To be tech or not

There are startups that exist because they think they are good at the internet and are trying to find a use for their talents and learnings. There are companies that have had to figure out the internet to deliver the products and services they were delivering pre-internet. There are companies that have recognized that the internet can create brand new businesses based on previously untenable ideals and concepts.

At WebWednesday I listened to a great talk. It was by @JoanneOoi  of Plukka on the new way they are pioneering a method of delivering classy, almost bespoke jewellery, at prices that are far below that of the usual high-street retailers.

This company called itself a tech company and is also well recognised as such (as evidenced by the invitation to present at WebWednesday). The interesting question is why this company was defined as a tech company. Perhaps it was because they have a website, but then almost every company has a website. Perhaps it is because the majority of their sales are through the Web. However window companies that sell a lot of new windows by making telephone calls are hardly defined as a telecommunication companies. No, the medium of reaching the customer is not sufficient to be able to define a company as a technology company.

Calling yourself a tech company is a declaration. It is a declaration of an aspiration to be innovative, to be re-conceptualising the design and solution of an old world problem or need and formulating a new approach in a new connected more advanced system in which we live today. It’s trying to promise that the company will follow the protocols emerging in new business where companies are more open to what their customers want and say and subsequently try to react faster to these needs without adhering to the old ‘ways of doing things’. It is to set new and different standards.

If the medium of the Web disappeared, then we would see many companies fail. The true tech companies, those focused on where their function to their customers and society trump their marriage to their medium would somehow survive and flourish.

For as long as Plukka continue to execute their strategy and provide better ways of choosing and buying jewellery then they should be applauded and have every right to be labelled a ‘tech company’.

Robots without disguise

A friend of mine who’s very interested in science and fiction, let’s call him Paul, sent this video.

It’s refreshing to read that this innovation and technology was not conceived and raised in a Californian garage. It was developed by Boston Dynamics and funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency  (DARPA *).  According to Wikipedia;

DARPA’s original mission, established in 1958, was to prevent technological surprise like the launch of Sputnik, which signaled that the Soviets had beaten the U.S. into space. The mission statement has evolved over time. Today, DARPA’s mission is still to prevent technological surprise to the US, but also to create technological surprise for its enemies……….DARPA looks beyond today’s known needs and requirements. As military historian John Chambers noted, “None of the most important weapons transforming warfare in the 20th century – the airplane, tank, radar, jet engine, helicopter, electronic computer, not even the atomic bomb – owed its initial development to a doctrinal requirement or request of the military.” And to this list, DARPA would add unmanned systems, Global Positioning System (GPS) and Internet technologies.

It is interesting to wonder if Google, Facebook and Twitter ‘revolutions’ would already have been possible without ARPANET or if FourSquare or DrawSomething would have yet been imagined. I’m only asking…

In thinking about where these developments are leading, like DARPA, we have to look beyond today’s requirements. It is perhaps worth noting the directions in which we have already looked in the past. It seems with development comes a bigger trove of development and with answers come substantially more questions. It is undeniable and declared in its name how Big Dog first came to be imagined. Without some spark to imagination nothing could be created.

It was only in around 1830 that ‘anthropomorphism’ [1] and ‘zoomorphism’ [2] were actually termed even though their practice has existed for longer than I can date.

Do these terms represent the source of the many hidden solutions of our progression?

These terms are observations of the phenomena where we look towards certain forms that a natural evolution has used as a solution to its problems and needs. Whether the natural form is of design or necessity is a contentious question. However the consistent adoption of technologies that could be described as anthropomorphic or zoomorphic does suggest that nature and designers (and DARPA) are satisfying and fulfilling constraints decreed by a deeper universal architectural requirement.

(*)  DARPA was renamed in 1972 from ARPA which was established in 1958).
[1] Anthropomorphims is the attribution of human form or behaviour to a deity, animal, etc.
[2] Zoomorphism is the conception or representation of deities in the form of animals.


Everywhere we look…communication is trying

Communication was our big breakthrough. From noise came speech and from these patterns languages were formed. Along the way communications were enhanced from pointing techniques to hieroglyph’s and the characters or alphabet based textual methods we use today. Everywhere there is text. From the clothes we wear to deep within the workings of the devices we use. They are inescapable.

This rich labeling is not too different with what we are doing with our own and our collective data on the internet forming what some define as Web2.0. Wearing the name and logo of the designer of your clothes is a real world example of Declarative Living that we have long stopped even being aware of.  Tagging is done by the clothes manufacturers and we sort of choose from the all these tagged goods. We choose them for different reasons and sometimes maybe no reason at all. However these tags are there and were put there deliberately.

Although text is everywhere, only semi-communication is everywhere, in that a one way communication from the tagged to the message receiver is made. This concept would have been inconceivable a dozen thousand years ago. Perhaps the idea of a true communication with two way information flowing between us and the things (or people or companies represented by the things) should not be so inconceivable.

Probably sooner than we think

In a world of my own, I walked straight in front of the camera as group photo was being shot. My timing couldn’t have been worse.

When this group look back through their photos will they wonder who the handsome stranger was that walked right in front of their camera? Will they be able to look me up? Surely it is inevitable that a face search will be possible. Maybe the question should be when will this be possible.

I read this morning about a London bus-stop that could detect whether a male or female was waiting. When a female was detected a video was shown. The notion that we will be able to know who everyone is will slowly become a realisation. More than this, our surroundings and environment will also know who you are and who they are talking to.

Finally, may I direct my apology to the group on Garden Road yesterday. I hope you have some great holiday memories.

Cousins, a word I beg you

This video shown on TechCrunch shows an example of Google evolving. The change in search output is clearly demonstrated to show a new bias toward its own Google+ social results. My key concern is that the core service (of search) could be compromised. In these terms, to do this in order to promote a new product, seems non-sensical.

Far more than simply delivering the most relevant and appropriate results, Google may begin to risk its champion position of information and truth deliverer to the world.

GoogleMail already offers a rich harvest of personal data, now Google+ is being grown to produce new information fodder. Provided this is done in a clear mutually benefitting way, that is transparent and honest, swathes of our population will be happy to proceed. We can have no issue with this since it is likely to benefit all actors. Further we have not had just cause to complain about this in the past for which the Google market capitalization stands testament to.

The devil may appear in the deception; to lead users along a different social path to which they otherwise would not have ordinarily taken. However it is important to note that adverts are different – these have big signposts on the entry to the path to warn what they are and how they got there.

Many of the great writers in making many of their great stories impose a narrative where the champion is compelled to impose a deception onto our subjects. As observed by Banquo on reflection following his and Macbeth’s visit to the foretelling witches:

But ’tis strange; 
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, 
The instruments of darkness tell us truths, 
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s 
In deepest consequence— 

I don’t believe that shareholder pressure or the zeal to beat Facebook will cause Google to sacrifice their relevancy in search, but the times are certainly testing.

So that we may all think: uno animo

I was fascinated to learn that in many pay-to-attend primary schools, each child has a laptop, more precisely, an ‘Apple laptop’. It was explained that learning is more effective when self-motivated and self-discovered. Technology seems to be offering a new medium and tool. We build on what has been built before us and the microchip led surge since the 1970’s has allowed us to build ever and ever sharper tools. Although these tools were not necessarily conceived as an end in themselves, many have proved to be so.

Accessibility in the form of GUI’s, WIMP, Google, Wikipedia and now Apple led UI’s empowered the technologically mass-excluded and this has revolutionised communications, commerce and global well-being.

Vannevar Bush, in 1945 wrote a paper called “That We May Think” which depicted organizing knowledge as a big hypertext web-like construct. This would give users methods for following existing trails and making new ones. This was based on his understanding of how the brain creates nodal links and thoughts by association where any node can and should point directly to every other. This would be very unlike other information filing systems such as libraries or cabinets.

One Laptop Per Child is a belief and organization that are looking to bring development to the current (educationally and economically) mass-excluded. The impact of this dispersal of technology may one day be compared to the laying of the rails that have directed industrial revolutions or the AT&T Long Lines which only in 1951 connected the people of the east and west coast of the United States with efficient telecommunications and television broadcast. I’m not sure which coast this has benefitted the most. As global nodal connections increase, we will reach the stage where a one-to-one correspondence between anyone and everyone else exists.

The scene may have changed, but thankfully “the aspirations of men of good will persist”.

‘Accept’ or ‘Ignore’?

Letter writing has become a quaint memory of the personal past that we once lived in. Its passing leaves a record of the times and the people. Philip Stanhope (1694-1773), the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, perhaps more famously remembered as Lord Chesterfield chronicled over three hundred letters to his son. In a letter sent shortly after he had resigned the seals of the position of Secretary of State, recuperating in Bath, he sent a letter dated 9th March 1748 with the following extract:

Having mentioned laughter, I must particularly warn you against it: and I could heartily wish that you may often be seen to smile, but never heard to laugh while you live. Frequent and loud laughter is the characteristic of folly and in manners: it is the manner in which the mob express their silly joy at silly things: and they call it being merry. In my mind, there is nothing so illiberal, and so ill-bred, as audible laughter. True wit, or sense, never yet made anybody laugh; they are above it: They please the mind, and give a cheerfulness to the countenance. But it is low buffoonery, or silly accidents that always excite laughter; and that is what people of sense and breeding should show themselves above. A man’s going to sit down in the supposition that he has a chair behind him, and falling down upon his breech for want of one, sets a whole company a laughing, when all the wit in the world would not do it; a plain proof, in my mind, how low and unbecoming a thing laughter is: not to mention the disagreeable noise it makes, and the shocking distortion of the face that it occasions.

Oh, how things have changed, and changed so completely from what was even possible to conceive. This weekend I was sent an invitation via LinkedIn. The choice was simple. It was between ‘Accept’ and ‘Ignore’. There was no option for an honourable ‘Sorry’. Contempt is below disdain and to ignore is probably somewhere between the two. However this is the choice given and this business model surely reflects what people want and how they behave. Communication is changing fast, our values and regard of others are changing with it.

Between the Squirrel and the Ant

From many years ago, a long time before the word term “welfare state” was conjured, society (if we can ask its non-believers to suppose its existence) must have been quite a tenuous concept. Our distant relations in the animal kingdom lead quite different lives and communities. Most don’t look out for each other and it’s this lack of collaboration that means they’re not us. We live on a spectrum, positioned somewhere between a dray of squirrels and an army of ants. Democracy has accelerated nation states into looking out for its weakest and most vulnerable. Over centuries, we have shown we have become more compassionate, even though short term electoral cycles may disguise this very strong longer term trend. However it is important to recognise that these changes have been accompanied by a massive improvement in prosperity and living standards.

The tax rate once upon a time was zero. Then powerful Kings and Queens sought tax for wealth and power and to build armies to stop foreign armies invading (or to invade somewhere else). Now the representation we accept in exchange for taxation is divided left to right.

We do know zero taxation would lead to a barren lawless land and we know that 100% taxation would lead to a seizing up of effective production and our functioning. The question for every democracy and dictatorship is how much to turn the taxation dial.

Perhaps the dominating sovereign debt headlines are no different to any other debt issue. Money, representing work done, has been borrowed by those that already have money (for work done) and lent it to those who borrow. Be it entrepreneur, gambler, business or state, the borrower must generate a return in order to repay the creditor. It therefore seems that some governments have not been able to generate the return from their society that was required. If we do find that nations collapse under their own debt then this should be recognized as a warning signal that our capital has been misallocated and our ideals have overburdened our pockets to tearing point. This very alarm is a signal that we need society to generate a better return on the tax paid by and to the nation.

Collaboration has changed from one of sharing meat and fruit to sharing stored capital in money. We could also suggest that money needed to be created once society reached a certain level of productivity – otherwise why work? One may expect that short term volatility would over the fullness of time exhibit a trend of convergence to some magic and universally accepted level of taxation. However it’s very difficult to know if our society is more collaborative today compared to 10,000 years ago. Certainly we have always built upon inter-generational advancements (very possibly the defining element of being human). However answering if our predisposition (or need) to collaborate has changed over the last 10,000 years makes me want to go for a long walk in the countryside.

Honey, what have you made today?

Why is it we say we have “made” money from a good investment or we have “lost” money from a bad one? Shouldn’t we be consistent and symmetrical and say we have “broken” or “destroyed” money if things turn bad or say we have “found” money when things go well? How dare I call this hubris. We’ve chosen these words over a long time. It’s what we have found we like saying and we say what we like.

Don’t be Sauron

A long time before George Orwell was even born or Tolkien imagined the Eye of Sauron, in 1791 the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham proudly laid out his blue print for the ‘panopticon’. The panopticon was a concept prison building in which the occupants were constantly observable. Bentham was careful to define the concept as one in which the inmates were observable rather than necessarily observed. The building was planned as a circular ring around a centrally positioned watchtower. By including partitions (that were like incomplete wheel spokes) from the outer ring, a set of cells along the outer perimeter could be constructed so that the central watch tower could see into each and every cell right through to the perimeter wall at the back. No cell could see its adjacent cell. Bentham envisioned that any watchmen within the central tower would be hidden from view of the prisoners, thus introducing the uncertainty within the prisoners of their being watched. Bentham conceived that living in this permanent state of observed living would pacify the prisoners as well as leveraging resources to maximize efficiency.

We are now well into the informational epoch that ignited with Intel’s first micro-chip. We began with the original IBM main-frame concept and after spending twenty years with decentralized personal computation memory and processing power, we are now returning to the original model of centralized computing. Perhaps our detour away from centralized computing will provide important lessons for the continuation of our march along our inevitable technological path. However now we are migrating data and computing power towards cloud computing. This model which has all the wires leading to a central memory and processing unit offers an awesome potential.

This week, the Executive Chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, explained that Google+ was built primarily as an ‘identity service’. A debate has raged: One side claims that a transparent web of true identity is a good development that will bring honesty and decency. The other side claims that our privacy is a right and this outweighs the cost of its abuse. Of course Google are a private company and have the right to do as they wish.

The famous ‘Milgram Experiment’ (Yale 1961) and the (Zimbardo) ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’ (1971) do demonstrate the dangers of an imbalance of real, or at least, perceived power.  With increased information, leveraged for the good of our diet, it is important that we know if the central Eye of Schmidt’s comment ‘might blink’. After all we need to know what we are leveraging. We as a society have the right and currently the privilege of giving and restricting power, but for this to remain so we need to know the extent of any powers.

Bentham may well have argued that the mere possibility of being observed online would act to moderate our behavior. The application of observance by means of the penopticon prison did of course apply to criminals and not ordinary citizens. We should at least recognise that we may be led by stealth into an infrastructure looking very much like a cyber penopticon.