Emojis Matter

Emojis and emoticons seem to have become increasingly widespread over the last few years. I have to admit – I’m not a huge fan myself. But I can 100% see why they’ve become so popular. After all, who within Bitcoin doesn’t like ToTheMoonGuy?

With access to technologies becoming increasingly commonplace (SMS, tweets, Facebook interactions), we’re communicating more frequently but using far fewer words in each exchange. And within these reduced mediums, one well-placed emoticon can easily convert a vicious personal attack into nothing more than comical banter between friends.

It’s interesting to watch how society is starting to deal with this evolution in language. Ignoring the cost implications of the technologies that have in some cases been misunderstood (a woman in Scotland racked up an extra £1,000 bill as a result of her emoticon addiction when she failed to realise that each emoticon message was being charged as a picture message by her mobile provider), they are now assuming more formal significance.

There are reports of juries being directed to focus on the use of emoticons in written evidence led in court. We saw it happen in the recent Silk Road trial of Ross W. Ulbricht for example. But the difficulty here is that there is no standardised usage yet for the symbols. Usage of emoji can vary between two individuals or within certain communities so it remains a challenge for outsiders to interpret at this stage.

I don’t really have any firm conclusions on this one way or the other to be honest. But I’m interested to see whether we will ever reach a stage where the meaning behind emoticons (or their descendents) become genuinely standardised. Or will the development follow that of the written word or currency, where to date the world has shown itself to contain enough niches to support entirely separate versions. My instinct is that we are a long way off a common language using symbols.


The Problems of Long-Term Digital Archiving

I imagine that backing up and protecting data is a pretty standard concern for most people these days (note: I don’t however mean that we’re all actually doing something about it however). But for anyone who has collections of family memories on either backup hard drives or such consumer-friendly cloud services like iCloud, those risks have obviously been identified already.

Yet the reality is that it’s still unlikely that the precautions that we’re taking today to preserve this data is going to be sufficient in the longer term. Whilst the first paper that we’ve discovered (from 2nd century China) has survived to this day, what are the chances of a stash of your favourite JPG’s surviving for hundreds of years? If so where and how will they be indexed?

And, even if we do manage to preserve such a collected human history, as Vint Cerf has just pointed out, there’s a very real chance that we might end up storing a vast amount of data with absolutely no idea what that data actually is. Or to put it another way, we might have created a file using Photoshop but that fact – together with the details of the software used itself – is then lost over the passage of time, rendering the data useless in the future.

There’s an interesting proposal to carry out a type of X-ray analysis – whereby a snapshot could be taken of the digital environment in which the file was created (i.e. the software, the computer model, the operating system etc) in a way that could then be easily checked far off into the future. However, the sort of business that carries out such an essential service would be one that would have to survive for hundreds of years. That’s not a sort of business that we’ve ever seen to date.

I can’t help but think that there’s a blockchain solution for this in some way.


How Facebook Means The Internet For More People

I’ll save my update on what has been an amazing few days being immersed in building ideas for blockchain businesses with the Chiasma until I can do it justice.

Instead, here’s a fascinating story that shows just how powerful Facebook is becoming in some developing countries. To summarise, it transpired to those studying survey responses that there are millions of Facebook users in Indonesia have no idea that they’re using the internet. Indeed, the majority of respondents in Nigeria, India, Indonesia and Brazil all agreed with the statement “Facebook is the internet“.

Of course, Facebook and others have been instrumental in building the foundations for this ubiquity, with Facebook Zero focused on providing access to those with only basic phones and the provision of Facebook-only data plans in India, for example.

But the reality is that now the platform is so important that regulators and public bodies can do nothing other than engage with citizens where they are – namely on Facebook. And whilst the gradual exodus continues from the open web to a closed proprietary platform, we continue to move further away from the original benefits – and intention – that powered the original concept of the internet.

Open Source Tractors

I think my mind’s pretty much overheated today – albeit in a good way. It’s been an awesome day of working with a range of talented folks from across a range of disciplines – and in particular so many different designers – exploring ideas for ‘creative currencies’ as part of this Chiasma. And it’s been an absolute delight to watch so many people start to appreciate the power of blockchain technology.

Of course, it’s precisely because of the fact that Bitcoin brings an environment of permissionless innovation that’s proved to be so crucial. By introducing technology that pulls down those constraints that have previously excluded so many enquiring minds from searching for a better solution, suddenly the potential for improvement becomes indisputable.

So I thought I’d share a short piece from another sector that indicates the disadvantages of closing systems – and how this can ultimately harm the customer that you’re trying to delight. This article is a fascinating explanation of the fact that farmers are no longer able to fix their own tractors. The key point here is really that farmers are increasingly driving around massively expenses pieces of machinery in the form of tractors which are controlled by, in this case, John Deere who restrict the owner’s ability to carry out repairs without their permission.

A strong business model (at least for one side) I’m sure you would agree. However, the far more interesting side to this now is that there is a movement by farmers to develop open source tractors.

Check out Marcin Jakubowski’s talk on the Global Village Construction Set.


The Falling Price of Technology

Short post tonight as I’m involved in the Creative Currencies Chiasma event. Given the high quality discussions I’ve already had with people, I have no doubt whatsoever that I’ll have plenty to write about once the event wraps up on Thursday evening. But in the meantime, here’s a couple of quick facts.

Progress continues apace, as does the falling price of technology. It’s worth looking at some of the numbers I think, laid out as they are helpfully in this post to get a sense of perspective. For example, I found it interesting to see that:

  1. Since 1980, the price of computers has dropped 99.9%.
  2. Since 1980, the price of software has dropped 99.3% (unsurprising when you consider how much is free).
  3. Since 1980, the price of TV’s has dropped 97%.
  4. Since 2000, the price of cameras has now dropped by 75%.

Obviously there are a variety of factors that have helped to influence how costs have been reduced (or perceived to have fallen, in the case of inflation) but there’s some handy numbers there if you’re looking for a few solid examples of how innovation can drive down costs.



So it’s not just me then.

Over the past few months, there have been an increasing number of security breaches following which governments, corporations and press have been quick to point out the dangers of “cyberspace”. The commentary hit a crescendo in recent months in the run up to Christmas with the Sony hack and the misinformation that circled around the cancelled screenings of ‘The Interview’.

To me, the term cyberspace just feels incredibly…dated. I know it’s wrong but no matter what happens, every time I hear someone utter that word, it seems to conjure up a (possibly unfair) presumption in my mind about how up to speed the person is with technology. It conjures up an older generation warning up the dangers of that internet that lives in that box with a screen in the corner of your room.

Unfair but still perhaps that’s really shouldn’t be a surprise. After all the term “cyberspace” was originally coined by William Gibson in a short story called ‘Burning Chrome‘ some 33 years ago, all the way back in 1982.

After reading this article in GigaOm by David Meyer today, I can see where my prejudice comes from. The fact is that “cyberspace” in some way envisages a separate world in some sense within which different rules must surely to apply. Yet technology is developing at such a pace that the online world upon which we increasingly rely is simultaneously becoming ever more deeply embedded within our daily lives – not least because of the connectivity on our ever-present mobile phones and the slow but perceptible shift that we’re seeing as our daily items are increasingly being fitted with sensors to develop their own online presence.

Here’s my favourite quote from the article:-

“The problem with “cyberspace” is that the word suggests a place where different rules apply, and as such it can be misleading. We all need protection from theft and fraud, whether it takes place online or offline. If we’re tracked and spied upon in the online layer, the effect is similar (though more surreptitious) to being stalked around town and in the living room. Online harassment can be as painful as being menaced in the street. We cannot allow the impact of rights violations to be downplayed because they take place online, and we create such a risk by referring to the online world as another, less immediate place.”

As David Meyer writes, such distinctions are false. It’s all the real world now

The fight for net neutrality rumbles on

The Net Neutrality issue rumbles on in the US but there are some initial indications that progress is being made. The FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced that he intends to recommend the adoption of rules to keep the internet “fair, fast and open”. Of course, that’s the exact opposite of what the broadband network operators have been fighting for as they continue to push for the right to have a two-tier internet whereby some traffic is afforded a higher priority than others. That’s clearly a dangerous route for us all to go down so the comments this week are certainly positive.

I’ve written about net neutrality before but of course a lot of the commentary is being driven by those in the US. So if you want a quick summary of the topic, I recommend you start with the seriously funny section by John Oliver from a few months back.

But what’s happening in the UK and the rest of Europe?

Well, it’s not all roses over here. Tim Berners-Lee has just published a guest blog post on the European Commission website addressing the issue directly.

Whilst the noises from the European Parliament have been very positive, the current UK government have forced the major ISP’s to block access to certain sites (for a range of reasons from illegal filesharing to imposing parental controls by default). TBL points to Dutch research that shows that net neutrality stimulates innovation by enabling competition on both price and quality, providing the end-user with better options and allowing the growth of new businesses. As he points out:

“Maintaining this net neutrality is critical for the future of the Web and the future of human rights, innovation and progress in Europe.”

If the US does end up making the correct decision, then let’s hope we don’t blow it over here.

The Increasing Entanglement of Modern Knowledge

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated” (Confucius)

Most people would agree that the world is becoming more complex. That may be because we delight in making things intricate. But mostly it’s down to the fact that we’re collectively discovering more detail about an ever increasing number of subjects. At the same time, the barriers to the free exchange of this information are being increasingly dismantled.

However, when it comes to thinking about the infrastructure of society, this article stuck in my head recently. It argues that we’ve reached a level of complexity in modern life that means that success (in preventing accidents, identifying bugs, whatever) can only now be achieved by systems that we must first build to collect the necessary inputs, analyse and information and then process the results at speed to ensure that we can avoid the unwanted outcome. Or, to put it another way – we aren’t now individually capable of picking up on things that go wrong. We invariably have to subcontract this essential work out to machines.

When it comes down to relying on a system to direct airplanes to ensure that they don’t collide mid-air, we can be fairly certain that the system will follow instructions to the letter. That’s what computers do. The problem is that once you remove humans from the equation, the safety net (real or imagined) disappears.

In short, people no longer fully understand the technology that surrounds them. American computer scientist Danny Hillis has a great term for this – he calls it “The Entanglement“. Unlike the Enlightenment which was all about the generation of ideas, knowledge is now developing so quickly that we have reached a new stage in which the common reality is that we are incapable of absorbing sufficient quantities of such information in order to be able to take everything into account that we need to.

Put simply, even the things that we rely on today incorporate elements of other things that we have no knowledge of.

Think of chess. We’ve used the game as a proxy for thousands of years to assess intelligence. Yet now it’s indisputable that humans lag far behind supercomputers when it comes to an ability to calculate the vast number of available options during a game. Or mobile phone numbers. How many can you name? Or are we simply outsourcing our knowledge to machines?

It seems quite clear that knowledge “exists at the network level – not in the heads of individual human beings“.

“If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.” (Tom Peters)

Rely on things that won’t change in the future

When successful entrepreneurial business leaders are cornered by journalists, they’re often asked to give predictions. They might be pressed to share a few thoughts on how their particular industry might develop over the next few years, or to provide some further insight into future trends.

Of course, for those that are blazing their own trails, there’s great merit in doing so. After all, these individuals have proved that they can:

  1. accurately identify an area of (often explosive) growth;
  2. come up with a product or service that addresses a pain point for customers that increases as the sector expands; and
  3. executed a strategy over a prolonged period of time which – if not quite flawless – contains very few missteps (the hardest skill of all).

Success ultimately requires a huge collection of variables to align correctly at the right time. Hence the reason that so few are able to pull it off on a grand scale. But for those that do, the cachet of entrepreneurial business leader is bestowed willingly upon them by others. And rightly so – they called it, committed to it and delivered it.

However, asking about the future often comes with a subtext. Most people share a common desire to minimise risk and so they will seek out the certainty of a guarantee if at all possible. Removing even one option from a long list of many possible outcomes within an uncertain world appeals to the natural human tendency to prefer a decision that avoids loss to one that results in gains. It’s a fine line between accelerating your learning by using other’s war stories and simply seeking a ‘how-to’ shortcut.

Anyway, here’s how Jeff Bezos answers those who are seeking to predict the future:-

“I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time. …

[I]n our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection. It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher,’ [or] ‘I love Amazon; I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.’ Impossible.

And so the effort we put into those things, spinning those things up, we know the energy we put into it today will still be paying off dividends for our customers 10 years from now. When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”

Identify the things that are never going to change and base your business on those fundamentals. Work with a laser-like focus on improving the things that you guarantee will remain relevant to your business over the long run and develop the business from there.

It’s a different way of looking at things – and no doubt goes part of the way towards explaining just why Bezos has enjoyed massive business success to date.

Coffee and Bitcoin: The Last Few Months

The past few months have been filled up with meetings with an increasing number of people curious to learn more about Bitcoin. It’s been a blast. Most are keen to dig deeper after hearing about Bitcoin one too many times to ignore and they’re intrigued to hear about what’s going on in Scotland, particularly the meetup and the conference.

Usually it involves a chat over a coffee. That tends to give me an hour – minus the usual informalities – during which I focus on explaining in as much detail as I think they need to pique their curiosity (so that they will be hooked into further exploration on their own) whilst constantly striving to resist the temptation of going off down any one of the myriad of fascinating but unecessary rabbit holes that just introduce further complexity and burn through precious time.

I’m still a long way from where I’d like to be. Partly it’s because I constantly find myself aiming for what seems to be the slightly unreasonable outcome at this stage of enabling the other person to be able to walk away fully informed and eager to explain the topic to everyone else. I’m not sure that the mythical 10-minute comprehensive explanation of the technology and its potential really exists.

I find that the main challenge each time comes because you inevitably change the focus of any story to take account of your audience. Sometimes you get this right, sometimes you can be wide of the mark. It’s far less to do with anyone’s intellectual capacity than the simple fact that the concepts can appear to be so alien at first and everyone has their own unique preference when it comes to learning. As a result, you’re forced to make snap-decisions on the hoof about the extent of someone’s background knowledge, their general level of technical awareness, the presumptions that they may or may not hold about the status quo, their view of how the money and the internet works……the list is endless.

Despite all the variables, however, if it’s a coffee with someone that I’ve never met before, I can pretty much guarantee that at some point in the conversation, one question will invariably crop up – either explicitly or within the subtext of another comment. It usually goes along the lines of ‘Why are you doing this?’. Or sometimes it’s even more open: ‘How are you making money from this?’.

I still find this question fascinating. Not because I feel that the other person is in any way bringing up a topic that’s somehow indelicate. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. My fascination comes from the fact that in responding, I hear myself speaking about a subject to a previously unknown person with a passion that I’ve never previously felt, much less displayed, in any other endeavour to date.

I explain that the potential that I see for the technology is overwhelming. That I’ve never before found a subject so challenging yet so rewarding, forcing me as it does to continually re-examine both my existing beliefs and knowledge of a myriad of subjects including business, economics, government, smart law, computer science, programming, cryptography and many more as they continue to reveal themselves to me in greater detail on a daily basis. That the potential is so great for blockchain technologies and yet the development still so early that I simply cannot sit back and ignore the next stage in the evolution of our online world as it unfolds on a daily basis.

That’s not to say that there aren’t flaws in the system that we’re working on at present or that we have somehow arrived collectively at a perfectly-formed solution. Then I explain that, no, I am not getting paid for this, the meetups, meetings and all the rest. It’s simply that I’m not content to watch others struggle to filter through the historically uneven reporting across the mainstream press. Now is the time when we should be drawing together innovators – no matter if they come with the background of being coders, entrepreneurs, business people, UX heroes, philosophers, professional service providers or, frankly, those engaged in any other field. It matters not one bit. We just need the people who understand that what we have is something that can and must be improved.

I am lucky enough to live in a relatively small country which possesses a proud history of innovation and retains a keen sense of its own identity. To me, the answer is quite simple. We are lagging behind when we should have been amongst the first to explore the possibilities that have arisen in the years since Satoshi’s White Paper. Yet the wonder of the open nature of the technology is that we are as well-placed as any to engage now with the challenges at hand. Because, quite simply, whether this great experiment works or not is irrelevant. The reality is that the technology that has been discovered cannot in some way now be un-invented.

Whether I end up leaving the coffee shop with a belief that the conversation was successul or not (i.e. whether I feel that I’ve shared enough information to let the other person to make an honest assessment of the topic for themselves or not), I absolutely love these conversations. The more of them that I can have the better. And whilst they certainly don’t result in direct financial gain in any way, I’ve come to the realisation that the indirect gain is strangely just as valuable to me. And that ‘aha’ moment when you see people ‘get it’ before your eyes is absolutely priceless.

I vividly remember discovering Napster in 2000. As a huge music fan, I’d dabbled playing in bands for a decade or so by that stage. Yet the day that I saw the power of peer-to-peer file sharing, I understood that there had been a fundamental and irreversible change. To fight this was to fight reality. Existing models had to choose whether to evolve or to risk falling by the wayside. We’re seeing the same battlelines drawn here. And just as happened fifteen years or so ago, there’s never a specific tipping point that we can identify in advance. It’s only in retrospect that the winners become clear to those who resisted the technological progress.

What do I think will happen this time? I think we’ll see the full range of responses across industries, from early adopters to dinosaurs. And to me that’s fine. That’s natural and that’s progress. However, what I’m less happy to see is businesses, institutions, governments and – crucially – individuals miss the opportunity to get engaged and have a role in driving such inevitable innovations simply because they were somehow unaware that change was afoot.

I don’t hold myself out to be an expert. Not by any means. I’m not sure how many experts we truly have in an industry that is just over six years old in any event. But for those that have the same question in the future, that’s the reason why I’m organising meetups, speaking at as many events as possible, running a conference and generally working harder than I’ve ever done in my life to bring people together for no material gain.

Because I think this time, above all, this is something that really matters. To all of us – and not simply those who share my love of caffeine.