Bully Pulpit

This is the third in my ongoing series of posts about Elon Musk’s quest to buy Twitter. In the first of the series, I pointed out that Twitter’s CEO might be woefully out of his depth, and the board has failed to do its job. Twitter founder and former CEO, Jack Dorsey agreed with me. I later pointed out that, there is no (motivated) buyer (just yet) other than Musk. In this third piece, I point out that Elon’s intentions are entirely self-serving. And why not. What’s the point of having billions if you can’t protect your self-interests. Continue reading Bully Pulpit

As the world around me has started to (pre-maturely regain normalcy), I have decided to deal with some of the to-do list items. The more I try to get things done, the more I realize that our “digital transition” is still in infancy, and any talk of a digital-first society is decidedly premature. 

Take, for example, medical care. Over the past few weeks, I have been grappling with some medical issues. I use UCSF for my core medical needs and have an excellent insurance plan. The medical provider uses an online portal to manage patient care and communications, but when it came to triaging my complications between three different specialists – the portal wasn’t much help. It took old-fashioned phone calls, voice mails, and phone calls – to finally resolve the matters and move forward. I will save you the details – because this isn’t a lament about the doctors. 

Instead, it is about the archaic nature of processes built into an institution built for a paper-first world. It has since added a digital veneer to it. The MyChart portal gives you an impression of being digital-first, but it doesn’t account for real-world situations. 

We have become so accustomed to new forms of communication and collaboration. Still, it is hard to do so in systems that have been architected on pylons from a different era. What happens when the world is video-call first, and the phone numbers go the way of the landline? How do medical institutions work with communication service providers to ensure that calls don’t end up in voice mails because we have stopped answering phones due to the crazy amount of spam calls? 

I compare that with my experience with something like One Medical, a for-profit company that offers primary care services and one’s ability to interact with the service almost entirely through its application. Given that it offers only a subset of medical services, it has been able to architect an experience that at least mimics how we experience the modern, consumer internet. 

And it is not just the medical system – even our civic services have been digitized by putting scaffolding over the aging processes. I had to get a passport renewed urgently. To get it done, I had to call multiple times before appearing in person. Without going into more details, the process was fraught with the friction of the past. 

We must look at how much of our past is defining our future. When I used to write about telecom and mobile, it was clear that most societies that didn’t have a “wireline” past embraced wireless and became mobile-first societies. China, India, and other emerging countries are good examples. Similarly, countries not hobbled by legacy wired networks embraced the fiber future. 

Something similar is happening across other aspects of our lives – banking, medicine, commerce, education, and everything else. Old processes conflict with the new behaviors of the post-internet society.

Let’s use online commerce as an example.

WHY AMAZON WINS

I am trying to shift as many of my dollars away from the big bad Amazon. I don’t mind paying a little extra if it means giving less to Bezos Inc. There is nothing I love more than supporting the little guys – the digital equivalent of mom-and-pop operations. And there are many more of them online these days. Shopify (and others) try to make buying from the little guys as easy as Amazon, but they are against a real behavioral barrier to entry.

I buy my tea from a New York family business called Harney & Sons. But when I buy something from them, it usually takes about five to six days to arrive in my mailbox. The same goes for my stationery retailer or from folks whose household items I prefer – they all have a “time overhead,” and speed costs much more than you realize.

This time won’t be a big deal in the ordinary course of business. Mail and packages used to take their sweet time to arrive before the Internet. However, after nearly a decade of Amazon Prime, I have become addicted to the convenience of a flat-price subscription delivering everything very quickly. Even with the recent price increase, $139 a year is cheaper than shipping one pays over the course of a year for non-Amazon retailers.

Amazon’s investment in its physical and last-mile infrastructure — its warehouses, Whole Foods, and its burgeoning fleet of trucks and planes — feeds us everything instantly and conveniently. If Shopify wants to beat Amazon, this is what it is really up against. This addiction to speed and convenience is new behavior, and as a result, every non-Amazon purchase’s time overhead has become a “time penalty.” 

It is why quitting Amazon (Prime) isn’t that easy. And it is not as if they will let you go quickly! 

As The Eagles song goes: 

‘We are programmed to receive.
You can check-out any time you like,
But you can never leave!’

Hotel California

PS: By the way, since writing In convenience we trust, I have cut my Amazon spending by half and shifted it to non-Amazon, non-Walmart retailers. Still, as I have said repeatedly, this is not an easy addiction to break.


Randomly:

For the longest time, I assumed that Frenemy was a word created by web writers to explain the inconvenient relationship between large technology companies such as Apple, Google, Qualcomm, and Facebook. Today I learned that this is a concept from the late 1800s. 

“A potent mixture of friend and enemy, this oxymoronic portmanteau first appeared in the English language in the late 1800s, albeit with a different spelling (“frienemy”),” writes Jody Gehrman, a fiction writer. “In recent decades the word has been dusted off, streamlined, and given new life. Fueled by the duplicity of social media—the ability to behave one-way IRL and wear another face online—the Frenemy appears in more guises than ever both in novels and in films.” 


March 21, 2022, San Francisco

Photo Unsplash

Another week is in wind-down mode. I hope your week was more productive and bountiful than my continued struggle with finding a writing rhythm. Despite my best efforts, I didn’t write much this week. I have been caught between the urgent requirements of work and a nagging (and now prolonged) writer’s block. I have a growing pile of proverbial unfinished posts — thanks mainly to shifting attention from one topic to another. It is an affliction that most of us suffer in today’s hyper-information environment.

I read that a crypto-billionaire is buying a big piece of Forbes’ for about $200 million, just ahead of its public offering. Forbes, where I worked, is not really Forbes, and it is hardly a magazine worth its name. It is nothing more than a marketing site for arrivistes and self-promoters to give themselves some imprimatur. I mean, it published articles from Heather Morgan, one-half of the $4.5 billion crypto-scammers. Weirdly, the dots connect. What was I going to say about this $200 million investment? I thought no matter the source, the new money is always used to buy things from the past — art, buildings, vintage cars, and vintage publications and brands.

Like it said, swimming against the tide of information is hard, and you tend to get swept away. When I mentioned this to my friend Pip Coburn, who is in the investment advisory business, he said when it came to making investing decisions, he doesn’t look at day-to-day gyrations of the stock price of the company he likes. He suggested a similar approach to information consumption — and as a result, I am trying to check Twitter, newsletter subscriptions, and RSS feeds at the end of the day. Hopefully, this would allow me to ruminate on topics and wake up with a spark for writing early in the morning.

The entire week wasn’t a loss. I read some good articles this past week that are worth your time.

February 12, 2022. San Francisco

Worth Reading

  1. The best way to prevent blackouts and save the power grid is by embracing the packetization ideology that is core to the Internet. [IEEE Spectrum]
  2. How Telegram became the anti-Facebook [Wired] This is a good story about chat-app Telegram, though labeling it anti-Facebook is lazy headline writing by the editors at Wired. The story, however, takes a look at the rise of this application and its growth despite the existence of WhatsApp. I was an early adopter, and I have found it to innovate faster than any other chat app.
  3. The rats nest that is the life of the couple that stole $71 million in Bitcoin now worth $4.5 billion. This story is crazy! Vice (Also, this isn’t the first or the last crypto-scam.)
  4. The web starts at page four is short personal reflection by a long time web developer who bemoans the web has morphed into a “consumption machine that creates bubbles and assumes new users to be incapable of making own decisions.” I was nodding my head in agreement when reading this piece.
  5. Why did Microsoft spend $69 billion to buy Activision? One-word: metaverse.
  6. Why Spotify needs Joe Rogan and podcasters. Ironically, the Spotify share price has halved over past 12-months and that makes it an acquisition target for a larger company.
  7. After reading his 24 points, I get a feeling Anil Dash is talking about Spotify, but in fact it applies to pretty much every major “platisher.”

Etc:

Apple now dominates the US headphones business. Talking about headphones, John C Koss, the man who introduced consumers to the idea of using headphones for music, recently passed away at 91.


Oh-oh! Solar storms can not only bring down the satellites but also the entire Internet. Light reading has the details based on research by Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi of the University of California Irvine. The full paper is available here!

Now that it has stopped growing in a few decades, it is very likely that there will be more dead people on Facebook.

water droplets on glass panel

With all the conversation of breaking free from big social platforms, owning your own digital identity, and being independent, I have been asking myself: how can all of us who have slowly become online performance artists ever be post-social? 

***

For the past two decades, most of us have grown accustomed to the idea of being online, being connected, and being part of a larger collective. It might have started as a social network of friends, but the social Internet has become a performative art since then. A decade ago, in an essay, Now You, Starring in a movie about you, I pointed out that “In our 21st-century society, we all want to stand out and get attention.” 

Today we have easy and free access to platforms that help spread the word about the movies of our lives — quickly. The Internet makes easy work of distribution. The concept of “followers” and “subscribers” is another way of saying “audience,” and by sharing carefully crafted words, a handful of shared links, and artistically snapped photos and videos, what we’re doing is essentially performing for this audience. We are all Lady Gaga — be it for one person or a million people.

A decade later, words like creator, influencer, YouTuber are now part of everyday vernacular. Every tweet, every selfie is a chance to virtue signal, an opportunity to market yourself as someone — pundit, guru, genius, or goofball.

There is no other way of putting it — we are addicted to the idea of an audience. When we go online, we are programmed to react to engagement triggers — likes, shares, retweets, hearts, and thumb-ups. Social and this addiction of audience have made us addicted to something even harder to give up once tasted: a constant feeling of self-importance. 

We have all experienced those interactions where friends, colleagues, family members, and lovers got upset because we didn’t like their Facebook entries or Instagram photos fast enough. Or, god forbid, you missed the updates! Social networks have weaponized this sense of self-importance. 

***

The affliction is even more acute if you happen to live in the creative realm. We are now programmed to evaluate our creative work using metrics, and nothing illustrates this reality more than Instagram and its insidious hold on the photography community. In conversations, some of the most creative photographers dismiss their work because it didn’t get enough validation.

The idea of giving the invisible “others” so much influence over one’s work and creativity is baffling. It is not as if social platforms exist with our best interests at heart. They have a simple motivation — keep you addicted to the screen for as long as possible and thus create as many opportunities to sell you “advertising.” 

And yet, if people don’t like or heart your photo on the tiny screen of your phone, no matter how much creative energy you spent on it, you deem it worthless. You quickly forget the joy you experienced from the act of creativity. Instead, you are constantly seeking the approval of an audience. 

On the flip side, a photograph or a tweet that gets hundreds or thousands of likes makes you feel giddy, mainly because it reinforces your importance. We sadly forget that platforms don’t distinguish between your creation and a proverbial monkey selfie. 

To me, this is the real challenge of post-social reality. To live in this post-social future, one has to embrace ideas that are the antithesis of self-importance. After two decades of being trained by micro-dosing on dopamine, I am not sure we can!

January 12, 2021. San Francisco   

Grand Tetons National Park. Leica SL2 with 75mm Leica Summicron APO. Aperture f9.5. ISO 400. Shutter 1/500th of a second.

I wanted to take a moment and wish you all very happy holidays and a very merry Christmas. I hope you use the holiday break to spend time with your loved ones and recharge your batteries. Thank you all for being part of my blogging journey this year. Also, no trees were harmed in making this holiday greeting!

December 24, 2021. San Francisco