The internet brings people into space

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During the Q&A following a talk with the a16z investor and Netscape inventor Marc Andreessen at Stanford Graduate School of Business (54 minute-long video recording here, very worth watching), a student sitting in the audience asked the Silicon Valley mastermind about his advice for people who have big ideas that might be very capital intensive. The questioner managed to score some laughter after quoting Elon Musk who – according to him – answered the same question a few years ago with the recommendation to “become an internet billionaire first”.

That’s witty. But it is also the truth. Musk used money he had earned from various deals in the online industry (including his biggest exit PayPal, which was acquired for $1.5 billion and made him a 9-digit sum in USD) to fund the initial stages of both his electrical car company Tesla and his rocket company SpaceX – to the point at which he literally ran out of cash. Without the dotcom companies that the South Africa-born serial entrepreneur did launch and sell before he took on the really big problems, Tesla and SpaceX might not exist. Continue Reading

Facebook, Uber and the outsider’s harsh perspective on Silicon Valley

Two companies based in the Silicon Valley (which not geographically but culturally includes San Francisco) have been making headlines over the past days: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published his globalization manifesto and Uber was confronted with the extensive, high-profile revelations of a former female engineer about the company’s systematic ignorance of sexism and generally hostile work culture.

Both stories have led to widespread criticism. In the case of Uber, it’s obvious why. But even Facebook’s manifesto, despite having been an active PR effort, was not received too well in the media. When the leader of the arguably most powerful company in the world outlines how he wants to use that power to shape the world, few are getting enthusiastic. Two of the negative responses to these stories stuck out though: They didn’t come from the usual suspects who professionally cover or comment on technology but from representatives of other firms. They also didn’t only focus on the specific matter, but used the occasion for a direct attack on the Silicon Valley way of doing things. Continue Reading

Zuckerberg’s globalization manifesto says: “it’s really, really… really complicated”

That’s the type of coincidence I like: Just a few days after I opened a blog post with the rhetorical question about what’s keeping Mark Zuckerberg up at night, the Facebook CEO published an extensive open letter titled “Building a global community”, offering a few hints (reading time according to Instapaper: 23 minutes).

In what certainly must be called a “manifesto”, Zuckerberg offers his view on why globalization is experiencing a backlash and outlines on which principles Facebook will attempt to help tackling these issues.

Significant self-criticism is (unsurprisingly) missing. The text lacks any sincere acknowledgements of possible direct causations between certain unfortunate global trends and the rise of Facebook – which grew from 0 to almost 2 billion active members within only a bit more than 10 years.

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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

From someone in a country without Amazon, a few questions about Alexa

Switzerland and Sweden have a couple of things in common. First, the names seem to be similar enough in many languages so that mixing up both countries is a very common phenomenon. Second, there are certain commonalities in regards to people’s mentality, for example a tendency to avoid conflict (for me, as a German living in Sweden and working with Swiss companies, there has been and still is a lot to learn). Third, in neither of the two countries, Amazon is operating its online store. This is in so far remarkable as I know that many people in Amazon’s core markets cannot even imagine anymore how life would be without the e-commerce giant. The reality from a customer perspective: It’s a bit inconvenient.

For the Swiss, Amazon.ch forwards directly to Amazon.de, offers free standard shipping above a certain order value, and obviously there’s no language barrier navigating the site. However, if you order from Switzerland which is not part of the European Union, you might end up having to pay additional customs charges in order to be able to pickup your package. In Sweden and the other Nordic countries, people are also forced to order from Amazon sites in other European countries (or the U.S.). Local versions in Nordic languages don’t exist. In Sweden, amazon.se is only a parked domain. Continue Reading

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. 

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6 years of working location independent

In fall 2010 I started an adventure which would change my life: 6 months of remote working from Thailand. It was my first trip to Asia and my first lenghty trip not intended as vacation. Many more were to follow. The Internet-enabled freedom to open your mobile office from anywhere in the world got me hooked instantly, and I haven’t manage to escape its fascination ever since.

The list of places from which I have spent from a week to several months working remotely has gotten fairly long: Several places in Thailand, Ho Chi Minh City, Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Barcelona, Lisbon, Puerto Vallarta (Mexico), San Francisco Bay Area, Santiago de Chile and Vancouver are on it. The most recent addition is Las Palmas (de Gran Canaria, Spain), from which I am writing this text (it’s an outstanding choice for location independent work, by the way).

Creativity & serendipity

There is something magical about occasionally changing your complete environment, relocating to a place somewhere on this planet. It’s a perfect way to find inspiration, to foster creativity and to expose yourself to serendipity. Such as that I really wasn’t very interested to travel to Japan actually, but I still did. After 3 months in Tokyo, I had turned into a Japan fan. Over the years, one learns a lot and gets quite experienced when it comes to the “art” of working from (almost) anywhere. In the next paragraphs, I’ll share a few of my insights. Continue Reading

My year of learning to code, in review

This article can also be read in German.

At the beginning of the year, I started a Python beginner course at Codecademy. It was my first serious attempt to learn programming. My initial experience turned out to be quite positive. In my one-month review I described how the service managed to keep me motivated through various small success moments. However, it was unclear whether that would continue with increasingly challenging tasks. Would I eventually quit?

I did not. Even 11 months after I printed my first “hello world” with Python, I am still pretty eager to dive deeper into Python programming. It’s tremendously rewarding and enlightening to learn more about the processes that constitute the foundation of our digital world.

In hindsight, I conclude that the Codecademy course was the ideal entry point for learning Python. However, only one course is offered. Once you are done with it you have to find other options to continue. I was finished in May. Shortly afterwards I gave Codecademy Pro a try for one month (cost 19,99 USD) in order to unlock a few additional projects but I did not get too much out of it. Continue Reading

I just subscribed to 60 blogs via RSS and maybe you should, too

Over the past years, I have been outsourcing increasing parts of my news/content discovery to the social web, following the famous mantra “If it is important, it will find me”. Today I am changing course.

I decided that I want to decrease the reliance on my social graph for what I read. Both Facebook and Twitter have entered a difficult period when it comes to the sharing and distribution of news. For Facebook, its enormous power, influence and tendency to create algorithmic echo chambers is turning into a burden, with hard-to-predict consequences. Twitter on the other hand suffers from all kinds of strategic and systemic problems, nicely summarized in this post. Some kind of radical change will be necessary for Twitter to survive and thrive. Continue Reading