Scott Galloway on the break up of big tech – notes and video from DLD18

I’ve been mostly travelling since the DLD conference, so just catching up on my notes and reflections now.

Scott Galloway was one of the people I was really keen to see speak in Munich. His recent book The Four was one of my best reads of 2017 – I bought several copies for our office and recommend on Brilliant Noise reading lists for our digital mindset and leadership programmes.

What sets Galloway apart from most tech commentators is that he does his homework, brings fresh insights and lays out his thinking in an engaging but above all provocative style. This year’s theme of his annual DLD talk was close to the bone for many of the attendees – the break up of big tech.

Galloway repeated and build on the themes in his book about “the four” – Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple – essentially that they are now so big that they are destroying more value than they are creating. Amazon and Facebook seemed to take the most flak in the talk.

Here are some themes and highlights, depending on your point of view:

  • Facebook is a media company and disingenuous in pretending it isn’t: “[Facebook says] We can’t be arbiters of the truth and you don’t want us to be.’ No, we’d like you to try.”

The four treat fines from breaking the law as costs of doing business. In proportion to the size of deals they are getting “$25 parking tickets”.

While Amazon dwarfs all other retailers it pays hardly any tax (see below).

What happens when the most successful companies in the world don’t pay taxes? Simple, the less successful companies pay more taxes. We have opted for a regressive corporate tax system.

The four will destroy almost 200,000 jobs in the advertising industry.

These have been fantastic vessels for the transfer of wealth from the rest of the world to the United States and from the middle of the United States to the coasts.

He also used “the shitshow” of Amazon’s HQ2 location selection process. US cities effectively bid against one other to be the one that waived its tax and other. Laws the most to attract the company to settle there.

At one point he suggested that the Chinese response to big tech had been effective from a national security point of view – ban the US company, support local versions of e-commerce, search and social and effectively lock them out. “There haven’t been any concerns about Russian hackers interfering with elections in China.” The fact it is a totalitarian regime probably helps too, though, right?

At times, then, you could think that Galloway was completely in tune with the protectionists of the hard left and right. In fact, he showed a clip of him being introduced on a Fox News show as a socialist – although one suspects that Fox’s owners would love to Google and Facebook hobbled or broken up by governments. But Galloway insists that his call for the four big tech giants to be broken up is driven by capitalist logic. Like Microsoft in the 90s, he says, the big tech companies are shutting down challenger companies – think Facebook’s assimilation of Snap’s features – and need to be constrained to allow the next generation of tech innovators to emerge. Without the anti-trust suits against Microsoft, Google and Facebook might never have emerged.

This claim was categorically denied by The Second Machine Age author, Andrew McAfee on a later panel that morning. Microsoft was beaten in some markets by the Four because it failed to execute fast enough or well enough in search or mobile, says McAfee, and the responsibility to deal with their excesses is down to citizens and consumers.

Will it happen? If it does it will be the EU leading the charge, since US regulators seem to have no interest in hampering companies that hoover up the world’s cash and data so efficiently. Also, Galloway’s says: “The break up of big tech will not be easy because Jeff Bezos is smarter than all of us.”

You can watch the whole session here:

Lastly here are Galloway’s predictions for 2018. He started the session by showing all of the things he called wrong last year – but he still has a pretty good hit rate.

Taking back the future – DLD18 notes from Day One

I’ve already posted about Paul Daugherty of Accenture’s session on AI – the following are some themes and notes I picked up through the rest of Sunday at DLD 18 Munich

Yesterday at DLD began with Facebook’s VP Communications and Public Policy, Elliot Schrage, defending the company’s critics. What is Facebook going to do about Facebook was his theme, where everyone else is asking what are we going to do about Facebook — and Amazon and Google and – maybe not so much – Apple.

There were two lines of attack from questions in the crowd – Facebook is to blame for fake news skewing elections and Facebook had the media industry help build it as a publishing channel and now is going to screw them.

The fake news question – Kara Swisher asked if underinvestment in prevention was a management issue – was responded to along the lines of hands up, sorry, but the government, the CIA and FBI missed it too. A US questioner, responder and company involved explains the US-centric response there, even if he was on stage in Munich. Similar questions hang over Facebook ads and algorithms and influence over Brexit, the Catalonian revolution. Still, when you’re being blamed for Trump getting elected in your own country, I can see why those other elections might seem peripheral.

Image: Kara Swisher in Sarah Connor mode at DLD18 – glasses doubtless to shield against the ferocious brightness of the enormous LED displays on stage.

On publishing, Schrage also acknowledged the criticism but stressed that the company was interested – in fact Zuckerberg himself was especiallly in doing right by users:

“Mark is committed… to helping promote strong communities and an informed public. Trusted publications will benefit.”

Later in the morning, documentary filmmaker and artist, Hito Steyerl offered a direct critique of Facebook’s new policy to weed out fake news sites by asking users which sources they trusted:

“As a trained documentary filmmaker, I can tell you a credible source is not defined by popularity.”

Andrew Keen, long time critic of Silicon Valley and the tech sector’s power, was on stage following Facebook in conversation with Paul-Bernhard Kallen, CEO of Germany’s Herbert Burda Media.

Immediately invoking the concept of surveillance capitalism, Keen asked why the big US tech companies won’t accept their responsibilities as media platforms, something Kallen attributed to legal liability loopholes during the Clinton administrations laying of the benign legislative landscape that made possible the growth of the GAFA (Google Amazon Facebook Apple) or the Stacks, as Bruce Sterling named them when he spotted their developing dominance about six years ago.

In Kallen’s analysis the next generation of online services would be far more responsible in how they understood and managed their influence on society. Whether that generation of services came from the incumbent tech giants or new players, he couldn’t predict. Disrupting models like the blockchain and decentralised web forces could make these future companies very different to the ones we see today – take a look at platform co-ops and ownerless blockchain powered corporations for hints of what might come to pass.

Image: Hito Steyerl

In the session that featured Hito Steyerl, whom I mentioned earlier in this post, there was some expansive and edge thinking from both her and Evgeny Morozov, well chaired by the Serpentine Gallery’s Hans Ulbrich Obrist. This session seemed to suffer from small migrations of executives leaving – bored, confused or just hungry (it was running into lunchtime at this point). It was one of the least crowded of the sessions int he main hall, which was a shame as the ideas were deeply relevant, if very challenging.

Here are some of the threads from Morozov and Steyerl that I want to pick up for more research and thinking later on:

  • The digital intermediation of everything: this is the title of an essay by Morozov looking at how the economics and power of big tech companies owning your data will play out.
  • Techno-religiosity: Something that Yuval Noah Harari explored in Homo Deus and a Google talk which Steyerl referred to. Steyerl says: “The more advanced the technology, the more likely people begin to discuss it in religious or spiritual terms” – think AI, especially.
  • Orbis theory: The theory that in the 1600s the mass colonisation of the Americas caused a lowering of CO2 levels globally, as 50 million indigenous people died and forests reclaimed their farmland and the trees processed more carbon.
  • Owning your own data: The importance of this is huge when looked at it in the economic and political context. I recall the vendor relationship management movement that began ten years ago and similar efforts, but now GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) in Europe is creating a legal push for it. Morozov also alluded to the idea of states nationalising data to protect its citizens from corporations.
  • Access to people’s data was about better advertising, now it is also about fuelling AI:The big tech companies are using the data they get from people in return for free services (search, social networks, convenient ecommerce) to develop their machine learning abilities.
  • Benevolence can turn to indifference – and it would hurt us: Services from Google and Facebook feel like, and for now are, a social good – so many people wouldn’t be able to afford what the tech giants give us for free. But if they no longer need the data from users, that benevolence would likely turn to indifference. Effectively Morozov is saying, what if advertising wasn’t the main revenue stream for these companies and they got their money from B2B services? What would happen to the services they provide?
  • The coming machine learning monopoly: Morozov said that if he were in business he would be worried about the growing power of the four giants as the sole providers of machine learning. Once they are the best, they will dictate terms of access to others.

At the end of the first day of DLD 18 there was blood in the water and no one was sure whether it’s theirs or Facebook and Google’s… or both.

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Words, actions, privacy.

Ember

Image: My medieval public identity…

It used to be when users kicked up a fuss, social networks quaked and gave way to their demands.

Then Facebook began a kind of two-steps-forward / user outcry / one-step-back dance with privacy and user data.

These days, as the market has matured and the incumbents feel a little more settled, their networks seem a little too hard to opt out of for users.

In a recent New York Times article about Google+, Google’s Bradley Horowitz said: “We are attuned to both what people say and what people do.”

How I read that: sure, we hear a lot of complaining, but no one’s voting with their virtual feet.

Users complain about the forcing upon them of a Google+ identity, but they don’t do much about it. They don’t close down their Gmail, start using other search engines, give YouTube a swerve. Not many of them. Not enough of them to worry about.

To data driven Google, an outcry on Twitter and in opinion articles is largely noise. People stopping using their services would be a strong signal – and they just aren’t seeing that.

I can think of a couple of people who have opted out of Facebook (a couple out of the few hundred people I’m connected to there).

As for Google, I have only met one refusenik so far – and heard tell of others in the online activist community.

Two questions come to mind:

  1. Will governments and brands begin to follow this logic? Petitions and online slacktivism, as one-click protests are derisively labelled by some, aren’t always going to signal real behaviour changes – boycotts, votes, spending money elsewhere.
  2. Are people who are opting out of Google and Facebook the start of a movement toward “de-clouding”, rejecting handing their personal data over to large corporations? It’s too early to tell whether this will remain fringe dissent or whether it will begin to spread. Google, Facebook, Microsoft and, to some extent, Apple and Amazon (the “stacks“) will be aiming to make sure the massive utility value of their services outweighs fear and suspicion of their stewardship of our data.

Online security expert Bruce Schneier calls entrusting our data to the stacks “feudal security”, a theme picked up by Aral Balkan recently in his TEDxBrighton talk.

Feaudalism works, you could argue. It worked for thousands of years. Quite apart from inequality and fairness though, feudalism kills progress – it causes stagnation, homegeneity, stasis.

I guess what Schneier and Balkan are pointing out with the feudalism metaphor is that this is a kind of opt-in feudalism – it doesn’t have to be that way. Actually, as I sit here typing into a Chrome Browser, on an iMac, before turning to my Gmail etc. – you realise that it’s no opt-in, it’s something you have to put a great deal of effort and time into opting out of…

: : As an aside, I’d be a lot more likely to use Google+ more often if I didn’t have two identities there. Reflecting on the “forcing users to have a single Google+ identity” strand in this post as I edited it, I realise – I’d love a single identity. Can I have one, please?

My work and personal email are both on Gmail, so I have two lots of circles, etc. Reminds me of this tweet I favorited [sic] the other day:

 

 

 

Google’s “Yay” vs. Twitter’s nuanced view

A Broadstuff post about the Summly acquisition by Yahoo! looks at the story as a test for how well Google works as a search engine vs. Twitter. 

Now, Google works better than anything out there if you know what it is you want to find, but Twitter, Broadstuff asserts, is where you go to understand what’s really going on… 

Read Google, and you’d barely know anything about Summly because the first 7 pages comprise of press regurgitation and it has utterly failed at telling you anything useful about it….

…But search Twitter, and you get a totally different story. Twitter, despite a reputation for being celebrity and inanity obsessed, is in fact – on the basis of my search anyway, far less so than Google. What is certain is that Twitter gave me a far fuller picture, within the first page I got, and, in this case anyway was the better search engine by far.

The whole media world optimises for Google, it goes on to say, which is making it less useful.

Think clusters, not websites

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Adam Tinworth thinks that Google Authorship’s evolution could be

another major step in Google stepping away from the website as the core unit of the web, towards the page and its author – with authorship and author reputation a core part of how search works.

This is something my friend James Byford drummed into me. The web wasn’t designed to connect websites, but individual things – information, pages, paragraphs, people, objects . 

This is how we experience and use the web, for the most part. In bits.

Clusters and hubs and collections are important on the web, in terms of making things findable, their reputation more readily understood. But when thinking about online presence, a website isn’t always the best model to be thinking about. 

We nod when people talk about content ecosystems, but I’m not sure we always think about what that really means. The overlapping and interdependent complexities of reputations and networks are befuddling. We retreat to manageable, quantifiable metaphors. 

Long term trends: The Ngrams Viewer

“A database of intentions” is how John Battelle described Google. It is a thrilling concept, at times unsettling, that you can see into the searching soul of the connected populace by seeing the words they use t find things.

Google Trends is one of those miraculous tools of the web that has quickly become commonplace. With a prophylactic time-lapse to keep its powerful advantage of insight, Google lets us see what people were search for by year and by region.

The other day I came across the Google Ngrams Viewer for the first time. This gives a slightly longer trends view in language, taking all the books since 1800 as its data set (actually up to 2008, I think).

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Google’s Art Project

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image: Detail from The Great Day of His Wrath, by John Martin

If you haven’t seen it already, take some time to go and explore Art Project, a collaboration between Google and some of the world’s top galleries. Use the highest definition screen you can find…

Going along on street view on Google Maps, you see the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

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You can then wander around the museum…

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Then click on a painting and see it in very high definition…

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Image: Detail from The Dream by Henry Rousseau

In Peter Day‘s annual tech trends interview in with Mark Andersen of Strategic News Service, the latter was scathing about Google’s lack of direction and its seeming inability to monetise the outputs of its (previously) much-admired 20 per cent time.

When they produce something as wonderful as Art Project, a large of me thinks: I don’t care. Take a look for yourself, it’s just thrilling.

Causes and contexts: Arab Twitter revolutions and the origins of the First World War


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Image: A troop train in the First World War (cc) drakegoodman

@avschlieffen: Is anyone srsly suggesting trains caused the biggest war of all time? WTF!?! Get over it, you trainspotters. Rail isn’t everything.

@billthekaiser: LOL It wasn’t me it was the 11.24 to Gdansk that made me do it. ;)

Train timetables caused the biggest conflict the world had ever seen. 16 million dead, 21 million wounded. Mechanised destruction and suffering, literally on an industrial scale.

That was the argument of AJP Taylor, one of the most influential British historians of the latter part of the 20th century (and the godfather of TV dons). What he said was that the plans for troop movements a large scale war against both France and Russia simultaneously by German military planners depended on a sequence of trains deploying troops quickly to both fronts. Once you pressed the button, as it were, there was no turning back. If you paused you would lose the advantage and then the war.

So when they thought they had to go to war, the logic of the technology, the context created by the communications technology of the time (trains and telegraphs, to put it simply) meant that Germany had to commit completely.

It was a startling insight. Tragic and disorientating when you thought it through – this apocalypse was brought about by a human’s decision, but one which was warped by the technology, the systems they had created about themselves.

The web reveals the complexity of the world about us. It speeds things up. This much we know.

One effect of this is a flight to simplicity, it seems. People see the complexity and can’t accept – they want to know cause and effect: thing x causes thing y. Yes or no. You agree or disagree. Win or WTF.

It’s hard in 140 characters to include caveats and disclaimers, maybe that’s part of it.

Take the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia over the past few weeks. Communications technology and social networks have been present, both on the streets, among the protagonists.

Did Facebook cause the revolution? Is it a Twitter revolution? These are partly silly questions, partly interesting ideas to follow through. Historians will soon enough, why shouldn’t we?

One thing is perspective, another is evidence, and then there’s time to reflect, think over hypotheses for and against. As events occur, it is hard to get a lot of any of these things.

Which is why a lot of the Twitter updates I’ve seen on this subject are likely to be filed/filtered as less useful noise, less likely to follow the links if they are saying something binary and self-evidently unconsidered “It’s a Twitter revolution!” or “social networks play no part in it – get over yourselves you technocrat Western narcissists.”

It is not unimaginable that the presence of web technologies have enabled people to communicate and coordinate street actions – there seems to be evidence that is the case. Twitter’s not the sole cause of the uprisings, just as train timetables were not the sole cause of the Great War.

Social networking technology and mobile phones are important part of the context, not of the causes of these events.

On a different, related note: corporations and Governments will behave differently about diplomacy because of the logic, the context of a hyper-connected world. Transparency will be assumed, knowledge will be assumed, the inevitability or high likelihood of disclosure will colour decision-making.

Twitter and Facebook and Google aren’t going to be the root causes of these things, but they will be the context, why things are able to happen in certain ways, why people choose to do certain things, for good and ill.

Coming back to the main point of this post, though – we shouldn’t waste energy on black and white debates about technology and current affairs. Acknowledge the fuzziness, embrace complexity – it’s the only useful way to make sense of the world.

: : For a useful analysis of the arguments around this issue (and links to some of the most interesting points of view) I recommend reading Matthew Ingram’s post on GigaOm It’s Not Twitter or Facebook, It’s the Power of the Network

: : And before any scholars jump in about the Twitter joke, yes I know Alfred von Schlieffen was dead by the time the First World War broke out. :)

Blogs become mainstream media

In the hype-sphere the chatter is all about Foursquare and Facebook: blogging doesn’t get much of a mention.

While I still prize blogging as a form of personal media and a networked productivity and knowledge tool, its clear to see that blogs as a media format are mature and in the mainstream.

Two posts I read recently spoke of this. First, in her analysis of Google’s launch of Boutiques.com (well worth a read in itself), iCrossing journalist Jo-Ann Fortune points out that alongside fashion celebrities, the company brought on board fashion bloggers:

…Google has enlisted the help of style icon celebrities such as Olivia Palermo, the Olsen twins and Carey Mulligan and fashion bloggers including Jane of Sea of Shoes, Alix, aka The Cherry Blossom Girl and Susie Lau from London-based Style Bubble, to tell that story. These taste-shapers ‘curate’ their own boutiques, based on their favourite pieces as well as their personal style – the sum of their preferred designers, shapes, patterns and styles-, allowing those inspired by their style to join them on a virtual shopping spree.

The inclusion of fashion bloggers alongside the ‘traditional’ celebrities just goes to show how far this new breed of public personality has come. Stylist.co.uk this week disclosed how three female fashion, beauty and celebrity bloggers make between 35k and 80k a year each, revealing that the brand they build from their blog is worth much more than the blog itself.

And Reed’s blogging expert, Adam Tinworth, points to some marketing by Microsoft for its new phone as evidence of blogs in the mainstream (“another tipping point” as he puts it).

A quote. On a huge advert. In one of the mainline commuter stations. In one of the biggest cities in the world.

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As a media format blogs are still as potentially disruptive as they ever where, but some of them are firmly part of the established media landscape now…