The Power of Distraction

I remember very few students had their own computers when I went to university back in 1993. If you want a laugh, just take a look at the internet in 1993 in this video.  I wonder how I’d approach the work if I was going through it all again today. Given that the first time around involved wasting time on things that are pointless now we have vast oceans of information online, I’m pretty sure I’d be if anything more reliant on technology than I am today. Although I’m delighted to have missed out on the ‘drunken-photos-on-Facebook’ stage…

Clay Shirky’s a guy who knows a thing or two about the internet. In addition to writing the influential “Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens When People Come Together“, he’s also given a number of TED talks. So with that background, it’s worth taking notice when he writes an essay with the title ‘Why I Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away‘.

In a nutshell, Shirky has finally enforced a ban on technology use in his lessons – quite a turnaround for a guy who teaches students about the internet. However, he’s decided that the evidence finally stacks up to warrant it. That’s the research that shows that multi-tasking actually reduces efficiency and proves that there’s longer term cognitive damage that’s being caused by the continual instant gratification being served up via social media notifications.

“Worse, the designers of operating systems have every incentive to be arms dealers to the social media firms. Beeps and pings and pop-ups and icons, contemporary interfaces provide an extraordinary array of attention-getting devices, emphasis on “getting.” Humans are incapable of ignoring surprising new information in our visual field, an effect that is strongest when the visual cue is slightly above and beside the area we’re focusing on. (Does that sound like the upper-right corner of a screen near you?)”

On top of that, research has also shown that the damage is not restricted to the class Facebook addict. It’s been shown that the effect of one person’s multitasking on a laptop also damages the performance of others who are able to simply see the multitasking taking place. As Shirky says, it’s like somebody taking a boombox into the classroom.

The research goes a long way towards explaining the growth in demand for solutions that cut us off from technology and literature that encourages us to focus on a specific task at hand in any event. The assault on our productivity is being disguised by micro-hits of gratification, pushed by social networks that sustain us throughout the course of every day. Hard work still requires focus. But somehow, I suspect that we already knew that was the case.

Fred Wilson On 2014’s Key Themes

Fred Wilson put up a couple of posts around the turn of the year which are worth taking a look through. He starts by setting down some of the key themes that he saw during the course of the year and followed it up the next day with a few thoughts on what might be on the cards in 2015.

It’s worth reading the posts in full but if you want a quick summary, the key themes in 2014 were set out as being:-

I’m interested to see a big overlap between these themes and many of my posts here. I don’t for a second claim to have anything like the insight that Fred has into what’s going on but I think most people would agree that uncovering basic general trends is not rocket science per se. Where people like Fred excel is in being able to absorb all of this information, analyse it and then actually manage to pick a crop of companies for each fund to invest in from which the global “winners’ of each sector could ultimately emerge.

I wonder what will be beside the set of bulletpoints this time next year.

Bitcoin: Six Years Old Today

Six years ago today, someone using the pseudonym of Satoshi Nakamoto mined the Genesis Block and was rewarded with the first ever bitcoins. Embedded within the code was a headline taken from The Times that day. In the midst of a worsening financial crisis, Bitcoin had been launched as an experiment in provide an alternative to the current system which was proving itself to be fatally flawed.

Headline embedded in Genesis Block
Headline embedded in Genesis Block

Six years on and we have a nascent financial system that is rapidly filling up with some of the brightest thinkers from across a wide range of disciplines. During that time, we’ve seen little to no innovation within fiat systems around the world which remain moribund despite rescue attempts that have bordered on desperation at times. The result is that the world’s economy is in a worse place to deal with the next financial crisis than it was in 2007-2008.

Bitcoin isn’t perfect. Challenges remain. 2014 was arguably the most torrid year for Bitcoin so far in some respects. But the fundamental innovation that was introduced first in Satoshi’s White Paper before being made reality six years ago on January 3rd 2008 remains just as valuable today. And importantly, people are coming together around the world to try to reimagine a system that works in the modern day. Because there’s little doubt that the one we currently have is broken.

Happy Birthday Bitcoin. No doubt we’re in for another wild ride in 2015 but whatever happens, we’re learning and making progress. So please, over the next twelve months – bring your ideas and an open mind and get involved with the building.

Blipfoto Partners With Polaroid

Sometime back in 2008, I bumped into Joe Tree. He introduced me to Blipfoto, a website that he’d set up back in 2004 to record one photograph a day that he felt captured something worth remembering. Gradually, friends started asking him if they could join in. Word-of-mouth played its part and now the site was starting to take off around the world.

It was an important chat for me. I was a lawyer in those days but I was becoming increasingly frustrated by the constraints of my profession. Put simply, there just wasn’t enough tech and innovation to keep me interested. But now I saw something new. I might have been around lots of technology companies and founders over the years but in those days I’d never met anyone that was successfully building an online community organically – and certainly not from my hometown of Edinburgh.

If forced to, I would say that the one defining theme that underpins my interest in technology is that of networks – their formation, their value in bringing efficiency to the exchange of information and the way in which ‘real’ lives then adapt. And this was a golden opportunity to join a global network that had started in my own neck of the woods.

I joined the community and had a blast. There is something unique about only having the opportunity to upload a single photograph (with text, if you like) on a daily basis. That element of personal curation really turns the all-too-common over-sharing problem that plagues digital photography across social platforms on its head. It goes against the tide in a particularly positive way, giving users the opportunity to reach a level of insight about others’ lives that’s unusual which in turn has the positive effect of strengthening the bonds between community members.

So I was delighted to get an email this afternoon to say that Blipfoto has just entered into a partnership with Polaroid.

It’ll be fascinating to see how the relationship develops. As with any strong community, there will always be some who are resistant to change. That’s inevitable but I believe necessary here if the site is going to be “the place where the world tells its story”.

Polaroid is an iconic brand when judged on one metric in particular: public awareness. The inevitable outcome is that many more people will hear about – and therefore join – Blipfoto. It will be challenging to ensure that the community spirit remains. But knowing some of the people involved, if anyone’s able to do it, I think the team at Blipfoto can.

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.

The 2014 End Of Year Soundtrack

It’s been a busy year. Over the course of the past twelve months, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and speak with some of the most creative and intelligent people of my life to date. I’ve learned more about a vast range of subjects than at any other point of my life and as a result I now have more questions to resolve than ever before as the year draws to a close.

That, to me, is a good thing. It’s a sign of progress.

I’ve written before about how I dislike making predictions. So to wrap the year up, I thought I’d put a little marker down instead to remind myself of some of the songs and albums that have soundtracked my year. By no means comprehensive, this will if nothing else help to remind me of the people, places and ideas that have shaped my 2014.

Thanks for reading – I hope you have a great 2015!

The Interview and Film Distribution Models

I’ve intentionally avoided the big story over the past few weeks surrounding the decision by Sony (or was it the cinemas) in the US to pull the screenings of “The Interview”. From the start, there was a clear dissonance within the allegations that were freely flying around. It didn’t help that over the same time period, I was reading more about the activities of the NSA and GCHQ in a book on Edward Snowden. With some of that information playing on my mind, it seemed far more likely to me that someone other than the publicly accused perpetrators had to be guilty of hacking into Sony.

I suspect the full story will come out over the fullness of time. But I also think that we’ll look back in a year or so and view the whole sorry episode as being pretty valuable. Not in a ‘national security’ sort of way but as an indication of the evolution that is still to come within the traditional distribution model within the film business.

We all love the cinema. But we also love convenience and, increasingly in today’s world, I would argue that it is the latter that is proving to be a greater passion for most. And whilst the circumstances surrounding this film were undoubtedly unique, the numbers don’t lie – far more people paid to stream the film online during the first four days of its release than bought tickets to see it at the cinema. Is this the start of a sustained and ultimately successful attack on the ‘windowing’ business model whereby the content owner staggers the release by format type (against the wishes of customers) in order to maximise revenue?

It’s hardly a new approach (I wrote about windowing and the barrage of criticism following Taylor Swift’s withdrawal from Spotify previously) but it’s beyond doubt that there is significant demand out there for same day-releases. The question is whether the existing industry structure can build a model to satisfy this demand – or whether it will take disruptive companies such as Netflix to flex their power and focus their attentions further up the chain in order to start to making the films themselves.

The other thing that has come again to the fore over the past week is the fact that with a US-only film release, Sony managed to shoot themselves in the foot. Did this stop people outside of the US watching it? No, of course it didn’t. It just mean that people turned to torrents instead of paying for it. Again, I don’t blame Sony entirely for this given the unique circumstances which might have justified a cautious and limited release in their eyes. But it remains another example of a company failing to fully address the fact that the release of a digital product that is not global and released simultaneously across countries will be exploited.

I suspect the story’s far from over on this one. And who knows, I may even get round to watching the film one day.

Passive Consumption

Henry Blodget recently pointed out that people in the developed world have, over the past 150 years, managed to achieve a reduction in working time thanks to a variety of technological advancements. In short, whilst the normal time constraints (i.e. hours per day) have remained constant (unsurprisingly), people now manage to work 30 hours a week less on average.

So how has this mass of humanity responded to being granted such potential in the form of more free time for all? How have we combined our knowledge and ingenuity to utilise all of these technological developments?

We, er, watch more TV.

Number of Work Hours Per Week (1870 - 2000) by Max Roser
Number of Work Hours Per Week (1870 – 2000) by Max Roser
Daily Hours Of TV Viewing
Daily Hours Of TV Viewing












Recent figures show that the average human spends about 28 hours a week (4 hours a day) watching television.

An unpopular time of the year to be railing against the box in the corner of the room perhaps. But – really?

It’s always seemed to me that some technology encourages passive consumption and some technology accelerates active creation. In many ways, the creative output is of far less importance than the fact that the process itself is taking place. Whilst life requires the existence of both types of technology, the latter commands an importance that is of an order of magnitude greater than the former – irrespective of whether such creativity is deemed to be ‘successful’. And unfortunately for those that don’t understand such technology – or at the very least engage with both types at some level, no matter how basic – I find it hard to envisage a world where they will ever have access to the same opportunities. Like it or not, that to me seems to be the world that we are now increasingly living in.

Design Something They Didn’t Know They Needed

In the ‘good’ old days, a business would sell a new product based on its perception of what potential customers might want. A product or service would be designed, priced and shipped, and there would be precious little that you could do other than wait for the demand (or lack thereof) to be proved beyond any doubt as the money either subsequently piled in or the launch flopped.

It didn’t take long for businesses to start to refine their approach, eager as they were to develop more successful products using more efficient methods. Market research, focus groups and interviews with target customers were all introduced to help accelerate the time spent from initial product design to the launch of a product that (on paper at least) satisfied certain articulated demand.

With the emergence of software businesses, the delay between research and shipping a minimum viable product in order to capture valuable market feedback has contracted significantly. This can be a double-edged sword however, with significantly cheaper costs also bringing with it far lower barriers to entry for competitors. And this process is likely to only get faster with the growing use of 3D printing to produce rapid prototyping that will act as the first iteration of a product for potential customers.

But whilst the process is speeding up and more valuable customer feedback is increasingly being captured, there is also a far wider strategic risk that many businesses simply fail to consider. The problem is that any potential customer who is able to tell you what they need is just as able to pass on the same information to your competitors. So you face a very real risk of becoming engaged in a feature-war with competitors as you each continue to replicate the other’s features in the course of a competitive price war that continues to spiral downwards as both sides seek to capture market share.

The alternative is to come up with a product or service that is far more valuable, one that delights the customer. Achieve this and customers will be happy to pay a premium. Easier said than done, no doubt about it. And what makes it worse is that this just isn’t possible if you are relying alone on conversations that you set up with people that may turn out to be potential customers. As Henry Ford once commented when looking back on his successful car business, if he’d started by asking his customers what they wanted, they’d have said ‘a faster horse’. To succeed in what is likely to be a far more complicated task, you need to be far more empathetic to the lives and needs of your customers. By pursuing a ‘design thinking‘ mindset. the truly successful business looks at the bigger picture:

“Approaching a problem with a design thinking mindset, however, certainly takes into account what a customer says, but simply as one input among many. In this approach, observing the way people really live, developing a deep understanding of the real problems they have, and gaining an appreciation of the “hacks” they devise to overcome them can deliver an understanding of prospective customers’ needs that is more accurate than what any of those prospective customers could ever articulate on their own.” (Stratechery)

I find this approach fascinating because it makes clear that ‘design’ isn’t about the product simply looking amazing. Instead it’s all about building up that knowledge and understanding of those that you wish to convert into customers. To be successful, you can’t help but end up understanding more about the group’s motivations and needs on a far deeper level than even they’re likely to be conscious of themselves. And when you’re creating a product that aims to delight and command above-average loyalty, that seems to be a pretty sound investment to my mind.

Are You Advising Or Simply Restating Facts?

Part of the reason that I blog regularly is so that I have a place to record some of the many gems of wisdom that I stumble across randomly during the course of each day’s online travels.

Today it’s the turn of Brad Feld’s post ‘Mentors 9/18: Clearly Separate Opinion From Fact‘ which is taken from his upcoming new book, ‘Startup Opportunities: Know When To Quit Your Day Job‘.

He points out that many people who advise others fail to fully appreciate the difference between facts, data and opinions. Whilst Brad is tackling the mentor/mentee relationship in his post, it’s clear that the same warning applies to anyone who advises others (the role of lawyers immediately sprang to mind here to me).

In short, advisors will often justify (unconsciously perhaps) their role in the relationship by stating that something is a fact when the statement is in reality simply their opinion. Of course, a statement might be based on data (truth) which you used to subsequently form your opinion. But an opinion is necessarily an extension of the facts. Your opinion is not factual in and of itself. But the person who listens to it has no way of knowing that they’re listening to an opinion rather than a fact.

The point is simply to be clear about the advice that you’re offering to the person that you’re helping – is it fact or is it opinion?

Both are valuable but conflating the latter with the former can have negative consequences for the person who is eagerly waiting to use what you say to help them make a decision. And the more transparent you are during this process, the more valuable your help is likely to be.