In the digital age, cognitive biases are running wild

Here are three strange ways of how the human mind works:

  • If a person with a certain strong belief is presented with clear evidence of the belief being false, this may lead to a reinforcement of the belief.
  • A person might draw different conclusions from the same type of information depending on in what way the information is being presented.
  • A person who has just been told about a phenomenon which he/she never noticed before, starts paying attention to it and now sees it/hears about it everywhere.

These examples of cognitive biases show how easily our perception and thinking is being tricked and led astray. More than a 100 cognitive biases have been identified so far. The Wikipedia list collecting them all is both a fascinating and sobering read.

Considering how flawed our thinking and perception tends to be, it’s hard not to be amazed by humanity’s achievements and how far civilization has come. As cognitive biases affect every single individual no matter their standing, academic credentials, authority or projected confidence, and produces the constant risk of wrong decision-making and subsequent conflicts, the advances and fairly peaceful state in not all, but a large number of societies is against all odds. Continue Reading

Algorithmic survival of the fittest

In Darwin’s evolutionary theory, the concept of survival of the fittest stands for the phenomenon that the traits of life forms that have the biggest reproductive success will, over time, become prevailing, while other traits disappear.

I would like to adopt this framework for the age of algorithms. On the leading tech platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and TikTok (gotta be inclusive here), algorithms play a key role in selecting what information people get to see, and who gets to be seen. Since these services’ business models are centered around advertising, their algorithms are optimized for making people spend as much time as possible on them.

Thanks to the vast amounts of usage data generated by billions of daily users as well as the ever-improving capabilities of machine learning (or “Artificial Intelligence”), one has to expect this optimization process to eventually become highly effective, if not truly perfect. Continue Reading

Most people cannot leave Facebook

It’s time to spell out something which everybody already knows: The majority of the 2 billion Facebook users are unable to leave Facebook, no matter how much they would want to.

A mix of different factors makes it literally impossible for most people to delete their Facebook account. Those are:

  • The need to supplant emotional labor with Facebook (read Sarah Jeong’s essay on how she tried to stay away from Facebook and really felt bad about it. For many, not having Facebook means an extremely weakened social support lmnetwork)
  • The need to use Facebook to get required information (such as parties, events, gossip, personalized news).
  • The need to use Facebook to run a business/make a living (Read: Emerging Markets Can’t Quit Facebook)
  • The need to use Facebook for work-related tasks.
  • The need to use Facebook to maintain and reach a personal audience (particularly relevant for influencers and people from the fields of media, marketing and communication, politicians etc.)
  • The need to login to 3rd party sites with Facebook credentials

Let’s pretend this list is complete (though it probably is not): Every person would weight the relevancy of these factors and the perceived lock-in for each of them differently. But every person who has been an active Facebook user for a while would find that at least a few of these factors do apply to them. To some, possibly all of them.

Taken together, these various lock-in factors allow for a drastic conclusion: Facebook is almost immune against a user backlash. Campaigns to delete Facebook will never catch on with the masses, because the perceived personal cost of giving up Facebook all together is too high for most people. I consider myself half-way out of there since about a year ago, but even for me, going all the way would be a sacrifice which I am hesitant to make (although I am pondering it).

This means that Facebook can carry on as usual, and it has enough wiggle room for more missteps, data leaks and unethical initiatives and experiments.

The majority of people need Facebook too much. Thus right now, the only risk for Facebook comes either from internal issues that would lead to significant strategic mistakes, or from regulation. But considering people’s reliance on Facebook, who do you think users would side with if regulation threatens to cut them off from whatever Facebook provides them with (see above)?

Facebook is the most powerful organization in the world at this moment, and it has eliminated people’s freedom of choice while technically being able to insist that people can leave if they want. In principle and regardless of how benevolent its leadership might be – this is a scary status quo.

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Spotify’s voice platform problems

In addition to the struggle of finding a path to profitability, Spotify, the pioneer of music streaming (and a company which I have been following since its closed beta launch in Sweden in 2007), has two new problems, one right now and the other in the mid to long term.

The near-term problem is Apple’s smart speaker HomePod which will go on sale in the US, UK and Australia this Friday, with additional markets to follow in the upcoming months.

HomePod will only play well with Apple’s own music streaming service, Apple Music. Other streaming apps can be used via AirPlay, but HomePod owners won’t be able to control playback through their voice.

In the US, Apple Music is already said to be gaining subscribers at a higher rate than Spotify. For every new owner of an HomePod, Spotify will be a worse choice than Apple Music. Existing Spotify subscribers in the US who decide to purchase an HomePod will have a big incentive to switch, and Apple makes it easy by offering a free trial for Apple Music. Continue Reading

Humans have handed over their minds to the AI

Who decides which information and knowledge people have access to?
Increasingly, algorithms.

  • People get information and news from feeds, search engines and recommendation systems which heavily rely on algorithmic personalization.
  • Publishers and media companies produce content based on expected and past performance within the algorithmic distribution system.
  • Journalists, opinion leaders and book authors produce and share information that has been gathered under the influence of algorithms.
  • All this happens within an environment of self-reinforcing feedback loops that particularly rewards sensationalism, outrage, hatred and other negative emotions. And many people are unable to stop exposing themselves to these negative emotions on a near-constant basis, as they cleverly trigger the brain’s primal, primitive urges.

Continue Reading

AirPods and competitors: The big impact of small wireless headphones

A German version of this text can be found here.

2018 is only a few days old, but my digital life has already significantly improved: A few weeks ago I finally purchased wireless earphones. Not Apple’s AirPods but a similar product, since I prefer real in-ear headphones. And wow, what a difference the cable-free lifestyle makes.

Ever since I got my first Walkman in the mid 90s, I, like many others, had to struggle with the cables that carried the sound to the ears. There was no alternative. Tangled cables were the norm. No day went by without at least one short moment of frustration caused by cables that somehow were in the way or that accidentally got stuck and subsequently violently pulled out of the ears. While this certainly is a first world problem, it’s one that was eagerly waiting for a solution. Now it is here. Continue Reading

Is Digital Capitalism Aligned With Public Interest? Probably not.

2017 has been (another) very eventful year. The consequences of the shift to digital are more apparent and far-reaching than ever. When reflecting on the trends that currently are reshaping the world, one can take many perspectives. What I consistently end up with when pondering current events, is the following question: In the digital age, is “traditional” capitalism still sufficiently aligned with the interests of the people? And my answers is: probably not. Read on why, and what Swiss cheese has to do with it.

The basic idea of capitalism is clever: acknowledging that the pursuit of self-interest is the best motivator for people to get stuff done, and then building a framework which ensures that the results of this pursuit are channeled into overall improvements for everybody. Genius. And this approach indeed has led to unprecedented wealth, growth and prosperity, over many decades, if not centuries (depending on where you look and when you start counting). Continue Reading

A culture of responsible behavior is possible and could save the web

Here you can read a German version of this text.

In order to prevent the web’s demise, the emergence of a culture of responsible behavior is required. Examples from the “analogue” world prove that under certain circumstances, such a culture is possible.

Why do people participate in elections, even though they know that abstaining wouldn’t have any measurable impact on the result? Some other force drives them to invest time and energy into casting their vote: A learned and internalized sense of responsibility which derives from the realization that many small actions taken together lead to a big impact.

A similar principle comes into effect when people separate and recycle trash. This is a very popular “sport” in my country of origin, Germany. Again, the individual effect of not separating is negligible. And unlike with voting, there isn’t even immediate direct feedback about the positive effects of recycling (or the negative of not recycling) available. So technically, until very recently (before a law that went into effect in 2015 actually made recycling mandatory), there was very little incentive to put the effort into separating the trash. Yet, in 2006, an astonishing 92 percent of Germans reported separating their trash. Continue Reading

Smart speakers are for music, but that’s not only good news for Apple

You can read a German version of this article here.

The majority of people in the U.S. who own a smart home speaker use the device for a limited number of trivial tasks. That is a result of a recent study conducted by the consulting firm Activate (original presentation, see chart #30). Listening to music, asking general questions or getting the weather, as well as using alarm and timer functionality are dominating use cases. More than three quarters of the respondents own a device belonging to the Amazon Echo product line. Eleven percent use a Google Home.

A few months ago, PwC published the results of a representative survey among owners of Amazon Echo in Germany. Even here, music consumption ranked as the most common use case, with 52 percent saying that they listen to music over the device. 30 percent expressed at least theoretical willingness to use a smart speaker to control other smart home devices. Continue Reading

Facebook bought tbh – but not the similar app with the same name that launched in 2013

Facebook has acquired a smartphone app named tbh (which stands for “To be honest“). It allows its currently 2.5 million users in the U.S., to give compliments to each other. According to TechCrunch, the app was launched in August by a Canadian startup called Midnight Labs, which according to its founder had built about 15 products since 2010. None of them really flourished. Until now.

The name “tbh” sounded familiar to me in an app context. I researched my old blog posts. Indeed, back in 2013, I had written an article (in German) mentioning an UK-based app called TBH. This service went nowhere. The app and website are not available anymore and any mentioning of it on the web dates back to 2013. The TBH website’s only available 2013 record on doesn’t produce a proper site anymore. But if you read the press release from TBH 2013, both apps’ philosophies sound very similar: Continue Reading