This week over half a million people voted to risk putting their loved ones in the way of bodily harm, rather than demand Uber clean up its safety policies, so much is their love for the ride-sharing behemoth.
Of course, 499,999 of them didn’t think through the implications when they demanded TfL overturn the impending ban of the app and simply voted for what kept rides a click-away. But that’s 2017 for you — outrage on tap, long-term thinking a dry well.
Of course any new service, especially one that disrupts a whole category, will suffer growing pains and come up against consumer, competitive and regulatory backlash. Uber’s recent banning is simply a salient example of how these sort of businesses need more than the constraints of capitalism to ensure they are on the balance, good for us all. But let’s explore the problem more before I suggest what part of the solution might look like.
Most insulting in Uber’s petition was the claim that, “this ban shows the world that London is far from being open….”. Implying that the availability of a ride-sharing app is anywhere near the same level as the country’s policy on migrants is an irony that should be visible from space to even the most oblivious adherent of the gig-economy.
Uber’s new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi was more humble in his response than the petition implied, giving somewhat of a mea-culpa in admitting,
“While Uber has revolutionised the way people move in cities around the world, it’s equally true that we’ve got things wrong along the way. On behalf of everyone at Uber globally, I apologise for the mistakes we’ve made.” – Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber CEO
But the rhetoric of the former CEO, hypeman and founder, Travis Kalanick, from whom Dara has admittedly inherited a load of shit, was still there when he promised to show that Uber was, “a great company meaningfully contributing to society’”.
This hyperbole echoes other dot com darlings like Airbnb, who promise us a “world without strangers” where “we all belong” — if we will all just stay in a rental apartment and set aside any concerns about how we’re pushing low income residents out of the area we’re staying, or set aside expectations of a consistent quality experience.
Deliveroo, having attained the billion dollar unicorn mark with their latest investment round, seem almost refreshing by comparison with apparently no such lofty purpose. (Though perhaps some of that new investment will be frittered away by some branding agency desiring to create them some sense of nobility). They simply promise, “Your favourite restaurants, delivered fast to your door.”
Of course what they don’t promise so overtly is to pay and treat their workers fairly — so with every ‘fast delivery’ of your ‘favourite restaurant’ to your door comes all of the growing issues with the gig-economy — employees in all but name being treated like contractors with none of the rights or benefits actual employment comes with.
But these issues have hit the pages of mainstream media and the feeds of social plenty of times over the past years. And when made aware, most people care — just long enough to share a post about it and move on. Or at best to engage with the essential slacktivism tool, the online petition, uniquely designed to quieten millennial cries of outrage to a whimper without achieving any change dot org.
If these businesses themselves are so focused on their lofty world-changing purpose, and getting masses to engage in some activity they loosely link to achieving that, and consumers are too addicted to their services to really demand they examine their effect on society and the broader economy… who will?
TfL are trying in this specific case. As are some governments — especially when tax revenue is one of the issues. A smattering of “consumer rights” organisations too — from the original, Citizens Advice, to the first generation of online advocacy organisations like the EFF and newer ones like Ethical Design and Time Well Spent.
Though the numbers who engage with these is piddling at best — 80k have signed TWS’s pledge in 2 years, versus 10x that voted for Uber to continue its, self-admittedly poor, practices in just 2 days.
Can local legislation, and non-binding rules-of-conduct, have an effect on companies that operate globally?
It is an irony lost in the annals of the first dot com boom that the modern web was, legally, enabled by a piece of USA legislation that most at-the-time rallied against — the “Digital Millennium Copyright Act”.
Initially seen as imposing overly strict penalties for copyright infringement, that many saw as favouring copyright holders over innovation, it also introduced the notion of the “Safe harbour”.
This protected Internet Providers and Web Hosts who were found to have copyright material on them — shielding them from prosecution as long as they removed it when notified. And so began the cat&mouse of upload & takedown that has, mostly, kept the web full of content.
Without this provision a plethora of Web 2.0 sites, like YouTube, would have been impossible to operate. So yes, regulation can have a dramatic positive effect, on technology and the world — just not necessarily in the way anyone predicts at the time.
A group of technologists in Europe recently issued a diatribe via the so-called Copenhagen Letter, with consisted of five lofty operating principles for, “everyone who shapes technology today”. While very well meaning, the principles are sufficiently high level as to mirror the waffly “a world where everyone belongs”-esque purposes of the very companies they are asking to behave more ethically.
It also echoes another manifesto from the first era of the web, The Clue Train Manifesto — which, as befits the generational lapse in attention since, was 20x the length of todays epistle.
The folks over at Time Well Spent appear to have, amongst their initiatives, the thought of creating “ratings for apps and websites” to help consumers decide where to spend their attention.
Which is great, but it is predicated on non-monopoly markets where consumers are’t effectively locked into a limited app and social network ecosystem by the network effect. Sure we can use Ello if we disagree with Facebook, but we’ll be talking to ourselves, not our friends, there.
And as many a similar consumer outrages has shown, from grocery products through to apps — engagement dips only briefly before bouncing back in almost all cases. For instance, all of New Zealand went off pork for a month in the early 2010s after it was made public that pigs, animals as smart as dogs, were raised in small cages — but most forgot this at the first smell of a bacon sandwich.
So a modest proposal that allows people to still “eat bacon”, but also ensures modern businesses are still compelled to improve their practices, and that their consumers, staff and society don’t suffer in the meanwhile.
Or, “Does the unicorn have a horn?” 8-consumer first principles for a determining where a business falls down. Not a rule-set they have to sign-up to (they won’t), but a way for every-person to get the best out of the services that facilitate their lives today.
|Plays no “mind games”||Do they use tricks that exploit the flaws in human decision-making in their design to increase the time or money you spend with them?|
|Clearly communicates||Do they explain what they do and how they do it in a simple and honest way?|
|Has positive economic impact||Does the economy of the country their audience are from benefit from the money the business earns from them?|
|Fairly treats “employees”||If they engage in the use of contractors to deliver their service – who then effectively work as employees, do they receive the appropriate benefits?|
|Complies with Health & Safety||Do they comply with health & safety legislation that ensures both the safety of those who work for them and their customers?|
|Let’s you own your own data||Do they allow you to control your personal data that they store – changing, deleting and/or downloading it to take it elsewhere easily?|
|Respects and protects your privacy||Do they give you control over what personal data is shared with other users, 3rd parties and in how your activities are tracked? (including ensuring other’s can’t access your data)|
|Explains their inner-workings||Do they make it clear how their technology makes the decisions it does – what it chooses to show you, what answers it provides to queries?|
Perhaps more important than the scores would be associated simple, actionable mitigations for whatever results in the business scoring poorly at a particular facet. Because the goal is not to get people to shift app/platforms/business — but to arm them to demand where business needs to improve, and in the meanwhile to ensure the businesses current deficiencies don’t overly effect them.
This thinking is very draft. If you’d like to help out evolve it — get in touch.
Dear Facebook users, please stop blaming society’s ills on a social media platform. Doing so is akin to blaming problems in the early 1900s on the literal “soap boxes” politicians stood on to speak.
Another week and yet another outrage-inducing event surrounding one of the platforms we live our digitally-mediated lives on, “Facebook Enabled Advertisers to Reach ‘Jew Haters’” trumpets ProPublica.
“Want to market Nazi memorabilia, or recruit marchers for a far-right rally?” is hopefully a question very few people would answer yes to, but ProPublica flippantly ask this in their introduction – immediately framing the issue as one of ‘exploitive advertisers x new media platforms = downfall of civilisation’.
It was only a couple of day’s later that this inspired the investigative journalists / listicle crafters at Buzzfeed to see what outrageous searches they could target via Google Adwords, “Google Allowed Advertisers To Target People Searching Racist Phrases” was the result.
Actually, I’m surprised they didn’t present their findings as a Listicle itself, “top 10 racist ads you’d be surprised your friends click on”… but instead they decided to go against type and provide detailed instructions for creating bigoted ads of your own, a handy-how-to as it were. For the sake of not making it easier for racists-to-find-racists in the future, they’ll hopefully stick closer to their heartland with their next exposé.
What have these two incidents taught us? That Facebook and Google tacitly support antisemitism? No, that’s ridiculously reductive and only good for making headlines more clickable.
That AI is fallible and needs solid human supervision? Sure, but that’s table-stakes for those technologists who need to know.
That 2,300 people list their area of study on Facebook as “jew hater”. No?!
Yes – 2,300 people list their area of study as “jew hater”. (That was how Facebook’s automated categoriser turned it into a targetable audience underneath “areas of study” for college students.)
These 2,300 put this in their Facebook profile… to be seen by hundreds of thousands of others.
2,300 people in our society think that is an acceptable thought, let alone one they should broadcast?
What if, instead of “Want to market Nazi memorabilia, or recruit marchers for a far-right rally?” ProPublica had started their article with, “Want to target the far right with messages to reduce neo-Nazi tendencies?”.
What if, instead of suggesting an algorithm tweak could solve society’s ills – they’d suggested we all take a look at ourselves and wonder what we might be doing to tacitly endorse these beliefs in our everyday lives, as much as Facebook’s technologies are?
It’s an outlier in the advertising world, where targeting those with a “high propensity to purchase” and “adjacent audiences” is the norm, but I spent a number of years targeting people with anti-social behaviours. Social marketing – not the act of advertising through social media channels, but promoting positive behavioural change, typically for governmental bodies. Anti-smoking, Get Active, Road Safety et al – the last was my remit.
It’s one of the greatest challenges as a Ad Planner – rather than putting your message in front of people who are inclined to believe you or already behave as you’d like (“hey crisp lover, here’s a new flavour!”) you turn 180 degrees and try to convince people to go against their natural inclinations or desires, e.g. “hey care-free bullet-proof young person who loves the visceral thrill or driving fast – slow that car down”.
My wife (at the time just “my media planner”) and I would spend time with our colleagues working out how to identify, and communicate with, people with a propensity to misbehave on the road. It isn’t easy. Finding them means creating proxies for ignorant beliefs (substitute “jew hater” for the less repugnant but still regrettable “drives fast, consequences be damned”).
What you come to realise, through research and experience in this field, is that you need to get all of society talking about anti-social activities – not just speak to the perpetrators. What is seen to be “socially acceptable” has enormous effect on how people in our culture think and act. This can be negative…and positive.
Much has been discussed, especially since Trump’s “surprise” win (a surprise only to pollsters whose faith in their own methodologies trumped reality, and those liberals who didn’t look beyond their friendship circles) about “the filter bubble”.
The rhetoric around this has been markedly asymmetrical – on one side it was, “liberals didn’t realise not everyone thought as they did” and on the other, “ignorant conservatives were consistently taken in by fake news”. (The irony is that the success of many fake-news stories was created by outraged liberals sharing – further pushing them up the algorithmic ranking and out to those more gullible who would be taken in by them as truth.)
In no way do I endorse these platforms in allowing this targeting, or indeed allowing people to express such views. But suppressing their views and ability to target them does not solve these problems. It sweeps them under the carpet.
For those who retweeted these ad targeting stories with outrage and feel it is “job done” when platforms stop allowing questionable groups to be targeted – congratulate yourself for stopping those who sell KKK t-shirts, or indeed Donald trump hats, from making a few bucks off racists. But don’t fool yourselves into thinking society has, in any way, changed for the better.
We need more encounters between bigots and those with such biases, more visibility of what is and isn’t acceptable. But maybe, in a hyper-personalised online world – it is too late for this. The filter-bubble is real and really profitable for platforms and publishers alike.
So before we resort to denouncing these platforms and denying personal culpability entirely, let’s try something new, but old – talking to, not about, people we disagree with.
The real problem is not that you might encounter these racists and their abhorrent opinions online. It’s that you do encounter them offline everyday – probably don’t realise it, and certainly do little about it.
No, they may not be brave/stupid to express these things in person the way they do online. But they’re regular members of (our) society. Not, for the most, swastika wearing loners. And its these times when we encounter them offline, where no filter bubbles exist – where demo & psychographic rich arenas like workplaces and sport-clubs force un-like-minded people together – that we have the opportunity to have encounters that change hearts and minds.
Looking up from your phone and engaging with those around you is essential in times like these. Disappearing off to social media, which has been finally sanitised to a facade-of-civility by your last outraged tweet, is far-from the way to make a better world for all.
Steve Jobs may no longer be with us but apparently the sense of invulnerability bestowed on Apple, by his so called “reality distortion” field”, still is.
Perhaps that’s why at yesterday’s keynote, 10th iPhone anniversary aside, Apple kicked off with a tribute to Jobs — to invoke that sense of the unquestionable majesty of each and every pronouncement. For there were some truly questionable ones made.
It easy to mock the little things — their ability to simultaneously claim a deep understanding of consumer’s unrealised needs one minute and the next force a consumer to behave in a singular way to enjoy the benefits of their “Herculean labours”. Soon to a Whole Foods queue near you, the pained miming of iPhone X fans as they struggle to face unlock their devices to pay for their artisanal Hotdogs…
Or the condescension of applauding Apple’s devoted followers as their peers in the revolution one minute and lecturing them that, “it is pronounced iPhone 10 not eX” the next.
Or their ability to take already deployed technology standards, wrap them in an apple brand name, and sell them as innovation. (Wireless charging pads nee “AirPower”, Nikola Tesla and I are looking at you.)
But they have gotten away with it, sales and company value show this incontrovertibly. Until now?
They have indeed built up enormous currency with their consumers. Apple is a case-study par excellence in value of brand. Anyone in the industry who has done work for them will trumpet it first and foremost in their credentials. Their 1984 advert, 1997’s Think Different, possibly something I’m forgetting from the two decades since, are true classics.
But yesterday they spent a lot of that currency in one oblivious move. As The Verge are currently trumpeting in a popular headline, “Apple calling its stores ‘town squares’ is a pretentious farce”. Yes, they will no longer be stores — but will now be ‘town squares’ — places to gather, learn, grow… (Presumedly to still shop — these expensive rebranding exercises don’t pay for themselves.)
Before we direct the blame exclusively toward Apple for this cynical move we must remember that things like this don’t happen out of nowhere — no matter what disruptor you let loose on your brand. This radical reinterpretation of the notion of public spaces, who owns them and the role they play in society, comes at the end of a decade in which brands have tried to redefine the very notion of “community”.
In 2017 we find brands explicitly calling their consumers, “our community” and employing “community managers” as unelected Orwellian shepherds to milk the value out of people who have merely indicated with a single-click that they “Like” a brand’s product or service.
Who elected these managers? What, other than a probably incidental purchase, do these “community members” have in common? Do they in anyway they see themselves as a community or are their connections exclusively upwards to the brand, not sideways to other “fans”? Does it matter, or is this merely brands misusing a word in their ever hyperbolic way?
In a world where public spaces are becoming increasingly privatised; when companies like Apple base their campuses in areas with massive homelessness problems, which they further exacerbate as their highly paid employees drive up house prices and gate off their housing “communities”. Yes in this world, calling followers a “community” or a store a “town hall” is no longer a matter of mere nomenclature.
The omnipresence of online platforms like Facebook, and global brands like Apple, mean their “interpretation” of community can become to be how we actually experience community. And the loss of real human connections is the potential outcome.
I joined the “information super highway” in the early ’90s. At this time the invention of ’60s lefties, odd to recall in today’s Libertarian techno-sphere, was trumpeted as a revolution that would unite people — bound not by geography but by interest. It would give minorities a way to unite and be empowered. It would create a new sense of… community.
Indeed it did. All well before Wired “invented” the banner ad and commercials started to intrude into digital spaces. I have kept one sad recollection from these halcyon days front and centre when I talk to brands about how they treat, and talk about, those who follow their online presence — a digital community is not a real community until it suffers its first interpersonal milestone, like a death. Until the members spend more time talking about everything but the common interest that bought them together. Until they bond over their shared triumphs and defeats, over the inconsequential minutiae, of their everyday lives. Until then — it is just a place to chat about a shared fandom.
Neither followers nor brands should think they have a community to support them, unless they really do. To do so mistakes how loved your brand is, and how much support you have as an individual. One risks your bottom line, the other risks lives.
I met someone from my first real online community recently, half-a-world and 20 years away from when I last talked to them, and it reminded me again of the death of a fellow member of the IRC channel #rave (how I misspent my youth is now clear). Most of us in that community never partied in person with her, but how important our shared loved was and the connections it made, were solidified by her death. An experience that no brand can, or should, seek to duplicate.
So what then for brands, in a world where their relationship with consumers is inevitably digitally mediated?
First off, don’t pat yourself on the back for being “consumer centric” — you’re still thinking of humans based on their propensity to consume something you make, not in terms of their actual needs. Watch this great speech by Emmanuel Faber, CEO of Danone, if you want to see how a change in rhetoric away from “consumption” can transform a company’s agenda for good.
Secondly, stop thinking of your online “followers” as a community and being pleased with their digital proximity to you. Go out into their actual physical communities and do something for them. Helping, instead of just selling, isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s great for business. Apple have been evidence of this in the past, hopefully they’ll get past this current phase, and be it again.
Maybe then your brand will deserve even part of the adoration Apple, deservedly or not, receives from its fans.
I had a recurring DJ slot, at a local bar, for a few years in the early 2010s. Standard affair – try not to interrupt punter’s drinking for the first hour or so then try and keep them dancing and drinking till late – once they were sufficiently merry to bust-a-move.
Closing time was 3am. So naturally, with ‘90s music a recurring staple on crowd-pleasing set lists since the tens began, the KLF’s “3am Eternal” was a go-to track to round-out the evening.
Today I find myself a long way from that New Zealand bar (heck, it shuttered up a month after I left the city, no longer able to sustain itself without my propping it up I’m sure) but not far from the band behind that song.
Whilst ‘90s retro has been in full effect (working its way up from Tumblr to the mainstream over the course of this decade) for some time – the KLF themselves have been deliberately absent.
Curiously, decades after they heyday, their “peers” – boy bands and stadium rockers alike, -find themselves playing to sold-out venues of middle-aged moms and pops who haven’t been out in years and who cling on to the sounds of their youth like their child’s comfort blanket. Meanwhile the KLF have kept quiet.
In fact, their whole oeuvre was removed from their record label catalogues over two decades ago – making it only accessible to real fans or those who stumble across used copies in bargain bins. Because 23 years ago the KLF burnt a million pounds (the sum of their unspent royalties), signed a pledge to not make music for 23 years, and removed themselves, and their music, from the public domain.
The full story of the KLF is best told in the brilliant biography, “The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds”. A story of not only the band, but the origin of the illuminati – the shadowy people behind the shadowy people who aren’t really running the world, but isn’t it amusing to imagine what if Jay Z and Beyoncé were more than tabloid fodder?
And the story of the return of the KLF is just beginning – with a so-called three day “situation” in Liverpool. For 400 attendees only, all of whom must act as volunteers during whatever happens over the course of the event. Which, given the KLF’s history – could involve real Kool-Aid.
Which seems like a fine event during which to revive my blogging – something I too began in the ‘90s and have engaged in sporadically, and episodically, since. So here I am, being “Tiresome company” once again.
The project of this blog will be, as always, my meandering search for the answer to “why do we do the things we do?”. With a focus on the culture we live in and the part It plays in that. Of course, in 2017 culture means far from just our fellow humans. Hence the tagline, “Tools and what they make of us”.
I’ll be exploring how culture is made in a world of multiplying intelligences, information and interactions. With link round-ups weekly and opinion pieces sporadically.
And the name “Tiresome company”?
In Phaedrus, Plato presents a conversation between Socrates and the eponymous interlocutor. At one point Socrates tells a tale of the Egyptian God Theuth who was purportedly the inventor of many things – most importantly writing. Theuth takes his ideas to another god Thamus, who criticises his assessment of the value of his inventions – particularly writing,
The parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
Hence the name, and thought: when we incorporate new technologies into our lives and culture – let us use them for good rather than turning ourselves into tiresome company.
Now where’s that Kool-Aid…
At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.