Vincent Writes

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Category: Essays

The State of Individual Websites

These last few weeks, I’ve really been thinking about one main topic to write about (I’ve also experienced two of the most severe flus in my life): the state of individual websites in an unwelcoming ecosystem. I started with thinking about the evolution of social networks, which for me are more and more becoming professional media-based, rather than friend-or connection-focussed. As I came across an article on the disappearance of the blog due to both a change in consumption and in how Google ranks websites, my thinking evolved to that level and what it meant for me.

We all represent sub-cultures that exhibit different behaviours to how we add value to our intellectual lives. My consumption pattern for media is perhaps like yours the reader (there is the likelihood of a perception bias), but it could also be completely different. As a blogger since 2004, I’ve read a lot of blogs and found ways to organise that reading through dedicated readers. The jump to podcasts was not hard, because it’s essentially the same world in audio-format (independent authors, collective players instead of readers). Social media was always more experimental for me, because of the random nature of what you would get out of it (I have a good idea what Daring Fireball will write about tomorrow, but not necessarily my brother or girlfriend). Because I already had a dedicated reading environment, I was very slow to add (semi-)professional media to social platforms, and it still feels like something I should not mix.

Nowadays, we see social platforms everywhere and the idea of a dedicated reader has been pushed into the dark, forgotten corners of the web. A new user of the Internet will more likely have heard of Twitter and Facebook, than know that Google Reader once existed, was replaced by Google Plus (a Facebook clone that has no real value), and other much smaller readers tried to take Google Reader’s place (Feedly being the most well-known).

Next comes the problem of discoverability. While searching for blogs or other ‘independent content’ was always a little tricky—Google once had a dedicated blog search as well, but that was hidden off the main page—we now operate in an era where searching for any individual content will reveal either adverts or collective results. Think about the following:

  • Search for any book: you’ll probably find Amazon as the top-result.
  • Search for any job: you’ll get Indeed.com as a top-result.
  • Search for a restaurant or hotel: Trip Advisor or Yelp.

This list can easily go on for any search term out there. All of the above-mentioned websites have been around for over a decade, but another trend arose within this decade, that of single-serving sites that exploit individual searches. I don’t have to visit dishwasher.com or headphones.com to know that very likely it comes with a significant amount of buy here links to dishwashers or headphones. Owners of these domains don’t need to possess any domain-specific knowledge either, they just need to repeat a specific set of keywords many times on their websites to earn its title (note to self: write a blog post that repeats the words ‘Vincent’ and ‘writes’ over and over again…). The same trend is happening in job searching as well: search for CRM jobs and you will find a search site dedicated to these jobs, the same for analysis, IT, sales, etc. etc.

The overal point is that the idea of search is no longer aimed at specificity, but has been supplanted by collections of results. The underlying thought is that search is overwhelming, we need curators, but these curators are not in it for the common good either. The Internet is a commercial place and there is little potential for blockbusters—rather it’s little pockets of money, best catered to by these mini-specialised-sites.

I feel there is a loss associated with this, but it’s hard to describe that loss in general terms. As I said, we are all sub-cultures, and each of us becomes happy in our own way. So my idea of discoverability may be less valuable to you.

The loss for me is the conversation, which would in the past come from other bloggers seeking commonalities (and traffic) by leaving a comment behind. There is this feeling of being one tree in a  very large forest, and when a branch grows, it does so quietly.

Granted, the world has changed. We all hear this phrase “In my day…,” and I’m no longer sure whether there’s even a point in reflecting because the “my days” continually seem to be replaced by new realities. The new reality of publishing a book is growing an audience before any publisher becomes interested. The same applies for venture funding (even though that is currently on a peak) and for many other areas. We each make our own luck and only the suckers stick to the traditional, passive path of expecting favours. But that too isn’t sustainable. An author with an audience doesn’t need a publisher anymore. A company can self-fund. The weirdest market is that of job searchers, who are expected to network to enter the hidden job market, but even that seems like a shot in the dark.

Traffic for a blogger has never been easy. From the beginning of time the story went that the more you give (in the form of comments and guest posts on other sites), the more you get back. This hasn’t changed, except that many blogs are becoming even more obscure than they were before. Instead, the “marketing” happens on LinkedIN and other social platforms.

I’ve always been in this space for the purpose and satisfaction of writing, and that will likely not change. But I’m more and more thinking that writing on a “blog” is about as useful to the world, as writing in a text file on my desktop is. We are cluttered with information and whether I keep the clutter to myself or throw it out into a noisy world, there doesn’t seem to be much difference. These may be the words of a tired writer (recovering from the two flus I mentioned) and should probably be ignored. They may also be true.

To be evolved…

 

Banksy, Uber, Je Suis Charlie, and the limitations of freedom

I believe to have said it before, but the one element I like about storytelling is the infinite range that your imagination can take characters and situations. Oddly enough, we live an age where information can also travel into infinite directions and in real time. This is the age of connectivity between devices, words, pictures, images, executable code, and people. This reality is just one of several, but it has been around for the affluent part of this world since the mid-nineties. To anyone growing up or immersing themselves in this reality for years and years, the view on the malleability of what is and what can be is irreversibly changed.

To some extent this same analogy can be made about globalisation, where companies are now incredibly flexible to choose how much they pay in wages, taxes, and other resources, all according to what location they settle on in a map. This, to the chagrin of many a local government that sees countless organisations close up shop and place their workforce into subsidised (un)employment programmes, because they either found cheaper means of production elsewhere or cannot compete with organisations that benefit from these advantages.

The Internet has had an equatable type of opposition in that many would not want information to move as freely as it does, because of financial and ideological reasons. Digital information (much like the resources used in globalisation) has become so flexible, so replicable, that the concept of ownership is very much in doubt. The traditional link between value and object risks to become severed and threatens to overthrow certain less adaptive elements of our economy.

Ideologically speaking, two threats of free information are often discussed. One, the risk of the media-hype, which can distort the truth of stories but can equally give extremists (like those that caused the Paris massacre) a platform to shout out their message from. The freedom of media is causing both for everything to be open (think racial profiling and killing in Ferguson), but can also bombard and destroy (think paparazzi chasing and causing the death of Lady Diana). On the other side of the coin, this abundance of press also causes audiences to become increasingly desensitised about the many atrocities around this world (particularly those in areas that don’t necessarily affect us directly).

So, how does this relate to Uber, the Je Suis Charlie movement coming out of yesterday’s Paris killings, and Banksy? Each of these deals with the testing of the boundaries of our current reality. Uber, in providing a service that wants to freely turn every driver into an entrepreneur, but depends very much on a free market economy where they can compete with established (and licensed) transportation companies. Je Suis Charlie, or rather the publication Charlie Hebdo, which chose to disregard individuals’ and groups’ sensitivities and instead chose to publish cartoons that were provocative in thought and certainly provocative in feeling (please read my note about this below!). Banksy, an artist treating public architecture as his distribution mechanism.

Each of these have decided to embrace freedom, yet have (purposefully) ignored that this freedom can also create havoc elsewhere and to themselves. Charlie Hebdo tries to expose much of the silliness in people’s beliefs, but that alone is not sufficient in eliminating that people believe in certain causes (that may or may not hold valor). Banksy combined public commentary and the use of a controversial medium (graffiti) into a  condemnation of the art world and statements about societies similar to Charlie Hebdo’s. Uber, perhaps in bad company amongst these two, chose to follow the freedom of a capitalist model (following many other recent startups), while purposefully ignoring the local environment for their own benefit.

With the freedom of information age that we live in, come these entrenched beliefs that we should not be censored in what we say and that it is better to act than to stand still. But this new thinking clashes with a world, a reality, where resource mobility comes at a cost, where information can hurt and overwhelm, where established forces do not want to be a part of this freedom. In this free world, we no longer have the freedom to choose not to participate, to choose to not lose our jobs to cheaper labour elsewhere, to not have our private pictures exposed, to not have our religious beliefs questioned, to not have our property defaced with graffiti, etc.

Freedom in a world without boundaries makes sense, yet we live in a world where someone, somewhere has the power to pull the plug, to pull the trigger, to pull the curtain closed. More worryingly, we live in a world, where the very limiting nature of our planetary biology discourages freedom and asks for restraint. We also live in the contrast where one person’s truth can set them free, while another person’s lie can provide them with food and housing in an otherwise poor environment.

What is the answer to this? To me, freedom cannot be the sake of it, but respect and cultural sensitivity to the diversity of beliefs is a more sustainable way forward. To me, Charlie Hebdo was playing with the fire of a stick of dynamite that has been burning globally for a very very long time. Uber has to realise that financial growth is not the only metric to measure themselves by. Banksy, while amazing, is essentially a criminal.

I wanted to publish something more hopeful, but these values of respecting differences are too deep and while I hurt for the killing of these amazing journalists, I also hurt for much of the killing happening in other parts of this world, largely ignored for the consequences they have on the behaviour of radicals within the Western world. Nothing excuses violence and nothing excuses ignorance, somehow we have all found ourselves in the middle of this discussion to which there is no short-term solution.

Afterword: after careful reflection, including discussions on the media and attending the march to pay respects to those that were killed as part of the Charlie Hebdo massacare, I want to add that I very much realise that all of this is a matter of perspective. To the French, Charlie Hebdo was a pillar of free speech and many of its contents were both contested and vindicated within the French legal framework, which deeply respects the separation between Church and State. The I am Charlie movement is also not just about free speech, it is about not living in fear. It is about not living in a dictatorship that restricts much more than just freedom of choice. My stance is still that this freedom of expression must be nuanced to respect those involved in it. Invading people’s privacy is not OK. Should conducting actions that conflict with people’s beliefs be OK? It’s a tough question that I struggle with in light of what comes after free speech is restricted.

The complexity in innovation

As someone with an unbridled curiosity about how (any kind of) organisations innovate, combined with a passion and ongoing interest for all new technological developments on the market, I have had the luck to have some incredibly in-depth and specific conversations with innovators about what they are trying to accomplish.

Every organisation is trying to accomplish something, because every one of them feels the pressure of being left behind. Some governments offer some limited protection in the forms of subsidies, tax-breaks, and protective measures against foreign competition, but every company has to stand on its own two feet by the age of maybe 3-5 years old. When you are alone like this, it matters to both earn a living now and to provide the promise of earning a living in the future. That is where innovation comes in.

We all derive our inspiration from the intelligent developments around us. For many, it’s the market, new technologies being released that make us wonder whether this or that organisation could do the same. For some, it’s also public, but less accessible releases in the forms of scientific breakthroughs that may inspire the expert to build on top of that. For a few, it’s the scientific team in a closed off lab that comes up with an idea that can transform itself into an innovation downstream.

It’s always worthwhile to come back to the essence of what an innovation is supposed to be: an invention that has commercial application. An idea that transforms itself into a product or service that people are willing to pay for. There are very prominent elements within this definition of novelty and applicability, which is a tough balance to manage between getting inspired by existing market innovations and not yet commercial raw scientific ideas.

The truth of the matter is that these are all races of solutions for specific problems. In the end, the problem (market) can only sustain a few of these solutions, which means that speed and completeness of a solution are keys to success. It means that any organisation that seeks to innovate, must do so in the way of a well-oiled machine, while realising that that investment may not pay off now, but will pay off if you see it as a continuous muscle that gets stronger with every problem you are trying to solve.

To make things not at all easier, the rate of innovation is increasing with technological advances. Physical goods are catching up to digital goods, in the sense that anything can now be modelled and prototypes can be produced and tested at a faster speed. This could and will very likely end up in a downward spiral for business returns, because, much like in for instance the software market, the range of utilities makes the market more price-sensitive and less loyal, thus creating less sustainable rewards from single innovations.

The conclusion is therefore two-fold. One, no organisation can afford to not dedicate time and resources to consider their long-term positioning in the market. Two, organisations seeking to be though-leaders in the market, must make the difficult choice of continually innovating with the promise of smaller returns, or of finding alternative models that position them within an innovative ecosystem, without getting sucked down the spiral. A good example of this are the many platforms that continue to arise, though even those risk becoming commodities over time. That … is the complexity in innovation.

Essay: The Consequences of Having a Digital Soul

In science fiction and in the Kurzweilesque future reality, the concept of a digital soul is abstract and difficult to grasp. Yet, we have experienced an evolution in this area in the last half decade or so. I speak of the simple matter of IT backups and how it changes our thinking about IT. Very likely that same change of thinking will happen about what it means to be human as well.

At some recent point in time, each computer that we possessed was a separate entity. Yes, every computer was designed with input and output methods, in the form of (portable) storage devices, keyboards and mice, printers, and other forms of output. This evolved to the rudimentary beginnings of the Internet and has exploded in the last 15 years. As network speeds became faster, so came the introduction of ‘the backup,’ in the form of external storage, either in the home or off-site.

Right now, computers are backed up in a multitude of ways. We have offsite options, in the form of Dropbox, iCloud, Google Drive, Backblaze, and countless more. We have home-based options, in the form of software that will sync/backup your data to external harddrives. Not to be ignored, we have software that operates in the cloud, from note-taking to video-recording, to managing your customer, financial, and other company data.

What is one practical consequence of this? Every time your computer gets stolen, breaks, or is replaced, for every fire and flood, a simple restoration procedure from backup to a new computer will restore your digital life to its original, useful state. In essence, the hardware has become immaterial.

So what is the value of a human life? At this time, it is priceless because each and every one of us is ‘unique.’ We have data within us and, let’s not forget, physical features that are impossible to replicate and replace. We, you and I, are not backed up into some form of external storage. I am the only copy as are you, you, and you too.

Right now it seems unimaginable that Raymond Kurzweil or others will succeed to upload our human essence into a digital storage device 1. It seems equally difficult to grasp as to why they would want to do this, as if the very act would remove what it means to be human. That part is true. If being human means being unique, then having a backup is decidedly not human.

But there is incredible value in transcending humanity in that way. Wars and other disasters are killing people every day. People that we will never see again. Some are saying that our planet is being destroyed either by natural or industrial forces, or rather a combination of both. Without action, our only exit is to leave Earth and relocate somewhere else in space. Yet, that brings the cost of transportation with it, mostly expressed in time (another precious human commodity) and the resource cost of transporting many, let alone one.

What about more controversial values? What is the value of someone that is imprisoned for life, yet (supposedly) reforming himself? What is the value of the many unemployed, a trend that only seems to be improving for the wealthier part of this world? What is the value of a parent outliving a child or a person wanting to extend their life beyond human terms? The controversiality is that this value can also be expressed in cost to society.

If we do succeed in transcending towards a transportability of our digital souls, then we will also lose something else. We will lose our bodies and what they mean to both us and the people around us. At best summarised by staring into your beloveds’ eyes, also called the windows to our souls, which would then disappear with the passing of a human. Yes, we are making strides in replicating objects on a three-dimensional scale, but it is hard to believe that this replication can reproduce the depth and uniqueness of the eye, the texture, temperature, and hardness/softness of the body, the characteristics and flaws that make us unique in a physical sense.

For everything there is a price, but as I found out many times now with my electric devices, that price is relatively minor compared to having all of your memories restored. A point of discussion I admit, but I’m happy to argue it on this front also: does the value of a digital soul that is eternal outweigh the value of the whole of a living, breathing, physical specimen?

Notes:

  1. For those interested, find out more information about his vision here

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