Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose… TV executives’ concern over changing viewing habits is nothing new. Sports coverage continues to deliver; it’s such thinking that pushed BT to pay almost GBP900m to show some football matches. But it’s not just knowing the score as it happens that has kept audiences from time-shifting. We wrote a piece back in 2011 detailing how the industry was trying to put a renewed focus on live events. Social media have contributed to this; having a constant stream of wry comments on Twitter to snark at while watching Downton Abbey can vastly improve the viewing experience. This is somewhat lost if viewing the show later.
There was a time when live events were much more common on network TV. Back then it was other formats – radio and cinema – that were running scared from the box in the corner. Now it is television that is trying to retain eyeballs; DVRs and OTT rivals are diminishing its sway; the cable industry lost 2.2m subscribes last quarter and Fox COO Chase Carey recently conceded the cable cord was “fraying”. TV viewing in general dropped 4% last quarter, Nielsen reported on Friday. Mobile use in general seems to be the largest culprit (see chart, below). As part of a strategy to keep viewers glued to scheduled, linear TV, NBC has previously screened the live performance of Sound of Music, and recently announced plans for a live rendition of A Few Good Men. Like the latter piece on content, Peter Pan similarly began as a play, and this past week saw its own broadcast, live, on NBC. It was a fine tactic in a broader strategy. Sadly, execution, and timing, are everything. Salon saw much room for improvement. The New Yorker compared it with earlier TV adaptations (NBC did a live version back in 1955) and found it lacking. More damningly, it also saw a broader disconnection from reality, as protests swept the nation in reaction to events unfolding in Ferguson. Viewing figures were half what the network got for Sound of Music. As The Wall Street Journal points out, live events may be losing their pull; both the Emmys and MTV Music Awards saw dips in ratings this year. Meanwhile though, marketers are still willing to pay a premium for advertising during such shows. Brands are said to have paid as much as $400,000 per-30 second commercial for the telecast.
“The nature of the internet as a platform for art is double-edged. The thing that makes it attractive — the fast turnover of content produced by unusual, gifted people — may be what stops it from bringing about a Golden Age 2.0.”
- India Ross, Financial Times
Another tactic in the strategy to retain eyeballs has been to license old seasons of shows still running to OTT providers like Hulu, Amazon and Netflix. On the one hand this may cannibalise viewers who are just as happy watching old episodes as new ones. On the other, it could provide a new platform to find audiences and increase advocacy and engagement. What Nielsen has found is that both are happening. As the WSJ reports, “Dounia Turrill, Nielsen’s senior vice president of client insights, said she analyzed the results of 16 such shows and found an even split of shows that benefited and those that didn’t”. Netflix, meanwhile, closed down its public API and is seeking world domination with culturally diverse content in the form of Marco Polo. Such OTT providers have their own problems to worry about, too; their niche is becoming increasingly cluttered. Vimeo is not mentioned often as a competitor to the likes of Amazon’s services, but it too is now producing original content for streaming, in much the same way as its peers, where shows are greenlit by popular demand and creatives given full rein. An article in this weekend’s Financial Times points out the limits of such a business model, “the internet audience — vehement but fleeting in its interests — may not always know what makes the best content for a more substantial series… returns are unreliable in a marketplace where even established services suffer at the hands of a capricious audience”.
In film, new possibilities arise in the form of ticket-booking innovation. While TV is recycling old ideas of content and engagement, these new tactics look to push the industry onward. This month through January 17, New York’s MOMA hosts a Robert Altman retrospective. One of his seminal films, The Player, shows in some ways how far the film industry has come, and in others how we haven’t moved on at all. The New Yorker wrote a brief feature on the retrospective. It’s insightful enough to quote at length, below:
“In the opening shot of “The Player,” from 1992, Robert Altman makes an explicit attempt to outdo Orson Welles’s famous opening to “Touch of Evil.” He has the camera zoom in and out, track left and right, pan one way and the other, and, before a cut finally comes, pick up with most of the major characters of the film. The scene also situates “The Player”—a movie about a studio created on a Hollywood studio lot—in film history, with passing references to silent film, forties genre work, the sixties, and, finally, the Japanese, who were then moving in on Hollywood, and are seen looking the studio over.
When it came out, “The Player” was regarded as a scorching attack on greedy and unimaginative Hollywood: in the film, the industry’s shining past surrounds the executives at the studio and shames many of them. Twenty years later, the huge profits from big-Hollywood movies—digital fantasies based on comic books and video games—have washed away that shame. The executives in “The Player” have stories pitched to them constantly by writers, and then they say yes or no. They don’t consult the marketing division on what will sell in Bangkok and in Bangalore. The thing that Altman may not have anticipated was that one would be able to look back at the world of “The Player” with something almost like nostalgia.”
Having studied policy and regulation at university, Zeitgeist is often compelled to look at many issues facing companies today through a regulatory lens. But even the most dispassionate fan of rules and laws would have to concede that as digital innovation disrupts multiple sectors around the world, the way these new innovations and businesses are governed is an important consideration. In this piece we’ll be looking at regulatory concerns for disruptors like Uber and Netflix, as well as how regulation effects legacy companies like Microsoft and Comcast. As with many of our articles on this blog, we’ll be taking a particular look at the TMT sector. (Bitcoin will have to wait for another article).
Regulators often find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Should the emphasis be placed ex-ante, to ensure compliance, or ex-post to apply punitive measures and fix problems once they have become apparent? The former seems wise as it sets initial goals for companies. But it also risks opening loopholes, as well as being overly prescriptive and thus failing to adapt. It can also lead to the development of overly-familiar relations between regulator and industry, leading to what is known as ‘capture’. Currently, the US favours an ex-ante approach, but as Edward Luce detailed recently in the Financial Times, this has led to a “creeping impulse to micro-regulate“. The FDA’s recent announcement that they would regulate e-cigarettes, despite no proof it encourages the take-up of smoking tobacco, is such an example. Ex-post – regulating after an event – seems just as bad, mostly because the damage has already been done at that point. While it means that all problems addressed are real-world and practical, they can also be applied with too much emphasis. Above all, regulation ultimately risks stifling innovation; Edison moved to the West coast because he was fed up of the stringent regulations in the East. A recent lead article in The Economist asserted that, far from too little regulation, the global recession was caused by too much state involvement in the wrong places. Too little oversight though, and companies can be allowed to run wild.
Earlier this month, The New York Times featured an op-ed on regulating the online world. It is written by New York State attorney general Eric Schneiderman. As might be expected, he quickly attacks online start-ups saying it is “amazing” that they think just because their business is online, that “somehow makes them immune from regulation”. This is all well and good, but it masks the fact that clear regulations have not been established. Schneiderman is right to point out that just because a business now has an app instead of a high street store doesn’t mean its responsibilities to the law have changed. It is an apt analogy. But in practice the story is different. As with most innovations, from film to Napster and Airbnb, regulators must constantly be playing catch-up. The complaints of new businesses are not that they should be subject to regulation, rather that those rules are onerous or outdated, applying to a different time. The sharing economy works because it has found cheaper, more efficient ways of offering services that hitherto were more restricted; regulations need to be appropriately dispensed. Sadly, many cities in the US have simply blocked allowing such services to operate. Uber – a car pickup service – is probably not wholly repulsed by the thought of regulation, but they are resistant to rules put in place by entrenched interests and unions. Airbnb might violate the letter of the law, but not the spirit surely. People have always let out their living space to others. The only thing that has changed is scale. Why does scale suddenly make something legally problematic? Schneiderman points out that some lettings are so large, with multiple rooms let at once, that they are essentially hotels. True enough, perhaps, but Zeitgeist has certainly never come across such a property, and they are certainly small in number, and no more represent Airbnb’s ethos than any hotel violating its own (regulated) terms. A recent article in The Economist argued for “adaptation, not prohibition“. Schneiderman’s sentiment is that these start-ups need to work more closely and proactively with regulators, but this fails to recognise that regulators need to also fundamentally change their approach.
Regulation in China has been a hot topic for a while now. This is principally because the region has a low tolerance of free speech. But it extends to cultural concerns as well; the Google Play store, Twitter, and most of Hollywood’s annual product do not make it onto Chinese shores (legally, anyway). What this creates is a secondary tier of companies who take Western business models and run with it. That’s why there are multiple Chinese Android app stores, why Sina Weibo is a fantastically successful service, and why many poor remakes of US films flood the Chinese market. It has been pleasing then to see two recent developments in the way China regulates the TMT sector that should be good news for consumers and Western companies. Today saw the announcement that Microsoft’s Xbox One is to be sold in China. It will be the first foreign games console to go on sale in the country, lifting a fourteen year ban. This would open up the company to the half billion active gamers in China. Additionally, as Michael Pachter, analyst at Wedbush Securities pointed out,
“The middle class in China is pretty large, and positioning the box as an over-the-top TV receiver gives it a lot of appeal to wealthier Chinese.”
Earlier this week, Warner Bros was the latest film studio to partner with Chinese site Tencent. The film 300: Rise of an Empire, is available to rent through the site, while it is still in cinemas in territories like the US. The points of the deal were very interesting. Zeitgeist has for a number of years now advocated an increased flexibility to film platform release windows. Such a rigid structure as the industry has in the US is not as apparent in China. This could help alleviate piracy in the country and separately could pave the way for a relaxing of the quota of US films that are let into the Chinese market every year. Hopefully this will be a precursor to more such moves in Western markets. As someone commented on the news when it was published on the Financial Times website,
“Maybe they can do the same in the rest of the world as well?
Or I could wait 2 months for something to come out on Bluray in the UK compared to the US. Or just pirate it when the US version is available since they won’t let me buy it in my country, but will let other people buy it in other countries.”
While China is taking steps forward, the US seems to be faltering in its regulatory approach. We mentioned the impending restrictions on e-cigarettes earlier, and let’s not even go into then-mayor Michael Bloomberg’s crusade against sugar. We’ve written about net neutrality before. The issue has been of interest to Zeitgeist since university days. It was thrust into the spotlight this year when a US court ruled that the FCC had “overstepped its authority” after a legal challenge from Verizon. Last week, new rules were proposed that will undermine the original purpose of the policy of treating all traffic the same, allowing ISPs to charge companies like Netflix more in order to reach consumer with greater quantity or quality, but only on “commercially reasonable” terms. These terms have yet to be defined. These moves touch on a related matter that has also been greeted with consternation by those who favour fairness. This is Comcast‘s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable. Netflix recently publicly came out against the move. It is easy to see why. As The Economist recently elaborated, such a deal would limit competition and reduce any incentive to innovate. It is also one more example of the assumption companies have that their problems can be solved with size. Comcast have admitted they will raise prices for the end user, while as much as conceding there will no be no discernible benefit to them. One might argue there is little more for such companies to do, but average internet speeds in Tokyo and Singapore are ten times as fast on average as in the US. Even the Financial Times, which can often be counted on to be a bastion of support for capitalists, compared Comcast to the Railway Barons of the past.
The sharing economy is creating difficulty for many sectors, and regulatory agencies have not escaped this. Such forces have been to slow to adapt to fundamental changes in the TMT sector, particularly in print, music and film industries. There certainly seems to be a tendency for over-regulation today, particularly in the US. Returning to an article we mentioned at the beginning of our piece, Edward Luce laments that America “no longer feels unusually free”. Perhaps this is part of a cyclical trend. Like the causes of the recession, perhaps the problem is a stifling caused by over-regulation in the wrong places, coupled with a lack of innovation in areas where sensible rules that do not cater to the established are in dire need. It is good to see rules and regulations around consoles and release windows are being relaxed in China, but the furore around regulating the sharing economy needs a similar dose of innovative thinking.
UPDATE (17/9/14): We’ve included some nice examples in this post of innovative thinking paired with light touch regulation going on in China’s entertainment sector. Sadly the pendulum swings both ways; though shows like BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ were made available with authorised translations mere hours after their original broadcast in Blighty, the state is cracking down hard in other ways. The Economist reports that last week, China’s TV regulator said that, from April, any foreign series or film would need approval before being shown online. It is looking for “health, well-made works” that “showcase good values”. This sounds like a vague excuse to arbitrarily censor content it doesn’t like. Explicitly, banned subject matter includes, according to The Economist, “superstition, espionage and—bizarrely—time travel”.
It would be impossible to capture the disruptive influence the latest digital technologies are currently having on the world in a single blog post. But what Zeitgeist has collated here are some thoughts and happenings showing the different ways technology is changing our lives – from the way we do business to the way we interact with others.
Last night saw a highly enjoyable occurrence. No, not the Academy Awards in general, which as ever moved at a glacial pace as it ticked off a list of predicted favourites. Rather, it was a specific moment in the ceremony itself, when host Ellen DeGeneres took a (seemingly) impromptu picture of herself with a cornucopia of stars, tweeting it instantly. The host declared she wanted the picture (above) to be the most retweeted post ever. The previous holder was none other than the President of the United States, Barack Obama, whose re-election message saw over 500k retweets. It took Zeitgeist but a few minutes to realise that Ellen’s post would skyrocket past this. Right now it has been retweeted 2.7m times. Corporate tactic on the part of Samsung though it may have been, Zeitgeist felt himself feeling much closer to the action – being able to see on his phone a photo the host had taken moments ago several thousand miles away – and the incident helped inject a brief air of spontaneity into the show’s proceedings. Super fun, and easy to get definitive results in this case on how many people were really engaging with the content. But can we quantify how much Samsung and Twitter really benefited from the move, beyond fuzzy marketing metrics? Talking heads on CNBC saw room for improvement (see below).
The big news of late in tech circles of course has been Facebook’s $19bn acquisition of messaging application Whatsapp. Many, many lines of editorial have been spilled on this deal already. In the mainstream media, many commentators have found the price of the deal staggering. So it’s worth reading more considered views such as Benedict Evans’, whose post on the deal Zeitgeist highly encourages you to read. Despite the seemingly large amount of money the company has been acquired for – especially considering Facebook’s purchase of Instagram for a ‘mere’ $1bn – Evans sagely points out that per user the deal is about the same as Google made in its valuation when it purchased YouTube. So perhaps not that crazy after all. The other key point that Evans makes is on Facebook’s dedicated pursuit to be the ‘next’ Facebook, or conversely to stop anyone else from becoming the next Facebook. With a meteoric rise in members (see image below, as it outstrips growth by both Facebook and Twitter), Whatsapp was certainly looking a little threatening.
The worry for investors is how Facebook will monetise this platform, when the founders have professed an aversion to advertising. Is merely ensuring that Facebook is the ‘next’ Facebook a good enough reason for such acquisitions? Barriers to entry and sustainable advantages will be few and far between going down this route. The Financial Times, in its analysis of the acquisition, points out that innovation is quickly nipping at the heels of Whatsapp. CalPal, for example, is one example of a mobile application that lets users message each other from within an app. In the markets, there has been a relatively sanguine response to the purchase, but only because of broader trends. As the FT points out,
“External forces have also helped to push the headline prices of deals such as WhatsApp into the stratosphere. A global excess of cheap money, along with a scarcity of alternatives for growth-hungry investors, has boosted the stock prices of companies such as Facebook and Google.”
One of the most visibly exciting developments in technology in recent years is the explosion of the wearable tech sector. But it is Google’s flagship product, Glass, that has met with much ire and distress. An excellent piece of analysis appearing in MIT Technology Review last month hit the nail on the head when it identified why Glass was having trouble winning people over. The article rightly identifies the significant shift in external appearance inherent in making the switch from a device that needs to be taken out of a pocket as makes it clear when it is being interacted with (you need to cover half your face with the product to talk to someone, for example). The article also details the savvy approach Google have taken to the distribution of their product. It’s always sensible to try and mobilise the part of your base likely to be evangelists anyway, so as to build advance buzz before a full-blown release. But to get them to pay for the privilege, as Google are doing with their excitable fans, dubbed Explorers, is a stroke of genius for them. However, the key issue, and what the article states is an “insurmountable problem”, is that “Google’s challenge in making the device a successful consumer product will be convincing the people around you to ignore it”. It is this fundamental aspect of social interaction that is worrying many, and now Google is worried too. As detailed in the FT, the company has acknowledged that the product can look “pretty weird”. Recognising it has a “long journey” to mainstream adoption, it published a list of Dos and Don’ts. Highlights include,
“Ask for permission. Standing alone in the corner of a room staring at people while recording them through Glass is not going to win you any friends… If you find yourself staring off into the prism for long periods of time you’re probably looking pretty weird to the people around you.”
It indicates that Google may have a significant ‘Glasshole‘ problem it needs to attend to. The case may be overstated though. One of the problems may just be that potential customers have yet to see any practical uses for it. This is beginning to change. Last week, Virgin Atlantic announced a six-week trial of both Glass and Sony smartwatches. The idea will be for check-in attendants to use the devices to scan limousine number plates so that passengers can be greeted by name and be instantly updated on their flight status.
In the arts, digital technology has inspired much innovative work, as well as helped broaden its audience. David Hockney, one of England’s greatest living artists, recently exhibited a series of works produced entirely on his iPad at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. He is far from alone. Last week’s anniversary issue of The New Yorker featured work from Jorge Colombo on its front cover, again produced entirely on an iPad. Such digital innovation allows for increased productivity as well as new aesthetics. When done well, art can also involve the viewer, encouraging interaction. Digital technology helps with this too. Earlier in the year The New York Times covered how the New York City Ballet redesigned part of their floor in a new scheme to attract new visitors to the ballet. The result, roughly life-size pictures of dancers arranged on the floor, has seen great success, and an explosion of content on social media platforms like Instagram, where users have taken to posing on the floor as if interacting with the images (see above). It’s a simple tactic that now reaches a far greater audience thanks to new digital technologies.
A recently published book, ‘Now I know who my comrades are: Voices from the Internet Undergound’, by Emily Parker, seeks to demonstrate the ways in which digital technology has made helped to coalesce and support important activism in regions such as China and Latin America. But, as The Economist points out in its review, the disappointing situation in Egypt puts pay to some of the author’s claims; there are limits to how productive and transformative technology can be. In business, these hurdles are plain to see. A poll taken by McKinsey published last month shows that “45% of companies admit they have limited to no understanding on how their customers interact with them digitally“. This is staggering. For all executives’ talk of the power of Big Data, such technology is useless without the proper structures in place to successfully analyse it. We also perhaps need to think more about repercussions of increased technological advances and how they influence our social interactions. In the recently opened film Her (starring Joaquin Phoenix, pictured below), set in the very near future, a new operating system is so pervasive and seamless that it leads to fraught, thought-provoking questions on the nature and productivity of relationships. When does conversation – and more – with a simulacrum detract from interactions with the physical world? These considerations may seem lofty, but as we illustrated earlier, the germination of such thoughts are being echoed in discussions over Google Glass.
So technology in 2014 heralds some promise for the future. Wearable tech as a trend is merely the initial stage of a journey where our interaction with computing systems becomes seamless. It is on this journey though that we need to make sure that businesses are making the most of every opportunity to streamline costs and enhance customer service, and that individual early adopters do not leave the rest of us behind to deal with a bewildering and alarming new way of living. One of our favourite quotations, from the author William Gibson, is apt to end on: “The future’s already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed“.
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?
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”.
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.
First aired on PBS in 1985, filmmaker Ken Burns’ documentary on the Statue of Liberty was on Zeitgeist’s TiVo watch list this weekend. It’s really quite staggering to note how issues being discussed then are even more relevant three decades on.
It goes back to an article we wrote recently on the US government’s more legitimate efforts to collect data. These myriad agencies are working so fast to see whether it’s possible to collect this or that piece of data on someone, they are not stopping to think whether they should, and what the long-term implications are. By long-term, we mean what such a “Faustian bargain” means for the civil rights of citizens – particularly of course in the relation of the right to privacy – and what such machinations do to the long-term standing of the country as a whole – particularly from the outside looking in.
“Spying in a democracy depends for its legitimacy on informed consent, not blind trust”, wrote The Economist in this week’s lead article. Not so anymore, seemingly. The recent revelations that the NSA have been collecting masses of data from Facebook, Twitter, Google et al., with little thought for due process and with a focus on communications outside the US, and that at least one telco, Verizon, was ordered to provide significant amounts of user data to the government, is disconcerting to say the least. Zeitgeist wrote a letter, recently published in the Financial Times, before this story broke, that attempted to convey that the true worry for those opposed to such overreach is the high possibility of neglect or abuse, rather than intentional Machiavellian manipulation. Government ineptitude is more likely, and far more dangerous. Clarity and transparency are the enemies of such ineptitude.
As former New York governor Mario Cuomo admits in the clip at the beginning of this post, it can be very tempting to squash a little liberty here and there in return for added security. The situation, which arises at a time when the US is supposed to be taking China to task over its own extensive cyber-espionage (see above graphic), where we are, as one CNBC commentator described recently “hacking ourselves”, must give us pause, and begs us to re-examine what our notions of liberty are in an age of digital disruption.
The latest issue of Foreign Affairs features the cover article “The Rise of Big Data” by Kenneth Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schoenburger, which mostly details some of the incredible ways companies like UPS, Google and Apple have come to rely on vast arrays of numbers in order to run their businesses better. But data has always provided a problem in that it gives a substantive assurance of certainty that has a propensity to foster overconfidence in those relying on it. The article attempts to address this:
“[K]nowing the causes behind things is desirable. The problem is that causes are often extremely hard to figure out… Behavioural economics has shown that humans are conditioned to see causes even where none exist. So we need to be particularly on guard to prevent our cognitive biases from deluding us; sometimes, we just have to let the data speak.”
The sentiment here is admirable, and the context perceptive. But the final part of the quotation (my emphasis) assumes wrongly that data can speak objectively, that there is a fundamental ‘truth’ in a number. All too often though the wrong things are measured, or not all variables are measured. What data does not record, or worse, cannot record, can often be overlooked. While ostensibly data is there to provide assistance with building models and predicting future trends and movements, it sometimes leads to a very narrow view of one particular future, and fails to account for possibilities, that, though while unlikely, could potentially be devastating. This is what Nicholas Taleb writes about in his by turns unreadable but seminal work, Black Swan. The fictional, paranoid loner Fox Mulder of the hit series The X-Files had it right fifteen years ago when he lamented “in a universe of infinite possibilities, we may find ourselves at the mercy of anyone or anything that cannot be programmed, categorised or easily referenced”. The financial system before 2008 was a victim of such narrow thinking.
Hendrik Hertzberg, in his Talk of the Town column “Preventive Measures” in this week’s The New Yorker, made the adroit analogy with the 2002 film Minority Report in our quest to categorise and predict acts of crime. Hertzberg points out that in reality this “turns out to be a good deal more difficult than investigating such an act once it occurs”. Indeed, such prediction methods are being implemented, just with somewhat less efficacy than in the Tom Cruise movie. The stop-and-frisk procedure currently employed by the New York Police Department points to a sustained effort to engage in preventative measures to reduce crime, effectively what Cruise and his myrmidons were doing, albeit without the help of psychic imagery as in the film. While the psychic “Pre-Cogs” turned out to occasionally disagree, the success rate with stop-and-frisk is even less attractive. “In the final months of 2012″, writes the New York Times, only 4% of stops resulted in an arrest. But what is this low figure telling us…?
Hertzberg also alludes to the dilemma of mountains of data, produced without concern for oversight or management; producing more just because it’s possible to produce it, rather than thinking about the implications:
“This fall, the National Security Agency, the largest and most opaque component of the counter-terrorism behemoth, will [open] a billion-dollar facility [analysing] intercepted telecommunications… each of the Utah Data Center’s two hundred (at most) professionals will be responsible for reviewing five hundred billion terabytes of information each year, the equivalent of twenty-three million years’ worth of Blu-ray DVDs… that’s a lot of overtime.”
The other problem this data poses – and increasingly this goes for many industries that are jumping on the Big Data bandwagon – is that intelligence departments and businesses alike are now technically able to put quantifiable targets and figures to what they want to achieve, without considering whether such targets are actually applicable. Police claim the low stop-to-arrest ratio implies that they are preventing crimes by stopping someone before they act. There is nothing to argue otherwise. The New York Times article alludes to the debate over what ratio or percentage the Supreme Court would be comfortable with under the tenet of “reasonable suspicion”. This leads down a dangerous path where we treat data as an answer to a question, rather than as supporting evidence to an answer.