I Love These Ads

The LA Metro is running PSAs that look like Japanese commercials. The spots are insane, and I love them. The three spots feature a girl who transforms into a superhero — Super Kind, or “SK” — every time she sees a huge orange fuzzy monster act rudely on a train, and then performs an instructional J-Pop song (replete with backup dancers) to illustrate proper rider etiquette. They seem pulled directly from TV in Japan; not only are the images pure tokusatsu, but the chyron and V.O. ...

Can Tech Companies Remake Puerto Rico?

All of your favorite tech brands are pitching in to help rebuild Puerto Rico in the aftermath of hurricane Maria. It could make the island a model for everyone’s future. Realizing dreams for tomorrow are always impeded by the reality of today, not to mention the habits of yesterday. Renewable energy has to compete with existing sources and distribution. Robot cars need to share the road with human drivers. Every disruptive innovation must contend with a delicate balance of existing ...

What If The Future Of Transportation Is Staying Put?

I wonder if the truly disruptive innovation might be to use VR and thereby skip traveling altogether. Cars that drive themselves and run on electricity would be a radical departure from the Status Quo, but they’re still variations on a theme, aren’t they? The basic premise of the necessity of moving people from one point to another is the same whether a human or robot does the driving. Fuel is fuel. Virtuality could disrupt that equation altogether, by being so ...

Are Smart Cities For Citizens Or Consumers?

I’m at a conference where tech companies are showcasing their tools to make streetlights, buildings, and energy grids “smarter.” Where are the people? Don’t get me wrong, the show seems well attended by reps from civic government who are looking for ways to exploit big data, and there are lots of thoughtful presenters and exhibitors who’re happy to show them how. But the whole shebang seems oddly impersonal, almost as if the cities they’re contemplating don’t have any people in them. ...

We Never Intended

When Facebook’s ad targeting algorithms were used by racists to target fellow haters,  Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg explained, “We never intended or anticipated this functionality being used this way — and that is on us.” Those three words — we never intended — are a powerful indictment, not just of Facebook’s behavior on this issue, but the lack of responsibility such tech giants take for the changes they bring to the lives of users and their communities. After all, the racist ad placement ...

The First Era After Time

We are living through the first era after time. History has been defined in large part by the interaction of people, places, and ideas that were previously isolated. Wars were fought between countries filled with people who’d not only never traveled beyond their own national borders, but had limited to no awareness of those places (other than what their leaders told them). Ideas percolated in pockets of place and time, so it would take decades for the socialism of the ...

Bitcoin: Capitalism, or Conspiracy?

I’m struggling to decide whether or not Bitcoin (and cryptocurrency in general) is a capitalist tool, or a conspiracy to exploit it. It doesn’t help that nobody can explain it plainly. The original white paper, penned by Satoshi Nakamoto (still an unsolved nom de plume), reads like it’s an outline of time travel or something. Stories about factories in China mining the stuff raise more questions than they answer: for starters, “mining” is a familiar word, though here it describes computers solving complex ...

Why Did We Get HAL 9000, Not C-3P0?

Nicholas Carr wrote a great essay in the New York Times, in which he points out that we didn’t get the robots we were promised. It’s worth chewing on for a bit. He argues that the humanoid robots we fantasied about in the 20th century reflected our desire for physical order, and that the talking coffee cans we got instead are better suited to lives of self-absorbed, internally-focused experience. It didn’t help that human beings are horrendously complicated machines, so the tech challenge ...

How Big Tech Subverts Capitalism

There’s a backlash against the Silicon Valley brand of capitalism, according to the Guardian newspaper. It’s deserved, and it isn’t enough. Evgeny Morzov’s thoughtful essay noted that the world’s most admired brands and most profitable companies are now getting grief for everything from enabling terrorism and tolerating sexual harassment, to pushing incomes down while making housing more expensive. There’s much more to his story, but I think Morzov makes his real point when explaining the fundamental disconnect between Big Tech’s capitalist dream, and what ...

McDonald’s Is Doomed

I eat at McDonald's now and then, and I like it. But last week's news that it's working on tech for "the restaurant of the future" tells me it's doomed. Publicis.Sapient and Capgemini will "be part of the team deploying and maintaining their restaurant and digital technology solutions, including kiosk ordering, web applications, mobile order and pay, that help put the customer at the center of McDonald's business," explained a Publicis Groupe exec in Advertising Age. The problem is that hamburgers are at the ...

Cajun Navy Is Model For Future Communities

Thousands of Houstonians stranded by Harvey’s flooding have been rescued by private citizens. It could be a glimpse of the future of communities. Think crowd, not department. The Cajun Navy was created by volunteer rescuers who stepped up to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There’s no obvious structure…no leaders, members, budget, or uniforms…just a loose affiliation of perhaps thousands of people who own boats and feel compelled to help others. It relies on a Facebook page, an ...

Tim Cook’s Capitalism Should Be Copied

Apple’s CEO thinks businesses have a moral responsibility to help grow the economy. It’s a traditional capitalist idea that others should copy. He expanded on that idea, according to a recent story in the New York Times, to say that responsibility falls not only on business “…but on all other areas of society to step up.” Adam Smith would be proud. Most of us know Smith as the Patron Saint of Greed, having written the book on the merits of disrupting the ...

How Will Haters Find Love?

OkCupid isn’t going to let Nazis use its site anymore, and other social platforms are asking users to report hate speech. It’s the wrong answer to a real problem. Before your head explodes, please know that I think white supremacy is the sickly fantasy of stunted ignoramuses, as are any “isms” that confuse whatpeople are with who they are. There is no Constitutional right to threaten individuals with harm, and I think that people who do so, even in a single online comment, should be punished. ...

Does Uber Prove Marx Was Right?

If Uber were a foreign company selling underpriced goods or services in order to gain market share, it would be considered dumping, and duly punished. Instead, it’s the world’s most valuable tech company. Did Karl Marx call it? His math was as much philosophy as political economy (just like Freud’s insights were more poetry than science…it was a thing), but he predicted that the aggregation of capital allowed companies to achieve economies of scale, and thereby become monopolies. Substitute “data” for “capital,” ...

Did We Need A Statement From Tiki?

After the racist marchers in Charlottesville made Tiki their torch brand of choice, the company issued a statement rejecting it: “We do not support their message or the use of our products in this way. Our products are designed to enhance backyard gatherings and to help family and friends connect with each other at home in their yard.” Did it have to say anything at all and, if it did, did it say anything useful? The PR consultants quoted in this New York Times story ...

The Merits Of An Agreeable Moment

It looks like a lot of people in the US plan to view tomorrow’s total solar eclipse, which will make it a rare moment of shared experience. Actually, the event itself is rare, since the last one was in 1979, and the next won’t happen until 2024 (and won’t be anywhere near as visible). But I think what’s far more rare is that everyone will see the same thing. Think about it: There are few events or ideas in our lives these ...

Are Cigarettes A Model For Climate Change Comms?

With the US bowing out of the Paris Climate Accord and the head of both the Energy Department and EPA openly questioning climate science, I got to thinking about how the government ever got its arms around cigarettes. Back in the 1960s, people knew smoking wasn’t such good idea, even if they chose not to think about it. Its negative effects had been noted hundreds of years earlier, by England’s King James I in 1604, who called smoking: “…lothsome to the eye, ...

What Consumers Are Told About Tech

The Economist’s Nicholas Barrett interviewed Douglas Rushkoff about the way digital tech companies practice what he calls extractive capitalism: though digital tools are inherently flat and collaborative, tech companies driven by VC or equity valuation suck up all the data on which these networks are based, turning users into a resource to be exploited. He’s right (give the too-brief podcast clip a listen here), though I think there’s a communications element to it. Capitalism requires markets in which to function, whether specifically defined like trading ...

What’s Wrong With Brands These Days

P&G’s commercial “The Talk” has generated millions of views and shares, and generated lots of commentary both supporting and deriding it. It’s a shoo-in for some sort of award next year in Cannes. It’s also a perfect example of what’s wrong with brands these days. You can imagine how it came to be. Research said that consumers want to get authenticity and relevance from companies, and online behavioral data suggested the most sharable content is the least commercial. And, let’s face it, detergent ...

BASF Innovates For Butterfly Conservation

By Anna Spiewak Remember as a child, when you played outside in the summer, your restless eyes would fixate on one amazing creature—the big, bright black and orange butterfly flying about, then suddenly it would sit on a flower. That’s when you’d quickly run after it, attempting to catch it, but you never could. Today, it’s almost impossible to imagine that your children or grandchildren might not get to experience the same in a few years. Populations of the monarch ...

Persuasion in the Age of Why Not?

Believing that the world is flat is a thing these days, proving again the persuasive power of “why not?” I mean, why couldn’t it be true? It looks flat to me, so the idea jibes with my personal experience. I don’t know who took pictures of the Earth as a globe floating in space (and floating on what, since space is a vacuum…or is it?), so they could be fake, as could all this nonsense about us orbiting ...

Microsoft Deserves A Bigger Purpose

Microsoft plans to fire 3–5,000 employees, primarily in sales and marketing. It’s a drop in the bucket (more than 120,000 people work there), but evidences a fundamental shift in its business. For most of the company’s history, sales really meant taking orders from customers who didn’t know better (or had few to no alternatives). It ran an effective monopoly thanks to Windows OS, which it dutifully and regularly updated in order to collect successive rounds of income. Sales amounted to ...

Volvo Dares To Stand For Something

Volvo has announced it will stop making cars powered by combustion-only engines by 2019. It's a shockingly smart, if somewhat risky strategy. The Swedish carmaker once made quirky sedans (my parents owned a 244 just like this one) and built a reputation for safety, then transitioned to a more mainstream, if somewhat uninspiring luxury brand. Ford bought it for $6.5 billion in 1999, and sold it for only $1.8 billion a decade later, after helping crash US sales ...

Sustainability Is A Business Metric

A recent study by Merrill Lynch found that “good companies can make good stocks,” though not as a stand-alone metric. It’s a good start. It turns out that high ratings for environmental, social and governance practices, called “ESG,” evidence lower stock price volatility and declines, even if those companies don’t always outperform their peers; in fact, their stock prices do worse compared to others in healthcare, tech, and consumer products. Why the disconnect? I say it’s all a matter of definitions. ...

I Want A Tesla Toaster

News that Tesla may be considering its own streaming music service suggests there’s no limit to what it could do. I want a Tesla Toaster. It’s not inconceivable, if you think about it, considering the confluence of three attributes in the company and its leader: First, describing Elon Musk as a bold, visionary exec is probably an understatement, considering one of his smaller ideas is to populate the Solar System. That doesn’t mean he’s always right, or even reasonable, but ...

Is Big Data A Black Swan Killer?

The dream of big data is to make experience predictable, and black swan theory says it can’t be done, at least not wholly reliably. Both are right. A black swan is some major event or accomplishment that surprises everyone, defying predictions because it relied on causes that nobody considered, like when a stock market price bubble bursts, or somebody invents fidget spinners.    Such events seem predictable in hindsight, suggesting 1) they were inevitable, if only people had known ...

The Oldest Innovation: Monopoly

Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods is further evidence of its plan to corner the market on retail. It’s about consolidation, not innovation. In fact, controlling an industry, otherwise known as a monopoly, is the oldest innovation known to business, perhaps because it’s the most elegantly simple: Dominate a market and its pricing, and there’s profit to be made by taking out costs It’s what Walmart has been doing for years. Just ask any vendor how much fun it is to ...

Technology Valuation

Tons of tech innovation is hidden inside large companies. It goes unrecognized because it’s hard to reveal, and nobody’s looking for it. Big companies are prisoners to the innovation narrative. Wall Street loves companies it can classify as “pure plays,” which means they do obvious things in focused ways. Tech startups, or any company that uses data as its raw resource and final output, are among the more pure. Many have users that aren’t connected to any revenue, and others ...

Paris, Exxon & Energy Innovation

A libertarian friend of mine recently told me not to worry about President Trump’s rejection of the Paris Agreement, and disdain for environmental policy in general. “If innovation in renewables can survive competition in a free market, then it’s far likelier to be successful,” she said. “The government shouldn’t be in the business of picking winners, anyway.” I agree, sort of. Renewable energy’s replacement of fossil and nuclear fuels is a question of when, not if. Solar and wind ...

Trading Privacy For Safety

Aaron Swartz once said, “It’s no longer OK not to understand how the Internet works.” This quote has surfaced from at least one digital expert in response to British PM Theresa May’s calls for more regulation of the Internet, in hopes of preventing “the spread of extremist and terrorism planning.” It’s meant to say that 1) She doesn’t know what she’s talking about, since clamping down in the way she suggests is technically impossible, and 2) No person ...