four seats in the inevitable Prius.

Anybody who works out of a car — gardener, plumber, contractor, surveyor, electrician, or locksmith — will need a dedicated vehicle. Sporty people who need a lot of equipment — skiers, surfers, kayakers, campers — or bikers who want a rack on their car to drive to the nice places to ride will want a dedicated vehicle.

But for the rest? The people who just need to move their bodies from place to place carrying a backpack or briefcase?

Most of those people will probably buy another car when the time comes: the big question is will they buy another car a few years after that? The answer is only “maybe” because — for the first time in a century — they no longer have to own a car to get around.

[Cross-posted on the Center site and elsewhere.]

Open Letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey: Please Cancel the President’s Accounts

Dear Jack Dorsey,

Please cancel U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s Twitter accounts– both the official @POTUS one and @RealDonaldTrump.

Twitter does not have to persist in giving the president a platform where he lies in verifiable ways that responsible media outlets — real news — have detailed time and again.

Twitter does not have to enable the president to say hurtful things, things that violate Twitter’s own rules against abusive behavior.

After all, according to the page to which I linked above, “Twitter reserves the right to immediately terminate your account without further notice in the event that, in its judgment, you violate these Rules or the Terms of Service.”

Even if you and the Twitter legal team were to scrutinize both the rules and the Terms of Service and conclude that you cannot under the current rules terminate the president’s account, then that should not prove a barrier. On your website it states, “Please note that we may need to change these rules from time to time and reserve the right to do so. The most current version will always be available at twitter.com/rules.”

If you need to, please change the rules.

I’m sure you can come up with something logical and defensible.

In doing this, you’d not only be acting as a patriot, but you’d also be joining the other powerful CEOs who have stepped away from the president’s various councils and advisory groups because they find his behavior repugnant and un-American.

Please stop enabling the president’s repugnant behavior.

Wednesday, when a dozen of your peers — these same CEOs — decided to resign en masse from their advisory roles on White House councils:

Before they could make a statement announcing their decision, however, Mr. Trump spoke. He had caught wind of their planned defection and wanted to have the last word. Taking to Twitter, he wrote: “Rather than putting pressure on the businesspeople of the Manufacturing Council & Strategy & Policy Forum, I am ending both. Thank you all!” (New York Times.)

Twitter, the company you lead, allowed the president to try to prevent the CEOs from making an effective statement.

The president uses Twitter to lie, to hurt people, to shame people, to subvert the freedom of the press and in doing so he is making this country a lesser place than it should be.

While you cannot make the president an honest man or a decent president, you could make it harder for him to do his job badly.

Please, Mr. Dorsey, cancel the president’s Twitter accounts.

Sincerely,

Brad Berens (@bradberens)

Liquid Behavior

Anybody who has tried to lose weight, quit smoking, or train for a marathon knows that creating a new behavior or getting rid of an old one can be very, very challenging.

But it’s not hard to pour a behavior from one container into another, and this has implications for anybody trying to launch a new product or service. Here’s an example: the Center’s Future of Transportation Project turned up a trio of numbers — 86, 80 and 60 — that tell an exciting story about how Americans’ opinions about car ownership are changing. We asked our respondents — a statistically representative snapshot of the U.S. population — if they would give up driving altogether. Eighty-six percent said they would not.

That seems definitive, but it’s not.

We changed the question and asked if Americans would give up owning a car– that is, they’d retain the ability to drive but wouldn’t own or lease a car. That 86% dropped to 80%, or to look at it from the other direction, 14% consideration rose to 20%. That’s not a big difference, and there’s still a vast supermajority of people who would not give up their cars.

But then the story changes.

Instead of looking at our entire population, we focused on the people who use what we call “get a ride services” (GARS) like Lyft, Uber, Getaround, Zipcar or Car2Go, either frequently or sometimes. Only two percent of our respondents use these services frequently, while 14% use them sometimes (84% use them rarely or never– which many find surprising given how often Uber is in the press).

Sixteen percent is a relatively small slice of the population, but the impact of GARS on people’s transportation views is profound. The 80% of people who would never give up owning a car drops to 60%. Or, to reverse the picture, the 20% consideration for no longer owning a car among the general population doubles to 40% among the GARS-using population!

With an ousted CEO, a sexist bro culture, and aggressive takeover movements from Softbank in Japan, Uber has more than its fair share of problems right now, but that’s Uber the company, Uber the noun.

Uber may not last as a company (and I’ll have more to say on this topic in a future column), but uber the verb (as in, “I’ll uber there after my lunch meeting”) isn’t going anywhere.

In other words, it takes surprisingly little to make giving up car ownership thinkable: all you have to do is try GARS sometimes and you suddenly see the hassle and expense of car ownership in a stark new light. This is bad news for car manufacturers, and particularly for the people marketing new cars, because if you look at any recent car ad the thrust of the message is “buy this car.” But the argument that the manufacturers need to be making first is “buy a car” because they can no longer take for granted that Americans know they want to own a car.

Even before we put the survey into the field, I was surprised when more than one of my suburban neighbors speculated that there might come a time when they could reduce the number of cars they have and rely on Uber (or a similar service) to fill in the gaps — this in a neighborhood where the nearest bus stop is a mile away.

Focus on Verbs, not Nouns

This isn’t a column about transportation: it’s about how little it takes to move a behavior, to pour it from one container into another like pouring orange juice from a bottle into a glass.

Previously, I’ve written about how smart phones absorbed the functions of cameras, email, notebooks, calendars, and MP3 players to become the everything-Swiss-Army-Knife devices that we can’t be without. We can extend this list to include flashlights, videogame devices, social lives, banks, zippo lighters, and more. But in this week’s column, let’s flip this phenomenon and look at it from the other direction.

What the GARS data show is the people don’t want to own things per se, they want to achieve their goals — getting around — and they’ll choose a tool — a car — to accomplish that goal, particularly if people commonly associate that tool with the goal in question. But if there’s another tool that’s easier or cheaper and achieves the same goal, then people will migrate their behavior to the new tool as soon as they understand that they have the option.

This is a big deal, because companies often focus on their product features and their competitors rather than on their customers’ needs, and that can make companies blind to new competitors that come from different angles to help customers achieve their goals faster, cheaper, or both.

This notion of liquid behavior connects to classic business thinking. In “Marketing Myopia, a famous 1960 Harvard Business Review article, Theodore Levitt wrote that companies need to ask themselves, “What business are you really in?”

Using railroads as a key example, Levitt argued that the railroads stopped growing because they presumed that they were in the railroad business rather than the transportation business. In other words, they focused on the noun (trains) rather than the verb (transportation). In Levitt’s view, transportation companies would have extended trains into trucks and airplanes, but trains weren’t going to disappear.

More recently, business professor and innovation theorist Clayton Christensen has argued (in the book Competing Against Luck) that companies need to ask their customers, “What job did you hire that product to do?” and iterate product development accordingly. This moves the Levitt question from the corporate level to the individual level. Christensen’s focus on what he calls “Job Theory” helpfully refocuses attention on the actions people want to perform rather than the tools that other people have used previously.

Liquid behavior is different from both the Levitt or Christensen questions because it presumes that today’s products and services will go away but that the actions people perform with those products and services will stick around. Only serious photographers now buy single lens reflex cameras; most people just use their phones to snap pictures. The market for typewriters is vastly smaller than it was forty years ago because most people use word processing programs on their computers to “type” things up. Travelers who want to make their own breakfast now have the option of choosing AirBNB over a traditional hotel.

For a new product or service to succeed, it’s easier to pour an old behavior into a new shape than to create something entirely new. Facebook is a terrific example of this: the service skyrocketed after it allowed its users to share photos. People had already been sharing photos since before the Polaroid, but Facebook made it easy to pour that photo sharing into a new virtual container. Early Facebookers didn’t automatically understand poking or throwing sheep (if you’re old enough, you just got hit by a wave of nostalgia), but photo-sharing was a no-brainer.

The big takeaway here is that incumbent companies are always more vulnerable than they think they are if they delude themselves into thinking that people are loyal to the brands and to the particular products that they use today to achieve their goals. Apple is vulnerable. Google is vulnerable. Facebook is vulnerable. Walmart is vulnerable. Amazon is vulnerable, and so on.

People aren’t loyal. People are busy and often don’t have the mental energy to make a change (this is different than laziness). The chance to save time and money can nudge people to give something new a try, particularly if the new thing doesn’t require a steep learning curve. That’s liquid behavior.

To survive and thrive, companies need to focus on verbs instead of nouns, on behavior instead of brands or products.

[Cross-posted at the Center for the Digital Future website.]

Smart Phones and Drained Brains

As we use our mobile phones to do more and more things, we are paradoxically able to accomplish less— even when the phones are face down and turned off.

My last column explored how smart glasses (“heads up display” or “HUDs”) will increase the amount of digital information we look at, with the ironic twist that these same devices will erode our shared experience of reality. But we don’t need to look to a future technology to see how challenging it is to pay attention to what’s around us. We already carry a dislocating technology around in our pockets: our phones.

I’m deliberate when I say “dislocating” rather than “distracting,” because we’re not necessarily distracted: often we’re fiercely focused on our phones, but we’re dislocated because unless we’re taking pictures or videos we’re not engaged with our immediate physical environments. Distraction is a subset of dislocation.

The charts below show the many ways we use our phones, as described in the newest version of Center’s longitudinal “Surveying the Digital Future” report (it comes out next month):

As the report will observe, texting (93%) has edged out talking (92%) as the most common use of a mobile phone because texting increased six percent year over year while talking stayed flat.

It’s easy to get sucked into data on the individual functions (for example, 67% of people take videos with their phones, a nine percent increase), but doing so misses the big picture: with the exception of talking, Americans have increased their use of every mobile phone function over four years (2012 to 2016).

Phones and the Future of Focus

As with all technologies, increased mobile phone use has both a plus side and a downside.

On the positive side, we’re more connected to our loved ones and the information we want than ever before. We get news of the world instantly and store our important information — from shopping lists to medical documents to that pinot grigio we liked so much in that restaurant that time that we took a picture of the label — in our phones and online where we can always get to it. (I’m the king of productivity apps and can no longer imagine life without Evernote.) With games and apps and email and social media, mobile phones have engineered boredom out of our lives because there is always something fun to do.

But on the negative side, we use our phones more often to do more things, and that time and attention have to come from somewhere — they come from our engagement with the physical reality around us, including the people we are with who increasingly feel ignored unless they too have their noses in their smart phones. If we’re playing Candy Crush waiting in the supermarket checkout line, then we’re not chatting with the cashier or the other people in line who might have something interesting to say. While it sucks to be bored, boredom leads to daydreaming, and most of the great ideas in human history started with a daydream.

Brain Drain

First we’re dislocated, then we’re distracted. In other words, when we finally want to focus on the world around us, it’s getting harder to do so because of our mobile phone use. This is the finding of an important study that came out in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research in April.

The article — “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity” by Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy and Maarten W. Boz — usefully distinguishes between the things we think about (the orientation of our attention) and how much energy we have to think about those things (the allocation of our attention).

Mobile phones, the authors find, suck attentional energy away from non-phone-based activities, and since we have a limited amount of attention to spend, we’re less capable when we have a task at hand and in front of us.

What’s startling about the study is that mobile phone distraction does not just happen when our phones are on, beeping and flashing and vibrating for our attention. Our mobile phones reduce our ability to function even when the phones are turned off and face down on the table or desk where we’re working. As the authors observe, trying to increase your focus using “intuitive ‘fixes’ such as placing one’s phone face down or turning it off are likely futile.”

Performance gets slightly better if the phone is out of sight in a pocket or bag. Performance substantially increases only when the mobile phone is in another room, entirely out of sight and somewhat out of mind. And the more dependent you are on your mobile phone, the more your focus blurs when your phone is in sight or nearby.

It gets worse: the data shows convincingly that our ability to perform erodes if our phones are nearby, but we do not recognize that degradation of performance:

Across conditions, a majority of participants indicated that the location of their phones during the experiment did not affect their performance (“not at all”; 75.9%) and “neither helped nor hurt [their] performance” (85.6%). This contrast between perceived influence and actual performance suggests that participants failed to anticipate or acknowledge the cognitive consequences associated with the mere presence of their phones.

In other words, we think that we can handle the distraction that comes with our phones being around, but we can’t. In this regard, mobile phones are a bit like drunk driving or texting while driving: we think we can do it without consequence, but often we aren’t aware when we’re impaired and not able to function until it’s too late. (Psychology Today has a nice summary of the study findings.)

Implications: Budgeting Attention

We have a limited amount of attention: this is why a common metaphor for directing our attention towards someone or something is “to pay attention.” Attention is like a currency that we can budget or hoard, but we tend not to do so. Instead, we are attention spendthrifts, throwing our cognitive capacity at all the tasty tidbits that come out of our screens.

The problem with the “pay attention” metaphor is that it obscures something important: our attention can disappear without our having made a conscious decision to pay. For example, when we have notifications enabled on our laptops, tablets, and mobile phones — especially the latter — those bleeps and flashes and buzzes are attention taxes that we don’t realize we’re paying.

What the “Brain Drain” study shows is that even if we have our phones turned off and face down, we’re still paying an attention tax that acts like hidden fees on credit cards.

Brain Drain is different than Information Overload because with Brain Drain there is no information: just the potential for information. Likewise, Brain Drain is different from FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), because Brain Drain happens even when we aren’t fretting about what might be going on somewhere else.

The paradox of mobile phones is that as we use them to do more and more things, it becomes harder and harder to do any one thing. Always using our everything devices mean that we’re often nowhere in particular, and in order to be somewhere we have make a pre-emptive, conscious decision to put the everything device into an entirely different room.

That’s hard to do.

[Cross-posted on the Center for the Digital Future website.]