Category: Society

The Lesson from South Carolina

It is very difficult, if not impossible, to avoid giving a sense of political bias when writing about political events. Nevertheless, I will try, by preceding the observations that follow with a disclaimer: this is not a political post and I am as neutral as I can be. It is the social aspect of this political debate that interests me.

In his speech in South Carolina after the victory in SC GOP primary, Newt Gingrich made a very pertinent comment when referring to the strong reaction that people had to the news media. He said:

“I think there is something very fundamental that I wish that powers to be in the news media will take seriously. The American people feel that they have elites in Washington and New York who have been trying for half century to force us to quit being American and become some kind of other system and in their action people completely misunderstood what’s going on. It’s not that I am good debater it is that I articulate the deepest felt values that the American people…”

There is a key element here that stands out. When Newt Gingrich talks about news media he means the big TV networks, the big newspapers, and the traditional media who are used to dominate the way the conversation goes about political events. He linked that media to the establishment in Washington and New York representing the political and financial powers and placed all of them against the “people”.

If you ignore the political context for a moment, and forget that it is Newt Gingrich we are talking about, you would have to agree that he is striking a chord here. The year of 2011 was the year of 1% versus 99%; it was the year of Occupy Wall Street, and the year of the “Facebook Revolution” in Middle East and North Africa. When he was asked about his past marital issues, his response drew a wave of sympathy from the voters who moved away from Mitt Romney simply because the public dislikes the “biased” traditional media and the establishment with which Mitt Romney is associated. He represents the big business end of the town and he has a large presence in the traditional media.

The distrust of the 99% in the financial and political establishment is so intense, that whoever manages to tap into this vein of emotional energy will get the “like” of many followers. More than ever, the American elections in November this year will see the influence of social media at an unprecedented level. But it would be a big mistake to believe that this happens thanks to the proliferation of social communication tools. It is more than that. We are going through a slow but profound transformation of our society which favours a different kind of engagement and socio-economic equity. After the GFC Wall Street and political establishment will never be the same.

There are two things that, I think will play a significant role not only in American elections but in other areas of high social sensitivity, where distribution of power is at stake. First of all, the media will be increasingly influenced by the collective opinions propagated through social networks. Secondly, there is a severe erosion of the capital of trust once owned by the dominant establishment. Governments around the world have lost the trust of people. Financial institutions can only dream of having the respect that banks had in the better days of the last century. There are very few people left that believe the government and large institutions will take care of them into the retirement.

A different kind of media is rising. They are inclusive, they are good listeners and they tap into the public opinion as it happens on the social networks. Instead of having professional journalists collecting the data through personal connections, they have the public bring the leads. Mashable, GigaOM, Huffington Post and the likes have strong communication links with the public at large and have them driving the news. They lead on matters that are important to the public, rather than by telling the public what the news is. Are these Web 2.0 outlets the media of the future? Probably not. Does this mean that the journalism is reduced to listening and second-guessing what others have to say? Does this mean the professionalism is dead? No, it just means that the way the news is sourced, discussed, prioritised and distributed changes. The New York Times of the future will be a newspaper – sorry I meant to say a newspad – much better connected to the public mind, and using more contribution from the public. The new professional journalism of the future is still under development.

This is not a trend limited to the news business. Staying connected through large social networks is key to staying relevant, informed and responsive to those who use and need your product. Collaborative consumption, networked consumption, however it is called, the idea that people with tiny contributions and opinions create something of importance in an aggregate form is too big to ignore.

The Best New Year Celebration Is Social

Why are we so excited about the New Year’s Eve? What is so different about this particular second when we go from one year to another? Perhaps it serves the purpose of a mental restart. It is as if a new life begins. We put aside all the bad parts that we experienced in the past year and we are giving ourselves the chance of a clean slate. This moment is so liberating, we celebrate it in style.

Over the years, the celebration has become a huge entertainment industry. The midnight fireworks mark the event for major cities around the world in a display of local pride, a show of creativity and a worldwide parade of urban artistic beauty.

Sydney Australia is the first major cities to kick start the competition. With its natural awesome scenery, the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, Sydney’s NYE fireworks are hard to beat. Sydney is always spectacular at this time of the year.

This year I also watched the fireworks in Rio de Janeiro and of course, New York. Rio’s show was spectacular too. I am sure the party that follows the NY show is absolutely awesome, Brazilian style. Both Sydney and Rio celebrate the passage into the New Year in full summer, which is perfect for heavy partying.

And yet, New York, with all the freezing air, is always so full of life and enthusiasm. It is probably the most intense New Year celebration. The expectation, the intimacy of Time Square where over one million people get together looking up the huge count-down display, the spirit of Frank Sinatra hovering above the crowd, the explosion of confetti, the kissing, the laughing, everything is so amazing.

This year it occur to me a small detail that startled me: in New York the fireworks are barely visible. You don’t see them as they are somewhere above the sky scrapers. I mean, you could see them if you want to, but why would you? You look at the ball, the confetti, the cheering crowd and you take in the moment. Everything happens together and people are in the middle of it. Sydney and Rio have huge fireworks, they are beautiful, but the arrangements are such that people are distant spectators watching a show of artistic objects. Sydney is a little bit more intimate, but in the case of Rio the separation couldn’t be more obvious. In New York, the people are the show. The fireworks are social geysers of emotional exuberance. That is the difference, and that is why New York might not offer the best fireworks, but it feels like the best New Year show on the planet.

Working Memory, Success and Education

In a recent article published in New York Times (“Sorry, Strivers: Talent Matters”) David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz discuss a research study directed by David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow from Vanderbilt University which demonstrates that people who have higher level of working memory capacity have a distinct competitive advantage in their careers. The correlation between significant successful career and the size of the working memory is extremely high, too high not to be meaningful.

So, if you happen to be lucky enough to have been bestowed by Mother Nature with a large working memory capacity you will have it easy in life. You still need to work hard, but you are likely very successful and not struggling. And what happens if you are not that lucky? You will have to work harder, the conventional wisdom says.

The problem is there are no accessible methods that we can use to assess the working memory. There are no benchmarks. You could find books and magazines and web sites with official assessment kits and quizzes to measure your IQ, but not the level of your working memory.

Let’s assume you know the capacity of your working memory. What could you do about it? I think you could do a few things to improve the odds of success because this attribute is only one condition in your pathway to greater achievements and its influence depends on other factors. Intelligence, good character, capacity for sustained effort and motivation, to name a few other attributes, are all critical elements to success. It is not necessary that all of them are strong, but it all depends how good your strategy is in using them in a smart way. For instance if the level of your working memory is lower, this has an impact on your multitasking abilities and your capacity to handle big chunks of complex information. You could compensate that by controlling your pace. With a slower pace, you could patiently use your strong cognitive skills to process the same complex information, but it just takes a bit longer. If on top of this you use smart cognitive tools then in the long-term you could achieve the same performance levels.

If you perfect your mental frames and have a clear understanding of fundamental cognitive structures, you could accelerate your learning with practice. This was one of the most remarkable observations discovered at the Kahn Academy when processing data with the online analytical tools: students who normally would fall behind in a standard classroom environment, if they take their time to master the study units, they eventually pick up the pace once they successfully consolidated their understanding of the fundamental cognitive structures discussed in the respective study units regardless of how long it takes to do that.

This is a big promise of the education in the future. Our advances in understanding how these metacognitive skills (thinking strategies) could be used to adapt the approach to learning and problem solving to our personal profile with better chances at getting closer to what we are really capable of. Unfortunately, education in its current industrial format just focuses on a simplistic manifestation of our abilities as they are limited to a few skills that rely heavily on the use of working memory. This is mostly obvious in numerical computation and verbal abilities. The traditional literacy and numeracy subjects are the core of the learning and teaching activities targeting systematic knowledge acquisition without achieving mastery of thinking skills. This is reflected in the structure of the formal of assessment programs. Education doesn’t emphasize very much the importance of thinking strategies, which would give young students a valuable life toolset. If we teach the students how to become better at organising their thinking, they will achieve more in their lives, and in the end they will be much happier people because they have a better chance to personal fulfilment.

The day computers will know more than humans will be sometime in 2032

The total information digitally stored in the world in 2010 was 1 zettabyte. The human brain can store 2.5 petabytes. This means 400,000 people can carry in their brains the entire digital data stored in the world in 2010.

When the information stored will reach 7.5 billions (assuming population will reach this level in the next few years) times 2.5 petabytes = 18,750 zettabytes, ( that is 18.75 yottabytes), the size of the total digital information will be equal to the total information stored in people’s brains.  When will that be?

If information stored doubles every 18 months, the world needs 14.195 periods to reach that limit. This is roughly the year 2032.

The computing power packed into microprocessors has followed the same growth rate for a long time, and it is highly probable it will do so in the next couple of decades. That means not only the computers will store more data, they will become significantly more intelligent.

We haven’t considered the networking effect. This increases dramatically the computing power of networked devices.

The digital ecology will look very different in 2032. Attempting to make detail predictions of what will happen is fraught with danger of missing the mark by a mile. However, we can try to anticipate some general changes based on past trends.

In the year 2032, a small personal device will have the smarts of a super computer today. The computers will have sufficient intelligence to display quasi-human attributes: metaphoric meaning, low level of perception, complex meaning, natural voice recognition, real time facial recognition, etc. The last two attributes will probably be heavily used in super-high definition of video cameras for pervasive supervision. The computing power will be sufficient then to create realistic special effects that can simulate voice and images, helping trouble makers to fool supervision cameras.

The drones will be smaller, faster and ubiquitous. They can be deployed by thousands to cover designated areas to identify and destroy strategic targets.

Cars will think and drive themselves even in busy urban districts.

Will we still use petrol? Maybe, but there will be a lot more green and smart energy by then.

How will people be?

Affluent society will thrive in creative environments where imagination will transform into usable, consumable outputs almost immediately. Creativity will be powered by work in collaborative and dynamic groups. Highly creative groups will be very fluid, surfing the wave of complexity and sophistication, enjoying privileges that come with success.

Robotics will replace humans in doing repetitive, dirty and dangerous jobs, but it is not likely that this will bring the happiness that many are hoping for. People who made a living out of those jobs will find they have nowhere to go. They can’t cope, they don’t know what to do and the growing gap between the social cognitive abilities of the ones who can and the ones who can’t will slowly push the unfortunate into ever larger enclaves.

This will be the biggest challenge of the modern days in the future: what to do with those who cannot adapt to complex and dynamic society. As the computing devices become smarter, the mental health of humans become a bigger problem. The cost of health, education and civilian protection will not go down, but up.

This is not new, but following a trend that started thousands of years ago when cities were invented.

This problem will be the seed out of which a danger will arise threatening the existence of the whole civilisation as there will be those who will use the ignorant and the desperate to commit crimes, a practice the evil born in wealthy mediums has known for a long time. Anger makes a very good recruiting agent for all the wrong reasons.

The Social Networked Consumption

The “social network” is the buzzword of the day. Omnipresent in the social media, on TV and printed magazines, it is the darling of researchers around the world. Collaborative participation makes the social network, probably the biggest innovation since Internet, a positive phenomenon. Bringing people together to collaborate on solving problems releases a huge amount of creative energy on a global scale. Social network is a mystery as well: why are people so attracted to social networks?

In the past few years, a huge wave of websites built around the core concept of social network has been quietly gathering momentum. These systems link people, information and things through social relationships and essentially they try to solve a resource allocation efficiency problem by creating superfast links that have the effect of eliminating a real or an imaginary middle-man. If you think about it, the social network as it is understood today is the in fact another expression of the intrinsic social network that is the Internet.

To use terminology borrowed from psychology, the social networks (like Facebook) are conscious social systems, while the Internet is the massive subconscious domain that no-one can ever measure or fully understand its inner workings. When we look at social networks we only see a tiny little tip of the iceberg as what really drives us is way down below the surface. In this post I am looking at behaviour towards consumption mediated through social networks.

At its core the social network is a way of trading ideas between participants. If you abstract the social network to a system where parts exchange things through the use of an agreed currency, the social network is really an equalizer that moves things from one part to another in an attempt to restore equilibrium. If there is no external input, with time the system would reach that point. But as it happens, the social systems are far from being close and events keep triggering new imbalances and social networks busy: there is always something to talk about and share.

In its first iteration as a digital network, the web was a system that united resources using hyperlinks. Later with the rise in computing power, the hyperlinks started to be used to bring people together through more sophisticated interactions. Merely accessing documents (resources or things) across network was not enough to establish equilibrium. Discussions needed to occur to solve more complex problems, hence the need to facilitate communication between people using the very same network. People became extensions of things and things became extensions of people.

The social networks have generated a boom in communication. Not only has the communication gone up but the number of social networks has gone up, which leads to even more communication needed to trade and reconcile different ideas. You can hardly find a more powerful addictive cycle than this.

There are three distinct phases in the history of social networks on the Internet (so far): linking resources, linking people and linking services. The first phase was marked by the invention of the HTML, the second was marked by the rise of Facebook and the third is underway right now. This is about linking services in its many forms. Think ZipCar, Foodspotting, DriveMyCar, TaskRabitt, AirBnB and many similar applications that link people and services and things matching demand and supply at a scale, transparency and affordability that was never possible before Internet. The third form is social networked consumption, because in addition to performing the functions of the previous two forms it plays direct roles in the consumption supply chain (for example marketing and distribution).

The underlying phenomenon is the collaborative sharing that occurs in many ways from simple posts to feedback and rating and from questions and answers to actions that end up in economic transactions. Why are so many people suddenly ready to share things for free or pay a small fee for using someone else’s asset or mini-service?

Let’s assume this will go on and spread like wildfire in the next five years. One could say that this is a very efficient way of using resources which in the long run is good for the environment. People will learn how to live by consuming less and focus on social values. If we look into the future and extend this trend there will be a point where production would have to go down drastically because the use of the goods is so much more efficient through instant sharing.

This newly found frugality would see the auto manufacturers pulling their hair in desperation because instead of five families buying five cars they will buy maybe two cars and share them. Of course this is a totally theoretical speculation because in practice it is difficult to share assets to perfection in such a way that the usage level is constant but the number of resources is greatly diminished. This schedule is impossible. Nevertheless, the demand for expensive household products would have to come down if this model becomes a general life style choice.

The creativity born out of social sharing will find many ways in which the trading of personal ideas, goods and services through social networking will flourish. I wonder how much the financial crisis, the globalisation and the changes in the job market have contributed to the popularity of social network based services. The vast digital networks contribute to enhancing the capacity of countries and cross-border alliances to respond to crises. This made possible handling the GFC in a way that was not possible in 1929. During The Great Depression people suffered in isolation for a long period before the economies managed to restore the pre-crisis levels of prosperity. Imagine how different that era would have been if they had Internet.

If this trend continues, how would the world look like in five or ten years? I tend to believe the pendulum would have to swing the other way from diminished consumption to increased demand. There is a limit for how much you can share the same things. Reusability is not addressing the demand for novelty. But if the underlying motive is to buy more with less money, the downside is the cultivation of a society with an even bigger consumerist appetite.

Pay for use only is a convenient way to deal with immediate financial uncertainty and postpone expensive decisions, but it is also creates the illusion of more disposable cash. This will compensate for the initial drop in demand for expensive goods in form of full ownership by creating demand for other services that can be consumed frequently but require no big commitment, such as travel, entertainment and fashion. For instance, once the new pay for use system will become an establish business model, the number of cars on the road will keep growing through big businesses owning large car fleets and manage them with a sophisticated scheduling and mapping system that combines renting with other innovative related services.

In the end, what appears to be a cheap way of buying the pleasure with less effort, but no ownership, it may be a very expensive price to pay in the future. It is a deal that may haunt next generations of renters because it creates even more uncertainty. There will be fewer owners, but those who own these assets will amass fortunes by charging large number of renters a pay-per-use transaction fee. The next generation of renters will not be able to go back to full ownership because they will have acquired the taste of a pleasure driven life style and it will have no means to purchase outright the cars or other similar assets because they will be deemed to be too expensive to afford buying them.

A glitch in the future social system will cause a great deal of stress to people who have no plan B. It is very difficult to estimate the impact on the psyche of a population with limited or no ownership. Will it diminish the peoples’ sense of responsibility? Will it propagate a culture of superficial consumerism, work for immediate pleasure?

This superficial consumption practiced through cheering social networks may be a Faustian deal in which a temporary sense of security is purchased to avoiding the pain of long term commitment and the hardship it brings with it only to bring an irreconcilable regret later on.

The owners of the social networks will stand to benefit even more from those who make up the network. But this is another story.