Towns, commerce and the future

French towns are withering and losing their core, while shopping centers outside of the cities are booming, as recently described by the New York Times. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the suburbs are going through an equally dramatic transition. Malls are being outcompeted by e-commerce and eventually have to shut down, leading to shrinking demand for chain-restaurants and other services that previously were being frequented by hungry and entertainment-seeking shoppers.

Stories like this could be written about towns in various countries. The creation of shopping clusters outside of city centers and the rise of e-commerce are two global themes that no one will be able to stop. The best way to look at the shift and its negative consequences is therefore with a stoic mindset, following the principle that what you cannot control, you shouldn’t not spend a lot of time trying to control. As long as a city doesn’t force its population to shop at the local stores (which hopefully will never happen), more shops and old school businesses will vanish. The economics and experience of getting things from the giant mall or – increasingly more likely – from the internet, are generally too intriguing for consumers to let the undesirable side effects for the community come in between themselves and the convenient purchase or unbeatable bargain. Continue Reading

The crisis of optimism

Source: IPSOS MORI

The world is undergoing a crisis of optimism. Citizens especially but not only in developed countries are losing their hope for a better future. After decades of growth and prosperity following the world wars, now stagnation, loss of purchasing power and fear of decreasing wealth are the new default. That’s why seductive authoritarian strongmen are gaining support – once again. They promise a better future. Certainly only “better” in the sense of “for those of you who have always lived in this country and share a certain zero-sum worldview”, but nonetheless. The group is obviously big enough to make someone U.S. president. Continue Reading

Medium can be the better Twitter

I have changed my mind about Medium, the service created by the Twitter founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone in 2012. Initially I was concerned about the startup’s effort to centralize content and how that would weaken the distributed publishing structure that made the web such a great place. 2 years ago I wrote:

“Nobody could be interested in a scenario in which all non-paid-for content is appearing first and foremost on Medium. A centralized approach like this means that one entity is in full control over who gets to publish what and how it is being monetized. Also, a centralized approach introduces a single point of failure. If Medium’s servers crash, all the content would be unavailable”

A lot has happened since then. Among other things, at least for me, existing social media platforms have lost most of their appeal. Especially Twitter became unbearable, and I am far from the only one who has come to this conclusion. Just read the comments here (and this article).

The reasons why Twitter turned from an exciting tool for networking and access to valuable information into a toxic, polarizing and frustrating time-sink are multifaceted. Based on my long-term observation, one of its core weaknesses is its brevity. In a time of mounting global complexity, a service that due to its limitation to 140 characters acts as an outlet for impulses, emotions and binary, one-dimensional simplifications is the worst that can happen.  Continue Reading

What’s next?

Like many people, I’m scratching my head about the state of the world, trying to make sense of the backlash against globalization, liberalism, science and secularism. The emphasis is on “trying”. It is not working. Too many dots to connect, too many contexts to consider, too many systems that are interdependent, too many ideologies and narratives that interfere with accurately assessing reality. Whenever I think I have arrived at some potentially all-comprising explanation, 10 other ideas pop up in my mind, some of them contradicting my previous hypotheses, while others adding additional layers to it, complicating everything.

And so, a lot of only loosely connected, unfinished thoughts are swirling through my head, which I’ll now pen down. Continue Reading

The internet does to the world what radio did to the world

Over the holidays, I finally found the time to read Marshall McLuhan’s book “Understanding media” (I might have spent time with it during my studies but definitely didn’t pay too much attention back then). Last year, hardly a week went by without me stumbling upon a text which made a reference to the book and its most famous phrase, “The medium is the message”. Now I understand why. McLuhan’s media criticism laid out in his 1964 work feels incredibly contemporary. Occasionally to an almost scary degree.

Among the parts that intrigued me the most were the following three paragraphs, which in my opinion are very suitable to describe current media dynamics and societal events – if one, while reading, replaces the term “radio” with “internet” and “Hitler” with whoever comes to mind.

“That Hitler came into political existence at all is directly owing to radio and public-address systems. This is not to say that these media relayed his thoughts effectively to the German people. His thoughts were of very little consequence. Radio provided the first massive experience of electronic implosion, that reversal of the entire direction and meaning of literate Western civilization. For tribal peoples, for those whose entire social existence is an extension of family life, radio will continue to be a violent experience. Highly literate societies, that have long subordinated family life to individualist stress in business and politics, have managed to absorb and to neutralize the radio implosion without revolution. Not so, those communities that have had only brief or superficial experience of literacy. For them, radio is utterly explosive.

“The power of radio to retribalize mankind, its almost instant reversal of individualism into collectivism, Fascist or Marxist, has gone unnoticed. So extraordinary is this unawareness that it is what needs to be explained. The transforming power of media is easy to explain, but the ignoring of this power is not at all easy to explain. It goes without saying that the universal ignoring of the psychic action of technology bespeaks some inherent function, some essential numbing of consciousness such as occurs under stress and shock conditions.”

“Just as we now try to control atom-bomb fallout, so we will one day try to control media fallout. Education will become recognized as civil defense against media fallout. The only medium for which our education now offers some civil defense is the print medium. The educational establishment, founded on print, does not yet admit any other responsibilities.

Clearly, education has failed to offer a large-scale civil defense against internet fallout.

Update: Have a look at the excellent comment discussion about the thoughts in this post on Hacker News.

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Photo: Flickr/Alan Levine, CC BY 2.0

The obsession with “Fast-moving consumer news”

One suggested solution to the sheer unbearable state of today’s digital news landscape is quitting the consumption of day-to-day news. While a radical step would be to completely stop following any type of media used for the distribution of information that does not qualify as timeless, a more practical and in my opinion smarter approach is to limit one’s information intake to selected sources, trusted curators and channels that focus on specialist topics, bigger pictures and larger questions that remain relevant over longer periods of time.

Those who withdraw from what I would call “Fast-moving consumer news” (FMCN, as an information equivalent to the so called Fast-moving consumer goods) have to face one major point of criticism: To stop paying attention to the reports about tragedies, misery, human misconduct and violence, won’t stop these things from happening.

In the short term, that’s a fact. However, if the many hours not spent on following the latest breaking news are being invested into projects with a larger purpose, into entrepreneurship, or the creation and distribution of useful knowledge, then in the long-term, ignoring FMCN might in fact help improving the state of the world. But admittedly that’s still a shaky argument, because not consuming FMCN does not allow for the conclusion that the “gained” time actually is being directed towards more meaningful efforts. More likely it won’t be. 

Continue Reading

13 facts about work in the age of automation

In the 21st century human labor and, as a consequence, the foundation of the society will be changing dramatically due to the rapid progress of information technology. The shift will likely be similarly wide-reaching as the industrialization. Unfortunately, debates about the opportunities, threats and necessary steps often turn into arguments about ideology and world views, instead of objectively acknowledging the facts and proposing constructive, unbiased actions.

But what are those objective facts by the way, that apply no matter one’s view of the world and of the economic system? I’ll try to collect a few of them which, from my point of view, should represent the basis for a consensus. Continue Reading

Weekly Links & Thoughts #72

Here is a weekly selection of thoughtful opinion pieces, interesting analyses and significant yet under-reported information bits from the digital and technology world. Published and annotated every Thursday (CET), just in time so you have something good to read during the weekend.

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Simulating worlds

Some time during the past weekend, I ended up in a rather silly but for me entertaining thought experiment: I was musing about that there should be a way to produce the so called “hindsight bias” in advance of an event. What started as a joking idea quickly led me to some more serious reflections.

The term hindsight bias (according to Wikipedia also called “knew-it-all-along effect”) refers to a cognitive bias which brings people to the belief that the outcome of a certain event or situation was the only logical and possible result. Before the specific event, uncertainty about what happens next is widespread and predictions about the future are varying widely. But in the aftermath people experience a feeling of obvious and overwhelming retroactive predictability of whatever happened. Suddenly, everyone claims to always have expected this very outcome.

If you debate the question of how Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality or self-driving cars will change human life, you can hear plenty of different theories and predictions. However, in 20 or 30 years, people will point out that whatever will have happened after AI, VR and self-driving cars took over, was the one and only logical scenario. Continue Reading

Turning learning into an addiction

“Lifelong learning” sounds like quite a cliche but it is also the absolute necessity of today’s and tomorrow’s work life. In order to have a chance against increasingly “intelligent” machines, the only way to be able to succeed, either as employee or in an entrepreneurial role, is a continuous effort to improve existing skills and to learn new skills. Randall Stephenson, the CEO of the telecommunications giant AT&T, puts it quite vividly when he warns that “people who do not spend five to 10 hours a week in online learning will obsolete themselves with the technology”.

The problem with this: It requires a lot of effort, energy and self-discipline. For most people, learning is not being considered fun or exciting. It is seen as work. For the majority of people who work 40 or more hours a week in their day job, the idea to keep hustling in their freetime does not have a lot of appeal. So only those with a real drive, a long-term plan or a feeling of actual urgency are willing to do what’s needed in order to facilitate lifelong learning (an Uniconditional Basic Income could free a lot of time of course, but that’s a different story).

Not only is the widespread association of learning with work and unpleasant mental effort an obstacle towards lifelong learning, but also the temptations to do other, more fun things. One of the most fun things for people is spending time with their favorite apps and online services. Popular apps are about communication, entertainment and gaming. They are not perceived as work, but as fun and exciting. And they are explicitly built to get people “hooked”. Others would say popular apps intent to get people addicted.

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This can be seen as a dilemma, but it can also be considered an inspiration: In order to implement lifelong learning into as many people’s lifes as possible, people must get “hooked” on learning in a similar manner they get hooked on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Candy Crush, Clash of Clans or Tinder. Learning must become an addiction. It must create so much joy and release such a pleasant dose of Dopamine inside the learner’s brain that he/she just can’t stop obsessing about it.

Admittedly, this is an unrealistic scenario, even though various educational apps have succeeded in proving that e.g. learning languages doesn’t need to be that painful. But describing it that way might help to path the way to a state in which the idea of constant, conscious learning as the default mode of human existence will have been internalized by the masses.

If companies, governments, educational organizations and individuals want to ensure prosperity and economic growth, they should find ways to turn learning into an addictive process or at least something close to that. The best-practices and learnings of the app economy can offer valuable insights into how to do that.

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