The Death of Celebrity

As the year wraps up, there must be some news websites seriously considering whether to introduce new ‘Obituary’ sections alongside their usual News, Sport and Entertainment pages. After all, nothing drives click-throughs like a reminder that even the famous remain subject to the same rules as the rest of us and its been a busy year.

Yet even as the number of fake reports increase (although nothing that can top the original ‘Paul Is Dead‘ story from the heyday of The Beatles), is it the case that more of our celebrities are shuffling off this mortal coil than ever before? Perhaps some kind of Faustian pact is now a compulsory precursor to fame, a contract that must be signed in secret before your image, name or content may be shared online? Or is this just another case of the wisdom of the crowd, collectively latching onto another story, this time about the so-called ‘Curse of 2016’?

With no hard evidence either way, here’s my thoughts. We’re only now starting to see the effects of an increasingly heavily networked and interconnected world play out. Think of the number of minor celebrities we have today. The fifteen minutes of fame both bestowed upon and grasped at by so many leaves a trail of famous names, regardless of whether such fame is well-deserved or the inevitable byproduct of some mostly forgotten minor notoriety.

I can’t see the current situation changing. Indeed, as we each become aware of more people through a mesh of our networks covering locale, music, video, politics, profession and, in more general terms, TV, the chances of the number of ‘famous deaths’ doing anything other than increasing year on year must be tiny.

So 2016? It’s not good, it’s not bad.

It just is.

As an aside, it used to be the case that reading the Obituaries section of olde worlde newspapers used to be as valid a destination for learning as the reports of current affairs that monopolised the first few pages. With the passage of time, at least some of the bias can be erased and actions placed into context. If you want a place to learn about those who’ve done something special with the time they were given, you could do far worse than listen to the excellent  ‘Last Word‘ podcast.

Alas as the years pass, I suspect that increasing numbers of subjects for inclusion won’t translate into an equivalent increase in lives worth reporting. Our am I too cynical?

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)

The Year Ahead

I’ve been thinking about how to evolve this blog over the next twelve months. It originally started out a few years back as a place for me to post more considered, long-form articles that went into some depth on topics that fascinated me.

That worked for a while – in the sense that I enjoyed writing and received complimentary feedback from various quarters. But as someone far more productive than me (in making quotable statements, if nothing else) once wrote, “The perfect is the enemy of the good“. The reality is that whilst the more detailed and comprehensive articles may attract decent levels of interest online, the extra effort required to polish up that final 20% slows down the frequency of posts.

But doesn’t quality beat quantity? Usually – but with one caveat. Regular practice inevitably improves quality and writing should be no different. At the same time, I’ve always found that the process of moving knowledge from head to screen using your own words is the most powerful learning technique there is.

So I took the decision to just relax a little more in each post and to just write more frequently – every day – more broadly about the topics that interested me. The logic’s pretty simple. Even if I turn out to be the only one out there that enjoys these topics, at least I’ll enjoy looking back over some of the posts in the years to come and see just how far some of the thinking has evolved.

This year, I’ll keep that approach going. I’m hoping to redesign the site in the near future to make things cleaner and easier to read, particularly on mobile platforms. And as for the topics themselves, I don’t think they’ll be of any surprise to those that have visited before.

The key theme will inevitably be Bitcoin and associated block chain technologies. But on top of that, the other areas under the spotlight this year will likely be data security, surveillance, drone technology, 3D printing, the internet of things, networks, startups, VC investment, AI, the coming singularity and last, but by no means least, how traditional forms of creativity can not only survive but thrive in a digital world.

I’m guessing that’ll keep me pretty busy for the next 364 days.

Never Out Of Signal: The Rise Of Mesh Networks

As we become increasingly dependent on internet access, there’s still a big problem that needs to be solved with the advance of the internet of things. We’re going to need this internet connectivity for all these great ideas to take root and advance.

Within existing infrastructure, WiFi is now pretty much commonplace. But as soon as you head out onto the streets, even if you’re wealthy or desperate enough to have agreed to pay for half-solutions to the problem, you can never have full confidence that an existing WiFi signal will be good enough to guarantee you the flexibility that’s needed to carry out all of the things that you want to do whilst you’re on the go.

The world of mesh networking however presents us with one solution. Instead of relying on the traditional network in which access is for the most part controlled by large mobile telcos, each individual’s mobile phone (for example) now acts as a router that talks to all of the others around it. This creates a network that can support internet connectivity even when there is no public internet connection.

Another way to think about it is that the standard internet connectivity model uses a star topology. If you want to send a file from your laptop to another computer, you have to send it via a central router. But with a mesh topology, every node can create to every other node around it.

The potential of a system of decentralised connectivity that can deal with the many problems of poor connectivity – perhaps in a location that lacks the necessary infrastructure as a result of a remote location, an oppressive government or the aftermath of natural disaster or war – could prove to be transformative. Even down to the simple usefulness found in helping festival-goers get past an overwhelmed phone network that prevents them texting their lost friends, the value is clear.

This technology (Apple called this ‘Multipeer Connectivity‘) was included with iOS7. You probably heard about the rapid ascent of Open Garden’s Firechat app which exploded in popularity upon being used by pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong. Of course, it comes with the usual caveat in that circumstance. It is not secure from surveillance in any way a pretty significant weakness when you’re a protester that’s challenging an oppressive regime I think you’d agree (although this is currently being worked on by the company, I believe).

However, the point here is that the system doesn’t require centralised infrastructure. Allowing people to communicate without requiring internet access is a leap forward on many fronts. And of course the Firechat app still has value for those who are railing against centralised censorship – you can still get the message distributed, provided you’re willing to adopt the “I’m Spartacus” defence. And of course, you could always look at integrating mesh networks with Maidsafe.

There’s an interesting company called Veniam that have come out with a hugely ambitious vision.  Given the fact that people move around yet still need to effortlessly maintain connectivity in the course of their travels, they plan to connect the ‘internet of moving things’ by turning vehicles into WiFi hotspots  And it’s more than simply a big idea – they’ve already managed to equip more than 600 vehicles in Porto (including commuter buses) to show the potential of a smart city in action.

The really fascinating time will come I suspect when these systems are also collecting vast amounts of data about the current status of urban settings as they become continually denser. The rubbish bin that notifies a passing rubbish truck when it’s nearly full provides one example. In many ways this starts to bring the reality of the Trade Net closer, where self-driving cars (using Bitcoin microtransactions, of course) are negotiating in milliseconds to gain right of way on the roads, clearing traffic jams instantly. Or drones are delivering your requirements on demand.

There are significant issues to consider once we overlay our towns and cities with such coverage  (personal data, security and surveillance immediately jump to mind) which is why it’s so important I belive that we start to think about these issues very seriously now. But provided we find a way to tackle such issues (which we face in any event), the potential benefits from mesh networks could be hugely valuable. After all, anything that facilitates communication in a disaster zone must have a very significant contribution to make in the future.



Collaborative Consumption

The Sharing Economy has really been gaining steam over the past few years. With Airbnb increasingly building mainstream awareness beyond purely tech circles and Uber’s rapid march towards a multi-billion dollar valuation in the short time since its inception in 2009 (despite being beset by recent scandals), it’s clear there’s a substantial societal shift taking place towards new business models.

I read an interesting article today by Rachel Botsman, author of “What’s Mine Is Yours” and thought leader in the field of Collaborative Consumption, in which she challenges a few of the myths surrounding the area.

I’ve always had an interest in watching the exodus from centralised organisations to technology-driven distributed networks of individuals (which partly explains Bitcoin’s appeal for me) and the ‘sharing economy’ clearly personifies one aspect of this. However, it was also interesting to read the argument that the terminology that we all use has, she believes, been twisted out of recognition. We all talk of the Sharing Economy – but the reality is that participants are not actually sharing at all (in the conventional sense of the word).

When we let people borrow our unused bedrooms, all that’s taking place is simply a rental transaction. This new raft of businesses is being built that use technology to connect supply and demand that would otherwise remain unfulfilled. But at its core, this activity is entirely different to the concept of ’sharing’, she argues. That word by itself comes with its own ideology and implied altruism. However, when we ‘share’ a room, we fully expect to get something in return.

Whilst she’s unsurprisingly critical of the values and culture at Uber, she also points out that pretenders with big plans to disintermediate an industry by simply providing an ‘on-demand’ service do not fall automatically within the classification of the collaborative economy. In other words, it’s not just removing the middle man – it’s more accurately about unlocking idle capacity.

In Botsman’s recent work, she’s identified five key areas with assets that are ripe for disruption together with the solutions for each area (here in brackets):

  • waste (efficiency)
  • complex experiences (simplicity)
  • redundant intermediaries (direct exchange)
  • limited access (shared access)
  • broken trust (transparency)

The explosive growth of the collaborative economy comes partly from the fact that it is replacing traditional asset-heavy business models with ones that are asset-light. The classic example from her talk mentions the fact that it took Hilton Hotels 93 years to get 610,000 rooms in 88 countries. Meanwhile, it’s taken Airbnb just 4 years to amass 650,000 rooms in 192 countries.

I love the example of Goodgym. It’s a platform that connects people who are seeking the motivation to go running with old people who would benefit from regular visits (albeit from lycra-clad sweaty visitors). It’s also fascinating to see that she has identified Financial Services as being an areas where so many of the drivers behind the collaborative economy are present. I couldn’t agree more. As an example, here’s a list of some of the areas that are developing fast, together with a few company names for context:

Botsman’s last point is, I think, key here. Whilst the inroads made by the collaborative economy are scary to many incumbents (statistics abound of the taxi industry losing two-thirds of its revenue to Uber and other upstarts in a period of less than three years for example), don’t forget the way that innovation inevitably plays out.

In the early days of Napster, the music industry tied itself in knots trying to restrict the competition by legal assault. By focusing on where the ball was, rather than where it was travelling to, they completely missed the fact that a new wave of demand has arisen from consumers who wanted to share and buy songs electronically. iTunes would never have had a chance of success if the incumbents hadn’t been asleep at the wheel.

I intend to write far more about the sharing, sorry, collaborative economy moving forwards. In the meantime, treat this as an early collection of ideas and go and watch Botsman’s talk.


FoldingCoin And Magic Healing Tokens

Every so often, someone will be desperate to point out to me that Bitcoin has a high cost – namely the vast amount of electricity burned by miners across the world who carry out the essential function of processing transactions within the network. How can Bitcoin, they complain, the largest distributed computing project that has ever existed in the history of mankind, a project that harnesses processing power far greater than the combined processing power of the top 500 supercomputers in the world, be so wasteful?

Now it’s true that Proof of Work comes at a significant cost. And I’ll leave the whole Proof of Work versus Proof of Stake (etc) conversation for another day. But I wanted to highlight one project in particular that really drives home both the incredible power that’s arguably under-utilised within the current system and also precisely how the correct incentivisation can drive success for a far wider demographic than just us Bitcoin geeks.

Back in 2000, a distributed computing project was started at Stanford University which continues to this day called [email protected]. The project asks volunteers around the world to download software on their computers. Once installed, it uses idle processing power to simulate protein folding in the body. The more of this work your computer carries out, the easier it becomes for medical researchers to carry out vital investigations into how different proteins work. This knowledge enables essential medical research into the causes of serious diseases to take place. Check out the video for more information.

The project’s been running for a long time and is now the world’s second largest distributed computing project in the world (behind Bitcoin)  Before going any further, I suggest you – at the very least – look at helping out by visiting the website. You can start helping immediately by simply running the folding simulation within a Chrome browser.

[email protected]’s been highly successful. Once the software was released, people all around the world joined in with no motivation other than to simply “do something good”. And this valuable human behaviour has been encouraged by simple gamification – individuals automatically earn points according to the processing power that they’ve spent folding and move up and down leaderboards daily as a result.

Enter Bitcoin – or, more accurately, Counterparty. I’ve already declared myself a fan of Counterparty but I’ll recap quickly.

Counterparty is basically a platform that sits on top of Bitcoin’s blockchain that provides additional functionality. Unlike many other proposals that aim to improve upon Bitcoin by standing alone, it is actually this direct relationship with Bitcoin that provides Counterparty with significant benefits. By piggybacking on the most established blockchain technology in the world, the most significant benefit for Counterparty is that the platform is secure from Day One as it can rely on the protection of the existing Bitcoin network. Other alternatives face the often insurmountable problem of having to attract miners with significant levels of processing power quickly in order to secure the network before it comes under attack.

Now, I don’t want this post to turn into an explanation of the 51% attack. The point is that Counterparty allows anyone to create assets very simply on top of the power of the existing Bitcoin blockchain. These assets can represent anything you like. And herein lies the kernel of a brilliant idea.

We’re agreed that people using their home computers to fold proteins is a good thing. So wouldn’t it be a great idea to incentivise people to take part in a way that enhances the simple feelings of altruism and point-scoring? It would but there simply isn’t the cash available to pay people to take part. If we can’t use cash, why not reward them with a token?

Meet FoldingCoin.

The longer you spend considering the value of tokens and what they really have the potential to represent in society, the easier it becomes to understand the power of the FoldingCoin concept. After all, what are all these coins and notes that we stuff in our pockets if not tokens? We believe such token money to have a certain value in our daily lives and therefore pass them around accordingly. But how is this different? After all, we already know that FoldingCoins have value because – as we’ve all agreed – medical research is, by definition, valuable.

Of course, no-one is saying that FoldingCoins can be used to pay your shopping bills tomorrow. But if you haven’t yet considered how the concept of money works within the current system that we have constructed, I urge you to do so.

With Folding Coin, you simply fold proteins in the normal way using the software on your computer but add your contribution to the FoldingCoin team within the Stanford project. Then, at the end of every day, you receive a share of that day’s fixed number of FoldingCoins, allocated in proportion to your daily contribution to the team.

As an interesting aside, the developers of FoldingCoin are looking to roll it out as the unofficial currency of Meetups around the world. It’s definitely something I’m going to look into as the organiser of the Edinburgh Bitcoin Meetup. It’s powerful because it represents an easy way (arguably even more so than ChangeTip’s recent viral success) to show people the power and usefulness of crypto-currency. With no mention of Bitcoin or any other technical details, you simply present a compelling use-case (donating processing power to help cure serious diseases is a good thing) and suddenly this crazy internet money thing isn’t such a hard sell after all. That’s something we’ve all been waiting for. And for the Bitcoin faithful, it has the added advantage of being a way to finally use all that idle mining equipment that sitting unused in your house after you were steamrollered in the mining arm’s race

Put simply – thanks to Counterparty, you’re not securing a Blockchain. You don’t have to explain any of that. You’re just helping to develop medical research.

Stanford’s stated aim is to reach 1 million connected computers folding proteins. They currently have around 200,000. You know what to do. Go to [email protected] and FoldingCoin now and get stuck in.


Net Neutrality and the Battle Ahead

Net neutrality is one topic that I’ve not written about before on the blog. There’s been no particular reason to avoid it given how important I view the issue being. But given the wealth of information out there, I do feel that there is so much intelligent and informed commentary already that I’m not convinced I can add a significant amount to the debate. However, given the current battle that continues to rage in the US, it’s as good a time as any to mention it.

The principle of net neutrality in simple terms is the principle that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally. The concern is that without such a principle, internet service providers could (and would) block certain content and applications by virtue of their ownership of the last mile to consumers – think of throttling of resources for data-hungry services, so that video services such as Netflix become unwatchable, for example.

If you’re looking for a simple explanation, I like Tim Berners-Lee’s description of net neutrality:

“If I pay to connect to the Net with a certain quality of service, and you pay to connect with that or greater quality of service, then we can communicate at that level”.

The internet has proved to be such a powerful engine of growth, innovation and creativity precisely because of one decision: to make it an open system. It is crucial that the networks have no power to pick winners for adoption in terms of new technologies and services because the reality is, without a crystal ball, the facts are that in most situations, they would pick the wrong ones.

Distributed and permissionless innovation is a far more powerful foundation for entrepreneurial endeavours that create both jobs and wealth for millions than the alternative, the creation of a closed system controlled by a few gatekeepers. And that’s before we even mention some of the more fundamental rights that are provided by having an open system – free speech and democratic engagement being two that immediately spring to mind.

As Seth Godin wrote earlier this week.

“the core issue here is not whether a big corporation ought to have the freedom to maximise profit by choosing what to feature. No, the key issue is: what happens when users are unable to choose a different middleman?”

It’s been interesting to watch America, who are in a far worse position than the UK around this issue, respond to Obama’s strongly worded statement on keeping the internet open and free a few days ago:-

Unsurprisingly, the big telecoms and communications companies have had a heart attack. Bizarrely, it’s been interpreted as a political left/right argument by some who just don’t seem to get it. Thankfully, many people who do know what they’re talking about in this area continue to blog about it in simple and straightforward terms.

The battle’s far from over after Obama’s intervention last week. But it’s important that we all consider the very real consequences that are on the horizon if the decision goes the wrong way. To quote Julius Genachowski then Chair of the FCC in the US said in 2009, there’s a very real reason why net neutrality is so important:-

“It ís to make sure that, in the 21st century, the garage, the basement, and the dorm room remain places where innovators can not only dream but bring their dreams to life. And no one should be neutral about that.”


Dunbar’s Magic Number 150

I came across this tweet from Nick Szabo earlier a few days ago which intrigued me:-

So a bit of digging later and I find out that Dunbar’s number is a suggested limit to the number of people with whom a person can maintain stable social relationships. The concept was developed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar and, somewhat fittingly, christened by someone on Facebook (according to his TEDx talk).

In essence, you’re unlikely to be able to maintain a social group of more than 150 people. That’s people with whom you have a relationship that involves some element of trust and obligation (as opposed to simply people whose names and faces you’re aware of). Out of that figure, you’ll still only have maybe 3 to 10 ‘close’ friends that you can call up in the middle of the night for help. But the total number of friends is supposedly related to brain size and appears to be a restraint imposed as part of our shared evolutionary inheritance.

Dunbar points out that you need to put in effort (interestingly, that predominantly takes the form of conversation in the case of women but shared activities in the case of men) in order to cultivate those close friendships, with any relationship requiring the passage of time to become stronger.

Anyway, the point here really relates to the development of social networks which we all now use to overlay our physical, face-to-face daily relationships. The theory goes that as humans we’ve been able to cultivate larger groups of friends than primates because of our development of speech which enabled us to communicate with far more widespread collections of people away from our close ‘tribes’.

As you would expect, Dunbar’s research has been looked at very closely by the modern networking giants, such as Facebook. Indeed, Path (the social network that is currently struggling to grow despite significant investment) which has always sought to differentiate itself from Facebook has always been structured on the basis that a user has a fixed limit of 150 friends that he or she can befriend with his or her account as a result of exactly the same principle.

To me, 150 seems a high figure. To many, it will seem too few. I suspect that that’s always going to be the case with an arbitrary figure as an output from research. But to me, it’s particularly interesting to see how this figure has actually been adopted for use elsewhere. Take a look at W.L Gore for example. A company that’s often lauded for its innovation and fantastic employee working environment, they’ve had a rule from the start that requires teams to never grow to a size that’s much greater than the magic 150 that Dunbar’s research suggests is optimal.

For all the technology that we surround ourselves with, and the increasingly efficient tools which we choose to communicate instantaneously, it appears that face-to-face, direct discussion still rules the roost.


My TEDx Talk: “Bitcoin: More Than Just Money”

I’m flying out to Amsterdam tomorrow for the Bitcoin 2014 Conference but before I do, I just wanted to put up a quick post.

A couple of months ago, I was honoured to be asked to speak at the University of Edinburgh TEDx 2014 Conference. The theme was ‘Thinking In Abundance’ and it was an amazing opportunity to give a talk to a room full of intelligent and engaged individuals about what I’m certain will turn out to be one of the most significant developments in recent times. Bitcoin.

It was a challenge to strip out so many of the details in order to present a very broad overview of the opportunities aimed at those who hadn’t heard of Bitcoin previously. It’s far from perfect but I was pretty happy with how it turned out overall. I’d be interested to hear what you think.

You probably know by now that I believe strongly that the technology that underpins Bitcoin will act as a foundation for a fundamental restructuring of the society that we know today. We’re moving into a world that will be dominated by decentralised networks and the coming disruption will be felt in many areas – including finance. That’s why I’m working with others to bring the Bitcoin/crypto-currency community together across Scotland at the moment and I’ll be following up on this soon. If you want to hear more though and get involved, please do get in touch.

Thanks again to Sarah Anderson and the rest of the organising committee for inviting me along to take part. I had a blast!

Three Key Megatrends In Technology (And Society)

It’s not always that easy to see what’s ahead…

If you’re interested in technology, it’s very easy to be seduced by the hype that surrounds the new, shiny product or service that everyone’s talking about that month. And whilst that’s mostly harmless for the consumer, it can be fatal for a VC. Not only are the companies that you invest in risky but by paying above the odds, you now need your winners to succeed on an even greater scale to have a chance of repaying the people who trusted you with their cash.

So I always find it interesting to hear VC’s explain how they make the decisions about what to invest in given that they focus only on sectors that they believe have tremendous growth potential. Fred Wilson is both a top VC and daily blogger who’s particularly insightful and his recent talk at Le Web on three key megatrends in technology is no exception. You can check out the full talk in the video below.


You See Better From Further Out

Fred’s approach is to move one step back from focusing on so-called hot areas in general (such as machine learning and big data) to try to understand the bigger picture. Don’t attempt to guess which technology will be the most important. Look instead at how society is developing and the gaps that are being created. And it’s on this basis that he sees three ‘mega-trends’ driving business over the next few years.

1. Transition from bureaucratic hierarchies to technology-driven networks

Business traditionally functioned from the top down. Management orders filtered down the levels whilst customer feedback would usually go directly to front-line (and often junior) staff. When the system worked, that feedback would have to travel back up through the various layers until management made the decision about whether or not to make changes. Inefficient yes but justified by the high costs of communication.

But now these costs have plummeted, traditional hierarchies are being replaced by technology-driven networks. Think about the disruption to the newspaper industry: vast newsrooms with armies of reporters directed by a publisher with stories being edited to meet deadlines before the publication of a physical daily newspaper. Cue the entry of technology-driven networks (and the advent of Twitter and blogs in particular) and now everyone can be a reporter.

The crowd on each network determines what is popular (by retweets, follower count and the like) and the news that is relevant is delivered to us instantly via our mobiles. The same disruption can be seen in film/television (YouTube) and the music industry (Soundcloud).

Consumers now have the power to clearly signal what they want and find useful. But Fred believes we’re still in the early stages of this process which is only now starting to ripple through other industries like hotels (Airbnb, OneFineStay), creative industries (Kickstarter) and learning (Codecademy). Most industries will be affected by networks over the medium term.

2. Everything is being unbundled

It used to be expensive to get products and services to market. That cost meant that businesses tended to bundle things together that the customers had to pay for, even if they didn’t necessarily want the full selection (think of the Sunday papers with News, Holidays, Finance, Fashion, Classified Ads & Sports sections). Yet technology makes it cheap for new companies to be built to deliver single parts of these products, with the result often being that the bit you actually want is now both cheaper and of a higher quality.

Banking is a great example of an industry that’s being unbundled. It used to be very expensive to open and run a physical branch so the banks offered all types of products, including mortgages, credit cards, small business loans and working capital finance. Yet new businesses are now able to use networks of individuals to provide more efficient, specialised and more effective products – through peer to peer lending for example (Lending Club).

University education is another area where the high costs of traditional delivery – sourcing a building, lecturers, expensive academic books in libraries, face-to-face lectures – are being disrupted by MOOCs and mobile online learning platforms. The network model is also changing the face of research, both with the growth of Open Access publications and by enabling people to collaborate across different locations to enable researchers to share expensive, scarce research resources (such as expensive medical equipment).

3. We are all now a node on the network

The mobile phone has changed the game forever. Whilst those in the developed world still have the option of choosing to use a laptop or desktop rather than our phone, in the developing world, mobile has already won that race for dominance. With the cost of a desk computer too high in such countries for general adoption, people just moved straight to cheap (predominantly Android) smart phones. But regardless of the location, the result is that we are all now connected to each other all the time. Cue a wave of opportunities for businesses who are able to build upon that knowledge of people, locations and photographs across the network – in transport/logistics (Uber), payments (Dwolla, Square) and dating (Tinder).

Where The Three Collide

Fred goes on to identify four key sectors in which each of these three mega-trends are making their presence felt in particular:-


It’s obvious that we’re heading for major change in the world of money. I agree with Fred’s view that Bitcoin (or similar) is going to be responsible for so much more than just innovation in payments. It has the potential to become the financial and transactional protocol for the internet that has always been missing. As the standard way in which financial value is exchanged across the web and one that is entirely free from the control of any one party, money will be able to flow as freely and easily as content does today. As a protocol, it will also act as a foundation upon which entrepreneurs can build a whole variety of products and services.


Think of the growth of wearable technology with individuals wearing devices that can report back with details of their vital signs (Fitbit, Fuelband etc). In the future, some of this data will remain personal and private, some will be shared across networks and some will be exchanged solely between you and your doctor, caregiver or family member. Throw gamification into the mix (Fitocracy) and suddenly you’ve got a profound force for good with individuals making positive decisions about how to keep themselves fit and healthy.


When the industrial revolution arrived, the side-effect of such rapid development was the pollution that poured into our environment. By the time we realised and started the clean-up started, almost a century had passed and we faced a far harder task than it could have been had we dealt with it at the time.

Arguably we’re now facing exactly the same problem in the information age – only this time the pollution is data. Every digital activity we carry out leaves data exhaust which is, like it or not, letting other parties observe our activities. Fred’s view is similar to most people that I speak to: most of the time, he’s happy to let the government, Google, Facebook and others spy on him. However, sometimes the services that we’ve used end up recording our activities when we don’t want them to. Therefore, getting some control over this data leakage, both at an individual and a societal level is important.


Currently, many of us sign into services using our identities from other platforms (e.g. Facebook, Google, Twitter etc). Whilst it is extremely handy to use their authentication services, we are essentially giving these companies knowledge about everything that we do. Fred predicts the emergence of a standard protocol that will provide individuals with control over their own identity, trust and data which will be distributed (like Bitcoin, across many thousands of computers), free from any one party’s control and global.

Tick The Boxes

No matter whether you’re a VC, entrepreneur or just a citizen in the modern digital era, Fred’s talk provides plenty of food for thought. Using this framework provides a useful lens through which to watch just how the world will change in the next few years as a result of developments in the tech world.

We’re only just at the starting line: the pace of technological advancement can only accelerate from here on in as networks strengthen and the remaining friction that slows down the voluntary exchange of information between people anywhere across the world disappears completely. So if you’re looking to start up a new business or simply to future-proof the one you have, you could do far worse than take start to consider how to take account of all three.

photo credit: C.P.Storm via cc