quote

“Google’s insertion of unsolicited ads directly into inboxes is made possible, paradoxically, by its success in otherwise eliminating them. Google has essentially conquered spam, which was once predicted to be the death of e-mail: less than one per cent of all spam in Gmail reaches an inbox. It could not stuff its own ads in the box if it had not already cleared the space.”

Jon L.’s response: I’ve been using Gmail since it appeared 9 years ago, and while I’m aware Google uses the service to render ads, I never notice them. I’m no more likely to notice them in my inbox, especially if they’re in a box categorized as “promotions.” (All I see in there now, incidentally, is stuff I signed up for).

I’m getting this incredibly sophisticated, spam-free and flexible email system for free; if the cost of that is receipt of a few barely visible ads, I’m certainly not going to quibble. So to Matt Buchanan’s question whether the ads are “too invasive,” I would say no.

Matt Buchanan on integrated ads in Gmail’s redesigned inbox: http://nyr.kr/1aJaw2Y (via newyorker)
post

Trust, reputation, collaborative consumption and service networking

This TED talk by Rachel Botsman describes the online evolution of trust and reputation that’s feeding into new ways of doing business, “collaborative consumption” (AirBNB) and “service networking” (TaskRabbit). More people doing business directly with other people via virtual mediation. Via this trend, people are learning to be more trusting, and with more trust there’s more of this kind of biz.

post

Bad pharma

According to Cory Doctorow at bOING bOING, physicians often prescribe drugs that are ineffective or harmful because pharmaceutical companies provide misleading data, according to an article by Ben Goldacre in the Guardian, “The drugs don’t work: a modern medical scandal.” Goldacre is the author of the forthcoming book Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients. Summary from the caption on the photo above Goldacre’s article: “Drugs are tested by their manufacturers, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques that exaggerate the benefits.”

It’s a tough problem: you depend on your physician’s authority, and the authority of the healthcare establishment, to guide your decisions about health. Even if you trust your physician, can you trust the voices persistently whispering in his ear, especially if those voices are motivated by profit as a priority. Do pharma companies place their profit above your health? Don’t assume an easy answer – it’s complicated, though Goldacre’s book blurb suggests a belief that pharma uses the complexity as a cloak (“All these problems have been protected from public scrutiny because they’re too complex to capture in a sound bite.”)

In the Guardian, Goldacre writes:

Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques that are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments. Unsurprisingly, these trials tend to produce results that favour the manufacturer. When trials throw up results that companies don’t like, they are perfectly entitled to hide them from doctors and patients, so we only ever see a distorted picture of any drug’s true effects. Regulators see most of the trial data, but only from early on in a drug’s life, and even then they don’t give this data to doctors or patients, or even to other parts of government. This distorted evidence is then communicated and applied in a distorted fashion.

post

Doc Searls discussion: The Intention Economy

Doc Searls

I’m leading a discussion on the WELL with Doc Searls about his new book, The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge, which explores new thinking about the power relationship between customers/consumers and vendors. Doc has been rethinking those relationships through Project VRM (via his fellowship at the Berkman Center at Harvard), which has recently led to the creation of a “customer commons.”

It’s an old saw to say that listening to customers is a way to improve and gain new market advantages. But the difference with VRM will be adapting to standards and practices set on the customers’ side — ones that work the same for all companies. There will be less and less leverage in communicating only within a company’s on communication silo. IMHO, “social” services like Twitter and Facebook are not going to provide those standard ways, because they too are privately owned silos.

Scale will only happen when everybody uses the same stuff in the same way. The Internet and its core protocols scaled because they were essentially NEA: Nobody owned them, Everybody Used them and Anybody could improve them. (Yes, some were owned in a legal sense, but in a practical sense they were ownerless. This is why, for example, Ethernet beat Token Ring. Intel, Xerox and Digital essentially released Ethernet into the public domain while IBM wanted to keep Token Ring fully private and charge or it. This bitter lesson had leverage later when IBM embraced Linux.) Email as we know it won because it scaled in exactly that way.

post

Seuss-vertising

Quick, Henry, the Flit! Ad for insect repellent by Dr. Seuss

Theodore Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, created illustrations for ads before he illustrated children’s books. Fast Company has a slideshow featuring a sampling of his ad work.

Seuss became the father of the modern day children’s stories not solely through his inventive lexicon molded into clever syntax and anapestic meter, but also through vivid imaginary worlds and the charming characters within them. Take one look at his early creations for brands including GE, Ford, and NBC, and there’s no denying the framework of his style that would later turn into the denizens of Whoville, Cat in the Hat and Fox in Socks. And, according to the keepers of the Seuss collection at the UC San Diego Library, the enduring brilliance that is Seuss’ legacy can be traced back to a very unlikely source: bug spray.

post

Forward thinking about the competitive workplace

Earlier this week I attended a breakfast panel sponsored by Gensler (http://www.gensler.com), an architecture, design, planning and consultation firm that focuses (among other things) on effective workplace environments, consulting for companies like Google, HP, Yahoo and Facebook. The title of the panel was “Designing your workplace for a competitive edge.”

Here’s my set of notes from the panel:

Evolving workplace:

Version 1.0: Move fast and break things. Emerging culture. Workplaces built for speed, transparency, flexibility.

Version 2.0: 8×8, 1:1. Cubic farms on vast floor plates. Cube dwellers. Butts in seats. Embedded hierarchy.

Version 3.0: (Now). Activity-based era. Changing work process. Mobile, remote work. “We” spaces, not “me” spaces. Support for collaboration. Drivers: faster pace, distributed teams, lean and mean. Changing work processes (from waterfall to agile). Closed to open. Get products to market faster. Multiple space times for multiple work modes. Coworking. Workers not tethered to one company.

Panelists
Derek Woodgate, The Futures Lab: futurist perspective
Eden Bruckman, International Living Future Institute: sustainability perspective
David Bumgardner, HP: real estate acquisition and management perspective.

Bumgardner’s job is to maximize HP’s real estate portfolio. He has to consider how employees work and what kind of environment is conducive to productivity, at the same time maintaining standards across the global HP properties. He focuses on optimal use of all properties, noting that the workforce increasingly consists of mobile employees who require no office or desk. The need for consistent standards is so that wherever the mobile employee goes to an HP facility, the work environment is fairly consistent. Other factors: environmental sustainability, affordability.

A green and sustainable workplace environment can be a competitive edge: some of the most talented employees will factor environmental impact into their decisions about where to work.

Google is another company that focuses on sustainability. The focus is authentic, no greenwashing. Google wants to move beyond LEED, looking through the lens of the Living Building Challenge (https://ilbi.org/lbc).

The build environment is an extension of who we are. We see increasing interest in building bio measurement and feedback into environments. China is looking closely at metrics in building 20 megacities.

Community will no longer be a matter of who’s aggregated in any place, but also how they share and manage resources.

Health and well-being is the new perq for employees; it’s no longer about having a corner office or other sings of hierarchy.

At Zappos, the number 1 priority is company culture, feeling that if you get that right, the rest will happen naturally. How does the built environment impact that culture?

The contemporary work environment needs spaces for energizing and spaces for discharging that energy.

Technology is moving fast, but the build environment is inherently slow.

HP created the Halo Room (http://www.humanproductivitylab.com/archive_blogs/2007/08/28/hp_halo_releases_hp_meeting_ro.php), a set of global networked technology-mediated remote conferencing environments. As these kinds of environments proliferate, travel requirements will decrease. “You’re not going to see that people interaction go away. You’re going to see better ways to get it.”

Increasingly building sustainability into design standards, which may have to vary for different (non-U.S.) contexts. Striving for a zero effect (carbon neutral). Changing densities.

Currently workers don’t feel the same commitment from companies as before, and vice versa. Companies are reducing the numbers of employees and relying more on contractors. We’re creating a world of experts (consultants).

Future workers (currently under 25 years of age) are growing up with a different set of assumptions. Their world is a world of peer groups, not authoritarian hierarchies. It’s a world that’s saturated with technology, especially for communications. For the first time ever, we’re starting to see multiple generations of employees working together in the same office.

post

Worldchanging Interview with Jean Russell on Thrivability (2009)

In September 2009, Worldchanging published my interview with thrivability consultant Jean Russell. I’m republishing the interview here in its entirety. Jean and I have had many conversations since, and I’m persistently intrigued by her well-grounded positive vision of a world in which we humans not only survive sustainably, but thrive. (Last February, Jean arranged for Todd Hoskins to interview me – that interview’s at Thrivable.net.)

Technology consultant, entrepreneur and thrivability theorist Jean Russell joined Jerry Michalski’s August 3 Yi-Tan Conference Call for a conversation about thrivability as a conceptual replacement for sustainabilty. After that talk (which you can hear via the above link), I asked Jean to join me in a brief but enlightening Worldchanging interview.

Jon Lebkowsky: Let’s start with the definition of thrivability I found at http://thrivable.wagn.org/wagn/Nurture, that it’s “our path out of unsustainable practices toward a world where all people have a high quality of life, a voice, and a nurturing earth supporting them. Using whole systems approach, it demands that we evolve our way of being together, of collaborating, so that our collective wisdom and action bring forth a flourishing world and thriving life.”

What’s the origin of this definition, and what led you to start thinking about “thrivability” vs sustainability?

Jean Russell: At a Recent Changes Camp in Portland Oregon in 2006 I had a powerful two-hour conversation with Jair. I have not stayed connected to him, but in that conversation he mentioned the word thrivability. And it took hold of me for several reasons. Jair and I share a connection to Tom Munnecke, and I had been engaged in conversations with Tom on the Omidyar.net community. Tom wrote about solution-focus, positive deviance and other ideas that informed my concepts of thrivability. So I chewed and chewed on the idea, starting a blog to track my explorations.

This definition of thrivability evolved from that blog. Because this was so alive for me, I would talk with people about it wherever I went. And so I really feel that the idea is less mine and more the ideas of people who have shared with me. It is also strongly informed by the three years of conversations on Omidyar.net. I came to the Omidyar.net space as a writer focused on philanthropy, but while there I learned about such a wide variety of elements of social benefit work. I let my curiosity lead me, and the great wisdom of many there guide me. So, for me, thrivability is the umbrella that holds all of these efforts — it speaks to the unified whole of our efforts and the world those efforts aspires to.

I have puzzled over the connection between sustainability and thrivability. When I started the thrivability blog, I wondered if it was simply a language shift or if there was something deeper. Thanks to the network of people involved in the conversation, I feel clearer now than I did in ’07. If we drew a Venn diagram of the two, there is significant overlap. A lot of the work done under the umbrella of sustainability totally fits the concept of thrivability too. It is less that the actions are significantly different as much as the approach and aspiration is different. The language of sustainability is about neutralizing. Thrivability is about succeeding.

An example can help. If we ask, when building a home, “what isn’t sustainable here?” then we get a list of what we could do to make the house sustainable: maybe it says something about the materials we use and how the energy flows. If we are innovative, it also includes water flows and a green roof. If we ask instead, “what would make this home thrivable?” I want thrivable materials and thrivable energy. But I also want thrivable design — how do the living creatures of the home move through it? And while putting in a green roof, did we make it something that can be a garden? Did we consider the interior lighting of the house — not only for heating and cooling, but also for seasonal affective disorder? How does the house play together in the ecology of the neighborhood? Who works to build it? Are their lives more thrivable for having created the house? What else is an input/output or otherwise impacted by this house — and how can that be thrivable? Do you see how the shift from problem-focus to solution-focus includes the strategies employed in addressing the problem but also goes further?

JL: I understand the difference between the two, but it seems to me that you could have a ‘thrivability’ that isn’t sustainable, or that diminishes the sustainability of related or dependent systems. Would it make more sense to talk about “sustainable thrivability”?

JR: I think Arthur Brock points to the answer quite well. He recently wrote:

Thrivability builds on itself. It is a cycle of actions which reinvest energy for future use and stretch resources further. It transcends sustainability by creating an upward spiral of greater possibilities and increasing energy. Each cycle builds the foundation for new things to be accomplished.

Thrivability emerges from the persistent intention to create more value than you consume. When practiced over time this builds a world of ever increasing possibilities.

Thrivability already includes what is meant by sustainability. And it goes beyond it. To say sustainable thrivability in some way limits it, in fact. Think of life forming on Earth — to sustain single celled organisms is one thing — to transcend that and create multi-cellular organisms in another. The earth has conspired for life to thrive, creating upward spirals, building resources, and evolving greater complexity.

It was Arthur who first pointed out to me that the last few hundred years of consuming resources might have been just what the earth required for us to transcend this way and move to the next form of interaction, the next level of complexity.

post

Netflix fixes the wrong problem

You have to wait for new Netflix DVDs.

Word on the street is that Netflix subscribers are fleeing because of recent rate increases; the company hopes to fix this by splitting its streaming service from the DVD service and making both relatively inexpensive. The streaming service will still be Netfix, and the DVD service will be called Qwickster. You can keep both services without paying more, or if you just want DVD service or just want streaming service, you can keep one and ditch the other, and pay less. This could be a good idea if price were the only problem.

For many, I suspect it’s not. Check out the graphic at the top of this post – it shows the status of new DVD releases I’ve just added to my Netflix queue. Only one is available now. Others have a wait – from short to very long. This never used to happen; now it’s the norm. I can drive a couple of blocks and find a RedBox that has the recent DVD releases I want, or I can wait for some indefinite period for Netflix availability. I’m having to watch and juggle my queue – I have no confidence that the next DVD Netflix sends me will be the one I prioritized ahead of others; it might have a “very long wait.”

If Netflix can’t resolve this supply vs demand issue, more will flee regardless of price.

As for the streaming service, because so few of the films I want to see are available for streaming, it’s not especially attractive. Best thing about it is that I can watch old episodes of “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” whenever I want to. Actually, I currently have more items in my streaming queue than my DVD queue, but they tend to be things I would watch if I had time on my hands, which I generally don’t – not necessarily compelling, and of course no new releases. And this service will only work so long as I have Internet access with unlimited access. If broadband providers cap their services (and I have no doubt they’d like to go there), high-bandwidth streaming of full movies will be potentially expensive. Capped bandwidth could kill Netflix’ streaming service.

Another issue is whether Netflix will be able to sustain contracts with content providers and continue getting all the DVD releases, or continue to get them at release. Consider the loss of Starz content.

We all have limited time for longer form media and many channels for access. I find that I’m increasingly watching movies via HD cable channels, and I can use RedBox for the new releases I’ve been getting from Netflix. There are also competing streaming services, such as Amazon’s, which is free with Amazon Prime. I’m not confident Netflix’ price reduction will bring departing customers back, or prevent existing customers from departing.

post

1 Semester Startup

In the first decade of the 2000s, I was fired up about the potential for an energized entrepreneurial scene to emerge in Austin, which was famously on the map as a city for new business, but didn’t really have the kind of creative entrepreneurial scene you see in, for instance, Silicon Valley and the Bay Area. I worked with Bijoy Goswami at Bootstrap Austin, and managed the Wireless Future project at IC2, as well as flying formation with the clean energy and sustainable business communities that seemed to have traction here. However, busy myself with a couple of startups, I became less focused on that scene. It kept evolving… Bijoy started an entrepreneur community via his work with the ATX Equation, and local entrepreneur Josh Baer started something local, similar to Y-Combinator, called Capital Factory. Gary Hoover, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of entrepreneurial history, has been teaching classes for entrepreneurs at the McCombs School of Business. There’s much better support for entrepreneurs in Austin today than there was a decade ago.

Now Josh, John Butler (of IC2) and 3Com founder Bob Metcalfe are teaching a cross-disciplinary course at the University of Texas called 1 Semester Startup. I attended a meeting last night of potential mentors for the class, in which students will form actual startup companies and try to make them fly. Mentors will be on call to answer questions and help the budding entrepreneurs avoid pitfalls and deal with inevitable mistakes and missteps. Several people (including yours truly) signed up for these mentorship roles.

There’s much wrangling about the lack of jobs in the U.S., and the economic crisis we’ve brought on with a complex combination of bad business, bad government, and outright fraud in some of the more abstract markets. To me one of the best solutions to the fix we’re in economically is to get better and better at building business and creating new markets, and that’s the promise of entrepreneurial creativity. So this course is just the sort of thing we need – more and more of it. (I’d also like to see a strong emphasis on ethics in entrepreneurial training, but that’s another rant for another day).

post

More on bandwidth: light and darkness

My friend Robert Steele emailed me in response to my last post, saying there’s more to consider, and I agree. He mentions Open Spectrum.

I’m feeling cynical. Here’s how I responded:

I’m aware of open spectrum… I’m in other conversations with various wonks & engineers who’re discussing bandwidth, spectrum, etc. Of course we could have a much different scene if we weren’t constrained by markets and politics. People how can see one sense of the obvious often miss another, which is that the world we’re in is not an ideal world, and the ideals we can conceive are not necessarily easy or even possible to implement. I pay less attention to the “next net” list we’re both on because so much of it is fantasy and masturbation.

I own a nice home in rural Texas but I can’t live there because I can’t even get 500kbps. I thought it was amusing that Vint is arguing for gigabit bandwidth when most of the U.S. is dark and there’s too little monetary incentive to bring light to the darkness. Of course I think we need a public initiative to make it happen, but in this era “public” is a dirty word. I halfway expect to see all roads become toll roads; a world where only the elite can travel, and only the elite will have broadband access. Though aging, I’m struggling to remain part of the elite… *8^)

post

Doc Searls on user-driven democracy

Speaking at the 2011 Personal Democracy Forum, Doc talks about how power relationships work in markets vs how they should  and could work. Markets are conversations, and they should be symmetrical conversations. Note his bit about how the language of marketing parallels the language of slavery.

Watch live streaming video from pdf2011 at livestream.com
post

Amazon’s broken user experience

Doc Searls has posted a slideshow explaining how Amazon’s user experience is broken, in the context of a discussion about vendor relationship management (VRM), which is about evolving a world where customers have at least symmetry in the power relationship of customer and vendor. The slides are old (January 2010) and things might have changed, but I don’t think they’ve changed as much as they should’ve, because I still experience similar frustrations when I visit Amazon.

post

Pay me!

My old friend and former colleague Mike Monteiro says it right… (This is great advice for designers and developers; totally resonates with me based on my many experiences and mistakes along the way.)

post

HelpAttack!

My friend Sarah Vela launched a new company called Help Attack! in August, and it’s proving to be a cool way for nonprofits to raise money, and a clever way for donors to commit money by pledging to give some amount of money for every tweet they post in a month. Sez Sarah, Sez Sarah, “This new way to donate is easy, fun and offers a layer of social responsibility to online activities. We invite all nonprofit organizations seeking new ways to collect funding through year-end campaigns to visit the site, add themselves if they’re not already listed, and share this new way of giving with their supporters.” In addition to the money they’re raising, the nonprofits get more social media visibility via the Twitter connection. Callie Langford, Communications Manager of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), says HelpAttack! raised awareness of her organization and provided “a no-fuss way for us to receive additional donations, engage with new and old donors, and share details about our upcoming events.” [Link to HelpAttack!]