Category Archives: social media

The future of walled gardens

In the physical world, walled gardens are pretty places we visit, pay an entry fee, then enjoy the attractions therein. It is well understood that people often only value what they have to pay for and walled gardens capitalise on that. While there, we may buy coffees or snacks from the captive facilities at premium prices and we generally accept that premium as normal practice. Charging an entry fee ensures that people are more likely to stay inside for longer, using services (picnic areas, scenery, toilets etc) they have already paid for rather than similar ones outside that may be free and certainly instead of paying another provider as well.

In the content industry, the term applies to bundles of services from a particular supplier or available on a particular platform. There is some financial, psychological, convenience, time or other cost to enter and then to leave. Just as with the real thing, they have a range of attractions within that make people want to enter, and once there, they will often access local service variants rather than pay the penalty to leave and access perhaps better ones elsewhere. Our regulators started taking notice of them in the early days of cable TV, addressed the potential abuses and sometimes took steps to prevent telecoms or cable companies from locking customers in. More recently, operating system and device manufacturers have also fallen under the same inspection.

Commercial enterprises have an interest in keeping customers within their domain so that they can extract the most profit from them. What is less immediately obvious is why customers allow it. If people want to use a particular physical facility, such as an airport, or a particular tourist attraction such as a city, or indeed a walled garden, then they have to put up with the particular selection of shops and restaurants there, and are vulnerable to exploitation such as higher prices because of the lack of local choice. There is a high penalty in time and expense to find an alternative. With device manufacturers, the manufacturer is in an excellent position to force customers to use services from those they have selected, and that enables them to skim charges for transactions, sometimes from both ends. The customer can only avoid that by using multiple devices, which incurs a severe cost penalty. There may be some competition among apps within the same garden, but all are subject to the rules of the garden. Operating systems are also walled gardens, but the OS usually just goes with the choice of device. It may be possible to swap to an alternative, but few users bother; most just accept the one that it comes with.

Walled gardens in the media are common but easier to avoid. With free satellite and terrestrial TV as well as online video and TV services, there is now abundant choice, though each provider still tries to make cute little walled gardens if they can. Customers can’t get access to absolutely all content unless they pay multiple subscriptions, but can minimize outlay by choosing the most appropriate garden for their needs and staying in it.

The web has disappointed though. When it was young, many imagined it would become a perfect market, with suppliers offering services and everyone would see all the offerings, all the prices and make free decisions where to buy and deal direct without having to pay for intermediaries. It has so badly missed the target that Berners Lee and others are now thinking how it can be redesigned to achieve the original goals. Users can theoretically browse freely, but the services they actually want to use often become natural monopolies, and can then expand organically into other territories, becoming walled gardens. The salvation is that new companies can always emerge that provide an alternative. It’s impossible to monopolize cyberspace. Only bits of it can be walled off.

Natural monopolies arise when people have free access to everything but one supplier offers something unique and thus becomes the only significant player. Amazon wasn’t a walled garden when it started so much as a specialist store that grew into a small mall and is now a big cyber-city. Because it is so dominant and facilitates buying from numerous suppliers, it certainly qualifies as a walled garden now, but it is still possible to easily find many other stores. By contrast, Facebook has been a walled garden since its infancy, with a miniature web-like world inside its walls with its own versions of popular services. It can monitor and exploit the residents for as long as it can prevent them leaving. The primary penalties for leaving are momentarily losing contact with friends and losing interface familiarity, but I have never understood why so many people spend so much of their time locked within its walls rather than using the full range of web offerings available to them. The walls seem very low, and the world outside is obviously attractive, so the voluntary confinement is beyond my comprehension.

There will remain be a big incentive for companies to build walled gardens and plenty of scope for making diverse collections of unique content and functions too and plenty of companies wanting to make theirs as attractive as possible and attempt to keep people inside. However, artificial intelligence may well change the way that networked material is found, so the inconvenience wall may vanish, along with the OS and interface familiarity walls. Deliberate barriers and filters may prevent it gaining access to some things, but without deliberate obstruction, many walled gardens may only have one side walled, that of price for unique content. If that is all it has to lock people in, then it may really be no different conceptually from a big store. Supermarkets offer this in the physical world, but many other shops remain.

If companies try to lock in too much content in one place, others will offer competing packages. It would make it easier for competitors and that is a disincentive. If a walled garden becomes too greedy, its suppliers and customers will go elsewhere. The key to managing them is to ensure diversity by ensuring the capability to compete. Diversity keeps them naturally in check.

Network competition may well be key. If users have devices that can make their own nets or access many externally provided ones, the scope for competition is high, and the ease of communicating and dealing directly is also high. It will be easy for producers to sell content direct and avoid middlemen taking a cut. That won’t eliminate walled gardens, because some companies will still do exclusive deals and not want to deal direct. There are many attractive business models available to potential content producers and direct selling is only one. Also, as new streams of content become attractive, they are sometimes bought, and this can be the intended exit strategy for start-ups.

Perhaps that is where we are already at. Lots of content that isn’t in walled gardens exists and much is free. Much is exclusive to walled gardens. It is easy to be influenced by recent acquisitions and market fluctuations, but really, the nature of the market hasn’t really changed, it just adapts to new physical platforms. In the physical world, we are free to roam but walled gardens offer attractive destinations. The same applies to media. Walled gardens won’t go away, but there is also no reason to expect them to take over completely. With new networks, new business models, new entrepreneurs, new content makers, new viewing platforms, the same business diversity will continue. Fluctuating degrees of substitution rather than full elimination will continue to be the norm.

Or maybe I’m having an off-day and just can’t see something important. Who knows?

 

 

The future of I

Me, myself, I, identity, ego, self, lots of words for more or less the same thing. The way we think of ourselves evolves just like everything else. Perhaps we are still cavemen with better clothes and toys. You may be a man, a dad, a manager, a lover, a friend, an artist and a golfer and those are all just descendants of caveman, dad, tribal leader, lover, friend, cave drawer and stone thrower. When you play Halo as Master Chief, that is not very different from acting or putting a tiger skin on for a religious ritual. There have always been many aspects of identity and people have always occupied many roles simultaneously. Technology changes but it still pushes the same buttons that we evolved hundred thousands of years ago.

Will we develop new buttons to push? Will we create any genuinely new facets of ‘I’? I wrote a fair bit about aspects of self when I addressed the related topic of gender, since self perception includes perceptions of how others perceive us and attempts to project chosen identity to survive passing through such filters:

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/02/14/the-future-of-gender-2/

Self is certainly complex. Using ‘I’ simplifies the problem. When you say ‘I’, you are communicating with someone, (possibly yourself). The ‘I’ refers to a tailored context-dependent blend made up of a subset of what you genuinely consider to be you and what you want to project, which may be largely fictional. So in a chat room where people often have never physically met, very often, one fictional entity is talking to another fictional entity, with each side only very loosely coupled to reality. I think that is different from caveman days.

Since chat rooms started, virtual identities have come a long way. As well as acting out manufactured characters such as the heroes in computer games, people fabricate their own characters for a broad range of kinds of ‘shared spaces’, design personalities and act them out. They may run that personality instance in parallel with many others, possibly dozens at once. Putting on an act is certainly not new, and friends easily detect acts in normal interactions when they have known a real person a long time, but online interactions can mean that the fictional version is presented it as the only manifestation of self that the group sees. With no other means to know that person by face to face contact, that group has to take them at face value and interact with them as such, though they know that may not represent reality.

These designed personalities may be designed to give away as little as possible of the real person wielding them, and may exist for a range of reasons, but in such a case the person inevitably presents a shallow image. Probing below the surface must inevitably lead to leakage of the real self. New personality content must be continually created and remembered if the fictional entity is to maintain a disconnect from the real person. Holding the in-depth memory necessary to recall full personality aspects and history for numerous personalities and executing them is beyond most people. That means that most characters in shared spaces take on at least some characteristics of their owners.

But back to the point. These fabrications should be considered as part of that person. They are an ‘I’ just as much as any other ‘I’. Only their context is different. Those parts may only be presented to subsets of the role population, but by running them, the person’s brain can’t avoid internalizing the experience of doing so. They may be partly separated but they are fully open to the consciousness of that person. I think that as augmented and virtual reality take off over the next few years, we will see their importance grow enormously. As virtual worlds start to feel more real, so their anchoring and effects in the person’s mind must get stronger.

More than a decade ago, AI software agents started inhabiting chat rooms too, and in some cases these ‘bots’ become a sufficient nuisance that they get banned. The front that they present is shallow but can give an illusion of reality. In some degree, they are an extension of the person or people that wrote their code. In fact, some are deliberately designed to represent a person when they are not present. The experiences that they have can’t be properly internalized by their creators, so they are a very limited extension to self. But how long will that be true? Eventually, with direct brain links and transhuman brain extensions into cyberspace, the combined experiences of I-bots may be fully available to consciousness just the same as first hand experiences.

Then it will get interesting. Some of those bots might be part of multiple people. People’s consciousnesses will start to overlap. People might collect them, or subscribe to them. Much as you might subscribe to my blog, maybe one day, part of one person’s mind, manifested as a bot or directly ‘published’, will become part of your mind. Some people will become absorbed into the experience and adopt so many that their own original personality becomes diluted to the point of disappearance. They will become just an interference pattern of numerous minds. Some will be so infectious that they will spread widely. For many, it will be impossible to die, and for many others, their minds will be spread globally. The hive minds of Dr Who, then later the Borg on Star Trek are conceptual prototypes but as with any sci-fi, they are limited by the imagination of the time they were conceived. By the time they become feasible, we will have moved on and the playground will be far richer than we can imagine yet.

So, ‘I’ has a future just as everything else. We may have just started to add extra facets a couple of decades ago, but the future will see our concept of self evolve far more quickly.

Postscript

I got asked by a reader whether I worry about this stuff. Here is my reply:

It isn’t the technology that worries me so much that humanity doesn’t really have any fixed anchor to keep human nature in place. Genetics fixed our biological nature and our values and morality were largely anchored by the main religions. We in the West have thrown our religion in the bin and are already seeing a 30 year cycle in moral judgments which puts our value sets on something of a random walk, with no destination, the current direction governed solely by media and interpretation and political reaction to of the happenings of the day. Political correctness enforces subscription to that value set even more strictly than any bishop ever forced religious compliance. Anyone that thinks religion has gone away just because people don’t believe in God any more is blind.

Then as genetics technology truly kicks in, we will be able to modify some aspects of our nature. Who knows whether some future busybody will decree that a particular trait must be filtered out because it doesn’t fit his or her particular value set? Throwing AI into the mix as a new intelligence alongside will introduce another degree of freedom. So already several forces acting on us in pretty randomized directions that can combine to drag us quickly anywhere. Then the stuff above that allows us to share and swap personality? Sure I worry about it. We are like young kids being handed a big chemistry set for Christmas without the instructions, not knowing that adding the blue stuff to the yellow stuff and setting it alight will go bang.

I am certainly no technotopian. I see the enormous potential that the tech can bring and it could be wonderful and I can’t help but be excited by it. But to get that you need to make the right decisions, and when I look at the sorts of leaders we elect and the sorts of decisions that are made, I can’t find the confidence that we will make the right ones.

On the good side, engineers and scientists are usually smart and can see most of the issues and prevent most of the big errors by using comon industry standards, so there is a parallel self-regulatory system in place that politicians rarely have any interest in. On the other side, those smart guys unfortunately will usually follow the same value sets as the rest of the population. So we’re quite likely to avoid major accidents and blowing ourselves up or being taken over by AIs. But we’re unlikely to avoid the random walk values problem and that will be our downfall.

So it could be worse, but it could be a whole lot better too.

 

Switching people off

A very interesting development has been reported in the discovery of how consciousness works, where neuroscientists stimulating a particular brain region were able to switch a woman’s state of awareness on and off. They said: “We describe a region in the human brain where electrical stimulation reproducibly disrupted consciousness…”

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22329762.700-consciousness-onoff-switch-discovered-deep-in-brain.html.

The region of the brain concerned was the claustrum, and apparently nobody had tried stimulating it before, although Francis Crick and Christof Koch had suggested the region would likely be important in achieving consciousness. Apparently, the woman involved in this discovery was also missing some of her hippocampus, and that may be a key factor, but they don’t know for sure yet.

Mohamed Koubeissi and his the team at the George Washington university in Washington DC were investigating her epilepsy and stimulated her claustrum area with high frequency electrical impulses. When they did so, the woman lost consciousness, no longer responding to any audio or visual stimuli, just staring blankly into space. They verified that she was not having any epileptic activity signs at the time, and repeated the experiment with similar results over two days.

The team urges caution and recommends not jumping to too many conclusions. They did observe the obvious potential advantages as an anesthesia substitute if it can be made generally usable.

As a futurologist, it is my job to look as far down the road as I can see, and imagine as much as I can. Then I filter out all the stuff that is nonsensical, or doesn’t have a decent potential social or business case or as in this case, where research teams suggest that it is too early to draw conclusions. I make exceptions where it seems that researchers are being over-cautious or covering their asses or being PC or unimaginative, but I have no evidence of that in this case. However, the other good case for making exceptions is where it is good fun to jump to conclusions. Anyway, it is Saturday, I’m off work, so in the great words of Dr Emmett Brown in ‘Back to the future':  “Well, I figured, what the hell.”

OK, IF it works for everyone without removing parts of the brain, what will we do with it and how?

First, it is reasonable to assume that we can produce electrical stimulation at specific points in the brain by using external kit. Trans-cranial magnetic stimulation might work, or perhaps implants may be possible using injection of tiny particles that migrate to the right place rather than needing significant surgery. Failing those, a tiny implant or two via a fine needle into the right place ought to do the trick. Powering via induction should work. So we will be able to produce the stimulation, once the sucker victim subject has the device implanted.

I guess that could happen voluntarily, or via a court ordered protective device, as a condition of employment or immigration, or conditional release from prison, or a supervision order, or as a violent act or in war.

Imagine if government demands a legal right to access it, for security purposes and to ensure your comfort and safety, of course.

If you think 1984 has already gone too far, imagine a government or police officer that can switch you off if you are saying or thinking the wrong thing. Automated censorship devices could ensure that nobody discusses prohibited topics.

Imagine if people on the street were routinely switched off as a VIP passes to avoid any trouble for them.

Imagine a future carbon-reduction law where people are immobilized for an hour or two each day during certain periods. There might be a quota for how long you are allowed to be conscious each week to limit your environmental footprint.

In war, captives could have devices implanted to make them easy to control, simply turned off for packing and transport to a prison camp. A perimeter fence could be replaced by a line in the sand. If a prisoner tries to cross it, they are rendered unconscious automatically and put back where they belong.

Imagine a higher class of mugger that doesn’t like violence much and prefers to switch victims off before stealing their valuables.

Imagine being able to switch off for a few hours to pass the time on a long haul flight. Airlines could give discounts to passengers willing to be disabled and therefore less demanding of attention.

Imagine  a couple or a group of friends, or a fetish club, where people can turn each other off at will. Once off, other people can do anything they please with them – use them as dolls, as living statues or as mannequins, posing them, dressing them up. This is not an adult blog so just use your imagination – it’s pretty obvious what people will do and what sorts of clubs will emerge if an off-switch is feasible, making people into temporary toys.

Imagine if you got an illegal hacking app and could freeze the other people in your vicinity. What would you do?

Imagine if your off-switch is networked and someone else has a remote control or hacks into it.

Imagine if an AI manages to get control of such a system.

Having an off-switch installed could open a new world of fun, but it could also open up a whole new world for control by the authorities, crime control, censorship or abuse by terrorists and thieves and even pranksters.

 

 

Solving compliment inequality

Decades ago, cough, I went on a summer camp with loads of other people. At the end of the week, we were each given a sheet of paper, told to write our name on the top and then pass it to the person on our right. Everyone had to write something nice about everyone else when their sheet arrived. When we got our own sheets back, we could read all the nice things the other people had said about you after hanging around you for a week. It felt rewarding and was a simple but effective demonstration that being nice makes you feel nice. (So does blowing zillions of zombies to bits in a computer game, but let’s ignore that for now.)

With the many social networking sites now, it’s easy to send someone a nice message. Most of us occasionally do. My first question is: since we all know we like to receive kind words and compliments, and we know that everyone else does too, why don’t we do it more?

Someone realised that you could make an app for that and out came Kindr. I understand some of the problems in doing that. Do you have a fixed set to pick from? Do you let people write their own? Should it be anonymous or true ID? How do you prevent bullying? How do you make it pay for itself? Should it be standalone or link into other social media as a plugin? Well, the Kindr people actually got on with it and did it. Maybe it is still early days but I only found Kindr when I did a search for its functionality on Google. It hasn’t yet become the next Facebook, but it was a good idea and I hope it succeeds and grows and gets noticed more and a nice warm waves of niceness floods over society now and then. We need more kindness and love.

On the other hand, maybe it just wasn’t needed. It was already easy to be nice in many ways via existing media. I think the answer lies in basic human nature. We like hearing nice things about us much the same way as we like eating chocolate or ice cream. At first it is wonderful, but it soon makes us sick if we keep doing it. If so, then it is like appetite. Once satisfied, more is less. It is great to receive an occasional pleasant comment. After a while the extra reward levels off and eventually it can even become embarrassing or irritating. Like being kissed – once is great, two is quite sufficient, three is getting continental, please stop. Stroke a cat and it purrs. Keep stroking it and your hand will be full of holes. It isn’t healthy for the recipient to be praised too much either. Look at the ego disaster areas that feature so often on reality TV that have been told they’re wonderful 24/7 and believe it in spite of being as plain as the Serengeti.

I think most people intuitively know just how much is right. We compliment each other when something really deserves it, and then it feels good to both the receiver and the giver. If we do it all the time, it doesn’t. A few people go too far, a few don’t go far enough. I suspect most people could cope with a little more before it is too much but I don’t think we are too far off overall.

Maybe, like wealth, it isn’t the total volume that’s a problem, the real problem is distribution. That’s my point in this blog. Some people get a lot of praise all the time, some rarely get a kind word from anyone. It doesn’t cost anything or take long to say something nice, so we each have it in our power to fix that.

So next time you see someone who doesn’t look like life has treated them very well recently, make sure to give them a generous dose of appreciation. If they smile, you’ll feel better too.

 

Can we get a less abusive society?

When I wrote my recent blog on reducing the problem of rape, part of my research (yes I do sometimes try to learn about something before I blog about it) was looking at the Crime Survey for England and Wales, the CSEW. (As I said, I wasn’t very impressed by it and I couldn’t accept it as a true indicator of crime. A lot of the questions are ambiguous and there are big gaps and strong biases in the coverage. Some areas would therefore be overstated in results while others understated and it lends itself far too well to political lobbies. I said it was about as reasonable an indicator of crime level as a casual chat in a pub.)

The CSEW has a large section asking questions about various forms of abuse within relationships. Not just physical abuse such as rape, but financial, social or emotional abuse too – belittling someone, not letting them see their friends, not allowing them their share of the money. That sort of thing.

Since then, it occurred to me that abuse within relationships is a micro-scale version of what we do all the time socially via politics. If you look at a country as a whole, different groups with very different ideological preferences have to somehow live peacefully side by side in the long term. If you like, it’s a sort of enforced marriage, writ large, or a grand scale civil partnership if you prefer that. 

Taking that analogy, we could adapt some of the questions from the crime survey to see whether things we do regularly to each other in the guise of everyday politics are really a form of abuse. Even within marriages and partnerships, what most of us consider unacceptable behaviour may be accepted or practiced by a quite large proportion of people – according to the figures out this week, 16% of 16-19 year olds think it’s sometimes OK to hit a partner.

If you really don’t like your own country, you could leave, and often some people will tell you to do just that if you don’t like it, but the costs and the aggravation and the ‘why should it be me that has to leave?’ are a big deterrent. So you stay together and suffer the abuse. 

So, let’s take a few of the questions from the CSEW and apply them to the political scale. The questionnaire is here:

http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/guide-method/method-quality/specific/crime-statistics-methodology/2012-13-crime-survey-for-england-and-wales.pdf

Starting with a few questions from the section on domestic violence:

Q1: Has your partner ever prevented you from having your fair share of the household money?

(Yes that question is in the domestic violence section, and I’d certainly answer yes, for pretty much every girlfriend I’ve ever had. That’s why I don’t believe much that comes out of the survey. It’s far too open to interpretation and far too tempting a tool for campaigning. Responses from people who have had serious abuse in this manner would be lost in the noise).

This one has a very obvious political equivalent, and we don’t even need to adapt it. Just about every pressure group would answer yes, and so would everyone who feels they should pay less tax or get more government support or more pay or feels the government spends too much on other people’s interests instead of theirs.

The battle between left and right often comes down to this. The left wants to take and spend more and more, and the right wants to keep their cash and spend it themselves. Each side occasionally gets their way to some degree, but there is no doubt in my mind – it is abusive, no better than a marital fight where the one currently holding the wallet or purse wins, i.e. whoever got most seats this time. We really should find a better way. It is this issue more than any other that made me realise that we ought to implement a dual democracy, (I describe that in my book Total Sustainability) and if we don’t this abuse will eventually lead to the Great Western War which I blogged about a couple of months ago:

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/machiavelli-and-the-coming-great-western-war/

So, question 1, and we can already confirm we are in a highly abusive relationship.

Q2: Has your partner ever stopped you from seeing friends or relatives?

(Can anyone honestly say no to that?)

This one is rather harder to translate. The human rights act is notoriously pretty forceful on this when it comes to criminals, but what does it equate to in civil abuse? Aha! Public demonstrations. Government is intercepting a lot of metadata on who our friends and political friends are, using face recognition at public demonstrations, making them much harder to organise or attend, preventing access to a demonstration and dispersing large groups more. We can all think of groups we find repugnant and may prefer not to exist, but they do exist and share our land whether we like them or not, and they are human, whether we try to portray them as otherwise or not. This sort of abuse blurs into the next form, belittling. Some of us still defend freedom of speech, the right to say what you like without censorship. Others want to clamp down on it, selectively of course; their own right to demonstrate or speak freely must be protected. After the BBC’s Question Time this week, there were numerous people demanding that certain types of people or political parties should be banned from appearing. Such demands happen often. We saw Ed Davey and Prince Charles calling anyone who disagrees with their own views names and should be barred from having any public platform to air their views, the Green Party going still further and calling for people who disagree with them to be sacked and banned from office. So coupling it with belittling, this abuse is becoming the norm in politics and even the Royal Family are guilty of it.

So, more abuse.

Q3: has your partner ever repeatedly belittled you to the extent you felt worthless?

Anyone who ever watches political debate will easily recognise the strong analogies here. These days, in the UK at least, members of all political parties often do their very best to present opposing views as worthless, unacceptable, unfair, odious, backward, prehistoric, uncivilised…. It seems the norm rather than the exception. It isn’t just the parties themselves. Anyone who doesn’t tick all the boxes on the latest political correctness fad is often subjected to abuse by people who share opposing views. Civilised debate on a wide range of sensitive issues is impossible any more.

Definitely very abusive this time.

Q4 has your partner ever frightened you, by threatening to hurt you or someone close to you?

Isn’t that what strikes do? Or riots or even large peaceful public demonstrations? Or media campaigns by pressure groups? People often feel bullied into submission because of the potential consequences they feel if they don’t comply with the demands.

Quite abusive

The rest of the questions are not relevant, being specific to particular weapons. But I think I have made my point. By the criteria we use to judge abuse in our own personal relationships, our society is as guilty as hell. I think it is getting worse year by year. I think we are heading slowly but surely towards a critical point where the fuse finally blows and social breakdown is likely.

I think that in the 21st Century, it is about time we started to work out a more civilised way of living together, sharing the same space with human dignity and mutual respect. Maybe love is a bit much to ask for, but surely we can manage without abusing each other?

The internet of things will soon be history

I’ve been a full time futurologist since 1991, and an engineer working on far future R&D stuff since I left uni in 1981. It is great seeing a lot of the 1980s dreams about connecting everything together finally starting to become real, although as I’ve blogged a bit recently, some of the grander claims we’re seeing for future home automation are rather unlikely. Yes you can, but you probably won’t, though some people will certainly adopt some stuff. Now that most people are starting to get the idea that you can connect things and add intelligence to them, we’re seeing a lot of overshoot too on the importance of the internet of things, which is the generalised form of the same thing.

It’s my job as a futurologist not only to understand that trend (and I’ve been yacking about putting chips in everything for decades) but then to look past it to see what is coming next. Or if it is here to stay, then that would also be an important conclusion too, but you know what, it just isn’t. The internet of things will be about as long lived as most other generations of technology, such as the mobile phone. Do you still have one? I don’t, well I do but they are all in a box in the garage somewhere. I have a general purpose mobile computer that happens to do be a phone as well as dozens of other things. So do you probably. The only reason you might still call it a smartphone or an iPhone is because it has to be called something and nobody in the IT marketing industry has any imagination. PDA was a rubbish name and that was the choice.

You can stick chips in everything, and you can connect them all together via the net. But that capability will disappear quickly into the background and the IT zeitgeist will move on. It really won’t be very long before a lot of the things we interact with are virtual, imaginary. To all intents and purposes they will be there, and will do wonderful things, but they won’t physically exist. So they won’t have chips in them. You can’t put a chip into a figment of imagination, even though you can make it appear in front of your eyes and interact with it. A good topical example of this is the smart watch, all set to make an imminent grand entrance. Smart watches are struggling to solve battery problems, they’ll be expensive too. They don’t need batteries if they are just images and a fully interactive image of a hugely sophisticated smart watch could also be made free, as one of a million things done by a free app. The smart watch’s demise is already inevitable. The energy it takes to produce an image on the retina is a great deal less than the energy needed to power a smart watch on your wrist and the cost of a few seconds of your time to explain to an AI how you’d like your wrist to be accessorised is a few seconds of your time, rather fewer seconds than you’d have spent on choosing something that costs a lot. In fact, the energy needed for direct retinal projection and associated comms is far less than can be harvested easily from your body or the environment, so there is no battery problem to solve.

If you can do that with a smart watch, making it just an imaginary item, you can do it to any kind of IT interface. You only need to see the interface, the rest can be put anywhere, on your belt, in your bag or in the IT ether that will evolve from today’s cloud. My pad, smartphone, TV and watch can all be recycled.

I can also do loads of things with imagination that I can’t do for real. I can have an imaginary wand. I can point it at you and turn you into a frog. Then in my eyes, the images of you change to those of a frog. Sure, it’s not real, you aren’t really a frog, but you are to me. I can wave it again and make the building walls vanish, so I can see the stuff on sale inside. A few of those images could be very real and come from cameras all over the place, the chips-in-everything stuff, but actually, I don’t have much interest in most of what the shop actually has, I am not interested in most of the local physical reality of a shop; what I am far more interested in is what I can buy, and I’ll be shown those things, in ways that appeal to me, whether they’re physically there or on Amazon Virtual. So 1% is chips-in-everything, 99% is imaginary, virtual, some sort of visual manifestation of my profile, Amazon Virtual’s AI systems, how my own AI knows I like to see things, and a fair bit of other people’s imagination to design the virtual decor, the nice presentation options, the virtual fauna and flora making it more fun, and countless other intermediaries and extramediaries, or whatever you call all those others that add value and fun to an experience without actually getting in the way. All just images directly projected onto my retinas. Not so much chips-in-everything as no chips at all except a few sensors, comms and an infinitesimal timeshare of a processor and storage somewhere.

A lot of people dismiss augmented reality as irrelevant passing fad. They say video visors and active contact lenses won’t catch on because of privacy concerns (and I’d agree that is a big issue that needs to be discussed and sorted, but it will be discussed and sorted). But when you realise that what we’re going to get isn’t just an internet of things, but a total convergence of physical and virtual, a coming together of real and imaginary, an explosion of human creativity,  a new renaissance, a realisation of yours and everyone else’s wildest dreams as part of your everyday reality; when you realise that, then the internet of things suddenly starts to look more than just a little bit boring, part of the old days when we actually had to make stuff and you had to have the same as everyone else and it all cost a fortune and needed charged up all the time.

The internet of things is only starting to arrive. But it won’t stay for long before it hides in the cupboard and disappears from memory. A far, far more exciting future is coming up close behind. The world of creativity and imagination. Bring it on!

Deterring rape and sexual assault

Since writing this a new set of stats has come out (yes, I should have predicted that):

http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/crime-stats/crime-statistics/focus-on-violent-crime-and-sexual-offences–2012-13/rft-table-2.xls

New technology appears all the time, but it seemed to me that some very serious problems were being under-addressed, such as rape and sexual assault. Technology obviously won’t solve them alone, but I believe it could help to some degree. However, I wanted to understand the magnitude of the problem first, so sought out the official statistics. I found it intensely frustrating task that left me angry that government is so bad at collecting proper data. So although I started this as another technology blog, it evolved and I now also discuss the statistics too, since poor quality data collection and communication on such an important issue as rape is a huge problem in itself. That isn’t a technology issue, it is one of government competence.

Anyway, the headline stats are that:

1060 rapes of women and 522 rapes of girls under 16 resulted in court convictions. A third as many attempted rapes also resulted in convictions.

14767 reports of rapes or attempted rapes (typically 25%) of females were initially recorded by the police, of which 33% were against girls under 16.

The Crime Survey for England and Wales estimates that 69000 women claim to have been subjected to rape or attempted rape.

I will discuss the stats further after I have considered how technology could help to reduce rape, the original point of the blog.

This is a highly sensitive area, and people get very upset with any discussion of rape because of its huge emotional impact. I don’t want to upset anybody by misplacing blame so let me say very clearly:

Rape or sexual assault are never a victim’s fault. There are no circumstances under which it is acceptable to take part in any sexual act with anyone against their will. If someone does so, it is entirely their fault, not the victim’s. People should not have to protect themselves but should be free to do as they wish without fear of being raped or sexually assaulted. Some people clearly don’t respect that right and rapes and sexual assaults happen. The rest of us want fewer people to be raped or assaulted and want more guilty people to be convicted. Technology can’t stop rape, and I won’t suggest that it can, but if it can help reduce someone’s chances of becoming a victim or help convict a culprit, even in just some cases, that’s progress.  I just want to do my bit to help as an engineer. Please don’t just think up reasons why a particular solution is no use in a particular case, think instead how it might help in a few. There are lots of rapes and assaults where nothing I suggest will be of any help at all. Technology can only ever be a small part of our fight against sex crime.

Let’s start with something we could easily do tomorrow, using social networking technology to alert potential victims to some dangers, deter stranger rape or help catch culprits. People encounter strangers all the time – at work, on transport, in clubs, pubs, coffee bars, shops, as well as dark alleys and tow-paths. In many of these places, we expect IT infrastructure, communications, cameras, and people with smartphones. 

Social networks often use location and some apps know who some of the people near you are. Shops are starting to use face recognition to identify regular customers and known troublemakers. Videos from building cameras are already often used to try to identify potential suspects or track their movements. Suppose in the not-very-far future, a critical mass of people carried devices that recorded the data of who was near them, throughout the day, and sent it regularly into the cloud. That device could be a special purpose device or it could just be a smartphone with an app on it. Suppose a potential victim in a club has one. They might be able to glance at an app and see a social reputation for many of the people there. They’d see that some are universally considered to be fine upstanding members of the community, even by previous partners, who thought they were nice people, just not right for them. They might see that a few others have had relationships where one or more of their previous partners had left negative feedback, which may or may not be justified. The potential victim might reasonably be more careful with the ones that have dodgy reputations, whether they’re justified or not, and even a little wary of those who don’t carry such a device. Why don’t they carry one? Surely if they were OK, they would? That’s what critical mass does. Above a certain level of adoption, it would rapidly become the norm. Like any sort of reputation, giving someone a false or unjustified rating would carry its own penalty. If you try to get back at an ex by telling lies about them, you’d quickly be identified as a liar by others, or they might sue you for libel. Even at this level, social networking can help alert some people to potential danger some of the time.

Suppose someone ends up being raped. Thanks to the collection of that data by their device (and those of others) of who was where, when, with whom, the police would more easily be able to identify some of the people the victim had encountered and some of them would be able to identify some of the others who didn’t carry such a device. The data would also help eliminate a lot of potential suspects too. Unless a rapist had planned in advance to rape, they may even have such a device with them. That might itself be a deterrent from later raping someone they’d met, because  they’d know the police would be able to find them easier. Some clubs and pubs might make it compulsory to carry one, to capitalise on the market from being known as relatively safe hangouts. Other clubs and pubs might be forced to follow suit. We could end up with a society where most of the time, potential rapists would know that their proximity to their potential victim would be known most of the time. So they might behave.

So even social networking such as we have today or could easily produce tomorrow is capable of acting as a deterrent to some people considering raping a stranger. It increases their chances of being caught, and provides some circumstantial evidence at least of their relevant movements when they are.

Smartphones are very underused as a tool to deter rape. Frequent use of social nets such as uploading photos or adding a diary entry into Facebook helps to make a picture of events leading up to a crime that may later help in inquiries. Again, that automatically creates a small deterrence by increasing the chances of being investigated. It could go a lot further though. Life-logging may use a microphone that records a continuous audio all day and a camera that records pictures when the scene changes. This already exists but is not in common use yet – frequent Facebook updates are as far as most people currently get to life-logging. Almost any phone is capable of recording audio, and can easily do so from a pocket or bag, but if a camera is to record frequent images, it really needs to be worn. That may be OK in several years if we’re all wearing video visors with built-in cameras, but in practice and for the short-term, we’re realistically stuck with just the audio.

So life-logging technology could record a lot of the events, audio and pictures leading up to an offense, and any smartphone could do at least some of this. A rapist might forcefully search and remove such devices from a victim or their bag, but by then they might already have transmitted a lot of data into the cloud, possibly even evidence of a struggle that may be used later to help convict. If not removed, it could even record audio throughout the offence, providing a good source of evidence. Smartphones also have accelerometers in them, so they could even act as a sort of black box, showing when a victim was still, walking, running, or struggling. Further, phones often have tracking apps on them, so if a rapist did steal a phone, it may show their later movements up to the point where they dumped it. Phones can also be used to issue distress calls. An emergency distress button would be easy to implement, and could transmit exact location stream audio  to the emergency services. An app could also be set up to issue a distress call automatically under specific circumstances, such at it detecting a struggle or a scream or a call for help. Finally, a lot of phones are equipped for ID purposes, and that will generally increase the proportion of people in a building whose identity is known. Someone who habitually uses their phone for such purposes could be asked to justify disabling ID or tracking services when later interviewed in connection with an offense. All of these developments will make it just a little bit harder to escape justice and that knowledge would act as a deterrent.

Overall, a smart phone, with its accelerometer, positioning, audio, image and video recording and its ability to record and transmit any such data on to cloud storage makes it into a potentially very useful black box and that surely must be a significant deterrent. From the point of view of someone falsely accused, it also could act as a valuable proof of innocence if they can show that the whole time they were together was amicable, or if indeed they were somewhere else altogether at the time. So actually, both sides of a date have an interest in using such black box smartphone technology and on a date with someone new, a sensible precautionary habit could be encouraged to enable continuous black box logging throughout a date. People might reasonably object to having a continuous recording happening during a legitimate date if they thought there was a danger it could be used by the other person to entertain their friends or uploaded on to the web later, but it could easily be implemented to protect privacy and avoiding the risk of misuse. That could be achieved by using an app that keeps the record on a database but gives nobody access to it without a court order. It would be hard to find a good reason to object to the other person protecting themselves by using such an app. With such protection and extra protection, perhaps it could become as much part of safe sex as using a condom. Imagine if women’s groups were to encourage a trend to make this sort of recording on dates the norm – no app, no fun!

These technologies would be useful primarily in deterring stranger rape or date rape. I doubt if they would help as much with rapes that are by someone the victim knows. There are a number of reasons. It’s reasonable to assume that when the victim knows the rapist, and especially if they are partners and have regular sex, it is far less likely that either would have a recording going. For example, a woman may change her mind during sex that started off consensually. If the man forces her to continue, it is very unlikely that there would be anything recorded to prove rape occurred. In an abusive or violent relationship, an abused partner might use an audio recording via a hidden device when they are concerned – an app could initiate a recording on detection of a secret keyword, or when voices are raised, even when the phone is put in a particular location or orientation. So it might be easy to hide the fact that a recording is going and it could be useful in some cases. However, the fear of being caught doing so by a violent partner might be a strong deterrent, and an abuser may well have full access to or even control of their partner’s phone, and most of all, a victim generally doesn’t know they are going to be raped. So the phone probably isn’t a very useful factor when the victim and rapist are partners or are often together in that kind of situation. However, when it is two colleagues or friends in a new kind of situation, which also accounts for a significant proportion of rapes, perhaps it is more appropriate and normal dating protocols for black box app use may more often apply. Companies could help protect employees by insisting that such a black box recording is in force when any employees are together, in or out of office hours. They could even automate it by detecting proximity of their employees’ phones.

The smartphone is already ubiquitous and everyone is familiar with installing and using apps, so any of this could be done right away. A good campaign supported by the right groups could ensure good uptake of such apps very quickly. And it needn’t be all phone-centric. A new class of device would be useful for those who feel threatened in abusive relationships. Thanks to miniaturisation, recording and transmission devices can easily be concealed in just about any everyday object, many that would be common in a handbag or bedroom drawer or on a bedside table. If abuse isn’t just a one-off event, they may offer a valuable means of providing evidence to deal with an abusive partner.

Obviously, black boxes or audio recording can’t stop someone from using force or threats, but it can provide good quality evidence, and the deterrent effect of likely being caught is a strong defence against any kind of crime. I think that is probably as far as technology can go. Self-defense weapons such as pepper sprays and rape alarms already exist, but we don’t allow use of tasers or knives or guns and similar restrictions would apply to future defence technologies. Automatically raising an alarm and getting help to the scene quickly is the only way we can reasonably expect technology to help deal with a rape that is occurring, but that makes the use of deterrence via probably detection all the more valuable. Since the technologies also help protect the innocent against false accusations, that would help in getting their social adoption.

So much for what we could do with existing technology. In a few years, we will become accustomed to having patches of electronics stuck on our skin. Active skin and even active makeup will have a lot of medical functions, but it could also include accelerometers, recording devices, pressure sensors and just about anything that uses electronics. Any part of the body can be printed with active skin or active makeup, which is then potentially part of this black box system. Invisibly small sensors in makeup, on thin membranes or even embedded among skin cells could notionally detect, measure and record any kiss, caress, squeeze or impact, even record the physical sensations experiences by recording the nerve signals. It could record pain or discomfort, along with precise timing, location, and measure many properties of the skin touching or kissing it too. It might be possible for a victim to prove exactly when a rape happened, exactly what it involved, and who was responsible. Such technology is already being researched around the world. It will take a while to develop and become widespread, but it will come.

I don’t want this to sound frivolous, but I suggested many years ago that when women get breast implants, they really ought to have at least some of the space used for useful electronics, and electronics can actually be made using silicone. A potential rapist can’t steal or deactivate a smart breast implant as easily as a phone. If a woman is going to get implants anyway, why not get ones that increase her safety by having some sort of built-in black box? We don’t have to wait a decade for the technology to do that.

The statistics show that many rapes and sexual assaults that are reported don’t result in a conviction. Some accusations may be false, and I couldn’t find any figures for that number, but lack of good evidence is one of the biggest reasons why many genuine rapes don’t result in conviction. Technology can’t stop rapes, but it can certainly help a lot to provide good quality evidence to make convictions more likely when rapes and assaults do occur.

By making people more aware of potentially risky dates, and by gathering continuous data streams when they are with someone, technology can provide an extra level of safety and a good deterrent against rape and sexual assault. That in no way implies that rape is anyone’s fault except the rapist, but with high social support, it could help make a significant drop in rape incidence and a large rise in conviction rates. I am aware that in the biggest category, the technology I suggest has the smallest benefit to offer, so we will still need to tackle rape by other means. It is only a start, but better some reduction than none.

The rest of this blog is about rape statistics, not about technology or the future. It may be of interest to some readers. Its overwhelming conclusion is that official stats are a mess and nobody has a clue how many rapes actually take place.

Summary Statistics

We hear politicians and special interest groups citing and sometimes misrepresenting wildly varying statistics all the time, and now I know why. It’s hard to know the true scale of the problem, and very easy indeed to be confused by  poor presentation of poor quality government statistics in the sexual offenses category. That is a huge issue and source of problems in itself. Although it is very much on the furthest edge of my normal brief, I spent three days trawling through the whole sexual offenses field, looking at the crime survey questionnaires, the gaping holes and inconsistencies in collected data, and the evolution of offense categories over the last decade. It is no wonder government policies and public debate are so confused when the data available is so poor. It very badly needs fixed. 

There are several stages at which some data is available outside and within the justice system. The level of credibility of a claim obviously varies at each stage as the level of evidence increases.

Outside of the justice system, someone may claim to have been raped in a self-completion module of The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), knowing that it is anonymous, nobody will query their response, no further verification will be required and there will be no consequences for anyone. There are strong personal and political reasons why people may be motivated to give false information in a survey designed to measure crime levels (in either direction), especially in those sections not done by face to face interview, and these reasons are magnified when people filling it in know that their answers will be scaled up to represent the whole population, so that already introduces a large motivational error source. However, even for a person fully intending to tell the truth in the survey, some questions are ambiguous or biased, and some are highly specific while others leave far too much scope for interpretation, leaving gaps in some areas while obsessing with others. In my view, the CSEW is badly conceived and badly implemented. In spite of unfounded government and police assurances that it gives a more accurate picture of crime than other sources, having read it, I have little more confidence in the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW)  as an indicator of actual crime levels than a casual conversation in a pub. We can be sure that some people don’t report some rapes for a variety of reasons and that in itself is a cause for concern. We don’t know how many go unreported, and the CSEW is not a reasonable indicator. We need a more reliable source.

The next stage for potential stats is that anyone may report any rape to the police, whether of themselves, a friend or colleague, witnessing a rape of a stranger, or even something they heard. The police will only record some of these initial reports as crimes, on a fairly common sense approach. According to the report, ‘the police record a crime if, on the balance of probability, the circumstances as reported amount to a crime defined by law and if there is no credible evidence to the contrary‘. 7% of these are later dropped for reasons such as errors in initial recording or retraction. However, it has recently been revealed that some forces record every crime reported whereas others record it only after it has passed the assessment above, damaging the quality of the data by mixing two different types of data together. In such an important area of crime, it is most unsatisfactory that proper statistics are not gathered in a consistent way for each stage of the criminal justice process, using the same criteria in every force.

Having recorded crimes, the police will proceed some of them through the criminal justice system.

Finally, the courts will find proven guilt in some of those cases.

I looked for the data for each of these stages, expecting to find vast numbers of table detailing everything. Perhaps they exist, and I certainly followed a number of promising routes, but most of the roads I followed ended up leading back to the CSEW and the same overview report. This joint overview report for the UK was produced by the  Ministry of Justice, Home Office and the Office for National Statistics in 2013, and it includes a range of tables with selected data from actual convictions through to results of the crime survey of England and Wales. While useful, it omits a lot of essential data that I couldn’t find anywhere else either.

The report and its tables can be accessed from:

http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/crime-stats/an-overview-of-sexual-offending-in-england—wales/december-2012/index.html

Another site gives a nice infographic on police recording, although for a different period. It is worth looking at if only to see the wonderful caveat: ‘the police figures exclude those offences which have not been reported to them’. Here it is:

http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/crime-stats/crime-statistics/period-ending-june-2013/info-sexual-offenses.html

In my view the ‘overview of sexual offending’ report mixes different qualities of data for different crimes and different victim groups in such a way as to invite confusion, distortion and misrepresentation. I’d encourage you to read it yourself if only to convince you of the need to pressure government to do it properly. Be warned, a great deal of care is required to work out exactly what and which victim group each refers to. Some figures include all people, some only females, some only women 16-59 years old. Some refer to different crime groups with similar sounding names such as sexual assault and sexual offence, some include attempts whereas others don’t. Worst of all, some very important statistics are missing, and it’s easy to assume another one refers to what you are looking for when on closer inspection, it doesn’t. However, there doesn’t appear to be a better official report available, so I had to use it. I’ve done my best to extract and qualify the headline statistics.

Taking rapes against both males and females, in 2011, 1153 people were convicted of carrying out 2294 rapes or attempted rapes, an average of 2 each. The conviction rate was 34.6% of 6630 proceeded against, from 16041 rapes or attempted rapes recorded by the police. Inexplicably, conviction figures are not broken down by victim gender, nor by rape or attempted rape. 

Police recording stats are broken down well. Of the 16041, 1274 (8%) of the rapes and attempted rapes recorded by the police were against males, while 14767 (92%) were against females. 33% of the female rapes recorded and 70% of male rapes recorded were against children (though far more girls were raped than boys). Figures are also broken down well against ethnicity and age, for offender and victim. Figures elsewhere suggested that 25% of rape attempts are unsuccessful, which combined with the 92% proportion that were rapes of females would indicate 1582 convictions for actual rape of a female, approximately 1060 women and 522 girls, but those figures only hold true if the proportions are similar through to conviction. 

Surely such a report should clearly state such an important figure as the number of rapes of a female that led to a conviction, and not leave it to readers to calculate their own estimate from pieces of data spread throughout the report. Government needs to do a lot better at gathering, categorising, analysing and reporting clear and accurate data. 

That 1582 figure for convictions is important, but it represents only the figure for rapes proven beyond reasonable doubt. Some females were raped and the culprit went unpunished. There has been a lot of recent effort to try to get a better conviction rate for rapes. Getting better evidence more frequently would certainly help get more convictions. A common perception is that many or even most rapes are unreported so the focus is often on trying to get more women to report it when they are raped. If someone knows they have good evidence, they are more likely to report a rape or assault, since one of the main reasons they don’t report it is lack of confidence that the police can do anything.

Although I don’t have much confidence in the figures from the CSEW, I’ll list them anyway. Perhaps you have greater confidence in them. The CSEW uses a sample of people, and then results are scaled up to a representation of the whole population. The CSEW (Crime Survey of England and Wales) estimates that 52000 (95% confidence level of between 39000 and 66000) women between 16 and 59 years old claim to have been victim of actual rape in the last 12 months, based on anonymous self-completion questionnaires, with 69000 (95% confidence level of between 54000 and 85000) women claiming to have been victim of attempted or actual rape in the last 12 months. 

In the same period, 22053 sexual assaults were recorded by the police. I couldn’t find any figures for convictions for sexual assaults, only for sexual offenses, which is a different, far larger category that includes indecent exposure and voyeurism. It isn’t clear why the report doesn’t include the figures for sexual assault convictions. Again, government should do better in their collection and presentation of important statistics.

The overview report also gives the stats for the number of women who said they reported a rape or attempted rape. 15% of women said they told the police, 57% said they told someone else but not the police, and 28% said they told nobody. The report does give the reasons commonly cited for not telling the police: “Based on the responses of female victims in the 2011/12 survey, the most frequently cited were that it would be ‘embarrassing’, they ‘didn’t think the police could do much to help’, that the incident was ‘too trivial/not worth reporting’, or that they saw it as a ‘private/family matter and not police business’.”

Whether you pick the 2110 convictions of rape or attempted rape against a female or the 69000 claimed in anonymous questionnaires, or anywhere in between, a lot of females are being subjected to actual and attempted rapes, and a lot victim of sexual assault. The high proportion of victims that are young children is especially alarming. Male rape is a big problem too, but the figures are a lot lower than for female rape.

Will marketing evolve from fiend to friend?

Let’s start with a possibly over-critical view of marketing today, to emphasise the problem that I think needs solved.

Marketing helps to make us aware of new products and services we might want to buy, and provides some well paid jobs. That’s the good side. But marketing saps a lot of money out of the system, skimming off money as it helps move it around – like banking, or car parking fees for shoppers, without giving much back to GDP. It helps companies sell things, but adds costs to the customer that could have been spent on other products and services. We basically pay companies to tell us to buy their products. Of that money, marketers spend far too high a proportion on advertising, which is basically the lazy marketing option. They waste our time as we watch TV, cold call us, send nuisance texts and automated calls, fill our data quotas with video ads, delay downloads, force installation of applications to block them, which all requires extra computer power and maintenance. In short, we pay them to waste a significant proportion of our precious lifetime as well as our money. In fact the financial cost added to every product is dwarfed by the costs of the extra time consumed. All the extra energy used to broadcast ads on TV or the net or the extra paper and bleach and ink to put them in magazines has an enormous environmental impact too. Advertising consumes a huge amount of resources but on a per-advert basis is very ineffective at making us buy. Google makes a fortune from UK companies for its adverts but by diverting the ad sales through Ireland, manages to avoid paying UK tax, therefore pulling off an excellent vampire impression, dressing stylish and looking cool while sucking the lifeblood from industry. By using up so much air time and online bandwidth advertising directly impedes productive uses. On current form, because of excessive reliance on the lazy option, marketers are more fiend than friend.

Marketing has almost become a one-tool profession, too willing to annoy a lot of people to get a few sales. Other components of marketing such as launch events and trade shows are effective and very effectively target those who are likely to be interested, but advertising dwarfs them. Surely there has to be a better way. How do we get marketing to go from fiend to friend?

There is. Pull marketing (if done properly) gives people what they ask for, in the right form, on the right platform, when they ask for it, not what they don’t want, in their faces, all the time. Marketing will evolve from push to pull. However much the marketing industry and advertisers don’t want it to go that way, the potential value for a given spend via pull marketing is so much higher that it is inevitable. Think about it. Only an idiot would employ someone to stand in a doorway blocking the entrance, jumping up and down screaming messages at customers that are actually trying to squeeze past into the store to spend money. That is the difference between push and pull. Unfortunately for marketers, pull needs different skills, so if they don’t have them, they need to retrain or they will eventually be made redundant. They can hide and massage performance figures for a while to hide the ineffectiveness of throwing money down the drain on advertising, but not forever.

People want to know what is available that might be of interest to them. They also want clues to help filter the vast number of potential products down to a manageable choice. They don’t want silence from suppliers, but appropriate and timely information. Branding is aimed at this of course. So is PR. Marketing should be better integrated into ongoing background brand management and public relations, with excellent web sites to provide information when people want it. In that way, people will think of them when they want something, and be able to find the most appropriate product easily.

The task of providing a good website is often allocated to other groups in the company. This is a mistake. The website needs to be extremely well integrated with marketing, PR and brand. In many companies, only the brand people get a strong influence. A potential customer coming to the site from any angle of approach should be faced with extremely easy navigation, immersed in the values and styles they already associate with that brand and assisted as far as possible in what they are trying to do. They should not be bombarded with waves of ads, popups and guano that prevents them from finding what they want. Even if a customer wants to cancel a service, it should be very easy to do so. They are far more likely to come back than if they had to spend ages finding their way through a maze and over barriers to do so.

One way of keeping customers aware without ramming branding message down their throats every day is to integrate into target communities as useful members rather than just seeing them as potential sales. People will always favour their friends, so actually being a friend is a good idea. That shouldn’t be any great revelation. Big companies recognise their relative inability to engage with local communities across their range and harness an army of resellers who can better achieve this local involvement. Social networking provides a good alternative channel to local resellers, but not by using the wasteful and annoying blanket broadcasting that we usually see. It needs to be focused. A reseller wouldn’t waste time cold calling every resident in an area just in case. They focus efforts on targets that are likely to buy. They do the customer’s work for them, identifying those for whom a product is suited and then making contact. Being friends also means giving genuine discounts or exclusive deals to regular customers. It doesn’t mean using them to palm off products that you can’t shift through normal channels.

Lifestyle is an easy route too. Everyone lives differently, but many people reveal their lifestyles via magazines or newspapers that they buy, the places they visit, the things they do, and indeed the products and services they buy. These are obviously high value marketing hooks. People like their existing opinions and attitudes to be reaffirmed. Letting them know they have made a good decision buying your product makes them feel better about the spend. It takes skill to package such affirming in a way that it doesn’t come across like the lazy ‘congratulations on buying this’. Providing favourable reviews, news links and ongoing support would soon become spam if used too much, but sparingly and with appropriate products, it can be useful.

Handled properly, excluding employees with deep staff discounts, the most likely person to buy is someone who has bought from you before, then in second place, someone who has bought equivalent products from a competitor, then someone who has a strong proven interest in that field. Much further away is someone with a casual unspecified interest in the area who just happens to have chosen a particular keyword in a search for any reason whatsoever, and in the very far distance, a total stranger. Yet those last two are where most advertising revenue is spent.

Magazines are an excellent platform to reach targeted groups, but they still need the right approach. An advert in a magazine is more likely to be read than one in a newspaper, but is still likely to be ignored. An article by a trusted writer will be read, and if it mentions your product favourably, the trust in the writer transfers to your product. If they already have it, it builds the feel-good factor. Strongly themed magazines form an important part of the self-selected lifestyle choice, especially since people can only buy a few each month, and this trust and identification with its writers can go far beyond the magazine itself, into their social media and blogs, and soon, into their augmented reality as they wander around. As social media continues to expand into the high street with location-based services, that relationship will grow and winning the favour and approval of writers will become a more important part of marketing. Care is needed of course. Writers will not want to appear partial since that would compromise their trust and their following, but providing exclusive information to them and being honest about defects wins support without threatening impartiality.

As we move into the era of augmented reality, companies are already discovering how to use precise location. Today, location doesn’t just rely on GPS or mobile signal strengths. Image recognition can identify a customer and also exactly where they are, what gestures they are making, even the expression on their face. From those and various other contributing factors is evolving the huge technology field called context. Context is very important in knowing whether to give marketing information at all and if so, how and what. It helps make sure that efforts are spent to make customers want to buy rather then to make them avoid you. A family might be interested in meal vouchers when lunchtime is creeping up. If they’ve just eaten (and paid), the same vouchers may be very unwelcome. If I have just bought a car, the last thing I want is proof that I could have got it or a better one cheaper or had some extras thrown in!

As context technology develops in parallel with positioning, image recognition and augmented reality technology, we will see the air around us essentially digitised, context-sensitive messages pinned to every cubic millimetre of the air. Digital air, or virtual air, will be a major new marketing platform that will offer hugely more potential and value than advertising, with far less cost and customer annoyance. It also offers the potential to bombard customers with unwelcome blanket ads too, so it will be easy for the industry to shoot itself in the foot. Not just easy, but probably inevitable in an industry with some players who think it is smart to deliberately offend people. If that happens, spam filters will block such ads and the potential will be damaged irreparably for everyone.

Word of mouth is one of the best forms of marketing. It is free and natural and goes to companies who provide good products or services. In its simplest form, it is like ebay’s  reputation score on Facebook’s ‘like’ button. At a higher detail level, companies such as Trip Advisor make good income by harnessing the desire people have to tell others about their experiences, good or bad. People will often take guidance from strangers when there is no better alternative, and even though everyone knows some reviews are by friends, competitors or by people who have never even had any experience of the supplier, if there are a lot of strangers giving reviews, the assumed probability is that most will be telling the truth and any bias will be reduced.

Even so, these sites don’t reach the same level of trust that people have in their friends and colleagues. We should expect that to be harnessed far more in the next few years. Innovative Amazon is among the leaders as always, trying to harness this with its ‘I just bought’ social network button. However, I’m not at all interested what my friends have bought. I am far more interested in whether it turned out to be a good or a bad buy, and then only if I am looking for something similar. I certainly don’t want spam every time anyone I know buys anything. A service that lets people review stuff and then allows people to see the reviews, sorted according to social proximity of the reviewer would be far better. If such a site already exists, as it may well do, I am not yet exposed to it, so it has its own marketing to do. So what is needed would be a site like Trip Advisor, but with a social proximity selector that strips away reviews from friends and competitors, restricts to those who have actually purchased, and then sorted according to social proximity with the reader. By linking to your other social network sites, and identifying your friends and colleagues, it would be able to show you any reviews from that group.

Unfortunately, we already see a rising barrier to this kind of development. Too often, companies want access to our social networks to do push marketing to a broader community of relevance, to make personalized ads, and essentially to use our contacts to abuse us even more efficiently. That is an industry destroying its own future prospects. By misusing the potential to do its push marketing today, it is destroying the potential to do far more effective pull marketing tomorrow. It gets a tiny benefit today at the expense of a huge one tomorrow. Most of us have already become wary of allowing access to our contacts lists because we already assume for good reason that they will be abused. Spam filters quickly remove any short-term benefit they may have won, and prevent future mutual benefit.

Most of these areas of future potential share the same threat of destruction by the very industry that can benefit most. Marketing will move from push to pull whether marketers want it to or not. By trying to force the worst practices from the push era onto the areas that offer the best potential in the pull era, they will only ensure that marketing will remain an underachiever. Sadly, a few players today can and probably will ruin it for many tomorrow. The result is that marketers will marginalize themselves, making themselves relatively powerless in a world where they could have been powerful.

People will find what they want, and what their friends think of things, but they will do so via sites and intermediary companies who respect them, respect their privacy, and give them what they want, not what they try hard to avoid getting, not via push marketers. Pull marketing done well will go to new players who have no time for the old practices and values, to people who want to improve the lives of others by helping them make the right purchasing decisions, not trying to make them buy the wrong ones.  The likely mechanism for this is use of social networking sites that have a different business model than selling adverts – perhaps even ones with the primary purpose of helping the community and improving quality of life rather than making money.

Marketing will evolve from fiend to friend. Hopefully it will be by the fiends reforming, rather than simply dying.

Why can’t we make an open source substitute for Facebook/Google etc?

Google is taking flak because of forcing people to join Google+ just so they can comment on a YouTube video, presumably so they can gather more personal data for their ad targetting. Facebook seems to take flak every week for yet another privacy abuse of its users. Twitter hasn’t been in trouble for ages.

It seems to me that when we can make open source office applications and open source operating systems, that an open source general purpose social networking platform should be perfectly feasible. On it, people would be able to keep in touch, share videos, messages, emails, pictures and text, hang out and chat using text or audio-video, comment generally to the world about anything, and could do so freely without having to give up their anonymity, or have to be bombarded with ads.

There can’t be a fundamental patent problem stopping it, because there are lots of sites that let people share videos and text and other kinds of files. There are so many ways to do it that any particular patent can be circumvented.

If our personal data is so useful, the platform could even provide a way of people collecting it for themselves and then selling it for a discount to any company they want to sell it to, but the initial value would be theirs, not some big company.

I did a quick search, search being something else that could become open source, running on distributed peer to peer networks, our own PCs essentially. Some open source social networking components already exist out there. All we should need is a few bits of sticky tape and glue to put them all together now, surely?

Isn’t it time to tell these big companies where to go and reclaim the net for ourselves?

The future of music creation

When I was a student, I saw people around me that could play musical instruments and since I couldn’t, I felt a bit inadequate, so I went out and bought a £13 guitar and taught myself to play. Later, I bought a keyboard and learned to play that too. I’ve never been much good at either, and can’t read music, but  if I know a tune, I can usually play it by ear and sometimes I compose, though I never record any of my compositions. Music is highly rewarding, whether listening or creating. I play well enough for my enjoyment and there are plenty of others who can play far better to entertain audiences.

Like almost everyone, most of the music I listen to is created by others and today, you can access music by a wide range of means. It does seem to me though that the music industry is stuck in the 20th century. Even concerts seem primitive compared to what is possible. So have streaming and download services. For some reason, new technology seems mostly to have escaped its attention, apart from a few geeks. There are a few innovative musicians and bands out there but they represent a tiny fraction of the music industry. Mainstream music is decades out of date.

Starting with the instruments themselves, even electronic instruments produce sound that appears to come from a single location. An electronic violin or guitar is just an electronic version of a violin or guitar, the sound all appears to come from a single point all the way through. It doesn’t  throw sound all over the place or use a wide range of dynamic effects to embrace the audience in surround sound effects. Why not? Why can’t a musician or a technician make the music meander around the listener, creating additional emotional content by getting up close, whispering right into an ear, like a violinist picking out an individual woman in a bar and serenading her? High quality surround sound systems have been in home cinemas for yonks. They are certainly easy to arrange in a high budget concert. Audio shouldn’t stop with stereo. It is surprising just how little use current music makes of existing surround sound capability. It is as if they think everyone only ever listens on headphones.

Of course, there is no rule that electronic instruments have to be just electronic derivatives of traditional ones, and to be fair, many sounds and effects on keyboards and electric guitars do go a lot further than just emulating traditional variants. But there still seems to be very little innovation in new kinds of instrument to explore dynamic audio effects, especially any that make full use of the space around the musician and audience. With the gesture recognition already available even on an Xbox or PS3, surely we should have a much more imaginative range of potential instruments, where you can make precise gestures, wave or throw your arms, squeeze your hands, make an emotional facial expression or delicately pinch, bend or slide fingers to create effects. Even multi-touch on phones or pads should have made a far bigger impact by now.

(As an aside, ever since I was a child, I have thought that there must be a visual equivalent to music. I don’t know what it is, and probably never will, but surely, there must be visual patterns or effects that can generate an equivalent emotional response to music. I feel sure that one day someone will discover how to generate them and the field will develop.)

The human body is a good instrument itself. Most people can sing to a point or at least hum or whistle a tune even if they can’t play an instrument. A musical instrument is really just an unnecessary interface between your brain, which knows what sound you want to make, and an audio production mechanism. Up until the late 20th century, the instrument made the sound, today, outside of a live concert at least,  it is very usually a computer with a digital to analog converter and a speaker attached. Links between computers and people are far better now though, so we can bypass the hard-to-learn instrument bit. With thought recognition, nerve monitoring, humming, whistling, gesture and expression recognition and so on, there is a very rich output from the body that can potentially be used far more intuitively and directly to generate the sound. You shouldn’t have to learn how to play an instrument in the 21st century. The sound creation process should interface almost directly to your brain as intuitively as your body does. If you can hum it, you can play it. Or should be able to, if the industry was keeping up.

Going a bit further, most of us have some idea what sort of music or effect we want to create, but don’t know quite enough about music to have the experience or skill to know quite what. A skilled composer may be able to write something down right away to achieve a musical effect that the rest of us would struggle to imagine. So, add some AI. Most music is based on fairly straightforward mathematical principles, even symphonies are mostly combinations of effects and sequences that fit well within AI-friendly guidelines. We use calculators to do calculations, so use AI to help compose music. Any of us should be able to compose great music with tools we should be able to build now. It shouldn’t be the future, it should be the present.

Let’s look at music distribution. When we buy a music track or stream it, why do we still only get the audio? Why isn’t the music video included by default? Sure, you can watch on YouTube but then you generally get low quality audio and video. Why isn’t purchased music delivered at the highest quality with full HD 3D video included, or videos if the band has made a few, with all the latest ones included as they emerge? If a video is available for music video channels, it surely should be available to those who have bought the music. That it isn’t reflects the contempt that the music industry generally shows to its customers. It treats us as a bunch of thieves who must only ever be given the least possible access for the greatest possible outlay, to make up for all the times we must of course be stealing off them. That attitude has to change if the industry is to achieve its potential. 

Augmented reality is emerging now. It already offers some potential to add overlays at concerts but in a few years, when video visors are commonplace, we should expect to see band members playing up in the air, flying around the audience, virtual band members, cartoon and fantasy creations all over the place doping all sorts of things, visual special effects overlaying the sound effects. Concerts will be a spectacular opportunity to blend the best of visual, audio, dance, storytelling, games and musical arts together. Concerts could be much more exciting, if they use the technology potential. Will they? I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Much of this could be done already, but only a little is.

Now lets consider the emotional connection between a musician and the listener. We are all very aware of the intense (though unilateral) relationship teens can often build with their pop idols. They may follow them on Twitter and other social nets as well as listening to their music and buying their posters. Augmented reality will let them go much further still. They could have their idol with them pretty much all the time, virtually present in their field of view, maybe even walking hand in hand, maybe even kissing them. The potential spectrum extends from distant listening to intimate cuddles. Bearing in mind especially the ages of many fans, how far should we allow this to go and how could it be policed?

Clothing adds potential to the emotional content during listening too. Headphones are fine for the information part of audio, but the lack of stomach-throbbing sound limits the depth of the experience. Music is more than information. Some music is only half there if it isn’t at the right volume. I know from personal experience that not everyone seems to understand this, but turning the volume down (or indeed up) sometimes destroys the emotional content. Sometimes you have to feel the music, sometimes let it fully conquer your senses. Already, people are experimenting with clothes that can house electronics, some that flash on and off in synch with the music, and some that will be able to contract and expand their fibres under electronic control. You will be able to buy clothes that give you the same vibration you would otherwise get from the sub-woofer or the rock concert.

Further down the line, we will be able to connect IT directly into the nervous system. Active skin is not far away. Inducing voltages and current in nerves via tiny implants or onplants on patches of skin will allow computers to generate sensations directly.

This augmented reality and a link to the nervous system gives another whole dimension to telepresence. Band members at a concert will be able to play right in front of audience members, shake them, cuddle them. The emotional connection could be a lot better.

Picking up electrical clues from the skin allows automated music selection according to the wearers emotional state. Even properties like skin conductivity can give clues about emotional state. Depending on your stress level for example, music could be played that soothes you, or if you feel calm, maybe more stimulating tracks could be played. Playlists would thus adapt to how you feel.

Finally, music is a social thing too. It brings people together in shared experiences. This is especially true for the musicians, but audience members often feel some shared experience too. Atmosphere. Social networking already sees some people sharing what music they are listening too (I don’t want to share my tastes but I recognise that some people do, and that’s fine). Where shared musical taste is important to a social group, it could be enhanced by providing tools to enable shared composition. AI can already write music in particular styles – you can feed Mozart of Beethoven into some music generators and they will produce music that sounds like it had been composed by that person, they can compose that as fast as it comes out of the speakers. It could take style preferences from a small group of people and produce music that fits across those styles. The result is a sort of tribal music, representative of the tribe that generated it. In this way, music could become even more of a social tool in the future than it already is.