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. 

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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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Quartz’s new app has come half way in reinventing news

You probably have heard about Quartz’s new innovative iPhone app. Over the past days, the news about it was all over the Internet. It’s too early to conclude whether this app will turn out to be a hit among users. The texting-styled user experience is definitely innovative and fits very well to this year’s hype topic, conversational interfaces. However, in the end, the possibilities to interact with the news items are pretty limited, which can quickly lead to boredom.

But that does not need to remain like this. In fact, Quartz has come half way in changing the distribution and presentation of digital news for good. What’s missing? The text field in which readers can write their questions, comments and requests and through which they can access all the information and knowledge they desire about a specific piece of news. Such a field would require what’s usually labeled “artificial intelligence”, but the absence of that does not surprise. Creating a personal news bot that is capable of interacting with users around news and that understands their remarks and inquiries was, until recently, pretty close to rocket science. And it’s still hard.

Thanks the recent advancements in regards to deep learning and artificial intelligence as well as to initiatives that plan to open source the underlying algorithms, maybe very soon the creation of conversational smart bots which natively “understand” the information they serve will become much easier. But we are not there yet, which means that from Quartz’s perspective it made sense to start with something simple. Continue Reading

A suggestion for Twitter: stop looking for new users

The acceleration of Twitter’s growth and identity crisis has motivated many tech pundits, journalists and bloggers to present their take on what Twitter should do in order to find a way out of its dilemma. I have a little contribution myself. I promise it’s short and (hopefully) different to what you might have read elsewhere.

So what should Twitter do? It should stop to desperately look for ways to get new users onto the service. Instead it should turn Twitter into the best experience imaginable for its officially 320 million monthly active users!
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Netflix is the next phase of globalization

For Netflix, 2016 could not have started better. First, the video streaming company announced its availability in 130 additional countries, reaching a point of near-global presence. Then it revealed new user numbers, showing a record international growth (not including the 130 new markets), sending the stock price through the roof.

What’s even more interesting than the powerful kick-off is the company’s long-term vision which over the past 2 weeks was outlined in multiple interviews by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who currently is on a PR tour. Hastings stated in an interview that his goal is to be able to offer the same video catalog worldwide in 10 years from now. One way to get there, according to Hastings: Securing global rights to all newly licensed content. Another one: Massively investing in content specifically produced for Netflix. Last year, the service had launched 450 hours of original content. In 2016, the goal is to launch more than 600 hours of original content.

Hastings clearly wants to turn Netflix into the first global TV network, and he is well on his way. If he succeeds, this will have huge consequences not only for traditional TV stations, but for global media – and for globalization. Netflix’s plan could change much more than individual TV consumption. It could shrink the world yet a significant bit more. Continue Reading

Digital communication lacks a human side and Virtual Reality could change that

Over the past years, fighting hate speech has become one of the most pressing challenges of the digital world. The very nature of public one-to-many text communication eliminates some of the mental and emotional checkpoints that prevent people in face-to-face encounters from passionately insulting each other. The satirical website The Onion perfectly illustrated this fundamental issue in 2013 with an article titled “Seemingly Mentally Ill Internet Commenter Presumably Functions In Outside World”. There just is something in humans which enables them to express their darkest, most cruel thoughts about others when they do not have to observe the immediate emotional reaction of their “target”. Which is also why it has become a thing to have public figures or people who have been targeted with hate speech to read inflammatory, hateful online comments loud.

While it is important that politicians and online platforms are working on new solutions to prevent aggressive online users from crossing the line, the chances for big progress in today’s digital environment are not too good – at least as long as one does not promote the creation of a repressive surveillance state which heavily polices citizen’s each and every online remark.

Perhaps, online hate speech will remain an issue as long as digital communication physically and emotionally disconnects and separates the communication parties from each other. Does that mean there is no hope? There is: Virtual Reality. Continue Reading