A few thoughts on innovation

I started thinking about a post on innovation, after an agency meeting about a possible project. My friend Nigel Scott has been researching the venture capital industry. His ideas fired some of the thoughts in this post.

It caused me to reflect again on innovation and the way we think about it.

Innovation rewards hard work?

We are often told that innovators work really hard and strive to achieve their goals. In Where Wizards Stay Up Late – there is a description of Silicon Valley culture. Late nights by engineers and takeout food was considered one of the factors that drove the early Internet. Engineers were building new technologies as they went at break-neck speeds.

The problem is that for many jobs there is no 9-to-5 now. When I worked in agencies 12+ hour days were typical depending on the client load. Yet we weren’t pulling Cannes Lions award-winning work out of our butts.

In China, many companies now work to ‘996‘. That is 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week as core hours. This is basic a minimum requirement for engineers. Somewhere like Huawei, try to build a ‘wolf’ mentality. They work their staff much harder and they’re expected to retire at 45 – presumably physically and mentally burned out.

Working hard is a hygiene factor, technology has made it that way. You’re typical Uber driver is gamed by the driver app to put in excess of 12-hours/day. Both knowledge and unskilled workers would have a similar level of time poverty.

Innovation is like buses

For long-suffering public transport users in the UK many services are compared to buses. Due to road traffic and scheduling, there would often be an overly long time for a bus to arrive. When it eventually did, there would be another two following very closely behind.

You can see a similar thing with innovation.

Whilst we’re used to thinking of John Logie Baird as the inventor of television – and Baird worked very hard on television. The reality is that television was based on a series of inventions from the middle of the 19th century onwards.

There are at least 20 different inventors who had some claim to coming up with the light bulb. But Edison did manage to create the first commercially successful bulb. British school children are taught about Joseph Swan’s carbon filament bulb. This was let down by the vacuum process in manufacturing and poor quality electricity supplies so the bulbs didn’t last very long. Swan had solved his bulb’s problem and changed the filament.

It was only at this point that Edison started his research into electric light bulbs.

More recently, I was talking to an agency about a piece of work that didn’t come off in the end. The discussion turned to a drug that was very recently launched. The problem was that although they were first to market, they weren’t the only inventors. A large rival had launched drug approvals for their product in markets were original firm hadn’t focused on for its initial approvals. Another two companies were immediately behind them and likely to drop their prices (and profit margins) to make up for later market entry.

If one thinks about the modern computer with its graphical user interface. This was created by layers and layers of innovation. Doug Engelbart, whilst working at SRI International demonstrated the following to an audience of government officials in 1968

  • GUI interface
  • Mouse pointing device
  • Text manipulation
  • Collaborative editing
  • Video conferencing (a la Skype)

The Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) refined Engelbart’s concepts further with a complete modern office by 1973. Steve Jobs and his team got into see it, which drove work on the Lisa and then the Macintosh. Microsoft got in and eventually came up with Windows. Microsoft also learned from building software applications for the Macintosh.

Digital Research invented their own GUI layer called GEM. GEM was demoed at Comdex in 1984; right about the time Apple launched the Macintosh. Commodore launched the Amiga in 1985 and also added multi-tasking – the ability to run two or more apps at the same time.

These are just a few examples for the sake of brevity. But the inventor slaving away in isolation to come up with something, uniquely innovative is not rooted in evidence. Yet intellectual property law gives lie to this myth. I don’t want to belittle the work done, but it is as if there is a certain amount of predestination to invention based on prior innovations.

Innovation happens

This predestination of technological progress is something that Kevin Kelly labeled the Technium. In his book What Technology Wants he posited that technological progress can be slowed, but nothing short of an apocalypse can stop it completely.  Here’s what Kevin Kelly said in an interview with Edge.org when supporting the launch of What Technology Wants:

The technium is a superorganism of technology. It has its own force that it exerts. That force is part cultural (influenced by and influencing of humans), but it’s also partly non-human, partly indigenous to the physics of technology itself.

We understand the innovation process?

Nigel Scott has done some research on the historic records of venture capital companies. And a key finding was the Silicon Valley venture capital firms do a ‘random walk’ on Sandhill Road. It implies that much of the advice dispensed is survivor bias or post-rationalisation.

You hear the phrase ‘pivot’ which means changing the model to profitablity. Old time VCs used to talk about investing people or teams, which explains why research by Boston Consulting Group found that women get less funding than male entrepreneurs.

Venture capitalists have the monetary incentive and the budgets to develop a thorough understanding of innovation, yet they don’t seem to apply it successfully. Which begs the question – how much do we really understand about innovation?

Innovation: did software really eat the world?

Back in 2011, Marc Andreesen wrote an op-ed (opinion piece) in the Wall Street Journal ‘Why Software Is Eating The World‘.

Six decades into the computer revolution, four decades since the invention of the microprocessor, and two decades into the rise of the modern Internet, all of the technology required to transform industries through software finally works and can be widely delivered at global scale.

Over two billion people now use the broadband Internet, up from perhaps 50 million a decade ago, when I was at Netscape, the company I co-founded. In the next 10 years, I expect at least five billion people worldwide to own smartphones, giving every individual with such a phone instant access to the full power of the Internet, every moment of every day.

On the back end, software programming tools and Internet-based services make it easy to launch new global software-powered start-ups in many industries — without the need to invest in new infrastructure and train new employees. In 2000, when my partner Ben Horowitz was CEO of the first cloud computing company, Loudcloud, the cost of a customer running a basic Internet application was approximately $150,000 a month. Running that same application today in Amazon’s cloud costs about $1,500 a month.

As one can see Andreesen’s title is a bit of a misnomer. Software is only the front end of a technology stack that is transforming the world. That transformation started before the web, before broadband infrastructure; with the rise of integrated circuits. Machine learning is doing some impressive things, but they are part of a continuum. Machine learning in data mining is building on work done in academia in the 1980s. It is replicating work done in the 1990s on decision support systems and business intelligence software.

Even, back in the early 1990s, commercial chemical labs were using software to guide product development. Rather than having to test every combination religiously; you started inputting formulations and results. The software would then extrapulate possible combinations and narrow down on an ideal formulation much quicker.

Its_a_Sony

As for machine learning in consumer products; it mirrors the late 1980s. Fuzzy logic came out of a 1965 research paper by Lofti A Zadeh at the University of California, Berkeley.

Japanese manufacturers built lifts that optimised for traffic flows of people. Microwaves that set its own timer for defrosting an item. Washing machines customised spin cycles based on the drum load. Televisions adjusted their brightness based on the ambient conditions of the room. (When similar technology was rolled out on early Intel MacBook Pro screens and keyboard lights it was billed as game changing). It removed a lot of blur from camcorder videos. All applications that are not a million miles away from smart homes and consumer technology today. They improved energy efficiency, with precise lighting, heating or cooling.

A western analysis of Japanese technology companies; usually cites their ‘defeat’ by Silicon Valley as an apparent lack of software skills. I’d argue that this lacks an understanding of Japanese software capabilities. From gaming to rock solid RTOS (real time operating systems); Japanese products met Andreesen’s software definition. The Japanese didn’t manage to sell enterprise software in the same way as Silicon Valley. It is something to bear in mind given the current glut of machine learning-orientated businesses in Silicon Valley. Does it mean that we won’t have the type of general AI applications that we’ve been promised in the future? No far from it, though a technological idea often takes several tries before it breaks through.

What becomes apparent is that software making an impact is merely the last stage of previous innovations. The problem with Andreesen’s model is that it portends what Judy Estrin described as innovation entropy.

Andreesen’s model couldn’t exist without:

  • Packet-switched networks – 1960 (RAND)
  • Unix-type operating systems – mid 1960s (MIT, AT&T Bell Labs, General Electric)
  • C programming language – 1972 (Unix development team)
  • Optical fibre networks – 1965 (Telefunken)
  • Internet router – 1966 (UK National Physical Laboratory)
  • ADSL 1988 (Bellcore)
  • DOCSIS 1997 (CableLabs)

So the core technologies that Andreesen’s software relied upon to eat the world was between 15 and 50 years old. It also relied on a massive overinvestment in optical fiber.  The dark fiber was done as part of a telecoms boom that occurred around the same time as the dot com boom. Software isn’t eating the world, its just the cherry on top of innovation that’s gone before. More importantly, software seems to be an end point and  doesn’t seem to extend the base of innovation further.

A second problem is that semiconductors phenomenal progress in integrated circuits is slowing down. Part of the problem is that more money is being dumped into disrupting the supply and demand for service industries, rather than funding start-ups who will power the next wave of underlying innovation that future software will rely on.

The Internet of Stupid Things

A more charitable phrase for what many consumers call the Internet of Shit. Yes lots of products can be internet enabled, but should they be? There is a mix of challenges:

  • Products that are internet enabled but shouldn’t be – the Happy Fork or the Griffin Smart Toaster being classic examples. I found the Griffin Smart Toaster particularly disappointing as the company’s products such as the PowerMate are generally really good
  • Products that would be benefit from tech, but shouldn’t rely on the the cloud. I’d argue that Nest would fit in this category where cloud outages could have serious impacts on the consumer

It is interesting to see that Li & Fung (who are famous for global supply chain management provided to western brands and retailers) are involved in this. The qualitative design research they did on skiing wearables for a client – which begs the question of what value Li & Fung’s client brings to the table.

What if Stories are Brain Code?

The boy on the wall

From Hollywood to the marketing industry we’re told that stories resonate with us. They are the reason why films, books, video games and TV dramas entertain. According to storytelling theorists like Joseph Campbell; we find fulfilment understanding what is happening. Campbell et al think that our enjoyment of stories analogous to the enjoyment of solving puzzles. What if stories can be more than puzzles for our enjoyment?

Our understanding of storytelling

Our understanding of storytelling is of a more tenuous nature than Newtonian physics or organic chemistry. You could argue that Joseph Campbell was a ‘victim’ of his discipline. He worked in the fields of comparative mythology and religion. Campbell was looking for universal patterns in stories. He assumed that rest of us are as well. Though this ‘understanding’ would be occcuring at a ‘low level’ in computing terms. Only select (mostly educated) people would think of it at a higher conscious rational level.

Like many academics in the early and mid-20th century his work drew inspiration from eastern religions. In Campbell’s case, like Nietzsche; he drew from Hindu thought. Campbell’s interest in Indian philosophy was due to a meeting. In 1924, Campbell encountered the messiah elect of the Theosophical Society. He was on a cruise liner from Europe to the US. Campbell was also profoundly affected by Nietzsche’s work.

  • Did Nietzsche open Campbell to Indian philosophy or was it the other way around?
  • Was it just the nature of a naturally enquiring mind?
  • Were there factors that made him more open to it?

Campbell based his theories on myth and its connection to the human psyche in part on Sigmund Freud. Campbell’s myth concepts drew on Jung’s dream interpretation methods. Jung’s insights into archetypes drew from The Tibetan Book of The Dead. Campbell quotes Jung on The Tibetan Book of The Dead in The Mythical Image:

“belongs to that class of writings which not only are of interest to specialists in Mahayana Buddhism, but also, because of their deep humanity and still deeper insight into the secrets of the human psyche, make an especial appeal to the layman seeking to broaden his knowledge of life… For years, ever since it was first published, the Bardo Thodol has been my constant companion, and to it I owe not only many stimulating ideas and discoveries, but also many fundamental insights.”

(Bardo Thodol is another name for The Tibetan Book of The Dead). A lot of this hinges on the value of dreams. Heres what Dream interpretation and false beliefs has to say. It was published in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice in 1999:

“Dream interpretation is a common practice in psychotherapy. In the research presented in this article, each participant saw a clinician who interpreted a recent dream report to be a sign that the participant had had a mildly traumatic experience before age 3 years, such as being lost for an extended time or feeling abandoned by his or her parents. This dream intervention caused a majority of participants to become more confident that they had had such an experience, even though they had previously denied it. These findings have implications for the use of dream material in clinical settings. In particular, the findings point to the possibility that dream interpretation may have unexpected side effects if it leads to beliefs about the past that may, in fact, be false.”

This doesn’t necessarily invalidate Campbell’s theory in terms of storytelling. But it seems to cast doubt on the application of Jungian dream interpretation for clinical use. The best advice that I can give in this matter is caveat lectorem.

From Academia to Hollywood: formulaic stories

 

Joseph Campbell was a prolific author.  He published material that went into over 40 books. Part of this was due to the efforts of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, which collected his papers and published a number of work after his death. These included: coverage of his academic work, travel diaries and even his personal philosophy. It was picked up on by the American public, which has been endless quoted and misinterpreted due to the phrase ‘follow your bliss’.

The key work of Campbell was his 1949 work The Hero With A Thousand Faces. it was his first solo work and got him recognition outside academic circles. The central them is that ‘myths’ from around the world all share a common structure. This is what Campbell called a ‘monomyth’. The monomyth or hero’s journey was mapped out visually on Wikipedia

heroes journey

Campbell went on to propose the purpose of these myths which he grouped into four functions. Wikipedia described it thus:

The Metaphysical Function – Awakening a sense of awe before the mystery of being The Cosmological Function – Explaining the shape of the universe The Sociological Function – Validate and support the existing social order The Pedagogical Function – Guide the individual through the stages of life

Campbell’s work went on to influence luminaries of the 1960s counterculture movement including Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and Jim Morrison. It’s obvious influence in film kicked in around the same time. Stanley Kubrick introduced it Arthur C. Clarke. This happened during their collaboration to turn Clarke’s short story The Sentinel into 2001 A Space Odyssey screen play and book. George Lucas’ role in the popularisation of Campbell’s work was probably the biggest single effect. Hollywood at the time was in a state of dramatic change. This change mirrored the kind of change that the punk ethic and independent labels wrought on the music industry a decade later. Artistic and cultural change, further globalisation of artistic culture, new motion film camera technology and the rise of television created a set of factors that helped facilitate the rise of New Hollywood. The initial success of these director-driven films allowed power shifted from the producers to the studios for a time.

  • Directors drew on foreign influences: new wave cinema, Japanese cinema
  • The MPAA ratings system allowed more adult subjects to be discussed that would have otherwise been taboo
  • The Panavision Panaflex camera provided a more compact way to shoot on 35mm film. This facilitated greater use of location shooting, providing a more naturalistic style and also facilitated Lucas’ special effects in Star Wars

Whilst Lucas was part of this movement; both THX 1138 and American Graffiti, fit within the New Hollywood genre. But like Stephen Spielberg, Lucas unwittingly created the next stage in movie development that helped producers take back their seat of power. Star Wars became a blockbuster. Though the ingredients were very different to the corporate creations of Marvel Studios or the Transformers franchise.

Its homage to the chambara films of Akira Kurosawa, pre-war Flash Gordon episodes and vintage westerns smacked of New Hollywood. It’s blockbuster status meant that the industry paid attention to valuable lessons learned. George Lucas became the first film maker to publicly cite The Hero With a Thousand Faces and other Campbell works as influences. Lucas repaid the creative debt that he owed to The Hero With A Thousand Faces by allowing Bill Moyes to shoot a series of interviews with Joseph Campbell  at Skywalker Ranch.

Campbell and storytelling theory then became baked into Hollywood’s DNA. Over time it came into marketing, firstly through the creative side of the advertising industry. Television advertising at the time borrowed creative direction and stories from movie expertise. Directors like Tony Kaye and Ridley Scott moved between advertising and film projects. Eventually storytelling moved through other parts of the marketing industry including public relations. Hollywood have taken a number of turns at further refining Campbell’s monomyth model.

One has to note that their goals are different from Campbell’s research. Hollywood largely seeks to entertain (for profit) and getting the viewer to suspend disbelief for the duration fo the movie or TV series rather than  achieving one of Campbell four functions.

Different cuts on the hero's journey

Volger is commonly cited by modern script writers. He refines and expands the thinking around the monomyth. Volger puts more emphasis than Campbell on the hero’s change in emotional state and internal journey.  His emphasis on emotion is important when one is creating content to land brand messages and would be of interest to the advertising community. The biggest area of disagreement that many have with Volger’s approach is that his structure implies a steady change in emotional state and internal journey of the hero. A paradigm shift in state would possibly create greater dramatic tension for the viewer.

From monomyth to winning algorithm.

Technology has moved from the creative process of film making an into the commercial side of the process. The movie industry is supporting machine learning based startups like ScriptBook. Belgium-based ScriptBook analyses screen plays to produce forecasts before a film is put into production. ScriptBook provides a box office earnings forecast, likely MPAA rating and recommended market demographics. Of course, many classic films had screen plays that were altered or completely rewritten several times. The tortured overworked scriptwriters working miracles in really short times and ‘script doctors’ called into ‘fix’ a bad situation. Both are part of the Hollywood system and its own mythology. In many respects ScriptBook mirrors the marketing industry’s move towards the adoption of predictive analytics for consumer behavioural change.

How stories work for the brain.

Behavioural scientist Nick Chater has roughly two decades of published academic work behind him based on research in various aspects of cognitive science. He has a depth and credibility to his work that we currently don’t have  on people and storytelling.

In his book The Mind is Flat, Chater posits that the mind doesn’t have conscious and unconscious aspects. Emotions aren’t hard wired, instead thoughts and feeling are created on the fly. This effectively invalidates Freudian psychology principles. Our inner voice is effectively our brain telling storytelling to itself.  Our identities are constructed and given shape on the fly by the stories that we tell to ourselves as we go along. The unconscious mind would appear to be a conceit about our depth.

This brings to mind the final episode in season two of Westworld, where the systems who had been trying to replicate humans realised their challenges. They had assumed humans were complex in nature, where as the show claims that they can be replicated in 10,247 lines of code, with definite limits on their potential. Of course 10,247 lines of code, whilst less than Photoshop could have a world of fractal complexity.

Essentially there is no ‘deeper’ language than storytelling. Stories aren’t only about rules and plot consistency, but about creative leaps.

This means from a marketing perspective whilst if we get stories right, they can be more powerful than we had previously imagined. In computing terms we would be writing direct the processor or ‘hitting the metal’ as games programmers would call it. It also needs to take into account that getting great stories is really hard.

It also casts more questions about whether we have learned the right lessons to date about storytelling from the likes of Joseph Campbell?

More information

Joseph Campbell – The Mythical Image
The Tibetan Book of The Dead
Mazzoni, G. A. L., Lombardo, P., Malvagia, S., & Loftus, E. F. (1999). Dream interpretation and false beliefs. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 30(1), 45-50.
The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
Hero’s Journey – Wikipedia
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke
The Writer’ Journey by Christopher Volger
Artificial Intelligence Might Affect How Studios Greenlight Movies | Cinemablend
Artificial Intelligence Could One Day Determine Which Films Get Made | Variety
ScriptBook “Hard science, better box office” and Crunchbase profile
This Man Says the Mind Has No Depths | Nautilus
The Mind is Flat: The Illusion of Mental Depth and The Improvised Mind by Nick Chater
‘Westworld’ Season Finale Recap: Code Unknown | Rolling Stone Online

ICYMI | 万一你错过了| 당신이 그것을 놓친 경우

5 Facts of China’s Post-00s Generation’s Consumption Habits | Jing Daily – big challenge for foreign brands and agencies flogging influencer programmes

Teens prefer YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram to Facebook, 2018 Pew survey finds. – not a real issue given Facebook owns Instagram

The White House official Trump says doesn’t exist | South China Morning Post – China’s Ministry of State Security seems to have royally riled a senior Trump advisor when he worked as a journalist

Chinese Æsop: – good reference of Chinese fables and myths

SinoTech: Whiplash in U.S.-China Tech Trade Relations, with More Conflict on Horizon – Lawfare

The Creepy Rise of Real Companies Spawning Fictional Design | WIRED

Whether it’s Brexit or Bremain, the UK is in long-term economic decline | South China Morning Post – Either way, the outlook is grim. With or without Brexit, Britain is still an ailing industrial nation. So any short-term relief about Bremain must be blunted by the reality that Britain is stuck in the grip of longer-term economic decline. The shock Brexit vote two years ago simply accelerated the process. The jolt to confidence has ripped a big hole in investment and spending, and started unravelling many of the lifelines propping up the economy. Britain may never fully recover – Hong Kong op-ed on Brexit says a lot about how foreigners are viewing it

China’s yuan gets support from Africa central banks to replace US dollar reserve — Quartz – given China’s acquisition of raw materials from Africa, Chinese government loans and large amount of Chinese goods imported having the yuan as a reserve currency makes sense

Canceling Roseanne wasn’t the only possible decision, but it was the right one. | Slate – I was trying to articulate what has always been so tricky about the reboot, which was the utility of its immorality. Trump voters could watch Roseanne and feel seen, heard, and flattered. It allowed them to imagine themselves, like Roseanne Conner, as smart, tough, funny, and not racist.* And as false and mendacious as this fantasy is, it was, also, perhaps efficacious for our schisming America, a pressure release valve for Trump voters, while also being a relatively nontoxic way for progressives to observe said Trump voters. It was a way for us to see each other without actually having to speak, a way to exist in the same space without having to fight. – I was going to blog about Roseanne but this Slate op-ed nailed it

Tech bubble is larger than in 2000, and the end is coming | CNBC – I’d argue that there has been diminishing innovation and longer term benefits in terms of returns

Яндекс.Станция — мультимедиа-платформа с Алисой внутри – Yandex Station – an Amazon Echo / Alexa analogue for Russia only.

China Flexes its Market Muscle by Demanding Samsung and SK Hynix cut Memory Chip Prices for Huawei & others or else – Patently Apple – Chinese PC makers have been struggling under component cost pressure as Samsung and SK control over 75 percent of global demand as of the first quarter of 2018. China says it wants to ensure “fair competition” in the market, so that no single supplier becomes too dominant and manipulates prices.

This wasn’t the internet we envisaged

The debate over privacy on Facebook got me thinking about the internet we envisaged. Reading media commentary on Tim Cook’s recent address at Duke University prodded me into action.

What do I mean by we? I mean the people who:

  • Wrote about the internet from the mid-1990s onwards
  • Developed services during web 1.0 and web 2.0 times

I’ve played my own small part in it.

At the time there was a confluence of innovation. Telecoms deregulation and the move to digital had reduced the cost of data and voice calls. Cable and satellite television was starting to change how we viewed the world. CNN led the way in bringing the news into homes. For many at the time interactive TV seemed like the future of media.

Max Headroom

Starship Troopers

The Running Man

Second generation cellular democratised mobile phone ownership. The internet was becoming a useful consumer service. My first email address was a number@site.corning.com format email address back in 1994. I used it for work, apart from an unintended spam email sent to colleagues to offload some vouchers I’d been given.

My college email later that year was on a similar format of address; on a different domain. I ended up using my pager more than my email to stay in touch with other students. Although all students had access to the internet at college, the take-up was still very low. At college I signed up for a Yahoo! web email. I had realised that an address post-University would be useful. Yahoo! was were I saw my first online ads. They reminded me of garish versions of classified ads in newspapers.

After I left college I used to go to Liverpool at least once a week to go to an internet cafe just off James Street and check my email account, with a piece of cake and a cup of coffee. I introduced my friend Andy to the internet (mostly email), since we used to meet up there and then go browsing records, clothes, hi-fi, studio equipment, event flyers and books at the likes of HMV, the Bluecoat Chambers, Quiggins, The Palace and Probe Records.

I found out that I had my first agency job down in London when I was called on my cell phone whilst driving.

The internet was as much as an idea as anything else and the future of us netizens came alive for me in the pages of Wired and Byte. Both were American magazines. Byte was a magazine that delved deeper into technology than Ars Technica or Anandtech. Wired probed the outer limits of technology, culture and design. At the time each issue was a work of art. They pushed typography and graphic design to the limits. Neon and metallic inks, discordant fonts and an early attempt at offline to online integration. It seemed to be the perfect accompanyment to the cyberpunk science fiction I had been reading. The future was bright: literally.

Hacking didn’t have consumers as victims but was the province of large (usually bad) mega corps.

I moved down to London just in time to be involved in the telecoms boom that mirrored the dot com boom. I helped telecoms companies market their data networks and VoIP services. I helped technology companies sell to the telecoms companies. The agency I worked for had a dedicated 1Mb line. This was much faster than anything I’d used before. It provided amazing access to information and content. Video was ropey. Silicon.com and Real Media featured glitchy postage stamp sized clips. My company hosted the first live broadcast of Victoria’s Secret fashion show online. It was crap in reality, but a great proof of concept for the future.

I managed to get access to recordings of DJ sets by my Chicago heroes. Most of whom I’d only read about over the years in the likes of Mixmag.

All of this pointed to a bright future, sure there were some dangers along the way. But I never worried too much about the privacy threat (at least from technology companies). If there was any ‘enemy’ it was ‘the man’.

In the cold war and its immediate aftermath governments had gone after:

  • Organised labour (the UK miners strike)
  • Cultural movements (Rave culture in the UK)
  • Socio-political groups (environmentalists and the nuclear disarmament movement)

I had grown up close to the infamous Capenhurst microwave phone tap tower. Whilst it was secret, there were private discussions about its purpose. Phil Zimmerman’s PGP cryptography offered privacy, if you had the technical skills. In 1998, the European Parliament posted a report on ECHELON. A global government owned telecoms surveillance network. ECHELON was a forerunner of the kind of surveillance Edwards Snowden disclosed a decade and a half later.

One may legitimately feel scandalised that this espionage, which has gone on over several years, has not given rise to official protests. For the European Union, essential interests are at stake. On the one hand, it seems to have been established that there have been violations of the fundamental rights of its citizens, on the other, economic espionage may have had disastrous consequences, on employment for example. – Nicole Fontaine, president of the european parliament (2000)

I advised clients on the ‘social’ web since before social media had a ‘name’. And I worked at the company formerly known as Yahoo!. This was during a brief period when it tried to innovate in social and data. At no time did I think that the companies powering the web would:

  • Rebuild the walled gardens of the early ‘net (AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy)
  • Build oligopolies, since the web at that time promised a near perfect market due to it increasing access to market information. Disintermediation would have enabled suppliers and consumers to have a direct relationship, instead Amazon has become the equivalent of the Sears Roebuck catalogue
  • Become a serious privacy issue. Though we did realise by 2001 thanks to X10 wireless cameras that ads could be very annoying. I was naive enough to think of technology and technologists as being a disruptive source of cultural change. The reason for this was the likes of Phil Zimmerman on crypto. Craig Newmark over at Craigslist, the community of The Well and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The likes of Peter Thiel is a comparatively recent phenomenon in Silicon Valley

We had the first inkling about privacy when online ad companies (NebuAd and Phorm) partnered with internet service providers. They used ‘deep packet inspection’ data to analyse a users behaviour, and then serve ‘relevant ads.

Tim Cook fits into the ‘we’ quite neatly. He is a late ‘baby boomer’ who came into adulthood right at the beginning of the PC revolution. He had a front row seat as PCs, nascent data networks and globalisation changed the modern world. He worked at IBM and Compaq during this time.

Cook moved to Apple at an interesting time. Jobs had returned with the NeXT acquisition. The modern macOS was near ready and there was a clear roadmap for developers. The iMac was going into production and would be launched in August.

Many emphasise the move to USB connectors, or the design which brought the Mac Classic format up to date. The key feature was a built in modem and simple way to get online once you turned the machine on. Apple bundled ethernet and a modem in the machine. It also came with everything you needed preloaded to up an account with an ISP. No uploading software, no errant modem drivers, no DLL conflicts. It just worked. Apple took care selecting ISPs that it partnered with, which also helped.

By this time China was well on its way to taking its place in global supply chains. China would later join the World Trade Organisation in 2001.

The start of Tim Cook’s career at Apple coincided with with the internet the way we knew it. And the company benefited from the more counter culture aspects of the technology industry:

  • Open source software (KDE Conqueror, BSD, Mach)
  • Open standards (UNIX, SyncML)
  • Open internet standards (IMAP, WebCAL, WebDav)

By the time that Facebook was founded. Open source and globalisation where facts of life in the technology sector. They do open source because that’s the rules of business now. It is noticeable that Facebook’s businesses don’t help grow the commons like Flickr did.

Businesses like Flickr, delicious and others built in a simple process to export your data. Facebook and similar businesses have a lot less progressive attitudes to user control over data.

Cook is also old enough to value privacy, having grown up in a less connected and less progressive age.  It was only in 2014 that Cook became the first publicly gay CEO of a Fortune 100 company. It is understandable why Cook would be reticent about his sexuality.

He is only a generation younger than the participants in the riots at the Stonewall Inn.

By comparison, for Zuckerberg and his peers:

  • The 1960s and counterculture were a distant memory
  • The cold war has been won and just a memory of what it was like for Eastern Europeans to live under a surveillance state
  • Wall Street and Microsoft were their heroes. Being rich was more important than the intrinsic quality of the product
  • Ayn Rand was more of a guiding star than Ram Dass

They didn’t think about what kind of dark underbelly that platforms could have and older generations of technologists generally thought too well of others to envisage the effects. You have to had a pretty dim view of fellow human beings.

More information
Tim Cook brought his pro-privacy views to his Duke commencement speech today | Recode
Bugging ring around Ireland | Duncan Campbell (1999) PDF document
The ECHELON Affair The EP and the global interception system 1998 – 2002 (European Parliament History Series) by Franco Piodi and Iolanda Mombelli for the European Parliament Research Unit – PDF document
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