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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Get used to being wrong

 

We’re not good at being wrong. We chastise politicians for U-turns. We punish business leaders for changing strategies. As individuals we would rather cherry pick facts from the declining pool that support our position, than accept the burden of evidence that tells us we’re wrong.

None of this is helpful. In fact, it’s downright dangerous. Because we’re all going to be wrong a lot. That’s just the nature of things now.

Positions, traditions, ideas and beliefs, whether scientific, religious, cultural, or ideological are all subject to increasing challenge. Many are not equal to the test. The way it has always been is not the way it will always be.

It was ever thus. But our burden is the accelerated pace of change. We will be more wrong, more often than our parents.

We will have to deal with it. That doesn’t mean blindly accepting the new over the old. Every new idea deserves robust challenge. But those that pass the test? We need to learn to be better at accepting.

Most importantly, we need to teach our children to accept new ideas. To recognise when they are wrong and to adapt their position with grace.

Of course, there are some things that don’t change. Fundamental principles that go beyond law, beyond religion, beyond creed. Principles that are more important now than ever. When so much is changing we need a strong moral core.

Wheaton’s law expresses them most concisely. Every important principle in one simple statement. When so much is changing. When you don’t know right from wrong, left from right, up from down, remember this one simple rule:

Don’t be a dick.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Future post: Will drones deliver?

Amazon is to test drone delivery in the UK. Will the future post mean drone delivery to your palm?

Right now, next day delivery via Royal Mail will set you back 64p for a letter up to 100g. It’s such an ancient service that giving that weight measurement in metric form just seems incongruous. The letter, so often analogised in modern digital communications systems, has been in decline for years. Meanwhile, parcels are on the rise, as we do more and more of our shopping remotely. Last year, studies from both Barclays (with Conlumino) and Metapack (with the IMRG) suggest we topped the 1bn parcel mark.

Hence the interest in this area. Deliveries are slow, awkward, expensive and labour intensive. For now.

For not much more than that 100g letter, Starship’s rolling drone can carry two shopping bags over the last mile from store to door. And now Amazon is testing flying drones here to deliver goods to your door. Or more likely, a coded mat in your back garden.

These feel like interim steps, for different reasons.

The Starship drone delivers to selected time slots right now. It can’t be long before we allow our supermarkets access to our location so that they know we are at home — or even on our way there — and they send the goods along to meet us. Does this carry all sorts of terrifying implications for security and privacy? Absolutely. But the lesson of the last few years is that we will trade an awful lot for convenience. And if they get this service right, it could be very convenient.

Imagine combining subscription-based purchasing with autonomous delivery. You’re on the train home from work when you get a message from your supermarket of choice: “You’re running low on some key items at home. We notice you’re on your way. Is it OK if we drop your goods off in 15 minutes? Click to confirm.” You get another message when the drone is one minute away so that you can meet it at the door.

Amazon’s drone experiments feel like interim steps not because of the timing but because of the location to which they will deliver. Static delivery locations already feels rather last-century in our mobile modern world. We move around a lot, both our homes (increasingly rented) and our workplaces (increasingly a selection of stopping points and coffee shops). And some of the goods we want to order, we want wherever we are.

One payment provider did an experiment (I won’t name them because a quick search didn’t bring up public information about this) where they offered people delivery to their location, wherever they were — even if they were on the move, by tracking their phones. What did people buy? Things like phone charging cables. The accoutrements of modern day life, the lack of which they can’t easily complete a day without.

On day one, delivery like this will feel like a novelty. But I don’t think it would take long to become normality. Forgot your phone charger? Your drone will meet you outside in 5…4…3…2…

But there’s limited demand for this. As the Barclays study showed, clothes and accessories make up a huge proportion of deliveries and their growth. I can think of a few situations (and have experienced some) where you want fresh clothes delivering to your exact location. But it’s not an everyday experience. At least not for most of us.

Drones continue to present practical problems too. To be of a size and power to deliver anything of scale they will continue to be relatively large and noisy, though efforts are being made to diminish both factors. Right now you don’t want one up in your face, and you certainly don’t want an army of them dropping goods to every person at a bus stop: the injuries would only be outweighed by the irritation.

Future post is drone delivery of one form or another. Time to suit our needs and delivered to our location. But physical deliveries will always be bound by the realities of the physical world.

 

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Future creativity: Is originality dead?

Is originality dead? Never before have we been more clear how little we know, and how much is still to be discovered and invented. Yet copying is rife. How do we protect future creativity?

At various points in history people seem to have decided that there’s nothing left to be invented. That we have exhausted the possibilities for music, art, and science. Inevitably they are proved wrong. Today we’re more aware of what we don’t know than ever before. It’s clear that we are only beginning our journey of discovery as a species.

And yet originality does seem to be suffering. This isn’t about the endless recycling of trends in all spheres of life. But rather about the speed with which all original ideas are replicated and distributed now. To the point where the quirky becomes ubiquitous in a matter of hours.

What sparks this post is not, as it may have been, Melania Trump’s speech, lifted in part from a previous speech by Michelle Obama. Instead it is inspired by the ongoing battle between independent artists including Tuesday Bassen, and the global fashion behemoth, Inditex, owner of the Zara and Bershka brands. If the images posted by these artists are to be believed — and they are quite compelling — Zara has been fairly systematically copying the ideas of independent artists from online stores and reproducing their products at scale.

They aren’t the first. One of the consequences of a digitally-enabled, globally connected society is that an idea can travel across the world from one designer to another, and from there into the supply chain, and on to the stores in a matter of days. In the future, it will be hours. Maybe even minutes, with hyper-local, on-demand production.

What future creativity? How do we protect originality in these circumstances? How do we reward and incentivise it?

Rewarding future creativity

Creativity is often seen as being its own reward, but even artists need to eat. Too often creative talent is devalued. Jobs offered for ‘exposure’. Music and arts squeezed out of the curriculum. Yes, you can be extremely creative in science, maths and English. But that creativity is always enhanced by cross-pollination with other, explicitly creative disciplines where the creative muscles can be developed.

Google may have part of the answer. Its Content ID system may be unloved by the music industry, who claim it isn’t effective enough at identifying unlicensed use of their properties. But if Google is to be believed it identifies 99.7% of copies of tunes in its database. Content ID automatically notifies copyright owners, allowing them to monetise user-generated content that infringes their rights.

Imagine a system like this that allows individuals to protect their rights to creative works of all types around the world. The complexities of global copyright may make it hard to enforce legally. But much more shaming of the type that Inditex is experiencing now may convince large retail brands to sign up. And it would provide a simple source of discovery and a single source of evidence for those who have been infringed. Even if the person doing the infringing is another small business or sole practitioner — as has happened to a well-known illustrator friend — this would be a way to monitor that and at least socially enforce some sort of control.

Would this be a good thing? It would undoubtedly be abused. By large corporates (as happened in this case) and spiteful individuals.

Either way, I think we’ll see something like this before too long.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Future journalism: Who asks difficult questions?

Is future journalism about quality, or quantity?

Yesterday, I discounted a story from my newspaper review on BBC Radio Manchester. Not because I didn’t think it was interesting. But because I wasn’t sure I could go on air and talk about it and not cause legal problems for me or for the BBC.

Online, I hope I can be suitably circumspect.

Challenging miracles

The story was about a woman in Manchester who has cancer. Her NHS doctors had told her there were no more steps she could take. So she and her family spent £150,000 on private treatment in Germany. They say this appears to be working well.

I’m no medical expert. But I do know that for all the NHS’s funding woes, in the UK we do a thorough job of assessing the validity of treatments. My first question, and I imagine that for many readers, was ‘Why isn’t this treatment available on the NHS?’ If it’s so efficacious, surely it would at least be considered. Maybe it’s still undergoing approval? Or maybe it has been rejected as completely bogus?

Amazingly, none of these questions were asked or answered in the article. Instead there was a link to the family’s fundraising page for people to donate. Because the follow-on treatments will cost tens of thousands of pounds more.

Now I shall pose this as a carefully worded question: What if this treatment isn’t valid? What if the doctors offering it know this? What if this is a money-making exercise preying on the most vulnerable people, suffering a terminal disease or facing the loss of a loved one?

The obvious questions

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a newspaper to ask those questions. Not when they are devoting most of a full page to such a story. Especially if they are to include a link asking people to give money that will ultimately go to the clinic in question.

This isn’t the first such story I’ve seen like this. It’s not the first I’ve seen from this newspaper. And it raises an important question. One the media industry has been struggling with for a few years now. In future journalism, who gets paid to ask difficult questions?

This isn’t just about the big investigations. The long, complex campaigns that are required to reveal issues like the expenses scandal or to extract meaning from the Snowden papers. This is about a standard of challenge that should be part of everyday stories. Not balance for balance’s sake but the asking of obvious, if difficult questions. Questions that add a required level of rigour to stories like this. Stories which carry a huge number of unknowns until those questions are asked.

Asking these questions isn’t cheap. Writing a story like this one without such challenges might be a matter of minutes. To consider and then research the questions above would turn this into hours. When the advertising or sales income from each might be the same, how can you commercially justify the investment of time that rigour requires?

Funding future journalism

If we want a media that seeks truth then we need to find ways to better fund future journalism. The advertising model is deeply compromised. We’ve had a major UK newspaper accused of heavy advertiser influence over editorial. Online the lines between editorial and advertising are so totally blurred that truth is often hard to discern. Subscriptions don’t seem to be holding up and paywalls are coming down faster than they go up.

Where does the money come from to pay for the expense of great future journalism? I think the answer comes in many parts.

Our Vectors of Change would suggest an increasingly diverse media in the future. A trend that has already been in evidence for some time and doesn’t show signs of slowing down. Future journalism will likely be more small organisations than fewer large ones, though there are likely to be aggregators as part of the solution to the discovery problem.

These aggregators, whether they are search-based, or manually or automatically curated, may play a role in rating the quality of stories.

If the search and curation platforms decide to be sensitive to rigour in their rankings — and there is already evidence of this too — then in the long term, quality becomes a winning strategy for attracting traffic. And traffic means income. Right now this has meant a shift in parts of the media to ever-longer written articles. Check out some of the gadget reviews running to thousands of words.

The question is, will the income side of the equation justify the creation of true quality, or continued attempts to game the curation system? How do you assess the quality of news ‘bites’ versus long form pieces? Video, audio and pictures versus print? There’s a huge amount of human theory and machine intelligence to go into solving this problem.

 

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Future cars might make for a more human world

Will future cars free our time or enslave us to our AI masters?

Fifty years ago, when a computer ‘bug’ still meant a wee beastie crawling into one of the valves, the US navy handed the landing of aircraft on carriers over to machines. Why? They were better at it. Safer, and more consistent.

In time we will put the piloting of more craft into robot hands. The simple fact is that machines are already better than us at driving cars. The challenge now is one of commercialisation, political, and finally social acceptance.

Yes there will be deaths. The first last week will not be the last. But there will be many fewer.

We will spend less time on the road as a result. But what time we do spend there will be ours to do with as we please. Without the frustration or exhaustion of piloting a couple of tonnes of tin between other over-stretched monkeys in their own metal shells.

So what are we going to do?

In reality, this is only one area of our lives where time is suddenly likely to become abundant. At least in relation to the current state of time-poverty that most working people experience. Strip away the undoubtedly troubling aspects of the destruction of employment — I’ve covered that many times elsewhere — and just think about what we will do. When machines answer the phone, manage our administration and expenses, file our accounts, open doors, transport us where we want to go, and even help us to more efficiently transcribe our thoughts.

What will we do?

I’ve already suggested we might learn. Education might bring some of the rewards we miss when the availability of work is diminished. But what about play?

Perhaps this is the Matrix-like end goal for virtual reality. Hundreds of us in our future cars being transported around while embedded in a game, all senses synced to a different plane. We might even be enjoying the thrill of driving.

Joking aside, play is important. And play could be hugely valuable. It could be an opportunity to restore the human experiences that modern life has stripped away: danger and excitement, risk and reward.

Play does not have to be an activity of consumption: it can be an act of creation. And it can be an act of collaboration.

Imagine seas of commuters in their future cars, formerly separated by their steel shells now connected by a shared virtual experience. Interacting without the stress of the commute. Playing together.

To me this would not be a colder world. It would be more human, not less.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Brexit: Out of Control

One week on from the shock* of the Brexit result, like many people I have been reflecting on what it means. Not from an economic, or political standpoint. But what people really wanted to achieve by voting to leave.

What seems to have united Leave voters of all persuasions was a desire for control. Control of their lives. Control of their environment.

In some this is expressed through a desire to control immigration. They see their world changing and believe that the people speaking a different language or of a different colour are the cause, not a symptom. In parts of the country where lifelong employment in manufacturing has been replaced by the uncertainties of the service sector there’s an unfulfilled desire for an explanation.

There are those who remember Britain as a global titan, wielding control on the world stage. They see Europe as a shackle on our power, limiting our influence and control. Rather than a suitable home for a state power that is being outpaced by growth elsewhere, including those places over which it used to hold dominion.

For some the imposition of laws from outside of our borders is the issue, particular where those laws impinge on our ability to operate businesses.

In reality, control seems distant from all of our lives today. Westminster politics is precisely the ‘bubble’ that political journalists often refer to, populated largely by the privileged who have waged a lifelong campaign to achieve the power they have. All too many people say they don’t vote because politicians are “all the same.” It’s not quite true but it’s also not entirely unreasonable. If you can’t relate to any of them, they might as well be all the same.

The referendum felt different. A small amount of control was available to us directly. And as the turnout figures show — still nothing to boast about but higher than we have seen in decades — we wanted to use it.

That carries some strong lessons for the future of politics.

I don’t think we should be holding referendums at every opportunity. As the post-vote calamity and unwillingness of the Leave side to push ahead with Article 50 has shown, there were good reasons to remain in the EU. While I believe we will ultimately return to a similar level of prosperity, perhaps with, perhaps without the control the Leavers were seeking, there is probably a tough decade ahead of us. Understanding the economic and social implications of a Leave vote was a significant undertaking. One best left to elected officials who can devote the proper time to it.

What we do need to do is bring control back to the public in a way that they can witness and feel. And this in part is why I am a fan of devolution. For all that we see the digital revolution demolishing global borders, location is still really important. The greater proximity you have to power, the more you can witness its effects.

For me, the problem of control was not best represented by the EU. For all the headlines about excessive bureaucracy, the reality is that the EU acts more like a standards body than a governing body. It defines a common set of rules by which we can all operate and interact, and by doing so allows much simpler cooperation.

Yes, some of those rules define working, safety, and environmental standards that make it more expensive to do business. But I am not one to argue that those are a weakness. And yes, some of those rules promote free movement. But apart from the social benefits, any economist will tell you that we are utterly reliant on immigration to drive growth, as well as to provide so many of our public services.

The EU was not where we lost control. It was the state. Hyper-centralised, disconnected, slow-moving and chaotic. For me the role of the state now should be a very thin layer. Smaller, more agile units like city regions seem much more appropriate in a fast-moving age. Yes, there will be winners and losers in this realignment. But the advantages that should accrue when power can be wielded more quickly and in greater proximity to those voting for its holders and affected by their actions, should more than outweigh the problems.

Leaving the EU will do little, if anything, to return control to those who feel they have lost it. But devolution just might.

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*I was shocked but not overly surprised. I always thought the margins were very narrow, albeit in favour of Remain. It was only on the evening of the vote when both markets and bookies seem to have taken a strong view that it would be Remain that I gained some confidence.

 

Tom Cheesewright