Awesomeness Fatigue

This is a commentary piece I’ve recorded for the BBC World Service.

I call it awesomeness fatigue – the exhaustion that comes from being bombarded with stories, videos and pictures designed to amaze you. The problem is not that they don’t work: it’s that they’re too good.

In the past week or so I’ve watched people fly off mountains, some figure skating guy and a kid who sued his school after being bullied. All are awesome.

No, the problem is that a sort of “awesome inflation” kicks in, meaning that as your Facebook page, or Twitter feed, or however you consume social media, fills up with these things, so each one needs to be a little more extraordinary than the last one to gain your attention.

And this is the problem. In the past year we’ve seen the rapid emergence of a number of services designed to do just that – to find amazing things on the net and then write a headline that you can’t resist.

Upworthy, one of the most successful, pays a team of freelancers to each unearth no more than seven videos a week. Then they get to work crafting headlines – at least 25 of them for each post, which are then tested rigorously on small focus groups to find the one which would be most viral.

A couple of recent headlines. Resist them if you can: Remember When Music Videos Used To Mean Something? Some Still Do. or Martin Luther King Jr.’s Badass Speech That Everyone Forgot About.

See? They sort of understand us. And so it has worked. Within 18 months, Upworthy has overtaken websites of the New York Times and Disney’s Go.com in the US.

According to Newswhip, a company which measures these things, upworthy got almost as many people to share its 246 items last October as the British newspaper the Daily Mail did with its more than 12,000.

In short, sites like Upworthy have fine-tuned what makes stuff irresistible to us, to click on, watch and then share.

An advertiser’s dream, of course, but this is not a sustainable model.

A few years ago we were quite happy watching a video of baby laughing (‘Baby laughing’, 2006, 21 million hits), or a 7-year old boy groggy from novocaine (‘David After Dentist’, 2009, 122 million hits. Or a guy combining mentos and cola (‘Diet Coke + Mentos’, 17 million hits) to make a fountain.

Now it’s got to be awesome, with a focus-group tested headline.

But it’s hard to envisage how we can keep coming up with amazing things that surprise us. And, more importantly, that we end up getting sick of looking at things that are awesome, and just start yearning for some normality. I am much more selective about which awesomeness I click on. Some of my friends, frankly, are a bit too easily amazed and have slipped in my estimation.

And this is the problem. Digital is making us so hyperefficient that it’s fast squeezing out of life the joys of surprise and serendipity. Surprise that we might define for ourselves the awesomeness – or not – of what we see. Serendipity in discovering something ourselves – rather than having it delivered on a focus-group tested platter.

That our social networks are now being filled with stuff that’s got virality baked deep in somewhat takes the joy out of what social media used to be: finding things ourselves and sharing them with others.

And that word awesome? Awesome as a word has lost most of its awesomeness through overuse– I was told I was awesome by an online magazine for subscribing, and I notice my three-year old daughter is informed by her iPad games that she’s awesome a tad too frequently. Me?

I’m back to being impressed if I can remember my wife’s birthday or to charge my phone before I go to bed. Wake up with a fully-charged phone? Now that’s awesome.

The Rising Noise of Silence

This is a commentary piece for a semi-regular slot on the BBC’s World Service. It’s not content that appears on Reuters, nor does it reflect the views of my employer. 

I’m here to report a new scourge of the public space: folk who watch video on their tablets in public without a headset. Just the other day someone sat next to me in a coffee shop watching a local soap opera on her iPad quite oblivious to the disturbance she was causing me and, well, just me.

Now this may sound like a small thing, but I’ve canvassed friends and it’s clearly a problem that extends far and wide. I’m told ferries in Hong Kong are abuzz with this kind of noise pollution, as are subways and buses in Singapore, as well as flights into and across the Philippines and India.

Putting aside my own tendency to be annoyed by more or less anything these days, I think we have here an example of a counterintuitive trend: what sociologists might call the reclaiming of public space from intrusive technology.

Think about it for a second. Up until a few years ago our biggest bugbear were loudmouths on their cellphones intruding on our reverie in trains, coffee shops and dentists’ waiting rooms.

This is not exactly yet a thing of the past, but it’s beginning to be, because as we’ve embraced the smartphone so have we preferred to occupy our time communicating via text or playing games on our devices. Take mobile phone usage in the UK as an example: the number of minutes most people spend talking on their mobile phone has fallen by 19% between 2007 and 2012. This, I believe, is a global trend whenever phones go from those basic ones that just do voice and SMS to smartphones, where you can do lots of other things.

The trend, therefore, is less time spent talking on phones, which means less time annoying other people in public.

This is a good thing. It basically reverses a trend we thought was irreversible – namely that technology was always going to intrude further into our lives.
So back to the watching video in public without a headset thing.

We’ve gone through an interesting couple of years on mobile. We’ve seen a lot more people buy smartphones, and we’ve seen smartphone screens get bigger. We’ve also seen a lot of carriers deploy faster networks, and in many cases reduce prices. All of this makes video on a portable device possible.

So it’s not surprising that folk are consuming video on their devices in extraordinary quantities. In 2013 video accounted for about a third of global mobile data traffic, according to Ericsson. By 2019, it will account for more than half.

Driving this are deeper phenomena: a lot of the people with these devices and connections don’t have a lot of space to call their own: they live and commute through crowded sites, sleep in cramped flats or dorms. While I do worry about all the neck problems we’re going to see in the years to come, it’s hard to begrudge people carving out a little private space for themselves wherever they can find it.

In a way, I’m amazed that this revolution hasn’t been more intrusive and irksome. For all the folks who aren’t wearing a headset when they immerse themselves in streaming soap, there are thousands, millions of folks who are.

So I’ll desist from decrying these inconsiderate souls, and marvel at how quickly we’ve adopted these new ways of reclaiming some privacy out of public space. What’s astonishing is probably how seamless this transition has been – and how quiet our public lives have become.

Office of the Future

This was a piece I was asked to do for a BBC World Service segment on the office of the future. It was broadcast a couple of days ago. Here’s the full broadcast: here Needless to say the piece has nothing do with my present work environment, which is charming and healthy.  

The office of 2050, I’m hoping, won’t be an office at all, because by then we’ll have realised that it’s the most unproductive, unhealthy and expensive environment a business could create. 

I won’t bore you with the details but think spinal diseases and, varicose veins from sitting down, allergies from the awful air, and psychological disorders caused by the stress and monotony of office work. Indeed, strip away the fancy screens and chairs and someone from a Charles Dickens book wouldn’t have much trouble navigating our office of today. Rewind to 1974 — 38 years ago, instead of 38 years hence — and the difference would just be computers replacing blotters and typewriters. 

In short, technology has altered the way we work but now where we work, and for the most part, what we work on. Things have just speeded up. 

So the first thing that will change is that we’ll have thrown out the idea of an office. Many of us already do that, trading our expensive allegedly ergonomic chair and desk for a rickety wooden chair and table in Starbucks. This trend will continue as jobs become more specialised and it becomes harder to persuade talent to move city, commute or even sit at a desk. 

By then they’ll be using their own tools, working to their own rhythm. 

What will those tools be? They’ll be very small, highly personalised and ubiquitous. If I was still around then, and had a bigger brain than I do at present, I’d be probably be replacing dry stone walls in the Peak District to keep my brain in shape, stopping occasionally to add dabs of color and code to a project which would appear on a lens grafted onto my left eye, all of it done simply by mind control. The bill for my work would be automatically generated and settled instantaneously via a downpayment on my chalet in Luang Prabang. 

In short, the office won’t exist because we’ll have discovered, belatedly, that the sense of job security is a false one. Companies will rise and fall so quickly it won’t make sense to do so, and even for those behemoths that can shapeshift fast enough to remain competitive, those with smarts won’t confine themselves to one hierarchy or the deadening office politics that goes with it. 

Organisations will have a CEO and a few other big shots, and then a precipitous drop to those who keep the lights on and get the boss’ tea. Everyone else will either have been replaced by robots or be outsourced. But these won’t be the disposable call center ciphers we think of today; they’ll be  constantly updating their skills and offering such specialized services that it is they who will control the relationship, not the other way round. 

By then, you see, organisations and those who invest in them will have woken up to the fact that the most valuable asset will be highly specialised, highly motivated, highly entrepreneurial individuals, and these individuals won’t let themselves be tied to any single location or employer. 

You can see some of this already, in the way Western startups operate — often highly flexible, where employees may be in the same state but never meet. You can also see it in online outsourcing, where companies are increasingly depending on workers overseas — not for mindless grunt work, but for their tireless yearning for quality workmanship, self-improvement and  job satisfaction. 

The future of the office lies not in the office, but in the relentless drive away from its drab four walls. 

Freelancers – wave of the future

The transcript of my BBC piece which was just broadcast. The original Reuters story from which it was drawn is here: Global army of online freelancers remakes outsourcing industry

A country like the Philippines is getting big into what is called BPO — which stands for business process outsourcing. At its most basic think call centers. At its highest end think lawyers drawing up documents for someone thousands of mile away, or trained medical professionals poring over xray scans on behalf of a hospital in Birmingham. 

It’s a great way to export skills without having to actually export the people doing the work. For a country like the Philippines, many of whose families are spread around the globe, this is especially poignant. 

But the Philippines is some way off that high end. 

Which is why what librarian Sheila Ortencio does is so interesting, and has so much potential. She works from her laptop on behalf of companies in Australia and the U.S. but her workplace is not some Dilbert style cubicle, her job is adding library data to ebooks, something that closely matches her training, and the money she earns is 10 times what she was getting  at the local library. And, best of all, she is working from home, with her daughters bouncing off the walls and two Pomeranians yapping wildly in the yard,. 

This is outsourcing of a different kind: some call it elancing, some call it crowdsourcing, some call it microwork. They are distinct terms, but they all fall under one basic umbrella: freelancers, working online, for clients many miles away, who are entrusting them with ever larger responsibilities and projects. All done via the web. 

Sheila, for example, signs up for a service like odesk.com, lists her skills, experience and how much she charges, and then bids for contracts she thinks she could do, Companies posting the work go through the bids and choose one. The whole process is monitored online, up to the end payment. Odesk takes a cut. 

This has been around for a while, of course, but it’s only in the past couple of years that it’s really taken off. The reasons for this are varied, including better, cheaper, faster Internet, more people on both sides of the business simply ‘getting’ it, and an extra layer of services atop the existing intermediaries to tweak the marketplace to make it more efficient. 

Folk like Sheila find that clients like them so much they send more work their way than than they could handle, so she in turn recruits teams and monitors quality. And this is what’s intriguing about all this, and where I think this little niche economy could get big and interesting quite quickly. 

Because by morphing from librarian into manager and entrepreneur, Sheila not only helps herself, she also creates a pocket of innovation in her little corner of the Philippines. She’s converted 10 of her relatives into online freelancers, and countless neighbors. A local bank teller is on oDesk; everyone wants a piece of the action. She’s happy to help, because that’s her style and because the more people who do oDesk, the more business she can bring in. 

Eventually, it’s not far fetched to say these little pockets could turn into little Silicon Valleys — hubs of innovation and the ecosystem of businesses to support them, where skills and services become products and freelancers become startups. 

And, unlike Sheila’s parents, husband and siblings who had to go overseas to find a decent wage, this all could happen in a person’s backyard. It’s a long ways off, but maybe not as far as we think. 

If we can’t imagine the past, what hope the future?

Another piece I recorded for the BBC

Up until we discovered a body in a glacier in the Italian Alps more than 20 years ago, we didn’t really have a clue about our ancestors.  The body  belonged to a man who died 5000 years ago,. While much of the interest has focused on how he died — it took scientists 10 years to discover he was killed by an arrow whose head was still lodged in his shoulder — much more interesting to me is that we had no idea about how someone like this dressed. 

Otzi, according to an excellent book by Bill Bryson, has confounded all assumptions: for one thing he had more gear than your average outdoorsy dude today , like

two birchbark canisters, sheath, axe, bowstave, quiver and arrows, small tools, some berries, a piece of ibex meat and two spherical lumps of birch fungus, each about the size of a large walnut and carefully threaded with sinew. One of the canisters had contained glowing embers wrapped in maple leaves, for starting fires. 

His clothes — leggings, garters and belt, a loincloth and hat — were made from skins and furs from red deer, bear, chamois, goat and cattle,  He carried a rectangle of woven grass that might have been a cape or a sleeping mat — we don’t know. he was wearing boots that looked like birds nests on soles of stiffened bear skin, which looked awful until a foot and shoe expert recreated them and walked up a mountain. Turned out their grip was better than modern rubber, without giving blisters. 

Now it’s great that we now know this stuff, but it’s somewhat humbling to think how little we had imagined any of this. We were wandering around for several hundred years looking down on our ancestors thinking they dressed and were equipped like Raquel Welch in 10,000 years BC. 

Turns out that we lacked the imagination to figure out what our forebears looked like. We’d have done better to have wandered down to our nearest outdoor store than listen to the experts pontificate. And yet I’ve seen no collective mea culpa about this and to reassess what we think we know by trying to imagine a little harder. 

And so for something even more depressing: if we’re so bad at imagining what the past looked like, what hope do we have about the future? We’ve generally been pretty poor at this, even in the short term. Bladerunner may have been a great movie now thirty years old this year, but the world it depicts of seven years hence appears to be completely without the one thing that already dominates and defines our world: mobile devices. 

Sure we are supposed to be surrounded by robots that look so much like us we’d need a lie detector machine called a Voight-Kampff to tell the difference, and we’d be floating about in flying cars, but to yack with our love interest, we’d need to find a bar with a video payphone, and if someone wanted to reach us they’d have to  track us  down in the permanent rain to our favorite noodle stall. 

Now our mobile devices are indispensable, wrapping the Internet around us in a way that few of us predicted even ten years ago. None of us predicted social networks like Facebook. None of us thought that nearly a billion people would sign up. I dread to think what we haven’t imagined about the next ten, 20, 30 years.

My money is on us all wearing bird nest boots. 

 

Samsung and phone companies [BBC]

This is a piece I’m recording for the BBC World Service. It’s based loosely on my piece about possible limits to Samsung’s impressive foray into smartphones. 

The interesting thing about covering technology for a living is that while pretty much every company within the sector is very, very different, all are, or want to be, the same.

Take a mobile phone manufacturer like Samsung. These guys are huge and have gotten huge very fast. In the first quarter of 2011 they shipped fewer smartphones than Apple, Nokia or Research in Motion, but in the most recent quarter shipped more than any of them. Needless to say they’ve very happy. But actually this success presents them with a huge problem. Because it turns out that making cellphones isn’t enough.

First is the problem of the software that run Samsung phones . After all a phone is just a chip or two, a screen, a battery, a microphone, a speaker, a case. Without software they just make useful paperweights.

Nearly all Samsung’s phones run on Google’s Android operating system. Which is free. Except of course it’s not. Because Google knows that the software is in some ways more important than the hardware. Ever tried to get an Android phone going without signing up for a Google account? Can you hear the clink clink of ad revenue dropping into Google’s pocket?

Samsung is an excellent maker of things, but not very good at making software. So it saves money, time and the groans of dissatisfied users by running Android on its phones. But the company  knows that this is not a good way to go in the long run, because you may end up like one of those PC makers back in the 1990s. What we call a commodity manufacturer, indistinguishable from other PC manufacturers, with price to reflect it.

So part of the problem for Samsung is not hardware but software. Then there’s another problem.

When we used computers in the old days they pretty much stood alone. Microsoft sold us Office, maybe a game or two and the thing sat alone in the corner of the room gathering dust. Nowadays every device is connected to the Internet, and we expect to be able to use that connection to interact with other people, download software, play games andbuy stuff and generally facilitate our lives.

What supports all this is an ecosystem. Payments, catalogues, developers, marketplaces, digital goods. Think Amazon. Think Apple’s iTunes and AppStore. Every Samsung phone connects to this world but most do it without Samsung seeing a cent.

Of course Samsung is trying to fix this. It has a store, it has content, it’s even hoping people will buy a smart TV that’s connected to the Internet and will let you move stuff between a Samsung TV and a Samsung smartphone.

The trouble now is, everyone wants this. A mobile phone maker wants to be a content seller, a search engine wants to have its own cellphone and operating system, an online store wants to sell its own tablet, a tablet maker wants to own its own network. No one player with big dreams can afford not to think in terms of owning the whole nine yards—the whole chain in which we the consumer live. To settle for anything less may end up meaning you settle for nothing, as just a commodity supplier of hardware, or content, or software to the others.

This is great for me as a reporter because every step takes us into uncharted territory. There are no maps for this anymore, and it will only get more interesting. 

Podcast: Cameras

The BBC World Service Business Daily version of my piece on cameras. (The Business Daily podcast is here. Script is here.)

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To listen to Business Daily on the radio, tune into BBC World Service at the following times, or click here.

Australasia: Mon-Fri 0141*, 0741

East Asia: Mon-Fri 0041, 1441
South Asia: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741
East Africa: Mon-Fri 1941
West Africa: Mon-Fri 1541*
Middle East: Mon-Fri 0141*, 1141*
Europe: Mon-Fri 0741, 2132
Americas: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741, 1041, 2132

Thanks to the BBC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.

Cameras [BBC column]

This is the script for a piece I recorded for the BBC World Service. It’ s based on a piece I wrote for my employer, Reuters.

We always assume that when a new technology comes along it will displace the old. And that tends to be the case. But displace doesn’t mean delete, remove, consign to the dustpile–which is often what we mean. Radio didn’t obliterate books or newspapers, TV didn’t obliterate radio. The Internet hasn’t obliterated any of them–although if you’re in TV, radio, newspapers or book publishing, you probably feel a bit obliterated. There will still be all those things, though they’ll have to make way for a digital, online world.

The same is true of cameras. Many of us assumed that just as film gave way to digital photos, so would the camera give way to the cameraphone. After all, who wants to carry more than one gadget around with them? Well, it turns out, quite a lot of us. Instead of a camera in a phone obliterating the need for a camera, we took so many pictures with our camera phone that we started wanting to take better photos. So we bought a better camera.

There’s another conundrum here, too. We thought that because all these camera phones could take video, people would be more interested in video than still photography. That’s also turned out not to be true. Sure, we get out the video camera out for Junior’s role in the school play, but for the most part we take still photos because they’re easier to upload, less time consuming to look at. When we do upload video it’s in short bursts, and of something noteworthy. In short, we use our digital gadgets not to build up a mass of memories but to select and share the best ones.

In other words, we are finding ways of coping with this digital cornucopia–where we can capture, store, and upload pretty much everything by focusing on quality rather than quantity. However good our mobile phone is at taking photos, we still think a dedicated camera, with a better lens and innards, will do a better job. We don’t want 1000s of photos–we want the best one. Same with video. We don’t have time to edit hours of footage down to something watchable, so we record video sparingly, and don’t dare subject our Facebook friends to anything longer than a minute.

I don’t know if there’s a law of digital disruption in here, but for sure there are lessons. First off is that people are happy to carry more than one gadget around with them if they think they serve a purpose. Second, the more they do of something the more they want to explore it–so long as they can see an uptick in the quality of the outcome.

And finally, we’re learning how to harness the expected tidal wave of data by using technology to filter out the stuff we don’t need, while ensuring that what we do keep is the best. It’s not surprising, then, that the makes of camera we rely on today are brands our parents would recognise: brands such as Nikon, Canon and Fuji. While the technologies may have changed the way we store and share pictures, the way we take them hasn’t.

Podcast: Google Dilemma

The BBC World Service Business Daily version of my piece on the Google Dilemma (The Business Daily podcast is here.)

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To listen to Business Daily on the radio, tune into BBC World Service at the following times, or click here.

Australasia: Mon-Fri 0141*, 0741

East Asia: Mon-Fri 0041, 1441
South Asia: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741
East Africa: Mon-Fri 1941
West Africa: Mon-Fri 1541*
Middle East: Mon-Fri 0141*, 1141*
Europe: Mon-Fri 0741, 2132
Americas: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741, 1041, 2132

Thanks to the BBC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.

Podcast: The Real Revolution

The BBC World Service Business Daily version of my piece on the rise of the smartphone (The Business Daily podcast is here.) 

Loose Wireless 120111

To listen to Business Daily on the radio, tune into BBC World Service at the following times, or click here.

Australasia: Mon-Fri 0141*, 0741

East Asia: Mon-Fri 0041, 1441
South Asia: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741
East Africa: Mon-Fri 1941
West Africa: Mon-Fri 1541*
Middle East: Mon-Fri 0141*, 1141*
Europe: Mon-Fri 0741, 2132
Americas: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741, 1041, 2132

Thanks to the BBC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.