“Lots and lots of files” – Privacy, data and a new currency

December 28, 2013 1 comment

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One of the seminal television shows of the 1990s, The X-Files played on myths, legends and government paranoia to worldwide critical and popular acclaim. One of the key episodes of the series found the lead characters, FBI agents Mulder and Scully, happening upon an abandoned mining facility. Contained inside were row upon row of filing cabinets. Inside, thousands of names spilled forth. The sheer number of file drawers is a visual feast for the viewer. But there is more; one of the agent’s names is in those files. Personal data on her (in the form of a tissue sample) has been taken without consent. Down the rabbit hole we go…

We have always operated under the assumption that governments must surveil in order to protect its citizens. The difference today, as Edward Snowden has so plainly shown, is firstly that you are the one being watched, and secondly that the sheer extent of the surveillance and the pervasive nature of its collection is staggering. The pervasiveness of all this is a key point. Not much in the way of policy has changed really in the past fifty years, it’s just that spying on swathes of the world’s population has become increasingly easier and cheaper. Back in 2006, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office warned that the country was moving “towards pervasive surveillance”. Such a prophecy seems to have turned into reality. It creates an uncomfortable feeling that those in charge do not have our best interests at heart, or at least that the ends do not justify the means.

Some of the finest publications in the world have been struggling to make sense of what all this means; Zeitgeist is using this post to highlight some of those key thoughts and issues covered. Back in September, The New York Times reported, paradoxically,

“Even agency programs ostensibly intended to guard American communications are sometimes used to weaken protections. The N.S.A.’s Commercial Solutions Center, for instance, invites the makers of encryption technologies to present their products to the agency with the goal of improving American cybersecurity. But a top-secret N.S.A. document suggests that the agency’s hacking division uses that same program to develop and ‘leverage sensitive, cooperative relationships with specific industry partners’ to insert vulnerabilities into Internet security products.”

Zeitgeist remembers dining alone in New York in September poring over the news. The NSA tried to ask for permission to legally insert a ‘backdoor’ into all digital encryption, but were denied. So they went ahead and did it anyway. They influenced government policy that led to fundamental weaknesses in encryption software. Last week, a federal judge considered the constitutionality of the US’s surveillance programmes. He called the technology used by the NSA “almost Orwellian” and ordered it to stop collecting the telephone records of two plaintiffs. It is one of several cases currently underway.

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Click to see The New Yorker’s infographic on what personal data is made available to social networks and their advertisers

Of course, such spying would have not have been possible without the consent – tacit or otherwise – of companies in the private sector. There is clamor in the US, UK, Brazil and other countries for more restrictive regulation that makes it harder to collect consumer data. Such policy could make data analysis and collection onerous and might have a significant impact for those businesses that make a living out of using such data. As The Economist puts it,

“Should all this make it harder and costlier for companies to gather information, that would hurt the likes of Facebook and Google, which depend on knowing enough about their customers to ping them with ads that match their tastes.”

The New Yorker recently featured a fascinating article complete with unnerving infographic (excerpted image above) showing just how much information we display on our various social networks is then shared with the platform and its advertisers. This month, a new film, Her, arrives in cinemas, from the director of Being John Malkovich. The heroine is a disembodied voice – acted by Scarlett Johansson – who serves as operating system. The line between her servitude and rapid consumption of all her user’s data quickly becomes blurred. As the reviewer Anthony Lane puts it, also for The New Yorker,

“Who would have guessed, after a year of headlines about the N.S.A. and about the porousness of life online, that our worries on that score—not so much the political unease as a basic ontological fear that our inmost self is possibly up for grabs—would be best enshrined in a weird little [film]?”

Unsurprisingly, the results of a recent YouGov poll in the UK showed consumers were now far less willing to part with their own data. Almost half would be less willing to share their personal data with companies in the next five years. A mere 2% said they would be more willing to do so. Part of the problem lies in a lack of transparency: who is using my data, which piece of information exactly, and how does it benefit them? More importantly, what am I getting in return for surrendering my data? Steve Wilkinson of Ernst & Young offered little in the way of cheering news, “Many customers have recognised that businesses are using their personal information to help increase revenues, and are starting to withdraw access to their private data… In spite of this, there is a reluctance to adopt incentives that encourage consumers to part with personal data”.

Writing in the FT yesterday, Evgeny Morozov penned an excellent article claiming the media was spending far too much time on the intricacies of government involvement rather than how the whole cocktail mixes together. The overreach, according to the author, is being treated as an aberration, that will disappear in the face of tighter controls and the harsh light of day. It should instead, Morozov argues, be treated as part of a worrying trend in which “personal information – rather than money – becomes the chief way in which we pay for services – and soon, perhaps, everyday objects”. The article continues,

“Now that every piece of data, no matter how trivial, is also an asset in disguise, they just need to find the right buyer. Or the buyer might find them, offering to create a convenient service paid for by their data – which seems to be Google’s model with Gmail, its email service… [W]e might be living through a transformation in how capitalism works, with personal data emerging as an alternative payment regime. The benefits to consumers are already obvious; the potential costs to citizens are not. As markets in personal information proliferate, so do the externalities – with democracy the main victim. This ongoing transition from money to data is unlikely to weaken the clout of the NSA; on the contrary, it might create more and stronger intermediaries that can indulge its data obsession.”
Morozov also questions the meaning behind such data, as Zeitgeist has done in a previous article. Such information risks becoming seen as an objective answer without providing a solution or insight.
“Should we not be more critical of the rationale, advanced by the NSA and other agencies, that they need this data to engage in pre-emptive problem-solving? We should not allow the falling costs of pre-emption to crowd out more systemic attempts to pinpoint the origins of the problems that we are trying to solve. Just because US intelligence agencies hope to one day rank all Yemeni kids based on their propensity to blow up aircraft does not obviate the need to address the sources of their discontent – one of which might be the excessive use of drones to target their fathers. Unfortunately, these issues are not on today’s agenda, in part because many of us have bought into the simplistic narrative – convenient to both Washington and Silicon Valley – that we just need more laws, more tools, more transparency.”
Touching on similar points and themes, the most enjoyable recent article on the subject was written by famed author Margaret Atwood for The New York Times earlier this month. It had recently emerged that intelligence agencies had been using MMO games like World of Warcraft in an attempt to discover terrorists and other less enjoyable parts of the internet. Atwood has predicted just such a thing in her books, written some twelve years ago. Atwood struggles to make sense of her thoughts coming to life, wondering whether to treat it as comedy or tragedy. She elaborates, crystallising all our fears about the empty truth behind data,

“I hope for the comedy… I suspect the horror. Possibly in the future you’ll no longer be permitted to be who you think you are, or even who you’re pretending to be: You will be who they say you are, based on your data-mined, snooped-upon online presence. You’ll be stuck with that definition of yourself. You won’t be able to take off the mask.”

Such disconcerting thoughts on having your own personality dictated to you might once have been the stuff of science-fiction, apt for an episode of The X-Files. Besides adages of truth being stranger than fiction, the clarion call of these publications appears to be that people should be sitting up and taking notice of what has been going on over the last ten years with extensive policy / data / consumerism creep. It is not just the NSA, but the way society intertwines information for monetisation that must be scrutinised if we are to avoid having to worry about trivial things like playing videogames in peace.

Ski-chic Strategy – Moncler, North Face & Canada Goose

Interesting video from the FT on Moncler, above. London’s more tony neighbourhoods of Chelsea and Belgravia have seen an explosion of thick down jackets over the past three years, mostly colourful, all with the same logo on them. They are worn as much by macho Eurotrash as Yummy Mummies. The brand is seemingly reaching a tipping point, where exclusivity leads to a bling reputation, where mass acceptance is quickly followed by mass exodus. La Martina has done a good job of steering clear of such waters, as we reported on in a state of retail article. While Moncler considers its IPO and a strategy for selling hot coats in Hawaii, North Face takes a completely different tack, embracing its mass appeal while still communicating an aspirational feel by showcasing the demanding professionals who use their apparel. Canada Goose, another recent entrant into the winter sportswear / city chic market, has also seemed to have had a burst of popularity recently. Zeitgeist saw no fewer than a dozen such coats around Soho and Chelsea this past weekend. An interview with the CEO of the company earlier this year described the strategy thus: “By focusing on the made-in-Canada, used-in-Canada story behind the coats, people would clamour for them.”

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Twitter activity already points to Moncler having a ‘bling’ reputation. Investors will be hoping this can this be nipped in the bud before it is too late.

It will be interesting to see what happens to Canada Goose as it develops; whether it will try to emulate the more ritzy path of Moncler or the performance-related one of North Face. Zeitgeist doesn’t see many people in Europe on the ski slopes wearing Moncler, and doesn’t see many players on the polo field wearing La Martina (unless they are a sponsor). North Face, on the other hand, seems to have a deeply-seated place among hikers and skiiers, particularly in North America. Time – and a sound strategy – will tell whether Moncler retains its exclusive airs.

This Thanksgiving, demanding shoppers

PSFK this week wrote about a subject Zeitgeist have taken great interest in over the years, that of tech layering over retail to create unique experiences. Our focus on this blog with regard to retail has often been the way that new technologies are disrupting traditional bricks-and-mortar establishments, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. PSFK take data strategy back to basics, pointing out quite rightly,

“To succeed retail brands need to provide what has been called over the years ‘a value exchange’. In others words, to learn more about a customer, we must always provide them something in return. This may manifest itself as discounts and other perks, but what if the reward was simply a better brand experience in itself?”

Earlier this week, as a precursor to the US going crazy for the Black Friday shopping extravaganza (even though The New Yorker tells us everything we know about Black Friday is wrong), Deloitte released new research on the way consumers like to buy their wares. Unsurprisingly, it seems shoppers are now keen for an omnichannel experience. Some of this talk may be a bit premature, or vary by retail sector. Online groceries, for example, though seemingly prevalent, are having little impact on grocers’ bottom lines. In the UK, where the march of online shopping is advanced, grocery shopping online may account for just 5% of sales this year, according to Datamonitor analysis. Select highlights from Deloitte’s report below – which mostly reads like customers are wanting to have their cake and eat it – full report here.

  • The high street remains the number one destination for shops, services and leisure, compared to online and out-of-town: 59% use the high street for top-up grocery shopping, 58% prefer the high street for banking services, and 52% for cafés.
  • Consumers still want more from their high street, and 73% believe that the consumers themselves should decide what shops and services should be available.
  • The omnichannel experience is in demand with 45% wanting free high street Wi-Fi and 1 in 3 wanting to use a Click & Collect service.

UPDATE (13/12/13): The Economist this week published an interesting piece on the closing of UK department store Jacksons, which refused to keep pace with changing consumer demands. Interesting lessons on how to be cognisant of customer insight while trying to remain “authentic”.

Monetising the Arts – Fundraising and cultural collisions

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A promotional still for The Met Opera’s season opener, ‘Eugene Onegin’, which debuted to a blizzard of protest and outrage.

Damien Hirst divides the art world. No one thinks him a good artist, of course. But there are those who despise him for his commercialism, and those who recognise the ingenuity of the man and his innate sense of self-promotion and salesmanship. The apotheosis of this was undoubtedly Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, the infamous Sotheby’s auction held on the eve of the global recession. The diamond skull that was the centrepiece of the auction was described as a “vulgar publicity stunt” by The Economist. In the auction’s aftermath, the market for his works “bottomed out”; sales performed poorly versus the contemporary art market as a whole (see chart below). Despite such schadenfreunde, it was satisfying to read a positive review for the artist’s new retrospective, “Relics”, which opened last month in Doha. The exhibition is part of a major push by Qatar to make itself culturally relevant abroad. Indeed, the physical context in which the pieces are set do apparently allow the viewer to judge them anew, without all the tabloid baggage the artist’s works usually bring with them. But concessions have had to be made too:

“In a country where Muslim clerics hold sway, the titles of these works, many of which feature the word “God”, have not been translated into Arabic. Mr Hirst sees the sense in this, admitting that he wants his art to be “provocative in the right way”. Nudes are also virtually banned from public view.”

In an increasingly homogenised culture – by which we simply mean one where content from one nation is easily accessible and ultimately transferable to another – what does being “provocative in the right way” mean?

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In New York, such questions were similarly asked in recent months, in particular at the city’s two opera houses. One, the New York City Opera, recently filed for bankruptcy. The house has long been suffering from financial difficulties, and despite a last-minute Kickstarter campaign that raised $300,000+ in a short space of time, the curtain will fall on this institution. Its strategy seemed sound – to not be, rather than to beat, the competition, in this case the Metropolitan Opera. In pursuing this end, they often used American singers and often produced avant-garde works, the most recent and famous of which was undoubtedly Anna Nicole, about a Playboy model who captured the hearts of America’s flyover states before meeting her tragic end. Such courage should be commended, and in a just world, rewarded, but sadly it was not to be. Indeed, the City Opera lost its biggest donor entirely because of this production.

The other of New York’s opera houses, The Metropolitan Opera, a stalwart of tradition, is battling with political ramifications that are happening thousands of miles away. In June this year, in another blow to any sense of fledgling democracy in Russia, President Putin signed into law an act that restricted discussion or promotion of homosexual acts, labelling such things “propaganda”. The New York Times cites one Anton Krasovsky, “a television anchor who was immediately fired from his job at the government-controlled KontrTV network in January after he announced during a live broadcast that he is gay, saying he was fed up with lying about his life and offended by the legislation”. Such news quickly became internationally relevant when mixed messages came from the Kremlin as to whether openly gay athletes would be welcomed at the Sochi Olympic Games next year. Boycotts are being considered. Just as there are openly gay people in sports, so in the arts. The controversy settled on the Metropolitan Opera as it prepared to launch its new season with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. The new law, the almost universally acknowledged fact that the composer was homosexual, as well as the presence of talent (soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev) that were known Putin sympathisers, served to create a perfect storm. It was not long before opera fans were pleading with the Met to dedicate its opening night performance in support of homosexuals. Gergiev, an indisputably great conductor, as well as being a “close Putin ally”, according to the Financial Times, has long been dogged by rumours of political favours from the President, and protesters are becoming increasingly vocal. His claim on his Facebook page that the law targeted pedophiles, not homosexuals, pleased few. The stubbornness was mirrored by the Met. Writing an article for Bloomberg, Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Met, attempted to clarify why the house wouldn’t “bow to protest”. Gelb conceded he personally deplored the new law, as much as he deplored the 76 countries that go even further than Russia currently by completely outlawing homosexuality. He went on,

“But as an arts institution, the Met is not the appropriate vehicle for waging nightly battles against the social injustices of the world.”

Clearly, Gelb is declaring that such a mention before the performance would not have been – to return to Hirst’s words – “provocative in the right way”. But just as we have called it a perfect storm of political and cultural affiliations, was this not also the perfect opportunity for such a tremendously important institution to take a stand for those people who do not have such a prominent pulpit? Gelb asserts that the house has never dedicated a single performance to a political or social cause. Progressive thinking and innovation rarely develops from such thinking. Moreover, the Met has stood up for the rights of the marginalised in the past when it refused to play in front of black/white segregated audiences. So a precedent exists, which arguably is not being lived up to.

It would be naive to avoid acknowledging the pitfalls in the knee-jerk use of the arts to constantly promote change and stand against discrimination. In some cases, such calls to action can fall on deaf ears, or worse, provoke outrage that costs the institution and earns it an unfortunate reputation. Such damage to a reputation can be financially devastating (the New York City Opera is to an extent an example of this), which apart from anything else rules out any future opportunities to make such important statements. These organisations are, whether for profit or no, ultimately businesses that cannot afford to support every cause, no matter how relevant. Arts organisations have the rare distinction of often being at the intersection of culture, politics and money (which can often make for a murky combination). Perhaps what is needed is an entirely new fundraising model. Monied interests will usually be conservative in their tastes (why would someone want to change the status quo that allowed them to get where they are?). Increased use of crowdfunding, such as the City Opera briefly used with Kickstarter, will surely play a far greater role in the years to come. Such efforts could go some way to negating the worry of avoiding a few vested interests. What an organisation should or should not publicly speak out on must always rest with the individual situation, as well as how any statement is phrased, which does not necessarily need to condemn a party. As Andrew Rudin, the composer who started the petition to ask the Met to make a statement, implored, “I’m not asking them to be against anybody. I’m asking them to be for somebody”.

Embracing digital – New moves for old companies

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Are incumbent companies starting to see the light when it comes to embracing digital? Evidence is slowly starting to point in that direction.

Artists are known for embracing change and innovation, but the art market itself has been slow to adapt to changing consumer behaviour. Now mega e-tailer Amazon is selling art on its site, and venerable auction house Christie’s is pushing headlong into online-only sales, as Mashable recently reported. And while fashion designers know how to use digital to push the envelope, the fashion industry as a business has been notorious for their skittishness at investing in efficient, immersive digital experiences for their customers, so worried are they about detracting from the brand. So it was reassuring to see during Paris Fashion Week recently that French marque Chloé had gotten the message. As Zeitgeist’s dear friend and fashion aficionado Rachel Arthur details on her blog, the brand launched a dedicated microsite for their runway show. Brands like Burberry and Louis Vuitton have been doing this for at least three years, so in of itself it’s nothing new. What made the experience different were two things. Firstly, the site created a journey that started before the show, and continued after it, rather than merely offering a stream of live video and little else. More importantly, it tried to make the experience one that reflected the influence of those watching. As Rachel points out,

“As the event unfolded, so too did different albums under a moodboard header, including one for the collection looks, one for accessories, another for the guests, and one from backstage. Users could click on individual images and share them via Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest or Weibo, or heart them to add them to their own personal moodboard page.

‘[We] are excited to see how you direct your own Chloé show,’ read the invite.”

The recognition of platforms like Weibo should be seen as another coup for Chloé. Too often, companies send out communications to global audiences with perfunctory links to Facebook and Twitter. Not only is there no call to action for these links (why is it that the user should go there?), but there is no recognition that one of the world’s most populous and prosperous markets are more into their Renren and Weibo.

Elsewhere, despite what seems like some niggling problems, Zeitgeist was excited and intrigued to read about Disney‘s latest foray into embracing how consumers use digital devices, this time creating a second-screen experience in movie theaters. Second Screen Live, as Disney have branded it, doesn’t immediately sound particularly logical, as GigaOm point out,

“Of all the places I’d thought would be forbidden to the second screen experience, movie theaters were near the top of my list. After all, you’re paying a premium ticket price for the opportunity to sit in a dark theater and immerse yourself in a narrative — second screen devices operate in direct opposition to that.”

And yet the Little Mermaid experience that the writer goes on to describe cannot be faulted for its attempt at innovation, at reaching beyond current thinking (not to mention revenue streams), in order to forge a new relationship between the viewer and the product. Kudos.

Lastly, Zeitgeist wanted to mention the US television network Fox as a classic example of a company that has slowly come to realise the power of working with digital, rather than against it. In years passed, companies like Fox were indisputably heavily involved in digital, but only from a punitive standpoint. Fox and others were ruthless in their distribution of takedown notices to sites hosting content they deemed to infringe on their product. Fan sites that exploded in support and admiration for shows like The X-Files were summarily threatened with legal action and closed. There was little thought given to the positive sentiment sites were creating around the product, and little thought given to the destruction of brand equity that such takedown notices brought about. Not to mention the dessication of communities that had come together from different parts of the world, their single shared attribute being that they were evangelists of what you were selling. Clips of shows, such as The Simpsons, appearing on YouTube would be treated with similar disdain. So it shows how far we’ve come in a few years that this morning when Zeitgeist went onto YouTube he was greeted on the homepage with a sponsored link from Fox pointing him to the opening scenes of the latest Simpsons episode, before it aired. Definitely a move in the right direction.

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Once notorious for their stringent outlook on content dissemination online, Fox now pushes free content across multiple digital channels

The Sharing Economy meets the Internet of Things

September 29, 2013 3 comments

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This post has been reblogged by IBM and is reproduced on their Tumblr sites. The original is available below in its entirety.

Noise over what has been called Collaborative Consumption – and elsewhere The Sharing Economy – has been increasing in volume for some months now. Kickstarter, a crowdfunding business that exists to let people from anywhere in the world donate to singular projects, is a great example of this new philosophy. The company has played roles in funding films, games consoles and civic projects like the construction of bridges. Zeitgeist has made use of sites likes AirBnB and Housetrip to stay in lovely, very affordable apartments in places like Paris and New York. These diverse businesses aren’t necessarily united in a single cause to drive the sharing economy, but they are all trying to make use of what some economies, particularly in the West, excel at producing: surplus.

It’s an acknowledgment that there are physical items we own that we don’t actually need, which are eminently transferable – for a certain period of time – to others, with the market more or less dictating price (it’s this last point that removes any assertions or complaints of the idea being some sort of socialist utopia). At its root, the idea has been seen in media consumption for several years now; we’ve written often about the new customer mantra of ‘access trumps ownership’, where people prefer to stream their content rather than have it on a shelf. This is a bit of a sea-change in how we view ourselves. As a very astute article in The New Yorker pointed out earlier this month, we have often defined ourselves by what we own,

“For most of the past century, Americans have been the world’s greatest consumers. And usually consumption has meant ownership: just before the Great Recession, the average American household owned 2.28 cars, and had more television sets than people. But these days a host of new companies are trying to disrupt the paradigm… beneath all the hype is a sensible idea: there are a lot of slack resources in the economy. Assets sit idle—the average car is driven just an hour a day—and workers have time and skills that go unused. If you can connect the people who have the assets to people who are willing to pay to rent them, you reduce waste and end up with a more efficient system.

Zeitgeist believes that the increasing popularity of another evolution in business – that of connected devices – will dovetail nicely with the sharing economy. The widespread use of connected devices, known as the Internet of Things, is broadly based on the idea of having products that are intelligent enough to know what they are being used for, when they are being used, and how to make sure the user gets the most productivity out them. Connecting said product to the Internet is usually a pretty good way of doing this. At its simplest, it is the much-ballyhooed Smart Fridge, that knows when it’s running out of milk and orders more for you online without having to bother asking you. In reality, it is things like the Nest device, a (very) smart and (very) beautiful thermostat device.

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Zeitgeist was at London’s Bloomberg HQ earlier this week for Social Media Week, a series of events usually dominated by a great deal of hot air. Fortunately this was not the case with the Internet of Things event. It quickly became clear that without the Internet of Things, collaborative consumption would plateau very quickly. There were fascinating projects like Pachube, which relied on crowdsourcing data in real-time via Twitter from an aggregation of sensors, allowing them to communicate with one another and at the same time. This information is not only not proprietary, it is meant to be built upon. It was used during Japan’s Fukushima disaster for crowdsourcing radiation data. 2000 feeds were set up after 10 days; Android apps, SMS alerts were built, all by different people, a great example of product and information being shared and being improved by being open to collaboration. On a more humorous level, Zeitgeist was also privy to hearing about Addicted Toasters, where the toaster is not just connected to the owner’s smartphone, or to the Internet, but also to other toaster’s in the network. If it sees that others are toasting more bread, it gets ‘jealous’. By which we mean of course that if it decides it is being under-utilised, it will decide it is time to go to the next person on the waiting list who wants to use a toaster. It does this by dialling into the FedEx API and getting itself shipped to that next person in line. The speakers, Usman Haque, said this was not just about “remote monitoring or control, but participation with others in how people make sense of local environments and how products are shared”. While the Addicted Toaster may be smart, and ostensibly aware of a network of other toasters, many aren’t holistically connected with a wider infrastructure. The driverless car, which companies like Tesla and Google are road-testing as I type, is set to bring about this next evolution, as described last week in an excellent article in the Financial Times. If we do come to a time when – as was suggested at the Bloomberg event – every product has its own IP address, then it means that every product is a lot more easy to track, and necessarily a lot more easy to lend to others. For, if a device is unique and ‘intelligent’, it should hypothetically recognise your own needs when you need it, and another’s when someone else has need of it. A world with fewer items can be pretty cool, too, if pretty small, as entrepreneur Graham Hill demonstrates with his New York apartment that is one room, or eight, depending on how you look at it.

All this sharing undoubtedly has positive implications for sustainability; a lot less produced means a lot less waste. There are potentially huge lifestyle impacts as well, which may not be as comforting. The New Yorker, again:

“It isn’t just companies and regulators who will have to be flexible, though. Workers will, too, since the sharing economy requires people to function as micro-entrepreneurs… They are all independent contractors, working for themselves and giving the companies a cut of the action. This has certain attractions: no boss, the ability to set your own hours, control over working conditions. It also means no benefits, no steady paycheck, and the need to always be hustling; in that sense, it fits all too well with the free-agent nation we’re increasingly becoming. Sharing, it turns out, is often a hell of a lot of work.”

Cost-cutting consoles

September 13, 2013 2 comments

Zeitgeist finally got around to seeing “Elysium” last night. Typical of the current climate in film distribution, it was disappearing from all of Zeitgeist’s local screens in central London, after a mere 3-4 weeks of release. The above trailer screened before the film. Videogames have been trying to sell themselves as films for years, since the likes of “Metal Gear” and “Max Payne”. (The picture becomes even more blurred as more videogames attempt to make the transition to feature franchises). This tactic was nothing new, moreover it was somewhat underwhelming. The graphics looked pixellated, the movement clunky, and any sense of verisimilitude was lacking. It is difficult to put a finger on what exactly the problem was, but patching polygons together is not the same as making all the parts interact with one another. It was surprising, given that the game is to be made available on the as-yet unreleased Playstation 4, a console which, going from the launch event months ago, is capable of some stunning graphic simulation. The market has gone for longer than usual without a new stream of console launches, so it seemed puzzling that not all that much seems to have changed.

It was somewhat reassuring then to read today The Economist’s Technology Quarterly supplement, which featured as its lead article an overview of the videogames industry, and how high costs have produced diminishing technical returns in the latest bout of releases from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. The article states the newest consoles look “surprisingly underpowered”:

“At previous console launches, executives have boasted about their boxes’ whizzy technological innards. Sony in particular was a dab hand at this sort of thing, coming up with names like “Emotion Engine” and “Reality Synthesiser” for the chips that powered its previous consoles. But this time neither Microsoft nor Sony seems very keen to talk up the technical prowess of their new boxes… new consoles will be merely catching up with the current state of the art, rather than defining it. Both consoles… are, for all intents and purposes, ordinary PCs in fancy boxes.”

The market hasn’t found a way to substantially raise prices on games, while at the same time the cost of developing them has “ballooned”. Moreover, due to rising costs of customised chips and increasing competition from those with lower fixed costs (think videogame mobile app developers, and Ouya), Sony and Microsoft are now using standardised chips in their consoles.  The article was also keen to note that graphics are no longer the be-all-and-end-all of a console’s power and reputation (as it was in the days of 32 and 64-bit machines). Indeed gaming itself is argubaly no longer front and centre of console strategy, as manufacturers seek to diversify into other areas of entertainment. Just in time as well, as a recent report from Accenture predicts the end of single-use devices.

UPDATE (15/9/13): The New York Times points out that often the best games take a while to appear on new consoles, with Nintendo devices tending to be the exception.

The New Normal of the Internet of Things

August 30, 2013 1 comment
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The subtle alternative to the tin foil hat

In the wake of PRISM, New York Times takedowns and spying London rubbish bins, people on the Internet don’t feel that secure any more… at all. Business Insider published an article recently saying the days of truly private email conversations are over. A new trend in “countersurveillance fashion” has sprung up (see above image), and New York’s New Museum is opening a ‘privacy gift shop’ for September.

One of the clients Zeitgeist works for is about to get heavily involved in Machine to Machine (M2M) communication, otherwise known as the Internet of Things (IoT). Intel were making themselves heard last month at an event in London’s Spitalfields Market on the subject. And earlier this month, the exemplary blog GigaOm published an article entitled “How can we design an internet of things for everyone (not just alpha geeks)?”. This new development, which includes self-driving cars, fridges ordering milk for you when you run out without being asked, potentially brings with it ideas of a utopian world of interconnected devices that do your bidding.

But such potential is now seen in a different light, post-PRISM. The first two user comments, screengrabbed below, were a grim reminder of the new normal, where such a utopian future has already been tarnished by abuses before it even arrives.

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The likes of PRISM and xKeystroke have arguably completely reversed the libertarian premise of the Internet

The Piracy Pivot – A new heading for copyright enforcement?

August 7, 2013 1 comment

1jack

Pretty much seven years ago to the month, Zeitgeist was putting the finishing touches to his Master’s dissertation. It centered on intellectual property rights, and the infringement of those rights by consumers who were downloading content they weren’t paying for. Zeitgeist conducted multiple interviews, including several with key people at studios and industry bodies in Europe and Los Angeles. It was a time when the industry were trying to curtail piracy using massive fines and jail sentences, at the same time providing few legal alternatives for content consumption online (this latter issue is still a problem today). Needless to say, there were a fair amount of heads buried in the sand. We’ve talked about piracy before, from its murky impact on the bottom line to the stricture of copyright law.

It was refreshing to see the news reported by industry trade mag Variety that Comcast – a large cable operator in the US, which also owns NBCUniversal – is investigating new methods of disrupting piracy online. Specifically, they are planning to push pop-ups to those who are downloading content illegally, providing them with links to alternative domains where the same product can be downloaded legally. There are privacy concerns here, undoubtedly. What was most reassuring about the idea though was crystallised below by journalist Andrew Wallenstein, which for Zeitgeist hits the nail on the head:

Using pirated content as a platform to drive legal transactions reflects an alternate philosophy regarding copyright infringement, one that sees the illegal activity less as a crime that requires punishment and more as lead generation to a consumer whose behavior is borne out of inadequate legitimate digital content options.

The next ‘Ishtar': Is the film industry nearing “implosion”?

August 4, 2013 1 comment
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“A legendary disaster… a cascade of dysfunction”; can the film industry avoid future Ishtars?

This post serves as a companion piece and extended update to our previous article on rethinking film industry strategy, which can be found here.

“For me, the business of tentpoles is about generating franchises. The more tentpoles that are being made, the more risky the first installment of a potential franchise is going to be. That’s why I think everybody needs to be asking hard questions about what is a real tentpole and what is a faux tentpole.”

- Jean-Luc De Fanti, managing partner at Hemisphere Media Capital

Since our last post a few weeks ago on the need to rethink film industry strategy, when Steven Spielberg publicly predicted an “implosion” in the industry, the subject remains in the zeitgeist. As we referenced in our last post, Mr. Spielberg has some familiarity with the industry’s modus operandi, having created the blockbuster phenomenon way back in the 70s with Jaws. Like a mutant in a film of that genre though, the nature of blockbusters has changed since then. Jaws, were it made today, would look very different (i.e. terrible). Despite Mr. Spielberg’s warnings, studios presumably took some comfort in an animated sequel – Despicable Me 2 – becoming, in the words of NBCUniversal chief Steve Burke, “the single most profitable film in the 100 year history of Universal Studios”, more than E.T., Jurassic Park, etc. Not only did it paint a picture of an industry continuing to grow (though presumably the figure did not take inflation into consideration), it must have also quietened any further calls for originality, safe in the knowledge that it was a pretty lowbrow sequel that had triumphed.

The caveat is a large one though, that any proponents of summer blockbusters need to pay close attention to. Despicable Me 2 has made £437 million so far, with a production budget of just £50 million. While on the surface then Despicable Me 2 seems to prove how successful and profitable summer movies can be, it actually provides a lesson in what commercial success can look like with a small-budgeted film. Instead, the rule of thumb during the summer is more likely to involve investing some $200m+ in a film that fails spectacularly – think The Lone Ranger. Though this Disney production is the most visible disappointment of the season, it is by no means alone. The New York Times count “six big-budget duds since May 1“. It is interesting to note that Now You See Me, “the kind of midrange film that studios have largely abandoned as they focus more on pictures that play globally — has taken in $200.4 million worldwide and is still playing”, after costing $75m to make.

Those responsible try to spread the blame. Johnny Depp and producer Jerry Bruckheimer absolved themselves of wrongdoing for their involvement in The Lone Ranger by blaming the critics. Said Depp, “They had expectations that it must be a blockbuster. I didn’t have any expectations of that”. Yet it is easy to see how one might assume the film – created at such expense, with ripe intellectual property to be exploited, with talent involved in the phenomenally successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise – had all the appropriate ingredients to make it a blockbuster. Studios meanwhile harp on about Twitter, which lets people instantly share their thoughts on a film and is now considered a worrisome bellwether for box office potential. But this is a reaction to poor filmmaking, not a reason why a bad film exists in the first place. They also cite a tight calendar. As The New York Times elaborates, “One or more cinematic behemoths — those loaded with similar-looking computer-generated effects, films that cost $130 million to $225 million to make — have arrived almost weekly since May, fragmenting and fatiguing the audience”. Again, this is no one’s fault but that of the industry. The idea of launching films in a specific time window, when consumers now enjoy time-shifting and device-shifting with their content, is antiquated. It is just as irrelevant in winter, when back-to-back “prestige” films clutter cinemas, desperate for Oscar attention. It is overwhelming for audiences, reduces choice, and in the case of the winter season implies that the voting member of the Academy have no long-term memory.

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Just how many times can we see the White House being blown up?

The summer product is so derivative that evidently audiences are pushing back, showing indifference to the “clones” that feature so prominently at Comic-Con. Films are either direct sequels / reimaginings, or strongly resemble other recent projects. Again, The New York Times has an excellent article on this, elaborating,

“Studios showcased another Amazing Spider-Man, another Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, another Avengers, another Thor and another Captain America… In addition to Godzilla, remakes teased here in recent days included RoboCop… and Riddick,… Even many of the original movies introduced at Comic-Con this year had a been-there-done-that feeling to them, notably Legendary’s sword-and-sorcery picture Seventh Son, which co-stars Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore and Ben Barnes. In thundering snippets of footage shown on Saturday, the movie at times resembled Clash of the Titans, Snow White and the Huntsman and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.”

Cheering news for Sony came last week when it announced a $35m profit in the last quarter, but turbulence lay beyond that. In our last post, we mentioned the imbroglio that Sony found itself in as investor Daniel Loeb – whose hedge fund owns roughly 7% of Sony – continued to urge Sony to spin off its entertainment assets. Last week, he wrote a third letter to Sony – the most aggressive yet, with the Financial Times calling it “blistering” – comparing the film division’s two recent duds After Earth and White House Down to Ishtar and Waterworld (two of the floppiest flops to ever flop). He wrote that the CEO, Kazuo Hirai was sitting by complacently while the film division remained “poorly managed, with a famously bloated corporate structure, generous perk packages, high salaries for underperforming executives and marketing budgets that do not seem to be in line with any sense of return on capital invested”. It was with some interest then that, this past Friday, Zeitgeist saw that none other than George Clooney had stepped into the fray, calling Loeb an “activist” who “knows nothing about our business”. He lambasted the hedge fund industry in general, saying “if you look at those guys, there is no conscience at work”.

Clooney added that the “climate of fear” Loeb was creating would lead to even more risk-averse productions. It is creative, rather than financial risk, that Hollywood is sorely in need of. Art doesn’t engage audiences when it is timid and derivative. It inspires people when it is innovative, daring and different. Usually such creative thoughts do not spring forth from the mind of a hedge fund manager. Such new thinking – involving a review of a market research firms say is suffering from “overcrowding” – will require a significant course correction, one that is not going to come anytime soon. The summer slate for 2015 currently includes a Terminator sequel, an Avengers sequel, a Smurfs sequel, Independence Day 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean 5.

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