The media of me: it’s not about the technology

media of me post

Wadds came up with 13 theses about media with more than a nod and a wink to The Cluetrain Manifesto. The main thrust of it is that the media model is broken, technology has a lot of the blame at its door.

Picking through it are some worthy aspirations, but it was diagnosing symptoms rather than causes. I believe that the main problems are wetware, not software. People and civil society rather than networks and servers.

Technology has its own momentum
As with many things, the reality and where we are going is much more complex. Kevin Kelly posited that technological progress is a natural force of its own. He called this force the ‘technium’. It is not moral, it doesn’t understand good or bad. It can be slowed down for a time, but never stopped.

Even during the European dark ages, the golden age in Muslim countries saw Arab scholars:

  • Collate classical knowledge
  • Translate it into their own language
  • Build upon the body of knowledge

This knowledge came back into Europe. It helped provide a foundation for the renaissance.

We’re not going to be able to stop bots or algorithms. As they improve; their impact will be harder to discern. There will be a tension in online platforms; shareholder value versus good citizenship.

Digital is a winner takes all world
As with many previous technology markets such as the PC and smartphone operating systems online is an oligopoly of two. Digital media provides a disproportionate amount of benefit to very few platforms.

Facebook and Google count for 85-90% of online advertising growth.

In China, online media is dominated by Tencent and Baidu. We could ‘Balkanise’ the media landscape. But that would mean a poorer experience for users outside the US and China. The technology sector does not have:

  • Commercial scale in funding
  • Sufficient talent
  • Comparable addressable markets

Timms & Heimans hypothesis of ‘new power vs. old power’ rubs up against technology as an uncomfortable vector.

This all means that the tensions in society, civic society and societal discourse is accelerated and amplified.

From the perspective of technology platforms this isn’t their problem. They are only tackling it with reluctance, they don’t have a silver bullet solution.
In their eyes:

  • ‘Online’ isn’t a problem, it is the breakdown in social norms, which are then amplified and gamed online
  • In the real world we’re insulated from views unless we chose to explore alternatives. Algorithms have amplified this process further to create a filter bubble. Algorithms are only mimicing our natural desires. This is mirrored in the lack real-world discourse and polarisation of views
  • Algorithms are accused of having a reductive effect on an individuals breadth of media consumption. News feed algorithms jobs are to make platforms money. Before their widespread use netizens widely flocked to chatrooms and forums with a similar narrow focus. News readers using RSS which would allow individuals to read widely have proved to be only a niche interest

Reading widely is important to be being well informed, but its a conscious choice that people have to make. But in order to read widely one has to be:

  • Sufficiently educated to be confident in their reading ability
  • Confident enough to ignore any scorn that might come from ‘books, learning and being an expert’
  • Sufficiently curious to have the motivation to read
  • Having sufficient time to be able to read

These bullets are affected by quality of education, social norms and income. If you are just getting by with a series of side hustle jobs you might too time poor to read widely.

These are not universal traits in society. In the UK the idea of the self-educated literate working-man who goes to classes at the Mechanics Institute is long dead. That wasn’t done by Facebook or Google.

The notion of an easily swayed populus wasn’t an invention of Cambridge Analytica, Google or Facebook. The Roman poet Juvenal famous for the concept of ‘bread and circuses’ would see something similar in populist politics. From Brexit, to Germany’s AfD the focus on diversion, distraction and immediate satisfaction ‘palliative’. A significant amount of common people are selfish in nature and often pay little attention to wider concerns.

A quote from near the end of Jean-Paul Satre’s play No Exit sums it up quite well

“All those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE!”

Whilst in a democracy, all opinions should have the opportunity to be voiced; should they have a right to be heard? Should politicians really reflect the will of the people? I think there is a strong argument to be made against it. I am not advocating authoritarian rule, but that we need leaders who reflect on the greater good. Edmund Burke – one of the founding fathers of British conservatism is a widely cited example of a politician who didn’t reflect the will of the people. Burke recognised that democracy can create a tyranny over unpopular minorities. He didn’t consider politicians to be delegates; conduits for votes without moral responsibility.

He is widely cited as being a better man for it:

  • Burke viewed the British conduct in India under the East India Company immoral
  • He advocated representation for American colonists
  • Acknowledgement of wrongdoing by the Crown in America and an appropriate apology

Facts versus Emotion
Facts and emotion have always duelled and facts have frequently come off the worse for it. Western politicians from Adolf Hitler to Barrack Obama have little in common except being successful exponents of rhetoric and emotion in their speeches. Technical skills and knowledge don’t make the cut. A classic example of this is the dissonance between the advice of John Redwood as a strategist with Charles Stanley versus his political stance on Brexit. Mr Redwood knows what works as a politician.

Those that wield emotion now, have a greater understanding of how it works. It is why populist organisations win. It is why experts fail to persuade voters to act in their own interest. That won’t change with technology but with stonger, harsher electoral commission powers.

Fact versus Fiction
Yellow journalism and fiction has been with us for as long as civilisation existed. It’s modern roots are in the American media industry of the late 19th century, as publishers battled for circulation. They work because audiences love ‘good stories’. A good story is one that:

  • Surprises
  • Entertains
  • Reinforces our own beliefs

American journalist Frank Mott listed the following characteristics of :

  • Scare headlines
  • Lavish use of images
  • Faked expertise: misleading headlines pseudo-science and false learnings

All of Mott’s points sound like a thoroughly modern media playbook. Yellow journalism pioneers Hearst & Pulitzer were only stopped by public vilification and shame. Pullitzer Price, like the Nobel Prize was a penitent act at the end of a successful  media career. Hearst & Pullitzer were owner-proprietors, it is a lot harder (though not impossible) to shame a public company today. The bigger issue is that a century of mass-media practice has lowered the bar in standards for ‘new media’ companies. A brutal legislative machine that would replace compliance through guilt with compliance through fear is a possible solution. However the legislative executive by its nature tends to favour the wealthy.

More information
What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly
Trend Watch: New Power v. Old Power by Beth Comstock
No Exit and Three Other Plays by Jean Paul Sartre
Satires by Juvenal
Media of me: 13 theses

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Ten years of the Kindle

Amazon Kindle & Sony eBook

Amazon is celebrating 10 years of the Kindle so it makes sense to reflect on the device and the service.

Rather like Apple products Kindle is a combination of hardware, software (including content), payment infrastructure and the Whispernet global mobile virtual network.

Like Apple, Amazon came in and refined an existing business model. Companies like Sony made very nice e-readers, but they didn’t have the publisher relationships and market access that Amazon had.

Context rather than convergence

In a time where consumer electronics thinking was all about convergence, from the newly launched iPhone to the Symbian eco-system Amazon were determined to come up with a single purpose device.

Amazon resisted the trend and created a dedicated device for reading. That is why you have a black-and-white e-ink screen and an experience exclusively focused on seamless content downloads.

Yes, they’ve rolled out tablets since, but even the latest range stick to the original Kindle playbook. Some of their decisions were quite prescient. The Kindle was deliberately designed so that it didn’t require content to be side loaded from personal computer like an iPod.

The Kindle has survived the smartphone and the tablet device as a reading experience.

Using the U.S. legal system to clear the field

Amazon was helped out by the US government prosecuting Apple under the Sherman Act. Wikipedia has a good summary of this case. On the face of it Apple was doing a similar structured deal with publishers on book pricing to what it had done previously with record companies for iTunes music.

This case effectively stalled Apple book store momentum and lumbered Apple with overzealous US government overwatch. The consumer benefit has been minimal – more on that later. The irony of all this is the way Amazon has leveraged its monopolistic position to decimate entire sectors of the retail economy.

The interesting thing about this case, say compared to the Apple | Qualcomm dispute is that Apple still kept Audible audio book sales in iTunes throughout this dispute and didn’t look at ways to bounce the iPad Kindle app from the app store. Audible is an Amazon-owned company.

By comparison, Amazon bounced Apple’s TV from its own e-commerce platform and has taken a long time to support the AppleTV app eco-system – long after the likes of Netflix.

Piracy in China

Amazon hasn’t had it all its own way. China had a burgeoning e-book market prior to the Kindle and Chinese consumers used to read these books on their laptops.  Depending which store you used; it might have more books at a cheaper price because intellectual property wasn’t ironed out.

A cottage industry sprang up that saw Kindles acquired in the US and Japan shipped back to China and reflashed with software that made them compatible with the local app stores.

The Kindle brain phenomenon

I moved from the UK to Hong Kong to take up a role and tried to lighten my burden by moving my reading from books to the Kindle. I found that I didn’t retain the content I read. I enjoyed the process of reading less and did it less often. I wasn’t an e-book neophyte I had enjoyed reading vintage pulp fiction novels as ebooks on Palm devices and Nokia phones in the early 2000s as a way of passing them time on my commute.

Talking to friends their experience was similar. I now read on the Kindle or listen to audio books only for pleasure. I tend to buy my reference books in the dead tree format. There is something more immediate about the process of reading from a ‘real book’ rather than an e-book.

It seems that digital natives aren’t ready to give up books just yet. Studies about the use of digital technology and e-books in education are mixed and anecdotal evidence suggests that technology industry leaders liked to keep the level of digital content in their children’s lives at a low threshold.

The Kindle hasn’t replaced the bookshelf and the printing press yet.

Pricing

Disposing of the medium didn’t mean that we got cheaper e-books. On Amazon it is worth looking carefully to see what is the cheapest format on a case by case basis. Kindle competes against print books and secondhand books.

Secondhand books win hands down when you are looking at materials beyond bestsellers. A real-world book is easier to gift and Amazon Prime allows for almost instant gratification. The Kindle starts to look like Amazon covering all the bases rather than the future of publishing. This may change over time, a decade into online news was a more mixed media environment than it is now – but Kindle feels as if it has reached a balance at the moment.

More information
New study suggests ebooks could negatively affect how we comprehend what we read | USA Today
Shelve paperbacks in favour of E-books in schools? | BBC
Study challenges popular beliefs on e-reading | The Educator
Are Digital Textbooks Finally Taking Hold? | Good eReader – makes the case for a heterogenous book environment of standard textbooks, e-books and used books
Do ‘Digital Natives’ Prefer Paper Books to E-Books? | Education Week
Our love affair with digital is over | New York Times (paywall)

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Throwback gadget: Sony Walkman WM-R202

sony wmr202
Back when I started work I was obliged to do night classes in chemistry. It was tough going (partly because I wasn’t that focused) and my existing Walkman WM-24 whilst good had given up the ghost.  I decided to put what money I had towards a Sony WM-R202.

Why that model:

  • It could record reasonably well which I convinced myself would be handy for lectures. It was not up to a Pro Walkman standard as the Dolby circuit fitted was for playback only. (I couldn’t afford the professional grade WM-D6C at the time and they weren’t the kind of device that you could easily fit in a pocket either. They were big and substantial.)
  • It had a good reputation for playback. Not only did it have Dolby B noise reduction and auto reverse on cassette playback, but it held the cassette really well to its metal construction. I learned the benefits of good tape cassette fit in a rigid mechanism the hard way. I had got hold of a WM-36 which on paper looked better than my previous Walkman with Dolby NR and and a graphic equaliser, but hand to keep the door closed with an elastic band. It was a sheep dressed up as a wolf
  • Probably the biggest reason was that it intrigued me being not much larger than an early iPod and was crafted with a jeweller’s precision. It was powered by a single AA battery or a NiCd battery about the size of a couple of sticks of chewing gum. It looked sexy as hell in in a brushed silver metal finish.

Whilst the buttons on the device might seem busy in comparison to software driven smartphones it was a surprisingly well designed user experience. None of them caught on clothing, the main controls fell easily to hand and I can’t remember ever having to use the manual.

What soon became apparent is that you needed to handle it very carefully to get cassettes in and out. I used to carefully tease the cassettes in and out. Despite my care one day it stopped working.  Given that mine lasted about two weeks, I am guessing that mine was a lemon and that the build quality must have been generally high as you can still see them on eBay and Yahoo! Auctions in Japan.

Since mine gave out well within a warranty period, I look it back to the shop and put the money towards a Sony D-250 Discman instead.

Here’s a video in Japanese done by someone selling a vintage WMR-202 on Yahoo! Auctions which shows you all the features in more depth.

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Five for Friday | 五日(星期五)

Things that made my day this week:

Pretty much everything that you really need to know about fake news.

Scott Galloway framed these questions as the ones that politicians should be asking of Facebook et al; I also think that smart shareholders should be putting these questions on the table as well

Air France Music – via our Matt

I love this tour though the history of the Honda Civic

“Tup-e-Tung”, or the Afghan War Rug – The Firearm BlogThe Firearm Blog – really nice article on how the series of wars that regularly punctuate the country’s modern history have impacted traditional carpet design

Oprah time: The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone by Brian Merchant

I bought this book when it came out in July and have gone back and forth reading it. I’d read books on Silicon Valley before; the Apple eulogising Insanely Great by Steven Levy which told of the graft and hard work that went into the original Macintosh or Where Wizards Stay Up Late by Hafner & Lyon which discussed engineers exceeding long works. My favourite one is still Robert X Cringely’s Accidental Empires that portrays Gates as a coupon-clipping megalomaniac and Steve Jobs as a sociopath cut from the same cloth as Josef Stalin.

Merchant’s The One Device is different. It doesn’t eulogise in the same way, but it also lacks immediacy as it feels detached from its subject matter. Unlike Levy’s work, Apple didn’t cooperate with Merchant at all. The book is broad in scope and sometimes loses its way, each one of the chapters could have been an interesting short book in their own right and this leaves it being faintly unsatisfactory.  I guess this is one of the reasons why it took me so long to read it.

In the meantime the book stirred controversy over quotes attributed to Tony Fadell about then colleague Phil Schiller.  This made me cast a critical eye over some of Merchant’s adventures in the book. In particular inside the Foxconn industrial complex.

On a more positive note, Merchant’s vision is grander than previous authors. One man’s mission to pull all the intellectual threads together on what made up the iPhone. The iPhone moves from becoming the child of an over-worked and under-appreciated Apple engineering team to being the totem of a global village.

If you’ve read a quality newspaper you know what he’s going to say about the global supply chain. He also touches on the decades of software and technology development that led up to the iPhone.  How its multi-touch interface came out of a 1990s doctoral thesis. Ultimately the value of Merchant’s book many not be his writing, but instead becoming a new template for journalists writing on Silicon Valley to look beyond the David & Goliath mono-myth and instead dig into the tangled history of innovation.