The Silicon Valley’s four crises

Here you can read this article in German.

The famous mantras “Move fast and break things” and “Ask for forgiveness, not for permission” aren’t sexy anymore. Nowadays they stand as symbols for the Silicon Valley’s multiple crises.

The Silicon Valley is going through its biggest crisis since the Dotcom crash. In fact, it’s engulfed in four different crises at once.

Loss of domestic political support

Some of the Silicon Valley’s biggest firms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter are being used for systematic political manipulation. There is no doubt about that anymore. Only the extend remains unclear. Investigations are ongoing. Meanwhile, tech firms are facing harsh criticism for being both too generous with censorship and restrictions of speech, or too negligent with doing so. Additionally, more people are asking themselves to which extend the tech industry contributes to the increasing wealth inequality in the region. There perhaps is no other place in an economically developed country in which so many millionaires walk or drive by so many homeless people every day, than San Francisco. The consequence of all this: Both the political right as well as the political left are becoming skeptical of the Valley’s biggest players. Without political support or at least leeway, disruption will be a lot harder.

Polarizing cultural transformation

Since its emergence, the Silicon Valley’s technology industry has been dominated by males and has shown a lack of ethnic diversity. Criticism of this structural homogeneity and calls for change have become pretty loud lately. The stereotypical-male mono culture is being confronted with a new reality, in which sexual harassment, unequal treatment and decisions based on homogeneous life experiences and world views are being called out instead of swept under the carpet. This is necessary and important. As these debates easily become heated, emotional and ideological, and as a rapid cultural transformation seldom happens without severe internal tension (Google Memo anyone), the Valley’s focus is now on itself. Instead of disrupting markets, the Silicon Valley is forced to disrupt itself.

Global regulation

The European Union has been trying to limit the tech firm’s tax avoidance practices for a long time. Now the pressure is increasing. Signs of election meddling, monopolist tendencies and systematic rule breaking involving companies such as Google, Facebook and Uber, offer additional motives for regulators in Europe and elsewhere to tighten the screws on the Californian giants (as well as on their competitors from up North the Pacific coast, such as Amazon and Microsoft). The famous Valley mantras “Move fast and break things” and “Ask for forgiveness, not for permission” have lost their positive-rebellious tone. They now rather represent the arrogance and ignorance of the Silicon Valley ideology.

Anti-technology backlash

Every euphoria is succeeded by a period of disillusionment and disappointment. The technology sector has just entered such a period. Critical reports about the negative impact of gadget’s and digital networks’ ubiquity in daily lives aren’t longer being produced by and celebrated among technophobes, but rather by former internet evangelists and early adopters who have been trying out any new device, app and service imaginable, but who are now starting to discover the costs of the digital revolution for their own well-being and for humanity at large. This process is probably a healthy and normal one. First the pendulum swings to one side, then to the opposite one. Eventually, it reaches an equilibrium position. But the fading enthusiasm for a never-ending flood of digital consumer innovation will, at least in the short term, hurt Silicon Valley, as the Valley juggernauts have perfected the creation of this very digital consumer innovation and turned it into a vast and possibly historically unique source of profit.

It’s unclear where this all ends, but it’s clear that the Silicon Valley’s culture and companies are about to change dramatically.

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Facebook needs you to consume Stories, not news

Soon, Instagram will let users post Stories directly to their Facebook profile. This is huge. The launch of Stories has been a big success for Instagram. But Facebook’s own implementation of the functionality hasn’t seen widespread user adoption at all. With the latest move, Facebook makes clear that it is willing to do anything to make Facebook users consume Stories – even if the Stories “originally” have been uploaded to (Facebook-owned) Instagram.

By generating more Stories content on Facebook, the social network certainly hopes to create an additional opportunity to show ads. There is a natural limit on how many ads the company can show in the news feed before users get fed up. But, to speculate a bit, this is not the only reason for the introduction of a cross-posting feature from Instagram Stories to Facebook Stories: It might be simply that the Facebook management wants to get rid of the news feed altogether.

The news feed is the cause of many of Facebook’s current concerns and public conflicts in regards to fake news, (foreign) election meddling and the erosion of democracy and its institutions. Without the news feed, these issues would presumably become much less impactful. Even Stories can be utilized for malicious purposes, but Stories are created and consumed differently than the news feed, with a much bigger focus on people’s personal experiences, not world news. Re-purposing external content for viral distribution via Stories is, at least for the moment, harder, as is viral sharing. That could change in the future. But as a functionality in an early stage of its life cycle and with few to no expectations from Facebook users about their interaction with Stories, Facebook has the opportunity to leverage its learnings from the past to shape (and limit) Stories in a way so they’ll be less susceptible to systematic democracy hacking.

The news feed has become to Facebook what the Diesel now is for German car manufacturers: A big headache. The only reason why Facebook has to stick to it is because as long as the news feed is the heart of the Facebook experience, this is where people see ads, and so this is where Facebook needs people to spend as much time as possible. But there is no reason to believe that Facebook sees the existence of the news feed as essential to its future. In fact, in 2017 the news feed has become a weakness of Facebook, if not actually a threat to it. Aggressively pushing people to Stories is the best way for the company to put itself into a position where it can let go of the feed and all the issues associated with it.

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The Apple Watch with LTE + AirPods is the future

Here is a German version of this article.

In June 2015 I dubbed the emergence of smart assistants for the home the “next iPhone moment” (and the first since the launch of the actual iPhone). After Apple’s recent product announcements, another breakthrough of a new digital product appears to be imminent – or to be more precise, in this case it is a combination of two products: The Apple Watch LTE together with Apple’s wireless headphones, AirPods. I find it at least 80 percent likely that these two gadgets will massively grow in sales and completely redefine the mobile ecosystem over the next couple of years. Continue Reading

Twitter and Trump: A truly destructive relationship

Here you can read a German version of this article.

There probably is no other company in the world that has maneuvered itself into such a complicated and even pitiful position such as Twitter.

As the prime communication channel for infamously impulsive and notoriously conflict-ready U.S. President Donald Trump, Twitter’s platform is playing a critical role in the various minor and major squabbles which Trump is engaging in around the clock. In fact, Twitter’s platform is enabling these squabbles in an unique way, as the service’s unfiltered real-time character, brevity, viral dynamics and emotional user behavior amplifies any seemingly trivial 140 character message thousandfold, and – with helpful participation of click and outrage-driven media as well as tweeting anti-Trump activists – turning it into “world news”.

It’s hard to exactly pin down what would have happened in a world without Twitter (and without a service exactly like Twitter). But the world would look different for sure. It’s speculative but maybe Trump wouldn’t even be President. Presumably that’s the type of reasoning which led the former CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson to launch a crowdfunding campaign intended to raise enough money to buy a majority stake in Twitter – in order to subsequently being able to ban Donald Trump from the service. Continue Reading

Learning to code, 420 hours later: How to teach yourself Python, for free

A bit about 1 1/2 year ago, I started to teach myself programming with Python. Today I feel confident to formally complete my project.

I am honestly a bit proud to be able to code on what I consider an intermediate beginner level. After continued and steep improvements over the past months, I am now past the “Coding Inflection Point”. This means that I have internalized the majority of the basic approaches to and patterns of Python programming and can now in some situations actually rely on established routines to write code.

If you draw a parallel to learning a spoken language, it is the moment at which you are able to hold basic conversations in your newly acquired language. Yet whatever you express is primitive, ridden with errors and characterized by a small vocabulary. You constantly have to look up words or grammar. Sometimes, when talking about more complicated stuff, you have to give up (but you’ll use this insight for future improvements). Still, you feel excited about your new skill.

With this post I want to briefly summarize how I taught myself coding with Python. This will be the last article of my my little inofficial series of posts, and from now on it it will the only one that matters. Let’s get to it: Continue Reading

Bitcoin, a Black Swan: What can be learned from a missed opportunity

Here is a German version of this article.

Until recently, there was no decision or lack of decision in my life that I regretted afterwards. With the rise of Bitcoin, this changed slightly. I nowadays occasionally catch myself thinking that I missed a big opportunity by not purchasing a few Bitcoins early on, when one BTC only cost a few bucks. I am probably not the only one with that sentiment.

I was actually quite close. In 2011 I mentioned Bitcoin in a blogpost for the first time. So at that point I was aware of the crypto currency. However, it took a few more years until I actually made a purchase – for the sole purpose of a text I was about to write about the purchasing procedure. So I only bought 0,1 BTC, which I paid about 50 Euro for. At that point, one BTC was already valued at around 500 Euro / 600 USD. Today, after an unprecedented increase particularly over the past weeks, the Bitcoin price hovers around 4000 USD. Continue Reading

The Google memo, the reactions to it, and why my mind couldn’t let go

Dear reader, if possible, please don’t just skim this text until you spot something with which you agree or disagree. It would be brilliant if you could read the whole piece. The estimated reading time is about 7 minutes. 

The past days have been rather depressing. The infamous memo of a Google engineer (which can be read here) and the response to it kept occupying my mind in a way which surprised me, which I didn’t welcome, and which went against one of my core philosophies in life. Over periods I had a hard time focussing on anything else. Not even a jog or food and a beer with friends would help my mind to let it go.

Through self-observation, I tried to understand what was happening. Is it that I hold a deeply ingrained but somehow subconscious belief that women are worse engineers than men, and so I took it very badly that so many of my peers in the tech industry instantly were out on social media and tech blogs condemning 100% of what was written in the memo? I mean, if they all were so sure about their point of view, and I somehow might doubt the ability of a female programmer or other type of engineer in comparison to a male one (without being aware of it), that would explain my own strong emotional reaction.

But the honest answer I could give to myself is “no”. In fact, over the past years, I have been strongly supporting women who code in various situations of my private life, and I have found myself multiple times suggesting to females that maybe a career within computer engineering would be something for them. While the biases we have are sometimes extremely hard to access, I couldn’t come to think of any evidence that would point to that I somehow carry around the unconscious bias that women cannot be incredibly good software engineers or that they through their biology would be unable to be as good as male engineers (It’s worth noting here that this was not the claim of the Google engineer’s memo, but became part of the overall media and social media misrepresentation of his text. I read the memo 3 times over the past days but I only found claims by the author about the average distribution of traits. He did, as far as I can tell, at no point state or imply that a female engineer cannot be extremely good at her job. Talking about “average distribution of traits” is completely different thing than stating “person from group X is worse at something than person from group Y”. I tried to briefly explain this here, and here is a similar but more professional take).

Another question I posed to myself: “Am I against initiatives that strive to achieve diversity in workplaces at tech companies?”. Again, “no”. As much as I digged, I didn’t find any biases about that hidden in my subconscious. If you ask me “Is it a good thing if software engineering stops being a sausage fest?”, my unconditional answer is “yes”.

So then what caused me to be so captivated and agitated by how this story played out? Continue Reading

Technological leapfrogging: Why rich countries lag behind in FinTech adoption

Here is a German version of this article.

The results of a study recently published by the consulting firm EY revealed that China and India have the highest adoption of FinTech services among its online population out of 20 countries. 69 percent of China’s and 52 percent of India’s digitally active citizens have used at least 2 FinTech services over the past 6 months. The statistic clearly shows a tendency towards a higher FinTech adoption in emerging countries compared to developed countries.

The notion of that the richest countries lag behind in regards to FinTech has been confirmed a few days ago by the Swiss watchmaker Swatch, when the company presented the second generation of its contactless payment solution. Unlike the predecessor, “Swatch Pay” will exclusively be launched in China, at least for now, and won’t be available in Swatch’s home country or elsewhere in Europe. According to a spokesperson cited by the Swiss business paper Handelszeitung, the reason for the decision are the “old-fashioned banks and credit card providers”. Continue Reading

Analyzing the Hacker News front page as a Python beginner

The following post might only be of interest to you if you want to know about my progress of learning to code or if you are an avid user of the tech news community Hacker News. Please also note that I cannot give a guarantee for the accuracy of the shown data, even though after thorough double-checking I think it is quite accurate. But don’t bet all your money on it.

As mentioned two month ago in this post, in my quest to teach myself programming with Python, I discovered the Hacker News API as an ideal way to learn about accessing APIs and to take first steps with data analysis and visualization. The API is rather simply structured and doesn’t require an authorization (although I subsequently managed to conquer the Reddit API as well which is more complex and requires an authorization via OAuth).

Something I have been curious about for a while is the dynamic with which articles submitted by a Hacker News user hit the front page of the site. So I went ahead and indulged in a little project to find out. Continue Reading

Stories, the Blockchain and the chance for a reboot of social networking

Here is a German version of this article.

Currently it looks as if the Stories format invented by Snapchat and copied and popularized by Instagram will become one, if not the major component of social networking. While predicting its exact adoption trajectory is impossible, one can not rule out that in 2018, the number of users who consume other people’s Stories or who contribute with their own, will cross the 1 billion mark. It would be a shame if this growth segment would be completely left to the 2 currently dominating, centralized and rather closed players.

But even suggesting that an open alternative to Snapchat Stories and Instagram Stories is desirable likely puts many people off – understandably. After more than a decade of failed attempts to create successful social networking services based on open principles, decentralized infrastructure and data portability, one has to be a hardline optimist to still believe in such a possibility. It seems as if the common approach of centralized, ad-financed and data-hoarding platforms has unequivocally won.

Or maybe it hasn’t. With the rise of the Blockchain technology, there is reason for hope. With the Blockchain – in simplest terms a distributed database managed by a peer-to-peer network – new approaches to developing and operating a social network are becoming feasible. Continue Reading