Tag: Amazon

Our irresistible screens of splendour

Apple is touting a new feature in the latest version of iOS that helps you reduce the amount of time you spend on your smartphone. Facebook are doing something similar. As this article in The New York Times notes, that’s no accident:

There’s a reason tech companies are feeling this tension between making phones better and worrying they are already too addictive. We’ve hit what I call Peak Screen.

For much of the last decade, a technology industry ruled by smartphones has pursued a singular goal of completely conquering our eyes. It has given us phones with ever-bigger screens and phones with unbelievable cameras, not to mention virtual reality goggles and several attempts at camera-glasses.

The article even gives the example of Augmented Reality LEGO play sets which actively encourage you to stop building and spend more time on screens!

Tech has now captured pretty much all visual capacity. Americans spend three to four hours a day looking at their phones, and about 11 hours a day looking at screens of any kind.

So tech giants are building the beginning of something new: a less insistently visual tech world, a digital landscape that relies on voice assistants, headphones, watches and other wearables to take some pressure off our eyes.


Screens are insatiable. At a cognitive level, they are voracious vampires for your attention, and as soon as you look at one, you are basically toast.

It’s not enough to tell people not to do things. Technology can be addictive, just like anything else, so we need to find better ways of achieving similar ends.

But in addition to helping us resist phones, the tech industry will need to come up with other, less immersive ways to interact with digital world. Three technologies may help with this: voice assistants, of which Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant are the best, and Apple’s two innovations, AirPods and the Apple Watch.

All of these technologies share a common idea. Without big screens, they are far less immersive than a phone, allowing for quick digital hits: You can buy a movie ticket, add a task to a to-do list, glance at a text message or ask about the weather without going anywhere near your Irresistible Screen of Splendors.

The issue I have is that it’s going to take tightly-integrated systems to do this well, at least at first. So the chances are that Apple or Google will create an ecosystem that only works with their products, providing another way to achieve vendor lock-in.

Source: The New York Times

The disappearing computer and the future of AI

I was at the Thinking Digital conference yesterday, which is always an inspiring event. It kicked off with a presentation from a representative of Amazon’s Alexa programme, who cited an article by Walt Mossberg from this time last year. I’m pretty sure I read about it, but didn’t necessarily write about it, at the time.

Mossberg talks about how computing will increasingly become invisible:

Let me start by revising the oft-quoted first line of my first Personal Technology column in the Journal on October 17th, 1991: “Personal computers are just too hard to use, and it’s not your fault.” It was true then, and for many, many years thereafter. Not only were the interfaces confusing, but most tech products demanded frequent tweaking and fixing of a type that required more technical skill than most people had, or cared to acquire. The whole field was new, and engineers weren’t designing products for normal people who had other talents and interests.

Things are different now, of course. We expect even small children to be able to use things like iPads with minimal help.

When the internet first arrived, it was a discrete activity you performed on a discrete hunk of metal and plastic called a PC, using a discrete software program called a browser. Even now, though the net is like the electrical grid, powering many things, you still use a discrete device — a smartphone, say — to access it. Sure, you can summon some internet smarts through an Echo, but there’s still a device there, and you still have to know the magic words to say. We are a long way from the invisible, omnipresent computer in Starship Enterprise.

The Amazon representative on-stage at the conference obviously believes that voice is the next frontier in computing. That’s his job. Nevertheless, he marshalled some pretty compelling, if anecdotal, evidence for that. A couple of videos showed older people, who had been completely bypassed by the smartphone revolution, interacting naturally with Alexa.

I expect that one end result of all this work will be that the technology, the computer inside all these things, will fade into the background. In some cases, it may entirely disappear, waiting to be activated by a voice command, a person entering the room, a change in blood chemistry, a shift in temperature, a motion. Maybe even just a thought.

In the same way that the front end of a website like Facebook, the user interface, is the tip of the iceberg, so voice assistants are the front end for artificial intelligence. Who gets to the process data harvested by these devices, and for what purposes, is an important issue — both now and in the future.

And, if ambient technology is to become as integrated into our lives as previous technological revolutions like wood joists, steel beams, and engine blocks, we need to subject it to the digital equivalent of enforceable building codes and auto safety standards. Nothing less will do. And health? The current medical device standards will have to be even tougher, while still allowing for innovation.

This was the last article Mossberg wrote anywhere, having been a tech journalist since 1991. In signing off, he became a little wistful about the age of gadgetry we’re leaving behind, but it’s hopefully for the wider good.

We’ve all had a hell of a ride for the last few decades, no matter when you got on the roller coaster. It’s been exciting, enriching, and transformative. But it’s also been about objects and processes. Soon, after a brief slowdown, the roller coaster will be accelerating faster than ever, only this time it’ll be about actual experiences, with much less emphasis on the way those experiences get made.

This is an important touchstone article, and one I’ll be returning to in future, no doubt.

Source: The Verge

Work-life balance is actually a circle, according to Jeff Bezos

Whatever your thoughts about Amazon, it’s hard to disagree that they’ve changed the world. Their CEO, Jeff Bezos, has some thoughts about what’s usually termed ‘work-life balance’:

This work-life harmony thing is what I try to teach young employees and actually senior executives at Amazon too. But especially the people coming in. I get asked about work-life balance all the time. And my view is, that’s a debilitating phrase because it implies there’s a strict trade-off. And the reality is, if I am happy at home, I come into the office with tremendous energy. And if I am happy at work, I come home with tremendous energy.

Of course, if you work from home (as I do) being happy at home is crucial to being happy at work.

I like his metaphor of a circle, about it not being a trade-off or ‘balance’:

It actually is a circle; it’s not a balance. And I think that is worth everybody paying attention to it. You never want to be that guy — and we all have a coworker who’s that person — who as soon as they come into a meeting they drain all the energy out of the room. You can just feel the energy go whoosh! You don’t want to be that guy. You want to come into the office and give everyone a kick in their step.

All of the most awesome people I know have nothing like a work-life ‘balance’. Instead, they work hard, play hard, and tie that to a mission bigger than themselves.

Whether that’s true for the staff on targets in Amazon warehouses is a different matter, of course. But for knowledge workers, I think it’s spot-on.

Source: Chicago Tribune

Alexa for Kids as babysitter?

I’m just on my way out if the house to head for Scotland to climb some mountains with my wife.

But while she does (what I call) her ‘last minute faffing’ I read Dan Hon’s newsletter. I’ll just quite the relevant section without any attempt at comment or analysis.

He includes references in his newsletter, but you’ll just have to click through for those.

Mat Honan reminded me that Amazon have made an Alexa for Kids (during the course of which Tom Simonite had a great story about Alexa diligently and non-plussedly educating a group of preschoolers about the history of FARC after misunderstanding their requests for farts) and Honan has a great article about it. There are now enough Alexa (plural?) out there that the phenomenon of “the funny things kids say to Alexa” is pretty well documented as well as the earlier “Alexa is teaching my kid to be rude” observation. This isn’t to say that Amazon haven’t done *any* work thinking about how Alexa works in a kid context (Honan’s article shows that they’ve demonstrably thought about how Alexa might work and that they’ve made changes to the product to accommodate children as a specific class of user) but the overwhelming impression I had after reading Honan’s piece was that, as a parent, I still don’t think Amazon haven’t gone far enough in making Alexa kid-friendly.

They’ve made some executive decisions like coming down hard on curation versus algorithmic selection of content (see James Bridle’s excellent earlier essay on YouTube, that something is wrong on the internet and recent coverage of YouTube Kids’ content selection method still finding ways to recommend, shall we say, videos espousing extreme views). And Amazon have addressed one of the core reported issues of having an Alexa in the house (the rudeness) by designing in support for a “magic word” Easter Egg that will reward kids for saying “please”. But that seems rather tactical and dealing with a specific issue and not, well, foundational. I think that the foundational issue is something more like this: parenting is a *very* personal subject. As I have become a parent, I have discovered (and validated through experimental data) that parents have very specific views about how to do things! Many parents do not agree with each other! Parents who agree with each other on some things do not agree on other things! In families where there are two parents there is much scope for disagreement on both desired outcome and method!

All of which is to say is that the current design, architecture and strategy of Alexa for Kids indicates one sort of one-size-fits-all method and that there’s not much room for parental customization. This isn’t to say that Amazon are actively preventing it and might not add it down the line – it’s just that it doesn’t really exist right now. Honan’s got a great point that:

“[For example,] take the magic word we mentioned earlier. There is no universal norm when it comes to what’s polite or rude. Manners vary by family, culture, and even region. While “yes, sir” may be de rigueur in Alabama, for example, it might be viewed as an element of the patriarchy in parts of California.”

Some parents may have very specific views on how they want to teach their kids to be polite. This kind of thinking leads me down the path of: well, are we imagining a world where Alexa or something like it is a sort of universal basic babysitter, with default norms and those who can get, well, customization? Or what someone else might call: attentive, individualized parenting?

When Alexa for Kids came out, I did about 10 seconds’ worth of thinking and, based on how Alexa gets used in our house (two parents, a five year old and a 19 month old) and how our preschooler is behaving, I was pretty convinced that I’m in no way ready or willing to leave him alone with an Alexa for Kids in his room. My family is, in what some might see as that tedious middle class way, pretty strict about the amount of screen time our kids get (unsupervised and supervised) and suffice it to say that there’s considerable difference of opinion between my wife and myself on what we’re both comfortable with and at what point what level of exposure or usage might be appropriate.

And here’s where I reinforce that point again: are you okay with leaving your kids with a default babysitter, or are you the kind of person who has opinions about how you want your babysitter to act with your kids? (Yes, I imagine people reading this and clutching their pearls at the mere *thought* of an Alexa “babysitting” a kid but need I remind you that books are a technological object too and the issue here is in the degree of interactivity and access). At least with a babysitter I can set some parameters and I’ve got an idea of how the babysitter might interact with the kids because, well, that’s part of the babysitter screening process.

Source: Things That Have Caught My Attention s5e11

Microcast #005

Thinking through an approach to building Project MoodleNet that came to me this weekend, using Google search, Amazon filtering, and the Pinterest browser button as mental models.


Web Trends Map 2018 (or ‘why we can’t have nice things’)

My son, who’s now 11 years old, used to have iA’s Web Trends Map v4 on his wall. It was produced in 2009, when he was two:

iA Web Trends Map 4 (2009)

I used it to explain the web to him, as the subway map was a metaphor he could grasp. I’d wondered why iA hadn’t produced more in subsequent years.

Well, the answer is clear in a recent post:

Don’t get too excited. We don’t have it. We tried. We really tried. Many times. The most important ingredient for a Web Trend Map is missing: The Web. Time to bring some of it back.

Basically, the web has been taken over by capitalist interests:

The Web has lost its spirit. The Web is no longer a distributed Web. It is, ironically, a couple of big tubes that belong to a handful of companies. Mainly Google (search), Facebook (social) and Amazon (e-commerce). There is an impressive Chinese line and there are some local players in Russia, Japan, here and there. Overall it has become monotonous and dull. What can we do?

It’s difficult. Although I support the aims, objectives, and ideals of the IndieWeb, I can’t help but think it’s looking backwards instead of forwards. I’m hoping that newer approaches such as federated social networks, distributed ledgers and databases, and regulation such as GDPR have some impact.

Source: iA

Amazon Go, talent and labour

I’ll try and explain what Amazon Go is without sounding a note of incredulity and rolling my eyes. It’s a shop where shoppers submit to constant surveillance for the slim reward of not having to line up to pay. Instead, they enter the shop by identifying themselves via the Amazon app on their smartphone, and their shopping is then charged to their account.

Ben Thompson zooms out from this to think about the ‘game’ Amazon is playing here:

The economics of Amazon Go define the tech industry; the strategy, though, is uniquely Amazon’s. Most of all, the implications of Amazon Go explain both the challenges and opportunities faced by society broadly by the rise of tech.

He goes on to explain that Amazon really really likes fixed costs, which is what their new store provides. Yes, R&D is expensive, but then afterwards you can predict your costs, and concentrate on throughput:

Fixed costs, on the other hand, have no relation to revenue. In the case of convenience stores, rent is a fixed cost; 7-11 has to pay its lease whether it serves 100 customers or serves 1,000 in any given month. Certainly the more it serves the better: that means the store is achieving more “leverage” on its fixed costs.

In the case of Amazon Go specifically, all of those cameras and sensors and smartphone-reading gates are fixed costs as well — two types, in fact. The first is the actual cost of buying and installing the equipment; those costs, like rent, are incurred regardless of how much revenue the store ultimately produces.

Just as Amazon built amazingly scalable server technology and then opened it out as a platform for others to build websites and apps upon, so Thompson sees Amazon Go as the first move in the long game of providing technology to other shops/brands.

In market after market the company is leveraging software to build horizontal businesses that benefit from network effects: in e-commerce, more buyers lead to more suppliers lead to more buyers. In cloud services, more tenants lead to great economies of scale, not just in terms of servers and data centers but in the leverage gained by adding ever more esoteric features that both meet market needs and create lock-in… [T]he point of buying Whole Foods was to jump start a similar dynamic in groceries.

Thompson is no socialist, so I had a little chuckle at his reference to Marx towards the end of the article:

The political dilemma embedded in this analysis is hardly new: Karl Marx was born 200 years ago. Technology like Amazon Go is the ultimate expression of capital: invest massive amounts of money up front in order to reap effectively free returns at scale. What has fundamentally changed, though, is the role of labour: Marx saw a world where capital subjugated labour for its own return; technologies like Amazon Go have increasingly no need for labor at all.

He does have a point, though, and reading Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work convinced me that even ardent socialists should be advocating for full automation.

This is all related to points made about the changing nature of work by Harold Jarche in a new article he’s written:

As routine and procedural work gets automated, human work will be increasingly complex, requiring permanent skills for continuous learning and adaptation. Creativity and empathy will be more important than compliance and intelligence. This requires a rethinking of jobs, employment, and organizational management.

Some people worry that there won’t be enough jobs to go around. However, the problem isn’t employment, the problem is neoliberalism, late-stage capitalism, and the fact that 1% of people own more than 55% of the rest of the planet.

Sources: Stratechery and Harold Jarche