Paul Wallbank

Paul Wallbank is a speaker and writer charting how technology is changing society and business. Paul has four regular technology advice radio programs on ABC, a weekly column on the smartcompany.com.au website and has published seven books.

May 262017
 
Waiting for other people to help our business

“These three brands have one thing in common – they’ve all been destroyed by digital disruption,” says one business commentator in a recent presentation.

He cited three names; Kodak, Nokia and Blockbuster.

It’s a nice, and often repeated meme, which is only really true of Blockbuster which failed to adapt to a changing market and could be a perfect example of a transition effect although some don’t buy the digital disruption reason for the company’s demise.

Giving lie to the idea the company was a victim of Netflix’s rise, a former Blockbuster executive puts the chain’s bankruptcy down to management not understanding the company’s role in the market, and that it was in decline long before the streaming service’s arrival.

A more fundamental problem with the statement is both Nokia and Kodak are still in business too, the latter having come out Chapter 11 financial in late 2013.

Finland’s Nokia is somewhat more complex than Kodak or Blockbuster, having been founded as a paper pulp mill in 1865.

The company became a global brand thanks to being a leader in mobile phones prior to the iPhone disrupting the market but the name faded as the Apple and a new breed of East Asian manufacturers came to dominate the market.

Despite fading as a consumer brand, the company is still a major player in telecommunications – being a major supplier of cellular base stations – along with a range of other technologies.

Both Kodak and Nokia are still very much alive, albeit no longer being recognised by the average consumer.

There are major lessons from both companies for those studying the effects of technological disruption on brands and businesses. Even Blockbuster’s mistakes in the face of a changing and declining market has many lessons.

Citing them as examples of ‘digital extinction’ though is untrue and almost certainly unhelpful in understanding what management can do to respond to new technology or societal shifts.

May 252017
 

“The future isn’t pre-determined, technology doesn’t come from some outside force. It’s created by us. Some people have more power than others in that system, such as the big tech entrepreneurs, but at the end it’s people and organisations that have the power.”

Nicholas Davis, the World Economic Forum’s Head of Society and Innovation, was discussing at the recent Sydney CeBIT conference how we can take control of the digital economy and where workers fit into an increasingly automated world.

Technology and online platforms aren’t neutral system, Davis observes. “It’s not just about how we use them, but the values that are designed into the systems, technology is not just a neutral thing. During a conversation like this if I put my iPhone between us, it’s proven that reduces our memory of that discussion and our sense of connection.”

Politics and addiction

“The purpose of the technology, the design of it, affects us in different ways.” Davis says, “if we design technologies for addiction, if we design business models that involve us being sucked into systems at the expense of other things in our lives, then that is a value choice that companies make and that we as users are trading off in our lives.”

“In understanding that technology is not neutral then the question is how we, as revolutionaries have that political discussion? I don’t mean political like ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ but these are value decisions that we need to engage with.”

“The difficulties about having discussions about technology is not getting sucked into a left-right divide and letting one group of people own innovation, but to say what do we want, How do we get there and how do we avoid the mistakes of previous industrial revolutions where the environment suffered, kids suffered and vulnerable populations suffered.”

A change in thinking

“One of the biggest problems is we don’t have regulatory or even democratic institutions where we can make collective decisions about technologies,” says Davis.

“The average AI researcher, at the top of their game anywhere in the world, would only understand a small percentage of the AI space. So how do you expect a politician or a voter, to come to grips with it.”

One of the key discussions missing in the public sphere is around automation and concepts like the Universal Basic Income, Davis believes. “We should have a serious chat about giving everyone the space to build up their skills.”

In the development policy, Davis sees growing inequality and applying last century’s thinking to today’s challenges as among the biggest risks facing governments and communities.

Rippling beyond business

For business, the imperative is to recognise the effects of decisions on the wider community.

“The big thing for business is understanding the technology decisions you make have a ripple effect beyond your company, you need to look forward to new ways of value adding.”

Davis warns we are seeing a backlash against innovation and technology with concerns about privacy and security growing.

“So much of the world is build on their use of data. Most companies and organisations don’t have good data hygiene or ontology to classify their information. People say data is their greatest assets – some say it’s the new oil – but it’s also their greatest liability. So understanding information security at the board level is critical.”

The power of individuals

For individuals, Davis believes the power lies with us in the choices we make as consumers.

“Don’t underestimate your own power, but also don’t underestimate that more and more products around us are designed to influence our behaviour in ways we need to be aware of.”

“In most cases, if the product is free then you and your data are the product, understand that and on what terms is important.”

Conscious choices

“Understand the externalities of these services as well. Appreciate the effects it has on your family, your mental health, on the ability to connect is important. Being able to make conscious choices about these things.”

“Supporting open data standards and competition – not just accepting Android or Apple for instance – rather than allowing politicians and big business to fight over these things.”

So in Davis’ view being an ‘industrial revolutionary’ in the digital era is a matter of being an informed, and empowered, consumer. Will that be enough?

May 232017
 

How can small businesses use Artificial Intelligence? On Flying Solo, Rob Gerrish and I discuss the various ways AI is going to affect smaller enterprises.

One of the important things about the discussion is how AI is going to change a range of industries and jobs. The effect on small businesses over the next twenty years will be as great at the Personal Computer was.

The big takeaway I have for business owners is to actively think about how AI and automation are going to affect their industries, customers and individual companies.

Have a listen.

May 222017
 

“I stand before you as a failure,” was how I opened my presentation at the Talking Justice conference last weekend. “If I were giving this talk ten or fifteen years ago, I’d have described how the web and social media were going to usher in a new era of democracy and accountability.”

“Like most of the cyber utopians, I was very, very wrong.”

Basically we were wrong because we didn’t see how the internet would concentrate rather than diffuse power or the extent of how new gatekeepers and monopolies would be replaced the old ones.

My friends and I were not alone, in a somewhat rambling interview with the New York Times Twitter co-founder Evan Williams describes how “the internet is broken” and how he thought the messaging service could make the world better.

“I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Mr. Williams says. “I was wrong about that.”

Instead Twitter has become home to trolls, harassment and misinformation, something that saddens Williams and most of us who thought the web would bring about a more open and fair society.

Hope isn’t completely gone though, we are still in the early days of social media and the internet so the current trends may only be a transition effect as audiences, markets, regulators and the community get to grips with the new medium.

There’s also Amara’s law which states we overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

So it’s best to be a pessimistic optimist where one accepts in the short run things are dire but over time things will turn out well.

We can only hope.

May 212017
 

Last week was an interesting time with an appearance before a Senate Committee and a trip to regional Victoria to talk about the media and social justice.

While busy, there was time to read some fascinating articles ranging from Elton’s John’s views on modern pop music, software lawsuits and early losses in the war on ‘fake news’ through to how the shiny new Apple campus boast almost everything for employees except a childcare centre.

Parents need not apply

Apple’s new 5 billion dollar campus is the realisation of Steve Jobs’ final vision. It boasts a hundred thousand square foot gym and an attention to detail that extends to the sand used to make the windows.

But it doesn’t have a day care centre, which gives a pretty clear message to aspiring employees – if you don’t have a stay at home spouse, something pretty rare in the hyper expensive Silicon Valley, then don’t bother applying.

Thanks a latte

Meanwhile in Australia, the government financed National Broadband Network is spending half a million dollars a year on maintaining its staff coffee machines.

While the money is small change in a project recent estimates put at costing $56 billion, it is emblematic of how far from its original purpose the vision has drifted.

Facebook Fails to Tackle ‘Fake News’

The social media’s attempts to tackle ‘Fake News’ are failing dismally reports The Guardian as reactionary groups gleefully reshare and publicise anything flagged as such.

While it’s early days, this isn’t a good start for Facebook although it also illustrates how powerful filter bubbles are and the lengths people will go to spread their ideologies.

The lawyers always win

Lasts week’s ransomware scares will trigger lawsuits says Reuters, quoting several legal experts.

Unsurprisingly, it won’t be Microsoft who’ll be the target given their almost bulletproof terms and conditions but businesses who didn’t patch their systems could be liable.

Fox News’ founder passes

Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News and one time Nixon adviser, passes a few months after being ousted from the network he created.

Ailes personified the tabloidisation of the media as Rupert Murdoch applied the model which had worked so well for him at The Sun in the UK to newspapers and television in the United States.

Many blame the internet for the click bait, sensational model of modern news reporting but the pattern was well established by the time the World Wide Web came along in the mid 1990s.

Tinny, vapid crap

Elton John weighs in on the state of pop music.

 

May 192017
 

The passing of Roger Ailes, former NIxon advisor and founder of Fox News, is an opportunity to reflect on how the media has evolved over the past forty years.

Ailes’ work shows how click bait, fake news and filter bubbles are not products of the world wide web but pre-date it by at least twenty years with the rise of tabloid television and the modern version of yellow journalism designed to scare people.

While the web and social media proved wonderful ways to spread such messages, it was the arrival of programs  like A Current Affair twenty years earlier in the United States and reporters like Steve Dunleavy who changed popular journalism and taught us to fear our neighbours.

The results of that have been profound in everything from kids not walking to school any more to the magnificently wasteful prison systems all of the English speaking countries have built in response to hysteria over crime rates.

Ailes and his colleagues found a successful media model that attracted viewers and advertisers which set the pattern for today’s febrile environment of fake news and filter bubbles that have ushered in the most unstable and reactionary political climate since the early 1930s.

Where we go next remains to be seen, it’s a shame Ailes won’t be around to pay the price of his works.

May 182017
 

Following this week’s appearance before the Senate Committee into the Future of Public Interest Journalism, details of which are now up on Hansard, it’s worth reflecting on some of the ideas floated during the hearing on funding media organisations.

As the union reps illustrated, the challenge facing media organisations is acute with the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance spokespeople telling the committee how at least 25% of industry jobs have been lost in the last decade as the sector struggles with collapsing advertising revenues.

Ideas to find new sources of income ranged from crowdfunding, government funding, tax concessions and levies on the internet platforms like Google and Facebook.

Crowdfunding

First up for the morning were the team from Crinkling News, a kids newspaper. Saffron Howden, the publication’s co-founder and editor described how the founders had self funded the publication but after a year of operations they were hoping to raise 200,000 dollars through indiegogo to keep the doors open.

Senator Ludlam, the Committee’s Greens member, observed that running an appeal every year is hardly sustainable, something Howden agreed with saying the funds are to give the newspaper ‘more runway’.

Crinkling made its $200,000 target this morning, so for now the paper is saved. It will be interesting to see if Howden and her co-founders will find that sustainable revenue model rather than just an accessible form of capital.

Government subsidies

One of the obvious models for Crinkling is a government subsidy, Senator Ludlam asked if the paper had received any funds from state education departments to which Howden replied they hadn’t.

While for a specialist publication like Crinkling government subsidies may be an answer, most of those giving evidence were cautious about suggesting direct payments as an answer for the industry’s woes as it opens scope for interference in editorial policies.

There is some precedent for this in Australia, with the Victorian government supporting The Conversation but given how arbitrary Australian government programs are – not to mention the priorities of spending taxpayers’ funds – it’s hard to see how politically acceptable that is.

Tax concessions

Something more politically acceptable may be tax concessions to investors and founders similar to the R&D grants available to technology companies or the producers’ offset available to film producers.

I went further during my questioning and suggested something similar to the 10BA concessions that were available to the Australian film industry during the 1980s which unleashed a wave of innovation and new talent but were misused terribly by taxplanners – something that would give the Treasury apoplexy.

While this is an idea that may well get legs during the political bargaining over the media reforms, it won’t however solve the revenue problem.

Charitable or not-for-profit status

A variation on the tax concession idea was to allow media companies to have not-for-profit or charitable tax status. It’s hard not quip that most media ventures are already run on basis where they don’t make any money.

Under this idea, subscribers to media services would be able to claim their fees as a tax deduction which may encourage more people to sign up.

This idea also seemed to find a lot of support from the Senators and may well form part of the political horse trading. Like some of the other ideas there may be a potential problem with defining what exactly is a media company or a ‘journalist’.

One opportunity these last two options opens up is for philanthropic ventures, like the Guardian’s Scott Trust or the short lived Global Mail, to enter the field. Some cynics would say The Australian already operates on that model, but as the Global Mail’s brief life shows, generous benefactors tend to be rare.

Reforming copyright

Also attracting a lot of interest was the idea of updating copyright laws to force search engines, social media sites and content aggregators or scrapers to pay fees to creators. This could be done through an organisation like the Copyright Agency with fees passed onto media companies.

Tightening the copyright laws has some appeal, but this could prove a double edged sword for journalists, writers and artists as fair dealing – or the US equivalent of fair use – becomes restricted and finds media organisation liable for using extracts of others’ works.

It’s also unlikely to raise much unless there was a co-ordinated global push to make the major online companies pay fees which in turn would increase the costs of running the system.

A ‘Google tax’

There was much indignant huffing about services like Google and Facebook using content and the possibility of levying them for the privilege.

Were this done internationally, this would be a huge pool but a number of speakers including Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood and freelance journalist Michael West pointed out, these services are also critical distribution channels and it is comparatively easy for publishers to block these sites if they chose.

That they don’t choose to block Google is indicative of how critical the service is to distribution, so while Google takes most of the ad revenue the media companies are still dependent upon it. Taxing these services might be counterproductive.

Where to for the future?

Overall the suggestions were all worth considering but the real question of how do you make money from media wasn’t really answered. While tax breaks and levies may help, the fundamental truth is most news outlets are not financially sustainable in their current form.

That in itself raises a question of whether incumbents like Fairfax and News Limited are really relevant to journalism at all – maybe the large established Twentieth Century companies don’t have a role in this era.

Should that be true, the question of how journalism is funded still remains open. As mine, Michael West’s and Crinkle News’ tales described, there is little in the way of sustainable business models at the moment.

Wednesday’s hearing didn’t give us clues to that viable model could be, so we continue the search.