Cyber Summit 2018: How to Fix the Future

Andrew Keen was the keynote speaker on the first day of the Cyber Summit last month, an annual technology conference organized by Cybera. They were gracious enough to host me this year as a guest. The theme for 2018’s event was “Mind the Gap: Surviving (and Thriving) in the Age of Disruption”. That’s exactly where Keen began.

“We are living through the age of disruption,” he said.

Andrew Keen

Keen is an entrepreneur who founded back in 1995, but he’s best known as an author and critic of Internet culture. I remember reading his first book, The Cult of the Amateur, shortly after it was published in 2007. As an entrepreneur myself (in podcasting) not to mention an early and enthusiastic adopter of Twitter, I remember strongly disagreeing with his critique of Web 2.0 and user generated content. It made me angry. I had read James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds around the same time and I couldn’t believe how different Keen’s perspective was. Why couldn’t he see?!

So, it’s no surprise that I started reading Keen’s latest book, How to Fix the Future, with some hesitation. Would it rankle me as well? I hadn’t finished it by the time the keynote rolled around, but I had read enough to have an idea of what to expect. And I was looking forward to it.

“Is technology shaping us or are we shaping it?” he asked. Keen spoke about Marshall McLuhan, lamenting that technology was supposed to create a global village. “We were promised that the new business models were truly revolutionary,” he said. We’d have greater cultural understanding, more jobs, and more equality. But, “something has gone wrong” and that promise “for the most part, has not been realized.” There have been other unforeseen effects too. He thought McLuhan would be “amused by the unintended consequences of technology.”

“I’m not a Luddite,” Keen protested. “I’m not suggesting there aren’t benefits of technology, that’s self-evident.” He also knows that there’s no going back. “Digital is the reality, for better or worse, and we need to make it work,” he said.

Not only has the promise of a better future not been realized, we’ve found ourselves with new problems to deal with. Inequality, the demise of expertise, the echo chamber, and privacy are all among the concerns Keen raised. “The inequality in economic terms is astonishing,” he said, predicting that there is a great jobs crisis on the horizon. Describing “surveillance capitalism” Keen suggested that “privacy itself is a potentially fundamental casualty.”

So, what to do about it? “We’ve been through this before” with the industrial revolution, he said. “We break the future and then we fix it; that’s what we do.”

In his keynote as in his book, Keen spoke about Utopia, written by Thomas More in 1516. It was “a call to arms, to make the world a better place,” he told us. It’s a useful way to frame his argument that each of us has a responsibility to be a part of the solution. “We have to be careful not to fall into the utopian discourse of the first generation of web tech,” he warned.

Keen suggests we have five tools with which to fix the future: regulation, competitive innovation, worker and consumer choice, social responsibility, and education. He only spent a few minutes on these in his keynote, but elaborates on each in the book.

The section on regulation stood out for me. He compares the current state of technology to that of the automobile in the 1960s when the lack of safety regulations resulted in high numbers of auto-related deaths and injuries. He shared the story of how Ralph Nader’s bestselling book Unsafe at Any Speed brought the issue of traffic safety into the national discourse and led to the passage of seat-belt laws and other traffic safety measures.

Could something similar happen in tech today? I don’t know what the digital equivalent of the seat-belt might be, but I do know that not a day has gone by since I read the book that some sort of big tech-related problem hasn’t been in the news. New privacy breaches, new abuses of power, and new unintended consequences seem to dominate Techmeme these days, usually in reference to Facebook and Google.

“There’s no app to fix the future,” Keen told the audience. “The only way we fix the future is in a human way.” In the book he says, “technology doesn’t solve technological problems; people do.” It won’t happen overnight, and Keen was upfront about that. “It will take a generation or two, just like it did for the industrial revolution,” he said. “But we have to begin to address it now.”

Andrew Keen

I have since finished reading How to Fix the Future and would recommend it. I think Keen raises some important issues and does indeed provide some thoughtful commentary on potential solutions.

Many in the audience found Keen’s keynote to be a downer, and there were plenty of comments about it being a pessimistic start to the conference. He certainly prompted a lot of discussion among attendees, which is all you can really ask for from a keynote.

But I found myself on common ground. Maybe in the decade since I read his first book I’d become more critical of technology, or at least more aware of the possible negative consequences. Maybe Keen had mellowed somewhat, adopting a more pragmatic approach in the hopes of effecting change. Or maybe, it was a bit of both!

Thank you to Cybera for hosting me at Cyber Summit 2018!

Tuition is not the problem, books are!

Post Image On Friday, the Board of Governors at the University of Alberta approved a 4.6% increase in tuition fees. That translates to an extra $215.55 for general arts and science students. Of course the decision made the local news and predictably the segments focused on the extra burden this places on students.

But more than teaching or deferred maintenance, it was the question of affordability that concerned Students’ Union President Michael Janz.

Janz stressed that every time fees are increased, the debt loads that students incur go up, as do the chances that someone will not apply to the U of A because they see it as financially unfeasible.

I mean, what do you expect the SU President to say? Of course he’s got to side with students on the issue, that’s his job.

I think the focus should not be on tuition, however. Looking back on my time at the university, I think the problem are textbooks. Sure tuition is expensive and I am repaying student loans now, but it was textbooks that were the real killer.

In my last two years, I avoided purchasing textbooks whenever possible. The idea of spending $175 for a 150 page book just drove me nuts. Especially since most of the content in the books can be found elsewhere. The other thing that sucks is when a professor requires the latest edition of a textbook, meaning students cannot purchase the less expensive old editions.

There’s no reason to force students to purchase ridiculously expensive textbooks. Hell, there’s pretty much no reason to have physical textbooks at all! Just offer digital versions instead. Or incorporate free materials.

I think getting rid of the expensive textbooks would help students far more than trying to prevent tuition increases.

Read: The Gateway

The Amazon Kindle

Post is venturing into the hardware industry on Monday with the launch of their new ebook reading device, Kindle. The image I have included to the right comes from a September 2006 post at Endgadget, so I have no idea if that is just a prototype or if it is a reasonable representation of the shipping product. I hope just a prototype, because it’s kind of ugly. The device is 4.9 inches by 7.5 inches by 0.7 inches and weighs 10.2 ounces (so slightly larger than the iPod classic, and double the weight).

Newsweek has a seven page article up all about the device, and after reading it, I’m pretty excited (though still distraught over the look…beige is so pre-Internet). I encourage you to go read it for yourself, but here’s the gist of the article:

  • The Amazon Kindle will sell for $399 USD.
  • It has no back-light, and utilizes E Ink technology that mimics the readability of ink on paper.
  • Battery will last 30 hours and will fully charge in just 2.
  • Wireless connectivity via Wi-Fi and EVDO.
  • Does not require a computer. You can buy the books on the device with one-touch and start reading.
  • There will be 88,000 books available at launch, for $9.99 each.
  • You can subscribe to newspapers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
  • You get a private Kindle email address. Send a PDF to it, and the document is automatically added to your library, ready to read on the Kindle.

The Newsweek article then goes into the history of ebooks, and provides a pretty good analysis of how the Kindle could transform both reading and writing.

Don’t you wish you had one of these? Or maybe one of the second generation Kindles, with color screens, a sleeker design, and a lower price? I do. I know ebooks have been talked about for years, but the Kindle could be the device that finally opens the floodgates. The killer feature, as far as I am concerned, is the inclusion of wireless connectivity. It’s a big, big deal.

You don’t always have access to your computer, and even if you do, connecting a device to it is an annoying step that needs to go away forever. With a wireless connection, the Kindle can do everything on its own, without the need for a computer. Score one for the inclusion of wireless.

As the Newsweek article states, the Kindle is "the first ‘always-on book". That could transform the way books are published entirely! I read a lot of non-fiction, and I like to buy the books when they are brand new. For instance, I bought Freakonomics as soon as I heard about it. The problem is that these books almost always have a second "revised and expanded" edition! There’s no way I’m going to buy the book again. With the Kindle however, I could subscribe to the book. The author could update the book on the fly, and I’d see the changes instantly, wherever I am. How cool is that?!

Another key advantage to the Kindle’s wireless feature is the ability to venture out onto the web. You can look up something on Wikipedia for instance, and then capture passages to your Kindle library "with an electronic version of a highlight pen." Combined with the fact that you can send documents to the Kindle, it could become your hub for all kinds of reading. Books, newspapers, blogs, documents, and web pages.

There will always be critics and individuals who say nay to the idea of ebooks, but it’s a losing battle for them. From the Newsweek article:

"I’ve actually asked myself, ‘Why do I love these physical objects?’ " says [ founder Jeff Bezos]. " ‘Why do I love the smell of glue and ink?’ The answer is that I associate that smell with all those worlds I have been transported to. What we love is the words and ideas."

Microsoft’s Bill Hill has a riff where he runs through the energy-wasting, resource-draining process of how we make books now. We chop down trees, transport them to plants, mash them into pulp, move the pulp to another factory to press into sheets, ship the sheets to a plant to put dirty marks on them, then cut the sheets and bind them and ship the thing around the world. "Do you really believe that we’ll be doing that in 50 years?" he asks.

Amazon’s Kindle attempts to solve the first problem – the affinity for the physical book – by being a device that disappears as you read. The print is clear and crisp, the device mimics the size of a paperback, and there isn’t much to distract you from reading (I guess that’s one advantage to the less than sleek look). It solves the second problem – environmental waste and inefficiencies – by getting rid of the need for paper altogether.

I think the Kindle could be good. Read the Newsweek article, and also this post by the author, Steven Levy. In it, he addresses the "ugly" reaction that bloggers like me have had. There’s even more on the device at Techmeme. Maybe in a few years you’ll be reading this on the Kindle!

Oh, and don’t let the $399 price tag get in the way of realizing how much potential the Kindle has. After all, when the iPod launched in 2001, it was priced at $399 too.

Read: Newsweek

Harry Potter Mania

Post ImageAre you ready for Harry Potter mania? I am! And by that I mean I’ll happily ignore it just as I have for all the previous books. I haven’t read any of them. I’ve only seen two or three of the movies. It’s not that I am anti-Harry Potter or anything, I just (for whatever reason) have never gotten into it.

I do intend to read the books one day, simply because so many other people have read them. It’s almost like I am obligated to read them in order to really be part of society or something. I’m fine with that – I always give my best “WTF” look when someone tells me they have never seen Star Wars, and I’d rather not be a hypocrite.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is the new book, as I’m sure you know, and it has broken all kinds of records:

Amazon said that as of midnight, it has received more than 2.223 million pre-orders worldwide on its various Web sites, eclipsing the previous pre-order record of 1.5 million held by the sixth book in the series.

Apparently on its busiest pre-order day, received more than 1.75 orders per second. Ridiculous and impressive, all at the same time!

You’ll notice the picture above is of The Simpsons – I found it here. I haven’t seen the episode, but I guess The Simpsons spoofed Harry Potter in one of the Halloween episodes. Here’s a seven mintue clip. Good stuff!

If you’re a fan, enjoy reading the book this weekend! If instead you’re an indifferent muggle like me, try not to spoil it for the Potter-heads, mmkay?

Don Tapscott Talks Wikinomics at the U of A

Post ImageEarly this morning I attended a lecture sponsored by the U of A’s School of Business featuring Don Tapscott, author of the new book Wikinomics. It’s a good thing I didn’t buy the book a couple weeks ago like I was going to, because everyone got a complimentary copy at the event (and I got him to sign mine).

I had no idea, but apparently the event was something of a homecoming for Don! He got his M.Ed. in Research Methodology from the University of Alberta, as well as one of his two honorary Doctor of Laws. He joked that he was happy to enjoy the Alberta spring weather with us! From a distance, Don looks a little something like Red from That 70’s Show, but I can assure you, he’s a much more engaging speaker than Mr. Forman.

He started by congratulating us for being named Time’s person of the year, and said that in his opinion, it is the corporation (as opposed to an individual) that is undergoing the biggest change. Much of his talk focused around what he called the “four drivers” of mass collaboration:

  1. Web 2.0
  2. The Net Generation
  3. The Social Revolution
  4. The Economic Revolution

The one that caught my attention the most was the second one – no surprise I suppose, as I am a member of the net generation (he said anyone under 29). The comments he made really resonated with me (such as that we view email as a more formal way to communicate). He is currently working on a research project to demonstrate that members of this generation are wired differently…we think differently than our parents. Perhaps the most profound aspect of the net generation is that we view work, entertainment, and everything else as the same thing. No longer is there a clear distinction between work and fun…they need to become (and are becoming) one.

Don also explained that the net generation is incredible at detecting BS, and that we actually do care about things. He said a common remark from older people is that members of the net generation don’t care about the news, all they watch is The Daily Show. Don’s reply was brilliant: “The Daily Show isn’t funny unless you know the news!” Truer words have never been spoken.

The talk finished with a brief question period and a few final thoughts from Don. He said an important takeaway is that leadership can come from anywhere. It doesn’t have to come from the top, which I thought was a good point.

I look forward to reading the book now!

Use podcasting to get your book published

Post ImageInteresting piece in the New York Times yesterday about authors using podcasting to get noticed and ultimately, to get their books published. founder Evo Terra was interviewed for the article:

“Compared to audiobooks these authors break every rule in the business, including using sound effects,” Mr. Terra said. The podcast books also use music and a full cast more liberally than traditional audiobooks. Still, what Podiobooks’ offerings might lack in polish, they tend to make up for in brash enthusiasm.

I’ve never been a fan of audiobooks – they are just too damn boring. Telling a story with a podcast makes perfect sense. I think it’s icing on the cake that these podcasters eventually get book deals as well.


Murdoch Cancels O.J. Simpson Book & TV Special

Post ImageBesides providing fodder for the late night television shows, nothing good could have come from the book by O.J. Simpson, titled “If I Did It”, nor from the related television show that was to air on Fox. Faced with incredible outrage over the project, News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch announced today that both book and TV show are canceled:

“I and senior management agree with the American public that this was an ill-considered project,” Mr. Murdoch said in a statement. “We are sorry for any pain this has caused the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown-Simpson.”

If O.J. Simpson really wanted to confess, why not just come out and say so? There’s no need to make a mockery of the legal system and drudge up old wounds in the process. I applaud Fox for choosing decency over profits. I’m all for free speech, but there’s no need for anyone to profit from Simpson’s pseudo-confession.


REVIEW: The Game by Neil Strauss

Post ImageA few weeks ago Sharon borrowed The Game from the library, and when she was done, lent it to me to read. I planned to write a review after reading it, but never found the time. As a result, the book has been overdue twice now (she renewed it once). I figured I should get to writing the review after all, or these 25 cents/day fees are going to add up.

If you walk into a bookstore or library and pick up the book from the shelf, try to do it without smirking. You won’t be able to! The cover of the book is black leather, the text on the cover and the edges of the paper are gold, and it has a red bookmark ribbon too. If you ignore the little woman stripper icons on the front, you could glance at the book and mistake it for The Bible. Excellent design for a book like this!

The Game: Penetrating The Secret Society of Pickup Artists chronicles the two year journey of author Neil Strauss who, while researching for the book, became the world’s best pickup artist. Strauss becomes “Style” and he quickly devotes himself to learning from all the pickup artists he can find, in order to become the best. Along the way, he encounters people like Tom Cruise, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and even lives with Courtney Love for a while. To some in the pickup artist community he’s a god, to others he is an enemy to be feared. Eventually he gets out of the game, but I’ll leave it up to you to find out how and why.

At times the book is funny, while others its sad. Some sections are quite instructive, while others are better read as a warning. On the whole, I felt what Strauss was try to say with the book is that if you think becoming a pickup artist will solve all your problems, you’re wrong. He tells of numerous individuals who devote themselves to sarging (as picking up a woman is called) and subsequently ignore the rest of their lives. That said, Strauss himself clearly benefited from becoming a pickup artist. I think different readers will draw different messages from the book.

The best section of the book as far as I am concerned is the glossary, which contains dozens of terms used by people in the pickup artist community and throughout the book itself. Things like sarging, IOI (indicator of interest), neg (a backhanded compliment or seemingly accidental insult delivered to a beautiful woman, such as “nice nails, are they real?”), AFC (average frustrated chump), AMOG (alpha male of group), and many more. I found the lexicon to be quite entertaining. It reminded me of my days as a clan member in the computer game TFC.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. It was a fairly quick read, and Strauss keeps it entertaining from start to finish. The subtitle of the book is very telling – this is not a guide or handbook for wannabe pickup artists. Instead, it’s a journey that Strauss is willing to take you along on. Despite having time to reflect on the story (and checking online to see if things Strauss mentions actually exist – they do) I still find it hard to believe there are pickup artists out there. This book tells a pretty incredible tale, and I’m sure some people will be offended. Others, such as myself, will most certainly be entertained.

Da Vinci Code Lawsuit Conspiracy Theory?

Post ImageAs you may have heard at some point in the last few weeks, “The Da Vinci Code” author Dan Brown was sued by fellow authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, who wrote “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”. The two asserted that Brown had violated copyright by taking elements from their book and using it in his own. The verdict was handed down today:

“The Da Vinci Code” author Dan Brown and his publishing house were cleared of copyright infringement in a British court Friday, with the judge finding the lawsuit based on a contrived and “selective number of facts and ideas.”

“It would be quite wrong if fictional writers were to have their writings pored over in the way DVC (`Da Vinci Code’) has been pored over in this case by authors of pretend historical books to make an allegation of infringement of copyright,” Judge Peter Smith said in his 71-page ruling.

The result should not surprise anyone, and this is where the idea for a conspiracy theory comes from. Let’s review a few facts:

  • “The Da Vinci Code” is fiction, while “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” is nonfiction. Does it make any sense for a work of fiction to be accused of copyrighting a work of supposed fact? Brown’s book is probably similar to hundreds of books and documents, because he uses a real idea as the basis for his fictional story. Whether or not Brown did any research or not, the idea that works of fiction could be sued for using real-world ideas is absurd.
  • “The Da Vinci Code” hardcover edition is published by Doubleday, which is a division of Random House. The paperback is published under Anchor, which is an imprint of Knopf, which is also a division of Random House. “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” hardcover is published by Delacorte, and the paperback by Dell, both of which are also divisions of Random House.
  • According to an article at BusinessWeek, Baigent and Leigh spent “two years on the lawsuit and nearly $3.5 million, between their own legal expenses, and Random House’s fees.” Something tells me they don’t have that kind of money, so maybe Random House has got their back?
  • Sales of “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” have greatly benefited from the trial, as explained in this CBS News article: “ reported a 3,500 percent increase in sales right after the trial began…”
  • Giles Elliott of Bookseller Magazine was quoted recently as saying, “The trial means both books are getting worldwide attention and sales increases in the UK have been dramatic.” He says sales of “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” increased 745% in the UK alone in the first week of the trial.

And it should come as no surprise that “The Da Vinci Code” has dominated bestseller lists for the last two or three years. As you can see, there is lots of evidence to suggest that Random House had something to do with it, as the lawsuit was a win-win for them. And I’m certainly not the first person to suggest this, I just wanted to collect some of the ideas into one place.

So what do you think, is Random House behind the lawsuit?

Book Wishlist

Post ImageI went and bought my first textbook of the semester today. I picked up “Rethinking Society in the 21st Century: Critical Readings in Sociology” from the UofA Bookstore, and I even waited in line to pay – do I feel like a student now or what! In any case, I got to thinking about some other books I want to read, so here’s a brief list (omitting subtitles), in no particular order:

  • The Search by John Battelle
    This book really interests me, and it’s recieved some really great reviews thus far. Plus, I read and enjoy John’s blog all the time, so I am pretty certain I’d enjoy the book too.
  • The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurzweil
    The man is a great thinker and theorist, and so his comments on the content in this book (artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, human longevity, etc.) are particularly intriguing. I read JD Lasica’s review today, and despite the warnings of being very dense in places, I think I’d really enjoy reading the book.
  • The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil
    If I am going to read the new book, I figure I should read this one too. Sounds like it sets up much of the content in the new book.
  • Blog Marketing by Jeremy Wright
    Another book by a blogger I read all the time! I was fortunate enough to be a reviewer for Jeremy on this book, though I probably wasn’t really that helpful! I really should have this book by now, I just haven’t gotten around to ordering it.
  • Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner
    I picked this book up in Chapters the last time I was there and read the jacket and a page or two and it seemed quite fascinating. Unfortunately I didn’t buy it at the time as I had a list of other books I needed to get first, but it’s definitely one I’d like to read.

All non-fiction books, strangely enough! I haven’t read much fiction lately now that I think about it, not nearly as much as I used to. Of course, I still don’t have the textbooks for my other two classes!