Being your own (digital) worst enemy

A few days ago I was trying to get me some car insurance, having bought a little run around Toyota for the eldest child, who is now learning to drive…

So, there I was looking up the usual car insurance companies, and comparison sites, and seeing what kind of a deal I could get for my precious first born. I began with a Google search – of course – and scoured some of the websites thereto thrown up in my direction.

A few minutes later I was trying to complete an online quotation form and seeing what the thing would cost me. The number seemed a bit high, so I tweaked a few variables, and was still getting an answer I didn’t much like.

So I rang the company – their call centre number was clearly displayed on the same page – and a very nice lady answered and helped with my query. It seems you don’t need to insure the driver, as they are an L-plater, and cannot get insured anyway. YOU, as chief driver, sitting in the passenger seat, would be the insured driver.

Ah-huh. Makes sense.

So I tweaked the online quotation form and – bingo – out popped a number that was far more to my liking. Simultaneously, the nice insurance lady told me her number, and it was $100 more than the same number I was staring at on the screen.

So, we had the same, exact insurance, from the same company, at the same time, and the online quote was significantly less than the one I was being quoted on over the phone.

How could that be? Had I done anything wrong online? Nope, it was all correctly done.

So I asked the lady if she could get me the same quotation, and I could buy from her. To which she prompted said (and this blew me away)…

“Sorry sir, I cannot help you with the online quotation. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

This response flummoxed me for a few seconds. What the..?

‘Hold the phone,’ I thought, ‘Is she saying that she cannot help me complete an order online for her own insurance, on her company’s own website, the same one with the phone number showing that I rang her on?’

Her silence was golden. My jaw dropped.

After a few seconds, I think I said “Oh… thank you very much, goodbye”, got off the line and duly completed my insurance online saving myself $100 or so.

This whole nonsensical episode got me thinking as to the logic of the rules that she was (presumably) being told to follow.

Did the company only provide phone assistance to those not able to do all the quotations online? As the online quotation involved less cost (no human being being paid to be on the end of a phone) is that why they offered it cheaper online? For the exact same product?!

But as I was already online and used their published phone number – ON THE SAME WEBPAGE! – to contact them in person, why were they not then allowed to even help me submit online?

They could have lost me as a customer at that very point.

I could have printed off the quotation, gone to a rival car insurance place and told them to match or even beat it.

Or I could have shoved their business through a fit of pique. (Happily, dear reader, I am not that small. Well I think not anyway.)

Surely, the call centre staff in the insurance company should be empowered to use their common sense, help close the deal, provide a service and take the customer’s money? No matter what mechanism that is done by? Online, phone, letter, walk in, carrier pigeon, steam engine, wax tablet..!

Why compete against yourself? Isn’t the market competitive enough?!

Here we are, 25 years or more into the internet age, and people are perfectly happy to buy online, and in many cases, happier. They are doing so in droves. Have you been to a shopping strip lately? Yeah, nor have I.

Online, customers don’t get hassled by pushy sales people, can shop when they like, compare what they are buying easily, get independent reviews, have their order placed immediately and get back to what they were doing 3 minutes earlier. No commuting, no parking, no rain, no 40 degree days, no fines.

If businesses are going to fight against online, and put up unnatural barriers for their customers, then they will struggle to maximise the benefits of their digital transformation. Indeed, they could be sowing the seeds of their own digital disruption. Butting heads against themselves.

Think like the customer. Think user interface, and customer experience. It’s not you you are trying to better, it’s the customer you should be focused on serving.

Always. And in every way.

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Tech that did not exist 20 years ago, and tech that will dominate the next 20

20+ years ago my wife and I moved to Perth, and, although the locals would still regard me as a b$#@ding Pom, we are well and truly settled. Perth’s been great to us. We love the place. We now have 2 Aussie kids, who are privileged to be able to grow up in paradise.

20 years has flown by, but looking back over the last two decades, it’s incredible to think what’s happened around the world and how all our lives have changed during that time.

For example, the following 25 tech businesses and services simply did not exist when we stepped off that plane in mid 1997 (the year each one started is shown):

  • 1997 – Netflix, Yahoo Mail
  • 1998 – Google, PayPal
  • 1999 – Alibaba, BlackBerry, Emojis
  • 2001- Xbox
  • 2002 – LinkedIn
  • 2003 – Android, Skype, Tesla, iTunes, WordPress
  • 2004 – Facebook
  • 2005 – Youtube
  • 2006 – Twitter, Spotify, BuzzFeed
  • 2007 – iPhone, Fitbit
  • 2008 – AirBnB
  • 2009 – Uber
  • 2010 – Instagram, iPad
  • 2011 – Snapchat

How many of these do we totally rely on every day? Imagine life without any of them. That was only 21 years ago.

The question now is: what emerging technologies will dominate the next decade or more?

Many analysts seem to think it will be the following…

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning
  • Internet of Things (Iot)
  • The Blockchain
  • 3D Printing
  • Mobile devices and mobile internet
  • Autonomous vehicles
  • Robotics
  • Virtual and Augmented Realities (VR/AR)
  • Wireless power
  • Nanotechnology
  • Voice User Interfaces, Virtual Private Assistants
  • 5G

And of course, loads of other things that we have not even heard of yet. None of us had heard of the top list 20 years ago.

The trend is your friend

The Sydney Harbour Bridge was opened in 1932, and took eight years to build.

In 1926, you could see the large pillars on either side of the harbour, from which the famous steel arches would start to appear a few years later. By the end of 1928, the entry roads were clearly visible leading up to these pillars, but other than that there was no ‘bridge’ (yet), and ships and ferries could pass by through the opening as they had done for decades. [In fact, if you look at the photo above, you can see exactly that in 1930 and 1931.]

By 1931 most of the arch had been completed, and the future bridge could be imagined. A year later, in March 1932, the bridge was officially opened by the then Premier of NSW, Jack Lang.

In a film clip of the event, you can hear the cheers of the onlookers and the commentator saying “Can you hear those boats? Can you hear those sirens? What a great day this is…”

Not so merry for the ferry

Many Sydneysiders know the saying ‘Seven miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care‘. This slogan was coined by the Port Jackson and Manly Steamship Company in the 1920s to promote its ferries on the Manly run. Without a bridge, a ferry was the only way to get from one side of the harbour to the other.

Yet, once the bridge construction had been agreed on, and building commenced, you could literally see the thing being built above you and across the 1km+ span of the harbour.

Before the bridge was opened in March 1932, ferries took 30 million passengers a year. After, ferry patronage plummeted to 13 million.

I tell this story to remind all industries that disruption to their mainstay business is often dramatic, yet can be foreseen. But in this case, the disruption was clearly visible to the ferry companies as the bridge was literally being built above their heads!

Often disruption is not that visible. It’s slow and inexorable, eating away at your business like white ants under your floorboards. Ignoring the problem does not make it go away. Putting one’s head in the sand does not protect you from its inevitability.

You may as well assume disruption is the norm. The more safe you feel, the more worried you should be. Check for white ants. Do your research. Think.

The good news is that you may have time on your side. Sydney’s harbour bridge took 9 years to build. Google took about that time to really take hold and make an impact on local advertising revenues. Same with Facebook.

It may have been that one day you looked around and suddenly Facebook and Google was all pervasive, but they took years ‘pushing the flywheel’ before they were so impregnable.

So, what are you doing in your business, in your industry, to prepare for your inevitable disruption? How are you positioning yourself so you can take advantage of the changes that are coming? Are you researching the possibilities of AI, bots, drones, AR, VR or the blockchain? All these, and more, are visible right now and making their creeping impacts.

Don’t be the ferryman, ignoring the inevitable while the seed of your destruction is being built around you. Get on a trend, because the trend is your friend.

Change is slow, and that’s good thing

Methuselah is a 4,849-year-old Great Basin bristlecone pine tree growing high in the White Mountains of Inyo County in eastern California.

An oft-heard refrain these days is a lament “Everything’s changing so fast!” and it would be easy to sign up to this notion.

Look how we totally rely on our smartphones these days, turning to them an average of 150 times a day. It makes one wonder what we did for entertainment, news and chat pre-2007. And yet, we’ve only had them for 10 years. It’s gone in a blink of an eye.

See how Uber and Airbnb have blasted into our market, totally disrupting and changing the way we move around the city, or stay in other cities (or have total strangers to stay with us). Uber only got going in Perth in 2014, and has over 20% of the market. Airbnb launched into Australia a couple of years earlier and has upwards of 30% across Australia these days.

And yet, even these stories prove that the best changes – the ones that stick – take time.

There had been smartphones well before 2017, and phones with access to the internet had been around for a while. The best marketing the iPhone did was to announce itself as the game changer, yet even the iPhone took a while to take off. Early versions’ battery life was poor, and not everyone liked using a finger to tap on a virtual keyboard through glass. The Blackberry ruled supreme, and had a built in keyboard. This was much closer to peoples’ existing experience, which was why it was named “the crackberry”. Its devotees were obsessed by it.

The iPhone 3 was the version that took off, launched as it was with the app store in 2009. It was this moment that saw the inexorable shift to the smartphone (which  really should have been termed the ‘app phone’, as phones had been smart before – it was the apps that made them different now). The creation of the cottage industry of app makers was the true revolution, and this underpinned the smart (sorry, app) phone’s rise. Soon Samsung and Google jumped on board.

Looking deeper into the Uber and Airbnb cases you can see that they did not exactly take off as over night successes either. Launched in 2007, it took til 2011 before Airbnb would launch in multiple cities and gain traction, on the back of some serious capital raises in 2010. Likewise, Uber, founded in 2009, took a couple of years and then a major seed round in 2011 before it could launch in various jurisdictions with UberX in 2012. Indeed, Uber was not the first ride-sharing service, and they held back looking at the rulings coming out regarding the legality or otherwise of this new form of transportation. (Others could argue that ride sharing had actually been created in the early 1900s, or even the 16th century, but that’s another story.)

The history of even these wildly successful game-changing disruptors started with relatively quiet 2 or 3 years where things were far from certain. They were learning, pivoting and inching their way to the best formula. When I meet tech founders who think they’ll take off immediately with hockey stick growth I tell them the real stories of hardship, years and years of struggle, before even the best break out. Are you up for that? Founding a startup may seem glamorous when you see the gazillionares adorn magazine covers, blaze around at Burning Man or stomp across tech conference floors delivering well honed keynotes in their black t-shirts, dark blue jeans and high end trainers. But they all had hard starts, and there were many failures, mistakes, missteps and sleepless nights. It’s not all glamour, believe me.

So I would argue that change is slow. Indeed, the best ideas always grow slowly, and that’s a good thing, because things that grow slowly tend to last a long time.

Just talk to a turtle (average age 100 years) or Methuselah, a Californian bristlecone pine tree that was seeded in 2,833 BC. She ain’t pretty, but she’s still here.

Slow is good. Slow and steady wins the race. It’s hard work. It’s not very glamorous. It’s a million small things you do, day after day after day, that get you there. There is no silver bullet. And that’s a good thing.

Jobs jobs jobs?

Panelists discussing the future of the job (left to right): myself as moderator, Colleen Yates, Nate Sturcke, Colin Barnett, Phebe Cho, Julian Coyne, Pia Turcinov.

Australia has notched up a world record – 26 years without a recession. That’s the longest time between recessions for any developed country, since records began.

During  that time Australia has withstood the Asian economic crisis of 1997, the tech crash of 2000, 9/11, the global financial crisis of 2008 and a mining construction slowdown post 2012.

The last time Australia had a recession, in mid 1991, Bill Hayden was Governor General, Bob Hawke was Prime Minister, Carmen Lawrence was Premier of WA, and we had the first Gulf War. Bryan Adams’ Everything I do, I do for you was number 1 forever, other hits of the year were I’m too Sexy, Things that make you go Hmmmm and Ice Ice Baby…. agh they don’t make ‘em like that these days do they?

Back in ‘the recession we had to have‘ (as then Federal Treasurer, soon to be PM, Paul Keating termed it) Federal opposition leader John Hewson affirmed the GST as a major policy platform (which later became electoral suicide). The Simpsons debuted on Network Ten, Hawthorn beat the Eagles in the grand final and Mitchell Marsh was born. The population of WA was 1.6m, 1 million less than today.

There’s no doubt the Australian economy has been resilient, and been fairly fortunate. A whole generation has grown up with almost full employment, low interest rates, more and more jobs, rising standards of living and lots of opportunity.

The current Aussie economy is dynamic, with over a million Aussies changing jobs annually, with businesses constantly entering and exiting various marketplaces.
While agricultural and manufacturing jobs have declined in total numbers, the expanding service sector has taken on more.

12 million people have jobs in Australia – 6.5M men and 5.6M women. Healthcare and social assistance is now the single largest industry, accounting for over 12% of the workforce. Unemployment has held steady around 5.5%.

And yet… there is an impending sense of unease out there.

When some people hear politicians and even a Prime Minister spruik ‘Innovation’ all they hear ‘redundancy’ and ‘unemployment’.

Change, although the only constant, is threatening and scary. It makes people look for the easy scape goat solution, be it Brexit or Trumpism.

The answers are not so straightforward.

A few months ago my teenage daughter bemoaned to me that she does not know what she wants to do when she is older. I told her not to worry.

“The jobs of 5 and 10 years’ time have not been invented yet, isn’t that amazing?!” I say.
“Well, that doesn’t help!” comes the reply. “Take it from a former CEO like me,” say I, “the employers of tomorrow will want your creativity, your leadership skills, that you can work in a team, or independently with initiative on your own, your problem solving, your empathy with customers… THAT’s what they’ll hire. Learn & demonstrate those skills and you’ll be fine.”

But what kind of jobs will be there for our kids and grandkids in the near future? What industries will fall, and what new ones will rise? Will we even have a thing call a “job” or a “career”? Does it even matter? Will more of us have more free time? Will robots be waiting on us hand and foot, or by robotic arm and robotic wheel?

This was the topic of an Innovation Summit I moderated recently, a 4-minute chat with the panellists from West TV can be viewed here.

Some of the discussion:

  • while a robot might replace 5 manual workers, every new tech job creates 5 more.
  • some jobs will disappear, others will be required.
  • many of us may will enjoy a ‘portfolio career’, where we take on several titles – we’ll be part social media consultant, part MC, part web developer, part teacher.
  • A (Cognizant) report declared recently that the following jobs will be created within the next five years: data detective; bring your own IT facilitator; ethical sourcing manager; AI business development manager; master of Edge Computing; walker/talker; fitness commitment counsellor; AI-assisted healthcare technician; cyber city analyst; genomic portfolio director; man-machine teaming manager; financial wellness coach; digital tailor; chief trust officer; and quantum machine learning analyst.
  • Within the next 10 years we’ll have: virtual store Sherpa; personal data broker; personal memory curator; augmented reality journey builder; highway controller; and genetic diversity officer.
  • It will be important to spread our risks as an economy – the mining industry is super wonderful when booming, and awful at other times (which is the majority)

The “death of the job” has been predicted before. Although the disruptive changes we are seeing seem to be changing more things more rapidly, there is time to adjust, and new opportunities will always be thrown up. The winners will probably be those (countries, states, organisations and people) that can adapt, and the losers will be those that are stuck in their ways.

The Rise of the Bots

Everywhere you turn these days there seems to be another potential tech disruptor raising its head above the parapet. The topic for today is the bot.

The rather cutesy name – bot – conjures up a sci-fi future of robotic machines doing everything for us lazy humans, who might be otherwise left to sojourn on our flying chairs a la the folks in Wall-E. Set a few hundred years from now, having abandoned a wrecked Earth, people are overweight, can barely walk on their short stubbly evolved legs and bark orders for everything they want. Robots zip around everywhere doing all the work.

I wonder if we’re really a hundred or so years away from this now. I reckon it’s almost upon us. And, as for obesity, well that is certainly among us – just look at the evidence.

But let’s get back to modern day bots. A bot, or ‘internet bot’, is simply “a piece of software that runs automated scripts over the internet” (Wikipedia).

Some are malicious (such as spambots roaming the internet for email addresses they can pester or mailboxes they can take over), and some are there to do good (answering your questions or suggesting a great blouse to go with that new dress).

Whatever they are up to, they account for almost half of all internet traffic. On smaller websites, it could be 80% or more. We know that Google sends robots to check websites out, index their content, and help rank them in their search engine. This cannot be done by humans, there is just too much stuff to read.

If, like me, you have an iPhone, then you may already be used to conversing with Siri, who is (of course) a bot. Have no hands free to tap an SMS, look up a contact’s phone number or check your appointments for tomorrow? Simply hold down the screen button and Siri is there to help.

With the release of Google Home, you can now have a Siri-like service sitting on your side table to answer your beck and call – what time is it in India? what’s the traffic like on the commute today? and what are the answers to your kid’s tricky homework questions?

A short journey from here are the bots already installed on Facebook, who can answer your typed questions. It’s like talking to a real, live person, except there’s no one there. It’s a bot. Also, have you noticed how Uber has quietly slipped inside Google Maps and Facebook Messenger to be able to offer you a ride without leaving their service?

That pop up window offering you answers to your questions on that website you’re on? Increasingly likely, there’s no one there. It’s a chatbot.

Based on what you say or type, the bot can quickly provide you with answers or suggestions to your queries, and can do this 24/7. They don’t get tired, have coffee breaks or moods. They can understand context, nuance and even sarcasm. Try fooling Siri, and she’ll quickly catch on you’re playing silly buggers.

Some people feel more comfortable talking with a chatbot than a real person, especially if it concerns personal issues such as health or emotional problems.

Over on Slack, the explodingly successful messaging app used by many organisations to better coordinate internal communications, chatbots are inbuilt. They’re called Slackbots (of course), and you can program them to message someone when, say, a certain task is complete, or when some other condition was met, as well as answer questions about a project.

Slack has expanded rapidly from its 2014 start. With a mission to replace internal email, Slack rose to a million users within 18 months with 300,000 of them are paying. Its valuation hit US$ 9 billion in June.

11 million Aussies are already using messaging apps, and 4.5 million use it as their primary communication tool. There is a whole generation of youngsters and others growing up who rarely, if ever, send emails. Perhaps they never will.

It’s not just the young though – the peak age for messenging apps is the 25-34 age group and more than half the 35-54 age group do likewise.

In Australia, Facebook messenger dominates, then it’s Whatsapp and Snapchat.

As a general rule, chatbots work well inside messaging, and more ‘menu driven’ info (such as ordering a meal, with bots suggesting what goes well and selling upgrades), anywhere where there is a fairly simple user experience, such as a check list. Decision tree formats work best. If this, then this, if that, then the other. So, tailored gift recommendations work well.

Bots don’t go all that well (yet) on free flow chat, but tomorrow we could see general chat, voice, avatars or some other abstract versions offering a more conversational approach. Where we end up will probably depend on what customers want and are comfortable with.

The bot battleground will probably be fought between Apple, Google and Facebook, who each want to own that bot search and interaction experience.

Fancy designing your own bot?  Well, you can with Chatfuel, which does bots for Facebook or Motion.ai.

It might be an idea to think how bots could impact your market – how you might use them (start with Slack), or incorporate them into customer service, lead generation and the like? As artificial intelligence (AI) will only get sharper from here, you can bet the bots will be a big part of our future…

Where WA’s future will stem from

The rise and fall of once dominant people, companies and economies is common place. These days, if you think of the most amazingly successful, be wondering how well placed they will be a decade from now.

10 years ago, the top website in the world was MySpace. It was the first social media darling, quickly to be overtaken by Facebook. Who uses it now?

For the first time ever last year, the top 5 companies in the world, by market value, were all tech companies: Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft. 2 of them were formed in the 1970s, 2 in the 1990s and one in the 2000s. They all stem from the US.

Four of these five companies dominate our landscape here in Western Australia – even though we are about as far away from their headquarters as you can be…

  • Apple devices are everywhere. We have 2 iPhones and 2 iPads in our household alone. (10 years ago, these devices did not exist.) We purchase nearly all of our music through iTunes.
  • Google is ever present. It’s how we search for anything, and 2 of the other smart devices in our household have Google-operated platforms.
  • Facebook is all pervasive for the parents in the household, while the children are on Snapchat, Instagram and Youtube. The last 2 of these are owned by Facebook and Google respectively.
  • We have 3 Microsoft  PCs in the house running Microsoft software and operating systems.
  • Only Amazon is not (yet) a dominant player. Amazon online retailing is coming to Australia this year, and it could also become a force to be reckoned with in our house. In the US, 50% of all online commerce goes through Amazon. I have a feeling they will make a huge impact here, maybe not immediately, but do check back in 3 to 5 years.

Which gets me to thinking about my teenage children, the environment they are growing up in and the world of work they will shortly enter. If the rise and fall of organisations teaches us anything, it’s that the businesses that cannot sustain relevance fade away, and the wildly successful dominant players better be re-imagining their future before the rug is taken out from under them. Reinvention is the key, keeping on top of the trend and perhaps getting in front (if possible) is crucial to survival.

Western Australia has an economy almost like no other. It has a massively successful resources industry, which grew to three times its size over the 2002-2012 period. It’s still growing, but is in another phase now (production, rather than building). So much income is earned from it, and from our State, almost half of the country’s entire export income comes from WA (even though we represent just over 10% of the population). The resources industry is not going away!

If I liken the WA economy to a major organisation, then during the very strong years (the decade from 2002), it was time to make hay while the sun shone (yes, we did that) while also looking out for the next success story before the end of the current one (err….).

It’s easy to look back in hindsight to the one trick pony mentality of the 2000s. Here in 2017, we are where we are. So what now?

One thing is clear: we need a diverse economy, in every sense of the word. Not only do we need to draw on the rich and full resource of all working people, at the managerial, C-suite and board level, we need to develop our other industries to take up the slack. Tourism, health, technology, agriculture, aquaculture, education … these are areas of great potential. The trouble with many of them is that every city or region in the world could claim to have some prowess here, or aim to be a world leader. In only agri/aqua-culture could we claim to have some innate natural advantage.

If we’re to lead in tourism, then we need to have a reason for the Asian and global tourist to visit our State, and to return. In health and technology and education, we need investment and smarts and hyper-intelligent people to be drawn to live, work and stay here (including our brightest).

There’s one thing we could do that would be a true investment for the local economy; one thing that could make a significant difference long term, and might save us as a State. It’s not a hopeful, wishful thing, it’s an absolute necessity if we are to continue to enjoy our great lifestyle.

The answer is a meaningful and rigorous devotion to world class STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) education for our children – from primary school all the way through to university (and then beyond, through continuous education). We have to commit ourselves to extracting maximum value from the best resource of all – our brains, well, the brains of our children. As you and I are not the future of the economy, yet our school children are, then it’s to them (and their education) we must turn.

It’s a sad fact that the numbers of children taking STEM subjects in our schools has been dropping, and the quality of STEM teachers is also moving in the wrong direction.

The average number of science subjects taken by Year 12 WA students declined from 1.41 to 0.66 between 1986 and 2012. (Report: Optimising STEM Education in WA Schools, TEAC/ECU, 2012). The average number of maths subjects taken declined from 0.92 to 0.69 between 1992 and 2012. There is also a lack of STEM qualified teachers (too often teachers are teaching out of their training area just to get someone in front of a class), and we don’t even have a database of what qualifications STEM teachers currently have. If you don’t measure the problem, you can’t manage it.

Just think about this. The average year 12 student does not even take a maths or a science subject. In other countries, such as one of our closest neighbours Singapore, where I taught for 7 years back in the 1990s, students record among the best results in maths and science globally. There is serious investment in education by the government, and a drive (by students and parents) to get the best results. It’s embedded in the culture, and in many ways Singapore, with few natural resources to speak of,  has had to invest in its people to survive, and thrive.

It’s always been the case that economic growth derives from investments in education, science and technology. Which brings us back to where we came in. If the 5 richest firms are all US-based, and are deriving more and more income here, paying little tax, and employing few people relative to that income, where are the Aussie and West Aussie firms coming from, who will employ our children in 5, 10 or 15 years time? What jobs will be there waiting for the 20-somethings of the 2020s and 2030s? If the STEM skills are the ones future employers will require, are we going to get serious about STEM education?

We all have a role here, not just government. More of our bright young things should teach, at least during their 20s. More of them should take STEM subjects, not because they’re easy and may improve an ATAR score (they’ll likely not), but because they’re important. Especially girls. We need diversity all the way through our businesses, right to the top and across all industries.

Parents, colleagues, managers, employers – I’m talking to you.

~~

More reading on STEM:

Transforming STEM teaching in primary schools, Prinsley & Johnson, Dec 2015

Optimising STEM education in WA, TIAC, ECU, 2013

Image Credit: Lorenzo G Alarcon Elementary

Post Truth or Expensive Truth?

Do facts matter anymore?

The person who would go on to win the 2016 US Presidential election made statements that were true (or mostly true) only 15% of the time over the election cycle. His opponent’s statements were true or mostly true 55% of the time. Fake news was shared more than correct news. Last year, the Oxford Dictionary made “post truth” its word of the year.

Yet this phenomenon is not new. At a recent UWA lecture by Stephan Lewandowsky provided analysis that showed how Fox News (in 2010) misinformed twice as much as other news outlets (running stories on Obama not being born in the US). Even earlier, in 2006, Republican supporters in the US believed there were weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq, even after a report conclusively found (in 2004) that no such things were ever there, or found.

Post truth politics work, it would seem.

Two thirds of white males voted for the current US President, and he actually did better than his opponent in the mid-income range. The poorest actually voted for Clinton.

Despite all the lies and half truths, on both sides, supporters of each candidate believed their person was telling the truth 94% of the time. Research has shown that preconceived support is the largest determinant of whether you believe a proposition or not.

In other words, it’s become tribal. Even if supporters are shown that their candidate has told a lie, they accept this, and it does not change their support.

We like to hear good news – it’s only natural. We prefer to hear information that marries with our view of the world. Facts that differ with our own values and inner held beliefs are uncomfortable, and on the whole, we prefer not to be uncomfortable. We’re wired that way. When your team is being belted in the game, you might switch off in disgust, or start walking down the aisles to beat the traffic home. Why prolong the agony?

And then along comes social media, and we can gather whatever information we want. We can live in a cocoon of information that pleases us, whether it is true, biassed or just plain made up. In fact, Google and Facebook’s algorithm’s serve it up to us, because they know what we prefer. They know what we will pause and comment on, click and share.

Now, I’m not blaming the media, or social media, or tribalism, or how we are wired … it is what it is. However, we need to recognise this, if we are to deal with it. Because if not, then we are moving into a world where facts don’t matter, and that’s dangerous.

The trouble is that opinions are cheap and facts are expensive. Worldwide, media is trying to find a business model that will pay for facts, now that the former business model (classified and display advertising) has moved online. Some media don’t care as much as they used to about facts, and peddle opinions, or just promotions.

Yes, media should have seen it coming, but that’s easy to say in hindsight, and what move should they have made anyway? Were they always going to be bowled over?

True, truth is in the eye of the beholder, but we have seen instances (at the highest level) of just plain faced lies (proven lies) being waved off and ignored, as if at least trying to say things as they are is in itself unimportant.  It’s not how things are anymore (people don’t want that), it’s how they make you feel.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m out there looking… answers on a postcard please.

When the World Wide Web Conference comes to town

The World Wide Web conference, now in its 26th year, hits Perth this week. The last time it visited Australian shores, in 1998 in Brisbane, a certain unknown couple of Stanford PhD students with an odd-sounded company name presented a paper showing how they were going to revolutionise the world of online search.

Yes, the Google guys, Larry and Sergey, delivered what is now believed to be one of the all-time classic papers about the web. The conference itself was initiated by such luminaries as Sir Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the world wide web) and others a few years earlier.

19 years since it was in Brisbane, it has travelled around the world (next year it’s in Lyons, France, last year it was in Montreal, Canada) and moves into my home city this week, with 400 sessions being put on at a dozen different locations, mainly centred at the Convention Centre.

Looking at the agenda, it is geek heaven. What next big thing will be presented this week? There are topics ranging for the semantic web to AI to data visualisation to machine learning. There’s a session entitled ‘Is Tofu the new cheese of Asia?’ and ‘Web-based surveillance data to improve influenza forecasting in Italy’. Some pretty obscure stuff. I love it!

On Thursday I get to interview on stage 4 senior tech people from Google, LinkedIn, Wikipedia and Snapchat. Can’t wait. 375 people are booked in for that event.

As we rush headlong into the future, it will be interesting to hear from these incredibly smart folk about what type of future we are hurtling towards. You get the feeling, like the 2 PhD guys in Brisbane in 1998, that the future will be moulded by some of the 2000 tech people descending on Perth this week.

The Internet in real time


Click the animation to open the full version (via http://pennystocks.la/).

This animation keeps things in perspective!

Watch as the number of tweets, youtube posts and watches, Linkedin searches, Skype calls, Instagram photo uploads, Google searches, App downloads, Facebook likes, emails sent, Dropbox files saved, Amazon items purchased, Netflix views … and much more, changes in real time in front of your eyes.

And to think most of this did not exist 10 or 15 years ago, and none of it was around 20 years ago.

Back in 1995 the internet was new, a mess. No Google. And scientist Clifford Stoll wrote a piece in Newsweek called “The Internet? Bah!” pouring scorn on its future. What could we do without it now?