Monthly Archives: January 2011

Social media: bubble, definitely not; revolution, probably not; evolution, absolutely

Is Social Media in general (and mobility in particular) a bubble or revolution? Is it a a powerful and disruptive force that will transform governments and social organisations? Or is it no? There seems to be a few{{1}} people{{2}} pondering this question

[[1]]The video above is less than a minute long. Please … @[[1]]
[[2]]Is The Mobile Phone Our Social Net? @ AVC[[2]]

Mobile phones are interesting as they are addressable. Two-way radios made communication mobile a long time ago, but it wasn’t until mobile phones (and cheap mobile phones, specifically) that we could address someone on the move, or someone on the move could address a stationary person or service.

The second and third world showed us the potential of this technology over ten year ago, from the fishermen using their phones to market and sell their catch while still on the boat, through to the distributed banking based on pre-paid mobile phone cards. Image/video sharing is just the latest evolution in this.

The idea that this might be a revolution seems to be predicated on the technology’s ability to topple centrally planned and controlled organisations. Oddly enough, central planning is a bad enough idea to fall over on its own in many cases, and the only effect of mobile technology is to speed up a process which is already in motion. The Soviet Union might well be the poster child for this: collapsing under the weight of it’s own bureaucracy with no help from social media (or mobile phones, for that matter). Even modern democracies are not immune, and the US energy regulation policies leading up to deregulation in the late 70s is a great example of the failures of central planning{{3}}. The (pending) failure of some of today’s more centralised, and authoritarian regimes, would be more accurately ascribed to the inability of slow moving, centrally managed bureaucracies to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. Distributed planning always trumps central planning in a rapidly changing environment.

[[3]]The Role of Petroleum Price and Allocation Regulations in Managing Energy Shortages @ Annual Review of Energy[[3]]

If we pause for a moment, we can see that governments do a few distinct things for us.

  • They provide us with what is seen as essential services.
  • They create a platform to enforce social norms (policies and laws).
  • They engage with the rest of the world on our behalf.

The reality is that many of the essential services that government provides are provided by the government because it’s too difficult or expensive for citizens (and to some extent, corporations) to access the information they need to run these services themselves. Mobile phones (and social media) are just the latest in a series of technologies that have changed these costs, enabling companies and citizens to take responsibility for providing services which, previously, were the sole domain of government. From energy, water and telecoms, through FixMyStreet and the evolving use of social media in New Orleans, Haiti and then Queensland during their respective natural disasters, we can see that this is a long running and continuing trend. Government is migrating from a role of providing all services, to one where government helps facilitate our access to the services we need. Expect this to continue, and keep building those apps.

As a platform for agreeing and enforcing social norms, then it’s hard to see anything replacing government in the short to mid term. (As always, the long term is completely up for grabs.) These social norms are geographical – based on the people you interact with directly on a day-to-day basis – and not virtual. Social media provides a mechanism for government to broaden the conversation. Some governments are embracing this, others, not so much. However, while people like to be consulted, they care a lot more about results. (Think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs{{4}}.) Singapore has a fairly restrictive and controlling government, which has (on the whole) a very happy population. China is playing a careful game of balancing consultation, control and outcomes, and seems to doing this successfully.

[[4]]Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs @ Abraham-Maslow[[4]]

Finally we come to the most interesting question: government as a means for us to engage with the rest of the world. In this area, government’s role has shrunk in scope but grown in importance. Globalisation and the Internet (as a communication tool) has transformed societies, making it cheaper to call friends across the globe than it is to call them around the corner. We all have friends in other countries, cross-border relationships are common, and many of us see ourselves as global citizens. At the same time, the solutions to many of today’s most pressing issues, such as global warming, have important aspects which can only be addressed by our representatives on the global stage.

So we come back to the question at hand: is social media a bubble, a revolution, or an evolution of what has come before.

It’s hard to see it as a bubble: the changes driven by social media are obviously providing real value so we can expect them to persist and expand. I was particularly impressed by how the Queensland government had internalised a lot of the good ideas from the use of social media{{5}} in the Victorian fires, Haiti et al.

[[5]]Emergency services embrace Social Media @ Social Media Daily[[5]]

We can probably discount revolution too, as social media is (at most) a better communication tool and not a new theory of government. (What would Karl Marx think?) However, by dramatically changing the cost of communication it is having a material impact of the role government in our lives{{6}}. Government, and the society it represents is evolving in response.

[[6]]The changing role of government @ PEG[[6]]

The challenge is to keep political preference separate from societal need. While you might yearn for the type of society that Ayn Rand only ever dreamed about, other people find your utopia more akin to one of Dante’s seven circles of hell. Many of the visions for Gov 2.0 are political visions – individuals’ ideas for how they would organise an ideal society – rather than views of how technology can best be used to support society as a whole.

China is the elephant in this room. If social media is a disruptive, revolutionary force, then we can expect China’s government to topple. What appears more likely is that China will integrate social media into its toolbox while it focuses on keeping its population happy, evolving in the process. As long as they deliver the lower half of Maslow’s Hierarchy, they’ll be fairly safe. After all, the expulsion of governments and organisations – the revolution that social media is involved in – is due to these organisations’ inability to provide for the needs of their population, rather than any revolutionary compulsion inherent in the technology itself.

Your mobile phone is making us stupid

Whilst sitting and having a quite read the other day I happened across a thought which made me pause:

Not only may our natural capacities, like brute strength and visual acuity, be weakening, but our brains too may, after a long period of evolutionary expansion, be at last growing smaller. Researchers like Peter Brown calculate that our brains shrank on average by 9.5 percent in the last 10,000 years alone (more, as a proportion, than our bodies, for which he recorded the 7 percent drop already mentioned). Further back, 100,000 years ago, we find that the Neanderthals had, on average, bigger brains than ours.

Timothy Taylor
The Artificial Ape{{1}}

[[1]]Timothy Taylor (2010), The Artificial Ape, Palgrave Macmillan[[1]]

Which is really a quite interesting idea. After all, pundits have been arguing for a while that technology has been making us smart or stupid, depending on their preference. One one side we have the Clay Shirkies and Ray Kurzweils of the world: boosters who think that technology is making us smarter and hope that the singularity{{2}} is near. On the other we have the likes of Nicholas Carr who takes that opposite view, fearing that our interlectual tide is going out{{3}}.

[[3]]The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains[[3]]

It’s not the first time this has been debated. Socrates had a well publicised aversion to reading and never wrote anything down{{4}}. He argued that true understanding could only come from dialogue. (We know this, of course, as Socrate’s student Plato chose to write down Socrates’ thoughts for posterity.)

[[4]]Socrates at the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy[[4]]

Most of the arguments around the idea of technology making us stupid centre on our ability to access facts. Clay Shirky et al see Google as a good thing, extending our powers or recall. If you can describe something, then Google can probably find it for you. Twitter might even help information, information which you didn’t even know that you needed, find you. Others see this it as a bad thing, as the deluge of information might be eroding our ability for quiet contemplation, enabling us to constantly distract ourselves as we peruse just one more fact rather than spending our time fruitfully thinking new and ever more valuable thoughts.

I found Mr Taylor’s take on the argument very interesting. His view was that our brains had shrunk, not because we didn’t need to remember as much stuff anymore, but because the need for us to be creative problem solvers had eased. We’ve built a soft and comforting environment around ourselves – with our air conditioners, central heating and pizza delivery – so we just don’t have to deal with the environment anymore. We’re a bit like the boy in the bubble{{5}}, watching the real world pass us by, preferring our buffed and tanned Second Life avatars and manageable virtual problems to the challenges of hunting down enough wooly mammoth to feed the kids.

[[5]]Slideshow: Sad Story of ‘Boy in the Bubble’ at Wired[[5]]

If it’s the pressure to solve pressing problems, and not our ability to remember facts, which drives intelligence{{6}}, then we might have something to worry about, as our ability to creatively solve problems is the skill we need the most. The last time I typed “cure for cancer” into Google it didn’t deliver much hope. I’m not sure the Neanderthals spent much time pondering the eternal verities or trying to remember where to find a handy jawbone, but they did spend a lot of time trying to stay alive when compared to us and our modern lifestyles. We forget, the steam engine was invented by someone welding bits of steel together while trying to solve problem, while thermodynamics (the theory explaining it) came afterwards.

[[6]]Intelligence, that is, in terms of our ability to solve problems, which is a bit different to what IQ tests measure, as they focus on counting how many cultural norms and received wisdom we have absorbed. IQ scores have been rising, not because we’re getting better at solving problems, but because we getting better a teaching and testing cultural norms.[[6]]

If we take Mr Taylor’s lead, then it’s technology’s role in insulating us from the environment we live in that we should be worrying about the most. The caveman was focused on staying alive, and the challenge presented by the ever changing environment he lived in meant that he needed a brain 9.5 percent larger than our own just to survive. We just don’t face the same challenges today, with our climate control tuned to 21°C and the pizza delivery on the speed dial.

Neanderthal had brains 9.5% larger than Homo erectus
1. Chimpanzee, 2. Australopithecine, 3. Homo erectus, 4. Neanderthal, 5. Co-Magnon

Mobile phones might represent the pinnacle of our quest to eliminate environmental uncertainties, as they erase the last self reliance we previously need to get by. It’s this self reliance that provides us with, and even forces us to solve, problems. When I was young, for example, the first trip into the city on your own was a big deal as you would be out of reach of mum and dad. The usual response was to give you money for the phone, and tell you to head for the police if there was a problem, however if something went wrong you had to solve the problem on your own. Today, kids taking the same trip have a phone and can call mum and dad for help whenever they need, and they don’t need to be as self reliant.

Which comes back to that idea of information overload that concerns Mr Shirky and Mr Carr. I’ve never been, nor am I now, worried about too much information. I’m not even that worried about the distractions of living with the Internet. The real problem – as I’ve said before{{7}} – is the ability to focus on the problems we need to solve. We can choose to be proactive or reactive. If we sit there trying to sift through the mountains of information available today then we will always be overwhelmed as there’s so many good ideas out there that it’s hard to decide what to react to. However, if we have a focus, a long term problem which we’re working over and exploring each angle of, then we’re a bit like that Neanderthal, using his bigger brain to reach out for a handy jawbone and find a new use for it. There’s lots of suitable jawbones within reach, the challenge is to understand how they might fit into the solution we need.

[[7]]The Art of Random @ PEG[[7]]

I suppose the best way to view this post is as an argument for the idea of sun-shaped people{{8}}. One key lesson from evolution is that specialists die out when the environment around them changes, making their carefully crafted skill irrelevant. Today’s (business) environment changes pretty quickly, and many of the specialist skills of the past are rapidly becoming redundant. We’re also finding that the specialists which replace them have increasingly short half lives. T-shaped folk (folk with deep experience in one domain and some knowledge of others) fare little better, as they are still focused on facts – understanding the common values and received wisdom of a domain, often racing to keep up with the fashion industry which “best practice” often devolves into. Sun-shaped people, on the other hand, have a core focus, and problem which they’re working over and examining from different angles during the full length and breadth of their careers, grabbing jawbones and other handy tools as needed. Perhaps there’s a bit of Neanderthal in them after all.

[[8]]The Sun-Shaped Individual @ PEG[[8]]

Popsicle: a chance discovery

At the age of eleven on a winter’s afternoon in 1905, Frank Epperson left his drink on the back porch overnight. It was a fruit flavoured concoction popular at the time, made from soda water powder and water. Next morning, Frank found his drink frozen solid, with the stirring stick poking out of it.

18 years later, Epperson decided to apply for a patent on his “frozen ice on a stick.” He called the novelty the “Eppsicle” ice pop and began producing Eppsicles in several different flavours. A father by then, his children had begun referring to the Eppsicle as the Popsicle. Later he officially changed the name.

A nice demonstration of the first, and most valuable, of Peter Drucker’s seven sources of innovation.

The unexpected. The unexpected success, failure or outside event.

Cloud computing’s long game

For as long as we can remember, technology’s role has been to support business. Identify your target market, product and goals, map out the required business model and then line up technology behind the various activities to drive cost savings and provide scale.

For many people, cloud computing (and it’s evil twin, software as a service) is the ultimate expression of this approach — information technology as a cheap, efficient and flexible utility grade service: utility computing. Just like electricity or gas, we simple turn on the tap (or hit the light switch) when we want some, and the hole in the wall will provide as much as we need.

Many people struggle to look beyond the utility computing analogy, with Jeff Bezos and Eric Schmitt acting as modern day Samuel Insulls{{1}}, striding across the technology landscape as they build their utility computing networks. This is a view that also equates utility computing with fractionally owned (or leased), multi-tenanted applications and infrastructure deployed at a scale never imagined preciously. Computing that is too cheap to meter.

[[1]]Samuel Insull @ Chicago “L” .org[[1]]

Utility computing, however, seems to offer a much grander opportunity. When coupled with globalization, utility computing offers us the ability to change the way we think about constructing and managing a company.

Our existing business models are founded on the assumption of needing to manage scarce resources, focused on building command and control structures around leveraging a centrally owned asset. This asset might be monetary deposits, knowledge (often reified through patents), or something physical like a factory or fleet of trucks. Our biggest challenge is marshaling the resources we need to ensure that enough work was done, and the asset provides us with a lodestone to help attract and manage these resources.

Utility computing and globalization enables us to think about this problem in a different way. By providing us with computing power and labor on demand, our main concern becomes what product to deliver (with a second order challenge of where to deliver it), rather than how the product is created.

Zara, a fashion retailer, provides us with a glimpse of the future. Zara has created a pull model where the organization is built around reducing the time from runway to retail{{2}}. Decisions on what products to produce has been devolved to individual stores who pull in the inventory they think they will sell, rather than head office presenting retail stores with the latest collection. New products rotate through the shelves in matter of weeks, pulled by customer demand, rather than following the seasonal cycle traditional in the industry.

[[2]]Kasra Ferdows, Michael A. Lewis and Jose A.D. Machuca (2005), Zara’s secret for fast fashion, Harvard Business Review[[2]]

Rapid turnover of products has driven new behavior in Zara’s customers. Customers now visit their local store every week or so, rather than once a quarter, as they are interested in seeing what new products have arrived, slashing Zara’s marketing spend in the process. There’s also a stronger imperative for customers to make an impulsive decision, as they know that the same product will not be in the store when they next visit.

Zara’s approach has made them one of the most successful fashion retailers in the world.

Today’s business models are the culmination of generations of incremental improvements, as successive generations of managers have tweaked their business in an attempt to reach the customer just a little faster than the competition. The first challenge we solved was the one of mass: ensuring that we have enough products available to service the customer, if they choose us. More recently we’ve worried about velocity: aiming to get our product to the customer just when they need it, rather than having to hold stock near the customer on the chance that they might want something we product. The next challenge (as exemplified by Zara) is acceleration: being able to redesign our products rapidly enough to follow customer demands as they evolve.

Utility computing and globalization can provide us with the tools to complete the journey that companies like Zara have started. By commoditizing the basic building blocks of a business — materials, labor and communication — they provide us with the opportunity to make our business models fungible. Why stop at rapidly redesigning our products? Why not dynamically reconfigure our supply chain, following our customers as they move around? Or even rapidly reconfigure our entire value chain, if need be?

The centre of gravity within companies – which for centuries have been built around the management of a central asset held by the company – is shifting. The new centre of organizational gravity will be the ability to rapidly plan and mobilize a critical mass of stakeholders, leveraging staff and assets which you many not even own or directly control.

An agile business will be one that can rapidly evolve its product portfolio to follow customer demand. One that can quickly reconfigure how materials are sourced, products are manufactured and customers are served, across the full breadth of the value chain, allowing it to sail through disruptions that leave competitors stranded. One that can dynamically reconfigure the end-to-end supply chain, delivering the right product to the right customer, just when they realize they need it (or even before they come to this realization). One that can rapidly enter and leave markets and geographies, as need be. And one that can do all of this with resources and services that it does not explicitly own or manage. A company that is built around its ability to mobilize its staff, partners and even its customers. This is the opportunity provided to us by utility computing and globalization.