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Superhuman? I’ll Settle for Consistent Competence

Ah, holidays. Rest and relaxation. Kick back and unwind. Once you’ve got through the horror of the airport that is.

Most of us are happy to accept a little extra delay as a cost of additional safety. It may add very little real security, as a number of critics have pointed out, but it at least gives the impression of an effort being made.

Where that effort is less in evidence is the check-in process. As someone who travels regularly for business I’m used to sailing through with my hand luggage and electronic (either online or kiosk) check-in.

Checking the family in this summer was a somewhat different affair: unlabelled and mislabelled desks, hour-plus queues in place before check-in opened, total confusion amongst staff and passengers alike.

It’s hard to ascribe responsibility between the airport, the airline we booked through, the airline operating the flight, or the outsourced check-in staff. Whoever it was won’t screw up like this every day. But as I wend my way through airports with my little bag I witness others waiting in similar lines around the world.

It’s a reminder that for all our sophistication we are still prone to fairly frequent screw ups. And the cost of these screw-ups is enormous. Unnecessary stress, wasted time, and a simple economic drag: the two hundred people on our flight who instead of spending money in duty free and the airport’s restaurants had to grab a bottle of water and head straight to their gate.

Some people don’t like the idea of letting machines address some of these problems. Optimising our lives. They worry it risks diminishing choice and serendipity. Certainly I wouldn’t want a machine planning my route as I ambled around a pretty Catalonian town on my holiday. The only guide I accepted was a human one, albeit through a digital medium: Trip Advisor.

But in places where I have little choice, like airports, I want the experience to be as smooth as possible.

Much of the talk about tomorrow’s technology, from me as much as anyone, is about how it makes us super-human, augmenting our senses, mental powers and physical capabilities. But sometimes I would settle for them delivering a more consistent level of competence.

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The Victorian Arrogance Trap

Back in 1899, Punch magazine carried a satirical sketch looking at the coming century. In it a genius enters a publishers office seeking a patents clerk, only to be told: “Sir. Everything that can be invented, has been invented.”

This quote has since been attributed to various real-life characters with (it appears) very little evidence, and used to support the popular idea that the Victorians, in their arrogance, thought they had invented everything.

You can see why a piece of satire became accepted as fact. The idea has the ring of truth to it. Walk around the cities of Manchester or Liverpool and look up at the architecture from the turn of the century and it is brimming with confidence. The preceding 100 year period had seen incredible progress — the industrial revolution — utterly transforming the UK. To live then, assuming you were reasonably well off, must have felt like you’d arrived in the future.

I think we all fall into this trap sometimes. As I pointed out in my last post, it’s hard to imagine just how much life could yet transform. And yet we know so very little.

I’m reminded of this every time I listen to an episode of Radiolab. Podcasts are one of my primary sources of information. The means by which I try to stay abreast of a lot of areas of science and technology with very limited time. One of my absolute favourites is Radiolab from public radio in the US.

recent episode carried the story of giant viruses, a class of life that has been around for millions of years but that we only discovered since the turn of the century. The discovery of this new class of life that shares traits of both viruses and bacteria shows how many biological things there likely are still on this planet that we haven’t yet witnessed. The gaps in our knowledge of the physics of the universe are greater still. And the things we have yet to invent using that knowledge, near limitless.

A recent episode of another of my favourite podcasts, The Infinite Monkey Cage, guests discussed the possibility that we may well be the smartest beings in our galaxy, based on the lack of evidence to date of other civilisations. Whether or not that’s the case, when measured against the number of things we don’t yet know, we should be very humble about our achievements so far.

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Futurism: The Imagination Challenge

My first task this morning was to write some comments for the press on the future of the ‘Internet of Things’. I was asked for some examples that would excite ‘normal people’. Though I don’t struggle to imagine various scenarios, it reminded me just how much our perspectives on tomorrow are filtered through the realities of today.

The same is true of our views of the past. The reason I think so many people struggle with the concept of evolution is that it is hard to understand the compound impact of small changes over long periods. A set of genes might only be fractionally different between one generation and the next, but over time the compound effects take us from a single-celled organism to one with the incredible complexity. We know this to be true but it doesn’t make it any easier to grasp. I can readily picture a few steps into the evolutionary past where our species was recognisably human and shared many of the same base instincts. But the further I get from my own frame of reference, the harder it is.

Looking to the future today is particularly hard. The accelerating pace of change means that the leaps from one ‘evolutionary generation’ to the next are large. The scale of change just a couple of steps into the future is potentially enormous. But it is also uneven, and the retarding forces unpredictable.

The only approach that makes sense when trying to predict the distant future is to look at motivations. To understand what people might want to be the case — for whatever reason — and how much they want it.

The reality is that technology seems to be rapidly overcoming most barriers to what those with resources want to achieve. The potential retarding forces of regulation and public opinion seem to be behind the curve. Facebook’s (former) mantra of ‘move fast and break things’ is arguably as applicable to the company’s attitude to technology as it is to Silicon Valley’s attitude to state rules and societal mores.

Grasp people’s motivations and the question becomes more about when things will happen than what. Limited only of course, by those same people’s imagination.

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Why Myths Need Busting

Every now and again a friend shares something on Facebook that sets alarm bells ringing. There’s the thankfully rare ‘Britain First’ post that sneaks through. Much more common are myths.

It happened this week. A friend shared the 100-year-old plus myth about onions absorbing bacteria and preventing flu — but becoming poisonous in the process.

I’m afraid I didn’t react well.*

Why such a problem with an apparently harmless old tale? There’s the issue of wasted onions, which as a foodie I find objectionable. But seriously, I think tales like this begin to undermine our rationality.

We live in a world built on science. For good or ill, many aspects of our modern lives are dependent on our understanding of how the world works, and the application of this knowledge. It’s the reason we live longer, travel further, experience more and suffer less than ever before.

Is the world we’ve built on science perfect? Not by a very, very long shot.

But is it better? By empirical measure you have to say yes. We live longer, healthier, and in the absence of cold, hunger and pain, happier lives.

So why are we so keen on questioning the science that has brought us to this point? Because that for me is what many of the myths circulating are about.

Sometimes myths are about undermining good science for financial gain. There’s plenty of snake oil out there. If you’ve ever wondered where those ‘one weird trick’ ads lead, it’s to fake remedies of various kinds.

Alternative remedies? Whatever you think of them (and my view is fairly clear) it’s hard to deny that much of their marketing is based on knocking the established remedies. Hence the ‘alternative’.

Much of the work of the climate change denial lobby is funded by large organisations and private individuals who stand to lose out from moves to limit the scale of the impending global disaster.

In each of these cases the person or organisation propagating the myth has something clear to gain. But the value of spreading myths like the onion story is less obvious. Who benefits from making onions scary?

In the absence of any links from the post or suggestions that the reader buy this or that, my only conclusion is that people like to share ‘secrets’, especially if they seem a little subversive. The sort of thing ‘they’, the shadowy figures at the heart of every conspiracy, don’t want you to know. Who doesn’t like letting someone into a secret? Or sharing something that surprises, or genuinely helps? Especially if doing so feels a little naughty.

That would all be fine, but these ideas are not harmless.

For a start, they contribute to the idea that there is a real alternative to tested medicine when it comes to preventing and treating serious diseases. Flu can kill. If you’re particularly susceptible to it, like I am, then you should get a flu jab each winter, not rely on sliced onions around the house.

More generally these myths diminish people’s trust in science. They suggest that folksy knowledge and common sense is a good enough challenge to rigorous testing and amassed evidence. That somehow the scientific establishment either missed these things or doesn’t want you to know them. And hence you shouldn’t trust them.

This mistrust leads to tragedies like the dramatic drop in immunisation (and subsequent serious illness of many) caused by (completely unjustified) rejections of vaccination. It helps the snake-oil salesmen to rake in millions, whether they’re attracting desperate cancer sufferers to quack clinics in the US, or selling them supplements online. It supports the growth of the electro-sensitivity industry, preying on people with real symptoms to sell them overpriced tin foil hats and wire mesh window liners. It helps the climate change deniers to keep us comfortable in our carbon-fuelled bubble while the world warms.

There are problems with the scientific establishment. Serious problems. Some of those problems are about the way science is conducted. But most of them are about situations where financial motivations drive bad behaviour.

Any positive vision for the future cannot be based on the rejection of science. Particularly not a pick and mix rejection that accepts cars, planes and the internet but rejects the pieces we find personally, or commercially, uncomfortable.

*You know who you are. Sorry!

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How to Stop Data Breaches? Stop Storing Personal Data

The last few days have been spent talking about data breaches. First the Carphone Warehouse breach with BBC Breakfast (the comments from which were then cribbed for a few hundred articles onlineincluding the BBC). Then the Big Brother Watch report about breaches from local councils (usually of a much smaller magnitude, albeit still serious).

The question I kept being asked is an obvious one: what can we do to prevent breaches?

I gave a fairly slippery answer most of the time: make a value judgement about what you share, etc etc etc. Because the real answer is somewhat beyond the scope of a four minute TV or radio interview.

Put simply, I can’t see that we will ever be able to secure large stores of personal data in single, centralised repositories. The rewards for attacking them are just so great, and the potential gaps in any security so numerous, that those trying to protect them will always be fighting a losing battle. We can keep most of the data secure most of the time, but somehow, someone will always find a way into even the most diligently protected databases. Just look at the recent research reports into hacking air-gapped computers. Or see what creative minds like Samy Kamkar can come up with.

So what’s the alternative?

Right now, there isn’t one. We store data in these big central repositories because that’s how we have to store it in order for it to be usable. Why did Carphone Warehouse have 2.4 million people’s records in one big database? Because every week it is calling, mailing, emailing and billing those people. Storing that data in any other fashion would make this difficult and inefficient.

But what if they didn’t have to store any personal data at all?

Imagine you want to start a billing relationship with a company. Rather than handing over loads of information about yourself, you simply issue a token to them. This token gives them the right to bill you but carries no information about who you are. It can be revoked at any time if it is compromised.

The billing instruction is carried back to you in a similarly unidentifiable tokenised fashion.

This doesn’t stop your identity data being stolen but it does eliminate the giant pots of personal data that are so attractive to hackers, and so damaging if compromised. You can change a token. It’s rather harder to change your name.

Of course this approach is riddled with problems. How does a company build a relationship with a token? How does it verify identity, or conduct credit checks? There are many more questions.

Answering them all would mean a very serious restructuring of our relationships with large organisations. However much they may talk about being ‘customer centric’, every large organisation operates with itself at the centre and the customers at the edge. Truly putting customers (or citizens, in the case of the public sector) at the heart of the organisation requires a fundamental change in thinking and behaviour.

Our stratification framework is one way to approach this, proposing as it does a visualisation of the organisation as a series of layers, with a unified and consistent ‘communications’ layer between the organisation’s processes and the customer.

But structure and strategy can only take you so far. Companies and their leaders must want to change. And there may be many more data breaches before that starts to seem appealing.

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Standards: Progress’s ‘Frenemy’

Fifteen-ish years ago I started working on the PR account for RealNetworks. People forget now how important this company was in bringing video and audio to the Internet. Back in the late 90s and early noughties, if you wanted to watch or listen to something online, RealPlayer was the default choice. There was no YouTube, no Spotify — even the BBC iPlayer was based on Real technologies. RealNetworks was the first company to align the major record labels into a product that could start to compete with the free music download networks like Napster — it was the obvious company for them to work with.

There’s a widely held perception that competition killed RealPlayer’s dominance, though that loss was accelerated by the feature-bloat of the software as the company tried to cling on to users*. Media Player being bundled with Windows certainly didn’t help matters but if you look at what has ultimately replaced RealPlayer (or is in the process of replacing it), it’s not any other single company.

It is standards.

The BBC for example, has recently standardised on AAC and HTTP streaming. YouTube is moving completely to HTML5 video (though that ‘standard’ is yet to be finalised). From the systems that produce and serve the content, to the devices that consume it, standards are winning out.

The result is greater diversity (one of our five ‘vectors of change’): royalty-free, open standards means that more people can create and share media easily, and so more people (and businesses) do. One or two big organisations suffer (Real, Adobe) but thousands more are enabled.

It’s worth considering this whenever there are apparent monopolies or dominant forces in the Internet sphere. Today’s technology supports the existence of super-scale networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, but also marketplaces like Amazon and Ali Baba. That might not always be the case.

In fact, history suggests that it won’t*.

* Situations like this make me want to write a book of Star Wars wisdom, including this nugget from Leia: “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” LinkedIn should take note…

* Regular readers may note that this sounds like a direct contradiction of yesterday’s post but it’s more a question of markets and time scales. I think Amazon’s dominance in retail is threatened by advances in discovery and payment technologies which reduce the friction of shopping across multiple sites. But these are some way off from having a serious impact right now. Meanwhile its web services businesses continues to acquire scale and capability much faster than competitors and so will likely survive longer until challenged by a different set of applied technologies.

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Buying Scale

The recent results from tech giants Google and Amazon surprised many. After years of buying scale, both appeared to pause and as a result delivered results that beat everyone’s expectations.

When I talk about scale as one of our five ‘vectors of change’, it has a very specific meaning. The increasingly connected and global nature of social and business culture means that it is very hard to compete based purely on geographic reach. Not only are there always new entrants coming into your space (literally), but the tools with which you reach a geographically-defined audience are increasingly global platforms: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. In order to reach a local audience you are often competing with noise from global competitors. Even the smallest organisations have to consider this when thinking about how they communicate with their market and compete.

The scale that Google and Amazon have acquired, through heavy investment in infrastructure and services, and buying other companies, makes them a competitor to millions of organisations around the world. But the way that they have stratified their organisations also makes them a partner.

Retailers, though competing with Amazon, may choose to sell through Amazon’s marketplace (some would argue to what extent they have a choice). They might use Amazon’s fulfilment services to ship their goods. Their own shop may be hosted on Amazon’s Web Services platform, as so many websites and applications are. And though the retailer may begrudge Amazon the margins it takes in the store, it’s hard to argue that there is not a net benefit to the retailer: the combination of reach and economies of scale it offers would be hard for a single retailer to match.

The reason this works is the hard lines between each of division of Amazon’s business. Though all part of the same organisation, from the outside it looks as if each operates independently. The way in which they interface with each other appears largely the same as the way in which third parties interface. Clear divisions of function with open, low friction interfaces between them is one of our principals for building agile organisations, but clearly it is crucial for scale as well.

The lines at Google are a little more blurry, in part because of the way it makes money from the data of users of its services. Given that it monetises your email data, it’s hard to be absolutely confident that it won’t also monetise what you put on its cloud platform. But it still manages to ‘co-pete’ with millions of businesses around the world.

The likelihood is that Amazon and Google will return to buying scale. They’ve shown the markets they can turn in big profits when they want to. The cash piles and cashflow can now be released again for further expansion, either organic or through acquisition, until they need another show of force.

As long as both organisations maintain the hard lines and low friction between their functions, they can keep on scaling for some time yet.

Tom Cheesewright