2017 Predictions

This piece was written for the BBC World Service’s Business Daily.

This year is going to be an interesting one, but in technology it’s going to be particularly so. Social media is going to see some reverses, as users start to wake up to the compromises they make in sharing information with companies, governments and the world. But the real progress is going to be making our machines understand us better, in ways that we want.

Artificial intelligence: you’re no doubt rolling your eyes at the phrase, given how many times this technology has been promised as being around the next corner. I’m with you. But I think the focus has been on the wrong place: voice. Apple’s Siri has not been a huge success — except for my daughter, who loves talking to an adult she can be rude to — and Amazon’s Alexa, though impressive, is going to confine itself to those places where we feel comfortable talking to machines: the home.

That makes it inherently limited. Ours is actually a largely text-based world — we still use email, we prefer to text, or Whatsapp our friends, and this is where AI is going to be most useful. I already use an AI assistant called Evie to schedule my appointments; she parses emails I send her and, with a little human help, sets up meetings and calls on my behalf. I save an hour or so a week.

Expect to see more of this: using natural language – the way we usually write — to interact with devices, not via special apps but via whatever channels we already use. It’s our devices — fridges, computers, databases — that have to learn our language and preferred medium, not the other way around. AI will be a success if it can master this, and this year will be key.

Indeed, the same principle will be applied elsewhere: removing the machine-like elements of our interactions. AI will help us talk to machines better, but machines will also help immerse us in experiences. Pokemon Go, the mobile app that led many people astray catching and battling weird critters, was a hit because it took a decade-old technology, augmented reality, and bolted it onto something that people actually found useful. Well, not useful, exactly, but compelling.

Augmented reality took technology into the real world, and gave it an enticing layer. The next step — using technology to shrink the distance between people and the real world. Optimists are calling it teleportation — moving you to places you wouldn’t normally go, or can’t go. That could be a 360 degree video from a live event, or drones filming from way above you, or even experiencing something akin to physical touch with someone whose far away from you. A Singapore startup offers a remote kissing machine, which it of course has called the Kissenger.

Industry is getting excited about this because it sees the possibility of creating a digital twin of a real world device — a turbine say — and then manage and experiment on that digital version of the real thing. A Malaysian company does something similar with corpses — scanning the deceased so that post-mortems can be conducted digitally. The original body is left untouched — which may please relatives, but also means the number of post-mortems can be limitless, and performed by someone on the other side of the world.

All of this technology is available now, but it still takes some vision and money to bring it to market. But what people want is clear enough: technology should bring people closer to each other and their machines, but stay out of the way as much as possible. We may not successfully wean ourselves off our mobile screens any time soon, but we could at least make what we see, hear, and do on those screens as useful, exciting and human as possible.

BBC World Service – Smell tech

At the end of this program is my piece on smell technology, if you like that kind of thing. BBC World Service – Business Daily, UK FinTech Mulls a Post-Brexit Future (with everything else going on it might seem a bit flippant, or maybe light relief. 

Can the UK’s financial technology or FinTech sector maintain its global lead after Brexit? We speak to Lawrence Wintermeyer, the chairman of the industry’s trade body Innovate Finance, about what he hopes the British government will negotiate in a new deal with the EU. Also, Michael Pettis, professor of finance at Peking University, tells us what Brexit looks like from China and why financial markets have been resilient to the initial shock of the referendum’s result. Plus, what’s the point of a smart phone that can smell? Jeremy Wagstaff, Thomson Reuters’ chief technology correspondent for Asia, says you may be surprise. 

BBC: Game of Drones

Here’s the BBC World Service version of my Reuters piece on drones from a few months back. Transcript below:

America may still be the tech centre of the world — and it is — but regulatory dithering over whether and how to allow drones — or unmanned aerial vehicles as most call them — in its airspace is throwing up opportunities for other countries to get a head-start.

And that’s no small thing, for a couple of reasons. One is that drones as an industry is moving amazingly quickly. Some liken it to the PC: the technology is getting better, smaller, cheaper, and prices are falling so rapidly that everyone can have one, and the gap between what constitutes a serious drone and a toy has narrowed considerably.

There’s another element in this, and it’s also comparable to the PC era. Back then we knew we all wanted a PC but we weren’t quite sure what we wanted it for. We bought one anyway, and felt slightly guilty that it sat in the corner gathering dust. Naysayers questioned the future of an industry that seemed to revolve around convincing people to buy something even when they couldn’t give them a reason to do so.

Sound familiar? A lot of folk, including my self, have bought a drone in the past year. Mine was a tiny one and upon its maiden flight floated high into the air and disappeared into next door’s garden. Its second landed in a gutter that could only be reached by small children and my wife drew the line at sending our daughter up there. So I’m now drone-less.

This is the bigger issue with drones — not whether to propel reluctant tikes up ladders, but to figure out what they’re good for. And this is where companies in Europe and Asia are stealing a march on their U.S. cousins. The hardware is all well and good but the future of drones, like that of computers, is going to be about harnessing their unique capabilities to solving problems, developing use cases, building ecosystems (sorry, I’m obliged by contract to use that word at least once a week) .

So, for example, a company here in Singapore is working with companies and government agencies around the region on a range of interesting things — what they and others are calling drones as a service. So if you’re flying over a palm oil plantation in Malaysia doing something quite basic like mapping where, exactly, the edges of the property are, why not calibrate your cameras so they can also measure moisture level — and likely yield — of individual trees?

And rather than have building engineers hang dangerously out of skyscrapers to check structural damage, why not have a drone do it? Not only do you save on safety, you also have a virtual model of your building you can refer back to. Tired of despatching dog catchers in response to citizens’ complaints? Deploy a drone above the target areas and build a heat map of their movements so you know when best to pounce, and how many leads you’re going to need.

There’s lots of other opportunities being explored out there beyond the obvious ones. The trick is going to build business models around theses services so when companies see drones they don’t think ‘toy I play with at the weekend’ but ‘this could really help me do something I’ve long thought impossible’.

No question, of course, that the U.S. will be the centre of drone innovation. It already is, if you think in terms of developing the technologies and absorbing venture capital. But it may yet be companies beyond American shores which make the most of their head-start that emerge into major players as drones become as commonplace in business, if not homes, as computers are.

BBC: The Rise of Disappearables

The transcript of my BBC World Service piece on wearables. Reuters original story here

Forget ‘wearables’, and even ‘hearables’, if you’ve ever heard of them. The next big thing in mobile devices: ‘disappearables’.

Unless it really messes up, Apple is going to do for wearables with the Watch what is has done with the iPod for music players, the phone with its iPhone, the iPad for tablets. But even as Apple piques consumer interest in wrist-worn devices, the pace of innovation and the tumbling cost, and size, of components will make wearables smaller and smaller. So small, some in the industry say, that no one will see them. In five years, wearables like the Watch could be overtaken by hearables – devices with tiny chips and sensors that can fit inside your ear. They, in turn, could be superseded by disappearables – technology tucked inside your clothing, or even inside your body.

This all may sound rather unlikely, until you consider the iPhone is only 8 years old, and see what has happened to the phone since then. Not only do we consider the smartphone a status symbol in the salons of New York, but they’re something billions of people can afford. So it seems highly plausible that the watch as a gizmo is going to seem quaint in 10 years — as quaint as our feature phone, or net book or MP3 player is now.


So how is this all going to play out? Well this year you’ll be able to buy a little earpiece which contains a music player, 4 gigabytes of storage, a microphone to take phone calls – just nod your head to accept – and sensors that monitor your position, heart rate and body temperature.

Soon after that you’ll be able to buy contact lenses that can measure things like glucose levels in tears. Or swallow a chip the size of a grain of sand, powered by stomach juices and transmitting data about your insides via Bluetooth. For now everyone is focused on medical purposes, but there’s no reason that contact lens couldn’t also be beaming stuff back to you in real time — nice if you’re a politician being able to gauge the response to your speech so you can tweak it in real time.

Or you’re on a date and needing feedback on your posture, gait, the quality of your jokes. 

In short, hearables and wearables will become seeables and disappearables. We won’t see these things because they’ll be buried in fabric, on the skin, under the skin and inside the body. We won’t attack someone for wearing Google Glasses  because we won’t know they’re wearing them. 

Usual caveats apply. This isn’t as easy as it looks, and there’ll be lots of slips on the way. But the underlying technologies are there: components are getting smaller, cheaper, so why not throw in a few extra sensors into a device, even if you haven’t activated them, and are not quite sure what they could be used for? 

Secondly, there’s the ethical stuff. As you know, I’m big on this and we probably haven’t thought all this stuff through. Who owns all this data? Is it being crunched properly by people who know what they’re doing? What are bad guys and governments doing in all this, as they’re bound to be doing something? And how can we stop people collecting data on us if we don’t want them to? 

All good questions. But all questions we should be asking now, of the technologies already deployed in our street, in our office, in the shops we frequent, in the apps we use and the websites we visit. It’s not the technology that’s moving too fast; it’s us moving too slow.

Once the technology is too small to see it may be too late to have that conversation.  

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BBC: Cluetraining Disruption

Has technology, convinced of its own rectitude, lost its sense of moral direction? 

Disruptive innovation is one of those terms that worms its way into our vocabulary, a bit like built-in obsolescence or upselling. It’s become the mantra of the tech world, awhich sees its author Clayton Christensen, as a sort of messiah of the changes we’re seeing in industries from taxis, hotels and media. Briefly put the theory goes: existing companies are undercut and eventually replaced by competitors who leverage technology to come up with inferior but good enough alternatives — think the transistor radio displacing vacuum tube radios — or come up with wholly new products that eventually eclipse existing markets — think the iPhone killing off the MP3 player (and radios, and watches, and cameras, and guitar tuners etc.) 

Backlash 

A backlash has emerged against this theory, partly because it’s somewhat flawed — even Prof Christensen himself has misapplied it, as in the case of the iPhone — but also because it’s scary. Uber may be a great idea if you’re looking for a ride, but not if you’re an old-style cabbie. Airbnb is great for a place to crash, but feels like a car crash if you’re running a real b’n’b. And don’t get me started on being a journalist.   But there’s a much bigger problem here. The tech world is full of very inspiring, bright, charismatic people and that’s one reason I choose to write about it for a living. But it has changed in the past decade or so, undeniably. 15 years ago, just before the last dot.com crash, a tome appeared: The Cluetrain Manifesto, and you’d either read it or you hadn’t. It was a collection of writings by some fine thinkers, the great bloggers of the day like Doc Searls and Dave Weinberger. The main thesis: the Internet is unlike ordinary, mass media, because it allows human to human conversations — and that this would transform marketing, business, the way we think. Markets are conversations, it said.   For a while we were giddy with the power this gave us over corporations. We could speak back to them — on blogs, and later on what became known as social media. Even Microsoft hired a blogger and let him be a tiny bit critical of things at Redmond.

Last blast

Looking back, it was probably the last naive blast of the old dying Internet rather than a harbinger of the new. The language, if not the underlying philosophy, lives on in conferences and marketing pitches. Most social media conversations are harsh, mostly inhuman — we refer to deliberate online baiters as trolls, which I suppose makes them subhuman — and we’ve largely given up influencing the companies we do business with except in the occasional diatribe or flash hashtag full frontal mob assault.

And more importantly, there is no longer any of that idealism or utopianism in any startup movement that I can see. For sure, we cheer on these players because they seem to offer something very seductive, from free email, calendars, spreadsheets to cheaper rides, stays, music, video and goodies, to shinier bling, gadgets, wearables and cars. And they all sing the same mantra: we’re disruptive, we’re disintermediating, we’re leveraging technology, we’re removing friction, we’re displacing old cozy cartels, we’re doing it all for you.

The problem is that underneath this lies an assumption, an arrogance, that technology is a natural ally of good, that disruption is always a good thing, that the geeks parlaying it into products are natural leaders, and that those opposing it are reactionaries, doomed to the scrapheap.

Rapid cycle

The result: we’re just getting into a more rapid cycle of replacing one lot of aloof, cloth-eared giants with another lot, who in short order will be replaced by another. Microsoft, IBM, and HP, the giants of when Cluetrain was written, have been replaced by Amazon, Apple, Alibaba, Facebook and Google, all of them as hard to hold a conversation with as Microsoft ever was. And the big players of tomorrow, which may or may not be Uber, Airbnb, Tencent and Twitter, don’t seem particularly interested in a conversation either.

We need to recover some of that old Cluetrain idealism, naivety, when we thought that what we were doing was building a new platform for anyone to use, to talk back to authority, to feel heard and appreciated — and not just a cult-like celebration of the rugged individuals who dismantled Babel only to build a bigger, shinier and more remote one its place.

This was a piece I wrote and recorded for the BBC World Service. It’s not Reuters content – JW

BBC: Beyond the Breach

The script of my Reuters story on cybersecurity. Podcast available here (

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)

If you’re getting tired of internet security companies using images of padlocks, moats, drawbridges and barbed wire in their ads, then chances are you won’t have to put up with them much longer.

Turns out that keeping the bad guys out of your office network has largely failed. All those metaphors suggesting castles, unassailable battlements, locked doors are being quietly replaced by another shtick: the bad guys are in your network, but we’ll find them, watch what they do, and try to ensure they don’t break anything or steal anything valuable.

Which is slightly worrying, if you thought firewalls, antivirus and the like were going to save you.

You’re probably tired of the headlines about cybersecurity breaches: U.S. insurer Anthem Inc saying hackers may have made off with some 80 million personal health records, while others raided Sony Pictures’ computers and released torrents of damaging emails and employee data.

Such breaches, say people in the industry, show the old ways have failed, and now is the chance for younger, nimbler companies selling services to protect data and outwit attackers. These range from disguising valuable data, diverting attackers up blind alleys, and figuring out how to mitigate breaches once the data has already gone. It’s a sort of cat and mouse game, only going on inside your computers.

Cybersecurity, of course, is big business. $70 billion was spent on it last year.

Of course, we’re partly to blame. We insist on using our tablets and smartphones for work; we access Facebook and LinkedIn from the office. All this offers attackers extra opportunities to gain access to their networks.

But it’s also because the attackers and their methods have changed. Cyber criminals and spies are being overshadowed by politically or religiously motivated activists, and these guys don’t want to just steal stuff, they want to hurt their victim. And they have hundreds of ways of doing it.

And they’re usually successful. All these new services operate on the assumption that the bad guy is already inside your house, as it were. And may have been there months. Research by IT security company FireEye found that “attackers are bypassing conventional security deployments almost at will.” Across industries from legal to healthcare it found nearly all systems had been breached.

Where there’s muck there’s brass, as my mother would say. Funding these start-ups are U.S- and Europe-based venture capital firms which sense another industry ripe for disruption.

Google Ventures and others invested $22 million in ThreatStream in December, while Bessemer Venture Partners last month invested $30 million in iSIGHT Partners.

Companies using these services aren’t your traditional banks and  whatnot. UK-based Darktrace, which uses maths and machine learning to spot abnormalities in a network that might be an attack, has a customers like a British train franchise and a Norwegian shipping insurer.

But it’s early days. Most companies still blithely think they’re immune, either because they think they don’t have anything worth stealing or deleting, or because they think a firewall and an antivirus program are enough.

And of course, there’s another problem. As cyber breaches get  worse, and cybersecurity becomes a more valuable business, expect the hype, marketing and dramatic imagery to grow, making it ever more confusing for the lay person to navigate.

I’ve not seen them yet, but I’m guessing for these new companies the shield and helmet images will be replaced by those of SAS commandos, stealthily patrolling silicon corridors. Or maybe it’ll be Tom, laying mousetraps for his nemesis. Might be apt: Jerry the cheese thief always seemed to win.

BBC : The Mantra of Disruption

A piece I recorded for the BBC World Service. Not Reuters content. 

Disruptive innovation is like one of those terms that worms its way into our vocabulary, a bit like built-in obsolescence or upselling.   It’s become the mantra of the tech world, awhich sees its author Clayton Christensen, as a sort of messiah of the changes we’re seeing in industries from taxis, hotels and media. Briefly put the theory goes: existing companies are undercut and eventually replaced by competitors who leverage technology to come up with inferior but good enough alternatives — think the transistor radio displacing vacuum tube radios — or come up with wholly new products that eventually eclipse existing markets — think the iPhone killing off the MP3 player (and radios, and watches, and cameras, and guitar tuners etc.) 

A backlash has emerged against this theory, partly because it’s somewhat flawed — even Prof Christensen himself has misapplied it, as in the case of the iPhone — but also because it’s scary. Uber may be a great idea if you’re looking for a ride, but not if you’re an old-style cabbie. Airbnb is great for a place to crash, but feels like a car crash if you’re running a real b’n’b. And don’t get me started on being a journalist. 

But there’s a much bigger problem here. The tech world is full of very inspiring, bright, charismatic people and that’s one reason I choose to write about it for a living. But it has changed in the past decade or so, undeniably.   15 years ago, just before the last dot.com crash, a tome appeared: The Cluetrain Manifesto, and you’d either read it or you hadn’t. It was a collection of writings by some fine thinkers, the great bloggers of the day like Doc Searls and Dave Weinberger. The main thesis: the Internet is unlike ordinary, mass media, because it allows human to human conversations — and that this would transform marketing, business, the way we think. Markets are conversations, it said. 

For a while we were giddy with the power this gave us over corporations. We could speak back to them — on blogs, and later on what became known as social media. Even Microsoft hired a blogger and let him be a tiny bit critical of things at Redmond. 

Looking back, it was probably the last naive blast of the old dying Internet rather than a harbinger of the new. The language, if not the underlying philosophy, lives on in conferences and marketing pitches. Most social media conversations are harsh, mostly inhuman — we refer to deliberate online baiters as trolls, which I suppose makes them subhuman — and we’ve largely given up influencing the companies we do business with except in the occasional diatribe or flash hashtag full frontal mob assault.  

And more importantly, there is no longer any of that idealism or utopianism in any startup movement that I can see. For sure, we cheer on these players because they seem to offer something very seductive, from free email, calendars, spreadsheets to cheaper rides, stays, music, video and goodies, to shinier bling, gadgets, wearables and cars. And they all sing the same mantra: we’re disruptive, we’re disintermediating, we’re leveraging technology, we’re removing friction, we’re displacing old cozy cartels, we’re doing it all for you. 

The problem is that underneath this lies an assumption, an arrogance,  that technology is a natural ally of good, that disruption is always a good thing, that the geeks parlaying it into products are natural leaders, and that those opposing it are reactionaries, doomed to the scrapheap. 

The result: we’re just getting into a more rapid cycle of replacing one lot of aloof, cloth-eared giants with another lot, who in short order will be replaced by another. Microsoft, IBM, and HP, the giants of when Cluetrain was written, have been replaced by Amazon, Apple, Alibaba, Facebook and Google, all of them as hard to hold a conversation with as Microsoft ever was. And the big players of tomorrow, which may or may not be Uber, Airbnb, Tencent and Twitter, don’t seem particularly interested in a conversation either. 

We need to recover some of that old Cluetrain idealism, naivety, when we thought that what we were doing was building a new platform for anyone to use, to talk back to authority, to feel heard and appreciated — and not just a cult-like celebration of the rugged individuals who dismantled Babel only to build a bigger, shinier and more remote one its place. 

BBC: Cars we can’t drive

Let’s face it: we’re not about to have driverless cars in our driveway any time soon. Soonest: a decade. Latest: a lot longer, according to the folk I’ve spoken to.

But in some ways, if you’ve got the dosh, you can already take your foot off the gas and hands off the steering wheel. Higher end cars have what are called active safety features, such as warning you if you stray out of your lane, or if you’re about to fall asleep, or which let the car take over the driving if you’re in heavy, slow moving traffic. Admittedly these are just glimpses of what could happen, and take the onus off you for a few seconds, but they’re there. Already.

The thinking behind all this: More than 90% (roughly, depends who you talk to) of all accidents are caused by human error. So, the more we have the car driving, the fewer the accidents. And there is data that appears to support that. The US-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that forward collision warning systems led to a 7% reduction in collisions between vehicles.

But that’s not quite the whole story. For one thing, performing these feats isn’t easy. Getting a car, for example, to recognise a wandering pedestrian is one of the thorniest problems that a scientist working in computer vision could tackle, because you and I may look very different — unlike, say, another car, or a lamppost, or a traffic sign. We’re tall, short, fat, thin, we were odd clothes and we are unpredictable — just because we’re walking towards the kerb at a rate of knots, does that mean we’re about to walk in to the road?

Get this kind of thing wrong and you might have a top of the range Mercedes Benz slam on the brakes for nothing. The driver might forgive the car’s computer the first time, but not the second. And indeed, this is a problem for existing safety features — is that a beep to warn you when you’re reversing too close to an object, or you haven’t put your seatbelt on, or you’re running low on windscreen fluid, or bceause you’re straying into oncoming traffic? We quickly filter out warning noises and flashing lights, as airplane designers have found to their (and their pilots’) cost.

Indeed, there’s a school of thought that says that we’re making a mistake by even partially automating this kind of thing. For one thing, we need to know what exactly is going on: are we counting on our car to warn us about things that might happen, and, in the words of the tech industry “mitigate for us”? Or are these interventions just things that might happen some of the time, if we’re lucky, but not something we can rely on?

If so, what exactly is the point of that? What would be the point of an airbag that can’t be counted on to deploy, or seatbelts that only work some of the time? And then there’s the bigger, philosophical issue: for those people learning to drive for the first time, what are these cars telling them: that they don’t have to worry too much about sticking to lanes, because the car will do it for you? And what happens when they find themselves behind the wheel of a car that doesn’t have those features?

Maybe it’s a good thing we’re seeing these automated features now — because it gives us a chance to explore these issues before the Google car starts driving itself down our street and we start living in a world, not just of driverless cars, but of cars that people don’t know how to drive.

This is a piece I wrote for the BBC World Service, based on a Reuters story.

BBC: World Without Wires

This is a version of my (and Noel’s) Reuters piece on wireless charging, recorded for the BBC World Service. 

Without question, in a few years’ time our children will look back at pictures of this era and ask us what those little pieces of string are snaking across our desktops, bedside tables, mantelpieces and car dashboards. 

“They’re cables, son. We used them to charge our devices.” 

“Charge them with what, Dad? What had they done wrong?”

You get the picture. In the future, and in some lucky places even now, you don’t need to connect your phone, your tablet or even your car to a charger or wall socket because of something magical called wireless charging. Or to give it its technical term, not having to think about how much juice you’ve got left in your device because you can just lay it on the table in Starbucks, or in the car, or on your friend’s sideboard, and let magnetic induction, magnetic resonance, ultrasound, radio frequencies or whatever technology prevails do its work. 

And there’s the problem. For while this is pretty much a no-brainer for anyone who hears about it — what’s not to like about wireless charging? – the reality is that only a handful of devices so far have this capability, and the chances are they won’t play nice with other devices or chargers. So, while we have the technology ready, the people who matter aren’t, by a long chalk. 

In fact there are three competing alliances, all with their own fancy websites and hundreds, literally, of members signed up, and that’s not including the two or three other technologies that don’t have alliances but claim to have a better idea. 

This is not new of course. We’ve been here before. With video tapes, DVDs, and the first phase of the wireless revolution: when we no longer had to fiddle with telephone wires or ethernet cables and could just yell out: Whats the wifi password? 

Companies think they have the edge, the better technologies, more patents, or they just can’t bear relinquishing a bit of control for the greater good, and so we all have to wait while they wear each other down or die trying. 

Yes, it’s true that wireless charging might seem like a rich world problem. How hard is it, really, to plug a phone into a charger? Well that’s true. And sometimes what is called wireless charging — like the Apple Watch, where you don’t actually plug the charger into your phone, but only because it connects magnetically, surface to surface — isn’t really. 

But the truth is wireless charging could be an even bigger boon to the billions of phone users in the developing world. Think of the Filipinos who traipse to the local mall to charge their devices after a typhoon takes out the power, and sit around waiting for a charger socket to be freed up? Imagine if they could just put their device on a big table, piled on other devices if there’s no space? 

Or the commuter in Nairobi who could drop their phone in a bin when they get on and retrieve it when they get off, a precious few extra percentage points of charge better off? 

Wireless charging isn’t just about cutesy lifestyles any more than wifi and mobile data has just been about empowering lounging hipsters. Wireless charging will eventually untether people from the tyranny of bad battery technology. It will create new businesses and boost productivity — especially from late afternoon to early evening, when surveys show many people run out of battery and the networks go quiet. 

It won’t happen overnight, but it won’t happen at all until the Wireless Power Consortium, the Power Matters Alliance and the Alliance for Wireless Power get their act together and agree on a standard. So write to them, because you don’t want your grandchildren asking what you did to help usher in the wireless revolution. 

BBC: The Decline of Self Expression

Here’s a BBC piece which the World Service broadcast recently. This isn’t Reuters content.

It’s taken us a long time to get to here, but I think I can safely declare us as, dextrously speaking, back before the caveman.

If we had stumbled into your average cave in about 40,000 BC, we might have chanced upon someone drawing on his bedroom wall, as it were, mixing ochre, hematite and charcoal. We might call this the dawn of manual input of user generated content.

Avail yourself of public transport these days and the best you’ll likely see would be a few people swiping upwards on their mobile screen in a now-familiar gesture meaning — I’m reading about my alleged friends on Facebook to check they’re not doing anything as exciting as I am.

You might, if you’re lucky, see someone actually trying to input some user generated content. A caveman would notice with some surprise that this is not as easy as it was in his day. One old fella I saw laboriously typing a missive on his iPad, tapping out each letter with one finger of his left hand, his right hand holding the device. Indeed, for the most part that is how people write on their mobile devices. Some have physical keyboards, but these are an endangered species.

Why is this a problem? Well, let me count the ways. Firstly, it’s kind of distressing to see people tap away at their screens like hens. Fifty years ago we’d have been lovingly writing letters, poems, diaries in longhand, dipping our quills in ink. Or at least gazing out the window composing poetry in our head.

The other reason is that we think we’re clever, and that somehow each iteration of technology is an advance. It’s an advance for people who make money out of us buying these devices, plugging them into a network and sharing pictures of frowning cats. It’s not an advance in terms of what we’ve come to call interfaces – of making it easier for us to convey our feelings, thoughts and mental creations from our head to others via a permanent or semi-permanent canvas.

In that sense it’s quite a retreat. We’re basically using a century-old technology — the QWERTY typewriter — to enter our thoughts into a device that’s more powerful than the one which put men on the moon. On a keypad the size of a matchbox. And on a piece of glass. That isn’t the sound of keys being hit, it’s the sound of cave people laughing at us.

One of my colleagues feels it necessary to add an apology to the bottom of his overly short emails from his mobile phone, I’m told: apologies if I sound terse, I’m not. I’m writing this on my phone. I can think of no greater indictment of our devices than having to apologise because entering text into them is so fiddly they don’t allow us to express ourselves adequately.

Now the thing is, it’s not all like this. Apple have recently done another splendid video ad extolling all the wonderful applications other people have come up with for their iPads and iPhones. Architects, artists, marine-debris experts, all love the devices for the things they can do with them.

Which is great. But that doesn’t really help the 99% rest of us who are stuck trying to use an anachronistic technology to express ourselves in words. Yes, there’s voice recognition. Yes, there’s software that lets us swipe letters across a keyboard. But there’s no getting away from the fact that mobile devices were not made for writing. Just one percent of changes to Wikipedia articles are done on a mobile device, according to the NYT.

It’s time we recognised a sobering reality: while we blithely talk about this being the age of user generated content, the reality is that very little of that is actual text, arguments, thoughts etc strung together via words. Instead it’s photos, videos, comments and emoticons, or just passing along other people’s content. We may not all be writing with quills, but then again, we’re not exactly writing, either.

When was the last time you did more than click, swipe or pinch on your mobile device?