Archive for October, 2009
Umair Haque bangs the drum:
Socially useless business is what has created a global economy on life support. Socially useless business is what has created a jobless “recovery” and mass unemployment amongst the young. Socially useless business is why we don’t have a better education, healthcare, finance, energy, transportation, or media industry. Socially useless business is a culture in shock, reeling from assault after assault on the fabric of community and comity. Socially useless business is the status quo — and the status quo says: “You don’t matter. Our bottom line is the only thing that matters.”
Until now. Today, socially useless businesses are living on borrowed time — and the clock’s about to reach zero hour. Somewhere out there is a Constructive Capitalist who’s going to use the power of meaningful economics to relegate you to the dustbin of economic history — just like Google and Apple are doing to big media, Wal-Mart’s doing to big food, FMCG, and retail, and Nike’s doing to shoes.
So far, so good; smart, critical, visionary. Probably even true.
But then, Haque pulls out a lighting bolt of an analogy to remind us that he’s a young guy who’s writing a blog, not a stuffy magazine writer proffering an op-ed:
Here are four different paths to becoming a socially useless supervillain:
Skeletor. Skeletor’s goal was to learn Eternia’s time-honored secrets, and use them against Eternia itself. Sound familiar? It should. It’s what telcos, pharma players, health insurers, and automakers do when they lobby against the common good — and for a license to be socially useless. The secrets of Eternia were the key to its prosperity, just like laws that protect the common good are the key to ours. Yet GM was lobbying against higher mileage standards until this year, right up until their bankruptcy. That’s about as brain-dead as Skeletor trying to take on He-Man, over and over again — and never winning.
Gargamel. Gargamel isn’t really a supervillain — just an evil old dude with the ability to create magic potions. He wants to destroy the Smurfs because he thinks he knows how to run a better Smurf society. Sound familiar? It’s the economic equivalent of financial engineering. Private equity funds are textbook examples: their magic potions never seem to work very well. Though the companies they run may benefit in the near-term, eventually, they run iconic companies into the ground. Think of the sad story of Simmons — the focus of seven deals in 18 years. Today its debt load is ten times what it was two decades ago. Yet from the merry-go-round of private equity owners, no authentic value has been created.
Also mentioned: Wile E Coyote and Cobra Commander. Awesome.
One thing I want to add: “constructive capitalists” (not a bad term) find ways not only to generate qualitative value, but to realize it. This is why smaller businesses have so much to offer, to their owners, their workers, and their customers: they’re less concerned with extracting value to pass up the chain (to shareholders, parent companies, etc.) then with realizing it by creating great products, treating people with respect, offering humane policies, job flexibility, mentorship, etc.
You can forego maximizing profit if you can realize some of these qualitative benefits. It’s impossible for someone trading your stock to realize those qualitative benefits. It’s not that a shareholder is economically rational while a self-employed business owner isn’t — it’s that in each position, only certain kinds of economic decision-making are even possible.
Instead of buying and cooking and eating a meal — where at every step you’re balancing qualitative and quantitative value — it’s like buying a gallon of gasoline: who cares, really, how good it is? I just need a full tank at the best price. I don’t know about you, but cooking a great meal isn’t just more socially valuable — it’s more personally valuable too, because all of that qualitative goodness ends up on our tongues and in our bellies.
This Halloween story from Fake Steve Jobs reads like the lost script to the funniest episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm that never got made. (And there’s already a pretty funny one about Halloween.)
Thing is, I don’t give out candy. I know that’s what the kids want, but I’m sorry. Candy is poison. Would you hand out little capsules of strychnine? No, you would not. So why give out candy? It’s nothing but chemicals. Anyway, this has become this huge deal in Palo Alto. Big bad Mr. Jobs doesn’t give out candy. He gives out healthy pieces of fruit instead. Like apples. (Get it?) And at some point, many years ago, this became a problem. The spoiled little brats didn’t like getting apples. So they started to complain. Then one kid went a step further. He got his apple and walked down the walk and then turned and whipped it at the front door, splattering apple guts everywhere.
The next year, this became the cool thing to do. Go to the Jobs house, get your apple, walk a few feet, then turn and fire. The front of house looked like a Jackson Pollock painting. We had to hire a bunch of guys to come over with water guns and blast it clean. So the next year we shut down. No treats. No candy. Lights off. Stay away. You know what? The little fuckers went out and bought bags of apples on their own, and they came and fired them at our house anyway. Plus eggs. And bags of shit that I just pray was dog shit and not, well, you know.
So, okay, it’s war. I get it. The next year, I get a bunch of guys from Pixar to come over and we make the most amazing Halloween lawn you’ve ever seen, with shitloads of stupid coffins and ghosts and a skeleton playing the piano. We have music, and lights, the whole works. Meanwhile, Larry comes over and brings a bunch of Navy SEAL type guys that he knows. In addition to all the stupid Halloween decorations, we rig up water cannons on the perimeter of the yard and up in the trees, loaded with a mixture of water, bleach and gasoline. We plant IEDs in the lawn, loaded with rock salt, and at each corner we put a dispenser that blasts pepper gel. We lay exposed wires across the lawn carrying enough current to knock you out, but not kill you. Then we put on our black commando outfits, and blacken our faces, and we wait.
Barnes and Noble’s Nook e-reader* has a lot of nice things going for it. But I’m really intrigued by a particular design/software/sales choice that’s gotten less attention than native PDF support or the color touchscreen or even the ability to “lend” e-books to friends.
Barnes & Noble has figured out a way to tie the experience of using the e-reader to the experience of shopping in one of their brick-and-mortar stores. In principle, this could allow B&N to use an electronic marketplace not to substitute for retail shopping, but to augment it (and vice versa). And I think this shows us an alternate way to think about electronic reading than the delivery model that most of us have taken for granted.
Here’s how this is supposed to work:
In any of the chain’s 1,300 stores, consumers can download books on the Wi-Fi network. Outside the stores, consumers will access AT&T’s 3G network to download books…
In an interview, William Lynch, president of Barnes&Noble.com, said the company would aggressively market the Nook within its bricks and mortar stores. The Nook also has software that will detect when a consumer walks into a store so that it can push out coupons and other promotions like excerpts from forthcoming books or suggestions for new reading. While in stores, Nook owners will be able to read any e-book through streaming software.
The promise of the Kindle is that you can buy and read books anywhere at all — that is, nowhere in particular. The Amazon store has no location. You read the books on your screen, and they are technically stored on your device, but effectively, the books are likewise nowhere.
Barnes & Noble, on the other hand, is still committed to the idea that books have PLACES, that they are most properly browsed and bought and read in specific locations. They say: yes, you can use your Nook anywhere — but the very best place to use it is in one of our stores. What’s more: as long as you’re in the store, you can read as much of as many books as you want. Just like if you were flipping the pages. That’s huge!
This choice may have been inevitable: B&N had to find some way to leverage its retail chain, the only real advantage it has over players like Amazon or even Sony. They also have customers who are accustomed to coming to their stores, flashing their discount cards, drinking coffee and eating scones in their cafés. For Barnes and Noble, THIS is the natural constituency for their e-readers — not the wandering digital nomads who might buy a Kindle, might buy an iPhone, might buy a PS3, or might blow it all at Newegg, depending on how long they stay online. And B&N can also partner with other businesses — offering its library to readers at Starbucks (or some other coffee chain) or the CTA. Wherever books are read!
If this works — by which I mean, not only that the Nook sells well, but that customers actually take their Nooks into stores to take advantage of these added features, and the wi-fi actually works, and the coupons and ads aren’t out-and-out bothersome, then we’ll have a new way of thinking about the use of electronic readers in all sorts of contexts: libraries, museums, elementary schools, civic centers, college campuses. The content and its delivery become not just user-aware, but location-aware.
Above and beyond Nook’s competition with the Kindle as such, the fact that it actually offers a competing model for use opens things up quite a bit. Let’s see where this goes.
* I don’t like the term e-reader. The phrase I always WANT to use, which is justified nowhere, is reading machine. Is anyone with me?
At New Geography, Aaron Renn takes a Kotkinesque shot at the darlings of urban planners and bike-toting social climbers everywhere:
If you take away the dominant Tier One cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles you will find that the “progressive” cities [e.g. Portland, Seattle, Austin, Minneapolis, and Denver] aren’t red or blue, but another color entirely: white.
In fact, not one of these “progressive” cities even reaches the national average for African American percentage population in its core county. Perhaps not progressiveness but whiteness is the defining characteristic of the group…
As the college educated flock to these progressive El Dorados, many factors are cited as reasons: transit systems, density, bike lanes, walkable communities, robust art and cultural scenes. But another way to look at it is simply as White Flight writ large. Why move to the suburbs of your stodgy Midwest city to escape African Americans and get criticized for it when you can move to Portland and actually be praised as progressive, urban and hip? Many of the policies of Portland are not that dissimilar from those of upscale suburbs in their effects. Urban growth boundaries and other mechanisms raise land prices and render housing less affordable exactly the same as large lot zoning and building codes that mandate brick and other expensive materials do. They both contribute to reducing housing affordability for historically disadvantaged communities. Just like the most exclusive suburbs.
It’s worth reading the whole thing, but I want to propose an alternate hypothesis.
This is something I think about a lot, not least because I’m an aspiring college professor married to an urban planning student who is also a black lady. Who doesn’t drive. And we have kids.
How can we find someplace to live that’s 1) safe, 2) planning-progressive, 3) politically progressive, 4) with good schools, 5) with some good jobs — and where my wife and our children won’t be the only middle-class African-Americans most people in our neighborhoods ever see?
It’s a harder nut to crack than you’d think, not least because my wife is probably keener on places like Portland than I am. I grew up in Detroit, and like big cities that are sometimes a little seedy: Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, Boston. My wife grew up in D.C., but then moved to semi-rural Georgia (where her family WERE the only middle-class blacks her neighbors had ever seen).
We both love cities. But she doesn’t drive a car, and I don’t ride a bike. There we are.
Now here’s the thing. Why do these little model cities not have very many black people?
It’s worth asking: why do some places have relatively high concentrations of African-Americans? The answer, historically, has been: 1) they are in the South, or 2) they are large, industrial cities that attracted lots of black men and women during the industrial migrations of the first half of this century.
Now, if a city didn’t have a big industrial base forty years ago, it probably didn’t (and don’t) have a big African-American population.
And — if it didn’t commit head-over-heels to industry, it’s probably in better shape now than most of the cities that did.
Hence Renn’s correlation is a classic example of what the statisticians call a missing variable problem. That missing variable is relative industrialization, which drives both the size of the Af-Am population and whether a city is a small-town, new-urbanist model or a post-industrial hellhole. (Sorry, Detroit.)
Let me add too: if a city is a really, really desirable place to live, then it will be expensive. If a city is expensive, then it will largely attract either wealthy adults or young people, students, etc. who are willing to live in small apartments on the cheap. You don’t get a lot of families with four or more kids, and — given the relative income and wealth distribution in this country — you don’t get a lot of black people.
NOW. This doesn’t account for cities like San Francisco, where a once-substantial black population has essentially been driven (and then priced) out.
It doesn’t explain why young black professionals are way, way more likely to move to New York or Atlanta than Portland.
It also doesn’t negate Renn’s observation that one of the things that may attract wealthy and high-climbing whites to cities like Portland is their low black population and relative lack of “urban problems.” It may be a kind of socially-acceptable white flight for greenie liberals. But that’s not anything you can blame on the cities. If it’s true, it’s in the psychology of their residents.
This smattering of rotundas caught my eye. But I’m not sure how I feel about rotundas, actually; they’re awe-inspiring, but awfully cold and remote. Can you really love a rotunda? I guess part of the problem is that they’re always floating above such flat, empty surfaces.
I’ll take my distant, soaring ceilings like this, please.
Matt’s looking at how the internet is changing churches; Mark Bittman looks at how the internet ought to be changing the real spiritual center of most neighborhoods today, the grocery store.
The one time I tried shopping online I was sent a free watermelon — how does that happen? — but that didn’t make up for the even-less-than-supermarket quality of the food. This is my fantasy about virtual grocery shopping: that you could ask and be told the provenance and ingredients of any product you look at in your Web browser. You could specify, for example, “wild, never-frozen seafood” or “organic, local broccoli.”
You could also immortalize your preferences (“Never show me anything whose carbon footprint is bigger than that of my car”; “Show me no animals raised in cages”; “Don’t show me vegetables grown more than a thousand miles from my home”), along with any and all of your cooking quirks (“When I buy chicken, ask me if I want rosemary”). You would receive, if you wanted, an e-mail message when shipments of your favorite foods arrived at the store or went on sale; you could get recipe ideas, serving suggestions, shopping lists, nutritional information and cooking videos. If poor-quality food arrived — yellowing broccoli, stinky fish, whatever — you would receive store credit without any hassle. You might even, I suppose, be able to ask the store to limit the amount of impulse purchases that you make — forget that second pint of Ben & Jerry’s or those Cheez-Its you have trouble resisting.
These are services I’d be willing to pay for. And suppose this online grocer also sold precut or preseasoned vegetables, meat, fish and so on that were made with high-quality ingredients. (Surely I’m not alone in believing that the worst carrots are selected to be formed into “baby” carrots or that premarinated meats feature not only inferior meats but also inferior seasonings.) Maybe I could order my precut broccoli to be parboiled for two minutes, shocked, tossed with slivered garlic and packaged with a lemon. It would be ready for me to refrigerate until I’m ready to eat, and then, in five minutes, I could sauté, dress and put it on the table.
Gosh. True personalization in online retail really is the holy grail, isn’t it? Everyone wants it. We think it should be easy, that it’s right around the corner — but nobody never quite gets there.
No corporation big enough to pull off an operation like online grocery shopping is nimble enough to actually pay special attention to you as a person. It seems like online shopping can give you personalization roughly up to the level where you can pick one of five choices. Also, 50–60% of the time, at least two of them will be unavailable. Even with something like Amazon, which has a pretty sophisticated recommendation engine, I often find myself chastising it, like an unfavored lover: “sometimes I think that you don’t know me at all.”
As for complex operations like Bittman’s parboiled broccoli with garlic — which admittedly sounds delicious — if you can’t get either your grocery’s butcher or your favorite chef to tailor your order that precisely, you’re never going to get a drop-down menu to do it.
Some of these other ideas are great — but when it comes to the cooking, unless we’re willing to take what the supermarket’s serving, we’re on our own.
We talk about college, we talk about media, we talk about industries in general, now here’s an interesting window into the church. Because of course, if everyone else is coping with the consequences of the digitization of aspects of their worlds, why should the clergy be exempt?
Televangelism has been around much longer than I have. But it remains a very particular type of worship, looked upon by old-school churchgoers as lowbrow, lazy, sensationalistic, stuffed with cheap visual thrills. In other words, they regard it much the same way “serious” media consumers tend to regard television generally.
Digivangelism, on the other hand, could be something altogether different. Much like the rest of the Internet, it can go in two directions — more vulgar and shallow than the worst televised atrocity, or even more genuine and fervent than the communal physical worship experience. In his essay, “In Defense of Virtual Church,” Pastor Douglas Estes is clearly aiming for the latter, but seems to strike many believers in the comments as merely making a case for the former.
Estes specializes in one manifestation of the virtual church, perhaps the most obvious. As far as I can tell, he’s most concerned with the concept of church in virtual worlds (like Second Life), which I find a little disappointing. But he’s acquired at least one really thoughtful critic, who’s promising to take on these ideas in a four-part series called “In Defense of Physical Community.” As you might expect, Nicholas Carr gets name-dropped in part one, but I have high hopes he’ll go beyond that in parts two through four:
- The Cultural Implications of the Internet
- The Physical Limitations of the Internet
- The Ecclesiological and Scriptural Implications of Online Church
I think this is a fascinating conversation. It’s another front in the high-church/low-church wars that are still raging over the Internet and its effects on our culture. But this time it’s actually about church! When people refer to old-school journalists as a “priesthood,” they’re employing a droll metaphor. In this context, when someone talks about the priesthood, they’re for real.
The Catholic in me — the boy who led his high school’s worship team, who carried around a copy of the Catechism to reference in doctrinal debates — is also dying to see how this turns out. I can imagine a journalism that consistently uses the best aspects of the Web to deliver a deeper understanding than any form of journalism we’ve seen to date. And I can sort of squint my eyes and picture a spiritual experience online that stirred me more than the scent of wood and holy water, the thumbing of an ashen cross onto my forehead, a whispered “Peace be with you.” I’ve had spiritual experiences online before, but I’ve never seen what I would call an online church. For a lover of the Internet and its potential, the possibility is deeply exciting.
Oh ho ho — Bill Keller, spilling the beans (or just gabbing like the rest of us):
I’m hoping we can get the newsroom more actively involved in the challenge of delivering our best journalism in the form of Times Reader, iPhone apps, WAP, or the impending Apple slate, or whatever comes after that.
This is noteworthy not just for gossip-y reasons. Even if he isn’t talking as an insider, Keller’s a journalist — he and his reporters probably have good info on this. Just how impending is impending? And is the NYT ready to do something real in that format, and related ones, like the iPhone?
Something cool is going to be happening soon.
Derek Thompson writes:
Once upon a time, personal electronics were designed to be single-function. Cameras were cameras, only. Phones were phones, only. The computer was a heavy stationary thing. But engineers slowly figured out how to build smaller chips, store greater memory and consolidate 130 functions. Today a single smart phone can do all of these things: Take pictures, make calls, go online. It’s the Swiss Army Knife theory of technology.
Today it seems to me that there are at least three major classes of popular personal technology that have yet to be fully consolidated into a modern Swiss Army Knife: cell phones and computers and I think e-readers will soon fill that trio. The arc of personal tech history dictates that functions don’t remain separate for very long. Someday the idea of an e-reader designed merely to read will seem as limiting as the cell phone that doesn’t receive emails or the desktop that won’t fit in your satchel. It will still have an consumer audience, but it will be seen as behind the wave.
I’m skeptical because of the dozen previous times through the computer era in which that prediction has not panned out. “Real” cameras are still much better than in-phone cameras; the right device to carry in your pocket, as a phone or PDA, will always be worse to read on than a device with a bigger screen, which in turn is too big to fit in your pocket; keyboards are simply better than little thumbpads for entering more than a few words, and any device with a real keyboard has to be a certain size. So, sure, some things will be combined, but the all in one era is not at hand, and won’t be.
Josh Marshall splits the difference, but also takes it someplace a little different:
Just a short time ago we heard from one reader who can’t wait to get TPM on her Kindle. But she doesn’t seem representative of our audience. There are many fewer Kindles out there than iPhones, let alone Blackberries. But even among Kindle users, demand didn’t seem too great. A lot of you said that you love it for books. But it’s just not made for rapidly changing information, our more iterative style of writing and reporting. And it’s also not great visually for anything but pure text. Another way of saying this is that it’s designed for books, which of course it is. Just speaking for myself, and as someone who’s become an avid user of my Kindle for books, I think I agree. I’d love to be able (and I and you soon will be) to access a high-end iPhone app for all the stuff that’s available at TPM. But I can’t say the idea of reading TPM on my Kindle gets me too excited.
So, let’s review.
1) The overall trend is clearly towards media devices with multiple (but discrete) functions.
2) There’s still room for a solid handful of dedicated-use devices who do their job really, really well; for reading plain text, a device like the Kindle could fit into that category.
3) A lot of what we read isn’t plain text. It never was.
1) Whenever possible, tear down the walls between the “separate” functions on multi-function devices. It should feel like a device that has one function — just that the function is complex, multilayered, integrated.
2) Within the content, too, stop treating text as if it could be fully isolated as a separate data channel from every other kind of media.
3) The end of the multiple-function device, and perhaps even the multi-media object; the birth of the integrated–function device, and the integrated–media object. These last two were made for each other.