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I’m at a conference in Prague, bringing together the sales team for my client, BTC Europe, from across the continent. Everyone is speaking English, fluently. But will that be the case in thirty years’ time?
Live translation technology is so good now that remote conversations can be held in two languages now with a digital intermediary processing the translation in near real-time. It’s never quite as good as the staged demonstrations, of course, but it is nonetheless impressive. When everyone is sporting compatible hardware (mixed reality glasses), will we even bother to learn a foreign language?
Sadly, I think fewer people will bother. Those that do will recognise the value that it adds: the understanding of structure and nuance, as well as the ability to connect with someone more closely.
In a world where machines can live-translate our words into any language, what else will machines be able to do in real-time with our communication? Given the proliferation of fake news recently, I wondered if we might also have a ‘spellcheck for truth’ built into our written and spoken communication.
This could work both ways. When we’re speaking, or writing, our personal digital assistant (renewing an old acronym, PDA to describe an assistive AI) might highlight inaccuracies, reviewing what we have written against sources from across the web. I can imagine a subtle red glow at the edge of your field of vision when you say something a little off, through to a migraine-like pulsing if you tell a total porky*.
Of course, these sources themselves will need some sort of accuracy rating, and some people might decide such ratings are themselves a conspiracy and turn off any analysis. After all, some people still insist the world is flat.
Our PDA will also be able to analyse the information we receive, underlining written sentences in a new colour — I suggest a bovine waste shade of brown — to highlight when they’re untrue. Or we could have some sort of animated overlay on someone’s person, since we’re operating in mixed reality. ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire’? That could be entertaining.
Of course, there is no fact-checking source for some lies. But we will all have access to other indicators when someone is not telling the truth. Every pair of mixed reality glasses could, in theory, analyse someone’s voice patterns, heart rate, breathing, and perhaps even their sweat levels, and provide a level of lie-detection. Would we find this too invasive? The technology largely exists today but I’ve not noticed anyone discussing the prospect.
Then there is the question of whether we want absolute objectivity. I think if we tried to pursue it, we would realise a lot of our lives are based on small fictions. There is some analysis of reason that suggests it is entirely retrospective: we take decisions and then retrofit a narrative with facts to justify them. If this is true, deep analysis of the narratives of our lives that we tell ourselves could be deeply uncomfortable.
As always, I think reality will end up somewhere away from either extreme: today’s reality where untruths seems to have incredible power, and a tomorrow where a fact-driven reality is a little too cold and hard. But that is still an incredible shift to come in the next thirty years.
*’Porky pie’ = lie, if you’re unfamiliar with the vernacular
What is a phone for? It sounds like a daft question. It certainly would have done twenty years ago. A phone is for calling other people, right? It’s a second rate alternative to seeing them in person, that has advantages of range and convenience.
Today, of course, a phone is rarely for calling other people. It’s for listening to music, browsing social networks, playing games or watching films. Cue the complaints of commentators around the world that no-one talks anymore, that we’re all lost in our screens.
There is certainly a measure of that. My only conversation on my regular train journeys up and down to London this week, was to help someone else connect their screen to the Wi-Fi. Maybe in the past I might have chatted more to other passengers. Maybe that would be ‘a good thing’.
But look at how we actually use our phones, particularly the youngest group of adults, and I think the picture is rather rosier than usually painted. Four of the top five iOS apps for 2017 were communications apps. Not solo pursuits like video streaming, or even books, or news. But ways to interact with other people. Our phones have become a more common medium of communication, often acting as a broker for physical interaction — as dating apps have become — but the virtual world remains clearly subordinate to the real.
This is not a brief respite in an long decline. I don’t believe the direction of travel is downward. Our technology is becoming more transparent, not more opaque. There will be a digital layer to our reality for most of our waking (and possibly sleeping) lives within a few short years. But this technology enables us to design interfaces and interactions that are natural and derived from our long-developed experience with the physical world. Instead of staring at screens we will have digital information naturally inserted into our physical world. And our need to interact with it will be progressively reduced as we hand over more decision making to semi-autonomous systems: exception management replaces remote control.
This terrifies many, particularly those with clarity about the security implications. They are right to be scared. But I don’t think this fear will slow the direction of travel: we will simply have to address the threats as we go.
Direction from the vinyl groove
Swallow down this fear though, and I think the picture is largely positive. More things will be digital and virtual. But just as has happened with music, there is a counter trend when this happens. We’re happy for the day-to-day to be low friction and virtual, but this almost enhances our desire for richer experiences: live music, and vinyl.
Tomorrow is not sterile screens and pallid human automata. It’s rich, tactile and human.
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I spent much of Sunday morning scoring entries to the the Prolific North marketing awards. The best entries in the categories I was judging had a few things in common. One of them was how well they used data to target their audience.
Then I got a call to speak to TalkRadio this morning about the latest updates on the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica story. And again it was clear that really, I would be talking about marketing. The type of marketing that most consumer-facing organisations, of any scale, have been doing for years.
Data intelligence is bad
The brands and agencies entering the awards used a whole range of methods to better understand the beliefs, needs and desires of their audience: surveys, testing, focus groups, analysis of existing data sets. They then used this intelligence to shape the stories they told to maximise their effect.
These stories were told across a variety of media: television, Facebook posts, digital and print ads, PR campaigns. This is where they differ to Cambridge Analytica (CA): in all of the stories I’ve read so far, the data was only used to target advertising. This seems unlikely.
It appears that CA, and its alleged affiliate, AggregateIQ, fed back to clients about the personality types and hot issues affecting its audience’s decisions. We know that there has been a mass influx of fake news into Facebook and the Web in general: biased and often patently untrue stories designed to discredit people and ideas and reinforce existing — often wrong — beliefs. Given the apparent level of moral reasoning taking place inside CA, and inside the campaigns that it supported, it seems unlikely that its arsenal would have been limited to advertising. Though, as I say, no report I have read offers concrete examples of any materials produced off the back of the data and profiling that CA or AIQ developed.
…or is it?
You choice in marketing is to shout at people about how great you think your product, service, or candidate is, or to listen to what is important to them and respond to those needs. To understand their worldview and tailor your messages accordingly. Since few of us like being shouted at, and most of us have developed a level of filter to ignore such base marketing, it’s unsurprising that the latter approach is more effective.
For all the horror that this might engender in people, it’s still a relatively unsophisticated process, even in the most advanced campaigns. It doesn’t appear either CA or AIQ’s work fits that category. Nonetheless, it is effective enough to deliver an incredible return on investment, certainly for the brands whose award entries I’ve been examining. One pound spent on marketing might turn into two, five or ten pounds in revenue.
When I say it’s not sophisticated, what I mean is that the targeting is still far from precise. I’ve lost count of how many people have asked me about (or more often complained to me about) irrelevant advertisements pursuing them around the web. Or completely off-base recommendations for products based on other things they have bought.
Dear Amazon, I bought a toilet seat because I needed one. Necessity, not desire. I do not collect them. I am not a toilet seat addict. No matter how temptingly you email me, I’m not going to think, oh go on then, just one more toilet seat, I’ll treat myself.
But when it works, this targeting is incredibly effective. Why do ads pursue you around the web? Because retargeting (the official name for this) is incredibly effective — somewhere between 40 and 100% more effective than ads seen cold, depending on which study you look at.
Likewise recommendations: brands recommend things they think you might like because it works, boosting the size of your basket at checkout by maybe 20%.
Imagine how it will be when they are actually really good at this? Yes, you might feel like you’re being manipulated. But actually you will also feel like the brand is working to your agenda. Who doesn’t want a personalised experience when shopping? A site that does the searching for you and finds what you want with minimal clicks?
The answer, is very few people. All evidence suggests we love brands that personalise our experience and minimise the friction in our shopping process.
As for products, so for politics?
The question is, do we feel the same about politics? The furore around CA, AIQ and FB doesn’t seem to be about the data breach — if you can call it that: the data CA used was collected entirely legally and the way that it was then sold on used to be entirely commonplace, if still against both data protection laws and FB’s terms and conditions. We have another story about a large scale data breach each week, and it seems to slide off the back of the public, contributing only to a slightly heightened background level of technological fear.
No, the furore around this story is around the prospect that our decisions on something more vital than our next box of cereal or holiday destination may have been manipulated. Some don’t want to believe that they were manipulated. Some really want to believe that others were, as a way to explain decisions that they find incomprehensible.
Personally, I’m sceptical about the effect either CA or AIQ had on the Trump or Brexit campaigns. Their methodology is suspect and most analyses suggest they weren’t approaching the sophistication of the best brands.
What to do
How do we stop this happening again in the future, should we want to? There are two options.
The first is that we try to legislate against this type of behaviour around elections. But that for me is like trying to reseal Pandora’s box. We know there are bad actors with a desire to influence voting. Are they going to hold to the laws? Will the laws we establish be able to adapt to new techniques and technologies? Unlikely.
Instead, I think we have to make the process much more transparent. Everyone needs to know when and how their data is being used, and how they are being targeted.
This can’t be achieved by forcing the likes of Facebook to do a better job of releasing data they hold. Let’s be honest, who has the time to plough through all that? I haven’t even bothered downloading mine. There are no surprises in there for me.
If we want to avoid situations like this in the future, we must change the way our data is held and how we are rewarded for sharing our personal information. If we want to keep track of where it goes and how it is used, then we should be in control of it, and we should place a value on it being shared.
We clearly can’t do this on a case-by-case basis: just think how many times your data (in a very low-level, anonymised way) is accessed each day by brands targeting you with advertising. We need a policy system wrapped around our data that allows it to be accessed by others on demand, according to the policies we select. A level of machine learning would allow it to adapt based on our responses over time.
This won’t prevent us being targeted by campaigns looking to change our behaviour. But at least we will be in control of what we receive, and rewarded for sharing our data with those with commercial interests in our attention. At least it will be transparent: we will know who was targeting us, with what, and when.
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I am a bit obsessed with friction. I don’t mean it in the literal sense, but rather those failures of systems and processes in life that slow us down, cause us irritation, and force us to think about the mechanism rather than the experience.
Speaking to TalkRadio this morning about 5G, I tried to explain that a large part of the proposition for this new network technology is that it eliminates friction. We shouldn’t have to think about how and whether we are connected any more. We should just be able to focus on the experience: browsing the web, sending an email, streaming a video or playing a game — wherever we are. Yes, there will be enhancements to speed, latency and coverage, but the applications for these may take a couple more years to appear. In the meantime we’re paying for convenience, and I for one am more than happy with that.
Because I abhor friction. I don’t want to waste minutes logging on to a Wi-Fi network when I could be enjoying the latest comics on my digital subscription, or streaming the latest episode of Black Lightning on Netflix.
The type of friction that genuinely makes me lose my mind is unnecessary administration. I have outsourced everything I can to get away from having to deal with as much of this as possible, but sometimes it is unavoidable. Re-mortgaging last year was a particular low point, with both the mortgage provider and their legal intermediary apparently having failed to keep up with the last twenty years of technological progress, or to have paid any attention to the massive waste in their own systems design. The only conclusion I could reach was that one or both of them must benefit from the systems being so utterly unfriendly to the customer.
But this is rarely the case. Friction in a business context, just like friction in physics, requires two bodies. And under friction, both suffer.
Take the example of a client of mine currently. I have now been waiting 71 days for them to pay a not insignificant amount of money. It took 58 days for the finance team to respond to my invoices and tell me they wouldn’t honour my normal payment terms and that they pay at 60 days. They also couldn’t pay until I was on their supplier database. This took the filling out of two forms, which themselves required research on my part to complete. Then, to check the status of my payments I had to log in to their supplier management system, an utterly terrible piece of webware. Only to find they had processed the same invoice twice, rejecting one of them, and failing to process the second.
Throughout this process, as you can imagine, I have been chasing the client, constantly. Like most of my clients, it’s a large organisation. My contacts are both geographically and hierarchically well-separated from the people causing the friction. Not only has the whole process consumed a huge amount of my time, effort, and good nature, it has consumed time from both my direct contacts and the finance team.
The result? However much the company may have saved by extending payment terms, both formally and artificially through its hideously complex processes, it has almost certainly wasted more in the lost time — and lost good will — of its own employees. The only difference is in the visibility of the two types of costs.
Find the friction in your organisation
Friction breeds frustration, which has the advantage of making it easy to find. One of the first things I do when I begin consulting with clients is ask people at all levels of the organisation, and their customers, is what frustrates them. What makes their day actively worse? What wastes time and stops them doing their best work?
The answers to these questions are usually great guides to what competitors will do better to beat them. If you want to know how to improve your business, how to eliminate friction, go ask your staff, your partners, and your customers: what winds you up? Frank answers will only help you.
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Take a look at the icons across the top of your phone. They can be split into three categories. Some represent the different ways your phone is communicating with other devices right now: 4G, Bluetooth, WiFi, and NFC. One tells you about its state of charge. And one or more tell you about the current interface settings — is it set to ‘Do Not Disturb’, for example.
These three functions represent the three main challenges in making our mobile devices ‘transparent’: so natural to use that we forget that they are not just extensions of ourselves.
One of the primary interruptions in the flow of use of our smart devices is lost connectivity, or the interactions required to restore it. Poor mobile reception, jumping between WiFi hotspots — it all diminishes the experience and forces us from near-unconscious interactions with our devices and their services, into conscious and often frustrating steps.
Fortunately, an end to this is on the horizon. 5G (alongside technologies like Hotspot 2.0/802.11u) should start to bring multiple networks together, so that you can roam more seamlessly between low-speed wide area networks and high-speed short-range networks — including Wi-Fi, maintaining the optimum connection at all times.
Wherever you are, your device should be connected, and you shouldn’t ever have to think about how — or how to improve it.
Charging our phones is a major interruption to the experience. Even with the chunky battery on my middleweight Android device, I found myself recharging this week by the middle of the afternoon. Having to carry around a charger or extra battery pack is not ideal.
Again though, there are signs this could be fixed. Battery tech is improving, but more importantly, there are signs that truly wireless charging could be getting closer to practical, in-home, in-car, and in-office applications.
The ideal is a device that runs for ever. That literally never needs charging, because it constantly charges itself by harvesting energy from radio waves — either from a dedicated charging station or from other communications frequencies, including light.
This is some way off but it’s now a visible possibility.
The third dimension of the transparent device is its user interface. This is perhaps where we have the most work to do.
Voice assistants are starting to allow our tech to communicate with us in more natural ways. But they’re not right for every use case. We will need a completely new visual and physical interface paradigm to replace the touchscreen — probably something in Mixed Reality.
Meanwhile, we can start to offload more of our current manual interactions to automated systems in the background. A lot of friction has been cut out of our transactions — shopping, travel, ticketing — but there’s still more to go. And many of these functions shouldn’t need any manual input at all.
I returned to Mobile World Congress for the first time in five years this week. Its sheer scale is quite overwhelming. Over 100,000 people are expected to visit the event over the course of the week.
That may not sound a lot if you’re used to covering sports games or protest marches. But this is people in suits (or increasingly, jeans and blazers). These people don’t often congregate on this scale. And they’re here to talk about the future of the mobile communications industry. Everything from the next handsets your network will sell you, to what standard the next networks will be built upon, plus everything in between, and beyond.
That people in an industry committed to communication at distance choose to meet physically says a lot, and reinforces something I’ve always said: the bandwidth of face-to-face communication remains unbeatable. If you want a rich, emotional interaction — and the multi-million pound deals signed at these events are often very emotional — then nothing beats doing it in person.
The same is true of experiencing what the show has to offer. The best bits of MWC are often not on the big glitzy stands. Huawei has taken over most of a hall to itself this year, exhibiting the expected (phones) and the unexpected (drone taxis). But I often find the coolest stuff is on the start-up stands. A quick dip into the first couple of halls (there are eight on one site, and more a shuttle bus ride away), found 360 degree camera neck bands, various robots, pocket sperm testers, and a smart shower (it sounds rubbish, I really want one). You can see endless videos and photos of all this, but it’s much more fun climbing in to the VR car demos, sticking headsets on, and having a good old play (I didn’t test the shower).
Physical and virtual
One noticeable common factor across many, many stands, is the presence of augmented, or virtual reality technology (xR). Most of these applications are in a corporate context right now: design aids, immersive experiences of prototypes, remote control, and human augmentation. My own client and host for the week, Accenture Digital, is showing a variety of demonstrations along these lines.
What I haven’t seen yet — and nor had John Keefe of Draw & Code / SwapBots, who I briefly caught up with — is much in the way of consumer applications of xR. I’m a big believer that this is coming, for lots of reasons. It represents a natural continuation of the line of evolution of the user interface that we’ve seen for the last fifty years. It represents a truly colossal business opportunity. And it’s one of the few applications that we can already see that would take advantage of the high bandwidth and low latency capabilities of the planned 5G networks.
I’ll keep exploring. One day, I’m confident the killer application for xR will appear.
Is Twitter a pub or a publication? I had this debate with Julia Hartley-Brewer on TalkRadio a few weeks back. I’m willing to listen to both arguments but I’ve largely come down on the ‘pub’ side of the argument.
The laws we have created to regulate the media are based on organisations that restrict, through recruitment, employment, training, who can publish through their outlets. There are multiple checks, for tone and legality, on everything they put out.
Socials networks are open to just about anyone, with — like a pub — some age controls. They are venues for debate where all are welcome. Some will speak to big groups, some to small, and some will take the mic and talk bollocks on open mic night.
The key thing about a pub is that while it may not have editors, it does have bouncers, or at worst a surly landlord (or lady) to eject anyone exhibiting bad behaviour.
Defining bad behaviour
What is ‘bad behaviour’? There are laws about serving people who are inebriated. There are laws protecting other people in the pub from verbal and physical abuse. There are laws about equal treatment, and inciting violence. And there are generally accepted standards of public behaviour. It’s right to expect the pub to enforce all of these on its customers. Some pubs might choose to go further with their own customers, just like Sam Smiths pubs have a no swearing policy.
Unless policies enforcing a standard of behaviour are enforced, and enforced on every denizen, then the pub descends in to a place of chaos. If this happens, something bad happens to the establishment. Fail to control behaviour for too long and you lose your licence to operate.
This is the way we should think of — and regulate — social networks. They cannot be responsible for checking everything that is published. And I don’t think we want them to be: they lose their value if everything said is subject to a strict editorial policy. As has been seen recently, the necessarily automated approach this requires at the scale of a social network results in a lot of mistakes.
We also shouldn’t expect them to eject everyone for a first offence, unless it is particularly egregious. The equivalent of a verbal warning from the landlady/lord should be all that is needed.
But, if there are persistent offenders, reported by the other denizens, then the pub needs to act swiftly. Eject and bar. The regulatory consequences should come if they fail to act. And they should be serious, as they are for a bar.
All of which means that at some point, Twitter is going to have to say: “Go home Donald, you’re drunk. And you’re barred.”
I went in to Hotwire PR yesterday to talk about influence, sharing some of my experience as a person on the telly/radio and as a writer/blogger/podcaster. I also talked about the changing nature of influence, as has been highlighted in some of the work I’ve done.
Though I studied engineering (Mechatronics), my first job was in PR. I spent five years working on behalf of a range of tech firms, large and small. Given my understanding of the tech, a lot of my time was spent acting as a translator for the engineers, turning their words into stories we could sell. But I still spent a good chunk of time trying to sell those ideas in to the intermediaries between our client and their customers.
Initially this meant primarily journalists and analysts. But the founder of the firm I worked for became increasingly interested in other influencers, eventually founding Influencer50 and writing the book, Influencer Marketing.
I got involved in many of the early influencer marketing programmes that were joint projects between the agency (Noiseworks) and Influencer50. Now we were looking at 25 categories of influencer: user advocates, resellers, systems integrators, bloggers, conference organisers and frequent speakers. And we were wondering, how can we reach all of these influencers and make them advocates for our client?
We found ways. But it was very different from the linear model we started with. Then we would pitch a story to a journalist, the journalist would (or wouldn’t) write the story, the prospect would read the story, and we would tell the client how many prospects had read it. Our measurement used to be on the last step: really a measure of reach, rather than influence. Now we were being measured on our ability to reach people we had already shown carried influence.
This was complex. But the world of influence is getting more complex still.
The rise of the peers
Three things have happened since 2005 when I left the agency and started out on my own. Firstly, the publishing power at everyone’s finger-tips has increased dramatically, giving anyone the power to reach an enormous audience. Secondly, but not unrelated to this, the diversity of media has grown exponentially. Thirdly, trust in the media has fallen to an all-time low.
The result of this is a re-balancing of the influences that drive us, particularly when it comes to purchasing. The chart below shows the UK slice of some research we did with Salesforce Commerce Cloud for the futurereadyretail.com programme.
The exact question asked was: “Which 3 of the following have the strongest influence on which items you end up buying?” The score is a percentage of respondents giving that answer.
If you aggregate the columns for friends, family and peer reviews, what you can see is that peer connections are far and away the most powerful influence on buying decisions — way more than traditional media, television, or celebrities — some of the most commonly targeted forms of influence.
Influence is messy
The reality is that the process influence never looked like that neat, linear picture I had in my head as an engineering-minded 21-year-old. Influence is messy and complex. We absorb a huge range of influences and assign them different weights depending on the time, context and decision at hand. But what is clear is that now, more than ever, it is the people around us — physically and digitally — who are the primary arbiters of influence.
Your house is leaky. It’s not an issue about what comes in, but about what goes out.
When it comes to privacy, I’m something of an optimist. I am entirely aware of the trade-offs that I make to access the variety of social and cloud-based services that I use. For the most part, I accept that they will use my data and sell it to advertisers and those interested in my habits. In return, the service doesn’t cost me any cash — at least not directly.
For personal services like Facebook and Twitter, it’s fine for us each to make this judgement call for ourselves. But when it comes to home automation and security services, we need to be a little more considered. Because most of us share our homes. Not everyone in them will share our relaxed attitude to trading our personal data. Some of them may not be old enough to make an informed decision.
I’ve become more and more aware of this as I have progressed through the latest iteration of my long-running home automation project.
A few years ago I got fed up with products from different manufacturers not talking to each other and started to build my own system. It worked, in a limited fashion, giving me data on energy consumption, turning a few lights on and off automatically, and monitoring just how absurdly damp parts of my house were.
But in truth, it was a kludge. My coding skills weren’t up to building a really solid core platform. And it was reliant on some hacked-together integrations with commercial products: HomeEasy sockets and switches, AlertMe energy monitoring. After a while, some of the commercial products I was getting sent to test started to creep in and replace my home brew kit. Fibaro’s excellent HomeCenter 2 became the heart of my system with a variety of Z-wave connected components around and about, plus a few odd extras bolted on such as bulbs from Belkin’s WeMo range, Somfy’s security system, and my Nest thermostat.
Then at the start of this year, I started getting sent lots of connected cameras. Netgear’s Arlo, the Blink range, and Panasonic’s Home Control system. In my excitement, I started thinking about where I’d mount them before I thought about whether I wanted cameras around the house.
Then it occurred to me: I’m very conscious of how much information I share about my children. Do I really want to risk storing endless hours of video of them in the cloud?
The answer, of course, was no. The cameras are back in their box. But I didn’t stop there. I started thinking: what’s happening to my energy consumption data? What’s happening to my heating data — and presence data that the thermostat also collects? What about the lights?
Individually, each one of these things may tell the world little about me and my family. But there might be 20 different cloud-connected devices in my house — maybe more. I’ve not even mentioned Alexa or the streaming media devices yet. Combined, how much of a picture can they build up of me? And more importantly, what do they already know about my family.
The result is that I have returned to the DIY route with renewed zeal, installing the excellent Home Assistant at the heart of my system and building my own switches and sensors using the incredible NodeMCU.
I realise this is the sort of geeky speak that will switch off the strategists reading this. But this stuff is important.
I met with some of the chaps from global social media superstars Social Chain last week. They showed in a presentation a storyboard of personal information being collected from a private WhatsApp chat and being used to drive targeted advertising on Facebook. At every opportunity our personal information is being captured, and it is being analysed and processed with increasing efficiency and accuracy. Data like your home temperature or energy consumption may not feel like it has a huge value to third parties. But for somebody, somewhere, it is gold.
I have no problem sharing this data for an appropriate return. But I realise now, when it comes to data about my home, this isn’t just my decision to make.