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Please, Let’s Not Go There Again

By - April 13, 2017

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Here’s a top-of-my-head rundown of all the shit going down that promises to take us forty years back, to a time when, well…you decide what kind of time it was.

  • Women had to fight for basic rights. Anyone remember “women’s lib”? That movement found its voice in the 70s, and made steady if punctuated progress for forty years. Now Trump’s promising to repeal the iconic 1970s Roe v. Wade decision, has scrapped equal pay (unnecessary regulations, amiright?!), and, well, this.
  • Dirty, climate changing coal was king in the ’70s, powering nearly halfof US energy output. It’s now less than a third and dropping fast, mainly because of clean sources like solar and wind, which are starting to take power costs to zero, all while driving far more jobs than coal. Do we really want to go back? Well, Trump certainly does. WTF?
  • The EPA was established in 1970, when our rivers were on fire and kids had to hide inside from killer smog attacks (I was one of them). Now, Trump’s EPA has repealed decades of regulations, and it’s run by a guy who, well, hates the EPA. Oh, please, let’s go back to flaming rivers and unbreathable air, shall we?!
  • And then there’s climate change. After decades of science, inconvenient truths, and global disasters, the world’s leaders finally got their collective shit together and agreed to do something about our shared existential crisis. But not Trump, who thinks climate change is a hoax and has vowed to cancel the Paris accords. That sentiment might have flown in 1975. But now? Really?
  • Law and Order.” If you’ve not watched 13th, please add it to your NetFlix cue…or just take 90 minutes and watch it now. The phrase “law and order” is a semiotic stand in for systemic racism and state-driven racial injustice. It rose to prominence in the 1970s as a political reaction to the civil rights movement, and has been widely discredited as social policy. But, you guessed it, Trump wants to bring it back.
  • Oh, and war. Remember that long, Cold one? Forty years ago, it was the most critical foreign policy issue of the day. By last year, it was all but over. Then Trump got elected, and…well, it sure feels hot again.
  • Rampant capitalism/neoliberalism/financialization. This is a tough subject to detangle, but in essence, the past forty years have seen the rise, and recent decline, of unrestrained, Friedman-esque capitalism(note this new book on the topic, FWIW). The Great Recession gave our body politic pause, and while Dodd Frank was in many ways toothless, it did set a new tone. Trump not only put a gaggle of bankers in charge of his government, he also is committed to repealing Dodd.

I could go on and on (immigration, creationism, public schools…) but I think I’ve made my point. We love to idealize the past, but forty years ago, women and minorities had vastly diminished rights, our environment was a mess, climate change was ignored, capitalism was unrestrained and destructive, and we were playing a terrifying game of nuclear chess with Russia. By last year, we had made massive progress on all of these crucial societal issues.

And now we’re going back to the ‘70s. Anyone else want off this particular train?

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Bad Policy Makes Us Sick. Business Must Lead Us Back.

By - April 03, 2017

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(Cross posted from NewCo Shift)

Walking around Disneyland with my daughter the other night, I found myself face to face with one of our country’s most intractable taboos.

(Disneyland is still awesome for me, as a kid from 1970s LA. Truly magical.)

If you’re an observer of crowds, one of the more prominent features of the Disneyland crowd is how generally overweight our country has become (I live in the Bay area, and readily admit my interaction with folks on most days is not representative of a broad cross section of our population). I’d estimate at least a third of the folks at Disney are seeing Mike and Molly-level images in the mirror — and about 2–3% or so have more weight than they can carry around, and have therefore graduated to “mobility scooters.”

These industrial strength scooters have become commonplace at the Happiest Place on Earth. I’m guessing from the name that they were initially created for disabled and elderly folks, but clearly they’ve been reinforced for more rigorous duty. For every one of them we saw piloted by a fellow with a knee brace or an elderly grandmother, there were ten requisitioned for moving Big People around.

For a spell, I sat on a bench with my daughter and watched them wheel by.

I fell into reverie, thinking about how our policy choices have led to a predictable and avoidable epidemic, and how that epidemic mirrors many others in what is increasingly feeling like a gravely ill society. Our maddening melange of libertarian individualism, technological (and medical) savior-ism, American exceptionalism, and steroidal capitalism has delivered us a health care horror show — one with an endless appetite for cheap food, expensive medicine, and hollow self-delusion.

It strikes me nowhere can we identify how badly we need a new compact between business and society than right here on Disney’s Main Street USA. Libertarians and fanatical anti-regulation types love to claim that individual responsibility is paramount, and I suppose that means the growing percentage of obese people in our society are all at fault, and deserve the shame our culture heaps upon them. I tend to believe otherwise, that outcomes are driven by inputs, and right now, the inputs in our society are making us very, very sick.

Can we face up to this fact without dehumanizing or victimizing the people who now comprise more than a third of the US population? Is talking out loud about this issue even allowed? (I think I’m about to find out…)

It certainly feels taboo, because these are real human beings we’re talking about, and our society relentlessly shames overweight people as lacking will power and failing to conform to ideal body images projected in popular culture.

But come on, America’s obesity epidemic has been building for decades, and it’s only getting worse. When will we call it what it really is: A public health crisis, driven by outdated and dangerous policies around food subsidies and health care?

First and foremost amongst those failed policies is our society’s approach to food — how we grow it, how we market it, and certainly how we eat it. In short, we subsidize cheap calories — in particular sugar and corn syrup — and we’ve forsworn nutrition for convenience. Food companies, driven as all businesses are by profit and policy inputs, are literally rewarded for selling as much of their product to us as they can, regardless of the consequences. It feels an awful lot like our approach to energy — just as we’re hooked on cheap and environmentally damaging carbon-based fuels, we’ve built an entire economy on cheap and physically destructive food, and there are extraordinarily powerful forces at work insuring things stay that way.

(I should note that I actually do not lay blame at the feet of these forces — I believe they exist because we’ve created a system that requires them to act the way they do. The only way to change that is to change the rules of the system, not to reactively punish large corporations for doing what our society incentivizes them to do.)

Adding to the policy failure is our society’s approach to health care. Everyone seems to agree it’s a mess, but we have to think systemically if we’re going to fix it. Believe what you will about Obamacare, but they got one thing absolutely right: The new program instituted a historic shift from a reactive to a proactive stance. How? Through the economic lever of how payments were processed. The old government healthcare (and let’s not fool ourselves, the government is the single largest force in healthcare, period) paid set fees for service. This created a moral hazard in the market, as actors organized themselves around creating as many payment opportunities as possible. Need a knee replacement because you’re overweight? Check, there’s a fee for service. Knee replacement didn’t work, because you’re overweight and/or didn’t have proper follow up by your doctor? Check, we’ll do another one. Broke your hip because the second knee buckled? Check, there’s a third service to get paid for.

Obamacare is in the process of shifting government payments away from fee-for-service and toward outcomes — doctors and hospitals are paid a certain amount for a positive health outcome, and that’s that. No more triple knee surgeries — you get paid when the patient’s surgery is proven to have worked. There’s a set amount for that outcome, and that’s it. This kind of economic incentive drives markets to optimize for proactive health care — the kind that creates early detection of potential obesity, supplying nutrition education so the knee replacement is never needed in the first place.

It’s exactly this kind of thoughtful, informed policy we need right now if we’re going to solve our country’s obesity epidemic. And given the current administration, it’s highly unlikely we’ll see much of it coming out of Washington over the next four years. That means one thing: our country’s largest food and health care companies must get in front of this crisis, andlead. Whether or not they do, it’s abundantly clear is that our current crop of politicians will not. Meanwhile, our society is getting sicker, poorer, and more alienated. That’s not a recipe that’s good for anyone.

Predictions 2017: A Chain Reaction

By - January 06, 2017

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This is my 14th annual predictions post. And as I look back on the previous 13 and consider what to write, I’m flooded with uncertainty. That’s not like me. Writing these predictions is something I’ve always looked forward to – I don’t prepare in any demonstrable way, but I do gather crumbs over time, filing them away for the day when I sit down and free associate for however long it takes me to complete this post.

But this time, well, for the first time ever I have very little idea what’s about to come out of the keyboard. Honestly, when I consider the coming 12 months, so much feels up for grabs that I wonder whether it’s wise to prognosticate. Then I remember, it’s all of you reading these words who keep me writing in the first place – your encouragement, your wise (and sometimes cutting) commentary, and your willingness to spend a little time with me and my thoughts. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to write more – it’s always been how I make sense of the world, and this year, the world feels like it needs a lot more sense making. So I’ll be writing at least a few times a week going forward, starting with this uncertain post.

Let’s see what happens….

1. The bloom comes off the tech industry rose. Two years ago, I predicted that the tech industry would wake up to the power it had accrued and start giving a shit both about its impact on the world, and about the world’s largest problems, with climate change being the most pressing of them. That didn’t really happen, despite truly commendable philanthropic, social, and climate change work done by all of the “Big 5″ tech companies (Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Apple, Facebook). As of this writing, the technology industry is now the undisputed leader of the business world. Its power has concentrated into demonstrable oligarchy – beyond the Big 5, Uber and Airbnb are now being called to question because of their potential monopolistic, rent extracting behavior. But the industry’s philosophical outlook remains rooted in its days as a challenger brand. This can’t stand. 2017 will be the year the industry is cast as a villain – for its ravenous and largely opaque data collection practices, its closed and self-serving approach to its own platforms, and its refusal to acknowledge or address the very real externalities, particularly in employment, created by its products and services. Some of this backlash will be unfair – but that’s not my point. Society vilifies those in power who appear to be unfairly profiting from that power. And in 2017, tech will be that villain.

2. The conversation economy breaks out. This is certainly related to #1, if oddly oppositional. The Big Five will be in an all out battle to engage us through conversational interfaces this year. If you’ve been reading me for over a decade, you might remember my predictions around the “conversation economy.” I was a bit early (OK, a decade too early), but the technology and the consumer behavior/expectations are now aligned to allow for a breakout year in user experience to finally occur. This began in earnest last year with the hype around chatbots, and the ascendance of Alexa and Google Home, all of which followed on the heels of Google Voice Search and Siri. But what will really shift the experience will be the explosion of smart chatbots that actually get shit done – I’m with Kik CEO Ted Livingston, chat is the new browser. Combine smart chat with voice, and … well, we’ll start to see a new UX for the web. What’s the economic model for this new UX? Good question! But the key will be meaningful interaction between all these services, instead of attempts to create a vertically integrated, locked-down walled garden. But that will only happen if…

3. Open starts to win again. It’s dangerous to link two predictions, because if one doesn’t work out, the other is likely to fail as well. It’s even worse to link your first three… but what the hell. Tech’s hegemony is so great at this point, that the only way I can see it breaking down is through a return to the open standards which bequeathed us the Internet in the first place. 2017 will be the year that open starts to win again as a business model and an approach to creating a developer (and hence consumer) ecosystem. Google can and should be the leader here, given its core DNA, but I’m not sure that will be the case. Now, what do I mean by open? Well, interoperability, for one. It’s great that anyone can create a chatbot on Messenger, or Kik, or WhatsApp, but true innovation will come when anyone can create a chatbot that works with all of them, sharing data and user profiles across platforms. The same goes for the marketing industry – publishers and marketers alike should be able to consolidate and leverage data across all meaningful platforms, instead of cultivating different patches in every service’s walled gardens. The same goes for consumers, of course – I want to know what data is being used to mold the choices being laid out in front of me (including the ads, and yes, my f*cking newsfeed!). There will be meaningful demand from “users” to have more fluid and intuitive controls of their experience. And if my #2 holds true, then voice becomes a literal lingua franca, rendering platform lock in long-term meaningless, because jumping from service to service will be as easy as saying “Alexa, WhatsApp my pal Chris with the results of my Google search on open platforms.” This year won’t be a turning point in this battle, but it will show meaningful progress, in large part because…

4. Privacy will become a strong product category. These linked predictions are  certainly becoming a theme. But last year saw strong growth for a number of stand alone privacy products like Signal and Confide, and the inclusion of strong crypto into massive platforms like iOS (remember the FBI fracas?), WhatsApp and Google (via its new Allo and Duo products). Influencers like Fred and many others are predicting a boon in this field, and I agree. But it’s one thing to encrypt your messaging. It’s another to secure your entire online life. That kind of security is hard to do, mainly because it obviates much of the value of the data harvesting which drives convenience in the consumer tech world. But fear of cyber warfare, fraud, and over-reaching marketers and government will create huge openings for consumer friendly versions of currently opaque products like PGP, password managers, and the like. And it’ll also drive political and consumer pressure for more robust consumer control around algorithmically driven consumer experiences. Smart companies won’t resist this trend, they’ll encourage it.

5. Adtech has a ripper of a year. Wait, I just predicted consumers will pivot to caring about privacy, but I’m saying the adtech business is going to have a great year?! Well…yes. Embrace the contradictions, because adtech is ready for its second act. It’s really sucked to be a leader in the advertising technology industry – half of the media industry openly hates your guts, and the other half is convinced your days are numbered because of the Google/Facebook oligarchy. But they’re all wrong. Advertising technology is, at its simplest, the ability to apply data to a decision at scale. And the more open and free flowing that data economy becomes, the better and more valuable the companies which enable it become. If my predictions 1-4 come true, then this one will as well: Independent, high-integrity companies in ad/martech are going to have a banner (no pun intended) year, because they’ll tack into the resistance the large platform players have to the trends I’ve outlined above. Watch: Sovrn Holdings*, AppNexus, Acxiom*, Trade Desk, and OpenX.

6. Apple releases a truly bad hardware product. OK, this one isn’t really tied to the others, but I think Apple’s poised to not just have a boring year (as I predicted it would last year,) but to really lay an egg for the first time in a very long time. It may be their answer to Amazon Echo/Alexa, or Google Home/Assistant, or it may be a follow on to the watch, or perhaps something the company has had up its sleeve for a few years that it feels obliged to roll out given its essentially uninspiring last few years of product releases. But in 2017, the press and the public will find a tangible reason to turn on Apple, and the company will likely respond by reorganizing, repatriating its cash (to curry favor with the current administration), and keep buying its way into the markets where it has repeatedly failed (IE, software as a service, entertainment (NetFlix?!!), and possibly social media).

7. A Fortune 100 company will announce its intention to become a B Corp. Large companies are increasingly under pressure from employees, customers, and society to create value for more than just their shareholders. For decades, business was allowed to tax environmental, social, and societal resources in pursuit of profit. A new generation of consumers and employees are demanding that business ladder to more than simple profit, but rather, have a core purpose—one that makes the world a little (or a lot) better place. Of course, there’s already a corporate governance structure that encourages this approach to running a company—the Public Benefit Corporation, or B Corp. (I wrote about B Corps last year here). My money is on Unilever, which has already been publicly discussing such a move. Two dark horses: Walmart and GE.

8. President Trump leaves Twitter. Ever since Twitter launched, I’ve usually included a Twitter prediction. This one sounds crazy, but it strikes me there are a few ways this might plausibly happen. Perhaps Trump will come to his senses and stop trying to run the country through a series of tweets. OK, that’s not very plausible. More likely is Trump will end up in some kind of a feud with Twitter over something utterly ridiculous, claim he’s the only reason the service is viable anymore, and decamp for Facebook, Snapchat, or who knows, maybe VK (that’s the largest Russian social media network, FWIW). Or maybe someone slips a cure for narcissism into his evening flute of Trump Champagne….

9. Snap soars – then sours. I’m increasingly of the opinion that this company is going to force a total rethink of our online culture. In fact, I think most of us have no idea how over our skis we are when it comes to the power that Snapchat has aggregated. I’m not talking about typical tech power, like number of active users or advertising revenue. I mean the power of the platform to engage and exploit our pleistocene-era social brains. I’m not entirely sure Snap Inc. has fully grokked that power. But Snapchat feels like a step function beyond anything that has come before it. I watch my own children use it, and I’ve watched them fall in love with Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and countless pretenders (though I’m keeping my eye on Houseparty). Nothing compares to what happens when a group of kids connect on Snapchat. It literally becomes their social geography, and that fact will be widely recognized by the business community when Snap goes public. But almost hand in hand with that will come the Snapchat backlash, as scholars, alarmists, parents and school administrators speak out about the impact the app is having on the structure of society. Spectacles? By the end of 2017, those will seem quaint. Side note: There’ll be an amazing science fiction novel that comes out in early 2017 whose main protagonist will be compared to Snap. And yeah, that’s a fix, because I’ve already read it…

10. Human connection commands a premium in the workforce. OK, OK, this has certainly been the case for all of history, at least – ahem –  for a certain kind of connectivity. But in an age where it seems every job can be replaced by AI or a robot (or both), we’ll see a shift in how society values previously under-appreciated jobs that cannot be automated away (or if they can, the automated version fails to deliver human connection). Think about jobs that are socially valuable, require direct human contact, but are currently very poorly remunerated: Teacher, nurse/home care aide, waiter, small business owner, musician/artist come to mind. In 2017, we’ll come to realize that we’re valuing the wrong things, and start a conversation about paying people to connect with each other – because if we can automate the other stuff, why the heck wouldn’t we value each other more?! Related: The conversation around Universal Basic Income (or my preferred term, the Citizens’ Dividend) will become white hot (it’s white hot in the Valley at present, but it’ll move into broader circles in 2017).

Well that’s ten predictions, which seems like a nice round number. As I review them, I realize there’s a pretty high chance I could seriously whiff this year. What do you think?!

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Related:

Predictions 2016 

2016: How I Did

Predictions 2015

2015: How I Did

Predictions 2014

2014: How I Did

Predictions 2013

2013: How I Did

Predictions 2012

2012: How I Did

 

The Waze Effect: Flocking, AI, and Private Regulatory Capture

By - February 03, 2016

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A couple of weeks ago my wife and I were heading across the San Rafael bridge to downtown Oakland for a show at the Fox Theatre. As all Bay area drivers know, there’s a historically awful stretch of Interstate 80 along that route – a permanent traffic sh*t show. I considered taking San Pablo road, a major thoroughfare which parallels the freeway. But my wife fired up Waze instead, and we proceeded to follow an intricate set of instructions which took us onto frontage roads, side streets, and counter-intuitive detours. Despite our shared unease (unfamiliar streets through some blighted neighborhoods), we trusted the Waze algorithms – and we weren’t alone. In fact, a continuous stream of automobiles snaked along the very same improbable route – and inside the cars ahead and behind me, I saw glowing blue screens delivering similar instructions to the drivers within.

About a year or so ago I started regularly using the Waze app  – which is to say, I started using it on familiar routes: to and from work, going to the ballpark, maneuvering across San Francisco for a meeting. Prior to that I only used the navigation app as an occasional replacement for Google Maps –  when I wasn’t sure how to get from point A to point B.

Of course, Waze is a revelation for the uninitiated. It essentially turns your car into an autonomous vehicle, with you as a simple robot executing the commands of an extraordinarily sophisticated and crowd-sourced AI.

But as I’m sure you’ve noticed if you’re a regular “Wazer,” the app is driving a tangible “flocking” behavior in a significant percentage of drivers on the road. In essence, Waze has built a real time layer of data and commands over our current traffic infrastructure. This new layer is owned and operated by a for-profit company (Google, which owns Waze), its algorithms necessarily protected as intellectual property. And because it’s so much better than what we had before, nearly everyone is thrilled with the deal (there are some upset homeowners tired of those new traffic flows, for instance).

Since the rise of the automobile, we’ve managed traffic flows through a public commons – a slow moving but accountable ecosystem of local and national ordinances (speed limits, stop signs, traffic lights, etc) that were more or less consistent across all publicly owned road ways.

Information-first tech platforms like Waze, Uber, and Airbnb are delivering innovative solutions to real world problems that were simply impossible for governments to address (or even imagine). At what point will Waze or something like it integrate with the traffic grid, and start to control the lights?

I’ve written before about how we’re slowly replacing our public commons with corporate, for-profit solutions – but I sense a quickening afoot. There’s an inevitable collision between the public’s right to know, and a corporation’s need for profit (predicated on establishing competitive moats and protecting core intellectual property).  How exactly do these algorithms choose how best to guide us around? Is it fair to route traffic past people’s homes and/or away from roadside businesses? Should we just throw up our hands and “trust the tech?”

We’ve already been practicing solutions to these questions, first with the Web, then with Google search and the Facebook Newsfeed, and now with Waze. But absent a more robust dialog addressing these issues, we run a real risk of creating a new kind of regulatory capture – not in the classic sense, where corrupt public officials preference one company over another, but rather a more private kind, where a for-profit corporation literally becomes the regulatory framework itself – not through malicious intent or greed, but simply by offering a better way.

Robert Reich: “Saving Capitalism” From Itself

By - December 27, 2015

Robert B. Reich Photo and Book with Black Border 08042015Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few is a readable rant that – should you disagree with Reich’s central premise – will elicit eye-rolls and summary dismissal. But while his well-known political ideology (he served as Secretary of Labor under Clinton) is on constant display, I found Reich’s book both timely and important.

I am drawn to any work that posits a better way forward, and as you might expect, I agree with Reich far more often than not. You have to be willfully ignorant to pretend our current economic system is equitable (Reich argues we’re in the “second Gilded Age“) or capable of creating long-term increasing returns. And while many in our industry cling to libertarian fantasies in which technologic silver bullets solve our every social need, back here on earth we need to do better than pine for the singularity. Fixing income inequality and the loss of the middle class requires hard policy choices and a re-framing of the problems at hand.

Reich’s compact book lays out a strong prescription for what he feels is ailing our capitalist system. Anyone in tech should pay attention: Reich lumps the tech elite right alongside bankers, big pharma, and agribusiness as the new monopolists, and argues that if our capitalist society is to truly prosper, some pretty fundamental changes have to occur in both our economic policy as well as the structure, practices, and purpose of the companies we build.

Most of Reich’s argument turns on this simple premise: The debate between “free markets” and “government intrusion” is a false choice. “The central choice is not between the “free market” and government;” Reich argues, “it is between a market organized for broadly based prosperity and one designed to deliver almost all the gains to a few at the top.”

Reich goes on to deliver example after example of how the rules governing our current capitalist system are rigged to deliver “pre-distributions” of wealth to those in power. From banking to broadband, pharma to agriculture, Reich details subtle market mechanisms that concentrate power and capital into the hands of the “new oligarchs.” Government doesn’t intrude on markets,Reich argues, in fact government creates markets. Citing regulatory and enforcement frameworks for property, monopoly, contract, and bankruptcy law, Reich argues that opposition to government regulation “hides a larger reality: the necessary role of government in designing, organizing, and enforcing the market to begin with.”

The proper role of government, Reich argues, is to insure fairness to all – and today’s capitalist system is anything but fair. Reich traces the role of money in politics, for example, and the disastrous roll back of regulations limiting corporate giving to political campaigns. He shows how corporate lobbying has effectively hamstrung food safety legislation and stifled innovation in our nation’s infrastructure. He details how corporations have successfully lobbied for tax loopholes that allow for massive increases in executive pay.

Reich takes on several sacred American myths along the way. One is the idea that corporations must be run to maximize profit – the almighty “shareholder return.” “The idea that shareholders are a corporation’s only owners, and therefore that the sole purpose of the corporation is to maximize the value of their investments, appears nowhere in the law,” Reich writes. Instead, Reich argues, corporations should balance many constituents – employees, customers, communities impacted by their operations and their products. And in fact, this idea was once quite commonplace in American capitalism, Reich reminds us. Back in the 1950s, Fortune magazine exhorted its readers to act like “industrials statesman” who “regard business management as a stewardship, and … operate the economy as a public trust for the benefit of all the people.”

Reich also skewers the American myth of meritocracy – that we are paid what we are worth. “The notion that you’re paid what you’re “worth” is by now so deeply ingrained in the public consciousness that many who earn very little assume it’s their own fault,” Reich writes. “They feel ashamed of what they see as a personal failure—a lack of brains or a deficiency of character. [But] those who are rich and becoming ever more so are neither smarter nor morally superior to anyone else.”

I have a feeling there are more than a few folks in the Valley who’d disagree with that last statement.

Here are a few more of Reich’s tidbits:

– The $26.7 billion distributed to (recently bailed out) Wall Street bankers in 2013 bonuses would have been enough to more than double the pay of every one of America’s 1,007,000 full-time minimum-wage workers.

– In 2001, the top ten websites accounted for 31 percent of all page views in America, by 2010 the top ten accounted for 75 percent.

– Google and Apple have been spending more money acquiring and litigating over patents than on doing research and development.

– The richest four hundred Americans have more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of Americans put together.

– Fast food and low-wage service jobs are subsidized by public benefits, driving significant profits for large corporations.

Capitalism must be “saved from its own excess,” Reich concludes. “There is simply no way the American economy can be sustained if the richest 10 percent continue to reap all the economic gains while the poorest 90 percent grow poorer; there is no way American democracy can be maintained if the voices of the vast majority continue to be ignored.”

Reich’s prescription includes overturning Citizens United, considering a basic universal income, rethinking our intellectual property, patent, and copyright laws to insure wealth created by innovation ultimately returns to the public domain, and nothing less than the “reinvention of the corporation.”

It’s that last thought that was the true “aha!” for me – it echoed my own thinking about what I’ve come to call the “NewCo narrative” – the story of a new kind of corporation, one driven as much by purpose as profit. I didn’t read “Saving Capitalism” expecting to find affirmation for our nascent movement, but I’ll admit it was satisfying to hear Reich calling for a new approach to corporate philosophy. “We’re likely to see a reversion to a time when many jobs were considered “callings,” expressing a deeply personal commitment rather than simply a means of acquiring money,” Reich writes, arguing that in the end, workers and consumers will be the most effective agents of change in our economy, be it through the ballot box (Reich does raise the specter of a populist third party separate from either Democrats or Republicans), or, more likely, through the formation of new kinds of companies which see themselves as responsible citizens of the world. Hear Hear!

App Stores Must Go

By - January 11, 2015

appstores2014 was the year the industry woke up to the power of mobile app installs, and the advertising platforms that drive them. Facebook’s impressive mobile revenue numbers – 66% of its Q3 2014 revenue and growing  – are a proxy for the mobile economy at large, and while the company doesn’t divulge what percentage of that revenue is app install advertising, estimates range from a third to a half – which means that Facebook made anywhere from $700 million to more than a billion dollars in one quarter on app install advertising. That’s potentially $4 billion+ a year of app installs, just on Facebook. Yow. That kind of growth is reminiscent of search revenues a decade ago.

But as I’ve written before, app installs are only the beginning of an ongoing marketing relationship that an app publisher must have with its consumer. It’s one thing to get your app installed, but quite another to get people to keep opening it, using it, and ultimately, doing things that create revenue for you. The next step after app install revenue is “app re-engagement,” and the battle to win this emerging category is already underway, with all the major platforms (Twitter, Yahoo, Google, Facebook) rolling out products, and a slew of startups vying for share (and M&A glory, I’d wager).

Over time, app install revenue is bound to wane, and app re-engagement revenue will wax, to the point where the latter is inevitably larger than the former. Neither will disappear entirely, of course, but as the mobile model matures, it’s likely they will take new form. But the following three steps will remain constant – they were true before apps (when we called Internet services “websites”), and they were true before the Internet itself:

  1. Get people to notice your product or service, and engage with it for the first time. 
  2. Get people to come back, and keep sampling your product or service. 
  3. Get people to regularly give you their money for your product or service.

We’ve now got a reliable model for #1: It’s the combination of the app store platform and app install advertising. #2 is coming along as well, as I mentioned above.

But what of #3? It’s one thing to get someone to give you a few bucks for your app, but how can you keep them giving you money (or doing things that make you money, like ordering on GrubHub)? If app makers are spending an unhealthy percentage of their capital on advertising, innovation in product will suffer, and we won’t get apps that people are willing to continually pay for. It strikes me, after any number of conversations I’ve had around the state of mobile, that mobile markets in the US will slowly but surely evolve toward the norms currently in place in Asia, where advertising is a minority of mobile revenues, and in-app commerce of all kinds is the standard. After all, that’s how it is for business in general – advertising is a small but significant percentage of overall revenues.

But for this to occur, our process of app discovery and engagement has to rationalize – it’s simply too expensive to build a loyal audience in mobile, and the top 1-2% of apps can afford to price the rest of the market out. This is the great failure – or cynical intention – of Apple and Google’s hobbled app store strategy. There simply should not be one app store per platform – they’re what Steve Jobs would call “orifices” – monopolistic constructs created to consolidate control. App stores stifle innovation – they are damage, and the Internet will eventually route around them. 2015 should be the year that becomes evident.

My other recent musings on mobile can be found here.  

Whither the Public Commons? Enter The Private Corporation

By - November 05, 2014

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(image) From time to time a piece reminds us that we are in a slow, poorly articulated struggle over what we hold as a public commons. That was the case with Vanity Fair’s Man and Uber Man, a profile of Uber’s Travis Kalanick by Kara Swisher. Swisher deftly captures Kalanick’s combative approach in prosecuting what he calls Uber’s “political campaign” to beat established regulated markets in transportation, a campaign he believes he must win “98 to 2″ – because the candidate is a product, not a politician. In short, Uber can’t afford to win by a simple majority – this is a winner takes all scenario.

This gives me pause, and I sense I’m not alone. On the one hand, we praise Uber for identifying a huge market encumbered by slow moving bureaucracy, and creating a service markedly better than its alternatives. That’s what I’ve called an “Information First” company.  On the other hand, we worry about what it means when something that was once held in public commons – the right to transportation – is increasingly pushed aside in favor of private alternatives. Messy as it may be, our public transportation system is egalitarian in its approach, non-profit at its core, and truly public – as in, bound to the public commons through government regulation.

Are we sure we want to outsource our commons to private companies? I think that’s the existential question we face as a society. I wrote about it three years ago in a post What Role Government? From it:

Over the past five or six decades, we’ve slowly but surely transitioned several core responsibilities of our common lives from government to the private sector. Some shifts are still in early stages, others are nearly complete. But I’m not sure that we have truly considered, as a society, the implications of this movement, which seem significant to me. I’m no political scientist, but the net net of all this seems to be that we’re trusting private corporations to do what, for a long, long time, we considered was work entrusted to the common good. In short, we’ve put a great deal of our public trust into a system that, for all the good it’s done (and it’s done quite a lot), is driven by one core motivation: the pursuit of profit.

The question of the role we wish government to play seems even more pressing given the advance of largely private services such as Uber. We are in the midst of a heated social conversation around the topic, and we see the edges of it when silly insta-startups pop up to privatize public space such as parking spots. In my longer piece, I identify a series of areas where we’ve outsourced formerly public “features” of our lives to private companies. The trend has only strengthened since, and I don’t expect it will flag anytime soon.

So perhaps instead of “What Role Government,” or “What Commons Do We Wish For,” the question we need to ask ourselves is this: What kind of a corporation do we want? If we are going to have corporations play a larger and larger role in what we formerly understood to be the public commons, we might want to we spend a few cycles asking ourselves what kinds of behaviors and values we want our companies to exhibit?

Come to think of it, that’s kind of why I started NewCo last year. It strikes me that we’re just starting to have a conversation about those corporate values. I laid out some of this in What makes a company a “NewCo”?, to wit:

Driven by capitalism’s central motive – profit – corporations have become one of the most powerful actors on the global stage. Besides government, no other institution in society has amassed as much wealth, power, and control as the corporation.

But at their core, corporations are just people. And over the past few decades, in parallel with the rise of the Internet, those people have begun a quiet revolution that has redefined what a “corporation” can be.

The global economy is transitioning from hierarchical models of command and control to more networked and flexible approaches. A new kind of organization – one that measures its success by more than profit – has emerged. We call these companies “NewCos.” As the networked, information-first economy has taken hold, NewCos are building innovative, purpose-driven new ways of doing business.

A NewCo views “work” as more than punching a clock or doing a job. The people behind these companies believe work can equate with passion, community, and a force for positive change.

 

It’s fascinating to watch the debate over Uber play out – is it a good actor, or a bad one? Is its CEO a driven role model or a bully? Or is it, perhaps, still figuring out what it really means to have the public trust? Once you’ve won that trust,  well, maybe that’s when the real work begins.

A Big Day For The Internet

By - September 10, 2014

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Today scores of big companies are taking symbolic action to defend the essential principles of an open Internet, and I support them. That’s why, on your first visit here today, you’ll see the “spinning ball of death” up on the right. For more information about the Internet Slowdown, head here.

Viacom v. Cable One: A Foreshadowing of Things To Come in The Battle for the Open Web?

By - May 07, 2014
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Viacom’s rather one-sided POV on why its blocked web access for Cable One providers. Image via @TheLadyH86

So it’s come to this.

We’re all familiar with disputes between cable providers and their content partners – it happens all the time. One party claims the other party is demanding too much in a carriage negotiation, and in retaliation, the offended party pulls the programming in dispute. It might be the programmer who refuses to allow its content to run, or the cable company who refuses to put it on the air. The last big one I recall was between Time Warner and CBS back in the Fall, when many major markets looked to be losing football coverage just as the season was starting.

To be honest I pay little attention to these disputes, just more big old media titans arguing over profits and old business models. Doesn’t affect the Internet, nothing to see here, move along.

Until I read this story, about another dispute between cable companies and content providers, this time Viacom (which owns CBS) and Cable One, a provider of cable television, phone, and Internet service in 19 US states. The impetus for this particular tussle was the same as all the others – Viacom wanted more money to run its shows on Cable One, Cable One balked, and Cable One (or Viacom, hard to say which) pulled Viacom programming. But this dispute is unique: Viacom retaliated by denying all Cable One Internet subscribers access to shows openly available on Viacom websites.

Let me repeat that: Viacom retaliated by blocking paying subscribers of Cable One’s Internet services from using Viacom websites. As far as I can tell, Viacom is identifying Cable One subscribers by their IP addresses, and then blocking those IPs from streaming any Viacom content on the web – despite Viacom’s willingness to stream those same shows to anyone else in the US with Internet access.

Let that sink in for a minute. A US corporation is blocking open Internet calls to the open web because the company providing that access is not paying Viacom enough money for Viacom’s television shows. The old world model of command and control in cable is seeping into the Internet. Ick.

What the fork**?

In one short and deeply insightful post this March, Fred Wilson explained the stultifying effects on innovation caused by the erosion of open access to the web by imagining a pitch between entrepreneurs and VCs in an era where net neutrality is rewritten by incumbents in the media and distribution world. Here’s one example:

Entrepreneur: I plan to launch a service that curates the funniest videos from all across the internet and packages them up in a 30 minute daily video show that people will watch on their phones as they are commuting to work on the subway. It’s called SubHumor.

VC: Well since YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix have paid all the telcos so that their services are free via a sponsored data plan, I am worried that it will hard to get users to watch any videos on their phones that aren’t being served by YouTube, Hulu, or Netflix. We like you and your idea very much, but we are going to have to pass.

If what Viacom and Cable One are doing becomes standard practice, I can imagine such conversations getting even worse. We are all reaping the rewards, value creation, growth, and innovation of an open Internet. Let’s not let these practices stand.

**Maybe it’s time to teach Cable One’s subscribers about Firefox’s Modify Headers plug in….

 

Else 4.28.14: F*ck Policy, Except When I Care About The Outcome

By - April 27, 2014

net-neutrality-thumbnail-2(image) This past week saw a significant increase in society’s willingness to have a deeper conversation about what it means to Become Data. The Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that may well supplant the Betamax case in import. And the FCC stepped in it, big time, while pals at O’Reilly opinined for a world where the Internet of Things remains open and transparent. Not to mention, my own ramblings on what it means to truly disappear, and why Google does what it does. To the links….

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Goodbye, Net Neutrality; Hello, Net Discrimination : The New Yorker

The FCC sure as hell stepped in it last week. Let’s see if they clean off their shoe, or just keep smelling like shit.

Why Do So Many People Describe Aereo ‘Complying’ With Copyright Law As The Company ‘Circumventing’ Copyright Law? – Techdirt

Meanwhile, we’re quite uneasy with whether our Supremes can grok the complexities of….Barry Diller’s business moves.

Google, Facebook Fight for Tech’s Future via Acquisitions – Businessweek

Come on, if you told me five years ago the cutting edge of competition was … drones….well. Anyway. It is.

Science Fiction: Mining My Own Exhaust – Monday Note

Yes, we make a lot of data. And yes, it’s time we started to see that fact as more than an oppressive unknown. It may well become a springboard to surprise and delight.

The revolving door between Google and the Department of Defense –  PandoDaily

This might scare you. Or you might realize that it’s pretty damn normal in the rest of the industrial world, and will be here as well.

Toward an open Internet of Things – O’Reilly Radar

Please, let’s not make this next phase of our industry suck. Please?

How Airbnb and Lyft Finally Got Americans to Trust Each Other – WIRED

A bit overstated, but…there’s a point there. Given the right circumstance, we have always trusted each other, it’s just now we have a stronger and more dependable network that allows us to make those bonds of trust quickly and productively.

The Next Vegas Will Be A City That Lets You Truly Disappear – If Only For A While – Searchblog

If cities become high-density surveillance sites, then we’ll need cities where we can escape it all.

Louis C.K. Is America’s Undisputed King of Comedy – GQ

I’ve always loved his work, which is one beat away from losing it entirely. But his take on tech is worth listening to: “phones are taking away the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that forever-empty thing…that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone…. The thing is, because we don’t want that first bit of sad, we push it away with a little phone or a jack-off…. You never feel completely sad or completely happy, just kinda satisfied with your product, and then you die.”

Google+ Won (Or Why Google Never Needed A Social Network) -Searchblog

I know, two pieces in one week? But this needed to be said.

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