It’s about so much more than health care

This week, Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase announced a partnership to change U.S. health care.

The implications beyond health care are immense.

As if we needed another sign that U.S. health care is itself far from healthy, this week Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase announced that they were partnering to improve health care — making the experience better for the companies’ 1.2 million employees and also reducing costs.

The shape of this new initiative is still rather fuzzy, but the ambitions are clear.

To boil things down to an absurd degree: Berkshire Hathaway owns dozens of companies that make stuff; Amazon sells and distributes stuff; JPMorgan Chase finances companies that make and sell stuff, so it’s a partnership with obvious synergies and not-so-obvious other benefits.

In this column, I want to unpack which company brings what to the table, what each company gets from this new partnership, and what it all means both for how we’ll buy and use health care, and also for how the initiative might affect the rest of our lives.

Let’s start with reducing costs. The New York Times coverage tells us that Amazon has roughly 540,000 employees (with more coming as the company launches its second headquarters), Berkshire Hathaway has roughly 370,000 employees across its more than 60 companies, and JPMorgan Chase has 250,000 employees.

Then, in the Washington Post coverage, we learn that in 2017 JPMorgan Chase spent a gulp-provoking $1.25 billion dollars on medical benefits for 300,000 employees and their dependents, or roughly $4,200 per person per year.

That note about dependents is important: it’s not just the 1.2 million employees for which a new kind of healthcare will reduce costs: it’s employees and their families. Chase covered 20 percent more people than its number of employees, so if we conservatively apply that percentage to all three companies, then we’re looking at 1.5 million people who could be members of this new health care entity. That sounds like a lot, but it’s useful to compare this number to UnitedHealth Group — the world’s largest health insurance company — which served 115 million people in the U.S. in 2016.

If this new health care company could reduce costs per individual by $1,000 each year it adds up to $1.5 billion. That’s a considerable sum for mere humans but insignificant for companies as large as Amazon ($136 billion in 2016 revenue), Berkshire Hathaway ($224 billion in 2016 revenue), and JPMorgan Chase ($96 billion in 2016 revenue).

There’s a bigger story here, and a hint about that story is visible in two related tidbits from the press release. First, the release said that this new joint venture would be “free from profit-making incentives and constraints.” Second, JPMorgan Chase Chair and CEO Jamie Dimon said, “our goal is to create solutions that benefit our U.S. employees, their families and, potentially, all Americans.”

Freedom from having to turn a profit is not the same thing as freedom from fiscal responsibility: it just means that the initiative can play a long game without having to worry about quarterly growth numbers.

This perspective will be familiar to anybody who watches Amazon and Berkshire Hathaway. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has famously said that the company is willing to be misunderstood by its investors for long periods of time, and Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett has been quoted (perhaps apocryphally) as saying that his favorite holding period is “forever.”

More importantly, while the health care initiative won’t have to turn a profit itself, that does not mean that it won’t drive profit elsewhere. Losses in one part of a business that drive greater profit elsewhere is a key Amazon strategy: it sold early Kindles under cost in order to drive book sales, and its Prime service takes a loss on two-day shipping because Prime members spend nearly twice as much annually on Amazon as non-members.

Dimon’s remark about benefitting “all Americans” also strongly suggests that the health care initiative will only start with the 1.2 million employees of the three companies, get the bugs out of the new system, and then roll it out to the 325 million U.S. population.

Let’s dig into the three companies’ potential roles and benefits in this new initiative:

JPMorgan Chase

What it brings: The bank brings immense financing capacity, which will be important if the health care initiative spends several years getting started and with no immediate profit in site.

What it gets: In addition to lower health care costs for its employees, JPMorgan Chase also brings access to its customers. Not only is this an immense population (60 million households in 2016) of potential subscribers, but integrating health care with financial services would also serve as a differentiator for the bank, increasing customer loyalty and reducing churn.

As we will show in our forthcoming Future of Money and Banking report, Americans increasingly view their banks as interchangeable commodities like toothpaste or gas stations rather than as trusted financial partners and advisors, so a unique selling proposition for JPMorgan Chase is a powerful incentive.

Berkshire Hathaway

What it brings: With over 60 wholly-owned companies and more than 40 other large investments, what Berkshire Hathaway brings to the health care initiative is diversity of employees and situations. From Dairy Queen and See’s Candies to NetJets, newspapers, motorcycles, manufacturing, and much more, if this new initiative can provide health care for the full range of Berkshire Hathaway employees, then it can do so for anyone.

What it gets: As Ben Thompson observed, while Berkshire Hathaway isn’t in the health insurance business it is in the health re-insurance business, owning both Gen Re and NRG. Re-insurance helps health insurance companies to stay in business after they have to pay out big claims.

If the new health care company can reduce health care costs and improve outcomes, then that will decrease the number of claims on the re-insurance entities and make them more profitable. Exploring alternate forms of insurance in health might also benefit Berkshire Hathaway’s GEICO subsidiary in auto insurance.

In addition, Berkshire Hathaway has substantial investments in Bank of America and Wells Fargo but no position with JPMorgan Chase, so this partnership extends Berkshire Hathaway’s influence in the U.S. financial sector.

Amazon

What it brings: Amazon brings immense logistical prowess, fanatical customer focus and an ambition to touch every transaction in the U.S. economy. The company also has rich experience in creating platforms for its own use that it later opens up to other businesses, with Amazon Web Services (AWS) as the most prominent example. First created to handle increases in holiday-time orders, AWS is a Software as a Service (SaaS) platform that quickly became the most profitable part of Amazon. Expect no less with the new health care company.

What it gets is a possibly decisive advantage in the ecosystem war that pits Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant against Apple’s Siri, and Google’s Assistant.

Amazon has already shown that it wants Alexa to power smart homes with the Echo devices and also to integrate with cars. Alexa will also soon work with Amazon’s Whole Foods subsidiary to keep the fridge and pantry full.

Amazon has already started edging into the pharmacy business (one reason why CVS is buying Aetna for $69 billion), so integrating a family’s health care along with the food they eat, the medicines the take, the videos they watch and the rest of the things they buy is a no-brainer.

While I argued that for JPMorgan Chase the new health care initiative will differentiate the bank and reduce churn, for Amazon the stakes are bigger because the switching costs are so much higher when Amazon has successfully drawn users into its integrated ecosystem of goods, food, entertainment health care, and more.

Like the Hotel California, eventually we’ll be able to check into Amazon’s world but never leave.

The big takeaway

A quarter century ago the idea of AT&T (a telco) and Comcast (a cable TV company) as arch rivals would have seemed ridiculous. But then Comcast started to offer internet and telephone services in an integrated triple play, whereupon AT&T countered with its own triple play of telephone, internet and entertainment (with both U-Verse and DirecTV).

With Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase entering health care, the lesson is that tomorrow’s rivals won’t show up from obvious directions.

Moreover, it will become difficult for people to make head-to-head comparisons among offerings. Different companies will package and integrate a wide variety of services in order to dig moats around their customers and prevent them from going elsewhere through a combination of incentives and deterrents.

Today, when you meet new people they might define themselves by where they live, what they do professionally, where they went to school, what their hobbies are, what music they listen to, what sports they watch, or how they lean politically.

In the near future, new acquaintances might define themselves more simply by what ecosystem they live inside: Amazon, Apple, or Google.

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

Facebook needs a Surgeon General’s warning

It’s hard to decide whether Facebook is more like beer, doughnuts or tobacco, but whichever comparison you prefer, there’s no doubt that Facebook is bad for you: recent research shows convincingly that as your Facebook use goes up your mental and physical health go down. (I’ll did into the research on this a little later.)

That’s what makes Facebook’s claims around recent changes to its Newsfeed product infuriating: the company argues that when Facebook hurts people’s health and sense of well-being, it’s not because of how much time they are spending on Facebook (a quantitative argument); instead, it’s because they aren’t looking at the right things on Facebook (a qualitative argument).

This is like saying, “is eating too much chocolate ice cream is making you fat, giving you heart disease, and shortening your life? The answer is obvious: switch to vanilla ice cream!”

It is entirely in Facebook’s business interests to make this argument. A publicly traded company that depends on advertising for its revenue, Facebook needs steady growth in how much time its users spend on the platform and exposed to ads in order to meet the expectations of its investors and Wall Street generally.

However, to be happy, people should spend less time on Facebook, not the same amount of time doing different things.

Some background: last week, Facebook announced sweeping changes to its Newsfeed product that would emphasize “the most meaningful interactions between people” instead of click bait, celebrity gossip, and unverified claims posing as news. Facebook’s stock took a brief tumble on Wall Street as a result.

In an interview with Wired, Facebook VP of Newsfeed Adam Mosseri was careful to dance around the idea that these changes are the company’s response to Russian interference with the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, but a different Wired article reported:

People at Facebook say privately that Thursday’s announcement should be thought of as the first of many steps by Facebook to get control of its platform this year. That will likely include changes that make it easier to determine the credibility of news sources in Newsfeed, and an aggressive attempt to bring rules around election and political advertising in line with those for other US media. Facebook has previously said it will require more disclosures around US political advertising.

Regardless of the motive, changing Facebook’s highly addictive Newsfeed to emphasize “meaningful” interactions will not make users happier.

Facebook’s flawed argument

The Newsfeed changes have clearly been brewing at Facebook for quite a while, as indicated by “Hard Questions: Is Spending Time on Social Media Bad for Us?”— a blog post by David Ginsberg, Facebook’s director of research, and Moira Burke, a research scientist at Facebook. Ginsberg and Burke argue that actively interacting with one’s Facebook “friends” — commenting, communicating, reminiscing — promotes mental health while passively clicking and watching cat videos does not.

One problem with this argument is that the data lynchpin for it comes from a 2016 article in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication entitled, “The Relationship Between Facebook Use and Well-Being Depends on Communication Type and Tie Strength.”

Although the article was published in 2016, digging into the methodology section reveals that Burke and her co-author Robert E. Kraut of Carnegie Mellon gathered their data over two months during the summer of 2011.

2011 was a long time ago. That was the year, for example, when:

• Osama Bin Laden was killed
• President Obama released his birth certificate
• A tsunami hit Japan
• Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot
• A revolution hit Egypt
• Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 was the top movie
• Ashton Kutcher replaced Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men
• Oprah Winfrey aired her last show

In internet time, 2011 was the Pleistocene Era. For Facebook specifically, 2011 was before the company pivoted to being mobile first and acquired Instagram to improve its mobile game (both in 2012).

Facebook, in other words, is a different company in 2018 than it was when this data was collected, and the way that its users engage with Facebook has changed radically. Today, more people engage with Facebook on their smartphones than on desktop or laptop; that wasn’t true in 2011.

Using 2011 data to explain social media use in 2018 is like trying to pay for dinner using Yugoslavian dinar. (Yugoslavia ceased to exist in 1992.)

New, convincing research

More recent research that counters Facebook’s poor argument is not hard to find.

In a Harvard Business Review article published in April of 2017 — based on a study published earlier that year in the American Journal of Epidemiology — Holly B. Shakya of U.C. San Diego and Nicholas A. Christakis of Yale showed that “overall, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with well-being.”

Or, to quote the title of the HBR article, “The More You Use Facebook, the Worse You Feel.” Shakya and Christakis saw declines in mental health and physical health as well as increased Body Mass Index in their subjects as they used Facebook more.

The problem is not about what you use Facebook to do, it’s how much you use Facebook. In the Epidemiology article, the authors wrote, “We found that using Facebook was associated with lower life satisfaction, whereas having real-life friends and interacting with them was associated with higher life satisfaction.”

In our work at the Center, we’ve seen time spent with real-life friends decline as time spent online has increased. Here’s a picture of how this looks with the overall U.S. population over 16 years:

Not all of that online time is spent on Facebook, but if real-life interactions help people to be happier, then a nearly 30-percentage point reduction in how much time people spend with each other is alarming — and increased Facebook use does nothing to counteract that.

Outside of academic studies, Kevin Holesh created an app called “Moment” that tracks what users do with their iPhones (an Android version is coming soon) and how they feel about what they’re doing. According to Moment data, when users are on Facebook less than 20 minutes per day they are likely to be happy about their Facebook use. When users are on Facebook for longer than 20 minutes per day, they are likely to be unhappy about their Facebook use.

In September, according to Nielsen data and Brian Wieser of Pivotal Research, American adults spent 37 minutes per day on Facebook: nearly twice the happiness threshold. Facebook wants that 37 minutes to increase, not go down.

Facebook is addictive by design (see Adam Alter’s recent book Irresistible for a deep dive into just how creepily deliberate this is). While the company might tweak the Newsfeed in order to emphasize person-to-person interactions, over the long term that will not come at the cost of overall time-spent on the platform.

The tobacco companies want people to smoke more because it’s good for business, even though cigarettes make people sick. Likewise, Facebook’s goal is not to make its users happy; the goal is to make its users use Facebook more.

One day soon we might see a screen pop up when we log into Facebook that reads, “WARNING: Facebook Use May Be Hazardous to Your Happiness.”

 

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

8 Thoughts on Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House”

I picked up my copy of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House last night at 5:45pm; finished it today at 5:45pm.

Here’s what I think.

1. It’s fascinating in an I-can’t-look-away-at-the-17-car-pileup-with-lots-of-ambulances way, but I didn’t learn anything reading it. The book is the signature aria in a media opera of confirmation bias– white wine glasses will shatter in liberal living rooms across our fair land.To compare, in November I read Michael Lewis’ Vanity Fair article Inside Trump’s Cruel Campaign Against the U.S.D.A.’s Scientists and learned a lot about the staggering scope of Agriculture Department’s endeavor as well as the impact of the Trump Administration’s unprecedented failure to show up to work after the inauguration.

Lewis’ article was just as scary as Wolff’s book, but at the end of reading Lewis I felt like I’d eaten an apple. With Wolff, it’s a bag of Cheetos.

2. If you’re going to read Fire and Fury, then read it SOON because even though the action winds up just three months ago with Steve Bannon’s October 2017 exit from the White House, the book is already dated by the never-ending, Chinese water torture drip drip drip of subsequent scandals and outrages (Roy Moore, “my button is bigger”).The book is radioactive in two ways: first, it’s poison to most of the people portrayed– not so much character assassination as a Pompeii-like lava flow concretizing everything and everyone into poses of abject despair and expressions of disappointed surprise.It’s also radioactive because you can measure the relevance of Wolff’s book in half-lives with each half-life being about a day.

When I picked up my copy of Fire and Fury at Annie Bloom’s Bookstore last night (I’d reserved it the night before), there were people lined up and disappointed to learn that there were no unclaimed copies left: a new batch was coming in today, and another next week, and so on. My fellow customers will be even more disappointed when they finally get the book, only for the nation to have metabolized it and moved on.

3. Heaven save us, it’s all true. Everything you’ve dreaded about the Trump administration, every time you’ve denied that sinking feeling in your stomach, every time you’ve thought that you were reading something from The Onion and then realized in slow-motion dismay that it isn’t satire… don’t expect relief by reading Wolff’s book.

4. It doesn’t matter. The saddest thing of all about Wolff’s book is that it won’t change a single mind about Trump. The people who are reading it are already convinced that he’s a madman who should be pushed down the dumbwaiter and out of the Oval Office today. The people who support Trump won’t read it because Fox News has already directed them to dismiss it as lies and fakery– if Fox told them the Earth was flat they’d believe globes were a liberal media conspiracy. The people who are on the fence won’t read it because they are already numb.

5. When information breaks from open secret to common knowledge it can have huge impact, see the downfalls of Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and the rest of the predator brotherhood. At one point, thinking about #MeToo and about Michael Suk-Young Chwe’s notion of common knowledge in his book Rational Ritual, hope fluttered in my breast that Fire and Fury would break the cycle of denial about things like Trump’s illiteracy, complete absence of policy, inability to focus, and Everest-sized narcissism. For a society to function, Chwe writes, “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.'”With the Wolff book, though, the hope faded because we’ve already all known this stuff for a long time.

Gosh, though, I hope I’m wrong.

6. When Episode Three of Star Wars (“Revenge of the Sith”) came out the fans realized that while we had thought the original three movies (episodes four, five and six) were Luke Skywalker’s story, in fact the entirety of the six movies were the biography of Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader. Likewise, Fire and Fury is really the Steve Bannon story. If Trump were capable of reading the book then that fact would probably gall him most of all.

7. The other movie comparison that came to me as I was reading the book was Being There, except in Fire and Fury everybody in the cast always knows that Chauncey Gardner (a.k.a. Trump)… has special needs, but he gets elected anyway.

8. If you’ve ever seen a dog chasing a car, wondered, “what would he do if he actually caught it?” and then imagined the expression on the dog’s face when that happened, then you’ve got a clear sense of Trump’s reaction to winning the presidency.

This last year we’ve been watching a man try to eat a car.

Why using cash won’t protect your privacy

We need to upgrade our nightmares, thank and excuse the monsters under our beds, and tell our bogeymen that it’s time to make room for a new generation of things that make us go “eek!”

Some of our fears are analog antiques in a digital world.

Here’s an example of what I mean: in our recent Future of Money and Banking survey, we asked how Americans would feel about a cash-free society and provided different responses:

  • I would not like it/not be comfortable with it
  • I am afraid that prices for goods and services would go up
  • It would be convenient/efficient
  • There would be less need to go to the bank
  • I would feel like something important had been taken away from me
  • I would feel more safe in public
  • This would be good for keeping records of all my purchases (including helpful with taxes)
  • I would feel more comfortable having physical money
  • This would give more control to the banks and credit card companies
  • It would be harder to give tips or small gifts of money
  • I would like to keep some of my purchases completely private by using cash

Our respondents indicated how much they agreed or disagreed with each response.

The option that generated the most agreement was that people would like to keep some purchases private by using cash: 72 percent of our respondents either somewhat or strongly agreed with this statement.

This shows that nearly three-quarters of Americans are at least somewhat concerned about their privacy and aware that anytime they use a credit card, debit card, check, or mobile payment service a variety of businesses record the purchase in laundry pen. (And this is far from the only indication from our work at the Center that Americans are worried about privacy.)

These worries are appropriate. The stores and services we frequent (in real life and online) track and store everything we do with them and also acquire other data in order to build profiles of us and of customers a lot like us. If you’re an optimist, then the profiles exist so that the companies can do better jobs of getting us the things we want at the best prices. If you’re a pessimist, then the profiles exist so that the companies can dupe us into spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need.

Both conditions are probably true.

What most people don’t realize is how freakishly comprehensive the data profiles of us are, and the extent to which algorithms can identify patterns that human beings simply cannot see.

For example, in a famous 2012 New York Times article, Charles Duhigg told the story of a father who discovered that his 17-year-old daughter was pregnant when Target sent her coupons for baby clothes and cribs. The data-mining team at Target had figured out that changes in shopping patterns — for example, buying more unscented skin lotion than usual — could indicate that a woman was entering the second trimester of a pregnancy. (Read the article if you have a high threshold for being creeped out.)

Algorithms and artificial intelligences are our new digital bogeymen.

Cash is no protection

Since companies track and profile us 24/7/365, our respondents’ desire to keep the pay-with-cash option available makes perfect sense. However, what’s antiquated and analog about this desire is the belief that using cash provides any kind of protection against tracking purchases.

It does not.

Either today or in the near future, technology can track what we buy, where we buy it, how much we paid, and how that purchase connects to all our other purchases as well as those of our family and friends — even if you use cash.

Let’s dispense with the obvious scenarios. If you type your phone number into a little keyboard when you make a purchase, then it doesn’t matter if you pay with cash: the business adds that purchase to the profile it has built up for you over the time you’ve frequented that store, combo-plattered with data about you that it has purchased from credit bureaus, other information brokers, as well as digital services like Facebook, Google, Pinterest, Twitter, Amazon, and more.

Less obvious: you walk into a store to make a purchase that you’d like to keep private (an early pregnancy test, an STD test, a magazine supporting a point of view that your spouse rejects), so you pay with cash. However, your smart phone is still in your pocket or bag; your phone logs back into the store’s wifi, whereupon the store knows that it’s you. Even if you don’t use the store’s wifi, the store might use beacon technology to record when you arrive at and leave the store because you’ve signed up for a mobile points and promotions service like Shopkick at some point. You pay with cash, but because you have your smartphone the store still knows you were there and can infer from the data that you made an embarrassing purchase.

At this point, you might be thinking that all you have to do is leave your smart phone at home in order to make a private purchase.

Not so fast.

Biometrics, like fingerprints, voiceprints (how Siri or Alexa know it’s you talking), and facial recognition allow people to unlock technology in order to get access to different accounts. Companies can use the same biometric technologies to identify you even when you’re not deliberately logging in. There’s also “gait analysis” that can identify you by the way you walk. Even if you leave your gadgets at home and pay with cash, you still have no guarantee of anonymity.

(If you follow privacy issues at all, then you’ll often hear about Personally Identifiable Information or PII. Corporations’ privacy rules often prevent them from selling or leasing your data to other companies, but there’s no guarantee that the corporations will be acting in their customers’ best interests. Ordinarily, chief privacy officers are lawyers, and it’s the lawyers who write the End User License Agreements or EULAs that you have to agree with in order to use a service. Those agreements are neither short nor easy to understand, so most people don’t read them.)

In order to make a private purchase, you’d not only have to pay with cash but you’d also have to cover your face (don’t forget the ears), do something to change your voice (or don’t speak), and put a rock in one shoe in order to change your gait.*

How likely is it that people will do this?

Is there a right not to be tracked?

“The Right to Privacy,” an 1890 Harvard Law Review article by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, articulated that Americans have a right to be left alone, but Warren and Brandeis were thinking about preventing the press from violating the rights of private citizens, particularly when there was nothing that the public would gain from knowing about people’s private lives beyond voyeurism.

Mostly, when we think about privacy, we think about it being violated by the press or by governments.  But as Simson Garfinkel observed in his 2000 book, Database Nation: the Death of Privacy in the 21st Century, “the future we’re rushing towards isn’t one where our every move is watched and recording by some all-knowing ‘Big Brother.’ It is instead a future of a hundred kid brothers that constantly watch and interrupt our daily lives.”

Those kid brothers are corporations.

At the present moment it is difficult for Americans to protect their private lives, but there is some hope that this won’t always be the case. The European Union has enacted the General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR, which aggressively protects the privacy of EU citizens. Many of the GDPR rules will extend to corporations outside the EU with shockingly stiff fines, so companies around the world are scrambling to comply with the new regulations before the rules take effect in May of this year.

Compliance with the new EU rules might have some spillover benefit for Americans, and perhaps the EU’s example will inspire the United States to protect the privacy of its citizens.

Someday.
__________

* If you are interested in more detailed explorations of these scenarios, please see my 2011 book, Redcrosse.

[Cross-posted at the Center site.]

My 2017 in Books

This is the fourth year that I’ve kept a running list of every book that I’ve completed for the first time and then shared that list here as the first thing I post on either the last day of the old year or the first of the new.

You can see the 2016 list here, the 2015 list here, and the 2014 list here. As always I want to thank my friend David Daniel for the inspiration to do this.

January is a future-forward month for many folks in my line of work with CES beginning in a week (I’ll be leading VIP tours with Story-Tech once again) and myriad predictions about the year ahead by different sorts of thinkers across the spectrum, and that future orientation is one reason I like to start the year with look back at some of the places my mind has toured and when it toured them.

I read 50 books in 2017, which sounds like a lot but they weren’t all BIG books, and some of them were “chomp chomp, gulp” experiences. 20 were non-fiction books about history, science, business and where those all intersect; a bit less than half were science fiction and fantasy, and the remainder were crime fiction of one sort or another. It was a light year for literary fiction, but I have hopes for 2018.

I was surprised to see that the vast majority of the 50 were new books, published in either 2016 or 2017.

For those of you with short attention spans, the BEST book I read in 2017 was Joan C. Williams’ White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America (chunky comments and link below). 

Here’s the efficient list:

1. Sawyer, Robert J. Humans (Neanderthal Parallax Vol 2).

2. Ariely, Dan. Payoff: the Hidden Logic that Shapes our Motivations.

3.  Ito, Joi & Jeff Howe. Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future.

4. Dunstall, S.K., Confluence: a Linesman Novel.

5. Moon, Youngme. Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd.

6. Stone, Brad. The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World.  

7. Dick, Philip K. Ubik.

8. Aaronovitch, Ben. The Hanging Tree: a Rivers of London Novel.

9. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Mira’s Last Dance (Penric & Desdemona).

10. Hochschild, Arlie Russell. Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. 

11. Webb, Amy. The Signals are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe is Tomorrow’s Mainstream; Forecast and Take Action on Tomorrow’s Trends, Today. 

12. Servon, Lisa. The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives. Finished 4/23/17. 

13. Scalzi, John. The Collapsing Empire.

14. Wu, Tim. The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads.

15. Allen, Jonathan and Amie Parnes. Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign.

16. Riordan, Rick. The Trials of Apollo: Book Two: The Dark Prophecy.

17. Liu, Cixin. The Three-Body Problem.

18. Williams, Joan C. White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America. 

19. Lee, Yoon Ha. Ninefox Gambit.

20. Suarez, Daniel. Change Agent. 

21. Rosenblum, Jeff with Jordan Berg. Friction: Passion Brands in the Age of Disruption.

22. Moon, Elizabeth. Cold Welcome (Vatta’s Peace)  

23. Asimov, Isaac. Foundation.

24. Cooper, Susan. King of Shadows.

25. Winslow, Don. The Force.

26. Lee, Sharon and Steve Miller. The Gathering Edge: A New Liaden Universe Novel.

27. Connelly, Michael. The Late Show: Introducing Detective Renée Ballard. 

28. Aaronovitch, Ben. The Furthest Station.

29. Chwe, Michael Suk-Young. Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination & Common Knowledge.

30. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric’s Fox (Penric & Desdemona).

31. Stephens-Davidowitz, Seth. Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell us About Who We Really Are.

32. Singer, P.W. and August Cole. Ghost Fleet: a Novel of the Next World War.

33. Doctorow, Cory. Walkaway: a Novel.

34. Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

35. Stephenson, Neal and Nicole Galland. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., a Novel.

36. Asaro, Catherine. The Bronze Skies (Skolian Empire Series Book 8). 

37. Hoffman, Bob. Bad Men: How Advertising Went from a Minor Annoyance to a Major Menace. 

38. Galloway, Scott. The Four: the Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google.

39. Leckie, Ann. Provenance.

40. Bujold, Lois McMaster. The Prisoner of Lemnos: a Penric and Desdemona Story.

41. Connelly, Michael. Two Kinds of Truth: a Bosch Novel. 

42. Olson, Erika S. Zero-Sum Game: the Rise of the World’s Largest Derivatives Exchange.

43. Newitz, Annalee. Autonomous: a Novel. Finished November 25, 2017.

44. Eastland, Sam. Eye of the Red Tsar: a Novel of Suspense.

45. Alter, Adam. Irresistible: the rise of additive technology and the business of keeping us hooked.

46. Weir, Andy. Artemis: a Novel.

47. Trillin, Calvin. Alice, Let’s Eat: Further Adventures of a Happy Eater.

48. Eastland, Sam. Shadow Pass: a Novel of Suspense.

49. Eastland, Sam. Archive 17: a Novel of Suspense. 

50. Mehta, Kumar. The Innovation Biome: a Sustained Business Environment Where Innovation Thrives.

For those of you who are ready to dig in, here’s the really-quite-a-bit-longer version:

Sawyer, Robert J. Humans (Neanderthal Parallax Vol 2) (Tor Books). Finished January 6.

The first of two sequels to Hominids, which I read late in 2016, this continued the story of universe-hopping Neanderthals who came from a parallel world where Neanderthals survived and homo sapiens died out. The conceit is sufficiently fascinating — and an exercise in appreciating the unpredictability and “it could have happened another way” quality of natural selection — that I finished the book, but not so terrific that I read the third installment.

2.  Ariely, Dan. Payoff: the Hidden Logic that Shapes our Motivations (TED Books, Simon & Schuster). Finished January 12.

This agreeable small volume is a TED book — a collection of similarly agreeable small volumes that reminds me of the Quantum Books that the University of California Press tried a couple decades back with the idea that it might be a good thing to publish books that it would only take the average college-educated reader an evening to read.  

Unlike his academic books, here Ariely is speaking to a mainstream audience about motivation, de-motivation, how different sorts of motivation interact, and how — despite an increasingly transactional, short-term mindset foisted upon us by the combo-platter of the gig economy and Wall Street’s quarterly earnings focus — the most motivational things in our lives have more to do with a longer time scales and social connection.  

Reading Ariely’s book reminded me of other books that deal with similar issues: Michael J. Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets, Samuel Bowles’ The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute for Good Citizens (haven’t finished this one yet), and Adam Grant’s Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success

3.  Ito, Joi & Jeff Howe. Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future (Grand Central Publishing). Finished January 21.

I enjoyed this book, one of several “yikes! Things are changing fast and in multiple directions all at the same time!” books recently published, another being Thomas Friedman’s Thank You For Being Late: an Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration, which I still haven’t finished reading.

Rather than breaking new ground, Ito and Howe’s book usefully collects and organizes a group of common themes, or maybe memes, that have bubbled up over the last decade or so in books, TED talks and the like, and the authors deploy these themes in binary opposites: emergence over authority, pull over push, compasses over maps and the like. Some of these memes are so well worn that it’s hard to muster enthusiasm for them: businesses have to learn to fail fast, try new things, decentralize from a command a control model and embrace complexity. Yawn. 

On the other hand, when the authors dig into actual stories some of the memes come alive, like in the “risk over safety chapter” when they describe how one company spent $3 million dollars on a feasibility study for an MIT Media Lab proposal that only would have cost $600,000. “Implementing risk over safety does not mean blinding yourself to risk. It simply means understanding that as the cost of innovation declines, the nature of risk changes” (page 117). 

Likewise, in “systems over objects” the authors talk about “shifting the emphasis [at the Media Lab] from creating objects to building relationships” (225), using Google’s self-driving car initiative as an example. “In describing its self-driving car, Google has emphasized that the car itself is merely an object– the artificial intelligence that drives it is the system, and it must mesh seamlessly into the other systems it touches.” Perhaps the strongest chapter is “diversity over ability,” which relates a series of illuminating anecdotes about how “distance from the field” empowers outsiders to solve problems to which experts are blind because “the less exposed a given solver is to the discipline in which the problem resides, the more likely he or she is to solve it” (182).   

The authors are genuinely optimistic about how we humans will prosper in an age of increasing technological change, which is refreshing. Sometimes that optimism blinds them to the dark sides of the trends they chart: for example, the authors celebrate crowdsourcing (Jeff Howe invented the term) and how EaaS (everything as a service) reduces startup costs for entrepreneurs, but they don’t recognize how this same trend leads to the “gig economy” where nobody has health benefits or a 401K.

A few miscellaneous observations: the book is mercifully short (less than 240 pages) with lots of white space; as a physical artifact it has a sensuous quality that is engaging. I don’t think I would have liked it nearly as much as an e-book; the authors end each chapter with a PS written by only one of them, usually with an interesting personal story. 

4. Dunstall, S.K., Confluence: a Linesman Novel (Ace). Finished January 24.

Delightful and absorbing third installment in the Linesman series: this one was better put together and more focused than the first two, and I whizzed through it in a couple of days. One thing I liked about it was that it had fewer points of view than the others, just Linesman Ean Lambert and his former bodyguard Dominque Radko. Solid space opera.

5.   Moon, Youngme. Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd (Crown Business). Finished February 2.

One index of how seriously I take a book is how many notes I take. I took a LOT with this book, which was recommended by my friend Carol Phillips, whose recommendations are always strong.

Moon shrewdly dissects the weirdness of competitors all having the same features on parallel products, which commodifies everything. The diagnosis part of the first half is worthwhile and stronger than the solutions of the second.

6. Stone, Brad. The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World (Little, Brown).  Finished February 11.

An impressive insider’s tour of the first eight years of these companies, with clear “I’m finishing this just as 2016 ends” up-to-the-minute details. Like Stone’s last book on Amazon (The Everything Store, 2013), this is an enjoyable read, full of engaging stories about the compelling personalities behind the companies. It’s hard not to fall in love with your subject, and so I’m sympathetic to Stone’s positive bias towards Uber and Airbnb, although as a transportation researcher I’m much more skeptical of Uber’s future.

7. Dick, Philip K. Ubik (Mariner Books). Finished February 17.

Prescient 1969 science fiction novel from the author of the novels that became three classic movies: Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report. Ubik has a philosophical underpinning to a satire of the EaaS (Everything as a Service) transformation happening in our lives today. It’s also damned funny, particularly when the protagonist can’t get out of his apartment until he pays the door a five cent fee because he signed a “door as a service” contract.

8. Aaronovitch, Ben. The Hanging Tree: a Rivers of London Novel (Daw, Penguin Group). Finished February 24.

I enjoy this series — a kind of English X-Files where a special team of detectives investigate crimes involving the supernatural — light fare though it is. The author started in British TV, which explains why reading this book feels like watching a season of a low budget but well constructed series. The author counts on the reader having read — and remembering — all the previous books, and this means that character development… Isn’t. A fun romp. Deserves to be a series on SyFy or the like.

9. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Mira’s Last Dance (Penric & Desdemona) (Subterranean Press and self-published via Amazon and iBooks). Finished March 3.

Bujold is my favorite living science fiction and fantasy writer, so any time she releases something new it provokes my immediate purchase and abrupt disappearance from family life. The Penric and Desdemona series of novellas about a wizard and his pet demon are short enough that my wife and kids don’t miss me for long. (More on the business model for this and others below at #28.)

10. Hochschild, Arlie Russell. Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (The New Press). Finished April 2.

Brilliant psychological profile of Tea Party Republicans and why to liberal eyes they so consistently vote against their own interests. This book is like a scholarly (although engaging) companion to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (see last year’s list).

My one gripe with the book is how little Hochschild engages with technology and media proliferation throughout. She mentions people’s Twitter feeds and Facebook communities from time to time, but doesn’t have a pervasive take on how, for example, alt-right websites and media to the right of Fox News has normalized Fox, and how that has impacted the information that her Tea Party subjects internalize.

11. Webb, Amy. The Signals are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe is Tomorrow’s Mainstream; Forecast and Take Action on Tomorrow’s Trends, Today (Public Affairs). Finished April 3.

Interesting book with a bunch of razor sharp insights — in particular on why Google is interested in Self-Driving Cars and what a potential success scenario for Magic Leap might mean for the world — and some very good questions to bear in mind as one is thinking about what’s coming. I like Webb’s notion of a “fringe map” with nodes and connections, which she develops as she’s thinking through new technologies and behaviors and how they will impact other things.

As a futurist, this was a useful book for me to have read.  

On the other hand, Webb’s methodology (six vectors one way, ten trends another) is so complex as to be unusable, which makes me think that in part she has created that deliberately in order to have the book act as an advertisement for her company without giving away the store.  

12. Servon, Lisa. The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Finished April 23. 

This was a close runner up to the Williams’ book for best book of my year. Sermon spent months as an undercover academic working at check cashing services, payday lenders and the like to get a up-close-and-personal feel for why millions of Americans are unbanked. The short answer is that they cannot afford the banks predatory fees, about which I have more to say here. Servon’s combination of Geertzian thick description and shrewd analysis makes this a compelling read as well as a convincing piece of analysis.

13. Scalzi, John. The Collapsing Empire (Tor Science Fiction). Finished April 30, having started it the previous afternoon.

There is no other SF writer working today who so powerfully channels and updates the style of Robert Heinlein. (This is a high compliment.) Scalzi is a writing machine, and this new series explores what would happen to a galaxy-wide empire if the wormholes that link it together began to evaporate.

14. Wu, Tim. The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (Vintage). Finished May 7.

Wu’s description of how television’s entrance into the home changed how much advertising had access to the private life of citizens was insightful. It was also salutary to have somebody point out that we’re all subservient to an almost-contractual exchange of attention for value that most of us never consciously agreed to and of which the terms vary wildly and beyond our control or even awareness. 

On the flawed side, there was a lot of sturm und drang about how bad the attention merchants have been for us, but it’s like the old saw about the weather: people complain but nobody does anything about it. At points in Wu’s book it sounded like he was going to articulate a plan for how to take back some of the attention that gets frittered away by media and technology — like what Levitin talks about in The Organized Mind although from more of a law and policy perspective — but Wu never gets there.

15. Allen, Jonathan and Amie Parnes. Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign (Crown). Finished May 18.

Well-written, compelling, incredibly depressing. As I read this book my most-frequent reaction was to mutter, “no… no… no…” at how many avoidable mistakes the Clinton campaign made. I guess I was feeling particularly masochistic in May.

16. Riordan, Rick. The Trials of Apollo: Book Two: The Dark Prophecy (Disney-Hyperion). Finished May 26.

The latest installment in the Percy Jackson universe of Greek demigods. Both of my kids were  devoted to this series at one point, although now the teenager has aged out of it. I was the first to read the first five-book series when I was on a LOT of planes for business and needed something light. Books 1-5 were terrific. The many sequels have been less great, although still quite good. The 12-year-old likes me to read this series with him, so I do.  

Like the first book in this series, the story is action-packed and well constructed. I like that in this series Riordan goes back to using single first-person narrator, in this case the defrocked Apollo who has been turned into a mortal teenager with only limited access to his godly powers. It is a somewhat-entertaining departure that Apollo is conceited and self-centered as a narrator, which seems appropriate for the Greek gods, even if it gets tired pretty quickly. I’ll read the next one, too.

17. Liu, Cixin. The Three-Body Problem (Tor Books). Finished May 27.

Renny Gleeson recommended this book, and he doesn’t recommend things lightly. I got it at the library and was finally about to start reading it when my renewals ran out and it got recalled, so I bought it and dug back in.  

It’s a slow, long, challenging story, so I wound up taking breaks from it… and also getting seduced by the easy-like-Sunday-morning quality of the Scalzi novel and my desire to keep up with my boy by reading the Riordan.  

Liu’s book is difficult for a lot of reasons, one of which is that it’s translated from the Chinese and therefore requires more effort than a book by a Westerner. Beyond that, one of the key premises — that you need to be trained to understand an alien culture by experiencing that culture in a VR video game that takes a long, long time to master — is also a difficult cultural translation, even though this one is fictional.  

Not a world-shattering experience, but it is quite good.

18. Williams, Joan C. White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America (Harvard Business Review Press). Finished June 2.

Best book of the year.

If a webcam had been trained at my face while I was reading this book my expression would probably have been one of slowly dawning horror. If a comic-strip thought balloon had been connected to my head, it might have read, “Oh dear. I guess I really do live in even more of a bubble than I thought I did.”

Of the four “How did Trump become president?” books I’ve read, this is the most illuminating.

Emerging from a celebrated HBR article written in the feverish November days after the election and its shocking outcome, Williams has expanded her central argument into a compelling, direct, bracing and impressively short book. At 131 pages of text with another 50 pages of apparatus (notes, index), I read this book swiftly and with focused attention.

The reason White Working Class is so bracing is that while other books on the topic focus on the failures of working class conservatives to understand how badly the Republicans serve their economic interests (JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in The Own Land) or on how it was Hillary Clinton’s fault for running a poor campaign (Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’ Shattered), Williams instead focuses squarely on how badly progressives understand the values and priorities of the white working class.  

In other words, Williams argues, the problem is us. 

Trump’s rise isn’t the fault of the Tea Party Republicans or duped Rust Belt workers, it’s our fault, the fault of Democrats who not only have neglected to make a case that the Democratic Party understands the desires and needs of the white working class in favor of other groups but also have condescended to the white working class for generations. 

It is neither trivial nor an accident, Williams argues, that moronic Homer Simpson is the most salient media representation of a white working class father who supports his family while his wife Marge stays at home to care for the house and children. Williams also mentions Archie Bunker and Al Bundy, and I’d toss Peter Griffin into the mix as well. White working class fathers visible in the media  (which is not a common sight in any event) are obese, crude and stupid.  

Folks on the left may fume and roll their eyes at Fox News and how it panders to the basest instincts of its viewers, but, Williams argues, the reason that Fox and its ilk have been able to convince the white working class that the mainstream media is the liberal media is that the mainstream media has abandoned the white working class by trivializing its values and priorities.

A don’t-miss read.

19. Lee, Yoon Ha. Ninefox Gambit (Solaris). Finished June 10.

Interesting space opera with “calendrical rot” as a central conceit where different technologies are enable by different notions of time and moving outside of the dominant culture’s calendar is heresy. It’s a speedy, good story with a strong female protagonist in Cheris. My one issue with the book concerns its world building: a lot of things are poorly explained or not explained at all, which can be a bit confusing.

20. Suarez, Daniel. Change Agent (Dutton). Finished June 15.

Fascinating 2045-set sci fi thriller where genetic manipulation has become the dominant industry on the planet, with cars grown out of synthetic shrimp, “degans” eat “deathless meat” that is vat grown, and designer babies are illegal, but only sometimes. I inhaled this book starting on a plane-ride home on a Tuesday night and then finished it on Thursday night. Recommended by Susan MacDermid.

21. Rosenblum, Jeff with Jordan Berg. Friction: Passion Brands in the Age of Disruption (powerHouse Books). Finished June 17, 2017.

The Drum ran my review of this terrific book. Here are a few sample paragraphs:

Rosenblum’s thesis is that friction gets in the way of business success in a fractal manner: the always-self-replicating pattern ranges from how a product category removes friction from culture at the broadest level, down to how a specific brand of a product removes friction from the lives of customers, down to how removing internal friction from the business creating the product aligns the team, and then down to how removing friction from an individual’s life and work habits can bring more productivity, creativity and satisfaction.

This complex but enabling take on friction is what distinguishes Rosenblum’s take from the commonplace business cliche about friction (i.e., it’s bad).

Lest you think the book hovers at a platitudinous level emitting self-help-style bromides, Rosenblum connects his argument to case studies linking the elimination of friction to business success, economic success, rather than marketing vanity metrics.

Read the whole review of the book on The Drum.

22. Moon, Elizabeth Cold Welcome (Vatta’s Peace) (Del Rey). Finished June 21.

Terrific military SF coming at least a decade after the last book in this series. Since I hadn’t reread the previous volumes some of the references and relationships didn’t resonate, but this is a minor quibble. A compelling read that I sailed through in a handful of days.

23. Asimov, Isaac. Foundation (Bantam Spectra Books). Finished June 24.

Classic SF. I’d been thinking of Asimow’s notion of psychohistory in the context of AI, which prompted me to read the first volume of the trilogy. It’s an interesting, cerebral, canny and thoughtful take on how a civilization might survive a dark age.

24. Cooper, Susan. King of Shadows (Margaret K. McElderry Books;). Finished July 4.

Delightful YA fiction recommended by an English teacher and fellow Shakespearean at my son’s grade school. Nat Field, who shares a name and penchant for acting with a famous player from Shakespeare’s London, mysteriously switches places with his Renaissance namesake and finds himself acting side-by-side with Will Shakespeare himself in 1599. A richly imagined piece of historical fiction– and one that name checks my friend Andy Gurr along the way!

25. Winslow, Don. The Force (William Morrow). Finished July 22.  

I bought this book because of an enthusiastic blurb by Stephen King and because I saw it on the table at Costco. This was an uncharacteristic move since I don’t read Stephen King all that often, but I enjoyed the book. There are skaz-like qualities to the third-person narration in a grim story about corrupt New York cops. “The skaz” is a lit-crit term that describes a narration that is so completely in a character’s voice and subjectivity that it is startling and original. The most famous example is Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Imagine the Starz show Power from a corrupt cop’s point of view and then transform it into a novel, then you’ve got a good sense of The Force.

26. Lee, Sharon and Steve Miller. The Gathering Edge: A New Liaden Universe Novel (Baen). Finished July 30.

The latest in this sprawling series: a good “pop it into you mouth, chew and swallow” read. I will always have fond feelings for the Liaden universe because I read the first several with my baby daughter asleep with her head on my right shoulder while rocking gently in the glider in her sunny room in our old house in Encino. 

Unlike Bujold’s Vorkosigan books — where it is conceivable to jump into the series at any point because each novel is a self-contained unit — starting with the Liaden series at “The Gathering Edge” would be incomprehensible. I’ve read them all, and even I have trouble keeping track of the characters and the history, not in the least because the story has split into different concurrent narratives as well as leapt back and forth in time.

The current book is an entry in the story of Theo Waitley, the half-Liaden, half-Terran captain of a sentient ship called Bechimo. It’s a picaresque series of episodes that aren’t a single tale and don’t really add up to anything as a single book, but the episodes are interesting. The story starts with two Ytrang explorers popping into the universe from a previous, now-destroyed universe… a bit of back story that hasn’t ever really been developed in the series until now, unless it was in one of the side-stories that the authors self-publish. (It feels somewhat like Heinlein and Asimov each trying to reconcile all their different stories into one universe or multiverse late in their lives.)

27. Connelly, Michael. The Late Show: Introducing Detective Renée Ballard (Little, Brown). Finished July 31.

I inhaled this book in a single, albeit long, day, starting on a plane ride from Portland to New York and finishing in bed that night. Ballard is a terrific successor to Harry Bosch (whose adventures are not complete but seem to be winding down): she’s a smart, capable, passionate and reckless police detective. The story is a classic Connelly police procedural with a minor if very surprising twist at the end, and I wanted more Ballard the moment I was done. Ballard is pretty butch — female but not feminine — and I’ll be curious in future novels if Connelly explores her femininity at all.

28. Aaronovitch, Ben. The Furthest Station (Subterranean Press and self-published via Amazon and iBooks). Finished August 5.

Enjoyable novella in the “Rivers of London” aka “Peter Grant” series (see #8, above) that occupies my time whenever they come out. As with #8, the author presumes that only fans will read this book as he uses characters from previous entries with little or no explanation. Not a good jumping off point for new readers.

Two interesting things about The Furthest Station.

#1: Unlike some of the full-length books where Big Movie-Like Action Sequences tend to take up the last quarter, this one is a solid police procedural… an episode of Law & Magical Order. I think the author realized what he had midstream and decided to release it as a novella, which leads me to… 

#2: The business model. Aaronovitch released this as an expensive direct-to-fans hardback created by Subterranean Press some months ago, only allowing a cheaper digital version to come out over the last few weeks. His usual publisher, DAW, didn’t handle this one– either the hardback or the digital. The cover illustrator for the DAW-published volumes also drew the cover for this one (or another artist did a good facsimile). So the series exists outside a single publisher (there are also comic books, which I haven’t investigated.). This is also what Lois McMaster Bujold is doing with her Penric novellas, and it shows that there is market appetite for what Kevin Kelly once called “1000 True Fans” supporting an artist and making smaller endeavors profitable, although I suspect that these smaller projects are only possible when built on the platform of bigger, mass market releases. 

29. Chwe, Michael Suk-Young. Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination & Common Knowledge (Princeton University Press). Finished August 6. 

I read the 2001 edition and then got the 2013 afterword via the USC library. Fascinating book that I’ll continue to think about and may need to buy. I first learned of this book in a Eugene Wei blog post, and subsequently quoted it in a column at the Center site.

Chwe’s central idea is that we need to share metaknowledge — we need not only to know something but also to know that other people know it, and that other people know we know it, and that they know that we know that they know it in infinite regression — in order to coordinate action. It’s helpful in understanding how Trump mobilized a base with blatant falsehoods that nonetheless became common “knowledge,” and it has helped me think through the sinister implications of the decline of shared reality because of new display technologies.

Most importantly, Chwe’s version of common knowledge helps to explain the timing of the #MeToo movement.

30. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric’s Fox (Penric & Desdemona) (Subterranean Press and self-published via Amazon and iBooks). Finished August 9.

See #9. Another delightful novella set in Bujold’s “Five Gods” universe.

31. Stephens-Davidowitz, Seth. Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell us About Who We Really Are (Dey Street Books). Finished August 14.

Really, really interesting. Stephens-Davidowitz is a former Google data scientist and researcher who explores what our search histories say about us in case study after fascinating case study, divvied up across different fields, demographics and gender. The book is well worth reading, although I sometimes found the author overconfident about his conclusions. There’s a difference (that the author doesn’t seem to recognize) between the things that we search for and the things that we want, between what we believe about ourselves and the beliefs that come into focus based on what we do online. Those things all overlap, but they aren’t identical.

32. Singer, P.W. and August Cole. Ghost Fleet: a Novel of the Next World War (Eamon Dolan/Mariner Books). Finished August 24.

Fascinating near-future military techno-thriller about a Chinese attack on the USA in order to secure massive oil reserve under the Pacific Ocean. The authors combine canny extrapolation about technology with a crowded cast of characters and a narrative that moves in rapid bursts where each chapter is just a handful of pages, the POV always shifting. If this hasn’t already been optioned for a movie or mini series, then Hollywood is missing out.

33. Doctorow, Cory. Walkaway: a Novel (Tor Books). Finished September 5.

I always like and rarely love Doctorow’s novels, and this one is no exception. The difficulty I face is that there are so many different stories trapped inside one book: it’s a book about post-automation economics and what happens when a world of easy plenty is in conflict with older notions of property; it’s a book about the singularity and what it means to upload your consciousness; it’s a book about gender identity and race. It’s a lot… and the parts don’t add up to anything more than the whole. I’m not sad that I read it, but nothing that changed my world view… which is what I want from science fiction.

34. Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper). Finished September 14.

Holy smokes did this take me a long time. It wasn’t in Kahneman territory, but SHEESH. I started reading the book on June 27, and over the course of the intervening months took several breaks.

On the other hand, I also took 21 pages of notes. It’s a fascinating and wide-ranging history of humanity from when homo sapiens first walked across the African planes to the arrival of money as a kind of operating system for cultures, and I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.

35. Stephenson, Neal and Nicole Galland. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., a Novel (William Morrow). Finished September 27.

Terrific, hard-to-describe, IMMENSE and often very funny 742-page science fiction, time travel story about an attempt to go back to the past in order to save magic from dying at the birth of the age of science.

36. Asaro, Catherine. The Bronze Skies (Skolian Empire Series Book 8) (Baen Books). Finished October 2.

An enjoyable new addition to Asaro’s long-running half romance/ half space opera, although set in the earlier half of the series. One interesting departure is that Asaro writes this (and its predecessor) in the first person rather than her usual third person “free indirect discourse.”

37. Hoffman, Bob. Bad Men: How Advertising Went from a Minor Annoyance to a Major Menace (Type A Group). Finished October 14.

A small but mighty 79-page polemic against ad:tech and everything that’s wrong with it, which is a considerable amount, particularly from the privacy point of view. I loved Hoffman’s other book, Marketers are from Mars; Consumers are from New Jersey, a year or two ago, and Bad Men is just as good. I read it having just come from the Data + Marketing Association’s annual conference — an organization that only merits one brief mention alongside repeated diatribes against the ANA, 4As and IAB — so the issues of data use and misuse by marketers was already very much on my mind. Hoffman’s clarity — remove tracking and most of the problems with ad:tech go away — is refreshing. 

38. Galloway, Scott. The Four: the Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google (Portfolio). Finished October 20.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing Galloway interviewed at a conference and enjoy his appearances on the Re/Code podcast with Kara Swisher. He is always provocative, insightful and so very, very snarky. This book, his first, reads a lot like he sounds, which is both good and bad. On the good side, I breezed through the book, merrily underlining and making marginal comments. On the down side, I took not a page of notes, which is unusual for me. The book is heavier on snark than it is on research. Galloway trades on his status as a teacher at NYU, but the book is more of an immense blog post than a work with academic substance. The las chapter about entrepreneurship may be the most enduring, which isn’t a surprise since Galloway himself has been a successful serial entrepreneur.

39. Leckie, Ann. Provenance (Orbit). Finished October 25.

I ADORED Leckie’s “Ancillary” trilogy, so I was delighted to learn about this new novel set in a far-flung corner of the same fictional universe. While the trilogy was a trio of home runs, the new book is merely a base hit. Solid space opera with thoughtful and coherent world building and engaging characters, the weakness was in the anemic plot.

40. Bujold, Lois McMaster. The Prisoner of Lemnos: a Penric and Desdemona Story (Subterranean Press and self-published via Amazon and iBooks). Finished October 29.

One definition of happiness is the release of anything new by Bujold. Although her novels come achingly slow, she has been exploding with Penric and Desdemona novellas (#9, #30) for the last couple of years, to my intense delight.

As with Ben Aaronovitch’s last piece (#28), an interesting feature of the Penric novellas is the business model. I paid $3.99 last night to buy this on iBooks — or to buy a license for it since it’s an ebook — and I presume that 70% of that money went to Bujold, or roughly $2.80 after Apple’s 30% commission. If she sells ten thousand of these, then that’s $28K. At forty thousand that’s $112K. Given her celebrity, I’m guessing it’s closer to forty thousand. And she’s also selling premium printed editions for those diehard fans. This is a nice piece of income, particularly if she can do it multiple times per year.

However, I suspect this is an at-best secondary revenue stream that is parasitic on the larger reputation from her sold-in-bookstore novels in the various series? In other words, this sort of author/reader DTC model is the happy result of salience in the marketplace but it does not in and of itself create or amplify that salience. At least that is my guess.

41. Connelly, Michael. Two Kinds of Truth: a Bosch Novel (Little, Brown). Finished November 3.

Much as I loved Connelly’s last novel, with the new Renee Ballard character, I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of his Harry Bosch stories. Unlike Sherlock Holmes or many other detectives, Bosch has aged over the years and over the novels, now in his late 60s or early 70s, forcibly retired from the LAPD but still working as a detective on a volunteer basis for the San Fernando PD. The cast of secondary characters remains vibrant, and also filled with ongoing tension. The relationship between Bosch and Mickey Heller, his half brother and star of the “Lincoln Lawyer” novels, is convincingly fraternal, with affection, respect and conflict. As usual, I inhaled this book over the course of two or three days. 

42. Olson, Erika S. Zero-Sum Game: the Rise of the World’s Largest Derivatives Exchange (Wiley). Finished November 20.

I don’t understand futures or derivatives as well as I’d like to, and the rise of exchanges for bitcoin at the CME Group and its competitors brought my lack of understanding into focus. Olson’s book is a memoir about how the Chicago Mercantile Exchange acquired the Chicago Board of Trade in 2007, with a helpful introduction to how these exchanges function built into the narrative.

43. Newitz, Annalee. Autonomous: a Novel (Tor Books). Finished November 25, 2017.

This just-released and consistently interesting near-future dystopian science fiction novel is 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 #20). 

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 gives 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 Maguffin wasn’t a big surprise, but it was nonetheless 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.

44. Eastland, Sam. Eye of the Red Tsar: a Novel of Suspense (Bantam). Finished November 30.

See #49.

45. Alter, Adam. Irresistible: the rise of additive technology and the business of keeping us hooked (Penguin Press). Finished December 7.

Back in the 1980s the pro-gun lobby’s slogan was “guns don’t kill people: people kill people,” arguing that guns are neutral tools. I wasn’t sympathetic to that argument at the time because it’s easier to kill another person if you happen to have a custom-built tool for that purpose ready to hand.

Along those lines, Alter’s book usefully argues that the technologies we rely on to run our lives — particularly smart phones and social media — are not neutral tools but deliberately-engineered addictions. The book is a three-part endeavor: first, Alter explores and explains the nature of addiction generally; then, he makes the compelling case that many forms of technology qualify as addiction, and finally he articulates a number of ways his readers can both break the tech addictions and also avoid getting hooked in the first place. 

A handy, convincing and pretty-darned scary book.

46. Weir, Andy. Artemis: a Novel (Crown). Finished December 15.

Despite the advice of several friends I could never bring myself to read Weir’s celebrated first novel The Martian (nor see the Matt Damon film) because I found the idea so disturbing– a novel-length version of the classic Poe story “The Premature Burial.” Ack!

Weir’s new book, Artemis, is a delightful hard science fiction romp where Jazz, a smuggler of whom Han Solo would be proud, gets involved in a complex caper on Earth’s fully-colonized, multicultural moon. Complex characterization meets intricately thought out tech and culture in a very near future.

47. Trillin, Calvin. Alice, Let’s Eat: Further Adventures of a Happy Eater (Random House). Finished December 15.

I’ve been aware of Trillin as a writer for many years but never took the time to wade into his delicious prose until David Brooks — a writer I enjoy but with whom I rarely agree — mentioned Trillin’s books about eating in a recent New York Times piece where columnists recommend books to each other. “This strikes me as the perfect season to go back and read some of Calvin Trillin’s hilarious food books. They remind one, in these shadowy times, that the world can be savory and amusing, and still worth rising out of bed for.”

I found Alice, Let’s Eat in my local library and proceeded to irritate my family with non-stop chuckles, giggles and the occasional guffaw. Trillin’s pose as an enthusiastic glutton pitted against the sensible caution — and desire to see parts of the world besides restaurants in their travels — of his wife Alice is an inexhaustible narrative device. A glum mood evaporated once I opened the book, and I now have Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: forty years of funny stuff on my desk to be savored as one of my first books in 2018.

48. Eastland, Sam. Shadow Pass: a Novel of Suspense (Bantam). Finished December 20.

See #49.

49. Eastland, Sam. Archive 17: a Novel of Suspense (Bantam). Finished December 26.

Having read the first three of Eastman’s Pekkala novels in less than a month — the third in less than a day — I’m of two minds. 

On one hand, the books are fast-paced and easily inhaled; the early Soviet setting with flashbacks to the end of the Tsarist regime are powerfully researched, and Pekkala, the Finnish protagonist who is the most-feared detective in the Soviet Union has an uncanny, Holmes-like quality that is compelling. 

On the other hand, the Holmes comparison does have drawbacks. Pekkala in the third book seems to have sedimented into a series of narrative gestures. Like Holmes, Pekkala does not possess much in the way of interiority, not a lot of subjective experience. The mission to serve justice is all that is there. In this third book, Pekkala realizes that he was betrayed by his old master the Tsar in the latter days before the Russian Revolution, but that betrayal has no impact on the plot nor on the character’s ways of thinking at the end of the story. I’m therefore becoming less interested in Pekkala because I don’t think I’ll ever get his story, even though he is vexed by the loss of his one true love, Ilya, and feels guilty about not showing his affection for his faithful, Watson-like assistant, Kirov. Recommended by Peter Horan.

50. Mehta, Kumar. The Innovation Biome: a Sustained Business Environment Where Innovation Thrives (River Grove Books). Finished December 28.

If you are lucky enough to have a local bookstore in which to throw rocks, then you can’t throw a rock in a bookstore without it caroming off at least two books about innovation in business. My library at home is full of them, some of which are useful and some of which disappoint.  Professionally, I’ve also participated in innovation workshops, mentored at startup incubators affiliated with brands like Pepsi and Nike, and helped to produce entire events devoted to innovation. So I have some expertise within which to evaluate innovation thinking.

What sets Kumar Mehta’s book apart from most innovation treatises is its practicality and applicability. Mehta usefully identifies different levels and styles of corporate endeavor and how those do and do not match different forms of innovation. He also maps out how to avoid GMOOT (“Get Me One Of Those!”) and other shiny object digressions in favor of creating manageable and measurable “biomes” or environments where innovation can thrive. He also provides clearsighted ways to approach innovation, what to avoid, and how to evaluate what you’ve got once you get it. 

Most books like these are covert brochures for consultancies where key parts of the described process are left out because the desired result of anybody reading the book is for the reader to hire the consultant. While I certainly foresee businesses engaging Mehta for help understanding and nurturing their own innovation biomes as an accelerant, everything a reader needs to know to make productive use of Mehta’s ideas is right there in the book. This is rare.

And that’s the 50.

What this list doesn’t reflect are re-reads — often late night visits with old friends — or partial reads, nor does it show the disapproving stacks and shelves of books that I haven’t yet managed to finish.

But there’s always 2018.

Death Star Scenario: Amazon Prime Bank

If Amazon decided to move into the world of commercial banking, would the company then revolutionize how people relate to their money as profoundly and irrevocably as it has already changed how people read?

Why do I pose this question? A provocative finding from our forthcoming Future of Money and Banking report inspired it: when we asked if Americans would consider doing their banking with companies that weren’t traditional banks, the top selection was Amazon at 35 percent. (Google was next at 28 percent.)

As we explored the implications of this finding, it became clear that Amazon could have as devastating an impact on banks as it has on bookstores.

Amazon has no plans (or at least no public plans) to provide financial services to consumers. However, given that customers trust Amazon with an ever-increasing amount of their purchases, why shouldn’t they trust the company to help them manage the money they spend there?

The easiest way to see this potential threat to traditional banking is to apply the three-part strategy that Amazon has used over and over again:

Part 1: Innovate around a product or business and reduce costs to customers.

Part 2: Transform the product itself.

Part 3: Turn the transformed product into a platform that others can also use. (#3 was famously the case with Amazon Web Services.)

Transforming the bookstore

With books, Amazon (Part 1) created an online store for physical books with a better selection than any offline bookstore, subsidized prices to make the books cheaper than at any offline bookstore, and offered speedy or sometimes free delivery.

Then (Part 2), Amazon launched the Kindle, which transformed physical books into digital books at a broader scale with a greater selection than any of the previous ebook companies (like the Sony Reader or the Rocket eBook); it also provided free wireless connectivity for instant downloads and an endless storefront to create awareness at the bookstore where millions already shopped: Amazon.

Finally (Part 3), Amazon opened up the Kindle platform for authors to create new, Kindle-first works that might not have any paper-book equivalents at all.

From Whole Foods to Whole Everything

Although it’s still early days, Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods seems to be following the same strategy.

We already know that once the deal closed, Amazon immediately (1) reduced “Whole Paycheck’s” famously high prices, added Echo (Alexa) and Kindle devices, pickup lockers, and popup stores to the larger Whole Foods stores, and began applying its legendary logistical expertise to home delivery.

Next (2), it’s widely expected that Amazon will integrate Alexa and the connected home with users’ Whole Foods kitchens and grocery lists, transforming how people think about and buy their food when Alexa reminds them that they’re low on milk, or that based on the ingredients they already have in the house they can make a bouillabaisse with just two more things that Whole Foods can deliver in an hour.

Then (3), Amazon will add other still more services to their Whole Foods retail locations, both Amazon-owned and independent, but powered by Amazon’s logistics. For example, the company has already started edging into the pharmacy business, and it will add even more services. The rest of the pharmacy business finds Amazon’s rumored entry to be so alarming that it has precipitated pre-emptive action like CVS’s bid to acquire Aetna for $69 billion.

Towards the future and Amazon’s No-Fees Prime Bank

With banks, Amazon can deploy the same three-part strategy.

1) If Amazon enters the consumer-facing financial services market, presumably as another included benefit of Amazon Prime membership, then the first thing that Amazon would do is create small branches at the larger Whole Foods locations for the slender percentage of people who prefer to do their banking face to face in real life.

The second innovation would be revolutionary: Amazon would reduce costs to customers by eliminating all overdraft, monthly service and out-of-network ATM fees.

A no-fee policy would attract millions of “unbanked” Americans who cannot afford bank fees and instead use payday lenders and check cashing services. (University of Pennsylvania Professor Lisa Servon brilliantly explores this in her 2017 book, The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives.)

In addition to the unbanked, millions of “banked” Americans would promptly switch to Amazon Prime. Our studies have found that lower fees or interest rates are the number one consideration (63 percent) when people think about switching banks. The distant second-most-popular reason for switching was better online or mobile services at 33 percent.

It might not sound believable that Amazon would eliminate the fees that other banks find addictive, but remember that Amazon has a long history of operating parts of its business unprofitably in order to drive higher transaction activity elsewhere. For two examples, Amazon sold the Kindles at a loss for years (and may still), and it loses money on Amazon Prime two-day shipping but makes up for that loss because Prime members buy nearly twice as much annually as non-Prime customers.

A no-fees Amazon Prime Bank would attract more members to Amazon Prime itself, dramatically increasing transactions across Amazon and Whole Foods. Amazon Prime Bank would also make money the way conventional banks did in the past, by investing the money and making it grow.  Amazon would also use the increased exposure to its customers to drive their attention back to Amazon and the purchasing opportunities that await them there.

2) Amazon would then transform how its bank works compared to conventional banks. One early change would be to link Alexa to every Prime Bank customer’s bank account, making conversational bank queries and transfers easy. For the few sorts of transactions that require a face-to-face meeting — for example, getting something notarized — Amazon could deliver a notary to wherever the customer is, rather than insisting that customers come to a small physical branch at their local Whole Foods. Amazon could also create drone-powered moving ATMs that would fly to wherever the customer is, dropping from the sky to provide the requested cash and then zooming away.

Amazon could also transition a great deal of banking into virtual reality, creating an always-open virtual bank where customers could manage their different accounts, send and receive money, consult “face to face” with virtual bankers to get financial advice or apply for loans and mortgages without leaving their homes or offices.

3) Finally, Amazon would turn its new bank into a platform for helping its customers with other financial tasks.

Amazon would either launch its own credit service — not VISA, MasterCard or American Express but a new AmazonCard — or (less likely) it might acquire Discover. At the time of this writing, Discover has a market cap (per Google) of $27 billion, or roughly twice what Amazon paid to acquire Whole Foods.

If Amazon launched or acquired a credit service, then doing so would save the 1.43 percent to 3.5 percent commission it currently pays on every transaction. According to Statista, Amazon’s ecommerce revenue was just under $136 billion in 2016, and two percent of that is around $2.7 billion. Even if Amazon spent a billion dollars marketing its new AmazonCard, the credit service would pay for itself in just a few years.

In addition, Amazon would then have insight into all the data surrounding AmazonCard members’ purchases outside of Amazon.

If Amazon provides its customers with the usual banking services and credit cards, then it’s likely to launch additional, complementary services, perhaps under an umbrella “Amazon Money” brand.

These services would include Amazon versions of money management software like Quicken or Quickbooks, as well as mortgage services and 401Ks or IRAs for people who currently don’t think they can have them.

If Amazon is managing so much of its customers’ finances — purchases, savings, credit cards, online bill pay — then it might also provide free tax preparation to its customers. As Alexa’s artificial intelligence matures, it could automatically recognize business expenses, medical expenses, tax deductions and more as customers made them over the course of the year, eliminating the tedious paper chase the disorganized multitude face a few weeks before every April 15th.

CPAs might find their businesses shrinking rapidly if Amazon can automatically organize and file its customers’ taxes in the background, depositing any returns directly into the right Amazon Prime Bank account. In just a few short years we could find ourselves saying, “Alexa, please file my taxes.”

The biggest impact of this hypothesized Amazon Prime Bank would be on Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Chase, Citi and others. If these banks want to avoid the grim fate of Borders Books & Music, then they will need to reexamine both their lockstep, undifferentiated product offerings as well as their predatory reliance on charging their customers incomprehensible and unpredictable fees to drive profit at the expense of loyalty and service.

Today, Americans have limited options when it comes to banks. They can go to one of the global banks, to a local independent or credit union, to one of the small, innovative mobile-first banks like Chime or Simple, or they can be unbanked and rely on payday lenders and other expensive but predictable services. If Amazon launches its own bank, then people will have a truly viable alternative with scale and benefits that other banks simply cannot match.

The best outcome for the big banks is if I’m completely wrong in these predictions.

But I don’t think I am.

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

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.