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Columns

Brave Free New World

Tuesday 4 August 2015

  Envisage it: a world populated by dogs and dinosaurs; hominids and extraterrestrials; mamoths and butterflies; and all of us humans of course.

That’s our new world, the one we are currently starting to inhabit. Some of us just don’t (want to?) realize it yet. It takes some getting used to, but once transition is over, the knowledge hits you: it’s beautiful and bountiful. It can move our society, globally, to a place of greater humanity, justice and opportunity, if allowed to evolve unfettered by archaic sociopolitical and financial notions, and by all preconceptions.

Let’s check some stats: Americans, increasingly, buy more from the Internet than retail; and spend less on pricey stuff. True. Yet when it comes to local restaurants, cafes, candy-shops, frozen yogurt, even bookstores (in the age of Amazon, the big bad chain sellers of “You’ve got mail” have become stricken deer, and soon Meg Ryan will have to pay Tom Hanks alimony—of course they’re divorced in their current iteration) money flows, abundantly.

We have gone from small, to medium, to big, to mammoth, and now to a time of everything: small, medium, big and mammoth. Take furniture: there are the behemoths like Amazon; but there are also the big companies that are still selling alot, even if mostly online (latest casualty, the Crate and Barrel store on Madison in midtown that just closed.) Gazillions of small stores have all mushroomed: from insanely priced, “Deco” stuff, to mom and pop stores “Traditional American-made dinner table” (I always expect them to be manned by Laura Ingalls Wilder lookalikes.)

Old telecom and media blends with new, and private comes to the assistance of public (Google Fiber joins President Obama’s low-cost Internet initiative http://www.oregonlive.com/business/index.ssf/2015/07/google_fiber_joins_obamas_low-.html)

Newspapers have become like magazines; magazines more like platforms; sites more like traditional newspapers; and TV news has created a whole new niche, delivering relevant, often vital news to local communities (weather-alerts, train delays, even muggings in Central Park—something that the Press and Internet reported only after ABC Late Night News made it into a real, and not over-hyped, story.)

Through its digital iteration and attendant site, radio, like NPR, has gained a new lease on life and relevance, with a broader, young audience. 

And of course, the mother of all media, is Twitter. 

It’s a free, as well as free for all, world. Anything goes and everything does. Size and generation does not matter, only content does.

Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon are the big players in cloud computing; Cisco does battle against malware and hackers in a more traditional way () vilifying the kind of people Mr Robot makes us feel more ambiguous about. Github may still be small financially, but the software it shares and the value of what it freely provides users to evolve software, carries great potential. 

Streaming is something everything does, and has been doing “since forever”; it feels like Apple’s recent fudged foray into music streaming was too little, too late—one more initiative to follow ibooks to obsolescence. Some things, like music streaming, don’t work with some behemoths (same thing with Amazon Prime Music.) A bit like the universe asserting some balance: guys there’s enough here for everyone. Pandora, SoundCloud, YouTube, iTunes whatever one wants. From the pay-per-song model to the streaming business, people want different options.

Same thing with online payments. Banks (like JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America who have launched an online app for transfers) compete with Facebook Messenger; Apple Pay with Google Wallet; and PayPal is warily considering Jack Dorsey’s Square, which is already being challenged by Stripe. 

Verizon bought AOL; NBC Universal is considering a stake in BuzzFeed; NASA, Amazon, Google partner to manage drone-traffic control.

Small, local and personalized, sell more than mass-oriented. The experience delivery industry is also on the rise, yet the products and services industry is not doing too badly, either.

Millenials love privacy and freedom, and value meaning in their lives and jobs, much more than they do money. 

The same goes for the new… dynamic demographic of 85+ people (as exhibited in a wonderful series by John Leland of the New York Times.)

This yet unexplored dynamic may very well in time, prove productive, in a way similar to that proven to the health, mental and emotional benefits generated when elderly people interact daily with infants or very young children. 

Life is both softening and hardening, in different ways. We are becoming more open-minded and global; and at the same time, more insular and local, individual-based.

This constant change and versatility in the way we are now increasingly living mirrors the new fluid equilibrium of big, enormous, small and tiny; of ideas and ventures; products and vision; private and public.

For example: “Big issues” such as artificial life, access, knowledge, innovation are largely dealt with only on the Internet.

On the other hand, it’s a fact that behind most practical local stuff like food delivery, car washing, the entire tourism industry,even real estate, we now have digital start ups. 

Original content that prices quality and social impact over profit, can be found on some cable providers (HBO, AMC, PBS) and on the “newbies”—Netflix, Amazon Prime. 

Our daily grocery-shopping involves “real world” shopping at outdoor vendors, Whole foods, Trader joes, and supermarkets; as well as online at sites like Amazon and Google Pantry, and Freshdirect. 

Social media is one of the major incubators as well as testing grounds for this free new world and state of being. Facebook and Twitter are two completely different animals (and one hopes Jack Dorsey will keep this in mind when initiating the changes he spoke of last week in an endeavor to make investors and markets happier) which offer diverse multiple experiences to their users.

Twitter is more media-geared, news related and more open to the ‘cosmos’. Vines and DM’s have not really caught on.

Facebook is more ‘local’ and ‘individual’. It mirrors the real world in the complexity of layers between friends, and its norms hew closely to social norms. Its Messenger app was so successful it became a whole another platform—one that includes free money transfers between friends and family. Its function as news medium does not seem to have been so successful (despite the involvement of the New York Times, BuzzFeed, the National Geographic etc); and its public platform for debate on “big” issues is starting to generate buzz only now, after the public sharing of the private woes of two Facebook executives—Sheryl Sandberg, and Mark Zuckerberg.

Still, even in this “sharing”, there can be striking differences. Zuckerberg and Sandberg have always been vocal about what their work encompasses, and reticent about their personal lives (philanthropic ventures included.) Their recent public “shares” used the power of Facebook to enlighten and free from shame or fear, people suffering in the specific ways Zuckerberg (the miscarriages he and his wife Priscilla Chang suffered https://www.facebook.com/zuck/posts/10101322049893211) and Sandberg (the sudden death of her husband, Dave Goldberg https://www.facebook.com/sheryl/posts/10155617891025177:0) had come to know. They did not paint idealistic self-portraits, they just divulged how they came to tap into wells of sorrow and misfortune that often fester in silence.

On the other side of the spectrum, there is the way the old masters of the Internet use the new media. Take Bill and Melinda Gates, for example: on Sunday, Melinda released photos of her carrying litres of water on her head, alongside women in Malawi who have to do this every day; and then washing the dishes with them.

One can imagine the vocal adulation and less vocal scorn this post received. Certainly self-aggrandizing and simplistically populist, it still manages to drive home the plight of women all over Africa; and it makes a compelling case about the difference…not being indifferent can make to millions of people there.

Politics too, portrays this fluidness and wide array of new choices open to everyone. We know how the system works, and that it will probably come down to Clinton v Bush in the 2016 election. Yet the fact that many voters prefer Trump to Bush or Perry; and Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden (but not Martin O’Malley) to Hillary, is indicative of new, quietly ground-breaking shifts in the economy.

The inequality gap is larger than ever, and the middle class and its traditional professions are languishing, horribly. Yet at the same time, people are saving their lives by learning how to code and are easily reinventing themselves as part of a growing, new, affluent middle class.

There are of course, certain aspects of the economy and of politics that appear obdurate, either because change is not in their interests (cable companies for example, re wifi; taxi-drivers re Uber; hoteliers re AirBnb; literary agents and booksellers re Amazon, etc) or because they have been calcified due to partisanship (certain aspects of the immigration issue, for example.)

Such problems have become endemic to the start-up (digital meets money) world too. Incumbents, preconceptions, illusions have permeated the new establishment too. 

On Twitter, recently, @cleantechvc recently engendered much empathy by writing: “Too often I see people just go radio silent because they mentally don't want to deal with a tough choice. In entrepreneurship, this can be deadly.” Everywhere else too, relationships included.

On Sunday, the New York Times published an article by Claire Cain Miller, noting that the “next Mark Zuckerberg” is 38 with16 years of work experience http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/02/upshot/the-next-mark-zuckerberg-is-not-who-you-might-think.html

The article mentions venture capitalists saying, on record, that they “can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg… a small number of data points ends up incredibly captivating our imaginations. The truth is we might just be wrong… it all depends too much on timing, luck and human judgment.”

The riposte was swift from the great entrepreneur, investor, and software engineer Marc Andreessen @pmarca “I can never figure out why people think this is surprising. It's obvious on the ground!”

He’s right. The truth is it’s a big brave free world out there, an eat-all-you-can and like buffet. Yet our primitive flaws, in mind and body (metabolism and mortality!) constrain us, making us gravitate to the small and individual, just when the numinously collective cosmos has swung into view. 

 

 

 

 

  


 
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