Monthly Archives: July 2009

Dear Mr Anderson…

(Flickr user "The Rusty Projector")

Read why C. Anderson says we should be like dandelions (Flickr user "The Rusty Projector").

The following is copied from a letter I sent to the editor of Wired, Chris Anderson. In his recent article, he argued that computing power is now abundant and that we need to change our business models and mindset accordingly. While I think he’s to some extent right with that, he (and wired.com in general) like to forget about all of those who don’t keep up with the latest innovations and technologies.*

Dear Mr Anderson

let me first say that I am some sort of fan of yours. You are one of the most articulate proponents of the view that technology will radically change business models and markets to empower the customer and satisfy previously unknown demands. Whatever limitations there might be to this view – I was convinced by, and enjoyed reading, many of your arguments.

However, as I came across your latest essay on wired.com – “Tech Is Too Cheap to Meter: It’s Time to Manage for Abundance, Not Scarcity” – I couldn’t help but voice come critique. This is not to refute your argument entirely, but rather to introduce some balancing perspectives.

Not everything about computing power and its use is abundant. And although a lot of things may seem like they are, we must not forget the scarcities. I will just touch upon a few of them here, hoping that these points will find more mentioning in your future work.

Computers in every home?

I personally cannot imagine life without a computing device somewhere near me. Yet, for many people this is still the case. Just to give one example, the General Household Survey 2007 in the UK found that “only” 71% of all households had a home computer (disregarding for now that those without might still be using a public one).

So my first objection to perfect abundance is that we do not “have computers in every home—and in every pocket and car and practically everywhere else”, as you suggest.

One of the reasons why we don’t is still cost. Without being too fussy, long distance calls on cell phones are not entirely free on cell phones, as you suggest. They require a cell phone to begin with and at least some form of contractual agreement with a service carrier. And while most of us have some form of cell phone today, only a small minority enjoys the services of a smart phone. The same goes for sufficient broadband bandwidth to enjoy the the internet to its full potential.

The regular folks

I also had to stop for a second when you said that “we changed the world by finding applications for [computers] that the technologists had never dreamed of” (original emphasis). Who is “we”? Who are those “regular folks [who] found new ways to use computers”?

I believe it is open to debate how many of those with access to computing technology are actively driving the development of new applications. Admittedly, this share seems to be increasing in times of the App Store and open source software development.

But from a more sober point of view, those “regular folks” don’t seem to be that regular after all. It seems that many of us are still trying to catch up with everyday desktop software when your website is already praising the latest cloud computing service. The skills to use these services, or even to become “a filmmaker”, are unevenly distributed.

Paying the bill

To be fair, the points I mentioned so far might be irrelevant to somebody who’s business or publication targets the large share of the population with sufficient access and skills to enjoy a bit of abundance. Inevitably, innovation will always leave some people behind.

But maybe businesses find it difficult as well to fully embrace the abundance narrative. Is it really “artificial scarcity” when a cell phone company restricts the size of my voicemail inbox? Or does voicemail traffic actually drive the fixed cost on their balance sheet?

I wonder how many businesses – especially in their early stages – can afford to go through “a lot of fruitless minima” before they hit the jackpot. Youtube, as the classic example, has spent several years and billions of dollars, only to be loss-making until today. Without subsidies from Google, such a financial record would be the end of any other business.

Scarce filters

Finally, I would like to pick up on a point that you stressed in The Long Tail – the incredible importance of content filters and aggregators. These are crucial to sift through the abundance of web content out there.

The problem with them is obvious: there is only a few of them which control a massive share of the market. A few companies and their websites control the mechanisms and algorithms that help us find what we’re looking for. You may be right that they help us explore the end of the Long Tail, but how they do it is largely unknown.

And so…

As I said before, the points I tried to make do not serve the purpose of rejecting your argument completely. I believe you provide a nice description of some of the transitions that are currently going on.

What I’m getting at is that a lot of stuff related to computing powers is not abundant. As you are responsible for driving and reporting many of the advancements in technology, it is important to keep that in mind.

* For all of you who’ve studying at LSE with me, the arguments of this post will sound pretty familiar. Please comment if you like to add anything.

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Banksy versus Bristol Museum – The Power of a Big Golden Frame

Banksy was here.

Banksy was here.

The first thing to note in Bristol is that it feels a lot like San Francisco. The second thing to note in Bristol is the long queue in front of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. Nevermind any further comparison between Bristol and San Francisco. What about the queue? They had all come to see the work of Banksy, Britain’s most (in)famous street artist.

But why? And why would he showcase his stuff in a museum?

For starters, it has to be acknowledged that Banksy’s work is truly amazing. His pieces convey simple, straightforward messages through powerful imagery. If only more artists would possess this skill.

The imagery mainly captures symbolic mismatches, even symbolic collisions. So we find protest police happily dancing through a flower field or riding on a rocking horse. An ancient nude sculpture dressed like a suicide bomber. A grandma fixing an anarchist’s face cover to make sure it looks okay. Most controversially, a Muslim woman wearing an apron that shows a half-naked female body with lingerie (see my pictures here).

Where are they running?

Where are they running?

All of this somehow feels unusual, uncomfortable, or even disturbing. We’ve seen images of protest police and we learned what to associate with them. We’ve seen flower fields and rocking horses and know what they represent. But protest police and flower fields put together? We’re confused.

I am also confused about people’s reaction to this kind of art. When you watch them, you can tell that they don’t know what to do. A lot of them smile or laugh uncomfortably. They appreciate the genius of the artist and the moment they are confronted with something extraordinary, something unusual. And then what?

Found inside a big gold frame

Found inside a big gold frame

Banksy has a political message. Do visitors to his exhibition see it underneath the creativity of his work? Probably. Do they reflect on it to the point that they go out and change something (if only their own life)? I’m not so sure.

Why did Banksy choose to show his street art in a museum? Street art is mainly a form of protest and resistance that is by definition marginal, and therefore not meant for a mainstream museum.

Unless… Unless the entire exhibition is Banksy’s latest work of art. I had the suspicion he was standing in some corner watching all of us smiling away at the protest police dancing through a flower field. Wasn’t he just mocking the world of art? Wasn’t he just making fun of museums as commercial institutions?

A phrase inside a big golden frame read, “Never underestimate the power of a big gold frame.”

The leaflet handed out at the exhibition had a red star in the caption to denote any “Attraction of outstanding merit”. There were no red stars on the museum map.

Please insert a coin

The number you have dialled is temporarily not available. (flickr user Christian Watzke)

The number you have dialed is temporarily not available. (flickr user Christian Watzke)

Pay-as-you-go contracts for cell phones can be very irritating. I usually run out of credit at the most inconvenient times, subsequently roaming London’s neighborhoods looking for a place to buy a top-up voucher. The last time I encountered such inconvenience was on my recent trip to Berlin, Germany.

Notwithstanding any EU initiatives to cap roaming charges or standardize chargers, you still cannot buy top-up credit for a UK mobile in Berlin. And so I was forced to do something that I thought I would never do again in my life: I had to use a public phone booth.

A brief history of Telefonzellen

Before my parents allowed me my first cell phone, I had to rely on them quite a bit. That was in the mid-90s, when they were still placed inside little yellow cabins and in 9 out of 10 cases vandalized beyond functioning. According to this incredibly interesting “Historie der Telefonzelle” (careful, it’s in German but has some pictures to look at), there were about 120.000 of them in 1994.

After ignoring phone booths for the past ten years or so, I found myself walking around Berlin looking for one of the 110.000 that are still remaining. They are white-gray-magenta in color now – because the operator changed to Deutsche Telekom – and they are no longer inside a little cabin, as an attempt to curb vandalism.

Picking up the handset, taking out a 50 cents coin from my wallet, the sound of it falling through the apparatus, and slowly dialing the number on the sticky metal keypad – I felt uncomfortable, almost like traveling backwards in time…

Identity under attack

Why did the use of a public phone booth after ten years of abstinence leave such a memorable impression on me? I think it has to do with identity.

Before I went up to the phone, I looked around to see whether anybody was watching me, maybe even somebody I know. The phone was in a busy market place, and – as I mentioned before – no longer inside a cabin. The entire time I was using the phone, I felt vulnerable and somehow under surveillance – even though people just went on buying their fruits and vegetables.

The other person answered the phone. “Where are you calling from?”

“From a public phone booth”, I said.

“Oh… really?” (Astonishment. Silence.)

“Yes, really. Let’s make it quick, I’m almost out of coins.”

When I met that person half an hour later, he used his iPhone to figure out the way to the nearest coffee place. And that’s when I realized where the discomfort of using a public phone booth really comes from.

Latte machiato drinking, cosmopolitanism embracing, Apple products using people like me don’t use phone booths. That is so 20th century, hello?!

Because we have become so terribly self-reflexive, self-aware, and self-promotional, our identity feels threatened if we find ourselves in a public phone booth. At least, that is my explanation for why it was such a big deal for me.

I’ve done some identity work since then. I have now integrated the use of public phone booths into my identity collage. It’s filed under “back to the roots” and “retro is cool”.