The Fall and Rise of the Visual Internet

I’m pleased to announce that my role with the Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg has expanded, and I’m now the Chief Strategy Officer. This column is cross-posted from the Center’s website, and is the first of many regular pieces from me and my colleagues. And now, onto the column… 

Bennett and I have been friends since we were eight. Over a recent late-night dessert we compared notes about how thinly spread we each felt across work, family and life. Bennett then shared an insight from a counselor he sees: “Y’know how in Kung-Fu movies the hero stands in the center and all the villains gather into a circle around him and take turns attacking him one by one? Life isn’t like that.”

Neither is technology.

Technologies don’t take turns arriving in our lives. Instead, they’re locked in a Darwinian struggle to clutch and hold onto a niche in our lives. Sometimes it’s a head-to-head struggle, like VCR versus Betamax, where the differences are slight and one technology wins because of marketing and luck. Sometimes different trends slam into each other and that collision creates a new thing — like the way that mobile phones ate digital cameras, email, notebooks, calendars, music collections, powerful microprocessors, decent battery life, email and the web to become smart phones.

A new collision is gaining velocity with the emergence of digital assistants and heads-up display. Both new technologies are changing how users interact with information, particularly visual information. As these technologies give users new ways to behave, those behavior changes will pressurize the business models and financial health of digital media companies, particularly ad-supported companies.

Voice-Interfaces Reduce Visual Interaction

Even though newer Echo devices have screens and touch interfaces, the most compelling use case is eyes free and hands free for Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri in the HomePod, and the Google Assistant in Google Home.

For example, I often use my Echo device when I’m doing the dishes to catch up on the day’s events by asking, “Alexa, what’s in the news?” Or, if I’m about to wade deep into thought at my desk and don’t want to miss a conference call starting an hour later I’ll ask Alexa to “set a timer for 55 minutes.”

I’m a failure at voice-driven commerce because I have yet to ask Alexa to buy anything from Amazon, but I have used IFTTT (the “If This, Then That” service that connects different devices and services) to connect Alexa to my to-do list so that I can add something just by speaking, which spares me from dropping everything to grab my phone or (gasp!) a pen and paper.

Alexa’s answers are pleasantly clutter-free. If I use my desktop computer to search Amazon for the latest John Grisham novel, then along with a prominent link to Camino Island, Amazon serves up a results page with 24 distracting other things that I can buy, as well as hundreds of other links. With Alexa, I just get Camino Island. (With commodity products, unless you specify a brand Amazon will send you its generic house brand: CPG advertisers beware!)

Right now, most queries to smartphone-based digital assistants result in a list of results that I have to look at, switching my attention from ears to eyes, but as these rudimentary artificial intelligences get better my need to look at a screen will decline. Today, if I say, “Hey Siri, where’s a Peet’s coffee near me?” the AI will tell me the address and ask me if I want to call or get directions. If I choose “directions,” then I have to look at my phone. In a short amount of time, Siri will seamlessly transition to Apple Maps and speak turn-by-turn directions, so I won’t have to look away from the road.

The challenge the rise of voice interfaces poses for ad-supported digital companies is that those companies make their money from propinquity— from the background clutter that is near the thing I’m looking at or searching for but that isn’t the thing I’m looking at or searching for.

Google, Facebook, the New York Times, AOL (excuse me, “Oath”), Reddit, Tumblr, Bing, LinkedIn, and others make much of their money from banners, pop-up ads, search results and other things we see but often don’t consciously notice: that is, online display adverting.

Amazon’s Alexa can already read news stories aloud in a smooth, easy-to-follow voice. It won’t be long until all the digital assistants can do so, and can navigate from article to article, site to site without users having to look at anything.

We can listen to only one thing at a time, so there aren’t background ads for Siri, Alexa and their ilk. Moreover, despite decades of conditioning to accept interruptive ads in radio, it’ll be game over the moment Alexa or Siri or Google Assistant says, “I’ll answer your question, but first please listen to this message from our friends at GlaxoSmithKline.”

The most powerful ad blocker turns out to be a switch from eyes to ears as the primary sense for media interaction. As voice-interface digital assistants grow in popularity and capability, the volume of visual inventory for these businesses will erode.

This erosion follows the decline in visual inventory that already happened as users moved most of their computing time to the smaller screens of mobile devices with less visual geography and therefore less room for ads.

In a recent Recode Decode interview, marketing professor and L2 founder Scott Galloway observed, “advertising has become a tax that the poor and the technologically illiterate pay.”

Since wealthier people will have voice-activated digital assistants first, that means that the people more exposed to visual advertising will have less disposable income and will therefore be less desirable targets for many advertisers. This creates more pressure on the display-ad-based media economy.

On the other hand, remember the Kung Fu movie quip? There’s another technology making changes in the visual internet at the same time.

Smart Glasses Increase Visual Interaction

Smart glasses are, simply, computer screens that you wear over your eyes. In contrast with voice-interfaces that are already popular in phones and with speakers, smart glasses haven’t become a big hit because they’re expensive, battery life is limited, and many people get nervous around other people wearing cameras on their faces all the time. (Early Google Glass enthusiasts were sometimes dubbed “glassholes.”)

Some pundits think that just because Google Glass didn’t sweep the nation it means that all smart glasses are doomed to failure. But just as Apple’s failed Newton (1993) presaged the iPhone 14 years later (2007), Google Glass is merely an early prototype for a future technology hit.

Smart glasses come in a spectrum that gets more immersive: augmented reality puts relevant information in your peripheral vision (Google Glass), mixed reality overlays information onto your location that you can manipulate (Microsoft’s HoloLens, with Pokemon Go as a phone-based version), and virtual reality absorbs you into a 360 degree environment that has little relationship to wherever your body happens to be (Facebook’s Oculus Rift, HTC Vive). The overarching category is “Heads-Up Display” or HUD.

What’s important about HUDs is that they increase the amount of digital information in the user’s visual field: not just the visual inventory for ads (like in this clip from the film, “Minority Report“), but for everything.

Wherever you’re reading this column — on a computer, tablet, phone or paper printout — please stop for a moment and pay attention to your peripheral vision. I’m sitting at my desk as I write this. To my left is a window leading to the sunny outdoors. On my desk to the right are a scanner and a coffee cup. Papers lie all over the desk below the monitor, and there are post-it reminders and pictures on the wall behind the monitor. It’s a typical work environment.

If I were wearing a HUD, then all of that peripheral territory would be fair game for digital information pasted over the real world. That might be a good thing: I could have a “focus” setting on my HUD that grays out everything in my visual field that isn’t part of the window where I’m typing or the scattered paper notes about what I’m writing. If I needed to search for a piece of information on Google I might call a virtual monitor into existence next to my actual monitor and run the search without having to hide the text I’m writing. This is the good news version.

In the bad news version, ads, helpful suggestions, notifications, reminders and much more colonize the majority of my visual field: I think about those moments when my smart phone seems to explode with notifications, and then I imagine expanding that chaos to everything I can see. In some instances this might be a maddening cacophony, but others might be more subtle, exposing me to messages in the background at a high but not-irritating frequency in order to make the product more salient. (“I’m thirsty: I’ll have a Coke. Wait, I don’t drink soft drinks… how’d that happen?”) This isn’t as creepy as it sounds, like the old Vance Packard “subliminal advertising” bugaboo, it’s just advertising. Salience results from repetition.

Regardless of what fills the digital visual field, an explosion of visual inventory will be a smorgasbord of yummies for ad-supported media companies.

But there’s a twist.

Filters and the Decline of Shared Reality

Just sitting at my desk as I work is an overly-simplistic use case for wearing a HUD: the real differences in all their complexity come into focus once I leave my office to wander the world.

With Heads-Up Display, every surface becomes a possible screen for interactive information. That’s the output. Since the primary input channel will still be my voice, there’s a disparity between the thin amount of input I give and the explosion of output I receive. This is the digital assistant and HUD collision I mentioned earlier.

Walking in a supermarket, the labels on different products might be different for me than for the person pushing his cart down the aisle a few yards away. The supermarket might generate individualized coupons in real time that would float over the products in question and beckon. If my HUD integrated with my digital assistant, then I might be able to say, “Hey Siri, what can I make for dinner?” and have Siri show me what’s in the fridge and the pantry so that I can buy whatever else I need.

Smart glasses won’t just stick information on top of the reality on the other side of the lenses, they will also filter that reality in different ways.

We can see how this will work by looking at the technologies we already use. For example, businesses will compete to put hyper-customized articles, videos, and ads in front of you, similar to how ads pop-up on your Facebook page today. But these articles and ads will be everywhere you look, rather than contained on your laptop of phone. This is algorithmic filtering based on your past behavior.

Likewise, your digital assistant will insert helpful information into your visual field (such as the name of the person you’re talking with that you can’t remember) that you either ask for or that it anticipates you might find useful. The Google app on many smart phones already does versions of this, like reminding you to leave for the airport so that you aren’t late for your flight.

Finally, you’ll be able to add your own filters by hand, changing people’s appearances or names in real-time. If you’ve given one of your smart phone callers an individual ring tone, changed the name of a contact to something else (“What a Babe” or “Don’t Answer Him,”), or watched a teenager put a dog nose or kitty ears on top of a photo in Snapchat, then you’ve already seen primitive versions of this in action.

An unintended consequence of this visual explosion is the decline of shared reality. We already spend much of our time avoiding the world around us in favor of the tastier, easier world inside our smart phones. But even if the latest meme coming out of Instagram is the funniest thing we’ve ever seen, the majority of what surrounds us is still analog, still the flesh and blood world untouched by digital information.

That changes with HUDs.

In the near future where HUDs are common, you and I might stand side by side on the same street corner looking at the same hodgepodge of people, cars, buildings and signs — but seeing different things because we have idiosyncratic, real-time filters. Each of us will be standing on the same corner but living inside what Eli Pariser calls “filter bubbles” that have ballooned out to surround our entire worlds.

Common knowledge at this point becomes rare because a big part of common knowledge is its social component. In the words of Michael Suk-Young Chwe from his book Rational Ritual, a society’s integration is the result of coordinated activities built on a set of shared information and messages.

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.”

It has been challenging enough in our shared analog reality to achieve things like consensus in politics or word-of-mouth awareness in business. As we each move into new, idiosyncratically personalized environments where we don’t know what other people know, we’ll need to work harder to hear other voices than our own, to connect with each other as friends, family members, customers and citizens.

That may be a tall order.

WTF: How Quickly Will Reid Hoffman and Marc Pincus’ New Political Platform Get Hacked?

I had mixed emotions as I read yesterday’s Recode story by Tony Romm about how LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and Zynga founder Marc Pincus are creating a new political platform called “Win the Future” (shortened amusingly to “WTF”).

On one hand, I agree with so much of what they want to achieve: the two WTF founders “want to force Democrats to rewire their philosophical core, from their agenda to the way they choose candidates in elections — the stuff of politics, they said, that had been out of reach for most voters long before Donald Trump became president.”

That sounds great! Maybe, just maybe, the DNC will start to include White Working Class voters in its platform in a way that makes sense to those voters– and if you haven’t Joan C. Williams’ brilliant book on this topic then stop everything and go buy it right now.

But on the other hand, the Win the Future methodology has me crying “WTF?”

Think of WTF as equal parts platform and movement. Its new website will put political topics up for a vote — and the most resonant ideas will form the basis of the organization’s orthodoxy. To start, the group will query supporters on two campaigns: Whether or not they believe engineering degrees should be free to all Americans, and if they oppose lawmakers who don’t call for Trump’s immediate impeachment.

Participants can submit their own proposals for platform planks — and if they win enough support, primarily through likes and retweets on Twitter, they’ll become part of WTF’s political DNA, too. Meanwhile, WTF plans to raise money in a bid to turn its most popular policy positions into billboard ads that will appear near airports serving Washington, D.C., ensuring that “members of Congress see it,” Pincus said.

I immediately thought of what happened in the brief life of Tay, Microsoft’s AI which existed on Twitter, when a massive of mischievous Twitter users overwhelmed Tay with racist, sexist and political tweets and corrupted the AI in less than a day.

And it’s not just AIs that can flamed, trolled and subverted by participants with either mischief or genuine hate on their minds. Just look at the vituperative comments below any online newspaper article, especially if it’s about politics, or what happens when you post something political on your Facebook timeline and that old friend of yours — who one day moved to the other side of the political spectrum when you weren’t paying attention — regurgitates talking points from her or his favorite extreme political website while not engaging directly with whatever you were saying. (If you found yourself offended by that last sentence, dear reader, please look back and notice that I didn’t identify any particular party: this is a projection test; did you fail?)

Reasoned discourse is at a premium these days.

One way to pre-emptively fight the trolls who are a-comin’ would be to make WTF a verified online platform where users not only use their real names (a la Facebook and LinkedIn) but also get reviewed by the user base with five stars or thumbs-up/thumbs-down (a la eBay and Yelp). However, that sort of crowd-based policing also has its limits, as anybody who has ever tried to get a factual error on Wikipedia corrected will attest. An army of enthusiastic volunteers has a scale that dwarfs a small cluster of paid professionals, but that doesn’t necessarily lead to accuracy or fairness.

I’m also worried about how frictionless the WTF platform seems to be from the sparse details in the Recode piece. Voting about some issue on a website with the click of a mouse or on a smart phone with the swipe of a finger doesn’t require much commitment, whereas real political change does.

Democracy, in other words, is messy, expensive and people driven. Algorithms can help but not replace lots of humans working together.

Hoffman and Marcus are a couple of brilliant guys, so I have hope that they’re way ahead of me on this.

Eventually, if we’re lucky, crying WTF will mean something quite different.

CES 2017 for Brands: a Skeptical Review

Most years at CES you can spot me leading tours, and most years after the show is over I sit down to ponder what I made of it all, what the pundits got right and what they missed.

While in past years I’ve given presentations on these things, this year I wrote it up for my friends at The Ascendant Network– private to their online group until today.

You can find the PDF here.

My 2016 in Books

This is the third 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 write on either the last day of the old year or the first of the new.

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

A lot of folks in my line of work spend the waning moments of one year gazing out with predictions about the months ahead, and I’ll be doing plenty of that soon — most publicly at CES where I’ll be leading tours next week. However, I’m not only a futurist, I’m also a historian — a “futuristorian” — and so I look back as well as forward.

Looking back on what I read and when I read it helps me to track each year’s intellectual journey similar to how looking back at old emails or social media posts or journal entries can help me to pinpoint what I was thinking, when and often where.  This year, one change from previous years is that I read more physical books than e-books.

So much of the recent news and social media torrent has been about how 2016 was a crappy year (John Oliver did a great job starting this meme).  I prefer to think of it as a profound challenge, and amidst the challenges I read many wonderful books that I’m pleased to share.  One new feature: at the end I’ll list a few of the books I have on deck for the first part of 2017.

For folks who just want the list without the thoughts after reading, here’s the short version:

  1. Polanyi, Michael. The Tacit Dimension.  
  2. Bach, Rachel. Honor’s Knight. 
  3. Edgerton, David. The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900.
  4. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (Vorkosigan series).  
  5. Grant, Adam. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. 
  6. Bear, Elizabeth. Karen Memory.  
  7. Dunstall, S.K. Alliance: A Linesman Novel.
  8. Nisbett, Richard E. Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking.
  9. Rushkoff, Douglas. Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity.
  10. Connelly, Michael. Echo Park: A Harry Bosch Novel. 
  11. Connelly, Michael. The Crossing: a Bosch Novel.
  12. Sacks, Oliver. Gratitude.  
  13. Thaler, Richard H. & Cass R. Sunstein. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Heath, Wealth, and Happiness. (Revised & Expanded Edition.) 
  14. Case, Steve. The Third Wave: an Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future.
  15. Wallace, David Foster. This is Water; Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. 
  16. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric & the Shaman.
  17. Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. 
  18. Riordan, Rick. Blood of Olympus.
  19. Levitin, Daniel J. The Organized Mind. 
  20. Lee, Sharon & Steve Miller. Alliance of Equals (Liaden Universe.) 
  21. Riordan, Rick. The Trials of Apollo: Book One, The Hidden Oracle.
  22. Vance, J.D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.  
  23. Shafer, David. Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot: A Novel.
  24. Chiang, Ted. Stories of Your Life and Others.
  25. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric’s Mission. 
  26. Connelly, Michael. The Wrong Side of Goodbye: a Bosch Novel.
  27. Schwab, Klaus. The Fourth Industrial Revolution.
  28. Krasny, Michael. Let There be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What it all Means. More Than 100 of the Funniest Jewish of all Time.  
  29. Levitin, Daniel J. A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age.
  30. Lewis, Michael. The Undoing Project: a Friendship that Changed Our Minds.
  31. Sawyer, Robert J. Hominids: Volume One of The Neanderthal Parallax.
  32. Gibbs, Stuart. Spy Ski School. 
  33. Perzanowski, Aaron and Jason Schultz. The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital Economy

I read fewer books in 2016 than the whopping 56 of 2015, and less fiction than usual, which shows how busy my head has been with work and other matters.

Here’s the longer version with thoughts, occasional snarky remarks and analysis:

1.  Polanyi, Michael.  The Tacit Dimension.  Finished January 1, 2016.

Polanyi was a mid-twentieth century polymath, and this brief 1966 book came out of a series of lectures at Yale in 1962. The most useful for folks in 2017 are the first two.

In “Tacit Knowing,” Polanyi talks about how we can know more than we can say, and discusses a number of psychological experiments where subjects use information that they understand tacitly but cannot explain explicitly when asked to do so.  

Tacit Knowledge is an important idea for our digital era where more and more things can be tagged, identified, tracked and known. We have ever more that we can say but not necessarily an equally speedy increase in what we can know… and vice versa.

in the second Terry lecture, “Emergence,” Polanyi extends the concept of the leap to show how concepts emerge out of hierarchies, where the emerged form cannot be anticipated from the lower form, as a set of grammatical rules cannot anticipate poetry. In this thinking, Polanyi anticipates by decades recent discussions about moving up and down technological stacks and how innovation builds on platforms.

2. Bach, Rachel.  Honor’s Knight Finished January 3, 2016.

Sequel to Fortune’s Pawn, which I read in 2014.  This would be entirely conventional space opera if the protagonist were male, but because Deviana “Devi” Morris is a woman, it’s more interesting.  Like many trilogies (e.g. “Empire Strikes Back”) this one is pure action and stops right in the middle, tantalizing the reader to go read the 3rd, which I might do if it’s in my local library, as this one was.

3. Edgerton, David.  The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900.  Finished January 25, 2016.  (While on a plane to a conference in Cincinnati.)

This fascinating book challenges innovation-centric thinking by exploring the impact of technologies in use rather than when new devices and services first come over the horizon.  “Our technological museums, with their emphasis on first design, tied to miss out on the extraordinary life stories of the objets they have” (38).

Edgerton focuses on maintenance as well as invention, highlighting how our attitudes toward technology today differ from prior eras: “In the 1920s a Ford Model T buyer ‘never regarded his purchase as a complete finished product. When you bought a Ford you figured you had a start — a vibrant, spirited framework to which could be screwed on almost limitless assortment of decorative and functional hardware’” (97). This is both similar to and different than today’s smart phones with limitless apps and customization opportunities, but few people get under the hoods of their phones and computers. In this, Edgerton’s argument reminds me of Jonathan Zittrain’s arguments about generativity in The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.

4. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (Vorkosigan series). Finished February 3, 2016.  

Anything by Bujold is a cause for celebration, and a new entry in the Vorkosigan series can provoke a Snoopy-like happy dance. Bujold is my favorite living science fiction writer, and this series is magnificent and sublime. No spoilers: ping me if you want a hint about where to jump onto this terrific ride.

5.  Grant, Adam. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.  Finished 2/19/16.

I loved Grant’s first book, Give and Take, and so I snapped this one up the moment I saw it.  Like the first book, Grant is a stellar writer who could have a second life writing fiction. In Originals, his insights about how things as seemingly-trivial as birth order determine choices, risk aversion and achievements later in life can cut to the bone in a spooky way. This book combines canny analysis with practical, applicable ideas: I wish it had a companion volume or app that would make some of the thinking more easily deployable… something I also think about books #8 and #29.

6. Bear, Elizabeth. Karen Memory.  Finished 3/5/16.

Pacific Northwest Steampunk.  This was genuinely interesting sci-fi that left me wanting to read more by Bear, and I hope for more from the protagonist, a prostitute with an appetite for adventure in an alternate-universe Seattle.

7. Dunstall, S.K. Alliance: A Linesman Novel. Finished March 25, 2016.

This is the second book in the Linesman series: not as good as the first because it was quieter after the sprezzatura world-building of #1.  I remembered the first well but not perfectly, which inhibited my pleasure a bit while reading the second. I look forward to reading #3, which came out when I wasn’t looking in November.

8. Nisbett, Richard E. Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking. Finished March 26, 2016.

Brilliant and useful and worth a second read as it ties into a bunch of other reading and thinking over the past couple of years.  Many psychologists perform experiments about how flawed we are as thinkers, how irrelevant facets of a story can influence our decisions, and how bad we are at making the distinction between something that is plausible (a good story) and probably (likely).  Nisbett’s “mindware” are rules and tools to help us think more effectively, or at least be aware of biases as we muddle through our lives.

9. Rushkoff, Douglas. Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity. Finished April 8, 2016.

Fascinating and important: Doug Rushkoff is one of those courageous thinkers who tackles foundational presumptions to shake our thinking into new shapes.  The foundational idea that he tackles at the core of Throwing Rocks is that corporations need to grow in order to survive. This hasn’t always been the case (nor have corporations), and the practical consequences of adopting grow-or-die as the operating system for companies is that individual liberty and prosperity becomes subservient to the health of corporations.

Speaking of companies like Uber, AirBNB, Spotify and others, Rushkoff observers “As private companies induce us to become sharers, we contribute our own cars, creativity, and couches to a sharing economy that is more extractive than it is circulatory. Our investments of time, place, and materials are exploited by those who have invested money and actually own the platforms” (218). You won’t think about Uber and the like in the same way after reading this book.

10. Connelly, Michael.  Echo Park: A Harry Bosch Novel Finished April 16, 2016.

Devoured in less than 24 hours, on a quick trip to L.A. to give a dinner keynote. This is the 12th Harry Bosch novel, published in 2006.  I haven’t been a completionist with this series, and the last one I read was The Burning Room at the end of 2014.  That leaves me with The Crossing as the most-recently published that I haven’t read…

11. Connelly, Michael. The Crossing: a Bosch Novel. Finished April 21, 2016.

The Harry Bosch novel published in November of 2016, which I got out of the library Tuesday afternoon and inhaled. This one also features Mickey Haller from the Lincoln Lawyer series, although we see the story from Bosch’s POV.  Connelly is amazing with both character and plot, hence the momentum. He’s also daring with having his main character change over time (like Lois McMaster Bujold with Miles Vorkosigan). Unlike Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who is a bag of tics and a narrative function, Bosch changes over time. In this book, Bosch is facing his life after a second retirement from the LAPD and what to do with himself (also as an about-to-be empty nester). 

Reading these two Bosch books back to back also inspired me to watch the terrific Amazon Prime TV adaptation, Bosch.

12. Sacks, Oliver. Gratitude.  Finished 17 May, 2016.  

A little book with big ideas and emotions: it collects Sacks’ last four essays, originally published in The New York Times, written between the time he got his terminal cancer diagnosis and his death.  He was such a beautiful writer, and I’m pleased that my wife Kathi gave me this inspiring little collection for the 2015 holidays.

13. Thaler, Richard H. & Cass R. Sunstein. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Heath, Wealth, and Happiness. (Revised and Expanded Edition.) Finished May 22, 2016.

I’ve been meaning to read this book for years, and that ambition was heightened when I read Thaler’s Misbehaving memoir last year.  A brilliant book about the social context of and need for deep thinking about default assumptions for all manner of situations, as well as how to change them via gentle “nudges” rather than strong mandates. The seeming paradox of “libertarian paternalism” takes an entire book to unwind, and although sometimes it is hard going the read repays the effort.  The authors’ notion of “choice architecture” is profoundly useful, and I’ll be thinking about it a lot… in particular in the context of the connected experiences at the heart of my current work.

14. Case, Steve. The Third Wave: an Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future. Finished 31 May, 2016.

This book was frustrating to read but has stuck with me in the months since I finished it.

Here’s a transcription of a notecard I scribbled on 5/26/16: “Generally book is platitudinous —> a good keyword to describe most biz books. Not enough concrete examples when he talks about the future, although plenty of the war stories.”

The word “platitudinous” is one happy result of a so-so book. Case’s Third Wave is a powerpoint with elephantiasis— the reverse of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” that was a book masquerading as an endless powerpoint presentation. 

The other happy result of reading Case is my idea that most business books are Thneeds, from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax… an idea that probably needs no teasing out. In Case’s case (ha), the “thneed” is the concept of “the third wave” itself, borrowed from Toffler and transmogrified into IoT.  

Two of Case’s most-useful insights are 1) that the need for infrastructure makes the third wave more similar to the internet’s first wave than to the social/mobile second wave, and 2) that third wave companies will need to partner more effectively with governments in order to succeed… unlike, say, Uber which has grown by ignoring government regulations until they get in trouble.

15. Wallace, David Foster. This is Water; Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. Finished 31 May, 2016.

An exquisite little book, which is the slightly revised text of DFW’s famous 2005 Kenyon College commencement address. I think I read the text online once before, and/or heard the audio, but I’ve been thinking about this talk lately and ordered the hard copy on Amazon in order to get it into my head more actively.  The highest compliment that I can give this book is that I’ll have to read it again soon in order to make sure that I’m paying attention to what it asks me to attend to.  

The reason I’ve been thinking about This is Water is that the thread of some other books I’ve been consuming have been more complicated versions of this, like Douglas Rushkoff’s operating systems in Throwing Rocks.

16.  Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric & the ShamanFinished June 28, 2016.

A brilliant novella in Bujold’s “Five Gods” universe that I bought, downloaded and inhaled in one day despite my hopes of stretching out the experience. This is fantasy rather than science fiction and the sequel to last year’s Penric’s Demon.

17.  Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. Finished July 2, 2016.

I picked this up after my friend John Willshire talked eloquently about Sennet’s work in a presentation I admired. I couldn’t get through it the first time I tried, but the second time I got hooked and wound up filling 18 notecards with enthusiastic observations and filling the book with marginalia and underlines.  

Sennett is brilliant and insightful, and his work resonates with my thinking about connected experiences, and particularly how using tools expands both our capabilities and our individual senses, leading us into new thinking: “We want to understand how tools can more generically engage us in large intuitive leaps into the unknown” (209),

18. Riordan, Rick. Blood of Olympus. Finished July 26, 2016.

This is the final book in the second Percy Jackson series, which I read because my son wanted me to do so. Although Riordan is always good, the second series was not nearly as good as the first: there are too many characters with a dizzying, constantly-switching POV.

19. Levitin, Daniel J. The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information OverloadFinished July 26, 2016.

This is a rare exception to my “first reads only” rule, but over the summer I realized that I hadn’t retained as much of this brilliant book the first time I read it last year… perhaps because I read it on the iPad. So I bought a paperback copy and dove back in, pencil in hand and a pile of notecards on the table beside me. The book rewarded a second read just as much as a first, which is rare.

The next phase of the digital revolution is going to put immense pressure on our notions of environments, place, transcending the limits of our bodies and more: Levitin’s book has informed my thinking about these matters. Moreover, his insights about how we all have a limited amount of decision-making energy each day have changed how I approach allowing many forms of stimulation into my life, particularly in the mornings.

20. Lee, Sharon & Steve Miller. Alliance of Equals. (Liaden Universe.) Finished August 14, 2016.

The latest in the Liaden series. I had to reread the prior (Dragon in Exile), as I didn’t remember it well.  As with the last Percy Jackson book, this suffers from an oversupply of plots & POVs and characters, but at least in this case the three main plots all share a theme of transition, becoming and arrival.

21. Riordan, Rick. The Trials of Apollo: Book One, The Hidden Oracle. Finished August 22, 2016.

This is the first book in the next series in Riordan’s Greek myth universe, and the difference between Riordan writing multiple points of view and containing himself to one is profound. Here, Apollo annoys Zeus to such an extent that the Thunder God banishes Apollo to live as a mortal on Earth. The fun of the book is that Apollo is an arrogant prick, which isn’t a huge surprise after being worshipped as a deity for millennia. The narrative engine is virtually identical to that of the 1960s Marvel comic adaptation of Thor, only played for laughs.

22.  Vance, J.D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.  Finished September 6, 2016.

This book has been a sensation, particularly around the vexing question of why middle class whites voted Republican in such overwhelming numbers in the last election despite it seeming to Democrats to be an act entirely against the self interest of those same voters.

I want to point out just two things: first, Vance never mentions President-Elect Trump by name or by direct inference, so the application to the election is more interpretive than some reviewers suggest. Second, the political application of this story is a distraction from a terrific read and a modern memoir of class that reminds me of classics like Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown and Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez.

23.  Shafer, David. Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot: A Novel. Finished October 30, 2016.

My friend Ari Popper recommended this agreeable novel, which is not to be confused with the similarly-titled book that was the source for the Tina Fey movie.

Shafer’s book has a weird “this is the overture: where’s the symphony?” quality. It almost feels like a prequel written long after a novel — the start of a beloved multi-volume action series — that exists to explain to loyal readers where the protagonists originally came from… sort of like if J.K, Rowling wrote the James and Lily Potter story, where the whole point of those two characters was to get killed by Voldemort in a way that empowered Harry.  

There was an interesting container versus the content aspect to this for me: the story kept getting more compelling but I noticed (because I have a paper copy rather than on the iPad) that even though the plot was ramping up I was running out of pages. “How can he resolve all this in the short amount of time he has left?” I think that if I’d been whizzing along reading it on the iPad — and didn’t look at the “you have read X% banner on the bottom — that I’d have felt quite cheated when I slammed into that ending.  I remember this sort of thing happening to me with an Elmore Leonard novel that was one of the first things I ever read on a Kindle where the story ended abruptly even though I had a bunch of % left to read, which was because there was a free preview of another novel. At least with the Shafer book I could see it coming.

24. Chiang, Ted. Stories of Your Life and Others. Finished November 5, 2016.

There aren’t that many people who make me think, “Gosh, why don’t they write MORE?” Chiang’s astonishing collection of sci-fi short stories did just that, and I’m grateful to my friend Mike Parker for recommending the book.

The title story has now been turned into the film Arrival, which I want to see it based on the source material.  The most personally compelling story to me was “Liking What You See: A Documentary” about lookism.

25. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric’s Mission. Finished November 12, 2016.

Third novella in Bujold’s newest fantasy series (see #16, above), delightful.

26. Connelly, Michael. The Wrong Side of Goodbye: a Bosch Novel. Finished November 13, 2016.

More Connelly: he’s just so good.  I started the iBooks sample on the elliptical machine at the gym, went home, bought it, and then inhaled most of it that same night, finishing it the following morning. Any mystery lover shouldn’t miss these.

27.  Schwab, Klaus. The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Finished November 16, 2016.

At a conference this fall my friend Tim Murphy recommended this book.  It’s an interesting and mercifully brief “behold the future!” volume written book by the founder and head of the World Economic Forum: it provoked a long set of index card notes.

The book can be frustrating with its dearth of evocative examples, which makes imaginatively seeing what Schwab is talking about hard, but reading it catalyzed a great deal of my own thinking, and perhaps led indirectly to this recent piece.

28. Krasny, Michael. Let There be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What it all Means. More Than 100 of the Funniest Jewish Jokes of all Time.  Finished November 26, 2016.

This is a breezy read by the host of KQED’s “Forum.” In an ungenerous mood I told my parents — who lent me the book — that the commentary is so shallow that it aspires to be fatuous, which was unfair but only a little. Krasny spends so much time on self-aggrandizing anecdotes about the celebrities he knows and has interviewed that it can be annoying.  

But he does have some good jokes.

I’ve long bemoaned that 1980 and 1990s identity politics and political correctness essentially killed joke-telling as a social lubricant. For my father and grandfather jokes were the professional currency. I can only think of three friends and colleagues with whom I trade jokes, and I’m sufficiently antsy about this topic that I won’t name them. You know you are, guys.

29.  Levitin, Daniel J. A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age. Finished November 29, 2016.  

A fantastic read, one that inspired many, many notecards. More practical than his previous, brilliant book The Organized Mind (#19) and akin to Nisbett’s Mindware (#8), Levitin provides the reader with tools to evaluate information critically, not to be taken in by poor arguments, and to understand that “we didn’t evolve brains with a sufficient understanding of what randomness looks like” (163). This is a friendlier, more useful version of the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb of Black Swan fame.

Reading books like Levitin’s can make me despair of ever thinking clearly myself, but I can at least take comfort in always making progress.

30. Lewis, Michael. The Undoing Project: a Friendship that Changed Our Minds. Finished December 10, 2016.

Magnificent. As with the Vance book (#22), this is a huge bestseller so I don’t know how much I can add. I’ve read the works of its main protagonists — Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky — and other behavioral economists with fascination for years. What Lewis does is to make their ideas come alive in a powerful platonic love story between two geniuses.

You can watch a long, insightful conversation between Lewis and Adam Grant (a.k.a. #5) here.

31. Sawyer, Robert J. Hominids: Volume One of The Neanderthal Parallax. Finished December 15, 2016.

Delightful, thoughtful and well-structured sci-if novel about a parallel universe where Neanderthals survived & homo sapiens died off. Then, a Neanderthal physicist accidentally drops through a portal to our universe in modern day Canada. The book was published in 2002 & therefore written as the first early phases of the internet took place. I wonder how the story would have come out differently if written a decade later when the internet and the smart phone were established. One key difference between our world and the Neanderthal counterpart is that every Neanderthal has a “Companion” grafted into his or her inner forearm that is like an advanced iPhone with a smarter version of Siri.  The gap, in other words, between the Neanderthal world and ours has shrunk in the years since the book first came out. I just started reading Humans, the second volume: so far, so good.

32. Gibbs, Stuart. Spy Ski School. Finished December 20, 2016.

Fourth in the hilarious series that my son reads and urges me to read immediately after he does. Gibbs channels the minds and concerns of middle-schoolers with a James Bondian overlay that is delightful and funny. With its speedy plot and engaging characters, I can’t believe this series hasn’t been optioned for a TV series. (Note: there was a 2008 movie called “Spy School” that is entirely unrelated.)  

I also admire how closely Gibbs engages with his young readers on his website.

And finally for 2016…

33. Perzanowski, Aaron and Jason Schultz. The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital EconomyFinished December 29, 2016.

In this wide-ranging yet powerfully-focused book, two law professors explore the issues surrounding our cultural move from owning copies (of movies, CDs, books) to EaaS (Everything as a Service) alternatives like Netflix, Spotify and licensed ebooks (versus physical copies that are our property).

We are trading a lot for the convenience and wider selection of digital goods over physical, and after reading this book (which is surprisingly brief) I’m more aware of the tradeoffs than I was before. The ramifications are widespread, from the death of secondary markets (e.g., because you can’t sell the Netflix videos you’re done with on eBay) to attempts to block generic alternatives to manufacturer brands (printer ink, Keurig cups) and beyond… with added implications coming in the world of self-driving cars and 3D printers everywhere. This books makes a remarkable, if inadvertent, bookend with Edgerton’s Shock of the Old that I read last January (#3 on this list).

Thanks for reading! I’d love your comments, critiques and suggestions for further reading.

Here’s a sneak previews of books already on my desk to read or complete in 2017 in alphabetical order by author rather than ordered by likelihood of reading:

  • Samuel Arbesman, Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension
  • Dan Ariely, Payoff: The Hidden Loginc that Shapes our Motivations
  • Harry Collins, Tacit & Explicit Knowledge
  • Jon Fine, Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear)
  • Thomas L. Friedman, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations
  • Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
  • Tim Harford, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform our Lives
  • Joi Ito and Jeff Howe, Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future
  • Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
  • Steven Johnson, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World
  • Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
  • Robert Sawyer, Humans: Volume Two of the Neanderthal Parallax
  • Pat Shipman, The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction
  • Cecily Sommers, Think Like a Futurist: Know What Changes, What Doesn’t, and What’s Next
  • Amy Webb, The Signals are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe is Tomorrow’s Mainstream
  • Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads

The attentive will see some clear themes extended from both this year’s list and those of previous years. It will be interesting to see how many of these make it onto the 2017 list one year from now.

Happy New Year!

TechfestNW: Daimler’s Ambitious Vision for Self-Driving Trucks

I was reminded this week of a 1983 episode of the classic TV show “Knight Rider” featuring a self-driving truck named Goliath as the villain-of-the-week who battled heroes Michael Knight (played by a young David Hasselhoff) and K.I.T.T., a self-aware and self-driving Pontiac Trans Am. This boyhood memory clanged into my awareness because now, 33 years later, self-driving trucks are racing from science fiction into reality, although none of them sound like William Daniels (who provided the voice of K.I.T.T.).

At Tuesday’s TechfestNW conference in Portland Oregon — where Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) has its headquarters — two chief engineers shared the company’s ambitious, pragmatic and exciting vision for self-driving trucks in a rare public appearance.

Steve Nadig, DTNA’s Chief Engineer of Mechatronics, and Al Pearson, DTNA’s Chief Engineer of Product Validation, told the story of how Daimler Trucks’ Global CEO Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard let them know in December of 2014 that they would have to demo a semi-autonomous truck by May of 2015 at Hoover Dam near Las Vegas. 

With the clock ticking, the two engineers went back to basics, starting with clay models and then shifting to digital models in order to rethink the truck both inside and out.

Nadig and Peason’s team faced more than just engineering challenges: they also had to work with the state government of Nevada to have the truck accumulate 10,000 miles of incident-free driving before it could be licensed. 

148 days later, they hit their mark with the Inspiration Truck, a Class 2 semi-autonomous semi-truck (perhaps they should have called it the Semi-Semi?) that answers DTNA’s key questions, “What’s next?” And “How will we drive tomorrow?” in tons of metal instead of mere words.  

(Note: a fully autonomous vehicle is Class 5, and a vehicle with no automatic driving capabilities whatsoever is Class 2.)

Humans still behind the wheel, but only paying attention sometimes…

Unlike other vehicle companies that imagine a time when human freight drivers will no longer exist — or perhaps a time when humans are not allowed to drive at all — Pearson doesn’t think that an era with zero human truck drivers will arrive anytime soon.

“Total autonomous is possible now,” Person said. “But only if the environment is controlled. We think it’s going to be a while before we can ensure safety in all conditions.”

With a human driver still in the Daimler truck, that driver’s role will evolve, piloting the truck in the too-complex-for-AI terrain of cities, and then letting the truck drive itself on the highways.

Freed from highway driving, the human driver will manage logistics from the road, pushing that role out from a central or regional office to the edges of the shipping company’s footprint.  (More on this later.)

Why develop the Inspiration Truck?

Pearson and Nadig shared a cluster of compelling reasons for self-driving trucks: as the economy grows and becomes evermore global, freight will only continue to be grow alongside it, and self-driving trucks increase freight capacity. 

With “platooning” — where one self-driving truck follows another on the highway at a distance of 15 meters or less — the first truck cuts through the wind and gives an aerodynamic benefit to each of the trucks that follow it. 

15 meters is too close for a human driver to follow, but with V2V (vehicle to vehicle communications) the self-driving trucks take slower human reaction time out of the equation.

In addition, freight companies would benefit from trucks like the Inspiration because of increased safety features, reduced fuel consumption, reduced vehicle component strain, reduced maintenance and repair, predictive route driving, reduced driver stress, optimized driver time and more generally an improved reputation for the company in question.

Daimler’s approach

Since the Inspiration truck is not striving to eliminate human drivers, Daimler’s approach to self-driving is, in Nadig’s words, “a relatively simple combination of technologies,” that includes an internal camera, two cameras in each mirror (one looking at the blind spot and back down the trailer, a “big safety improvement”), and a radar sensor focused out in front of the truck. 

As Nadig observed, using this technology “reduces drivers’ stress and gets them to an optimum level,” but this is only for highway driving: “there are still lots of skills being used on city streets.”

Daimler’s lean approach requires less up-front computation than what other self-driving experiments (like Google, Uber, Toyota, Nvidia) are finding they need, although particularly with V2V and platooning there is still a formidable amount going on under the digital hood of the Inspiration.

As the session shifted into audience Q&A, Nadig observed that “there’s a social aspect” to autonomous vehicles as well as a technological one. “Think about getting on an airplane without a pilot: the technology will go faster than society is prepared to react to it,” Nadig said.

Implications: Daimler’s approach to self-driving trucks is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, which I intend as a compliment. DTNA’s focus is on making its current customers happier and happier by improving the most expensive tool their customers buy and maintain: trucks.

I’m most intrigued by how the Inspiration reimagines — and reengineers — the role of the human driver into half driver and half logistics manager: it’s a rare moment in autonomous vehicle thinking that thinks of humans as a resource worth investing in rather than as a disposable cost center.

One possible outcome to this shift is that drivers also become knowledge workers, higher skilled, higher paid, managing deliveries, inventories and other things at the edge of a freight company’s geographic footprint rather than having things managed mostly in the home office. This could make the freight company more responsive and agile in how it approaches its business.

Moreover, with excess human capacity in the Inspiration, in what other activities could a freight company — or DTNA itself — invest?

Recall that Amazon Web Services (currently the fastest-growing part of Amazon’s business) started as an answer to the question of what to do with the company’s excess web server capacity, and an opportunity for DTNA to do something similar with its own excess capacity in transport and logistics quickly comes into focus (Thomas Friedman discussed UPS doing something similar in his 2005 book The World is Flat, and I’d be eager to see how the larger carrying capacity of DTNA trucks grew that opportunity.)

DTNA’s level 2 approach to self-driving trucks also shows that while the world in which humans no longer drive except for pleasure is still a long way off, we’ll start sharing the roads with non-human drivers in the very immediate future— and not just near Google’s Mountain View campus.

But can I get my car to talk to me in William Daniels’ voice, like K.I.T.T.?

[Cross-posted at LinkedIn.]

First Thoughts on Amazon’s Echo and Alexa

Based in large part on my friend Jeff Minsky’s enthusiast endorsement, I bought the Amazon Echo device that comes with its voice-activated, Siri-like, AI digital helper named Alexa.  “This is a no-brainer,” Jeff said.  “If nothing else it’s a terrific wireless speaker for under $200, and it does so much more.”

I unboxed Echo on Wednesday, downloaded the iPhone app, plugged it in and had it running in minutes.  Jeff is right about the speaker: it has a great sound and fills up even my (no pun intended) echo-filled living room. 

Here are my first thoughts about the Echo and Alexa, its successes, missed opportunities, and where I see it going.

Surprise and Delight: The Beatles

As I did the morning dishes, my first request was, “Alexa, play The Beatles.”  Seconds later I heard “Long, Long, Long” from The White Album.  Wow!

Over the course of the next few minutes of puttering and tidying, I heard a news briefing from NPR, skipped through a bunch of other music, and also discovered that every CD or MP3 I’d purchased in my 18 years of Amazon.com membership was available to Alexa… and this is quite a bit.  I didn’t even realize that I had a music library outside of the Spotify-like, free-with-Amazon Prime music service.

Then — more surprise, more delight — a query of mine revealed that Alexa also has access to all my Kindle books… and she has a nice reading voice.  Within moments, Alexa was reading Michael Winberg’s It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw it Up book about 3D printing and IP law.  I’ve experienced earlier algorithmic reading of text, and it was no fun: robotic voices with no cadence and a ton of mispronounced words.  By contrast, Alexa is smooth and winning.  Does she measure up against a professional actor performing a text?  By no means.  But for simple, “what’s this book about?” curiosity she’s fine… it’s a Herb Simon satisficing exercise, rather than a premium audio-book optimization.

Alexa is an example of what Jeff Minsky calls the “Ambient Internet.”

Even more so than with the always-in-your-pocket smart phone, having hands-free Echo on the kitchen counter reduces friction between my desire to search something and performing the search.  This is even lower friction than my experience with the Apple Watch, because with the Watch I have to raise my wrist to my face with my left hand and push a button with my right hand to wake it up and have it start listening… although Siri on my iPhone wakes up to “Hey, Siri.” 

Not having to move a muscle and still being able to search something is powerful, even seductive.

Last night, for example, my 10 year old son wanted to go to a barbecue joint for dinner.  So I asked Alexa where the best ribs in Portland are.  Alexa immediately recommended Reo’s Ribs, which is zesty and tangy (it used to be our neighborhood joint before it moved about seven miles further away).  Alexa couldn’t manage to suggest other options (although to be fair I only asked her for the best ribs in my query and, like Siri, she has a limited ability to understand followup questions), so I trotted to my computer and to Google to find a closer joint.

Dinner was delicious. 

There’s a down side to the Ambient Internet, which is that it accelerates my technology-induced quasi-Attention Deficit Disorder.  Having a bunch of devices that can deliver tasty, Doritos-like nibbles of information doesn’t help me buckle down and focus on pressing tasks at hand. 

Likewise, having a cybernetic pal eager to tell me about things happening in the world while I do dishes gets in the way of either mindful attention to task (even if the task is dishes) or mindless day-dreaming that often sparks a creative insight. 

Many smart folks have written extensively about how frictionless 24/7/365 connectivity makes us reactive and superficial rather than proactive and deep (see Nicholas Carr’s 2011 book The Shallows for one good example), and I don’t need to make that argument again here except insofar as how adding another connected device, Echo, throws more cognitive Doritos into my info-diet rather than veggies.

Brief Digression on Cyber-Security: I’m not, in this post, addressing either the Big Brother Question (Amazon is always listening, tracking everything, and using that information to take over the world or maybe just help the NSA) or the Skynet/Robot Apocalypse Question (Alexa will fuse with Siri, find Ultron, and then decide to eliminate the infestation of humans ruining this perfectly good planet). End of Digression.

But what about the shopping?  I have yet to ask Alexa to add something to my Amazon list, but I have no doubt that Alexa’s frictionlessness will aid purchase… and if Alexa continues to live in the kitchen then that will probably hurt my local supermarket if I wind up ordering dishwashing soap through Amazon because I just ask for it when I’m running out rather than having to pull out my phone to add it to the shopping list. 

Missing: a battery.  It’s only by using a device that you see the presumptions that the creators had while designing it.  With Echo, the designer presumed that once you picked a spot for the device it would stay in that spot.  This is a problem as I’m working to figure out where Alexa should be in my house, since every time I unplug the device it powers down and takes a minute-plus to reboot when I plug it into a different socket in another room.  I find this minute-plus reboot time vexing… and it doesn’t fit with the general frictionlessness of Echo. 

A backup battery that would keep the Echo going for a half hour would be useful.

But the lack of a battery also suggests that Amazon has more pervasive ambitions for Alexa.  From the start, I asked myself, “why both Echo and Alexa?”  Why not just call the device Alexa?

The reason, I think, is that Alexa has a bigger future footprint than the Echo.

The Echo is just a speaker, but pretty soon users will find themselves chatting with Alexa on their phones, on their computers and tablets when shopping on Amazon.  And judging from the Ford SYNC integration with Echo that I saw at this year’s CES, Amazon also wants us to chat with Alexa when we’re driving around.  “Alexa, please add Tide to my shopping list,” I’ll be able to say as I drive around.

While Alexa is great, she is no “Jarvis” from Iron Man and The Avengers.  One disappointing thing about Alexa is her half-hearted connectivity to other services.  Yes, you can play your Spotify tunes out of the Alexa speaker, but in order to do so you have to stream Spotify from your phone (or some other device) into Alexa.  So you can’t ask Alexa for a particular playlist or to search Spotify for that rare Bill Evans tune.

The Achilles heel of most connected technologies is having the mobile phone as a tether: this is as true of Echo as it is of the Apple Watch.   

Finally, another designer presumption that a few days of use has turned up: Echo was designed for somebody who lives alone, or at least for a single user.  Here’s a revelatory snippet from the Amazon page on Echo and Alexa:

Alexa—the brain behind Echo—is built in the cloud, so it is always getting smarter. The more you use Echo, the more it adapts to your speech patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences. And because Echo is always connected, updates are delivered automatically.

This engineering mindset parallels that of the smart phone: one user per device.

But I live with three other humans and a dog.  While the dog’s shopping needs don’t require an AI helper, my son — who is entranced with Alexa — has trouble making himself understood because Alexa has adapted to my voice. 

This is a pervasive problem with shared services.  Since my entire family uses my Amazon Prime account, Prime thinks I suffer from multiple personality disorder since the suggested purchases run across four idiosyncratic people’s interests.  I always know when, for example, my teenaged daughter has been makeup shopping on Amazon because the Amazon banner ads that stalk me across the web shift.

My Netflix recommendations are even worse since we started using the service before the company enabled different profiles.  I have no interest in “Cupcake Wars,” but Netflix disagrees.

In a future post, I’ll write more about Echo/Alexa’s potential impact on business, shopping and branding.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

High Fidelity, Pillow Talk, The Music Man: on technology and on ideas that rhyme, but then don’t

Hey, this looks like a piece about old movies, and it starts out that way, but it’s also about how to think about technology. I even throw in a little Douglas Adams at the end.

Ideas can rhyme like words do. When words rhyme, the rhyme helps us position ourselves inside a poem: we know we’re at the end of a line when the rhyme happens. Rhyme’s spatial nature makes us pay attention to a similarity that doesn’t mean anything most of the time. “Bed” always sounds like “dead,” but we only notice — we only think it means something — when and where both words come at the end of nearby lines in a poem or song in a rhyme.

When ideas rhyme, the rhyme helps us position ourselves inside a story, fictional or non-fictional. Ideas that rhyme* are building blocks for analogies.

Here’s what I mean: one night some years back on a driving trip with my then-eight-year-old daughter we took in a show at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The classical plays were all too dark (Macbeth) or esoteric (King Henry VIII) to choose as a little girl’s first introduction to Shakespeare, so instead I took her to The Music Man thinking that this 1950s musical set in the early years of the twentieth century would be more approachable for my twenty-first century kid.

Boy, was I wrong. The gap separating her everyday experience from The Music Man was no narrower than if I’d shown her the Thane of Cawdor’s ancient Scotland. River City, Iowa, after all, is so sleepy that when the Wells Fargo wagon arrives the whole town breaks into celebratory song. Try that today and the UPS guy will floor the big brown truck.

Little about The Music Man resonated with H since the plot depends on information paucity: con artist Harold Hill is able to fleece town after town because the towns don’t have ready communications with each other; Marian the Librarian has to send a letter to Gary, Indiana to determine when the music conservatory there was founded… and then she waits for most of the play to get the answer. There may be trouble in River City, but there’s not a lot of information.

In contrast, at eight H had grown up in an information superabundant world with Google, email, hundreds of TV channels, infinite options online, books aplenty, music streaming from every direction, and frequent Amazon deliveries to our doorstep although not yet by drone. Today, with mobile and social media there’s even more.

When you’re working with ideas that rhyme you can understand stories that don’t bear a lot of resemblance to your own life because there are structures buried inside the narrative ecosystems that look a lot like the structures buried inside your own life.

When we saw The Music Man, H had just finished second grade and was about to enter third. The main reason H could appreciate The Music Man at all, which she did, was that going to elementary, middle and high school today is a lot like River City. The shapes of the experiences rhyme with each other: the same people milling about the same claustrophobia-inducing place doing the same stuff day after day… just with the addition of a barbershop quartet.

What interests me is when ideas stop rhyming. As a researcher and futurist, I’m always on the lookout for cultural narratives that stop making easy sense as everyday life changes. I use those transitions to dig into how our lives are changing as technology and culture do an evolutionary dance with each other. 

This isn’t just a matter of having lived your entire life with Batman as a dark movie character (Christian Bale) rather than the sunny TV one (Adam West) your parents remember with happy smiles— the sort of thing that the Beloit Mindset list captures each fall. My kids have no trouble watching the 1960s Batman TV show with me and understanding it, even though they think I’m ridiculous for loving it.

Instead, I’m talking about stories that dwindle into inaccessibility because the audience no longer shares enough context with the story to understand it without footnotes— like trying to rhyme “bed” and “guava.” Indeed, the very presence of footnotes is a clear sign that a story belongs to the past more than the present.**

Pillow Talk is a perfect example of a movie that no longer makes easy sense and that stopped making sense over the last decade. The idea that stopped rhyming is the party line, where multiple houses or apartments share a single phone line because there were more people who wanted phone lines than the phone company had yet built.

Even back in 1959, when Pillow Talk (the first Rock Hudson and Doris Day movie) hit the theaters, party lines were already on their way out.

But growing up in the 1980s the absence of party lines in my parents’ house didn’t stop me from understanding the movie. Pillow Talk made sense because I had to deal with the similarly-shaped frustration of never being able to have a private conversation. It was impossible to chat with a girlfriend and not have other people in both houses picking up the handsets every few minutes. So Pillow Talk was just like my house, only Jan Morrow (the Doris Day character) had to deal with complete strangers interrupting instead of clueless parents and malicious little brothers. The shapes of the experiences rhymed.

But those ideas no longer rhyme today.

It would never occur to now-teenaged H to use the house line to call her friends, and even if she did the likelihood of somebody else picking up the seldom-used house line is small. H has an iPhone, and since she doesn’t know any of her friends’ numbers by heart she would have to look at the address book in her iPhone in order to punch the number into the house line, which is absurd. Moreover, H wouldn’t want to use her mouth to make noises to communicate with her friends in the first place: that’s what texting, Instagram and Snapchat are for. If H does want to chat in real time, she’s more likely to use FaceTime or Skype.

The telephone is for talking with grandparents.

The plot of Pillow Talk revolves around technology barriers, but the technology in question no longer plays a role in the lives of children today. Universal Pictures couldn’t remake Pillow Talk unless the studio decided to set it in the same period when it was written, which would be pointless.

Which brings me to my disheartening realization last night after I stumbled across High Fidelity on Netflix and sank with a happy smile into that delightfully written, perfectly-directed, amazingly-cast film. (And is there a better soundtrack in movies?) 

The realization? My kids won’t understand High Fidelity. Oh, I’ll try to show it to them, and perhaps the charming performances will suck them in, but it’s unlikely because the ideas don’t rhyme.

Want to know why? Just look at this timeline…

1995: the novel High Fidelity by Nick Hornby hits bookstore shelves, which means it had been completed sometime in 1993 or 1994. It’s a love story set in a world of used vinyl record shops run by monkish musical obsessives. It is a world that is about to die because…

1997: the first MP3 player is released.

1999: Napster makes music sharing (and piracy) effortless, and shifts the musical unit of measurement from the physical album or CD to the individual song in MP3 form.

2000: High Fidelity the movie, starring John Cusack, comes out; Pandora Radio launches, bringing streaming radio and music discovery to the world.

2001: Apple iTunes and Apple’s first generation iPod come out, taking MP3s mainstream; H is born.

Some of the key moments in the movie (ahem, spoiler alert… although if you haven’t seen the movie already then how did you make it this far in this post?) don’t make easy sense if you’ve grown up with today’s technology.

Sure, there are still record stores out there that cater to music snobs, but not many, not one in every neighborhood and every shopping mall— and rumbling around the record store with your friends on a Saturday afternoon isn’t an activity for today’s teens the way is was for previous generations. 

In High Fidelity, as they hang around Championship Records waiting for customers to stumble in, many of the interactions among Rob, Dick and Barry concern musical trivia: which group first performed which song, who did what on which record. Today, Google would answer all such questions.

Rob using a stack of quarters to call his ex Laura over and over again from a rain-drenched phone booth outside her new beau Ray’s apartment is dramatic and emotionally charged. Today, good luck finding a pay phone. Rob would simply hit redial on his smart phone while sitting at Starbucks.

Rob making mix tapes for Caroline the music reporter and for Laura were time-draining labors of love in the 1990s, but today the process is instantaneous and not impactful. “Here, I spent hours selecting, organizing and recording this tape for you” becomes, “here, I spent minutes selecting and seconds creating this Spotify playlist for you: it’ll take you longer to listen to it than it took me to make it. Have fun!”

In the vinyl days, when you heard about a new band or a new song you had to find a disc-shaped object somewhere, either in a store or at a friend’s house. When cassettes came along you could copy things, but you could only do it in real time, which was a drag.

Teens today love music just as much as they ever have, but their musical challenges are about filtering rather than access. There’s instant streaming for just about everything, but the challenge is figuring out what to listen to, whether it’s free and where to find the best deal if it isn’t.

High Fidelity — a movie that, sigh, I still think of as relatively new — is more distant from my kids’ automatically understandable experience than The Music Man. How weird.

Watching stories move into the rear-view mirror — when ideas stop rhyming — is the flip side of watching technologies move into the unremarkable mainstream of our everyday lives where of course I can reach my wife with a stupid question about where the charger for the laptop might be hiding because she has an iPhone and I haven’t thought to look under the bed.

Douglas Adams, in a 1999 blog post called “How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet” articulated this brilliantly:

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

With rhyming ideas, we can tweak this into a slightly different three-fold story:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that stops being relevant to everyday life between then and before you turn thirty (fax machines, type writers, cameras, VCRs) takes up space in your garage and makes you smile with nostalgia when you run across it;

3) anything that stops being relevant after you’re thirty is a painful sign that you’re going to die sooner than you want to and that your kids don’t appreciate how good they have it until you gradually realize that this is just like when you rolled your eyes at your own parents when they nattered on about black and white TV and wringing out laundry and mixing food dye into margarine and that sort of thing so just relax because it happens to everybody.

Still, though…High Fidelity is a terrific movie. Too bad my kids won’t get it.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

Miscellaneous notes:

* My notion of “ideas that rhyme” is similar to but not identical with my old teacher Stephen Booth’s description of “ideational rhyme,” which he works out in detail in his edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

** Simply putting the words “bed” and “guava” into proximity with each other might provoke readers with too much time on their hands to think about how these two things actually do go together. If this is the case, then for heaven’s sake please share with me how you think they go together because that sounds fascinating, and then please go read Donald Davidson’s 1978 essay “What Metaphors Mean” because it describes how our minds creates meanings out of these sorts of comparisons rather than discovering meanings that are already there.

Against Disruption: Louis Menand, Douglas Adams, Books and Technology

Have you ever smacked into a glass door when you didn’t realize it was closed?  I have.  It hurts.  The intersection of my face and a glass door happened at my great aunt’s tiny desert house in the 80s, where the mix of a trick of the sunlight and my distracted boyhood mind made the door invisible.

More alarming than the pain was the surprise.  A barrier I could not see had prevented me from making progress in the direction I wanted to go.

Many people and many businesses have this problem.

Sometimes life throws you glass doors, and the trick is to find your gratitude.  You need to appreciate that now you know about the barrier while you’re rubbing an aching schnoz. 

I felt this way after reading Louis Menand’s insightful, generous and intelligent piece “The Birth of Pulp Fiction” in the latest (January 5th) issue of The New Yorker, which shows that the paperback book and the bookstore itself were relatively recent developments in the United States:

Back when people had to leave the house if they wanted to buy something, the biggest problem in the book business was bookstores. There were not enough of them. Bookstores were clustered in big cities, and many were really gift shops with a few select volumes for sale. Publishers sold a lot of their product by mail order and through book clubs, distribution systems that provide pretty much the opposite of what most people consider a fun shopping experience—browsing and impulse buying.

Allen Lane created the mass-market paperback in England when he founded Penguin Books in 1935, and Robert de Graff brought it to the United States in 1939 when he launched Pocket Books.

Menand synthesizes several books in this article, leading to useful nuggets like:

The key to Lane’s and de Graff’s innovation was not the format. It was the method of distribution. More than a hundred and eighty million books were printed in the United States in 1939, the year de Graff introduced Pocket Books, but there were only twenty-eight hundred bookstores to sell them in. There were, however, more than seven thousand newsstands, eighteen thousand cigar stores, fifty-eight thousand drugstores, and sixty-two thousand lunch counters—not to mention train and bus stations. De Graff saw that there was no reason you couldn’t sell books in those places as easily as in a bookstore.

The mass-market paperback was therefore designed to be displayed in wire racks that could be conveniently placed in virtually any retail space. People who didn’t have a local bookstore, and even people who would never have ventured into a bookstore, could now browse the racks while filling a prescription or waiting for a train and buy a book on impulse.

Reading Menand’s terrific piece, I kept waiting for him to connect the dots between the birth of the mass-market book seventy or eighty years ago and the rise of Amazon.com over the last few years.  Perhaps the fact that I was reading The New Yorker on an iPad made this all the more compelling a connection, but Menand is a historian rather than a futurist, so he didn’t make the link and the article pivots instead into a discussion of censorship.

So what was my glass door?

A lifelong book lover, I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s, in Encino in the San Fernando Valley.  Back then, L.A. was a great bookstore town from tiny little specialty shops like Scene of the Crime for mysteries, Dangerous Visions and A Change of Hobbit for science fiction, to broader bookstores like Alpha Books, the Bookie Joint and Midnight Special… to name just a few of my then favorites now long shuttered. 

For years, I’ve blamed Crown Books, Borders, Barnes and Noble and, of course, my own love/hate relationship with Amazon.com for the death of the independent bookstore in one of the biggest — and most readerly — cities in the country.  Intrinsic to my resentment was a conviction that until these black mustachioed villains skulked onto the scene my beloved bookstores had been there forever.  They were institutions!  Instead, Menand shows compellingly that they’d just been around since around the time my parents were born.  If my grandparents were still alive they could have told me this… if I’d thought to ask them.

Smack.

The glass door connects to a perspective on technology and innovation that Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams articulated in his hilarious and smart 1999 London Times article, “How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet” —

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

(Add smart phones, tablets, wearable computers, 3D printers and automated homes to Adams’ list to update it for 2015.)

For me, bookstores were “just normal” because they were already there when I started reading, but my normal is different than my grandparents’ normal was. 

This is like the conversation I have with my kids about how back in the stone age before they were born people had to watch television shows when they were on rather than record them and watch later, and how it wasn’t that big a burden because there weren’t that many channels anyway.  My son looks at me like I rode a brontosaurus to the office.

The book-selling and business that Amazon is so effectively pressurizing hasn’t actually been around that long, similar to how general literacy hasn’t been around that long.  That  means that rather than think about how Amazon disrupts the book-selling business, it might be more useful to think about how the mass-market book-selling business is still pretty new and still evolving.

This might seem like a subtle distinction, but the problem with disruption as a buzzword — and oh boy is it a popular buzzword lately — is that it sets up binary* David versus Goliath dynamics where the realities are more complicated.

Life is easier when you only have to worry about two entities: the Empire and the Rebellion, the Federation and the Klingons, the Ducks and the Buckeyes, Russia and the USA.

But the reality is that more than two entities are in play most of the time.

Over the course of the last few decades: book selling, buying and reading has increased by many orders of magnitude.  More people buy books and read for pleasure now than they did when my grandparents were born.  This happened because of the reduction in costs in the creation of books and the ease of distribution in the selling of books, first with paperbacks and then with Amazon.com.

That’s not a disruption.

It’s an eruption.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

* Americans love binary arguments: Deborah Tannen talked about this is her useful 1998 book, The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words.